I stumble in half-pissed and Shelley’s on the phone. Of my three roommates, Shelley’s got the best tits, plus a decent collection of classical records (emphasis: early music), but she’s well-adjusted, a condition that makes my sort nervous. It’s an Indian Summer, her neckline’s low. There’s a good two, two-and-a-half inches of cleavage showing.

“It’s OK, Jenn,” Shelley is saying. “Try to get some sleep.” She rolls her eyes at me. “Jenn, it gets better Jenn, I promise.”

“Is that Jenn?” I say, as if my question results from some penetrating detection. I’ve heard these calls before. Shelley is like a suicide hotline. All her Barnard friends are ready to jump out windows, an option not readily available to Shelley. We live on the ground floor. Maybe that’s why they call her. But I’m not concerned with the motivations of chronically depressed Barnard upperclasswomen. Instead, I’m thinking about Film Production II, and Jenn’s appearance in a colleague’s 16mm short, the obligatory nude-romp-in-the-cemetery sequence. I grab at the phone.

“Jenn, hold on,” Shelley says as I paw the receiver.
“Jenn, are you home,” I say impatiently.
“Don’t tell him, Jenn,” Shelley shouts over my shoulder.
I give Shelley a look, but it’s not necessary. Jenn’s not paying attention.
“And Shelley has your address?” I say.

I hang up before she stops talking. Never give them time to think. The mind is a monkey, especially when it’s in an all-girls college.

“I don’t know about this,” Shelley says, shaking her head.

“Shell,” I tell her, “she’s lonely, I’m lonely.” I slide a pen and a 3x5 card along the kitchen table. “And chivalry can’t wait. The Arthurians knew this.”

Shelley’s period is medieval. She doesn’t know whether to smile or puke. Still shaking her head, she takes up the pen.

“One of us is going to regret this,” she says.

It’s one of those damp clammy nights. I’ve got a blazer around my shoulders, tie ends dangling from a half-assed Windsor. Casual but ready, you might say. On the look-out for some wounded bird carrying a volume of Plath or Sexton. Insecurity’s a drag, but it’s got its upside.

Women struggle these days, and I feel bad about my ugly contribution to their burden. I see them crunching, fasting, applicating crèmes, trying to appeal to the likes of me. And it makes me wish I could help them relax. I had a chance once, too, to be some kind of crusader. Freshman year, women’s studies – Sisterhood is Powerful, “take back the night,” that whole crock. Wow, I’d thought, some of this shit is right on! But I got tired of dating women wearing hooded sweatshirts and earth clogs. My erections required greater glamour. My eyes lingered longingly on magazine displays at kiosks (among which Shelley could hold her own). So call me counter-progressive, call me a throwback, and I say: What, you think I’m proud of this? I’m not proud of this, it’s just something I do. I agree with you. It’s myself I’m in disagreement with, but I’m still myself.

Jenn’s is on 108th St. I take the Riverside service lane at 110th, nose around the corner, hug the shadows. A scaffold doglegs 109th and RSD. Local Law 10. Evidently there’s more falling from windows than Barnard students. Bricks, flowerboxes, gargoyles. Scaffolds going up everywhere, New York City masquerading as a French museum, the buildings wearing infrastructure on the outside, like Madonna’s costumes. In winter, when the wind gets fierce and glass sheets rip right out of frames, the scaffolds offer refuge. Now, though, in these clammy days of September, the scaffolds seem more of a mugger’s haven.

