Penetrable Paradox

Sarah Tourjee

In the sack fingers run quickly down my back, pause around my pant line and run back up. A tug at shirt fabric is enough to make me shed and soon I'm bare. For a moment the hand gliding up my thigh stops looking like my own hand, I only recognize the skin between its fingers. I am nearly an objective observer of myself. I cannot see a thing that does not have my own body partially in the frame.

I open my apartment door after a knocking and beyond the brim of my own eyebrows I see Lane's face. Lane is my neighbor. I suspect these thin walls have been telling secrets, she is always interrupting. She is asking for a cup of sugar again, says she is preparing for when there is no more sugar in the world, when we are all that's left in the world, when we must do all the baking. She takes some flour too. This is a joke she likes to put on but when she returns she is empty handed. I keep buying more of it. I don't want to be empty handed when she asks.


I've been having sex with only myself for years. I'd like to say that this way, as a sort of penetrable paradox, to fuck or be fucked is a question you don't have to answer after all. But you always have to answer it, even if you're playing both parts. You ought to answer it, anyway. What part of me is doing the fucking right now? What part of me is being fucked? Outside of physical body parts, which are obvious, the options are many. You can tease this out if it's only you, you can own it one way or the other, but other people make choices for you, make it too simple. I'll admit it though. I want to put myself inside Lane, set up house, and light a fire for warmth. I hand her the sugar when she asks for it.


She asks me if I've heard about the dead birds. The aflockalypse, they're calling it. A bolt of lightning or climate change or some such trauma killed them mid flight. 5,000 fell in a mile diameter, a storm littering yards with the bodies of spring's entrance. Then she pulls something out of her pocket and holds it out to me. The red feathers of its breast and its stillness are sort of beautiful, unmangled, the look of breathless sleep. I don't need the proof though. In school three of my students brought me the same rotting gift.


The usual things don't scare eight year-olds anymore, not dead birds or dinosaurs, and believe me I've tried. Even a claw down a chalkboard at an integral moment during Jurassic Park is not enough anymore to make the frailest girl shudder. Instead I can see them on the playground huddled around a fowl body debating the validity of global warming, debating who should be blamed. I can see their eyes darkening, the tops of their heads gleaming through their thinning hair. I can see them at home with their own kids on their knees. I can see them clinking glasses together and turning over foreclosed houses for their college funds. These kids may be 42 year-olds in disguise but sometimes they drop their guard—they throw their lunch on the floor, pick their nose in front of everyone, or cry in a corner as if no one can see them. It's not their fault they're so horrific, what with the world as it is. At times when they all huddle around me though, I break out in a sweat, run to the hall, catch my breath, sure for a moment that they're about to do me off and leave me for the gutter. But when I peek in through the door window they're just standing there, weaponless, waiting.


One of them, George, is very fond of me because recently I caught him crying, and when I asked him why, he told me he had asked his father if he could become a girl. He said his father told him never ever to say that again. I had the feeling this was not the first time they'd had this conversation. In a wave of indignation I told him if he wanted to be a woman it was none of his father's goddamn business, that he could become a woman any time he pleased and that dad would get the memo sooner or later. I told him that sometimes bodies are wrong, and people are wrong about what bodies should do. Take dinosaurs for instance. Even the poor brontosaurus is a victim of manmade creation. It's just been reported that the largest beast in history was the result of incorrect head placement. Someone put the wrong skull on the wrong skeleton. "Do you understand?" I asked him, but George just stared at me until I stopped talking. I worried for a few days after that he would tattle on me but some weeks went by with no threatening phone calls. He started wearing pink stockings that would peek out from a pant leg and smile at me unabashedly.

I took this as evidence of educational success. I reward myself with bath bubbles, a glass of wine. Then I lead myself coyly to the bedroom and have a go of it.


