Fiction

Protection

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 FICTION

Yes, a condom might have saved my life, but latex over a particular penis made it any penis, and the act of wearing one was, at this particular time, like pantyhose over a face, every pore or wrinkle or distinct characteristic smoothed over until he was anyone or everyone — pizza man or Southerner, any man who came before him.

   I fucked Rex once without protection because of flesh.

   I fucked him without concern for my cycle or eggs or safety.

   It was the night as much as anything. It was the particular darkness, my mother’s heavy breath in the next room, the damn waves again and again, the sea moving into my bedroom and sheets, and it was Rex and all I wanted to see and feel that was his.

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   I risked everything — pregnancy and illness — because of skin.

   "Let’s not wake her," I said.

   "You’re over thirty and you live with your mum." It was a statement, not a question.

   "She’s sick," I reminded him. "Piece by piece."

   "Piece by piece, what’s that mean?"

   "Like a turkey." I made a carving motion with an extended index finger.

   "That’s gruesome." He shook his head.

   "Leg, thigh, breast."

   "Stop it, Rachel."

   "Neck," I continued.

   "Don’t," he pleaded.

   "Hip," I said, quietly, almost to myself.

   "You shouldn’t talk about it, about her, like that. Are you drunk? Is that what’s wrong with you?"

   I laughed. "There’s plenty wrong with me."

   "Like what?"

   "The list is long."

   "Anything I can catch?"

Neither of us mentioned a condom. It was the first time I’d been unsafe in years.

   "No," I told him. "I’m drunk, that’s what’s wrong with me, Rex. Too much cider, no dinner."

   "I’m sorry about your mum. Come here." He was sitting on the
edge of the bed in just his white briefs. He had a decent body, a natural body,
the body of a man who didn’t exercise — a bit of belly fell over the elastic.
He curled his finger. "Come here," he said again.

   I moved toward him.

   "Let’s not talk." He put his hands out. "Let me touch those hips of yours. Let’s not say a word," he said.

   Neither of us mentioned a condom. It was the first time I’d been unsafe in years; it was the first time I didn’t insist. I could have blamed it on the cider, but I’d been drunk and naked plenty of times and still pulled one from my bag or bra or drawer. I could have blamed it on his accent or the fact that they’d recently found a chunk of cancer in my mother’s shoulder, but several of my men had accents, and they’d been finding gray chunk after gray chunk for the last two years, yet I’d always been cautious.

   Lately I was bold, keeping a handful of condoms in a candy dish on my nightstand. And I was slick and skillful too, positioning myself on top of whoever he was, and while he was busy with my breast, I’d reach down and pluck one up. When he was really going, mouth and hands at once, I’d lift the foil package to my mouth and rip it open with my teeth. "Here," I’d say then, "if you want me, dress it up." And he’d be surprised, but hard already and agreeable, and what was most amazing to me was that he wouldn’t even have noticed my preparation. He wouldn’t even have seen me. He’d be staring at the condom as if it were magic, as if it appeared out of nowhere, as if I pulled it from behind his ear or out of a hat, so focused he’d have been with his whole face, every bit of him, mashed against my torso.

   One of them was stubborn and did refuse. I’d met him at Angela’s birthday party in September. I was sitting with my friend Claire at the dining room table when he walked up. He introduced himself as Johnny. He was from Argentina or Colombia — I couldn’t remember which — and mispronounced my name, butchered it, in fact, like he did the sloppy hogs back home. His English wasn’t perfect, but early in the evening he’d tried hard, wanting to communicate. He looked determined, face scrunched up, lips tight, fingers rubbing together, reaching for words.

   Angela winked at me, pulled on Claire’s sleeve, and when that didn’t work, bent down and whispered something in Claire’s ear. "Oh," Claire said, springing from her chair, leaving the two of us alone at the table.

   I looked down at my lap and caught myself twiddling my thumbs. It was ridiculous, something I didn’t know I did. I stopped myself mid-twiddle and made a plan in my head about how I might hold my body in the future. I thought about deliberate movement, gesture. I crossed my legs. I looked into Johnny’s eyes for several tense seconds before turning away.

   He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and rubbed his palms together; he was struggling with nouns and verbs and adjectives, and I was charmed or horny or drunk on champagne, leaning forward myself, nodding, patient.

   Meat was important for his family’s survival, Johnny wanted me to know. He killed those animals without guilt or shame, in front of his two small nieces, younger brother, and sometimes in front of their friends. He didn’t understand what he called California "vegenarians"— people who didn’t eat meat. Was I one of them? he wanted to know.

   I pointed at the chicken wing that sat in front of me on a paper plate. "No," I told him.

