Becky Mandelbaum is the author of Bad Kansas, which received the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2018 High Plains Book Award for First Book. Her first novel is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.
Victoria once learned in a science class that no two things can ever really touch, that even when it looks or feels like two objects have made contact, there exists always an infinitesimally small space between their atoms, a molecular cushion of politeness or, as Victoria came to think of it, prudence. Now, she could not stop thinking about touch, about bodies coming together, collaborating—hundreds of them, moving like an ocean. In her fantasy, the bodies converged in a supernatural way, touching but also blending, bypassing the barriers of flesh and physics. She was a hopeful sort of girl and imagined that the people who owned these bodies would uphold common courtesy, apologizing for an accidental kick to the groin or a scrape of fingernail against flesh. Even the worst offense could be mitigated by a repentant stroke. My deepest apologies, the bodies would say. Pardon me.
The fantasy began with a fresco she saw at the Sistine Chapel. She was studying abroad and had, only the night before the chapel tour, lost her virginity to a boy who had no business being on the trip in the first place. His name was Mason and his declared major was political science. Although the program was for art history majors, Mason didn’t seem to mind or even notice—the year before, he’d gone to Australia to collect water beetles with a team of young biologists. His parents had money (there was a rumor his father had invented Lean Cuisine), and so he traveled wherever he pleased, distributing foreign bills and coins to whomever would take them. He seemed determined to share his father’s Lean Cuisine money with all of Europe. As the group moved from city to city, from market to market, and museum to museum, Victoria watched as Mason accumulated everything from cheap t-shirts to elaborate Batik scarves to a collection of wooden animal figurines he proceeded to abandon on fence posts, for children to find. In the Scottish Highlands, he bought a $200 bottle of scotch which he opened on the tour bus and offered to everyone, including the driver. It was easy to see why, despite his unfortunate looks, Mason was a hit among the art history students, all except for Victoria, who considered herself clever for seeing past the façade of his money. From the moment she met him in the pre-trip planning sessions, she’d found him pretentious and spoiled and not that bright. And yet all of this changed in the Isle of Skye, when he bought her a stout and called her pretty. Nobody had ever called her pretty before, not even her mother—it would have come across as a joke—but all the sun and activity were doing wonders for her complexion, and she’d gotten a haircut in Bath that made her face look surprisingly slim. On a whim, she bought a cheap silk scarf and took to wearing it in her hair. During excursions, she added a set of gold bangles and dabbed a bit of sandalwood perfume onto her wrists. Who had ever heard, in Wichita, of sandalwood? One night—the night Mason called her pretty—the girl she was rooming with let her borrow a tube of red lipstick. When taken in together, these minute changes afforded her a bohemian look she would have never imagined pulling off back in Kansas. Was it possible she was no longer plain? The beer Mason bought for her seemed to suggest so.
After the Isle of Skye, she found herself engrossed by him. She devoured his stories and found herself amazed by even his most basic behaviors: removing his shoes, combing his hair, buttering a roll of bread. She sought his company in the way she had, as a little girl, sought the company of her mother. When the group travelled together—to cathedrals or museums or pubs—she hunted him down and attached herself to him, hungry for every joke, every glance, every touch. She developed a ridiculous superstition that Mason had not noticed her prettiness but created it; she worried that departing from him would cause her homeliness to fall back upon her like a heavy gray cloak.
She was cautious not to be annoying but, miraculously, Mason didn’t seem to mind her presence. He began to buy her things: espressos, sugar cookies, little souvenirs. At a gift shop in Rome, he pressed a fifty-euro note into her palm and told her to spoil herself. (For a brief tantalizing moment, she thought he said soil yourself, and was prepared, in that millisecond of misunderstanding, to perform whatever vulgar acts might bring him pleasure.) After much consideration, she chose a small silver bell, engraved with an Italian saying she didn’t bother to translate. A week later, she would drop the bell into the Tiber, just for the memory of having done so.
