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The Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Edited by Andrei Codrescu
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the corpse reads classics letters the book of revelations and epiphanies
the making and unmaking of person
The Making and Unmaking of Person

by Robert Tocalino

My erection had become a problem.
      This was a first. With the exception of the expected school-year embarrassments, the arched eyebrows that asked “Would you please stand up and recite the poem on page 247, Mr. Fohling" while I sat wondering whether I indeed could clear the metal belly of my desk without limiting my procreational options, I had never had a problem controlling my engorgement patterns. Life below my belt was predictable. It made sense. It, alone among the vagaries of romance, was under control:
      • Undressed by candlelight with my girlfriend Paloma: erect.
      • Lecturing on “La Gioconda" to a room of hung-over University students at 10:45 a.m.: flaccid.
      • The morning after many--too many--glasses of a ridiculously good ’97 Sangiovese made me too drunk to relieve myself before collapsing into bed: astir.
      • In line at the Piggly Wiggly with glossy, brimming cleavage drawing my eyes down: dead limp, hung right.
      Our relationship, my member and I, was a good one.
      Which made the sudden manifestation of my problem that much more disconcerting. Relaxed in the glow of the in-flight entertainment, midway on a direct flight from La Guardia to Milan, I stretched my legs only to notice an uncomfortable tightening near my groin. I leaned forward from my headrest and looked around. The man next to me slept soundly, curled under a fleece blanket. I switched from the movie to find the southern tip of Greenland, a fat, crooked green finger, on the seatback LCD map. Sure that no eyes were prying, I slid my hand cautiously beneath the blanket. There was my member, which just hours before had been pleasuring--I hope--my dear girlfriend Paloma, alert and insistent against my flat front corduroys. I jerked my hand away lest anyone think I found the Julia Roberts film so enjoyable that I couldn’t restrain my impulses. Above all, a man must have taste.
      The cabin lights were dim. I slinked from my seat, grateful I’d chosen the aisle, and walked in my complimentary padded socks to the bathroom. My first inkling was that I just needed to relieve myself; Paloma had forced me to drink two large bottles of Evian before I left so as not to get dehydrated on the flight. She was always thoughtful in that practical way that made thoughtfulness feel like so many parts of a plan whose outcome only she could determine.
      I had approached the morning of my departure from New York with a heightened, almost idealized, sense of serenity. I lingered over the paper, a last bowl of home-cooked steel cut oatmeal, making sure I wouldn’t forget the simple pleasures of home. I made love to Paloma like it proved my worth, like every slow, aching thrust was an advance on every day we’d be apart. If she was passive, complacent even, I wasn’t overly concerned. She never found sex appealing before noon. But despite her attentive care that morning, in my slow post-coital reassembling of myself I was too focused on my impending departure, on the assortment of travel-size toiletries and potions she’d bought for me, to notice that Paloma was hurrying me on my way. She forced the large bottles of Evian into the crook of my elbow, tucked the ticket into my jacket pocket, arranging me all the while like a muddy clump of dandelions. My garment bag slumped by the door. I had to hurry and repack my electric toothbrush as she sounded the car horn downstairs.
      So, though I didn’t feel the tingling urge to relieve myself, my discomfort made me willing to try. In my haste, I nearly rammed into the flight attendant in the tight galley. She was preparing coffee and I turned the corner quickly, hoping to slide into the bathroom with no interference. As I reached for the door she sprung an ingratiating airline smile on me.
      “It’s occupied right now, sir." A feathery wink.
      I nodded, and returned her vapid half-grin. I turned away towards the aisle to mask my problem. She, however, obviously new to her job and earnestly wanting to go that extra step towards kindness, couldn’t let me alone.
      “Are you enjoying your flight, sir?" she asked.
      “Yes. Yes. Very much. Thank you." She continued to smile, as if I hadn’t said enough. “It’s a very nice plane," I added.
      “Is there anything I can get you? While you’re waiting?" She blushed slightly at the muted reference to the bathroom.
      “No, just waiting. Don’t need to drink anything and add to the problem, right?" I could feel my face struggle to give off a positive smile, and fall into a distracted smirk as I eyed the bathroom door.
      She giggled softly. With a clank the door to the bathroom accordioned to reveal a portly woman, well dressed but with a bird’s nest of grey hair sitting askew on her head. The smell of a crumbling sachet of potpourri flooded the galley. I always try to avoid seeing who occupies a lavatory before me. Bad enough to guess at whose heavy haunches have hovered above the cylinder than to have to meet them face-to-face and understand too much of their olfactory make-up. The woman nodded, gravely, like an undertaker emerging from the embalming room, and squeezed between the stewardess and me. My back was turned, thankfully, but at the tightest juncture I was mashed into the galley wall in excruciating torture for the better, breathless part of a second, the underwire of the old woman’s brassiere and its heavy cargo pressed into my spine. I slid into the bathroom off the wall, gasping for breath.
      Zipper open I waited. The hollow toilet sucked greedily, waiting. Nothing happened. Nothing changed.
      I was forced to stand, braced against the medicinal wall, and stare at myself in wonder. Don’t misunderstand. This wasn’t narcissism. If Paloma’s first reaction was any indication, I gather things are rather common where size is concerned. What baffled me was the simple persistence of my turgid state. Nothing was turning me on. My bladder was content. Even as I extended the scope of my personal inquiry to the fantastic, I could offer no solution. There was no recent immersion in tantric therapy that had just now begun to take effect. We weren’t close enough to the North Pole to even consider some strange magnetic phenomenon. I was simply host to a raging, adolescent hard on.
      Maybe my focused attention triggered some remnants of shame from my Catholic school days because after a minute or two the blood rush subsided and things returned to normal. I erred on the side of caution and spent a few more minutes in front of the mirror, in half-mast repose. The wane seemed permanent.
      And indeed it was, for the remainder of the flight anyway. I was relieved and glad to attribute the whole incident to some vagary of high-altitude circulation that I didn’t care to understand. Back at my seat, I shut my eyes to Julia Roberts, and slept the rest of the flight without any problems. I awoke to a field of rose-tinted clouds above Milan, and the smiling newbie stewardess handing me a weak, bitter cup of coffee.

