The second time I come to see her, she lets me touch her right breast. I’m sure she would let me touch the left one, and maybe slide my hand down her smooth belly, but the idea is too much for me. She strokes my arm as I hand her the fives through the window, just barely brushes her fingertips along the inside of my elbow. I roll her nipple between my fingers, run my palm over the breathless curve. I want to stop.
“You are so gentle,” she says. And, “Do you like them?” And other things. She has an accent: Russian, I think. She sighs well. She is sighing about something else, something real that she’s remembering, but I let myself be fooled.
My girlfriend left me three weeks ago. She’d already graduated, in the summer. I had only two classes left, but I dropped them. I couldn’t keep going. On the coffee table are three envelopes from NYU that I haven’t even opened. I look around this place: the stained white sink; the frying pan with leftover potatoes still in it; the pot of rice from the day before and, underneath it, another pot with ramen burnt on the bottom. Starches — all starches. On the floor, I count eight pairs of dirty boxer shorts; eleven T-shirts, all worn twice; three white dress shirts for work, the dark stains of my body on the collars and cuffs; six pairs of pants; fourteen socks; two flannel sheets that smell stale and carry thin traces of the last sex that Sarah and I had; three towels, one damp and mildewed, the other two still smelling of her — God damn it. Her memory is molding here. All the ashtrays, bottles, and jars are stuffed with butts. My fingernails are ringed black and smell strongly of garlic.
She didn’t storm out on me. We just spiraled down until it seemed something had to change, and all we could figure to do was bail out. Or maybe it was like a hot-air balloon losing altitude, and we threw out everything unnecessary until we each had just a small bag of our own things — things we needed so badly that neither of us would toss them for the sake of the balloon ride. And so the balloon came back down, and we walked away from it, and now it’s gone, floating away without either of us in it. And I’m left with my little bag of things that I wouldn’t throw away — a dismal collection, I think, like a mystery grab bag that I’ve been handed along the way. There’s shit in there that no one can talk about, things from the old neighborhood, from the basement of my friend Eric’s father’s house. Other things. I don’t know how to pull the fucking things out. I know I have to, but how can I stick my hand back in there? How could anyone?
She dances a little. Raises one foot onto the little shelf beside the window — leather boot laced to her knee. Runs two fingers on either side of her vagina. Roughly parts her pubic hair. Her ritual: three times, no variation. I don’t think she even recognizes me. For her, every time the window opens, she’s with someone different. This is what she gives me in the dim light: her whole pelvis thrust forward, maybe eight inches from my face. “You are so handsome. So young.” Her fingers whisper across my forehead. I’m a blank. I’ve become the generic, sweating man she sees continuously standing in this booth. I feel I’m losing some part of myself, but I can’t stop, not yet. Something is on the edge of happening — something will change.
She’s younger than I am by a few years. Maybe twenty-one. But she always seems older, older even than the gray, screw-faced zombies who lurch around the dim hallway, going in and out of the booths. Some part of her is like the side of a mountain, like rock.
The mess in our apartment drove Sarah crazy. I swear I tried to clean it up, but it would sneak back, as if it were seeping from my body when I wasn’t looking — which I guess it was. She’d eventually get mad, and I’d try to do better for a while, but her yelling only made it worse. Still, this is not what caused it to end; even she would tell you that.
I’ve still got my job, waiting tables at Buonafesta, a small Italian place. I’m making a fair amount of money — mostly tips — but I’m a financial nightmare. I get it and it’s gone. Right now I owe an eighty-six-dollar phone bill, a nine-hundred-dollar rent payment, thirty for the cable, and thirty-odd for gas and electric, and I have only $586 in the bank. I’m going to have to move out, but I can’t even think about that; it was such a nightmare finding this place. It’s been a bad three weeks since Sarah left: I’ve bought a bunch of CDs, eaten out a lot, seen at least a dozen movies, and gotten some expensive skin magazines that I threw out after two days because they just made me more depressed. I used to have a real problem with them when I was younger. Back then, I wouldn’t even recognize that they were making me depressed. I tried to talk about pornography with Sarah, but it only made her mad, and we could never move past that: her angry and disgusted, me angry and ashamed. There was a lot I couldn’t say to her.