I didn't tell him this, I tell Lane as she stands in my doorway, but sometimes I imagine a cock between my legs. Not someone else's, my own. Not because I want to be a man. The things are hideous but workable, efficient. Good for a jaunt if you're driving. Let's be honest, there's something to be said for taking space literally instead of making it figuratively—a guilty thrill perhaps, but a thrill that lacks gray area. Lane is a writer, which means she is always noticing things about people, invasively. It also means she's home a lot just pacing around, or so I imagine. When she talks she takes a long time getting the words out and seems to size me up between each word, calculating the flush in my cheeks and the tousle of my hair, the tempo of my response. She knows, and I know it. I want to invite her in for cake or whatever people sit around with, but how to let a person into my house when I have the arrangement I have? Before she goes she asks me what sort of thrill I achieve on my own account, but she doesn't wait for a response.


Look, I went to college too. I know all about Freud and sex disorders and agoraphobia. I know what she's thinking. Who was it that fucked me up to the extent that now I can't sleep with anyone, male or female? Who was it that used to visit my room around 3 AM and run hands up and down the length of me while I held my breath? People can stop breathing at any moment, this is true, and I comforted myself with this thought nightly until the latch announced an absence. Even now I wake up regularly at three, stop breathing, watch the door remain closed. You might think it explains so much. That a self-imposed absence now is a comfort as much as it is a punishment. But what do any of us need any punishment for? That's one thing I keep trying to tell my students when they're handing me dead birds and wondering—is this it? I want to tell them not to feel so guilty about every damn thing, that it's not their fault they're alive in their bodies. It's not their fault that the world is ending, if it's ending. I can only tell them about dinosaurs though, which are extinct, but which are comforting somehow anyway—maybe because they're extinct. What we do with dinosaurs now doesn't matter.


At school I am becoming suspicious that George is getting picked on. Some of the kids have noticed the stockings.  I pull him aside one morning, careful to keep a safe distance between us in case he turns on me. I try to speak clearly. "George, are any of the other children showing negative feelings towards you or your body?" He looks at his feet and says the kids keep yelling "he-she! he-she!" when they see him. He-she right now is the worst they can say. This crude hyphenation of pronouns, forced to share him because neither wants him, makes almost any other identification seem welcome. I can see bruises on his elbows. I am not prepared for this next step. I haven't thought this far ahead. The things I have been told about the body are that it's a temple, that it's a vessel, that it's ugly, that it's beautiful, that it's temporary, that it's permanent. None of these things seem like anything I'd want to tell someone. I tell him to curl his hands into little fists and to get as far as he can with them.


"You'll get fired," Lane says. She stands in my doorway again, sugar tipping out of the jar in her hand. She is angry with me for encouraging an eight year-old to change his gender, and for encouraging him to fight on top of that. I am getting angry with her for spilling sugar on my doormat. "Can I come in?" she says, stepping in as she says it. I back up from the door and she enters. Then she's talking again about what I said to George. "That's one of those things they don't even have to tell you not to say. And anyway, he could get hurt. You've got to stay out of it," she says, "please." I don't know why she adds this please as though it means a lot to her whether I have a job or not. I don't know what she's doing here or what she wants. I ask her if there was something else she needed. "No," she says, and goes.


I wake up in the middle of the night, sweat at the closed door, toss a bit, and I start to think about all the ways this could go for George, what I might have set him up for. I start to worry that those little fists of his might not get him very far at all. I wonder if Lane is right, if I should have stayed out of it. I am flooded with this feeling I keep telling people not to feel. Once a bit of it gets through there is no end to the guilt a person may collect. It begins with the failure to say no, to say anything at all when it is clear that anything at all should be said, and once you accept the guilt of merely holding your breath in the night, there is no act on this brief planet of which you are absolved.


When I call George's parents, his mother answers the phone. After I explain who I am she yells to her husband and then I hear a click and some breathing as he picks up another phone. I tell them George is being picked on. I tell them about the stockings. I tell them I'll keep an eye on him. They don't say much, but they don't sound like monsters. They sound concerned. They thank me for calling and I feel relieved that I've done my part. But when I next see George, he doesn't say hello to me or smile. He sits down at his desk. The cuff of his pant leg rises above his ankle when he sits, and I can see that he is wearing white socks. He barely moves his lips as we recite the species of dinosaurs and the periods they lived. During free time he stays seated and draws while all of the kids go outside. He ignores me when I ask him if he's going to go outside and play. Silent minutes go by and finally, though I don't want to get involved again, I ask him if something is wrong. "Why did you tell them?" he says, not looking at me, and I reply that I thought maybe they could help, though this feels not altogether true. He tells me they put all of his toys in the attic. "They said they were for girls. They said boys will never want to play with me if I play with dolls."

