Sarah Rose Etter
I’m getting ready for the Tongue Party like I always do when my father’s impatience erupts.
I’m in the bathroom, in our house, and my father starts banging on the worn wooden door, pounding out a wartime beat.
“Come the hell on!’ my father bellows. “They’re waiting!”
I’m spreading silver eye shadow over my lids and stretching my lashes out with mascara. I know the men in the bar like that. I even put on their favorite outfit, a black skirt that goes high above the knee and a white tank top.
“Do you want me to have an aneurysm, Cassie?” he shouts. “They’re paying good money for this!”
Then there is another sound. He starts kicking the door, that’s my best guess.
My hands keep moving, brushing deep crimson gloss onto my lips with a small brush.
“Just a second!” I yell back. “I’m finishing my makeup!” and I form the words with my mouth wide so the red doesn’t catch on my teeth.
“They don’t give a shit about your face!” my father says. He’s kicking and pounding at once now, a furious one-man door band.
He should stop cursing at me, that’s what I think. Everything else has already been taken care of. My legs are shaven and soft. Things are going to be fine. We’ve done this twice before.
It only takes an hour and the pile of money gets higher and higher every time. The men pay twenty dollars a pop to come to the Tongue Party.
* * *
On the drive to the Tongue Party, my father is nervous, picks at his ears.
When I was younger, I used to think little animals lived in the thickets of hair in those ears. I wanted to live there, too. Now, I am sure nothing lives there there. The tufts repulse me now. Every night, I want to creep into his bedroom and trim them softly while he sleeps.
Tonight, my father can’t stop fidgeting, his fingers move like anxious birds over the steering wheel, the rear view mirror, the air conditioning vents. Finally, they rest on one knob.
He turns down the radio.
“It’s going to be different this time,” my father says. “The Tongue Party, I mean.”
“They’re going to do the same thing.”
“Then it’s not different at all. Stop trying to make me nervous.”
“I’m not trying to.”
He always does this. He over-thinks it all, gears whirring in his head constantly, forever.
“Shut up!” I say.
“It’s only your third time!”
It’s only my third time, but I know enough. I shake my head.
“I’ll be fucking fine,” I say. I know he hates when I curse.
I jam the volume button on the radio up so the music covers the fact that he’s there, in the driver’s seat, still fidgeting, still sighing.
* * *
We walk into the bar.
I sit on my stool and I order a soda like I always do because everyone knows I’m not old enough to drink just yet.
The men are always well behaved while I drink. They just watch me take sips of the soda. The men wear collared shirts in different colors and mostly have the same haircut.
The thing that gets me, at the Tongue Parties, are the eyes – browns, blues, hues of hazel and almost-black that rim coal centers and sear my skin like chemicals.
The men all blur into one wall of flesh, but the eyes hold strong, pinpricks pressed into the skin, a white heat.
My father sits by my side, silent.
I finish the last sip of soda through the straw. There is a ghost of lipstick clinging to the white plastic, stuck there after I pull my lips back.
My father stands up and begins to speak. This is when my father lines the men up, like he always does.
But before my father can finish, there’s the crash of a bar stool to the ground and hands grab my father’s shoulders.
“Fuck this guy!” one of the men yells and then my father is pushed away, far away, across the bar. I stand up to move toward him but it’s too late. There are too many bodies between us.
“We’re running this show tonight,” another man screams. There are black swirls, hairy arms, thick muscles everywhere, moving.
The room starts sizzling with something, a vibration I’ve never felt before. The air gets hot and the oxygen gets rare. The nearness of their bodies takes over my lungs. I taste fear in the back of my throat, coin penny blood metal.
“We’re doing this all at once!” one man yells over the heads of the other men. I can only see his bushy eyebrows.
I look across the bar and find my father’s face, which is bloated, red.
“There’s enough to go around!” my father yells.
He sounds desperate, protective, so much like a father that tears spring to my eyes and mingle with my makeup, creating a burning ring around each eye.
My father starts to make his way toward me again. The arms hold him back. I lose sight of him, but I can hear him howling and screeching.
“Fuck that!” one man screams. “We pay good money, we get to decide.”
And then comes a swell of hands, finding the edge of my skirt, my shoulders, my elbows. The fingers poke the panic further, deeper, down into my gut.
The Tongue Party has never been like this. Usually, the men line up real patient, one by one, dropping a twenty next to me.
This isn’t like last time. This isn’t like any time.
