I begin on impulse: I hone my craft and never master it, nesting in the comfort of the death instinct, those long intervals when personal achievement stops mattering to me. Business is bad; self-made pornography has trimmed the fat of the sex work industry. I live in my parents’ house in Missouri. I want you. You know how I get when I get this way. I will agree to your terms. I will be your girl, you common man. Your painted mistress, or how should a woman be? Surreal, the sybil’s white breast, the roseate areola, lamb’s ear, sin’s rib, the simple prose a man speaks. You tell me.
I left New Jersey. I took a train to the city for the last time—it was summer, a year ago—and kissed my friends’ faces. I paid for dinner. I bought an umbrella from the bodega on Clara’s block. It was not raining but looked like it might. I’d left the insulating comfort of a divorced man’s bed and boarded the train from Hoboken to the 33rd St. platform, stowed away with herds of my kind, thinking of great suicides. Paul the minister’s son who drove into the St. Genevieve marsh; your friend last Halloween; Trakl foaming at the mouth like Mia Wallace. I took note of my contemporaries, the shoulders I brushed in passing, the glances I stole—sometimes a blonde in the garments of last night’s sex hunt draped a man’s coat over her lithe damp mannequinoid body, holding her shoes in one hand; she would step off the train cleanly, as though she knew exactly where the next bed would be, and if she caught me looking, I would pretend to contemplate the rain. If I were a city person, I would be coy and knowing. I would not go about the world baited and stunned. I would not cry out, cautious and prosaic Protestant I am, or wonder about the lives of other people with their objects and lovers, their scabbed faces and long, silent commutes. The way they make love; how they lie together or apart when it’s done. If I were a city person, I would not question and prod at the insides of things. I’d get to the hearts of matters and to the hearts of men.
So I retreated (with some relief, I think) to my previous life in the American Midwest. I want popstars, tabloids, celebrity rehab: I want the sob stories of the country people who left—how the lust, the impossible beauty of those coastal cities sucked them dry—but their lives are unfashionable now, a spectacle of the early aughts. I pass groups of Catholic girls just getting out of school. Their skirts cuff at their knees, pretty legs, blond ebb of daytime. A black cat suns itself on my street. Its owner, a woman of unremarkable beauty and indiscernible age, strokes the animal’s mane with her free hand—making the same sort of rote, listless gestures toward the cat as the cigarette does toward her face, the same listless way the wind pulls plumes of smoke from her lips.
I sleep with a collector car salesman who pays me in cash. He owns a dealership for investment-grade cars—those showy, impotent machines. He has a red 1967 SS convertible, an old hunting dog named Shelby, a hundred counterfeit de Kooning girls and a redheaded whore. I wish he were sicker, crueler, worse. I used to love you, a guy my age who once let me feed him from a baby bottle during sex but refused to hit me, to sincerely choke me, or to lay a hand on me in public—where most people don’t realize they are in need of a good show. I called you on the Fourth of July, after the car salesman snuck me into the country club to see the fireworks sputter and loom over the golf course. I threw bread to the pigeons who clung like children to skirt-hems of the women. There were sirens to the west of us. An echelon of birds moved north. I’d vanquished four months’ sobriety with a cursory shot of the old man’s gin, and now I was wasted, going hard at it, fucking like the college girl I was when the boy my age loved me. Your voicemail greeting had changed since the last time I tried to reach you. It was low and provocative, slightly assaulting, sort of rude in its labored masculinity. I want you, I said. I still masturbate to the thought of it, hitting myself across the face the way you wouldn’t and performing a little flinch as though it is your hand, or any hand, and because I am passive and ashamed and perhaps a woman I don’t hit hard enough, and because you’re no better, neither would you.
One spring in Paris, I embraced a man in front of Notre-Dame and my parents. He had a homemade sign. Câlin Gratuits. I was younger then, mercurial and pubescent, and as I let myself into a strange man’s arms I enacted a giddy cruelty against my parents, who cried out in skittish American English for me to stay close to them. I have had dreams, maybe memories, of this encounter. In them, the Frenchman is naked. My mother, father, and brothers look on as I run to him, all gullet and paunch and shock of softness; I embrace him, because he is carnal and grotesque and my family is watching. That is the fiction of the French stranger: the sensualist, the fat libertine, coarse and indecent old man, erect when the child pressed into him to make her point. The truth of him is that when he felt me up it was in hope of an ill-concealed wallet; he was an artless pickpocket, the commonest and worst of his trade, groping a kid for cash. We both got the attention we wanted.
