Hott Lipps by Matthew Clark Davison
Matthew Clark Davison explains that the idea for his essay “Hott Lipps” began with a memory and a voice. When someone mentioned CBs during dinner on his first night at a writing residency, “a memory jolted me,” he writes in his author’s note. “I talked on a CB to solicit truckers when I was a kid. Not as a lonely little boy,” he told them. “But as a woman with the handle Hott Lipps.” In spite of his plans to write something else, he found himself writing the opening line: “Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine. This is Hott Lipps. Anybody out there?”
In this voice-driven, memory-driven essay, Davison explores the alter ego persona Hott Lipps he created as a twelve-year-old, a woman modeled on his favorite character in the movie Grease: the wisecracking, sexually experienced Rizzo. Sandy, the innocent heroine of Grease, is a “dabbler, a game player,” the young narrator tells us. “I bet she’ll go right back to her saddle shoes and poodle skirts….” She’s not “hungry like Rizzo and me.” Hungry for acceptance, companionship, love, Davison’s narrator is at once innocent and worldly, young and old beyond his years. Avid for information about femme boys like him that no one around him provides, he listens to Dr. Ruth and watches Phil Donahue, he gives blow jobs to his friend E. and guys on the block. E. is “already a man,” the narrator explains, “something I am not. I don’t know what I am yet, but I do not belong to the tribe that includes E., our fathers, and my brothers.” He hopes that E. or a trucker might take him away from his painful family and school environment in Massachusetts to freedom in California. In the meantime, he finds limited protection in what he calls his “fort,” a two-story shed at E.’s house where he smokes cigarettes and solicits truckers on his CB.
When the young narrator describes Rizzo as “one part tender, three parts tough,” he could be describing himself. “I felt and feel powerful and brave, then and now,” Davison writes in his author’s note, “because of surviving the loneliness of my younger life and because of my Queerness.” He wanted, he writes, “to infuse the essay with what I consider a type of Queer sensibility, where elements of horror, absurdity, comedy, beauty, and tragedy all share space.” Davison achieves emotional complexity in “Hott Lipps” with his remarkable use of a child’s point of view that is at once heartbreaking, funny, devastating, and uplifting. —CRAFT
“Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine. This is Hott Lipps. Anybody out there?” I release the button, light a cigarette, take a drag, then exhale. Today, no E., and almost nothing but static on the CB radio. The space heater tries, but she’s no match for the wind delivering early December cold through the gaps in the fort’s boards. My Walkman ran out of batteries a half hour ago, so I listen to the hiss and hum of the wind, CB static, and a trucker’s occasional voice warning of speed traps or road and weather conditions. No one has answered my call, but that does not deter me, or Hott Lipps, whose breathy voice lives in my chest. She, like me, needs to be delivered.
I’ve been called a monster by those who see her in me, and maybe I am. When I get real quiet, it seems to me there are no monsters. Or maybe, there’s a monster in us all. Either way, what they hate about me is the thing I love the most, and I’m determined to get out of here and back to California.
So I do paper routes, snow shoveling, babysitting, and lawn mowing. I’m saving for my own car in case I can’t get a trucker. In case I can’t convince E. to take me from this place. What I’ll do when I get to California is still murky. As Hott Lipps, I dream of being an actress, landing roles like Rizzo, leader of the Pink Ladies in the movie Grease. Everyone would say that my plans are unrealistic. Even if a trucker would take my mouth instead of hers, it doesn’t mean I can join him for the haul. What would he tell the waitress in the diner or another trucker who sees me hopping out of his passenger’s side?
Holding the CB, I imagine floating above all these obstacles. For now, I feel one-hundred percent Hott Lipps, and my imagined trucker will be proud to have me on his arm. He wants me, there with him, at a diner’s center table. He’ll order me the egg plate with bacon, toast, and hashbrowns, and insist I get a chocolate chip waffle or blueberry pancakes for dessert.
