2 December 2004 | Vol. 4, No. 4

Dressing Sophia

It's 10 a.m. on Sunday morning when Doug calls to tell me that Captain Fun is having a sale on its entire stockpile of mannequins. He asks if I could help him pick one out for his loft. I yawn and tell him I have already done my mannequin shopping for the year.

"You're a funny girl. C'mon—I'll buy you a Big Gulp. I got some cool clothes for her yesterday."

Had I just met Doug, I wouldn't peg him as the kind of guy who would want to go home every night to a trendily-dressed mannequin perched in his living room. He's a civil engineer and looks like one—tall and lean with short hair. Conservative.

"Sophia, right?" I say, rubbing my neck. Yesterday's surgery lasted seven hours.

"Yep. Good memory. But Italiano emphasis on the 'phi'—SoPHIa!"

I smile and look at the stack of empty photo albums next to my box of loose prints—an aging to do. Next day off, I think, and tell Doug yes.

We hang up and I call Janice to let her know I will drive myself to Carol's tonight. Doug and I will probably wind up in his bed this afternoon, and I don't want to be beholden to her schedule. Other than one night in a corner of the neurology wing with my scrub nurse Jake, I haven't been recharged lately in the way sex recharges me. And with Doug, it is good. He doesn't assume that men need sex more than women, or that ejaculation signals the climax of the coital act. With him, sex is panoramic, a boundless and even playing field—the closest thing I've come to sleeping with another woman, but with equipment included. Carol calls him "Spa"—one visit does wonders for the body and soul.

I meet Doug at Captain Fun an hour later.

"Hey Doc," he says, gives me an excited grin, and we walk behind the store where dozens of mannequin parts lay heaped in the alley, mangled and piled high.

"Christ," he says. "Looks like a Holocaust grave site."

I laugh. "You know, you're one of the only Jewish guys I know who would unconsciously utter Christ and Holocaust in the same sentence."

He smiles at me. "Ate leftover gefilte fish on the steps at St. Paul's yesterday too. I'm an original baby!"

It is true. Doug is one of those hard-to-categorize people, and my inability to classify a person initially as one type or another unsettles me or, in Doug's case, eerily excites me. For me, the categorization is a necessary starting point—my block of alabaster from which I chisel discrete impressions until I reach a unique shape. It is stereotyping for sure—but only initially.

Janice tells me I should approach each person as an individual and avoid stereotyping altogether. Who does that? I asked her. Me, she said. Bullshit, I told her.

Actually, stereotyping Janice was easy—a typical pious, rigid personality. Chiseling that block I found softer, more loving edges in her, but the rigidity is undeniably still there. She pities Carol and Carol knows it—not because Carol is now disabled, but because she is disabled, forty and living alone without a husband and children, relying on nurses and her friends to look after her. Carol and I laugh about Janice's pity, knowing it is inspired by genuine concern. For the past five years, Janice and I have been going to Carol's at least once a week to visit and help around the house.

We find Sophia's legs right away. A good, solid pair of fiberglass legs—long and smooth and only slightly bent at the knees, extending up to demure, but curvy hips. Clearly hailing from Saks or Neiman Marcus and not some discount outlet-place. Of course, this means we have to find a comparably elegant bust, Doug not helping matters by insisting that one arm be bent, with the corresponding hand palm-up. He says he wants his mannequin to strike a pose.

"We are having a sale on other things too." The owner comes out. "Maybe you like some effervescent bath salt or magic rings?" He holds up a bag of purple-shaped rocks and a round box with Chinese writing on it.

I take the bag for a closer look. "Those are wild looking." But know I won't use them; I am too busy with commitments—to my career, my friends—ever to have time for baths. I took one last year, thinking it would be good for my stiff muscles, but wound up getting my medical journal wet and missing a pager call. I am just not a Calgon "take me away" girl. I hand it back and say thanks anyway.

Eventually, we pull a waif-like frame from the pile that charms Doug at first sight. I pick up the legs and we walk into the back of the store.

