By Eliot Fintushel
12 December 2005
"What I wanna wake up and see ugly?"—Redd Foxx
Hildy loved me bad. Pudding of a woman, the moons behind her cheaters waxed for the love of me. She bleated after me, udders wagging, tongue lolling, buttocks dimpling, attended by flies. She was all armpit hair and thigh flesh. The cheaters, thick as hog's hooves, slid, slid down her nose, till arrested by the bump. She nudged them with a fat finger, then grinned. She wrote me love notes. I let her visit me up at the A-frame where I lived with Matt and Al. Matt: laconic, tight-muscled, trim as a bull's pizzle. Al: electric, slight, sizzle skip on the hot griddle of his libido, all eye and brow. They hated her being there. Her mouth foamed with abashment—she spoke, she didn't speak: ecstasies of impossible love. Don't ever let that person come here again, they'd tell me. She haunted the window seat and the fridge nook. She left the imprint of her navel in the screen door. Bowl-like, it was, like the sag in a cake fallen in. She mumbled half to herself, half to me, barely daring to exist, much less to love, much less to love me.
The mirror arrests me. I pull the hem of my shirt out of my pants, and I am deflated at the inflation of my belly. See it puddle over the beltline. Pouches and pannier bags of fat. I am 56, and things are now an issue that never so much as entered the consciousness of the young man I used to be—"things": i.e., my girth. If a trim and pretty woman catches my regard, I have to look at the geezer on her left, at the child on her right, dissembling. Or I screw up my eyes as if abstracted, sublime.
But I had loads of capital back in the A-frame days. Why did I put up with Hildy? "Put up with?" Hell, I encouraged her. A friend of Hildy's reproached me: I kept her around to flatter myself, she said. That's an odd thought. How could I be flattered by a courtier like Hildy? And yet it stung me to hear it—a sure sign of veracity. All this was shortly before my suicide attempt. Did I keep her around out of vanity? Could my vanity have been so desperately fragile as that? Hm. The suicide argues for such an interpretation, doesn't it?
Mind, I was a mystic then. I made a religion of gilding weakness into strength. In the presence of any evil, widen the perspective, deepen the view, fuzzy the lens, by God, and the dark thing vanishes. My father, for example, vanishes. What father? What psychotic with a broken back in and out the loony bin? Fundamentally—no such a thing. What crippling neurasthenia in me, his suicidal son? No, no, it's deep samadhi. Drugs helped. LSD. Raw as split wood moldering, teeming with fauna, egg sacs, gleaming sap, rain-dark, I lay on a picnic table and watched my past lives bud from twigs of an overhanging cypress while, with exquisite precision, the mosquitoes adjusted my personality. Let go. Let go. And I pissed myself. Bladder control, in case you didn't know, is a form of ego.
I am the storied Inuit who hauled Bone Woman into his hut and let her suck his teardrops. What's rotted flesh and barnacles to such as I? My net nets all. I eat all, and it eats me.
What a horse-load of mendacity. Talk about stench. The bullshit is piled high, o hypocrite lecteur, all the way from "Hildy loved me bad" to the current prevarication. Watch me, I beg you, and don't let me pull crap like this again. It's not that I'm out to take advantage of anybody, exactly. I lie in order to cover up the lousy dumbshit I am at bottom. The dandy waves his scented hanky in the charnel. I make phrases. Give me lots of syllables subtle of inflection. Perish the short letter u, u surmounted by a buttock, thus: ŭ, or u with the bad breath of an h suffixed—uh. They are somatic background radiation, signals up from the meat: blood fuck, dud klutz, jugs mummy suck pus dung, blubber cunt, duh, chuck glug bludgeon, shush, butt pug, rub-a-dub . . . Shut up. I'm not FinTUSHel. I'm Fin de ciel. "Art is a lie that tells the truth," Picasso famously said. I said, "From your lips to God's ear, Pablo," and he whispered, "Mais— j'ai menti." We were sipping absinthe at Les Deux Magots. Hildy was there, under the table. She would clutch at his calves, he'd shake her free, and she would clutch at mine, till I likewise got rid of her, and she grabbed Pablo's again. This went on for a long time. Neither of us, me or Pablo, wanted to make a scene. Neither of us wanted to be seen with fat Hildy. When we left to stroll along the Seine, to watch the bateaux mouches and speak of life, art, and love ("Are they not really one, Pablo?" He smiled and nodded: "Vraiment, mon ami sage. Exactment."), Hildy remained behind. For all I know, she is still crouching under that table, chins atremble, simpering for the love of me.
