Amy Savage

“What do you call the men? Ballerinos?” Sophie’s mother asked at intermission, frowning. “Some of them need another layer down there. You can see all their parts.” She ran her fingers through her bushy gray bob and sighed. “I’m just so lusty for men,” she said. “I’m never satisfied. And I’m dog-tired of being teased.”

It was Sophie’s turn to sigh. She’d saved up as a receptionist at the women’s clinic downtown to take her mom to Swan Lake for Christmas, and this was the first thing her mother thought to say? That the bulges had unfairly aroused her? In the recent years since her parents had divorced, Sophie often felt her mother shared too much, treating Sophie as a friend, or worse, a therapist.

“Why don’t you try online dating?” Sophie now asked. They’d had this conversation before. Marguerite had posited that Sophie was treating her like merchandise. “Would you put my picture up in a store window?” she’d said, aghast.

This time Marguerite ignored the question. Her voice weary, Sophie’s mother said, “I don’t know if I have much clitoris.” The man seated in the row ahead of them shifted in his seat and scratched his bald spot.

Sophie didn’t want to doubt another woman’s experience in her own body, but… really? Sophie couldn’t believe she was about to go there, but she did anyway. “You should get a toy, Mom. Then you’ll know.” When her mom didn’t smile, Sophie took on an apologetic tone. “I think it’s just that you’ve only had bad sex.” Sophie’s counselor at college had warned her about this: as much as her mother wanted her to be her friend, Sophie was her daughter. Now she’d fallen farther into the trap and had criticized her father’s lovemaking. Gross, Sophie thought, I’m turning into her. Thirty years too soon. Marguerite, however, was completely unfazed by Sophie’s breach of boundaries. She did look crestfallen, though, at the thought that it all could have been bad sex. The better option might just be clitorisless-ness. But Marguerite also had a pondering look. She was considering her daughter’s advice.

When the curtains closed, Sophie and her mother left through the side entrance of the theater to walk back to the car. They heard a bell and soon saw the ringer. An old man in battered fatigues and signature red Salvation Army apron stood next to a large red cauldron and rang his tiny bell. Marguerite fished a dollar out of her wallet and dropped it into the dark hole.

“God bless you,” the man said. He took two miniature candy canes out of his apron pouch for mother and daughter. Marguerite blushed and pocketed both candies. Later that evening, Sophie saw three texts from her mother:

Was just thinking about that Salvation Army volunteer.

He seemed so nice.

Wonder if you could find him on social media? [Halo emoji]

Two weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, Sophie went out dancing. While her friends were buying drinks, a shaggy-haired guy with an overbite approached her and got close, fast. He slid a hand into her back pocket and tried to kiss her. Sophie reared her head back and held up her ring finger like it was her middle. “My fiancé wouldn’t like that,” she lied.

Since age seventeen, Sophie had ironically worn the modest diamond purity ring her parents had given her to bribe her into celibacy. The ring had failed to keep her a virgin, but now, surprisingly, it did ward off this douchebag. The stone glinted in the strobe lights. Overbite held up his hands in surrender and, turning toward the bar, said he respected other people’s property. Sophie sought haven in the women’s bathroom. She checked her phone. Her mother had texted two hours ago asking her if she was having fun and one hour ago to ask if she was safe. Sophie didn’t respond. She was both annoyed by her mom’s anxious protectiveness and ashamed that the truthful answer to both questions would be Not really. A few minutes before midnight, Sophie saw more messages from her mother. You must be having a ball. Send selfies! Just before midnight, Marguerite sent Sophie a text for every number counting down from ten.

The next day, Sophie met her mother for their traditional New Year’s brunch at a diner. “Remember what we talked about at the ballet?” Marguerite said furtively, a fleck of yolk on her lower lip.

Sophie’s head pounded from the previous night’s rum-and-Cokes. She remembered her mother ignoring her suggestion to try online dating again.

“You always meet nice guys,” Marguerite said. “I don’t.”

Sophie took a sip of her coffee. She tried to think of who these nice guys were that her mother had in mind.

“So,” Marguerite continued, “can you take me to the store?”

