The Ruin — where my friend Jorge Ruiz spent some of his nights — was decorated in twisted car parts and fruitless conversation and postindustrial clutter, in the collision of strangers and in the flicker of lost opportunities. Some of it was decoration; some of it was left over from whatever manufacturing operation had occupied the space in the early decades of the century. There were, on the walls of the Ruin, the melted shapes of obsolete computers, suspended from the wall on old meat hooks. Those early desktop Macintoshes — Typing Tutors or Flight Simulators or unfinished novels still flashing anemically, in green, on their screens; motherboards splayed on counters and at tables with microchips scattered around them like a new currency. Gutted stuffed animals stapled up on the wall and mangled dolls. Floors covered in straw and fiberglass and asbestos and metal shavings and bent nails and tattooing needles and syringes. There were the rusted steel shovels of ancient backhoes: gladiatorial burial vessels. Volkswagen Beetles attached by chains to the ceiling: splendid and degraded chandeliers. The design vocabulary of the meat packing district — the meat packing district of New York City — made the Ruin what it was. It seemed hard back then to imagine clubs, these kinds of clubs, without the meat packers. The meat packers, the ranchers, the butchers. The broad clean wound that the butcher, ankledeep in blood, opened in the animal’s arteries, the head toppling from the calf—in Texas, in upstate New York, or wherever this butchering was taking place —the neck stump quivering before him.
The butcher and his victim weren’t all that far from the guy at the Ruin who left at home a disconnect notice or an unemployment voucher or an unhappy marriage or even a double-booked dinner at the Four Seasons or Café des Anistes so that he could open his mouth and quench his thirst on another man’s waste.
The action was in the stalls. Were these actual stalls, Jorge wanted to know, at first, like stalls from your public school, transported into the Ruin after they had outlived their usefulness over at P.S. 103? Or were they carefully decorated stall facsimiles, with artificial yet highly suggestive stall graffiti? The designers, as clever as they were angry and remorseful, would never tell. People had come this far and they were paying a lot of money for non-alcoholic drinks and they sure as hell wanted everything, even the graffiti, to be contributing to the pungent and bracing sleaze of that club, the weird sadness that lay in the air like religious incense, like smells and bells. So if they weren’t real stalls, Jorge thought, they were at least designed by people who had spent their time in public schools and who knew the code of sadism that lay at the heart of public school corridors, who knew the erotic power of handtools and dental drills and heavier machinery.
The logistics of home, the logistics that oppressed the regulars at the Ruin, could only be solved in this theater of detritus, of glory holes, of discipline and submission, of piss and shit; so they wanted home near and far, oppressive and yet declawed. They wanted stalls, they wanted industrial spaces, they wanted uniforms, and (in part) the threat of deadly diseases, but the sight of a balance sheet, the sound of a cash register, or the ebb and flow of ordinary conversation, these were the things that really ruined these patrons, that caused them mortal discomfort.
The guy on the table being fisted by two men at once, two men wearing black leather face masks with zippers across the mouths; the women with the penciled-on sideburns, with the dildo that glowed violet, glowed with a sort of strontium 90 kind of light; the woman who lightly, desultorily whipped herself, while mumbling an alphabetical list of sexual insults; the guy suspended in the cage with the daggers sheathed in his pectorals, in his pectorals — the possibilities seemed endless at first, but they weren’t at all. The possibilities were marked by the faint, beveled edges of modern imagination, by the devouring ennui of the straight culture that the Ruin honored by opposing all the time, in every way. I mean, after a while, Jorge knew that the guy getting fisted was named Malcolm and that he was an assistant stage manager of off-off-Broadway shows and that he had a brother with cerebral palsy, just as Jorge knew that the woman with the dildo —who said her name was Huck — was from San Antonio. Actual name: Doreen. When she was a kid, Jorge had learned, she had been a Deadhead and an environmentalist, an artist of batik and macramé.
Every day the Ruin stayed open was a miracle of invention; every day it threatened to get old, to run its course, to succumb to legal inquiries, to file for bankruptcy, to liquidate its assets, and still the regulars came. They waited for nightfall, for the early part of the evening to pass, when the breeders had all gone home to their genetic responsibilities. They waited eagerly, but without a choice. The Ruin was like the psychiatric hospital where some of them had done time. It was a last chance joint with directions to the next last chance joint; it was rock bottom with a trap door in it—Jorge told me so —and after all, he knew about eschatology. He detoxed himself in the psych ward and came out again to tell of it. He got a prescription for that crystal, lithium. He had come to the end and found there were innumerable other ends in the cauldron of his city.
When Jorge Ruiz wasn’t visiting sex clubs — and it was the question you always wanted to ask about the people you met there —he lived on Times Square. Middle-thirties, medium height, perilously thin, hair in tiny steel coils, a large burgundy splotch on the left side of his face, a birthmark, a speaker of Spanish and English and Spanglish. He had left his mom, who lived alone in Union City, to come to Manhattan. That is, he had left behind the outlying dilapidation for Manhattan. And Times Square was where he ended up, where it was cheap enough, where there was a high turnover of real of death, terror, illness and the sex industry.
You know the throw weight of chance in these decisions, the decisions about where to live, Jorge told me, the kilotonnage of chance — you come one day looking for an apartment, two other guys are looking at the Voice the same minute you are. There are thousands of people looking at the Voice, really, but these two guys, these other guys, in particular: one guy ends up living in Harlem, one guy ends up living in Chelsea—and this second guy dies young— one guy ends up in Times Square. You all look at the same apartment one day, though you never really meet. Next day, you step on the same gray, stringy piece of Trident gum on Seventh Avenue and Fifty-third Street; the same desperate panhandler, in the upper forties, asks all three of you for change (he’s a guy I knew in college, now schizophrenic); you fire the same real estate agent. But you never meet.
And in this way you figure out after a while how the people around you, in New York City, are like so much dark matter. You don’t know who they are, you never meet them, but they shadow you. Your movements implicate one another; your good stretches and disconsolate moments are one and the same.
Other New Yorkers, they are exactly like your friends, your New Yorkers, except for one small detail—Jorge explained — they were born in the D.R. not Puerto Rico, maybe, or their hair is a lighter brown, or they really prefer tea to coffee, or prefer boys to girls or girls to boys, or they prefer Techno to House or House to Techno, or they live in clubs like Lebanon, where people get stabbed, clubs that last a year or two and then are gone. These New Yorkers have three brothers instead of two. Or they never did drink or never did start smoking that shit or they never did finish school. Or they went to graduate school and now can participate in grand discussions about the city’s duty to house the homeless or about the dialectic of literary-something-or-other that has, at one end, formalism, and at the other, hermeneutics.
These people look exactly like other people you know. That guy passing on Forty-sixth Street looks exactly like that guy you met on line at the Ziegfeld. That guy looks like someone from your gym. He’s even carrying a gym bag. And in fact the two of them, those two guys you just saw, those guys who look like other people you know, they also look like one another.
In this city of the Ruin, an entire manufacturing run of human beings was completed, Jorge said, and then the molds were all used two, three, maybe four times, to save money on newer molds, and if you are lucky you never meet your own double. If you’re lucky.
Which is not to say that we don’t grow into the particulars of our environment. Twins grow apart; identicals grow apart. Ultimately we and our doubles —all of us —are seized by vain, idiosyncratic quirks. Landscape works on people the way diet does, or the way local television broadcasting does. People grow apart. They get kinks. Like it says in the Gospels: Fortunate is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human.
So Jorge Ruiz, who lived in a neighborhood with a thousand kinds of nakedness, came to see nakedness as his vocabulary. With it, he tried to explain things, his merciless depression, for example. Jorge lived over a store that sold knives, just around the corner from a pickup spot called Sally’s. The new Sally’s, that is. (The name was lettered in the opaque window on Forty-third in browned, unsticky masking tape.) Sally’s was as venerable in the world of transsexual hustlers as, say, the Algonquin — only a few blocks away —was venerable to the charlatanical writers of the sixties and seventies. The old address, the old Sally’s, had burned somehow. Before Jorge got there. Suspicious activity. An unhappy or confused trick. A shortfall in protection money.
Around the corner from Sally’s II was the Peep World, a midtown sex establishment of enduring popularity. It too had burned once; it too had struggled back from this calamity. PEEP WORLD! HOT! EUROPEAN! GAY! KINKY! BIZARRE! RUBBER GOODS! MARITAL AIDS! It was all mirrors and antiseptic spray. It was all lockers inside, like some demented public high school, like P.S. 103. There was a guy whose job it was simply to hose down the video booths afterwards, but sometimes he was backed up or on break, and you slid, or your sneakers squeaked, in fresh extract. Jorge had been inside, of course, had sampled video booths both straight and gay, had even made the acquaintance of this bored young man with the cleaning agents. His name was Ray and he stood off to one side like any other minimum-wage laborer —checking and rechecking a plastic five-dollar watch.
And across the street was the Priapus, an all-male erotic film center. ARMY BRATS. TRUCKER STUDS. TRAPDOOR TREATS. LOCKER LOVE. PRISON GUYS. HARD AS STONE.
At first, Jorge liked to watch the kinds of artificial expressions that played across the faces of the men, and even the women, who ventured past the neon entrances into these local enterprises. He was eating a Sabrett’s hot dog, say, and leaning against a destroyed parking meter, watching. There was a certain way consumers of the erotic pretended that they were fortuitously drawn there, a certain low gear in which they traveled, a certain look they had that said—Jorge told me —The office where I am dropping off this important document seems to be right by this suggestive nude poster. Or, There happens to be someone I recognize inside, glancing at that rack of. . . videotapes! At first, these superficial acts of dignity pleased him. Or at least his apprehension of them, his apprehension of their hypocrisy, pleased him.
Until he was going in there himself.
Because after a couple of months in Times Square, he was visiting these addresses, too.
Like this: In front of the Peep World, the sky was the blue of colorized films. The traffic moved like it had never moved before. Somewhere the mayor of New York City was dreaming of pitching Manhattan to the Democratic National Committee or to the Grammys. His pulse raced in this dream. The mayor napped and dreamed of public check-signings and flawless photo opportunities and a Manhattan that operated like a Japanese factory, and just for one afternoon his dream had come true. It was a miracle. The cars were racing past the Port Authority Bus Terminal as if there were a civil defense emergency uptown; the homeless, including that guy I knew in college, had stirred themselves from their vents and grates because it was so beautiful. And that afternoon Jorge had followed up on a half-dozen leads for jobs, including a promising opportunity teaching English as a second language. True, he had a friend with that horrible kind of pneumonia; and his mother was old now, and wouldn’t live long, especially not alone in New Jersey, but the breeze in the air nourished him today; he was like some purely aerobic organism, and that evening’s full moon would hang above Times Square like the most fabulous neon. That day, no decision seemed wrong. The operations of chance were like a fine harvest.
There was a girl in some salacious poses on the billboard out front. She was the girl with a hundred aliases —Trixi, Candi, Belle, Wanda, Ginnie Mae —and her retouched curves adorned the doorways of every pornographic outlet on Eighth Avenue. Jorge saw a couple of guys in UPS uniforms check both ways and roll into Peep World, and in spite of the good luck he expected from himself that afternoon — he was even imagining tomorrow’s Post with nothing but good news in it —in spite of everything, he was following them. His hand was on the slippery stainless-steel door handle —you had to open that door, you had to manifest your intention to enter — as he strode across the threshold. How do they decorate a place like this? I was always curious.
Inside the Peep World or the Show Center or the Nude Revue or the Triple XXX Lounge, Jorge learned, the girls were like the rest of the citizenry of New York: exhausted, overworked, frightened of the future, cynical, bitter, looking to cop. He talked to them, sometimes, the ones in the double-occupancy booths, or the ones who writhed on felt-covered tables, though he wasn’t terribly attracted to them, though he had some deficit in sexual desire now, and this in no way endeared him to the women who were working. And he had little money to tuck under the elastic of their G-strings. Anyway, in conversation, Jorge was worse than awkward. He was an educated guy who looked a little weird, a little pasty, kind of ill, but also gentle and knowing and forgiving. Jorge told me himself that he talked the way a confidence man talks, trying to catch you in some well-traveled fallacy, or like a religious zealot, unyielding and lost at the same time.
— I guess this is supposed to be when I take my pants down, he said to the girl in the double-occupancy booth, that confessional. She was tricked up like a dominatrix. She frowned.
—You can do whatever you want, she said.
Sound of her voice muffled by plastic.
— Is there some . . . is there a kind of routine you do if I don’t know what to say?
—Uh, sure, I guess . . .
—Touch, uh, touch yourself and . . . No, wait, Jorge said. Wait. Just wait a second, okay.
He sighed deeply.
— You don’t have to do that, he said. You don’t have to . . .
— Look, she said, if you’re not going to . . . If you don’t wanna . . . If you’re not here to get off, why bother?
— My money, Jorge said. My money.
A silence, as though they were closing in on something. Then at the same moment the invisible factories of chance manifested themselves. Like a lethal blade, the window guard slid down between them. Rustling on the other side of that impenetrable wall. Time for more tokens.
It was later, or it was another day. He didn’t talk to the girls, the lap dancers, or whatever they were that year, he looked at the ones in the booths. Or he didn’t even look in the booths, he looked at the video screens with their innumerable channels and innumerable parameters of chase and entrapment. A hand grasping. A cock, as large and brutal as some amputation stump. He simply wanted to see what was on every channel. It no longer had to do with wanting to see a woman dowsing with some bruised-looking phallus, or with some guy sitting on some other guy, taking the thing into him. Or a young girl moaning breathlessly. It was all just want and flesh, bodies melding in cold fusion, bodies without borders, bodies eager for the subterranean passage that led beneath and beyond New York City.
