Two maladroit lovers search for the meaning in childhood games, their parlay capturing the awkward transition from youth to intellectual and emotional adulthood, in this comical excerpt from Xurxo Borrazás’s novel I Is.
That night, in one second, the alarms ring out like crickets in heat, simultaneously. The sheets take on the shape of the bodies beneath them, and on wrists, in towers, on tables and walls, time is told in a single direction. Their bodies lie slack, submerged and conscious in the absence of light chased by the night.
“I don’t know where to start,” he says.
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to impress me or anything.”
“Did you know that holding in our shit is one of the first stages of socialization? That’s what Freud says.”
“You mean learning to ask permission to go to the bathroom? Everyone knows that.”
“And Freud did, too. Now shush and let me tell you my story.”
“Fine. Go ahead.”
“Well, one day, when I was eight, I was in the park playing bólas with another boy.”
“What do you mean bólas? Sorry for interrupting.”
“Bólas, marbles. These days everyone calls them canicas, like in Spain, but we used to call them bólas. The game was called gua, and the goal was to knock out your opponent’s marble while getting yours into a bowl-shaped hole in the ground. But you probably know all that already, and anyways it’s not important to the story. The thing is, I’d already won about a dozen of his marbles when, out of nowhere, I got this massive urge to shit.”
“You know what it’s like, right? When you have such an urgent need to shit that it feels like you’re going to burst, or it’s going to start seeping out your pores. Your brain speeds up or slows down like you’re underwater; you forget how to talk, your syntax gets jumbled, you become hysterical and you can’t find a comfortable posture. And that’s not the worst part.”
“Nope. The worst part is that whoever’s winning can’t just up and quit. The loser has to be the one to fold, like in poker. And—poor little me—I was suddenly faced with a set of dilemmas greater than anything I’d ever confronted.”
The girl strokes his thigh and beams up at him, mesmerized.
“On the one hand, I needed to shit, and satisfying that urge would have been the most sensible thing to do; my body was begging me for it. On the other hand . . . were a huge array of options, all of which could have had catastrophic effects on the self-esteem we struggle for so desperately as kids. So, I could admit that I was about to shit my pants and ask him to postpone the match, risking that he would say no and I would be doubly humiliated, but as I’m sure you understand, I couldn’t allow it—it was too steep a price. I haven’t mentioned that my opponent was a kid I didn’t know well, we weren’t friends, which is an important factor.”
“Or?” she says.
“Or,” he continues, “I could admit nothing and simply give him back his marbles—a blatant act of dismissal that would make me look really cool and, as an added bonus, give me the chance to humiliate him with my magnanimous superiority; but of course, it would also entail giving him back his marbles.”
“So which was it?”
“I haven’t finished explaining all the options yet: I could start letting him win as quickly as possible until we were tied and he’d earned all his marbles back, and then take off running, though the unfortunate side effect of that option was it would make me look like an idiot, not to mention that my suffering sphincter was sure to buckle from the effort of obstructing such a heavy load for so long.”
“‘Come on, let’s go again!’ my distraught rival demanded from among the pansies and geraniums. ‘You must have shoved a lucky charm up your butt this morning!’”
“And that was the flapjack that melted the butter. The tension made me play better, and I decided, unfazed, to win even more of his marbles off him. If I took them all, he’d be forced to surrender, and if I was lucky, I’d still have the whole afternoon ahead of me. And I’m not saying lucky because I didn’t trust my skills. It was the other factor at play—the sphincter factor.”
“Alright, Humble Harry.”
“Look, there’s no point in beating around the bush: right then, thanks to all the marbles clacking around in my bag, the squatting and standing back up again, and the excitement of winning so many times over, I found myself involuntarily taking the most ego-shattering option of them all, which, of course, was the final option.”
“Disgusting!” she says, smiling and slapping his bare ass.
“It took no more than a second: the relief, the bulge in my shorts, and his clean surrender.”
“‘Don’t take the blue one, c’mon,’ he begged. ‘It’s my favorite, I’ve had it for two years. I’ll play you for it again tomorrow.’”
“‘Enough, enough,’ I said. I didn’t really care either way at that point.”
“‘I’ll swap you for three of the other ones, okay?’ he insisted. ‘Four of them!’”
“I said my goodbyes with all the calm I could manage and made my way very daintily home, treading on the sidewalk as lightly as Santa Claus through a house on Christmas. I stored the marbles in a cigar box in my nightstand, dumped the shit in the toilet, and gave myself a rough-shod washing. Then I threw my underwear into the tub and filled it with water, changed clothes, and had my afterschool snack; a new man. When my mother asked me what happened, I told her there hadn’t been any toilet paper at school, and that was that. Whenever I see the kid nowadays, it occurs to me that my victory was likely more resounding in his mind than it was in mine, but at the end of the day . . . he was none the wiser. Anyway, it’s like Saint Augustine said: ‘Inter faeces et urinan nascimur.’”
