The Way of All Flesh, a short story
Professor Rathlin was tall and skinny, with a beard and wild red hair. He wore sandals without socks, even in winter. During lectures, I stared at his feet, the toes in particular, the way the nails were so broad and smooth. But all that toe-worshiping was moot, because rumor was he had a girlfriend. Plus, I had Jacob. Despite, or maybe because of all that, I went regularly to Rathlin’s office hours. His office was even better than his toes, insulated with books, one whole wall covered with photographs of his family.
“Look at this one,” he said one day, pointing to a group black-and-white, maybe the third grade. From the clothes, I could tell he was at least as old as my mother, if not older. “You think you can pick me out?” he asked. He leaned back in his swivel chair, browsing through his chin whiskers. I looked hard, mentally shaving off facial hair, pulling his hairline forward, and erasing weather lines. Scanning the photo, row by row, I started to sweat.
I was almost ready to go back to the beginning, which was a disaster in a job like this — they all start to look alike. Then, I saw one boy’s eyes, his mouth, his forehead, a cowlick. I pressed my finger to the glass and said, “Here.”
He squinted to see which face I’d pointed to. He rolled his chair close, the chair-arm touching my leg just above the knee. “Right,” he said, as his chair pushed me, almost knocking me off-balance. “Sorry,” he said, swiveling back. “How about this one?” he asked. He pointed to a bigger photo, three little boys who looked like almost like triplets. They were dressed the same — plaid shorts with suspenders, white starched round-collar blouses, knee socks with saddle shoes. The tallest was missing his two front teeth and the middle one held the smallest — chubby in the face from babyhood — hugged on his lap. “Which one is me?”
“Oh, my God,” I said. I tried to camouflage, make out like I was amused. I knew I’d get an “A” in his class, this spotlight tutorial was about something else. He put his smile away and tried to look neutral. His eyes held anthropological glee.
I saw him in the toddler, the one with the dimpled knees, the brightest eyes. “The baby,” I said.
He laughed, throwing his head back for a moment. “Not many get that one,” he said, nodding his head. “Sit down,” he said, motioning to a chair behind boxes crammed with what looked like field diaries. I sat, and not knowing where to put my backpack, plunked it into my lap, clutching it like an old lady with a purse. Clutching it like my mother would have.
“Would you have breakfast with me next week?” he said, opening his desk drawer and fumbling inside it. He pulled out a ragged calendar.
“Sure,” I said.
“White people like to get the body in the ground within two or three days,” said Mr. Clements, our guest lecturer. “In black families, at least a week goes by before the burial. Black funerals draw more relatives — folks take longer coming by bus and so forth, so you allow the extra time.”
I thought of my first funeral, my great-grandfather, when I was six. Mom bought me a new navy-blue coat and hat for church, but as I was getting in the shiny black car at the funeral home, she decided I shouldn’t go to the church. Instead, I sat with the undertaker’s shy daughter in the waiting room, tapping my patent-leather heels.
The week after midterms, Jacob, Margot and I went out for a beer and some reggae. We sat up front, getting our sternums massaged by the bass. Margot and I drank too much beer and smoked too many cigarettes. She chuckled a lot, high up in her throat, and seemed half in the bag already, but she was tricky that way — in reality, just like my mother, she had a stable middle range of drunkenness that she could stay in for what seemed like forever. Jacob had nursed a warm Perrier for a couple of hours.
Margot leaned over and whispered in my ear. “He is cute, isn’t he?”
I laughed, leaning over and bumping shoulders with her as I spoke, a gesture I thought I’d gotten rid of in the seventh grade. “Isn’t he!” I said. I admired Margot — her well-placed laughter, her cynical, observant eye. When I saw her looking at Jacob in a way I’d seen before, I decided to let her have him.
I’ve never been the jealous, clinging type; I’ve always gotten out at the first hint of trouble. What kind of fool wants to be with someone who doesn’t want them? No, I view romance and love as Fated, unattainable unless bestowed on us by chemicals. There’s nothing gradual about that gut-wrenching attraction — it either springs up full blown or never exists at all. My mom and I proved this a million times over. I knew there was a certain risk. If it turned out against me — if she wanted him, if he wanted her — I’d have to be able to swallow that bitter pill and live.
“Would you mind if I asked him to dance?” she said. Asking permission, as if he were my property — not the way Margot usually acted. Jacob had been a virgin when we met. Margot knew, and the fact was tantalizing; even with the first sharp edge taken off, those boys can look so lovely.
“No, sure, go ahead.” As she leaned over to shout her invitation, her heavy breasts touched my arm.
I watched them on the dance floor. Jacob was long and lean — like a greyhound — dark hair just brushing his shoulders, and narrow, slanted brown eyes. Sometimes his eyes made him look dumb, sometimes a little fierce, but most of the time they made for a sort of refreshing blankness.
