Published in Panhandler Issue 1
Jim Grimsley is a playwright and novelist. Jim’s first novel, Winter Birds, was published by Algonquin Books in 1994. The novel won the 1995 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and received a special citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. Jim’s second novel, Dream Boy, won the American Library Association GLBT Award for Literature (the Stonewall Prize) and was a Lambda finalist. His third novel, My Drowning, was released in January 0f 1997 by Algonquin Books and for it he was named Georgia Author of the Year. His fourth novel, Comfort & Joy, was published in October, 1999, and was a Lambda finalist. A fantasy novel, Kirith Kirin, was published by Meisha Merlin Books in 2000 and won the Lambda in the science fiction and horror category for 2001. Boulevard, published in 2002 by Algonquin, was again a Lambda finalist in the literature category and won Jim his second Georgia Author of the Year designation. His most recent novel, The Ordinary, a science fiction novel published in 2004 by Tor Books, has recently been named a Lambda finalist in the science fiction/fantasy/horror category. Jim received the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Writers Award for his body of work in 1997, and has twice been a finalist for the Rome Prize Fellowship in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2003-2004). In 2005 he won an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “Not the Thing Itself, But the Appearance of the Thing” is a chapter from his forthcoming novel, Forgiveness (University of Texas Press).
Not the Thing Itself, But the Appearance of the Thing
When I drive home from the Starbuck’s, Carmine’s Lexus is out of the driveway, but there’s a silver Honda Accord, about six years old, that I recognize as belonging to the twice-a-week maid, a Serb named Deutze. Today I have vowed to tell Deutze that this is her last week, that I don’t have any more money to pay her, but as soon as I see her car my resolve vanishes and a fear of my own poverty strikes me cold in the heart. Deutze is in the kitchen scrubbing all the stainless steel surfaces with a toothbrush. She is on her hands and knees at the moment, working furiously at cleaning the bottom of the oven door, her bulbous hips thrust upward, propped on one arm and scrubbing with the other, studying the stainless steel intently as she works it over. The angle of her knees and the way her whole chunky weight presses onto her kneecaps makes me wince. My knees crack and pop with every step I take. She looks back at me, and for the second time I think she’s had a shot of collagen in her lips; she looks like what might happen if someone grafted Angelina Jolie’s mouth onto the face of Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie. Her ample rump is jiggling as she scrubs, and she never stops scrubbing, even when she glares at me in that come-hither way of hers. If only I were a cheating man, I would grapple her into the bedroom right now and show her what a force of nature I can be. For a moment I entertain the fantasy. But in reality I am only a little squall in the stormy ocean of love, and Deutze, whom I believe to be aggressively experienced, turns away from me in contempt.
She has already cleaned the dining room and pulled the drapes closed. We have a wide window in that room that looks onto the garden at the side of the house, where there’s a fountain and a replica of that statue from the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Carmine’s favorite book. At the moment the garden is obscured behind the hand-made drapes at the window, densely pleated, some shade between white-beige and white-gray. A week ago in this room Carmine asked me for a divorce. I spent the next three days drunk in the pool house.
At first, when she said the words, I could hardly believe my ears. “What are you talking about? What’s wrong with you?”
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she said. “I can’t watch you do this to yourself, that’s all.”
“Do what to myself?”
“Ruin yourself. Sit around for the rest of your life.”
“I’m not going to sit around for the rest of my life. I’m going to get another job.”
“Charley, it’s been three years already. You think I’m believing this crap that you’re still looking for a job?”
“It’s only been six months.”
“Six months since you got fired from that real estate company. You can’t even sell real estate.”
“I still had a job. It still counts. You know damn well it hasn’t been three years.”
“Please, Charley, why would I lie about that? Why would I make that up?”
“There are some great leads today on the internet,” I said. “Deloitte and Touche is hiring. They have a lot of my old clients.”
She made that blowing sound with her mouth; she’s not quite as good at it since she started having her lips done more often, since the Botox. A fleck of spit flew out and arced across the dining table. “Come on. Who are you kidding?”
“I’m telling the truth about Deloitte and Touche. And they’re not the only place. I’m online every day, checking what’s out there. I mailed out a hundred resumes since the real estate place. More than a hundred.”
“How many times do I have to say it? All your friends from Arthur Andersen got jobs. Every one. Except you. Can you explain that, Mr. I-Look-For-a-Job-Every-Day? Can you?”
glared at her. She was telling the truth. A change of subject was in order. “You’re divorcing me because I can’t find a job?”
“I’m divorcing you because you’re not even looking for a job.”
I turned slowly in the room, hands out, gesturing to the house and everything in it. “Tell me what I’m missing here. We live in a great house. You have everything you want. What am I doing wrong?”