“Why do you say that?”
“Nothing that exciting ever happened to me as a kid.”
“I mean, I guess the whole horror show did have its glamor, I’ll grant you that—my rival was two or three years older than me and we called him Jimmy Copacabana; but otherwise, I don’t know if I’d exactly call it exciting.”
“Then why’d you tell me the story? I asked you to tell me how you got here.”
“And that’s what I did. That anecdote is . . . defining. I almost want to say decisive, but what I mean is, it’s a perfect metaphor for my life, or at least I haven’t noticed myself behave in any way that might contradict it since. It must sound stupid, I know, but that’s my life story: obsession, obstruction, competition, and Pyrrhic victories, which I guess is like saying I’m my own Achilles’ heel.”
“Wait, so where does Freud come in?”
“Oh, because he was full of shit when he said that holding it in was a part of socialization.”
“And are you happy? I mean, do consider yourself a happy person?”
“Now that really is a question of socialization . . . I think people put up with me just fine. I’m the one that’s a problem.”
“You can’t put up with other people?”
“Of course I can. People are fine; it’s me I can’t put up with.”
“Like Groucho Marx?”
“Because of that thing about the club . . . ? Yeah, more or less.”
“I had a similar experience when I was a kid. I’ve really gotten it together since, but I was a total wreck when I was young; I couldn’t do anything right, and I eventually ended up convincing myself I was cursed, or had some fundamental flaw that doomed me to bad luck, and that all I could do was accept it.”
“I always tripped over the jump rope when I played with the other kids, I could never get my hair tie on straight, I was always the first one out in dodgeball . . . the only game I was any good at was hide-and-seek. I always managed to sneak away before everyone else and I never got caught, but that was mostly because no one ever paid attention to me, you know? Eventually, I stopped trying to hide and it didn’t even matter. Like . . . that’s what it took for me to be good at something—it was super depressing. When we started playing doctor, I was always assigned the role of unconscious patient. The other girls saved the best roles for themselves, like nurse and mother, and I, the unconscious patient, would lie there with my eyes closed while they put on this objective adult act and debated my ailments. But there was this one time, a boy was playing the doctor (I was six so he must have been around nine), and he and the nurse made me lie down in the grass while they discussed what was or wasn’t wrong with me with my mother, and then decided it was best to immediately anesthetize me. This anesthesia was fast-acting, so I put myself straight to sleep, and was left with nothing to do but listen to them mess around with my body.
“‘Mask,’ the doctor ordered.
“‘Mask,’ the nurse repeated, tying a rag around his neck.
“‘Gloves,’ she echoed, rubbing her hands on his left hand, then his right.
“By the way, the girl who usually played the doctor—the one who had been demoted to nurse, Marichús—was head over heels for the doctor at the time, and since she was almost eight years old, was always going around saying she was going to marry him and all that crap as soon as she got to secondary school.
“‘Lift her shirt,’ the examination continued, so two of the girls did. I lifted my butt a little to help them and they lifted my shirt up around my neck. These stripteases only happened when one of the boys played with us, and I didn’t much care either way, but since this time there were way more girls than boys, I wasn’t very nervous; or at least not any more than usual.
“‘Periscope,’ the doctor said.
“The nurse handed him a wad of air with both hands (we didn’t have much to work with), and he pretended to put it to his ears and listen to my heart. He pressed two of his fingers against my skin, and moved them in circles around my navel and nipples.”
As she recounts the story, he mimics the physician’s movements on her now grown-up body.
“Careful, that tickles.”
“Oh, are you ticklish?” he says.
“Yeah, but don’t get any ideas. I haven’t finished telling my story yet.”
“You were at the part about the periscope.”
“Then he removed the device and placed his ear to my chest."
“‘This looks like it might be serious,’ he said, feigning concern. And then he said something that really did make it serious. ‘Nurse, remove her underwear.’ The nurse shot a glance at one of the other girls and they both giggled excitedly. They lowered my underwear, this time without my help, and there I was, naked and possibly chronically ill in the grassy park behind our houses.
“Dr. Fabián (that was his name) spread my legs and observed, inching closer and closer, and looking very circumspect.
“‘How does her pee look?’ my mother finally asked.
“‘Yellow,’ Rita said.
“‘Hmmm,’ the doctor muttered, sporting a very serious expression.
