Fetishists Anonymous

On Saturday afternoons, I'm the only woman at the Fetishists' Club. Otherwise it's just men.

We meet on the weekends, before Sunday, stupid old Sunday, the gloomiest, most depressing day of the week. Sundays are a lost cause: reality plain and simple, unadorned. If you're lucky, you can sleep a little longer, between one noise and the next-the neighbor's shower, the elevator full of children (children are let loose on Sundays and there's no telling what can happen with all those exploding hormones), the telephone (which is always ringing to announce the ritual visit of your parents-in-law, someone's forgotten birthday, or that your great aunt who suffers from, among other things, the eighty years she's already been alive, is sick). The full weight of reality, that's Sunday, when you have incontrovertible evidence that your apartment is too small for four people and that lack of space creates hostility (or at least puts it on display), when you can eat paella or baked lamb, go to movies with your husband and feel lonely or go alone and feel lonely.

That's why, as fetishists, we like to get together on Saturdays, at dusk. Saturdays seem to be full of potential, of fantasy, of hope. On Saturdays some people dream about a man or a woman capable of awakening an unknown passion, others of a nocturnal voyage through the subterranean entrails of the city (marvelous things are never at the surface, you have to submerge yourself to find them; they're peripheral, marginal, hidden-a tunnel, a sunken world, a region of limbo); some people think they're capable of writing a book, others of winning a fortune gambling.

We've formed an anonymous association, just like the alcoholics and the gamblers did. It's a secret society, like any other one that might be set up, say, for men with small penises, short people, the left-handed, ex-seminarians, or Robert Redford fans. I think having an addiction (to slot machines, to alcohol, to women's underwear) or a passion for Robert Redford (collecting all his photos and videos and insanely loving those discreet grimaces of his) is a lot more important than your job (which doesn't take long to get boring) or the family you belong to (made up of three or four members who can't stand each other but pretend otherwise, who fight like vultures over money, turf, and affection). That's because the relationship you establish with your fetishes (whether they're black nylon stockings, the bells on a machine full of flashing lights, or a glass of whisky) is always personal, non-transferable, lonely, and consuming. That relationship is the most intimate thing we have, the most authentic site of our subjectivity.

At first, there were four of us. Then the group began to grow and we had to put a limit on the number of fetishists at our meetings: twelve. Any would-be newcomers can set up their own club. The four of us call ourselves the founding members, the first generation. This original cell consists of Fernando, civil engineer; José, white-collar worker; Francisco, photographer; and myself, the only woman - my name is Marta. I'm a teacher and I live alone.

To whom could I confess my passion for men's necks-only for their necks-if not to Roberto, who collects women's black patent leather shoes (only from the left foot), or to José, who has a thing for bras, or to Francisco, who'd give up his own life to photograph strabismic eyes (only women's eyes-he feels nothing for male strabismus)? "Not even a good wandering right eye could make the rough, clumsy body of a man seem appealing," Francisco tells us. For me, it's the same thing with necks: I'm only attracted to male necks; I don't even notice women's necks.

But it's not just any neck or all necks of single kind that I fall for. Sometimes I go wild over a long slim neck shaped like a pine tree, a neck that reaches high and makes you think the person it belongs to is a dreamer, a romantic; other times, I'm uncontrollably attracted by a neck with a prominent Adam's apple, one that sticks out like an upright penis. No man with a prominent Adam's apple can conceal the erectile animal in him, not the biological one, not the spiritual one. In those instances, I think I love the contradiction between instinct and culture, between a creature who slobbers, sweats, defecates, contracts illnesses, and snores while asleep and the imaginary construction-a creature who feels, thinks, speaks, makes choices, buys a Fiorucci tie, and listens to Brahms sonatas.

