Haunted, p.24
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       Haunted, p.24

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Her laced-up, steel-toed boots planted wide apart.

  Her legs in baggy camouflage pants, tied around each ankle.

  She leans so far forward, her chin casts a shadow

  down the front of her army-surplus olive-drab field jacket.

  Onstage, instead of a spotlight, a movie fragment:

  the footage of protest signs and picket lines, the bullhorn shapes of mouths

  yelling, all their way open.

  All teeth and no lips.

  Mouths open so far, the effort shuts their eyes, tight.

  “After the judge awarded joint custody,” Comrade Snarky says, “my mother told me . . .”

  In the middle of the night,

  while you're fast asleep with your head on the pillow,

  if your father ever tiptoes into your room:

  you, come tell me.

  Her mother said, “If your father ever tugs down your pajama bottoms and fingers you . . .”

  You, come tell me.

  If he takes a fat, heavy snake out from the zipper in the front of his pants—that hot, sticky club that smells bad—and tries to force this in your mouth . . .

  You, come tell me.

  “Instead of all that,” Comrade Snarky says, “my father took me to the zoo.”

  He took her to the ballet. He took her to soccer practice.

  He kissed her good night.

  The colors of sit-down strikes, the shapes of civil disobedience still marching,

  marching, marching,

  across her face,

  Comrade Snarky says,

  “But, for the rest of my life, I was always ready.”

  Speaking Bitterness

  A Story by Comrade Snarky

  From the minute he sat down, we tried to explain . . .

  We don't allow men. This is a women-only safe space. The purpose of our group is to nurture and empower women with a sense of privacy. To allow women to speak freely without being questioned or judged. We need to exclude men because they inhibit women. Male energy intimidates and humiliates women. To men, a woman is either a virgin or a slut. A mother or a whore.

  When we ask him to get out, of course he plays dumb. He says to call him “Miranda.”

  We respect his choice. The effort and desire he's put into attaining the physical appearance of being female. But this space, we tell him in a gentle, sensitive way, this space is only for women born women.

  He was born Miranda Joyce Williams. He says this and snaps open his little pink lizard-skin pocketbook. He takes out a driver's license. With a long, pink fingernail he slides the license across the table, tapping where there's a letter “F” under the category of sex.

  The state may recognize his new gender, we tell him, but we choose not to. Many of our members suffered childhood traumas regarding men. They fear being reduced to their bodies. Being used as objects. These are issues he could never understand, being born male.

  He says: I was born female.

  Somebody in the group says, “Can you show us your birth certificate?”

  “Miranda” says: Of course not.

  Someone else says, “Are you menstruating?”

  And “Miranda” says: Not this minute.

  He's playing with a rainbow-colored scarf tied around his neck, twisting and pulling it. Preening in a caricature of female nervous behavior. He's playing with the sparkling, shimmery scarf draped around his shoulders, letting it fall down behind him, to hang from his elbows. He's combing his fingers through the long fringe at each end. He pulls a little more scarf to one side, then the other. He crosses his legs, one knee over the other. Then the bottom one on top. He lifts and folds the fur coat in his lap. Turning it, he pets the fur with one open hand, his fingernails together, painted pink and bright as jewelry.

  His lips and shoes and handbag, his fingernails and watchband, they're all as pretty-pink as a redhead's asshole.

  Someone in the group gets up, glaring. She says, “What's the goddamn point?” Cramming her knitting and bottled water into her tote bag, she says, “I look forward to this all week. Now it's ruined.”

  “Miranda” just sits there, his eyes tented under long, thick lashes. His eyes floating in blue-green pools of eyeliner. He tubes red lipstick onto his lipstick. He smears blusher on top of his blusher. Mascara on his mascara. His cropped blouse rides up on his chest. The pink silk of it seems to hang off the two points of his nipples, each breast roughly the same size as his face, both ballooning off the tanned ripples of his rib cage. His stomach showing, tight and tanned, it's a male stomach. He's a total sex-doll fantasy, the kind of woman only a man would become.

  For a rap group, “Miranda” says he expected a little more rap.