I feel the indignation coming on again, want to find out where he lives, break into the house and attic and give him back his dolls and stockings. I want to call his parents again, ask them if they actually think this will do what they want it to do. But I can practically feel Lane back in my doorway telling me not to say another thing that I'll regret. Saying please as though it matters to her. Saying well honestly, what did you think they would do? I don't have an answer to that.


At home I wait for the sound of Lane's knocking. I arrange my chairs for sitting. I wonder what sort of evening George has had and if his dolls have been replaced with trucks and his stockings buried in the trash. This is what people do, as I understand it: Their neighbors knock on doors and are invited in, and they sit in chairs and eat some sort of snack and they talk about their days in a cursory way and they give each other advice and encouragement. One of them asks, "What are bodies designed to do?" and the other suggests, "Grip things with agility? Repopulate efficiently?" and they agree that if there is nothing left to grip and the world is awash with humans, then the body's evolutional functions have long become obsolete. They agree on this but other than that, it is unknown what they might have in common. But after sitting in chairs and discussing their days in a cursory way, they have at least this time in common, and their common time multiplies the longer they sit in chairs. The possibility of an infinite amount of common time exists, it exists until one of them asks the other if there was something else she needed, and the other gets up and goes. I wonder if playing with trucks and boys could make George's life better. Lane does not knock on my door. I sit in a chair and watch time multiply infinitely before me.


Again I wake up in the middle of the night. This time I think about Lane. I wonder what she is writing over there. I wonder what she does with that sugar. I imagine she is writing about the sugar. Shaking it out of each cup gradually, letting it fall where it falls around her apartment, allowing it to settle on her surfaces and crystalize when wet. I imagine her pressing her skin to the grains and feeling the pain and relief of something small and innumerable against her body. Then examining the pieces of it, clumping them into cubes or sickles. Lane is both sure that the world will end and that it will carry on despite our whining. I feel certain that is what she writes about, but now I want to ask her.

I get up, stumble to my front door, pause without opening it. I stand and stare at it as my eyes adjust in the dark. The bridge of my own nose is always between me and whatever I'm trying to look at or touch. I press my hand to my nose, then sit down and press my knee to my hand, then my foot to my knee. My body stacks up in front of me. I see only fragments of a door beyond it. I start to unfold my body, lay it enticingly out on the floor. But now my limbs just look familiar, tired and predictable. I know what they're about to do.


When I asked George if that was something he wanted—to play with boys—he looked at his feet and shrugged slightly. I stand up. I unlock my door, open it, walk to Lane's door, knock. I have to knock several times but then she opens the door and looks at me like she has never expected me to knock on her door. "You ok?" she says.  "Why do I have to?" he said. I have no idea what to say now, wish I had thought of something to borrow. She gestures for me to come in. I walk inside and I don't look around, don't want to see the sugar there or not there, or what she's done with the place. I didn't know how to tell him that the assignments of our bodies will never be sufficient to the lives we live in them. I turn around instead and when she has closed the door I press her against it. I couldn't tell him to pretend that they are. There is a moment when we are both surprised, and then our faces meet abruptly, messily. I try to see her but my nose obstructs, and my hand is wrapped around her but is on the doorknob nonetheless. I couldn't tell him not to worry, assure him that the world's ending anyway. I am caught up momentarily by the feel of metal compared with her, and sudden panic makes me grip it, start to turn. It seemed suddenly cruel, even selfish, to expect it all to end then, with George there like that, wearing white socks. She lifts my fingers from the knob and I place them elsewhere. "You don't have to," I said to him, as if it helped.