“Mom, if I was born a boy,”
“Like you were supposed to be,” without a tinge of playfulness as she scanned the bar cart in the living room for her preferred drink. She resembled a mannequin and had even once been on the cover of a Roxy Music album, but her hands had always been veiny, gnarled. Villainous. The skin slithered over them like cellophane. I mostly noticed the vulgarity of her pearly, oval claws as she tapped them on various bottles until she found the winner.
“Anyway, Mom, if I was born a boy, how big would my dick be?”
She swallowed a chuckle, stopping it before it could begin—she deftly extinguished expressions of joy, not excluding those of others. She took her first sip of the day, the one that burns initially and then melts right into your tailbone like a sigh of relief.
“Huge, Maxine. Your dick would be huge.”
My smirk faded when she added, “Haven’t you seen Luke’s? You’re siblings, after all. Probably it would look just like Luke’s.” She paused on the musing for a spell, which surprised me. This was generous for her.
“Maybe ten cents crooked, though. More irregular.”
* * *
Luke’s room was the most special room in our house. He lived in a turret. Our cylindrical getaway. The architecture suited him. It made sense that his part of the house was different from every other part. Distinguished and disorienting. He routinely brushed his swimming trophies off the dresser into a drawer in one motion every time he found them mysteriously displayed. Mom would set them back up like bowling pins and then blame the maid, or a spectral presence. The walls were rust colored with a curved bench along the windows where he would often read for hours and hours: magazines like SPIN and Fangoria, an endless festival of books anywhere from Kathy Acker to Mishima to DeLillo. My singular comfort within that house was to laze on his bed and listen to his Galaxie 500 records while he worked in the background. Luke was selective about his friends but in a town as small as ours, some settling was inevitable. Variety, he called it. I thought about fucking each of his friends, even the chubby little Asperger’s one. Especially the chubby little Asperger’s one. I responded to their boy-smells, whether it was Old Spice or their mother’s laundry detergent or the cigarettes they smoked to look cool or just that metallic pubescent on-the-verge-of-something desperate reek. Luke’s guests wandered around our house saying it was haunted or at least wicked neat. During such tip-toed tours I would pull one lucky acquaintance into my room, lit by a blue lava lamp and a string of chili pepper lights, push them onto my bed and practice my blowjob skills, which I realized were pretty advanced for a kid. Not that these dorks would’ve known. I felt like I’d been doing this forever and I couldn’t even drive yet. They’d splay all panting and euphoric under my Spacemen 3 poster, suggesting that what just happened meant something, and that perhaps we should embrace.
“Get out!” I’d shriek. “Out, you fuckin’ pervert!”
Another favorite was, “Get a life!!”
Alternatively, I would crawl onto their chests all sweet and lean in for a kiss, only to spit their gluey loads into their sour incredulous mouths. There’s not much entertainment, where I’m from. I can unbutton a flannel like nobody’s business.
* * *
In the mornings I would reluctantly slump out of bed and then lock myself in a small powder room, sitting on the floor where the baseboard heating was. In such a tiny room the heat fell over me like a blanket.
In school I’d slink down the hallways, under layers of clothes, trying not to faint.
The only thing worse than being in school after the summer and seeing everyone again is having people introduce themselves and having to say “We’ve already met”. And they don’t recognize you because you’ve grown to almost six feet tall very quickly, and all the baby fat went away, but you’re determined to keep making it go away. So they usually say something uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say. People who knew I was Luke’s sister were usually nice to me by proxy. Except some of the girls (and guys I’m quite sure too) who wanted to fuck my brother. I guess they assumed I wanted to fuck my brother. Or that we already fucked each other. My mom seemed to think so too.
* * *
Mom loved to diagnose people even though she didn’t have a degree in anything relating to psychology. She was obsessed with Luke’s alleged mood disorder, even fetishized it. She pontificated about how many historical geniuses also suffered from mental illness, implying that this was Luke’s case. In my case, she sent me to doctor after doctor until she’d found ones that would tell her what she wanted to hear. She’d enunciate her memorized medical jargon in a huskier, more sultry tone with a cashmere sweater conveniently slipping off one bronzed shoulder. I’d get fed any pill they’d dole out. Later, I’d learn to spit them out discreetly, except the fun ones. I once got a black eye from taking my sleeping pill and falling into the coffee table in our dark mahogany living room. Then I just started selling my meds to classmates.
