an extract from Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girlby Andrea Lawlor
out this November from Rescue Press
Like a shark, Paul had to keep moving. He slept only when necessary. He had business with the world, codes to crack, so many questions. Tonight, for example, Paul needed to know what fucking was like for girls.
Snow piled up outside the house on North Gilbert Street, piled up on the porch, covering everyone’s bicycles. The insolent fake spring of the last week was missing, presumed dead; little pink buds glittered in their ice caskets.
Paul paced the second-floor apartment in various states of unsatisfying undress. He supposed his roommate Christopher might, against all odds, have one nice article of clothing squirreled away. But there was Christopher, clad in a collarless linen shirt, meditating sanctimoniously on his bed. Silence equals death, thought Paul, as he repaired to his own room to dress.
Paul cast about for ways to look more bad. He did have those black vinyl pants (stolen from Trash & Vaudeville, back in New York) but he’d worn them out and about here five times already, enough to wear off the charge. He wanted to telegraph the word fetish far and wide, from Coralville to Cedar Rapids all the way to the Quad Cities; he’d spent the afternoon searching the Mennonite thrift shop for uniforms or glitter-stitched girls’ shirts. He liked to elicit swears from the frat boys. He enjoyed his various reputations (freak, party boy, bisexual, New Yorker) and liked to keep them fresh, but his badness was incidental, really.
He’d seen a flyer at Gabe’s Oasis announcing bands on Tuesday night. A local girl band was opening, then a dyke band from Seattle. But who would go with him to see a dyke punk band they didn’t know on a Tuesday night in the middle of the Iowa winter? Christopher just laughed. Paul began calling around to his so-called friends.
Paul required a partner for his mission, a girl who admired and offset him, who bolstered his girlishness. Even rock chicks went to bars in pairs. He tapped Jane’s number into the kitchen phone.
“Come on,” he said. “It’ll be fun. They’re from Seattle.” He drew the word out exotically.
“I don’t think so,” said Jane, who was studying for her comps. “I have to read this book on the Gaze.”
“This will be exactly like studying,” said Paul.
“I’m actually busy, Paul,” Jane said.
“Please,” he said. “I need you.”
“I can’t,” she said.
“Your loss,” Paul said. He preferred to go alone.
He rooted around in his blue footlocker and found the vinyl pants.
“Christopher,” he called out. “You really should come. Everyone’s going.”
Christopher called back something about a “working group.”
He appeared in Paul’s doorway. “Remember? The emergency meeting?”
“Just come after,” Paul said.
“Perhaps you want to borrow this?” Christopher leaned into the room with a sparkly pink tank top dangling off his ostentatiously limp wrist. When he spoke his beard moved, mesmerizing Paul. “I wore it at Short Mountain to great effect.”
“Ooh yeah,” said Paul. “Gimme.”
“Greedy.” Christopher dropped the shirt at Paul’s feet. “I want it back.”
Paul bent to fetch. For a second, he wished he too had a beard, to offset the sequins. He loved that look. But he’d never grown a beard, wasn’t even sure he could. Plus that wasn’t the story he was telling tonight.
“Thank you,” he said, with the cool dignity of an ambassador’s daughter borrowing cab fare. He took the sparkly shirt into his room, and popped Horses into his tape player. He shut the door between his bedroom and the kitchen so Christopher wouldn’t see him change.
First he needed good underwear. He decided to break out the unopened European-style briefs his old sociology professor had inappropriately brought him back from Spain last summer. They looked enough like girls’ underwear and wouldn’t disrupt the line. He dropped his swishy loose army pants and his shoplifted French-cut boxers, and stared at his penis until it shrank, tucked itself into the tight little crawl- space of his former balls. He stepped into the black briefs and admired his smooth front with his hands and eyes, then found the red lace bra he’d borrowed from that girl in New York. His skin shivered all over, belly and back and thighs. He stared down his skinny chest until it obediently softened, grew, filled out the bra. Not too big. It was like that TV show Manimal where the guy changed into a panther and other animals, a miracle of special effects, only that guy couldn’t control himself. That guy was more like the Hulk. Not Paul. Paul stopped at a 36C. He was going for regular but hot.
He stroked his throat until the bump relented and then he checked his look in the full-length mirror. How could he look so pretty? His black engineer boots and snug Levi’s jacket, big fur-lined Lenny Kravitz coat— every detail was good, was right. Who was he? He was Ginsberg and Streisand and Kim Gordon rolled into one. He was the girl he wanted to fuck. He clumsily applied silvery pale-pink lipstick. He raked black mascara through his lashes. He tugged his shaggy hair past his shoulders, then experimentally flipped this new long hair, but he didn’t have the knack and he hurt his neck slightly but looked good. Now, he thought, as Patti Smith serenaded a girl called Gloria.
“Bye, Christopher,” Paul called out, clattering down the stairs.
“You are a big nasty bulldagger,” said Christopher from the kitchen table, without even turning around. “You are so butch.”
Stupid queen, thought Paul. All who see me tonight will know I am a girl.
He left the house, alone in the blue night of snow and streetlights, air like paper cuts. Paul decided, as always, to go the pretty way. He cut over to Linn Street, which glittered blue and white, fairy snow in the trees. He walked with his hips deliberating: back and forth, back and forth, careful solid booted steps on the ice.
Paul passed by all his landmarks—Tuck’s Place, Cozy House, the expensive sandwich shop, the QuikTrip, Seashore Hall—and then through the causeway by the chemistry building to the yellow lights of the empty downtown. A pack of frat boys spilled out of the Que and crossed the street, headed his way.
