Thin Skin

Thin Skin

Within days of submitting my novel to publishers, editors began emailing my agent to say they were “devouring it,” “drunk on the voice,” and “loving every word.” My agent set a closing date. Offers were due in seven days. My first book, I had no idea how excited to get. I’ve never been one to count chickens or blessings. I’ve always been too broke for a henhouse of my own and too cursed for blessings. I do, however, have a previous track record as a premature ejaculator.

I came to this woeful self-realization one summer while living in an actual henhouse on Nantucket with my four best friends. Our chicken coop/horse stable had been converted into a rentable living space by the mere renovations of refrigerator, hotplate, and throw rugs. We each paid five hundred dollars a month, a fair price for getting oneself marooned on a tiny island inhabited by the nation’s hottest coeds. My girlfriend of three years was back in Boston working at her mother’s antique shop. My first and only love, infidelity was out of the question, especially after stumbling upon my mother’s handwritten sex list that spring. The first name on the list belonged to my father. Numbers two through twelve were those of her fellow adulterers. Thirteen through sixty-two chronicled her divorcee life. I was twenty-two and my fifty-one year old mother had me bested by sixty-one people. It was gripping news, pointless and foreboding.

My mom’s prolific numbers scared me into monogamy. I faithfully spent the summer on the couch overhearing my buddies getting their rent’s worth. According to the digital clock on our dual cassette stereo system, the average hump time of my friends was a rapid seven minutes. They had a good three minutes on me. I confided in my friend Brad. He was the tallest, handsomest, and most charismatic of our group. He was also the biggest asshole with the biggest dick. Women fell all over him. At twenty-four, he was already halfway to matching my mother.

True friend that he was, Brad gave it to me straight, but not before calling everyone into the room so his comedic deconstruction of me could receive the audience it deserved. Brad blamed my quick-comings on my foreskin. He’d read in Hustler that uncircumcised penises were extra-sensitive and therefore prone to premature ejaculation. I couldn’t argue. I’d always been extremely sensitive, inside and out. I was the adorable neurotic of our group. When everyone stopped pissing their pants at my expense, Brad hit me with another foreskin fact—women find it ungodly, not to mention vile and atrocious. In regards to my two-pump chumpness, his only words of advice were to drink whiskey before intercourse and always keep the lights off. I might have circumcised myself on the spot had my bunkmate Bob not recently misplaced my Swiss Army knife while carving a piece of driftwood into a pipe.

I remained loyal to my then girlfriend for the rest of the summer, and then three years of dating, and throughout our ten-year marriage. During those years, I learned to pace my excitement both in and out of the sack by constantly reminding myself that I suck, that nothing good would ever come of me. In essence, I reverse psychologized myself into an existential double negative. This was my method of numbing the senses, of lasting during intercourse, or not setting my hopes too high when publishing a story, or thinking too highly of myself on a good hair day. I always shot for the foot. I never aimed high. My mother on the other hand, continued her reverse cowgirl, Dr. Strangelove-style rocket ride to the moon. By the time I was divorced at thirty-five, she was approaching the one-hundred mark.

When my agent told me that my novel was going to auction, my uncircumcised hopes rose to Icarusian heights. I called some writer friends hoping they’d shoot me down to earth with some hard facts about the improbability of getting published. Unfortunately, these writer friends insisted that an auction was a near guarantee of my novel being bought, especially given the zealous comments from editors. Worse than that, they praised my novel, jinxing me with compliments such as brilliant. These writer friends were good people, but only knew me from graduate school, meaning they didn’t know Eugenio Volpe from Adam. They mistook me for the cool guy in their fiction program who published stories as a student and wore corduroy blazers a solid eighteen months before anyone else. They’d never seen the natural-born loser side of me. They didn’t know me during my decade-long angry phase, or two-year porker stint. They’d loosely read about that Eugenio in stories, but had never witnessed one of my epic fails in actual life, so despite their optimistic predictions, I knew deep down in my balls that none of the publishers would be bidding on my novel. Success isn’t in the Volpe DNA.