* * *
A plate smashed into clumsy shards in our kitchen, which was always dimly lit since no one really cooked or ate in our house. The door slammed behind Luke and in that moment I was happy we didn’t have a dog, though I’d always wanted one, because it might’ve scared him. Today even, I still wish I had a dog to comfort me. Dad flipped through his newspaper and Mom sipped her cocktail.
“He doesn’t want to go to Columbia,” she sighed and gulped, at the end of which she strained, “but he’s going.”
Dad shook his newspaper taut, grimacing at a story.
I peeked over his Times Tribune fence.
Dad paused. “Do you know what semen is?”
I looked around before stifling a manic giggle. I told him sure, of course I do. I mean, I don’t know it well, but. He recounted a local story in which a disgruntled employee ejaculated into a tub of yogurt in the communal refrigerator in the employee lounge. My mind flooded with a parade of questions—Who discovered it? Wasn’t it mixed well? Did they just know? Was there a motive? Did he crank one out right into the Dannon or bring a sample with him?
But I kept my mouth shut. Dad invited me to dinner with them. I considered before Mom said, “Maxine needs to stay home, don’t you think, George? She must have homework to do. Plus, the chocolate soufflé is irresistible—and you’re looking fabulous these days, in fact I’m tempted to buy you some nice new clothes.”
She slid a J. Crew catalogue my way. I raised my eyebrows and flipped through it, marveling at the world it created. A world where everything was the right amount of rustic and the right amount of luxury. Ethnically curated. They managed to make it look totally normal to wear pajamas with a winter hat and shoes and not look like me when I was hospitalized, or the town crazy. It all just worked out, for these models. They were like older versions of my classmates, kids with names like Kit and Chase who owned V-neck sweaters in various hues and would go to the college their parents decided they would go to.
“Eveline, please.” My dad placed a stack of twenties atop the J.Crew catalogue in a purposeful paper-beats-rock fashion. “Order yourself a pizza, Maxine. You can’t just live on chewing gum.”
I blew a loud bubble.
* * *
As soon as they left I blasted Hüsker Dü on the stereo. I wondered where Luke went. Part of me hoped he just ran away on his hitchhiking adventure, fuck Columbia. He told me when he went for the interview it was in a poky, cluttered office with two incompetents. It amused me endlessly when Luke used incompetent as a noun, a pejorative. He said he couldn’t believe such a prestigious institution looked like a grimy public high school on the inside. “And that part of town sucks, it doesn’t even feel like New York.”
* * *
I ordered a pizza. While I waited, I jerked off. I felt like someone was watching but I always do and maybe I like it. I was discouraged on the verge of orgasm remembering when my Mom spied on me masturbating. I only realized in retrospect that she saw me from the back, hunched over and exploring myself furiously as a young child. She would watch. I was unable to accept this as a parent’s rightful curiosity. To me it was a massive violation and rather eerie. A few years later I would listen to my parents have sex, sometimes deliberately interrupting them with a stupid question or an “I don’t feel so well.” I wasn’t jealous, though I wanted to like my dad more than I actually did. It wasn’t an oedipal thing. It was more like me wanting to humiliate them and spare a potential new sibling from life in this house. Another sibling would steal attention away, though the attention I received wasn’t enviable. I did jerk off from time to time while listening to my parents have sex. I felt nothing. It wasn’t personal, it just excited me in a sordid way. I do wonder sometimes if I’d fuck my dad if I didn’t know him. Or if I met him when he was younger.
