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When Doobis Takes OffEric Shamie
Derek's latest idea is to teach himself computers. Then he'll write a program to revolutionize the Internet. He'll call it Doobis, he knows that much, but he's not sure what it will do or how.

The word Doobis is his own creation, from Du bist ein Scheiskopf. Well, he never studied German, but he thinks that's what Willi used to say to him all the time. Doobis this, doobis that.

At the gym he stands at a locker in his underwear. He hangs his shirt on one of the hooks. From behind, another guy thinks Derek is cute, his black hair shiny and short like beaver fur. But when Derek turns around the guy turns away. It's as if Derek has a pillow strapped to his front, the guy thinks, a gut like a bag of fat bound tightly to him, full and firm and snowy white. Strange, you never would have known it from the back.

Sometimes Derek pretends it's not there either, his eyes expressionless as his head hitches a ride on his ursine body, 35 years old with size 44 boxers. Plodding, he pulls on first one leg and then the other of his navy sweat pants, tiger-striped from a recent encounter with laundry bleach. When Doobis takes off, he thinks, he'll go to a fat farm and have liposuction. When Doobis takes off, he'll definitely have someone else do his washing.

Later the guy from the locker room catches a glimpse of Derek in the aerobics class, second row, stepping onto and off of a plastic platform. Derek holds a pair of small dumbbells out from his body, flagging them to and fro like a majorette. The guy can't hear the aerobics music from where he sits on the LifeCycle; the sight of the roomful of synchronized automata makes him smile.

How hard can it be to write a computer program, Derek thinks, the blood slamming in his ears, his chest heaving as the beat from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert goads them into faster gyrations. If he puts his mind to it he can do it. There's so much potential there, so much room for innovation. He used to think of himself as an inventor born in the wrong age, although now after a year working in the fancy bakery he thinks he's more like an artist deprived of his tools, like a blind painter or deaf musician. Still, in the history of the world there have been deaf musicians.

The tempo ratchets up another notch and Derek is on autopilot now, he knows he will not catch his breath until the music stops and he's horizontal. He's not just sweaty, not simply nauseous, but clammy -- his skin cold and sticky. The speakers in the corners of the room bulge with sound, the rhythm spurred by the blades of the ceiling fans. Rubber soles squeak around him, alarmingly random: to the left and then in back, to the left again and then right, like sniper fire. He's afraid he might embarrass himself, afraid he might fart or throw up or even just lose step with this frenzied group. If only he could take in enough air.

The instant before Derek loses consciousness he sees through the glass door a cute guy on the stationary bike watching him. Curly hair, red lips, dark, sleepy eyes. Then the guy dissolves like a blond vision, film blistering onto the projector bulb. Derek crumples to the floor and a dumbbell bounces off his foot.

At the front of the room the instructor has his head thrown back and eyes squeezed shut, following the beat as it builds momentum like a train clattering downhill - sweeping, racing, tumbling with the inevitability of water swirling into a drain. It's not until the song's yodel-wail-shriek crescendoes and then breaks that he notices the body on the floor.

Derek opens his eyes to a semicircle of running shoes. They are all shapes and colors: red with a thousand blue stripes like a tropical fish. A simple gray and white pair - gigantic and dirty. Next some old-fashioned high-top basketball shoes, orange, followed by a set of intimidating, cobby molded soles like gnarled bear's paws. There's even a pair of platform sneakers with glittery lightening bolts. The smell is rubber rubbed hot against varnished wood, baggy gymshorts dried too many times until the elastic scorches - a flashback from high school. He realizes he's drooling.

He realizes, too, that the floor is cold against his stomach. Derek reaches down and stretches his tee shirt back over his belly. The music has been replaced by murmuring voices up above. The platform sneakers yelp near his ear and then two brown knees appear and, soon after, a round brown face floating near the knees: Andre the Panamanian aerobics instructor.

"You okay, man?" The voice coos. "Don' try to talk, jus sit up." A hand, hot and hard, finds Derek's shoulder, the touch a shock but welcome. Derek wants to dissolve into that hand, absorb all its warmth. His torso rises effortlessly. Someone gives him a paper cup and he looks at it for a moment before drinking.

"I'm fine," Derek nods, wanting to disappear. He moves to stand and Andre closes in, guiding him to his feet. "Really, I'm okay."