On the bus, she took to resting her head on Mason’s shoulder, taking in the bready smell of his hair. By now, she no longer minded his unfortunate bowl haircut or the smooth doughy chin that disappeared into his neck. She did not know what to expect from him, but she tried not to think deeply about it. She was in Europe; flings were expected. Other couples were also forming in the group. Everywhere Victoria looked, people were touching, skin on skin, lips on lips. At the back of the bus, couples would cover themselves with travel blankets and disappear. It reminded her of a video she once saw in anatomy class, of blood cells clotting under a microscope. The video had mesmerized her, the way the chubby clumps of cells drifted and danced around one another and then, as if by magic, reached out and clung together. Held on.
When they finally slept together—a first for Victoria, a fourth for Mason, or so he said—it came not as a surprise but felt, instead, like the logical progression of their feelings. When you were hungry, you ate. When you were tired, you slept. When you loved someone—was that what this was? Love?—you wanted them as close as possible. To her surprise, Mason was gentle. From what she’d seen in movies, she’d anticipated an angry, violent sort of contact. But Mason had stroked her hair and asked her several times if she was okay. “Just checking in,” he kept repeating. He would not put his full weight on top of her, holding himself aloft with shaking arms.
And so the fresco with all its nude bodies came at an opportune time. At the Sistine Chapel, she was still buzzing, sore from the previous night. In the morning, Mason had made her a cup of Earl Grey before heading off with a few of his buddies to tour a surgical museum. (He was not, after all, very interested in art.) She wondered if he, too, was allowing fantasies to flood his mind, replacing what was supposed to be an academic appreciation of the triumphs of humanity. This was how Victoria had always taken on art: with a jealous, scholastic awe. How could so many ugly people produce such works of beauty? It was not a musing, but a legitimate question. She now had her answer. The right amount of desire could make anything beautiful. Even Mason, with his pale fleshy torso and a blossom of chickenpox scars on each cheek—even he could be lovely, if placed on a mattress, his fingers touching her in a way she had always thought, naively, particular to her. That he knew the secret to her pleasure seemed impossible, and yet she had never been more grateful. She wanted to be with him again and again, as many times as possible before the summer ended. Until life ended.
She now saw that this potential for beauty was everywhere, dripping from people like invisible sap. She’d simply never noticed it before, had been a fish swimming through water. But now everyone around her—the guards, the mousey tour guide, even the old cane-bearing man beside her—emanated sex. A hungry, saccharine knowledge of pleasure. They had certainly all been there, in the throes of it, under its hot palm. Just looking at a person conjured a string of tableaus: movement under white sheets, a struggle with zippers in a restaurant bathroom.
“And here we have Michelangelo’s famous fresco, The Last Judgment,” the tour guide was saying, her Italian accent lovely as a xylophone. “Based on Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno, the painting depicts the second coming of Christ—a contentious depiction, back in its day. Some Catholics found the artist’s portrayal of a muscular, smooth-chinned Jesus to be immodest.”
Victoria flushed as the guide continued on, pointing out bodies that were ascending to heaven or plunging into hell, where a little naked angel was poised to beat them with a stick. The fresco was unique in that it depicted everyone in the nude, regardless of the person’s social standing. Sinners and saints were equalized by the humanity of flesh. Victoria tuned out the guide and focused on the painting, the bodies. Soft skin over hard muscles. She set her eyes on Jesus’s chiseled six-pack and tried not to imagine what lay beneath his tunic. It occurred to her then that even Jesus must have masturbated.
She looked forward to the evening ahead of her; she and Mason had plans to get pizza and gelato. And what about after? She tried not to have any expectations. But she could not help the feeling in her stomach—a burning sort of hope.
. . .
After the tour, she returned to the dorm, where Mason said he’d be waiting for her in the common room. But he wasn’t there. She went to his room where she found his roommate—a scrawny, hawk-nosed boy named Julian. Julian was not wearing a t-shirt, and the acne on his pale chest made Victoria feel sick.
“Have you seen Mason?” she asked.
Julian frowned, an ugly frown. “He didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“He had to go home.”
“What do you mean?” Her stomach dropped. “Home as in home?”
Julian nodded. “I think he’s from Kansas City.”
“But why’d he go?”
“I’m not sure. Professor Harte had to find him a flight back—I guess he’s on it right now. Probably cost a million dollars, but we know that’s not a problem with Mason. He ever tell you his dad owns an entire mountain in Colorado?”
Victoria couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You’re sure he didn’t say anything? Didn’t leave a note?”
