Rob told me he had an inflation fetish. I wasn’t entirely sure how the subject had come about, but it seemed to be something he needed to get off his chest. We were sitting around my bedroom one night toward the end of the summer, sharing a bottle of red wine I’d picked up at a convenient store. I was twenty-two at this point and had been with Rob for just over a month. I had never heard of such a thing—an inflation fetish—but I didn’t want to put him on the defensive, so I asked him to explain.
“It’s pretty much how it sounds,” he said. “I like things that inflate. Not really sure why. Some weird Freudian thing, I guess. It just turns me on. Like, a lot.”
“Like balloons and stuff? That turns you on?”
“No, no. Well, not exactly. I think of breasts mostly, and I think of them expanding, like balloons, and, I don’t know, it excites me.”
This actually made a lot of sense. Rob was a breast guy. His idea of foreplay involved spending long periods of time kneading and prodding my tits in a way that reminded me of one of those laboratory chimps you see on the Discovery Channel: more investigative than sexual. When he was done with this, he would go at my nipples like a hungry infant, sucking until they throbbed and had turned the color of eggplant. It was hard to say if he got off on this or not, or rather why, but for me the whole thing was rather tiresome. Of course, that’s one thing I’ve learned about sex: so much of it is very unsexy.
“What’s sexual about it?” I said.
“Nothing really. But that’s just how a fetish works, you know? It’s some everyday thing—shoes or whatever—that just gets you horny.”
“I see,” I nodded thoughtfully and took a long look at Rob. He was tall and lean with the incidental good looks of a cowboy: hard lines, fair skin, and a scattering of freckles beneath his glassy green eyes. We were still in that introductory phase of the relationship, where imperfections become a currency of trust, and by this measure I was flattered at his willingness to engage in such a risky transaction. But an inflation fetish? I mean, how do you respond to that?
Frowning, he looked at the floor. “You think I’m sick.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You do. I can tell. You’re, like, freaked out.”
“I’m not. I’m—intrigued.”
I pulled him close to me and kissed the stubbly ridge of his jaw. He ran his thumb over my breast and smiled bashfully, a dizzying combination of dimples and teeth.
I had graduated from college earlier that year and was now living in my mother’s small house in the wooded hills outside of Charlottesville. Four nights a week I waited tables at a downtown bistro called Lily’s. The other three nights I spent wondering, with a considerable degree of panic, what exactly was supposed to happen next. For a while now, I had been battling that sense of temporal stasis that usually accompanies the completion of some vital life phase, when you realize that the obstacle you have just overcome was only standing in the way of more obstacles.
A lot of this had to do with my mother who, for several months, had been undergoing radiation treatments for a small star-shaped mass in her brain—an astrocytoma, the doctor had called it. Several days a week she would go to the hospital where they would strap her head into a vice and shoot lasers at her skull. It was there in the oncology ward that she met Ralph, a retired high school physics teacher who had been diagnosed with some kind of bone cancer. He was a tall, stately fellow with sleek silver hair and the not-so-endearing habit of conjuring quarters from behind your ears and then explaining in great detail how the trick was performed. It was the first relationship my mother had been in since my father had moved to California six years prior, and it delighted me to see the faint touch of color that would creep across her cheeks at the sound of Ralph’s name.
There was one night in early fall when she called me in to the kitchen to tell me that she was moving in with Ralph. “He’s not doing too well on his own,” she explained. “He falls down a lot and he has trouble getting back and forth from the hospital. I’m leaving you in charge.”
“In charge of what?”
“Of the house, of course.”
I squinted at her. “I don’t want to be in charge.”
“It’ll be fine, Paige,” she said a bit irritably. “It’s not a big deal. Just try to keep it in one piece for me.”
Mom accepted her new role as Ralph’s caretaker gladly, preparing his meals and bathing him and managing his medications, which were dispensed by the dozens. The fact of her own illness, and the subsequent radiation treatments, never seemed to bother her.
Rob, twenty-six at this time, was a delivery truck driver for a local produce company. We met at Lily’s, which was one of the restaurants on his route. Of course, if you asked him what he did for a living, he would not readily admit to this. Instead, he would tell you that he was one of the guitarists for the band Money Shot. Most nights after their rehearsals you could find the five of them at my place, convening around a few cases of beer and a suspiciously large bag of marijuana. A good rehearsal always left them chatty and introspective, and they would fall into these weighty dialogues about the nature of stardom, the correlation between record sales and an untimely death. When they were sufficiently trashed they would all sit around the living room with acoustic guitars and homemade hand drums, all bleary-eyed and listless, cranking out tunes like “Hey Jude” and “Tuesday’s Gone.” It was something to see really, the way they would hover over their instruments with the ritualistic air of monks, their greasy hair clinging to their foreheads, their eyes shut in looks of severe pain as they mouthed each word lovingly, until after a few hours when their voices would begin to grow thin and to crack and the songs would devolve into these sloppy drunken dirges. By three a.m. the charm was usually gone. In the mornings it was not uncommon for me to find them in the living room, sprawled out on the couches or on the floor, their nicotine-yellowed fingers still wrapped around the necks of their guitars.