"No, you come wit me," Andre says, smelling of garlic and Eternity. Derek doesn't bother to answer. He lets the muscle-bound Latin lead him out of the aerobics room. He sees it happening from somewhere in the vicinity of the ceiling fans: Andre's incredible bulk bulging out of his pink tank top and silver shorts, his skin gleaming and chocolatey, and then behind him a bear limping obediently after, walking upright and holding a helium balloon by a string. The balloon bobs above the bear, tagging along just slightly behind. As it rotates Derek sees his own face there on the bulging silver bag, he recognizes his own blank-eyed stare.

At the bakery Derek works to blot out all memory of his recent humiliation. He will never go back to the gym, he decides, cradling a 25-pound armload of bread dough on his way to the table. The dough is alive, beautiful, weighty and warm like flesh. He tips it onto the floured work surface and prepares to cut it into loaves. He will stop eating all together, fast and sweat himself into a state of pure, refined needlessness. The sweating is no problem in this place, in the steady heat of the ovens. The fasting might take some work, specially when Amaryllis slices the pork loin for the sandwich counter, or takes a tray of vanilla pound cakes out front. He smells the vanilla now as the cappuccino machine erupts in the background.

Derek allows his fingers the pleasure of dimpling the elastic mass, testing the silky texture of the sourdough, fragrant with yeast. It feels like a falsie, one of the little flesh-colored pads he'd find in his mother's drawer with her bras. That thought gives him a special thrill as his blade pinches through the dough and connects with the cutting board. He works his way into the mass, dividing off one-pound blobs.

The bakery is a refuge, always warm and sunny even if the sky outside is the color of stainless steel. He loves the activity, like a hive, with Amaryllis and the other Meregildo family members calling across the kitchen in Spanish while customers wait their turn for sandwiches and cakes and coffee. Derek is one of the few employees not related by blood or nationality. A privileged outsider, an honorary adopted son.

He sees the lunch line growing out front: expensively dressed, busy, handsome people. They are lawyers and professors like Derek's brothers, or MBAs and computer gurus. Successful people pressed for time. They stare with distraction at the blackboard to choose their nine-dollar sandwich, oblivious to the activity of the hive until they step up to the register. Then their faces transform: they charm and smile, they flatter Amaryllis or Jaime. Their faces go slack again once they pay. They need to conserve face power, like the batteries on their clever cell phones. To them Derek is invisible. But when Doobis takes off, he thinks, he'll step over the divider from kitchen to restaurant, from help to helped. He slaps the last loaf into shape before him, his face impassive as the now-sticky dough.

The line is to the door, the tables full of people unwrapping sandwiches or waiting for their names to be called. "Kel-ly!" Amaryllis sings out. A middle-aged woman in a black gabardine suit clicks over to the counter. "Yus-tin!," "Tor-y!"

"Feeling better?" a voice rises over the clatter of the mixers.

Derek doesn't bother to look up right away, waiting to see if someone else will answer. When he lifts his eyes from the tray of loaves he doesn't see Jaime or Carlos there, or the flour delivery man. Instead a young guy leans over the counter in jeans and a tee shirt. His blond hair is all tufts, flattened as if slept on or crushed by a cap.

"In the gym the other day..." the guy explains.

Derek's face combusts. He opens his mouth and then shuts it.

"I mean, I think it was you who passed out, right?"

Derek steadies himself, he looks at his tray. The heat coming off his arms is enough to raise the dough. "Oh yeah - I'm fine," he manages. He looks up. "A virus, you know. I guess they gave me the wrong medication." He wants to wipe the sweat off his forehead, push back his hair, but his hands are clamped to the tray.

"Sure, I think there's something going around. A friend of mine had some kind of stomach flu last week."

Derek nods, holding his tray which the guy notices for the first time.

"I didn't know you worked here..."

Amaryllis calls out "Yere-my!" and the guy looks toward the counter.

"Your sandwich..." Derek says.

The guy nods and smiles. "Yeah. See you at the gym."

Derek forces a dry-mouthed smile and watches him walk up to the counter. His tee shirt is stretched taut over his shoulders and hangs loose at the waist. Later, see you later, Yeremy. Derek can feel the blood drain out of his head, move away from his arms to settle somewhere in the vicinity of his crotch.

