She arrives at my apartment more than forty-five minutes late, flushed and out of breath. She offers no explanation, nor do I ask for one—I never do—and I wonder if that bothers her. I make a move to kiss her and she offers me her cheek. This, I assume, is significant. I help her out of her coat and am surprised to see how she is dressed—neatly-pressed jeans and denim shirt, spotless tan work boots. What am I meant to infer from this getup?
She does a slow circuit around my living room in silence, pausing in feigned interest of, respectively, a lemur skull; antique obstetric calipers; an autographed picture of Professor Irwin Corey, The World’s Foremost Authority; a jade Ganish incense holder; a Coxsackie State Correctional Facility ashtray; and a photograph of my twin sister Roberta, age eleven-and-a-half, doing a cartwheel beneath our grandfather’s mimosa tree less than an hour before she died—all of which she has seen many times before without any of them, except, perhaps, for the calipers, having made the slightest impression on her.
She finally comes to rest in the entrance to my bedroom where she now stands in profile, absently studying the polished oak doorframe. Her utilitarian costume lends her a vaguely official air; and as I scrutinize her long, elegant form, I realize that all that’s missing is a clipboard and the funk-steady throb of an electric bass behind a coy wa-wa Stratocaster. Gorgeous city inspector appears at home of reclusive, yet darkly handsome poet one golden Southern California afternoon to check for wood beetles, or asbestos fibers, perhaps. Meandering tour of premises replete with lame badinage:
If I knew they’d send you I would’ve made a point of getting beetles a long time ago.
She stops at the bedroom door and leans against the doorframe.
The camera slowly pans up her body, then over her shoulder into the bedroom.
Gee, nice bedroom; and I just love your canopy bed!
The camera pulls back to show GRETA as seen from his perspective.
He enters the frame and presses in close behind her. He gently moves the hair away from her right ear and speaks softly into the ear.
Me too—it’s where I do some of my best work.
The camera cuts to them in the doorway as seen from the far side of the bed.
He slips his arm around her waist.
She slides out of his embrace and enters the bedroom.
Cut to her as seen from MICHAEL’S perspective.
She flashes him a sly grin over her shoulder and treats him to the full booty shot as she slowly sashays over to the bed. She turns to face him and slowly runs her left hand up and down a bedpost.
Something tells me you’re a huge talent.
The camera zooms in on her hand gliding up and down the bedpost.
The camera pulls back to show her from the neck up.
She moistens her right forefinger on her tongue then runs the finger across her bottom lip.
The camera pulls back to show her from over
I’d love to see some of your work.
I thought you’d never ask.
He comes up close to her and puts his right hand over hers, which is still clutching the bedpost, and his left arm around her waist….
“You’re warped,” she says with such bland matter-of-factness that it takes me a second to realize that she’s addressing me and not the woodwork. Becoming more animated, she declares that my narcissism is impenetrable and the way I live obscene. There’s such a horrible emptiness inside you, she says with tears welling up in her eyes—you think everything is just a big game and other people with all their messy feelings are just a bunch of dumb rubes. She tells me that I’m the Peter Pan from Hell and that my adolescent cynicism is rotting me from the inside out and soon nobody will want to have anything to do with me. Her voice trailing off to a hoarse whisper, she mutters something with “all alone” and “rude awakening” in it followed by a long, shuddering sigh.
While anticipating Greta’s needs is always a bit of a high-wire act, from the moment she arrived today I’ve sensed something special in the air, a stormy vehemence in her body language, that tells me I’ll need the skill of a Wallenda just to keep up.
Putting on my best George-Sanders-as-Oscar-Wilde, I explain that emotionalism, dear girl, is simply a failure of imagination. And you know what Sartre said about Hell and other people. Besides, how could I ever feel alone, Greta darling, as long as I have you in my life?
“But that’s exactly!...” she exclaims, her voice thick with emotion, while, like some silent screen diva, she brings the heels of her hands to her temples and pulls her unruly chestnut mane straight back with sufficient force to straighten every wave without uprooting a single follicle. Crying “Shit!” as if she’s just struck herself in the thumb with a hammer, she falls back against the doorframe with sufficient force to evoke a thud without actually leaving a bruise. Following a mandatory four or five beats, larghetto, Greta now twists her cigarette out on the doorframe with sufficient force to bore a hole through my skull, sending a lovely shower of orange sparks cascading onto the carpet at her feet.
