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The Iconoclast Says Goodbye, a short story

illustration the iconoclast says goodbye

The Iconoclast Says Goodbye, a short story

Dear Zarel:

It was 1977.  You’d majored in filmmaking at the same expensive, private school Stephen Spielberg went to.  You were 25, and stalled.  For entertainment, you drew a cartoon strip, Fred and Edna — they were strange four-eyed aliens, and of course all the humor was sexual.  You had another idea for a cartoon — pieces of meat talking to each other, perched on barstools.  We met at Mr. Pip’s discotheque.  I was 5’ 7” and weighed 130 pounds but thought I was fat.  Everybody was skinny then.

All that cocaine; cutting edge.  You asked me to dance, I forget whether you asked my friend first or me.  I would have been slightly offended.  I knocked your glasses off on the dance floor.  It charmed you somehow.  We were drinking, probably vodka gimlets, that was my idea.  We went off in your car, you parked at the beach.  You got my number and said you’d like it if you could be my first lover.  You cooked dinner for me at your parent’s — they were away for the weekend.  I was impressed with your cooking, the French antiques and the view of the bay.

We took a sauna in your parent’s bath.  We went upstairs; I was only slightly spooked by the huge oil painting of your mother in full jewelry regalia on the landing.  Out came your pack of Trojans; it was difficult, painful.  I can’t say I enjoyed it much the first time.  “It’s just… got… to open,” you kept saying.  My muscles were clamped tight as a vise.  You worked up such a sweat trying to impress me, later you revealed you’d slept with hundreds of women.  Over time, things improved for me in bed, but the closer you came to me emotionally, the faster I started to retreat.

I always dreamed and schemed for love then got strangely revolted when it appeared.  I thought you were too old because you were approaching thirty.  I felt typecast, imported from the sticks.  Your mother seethed, your father smiled benignly.  Every Sunday morning, you brought my mom the finest nova and bagels — but my grandmother cast a dour eye on our trysts.

For fun, we drag-raced on I-95 — always a tie.  You said I liked to dominate relationships — to me it didn’t feel like domination, only self-expression.  I didn’t want to be owned.  You weren’t romantic enough, and never romantic at the right time.  It could have been worse, for my first affair.  If only you’d given me a nicer present our first Christmas together, maybe we wouldn’t have broken up.

I just didn’t like the sugar dispenser.  Then there was your plan for my prom — you were going to wear a T-shirt printed with a tuxedo.  I was 17 — I wanted to be taken seriously.  One night, lying on my mom’s couch we discussed marriage and children — you wanted to name our first Bozo — but the next morning I knew it was over.  My heart was sheathed.

I liquefied in your arms, then dribbled away. You tried for months, told me how wonderful I was, how beautiful I was, but I didn’t believe you.  You said you were too busy for friendship.  It had to be all or nothing.  After we broke up I saw men who reminded me of you everywhere, and every time my stomach lurched.  I waffled, waffled, waffled.  I bought a plane ticket to see you, then came an attack of conscience, or memory, or both.  You wanted to be my alpha & omega.  Nice dream, love  love love.

Goodbye,

your Iconoclast

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Filed under adolescence, apologia, dream, dreams, friendship, heart, human beings, identity, life, loss, love, maturity, men, mysterious, passion, personal responsibility, relationships, sex, short stories, spirit, transitions, woman, women

Sisterlove, a short story

illustration sisterlove

Sisterlove, a short story

            I was teaching my sister to drive that year.  We had bought a weird old ’66 Barracuda, silvery-mauve color, and we’d spent weekends compounding the surface, getting ready to give it a coat of wax that would make it really shine.  Vickie and I used the car to cruise the strip and troll for boys.  My sister loved the boys.  The boys loved my sister.

            She had long hair, golden brown, with blonde ends.  It turned green when she went swimming, then we’d cut the green parts off with nail scissors, her sitting on the toilet, me catching the hair in an ancient orange beach bucket.  We’d leave the hair on the compost pile for the birds to line their nests with.

            Vickie had gone crazy about this guy Michel she’d met over spring break, and all she could talk about was getting up to Canada to visit him.  It might as well have been China.  She was still a virgin, but crazy over the idea of sex.  I pretended I didn’t care about boys in the slightest, but I did, maybe more than she did.  I’d never had a real boyfriend, just a few short flings.  Vickie was always falling in love, which made me sick to my stomach.

