At first I think it must be a knife with its pointy end stuck into a rubber ball. Maybe she keeps it like that to keep the blade sharp. I pick it up, feel its weight, run my finger along the cracks. It has a worn wooden handle which is about four inches long. I think it must be something she defends herself with—but from whom, I cannot decide. Does Sharon have enemies that might sneak into her bedroom in the night? The blade is dull and rusty, rounded on the edges, and three inches protrude from the handle. The rubber ball is hard, cracked, the size of a tennis ball, and a dusty blue color. When I tug on the blade, I find that it is stuck good and tight into the ball. When I swing it around, the ball is heavy; I flip it side to side and feel the weight of it bend the metal.
What is this thing?
I’m cleaning houses for the recently departed, dying, or permanently relocated. Sharon is turning 80 this weekend and has of late been forgetting to eat, so she is being moved in with her son, Ben. Over the phone, Ben suggested I choose a couple of the scarves from her closet: she has an incredible collection of scarves, all from France and made of silk. I take a yellow one and a blue one with white polka-dots. I like my job; it pays well, nearly twelve dollars an hour, plus tips—sometimes there are tips—and I am left alone. I love the feeling of rooting around through a stranger’s belongings never knowing what I will find, what clues I might uncover that will offer a little glimpse of their past. I put the thing down, shrugging, but can’t seem to move on with my work until it’s been identified. Picking it back up, I notice it has a label—faded and torn. Most of the words are illegible and I try hard to decipher them. Just barely I make out:
Ecstasy, Prolonged, Unbridled, Partner, Blood
Blood? I squint at it. Yes, blood. Why blood? Blood changes everything. I drop the thing back on the bedside table where I found it and stand frowning at it while I think. With the discovery of the words, everything in the room is changed, suddenly suspect. The cat, the windows, the scarves—even the house itself—are called into question. Who is Sharon, really? Who is Ben? Could Sharon be in a cult of some sort, or maybe it is an artifact—but that does not explain its location right beside the bed. The cat is in the room, purring and rubbing against my leg; I stare at him suspiciously and imagine that he has something to do with this thing. My mind reels with the possibilities.
The thing in Sharon’s bedroom is particularly amazing, but sex toys are actually the most common things I find when sorting through other people’s stuff. Cleaning for my own mother over a Thanksgiving holiday I spent home from college one year, I noticed something lit up within the plastic laundry bin in her bedroom. I reached in to pull it out and when my hand wrapped around it I thought, Oh, of course, it is a flashlight. But, once it was out—in my hand, in the clear—I realized I was holding a glowing rubber phallus, curved at the end with a cluster of tentacle-like feelers at the tip. It reminded me of a sea anemone.
I set it by the couch where my mother was sleeping. In the morning she kept trying excuses out on me: “It’s your sister’s. It’s a joke. I don’t use it. I don’t even know how it got there. What do you care anyway? I get lonely sometimes. Who can blame me?”
I laughed and told her to keep it in her dresser drawer, or under her bed. “That’s where people keep them, Mother, under their beds.”
I was very young, perhaps eleven years old, when I found my first—babysitting for a firefighter and his housewife. After their kids were asleep I’d gone snooping and found the vibrator under the bed: a very large specimen with a fleshy, realistic skin. I instantly recognized it as a penis but sincerely mistook it as a gag gift of some sort.
Funny, I thought, a massager shaped like a penis.
I turned it on and let it vibrate against my neck for a while, but it was unsatisfactory and awkward, so I went downstairs to raid the candy left over from the annual Halloween party at the Volunteer Fire Department. A few babysitting gigs later, and after discovering the couple’s porno collection, as well as the stack of erotic literature also kept under the bed, I figured out why someone might want a penis-shaped-thing which vibrated. However, being still so relatively young, my first thought was to fellate the thing—which in retrospect was not only stupid but disgusting.
I was stumbling gracelessly into puberty and becoming fascinated by the fabulous idea of sex. I would eventually try out all kinds of masturbatory devices, though nothing you’d find in a sex shop.
I don’t really know much about Sharon besides what I can see from photos and notes. It was her son that hired me to clean her house, so Sharon and I have never spoken. Ben and I went to high school together and I might have had a small crush on him. I look on the table where I first found the thing, a low wooden table topped by a large embossed silver bowl. Though I am not a religious person, the bowl reminds me of baptisms and holy water. The only other things in the room are prayer books and beads, an electric foot-bath, and a number of glamour shots of Ben. These pictures prove to be slightly more troubling than the thing, especially when viewed together. The thing simply does not fit into this room. The thing does not fit with what I can imagine of Sharon.