*  *  *

The brochure from the Italian Cultural Society promised “a Renaissance week of fine dining, luxury accommodations, shopping for gold along the fabled Ponte Vecchio and in-depth tours of the museums, gardens and architecture of bella Firenze." Once in Tuscany I found the ladies much preferred to argue over the merits of their last bowl of ribollita than to show any real interest in Da Vinci’s revolutions of perspective or Michelangelo’s chiseling techniques. I was there to put a PhD on the brochure, to help them return home to their prosaic, suburban lives feeling enlightened.
      They loved me for it of course. Aglow from a breakfast of cream filled pastries and cappuccino they would stampede into the marble lobby with heavy heeled steps and expressions of sensual contentment on their faces. I didn’t burden them with too much information; I was instructed early on that bare bones worked best. Point out famous names--providing spelling for the few whose guilt in pleasure was such that they were compelled to take notes--and cover some general easy-to-grasp symbolic themes to reassure the group that I was indeed as learned as they expected me to be.
      My unpredictable situation persisted in Florence. I didn’t count the first few days--I was too disconcerted by the stiff presence to pay minute attention to frequency--but on the third day I registered fifteen distinct engorgements. I tried to describe the horrible morning tour for Paloma on our--her--answering machine: “So I’m standing in front of the Birth of Venus with my loosest pants, you know those Bill’s Khaki’s you got me for my last birthday, well I had them shoved dangerously low on my waist like some zoot-suited gangster and still I could have used it as a pointer. 'See here how Botticelli uses the figures of the winds . . .’ It was ridiculous, Pal. Here’s this nice group of ladies expecting A Room with a View and all I was prepared to give them was a bad variation on Portnoy’s Complaint." The machine cut me off. Probably out of memory.
      At lunch I returned to my room and attempted to tape it down. An extreme prescription, yes, but my annoyance had peaked, matched only by the few occasions I’d submitted to the birthday parties of other faculty members, where cake-handed kids always seemed to favor my attention. My experiment only served to relieve me of a wide swath of hair and chafe my skin. I resolved to buy a pair of briefs when the stores reopened after the midday siesta; boxers allow too much room for expansion. During the break I’m ashamed to admit I also attempted masturbation. Understand, it was only in the pursuit of atrophy, but a vision of Julia Roberts forced itself into my head against my wishes, her toothy grin and auburn hair intruding on afavorite fantasy of mine that involved;well, no need to revisit that dishonorable event in detail. Suffice it to say, regardless of what I tried, there was negligible change.
      Needless to say the ladies noticed. I made every effort to downplay my state, turning away to face the works of art as if they required my careful attention; picking the lower parts of some statues so I could squat thereby bringing my erection even with my thigh. I thought through these strategies as I tried to retain some semblance of professionalism. But I heard the deep smoker’s giggles; I saw the eyes behind blue-tinted glasses following my crotch instead of my hands or eyes. This was a group of long-betrothed women that had witnessed firsthand the fall towards flaccidity in the sundry members that they called their own. Even with the advent of Viagra I imagine the sight of a young associate professor with a raging erection in his pants was, well, at least interesting to some of them. We were spending our days looking at marble genitals, and all the women had bought the ridiculous postcards of David’s package overprinted with a smiling face that said “Ciao". I was just another spectacle on their stunted grand tour.