Which is appropriate, I suppose, since I’m feeling like a criminal. I hardly know Jenn, I’ve met her only twice. The first time I thoroughly ignored her. She was sitting in my kitchen doing tea readings with Shelley, looking like any number of nondescript Barnard girls. Straight hair, calf-length skirt, lace-up ankle-high Wicca boots. A self-conscious refusal to smile, presentation of self vacillating between Patti Smith and Barbara Seagull. But later I caught her in that student film. She played Salome in a pixilated adaptation of the Dance of the Seven Veils, only Jenn hadn’t used any, veils that is, except her waist-length hair at times acted as one. But at other times it didn’t, and Jenn had mouthwatering breasts, or so they appeared in the low-budget, spurt-shot, strobe-lit effects, and she knew how to toss them all over the screen. Next time I see her, at Cannon’s bar, I buy her a beer and we talk. French lit, French film. I try for a date, Pierrot le fou at the Thalia, but she works nights at St. Luke’s. I joke about access to drugs, she’s serious. “Whatever I can get my hands on,” she says, air-thumbing a hypo into her elbow’s pit, her eyes going loopy.

Ringing Jenn’s bell, I’m reminded of Shelley’s last plea.

“Are you sure about this?” Shelley’d asked, handing me Jenn’s address on the 3x5 card.
I said, “About what?”
“Don’t give me that,” Shelley said, “she’s really nuts.”
“Who isn’t?” I said.
“You know what I mean,” Shelley said. “And you’re not nuts, you’re despicable. There’s a difference. This girl’s fragile, she’s made three attempts.”
When I pulled the Folonari from the fridge, Shelley said, “Cliff, this isn’t you.”
“I know it love,” I told her, winking and tapping at my wrist-watch, “but the liquor stores are closed.”

* * *

She answers the door in a set of over-large coveralls, the one strap buckled look. Below that, a sleeveless t-shirt, circa Harvey Keitel. It’s tight, holey, revealing, overwashed. Her breasts appear solid as a pair of binoculars. In one hand, she carries a pair of seamstress’s shears, from the other dangles what appears to be a scalp. Perhaps only minutes, seconds earlier, her long straight hair had hung to her waist. Now, blunt prominent bangs retreat from her eyebrows. She looks like Suzanne Vega in the state of Oregon. I hate Suzanne Vega, mixed feelings about Oregon. But the breast thing, of course, that intrigues.

“You coming in?” she asks, turning into the apartment.
“Wait a second,” I say, grabbing her arm. She looks at me dispassionately. “You like Suzanne Vega?” I say.
She says, “Who?”
“Good,” I say, “carry on.”

She leads me down a brown corridor lined with bookshelves ready to crumple under their burden books and dust.

“I’m doing something in the bathroom,” she tells me. “Make yourself at home.”

The apartment is cavernous, rooms leading off rooms leading off hallways. The color scheme is the browns and grays of cubism. The mood is Munch. Above an antique employed as a telephone stand, a black and white Molly Ringwald poster is tacked off-angle.

“Are we alone?” I ask.
“My roommates are gone,” she says, “for the weekend.”
I ask her does she want some wine.
“Whatever,” she tells me.

I take my time finding the kitchen. The books run the typical gamut. There’s Djuna Barnes, the New Directions H.D., Our Bodies, Our Selves. I’d given that tome more than the once over. A veritable gallery of pussy pictures. Each one different, its own person like, yet each as disembodied as the most objectified Larry Flynt. Of course, the publishers’ intentions differ. I realize that I experience my life like some of my favorite music, a Mendelssohn Romance sans paroles. An argument advanced, then its antithesis, then… another argument, a theme and variation, synthesis never achieved. Sometimes I wonder if I’m still trying.

The dust in this corridor is like silt in a shipwreck. I kick up tiny clouds every step, my nose feels clogged. Despite that, I detect the presence of cats, a number of them.

In the kitchen I hit a light switch. Roaches scurry and I swear furballs fly. Near the refrigerator a roach props itself on its forelegs, its head bent into a saucer of water. I actually hear it drinking, it’s that big. It turns its head to look at me, a once-over like, then resumes its drinking, as if to say, “Oh, it’s you.” Below a windowsill a cat litter box overflows with turds. The floor, scattered with Friskies and Kitty Kleen, is like walking on Rice Krispies.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing in the icebox except cat food and cans of Tab. In the cabinets I find more Tab and bags of pretzels, dozens of them. Veri-thins. I hear something up above the cupboard and my heart starts. A Tomcat jumps down.

