Fiction from Web Del Sol


Robert Olen Butler

(from the collection of stories Tabloid Dreams (Henry Holt & Co. 1996); first appeared in Mississippi Review Web, September 1996)

          I work in publishing myself and so I’m not going to sue that newspaper you buy in the supermarkets. I simply don’t believe in it, as a matter of principle. But I categorically deny that what has happened to me since the accident is I’ve turned into a nymphomaniac. If I’m supposed to be a nympho, then I want to know why nobody ever called JFK or Wilt Chamberlain or Warren Beatty a satyr. Or all the millions of guys we all rightly assume have the same impulses as these public figures but less appeal or opportunity. Are all these guys satyrs? Isn’t that, in fact, exactly the way all their brains work, just like the way mine is supposed to now?
          But I’m not angry at men. I want to touch them. This is a revelation to me, sure. This has been coming on me since a New York gypsy cab and I had a blind date in a crosswalk on Sixth Avenue, sure. But this is a different thing from what the people at the Real World Weekly would have you believe.
          I saw their editor-in-chief on the Inside Scoop TV show last night. They were demanding that he sort out the real from the unreal. If a doomsday meteor were really hurtling toward the earth, they asked, why should the only astrophysicist who seems to know about it be unreachable at his supposed lab in Albania? And why would an Albanian be named Desi, anyway? At this the editor-in-chief turned to the camera and said that the reach of I Love Lucy has always been greatly underestimated. And then he smiled a little half smile, this editor-in-chief, and he is a man perhaps forty years old with a sharp white part in his soft, black-cat hair and the smile punched a dimple into his left cheek and my hand rose, wanting to place the tip of my forefinger into that indent. “It’s real,” he said, speaking of the meteor.
          I don’t believe it is. Who does? But if it were true, and the world were going to end tomorrow, the only thing I’d regret was not having understood earlier what I understand now. No. “Understand” is the wrong word. That suggests a rational thing. And it suggests that I know what’s going on. It’s neither. So why should the word offer itself up at all? Am I mad? No. Mad people talk to themselves. I’ve discovered a part of me that I can’t talk to. Or even about. But that part seems to know something.
          A few mornings ago, for example. I was in my office and I was reading a manuscript. A prominent woman Orientalist trying to write a popular history of strange Eastern customs in little two page chapters with zippy, freak-show headings and lurid illustrations. At that particular moment I was reading about footbinding, the imperial Chinese society tightly binding the feet of girls to create on their adult women crippled, distorted stumps. And these bound feet, bizarrely misshapen, nearly useless for walking, were made very secret; they were always kept beautifully covered up in silks and jewels. And here the Orientalist paused to point out the control that footbinding gave the men over their women, and I leaned back in my chair and looked out my window at the silver rise of the Chrysler Building and I thought about that for a moment. True enough, I supposed. Human relations always come down to a struggle for power. As a woman in a red tailored suit shooting for a vice-presidential title and three places a year on The New York Times bestseller list, I should know that.
          But as I turned back to the manuscript, a young man flashed past my half open office door. I found myself on my feet and at the door and peeking down the hallway after him. He was an editorial assistant named William, a junior editor’s gofer and slush-pile wader, a Harvard lit major starting at wages as low as a McDonald’s grill man so he can get into my office and do what I do. I followed him. I’d noticed him that morning at his desk. He was wearing a button-down dress shirt and a flashy silk tie with the Windsor knot pulled open, and when he finally gets into my chair and his name is on my door he’ll change to bow ties and suspenders and he’ll hire his lit majors from Smith. And even knowing all this, I didn’t feel for a second that what was happening as I followed him was about power.
          I found him poised over the photocopy machine, the automatic feed stacked with papers. What this was about was this young man, tall and solid, and his sleeves were rolled up. This was about the impulse I suddenly saw in him to break away from whoever his stiff, rich dad was. The knot on his tie was opened enough to show his throat, and his sleeves were rolled up, and I realized I’d been wrong about him coming someday to bow ties, and all of this insight I suddenly had was there in his bare forearms and in the hollow of his throat. I forced a little cough and he looked over his shoulder and smiled at me and he shuffled his feet and ducked his head slightly in deference, but what I felt wasn’t coming from the position I was in, it wasn’t power, it was what I knew about him and what I still didn’t know. He was William, no other. And he had a secret self and part of that self was a sly little rebellion from things that he and I would agree were pretty foolish. That’s why I wanted to run my hand through the golden hair on his forearm.
