Whoever can see through all fear
will always be safe.
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 46
The Doctor awakens with a start. Heart racing, fingertips pulsating, he leaps from the bed where Nino lies awake, twisted in the sheets, staring at the ceiling with blind eyes and cold heart. Sweat pools underneath his back and saliva runs along his cheek. His hair is wet. His skin glistens. He wears nothing but tattoos that testify and imprison.
Weary from yet another scene, the Doctor decides not to ask about the dream that shook them both awake. As he puts a thick robe over his pale, hairy body and slides his shapeless feet into a pair of slippers. He grabs the pack of Newports off the nightstand, lights one casually then sighs in dismay.
“What?” Nino demands without turning his head. His body is rigid. His eyes are sealed in protest.
The Doctor does not say a word as he exits the room.
“Get me some water!” Nino yells at the figure that retreats down the hall. Then he lays his forearm over his eyes, his head throbbing in pain. From deep inside, the echo of laughter rings in his ears. The sound surrounds him, enveloping him in dissonance. His arm moves away from his eyes. His hands cover his ears. His jaw is clenched so hard that soon it aches. As his chest rises and falls under labored breath, the name written in the skin of his left breast comes alive as a shadow glides across the ceiling, a reminder of the two that never met, of hellos unspoken and goodbyes never said.
He shifts violently onto his stomach trying to break away from the pain of this moment. The adrenalin unleashed by the dream circulates through his blood, amping him up. He begins to pound the pillow, softly at first, mumbling under his breath. His throat is dry, his eyes are wet. His legs itch, they twitch, and unconsciously they begin to kick.
It is too much. He gets out of bed yelling, “GET ME SOME WATER!”
Seeing how the Doctor ignores his command, Nino’s pride rises and he wastes no time in deliberating his fate. Fuck this! he says to himself as he grabs his clothes. Fuck this guy! he curses as he pulls on his jeans. Fuck his money! he insists as he grabs his sweatshirt and raises the hood. Then he thinks better of that pledge and snatches a couple of twenties out of the Doctor’s wallet. Fuck this house! he promises as he puts on his boots, crosses the room, and walks out the door.
Summer in New York is a symphony of lilac skies. The universe is blotted out, no longer visible to the naked eye. All that exists is the air, humid and thick with unfulfilled wishes while crushed dreams litter the streets like so much debris. The sour smell of the gutter greets Nino like an old friend. How you doing, man? Ain’t been too long. Thought you might have come up but I guess I was wrong.
Hey, man. What, you ain’t got nothing to say? You too good to talk to a brother like me? Well don’t forget, I know where you started and I know where you’ve been. No one knows you better than me. I been here from the beginning and I ain’t going away. I know all of your secrets. But don’t worry, I ain’t gonna say. Ain’t no one care, anyfuckinway.
Nino’s eyes flash, his hands clamp into fists. As he turns his head in disgust, his eyes alight on a couple walking across the street. The girl is young, maybe twenty-one, and her body is soft and fresh, ripples of sweet, supple, luscious flesh. Long black hair hangs down her back and swings in time with the gentle sway of her hips. He watches her walk, seeing her breasts bounce quietly as she wavers along. He can hear the tinkle of bells in her laugh and (somehow) the sound of her joy softens his anger.
She walks with a guy in his mid-twenties. Skinny with narrow shoulders and a sunken chest, the guy moves with the confidence that sexing a foolish girl brings. He takes a swig out of the bottle that he carries in a brown bag then stops to say something nasty to the girl. Nino watches as her face changes from light to dark and he notices her shoulders tense before she fires something back.
The guy’s confidence falls and in its place comes contempt. Shame and hatred unleash a spite of bad blood, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. Spit, he must spit and get it all out. “YOU’RE A WHORE!” he yells, resentful and proud.
Nino sees pain etch into the girl’s face as she turns to walk away but the guy grabs her upper arm, pulling the fragile limb towards him with a hard jerk. Her body snaps as she falls back and the guy wears a hostile smile like the crown of victory. He knows women are whores and treats them all the same. He laughs at how they love to be debased not realizing his sadism betrays his deepest vulnerability.
The guy is in her face, rum-soaked breath pouring from his lips. The words he speaks can no longer be heard as he turns his back on Nino, who watches intently as the girl struggles to free herself .
“Let go of me!” she yelps like a half-starved kitten. His hand grips her flesh harder until she squeaks in pain.
“Shut the fuck up!” he demands, raising his other hand and striking her across the face. Her head whips back and she topples over. Down. Down to the ground. She hits the concrete with a dull thud, her knee and hand slam first to block her fall. But all she can feel is the hammering of her heart. She is about to damn this guy to the depths of the earth when she hears a strange voice speaking for her.
“What the fuck it wrong with you?” Nino demands. “How you gonna hit a girl? You weak, faggot, you fucked up right there.”
Fist connects to skull and all that is heard is the sound of the guy falling like a sack of rocks.
Nino laughs happily and looks at the girl. Her face is windswept in disarray as feelings of terror, confusion, and relief course through her veins. He puts his hand out to help her stand; she looks up at him, blue irises obliterated by pupils dilated in fear.
“Sorry about that,” he murmurs when he realizes that she will not take his hand. Then he drops to the ground, pats the guy down, pulls the wallet, and casually thumbs through it. After pocketing the cash, Nino puts the wallet back where he found it and stands up again.
The girl is on her feet, standing but not moving, taking strong sips of air under a veil of radiant black hair. She looks at Nino with wonder. A hero? A criminal? A New Yorker, for sure. “Thank you,” she croaks, surprised by her voice. She tries to speak again but the words are barely more than a soft moan.
She feels dizzy, nervous, nauseous, sick. She takes a few steps away from him and vomits in the street. With the loss of this dead weight, she feels more at ease. She pulls a stick of Big Red out of her purse, unwrapping it slowly with fingers that tremble and shake, then folding it into her mouth where the hot and pungent flavor of cinnamon burns her throat. She spits the gum out of her mouth and on to the street. Water, it is cold clean water that she needs. She looks around for a bodega and notices the stranger remains close.
“Thank you,” she says again, this time in normal voice. “I don’t know what I would have done…” Anxiety darkens her face as she looks at him. She tries to be discreet but he is watching her, carefully, like he is taking notes.
When their eyes connect, her stomach drops and a flurry of butterflies flutter through her belly, carefree. Their wings beat with light, feathery strokes inside her belly, tickling her with the taste of destiny. It feels so good she begins to get lightheaded, woozy, and her balance, what little exists, is threatened by his presence. She is overcome by emotions, mixed, shaken, stirred. Too much is happening and her reaction becomes slurred. She wants to leave but she is unable to walk away. Something magnetic holds her in place.
Drawn into her eyes, Nino feels as though he were falling, the ground beneath his feet giving way. “You are beautiful,” Nino says with a tenderness he did not expect.
She returns his gaze, shyly at first, feeling her heart beating powerfully under her breast.
As the fear fades, it is replaced by something she has never known. Protection? Could it be? Could a man want to shelter her rather than punish her for simply being she? She does not know; she does not trust but she feels safe for all of once. Safe despite (or because) he exudes danger and (it seems) he is on her side. Something pulls her toward him, something that she cannot comprehend, something that tells her to trust this dark knight of noble heart and iron fist.
A demure smile graces her face, her eyes glowing under lashes that flicker and flutter like birds of paradise. She is entranced by his visage, feeling as though she stands before an oasis, a mirage.
“My name is Jade,” she says, opening herself up to something she does not understand.
Jade. Her name echoes in his soul and he gives thanks to God for the goodness that He bestows. Nino introduces himself, extending his hand with his palm out. She places her hand in his, her breath taken away when their fingers touch.
“May I walk you home?” Nino asks.
“Yes, please. I’m on Sixth; it’s not far.”
With her at his side, Nino moves with a pride of purpose that swells his chest. It has been so long since he has been with a woman that Nino nearly forgot what it was to feel like a man. He steps discreetly behind her and crosses over so that he is walking on the outside, affecting the role of protector, while also claiming her as his own to all who know the rules of the street.
As they walk, they say little, quietly sharing each other’s space. They are alone, together, feeling an easy sense of tension, each lost in their own lives. The night is quiet and it is calm. Yellow cabs cruise, homeless men snooze. It is as they say in Grand Hotel: “People come, people go. Nothing ever changes.”
Photograph by Francis Wolff
Billie Holiday Performing in
Esquire Jam Session at Metropolitan House
1944, New York
When they reach her block, Jade stops on the corner, a hundred feet from the glass-paneled lobby where the doorman is perched. She lives in a white brick building that spans the entire block, an architectural style so ubiquitous that no one ever takes notice of it. She calls it the “White Castle” with a tongue in cheek. She also calls it “The Jewish Projects” but not to Jews ’cause they get uppity. What she means to say is that these buildings are the finest in mid-century modular construction. She has noticed that her floor is not level, that the walls are thin, that the building is only wired for electricity in the middle third. There is something cut-rate (well, let’s just say it, cheap) about the quality of her home.
These White Castles line the streets of New York south of 96th. They are co-op buildings originally designed to accommodate a new market, the single career woman of the 1960s. Nearly forty years later, they are a study in bourgeois living at the turn of the twenty-first century. They provide shelter for people who like cookie cutters, coloring inside the lines, and wearing uniforms. People like her parents, people whose only interest is order and control.
Jade’s apartment clocks in at 425 square feet, a home of respectable size given New York standards. One night, while she was pleasantly high, she looked around her apartment and began to laugh. It was a laugh that turned into a cackle and then silenced into a sneer. It was the mask of superiority overlaying a creepy fear. For she noticed her apartment had the same proportions as a shoebox… and that’s just weird.
That’s when she saw it in her mind’s eye. New York is a warehouse. Tens, hundreds, thousands, millions of little shoeboxes stacked one on top of the other, lined up side by side. All these lives lived, invisible to the naked eye. True, windows are the eyes of the soul of the home (to mangle a metaphor) but windows look out more than they look in. They do not reveal the daily dramas playing out inside those boxes. Six million stories in the naked city, and that’s just on a Tuesday evening.
As Jade thought about shoeboxes, she dreamed of stripping away the long wall so that the floor became a stage and the box became a diorama, like the ones she used to make in the fourth grade. Here is a scene from the story of Little House on the Prairie, everything perfectly positioned. Figures drawn on paper, cut out, and propped up; clouds made out of cotton balls, glued to a blue sky crafted out of construction paper. Yes, Jade giggled to herself, My apartment is a diorama and I am a paper doll.
She moved into this White Castle five years ago, when she was twenty years old. It was something spectacular, her only dream realized: escape from the ties that bound her to the carrot on a stick. Jade has been bred to be a donkey, a stubborn beast of burden fixated on a single thing. I. Me. Mine. Gimme Gimme Gimme, like the Cure sang.
