Behind her back, she was “One-Tit Tessie,” so-called after undergoing a mastectomy at the ripe old age of twenty-seven.
“You should give her a call.”
Arty from Philly told me about her. Tess was a friend of Arty’s wife, Lauren. Actually, Lauren hated her. They swam together at Cornell where Tess had a reputation for being a frigid little bitch, moody and unpredictable. She was overly competitive, in and out of the water, rarely hung out with other swimmers, and sabotaged all attachments to the girls in her dorm.
“And she was always too busy!”
Too busy working towards her 4.0, too busy proving she was more than a pretty face with a great rack, too busy pursuing that job at Goldman Sachs where she knew she could out-hustle any of those limp-dick-prep-school faggots who dared meander across her path.
As luck would have it, one of those limp-dick-prep-school faggots did meander across her path, and he meandered with enough charm, enough swagger, and (of course) enough of Daddy’s money to convince Tess it would be worth her while to follow him out to California, where he could pursue a career as a budding cinematographer.
But Hollywood proved too much for the limp-dick-prep-school faggot and his analyst girlfriend. Tess worked long hours around the schedule of the New York Stock Exchange, up at four in the morning, back in bed by eight o’clock at night. She wore navy blue pinstripes while the limp-dick-prep-school faggot wore a mesh trucker’s hat and a Von Dutch sweatshirt. She read financials; he read screenplays. She made six figures; his parents cut him off. She took up kickboxing; he had affairs. She got cancer; he moved back east.
“You won’t have to play games with her, wine her and dine her. She just wants to get laid, which — let’s face it, pal — is pretty much all you want too.”
Arty had a point. I wasn’t exactly in “relationship condition.” My clothes were shoddy. My gut stuck out. I had a bad haircut and a rotting tooth that was beginning to smell. A year had passed since my last date, and that one ended in a lawsuit. I had a job at the time working for an exterminator, setting traps for pests and rodents. It was disgraceful work. The kind you take when you have no pride, no hope, and no love for insects. My paychecks didn’t even cover my bills let alone provide the cash necessary for taking a girl out for a “sit down” meal. I told Arty I wasn’t interested, but when he left Tess’ number on my couch, I didn’t throw it away.
Two weeks later, I was getting hammered at a bar where my money’s no good. I’d been listening to some tattooed blond ramble on for a couple of hours when, out of nowhere, she let it drop that her musician boyfriend was picking her up in fifteen minutes. I thanked her for wasting my time, then drunk-drove home through the skids of Hollywood. After browsing through some Internet porn that was becoming a little too familiar, I decided to give Tess a call. She picked up on the third ring, sounding like she’d been asleep.
“Hey, it’s Rodney.” I was kicking myself for calling so late.
“Who?” She had the kind of voice you hear on those new-fangled fire alarm systems that warn you to remain calm as you exit the building.
“Rodney,” I repeated. “Rodney Maciejewski. Arty told me I should give you a try.”
“Arty?” she asked.
It took her a second.
“Oh.” She didn’t sound enthused.
“Anyway, there’s a place by my house. It’s open late if you want to get some coffee or something.”
She paused. There was contempt in her pause.
“Why don’t you just… come over.”
I chugged the last beer in my fridge and drove a demolition derby to the West Side.
“Come in,” she said as she opened the door, and right away, I could see Tess was in possession of an angry beauty, cold and unasked for. She was slender and petite, with ice-pick cheekbones under fierce brown eyes. Her skin would have been olive if she’d ever seen the sun.
“Tess, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, turning her back as she walked into the living room. I watched her take the pillows off the couch and spread a white sheet across the cushions. I stared at her chest and the irregular triangle negotiated across her nightshirt, hanging by its vertex, formed from a bra-less and all too solitary breast.
“I’m Rodney,” I said, still standing by the door. My name was of no interest to her.
“Do you have a condom?” she asked.
Jesus, I thought. Arty didn’t lie. “Shouldn’t we exchange pleasantries first?”
“Why?” she asked.
I laughed nervously as I approached the couch. I always expect a measure of disappointment when a woman opens the door to reveal me instead of something with an ironed shirt and a head of hair, but Tess’ indifference was different. It seemed I was there to serve a purpose. Her purpose. I might as well have been delivering a pizza, and she was looking for exact change.
“Yeah,” I said, moving next to her. My gut brushed lightly against her arm. “I have a condom.”