“Wait,” Sophie said. Did her mother think she should actually put her picture up in a store window? “You need groceries?”

“No, sweetie, the other store,” Marguerite stage-whispered. “To buy a toy.

“Oh my god,” Sophie said, remembering. “Mom. Why can’t you just look online?”

“I don’t want those things in my browser history, Soph. I’ll start getting ads.”

Sophie resisted the urge to remind her mother that she’d recently asked Sophie to online-stalk eligible veterans on her behalf. Sophie didn’t even want to think about what kind of ads that could lead to.

“Is that really worse than being seen,” Sophie said, mocking Marguerite’s whisper, “shopping for dildos? In public?”

“Sophie,” Marguerite said, taking a bite of toast. “You’re so contrary. You’re the one who suggested this. Anyway, we won’t see anyone you know. But maybe we’ll make some new friends!” Marguerite laughed and nearly choked on her toast. It was a laugh Sophie hadn’t heard before.

The following afternoon, Sophie drove her mother to Zebra, a gentleman’s club and sex toy shop which she knew about only because she’d had to drive past it to get on the highway. Zebra was a grim, squat, concrete block structure that looked like it should have been a garage or a very small prison. When they pulled into the pitted parking lot, Sophie’s rusty Escort hit a deep pothole, so suddenly and violently that there was a loud bang and she and Marguerite were jolted violently in their seats. It didn’t help that Sophie was already nervous. Despite Marguerite’s request to bring her here, Sophie still didn’t want to look too experienced to her mother, or too inexperienced to the staff. To be discovered as a dildo-procuring amateur! Imagine them trying to educate her on best practices for donning a strap-on! Or giving her a tutorial on the range of vibratory strengths! And then her mom would start asking questions… Just something simple, please!

The parking lot was flanked with filthy mounds of gravel-flecked snow. Sophie’s windshield was covered with a mottled gray film of salt. As new snow began to fall silently in fat flakes on the glass, it melted, leaving drops of water so pure they only served to emphasize the grime. The winter sun was setting. It would be dark soon. Sophie heard a car’s wheels spinning in the distance, an engine revving. Someone out there was stuck in a snowbank, trying to flee.

Above the building, a large sign featured a white woman’s prominent, round, air-brushed buttocks cleaved by a fluorescent pink thong. The ass sat astride black-and-white striped haunches. “Zebra,” Marguerite said, squinting at the sign. “They don’t use animals here, do they?”

Sophie fiddled with her ring, sliding it up and down to the first knuckle, switching it to her right hand, then back to her left. She stared at the woman’s ass on the sign for Zebra. She wondered what the woman’s face looked like. She turned off the car, pulled on her hood in a last-ditch attempt to hide her own face, and hurried inside with her mom.

In Zebra’s lobby were two doors. Behind the left one could be heard loud music and men’s laughter. On the right one, taped a little higher than Sophie’s eye level, was a white paper which read MERCHANDISE. Inside, a middle-aged man with a yellowy comb-over sat behind the counter at the register. Behind him, a young woman Sophie’s age, in her early twenties, came out of another door with a bottle of Windex and a rag, her hands bare and visibly red from chilblains or excessive washing. “Wiping the poles now,” she said flatly to the clerk. He looked up from his newspaper but did not acknowledge the girl otherwise.

Marguerite turned to the girl and said, “You should really be wearing gloves, shouldn’t you?” The girl looked at Marguerite and smiled apologetically. Sophie smiled apologetically at the girl.

The shelves boasted anal plugs, pleather gloves, handcuffs. Flavored condoms ranging from jalapeño to cinnamon bun. Edible panties in assorted tropical fruits: mango, banana, kiwi. And the merkins! Sophie didn’t even know pubic hair wigs existed before. There was a broad array of colors, textures, and cuts.

“Are these toupees?” Marguerite called out loudly to the clerk.

The clerk’s eyes stayed on his paper. “Basically,” he said.

