by Leslee Rene Wright
The flasher looks for her peeping tom in a city that’s lousy with skin. She doesn’t know where he is, only that he must be as alone as her. She’s been alone since the summer of slug sex. Most people don’t think about slugs having sex, but they do have it, and, as Melinda attests, it’s not the sort of thing a person forgets.
She was four years old and scrambling for the sandbox. The back porch had a birdfeeder that the squirrels sabotaged, crashing it to the flagstones below, and where the birdfeeder usually hung a strange thing glistened in the sun. Melinda came closer, her mouth flopped open in awe and aversion. Two soft, slimy creatures coiled around each other, pulsing and hugging in an opaque, wet wad.
Melinda tried to call for her mother, but her mouth was dry, her tongue shellacked to the roof of her mouth as if struggling to retreat from her body. There was a giddy nausea in her belly, the tremendous mix of guilt and euphoria that arrives in the aftermath of something spankingly taboo. She didn’t know what sex was, had no word for it, but the sight of the two slugs lit up the primitive bulges of her cerebellum. She shot from the back porch and ducked behind the lilac bushes, pressing her cheek against the cool brick foundation until her face felt less inhuman. She was afraid to go back and see if the slugs were still there—afraid to be exposed to their alien strangeness, and afraid to discover them gone, revealed as no more than the invention of a fiercely fevered imagination.
Two weeks later, the preschool called her parents in for a conference.
“Your daughter—” The preschool director began. The only thing Melinda remembers of the woman is her brown penny loafers, how they had real pennies tucked into the slots on top. Melinda stared at the pennies while her parents perched forward.
“—keeps removing her clothing on the playground,” the director finished.
Melinda’s mother was unconcerned. “Lifting her dress, you mean? All little girls do that.”
“Lifting her dress and pulling down her underwear.”
Melinda’s mother went silent; her father side-shifted in his seat.
The silence told Melinda she was in trouble, and she was almost disappointed when she was not. Instead, they hurried home and her mother gave her ice cream, something she was usually only allowed when she was sick. Afterward, her mother explained, in her nicest voice, how certain body parts were certainly private and should be kept covered, unless a person was completely alone, or in the bathtub, or using the toilet.
These rules had been explained to Melinda when she was two. She knew she should keep covered, which was exactly why she couldn’t help but uncover herself. The boys and girls on the playground shrieked with lunacy and ran for the teacher, while Melinda hung back, wracked with sweet nausea. When she saw the teacher’s face, pale and flummoxy, it became even sweeter. Her own cheeks blazed, and she longed for something cool to introduce them to.
There were many more conferences with the preschool director, and Melinda’s kindergarten admission was entrusted to an expensive psychologist, who watched her play with dolls for an hour before labeling her a normal little girl going through a normal little phase. “Encourage her to be naked at home,” the shrink advised. “Prevent her from seeing nudity as such a shocking state of being.”
Melinda’s parents tried, though it went against their nature to recommend nudity in any form. “Would you like to take your clothes off to eat your pancakes?” Melinda’s mother offered, as if undressing was a practical protection from butter and syrup stains. Melinda shook her head, pitying her mother for her lack of understanding.
She hasn’t seen slug sex since, but the memory remains vivid in her mind: the strange meat, the slick color.
Therapy continued into adulthood, and the few therapists she told about the slug sex looked at her over the tops of their glasses, struggling to keep their demeanor level. “You were aroused?” they would ask.
“No,” she would respond. “Excited.”
“The degree of my revulsion.”
They usually scratched down a few notes in a book after that. None had much to offer in the way of advice or pills. “Try a hobby. Try dating,” they would suggest, the words blunt with finality.
Who could she date? Who could she show herself to, other than him?
Exposure is the name the flasher gives to what she does. It reminds Melinda of high school photography class, where she learned about how light falls on film, how the duration of the exposure is gauged by the intensity of the available light. A long exposure pries the shutter open, allowing whole moments to pass, and she had read somewhere that science had officially determined that all “moments” were three seconds long.
Her own exposures last approximately three seconds long.
They had been spontaneous at first, but as she grew older she began to plan them with meticulous detail. Spontaneity led to trouble, and besides that, the hours spent planning drew the experience out, turned it into something to be relished, like a holiday feast. Through trial and error, she learned to expose herself to those who would be the least likely to object, or worse, to tattle—and if they did tattle, they would not likely be believed. Friendless and bullied boys, the sort who were picked last for recess games, made ideal candidates, as did those quiet girls who refused to grow up, still collecting stuffed animals and wearing clip-on bows in their hair. The girls, in particular, reminded Melinda strongly of herself, and had been her favorite targets of all.