Therefore, I had an entire week to prep for rejection, an entire week of hating myself, for burdening my new wife with a wellspring of insufficiencies. Sara is the one great thing that’s happened to me. She’d be all I ever needed if instead of living in LA, we lived in a place like the Garden of Eden, where food grew on trees and there was no such thing as shame. Adam and Eve had zero needs, not even sexual ones, which sounds boring. In my version of Genesis, they lounge around munching organic produce while experimenting sexually, free of conscience, free of kids. Interesting that paradise doesn’t involve children. Sara and I have a son. Ronan was two-months old at the time of the auction. He is now ten months. I can’t two-pump-chump fatherhood. I’ve vowed to do everything in my power. My only strength is rendering my unfortunate reality into art. The novel had to be the thing. A measly five thousand dollar advance would feel like hitting it big on my very own reality TV gameshow. Joker! Joker!! Joker!!!

The seventh day came and not a single publisher made an offer. They praised the novel, but found it too edgy, too masculine, and/or too raw. I spent the next week feeling numb and worthless, not quite suicidal. That’s too bold. I’m more apt to eat and drink myself to a slow death. It runs in the family (maternal side). Two years ago, I was knee-deep in a genetic pool of Ketel One trying to catch up with my mother. Then Sara came into my life. Her love allowed me to finally love myself just a wee bit. More importantly, she inspired me to grow the fuck up. I sobered up and finished my novel. We then bore Ronan from the best stuff humanly possible. In a moment of weakness, I started believing in myself.

To confess, during that weeklong wait for a publisher, I did spend the light of my days beaming with self-doubt, but fell asleep each night dreaming of the good life—paying student loans and splurging on a two-hundred dollar pair of Aviator Nation sweatpants, the ultimate sign you’ve made it in Los Angeles, but there was too much blood, cum, and sarcasm in my novel. What was I to do? What next? Reverting to my old pitiful self was not a possibility, not with my very own Eve and baby Jesus. My only option was manning up. Write another novel. Write a screenplay. Write whatever it took to feed a family. Maybe Ketel One needed a copywriter.

Two weeks after being rejected, I was sprawled on the couch in $19.99 Old Navy sweatpants, trying to get a leg up on the manning up thing, but doing a remarkably half-ass job. The existential numbness had intensified. My typical antidepressants of writing, surfing, and sex were on limited supply. Newborns are the DEA agents of such drugs. It was early evening. Sara sat across the semidarkness of the living room nursing Ronan, the two of them looking resplendent under the lamplight, beautiful beings more deserving than the likes of Eugenio Volpe. I lied there gloating upon them, which irked me. What right did I have feeling so proud? Sara and I were stuck in our tiny apartment for the foreseeable future. She didn’t care. She still believed in me wholeheartedly. Personally, I wanted nothing to do with Eugenio Volpe, the coward who couldn’t accept his wife’s love for fear of living up to himself.

That was my state. Curled on the couch, resentful for who I was, grateful for what I had. Then one of my chicken coop buddies sent a text that spurred my spirits. Davis was the artist of our group. Hideously talented, he’d come close to exhibiting in some major museums, but ultimately got the best of himself. He married rich, quit art, and started keeping bees. He and his wife live in Rhode Island in a ginormous gothic mansion. After my divorce, I moved into one of their rental properties down the street. For two years, I spent my days and nights reveling in bachelorhood—writing, surfing, and partying, in no particular order, with no particular purpose, pogo-sticking my intercourse count into the upper twenties. Then, in late August of 2014, Sara Facebooked me out of the blue. I’d originally met her the chicken coop summer when she started dating Bob, the spirited innocent of our group. They dated off and on for the next seven years, Bob moving back and forth from Boston to Chicago, Colorado, and California. After finally breaking up for good, Bob moved home to eventually marry, have kids, and open a surf shop. Then he died from a rare kidney condition. His death devastated me, resulting in my year two-year porker stint, and the realization that I wanted a divorce.