            I was two years older.  I was named Edna for my great-grandmother, but everyone called me Jessie, because for some reason that had been her nickname, too.  I always wondered how they got Jessie out of Edna, but I was glad they had.  Mom got really crabby whenever I asked her about the family history, she never showed old pictures, though we knew where they were, stuffed on the highest shelf of her closet, over the old college dresses she’d kept. 

            My mother was completely hippied out — she didn’t shave her legs or under her arms, and the compost pile was her altar.  She didn’t pay much attention to us unless we were sick and then she was the most wonderful nurse in the world — even though she was a strict vegetarian she’d make us chicken broth with little stars, mostly stars so that it was more of a chicken pudding, a glob of butter oozing on the top.  She’d spoon it into our open mouths like a mother bird.

            Vickie and I liked to sneak into Mom’s room while she was at work, and dress up in her old clothes and look at her old pictures.  She’d been married before she married our dad, straight out of college, and so we always tried to guess who he was from the pictures.  Our favorite was the one of her going into a dance, frothy skirt and strapless bodice, her sharp collarbones like exclamation points underneath her satiny, satiny skin.  She wouldn’t say, but we figured she’d had a pretty wild career, before we were born.

            Neither of us were as pretty as Mom, though.  We’d play all day with her makeup, trying and trying to get her look.  It was no good — Vickie had her chin, I had her eyebrows, but there was too much of our dad in both of us, and this was unfortunate, because he was homely.  Since Mom was drop-dead gorgeous, we came out average-looking. 

            Not that we didn’t get plenty of attention in our own way.  We’d get in the Barracuda and drive up and down the beach road, honking at cute boys.  Once in a while they’d motion us over, and we’d park, take our sandals off and hop across the burning sand to find out where they were from.  Most were from Boston, a few from New York.  We liked the Canadians best, they loved the sun so much they’d fry themselves, joyous to turn red and peel — they thought it looked so healthy.  Sunscreen hadn’t been invented, we mixed iodine with baby oil and slathered it on.

            Vickie and I had good skin, the kind that never burned, so we looked like Indians, and I’m not talking the American kind but the Hindus.  Our brown legs shone — they were our best feature by far, all the boys said so.  We learned to kiss from those sunburned Canucks.  The ones from French Canada were the best, but they’d never write to you once they left.  The other Canadian boys were all earnest and geeky and would write us millions of letters, which eventually we stopped even opening.  Instead, we’d take them to the beach, put them in empty juice bottles, then cap them and throw them in the surf.

            So, Vickie went more than a little nuts this time, started calling Michel in Montreal every night after Mom was asleep, and when the phone bill came she was put on restriction for a month.  Mom yanked our bedroom phone out of the wall.  I laughed, but Vickie cried, she was really serious about him.  “Love isn’t real,” I told her.  “Do you think this guy would ever, ever cry over you?”

            “Michel loves me,” she said.  “But now he’ll think I don’t love him and he’ll go back to his girlfriend.”

            What had caught her eye first about Michel were the brilliant red scars on his back, streaky and painful-looking.  We thought he’d been wounded playing hockey or something.  His English was so bad, at first we thought he was kidding when we pointed to his back and asked what happened.

            “My girlfriend,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and smiling.  We were so dense, we didn’t know what he was talking about for days, until Vickie came across this ratty copy of the Joy of Sex while she was babysitting for our best client, a lady who danced Polynesian-style at a big tourist restaurant downtown.

            “Scratches are given during the throes of passion,” she whispered over the phone.

            “Bring the book home,” I said.  Later that night, we snuck out of the bedroom window and went driving.  I let her drive and held the book on my lap, reading it to her while we went up and down A-1-A, bending down and swigging our beer at the stoplights.

            “His girlfriend scratched hell out of his back, and he let her do it,” I said.  “He seemed happy about it, even.”

            “He was,” she said.  “Let’s drive to Canada.”  She put her foot down hard on the gas and passed a couple of cars.

            “No way,” I said.  “We’d get caught before we got out of Florida.”

            “I’m going,” she said.  “I want to see him again.  You can come if you want to.”

            “This is insane,” I said.  “You don’t even have your license.”

            “There’s only one first time,” she said.  “I want mine to be with Michel.”

            “You’ve been loony over a dozen boys this past year,” I said.  “How is this different?  What makes you think this’ll last more than a week?”

