Ceramics by Ettore Sottsass
The dildos are delivered by courier. They sit on the radiator downstairs inside generic cardboard boxes where any neighbor could pick them up and carry them upstairs to her, completely unsuspecting. Sometimes they do.
“For you?” says the old Polish man from downstairs. He examines her name on the box. “Laura Woodward?” She passes him daily, this man who says everything like a question. She thanks him and shuts and locks the door.
Today there’s a six-incher, pinkish-white. Before she even has it out of the plastic, Laura knows it is wrong. Still, she sets it in the middle of the kitchen table and walks around it, looking. This is not her ex-husband’s penis. She slides to the right and tilts her head. She doesn’t know whose dick it is. It is close to his, and another blond she dated in her twenties, but it doesn’t quite fit either of them. The problem is circumcision—the uncut don’t resemble sex toys. Sure, the skin pulls back, but she just feels something is missing.
There are only three shades of phallus, it seems. Vanilla, Carmel, Chocolate. These are marketing designations: Laura herself has never slept with any ice-cream colored penises. What about her Korean ex? Where does he fall? If she’s honest with herself, all the boyfriends are tough to match. All the toys are just a tad larger than the real thing. Who would know if the toys varied vastly from the men she’s matched them to? Only the men—and yet Laura is convinced that there’s an honesty that shines through in art, and she must adhere to the standards she believes in, even if she is the only one who knows how accurate these samples of flesh are. She calls it The Priapus Project. Her website has been getting more coverage.
Laura goes into the kitchen and fixes herself a coffee. When she comes back, she stands in the doorway, watching the dildo as if it is going to move or do something. What do I feel? she wonders, but she feels nothing. It’s a nice penis but it belongs to no one. She drinks the coffee.
Laura has lost track of time and can’t calculate how long she’s spent staring at it. She takes a step forward and touches the ridge that runs down from the head. She likes the texture of the rubber. It wasn’t expensive, but feels like it was. There are some online stores that name the penises. They sound like colognes: Leo, Boss, Mustang, First Mate, Goodfella. This toy is of the generic variety and goes only by its description: “vac-u-lock 6-inch realistic ballsy.” She touches a fake vein. She likes it more after touching it, she realizes.
Laura hears the gasp of brakes as the bus stops outside. Her daughter, Siri, is home. They live in a third-floor walk-up and she knows she only has a few seconds more alone with the dildo. She wonders if maybe this one looks like someone she hasn’t seen yet—she can’t help it. She thinks of James McGrath, the history and phys. ed teacher at her daughter’s school. Laura retracts her hand, and takes her coffee cup to the sink as the door to the apartment opens.
“New one?” Siri throws her school bag down on the floor.
“It’s supposed to be—” Laura stops short and doesn’t mention Siri’s father. She holds an apple out for Siri to take. Thirteen years ago, Sirius was named after the brightest star in the sky. Everyone remarked how original and beautiful it was. Only a few years later Nathan and Laura realized their mistake: the satellite radio company became more and more popular. She goes by Siri most of the time now, though it’s no better since everyone has it on their phones.
“Are there chips?” Siri sits at the table and stares at the dildo.
Laura picks up the object and presses it back into the packaging.
“Do they really look like that?” Siri rolls her eyes, a new habit she is learning from the girls at swimming.
Laura feels guilty for exposing her daughter to her work, even though she believes frank and honest is the best approach to sex and the human body. When Siri was little Laura taught her all the anatomical words, but the 60-year-old kindergarten teacher at the Brooklyn public school kept using the word tinkle. Laura has read parenting articles that say you’re supposed to talk to your kid about sex, not one conversation either, but many. “They look like this about as much as a person looks like a statue. This is just a statue of male anatomy.”
“How do people decide what a slut is, Mom?”
Laura looks up. “That’s a stupid word, and anyone who uses it is stupid. Did someone say something?” Laura frowns. She can feel it forming on her face, the expression like something vaguely itchy.
Siri doesn’t answer. Then: “Dad’s worried about you. He saw the thing on Buzzfeed.”