“Hey sweetheart, where are you going?” one of them called. “Do you need an escort?”
Paul tossed his head and kept walking, like he’d seen girls do. This was a first. Now they could actually admit they wanted to fuck him.
He turned the corner and stomped down quickly the rest of the lonely side street to Gabe’s.
Inside the warm basement of the bar a row of pinball machines glowed orange light and glass. The jukebox blasted “Black Hole Sun” into the wood paneling. Paul liked to be early for things, to gain the home turf advantage—he liked to watch his ducks from a blind. He took a place against the bar and observed with amusement and pride every dyke who walked up the stairs to the room where they had shows. My sisters, he thought.
When he’d seen enough people come in, he paid his cover and walked up the black painted stairs himself. The black walls were covered in crinkly aging band posters: Sugar, Iowa Beef Experience, 7 Year Bitch, Mike Watt. At the bar in the back of the hall stood five or six dykes with chains on their plaid pants, tattoos on every surface, fucked-up hair. Paul stood by the door, oddly shy to walk in alone, but he saw one familiar face, then another. He made his way to the bar, and the room filled in the time it took to cross it. All of Iowa City punkdom straggled and pushed and posed into the center of the space. Paul bought and drank a beer quickly, just to shake off the awkward- ness. He recognized a few people who did not appear to recognize him. So far so good.
Jane walked in. She’d come after all. He caught her eye and waved her back to the bar where he’d set up headquarters.
“I’m Polly,” he said, rehearsing his coy look.
“Okay, Paul,” she said. “You look amazing, by the way. It’s actually uncanny.” Jane emphasized uncanny in her graduate-school accent.
“Aren’t you glad you came?” Paul said, nodding at the band.
“Oh my god, they’re hot,” said Jane. “There’s so much hotness here I’m parched.”
At the bar a fair young punk emerged from the forest of plaid, caught Paul’s attention by sucking on one of those fake beers, an O’Doul’s. Paul was shocked and oddly turned on. Now that’s tough, that’s really beyond the pale, he thought.
“Can you get me a whiskey?” he muttered to Jane and made his way to the bathroom.
Blisterhood is sourful, he read off the door as he sat to pee with his exciting new vagina. Am I a feminist? he wondered. How could someone so beautiful drink fake beer? Don’t forget to wipe.
He found Jane near the stage, flirting with the androgynous line cook who worked at the Hamburg Inn. Often Paul and Jane met at the ’Burg for the $4.95 dinner special of fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, and biscuit, and to stare at Jane’s crush. Just go for it, he’d think, eating Jane’s drumsticks. Everyone’s attainable. Studying Jane confused him. Fruit was hanging low. And Jane—most people in fact— walked through it like it was nothing.
Paul watched Jane now, from miles above, buffeted by the opening band’s wall of sound. His body stood next to Jane silently. I am a stuffed bear in Jane’s bed, Paul thought. Jane’s mouth moved; the other girl slid closer. What was that like? He felt angry for a moment, then the whiskey spread out. Paul realized he also knew the bass player, from Intro to Film Theory, which explained why he thought he’d just heard them sing the words “Maya Deren.” He enjoyed and was aroused by this proximity to fame. He nodded to the music and danced in place in such a way as to feel his breasts bounce.
Alan from the coffee cart came up and stood nodding next to him. Paul smiled his special smile.
“Hey,” said Alan. “They’re pretty good, huh?”
Paul bit his lip, inclined his head slightly, and looked up through his eyelashes.
“Yeah,” he said, still nodding to the beat.
Alan leaned his rusty stubble face close to Paul, who thought lion cub and I could have you. Alan breathed in, sucking at Paul like a drain emptying.
“I have to get a drink,” Paul said. He walked off abruptly to send Alan a message. He scanned the room for the fake beer drinker. She was close-talking a ponytailed waitress but looked up when Paul passed. Fake beer, he thought. So perverse. He got a new whiskey and returned to the warm pit of bodies.
Then the second band came on and Paul let himself surge with all the other girls to the very front. The fake beer drinker was onstage with a guitar and yellow-green animal eyes, staring right at Paul.
Paul stared back. She was clearly the band’s pin-up, scrubbed clean under the torn tee shirt and jeans, a stoic masculine beauty. Girls in the audience screamed as the band ripped into a cover of “Fox on the Run.”
It’s cold outside, Paul thought. That guitar player better fuck me tonight. He stood quietly amid the screaming girls and watched. Then he screamed too. It was fun to be a fan.
Jane caught his eye, smirked from on top of a table against the far wall. The line cook was climbing up next to her. Things were getting raucous. The whole room sweated in unison, one steamed-up mind thinking this can’t end.
Paul very smoothly removed his lacy bra from under his shirt and moved breasts-first closer to the stage. He stopped to dance in front of Alan as he passed, and felt the lump in Alan’s pants. I did that, he thought.
Just as the last song ended, Paul threw his lacy bra right up onto the stage. The beautiful young butch guitar god leaned into the microphone for the first time all night and said, “I’ll see you after the show.”
Excerpted from Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor publishing in November 2017 from Rescue Press.
Andrea Lawlor lives in Western Massachusetts and teaches writing at Mount Holyoke College. Lawlor is a fiction editor for Fence and the author of a chapbook, Position Papers (Factory Hollow Press, 2016). https://anderlawlor.com/