Julian shook his head.
When Victoria began to cry, Julian put his arm around her. As if on autopilot, she reached up and grabbed for his fingers. She squeezed, as if trying to extract warmth.
“Hey, it’ll be all right,” he said. “You’ll see him back in Kansas.”
“How do you know that?”
She could feel him shrug. “I guess I don’t, really. I’m just trying to make you feel better.”
Before she knew what was happening, Julian’s lips were on her neck. She allowed them; this was her first mistake. Suddenly she was on top of him, digging at him with her hips. How had this happened? It was Mason she wanted. But he was gone—somewhere in an airplane over the Atlantic—and she was here, alone, following Julian to the bunk bed where he helped her up the ladder to the top mattress. Only the night before, she and Mason had been on the bottom bunk, quietly moving as Julian snored above them.
Where Mason had been gentle, Julian was spasmodic and rigid. All bones. No rhythm. It was obvious that Mason had more experience, but still she accepted Julian—his eagerness, his vulnerable, gasping body—with gratitude. She was still sore, but she didn’t mind the pain. Julian’s interest in her proved that her prettiness existed outside of Mason—that it was not symbiotic but autonomous.
When they were done, she studied a series of moles on Julian’s upper-back. They were dark and misshapen. Malignant. She went off in her head, imagining the cancer that would spread through his body. She imagined the funeral. Her, sitting in the farthest pew, watching his casket float by in the hands of well-dressed strangers.
She felt curious. Dazed. When had she become this type of girl, the type to simply fall into bed with a boy she barely knew? She’d never considered herself pretty enough for a life of casual sex, and yet here it was, opening up before her. She figured these kinds of women had to start somewhere. Everyone but nuns and Catholic priests had a first time, but what came after—what kind of sexual life one pursued—was a matter of choice.
Julian stirred beside her. Suddenly, he was talking, whispering so that she could feel his breath, warm and moist on her face. “I’ve wanted this for a long time,” he said.
“I felt it when I met you. That I could grow to really like you—to know you. I took it as a sign when Mason went home—that we should be together.” He turned toward her, his eyes big with expectation. “Don’t you feel that way, too?”
Victoria placed the covers over her head; she was afraid of laughing. “I don’t know,” she told him, through the sheets. She felt lightheaded and wished more than anything that Julian would transform into Mason. “I think maybe we’re just in Europe.”
. . .
When Victoria returned to Kansas, she barely thought of Mason or Julian. It had turned out to be a big summer, filled with quick, intense friendships and hot sunlit days she would recall in detail for the rest of her life. Even the smallest moments of the summer billowed in her memory like a matador’s red cape catching the wind: the old man who bought her a charm necklace at Campo de’ Fiori, the heady night spent swimming in a fountain after drinking a bottle of absinthe with her friend Elise. Even the hot, dim candy store where she’d stolen a handful of salted caramels, and the buck-toothed little boy who’d watched her, shaking his head. All of these moments managed to replace whatever dreams of Mason she may have otherwise fashioned in times of boredom.
She did not think to look him up or to make a visit to the political science building once the fall semester began. Instead, she simply glided back into her old life, allowing a sturdy separation to rise up between summer and fall, Europe and Kansas. She returned to her studies, immersed herself in a life of books and tests punctuated by flashes of pleasure: a party here, a road trip there.
She considered herself ordinary and well-adjusted. She drank on the weekends, mostly beer from red cups and mostly in moderation, and occasionally fell into bed with a boy. Her hunger was still present—a desire to be consumed and adored—only now she had healthy distractions: the satisfaction of good grades and steady friendships. Outside of her schoolwork, she discovered a talent for painting. Who would have guessed that, all this time, her own hands had been capable of beauty? She preferred painting in the mornings, when the light was best, and managed to display some of her work at a small gallery in the student union. When she thought about it, her life after Europe was nearly unrecognizable from the one that preceded it. She wore bangles every day now and had bought her own tube of lipstick.
When she finally saw Mason, it was in the spring. Campus was green and the students had begun to shed their layers. Girls paraded around in tank tops and Birkenstocks; the boys in cutoff jeans and backward baseball caps. Mason was sitting on a bench, with a girl. The girl sat perpendicular to him, with her legs across his lap. She was not a petite girl and had short muscular legs that concluded in a pair of ugly bare feet. Two red slip-on sneakers lay on the ground, beneath the bench. Mason was kneading the flesh on the outside of her thighs.
