„What is it that you’re doing up there in that room?”
She turned around swiftly, searching for a face.
“Madame, don’t forget your paper!” the little, bold man behind the counter shouted.
“I’m sorry?” she answered, staring hard into the face of a young, boyish looking man. He was tall, with black, short hair and dark blue eyes, a worn out red scarf hanging from his shoulders, handsome in a way.
She turned away from the boy, picked up the paper and thought about moving to the left, passing him, and follow the dark road down to the train station. Leave the room, cross the dirty street in the dim light of another winter evening, pass the barber’s shop on the corner, your eyes glued to the ground, watch your step, don’t mind the pedestrians, watch out for a familiar face, keep distance, be a stranger, act like one; and then she would finally arrive at the kiosk, and the little bold man behind the counter and his creaking voice, and she would buy the evening paper - 80 Cents, please, thank you, good bye - and turn around, turn left, and follow the road down to the train station.
Now she felt as if her feet were buried in the ground.
“I’ve been watching you from my window. You know, the place where I live…”
She was thinking about taking his clothes off. She would find a strong, muscular chest. A hairy, smooth lap. Fleshy, greedy lips feeding her holes.
“….my place is right opposite the hotel. The hotel you..,” he continued.
“I don’t know who the hell you are, I don’t know what you’re here for, and I’d just like to buy that paper and leave if you don’t mind,” she snapped.
Move, but watch your steps. It’s been raining all afternoon, and the pavement will be slippery now. Watch out for strangers.
While thinking of devouring him between her legs she took one big step to the side, and quickly started walking down the road, to the train station. This would take about ten minutes. Late at night, it will take about 7 minutes only, she thought. But she never left after 5 o’clock. She wouldn’t be back home until 6 then, and that’s when Henry got home, and when Joshua and Caleb would return from football, and would leave the door open ( “Caleb, why can’t you just wipe your shoes off, for God’s sake, and close the door behind you!” ) and drop their stuff in the entrance hall and would sit down at the kitchen table together with Henry, (“Guys, how’s your day been?”) who would kiss her, softly touching her back, asking her “What’s up for dinner, tonight, honey? I’m starving!” (a thing he usually did in front of the kids) with that grin on his face (and now that she was walking down that street she exchanged the image of the boy’s heavy breath entering her ear and leaving her with a cold and lovely shiver running up and down her spine with Henry’s grin, that she once fell in love with) and so she needs to be back home by 5.30, since there are so many things to do at that time of the day. Things like heating the oven, things like kissing her boys, things like preparing dinner and cleaning up the kitchen and ringing up her best friend and neatly arranging the living room which Henry would occupy after dinner, hidden between piles of newspapers and the newest issues of Newsweek and Time and Forbes Magazine.
“Why can’t you just hold on for a second! I just wonder what a beautiful woman like you is doing up there all by herself in that room!”
He grabbed her arm. He looked desperate, as if his life depended on knowing the right answer to a question no one ever asked.
Do you think that Kennedy was murdered by the Communists?
Do you mind if I borrowed your life for a second?
Would you allow me to make love to you right now?
Why don’t you answer?
Why don’t you go to hell, you bastard.
Although she had already started searching for it, Helen couldn’t find the slightest sign of embarrassment in his face. He was not ashamed at all. He felt no need to feel sorry for holding her back in the street, a grown up woman, a woman he did not even know. From the corner of her eye she noticed people in Chad’s Bakery & Drug Store curiously staring out of the shop window.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re imaging me sleeping with that guy, a young man, a student probably, probably my son, not of my age, probably my lover, we might be quarrelling right now. Arguing about my divorce?
“Oh, the poor fellow. Hanging around with a woman of her age.”
“She’d better go home and feed her kids and give her husband a blowjob every day.”
And so what if it were like that, she said to herself. What if he was my lover, what if I was a bitch, what if I was cheating on my husband and abandoned my kids and refused to give my old man a blowjob every day? What if I weren’t a good and loving and caring and decent American woman of 38?
You bloody fools. All of you.
“My children are waiting at home. My husband is waiting at home. This is goddamn New York. People here are in a rush. People need to catch ferries and trains. I’m in a rush. I need to get back home, alright?”