“Meow,” he says, and makes a headpost of my legs.

I notice he’s castrated. Disgusted, I say, “Yeah?” and flick him a pussful of Folonari. He scats to a corner, alternately shaking and licking his whiskers.

Music comes faintly, like the soundtrack to a movie in another apartment’s VCR. A tortured soundtrack, all gnarled and angular, so faint that it’s hard to get a fix, but I get the picture. Olive trees in winter, naked yearning branches reaching into a low sunless sky. I wonder if it’s been on all along, or if Jenn just put it on. Is it a reflection of her condition, or of her hopes for the evening? Prince would have been a more positive, if less fortunate, sign. I go in the opposite direction, down a hall, another hall, a bathroom.

More roaches, another cat litter box, more Rice Krispies linoleum. I’m tempted to piss in the sink but I refrain, although I don’t know what stops me. There’s a barely contained hostility in all of this catting around, and one must learn its symbolic language. The appropriate gesture, the well-tempered sneer, the right dose of humiliation, these create the frisson, the hilarity, the giddy danger.

The medicine chest’s second shelf is lined with a row of unboxed diaphragms, a warehouse of flying saucers. I feel as though I’m looking at a Magritte. Expectation collides with actuality. This is commonly thought to produce revelations. All I get is anxious.

The diaphragms are of various sizes but all, against the pictorial evidence of Our Bodies, Our Selves, relatively the same. Do they share them? Interchange them? Are they for different times in the month? I remove a couple, holding them by the tips of my fingers. They’re vanilla caked in a kind of map-like relief, a silt of corn starch and ortho-crème aged to the color of cardboard. The convex sides smell like nitrous oxide, the concave chlorine. I slide them back in in no particular order. I feel one of those alcoholic headaches coming on comprised as much of bad choices regrettably yet to be made as of the alcohol. The kind of headache where the hangover precedes the debauch and the head, the actual brain case, seems to swell. I make sure the Tylenol jar contains Tylenol and I wash down three extra strength tablets with the Folonari.

In a dark bedroom I find a phone and dial my own number. I want something from Shelley, but I’m not certain what it is. To save Jenn from me? To save me from me? I don’t think for a second that, because I’ve read Proust and can locate the three-act structure in Claire’s Knee, I’m any different from the slobs in a volunteer firehouse hog-hosing strippers on the pool table while sucking suds from a keg. But I want to be. I do want to be. But the line’s busy.

I’m sitting on pillows at the head of the bed. The headstand is one of those brass antique jobs, the narrow coiled bars like a jail cell’s rising into the shape of a harp. Along the mattress I check for handcuff scuffs; this looks like a heavy hitter’s dream. It’s separated from the windowsill by a plank-covered floor radiator stacked with books. I call for the time and the weather, then I call information for Jenn’s number. Jenn Korngold, I tell the operator. As I suspected, it’s a different number from the phone I’m on. When roommates don’t like each other, they get separate numbers. I can’t imagine anyone getting along well with Jenn.

In the distance, a phone rings four, five times. The ringing is replaced by silence.

“Jenn,” I say into the receiver, “I’m lost Jenn. Follow the sound of my voice. Find me, Jenn.”

Jenn is barefoot but I hear the sandpapery shuffle of her feet over the scritchy-scratchy floors. Lights flash on and off, faint lights as if ice boxes open and close.

“I can’t hear you,” Jenn says. “Say something.”
“Something intelligent.”
“Take off your blouse.”
“In another language.”
Deshabiller, s’il vous plait.”

When she appears, she’s topless. She’s also practically bald. I flick on a nightstand light and she makes no move to cover herself. Her hands are full. From one finger dangles a seltzer dispenser, the other hand supports a box of Whipmaster N²O cartridges.

