The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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Patty would slap stickers on her calf and ass cheeks to make herself stand out. Problem is, so would the other girls. I never did much of anything. You could say it was laziness or obliviousness. The girls seemed always fussing about something, applying costumes or makeup that looked ridiculous to me because I didn’t know the boss’s latest whim (he would pick themes or some such and the girls would hop to!).
But it really wasn’t just obliviousness on my part. I thought I was special. Why? It’s hard to explain—more like a rhythm than a reason. I was in the flow of something. Sometimes I’d please myself aesthetically with some little thing I did. Like, here’s an example: This man—Sebastian I think, though he probably hadn’t given his real name—with longish mad hair like a composer’s and tight underwear on a wiry ripped bod. He’d tried out a bunch of girls by the time he got to me and annoyances had attached to him like lint to felt. So he tells me: don’t do this, and I don’t want that… and I’m thinking how impossible it is that he’ll explain what he wants by listing what he doesn’t, like what a crude instrument he’s applying to choose from life’s infinite possibilities. So I say, yah yah, I know what you need.
And I did. He needed just hedonism, just everything. I knew to douse myself in wine, champagne, oil. My bikini was gross. I rolled in potato chips. They stuck to me. I could see he was excited. I wrapped my body around his and pushed us both into a shopping cart where we writhed around like some happy underwater monster.
And he became a regular. Now, imagine him having to explain to someone else that he wanted what we did. Our act was irreproducible. Now, imagine me explaining to my relatives my talent, or why I loved my job. Not only could I not do it, I didn’t even begin to try. But they—though they were distant cousins, uncles twice removed—decided to “save” me. They marched up to the boss, though they didn’t understand the customs of our workplace and committed a million little faux pas on the way to his desk, and paid me out—another faux pas.
My boss looked past them at me like, are you really on board with what’s happening here? But I just sagged into my shopping cart like I had no bones and concentrated on the feel of the metal rods pressing into my skin, which was becoming slowly more intense as they wheeled me out. Put some clothes on her, said one uncle, and before I knew it I was employed here in this cubicle. The funny thing is, though my family seems satisfied, nothing’s really changed. Still by myself, I watch coworkers run around. I don’t understand why, or what they’re doing. I’m still special in a way I can’t explain. They say I’m up for review soon.
There’s no winning with this man because your every reaction gives him pleasure. If you belittle him, he’ll relish the humiliation. Mock him, dismiss him as a joke and he’ll, with a twinkle in his eye, become more ridiculous to make the joke funnier—but for himself, not for you. He’ll steal your joke out from under you, turning your smirk into a comical mask he hangs on his wall—and if you run away, out of horror or frustration, simply leave him to himself, then he becomes King of the World, undisputed master of all he surveys, which he was, by the way, anyway, even before you left.
How did he achieve this phenomenal power? By learning to take pleasure in everything: not just in eating chocolate, but in eating tar, in licking a cheese grater, in sucking on a compliment, mixing its sugar with his spittle until the praise turns sickly sweet, then patting himself all over, rolling around in his own filth like a shitty baby, crying, suckling at his mother’s teat and hurting her nipple.
Because in everything there is a bit of something else—in rejection, isolation, in isolation, the prominence of being an island’s sole inhabitant, in the island’s limited resources, an infinity of creative combinations (palm leaf and coconut, coconut and parrot, parrot feathers and palm leaves arranged in a crown)—and because he’s a sensualist, he uses the momentum of each new sensation, every event, no matter how minor, to send himself on an exhilarating trip through a vast range of emotions, reactions, counterreactions, impulses acted on, impulses denied that, like patted-down air bubbles, pop up somewhere else.
There’s nothing out of bounds for this filth, and while you and I might shy away from sadness, envy, helplessness, and rage, or take note of the negative effects of negative feelings and try not to cause these feelings in others and to alleviate them when we find them, he has no conscience—It’s just another part of life! he pants, touching himself while eyeing each color in your spectrum of discomfort.
No mercy, and no respect for your autonomy, because for him all sensations flow into one another, and people are ceaselessly affecting one another both through proximity and absence, and because from dust we came and to dust we shall return—there is no autonomy, no self, and since you will some day be inanimate, he does not concede your right to ownership of even your own body.