* * *
When the pizza arrived, the delivery guy said, “Cool house.” I invited him in. His blue-black hair was in a long ponytail and the recessed lighting shimmered on it like corn silk. His teeth pointed in different directions and pock-marks decorated his cheeks. We didn’t really have anything to say to each other. My cold bony hand pulled his and lead him to the big leather couch. I was too frigid and exhausted to take my clothes off, but he felt around under my layers of shirts and sweaters and I was satisfied at the sensation of his rough hands running along my ribs like when you stick your finger and pop pop pop the banister on the way down the stairs. I ended up riding his face and while it felt alright all I could do was snap my gum and think about other stuff. When we said good night I told him to please not deliver here again.
* * *
Luke walked in flustered and a little drunk. His cheeks were red and blotchy, adding a shameful-preteen-reading-a-book-report-in-front-of-the-class-with-a-quavering-voice kind of effect to his stubble-peppered jawline and cheekbones and charmingly goofy Adam’s apple that bopped when it felt like it. I wasn’t sure what he’d seen, but I hoped he liked it. He must’ve sensed something because he seemed aloof which is how his hurt presented. He casually hurried off to his room, and I ate half the cold pizza in record time. I couldn’t even taste it I was stuffing it down my throat so hard and hoping it didn’t form an expanding ball of dough in my tender, battered esophagus. Then, I ran to my parents’ bathroom—stark and exquisite—his’n’hers eighties modern. I thought about roadkill I’d seen up close with maggots and bulging eyeballs and strewn intestines. I thought about huge cystic pimples and boils being lanced. I thought about childbirth. And with the gentle coaxing of my long index and middle fingers, following the familiar textures of my palate and throat, I forcefully cough-vomited an orange-red wave sprinkled with gummy mushrooms and cheese clumps leaping like migrating salmon from the upper reaches of rivers. I’d hoped that being genuinely empty would complement if not improve the existing void. After, I squeezed a blue swirl of Dawn dish soap all over the remaining pizza and crushed it in the garbage to ensure no more.
* * *
After taking a shower—something I hated, being alone with my body—I came to Luke’s room. He was stretched out on his bed and motioned for me to join him. We watched reruns of the Twilight Zone and the Munsters. He rubbed my back and I stroked his hair in a repetitive grabbing motion. Sometimes, in an act of dominance he would lie right on top of me, smushing me like rolled pie crust face down onto his musty bed, like being smothered with the cling of a hundred well-worn T-shirts, beautiful and ice cold. We laughed so hard at nothing.
* * *
Luke went to Columbia and he called me when he could. He sounded a little different each time. He trailed off a lot. He always told me to visit but I hadn’t figured out when would be a good time.
Mom bought a seasonal affective disorder lamp. She couldn’t bear the winters anymore. It was a strange neon lamp that was supposed to emulate the sun and now it blinded our living room. It didn’t seem like the sun at all.
* * *
I went to a restaurant with Mom and Dad. Dad was about to leave on one of his many work trips. They asked about Luke and I couldn’t really say much.
“I hope he’s not getting into mischief,” Mom said, rehearsed, with a mouthful of iceberg lettuce. “No specific mischief, at least.”
I smiled. It was the fanciest restaurant in our little town and our waiter was well into his sixties. By now I could barely stomach soup and would float around, squeezing globs of Kelly green cake decorating icing out of the tube straight into my mouth if I felt too weak. My mind was clearer and I fantasized that I could simply disappear.
“Monty!” my father greeted the waiter. My mother, still quite tipsy, leaned over me to say hello. Her perfume and breath formed an olfactory portmanteau gently misting me—aging wealth with notes of a hippy past, not unlike if you drowned crisp cash in a holy water font of patchouli.
“Monty just look at Maxine!” She pulled me by the upper arm, squeezing hard through my mille feuille of frumpy clothes. I was delighted to see her fingers touched even at the thickest point of my upper arm.
“My swan,” said Mom.
Monty said he wouldn’t have recognized me and that I’m taller than most men now.
“I remember you as a little kid stealing bread from the baskets on other tables! Cute, chubby little thing.” He leaned in and winked. “Now, I might even dance with you. Bones are sweeter than meat, you know.”
