Vestigial Featuresby Mary Stein
Over the phone, Mitch says I’m oversexed. Because he’s only my stepbrother and a swaggering hockey god, Mitch feels entitled to take liberties. Over the phone he’ll tell me things he cannot say to my face.
“Just how much sex is oversexed?” I have always wanted to know this.
There is so much pressure to be having just enough sex. The thing is, no one really knows just how much sex we’re supposed to be having. The problem is not that there are too many variables, but that it’s all variable: a certain but undefined number of partners; a certain but undefined frequency; a precise level of immeasurable kinkiness; an appropriate variety of accessories employed; how much you want or don’t want it, or how much you pretend not to care. There are rare species of confident, just-rightly-sexed people who can talk about it between drags of a cigarette like it’s just another moment of prodding fruit in the produce aisle. Mitch will become one of these people. The trophy child of my father’s trophy wife.
“However much sex you’re having is oversexed,” says Mitch.
“But you don’t even know how much sex I’m having,” I say.
But does he? It occurs to me Josh may be talking to Mitch about our sex life. When Josh and Mitch get together, Josh lapses into incomprehensible dude-speak that I’m only accustomed to hearing at work. Hanging out with Mitch is the only time I’ve ever heard Josh say cock block.
“You can just tell.”
“Just by looking?”
How disgusting it must be to have an old oversexed sister. I’m sixteen years older than Mitch. I started talking to him about masturbation when he was five and it has only become more perverted since then.
I pace the circumference of my kitchen while my dog, Sisyphus, follows me. Josh says it’s a habit he adopted from me; Odette—the nomadic telephone talker. But the pacing is only one of his many nervous habits. Shortly after I adopted him, Sisyphus was diagnosed with Happy Tail Syndrome.Because we refused the doggie Xanax, he thwacks it metronomically against the walls and cupboards as he follows me past the oven. We pause at the fridge and I rearrange some magnets with my free hand—one magnet from Mitch says, The older I get the more I wish I picked a real major. Unlike me, Mitch will get paid good scholarship money to skate through a business major while having his beautiful boyish features smeared across the hockey rink. I pet Sisyphus to soothe him. To soothe myself. But he still hammers his tail against the fridge, and blood begins to seep through the bandage wadded onto the tip of his tail.
“Being oversexed isn’t so much a look as it is a demeanor,” Mitch says knowledgeably.
“Well,” I say, “it isn’t about how much sex you have, but how much you want it.” This is my expertise. My speaking from experience. I blame this conversation on Mitch’s mother who begged me to talk to him about it. “You’re a guidance counselor,” she said, “counsel him.” But besides having started masturbating when I was four, what do I know about sex? It’s not as though my parents ever talked to me about it.
“All I’m saying is that everyone talks about you,” says Mitch.
“Mitch, you’re in high school. Everyone talks about everyone.”
But I know this isn’t true. I work at Mitch’s school and students visit me with concerns about the safety of bleaching pubic hair, or how to appropriately inject Narcan if a friend ODs. I know there are hordes of kids who are not talked about. Acne-scarred boys or stringy-haired girls who wander the steely locker-studded hallways just wishing some dumb jock like Mitch would turn around and call them slut or puck bunny or choad—as though it might shock them back into their miserable high school existence, because at least feeling degraded is feeling something.
“I’m on summer break,” I tell Mitch. “Stop talking to me about teen issues.”
Once, after my first year on the job, I went through a phase of having sex all the time, so I made a rule for myself: I wouldn’t have sex with anyone who didn’t know my middle name. It was amazing how little sex I’d had within that parameter. I was bored and horny all the time. That’s when I adopted Sisyphus—a husky mix with sky-grey fur and apocalyptic looking eyes: one of them, clouded and white, the other a shade of green the sky gets before a tornado hits. Sisyphus didn’t satisfy my urges of course, but he distracted me from them.
I bury my face in his soft neck. I love his dog smell. On days I bathe Sisyphus, I think I’ve come home to the wrong townhouse. I inhale Sisyphus’s smell, his coat warm against my flushed face. I assure Sisyphus I prefer the animal smell of dirt and dander over the scent of Josh’s beery sweat, and this seems to relax him. Sisyphus relaxes me.