Why the hell was she talking to him? She had that firm intention to get rid of him.
I must get rid of you. You mustn’t talk to me like that.
He stood silent, not moving an inch, as if he was frozen.
Seconds passed, and nothing. Not a single word. People passing by, a woman calling her puppy, a man talking to his girlfriend on the phone. His eyes meeting hers, as if they had known each other for thousands of years; so we’ve done this before.
“People are waiting all their lives. In between, they are killing time. Is that what you’re up to, in the Pasadena Hotel? Killing time?” he whispered.
“That’s none of your business.”
“You’ll be back tomorrow, if I understood that correctly?”
She lost her words. And she was about to lose her mind, too.
There it was again, that boyish smile on his face. I can read your mind, son of a bitch, she thought.
“Helen, you haven’t forgotten about the dinner on Friday night, have you? I was just wondering, since you haven’t done any shopping so far?”
She didn’t feel like replying. Still, she knew that this was what she was supposed to do. It was the role she got used to, although it had become harder and harder to slip back into that role each time she closed the entrance door behind her. Closing the door behind her second self.
“I will, Henry,” she yelled back.
Of course I will. It’s my job to feed your kids,
Oh Helen, you know the boys loathe Jambalaya!
it’s my job to clean your house,
Helen, sometimes I wonder what you’re doing all day long. How many times have I asked you to check whether my razor blades are blunt?
it’s my job to waiter your colleagues,
Helen made a wonderful apple pie this morning. Darling, we’re starving in here!
it’s my job to undress in the bathroom since you can’t stand seeing me naked anymore,
Don’t you think you should probably cut back on Pop Tarts a bit?
it’s my job to move quietly about the house when you’re studying the papers in the living room,
Helen, you’ve had all the time in the world to do the laundry today, why the hell do you have to do it now?
it’s my job to obey your rules,
I don’t mind you inviting your friends to our house, you know, but…
my job to appreciate the life you chose,
Are you aware of how much Andrew and George envy us? Angelica and Emma are both employed full time now, can’t fully devote themselves to family values like we do….
appreciate and recognize your hard work,
The only reason I’m working that much is to finance you and Caleb and Joshua, don’t you forget about that, Helen my dear.
Theoretically, she thought, I could have gone into the living room and I could have sat beside you on the couch and I could have touched your hair and could have caressed your neck and could have kissed you and could have convinced you to lay down the paper and have a glass of wine with me. I could have done that, she thought. This is what couples should do in the evenings, after dinner (after I had cleaned up and had read good night stories and .. ). Henry and Helen never did such thing. They never had. Henry liked doing things the way he had been doing them for ages. He doesn’t like change. He wouldn’t want her to caress his neck (“Helen, I really need to concentrate on that, will you please….”). He would certainly want her to prepare a lovely dinner on Friday night.
I’ll do it, Henry. What a lovely dress you’re wearing tonight, Miss Parker. Peas, anyone?
And what it all comes down to, she thought, sitting in an empty kitchen late at night watching the minutes pass, paralyzed and strange to herself, is, that the people in Chad’s Bakery are staring at you. They know it.
“Poor girl, she might have had a bad childhood. That’s probably why she doesn’t really care about these lovely boys.”
“I hear that her husband doesn’t want her to get a job. He wants her to enjoy her life and devote herself to the kids and the house. She’s got plenty of time for herself like that…isn’t that awfully nice of him?”
12 hours to go. 12 hours and she’d close another door behind her.
I don’t mind you staring at me, I don’t mind you talking about me. I’ll prepare ham and eggs for the boys (“Caleb, stop eating like a pig!” ), I’ll kiss my husband good bye ( silence ), I’ll go upstairs at 8.15, I’ll make the beds and clean the bathroom, I’ll lay down on the bed, I’ll take three Tylenol, I’ll lay there and watch the ceiling, I’ll get up and dress, I’ll go downstairs and take some money out of Henry’s little box, I’ll call the party service (“Good morning, this is Helen McClure speaking, I’d like to post an order for Friday night”), and then I’ll be leaving for the other self. How sad to kill your loved ones every morning. I don’t miss you. I wish you’d all go to hell. I’m an American woman of 38. And I don’t feel guilty.
