Pablo Piñero Stillmann's first novel will be published in the summer of 2015 by Tierra Adentro. His work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Cream City Review, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, The Normal School, and other journals. Follow him on Twitter @O1O111OO.
The Worst Thing about Having Sex with Me
I waited for her outside an old, powder blue building near my place that looked like it would fall in the next earthquake. Inside lived and worked a popular Korean hair stylist and her family. This was back when poor immigrant stylists were all the rage among rich Mexican women. I found the best one! She’s a fat Moldovan who shares a one-bedroom with her in-laws.
It was dark and beginning to rain when Aitana stepped out of the graffitied door. Her hair looked prettier, though not necessarily shorter. It struck me as odd that she wasn’t all in black. (I, not being Catholic and afraid of offending someone, had draped myself in that color from my sweater down to my shoes.) She carried the same oversized handbag, almost a diaper bag, which she had brought on our other dates.
Aitana looked sad as hell. As if she’d cried every day ever since she’d popped out of her mother more than three decades ago. She asked me to drive because she said she’d been driving all day and was sick of it.
I tried to make small-talk as we chopped through traffic and she did her best to play along. Every so often one of her friends would call her freaking out re: the people out in the streets protesting the killing of a Oaxacan family (kids included) by the army. Or were they protesting the dozens of students jailed for no reason? Hopefully they wouldn’t affect the area near the church.
She smiled as we exited the Viaducto to get onto Periférico. “I bet you’ve never had a fourth date at a funeral.”
“I’d rather this than a wedding,” I said.
“I hate dancing. Other people dancing, me dancing, the idea of dancing.”
This made her laugh.
We’d met online and set our first rendezvous at a bookstore in Polanco. She’d spent the previous night at the hospital with Ángeles, a friend of hers who was sick, and so had arrived with dark bags under her eyes. She yawned when I asked her if she wanted to go to a bar, so we decided instead on a pizza place. It wasn’t a good first date by any stretch—she being so nervous, tired and worried about her friend, while I was just as nervous plus unsure if she was just exaggerating her tiredness as an excuse to escape the date early. Yet when the evening was coming to a close, as I walked her to her car, something changed. It was probably just that we relaxed a bit. And so we decided to see each other the following Friday. Then again the following Tuesday which led to plans to meet again on Thursday.
Then Ángeles died.
Aitana called me weeping, distraught.
Of course I found it a bit odd that this woman whom I barely knew was leaning on me during such a tragic event in her life, but who was I kidding? We were both lonely people desperately trying to be less lonely. With that in mind it was the most normal thing in the world. Also, odd or not, all I could really do was comfort her.
“So I won’t be able to make it on Thursday.”
“Don’t even worry about that.”
“They’re having the funeral that day.”
“We’ll get coffee when you feel better.”
“Unless you want to come with me to the funeral.”
“Oh. Well. I mean. If you…”
Driving on the Periférico I asked her to tell me again the name of the church.
“My mom’s house is on the way,” I said in what could almost be described as a bubbly tone. “I’ll get to show you where I grew up.” It shames me to admit this, but I wanted her to know that even though times were tough for me, I’d grown up like her, in a nice house nested inside a rich neighborhood.
“Actually,” she said, “would you mind if we stopped there for a second so I can change?”
“You brought clothes?”
She pointed to her bag. “I was going to have you stop at Starbucks or something.”
Dread rose from my lower abdomen, expanding into my chest.
“Or we can still just go to a Starbucks.”
“No. It’s fine.” I regretted these words immediately. Why didn’t I make up some excuse? Could’ve just told her the truth, that my mom had recently had eye surgery and it would be awkward to bring a date over. Or the other, more important, truth, that it’s always been a huge deal for me to introduce my mom to someone I’m dating because, although she’s a perfectly nice woman, in private she’s nosy and judgmental. That it’s only happened twice, with longtime girlfriends. That I like to keep my compartments compartmentalized. That it was never easy being her son.
Then I realized there was no reason they actually had to meet. My mom, blinded by gauze, was probably upstairs in her bedroom.
We drove by my school; the park where I played countless hours of soccer and basketball; the convenience store where, at fourteen, I purchased my first pack of Camels; the house where I clumsily lost my virginity; my grandparents’ (r.i.p.) house.
Luz, my mother’s live-in maid for the past fifteen years, opened the backdoor. She looked surprised that I’d brought someone over.
I sneaked my date into the downstairs bathroom trying to act calmly, speaking in a low voice yet not in a whisper. Aitana plucked a makeup kit from her bag.
“I’m going upstairs to say hi to my mom.”
It was always comforting yet sad to be back there. Too much safety, too many bad memories.
Her excited smile was the first thing I saw as I opened the door. The TV was tuned to a news channel covering the day’s protests. The two giant gauze eyepatches made my mom look like an insect. She was lying in bed, under her fluffy, white duvet, pillows propped up behind her.
