The Rusty Toque | Special Feature | Fiction | October 12, 2012
BARE-CHESTED MEN IN PUBLIC MAKE ME UNCOMFORTABLE
My husband cannot stand being hot. He cannot stand being uncomfortable in any way. He is an only child.
Every night as we’re lying in bed, he says, “Feel my forehead,” so I press the back of my hand against his cool, smooth forehead. He says, “Do I have a fever?” I say, “No, honey, you feel fine.” He is quiet for a few minutes but I hear him shifting around uncomfortably. He says, “We should take my temperature to be sure.”
He read a story in a book once when he was in grade school. It was in one of those hardcover Christian books you often found in doctor’s offices before people began to take the separation of church and the medical state seriously. In the story there was a young boy named Bobby who was sick with a terrible fever and every night, he fell asleep with his arm propped up by pillows so Jesus would take him by the hand if he died. Bobby did end up dying and the boy was grateful he had propped his arm up. He did not walk into the light alone.
My husband was very impressionable as a child—believed every little thing anyone ever told him. He believed I came the first time we had sex at the end of an awkward blind date involving the county fair and his inability to win me a stuffed pony while the barker antagonized him about his manhood. I texted my best friend, “Is this guy for real?” He was so earnest about everything. At the time, sincerity made me deeply uncomfortable. He took me back to his apartment and lit candles and played soft music. That’s how his dad taught him to seduce a woman. He touched me gently, sliding his arm around my shoulders, pulling me toward him. He was nervous about kissing me hard until I bit his lower lip and said, “I’m not going to break.” Even then, he was shy and tentative and refused to turn the lights on. After he came, he lay on top of me and threaded his fingers through mine. His voice was drowsy. He said, “Was that enjoyable for you?” I looked down at him, his head turned to the side, his cheek pressed against my skin. He looked very young. I felt something shift strangely beneath my ribcage. I ignored the vague dissatisfaction settling between my thighs. I said, “Yes.”
At Christmas, I pretend to be Santa Claus for my husband because he refuses to believe there’s no such thing as a man whose sole purpose is to bring gifts to good people. As he sleeps with a smile on his face, I place a selection of gifts for us beneath a decorated tree. I fill his stocking with chocolate and oranges. I think about how the men who came before him would shake their heads in disbelief. Once, while playing street hockey with friends, he got hit right in his front teeth by a wild puck. He came home with his two front teeth in the palm of his hand, talking with a strange lisp and dragging his tongue along the soft, bloody gums at the front of his mouth. He said, “Please wash these and put them under my pillow tonight.” I asked why and he said, “For the tooth fairy.” That night I took his two teeth and replaced them with a twenty. The excitement on his face, his cheeks bright and red as he held that money, it broke my heart. I keep his teeth in a small leather sachet in my nightstand and sometimes, in the dark of night, I suck on the small oblongs of enamel, tasting his mouth, his breath.
Whenever he feels an unnatural heat beneath his skin, like a fever is about to take hold in him, my husband will take his shirt off, wherever he is. He can’t help himself. He doesn’t want to die like Bobby. It took four years for me to convince him he doesn’t need to sleep with his arm raised each night. It would take more than the years we have left to convince him he doesn’t need to panic when he feels warm. I tell him warmth is simply his blood doing the work of keeping him alive but there are, it turns out, some things he can’t believe. My husband is very athletic, lifts weights, loves to run. I see how other men and women look at him when he takes his shirt off. It doesn’t bother me, how their eyes shine brightly, covetously. I know how his muscled body feels and tastes, that he is mine. He has bared his chest in church and at a fine dining establishment as we celebrated our sixth anniversary and at my nephew’s eighth grade graduation. I can always tell when it’s about to happen. He shifts uncomfortably. His leg begins to twitch. A thin sheen of sweat spreads across his face and down his neck. As he pulls his shirt over his head or fumbles with buttons, his hands always shake. I do not express my discomfort to him in these moments. I see it in his eyes. I hear it in his low, ragged breathing. His fear is real.
ROXANE GAY lives and writes in the Midwest. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Salon, Oxford American, the Rumpus, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. She is the author of Ayiti (Artistically Declined Press, 2011), a unique blend of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, all interwoven to represent the Haitian diaspora experience. Website: www.roxanegay.com
This story first appeared in Uncanny Valley.
This story first appeared in Uncanny Valley.