Tell Me Something Funny
He said, Maybe it has something to do with knowing I’ll be dead by the spring, but all of a sudden I want to have sex with a woman.
Theo was looking squarely at me, his eyebrows raised and his head tilted slightly. Usually I took that to mean, I am a sensitive man who understands you, but this time it meant, I am a man, understand me. I knew this was my last chance to get up and leave or else that woman was going to be me. But I didn’t move. I let it be me. Though now I am hourly regretting.
Of course my boyfriend doesn’t understand, Theo said, but I suppose I shouldn’t call him my boyfriend since he ran out of Angelica’s in the middle of our dinner and now he won’t even answer his buzzer or anything else. I suppose that isn’t exactly what a boyfriend does.
That’s usually not what a boyfriend should do, I said.
It’s only reasonable.
Reasonable. Ha, reasonable. You’re funny, he said, and he flashed me a glossy smile and basically I was done. He might as well have hog-tied me and drug me all the way home because there was not even a chance I was getting away. With his face near mine, he slid a hand up my leg and flagged the waitress for the bill. Everyone could be obvious in this way because it was August, one of those months in which no one makes a secret of what they’re up to.
This was also the month I was always slicking ruby lipstick on my mouth and Theo didn’t yet look like he was dying—he was a little thin, maybe, but mostly fine. Dapper, even. The fine bones in his face were visible but not too visible, and his eyes weren’t yet sunken, just serious. You could still tell he had once been one of those people paid to wear thousand dollar shirts and scowl.
Just understand you are dealing with a man who won’t be here long, he said.
But I already knew Theo didn’t have much time for misunderstandings, for misunderstoodness; I knew all he needed was a womb and I knew that was more or less all I could offer him.
I understand, I said, and slammed a door shut behind us.
We went on like this into autumn, in our peacoats and scarves. He would snake his arms into my jacket, but I would only touch the outside of his since I didn’t want to be reminded of how his body was going away. It had started to disappear along his ribs and hipbones first, but then his legs turned into stalks and by winter even a thick scarf couldn’t hide his sinewy neck.
That’s when he started staying in bed all day and I started to get the apartment ready for his departure—clearing out space for the lilies, staring into dusty corners, that kind of thing.
At least you’ve put on lipstick, Theo said one afternoon sitting up all regal in my bed, so things must be going well enough.
Everyone but Theo knew that lipstick in the summer meant I was doing well and lipstick in the winter meant I was just trying really hard not to throw myself in front of the M14. I tried to pretend to be a happy person as I leaned my red mouth to his, that last fleshy part of his face. I’d made the bed up in sheets that you could count a million threads in if you had the time and when they touched our bare bodies I could manage to forget about Theo’s deadline for long enough to let some life happen between us. That was nice, I suppose, a consolation for everything else.
You’re so beautiful, he said. He had been saying this more often the uglier he became. I didn’t like that I had noticed this pattern, but I had.
A problem: I’d already spent many nice months acting like a good, nice woman and I didn’t want to show him the other woman I sometimes was. Women who revise history are just not very popular; everyone knows that. My only hope was that he’d be gone by the time my wits burned out.
All of December I did a great deal of apologizing to Theo and every time I did his eyes would scatter and he’d tell me to stop and then he’d start apologizing for telling me what to do and I would get upset and ask him to stop apologizing and then apologize for telling him what to do and then the guilt would start. The guilt fell heavy on us like a boulder on a cartoon.
We hadn’t diversified our affection and now it was too late.
The months crept and his body kept leaking away. His old friends started to come by, to say a few sentences about their love. They’d say something happy, something serious, cry a few minutes and then say something funny so they could laugh and cry at the same time. They’d take Theo’s hand and put it on their warm faces and then they’d bow and back away, to dinner, I thought, or for cocktails and dancing. None of them ever looked at me. When they spoke to Theo, I believe I was the one called, “her.”
When my body started to change Theo quizzed me about what kind of preventing I had done.
Pills, I said.
But which kind? he asked.
Oh, you know—the, um, pill. Pills.
But what pills? Ones that come from that circle? The tiny ones?
Okay, it’s aspirin. I was just taking aspirin.
Theo died in February, so I did what any sense-making person would do in my position, which is to spend a few weeks not moving any part of myself. A neighbor was the only one who had any kind of mercy. I didn’t know him, didn’t know his first name, wasn’t even sure what he looked like except the back of his head. His last name was Oscar, his welcome mat was filthy and I knew him only by the slam of his door. He broke into my apartment and asked me if I was alive.
I’m alive, I said to the hallway darkness that his voice came from.
Did you get it?
What he had. Do you have it too?
Oh, I said. No. It wasn’t that—it wasn’t, you know. I mean, that’s not the way you get it. It was something he had his whole life.
Then it was so quiet I thought I could hear his eyebrows raise. He left a glass of water beside me and slammed my front door.
A few hours later Karen walked right in, threw off her wool poncho, and pounced.
Two little monkeys jumping on the bed. One fell off and bumped her head, she chanted, but she didn’t fall off and I didn’t see even one monkey.
Oscar had found Karen’s number in my kitchen and called, said I was in need of someone who would need me. Oscar didn’t really need me, he just needed me not to die and start stinking his apartment through the walls. This is where his mercy came from, I learned—that kind of fear.
After the monkey-jumping failed, Karen’s solution for me was called Authentic Screaming. They met in the basement of a church.
The Authentic Screamers stood in a circle and held hands and breathed deeply all at the same time with little moans and gasps and then one person moved into the center, sitting or standing or crouching or doing whatever came authentically. Once we were all silent as death, the one in the middle would bellow or rasp or Tarzan or moan or fling syllables around in bloody little bits. When my turn came I screamed a spectrum, starting fast like a faucet turned on high, then gradually down to a scratchy trickle. Karen’s screams came down like they were jumping from a great height.
And the next week all my hair fell out.
Karen said that happens sometimes, that authenticity can be harsh on the follicles. She prescribed setting a tangle of sage on fire and praying to a god I didn’t believe in.
That’s all good and fine but what if the prayer is answered?
Don’t be stupid, Karen said, with a pretty smile, her eyes glassy and her freckled, fair skin glowing— you just wanted to copy the feeling of her face over and over again, turn it into a color and turn the color into a paint and cover the whole world with coats and coats of it. That’s kind of how she made me feel. It was that kind of thing.
I didn’t want to admit that Theo Jr. did not really interest me.
Somehow, my mother came—I hadn’t seen her in some time. She took Theo Jr. away. I remember her arms engulfing his tiny, spotless self. She didn’t say anything to me and I didn’t say anything to her either. His eyes twinkled at her in a way I had only heard of, so I suppose I am not a mother, after all. That must be a role for the people I am not.
Catherine Lacey's debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, is forthcoming from FSG. She has published in McSweeney's Quarterly, The Believer, Brooklyn Magazine, 40 Stories and many others. She is a founding co-owner of the Brooklyn Bed & Breakfast, 3B.