“At that moment I would’ve loved to have been able to show him all the colors of the rainbow, but tension had the reverse effect on me that it had on you. The truth is I was starting to get nervous about the perverted direction things seemed to be going, because boys . . . I mean, you know how they are, always trying to push your boundaries as far as they can, or until you come to and dole out a few smacks. But not that time; that time I didn’t have to, because Fabián stood up and said:
“‘I’m going to wake her up. Get her clothes on.’
“The girls dressed me unhappily, exchanging glances, and he opened my mouth and pretended to give me a pill. I made like I was swallowing it by moving my throat, then he helped me sit up and said:
“‘You’re going to have to come to my clinic, I keep my bag and all my medications there.’
“‘Where is that?’ I asked.
“‘At my house. And while we’re there we can have a snack and watch cartoons.’
“It was very chivalrous. Do you remember the looks of shock on Cinderella’s stepsisters’ faces? Well, you should have seen the looks on Rita and that little know-it-all Marichús’ faces when he said that. I am forever in his debt.”
She rolls over and mounts him. He hugs her to his chest and bites her shoulder.
“Did I bore you?” she asked.
“Not at all, baby. My sweet, tiny girl. My little thing. I love story time.”
“I do too, and you still haven’t told me how you got here.”
“I mean, wow!”
“What a powerful prophylactic that must have been . . . playing doctor, I mean. The playground of curious youth!”
“I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say powerful. It didn’t exactly leave me traumatized.”
“Well, let’s just say I had quite a different experience as a kid. I didn’t have sisters, so as far as I was concerned, what went on under a girl’s skirt might well have been the philosopher’s stone. Even more so when the images in my head were adulterated by reports from a friend better versed in such sorcery.”
“And what reports were those?”
“I’ll spare you the details—the boys in my town were really depraved. Let’s just say it boiled down to appendages and orifices, you know what I mean? Playing doctor was as familiar to me as life on Mars, and the ‘sin-is-bad’ diatribes they heaped on us in catechism only stoked the flames of our subversive desires.”
“Do you always talk like this?”
“. . . how?”
“Like this, all analogies and conjecture.”
He looks in her eyes and bites her nose, smiling, before he answers.
“I suppose so. Yeah. I do sometimes notice that I talk like I’m writing. Or mimicking some novelistic realism. Which is to say, like I’m writing.”
“I’m not criticizing you, by the way. It’s just funny. Is there any Coke left?”
He picks up the can and gives it a shake.
“A little. Here.”
She grabs it, takes a sip, and tosses the empty can onto the carpet. Then she kisses him and passes a gulp of soda into his mouth.
“Hey, Teacher,” she whispers sensually in his ear. “You’re my teacher, aren’t you? Come on, teach me something.”
He unfolds the pillow and lies back down with her on top, naked with her arms around him, and rubs her pelvis against his. They bite and lick each other all over, clutching each other’s heads with their hands. She frees herself and kisses him on the ribs, on the toes, on the balls, working his skin with her teeth. He lifts himself up and lays her down on the bed, sucking on her arms and nipples, and dragging his tongue along her breasts.
“I didn’t even know you a few hours ago,” he says. “The world is insane.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“Damn, you’re so sexy. I wanna crawl up inside you. Holy shit, you’re so hot.”
“Yeah?” she says, pushing her tits together with her arms. “You think I’m hot, baby? Then lick me. Lick me everywhere!”
He changes positions to kiss her thighs and knees, then spreads her legs and lips and slowly tongues her clitoris as she rocks her hips up and down.
“Ahh! Ohhh!!” she says, taking his head in her hands and digging her nails in. “Oof! Ooof! Come here, here, c’mere. Hurry!”
The chemicals burst animal-like from their bodies, coursing in their veins—a spark of solidarity from viscera to neuron, passing through them and running wild over their touching skin.
“A bear! Oh, you’re a bear!” she says, straddling him.
“Why?” he asks, extremely aroused.
“Because you’re a bear. Let me fuck you. Le-Let me. My turn, yeah, like that. Am I hurting you?”
“How could you if I’m a bear?” he exclaims, hands clamped on her ass.
She leans forward until he can just reach one of her breasts with his mouth, then quickly tears it away, oscillating back and forth, making it dance on his lips and teasing him as she rides him up and down. Then she groans, quivering, and says:
“Come on now, come for me. Come for Mama!”
He sees her face burning and repeats the same absurd and unrepeatable facial expression that millions of men have made right when they’ve come. The two burst into laughter, kiss each other’s salty skin, and fall into a deep embrace. Neither one mentions the tiny flecks of shit lounging pleasurably at the edge of their anuses, tucked just out of sight.
I Is © 1996 Xurxo Borrazás. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2021 Adrian Minckley and Jacob Rogers. All rights reserved.