an excerpt from|
Safe in Heaven Dead
After Portland, Elgin found a hotel in Murray Hill with weekly rates and suites with kitchens. He studied the city, walking in places he knew he shouldnít walk, Atlantic Avenue in Bed Sty, through East New York, the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, all the way to the top of Manhattan through Harlem and Washington Heights, proving, perhaps that he was in fact dead, since nobody even tried to mug him, let alone kill him. He did get plenty of looks, though, most of them curious - like, whatís this white fucker in a suit doing here? - and a few, the ones he wanted, threatening, menacing, bringing on a rush of fear. And all the looks proved, of course, that he was not invisible, that he was alive. Some days, it seemed, more so than others. And it wasnít as if he walked at night. It wasnít as if he were honest in any way. Except that he knew he wasnít.
There was no point any longer in not smoking. The money, still more than four hundred grand, certainly wouldnít last forever, and it seemed unlikely that he would ever be employed again, except as unskilled labor, since he had no skills to sell. His health, or setting an example for his children had become irrelevant. Still, at his current rate of spending, around eighteen hundred a week, he would last for years.
Heíd never met people easily, never struck up conversations with strangers in grocery stores or restaurants. One day as he turned the corner onto Lexington Avenue in midtown, he saw an older man, maybe sixty, punch another older man in the face on the sidewalk not twenty feet from where heíd stopped to light a cigarette. The struck manís glasses flew off as he fell to the sidewalk, and the man whoíd hit him got into a Mercedes and peeled away. "Did you see that?" Elgin said to a Latino kid unloading a delivery van, who had watched the confrontation.
"What happened was this," the kid said. "Dude in the Mercedes honks at the glasses dude whoís walking drag ass across the middle of the block. Glasses flips him off, right? Mercedes jams it into a quick double park, jumps out his car, and tags the motherfucker." The Latino kid was grinning.
Elgin could think of no response, but was struck that this was the first interaction heíd initiated in weeks that didnít involve a transaction. Two people, a man and a woman, helped the man up, brushing him off, handing him his glasses. Elgin felt no impulse to assist. But he did admire the confrontation somehow. How many deserving people had he failed to punch in his life? "See you," Elgin said, and the kid said, "Take care."
In the Disney film, Snow White, Carrieís favorite line had been when Snow meets Grumpy, saying, "How do you do?" and Grumpy sneers, "How do you do what?" Elgin applied it now to the Latin kidís words: Take care of what? There didnít seem to be anything to take care of at the moment.
And so, during the day, he walked. He got a library card to fill up the evenings. When his appetite started to return, he cooked and listened to the radio and ate. He lost weight from all the walking, started doing push-ups and sit-ups in his room, perhaps preparing to punch somebody. He tried not to think too much, though at times he was overcome with grief, an aching for his lost children. But he couldnít think in terms of right or wrong, because he was no longer capable of telling the difference, except in the broadest terms, like, that it was wrong to kill people. Usually. That is, if they didnít deserve it. And determining that would get you to the tricky part.
Suicide seemed redundant. And though he frequently considered stepping into traffic, or dropping from the subway platform in front of a hurtling express train, could actually feel the pull of commitment to the act, he was either too weak to commit or was merely indulging in adolescent suicide fantasies. So he walked, he ate, he smoked. He rode the Long Island Railroad out to Montauk and back. At restaurants, he left hundred percent tips, sometimes more.
On the train ride up from Miami, after heíd withdrawn the dirty money from the bank in Barbados - the money that Klister and McCabe had skimmed from the County Employeesí Health, Welfare and Benefit fund - heíd experienced a rush of euphoria, a sense of freedom and fearlessness. Heíd done it, ripped the bastards off, escaped the shitty Holiday Inn heíd been sentenced to, and was finally free of his irrelevance regarding Carrieís therapy, Coreyís incarceration and everything else. As much as anything, the money was a form of payback, or, better still, proof that they couldnít manipulate him so easily, proof that he could still be an actor in his own life.
Now, he wondered what he had ever done in his life that had meaning, if there was anything one could do that had meaning, beyond having children, which seemed like nothing more than the fulfillment of biological destiny. He remembered anticipation, for a particular day at work, for sex, for a new bike, for the births of his children, for Christmas to finally arrive, for a week to end, for the potential viciousness of negotiations, for a vacation to begin, for getting out of the house, for returning home. In the palm of his hand he remembered the feel of his childrenís skin, smooth, rubbery cheeks, Tommyís forehead during fever, like a radiator, the pull of the brush through Carrieís hair after a bath, the phantom pain of cracked knuckles as he imagined punching Coreyís face into a sticky pulp. As best he could, though, he tried not to remember. On the streets, the people surrounding him, engaged in their daily business, seemed ignorant of the misery of their lives, entirely focused on getting to the gym, getting home from work. Everyone had appointments to keep. They were meeting lovers, taking the children to piano lessons, clamoring to get into theatres. And they were talking to each other, flipping each other off, fucking, fighting. Even the beggars had jobs to do. Only Elgin, it seemed, was silent, disengaged.