Jorge hustled from the video rack to the booths to the rubber goods, those handsome Caucasian and African simulated penises, strap-on harnesses, those ticklers and pincers and rings and clamps and devices of the rougher trades. Inflatable women, the sort without politics, pillowed, vinyl facsimiles of kindness. He hovered everywhere like a yellow jacket trying to get the sense of Peep World, he wanted to know, wanted to know. He was shivering with excitement, and somehow the shivering seemed to have its own separate strategy. Or as Jorge said later, The thrill of pornography, well, it was around a long time before pornography ever was.
Then he was back in the booths: Ray, the purveyor of antiseptic, reprimanded Jorge for accidentally pressing a button unlocking his booth too soon. Toothlessly, Ray mumbled, his lips folded back in disappointment and contempt to reveal the black rinds of his gums: Don’t open the fucking door till you’re done. Jorge settled himself again into the video booth, and he was finally able to stroke himself to the point of points, to the summa, and then he was grateful.
He was grateful that the atomization of city life could be dealt with simply on this cash basis; that the cobwebs that had decorated his oldest fantasies, the stuff he thought was his burden alone, could be cleared away just by turning some dials and spitting into your palm; he was grateful that the workers in the sex industry had, he was sure, kind bones. What more compassionate people were there? Who was more accepting of the desperate and lonely? As a profession of kindness sex work was easily more inclusive than either social work or nursing. He was suffused with a feeling of gratitude that was all out of scale with the brusque, impersonal machinery of Peep World.
And the feeling didn’t last very long. It didn’t even endure beyond the premises of the establishment, in fact. The expanding streets of Times Square —bubbling up and cracking, engulfing and digesting — had not evaporated while he was inside. That brief afternoon interval of municipal fellowship and teamwork had vanished. It had just been coincidence. Jorge was back in the old New York, the quarreling New York. What he wanted, what he desired, the city was taking these slowly from him.
He killed time, like other users of pornography, between the glittering entrances to Times Square. There were gyro restaurants —GYROS! PITZAS! —and passport-photo shops and the video-game parlors and back-dated magazine shops, the Best Western for foreign teenagers, cheap bars for the theater district and stores that sold Broadway memorabilia and knives, and cheaper bars for the hard luck binge drinkers. Lingerie stores for transvestites. Liquor stores with bulletproof glass and little slide-through slots for pint bottles.
And here was what he felt when he came out of Peep World (a couple of drops of seminal fluid riveting his shorts uncomfortably to his thigh): he could feel the charcoal and polonium falling from the sky; he could feel the urgency in every conversation; he could see that men walking the streets were fitting brass knuckles on over their arthritic joints. He knew why people went into Peep World. Because they were feeling really good; because they were feeling really bad; because they had had trouble at work; because they were having trouble with their girlfriend; because they had no girlfriend; because they had two girlfriends or two boyfriends or a girlfriend and a boyfriend, and they didn’t know how to choose between them; because they were lonely; because they never got any time alone; because the world was full of hypocrisy; because it was not; because they weren’t caring for the people they loved; because they were tired of caring for others; because the skies were blue, or their car had a dent, or their cat was sick, or they’d had an argument on the subway, or they wanted to live in the country and own a trailer, or they were tired of the country, or they hated tuna, or they loved rock and roll; or because they had no money; because they had too much; because they were honest with themselves; or because of chance—Jorge said —because of chance.
The neon of the gyro place, the neon of the shoe-repair store, they were all the neon of Peep World. Jorge confused the thresholds of these businesses. They were identical. Just like, after a time, strangers and the people he knew were one and the same. The neon that called to him in Times Square was all one sign. Follow your itch, it said, hasten your descent. Go ahead, dive.
His mother helped him out some, with money, I mean. She had some social security and some money given her by Jorge’s dad, an Eastern European man from Edison, who had abandoned them when Jorge was just a baby. Occasionally Jorge put in a little time here or there —in a travel-book publisher once, temping, doing some clerical work at a clinic in Times Square. These jobs did not last because Jorge had trouble getting out of bed. It was Epstein-Barr virus or pernicious anemia or maybe just an attack of nerves. His mother had cures involving various spices. Bills and equations were tightening around him like the leather restraining straps you saw in the Ruin, or maybe they had always been there, he told me, tightening around him, a part of his life, bills and math and algebra and all that stuff he couldn’t really learn in his public school, the school with the sadistic stalls. He saw the forms of these equations on his walls, he had actually selected a wallpaper with 1040-EZ forms on it —he had good taste in decorating, he was a tasteful guy, when he had the energy — and sometimes when he was particularly upset, he tried to fill in these forms. Or so he told me. He used a red laundry marker, the pen of choice for suicide notes. He never could get these columns of numbers to add up the same way twice, as he was often late with the rent and often finding bills that were black-bordered and threatening. He couldn’t work, he couldn’t work. Work exhausted him. Then he’d go to the Triple XXX Lounge.
Somewhere in the midst of these months tumbling inertly into much longer stretches he picked up the other most economically important commodity of his neighborhood, the name of which is such bad luck that it’s scary to pronounce it here. I like its name, though, its first and last names —so many hard Cs. A name that was made to sound good in English. In the Romance languages, it would sound ugly and hard. But here in the new world in the languages of Native Americans, the Anasazi, say, it would perhaps be the lovely name of an estuary or a long, rolling meadow. It was made for this continent. It was made for this place. Despite bad luck, then, I will write its name here: crack cocaine.
The street hustlers— the prostitutes —and the dealers in Times Square were all attached by coincidence, chance and circumstance. They were all acquainted, as in any other New York City business, and it made convenience shopping for vice that much more pleasant. Jorge had hustlers sleeping in the doorway of his apartment building, girls and boys, teenagers who wore the same clothes day after day, who had lice and open sores, who were hives of HIV. These kids were hustlers only in the most limited definition of the term. They would do whatever you wanted for a price, they said, but they wouldn’t do it, really; they would get scared in the end and say that you couldn’t fuck them in the ass—Yo, it’s dangerous—or could they just jerk you off, or they wouldn’t say anything at all, they would assume a stony and resentful posture until you gave them the money anyway.
They were just junkies, in Jorge’s view, cross-addicts, crack-heads, garbage-heads, call them whatever you want, they were ghosts, they were the afterimages of people once photo graphed or yearbooked or fingerprinted or otherwise entrapped in a devouring system of images. Ghosts, children already dead to their parents, dead to their principals, ministers, social workers, friends, fuck buddies, running partners, dead even to their dealers, ghosts who would for drugs assume corporeal form, as if crack cocaine was some conjuring stone. They were ghosts like he was a ghost, like Jorge was a ghost and later an addict, too, living far from his own neighborhood, far from his mother, sleeping all day, drawing the blinds, and then going to the Priapus to watch a double feature in which a dozen robotic actors with large mustaches pretended to be camp counselors or infantrymen and then unsheathed themselves.
So this shit these hustlers were smoking, it was available right in the doorway of Jorge’s building, because the dealers and the hustlers were all mutually implicated somehow. They appeared at the same time each morning. They hung around in the same way. And that shit they smoked was cheap the first time around. So Jorge, after some months of refusing, gave it a try. It was cheap when you first learned about the way its network stretched out around you, about its system of distribution and shipping and sales and marketing, and about the way it traveled in your neural pathways, Jorge told me, which was an exact replica of the chart of its distribution — it was all bait and switch, divide and conquer, symbolic and imaginary, you were talking, you were talking, and the sentences were getting longer and longer and you were saying stuff to this dealer, who was also smoking this shit, in impossibly long sentences, sentences that mixed something that masqueraded as euphoria with the most venal cruelties—Jorge was laughing as the guy called his girls crackhead bitches that first time, Jorge was saying that Dominicans was the crassest motherfuckers in the city — and the shit was dancing in your bloodstream like rogue cells metastasizing, and you were thinking, hey, this is pretty good, and then you were going to the ATM on Ninth Avenue and Forty-second for the fourth time that night, that night, uh huh, because it was almost sunrise and you hadn’t slept yet and your money was going to this guy who wasn’t getting much of it because he was a low-level employee nothing more and his profit was going to this guy back in Jackson Heights and his money was going to the guy who was flying this shit in and his money was going to some other guy who lived in the jungle who was using some of it to pay off the military government of his country, which was trying to pay off loans that your bank — the one that owns your ATM —made to this rain-forested country, and you, meanwhile, had one of those crackhead bitches in your bed, gimme one of those crackhead bitches, or one of those crack- head boys, sucking on your dick, didn’t matter which, boy or girl all the same, the mouth around you right then was just a mouth—suck my dick, you crackhead bitch —and your dick had no self-respect left in it anyway, there was nothing left in you, in fact, you are impotent and it is morning and you haven’t slept and the blinds are still drawn and you loath yourself more than you can say, fucking right you do, only that’s too simple, self-loathing, because your revulsion for yourself is bottomless, could power a hydroelectric generator, and it sounds this morning like someone is trying to open your bolted windows with a rusty tire iron someone is coming in and the screech of city buses braking, they call your name, Jorge, on the wind. New York City is a slow corruption. It is time to find some work. To find some money to buy some more of that shit from that guy who lives on his feet at the bottom of your stairs, Jorge told me.
After that, after that first time, Jorge would have liked to have said that he stayed clear of the drug. He would have liked to have visited his mother in Jersey. He would have liked not to have his blinds drawn again and his cat tipping over cartons of half-eaten Chinese takeout, his cat chasing the cock- roaches. He would have liked to say that he had bathed or that he had read the paper or even circled some help-wanted ads or cleaned the tub or done a dish or taken the filter out of the coffee thing or that he at least had one of those compulsive cleaning sessions that visited him when he had a hangover, when he went looking for every trace of the night before in his apartment, a night he only remembered in part anyway, shining his apartment, buffing it, polishing it, on his knees, short of breath.
But after a while he didn’t even want to straighten out so much, Jorge told me. Getting clean required an effort he no longer possessed. This aperçu was the kind of thing people might whisper to you in the sex clubs. Someone sits down on the next stool and says. My life is really coming to an end, if you want to know the truth. Don’t say anything. Don’t patronize me. Don’t try to convince me otherwise. Stage-whispered over the music. After a while, Jorge’s resolve had gone the way of other New York resolutions. It became the style of some other Jorge, some other New Yorker, some guy who looked like him but didn’t have his bad luck. The Jorge who had health insurance.
So he was at Sally’s II one day. He had come up for air, and he was talking to a very nice girl named Crystal with whom he shared this penchant for grand dramatic statements. Crystal said, having just met him. My life is fucked up when I am not high. I am simply at my best when I’m high. Being a man was just a way of slowly dying for me, I may as well just tell you. I am a girl like other girls. I would just like to have a husband and live a life in the Catholic church.
Crystal’s complexities, her physical inconsistencies, didn’t bother Jorge. And he knew that Crystal would come with him on the promise of crack cocaine. And they walked up Forty-third Street, the way of all champagne dreams, the way to all Las Vegas weddings, and they walked right up to the little guy sitting on the hood of a car in front of a place where they sold fake identification cards, and this guy said to Jorge, because Jorge was now a regular customer:
—What the fuck you come up to me like this, what the fuck? You crazy? What the fuck? This my business. You’re an asshole, man. What the fuck. What the fuck you doing?
He was gesturing ominously, violently at Jorge, who couldn’t figure how he had done anything out of the ordinary. The dealer led them around the corner onto Forty-third Street, heading toward Ninth, making a number of lascivious comments about Crystal, about the size of her breasts, and, because he sensed it was a big night for Jorge, he quoted a price higher than usual. An outrageous price. For the crack cocaine. So Jorge refused.
And then his luck turned uniformly bad.
Now Jorge and Crystal were standing there with commuters swarming around them —toward the bus terminal —and she was yelling. What is the matter with you? She yelled anxiously as if what troubled her were not the crack cocaine, as if there were something much deeper, some life-threatening thing for which this moment was merely emblematic. Her voice plunged down into a lower register. She had a robust voice, a singer’s voice. Boys with breasts, Jorge told me wearily, they are angels and when they break your heart they take you closer to God.
It started raining. It was raining, and they were standing there, and then she was swishing off in her high heels, and Jorge was limping after. No wait. Honey, no, wait, thinking she looked an awful lot like someone he had known when he was young. In spite of all her operations and medical procedures, she looked like a girl he had known in Newark, the first girl he had loved, Kristina, who had eyes like colored beads. Crystal. Kris. Which was which?
