When I was an old-enough kid, I prepared an exhibit of things I wasn’t supposed to know—things my parents had done before they got married to each other. It was almost like a science fair: posterboard displays, Styrofoam props. I had been secretly working on the project for months, excavating most of the facts I needed out of spavined shoe boxes at the back of my parents’ closet, and early one Saturday night when my parents and sister went shopping, I set everything up in the basement, mostly on the ping-pong table but overflowing onto the washing machine and dryer. The centerpiece was a four-paneled entry titled “My Mom Was Married Before, and I Have a Stepbrother I Have Never Met.” Among the evidence arranged beneath cellophane was a mildewy set of Gregg shorthand manuals, each opened to a flyleaf on which my mother’s spiderish, inwrought handwriting spelled out her first name and a rude-sounding, unfamiliar surname and then a month, a day and a year before I had been alive. I had also put lots of work into the diptychs “Another Stepbrother of Sorts: Daddy’s Secret By-blow” (I provided a dictionaryish sidebar, as well as photocopies of the legal papers detailing the terms of the settlement) and “The World of My Sister” (featuring a timeline ticking off the five and a half months between my parents’ St. Patrick’s Day potluck wedding and my sister’s birth). Breaking up the Magic-Markered text were Xeroxed family snapshots I had shaded with colored pencils and spitefully captioned.
I spent the night out with the kid who considered himself my boyfriend—a gripless Puerto Rican who always had an unlit cigarette slanted apostrophically into his mouth. At the kitchen table the next morning, I found my mother looking unslept, tear-swollen. My father was administering to his bare forearms the same slow sequence of slaps, brushes, fingertaps and hair-tugs that years earlier I had decided added up to his stab at a formula for making himself disappear. My sister, however, was the one who was missing.
The upshot was that I eventually turned twenty-eight years old and found myself married. I fumed and soured and stenched in bed beside a husband who himself was a cloud of exhausts and leakages. Sleep became a contest: by morning, whose smell would prevail in the room?
My husband’s piss drippled out day and night, slavering through his underwear, blurring the crotch of every pair with a corona of orangish yellow. He had an enlarged prostate, and he kept a plastic ice-cream tub beside the nightstand. Every five minutes or so until he fell asleep, I would hear him, sodden and unfaucetable, bowing and curbing himself along the edge of the mattress, the tub in one hand, the other jigging his penis against the inner rim until a driblet or two finally platted surrenderingly against the plastic. Sometimes, after he had resettled himself in his zone of the bed, I would reach across and pat his slobbering penis. My hand would come away clammy, vinegared.
I had always been struck by how other people spoke so casually and unembarrassedly about their beds, as if a bed were merely an unshaming final destination on the day’s itinerary. When I first lived alone, I thought of my own bed as a softer, more expansive version of a toilet, a fixture on which things got discharged or unrecoupable selves got squeezed out, then flushed away in cleansing eddies of the sheets. Later, when I began making myself available to others, every body that trespassed on my bed left behind a new, unfillable trough in my mattress. Some were more like clefts, gougings. In college, I had had a roommate whose bed I one day stared at too long. The roommate had gone home for the weekend without having made her bed. I stared at the swirls and crests of the waved sheets and the bedspread. I felt their tidal coaxings. I was determined not to get up from my own mattress, where I was lying with one hand wound around one of the cold metal legs, and dive onto hers. I could hear the siss of showers in the lavatory down the hallway. I had probably already missed lunch. I contented myself with the explanation that what was playing across my roommate’s bed was simply the aftersurge of a certain kind of sleep, a slopping, heavy-going sleep that had excluded me unslightingly. My roommate had left a sweatshirt lying on the floor, and that was what I wound up wearing all day. It was the day I went up to a boy I had never talked to before and asked where he came from.
I had to buy things—little things—several times a day: felt-tip markers, tweezers, newspapers. With every purchase I should have stood in a fixed, unambiguatable relation to the person behind the cash register, but the transaction almost always got complicated by the accompanying thermal exchanges, the glancing flesh of palms and fingertips as payment was tendered, change dealt out. Some days when I counted on these seductions all I would get was a clerk who slammed the coins onto the counter or trayed them atop bills he then let parachute into my outstretched palm.
I would rock an empty shopping cart back and forth in the aisles of stationery departments, notebooks and thick packages of filler paper cliffed on either side of me. Sometimes I would reach for a coilbound themebook and riffle the pages, unsticking them, vaguely sickened by the washed-out pink and blue of the margins and ruled lines. I would think about the prongy, unparallel outlines onto which teachers were going to drape unmemorizable facts.
Mostly what I wanted to find was a special piece of chalk like the one my third-grade teacher had always used to mark our positions on the linoleum floor of the stage. It was a sausage-shaped cylinder of soft chalk swaddled in flocky wool. Back then, I had wanted my own words to stream out as smoothly and as scrapelessly as the lines and circles and X’s that flowed from that overscaled piece of chalk. Instead, everything I said or wrote seemed to scratch something else out of the world. On tablet paper and on blackboards, my letters were bony and tined. I begged classmates to recopy my homework for me so that each answer would come out curved, clawless, quieted down.
