The Metal Bowl by Miranda July
20th Mar 2018
He cupped the two halves of my tush and spoke directly to them. “Run away with me, girls,” he whispered. “She doesn’t understand our love.”
I lay still, staring out the window, letting them have their time together. If I protested, I’d only make his case stronger: I’m less fun than my own butt. Which is not untrue. In my essence, I am a stone, unmoving for ten thousand years, unless picked up and moved. It’s not just sex; I find this whole experience—life—gratuitously slow and drawn out. See it crawl, second by fucking second. If I’m a workaholic, it’s only because I hate work so much that I’m trying to finish it, all of it, once and for all. So I can just ride out the rest of my life in some kind of internal trance state. Not a coma but, like, a step above that.
Our son, Sam, trotted in sleepily, and I warned him not to get in the bed: “It’s all bloody.” Alex quietly removed his hands from my body; he hadn’t noticed that I was bleeding. Sam pulled back the sheets and studied the mess, smiling giddily. “You got your period.”
“You said it was coming soon and you were right!”
This new generation of men has been taught (by me) to feel excited about the menstrual cycle. It’s like tadpoles turning into frogs or the moon that follows them wherever they go. I’ve been waiting a long time to have my period cheered on. More and more women my age have given up on our men and are getting together with millennials, youngsters raised by women who were born in the sixties, rather than the forties. I hear it’s great. Not a lot of hangups. But that isn’t an option for me because I need a man with a historical perspective that encompasses my whole lifetime. If anything, I regret not having met Alex sooner. If we had met at my birth and I had been able to assess how narcissistic my parents were, I could have left the hospital with Alex and got started on our relationship immediately. He would have been eight years old—young, but not too young to keep me alive. I need that in a man.
Sometimes my love for him is so intense that I want to crawl inside his body. I want him to be pregnant with me and never give birth, just hold me in. At other times, I wonder, Who is that guy? And why is he in my house? When I get that look on my face, he sticks out his hand and says, “Hi, I’m Alex. Your husband.”
Sam used his small pointing finger to tap each old bloodstain on the sheet; they dated back more than a decade, a disgusting constellation. It was one of those things you didn’t notice until suddenly you did. Like ants. Like everything.
I dressed and brushed my teeth. If I went to the mall immediately and got a new sheet, then the chore wouldn’t have time to gather weight. Once a task goes on the to-do list it settles in, grows roots—the trick is to preëmpt that. I could get a tent light while I was there. We were going camping the next weekend with another family, although unfortunately I wasn’t sure I would be able to join. Too much work to do.
“I can get new sheets,” Alex said, slowly climbing out of bed, limb by limb. Sam asked if we would be watching TV today, yes or no.
“Not sheets—just one fitted sheet. There’s only one place that sells Cariloha-brand California-king sheets individually. What is it?”
“Definitely no. I told you about my bad experience—”
“You did. I forgot.”
Bedding is an unregulated corner of Amazon, where companies charge radically different prices for the same bad sheets. You can’t even get nicer sheets by paying more—money has no meaning there. And don’t bother typing in words like “Egyptian cotton” or “thread count”—you’re just offering them more precise ways to bamboozle you. Get up, find your keys and your purse, and go outside. I hate it as much as anyone, but sometimes you just have to.
My plan was to park on the street and walk into the mall, get the sheet, and go. By not parking in the parking garage, I would outwit the psychology of the mall designers who wanted you to sever ties with the outside world. But walking in off the street was disorienting. I entered through Bloomingdale’s and had to wade through the store; it was like pushing through coats to enter Narnia. Once I made it into the mall, I had no idea where I was. It took me a long time even to find a map, then I traced my finger back and forth between You Are Here and the Low Cost Luxury Sheets Kiosk to memorize my path. The man standing next to me took a picture of the map and then trekked on, studying his phone. Pretty clever. As I walked, I glanced sideways at his tan, brawny body and floppy brown hair, just to confirm. Yes. He was a famous person. An actor. Or maybe a hotelier. Maybe this was André Balazs or whatever his name was. No, an actor. Electricity revved through my veins for no particular reason, just as a courtesy to his stature. I kept an eye on him as I walked toward the sheet kiosk, bracing myself for the moment when he would peel off in another direction. But he didn’t; we continued walking alongside each other, and I began to feel that we were together. And he kept looking at me, out of the corner of his eye. This couldn’t be true but it was. Somewhere between BabyGap and Lady Foot Locker the tables had turned. Now he recognized me.