Her fixation on freedom, her dream of escape, her desire to be independent manifested itself in real estate. She had been going to a private college, one without illustrious name but famous for being the most expensive school in the country, which was ironic since the classes were inane. Just what was being paid for? That’s hard to know.
By the time she was ten, she dreamed of having her own apartment. Anything would be better than living in that house. Ten years later, the opportunity came. She decided to take her college fund and invest it in herself. She would go to City College, which cost a tenth of what the private school had. And with the remaining money, she would rent an apartment. Well, things didn’t work out exactly like that. Instead she ended up with a fifteen-year mortgage.
“You don’t own me,” she cried in despair. But she was wrong. They did own her. They always had.
When her parents bought the apartment, it was the early 90s and the City was in shambles. Four years of the Dinkins administration saw the City fully submerged. Crack and AIDS and crime were rampant and everyone accepted this as fact. You came to expect bad things to happen and you steeled your resolve not to be next.
Property values were low. It was a buyer’s market. Once upon a time an apartment in the West Village could be had for fifty thousand dollars and handed over to girls who were barely legal and unemployed. Girls who wanted to run away but were much too scared. So instead they got their parents to finance their freedom on five percent interest and pretend that was okay.
But since Giuliani has taken power, everything has begun to change. The City, once a haven for hedonism, is slowly becoming a police state. Homeless men are disappearing off the street, forced into shelters or forced into jails. People are getting arrested for smoking weed on the street, locked up on a Friday and let out on Monday like that’s cool. Quality of Life, he calls it, that Mayor of ours. Nightclubs are shut down. Prostitutes no longer walk the streets and have begun working on the Internet. You better not be drinking out of an open container, jumping the turnstiles, or writing graff. But the most important thing you can do in Giuliani’s New York is not be black. Rest in Peace Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond.
The City has entered rehab, like a junkie who has found God and become righteous and starts spreading the Word during morning rush hour on the trains with a voice that booms from a deep bass within the chest while a hacking cough persists, making some people nod their heads and others clutch their purses tightly in their fists.
The City is getting a facelift, like a dame who thinks it’s not too late, focusing on surface over substance, with a Disney store opening in Times Square. What so many loved and so many despised—the organic, iconoclastic, cross-cultural vibes—are being muted into an expensive shade of beige. Buildings go co-op. Property values begin to rise. Europeans buy pied-a-terres. The strivers and the strugglers are forced out by rent increases and make their way into the boroughs. There’s a little artist community starting in Williamsburg, some old school Polish and Puerto Rican neighborhood out in Brooklyn. It’s official: you’ve got to move out of Manhattan if you want to live in New York.
After five years of living without paying a single bill, Jade has become, well, jaded to what life is about. As the years pass, her passion for freedom and self-determination has eroded from razor sharp to blunt edged. She has become fat, lazy, and complacent of mind though not of physique, for it is upon her body that an all-pervasive anxiety wreaks. But she cannot see the correlation between being a recipient of parental handouts, a sense of entitlement, and a failure to realize her dream.
Instead, she runs this way and that, anything to avoid self control and assuming responsibility for her life. For example, tonight. It’s a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. Jade has nowhere to go, nowhere to be, nothing to do, no one to see. Nothing is asked. Nothing is expected. She is floating through life without direction. So she creates drama. Theatrics. Scenes. It feels familiar. Like home. Like love. Whatever that means…
A torrent of curiosity and anxiety washes over her. Unconsciously, she raises her hand to her cheek and presses the flesh lightly. The nerve endings tingle and twinge as a sensuous pain shoots through her face. There is something she cannot explain, some pleasure this bruise brings. There is a validation here, a feeling that somehow she has been proven right. Just what that is, she cannot say but she feels vindicated all the same.
Jade looks at Nino’s hand, wondering if it hurts the way her face does, wondering if when he touches his knuckles he will feel the pain and pleasure and pride that violence brings. With these thoughts, a feeling of self-consciousness steals across her breast. She wills herself to focus on the moment, asking softly, “…and what do you do?”
“I fight,” Nino proclaims proudly, throwing his shoulders back and thrusting forth his chest. As he rubs his fist with his left hand, the dull ache a souvenir of his most recent work, he breaks off eye contact and thinks of that guy sprawled out on the street. A powerful feeling of self-worth suffuses his being, giving him a sense of dignity that he rarely feels. To defend a woman is not merely an honor, it is the duty of every full-grown male.
Photograph by Colleen Plumb
Apartment on Morse
When he can, Nino refrains from doing real damage to his opponent. His need is to dominate, lest someone try to command him. This is what women don’t understand. Men are programmed to seek the top post, to be the Alpha Male. And if they can’t do it physically, they do it in other ways, the quest for power and money being the most obvious. But Nino, he has always been disenfranchised, living in the margins and falling through the cracks. He was dealt a hand; it was a house of cards. What remains from this game is the knowledge that all he has is who he is.
Only he’s not sure what that is anymore. Once upon a time Nino had it all, sitting on top of the world and enjoying the view. He was the prince, nay, he was the King of all he surveyed and he had land, he had woman, he had child—he had everything he ever dreamed. But nightmares are also dreams, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, and when the Wheel of Fortune turned, what was promised was lost. And so he returned to the world from which he came, the world of tooth and claw, nail and fang.
He dreams of fighting professionally to be a part of something bigger than himself where he can train and learn and live to serve a greater purpose than… this. But this is all he has and all he can do, and no longer does Nino have the drive nor the inclination to get back into training. Too much has happened in the past year and he’s still reeling, cold and numb and confused about what it all means. Too much has happened and he’s no longer sure of the fucking point.
But it is on nights like tonight where Nino is reminded of something else, of the person he once was or never was but wants to be. He thinks of how good it feels to hurt a man and there is no remorse, no shame, no fear. There is pride and something else. Worth. It’s like, he matters. He knows he can’t save himself. He knows there is nothing to save. But maybe he could save Jade, if only for one night, and that makes Nino feel good.
A feeling of pleasure warms his skin and tingles in his chest and as he looks into her eyes, Nino feels the heavens shift. And it’s like he can hear something, a sound so far away it is but a distant echo and a silent refrain. And it is a lyric but he cannot hear the words and he looks into her eyes but it is too dark to see their color. And everything is suddenly very soft and sweet and there is the smell of crushed flowers and sugar cookies and Nino smiles softly. Everything is a beautiful shade of fade, muted under a sky of lilacs and violets. And the street lamps shine down, obscuring the stars above. But something in Jade’s eyes sparkle, reminding him of… what? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t even care. He’s happy that her energy feels familiar, as though he belongs here tonight.
And he look into her eyes once again but the sparkle he saw is really a spark and it shocks him, hard, as a glint of flame sets off the fire alarm. And where he smelled flowers he now smells ash and she assaults him with a barrage of questions that she cannot ask. Fight? Really? Why? I don’t understand. I don’t even know how to try.
Her thoughts reach him, though he does not know how. Her thoughts are in his head and he does not know how to get them out. He looks away, trying to break the spell, afraid that she might guess how he lives, where he lives, what he does for money. So he lies. What else can he do? He knows she does not want the truth. Girls don’t want to know. They only hear what they want to hear. Ain’t no one trying to hear his troubles except the court-appointed psychiatrist.
But such conversations are privileged and Nino knows this and believes discretion is the better part of valor, even if he has never heard this phrase before. He keeps it simple, mostly so he won’t fuck up. Besides, it’s not like what he is saying is not true; it’s just that it hasn’t happened… yet.
A feeling of peace sweeps through him and restores him to a sense of inner ease. Nino continues speaking with the utmost authority. “I practice Aikido. But I love mixed martial arts. That’s my dream. I’ve been studying since I was six and I want to join the UFC.”
The image of Mike lying unconscious on the pavement flashes in Jade’s mind. Where she once felt safe, she now feels vulnerable. Out of the frying pan she flies, unsure whether she is landing on a cool granite counter or heading straight for the fire. Unthinkingly she begins to chew on her thumb, tearing away at little pieces of skin to ease her discomfort. The more her finger hurts, the calmer she becomes until she tastes blood on the tip of her tongue. The taste of blood reminds her of something else and Jade drops her thumb to her side, pressing the wound against her leg.
As she does this, Nino watches her face, particularly her eyes. He sees how they constrict with his words and he imagines the thoughts whirling through her mind. A feeling of guilt overcomes as he imagines she can see inside his soul to the memories submerged like shipwrecks, torn up galleys and broken hulls preserved forever in the ocean’s depths. Silent, still, and cold. His hands grow clammy with the fear of being exposed. He quickly changes the subject, needing to keep his emotions under control.
He points to the tattoo of the four-claw Chinese dragon tattoo on his neck. “You see this? This is Tianlong, the holy dragon that guards the Heavenly Palace. In China, dragons are symbols of power and wisdom. It was originally the symbol of the Emperor. It’s the opposite of what we’ve been taught to believe, that dragons are evil. Dragons are the most beautiful, powerful creatures in the world. They bring good luck to all those who respect them. But most people shouldn’t get this tattoo. It’s too strong for them to carry.”
His words flow through her, warming her, disarming her, charming her with his confidence. Jade listens as Nino speaks, feeling a sense of relief as her feet land on the cool granite counter. And as he speaks, she hears the deep timbre of his voice in the back of her knees. Her imagination opens to the heavens, dreaming that he is a prince, the heir to some great reward not of this earth. She dreams he is a warrior, strong, courageous, and noble; and his quest is to free the princess from the chains that bind her to the ocean’s depth. She imagines he is a poet, the creator of verse and the channeler of spirits, a mystic with the gift to spin words from straw and turn them into gold keys. And those keys would unlock the box where her heart once beat. And inside the box he would discover something incredibly deep.
And as Jade regards Nino, a flash of light eclipses her vision and she no longer sees what stands before her but instead is regarding something else. It is a man and a woman and they are back lit so that all that is revealed is the silhouette of two people very much in love and moving toward each other. And in her vision, Jade sees that the man is hurt and he is removing his breastplate so that the woman can trace her fingers across his heart. And as she traces her fingers something happens and the image disappears. And Jade is left standing still, looking at Nino, wondering if he saw that too.
But Nino doesn’t seem to notice and Jade feels very strange and dismisses the image from her mind and returns to the words Nino speaks. He is talking about dragons as though they are a good thing and this is something she never considered: the things we dismiss as beasts could be our saviors. The things we do not understand are not to be feared but to be treated with reverence and respect
Jade considers this silently and decides that there is a reason they have met, though what that reason is remains to be seen. And with this knowledge, limited it is, Jade feels as though carefully ensconced in a velvet-covered jewel case. And with this newfound sense of protection, a wanton energy vibrates deep.
“Can I see it? The tattoo I mean?” Jade asks, feeling kittenish, nuzzling her chin along her shoulder and looking up at him.