All of us have a secret. And having a secret is a burdensome thing. For example, when I fell in love with Fernando I didn't know how to explain what I felt. Fernando was thirty and wanted to get married and "establish a family," as he put it. He worked somewhere, I can't remember where. Ah, right, in a bank. He knew a lot about credit, taxes, the stock market, and things like that. He was proud of his skills at managing money and making investments. I got a good laugh out of his acting so proud of those skills, which offended him. He accused me of not having any real interest in his life, which was true, but I couldn't tell him. My interest-enormous, for what it's worth-was involuntarily, instinctively, limited to the fact that his Adam's apple jiggled up and down as if it had a mind of its own. Whatever he would be discussing (in general, men's conversations seem completely irrelevant to me-they talk about business, politics, or soccer with the sole and exasperating aim of boosting their egos and of reaffirming their own existence), his Adam's apple would stick out and I would stare at it. That pointy Adam's apple of his-a flag or symbol for unnamed things, things still unfamiliar to me, things that perhaps even he didn't know about-wobbled up and down, rhythmically.

"I'm not interested in speaking about things that can be spoken about," I told him.

"You're crazy," he answered, very sure of himself.

Men love to think, or to think they think, that women are crazy. We're crazy when we don't accept what they're saying, or because we don't want the same things they do.

"More than two thousand years of psychiatry and psychology haven't been enough to define what's meant by madness," I told him, even at the risk that his Adam's apple might move out of my line of vision. "But you, on the other hand, can diagnose it just like that. Good for you!"

I liked to disconcert him. When he got disconcerted, his Adam's apple would flutter up and down even faster. But I couldn't tell him that either: his ego would suffer. He wanted me to love him for his business skills, I mean, his banking skills, for his determination to establish a family, and all that.

I lost his Adam's apple forever the day the cursed intercom was broken and he unexpectedly knocked on my door. Innocently, thinking it was the gas man or someone selling shampoo, I opened up, with no idea it was Fernando. We'd always made love at his bachelor's pad or in some hotel when, begrudgingly, he would give in to my relish for showing affection in strange rooms.

I have slow reflexes, so when Fernando walked in it didn't occur to me he would be surprised by my collection of photographs of male necks spread around the dining room and bedroom. Some people have pictures of ridiculous little men wearing short pants and T-shirts with logos and insignias and things like that embossed on them.

"What are those?" he asked, looking at the framed pictures as if they were something unpleasant, infected, virus ridden.

Come on! It didn't seem so hard to see they were necks. Just that, necks. Don't some people fill their houses with pictures of faces? Actresses, singers, grandma, auntie, cousins. And a lot of those people are dead.

"They're photographs of necks," I replied gently, braced for the worst.

Then came the moment when Fernando was going to try to make me feel guilty. That's the dialectic of the sexes: whichever one makes the other feel guilty wins. Men have it easy; they've been practicing for thousands of years.

"And why do you keep all these stupid photographs?" he asked.

"Some people collect stamps, butterflies, coins . . . I collect necks," I explained frankly, objectively.

He looked mortified.

"Do you mean to say that for you, men are specimens for some loony collection?"

"I don't see what's so weird about it," I said defensively. "Some people have pictures of their mother, their children, their girlfriend, and no one comes along and says it's like sticking a butterfly in a glass case. Frankly, if instead of necks I had pictures of my father or my grandmother, my apartment would be depressing. And I live here," I admitted.

Nervously, he paced around the photographs, as if he were offering me the momentary privilege of considering my arguments, weighing them up before condemning or absolving me. It occurred to me that if he found the necks sufficiently seductive he might return a verdict of not guilty. But it was a long shot; seduction is an extremely subjective thing and in all likelihood he couldn't tell one neck from another.

As a matter of fact, he grabbed one by the frame and examined it, then another, and said incredulously, "Now I suppose you're going to tell me that every one of these necks is different and that you can tell them apart."

"Just like for you every vagina and face is different," I struck back, for once.

He placed the pictures back in their place on the shelf and shook his head in disbelief. (His Adam's apple rose and remained high in the air, as if it were never going to come down. I was panic stricken at the thought.)

