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Tail by Laurie Stone


I was born with a tail. Lots of people are, but the tails are usually surgically removed before they can grow. I’m sorry mine was cropped. I sometimes feel it, a phantom limb. Here’s another secret: I ate my little brother Lenny’s desserts when my mother wasn’t looking. I also had sex with Lenny starting when he was sixteen and I was eighteen, and it was great. I know you’re not shocked, because you have friends who go on TV all the time and say things like this.

You can never predict when you’ll be recognized as a fellow traveler. I arrived at the airport to board a plane recently and found myself thrust into the national support network for people with amputated tails. I didn’t have to say a word. They knew. Something about the way I walk? A look of pining on my face for a missing part? Or did they just assume the longing was for the tail? It could have been for a number of other things — if the look was even there.

The other night I was recognized again. It was during a party at a mansion on Fifth Avenue. The place was filled with modern art. De Koonings, Rothkos, Pollocks, Warhols, Rauschenbergs. Picassos, too. Not prints. Big paintings. And Matisses. The dining room was large enough for fifteen tables to be set up, and there was still room for people to mill about. A hundred and fifty guests were there, all under twenty-five: the richest young people in New York. That was their affiliation. They knew each other — Rothchilds, Whitneys, Pierponts, Esterhazys, von Hohenzohlerens. A secret society. Like dinner with Mafia dons or international weapons dealers.

What was I doing there? I’ll get to that, but first I want to tell you about the shoes. If you wore them and died, it would be worth it. Heels up to here and needle thin, and there were little strappy bondage things embracing arches and ankles. And the colors! Like the paintings! I couldn’t understand how people could walk in them, but they didn’t fall down.

Not only were the guests nimble, they were beautiful, even if they were ugly, because of the polish of their skin and the crispness of their clothes. Except for one man who wore bright red socks that winked when he sauntered across the reception hall to pluck hors d’oeuvres from the silver tray of a waiter. His socks matched his breast pocket hankie. He was too thin. (It’s possible.) And his complexion had a greenish tinge that the hankie and socks didn’t help. I overheard him speaking to a woman as slender as a ballerina — but without the muscle tone. These people don’t work out and they smoke a lot. Red socks told Ballerina that he expected George W. Bush to be elected president and hoped he was, because it would be good for Microsoft’s fight with the Justice Department. I was surprised there could be Republicans his age, and then I told myself to get a clue.

When the assembled sat down to dinner, they mostly ignored the food. They preferred to smoke and drink and lean over each other’s tables. I ate a plate of chanterelles and grilled artichokes topped with slivered Parmesan. Then prawns, lobster tails and seared scallops in a sauce of lemon grass, coconut milk and curry. Then bittersweet molten chocolate charlotte with strawberries and whipped cream. Last a double espresso. I ate in the kitchen with the other waiters. The owner of the catering company, Manny Fleckenstein, came to New York thirty years ago to play bass in a jazz quartet. To survive he got into the food business. Some days he looks at me and quotes David Byrne, “How did I get here? This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife.” I say, “Manny, no one’s holding a gun to your head.” He says, “Money, Lana. It’s a drug.”

I was standing in the dining room, considering Manny’s remark, and I was feeling it, the envy. Being around rich people makes you want their things, even if you don’t crave them deeply and wouldn’t know where to put them in your studio apartment. It’s the velvet rope that seems to divide you from them and them from you that’s offending. Having things themselves is another matter. You can’t have just a Jaguar. You have to have a parking garage for it. You can’t have just a Rousseau painting. You have to have a frame and lighting and wall space to properly display it. You can’t have just a house in the country. You have to hire people to cut the grass and make sure no one breaks in when you’re away. But you can have a pair of incredibly expensive shoes.

I was waiting for the guests to leave so we could carry plates to the kitchen and slop drinks into a tub, when Ballerina swayed up on her mile-high Manolo Blahniks. “Got a light?” She held out a cigarette with a swanlike gesture of her hand and flipped back her head so her blond hair parted like a curtain around her face. Her eyes were at half-mast, but I could see strange bits of yellow glittering in her irises. Her feet had been worked on by someone who charges $100 for a pedicure, and her hands looked like she’d paid $60 a piece. Her nail polish was rosy and bloody — the color of raspberries left out in the sun. It matched her lipstick, which was perfect, as if she hadn’t eaten anything. She stood close, looking surprised when I didn’t get her a light. All night I’d felt invisible, and I wanted it to stay that way.