Every few years at school, it’s something terrible. At the end of the previous school year, one of Mitch’s friends jumped off the aerial lift bridge and drowned in Lake Superior. Students flocked to my office; sobbing, confiding they’ve wanted to do the same. Cops and canines sniffed through the hallways for drugs or weapons. I tried to piece together their stories, but my head still flounders in the details. She was a swimmer. A diver. The fall, they say, was graceful. It was rumored she just lifted off the rail of the bridge—just raised up onto her toes and dove clean into the lake. By the time they dragged her out, her skin was as dark as the water she drowned in. But the autopsy could not prove her intentions.
The students asked me, But how does a swimmer drown on accident?
Sure, I thought, but how does a swimmer drown on purpose? How did she resist the body’s urge to tread toward the wavering light? Paddle her steamboat strong arms to the closest strip of shore?
But what bothered me most was Mitch. During his preseason training, Mitch became a berserker on ice. He skated harder, body checked more violently, exhibiting a reckless abandon that earned him a full scholarship just down the road from where his friend flung herself off the bridge. But Mitch never mentioned anything about her.
Mitch has hockey. I have my own means of distraction. I comfort myself: my neurotic dog keeps me company. Sisyphus and I watch Syfy marathons—alien images flicker by, scenes light years away from anything that resembles reality. I’m afraid if I turn it off, summer might end, too.
Later in the day, I wait for Josh to come over and settle into the corner of my blue corduroy couch, which Sisyphus interprets as submission. He starts by licking and nipping at the cuff of my sweater or pawing at my belt loop. He does this when I read to him or coddle his head in the crook of my arm. When I refuse Sisyphus’s advances he defers to playfulness. He trots around the living room with a limp, unstuffed toy hanging from his mouth like a fresh kill.
Evolution doesn’t really suit him. I can tell by the way he walks figure eights in the backyard that he’d prefer to be a wolf. When he comes back in, disappointed at not having caught a squirrel or rabbit or our neighbor’s Chihuahua or anything small with an actual pulse, Sisyphus looks at me, pissed off, as if to say, “Thanks a lot, you alpha bitch, for making me a quiet eunuch reduced to tricks and table scraps.” I try to console him, but he just paces the house, knocking his tail until he reopens a wound, spraying blood on the baseboards and even the ceiling.
Josh guided me down hallways of metal kennels. Sisyphus was kept on the outskirts, quarantined at the end of an empty row of kennels because other dogs made him nervous. When Josh escorted us outside for some practice play, Sisyphus ambled toward me and slumped down at my feet. His purple-splotched tongue lolled as he panted. In the sun, his grey fur had a bluish shine. When I stroked his small boxy snout, his ears twitched and he leaned into my hand, his white-tipped tail wagging.
I didn’t shop around.
At home, I spooned Sisyphus and buried my face into his soft neck and fell asleep to the comforting lull of his breath. Josh kept calling to check on Sisyphus.
Now, while Josh and I are having sex later in the evening, Sisyphus whine outside the bedroom door. Before dating Josh, I was pretty much a pillow queen, but he refuses to have sex off his back because he’s extremely sensitive about his posterior profile. He was born with a four-centimeter tail, picking up where his coccyx left off. This small limp caudal feature looks like a boneless pinky finger—an unformed mass of nerves and muscle. Even with all his clothes on, Josh is certain to stand against walls, use toilet stalls, or sit in full-backed chairs as though someone might look through him. I promise Josh I won’t touch it, but I can’t resist the impulse. I stroke it with my index finger in the same gentle way I pet bumblebees. Josh flinches. The sensation of it makes him hard, but he doesn’t let me touch his tail again. Instead, he rolls onto his back and lifts me over him, my body hovering like a canopy over his. I find his insecurity charming. “Just think,” I said, “of how few people feel that exact sensation.” Pinned between me and the bed, I wonder if Josh thinks more about moving his tail against the sheets, or moving inside me. I don’t really care either way. I fantasize about his tail, how it must feel to have it touched. To have so many nerves bundled up in one place.
Outside the bedroom, I can hear Sisyphus’s tail thudding against the door. As always, my arms become tired and my hips get tight, and when I ask Josh to swap places, he refuses by not responding. So I let my fantasy drift and accept the limitations of my body. When we finish, Josh snakes his long arms around me. I let him hold me like this for a few minutes before I get up to let Sisyphus back in. When I open the bedroom door, Sisyphus starts whimpering again. He’s crouched with his tail swishing through a puddle of his blood. He reopened his scabbed wounds. I can’t believe how much they bled. I grab Josh’s undershirt off the floor and wrap it around his tail to staunch the flow.