All lies. I'm ten. I'm standing with an armful of books between the inner and outer glass doors at the Hudson Branch Library, when a dog huffs in. As I shoulder out, a deaf-mute slips halfway in, grabs the dog's collar and yanks. Mutt won't budge. Deaf-mute wants me to help, but I can't ungarble his argot, plus I'm scared of dogs. He tugs, tugs, begs, tugs. Doggy isn't buying any, and I'm all, "Huh? Huh? Huh?" I shrug. I go. He grunts, yanks, grunts, shouts: "You're sssstoopud, sssstoopud boy, sssstoopud . . . " The blood rushes to my puss. I'm walking away. I'm a dumb hulk, beef on bones. The smell of the abattoir. Flies cloud me. Children gawk, wrinkle noses. Mothers pull them to a safe remove. "You're sssstoopud." Meat on a stick. Pocket that scented hanky, bub, and you'll smell me, half-hidden by perfumed syllables. J'ai menti.
Why didn't I tell her to fuck off?
The mirror arrests me: Hildy sticking out her fat tongue. Milk me. I lay down my toothbrush and pull the thing back into my maw—so bloated it barely fits, and I want to chew it down. I recall the music lounge at Harper College, behind a glass partition, where brilliant hippies, jazzboys, and Zen aficionados hung out, lizard-tongued and omniscient, macrobiotics with Tupperware full of brown rice and local vegetables. Gap Rider feels up the piano, and its come cries shake the glass. At the mopboard a liquid redhead chain-smokes Kools while rooting for Dasein, like a truffle hog, in the spine of a moldering interlinear. An actor on a chaise longue mouths his lines to himself—and moves himself deeply. Hildy is there among the furniture. Tortured soul, she longs for me. I am in a funk. I am always in a funk. I'm going to attempt suicide pretty soon, remember. I'll doze a whole bottle of downers down my gullet, then, slurring and fuzzy, phone a pal, Ringel, from this very music room, and he and the campus cops will half-carry me to the infirmary, where the doctor will determine that I don't even need my stomach pumped, but next afternoon, I find myself snugged between cold white sheets in an unfamiliar room, my father and mother loom over me, worried, against an all-white background, and I have never been so desolate—but that's all later. "Hildy," I say, cupping her mopish dewlaps, her pillowy cheeks in the palms of my hands, "is it that you want to kiss me? Is that all?"
Often, in my mind, I hang myself for past offences. It comes to me spontaneously; in my morally more expansive moments, I have to actively restrain this tendency, knock down the gibbet before the bucket's kicked. Be kind to myself. "Is it that you want to kiss me?" I asked her. Can you hear the tumbrel creak? ". . . Ssstoopud, sssstoopud boy, sssstoopud . . . ," the deaf-mute said. What an asshole I am. "Is it that you want to kiss me?" Gap licking his ivories, the scholar polishing his Ding an sich, the self-enraptured thespian, all cock an ear. It's a public event, and don't I know it. It's like when, at ten—tumultuous year—I bicycled past Sissy Black's house in lunge position, leaning into the handlebar, head thrown back, one knee heroically high, just like Prince Valiant in the Sunday funnies. Pleez, let her see me. Pleez let Sissy see me. Let God and everybody see me, pleez, pleez. "Hildy, is it that you want to kiss me? Is that all?" Genet nailed this syndrome in The Balcony, yes? The righteous need their outlaws. What a boon to doctors are the sick! The rich eat the poor, and I Hildy. Cannibals and vampires. I kept her around to flatter myself, she said. She closed her eyes and puckered. I smiled. I bestowed. Everybody took snapshots and notes. Evidence. You can see it all in one file folder with the trial transcript—and with the coroner's confirmation of the hanged man's decease. One really does achieve, when the neck snaps, a monumental erection.
I announced my housemates' edict to Hildy. I was sick of her as well. You are a hopeless case. Mornings, when the mirror arrests you, mad-dog toothpaste foam and verdant zit, why do you judge? Don't you know that you are beautiful? ("Todos somos uno," I used to inform the Puerto Rican gangbangers in those daffodil days. They would roll their eyes and bust north: "Loco." I wasn't worth a slap.) Hildy mumbled something. She was stultified by the pressure against her heart of the bovine corpulence swelling in against it. Me: You are one with the universe, Hildy—don't you know that? Why won't you let yourself know that? I cannot deal with you until you deal with yourself. Bust north, Hildy. Plee-uhz, plee-uhz, bleats Hildy. Plee-uhz, plee-uhz. No, Hildy. No. Let go. She vomits tears. I pry her, finger by finger, from my ankle.