The vanilla pound cake's especially good today. Derek cuts himself a second thick slice and immediately brings it to his mouth. The scent is not simply vanilla, but honey or caramel followed by a hint of lemon. The cake crumbles on his tongue, tender and melting, rich with butter. After he swallows a taste of coconut lingers.

In the staff lunchroom the TV plays music videos but the sound is off. Derek washes his cake down with a big mouthful of strong cappuccino, cold now. He stares at the screen - sex. It's always about sex. The dancers are all skinny and all young -- all over. Muscly too. And when they step off stage Derek is sure they're rich as well, but never rich enough.

Whether it's on TV or on the Internet, that's what people are looking for: sex, youth, money. Something else too, though, that Derek can't put his finger on. Something to help make sense out of the search for sex, youth and money. Maybe that's where Doobis will come in. Filling his mouth again with the rich cake he closes his eyes. It's like eating velvet.

Du bist ein Scheiskopf. Shithead. Du bist ein Drecksau. Dirtpig. Du bist, Du bist.... Derek was skinnier then, younger too. He saw Willi for the first time at a leather bar and was just drunk enough to approach him.

"Hey," Derek smiled. "I always wanted to kiss a guy with a tongue ring."

Willi looked at him, bringing his beer to his lips and taking a gulp. He let some of the foam slip from his mouth back into the bottle and then stuck out his tongue. The silver stud dripped, caught the light before disappearing again behind thin lips.

Derek moved closer. Would the guy turn away -- did he want Derek there? The bar was crowded and a line of newcomers squeezed past, pushing Derek against the taller man's chest. Willi wore a leather vest and motorcycle boots like half the guys there, but something about the way the outfit hung loose on his long body made Derek smile. He seemed comfortable, as if it didn't matter what he was wearing or where he was. Derek's heart pounded, he could smell the leather and also the man's skin, like hot pencil shavings. He stretched to bring his face close to Willi's, he paused and then kissed him. Then, even though Derek was expecting it, looking for it even, when he felt the warm silver slug slip into his mouth -- heavy as a pebble -- it gave a shock, his tongue recoiled.

Willi ran his hands over Derek's body, squeezing his shoulders and sides as if testing his flesh for firmness, his skin for pliability. He dug his fingers into the meat of Derek's ass. No underwear beneath those baggy shorts, he could tell, the skin cool and supple, the fabric humid. Derek's body offered substance, it offered places to grab onto.

After a beer Derek led the way out of the bar. He squeezed through the forest of legs, arching his body to slip past a protruding elbow or around an unyielding shoulder, stepping over feet like gnarled roots. He was not fat, Willi decided, watching from behind, but full and smooth like a seal. Even his hair had something wet and otter-like about it -- and he loved the way his ass moved, high up in those shorts, almost jiggling. He wanted to spank that ass, see the flesh harden and shrink before the next open-handed smack.

Doobis will be elegant. Doobis will be beautiful. Using Doobis the lonely will find love, the frustrated self-expression. Doobis will tease hidden talents from the tangle of failed experience and hang the precious filaments to fly in the sun. The deserving will cash in, reap a harvest of overdue recognition and reward. Credit memos will pile up magically on Visa statements faster than cardholders could hope to spend them, while in time the very desire to purchase will fade away.

Derek thinks this as he passes the lilacs in the park near the bakery. He can't smell them and not smile. At this hour of the morning the sun shines on the heavy blossoms and the perfume simmers. A breeze carries the scent down, wraps it around Derek's smiling head, sugary and heavy yet still fresh with dew evaporating off the heart-shaped leaves. He slows his step. Even though he's almost late, without thinking about it Derek looks for a spot to sit. The sweetness makes him want to linger, to lie face-up in the grass, take off his pants and expose himself. It makes him want to have sex -- sex that somehow involves earth: dirty and beautiful, brutal and final. Sex that would leave him semiconscious in the brush. It makes him want Willi.

He doesn't stop, though, but crosses from the park to the row of sun-baked buildings on the other side. Derek passes a tiny antiques store, a fish market, a copy shop. What if Doobis started with a questionnaire, he wonders. What if you went to Doobis when you didn't know yourself what you wanted. Doobis takes your case, like a homeopath or psychiatrist, it asks if you crave sour foods, whether you sleep on your side and if your urine foams in the bowl. It asks if you dream of underground rooms full of shoes, or of cows dotting sunny pastures. Then it cogitates.