When she first went there, she wouldn’t manage to do it. She had prepared that wonderful journey for a long, long time. She had just been waiting for the right moment, the right place. Someone would call 911. And someone would carry her our of the room, on a grey stretcher, horrified looks would follow her down the stairs, and someone would be sobbing somewhere down the hall, and it would all be very quiet and very nice.
A lovely morning in spring when she went there and there was the fat Latina lady behind the counter and she wouldn’t ask any questions. People don’t ask questions in that sort of place. Helen felt attracted to the idea of coming to terms with her life in a shabby, old, worn our place like this. A place where blankets are drowning in dried sperm, a place where an hour passes away like a day, where curtains are yellowish and greenish from the smoke of cigarettes, a place where people behave like animals, a place full of weirdoes and whores and lost souls.
What is it you’re up to in that room?
- I’m masturbating, sometimes –
What is a beautiful woman like you doing up there all day?
- I’m the other self –
Someone’s at your door.
The fat Latina wouldn’t knock. She knew her. She knew nothing, though.
She just had to get up and open the door. She had been waiting for him. I’ll be back tomorrow, she had answered, but he couldn’t hear her anymore since she had already turned around and left for the train station.
Oh please, don’t you ask any superfluous questions. I’m fed up with your answers already.
“Why did you come here?” she said when the door opened, sitting on the bed, her hands neatly folded in her lap, trying hard to look mad.
There he was, standing in the doorway, a boy, a son, a lover, a stranger. The bohemian.
Waiting for an answer.
He slowly turned his back on her to close the door, almost silently, very slowly. One, two, three, four steps and then right in front of her. The red scarf, again.
I wish I could move, just an inch, and slap you in the face, you bastard. She felt like drowning.
He kneeled down, slowly, and started taking off her shoes, the right one first, then the left one, without taking his eyes off hers.
“I like your red dress. The one you wore last week.”
Her skirt was moved up. Slow motion.
“And I like it when you’re looking at yourself in that mirror.”
He didn’t even bother about taking her skirt off completely. He didn’t bother about anything, nor did she, now, that he slowly started moving inside her, and the world stopped turning like it had been doing before. She had never looked into eyes like these. She had never dared to look into peoples’ eyes. Blood started pulsating inside her warm and aroused self, his blood. And as he continued silencing her mouth with his tongue, continued pushing, over and over,
she felt even more aroused by the idea of the people in Chad’s Bakery looking at them right now, watching them tied together, watching her hips pressed against his, the boy, the lover, my son, watching her breathe deep and heavy and streams of liquid running down her legs.
“Look at her, that bitch, look at that beaming glance in her eyes!”
She thought of the moment when she would be back home, the other self, the other Helen, and that moment when Henry would enter the kitchen and would probably ask her How’s your day been? and then she would answer
There is that boy living opposite the other self and today he knocked at my door and we made love to each other like goddamn dogs all afternoon, and she was psyched, turned on by the idea of pronouncing the word dog in front of Henry ( Henry, yes Henry who would never dare taking her like a dog does) , trying to imagine how her lips would open and form the word and then it would be spilled on the kitchen floor and float the room and echo from the walls; and Henry would sit there and choke and drop his fork and would die…would die.
And each time she wanted to go a little further and think about what would happen next, the boy had already started again doing what people usually did in that sort of place.
She would be late.
This time, she definitely would be late.
Her back was sore. A bit drowsy, too. Sweet pain between her legs. The pain inside her head was gone.
Squeezed in between streams of inhuman humanity in a train to nowhere she couldn’t help but ask herself, whether the bold little newspaper man had missed her today. Time?
As she approached the entrance door of Number 4, she secretly started wishing that they were already there. All of them, waiting for her (“Where the hell….”), like wolves waiting for the leftovers of the cruel but intentionally committed, holy slaughter of a sheep. A blood sacrifice. By the time she had reached the door handle she had also started wishing that Henry would smell her lover’s cum between her legs. The legs that will bring disgrace upon these holy walls, dishonour your children, your breed.
And you’ll never know, Henry. They’ll never know. No one will ever know. No one but me.