Fat Millie wasn't like Hildy. Fat Millie was too dumb to know she was ugly. Big fat dumb spittle-lipped girl with greasy hair and a gravelly voice. We were six, I believe, when I made Millie's acquaintance. She was imperious. "It's my turn now, because I say so, so gimme," kind of thing. "Gimme, or I'll punch you hard." There lived a Giant down the block from our school, 36 School, in Rochester, New York, who would make pancakes now and then, and when he did, why, he would reach his elephantine arm through our classroom window, shattering the glass and the casement and everything, and he would feel around, thumbing bellies with that great rough thumb, and breaking things, till he found Millie, and he would grab her and pull her out the window. We'd be wailing and moaning, and Mrs. Bishop would be handing out crackers and trying to calm us down—nothing to be done. After the first couple of times, the police didn't even bother to come. Besides, the Giant had them all in his pocket, as everyone knew, the police and all the politicians—in his pocket figuratively, I mean, most of them, but one or two in his pocket for real, the mayor and the head of the Department of Public Works, because he liked their moustaches. He liked to dress them up and put them in tumblers and bowls—giant ones, of course—and play with them. Then, maybe thirty minutes after the defenestration, the Giant would stuff Millie back in through the window. She would be all tattered and greasy and brown, and the bottoms of her feet would be caramelized, and her blouse would be singed, and she would smell of burnt hair and Wesson oil. Millie never said a word about what happened to her, but we all knew. We smelled the maple syrup up and down the street, and we heard the Giant's griddle sizzle and pop, and we saw the steam. Butterball Millie—the Giant had used her to butter his pancakes.
It wouldn't be a day before Millie cracked the whip again. No insult scarred her. When do they get all sensitive, the damn cows? When do the Millies become Hildies? Why can't they just let us herd them and milk them, as of old? Even the ugly ones herd me and milk me, indeed, butcher and bone me with the knife of a hurt look. I'm the sensitive one, remember? Take the one I met in a theater lobby in 1979. Big tits was the attraction, spoke directly to the gonads. I thought it was love. I called on her. I courted her. A Libyan courted her, too. We sat in her parlor once, we three. I had happened by, knocked on her door, found the Libyan there, but, oh, come on in. She absented herself to make coffee for us three—and the Libyan's face cracked open like a jack-o'-lantern, meaning to boy-talk with me about her fabulous knockers, the wonder that had drawn us to her, though I was slow to confess it. In fact, it has taken me twenty-five years. Those very knockers, intoxicating, efflorescent love stamens, were already turning, in my mind, to a pair of footlockers crammed with old cheese.
A few days later she caught me out on the street pointedly not visiting, not greeting, not looking, and she said, nearly weeping, crushed by the emotionality of the heavily breasted as her blimps sagged mournfully earthward, "What's changed? Why aren't you interested in me any more?" Like Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room, pathetically, to the fellow who's scuttling her because she's pregnant by a former lover: "But I'm still the same person—you just know more about me." How about Giulietta Masina to Anthony Quinn in La Strada: "Don't you like me a little bit?" He doesn't. The one with the Y chromosome is always the malefactor in real life, i.e., in the movies. Whereas, in the mind of men, it is those cows. I'm not unaware of this. I'm an asshole. I'm quite aware of the slippage between my lyrics and my melody, let's say. So why do I still talk this way? Because I'm an asshole—bust north, will you? OK, so I told you to watch me, to call me on my untruths—so now you're taking it seriously? After letting me slide all this time? Fuck off. Women are cows. There's nothing wrong with me. What's your problem? You're worse than her, you know that? So fucking vulnerable and frank she was, the bitch, the innocent, it aroused in me, like a piano string, willy-nilly, humming back to the tuning fork its A-440, an answering emotion. Which I duly quashed. Don't they know, goddammit, that they're supposed to suck it up and amble on? It's a man's world, haven't they heard? I don't like feeling.
Shut up. I know.
Me, give me a gal with a bovine soul,
Her head in her belly, her heart in her hole.
Me, spare me the sorrow of pointed chicks
With a best for each better, a yea for each nix—
Getting their kicks,
Them, give them each other to carp and cajole.
Me, give me a gal with a bovine soul.
Oh, with a bo!
Oh, oh, with a bo!
Bo, bo, with a bovine soul!
"What's changed? Why aren't you interested in me any more?" I said, "I'm sorry. You're right. I'm going to try and work on myself." Wasn't the last time I was to use that line. One pronounces it at a certain cost to one's self-esteem—but, brother, it leaves them speechless. You're off the hook, and that's worth everything. Better than the tack my little sister tried. At the age of four or so, she would have tantrums, screaming, hair-pulling, rug-biting tantrums: "Mummy, be nice to me!" Never worked.
