By Karen Lee Boren
MATTHEW TOMCZYK GAVE ME AIDS
Charlie writes these words in the tiniest print she can manage with a flat-headed, felt-tip pen, the only pen she was able to find in her purse with ink that would adhere to the bathroom’s gold wallpaper. With this pen, she might have covered the entire wall with her message, but she has decided that here, size is not what’s important. Placement is. So she has placed her message prominently, above the tissue holder where few can miss it.
Vaguely, in some part of her mind she has not paid much attention to lately, she knows what she is doing is wrong. She’s defacing someone’s property, and she’s never done such a thing before. She was brought up too Catholic, too proper, and she’s always been too intent on following rules to ever write on a bathroom wall. But now that she’s done it, she understands the attraction of putting it all out there for people to see. Writing on a bathroom wall, she realizes, is an awful lot like going to confession. It gives you the sense that whether you want to be or not, you are never alone.
She isn’t the first to write on these bathroom walls. Surrounding her words are hearts pierced by crooked arrows, some with names, dates, and 4-ever’s inside. There is a running debate above the toilet as to whether Melinda should go home with Leon or Mick. These days, she would recommend that Melinda go home alone.
The wall opposite the toilet is dedicated solely to lipstick impressions. From her place in the stall, she thought that someone had gone wild with a lip-shaped stamp, and that each kiss was an exact replica of the others. But now as she looks more closely, she notices an amazing variety of both color – coral to pale rose to passion red – and shape. She studies the wall, trying to picture the women who puckered up to this grimy surface. She imagines full breasts and plunging necklines, tight-fitting jeans and too much jewelry.
For the first time in her life, her own body is outlined by black Lycra. Her thin legs are bare, and she has spent most of the day at work trying to cover her bony knees with her hands. But looking at the lip prints before her, she knows this outfit really has nothing to do with her. On her it is a costume, and she knows that everyone who looks at her can tell she has nothing in common with the bold women who have declared their presences with the light touch of their mouths. She could never bring herself to put her lips against such filth. Consider the germs, she thinks.
Stepping closer to the wall, she tries to decide if the full-lipped cherry and true red kisses are more passionate than the thin-lipped mango kisses. She can’t tell for sure. Each kiss is individual, like a fingerprint. Her own lips are somewhere in-between and rarely colored at all, and she cannot imagine what their impression might look like next to these others. She’s afraid they might betray a lack of passion.
She returns to the stall to collect her purse. Thinking about Matthew, she adds a single exclamation point after the S in AIDS and wonders if passion has anything to do with love or sex or romance at all. Maybe it exists elsewhere, she thinks, although she’s not certain where, exactly.
On the way out of the bathroom, she expects to feel guilty. But the only tug she feels at her conscience is for defacing someone’s property, and it’s only a small one. After all, the main attraction of the Pumpkin Tree Tavern, according to the TGIF-after-hours-office-crowd, is the slightly raunchy feel that hangs in the air with the cigarette smoke. That this tavern can still attract enough smokers to create an atmosphere which brings tears to the eyes is enough to entice nearly all of the telemarketers on her shift for a drink and a smoke after a week of surveying or selling. The grimy red and gold Formica table-tops, dew-drop light fixtures, and cheap pitchers of beer add to the enticement of the Pumpkin Tree.
She doesn’t usually join her co-workers on Fridays, but after almost a year of working for the Smart Money Marketing Company, she’s heard plenty of the stories that channel through the work cubes on Mondays as though carried on the telephone lines: happy hours turning into all-night parties and who’s slept with whom and wished she hadn’t.
Although amused by the stories, Charlie always kept her distance from the Friday night gatherings. Matthew always waited to take her to a fish-fry and then to a movie. Over breaded cod, she updated him on the office gossip, and he smiled wryly, disapproving of her interest in the dramas.
She’s thought a lot about that smile lately. It represented the whole man to her, like a seashell carried home from the shore and placed on a shelf as a remembrance of the entire ocean. Before, she’d thought of his mouth’s prudish twist as endearing. But recently its significance has changed. When she thinks of that smile now, it makes her think of a rock jutting from the sea floor, its true features hidden by calm water.