Because of the tumor’s location in Mom’s brain—somewhere near the temporal lobe—the doctors had decided that surgery was too much of a risk. She relied solely upon the radiation treatments, which had inhibited the tumor’s growth up to this point, but had done nothing to reduce its size. And yet, to look at her, you wouldn’t suspect that this was a woman who’d been given a year at the most to live. She still had all of her hair, and her skin hadn’t yet taken on that sickly pinkish-grey complexion I associated with most of the other folks in the oncology ward who were as far along in their treatments as she was. In fact, the only evidence of her condition was a mild slurring of her speech, which she managed to pass off as a southern accent.
On Monday mornings she would come by the house before her treatments to pick up her mail. I did my best on these days to make the place look presentable. I would wake up early and scrub the dishes and vacuum the rugs and spray air freshener in every room. After rousing the band, I would hand one of them a garbage bag full of empty bottles and I would send them home. This included Rob. It didn’t feel right having him there while my mother was visiting, even though she had repeatedly expressed her fondness for him, and how comforting it was for her to know that there was someone in the house to look after me.
After she had sifted through the pile of envelopes, Mom and I would sit at the kitchen table sipping weak coffee, and she would fill me in on Ralph’s condition. “His appetite is a little better. Last night he ate an entire enchilada. ‘Don’t overdo it,’ I said. He’s always trying to impress me. He hates it when I worry.”
Money Shot was the kind of band you had see live to appreciate, which is to say, it didn’t hurt to be a little drunk. For me there was a sort of adolescent pride in being associated with the band, which might have been the only thing that enabled me to tolerate their fans, these teenage pinup-types, all hips and midriffs and impossible chests. It wasn’t that I considered myself unattractive—I had been blessed with my mother’s demure Eastern European features, her soft shadowy eyes and honey-colored complexion—but around these girls it was impossible not to feel like a mutant, so it was gratifying to know that I had something over them, something they wanted and couldn’t have. I would sit near the back of the venue, away from the crowd, and I would watch eagerly as the five young men took the stage with the postured swagger of young warriors returning home from a hunt. There was always a few minutes of tuning before they launched into some anthem of corporate impiety, which would invariably drive the crowd into an orgiastic tangle of limbs and hair.
One night, toward the end of the show, a girl from the crowd approached me. I was seated at a small table near the bar, nursing a watered-down mojito. She was tall and dangerously slim, dressed in leather pants and a man’s sleeveless t-shirt. One look and it was clear that she was in deep orbit. Her eyes, red and dilated, rolled wildly in their sockets. The acetone smell of vodka seemed to be drifting from her pores, and as I watched her struggle to light a cigarette, I was almost certain that she would burst into flames.
“Would you look at them?” she said, motioning toward the stage. Her voice was sort of dreamy and disconnected, like someone talking in her sleep. “What is it about musicians that makes them so goddamn fuckable?”
I was struck by the unintended poignancy of this question. There was something, wasn’t there? A glow, an ache, something. I looked toward the stage where Rob was wielding his guitar like a piece of artillery, his black hair fringed by the smoky lights. He was wearing a ratty white undershirt that emphasized the sleek, delicious contours of his chest and stomach. After a moment, I looked back at the girl, with her runny makeup and her tousled hair. There was a slow, calculated quality to her movements, as though she were underwater. I pointed at her cigarette. “I think you lit the wrong end.”
She made a sound that was half-laughing, half-belching. Her head lolled. “Fuckin’ for real!”
As Ralph’s condition worsened, Mom’s Monday morning visits grew increasingly shorter. She would stride into the house looking evermore weary and thin, and she would spend a few minutes sorting through the small pile of mail before muttering something about painkillers and rushing off again. Our conversations were reduced to curt little sentence fragments: Job okay? Hi to Rob.
In retaliation, I stopped cleaning the house. I’ve never been the messy type—even in college, I still dusted my apartment regularly and organized the items in my fridge according to size and expiration date—and so this actually required much more effort than I had anticipated. Within a week or so, the stove and countertops were completely covered with empty bottles. In every room were stacks of dirty dishes encrusted with the remnants of unidentifiable foods. I let Rob and the others smoke inside; they used coffee mugs and plastic cups as ashtrays. If they had stayed over the night before, I left them sleeping on whatever piece of furniture they had procured. It wasn’t long before the house had taken on the thick, meaty reek of a high school cafeteria.
“What the hell have you been doing in here, Paige?” Mom said one morning. “It smells awful.”