Truth is, the whole sensitive thing, the "What's changed? Why aren't you interested in me any more?" thing, is nothing to what Hildy comes up with. She snookers me good. She's so sensitive, she morphs to a higher level. A year passes—a year in the Gulag, I want to say, or a year at Attica, because those days were hard. Days like meat grinders, nights like boiling sulfur. That's how it is when you're desperate to exist and can't find where to set your mind. My suicidal adolescence. From the bathyscaphe of my self-absorption, I abuse everyone without seeing any of them. Hildy is typical. A year passes, and I run into Hildy in the student union. She is dressed quite tidily in wool stockings, a glen plaid skirt, and a natty vest. Her hair is plaited and bound. I greet her effusively, feeling safe enough behind the invisible wall of my prohibitions, the A-framers' edict of last year still in effect, we presume. Nothing, however, can prepare me for the catastrophic denouement. She greets me coolly. She is staying out of the game. She has understood something, I observe with alarm, no, with horror. Horror vacui, zero sum, the more secure she, the more unsettled I. There have been lots of soul-searching conversations with friends and therapists in that girl's year, and I have been the subject of some of them. My disadvantage is immense. Suddenly I am made to see my game. In the dark of my heart a lion rips and chews. "I'm happy to see how well you're doing, Hildy." Nothing could be further from the truth. I wave to an imaginary friend, make my apology, and bust north before she can see my forehead dampen with cold sweat.
Don't worry—I'll get mine. Two hit men are on the case. How do I know? Freedom of Information disclosures from the Akashic Record. For you non-Californians: this is the cosmic log of everything that has ever happened in the whole universe, the Karmic scratch sheet. Two hit men—hit persons, actually: Esther Deutsch (nicknamed "Death Drops") and Laura Shiransky. Plus a functionary of theirs whom let's call Ms. Mammary. When I lie on top of Esther on the couch in the lounge at her dorm, she'll say: "I don't feel anything. What's the point? Am I supposed to feel something? You can kiss me and feel me up all you want to, but it isn't moving me one little bit. Are you enjoying this?" Well, yes, duh, I'm enjoying this, Esther. And, "Why do you go to the bathroom all the time? Are you shooting up in there? Are you a junky? You're a junky, aren't you? Are you a junky? Is that it?" Listen, I am testing and testing the gibbet at this phase of my so-called "life," daily inspecting the noose, the knot, the bucket. My mind is so permeable that she makes me believe that, yes, I may be a junky, that somehow I have managed to hide all evidence of it from myself, hysterically blanked out the memory of cooking dope in a spoon over my weathered Zippo, sucking it into the syringe, sleeve rolled up, veins bulging under the tubing knotted round my arm, forgotten the sudden rush, the dive into oblivion's warm salt sea, then the koshering—soak, salt, hammer my blood out—and the desperate drug deals after. Even now, composing this list, I think: hm, how comes that all so easily to mind if it isn't true . . . ? My cosmos lacks a bottom turtle. Who am I? Esther and Eliot—a two-valued function: zero and negative infinity, ennui and panic. "Why do you even like me? I'm so plain. You'll just get tired of me after a while. What's the point?" she says. Her flesh is grey and damp as old tent canvas. Already, at eighteen, her face is a mail pouch. Her cheeks sag. Her eyes barely open. Is it her anxious electricity that pulls me to her? Thanatos. Plus thuh dumb smull uv cunt, let's face it, the ultimut short u. At length, she unmans me, and I fall off her like a salted slug.
Jesus, everything you asked me about in your letter was twenty-five years ago, and I didn't even like thinking about it then. There was never anything going on between us, nothing but nothing, except in your head. Nothing. You could have done the whole thing without me. Leave me alone, Eliot. Was that clear? Leave me alone, Eliot. You need me to write it again? Leave me alone. Leave me alone. Leave me alone. You are a sick person. The only thing I want to do concerning you is to forget you, alright? You always made something out of nothing and you are doing it again. Leave me alone.
I'm lying there curling and desiccating on a walkway outside Esther's dormitory when I smell a strange new fragrance, and, looking up through teensy, dead, juiced snail eyes, I glimpse Laura Shiransky galloping to Anthro 101. She's small, likilikim. Her hair is dark, short, closely trimmed, an acorn cap. Her brows are hawk's wings, slanting toward her little nose. She has a sweet small mouth, too, a saucily jutting chin, and a long neck, a neck I see as much with my lips as with my eyes. That neck is a dancer's neck. Her gait is a dancer's gait: she places her leg at each stride with a definite movement of the pelvis. I am in love.
How could I have known at that time what seems so obvious to cool retrospection, that the whole thing was a setup, that the two assassins, Deutsch (nicknamed "Death Drops") and Shiransky, with, later, Ms. Mammary, had been laying for me, probably for years and years?
I am in love. I fatten. I follow.
Laura Shiransky is small and light as a robin. She strikes small intense gestures fatal of effect: a cock of the head, the wrinkling of a brow. If she purses her lips or slightly smiles, I'll have an orgasm. Can't call her a femme fatale: she is unaware of her power. If she were aware of it, she would be much less useful to her employers—of whom we dare not speak more.