So he jogged back and gave his last few dollars to the hyena in front of the ID parlor. Paid the price. It was that kind of night. The dealer was laughing at him now; he was pronouncing grim prophecies in a dead tongue, as Jorge disappeared up the block. And then Jorge and Crystal were back at his place and they were grief-stricken, yes, it actually came over them like a contagion and they were crying and somehow they had gotten the rock and they were smoking it and they were making these rash promises like their marriage would be a grand affair, with a reception that would go on for days, and it wouldn’t matter that Crystal couldn’t afford the kind of gown that would have best suited her, and then she started to go down on Jorge and it was an act of mercy, really, not much else, and he put his hand down between her legs, because in spite of everything else, in spite of the fact that he was sweating profusely and grinding his teeth, he felt this was somehow a real chance to exercise those atrophied muscles of compassion, it was the last night he ever felt love, maybe, and he actually said this really stupid thing to her, he actually said these words, words with their own intentions and syntax, This is the last night I’m ever going to feel love, he told me, he told her, and he reached down there to the little chrysalis-shaped stub that had once been Crystal’s penis before all the hormones and stuff—it was roseate and shriveled and it didn’t exactly snap to attention — and he tried to coax something from it, some shiver of recognition about the structure and implication of contact, about sex and human kindness. Because at least he wanted to give something to someone else. Because if he had become impervious to his own feelings, he at least felt like he could give something to someone else. Crystal moaned as though she might come, but he knew that nothing of the sort applied. They were right near Broadway after all, and he was sleeping with a guy who was more or less acting the part of a woman, a top flight performance, a Broadway performance, and the moan was to attest to the success of Jorge’s own erotic masquerade and how it made Crystal feel, ostensibly, well, kinda sexy.
And still he came. Depressed when the moment arrived, with none of that cocaine-self after orgasm, none of that grandiosity. Cocaine had emptied him. There was simply less of him than there had been in the early part of the day. No tranquilizer was going to restore that deficit. He was grazing bottom. His testes emptied their burden. He reached his arms around her. They held one another. Yes, and then they gave up consciousness.
In the morning. Crystal was gone. She had stolen the last few valuable things in his apartment: some silverware his mother had given him, an antique vase his father had sent him once.
I don’t need to tell you of the grim movement of the next month or so, the way the utilities were getting shut off, the income-tax people bringing up stuff from years ago, the landlady threatening. These particulars are not unusual and so I abbreviate them. Jorge said that he preferred to read by candlelight, as solitary readers had done for centuries, and he had no need for a phone. He called his mother collect from the street.
He began shooting heroin as a matter of course. It was the equal and opposite reaction to what I have been describing. It was just another thing to do, heroin or speedballs, and it actually served to broaden him in a way: it got him out of the house. It got him into Harlem, where one of those guys he had never met, the guy who looked at his very apartment right before he took it, was also shooting dope. It got him into the East Village, where there were a number of other people he would never meet, but who were quite close to him —a friend of mine, in fact, Dave, with whom I went to college, and a girl Dave almost went on a blind date with once, and a painter from the gallery Dave’s never-to-have-been blind date once worked at. All these people were in Harlem or on the Lower East Side, putting money in a pail that a guy was whisking into a rundown tenement building. Heroin got Jorge into the East Village, from which it took him a really long time to get home when he was high. And it got him, in the end, into the Ruin. His habit wasn’t gigantic, but he was starting to take risks. His arms were pocked here and there. The Ruin followed directly from that. It was no longer a matter of any bio-electrical orgasmic spike. Orgasm was out of the question. The Ruin was where Jorge felt relaxed, to the degree that relaxation was an idea he still understood. Listen, he said to me. Times Square is a place you live because it’s the only place left where you feel like you are comfortable. And this is true of this club, too, and maybe even true of all of Nueva York. He could have lived in San Juan, say, or in Bridgeport or Toronto, but the ebb and flow of macroeconomics had brought him here, and he had relaxed into chance the way one grows attached to a shirt that is a size too big.
Maybe he heard about the Ruin from some of the women at Peep World or Sally’s II (where he went later to look for Crystal, to beat her senseless, but he never did find her), or maybe he was just drawn there by walking aimlessly along the desolate streets beside the West Side Highway. He was wearing khaki pants and a Hawaiian-print shirt and a belted leather jacket and a gold necklace. He had a beard now and his eyes had that disembodied, unsouled look of junkies, and he recognized no ordinary human boundary in conversation. I’ve been looking at you all night, he said to me in the Ruin. And then he told me what I have told you. There was no emotion in him, he was as gray as a blank screen, but at the same time there were in him all the regrets of this city. The story of his decline and fall was marked by repetition and coincidence. The same opinions again and again, in further states of decay, the same complaints about the city, about how the museums were fascist and all the good clubs were closed, and how the best neighborhoods were off-limits for a person of his origins.
What happened to him that night after I met him at the Ruin I am able to tell you. What happened to him after he started shooting dope and before he detoxed himself, Jorge’s story, or the part of it that I know, ends this way: we talked above the din of industrial racket. There were dancers in studded leather underwear. A night in June. Jorge disappeared into one of the stalls. When he came out again he was jaundiced. I was thinking about going to an after-hours bar. Jorge said he was going home, but instead he went down to the East Village, to a cop shop he had heard about. This I learned later. A bakery on Eighth Street and Avenue D that was a front for a heroin operation. Jorge didn’t know the East Village well, though, and so when he got off the subway at Astor Place, he wandered block after block into the rubble of that neighborhood trying to find the bakery. It was deep in the night now, and he was trying to find it, the silhouettes of these abandoned blocks were ominous, and he was feeling sick and shaking, and he didn’t think he was ever going to sleep again, going up and down Eighth Street, thinking about how to get out of this neighborhood and back into Times Square without being bashed or robbed or murdered or anything else, and also not thinking about it, but thinking — with the one last flickering neurotransmitter given over to ordinary human curiosity —how was the place, the bakery, going to be decorated?
Starless sky. The only pedestrian traffic working the same line of business that Jorge was engaged in. When he finally found the bakery, by chance, oblivious to a sudden confluence of meteors above the city, he was as lost as he would ever get in his short life. He was sick, he told me. I was sick.
Everyone in New York City does not go to sex clubs. Above Fifty-seventh Street on the East Side they march to and from hired cars as if the subway and its content were television fictions. There is the guy with the private life up here, with the call girl problem or the fucking-boys-in-a-motel-in-the-Bronx problem. There is the ragged teenager whose ambition is to throw off his or her Upper East Side address, the kid who takes the limo to the shooting gallery on Lexington and 125th, but truly this Upper East Side is a separate city, where only the occasional skirmish with the New York of this story takes place. The Upper East Side has its loneliness, it has its isolation, it has its lost opportunities, its disintegrating families, it has its murder and its addiction and its adultery and homosexuality, sure, but all this is cushioned. Disconsolation drifts out of the Upper East Side, in some river of chance, drifts neglected like waste, until it lands somewhere else.
So another friend I knew from that time, Toni Gardner, went to a club called Wendy’s. Saturday nights in the meat packing district. In the same space as the Ruin. A club for women. Private sex parties. They had auctions. You could auction yourself. There was a line of those willing to be auctioned. It snaked back to the black plywood bar. A lot of people wanted to participate. If you were willing to wait for a while, you could know your value.
The auctioneer, a woman in her forties, specialized in a certain stage patter ironically imitative of the classic auction house style. The Christie’s and Sotheby’s style. She was welldressed and knowledgeable and articulate about the artifacts at hand. Her argot was full of hyperbolic folderol, jokes and salacious commentary, and it was delivered at an unintelligible pace. She enabled, through the blur of her rhetoric, a host of ritual couplings all based upon principles of chance and economics. On the other hand, maybe she was like the country auctioneer, sending off the calf to be made veal: Woman of the age of twenty-five, hair the color of cinnamon, eyes an arctic blue, height and weight, well, she’s of a certain size — she’s in tip-top physical condition — note the breasts, fountains of maternity, which I can only describe to you by falling into the use of those old metaphors—perfect fruits—and an ass to die for, yeah to die for—yes, this dyke can sing, I can promise you that —in these black jeans, well she will do whatever transports you, this young dyke of twenty-five — I can promise you, and let’s start with an opening bid of a hundred and fifty dollars for the evening; do I hear a hundred and fifty, yeah, one seventy-five, who will pay one seventy-five for this auburn beauty from the country, from the . . . from the state of Maine, that’s right-never visited these precincts before arid ready to be broken on the rack of your choice, fresh from the unforgiving and dramatic coasts of Maine — unwise in the ways of Manhattan —do I hear one seventy-five, one ninety, do I have one ninety, two hundred dollars—she assures me she :an take a dildo all the way to its rubberized base, two twenty-five, do I hear, two thirty— a bottom, yeah, she’s a bottom of compliance such as you have never experienced, SOLD! YES! SOLD! And so on until the obscure and almost unlit cavern rocked with the dynamics of ownership. Her voice now a whisper in the microphone, devoid of affect, the words delivered without feeling at all, just the words, a perfect simulacrum of auction slang and then you were owned. You were owned.
Toni was from the Upper East Side by way of the suburbs — she had never been to Maine at all — and she got out of that neighborhood as soon as she could. Took the bus down Fifth Avenue and only went back for holidays. I met her at Rutgers. When she auctioned herself after a few drinks, I was with her. She’d had a hard time persuading them to let me in. They quizzed you out front if you were a guy. If there was a moment’s hesitation in your responses you were gone. Are you a fag? If you even quarreled with the usage, you were alone walking past empty warehouses. Way, way West. No cabs. No buses. No subways.
Back then, Wendy’s was just coming into prominence as an event. It was making a transition from a prior location, where it had simply been a bar, and the flyers were getting more and more aggressive: Wendy’s, the dungeon of destiny for discerning dykes. Or: Wendy’s, Cruising, Dancing, Humiliation. Toni had recently stumbled into the new room in the back, the one with the vinyl bed in it, and she often found bodies writhing there, including, once, the body of a composition professor we’d had at Rutgers. She gave the stupidest assignments. Wendy’s sprouted these new rooms, like a starfish regrowing itself. Private rooms down this long, gaslit corridor. Like the steam tunnels under the Rutgers campus. Tunnels like architectural diagrams for the uterine and fallopian insides of the customers. Wendy’s was a mystery. You could never tell if the pool table would be there, if the cages would be there, if the bartender who was alluring last week still had her shift. The specifics came and went. Including the pertinent information. Wendy’s operated on Saturday nights, as it had once operated only on Thursdays; it changed locations. It had a phone. It didn’t. It had live music. It didn’t. Sometimes it was in the meat-packing district and sometimes it was gone altogether.
Likewise being auctioned that night were the services of a first-rate dominatrix, who would demonstrate her gifts on the premises, later in the evening. A tattooist and scarification expert also auctioned some work. One of the bartenders auctioned herself. We were supposed to use play money, simulated legal tender bills, but this counterfeiting diluted the effect of the transaction. Therefore a subterranean market existed that featured real cash. Toni got into this long unruly line —she was soon to be the beauty from Maine, the cinnamon-haired beauty—after we’d sat there a while, excitably. And it wasn’t so strange that she did it, really. The auction wasn’t that far, say, from a coming out party back in Montdair, where Toni had lived as a kid.
Things weren’t going well for her professionally. She didn’t really know what she wanted to do; she had spent a couple of years talking in therapy about vocational choice anxiety. And she had flipped a car in Long Island visiting her parents’ summer house. She owed them a lot of money for it. She’d moved out of the Upper East Side after being engaged to a nice boy with a legal practice. Toni auctioned herself to slip these binds. She did it for fun, an amnesiac fun.
She danced in a go-go cage, beside the auctioneer, dressed in black jeans and a tank top; she made sure to sport her tattoos, and she affected an insouciant look, as if daring a bidder. This was the look among the lots at Wendy’s auction— a look that mixed subject and object, sub and dom —and therefore not terribly novel. Toni didn’t garner the highest price. That went to a woman in a sort of librarian costume who seemed to weep nervously as a pair of anxious bidders competed aggressively for her. She brought a thousand dollars for the night.
The music was speed metal. Speed metal with girl singers. The place shook with it. Toni danced. At last, the bidding was completed. Two hundred and fifty dollars. A scattered and diffident applause. The crowd parted a little bit, and in a movie slow motion the employees of Wendy’s, the handlers, waved Toni over, waved her over to the edge of the stage, waving like construction flagmen, where two women were waiting for her. Two women had bid together for her. A consortium. They were fucking cheap, was Toni’s first feeling, she explained to me later. They were fucking cheap, they couldn’t even afford to buy their own slave for the evening — they had to go in on one. No way was she going with them. No way. They were cheap.
But then Toni began to warm to the idea a little. She was charmed, it turned out, by their garishness. By the ugly complexities they presented. She hated them at first and in her disdain she started to like them. At the bar. As she stepped from the stage, Toni took one hand from each of them —from Doris and Marlene —and they repaired to the bar. One of her owners was a good lesbian and one was a bad lesbian. The good lesbian was Doris, and she came from Bernardsville, New Jersey, but she didn’t go to Rutgers like Toni Gardner did. She went to Princeton. Doris’s parents were disappointed when she made clear her object choice to them, when Doris told her parents that she was in love with a woman. But they were supportive. (Her mom was especially supportive because she was in therapy with Dr. Bernice Neptcong, who had an office right in Princeton.) They supported her efforts to find a loving, caring relationship.
Unfortunately, Toni told me, Doris didn’t want a loving, caring relationship exactly, or perhaps these terms were simply more elastic to her than might be supposed by Bernice Neptcong. To Doris loving and caring always seemed to have a certain amount of trouble attached to them. Love and trouble were really identical to her. So Doris formed an attachment with Marlene, the bad lesbian. Marlene was a tall, exotic sex worker—Marlene was not her real name—who had platinum blond hair and coffee-colored skin, who slept with men at a reasonably successful escort agency and who came home at night aggrieved by her profession. She drank a lot. She dabbled with harder drugs.
Marlene’s cheekbones were like the sharp side of an all-purpose stainless-steel survival jackknife and her eyes narrowed to reflect disappointment and loss, which, when combined with her biceps, her violent and toned physique, made for a compelling female beauty. Doris, on the other hand, looked like an Ivy League intellectual. She had thick black glasses and she shaved the back of her head. She wore maroon velveteen bell bottoms and had a navel ring, frequently infected. She was a little older than her clothes suggested.
