My boyfriend Gus has a beautiful penis. It’s big and thick without being too big or too thick. It has the right number of pulsating veins when hard (the correct number is two). It’s not crooked or bent. It’s not purple or pink. It’s sun-dappled olive.
The rest of him is great too. High cheekbones, bee-stung lips, wavy brown hair, gentle eyes. Dressed neatly in cardigans and loafers like a true hot gay nerd. But if I’m being honest, his dick is the star. I loved it from the moment I saw it. Not like I was surprised. My best friend Augie dated Gus before me. “Elliott, if God is real, he’s a fag,” he told me. “A straight God would never make a penis this detailed and expressive. It’s like the ‘Beach House’ episode of Girls. A work of art.” I made a mental note. At the time I was dating someone else, someone whose penis I can no longer remember. His name was Hudson, which can you imagine? Yikes.
Anyway, we dated for three months and Augie dated Gus for four, which was generous of him really. He was doing the prep work, getting him ready for me. And when I broke up with Hudson, there Gus was. My brain, which previously had been an unsafe neighborhood to walk around in at night, had carved out a nice space for him when I wasn’t looking. It allowed me to have a nice patch of grass and sunshine, a Whole Foods even. And for five years, we were together, and everything was perfect. I don’t even know how to write about this without slipping into platitudes, so I won’t. I will say, however, that even with the best love, you could still wake up one day next to a beautiful man with a beautiful penis and be bored. You could start wishing for a smaller penis, an uglier one, with tons of veins and the color of sickness.
Everything gets boring after a while. The sun eventually goes down, the Whole Foods closes, and suddenly you’re in a scary alleyway.
For the record: my penis is average.
The walk to my office is fifteen minutes from the studio gate. An Uber drops me off, and I walk across the lot, usually accompanied by a mid-grade hangover, trying not to get run over by a trolley full of tourists getting fed such thrilling Hollywood tidbits as “This is where Hitchcock thought up new ways to torture Tippi Hedren.” Then they all point to a sad, rundown office and everyone murmurs amongst themselves, impressed, and the trolley trudges on, as do I.
Someone invariably whizzes by me on a golf cart, stops, and reverses to ask, “Do you need a ride?”
“I’m fine,” I say, drenched in sweat, looking like Reese Wither- spoon in Wild.
They look me up and down. “Are you sure?”
I nod and keep walking. Having mild cerebral palsy and a limp means that strangers love to inquire about my well-being. But, like, I’m a gay man in his mid-thirties with an expensive haircut wearing
A.P.C. jeans. I work very hard to appear palatable, easy to digest, the crostini of disability. Still, people see me and think I’m serving near-death realness.
As I approached my office that day, I thought about how nice it would be to turn back around, call an Uber, and crawl back into bed. I’m a writer for a television show called Sammy Says. It’s about a woman named Sammy, who, it turns out, is a robot and, uh, hijinks ensue. Oh, and Sammy has kids. One who’s a robot, one who’s not. I don’t even want to get into the weird sex that must have gone down for that to happen. Whatever. I make a dumb amount of money.
Our offices take up an entire floor. On one side is the writers’ room with all of the writers’ offices. On the other is accounting and, well, me. I still have no idea why my office is so far away from the other writers, but being exiled really set the stage for the culture of the job. It’s like I’m invisible and someone is dropping tiny turds on my heart all day long. The biggest turd-dropper is my boss, Ethan: a taut muscle-y gay man in his fifties with bushy Eugene Levy brows who hates everyone almost as much as he hates himself.
Our relationship didn’t start off so acrimonious. In the beginning, Ethan loved me. At my job interview in a Starbucks in Universal City (“This place is fucking disgusting, the studio made us meet here” was the first thing he said to me) I did my usual stand- up routine (“I grew up in Ventura. It’s like Laguna Beach but with meth . . .”) and Ethan said flatly, “You are so funny ” Almost like it was a threat, but I took the compliment anyway. He then asked me why I walked like I’d just gotten railed by all the employees of a West Hollywood juice bar, and I was taken aback, of course, but I rolled with it, referring to my cerebral palsy as “cerebral lolzy.” He thought that was hilarious. He loved all my slang! (Translation: He was seduced by how young I was and hoped that it would rub off on him.) Anyway, I landed the job and the first few months bordered on fun. People listened to my pitches and nodded approvingly. I got a fair amount of jokes in. And then, just like that, there was a shift. I’d seen Ethan turn on other writers arbitrarily out of boredom, but I thought I, the cerebral lolzy wunderkind, was safe.
I read somewhere that being neglected is, in some ways, worse than being abused. It was an odd, unfamiliar feeling because ever since I can remember, I have made a point to be the very best at my job. I was editor in chief of my high school newspaper, got all the coveted internships, always received straight As, except for math, but I’m convinced that’s only because of the brain damage I incurred at birth. I’ve always been a type A workhorse, eager to impress. When I first got staffed on a TV show at twenty-five, my mission was to get everyone absolutely OBSSESSED with me. “Who is this weird guy with a limp?” I’d imagine them saying as I accidentally drooled into my ramen at lunch. And I would respond with “Um, the funniest, most talented person you’ve ever met, babe!” Every day I tap-danced for people until I got blisters, and it worked. I developed a solid reputation in the industry and had been steadily employed for years, which is a rare feat for a television writer. But it seems at Sammy Says, my charms and talent had finally run out.