Derek pauses at the shop that sells studs and leather. The entrance is recessed, display windows angled on each side to funnel browsers toward the door. There are nose rings and earrings, nipple rings and cock rings. Little smooth dumbbell-shaped studs for the tongue or scrotum. Of course, Doobis would need to ask what you like to do in bed, and with who. It would ask about your parents as well, and the kinds of places you grew up. When Derek turns to start walking again he catches a reflection in the window - his own face, no, a face on the inside, approaching.

The door swings open before Derek reaches the sidewalk. Suddenly in the odd triangle of space, in the gallery of thongs and harnesses like a museum of 20th century torture, Derek finds himself face to face with curly-haired Jeremy from the gym.

"Hey," Jeremy smiles.

Derek feels the redness rising but is helpless to stop it. "Hi."

"Window shopping?"

"No. Ah, yeah, I guess. You?"

Jeremy holds up a small envelope. "Needed a new ring."

"Oh...." Derek thinks to ask what kind of ring -- ear, nose, nipple, tongue, cock, but abandons the question. His eyes trail down to Jeremy's waist, though, on a hunch that he'll catch a glimpse of the boy's stomach. He can picture it, flat and hard and peach-fuzzy. Jeremy's wearing a tee shirt again, but this one's tighter than the last and tucked into his jeans. Derek sees a little bulge at his bellybutton. A ring for his navel, he thinks, a stainless hoop to pierce cartilage and sensitive skin alike, hanging like an invitation for inquisitive fingers or loitering lips.

Jeremy holds his hand in front of Derek's face then, showing him something. Derek focuses on a ring, a skull minutely engraved with swirling tattoos. "Yeah," Jeremy says, "the old one was turning my skin green. This one's made out of bone." He takes another look at his own hand, then smiles. "See ya."

The truth is, Derek doesn't know that much about computers. The truth is, he has never invented a thing. His biggest accomplishment, Derek thinks now, slamming a strudel dough onto the counter with a loud whap, was jumping off one of the high cliffs in Jamaica and into the blue waves below. Even then he had to be embarrassed into it, nearly pushed by a scrawny nine-year-old boy shaking with laughter.

That afternoon in Jamaica he stood for the longest time staring at the sea, unable to get past the edge. He kept scouring the land with his eyes: ordinary grass gave way to a lip of packed clay which, in turn, simply ended, the cliff surrendering open-palmed to the sky. He tried to picture his bare feet stepping off but his mind snagged, became absorbed by the grain of the soil, like sticky brown sugar, by every stray root, each pebble. In the end walking out into the air like that required not guts but faith, faith that Derek didn't know he had until he heard the wind whistling past his ears.

And since then, what about his life since that moment? He could have been a lawyer like his older brother, they both started college in pre-law. But Derek transferred, first to music composition and then to physical therapy before dropping out all together and signing up for massage school. Massage school, of all things. It seemed logical at the time, the hands-on part of physical therapy without the science. When he got his certificate he moved to Miami to get away from them, his successful family that he couldn't help disappointing.

He discovered he'd rather knead dough than muscles, apply his hands to something that didn't flinch at his touch. He felt better with a surface he could count on, no unexpected patches of hair or squirmy veins, no guessed-at profile of muscle or bone emanating from an unseeable interior. He followed a Florida friend to Boston, then lost touch with her when she moved back south. She asked him to come along but he didn't want to leave Willi, even though they only saw each other once a week at best. A few months later Willi moved to Amsterdam, sent Derek a postcard of a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare.

Now his life just happens, he's given up trying to shape it. He devotes mornings and lunch hours to yoga and tai chi, weekends to aerobics and spinning. Nights he used to haunt the bars like a lone stalker, although he hardly has the energy for that any more.

Derek slaps down the heavy dough then sprinkles it with a few drops of water. A vision of Jeremy at the leather store pops into his head and his face flushes. Would he ever even be able to speak to him? Yes, in time. When Doobis takes off, he thinks, with a better wardrobe and after the liposuction .... He folds the sticky dough, then folds it again. Or, no, maybe not. Maybe they'll never be able to talk. It's so much easier to keep him as a fantasy, he thinks, off at a safe distance, although it is awkward to keep bumping into his fantasy life in broad daylight.