I know from the pictures on the doors to the booths that other acts are possible: toys, two dancers. I might like that — perhaps too much. I might like it so much there’d be no turning back.
“Give me a nice tip,” she says. I pass two wrinkled fives through the window. That plus the four tokens I bought from the wordless fat man to raise the little window inside the booth comes to eleven dollars. Her breast is so smooth and firm. Perfect. Warm. Sometimes I think: How can the real world compete?
I have no one to touch anymore. Only this.
Last night, I called all the women I’ve ever dated. Tracked them down. Got their numbers from friends. Phoned their parents and said I was someone else. I called all I could find — and hung up on the two who actually answered.
The first few times, I went only to the video booths. Watched the miles of sliding cocks. Watched a woman with a German shepherd wearing a white condom. Saw needles stuck through nipples, two fists disappearing into someone (a woman? a man?), someone dressed in black rubber held underwater in a bathtub, struggling. The plywood walls were unpainted. The floor glistened with other men’s semen. Jesus Christ, I thought. I’ll never do that, not sitting here in the booth. A thin headache lodged itself in the middle of my brain. Afterward, a numbness came over me that lasted for hours. I couldn’t look at anyone on the street. The crowds pouring through Times Square: monsters, all of them. I told myself I’d never go back.
The next time, I eyed the row of closed doors to the dancers’ booths, the women perched above the doors for the men to inspect. “I like you,” she said, looking down at me from above. She wasn’t the prettiest, but that accent. If I ask for nothing, I can leave here free, I thought. She pointed to the door below her. I opened it, then closed it behind me — as if I were hiding in a closet. I put my four tokens into the slot, the little window opened in the wall, and there she was. I asked for nothing. She did it all.
At work today, an old man came in and sat at one of my tables.
“I saw you from the street,” he said. “You look just like an old friend of mine.”
My first impulse was to walk away or ask him to leave. He seemed halfway normal, but it’s hard to tell in that neighborhood. Light blue polyester jacket, thick black eyeglass frames, greasy, combed-over white hair — he looked like some swinger who hadn’t bought any new clothes since 1950. I could see myself dressed like that in fifty years.
“You look just like my friend,” the old man continued, watching my face. “He’s been dead a long time.”
“I’m dead, too,” I said jokingly, and immediately regretted it. He laughed, a dry, throaty sound.
He seemed like someone I should stay away from — a clinging old parasite who wanted a young guy to fuck — but also someone who might have something to say to a person like me. He cleared his throat, as if about to speak, but I pointed to the menu. “What would you like?”
His brow tightened, pulling his forehead down and exposing pale slits of scalp under his comb-over. His sadness made me want to give him a chance. Then he said, “What would you have for lunch if you were me?”
I decided he was like a stray who’d follow you home, and I wasn’t in the mood to throw a stick for him. “Hang on,” I said. I got Pam to take his table and spent the next hour avoiding his gaze.
When he finally left, I went over to talk to Pam in the dish room. She had his plate of food. It was untouched.
“What a cool old guy,” she said. “He left me twenty bucks. You know, he told me he acted in porn films back in the forties.” She scraped his uneaten pasta into the garbage. “He’s got stomach cancer.”
I want what you want, I say. I’m on the verge of crying, and I don’t know why.
She takes my hand, places my fingers against her. They tangle in her pubic hair. She presses until my index finger slips inside.
“Give me a little extra today,” she says.
There are tears in my eyes. The money is like protection. A white condom for the German shepherd inside my head. She slips the money out of my hand. I can’t stop crying. I’m not even looking at her now.
This is all you get from me, I think.