I was seated at the kitchen table, dabbing at a bowl of instant oatmeal. “The guys were over pretty late,” I replied, not looking up.
She sighed offhandedly. “Really, I don’t know how you can live like this. I certainly couldn’t.”
“I’m young. It’s what we do.”
I peered up her, awaiting a reprimand, hoping for one actually. What was I? Just a guest in her home, was all. I wanted her to scold me for my terrible housekeeping skills, for the four smelly men snoring in the living room, for the one sleeping in my bed. Instead, she simply shrugged and mumbled something about Ralph and a PET scan and then headed for the door. Her scent lingered, a mixture of skin cream and chemicals. I continued poking at my oatmeal. From down the hall I heard Rob get up and use the bathroom and then stumble back into the bedroom.
Rob told me about an inflatable suit he’d seen on the internet, a sort of latex bubble designed for fetishists of his variety. It was the first time in several weeks that he’d mentioned the inflation thing, and I had sort of been hoping he had let it go. He tried to pass it off as small talk, but he couldn’t disguise the eager undertone of his voice.
“Are you going to buy it?” I said. It was early morning and we were lying in bed after a clumsy drunken romp that I’m not sure even qualified as sex. The oily stench of our bodies hung heavy around us.
“I don’t know. Would you wear it?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied, scowling a little. “Is that all I have do? Just put it on?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“Are we supposed to fuck or what?”
“No, but that’s, you know—that’s not really the point.”
Despite my growing suspicions of Rob’s sexual predilections, I was strangely fascinated by this idea. An inflatable suit. I thought of that girl from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the one who had turned into a giant blueberry, and I imagined myself as such, this enormous human sphere being rolled back and forth from person to person, limbless, obediently traveling in whichever direction I was pushed.
A few weeks later the suit arrived in the mail and Rob brought it over to my house. “You’re so cool for doing this,” he said as he carried the box inside. He’d instructed the band to take the night off, a gesture that seemed to have imbued him with an absurd sense of gallantry. I followed him into my bedroom where he shoved all the furniture up against the far wall and then, with an idiotic grin, pulled the suit out of the box and held it up for me to inspect. It looked like something you might wear when handling toxic waste: the inner layer was a thin full-body leotard, and the outer layer was flesh-colored plastic that, when fully inflated, was supposed to resemble the body of a violently obese woman, complete with breasts the size of beach balls and nipples as large as fists.
After I’d stripped and managed to fight my way into the leotard, Rob attached an air compressor to a small valve on the right ankle of the suit. Slowly, the thing began to fill up with air, and he lay back on the bed to watch.
“Is this all I do?” I said. I was standing in the corner of the room in front of the door.
“What are you going to do?”
Smiling maliciously, he reached for his zipper. “Just relax now.”
I was either too amused or too disgusted to move. Little by little, the suit began to take on its improbable shape. The arms and legs swelled to the size of tree trunks, locking me into a rigid stance. As the pressure built up inside the plastic, I was steadily overtaken by an unnerving sense of dislocation, as though my body was shrinking away entirely, being replaced, which I suspected Rob might have enjoyed. I thought of the handful of feminist literature courses I had taken in college, and I wondered, somewhat shamefully, what those grave French women with their theories on phallocentrism and female objectification might have said if they could see me then. For some reason, it was hard not to watch the up-and-down motion of Rob’s hand, or the way he kept licking his teeth.
This is really happening, I thought. Fuckin’ for real!
“Okay, I’m not doing this,” I said finally. I tried to bend over and reach for the valve, but the suit made maneuvering almost impossible.
Rob continued his stroking. “Hang on. I’m almost done.”
“No, I want out of this thing now.”
“But you look so hot.”
He sat up on the bed. His erection pointed at me, an accusation. “But you said you were into this. I mean, why did I buy the suit, Paige?”
“I don’t fucking know!”
Again, I tried to waddle my way around to the air compressor, but I lost my balance and toppled forward onto the floor, bouncing slightly on the ridiculous breast-balloons. The thick plastic made a sound like an injured rodent. When I came to rest, there was nearly a foot of space between me and the carpet. My hair formed a curtain around my face.
Rob leapt off the bed and switched off the compressor. “Careful!” he whined. “You’ll break the suit.”
I walked into the kitchen one morning to find Rob and my mother seated next to one another at the table. This was shortly after the incident with the suit, and my bitterness toward Rob had not completely disappeared, so I was mildly appalled to see the familiar way he was leaning into her, clutching her hand on the table like they were old friends. Mom’s face was red and glossy from crying, and there were several balled-up Kleenexes on the table.
I took a seat across from them and asked her what was wrong. “Ralph went into the hospital again last night,” she said, straightening up in her chair a little, trying to regain some composure. “The doctors think it’s pretty close now, a few weeks maybe.”