Marlene and Doris, Toni realized, didn’t have much to say to each other. Toni didn’t know, yet, that Marlene had just come back from a hard day at an escort agency where she had to fuck a whole bunch of strangers, guys for whom deceit was a simple fact of their day, who wove deceit and its responsibilities into their schedule like deceit was just another calendar appointment. And she didn’t know that Doris also hated her job at the women’s magazine where she worked on the copy desk —she aspired to write articles for Camera Obscura. Toni thought Marlene was the harder of the two. Marlene was like a teakettle almost boiled off. Anything could upset her, it seemed, any little stray remark. But in truth Doris was harder. Doris was detached and skeptical and full of calcified antipathies.
Their apartment was in the Clinton section of Manhattan, also called Hell’s Kitchen, where Jorge Ruiz lived. On the night that Toni was auctioned off to Marlene and Doris, Jorge, as I have said, was arguing with a pre-op transsexual. Crystal, about whether to buy crack cocaine from the guy on Forty-third Street who was out to chisel them. At that very moment, while Jorge was just lifting the hem of Crystal’s cheap synthetic miniskirt and pulling delicately on the mesh of her white fishnet stockings, Doris, Marlene and Toni were throwing light switches a couple of blocks away.
It was a small one-bedroom and it was draped in leather items, in stuff from the Pink Pussycat or the Pleasure Chest. There was restraining gear, and they even had a gynecologist’s exam table with houseplants on it. The table had stirrups and everything. There was another decorating strain, too: Bernardsville chic. It was a kind of homely, countervailing sensibility. Doris hadn’t been able to shake it yet, though she was in her thirties. She had a few museum posters, Monet’s years at Giverny or the Treasures of Egypt, and some handsome black Ikea furniture and a lovely imitation Persian area rug made in Belgium. Her parents helped her to buy these. Doris and Marlene also had one of those little yapping dogs, a corgi or something, named Bernice Neptcong, M.D. Doris would say. Get out of the way, Bernice Neptcong. The dog was vicious. An attack rat.
Marlene had clamps, Toni told me. She liked to have you apply the clamps to her nipples and then, also, to her labia, though the best part, Marlene said, and Toni repeated to me, I’m telling you — the best part is when they come off. She also used clothespins, because you could take a little of the spring out of them, bend them back and forth a few times, and they didn’t hurt quite as much. The three of them had already had enough drinks to loosen up —it was almost three in the morning —so their clothes were off in a hurry. They’d barely turned the dead bolts. Except that Marlene had this idea about donning other clothes. Once she had her clothes off, she was striding, like some carnivorous game animal, across the room toward the closet. She had a closet full of garments of the diligent bondage fantast. So they took off their clothes and they put on these leather chaps in which their asses were exposed. Shredded T-shirts through which the edges of leather brassieres or the slope of a breast were evident. On Toni, the costume was kind of large. She was normally in the petite range. Doris made her own selections wearily, as though this part of the proceedings were as new as selecting the temperature for a load of laundry.
Marlene had Doris and Toni attach the clamps to her body. She whispered brusquely. They observed a clinical, professional silence as they did it-because the procedure involved pain and had the sobriety of pain. Toni performed her role intently as though the process were curative or therapeutic and because she didn’t know Doris and Marlene well enough to chatter anyway. Toni hadn’t told them anything — they knew nothing about her except her nakedness, the shape of her tattoos: the Ghost Rider skull on her shoulder blade, the Minnie Mouse on her ass.
Though now they knew that she liked novelty. Toni went down on Marlene. It was pretty hard to avoid the clothespins in that posture, but brushing against them turned out to be part of the point. Marlene let the breath of God pass from her lips. She seemed a little dizzy, and the region that was clamped became enlarged. It must have hurt like shit, Toni told me, because those things were on there pretty well and she was grinding up against me and they were getting caught in my hair or I was pushing them aside and she was just moaning in that way people do, moaning like this was the straight vanilla thing. This went on for a while and finished with Marlene producing a formidable strap-on dildo from a Doc Martens shoe box under the bed. Marlene reached and shoved the box back under the bed. A ripple of pain seemed to overtake her as she did so, and she huffed once with it, as though this were a brisk sort of exercise.
Marlene arranged the dildo harness over her clamps, organizing these hazards disinterestedly. They might as well have been curlers. She stood. She stepped out of the leather chaps and into the black lycra harness with a real weariness. A couple of clothespins sprung loose and she let them go. Then she guided the dildo through the hole in the harness. Its pinkish, Caucasian color was ridiculous. She had a large bottle of Astroglide already waiting on the floor beside the bed, and she told Doris to lean over and grab it, and then, while Toni was doing busy work on her breasts, fingerpainting them, she lubricated her lover’s ass and vagina both, as though she were baby-oiling an infant —with just this detachment — and bid Doris kneel at the edge of the bed. Marlene, standing, fucked Doris in the ass, while Toni got around the side and fondled Doris’s clitoris. Toni was doing the same to herself. It was like jazz-dancing, Toni told me, it was all these moves and steps like that bitch in Montdair, Mrs. Beatty, tried to ram into my head when I was in Jazzercise on Mondays and Wednesdays when Mom was doing the day-care center thing. But the fact was: Toni liked it. It was thrilling the way the last reel of a film is thrilling. You just want to see it all played out.
Doris on the other hand seemed to be walking through it a little bit. Penetration, you know, isn’t always the coolest thing among women, Toni said. Doris held clumps of Toni’s cinnamon hair in her hands as she, Doris, was being fucked by Marlene. She gently tousled Toni’s hair, mumbling slightly, with a kind of sexual agitation that had a little sadness in it too. The amazing thing, though, was that Marlene was getting the whole dildo up into Doris, grinding up into her with those fucking clamps and clothespins all over her! Finally, though, Doris seemed to have enough of it, and she pulled the facsimile out of her ass with a sigh, reaching behind her, looking behind her in this vulnerable way and then pulling the thing out of her, she stood and pushed Marlene down on the bed, masturbating the rubber dick attached to Marlene, as though it could feel, pulling the condom off it, yes condom, and jerking it off, grinding against her lover’s hips until Marlene seemed to be in some thrall of shuddering and pain, kissing Doris on the mouth, reaching up to gently kiss her goodnight. Oh God, Marlene said, as Doris knelt to remove the clamps one by one, first the nipple clamps, and the skin underneath was bruised with red rings around it. Even on Marlene’s dark skin you could see the welts rising. And then the clothespins from her labia. Marlene fingered the damage in an inebriate swoon. Oh God. Toni and Doris stood around her, around the foot of the bed. Marlene probed with her long dark stalks for the evidence of the clothespins. Then she lay back on the bed. Rolled away on her side. Doris wiped her hands on the comforter at the foot of the bed, almost as if that simulated thing, the simulated dick, had ejaculated onto her, as if she’d had Marlene’s very semen upon her.
And then she turned her attentions to Toni. She said something that Toni didn’t hear, the two of them angling around one another like wrestlers now, angling as if to grasp one another, and then the words became clear, their quaintness, Doris wanted to be held, really, Toni told me. Believe it or not, she just wanted to be held, so the two of them were hugging, and Toni really felt like she was Doris’s dad or something, holding her, and then this paternal kindness or whatever it was gave way to another set of roles, another set of styles. They were lying on the bed next to Marlene who was in some narcotic semi-consciousness, and they were facing one another head to foot, going down on each other, because the just holding each other part was okay, but it led elsewhere right then. They were unclothed now, the pile of fantasy gear sitting atop their street clothes like an upper layer of sediment. Doris tasted musty to Toni, as though forgotten in all the rush to arrange things, and Toni felt badly for her. So pity became a component in this secondary tangle of erotics. Pity in there too, like yet another partner, an unwanted partner. Toni’s first and only instance of transportation that evening was a little ripple, really, and she made more noise with it than it required. She faked it. By then, there really wasn’t anything going on that was doing it for me, so I faked it, she told me. Doris in the meantime was having the revelation of the shy. All the contentment in the world seemed to come out of some locked basement and crowd around her. There was sentiment everywhere; the world was her damp handkerchief, her multi-volume diary. It was the kind of orgasm, to Toni, that was promised by the good-natured phonies who wrote sex manuals. Loving as Lesbians (By and For and How To). Or, The Gay Woman: A Manual for Lovers and Friends. Come out of your cellar cabinets of shame, womyn, and celebrate Know the community of love!
—Wow, Doris said. Oh God. Wow. Oh.
— Mm, Toni said.
Now they lay beside one another in the light of a single bedside lamp.
— Don’t worry about her, Doris said. Out cold. Once she’s out you could jump on the mattress and she wouldn’t notice.
Toni smiled nervously.
—You want to spend the night?
— Can we all fit on here?
They could, sure, though Toni wasn’t totally convinced she wanted to spend the night. She was kind of hoping they couldn’t all fit. She kind of wanted to go back to her own bed and sort through the fleeting recollections of the evening: dancing in the cage, putting on the bondage gear, fitting a clamp onto another woman’s nipple, the exponential complications of a threesome. She felt overtaxed, like she’d sat through a double feature in the front row. She was cranky, short-tempered. It didn’t make any difference. Toni was worried about hurting Doris’s feelings for some reason, for some stupid girl reason. So she stayed. Soon all three women were arranged in the enormous bed. Marlene’s lungs wheezed like an old bellows. Doris, on the other hand, was a light sleeper. Toni was between the two of them and she couldn’t get comfortable all night — the gravitational yank of those bodies was too much for her. And Doris kept throwing a leg over her, pinning her, as though Toni were there for good.
A diner on Ninth Avenue. After a silent and hungover breakfast, the three of them made another date for the Thursday following. Would you want to come visit us again? Marlene said. And Marlene did indeed seem to want to try it again. But there was another part of her—Toni told me over the weekend, when she and I went to a bar on First Avenue called simply Bar—there was another part of Marlene that was suspicious somehow, evidently suspicious, that the two of them, Toni and Doris, had been fucking around without her. Taking advantage of her intermittent consciousness. She must have had some infrared surveillance device, Toni thought, some unconscious sensor watching out for her interests. Or else she was just keenly attuned to the inevitability of heartache. Rejection sensitivity. So what if Doris and Toni were doing it? It was part of the problem of three people. You really gotta trust each other, Toni told me. Cause there’s always two on and one off. But Marlene couldn’t withstand the implications, and as the thought took root, it sent forth these poisonous boughs.
That was no surprise. The picture of Marlene got worse as Toni learned about it. Marlene flew into a rage if the place, if the apartment in Clinton, was not swept clean; if the dog, Bernice Neptcong (a male) had not been walked; if the pictures were crooked, if Doris happened to show any interest, conversational or otherwise, in any male who didn’t wear dresses and have breasts; if, for even a moment, Marlene had the sensation that Doris was preoccupied with another woman. Or sometimes Marlene flew into a rage just out of fatigue, just out of daily confusion. And when Marlene flew into a rage, she sometimes beat Doris. This is what Toni found out before the second date ever took place, when she met Doris for a drink, because Doris called her at work and said, I have to talk to you. Let’s meet at this bar on St. Mark’s. It’s important. Her voice was hushed as if even the security on her work phone had somehow been breached.
This fact of battery seemed to slip almost casually from Doris and Marlene to Toni and Doris and then to Toni and me, the enormity of it almost routine or incidental at first, as if it were not about people at all, as if there were not bruises on Doris’s china features, as if it were about a way that people lived in New York City, an awful way that people lived in New York City, where women beat their children in public, and men beat one another on the subways. Toni told me and I said nothing, because this beating was a vacuum, a lifelessness that I couldn’t really adjust to at first, and then I passed it on, passed on that silence to someone else, who in turn passed it on, the idea that good people, principled women, occasionally beat one another out of confusion and sadness and loss and thereby put the purple, the hematoma, in the flag that hung over city hall.
Bruises had appeared all over Doris. She frequently wore sunglasses. She spoke of falling down stairs and walking into doors. It was getting difficult at the office, as it had been difficult at offices in the past. I’ve been fired from jobs before, Doris said, her hands trembling as she lit a cigarette. Her voice was dull and methodical; she smelled clean, obsessively clean, to Toni; her skin was the palest white, the color of gallery walls.
—I can’t lose another job because of her. I’m not functioning as it is. You know? It’s getting embarrassing. I’m tired of going through it.. . It’s humiliating and it’s really tiring too. I’m tired of living like this. There’s this dull way things go around and around again and I’m almost thirty-two years old and I don’t want to live like this anymore.
Doris would veer off in another direction, onto another subject, and then she would come back to it. And then another refrain emerged. She asked Toni if she knew anywhere they could cop some cocaine. They were drinking and having the conversation that veered from the tragic to the mundane, from battery to discussions of rock-and-roll bands, and then suddenly Doris was trying to procure. No delicate way to announce it, like there was no delicate way to say that you have been beaten by your lover and that you haven’t exactly done anything about it yet. Doris said. Do you know where we could pick up? And since Toni lived in the East Village she did know where to buy drugs, though she was no regular customer, she knew where, because you passed it every day. Wasn’t terribly complicated. So they walked down Twelfth Street and copped some rock from the first cluster of dangerous looking boys they saw. That simple. The boys took their twenty dollars and came back a little later with the vials, the vials with their little red plastic caps. Doris and Toni smoked it together in a basement stairwell.
