Collin Anderson Memorial Award Winner
That Gold Foil Tho
Graffiti covers the blue walls of the bathroom. At least, I think it’s blue. There’s so many embellishments, additions from its patrons that the hue underneath is more of an educated guess than a factual description. “Corey and Jessica forever” with a heart around it and “Meghan *hearts* Troy” decorate the wall. There’s also the classic ‘so-and-so is a bitch’ with Sharpie scribbling out the words. You can still make out the slurs beneath it though. The music is dulled here, buffered by the four walls of the bathroom, a respite from the constant sensory input from the bar outside. A tall brunette fixes her hair in the mirror. Another girl washes her hands. My friend Hannah leaves the second stall and grins at me. “So,” I say. “What’s the plan?” She shrugs trying to be nonchalant. I know better. “No, seriously though, are you coming home with us? Or are you good?” I ask.
“I think I’m good.” She says. I roll my eyes.
“Don’t judge. It’s been a while and he’s safe. Not to mention cute.” I reach into my purse and fish around for a second. Lip balm, a hairbrush, my wallet, a few stray, oh my gosh what am I touching right now, ew…I really should store it in a hard-shell case, but whatever. At least I remembered to bring it, right?
“Do you have protection?” I mutter. “Aha!” I exclaim before she can answer. “Got it.” The side-eye is so strong as I hand her the two-inch by two-inch gold foil packaging. Even though there’s literally no difference, nada, zilch, nyet difference between the foiled wrapped Magnums and the more commonly seen plastic-wrapped condoms, for some reason people think the foil equals better. And that, folks, is why marketing is both a major and a profession. Hannah takes the package and stuffs it into her purse. “Thanks, mom.” She’s teasing me, but I know she’s grateful. This isn’t the first time I’ve passed a condom to a friend.
Open the door to her office and immediately to your right as you walk in, sitting silently atop her college-sized refrigerator is a basket filled to the brim with colorful wrappers, some foil some plastic. Dip a hand into the basket, stir it aroundor or grab a handful and take them. Free condoms are a staple of Jena Curtis’ office and are basically provided by the college. “But I didn’t have access to protection,” is not a line that will work when you attend SUNY Cortland. Don’t want to visit Jena’s office? That’s okay too. The ‘Safe Sex Epress’ sets up weekly in student dense areas, their table covered with lube and both external and internal condoms, all free for the taking.
“If you pull that tray out and put it in on the cooling rack, we can finish these ribbon cookies before we have to start the cut outs,” says my grandmother. I gingerly pull out the pan of green cookies, pivot, settle it on the shelf and then shove in a pan of cutout cookies where the green ones previously baked. “Done, Gram.” I say. She barely takes a breath before starting on her next list of instructions, “Measure out sugar on the scale over there and when you’re done with that you can weigh out the lard.” Her hands, gnarled from age and years of working the intricate piping on wedding cakes now stir pans of boiling liquid on the stove. Saucepans cover all four burners and thermometers stick out of two of them. Steam begins rising from one and Gram quickly grabs the wooden spoon and swirls the liquid until the steam dissipates. ‘Gram, can I ask you a question?” she’s used to my questions in the same way she’s used to multitasking. “Sure,” she answers. “Paul and I are thinking about having another baby and well, we were just wondering, did you have any trouble getting pregnant?” I ask shyly. Mennonites don’t talk about babies or bodies or sex. I’m hoping that when my gram got kicked out of the church she left some of her discretion at the altar and will answer my question. She spins so quickly I think she’s going to smack me with the wooden spoon, another Mennonite tradition that I’d rather she’d left with the order, and says, “Kristina, your grandfather only had to hang his hat on the bedpost and I got pregnant.” She turns back to her stirring, matter-of-factly. “But, Gram, what if you didn’t want to be pregnant? Couldn’t you just use a condom?”
“Condoms? Mennonites don’t use those things,” she says derisively.
“Those things. Those. Things.” The same stigma from my grandmother is echoed in my peers when my backpack dumped two weeks ago. I rushed down the hall, papers in hand, trying to frantically make it to the printer, then to an office for a signature and back to class. I propped my backpack against the carrel while nervously gnawing my lip in hoping it would help me remember the password to my account. Technology that stores passwords is kickass until you’re trying to remember a password long lost to the recesses of a cluttered mind because you’re using technology other than your phone.
“Oh! Sorry,” he said as my bag toppled over. Papers, pencils, a couple of hair ties, a couple dollar bills, lost change, my college ID, of course it drops out after the struggle to remember my passcode. The random student helped me pick up the bills and the ID–gathered the papers and the random pencils, but he didn’t touch the condom. “Sorry,” I said as I picked it up and shoved it in the bag. Maybe he didn’t see it. I think to myself, but his smirk betrays him. “Thanks.” I stand, grab my papers, shoulder my bag and walk away.
Last year my dad traveled to New Zealand for three weeks. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip that he had been planning and scheming for years and was brought to fruition by a close possible encounter with his own mortality through a prostate cancer scare. Fun stuff. He was planning to hike the Milford trail in New Zealand and before he went offline for a week he sent a text to the family text message which included me, my younger brother and my mother—his ex-wife. “See you in ten days!” the text read. I responded with “Have fun! Make good choices!” And quite memorably with, “Don’t forget to put a helmet on your Marine!”
“Thank you.” My father responded with an eye-roll that I could feel all the way from the Southern Hemisphere. It wasn’t until my mother responded with a “Helmet? What helmet? Why do you have a helmet? Did you go with the Marines?” that I realized my mistake.
“Never mind, Mom.” I texted hoping she would drop the conversation.
Helmet. Rubber. Condom. Protection. Ask someone what they call the piece of latex that they put on a penis before they have sex and you could get any array of answers. Hopefully they would have one other than, “Oh, a condom. I don’t use those.” If I asked you whether condoms were birth control for men or for women how would you answer? The most common answer is that they’re for men. But, what if I told you that condoms are actually for women. They have zero side effects, are affordable, accessible and allow the woman to be in control. “Helmet on their Marine, ladies.” While worn by men, condoms allow women to manage not only their own disease exposure, but it also allows them to manage their lives.
Desire and condoms are joined at the hip, a pair of Siamese twins, inseparable. Sex without a condom and individuals are left unprotected from disease and pregnancy while sex with a condom requires discussion and negotiation and sometimes controversy. It’s easy to think that the relationship of condoms and desire is merely a sexual one rooted in the need for intimacy or pleasure via sex acts, however condoms and desire travel consanguine as the very fluid exchange from which they protect their users.
“All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth,” my six year old sings, their tongue sticking out between the gap where their teeth are quite noticeably missing. A few hours later my teenager tromps around the house regaling us with a robust medley of “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas, only a hippopotamus will do,” and I can only think that in this holiday season all I want for Christmas is to finish my degree. We make lists of possible Christmas presents. A new playstation controller, makeup, a How to Train Your Dragon hatchimal are written down. If I were to sit and list out what I want it would be my bachelor’s degree. My PhD. To be a good mom. And I’m reminded that the gold foil package nestled quietly in my backpack is the one thing that allows this single mom of five to gift herself with all her earthly dreams.
Kristina J. Petrella graduated from SUNY Cortland in September 2020 and is currently pursuing her master’s degree, also at SUNY Cortland, in community health. In addition to writing, Kristina is involved in local activism, is a member of the Cortland County Democratic Committee, and is a triathlete and cyclist. Her favorite book is The Midnight Library by Matt Haig.