In the apartment, I walk across the tiny front room, across our futon on the floor, to the even tinier bathroom. I read the newspaper. I open the tiny fridge. I smell all my work clothes to decide which ones to wear. I look at the clock and calculate how much time I have left before work, try to decide if I have enough time to do anything. I think about the letters I should write, but I don’t have time to write them now. I look at the sex ads in the classifieds section and masturbate into the sink. Then I crumple the paper and stuff it into the garbage. I’d watch television, but the TV’s broken. I need to remember to have the cable shut off. One day, I’ll figure out how much time I waste each day worrying about the things I’m not doing. I’ll make a chart. What a waste of time that will be.
After I come out of the booth, I wander the streets around Times Square. I’ve melted inside. My hot guts have emptied into the space of my pelvis. I’m not a bad person, I think. Cabs speed around me. Lights replace the sky. I want to weep. What do I do now? At home, I rush to slide my fist up and down my sore cock and spill my useless sperm into the sink and wash it away. I need someone to fix me, but who?
Pam, the waitress at Buonafesta, tells me that she just broke up with her boyfriend. I want to ask her out for a drink after our shift, but I offer her a cigarette instead. Anyway, we’d just fuck each other’s lives up more. And she wouldn’t want to talk to me afterward.
But then, at the end of the shift, I do it: I ask her if she wants to have a drink. She has a class tonight, so she suggests Friday, and I say sure.
I haven’t heard from Sarah, who’s traveling in Asia. She’s probably in Vietnam by now. Maybe she has written, but it hasn’t gotten here yet; the mail service there is not what we’re used to. Or maybe she just hasn’t written. She said she might come back to me. She also said I should see someone, a professional, but I don’t know about that. She was mad when she said it.
We used to lie on the futon together and eat lychee nuts I’d bought in Chinatown. We’d blow dueling smoke rings. Sometimes she made this squeaking noise when she came that I can’t describe. Her neck was so delicate and white. She loved when I traced my fingers over the tiny blond hairs along her spine. I don’t know how, but this apartment seemed almost big with her in it.
After my lunch shift, I usually walk to one of the movie houses on Broadway and see whatever big Hollywood movie is playing. I don’t care what it is. I go for the crowds as much as anything. The people yell at the screen: “Don’t take that, girl!” or, “He’s behind the car!” I love to see people so completely wrapped up.
The part I love most is when the metal cover on the peep-show window closes, slowly winding down like a blind, the tiny motor whirring. As it shuts, she waves like a child, fingers closing on the palm of her hand. Then the booth falls back into near darkness, just a little red bulb overhead, like the light in a short dream. I made it, I think, not knowing quite what that means; not letting myself ponder what that means.
This time, though, I put in four more tokens, and the window cover goes back up. She turns around.
“You want more?” she says.
I hold out two tens. “Can I meet you?” I’m not sure if I meant to say it out loud, but I was thinking it deep inside my head.
She laughs.“You are very bold today.” One hand reaches through the window, undoes my fly. “So big,” she whispers, lying. Her fingertips explore it. Her fingers close around me, rubbing, pulling. “Touch me,” she says.
I jerk away, and her elbow thumps against the wall. I flip myself back in, do up my fly, and step out of the booth. The obese token vendor stares at me. I run down the stairs, my pants rubbing at my crotch. At the bottom, I walk fast through the magazine section, trying to hold it. I stop near the front door and stare at the floor, but it rushes up on me so hard and sudden that I moan a little. It jets across the inside of my pants and runs, hot, down my left leg.
I think about Sarah’s body as often as I think of food. When I was inside her, I felt only good, but when I looked at her standing before the mirror, changing, I saw her bony elbows and knees, her concave sternum, like a furrow between her breasts, her tailbone, prominent and scarred white. I hated myself for looking at her like that, for feeling repulsed, but I’ve done it with every woman I’ve ever been with: made lists of faults, reasons for not being with her. When I think about Sarah’s body now, I miss it, want it — but then the dogs in my skull start barking again, and I see why I don’t want her: the elbows, the tailbone.
