Skin for Skin

by Jon Papernick

Her parents were four hours up the Interstate celebrating her baby cousin's bris in Albany and the new boy from English class, who quoted Nietzsche to the impertinent Miss Meade, sat shirtless on the orange rec room couch. Breath laced with cooking sherry and Marlboros, he was irresistible. His pale, concave chest scored with angry red pimples spoke of punk rock and wild abandon; his lithe body, a knife ready to spring. They made out in the darkness, side one of Astral Weeks spinning on the turntable. He pressed closer and touched her cheek tenderly, the throbbing vein in her neck, the gently curved clavicle she broke in a fall from her first bicycle. He wasn't a spastic mauler like the rest of the mediocrities at her high school, not a clueless virgin impersonating the porn stars they watched on their parents' VCRs.

She whispered his name, halting his progression.

"You want to do it?" his voice entirely changed.

He took his time flipping the hair from his eyes in a gesture meant to seem casual, and removed his wallet from his jeans' pocket lightly fingering the raised circular impression to assure her that he had come prepared.

She felt the cool bite of his necklace against his skin, the pendant swung around back as her fingers blindly explored his body, and she imagined a tiny motorcycle or pistol, something fearless strung at the end of his chain. And now, as he reset its proper position dangling at his solar plexus, she realized that the constriction in her throat was entirely involuntary, and that the delirious moments before it had appeared marked the end of a lifelong dream. Even in the basement's gloom she could see it clearly, iridescent, glowing dangerously between them, like something aflame.

"Take it off," she said reaching for the gold crucifix at his neck. It was heavy and the miniature corpse reproduced in minute detail weighed something like two thousand years in her trembling hands.

"Why? Are you Jewish?"

"My parents are."

"That's cool." He laughed and dipped in for another kiss, but she wasn't having it.

She told him to take it off or forget the whole thing. He hesitated, not sure she was serious, then fumbled with it before lifting the crucifix over his head with great difficulty, as if he were bearing the True Cross on his narrow shoulders, then tossed it across the floor.

"Now what are you going to take off?"

"I'm done," she said.

"What's your problem?" he said, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

He told her he had come all this way by bus and she owed him something. She knew what happened to girls who went back on the unspoken contract that was made when she invited a boy over with her parents out of town. She had always thought a cocktease was worse than a whore, and now she faced the sickening prospect that everyone in her school would know what she was.

She had been with non-Jewish boys before, one or two had even worn simple crosses, but nobody so bold as to parade a gory crucifix before her eyes.

She had naturally turned away from being part of an unlucky, persecuted tribe. The way she saw it, there was no gain in membership, only grief. "I'm not Jewish," she had told her parents hundreds of times. "I'm a secular humanist and I believe in self-determination." She thought ritual circumcision was barbaric. But now, as he slid his hand around her waist, she wished that she was with her parents and aunts and uncles celebrating her baby cousin's covenant with God and the Jewish people made on the eighth day after his birth. That was where she belonged, not here in a darkened basement with a nasty, crude boy determined to have his way.

He stood naked before her, wearing only a pair of white gym socks that smelled like they hadn't been washed in a very long time. "Your turn," he said.

And now in the dim light she saw it clearly against his livid thigh and it shocked her more than the appearance of the crucifix, like the emergence of a sea monster in a bathtub.

"No. I can't." She had never seen anything like it before, but had heard somewhere that uncircumcised men were likely to give their partners greater pleasure. She could not believe that.

He didn't seem fazed by her reaction at all, as if no were simply a prelude.

"Come on. It's getting late." And then, "I can ruin you."

She thought of all the combinations of what might happen if he shot his mouth off around school and she determined that she would be better off doing it with him to avoid a public shaming.

There was just one small thing.

"I'll be right back," she said, climbing off the couch and heading for the stairs.

She returned a few minutes later with a sharp Japanese paring knife that her mother used for salads in the summer, a bag of cotton balls and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. "Okay, I'll do it" she said, "But first you have to let me fix something."

Jon Papernick is the author of the short story collection The Ascent of Eli Israel and a novel entitled Who by Fire, Who by Blood. My second short story collection There is No Other will be published in 2010. I teach fiction writing at Emerson College and live outside Boston with my wife and two sons. Visit