“Where have you been, Helen? I was about to call the neighbours.”
Oh, Henry, Darling, haven’t I told you about the boy? It must have slipped my mind, really….
“I went for a walk.”
“Ma, Dad wouldn’t let me order a Pizza…..can’t we just order a Pizza?”
Of course you can order a Pizza. You can have Pizza every single day. Mum’s fed up with cooking.
“Why not order a Pizza..sure.”
“Helen, and what about tomorrow?”
What about tomorrow, Henry? Tomorrow I will climb 20 stairs, open the door to the room, undress, lie down on that used and dirty blanket, spread my legs apart and enjoy control being exercised over me.
“I haven’t forgotten about it.”
I am occupied making plans for the other self, don’t you realize?
“And what is that Pizza thing all about? When have you actually started to consider Pizza an appropriate alternative to a healthy and well balanced diet?!”
Shut the fuck up, will you?
“We will order a Pizza now, if you don’t mind.”
At two o’clock she entered the room, another one this time, since she had arrived earlier than usual this day. Her favourite room was already taken. Taken by whom? By some prostitute, some salty old woman like her? Helen didn’t care.
Room number 13 was brighter, and Helen pushed the curtains away in order to let the light flood the green, disgusting carpet.
Would he still find her in this place? Would he find her even though she had changed habits? Habits! Taking her clothes off had become a habit, a sacred ritual she usually took some time for. The other self dared to undress in front of a mirror and even took pleasure in watching innocent nakedness reflected by broken glass. Henry wouldn’t allow Helen to move around undressed in the house. And there was that boy out there, her stranger, who dreamt of nothing else than seeing Helen stretched out in front of him.
She finally started unzipping her Dolce and Gabbana skirt.
Helen appreciated the way people would look her up and down in the streets. No one, not even the people in Chad’s Bakery, would have taken the idea into consideration that she was nothing but a housewife, a well situated and spoiled and unhappy and depressed slave. They might think of her as being a lawyer, a businesswoman, an artist probably. Watching the extraordinary fine lines of her face in that broken mirror, it appeared to her that, after all, she had stayed more or less the same; she was still attractive. Her hair was far from being grey. Her hips were still as smooth and slim as before she gave birth to Caleb. Her chest was still voluminous, without wrinkles. Her legs were still long and well shaped.
I should probably put on the red dress, Helen thought. He likes it so much!
The red dress was one of those secrets Henry would have spoken a devastating verdict of. You’re not supposed to dress like that. You are my wife.
And how lovely and liberating it felt to slip into that red dress, the kind of dress girls on 45th street are wearing to parties, drinking Crystal and taking cocaine to drift away into the night. She felt comfortable in these clothes, whose only use was to help her slip into her favourite role, of becoming someone else, a person free of command and compulsion and guilt.
The sun heated her back as she stared at herself dressed up like that, and then that warmth spread all over her body. She could hardly wait any longer.
The clouds seem to pass by more quickly than they usually do, Helen thought. She could feel his right hand slowly caressing her shoulder. Sweaty smell of dried juices all over her, all over him, all over this place. What time was it? And we’ve already lost so many years before….
“Stop saying such awful things…”
“I’m serious! You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he insisted hesitantly.
“You mean I’m the most beautiful woman you’ve ever fucked in a motel,” she coldly replied.
“I’m making love to you.”
“Are you? You probably shouldn’t. Better fuck me.”
With this Helen got up and started to the bathroom. I don’t even know your name, she thought, and why don’t I care? How different she looked in that mirror, now that it was all gone, all of his hands, all of his kisses, now that …. What would her mother think of her daughter if she saw here right now, naked, scars of his teeth on her chest, her fine blonde hair hanging down loose ( “Helen, your hair needs to be pinned back, you’re looking awfully distracted carrying your hair loose!”) in a brown bathroom somewhere in Nowhereland, a place as dead and cold and anonymous as Helen was, and a well-built twenty-something with French accent and French looks and French manners and a rather French prick outside in a double size bed.
