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Literature : first proof

Late Bloomers

by Alina Simone

BOMBlog’s Page Break is an ongoing Friday series that embraces long-form writing on the web by showcasing original works of fiction by emerging literary talents. This fifth installment features “Late Bloomers” by Alina Simone.

Vittis, Naked and Modern Justice. July 2009.

Thirty-seven is not the end, Anna decided. No, forty-three is more like the end. Strike that. Forty . . . six. Or maybe the end just kept zooming away from you the older you got, like the outer bounds of the universe expanding from the blastula where hope was first born. Of course there were always exceptions. Julia Child was forty-nine when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published. And she’d read once that the Marquis de Sade didn’t really come into his own until he was fifty-one. Still, ignoring the outliers, Anna only had, let’s face it, ten years, max. The clock was ticking. Many different clocks were ticking in fact, if she really stopped to consider it. But stopping to consider the Stockhausen orchestra of ticking clocks was pointless and only paralyzed her. Negativity, as Leslie put it, was a self-fulfilling prophecy. She needed to practice Thought Awareness and Reposition her Disposition. Only then could she move forward, towards Implementation. Who else was a late bloomer? Anna thought as she walked down Sackett, away from Café Gowanus. Well, there was always Grandma Moses. And some people said Jesus didn’t do his best work until after he was dead.

Anna and Leslie had decided against finding another café to continue their life-coaching session. Anna had made enough progress for one day, and besides, Leslie had to pick Dora up somewhere or drop Dora off somewhere, and everyone knows that as soon as someone mentions their child, that’s the end of it. They absolve you of all social responsibility, children do. Like cancer, or church. She hadn’t particularly wanted to go right back to Bay Ridge, to the back issues of In Style scattered on the sofa where she’d fallen asleep last night, and the refrigerator full of dubious bodega produce. Third Avenue wasn’t much to look at. Yet, surprisingly it was here, in the long shadow of a Dunkin Donuts that simultaneously managed to be a Pizza Hut and also a Taco Bell, that the idea had struck her: What if she wrote a book about women who were late bloomers?

From there, the plan unfolded quickly. If she used the rest of her savings, the severance, the money from Aunt Clara, her tax refund, she could take a trip around the country (the world?). She would find and interview them. Unlikely political candidates, entrepreneurs, madams, all those makers of organic jams and salsas fleeing unhappy jobs at hedge funds. She could picture herself sharing confidences with these women in taxicabs, on Vermont porches, in ashrams, touring a factory floor in matching hardhats. Many would remain friends after that first initial interview, so touched and flattered would they be at having been sought out and elevated to exemplar status. And of course, as a late blooming woman herself (no where near forty-six of course, but still) there was a beautiful symmetry to Anna taking on such a project herself. She would bloom late while documenting late bloomers. It would be so meta. This fit perfectly into her Core Competencies, and if Leslie were still here, Anna would tell her, yeah, go for it, change her Vision Statement or stick it in her fucking spheres, whatever. She was ready for Process and Learning!

The feeling lasted until Anna got home and checked Amazon only to find there was already a book about women who were late bloomers. It was called, “Late Bloomers” and—this killed her—it was written by a man. A man who was clearly already in full bloom (this was his fifth book) and could just as easily have written a book about serial monogamists or cross-country cyclists or melons. This man, whose name was Lars Stratchuk, with a little circle above the “a” (he wasn’t even American!), had quite literally stolen her future. A future Anna had already inhabited for two sparkling hours, where she moved purposely through each day, and her work had weight and meaning. She did not want to go back. Already she felt the apartment closing in on her, the late afternoon light muddying in the corners, the drapes and the stained Ikea carpet letting go of the day’s heat, filling the air with their stale breath, making her tired. But first there would be a comfort snack. A tub of Sabra hummus and pita crisps. Or a pint of blueberries with cottage cheese. She would eat with her mother’s familiar remonstrations ping-ponging around in her head.

Eating that will only make you hungry.

Fruit has more calories than chocolate.

I guarantee you those nuts will taste better if you eat just one.

Anything you eat after six o’clock turns right to fat.