How could Victoria have expected the burst of desire she felt upon seeing those hands? Mason did not look in particularly good shape—his hair was longer and greasy in the back, his skin red and bright from sunburn. But there, among everything, were his hands, certain and strong as they moved across the girl’s golden legs. He might as well have been playing the piano.
“Mason,” Victoria said.
He looked up, his hands still working. “Victoria,” he said, and smiled. He explained to the girl that he’d met Victoria in Europe, on his study abroad. The girl nodded absently.
“It’s been a while,” Victoria said. “I never did find out why you went home.”
Mason laughed, as if she had reminded him of an old joke. “I know. Feels like years ago, doesn’t it?”
The girl was not pleased. She sat up higher on the bench, pursed her lips. Could she tell that Victoria and Mason had slept together? Victoria hoped so. She wanted to ask again why he’d left like he did, but she did not want to prod.
The girl was now straightening out her legs, flexing her muscles across Mason’s lap. “I don’t mean to be rude,” she said, “but I’m hungry. Mason? Aren’t you hungry?”
Victoria found this incredibly rude, but Mason didn’t seem to mind the interruption—he must have really liked the girl. He turned to Victoria. “I guess we’re going to grab some lunch. But it was good to see you, Victoria. Really good.”
“You, too,” Victoria said, and watched as he and the girl got up from the bench. The girl was even shorter than Victoria had thought—five foot, at most—but her hair came down past her waist and swished back and forth. Victoria had always wanted hair that swished back and forth. Her own was short and curly.
As they were leaving, the girl lingered behind to grab her shoes. When she stood, she leaned toward Victoria, so that her hair brushed against Victoria’s cheek. Her shampoo smelled of peaches. “His girlfriend died,” she said to Victoria, her voice low. “That’s why he left Europe. She was in a car accident—went head-first through the windshield. They’d been dating since high school.” She made a face that said, “Can you believe it?” and then turned to catch up to Mason, carrying her red shoes by the laces, her pale feet gliding across the earth.
Later that day, Victoria tried to walk barefoot on the hot cement. She hardly lasted thirty seconds before the pain grew so unbearable she had to hop sideways onto the grass. At home, embarrassed, she placed her feet in a tub of cold water. The skin of her heels had burnt to a shiny red film, as if she’d walked on coals.
. . .
Decades later, Victoria can still recall the naked bodies. She summons them, and by summoning them she goes back in time, to that summer. To the feeling of Mason and the world he opened for her. She feels the same surge of satisfaction. Of possibility. She can see the fresco opening up above her—all those limbs in the midst of judgment. Among saints and sinners, the ugly, scientific, democratic truth of pleasure.
Behind this fantasy is another fantasy. A darker one, whose sole actress is a girl with blonde hair and long legs. Victoria has dreamed and redreamed her over the course of her adulthood, each time changing a detail here, a detail there. Most times, the girl is wearing a pink dress her mother bought her for Christmas—it is not her favorite dress, but she wears it to make her mother happy. For now, the girl is not thinking about the dress, or her mother. For now, she is driving at night, crossing a bridge to get to a friend’s house. There is a party there, and one of the older boys has already left, is crossing the bridge at the same moment, in the opposite direction of the girl. He has not had anything to drink but has just gotten in a fight with his girlfriend and is distracted by the argument, which he plays and replays in his mind. He dials up the radio until he can feel the music in the steering wheel, which he tries to keep steady despite the strong Kansas winds. Suddenly, he sees a dog. It is not really a dog—it is only a paper grocery bag, blowing across the road—but the boy does not know this. He sees the brown flash of fur and ears. He swerves into the oncoming lane, where he is surprised to see headlights. In the confusion of heat and metal, a body flies through glass. Pink fabric billowing in the air. A whole body, capable of pleasure and pain and a thousand invisible symphonies, all undone in a moment. All these years later, Victoria thinks of this night whenever she peels a scab from her skin—all those little cells, their hard work and coupling. A tiny flat world, extinguished.