The pain, she tells herself, is exquisite, but only because it’s so close to her skin. Pushing her jacket from her arms… Yup, she thinks to herself. It’s sensational. So hot on her skin, it damn near feels tropical.
“I compare you to other women,” he is repeating, “but it’s not as bad as it sounds.”
“How is it that?” Viv asks. She still has her arms around herself.
“I just mean that it’s natural. But to say it out loud, you know—like this.” He looks at her, carefully. “Well, I realize it sounds terrible.”
The fact of his wariness stops her; Viv gathers the remaining clumps of her hamburger, squeezes them between her fingers but no juice comes out. She stares at the clumps. It isn’t that the restaurant employees are staring, it’s that she doesn’t know why. She cringes at the way she had previously emphasized—loudly—that of course her professor is attractive. She wouldn’t have done that without sufficient prompting. She wouldn’t.
“I think my professor is good-looking,” she tells him, taking care to lower her voice. “But it isn’t the same as what you do. It’s not like I can imagine him tied up, or even taking care of me. It’s not like I am visualizing my professor on his knees.”
He clears his throat.
“You have to at least acknowledge we don’t occupy the same world.”
Joe says nothing, if for no other reason than that Viv makes statements like this all the time—you’ve got to know I don’t feel like a woman, it’s hard because I’m not very special, you probably think I’m not very sexy. It isn’t that he disagrees, Joe tells himself, it’s that his disagreeing does nothing. Joe wants, then, to know the point of this—of sitting here, of talking. He picks up a piece of straw wrapper and tries to make it into the shape of a star.
“Don’t you know what I mean?” Viv is going on. “It’s so much easier to come across an attractive, interesting woman than it is to come across an attractive, interesting man,”—again, she feels the employees staring at her—“and all I’m saying is that I would feel more comfortable if our options were balanced.”
Viv stares back at the all-male employees and Joe stares at the soap opera playing on the restaurant television. He feels paranoid; the TVs been hitched well in his view as if mocking him, prepared for this. All kinds of asses parade by Viv, all of them different and yet all in what she deems uniform frames, tasteless but tight Levi jeans. Her gaze bounces alternately from the male employees to the women perusing the restaurant, fulfilling their roles as customers, and yet here, Viv tells herself, is something more. She wonders if the employees have partners at home, what those partners might imagine they do when they leave. How, for example, do people treat a burger.
“Do you want to date another woman?” she asks.
“You know I don’t.”
“I know,” she waits. “I know.”
And then, “I just mean, it doesn’t make sense to me, Joe. That’s what I really mean. Like, why go shopping if you’ve no intention to buy?” The analogy had come out suddenly and makes her feel stupid. “Don’t you at least get what I mean?”
“It’s just an instinct, Viv. I can’t control all my thoughts.”
Facial expressions wink at him from the squiggles of ketchup on his plate, as if inviting him into escapism. Where was the plate made?
“Look,” Joe reaches for the underpart of her wrist and she squints. “I’m not even dwelling on anything, alright? I see a woman, I notice the woman, I move on.”
Viv pretends to be in the midst of developing an appropriate comment, but she can’t deny to herself that she is taking his sentence like it’s a newly caught fish, mentally turning it over, spending seconds to inspect every word—noting the way he takes “a woman” to “the woman.” She can’t imagine the scenario so well; that’s what bothers her. That the idea is so abstract it’s practically hidden. Holding her rejection in her hands like it’s Jell-O, or better yet, like it’s purely rejection. Thinking about that word, rejection, rejection, and remembering that Linda Lovelace biopic on Netflix. It’s a really good movie, he had told her. She watched it alone in bed with only that too-intent gaze. Couldn’t find anything worth noting about the cinematography or even the writing. He just likes it because they keep saying “blowjob,” Viv recalls thinking. Joe watches her swishing both cheeks into one gathered angle. Trying to collect all the wet in her mouth before speaking.