Anna decided, No, she wasn’t going to do it. No couch. No snacks. Since Pinter, Chinski and Harms let her go five weeks ago, she’d spent the bulk of her time couching and snacking. Surfing the web, actually. Presumably looking for jobs, but not really. Occasionally looking for love. Mostly just reading stuff. The day began with the refreshing of three tabs: the Daily Beast, New York Magazine and Gawker. From there, a kaleidoscope of options opened up, like snowmelt cutting innumerable channels down the side of a mountain. Hours later, she could end up anywhere: Deadline Hollywood, Art Fag City or somebody’s Tumblr, reading about that new underwear that prevents cameltoe. But meanwhile, she couldn’t help but notice, the things she always said she would do once she finally quit being a paralegal weren’t getting done. They’d been crushed by freedom. Her freedom. The sheer quantity of time at her disposal and the weighty responsibility of her own untapped potential made doing any one thing impossible. She woke up in the mornings already exhausted by the possibilities. And of course the question arose of whether it was depression or merely situational. Leslie didn’t think it was depression. Leslie’s own post-partum depression had been serious, life-threatening. She knew all about the drugs and the research, the ins and outs of serotonin uptake, the interaction effects of different kinds of therapy, and she’d discussed all these things with Anna. Admittedly, Anna was kind of into the idea of it being depression. She remembered something about her gap insurance covering mental health and then, of course, there would be the reassuring routine of regular appointments someplace uptown, which would get her up and out of the house. But her mother would never believe her. Her mother had no faith in her since the tattoos. And gap insurance probably only covered a few months of sessions. Plus the medicine made you fat, didn’t it? It destroyed your sex drive. One was faced with a miserable choice between sad, sexed up and thin, or fat, sexless and happy. Of course, Anna was already fat, definitely sexless and probably sad. But taking the drugs would rob her of hope. They would slap a cruel ceiling on her Aspirational Future. If she could never be thin, and would always be sexless, how could she ever be happy? It was a thicket of catch-22 situations. But if the two hours she had spent in the future, working on Late Bloomers, had taught her anything, it was that living in hope is a beautiful thing. There was no better feeling. In fact, the feeling was even better than the doing. Because when she stopped to think about it, Anna had to admit that she didn’t much like to write. And writing an entire book, ass-to-chair, day after day, sounded lonely. Worse than lonely, actually. It sounded fucking miserable. But being on the cusp of writing a book, or better still, having already written a book, was something else. She’d gotten such a charge picturing herself telling Leslie, changing her Facebook status, moderating her lively new blog on LateBloomers.com as she crowdsourced suggestions for Late Bloomers, Volume II . . .

Without quite realizing it, Anna was surfing. She had sorted the Amazon comments for Stratchuk’s “Late Bloomers” so that the one star reviews came up first, and a link in one of those comments had led her to another website about Late Bloomers, which was called Kurinji, after (the header announced) a rare Indian shrub that takes up to twelve years to bloom. Now Anna started reading the Q&A on the homepage with Paul Gilman, a filmmaker from Los Angeles, who, at age forty-six (!), had become an impresario of the microcinema scene before going on to bigger and better things. Anna read through his bio and—no surprise—learned that the first forty-five years of Gilman’s life had been noticeably devoid of promise. A ho-hum upbringing in the exurbs of Kansas City (he didn’t even bother to clarify which one), a so-so college career, a drift from one forgettable white collar job to another, an unsurprising failure to start a family. Now Gilman had a house in Brentwood. He had recently married a young actress (they’d met during his fellowship at Cannes) and was expecting twins.

BL: You are known for your improvisational style.

Gilman: I don’t use scripts. A script only imposes moral constraints on the actor. What I’m interested in is the uninhibited id. I take the actors and put them in a box. Then it’s up to them to break out of the box. Sometimes literally.

BL: Now you didn’t exactly work with actors in the technical sense.

Gilman: Right. Non-professionals.

BL: How did you find them?

Gilman: Craigslist. I would put up an ad for actors, no experience needed. I didn’t care about age or size or race. I didn’t ask for headshots. This was back when I still lived in Kansas City. It’s not like Los Angeles, where you put something like that out and—

BL: Everyone’s straight from the Formica factory.

Gilman: Right. These were real people. Actuaries. Teachers. Cooks. Whatever. People who needed the extra cash. I paid fifty a session. Sometimes I’d go to their house. Sometimes, I’d tell them to meet me somewhere. By the pay phone in front of the Cash America Pawn. Or the loading dock behind the rug warehouse downtown. I’d drive over with my camera and see them waiting for me on the street. Then I’d drive around the block again a couple of times, figuring out how they fit into the scene. After that, I’d make up a story on the spot.