Sara’s serendipitous Facebook message came seven years after Bob’s death, two years after my divorce. She was living in LA. We exchanged a few more flirty Facebook messages, and then expanded the romance into hour-long phone conversations. Our first date was her sister’s autumn equinox wedding in Kansas City. We flew halfway towards each other and knew by the end of the weekend that it was forever. I finished up my semester of teaching and moved to LA on the winter solstice. Our baby Jesus was conceived Christmas Eve. I am ashamed to say that contrary to what I have thus far said, my life has become rather sublime, but I sometimes miss being miserable (drunk and alone listening to Exile on Main Street). I also miss Davis. We talk on the phone every day at precisely 11am PST. Getting a late night from him was somewhat alarming. It read, “Jasper died.”

For the first time in weeks, I felt something, a tragicomic tickle at the back of my throat. Jasper was Davis’ neighbor, a fifty-something year old trust fund man-child. Jasper bumbled around town in $9.99 Walmart sweatpants doing his damndest to do absolutely nothing. I take that back. Jasper frequented as many burger joints and strip clubs as any old day might allow. Aside from being fat and childish, Jasper was a magnificent pervert. The heir of a fabled shipbuilding family, he was also one hell of a sailor, perhaps the best in Narragansett Bay, but Jasper gave zero fucks about his nautical prowess. The only gratification he derived was beating the whale pants off yacht club members during Wednesday night Sea Sprite races. Including his own uncle, folks at the yacht club shunned Jasper. He was the last male of his esteemed family. He was hell-bent on ending that lineage on the lowest of notes. No ambition. No children. No front teeth. He’d lost those decades ago in a coked-out drinking and driving accident. Since then, Jasper had been living a painfully sober, Lucky Sperm Club version of Eden. He was a Kurt Vonnegut protagonist in the flesh. Davis and I loved him. Jasper was our hero.

News of his death was no shocker. Jasper had already suffered a few minor heart attacks. The last I saw of him, he was wearing a heart monitor while pounding down croissants at the local hipster café. He was a regular there, not for the artisanal pour-overs, but rather the female clientele, and more so for the owner Wren. Jasper had a crush on her. Davis and I tried convincing Jasper to lose some weight so he might steal Wren from her fiancé Wrangler, who co-owned the café. We didn’t like Wrangler. Neither did Wren. She didn’t like, love, or hate Jasper, but did laugh at his dirty jokes. That meant he had a fighting chance. Underneath his chub, Jasper was handsome—icy blue eyes and Nordic bone structure. All he had to do was lose thirty pounds, maybe forty-five. Davis and I didn’t necessarily want him getting skinny. We wanted Jasper to be a somewhat healthier version of himself so he could have the woman of his sick and twisted dreams. The only downside was the risk of Jasper becoming truly happy. Nobody really wanted that for him, not me, not Davis, and certainly not Jasper. Perhaps his death was the right thing at the right time.

I texted Davis back. “Perfect! It’s the ending he truly wanted. Ars longa vita brevis.”

Davis didn’t speak Latin, but he was handy with an iPhone. He’d look it up. While awaiting his response, I sat up from the couch and smiled at Sara and Ronan, tears welling. Jasper’s death was casting perspective on my own situation. I’d fly home and deliver his eulogy. I was about to ask Sara about frequent flier miles when Davis texted back.

“November Fools! He didn’t die!”

In contrast to my writer friends, my hometown buddies are not good people. They’re dickheads, ball-busters, and attention whores. They are the NRA of shooting off at the mouth, champions of free, unadulterated speech blasting away at the insecurities of anyone caught in their crosshairs. Brad has always been our Charlton Heston, but Davis is our Sarah Palin. His incoherent rants are legendary, the same for his offbeat, absurdist humor. His November Fools prank put some funhouse mirror perspective on my novel’s rejection. A Jasper resurrection brought me back to life. It was time for me to craft my own honest to goodness falsehood about someone deserving. My mother came to mind first. She always is. I texted some more art back at Davis.

“In other news, my mother was just diagnosed as HIV positive.”

For the first time in weeks, I was laughing with not at myself. I explained the joke to Sara. She blocked Ronan’s ears and then blessed me with that sweet Midwestern smile of hers. She was happy to see her husband in a better mood.