I was twenty-two when the video was shot. I needed quick money so I could get out of a bad relationship—not a lot, just first and last and a security deposit. I couldn’t admit my plight to my parents, because I had already done this and they had written me a check, with great relief, and that was what my quasi-abusive boyfriend and I had been living off for the past six months. He had come up with the ploy.
“Make it sound bad but not too bad. Don’t say I hit you. Say I threw a chair at you or something.”
“You did throw a chair at me.”
“Obviously I wasn’t fully serious when I did that.”
I felt obligated to stay until my parents’ money ran out, since asking for it had been his idea. Then he punched not my face but the wall right next to my face and I had to move very quickly from terror to concern and rush him to the emergency room, where a young, temporary doctor said that we could either wait four hours for the real doctor to arrive and fix the bone in my boyfriend’s hand or let him “have a go.” The temporary doctor high-fived me after he’d popped the bone back in.
The next morning, I woke up early and walked down to the cluster of newspaper boxes in front of the old people’s bar, and discreetly pulled out the sex-themed paper. I’d always known that this option would be there for me if I really needed it. Just as my parents were there if I really needed them, except for this one time.
I chose the job that seemed to offer the most money for a one-time deal. I thought that they would shoot it in a hotel but it happened in an apartment, on an old couch. I wasn’t directed so much as given a series of props to make my way through, like an obstacle course. A turquoise Teddy bear, a pillow, an empty beer bottle, a metal bowl. Not everything was clear to me (the bowl), but I was too nervous to speak; I just laughed again and again to demonstrate consent. My biggest fear was that one of these men, the man with the lights or the cameraman, would misinterpret my nervousness and halt everything, shutting down the set on the ground that I was being objectified against my will. At that age, I assumed that everyone, deep down, was a feminist. So one had to be careful not to trigger feminism where one didn’t want it.
I was waiting for a costume, something black and sexy or pink and trashy that would help catapult me out of myself. Instead, a man with a baseball cap, who was maybe the director, just said, “O.K., we’re rolling.” I was in shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals. I looked down at my shirt. It was from a sushi restaurant in my home town, but if you just glanced at it you might think it was racist, because of the fake Asian lettering. I imagined thousands of viewers waiting for this racist girl to get herself off. I quickly undressed and made a scissors gesture to the camera to indicate that this first part, the part with the racist shirt, should be cut. No one acknowledged this suggestion, so I rubbed against the Teddy bear, and rode the big pillow. I held the bowl, uncertain, and then set it aside. I put the beer bottle into my vagina. With all this moving around, it was impossible to become even slightly turned on—back then I had to shut my eyes and make my body completely stiff to generate any feeling. But no one said anything until after I had heaved my last fake orgasmic sigh.
“O.K., we got that,” a woman with a clipboard said. The man in the baseball cap gave me a firm nod, like a satisfied coach. I understood then that the five-hundred-and-fifty-dollar fee was not the price of my beauty or my sex appeal; it was my naïveté that I’d sold. Every person, no matter how plain, has one great erotic performance in her—the one in which she doesn’t know what she’s doing and is desperately trying to save her life. A second performance would be a copy of the first, which would require skills I didn’t have.
My face wasn’t anywhere you could see it unless you entered a credit-card number and clicked past dozens of professionals—“college beauties,” “hot Korean girl,” and so on. But a few people made it through the gauntlet. The first time I was recognized was at a healthy-Mexican restaurant; a pale man in gym clothes stared at me for a long time before making a scissors gesture in the air. It was electrifying, as if all my clothes had fallen off at once. I looked away but there was no denying our intimacy; he’d come while watching me. The next one was a father with his family; he scissored his fingers down low, surreptitiously. The last was a butch lesbian teen-ager; she just walked right up to me and asked. Each time, I’d hurry home and enter my credit-card number, clicking quickly past the college beauties and the hot Korean girl. Though I’d felt nothing at the time, seeing myself through these people’s eyes was profound and overwhelming. I’d cry out with abandon; my body would shake and shiver as I came. Then I’d sleep, immediately, for at least two hours.
The video shoot became the central sexual experience of my life; to this day, I can’t orgasm unless I imagine that I’m the pale man, the dad, or the young lesbian watching it, sometimes all of them together, crowded around one computer screen. I’m them, I’m me, I’m them, I’m me, I come. I showed it to each boyfriend I had after that, to blow their minds but also to explain my sexual orientation; I was oriented around myself in that video and anyone who’d seen it. There was only one boyfriend I didn’t tell. He was a very classy man, emotionally speaking, and I didn’t want to give him any indication of basket-casery. After I married him, I kept meaning to bring it up, to draw him into the fold of my sexuality, such as it was. But I waited too long; we were so close now. And after the butch lesbian there was a lull, a seventeen-year lull, in which no one recognized me.