Sisyphus’s self-inflicted wound leaves Josh and I paralyzed in bed. We don’t want to excite him. Sisyphus rests his brute head on the edge of the bed, staring at us with his stormy eyes, waiting for our next move.
“I think he’s jealous of your tail,” I tell Josh.
“I think he smells imminent sex,” says Josh.
Falling asleep, Josh begins to instinctively stroke the nape of my neck and Sisyphus unspools, thumping his tail wildly against the bed frame. The wounds reopen and blood seeps through Sisyphus’s makeshift bandage. I wrap a new shirt around his tail and Sisyphus whimpers.
“I don’t think this is good for our relationship,” I say.
“Which relationship are you talking about?” asks Josh.
“This is dire,” I tell Josh. “I think you should go back to your place so Sisyphus doesn’t injure himself anymore.”
As soon as Josh gets out of my bed, Sisyphus calms down a bit. Josh grumbles, scavenging the floor for a clean shirt. When he can’t find one that’s not ruined, I give him one of my own. Josh tugs at the hem of my undershirt, it stretches tight over his scrawny body.
“This is absurd,” says Josh.
“It’s a temporary solution,” I say.
In the morning, I call the vet who says his Happy Tail has become severe.
“But he doesn’t seem very happy,” I say.
“Whatever you want to call it,” the vet says, “he’ll have to have it amputated if he keeps up this level of enthusiasm.”
I obliged the vet.I banished Josh from my townhouse and spent my waning summer days half asleep while monitoring Sisyphus and watching Kingdom on cable. A ghost ambulance races down Danish streets away from a Danish hospital and Danish dialogue I don’t understand with English subtitles that I’m too tired to read. The Danish seemed to comfort Sisyphus.
After a week of not answering my phone, Josh doesn’t bother with calling. He just lets himself in.
Sisyphus starts his pacing again. His rudder tail swishing through the air.
“I almost got him subdued,” I say.
The muted T.V. is flashing an infomercial for jewelry polish. A silver-haired man with glistening teeth dips a tarnished ring into gelatinous solution and it resurrects—In only thirty seconds!—into a gleaming incarnation. Josh turns off the T.V., then opens the curtains and I squint in the sunlight filtering into the room.
“Get dressed,” says Josh. “I called Mitch, and the three of us are going out before you get bedsores.” Josh grabs my wrists and pulls me up from the corduroy vortex.
We meet Mitch in the stands of a St. Paul Saints baseball game, and I wedge myself between them. Mitch and Josh fist bump one other, and I wonder how much they’ve been bonding during my delirium. I flag down a woman dressed as a ‘50s housewife for a sweating can of beer while they chat—I figure it’s good for Mitch to have some positive male role models in his life. The housewife who serves the Grain Belt Premium is wearing red cat eye glasses and a sunny apron over a green polka-dotted dress. After she wriggles through the audience, she bends, almost bows, giving Josh the change so we can sneak a peek of cleavage. Hardly pornographic, but it gets Mitch and Josh to stop talking for a breath. Premium and fake nacho cheese on crisp chips. The crack of bat and a foul ball followed by a collective jeer. Mitch and Josh howl along with the crowd.
The three of us drink plastic bottles of Grain Belt Premium. Mitch crunches numbers and deconstructs the players’ form while Josh comments on the athletic purity of Minor league baseball. A white-suited Seigo Masubuchi mills through the audience in a starched white suit singing Sweet Caroline over the loudspeaker. A Super Fan does a round of pushups on top of the dugout when we score a run.
“It’s about solidarity,” says Josh.
“It’s about entertainment,” I say.
“It’s about the sport,” says Mitch.
“Cheers,” I say.
We clack our plastic bottles and the three of us take long swigs of beer. Seigo gyrates his hips and I laugh and then feel bad about it. Mitch and Josh do not laugh. Mitch is busy glorifying baseball while Josh is busy dismantling his dreams. Josh talks about Jose Canseco. About A-Rod. About Barry Bonds. He talks about suspensions just long enough to test negative for steroids. Except Josh says ‘roids in front of Mitch. Juiced up, Josh says. Josh goes on about Barry Bonds; how that man will need an entire entourage of lawyers, which, he will no doubt get. Josh talks about the Yankees’ value through a sneer, tallying numbers that seem equal to the GDP of a small European country. “That’s not sport,” Josh says. He thrusts his hand toward the field, his beer splashing onto my lap; “This is sport.” Mitch clenches his jaw and trains his eyes on the baseball diamond. He wants to defend his hero.