Seeing her eyes looking eagerly at him, Nino assents, his shoulders relaxing as he turns his head. Tianlong reveals himself, majestic and indomitable, taking flight along his flesh.
This intimacy, at once intimidating and innocent, stirs something inside of Jade. Without thinking she traces the S-curve of Tianlong’s form and her fingertips linger along his skin, tingling like the softest kiss.
But her sweetness scorches his skin; a searing pain punctures his heart. Nino jerks his head away as though he has been hurt. He turns away, averting his eyes, and his stomach churns urgently. Empty it has been, the bile burning internally. His mouth fills with saliva but he cannot swallow and so instead… he spits.
A big wad of saliva lands on the pavement. It sits there, evidence. Something just happened. What the fuck is it?
Frozen by shock, numbed by confusion, Jade cannot think clearly. Feelings of horror and remorse assail her nerves. Her affection spurned, she retreats inside herself as fears overwhelm her in full force.
He’s angry at me? I make him sick? I should go. No. Something is wrong. It’s not me. Is it me? It is me. No. It’s him. Something is wrong with him. Why did he pull away? I don’t understand. What is going on? Why do I care? I can’t take it. I’ve got to get out of here.
Inundated by words, every thought becomes its own concern, every concern creates its own emotion, every emotion demands its own action but no action is taken. Her mind is muddled, poisoned by and protected from his pain.
At last she manages a word. “Sorry,” she mumbles and though she feels contrite she is unable to keep the frustration out of her voice.
Nino plays it off, unwilling to acknowledge anything has occurred. He pushes all emotion away, forcing himself to be indifferent to the pain. His face is stony, his eyes steely, his body deadens and he walks away. Without a word, without a look back, he returns to from whence he came.
Photograph Found on Tumblr
Image Source Unknown
and end your problems.
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20
Jimmy sits at the front desk, perched like an owl seeking a mouse. Eager. Hungry. Wanting. Needing his fill. He glances out the glass doors, looking up and down the block, hoping for something—anything—to occur. He watches as the wind blows and some young punk slinks along, walking quickly down the street with his chin tucked into his chest.
Nothing to see here, folks. Keep it moving.
Jimmy wants action, adventure, the (melo)drama of daily life. He feeds on the theater of the unconscious. The complexities of the humanity fascinate and disturb. Jimmy is a voracious voyeur, satisfying his appetite by working as a night porter at an apartment building on West 12 Street. He knows everyone’s business. People in this place are snitching—on themselves. They come downstairs, in the middle of the night, drunk and high, stoned and lonely souls. They hang out at the desk when they come back from clubs, or failed dates, or their parents are out of town, or their wives are away on business trips and they cannot be alone.
So many apartments, people are always moving in and out, new tenants, sublets, dogs, children, divorces, new wives, stepchildren, elderly parents, relatives from out of town, the list goes on. It has gotten to be like a hotel, with regulars. Same old folk are sitting in overstuffed chairs at the center of the lobby, watching the parade through the glass-paneled wall that overlooks the street. Same old white guy in the green flack jacket smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee from a mug by the parking sign at the gutter; he just had a baby and doesn’t want to smoke in the house.
By befriending the tenants, Jimmy has gained access to a wealth of knowledge, gossip, intrigue. He would like to say he has heard it all but there’s always more to hear. What he most enjoys are the people who cover their tracks, the people who look one way and live another. Appearances, they do deceive. What is beneath the surface, that’s Jimmy’s area of expertise. He knows that the leather queens on the eighteenth floor are men of their word. He knows how the drunk on the second floor got that way. He left his suburban home and moved down to the Village, hoping to erase himself. But that didn’t happen. Now he wanders around the streets wearing middle management suits that haven’t been cleaned in years. Flies gather around him, just like they do in the comics. Jimmy knows how the young lady on seventeen had three abortions. He knows how the teenager on fourteen lost his virginity. He knows that the old woman in the penthouse is a lesbian. Well, that’s not a secret but she’s from the old school where female companions were not spoken of as romantic partners. He knows that when her companion died twelve years ago, the old lady stopped circulating in the world. Now she sits at the top of the building, alone with no children, no family, no love in her life. She is a success but what of it? What are knowledge and treasures without someone with whom to share?
For a very long time, Jimmy was on his own, doing what he wanted to do until he got caught up. He used to think the best thing in life is party and bullshit; he makes the sign of the cross and sends one up to Biggie Smalls (Rest in Peace Christopher Wallace). But when his son was born, Jimmy became a man. He understood what it meant to love someone else. From that day forward, he knew the truth: this was ’til death do us part. Ain’t no one else ever came close.
Yea, Jimmy got married. He knew, That’s the thing to do. Ain’t no bastards in this world, except the fathers who leave their children and not the other way around.
Once he became a family man, he stopped hitting the clubs and bars but he wouldn’t stay home after dark. Dark is in his blood, flowing through secret channels that make him feel alive. Night is the time the masks come off and the real person finally shows. Give me your tired, your horny, your drunk, Jimmy smiles to himself, thinking about the kooks, the cranks, the oddballs, the nuts, the fruit loops, the wackos, the lunatic fringe that once populated this neighborhood back when he was in high school and he used to come down from the Bronx to shop at Postermat, Unique, Canal Jeans. The girls sneered “Bridge & Tunnel” at him in the clubs but he always got the best of them somewhere around four a.m. That’s when the cocaine was gone and their hair lay flat and their feet hurt and they were tired, horny, and drunk. And when the masks came off, so did their clothes and, truth be told, for all their urbane affectations, they were no different than his girl at home.
So he married his girl and not the clubheads. She was preggo and he needed a gig. Got himself a Union job and a uniform to boot. Sitting at a desk of faux black marble suits Jimmy well. He wears a black suit with white piping and a matching cap, white button-down shirt and black tie. Dig me working in the Vill! he thought when he got the job.
Eight years later, he knows the score. These fancy folk aren’t nearly as high and mighty when you have smelled their dirty laundry up close. And it is that funk, that foul stench that turns his head time and again for there is no greater equal than the sins of Man.
Jimmy drums his fingers across the desk and sighs softly to himself. All he can expect tonight are the husbands coming home after “working late at the office.” These guys, they always have that look on their face. They sing or they mumble, “Goodnight, Jimmy,” but the truth shines bright, like a beacon in the night: I got some and it wasn’t the wife! The glee of getting away with it extinguishes all signs of guilt, if only for the moment, in the victorious afterglow that adultery brings.
Mr. Chestnut, a resident of Apartment 15F, struts into the lobby. He is in his mid-40s, a sales executive at a pharmaceutical company. He has been working closely with douches, explaining to his accounts the beauty of the product. “Women,” he will tell them, “are the weaker sex. They are insecure and needy, that’s why they spend all their money things that they are told will make them attractive to men. No woman needs any of the things she buys and if she stopped to think about it, she would see it’s a vicious cycle designed to destroy her body, mind, and soul.
“Now take these here douches, it’s a goldmine! Women know men smell real bad but men don’t care so guess what, no business deodorizing your balls!” He will pause here for the laughs, which always come. “Now women, we can tell them anything. We can say, ‘Honey, your breasts are too small,’ and the next thing you know, she will go out and buy double D implants. We can tell women, ‘A gentleman prefers blondes,’ and she’ll race to the hairdresser and come back ready to get it on like you’re President Kennedy and she is Marilyn Monroe.”
Having built a confederacy through his series of shallow observations, Mr. Chestnut is ready to let them in on the secret of his success. He will lower his voice to draw them close, speaking in confidence. “But if you really want to keep a woman in the palm of your hand, tell her she smells like the Fulton Street Fish Market.” He will say this with a knowing leer, inviting the hearty guffaws of chauvinism to appear. With these words he ensures that any lingering awkwardness about the subject is replaced by a feeling of mental and physical superiority. And so he continues…
“You know how scared women are that you love their pussy more than their heart?” Heads will nod in confirmation as he throws in this aside, “I mean, you know that’s true, whether they’re your whore or your baby mama. The pussy, it has its rightful place. It is there to serve us, whatever our needs. But in order to keep your woman in check, you’ve got to make her fear that what she has between her legs is worth less than the next chick.
“Now here’s the beauty of the douche—it is actually the cause of that horrible smell! Yes! Imagine that. For a few days, the woman will feel springtime fresh but all douches do is destroy a perfect ecosystem and make way for the germs to invade and funk up that box. Now you may be asking yourself, What does that mean for me? Well, I’ll tell you, buddy, it means she is now a customer for life! This woman is so humiliated and demoralized by the fact that it has been proven that she is filthy animal that she will buy our product in bulk, believing that it is she that is the problem—and not the product itself.”
His smile will light up the room. “And gentlemen, rest assured, our product is FDA tested and approved. This is nothing buy money in the bank. Pure gold.”
The clients will nod in agreement, seeing nothing but green and wanting a piece of the paper that grows thick on the tree. This is why they work in douches—without ironic detachment, I mean.
Striding through the lobby, Mr. Chestnut looks at his watch. It’s late, damn late. Everyone will be asleep, including his wife who has been taking sleeping pills for the past six months right around the time his affair with Sheila, the sales rep from Newark, began.
“Goodnight, Mr. Chestnut,” Jimmy speaks with deference, observing how the tail of his shirt rides out of his pants, silently loathing the way a guy like this gets after-hours ass.
“Goodnight Jimmy,” Mr. Chestnut says before running his fingers through his hair, inadvertently activating the memory of how Sheila had grabbed his head with force just as she came all over his cock. He felt his body heat up into a blush and, with a fever running from his chest up his neck, dampening his armpits and getting him hard all over again. Mr. Chestnut scooted through the lobby to the elevators where he could have a moment to collect himself.
Jimmy watches the rat scurry around the corner with little interest. He is thinking of Mrs. Chestnut. She has four kids, two nannies, and a full time job that keeps her in grey suits and sensible shoes, belying what little remains of her good looks. When they first moved into the building seven years ago, she had smiled the smile that newlyweds share: the joy of discovery, the ecstasy of passion, the pleasure that is found in becoming one with your beloved. Mrs. Chestnut was once possessed with the beauty of innocent youth, a vision of loveliness that lay upon her face like morning dew on a blade of grass. But that dew had long since dried and in its place, a desiccated stalk now lives in with Mr. Chestnut in Apartment 15F.
Is it that she is too busy or too burned out to see the truth? Or is it that she knows what is happening and is agreed to remain in a marriage on these terms? What kind of woman would stand by her man while he stuck it into the kind of woman who sleeps with married men?
But there are plenty of married women who get around like Tupac Shakur. They cover their tracks well, sure to not get caught. Lie, lie, you lie so well, that is the refrain that is sung in silence. They have no guilt for they have no qualms about betraying the vows they made before God. They possess a righteous sense of entitlement, using cheating as a way to privately settle a score. And of their affairs nothing may ever be known by anyone else, not even that the husband is not the father of their child. You know how it goes.
