Formal Shade Garden With Reflecting Pool by Patricia Mae Young

Drowning Hard

Debra Di Blasi

I once told Joey I wasn't as pretty as he wanted me to be, and he said, "It's the inside of you I care about." Well, I thought he was referring to my heart, its kindness and generosity, but what he really meant was my sex, its tightness and generosity.

I am a big woman with big feet and square hands. My sex is a contradiction. It's small. Joey says it's like a virgin's. A 15-year-old virgin's to be exact. How the hell would he know? The first time he had sex was with a 38-year-old truck driver he met at a roadside honky-tonk coming back from a skiing trip in Aspen, and she sure as hell was no virgin. In one night she taught him more about a woman's body than most men learn their whole lives, sad but true. Joey was just 19 then and slumming, something he could do because he grew up not rich exactly, but very comfortable. His dad's a successful Ob-Gyn, a fact which makes Joey think himself an expert on vaginas by way of genealogy.

I've never had the luxury of going slumming since I grew up not poor exactly, but semi-deprived. My dad was a plumber who worked only when he damned well felt like it, and he did not damn well feel like it very often. If I were the poetic type who trusted the validity of metaphors, I might say my father's occupation would make me an authority on male plumbing. But I am not poetic and therefore do not consider myself a penis expert. I only know what feels good and what feels right and that only half of the goodness and rightness is directly attributable to a penis' length or width. The other half is the result of what's inside. And I mean the heart, its kindness and generosity.

You'd think that a man who tells a woman all he really cares about is her sex would lack that inside half which excuses whatever may be lacking in genital endowment. But that's not entirely the case with Joey. His heart is okay, though you can't see its okayness if you're looking at him straight on. Straight on he's too handsome for his own good. His handsomeness is the first and last thing you notice about him if you haven't learned to look elsewhere. I've learned. Joey taught me.

On cloudless, moonless nights we go out and lay on our backs in his yard, counting stars. There are millions. And there's this phenomenon that makes some invisible unless you look at them obliquely because they're more distant, their light dimmed by the brilliance of closer stars.

"But that doesn't mean they're not burning just as brightly," says Joey, "relative to their place in the cosmic scheme of things."

Like me, he implies, distant but still shining.

Sure, Joey shines. He has his moments. And most of them are in bed. Actually, there are two things Joey does well. One is screwing, the other is swimming.

I've seen him in an ocean where the waves were too high, too fierce, the water breaking hard onto the shore, swallowing gluttonous bites of beach with the foamy teeth of its ebb and flow. And there'd be Joey: floating like a new bobber, turning backward somersaults and flinging his arms up unafraid as the waves rolled under him and raised him high toward the blue ceiling of heaven. Sometimes they'd swallow him too, taking him down into their angry depths, tumbling him head over heels far below the surface while I'd watch, not breathing, waiting for him to emerge. And he'd burst through the surface, laughing hard, that confident shit-eating grin on his face that says water is his element, that he will always rise to the surface, come out on top, no matter how rough it gets.

In bed it's the same.

As I said, I'm a big woman. I can roll him like an ocean beneath the convoluted sheets, flipping him over onto his back and holding him under with the strength of my thighs, enveloping him in my own salty wetness. The difference is, I can drown him. I can make him gasp for air and cry out to God and Jesus--not for mercy, but to let Them know he's coming.

When I have rolled him from one end of the bed to the other, sometimes rolled him onto the floor, flipped him this way and that without once letting him slip out of me so that I grow hot as a car seat in summer, I grab hold of his shoulders and push him down, clench his loins with my knees and ride him slow and easy, while his eyes glaze over like just before dying, watching mine, waiting for them to glaze, too, narrow to slits, roll up inside my head which tells him he can stop holding back, aim for that divine destination deep inside my sex and notify God or Jesus that his moment has indeed arrived.

I do not wish to imply that our relationship is purely sexual. We talk. We wax philosophically about a hundred different things, none of which include love. Love is not practical for us. It complicates things. Unlike lust which is straightforward and easy to accommodate. The problem is, I don't fit into Joey's world the way I fit into his bed. I know this. Deep down inside, Joey knows it, too.

Not so long ago he was blinded by lust, made incredibly stupid because his brain was concentrating all of its efforts on his penis, which is not a particularly rational part of the male anatomy. Blind and stupid, he invited me to a party at the Country Club. I said no. He asked why not. I said, "Look at me, Joey. The size of my feet, the squareness of my hands."

"The tightness of your sex," he replied.

"Who the hell's going to see that?"

"I will," he said, "even when you're wearing clothes."

Temporarily made blind and stupid by his confession of desire, I relented.

The party was being held in honor of his parents' 30th wedding anniversary. A hundred people showed up. Doctors, lawyers, bankers. And their wives whose vaginas had been examined at one time or another by Joey's father. And their children who had plopped out of those vaginas and into the doctor's hands. They were all remarkably pretty, remarkably handsome, like Joey. Their hands were not square.

Joey's parents rushed us the moment we stepped through the door. His father looked at me and said, "Well, well!" His mother nodded, "So this is the girl who's been occupying my son's life."

Your son's bed, I wanted to say, but I just smiled.

Joey smiled, too, like he was actually proud to have me with him, though it was most likely the pride of his penis smiling.