Probably she wouldn’t care at all? She might say something like “I know what you’re going through Darling, go and enjoy yourself!”. She might take her in her arms and weep and feel happy and be proud. She might stop withdrawing her affection, and for a second Helen wished that warm and cosy hands were caressing her hair. Helen tried to imagine her mother in that special way while running her fingers slowly up and down her forehead, bent over the dirty sink.
“What do you mean by saying ‘better fuck me’?” a creaky voice disturbed her from behind and intruded the silence of dreaming and wishing and suffering.
Helen turned around abruptly, her clenched fist protecting her soaked pubic hair….the hell, what do you want from me!? she shouted silently and it felt as if the world had suddenly stopped turning, facing him now, a ridiculous little boy longing for affection and longing for her body and looking for answers.
Why the hell don’t you understand that this is not the love you’re looking for? Why don’t you leave this world and step out on the street and start a delightful conversation with some liberal arts students in the Café down the street, why not ask her out in a conventional manner, why not take her for a walk in Central Park, watch a movie with her, get to know her well-educated family of Northeast American lawyers, European roots, smart and good-looking, wealthy, healthy, ordinary people, people like those in Chad’s Bakery or people like her neighbours or her mother or her husband, why not marry her after two years in an intensive and fulfilling relationship, a little apartment, bright pictures on the walls, Chinese porcelain in the entrance hall, and you might spend the days in bed dreaming the American Dream of a country house in Maine and loads of children and of course, you might try to encourage her not to stop working, why give up your professional life for a daily change of diapers, oh! sweet family life, why not leave her pregnant after all and why not watch your breed grow up and stay with her for the rest of your days, and why not tell all your grand children one day that you knew you were right the day you met her in the Café down the street……. why not just pass away as a happy man?
You goddamn idiot, you don’t even know that there’s nothing to expect at all, she thought.
“Because this is what we’re here for. It is what I am here for”, Helen answered.
When she left the bathroom, he was gone. The brightness was gone, brightness in disguise, now nothing but dirty sheets and clouds and broken glasses and a red dress, neatly folded on a chair in the corner.
Time to leave. You’ve been living for quite some time now. Now leave and shut the door and try to die in a New York way – gracefully, proudly, and carelessly.
Helen had forgotten the dinner. Helen was late.
And there was Henry, surrounded by his guests, at the dinner table in the kitchen, stuffing fried duck into his mouth. Fried duck! Brilliant!
She didn’t even bother to say hello to the rest of those unfortunate wealthy creatures, products of a plastic world, degenerated and caught in their snobbish manners and fashionable dresses, immersed in their superficial universe of politeness and pity for women like her.
There was that special look in his eyes, telling her to go to hell. There’s no use in wishing me to go to hell, Henry, since I’ve fallen from grace so many years before. And why don’t I care? I am the black panther walking up and down, up and down in a tiny cage from nine to five, waiting to be fed. I watch people walking by and staring at me, for entertainment is my job and my fate. I have been taught to make all the spectators in the circus ring believe that the guy with the black whip in his hands is my master, my creator, the god like figure that has managed to tame me for good. I could have killed him with a single bite, a singe jump, in front of my audience. Master, you know your time has come to die. Yet you will die in my cage, because then people won’t watch. You won’t die heroically in front of thousands of eyes watching god, you’ll die in silence with no one but me around. The newspaper won’t dedicate a single line to your unhappy fate, and no one will be at the funeral to see you disappear in eternal darkness.
When Henry joined her in bed a few hours later he wouldn’t comment on what had happened. Helen was quite sure he had found a viable argument for her unnatural behaviour.
The next morning she left for the Pasadena Hotel. Quite determined now to slip into Henry’s role, now that she knew how much the boy loved her. Did she love the boy? Did she love anybody?
The fat Latina behind the counter already expected her, telling Helen about someone waiting for her in room number 13. So you have broken the rules, Helen thought. How dare you invading this graveyard, swallowing my life, as if I was your property?
He had brought along flowers. A bunch of lilies. How humiliating, Helen thought, how humiliating to be forced to feel worshipped again! She had forgotten how a decent woman was to thank someone she did neither know, nor love, for little signs of affection.