            “So what if it doesn’t?” she said, and the look in her eyes was fierce.  “You’re missing the point.”

            “The point is, we’ll be in jail,” I said.

            “Where do you want me to let you out?” she said.  She swerved over to the side of the road and slowed way down.  Her hair rippled over her face like a million tiny whips.  I knew I couldn’t let her go alone.

            “God damn you,” I said, and she threw her head back and laughed.

            “Hijacked by your baby sister,” she said.

            “Hijacked by a victim of raging hormones,” I said.

            “Damn right,” she said.  “And deep down, you’re not any different.”

            “Oh, yes I am,” I said.  “I’d never drive to fucking Canada to lose my virginity.”

            “I feel sorry for you, then,” she said.

            “Shut up and drive,” I said.  “The farther we get tonight, the better.”

            “Mom is going to be so pissed,” she said.

            I felt my stomach twirling with fear and excitement.  “I would say Mom is the least of your problems.”

 

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Filed under boys, daughters, girls, health, humor, love, mothers, mysterious, science, sex, short stories, sisters

easy as pie, a short story

illustration easy as pie
Easy as Pie

Jonathan is still a virgin at twenty-eight — or so he says. From the look of his underwear, I’m tempted to believe him. His blinding white jockey shorts are far too big, hiked up to his ribcage like an old man. We’ve been friends for a long time. I’m between relationships at the moment, and on impulse, really, I’ve gotten him stripped down this far, but now he’s balking. His underwear acts as a kind of psychological barrier, I guess. We’re on my couch having an intense heart-to-heart.

Part of the problem is this woman he’s in love with. Even though she’s been living as a lesbian for two years, he keeps hoping she’ll come to her senses and marry him. It’s true, they still go to Temple together every once in a while; he even cooked her a seder last year. He and I talk about religion all the time; I’m a curious Episcopalian and I ask him everything about Judaism. I have this wild notion of converting someday — but he says it’s difficult, and I believe him.

I’m interested in having sex tonight, though I’m not going to push him too hard. With hindsight, my own virginity was surrendered far too casually. My first lover was a lot older than I was, a lot more confident, and I just let him do it because he was so persistent. It’s not that I don’t recognize the attraction, the magnetic purity of someone like Jonathan. No worries about disease, and he’ll most likely fall in love with me. A flattering situation, sure, but also a burden — one I’m not sure I want to take on. Jonathan’s an appealing but complicated case.

“It’s not that I don’t find you attractive,” he says, reaching out to take my warm hand in his clammy one. The flickering candlelight throws his cheekbones into sharp relief, hoods his eyes and makes him look exotic, mysterious. I want to see him in a yarmulke and prayer shawl, those little leather boxes strapped to his head and arm. “You’re very attractive,” he adds.

I move my hand up and down his bare thigh, feeling the few downy hairs there rustle back and forth over his smooth skin. He’s a lawyer for an environmental-protection group, and he runs eight miles every other day. Compared to him, I feel like a moral slug: a vegetarian since high school, he’s never even driven an automobile. “So are you,” I say. I play with the little opening in his shorts with one finger, teasing him like I would my cat.

He closes his eyes, leans his head back against the wall and draws his breath in. “Please don’t,” he says, his voice a little strained, his Adam’s apple bobbing. I take my hand away like something bit it.

“I just can’t do this,” he says, opening his eyes wide and staring at me. “Not tonight. Not this way.”

“Okay,” I say, getting up off the couch. Why did he think I was taking his pants off? Intellectual curiosity? Science experiment? Bending, I pick up his shirt and jeans and shoes. “Here’s your clothes. There’s the door.”

He sits there, his face frozen in a squint-eyed wince that makes him look like a chastened dog. He reaches up to touch his forehead with a forefinger. “I’ll probably regret this in the morning,” he says.

“You probably will,” I say, tilting my head and smiling.

***

Over time, according to his rules, I discover Jonathan isn’t only virginal, but also an old-fashioned romantic. He doesn’t like to think of himself that way, however. A reformed atheist, he talks about “significance.” “I want everything to be perfect between us,” he says to me. We’re lying in bed together at this fancy bed-and-breakfast he’s brought me to for the weekend.