At about the age of twelve, I saw an old black-and-white movie in which a carny is hauled to court for corrupting the morals of the community. Carny puts his stripper on the stand. She has eyes. She has legs. She has breasts, one, two, paddiwack, give a dog a bone. The D.A. drops his pencil. As the breasts turn to immolate now this, now that section of the jury box, the jurors, mesmerized, follow, jaws pendant, compass needles to the stripper's magnetic north, follow willy-nilly, and isn't Willy nillying in their trousers (such as are willied, while the lucky double X's narrow their eyes)? And the carny, his own attorney, says—I remember this line verbatim—"Can you say that she is less beautiful than the Venus de Milo?" She bats an eyelash, the roomful of Willies spring, and the carny is sprung, by reason of aesthetic excellence. "Next case," chirps Hizonner.
I remember verbatim the carny's line, because it became the sound track of a frequent erotic fantasy of mine. Can you say that she is less beautiful than the Venus de Milo? The NO! rips out of me. NO! erupts between my legs, one hot jissom syllable—NO! Laura Shiransky—can you say that she is less beautiful than the Venus de Milo?
Quelling the shiver, I sit down at Laura's table in the student union. She answers me with delicate circumspection, a black scarf wrapped around her neck à la Isadora Duncan before the yank. Yes, Laura is a dancer. Eyeing me up through those hawk-wing brows, she bobs her head, and it puts me in mind of Archie Moore, the middleweight famous for his "peek-a-boo" style of boxing. What an apt comparison that is I, of course, do not then know. On one such bob—FREEZE FRAME—burns into my cerebral cortex and polarizes all relevant synapses, pate to perineum. An iconic moment: Laura Shiransky's fine small breasts brushing the tabletop. Zoom in, O Memory, 4X, 10X, 100X, to the aureolar vicinity: is there actual contact with the Formica tabletop? Is there actual aureolar compression consequent to same, and if so, how much? A millimeter? A cent? A dec? The very thought of it is a short letter u. Ugh! Ugh! Thrust and shudder. Wanna kiss her wanna hug her, wanna wanna wanna fug her. Please God have mercy, gotta get a little persy. Gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta get it right now.
Might I walk her back to her dorm? Of course I might—but this is the last time she will ever say the word yes to me in any context whatsoever. This solitary permission is what they call in the trade "letting out some line." My days are numbered. She is unfailingly deadly, is Shiransky, especially when teamed up, as now she is, with Deutsch (nicknamed "Death Drops.") And she is a dancer, nota bene. Read Agnes DeMille: dancers don't come. Absent conclusive evidence, we forbear to opine in what direction the causality flows, comelessness consequent to hoofing or the cause of it, but in the dancer's stage performance and not in bed one enjoys her sexual sforza. Therefore, her cunt becomes a weapon. Let us say, to use the traditional figure, it dentates.
Milk me, I bleat: Plee-uhz, plee-uhz. Milk me, kill me. Coat by coat, I am de-lacquered, delaminated, boiled down to my ugly fundament, my uh. I forget to eat, to breathe, to circulate my blood. I dog her. She is God, let's face it. Every thought, every sensum returns to Shiransky. I wake mornings and startle: during the night they have dyed the air: Laura. A red hot iron ball is lodged in my throat which I can neither swallow nor spit: Shiransky. Mendacity check: that line belongs to the Zen guy Wu-men, who was writing about the Zen riddle "Wu!" (NO!) as a matter of fact, and, for heaven's sake, he wrote it in Chinese. Q.E.D.: I'm appropriating everybody's anything to doxologize my Shiransky, even here, even now, in my ridiculous dotage. I'm going to hold my breath till I get her or else turn purple and bust. This is what my life is about, is worthless without. Wanna wanna. Gotta gotta. One spring day—horrors of birdsongs and sunshine—I'm sitting on the curb of a frontage road between campus and 96 North, dreaming, dreaming of my Laura, when she jogs by, and I am so in love with her that I don't even notice her. She ignores, ignores me, but it's not out of love. Here's what she keeps telling me: "No." Also, "No." And, "No." In a last-ditch effort to get Laura's attention, I break up with her. "I'm not going to bother you anymore," I say. I wait for her to say something conciliatory: no dice. "I'm moving on," I say, not moving. She nods: "Okay." Ex nihilo nihil venit. Exit Shiransky. We are quits. I am a chicken without a horn. They never had any. Me either. I am a beached fish; lidless eyes afire, I huff and spit, gasp and slap.
What am I? Lord God Shiransky, what am I, dumb bunch of neurons and integument, to be led by the nose this way? She is my heart, my spine—only switch the image, the name, the referent of the "she," Shiransky to Mammary, and my ardor, my obsession is identical. Many years later, a woman would say to me, "I dreamed of you and me at the sea, Eliot. My back was to the sea, and you were facing me. You said, 'I love you, I love you,' but when I stepped to one side, you kept staring out at the sea, still saying 'I love you. I love you,' to the sea. It doesn't matter to you who you 'love,' does it? It's all about Eliot." I said, "No, it's not."