A computer salesman with an effervescent personality, kind eyes, and an overwhelming enthusiasm for his Honda CRX, Matthew has always seemed uptight, even to her. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat at the movies when there was the slightest hint of a sexy scene. When they passed a woman on the street wearing high-heeled shoes and a mini-skirt, he whispered, “Cheap” to Charlie and reached out to clasp her hand. Once, when they wandered into a street festival that turned out to be for Gay Pride Week, Matthew nearly frothed with reserve. He kept his hands in his pockets and his eyes on his feet the entire time it took them to walk the length of the three block festival. On their way out, a man wearing a leather cap and a spiked collar handed Charlie a condom as though it were a party favor. Matthew seemed shocked, although it was the brand he used when they made love. He grabbed the tiny square from her fingers and threw it into a trash bin already overflowing with empty beer cups and gnawed corn cobs.
But even without this straitlaced behavior, the crooked line created by his pursed lips would have made her think of him as a prude. It was always easy to shock Matthew. That’s why Charlie had so enjoyed telling him the office gossip. There was something thrilling to her in his disapproval, and something reassuring as well. Knowing Matthew would always be on the side of right, she could wander a little to the left. Just a little. Just to the occasional black nightgown. Or maybe to an extra beer with her dinner if she didn’t have to work the next morning.
Once she even placed her hand between his legs at the movies. Fingers cupping him, she watched the screen. The enormous images conjoined into a wonderful blur of color, and she felt she was as close to pure sensation as she had ever been. But after a brief moment, Matthew dutifully uncurled her fingers and returned her hand to the solid, wooden armrest, just as she knew he would do. She smiled at him in the dark, knowing that her brazenness depended on his propriety.
But it was all a joke, she thinks, snapping the cap onto the pen. And the joke was on her.
She stands back to assess her work, hoping every woman who might even think of sleeping with Matthew passes through this bathroom. But knowing that he would chide her for marring his reputation this way does not make her feel any better. “Screw you,” she says to the black marks which form his name, wishing that instead of merely echoing from the porcelain and mirrors, the words could travel beyond the bathroom walls and find his ears.
Matthew didn’t really give her AIDS. She had the test two weeks ago – almost as soon as she found out he’d been sleeping around – and got the negative results back yesterday. She had been pretty certain she was okay before the test, but she wanted to be sure. She just wanted to be sure of something, she’d thought as she’d walked out of the clinic. Maybe she should have known that Matthew was uptight enough to protect himself with anyone. It might have saved her a week of hell, a week of what-if’s. But she doesn’t feel that she knows this man well enough to judge anything about him. Her Matthew would never have humiliated her this way.
What bothers her it isn’t so much that out of the blue he confessed to sleeping with other women. It’s that he chose women who were everything she isn’t. They were the type that her mother called loose, that he himself called cheap, and that she had been warned from adolescence not to become.
She remembers that when she entered high school, she began to sense her mother was watching her closely. She knows now that her mother would have liked to pretend that her daughter wouldn’t learn anywhere about the Pill, or that single motherhood wasn’t as shameful as it had once been. Fear is a great deterrent, she heard her mother say more than once. Considering the test she has just gotten the result of, she finds it ironic that her mother hadn’t thought about using AIDS to ensure her daughter’s virtue, but Charlie doubts that even today her mother believes AIDS to be anything other than a “gay disease.” Her mother found another way, though, to keep Charlie as unalloyed as possible.
On the premise that one’s looks reflects ones morals, her mother instructed her to dress for respectability, to wear neat pleated slacks and skirts, fitted blouses with padding to accentuate straight, wide shoulders, not a chest of any size. The occasional suede boot was okay, but only if it had a one-inch heel or less and was a nice deep brown or navy color. Never anything flashy. And never anything too baggy, that was just sloppy. Her mother always chose for her, fitted clothing with shapes that had nothing to do with the maturing body inside.