Nathan dates a lot of women, none seriously. Or he’s serious with them until he isn’t. It made Laura crazy at first. Siri calls them all “Adele” after the singer, so that Laura doesn’t have to hear about them or learn new names.
“Will you get a lot of money?” Siri crunches the apple and moves away, searching for the television remote.
Laura won’t make any money for the website. The photos or the letters. If there’s a gallery show, she’ll be paid. And for the book. Her agent has sent the first three essays out to publishers. The website is what started it though—10,000 followers and growing with every write-up and tweet.
Women want to see dicks. They want to read about them. It surprises Laura, even though it was her idea. When she was young, she didn’t care much about penises at all. They were attached to people, people she liked. That was as much as they interested her. They were good for certain things, but she didn’t admire them or spend an inordinate amount of time focused on them. Then she hit her forties. Now she thinks about them constantly: the smell, the shape, the silky way they felt rubbed on her cheek or across her freshly shaven thigh, the way they grow and shrink like magic.
More-or-less single since she split from Siri’s father two years ago, Laura’s life has been Siri. A friend fixed Laura up a couple months after the divorce, but she had insomnia just thinking about it. She canceled. After a while she began to realize that when she masturbated she only thought about the past—the men she’d dated when she was young. They did the job, but honestly would she date any of them again? That was how the penis project began.
It started with a very good match: a dildo named Jack. Laura photographed Jack with her phone. She uploaded the photo to a blog, and wrote a short entry about the man, whose name was Marco. He wasn’t her first boyfriend, but an early one. She came back to him sometimes in her mind. She’d been in love with him, but they’d never really gone on dates.
The first time I climaxed was the last time we did it. Do you remember? We must have done it 30 times before, but after that night, you were never at my apartment again. Why didn’t you want me to come? Were you afraid of me?
Soon she hunted for dildos to match others. Eddie, Sean, Adrian, Andrew, Juan, and Michael. Sean had been multi-orgasmic and could come three times in a row—that blog entry got a big response. She ordered a small spotlight which she used for Sean’s doppelganger, giving it Hollywood quality edge lighting. The posts are becoming harder to get right. There are cocks she doesn’t remember at all. Just oblique shapes in the drunken night.
When she started, she told herself the project was reverse objectification, about what we project onto a person, onto a body part. It was about what Laura was discovering as an adult looking back at her romantic relationships. She wrote these sorts of theses in the essays. Did she believe them? Siri had never had anything new; she’d been dressed from second-hands and clearance racks, and now Laura smelled money. Cock rubber, and cash.
Laura wrote an article this month about historical dildos, ones from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, carved from elephant tusks, or fashioned of leather and wood. The agent says the magazine credit could sell the book, but Laura cares more about the payment for the article, which still hasn’t arrived even though the magazine is big as God.
Soon, her number will be revealed: the number of men. Laura has tried not to calculate it. She includes men she dated even if they didn’t go all the way. She hopes people will understand that, but doesn’t know what they’ll say. She has already been called all the names you expect to be called somewhere along the way, if you are a woman. She wishes she had thought to use a fake name, and worries what happens when others Google her—like James at Siri’s school. She worries too about running out of entries and the project drying up.
There’s an essay about controversial nudes she could begin for an art publication. It’s a better thing to work on when her daughter is there. She carries the package into the office, which doubles as her bedroom. She wishes she could afford a bigger apartment, a place with a backyard or rooftop patio for Siri and her friends to hang out, a place where the bedrooms aren’t huddled against each other like half-formed twins in a dark womb. Laura tucks the package up high on the shelf in the closet.
"Priapus was a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism. He became a popular figure in Roman erotic art and Latin literature."
The Priapus from House of the Vettii is the image at the top of Laura’s site, a fresco painting where he is weighing his elongated penis, measuring it against a bag of gold coins.
Since the Priapus Project began, Laura has had a couple one-night stands. One guy she picked up on a dare. She and her best friend Rachel were having a few beers and talking about the project—how often Laura would need to post without using up all the dicks. Unlike Laura, Rachel is still married. But she never fantasies about the past, she says—she fantasizes about prostitution, being paid for it.
“Because,” Rachel said, “out there in the world, we’re losing our currency. We’re not the hot young things anymore. I work hard for this body, and I want to know that he would pay me for it.”
