Mucilage
by Diana George
 
 

I know the woman only wants to bring this and every session to its conclusion with the least effort possible. She offers nothing in simulation of a conversation while I undress. She puts on the gloves. She oils my body. It is cold in the room, and dirty. I crouch down, as if commanded. (She would command me, if I wanted, but this too has been dispensed with. We know what we're about, in this room.) I roll on the floor. Sometimes I roll with my legs long and my arms at my sides; I move up one side of the room and down the other. The room is just a little too narrow for two such full-length passes, so I tuck in my chin slightly, to prevent any overlap. This time I somersault aimlessly about, repeatedly bumping into the radiator. Dust and hair and bits of things stick to my oiled skin. I roll in the filth until I am covered with it. I roll and roll until I am coated like a filth truffle, a filth croquette.

When I first began, I worried that I would one day use up all the filth in this room. But no matter how much dust, lint, and hair I walk away with, no matter how many coins, gum wrappers, bottle caps, cigarette butts, cellophane strips, betting slips, insect carapaces, pull tabs, and bus transfers I carry away with me, there is always more filth here when I come back. Does she roam the city collecting it? Is this room, when she and I are not in it, inhabited by a great roiling crowd, chewing and smoking, betting and drinking, arriving and departing at appointed hours, as predictable in their course as heavenly bodies, trailing these bits and scraps like so many showers of sparks?

When it's time to go, I put on my clothes again. I tape my shirt cuffs and my pants legs closed. I tape my collar to my neck. Then I put on another shirt, and another pair of pants, to hide the tape. The woman lazily runs a lint brush over my topcoat, as if she were my wife seeing me off to work. A wife who views me with contempt and disgust. I am not complaining. I have purchased her contempt and disgust as well.

Careful as I am, there is always a danger that some piece of refuse will creep out of my clothes. The rest of my day is clouded by this danger. Sometimes, at work, when I ought to be crossing off an action item or casting about for a pilot project to drive or generally helping or at least not hindering my team's effort to grow the enterprise, I can do nothing but sit in my cube and tremble for fear there is some piece of litter showing. In fact it does happen, frequently, and no one ever guesses that it comes from inside my clothes. From me. A woman I am talking to will nonchalantly pluck an errant hair from my shirt sleeve, flick it away and go on talking. Or a man will point and nod, and as I gratefully reach down to brush away the scrap of paper, we exchange a rueful smile, two clean and forthright men toiling in a dirty world.

I dream about buttons that slip free of the buttonholes of their own accord. Tape that spontaneously uncoils itself from my wrists and ankles and slithers to the floor. My shirts, both of them, fling themselves open, my pants drop as if by prior arrangement with the shirts. Everyone can see the clotted, flattened impasto of oil and filth that I wear all day, every day, right on my skin, right beneath my clothes, right under their noses.

Things I must not involve myself in: an auto accident, a comparison of smallpox vaccination scars, a pool party, a "sexual relationship."

All day long this second, secret skin commands my thoughts. At first, it was a torment to be unable to see it. Now, though, after long practice, I can inventory myself without even looking. In the crease between thigh and buttock, a popcorn kernel. On my chest, just below my clavicle, a drinking straw wrapper. Oil mixed with coarse grit abrades my inner forearm as I write. Oil mixed with fine dust trickles slowly down my calves. This is all; this is enough, to feel it. Once home, I go directly to the kitchen and begin to forget myself; I no longer pause at the hall mirror, as I once did, to see myself transformed.

When I die, I will be washed before I am buried. I cannot see a way around this. They will wash me, inside and out. Once, foolishly, I tried to explain to the woman that this would be a crime, that she must perform one last office for me. "It would be like being buried unshriven," I said. And then I saw my mistake. She didn't know the word "unshriven," but she knew a sucker when she saw one. She demanded payment, triple the usual, up front. She delighted in her patent betrayal. I could not refuse without openly accusing her. I could not accuse her and continue to come to the room. So I paid.

I will be resurrected in this second skin or not at all.

***

The woman grew bored with me. At first, her contempt and disgust had seemed total; I thought she was already as bored as she could be, from the start. But now I look back and see that that boredom was as excitement compared to the second boredom. True, it was never possible for her to be less interested in my coating of filth. But then, having cheated me for an extreme unction she would surely never perform, she began looking to increase her take in other ways. The regularity of my habit made this difficult for her; I never once asked that she bring a "friend" to watch me. I never asked her to bring in a man or a woman to beat me or jeer at me or masturbate me. When she offered these things, at a price of course, I demurred. I didn't need to be serviced or witnessed, taunted or praised. I had what I needed.

