the underwear model by Joey Comeau
The guy on my underwear box has a tiny scar on his elbow in the exact shape as mine, in the exact spot. I notice it as I'm getting dressed, and I shake Rachael awake. She groans and says, "What? What are you saying?"I'm wondering whether this is how you find your soul mate, with little hints, with this little shiver of recognition. "The exact shape." I say, "With a half-circle, just like mine," and I show her the box again.
Her eyes are only half open, and she shakes her head. "There's something the matter with you," she says, and turns back to the pillow.
She's naked in the bed, and she has a scar, too, just below her shoulder blade. It's ugly and straight, too perfect. I pull the blanket up to cover it, like I'm tucking her in, and she nuzzles into the pillow. I feel sick. I wonder if I let her stay because I like her, or because she likes me. I remember washing my hands again and again at three in the morning so I could get to sleep.
At work I answer the telephone and I have my bag open at my feet so I can see the box inside. With underwear models, they always cut the picture off just above the chin, so you can't see their faces. It reminds me of pornography, and makes me uncomfortable in the same way. The customer on the phone is saying, "Hello? Hello?" and I wonder why they didn't airbrush the scar out. It's very small. Maybe they didn't notice. Maybe scars are sexy.
The customer on the phone is angry now, and I talk for a bit about our dedication to customer service. I give him a telephone number that I make up off the top of my head. "Please don't give this number out," I say, "I could get fired just for telling you about it." His voice makes him sound like a priest, quiet and patient. I'm not sure why I'm saying this to him. Even though I want him off the phone, it's a risk.
Everyone says that our boss randomly listens in on our calls. Everyone says he reads our email.
The customer hangs up and again I think, maybe I was meant to see the scar. I reach into my bag and turn the box around to read the back.
The name of the company is H. Best Ltd., and it says they're in NY, NY.
Their secretary answers on the second ring, "His Best!"
"I'm looking for some information," I tell the secretary. "I have a box of your company's underwear, serial number CA# 07043, and there is a picture of a man on the front of the box." It isn't long before he's apologizing, and I'm trying to describe the scar. I end up just saying, "He's got big arms," again and again. I end up repeating, "He's got nice skin."
They won't let me know the name of the model. I guess that makes sense. I could be some sort of weirdo. I hang up and go wash my hands in the bathroom. On the way back, I stop by the water cooler and my boss walks by, watching me but not nodding, not saying anything. I remember that I have some vacation time saved up. Suddenly things seem okay.The train to New York is almost empty. I'm sitting in the dining car, and there's a boy of about twenty sitting three tables down. He has his headphones on and I can hear the static of drums as he scrapes the bottom of the soup bowl with his spoon. I want to ask him "Do you think this is crazy?" I want to show him the underwear box that's in the bag at my feet. That would be creepy, though.
I want to pull up my sleeve and show him my scar. I want to say, "I've had it for as long as I can remember. I used to wear long sleeve shirts to hide it." I want to say, "Doesn't it have to mean something that he has the same scar? Isn't this some sort of sign?"
I know he would say the right thing. Strangers always have the perfect answer.
I move to a seat closer to his. I can't get rid of this feeling that I've all of a sudden become something else, something creepier than I thought I was. I move again, so that I'm in the seat just behind his. He has a tattoo on his neck, a line of words that I can't quite read. I think about the notebook I kept in college, filled with designs for tattoos. Swirling intentional mistakes that I planned on using to hide the confusing faded mystery of my scar. I would have, too, except girls started touching it and telling me they thought it was hot.
The boy with the tattoo is named Cal, and he's headed home for his grandparent's fiftieth anniversary. The tattoo is just random words, he explains as I sit down across from him. There are dozens of them, in a block down his back. He can't even remember them all. Hammer. Quietly. Run. Verbs and nouns and adjectives. He runs his hand over his neck and says, "I'm just trying to make sure that I never forget."
I put my bag on the table between us, and too late I realize that the underwear box is sticking out. Cal is staring at it, and I wonder if he even notices the scar. Girls never noticed it until we were lying in my bed, until it was morning and we were just staring at one another, confused. I push the box back into my bag, embarrassed all of a sudden. I pull the zipper closed and say, "So that you never forget what?" but Cal shakes his head, and gets up.