“This here is a game. Not sport,” says Mitch.
“You’d think with that much money, the Yankees would at least have better costumes. Maybe dress up as actual dandies?” I say.
“You mean uniforms,” says Josh.
Sometimes Josh takes all the fun out of fantasies.
Ten years ago I might have liked this, or at least have been better able to convince myself I did. I can’t fake it anymore. I hate watching most sports. But I love Josh and Mitch. I’ll go watch Mitch’s hockey games and every time the other team crashes the crease, I imagine his pretty nose getting shattered a second time; those delicate features reduced to an arterial crimson splayed like fireworks over the rink—Mitch staggering off the ice to go cauterize his trophy wounds. Mitch used to be such a beautiful thing. He’s gotten lost in the din of singing blades, the sound of the puck humming over ice. I’ve seen all of it. The Saints game takes my mind off things; the at-bats and innings and pop flies and walks and bad calls. It’s constant entertainment. We are scoring another run. More comical pushups from Super Fan. Josh and Mitch don’t seem to notice my clapping.
I jostle Josh’s shoulder. “We’re winning,” I say.
Mitch nods and Josh strokes his stubbly chin. I lick a dribble of nacho cheese from my own chin.
Only then does Josh start clapping.
This will be my last game of the season.
By the seventh inning, no one cares about the game anymore. I line up for the ladies room and when I seat myself between them a half hour later, they continue their conversation like I never returned.
“Cunnilingus,” Mitch says to Josh. “How do you do it? I mean, how do I make sure I’m doing a good job at it?”
Josh tilts his empty bottle toward me. “Ask your therapist sister here.”
I try to dismiss them with a shrug, but I’m netted between their stares. “I don’t know. Just practice,” I say. “Take a pomegranate seed and roll it around in between your lips and tongue.”
“Good. That’s all I wanted to know,” says Mitch.
“Me too,” says Josh.
“Good,” I say. “And don’t use just the tip of your tongue either. Get messy.”
“See, Odette. You are oversexed,” says Mitch.
Mitch passes out in the car on our way to bring him home. Josh and I get back to my place and with Sisyphus asleep and Josh still drunk on beer and the warmth of summer, I think maybe I can convince Josh to become more natural about his tail. Josh is long-bodied; tall, lanky, a head shaved weekly to conceal a receding hairline. A shadow of dark stubble evenly coats his smooth skull, his chops, his thin chin; hair all over his body, just not his head; his habit of smoothing his palm over the stubble as though taking inventory—a shadow of insecurity. Dark-framed glasses, beautiful agate-like eyes. When he reclines on the couch, his legs drape over its blue corduroy arm. I lean my face close to Josh’s, and tilt one of my elfish ears toward him. I trace the outline of my ear, the part where it arches to a near point then runs flat and smooth, tucking inward to a teardrop-shaped nodule. I used to consider it a defect until Josh told me it had a name, Darwin’s tubercle—a trait only some humans share, bearing resemblance to Macaques. Josh seduced me by saying he loved the most primatial parts of me. He said it made him feel less alone.
“Feel it,” I tell Josh.
But Sisyphus wakes, and his tail starts cracking against the wall, and when it splits open again, he emits a howl.
At the vet, Sisyphus recovers from the anesthesia, his tail amputated. I flip through Oprah, pausing on articles about closet organization and the mind’s illusion of busyness. A pig-tailed girl across from me smacks on a piece of hard candy. I toss the magazine emphatically on the coffee table, but this does not stop her. I slouch in my vinyl chair, drifting off. I try to imagine Josh without his tail, where’d he just be another guy. About one in forty guys reminded me of Josh—all this Joshness all around me; his bulky Carhartt khakis and flannel button-down shirt like a lumberjack’s but without the scraggly beard, without the lumber, without the athletic build. With his habit of over-apologizing.
I wake to the pig-tailed girl jostling my shoulder, a sharp smell of synthetic apple on her breath.