Then, at the beginning of October, he met Carla. Hired Carla. Rented Carla. In his previous life he would have been incapable of such a transaction, not because he found it morally wrong, but because he thought it would dehumanize him somehow - just the sheer embarrassment of the transaction would reduce him to something less than he was. Maybe heíd been a romantic. Maybe heíd had an inflated opinion of himself. Now, it seemed entirely appropriate. His loneliness drove him out of his room, but he couldnít bring himself to speak to anyone. The only person he deserved to talk to - could even risk talking to - it seemed, was a rental. But she couldnít be a streetwalker, couldnít be a common whore. She would have to be clever enough to create the illusion of desire for him, to create the illusion that there was anything in him worth desiring. And it had nothing to do with sex. That was over. Since his escape, his disappearance from his life, sexual thoughts or urges had disappeared as well. His libido had died with his former self, it seemed.
He filled two days researching the escort services, a gift in and of itself, inquiring about prices and the education levels of the girls, viewing photos and bios, sort of what he thought a purchase of livestock might be like, examining teeth and pedigrees. And he settled on Carla. Laid down the money and arranged the meeting. And, sure, he was nervous, didnít really know if he could go through with it or not, but what happened - what heíd never expected or dreamed he was capable of any longer - was that he liked her. For Christís sake, he found himself wanting to know her opinion on the current erosion of civil liberties, allowed himself to believe that she might even like him, might want to know his opinions. And it might have been a romantic gesture, or he might have just been trying to burn through the money, but, before their second meeting - lunch for Christís sake - he bought her a ridiculously expensive piece of jewelry, found himself nervous before what he was able to pretend was a date. For their third meeting, another lunch, he bought her a watch. Christ, how hungry he had been for human contact. Or at least for a major distraction, and he didnít want to fuck it up, even though she reminded him frequently enough that she was only a rental. But she was so good at her job that he was actually able to imagine what it would be like to interact with people on some level that wasnít merely financial. She listened to him. They had conversations. And he wasnít so delusional as to believe that this was anything more than some kind of expensive therapy, or a way to fill time. But he didnít care. The illusion was enough. More than enough, really. It was all he had.
Teddy calls Friday, after Iíd left explicit instructions not to disturb me for weekend appointments, that I was out of commission, on the rag, bloated, etcetera, Teddy a little deficient in math, or biology, or both, as I was also on the rag two weekends ago, but he says, "Youíre not going to believe what tipless is willing to pay," and I know right away he means Mister-Sensitive-Damaged-Moneybags, and Iím sort of intrigued, and start to salivate a little with greed, and I say, "Yeah. Go on."
"Get this," Teddy says. "Dinner tomorrow, eight to eleven. Overnight rate. You wonder this guyís dick even works. I mean, I know you said you were off call and everything, but Jesus."
"No," I say. "Youíre right," and he gives me the place, Cafť Des Artistes, a romantic dinner for two. Goodness. What a lucky girl I am. My cut for three hours of eating, drinking, and consoling will be twenty-five hundred bucks. Sometimes the Lordís work is rewarding.
But, then, getting ready, I catch a flutter in my stomach. And Iím like, whoa: I realize itís been there all day. I stop cold as Iím plucking my eyebrows, like, wait a minute here, this rush of excitement a little too close to the kind of pathetic pre-date nervousness the amateurs experience, a little too close to some kind of teenage excitement before meeting Bobby Parsons at the soda shop after the big game. Since early this morning, even while reading Absalom, Absalom! Iíve been considering and rejecting different outfits, finally settling on a conservative wool dress. And now, looking at myself in the mirror, taking far too much time on my fucking eyebrows, Iím like, Youíve got to be kidding me. As if I donít know what the fuckerís up to. The necklace. The watch. The chastity. The earnest pain.
Cafť Des Artistes, my perfectly sculpted ass.
I throw the country club dress on the floor and pull on a low cut, up-to-my-ass little black dress with sequins. Garnish with real whoreís gartered stockings and stilettos, and, voila, I am ready to go.
Call me a bad girl, Daddy. Pweeeeeeeease.