I arrived at the Luxury Sheets Kiosk and the brawny man with floppy brown hair idled a few feet away, trying to decide what to do. The scissoring gesture didn’t seem to occur to him. I ran my hand over the sheets while the cashier rang up a tall woman who kept adding one more thing. His eyes met mine, and I gave him a secret little smile. Truth is, I wanted to collapse with relief. Though a lot had happened in the past seventeen years—marriage, a child, my career—it was suddenly clear to me that I’d only been going through the motions, an exhausting simulation. I wasn’t a stone. I was one of life’s biggest fans, the best example of a living thing. The amateur sex video was like a seed I had planted in my youth; it would always sustain me. Not financially but by sending me these messengers when I was most in need. My blood moved around in my body; I felt the purpose of every muscle. I was ready to dance. And just then a beat began, so I rocked my hips and pressed my wrists together, swinging them like a girl in bondage who nonetheless wanted to party. The beat ended abruptly; it was the tall woman’s ringtone.
“Hello?” she answered impatiently; she had enough going on with all these sheets. I couldn’t believe I’d danced to her ringtone. Maybe it was O.K. Who knows? Who can really see themselves? He was approaching. He was nearly beside me, his face open with surprise. I opened myself, too.
“You’re my neighbor,” he said.
“In what sense?” I said, my eyes twinkling.
“Well, in the sense that I live in the house next door to yours.”
“The house on the corner?”
“Yeah, it’s a duplex. We live in the apartment that faces Amador Street.”“Oh. Do you park on Amador?” I was bringing up parking just to hurt myself. I hated this conversation.
“I park on Amador and my wife parks in the garage,” he said.
“Although lately we’ve been trying to ride our scooters more. I’m Joel.”
I thought about bringing up my husband, tit for tat, but I was too tired. The previous few seconds had taken everything out of me. We parted, saying that we would definitely see each other soon, ha-ha.
I drove the long way around the block to avoid Amador Street on my way home. I parked and turned off the car. It was hot but I left my seat belt on, folded my hands in my lap, and took some slow breaths. Before Joel, I had still believed I could be recognized. Now I knew I was too old. How do you mourn that kind of loss? It just pulls your whole life down. My phone rang: Alex.
“Are you home?”
“Yes. I’m in the driveway.”
“Yeah, we heard you drive up. You coming in?”
“In a sec. I need to pour my heart out to someone so I can be empty and unburdened when I come inside.”
I waited for him to say, “You can pour your heart out to me,” but he was quiet and we got off the phone. He never takes the bait. Which is good. It teaches me to be more direct in asking for what I need. Or does it? So far it hadn’t.
We’d been tunnelling toward each other for years. It was hard work, but the assumption was that eventually our two tunnels would connect. We’d break through—Hallelujah! Clay-encrusted hands finally seizing each other!—and we would be together, really together, for the remaining time that we were alive. So long as we both dug as hard and as fast as we could, everything would work out. But, of course, neither of us knew for sure how the other person’s digging was going. One of us might have been doggedly tunnelling toward the other person, while the other person was curling away in another direction. That person might not even have been aware of how off course he or she was. One of us might have tunnelled straight down for a few weeks, in anger, and then tried to get back on track, but now honestly had no idea where to go. We might break through—Hallelujah!—only to find that we were seizing the dirty hands of a stranger. What to do then? Or we might simply get tired, and stop digging, decide that here was good enough. All the while saying things like “We must be getting close!” and “I can’t wait until the day finally comes!” We might never meet up at all; we might die before it happened. Or worse: maybe there had never been any hope of our meeting up, because what was that even a metaphor for? Oneness? A child’s dream of love? I got out of the car and went inside, carrying the new fitted sheet and the tent light.
The next weekend, I was unfortunately not able to go on the camping trip. I stood in the driveway and waved goodbye to Alex and Sam, tearful for no reason. Then I went inside and walked around the house, room by room, looking at all our stuff through the judgmental eyes of a monk or a nun. I did my work, very slowly, over the course of the day. At 8 p.m. I started watching TV and at 2 a.m. I turned out the light. Then the earthquake happened.