BL: Both Calista at the Cum N Go and Rurik, Rurik Traffic Cop have this really visceral, really frenetic quality. How did you edit those movies?

Gilman: I edit all of my films in-camera.

BL: Just record, then stop?

Gilman: Exactly. Stop or pause. It is what it is. And since I’d never met the actors before, anything could happen. My one rule is that while I’m shooting, I won’t talk. This one woman I hired, she worked at the hospital and came to meet me straight from work, still in her scrubs. I told her, Here’s the story: you’re an EMT and you just responded to a call about a car accident that involved your husband. His back was broken in two places. He sustained internal injuries and the doctors have no idea whether he’s going to live. You leave the hospital. You’re on your way back to your car and you can’t remember where you left it. You’re lost in the parking lot—we were in a parking lot—and you call your mother on your cell to tell her what happened. Action!

BL: This sounds like Clean Rite Meltdown.

Gilman: It ended up that way—

BL: Spoiler alert.

Gilman: (laughs) Right. Because the woman wouldn’t do the scene. She wouldn’t do any of it. She just started screaming at me that she didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about. Her face right up in the camera, calling me every kind of name. Went on about how she knew about the scam I was running and her boyfriend had my license plate number, blah blah. Amazing stuff. The whole movie turned out to be just that one continuous shot of her face—

BL: Clean Rite showed at Sundance?

Gilman: It did. It’s in MoMA’s permanent collection now.

BL: You’ve certainly come a long way. Can you say a few words about working with Johnny Depp?

Gilman: Johnny is just an amazingly brilliant guy. Amazingly brilliant.

BL: And any last words for aspiring filmmakers?

Gilman: Get a camera. Let the rest take care of itself.

When Anna finished reading, she noticed it was dark. It was dark and now she was hungry. She got herself a bag of rice cakes and a tub of salsa and went back to the computer, where she searched Gilman on IMDb, and read the Variety reviews for Calista at the Cum N Go and Rurik, Rurik Traffic Cop and Clean Rite Meltdown. She found an article in the Hollywood Reporter about Gilman getting sued by the guy who starred as Stroid in Outer Space Urban Jungle. The film’s faux documentary style made its star—a semi-homeless man convinced he was a space alien—out to be a real person and the actor lost his job replacing windshields after the Kansas City Star ran a story on him. When the rice cakes were gone, Anna switched to vegetable chips (baked, not fried) and Google searched Gilman’s wife for no reason. And by the time her roommate Lacey came home from kickball practice, it was well after six and Anna’s food was already turning into fat.

She picked up the computer, yanking the cord out of the wall and letting it drag behind her as she made her way down the hall. Anna lay down on top of the comforter, pulled the laptop onto her bare thighs and finger-typed “Gilman” into Hulu. Of course, Clean Rite Meltdown came up first, followed by Rurik, Rurik. But here was another one she hadn’t read about, Age of Consent.

Anna clicked on the title. And as the movie loaded, she wondered how Gilman made any money when everything was always free, right here, on the Internet. How did anyone make any money on the Internet when she’d never clicked on a banner ad in her life? Except that one time, for the free pair of Uggs. And in return for filling out some endless form about her customer preferences, what did she get? Nothing but aggressive, filter-eluding spam for mortgage re-financing and “authentic quality pharmaceuticals.” Never again, she thought, and hit play.

There were no credits. No theme music. A black screen with the title faded in and faded out too fast. Then there was a man, sitting on a bed, with a paper bag over his head. The man had on khaki shorts and a bright blue t-shirt. The words Sun Microsystems stretched across the roll of fat in his lap in huge white letters. Daylight struggled against the shades, which were pulled all the way down. A lamp with a crooked shade tossed a warped football of light across the wall. The room reminded Anna of one of those shabby motor inns where you drive right up to the door and the windows all face the parking lot. Other than the lamp, the only decorations were a radiator and a potted ivy on the windowsill that may have been plastic.

“This is where I keep my collection,” the man said. Two eye holes had been punched into the bag. Also, a slit for the mouth, through which wet lips and a swatch of mustache were visible. “Under the bed,” he bent down, felt around, and pulled out a large plastic bag.