          And does it have something to do with the accident? Obviously something. I was blind to all of this before, it’s true. One day in spring I stepped into the crosswalk at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street and perhaps I was distracted by the thought of the Jenny Jones show, wishing it was the Oprah show instead, but Oprah doesn’t do the real sleazy subjects, bless her pure and, for the moment, top-rated heart. So when your author is a Manhattan psychologist with a practice in masturbation therapy and a book called Touch Yourself, Cure Yourself, you take what you can get. In this case she was to be the resident expert on the “I Have More Fun with Me than with My Partner” segment.
          I was thinking surely somebody watching that show can read and suddenly there was the cry of a horn and I saw a flash of yellow coming at me and I stopped and I started to turn away. Then there was a terrific thump on my butt and I was suddenly on my back, my legs spread, and every pore of my body was flared open with a heat that felt like it was coming from the center of me. Though it was probably coming from the engine that was beneath me. I was spread-eagled on the cab’s hood and looking at the clouds above me and my butt hurt, I guess, but other than that I was feeling pretty good. I reached up and brushed the hair away from my face, taking up a long strand and sort of twirling it around my finger.
          Then a man’s face floated between me and the clouds and his eyes were from way beyond the clouds, it felt, as dark as the darkest night sky. “Oh, lady,” he said with an accent from somewhere on the other side of what was once the Iron Curtain. “You dream something when you cross, yes? A thousand miles away?” I realized he was the driver of the cab. His voice was gentle. He should have been cursing at me for walking against the light and causing him this kind of trouble. But he was making excuses for me.
          “Remember,” I said, “one end of the Iron Curtain was in a trailer park and the other was in a nudist colony.”
          “Oh my,” he said, thinking I was delirious.
          Not at all. Not at all. I felt very clear inside. I knew what connections I was making. This Eastern European man with the beautiful eyes and the sweet impulse to make excuses for the woman who was causing him trouble: I saw him rising from a bath towel on the shore of the Adriatic Sea and he was naked.
          “He doesn’t have a medallion,” a whiny man’s voice said.
          “Please, Mister,” dark eyes said, not angry even at this buttinsky. “I will do what’s right.”
          “Is it true?” I asked him.
          He turned his face to me again.
          “About what you are?”
          “Yes,” he said, his voice violining into a whisper. “I am gypsy.”
          “I think I’m all right,” I said. “Take me somewhere.”
          Later, in a room at the Hotel Dixie, he kissed me gently all around the edge of the massive bruise from his grill. And he was naked. Though the roar around us was not the surf on the Adriatic but the traffic from Times Square, he was as gentle in his hands and in his maleness as he was in his excuse-making.
          “What thing was it you dream today?” he asked after our bodies had pulled softly apart.
          “That’s not the question to ask,” I said and I found myself sitting up and bending near and looking at that male part of him. I was a little surprised to find myself doing this. I had never really looked at a man there before, only by accident, only out of the corner of my eye, more or less unwillingly. Now I wanted to see this man, this Anatole, and it came from his interest in my dreams, his unexpected gentleness, I knew. I had a sense of him in these unseeable things: like I see the shape of a violin and feel that it seems just right for the sweet and sad sounds it makes, I looked at this man’s body to see his inner self. It was turning from a taut young man into a wrinkled old codger. Doddering now and incapable of response as it was, I grew tender for it, in a certain way, tender like for a beloved father who doesn’t recognize you anymore, wanting only the best for him, in somebody else’s care.
          “What am I to ask?” he said.
          “What’s that?”
          “If I am not asking what you dream when my cab hit upon you.”
          I smiled at him. “Ask what I will dream from that moment on.”
          “And so? Yes?”
          I realized that I could not shape an answer to that, though something in me knew what to expect.
          Is this nymphomania? I think not. I went to my apartment that night and I wanted nothing to do with my boyfriend. He’s a very good-looking man but he reviews books anonymously for a pre-publication newsletter and he’s got execrable taste and he’s working on a novel about the Trojan War because he learned Greek at Notre Dame and I think it was the idea of a man who looks like this that made me take up with him in my life before the accident. But I know him. We rent a car now and then and go to the Hamptons and whenever anybody makes the slightest mistake in their driving near him, he honks his horn furiously and curses them and when I walked into my apartment and he was lounging in his distressed Levis and flannel shirt on my couch and he looked up at me with what I know he intended as a sexy smile, I clearly saw his angry self-righteousness as a driver sculpted into his square jaw and curling up in his chest hair from the open shirt. And I had not seen this ever before in his body. I kept taking that body to bed and I never really saw it till that day when I was hit by a cab. Is that a symptom of nymphomania?
          To myself I’m sounding entirely convinced about this. But perhaps not. Perhaps I’ve asked that rhetorical question about nymphomania too many times now and you’re thinking the lady protests too much. It is true that I’ve been to bed with quite a few men since that day in the spring. But each of them was naked with me as an individual. I insist that’s true. I know the alternative.