I show up thirty minutes late. Heís at the bar in the back room, stands when he sees me and actually beams. "Hey," he says, looking me up and down, the dress doing its job, "great to see you."
I give him a quick business smile. "Vodka on the rocks," I say to the bartender, taking the seat Elgin pulls out for me. "Sorry Iím late," I say. "I had to finish another appointment."
"Oh," he says. "Thatís okay. Our reservationís not until nine."
"And I donít want one of these shitty tables back by the bar," I tell him. "I want to be in the main room, with the nymphs and shit."
"No problem," Elgin says.
"It will be a problem," I say, "if you donít talk to the maitre dí. Go give him a fifty."
"I gave him a hundred."
Touchť. The joint is packed with loud rich people, mostly couples, some - the ones stuck at the bar tables - most likely in from Long Island or Jersey to celebrate momentous occasions. Elgin orders another scotch. "Howís school?" he says.
"Stimulating," I say. "Real stimulating. What about you?" I say. "Howís, uh, whatever it is you do?"
"I donít do anything," he says. "Remember?"
"Oh, yeah, right," I say. "Howís that?"
He shrugs. "Here," he says, "I got you something," and I think, oh, God, not another fucking gift. How pathetic can this man be? He hands me a book, unwrapped, a first edition of The Sound and the Fury, which must be worth quite a bit since only about three were printed in the first run, and I feel completely taken advantage of, somehow, like this guy has no right to even be able to guess what I might or might not care about, not that I care about this, though itís not a bad guess. I flip through the pages. "First edition," I say. "Iíve never understood why people are willing to pay more for these. I mean, the words are the same, right?" I lay the book on the bar.
The fuckerís smiling like heís just shit the golden egg. I swivel toward him and hook my heels on the rung of his stool. "I got you something too, Daddy," I say in my breathless voice. I lean toward him, giving him a good look down my dress, then reach my hand between his legs and grab his package. "Iím horny as a sailor," I say.
He doesnít move except under my hand. "My last client left me in the lurch," I say, "if you know what I mean."
"Well," he says, taking my wrist and moving my hand away, "I could take you into the bathroom and bend you over the sink."
"Charming," I say, turning toward my drink.
"Whatís with your little act tonight?"
"Act?" I say. "I know what I am. Remember?"
He pushes himself from the bar and walks away without a word. And Iím like, Oh, no, buddy, you donít walk away from me, but, then again, no way am I going to make a scene. Iím not going to show a care in the world. In fact, on a Saturday night at an expensive restaurant in the center of the universe, Iím going to drink my drink and read. A few minutes pass, and my breathing starts to return to normal. Maybe heís not coming back. I notice the flutter in my stomach, a nervous sort of spasm like I felt before every appointment in my first month on the job, before I learned to use the fuck-me-Daddy voice. Itís not as if I care that some client walks away from me in a restaurant, though; Iíll get paid no matter what. I count backwards from a hundred. When I reach zero, Iíll walk.
And then heís back, a hand on my shoulder. "Sorry about that," he says. "Youíre right."
"Of course Iím right," I say to my drink. "Iím always right." He doesnít sit, doesnít talk, doesnít move his hand from my shoulder. When I finally turn, his head is a little bowed so that his eyes sort of look up into his eyelids, giving me the half pissed, half disappointed, Iím cool and can wait for you to grow up piercing stare.
"Oh, come on," I say. "Sit down, already. Letís have a good time." Whatever thatís supposed to mean - just stop bugging me, I guess.
"You know whatís funny?" he says, sitting, then draining his watery drink and gesturing to the bartender for another round. Lord knows Iím ready for one. "My mother collected things." He crunches a few ice slivers, holds his empty glass under his chin. Down the bar behind him, a man tells a woman a story so heartbreaking that she touches his face, leaves her hand on his cheek. "And I knew it when I bought that book," he says, "that there was something stupid about it."
The drinks arrive. "Oh, I donít know," I say. "Some people are wild about that kind of thing."
"Yeah, she collected spoons, and bells, and these little glass dogs, really stupid shit that just cluttered up the house. A couple times, when I was really pissed, Iíd take one of the dogs out into the woods and smash it with a hammer. Nothing gave me more satisfaction than pulverizing a green glass schnauzer into dust." He holds up his glass, as if to toast.
"To destruction," I say, touching his glass with mine.
"Right," he says.
Were you often pissed as a child?" I say, thinking, this guy seems to live in his childhood - probably has some sort of Mommy complex.
"No," he says. "Were you?"
