I’m dating a guy who works as a merchandiser for a large department store and one of his duties includes designing window displays. He tells me this on our third date. We have already slept together, twice. I’m not a hard sell. When he tells me about his job, we are at a sleazy bar, drinking beer from the tap in frosted mugs. I tap my foot against his. I say, “I’m ready to go back to your place whenever you are.” I am anxious about all the “getting to know you” conversation we are having. I’ve never enjoyed sitting through previews at movies. It always seems like such a waste of time. He tells me he dresses windows and has access to a storeroom full of mannequins and mannequin parts. I say, “Like in the movie Mannequin,” and he doesn’t get the reference—disappointing. I explain about Meshach Taylor and Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall frolicking in the middle of the night in a department store thanks to the magic of an ancient Egyptian necklace, all set to an synthetic eighties soundtrack. On our way to his place, we stop at a video store and rent the movie and he loves it and for the first time I think the guy is not a complete tool. A couple months later, he comes over to my apartment in the middle of the night because we’ve long abandoned any pretense of a mutual interest in anything but dirty sex and he’s holding a fiberglass baby arm, painted the color of flesh. He hands it to me and says, “I thought you might like this,” and I take the baby arm and tell him if he’s not careful, I will fall in love and he says he would be fine with that.
We take a bottle of wine and the baby arm to my bedroom and I caress it while we kill the cheap red. My mouth tastes fruity yet sour, cheap, I don’t mind. I’m quickly becoming enamored by the scraggly beard unevenly covering the baby arm bringer’s face and his thin lips and the sensation of him rubbing my back in lazy circles because he never knows how to make a move, still doesn’t understand he only needs to push me on my back and tell me to spread my legs. I set the baby arm on my nightstand and provide him with a little seduction instruction. He follows directions well so I lie beneath him and imagine a little more hair on his chest, a little more muscle wrapped around his bones. I squeeze his shoulders and wrap my thighs around his waist. I tell him to fuck me like he hates me a little. He grins and I think about my best friend Tate. We work together as publicists and often lament how we are sacrificing our souls. We are not motivated to change our professional circumstances. We have to look pretty and make people believe in false idols and hold our liquor. For that, we are handsomely rewarded. We write off our gym memberships and depilatory regimes. Our offices are right next to each other but we spend most of our time on the phone talking about our all-girl fight club, no boys allowed. Boys don’t really know how to hurt girls. “Hey,” he says. “Are you with me?” I open my eyes and look up at him. A thin line of sweat beads along his hairline. I smile. I tell him to hate me more. He does, and a pleasant soreness begins spreading from between my thighs and my head is slamming against the headboard. I’m with him.
Later, I am still awake because I’m not very good at sleeping and I’m achy so I’m feeling tender toward him. Instead of nudging him awake, telling him to go home, I watch him sleep. I hold the baby arm and marvel at how small and perfect it is, how each finger is exactly where it is supposed to be, slightly curled toward the wrist. I use the baby arm to trace my sort-of boyfriend’s arm. His name is Gus. Now that I’m sure of his name, I no longer call him Hey You or refer to him as “the dude I’m nailing,” when talking to my friends. I hold the baby arm to my chest and eventually I fall asleep. I really underestimated Gus.
The next morning at the office, I call Tate and tell her how well Gus takes direction. She says, “Next time you fuck him call me so I can listen to the two of you and when you come, say my name.” I tell her I will. That’s what friends are for. We talk about the baby arm, how it almost articulates. I tell her how I lovingly cleaned it with a baby wipe and how I kissed each fingertip. She says, “I want a boy who will bring me a baby arm.” She asks me how I got so lucky and I don’t really have an answer for her. I consider the sequence of events bringing Gus into my life and amend my response. I explain I got so lucky because of a lifelong dedication to slutty and inappropriate behavior and my ability to drink tequila straight. She murmurs approvingly. I want to tell her it’s fate but she’s hardcore and would probably laugh. I tell her I will ask Gus if he has any straight friends in merchandising. She says, “This calls for a celebration. We’re having a fight club tonight,” and she recites an address I don’t recognize. “How are we going to make a 13-year old pop singer popular?” I ask, briefly steering the conversation toward work. Tate is silent for a few moments. Finally she says, “Old white ladies who perm their hair.” We are very good at our jobs.