Laura tried not to snort her lager, picturing Rachel’s partner, Jon—in his thick glasses, button-ups, and Converse—counting out 100’s onto the nightstand.
“Remembering someone from two decades ago, that’s like trying to fuck a ghost,” Rachel said a bit too loudly.
“Did you know there are dildos that ejaculate now?” Laura told Rachel.
A guy was sitting nearby at the bar—hipster clothing and a kind face. He glanced over when she said the word “ejaculate.” It was one of those words that didn’t sound like any other. Rachel kicked her under the table.
“What? Why?” But now both women were distracted. “Go over there,” Rachel hissed. “New post!”
Laura walked up to the bar. “My friend dared me to come over.” It was the least original pickup line ever. It didn’t matter. The guy, Luke, bought the drinks and did the talking after that.
Rachel says if Laura joins Tinder her project will go to infinity, but Laura knows the sex was blissfully awful. Like eating a whole cheese cake at night then waking up the next day and trying to jog the calories off. Luke was cute, but she was drunk and up close he smelled wrong. He had a short, chubby penis, and seemed very intent on her orgasm, considering he didn’t know her at all. She suspected he’d overheard their conversation and wanted to be well documented. His intensity and dedication to it almost made Laura not want to come. It felt like he was playing a musical instrument underwater—a lot of talent was required to make a song that was barely audible.
You kept asking, “Do you like that?” but I didn’t know you well enough to tell you, “Sometimes I honestly don’t know what I like.”
When Siri has gone to bed, Laura takes the toy down from the high closet shelf. She sees there’s a space underneath where you can press a bullet-shaped vibrator deep inside the shaft if you have one. She doesn’t have one, but she knows what she’s going to do before she does it. It’s the first time she has ever tested out a dong since the project began. She ordered the vac-u-lock 6-inch realistic ballsy thinking it was the right size for Nathan, but seeing it in real life, the color is wrong: its tip an exaggerated fiberglass insulation–pink. It isn’t her ex she thinks of, but James.
James McGrath was Siri’s seventh grade soccer coach. Siri does swimming now, and probably won’t try out for soccer this year. Tall with glasses, James is nerdy, a bit on the skinny side. Not the type other women would call attractive, yet Laura noticed she got nervous around him right away. Nervous, then very calm and happy. He looks more like the history teacher than the phys ed teacher. Were all phys ed teachers jerks, or just at Laura’s school? James gave Siri equal field time to the other girls even though it was clear she wasn’t as fast or as skilled. He wore shorts at the field, his slender muscular legs covered in gold curls. The girls ran around looking nearly identical with their shirts and ponytails. Even Laura had to search for Number 20 to find her daughter.
Laura hasn’t seen him in five months now, but still feels anticipation whenever she visits Siri’s school. Once, she glimpsed James at the end of the hall. He turned and went into a classroom. If he’d seen her, would he have come talked to her? He was wearing Levi’s, and a real shirt with buttons and a collar. He looked good, better than she remembered. When did teachers begin wearing clothes that matched their personalities, instead of those oven-mitt-thick polyester dress slacks of the ’80s? It would be unethical to date her daughter’s coach and teacher—but James McGrath isn’t either of those things anymore, and Siri will graduate from the middle school in June.
Last spring, while the youth ran around on the field, Laura and James chatted and shared long stretches of silence. She watched him bouncing a ball lightly off the girls’ foreheads as he taught them. “Keep your eyes open, don’t be afraid.”
Siri closed her eyes and the ball bopped off the very top of her head and went straight up and came down on her again, but James didn’t laugh when her daughter’s teammates did. He picked up the ball, told her to try again. “If you hit the ball, it can’t hit you.”
Good advice: for soccer and for life.
Why is patience so sexy? Laura wonders. Why does she want James to pull off her clothes, lick her, then come all over her? Why does she think about that exact scenario while holding the 6-inch realistic? She breathes out and angles it in. It’s harder than a man.