"Not really," I say. "But for one stretch, my father was a collector too - of unemployment checks." I take a drink. He looks at me like, yeah, go on, and I take another gulp of vodka, and for some reason, I do go on. "See, GM bounced him from plant to plant as they were shutting down what seemed to be the entire city of Flint, and finally, when his seniority ran out, he was given the option to either move to a plant out of state, or go on unemployment." This couldnít possibly be me talking. "The poor, dumb bastard took unemployment." I take another big drink of vodka. "And we ate generic canned peaches and wiped our asses with generic toilet paper, though, of course," I say, "you wouldnít know about that."
"What do you mean?" he says.
"I mean being a child of privilege and all. Not that we had it bad. I mean, we were solid, bland middle class. And, eventually he was back on the line, anyway."
"Privilege?" he says.
"Trust fund," I say, "right?"
"You misread that one," he says. "I grew up the same middle class."
"How darling," I say, thinking, misread? Not likely. What, so he earned the money? Or, no, the identity business. Some kind of crime. How frightfully romantic. The gangster and the whore. And right then, I feel something give in my stomach, like Iím coming entirely fucking unglued from the inside out, like Iím going to fucking cry or something.
"Hey," he says, touching my hand. "Whatís up? Whatís the matter?"
"No, nothing," I say. "I didnít get much sleep last night." And I see myself in his mindís eye on my back under some fat rich john in an expensive hotel room, and I say, "I was reading this novel. I was up all night, reading," starting to actually hate myself a little for justifying anything I may or may not do to anybody.
"Yeah," he says, "I get insomnia, too."
"No, this wasnít insomnia," I say. "This was reading. This was not being able to put a book down," and he nods, nonchalant, like, whatever, and I say, "I just need to splash some water on my face." Fucker helps me with my chair as I push away from the bar, bringing steel up from my legs with every step I take away from him, and I am so fucking pissed, feeling every ounce of power in my legs, so fucking pissed, and I know that I just need to sit down for a minute by myself to get strong and realigned. But if I was like so many of the others, trotting off for a quick snort, I swear to God a blast of coke right now would kill me.
After another drink, they were finally seated, Carla drawing the attention of every man and woman in the dining room as they were escorted in, all of her long legs visible under the dress and practically falling out of the top, but getting away with it too, somehow not coming off as cheap. Not that Elgin gave a shit. She told him about growing up in Flint, they were getting drunk, and she said, "I just could not wait to get out of there. Once I went to Ann Arbor, I knew Iíd never go back."
Elgin had been through Flint many times, a decrepit, dying dump of a town in Genesee County, one county north of Oakland. He told her as much, and she laughed. "Oh, yeah, when I was growing up it was turning into a real shithole. The weird thing is that my parents and all of my grandparents grew up there, so it was like they were stuck, couldnít get out, like their escape muscles had atrophied. Like GM had made them into UAW junkies."
"Yeah," Elgin said. "And what were you escaping from?"
She dropped her fork - a ridiculously dramatic gesture - so that it clanked against her plate loud enough for several people to take the opportunity to look at them - at her - again. "Oh, please," she said. "Donít start with that bullshit. Donít try to figure out what makes me who I am. Okay? And I wonít do it to you."
He watched her saw at her steak. He liked that she ate, that she didnít treat eating as some distasteful or mildly repulsive fueling exercise, as so many women seemed to do. Not that she ate like a hog or anything.
"Stop looking at me," she said, "mooning over me like Iím your precious daughter."
"Iím not that old," he said. "My daughterís in first grade. And the way youíre dressed, it seems that you must want to be looked at."
"Yeah, well," she said. "Ninety-eight year old men can have daughters in first grade. Believe me. And the way I dress is none of your fucking business."
When the plates were cleared and the waiter asked about coffee and dessert, Carla looked at her watch, and said, "Our little sessionís running late."
"You want a cab?" Elgin said.
The waiter shifted his weight from side to side. Carla smiled, looked down at the table, then back into Elginís eyes. God, he felt like a fifteen-year-old kid, giddy and idiotic and trying to hide whatever it was he felt. "No," she said, "letís have dessert."
Later, walking down Central Park West, he felt part of a cliched romantic movie, Carla wearing his jacket over her shoulders in the cool fall air as they strolled, Elgin acutely aware of the bubble of space around his body, nearly flinching when they brushed up against each other, wanting to take her hand or put his arm around her, this beautiful, funny, intelligent woman he rented, but not daring to touch her. The silence between them was comfortable and then unbearable, and Elgin said, "Letís take a trip," not having considered the idea until this moment. "Letís get out of town, go on vacation."
Carla laughed. "School," she said, "remember? I canít miss class."