“Does it matter which one we start with? No? Ok, so this one is Penthouse Forum,” he began, pulling out a magazine and laying it on the bedspread. “It’s, like, just letters about celebrity fantasies and shit like that. It’s not that interesting, actually. It’s kind of a joke. Look at this. Every letter always starts out with the same horseshit line. ‘I never thought these letters were real, until I decided to write one myself,’” the man mimicked in a high-pitched voice, then laughed from inside the bag. “Almost like parodies of letters, you know? And the celebrities are . . . where is it . . .” the man started flipping through the magazine. “Yeah, man, check this one out,” he held up a page and the camera zoomed in on a photo of Andi McDowell wearing a red dress, smiling hard. “Who’s gonna jerk off to some has-been MILF that isn’t even showing her vah jay jay, right? Who’s gonna jerk off to Andi McDowell? Would you, man?” he snorted. “I think I saw this same photo later too, in a Campari ad. I guess it doesn’t matter though. If I’m already horny almost anything will work. It’s like, like I’m just looking for that final, uh, you know, push,” the man put the magazine back in the bag. “So that’s Forum. But they have ads for these 900 numbers too,” he added. “Sometimes I use those. Ok, next,” the man reached in and grabbed a bunch more magazines. “So then I got some of these multipacks. Why? Because they’re cheaper. They’re, like, old issues of things that’re combined into different groupings. Like, ‘butts’ or ‘dildos’ or whatever. And I have a thing for, you know, the young ones. I mean, you can’t sell any images of girls under 18, but I bet some of them are under 18 anyways. I like this one,” he held up the cover of a magazine with a young girl whose mouth had the permanently donuted look of a blow-up doll. “L’Age Legalle.” The man began turning the pages, this time slowly and deliberately, and the camera moved in close. There were pictures of hairless girls, wearing an inch of lipstick, their lingerie pulled to one side so their tits could pop out. Page after page, they kept moving their panties aside and looking perpetually shocked at the discovery of their own business. It was kind of amazing, Anna couldn’t help but think. I mean, don’t they get bored? It could be, like, their eighteenth shoot of the day and they still have to be all, Whoa! What’s this . . . ? Well hello! Look who’s here? Unbelievable. I would make the crappiest porn star ever, Anna thought, as she shifted the laptop, which was now burning the top of her thighs, to the pillow next to her head.

“I’ll be your tampon any day,” the man said to a cherubic blond who happened to be going down on another blond, who was busy plunging a dildo into a brunette whose entire face had gotten swallowed in the gutter of the two page spread. He flipped through the rest of the magazine quickly, until it was done, then tossed it aside.

Purely Anal,” the man announced, shaking his head with what might have been delight. His head made a loud rustling sound inside the bag.

“This one’s kind of embarrassing. See this lady?” the man flipped the page. There was a picture of a disembodied white cock squirting onto the face of a black woman. “She’s always wearing sunglasses. See? Every picture,” the man turned the page and there was the same lady, giving a blow-job, indeed wearing the same sunglasses. “It’s kind of cool though. Almost a cult thing. This is a good one, actually, this issue. I think this one, uh, deserves a reading,” the man hesitated. He stuck one of his hands up the bag to scratch something, then reached down and readjusted himself. “Now I’m supposed to read this, right? ” He stood up on the bed. For a second the camera zoomed in on his athletic socks, which had blue and white stripes at the top, then tilted queasily upwards. The man was shifting uncertainly from foot to foot on top of the bed, his head close to the low ceiling, holding L’Age Legalle away from his face at arms length with one hand.

“Halt!” he bellowed suddenly, in a labored Shakespearean baritone, “In this enseamed Greyhound station bathroom? But it is so dirty here, dear lass! Nay? Perchance, you cannot wait? My hot throbbing cock is bursting its seams and your loins cannot withstand it! Kneel then, by the porcelain throne yonder, as my hands caress your rock hard nipples, as you take me unto yourself and my hot foaming jizz cum rushes like a cresting wave over your fair brow. Forsooth, your knees be raw, but thou art fucking me like a crazy bitch, a deeper and harder banging I hath ne’er imagined. Thy pussy, so wet, so fucking wet and—” The man, overcome with laughter, sat back down and bounced awkwardly a few times on the bed.