"I think you're crazy," he proclaimed. He'd already told me that. Then he asked, "Have all of them been your lovers?"

"No," I said (reserving for myself the adverb unfortunately).

"So how did you get all of those pictures?"

I know from experience that the pleasure we fetishists derive from recounting the various trials, tribulations, and obstacles we've had to contend with in pursuit of our favorite pieces-that black silk bra with satin trim worn just once by the woman who never succumbed, the pink panties the neighbor on the third floor casually left out on the line where everyone could see them, as if they were any old piece of clothing, something inoffensive, devoid of any meaning at all except that of covering a part of her body-are incomprehensible to other people. It's part of the secret that makes us unique. Only another fetishist can appreciate the thousand and one dramas and sacrifices involved in getting the piece we desire. That coveted panty, the hungrily admired neck, they mean nothing to other people. Because it's your gaze that makes those things valuable. A superficial gaze, the most common variety, fails to uncover the fact that the pearl number twenty-six in the oval-shaped four pence stamp of Queen Victoria makes this a rare, extraordinary find because the overwhelming majority of four pence stamps with the image of Queen Victoria on them have only twenty five pearls. Similarly, in the photographs spread around the room, Fernando was unable to see anything but a bunch of necks and Adam's apples that all looked the same. But his was a gaze indifferent to symbols, superficial, unreflective.

"Some of them are from magazines," I told him, "others I took myself."

He looked at me in disbelief.

"You mean to say you'd clip a picture from a magazine because of the neck?" he asked.

I couldn't tell if it was an innocent question posed out of curiosity or if it contained a hidden reproach. Not only would I do that-if he really had to know-for a long, sturdy neck with broad pores and a wide, flat base (like someone with Down's syndrome), I'd go much further. There's no telling what I'd do, Fernando, for the gorgeous, tender, white neck of an adolescent, a neck streaked with blue veins, like rivers on a map. Once, for the mere possibility of nibbling a beautiful, orb-shaped Adam's apple-just the right size for me to swallow and relish as it made its way down my esophagus and bounced off the walls of my stomach-I put up with a two-hour conversation about a soccer game.

"I think you're a fetishist and need to have your head examined," Fernando mumbled. Including the words I think rather than unwaveringly declaring you are was a slight improvement, an indication he'd lost some of his habitual confidence. Once there's an inkling of doubt, you can start to have a conversation.

According to psychological studies, fetishists substitute a part for the whole; a foot, a pair of eyes or breasts, an article of clothing, or some other object comes to represent the whole, and that part or object is mystically adored, like a divinity by the faithful. We read that definition at the club and consider it to be somewhat flawed. For us, the parts (a left foot covered in black patent leather, in the case of Roberto; the lavish bras collected by José; the wandering, off-course eyes that Francisco obsessively photographs) do not represent the whole; they are the whole. Of most of the men I've loved, I've loved nothing beyond their necks. Consider the case of Fernando. Fernando had a charming neck: flexible, balanced, soft but with its pronounced veins and tendons. When he would get worked up his tendons twitched, as if they were transmitting the force of his emotions. Next to the involuntary expressiveness of his neck, everything else was irrelevant. I could easily isolate his neck from the rest of him and passionately love its warmth, its shape, its color, its build. My love was in no way diminished because it was so tightly focused on his neck. Would I love him more if my love were spread around to other parts of his body?

Francisco, the photographer who adores strabismic eyes, says that love is a mystery because the beloved wants to be loved for certain things other than those loved by the lover. He was enamored of Julia, a cross-eyed woman who suffered bitterly because of that irreparable mistake of nature. For hours on end he would sit across from her, entranced by that wandering-wondering, he would call it-never stationary gaze of hers that would slide off an object like a stray traveler, a lost sojourner. As he contemplated it in solitude ("pleasure is only felt in solitude," according to Francisco), Julia would talk to him about her life, about having felt inferior at school, about being made fun of by her peers, about the anguish of being different, about her difficulty in making friends. Francisco would pay only superficial attention to what Julia was saying because he was fascinated by her eye, that solitary, lost eye. Excited by the love he felt, by his emotions, he got up the courage to tell her, "I love you precisely because of your different eye, your bad eye." Julia was deeply offended and thought he was making fun of her. Humiliated, angry, she accused him of being incapable of loving her for who she was. Julia refused to see him again, and Francisco sank into depression. He wanted to see that stray, blue, childlike eye again, that eye that slid uncontrollably off of chairs and across carpets.