Once, we went three weeks without making love. We just kept avoiding each other. She knew something was bothering me, something about her. Maybe something about me bothered her, too. Near the end, we made love once a week or so, barely touching. It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other. But I got scared, depressed. The gray winter light bounced off the brick wall outside our window. I wanted to hide. I thought it would never end. We each kept waiting for the other to speak, to talk about what was happening. I think that’s what did it.
Today she’s not there. I step into her booth and put the tokens in the slot, but the window opens on another woman, one with bleached blond hair and a crooked nose. Her accent is Southern, broad, obvious. Her breasts are large and hang away from each other. Her pubic hair is dyed platinum. “You wanna touch?” she asks.
I walk out. As I pass the booths, some women lean over on top, touching their nipples, calling to me. I realize I don’t even know her name. I don’t want to. I want to be a million miles away in Southeast Asia, running on a beach with Sarah. I want my mother.
The first time Sarah and I talked about it, we were lying on our futon in the dark with the window open a little to the cold air and the sirens. I realized immediately how little I knew about what was happening. I was a child again.
“You’re not attracted to me anymore,” she said.
I felt submerged in danger, only my eyes sticking out of the swampy water. “Not completely,” I said.
How could I have said that? I guess I didn’t think I could lie, or else it would have gone on the way it was indefinitely.
“God,” she said, and rolled onto her side, away from me. “I didn’t mean it like that,” I said. But I was like an eye surgeon with giant rubber hands.
Her back jerked for a long time before the sobbing finally broke out of her mouth. I shrank to a point. I had no right to touch her. Some door had blown open in my head, some safety hatch that I’d kept myself from approaching, and the words had escaped.
It was true, though. I wasn’t ready to have only her. Her body didn’t satisfy me. I know how shallow that sounds — how shallow that is — but I can’t help it. I knew nothing could satisfy the hidden part of me. Everything there was to love about her, and I could see only her elbows. What’s wrong with me?
I call the number at NYU, feeling like an idiot. I don’t know what I’m doing.
“Mental health,” the woman says.
“Hi, uh, I think I need to speak to someone.”
“What is the nature of your situation?”
My situation? How am I supposed to answer that? “What do you mean?”
“Are you having urges to harm yourself or another person?”
I don’t know what to say.
“Sir?” she says.
“Are you?” I ask.
“Sir, I just need to ascertain whether you’re in a crisis situation.”
“What the fuck is that?” My heart is beating like crazy. I hang up the phone.
What an idiot I am. There’s nothing wrong with me that I shouldn’t be able to fix. Normal people just get over stupid shit like this. Stupid, stupid.
The next day, she’s back again. She recognizes me.
“You ran like a small dog,” she says. She’s acting now — not that she ever wasn’t acting, but this is different. She’s playing a role, some generic character pulled from a porno movie. She’s probably done this many times before, but she’s terrible at it, not convincing at all. The fucked-up thing, though, the thing that I can’t understand, is that I like it. No, I love it. Some part of me rises up, hopping up on its hind legs, and dances for it.
I hold the money through the window. “I want to meet you.”
She takes the bills. “You are afraid of my hand. What would this do to you?” She raises her leg, parts her lips with her fingers. “Go find a girl who knows nothing.”
“You want only my pussy.” She says “poosie.” She spanks her genitals with her flattened fingers: a soft slapping sound. “I am not some small girl for you. This costs more than you have.” She rubs her clitoris, takes a ribbed plastic dildo from somewhere above the window, squeezes something clear onto it from a black tube, and slides it up and down her vagina. Abruptly, she jerks it inside herself. I can’t look away. She leans down, reaches through the window, opens my fly, grabs me. My mind floods with a hot wave of departure. I am somewhere else, lost, but also comforted, welcome. Her hand is slick; she kneads my cock, slides everything in rhythm. I reach through the window, grab the plastic dildo, push it into her. She moans — not as badly as usual. For just a flash, I wonder what happened to her to bring her to this place. I can almost feel the shape of it, something young and injured stuck in the outline of her movements, her words — then I block it out.