Once Laura was wearing a new vintage jacket and while the girls were running laps, James put his hand on her shoulder, complimenting it. Then both hands, feeling how it sat on her shoulders. Even after jogging around the field, he smelled like the earth opening up for the rain. But why did she presume he was straight—or single? Probably he had a girlfriend. Then immediately she dismissed both questions. She knew what her heart said: the compliment was an excuse to touch her.
She has held onto that touch too long, she thinks. Kindness isn’t enough to make you want to come, she tells herself, but a moment later, she realizes it definitely is enough. In the dark, she puts the rubber penis in her mouth. It tastes and smells like her, which turns her on, but beneath whatever she has transferred to it is the gaping odor of plastic. She wishes James’s penis at the back of her throat, pictures him placing his palms gently on her head, filling up her mouth. The sex toy tastes like a new spatula from the Martha Stewart Collection.
After, she hides the instrument in her sock drawer instead of with the rest of the project’s paraphernalia in the closet.
What she remembers about penises is how hard they were made to work, perform at their function. She remembers the ones that burst milky, like flowers opening in springtime, the bloom and scent filling the air. And she remembers the ones that didn’t, that seemed to hang their heads like ashamed dogs. She remembers the ones that were plunged against her hand unexpectedly, or not at her own bidding. She remembers the sweet ones, the salty ones, the ones that smelled damp as cellars, the ones that smelled crisp as cantaloupe.
The uncircumcised ones were like vaginas—hidden away. She had to pull back the folds and approach gently. Those were her favorites. More sensitive. Natural. She also likes balls. Tight round sacs like tennis balls. Dark, bumpy and dangly ones like avocados.
She considers herself lucky that none of them ever hurt her. Although sometimes they waited around, waited until her guard was down, until she said okay when she meant, “Can’t you just go home now?”
Her husband, Nathan, had a great one. It wasn’t the problem. The problem was they were both stubborn and fought constantly. When he told her he wanted out, she felt like the whole world might dissolve. If he’d cheated it might have been easier to move on. Even two years since splitting, Laura misses the sex with him. She sees him and thinks, “You sexy bastard. I hate you.” Why couldn’t he be an uglier man, a less charming man? One would think the bastard part would cancel out the sexy part, but with Nathan somehow it doesn’t.
Perhaps it’s why it’s impossible now to find a sex toy that mirrors him. Before she falls asleep she thinks: Maybe I will leave him out of the project, just to be mean.
Sometimes she puts her head down on a pillow or the couch and smells him—then realizes it’s the scent of their daughter. How can a young girl smell like a fully grown man? Like beeswax, honey, and hickory.
Laura has wondered if the dick fixation is because she is getting older. Maybe it’s all some weird hormonal surge Laura is undergoing. Soon, if not already, she will be beyond child-bearing age. For a long time she took it as a given that Siri would be her only child. Playing back her fantasy, she wonders: is her obsession with the phallus really about semen?
In the morning Siri doesn’t want to get up. Laura leans over and places her hand on her daughter’s forehead. “You’re not warm.”
While driving Siri to the school, Laura gets a call on her cell from her agent. She pulls over to answer.
“We have an offer,” the agent says.
Laura drops the phone. It bounces off the cupholder and onto the floor on Siri’s side. She silently picks it up and passes it back.
The agent is explaining: “Payment would be divided into three chunks, so it’s not as large you think. But the low advance means royalties sooner.”
Laura puts the window down. Why is it so hot in October? Maybe she’s pre-menopausal. Maybe she’s having a panic attack. Or a joy attack.
“Not to be too punny about it,” the agent says. “But this contract could be a grower not a show-er.”
Laura doesn’t know what the agent is talking about. The amount seems very large to her, no matter how it’s portioned.
The principal is closing the door to the middle school as Laura and Siri arrive. Mrs. Ortiz is overly stern for being only fifty. The glow Laura has been experiencing since the phone call fades when Mrs. Ortiz comes over to the car. “Mrs. Woodward, I was going to phone. Do you have a minute?”
Laura hates being called “Mrs.”
Siri ducks her head. She grabs her knapsack and barely mutters goodbye. Laura watches her bound up the steps, yank on the red door, and pass out of sight. Mrs. Ortiz instructs her to find a real parking spot and meet her inside.