A secret is a big burden, which is why we meet as a group. Among ourselves, it's easier to discuss pleasure, loss, absence, and seduction. For example, José was completely disconcerted when he arrived at the Saturday afternoon session. The night before, he'd been at home with his wife and two small daughters watching a television program, one of those senseless truly banal American serials, when suddenly there was a scene that got him all upset. To feed his baby, a man was using some sort of a large felt pinafore that hung from his neck and that contained two big breasts, each with its own nipple for the milk to flow through. He'd never seen anything like it (it seemed to him that, like always, the Americans were really advanced). He was shocked: why hadn't he thought of it before? He could have started fantasizing about something like that a long time ago. At the club, we immediately helped him make the necessary arrangements so that he could obtain the object of his desire. We wrote letters to shops in New York to order the product and contacted the television station so we could rent that episode of the serial.

As fetishists, we know the object of our devotion is both new and very old, buried in the history of time. Take necks, for example. Why would the guillotine have been invented if it weren't for the fact that the neck is a phallic symbol? The purpose of the guillotine is to separate the body from the head, but what is in fact sliced is the neck.

At the club I can say something I never confessed to Fernando: when I see a male neck I immediately imagine the penis that goes along with it. Some necks are broad, course, wide at the base-like those of a bull-and you can't expect anything to accompany them but a crude, unimaginative penis endowed with nothing but force. I prefer the wing-shaped necks of adolescents-very pale and warm, with Adam's apples that look slightly unstable, as if they were suspended from a dream. The neck connects our animal side-the body-to our loftier side-the head. But that union, that road from our vital organs-the heart, the liver, the spleen-to the realm of fantasy is not always a harmonious one. Some necks are too long for the head they hold up, an indication that the head wants excessive independence from the body that supports it. Some necks are very short and stubby, almost nonexistent: the head looks like it's nailed right onto the shoulders, with no separation at all. Those ones generally belong to rustic, primitive, graceless people.

Fernando said that all those necks spread around my apartment made him nervous. "Something's missing, they're missing their heads." He seemed to think he was surrounded by amputees. For me, on the other hand, the necks were complete. They weren't missing anything: everything else could be imagined.

From that moment on, he felt I was observing him. "I don't feel comfortable," he would say. "I have the feeling you're examining my neck." He was wrong. I would never examine a neck. A neck can be loved, admired, sucked, bitten, caressed, dreamed of, nibbled at, licked, or kissed, but never examined. Fetishes are not objects of investigation, they're objects of adoration. They belong to the realm of faith, not science. That's why I prefer men who shave with straight-edged razors: I like to lick those little drops of blood that appear like flowers exploding from somewhere beyond our range of vision. Fernando began using an electric shaver, which leaves nothing behind. Pristine. Discreet. At best I could lick a little soap or after-shave.

I would have preferred to continue making love in his apartment or in hotels, but he insisted he wanted to get used to my place. I think he meant he wanted to get used to the necks. As if that were necessary! It wasn't something I needed to share, like there's no need to share a newspaper or arguments with your mother. Once in a while I would find him alone, looking at the necks, as if he wanted to discover something hidden.

"It's no use," I told him. "No two people see the same thing."

Maybe that was the sentence he needed to say goodbye. Because he went away forever.

"I feel like all of those necks are looking at me," he said.

That's strange. I know I'm a fetishist, but until that moment I hadn't realized he was slightly paranoid.

Necks, Fernando, aren't eyes; they're penises.