He danced with her, but he kept looking back at my table. I smoked and sucked on my bottle of beer, the carbonation stinging my upper lip.
I looked up and saw Jacob motioning, beckoning me to come out on the floor. He was sweating, there were dark spots scattered on his shirt and circles under his arms. When I got there, after wading through the hot bumping bodies, the three of us danced in a sort of conga line. For a couple of minutes I had this bizarre fantasy that somehow we’d all end up naked and in bed together.
Jacob snapped his fingers and swung his head, tossing his long hair, strands catching in his mouth like a girl’s. Margot had a funky Egyptian hand move she seemed stuck on. I concentrated on the looseness and fragility of my shoulders, letting my arms bounce wildly. We laughed, but the music was so loud we couldn’t hear the sound. We watched each other’s mouths gulp, like goldfish.
Jacob leaned close enough to speak. His hand grasped my hip bone. “Margot’s drunk,” he said.
“No, she’s not,” I said, closing my eyes, nodding my head with the music, brushing his ear as I spoke and picking up some of his sweat. “She’s just pretending. She can drink us all under the table.”
Margot screamed, opening her mouth wide, then gasped and laughed, fanning herself. I nodded and pinched her elbow — her arm plump, soft-looking, but hard with muscle underneath — and she minced off the dance floor.
“She felt me up while we were dancing,” Jacob said. “Put her hand on my ass.” His face looked glazed and hurt. I looked over at the band and kept moving and wondered which buttock she had touched and whether he still felt the warmth of her hand, glowing under his jeans.
“She just likes you,” I said. “The way I like you. The way everybody likes you.” I held my arms up and tilted my head back until I was dizzy, in the process almost falling into some other people. Jacob caught me before I fell into the tangle of mike stands and wires at the middle of the band’s stage. I felt my shoulder blade compress under his thumb.
“I thought you loved me,” he said, and I could smell his breath, sour just like his sweat. I wanted to shake him, make his head rattle. “Are you telling me you want me to fuck her?” he asked. A cold, hard, bitchiness drew down over my psyche in an instant, like a reptile’s third eyelid.
“Let go,” I said, shrugging my shoulder out of his hand, away from him — like when Mom would try to hold me down on the bed in one of her drunken vapors.
Jacob kept on dancing, expressionless, his eyes even more blank than usual. If I had been seeing him for the very first time, I might have thought he was insane. He touched my neck with his finger, tracing the angle of my chin.
As I walked away, I turned back to look. His eyes were closed; his face was smooth except for the silly little unshaved jazz bow under his lower lip, which until a couple of minutes ago I had liked. His body was turning and bobbing with the music, but his hands were drawn up into fists and his arms were down stiff at his sides.
“I’ve got to get home — my feet are killing me. Would you mind giving him a ride?” I stared down at Margot, sitting at our table, not meaning to but seeing anyway the cleavage where her full breasts pressed together. For a minute, she looked ridiculous, puffed up with air like some inflatable doll. I wondered what it would feel like to lay my head on that kind of cushion. I looked back at Jacob, dancing in front of the speakers.
“Sure, no problem,” Margot said.
“Talk to you later,” I said, and I left. I wasn’t mad at either of them, not really.
“This is a skull I was asked to identify for a murder trial last year,” said the medical examiner. He looked mild and well-groomed. Lying in a clump of tall grass, the skull was turned away from the camera, its curves a rusty brown except for some scattered patches of pale hair. “This was how it was found.” The slide projector whirred. “Here’s a better view,” he said, and the picture showed the skull head-on, the skull looking paler and the carved teeth glowing white against a formal background of black felt.
I thought of my second funeral, the one where I got to see a body — I was trotted right up to the shabby green kneeler in front of the casket. Great-Aunt Alice’s hair had been given a fresh apricot rinse, the curls prim and dull against the white satin pillow. The flesh of her crossed arms was flattened, as if she’d been pressed in a book. I feared her eyes and lips would somehow fly open and regard me with a blind and terrifying insolence. My remaining great-aunts stood in a cluster around me, weeping, kissing her, the dangling chains of their rosaries sliding, mussing her makeup, her lipstick, her hair.
“Give her a kiss goodbye.” I bent, lips pursed, brushing the well-powdered cheek that felt as cold and hard as my wooden desk at school. A sharp medicinal smell mixed with perfume and hairspray made me sneeze. I creased my forehead to mimic sorrow, all the while barely managing to contain the giddy, shameful laughter bubbling up inside me like silver air through black water.
