the destroyer > text > Cybele Knowles


          According to the product database, there are thousands of different products for sale here at the sex toy store: vibrators, dildos, clamps, straps, quick-release cuffs, quick-install stripper poles, ceiling-mount sex slings, naughty gift wrap, penis-shaped cookie cutters, midget porn, and, during the holidays, Santa-themed thongs. We’ve got a whole wall display of anal toys; we call it the anal wall. We’ve got this small vibrating pyramid that you sit on. I’m sorry, I can’t describe it better than that; it’s a small, rubbery vibrating pyramid, and you sit on it.

          But my favorite thing in the store is none of these. My favorite thing is just something I found once at the back of the drawer under Register Two: a half-used roll of tape decorated with pink and purple penises, fat and cute and lined up nose to tail like a link of sausages.

          In most contexts you can’t have penises, not even as representation, let alone the real deal. Like the worm at the heart of William Blake’s sick rose, a penis means too much—and nothing good! Therefore in most contexts, penises are verboten. But here at the store, it’s as ordinary as UPS delivery for even the tape to have penises.

          Usually when I’m at work I’m tired, my feet hurt, I have to pee, I wish I was someplace else. But sometimes, and always when I’m sticking down a piece of the pink-and-purple penis tape, my occluded brain clears; I shake my head like a dog shaking the itch out of his ears, and look around with bright fluorescent long-lasting eyes, and realize—I’m in a zone of innocence.

          In Board Games I find a girl who looks like Snow White, if Snow White were a University of Arizona speech pathology student.

          “Can I help you find something?” I ask.

          “It’s my boyfriend,” Snow White says. “He has difficulty receiving touch.”

          Having been presented with a real-life sex problem I get nervous, because what do I know? My uniform polo shirt says I am a Romance Consultant, but I am not. I don’t even know how to work the cash register yet. I need to stall for time. “Have you talked to him about it?” I ask.

          “We talk about it,” says Snow White. “He says he’ll be more open to being touched, but then he forgets. It’s depressing. Because it’s like, is there something wrong with how I touch?”

          I sincerely want to help Snow White: she’s so pretty, and so sad about so many things—sad about her friends the dwarves and the lack of social acceptance they face due to their congenital stunting; sad about the speech-therapy kids she works with, and the discrimination they face due to their speech impediments; sad about the boyfriend who will never be her prince unless he shapes up in bed—so I think hard. “I know,” I say, “You could tie him down. Take away his ability to make choices. Have you tried tying him down?”

          “No,” says Snow White—thoughtfully, evaluatively, as if checking off items on a rubric.

          “Follow me, then!” I lead Snow White to Bondage and get down from the wall display the $59.99 restraint set that converts even the barest mattress into Your Own Private Bedroom Dungeon. I hand it to her and say, “Easy to install, easy to attach man to, easy to release man from when you’re finished with him. It’s a little pricey, but returnable for store credit for up to a year.”

          As Snow White studies the illustrative photos on the packaging, her tense shoulders drop an inch. “OK, I’ll try it,” she says. “Thank you for your help.”

          I admire Snow White’s decisiveness. But I guess that when you live in a fairy tale world, as she does, a world where shit happens fast and there are no gray zones, you need to be decisive. There, the question always is: are you going to make something happen for yourself, or not? Snow White tucks the restraint set kit under her arm and heads to the checkout counter.

          “Come back and let me know how it works out for you,” I call after her. She never does, so I don’t find out if there’s a happy ending for her. For me, there’s a five-percent commission on a $59.99 sale, for a total of three extra dollars for me this pay period, which isn’t bad. It all adds up.

          In a partially concealed room at the back of the store, hidden from the view of the gentler customers, is the porn. When you’re scheduled to work the porn room, you’re scheduled to work an entire shift in the porn room: nine hours, minus a half-hour lunch, minus two ten-minute breaks. That’s a lot of time to be around porn.

          The porn room is a giant eye that sees, everywhere it points its orb, its own dream/ nightmare of endless fucking and limitless bodies: high-definition plastic-y DV bodies, cherry-vanilla sundae bodies, fake-tan Photoshop bodies, dirty snapshot bodies with bruise-colored hollows. The giant eye of the porn room never stops seeing. Big boxes of new DVDs are delivered weekly, and we open the boxes and take out the videos, and put the videos in plastic security cases, and shelve the videos by category: Girl on Girl, Barely Legal, Derriere, Big Boobs, Gay, Ethnic, Amateur, Feet, etc.

