Roxane Gay

Baby Arm

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 ( filled with posters of black Jesus and fold­ing chairs; a chick­en shack with two tables and a dirty counter promis­ing a soupçon 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.

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