“I think you should do this professor,” Margot said, when I told her about my date with Rathlin. Jacob and I had made up — sort of. He insisted Margot wasn’t his type, shaking his head and laughing — unkind laughter, I felt, not wanting to join him in his gaiety because it felt disloyal to her — at the same time wondering why on earth I held my laughter back. Nothing had happened between the two of them, Jacob added, and in that I believed him, because the one thing I felt certain of was he could not tell a lie.
After Margot and I hung up, after I’d sipped almost an entire bottle of wine, I sat at the kitchen table with one last glass and a cigarette, writing in my journal. “I think he likes me,” I wrote, meaning Rathlin, alcohol having made my loopy script even bigger than usual. After twelve more pages elaborating on that general theme, I don’t remember how I got from the table to my bed.
“This, of course, is my favorite holiday,” Rathlin said, grinning. He’d taken the video last summer in Mexico, documenting a rural celebration of “el Dia de los Muertos” — the Day of the Dead. Spindly-legged children cavorted in front of the camera, dancing brown and barefoot, wearing cartoonish papier-mâché skull masks and shaking small tin skeletons hanging from long sticks. The painted tin strips rattled against each other like wind chimes. It all seemed less gruesome than absurd.
After Aunt Alice, funerals got easier. My Uncle Frank looked better than anyone — or maybe it’s just easier to do a good job on a man. His hair wasn’t stiff or sprayed at all, just brushed back off his forehead. Even his glasses sat in the right position. I could see my reflection in the lenses as I leaned over the casket to rearrange the lay of his necktie.
“You’re not ready?” Rathlin asked, arriving almost an hour early for our breakfast date. Stiff and hung over, I hadn’t dressed or showered. I felt naked, though I was bundled inside sweatpants, a nightgown and a flannel robe. In the shower, I thought about what I’d say to him over breakfast. The only other professor I’d ever gotten this friendly with had been a Vietnam veteran, still a little strung out by that experience, which I found completely understandable. He’d taken me home to meet his mother. He said that when he looked at me, he saw “healthy children.” Feeling more panicked than flattered — I was eighteen to his thirty-five — and wanting to defuse the situation somehow, I said, “What is that, something like the Grateful Dead?”
After pulling my clothes on over damp skin, I went to tell him I was ready. I stuck my head out of the bathroom to see Rathlin searching through my dresser drawers. My eyes got big. “What are you doing?”
“Field observation,” he said, his lips drawn back and his teeth blazing white at me through the darkness of his beard. I saw he was in the drawer where I kept my vibrator.
I marched over and pushed the drawer shut. Then I propelled him out of my bedroom — laughing through my clenched teeth to keep the action on the level of buffoonery, pretending I had just caught him being naughty. His steps were tiny; he twisted his head around to catch my expression. I kept my face neutral, using the fake laugh as an excuse to look everywhere but his eyes.
I mumbled my order to the waitress and sat silent. It ruined the sight of him, being his measured subject. I knew our studies together would never be the same.
“The traditional color of mourning in Japan is white,” said the tall woman, an old graduate-school colleague of Rathlin’s visiting from Osaka University. “Whereas the normal color of celebration is black.” For the natural sterility of white and the corresponding fertility of black, she explained. I stared at Rathlin, chin on my hand, while she spoke, watching as faint color rose along the sides of his neck and he fiddled with his moustache. She drew a plain white kimono from her bag, holding it spread out against her body, an abstract design woven into the material itself, like a tapestry.
I had worn the traditional American black dress at my mother’s funeral. Up until then, everyone in my family — including her — had slopped around to those things wearing pastels, whatever stuff they seemed to have in the closet, but by then I knew it wasn’t right.
Home from afternoon classes, I was startled to find my front door unlocked and standing ajar. Then I heard Jacob’s voice. “Don’t worry, it’s only me,” he called, as I hesitated outside the door, my heart racing.
“Jesus, you scared me,” I said, dropping my backpack inside the door, clutching my chest and breathing hard as I walked into the room.
Jacob sat on the living room floor, five empty bottles from a six-pack of beer balanced around him, the sixth one half-empty in his hand. He didn’t look up when I came into the room, just tilted the bottle back and took a swig. His eyes were bloodshot from the beer. My journal was lying open on the couch.
“So, what’s going on between you and Dr. Rathlin?” I felt a draining sensation from head to toe, gravity pulling all my organs down, squeezing them into my feet. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. For a second or two, I was afraid; that passed when I saw his eyes. They were petulant, sullen, and his mouth was puckered as if he might cry. I remembered a baby picture he had once shown me, and over all the sickness roiling inside me was a horrible urge to laugh.
“Dr. Rathlin?” I said. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” And of course it was true — there was nothing — that was the awful part. Even so, I sounded like some ridiculous soap-opera bad girl, and he the walking wounded Boy Scout.