It was in the car on Saturdays, traveling from shopping mall to shopping mall, that Charlie’s mother explained the attitude she expected any daughter of hers have. She told Charlie she knew pre-marital sex was rampant these days, but that did not make it right, and certainly, that did not make it moral. She told her to listen to the nuns in her religion classes; sex was for babies not for fun, and any girl who respected herself would understand this and conduct herself accordingly.
At first, Charlie was embarrassed that her mother would even mention such things to her, and she simply stared at the car door’s window, speculating about how the almost imperceptible smudges might have gotten onto the glass. Later, when she paid more attention to these speeches, she became skeptical of many of the particulars. After all, she knew girls at school who dressed “respectably” but were considered easy by the boys from their brother school. But this was beside her mother’s point, and Charlie knew it. She had absorbed the gist of the lectures years earlier: bad girls were loose and looked it.
Most of the girls at her high school dressed the same way she did when they weren’t wearing the school’s required uniform. Of course there was the wild set, those who cut classes and drank beer before dances. Charlie remembers them wearing fuchsia lipstick and denim Levi’s jackets with their plaid uniforms. One girl, Addie Daniels, had a boyfriend with a Harley.
Once, Charlie watched the dark-haired girl embrace the hips of a scrawny boy with her bare knees as they had screamed out of the school’s parking lot on a motorcycle with no muffler. She knew her mother, and even most of her friends, expected her to disdain Addie and the other girls in the wild set. She had heard them called trashy girls plenty of times. But she admired them and secretly wished she could be more like them, cocky and smart-mouthed and always on the edge of something so far removed from her own world that she was only able get a vague sense of what that something might be.
Years later, when she started dating Matthew, he made her feel that she could move toward that edge, and maybe be a little bit wild after all, all things being relative. She was so pleased with even this limited view of herself as what the office girls called risqué that she admired Matthew’s propriety as well. At least her mother was right about that much, she decided. It had its place.
She considered Matthew her first real relationship. Ten years older than her, he was supportive and sort of fatherly. He was her first lover, too, although they had been dating for nearly a year before Matthew had even suggested sleeping together. She’d been ready long before that but had been too shy to tell him so. She was a little disappointed when, after a few times, the sex wasn’t any better than the first time, a little less painful perhaps. But it was nice enough, she guessed. She most enjoyed the part afterwards, when Matthew would rub her bare back until she fell into sleep.
When he told her he’d been sleeping with other women for the entire two years they’d been going out, she was hurt, of course, but mostly she was curious. Who were these women? Where had uptight Matthew met them? When he told her the names of the bars he went to without her, she recognized them as places her friends clicked their tongues at and called meat markets.
Then, like a boy showing off his baseball card collection, he pulled photographs out of his wallet. The Polaroids showed women sprawled across his bed (she recognized the sheets) with thighs, buttocks, breasts bared for the camera. He said that he had been keeping the pictures in his wallet for years, that occasionally he exchanged them for others from his collection at home, and that he liked to glance at them when things were slow at the store.
She took the pictures from him and looked at them closely. The women were neither beautiful nor ugly. They didn’t even strike her as particularly sexy, but she realized that Matthew saw something in them that he did not see in her, something she couldn’t even recognize. As she studied the blurry images of the women, she couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen these pictures before now, or at least sensed that there was something like them that he hid from her. How could she not have recognized this other person, this person who took photographs of the women he cheated on her with, behind the facade he displayed for her? Her own ignorance shocked her. But when she looked up from the photographs, it was the expression on his face that angered her. There was no mistaking it. It was pity in his eyes. And she knew instantly that the wry smile he had given her for the past two years was not disapproving at all. He thought she was pathetic.
As she drops the felt tip into her purse and returns the smoky atmosphere of the bar, she decides that writing her message on the wall has made her feel a little better after all. She feels less alone than she has felt during the past few weeks, which she has spent avoiding all of her friends, and especially her mother. She hasn’t yet been able to figure out a way to explain the break-up without bringing a fresh rush of humiliation to her cheeks, and she knows their sympathetic coos will only make her feel worse. So she has gone to work, has hidden in her cube, eyes stationed on the words of the prepared speeches she must recite hundreds times each day, and has gone home without talking to any of her usual office friends, without inquiring about the weekly gossip.