Davis texted back. “No!!!!!”

My mother didn’t have HIV, but it seemed like the thing to say, terribly funny in the best and worst way. Davis was susceptible to the lie because he and the rest of my buddies were well-versed in my mother’s sex list. Not only do my close friends know everything about me, they also know everything about the members of my immediate family, and ex-in-laws. I wanted him to dwell in the fiction of my mother’s HIV for a while. Maybe even call his wife into the room and tell her. They would feel terrible for me. They would hold hands and goo-goo eye their home’s interior, counting blessings and the two months’ rent I still owed them. Announcing horribly false news is the closest we get to playing God.

Twenty minutes later, I let Davis and his wife off the hook.

“November Fools! She doesn’t have HIV!”

His response came almost immediately. “GOOD ONE!!!!!”

He was absolutely right. It was a good one. It was a good one for a few reasons. First and foremost, it could have been true. My mother has slept with a hundred men. She keeps a list. I used to fear that the list was some sort of HIV ledger, but turned out my mother just loved sex and keeping tabs. She also loved cocaine. I know this because she once had a week-long nose bleed that ended with her passed out in the kitchen, a halo of blood around her head. I called an ambulance and while searching through her purse for a Blue Cross Blue Shield card, instead found a folded piece of yellow notepad paper. Unfolding it has been my Pandora’s Box (for lack of a more Freudian metaphor). I rushed her to the ER. The doctor told my mom to lay off the coke. She denied using. As punishment for her lying, I shared her hump ledger with my buddies and eventually wrote this essay, a total uncircumcised dick move.

In my loosely autobiographical novel, I have the mother’s sex list at one hundred and seventy-five because that is how much the son (my protagonist) weighs at the time of finding it, which was also my weight when conceiving Ronan. I’ve since added five pounds of muscle. I’ve been hitting the gym. Here in LA, appearance is everything, and if I’m going to be an inadequate provider, I should at least do my wife and son the favor of looking good.

Deserved or not, I was on another one of my highs, a high horse with wax wings galloping across a burning bridge. My mother’s fictitious HIV had me believing in my writer-self again. It was time to spread the virus to the rest of my hometown buddies, minus Bob of course.

“Just wanted to let you guys know before you heard it somewhere else…My mom found out she is HIV positive. Not a huge surprise but still fucked up.”

Brad texted back immediately. “Are you serious?”

I texted back, “No, just spreading a rumor that my mom has HIV. Of course I’m serious!”

My buddy Jim was next to offer condolences. “Dude that sucks. Sorry to hear. How she doing? The good thing is they have really good drugs for that shit now.”

I didn’t like their sympathetic tones so I painted the tragedy in a harsher light.

“Yeah. She isn’t sweating it too much. She’s mad at her dead junkie ex bf. She pretty sure she got it from him. She might drink less now. Maybe more. We shall see.”

Brad hit me with more compassion. “I’m seriously sorry to hear that Eug, but Jim’s right, they got shit for that…chances are it will be a while before you join my and Jim’s club.”

Brad and Jim lost their mothers ten years ago. They were great moms. They did not keep sex lists, at least not on paper. Keeping a written sex list in no way disqualifies a woman from being Mom of the Year, but overdosing on coke, or snorting away the mortgage, or your son’s college tuition given to him by his grandmother, or…I could go on and on, but that’s why I wrote the novel. Brad is also in the novel. He’s the friend who’s always bursting the fanciful protagonist’s bubble via brutal honesty. I was not expecting Brad’s heartfelt sympathy towards my mother’s HIV. Don’t get me wrong. Brad loves my mom. They’ve done bong hits together. She’s hilarious to be around. Everybody loves her, even me, but it wasn’t about that. Brad was being kind because aside from losing his mother, he’s also lost his looks. A balding, grayish version of his former glory, Brad’s been working extra hard on his soul now that he’s unremarkable on the outside.

I couldn’t derive any pride or pleasure from the story without Brad and Jim in character. They were supposed to be making tasteless jokes. Maybe it was me. Maybe I was losing my authorial powers. Maybe my novel deserved being rejected. Maybe my self-deprecation had become gratuitous. Someone on Twitter once said that self-loathing is narcissism with its pants on backwards. It was time to drop my drawers and reacquaint Brad with my foreskin.