My face was bright red and pulsing. I sat down and pushed around some cherry tomatoes I avoided in my salad. Whose idea was it to make miniature tomatoes anyway? They roll when you try to stab them with a fork. They squirt guts when you bite them. They cheapen a salad, in my opinion. They just look like they were designed for the sad produce section of a suburban grocery store. Fuck a cherry tomato and I mean it.
At dinner my parents got wasted and trash talked a bunch of people. They also talked about wanton miscreants—the chiropractor who insisted it was for his practice to take Polaroids of my twenty year old father in his underwear, the priest who lashed his tongue around my mom’s mouth in Catholic school, there were more. Particularly skin crawling was Mom as a young teenager in New York City sitting at the bar of a diner and an old man asking, “You ever tried souvlaki, baby?” as she timidly opened a candy bar, opting for the only familiar thing available. The man insisted on her trying the souvlaki and placed a hand under her chin and spoon fed her while saying, Mmm mmm mmm. The casual sexual mistreatment of my relatives became a topic of lighthearted, drunken conversation.
I crushed a tomato on my plate without it rolling out from under my spear. Its pulpy insides splattered the plate in a sudden, permanent way, like when you squeeze a ripe zit successfully and the mirror becomes forensic evidence.
* * *
I missed existing, I felt dissolved. Nothing felt good. Even the new Alice in Chains tape. What had begun as a foreign feeling, an expected adolescent unsettlement, was now my baseline.
Mom carried her seasonal affective disorder lamp wherever she went, creating a perfunctory florescent glow concentrated around her, surrounded by the darkness of our house, rendering her a crass, ribald saint. Her words were even more cryptic then, and lipstick smeared rocks glasses scattered every surface. Dad kept traveling. Kids and teachers at school kept more distance than usual, glaring, gasping, wrapping up their horror with forced, twitchy smiles. I took a spoonful of sugar free Jell-O and swallowed it without chewing when I got dizzy. I kept the same opened cup in the fridge that would last a few days. Mornings were best, still in the haze of did-he-or-didn’t-he, am I still dreaming? I would stretch out, empty like taxidermy, my skin taut and concave stretched over pelvis and ribcage.
* * *
Luke had jumped off a building at Columbia. The campus tried to go back to normal immediately. His head was caved in, his eyes were open, he was wearing a Jesus Lizard T-shirt and in his pocket was a pack of Black Jack gum. He loved it because of our grandmother. It was why he always smelled like licorice, smacking a black glob around his active hypnotic mouth.
* * *
I got out of bed and looked, briefly, in the mirror. I could see my teeth through my face. There was no way my parents were gonna tell me where to go to college.
Dad let me come with him on a business trip to the city. Mom had moved to our Florida house and we didn’t know if or when she’d return. Before she left, she barely acknowledged my active decay, until one time she said out of nowhere, holding her fingers like they were pinching a four inch gap:
“Is there something you need to say? Your face is THIS wide.” No. She seemed upset, jealous even, but ever since Luke died, I was just a reminder of how life is unfair: the good one is gone.
I thought maybe Dad and I would stay at the Plaza, but he insisted it had become old and run down: “Dusty duvets, nouveau riche trolls in the restaurant sending their food back, you don’t want that.”
When we entered the Sherry-Netherland hotel we both looked up at the ceiling mural. We got two separate rooms, probably because last time we shared a hotel room it was in Amsterdam, and we lay in loaded silence, he in the majestic wooden king bed and I on a cot, while the couple in the next room fine-tuned the art of drug-fueled power fucking for hours. Knocking over furniture. To the worst music ever, which lasted longer than the fucking, its spastic treble seeping through the walls. I remember my heart beating in my ears and pretending to be asleep while praying my Dad didn’t go to the bathroom and beat off to the sounds. He didn’t, but it was rough.
* * *
Dad visited my room, looked around and said, “Not quite the sanctuary of excellence they described, is it?”
I wouldn’t know. He said stuff like this often, which came as a surprise given that he’d grown up so working class and seemed, in my opinion, to resent his entitled children. Child. When I looked at the room and some of the details of the hotel later, it was a little sad. Like a clearance aisle.