I show up at a sketchy strip mall, the kind that includes a depressing house of worship (www.godinotshere.com) filled with posters of black Jesus and folding chairs; a chicken shack with two tables and a dirty counter promising a soupcon of salmonella; a retail emporium for strippers and their friends; and an urgent care clinic. This strip mall is the most perfect place in the world. Tate, she texts me to go into the stripper emporium, where I ask to be escorted to the basement, making note of a pair of clear Lucite heels that would look spectacular on me. Tate is waiting in the basement, her dirty blonde hair slicked back in a fierce ponytail. She’s wearing jeans and a wifebeater and a leather jacket and so am I. So are all the girls we’ve invited, ten of us who are pretty and fucked up, girls who keep their ugly beneath the skin where it belongs even though sometimes, it’s hard to keep it all in. We all look hot. I say, “This room is a wet dream,” and everyone laughs nervously, and Tate says, “Let’s rock this shit.”
She runs up to a thin redhead, a model who is moderately recognizable and lurking near the edge of the room. Tate punches the model in the gut and I feel tingly all over and then someone’s knuckles connect with my face and I can taste blood in the back of my throat. I get so angry I start swinging. I don’t care what I hurt. We don’t waste any time making any rules or pontificating about the meaning of our fight club. We don’t do any of that girlfighting shit. There’s no hair pulling or scratching or screeching helplessly. We’re all about closed fists and open handed face slaps and knees to flat stomachs. We hold throats between our fingers until desperate hands claw at our wrists. We wrestle on the sticky floor and call each other terrible names until the room is sweet with sweat and heavy bruising. We fight until our arms are so heavy and sore we can’t lift them and one girl, who is pinned by a large, scary looking tomboy suddenly shouts, “Get off me, you fat ass.” Her words are so sharp, we all hear them through the fists falling against flesh and the grunts and the heaving. We all gasp because the tomboy is big boned but she’s not fat.
Tate stops slamming the head of a pixie girl with pink hair against the floor and she stares at me across the room. She mouths, “I love you,” and I smile even though it hurts and another set of knuckles connects with my face, ruining the moment—bitches ruin everything. My jaw feels loose and some hideous bruises are forming along my cheekbones. I’m pretty sure a couple of ribs are broken. I crawl toward a nearby wall and sit with my knees pulled to my chest. Tate slowly lowers herself next to me. She holds my hands in hers, kisses each of my fingertips, the undersides of my wrists. She says, “See? No one can hurt like a girl.” We’re all slumped in piles of damage. We try to pull ourselves together while contemplating cosmetic strategies for work the next day. I buy the Lucite heels and other necessities on the way out and Tate and I flirt with danger by eating at the chicken shack. We tear greasy, fried meat from warm bones with our teeth. Our hands are scraped but shiny and slick. We smile at each other. This is the most I will ever love another person.
When Gus comes over a few nights later, he is holding a chubby baby thigh. He has shaven his beard. I tell him if he keeps this up, I might marry him. He says, “I can live with that.” Gus hands me the baby thigh, dimpled around the knee and kisses my cheek. I turn and crush my lips against his even though there isn’t an inch of my body that doesn’t hurt. We don’t bother with wine. We’re all teeth and tongue. We tear each other’s clothes off and in my room he throws me on the bed. I’m impressed. He’s such a quick study. Gus traces the bruises along my ribcage and on my face, even presses them until I wince. I say harder. He obeys. I hold up my hand, say, “Hold that thought,” and dial Tate. I hand him the phone. I say, “She wants to talk to you.” He smiles the sleaziest smile and says, “Two chicks. That’s hot,” and I tell him not to talk too much so we can still fall in love and get married and he can continue to woo me with fiberglass baby parts. Gus puts Tate on speakerphone and she tells him all the terrible things she wants him to do to me. I marvel at her creativity and her cruelty and how much she loves me. Gus does as he’s told. He’s a good boy. He fucks me like a bad, bad man and when I come, hard, his fingerprints around my throat are still throbbing. I am barely breathing, I can’t find the air. I call out Tate’s name until it feels like my throat muscles will unravel. I can taste her in my mouth. The next time I talk to Tate I will tell her she’s the man of my dreams.
While Gus sleeps, I hold the baby arm and the baby thigh, so hard and smooth and adorable. I think about how the longer I date Gus, the more baby parts he’ll bring me and maybe, eventually, we’ll have a little family of fiberglass child parts that will never become anything more than what they are.
© Roxane Gay
This piece first appeared in Rick Magazine.