I’d had a friend once. For years, our goosefleshy lives had abutted in classrooms, on playgrounds, at library tables. Even when we outgrew the stage when we could jungle-gym across each other’s legs and trunk and arms, I kept piling my life beside hers. Once, on an overclouded July afternoon when we were both thirteen, we were lying in a weedy field behind a shopping center. I managed to land my head on her belly and listen to the guggle and burble inside her. My ear was pressed against the bare skin between the hem of her T-shirt and the waistband of her shorts. She let out a laugh. It was a flat-voiced laugh, but it made my life seem suddenly solvable, performable. I started thinking about unpillowing my head and letting my hands balustrade up her long arms until our faces were close together, and that was when she jerked away. The fleshy suction of my ear against her skin, the vacuum between us, broke. She hunched up, propped her chin on her knees, began tugging blades of crabgrass out of the earth. I hunched up, too, and looked at her. Her shins were hatched and shaded with darkish hairs which I liked because my blonde ones were uninsistent, practically invisible. “What are you looking at?” she said. “Nothing,” I said. But the next time I saw her legs bare, a couple of weeks later, they were razored, girled-up.
Late every night, my husband watched a black-and-white 1950s variety show on a nostalgia channel. Eyes shut, shoaling in some puddly near-sleep, I would listen to the splashes of applause and the effortful laughter of the live audience. Inevitably, a member of the audience, usually a man, would let out a sudden, petitioning laugh, a laugh out of sync with the lilt of the jokes. I found that I had to assign the man a face and mete him out a life as unfinishable as my own before I could shark off into sleep.
Once, returning home from work, I found my husband kneeling raptly before a wicker hamper from which my dirty laundry had overspilled. He was bobbing for my socks, incisoring into them one at a time, then craning around, depositing them onto the carpet, tandeming them off. There were already at least half a dozen heel-soiled pairs, each a different shade of off-white, laid out intently. His hands, meanwhile, were making slow, winging dips in the air around his cock, now and then grazing it as the angle of its levitation shifted.
I backed my way unnoticed out of the room. In the kitchen, I settled myself squeaklessly onto an upholstered chair. I thought about the sad, outcropped, lavatorial world of men. I had once met a man, a limericky professor, whose secret, unairable life’s work was a definitive atlas of women’s body-hair distributions: an oversized plywood-covered volume, full of thick, eraser-gouged pages, that he kept clamped shut under a terraced heap of accordion files in the trunk of his car.
Men wanted my toes in their mouths or my torso roped against a chair or my own mouth lipsticked and wordless or my brain ligatured to whatever unknottable neural twist that in their own brains winched their rawing, blunted dicks into place. It was always just one thing they wanted, or could handle, at a time. I had myself convinced that I had so many lives recessed inside me that I could afford to piecemeal my body out part by part and not miss anything, that everything would grow back.
But I had a hard time finding anything even marginally fetishizable about a man’s life. I would grub through my husband’s nightstand and bureau-drawer scatter—the siltage of receipts, business cards, shoehorns, pocket gauges, watch straps and crease-blurred newspapers that shadowed him securely into the apartment. I would poke my finger through the front slit of a pair of his jockey shorts before I tossed his wash into the machine. I would stand in the bathroom and stare at the pepperish encrustation of his whisker hairs in the unscoured sink.
Eventually he stopped haranguing me with sex altogether.
The only way in and out of the building where I lived with my husband was through a dim lobby furnished with a sofa, a card table and some folding chairs. Coming and going, I had to walk past a pair of plaid-dustered old women who early each morning organized themselves onto the sofa for the day and kept watch. Each had a cathedral of yellowish gray hair whose bobby-pinned buttresses and pinnacles the other would frettily oversee. Gangling through the lobby, surveilled, I would occasionally let an unlipped, falsetto “hi” butterfly out of my throat and into the nets that the women’s squeeching hearing aids unreeled into the dead air. But the women never even nodded. It was real work to operate my body past them, my life beating down on me with every step. It was even harder when I was dragging women in and out, one at a time, never the same one twice, during roiling, elongated lunch hours. Because by this point I had to have women, their kneeshine and susceptibilities, even though every one of them left me staled, depopulated.
Every year for six weeks in gym—a whole marking period—we had had what the teacher called “apparatus”: monkey bars, parallel bars, the pommel horse, the high bar, the stationary rings. The teacher was a loudly married snoop with blunt legs duckpinning out of the same kind of salmon-colored trunks we were all required to wear. She knew I couldn’t do a forward roll, which was the prerequisite to all other stunts, so she confined me to a special mat. Twice a week and for forty minutes at a time, I was supposed to kneel on that gashy, eraser-soft mat, tuck my head between my legs and wait for a somersaultic force to exert itself on me and overturn the cinder-blocked gym and loop me forward into the same world everybody else was living in. But I remained untumbled, earthbound. Through the triangled space between my thighs I would watch the spoked bodies of my classmates as they spiraled down the matted trackway that led to the apparatus, blazing their legs at one another. Then I would watch them skin the cat or stick-arm their way along the parallel bars.