   Angela’s half-eaten birthday cake sat in the middle of the table, as did a dozen empty beer bottles, several unopened bottles of wine, and messy plates. Standing on one of the plates was a plastic fork, balanced on its end in the thick, creamy frosting, its lipstick-stained prongs straight up, nearly pointing at my face.

   "Is that yours?" he said, looking at the fork.

   "No."

   "Are you sure?"

   "Why would I stick my fork —” I began.

   He pointed at the lipstick on the prongs, then at my own lips.

   "Not even close." I backed up, smiling.

   "I think yes."

His penis looked like a skinny man with a hat on, all that extra skin like a stocking cap.

   "That’s bright pink," I insisted. "I’m not wearing pink. I never wear pink. Do I look like a woman who would wear bright pink?" I said, catching myself, immediately regretting the coy question.

   He looked at me closely, examined my hair and nails. He pulled on his chin, then refilled my glass. "Paint is paint," he said.

   I stuck the creamy end of one of Angela’s birthday candles into my mouth. It was sweet, horribly so. I pulled the candle from my lips, providing proof, a ring of my own dark shade on the waxy stick. "See," I said, "wrong color."

   Later, in bed, he was calling me Rapel. Each time I corrected him, his pronunciation got worse. "That’s like repellent," I said, "when two things, when two people . . . oh, never mind," I said. "My name is Rachel," I told him, still drunk, thinking that maybe I was repellent or he was or we both were. I wanted to be a different woman, a woman who made better choices, and yet there I was in his bed, slipping off my shoes.

   "Rapel," he repeated, pulling at my skirt.

   I twisted around, faced him. "Listen, it’s Rachel." I said my name slowly, deliberately, three damn times. I isolated the sounds in the middle of my name and looked at him, making those sounds again and again, because suddenly, sitting in his dusty, closet-sized studio, my skirt half on and half off, my blouse in a silk pile at my bare feet, one bra strap over my shoulder, it was terribly important that he pronounce my name correctly.

   "Rasel," he tried.

   "No." I pulled the bra strap up and tightened it. It snapped against my shoulder and made a sound.

   "Rapel," he said for the last time, his face in my hair, and he said it firmly, definitively, in a tone that suggested that he was correcting me.

   "It’s my name. I know what my name is," I told him, giving up.

   He wore all silk: black silk pants, a red silk shirt, even a silk band holding his hair back in a ponytail. It made me uncomfortable, all that silk on a man. He left the shirt on while we kissed, and I tried to hold onto his back, then shoulder, but the shirt slipped from between my fingers. His black hair spilled out, rested on the red collar.

   When I went to unbutton the shirt, he pulled his chest away. "Hair doesn’t bother me," I said. "Don’t be shy," I told him, letting my hand fall from the bed, reaching into my purse. "Hairy or smooth, it’s all the same to me." I handed him the condom then, and he shook his head.

   "No," he said, grimacing.

   "Yes."

   "I don’t like costumes."

   "Costumes?"

   "I won’t cover it up."

   I closed my legs like a pair of scissors. "Forget it, then."

   He positioned himself on top of me, still in that gory shirt, and pushed my breasts together like an accordion. He propped his long, oddly thin, uncircumcised penis between them. I’d been with other uncircumcised men before, but Johnny had more foreskin than I’d ever seen. His penis looked like a skinny man with a hat on, all that extra skin like a stocking cap, I thought — a bony boy bundled up as if he was heading into the snow.

He moved and moved, grunting, the hooded penis burning my skin.

   Johnny was mesmerized, no longer interested in my thighs or neck but with my breasts alone, as if the two of them were detached from my body, something separate, as if they weren’t quite mine and I wasn’t quite me — the me he’d grown tired of already, the me who insisted on costumes, the me who twiddled her thumbs, the me who didn’t know her own damn name.

   He moved and moved, grunting, making friction, that hooded penis burning my skin. He went on and on, full of stamina and liquor, determined as he had been earlier about words, communication. It seemed it would never end. It seemed I would spend the rest of my life in just that position. He talked to me in low tones, in a language I didn’t recognize. The act didn’t make sense, and while he moved and groaned, I remember thinking: Do
you know you’re not inside anyone
?


I read somewhere that when a man comes he gives up only one teaspoon of semen. With Rex I thought of sugar, the amount I dropped in a cup of tea. I wondered if my perception was off, or maybe, because it had been so long since I allowed it, my memories about quantity were skewed, or maybe the article I remembered reading was wrong.

   Whatever it was, it seemed to me that Rex had come and come and come, wouldn’t stop coming, kissed my ears and cheek, filling me up with cups and cups of himself. I wondered how he could have kept so much of anything inside him. Afterwards, I wondered how he could move and toss and breathe like he was fine, not suddenly missing something.