He told me to order some room service for dinner as he’d be out late with clients. I was thinking about the truffle mac & cheese, not thinking about acting on it, just thinking about it. But Dad made a good point when he said, “Can’t go wrong with the club sandwich.” He also said maybe he’d take me shopping the next day but I cringed at the thought. I always became vicariously uncomfortable when I saw dads and their daughters at the mall. Followed by the guilt of consuming while observing the have-nots.
* * *
My food arrived with a guy dressed like a toy soldier. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to fuck him or not. He felt like a eunuch. I ate the club sandwich like a savage, bits of lettuce and toasted bread falling out of my freshly painted watermelon lips. Oops. I chugged a Diet Coke and really regretted not getting brownie ala mode to follow. I went outside to smoke a long brown cigarette and I looked at central park, a park I always found terribly overrated. I hated everyone around me, especially the idiots in top hats who drove the horse carriages. Leave those horses alone. Get a real job! I thought, which was something Luke would’ve yelled. I also looked towards uptown, wondering if I should visit Columbia and see where it went down, if I could feel Luke. Fuck that.
When I came back to my room an employee not dressed like a toy soldier but more like the manager of a Radio Shack followed me. I gave him a look and he explained he just wanted to make sure my key was working. It worked. He let himself inside the room and looked around to make sure everything was fine. It was. His frustrated presence annoyed me so much that I jumped on him on top of the tapestry duvet. I pulled his pants down and put a pillow on his face, lightly suffocating him. Muffled through the pillow I could hear him begging to, I don’t know, at least see my asshole? With one hand on the pillow, I gave him a handjob with the other. When he came, it erupted in sad little spurts. Like they enunciated IT’S-BEEN-SO-LOOONG! Splat. I wiped it up with a fancy napkin that had some club sandwich crumbs on it. When I removed the pillow I pretended to dab the saliva from his muted screams, but wiped his whole face with club sandwich & cream.
“Out,” I said. “I’ve gotta be somewhere.”
* * *
He sheepishly put himself back together and headed for the door. I insisted he take the tray from my room service with him, and with tremulous hands and befuddlement, he did. I laughed to myself. And I thought about Luke either high fiving me, or just shaking his head laughing at my depravity.
I felt rabid. I could do anything. I thought about surprising my dad with a hooker. Who cares if my parents are still married, I thought. It would delight me.
* * *
In my jewel-tone hotel room, which smelled warm from old radiator heat, I dressed in the same Cramps shirt I always wear, some tight acid washed jeans and gold ankle boots. I spray painted them gold and ever since they’ve been magic. I shakily repainted my gob into a fat cupid’s bow with a heavy gold lipstick tube. I ran to the minibar, chugged two mini Beefeater gins, the Christmas-tree taste invigorating me and making me feel like a bold grandpa. I threw my hair up halfway, grabbed a flannel and Luke’s leather jacket and bolted.
* * *
Downtown at Andy’s Chee-Pees, I cruised vintage. I tried on a bunch of ugly polyester pants in the smallest size I could find just to watch them fall to the ground after I zipped and buttoned them. The employee I’d crushed on for a while was working. He’d sold me the Cramps shirt. I shook when he saw me and peeped out a coarse hello. He looked aghast, speechless. My indignant eyes conveyed a confrontational Everything okay? And he softened.
“You look different, is all.”
He seemed a little horrified actually. I thought I’d finally fuck him and now he was scared of me. I kind of loved that. I guess I didn’t realize how spooky I looked because I was turning into a ghost. A fun ghost, though.
I left the store and the wind blew a newspaper right against my leg. I tried to kick it off but it stuck.
Tumbling detritus always finds me.
I looked at the newspaper and it was events listings. I was stoked on how many options of bands to see there were. Luke would’ve loved this, and I imagined looking through them together trying to decide which show to go to and cackling about our parents mispronouncing or questioning band names, while they listened to like, Bruce Hornsby or whatever. Killing Joke playing at the Cat Club? Are you kidding? Man! I wished so hard I lived there. I decided to go down to Chelsea to see John Zorn’s Naked City, some wild shit Luke turned me onto that completely reflected the unbearable and electric chaos of our brains.