Then the complaints were spilling from Doris’s mouth in long, artificial strings. How had she assumed this role, this victim role? What king of mystery was there in her family of origin? Where could blame be settled so that her burden would be lighter? She was victimized by Marlene. Marlene pulled all the strings. She was thinking back to her parents’ concept of child-rearing and its hidden language of coercion. Doris was powerless. She needed to share her truth. To set boundaries. The passions of battery were stirred way down in the unconscious, in the history of the species, not up where Doris or anyone could control them. She didn’t know if she could shake it. She wanted to leave but she didn’t know if she could. There was something operatic about Doris not walking the dog and then getting hit. There were all kinds of hatred between Doris and Marlene. Marlene was systematically trying to murder Doris. Doris had actually woke to find Marlene holding a pillow over her head as she slept, she had found Marlene tampering with jars of prescription medication that she had in a cabinet—I have these attacks of nerves, Doris said. Marlene couldn’t handle, in the end, that Doris’s family had money and that hers did not, the differences between the classes were too much for her, though Doris herself felt she understood the misery that Marlene had come from. She could see how Marlene’s childhood in the city was just a long story of deprivation. She could see how her life had been devoid of any model for affection. But she didn’t have to murder her for it. She didn’t have to buy a gun, which was what Marlene was talking about doing, ostensibly to defend them from the fucking creeps in Hell’s Kitchen, fucking creeps. And then just as suddenly, Doris was in love again. She had not exhausted all of her love for Marlene. MarJene was radiant when she was happy, she had a smile that would stop at nothing. When she was happy, her face seemed to open and to reply yes to everything, to the abandoned buildings, to the crack dealers, to the repulsive men who paid her. Her face said yes, and it was clear how revolutionary and dangerous was the yes of a woman who was grabbing the world by its dick and yanking. Marlene happy, Doris said, was as dangerous as a souped up automatic weapon. But then on the other hand she was dangerous when she wasn’t happy and that was where ail the trouble started. Marlene was dangerous. She was just thinking out loud. Marlene was dangerous. (Toni was telling me in the bar.) And that was when Doris began to think about what she might do about the problem. There was no longer any way around it.
They went to Wendy’s together, the next Saturday. All three of them. For a minute, everything seemed to be going all right. There was a new room where a woman in thigh-high boots and black leather gloves was throwing darts. There was another auction, and the three of them discussed buying a fourth woman. They were particularly fond of a little girl in a white party dress who shivered and grimaced like a child abandoned in a department store. This little girl would have waited among the men’s shirts for weeks for the mother who would never return.
But they didn’t have enough cash between them really to pay for the girl, who was a hot item. Top dollar for this girl. They were back at the Clinton apartment; it was only 12:30. The dog was walked, the apartment was clean. The three of them were there in the apartment, and already the process of unclothing themselves seemed ritualized. Something had gone out of it. Toni knew she was just chasing kicks, and it didn’t make her feel that good. Marlene seemed intent on being the passive recipient of whatever fucking was going to take place that night. She had a tableau in mind; it was theatrical. She was actively arranging for her passivity. Through some superhuman effort, Doris managed to keep the whole thing together for a time. She strapped on the pink dildo and fucked Marlene in the missionary position, but both of them seemed sad and distant, and Toni lay around drinking beer and lending a hand now and then. The air was hot and still. The heat was a malevolent force in the apartment. By the time they climbed under a lone sheet, the three of them were covered in the sweat of exertion and also the sweat of connections not entirely made. They were each a little drunk.
When Toni awoke, the sun was muffled in humidity. They had coffee, and she wondered if Doris was imagining the whole thing. New York City was quiet, it was Sunday morning, people were absorbed with that newspaper, and no ill feeling would spill onto the streets of the city until noon. Vice was canceled for a time out of respect for a few regular churchgoers. When Toni went home, when she called me later to go for a drink, she had a feeling this auction vogue had run its course now. She could go on to other things. Sex just isn’t that important, she said. You can get into it for a while and then you can get into something else. She was thinking about maybe going back out to Long Island for the summer.
But that night Doris called again. She had to see Toni right away. Right away. She was a mess. I’ve broken my wrist, she said. My wrist is in a sling. Doris couldn’t go to work the next day, looking like one of those women who, in dark sunglasses, stands by her man, who limps slightly and walks very slowly. Her wrist in a sling. Something about the night before. Marlene had just flipped out. She was coming at Doris with a lamp, one of those halogen lamps. She was going to break a fucking halogen lamp over Doris’s head. They had been kissing while she slept, Marlene cried, Doris and Toni had been fucking without her. And we hadn’t! Doris said, as if Toni needed to be conscripted into her version of the story. And I told her that! And Marlene started bringing up crazy stuff. Stuff that happened months ago. Why was Doris leaving early for the office on a Tuesday in March? If she actually went to the gynecologist in April did she have any proof? Marlene was bringing up things that never happened, totally imagining things. So Doris did what she had never done before. She took a swing at Marlene. Hit her in the arm and broke her own wrist. Just like that. Broke it like it was the tiny limb on a sapling. Marlene didn’t have anything more than a bruise, but Doris’s arm was broken and now Marlene wasn’t talking to her anymore. Marlene was shattering furniture in the apartment. Marlene was silent and implacable and breaking things. Oh k was horrible, it was horrible. New York was horrible, and life was horrible, full of compromises — she was crying now —and other people controlled you, people you would never know, never even know their middle names or what their vices were, the stuff they never told you, the real pornography of sensitivity, the pornography of love and affection, the pornography of plain old bliss . . . You never knew anything and you passed into old age knowing nothing except the color of some fucking bathtub toy from your childhood. Let’s go get high, Doris said. I want to get high. I just want to get high.
Doris made this plan. She told Toni. Their anniversary was coming up. She and Marlene had been together two years. She would make a plan to spend the day with Marlene. It involved taking Marlene to see a play. The theater. Shakespeare in the Park. Yep. In New York you could work your way past the homeless people in midtown and the homeless guys sleeping in the park and the guys who were auctioning off their tragedies, their TB, their KS, their HFV, their veteran status, for alms, and you could go see these plays in the park. Shakespeare in the Park. Anyone could go. And though Marlene had little formal education, Shakespeare moved her— all those old tragedies with their sins of pride and their purgations. She especially liked strong women characters. Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra. So they were seeing Lear and Doris knew she was a Reagan or Goneril; sharper than serpent’s teeth, Toni told me, because at that very moment the other pan of the plan was taking effect. Because Doris was leaving. Doris was leaving. Doris was springing it on Marlene. And Toni was agreeing. Out of pity.
So Toni and a team of illegal aliens broke into Doris’s and Marlene’s apartment, fed the dog, Bernice Neptcong, with fresh steak, actually feeding the dog steak like in some PG-13 heist movie, because the dog, raised by Marlene, would fasten its jaws onto any intruder, and they didn’t want to have to kill it, and while the dog was eating the steak, a fine cut, I would imagine, lean, lean, lean, Toni was directing this team of illegal aliens who had no real interest in the haste or deceit involved in their work because they just needed the work; Toni was directing them to what she believed was Doris’s furniture and CDs and books and sexually explicit videos and pictures of Monet’s years at Giverny and was putting them into an unmarked, rented van that was double-parked in front of the Korean deli below. It was too bad that it had to be on their anniversary, Toni told me, but Doris couldn’t think of another way to shake her, another day, another perfect time and place. Or maybe the cruelty that was involved in this plan was very much on Doris’s mind, for the two years of cruelty she had received, and this was the best way to work it out, the most perfect way to make her point, a point thematically coherent and consistent, like a play itself, a point with the coincidences and destinies of a play.
I guess I have to admit here, too, that as a friend of Toni’s 1 served as an accomplice to this crime. I served as a lookout, just in case Marlene or one of her friends (though she didn’t have many friends) might have some synergistic understanding of what was going on, some sudden impulsive need to go see if Bernice Neptcong, M.D., had enough water in all this heat. Shamefully, I stood on the street as the Hispanic guys, their faces twisted into the solemn, sensitive gazes of funeral parlor employees, carried the furniture out of the apartment at a trot.
Finally, there was an intermission at Lear, between the third and fourth acts and Doris told Marlene, giving her an affectionate little peck on the cheek, that she had to go to the bathroom. Doris’s lips were not thin lips, as I might have imagined, the lips of preppy women from Bernardsville. No, through some strange genetic twist, she had been given the broad, full lips of a lover, and even at the beginning Marlene had adored these lips, Toni believed, had adored kissing Doris. So Doris’s lips were now descending on Marlene’s razor cheeks, and Marlene, as a matter of course, was pretending not to care entirely, though inside perhaps, where things were all tangled up, there was some interior paroxysm of joy or gladness at the bounty of love, though this paroxysm was smothered by the cool of New York. Then Doris gave her a little hug. She was wearing a black tank top and black jeans, and Marlene was, too. Marlene was wearing almost the same thing, and Doris gave her a little squeeze, and said she had to go to the comfort station. She laughed and said it, comfort station.
And then she took off. She was sobbing like a baby, sobbing like that girl left in the department store, sobbing in a way that can’t be ameliorated by the stuff in this world, no matter how much good happens. But by the time she met another friend, Debby, over by Tavern on the Green, by the time she met Debby she had settled down a little bit. Debby had borrowed a car, a black Toyota Celica with plastic wrap in the rear windows from where they had been shattered, and they were driving straight to Newark airport, where Doris was catching a flight to New Orleans to stay with some cousins for a couple of weeks.
Elsewhere, with crack timing, the illegal aliens and Toni were driving Doris’s stuff to mini-storage over in the west teens, just above the meat-packing district.
Marlene in the meantime was sitting on the blanket under the trees. Just a regular old blanket from the apartment, nothing special. And she was eating a cheap piece of cheddar cheese on a Triscuit and watching the edges of the audience fray as people came and went, and thinking what a great breeze, what a killer breeze and then wondering, when the play had begun again, where Doris was, but just wondering briefly, not giving it that much thought, and then watching some of the play and getting concerned, packing things up as if she was going to leave, wondering if leaving was the right thing to do, if staying put was maybe better, because if Doris was lost —as she was often lost, a little absentminded — it would be better if one of them weren’t moving and then getting pissed off, really pissed off, fuck, and getting up and blocking somebody’s fucking view of RAIN RAIN RAIN or some such passage and sitting back down and then getting worried because the rage that Marlene felt was in pan worry, rage blanketing worry based on experience, some experience of loss, and so she was getting up and walking fast, now, purposefully, in a way you might have found scary if you were watching her, walking fast toward the Portosans, or whatever brand they had installed over on the other side of the field where everyone was sitting, and looking at the line of people there, unable to ask any of the women there, the overdressed women, the society chicks who had read Shakespeare in college, if they had seen a woman in black jeans, suddenly unable to do it somehow, unable to do it, shy or something, and then wandering around the Portosans, in the woods, the woods of Central goddamn Park, wandering, past Tavern on the Green and back to the play, hearing applause, not paying any attention to it, seeing a dozen women who looked like Doris, looked exactly like her until you got up close, until you could see up close that they had one birthmark that Doris didn’t have, or they held one opinion that was not Doris’s, or that they were fucking boys instead of girls, although otherwise they were Doris, seeing them and working upstream to the spot where she and Doris had sat and not finding her, in the dark now, getting dark, worried, concerned, enraged, yeah, murderously enraged, worried, Doris’s headless, raped body in the Ramble, raped by some fucking pervert, worried, and then walking out of the park, empty now, followed by cops on horses, not cops that you would ask to help you, though, they were no help, cops, gangsters attached at the waist to horses, so worried, walking back toward the apartment down Eighth Avenue, down through the sleaze, down Eighth Avenue, walking automatically, not thinking at all, not feeling, just thinking the worst, but in a disembodied way, permitting the worst just to swim in her wherever it would — Doris’s headless body. Doris’s headless body, her jeans and her breasts and then no head, just bones and tubing and pink gelatinous stuff, and then turning up the street and fitting the key in the lock that was broken anyway, and checking the mail just because Doris liked to get mail, checking the mail just for Doris, and climbing up the poorly lit and warped steps to the third floor and fitting the key in the door, not knowing right then how time was stretching out in this moment, not knowing how long it was taking to turn that key because she was imagining the worst but in a detached way, in a way while she was planning to go to Wendy’s that night, or in a way while she was thinking about her job and almost crying with how much she hated it and how the guys thought they could just do anything . . . and regretting all the trouble with Doris, regretting it and not being able to explain it, not even being able to admit it exactly, imagining trouble but not seeing the real trouble that lay right in front her. And then turning the handle and seeing the blankness, the emptiness in that space.
The apartment was just about cleaned out.
Doris on her way to New Orleans: she was having a drink on the plane. And then she was in the Big Easy. The second day there she went to Mobile. To the Gulf Coast. The sun was high, and it was humid and the water was a fabulous blue. It was nothing like New York City. When you were in Mobile, New York City just didn’t exist at all. It was somebody’s fever dream. And then she called Toni that night, because she hadn’t left Toni the number, knowing that Marlene would call Toni wanting to know if she was a pan of it, if she was responsible for it, wanting the number, wanting revenge, and sure enough Toni said she had called weeping, hysterical. How could you do this to me how could you do this to me how could you do this to me how could any human being do this to another human being? but Toni had the machine on and had gone to stay with Debby who also had her machine screening. Marlene’s hoarse, throaty screams. Beyond the frequency that telecommunications could handle. Marlene’s shrill recognitions drifting out over New York.