“There are four thousand votive candles on the tables. They double as lighters,” I said.

She looked down, so I couldn’t see the sparkles in her eyes. I didn’t know whether she was looking at her raspberry toenails or a piece of baguette that had rolled under a chair. “I wanted an excuse to talk to you.”

“About what?” I was doing isometric exercises behind my back to relax the muscles in my neck.

She picked up a votive candle and lit her cigarette, inhaled and blew out the smoke in a tight funnel away from my face. “My brother.”

“Red hankie is your brother?” I felt for her. Imagine being related to someone who is voting for George W! Not to mention the red socks. My brother looks like John Corbett from Northern Exposure, the one who played the radio deejay and has lately been reduced to doing Ford commercials with a folksy accent. My brother doesn’t have a folksy accent, just the stubbly, rumpled look of someone lolling in sheets and waiting for more sex.

“Can we talk?” she asked.

“Why me?”

She shot me a weary look that made her appear more knowing than I’d suspected, an expression that said, “Don’t make me explain.” I wondered if she sensed — the way the tail people had my missing part — the bond between my brother and me.

“Where do you want to go?”

She made a follow-me gesture with her index finger and strode out of the dining room. I shadowed her to a staircase. She mounted until we were on a floor where there were bedrooms. I wasn’t worried about my absence. I would tell Manny a guest had sought my help. He liked it when we were accommodating. Word got around that his people knew how to deliver. I followed her down a long corridor lined with more paintings. There was a Pissaro, a Gauguin, a Cezanne, a Denis, a Sargent, a Whistler, even a Blake. She didn’t seem to notice. We arrived at French doors that she parted, and we entered a sitting room with three bay windows that looked out on Central Park. The shutters were open, and I could see the tops of trees and some pinpoints of stars in a sky that looked painted by Magritte. The room was pristine, as if a maid had just straightened up. There was an atmosphere of privacy and at the same time a feeling that, at any moment, someone was waiting to anticipate our needs. Five vases of flowers sat on tables. Roses, anemones, cala lilies, tulips and hyacinths.

We sat on a couch upholstered in peach silk. On a tray in front of us was a bottle of Chardonnay and two glasses. I wondered if Ballerina had ordered the wine ahead of time. She lifted the bottle from its ice bucket and poured two glasses, handing one to me. I sipped. It was delicious. The room was so quiet, I could hear it.

“My brother and I have sex,” she said.

I didn’t show surprise. How could I? I wondered if I’d told too many people about my life and now everyone knew or if she was telling me because sleeping with your brother was what everyone was now doing. Maybe she’d mistaken the envy on my face for empathy. Maybe she liked the envy.

She drank some wine and dabbed at her mouth with a linen napkin. I thought she was maybe twenty-one. She was wearing an exquisite sapphire silk dress with spaghetti straps and a low-cut back that showed off her elegant shoulders and the ridges of her erect vertebrae. Around her left wrist was a bracelet of diamonds and sapphires, at her ears the same gems. I could imagine her small, perfect breasts, tapered waist and the pert cheeks of her ass under her clothes. I can imagine what most people look like naked, and I’m seldom surprised when I see them without their clothes. She was at the height of her first beauty, a foam-capped wave rolling toward shore for miles. I looked around the room, wondering if there was something I could pocket, then dropped the idea as I watched her remove her shoes. She tucked her feet up under her behind.

I looked at my hand holding a wineglass. I noticed a spot of pink paint on a knuckle. The white cuff of my dress shirt peaked out from the sleeve of my tuxedo, and my gaze moved up to the shoulders of the jacket that concealed my body. The couch formed a peach background for the blackness of my form and the blueness of hers. The corners of her mouth curled up slightly. Her lipstick was still perfect, and I wondered if maybe she had some kind of new, expensive brand that stayed on no matter what. Maybe she’d had dinner after all. Maybe she was a beast. I was waiting to hear what she’d say next, and it didn’t take long before she said. “I like it.”