“How did you know it was me?”
“I heard you coming up the stairs,” she said. “I know your rhythms.”
My mom doesn’t know everything about me, but she knows a lot and thinks she knows it all.
I sat on the white couch, which faced the room as a whole. The TV images were familiar: things broken, tore down, set aflame. “I brought a friend. She needed to use the bathroom. We’ll be leaving in a sec.”
My mom, for my sake, didn’t react to this in any way.
I asked her how she was doing.
“I’m sick of these damn things,” she said, obviously referring to the patches. “Can’t do anything but listen to music or the news. And the news is so depressing. Won’t see the doctor until next week. I talked to him yesterday and he said everything’s fine. Right. For him everything’s always fine. I’ve become convinced that sight is the most important of the senses. I can’t read, watch movies, drive… I’m trapped inside my head.”
My mom’s always been completely incapable of reacting to a situation with anything that even resembles objectivity. She would’ve had the same opinion of any other sense she temporarily lost.
“Rita called me,” she said with fake nonchalance.
“Or you called her.”
“She called me.”
“Mom, please don’t. You know how this upsets me.”
“Can I just relay to you what she told me? Then you’re free to act as you please.”
After the magazine for which I wrote crumbled, I’d been unemployed for almost a year. The situation had me worried though maybe not as worried as I should’ve been. On the other hand, my mom was terrified for my future. She’d been pestering her friends to get their husbands to help me find a job and present it to me as if her friends’ husbands were just dying, for no reason at all, to get me hired. It was humiliating.
“I know what you’re going to say she told you.”
“She was talking to Marco about you and he thought you sounded like such an interesting guy. He said, ‘I’d love to pick his brain.’ Those were his words.”
“Right. A savvy businessman wants to pick my brain. I don’t see anything strange with that.”
“Why don’t you just meet with him for coffee? You have nothing to lose.”
The thing was I had—before catching on to what my mom was up to—met with some of her friends’ husbands. They were very nice to me, just like their wives had ordered them to be, and nothing ever came to anything. I was unemployable. Again, humiliating.
A slight knock on the ajar door made me realize I knew Luz’s rhythms, as it was immediately clear to me it wasn’t her.
Aitana walked in. She was all in black, holding one of those Chanel makeup squares in one hand and her bag in the other.
Seeing her there made me feel like my stomach was about to implode. This was my mother’s room. Our sanctum. When I still lived with her, and I lived with her far too long, her room was where I’d go on and on about my (and the world’s) troubles, where she would listen for as long as I needed her to.
My mom muted the TV and turned her face to Aitana as if she could see her.
“Sorry, ma’am,” said Aitana. “I was downstairs debating if it was ruder to not say hello to you or to come up uninvited.”
“Oh please, dear. You did the right thing.”
Aitana closed the door and introduced herself as she sat next to me. “So sorry. Had I known you were indisposed…”
“I needed company anyway. I’m going crazy in this room all by myself.”
In a lot of ways, maybe even in most ways, Aitana had more in common with my mom than with me: their upper-crust way of talking, their centrist political views, the subtle social conventions, and so on. I felt like they’d communicated with each other way more than I was able to pick up. Had my mom already figured her—and thus me—out?
I explained to Aitana the ins and outs of my mother’s surgery. She listened attentively and wished her the best.
“We’re off,” I said, relieved that finally the whole thing was coming to an end. “I’ll call you later.”
“We don’t mean to be rude, ma’am, but I’m sure Jero told you about the situation.”
“He was just starting to.” My mom loved an excuse to lie, especially if that excuse was helping her son out in some way.
“A very dear friend of mine died of cancer this week.”
Aitana’s eyes got watery. I handed her a box of tissues from my mother’s bedside table.
“I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“She was very sick for very long. It was hell for her family.” The word hell comes out differently when it’s said by someone who, like Aitana, had a big, gold Virgin of Gadalupe medallion hanging from her neck. “She left two little sons.”
My mother cringed. “So you’re going to the funeral.”
“At Our Lady of Medugorje.”
“The one near the yellow bridge?”
“But you’ll never make it,” she said this to me. “Not tonight. Not from here.” My mom turned the volume back up. “Reforma’s closed.”
It’s natural for people to place social unrest they see on TV on a land far away and/or in another time, but the violence was happening all around us, right at that moment. We were trapped by it. Looking closer I recognized the houses, the stoplights, the businesses.
Aitana’s phone vibrated and lit up as she took it out of her bag. “Oh no. I always forget to check my phone. It’s been cancelled.” She dried the tears from her face with a tissue.
I felt shame for the relief that swept over me now that I wouldn’t have to attend the funeral. The more time I spent time with Aitana the clearer it was to me that nothing would come of it. All I hoped now was that the protests died down soon so we could get out of there and I could be alone again, free, in my apartment.