Actually, by the time Doris was in Mobile, Marlene was already dead. Doris was on the plane when it happened. The exact moment was lost to her; she felt no shiver of symbiosis. She felt no paranormal sadness. She was over Tuscaloosa. Or she was at the baggage check when Marlene hanged herself. All of this is fucking true, I can tell you that. Marlene hanged herself. Doris abandoned her girlfriend at a performance of Shakespeare in the Park and then flew to New Orleans — and this is what Marlene did afterwards. She hanged herself with rope she got at a hardware store right next to the Best Western on Eighth Avenue. She left a crumpled twenty on the counter. The guy in the store didn’t even notice when she overlooked her change. When Marlene did it she was alone, and she wasn’t discussing it with anyone. She had to make sure the bar in the closet was sturdy enough. She would have to really make her mind up once and for all, because it was pretty low, that bar and hanging yourself in there would take a lot of work. Marlene left no note, as Doris had left no note explaining her own disappearance. She used the handcuffs in their apartment, which once had bound her and Doris together while they made love, to cuff herself behind the back, and another set on her ankles. She put the ankle cuffs on first, then the handcuffs, and then she put her head through a slipknot. A regular old slipknot. And then she threw herself off balance and gasped as she fell over, stumbling to her side, kicking around the boots on the floor of the half-empty closet, kicking over boots and bondage gear and the other stuff Doris had left her, wanting to get up again, but all tangled and having trouble getting up, desperate to get up now, weeping, but not getting up. The energy to do so dissipated. Shocked in the last second, terrified, and then resigned, powerless. Her last breath spread in an even film in the still air of the apartment. She settled down to room temperature.
The closet door was open. The dog paid no attention. He had been fondled and loved that afternoon by Toni and the guys from Ecuador. He’d eaten steak. But then when Marlene was dead Bernice Neptcong, the dog, became somehow uncomfortable. He went and sniffed at the long dark legs halffolded awkwardly under Marlene. And then he curled up by one ankle for the long wait. When they found her days later, when the neighbors complained, Bernice was shivering and hungry, but he struck out blindly nonetheless at the super, the police — these interlopers in the drama of neglect — baring his teeth, protecting the lost lives that had prized him. This was his kingdom now.
Three weeks later Doris was walking down Eighth Street late at night. The streets were empty. She was on her way to Avenue D. Ten days back in the city. She had tried to get in touch with Toni, but it wasn’t turning out exactly as she’d hoped. She hoped that Toni would be around when she got back. In New Orleans the unspeakable drama of her predicament created a space between her and her cousins. She found this space again in Princeton. She was more alone than ever before, though she had fled from Marlene to escape loneliness, though she had opposed loneliness with what strength she had. Death mocked all this stuff. These weeks made clear the overpressure of fate. She’d taken too much time off from her job. She didn’t really have anywhere to stay. She certainly wasn’t going back to the apartment. And Toni wouldn’t see her. So she had come to this address in the East Village. She had come by herself, feeling nauseated and lost, for the dull thrill of carelessness.
In the bakery on Eighth and D, Doris waited in line like everyone else. The woman in front of her actually bought some bread to go with her heroin —it was a demonstration loaf of stale Italian— but Doris wasn’t here for bread. She was here for a dime bag. In front of her in line was Jorge Ruiz. His clothes were shabby. Throughout his transaction, he never once raised his eyes. Neither did Doris. She wouldn’t have recognized him anyway; she wouldn’t have known how close their lives were; she wouldn’t have seen anything, lost in the flow of her own disgrace.
Randy Evans didn’t know that the girl on Ninth Street had been directing a film for two years. That girl, Yvonne. He thought she just sold hash. She was small and pale. She had sloppily dyed platinum blond hair. Roots showing. She was spending money on what? On leather miniskirts and stuff and on hash when she was supposed to be selling the hash instead of smoking it, selling it in order to finance a film she was making. He found this out later. Yvonne was going to be his wife, although he wasn’t quite sure when or how yet. She didn’t know anything about it. And he didn’t know it at first either, on Ninth Street, when they met. In front of a store that sold Populuxe lamps and plastic handbags and photos of Marilyn and Elvis. He didn’t know it until he ran into her a few times at clubs in the neighborhood, most of them gone now. At 8BC or Pyramid. He didn’t know until a sort of pattern was established. A pattern of chance encounters.
He clubbed and so did she. Although he liked nice clubs — Interferon or Area—where the cash dwelt, cash and speedballs and stuff like that, he also slouched around in twilit venues like the Crypt and the Manhole and the Ruin. He was flashy, he liked to throw a little money around, but late at night he found himself watching guys getting flogged at the Ruin. He was making some good money working up in the garment district, had his own showroom for a while, in fact. The Evans Line. Borrowed some money from some garment industry backers and started this showroom which was a little cut rate, priced to move pretty well, and he was hoping to get some of it into department stores. At first he was. He was getting it into some places. Alexander’s and Gimbel’s.
Then at night he bought cocaine and he went to Area. And some time later in the evening when he was teetering between drunkenness and mania he went to the Ruin. There he watched the sleepwalkers, in the oblivion of the masochist’s craft, with their dicks in their hands, circulating around the room, or around the stage where a guy with a ponytail was getting whipped on the ass by a dominatrix. This man must have hung up there for half an hour. When he was released from his torture, he was covered with welts. Black and blue all over his ass. And the guy just smiled. Randy liked it. He liked to watch the sleepwalkers as they inclined, lips pursed, toward the toes of women lounging at the bar. They’d wander around sleepily jerking off and then they’d ask a woman if they could suck her toes. He laughed at all this stuff. He’d stay at the Ruin sometimes until dawn.
Anyway, he met Yvonne at 8BC. He didn’t tell her about his late night exploits. She didn’t tell him about her film. In fact, Randy’s interest in B&D was something that he disavowed generally. It occupied a corner of his life that he did not dwell upon. He was sometimes afraid of who he might meet at the Ruin. His night life was only partly under his control. But that night he was at 8BC. There was this band playing. They had no name. The only way you knew if they were playing was if one of the clubs left a conspicuous absence on their calendar. Or there would be a listing, Closed for Private Party. That was how people referred to them sometimes. They said. Oh, I’m going to see Closed for Private Party. Randy was at 8BC with his friend Noel. Noel from England. They went to Pyramid. Or was it somewhere else? Who could remember? And then they came back, and when they walked into 8BC it was like something had changed in Randy’s life. There had been some subtle movement of chance and suddenly the whole topography of his life was different. Or that’s how it felt. Holy shit, he said to Noel. Holy shit, who is that woman across the room, and how could I have missed her the first time? She was standing under this neon fixture, and it turned out he had met her once before. Yvonne. In torn black leggings and blond hair and a black crucifix and a black brassiere with a black sweater halfway unbuttoned.
To Noel he said: Think I will have to use that line about how I have met her somewhere before. It only works if you really have.
Because he had met her on the street that time. And he invited her to do a line with him, and she agreed even though she hated Eurotrash and would-be Eurotrash guys. American guys who thought that everything was okay if they just flashed a little green. American guys with platinum cards. American guys too stupid to know that Europe had nothing to offer now but Swiss watches and deconstruction. American guys who actually invited in these colonialists with their dead cultures. She must have wanted the drugs. Randy told Noel later. I don’t care how the job gets done as long as it’s done. But the truth was Yvonne was just collecting material for her film. Everything was material, the dullest moments, the most ornate fancies. After Yvonne and Randy did the lines in the men’s room they left behind Yvonne’s friend Debby and Noel.
In the neon shadows in the back of the club Yvonne cheerfully admitted to Randy that she dealt hash. Which he knew already by hearsay. She produced a pipe. They smoked some of her product. It was old-fashioned and quaint. The conversation was lurching along; there was neither agreement nor discord. And then they slipped out the back door into an alley. Somewhere along the line the hash hit, they were laughing, giggling, totally stoned. Laughing about something—he couldn’t even remember. Wait: laughing about Eurotrash and Ecstasy and House and Japanese people invading the East Village and buying all the real estate out from under the slumlords and about the tanks in Tompkins Square Park. Just laughing. He hadn’t had such a good time in a while. So they ditched Noel and Debby altogether, at 8BC or Pyramid or wherever it was, and went to her apartment, right near his on Ninth Street. It was all coming back to him now. He had met her a couple of times before. It was the greatest thing. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever met in his entire life. She was going to be his wife. He would have a wife and a private life. Yvonne was hard to talk to —she missed all the ease in a conversation — but she was beautiful. They stayed up and did some more cocaine and watched the sunrise on the roof and he didn’t lay a glove on her and they went to a coffee shop on Eirst Avenue. He poured black coffee over the ground stubs that had been his teeth the night before. They smarted. He was tired as shit. He was giddy.
Later that week, he was back at the Ruin, watching an old fat guy lean into the bullwhip as this woman named Huck really let him have it. The fat guy had a lifeless, undersea expression on his face, and no kind of erection that Randy could see. It was hard to tell whether pleasure was involved for this guy or not. And then he got the itch to see Yvonne again. There were a few other women on the roster, but he moved them around a little bit. He didn’t know why they were suddenly of less interest, these other women, but he wasn’t worrying about it. He was just improvising. His mind was on the Evans clothing line and on hitting the clubs. He didn’t think too much about other stuff. He called Yvonne’s number at the Ninth Street place. She was probably working some gallery job during the day or at some non-profit theater company. She probably had jeans with paint stains on them. He realized he didn’t even know what she did during the day. He wondered if dealing hash was her principal line of business. How did she organize her clients? Did she keep a file on computer? What kind of overhead was there in an enterprise like that?
Then she got pregnant. There’s a gap in the story here that doesn’t concern me, a gap with its conventional romantic navigations of approach and retreat. The fact is that a month or two later Yvonne found she was pregnant. This was about as stupid as anything Randy had ever done. They had slept together, of course; they had been sleeping together off and on for two or three months. They had fucked without a diaphragm or a rubber or anything, and they had done it a number of times, on a number of occasions, maybe even too many times to remember. And they hadn’t thought about it too much because they had just come from some bar or club. She said, I will not take the fucking pill, and who could blame her? She smoked several packs of cigarettes a day. She had one of those lavender packets of birth-control pills on her bedside table but it was neglected. They had used condoms, but he didn’t like them —worse than a wet suit—and then she had become pregnant.
She didn’t seem concerned with her pregnancy either. She had been selling hash in order to make a movie about the East Village, about the people in the East Village and the coincidences that overtook you in a place like the East Village. You could miss someone by seconds, you could turn a corner and this incredibly pertinent information would be lost because the person you were about to pass, whom you did not see (because in Manhattan you always looked at your feet), was now lost to you. In this film, Yvonne liked to say, you could see how much larger the pool of potential facts is than the pool of facts that actually turn out to be true. You could, in this film, turn a corner on St. Mark’s Place and First Avenue, say, and just miss your ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend who was actually related to you in some way, who could tell you something about your ex-boyfriend that you never knew, who was going up First Avenue toward Fourteenth Street. You could just miss her. In this way there was much that you failed to know. You failed to know, for example, that a man who had once been important to you was now ill with that horrible kind of pneumonia. But you wouldn’t know this, because you were walking the wrong direction. Or you wouldn’t know because you had been ducking, fora week, the barely functioning answering machine in your barely furnished apartment.
The film, however, contained all these possible outcomes; the film that Randy still didn’t know much about was being filmed on a shoestring budget, in various bars, with the cooperation of various bartenders. Yvonne would venture into these locations with a loaner camera—she was always charging it on the AC adapter back at her apartment—and shoot interviews, just little snippets, or false pieces of narrative material, late into the night, after closing, after everyone slunk off to the after-hours joints. She had no idea how any of this material was going together. She had a naive optimism that she would figure it out eventually, and that it didn’t matter that the neighborhood was changing around her and that her film now represented an East Village that was no longer located in this spot. And all the money from the hash and the waitressing was supposed to pay for this film that was subordinate to everything else in her life, for processing time on the Steenbeck, for the transfer from video back to film, for the sound edit, but she was smoking the hash and borrowing money to pay back the guy who sold the drugs to her in the first place.
And now she was pregnant. She told Randy over the phone, and they had their first big fight. He was from a good family from Atlanta, this decorous family with whom he was not really in touch anymore, and he thought having a decorous family of his own wasn’t such a bad idea. He could see that there was a convenient aspect to this calamity. Now he had an argument for marriage and family. They could just fall into it. So he went over to her place to break this news to her. To break the news that he was ready, at twenty-four, for domesticity.
They slept together first. They slept together before talking, and it was really, really sexy, the way he saw it. It was like the first time. He took off her skin slowly. He liked to see how slowly it was possible to make love. He kissed her so slowly you didn’t even know his lips were moving. How slowly? His movements were in increments smaller than millimeters. The band with no name was playing on the old, beat-up tape player, and the video camera was standing on a tripod, pointing out the window, and he was proceeding across her lips as slowly as possible. It could take hours before he would creep down along her neck, after pausing to dig an incisor into her earlobe, after pausing to suck on her tongue. Hours before he was aimlessly encircling her breasts with his fingertips. And then further down. He liked every second of it. He even liked unlacing her Doc Martens. Nakedness was never so naked. And then he touched her stomach. Women had gotten pregnant because of his irresponsibility before, once in boarding school, once after a weekend by the shore in Mobile, but he had been young then. This was his first time as an adult. The fact of it, the fact of fertility, was enormous and perfect like the shape of a particularly dangerous storm.