“Thanks, but I hate lilies. You increasingly seem to forget about your function in this game”, she replied coldly and started taking off her clothes without looking at him. She could feel something terrible and dark burst inside him, a silent mountain of questions related to love falling into pieces. A great expectation of seeing him buried beneath masses of leftovers of conversation and dreams and wishes rose inside her. Am I a sadist for wishing to see someone else die of pain, of loss, of grief? Am I to give reasons for leading a life where Helen does not exist? Here in this room Helen was nothing but a shadow on the wall, so there was no need for names, reasons, places, anecdotes, tastes.
“I can’t go on like this!” he shouted, starting to his feet and approaching her quickly, “I don’t even know your name!”
Helen pretended not to hear.
“Start undressing, will you? I gotta leave early today, still some shopping to do”, she answered instead, “and by the way, I thought about having sex in the bathroom today. I can’t stand this bed, gives me a sore back.” She slowly walked towards the bathroom door, opened it and turned around again, looking at him expectantly.
He moved his lips as if to speak, but remained silent and started undressing without ever taking his eyes off her. Following her orders, he pushed her into the back corner of the bathroom, yet pressed her harder against the cold and dirty wall than she had expected, spread her legs more violently than he usually did. This time he kept the promise he had never given and simply fucked her. Enjoy it, she reminded herself, while sour and consistent pain struck her. She could feel his approaching orgasm. When he stopped and let go of her Helen naturally expected him to start using his tongue and hands to caress her, make her feel adored and fragile like he had done so many times before. Instead, he stepped back and gave her a triumphant grin. The dim neon lights turned his beautiful face into an ugly mug as he slowly started finishing himself off in front of her. Helen remained glued to the bathroom wall, trying hard to escape the torture chamber she had created herself and was now caught in.
You are violating the rules again, you bastard. And just like a child has to be punished for not obeying the rules, you will be punished for reversing the relations between power and weakness. I am the panther, you are the spectator.
It was all over.
“Never mind, it’s just a game,” he smiled. “There is nothing left, not an inch of my body, or my mind, that is willing to fight for survival in a world ruled by sadistic helplessness.”
People don’t go the movies in order to watch their heroes die. People who have known each other when they were young, and meet again when they are old enough to be called wise, will find a thousand reasons to be disappointed. They will feel cheated out of things they once considered irrelevant. They will say: You broke my heart. But what they really mean to say is: I wish I had stayed a bit longer.
Somewhere upstairs a shrill voice was slowly swallowed by the sound of passing cars while Helen and the nameless butcher of a distant memory of triumph stood facing each other in silence, and only a couple of miles down the street a fourteen year old girl took a hot bath and shortly after disappeared in deep red waters while the candles burnt down, and thought of the guy who had never noticed her when their ways crossed in the schoolyard.
“What’s your name?”
He left in silence. Helen stayed until she had reached the point of being sure enough that this would be the last time she ever saw this room. It was out of question to return to the Pasadena Hotel. Her emotional refugee camp had been taken, and it was about time to start looking for a new one.
When she stepped out into the light, Helen could hear the bells of St. John’s cathedral in the distance. 12 o’clock. Helen walked slowly, her eyes hurrying up and down the brick walls of the old, shabby buildings. If he just saw her right now….. she would stop and wave him good bye. I’m sorry, she thought as she walked on and closed her eyes for a second, trying to recall the shape of his mouth, but if I said it out loud I wouldn’t mean it after all. It would be nothing but a wish, inevitably turning into a lie because it remained unfulfilled.
She had finally reached the kiosk where she used to buy her papers. The bold, dwarfish man behind the counter seemed to remember her face and gave her a friendly smile. “Madame, haven’t seen you for some time!” he yelled delightedly and handed her the paper.
Helen politely justified her absence with a trip to a small island down the Mexican coast.
“Sunshine and clear blue water, eh? Ah, life’s beautiful if one can leave it behind from time to time!” he answered and lit another cigarette.
“You’re quite right, Sir.”
She felt that eyes were following her as she was strolling down the street, but the person she had left at the Pasadena Hotel and who had been a loyal companion for such a long time wouldn’t accompany her any longer. With every step she took on broken glass spread out before her, the person Helen had torn into pieces was about to regain consciousness inside herself. They were finally unified. They had finally become one.
And Helen smiled.