In the principal’s office, Laura hears her phone ding with a message. She pulls it out and sees an email from her agent: “Would you go on TV? They might ask very personal questions—how would you feel about that?” It’s for a late-night show that Siri tries to stay up to watch. Laura feels Mrs. Ortiz’s eyes on her: chastised without a word exchanged. The principal has dark hair with gray streaks and angry eyes behind unfashionable glasses. Laura sets the phone to vibrate and slips it in her pocket. Mrs. Ortiz tells Laura there was an incident the day before. No wonder Siri tried to play sick, then ducked and ran.
“Your daughter asked some of the boys if they’re circumcised.”
It’s as if Laura has taken a hit to the stomach.
“I heard you wrote an article. About penises?”
“It’s really a blog. An art project. I doubt that has much influence.” Laura’s voice sounds uncomfortable, even to her. She sits straighter in the chair. Laura remembers Siri asking about sluts, and wonders if the other parents know about the project?
“I find parents have the greatest influence—even when they think they don’t.” Mrs. Ortiz has a polished way of speaking that begs no argument. “These children are changing, their bodies growing. They are doing this,” Mrs. Ortiz makes a scrolling gesture in her palm, “and you think they’re paying no attention. They are watching and listening to everything we do.”
Laura feels hot all over. She’s being called a bad parent. And she’s being called a slut behind her back. Another vibration against her thigh. Mrs. Ortiz hears it and glances down at Laura’s jeans. They are her favorite skinny black jeans, but they’re faded and beginning to rip at the knee. Laura is suddenly aware of this. She always feels like the weed coming up through the crack.
The principal reaches into her desk drawer and unfolds a lined sheet of paper. She slides it across to Laura who sees the lazy loops of her daughter’s writing. It’s a note from Siri to her best friend Kylie. It ranks the male staff members at the school with numbers. There are only five, including the speech therapist and a custodian. Laura skims it: Mr. McGrath is the cutest one, it says, a lopsided heart in purple felt-tip.
Laura wonders if she knew that her daughter had a crush on James back when he was her coach. Shouldn’t it have been obvious to her—or had they become mirrors of one another, where an identical emotion passed through mother and daughter at the same time? She can’t date him now, she realizes, it would be like choosing a guy over her own blood.
Mrs. Ortiz has her own bathroom to the side of her office and Laura asks to use it. She is met by her reflection: an anxious looking woman who has painted her lips too bright of a red. She dabs at her eyes with toilet paper. She holds a hand over her mouth and tries not to make a sound. After a moment, she washes her hands, cups them, and takes a drink of water from the tap. She doesn’t know how she wound up crying in a stranger’s office over a guy she has never gone on a date with. Isn’t she a better woman than this? It’s about the work, she tells herself, smoothing a Kleenex over her skin, blowing her nose and throwing it away. She snaps out a compact and swipes the sponge around. It’s not about the sex, it’s the work. If you say something enough times, does it come true?
She texts her ex-husband: Do you ever think about getting back together?
She knows she shouldn’t press Send, but she sends it anyway. He replies almost immediately: Um, honestly no. Sorry.
There’s something about that little word “um” that is kind. She loves and then hates Nathan all over again.
The last time they had sex it was against the living room wall. It seemed unfair that the hottest times were when something was ending. It was one of the greatest things about marriage, she realizes. Whatever her ex husband’s flaws, they developed a consent that doesn’t exist elsewhere, one where their skins seemed to anticipate the other’s response, whether yes or no. Similarly the old boyfriends are shadows whose stories were written a long time ago, even if she’s only giving them voice in the project now. Their scripts are knowable.
As Laura leaves the principal’s office, James is walking by. For a second, there’s the whisper of his forearm hair as he brushes past her. They’re that close. He stops, smiles down at her and asks how she is. She fights the tightness in her diaphragm.
She nods to the principal’s office. “Worst parent ever.”
“I’m pretty certain you’re one of the good ones.”
Thinking of the sex toy from the night before, she tries to keep her eyes above James’s waist. She’s limited because she can’t look him in the eyes either. She stares at the buttons on his green short-sleeved shirt. She looks at his hands, his square flat fingernails. She’s not going to do this, she tells herself. She can’t. She thanks him as her phone rattles again. She pulls it out. It’s an excuse to look down. Be good to yourself, Laura, Nathan has texted.