Sometimes Jimmy wondered, What is the point of getting married at all? What does marriage mean when it is based on love, the most fragile emotion of all? Most people look outside themselves, living in a dream. They want so badly to believe appearances are what they seem. But marriage was never meant to be an arrangement based on love. Only love! Love? What is Love? Is it a Deee-lite song? Will that reference lose all meaning after my generation is gone?
Jimmy had love for his wife but he was never in love with her. She never took his breath away when he lay eyes upon her. He never felt his heart pound, his hands grow damp, the butterflies release in his belly at the thought of Her. He knew she was a good woman. He knew she was faithful to him and to God. He knew she would never betray him and she would follow his lead. She allowed him to be the Man, and that’s all that mattered. If you don’t have it all, that’s because it’s not meant to be.
For Jimmy, it was simple. He needed a woman who was willing to lock it down in the eyes of God and the government so that his seed would be cared for until fully grown. Now that he is married, Jimmy tries to be faithful and what that means is he does not go out looking for pussy, but should pussy find him, well… anything is possible. Women today act like men, out to get theirs, no questions asked, not even, Hey baby, you ever had an HIV test? It has gotten to the point where it’s become vulgar, coarse—almost a business transaction—the way we interface with strangers to negotiate the most intimate of terms.
Of course, when the time is right, nothing is wrong.
Marriage hasn’t changed him. Jimmy remains the same. And perhaps that is because he chose a woman to become the mother of his child rather than a woman to be his wife. He’s given up on the idea of True Love. That’s fine for chick flicks and romance novels that lonely girls read on the train. But that’s okay, his son has his mother and his father living together. Inevitably, they’ll get divorced but for now everything is as it should be, a happy compromise.
But Jimmy is no fool and he knows that his working at night is a blanket statement. The ultimate cover up for everything, because come what may it can always be attributed to It was late. It was late, I didn’t mean to wasn’t thinking you know how it is I haven’t slept I’m just so tired I couldn’t think didn’t think didn’t mean it c’mon baby don’t be like that
Jimmy has had girls smoke him up on his breaks. He has had girls invite him back to their crib and one woman was so bold as to offer a blowjob under the desk. While he was on duty. In the dead of night. And she was sober, mind you. She knew what she liked. But he refused, graciously. If there was one thing he wasn’t going to risk was his job for an orgasm. Leave that to the President, please.
And it’s strange but whenever he refuses women that seems to make them like him more, and he wish he had known this when he was in high school, because it would have gone a lot better if he didn’t have to work as hard. But maybe this is karma and maybe he’s due a little dividend, so these days he is treated like something special by the women of this building, some of whom get up at four a.m. because they are old and cannot sleep and they make him a pot of fresh coffee and bring it down to him at five and chat before he gets off at six.
“To get you home safe and sound” they say with a twinkle in the eye and rollers in the hair before they beat a quiet retreat back upstairs. And so it is that he has got it good. He loves his chair, his desk, his nest, Jimmy, the night owl of West Twelfth Street.
“Good evening, Miss Fontaine,” he says, springing to his feet as Jade walks through the glass doors. He has always liked this girl though he is not sure why. There’s something about her attitude, her posture, her presence that catches his eye like a fish on a hook, dangling helplessly, caught by an illusion he cannot name.
Jade has a regal way of carrying herself, as though she were an old Hollywood film star. She holds her chin just so as she sweeps through a room, barely making eye contact as though everyone is invisible. Her stride is such that it could be described as a long legged gait, except Jade isn’t particularly tall, maybe five-five or five-six, but she casts a shadow as long as the Empire State Building.
At the same time, it is clear from what he has glimpsed of her habits that she cares for nothing, including herself; it is almost as though she is hell bent for leather and eternal damnation, which ever comes first.
Jade lifts her eyes at the sound of Jimmy’s voice and looks deep into his own. Her face is swollen and red, and her voice is low as she barely mouths the words, “Good night.” She walks by the desk with the slow and heavy footfalls that the vanquished know deep in their heart. Watching her pass, Jimmy feels a chill run through his bones as though someone has stepped over his grave.
After she leaves, he searches for understanding, scanning his memory for clues. He has heard about how the eighth floor smells of weed smoke ever since she moved in but that doesn’t mean anything at all. Potheads are everywhere and most of them are docile folk. But Jade doesn’t appear as quiet or calm unless you consider that she is sitting in the eye of the storm.
Jimmy reflects on the little he knows and remembers one guy who seemed to be her only friend, a queen who went by the name of Miss Fred. Miss Fred was a man with a cheap face and expensive shoes who always caught an attitude at the front desk. “I am sorry, but you must be announced,” Jimmy would say in the most officious manner, to which Miss Fred would reply,” Get over yourself honey, this ain’t the Waldorf Astoria.” Then he would swish past the desk as though he were wearing a ballroom gown. And though Jimmy’s fists would itch, he would take a deep breath before picking up the phone to let Jade know that little troll was on the way upstairs. Yes Ma’am.
Jade kept to herself within the building, making no acquaintances, establishing no comraderie. Jimmy can’t remember any girls coming by to visit. But guys came by and went, all hours of the day and night. Jade had a thing for derelicts, criminals, and druggies; she probably entertained some homeless men, too. They would step to Jimmy acting rough but he could tell they were out of their element, uncomfortable around all these middle-aged, middle-class white folk. He took notice when their voices got louder and their chests puffed up and they turned away from the desk to survey the lobby and made eye contact with some of the residents, staring them down like Fuck you, bitch.
Jimmy would see them come and, sometimes, Jimmy would see them go. And, sometimes, they would make a second or third appearance and, sometimes, they would be replaced by somebody new. A different face didn’t change the fact that they were all of the same and Jimmy couldn’t figure it out—where are Jade’s parents and why do they let her live like this?
No one seems to know. No one had ever seen them. And the part of Jimmy that is a father wanted to get their contact information. And call them. And ask, “Do you know what is going on? Can you make her stop? Can you cut her off? I am worried about this girl. How come you aren’t?” And the part of Jimmy that is a father wants to reach out to Jade, to take her by the shoulders and shake her gently, or maybe, just maybe, slap her hard across the face.
Snap out of it! he wants to roar but that would be crossing the line. So he keeps to himself. The Dark Princess, Jimmy has dubbed her to no one else. He knows he is one of the few to feel this way. He knows that Jade has made no allies, no friends, as she sets herself apart from everyone, as though she is above it all. He knows that Ms. Fishbein, her next-door neighbor, is out for blood having begun a quest to have Jade censured by the co-op board, that with enough applied pressure, perhaps she can force Jade out the front door.
Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn
1910, New York
Ms. Fishbein (Judy, to her friends) lives in the apartment next to Jade. She was short of stature and wide of hip and low of breast and flat of rump. She wore sensible shoes and the thick stockings of a schoolgirl with wool-blend skirts in shades like grey and taupe. Her sweaters were of the cowl neck variety, and were sometimes belted around the waist, resembling nothing so much as a sack of potatoes wearing a pair of Spanx. Her hair was grey and cut sensibly so that if she awoke late, she wouldn’t need a brush to set it in place. She wore no make up and carried a large purse and a plastic bag inside which she carried her lunch. Egg salad sandwiches with extra mayonnaise, a yellow apple, and a carton of milk, each and every day.
Ms. Fishbein liked to think of herself as respectable, above all. And when the threshold for acceptability was brought down too low for her to limbo beneath, well… that’s where problems began. Ms. Fishbein wasn’t one to compromise her quality of life for anyone at all. She cheered Mayor Guiliani as he swept the City clean of the filth. She admired his will to power and his disciplinarian ways and if truth be told, she found him sexier than most. She loved the way his eyes crinkled when he laughed.
Ms. Fishbein tried to set things straight between herself and Jade, knocking on her door the first week Jade had moved in to introduce herself. “I notice you are playing your music very loud. That’s not how things are done here,” she said looking over her glasses and down her nose with all the intended disdain that gesture presupposes.
Jade stood in abject horror as she observed this troll trying to tell her how she was to be living now that she was on her own. You’re not my mother, Jade seethed with her eyes as she gently turned up her smile to extra bright. Flashing those high beams gleaning off her teeth, Jade snarled kindly, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’ll remember you for it.”
And as she spoke those words she noticed her neighbor did not look her in the eye but instead was craning her neck trying to see behind her. Jade stood her ground firmly and offered her neighbor nothing other than the sight of the door moving towards her as it closed in her face.
Ms. Fishbein was livid, a fragrant shade of beet red crept across her cheeks as she stood in the doorway, perfectly still, unwilling to give an inch. This girl is trouble, mark my words. What kind of parents would allow their child to move into an apartment unsupervised? They must have been dying to get rid of her. In my day, a girl was lucky if she could afford an apartment like this. She did for self. She got a job; she didn’t take handouts. I mean, of course, she could get married and start a family and keep a house, and here Ms. Fishbein’s nose wrinkled in revulsion and disgust.
Start a family! Imagine that. Her mind immediately went to the penis and she thought of it hanging there, flaccid and foolish. It served no purpose, it had no merit. It was simply a statement of fact, a tube for urine and nothing else. Ms. Fishbein turned away from Jade’s apartment and began strolling back to her own with a foot light of step and a pride all her own. She felt a moral superiority to men and to the women who loved them. She knew what love was; she knew what it was worth. She knew the delusions and she knew the sins. And she knew that she, Judy Fishbein, was a saint floating in a sea of sin.
And with her superiority she set adrift and she smirked with derision at the flaccid penis. And once she did that, she released what had been contained and what was limp became hard and stiff and proud. And as it became bigger, Ms. Fishbein’s heart began to pound and her stomach cramped and her palms became damp and her throat became dry. Unconsciously, she licked at the corner of her lips and unconsciously she swallowed deep in her esophagus. And her throat was no longer dry but instead it was wet and she cursed the penis for asserting itself. And she cursed the tiny hairs that she could see on the shaft. And she cursed the testicles that lay beneath, firm and within her grasp, like the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, ready and ripe. And she cursed the man to whom all of this was attached.
And so it was in a matter of a couple of days that Ms. Fishbein once again heard this awful music pounding through the wall. But this time when she heard the beat, she heard something she did not expect. She heard the squeaking of furniture and the rhythmic motion of breath. She heard signs and moans and gasps and pleas and Please and Oh God and Fuck Me. And she heard these sounds at ten in the morning and at ten at night. And she heard the music, all day every day and it sounded like anger and rage and wrath and vitriol. It sounded like karma and it sounded like it had come due.
But Ms. Fishbein was not one to go quietly into the night. She had come to far to quit without a fight. Unconsciously she found herself listening at the door, at the wall, for any sound, any sound at all. She listened carefully to the for Jade’s coming and goings, and then she began to take notice of things, things that were happening and things that were not for soon enough reality became a fantasy of sorts. Ms. Fishbein was straining, seeking, searching, lurking, needing a reason for what she could not understand.