From a cloaked ship in stationary orbit high above the Earth I scan the smoldering carpet. Mission Log: Extraordinary performance. Quite perplexing. Nothing in my pre-mission briefing prepared me for this. Some sort of mating ritual perhaps? A curious species indeed—so much like ourselves, yet so different. The female is a particularly striking specimen. Based on what I have thus far observed on scanners, I believe it imperative that I bring her aboard immediately for close examination. I will begin by testing her responses to a variety of anal stimuli…. Greta loudly clears her throat signaling that the ball is in my court.
A bit more tentatively now, I explain that, for me, aloneness is a problem only in relation to her, and it is only when I am parted from you for too long, my fiery vixen, that I experience a mild despair that might loosely be termed loneliness. Otherwise, I can’t say that I miss what I’ve never desired. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’ve actively shunned society. It’s just that after so many years of invitations declined, greeting cards unacknowledged, and phone messages unanswered, society has learned to live without me. And maybe that’s all for the best, since, at this stage of the game, a social life would only be a dangerous distraction.
During most of this speech Greta has been pacing in and out of the bedroom with the intensity of a caged predator. She keeps this up for some time after I’ve grown silent before coming to an abrupt halt in the doorway. For what seems like forever, she just stands there with a mean scowl on her face and her head cocked like a well-trained attack dog poised to strike. When she does move it is with startling alacrity, and for a split second it seems as if she’s coming to slap me where I sit. Instead, she crosses to the window directly opposite the chair in which I am sitting, takes a cursory look down at Houston Street, then turns to face me.
Greta is resplendent in the late afternoon sunlight pouring in through the window, her eyes glow with a supernatural golden intensity. I can feel myself receding into the chair’s blue plush beneath the weight of her scrutiny. Her gaze never wavering she fishes in her shirt pocket for a cigarette. After two or three attempts, she carefully withdraws a bent Virginia Slims Menthol with two fingers. She lights the cigarette with the black disposable lighter she has been passing nervously from hand to hand since she arrived and takes a long, angry drag while, with uncharacteristic gracelessness, plopping down onto the window seat. Siting down her long, well-muscled legs, she blows a steady stream of smoke through pursed lips which billows down all the way to the toes of her boots.
While I await her next move I do a quick tally in my head. Slouched in the window, shrouded in a numinous veil of smoke and dust motes, Greta is the bitch goddess sans merci. She also happens to be my one sure thing at the moment, and I suspect she knows it. If my suspicions are correct then the whole point of today’s exercise has been to determine what that buys her. Clearly divinity has its attractions, but what are the added costs involved? Canny operator that she is, Greta must realize that in heaven truth is the only currency. Is she prepared to enter into a contract stipulating that she forfeit every pleasure to a new-found passion for “the truth?”
On the other hand, I could be totally off the mark and before arriving today she had already concluded that the time had come to sample other vendors’ wares. In that case all the sturm und drang has been nothing but a depressingly clichéd buildup to a “clean break.”
A slight panic sets in as I consider what a disaster it would be to lose Greta now, and I decide to wing it. Falteringly at first, but picking up steam as I go, I tell her that it is my work, you see, and yet…God knows, I have no illusions about…What I mean to say is that I’m sure there are plenty of more accomplished…but I’d always thought that my unwavering devotion to my art was as much a part of what made me attractive….But now, thanks to you, I’m beginning to see how that same tenacity could have had a, um, a warping effect, and how in the process my, eh, my insides might have, you know…and how I could’ve mutated into some… thing…some kind of inside-out thing…That’s it, Greta, that’s what I am, I’m Inside-Out Man! Thank you, thank you my life, my light, my inspiration for opening my eyes to the truth of what I’ve become—I’m the Inside-Out Man—a freak of nurture who has allowed his portion of the abyss, his share of emptiness, if you will, to become inflamed to the point of prolapse. And it is from this grotesque eversion that you, along with the rest of the world now instinctively recoil like a bad smell. And who could blame you? Just as no one likes having the body’s digestive processes described to them in graphic detail over lunch, nobody wants to be continually reminded of how their lives are being consumed in empty rituals with which they attempt to whitewash the shame and grinding sense of futility that necessarily accompanies sentience, or more specifically, consciousness of self, and that destroys every…uhhm, pleasure….