“Wait,” I bellow, stepping back, pushing my spine up against the cheap wood paneling. “We can just do this one at a time. Like we did before.”
“Like hell!” another man yells.
I shake my head. The fat air gets hotter. There are sweat stains on all of the shirts now. All of the drinks on the bar are orphaned. The men have never been this crazed.
“We do this how we want to!” yells a man in the middle of the crowd.
“You never did it all at once before,” I shriek. “You’re changing the rules!”
“It happens like this sometimes,” another says, quiet but cruel, hushed in my ear.
It is too late to leave. I agreed to this by showing up. I just didn’t know they could do it all at once. The thought terrifies me. I try to slow my pulse.
There are words in my mouth, but before I can push them out the men crush down.
The men at the front grab my legs and lift me, I am weightless for a moment. Then they lower me to the ground, almost gently. The floor is filthy. Small pieces of dirt and dust cling to my calves, up against my bare skin. I begin to dry heave. Usually, I sat on a chair. Usually, they line up, come one at a time.
Their hairy knuckles slide my skirt up. I had worn the skirt for this, but also not for this. My legs are now naked on the floor before them.
“Yes!” the men hiss.
Anonymous hands take off my shoes, my feet sweaty up against the air.
And then they begin.
The men lick my legs, different tongues run over my calves and shins and toes and kneecaps and the backs of my thighs.
Someone holds my legs in the air while as many mouths as possible find spaces on my skin. The men put my legs to their lips, suck at the back of my knees, lap at my ankles, slide their tongues between my toes.
“Mmm,” drifts up from the crowd hunching over me.
They keep moving. I can only shake.
Their saliva drenches my skin, swarming, lapping, stickiness, the tastes of each man’s breath on me. Men swap places with each other, make room for other foreign tongues to slide over my legs.
New tongues appear. Some of the tongues are hot and some cooler, damper.
I look down. Their bald spots are bobbing in a crowd, their pale pink and light red tongues dart over my skin, all the different mouths, the rough soft things run over my two longest limbs, they all slither.
“You didn’t have to do it like that,” I say, maybe softly, maybe quiet enough to be said to no one.
The tongues keep moving. None of the men look up.
He used to throw me off the back of boats, his boat.
On the white side, in fat black script “The Act One.” Everything glared sun on the boat, until the storms came and turned the sky purple and the water gray. My father would send me below then. When there were no storms, every afternoon, he would throw me off the back.
“Don’t throw me,” I’d squirm, hot pink bathing suit, tears starting. “There’s jellyfish!”
“There’s no goddamn jellyfish,” my father would say, breath on fire with alcohol.
He wasn’t sitting behind the giant wooden wheel, the one with spokes.
He wasn’t running up the sails.
He was holding rope in his hands.
My father would wind the rope around my waist. It was an old rope, a tough one, it always scratched me through my suit, my face was always wet.
“I h-hate this. Don’t. Please don’t. I’ll be good.”
The sun was brutally big those days, hot those days, it seemed.
Once the rope was tight enough, he would slather waterproof sunscreen onto my young shoulders.
He would move roughly, impatiently. His hands would miss spots, leave patches of my skin to burn.
“No. No,” I would say, on the boat.
“It’s going to be fun. You always hate it at first, and then you love it,” my captain father would say.
“I always hate it,” I said, every time, five, six, seven years old.
My father would lift me up, rope and all, like he was going to offer me to the sun. My heart would heave, up and down, up and down, ribcage barely containing the fear.
“Please don’t,” I’d whimper.
His eyes, bloodshot behind sunglasses, would laugh.
“It’s gonna be OK, you little baby.”
Then there would be the air, my legs flailing, my arms and elbows everywhere, grabbing at sky to hold onto something, to stop myself.
My body would smash against the salt water, my mouth would fill with brine. The rope would choke, go taut.
The boat would be pushed forward by wind, dragging me behind. The water would push around my skin, a pressure that pulled my arms and legs back, something like flying.
My father’s boat would drag me forever, that’s how it felt back then. The sun would burn my face so I’d match him, sneak between the thick patches of sunscreen until I went red speckled.
Eventually, there would come the jellyfish in the sea. The rope and the boat would drag me forward, through patches of the tentacles. The jellyfish would shock my legs, up and down, and I’d shriek as we moved.
My father would hear my yelling as I trailed behind his boat, roped to him.
“See, you’re having fun,” he’d bellow back, mistaking jellyfish-sting screams for joy.