*  *  *

After escorting the women to their luncheon--I left them in the capable, manicured hands of an unshaven Roman hunk who had them tittering with excitement in the arched restaurant doorway--I took a walk down the Via Della Spada. The narrow street was always ensconced in damp shadows, even on a brilliant spring day like that one. I was pleased to find my favorite rosticceria still open. The pungent scent of rosemary and oil settled on the doorstep, a better advertisement than any menu hawker, and I squeezed up to the crowded counter, mindful not to offend anyone’s sensibilities with my prodding third leg. The glass case was filled, as always, with a glistening assortment of prepared vegetables. I lingered, embarrassed to mark myself as a tourist, but with only a few opportunities to sample their delicious food, I wanted to ensure I took the right thing with glistening wood-fired chicken that spun slowly on the rotisserie at the back of the room.
      “The spinach looks delectable today." A soft English accent floated above the crowd. “And of course, the potatoes are always a good complement."
      The man’s bald pate, pink and wrinkled like the chicken on the spit, tilted back to reveal a pair of goggling, Peter Lorre eyes. His collection of chins rippled above his ascot as he gave a tentative smile.
      “Right," I said. “Thanks for the recommendation."
      “I knew you were a Yank," he said. “Something in the eyes, I imagine."
      His attention distracted me from the server. She held her notepad in impatient anticipation. I returned his smile with a curt nod and ordered, deliberately avoiding the spinach, but settling on the potatoes, roasted golden brown and flecked with rosemary. The Brit waited outside, an ingratiating look on his face as he eyed my plastic sack of food. He cradled a bottle of wine in his left arm.
      “Taking lunch alone as well? I can’t possibly drink this whole bottle and it’s a shame to waste such a lovely day," he said. “If we can find a bench free of pigeons in the piazza, would you care to join me?"
      My inclination was to refuse. I didn’t like blind persistence or enforced friendship, especially among travelers. They were too lonely, too greedy for connection, too awed and frustrated by the simple fact that life was different elsewhere. After days of leading my gaggle of women through the streets, hands raised, a transparent target for the Florentines’ elegant scorn, I longed for a moment of anonymity. But the man seemed educated and harmless enough. And it was a superb Chianti. I signaled for him to lead the way.
      In the evening, with its Irish pub bellowing with crowds of foreign students, Santa Maria Novella was a place to be avoided. But in daylight, the clean contours of the church and the ruddy elegance of its surrounding piazza seemed a magnificent pool of sunlight. Groups of Somali refugees gathered at the phone booths around the news kiosk. Occasionally one would emerge from a booth and shout something to the group, to be met by propulsive chatter and nodding heads. Mostly they sat and stared at a passing world that had no time for them.
      We picnicked over conversation about Giotto and Ghirlandaio, the Spanish Chapel and the sixteenth century horse races held in the square, the turning posts marked by the tall marble obelisks held up by bronze turtles. He had no glasses, so we drank from the bottle. I took care to wipe the rim clean each time. I was glad I’d overcome my prejudices and agreed to join him. My mood lightened. I was so enveloped by my spelt soup, half-chicken and conversation that it wasn’t until I wrapped up the butcher paper that I noticed my erection was gone.
      This is a faulty memory of course, informed as much by how I’d like to remember the day as how events truly occurred. Having had time to think it over, it is more accurate to say that, for the first time on the trip, I had no awareness of my problem. I can’t say with any certainty, then, that it had vanished. But I didn’t feel it pressing on me, forcing me to consider my movements and posture, which, when considered in relation to the rest of my time in Florence, was just as great a relief. Those few moments that afternoon are wrapped tightly in a blissful gauze, a fragile moment of freedom as light as the spring air.
      The man’s face grew redder, an effect of the young, tannic wine and the heavy sun. His lips glistened with oil and flecks of pepper. He didn’t bother to wipe them. He leaned over, leering drunk, and tried to pat my leg as he told a joke. It happened quickly, too quickly, and as he giggled, like a Japanese schoolgirl I stood back and slapped his hand away. His face crumpled in on itself, a confused Shar Pei, and I took my trash with me and hurried away his uncertain expression. The harsh intimacy of the situation gave me chills that persisted on my brisk walk back into the city center. My mind raced in dizzy pace with my steps. I don’t know if he was coming on to me or just being friendly and drunk. I couldn’t tell if I was more shocked by his attention or by my innocent acceptance of it. My erection, or at least my awareness of it, returned and as I walked through the crowded post-lunch streets I felt the whole city glaring at my state, pointing me out from among the thousands of tourists with a declamatory index finger. “Ecco Il Uomo! The man with the rabid crotch. Pinocchio of Pricks."
      As I approached the restaurant, the ladies were posed in a group with the rugged Roman. It took some cajoling to tear them away and a promise of more delights to come. Soon, to the impatient piper’s call, they followed behind.