"My girlfriend's waiting in the other car." he says, with emphasis on the word "girlfriend." I'm nodding already.
"Mine too," I say, waving off to the side of the train, not forward or backwards. Rachael is probably in a bar somewhere, miles away, and "girlfriend" isn't a word either of us would use. She would probably laugh if I said it to her. It just comes out, maybe so the boy doesn't think I'm queer, but maybe because I think of her as my girlfriend after all.
I watch him walk toward the next car, and he's still running his hand over his neck. I think it could be to remind himself that life is random, that nothing is perfect. It could be to prove that there's nothing you can do as a kid that is stupid enough to ruin your whole life.
In New York, His Best Ltd. has an office in the tallest building I've ever seen, and the elevator ride takes forever. I try to make conversation with the woman next to me, and I say, "I'm here to visit an underwear company." She keeps looking forward. "I think one of their models is my soul mate," I say. She turns slowly and I smile as wide as I can.
The secretary for His Best is a man with long hair. He says, "I believe everyone has a soul mate. I believe everyone has dozens of soul mates," I pull my shirt up to show him the scar, and he looks down at the underwear box I've given him, and he nods. He says, "Do you think your soul mate is going to be any better for you than what you've got now?"
"Isn't that the point of a soul mate?" I say, and he laughs.
"The world ends every time you fall in love," he says, and I'm starting to get nervous. "The world ends, and all of a sudden your journey is over. You're somewhere new, and it isn't long before you've adapted to your surroundings. It isn't long before you realize that something else is missing, before you're looking again."
"I just want to know his name," I say, and he types on his computer for a while.
"Human beings evolved to be constantly yearning," he says. "I can probably get you a date with him." He's looking up, smiling. "His name's Trent, and the contact number we have for him is an escort agency." My stomach turns a little, and I don't believe him. He's lying.
But the secretary writes the name of the agency on a piece of paper. He stands up and comes around the desk to give it to me. "Is this a joke?" I say. I swing at him, certain that he's making fun of me, but miss.
Things go bad. The secretary keeps my underwear box as two men in suits take me down in the elevator. The whole way down, I keep saying, "This is stealing. He has my underwear box. This is stealing." They lead me to the door, and I don't resist. They're very thin men. I'm afraid of them. In the end, I know that I can always buy a new underwear box. I put the escort agency number into my pocket.
The nearest department store is huge. I've never seen so much space devoted to unmentionables. It's fifteen minutes before I find the box with his picture on it. I cover the scar on his elbow with the pad of my finger, and a voice comes over the public address system, murmuring, "Something something something Hanes brand something briefs something Thursday something only," and I realize that underwear models probably work for more than just the one company. It's a little switch in my head, and I'm looking around again.
An hour later I have two stacks of boxes in front of me, one stack that I'm sure is him, and another which might be him if they airbrushed the scar out. He's worked for at least six other companies, maybe eleven, and I'm starting to feel good about my chances of finding him. I wonder if his name is really Trent. I wonder if he really is an escort. What would that mean? I wonder does he spend all his free time in a gym, in strangers’ beds?
An employee comes over. He says, "Is there something I can help you with?" and I put two boxes in front of him.
"Is this the same man?" I ask. "The scar is missing here, but look at the curve of his muscles. Look at this nipple. Isn't it the same nipple?" I put another box in his hands, my finger on the nipple, and he's not even looking at them. "These veins are the same, aren't they? Do you think this man does steroids?" I ask. "Do you think that sleeping with strangers for money damages someone? Could you love a whore?" He puts the boxes down on the closest shelf and actually steps back.
"Let me know if you need help finding a size," he says.
"Wait," I say. "Aren't soul mates supposed to be perfect? What if you find yours, and she's not a virgin, not even a girl? What if he's a fixer-upper? What if he has an STD?" but the employee's already walking away. I pick the boxes up and return them to their piles. I wander the aisles a while longer, trailing my fingers over the photographed bodies as I walk, nodding politely at other shoppers.
On the way home I stand in the cold, watching men and women working out behind plate glass windows. They are all looking dead forward, not at one another, not at the banks of TVs. They are all looking into a future where they reach the goal, I guess, where they're good enough. Where their yearnings are satisfied. I think about Rachael, soft and disease free, and I wonder if there's anything that I would consider clean. At the hotel, I pick up the phone to call her, but don't.
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