“This is Carla’s room,” she says. She takes a lotus position at the foot of the bed. She lifts the canister to her lips and presses a long whoosh of N²O into her lungs. Her eyes scrunch, her shoulders relax. I notice for the first time that she wears a nose ring. Also a nipple ring. Around each ring is a little bead of blood. Her breasts are unimaginably perfect.
“You wanted me to take off my blouse,” she says through a smile. Her eyes remain closed, inviting me to drink in her image as impersonally as if she were a spread in a magazine. “You must have seen my movie.”
“They’re perfect,” I say, a bad move, but I can’t disguise the awe. “More perfect than I imagined.”
She chuckles. “They ought to be,” she says. “They cost enough.”
“You mean—”
She nods, then takes another pull from the canister.
“Do you mind?” I ask her.
She shakes her head and smiles.

While I knead and suck and mutter exclamations, she goes through another half-dozen cartridges. At one point, she gets up and presses a cassette into a boombox. She doesn’t ask what I’d like to hear. She doesn’t ask if I’d like to hear anything. It’s Brian Eno, Before and After Science, the dreamy multi-tracked side that opens with “Here He Comes.” It sounds the way anesthesia feels. She resumes with the gas, inhaling deeply, rocking gently. She doesn’t offer me a pull. She doesn’t offer the slightest response to my attentions. It’s as if I’m not even here. I lift her tits, pinch them, pull them, press them together, spread them apart. I nip around what appears to be a tender area around the ring. Even that fails to produce a wince. They are what one hopes for, dreams of, desires, but rarely if ever encounters except with teenagers and often not even with them. I can see the thin razor lines below the nipples where the silicon’s been inserted. I trace the lines with my lips, my fingertips. I’m fascinated and repulsed. The changing expressions on her face have everything to do with the laughing gas, nothing at all to do with my slobbering. And her profound distraction has an extraordinary effect on me. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this excited.

I coax her out of her coveralls, but it’s less a seduction than a desire not to wake a somnambulist. This is getting into weird territory ethically, but it’s new and I can’t stop. She’s not suicidal, she’s crazy, and infinitely desirable. And she does exhibit evidence of will and consciousness. When I try to remove her panties she says no. When I discover the same razor thin lines on her thighs and her sides, she explains, briefly, that she’d been a fat teenager who finally convinced her parents to pay for cosmetic surgery.

I introduce the idea of a “pearl necklace,” and the idea intrigues her long enough to get her to lie down. Her head’s on the pillows, too high up, but rather than disturb her I squeeze my own head through the bars of the headstand. I keep steady with my hands around the headposts. My eyes stare directly down onto a paperback copy of Things Fall Apart. Luckily, I climax in a minimum of strokes. An agonizing splurt, a gusher, a thorough voiding of the lower chakra, all over her collarbone, her neck and her chin. Through it she giggles like a child, guileless, delighted, surprised. The second my squirming stops she’s over at the mirror above Carla’s dresser.

“Do you always come this much?” she asks.
I try to turn my head, but it only goes so far.
“Wait,” I tell her, “I can’t see.” I try to pull back, but the pressure on my head’s too great. “I think I’m stuck.”

I pull straight back, back at an angle. I try the upper part of the headstand slot, then I try the lower. I can only move my head up and down, not back and out. When I pull back, it feels as if my ears might rip right off my head.

Jenn resumes her position on the edge of the bed. Or, should I say, she resumes her manner, I can’t see if she’s in the same position. I feel her weight on the bed, I hear the whooshes of the gas, the drones of Before and After Science. But all I see is thin slat Venetian blinds and the Chinua Achebe novel.

Between cartridges she says, “Your hiney hole looks funny.”
“Very funny,” I tell her.
“No,” she says, “not very funny. Funny. You have a hemorrhoid, do you know that?”
I feel my face flush.

She touches the hemorrhoid with what feels like a finger. The feeling is humiliating and pleasurable at once. I ask her if Carla has ever come home early.

“Sometimes,” she says. “She’s unpredictable.”

I ask her to bring me a couple of Tylenols. She returns with the bottle and what looks like a make-up kit.

“What are you doing?” I ask her.
She’s snickering, and I feel a tickling around my ass.