   Immediately, I wanted him to leave — not because I didn’t like him, but because I did. And it was inevitable, his leaving. I wanted it over with now, the ridiculous kiss good-bye, the stiff wave, the back of his denim jacket. I was stuffed, my insides hot and full, and thought I might explode, right there, in my sheets, with a man I might have known if I’d had time, a chance, and since I didn’t have either, I wished he’d just vanish. "Shit," I said. "What did we do?" He touched my shoulder, pulled me to him, so that my back rested against his chest. "I’ll tell you what we did," he whispered.

   His breath was hot on my neck. I wished he lived here. "That’s okay," I said. "I remember," I told him.


In the morning, we sat on the balcony, drinking coffee, looking out at the patio below, where handymen were setting up lounge chairs and tables, two guys in the corner putting together a gas grill. "I witnessed a suicide a few years ago," I said. " I was sitting right here a girl fell from the sky."

   Rex shuddered. "You saw her hit the ground?"

   I nodded.

   "Poor you," he said.

   "Poor her," I said.

   He put the cup down on the table, leaned forward, and reached for the sheet still wrapped around my body. I shook his hand away and we were quiet for several minutes. Finally, I asked about his farm. He told me about his favorite cows, how every one of them had a name: Bess and Bob and Tina and Janet, Buddy and Sid and Sally. He described their pretty spots, touching his own torso like a map. Here and here and here, he said. He wanted me to see. Cows weren’t dumb. It was a myth, a lie, something said to make butchers feel better. Anyone that raised cows knew they weren’t dumb. I would love them, he was sure, Buddy and Sid, their antics. Those two would change my mind about animals. I’d love his farm, his baby boy, the black sky that framed his home. I’d even love her, his new girlfriend. She was a redhead, did he tell me that earlier? I was nodding, pretending to listen, but thinking about my mother.

   "What’s wrong?" he said.

   "Nothing."

   "Come on."

   I leaned closer to him and touched his arm.

   "What’s on your mind?"

"It’s healthy," my mother told me, "your shapely asses. You’ll never be alone."

   "You," I said, smiling. But really, I wasn’t thinking about him at all. I had said my good-byes to him inside my head and was now thinking about my mother, how she often headed to Fabric King after a trip to the drugstore, how she was probably standing there now, touching assorted fabrics, deciding.

   After the mastectomy, as soon as her arm was working again, my mother started making dresses. Without a machine, without a pattern — by hand. She went to the fabric store once a week at least, and bought yards and yards of various prints. And black, she brought back plenty of black for me.

   The only thing my mom had to do was take a good, long look at my friends’ asses and she knew exactly what sizes they were. She said, "Honey, both of your best friends are small, but their asses aren’t. The three of you are shapely," she told me. And then she laid the fabric over her bed and cut a dress out in the shape of one of them. "It’s healthy," she told me, "your shapely asses." She said their names out loud: Angela and Claire. "You’ll never be alone," she said.

   She sat either in the chair by the window or on the couch, with or without a wig, and opened up the sewing box. Then she sewed. She watched Jeopardy, then Seinfeld, and kept sewing.

   She didn’t do buttons or zippers, so she was limited in style and fabric and texture. "It has to be durable, flexible," she explained, pulling the needle from her mouth. "The body is in charge," she told me.

   Last weekend I opened my mother’s closet, and there wasn’t one store-bought piece of clothing. She’d given it all away. The closet was full, hundreds of her dresses hanging up — stripes and plaids and dots and flowers, summer pastels and earth tones, winter greens and dark browns.

   On Sunday my mother stood in the hallway, pulling a bright red number over her bald head, working the stretchy fabric over her shoulders. And she was beautiful, at the edge of everything, standing on that cliff in our hallway, working the vivid dress over her still-sexy thighs.

   I wanted to tell Rex about my mother’s thighs, about where she was now, Fabric King, but more than that, I wanted to be sitting at the table with a man who knew me well enough to understand all of it. I wanted to tell him, but I was looking at his face and hands, and his hands were reaching for a second time between my legs, and the sheet was falling, and I didn’t think he wanted to hear anything like that just then. 

Excerpted from the novel A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That by Lisa Glatt. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lisa Glatt’s work has appeared in such magazines as Mississippi Review, Other Voices, Columbia, Indiana Review, Pearl, and The Sun. In 2003 she received the Mississippi Review Prize for fiction. She currently teaches at California State University, Long Beach and is married to poet and visual artist David Hernandez. A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That is her first novel. Visit her website at www.lisaglatt.com.