“You’re not having an affair?” He stood up, struggling for his balance — I kept myself from reaching over to help him — and at last he got upright, teetering in the floor space between the empty beer bottles. It reminded me of the first night we’d slept together, the two of us standing next to my bed, the stark white of his jockey shorts gleaming in the darkness, like an angel’s wings against the deep brown of his skin — “Help me through this,” he had said, teetering just like he was now, clinging to me as if I were a pier protecting him from some onrushing wave, and I had been filled with respect for his proffered virginity.
“Honestly?” Through his veil of drunkenness I could see a sort of relief. “I thought….” His chest hitched, a gassy hiccup. “I thought you two must be having an affair.”
He looked out the window, frowning with concentration, as if hoping to catch sight of someone he recognized. “Why?” I asked him, knowing as I asked there could never be enough of an answer.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his body sagging, and when he sagged I saw a glimpse of what he would look like as an old man, when gravity would have gotten the best of even his kind of body. He cleared his throat. “At first, I thought you were writing about us, about me. So I turned one page back, to read the rest.”
“Why on earth would you assume I was writing about you?” I asked, honing the vowels into bright knives of sarcasm, sounding exactly like my mother, riled up into a taut, glossy witchiness. I knew from experience how much blood that voice could draw.
His mouth twitched. He squinted in the slanted afternoon sun that filled the room, and his eyes were like a lizard’s. I realized from the very beginning he had thought of himself as being the smarter one.
After a huge bowl of Margot’s guacamole, which we slathered over corn chips, sucking our fingers pale between each bite, we ended up calling out to order pizza, and thus never got to the half-gallon of ice cream in the freezer. We flirted with the pizza delivery guy when he got there — I don’t remember exactly how, but it consisted of exchanging pseudo-knowing glances between ourselves and then looking back at him and laughing with what we thought was a bell-like, sophisticated tone, the speed of our laughter almost, but not quite, as fast as a giggle, and in retrospect I’m sure the guy pegged us for a couple of crazy, shitfaced sluts and got the hell out of there as fast as he could — and the last thing I remember with any kind of clarity is that first bite of pizza, eaten sitting cross legged on the floor in front of Margot’s coffee table. I know, too, that we kept on talking for hours, but I can’t recall what we said because each couplet of our sentences was so complete, so profound, so far beyond our sensibilities when sober, that the pearls of wisdom thus harvested could not be held, but floated away into the atmosphere, nacreous gems of the moment.
Eventually the conversation hit a lull. I lay down on Margot’s couch, kicking off my shoes, intending only to rest my eyes, and was instantly unconscious.
Sometime in the night I awoke. The only source of light was a single fat candle we had lit earlier, stuck on the iron spike of a gaudy, wrought-iron coach lantern she had gotten at some garage sale. As best I could make out, given the gluey condition of my eyes, Margot was floating above the floorboards; though her legs moved beneath her, approximating walking, she resembled the silent bouncing ball in a T.V. sing-along.
She was naked. Her breasts were large and round, pale glowing globes tipped in a deeper pink. Below the straight line of her spine followed buttocks so round and firm that, when linked with her bosom by way of her waspy middle, made her torso look fantastic. No cellulite, no jiggles marred her floatation, and upon that dreamlike observation I closed my eyes again. By the time she went back through the room, I must have been asleep, since the next thing I knew was the delicate light of dawn.
“Margot,” I called, standing at the door of her bedroom, a heaped lump of quilt in the center of her bed the only sign of occupancy. “It’s around six-thirty. I’m going to go home.”
No sound, then a rustling of the heavy quilt, and Margot’s pale face and bare shoulder poked out. She’d slept in her mascara, too. “Wait. Let me give you some coffee first,” she said, her mouth so dry I could hear the faint puckering of her lips as they moved over her teeth.
I sat down next to her on the bed. Margot’s arm moved against mine, her skin hairless, soft, radiating a feverish heat. I stared at the rounded curve of her bent elbow, remembering how I’d last seen my own mother’s body, dressed in her nicest, newest dress. Her features had been painted and molded, her nose and chin just a little too waxy, a little too pointed, for perfection.
I leaned over Margot and felt her breasts crush my own into pneumatic oblivion. She flinched as I laid my head on her shoulder, pressing into her living warmth, but I couldn’t help myself. I knew she wasn’t the cuddly type. My mother hadn’t been, either — she was so soft on the surface and so hard underneath. She was dead, and I missed her, but I didn’t really want her to come back from wherever it was she’d gone. My time to follow her would come soon enough, and maybe by that time she would have forgiven me for ruining her life with my pathetic neediness. I knew I was taking liberties with Margot, but I kept holding onto her anyway, waiting for her to gather up the nerve to push me away.