“You are sooo deep, Michael.” Greta coos as she slides off the window seat and saunters toward me, the seductive lilt of her hips echoed in the pendulum-swing of the handcuffs dangling from her fingers. She places a hand on each of my shoulders and leans in for a long, rough kiss. Her lips moist and swollen, she straightens up and with a grinding motion of her hips, she slowly works her way down my lap until our pelvises connect. Her eyes roll in her head as she undoes her shirt buttons then peels back the stiff denim to reveal her magnificent breasts. She grabs a fistful of hair at the back of my head and hums as she buries my face between her tits. Low moans well up from deep within as she gropes blindly with her right hand until she achieves her target. Just as she is about to snap the cuff into place we are startled by an obnoxious beep-beep-beeping.
“Oh well, guess we know what that means,” I whisper as I gently lift her from my lap and get up from the chair. Greta doesn’t move, and for a long, uncomfortable moment we stand with our noses almost touching. Her breath is hot on my face.
Being only human, it is with great reluctance that I sidle out and leave her standing by the chair, breasts exposed, tousled waves framing an endearing moue. When I return a moment later, the flush has gone from her cheeks and she is looking as crisp and business-like as ever. I help her into her sable coat and with one arm around her waist I walk her to the door where she hands me an envelope.
“Here ya go. Thanks, it really was wonderful. So, same time Thursday?”
“Actually, I have a meeting with my agent on Thursday. Apparently a small Canadian publisher thinks my erotic prose poems are the bomb. How’s 3:30 on Friday?”
“Friday, hmm, let’s see…I’m meeting with a producer at 10:00, after that there’s Pilates at 1:00, and then nothing until aroma therapy at 4:30. Can we make it 2:30 instead? I promise to get here on time.”
“Aroma therapy—the rich really are different, aren’t they? Comme tu veux, 2:30 it is.”
“Oh, listen, sorry about the woodwork and your poor carpet—guess I got a little carried away.”
“Not to worry, carried away is what it’s all about, right? It’s what I’m here for.”
For a moment he’d forgotten where and when he was and was sure he’d seen her headed toward him down Third Avenue. Less than a block away, she was, her boyish figure weaving in and out of the lunchtime crowd, hands wedged tightly into the pockets of her faded green cutoffs, trademark red bandanna fluttering around her neck. And just as suddenly as she’d materialized, she was gone, a vivid asymmetry swallowed up by the grim procession of office workers, each one carefully balancing a translucent take-out bag on an upturned palm like a votive offering.
That was fifteen minutes ago, and his heart is still pounding in his chest and in his temples as he sits at a little aluminum cafe table, trying, unsuccessfully, to take in the words on the page in front of him. The crowd has passed on, leaving the sidewalk deserted in all directions, the only animation provided by a green plastic bag describing lazy circles in the middle of the street. Of course it wasn’t Barbara, he tells himself. Knows it beyond a doubt. She’s been rotting for two years already. More than two. And as he tries to do the math, he flashes on the image of her poor ravaged remains lying in their box. In his mind’s eye he sees clearly the small coffin suspended in earth as rich and brown as wet coffee grounds. And within that, the diminutive occupant, rigid, her head thrown back in an ecstasy of death, or as if she is straining to make out the dull distant rumble of the gravedigger’s bulldozer passing slowly overhead.
She didn’t deserve that, he whispers to himself. Nobody does. Almost nobody, anyway. Definitely not to have it done so dirty and so mean. And definitely not at the hands of two complete imbeciles. He realizes the absurdity of what he is telling himself, and he recalls the moment in the movie,
Unforgiven, when the near-sighted kid, sick to his stomach over his first kill—a fat guy in a shithouse—looks to Eastwood’s character for reassurance and says, “He only got what was comin’ to him, right?” And Clint fixes the kid with his cold blue eyes and says: “We all get what’s comin’ to us, kid.”