          You, in the middle of it all for an entire workday, necessarily become the frantic ocular nerve of the porn room’s giant eye. By quitting time, after transporting through yourself thousands and thousands of instances of the same image, you’re exhausted and rubbed raw.

          Saturday night, 1:15 a.m., 45 minutes until closing, long after we’ve put in all the effort we’re willing to put into the day, a couple comes in. First we notice her brittle yellow hair and red lips; then we see the worn texture of her cheeks, the pleats in her cleavage. He looks just like the guy who works the key counter at Ace hardware. He stops right inside the door, his back to the wall, as if uneasy to be out behind the key counter and the heavy key-cutting machines. The yellow-haired woman breaks free from his arm and starts tearing through Lingerie. She’s in some crazy sort of rush, pulling teddies and bras and panties from the racks and flinging them onto the checkout counter, hangers in a tangle. She veers into Dancewear, where she rakes up an armload of DayGlo skivvies.

          We don’t like her at all, this midnight amphetamine queen making a mess of the racks we just finished straightening, chucking merchandise onto the counter like she owns the place or something. All we can do is to begin organizing her selections, untangling the straps of bras, smoothing the polyester fluffs of panties, making significant faces at each other behind her back and sighing loudly.

          But Queenie is too busy and gleeful to notice our judgment, and ultimately, her joy is infectious. We feel it first as a tingle and then get totally drunk on it—the thrill of a balls-out shopping spree. Now we gladly scamper to Receiving to get our lady the different shoe sizes she needs. We invite her to emerge from the dressing room so we can see how she looks in the chiffon dressing gown: she’s so pretty!

          While we aren’t certain that she’s a hooker, we’re pretty confident that she’s not key guy’s steady girlfriend. We base this guess on her rate of speed, which seems calculated to get through doors that are quickly closing.

          “He’s my big spender!” Queenie announces, squeezing key guy on his stocky waist.

          “What a nice man you have!” we say.

          “Maybe that’s enough,” key guy says to Queenie.

          “Okay, hon,” she says. All three of us employees work together to scan and bag her haul, which totals up at $1274.68. Key guy hands over his credit card, the charge goes through, he and The Queen leave with their rustling bags, and we high-five it over the biggest commission we’ll ever make, feeling just a little uneasy at profiting from one ordinary man’s need for love—any kind of love, including love stolen, borrowed, or bought. We’ve all been there. We are, many of us, still there. I am, anyways.

          The male masturbation aids—rubber sleeves, jelly holes, molded orifices—huddle together on a low rack in the porn room, embarrassed to be seen. Too bad! It’s time for daily mini-inventory, and here I come with my clipboard and feather duster.

          The male masturbation aids are the one category of item that earns a universal scorn from the employees. The girls find them either offensive or pathetic; the guys wouldn’t be caught dead with one of them. Yet here they are, for sale, and needing to be tracked, arranged, and cared for like all the other products. I kneel down in front of the low rack and straighten the rows and columns of packages. I count how many of each toy is on display and make a note. I see which back tags are missing, and I make a note, and I go to the receiving office to print new back tags. I like making back tags. It’s a luxury in this job to sit down at a desk. The receiving room smells of fake leather, silicone, PVC, artificial bubble gum, artificial watermelon, artificial pina colada, cardboard boxes, Styrofoam, and ghost. (According to receiving agent Rosa, the store is inhabited by a ghost. She says once it threw a box across the receiving office, not at her, but in front of her, which is bad enough.)

          To make a back tag, you go to product database, find the product name, and select Print Label. Product names are all-caps abridgements of the descriptive names printed on the packages: GLOW UR3 PUSSY, FUTUROTIC PUSSY N ASS, JJ’S INTIMATE PASSAGES, JESSE’S STROKER TRIO, and more. The product database trips me out. Seeing all these stupid sex toys, hundreds and hundreds of them, in glowing pixels, causes me to imagine the laborious and expensive process by which the toys came to be: designed in AutoCAD in offices stateside, produced in factories in China, transported back over huge, deep, and polluted seas in massive ships guided by auto-pilot, then inscribed in a luminous database on servers at headquarters up in Phoenix. Amazing, that we have enlisted so many resources and intelligent machines in service of these fake vaginas and rubber cocks—our congealed desires.

