By Eric E. Olson
We are playing telephone in the bathtub—she and I.
She, slippery and smelling of bath salts, develops a word or phrase—her lips and tongue form a sound that represents or stands in for the word or phrase (which itself represents or stands in for other things; neuro-chemical transmissions, the color of butterflies, or what it was like to be a young child).
The sound enters my ear, all those little bones and hairs, vibrating their complex codes and messages—the details of which I do not understand. Her hand slips beneath the water, between my legs. This is a dirty version of telephone—more exciting for two consensual adults of opposite sex—not that the sexes must be opposite, or even opposing, to play a dirty version of telephone, it’s just, in this case, they are opposite, and, at times, opposing.
And this opposition that occasionally occurs in public places, on beaches, and, yes, even in bathtubs, does not, as one might expect, make dirty games of telephone in the bathtub easier, nor more difficult than instances in which there is no opposition; however, it does promote a certain clenching in our perspective stomachs which manifests itself outwardly in the form of language schisms, misunderstandings, and, occasionally, hurt feelings.
But this is not (or at least not yet) one of those oppositional moments during which feelings can be hurt. There is an open bottle of wine on the bathroom’s tiled floor, and while the bottle’s darkly tinted glass makes it difficult to ascertain exactly how much wine is still left, it is clear, either by testing the weight of the bottle, or by observing the particularly playful way her hand is exploring beneath the surface of the water, that there is not nearly the amount of wine in the bottle that there once was.
In any case, the word or phrase her lips form rattles from bone to bone, bumping against cilia and cartilage, and I (or my brain, if there is a difference) interpret these signals, using my own experiences, hopes, fears, etc., as filters to determine her meaning.
Now, in a normal game of telephone, whether in the bathtub or out, I would relate whatever variation of her word or phrase I and my brain reorganize, to a third party, and they, using their own experience-, hope-, and fear-filters, pass the message on to yet another party, and so on.
But today, and every other day that I can recollect, she and I are the only ones in the bathtub, thereby making for a particularly dull and easy game of telephone. However, with the inclusion of the dirty aspect of the game, I can say, with at least some certainty, our version is the most sexually exciting version of telephone I have every played.
“So? Are you going to relay the message?” she asks, her hand still hidden beneath the cushion of bubbles, her forearm still flexing, the muscles still connected to her biceps and triceps, which are still connected to her trapeziums, which are still connected to whatever those muscles in her neck are called, which are (somehow) connected to the muscles that helped make the word or phrase she, only a few minutes ago, whispered into my ear.
“Um . . . yes,” I murmur.
The point of this part of the game is to distract the receiver of the word or phrase (in this case me), with whatever is going on beneath the surface of the water.
“I have forgotten what you said.”
“I win!” she says. “Okay your turn,” and, to my great disappointment, she removes her hand from beneath the layer of suds, and leans back against one end of the bathtub, her hair pulled up so it does not drag in the water.
“Alright,” I say, and whisper my phrase into her ear, my hand now submerging beneath the bubbles. She waits a moment, biting one side of her lower lip. I have particularly dexterous fingers that are good at distracting receivers of words or phrases (in this case, her).
“My breasts are like ripe cantaloupe,” she says, and she raises an eyebrow. “You don’t have very dexterous fingers, do you?”
I imagine my fingers dropping from my hands into the water, clogging the drain.
“Well, you still got it wrong,” I say.
“What? What did I get wrong?”
“You changed the pronoun.”
“Please. Don’t be a sore loser.”
“I’m not. But it’s not what I said.”
“It’s perfectly acceptable to assume that by ‘your breasts’ you were talking about my breasts.”
“I don’t deny that—but it’s still not what I said.”
“But my response implied the exact nature of your phrase.”
“Implication isn’t in the rules.”
“What rules? This is a dirty, bathtub version of telephone. I don’t think they make rules.”
“If that’s how you want to play.”
