The other day at the bookstore, a man brings a stack of items to the register. He’s jabbering intensely about the weather and fiddling with the buttons on his jacket when I notice the P*****y Magazine. The girl on the cover wears a yellow band outfit sans shirt, just a tiny skirt, epaulets, and a whistle on a lanyard draped strategically over her nipples. She’s jumping up over the words declaring this to be the college issue, and she’s encased in clear plastic so customers know to look but not touch.
“Ha, ha,” the customer says with as much levity as he can muster. “Seems like I’m the only one who buys these anymore.”
I smile. In the nine months since I started working at the bookstore, I’ve only sold one P*****y Magazine before but I don’t tell him this because I don’t want to add to his obvious embarrassment. There’s no need for him to feel like a pervert or worse, an old-fashioned pervert, so I look busily nonchalant, locating the SKU just under the girl’s left knee and scanning it in.
But he’s not done worrying about what I think: Me, a nice-looking 47 year old woman wearing red lipstick and reading glasses, selling a P*****y to him, a 60ish man with a white mustache and a belly-shelf who looks like the guy who ought to wear the Santa suit at Christmas. His discomfort is palpable, almost infectious, but there’s no acceptable way for me to tell him that I understand and have no problem with the fact that men often use visual aids to “get the job done” so when he tells me, “I like to read the articles” in a knowing, apologetic tone that conveys both the truth and hypocrisy of his words, I look him straight in the eyes and laugh at his joke even though we’ve all heard it before because although this transaction puts me in a weird position, I have no desire to harm this old man’s dignity.
As the coordinator of author events at a bookstore, as a bookseller, part of my job entails selling books, all kinds of books: books I like, dislike, and couldn’t care less about, bibles, korans, and atheisms, classics and romance, eroticism and asceticism and even the books nobody wants, we carry all kinds and when someone brings something up to the counter, I don’t have to approve– judgment can be so tedious, really– rather, I am afforded the opportunity of a glimpse into someone’s head to see what flips their switch, so to speak. It’s as fun as rifling through a stranger’s drawers, fascinating as an anthropological dig.
But let me explain: this transaction could put me in a weird position, but it doesn’t. When I was younger, before I’d met academic and professional success, before kids, when I still had something to prove, I felt threatened every day in a multitude of scenarios. But now, when my degrees feel like ancient history, having survived ten years of teaching high school English, after changing diapers and letting my kids wipe their runny noses on my pant leg because I forgot to bring tissues, I no longer worry. I’m just a competent person getting the job done. In fact, I usually enjoy the transaction at the cash register: two readers standing face to face, chatting about books, what fun. And when the roles are switched, when the person taking my money seems aloof or apathetic or surly or defensive, my heart goes out to them but I also breathe a sigh of relief because I don’t have to feel that way anymore.
I’m an adult, and so is this man buying the P*****y magazine. The next item in his stack is the latest by David Sedaris. Eager to change the subject, he tells me how much he admires Sedaris’s sense of humor and I tell him about how last summer when Sedaris came to do a reading, our bookstore was there to sell books: “I attended that night and before the show, I shook Sedaris’s hand.” I hold up my right hand and wiggle my fingers, grinning, and he seems grateful I have agreed to overlook his P*****y magazine and sufficiently impressed with my story even though I’ve left the best part out, the part about how while David Sedaris was shaking my hand he told me a joke so dirty it nearly singed my nosehairs and made me, a grown woman, blush scarlet from my ears to my bellybutton. Even if this guy wasn’t buying a P*****y magazine, I still wouldn’t share that joke (although I’d probably tell him about it, the joke and the curled nosehairs) because there’s something intrinsically vulnerable about being face-to-face with someone in the flesh that can make a person feel as naked as the breasts of the cover girl with a decorous lanyard around her neck, the girl who’s lying right there in between us on the counter, so to even mention the joke now crosses a line.
Okay, okay. You’re wondering about the joke, right? And because I can’t see your face and you can’t see mine, I’ll write it now even though it still makes me titter with a question mark (ha? ha? HA!?!?) and although a large part of its impact has to do with David Sedaris’s impish delivery. Here it is: A boy walks in on his father, who’s madly jerking off. “What are you doing?” asks the boy, to which his father sagely responds, “Something you’ll be doing soon enough.” The boy doesn’t get it. “Why’s that?” he wants to know, and his dad explains: “Because my hand is getting tired.”
Picture Sedaris’s face shifting from innocent boy to leering satyr. Pretend that when he says his punchline that face (which you’ve probably only seen on the dust jacket) is right in front of you, those knowing eyes flick to yours for a reaction. Imagine that he is shaking your hand while he gets to the punchline and that the handshake lasts just long enough for the joke to climax and when it does, you imagine your hand has become the father’s hand shaking himself or maybe the boy’s hand gripping his father and your hand is suddenly covered with incestuous jism and you have a visceral urge to sprint to the bathroom for soap and hot water and that from then on, when you remember meeting David Sedaris you will hold up you hand and wiggle your fingers to remind yourself it was just a joke.
Sedaris can get away with it. The time David Sedaris crossed the line will be one of my favorite stories forever, written in indelible, invisible ink across the palm of my hand. But crossing the line is a highly skilled talent, a tightrope walk that for most of us means certain social suicide. I’m talking about personal boundaries, the invisible lines we draw around ourselves to define where we end and where others begin, the physical and emotional space we allow between ourselves and others. In order to protect our own psychic territory, each of us draws our own lines between public and private, funny and unfunny, intimidating or not. We tell very few other people, if any, what makes us laugh, cry, quiver, come, or get defensive. Online anonymity allows people to push boundaries they’d never test in real life, revealing themselves and making friends and hurting people with an abandon they’d never consider in real life. In fiction, we love to read about liars and cheaters and all kinds of social awkwardness. In writing, I can share a dirty joke with strangers and explore many levels of meaning but a face-to-face dialogue requires us to toe an invisible line. Maybe that’s why this customer is buying this magazine–because when he reads a book or looks at a picture, he doesn’t have to consider anyone’s boundaries. He can forget himself for a moment, he can let loose.
But I don’t tell him I have no problem with his P*****y magazine or share the Sedaris joke because this is not the time or place and I’m not going to cross that line. I don’t talk about the half naked teenager on the cover or say anything about my own teenaged daughter and I would never dream of mentioning the fact that I posed naked for this exact magazine thirty years ago or point out the irony that I, who once wore a silly half-there costume on these glossy pages, am now standing here selling a copy to him. The P*****y magazine is encased in clear plastic because this is neither the time nor the place for any of that.
Instead, I put his purchases into a brown paper bag and wave goodbye. And while I’m waving, I’m fully appreciating how vulnerable we all are, how these bodies make us vulnerable, and I’m feeling thankful for the boundaries that help us all hold ourselves together.