I guess you could call it a little like a publicity stunt. Richard had been hired by the Ramses Corporation to promote safe sex in schools. What that amounted to was standing in the cafetorium or lunchroom of school after school amidst various displays on venereal disease and AIDS, wearing a thin, slightly lubricated latex membrane pulled down over the top half of his body and handing out free samples.
For this, the company paid Richard $100 a day which was more than twice what he got waiting tables at Francesca’s. Richard was a waiter by practicality; by trade, he was an actor. He had played a lot of character men in college—clowns, villains, victims and drunken uncles—and now he and his friends had been loosed on the great white way—New York City.
For almost a year now, the theatrical world lay at their eyebrows; and together they looked up at it like kids do at a candy counter they can just barely reach. Julie had gotten a bit part in a musical about Paul Revere that toured the schools, Walter was living on free samples of new breakfast cereals he handed out on street corners for Kelloggs, Brian was playing Claudius for no money in Wheelchair Hamlet in the back room of a bodega in Queens and Richard had been hired to play Ramsey the Human Condom.
The condom suit had two holes for Richard’s nostrils and slits for his eyes and mouth, but most impressive to the kids who took the samples he dispensed was the costume’s authenticity. It had a little space at the top of his head “as a receptacle to collect fluid during lovemaking” and then covered him right down to the hips with a latex film so sheer that you could see Richard’s features clearly, though slightly discolored, through the yellow/pink cast of the thin rubber. Right above his crotch, a band of tightly rolled latex clamped down hard on his stomach “to keep any sperm spillage to a minimum.”
Ramsey explained it all as he handed out the little cellophane packets to each new crowd of adolescent curiosity seekers and it worked. The condom corporation’s marketing studies had shown that Ramsey, the Human Condom was more than just good publicity. He was an animated product spokesman, a mascot and also an enormous visual aid, achieving the best understanding with youngsters of how to use the latex device. Ramsey was an excellent tool in teaching even the shyest teenager about safe sex.
Richard believed in safe sex. He did. He had carried a condom around next to the YMCA card in his wallet for eight years. Unfortunately his hands-on knowledge of sex itself was a bit limited. That little condom represented the one hope of his entire adolescent life, for Richard was still a virgin. Now at least, as Ramsey, he could act experienced.
The specially made condom suit he wore included a fleshy little latex bow tie painted black at Richard’s collar bone that he plumped and straightened whenever he became nervous, and long black formal gloves and arm coverings, making him look for all the world like a penis at a prom. With his shyness fully encased, however, plus the key phrases the corporation had given him, Richard boldly plunged in. Today he was working the lunchroom crowd at Martin Luther King Middle School for their Safe Sex Day.
“Don’t forget kids, you have to use a new condom each time you have intercourse,” Ramsey intoned jocularly. “See you put it on the head of the penis,” here he pointed to his own head, “and then roll it all the way down.”
Richard was in an open area on one side of the room, but he could already see his effect on lunchtime. There were the usual condom water balloons, condom-and-food battles, condom measuring, snapping and stretching contests going on all over the large multi-purpose room. And with the true cruelty of youth, two boys had slipped a condom into a pretty girl’s chicken vegetable soup and five others took easy pot shots at a pop-eyed, acne-faced girl, slinging peas at her with their slingshot condoms from a nearby table and driving her from the lunchroom in a lurch.
An overweight kid grabbed a condom packet then made the most of his chance encounter with the model penis.
“You use this with girls,” he asked.
“It’s protection,” explained Ramsey.
“Protection from girls?”
“Not really from girls.” Richard juggled quickly for a buzz phrase. “If you love…when you love…sex, I mean. If you have sex. This is protection.”
“From sex,” the boy asked quizzically.
“Not from sex. I mean you have the sex. Well…really…you shouldn’t be going around having sex at your age. But if you do, this protects the girl from pregnancy.”
“So why don’t she wear it,” reasoned the kid.
Richard sighed and for a weary moment fantasized the physical implication of a woman wearing a condom, then snapped to the present. What had the brochure said? He parsed his words slowly.
“It protects you from getting her pregnant, and both of you from various diseases.”
It was a very long hour of work. Sweat streamed down the inside length of the latex; waves of adolescents pressed him for condoms and Richard involuntarily flinched when the kids called him a dick. Richard’s nickname as a young child had been Dick. This, when the name had been the proud moniker of tough detectives, not a laughingstock. Now he was trying hard to inure himself against that word. Personifying a penis didn’t help.