“November Fools!!! My mom doesn’t have HIV! She’s an old boozy nympho but her vitals are amazing! She just had a checkup!”

Brad finally did me the favor. “You are an unbelievable bag of shit. I hope you bash your sack with a sledge hammer.”

Jim one-upped the narrative. “I don’t believe it. She has HIV.”

Brad wanted me dead. “I hope some West African sneaks into your window tonight and takes a soupy Ebola shit on you while you sleep.”

Kevin finally chimed in. “Funny fucking shit.”

Kevin shared a double mattress with Brad during the chicken coop summer. He is the good listener of our group. He knows to let the art play out. He probably knew I was lying the entire time. Coincidentally, his Uncle Paul is number two on my mother’s list, her first sin against my father.

As per usual, Brad hit the nail right on the head of my foreskin. I was a god-awful person. Making art out of your mom’s sex list is immoral, regardless if she once punched you upside the head until she ran out of breath, or strangled your sister in her sleep, or waitressed with your social security number so she could simultaneously collect welfare, piling a thousand dollar tax debt onto your eighteen year-old existence. I could bitch about all that, but the reality is it made me the writer I am today. Her neurotic mothering, her substance abuse, and sex list were all I ever had until Ronan. I hope Ronan is a terrible writer. I hope he doesn’t have a single storyteller bone in his body. The best thing I can do as his father is give the boy zero material.

I rolled off the couch and crawled over to Ronan, growling like a rabid dog. Ronan stopped nursing to give me a snarly smile. He then shrilled with delight as I playfully gnawed at his feet. Sara handed him off so she could pee. I carried him around the apartment pointing at things and naming them. After cataloging all four hundred square feet of space, I headed back to the couch to check my iPhone.

Jim was still at it. “Statistically speaking she has HIV.”

He was making ridiculous sense. It was about playing numbers, beating odds. Few of us live the way God originally designed in Eden. Jasper lives a version of it. Jasper is more alive than most, absolutely winning at life. He beat the system or rather his great-great grandfather beat the system. My mother also beat the system. Her city slum upbringing offered her nothing more than marrying an Italian laborer at eighteen. She did that for a while and then got sick of it. She then partied and bonked as many dudes as her pretty face and hot bod allowed. Kudos. Who am I to judge or make art of that? Her story is more deserving of D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller than my crummy novel. I’m nobody. I’ve never won anything. My father was a champion bodybuilder. He had dozens of trophies in our basement gym. The names on my mother’s list are also trophies. The first thirty or so men are documented by first name and last initials, but mid-list, the years that her drinking and drug-use really took off, the names become hilariously vague.

Man on beach

Golf Pro

10” Redhead

Those names score my consciousness like the gnaw marks on the wall above the double mattress Bob and I shared the summer we slept in a horse stable.

Ronan’s diaper felt heavy. I laid him on the changing table, pulled up his onesie, and peeled off the eco-Huggie. He blew some raspberries that got me smiling. The boy is my ultimate lie. He is and always will be so much better than his father. I know the exact moment we made him. It was the night before Christmas, the room bright with candles. I’d had two glasses of wine. No whiskey. It wasn’t needed. God made his universe in seven days. That’s a mere pelvic squirm in the grand scheme of Time. Applying butt paste to Ronan, I realized that much of early Western literature, from Greek mythology to the Bible, is nothing more than the sex lists of gods put to prose and verse. My mother doesn’t read Ovid or even the Gospel of John, but she might read this essay. Ditto for Jasper. They’ll both survive. It was Ronan the reader I was worried about, the child smiling up at me from the changing table, looking more divine than a Michelangelo cherub, foreskin and all.


About the Author

Boston native Eugenio Volpe is a PEN Discovery Award winner and Pushcart nominee. His eBook The Message was recently published by SolsticeLit Books. His stories have appeared in Salamander, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Thought Catalog, Good Men Project and more. He currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife and son.