“We’re spending every cent we have. You’re almost broke. You think I don’t know it but I do. I’m getting out while I still can.” When I started to talk she waved her arms at me, not even the hint of a tear in her eye, all business. “That’s enough. I’ve listened to you enough. I’m not listening any more. We’re getting a divorce.” She flapped her hands out from the fingertips, showing that expensive French manicure; this gesture is a sign of complete dismissal, and after she gave it, she walked out of the room.
In this room. She lacked the decency to end our marriage in our bedroom, which might have shown an ounce of consideration for my feelings. She gave me the news right here in the dining room over the nearly-new Mission dining table that seats sixteen. Absent the least hint of regret.
Today, a week later, I am standing in front of those expensive drapes wishing I were the kind of boss who could throw Deutze over a couch and show her the manly stuff I’m made of, or at least demand that she fix me a drink. But I can’t even bring myself to tell her I can’t afford a maid any more.
My confidence as a sexual partner has been destroyed by a constant bombardment of penis enlargement ads in my email inbox, sent by a conspiracy of persons who wish to reinforce my feelings of inadequacy. I have been tempted by such products as MagnaX and TriplThik, I have come close to spraying one of my credit card numbers perilously over the internet; I have come close to risking what remains of my self-respect by allowing an electronic audit trail to exist that will verify for anyone who cares that I think my penis is too small.
This is more of a fear than a thought. But it persists.
My penis is certainly tiny most of the time. Gone are the days when it could rage and stiffen like a bull; but, alas for me, those days were mostly gone by the time I switched from hand to girl.
I only ever had sex with three girls, Carmine, and Betsy, and Caroline. Since I didn’t marry Betsy or Caroline I don’t see any reason to talk about them except to say that Betsy was high school and Caroline was freshman year in college and neither of them was evidence of much ardor on my part since our sex was jerky and quick and immensely infrequent.
When Carmine and I did make love, in the days after our marriage got settled, Carmine would fake her orgasms, wait for me to fall asleep, and finish herself in the bathroom with her vibrator, an awesome instrument that left me with deep feelings of unease when I heard its steady thrum. I waited up one night and heard the battery powered friend slide out of the drawer of the bedside table, saw her swing it jauntily as she crossed to the bathroom and closed the door. She came back to bed a few minutes later, sighing. After that whenever we had sex I quickly pretended to fall asleep and listened to her use the vibrator in the bathroom.
My own orgasms took on a tentative quality, and I started faking them, too, after a while. She must have noticed, since there was no longer any messy product of any kind, but she was too kind a woman to mention this, until recently.
Pretty soon I was having my only real sex with my hand again, and my wife was stocking batteries by the carton.
Once in a while we would shock each other, though, like that time in her mother’s house the night her father died when we shook the bed against the walls so hard her mother came and knocked on the door. Once in a while it was fine to be under and on top of and around her, and we felt like partners and equals and we got a little lost in each other. Like in college, in the first days when we started having sex, but better, because now we knew each other.
Even at the worst moments, we never stopped pretending to have sex with each other, which was a sign that we cared for each other, wasn’t it?
A year ago, after we hired Deutze, my wife cornered me in the bedroom with her eyes bulging and jammed her index finger into my collarbone. “I know you’ve been fucking this East European piece of shit, Charley. Admit it.”
“Admit what? Deutze? Are you out of your mind, she’d kill me if I laid a hand on her.”
“Oh, you coward. You can’t even tell the truth when I confront you.”
“Lauren, what on earth can you be thinking, what can possibly be in your brain? Have you seen the thighs on that woman? She would crack me like a matchstick.”
She shoved me backwards onto the bed and climbed on top of me, squeezing me with her own thighs. “Don’t call me Lauren. That’s not my name.”
“Carmine, then. What are you doing?”
“Showing you what my thighs can do,” she said, and squeezed the breath out of me, meanwhile rubbing against me. Both our bodies were ample and soft along the front, comfortable and wieldy.
“Deutze is here,” I said, “she’ll hear.”
“Your whore Deutze,” she said. “You’re worried your whore might hear you fuck your wife?”
“Carmine, please, I never touched her.”
“Shut up, you stupid little worm.”
She accused me to bolster my ego, to say she wanted me again. Maybe she played the vixen that day because it was on her mind to reward me. I was trying to sell real estate at the time, and she wanted me to know she was grateful. We made a valiant attempt at fancy foreplay and I mounted her almost like a stud. But I suspect in the end she was disappointed.
Maybe NaturalGain+ is the product I really need. Three more inches of myself and it would be harder for her to turn to Mr. Plastic. Three more inches and certainly, surely, I would feel more aroused myself.
This talk of her brother is to punish me and recurs from time to time. I think Edgar actually told her this story years ago, that I went to bed with him one night when we were both drunk. It would be like him; a man so brazen he covers the bathroom of his house with pictures of naked men making love to each other, with no shame or feeling of degradation, from every conceivable position and some, indeed, that I never would have conceived had I not seen them.