She accepts that she is a perpetrator—it’s the only word that feels right. But she isn’t quite serial in her exhibitionism. The best times of her life always bring dry spells: college, a two-year relationship with her jiu-jitsu instructor, jiu-jitsu being one of the hobbies she took up to distract herself from the impulses that, like a conveniently placed deformity, she could hide, but never be rid of.
This is why she needs her peeping tom. He’s the only one who’s like her—hiding in the open, waiting to see.
Until she met him, Melinda assumed that she was the only child to ever suffer such a unique and special affliction.
He was adopted. That was all that anyone was able to say about Christopher, not because his adoption was unusual, but because it was a convenient way for adults to explain his penchant for habitual chaos, for gleeful violence. He was, in sum, a bothersome child, with worrying habits.
But Melinda’s parents were friends with his parents, a couple who had moved from Chicago and wore matching sweaters that they tied over their shoulders, like they were about to glide across Lake Michigan in a yacht. Christopher was nine and Melinda was nine and in the way that these things go, they had no choice but to play together while their parents hovered around the backyard grill, drowning in beer and talk of golf.
Christopher had everything a boy child of nine could ever desire, something else that Melinda attributed to his being adopted. His father had built him a tree house in the backyard, and his bedroom was in the master suite, filled to bursting with the weight of all his toys. Best of all, Christopher had a beautiful dog, an Alaskan Husky named Miki. Melinda had always longed for a cat or dog of her own, and while her parents occasionally entertained the idea, no pet ever arrived.
In spite of his toys, his tree house, and Miki, Christopher was a difficult boy to play with. He moved at a dizzying speed that Melinda could not match. By the time she made it to his master suite, he would already have climbed to the highest shelf, and when she walked through the door he mowed her down with his plastic tommy gun. “Pew pew pew you’re dead,” he said. When she just stood there, refusing to die, he jumped down from the shelf and wrestled her to the ground, straddling her hips and clamping his hands over her nose and mouth.
“You’re dead,” he said. His face was grinning but his voice was toneless. “You can’t breathe.”
She couldn’t. Her vision went dark around the edges and she wondered if she was falling asleep, but then he yanked his hands away and jumped off her. She was alive again.
A few months later, he took her into the garage to show her the tadpoles his father had brought him back from a fishing trip. They swam in the murk of half-full fish tank, having already sprouted tiny frog arms and wee frog legs. Melinda and Christopher gazed at the tadpoles in a wordless stupor, and she chanced the hope that they could be friends, after all. He answered her hope by finding a net from the shelves and scooping up a dozen or so of the tadpoles, laying them out gently on the concrete floor. They wriggled in a shallow puddle, confused by the foreign landscape. The soggy sound made Melinda feel hammered by her own heart.
“Watch,” Christopher said. He stood upright and jumped in the air, his feet slapping down on the tadpoles again and again, crushing them to paste. Melinda felt something spatter against her cheek. She bleated in shock.
Her shock meant nothing to him. He was lost in his own antics, his grin more manic than usual. When he was finished, he kicked the mess into a corner.
“I’m going to need new shoes,” he announced with satisfaction.
She longed to complain about him to her parents, but something kept her from saying a word. He was a child with worrying habits, the only one she had met whose habits were more worrying than her own. For that reassurance alone she endured him. If his actions became too unbearable, as they often did, Melinda would leave the backyard without a word. It wasn’t often that he noticed her exit.
Entering the backyard was more fraught with tension. “Christopher’s out back, waiting to play!” his mother Kathy would sing, leading Melinda to the sliding glass door while her own mother helped herself to one of Kathy’s special four o’clock martinis, which she called “momtinis” and served in sugar-rimmed, scallop-edged glasses.
Melinda pulled in her stomach in and balled her fists as she walked across the patio, always wary of what business she would find him at. For reasons unknown to her, he was never permitted to leave the property—perhaps that was why the whole yard and house had been set up entirely with his happiness in mind. So long as he stayed put, he could orchestrate whatever mayhem he pleased.
“Watch,” Christopher said when he noticed Melinda. A rope was knotted around Miki’s neck, and as Melinda drew closer he pulled back on the rope with all his weight. Miki was a large dog, but she shook her head and pawed at the rope in distress. Then she rolled over in submission, whimpering on the grass.
“Mush!” Christopher shouted. “Mush! Mush!”