"You own a little boutique?" the store owner asks me as I follow Doug up toward the register, navigating Sophia's stiff bottom-half between toy-stuffed shelves.

I start to answer, but feel a tug and see that Sophia's big toe has hooked a stuffed ostrich.

"No," Doug answers as I turn to liberate the ostrich. "My wife and I just wanted to try a threesome," he continues. I glance up to see him nodding and looking matter-of-factly at the owner. I perch the ostrich on the shelf, smiling, and remember when Doug introduced himself as an aspiring transsexual to a total stranger, then went on to discuss the procedure in such detail that I started to worry he may have actually looked into it. That was the same day when, later in the evening, he brought me ice cream—butter pecan, my favorite—between two long shifts at the hospital, and passed it out to my colleagues when I got caught up in the O.R.

Passersby stare at us on our way back to Doug's.

At the first major intersection, we wait for the light to turn with an older, clean-shaven man who acknowledges our conspicuously unusual load with a half-cocked smile.

"I got tired of modeling her dresses," Doug says to the man, motioning over at me.

"Oh, don't let him fool you." I say. "He loved it; just couldn't fit into them all, you know?"

The man smirks, checks his watch and looks up at the light.

Doug glances over at me and laughs. Then leans in, kisses my cheek and whispers, "I love you."

I smack his cheek and grin. That "I love you" I can wear often and well, like lightweight sandals. That "I love you" fizzles on my skin better than any funky bead bath.

We cross the street and I pause briefly to plunk Sophia's legs around my neck, positioning her like a kid on his Dad's shoulders at a parade. I spot a 7-11 up at the corner. "Big Gulp time?" I say. "This mannequin lugging is hard work, mon."

But just as I turn to start up the sidewalk, Doug catches me, putting his feet between mine. "Wait," he says, and soon I feel Sophia's hard breasts smashing up against my own and Doug's breath on my eyelids. I look up and he kisses my mouth.

"What I said over there; I meant that you know. I do. I love you."

I stare into his eyes just long enough to confirm his sincerity. They are warm and crumbly, like brownies fresh from the oven. I look down and tuck some hair behind my ear, all the sudden conscious of Sophia's legs flaring out of my sides like flying buttresses.

And so we stand for a good long moment, Doug still close, looking down at me. Me, fixating on the undulating waves of heat rolling above the sidewalk. His three little words darting back and forth in dogfights above our heads.

An ambulance races by, and I let its siren jar me just enough to dislodge myself and establish a comfortable distance away.

"Big Gulp?" I say.

We walk in silence to the corner 7-11. When we arrive, Doug leans Sophia's bust against the icebox and goes in to get us the drinks while I straddle her legs on my shoulder and smear the beads of sweat on my forehead into watery streaks. My hip hurts from her fiberglass knee having bumped against it for the last half mile.

I distract myself by watching a bearded man in tattered clothes stack Coke cans on the cracked cement nearby. There is a shopping cart behind him full of random items—a winter coat, some T-shirts, a plate, some plastic cups, some magazines. His home. He is finishing a spectacular rocket-shaped structure with a wide triangular base.

A few minutes later, Doug returns. Our eyes meet and those three little words start zinging above our heads again in manic figure eights. And I know—we know—that they will only be stopped in their tracks by the equal and opposite force of an "I love you too." I shift my gaze to some mass-goers scurrying off to St. Pete's down the street.

He balances the Big Gulps on the icebox. "The Indian guy behind the counter said I should dress Sophia in a sari." I look up. He tears the paper wrapping at the tip of a straw and slips it off, then slides the straw into one of the Big Gulps and hands it to me.

"Ah. Taking a poll now, are we?" I rip off the lid, straw and all, and guzzle, mentally swatting the zinging words like a crazed housewife shooing flies just before a dinner party, trying to sound like my natural, wry self.