A bus was set on fire; the police shot tear gas canisters.
“I can’t figure out if this country’s finally escaping its past or backing itself into a corner,” said my mom.
“Maybe that’s why they call it a Mexican standoff.”
“A what?” said Aitana.
“When two or more people are pointing a gun at each other, Americans call it a Mexican standoff. Maybe it’s three or more. No one has the advantage and no one has a logical way out of the situation. Like that great, super long bar scene in Inglorious Basterds.”
“I don’t think I saw that.”
Why did I think nothing would come of it? First of all, Aitana, like me, was a sad person, and it’s always scared me to pair up with a fellow sad person. Even worse than just sad, she seemed resigned. “Some people are born angry,” she’d said to me on our second date. It was fine by her that life would be kind of miserable and uneventful.
Then there was the sex.
The third date was a movie at my place. She began taking her clothes off as soon as we kissed, which is neither a good nor a bad thing but, for reasons which we’ll get to later, a bit too fast for this shy loser. I’m in no hurry, I told her. She said OK, but then more clothes were released and she again insisted. Then insisted some more and then some more until I finally had to step out of the room in my underwear.
The whole experience, her neediness, or maybe the fact that she wanted me, was a big turnoff.
And finally, What kind of person doesn’t know if they’ve seen Inglorious Basterds?
“I’m optimistic,” I said. “Mexico’s bleeding its worst diseases out. Sure, it’s a gruesome sight, but unfortunately I don’t think there was any other way.”
“It’s worse than ever,” said Aitana. “Terrifying.”
“Horrible!” said my mom in a high-pitched tone. “I’m trapped here. All I can do is listen to the news all day and it’s making me very depressed. Very depressed. You should get back into comedy. More than ever this country needs to laugh.”
“Comedy?” said Aitana. “You’re a comedian?”
“For a couple of years after university.”
“You don’t know about his comedy career?”
“I don’t think anyone but my mom would call it a career.”
“How long have you two known each other?”
“This is our fourth date,” said Aitana. “Imagine that: a fourth date and we were going to a funeral.”
“My fourth date with his dad was to a movie and the film caught on fire. Should’ve been a sign.”
“Come on, you do not remember your fourth date with my dad.”
“You don’t tell me what I do and don’t remember! I’m blind, not dumb!”
It wasn’t really until then, when I heard her come after me like that in self-defense, that I realized how hard this surgery had been for her. My mom, always effusive about the (often absurd) worries and anxieties she has regarding other people’s lives, never shows distress about her own.
Her father and both her father’s parents had gone blind. Now she’d submitted herself to an experimental (and very aggressive) surgery to delay her own blindness. Of course she was going insane, unable to do anything without assistance, haunted every waking hour by her own mortality.
Thinking this I started going a bit crazy myself. What if the surgery didn’t work? What if when I grew old there was still nothing that worked? How would I survive? At least my mom had a comfortable house, money. She had Luz, my sister and me. I would have nothing and no one. It was such a terrible future I couldn’t even imagine it. Maybe I was going crazy in my own, lazy way. This was a craziness that stilted me, made me an observer of life instead of a participant in it.
“Why’d you quit comedy?”
“He was great. Had he stuck with it, by now…”
“…he’d probably be…”
“Mom. You never even saw me.”
“You wouldn’t let me! Besides, Rebecca said…”
“You didn’t let your own mom come to a show?”
“Why would I want her to come?” Now I was angry at both of them. “Half the act was about her!”
“Jerónimo!” said Aitana in a chiding/offended voice that reminded me of you-know-who.
“Mexicans,” I pontificated, “have a pathological view on family.”
“You’re Mexican too,” said my mother.
“Not in that sense.”
It had all escalated so quickly. It always does when I’m with my mom. We start out friendly—courteous even—and suddenly all the complicated feelings we have toward each other bubble up. She wakes up the snotty teenager living inside me.
“This country took in all four of your grandparents.”
“This country’s shit,” I said, contradicting my earlier assertions about the bleeding out and whatnot. “Just look at what’s going on. One can’t even go on a nice date to a funeral.”
The joke got no response.
As the city went up in flames, like it had so many times before, I wondered how we were ever going to leave my mom’s house. If the protests went late into the night would my date invite herself to stay overnight? If she didn’t, my mom would surely bring it up, thinking it rude not to.
“Aitana,” said my mother, hand on her forhead, “I didn’t even ask you if you wanted some coffee or something.” She dialed Luz’s number. (Before cell phones both women communicated by shouting.) “Luz, please bring up…”
“Green tea,” said Aitana. “Thank you.”
“A green tea. And for Jero…”
“A coffee. Decaf. I’ll have a diet Coke.”
“It was actually the reason I stopped,” I said to Aitana. “Besides lack of talent.”
“The chunk about my mom.”