With that, Tess Felice undid my pants and used her hand to get me aroused. I pulled out a rubber that had been in my wallet since the Clinton administration and rolled it onto my cock. Once she was sure everything was antiseptic, Tess turned around, lifted her nightshirt above her waist, and allowed me to enter her from behind. She held her balance with her right hand while using her left to rub and squeeze at her one remaining breast. When I put a clumsy hand on her hip, she shrugged it off with a wiggle. It took about fifteen minutes for us both to finish, after which Tess pulled down her nightshirt, stood up, and said something about having to get up in a few hours. I attempted to kiss her good-bye on the lips, but she gave me the cheek. In the course of the half hour or so we spent together, our eyes never met, and all told, I’d say our shared experience was about as intimate as a trip to an ATM.
Over the next several months, I made a series of visits to Tess’ apartment, and each time, the night followed the same script. If I suggested we have dinner or a drink, she would make an excuse about needing sleep or not having enough time, and before long, we were doing it again on the couch. She showed no desire to reveal any details of her life and no curiosity concerning mine. Almost everything I knew about her, I knew from Arty and Lauren.
One evening, I asked Tess where she was from.
“New York,” she said.
“You wouldn’t know it.”
She sighed. “Troy.”
“Oh,” I said. “I know Troy.” When they pick up the garbage in Philly, they drop it off in Troy.
And then we were at it again.
If you’re wondering why I would submit myself to such a humbling and anonymous sexual regimen, I should tell you that, but for the missing breast, Tess was a woman well out of my league. She not only had her own apartment, but a job and an education. To say she compared well with the previous women I’d dated (my last girlfriend smeared feces on her wall “to ward off the evil dwarf”) would not only be an understatement, it would be an insult. Let’s face it, Tess was the kind of girl a guy like me works for, not has sex with. I should have been cleaning her pool or spraying her garage for termites, not giving her the business from behind on the couch.
“I hear you swam at Cornell.”
“Uh-huh,” she threw the sheet over the cushions.
“I was a back-up tight end at Penn State. More of a blocker than a receiver. Fifty pounds ago. Before my knee gave out.”
She wasn’t listening. She had readied herself on the couch, bent over with the nightshirt up, waiting for me to deliver the goods. I took down my drawers and performed that evening with an added exuberance. As Tessie neared climax, I courageously reached under her body with my left paw and made my move for her one good breast. Her body froze, rigid, as she grabbed my wrist.
“Do not do that,” she said.
Had the soldiers at Normandy heard the tone in Tess’ voice at that moment, they would have laid down their rifles, swam back to England, and begged their generals to leave Europe to the Nazis.
“Sorry,” I said. I pulled my hand back and completed my service. When I left, I did not grant her the courtesy of a kiss.
For the next month or so, I refrained from calling Tess, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind. For all the times we’d fucked, could she really feel no emotional connection to me? Had the loss of her breast completely destroyed the intimate content of her sexuality or had she always been like this? Was the mastectomy the cause, or was it just the excuse? Or was it that she was dying?
“No,” she replied over the phone, matter of fact.
“I thought you can never be sure.”
“As far as the doctors can tell, they got it all.”
I needed answers, even if Tess didn’t want to provide them. I needed our relationship – if you can call it that – to move forward. Relationships, in order to be at all bearable, need to move forward. This is what distinguishes couples from cellmates.
“Tess,” I said, as we spoke on the phone, “why don’t we go out tonight? Why don’t we dress up, spend a few bucks, pretend we’re real people. Regular folks out on the town.”
“I’m not looking for that.”
“Come on. Take a chance. You might even enjoy yourself.”
“Even if I wanted to, I don’t have time.”
“What if we start slow?” I asked. “What if I bring over a bottle of wine and we just talk a little? Humor me. Whaddya say?”
She issued one of her contemptuous pauses, but by then, I had figured out that the pause was a device she used to force her opponent into speaking prematurely, thereby forfeiting his position. I did nothing to break the silence, and after what seemed an eternity, she conceded – “Fine” — and hung up.
I bought a bottle of red, expensive for my budget, showered and shaved, put on a clean pair of jeans, and tucked in my shirt. I’d even had my tooth fixed. When Tess opened the door to her apartment, I gave her a little twirl as I entered, and, from the corner of my eye, I glimpsed an almost smile.
We sat facing each other along the kitchen counter and suffered long silences between sips.
“I don’t know shit about wines,” I admitted. “I had this one once before with a friend who knows what he’s doing. I got the same one so I wouldn’t look like a schnook.”