I entered the writers’ room and took an empty seat next to Joan, my one and only ally. She used to be a doctor but then she wrote a spec script about a horse that solves murders and moved into TV. She’s tiny and dry as a goddamn bone.
“I watched that doc about SeaWorld last night. Blackfish?” Joan said, yawning.
“Babe, um, update computer. That outrage is so 2013.”
“I know,” Joan said, leaning in and lowering her voice to a whisper. “But you know the trainers whose job it is to jack off the dolphins?”
“I feel like Ethan is Tilikum and we’re all just the trainers jerking him off.”
“True, but Ethan would be so offended that you compared him to a whale.”
We chuckled. Our coworkers—Cindy, Amy, and Tom, aka Haunted Houses with Fillers, looked over and shot us death stares. Expressing joy was strictly forbidden here. Ethan then entered with his bite-sized dog, Monica (people who name their dogs regular people names will never not scare me), and took a seat at the head of the table.
“The network threw out the story about Sammy being unable to talk after her vocal chip goes missing.”
“Why?” Cindy asked, leaning over to show her cleavage, despite Ethan’s crystal queer homosexuality. “I thought they loved it in the run-through.” Cindy was fifty-blank years old and dressed like a receptionist who had recently lost her moral center. On show nights, she wore six-inch heels and panty hose that looked like they were strangling her legs.
“Lisa didn’t like that she wasn’t going to have any lines for seven pages,” Ethan said. Lisa is the lead of Sammy Says and a complete whacktress. She is prone to coming down with phantom illnesses. She once worried aloud that she might have gotten AIDS from touching a tiger on an African safari which, offensive, and, um, that’s not how that works.
“Well, I suppose, maybe we could rework—” Amy stammered. Amy is six feet tall, from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and used to be a . . . zzzzzzzz, oh, gosh, sorry, my fingers fell asleep describing her because she is truly that unremarkable.
“We’re done, Amy,” Ethan yelled, causing Monica to jump in his lap. “Move on!”
“Totally hear you, Ethan,” Tom said. “We can strategize a plan B. Maybe do that story about Sammy going on a date with the dad from the trampoline park?”
Tom looks like he was picked out of an assembly line of television writers: white dude in a baseball cap who fails upward. He loves to tell stories about writing on the failed sitcom Zoe, Duncan, Jack, and Jane at least once a day, and he’s straight, but you wouldn’t know it by how much he licks Ethan’s ass. Also, I’m pretty sure Ethan wants to fuck Tom slash maybe already has.
“You.” Ethan pointed at me. He only ever calls me “You,” instead of my actual name, Elliott, these days. “What do you think?”
My soul left my body. Ethan hadn’t asked me what I thought in months. The last time he spoke to me was when he forced me to try on his $75,000 watch, only to become enraged when he realized my wrists were thicker than his. Still, I took this as an opportunity to show him that I was worthy of being here and potentially get back in his good graces.
“Um,” I cleared my throat. “Well, I think that—” “GODDAMNIT, MONICA!” Ethan jumped up from his chair, revealing a piss stain in his lap. Everyone except for Joan and me leapt up in a show to help him.
Joan, side of mouth, said to me, “Feel that?” “What?”
“Ethan’s cum on our faces.”
That night, Gus and I ordered chopped salads from La Scala on Postmates, which cost, for reasons that remain unclear to me, $72.00. I am so bad with money. And not, like, in a cute “I’m too whimsical and wealthy to be bothered with budgets” kind of way. I grew up with a single dad (Mom left when I was young because she discovered that parenting a disabled child was taking time away from her real passion: emotionally terrorizing people on the East Coast). My father made a decent living as a social worker, enough to bring up one child in the sleepy Southern California beach town of Ventura, but I might as well have been one of the Boxcar Children. I could only order hamburgers, not cheeseburgers, at fast-food restaurants because my dad said he could grill the cheese himself at home. Lunch would often be served at Costco by eating free samples. My dad would travel five miles to save ten cents on a car wash, failing to understand that he’d be spending more on gas to get there. The second I started making my own money, I spent like crazy, partially to torture my father. After I wrapped my first TV job, I took my dad to Europe and put us up in five-star hotels. The entire time he looked like he was going to throw up. An expensive “fuck you” for sure but worth it.
“How was your day, Elly?” Gus asked, putting the dressing on my salad and shaking it up. Gus was, in a lot of ways, my caretaker. He prepared my meals for me, did the dishes, kept the household moving. At thirty-four, I did not know how to do a remarkable number of things (what is a duvet cover and why do I see it as a threat to my life?), and that’s largely because I let Gus do everything. I feel guilty, almost like I am playing up my disability and asking to be infantilized, but Gus seems to genuinely enjoy it. Besides, they say in a relationship one is the garden and the other is the gardener and, well, gardening is a hard thing to do when you’re disabled.