When she suggested the video camera, I shrugged as before. But I was at once stricken and thrilled. I would have loved to have a record of it all, each hairball fresco, every littery bas relief. But I was appalled at the obviousness of it; when videotaped, I'd be just one pervert among others, no different from the foot-lickers, the spankers, the feeders. Couldn't she at least have chosen a medium suited to my extraordinary tastes? Could she not fit rice paper over me and take rubbings, as if I were a rare headstone and she a picnicking schoolteacher? Could I not sit in--or be forced to sit in--a camera obscura, knowing that it projected my image on a wall while I was unable to see it? Could she not lay me down in sand or snow or plaster of Paris and cast my death-still form, or swaddle me in carbon paper and gently press me beneath an enormous weight? Of course, she could not. She lacked the imagination, or the interest in me and my perversion, to offer such choices; she was balky and obstreperous enough to refuse, had I suggested them. It was videotape, or nothing.

It was nothing. How could I have allowed such a thing? We met a few more times and the routine unfolded as before, but differently. The purity of her previous boredom had been sullied; contempt, her glorious, disinterested contempt, had soured into dissatisfaction. She wanted something from me now, something I withheld; how I wish it could have continued as before, when she suffered my pleasures without hope or interest. Like a lover aware that his charms have palled, I flung myself into my part with simulated abandon. I writhed ecstatically where once I had rolled methodically. I groaned and shuddered where once I had been still and silent. I embarrassed us both, I knew it, I only hastened the end we both knew was there, but I couldn't stop myself. Nor did she come to my aid, though it would have been so easy for her. So easy! If she had only said, "That isn't working for me," wouldn't everything have been restored to us?

I wonder now whether she was only looking for a way to make more money off me when she suggested the videotape. It was the same with the one girlfriend I once had, right before she left me. We started to do new and different things to each other, to see whether we would feel something for each other. Not sexual things, or not necessarily. We took ballroom dancing, but gave it up when we found that a sickly pall of allegory hung over our every misstep. We had fights in which we tried out insults and accusations previously cordoned off by unspoken treaty. We talked either a great deal or not all just before sex, to see if our troubles were only a matter of the proportion between words and deeds.

When she actually left (but when was that? And how did it happen? I can't remember what she said, exactly: "I can't do this anymore"? "It's over"? "I'm sorry"? I squint and strain at my image of her mouth, but it always says something different)--when she left, I could not really believe it. Those last experiments, I didn't know they were the last, I thought they would go on forever. I thought that our lives had finally come to rest, as if on the ocean floor. Or that we were finally aloft, at a height where there could be no more obstructions to our continuing together. What we did and said, towards the end, meant to her, "I don't love you anymore." Me, I thought we were saying to each other: "We have reached cruising altitude. You are free to move about the cabin."

Do you expect me to tell you that now I miss the woman in the room just as much as I miss my girlfriend? More? That I did videotape that last session and now I can't keep from crying each time I see the tender pragmatism with which she moves the lint brush over my coat? I make do with slightly less filth, is all. I go down to the laundry room of my apartment building and gather wads of dryer lint for later use. In coffee shops, I take a just-vacated seat and press my palms against the tabletop and then surreptitiously transfer the detritus of the previous diner's meal to my trouser pockets. If there's gum under the table I take that too. I linger at pay phones and, cradling strange oils against my ear and chin, I call the woman to remind her of her promise, her debt. "You're still on retainer," I tell her and hang up before she can answer.

It has made me careless, though, the change in my routine. Preoccupied. And I pay for it. Today I recklessly stood still near a co-worker who was talking. When she stopped talking, I had a chance to escape but I didn't take it: I could have pressed my lips into a shape that was not a smile but a reference to a smile, to indicate that while my reserves of happiness were too low to justify a smile expenditure at this time I nonetheless wished her no specific harm. I just stood there. She took my lack of a closing smile-indicator as an invoice for further confidences. "My parents," she said, "gave me toxic shame."

"Mine gave me the regular kind," I said. "Non-toxic. Biodegradable. Won't stain clothes."

They did, too. It wasn't meant to be eaten, but it wasn't poisonous either. Like mucilage, or salty modeling clay, or school paste. It was cool to the touch and white. We scuffed through our house with great slurpy curds of it sticking to our feet. We slathered each other with it; it formed droopy peaks in our hair and kept our hands from touching. There was nothing to be afraid of.