Joyland

New York |

Phantom Vibrate

by Clare Sestanovich

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

He picked up his daughter at the winter formal. Grace was in the seventh grade, and for weeks had been gnawing the skin around her nails – the nails themselves long ago nibbled to the quick – in anticipation. There were rumors about what the arms and asses and mouths tried to do during the dance. Brady acquired the rumors second-hand, listening to Grace talk on the phone.

The phone had been a gift two years ago, on the occasion of her mother’s death. Cordless but bulky, with a receiver in the shape of a cat and buttons that purred when pressed. It was presented without much ceremony – the reused wrapping paper bore the white streaks of previous taping jobs – but with effortful good cheer. Concerned guests at the funeral had taken turns asking Brady if Grace had anyone to talk to. Affixing a red-and-green bow to the package, he was proud of his practical solution.

Lately, Brady wondered if Grace was hoping for an upgrade. Something less childish. A cell phone, maybe, with subtler sound effects. Brady was a late adopter of technology, often only recognizing the sound of his own device once it had stopped ringing, always taken aback by the sight of small children swiping deftly at touch screens. He had just bought a burnt-orange rotary phone. The antiques dealer insisted it was perfect for someone with an interest, as he put it, in singular objects. The phrase filled Brady with a small but ecstatic surge of recognition. There was something pleasing about machines with cords. He paid more than he should have.

Now he stood outside the fogged-up school cafeteria windows, pondering cell-phone models to avoid deciding if he did or didn’t want to see inside. A fingertip appeared on the other side of the glass, flattened white against the surface, and began to draw something in the moisture. The something turned out to be a penis. If Brady wanted to see anything, he’d have to peer through a pair of testicles, one of which was now sprouting delicate hairs.

He wouldn’t tell Grace about it, though he thought another father might know how to make it into a good joke.

***

After Christmas, Grace was invited on vacation with someone else’s family. Her friend had grown-up curves. Grace envied the way she navigated the first halting seconds of phone conversations. Together, they went shopping for bathing suits. In the same changing room, her friend shed all her clothes, disregarding the plastic strip on the crotch that said to keep your underwear on. Grace did as the label instructed. Underneath the tight polyester, the excess fabric formed ugly lumps. The sensation of something extra in between her legs was momentarily thrilling, until it was replaced by the fear that her thrill might be visible to someone else. Grace crumpled up her face in her best approximation of self-disgust.

One stall over, a woman groaned. “Everything jiggles.”

“Stop that.”

The second voice lacked conviction.

Grace pictured the stranger’s skin. Bumps and pocks like unsprayed citrus. In the mirror, she looked at the crease where her butt became her thigh.

“I like it but in white,” her friend said.

Grace clanged together the discarded hangers and her friend slid back into her underwear. While they waited at the register, Grace monitored the shoppers emerging from the fitting room, the dead weight of their rejected items flopping awkwardly in their arms. The empty sleeves and legs were always surprisingly heavy. She wondered if she would be able to match the women’s bodies to their voices. She looked past the small waists and thin wrists. The skin that clung dutifully to muscle and bone. She couldn’t find the unruly flesh she had in mind.

At home, Grace went straight upstairs without showing what she’d bought. There was a string bikini and a box of tampons in the shopping bag. Grace had never used a tampon before, but you couldn’t wear a pad at the beach. She crouched on the tiles in the bathroom. Her shirt kept getting in the way when she leaned over, so she had to take it off. Her hair got in the way, too. Her friend had told her the steps. Angle yourself. Use Vaseline if you want. The plastic glistened.

Can you stick it in the wrong place?

Grace hadn’t asked.

What if the right place isn’t obvious?

The skin was dry and small and wanted to close in on itself.

To get it out, she had to pull the string much harder than she expected. She was certain something was being ripped off the walls inside her. It had never occurred to her that she had walls.

Then it came out, dangled like a pendulum from fingers that smelled, clean bright white.