The CB is a rectangular box that would typically be mounted to a cop car’s or truck’s dash. In this case, it sits next to me on the shelf here in this two-story shed. The ground floor houses a table saw, lawnmower, dozens of tools—axes, pliers, hammers, wrenches—which hang from a pegboard wall, each outlined precisely in white chalk, like bodies at a crime scene.
An hour ago, I climbed a ladder and unlatched a small door, which opens to a boy’s getaway, a teenage version of a tree house belonging to E., my only friend. Lately, E. gets stuck at his dad’s new place in Chelmsford, so I’m here alone. E. isn’t like me. He’s already a man, something I am not. I don’t know what I am yet, but I do not belong to the tribe that includes E., our fathers, and my brothers.
I have to go soon. The fort’s window faces the sinking afternoon sun. I can’t see it clearly, but it’s fading from gold to bronze through the plastic E. put up in a failed attempt to keep out the cold.
The fort is wide and long enough for two, but you can’t stand up. On my knees, my head touches the ceiling. Two bodies make it warmer. Alone, I pull the blanket from the thin mattress, wrap it around my shoulders. I lean against the far wall, and persist, waiting to see if E. will come home as the clock ticks toward dinnertime, when I’ll need to deliver my papers. Every few seconds I say it again: “Breaker one-nine. This is Hott Lipps. Anybody out there?” I release the button of the mouthpiece, which I hold very close to my glossed lips. When it makes contact with the air, the moisture in my breath freezes into puffs. I imagine those molecules entering through the holes in the CB, then traveling down its curly cord out of the speaker and into the ears of someone who will hear me, then see me, then take me from this place.
“Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine. This is Hott Lipps. Is anybody out there?” I’ve perfected her woman voice over the buzz of the space heater’s orange coil. I say the words again and again.
When E. described the limits of the CB’s signal—just three miles—I felt relief and dread. Relief that if I find a trucker, I’ll be able to get to him. Dread of what will happen when he sees me instead of Hott Lipps.
E.’s xeroxed booklet of CB slang rests in my lap as I sit on the mattress, back against the boards. I’ve almost memorized it. Hott Lipps was born after I learned the definition of Lot Lizard: In exchange for a fee, she entertains truckers before they continue their long hauls.
I imagine Hott Lipps looks like Rizzo, the brunette I mentioned from the movie Grease. Everyone thinks Sandy, the blonde, is so pretty. But Sandy isn’t hungry like Rizzo and me. She’s a dabbler, a game player. They don’t show it in the movie, but I bet she’ll go right back to her saddle shoes and poodle skirts, ditching the lipstick, cigarettes, and hot pants soon after landing the handsome, athletic Danny.
Except for my spiky hair, which I like, I avoid the mirror because it reminds me how different I look than in my mind. And not just different from Hott Lipps and Rizzo, whom I so badly want to be, but different from how I imagine myself as a boy. I try to work with what I’ve been given, but it’s no use. Like a girl, they all say: how I sip through a straw, tie my shoes, tighten my bathrobe belt, spread cheese dip on a cracker, walk, run, talk, throw, eat, laugh, catch.
“Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine. Hott Lipps here. Any lonely guys out there in need of some company?” The CB shelf runs along the wall with the window. The mattress takes up half the floor’s width. The ashtray, my cigarette pack and lighter, and E.’s motor parts are scattered across the other half.
I look around the fort—at the cigarette butt-filled ashtray, the moisture-warped Penthouse magazine on the brown rug, the greasy gears of who knows what car part—and long to get back to California.
Like I said, sometimes E. forgets about me and goes to his daddy’s place in Chelmsford. They work on a Dodge Dart and a motorcycle together in the hours after school. Next winter, E.’ll have his permit. By then, the Dart will be up and running. I’m not banking on it, but I dream that if I don’t find a trucker first, E.’ll drive me to California, then once we’re settled, both my mom and his will ditch their problems and join us.
“Breaker one-nine,” I plead. “Hott Lipps here. Who’s got their ears on?”