I laid my hand on their small mound of fingers. “Are you moving back here?”
She shook her head. “No, I just needed my address book. There’s going to be a lot to take care of at his place, the family and all. I’m going to be there for a while.”
Rob glanced up at me, arched his eyebrows, and then looked back at Mom.
“I want you to come back here,” I said.
“Honey, I have to deal with this right now, okay?”
“Why can’t you just let the doctors handle it? Why is at all up to you?”
She gripped the sides of her head. “I don’t want to argue right now, Paige.”
“You need someone to take care of you.”
“Jesus! Don’t be so dramatic.” Her slurring, which had grown more evident, gave her words a detached, lifeless quality. “Who’s going to take care of me? You? Look at this place,” she huffed indignantly, sweeping a hand through the air. “It’s disgusting. Look at the sink. Those dishes have been there for nearly a month. You don’t even know how to take care of yourself.”
“I know better than Ralph does.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what this was supposed to mean, but the stunned silence that followed was enough to know that I’d hit a nerve. And really, I was glad. Because it was then that I realized how much I had grown to hate Ralph. I might have even hated her too then, just a little, because I had no one else to blame for what was happening, and because, in a way, isn’t dying just another way of leaving?
Rob had this look on his face like he was being mugged at gunpoint.
“Well, that’s just lovely,” Mom said quietly, more to herself it seemed. She gathered up the used tissues and tossed them into the trash. “Very adult of you, Paige. I’m so glad I stopped by.”
She stalked defiantly toward the door, making it a point not to look at me as she passed. Moments later we heard her car backing out of the driveway. Rob and I stood there in the kitchen, speechless. I can’t say I was feeling entirely guilty about what had just happened.
“What is the matter with you?” he said after a few moments. “That’s your mother.”
“Thank you. I’m aware of that.”
“Why are you acting like this?”
“Look, this isn’t your problem, okay?”
“Can’t you see what she’s going through?” He was standing on the opposite side of the small cedar table with his hands planted on the back of one of the wooden slatback chairs. “Her boyfriend is dying, and she has to sit there and watch it happen.”
“No, she doesn’t! No one twisted her arm to be there. It was her choice. She could move back here. She doesn’t want to be with me.”
“Oh my god! You don’t get it at all!”
“I want you to leave.”
“Paige, look. She’s scared. She doesn’t want you to see what’s going to happen to her.”
“I said go!”
With a bitter laugh, he headed for the door. “Fine. Great. Whatever. You’ve got a real bitchy side, you know that?”
Money Shot was performing at a club downtown that night, but I didn’t go. I spent most of the evening lying around the dark, greasy-smelling living room, watching television and feeling a little sorry for myself. I had this image of my mother scurrying about Ralph’s hospital room, fluffing his pillows and wiping his face and pestering the nurses for test results, and I wondered how long it would be until I was in her position. Rob called around eleven during the band’s set break, just as I had presumed he would. In the background I could hear the excited warbling of the crowd and the clinking of glasses.
“Look,” he said a bit peevishly, “I’m not saying I was wrong or that you weren’t bitchy. But the thing is, I know what you’re going through right now must be hard.”
“Yes. Well, not personally, but I can understand it. I’m trying to fix things here.”
“Is that an apology?”
He let out an agitated sigh. “I just don’t like fighting with you, okay?”
For a few moments I was silent. I thought about the argument that morning. It had occurred to me shortly after I’d kicked him out of the house that at some point—I wasn’t prepared to say exactly when—I was going to be the one to end things between him and me, not necessarily because I wanted to, but because I knew that Rob never would. He was content with me, you could say, mostly because he didn’t know any better. Which, to be fair, is more than you get from most people. Knowing this, I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been much easier for both of us if he had just never called me again.
Over the phone I heard the sharp squeal of feedback from an amplifier and the muffled sound of someone speaking into a microphone. “Paige?” said Rob. “You there? I’ve got to go back on.”
“I’m here. It’s okay. Enjoy the show.”
After I had gotten off the phone with Rob, I went to my bedroom closet where I’d stashed the suit after its single use. I pulled it out and spread it on the bed like an expensive piece of clothing, and I studied it for a few moments. What was it about the idea of this thing that had once appealed to me? It wasn’t just the image of the blueberry girl from Willy Wonka. No, there was something else, the suggestion of growth maybe. Now I found myself once again fighting my way into the stubborn leotard, which was a bit like trying to stuff your whole body into a single stocking. Once I had made my way into the suit, I hooked up the air compressor and lay down on the floor and watched the shiny plastic unfold and take shape as the cool air slithered all around me, the pressure building up inside until finally, after a couple of minutes, my body began to rise from the floor, slowly and delicately, and I imagined myself as some priceless artifact nestled in the palm of an enormous hand, something that a person might go to great lengths to preserve.