naked

handprints

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.

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About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.

44 comments

  1. Anna, you should submit this. Seriously.

  2. This is a phenomenal essay. I’m with Downith above — you should submit this.

  3. What a fabulous piece of work, gripping right to the very end! What a little minx that David Sedaris is!

  4. Downith is so very right. This is so very good.

  5. Classic.
    I’m still smiling at the perfection of the way Sedaris brought the physical of that joke to you, the irony of it, the way he can get away with crossing the line.
    And the delicious irony of you, too, thirty years on, selling the magazine, wiggling your fingers, perfect.
    And yeah, this piece should be published. But not just this piece. We, all of us whose hearts do a tiny dance when we get a girl in the hat email notification, have seen a whole memoir coming together over the past few months. Pretty great for someone who doesn’t have time to write, too.
    I’m looking forward to that being published.
    Just don’t tell the Sedaris joke at your book signings.

    • Sedaris is the best. I still can’t believe I shook his hand. I don’t get all swoony over many, but *whew.* Sedaris! And your words made me blush scarlet and flex my biceps a little. Thank you, thank you.

  6. This is a great post, Anna. Especially liked the last paragraph. Sort of sums up the whole thing.

  7. “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.” At 42, I am JUST NOW getting to this. Thank you for your talent and your insight.

  8. That the old guy felt he had to go to a bookstore to purchase a PB is rather quaint–although considering he could get his fix on the web it suggests a cry for… I dunno, help? And that story about Sedaris is an eye-opener too. Who would suspect?

    And I agree with some of the folks above who suggested you submit this.

  9. So fabulous, Anna!
    The idea of the wrapping of the magazine being a kind of boundary is brilliant. We are all just feeling our way, unwrapping and re-wrapping ourselves as each situation calls for. Some of us have little tears in our wrappings. Obviously. : )

  10. Karin

    I love the irony of you having posed for the magazine in the past. … a sweet little inside joke! And I have a just past teen daughter, so that is another set of boundaries I understand… But I appreciate your ability to make it eplicit, make what I know visible in words outwardly. Working in a field that
    must cross boundaries (health care) I often see different shades of myself in times past and present during my encounters. Respecting a patient’s boundary means I don’t get to tell them my funny little inside story, but I’m glad you shared yours with us.

    • I imagine you must toe that line every day. Patients are so vulnerable– I can’t think of a more intimate field than yours–I’m so glad to hear that you know and understand.
      It’s a huge relief to write about all the things I can’t really say.
      Thank you muchly for reading, Karin.

  11. damn you write such good posts. sigh

  12. David Sedaris is to satirical purpose as you, my lady, are to neon brilliance. You never disappoint.

  13. The overused, outdated term I’d use sometimes for singers or football players is “ridiculous.” Your writing is sometimes so good it is ridiculous, Anna. Other times only excellent (though I’d have to search for an example, I suppose), but this one was ridiculous. I think DS read you like a book, and he knew the joke would be fine with you. Or did he? I’m glad I don’t live in an apartment, because I was cackling like a drunken chicken at that joke. I can’t wait to tell it tomorrow.
    “The smile of a woman of reasonable age”, by the way, is the answer. To the question: What makes me “laugh, cry, quiver, come, AND get defensive?” There, I stepped over the boundary.

    • I had a feeling you’d like this one, Kevin. I was thinking of you when I wrote it. I like to think he could see it on my face, for sure. You always crack me up. That last part sounds like the riddle to the sphinx. xoox

  14. I agree… Submit, submit. The Rumpus.. the Rumpus!

  15. You are so good at putting a magnifying glass to tiny moments in the middle of the busyness of life in order to examine the intricacies of the overlapping nature of our lives. It is the intersections where our lives meet even in the most mundane of circumstances that we learn the range and depth of being human, but only if we reserve judgement and maintain empathetic observation. You do this so well. I learn more about being a human being from every one of your posts.
    David Sedaris is quite possibly the most shamelessly funny man alive. He stunned Jon Stewart into silence a few times with his brazen remarks and as many other times almost had him rolling on the floor. When you can do that to a comedian you know you are working the edge.

  16. Wow! This post has everything! Vulnerability, surprise, shock, humor, humility, honesty, and let’s not forget intrinsic beauty of your language. Well done.

  17. You just took me to a million different places, and I find myself having to rewind. Magic.

  18. I skim read many blog posts each week. This post held my attention to the very last word. Brilliantly written! Thank you.

  19. Todd

    Anna, this story is so… oh please put on an olive drab sweater and write about mud for a change. Conjuring up all the adulation your work deserves is so tiring. What a deftly sculpted tale… the pitiable whacker emeritus juxtaposed against the triumphant young(ish) hand molester… toeing and crashing through invisible social lines. And you, the clandestine observer, revealing insights of self and society. I can’t imagine PB would not print it. I felt pretty stupid after I had to Google Sedaris and found how well he is known. I Amazoned Naked and am half way through, reading before bed in my “library”. My wife: “What are you laughing about in there? Come out of there and come to bed. You’re going to go blind you pervert!” PS I had a Ya Ya too, complete with black garb, worry beads and unibrow. Really good work Anna!

    • Whacker emeritus. Ha!!!!
      I can’t believe Amazon is a verb now. And did you hear that the post office will deliver them on Sunday– them and only them. WTF?
      No, PB is not welcome to print this. They own the 19 and 20 year old me, that’s quite enough.
      You’re under the covers googling and amazoning? Ah, the good old days. (Isn’t DS fabulous?)
      xo

  20. Todd

    Sorry, I forgot that Amazon must be your nemesis. I did, however, recently buy two books at an actual book store… from a real human! No googling under the covers here. I know it’s archaic, but my wife and I only sleep, and do other old fashioned things in bed. TVs, laptops and other electronic stimulants are verboten in the bedroom. We cling to a few traditions, such as forced ignorance of the baby’s gender until birth, which pissed off numerous family baby shoppers. Recently I even tried instilling the old concept of paternal respect in Sir Bratrick, suggesting he reply to me with the medieval “Yes, Sir”. That idea bombed with wife and son both, one hurling a cauldron of pungent Khmer adjectives at me while the other merrily blew raspberries. If you have any odd interest to know what spoken Khmer sounds like, watch “Mars Attacks”. I swear the aliens are speaking it.

  21. How funny! I have been considering that very magazine recently in a way that I never had before because Kate Moss decided to pose for a spread for her 40th birthday. I’ve had to reevaluate it simply because I’m a fan of Kate’s. I even bought a T-shirt emblazoned with her front cover and yet I still haven’t picked up the nerve to go into a magazine store and buy the plastic-covered magazine. What is wrong with me? I consider myself an open-minded woman, a feminist without the capital F, but this leaves me quite confused!

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