She said nothing. She was being polite but making a point of not engaging me.
“You like LA?” I asked.
“You like your job?”
“Arty told me about that jerk leaving you. What a jerk.”
Nothing. I had to wade into deeper waters.
“Was the cancer hard on you?”
She looked at me like I farted.
“You don’t like to talk about it.”
She shook her head.
“With time, I’m sure…” I stopped myself. We were almost done with the wine.
“You know,” I said, and this was planned, “I bet before all this, you wouldn’t have looked twice at a guy like me.”
“That’s not true,” she said, lying. She was showing a modicum of concern for my feelings. She was taking the bait.
“Lauren says all the guys in school were in love with you. I’ll bet it’s the same in your office, and everywhere else you go.”
She looked down at the floor, blushing. Strange, I thought, how it is always the smartest animal that is captured with the crudest device. I took another sip from my glass.
“Can I see it?” I asked.
“Can I see the scar?”
She squinted at me, perplexed. I had achieved the element of surprise.
“It’d mean a lot to me if you showed me the scar.”
She was getting the sense I was up to something.
“No,” she said.
“‘Cause it’s ugly.” I heard an accent in her voice. Something that before now, she had been successful in hiding. Something she’d probably worked hard to get rid of.
“Well, it might be beautiful to me,” I said, softening my approach.
“It’s not,” she replied.
“You don’t know that.”
“It’s not.” She was emphatic. “Why would you want to see it?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered, but that was a lie. Truth was, I thought it would bring us closer. I thought that by her revealing her scar, she would also be revealing the true Tessie. I thought a simple lifting of her shirt would cause some magical transformation that would lead us both forward into the land of the living.
“Has anyone else seen it?” I asked. “Anyone other than the doctors?”
“No,” she said, treading carefully.
“So you can show them, but you can’t show me.”
“I have to show them.” Anger again. Almost a hiss.
“‘Cause you don’t care what they think,” I said.
“No,” she replied, her foot in the clamp.
“But you DO care what I think.” I was good at setting traps. It was, after all, how I made my living.
Tessie leaned back on her stool acknowledging her defeat. She had been an athlete, don’t forget, and the sportsman in her admired a clever play.
“All right,” she said, as she tossed down the last drop of red in her glass. “You want to see it? Here it is.”
And there in the halogen of her kitchen, Tessie Felice, of Troy, New York, took off her nightshirt and revealed to me what remained of her once proud bosom. And it wasn’t anything grotesque. Not at all. Not even a bit. And you wouldn’t think so either, unless you’re one of those people who finds ugliness in imbalance, in asymmetry, in anything that isn’t pristine. But if you’re like me, and you resent what isn’t broken, what is clean and unscathed by life, what is pure and unadulterated, then you too would have seen her chest for what it was and not for what it had been. And what was it? It was the mangled evidence of a conflict between metal and skin, between birth and decay, between life’s saccharine overture and it’s bitter finale. It was what it was.
I reached out for her.
“Don’t,” she said, but her voice lacked conviction. She pushed weakly at my face as I kissed her neck. “Stop,” she said, as I lifted her onto the counter. I slid my hands onto her chest and felt her breathing quicken. “No,” she cried, as I lowered my face to suck on her nipple. “Please,” she whispered, her body falling limp as I ran my tongue across the patchwork flesh.
We fucked that night in her bedroom. I spent the night, and though Tess wasn’t there when I woke up in the morning, she had set an alarm so I wouldn’t be late for work. I called the following night to say thanks and left a message on her machine. I called again a week later and left another message. I called once more, but she never picked up, and she never returned my call.
Arty came over to watch the Eagles game. We sat on the couch in green jerseys sipping at Budweisers.
“Come on, McNabb, you fuckin’ pussy.” I waited for a break in the game.
“You hear from Tess?” I asked.
He said nothing. Then he laughed at a commercial that had monkeys in it.
“I was asking about Tess,” I said. The room was chilly and the rain outside reminded me of home. Reminded me of miserable Sundays growing up in a miserable home. “Has Lauren spoken to her?”
Arty ran his hand over his face. “I don’t know,” he grumbled. He took a sip from his beer and rubbed his neck. “They don’t really talk that much.” His eyes returned to the screen. He tossed a handful of chips into his mouth and chewed them slowly. “I think she’s having a hard time with the…” He made a gesture with his hand that in our language means cancer and the end of the topic. I raised the volume on the television set, which in our language means, I understand.