I flew out of bed and moved down the hallway like a person on a wobbly rope bridge. I lurched out the back door and along the side of the house to the sidewalk. The shaking stopped. The street lights were off, no moon. Car alarms were beeping in syncopation. A huge branch was draped across my car. Someone was standing on the corner, waving. It was Joel. I had successfully avoided interaction all week. Now I ran to him through the dark.
“I didn’t get my shoes!” I yelled dumbly, as the pavement trembled again.
Joel thought it was safest to stay outside; I thought so, too—less stuff to be trapped under if it fell. He called his wife, who was in Sun Valley, Idaho. I didn’t call Alex, since I was safe and a middle-of-the-night call is always alarming. Joel’s earthquake-survival kit was more elaborate than ours; we spread out high-tech blankets and pillows on the lawn on his side of the duplex and lay down, waiting for dawn.
Once the car alarms had been silenced, the night was strangely quiet. The freeways were almost empty. Without the lights or the hum of cars, the sky took its place as the foremost thing. Joel and I stared up at it—an enormous gray arena we could fly around in just by lying there.
“Looking at the sky should be a ride at Disneyland,” Joel said.
This was such an accurate way to describe it. I thought about the accuracy for two or three minutes and then said, “Yeah.” We squinted at our houses in the dark and saw that they were leaning; they had shifted. I thought we’d probably move, rather than repair ours; Joel’s was a rental, so he said they’d move for sure. Maybe to Ireland. I said we’d probably move to Ireland, too. The chances seemed high that we would be neighbors again, in Ireland. We scooted toward each other, for warmth, and when I turned on my side Joel spooned me, very innocently. All bodies were good, I realized. Joel’s stocky form beside me was unfamiliar, but good. Hugging. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Hugging was so moving, so basic. Why had I ever taken pride in not being a “hugger”? Two people embracing was the very building block of life.
“Hugging is the building block of life,” I whispered. Joel was quiet and this was exactly right; more words would just take away. I pressed my hand against the lawn, palming the whole earth like a gigantic basketball. Warm tears ran into the hair at my temple, one after another after another. Hello, stranger, I thought. And by “stranger” I meant not Joel but myself. My blood moved around in my body. I felt the purpose of every muscle. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t seen the video.
When I awoke, it was light out and I was lying with the next-door neighbor on his lawn. I could tell right away that our houses were fine. It took only fifteen minutes to straighten up the books and the dishes that had fallen. The earthquake had been big, but no one was saying that it was “the big one.” When Alex and Sam got home, I told a story about hiding under the dining-room table. Our earthquake, the one that Joel and I had survived, was private. I friended him on Facebook the next day and we started e-mailing. Mostly we wrote about details from that night—the silence, the sky, how time had seemed to stretch out. I didn’t have any specific or adulterous plans; I was just wholly open. I saw us going on a road trip. Or maybe taking ayahuasca and throwing up in buckets. His penis was moving in and out of me most of the time. Sometimes I made it very small, like a finger, so that it wouldn’t distract me too much as I worked or emptied the dishwasher. Just a little thrusting tick-tock that drowned out the real sound of time: 7 a.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., the most brutal of time’s representatives, but hardly the whole battalion.
I was waiting for Joel’s response to my last e-mail when Alex and I stumbled on him, almost literally. We were coming home from a date night; Joel and his wife were lying on their lawn, staring up at the evening sky. They’d brought out the same pillows and blankets, and a bottle of wine. It was adorable in a way that people like us find cloying, so Alex raised his eyebrows at me before calling out to them.
“Sorry! We usually park farther up but the trash cans are out.”
“No, no,” Joel said, rising to his feet. “We’re good.” He swept his hand toward their reënactment. “It’s a lot more fun without all the shaking!” His wife raised her glass toward me and smiled; she knew the whole story. Alex nodded, cocking his head curiously in my direction. I stared at the familiar blue geometric pattern of the pillowcases. Joel had taken the exquisite energy of our experience and plowed it back into his marriage. How wise. This option had never occurred to me. I had always detonated each thing in the very place where I found it.
Even after I acknowledged that I hadn’t hidden under the dining-room table as I said I had, Alex was still confused. We’d been reading in bed for less than thirty seconds when he started up with the questions again.
“It’s just so unlike you. You hate camping.”
“I know. It was an extreme situation.”
“And you’ve never once said hi to the neighbors.”
“And I still don’t want to! Joel is a completely uninteresting person.” This was now true again.