Sophie hurried away from her mother toward the vibrators. The size range alone was baffling. A sampler vibrator chained to a discount shelf had two stickers. One read: DISPLAY ONLY. The other, over the power button, read: TURN ME ON. Sophie pressed the button. The vibrator had one setting, which was so strong that after five seconds Sophie’s hand went numb. Next to it was a glass piece, reasonably priced. Sophie couldn’t understand how that could be comfortable, but obviously there was a market for it.

“Mom, look,” she said, holding the glass phallus out to Marguerite. “It’s dishwasher safe. You can even put it in the microwave and freezer.”

Marguerite’s eyes narrowed in concentration. “But what if I drop it? It could chip. That wouldn’t be safe.”

Her mother could talk herself out of anything. “You could probably fix it with epoxy,” Sophie muttered.

Marguerite flipped over all the packages to see the prices before she inspected the actual items. The clerk decided to attend to his customers. “There’s also Christmas clearance, honey,” he called out, jabbing his finger in the direction of a huge cardboard box hand-labeled 70% OFF NO RETURNS.

“Did you hear that, Soph?” Marguerite said, loud enough that Sophie knew the clerk could hear. “He called me honey.”

Sophie followed her mother to the bargain box. Christmas overstock. There were gingerbread vulva cookies, a sexy elf blow-up doll, golden star pasties. And there, a sizeable silicone candy cane vibrator (complete with red and white peppermint-scented stripes), the curved end designed as a handle. Sophie looked at the price and calculated the discount. A little under thirty dollars. A steal if it meant no more Mom Sex Comments. She showed it to Marguerite, who grabbed it from her, overcome with delight.

When they approached the register, the clerk looked at their choice and nodded in bland approval. Sophie felt queasy and hoped he’d hurry up. Marguerite put two twenties on the counter. Letting the vibrator rest there between them bothered Sophie, so she picked it up while Marguerite fumbled to put away her change.

“Who do you belong to, sweetie?” the clerk then asked, addressing Sophie.

“What?” It seemed to come from nowhere. Belong to? Did he think she had a John? Or did men bring their wives here? Or did she need to show someone’s membership pass to pay, like at a wholesale club? The clerk pointed at her hand. She looked down at the thin band on her left ring finger. Ah.

“She’s mine,” Marguerite said.

Sophie, a little too emphatically, said, “That’s my mom,” to clarify they were not engaged. She couldn’t believe they’d come here together. She’d had enough. “And, for your information,” Sophie said to her mother, “I don’t belong to you.” She took off the ring and handed it to Marguerite, who looked stunned. Sophie turned to leave.

The clerk, embarrassed, said to Marguerite, “Well. Must be a lucky guy. Whoever he is.” Before the door shut behind her, Sophie heard her mother’s voice.

“I didn’t raise her to be so rude. And, by the way,” she said, “we’re both single.”

Sophie braced herself against the cold and stepped out into the parking lot, the box with the vibrator still in her hand. Her car looked strangely crooked, sagging toward the rear. She had a flat tire. She groaned, remembering the enormous pothole they’d hit. Sophie got in the car and called Roadside Assistance. She pulled the vibrator out of the box and cursed it. She never should have come here. She threw the toy on the passenger seat and dropped her purse on it so she wouldn’t have to look at it. A floodlight suddenly illuminated the dim parking lot, casting a harsh white light over the grimy snowbanks.

Then she noticed a man walk around from behind the corner of the building. He saw her and started toward her car. They made eye contact. Fuck. Sophie pretended she hadn’t seen him. She locked her doors, looked at her phone as if she were busy, and prayed he wasn’t interested in her.

When the man was just outside her door, Sophie couldn’t help it—she looked again. He had lank greasy hair hanging over his ears, an untrimmed beard, and a tawny moustache. He wore a black nylon jacket and jeans. She knew it would be better to avoid eye contact. Or maybe eye contact would humanize her? He leaned down to look her in the eye and smiled with stained teeth. He tapped her window with his knuckle. “Hey beautiful,” he said, loud enough to make himself heard through the glass. He was practiced at this. Whatever you’re thinking, she thought at him, please. Don’t. Despite being locked in her car, she felt exposed. She pretended she hadn’t heard him and looked down at her hands. Her ring finger was bare. She couldn’t even pretend to be taken. “You work here?” he asked.