I keep seeing Sharon spread over the silver bowl—head held back and mouth open in prolonged ecstasy—as this thing pounds her between the legs and blood pours from her filling the basin. Would it go inside? In the vagina or up the ass? Someone could beat her with it; maybe she beats someone with it; would that feel good? Realistically, it just looks too large to go inside. Maybe you bite it, like a dog’s chew toy. Would you need a partner to use it, or could you do it alone? The label says partner. Is it violent? It looks violent. And the blood: why the blood?
The thing will not get off my mind. Were it not for the label I would simply dismiss it as a random unidentifiable object, a chew toy or some sort of massager… but the words will not allow it. Blood, ecstacy, unbridled, partner. As I clean the rest of the house everything I see and touch, I now see and touch in relation to the thing. This is a dishrag that perhaps has cleaned the blood. I am scrubbing a bathtub where perhaps a ritual has taken place. Here is a cat who may be complicit. These are her clothes: I search them for tell-tale signs of debauchery.
Before leaving Sharon’s, I memorize the thing as best I can and make a quick drawing of it. I even write the words down so I will not forget. Then, I stuff the thing inside a sock, and wrap the sock in a nightgown, and place the nightgown in the center of a box. I then mark the box SHARON’S THINGS in hopes that she will be the one to unpack it.
The next day, once my husband has left for work and our children are playing outside, I pull out my drawing, sit myself down at the computer, and—with no small amount of hesitation—type Sex Toys into the Google search box and select Images. A brick wall, a number of vegetables, children’s toy trains and rubber ducks, sex toys for dogs, pink plastic vibrating eggs, and jello breasts for the do-it-yourselfer appear on my screen.
After glancing over the results I change my search to Old Sex Toys, and one by one I view photos of ancient sex toys, reading when curiosity gets the better of me: a big round lollipop; a wooden board with a hole in it; a fuzzy mechanical jackrabbit; dildos made of glass, wood, and ivory; and massive corded metal varieties that resemble blow dryers.
Surely the best is an ivory dildo from the 1700s which was allegedly found in a French nunnery and “has a plunger action to simulate ejaculation.”
My initial search turns out to be quite funny and horribly disturbing but ultimately leaves me with only more questions: the burned penis, the fully dressed older woman on what looked to be a rowing machine with a small naked man, triple ended dildos? I hum along as I scroll through the images: 3-Way Butt Blast, Ass Thumper, Tushy Teaser, Booty Bandit, New Cummers Strap-On Kit. All of the pop-up ads lead me to question whether my husband is fully satisfied or if he might enjoy a string of anal beads.
But at the end of it all, after untold hours of furtively typing variations of old- antique- strange- rubber- sex toys into Google, I come up empty handed. I do not know what the thing in Sharon’s bedroom is, and not knowing makes it by far the most provocative and potentially naughty sex toy of all.
Every time I tie one of her scarves around my hair, I think about Sharon and her thing. When I see a dog gnawing on a ball, I think of her. The color blue, wooden knife handles, blood, and rusty blades all remind me. When I think about sex, quite often I also think of Sharon.
Almost one year after first encountering the thing I receive an email from Ben. Sharon has died. Recalling that I looked nice in her blue polka-dot head scarf, he thinks perhaps I would like to have her entire collection. “There’s so many,” he writes, “I don’t know what to do with them all.” I write back how kind he is to remember me and that I’d love to have them. After chewing it over for a while I finally decide: now or never; and ask about the thing. I tell him my strange request and attach a JPEG of a sketch, so there will be no question. “I am not interested in having it,” I write, “only knowing what it is.”
Unfortunately, Ben cannot find what I am looking for, but his curiosity is whet. “What else do you remember about it—what do you think it was?” I smile and record everything I know—its colors, the weight of bending metal, the faded label, the feel of cracked rubber. Releasing this information to Ben is like whispering a secret into a rabbit hole. I know Ben will want to talk about it. He will call me and we will talk about it. We’ll make plans to meet. Maybe we will even think about trying some of those things out together: in memory of Sharon.
Author’s note: The thing is very real—I touched it and held it. Names and situations are changed to protect the (not so) innocent. If you recognize the thing, please contact me; please tell me what it is. Unless it is a dog’s chew toy, in which case, I sincerely do not want to know.
Editor’s note: The thing is indeed real. The Rumpus sex toy investigation squad found Sharon’s Thing on the Internet. It’s a massage device called “Bongers.” You can learn more about Bongers in this scintillating video.