Then, suddenly, out of the static, “Copy that, Hot Lipps. This is Jimmy Dean on 495, en route to Beantown before heading west. What’s your twenty? Out.”
My insides gush heat and blood. The crescendo of my heartbeat echoes in the small space. The sudden hardness in my underwear oddly seems to make me more Hott Lipps and less myself. A “twenty,” the stapled-together dictionary tells me, is my location. Beantown is Boston. I wonder: how far west will he go?
“Jimmy Dean? As in sausage? I like sausage,” I say lamely, my neck burning. “My twenty? Heading to the rest stop close to mile eight-seven. Looking for company?”
It’s the end of 1982, in a suburb forty miles outside of Boston, where my parents moved my brothers and me two years ago. Now, I’m twelve years old, prepubescent and fey, and here, in this cold place, I will become accustomed to failure.
I imagine Jimmy Dean, lonely like me, about to cross this country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the opposite of my family’s trip. I imagine he can use the company. If he doesn’t already know, I can tell him all about California. We moved here from a city called San Jose, a place so special there’s even a song about it. There, I had things I don’t have here: avocados; orange and palm trees; friends. In California, my mom laughed as we bit into warm, sugary, cinnamon churros while shopping for tube socks at the huge flea market down the hill from our little house. I remember my older brother liking me, teaching me how to ride his bike, and the two of us climbing the peach tree in our tiny backyard.
“Copy that, sexy Hott Lipps. Would love to feed you some sausage. Must be my lucky day, ’cause I’m plannin’ a stop at the Chelmsford nap trap. Come by and say hi.”
My whole body is buzzing, like I smoked a hundred cigarettes on an empty stomach. I can get to that rest stop on my bicycle before dark. Easily.
The blanket falls off my shoulders, and I light another cigarette. I used to worry the smell of smoke on my clothes would get me in trouble, but everyone who could punish me is preoccupied.
Jimmy Dean asks me to change to channel one-four.
I think of Rizzo, one part tender, three parts tough. “What’s in it for me, Jimmy Dean?” I say.
“Come find out, sweetheart. Over and out.”
I switch the CB from channel nineteen to fourteen, and wait as long as I can. I’ve gotten this far with other truckers, but no further. Maybe they worry that I’m a cop working undercover, like I see on TV. “Jimmy Dean?” I finally say, but I forget I’m her and use my boy voice. Nothing but static, and instantly, I’m terrified, even though my Hott Lipps voice is only a bit different from my boy voice, which has yet to drop deep like E.’s, like my older brother’s. Still, I fear that I’ve blown my cover, and he’s gone forever.
“Breaker one-four,” he says. “J. Dean here listenin’ for my gal Hott Lipps.”
Before, all I could think of was sausage. Now I think of James Dean, and how my mom says John Travolta, who played Danny in Grease, reminds her of him. I’ve seen pictures of James Dean. I imagine the trucker looks like John Travolta, James Dean, and E. mashed together.
“Copy that, Jay,” I say. Nerves make my throat tighter, my voice higher, more womanly, and I’m grateful.
“Describe your hips and feet,” Jimmy says.
I close my eyes, pull from my cigarette, breathe in thinking of Rizzo, then exhale. “My hips are big and curved. Especially compared to my tiny waist and feet.”
“And which pair of your lips is hot?” Jimmy asks, his voice quivering like mine. “Those your upstairs or downstairs?”
It finally registers what he’s asking.
“Both,” I whisper.
He’s convinced I’m her, and now everything in me is pulsing: armpits, wrists, temples, crotch.
Jimmy Dean says, “I want those hot lips on my gear shaft. How much we looking at?”
I’m sweating. Jimmy isn’t the first trucker I’ve gotten to believe I’m Hott Lipps, but he is the first who I’ve gotten to stop and wait. A sudden terror pulls at me because this might happen. I asked for ten bucks but now wonder if I should’ve asked for more. At least it’s more than I get paid for my paper route. It takes me two hours to mow the Reagans’ lawn, even with their tractor mower, and that pays ten. I figure the blow jobs I’ve given take five minutes. Less.