She hasn’t found the energy to go the gym in the evenings as she usually did, and instead has spent the nights watching television and recreating Matthew’s expression in her mind. At first, she wondered what made him finally tell her about the other women. She’d forgotten to ask him on that last night. In fact, she’d been able to do little more than grab her coat and walk out of the coffee shop. Later, she wished she had yelled at him, had become hysterical, or had done something to show him there was passion in her, too. As cop shows and news magazines flashed on and off her television screen, she recreated the scene in her mind with her in control and with Matthew feeling guilty and ashamed.
“Why bother to tell me now?” she yelled at him in her mind. But she has refused to call him to find out, afraid of what she might hear in his voice.
Yesterday, in the middle of a long pitch to a woman who seemed to have nothing better to do than talk to a telemarketer about carpeting, a message flashed across the bottom of her computer screen: Friday. 5:00. Pumpkin Tree. Beer. Be there! Automatically, she typed a return message saying she couldn’t make it, but then she considered what Matthew, the old Matthew, would say if he knew she was going out with the Friday night gang. She looked over her computer at her cube-mate, Carol, and nodded her head.
On her way home that evening, she went into a store she knew her mother would never have allowed her to shop at when she was in high school and would have been horrified to see her shop in even today. Loud music videos splashed color onto television screens throughout the store, and the walls were covered with mirrors. Most of the clothing displayed was made of Lycra or velvet, in rich reds and deep violets. There was an odd assortment of gauzy dresses that flowed in a way she found particularly romantic, and plenty of skin tight, black leather items.
First, she browsed through the shoes at the back of the store, picking out two chunky wedges of charcoal lamé. Then she found a basic black Lycra dress on the clearance rack, but the dressing rooms looked suspect to her, and as hard as she tried, she couldn’t keep her mother’s warnings about shoddy sanitation in public places out of her head. She bought the dress without trying it on until she arrived home. It was a perfect fit, and, striking poses in her full-length mirror as though she were in a perfume or liquor ad, she wished Matthew could see her.
“Jeez, it’s about time you got outta there,” Carol says as Charlie returns to the table and sits down. “I gotta pee. Deb, pour Charlie another beer. She’s empty.”
The four women and two men lounging around the table laugh too heartily as Carol hurries off, and Charlie understands that she has missed some private joke. A fleshy woman with hair the color of dying poppies pours beer into a used glass, which Charlie is not at all certain is the one she put down before she went to the bathroom.
“Hey,” Deb says after licking foam from of the back of her hand. “It’s Charlie’s first Friday and we haven’t toasted her yet.”
Murmurs of dismay erupt, and glasses are topped off and raised. “May you soon find a better job and leave our ranks!” says Tim, a balding man with a pocked forehead who holds the longevity record in the office.
Charlie raises the glass in front of her, and it’s clicked in turn by all of the others.
“I miss anything?” says Carol, sitting down next to Charlie.
“Not much. A toast,” Charlie says.
“The toast! I missed the toast?” Carol seems genuinely upset. “Deb, why didn’t you wait for me? I’m the one who brought her.”
“All right, jeez. We’ll do it again.”
They all raise their glasses, and Tim repeats the toast. Clicks follow, then Deb, who seems to be the keeper of the beer, tops off everyone’s glass. More pitchers of beer are ordered, as well as a frozen cheese pizza.
After two more hours of talking about the office, Charlie finds herself bored. Before the pizza, someone suggested going to a bar with a happy hour buffet, but no one moved, and it appears to Charlie that no one plans to. The women have removed their shoes and propped their nyloned feet on the edge of the table. Tim and Deb and a woman whose name Charlie keeps forgetting are playing Mexican with dice Deb got from the bartender. Jim and Myra have moved their chairs very close together and are talking quietly. Carol nudges Charlie with her elbow, points to Jim and Myra, and whispers, “A Monday story in the making.”
Charlie tries to stay interested in the conversations around the table, but she has already heard everything being said many times at the office. Most of the talk consists of complaints about cranky customers and employees who aren’t here.