"Right," Elgin said. "Of course. What about a weekend?"
"I donít know," Carla said. "Thereís a traveling rate. You could talk to Teddy, but, really, I donít know. Iíve never done that."
Teddy. He didnít fit the stereotype of a pimp, if in fact he was one. He seemed more like an office manager. A liaison. Shit, a madam. Still, Elgin felt that he would like to kill Teddy, beat him to death with a frying pan or a cane, a screwdriver in the eye. In front of Carla, preferably. Defending her.
Theyíd reached the bottom of the park and were walking east on 59th toward 5th, the romantic horse-drawn carriages lined up at Grand Army Plaza or clip-clopping into the park. ďThese stupid things,Ē Elgin said. "Could you imagine riding around in one of those?"
"Itís late," she said. "I have to go." She handed him the jacket, which smelled like her. He resisted the urge to plunge his face into the fabric and inhale.
"Really," she said. "I have to get going. Church in the morning. You know. Early worship." She smiled.
He had to turn away. He hailed a cab, then held the door for her, but she didnít get in. She stood by the open door, waiting, looking at him as if studying him, as if she could see something in him, or maybe nothing in him - no, as if sheíd never really looked at him before, or never shown herself to him before - and it was terrifying.
"Where do you live?" he said, his voice small and desperate in his ears. "We could share this one."
"No," she said. "I have to go," and before Elgin could even pay the cabbie, sheíd folded herself into the backseat and was gone.
He watched the taillights move down 5th as he walked south toward his place.
His place. It was a hotel, for Christís sake. He didnít have a place. And, now, with her gone, it was obvious that she had been waiting for him to kiss her. Of course she had. Any fool could have seen it. Or, maybe not. Maybe sheíd been considering an apology for leaving the stupid book heíd gotten her at the restaurant. He decided to stop for a nightcap. He walked into Masonís, an old manís serious drinking bar. No, she had been waiting for a kiss. She liked him. He liked her. Heíd arrange a weekend rental with fuckhead Teddy, go up to Boston, down to Charleston, somewhere.
He smoked a couple of cigarettes, ordered another drink. Who cared that he had to pay for her time? That would probably pass too. But heíd never bother her to get out of the business. Never treat her as a possession. At some point sheíd probably want to get out anyway. Heíd support her. Whatever she wanted to do would be fine. Maybe he could find a way to get a real job. Maybe that was just what he needed.
For the first time since the train from Miami, he felt a jolt of happiness, the thrill of being alive, a sense of hope for something down the line, something to live for, to anticipate, and then he realized what an idiot he was, lost in a fantasy of building a new life, and with Carla no less, as if he deserved her. As if he deserved anything. And her name was Stacey, anyway, not Carla. But he couldnít think of her as Stacey; he wanted her to be Carla. He didnít know why. He was drunk. He ordered another drink. He wondered if heíd ever get caught. He wondered if there was a warrant out for his arrest. It seemed unlikely. The money was dirty, skimmed by Klister and McCabe from the Benefit Fund, stolen a second time by Elgin. But, of course that meant that other people were likely looking for him, people that Klister had hired, people far more dangerous than the cops. But who gave a fuck? He had no right to care if he got caught. Tortured. Mutilated. And his kids at home asleep, maybe Carrie crying out right this minute - he looked at his watch; it was 12:48 - maybe right this minute calling out from a nightmare, or screaming that Corey was under the window or in the closet. Did she call his name anymore? He was drunk. He had no right to care. He was a liar. He couldnít stop thinking about Carla, couldnít stop a part of himself from feeling good, wondering if he had a chance with her, thinking that maybe he did, maybe he didnít. He ordered another drink. He couldnít call Carla again. He had to put a stop to this. His job was to suffer forever. Fucking idiot. He was a liar. He had no right to feel this way. He couldnít stop sticking his face into the shoulder of his jacket and smelling Carla.
Tuesdayís seminar I have one of those moments where Iím like, What the fuck am I doing here? The only people on campus who seem real to me are the custodians and grounds crews. Every day that passes in my third semester here, Iím less sure of what it is I think Iím doing. What could be more pointless or idiotic than a doctorate in English? I mean, the discussions are sometimes engaging, this one chick, Raisa, always seeming to find real weird, but defensible readings in the works, but, really, thereís something decadent about the entire endeavor. I should be training seeing-eye dogs, or out bombing buildings, protesting the world bank or the IMF or electricity deregulation or any of the other filthy enterprises that support the pigs who pay me. Instead, Iím learning how to, what, read? No, learning how to read in a way that completely limits a text. Even that word, text, has crept into my vocabulary like a poison. And all the earnest students. Oh my God. Sitting in a seminar room arguing over the authorís creation of his fictional world, youíd think that half the actual world wasnít starving to death. Not that I really give a fuck, but these people would argue that they do. And Nabaum seems to think that he has privileged access to all of Faulknerís intentions, that he alone can discern the meaning of all those words.