What had begun as revulsion and superiority had segued into an obsession of sorts and it came to a head one day earlier in the summer when Ms. Fishbein called the cops, telling them that she heard loud screaming, crying, and thumping on the floor in the apartment next to hers. She grasped the phone in her hand so tightly her knuckles became while and as she breathed heavily into the receiver, she became giddy from her power to change other people’s lives.
With a rush, she spoke, her words stumbling over the next as she relayed to 911 the nature of her call. “That girl—and I use that term loosely—she does drugs all the time. And I hear this loud yelling then the sound of something—or someone—hitting the ground. Then the yelling stopped, and there was silence. And I got scared. I mean, she has strange men coming and going at all hours of the night, so maybe something happened to her. I know, I shouldn’t be a hero but I just couldn’t stand the thought of her lying there hurt. I went to check on her (because I am a good neighbor and that’s what good neighbors do) and when I knocked on the door, I got no response. Nothing. I put my ear to the door and heard nothing. No one. Could you send someone over? I am concerned.”
But when the cops arrived they found nothing except Jade quietly writing a paper for school. Jade had said that she had been home alone, and that no, there had been no noise, no fight, no scene. She invited the police in and let them look around, but there was nothing to see, no trace of anything unseemly to be revealed. Jade didn’t seem surprised that Ms. Fishbein had called the cops. She felt something wasn’t quite right with her neighbor but she didn’t give it any thought.
As the police exited the premised they saw Ms. Fishbein standing in her doorway in that strangely uncomfortable way that nosy people have of sticking only their head out and leaving their body inside. Ms. Fishbein watched the cops as though they were working for her, and as they closed the door to Jade’s apartment, Ms. Fishbein started to talk.
“Well, what happened? Was she dead? I mean, is she okay? I mean, what happened? Did you find drugs?”
The cops walked down the hallway to question Ms. Fishbein, who swore that she was not imagining things, that she heard a huge kerfuffle and it made her nervous. “Why didn’t she answer the door when I knocked?” Ms. Fishbein asked rhetorically. “Why didn’t she speak to me? I was concerned.”
And with those words, the policemen exchanged glances. They had met many a shrew in this town before, women whose lives were passing them by and what they had to show for it was a couple of degrees hung proudly upon their walls. They hadn’t any family. Maybe an ex-husband and a bitter divorce. No children because they had careers. And their figures were long ago lost. In the place of a waistline was a donut or muffin to and a high-fructose indoor lifestyle that showed upon their faces.
“You must understand, I am concerned. I have established myself,” Ms. Fishbein asserted, unprompted. “I am an administrator in a hospital where I oversee the fundraising efforts. It’s an exhausting job and it is very important, you understand, that I be able to rest when I come home. I work hard day and night and for that what do I get? I live next to this…this…harlot,” and here she spat out the word. Her heart was thumping in her breast as she spoke and her breath was being drawn in rapid gasps. Her voice became shrill as she continued her rant. “I saved up for years to buy this apartment; it is my oasis in a city filled with filth and crime. I worked long and hard to get this place—it wasn’t just handed to me like it was handed to her. I never asked my parents for a dime.”
Back in Ms. Fishbein’s day, American women didn’t have much of a choice. They had to get a job, or get a husband, or dream that they could have both. They had to chase the American Dream, which is to own a home, ironically upon the land once populated by people who did not believe in land ownership. And it is stranger still that this small piece of land should be one of some four hundred shoeboxes in a White Castle on Sixth Avenue.
The nature of apartment buildings runs counter to nature itself, and the herding of people like cattle into spaces like these is questionable at best. But these people were not raised to question. They were trained to obey and so, like farm animals, they of broken spirit live and die without leaving a trace.
To counter this oblivion, many of them seek self-importance masquerading as peer recognition and use their careers to position themselves. And it is here that they join a chain of command that demands that, again, they must meet someone else’s expectations. But so many have already quit their own lives, given up those dreams they had so long ago as a child.
I want to be a fireman. An astronaut. I want to be a painter. I want to sing and dance. I want to be a doctor. I want to save lives. Well, I can fundraise at the hospital. That’s close enough.
So many people have leveraged their happiness for the sake of the status quo that if you ask them what would make them feel good, most of them would say, “A day off.” To do what? “To sleep.” That can’t be happiness but it can be true. What happens when your livelihood is dependent upon producing something for someone else when the person at the top was the most deeply compromised of all?
Women like Ms. Fishbein, the officers noticed, have a resentment that they project onto the world. Once upon a time, these women seethed with disgust. How dare he talk about me! I do not exist for his pleasure. They would fume, boil, bubble, and churn… until the looks stopped coming their way. And when the looks stopped, when the appraisals faded into the shade and became nothing but a distant memory, these women would notice where the glances were being cast and direct their anger that way.
Ms. Fishbein continued speaking to the police, unaware that her righteous concern had metastasized into a bitter rant, unaware that the police were now looking at her with frustration and concern. Ms. Fishbein didn’t pay attention to the reactions of the people to whom she spoke. She just continued speaking, as though everyone agreed with her point of view.
“What makes her think she is special? She is nothing but a cheap floozy. Look at that outfit. When did streetwalker become chic? A whore, a slut. That’s all she is. I mean, if I were to dress so cheaply, everyone would be looking at me. But I don’t. I won’t. I have self-respect. I’m not some nobody. I am the Assistant to the Director of Fundraising at St. Vincent’s Hospital. People respect me.”
One of the cops took pity on her distress and answered kindly with a little advice. “Listen, Miz Fishbein, I know how it is. You’re an important woman and you want to be able to come home to a peaceful place. You live in a bee-you-tea-full building. This place here musta cost you a pretty penny. And it’s a good investment, so much as the people you live with are invested in it. And I am sure this girl has problems but they might not be legal ones. So I’ll tell you what. Best thing to do is write a letter to, whas-it-called, the co-op board. Buildings like this are made to take care of the problems on the inside. They want you to be happy. Write to them. Call them. Set up an appointment and air your grievances through the proper channels. We are the police. We investigate crimes, not personal matters.”
The cops walked away, relieved to have closed the case. And as they passed by the doorman at the desk, they gave him a nod and let him know everything was okay. And so it was that their visit made Jade the flavor of the month. And the doorman began to debate and to choose sides. Team Fishbein vs Team Fontaine. It was evenly divided. Both women struck a chord inside these men’s hearts, alternate disgusting and attracting them with their shortcomings and their assets.
Jimmy was Team Jade, and after this scene he began to ponder and philosophize because he wanted to understand, Who is this girl and what is she up to and why doesn’t anyone know what is going on. I mean, after all that he has seen and heard, this girl has it all—so why is she scrapping her knuckles on the bottom of the barrel?
A conundrum it has become.
Image from Tumblr
Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13
Jade steps into the elevator. She presses the number 8, then, unable to wait, she slips off her shoes. She has been wearing heels for much too long and can no longer feel her little toes. When the elevator doors open, she drags her feet along the plush carpeting, enjoying the feeling of soft, synthetic fibers brushing against her soles. The hallway is bright, much too bright for #&% in the morning, and the nubby cream wallpaper glows like a tunnel underground.
“This looks like a prison,” some guy once observed as they walked through this hallway. Jade did a double take, feeling vulnerable to knowledge that she did not understand. His words stayed with her, echoing in her mind like the disembodied spirit of Man.
Her door. Sometimes she went to the wrong one. 8N. Yea, that’s not her but after a long night or too many drinks, sometimes she tried to insert her key into someone else’s lock. She would stand there, confused, trying to make sense of it. Something was different. Her lock didn’t have a plate over it. She would waver in a daze, until it hit her. 8M, that’s me. Next one over.
Jade stands at the door to her apartment, key in hand. 8M as in Men. Men, glorious men, have proven to be the most powerful way to devise her fate. Criminals. Derelicts. Homeless. Gorgeous. Yess. She is caught in a cycle she can’t seem to break. Ever since Andy, she has been rebounding from one guy to the next, unable to see the trap she has set for herself, unwilling to acknowledge how futile the cycle is. No matter what happens, she remains the same, worse for the wear but essentially unchanged, unable or unwilling to stop playing this game. Over and over and over again she spins, spiraling out of control. Next stop? You don’t want to know.
A little perspective might help. Let’s take a look at that guy Nino knocked out. His name is Mike. Mike is some random guy that Jade met on the street one night. It was a couple of weeks ago, some time in July. She had been standing on 44 Street, talking to the doorman outside Sardi’s. She had just gotten off work and had nothing to do, so she was talking that nonsense that people with no direction so often do.
She noticed a guy coming down the street, headed straight towards her. He was that kinda good looking that heated her up like nothing else could. They locked eyes, and this time Jade did not avert her gaze. But neither did she smile. As he passed, she drew a breath that she held and didn’t release. And as she did this she looked away, nervous, unsure of herself, and strangely afraid. Some call it coy, the way she averted her eyes. But there was a genuine sense of discomfort, a feeling of attraction and revulsion at the same time.
Once he passed, Jade let herself exhale. The air came rushing out of her chest and her shoulders release an anxiety that she could not place, but she was beginning to feel distraught. For each and every man she desired was making her sicker than the last.
Still, the sickness was addictive. The highs of the lows, the lows of the highs, the up and down eternally crashing in on itself, likes waves of the tides. Emotions flowed through her, much too freely at times. And by freely I mean overwhelmingly, overwhelming her. These emotions that do not flow calmly, they thrash and they lash and they hurt. They are not waves but riptides, opposing other currents and producing a turbulence that is all their own. And with the pull of the moon every month, Jade was continuously losing control. And so there she stood, she spotted that same guy walking in the other direction, and she decided with a big smile upon her face, This is meant to be. This is my Fate.
She called him over. They started to chat about nothing at all. His name was Mike. She smiled, looking into his eyes, then looking anywhere but at them as she spoke. She searched around for something, something that would bring them close together. “Wanna get some weed?” she asked easily, speaking on the one thing that never failed.
Jade spends most of her time around people with drugs for drugs because what other purpose than escape? From the pain, from the mundane, from the ineffable sameness that has clouded her brain? Because, as far back as she can remember, she has always been insane.
And that’s the thing. She isn’t quite sane. That’s what her parents taught her, in clinical terms, being psychologists and all, using their knowledge to do harm. It was the same scene, played over and over again for years. Her father would find something petty as an excuse for warfare. And when she would react with anything less than total submission, he would hold himself aloof and talk down to her. “You’re not rational” he would say, with smug superiority as Jade stood before him with tears running down her face, convinced she was losing her mind. At seven years old.
Subtext, pure subtext, the tricky hand of a criminal whose greatest crime is still not illegal, because apparently you can medicate a person for disorders they do not have. And convince them that what they believe isn’t actually happening.