In a high squeaky voice, she says, “Hello, Mr. Hiney Hole. Does Mr. Hiney Hole like gerbils?” She sounds like one of those faces people paint between the thumb and forefinger. She laughs so hard I imagine her clutching her stomach.

“Wait,” I say, “what are you doing?”
“Shh,” she says. “I’m talking to Mr. Hiney Hole. I think he’s got a temperature.” She resumes the high voice. “Mr. Hiney Hole, you look a little piqued. Do you have a temperature?”

Her finger or something like one jams halfway up my ass, and my shoulders crash into the headstand like I’m hitting a tackling dummy. And I shout, “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Shhh,” she calms me, but I yank back so hard that my ears rip where the lobes meet the neckline. First there’s a dry stinging, then a trickle of blood.
“See?” she says, “you’re bleeding. Now shhh.”
“Get me out of this goddamn thing,” I say, “Jenny now!” I try to Samson the headstand’s rods out from my neck but succeed only in whitening my knuckles and reddening my face. I don’t know if it’s sweat or blood trickling across the back of my fist.
“You’re getting yourself all excited,” Jenn says, “and the more you squirm the more medicine Mr. Hiney Hole requires.”
“Whatever you’re thinking of doing, Jenn, you better stop.”
I feel something cool and wet on a cotton puff. “Shh shh shh shh shh shh shh,” she says.

A sharp needle prick follows, then a warmth, a liquid warmth. A heat. The heat sparkles white, then blue, red, red-orange. I remember my fists falling open…

I wake up in piercing sunlight film-noired by the blinds. My mouth is dry as dead skin, the head around it the size of a medicine ball and about as heavy. The Chinua Achebe novel is covered in drool. Alongside that is a note weighted by an adjustable wrench and a set of keys.

“Thanks,” the note reads. “I needed that. You were a scream. I haven’t laughed so hard since French Lit. II.” Instructions for leaving the apartment follow. Where could she be, I wonder? Temple? A PS appears at the bottom. “Please feed Mr. Richard his breakfast. His can’s on the counter.” She signed with a small smile in a huge head. Very funny.

The wrench works, but it’s a struggle. The hexagonal nuts at the bottom of each rod are small. I can’t see what I’m doing, my neck hurts, and I manage only quarter turns before my knuckles slam into the adjacent rods. Plus, my head pounds and I’m sweating like a woman in delivery. Ten, fifteen minutes I’m loose. Mr. Richard sleeps at my side, or had. My movements disturb him. He meows, then purrs. Evidently I’m forgiven. Either that or he loves Folonari. Suddenly I’m suspicious of the cat: Was he in on this act, whatever it was? Reassuringly, the extremities of his person are free of lubricant.

In the bathroom I fist Tylenol into my mouth, guzzle water from the faucet, vomit. I have never felt sicker in my life. The Folonari’s at least partially to blame, but just partially. I try to match the symptoms with something else I’ve experienced, something I know about other drugs. But I can’t. I’m wobbly as a dog on ice, and my eyes are glassy and bloodshot, the pupils as distant as a pair of pennies at the bottom of a pool. There’s a smell inside my nose, I’m not picking it up, I’m it. It’s chemical, clinical, medicinal, sour. I puke again. The usual mantras follow, all beginning with “never again.” In the agony of the moment I’d almost swear I mean them.

In the medicine chest mirror I try to see my ass but I can’t turn my head. A field goal specialist couldn’t kick my neck loose. I feel the hole, Mr. Hiney Hole. It is moist and sore, but there’s nothing in it—anymore. Mr. Richard rubs at my ankles.

I get dressed quickly but carefully, skip the tie, give Mr. Richard’s head a scratch. There’s a detail I’ll foreground in my version for Shelley.

In the kitchen I crack open a can of Liverbits and Tuna and almost throw up in the sink. Outside the apartment I have a choice, but I’m re-evaluating. I follow Jenn’s instructions. First the upper lock, then the lower. Mr. Hiney Hole indeed. I slide both keys under the apartment door. This, I feel, even while performing it, is the greatest humiliation.