Heís droning on, half the students actually taking notes, and Iím looking at my perfectly manicured fingernails, wondering if thereís something immoral about all of this. I mean, Iím a realist. At Michigan, I was a good student, a serious student, but, once that neared an end, I was like, now what? Iíd think about my profs up there prattling on about great literature, grading a few papers, and I thought, man, that sure beats working for a living. My father could never get his hands clean, the skin over his knuckles perpetually broken. And these guys got paid to read. Though, of course they had to go through the torture of publishing, of writing about their monstrously insightful readings. But if the only hurdleís the circle jerk of academic publishing, youíd be stupid not to go for the easy life. Thatís what I thought anyway. Plus, I had some kind of naÔve, burning belief in something - literature or art, I donít know what. Now, though, all of these people are making me a little sick, the students, the profs, the undergraduates, just everybody.
And how am I ever going to get a job in academia if I refuse to teach? Though, on the other hand, that seems to be the point of a job in academia. Not to teach, that is. Still, you have to do it sometimes, especially when youíre just starting. Last year, I was a TA, had a section of Freshman Comp each semester, for which I received a tuition waiver and a stipend equal to about six months rent. I donít know when I started to hate it, sometime during the second semester I guess. My students were either rich or poor, which is to say that I didnít recognize myself in any of them. Egocentric, I know, but their papers were just so trite and idiotic that I found myself paralyzed before them, like, what, Iím supposed to respond seriously to another fucking car accident essay in which the writer wishes to share another valuable lesson about looking both ways before crossing the street, or draws the same tired conclusion about how precious every day is and how we must treasure each and every moment? I mean, Iím sure it was all my fault and everything. I tried to help them find interesting things to write about, lighting fires and shoplifting and running away to join the circus and the moment they realized they despised their parents and sexual politics in high school, but it seemed that all I got were dead pets and dead grandmothers and valuable lessons. Then, even with the almost immediate burn out, I thought, Oh, this is just comp, this is just the grind. Once I graduate and land a killer tenure track job, Iíll transcend that immediately and teach important graduate seminars.
At least I knew enough to quit the TA bullshit. Plus, Iíd become a little fed up with the impoverished graduate student routine. Itís as if I was twenty years younger last fall. Winter break, I even went out with one of my profs, Harold Stanley, from the Depraved American Mind, a course I actually enjoyed, though I was capable of enjoying all manner of bullshit then, but five minutes into the date, I was like, this guy is a complete idiot. He couldnít stop lecturing, didnít know how to turn it off. We went out for drinks at the Safari Room - so hip - and he was droning on about Henry Miller and Anais Nin, as if I couldnít see exactly where he was going with that, no room whatsoever for my opinions or human discussion, no ability in him to abandon his phony mentor role as he strained to get into my pants, as if the various theories he was weaving into his current book were an aphrodisiac, for Christís sake. After about an hour of that, my every attempt to change the subject rebuffed by him, the line from that Sebadoh song started looping through my mind: "Slack jawed living room couch professor/ when will you be through with me/ Iíd like to know."
And after that date, I was twenty years older as well. Which now puts me around 65, I guess: retirement age. Somehow, though, even at the end of last year, I still believed that school was the right thing for me, that I would find a life in the academy. I look at Nabaum, grilling a student on some interpretation I missed, asking questions he knows the answers to. Fucking fraud. They all are. Everyone in this room.
I notice a vein rising up a little on my right hand, another reminder. I know I canít squeeze more than three or four years out of the business, and even that seems suddenly unbearable. You canít think about all the dates and fucks, though, all the repulsion to be held at bay; you have to behave like an alcoholic, which is to say one fuck at a time. But, Jesus, two years, three years, four years, then what?
But itís just a bad day is all it is. I feel like a bored, spoiled child. Itís like Iím starving to death, but canít think of one single thing I want to eat. I have no idea how people get ruined but they all seem to be. And, fuck, I do not want to be one of them.
Sunday, he didnít get out of bed. He awoke with an erection, the first time in months, it seemed, and after pissing and refusing to take aspirin, he lay in the sheets from ten to three and tried not to move, pretending he was paralyzed. All of the drunken good feeling of the previous evening had evaporated during his sleep. What was he doing in this fucking hotel, in this fucking city? Heíd always hated Sundays, had always felt weakest and most vulnerable on Sundays. Maybe it would be worth going to prison or being killed if he could just see his children one more time. If he could just touch them. But, really five minutes wouldnít be enough. He wanted them forever.