“I believe you believe it,” her mother oozed in the patronizing tones of an enabler.
But Jade was not one to give in, so she fought back until she was cut down to size, minced into nothingness by sharp tongues and dangerous minds and dark hearts. And once she had been reduced and dismissed and abandoned, she went into her room to cry, and to punish, but there was no one there except herself. So she began to cut, and with every cut she felt relief, as she imagined that she was bleeding out the demons, their rusty stains proof of her filth. And the scars, the marks she left, they reminded her of all that was ugly in her soul and every time she looked upon them she knew the truth as it had been told.
The more she cut, the more she bled, the better it began to feel, until one day it became a pleasure that she looked forward to with something like zeal, a fervor, a fever, a desire to self harm that made her warm and weak. And as she stood silent through the assault, as her father’s words pierced and punctured and cut, as her mother stood there in silent and tacit agreement, Jade began to disassociate. She left the room where she stood upon a carpet of great prestige and price, and she floated away into a netherworld where she could feel the blade slice through her flesh. And as her father ranted, she drifted further away and began fantasizing about what part of her body she would soon defile.
Would it be her inner thighs, so tender and sensitive to the slightest touch? Would it be her lower abdomen, so pale and so soft? Would it be her breasts, so new and so firm? Or might she take a chance and cut into something visible like her arms?
The thought of leaving a mark that might be seen seemed so subversive and so mean. It felt as thought finally she had power over—something. And at the thought of her power, a smile crept across her lips, a quiet, an unspoken joy revealed to no one, and that made her father mad, almost crazed.
“WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SMILE ABOUT?” he roared. And Jade snapped back into reality, realizing that he was come perilously close to opening Pandora’s Box and sharing what was hers with the people she feared most. And just as the smile had appeared, it vanished, and in its place came the tears. And she would berate herself for the shame of her joy and the joy of her shame, and she would remind herself that she was crazy, unfit, certifiably insane. And she would think very carefully about how to guard this secret from them, for she knew that if one wrong word was spoken that she, just like her sister, might be disappeared.
Privately, she called her father Pinochet, and her mother Eva (Peron or Braun, depending on the day). And though she could never think of it she knew that her parents’ greatest success was destroying the daughters they made. Originally she was one of two, but now she was one of one. And if she weren’t careful, soon enough, she would become one of none.
So she would retire to her room and quietly begin to cut and she would taste the iron upon her tongue as she licked the wounds clean. And the taste of her blood reminded her of something else. Of something from the depths of the earth. And though she could not name this, it returned her to herself. And she sat silently blotting the blood as it wept from her leg.
In time the cutting created no feeling. And soon she became numb. But not numb enough to stop. And not numb enough to go on. And that’s when she discovered drugs. And with drugs she discovered sex. And with sex she discovered a special kind of access to something she didn’t understand. But sex (usually) required another person, a man, and that makes her nervous. Because she needs them to love her, and she needs them to hurt her, because isn’t that the same thing?
But she also needs the pain to stop. To not think is to be free. And free from her thoughts is all Jade has ever desired. She stands in front of her door to her apartment in an abysmal state, her feet inflamed, her face tender, her knee aching, her heart angered. As she turns the key, she thinks to herself, 8M as in Meltdown—yea, whenever that comes.
Photograph Found on Tumblr
Image Source Unknown
If you want to be straight,
let yourself be crooked.
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 22
Jade awakens with a start. Her eyes burst open as if she has heard an alarm but there is no noise, there is no sound, there are no cars on the street in the city that never sleeps. There are no drunks baying at the moon or screaming in need. The silence is deep and into its still waters all life recedes.
Her eyes are wide, her throat is dry, and the sheets are damp. Her temperature drops precipitously as a chill shoots through her body and her skin is covered in gooseflesh, every hair is standing on end as tension flows freely through her veins. She does not know if she has slept or not; she only remembers coming out of the shower and laying on her bed, her hair wet and spread across the pillows, her body bare as the day she was born.
She hasn’t eaten since when? She does not remember. Maybe breakfast, maybe lunch. It might have been a slice of pecan pie, eaten so slowly she didn’t notice it going in her mouth. Lately everything tastes like cardboard and sits like lead. Food is fuel but Jade runs on empty, (mal)nourished by a diet of cortisol and adrenalin.
A cold chills her bones during the hottest month of the year. She is unsure if she slept, unsure if she fed, unsure of anything besides the exhaustion that sweeps over her as she swings her legs off the bed. Dead girl walks to the window that has no shades; her life, such as it is, a public display. Wearing only her great grandmother’s wedding band, her fingers so slim it fits her thumb, she opens the window beside her desk and leans out into the stale air, breathing it all the way in.
The sun hovers on the horizon as if considering its options. But options are the illusion of Man for Nature controls the program. The sun begins its relentless climb and leaves in its wake a full array of rainbow sorbet colored streaks. Raspberry and orange, lemon and lime, the sweetest berry-colored hues blend into each another as the new day arrives.
Jade pulls herself back into the apartment, feeling despondent and vulnerable and broken apart. Melancholy creeps over her, stealing across her skin and burrowing in, deep down it goes. At the center of this Tootsie Pop is a chasm so great it has become a black hole, turning in on itself as if to swallow her whole. She is raw and exposed; all she feels and all she knows pours from her pores and clings to her skin; shame is the perfume of the living dead.
Her hair, only straight under the heat of a blowdryer, has returned to its natural state. Before falling asleep the hot shower she took restored satin ringlets to their rightful place, hanging in her face and down her back like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. The crisp light of morning does not flatter her youth. Her eyelids are puffy and a vague shade of purple lingers beneath. Her skin is pale, dull, and swollen, and the hit she took last night shows proudly. And despite her best efforts to eradicate her frame, to emaciate and maim, the gentle curves of her body still remain. Soft undulations of flesh linger and rest, her breasts full, her waist long, her legs toned and defined after years of walking the streets, Jade is endlessly on her feet, going from here to there with no purpose except to pass (time) away. Her body has become a map of desire, a guided tour of the shame.
Tears of self-loathing flood her eyes and run down her face, wet, like everything else. She sits at her desk, her shoulders shaking, her chest aching, unable to catch her breath, a cry of pain escaping her lips, the sound of a kitten lost in the rain. Single words assail her brain but none of them fit into a coherent thought. Unloved. Rotten. Degenerate. Trash. Damaged, Reject. Kill Yourself.
As the sun rises, it dissolves the click and her brief respite of dreamless sleep fades away as the ceasefire comes to an end. Her mind returns to fight a war it cannot win as memories pellet and pound her like cannons turned against themselves. The walls of her castle have been breached; the horses run wild in fear. Flames lick their lips, insatiable, relentless, coming near. But it is not the ineffable truth that precludes her escape but it the lies she holds in her heart that tempt the Fates.
Something haunts her, something she cannot reach. In her peripheral vision she sees the sharp edges of shadows leering, jeering, cheering their success. Their laugher makes no noise but vibrates powerfully inside her chest. Her breathing constricts and her fingers begin to tingle as a feeling of panic sets in. What is it? What is it?
Photograph by Lilla Szasz
Faces of Desire
The tears are pouring now, without stop. They rush like a river that has overcome a dam, a flood that threatens to wash everything away except where all this pain began. With the release of her tears comes the heaving of her chest, breath so labored it is as though she is going into cardiac arrest. Her heart, it burns, it breaks into a million little pieces all crying for love. She wants to scoop them up into a tight hug but they are sharp, shattered bits with jagged edge and with every touch they charge deeper into her flesh. Everything hurts as though it will never end, not even in death, though just the thought of death soothes her twitchy nerves.
As she is crying, she slides to the floor. She was taught to beg on her knees, not to stand on her own. It is to this posture she returns when weakness overcomes her soul. It is on the ground where she feels most at home, doubled over in pain and all alone. She needs a tissue because it’s starting to get messy, so she starts crawling along the parquet tiles toward the bathroom. She goes so slowly she notices little things like a tiny insect traveling in the same direction as she. She notices the flesh around her fingertips is as red as the nail polish that is chipped and peeling away. She notices that her knee hurts from when she landed on it last night. She enjoys the pain and leans into it to feel the nerves throb in protest. She keeps crawling until she reaches the bathroom and feels the cool tiles under her palms. Then she tears a piece of toilet paper and blows her nose. She tears another piece of paper and blows again. Then another piece of paper and wipes the tears from her face. She discards the used tissues in the toilet bowl, flushes, and leans back against the wall.
She draws her knees to her chest and hugs them tight. Her back relaxes as her head drops forward. She sits like this for some time, though how long is unclear. Time has no meaning when there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no one to be.
As Jade’s breathing stills, the only sounds are those coming from the street below. Taxis honk angrily at each other while buses whoosh along in their lanes, picking up passengers who hate to ride on the trains. Pedestrians rush along, juggling coffee cups and briefcases, silently cursing the person in front of them for walking slowly. Jackhammers start up the street on a construction site, setting everyone on edge. The relentless rat-a-tat-tat of steel tearing apart concrete bespeaks the violence of Man in the name of progress. New Yorkers are proud that they have learned to tune things out but just because the front door is closed doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways in.
Tension mounts when the jackhammer begins anew. The sudden sound snaps Jade out of her catatonic state and she opens her eyes, confused. Without thinking, she rises and walks toward her desk, grabbing a cigarette out of the pack. The nicotine relaxes her, filling her lungs with thick smoke. The taste of smoke on her tongue, the smell of it in her hair, the feeling of it surrounding her like a cloud, this mundane experience returns her to what she has become: a machine of perpetual motion. Unable to stop, unable to start, unable to do anything except continues down a path from which there is no escape.
The sun’s early rays streak through her windows. She has no drapes, no coverings of any sort, not since the night that, coked up, she tore the filthy beige blinds off the wall. Maybe it is seven, or maybe it is eight. On this Wednesday morning, the City is coming to life. Rush hour and such, Jade is pleased that this is not her life. Not that her current situation is any better but if she is going to be a slave, let it be on her terms.
Weed, now that’s a good master. Kind and benevolent and worst cast scenario? Paranoia, but who can tell? Jade refills the Absolut bottle, then lights the bowl.
The smoke floats like a spirit; it moves with a meaning she does not comprehend. In the light of the summer sun, Jade watches this spirit move through the air. It is all things at once: wispy and plump, translucent and opaque, body and soul coiling and curling before melting away.
So fixated on evanescence is she that the harsh sound of the buzzer makes her jump, literally, two inches it might have been, off her chair. The doorman buzzes long and hard, as though she were in the east wing of her shoebox.
“Yesssssss?” Jade says into the receiver, suppressing a giggle when she realizes how stoned she sounds.
“Good morning, Miss Fontaine. Nino is here.”
Jade shakes her head imperceptibly, almost as if she has a twitch. What? No! Yes! What? “Please send him up,” she answers with her heart in her throat.