Then came a day that Melinda couldn’t find Christopher at all, not at first. The tree house was empty and Miki was sprawled out in its shade, tail thumping at the sight of someone who wouldn’t lynch her. Melinda wondered if Christopher had finally broken free of his backyard prison, and what he might be doing elsewhere in the neighborhood. Breaking the neck of someone’s beloved pet? Mowing down strangers with imagined artillery? After scratching the dog between her ears, Melinda rounded the shed where Christopher’s dad kept his lawnmower. Christopher was belly-down between two thick juniper bushes, his eye pressed up to a hole in the fence.
He was looking into the neighbor’s backyard. Melinda didn’t know much about the neighbors except that they were new—a young, childless couple from Texas. The man worked all the time and the woman had bouncy blonde hair. Melinda’s mother liked to make fun of the woman for always wearing chunky diamond earrings, even while dressed in a sweat suit.
Melinda approached the fence, a good distance down from where Christopher crouched. She pressed her eye to a crack in the boards. The neighbor’s lawn was barren, empty of trees and swing-sets. The blonde woman was stretched out on a webbed lounge chair, her slicked-up skin beaming in the sun. She wore nothing but swimsuit bottoms, her large breasts sloping in the direction of her armpits.
Nothing connected at first, but then she heard Christopher quail out a harsh breath. Her brain synapses popped together, like power lines tumbling down.
Melinda drew back from the fence and turned her eyes toward him. He was so absorbed in his peeping that her presence failed to register, and she was free to examine him while he was lost in his own study. She expected to see his usual grin, but even in profile his face was stern and solemn. Clinical, she would think later, as an adult. He did not have the look of a boy awash in the first flush of sexual lust. His lips were drawn down in what was almost a scowl, his tongue working strangely in his mouth, as if trying to loot his own teeth. He looked as if he had a splendid desire to spit.
Melinda was quiet as she left the backyard; she knew, now, why Christopher was always penned within it. She felt no distress over what she’d seen. She longed to reach out to Christopher, to embrace him as her special kin, as an alien, aching thing.
The flasher rides the train until she finds an awkward man in his early 30s, his hair close to the summer-straw blond she remembers. Positioned across from him, she feigns slack-jawed oblivion as she bends over to re-tie her shoes, the loose neck of her blouse yawning open. When she straightens up and meets the man’s eyes, she holds them in a way that makes him question her intent. He shudders once and looks away. The three seconds are just short enough to make it seem imagined, and just long enough to make it impossible to forget.
After she glimpsed Christopher’s habitual ache, a doppelganger to her own, Melinda waited two weeks before allowing him a look at hers.
They played as often as ever, and even felt like real friends at last. The sudden upgrade was enough to make Melinda wonder whether Christopher had sensed her standing there as he spied on the neighbor, if his aching thing had felt her aching thing when it rose up from her gut and sent a tendril of longing in his direction.
One Sunday they pretended to be hobos, spooning invisible beans from empty cans they’d rescued from the recycling. Melinda found an orange plastic pom-pom from her Halloween cheerleader costume and set it within a circle of stones; they poked at it with a stick, pretending it was a campfire while singing “On the Road Again,” substituting tuneless la-la-las in the spots where they didn’t know the words.
Melinda was held hostage by Christopher’s profile as he sang—the way the pretend firelight seemed to drawn attention to his ruddy cheeks and long eyelashes. The tendril grew bigger, filling her like a giant’s beanstalk. She pictured it bursting through her skin, and knew she wouldn’t mind if it did.
The next day she came over to play the hobo game again. They were going to meet in the tree house, where the hobos were finally setting up a home. She wore an old terry cloth beach cover-up, a pair of her mother’s clip-on earrings, and nothing else. The earrings were fake diamonds, but they glittered with promise.
Christopher was bent over the orange pom-pom, pretending to warm his hands. She walked into the glow of the fire and imagined it was a spotlight. She unzipped the cover-up, then spread it apart like a pair of weak, fluttering wings.
His gaze was distant and glacial. He continued to leisurely warm his hands, but his lip curled as if he smelled something rotten, and his jaw moved like someone fighting the urge to bite. His expression was the first, and last, to precisely mirror back the reverie of disgust she knew so well. She felt inhuman in the grip of his gaze, and what a relief it was.
She waited three seconds, then let the cover-up fall shut.
Not long after that, Christopher’s family moved back to Illinois. The other kids in the neighborhood were so satisfied to see him go that they broke out into impromptu song: “Joy to the World, Christopher’s Gone!”