          I was in a bar in Chelsea a few weeks ago. I’d been to a reading at Barnes and Noble by one of my authors, a first novelist, and I didn’t want to go home. The boyfriend was gone and starting to savage all my authors in his reviews and I hate to admit it, but that was a tradeoff I could easily live with. But there was no one else in my apartment that night either. The bar was small and the neon beer names burned coldly in the smokey air and a man sat down on the stool next to me. He was handsome and the sly wobble of his head and his little pucker-smile said he knew it. If you’ve heard too much protest in me so far and suspect the tabloid story of being accurate, then you’d have to expect this man and I would get along just fine.
          “Hello,” he said.
          “Hello,” I said.
          “I just came over here to tell you how good you’re looking tonight,” he said.
          “You appreciate women, do you?” I made my voice behave. No sarcasm. A straight question.
          “It’s what I am,” he said and he leaned nearer. “Ontologically, I appreciate women.”
          I kept my face composed and I said, “If that’s true, I’ll do whatever you want.”
          His eyes widened and his eyelids fluttered like a silent film heroine. “Well,” he said. “Well. We’re going to have some fun, darling.”
          “But you have to prove it first.”
          “Tell me about the last woman you slept with.”
          He furrowed his brow. “I don’t understand.”
          “Do you want to go to bed with me?” I was still sounding sweet, but it was a firm question.
          “That’s why I sat down beside you,” he said.
          “Good. Then prove your appreciation. Tell me when was the last time you made love to a woman.”
          “Okay,” he said. “Whatever turns you on. Two nights ago.”
          “What does her most intimate sexual part look like?”
          “Look like?”
          “Tell me all the details of it.” He hesitated and I put my hand on his and said with a voice slick as KY Jelly, “It turns me on.” This was a lie, but it was his language.
          He set his mouth and narrowed his eyes and cocked his head in an effort to remember. “It know, an opening.” He stopped. I waited. There was no more.
          “That’s all you remember?”
          “Sure. What else is there?”
          “I said you had to prove this.”
          He was getting pissed. “They’re all basically alike,” he said. “Any guy’ll tell you that.”
          “Sorry, stud,” I said. “You flunked the test.”
          I turned away and he went off cursing, and the fact is I can tell you the contours, the textures, the sweet little blue tracings of veins on the secret part of each man I’ve touched since the spring and they are each as different as their voices, as their minds, as all the subtle intricacies of their personalities. And they are precious to me, in their variety. When I lay on the hood of that cab and looked at the clouds, I knew that this would be so.
          And it wasn’t new to me, somehow, though it was something I’d left behind long ago. When I was a little girl I would lie in the field on my grandfather’s farm in Connecticut and I would look at the clouds and I would see the usual things, of course, castles and horses and swans. But there were also faces in the clouds. Boys. These were boys that would appear over me as I lay on my back feeling the sun on my legs and opening to the life that awaited me, all the years ahead. The faces of boys would come to me in the sky and for awhile I took them to be premonitions of boys who would one day love me, visions of their faces with wonderful, delicate varieties of brows and jaws and noses. And I loved them all, and each one loved a different part of me. This boy with a great pug nose was clearly a sports hero. I could ride horses with him. That one was a delicate boy with a weak chin, a poet; we would lie beneath the water oaks along my grandfather’s stream and he would read poems to me. Another one with a high forehead was a banker and he and I would sit at night beside a fire and do my arithmetic together--I loved arithmetic and I thought I would always have these little puzzles to do. There were so many boys. Somewhere along the way, all that dreaming was lost and I just stopped expecting anything, really, from my sex. But as a child, I didn’t think that one day I would have to choose just one of these boys in the sky. There were too many parts to me, you see.
          The mistake I made was to talk about the change in my life to my masturbation therapy author. She was a psychologist, after all. And it was just conversation at lunch before the taping of Jenny Jones. I guess there was an implicit criticism about what she was saying in her book. You close the loop with yourself and it’s not going to lead to healing. I didn’t say it that way to her, but what else could she conclude? She was sitting across from me and eating red snapper and really enjoying it and it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen her left hand come up from beneath the table for awhile and I could see her vision of things: all the women of the world dining with their hands under their linen napkins and that’s all they would ever need. So it was a mistake to tell her.
          Then yesterday I saw the tabloid headline as I stood in a check-out lane at Gristede’s and I looked at the story. They’d changed my name but every other detail was mine, and I knew I’d been betrayed. I abandoned my grocery cart and called my author. “What have you done?” I demanded. “Isn’t that privileged information or something?”