Certainly this can’t be all they do when they go out, she thinks, trying to stifle a yawn. The Monday stories sound as though there’s much more to it than this. But no one seems to be expecting anything more to happen, and, eventually, Charlie thanks Carol for inviting her, says good-bye to the others, and takes the train home.
She falls asleep on the train, nearly missing her stop, and when she exits the station, she finds that it is raining softly. After the air in the bar and in the train, the rain is a relief, and she inhales deeply. Fully awake now, she remembers the message written on the Pumpkin Tree’s bathroom wall and wonders if Carol saw it and recognized Matthew’s name. If so, Charlie realizes it will be the first Monday story which involves her although she knows she’ll never hear it.
She peels off her dress as soon as she closes the door to her apartment behind her. Her skin feels itchy and choked, and the arches of her feet hurt. The rain has mixed with the gel she used liberally this morning, leaving her hair in hard clumps.
In the shower, she shampoos twice and wonders what Matthew finds so sexy about the look that she tried to recreate today. It felt more uncomfortable than sexy to her, but maybe that was just her, she thinks. Maybe other women, women like the ones Matthew fancied, could sense something in themselves when they dressed like that, something she’s missing. As she soaps mascara and eyeliner from the skin underneath her eyes, she realizes that this feeling of having missed something that other people, even Matthew, can see, or sense, is what bothers her most of all.
It reminds her of a trip she took in third grade to a nature reserve. The guide promised that if all of the children were quiet and patient, they would see a fox emerge from its hole to retrieve its lunch. She and her classmates waited quietly, and all at once there was a joint intake of breath around her. Her friends pointed and giggled, and she tried to follow the direction of their outstretched fingers with her gaze, but she couldn’t see anything except trees and grass and bushes. At first she hadn’t believed that they saw a fox at all, but later, feeling inadequate and wanting to be part of the excitement, she pretended she’d seen it too. At dinner that evening, she regaled her parents with all of the details the other children had described in their nature diaries and had read aloud on the bus back to school. By desert she had almost convinced herself that she, too had seen a flash of red.
In the morning, she forces herself to go to the gym for the first time in weeks. After yesterday though she feels shy about exposing her body and worries that people will be able detect her deficiency as clearly as if she were missing a hand or a leg.
She hides inside a pair of Matthew’s old sweat pants and a long-sleeved tee shirt. But the room is crowded, and half-way through the class she is unbearably hot and wishes she had worn her leotard as she usually does. No one is bothering to look at her anyway, she realizes. She could be here or not be here, and there would be no difference at all. The class would go on without her.
After her workout, she goes to one of the street markets downtown. The sharp sun and warm temperature have brought more people out than usual, and the crowd seems to move as one, from stall to stall, browsing through the batik shirts and dresses, silver and gold lumps of jewelry, and ripe fruits being circled by deer flies. People stop to buy stir-fried rice, corn on the cob, and Polish sausage sandwiches to eat as they shop. She stops to buy a beer, then allows herself to be jostled forward by the crowd, feeling as though she’s no more noticeable than the tables on which the goods are displayed. She becomes aware of occupying space, but so incidentally that anything or anyone could be where she is, breathing the air she’s breathing. It needn’t be her.
A small plane buzzes overhead, trailing the words Naked Furniture 50% off at Goldman’s, and she wonders what the crowd must look like to the pilot. At that distance each person would be indistinguishable, like corn in a field or buffalo in a herd. As she glances around her, she realizes this is true at eye-level as well. The people around her are nondescript, varied in size and color, but in this large a group the gradations of these differences seem to be lessened.
But there are those who stand out, too, and not just the ones with Mohawks, or tattoos, or short-shorts. They don’t look all that different from her, but they seem more realized, more present, like a few individual leaves on a tree that appear for some reason to have caught the sun and turned themselves deeper green than the others.