“Popular,” James observes. He looks so happy to see her, she feels sick to her stomach.
At her car she imagines James pushing her down on the hot hood and sinking into her deeply from behind. The clutch of his hands around her. It hurts her to think of it, like staring directly into the sun.
That night is one of Siri’s stays with Nathan so Laura doesn’t get to speak to her about the meeting with the principal.
She texts Siri: We need to talk.
Siri texts: Mom, this IS talking.
Laura returns to the bar near McCarren Park where she drank with Rachel and met Luke, the bad one-night stand. Rachel has said she will try to meet her to celebrate the Priapus Project deal, but Laura knows “I’ll try” is a soft maybe. The pub is nearly empty. She willfully ignores the prices and drinks two glasses of wine while making small talk with the bartender, a woman half her age who is playing Tricky’s Maxinquaye on the sound system: she’s only just discovered it. When we fuck, we’ll hear bees, the song murmurs over fuzzy beats. But that’s not the line—it can’t be. That’s just how Laura hears it because she’s suddenly become as horny, compulsive, and protective of her music as an eighteen-year-old boy. Maybe it’s not an increase in sex drive and is just a desire for connection—touch in general. She and Siri used to snuggle more, lie in bed reading stories or watching films, but as Siri becomes a teenager she does that stuff with her best friend instead.
Rachel cancels via text with apologies and exclamation points. Laura scrolls her cell for Luke’s number, but she must have drunkenly keyed it in under a funny name or description she can no longer remember.
Laura is slipping on her jacket to leave when he walks in. He stops and she stops.
“Hi,” he says.
“Shit,” she says.
The men he’s with are dressed like jocks—wearing shorts and zip-ups or pullovers with puffy letters. One carries a pair of cleats. It’s his men’s rec league. The other men eye her and pass by, their voices loud, transforming the bar. The bartender turns up “Hell is Around the Corner.” The men, with sculpted hairy thighs, grab tables and ram them together, and Laura notices for the first time that there’s a large-screen TV on mute on the wall that was at her back. Onscreen, a referee in black-and-white stripes is gesturing towards the camera, something Laura doesn’t understand the meaning of.
James orders a beer and another wine for her without consulting on it. He nods and raises his glass to clink hers. Balanced on the bar stools, they are close. Her hand glances his bare knee.
His gaze flicks down at the hand. “You know. I read your article. I looked up your website. I had no idea you’re famous.” He nudges her thigh with his knee.
“Siri has a crush on you,” Laura blurts the way she would say “I have a crush on you.”
“Happens every year,” James tells her. “They want a crush at that age. One without pressure. I had a crush on my eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Adams. Didn’t you ever have one?”
“She’ll replace it with a crush on someone age appropriate.” He’s too reassuring about this thing she had thought was insurmountable, like an NPR guest with all the right answers about your garden.
“Isn’t it weird?”
“Of course it’s weird, but all love is weird.” James takes a drink. “Like you, this project. You love those… things.”
“I don’t really. They’re silly silicone stand-ins.”
“Say that three times fast,” he challenges her.
In James’s car, he tastes like Guinness foam. He finds her nipple under her shirt but over her bra. She’s startled by how good his fingers feel on her. She tries to make her way downward. The last time she made out in a car was before they were designed with giant consoles in the middle. As a teenager, she could fly over seats. Now there’s a parking brake aimed into her rib cage.
She works the head out—circumcised, smooth, mushroom-colored—when he stops her. It’s soft in her hand, defenseless.
“Give me a chance,” she says, raising an eyebrow.
She holds it: worm-like rather than cobra. She rubs it across her cheek, a limp gym sock. She tongues the deflated tip and licks the soft crown. It’s both sweet and sweaty, like a small bald man standing atop a hill. She kisses the flaccid shaft. She takes the whole spongy thing in her mouth. It’s alive, but not lively. She attempts to put all the tenderness she can summon into the motion. A few minutes later, James’s cock is still a whispered version of the thing she has imagined. It doesn’t look like any of the cocks in her collection.