“Oh, my day was an absolute nightmare. But I added it up, and after taxes, I’m making over a thousand dollars a day. So, you know, I’ve suffered for far less.”
“Yup. I’m doing it now.” Gus took a swig of wine in a way that seemed unintentionally dramatic.
Gus was a story producer on The Real Housewives, which meant he edited scenes of closet Republicans fighting at brunch and various costume parties. He hated the gig, obviously, but at thirty-five, he still didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, so he kept coming back season after season. I’m fascinated by people who haven’t found their passion, especially the ones who appear fully developed and sure of themselves. Not to say that my passion is writing for Sammy Says, but being staffed on any television show is impressive. The number one dreaded question someone can ask a television writer in Los Angeles is “What are you working on?” If you say you’re “developing a few things” that means you’re unemployed, and you will be treated like a leper. I can say I’m a producer on Sammy Says—a network television show that gets millions of viewers each week (Yes, millions. It’s depressing but America is profoundly dumb—the number one show on Netflix right now is about a sexy scary nanny who wants to steal a child’s kidney because she lost her kidney in a fire as a teenager!), and people will know what that show is and, by extension, know that I matter, which gives me a greater quality of life in this nightmare city. And anyway, it’s a stepping-stone to more creatively fulfilling writing jobs. Maybe one day I’ll even create my own show.
“I’m sorry you had a bad day, honey.”
“It’s fine,” he said, taking another swig of wine, less dramatic this time.
I squeezed his hand. “I wuv you,” I said. A few years ago Gus and I developed the nasty habit of engaging in baby talk. It’s like, you’re with someone for so long, words become so dull that you decide to make them fun, but somehow you end up talking like you have brain damage, and any spark of desire you have for this person gets slowly snuffed out. Once I was fucking Gus’s mouth, and I couldn’t come, and he looked up at me, my uncooperative penis resting next to his cheek, and said in full-on baby voice, “It’s okay, my widdle dawin.”
Please, somebody help us. No one tells you that, in long-term relationships, you will never love someone more and want to fuck them less. It’s like, what’s designed to keep you in love and your heart full is also the thing that will keep your penis deflated.
Gus poured another glass of wine for me, and I absentmindedly picked at the price tag on the bottle, our second of the evening. Forty dollars.
After dinner, I always take a bath in our gorgeous clawfoot tub. I put on some music—Joni Mitchell, Amy Dalton, or something equally vintage and moody—and I use a bath bomb from Lush ($8) to make sitting in a body of water more interesting. Gus comes to visit with me. We don’t really talk a whole lot during dinner. We’re too busy stuffing our faces and guzzling wine, but now that our bellies are full and our brains are covered in the gauze known as alcohol, we can let our hair down and be relaxed. We talk about bigger things than How Was Your Day? We express anxieties and fears. Future plans. Past regrets. Whatever. There’s something about being in a bath that is just, like, instant vulnerability. I blame the media.
Then, after about a half hour, Gus helps me out of the bath because I tried doing it once before on my own and fell, and it scared Gus more than it scared me—I’m used to falling—so he insisted on helping me every time after that. Or maybe I actually asked him to help me. In any case, I love and hate getting escorted out of the bath, because it makes me feel grand (like the Mariah Carey Cribs episode) and also kind of sad and pathetic (like the Mariah Carey Cribs episode). Gus then wraps a towel around me and dries me off because I never have enough patience to do it myself, and then I lie on the bed for ten minutes naked, smashing down on the soft parts of my body with my pruned hands, while Gus locks up the house and tidies up and takes all the decorative pillows off the bed. I’m telling you: the man loves to garden.
'Sharp, bawdy, yet still deeply touching. It's shockingly elegant, and elegantly shocking' LENA DUNHAM
'A very funny novel about falling for a fantasy and finding love for one's own self' MELISSA BRODER, author of The Pisces
'Funny, horny, heartbreaking' CAROLINE O'DONOGHUE, author of Promising Young Women
Eliott is a TV writer with a perfect-penised boyfriend. He's living the dream.
But behind the glossy veneer he's been papering over cracks, and they're starting to show. He's creatively stifled, he's drinking a little too often and his cerebral palsy makes him feel like gay Shrek.
When River walks in, Elliott's life is turned upside down in the best way. River is funny, charming and makes him feel seen. But maybe that's part of the deal when you hire a sex worker.
Eliott is lost and he needs someone, anyone, to point him in the right direction. After all, it's a long limp towards redemption.
A hilarious, sexy, ground-breaking debut novel about the intersection of queerness and disability, and discovering who you really are.
What readers are saying about Just By Looking at Him
'Darkly funny and poignant'
'Such a fresh take . . . I was gripped from the first page'
'Brutally honest, funny and poignant look at modern life through the lens of disability'
'This book is honest, hilarious, and raw . . . I loved literally every character'
'The author has such a strong voice and has created in Eliot a character that I will not soon forget . . . I found myself laughing out loud'
'Reads like your favorite whip- smart sitcom everyone looks forward to at the end of the day'
'One of the funniest books I have ever read'