In the morning, stiff kleenex litter the floor around her bed. When she picks them up, she’s careful to use only her fingertips, though she knows the damage, if there is any, has already long been done. She takes HIV tests the way some women schedule hair appointments — every six weeks whether they need a trim or not.
It’s the protagonist’s attitude about and blatant mistreatment of herself, her ill-advised means of scavenging for affection that do the damage in the end. This is the underbelly of sexual freedom, the misuse and misplacement of what is supposed to be pure enjoyment. Like any addiction or cheap replacement, this woman’s exploitation of herself is not a freedom she flaunts, but instead hides from more serious relationships with the number three and from new nightly prospects with her sweet and bookish appearance.
Innis is masterful and avoids the usual conflicts of a woman sleeping with a married man. Even when “the angry man’s life [is] coming into sharp focus,” we can see the woman’s life coming into even sharper focus for her. She is finally frightened, not by the prospect of disease or even being attacked by an angry man, but by the idea of ruining that which she can’t have herself. Though she shows no sign of wanting the cookie cutter family life, she wants no part in disassembling it.
Her attachment never seems to be for the men she beds, but rather for the trinkets they leave behind. Whether it be for the fleeting memories that she seems to cherish in some way – “‘How’d someone manage to leave his shirt?’ someone asks. She shrugs, holding it up to her nose, still able to detect aftershave. ‘He was sweet,’ she says, wadding it back up before dropping it into the box and shutting the door.” – or the comfort of knowing they’ll come in search of their belongings and thus, of her. This subtle character detail sets up the ending for maximum resonance. “The Belt” manages to be straightforward without losing any bit of complexity, layering botched empowerment and the compartmentalization of emotional intimacy from physical intimacy.
What I Wish I’d Written:
She keeps the belt out for a few days, wrapping it around her waist, tightening it like a noose at her neck, and then she puts it into the box she keeps in the bottom of her hallway closet.