“Perfect?” I ask. “Perfect?” My stomach is so taut with lust you could bounce a five-pound slab of beef off it. “What does that mean to you?” He’s been lifting weights every day for the past few months, and from what I can feel of him tonight through his thin knit shirt, he’s big and carved-looking and hairless like a god.

“A serious commitment,” he says. He turns to look at me in the moonlight. His eyes glisten, and he strokes my hair. “That’s what I’m looking for, after the fiasco with Melissa.”

Melissa’s the lesbian he’s finally given up on. I don’t say anything at first. It all used to be so easy, so effortless. Everybody’s clothes came off as easy as pie. “God,” I say, the word arcing out of my throat like a wet watermelon seed. I lie there feeling my heart pound. He reaches over, tracing the lines of my eyebrows with one finger. “Give me strength,” I sigh.

Jonathan gets up on his elbow, his brilliant pectorals bulging, the mattress squeaking under him like a baby bird. “And what is so wrong with wanting to build a relationship first?” he asks.
“Jesus, you sound just like my mother,” I say.

***

After all this, I’m astonished when, a few weeks later, after dinner out and a cryptic Brazilian movie, he announces he’s ready for us to “move forward.” He leans down to kiss me, and I can tell he’s nervous. I’ve decided his full, red mouth is his best feature — on him it’s almost larger than life, contrasted with the rest of his austere person. He tells me his father’s mother was Native American, though when I ask him what tribe she belonged to he can’t say — but he does give me a real flint arrowhead to commemorate the evening. “I found this in a field out back of my parent’s house a long time ago,” he says. It’s small and gray and minutely chiseled, still warm from his hand.

“It’s beautiful,” I say.

We walk back to my apartment holding hands, hearing an odd blend of reggae and big-band music through the open windows of the neighborhood. In my bedroom, he turns quieter and quieter, seriouser and seriouser, as each piece of clothing comes off. As expected, I find him enthusiastic but unschooled. His hands are like roving mice, ticklish and prickly all at once. “Help me through this,” he says at one point, gazing up over my head at the O’Keefe poster in the far corner. Afterward, he doesn’t talk at all, just lies there with his arms crossed behind his neck. “I love you,” he says, groping for his glasses on the bed beside the table.

It’s like he punched me in the stomach with something soft. I turn over and put my face into the nape of his neck; he smells bland and sweet like oyster crackers. I don’t like it when men have a strong smell, but I don’t like it when they don’t, either. Hard to please. Or, maybe I want somebody who smells like me. Back in college, I developed a theory that the reason I never had a problem getting boys to like me was I emitted some sort of secret sex pheromone, more than other girls. It wasn’t anything about my personality that attracted men, but the way I smelled to their unconscious nose.

A more plausible explanation is that I was more unprincipled than most girls: I never broke up with a guy until I had a replacement waiting in the wings. I’d keep the old one around as a decoy until that happened, even if I was irritated beyond belief, even if his touch made my flesh crawl. Because, when you don’t have a boyfriend, the other guys think there must be a good reason, and stay away. If, instead, they believe they’re stealing you away from someone, they have an incentive.

But, right now, at least with Jonathan, I’m in a stage of trying to reform, change my ways. So, instead of saying “I love you, too,” which I know I could utter in a convincing enough voice, I hug him and sort of shiver all over, as if I’m so overcome with feeling it’s made me shy.

***

In due course, Jonathan brings over his toothbrush, clean shirts and underwear, and his second-best running shoes. He even arranges for Sunday newspaper home delivery, something I’ve always meant to get around to; however, as the weeks pass, I come to realize my period is overdue. I try to shrug it off at first, but after another week end up saucer-eyed and sweaty, marking off the days on my calendar over and over — consulting the lot numbers and expiration dates on the box of condoms and canister of foam we’ve used, as if they’re runes.

One night, soon after I start to worry, we go to this cowboy bar. I have authentic boots, a string tie, a silver belt buckle, everything but a neon sign saying “POSSIBLY PREGNANT.” I don’t say a word about my period, but all night he keeps staring at me as though he almost knows what’s up. I would like to be able to tell him, but I have a feeling he’s not going to make any of this easier. He’s not that kind.

He dances well, for a lawyer. “Why’d you go to law school, anyway?” I ask him, yelling over the music.

“I couldn’t face medical school!” he shouts, laughing, as we squeeze our way off the dance floor.

“I wanted to go to medical school,” I say.

“What kept you from going?” he asks.