Her belly was small and trim. She didn’t eat too well. Just eat to avoid fainting, she said. Nothing more. He traced his finger across her stomach as if he were painting cave paintings there, as if trying to render the moment of conception in some pictorial writing. As if trying to capture all the lives bound together in this notion of conception. What was so sexy about all this? What was hot about coming to the end of the profligate and wandering part of your life? What was sexy about suddenly wanting to accept responsibility? Maybe in part what was sexy was all the bad news, all the risk, all the difficulties. Maybe he wasn’t thinking clearly about it at all. But maybe he was. Love was something that had the threat of bad news with it. Love was risk and obligation and caffeine addiction. Love was like watching the Tompkins Square riots on television. It was like hearing a guitar amp explode. It was like shooting coke for the first time. It was like watching the demolition of a tenement building and it was like remembering these pleasures years after they are gone.
And that was when she introduced the device.
— Hey, look, I have this thing I have to show you . . .
She reached over beside the bed where an ominous looking electrical kit was waiting.
—What the fuck is that?
The shame of being found out, of being located and then conscripted into the league of kinks, of being a guy who liked devices and wanted a family, this shame overcame him first. His resistance was first. He knew, in some atavistic part of his unconscious reserved for the pursuit of bodily woes disguised as pleasures, he knew what it was. He didn’t know how it was going to work, but he recognized the control knobs on the box. They resembled the knobs that had driven the electric trains of neighbors in his boyhood. One of the dials was marked COURSE and the other ADJUSTMENT.
—This is an electrical stimulation box, she said. It’s for the film. See? I’m getting interested in this idea that I can have like some sex club stuff in it. I could have, you know, couples using these marital aids. Like this one or Sybian or something. From Orgone Romance Systems of Las Vegas. These ones here are the instant kill switches and those are the indicator lamps to monitor the control of the voltage.
—Uh huh, she said. It’s for fucking.
And from a small cardbord box lying on its side on the faded and dirty Indian rug she produced the combination vaginal plug and cock ring attachment. The attachment was made of a sturdy and durable transparent plastic, and, like the finest Steuben sculptures with their hints of silver and gold sunken in the glass renderings, the wires in the attachment, those glorious conductors, were glimmering in the plug and the ring. Yvonne had batteries in the device —it was running on battery power—and she juiced it up with the knobs and held the probe by the end.
— How are you going to use this for the movie? he said. You’re going to get friends to use this and —
— Just touch your finger to it quickly. It’s on the lowest setting.
— What the fuck? Where did you get this?
— I borrowed it. I’m thinking we should —
— Oh no. Randy said. If you think I’m gonna let you electrocute me with that thing, so that you can . . .
She touched it herself. Touched an index finger to it. There was a velocity to the way she was avoiding the question in the air. He had come over to talk about her pregnancy, to talk about the future, to raise practical questions, but instead they were here with the electro-stimulator. There was a velocity, a speed and a direction, to her avoidance. She was using the device —that facsimile of the most potent Latin American political torture machines —to stray from the implications of things. And she wasn’t foolish: she knew what she was doing. She touched the plug and he could hear its faint buzz, its melancholy hum. She held her finger there.
He took the thing from her and set it aside.
—Hey, Yvonne, Randy said. I got a more important question. That’s why I came over here. I came over here to ask you something.
The plug snapped and fizzled on the edge of the Yvonne’s comforter.
—I came over here to ask you to marry me. That’s what I came to do, Yvonne. We could get around this problem in a way you’re probably not thinking of. The baby, I mean. We could just get married.
And he had the engagement ring, in his pocket, an antique silver band that had been in the family for a while. Impulsively, though, before taking the ring out of the tangle of khaki trousers on the floor, he took the cock ring from the electro-stimulator and set it on her ring finger.
She laughed. A nervous, high, piccolo laughter. He reached for the COURSE knob.
— No way, she said. I’m too young to get married. I’m not carrying your fucking little junior around for nine months and fucking up my body and my hormones so that you’ll have a peg to hang your hat on or someone to take care of you when you get senile. I don’t want to spend my life with anybody, I can’t even think of what my life will be like next week. I can’t even imagine that I’ll have a life next week. Forget it. Honey. Forget it.
Randy got really angry. He turned the stimulator all the way up. She laughed again. He brushed the device off the bed. They started to shout. They actually threw some stuff, some books and lamps, what kind of relationship was this, and what was she going to do, let this bad luck drive the last bit of fun out of their relationship when it could make them closer, and didn’t she want to share anything with him, didn’t she want to know that even on the lowest day she wasn’t alone, didn’t she want to wither with someone around who loved her, didn’t she want to file a joint tax return? But she wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t do it, and he couldn’t believe that he had been so stupid that he thought this woman who sold hash and claimed she was some kind of filmmaker, that this woman was going to do this marriage-and-family thing with him, how could he be so stupid, and then they were fucking again and in the middle of these attentions some key of persuasion was turned in the lock and she was able to convince Randy that the electric stimulation device was an adventure, a gamble, a temporary shelter. In the penumbra of rejection he agreed to it. That was the decision that came first. In that penumbra, in the penumbra of late night, she had the tape player on and she had the fine adjustment on the stimulator control panel turned down as low as it would go and she had the video camera turned on, she had swiveled it on the tripod to take a closeup on Randy’s face, and she put the cock ring around him now, though his cock was only halfway hard, and then she turned the knob up slowly. It was just like being drilled by the dentist at first, it was that sensation of wrong, of inappropriateness, and then there was a white alarm in his head as she turned it up and the sound of the capacitor inside dampening it and then the device scorched him like there were electro-magnetic teeth ripping into his dick and he tore the thing off with the urgency that one shoos away an ornery wasp that has already made its mark and he collapsed on her bed for a second to catch his breath, to let the shock disperse itself throughout him. It was as though he were joining his friends the sleepwalkers as they too were bent upon the rack, the rack of reactivity, desperate simply for sensation in a monochromatic and decontextualized city. Yeah, it was right that he be here in this way, with the Ruin only a couple of nights behind him, with his fascination for the sleepwalkers and the transvestites and the perfect toes of the women at the bars. And he waited for the voltage to fade in him, until its absence was a son of pleasure a son of relief, and then he noticed her arm around him over his back and her voice in his ear saying okay, okay, that’s right it seemed she was agreeing suddenly, she was changing her mind, okay, okay, yes she really was, okay, and so marriage was an interim government between them, and you could say all this lifelong and ever after stuff, but if it didn’t work they could throw in the towel. She loved him in this vulnerable tableau with the electro-stimulation box beside him. She loved him. They would work it out. The kid would work it out. They would have the kid and the kid would understand that she had other ambitions. The kid would figure it out. Kids were like superballs or something, like high concentration rubber objects. Kids could learn to adjust. Okay. She lit the pipe. She toked on it. She passed it to him. Now it was her turn. She handed him the vaginal plug and lay back against the pillows.
Their marriage consisted of a civil ceremony on Staten Island, where the line at the courthouse was shorter. A friend of Yvonne’s, Mike, filmed it, though none of the footage worked, really. It was nothing she could use, except for a brief shot of the justice of the peace straightening his tie.
Randy didn’t tell his family. They would just have come up from the South. They would have hung around. Yvonne didn’t tell her family, in Syracuse. She forgot. The two of them didn’t really tell anyone, except Noel and Debby, who came to be witnesses. And Mike. There were all these coincidences on the way to the ceremony, people they met, people on the streets, people on the Staten Island ferry. New York seemed that day to be nothing but a system of low-probability coincidences. But then she had agreed to have the baby, too. Or at least she had agreed temporarily. Yvonne agreed to have the baby because she was tired and depressed, and she didn’t want to think about it. Most days, she tried to renege on the decision. Some days she wanted to have it and then, after feeling sick, she vowed to abort. She should have gone for the abortion in the first month, when she was feeling especially bad, but somehow she didn’t get around to it. This lack of decisiveness seemed to Randy to mask an excitement about the baby. Still, they were arguing so much about whether or not to go through with it. She hung on, looking for some kind of perfect advice from her friends or from her own mom — who thought she was out of her mind — or for some sign in the grid of order and disorder that was Manhattan. Walking the streets, turning the corners: What should I do? By then the baby was close to quickening as they said in British law. Somehow she didn’t see how she could snuff it in the second trimester.
At the same time, though, she started getting a little further into particular kinds of East Village life, into the substance abuse parts of East Village life, started getting into them because she was nervous and scared and sad about how she had slid into all this, slid into some middle-class thing that she wasn’t prepared for. It was all about this stupid film that was sitting in a metal box in her secondhand desk. There was the metal box and a bunch of old videocassettes. She used to think that it was all about the film. They were married. This had happened, although Yvonne couldn’t figure out how it had happened. They lived pretty much the way they had lived before, except that they shared an apartment. Now he was always on top of her with his insecurities, with his practicalities, and Yvonne was really upset that she had never made the movie she had wanted to make, and she never had any time to herself, and she never was herself, and soon, on top of everything else, she was going to have a baby. She wasn’t supposed to smoke or drink, but she sort of was smoking and drinking, anyway. And that wasn’t all. Just a little bit really, just the occasional lapse in the area of harder drugs, for the really special occasions.
And instead of making more of the movie, instead of just going out and buying the film, which Randy might have contributed to, instead of finding someone to do the sound for her, she felt like she had to perfect the fifteen minutes of it she had. The continuity was all fucked up because it had been shot over the course of years, and some of the sound wasn’t synchronized. Over and over she would do this opening, borrowing time from friends who were still editing or PA-ing instead of going to law school like you were supposed to do in your late twenties. It was really kind of good this first five minutes, if you were into a son of totally random New York chaos. Full of jump cuts and repetition and shots of the microphone boom and a sequence with a dog hair on the lens. It doubled back on itself, this five minutes, this documentary, or whatever it was, though it was never going to be much of anything really. Two lives in it might mean different things at different times. They might be the same life, they might be twins. Toni, this woman, seemed to be straight in one scene and gay in another. People looked like one another, or like other people, and the structure of the film was going to be like the structure of New York. Laid out in a grid, except for the parts that weren’t laid out in a grid, totally repetitious, except for the explosions of violence.
Then she became obsessed about the soundtrack. She decided she had to secure the finest soundtrack composers possible for this film that was never going to be finished. It had to be the band with no name. She went to a party at the house of this music columnist for the East Village Eye—some neighborhood periodical—Jeanine Love. So they were at the party, which was on Avenue D, in a cramped apartment that had a porch with a great view of the Con Edison power plant on the East River. Yvonne, who had let Randy go out to some club. Pyramid or 8BC, to recreate the wild days of his bachelorhood, went up to this guy from the band with no name. He was from Massapequa, Long Island, and rock and roll had transformed him from a guy from Massapequa into a person with charm. Standing there in these rags and looking like his guitar had scorched him and he had been thereafter embalmed. He seemed not to have any emotions that she could discern. She told him, I really like what you guys do and I think it’s got a really experimental kind of thing . . . kind of feeling to it, and I think it would really be good for like a soundtrack or something, um, playing the guitar upside down and everything and well I’m making this movie about the East Village it’s like an archeology of life in the East Village and I was wondering, I mean I was thinking maybe you would . . .
The guy just grunted. He knew, as anyone looking at Yvonne would have suspected, that nothing was ever going to happen with this film. At the same time, she was preoccupied with the fact that his skin was an incredible blue color. He didn’t say anything, made no commitment of any kind. But Yvonne understood that she was to follow him into the next room where the drummer from the band was tying off his arm with a handsome Velcro tourniquet so that he could pop a little bit of that grade-A Lower East Side dope underneath his baggy skin.
Jeanine Love, the hostess, was peripherally involved in the sex industry, in addition to being a music critic. She gave performances at the Ruin on occasion, and she wrote a little sexually explicit material, except that she didn’t like writing it, so she hired ghost writers to write it for her. Because of her affiliation, however, on the floor and on the bed in the bedroom (where the guys from the band with no name were shooting heroin) there were cut-rate, rough-trade skin magazines piled everywhere. Juggs and Cheeks and titles of this son. And while Yvonne was trying, politely, to discuss music with the guys in this band, they were flipping through the magazines and chuckling ominously. Then the guy from Massapequa, who had no expression whatever, who looked a lot like the boys that Randy was right then watching amble around the Ruin, was motioning to her. He was going to take care of her. She didn’t know if she should do it. He would do it for her if she couldn’t do it. In fact, there was no decision involved. Or it was a decision not to make a decision. It was a relaxing, an acceptance. It was caving in. Letting go.
— Really, I’m mostly into . . .
Then she let him do it.
And the light over the power plant on Avenue D like fucking celestial lights like the angels on the head of a needle and Randy was where? Who knew? She was puking in Jeanine Love’s bathroom, and Jeanine was saying. Come on you guys, come on, I’m really tired, I just don’t want to stay up anymore. I don’t want to . . . And one of the guys from the band with no name was still there and he was going to leave Yvonne there because he was a little guy anyway and he wasn’t going to carry her anywhere and he had to be up the next day for a Saturday shift at the copy shop where he worked. But then for some reason he was overcome by charity and soon he helped Randy’s pregnant wife to a cab where he repeated the address she whispered to him to the cab driver. Kissing her on the lips and putting his finger to her lips — don’t tell— and then repeating her address to the cabbie.
Then she miscarried.
