CW: Reference to indecent exposure/sexual harassment
Before the thing with the man on the street, she picks the blue cotton dress because it complements the veins on her neck, and the perfume of violets because she read somewhere once that Marie Antoinette wore a perfume of violets and she’s wondered since if the guillotine caught the queen where she once dabbed the scent, if her death smelt of the flowers.
She is given to these kinds of thoughts.
She chooses the long walk instead of the train and is rewarded with dry weather and a whippy breeze that twirls the skirt of her dress around her, the hem of it tickles the backs of her calves.
Inside the Natural History Museum, the bones of the museum’s prized blue whale curl down from the ceiling, threatening to scoop up tourists like stuffed bears in a claw machine, and tour guides direct schools of kids to lie on the floor head-to-foot to measure the breadth of that blue whale, to understand the depth of the ocean. Just outside of it, he blocks her path—unzipping his pants, rubbing his crotch.
“Hey! Hey, you in the dress!”
He stands the distance of three kindergartners from her, about 17 short of a blue whale—she remembers that exercise, stretching her neck, pointing her toes to fill the space left void by absent classmates.
It’s a shame really. He isn’t terrible looking.
In a different world, if they’d met, actually, maybe they could’ve shared a bottle of wine. She would ask which of his parents he looks like the most and he would probably say his mother, that they share the same, sweet, round cow-like eyes and, maybe, on a second date, he’d take her to a nice restaurant, and he would wear Sunday clothes, even gold cufflinks, and she would flirt by fingering them, teasing, threatening to undo them (and he wouldn’t say anything about her pointer and middle fingers being the same length, already intuiting how she feels about that) and she would ask if the cufflinks were vintage and maybe they were, maybe they were the nicest things his dad’s dad, the war hero, owned, and they would share a chocolate lava cake, or a melty cookie, and when they finally had sex, she would stare into his eyes like his mother’s and think of grass and sunshine and butter.
But. They were in this world, the one where he crouches, squashed down a little like a toad about to jump, knees splayed so one points uptown and, the other, downtown, pelvis open, better to thrust himself deep into nothing. His penis, fish-belly pale, hangs from the unclenched teeth of his Levi’s, and he cups his hands below imaginary breasts, cradles them gently, bringing one to his mouth. He sucks the air through his lips, slurps through his teeth. He nurses from a ghostly teat.
She looks to the people passing, can you believe this? They can, they’ve seen it before.
What if she bared her breast on the street, what would the people do then?
And what if she gave him what he wanted? What if she shoved her breast, the slightly bigger one, the whole thing, in his mouth – yanking his head back by the hair, to better poke, push herself down like punching over-proofed dough in a too-small bowl and what if her nipple pressed past the little wiggly thing in the back of his throat, reaching towards something primordial, unknitting his brains, taking him all the way back to before his mother and his dad’s dad, the war hero, all the way to the moment that distant ancestor of his chose to leave the water and the mud, and grow legs?
The people on the street would look at her then– they would stop and stare and tell her just how beastly she is. She’s sure of it.
But if she is a beast, what of it?
Her go-to order at Waffle House, smelling every tube of deodorant at the store before making a decision, the Mitski show last summer, the patch of eczema on her left elbow, her high school boyfriend at the movies tunneling his way in through the leg of her jean shorts with popcorn-butter slicked fingers, the dark humor she honed in middle school, the hairline she inherited from her paternal grandmother along with a predisposition to heart and kidney issues, the molecules that build up a world dedicated only to the creation of her unruly cuticles, even the smell of her violet perfume—it all fades away, far, with the breeze and the clouds, out to the sea.
Sometimes, all it takes is recognition.
The man, too curious, steps toward her, his penis almost forgotten now, turning pink in the sun. He says something but she can’t quite hear it and even if she did, she wouldn’t be able to understand him, her heart beats too close to the surface of her salt. There are krill caught in her teeth and she likes to feel them wiggle before sucking them down her briny tongue. From three kindergartners away, her skin is glossy and wet even here on the street, but up close there are wrinkles thin as a cat-scratch where algae have started to grow. She smells of rot because the tiny organisms living in her crevices are feeding on even smaller organisms who are attracted to her very fine bacteria. It’s ok though – she is an ecosystem, what are you, anyway?
Still she is smooth and slick and if you try to grab hold, she will simply slip away.