“You’re upset that I criticized your fingers.”
“No. I just thought you liked it when I . . . you know.” I waggle my fingers, above the surface of the water.
“I do, I do. It’s just that . . . you don’t have to be so literal about it. You know, getting to the point so quickly.”
“I thought that was the point.”
“Half the fun is the . . . circumambulation. The metaphorical conceits. When you don’t say what you really want to say.”
This is not what happens.
This, beneath the bubbles, is a cancerous bit of fantasizing—between the water and the outside air, the bubbles form a thin film of realism, the mediation of a kind of linguistic ferocity. Beneath the bubbles, the world is muted, amorphous, full of inaccurate comparisons. Above the soap, a dangerous culmination of words and images that demonstrates a marked lack of imagination, hard-edged and paranoid. This game, as such, has no relevance other than the fulfillment of the all encompassing desire to combine these two states—above and below the water’s surface.
“Please,” she says. “Let’s keep playing. Perhaps the game would go better with more people.”
“I’m not into orgies,” I say.
“No, you’re not listening,” she says. “Again with the literal interpretations.” She stands up. The water is draining from the tub and it’s getting cold.
Towels are left in a pile next to the now empty wine bottle. We walk naked through the house. There is a perforation of meaning here, on this night where slick areas of skin rub together and fingers become toes, stubby and unwieldy, no longer dexterous.
“Jesus, I’m sorry I said anything,” she says. “I was just hoping for a little finesse. You’ve got the fingers of a surgeon, the tongue of a pit viper—all those multi-syllabic words.”
There is a field of study called memetics—lots of systems analysis, bird calls, computer simulations, monkeys, linguistics, urban myths. As the story goes, the meme, like the physical gene, is a cohesive grouping of elements that can be passed from one individual to the next. Like the gene, the meme is susceptible to mutation, and this mutation is essential to the continuation of the meme. Also like the gene, the meme is selfish. It wants nothing more than to reproduce itself. But while the gene must be passed on through the squishy exchange of fluids, or the laying and fertilizing of eggs, the meme can reproduce only through language—not the complicated subject/verb/object game, with tongues flapping around (although that too). Any form of communication, be it facial expressions or the intermittent flashing of a cathode ray, will pass the meme from one individual to the next.
“This is becoming long-winded,” she says. “I’m never going to remember all this.”
“I’m less interested in the rules now that we’re out of the tub,” I say.
Still wet, we climb into bed. She has removed my fingers, placing them in the top dresser drawer.
“You’ll have to use your tongue,” she says. “Tell me a story.”
“I thought I was.”
“That’s not a story. That’s a lecture. I’m rarely aroused by lectures.”
The doorbell rings.
“Don’t answer it.”
“I have to answer it.”
“Hi, there!” The man from the bank is at the front door. “Just was in the neighborhood and thought I’d have you sign a few . . . and I see, by your lack of clothing, that I’ve come at a bad time.”
“Yes, well it’s almost nine, and . . .”
He is short. His fingers do not look dexterous. Probably all those long hours at the bank.
“Well this will only take a second. Perhaps you have a towel or something to cover up with. Sorry for the intrusion, but tax season is coming up, fiscal year ending and all—just wanted to get all our ducks in a row, so they say. Do you need a pen?”
“Here’s the thing,” I say. “I and the woman who lives here—with me—and whose relationship to me I do not have to explain to you, were in the middle of . . . you know, that thing people do when they get all excited about each other’s bodies. So, if this could wait until Monday . . .”
“Sure, sure. I understand.” His face curls into a ball of concentration. “It’s just that, you are one of our more valued customers—what with your large amount of borrowing from various financial institutions, including our own. We’d just like to stay in close touch.” He coughs into his fist with little or no dexterity. “Since you haven’t returned any of our phone calls, or letters, or emails . . .”
“Yes, well . . . Monday then.”
I attempt to shut the door, but the man from the bank places his foot in the door frame.