I turned out my light. He left his light on and lay next to me, waiting. Leaving a space for my confession. I had done nothing. Nothing! My heart pounded nonetheless, the dumb beast. Just as I started to roll over, Alex turned to me and used his big hands to pull all my hair back, stretching my face into surprise. He held me like this, studying my posture of alarm, then let go abruptly and fell onto his back in frustration. We embarked on a silence. It grew and grew until it was a sort of god that we could only submit to. After fifteen or twenty minutes I almost giggled—somebody say something!—and then I realized with horror that he was probably asleep. This wasn’t our silence; it was mine alone. I lay paralyzed as it hollowed and darkened, expanding in every direction with a familiar cruelty. Hello, stranger. Once, many years ago, Alex had saved me from this black hole with the kind of understanding that makes everything else in life possible. Even ingratitude.
He shifted under the covers and I held my breath. If he was awake, I would try. If he was asleep, I would sleep, too, and probably forget to try, or forget that it mattered, or what I meant by try. Try to be brave.
“Are you awake?” I whispered.
I sat up and told the story of the video, starting with my quasi-abusive boyfriend and ending with meeting the neighbor twice. Alex was mostly quiet, only asking a few questions (“What was the bowl for?”). I left out the hugging and the e-mailing and the tick-tocking tiny penis, but, still, when I was finished he silently walked out of the room. I took a breath and held it. I had made a terrible mistake. Why had I done this? My mind stopped, poised to shatter.
Then he came back, holding his computer. He solemnly opened it in front of me, like a violin case before a maestro. I typed in the URL. The Web site looked a little different, but the major landmarks were still there.
“You need a credit card to get to it.”
He left and came back with his wallet. He typed in his credit-card number and I clicked around. I wasn’t sure where to go because the college beauties and the hot Korean girl were gone. It was all new girls. They looked extremely young. I scrolled in a daze. Brunette. Underage. Small tits. I stopped clicking.
“When was the last time you saw it?” Alex said quietly.
“I don’t know. I have it pretty memorized so I don’t need to. . . . Not since we’ve been together.”
“Oh. I think they update . . . you know, just . . . for the viewers.”
It seemed obvious now that they wouldn’t still have a video from the nineties.
“Yeah, of course. I just thought maybe they had a section for . . . alumni or . . . I don’t know.”
I shut the computer. It was too bad. Really too bad. How bad? The consequences would be enormous, I felt.
Alex was in the kitchen now, opening cupboards.
He came back with a Teddy bear, an empty beer bottle, and a bowl. He picked up his pillow and pulled the comforter aside, arranging everything along the foot of the stripped bed.
“I can’t re-create it, if that’s what you’re thinking. It was true amateur porn, not fake.”
“I understand—the real deal.”
“The people who saw it . . . they were really overcome by it. It was their top video to watch, porn-wise.”
As we talked, Alex seemed to be riding the pillow slightly, maybe unconsciously.
“You’re talking about the pale man—”
“The pale man, the dad, and the butch girl. Yes.”
Now he was rubbing the Teddy bear against his crotch. He slid off his boxer shorts. Well. Well, now. I sat back. He was very much an amateur. He didn’t know what he was doing and he was desperately trying to save his life. I’d never seen him move his hips like that. It was funny, or no, actually not funny, just disorienting, slightly grotesque. He picked up the beer bottle, and, after a moment of honest hesitation, sucked its mouth and then—I reached under my nightgown—began slowly working it into himself. I had never wanted to see this, but I came immediately, and hard. He brought himself to the end of the show, manually. I held my breath, waiting for him to come on the new sheet. I’d have to wash it again. Who cares? I do. Just a little. Just enough to ruin each day. And then, with a swift and professional gesture, he grabbed the bowl and came into it. That was what the bowl was for.
Miranda July is a filmmaker, artist, and writer. Her most recent book is The First Bad Man, a novel. July’s collection of stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and has been published in twenty-three countries. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New Yorker; It Chooses You was her first book of non-fiction. She wrote, directed and starred in The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know — winner of the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. July’s participatory art works include the website Learning to Love You More (with artist Harrell Fletcher), Eleven Heavy Things (a sculpture garden created for the 2009 Venice Biennale), New Society (a performance), and Somebody (a messaging app created with Miu Miu.) Most recently she made an interfaith charity shop in Selfridges department store in London, presented by Artangel. She is currently working on a new feature film. Raised in Berkeley, California, July lives in Los Angeles.