“Can you stop it with that?”
“Oh dear,” said my mom. “I’ve heard all about it. Really, it’s OK.”
“I had these jokes about our relationship. Good jokes. I would say the half of my act that dealt with her was the better half.”
“Audiences didn’t seem to agree. They invariably sided with her. The jokes don’t work if they take her side. So I made them meaner hoping they would get the point.”
Aitana was disappointed in me.
“They didn’t, which, in turn, made me very depressed. What had drawn me into comedy in the first place was feeling misunderstood, but then I just became a misunderstood comedian.”
The truth was my act didn’t turn meaner, but sadder. I lied for my mom’s sake. Things were sad enough already.
There was, for example, this story about my third-grade essay. We were a couple of years into the divorce. I remember not being able to sleep and having terrible headaches. One evening my mom called me into her room. She cried holding a sheet of notebook paper. I asked her what the matter was. “Is this what you want?” she said to me. I remember it as if it were happening at this moment. She had read a homework assignment I’d written titled, “My Parents,” in which I described my mom and dad, except that instead of describing my actual mom I’d written about my father’s mistress-turned-wife. Adding to the confusion, I had no memory of writing “My Parents.”
Obviously, jokes were woven into the essay story, but I was still too angry at my mom, too sad for that eight-year-old boy, to convey anything but anger and sadness. Writing this I still get the urge to time-travel back to that moment and ask my mom how she has the metaphorical balls to ask that question to a kid who’s still shaken up by his parents’ violent separation.
“What about the other half?”
“Of your act.”
My mom jumped in. “It was great. It was all great!”
“It was self-deprecating and got more laughs.”
“What was it about?”
“All types of stuff.”
“Do a bit for us.”
Just how high was Aitana’s threshold for awkwardness?
“I will definitely not do a bit for you and my mom. And you thought taking me to a funeral on our fourth date was strange?”
“Come on,” she insisted, “we’re stuck here. The only other option is to follow our city’s demise on TV.”
“Most of it’s about sex,” I said, hoping to put the kibosh on it. “There was a bit I called, ‘The Worst thing About Having Sex with Me.’”
“Sounds fun,” said my mom.
Aitana gave me a what-the-hell look. She handed me a comb from her bag. “Here’s your microphone, sir.”
I got an unexpected rush. Ever since I’d quit I’d been trying to convince myself that performing wasn’t for me, and all it took was someone giving me a fake microphone to make me realize how much I loved it: the stage, the people, the late hours, the risk. We do this too much, try to convince ourselves that we don’t like something we like, and vice versa, all because of fear.
My mom propped herself up on some pillows. Aitana got giddy as I took “the stage”, comb in hand, my back to the long, rectangular window that looked out to the garden where I’d taught myself to juggle a soccer ball.
“So I got to this part after a long chunk about a nasty breakup.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Aitana, “just get to it.”
“But I know what you all are thinking.” Suddenly I was in a club, under the hot lights. “I see it in your faces. You’re thinking, Women actually date this guy? In fact, some do. Chalk it up or loneliness or lack of options, but why else does anyone date anybody, anyway? Women actually have sex with this guy? They’ve done that too, yes. And I can tell what you’re thinking now, and you’re not mistaken: That doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience for either party involved.
“YET!” Here I took a too long pause just like I used to do in my act. “Yet the worst thing about having sex with me is not the actual act of having sex with me. You see, ever since I can remember, I’ve had a deep fear of fatherhood. I would actually go ahead and say having a son is my worst fear. I’d rather have my arm cut off or be buried alive. What’s my second worst fear? Having a daughter.”
The daughter tag made Aitana laugh. I looked up. Luz was standing in the doorway holding a tray with our drinks on it trying to figure out what was going on. I could’ve told her to come in and leave the tray, but I was in a groove.
“So almost immediately after vaginal penetration I panic. Because, and I don’t know how many of you young people out there know this, but sex is one of the many ways that a woman can end up with a human in her belly. But Jerónimo, why not just use a condom? Well, my inquisitive friends, I do use condoms. They’re ninety-four to ninety-seven percent effective. Which means that now my brain has to deal with a three to six percent possibility that my worst fear will come true.
“So, ladies, if any of you out there are thinking about having sex with me, and I can sense that some of you might be, just be forewarned that afterwards I’ll be contacting you every waking second—we’re talking phone calls, texts, Facebook, MySpace, Instagram, Twitter DM, singing telegram, Friendster and messenger pigeon—for every single day until you get your period and I get my freedom back.”
It hit me. What I was doing. Aitana finally looked like she’d rather be somewhere else. Luz had left the tray on the floor and disappeared. My mom had a disquieting expression.
“And it goes on like that,” I said.
There was total silence, a comedian’s nightmare.
I was next to Aitana and she held my hand because she didn't know what else to do.
My mom turned the volume back up.