It was a long night. People asked me questions. They wanted to know what my father did for a living. I told them, "Nothing." And when they blinked their eyes once and slowly, I added, "He's dead." They wanted to know if I was related to so-and-so of such-and-such fame, how Joey and I had met, how long I had known Joey, where I'd gone to school, if I had trouble finding stylish shoes in my size.

Joey did not hear the questions--or the answers, which were not the ones I wanted to give but the ones I gave for Joey's sake. He did not hear them because he was always half-way across the room at the time, cornered by some old fart slapping him on the back and talking non-stop in his face while Joey nodded and drank, looking at me over the rim of his glass and winking.

I'd drunk plenty myself, so when I went to the bathroom and heard one woman who was pissing ask another woman who was pissing, "What in the world does Joey see in her," I answered, "My sex. It's tightness and generosity." Their pissing abruptly stopped. They did not speak or quit squeezing until they were sure I had walked out of the bathroom. But I hung around outside the door just long enough to hear them say, in unison, "The little slut," just as they let go of their pee.

I walked back to the party and straight up to Joey and pressed my lips against his ear and whispered, "Dance with me."

He said, "But no one else is dancing."

I said, "I know. That's the point."

He smiled at me and gave me that look of his, the one he gives me each time I reach for his zipper that cages the wild beast of his excitement. He slipped his arm beneath mine as if I were a princess and led me to the middle of the dance floor, wrapped one arm around my waist, laced his fingers through mine and brought the square clump of my hand to his cheek. Our feet did not move, but we swayed side to side, groins pressed tight and growing hot against one another, some old tear-jerker tune playing in the background, and Joey and me staring into each other's eyes like two characters in a black-and-white movie.

For a long while everybody just stood there watching us, their drinks held in awkward incomplete gestures, their mouths still gaping from unfinished sentences. Then the women began to stare at their husbands with squinty eyes as if searching for something they'd left behind, something that the distance of time had made small and thus hard to see when they looked at it straight on. And the husbands turned to catch these searching stares and were for a moment bewildered, until they looked again at Joey and me and understood and perhaps also remembered because they set down their drinks and smiled at their wives and slowly lead them out onto the dance floor.

Since that night, Joey has asked me to every party that comes along, even though I fight the stupid blindness of my libido, and win, and always tell him no. He eventually heard about the questions I answered that night, heard I'm sure a lot of other questions from his father and mother who shook my square hands as we were leaving their party and said, "Perhaps we'll see you again," hoping they never would.

It took me a while, but I finally convinced Joey to take other women to those parties, pretty women with slender hands and small feet, who do not mind all the questions because they have all the right answers. So he takes them to the parties and afterward he takes them home. Then he comes over to my place and we screw like it's the last chance we'll ever have. Which it will be, someday.

Joey had a party just last night. It was his birthday party. He's 28 now. After midnight came and he was officially a year older and everyone had kissed him and slapped him on the back, he waited a half-hour, then pretended to feel sick and sent everybody packing. Fifteen minutes later, he was at my place, diving into my steamy waters. Though he was pretty drunk, it didn't affect his performance any. He stayed hard for a whole hour while I rolled him especially fierce since it was, after all, his birthday--my gift to him. But this time when he came he didn't call out to God or Jesus, he called out to me: flailing his arms over his head, bucking against the tide of my heat, screaming out my name like a drowning man drowning hard, going under for the very last time.

Afterward he lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. I raised myself up on one elbow and looked down at him and said, "You know, it doesn't bother me that I'm not as pretty as you want me to be."

And he said, "I've told you before, it's the inside of you I care about."

"Right," I smiled, "my sex. It's tightness and generosity."

He looked up at me and frowned, then grabbed hold of my hand, yanked me to my feet and led me out onto the deck of my apartment, the old wood already cool and wet with night. He pointed at the big sky above us and said, "Tell me how many starts there are."

"Millions," I replied.

"And how many of them are shining?" he asked, "how many of them burn?" His voice was hoarse and low like he'd spent the whole day and night yelling at a football game, and I knew he was crying.

I had never seen Joey cry before and did not want to see him cry now because just the thought of it made my heart drop inside my chest like a stone cracked and falling. So I looked down at my hands--at my big square hands that maybe were not pretty with their rough palms and short fingers and chewed nails but were strong and useful nevertheless--and I laid them on Joey's shoulders to stop the awful trembling there and pressed myself tight against his back and leaned my head in close to whisper, "They all shine, Joey."

He gasp a little, a pitiful kind of sob, and then sighed. "Do we?"

I nodded and smiled. "Sure, baby. Relative to our place in the cosmic scheme of things, we're all burning."

"Drowning Hard" originally appeared in Cottonwood, summer 1995.

Debra Di Blasi has published fiction in literary journals including New Letters, Sou'wester, New Delta Review, Colorado-North Review and in the anthology Lovers: Writing By Women (The Crossing Press). Two of her novellas, "Drought" and "Say What You Like" will be published in one volume by New Directions (available in bookstores March 1, 1997), and an essay will appear the in anthology Exposures: The Personal Essay, published by Woods Colt Press in January 1997. A film based on "Drought" is currently in post-production on Los Angeles and will premiere Spring 1997. Another of Di Blasi's short stories, "The Season's Condition" was adapted to film in 1993. Her feature-length screenplay, "The Walking Wounded" was a finalist at the 1996 Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters Competition. Winner of the 1991 Eyster Prize for Fiction, Di Blasi has also published many articles, essays and art reviews.

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