          “No,” she said. “I’ve only got a master’s degree in psychology.”
          “Are you sleeping with the tabloid editor?”
          There was only silence on the other end of the line.
          “Hypocrite,” I said.
          Then when I saw him last night on the television and when my hand rose before the screen to touch him, I knew what was next. My butt burned for him.
          The offices of Real World Weekly were in a recently gentrified brownstone in the East Village and I showed up this morning in a silk shift and I’d combed my hair out long and put a rose behind my ear. “Who shall I say is here to see him?” his mouse of a secretary said.
          “Tell him I’m the woman from this week’s front page.”
          She narrowed her eyes at me.
          “Tell him I saw him on TV and I hear a taxi’s horn blaring in my ears and only he can make it stop.”
          She gulped at this and turned her back to me and spoke low into the intercom.
          He was there moments later, out of breath. He took one look at me and shot me that half smile with the dimple and he led me to his office at the back of the first floor. The room was stacked with newspapers and the clippings were all over his desk, and holding down a pile was a grapefruit sized rock--dark and pocked--and on another pile was a brass stand with what looked like a shrunken head hanging on it. The little guy actually struck me as pretty cute.
          “It’s real,” he said.
          “Who was he?”
          “Some Amazonian. He can predict the future. We did a story.”
          “And the rock?”
          “Piece of a meteor.”
          I looked at the editor, and his sea gray eyes were intent on me.
          “Like the one hurtling toward the earth?” I asked.
          He smiled and the dimple appeared.
          “Don’t move,” I said. “Keep the smile.”
          But he said, “Coming to kill us all,”and it went away.
          “The smile.”
          He looked at me closely. “Are you really her?”
          “I edited Touch Yourself, Cure Yourself.
          “Holy shit.”
          “The smile,” I said.
          “Are you here as outraged victim or as...” He hesitated.
          “As nympho?”
          That brought the smile back and I reached out and put the tip of my forefinger, just briefly, in that little spot. It was a sweet little soft place, this tuck in the face of a handsome man who was full of irony about the way our world was considering itself at the end of the millennium. That made me run hot for the secrets of his body. But his question was very interesting to me, really. That part of me born in the crosswalk was starting to blur the boundaries the editor was suggesting. Victim or nympho. Rage or lust.
          After I drew my hand back, I said, “Men in the imperial Chinese court bound their women’s feet. Did you know that?”
          “I bet there are modern footbinders,” he said with a rising in his voice like he’d just gotten a great new idea.
          “Maybe so,” I said.
          “In Algeria, perhaps. Or right back in China. But that’s a little remote.”
          “Would you like to understand them?” I said, and I was only just catching up myself with this turn in the conversation. I hadn’t even realized the footbinders were on my mind, much less that I had some insight into them.
          He snapped his fingers. “Appalachia,” he said. “We’ll look there.”
          “The men controlled their women this way,” I said. “But they also created this intensely secret part on the women’s bodies. The bound feet were supposed to be covered up always, but I think there were times, very rare, when, in the middle of the night, lit by candles, this secret of the body was shared.” I’d moved closer to him and his gray eyes had turned back to me, though I sensed Appalachia lingering behind them. “They were like superpussies,” I said.
          Now I had his complete attention. “This is very interesting,” he said, hoarsely.
          “And that was the woman’s control,” I said. “I bet a man in imperial China would do anything the woman would ask just for the privilege of seeing this secret thing.”
          “I bet,” he whispered.
          “Do you find a woman’s foot beautiful?” I drew my fingertips down his cheek.
          “Yes,” he said. “Sure.” He was breathing heavily.
          “Will you please start with mine?”
          “Please. As you know from reading your paper, I can’t wait.”
          I took a step back and I slipped out of my shoes and I’ve got real good legs--I’ve had a lot of compliments in the past few months--and my feet are pretty, I keep my feet very nice. The editor-in-chief looked at them, and I could sense him trembling. Trembling and rising in that secret part of him, a part which was hidden and bound until I chose to see it.
          “Please,” I said. “Start there.” And I nodded to the floor, to my feet. “They’ve been covered up all day long. Nobody could see them.”
          He wanted to. I could tell. But he was hesitating. “Down,” I said.
          And he went down, onto his knees, and he bent to me and he began to kiss my toes and I thank my gypsy cab driver for teaching me how pleasurable all that can be and my hand was on the meteor and I picked it up and it was very heavy, very heavy indeed, and its heaviness sent a thrill through me, a sweet wet thrill, and I looked down at the straight white part in his hair, the very place where this meteor was about to strike, and I thought how sexy. How truly sexy is the secret shape of a man’s brain.

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