* * *
I was a chess piece gliding through the city. I looked up to see mare’s tail clouds. I loved their name. Luke knew all about clouds, and everything. I walked over to the Plaza hotel, looking up at the turrets and wanting, someday, to stay in one, even if it was a dusty relic now. Luke and I would talk about living in opposite turrets in our dreams. I lurked into the basement of the Plaza relatively unnoticed. I loved the kooky wallpaper, combinations of golds and greens they don’t make anymore.
Trader Vic’s tiki bar wasn’t about to card me, it was in the Plaza. Plus, Luke gave me a good fake. It was a dark womb filled with Polynesian touches and carved wooden everything. Appropriated percussion music pulsed, alternated with some cha-cha type shit. I ordered a zombie, a drink in which I didn’t recognize a single ingredient but I was intrigued and of course, beguiled when I saw it was served in a chalky blue Easter Island head overflowing with crushed ice and garnished with pineapples and cherries. I slurped like a little kid through a striped straw, putting my head down and not lifting the glass. Instantly hammered, but in a brave and empowered way. Despite my skeletal frame I inherited the family’s genetic alcohol tolerance, which was leviathan. My blood had personality. Mischief time.
I may have seen him there at first. Just in my periphery. A leather jacket worn to perfection, long hair which fell perfectly over his shoulders. Licentious protrusion poking through threadbare Levi’s. Big old paws. German shepherd face. Fangs.
* * *
At the Marquee Club in Chelsea I saw Naked City, John Zorn wailed on his sax, people squealed, exuberant disharmony filled every cell in every being in the space. My ears exploded. I took in the smell of people I was crushed against. Their hair stuck to my face, in my mouth. I sniffed their redolence in wafts of deodorant, sweat, excitement, whisky. I chewed Black Jack Gum.
* * *
Outside I heard a howl. A woof woof yelp. I turned the corner on an empty avenue. He found me, we kissed. He pinned me against a building with one paw pressing into the brick over my shoulder. His wet nose and whiskers tickled. He licked my face and bit my lips with his sharp fangs, fangs now smeared with fruity pink lipstick. His fur was soft even when I rubbed against the grain. I kept laughing aporetically and he’d snap at me. Growl. His hair was sandy and long like Jerry Cantrell’s, framing that German Shepherd hound-face. His leather jacket squeaked against mine. He was even taller than I was. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t question. I was pure feeling. I unzipped his pants to reveal a pointy red dog dick. I turned around and pulled my jeans down and he pumped away and I felt like I was getting fucked by a tentacle, in a good way. I was even too enraptured to make a doggy-style joke in my head. He yelped and growled. His rough paw pads gripped my hips and would leave dotted marks from blunt claws. It was over in a second, but its divinity remained. Full body ecstasy and any hatred for my vessel was emancipated. Afterwards, he licked my face and I zipped up his jacket, realizing underneath was a Jesus Lizard T-shirt. A Milk Bone peeked out of a pocket where most would keep a soft pack.
He looked so cool.
* * *
He ran off meaningfully, eventually on all fours. I followed in that direction, only to stop at a diner. A diner with dim lights, thank God. I plopped myself into a big old booth just for me, its plump vinyl groaned as it deflated beneath me. I didn’t even open the menu. I ordered the biggest banana split, extra whipped cream and extra cherries. I wanted so many cherries. I loved the extra- long spoon they gave me. I loved the textures of cream and saccharine cherries in my sad mouth. I savored this, feeling twinkly. I thought about big stuff. I would realize that when you’re a teenager you think you’re the first person to have these thoughts and feelings. And some days your thoughts feel so big nothing else exists and you can’t understand how other people can live their lives while ignoring these big thoughts. You deduce that they just might not have ‘em.
I finished the sundae, picking up the cold metal dish and licking every last bit.