“It seems to be going around.” I was a little disappointed. I didn’t have sex with Lenny to be original, but it was dispiriting to think I might be part of a fad that would not only inspire support groups but infomercials and product lines. This was one of the pitfalls, I guessed, of everyone knowing everything. I wasn’t surprised that the rich were doing it. If you went back in time, there were all those ancient Egyptian royals and lots of other sisters and brothers doing each other in houses of this or that and making babies with weak chins and bad teeth. There was Byron and people in show biz. I’m not saying that Fred Astaire had Adele or Marie Osmond had Donny, but if Angelina Jolie isn’t making it with her hot, blond brother, what sort of role model is she?

“My brother makes me vomit,” she said.

“His voting for George W?”


“His defense of Microsoft?”


“His red socks?”

“You saw!” She put her face in her hands.

“Everyone did.”

She pulled a cigarette out of a small bag and lit it. “I noticed paint on your hand.”

“Look,” I said kindly, “liking something that makes you vomit is one of life’s pleasures, like eating oysters.”

She inhaled deeply, though took care to blow the smoke away from my face. “It was my idea to start it.”

“And he went for it.”

“Not at first.”

“He took convincing.”

“You sound like you know.” She spread out her arms and tapped one of my shoulder pads.

“I’m just imagining.”

“You do that a lot.”

“There’s time when I’m bending over to serve, or picking up glasses and carrying them to the kitchen, or collecting dirty linen and stuffing it into plastic bags, or walking the streets, or buying an orchid plant, or stretching a canvas, or doing push-ups on the floor.”

She danced her fingers a little further up my shoulder. She was flirting with me. Perhaps she’d brought me here to make a pass. Maybe the stuff about her brother was a curtain-raiser. “You must have a secret life.”

I took another sip of wine and felt it warm my skin. I turned to her. There was a wicked gleam in her eyes, and the yellow flecks were sparkling. She didn’t seem young or inexperienced now. I felt a bit like a lamb, and I wondered if we were being watched. “This is my secret life.”

“Working for Manny Fleckenstein or being with me?”

I moved away from her, and her hand fell back to her side. I didn’t call attention to the fact that being with her and working for Manny Fleckenstein amounted to the same thing. “Are there cameras in here?”

“I assume there are cameras everywhere. I assume someone is watching my life on the Internet at all times. Wouldn’t you like to?”

“In theory, but there aren’t enough hours. It’s either watch your life or live mine.”

“But you like spying. You like being here, where you would normally not be able to go.”

“Everyone likes going past the velvet rope.” I might have asked what her velvet rope was, but I suspected it was me, and I was beginning to grow tired of whatever game we were playing. I really wasn’t that interested in people’s secret lives, because when you got down to it, they were pretty much alike. Unless you lived under a regime where you could be persecuted for your secrets, something was always being protected that wasn’t worth the energy to hide. I looked at her shoes sitting neatly on the floor. They were made of thin straps of leather the same color as her dress. Her feet looked the same size as mine. I saw myself wearing them, saw Lenny laughing as I opened the door. We didn’t have sex that often any more. We thought it was keeping us from being with other people. At twenty-six and twenty-eight respectively, we’d decided that sibling sex was a kind of agoraphobia and that it was time for us to leave home. Still, I wondered if I’d ever meet another lover who would enjoy my missing tail as much as my brother.

I was wondering what Manny and the crew were doing, wondering if they were listening in on this conversation and thinking that if they were it was okay. Perhaps sensing my restlessness she leaned toward me again. “There’s more.”

“Why do you want to tell me?”

“Because you’re like me. We’re the same size.”

“You know nothing about my life.”

“You’re a painter. Manny told me. I organized this dinner. The people here tonight are art collectors. Their money may come from mommy and daddy, though that’s not always the case. They buy paintings.”

She wasn’t saying she could help me, but even if she had been, I’d heard pitches like this many times at such parties. People who had no intention of helping were always suggesting they could. I didn’t expect help. “What do you want to tell me?” I was a little curious, if sleeping with her brother was only the teaser.

“Something not even people on the Internet know. Not even my friends.”

“And you’re confiding in me?”


“It’s a bad idea. As soon as I’m entrusted with some wad of information, I want to spit it out.”

“I know that.”