*  *  *

That afternoon we walked past the Palazzo Vecchio. We stopped at Rivoire where I stood by the bar in awe as the women licked and lapped their way through cups of hot chocolate, more rabid than drunken sailors on a shore side bender. We pondered the Gates of Heaven. I, for one, relished the majestic, echoing silence of the Duomo. The tour had run long and I could tell the ladies’ patience with Brunelleschi’s dome was being tested mightily against their desire for supper. I was tired too, lethargic from the wine and my fast retreat. A headache pushed at my temples. But a trip to Florence was never complete for me without viewing the city from the top of the Campanile. I felt recovered enough to think the air might do me good.
      At first sight of the stairs, half my group feigned to swoon from hunger and exhaustion. They chose to have their portraits drawn by a charming huckster on the south side of the Duomo who called out to them in broken English, “Please, signorine. Beautiful picture for beautiful ladies." For the five women who braved the climb, divorcees mostly, I pointed out the elegance of Giotto’s design, the jeweled index finger pointing skyward, girded with three different shades of marble, green, white and the distinctive pinkish-red. But my lecture was rote and uninspired. I felt the flatness of my voice as I pointed out across the hills, locating landmarks and historical buildings for my wheezing audience. I showed the women the general direction of our hotel to make them feel acclimated. The air was crystalline and provided a breathless panorama of the city, an unsurpassed view. But I found myself helpless to engage them in the sense of place I felt so deeply. The ladies just continued to stare at my crotch, jabbing each other in the ribs each time I turned to face them. It may have been a delusion, but I thought I noticed old ascot fluttering behind them, his salmon face bright among their gray hair.
      Whether it was my frustration with the erection or my embarrassment in the face of their stares, or just exhaustion, I had had enough. I was sick of being in a city that I adored with a group of women who felt justified in ignoring the magnificence of Florentine culture to focus their appetites more squarely on Tuscan fagioli and my prick. Paloma had yet to call me back. And now I was being tailed by a persistent Anglo-queer as well. They were all shameless, devoid of culture and I hated each one of them.
      But my scorn vanished quickly under their jarring stares. At first, I thought it was just embarrassment, a latent twinge of self-consciousness. Unlikely, but not impossible, considering my predicament. But as I looked harder at their uncaring, prurient faces, molded into agelessness by plastic surgeons with questionable aesthetic sensibilities, I felt Paloma peering with them.
      It wasn’t until this moment, staring at the faces of women and men that only cared for me as a curious spectacle that I came to some comprehension of the hard truth that Paloma’s face revealed upon my departure. She had suffered through our morning conjugation because it was the last time she’d have to do so. Her apparent attention to every detail of my departure was borne, I suspect, with the understanding that the sooner she was rid of every trace of me the sooner she could get back to her life. Her life. Without me. My name wasn’t on the outgoing message any longer. And as I stood at the airport, one arm weighted by my shoulder-slung bag, the other high in a wave, and watched her pull away, I didn’t understand any of this. I thought we were still in love. She had packed me with my suitcase.
      I reached for my belt there atop the Campanile and in seconds had exposed the full of my erect member to the prurient group. One scattered down the stairs, another fainted and the remaining three screamed and intensified their stares. I felt a surge of relief. I made no attempt to pull up my pants, to cover myself. I continued to undress, throwing my shirt over the battlements atop the tower. It fluttered upward, held aloft for a moment by an updraft, before flapping out of sight. Fully nude, I felt the cool breeze caress my skin, tickle my penis and flutter the millions of hairs on my body. The sun warmed me, as if it were baking my posture into a state of marbleized permanence. I stood free on top of Florence feeling like a lost masterpiece, a creation in real flesh that sculptors aspired to bring from the rough fruit of Cararra’s quarry. My head was clean of everything except how present I felt, nude above a city that exalted the male form more than any other.
      The Carabinieri dragged me down the stairs, still erect, an object of frozen inspiration and awe. The handcuffs added an unexpected poignancy to my pose. I hope one of the ladies took a snapshot.




home archives submit black market comrads hot sites search ec chair peotick kultur anti-amthropomorphism
new economics of late capitalism gallery zounds the making and unmaking of person
diaries and memoirs translation and her retinue
the book of revelations and epiphanies working class sweat
the making and unmaking of person the corpse reads classics letters

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