Ms. Mammary. My roommate, Leonard Glick, the nineteen-year-old son of Nazi death camp survivors, rushes into our apartment. In Lenny's blood, bullock sterteth, bucke verteth, murie sing cuccu: fire red curls boil from his large head. His skin is flush and freckled everywhere. He wears a lamb's-wool vest irresistible to women. (Thirty-five years later, in a fit of nostalgia, I look him up in the Bronx phonebook. I find, I think, his family, but a very old man answers, or a wraith, or a devil. "Why are you calling?" He coughs and croaks. "Why are you doing this to me?" It doesn't matter what I ask, what I say.) In comes Lenny, breathless, eyes shocked wide, hands cupped as if to compass two beach balls. "See these hands? These hands just held the biggest tits on campus." And he named the girl known here as Ms. Mammary.
No, he didn't. He was talking about someone else entirely. Don't look at me like that. Art is a lie that tells the truth. What's a little bit of conflation between semblables, between frères? All this really happened. I'm just fucking with the lighting a little bit.
He brings her round. It's nothing serious between them, just sex, just propagation of the species, nothing heavy. Whereas what transpires between me and Ms. Mammary is nothing short of love, sublime, eternal, ineffable, profound. I forget to eat, to breathe, to circulate my blood. I dog her. She is God, let's face it. Every thought, every sensum returns to Ms. Mammary. I wake mornings and startle: during the night they have dyed the air: Ms. Mammary. A red hot iron ball is lodged in my throat, etc. So you can't call it backdoormanning when, in response to her overtures, her ardent looks, her intentional epidermal contiguities, not to say, rubs, guileless and devoid of deniability, I meet her, sans Lenny, on the sly. We pass through an archway on which, with the desperate hopefulness of an unwilling virgin, I have fingerpainted "AMOR VINCIT OMNIA." Breathily she says, "You know what I want from you." We wrestle onto the bed, onto sheets oft-christened by my liquid syllables—NO!—and then between them. Shiransky's face hovers on the ceiling, Deutsch's darkle calks the floorboards, and Ms. Mammary fills my arms.
PLEASE stop writing me. I don't know how you got my address. I do kind of remember you—as a very DISTURBED boy. Apparently, you are still disturbed. You made me very uncomfortable, but I tried to be polite. I wasn't ready for a relationship at that time even if you were my type of person, which you are NOT. No offence. For heaven's sake, I was EIGHTEEN. You were very intense. I hope for your sake that you are not so intense any more. You are NOT Jesus Christ, you know. I am a married woman now with a HUSBAND and two fine children and a career. I was never an "assassin." I don't know what you are talking about. You should get a life, honestly. PLEASE stop bothering me. You are not the center of the universe by the way. I just want to make sure and tell you that, in case you didn't know. That thing you sent me about the "bone women" or whatever, look, people are not bone women. They are people. Maybe you're THEIR bone woman or whatever, did you ever think of that?
You know what? All those women you go on and on and on about, they're still there when you go away, you know. They have lives, too. You pretend to be so sensitive, but all those cruel things you say about women, who the HELL died and made you God to size everybody up that way? It's cruel and it's shallow and it's self-centered and it's just plain WRONG. Nobody is what YOU think they are. You need help.
Do not write me anymore. My husband is a lawyer, by the way. He told me to mention that IN CASE YOU'RE INTERESTED.
Very sincerely yours,
"Don't be upset," Ms. Mammary tells me, "it happens to everybody." Only thing, I'm a virgin. Nothing but this has ever happened to me. Everything she does makes things worse. Thinking to comfort, she cradles me, gelding me further, infantilizing. She can't hide her disappointment. "Have you got anything to eat here?" Nothing good. Nothing to eat. Not on any level whatsoever. And I'm exhausted. I've strained every muscle, engorged every fiber of me except the ones that count. What am I? Lenny arrives home just as Ms. M is departing. Sitting alone in bed in the darkened room, paralyzed with mourning, I hear them bus and giggle and give each other a quick feel. I hear her open the door, and then, just before she closes it, she has to say, from the hallway, "You okay, Eliot?" for the whole fucking world to hear.
"Yes, sure, fine. Goodnight, M."
Next day I attempt suicide.
Dear Mr. Fintushel,
You have a lot of nerve writing about me that way. As for all that worrying about who you are and so on, it's just alligator tears. Frankly, you disgust me. I know the kind of person you are. I know how you treat people. You are the only one who doesn't know it. I feel sorry for you.
It so happens that I am now a member of a well-respected modern dance company of all large women. In fact, I am writing this in the green room of the state theater in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where we just did a matinee performance, and we have another performance this evening. You may be interested to know that I have a featured solo which always brings the house down, for your information. Some people, apparently, are not so fixated on a particular body image as you seem to be. I have had many wonderful happy relationships, and I love myself and my body.