He would think that, wouldn’t he. Not that there was anything wrong with the profession! “No,” Sophie said. It was the only word she would say to him, she told herself. But by speaking at all, she knew she had already said too much.

She didn’t look up at him but heard the smirk in his voice. “I know a lie when I hear one.”

It was against her better judgment but, because she hated not being believed almost more than anything else, she looked at him with her best don’t-try-me face. She desperately hoped her mom would come out and save her, then realized it would leave Marguerite outside the car with the man.

“Okay. But if you’re not a dancing girl,” he said, “then what are you doing here?” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette, and lit it as if he were settling in. Then he smiled again with the cigarette tight in his teeth. He laughed. “You like to watch, don’t you,” he said.

“What do you want?” Sophie said. It was like she’d been programmed to engage, even to please. Why was she like this? Why was he like that?

“Look,” the man said, “I’m not asking for a ride. I just need to get downtown.”

Sophie said nothing. The man stood there, waiting. Sophie was slightly relieved by the change of subject but alarmed by his unpredictability, fearful of what he really wanted.

“I’m not asking you for a ride,” he said again. “I would never do that. I just need to get the bus once I get downtown. I went for my treatments at Saint Mary’s,” he said, referring to the nearby hospital. He pulled up his right pant leg to reveal a skinny, bruised shin.

Sophie glanced at his leg, then back at his hairy face. Memorize his face, she told herself, just in case. “I can’t offer you anything,” Sophie said. “I’m sorry.”

“Look,” the man said, his voice louder in his impatience. “Six bucks never changed anybody’s life. If you needed it, you’d want someone to give it to you.”

Sophie wished she didn’t know that it only cost two dollars to catch the bus downtown. She wished it for his sake, embarrassed on his behalf for his overreach. If she opened her wallet, the man would see there was a little more cash in there than he’d asked for. If she was a good Samaritan like the Bible said she should be, he might even demand more. Blame her for resisting to begin with. Blame her for wanting to keep her hard-earned money. She hated that she was poor and yet still felt guilty about how much more she had than he probably did. And he was right—if she needed it, she would want someone to give it to her. How much compassion do you show for someone who threatens you? Was she a capitalist scrooge? Sure, it was only a bit of money, but it mattered to her. It mattered how he’d approached her. It mattered that he assumed she would give it to him. It mattered that it was hers to give.

Sophie looked back at the man and took a breath. “I told you,” she said, more loudly, “I don’t have anything for you.”

“Just six fucking dollars!” he yelled. Then he raised his fist and slammed it like a gavel on the roof of her car. The car shook. “If you needed it,” the man growled lewdly, “you’d get it.”

Should she call 911? Where was Roadside Assistance, for fuck’s sake? Sophie didn’t know how to deal with this kind of violence. Sophie knew silence. She knew passive aggressive. She didn’t know slamming fists. She should have taken self-defense. There had been fliers on practically every bulletin board throughout every semester in college. Why hadn’t she done it? And although Sophie was locked inside the car, what about her mom? At any point, her mother could come out of those doors and into the path of this man’s rage.

“I said no!” Sophie yelled through the glass. She looked around frantically. “I have nothing for you!”

She was going to text her mom to stay inside. If only her trembling hands could get her phone’s screen to unlock. She turned the screen away from the man and entered her passcode incorrectly. As if in a nightmare, she entered it wrong a second time. Sophie considered her options. She could threaten to call the police. She could try to play nice and lie, saying her dad had the same leg problem and what was it called again and do you see the same specialist at Saint Mary’s and what is their name again? Maybe she could divert long enough if he had answers or maybe he’d leave if she called his bluff. But no matter what she did, more than one person would blame her for whatever would happen. Just give him what he wants, she heard the voices say. It’s your fault for coming here, for just existing in this parking lot, putting yourself and your mother in danger. Why don’t you shut up? Why don’t you speak up? Sophie prayed her mother would stay inside a little longer.