“Sorry man. I couldn’t help it. The writing in these things is pretty ridic, you know? Porn mags aren’t really about the writing. Sometimes I’ll be reading and, like notice that I’m going along, correcting the grammar in my head? I’ll be like, What the fuck? Psht—“ he crossed his legs and went back to flipping through L’age Legalle, “anyway, the other weird thing about this magazine? It totally isn’t purely anal. Look: Blow job. Fucking. Head. Head. Three way,” the man kept flipping. “Anal. Only now we get to anal. The whole thing’s supposed to be anal and there’s, like, barely any butt action at all! But I kind of like the weirdness of it, you know? Like they trick you into thinking it’s all anal. Even though I am really into anal sex,” he added, sotto voce.

“God, we have a lot to get through, man. This is a lot,” he paused, pulling another handful of porn out of the bag. “This bag is totally gonna rip soon too. Want to know something weird? I bet my mom knows I have this stuff. She cleans in here. She must have found them by now. When my brother still lived at home, he kept his pornos under the bed too. He’s the one who showed me. I could move them, I guess. Hide them better. But I like to be able to just reach under the bed, you know? It’s all about the easy access. And, ok, this is gonna sound really fucked up, but sometimes? Sometimes I think about my mom finding this stuff as I’m jerking off. Like, I picture my mom finding it and it gets me off that she pictures me getting off or something. Isn’t that fucking sick? You should bleep that out dude. I can’t even believe I told you that. Ok, but here are two more: Tight and Young and Tight. Young and Tight sounds like it would be good, right? But I actually like Tight better. It’s pretty disgusting. And there’s also this one, Adults Only. Kinda boring,” he tossed Adults Only aside. “I haven’t actually bought porn for a couple months, so these are all getting kinda stale.” He opened up an issue of Tight and flipped through it in silent contemplation. “I mean, it’s not like I’ve squeezed everything I can out of every picture or anything. But I definitely could use another hit, you know? Whoa—I love this one. Check this out, man,” he held the magazine out to the camera, reading the title out loud. “’The fragile beauty of young anal lesbians,’” and shook his head laughing again. “Hilarious.”

Then the man stood up but the camera stayed where it was and Anna could only see the man’s midriff. His khaki shorts and his fat roll.

“Hey, do you want some cheese?” a voice asked from above. Then the midriff walked off camera and there was just the bed, the pile of porn, a lonely tentacle of ivy snaking down the wall, the sun hacking at the edges of the shades. The camera jumped to the ceiling then cut out with a stab of static. The scene reopened with the man’s ass backlit by the refrigerator. He emerged holding a wedge of cheese on a plate. Then made his way over to the sink to grab a cutting board. As the man rummaged in a drawer, the camera drifted around the room until it settled on a milk crate full of empty beer bottles in the corner. The milk crate was set on top of another milk crate, which was also full of empties.

“Hey, you want some of this, man?” The camera swung back to the man holding a piece of cheese out, stuck to the flat end of a knife. “It’s Emmentaler. Good shit, seriously. I got it at the farmers market fresh. These two guys have, like, some kind of artisanal cheese farm out in Ashby and they truck it in on the weekends. Try it man. It’s straight outta the sheep or whatever,” he waved the knife in front of the camera again. “Come on, man. It’s been all day, you must be hungry. At least have a glass of water or something . . . ? Oh yeah, ok, right, right. I forgot your whole thing. Who’s gonna watch this movie anyways? Me and cheese and butt fucking,” the man snorted. “Not exactly Avatar, man. You gonna have this in 3-D too? Charge like sixteen bucks?” the man stuck the cheese into his mouth hole and chewed. “That’s not a bad name, by the way. Me and Cheese and Butt Fucking. You should remember that.”

He started walking back to his room and the camera followed.

“I was thinking of getting one of those pictures of the black lady in the sunglasses, you know, custom framed,” the man called over his shoulder. “With, like, a backing and glass and a really, really nice wood frame? Just as joke. That’s only for when I get my own place though,” he added. “Not while I’m still living here.”