It’s too late now, it’s what I’ve agreed to.
He tells me to hurry, he only has an hour.
“Be there as soon as I can,” I say. After he tells me the color of his truck and the last three of his license plate, I pick a pen out of my backpack and write blue 2BC on my palm. I say, “Copy that, Jimmy Dee. Ten-four.”
I start to count. I decide a lot of things by counting. If I get to five hundred and E. isn’t home, I’m going to ride my bike to the rest stop. I’m good at blow jobs, I tell myself, hoping that might compensate for what I lack. It’s already getting dark, so I need to hurry. Outside the fort I can hear E.’s neighbors. Earlier, as I locked my bike, Mr. Hensley pulled up in his pickup, with its bed full of Christmas trees. Three? Four of them? I doubt my mom will even get one this year.
Thanksgiving came just last week, and it was a bust at my house, and I loved it. No turkey. No dad. No saying what we’re grateful for. No faking. Mom worked a twenty-four-hour shift at the hospital for double-overtime and my brothers and I ate junk food, each in front of his own TV. Later, I came here. E.’s mom, Joy, prepared me leftovers, crisping sage leaves in brown butter to crumble on the stuffing. The kitchen smelled like I imagine my future.
For now, I count to myself (one, two, three…) as I clean up the fort, folding the blanket and tucking the Penthouse—the one E. usually looks at while I blow him—under the mattress. E. only likes the pictures, but earlier, I read a story in the magazine called “Her Rapture.” I hated it, but not at first when I imagined myself as the woman in the story. Only when I got to the end and she’s never smart or funny or skilled at sex stuff, like Rizzo and me. She just lies there, stupid, as the man imagines her a dick-hungry nympho.
I’ve already counted to fifty, and for a second, as I pack my pen and Walkman into my backpack, I picture E. and I married one day, his mom and my mom together in the kitchen, laughing and cooking holiday dinners with crispy sage. This thought makes me think I shouldn’t go, I shouldn’t meet Jimmy Dean.
We’re in the same grade, but E. got held back twice and started school late, so he is hairy, and his voice is deep, and when no one is watching, he likes me. I make him laugh. I make him cum. He’s not the only one. There are two guys on my block, one my age, one older, which is how I know I’m good at blow jobs. Each time, the second it’s over, they all pretend it never happened, but E.’s the only one who pretends without making me leave.
I’ve counted to one hundred. I wish I had time to go home and get my wig, maybe even my mom’s uniform. Mom calls me her tall one, and talks to me and touches me the most, but she doesn’t treat me like she treats my brothers.
When she’s at work or too tired to get up from bed, I’m the one trusted to cook, to dust, to wash and fold the laundry. I separate the light from the dark, soak the whites in hot with a cup of bleach for an hour before pressing start. I study her so someday I can make someone, maybe E., maybe Jimmy Dean, happy.
I even look like my mom. I had no Halloween costume this year. I wanted to be Rizzo. Instead, I threw on my mom’s nurse’s uniform. I rolled on her hose, and laced up her cushioned platform shoes. The wig was from one of her cancer patients who had died, and I’d stashed it away with my gloss in the closet in the upstairs bathroom. I often wore the wig and gloss behind the locked door, stared at myself in the mirror. On Halloween, I spread the gel from my pot of gloss not only on my lips, but on my cheeks and eyelids too. I lit a match and burned the corner of a wine cork and lined my eyes. Part of me knew it was stupid, but a force beyond reason compelled me not only to leave the bathroom, but the house.
Under their dim porch lights, neighbors looked down to my pillowcase half-full of candy, squinted, then called me by my mother’s name. I just said, “Trick or treat.”
Two beats passed before the neighbors grabbed candy from their plastic jack-o’-lanterns and transferred it to my pillowcase. During that brief pause, time slowed, and I felt something like power. As if, without moving, standing there in my mother’s clothing, I transferred some kind of forceful energy, one that caused the neighbors’ expressions to morph. As if I’d duped them, breaking the rules, not only of Halloween, but of something bigger.