The reason I think he’s told her this story is very simple. He talked to me about this incident the day after it allegedly happened. Carmine was in the hospital undergoing expensive problems with her pregnancy, similar to the problems that some of our more sensitive neighbors were having, including a bit of blood spotting that was real enough to make the doctors put her on her back. Edgar came to visit her in the hospital and stayed in our guest room. One night, as he claimed, we had dinner, drank a lot of wine, and went to bed together.
“Then why did I wake up in my own bed?” I asked.
“You got up and left about dawn. You were probably still drunk. You were really loaded.”
“Loaded or not, I think I would remember having sex with you, Edgar.”
“Lord, Charley, you never remember anything when you’re really drunk.”
“I’d remember that.”
“I’ve never had sex with a man before.”
Edgar gave me a look.
“I haven’t,” I said.
“Well, you sure knew what to do.”
“Edgar, we didn’t do anything.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell Carmine.”
Which was, of course, a rank lie.
“There’s nothing to tell her.”
“Of course there’s not.” He looked smug, and sauntered to a window, with something of the air of Bette Davis before the cocktail party in All About Eve. The nerve of the man. As if my gay debut, should there ever be one, would find me paired with someone so angular and scrawny.
“Come on, Ed, I know when I’ve had sex or not. I can tell.”
“I can just tell. My penis feels used.”
“Yes.” I set my jaw and stood as he started to grin.
“Well, it felt pretty used last night,” he said. Which was what I might have expected.
“You flatter yourself.”
I decided there was no need to be nice. “I would never have sex with you, Ed. You are the last man on earth I would have sex with.”
“Because of Lauren. Carmine.”
We were all still getting used to the new name. “No. Because you’re ugly. Because you’re not my type.”
His face set into an unpleasant expression and he reached for his coffee cup.
“Did you hear me?” I asked.
“I heard you.”
“Because no one has slept with you in ten years except for money. And you want to make up some fantasy about me.”
“All right,” he said, sharply, and glared at me, and meant it, and I backed down.
But I’m sure that part never made it into the story he told Carmine.
These are the games that keep us in some kind of relation to one another. Carmine accuses me of affairs with her friends and family in order to make me feel better about myself. Edgar, her brother, persists in his story that we slept together, out of some twisted sense of connection to his sister, or to me, or to both.
Carmine’s mother, Edna, also lives with us, and I ask you, how can a man of uncertain confidence make love to his aging wife when the crone she will soon become is haunting the corridors of their house in her spit-stained houserobe and moaning in her sleep at night?
Edna, a good woman, is nevertheless loud, due to deafness, and flatulent, due to constant indigestion. She has a problem keeping her dress buttoned and sometimes forgets to wear underwear. Once she appeared in my bathroom door wearing nothing but a tee shirt, completely disoriented, not at all aware of the shocking way in which she was exposing her bit of muff. Her withered flanks shuddered as she stepped hurriedly out of the door when she saw me, a blur in front of her, no doubt, since she was wearing no glasses. Her pubic hair was prodigious and gray, like underbrush or a thicket. Creeping back along the wall, she vanished.
Last week after Carmine told me she wanted a divorce, I crept into the house again after she was gone. I had no money, nowhere to go. Sitting in front of the computer, I contemplated the web page for Virility Pro, as seen on Time, CNN, ABC, and other places. Medically proven Virility Pro Pills would enlarge my penis naturally, believe it or not! A busty woman of divine smoothness, wearing a thong bikini, knelt in a low tide in the wet sand and looked over her shoulder at me, a glance that said, “Take this pill and you’ll be able to do everything I need.” I wanted to order the pills, to have them work and write my own customer testimonial. “These pills made me so much larger that I can actually see myself at last! Says Charley S. of Blanktown, State of South Blankana.”
Even more professional in appearance was the page for Alpha Male Plus, where I learned that deep in Canada lives an animal scientists believe to be the most prolific lover in the entire animal kingdom, the male Wapiti Elk, cervus elaphus. The pill was red. A picture of a handsome man in doctor’s clothes looked out at me. The doctor was blonde, with full, red lips. The page included a chart comparing the sexual performance of the average middle-aged male with the average middle-aged Wapiti Elk, and we humans, alas, fell woefully short.
Sex you’ll talk about for weeks.
In the case of an erection that lasts over four hours, please seek medical help.
I pictured myself with my true love, the girl in the commercial about the cell phone, whose face I could no longer remember very clearly, so that she occasionally morphed into Halle Berry or, sometimes, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Under the effects of Wapiti Elk hormone, I show her the time of her life. We are in front of the gigantic fireplace in Shangri-la in the movie Citizen Kane. Sex is just as good in black-and-white as it is in Technicolor. We’re pawing at one another for hours, and Halle/Catherine never even considers using a vibrator.
In the background I can hear Deutze cleaning the house. She’ll stop to smoke a cigarette soon, work a while, smoke another, and so on, for another three or four hours. She’ll come again in three days. The next check I write her will bounce. If all goes well, she’ll be the one to find Carmine’s body, she’ll be the first to know.