Someday he’ll die too—he knows it. When he pictures his own death, which he does often, he imagines his body lying in a mass grave with your body and the bodies of your family and friends and enemies and strangers, each body dressed in clothes chosen for it by the living, clothes thought respectable or timeless (many white dresses, many black/gray/brown pairs of slacks), or representative (the favorite shirt, those worn army fatigues). He pictures those clothes slowly removed by pervy nature: water saturating cloth, unwinding fibers, taking its time—years, decades!—to tear and then enlarge a hole in fabric covering a breast, while worms wriggle over the skin, lovingly nibbling. He pictures his own body slowly stripped with the others, his own softening, liquefying flesh mixing with other softening, liquefying flesh, releasing bones crisscrossing in a multitude of abstract patterns.
The mixing! The merging! Someday you and he will join to feed a plant. Until then, he does not expect your kindness or respect. Do what you want to me, he says. Treat me whichever way you like. Spit on me or turn your head away when I come near. But sometimes a little doubt creeps in, mostly when he looks in the mirror and sees: his own face, everything sliding down—tip of the nose, skin slackening and sagging into jowls, his eyes hooded so that the twinkle in them becomes less convincing, so that he has to push it out past hanging flesh, so that he sees his face no longer shows what he believes he feels.
My Homely Friend
I’m walking with my homely friend, looking for a place to do my business, by the gently flowing river, through the richly verdant farmland. The rolling hills. The sunlight. Along the lip of the river, by the smoothly whispering water, the sun is in my friend’s face. She’s squinting, her face lopsided, scrunched nose like an onion.
This looks like as good a place as any, she’s telling me, and starts laying down our gear without even asking, putting our pans and things in a heap by what will be the fire, and now is busy fussing with the tent poles. She doesn’t ask me to help, so I stand here in this patch of light on this patch of soil, and watch her fuss.
I’ll do the hard part. The point of our travels, after all, is for me to do my business, so she obviously assumes I’m saving myself for that and is just facilitating, but it’s making me nervous how calmly she’s clearing my path, as if she trusts me to do it without difficulty or reservation. But I hardly know what I’ll do. I feel it in my body, the urge, but don’t know how to fulfill it.
And that’s my secret. She doesn’t know and wouldn’t understand. I’m so alone in this: the urge, but mixed with not knowing.
She’s under the tent now, happily sliding poles into place. She loves the sun, I know, though it makes her ugly. What a trusting, good-natured girl with flaking skin, especially on her nose, so naturally peeling off—like dry bark. But her good nature is sometimes a force like gravity, drawing to us other good-natured folk. At the edge of our campsite, a farmer has appeared with his kids, and they’re setting up too, building a shed, a nice wooden shed with planks so dry they’re almost gray and the nails go through them easily with one stroke of the hammer, and almost split them. And the kids are penning up the livestock and giggling over the cute baby goats.
My friend, by the time she emerges from under the tent, seems to have known this family for years, and they’re all making way, respectfully, for me to crawl inside. I do, and there’s a very pleasant shade, like the stretched tent fabric has caught the light and is keeping it suspended a few feet off the ground, like even the light is giving me my space, but I see it flickering on the fabric, like on a screen, little dancing shadows of leaves and other shapes.
I lie down on my back and pull out the implement, an udder-like air-filled tool that when you squeeze it makes one long nipple puff then another. And I’m squeezing it, watching the air move around inside, and something is happening but not the thing I need. I’m distracted by the farmer’s voice talking to my friend. They’re obviously some distance from the tent and trying to be quiet, but their consideration makes it harder. I try to ignore them but want to be out there with them, chatting, leaning on the fence post, or giggling with the children.
Then, after a while of failure, my friend calls out to me with her guilelessly discordant voice, How you doin’ in there? And I say, Fine, fine. Give me a minute.
Maria Rapoport is a New York–based writer who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her work has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, The Iowa Review, and The Pinch. She received an Iowa Review Award in creative nonfiction and has been awarded fellowships by the Edward Albee Foundation and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Program. She is currently working on a collection of experimental short fiction.