“Math, I guess. I had this trigonometry teacher in high school who smirked every time I asked a question.”

“For me it was dissecting a cat,” he says, his face solemn. “I figured if I couldn’t handle that, there was no way I’d be able to do it with people.”

“Yeah, blood,” I say, with enthusiasm. “I tried to pierce my friend’s ears once. We used ice cubes. There was this teeny little drop of blood that came out when I put the needle through. One drop about the size of this mole,” I say, pointing to my own arm. He peers down. “I was instantly nauseated. But more terrible than the blood was the way her earlobe — my friend has really fat earlobes — the way her earlobe sizzled under the ice. Like it was meat frying or something. I didn’t think I’d be able to do the second one, but I had to — I couldn’t leave her with only one ear pierced.”

He nods, that awful, fake kind of nod people give you when you know they don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. “What an awful experience that must have been,” he says.

***

Early the following week, over at the clinic, I pee into a tiny paper cup with Bugs Bunny on it, and when the lab tech comes back into the room, she doesn’t say a word — she doesn’t have to, it’s there in her eyes, the set of her jaw. “Our first opening is next Wednesday,” she tells me, penciling something on a pink chart.

It’s probably racism or something, but on the scheduled Wednesday, as I lie there on the table trying not to shake, I’m relieved to see that the doctor who’s going to perform the abortion is black. As if somehow that makes it all okay — as if he’s a surrogate for guilt, for suffering. He seems nice, quiet and bookish, with big horn-rimmed glasses and a neat mustache. His voice is soft, vaguely Southern. I close my eyes and try to relax, but it’s impossible.

***

“Was it mine?” Jonathan asks a few days later, after searching my kitchen junk drawer for the 75-mile-radius map he loaned me, and finding instead the bright yellow booklet of follow-up instructions they gave out in the clinic’s recovery room.

I don’t even bother to ask why he thinks it might not have been his. “No,” I lie, and he stands there for several minutes, towering over me in the tiny kitchen, stiff and straight through his torso, his head and neck bobbing forward, nodding in place like a tired metronome.

***

“I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” Jonathan says later, sounding rehearsed, over the phone. I don’t like to do my dirty work in person, either, so I can’t complain about his choice of medium.

“Even if it had been mine, I wouldn’t have asked you to get married or anything,” he says. “I think you’re a very confused person.”

“Oh, really,” I say, trying to keep my voice neutral.

“You’re not in love with me, anyway, and you know it,” he adds. “You never were.”

“Get off your high horse,” I say, laughing. “You’re not in love with me, either.” I’m above reminding him of what he said on our first night together — it’s gone beyond such petty one-for-one recrimination to a whole new level, a swirling gray reach that makes me feel more tired than angry.

“No, but we should have been in love,” he says. “That’s my point. If the person I’m sleeping with gets pregnant, I want to be able to consider all the options, including marriage.” He sniffles into the phone, and I’m shocked to realize he’s been crying. “Obviously, I’ve never been faced with this before, but this whole situation made me stop and think. It’s too dangerous.” He pauses, and I can hear him breathing raggedly. “I made a mistake,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

For a minute all I want to do is hang up on him, smash the phone down like I’m smashing his face. It’s as if a more flippant attitude on his part would be easier for me to deal with, because — to a certain degree — I expected that.

“The person you’re sleeping with? People don’t get pregnant,” I say. “Women do.” He clears his throat, but says nothing, and then I know he’s only staying on the line out of politeness.

“Okay,” I say, after a few more moments of silence. “I agree. We shouldn’t see each other anymore.” I exhale, feeling each slow millimeter of my lungs’ deflation — the breathing not painful, yet, as it will be later, when I will have to use pillows to muffle the grief which will blow me to and fro, grief which I can no more harness or control than I could a demon, or a hurricane. I will be rattled, I will be shaken, I will be damaged.

“Goodbye, then,” he says.

“Goodbye,” I say, surprised by my voice’s new gentleness. Taking the phone away from my ear, I listen for the click and buzz and let it go, releasing the long, springy cord that I had stretched across the living room from the kitchen wall, the curved plastic form of the receiver skittering along the length of the coffee table like a live fish. And then I notice the strong afternoon light streaming in through the living room windows; how, despite its warmth, it makes the skin of my arms and hands look bleached, pale and waxy — almost like I’m already gone from this place.

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