I sigh. He sighs.
“I’m afraid I must insist,” the man from the bank says. “Please, sir, let’s not make this any harder than it needs to be.”
He notices, absently, my lack of fingers.
“Mr. Man From The Bank,” I say, waving my deformed hands in front of his face. “How would you like to join me and my partner in a little game of dirty telephone? I’m afraid we’ve already drained the bathtub, but I’m sure we could find another suitable venue.”
The man from the bank looks from my stubby fists to the large pile of papers he’s holding. The papers are a slaughterhouse of red ink.
“I’m not sure my wife would approve,” he says.
“Invite her to join us,” I say. “The more the merrier. Who can say no to telephone?”
Thirty minutes later, I, my new wife (the man from the bank suggests that we get married—for tax purposes—so here we are) the man from the bank, and his wife (who is so nervous she has yet to take off her socks) are all seated on opposite corners of the bed, without clothes, save for the man from the bank’s wife’s socks.
“Good, firm mattress,” says the man from the bank, testing the bed’s tension with two fingers. “How much it set you back?”
My new wife and I exchange glances (we speak in languages all our own—subtleties and innuendoes that suggest meanings and intuit understanding).
“We’re all friends here,” my new wife says, and pats the man from the bank on his bare, sunburned shoulder. His wife yelps and retreats to the bathroom, apologizing profusely.
“She’s just a bit anxious,” says the man from the bank.
We wait for her to return.
Without knocking, my new in-laws walk into the room, followed by various aunts and uncles, ancient grandparents, and several children, who I assume are some sort of cousins, or nieces, nephews.
“We just wanted to stop by and congratulate you on your blissful union,” they say—the new in-laws, the aunts and uncles, the ancient grandparents.
“Telephone!” The children squeal.
My new wife hides her face in her hands.
“It’s not a normal telephone game, children,” I say, trying to sound stern, adult, not naked.
The man from the bank’s wife emerges from the bathroom, a sock in each hand, smiling nervously at the children. Behind the family members, another group of people enter the room: the local gas station attendant, the woman who bags our groceries, a few co-workers, my fourth grade teacher.
“Well,” says the man from the bank, surveying the new arrivals. “This is dirtier than I like my telephone. I’ll see you early Monday morning.” They collect their clothes and leave, the man from the bank’s wife muttering something about the untidy state of our bathroom.
The children, who are probably cousins, have already started their own game of telephone (the clean kind)—they giggle and whisper into each other’s ears. One child, an angry looking boy with glasses, has retrieved my fingers from the top dresser drawer and is shoving them up his nose.
“Telephone?” my fourth grade teacher says. She is wearing the same periwinkle, floral-patterned dress I remember from childhood. “Wonderful! I’ll be the moderator to make sure everyone is playing correctly. Now everyone get into a circle, and we’ll go clockwise, starting with me.”
“I’m getting back in the tub,” says my new wife, and heads for the bathroom.
“Well,” I say, pitching my voice over the milling rumble of the crowd. “It was nice of all of you to drop by. We’ve all had a really lovely time, and I hope we can do it again really soon.”
No one is paying attention. As my fourth grade teacher’s word or phrase passes from one person to the next, clockwise, I slip into the bathroom after my new wife and shut the door behind me. She sits in the bathtub, letting hot water splash over her toes.
“There are some people with whom you should never play telephone,” she says and pulls her hair back up so it doesn’t drag in the water.
“That little boy has my fingers up his nose.”
“We’ll wash them later. Are you getting in?”
“I don’t really feel like any more telephone tonight,” I say, stepping into the tub. “I’m telephoned out. Let’s just soak.”
Steam rises from her legs, her arms, her back. I breathe in the pungent scent of bath salts. The sounds of telephone in the other room become faint, muffled and absorbed by the mist settling over the room, until the din disappears completely.
I sigh. She sighs.
Both our hands disappear beneath the surface of the water.