Ever since I've had a consciousness, I've enjoyed looking at unattractive men doing boring things. They're usually paunchy, oily, or otherwise used up unglamorously—slouchy, maybe, in the way that suggests a lone life at a laptop.
Let me give you an example. There once was a man, Jeff, who sold bags of frozen meat to restaurants in my neighborhood. He was the local representative of a large food sales conglomerate. He had a goatee which was somehow manicured but also shaggy, like a neglected show poodle. His hair was spiked like a 90s skater. He wore orange shades straight out of Star Wars. Some people assiduously make non-mainstream fashion choices in a bad way. They carefully curate their every personal choice and fuck them all up individually. Jeff was like that.
I was mesmerized by him. I worked at a cafe he sold to and every time he came in, I went all aflutter. His every gesture sent waves of joy through my body. I didn't want to talk to him in the way that you don't want to touch a delicate butterfly. Except he smelled like garbage. There was something poetic about his strangeness, a comic timing that wasn't at all funny; a grace all the better for being unrelated to ballet, or brunch, or any other culturally sanctioned maneuvers.
There's a term for the kind of happiness Jeff gave me. It's called ASMR—autonomous sensory meridian response—which is science for "nobody knows what the fuck it is." It's commonly described as "head tingles," but what it feels like is a scalp massage delivered by polite lightning. It's comparable to a B+ orgasm on the fun scale. There are lots of perverts like me who get this, in response to very particular triggers. Whispering is a common trigger. Haircuts and doctor visits also frequently deliver the sensation. It frequently has to do with soothing, grooming, or crisp quiet noises. So now there are hundreds of slightly porny YouTube videos catering to ASMR-havers, where attractive women barber unconvincingly at the camera while mumbling in a way that's half cam-girl, half babysitter.
These videos are wildly popular but they don't work for me. The only thing that works for me is men like Jeff—odd men completely absorbed in work I don't understand. A power company stooge futzing with a fuse box can give me a powerful jolt. Also, acupuncturists selecting a needle.
The thing about this is that I'm notionally heterosexual. I know that might sound like a "no homo." It's not—in fact, I say it with some disappointment. My life would be much easier if I were attracted to everyone. Once as a teenager, I was propositioned by a beautiful gay boy and I sort of went along with it. He was a svelte, bleach-blonde prince with intense, sunken eyes. Something about his collarbone comes back to me. "I'm not gay, I think," I said. "How do you know?" he said. He was convincing. We made out in an alleyway. It was like a face-based handshake accompanied by an airport pat-down. I could recognize he was beautiful like I can recognize the idea of God is beautiful: abstractly.
But men like Jeff, who make me feel these weird semi-erotic feelings, fluster me more than a date with even a terrifyingly charming woman—because I more or less know what to do with a woman, but what am I supposed to do with Jeff?
Of course, I wonder where this comes from. Here are some suppositions:
1) It's a weird Freudian thing.
2) It's about how these men can't compete with me sexually, so I'm allowed to observe them as objects of art, rather than as potential enemies.
3) It's about the beauty of seeing the human guts of the industrial world—making contact with the sweaty little men who blandly run the planet, like Santa's uglier elves.
But this is speculation in the worst way—simply an exercise in hurling a bunch of adjectives at the ineffable. In truth, it's a pleasure I can't classify, which, unlike hunger or sexual frustration, has no apparent meaning or end.
I don't know that this is a bad thing. If I were more able to explain my ASMR—knew the neurotransmitters it traded in, could trace its exact origin—it might lessen the surprise I get when a nervous accountant on the bus transfixes me with the way his busy fingers flit across his iPhone.
I grew up just before the ubiquity of internet porn, so for a long time I wondered what sex was. I wondered if it had something to do with peeing, maybe, or massage. Shadowy figures played inscrutably in my imagination as I fell asleep. In a way, I get to have that feeling again. This is an age of highly defined and efficiently delivered wants: artsy porn Tumblrs, meditation retreats, and shrink-wrapped sandwiches.
Meanwhile I'm happy to have something more vague to grasp at. I feel privileged to wonder what it is I hunger for.
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