Someone called my father because by the time I got home, he was waiting. So often my father called me a girl, even in my boy clothes, trying my best to act like my brothers. Why then, was he so surprised? He’s the one who called me a monster and punched me. It landed right below the heart, so hard I gasped, shocked with the sensation of it, a sudden and sharp burning in my chest. I met my father’s gaze. For the briefest moment, his confused expression and how I felt in my costume made it seem that our roles, adult and child, had switched.
At church, at home, at school, I felt punched in the heart all the time. Finally, someone had the courage to do it. It hurt, but it also confirmed the feeling. In that way it was a gift, another way I could trust myself. Later, I’d imagine the moment just before the punch landed, before his fingers turned to fist. Now I want to take his face in my hands, reassure him.
Even then, I knew something of the thinness of the line separating disgust and adoration. Back in my bedroom, I did not take off the wig, but when I pulled off the nurse’s uniform, I looked in the mirror at my body, and the skin was already beginning to bruise. My eyeliner had smeared, and standing there in my underwear and wig and makeup, I thought, he’s right: I look like a monster, but a beautiful one. One I hope someone, maybe Jimmy Dean, will see, and instead of punching me, will overpower me with his love.
My counting reaches two hundred. I pull on my jacket. E.’s and my interactions are mostly right here on this crap mattress, in this shit fort, doing the things that make him feel good: Doritos and drugs, Penthouse and booze, car parts and blow jobs. As much as I want him to, I worry he’ll never leave this place. He’s from here. His father is from here. And he’s too much like his father.
We don’t have any classes together. He doesn’t go to church and never comes to my house. His dirt bike gets him to and from school on back roads. Even when snow or ice prevents him from riding, we live in different neighborhoods, so we’re not on the same bus. It wouldn’t matter. He, like the others, won’t be seen with me. “Meet me at the fort,” he whispers in the hallway without looking up. Half the time, like today, he forgets.
I’m used to people acting two different ways. The nerdy kids in my neighborhood are sometimes nice. It doesn’t bother me when they pretend not to know me at school. I don’t care about kids. I like adults. I like men. Not the men I know now, but the ones I will someday, like the ones on TV, in the movies. I like the men on the CB, like Jimmy Dean, who talk to Hott Lipps. Hott Lipps loves men and that’s why she can make Jimmy Dean wait, pay money.
I’ve never watched cartoons with my brothers. I go to the basement and watch Phil Donahue. And at night, my AM/FM radio is tuned into a call-in show with Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a sex therapist, whose cute accent and grandma’s voice connect me to the callers. Many are married. For most calls, she recommends K-Y gel or a licensed urologist. But in almost every show, a boy calls, worried. One who prefers to kiss boys or to wear girl clothes or, like me, both. Ruth, like Phil, is kind to them, and I’ve learned how to collect and store kindness inside, even when it’s not meant for me.
I can survive the shit kids dish out. The thing I don’t know if I can survive is love. I receive it from my dog, my mom and my little brother, from Joy, and a couple of the women in the neighborhood who hire me to babysit or shovel snow or invite me in from the cold when I collect the subscription cost of the newspaper. There’s even a bit of it in my father’s punch to my heart. Their love gets inside me. In that same place where I store the kindness I hear on the radio and see on TV.
My seven-year-old brother loves me most pure, but every day he’s more like my older brother and father. Their love for me is dangerous, because they’re also ashamed, convinced it’s me that makes them feel that way. It won’t be long before he’ll inherit their shame.
One of my customers, a neighbor lady on my route, offers me “just a splash” of her white zin whenever I come by to collect for her subscription. She called my Halloween costume “just great.” She asked me about my lip gloss, and gave me three whole Butterfingers. She’s kind and lonely.
I have a lot of practice with opposites, but that doesn’t mean I’m good at them. Terror and excitement. Lust and disgust. Rage and adoration. Shame and pride. These are combinations I know. Each individual feeling has its own set of bodily sensations. When they get too mixed up, my thoughts get dangerous.