I come across the wall of the booth. I watch it run down into the darkness near my feet.
Friday night at work, I’m so nervous that I can’t remember the specials. It’s busy, and Pam and I barely talk. She’s working upstairs, and I’m down. I try to time my trips to the kitchen so that I don’t meet her there. I forget the desserts at one table, and they complain. My teeth ache from staying clenched. Then, as the shift ends, the pressure eases. I step outside for a smoke before I ring out my totals. Pam comes out, and I offer her a cigarette.
“You avoiding me tonight?” she asks. She’s almost as pretty as Sarah, maybe prettier; I don’t know. She’s got long fingers and straight black hair. She’s a dancer.
“Just buzzing, you know,” I say, and point to my head.
“Want to skip it tonight?”
She’s a bit nervous, too. I’m surprised.
“No, I want to go.”
As we walk in the warm dark, we talk about work and laugh a bit, hollowly. I think maybe the evening is going to go badly. We head toward the Port Authority and step into some dark, dirty place where jazz is playing.
I check my fly under the table; it’s zipped up. I want to touch her face. “Do you ever want to just leave here?” I say, meaning the whole city.
She nods, then is quiet for a long time. “I like you,” she says, “but I’m, like, right in the middle of it right now. You know?”
“So am I.” I drink from my beer. I want to tell her about Sarah.
“You’re so funny at work,” Pam says. “You know? You seem so together.”
I laugh. “Me?”
“I don’t know.” She plays with her hair a little, pulling it down near her glass. Her beer is half gone already. “Do you like this band?”
I listen to the music beating from the speakers. It’s not jazz anymore. I don’t recognize the song. “I don’t know them.”
She’s silent for a minute, then says, “I’ll be right back,” pointing to the bathroom sign and sliding out of the booth. I watch her ass as she crosses the room, and I feel as if it’s all slipping away from me. I want to sleep with her right now. I want to stop thinking about it, but I can’t.
I try not to stare when Pam walks back across the room, but my eyes are drawn to the way she moves inside her pants.
When she sits back down, my mind is frozen, the way it is in the booth. Bile rises in my chest just from thinking of that here. There’s nothing I can say to Pam that will break through this paralysis. Her beer is almost empty.
“I’m pretty tired.” She drains her glass and sets it down, as if waiting for me.
I tip my glass back, too. “Yeah,” I say. I didn’t mean for it to sound so final.
She lives about four blocks down. On the way, we don’t talk until we pass some bums hanging out near the Hunter College art building. “They’re always staring at me,” she says. I look away.
At her place, she stops outside for a minute, and I try again to think of something to say.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she says.
I’d like to touch her, pick her up. “OK,” I say.
I run home as fast as I can, cutting down side streets, away from Times Square.
Death comes slowly to the numb, those afflicted with a fear that precludes tenderness. At the restaurant, I watch the cut flowers dying through the dragged-out meals of eighteen couples. A blanching of yellows and orange, edges softening, giving up. Couples ruining marriages, betraying other men and women who are sitting at home somewhere else. A silvery light reflects off the windows of the building across the avenue. Pam’s nice to me, but distant. I can feel the time for me to leave closing in around me like a shrinking room in a dream. I have enough for a bus ticket, a rental car — something, somewhere.
I stand outside on the street and watch the men go in and out. I’m watching myself — I know this. I look away, then steal another furtive glance: the thin bravado of the wilted suits, the white sneakers rushing inside, the coats clenched or flapping open. None of the men look up; defeated and ashamed, all. I watch some of them exit and slip back into the stream of normal people crowding the sidewalk. For a moment, they remain distinct from the rest; it’s their aloneness.
I light another cigarette. I’m not a bad person. The night is clear; two famished stars show themselves above the lights of Times Square. I watch them for a long time — a miracle, really, that the city lights haven’t killed them all. Then I go inside.