  We just look at him.

  This silly man. This “Miranda.” Here's every male fantasy brought to life in a kind of Frankenstein monster of stereotypes: The perfect big round breasts. The hard muscle of long thighs. The mouth, a perfect pout, greasy with lipstick. The pink leather skirt too short and tight for anything but sex. He speaks with the breathy voice of a little girl or a movie starlet. A huge gush of air for what little sound comes out. It's the kind of whispery voice Cosmopolitan magazine teaches girls to use, to make listening men lean closer.

  We just sit here, nobody talking, nobody sharing. You just can't be honest, knowing there's a penis under the table. Even in the middle of Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe posters . . . apple-cinnamon candles . . . the bookstore's calico cat.

  Okay, “Miranda” says, then I'll start.

  “Miranda,” his bleached hair is piled beauty-parlor tall, stiff with spray, and wired with bobby pins.

  There's this guy at work who “Miranda” fell just train-wreck in love with. The guy won't flirt back. He's just this totally cute number, a slick-haired junior sales associate who drives a Porsche. He's married, but “Miranda” knows there's sheer animal interest on the guy's side. This one time after work, “Miranda” says, the guy came over and put his hand—

  And we all just stare.

  The guy put his hand on “Miranda's” arm and asked about going out for a drink.

  “Miranda's” arms are thin, tanned muscle with no jiggle to them. Smooth as tan plastic. He giggles. “Miranda” actually giggles. He rolls his eyes at the ceiling.

  “Miranda” says how the sales associate from work drove the two of them to this very dark bar, the kind where you'd go to not be noticed by—

  This is so like a male, all this me, me, me stuff, all night.

  We come here to get away from men, from husbands who won't pick up dirty socks. Husbands who slap us around, then cheat on us. Fathers disappointed that we're not boys. Stepfathers who diddle us. Brothers who bully us. Bosses. Priests. Traffic cops. Doctors.

  Most time, we don't allow cross talk, but somebody in the group says, “Miranda?”

  And “Miranda” stops yakking.

  We tell him that consciousness raising is rooted in complaint. What so many people call a bitch session. In communist China, in the years after Mao's revolution, an important part of building a new culture was allowing people to complain about their past. At first, the more they complained, the worse the past would seem. But by venting, people could start to resolve the past. By bitching and bitching and bitching, they could exhaust the drama of their own horror stories. Grow bored. Only then could they accept a new story for their lives. Move forward.

  This is why we come here every Wednesday night, to this bookstore backroom without windows, to sit in folding metal chairs around a big square table.

  The revolution called this “Speaking Bitterness.”

  “Miranda” shrugs his shoulders. His eyebrows raised, he shakes his head and says he doesn't have any horror stories. He sighs and smiles and bats his eyes.

  And someone in the groups says, “Then we don't want you here.”

  The whole idea of men creating perfect robot women for their own pleasure, it happens every day. The most “beautiful” women you see in
public, none of them are for real. They're just men perpetuating their perverted stereotype of women. Just the oldest story in the world. There's a penis on every page of Cosmopolitan magazine if you know where to look.

  “Miranda” says how we're not very welcoming.

  And somebody says, “You're not a woman.”

  We meet in the women-only safe gathering space behind the Wymyn's Book Cooperative. No way do we want our space polluted by oppressive phallic yang energy.

  Being a woman is special. It's sacred. This isn't just some club you can join. You don't just get a shot of estrogen and show up here.

  “Miranda” says: You just need a little makeover. To pretty yourself up.

  Men, they just don't get it. Being a woman is more than just wearing makeup and high heels. This kind of sex mimicry, this gender parroting, is the worst insult. A man thinks, all he has to do is put on lipstick and cut off his dick and that makes him a sister.

  Someone gets up from her chair. Someone else gets up, and they both start around the table.

  “Miranda” asks: What are they planning?

  And a third woman, standing, says, “A major makeover.”

  “Miranda's” pink fingernails go to her pocketbook. He takes out a canister of hot-pepper spray and says he's not afraid to use it. He puts a silver rape whistle between his pink lips.