***

Grace was gone for only two weeks, but Brady was preoccupied about whether to be in touch. When he had first moved away from home, he wrote letters to his parents on index cards. They were precisely the right size. The words always got cramped together at the end, as if he’d had a lot to say and was trying very hard to make it all fit.

Grace called a few times, with the cell phone he had bought her after all. Nothing that flips, he’d said. Definitely nothing smart. He wouldn’t let her disable the sound effects, so he could hear her texting through the walls. A steady stream of clicks, like a roulette wheel that never stopped spinning. When he told her to put the phone away, Brady hated the half-hearted sternness in his voice.

She was always walking someplace when she called. Wind whipping in the background, someone hawking t-shirts, rubber soles slapping boardwalk planks. Her voice changed when he put her on speaker phone. It wasn’t just the acoustics.

When the vacation ended, someone else’s parents called to say they would drop her off in the morning.

Brady didn’t sleep well. Until recently he had been able to persuade himself that lying awake was still lying, which meant resting, which almost meant sleeping. But now when his legs twitched and his thoughts careened, as if neither belonged to him, he couldn’t believe he had ever counted this as peace.

The night before Grace came home, he found himself outside in the pre-dawn. Wearing slippers and staring back at his neighbors’ windows. Shades drawn, grey and impassive. He knew the cold air would, if anything, wake him up. The newspaper had already arrived, making its impression in the damp grass where he would retrieve it in a few hours, in different clothes, on what he thought of as a different day.

***

In February, Brady started taking meditation classes, which he’d heard could be useful for insomniacs. His classmates were mostly middle-aged women. They complained about sleeplessness and unpredictable sweating. Even the most powerful, carcinogenic antiperspirants didn’t do the trick. So here I am, they said. They didn’t say menopause. Ortime. Or life. They didn’t say: this body betrayed me . They sat cross-legged on plush lozenges and smiled sympathetically at one another. Only two other men.

“What brought you here?” asked the teacher.

“My wife,” said the first man.

Marital strife drove him here?

His wife dropped him off?

“Chronic pain,” the next man said.

The first one chuckled.

“So your wife too?”

The class was led by a woman who said they could call her Deborah or Deb or Debbie. Describing meditation to Grace, Brady had referred to the teacher as the guru. He had pictured an older man with a grizzled face. Hairy shins that hadn’t been rubbed bare by decades of dress socks. He struggled to adjust to Deb. She was short and round, and wore batik shirts over cheap mesh shorts. None of her names seemed to fit, so he didn’t call her anything at all.

Brady stretched out on his yoga mat, which was the color of a lemon-lime energy drink. Following her instructions for the first time – concentrating on the weight of his eyelids, melting his body into the ground – neon greens bloomed in a field of vision that both was and wasn’t right in front of him. He was not prepared to swoon at the sound of Deb’s voice. Silky, then gravelly, switching back and forth at just the right then.

Brady was almost asleep when the gong sounded. When he opened his eyes, Deb loomed above him. He looked straight up at her chin. She had nothing to do with her voice. His dislike instantly returned.

If her skin had sagged, Brady told himself he would have been kind. He would have admired how she let gravity act upon her. He would have understood if she presented her body as a pearl of wisdom. We are objects in the world, she could have said. Of the world. Embroider that on a pillow. Sell it in the gift shop. He wouldn’t buy it, but he wouldn’t mind.

The problem was that Deb’s skin didn’t sag, it swelled. A bullfrog or an airbag or a limb with an allergic reaction. An inflatable figurine outside a used car lot, collapsing with each in-breath of artificial air, only to be resurrected a moment later, upright and fat and waving.

On days when class didn’t meet, Brady put headphones on and listened while a recording of Deb’s voice told him which parts of the body to pay attention to. He was never told to relax.

“Be curious about your foot,” the voice said. “Experience your foot.”

Brady heard an Adam’s apple rise and fall. Lips parting sounded like a single drop from a faucet.

“Let go of your foot.”