“Lady,” she says, “you fell asleep.”The hard candy clacks against her teeth as she talks, her tongue looks like it has molded. I sit erect in my chair. The girl’s eyes widen and she points toward a Vet Tech who ushers Sisyphus down the hall. The girl cups my face with her sticky pudgy hands and turns my ear toward her green mouth, the tip of her nose knocking against my cheekbone.
“They chopped off his tail, didn’t they?” she whispers.
Suddenly shy, she scurries back to her chair, hiding her face behind a book she holds upside-down. Sisyphus moseys toward me and collapses at my feet, a beige bandage where the white flame of his tail used to wag.
Back at home, Sisyphus bumps my knee with his Elizabethan collar. Sisyphus moves Butoh-slow, leaning into walls when he walks. He stumbles up to doorjambs, constantly rubbing the collar against the molding of entryways, like a deer trying to slough velvet from its antlers. Sisyphus’s new tail is a furry nub that looks like a giraffe’s singular ossicone. Josh won’t come over while Sisyphus heals because we don’t want to excite him. By now, we are more or less resigned to our boredom. He collapses into my lap while we watch TV and I reach into his collar and scratch the sweet spot behind his wilted ears and when I do, his little ossicone quivers. I reassure Sisyphus, that he can always use his whiskers for navigation. As though he didn’t know—as though it wasn’t animal instinct.
Mitch comes to the apartment when we’re almost asleep. His shirt is sweat-soaked and his breath reeks of strawberries and beer. The night is damp and humid. Outside the window, pale stars emit impotent light.
He grabs my shoulders and buries his head in my shirt.
“I messed up.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No. I’m not hurt. Not like that.”
“Shower,” I say.
I steer Mitch toward the bathroom and shut the door. I set a pile of clothes right outside the door—boxers, an undershirt and pajama pants Josh keeps here. Over the running water in the bathroom, I can hear Mitch wailing. Sisyphus paces with me as I grab some blankets, and toss dirty clothes I’ve left strewn throughout the living room into a rank-smelling hamper. I hadn’t really noticed the extent of my filth until Mitch showed up. I dig out aspirin from the linen closet. I start a kettle of water, and heat a cast iron skillet to cook up a few eggs. Sisyphus waits hopefully for me to drop food. I pet him and his little nub quivers. When everything is ready, Mitch is waiting, crumpled into the corner of the couch. Josh’s T-shirt strains against Mitch’s torso, but the hem of the pants drape over his toes.
I arrange the tea, the aspirin and the eggs on the coffee table. I can’t remember the last time I’ve fed myself this well. When I sit next to him, Sisyphus cowers under the table.
Mitch flexes his fingers then curls them shut, coddling one hand in the other. His fingers are bruised and swollen.
“What was the fight about?”
“They just said some stupid shit about that dead girl.” He presses his bruised fist against his jaw line and rests it back on his lap. “The worst part about it is I’ve said worse.”
Mitch looks up at me, waiting for me to speak. When I don’t, he reaches down to scratch Sisyphus’s belly until Sisyphus squirms contentedly from underneath the coffee table. Mitch leans closer to my face. The smell of booze seeps through the superficial scent of my mint and lavender soap.
“They tell lies about everyone.”
“What kind of lies?” I ask.
Mitch reaches his swollen hand up to my face, gliding a clumsy finger along the rim of my pointy ear. I expect him to tell me, but I don’t stop him when he doesn’t. His finger keeps trailing down my back, stopping along the way to feel what other guys had talked about. Eventually he rests his hand where a tail would be if I hadn’t outgrown it. But I don’t have a tail—not this pedestrian body.
We are only partly related—his other hand stealing up my thigh only partly wrong. I navigate his hand underneath my shirt and across the topography of skin, stopping in places there’s still a pulse—the soft swell of my stomach, the side of my rib cage, my solar plexus, my heart. I keep my eyes closed. I imagine how Josh must feel with my weight on top of him, the pressure against his sensitive vestigial feature. I keep moving Mitch’s slow clumsy hand up my neck and over the pointed rim of my ear. I’ll keep moving this slow harmless hand over my body until we both feel fully formed.
MARY STEIN lives, writes and works in Minneapolis. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently an editorial assistant for Conduit literary journal. She has published fiction in Caketrain and online at Spartan.