Get over yourself, Eliot.
Many years ago, you hurt me very badly, but now I don't care what kind of names you are calling me in your so-called writing. I forgive you. I forgive all the people like yourself whose minds are clouded up by socially conditioned stereotypes about our bodies. But I can't straighten out your messed-up heart for you. You are going to have to suffer that one through on your own, and I wish you a lot of luck. You'll need it.
I most definitely do not give you permission to "write" about me, whether you change any names or not. I don't care how you sneak around and try to justify yourself. Kindly do not use me in any way. Haven't you done enough? Here's a promise: if you abuse me any more, I will find you and put an end to you.
Hildy Bell Hascom
Soloist with Largesse (A Dance Experience)
Next day I attempt suicide.
A few hours before my S-O-S to Ringel (and before the pills) I had made another call, to Ilene Beasely. "Hello?" she said. I barely spoke; I tried to continue to breathe. "Eliot?" she said. I managed, "Outside the music lounge." She hung up. I laid myself out on the hallway window ledge. My blood was bilgewater. Ilene arrived, the Queen of Long Island. Tall. Comely. Electric. I must have met her through Lenny. I don't remember. I don't want to remember, and I don't have the energy to prevaricate. She must have been exercising common human decency toward me, a slight acquaintance, the roommate of the guy in the lamb's-wool vest, which she might not be quite finished stroking and gnawing yet. "What's wrong?" she said. I stared at the strawberry twilight pouring through the window. What's the point? "You okay, Eliot?" I was stultified by the pressure against my heart of the bovine corpulence swelling in against it. "Eliot?" I may have mumbled something. "What? What? For Christ's sakes, Eliot, what?" Save me, we wanted to say, me and Hildy, plee-uhz, plee-uhz, save me.
Space is vast and empty. No sound there because nothing to vibrate, see? The Moon people may be wailing and bellowing but we can't hear a syllable of it. When Christ comes back, as he has threatened to do, all kindreds of earth shall wail because of Him, but on the Moon, nobody will be the wiser. They'll just go on harvesting their green cheese. Or if one of them happens to look down through a telescope, one of those lunar ones made of green Swiss cheese that you look through the holes of it, all linked inside by parabolic mirrors, and they see all those open mouths with nothing coming out of them, why they may say, just as Ilene Beasely said, "What? What? Did you call me up and get me to come down here just to watch you fall apart and die?" Nothing. The strawberry light. Her syllables striking my tympanum—or something. "Is it that you want to kiss me? Is that all?" she says. "Well, forget it." I'm dead anyway, dead and gone, gone beyond, far, far beyond. "You lousy son of a bitch, Eliot. I'm not going to stand around here and put myself through your shit. Fuck you."
Exit. Next day I attempt suicide.
Naomi King sits at a card table in her mother's apartment redolent of candle wax and mothballs. Why am I on my knees before her? Why am I holding her calves? I have been in love with her ever since I felt her breasts press against my chest through five layers of fabric—my T-shirt, my smock, her bra, her blouse, her sweater. It was a light-hearted hug-and-a-kiss, adolescent, experimental, but in my loveless, unwillingly hermetic life, that was plenty. I write her and I phone her from my college far away. I hitchhike to Poughkeepsie to importune her: "Marry me. I'm going to be a schoolteacher. We're going to have a house in the suburbs. We'll grow old together." The whole package. I am quite serious about this. She humors me. She manages me. Nothing happens. The grandeur of Vassar so cows me that I wilt, I stutter, I cannot make my case. In a dorm bathroom, quieter and classier than anyplace I have ever lived, inside a toilet stall, as I labor, I have to scratch . . .
No proof against my inky scrawl
Is mighty Vassar's crapper wall:
. . . just to re-establish, after my fashion, a little personal dignity. Deflated, thrown into confusion, I skulk into town and find a parked car to spend the night in. I fold myself into the floor space below the rear seat, where I'll be least visible. You could say that it was a cold night. In the morning, when I unwrinkle myself, my cheeks are stiff blue cardboards, my hams are full of ice, my nose hairs are frozen, and I can't bend my fingers or make my teeth stop chattering. For a time, I give up the quest, but then—Nature abhors a vacuum—I suffer a relapse, and here I am holding her calves, a suppliant (just like the dudes in The Odyssey and The Iliad, irresistible, yes?) sweetly pleading. But Naomi King isn't buying any. "Stop it, Eliot," she says. "No more of your tendernesses." I am her Bone Woman.
Next day I attempt suicide. Those who do it once nearly always try again. We suicides—of course!—are nothing if not perfectionists (and, if perfect, nothing). When I press the razor blade into my wrist, blood wells up like tears. It's a double edged blade, and I have cut my thumb as well: I suck my wounded thumb and watch the wrist bleed. The blood streams, drips, puddles.