Back in his room, he sat down on the bed and crossed his legs. “Back to work, right? Ok. This one’s just, like, a catalog. They have a lot of ads for, you know, toys and videos. The place I go is basically a video store, by the way. Sugar’s. I remember going in there for the first time. It’s actually not far from here. You probably drove past it. It’s right after that Sunoco Station at the exit? I was kind of scared. I walked in, looked around, and was like — whoa, these people are gross. Every time I go in, I’m thinking to myself, I’m definitely the least gross guy in here.” The man paused for a moment. “I almost got a toy for Kylie. But that was right before things got weird with us. We had butt sex once. Well, kind of. Anyway, if you want to see that other stuff, it’s up in the closet. I’ve got some vintage too, where it’s not all girls with Barbie doll parts—”

Then the camera suddenly swung to the door. No one was there, but a voice was calling from just outside. A little girl’s voice.

“Snickers just left skid marks on the kitchen floor again,” she yelled. “You better clean it before Mom gets home.”

“You clean it,” the guy barked from inside the bag, then to the camera.

“Fucking cat.”

“I’m gonna tell Mom you told me to walk to my lesson—” the girl’s voice called back.

“Get outta here, Kay. I’m busy doing something.”

“—and she won’t let you have the car on weekends anymore,” the door opened and a girl who looked maybe eight or nine walked in. She had lank, brown hair and was wearing a long, black robe, plastic glasses and a maroon tie over a flowered tank top. It was a Harry Potter costume, Anna realized. The girl held a wand in one hand, the other hand stayed on the doorknob.

“Shit, Kay. I told you, don’t come in here,” the man began frantically pushing the magazines off the bed and into the crack between wall and the radiator. Kay’s eyes went wide.

“Why are you wearing that thing?” she asked, stepping into the room.

“It’s just a game, Kay. Get out.”

“Who is that man?”

There was the metallic clung sound of magazine spines hitting the radiator on their way to the floor. Kay turned and pointed her wand at the camera, “Are you the one who called last night and hung up?”

“Leave him alone, Kay.”

“I could hear you breathing, you know,” she said to the camera, moving the wand in slow circles, “I command you—answer me!”

Having finished with the magazines, the man now stood and walked over to Kay.

“Answer me,” her voice edged up, high and shrill, “What are you doing? You’re in my house. What are you doing in my house?”

“Hey, movie over, man. Movie’s over. Cut!” the bag was crooked on the man’s head now, slanted to one side so that only one eye lined up with its hole.

“Silencio!” Kay screamed, whirling around to face the man with the bag on his head. She was crying now.

“Hey, turn that thing off, man,” the man said to the camera. “C’mon Kay,” he got up and went over to the girl. “It’s just a friend.”

“W-what’s the bag on y-your head for?” Kay was really sobbing now. The man knelt down. He put a hand on Kay’s shoulder, then twisted around to face the camera again.

“I said turn it the fuck off, man. Now. Can’t you see it’s fucking scaring her? C’mere Kay,” the man said. He pulls Kay stiffly into his arms and the camera zooms in on Kay’s face, tears leaking from her eyes, which are squeezed shut. It zooms in on her mouth as she licks the tears and snot from her upper lip.

“Why wond ee s-say s-someting?” Kay sobs. But her face is invisible as the camera jerks over to the man’s fingers on Kay’s bare shoulder. You can see the hair on his knuckles and the back of his hand. He squeezes her shoulder. And then it moves to Kay’s flowered top. To a single purple flower with a yellow dot inside. Closer and closer, until its pixelated center fills the screen. Until the whole screen is just one raw, hideous, quivering, pixel sun.

“It’s just a friend,” comes the man’s voice from somewhere, a little hoarse. “It’s just a friend.”

Then the screen went dark and the word FIN appeared. As if from a great distance, the sad strains of an acoustic guitar struggling to stay in tune could be heard. A Will Oldham song. Anna realized that she was crying. She read the credits, which were short and consisted mainly of Gilman. It didn’t make any sense, but in a way, she felt like now she understood. And she was suddenly very tired. The lights were already off. The cars going by on the street below sounded like rain, like waves, like the soundtrack to some Gilman movie about the impossibility of sleep. She pushed the computer out of kicking distance, off to one side, then turned around and shut her eyes.

The laptop battery would die overnight, but she didn’t even care.

Alina Simone is a singer and writer based in Brooklyn. Her first book, You Must Go and Win, was published by Faber in June 2011. “Late Bloomers” is an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, Titillation Plus.