Jade spins about in an elegant frenzy, putting on a pair panties, stretch jeans, and a tank top, spraying herself with Chanel No. 5. She applies lip gloss, then lights a cigarette, trying to act casual.
Then she remembers her hair. It’s… everywhere! She catches a glimpse in the mirror and sticks out her tongue, evoking Medusa like the emblem on her jeans. With this thought, the memory of the murder of Gianni Versace last summer washes over her in a sickening surge; it is the image of a slipper lying abandoned on steps of stone splattered with blood. This photograph, so primitive and so profound, has bonded Jade to a man she never knew yet somehow communes with in another realm. Fashion, she believes, is the most integrated of all arts, for in the act of adorning ourselves, our lives become an indelible part of the creative process.
And though it sounds silly, even frivolous, to suggest that through the experience of fashion we may know others as they want us to know ourselves, for Jade to place her feet in a pair of heels, to swish her hips in stretch jeans, to shimmy her titties in a tiny tube top, to decorate the body she has been given with earrings that dangle and belts that sparkle, to add a splash of color here, a shiny object there… this knowledge is among the most intimate she has ever known. It is the designs that make her body move this way or that, which allow her to feel, to understand what it is to be a woman in full. It is in the balance upon those stilettos, in the constriction and flow of her flesh, the way in which she sits and stands and saunters, that Jade feels the feminine within.
And in that same way, she feels soft and delicate without this armor. Standing before her mirror with a naked face and unstyled hair, bare feet and breasts free, Jade is self conscious but too tired, too wired, too inspired to care. I mean—Nino?! What is he doing here?
Photograph of Catherine Deneuve
in Luis Buñuel’s “Belle du Jour”
True purity seems tarnished.
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 41
The doorbell does not ring. Instead a fist pounds against the door. Jade takes a deep breath and counts to eight before opening up.
Nino leans against the nubby wallpaper opposite her door wearing the same clothes he had on last night. Everything about him feels casual, like they have done this many times before. He looks relaxed yet it is clear he has not slept either. He looks into her eyes shyly then steps forward with a Kool-Aid smile. He scoops her into his arms and gives her a big hug, holding her as close as close can hold.
With his touch, Jade feels her body become taut. One arm rises mechanically, doing a little pat-pat on his back. She in unable to engage for she is set on stunned and she needs to override her autopilot dysfunction.
Nino notices none of this. He has one thing on his mind and when he takes her in his arms, all his tension dissipates as he feels the resounding calm of her heart. He can smell the tobacco in her hair, the marijuana in the air, and underneath it all, the hint of something pure. He presses his nose into her neck and she giggles and squirms and he smiles and lets go and resists the urge to kiss her cheek a thousand times.
“So, this is where you live!” Nino says, stepping forward in an authoritarian way. He walks into her apartment and heads straight to the window, opening it wide and sticking his head out. He takes in the view of people hurrying, scurrying to work. He thanks God this is not his life then pulls himself inside, turns around, and rests with his back to the window. Watching Jade watch him, Nino asks for a cigarette. Lighting it, he mentions, “Your doorman doesn’t like me.”
“They don’t like anyone,” Jade assumes. “Especially not the guys who work the morning shift. They’ve been working here more years than I’ve been on earth. Guys like that, they act like this building is theirs. And maybe they’re right.”
Nino doesn’t care. He sits at her desk and eyes the Absolut bottle with interest.
“Can I get you something? Water? Coffee? Weed?” Jade asks, a demure belle du jour.
“Come sit here,” Nino says, pointing to the other chair as he takes a pull off the cigarette.
All of a sudden, Jade is nervous, feeling a loss of control. He has come back to her as though he never left, as though he always meant to be here. She looks at him sprawled across her chair; his legs are wide open as though offering himself to her. Does he expect something? Did he come here for sex? Who shows up at eight in the morning trying to get laid?
Well, there’s always a first.
Jade watches his cigarette burn down to the filter as it balances precariously between his thumb and index finger. His eyes are shut and his head nods serenely as though he has fallen asleep. She walks towards him slowly, unable to resist his allure.
She sits down and regards him in the morning light as his ragged beauty warms her body in a delicate blush. His skin is a pale shade of caramel, the rich golden undertones hungering for the sun’s sweet kiss. His hair is darkest chocolate, almost mahogany, kept neatly in a fade. His features are sharp and distinct, heavy eyebrows, deep set eyes, high cheekbones, Roman nose, full lips, and square jaw held by an eloquent neck. His ears are small and discreet but his hands are big and rough and don’t fit his frame. His frame is sleek and matches his form, that of a lightweight boxer who dominates through intimidation and finesse. There is something frightening about these hands that bare deep scars across the knuckles and down the backs into his forearms. To see these hands at rest is the pregnant pause; potential creates tension and the air around Nino crackles with an electric charge. Jade is unnerved by how he both disturbs and excites her. She continues to look at his hands with the curious hunger of the carefully starved.
Nino’s eyes open unexpectedly and he sees her checking him out. This makes him smile to himself and his lips part unconsciously, widening slowly to show his teeth. Radiance surrounds him; it is the aura of the unknown. A thorny halo streaked in black and gold reveals itself, diaphanous and hovering around his head as he sits with his back to the sun.
In her presence Nino feels centered and a peace, so very much at ease. Without memories or thoughts, there is only pure feeling: the flame that burns without destruction, the light that shines without blinding, and the warmth of being home wherever you are.
But Nino doesn’t know how to live this love. It is too much. He doesn’t deserve it. No, the only love he deserves isn’t love at all but it feels real good and that’s close enough. His love has become a habit, a fix. An addiction is what it is. Top of the line, bottom of the barrel. Giddy up on that horse.
After he left Jade last night, Nino hopped the 6 and went up to the Bronx to catch a ride with his tio Tonio who was staying in Parkchester with Carmela, a girl who paid for everything. Envy crushed through his guts, thinking of how Tonio had it all. A woman who could provide a man all that he desires: money, sex, food, shelter, clothes, a car, and toys. Maybe friendship, maybe love—or maybe, Nino thought, those things should be negotiable considering how much they cost.
But a woman who knows how to raise her ass, shut her mouth, and pay the bills? Heaven on Earth, that’s my word. A smirk lurked in the corners of his mouth and a smug sort of respect transformed Nino’s envy into pride. Yea Tonio! That’s how to do it! Three months after serving his bit, Tonio locked down all the trappings of the good life. That’s a Man, Nino thought. A man got his when a woman knows her place. She’s got to hold it down so that he can live.
On the train, Nino warmed to his theme, dreaming of a world where girls would do his biding and back talk was not allowed. His wishes became law, his demand became duty, and the girls were happy because they no longer had to think for themselves. They looked to Nino as their father to protect them from harm, the harm they did unto themselves and others when they believed their own words lies.
In his dream Nino saw a row of girls on their knees before him. Their heads were hung low but their eyes were raised to meet his own. He looked down on them with pity, with anger, with desire for he could see their damp breasts swelling under a torrent of tears that fell from their cheeks.
But in this dream, Nino heard something he did not expect. He heard the little giggle of pleasure that once emanated from Jia’s lips. The sound reminded him of chimes tinkling in a far away garden. Close enough to be heard, distant enough to be lost, the jingle of her bliss filled Nino with nausea at once. His head began to spin and everything before his eyes went black. Doubled over in pain, he vomited on the floor of the subway car but all that was in his stomach was a can of Bud that he stole from a bodega. What was once beer now ran in rivulets of rusty peach foam as the train pulled into the St. Lawrence station.
Nino lurched out of the car and staggered toward the railing on the elevated platform, taking large gulps of sticky air into his lungs, tasting the acrid stomach acid that burned the back of his throat. He braced himself against the railing and dropped his head in despair. The word came as a command. NO. He felt his chest tighten. He gulped again. NO. NO. NO.
It was like emphysema, he took in large swallows but he could not exhale. His lungs were so full that the pressure forced his heart to pound violently. He gulped again. The pain was a relief. His head was spinning. His stomach was empty. His legs began to twitch.
GO. FUCK THIS. GO.
Nino pulled himself away from the railing, tearing his palms off one at a time. He stumbled forward but did not stop until he reached Tonio’s crib. As he approached the door, a dog started up with a very strained, high-pitched bark that came at a hundred yips a click. Why do women love the most annoying creatures: little dogs and cats? The thought of their foolishness made him angry all over again.
The anger made his head ache and his stomach cramp. He had to calm down before he ruined everything. Taking a deep breath, he remembered why he came and that only made him more anxious. Sweat gathered in his armpits and glistened on his brow. He rang the bell hard, assuming the dog already woke everyone up. Carmela answered the door. She didn’t look too good but she didn’t look too bad either. Her blonde hair was tucked under a silk scarf. Her brown eyes were concealed behind puffy lids but her giant breasts refused to hide and strained against the confines of her pink silk slip.
Photograph by Bruce Davidson
New York, 1959
“Nino!” she exclaimed and opened the door. “Please come in! Are you okay? You look sick. Pobrecito, can I get you something to drink? To eat? Take off your shoes, sit down, relax. I’m going to get you some coffee. What would you like for breakfast?” Carmela did not wait for an answer. She swished that big ass of hers into the kitchen and got to work while Nino sat on the sofa, resting his head in his hands. She returned with a mug of Cafe Bustelo and a pack of Newports. “Start with this, and I’ll be back with breakfast real quick. Oh! and Tonio went out last night and he hasn’t come back. But you’re welcome to stay here as long as you like.”
He was about to thank her when the front door burst open and Tonio came in, smiling to himself about a job well done. He saw Carmela in the kitchen and gave thanks to God. Never would he have ever believed the Lord would have sent him an angel but there she was, cooking breakfast before he even came home. “You are sooo good to me!” he sang and for a moment Carmela looked confused. She had not been expecting him to come home before she left for the job but she could make it work. “Mi amor, this food is for you and for Nino. He just got here a minute ago. He looks terrible. He needs your help.”
She knew what this meant even if she could not say the words. She knew the score and she kept her mouth shut. She never had the desire to change Tonio; he was a beast without conscience and that made her weak and wet and warm. Like all animals that live on the streets, he knew when it was time to go home, even if several nights passed before he returned to her merciful arms and alms. That he would not be domesticated, that he could not be tamed, that he was big game and not some little house pet, all this turned her on. When he first left her for nights on end without word of where he was going and when he would return, she went crazy with lust and frustration; bewitched by his abandonment she fell apart. But in a short time she understood she had to pick one of these two people to be. She chose lust and freed herself from all expectation beyond sex—and she was a happier person for it.
With the understanding that being respectable was for other people’s benefit, Carmela had adapted her persona accordingly. At the bank where she worked for nearly a decade, she was a model of professional efficiency and social pleasantries. She took pride in all things she did, knowing that she was always being judged, always being compared to the perfect example of womanhood. Her name was Mary: our virgin and our whore. Perhaps you think it’s just a coincidence the share the same name?