…We all get what’s got comin’ to us. And he remembers how sick and ashamed they all felt at the time. Sick over the image of her, pocked with cigarette burns and slowly asphyxiating under a mummy’s mask of gaffer’s tape. Ashamed of themselves for the relief they all secretly felt at knowing there’d be no more of the chance encounters they’d grown to dread. Glad to be relieved of the burden of having to witness the ruined skin and bleeding gums, of having to mark the stations of her creeping dementia, and of having to wonder how long it would be before she wound up living on the streets. Relieved of the guilt of knowing that when she did, none of them would lift a finger to help.
Gratefully distracted from his memories by the waitress’s arrival with his order, he takes stock of his surroundings. As the first few sips of espresso sends their tarry, reassuring warmth sliding down his gullet, the sights and sounds of life begin returning all around him. He sees pale July sunlight streaming through a sickly acacia. He watches a beautiful young woman, too young for him, he guesses, as she stops to let her shiba inu lift its leg against the tree, and he experiences a pleasant frisson as he and the woman exchange broad smiles. He strains to hear what an agitated old man, drawing patterns in the air with his cane, is saying to a gangling, acne-scarred doorman in a uniform two sizes too small for him. He catches the dreamlike scent of ice vapor emanating from the back of a refrigerator truck parked at the curb, and, as the delivery man, straining behind the weight of his overloaded dolly, passes, he spots the tattoo on the man’s bulging bicep: “
Semper Fidelis.” Gyrene, he mutters to himself. And he wonders what it would be like, esprit de corps, a fealty born of battle. And for a moment, he imagines himself in uniform, a scared soldier putting up a good front, exchanging high-fives all around before pitching headlong into a firefight—“Semper fi, bro!”...And, with a start, he realizes that with Barbara, that makes three dead-friend sightings in as many weeks. And he wonders if it could be a sign. A sign, maybe, or maybe a welcoming committee.
Men, the “decent” ones anyway, have a way of doing that—killing you with cadences. But if you’re attuned, the way I learned to be, early on, at my volatile father’s knee, you can always get the jump on them. And once you’re sure what they’re up to, you have no choice but to act fast. If you want to save yourself, that is.
And so it was that, over the course of that long, hot season, I listened as his voice went from smoke that gently turns and rises to ice that cracks and falls. And so it was that, by the time September rolled around, despite the exact words he used, I knew I’d never again hear him say what I deserved to hear, at least not in the way I deserved to hear it.
And so it was that, on our last trip back from the Cape, I reached my limit. Fussy Chopin nocturnes playing on the car stereo. Polite applause of a fat summer rain. Insipid imagery of fields and livestock streaming past like tattered issues of Country Living whooshing down a filthy gutter…
“Honey, think you could cool it on the smoking? It’s killing you, and frankly, I don’t appreciate what your second-hand smoke is doing to me.”
See what I mean? The outrage of it! And it wasn’t the first time that day. Earlier that morning, in our room at the inn, there’d been the pinch and phony news-anchor’s chuckle, followed by the observation that we both could use a few hours on the treadmill when we got back to town. Then, later, over breakfast, there’d been the maple syrup crack. So some people like a lot of syrup on their pancakes. Like them swimming in it, in fact. Where’s the crime? Why comment on it if not to dismiss a person—to tear her down? It’s one thing to just come out and tell someone that you’re tired of them, that you don’t love them anymore, but to systematically undermine who they are and everything they stand for—simply intolerable!
You tell me, what choice did I have? I had to act. I had to defend myself against his onslaught with whatever means were at my disposal. I had to preserve my identity.
So in a moment of inspiration I put the cigarette I was smoking out on his hand. Not just touched, or poked, but put out. I grabbed his wrist with my free hand and put my back into it. I even planted my foot against the passenger-side door for added support. And with one, sustained, grinding twist, I put my cigarette out on the fucker’s hand. And as he screamed and reached across to defend himself, the car veered and went off the road.
I never lost consciousness for a moment. I remember every detail vividly, like highlights from some impossibly graceful heavy-metal ballet. We sideswiped a tree, spun around twice, and rolled over into a ditch. I never lost consciousness for a moment, so I got to hear his neck snap as his head hammered into the car roof. I got to watch the light fade from his eyes. And I had the satisfaction of seeing the tip of his infuriating tongue topple from between his lips like a severed pink pencil eraser and tumble into his hair, trailed by one long, slow thread of blood and saliva.