At the end of one line of stalls are five Metro toilets. The beer she has drunk has filled her bladder, and she waits in line, wishing the women would be as fast as the men. Once inside and surrounded by the pungent odor of chemicals, she feels claustrophobic and tries to be quick. As she refastens her belt, she notices a small patch of black below the toilet paper holder. Someone has written Latisha on the plastic wall, and she remembers the message she left in the Pumpkin Tree’s bathroom last night. She searches her purse to see if she still has the pen she used, and when she finds it, she looks for a good place to write her message. Ignoring the impatient sounds of the shoppers waiting outside for her to finish, she climbs onto the plastic toilet seat and reaches as high up and as close to the corner as she can. This time, though, instead of writing about Matthew, she writes her own name. CHARLIE. No date, no heart, nothing that will mean anything to anyone else who might bother to take notice, except that Charlie was here and declared her presence.
That evening, she thinks about Matthew, wishing again that she had forced him to see her, not as the made-up version of herself that she had been yesterday in the Lycra dress, but rather as something as concrete as the words written on the bathroom wall. She starts to replay the scene in the coffee shop again, but stops, unsatisfied with only this mental image of herself. After a moment, she turns off the television, brushes her hair, and unlocks her bicycle from the rack behind the building. The night air is still muggy, but it’s perfumed by trees and grass. It feels cool brushing against her face as she rides. Traffic is light, and the stillness amplifies the scraping of gravel beneath her bicycle tires.
Matthew’s brownstone is less than a mile from her own apartment, and she is only slightly winded when she arrives. His livingroom window is illuminated, and his CRX is out front. She stops her bike, climbs off, and props it against the side of the car. A thin layer of dust coats the Honda’s black paint, and she knows this is as dirty as his car gets. He’ll wash it tomorrow as he does faithfully every Sunday.
She draws her finger down the length of the rear windshield, but little trace of this gesture shows up on the glass, and she pulls a lipstick from her jeans pocket. The warmth of her body has softened it, and when she touches it with the tip of her finger, a bright clump the color of a wound sticks to her skin. Making certain not to press too hard, she draws a C, then an H and an A on the glass. Halfway through the R the lipstick breaks at the base. She tries to catch it, but it hits her white jeans, leaving a bloody blotch on her knee, and lands in a glob at her feet.
She has nothing else to write with, and she realizes Matthew will seeCHAP lipsticked onto his car and might be puzzled, but no more. He will certainly not feel hurt or guilty. He will not even think of her. Most likely, he will think it was kids horsing around, and she pictures him shaking his head in disgust and thinking, “Damn kids shouldn’t be running loose on the street.”
She smears the letters with her flattened hand, and the red goo squishes between her fingers and slides against the glass like the fingerpaints she used as a child. In fact, the whole experience is a lot like fingerpainting, and she forgets for a moment whose car this is and why she’s here, and just enjoys the sensation. She draws a cloud, then scribbles it out, and draws a tree in its place. She scribbles that too and draws a happy face. As she slides her finger into the a smile, she recalls Matthew’s smile, and it occurs to her that she had typecast him, too.
The windshield is barely visible now under the red smear, but there is an unblemished spot in the top left-hand corner. She scoops the glob of lipstick from the cement. Bits of dirt and gravel have mingled with it, but she smears it on her lips anyway then places her lips against the glass just long enough for the smooth surface to cool her skin.
Removing them, she wonders if Matthew will identify her kiss. But as she studies the impression, she decides that it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t recognize the signature of her lips, or if he merely wipes away all traces of her kiss with one pass through the car wash. She has seen it. Even in the dusky light, it’s brilliant and red.
Karen Lee Boren writes fiction and nonfiction, and a collection of stories entitled Mother Tongue is forthcoming from New Rivers Press. Her novel Girls in Peril was the premiere publication for Tin House Books’ New Voices series and a Barnes and Noble Discover selection. Her novel Month of Fire was a finalist in the 2013 New American Press book contest. Her fiction and nonfiction stories have appeared in journals and anthologies, including WomenArts Journal, The Florida Review, Night Train, Karamu, New South, Hawaiˊi Pacific Review, Dominion Review, Yemassee, Epoch, Cream City Review,BookForum, Fourth Genre, Rites of Passage: Backpacking ‘Round Europe and The Best of Lonely Planet’s Travel Writing. Online, her work can be found at Gadling.com, Night Train, South85, and the Santa Fe Writer’s Project. Website: www.karenleeboren.com