"Some old guy in the back suggested an evening gown. Can I use yours again?" He smiles and swigs his drink. A year ago, I loaned his then-girlfriend one of my evening gowns last minute after he told me she'd torn hers and they might not be able to go to his annual corporate ball. That was the same week I talked with him until six in the morning after the night he had heard his father died. I do love Doug. Just not in the way expressed in the spaces between the zinging words above my head.

My eyes wander back to the bearded man, who looks briefly at me, then levels his Coke rocket with a wooden stick.

We finish our drinks in silence. On our way out of the 7-11 parking lot, we pass the bearded man. He is sitting in front of the strewn Coke cans, smoking. I feel an urge to give him something—a couple of quarters, anything. I want him to know that I saw what he created and that it will be remembered. But I have no change, so I shoot him a conspiratorial glance, hoping that somehow he will understand.

Doug's apartment isn't that far now, and we move along silently until we arrive, every now and then pausing to adjust whatever piece of Sophia's frame needs adjusting.

We start on Sophia's assembly as soon as we get into his apartment. I hold her legs and Doug inserts the shaft at the base of her bust into a hole on the cross-section of her pelvis. He walks into his bedroom for a moment and comes back with a bag of clothes. He takes out a black teddy. Some black gloves slip out and land near Sophia's feet. I pull at something fuzzy and extract a long black boa.

"Glad to see you are going for that innocent look," I say.

"But of course. This broad's gonna have class."

We dress her with clinical intensity, and when we are done, Doug props her up against his living room wall and we both step back, thoughtfully examining her like art students in a gallery.

"She's perfect, isn't she?" Doug says.

I nod. "Other than looking like she needs a sandwich, I have to admit she's pretty damn hot."

Had those words not been buzzing around us, I am certain at this point that we would have fucked on the floor right there in front of Sophia and joked later about her being a voyeur or something like that. Maybe even taken a picture or two with us and her in various positions. And it would have been so good. But instead we both just stand there silent and still.

I remember the time I told Doug that Janice had accused me of having a fear of commitment. Fizz-free, flat pop psychology bullshit. She is too rigid to appreciate my commitment to Carol because it is a non-romantic one, or to understand that romantic love doesn't always have to result in a partnership.

"How'd you respond?" he had asked me.

"I told her she has a fear of non-commitment."

I can feel my face reddening now and turn to hide it from Doug. My throat is tight and my legs feel as stiff as Sophia's. Janice might not understand but Carol will; that rather than being left for another woman I am feeling a different sting of being mistaken for one. And in doing so, Doug has finally given me my starting block—a little offbeat, a little irreverent, but underneath, just like each of his peers at work, at everywhere, it seems.

"Listen. I better run. You'll let me know if you change her into a different outfit, ok?"

"Yeah. Maybe a Girl Scout next." He chuckles and looks down.

"Well, Sophia. It was a pleasure." I say, and pretend to shake her hand.

Doug catches my arm as I turn to go. "Um, hey. That thing I said—earlier—you know. Well, I was suffering from temporary insanity, ok? Not that we don't have a great time together and I think you're great. I was just—I dunno—feeling all warm and fuzzy or something at the idea of getting Sophia and all, I guess. So, forget it, ok?"

"Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Sure," I say and erase the air with my hand. I pick up one of the black gloves and pull it up snug into Sophia's fingers.

But I can't and I know that I won't sleep with Doug again, and that he won't call me to give me fashion updates on Sophia, or to ask me out on another slightly wacky adventure such as this. Maybe we'll still have lunch from time to time. Maybe we'll go out with a group of friends. But I won't feel eerily excited anymore when he calls, and I when I walk out of this apartment, my love for him will stay behind, stripped and still in a corner near Sophia's feet.

About the author:

Susan Porter lives in Chicago where she practices law and writes fiction. She is also on the board of directors of a Chicago theater. Look for her recent work in such ezines as Long Story Short and Salome, and upcoming in the print magazine, Gator Springs Gazette.

For further reading:

Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 4, No. 4, where "Dressing Sophia" ran on December 2, 2004. List other work with these same labels: fiction, short story.

42opus is an online magazine of the literary arts.

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