Now I'm lying on top of Diane Marcenko on a grassy ridge above the Genesee River, right across the road from the zoo, the monk, the monk, the monk. Must be one of those Spirits of Christmas ferrying me hither and thither. A huge electrical generator rumbles down below. The suckers are spawning, drifting downstream. I used to like to hook them just for fun. Look how their scales glisten. Must be hard work dropping those eggs. They're beat. They just drift. I think the generator is going to smash them up. I'm lying on top of Diane Marcenko. I always wanted to lie on top of somebody. I've had a hard-on or two looking at her legs in short shorts. One day she'll tell me, "I wanted you. Do you think I cared about Daniel? He was just there was all. I would sit next to him and stare across the table at you. Sometimes I thought, if I could just reach across the table and touch your face . . ." She starts to cry. They just drift. I'm losing track here. One of those Christmas Spirits, Past, Present, Future. I'm getting to lie on a girl, on Diane Marcenko, but I have this creepy feeling. It's not what I thought. Her skin feels like cold oatmeal. Her face isn't pretty enough. I don't enjoy the taste of her tongue. I'm not staying hard. "What's wrong? You okay, Eliot? What? What?" I say, "I'm sorry. I don't love you." She closes her eyes and weeps, the monk, the monk, the monk. What am I? Why can't I fuck the Bone Woman? What am I doing down here inside this casket made of flesh, this Animal Faire? There's nothing but evil in me.
In the folk tale, Bone Woman offers herself to the young man, and if he won't fuck her, he's doomed forever. Is that why I'm mired in this dead-end existence, alone in my hovel between the horse stables and the transmission shops out back of Sonoma County fairgrounds, scribbling memoirs full of lies?
I tried to be good. I tried it with Hildy, didn't I? Never mind, never mind—that was a mixed case, unclear. But what about Libby Dreiser? I was eleven then. She was utterly unappealing to me, and I decided, I'm going to marry her. She was smart. She was good. She had a face like a dog and a voice like a strangling goose. I sat next to her in Hebrew School. I may have taken her out once. Look how honest I'm being. I may have taken her out once—I don't remember. I could make up all kinds of stories, you know. Okay, it fizzled out. Why didn't I stick with old Libby, though? Why couldn't I get it up for Diane, the monk, the monk, the monk?
Maybe I'm queer. Walking along the banks of the East River in Manhattan with Dick Boulot and the Spirit of Christmases Past, I look up at the jet planes thundering by. "They call them 'whisper jets,'" Dick laughs. He puts his hand on my crotch and kisses me on the mouth. It's a short scrabble up a rocky incline to the street teeming with trucks. You can't even hear the river. At his place, on his sofa, he lies on top of me and pinches my nipples. "Ouch. I don't like that." He smiles—amazing teeth, glittering teeth, in a wide mouth: "But I do." In the shower, he lays his hands on my shoulders and presses me down to my knees, then pushes his cock into my mouth, just onto my tongue. I gag. I gag. I'm sorry, Dick. I'm so sorry, Dick. It's all right, Eliot. It's okay. Let's dry off. It's okay.
I sneak out of his sofa before dawn, out among the trucks, and when the sun comes up, the thing they call the sun, there's no warmth in it, nor any color anywhere, the monk, the monk, the monk. I zombie down to Washington Square and into an All You Can Eat, and I pick out some stuff, and I sit down at a table with it, and I look at it, and I take out my wallet with all my money and all my ID in it, all of who I am, who I'm supposed to be, the monk, the monk, the monk, and I lay it on the table, and I stand up, and I walk out past all those people, past all those eyes, out the door and into the street teeming with trucks.
I trembled for days. Why can't I fuck the Bone Woman? You feel, at the root of you, where nothing can ever reach, because it's you in essence, immutable till death, that there is something rotten. What is there, then, but suicide? Or was all this angst itself a defense against an even more horrible truth—that I'm no different from anyone else of my species, brutal, uncaring except as a distraction—sentiments are octopus ink—a carnivore clawing and scrabbling over other clawing, scrabbling carnivores in the Black Hole of Calcutta or the ovens at Auschwitz, away from the Bone Woman, up into a cyanide cloud. Never mind all that. I can't face it. No one can face it. I went to an autopsy once: it was nothing to this. Cutting through ribs with a hedge trimmer, reaching down into the bloody cavity to feel the bumps of the spine from the wrong, the inside, peeling down the face and opening the skull and slicing the brain in a device like a thing for slicing boiled eggs, the cold grey skin, the formaldehyde smell, the weeks following when the streets of my city teemed with painted cadavers, cadavers waiting tables, cadavers hawking newspapers, cadaver mothers on the street pushing strollers with cadaver children in them—all that was nothing to this thought: that we are bloody-minded carnivores pretending to be Men. The Island of Dr. Moreau. It's unthinkable. So let's not think it. Back to the angst.