Melinda had not been full of joy. In the years that followed, Christopher’s parents kept in touch through Christmas cards, bragging about their son’s achievements in Lacrosse and the city-wide Science Fair. At age twenty, photos showed him as tan and tall and big of tooth, and the card said that he was attending business school on a full-ride scholarship. Melinda studied the photos for any hint of the boy she had known and came up short. Nothing but all-American, generic good looks. It both disappointed and gave her hope; if he could blend in, then so could she.
Later, she wondered at the significance of both she and Christopher ending up in the same city. A lot of kids who grow up in Iowa land in Chicago—it’s either that or Minneapolis—but in this case she felt that there could be no excusing serendipity.
She thought of the slugs coiled together, bound up in their own grotesqueness, clenching down as if they couldn’t bear to be apart. Then she called up her mother, asking for history, for details.
“That awful boy?” Melinda’s mother said. “What about him?”
Supplied with history and details, the flasher leaves for the L a half hour earlier than usual, choosing a train that runs counter to her usual route. She wastes hours waiting on the platform with the other commuters, her eyes shaded behind dark glasses as she scans the crowd for his ever-summer grin.
She finds it when she finally stops looking, plowing for the garbage bin with her empty coffee cup. She tosses the cup in the bin at the same time as someone else—same size, same coffee shop—the two cups clip together and send up a splash. She looks up to apologize, and when she sees his face, the squirming in her chest tells her it’s him.
He sees nothing but a thirty-ish businesswoman in a discount suit. He mutters an “oops” and spins on his way.
Like a vapor, she follows him onto the train, hovering directly behind him and reading the Wall Street Journal through the crook in his arm. She gets off at his stop and trails him into a blocky, fiberglass office building. Which one of them is peeping, now?
He passes his paper to the man working behind the snack kiosk, saying “Morning, Rupe!” in the hearty baritone of forced normality. He dashes for the elevator, cursing when the doors slide shut before he can wave them open. By then she is within inches of his back, but she can’t force her hand out to touch him on the shoulder. There are too many tendrils bursting her apart.
She watches the skin on the back of his neck seize up, like a dog catching a fresh, familiar scent. She wants to remember what he does next, for it to last long enough to leave an impression.
When he turns around, it’s to reach out and push the sunglasses off her face, sliding them atop her head so that light floods her vision. Particles refocus; their eyes lock in blue and his nostrils flare wide.
Back in the tree house, she had left the beach cover-up unzipped for three seconds, relishing the force of his bottomless disgust. But as the seconds passed it began to burn, like a beam from a magnifying glass on squirming, roasting ants. She fumbled for her zipper.
He had taken a step forward, as if to stop her, but then Miki barked from somewhere. A screen door slammed shut.
“Christopher!” his mother called. “Come eat lunch!”
His mouth opened and he jolted, like someone who had just seen a bee alight on his arm. He lunged for Melinda and for a second she wondered if he would draw her close for an embrace. Instead, his arms shot out and pushed her. She flew out of the tree house, crashing to the gravel below. Her tailbone sang out in pain. Pebbles and weeds bit and burrowed into her skin.
She had gazed up at his face, trying to meet his eyes, but found them hard, unyielding nuggets. All parts of her wanted to cry, and did.
But on the hush of the elevator his eyes are wide and open.
“I’m alive,” she fumbles out, and somehow, their hands meet. A hesitant brush of contact, and their fingers coil and clasp together.
The flasher and the peeping tom are at a Jewish deli, pretending to eat. He has a giant sandwich, its sides spewing out meat, and Melinda has a bowl of matzo ball soup. The puckered, lop-sided surface of the matzo makes it look as if she is slurping from a bowl that holds two imperfect brains.
“What started it?” she asks.
“Started?” He orchestrates his knife and fork around the plate.
“Well, for me it was slugs. I saw two slugs having sex, and after that I couldn’t stop.”
He smiles in a way that could crack ice. “But it isn’t about sex, is it? That’s what I could never get my parents to see.”
“There’s no way to make them see,” she says, touching a spoon to her lips.
He watches her for a moment, and Melinda can tell that whatever he’s thinking about her, it isn’t flattering.
“Nothing started it. Nothing except me.”
“Nothing happened to you?”
He looks out the window at something. “Nope.”
Melinda wonders if he means That’s correct, nothing happened or No, something happened, not nothing.