  Someone else goes around the table to stand too close to him, his hand clutched white around the pepper spray. Then somebody in the group says, “Let's see your tits . . .”

  In our group, we don't have a leader. The rules of consciousness raising don't allow cross talk. No one can challenge the experience of another member. Everyone gets a turn to talk.

  “Miranda,” the silver rape whistle drops out of his mouth. His Paris lips blown up with collagen. The pout of a fashion model saying, “Thursday.”

  “Miranda” says we have to be joking.

  It's so typical, men want all the perks of being female, but none of the bullshit.

  Somebody else says, “No, really. Show us . . .”

  We're all female, here. It's not like we haven't seen tits before. Somebody standing close, she reaches toward the top button on “Miranda's” pink blouse. The blouse is pink silk, tented over his breasts. It's cropped to show his smooth, flat stomach, and hangs in folds above his belted skirt. His pink lizard-skin belt is no bigger than a dog collar.

  One of his pink hands slaps the woman away. When no one else makes a move, then “Miranda” lets out a little sigh. With all of us watching, he undoes the top button, himself. His pink fingernails open the next button down. Then the next. He's looking back at us, looking from woman to woman, until all the buttons are done and the blouse gaps open. Inside is a pink satin bra embroidered with roses and trimmed with lace. His skin is airbrush-pink, centerfold-clear, without the moles or hairs or red bug-bites you see on real skin. Around his neck, a pearl necklace points straight down into his big ass-crack cleavage.

  The bra is the kind that hooks open in the front, and “Miranda” waits a beat, holding the clasp and looking from woman to woman.

  And somebody in the group says, “How much estrogen do you have to shoot up to keep a rack on you that big?” Somebody else whistles. The rest of the group whispers together. The breasts are too perfect. Both the same size and not too far apart. They look engineered.

  The pink fingernails twist, and the bra falls open. The bra falls open, but the breasts stay up, firm and round, with nipples pointed at the ceiling. The exact set of breasts a man would choose.

  Someone standing close, she reaches out a hand and makes a grab. Her hand squeezes flesh. Thumbing the nipple, she says, “Everybody. You've got to feel this—God, it's so gross.” Her hand squishes, then lets go. Squishing again, she says, “It's like . . . I don't know . . . bread dough?”

  “Miranda” twists to get away, his body pulling back against his chair.

  But the hand clutching his breast, the fingers grip hard, and the woman says, “Don't.”

  Someone else says, “I wouldn't mind having hooters that nice.”

  They have to be silicone. Another hand reaches into the open blouse and grabs the second breast, rolling it, forcing it up against the pearl necklace, so we can look for a surgical scar underneath.

  “Miranda” sits there, his arms bent forward at the elbow, each hand still holding half the pink bra, holding it open while we look. He starts to bring the bra back together, to seal things back inside.

  And someone still groping a titty says, “Not yet.”

  The driver's license still on the table in front of us, the big “F” printed under “sex.”

  Someone else says, “Fake boobies don't prove nothing.”

  Someone else says, “My husband's got bigger ones than that.”

  Hands from around behind “Miranda,” they pull the scarf off his shoulders, pulling the pink blouse back and down until it slips off his arms. His skin glows, clear as the pearl earring in each ear. His nipples pink as the lizard-skin pocketbook, he lets this happen.

  Somebody throws the blouse off into a corner of the room.

  And somebody else says, “Let's see your pussy.”

  And “Miranda” says: No.

  It's obvious. This poor, sad, misguided fuck, he's using us. The way a masochist goads a sadist. The way the criminal wants to be caught. “Miranda” is begging for it. This is why he's shown up here. It's why he's dressed this way. He knows this shorty-short skirt, these big casaba boobs, they drive a real woman wild. In this case, “no” does mean “yes.” It means “Yes, please.” It means, “slap me.”

  “Miranda,” he says: You're making a big mistake.

  And everybody laughs.