          In Vibrators and Dildos, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling dicks in every color of the rainbow, I find a nervous Mexican man.

          “Hello,” I say to the man. “I know it’s kind of overwhelming in here.”

          Grateful for this small mercy, the Mexican man offers the obvious joke in return. “What do you need dudes for, right?” he says. “Ha, ha.”

          “It’s not like that,” I say. “These could never replace a real man.” This may not be strictly true in all cases, but it’s a nice thing to say.

          “What a relief,” says the man.

          “Let me help,” I say. “What are you looking for?”

          “Oh,” he says. “Well, it’s for my wife. She has this problem. She doesn’t—”

          “She doesn’t—”


          “She doesn’t orgasm?”

          “Right,” he says.

          “Sir,” I say, “I think it’s great you want to give your wife orgasms.”

          “I want her to be happy.”

          “You’re a good husband.”

          “Maybe, maybe not.”

          From the wall display I take down the product we offer to everyone who finds themselves in the common predicament of penetration without female orgasm: an outlet-powered vibrating red rubber cock ring in the shape of a bull’s head. At $45.99 it is the most expensive cock ring in the store, so we bring it down from the wall at the slightest provocation. “This,” I say, “is a customer favorite. Silicon cock ring with a multi-function vibe in the middle of the bull’s head for clitoral stimulation. The horns flicker.” I switch it on and put the whole trembling jelly apparatus into his hands; he hands it back immediately.

          “Wow,” he says. “Strong.”

          “It goes higher if you want.”

          “What if it doesn’t work?”

          “I’m very confident in recommending this to you,” I say. “I enjoy it myself.”

          “I really hope this works,” the man says. And now his demeanor, which has been one of self-conscious bravado, breaks, and I see the heartache that has brought him here. “Because my wife and I are going through a bad time right now.”

          “I’m sorry,” I say.

          “We have kids,” he says.

          I think about all the ways two people can hurt and disappoint each other, and I say, “Orgasms can only help, right?” and he says, “That’s what I’m hoping.” I watch him as he makes his way to the register and I feel a surge of caring for him, this man I don’t know, because I’m very much like him. I too have tried, and will continue trying, to mend broken relationships with the promise of better sex. When things between me and the unlucky man in my life have devolved to the point of real serious badness, I go out and buy sex toys. I bring them home and present them with a kind of crazed confidence to my emotionally bruised partner, who responds as if to a pet cat presenting a chewed lizard—with aversion, and frustration at my inability to ever understand that my gifts are unwelcome, even gross. The partner deigns to try the toys once, if at all, before we inevitably part ways, after which the toys languish in a New Balance sneaker shoebox on the shelf in my closet, unusable with someone new because they’ve been used with someone old, or, even if never used, still unusable with someone else, because they no longer promise possibilities, but now only symbolize very specific dashed hopes.

          People say to me, “I could never talk to strangers about their sex lives.” I, on the other hand, sought out the proficiency. Why? I don’t know. What a crazy thing to want to do. I think maybe I wanted to connect with others about sex, but without any actual sex, and from an unfair position of power. However it happened, now that I talk to strangers about their sex lives, I think of it as my arcane power: the mastery of one small challenge in the huge, fractal, unbeatable test of life. The pursuit of arcane power rarely looks reasonable from the outside. Some people wrestle alligators. Some people die trying to climb Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world—which makes for an apt metaphor, because arcane power is a kind of summiting. The practice of it takes you to a vantage point: up into the lower stratosphere, down into the bloody jaws of death. Practitioners of arcane power believe that from these extremities of experience we’ll see something that the non-arcane never glimpse.

          And it’s true, we do see vistas and depths, or at least around corners. But not even the practitioner of the most arcane power can see everything that is. Next door to the sex toy store is a strip club. I’ve never been inside the strip club; I’m scared of it. The strippers, who occasionally come into the store shop Dancewear, seem feral to me: unexpectedly small, hungry looking, sometimes pock marked, lean from excursions through harsh terrain. I’m always extra-nice to them when I’m ringing up their spandex minis and rhinestone g-strings, in case they’ve had a hard day of stripping. Compared to what strippers can see in the arcane practice of removing their clothes for money, what do I really see? Not much. Especially when you consider that the strippers don’t just strip: they have sex for money too, some of them. What does the world look like from that point of view? I think of the strippers as wild cheetahs, and myself as a tubby house cat. From my warm spot on the back of the sofa, I watch the world go by. I chase the red dot and a feather on a string; I am little, and ridiculously safe, and I don’t even know what I don’t know about what is.