They work out an arrangement. He starts waiting for her on the platform after he leaves work, but takes trouble to appear as if he’s not waiting. He keeps a coffee cup held to his lips, and the evening paper tucked under his arm. She lingers eight to ten feet in front of him, and waits for him to follow. This is all she’s ever wanted, she’s sure.
Bringing her routine out of the night and into the day means she must improvise, swapping out her usual work trousers for vampy flared skirts that don’t suit her figure. She stops wearing a bra and panties, though she doesn’t like to do this, not during the day. She always takes a corner seat if she can, elbow propped on her knee and a book in hand, miming that she’s lost in thought. Her blouse is poorly buttoned, and she crosses her legs like a longshoreman before clamping them shut again.
She never looks up to search out the dark hidey-hole that he watches from. She wants to, but knows all too well that his expression would skewer her. She imagines that she feels the creature in him reach for hers—whether to shove her away or draw her close, she isn’t sure.
Because of this, the arrangement isn’t entirely perfect, and it isn’t entirely satisfying. The exposure never feels complete. The light doesn’t fall on her long enough, it doesn’t burn until she wants to crawl on her belly back into the shadows.
“It isn’t quite right,” the peeping tom says.
“I’m trying,” says the flasher, though she agrees it isn’t quite right.
“The problem is that I want to see, and you want to be seen.” He keeps his face averted so that she has no choice but to see whichever half her presents her with. His eyelashes are tipped with raindrops and his nose hasn’t changed one bit. Melinda wonders what his wife feels when they kiss.
“You want to look at someone who doesn’t want to be seen, and I want to be seen by someone doesn’t want to look,” Melinda says, understanding.
“What else can we do?”
The rain has slowed. In the distance, the lights from a train cut through the dusk. He draws his coat around his body. “Insist the world keep turning our way,” he says, then eases back into the throng.
She stays still, uncomprehending, but then it comes back to her—it’s one of the lyrics from “On the Road Again,” the song they sang when they were hobos, crouched over the fire they’d faked together. They had faked it so well back then.
She wonders if she’ll see him again. If he’s any good at peeping, she won’t.
The real reason the flasher never liked therapy was because the therapists never asked the real questions—they never asked what wasright about her affliction, they only wanted to know what went wrong. She was disappointed by their uniform of pre-worn jeans and Eddie Bauer sweaters, and the way they offered her chamomile tea and told her to “get comfortable” when being told to “get comfortable” makes her as far from comfortable as she can possibly be. She would prefer to be ordered onto a long, Freudian couch, flat on her back, with nowhere to look but a molded tin ceiling. Instead of being spoken to in human, understanding tones, she’d like to be interrogated by some godly entity, an omniscient eye that can drill its way through any lingering shreds of resistance.
To put it even more acutely: she wants to feel as if she has been pinned to a corkboard, or pressed between two slides and tucked under a microscope, exposed at last.
After Christopher had pushed her from the tree house, she wasn’t allowed to play with him anymore. Within weeks, his family was moving back to Chicago. For job reasons, they said, but everyone knew it was because of their son, the one with the worrying habits.
She watched for him from her bedroom window, patient as a gargoyle, but he never showed himself until the day the moving truck settled at the foot of the driveway. He sat in the grass next to Miki and watched as the moving men trundled back and forth with bedframes and dressers. His placid smile, the way his hand was gentle as it stroked Miki’s back—both of these things pricked at Melinda until she felt stung all over.
It wasn’t hard for her to sneak out. Father was at work, and her mother was on the phone with a chatty aunt. She stumbled through the grass toward him, her tailbone still bruised from landing in the gravel below the tree house.
“You can’t go,” she said.
He barely gave her a glance. “Why not?”
“Because.” She looked at his hand, which combed through Miki’s tangled fur with a gentleness that surprised her. “I’ll die,” she said.
He said nothing, and his silence went on for so long that she ran into the middle of their shared street to escape it. The street was a lazy cul-de-sac, with minimal traffic, but that didn’t stop her from laying herself out in the middle of the asphalt and closing her eyes. She waited for the distant rumble of a garbage truck to smash her flat.
“No,” he said, his voice sharp enough to reach her through the muggy August air. Her eyes popped open in surprise, and she rolled her head to one side and watched as jumped to his feet and ran for her, his bangs flapping in his face.
“You can’t die,” he said, bending over her and grabbing her hands. The noon sun was behind him, washing him out until he was nothing but a golden blur.
Melinda’s eyes watered at the sight of him, and she realized that what she really wanted wasn’t to die, but to be saved.