On my mat, singled out, watched over, I bowed obediently into my groin and developed an overacquaintance with the inletted, divulgent body I presided over.
I started spending lots of time in my car—a rust-mottled, incognito beige Chevette. It was suddenly the room I felt most at home in, and it had enough of a sickbay look to it to be thief-proof. The passenger-side leg well was table-solid with a pile of sallowing unread newspapers, and the crumb-strewn passenger seat made a companionable, multi-purpose side-surface. I kept some extra cups and a boxful of plastic forks, knives and spoons hutched on the dashboard. The radio gave out nothing but static, but it was the deep, bearable variety, not the kind of organized insect-kingdom roar that always brought on headaches.
After work and on weekends, I drove, rivering through the city and the suburbs. For a while I ate nothing but tiny meteorites of fried chicken that came casketed in clumsily slotted and tabbed cardboard. The arm that slanted out of the drive-through window to hand me my box was almost always the same one: fuzzy, overbraceleted. It was an arm I wanted to have something to do with. Instead, the window would shut. Back on the service road, I would molar down the crumplets of chicken and let the grease terror and reverb through my system.
The women I was seeing were becoming less disappearable, and some started having names. There was Karen, a pharmacist with straw blonde hair and an asterism of nipply pimples that, during the days or hours I spent away from her, seemed to belt across her face zodiacally, never coming to a rest on one cheek or the other. The one with the chopped hair and paper cuts was Marcia: she drove a UPS truck. Dianne worked at an electrolysis studio. The waiting room would always be full of sleeveless young men hovering behind fashion magazines, and she would lead me upstairs to her uncurtained efficiency apartment, where she talked about her incumbent boyfriend and about the two other men who were after her and about how she was getting drummed out of her life. Gretchen was the one who kept saying she lacked the courage of her contradictions. She was afraid of losing her job at the community college because she didn’t flatter the students enough. Each of these women was an exclamation of salty, spoiling flesh.
I came home every night. I would hurry through the underlamped lobby, ride the elevator to the third floor, find my husband on the living-room sofa. By this stage of the marriage he had precipitated himself so exhaustively into the apartment that the air was urinous and unparting. Every room was snary with his life. His sleep trellised over towel racks and chair arms and shoe trees. It filamented from the handles of coffee mugs and the pocket clasps of mechanical pencils. Sometimes I would wake him and point to the bedroom. As he slippered past me, I would see his life training behind him, floor-fouled and unlanguaged, littery bits of myself magpied and particled into it. I still slept in the same brinkless bed with him. I would want to get up and shut off the candescence of the white shirt he had hangered to the closet door for work the next day, its collar pennanting in the breeze of the electric fan he ran as a noise filter.
My life had started to pill. I was fuzzing out little balls of myself that people would come up and twist off and flick into the already overpacked air.
At stoplights, I began to slope my neck sidewise so I could glint into whatever car was laned beside my own. The bloodshot, circumstantial desolation of the windowed faces—the splather of fingers against a cheek, say—was how I wanted things: wrung out.
I started wearing shopgirlish shirtwaists so that when I drove to the malls after work, I could be certain that if I lingered long enough at a display, restacking saucepans or masoning a scatter of shoe boxes into a neat row, one old woman or another would eventually ask, “Miss, where would I find ...,” sealing off her question by salivaing the name of some unfamiliar-sounding kitchen utensil or sewing-box instrument. Her gaspy mouth would be a burrow of caries and glazed tongue. I would do my best to crease my face into blank lines and busy my hands menially with the merchandise before me. “You don’t work here?” the woman, unanswered, would continue. I would wait until I no longer felt her stare singeing my cheek, then watch her flutter off toward a real salesclerk.
People in malls had it coming to them—even the girls wristing one another along from store to store or willowing around in a subjunctive sulk. The girls all had their lives marqueed brightly on their faces. My eyes would dart straight to their skirted legs and the glib flesh that glowed above the cuffs of their socks. Their skin was a threat.
A few blocks from the memorial park where my mother was staying put was a convenience store where I decided one day that the man behind the counter knew what he was doing. He was a flatfaced man with a peeling decal of a smile, and he kept an old metal dustpan on the counter. If you wanted to buy something, he pointed noncommittally to the dustpan, and sooner or later you figured out that he expected you to put your money on it, which you then did. He would grasp the dustpan by the handle and set it atop the cash register. He would ring up the sale, drawer the bill you gave him, plink your change onto the grooved ramp of the dustpan and shovel the change toward the very edge of the counter, toward you.
This made sense.
It was a Saturday afternoon, early. What I bought was a stapler, a cheap blue plastic one, for my car.