  We say how consciousness raising means coming to terms with your genitals. Other meetings we've had, we've all brought hand mirrors and squatted over them. We've all shared a speculum and studied the difference between the cervix of a virgin and a mother. We've had speakers from the women's health cooperative here to demonstrate period extraction with the Karman Cannula. Yes, all this, right here on this wooden table. Together, we've shopped for sex toys and studied the G-spot.

  A little pushing, and “Miranda” is up on the table. Even on his hands and knees, his breasts still look round and solid, not stretched and hanging down. Six inches of zipper, and his skirt slides down his skinny ass. He's wearing pantyhose: more proof he's not a real woman.

  The women in the group, we look at each other. To have a man here taking orders. Some of us were molested. Some of us, raped. All of us, ogled, groped, undressed by male eyes. It's our turn, and we don't know where to begin.

  Somebody rolls the pantyhose down, off his ass. Somebody else says, “Arch your back.”

  Nobody's surprised at how “Miranda's” labia look. The skin too frilly. The wet-flower look a stylist works hard to get in Playboy or Hustler. Still, the flesh doesn't look soft enough, and the color's too pale, not pink or light brown. Surgical scar tissue. The pubic hair trimmed and waxed down to a thin stripe. Perfumed. Not the way a pussy is supposed to look. The longer we look, the more we agree it's not real.

  Somebody pokes at “Miranda” with a car key. Not ever a finger. Somebody pokes at the folds of her skin and says, “I hope you didn't pay a lot for this . . .”

  Another member of the group says we should see how deep it goes.

  Whatever he is, “Miranda” is crying. Caught up in his little drama, all his eye makeup and blusher mixed with his foundation and coming down his cheeks to each corner of his mouth. He's almost naked with his stretched pantyhose webbed between his ankles, his feet still in gold-elegant high-heeled sandals. His blouse is gone and his pink lace bra is open and hanging off his shoulders. His firm, round breasts shiver with each sob. He's on the conference table this way. His fur coat on the floor, kicked off into a corner. His blond hair falling down. His own little horror story.

  Somebody tells “Miranda” to shut up. Shut up and turn over.

Somebody takes him by an ankle. Someone takes the other ankle, and they twist his legs until he lets out a little shriek and turns over. Now on his back, his feet are still pulled wide apart, each gold sandal gripped by a different set of hands.

  This isn't a woman. Maybe if someone from the planet Mars only ever saw a woman in Cosmopolitan, this is what they'd create. We point out how the clitoris must be the penis whittled down. Somebody describes how the artificial vaginal vault is just the penis, gutted and stuffed inside, a section of mucus-producing lower intestine spliced in for depth. Where the cervix should be, they use the skin salvaged from the empty scrotum.

  “Waste not, want not,” somebody says.

  Someone gets a little flashlight out of her tote bag and says, “I've got to see this.”

  Somebody else says, “All this fuss. It proves he's never had a pelvic.”

  In hindsight, they should've just gone home. Oh, it's all so politically enlightened until somebody gets hurt.

  Still, here they meet week after week, rapping about who didn't get what job. Who's stuck under what glass ceiling. Who feels her breasts undressed by the eyes of gas-station attendants and construction workers. All they ever do is talk. Here at last is their chance to strike back.

  It's a team-building exercise.

  They ask, Why is he here? Is he a spy?

  Experts say a woman makes only sixty cents for every dollar a man makes doing equal work. He makes all this extra dough, and this is how he blows it. Makeup and plastic tits. Any real woman's gonna have stretch marks. Gray hairs. Cheesy cellulite thighs.

  They ask, what did he expect to find?

  Somebody is digging with her fingers. Someone holds the flashlight, pushing it forward.

  The group asks, did he expect a gang of man-hating bulldykes getting together for some hot girl-on-girl rug munching?

  The flashlight, the little halogen lightbulb must be hot, because he's squealing, squirming so hard it takes all of them to hold him down. To hold his legs apart and force him open for a look.

  Someone says, “What's it look like?”

  The rest of the group wait for their turn.

  “Miranda” thrashing on the table, the group leans over him, his pearl necklace breaks and goes rolling everywhere. The pins drop out of his hair. His breasts bounce and jiggle, two mounds of gelatin.

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