And Laura alone to do all the work of raising them. It didnít seem possible that this was his life, that he would be capable of this kind of despicable behavior. He must have known all along, in the back of his mind, that Lauraís parents would take care of his family financially. What a prick he was. What a complete asshole. What a pathetic weakling. Even with the money, sheíd have to work full-time, just because she wouldnít want to feel like a charity case. So who would take care of the children? And no way would she go back to Planned Parenthood, not after the kids. Sheíd become a closet pro-lifer, another point of friction between them, more shedding of herself. If he could get to Laura, if he could talk to her, tell her what had happened, maybe they could work out an arrangement. But what had happened?
He had to at least get them some money, though Laura wouldnít likely accept an arrangement in which he sent cash from a location she couldnít disclose. She would disclose it. She probably wanted him in prison. Or dead. No, probably not dead. She certainly wasnít as horrible as he was, even if she did wish him dead. And, really, nothing she could do would make her as horrible as he was, except hurting the children - consciously, physically hurting the children - which she was incapable of. But would she deny him access to them? Would she prevent him from seeing them? He wondered if he should have taken them, a little kidnapping, if that would have been better. But for whom? As if heíd even be capable of raising them right.
He would never see Carla again, that much was clear, though he felt a gnawing hunger for her even as he dismissed her. He wished he were Catholic. He needed to confess. He was such a liar. If he really didnít care about his own well-being, he would call Laura from the phone on the bedside table, right there, and start trying to make amends. But he needed a plan. For the rest of his life heíd need a fucking plan. He wasnít ready yet. He picked up the phone, pretending, and put it back down. This was certainly progress. This would be enough for today. No matter which course he took, it seemed that he would be killing himself. So the thing to do maybe, at least for now, was nothing, not that there was any nobility in a survival instinct. No, there wouldnít be any nobility. But he would have to get them money. God, at least that. And, really, he didnít know if he could live without seeing his children again. He didnít believe it would be better for them if he were dead. But, as it was, as far as they were concerned - really, as far as anyone was concerned - he might as well be dead, though, in fact, it felt as if he were just waking up, as if he were finally reclaiming himself from the prick who had been inhabiting his body, and finding that, golly gee, a great big fucking mess had been made in his absence, so much of a mess that, come to think of it, it might just be better to go on and check back out. At least for today. God, it was Sunday. Thinking about all the shit he was in, facing it a little, that had to be a sign of some kind of forward progress, a sign of some kind of something, an indication there was a part of him that wasnít merely horrible. Didnít it?
Tuesday night the shit hits the fan in colossal fucking chunks. Teddyís got a sick call, Mandy, and wants to know if Iíll do a fill in for a regular - real mellow, the guyís a tugger, which means I play with myself and watch him masturbate - and Mandy doesnít mind, in fact would be grateful, because the guy "Irving" is a major tipper, and she wants to show him that she can always take care of him. And Iím in one of those moods where Iím like, yeah, let me see just how weak and pathetic this guy can be. Oh, and by the way, asshole, I donít know what Mandy allows, but no way in hell are you going to come on me. The callís for nine oíclock at a brownstone in the West Village, on Bleecker between Perry and Charles. On the cab ride over, I have another moment like this morningís, where I think, what the hell am I doing here? Thereís got to be something to do in this world. But, for the life of me, I have no idea what it might be.
I pay the cabbie and realize Iíve been in one of these brownstones before, on Perry. Side by side, around four corners, they occupy an entire block, enclosing a giant courtyard in the middle, with planters and lawn furniture and a fountain, safe play for the darlings, some kind of socialist collective from the Ď20ís or something, when everyone groovy was a communist. I check my address and walk up three steps to a purple door and ring the bell. When he answers, itís one of those displacement moments when you see someone out of context and canít recognize who the hell they are, like your brain trips over itself trying to process conflicting information.
He is clearly having the same kind of moment. Heís wearing a sort of quilted Chinese smoking jacket over tweedy wool pants, his hair slicked back with Vitalis or some equally repellent slickner, accentuating the eggplant shape of his old manís skull, and Iím not quite sure who the hell he is, just that I know him and that this is bad. "Oh," he says. "Uh, Stephanie, right?" And Iím like, Oh, fuck, youíve got to be kidding me, and Nabaum says, "What are you doing here? Canít this wait until Thursday? How did you get my address? Is something wrong?"