Then it occurred to Sophie that maybe she did have something for this man. She forced herself to smile. She turned away from the window and broadened her mouth to feel like what she imagined a killer’s grin would feel like. “I told you, I have nothing,” she said, as she reached under her purse and grabbed the striped proxy cock. She turned back to face him. “Unless you want this!” she screamed, shaking the vibrator like a demented toddler with a rattle.

She widened her eyes so that, she imagined, they would show far too much white above the irises. Her smile was too wide, enough to hurt, stretched to surpass the openness of desirability and thus enter the realm of ruination. Sophie’s mouth and jaw were so tense she felt a sharp cramp in the left side of her neck. She thwacked the phallus against her window as if casting a spell. It made a rubbery thud on the glass. “Eat,” Sophie said. Thud. “Mint.” Thud. “Dick.” The vibrator wobbled, then went still.

The man was quiet a second. His eyes narrowed. His lip twitched. He stared at the vibrator’s head. Then he seemed to recover from the surprise. He reared back a half step but not before slamming his fist once more on her roof. “Crazy cunt!” he shouted. He turned and headed for the corner of the building where he’d first appeared.

At that moment, Marguerite came outside. Sophie watched as the man turned his head, saw Marguerite, paused, and then headed toward her. Her mom. Her mom who couldn’t help but engage, ceaselessly. The man smiled at Sophie’s mother. Marguerite’s face brightened. She smiled at him. No, Sophie thought. Please. She bargained that she would tolerate any and all boundary-breaching clitoris comments if only this man did not con, or seduce, her mother. Marguerite might even offer him a ride.

But then her mother smiled at Sophie and waved. The man glanced from mother to daughter. His stare lingered on Sophie. Marguerite looked back at the man, expectantly. Sophie threw the hackneyed phallus-turned-sword down on the passenger seat and laid on the horn. She held her hand there and made the machine scream for her until the man realized it wouldn’t end. Marguerite looked back at Sophie and frowned. The man made a quick salute to Marguerite and headed off toward the other side of the building.

When he was out of sight, Sophie let go of the horn. Her arms and hands trembled with adrenaline. She took deep breaths, hoping to appear calm by the time Marguerite reached the car. At least her mother would be safe. This time. Sophie told herself maybe it wasn’t so bad that she’d brought her mom here after all. They should be able to come here if they wanted, damn it. And she’d exercised courage. And won! But still, Sophie knew she wouldn’t tell anyone what had happened—someone would inevitably judge her, not take her fear seriously. Someone might even find the whole thing funny.

Marguerite opened the passenger side door, her mouth hard. “Really, Sophie,” she said. “The horn? You shouldn’t be so aggressive. I was only an extra five minutes.”

Marguerite moved Sophie’s purse to the console and then picked up the candy cane vibrator like it was any other toy her child had left lying around. “Had a nice chat with Burt,” Marguerite said, pulling on her seatbelt. “He gave me this loyalty card.” She tapped the hole-punched card twice on the dashboard. “When we complete it, we’ll get a 20% discount.”

Marguerite then wiggled Sophie’s purity ring off her own pinky finger where she’d stored it and handed it to her daughter, her grip lingering a beat after Sophie had grasped it. Marguerite raised her eyebrows at Sophie to remind her of her recent display of insolence and then released the ring. Sophie slid it back on her finger. She felt a surprising sense of relief. Her finger had grown used to the thing. While it was still a failed bribe to keep her abstinent, Sophie now welcomed her parents’ intended protection. The vibrator would be a similar charm for her mother, she thought, to stave off bad sex, bad men. Even if Sophie had originally suggested it to silence her.

“By the way,” Marguerite said, pointing to the corner of the building, “did you see that man?” Sophie’s mother’s cheeks were pink from the winter air. She was glowing, even smug. “He wanted to talk to me, didn’t he?”

Amy Savage’s fiction has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, The Carolina Quarterly, BlazeVOX, and Euphony. Her nonfiction has appeared as a guest blog on Discover magazine’s Inkfish. Honors include selection for AWP’s Writer to Writer program. When not writing, she translates, teaches medical Spanish, and performs in medical simulations. @asavagewriter

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