What would Jeremy think of Derek's life, anyway? At 35 he lives in a rented room and shares a kitchen with a woman who could be his grandmother. In back of the house his space is stuffy and dark, although he has an altar of scented candles to brighten it, his collection of paper kites coloring the walls and ceiling. He pictures Jeremy fidgeting on the small bed under the smoke-belching dragon windsock, eyeing the barred fire escape window. Hey, got to be going now....

No, he's not a professor or a lawyer, it's true. Not an MBA or a computer wizard. What's more, Derek is finally ready to admit he'll never be any of those things. No, he will not be any of those things. He hefts the dough over his head and spikes it into the tabletop, producing a slap which penetrates the conversations around him.

The rougher he treats the dough, the more tender the flake. Let this be his legacy then, an exceptionally toothsome strudel, one day only, his anonymous contribution to the world of his betters. Tears back up not in Derek's throat but in his chest, in his lungs. He's filling with liquid, he thinks, swelling, lymph pressurizing his body and inviting infection like lighter fluid calling out for a flame.

Doobis, doobis, he has as much of a chance of writing a computer program as a grizzly bear scratching off lottery numbers with a blunted claw. Thwap! -- the impact resonates, quieting the room. Amaryllis gives Derek a look from across the counter. He avoids her eyes. Du bist ein Scheiskopf, he says to himself, folding the dough. Shithead, he mumbles, shithead, shithead, knuckling the clay-like mound.

Conversations pick up, hushed at first, questions followed by scraps of laughter. Mouths bite into overstuffed sandwiches while napkins blot curried mayonnaise from chins. In back Jaime turns on the big mixer. Someone's cell phone trills, muffled in a pocket or a Prada bag and four people reach to their sides like gunfighters. Du bist ein Scheiskopf, he mutters, Du bist, Du bist....

Words fail him. Derek doesn't need those words anyway, his mind is in his hands now, in his arms. His head floats somewhere above his shoulders and he can see his own fists working the strudel, folding it and then pressing it into itself. He leans forward, conveying the weight of his body through his arms and into his hands and finally into the heavy mass before he doubles it over again.

His rhythm is impeccable today, he thinks, picking up speed, folding, pressing, leaning, folding, pressing, leaning. In the open kitchen Derek is a spectacle, his white shirt stuck to his chest, his hands a blur as his body hunches and straightens over the counter like a meaty fist closing and opening, like a giant heart. Carlos stops to watch from halfway across the kitchen, his handtruck loaded with 50-pound bags of flour, and even Jaime is distracted, looking through the tiny window from the back room. Sweat runs from Derek's forehead down his cheek and takes a detour into the corner of his mouth.

His eyes sting and still he presses and pounds, presses and pounds, until suddenly the dough relents. Derek notices it like the shadow of an airplane leaping across a hillside, as if he could feel the change in the sky with the top of his head. He stops. He closes his eyes and pulls his body upright, breathing in. His fingertips tingle. The blades of the exhaust fan slice the sound of a passing truck into a whap-whap-whap and the air slides past him, raising goose bumps on his neck.

Suddenly he's aware again of the hive around him, the mixer and fans, the oven doors creaking open and closed while across the room Amaryllis steams a pitcher of milk. The register drawer rings shut, then opens again. At the tables in front customers chew contentedly while others wait, mouths anticipating salty pork or sweet chocolate.

It occurs to Derek he doesn't need to know where he is headed or why. He just needs to step out into thin air, entrust his life to something larger than his world. He feels lighter just then, the burden leaching out of him as though he were a child again in his father's arms.

From the top of the cliff he watched a ketch full of tourists float in front of the sinking sun. They cheered as Derek moved to jump. Whatever happened would be okay, he decided. And then.... The impact was immediate, the force yanking his bathing suit up over his hips. Water exploded in pinpoint bubbles, warm and opal, silver and black. Ropes of beads escorted him to the surface, washed him in a prickly foam that hissed around his laughing face.

From the big oven Derek smells the cheesy sourdough and smiles. The aroma tells him the crusts are golden now, no longer leathery but crisp, poised to shatter and expose the hot, tissuey interior. There is something inside him, that's all, like in the dough itself, that nags. Something that wants handling, wants working, wants finishing.

Doobis is nothing, he tells himself. Doobis is a flash in the pan. But he knows, too, that Doobis will come to him eventually. He'll wake to find it, fully formed, primed to take off on its own. He lowers his eyes to the tabletop. The strudel rests between his hands, golden and still, folded and patient -- a bolt of beaten silk.

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