Standing on his stoop, waiting for God knows what - my faulty vision to clear, maybe, or the entire block to vaporize - I am speechless. And then I pull the storm door all the way open, brush past him and walk into his foyer, but I know Iím really walking away from something, a lot of things, but itís like maybe this is just what the executioner ordered, or maybe itís not, but the adrenaline running out to my fingers and toes tells me that Iím going to light a major fire here. I take off my coat and hand it to him. "Close the door," I say.
"Really," he says, "I donít know how you got my address, but this isnít the time - "
"Close the door, and take off your pants," I tell him. "This is the time." Let it all burn, the whole fucking world can go up in flames for all I care.
He still doesnít get it, or pretends not to get it. I pull my dress over my head and throw it and my purse across the arm of an overstuffed chair in the living room or parlor, right off the foyer, and stand before him in my underwear. "Iím here to watch you jerk off," I tell him. "Close the door."
And he does, then hangs my coat on a tree in the corner. But he doesnít turn to face me, just sort of cowers before the closed door.
"Turn around," I say.
This is either the best or worst moment of my life.
ďLook at me,Ē I say. "You wonít tell?" he says looking into my eyes.
I slide the straps of my bra down my shoulders, exposing my breasts. "Get over here," I say. He walks toward me, head bowed, but sneaking glances. "We usually have a glass of wine first," he says. "Mandy - "
"Iím not Mandy," I say, leading him into the parlor, "and weíre not having a glass of wine. Get on your knees." Iíve never gone in for the domination shit, but right now itís just instinct, payback, a last hurrah or something, like trying to find the absolute bottom. I stick my crotch in his face, and Grandpa starts to lick over the material, which is as close as heíll get, the dry paper skin of his face brushing against my thighs. His smoking jacket has fallen open, and I look down the decay of his torso as he fumbles with his pants and begins to work himself erect, tugging. "Is it good, Mommy?" he says, looking up, his eyes darting between my face and breasts.
"Shut up," I say. "Get on your back, and keep jerking off."
He lies down, and I stand over him, step out of my underwear, and observe the towering genius desperately working away at himself as he drinks in my flesh.
"Can you bend down a little," he says, grunts, his face red and the sweat popping on his forehead, "so your pretty titties hang down over me."
"Sure," I say, because I know whatís coming next. I bend a little, swing my breasts three feet over his face, as he grunts and jerks, and right as he comes, a pathetic little dribble that sends a repulsive shudder through the features of his slobbering face, I let loose a stream of pee all over his midsection.
"No," he says, scrambling away, "not like that. The rug," he says, which is where I leave my puddle.
"Just like that," I say.
He sits on the floor while I finish, his back propped against some kind of lacquered sea chest, Chinese smoking jacket open, pants and underwear around his ankles, confused, befuddled, possibly horrified, looking only at the stain darkening his precious fucking rug. I reload my bra, throw my underwear in my purse, and slide my dress over my head. "I always thought you were gay," I say. "Everyone does." I grab my coat in the hall, fixing the image of him on the floor in my mind, the last time I will see that motherfucker, to hell with the tip, and slam the door behind me.
For about five seconds out on the street, walking toward 6th, I feel like I own the place, the entire city - where everyone thinks they are so fucking smart or talented or tough - belongs to me, drops of pee still drying on my legs where I splashed when Gaybaum rolled away. I let cabs pass and walk among the students and fags on Bleecker as I replay the broken, horrified face of Nabaum, and then after a measly four minutes of triumph, Iím like, This is not even funny. And then itís a shame moment, a deep shame moment, when you actually speak out loud, and I say, "Get the fuck out of here," and then, twenty feet later, "Go."
I pick up the pace, trying to draw power from my legs, but, really, I feel like a clock unwinding, like a gravy thatís been simmered down to burnt, black goop. I think of the hours Iíve spent on my knees, on my back, with dicks in my mouth, playing schoolgirl or Mommy, a clientís - all right, a johnís - clammy corpulent flesh up against my own, and the buckets of come, dumpsters of come, and there arenít any more plans. No backup. Just the money to spend. And not enough of that. "Run away," the shame voice says. A guy walking toward me looks me up and down, and says, "Did you say something?" I keep moving. I donít want to do this. But Iím going to. The real shame is in losing to loneliness, like youíre no longer capable of living only with yourself, or worse, realizing or deciding that being strong isnít enough. But Iíve already surrendered. And realizing that, surrendering to surrender, I even start to worry that he wonít be there.
~ excerpted, Safe in Heaven Dead, written by Samuel Ligon