          In Bondage, I find a Chinese man examining the whips. He is skinny and very plain and wearing a windbreaker. He reminds me of the produce guys who work at the Asian grocery.

          “Can I help you?” I say.

          The man smiles a surprisingly joyful smile. The smile doesn’t erase his plainness, but makes one feel quite differently about it. Post-smile, his plainness is no longer cause for pity, but instead affectionate amusement: what a cosmic joke, to be born without even a little bit of beauty!

          “How do I choose?” the man asks, in accented English. A request for actual information has been made. This always makes me nervous.

          “To be honest,” I say, “I don’t know these whips as well as I should, but let’s see what we can do. Maybe you should tell me what you’re looking for in a whip.”

          “I don’t know,” he says, still smiling.

          This isn’t going to be easy. “The thing with whips,” I say, “is some hurt more than others. Do you want more hurt, or less hurt?”

          “I don’t know,” he says, smiling.

          A tiny sigh from me. “I guess we need to give them a try then.” I take a whip down and hand it to him, and then I take down another whip and whack my forearm with it. It’s been a while since I was last hit with a whip, and for some reason I’m surprised it stings. “Ow,” I say. “Go on, try yours,” I say to the man, and he whacks his forearm with his whip. Then we giggle.

          Now I’m getting interested for the sake of knowledge, and I take down a bigger whip and say to the Chinese produce guy, “Stick out your arm.” He sticks out his arm and I hit cautiously him with the whip, and I giggle. “Let’s see how yours feels,” I say, and I stick out my forearm. The man whacks me with his whip. I shake my head. “Not very hurt-y,” I say. In an unexpected flash, the man whacks me again, but this time much harder. “Ow!” I say. “I was wrong! That does hurts!” We giggle, and ALL OF A SUDDEN I feel like I’ve just crossed the line between just talking about sex with a customer, and actually having sex with a customer. The plain man is still smiling his joyful smile. I wipe my real smile off, replace it with a fake customer service smile, and put the my whip back up on the wall.

          “O-kay,” I say firmly. “I think I’ve shared everything I know about whips. I’ll let you browse now.” And I hightail it back to the relative safety of the porn room, and stay there for a good long time.

          Why did I leave the sex toy store in the end? First, I became afraid I’d attract a stalker. Also, I began having dreams where I was not just a clerk at a sex toy store, but one of the stripper-hookers who worked next door. These were not dreams of shimmying majestically up on a sparkly stage, but of being trapped in an eternal indoor twilight where I desultorily traded the use of my hands or mouth for too little money. I was not good enough at setting boundaries with others to work at the sex toy store. I am too easily overwhelmed.

          The sex toy store wasn’t really a zone of innocence, like I started out saying it is. What it really was: a zone of simultaneous danger and safety. What was best about the sex toy store happened in the zone of safety. Behind shuttered windows, the sex toy store was a secret room in the city. When you opened the door to this room, maybe you also opened the door to a secret room in yourself. This secret room in yourself might have been a self-secret, unknown even to yourself, until you found, in the secret room in the city, a correlate (whip, lace, mask, chains) to a phenomenon in the secret room of the self.

          Whole days went by at the store where all the people and objects in it were only inert and banal. But sometimes secrets were whispered there for the first time: self to self, self to other. That’s why I got a job at the sex toy store. I wanted to be where the action was.

          Once there was this customer, an acne-scarred Middle Eastern man with a rather square head. He came in looking for corsets in big sizes and I asked, “Is this for your girlfriend?” and he said, “No, for me,” and without skipping a beat, I said, “Our dressing rooms are right over there; let me know if you want to try anything on.” He said, “My girlfriend is very supportive though.” And I said, “She sounds like a special lady.”

          This customer came back to the store a few more times, in ever-increasing amounts of drag. One time he was wearing normal male attire plus earrings, and the next time he was wearing the earrings plus mules, and finally, one day he came in wearing the earrings, the mules, shorts (the better to show off shapely shaved legs), full eye makeup, and pink blush brushed over his pitted cheeks.

          “You look great!” I said. And I meant it.

          “Thanks!” he said.

          And that’s what I still do like about the sex toy store.

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