Excerpt

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl

Andrea Lawlor

November 1, 2017 
The following is from Andrea Lawlor’s novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. Paul Polydoris tends bar at the only gay club in a university town. He studies queer theory, has a dyke best friend, and makes zines. But Paul’s also got a secret: he’s a shapeshifter. Andrea Lawlor teaches writing at Mount Holyoke College. Lawlor is a fiction editor for Fence and the author of a chapbook, Position Papers.

—Paul remembered staking out the Cubbyhole with Tony Pinto because Madonna and Sandra Bernhard had once had a date there in 1987, or kissed, or something.

Paul remembered staying up late to watch Madonna on David Letterman, never daring to believe anything gay would happen on television.

Paul remembered Hudson Street in the rain.

Paul remembered the porn store on the corner, looking at vintage physique magazines, those long-gone men in leopard skins and posing jocks.

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Paul remembered Tony Pinto making muscles to distract the shopkeeper while Paul stuffed an old Drummer down his pants.

Paul remembered three-packs of old gay porn mags, the good ones on the outside and the crappy third stuffed inside like a grab bag, the newsprint stories and letters signed A Reader in San Diego or Horny Midshipman.

Paul remembered Blueboy, Numbers, Honcho, Freshman.

Paul remembered the case of the tape Tony Pinto made for him, the second time they met, Tony’s scratchy handwriting marking out the song titles, original artists in parentheses when the song was a cover. Who said gay men always had beautiful handwriting? Tony Pinto had spent his boyhood rolling six-sided dice and sketching elves, and it showed.

Paul remembered “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “A Little Respect” and “TMT❤TBMG.”

Paul remembered the first Saturday of the month dances at Columbia, crashing the Ivy League, being early, walking around the block ten times, the Greek diner in Morningside Heights, cheap bad coffee.

Paul remembered coffee breath.

Paul remembered C. Howard’s “violent mints.”

Paul remembered the night he met Tony Pinto, smoking on the steps of Earl Hall, trying to tell who belonged, Tony Pinto stretching his Gumby arms in a terrible imitation of a voguer.

Paul remembered lights up, finding his stashed coat.

Paul remembered the Meatpacking District, clubs which changed sex according to the night (Clit Club Fridays, Meat Saturdays, or Jackie 60?), same cinderblock walls painted black.

Paul remembered 4 a.m. bagels with bright pink lox-flavored cream cheese at the bakery on the corner.

Paul remembered the Christopher Street pier at night, fourteen-year-old queers in tube tops and short-shorts, cigarette cherries reflected in the oily water.

Paul remembered saying, “How fast they grow up,” and Tony Pinto shaking his head ruefully and saying, “Kids, what’re you going to do?”

Paul remembered drinking at Max Fish with Tony’s straight goth friends from Fordham, walking west for miles with Tony until they hit the water, sitting on a broken concrete pylon and kissing for hours, hands down each other’s pants even though Tony had a serious boyfriend of two months.

Paul remembered the sunburn Tony got at Pride that year, how their older friends carried sunblock, Tony’s wounded red-brown chest and back like a soldier wearing pukka beads, some older lesbian with a crew cut and a squeeze-tube of aloe vera, sitting in the shade on the steps of a church which was really a bar, far enough away from the fray, in the shade, laying Tony across his lap so he could think Tony lay across my lap like a pieta. And Tony’s serious boyfriend of two months rounding the corner laughing.

Paul remembered giving Tony back.

Paul remembered sharing grilled cheese sandwiches with Tony and that girl, what was her name? Glynis? Yes, Glynis with the gay mom. From the rap group for gay teens at the Center, the three of them college kids, older and not from the city, maybe a little too old to be in a rap group but officially still teens, still youth.

Paul remembered the working group he joined because Tony Pinto was joining, meeting at an apartment of a much older gay man with a job and a leather couch and crudité in the living room while they made plans to die in the street.

Paul remembered the aching hall of the Center, those Monday night meetings in the belly of the whale, the incomprehensible reports from the Treatment Action Group and the meeting’s incomprehensible response, what Tony Pinto called “the grown-ups fighting.”

Paul remembered carrying store-bought frozen soup to a man he didn’t know, with Rina, somewhere in Gramercy, one of those high-rises that made him feel like he was in 1970s Poland, leaving the soup on the dusty kitchen island, feeding the man’s tropical fish while Rina changed the sheets on his hospital bed, all the while Days of Our Lives continued as if nothing were different.

Paul remembered the men lined up in green plastic chairs at the Center, young men with canes and liver spots.

Paul remembered the cheery rattle of day-of-the-week pillbox compartments.

Paul remembered the smell of orange medicine soap, sulfur and sweet, the gash on his palm from a fruit-salad can lid—how was it possible to get a fruit-salad injury?—wanting the sliced cherry, glimmer of fear in the eyes of the receptionist at the Center who sent him to the free clinic, fear of his blood, now contaminating the can.

Paul remembered colored condoms.

Paul remembered a condom stretching over him like a balloon animal, unlubricated, Tony squeezing out two free packets of Probe.

Paul remembered Tony’s pockets, his backpack, always full of giveaways and liberated rolls of toilet paper from restaurant bathrooms, Tony stopping in the foyer of every bar to fill up, the top of the cigarette machine, wherever they kept the bowl, Tony collecting condoms in all flavors and brands and colors like baseball cards, his shock and horror at the condom stapled into the Bimbox page “Straight Acting Straight Looking WM seeks Same” not because he didn’t agree that self-hating homosexuals should fuck off and die but because that exact condom was wasted, and some proud and out queer might need it.

Paul remembered flannel shirts with the sleeves cut off.

Paul remembered Tony’s black leather motorcycle jacket with its rectangular stickers bragging FREQUENTLY FEMME and BASICALLY BUTCH and SAFE SEX STUD in neon green, his black hair shagging over the collar like a Portuguese Lief Garrett, how was anything ever so smooth as Tony’s just slightly too-long hair?

Paul remembered Tony’s serious boyfriend of two months, then three, four, five—David, unsuitable David, the WASPy Jewish guy who’d played lacrosse at Andover and loved John Cheever, older but recognizable to Paul, his easy law-school ways, his embarrassing obsession with any dark-skinned man, how he’d settled for Tony Pinto who was not dark enough, how he’d cheated on Tony Pinto over and over again, how he’d once at a demo outside St. Patrick’s run his index finger down Paul’s chest, down to his navel, dipping then turning away from Paul, who was enraged, flattered, humiliated, and never mentioned it to Tony.

Paul remembered asking his friend Jimmy—how proud he felt to say his friend Jimmy about Jimmy Battelli, the kindest and most handsome man in ACT UP, an older man who preferred older men and that he’d allowed himself to be befriended by Paul was a miracle—Paul remembered asking Jimmy Battelli where he’d been, why he’d missed some meeting and Jimmy shrugging, oh another memorial service darling you know, Jimmy turning away from Paul kindly even in his despair, Paul’s relief to be so young, his nineteenth year a talisman, the word containing the word teen itself protection from what the older guys, those memorial-weary men in their 20s, 30s, 40s, what they were losing—

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From Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. Used with permission of Rescue Press. Copyright © 2017 by Andrea Lawlor.




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