Rubber slapping rubber and a sensation at the back of Richard’s head. He turned as a whistle sounded and he saw a woman pulling a boy from a nearby lunch table and verbally dressing him down. Richard pressed the thick rubber over his dark hair at the back of his head—ouch!—and turned to his business again. A boy had opened the cellophane wrapper of the offered gift and was looking at the fleshy rolled rubber thing.
“You put this on your dick?”
“Penis,” Ramsey corrected.
Just then a teacher approached. “I have to apologize for one of our students, Ramsey,” She was saying, but Richard just gaped. It was Karen!
She was probably the most sought-after girl at college: an extremely pretty Journalism student that he and every other male had had a crush on. What was she doing here? But it was her. It couldn’t be anyone else. Here she was, a teacher at King Middle School in a rough section of Queens! She had cut her long brown hair to a more business-like perm. But she was still radiant.
“This is the first Safe Sex Day we’ve ever had,” she explained, “and I’m not sure the students know how to handle themselves. Some of them may be finding it a bit difficult relating to a man in a penis suit.”
“Condom suit,” Richard corrected.
“I’m sorry, condom suit,” Karen repeated and let a sweet smile burn for a moment on her beautiful lips, momentarily erasing her harried teacher expression.
Richard was infatuated all over again. There was color in her cheeks and a challenge in her green eyes and pretty figure. He looked at her left hand. No ring. She was still a free woman. He pressed his lips together and touched the latex over his chest to make sure it was still there. She hadn’t recognized him. But she had called him a man—she’d said “a man in a penis suit.” Somehow that meant something.
“Condoms these days are a matter of life and death,” he heard his voice as Ramsey saying, but then a student came calling.
“Miss Volpe? Suzy is crying.”
“Excuse me,” and she left to deal with the problem, to shy Richard’s relief but Ramsey’s despair. Her dress, her face. He watched her as she made her way across the lunchroom. She was strong. She was beautiful. She looked like a teacher who believed in something. Richard might have let it go at that, but Ramsey had made up his mind. He moved through the crowd towards her, disseminating condoms as he went.
As he got near, she was leaning over, pouring empathy towards a girl crying at one of the tables. Richard stopped. What would he say? What was he doing here?
Suddenly she stood, feeling the presence of a tall pink thing standing just behind her and turned to him. “Excuse me,” Ramsey exclaimed. Richard was sweating heavily now. He paused, waiting breathlessly for what he would say next. “Remember me? Richard White from Northeastern?”
A blank stare.
He plumped his bow tie.
“Ellsworth Hall? Mrs. Mason’s class, remember?”
“Richard White?” She twisted her face trying to connect what she was hearing with what she saw before her.
“Yes, Richard! Don’t you remember? I won the class contest for best poem?”
The girl had started to cry again. Karen was nonplussed and the girl demanded attention. “Look, I have to get to my class. Come on Suzy. You’ll be fine.” She put her arm around the girl, lifted her to her feet and began walking away.
Don’t let her go! She was already a lunch table-length away.
Ramsey was adamant. Say something idiot.
Palms sweating, breath heaving, Richard followed her down between lunch tables. She turned at the last table and walked three steps to the door.
“Listen? Maybe we could get together some time.” Whether these words came out before his heels hit the pile of discarded lima beans is pure conjecture. What isn’t conjecture is that he went down hard. Penis falling in the line of duty. Condoms spraying from his hands like Fourth of July fireworks. Kids laughing and scattering like polliwogs.
There was a split second of calm before Richard’s adrenaline kicked in. He scrambled up, pulling himself erect with the help of the lunchroom benches. He checked himself. He seemed alright. The condom costume had opened a small tear around its base. Karen Volpe was long gone.
Children swarming, shouting, laughing, reaching…if anything, this stunt had made Ramsey even more popular—a field of hands for Ramsey to press the secrets of safe sex into. Like a primitive God of Infertility—a virgin phallus disseminating rubber bags to keep life from happening. A sweaty shaman for the future.
The perspiration dripped from his forehead and gathered at the edge of his eye slits looking for all the world like Ramsey was crying. Until somewhere, sometime, the lunchroom began to empty. The shouts and screams, the attention, the society of children receded.
He picked up and packed up the Ramses display into its specially built trunk. For the umpteenth time he marveled at the name the corporation had chosen for its product. Ramses the Great had been a mighty Egyptian pharoah who fathered literally hundreds of children by numerous wives in his harem.
He rolled the latex up his chest, over his head and threw it flaccid in a heap. Finally, his protection gone, he breathed fully for the first time in hours. He looked around at the mess of condom wrappers the kids had carelessly discarded on the lunchroom floor in their excitement to reach the surprise inside. Condoms were scattered among the mess. Their job was done, Richard thought. These rubbers had been demonstrators and would never test their true strength in love.
Richard hoped someday he would.