His thoughts drifted. When they returned, the voice was telling him to focus on his forehead.

“Feel the sensation of being embodied,” Deb said, “without the body moving, or being moved.”

Brady tried to unfurrow the skin across his skull. He relaxed his eyebrows. He could picture the wrinkles that remained – less like creases and more like crevices each time he glimpsed them in the rear-view mirror – but without tracing the grooves with his fingertip, he couldn’t be sure he really felt them. What would feeling without touching be like? The thumping of your fingertip underneath a band-aid? The vibration on your thigh of the phone that isn’t in your pocket? The longing you can feel for a photograph?

There was an app for meditating. Brady doubted it was making anyone any money. It was just a timer. You could choose between a gong or chimes, or you could pay extra for a baritone om. Brady didn’t like any of these options, so he turned the phone to vibrate. He closed his eyes, but he couldn’t banish the thought of the app.

Brady slumped with relief when he heard the phone buzz, sooner than he could have hoped. It was much easier to sit, watching from behind his eyelids, when he didn’t have to imagine the phone whirring. When he finally got up, he saw that the timer was still going and he had missed a call from Grace.

***

Grace took it upon herself to throw out the junk mail from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dozens of back issues of Awake! Magazine, which were always delivered in duplicate or triplicate. Brady kept them neatly piled, patting the edges into alignment each time he came through the front door. She had never seen him read one. He told her there was pleasure in watching a meaningful stack accumulate. In betweenImitate Jehovah’s Close Friends and Is Your Ministry Like The Dew? Grace spotted a Ft. Lauderdale postcard. Her own address in her own handwriting. The alligator stamp she’d bought from the kind of store that sells miniature Florida vanity plates, etched with normal names from A to Z, glued to a keychain about to come unglued.

Dear Dad. Postcards didn’t require a response. There wasn’t even a place for a return address. Grace wrote him about sea glass, which is different from beach glass, because it’s been tumbled through salt. You can tell by the cloudy coat, which only the ocean can make.

***

A man she met at low tide told her all about the colors. Grace had wandered away from the family she didn’t belong to. The man carried his bounty in a damp pair of stockings, and clinked wherever he walked. Through the nude sheen of the tights, he could tell just by glancing which colors the day had yielded. Browns were only interesting for their shape, or if they tended toward golden-amber, which might be from moonshine bottles. Blues were prized if cobalt, and the very best were rubies. Frosted reds – if you were really lucky, oranges – from car taillights, occasional dinnerware, or Schlitz Beer. Rubies went straight into the man’s pocket, too precious to jangle around with Clorox or Coke or Vicks VapoRub. (Brown or teal or cornflower blue.)

Grace crammed the facts onto the postcard. She wrote about the man, and didn’t write about herself. She didn’t mention that she hadn’t done the tampon right, though she still didn’t know where she’d gone wrong. She didn’t describe how she and her friend liked to smash their sea glass into even smaller pieces. She couldn’t put on a postcard that the bikini in white had turned red, then ugly stale brown, and someone else’s mother had been the one to explain that lukewarm water is best for removing blood. There was no way to explain what it was about the shattered pieces that she found so beautiful. The gentle exterior, soft and hazy like an old person’s pupil, and then the brilliant color revealed inside. The color always shocked her. The glass always tempted her. She wanted to put the pieces in her mouth and suck.

Grace could have slipped the card in with the latest batch mail. She could even have hand-delivered it. But you weren’t supposed to be there when your own letter arrived. You weren’t supposed to flip it over, or check to see which final words the barcode obscured (love comma), or face your own story in crowded ink. It should have been waiting for her when she returned from the beach, magneted to the fridge by her father. It should have stayed there, so it could be knocked down every now and then by someone looking for an ice tray. Someone who would bend, flip it over, smile. Someone who would vow, from now on, to keep an eye out for rubies. Grace wedged the postcard in April’s issue of Awake, and threw her own flimsy words out with the gospel.