That was my youth: I developed a sickness, a ruinous crush on the man at the filling station who taught me to pump gas when I got my first car. I passed the station each day, commuting to and from school. I looked for him and found nothing. I’d hoped he might loiter there, waiting for me, waiting for girls whose fathers didn’t teach them how to pump gas.
I was certain that in the clarity of his love he was determined to marry me and had resolved to be scrupulously faithful through all the years he would need to wait, first for the affair to become legal, then to become acceptable. In a bathtub in Missouri with soap scum around the rim, I washed myself, perfumed sickly with edelweiss and balsam and pear. I sat naked in the tub and ran the water hot. The faulty drain stop made a slow chore of bathing in that house. I lay my back upon the cold resin as the water made its long way around my body to the back of the basin. I always felt that the tub was set on a slight downward slope and could never completely fill itself. There was only one way to confront the lonely fact of a quiet house. I placed my feet flat on the checkered tiles, straddling the faucet’s warm, steady surge. Fearing I would be found out by my mother or God and His angels or the vague man whose neck and lips and hands my mind conjured, I worked quickly. I stroked his blank face, the suggestive nape of his neck, felt down his long belly to the base of the pelvic bone, where a sturdy waist tapered and his two legs began; I reached between them, to the body of the pervert with no face, his flesh pressing into me. I wondered if there was such a man as this one, a crude and impersonal lover, and if he was somewhere across the cities and the towns of the continent, doing the same to himself. He was no one; he was a man on a bus and my father. No, he could not be my father; he was a boy in church, the nape of his neck; he was somebody’s son. He was the Blessed Virgin hunched over in postpartum agony in the nativity scene. He was a man pissing on the sidewalk under the movie theater marquee. He was violating me against the chain-link fence that girded the tennis courts at school in the bold bright morning. He was the red August sun, speaking vulgar things. There were long wakes of pleasure, smiling and radiant with the sickness.
When I came, I wished for nothing but to sink and drown and be pulled into the plumbing of the earth by the current of the drain, to be dead and blue amid the sewage in the treatment plant—just God, what an end.
I did love you: you who held me tensely and without reprieve. You left a lucent trail of your semen down my back and rummaged (with some contempt, I thought) in my nightstand for a tissue. I want you. I waited for you through all kinds of weather, local elections, presidential sex scandals, war.
And I waited through the ones who came after you. The politician’s kid around whom I was careful to call the waitress a server and the common whore a sex worker; who called my breasts breasts and his most-watched pornstars adult performers—he called his cock a cock and his mother a saint or, depending on what men she dated and what degree of access she granted them to the family money, a dumb cunt. He ended things around Christmas, after he broke his collarbone at the bench press in his dad’s garage in western Massachusetts and realized that he did not like the man he was. He left me a suggestive grocery store bouquet and an anonymous poem in wet red ink, gently plagiarized from the glorified dead. A common street, always some awful daily human things going on outside, cheap curtains, lives pecking and picking like hungry sparrows, children fighting and being slapped, bank holiday picnics in a suburban park. One recognized everything, and everything was as everything is. There were sunny harbors, a woman’s breast, a house fire; there was America at the movies; there was sex and moonlight and saddled horses in those poems he copied. There was death, and there was dying with a little patience; Prufrock’s disturbed universe, St. Louis. Cities, alive and coarse and strong and cunning: I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys, the beautiful plagiarist said. Would I be a city, alive and coarse and strong and cunning? Not me, wallowing in my ideological pink.
There were wilds of spruce and unforecasted frost; there was war in those verses. If I misunderstand poetry, I do so with conviction, and there is rigor and rigor of beauty in the lyrics I take simply and literally. More beer, the lover plagiarized; a typist, more finches, more green-eyed whores.
Still I wait for you to come back; renew the lease; promise to fix the finicky radiator; lay your head in my lap; beg. I want you. Remember who broke me in and made it so I could not love. Take off your hat, king of the beasts.
On these nights of my adulthood in my parents’ house in Missouri, I dance sober in the bathroom mirror, taking stock of myself, an iteration of this aging body in lamplight, end of day—the younger self, a fool, wanting after all to be free.