My counting has reached three hundred and fifty.
There are two kinds of loneliness. My mom and the neighbor lady have the kind that gets stuck. Then there’s my kind, the one that gets you to do what others wouldn’t dare.
I will have to ride my bike along a small stretch of the highway, but I can do it. The breakdown lane is huge, and it can’t be more than a few hundred feet from where I’d enter off the main road leading to Chelmsford, where Jimmy Dean will be waiting for me.
I look at my palm. Sweat has smeared it, but I can still read blue 2BC. What happens if E. sees me on my way to Chelmsford? His dad lives not too far from the highway entrance, and there’s only one road from there to here. All this frightens me, so I decide if E. comes home before my counting reaches five hundred, I’ll stay awhile. If he’s drunk or high or pretending to be drunk or high, he’ll want sex. Either way, I’ll do it. Whether or not I go to the rest stop, I’ll be late for my route and have to deliver the papers again in the pitch dark. I can’t ask Mom to drive me because she has to get shit done on her day off. I’ll try and collect all of the warmth I can from E.’s or Jimmy’s body and take it with me.
When my counting reaches four hundred, I turn off the space heater, zip my down jacket, pull on my hat and scarf, latch the door, start down the ladder to get my bike. On the ground, as I unlock my ten-speed, I see that Mr. Hensley has taken the Christmas trees from the bed of his truck and I wonder where he’s put them. Who has three or four Christmas trees? I look for E. in the direction of the end of the road.
I’ll do anything E. tells me to do, even things I don’t want to, even things that make me sick in the gut. I figure that maybe, each time I do, it means I will, one day, get him to take me to California.
It’s Monday, but for a second I think it’s Tuesday, and I get that horrible feeling of having missed something. Tuesdays I have confirmation class. My teachers, the Browns, are nice, so I go there, but I’m worried. Tomorrow I have to answer whether or not I believe in a bunch of stuff, including miracles. The only miracle I know of happened while delivering papers in the dark last winter. I saw a tiny glint of reflection from headlights in a snowbank. I followed it and it turned out to be the plastic cap of a berry-tinted pot of lip-gloss, which I now pull out of my pocket and reapply to my lips.
My counting reaches five hundred.
My chest tightens. Mom is off tonight, and my older brother will be at practice until late. With Dad gone, I don’t want to leave her alone. I could run home, do my paper route, and maybe even cook dinner for her and my little brother. They love when I fancy up mac and cheese. My secret is adding Dijon mixed in with grated parm, then cut-up hotdogs, seared on cast iron.
I get on my bike. It’s cold, but as I warm up, I think, if a car turns into E.’s street by the time I reach its end, I’ll go get my warmth from my trucker Jimmy Dean. If I don’t see a car, I’ll go home and wonder what kind of lonely Jimmy and I will be without each other. Who knows. Maybe Jimmy would prefer me to Hott Lipps. I see them on Phil Donahue and hear them on Dr. Ruth. The kind of men who do. There’s a T where E.’s street meets the main one. It’s where you take a left to go to Chelmsford, a right to go home. As I reach the end of the street, headlights appear on the leafless trees in the field across the main road. Any second, I’ll know which way to turn.
MATTHEW CLARK DAVISON is the author of the novel Doubting Thomas (Amble Press 2021). He is creator and teacher of The Lab :: Writing Classes with Matthew Clark Davison. The textbook version of The Lab, coauthored by bestselling writer Alice LaPlante, will be published by W. W. Norton. His prose has been published in BOMB, Literary Hub, Lambda Literary Review, The Advocate, Exquisite Pandemic, Guernica, The Atlantic Monthly, Lumina Journal, and others. Matthew is a member of The Writers Grotto and serves on the board of Foglifter Journal and Press. Find him on Instagram at @matthewclarkdavison.
Featured image by Igor Voronetski, courtesy of Unsplash.