The period of the marriage and pregnancy in which she was killing herself with dope would have been tougher if Randy hadn’t been killing himself too. The movie was nowhere to be found now, it was in some dead-letter office somewhere, some imaginary film library of imaginary projects. What movie? There never was a movie. There was Randy and Yvonne going out to clubs, her in some kind of fashionable black maternity dress even though she wasn’t really showing yet, but just because she liked the maternity look, some maternity dress that he’d gotten from a friend at another company. And there were no plates or sharps left in the house, because their arguments were too wild. And he was as strung out as she was sometimes. And he was pretty sure the books at his business were cooked, but he wasn’t concentrating on it, exactly, he was going out with Yvonne and leaving her at home sometimes so that he could head out to the Crypt or the Ruin and watch the silent participants in the games there. He ground his teeth into a paste. And he was really into the electro-stimulator, though she had become bored with it. When Randy did come home to their meager kitchen, he would find her already high, with that empty look in her eyes, eating a single carrot. Blasting some noise on the old, beat-up tape player. He had a bad feeling about it all.
— Don’t you think you could lay off just until after the baby is born? Wouldn’t that be a little safer?
—Wouldn’t that be the polite thing to do? For the kid?
— I don’t know what you’re talking about, Yvonne said.
This period ended with her hysterical call. At work. On a Wednesday.
He told her to call 911 and he would meet her at the hospital but she was really scared. She was really really scared, he could hear how scared and so she asked him to come pick her up instead. Please. It’s a mess. He made the emergency call himself and met her at the apartment before the ambulance arrived. Her skin the color of slate. There were trails, archipelagoes of blood in the bathroom, the mildewed bathroom, on the dirty towels. She was crying. Her hands were bloody, and he couldn’t tell how much was from the miscarriage and how much was from needles. Abscesses. He knew. Right away he knew how bad it was. How lost the kid was. How lost she was. How bad it was.
— I was never supposed to have it anyway, she mumbled. Tracks of tears. I was never supposed to have it.
— Oh, shut up, he said. He hugged her and they waited. What was already obvious was then officially pronounced by the medical authorities.
The argument then spilled over into the deep pan of several nights. It wasn’t an argument about anything special now. It was an argument with things in general. Her breathing was so shallow he couldn’t believe that oxygen ever grazed her bronchia. But her cells didn’t need anything now but what dope could give them. All the same, he couldn’t believe that lying came so easily to her. On the other hand, maybe she could lie without even noticing her lies. Maybe the possibility of truth was dormant within her now. And this is how she was after pregnancy, managing an ever increasing stream of lies. The current between the two of them dwindled under the burden of these lies.
— I’m not high, Yvonne said. I’m being really careful now, honey. I want to have a baby. I want to make another baby. Really, I’m telling you the truth.
He watched her sleep sometimes and he watched her puke in the morning and it was impossible to say whether it was from this miscarriage or from the drug. Or both. He cleaned up a little bit of her puke before going out to the office. He took a damp paper towel across the surface of the toilet seat.
And maybe she could have ridden the wave of her addiction through another childbirth. She didn’t seem especially to care about pain anymore anyway. Her body was an obligation insofar as it played host to the brain and the brain’s store of flattened affections and blunted nerves. Otherwise who cared? She was a brain in a vat. She was working on throwing off her body somehow; she was putting it in cold storage; she was decommissioning it.
He came home from work and played spouse with her, hoping that she was going to bounce back, that the old fun was going to bounce back. His business went under not long after, and that made it even easier. He had a huge bank loan hanging over his head. He would have to get another job eventually, a job working for someone else, but not for the moment. For the moment he lay around the house. They had come to the end of club-hopping. They had come to the end of it. Randy suspected that his wife had shot up while carrying the baby. She said she was only snorting, as though that excused it. No, really, she was only snorting coke. Not even heroin. No, really, she was clean. Really. And she’d disappear at night and he’d yell at her but sometimes he’d get that yen too, that yen to go out, and he’d do it. He didn’t care what time she was coming in. And he would drink and tell someone on the next stool all of this. All of what I’ve told you. In fact, he told me. At the Ruin. They had come to the end of their marriage. It had lasted five months. It was time for him to leave his wife. This was not difficult to accomplish. Because Yvonne wanted to pursue unencumbered her own muse, the muse of her inactivity, the muse of her silence.
Later. Third week of June 1987. (Hot and humid, low visibility.) The amphetamine of loss with its jacked-up system of attribution and detachment roiled in Randy Evans. He was driving around lower Manhanan in a van he had rented to help move some stuff for the Japanese clothing line he just started working for. He was driving with the radio up loud. WFMU. They were playing something from the band with no name. He wondered if the guys in the band were still alive, if these were new songs or if the guys in the band were infighting acrimoniously about an upcoming tour, if they were thinking of tossing one another out of the band. One of them, he had learned once, was the son of a major stockbroker. The son of the head of some brokerage house. The rich dad had bought them all the PA equipment and a studio to record in. And the son, the son of this wealthy broker, was shooting dope and living in some rundown East Village basement apartment with nothing in it but a futon and a CD player. This kind of life gave the band with no name a lot of credibility.
And the song didn’t sound like their songs had sounded to him two years before when he first heard them. It sounded different, as the whole East Village seemed different. It wasn’t galleries and clubs anymore. The East Village was chain stores and crack dealers. People were getting sick, and Randy had taken the test too and had waited the three weeks it took then to get results. He couldn’t imagine why he was negative. He and Yvonne had shared needles with a few people, definitely, with Jamie Lefferts and Donna Harvey and Mike and that other guy Mitch who came over with him to the house that time. And they had all gone to a really creepy shooting gallery off Delancey with someone named Juan. Who knew who they were sharing with.^ Back then you didn’t think about it as much. Where the needle had been was somewhere you yourself had been, and the trail of that needle, the trail that led to the shooting gallery, was the history of your footfalls and of the people whose lives were a pan of yours. Where you had walked was what you believed in and it marked you and your DNA and it left information for your children, for when they would want to know the truth about you. The past and the future were in Randy’s every move, in the imitation Syd Barrett sound of the band with no name, in the Veselka, where he had spent, over the years, maybe a thousand dollars on pink borscht, in the fresh vegetable stand where, ten years from now, he would go with his son, the son he would have, and select the best carrots for a soup. But right now Randy’s van was in the stream of the loneliest New Yorkers, those grasping, reaching for anyone in arm’s length, hugging them close, pushing them off. Starting over. Falling into the disease, climbing out of it. Starting over. That’s what the song by the band with no name sounded like. And that night Randy could have driven all night, on and off of the FDR watching the lights on the Williamsburg side of the river, he could have driven all night, never gone home to the new girlfriend, the new hostage, where he now lived in Brooklyn, because he had the past on his mind and the way the people from the past were not really past, the way they crowded around him on the streets of Manhattan, the way he was always running into them. And he had a sort of agenda too, because he was driving down Eighth Street, west to east. He got on it on Third Avenue, and then he drove the block past Trash and Vaudeville where he had bought a leather jacket and past St. Mark’s Sounds and past the bar called simply Bar and then around the park, where a gallery called Gracie Mansion had once been, and into the deepest East Village, where 8BC used to be, and then he was in front of the bakery at the comer of Avenue D.
The projects were on one side of the avenue and on the other side it was all empty lots filled with temporary shelters oi cardboard and plywood and decorated with giveaway blankets and plastics. Randy’s van was in neutral and idling quietly near the corner and the radio was whispering some chant— some New York prayer, some specifically local ritual for the dead that doubled as a solicitation or an advertisement of some kind. He watched the entrance of the bakery, watched people going in and out.
Jorge was there, of course. Jorge Ruiz, who was going back to live with his mother in another year, after his detox in Hollis, Queens, after barely avoiding being locked up in Creedmore; and Doris Frantz, of Montclair, New Jersey, and Princeton University, who was thinking about picking up some cash on the side doing dominatrix work, just sort of turning the idea over anxiously. These two shadows came along the poorly lit streets, staggered by several minutes, walking slowly so as not to attract attention, so as not to appear to be in a hurry of any kind. Their hearts were in a terrible rush. They entered the bakery—Doris carrying a paper bag as if she intended to buy rolls— to give tens and twenties to people who would before long be arrested for trafficking—this arrest having no effect on neighborhood traffic.
Randy was hoping in a way that Yvonne wouldn’t turn up. And that was when he saw her small, emaciated figure coming down the block. He didn’t believe it at first. He didn’t believe it was this easy to track somebody down, that junkies were so predictable, that he himself had been so predictable. He didn’t believe that statistics and addiction were so navigable, that the arc of need was as orthodox as the law of falling bodies. No matter: there she was and she was moving pretty fast.
He left the van without even locking it, without turning it off. Material things had no place in that moment. The blackness of the sky was perfect and enduring. These shades came from the bakery and darted up the street looking for the first possible spot where they could tie off. And Randy was trotting across the street like he too was desperate in that way, toward Yvonne, and he had his hand out to touch her. He had a windbreaker tied around his waist. And his hair was really short and he didn’t look like he had looked the year or so before. When they met.
She didn’t either. Yvonne looked like she’d been orphaned by war; she looked like she suffered with unimaginable grief. When he spoke to her there was a long moment before she seemed to recognize that she was stopped now, that someone was talking to her, holding her up. She grimaced. She didn’t seem to recognize him —she knew his face and who he was, but she didn’t recognize any freight in the encounter—as if chance had been the only thing between then. She only wanted to get into the bakery. He was an impediment. The way she wheezed and coughed proved it. She was nervous. But the weirdest thing was that she was smiling. She was grimacing and smiling.
—Well, Randy said, coming to the end of an awkward politeness. Well, I just wanted to . . . to see you. Listen . . . Jeez, you know I don’t want to say it but you just don’t look that good.
Her own words seemed to drift up into her throat as if they had a separate set of controls, as if she were the dummy for some ventriloquist.
— What are you talking about?
— Forget it. Randy said.
— No, she said irritably. What the fuck are you talking about?
— Listen, he said, if you want any help, if you ever want any help or anything . . . just let me know. I don’t know . . .
— I don’t have time, she said. Anyway, I don’t want your pity. You’re a fucking junkie, too.
And then she left him there. She hurried on. She took off.
He was stricken. He was halted. He was going to say something. He was going to defend himself, to defend his selfevident pride. But what could he say? He was standing there like a beseeching panhandler. Hadn’t he been one of those club rats for whom all human folly—the suspension and flogging of men several feet above a stage —was the stuff of fun? Then why couldn’t he let Yvonne go on her merry way and finish the job? Why not let all these people go? Let this stuff, these places recede into whitewashed accounts oi youth he would present to friends when provoked momentarily into some foolish grandiosity about having simply survived. Why not let it go?
He called after her. Just as Jorge was coming out. Sweating quite a bit. Jorge, sweating like it was deepest July and he had no AC. Randy was calling after his wife, oblivious. On an empty street. On a moonless night. She never looked back. He was standing there watching. She never looked back.
There was one more time, a few years later, that he saw her again: when she had finally gotten clean, when she needed to discuss completing the divorce. She had Kaposi’s sarcoma, and her face, into which a lively human rose color was at last returning, was freckled with lesions.
And there were others caught in the vine of those five minutes of June, in front oi the cop shop on Eighth Street, in the moments just before and after: Buck Miller and Susan Ward and a guy who I used to see at the Marlin Café; and Debby, the girl who drove Doris to the airport, who also knew Yvonne; and Ray, the guy who hosed down the booths in Peep World; and Crystal, the preoperative transsexual who slept with Jorge one night and then stole all his stuff; and the auctioneer at Wendy’s; and the woman, Huck, with the dildo that glowed violet neon; and the guy getting fisted by two men at once; and Randy’s friend Noel; and the men who had fucked Marlene when she was a hooker, most of whom didn’t know she was dead; and two of the guys in the band with no name (the third had been shipped off to an expensive rehab). And some people I know whom I have not mentioned yet, like Robert and Jaimé and David and Frank from the Mudd Club and Dan and Crutch and Bob, Julia, Karen, Kenny and Kate. Lizzie. And there are other names I don’t know yet. And myself. Me. I was there. All of us strode up and down Eighth Street like it was an actual artery in some larger life form, in some larger organism. As one of our number slipped into a storefront along Eighth Street, another passed by. None of us seemed to know the nature of the coincidences that bound us together, as I know now, or that junkies and masochists and hookers and those who have squandered everything are the ring of brightest angels around heaven.
And just by chance a bunch of these characters turned up in Yvonne’s documentary, which had been transferred to film and then back to videotape and which now languished in a foot locker. Each of them was captured in and around the bars that Yvonne frequented when she was just out of school. I remember what she looked like then. When her face had an openness like good luck, like the big puffy clouds you see over the desert. I remember how bright her eyes were; I remember how excited she got by stuff, how a movie at the Film Forum could change her for weeks, how a certain record with just the right snare drum sound and a little bit of anger could keep her going all night, writing.
And the end of the film, the end of it for now, until somebody completes it for Yvonne, was like this. At a party crowded with the characters in this story, or other characters not unlike these, at a party at the Ruin weeks before its closing, with stalls strung with Christmas lights, surrounded by half-clothed erotic dancers,the band with no name struck up some kind of evolved march thing. In the basement of this wretched club. The music was fast. Everyone knew the song. The room was lit poorly. You could have slept with anyone in the room. You could have thrown your arms around anyone and it would have been okay. It would have been nice. The frame was frozen for a second. Then there was a jump cut and the band was throwing down its instruments and there was some buzz in a Fender Twin Reverb amp, a little feedback, but the guys in the band weren’t paying any attention to it. And there was a close-up on Randy, laughing. His smile taking up the whole screen. And then it just ends.
I am going now. I am leaving.