I got the feeling she knew everything about me, though how she uncovered things and why she cared remained a mystery. It felt creepy. It was one thing to blab your secrets at your own discretion, another to have them unearthed without your knowledge or permission. Maybe secret cameras were now posted everywhere. Maybe the charges I made on the Internet for art supplies and other things opened every can of worms in my wriggling existence to the eyes of anyone who cared to look. Or maybe the spectacle was only for people who could pay. I wondered if I had a secret life unknown to me, like maybe I had multiple personality disorder, or amnesia, or another identity in a parallel universe. The chances were slight, but the night was proving full of surprises.

She slinked closer to me, stabbing out her cigarette. I could smell her perfume. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, her complexion perfect, the pores shut tight with the softest downy hairs growing over them. She put her hand on my knee, and her touch seemed to penetrate my clothes. Were we related? Was she my long lost sister? Were she and Red Socks not really connected by genes? Were Lenny and I? I assumed we were, but people went on TV all the time and told stories that showed their assumptions were false. My head was spinning, and I was tired of thinking about secrets of any kind. It wasn’t that I thought things were better left unknown but sometimes there was too much to know and capturing it all wasn’t only impossible but not all that important.

“I’m not a girl,” she said.

“Wow, you’re a great trannie!” I was truly impressed, though a little disappointed we weren’t related after all and I’d have no easy access to her cash.

“I’m not exactly a trannie. My brother Ozzie and I are twins, fraternal twins, both boys, except something happened to my cock during the circumcision, and it was decided I should become a girl. You know how these things go.”

I did. I watched TV, read newspapers, visited websites. “I still don’t understand why you chose to tell me.”

She took my hand with the paint on it and held it in both of hers as if it were a small scared animal she’d trapped. “I thought you’d understand about missing parts.”

“You mean my tail?”

She nodded. I didn’t ask how she knew. What was the point? “What’s your name?” I asked.


I didn’t want another moment of intimacy based on nothing. Nothing tied us to each other. Nothing I cared about. “Lola,” I said, “everyone has a sense of something missing.” I withdrew my hand and met her crazy eyes. “Are you in pain about having a Y chromosome and looking like the most beautiful woman in the world?”

She nodded, though I could feel her warming to the complement. “I want my cock.”

“Imagine it.”

“Do you imagine your tail?”

“All the time.”

She laughed. Her teeth were dazzling white and perfect. She was becoming more beautiful every second, or maybe my sense of the mixture that made her was lending her a special light.

“What does it look like?”

“Like a wolf’s, furry and plumy.”

She looked at me skeptically. “It wouldn’t really look like that, you know. It would have been more like a stunted rat’s tail.”

I shuddered, but she was probably right. It was better to have a wolf’s tail in my head than a rat’s tail twitching from my behind. “How do you imagine your cock?”

“I see it every time I have sex with Ozzie. It’s beautiful, his loveliest feature, thick and rosy, not like the complexion of his skin. It’s as if everything that is charming and gallant about him has gone into this organ. At least he has one good part. I can’t get enough of it.”

Something had changed in her, as if a burden had been lifted and she didn’t need to be seductive or mysterious any more, as if we really were sisters, easy and unforced. She stretched out her legs and ran her fingers through her hair. I slumped down beside her, and our hips touched without a sizzle. Perhaps there was something to be said about letting go of secrets, and if my missing tail had been the magnet to draw her out, then it had substance.

She bent over and picked up her shoes by the straps. They swung in the air, and I followed them like a hypnotist’s pendulum. “Here,” she said, “I saw you eyeing them. They kill my arches. I think you’re better built to wear them.”

I took them from her hands, feeling a bolt of pleasure ride down my spine and vibrate for what felt like minutes — a preternaturally long orgasm — through my phantom tail.

Laurie Stone is author of the novel Starting With Serge, the memoir collection Close to the Bone and Laughing in the Dark, a collection of her writing on comic performance. A longtime writer for The Village Voice and The Nation, she has been critic-at-large on Fresh Air, has received grants from The New York Foundation for the Arts and MacDowell Colony, and in 1996 won the Nona Balakian Prize in Excellence in Criticism from the National Book Critics Circle.
  For more Laurie Stone, read:
Two on One: Survivor
Two on One: Dirty Pictures
Two on One: “Picturing the Modern Amazon”
Eat and Be Eaten

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