I think not.
Carmela was taught her purpose as Woman was to serve Man and the best way to do this was to anticipate his needs. Power and pleasure, beauty and leisure, these were to be found in the body and home she kept faithfully. Throughout her life, Carmela had been painstakingly instructed as to the ways of Woman. But the ways of Man? This she learned by watching her father, a product of the old country who brought those ways up north.
Her father learned the ways of the world growing up in a brothel; his mother worked there until she expired. And while she was there, she got pregnant but what of it? Even if she had known who the father of her baby was, what good would that have done anyway? Fallen women were only in demand as much as they had no demands of their own and no one wanted to claim her or her son.
Carmela’s grandmother, Violetta, had been a beautiful young girl, so much so that her parents understood her market value and sold her into prostitution at the tender age of twelve. Violetta had already known the ways of Man, having been gang raped by her cousins when she was only six years old. She was warned never to speak of what had occurred and she became mute, awkward, terrified of the world.
No one noticed (or cared) that this darling girl had receded into herself for at this time girls in her country were treated like animals at best. Some where whipped and some were adored but all were thought to be lesser than Man and kept in the barn. As Violetta matured and her body filled out into voluptuous curves, her parents saw there was money to be earned. One less mouth to feed was cash in pocket, as were the ten dollars they received for selling their daughter.
In the brothel Violetta learned that submission was the price she had to pay to stay alive. She understood that the more docile and coy she became, the safer she was. It was day by day; no past, no future, no hope. Please remember, there but for the grace of God go every girl on this planet. The world’s oldest profession isn’t prostitute; it’s pimp. Don’t think it’s not.
Trussed up like a Christmas goose, she shined her lips and rouged her breasts. Her curves continued to expand where they were most wanted and the flower of her youth gave her a charm that men so desperately wanted to crush. There was something about the space in which a girl was neither a child nor a woman that appealed to the men as though it were a path to salvation of sorts. For in this act was the essence of corruption as they sought to exchange their guilt for her innocence.
“Eres una puta sucia!” they sneered, stuffing themselves back into their pants, leaving her lying on a crusty blanket with her legs shamefully spread. And Violetta, fresh as three-day old flowers, began to show the earliest signs of a sickly decay. Complicated and compelling is the girl who has been cut from her roots, brought to market, and sold to anyone who can afford the rate.
Turning twenty, thirty tricks a day began to wear her out—not just the body but the soul itself. She felt an ache deep inside, the pain of the broken spirit, the truth that no one cared if she lived or died. It began to obsess her, her emptiness, until one night she had a dream. God came to her and filled her womb with His light and suddenly, she felt no pain. She awoke with a smile, the first smile she had known since she was a small child, before the ways of Man destroyed her life.
In her womb she carried this baby to term and when this baby was born she named him Jose for the husband she had never known. She raised her baby amid the comings and goings of her daily routine, no longer empty, having someone who was hers alone. As he grew in age, Jose proved himself to be a hustler, playing fetch for the customers and earning their rewards. The customers were charmed by this young boy and one or two of them took it upon themselves to instruct Jose in the ways of the world.
When he was fourteen, Violetta became ill. She had cancer of the cervix but nobody knew. It was exceedingly painful for her to work but she did what she had to do, ensuring that whatever money she earned would go to her son. In less than six months she was dead and Jose was on his own. He looked at his options and realized there were none.
Jose took up with an older woman who decided to move to New York after her sister found a tiny apartment in Parkchester. He became the man of the house, so to speak, operating as a pimp for these ladies. In time, the sister became pregnant and he decided she would keep it for no one would ever take his seed from him. His baby was born, golden and sweet. He named her Carmela and for the first time thought about his future in New York. The pimp game was profitable but it was also exhausting, so he sold his girls and found himself a new home. He married a quiet woman who would raise Carmela. A year later they had a son, Jose Jr.
Jose Sr. did not want his children to know about his past. He wanted them to have the childhood he never had. His wife was a God-fearing woman and she raised the children in the way of the Church, teaching them they were born of original sin and they were doomed since birth. As a girl, Carmela understood that her destiny was not that of her brother’s and this made her angry, for she had inherited Jose Sr.’s calculating ego.
Her father had modeled himself after the Almighty, believing his powers extended beyond earth and into the universe. As such he did not hold himself accountable to anyone, neither to his wife nor his children—nor to himself. He provided what he wanted when he wanted, but more often then not he took from others as only the entitled can take. “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” was his epitaph. He lived a life beyond reproach yet karma never kicked his ass.
Photograph by Lilla Szasz
Comrades, part of a series
When Carmela was in high school, she fell in love for the first—and last—time. His name was Juan and he was what was commonly known as a “super senior”, meaning he was doing year five. Juan had all of the charisma and attitude that her father possessed, but he lacked the craftiness that allowed Jose Sr. to escape punishment. Thus Carmela discovered that Juan had been having sex with her best friend for over four months, that they had forged a bond so deep that neither of them were willing to break it off. Juan had even gone so far as to suggest they have a threesome; that’s when Carmela ran from her own house screaming.
She was found hours later walking mindlessly down the street, alternately crying and laughing like an escaped mental patient. Something had broken that day, something pure had been tainted by betrayal. And in its place a new girl was born, a girl who no longer could trust anyone, believing that those who came close would do the most harm. That day Carmela connected with a malevolent spirit, and joined the kingdom of eternal darkness, forever its witness.
It was at this time that her father told her unsparingly, “Forgive him, he is a Man” and that was the final word on the subject. And so Carmela was taught the way of the world into which she had been born. So long as Woman covered for him, Man could have his cake and eat it too, and that she, as Woman, was here to bake and frost and serve it to him every day.
But possessed of her father’s arrogance and his pride, Carmela could not accept that this was her destiny in life. If men were allowed to cheat then why not she too? Naturally she could not do this openly, nor did she want to. She thought it far more amusing to maintain a pristine reputation for all those looking on her with judgment; let them think her good, for she was so good it hurt. She was good in the kitchen and good in bed; she was good with the bills and she kept her mouth shut. Not just about what Tonio did… but about the things he would never know.
To give her man what he needed, Carmela made sure that she was being pleased. Not just with sex (though a crooked smile slipped across her lips when she thought of the studs she kept in her stable) but with support. The financing was impressive and she never failed to giggle about how many men were willing to spend their paychecks in exchange for so little. What is sex for so many but a display of power and a system of control? Woe to the man who dominates, for he is addicted all the more.
Carmela played the game carefully, knowing Tonio was triggered by the slightest perceived infraction for more than anyone she had ever known, Tonio was the reflection of her father. He had possessed a sense of entitlement that outweighed her own and in seeing this manifest, she felt the urge to submit to him in every way but one. She would give him everything he desired except her heart (but his was so deeply buried, it is doubtful he even noticed the absence of hers).
They met on the street right after he got out of jail. She had been passing him by when he called her out. His eyes burned through her flesh, hungry for a taste, and in his hunger Carmela could smell the testosterone burning through his skin. Chiseled like a sculpture, hard as stone, eyes cold, heart frozen, he grabbed her and held her close, telling her she was his woman and made sure she played her part. She would take care of the bills and he would take care of her. “Don’t worry about the details,” he told her. “That’s none of your business.”
As he spoke these words, she felt a chill run down her back and her arms began to tremble. Fear engulfed her being and she bowed her head in submission. He grabbed her arm and held it so tight she cried out like a dog in pain. “Tu sabes,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”
She took him to her house, a small one bedroom on the ground floor of a multiple family residence. Carmela had selected everything on her own, from the five-piece furniture set in pastel florals, chrome, and glass to the lush wall-to-wall carpeting in a color she thought of as Georgia Peach Cobbler. Her bedroom was done in black lacquer and gold, with a fan-shaped mirror as the headboard. The mirror was witness to secrets she never told, stories from not so long ago, memories that were always and forever her own.
She had been renting the apartment since 1992 and was proud of her success. She was not the traditional daughter, living at home to take care of her parents until her husband came along. She was the first person in her family to attend and graduate college—Lehman College, no Associates Degree for her. She studied Spanish literature for the pleasure of reading the classics in her native tongue. No translations would ever compare to the thrill of reading Don Quixote as it was originally written; the book was a gift to the woman for whom no man like that had ever existed. For Carmela, Cervantes constructed an alternate universe into which she would slip, fantasizing about the kind of man who had never lived. But dreams were for sleep and not waking life so Carmela did what she had to do, she got a job so she could be stand on her own two feet. She never wanted to rely upon a man in any way, knowing how they could betray her once feelings came into play.
As there were no jobs calling for her write essays on the use of metaphor in the prose of Miguel de Cervantes, she took a steady job as a teller at a bank in midtown, right near Grand Central Station. She loved the bank with its regular hours and its quirky cast. She had expected the people to be straight and narrow, and on the surface perhaps… On the surface, everything was impeccable. Professional. Impenetrable. Just what you would expect from the person handling your cash. But what kind of people dedicate their lives to money? The kind who need to hide in plain sight. It is always what you cannot see.
And so it was with Carmela that she maintained respectability for the benefit of other people. But for herself, she found the edge that kept her fresh. She needed someone strong who could stand beside her father and challenge him man to man; she craved the kind of creature who might threaten and defeat Jose Sr.’s prowess.
It reminded Carmela of a story she once heard, a story of the pride. It was the story of the alpha male, the majestic and beautiful lion. He ran the family. The females served his every need and in turn they were protected. Should any of them have babies with another male, the alpha killed those that weren’t his, forcing the females back into heat so that he and only he could impregnate them. Add to this, it was the females who worked, who formed a cadre and together they stalked and killed their prey. Then they brought it home to the male so that he would be the first to feast upon the flesh. But what most interested Carmela was the story of how he came into power.
Adolescent males were pushed out of the pride before they became old enough to be a threat. And these lonely males walked the earth, looking for females of his own. And more often than not, he came upon a pride. It was up to the young male to step to the alpha, to call the old man out. They fought to the death, winner take all. And, as Nature had it, the youth would often win. And then he became the master, the dominant force that everyone served. And he ruled the pride as the king until one day a young male came, to challenge him for all that he had built in his lifetime, and in this challenge he too would be killed.
Carmela would shiver when she thought of this. Never envy powder, for you do not know what it took to get it, nor do you know how it shall be lost. Better to be one of the females, hardworking, protected, safe.
It’s not that Carmela didn’t love her father, and it’s not that she did. It’s that she feared him more than anything else on earth because he maintained the power to eclipse her world. She longed for the day that she would find that young lion who she could serve. There was something about Tonio that reminded her of the lion. She could see his rise to power and envision his fall just the same. But what she wanted most was to see how her father would react to her choice in men.
He’s a man. Forgive him. These words echoed in her head nearly twenty years later. How dare her father take the side of someone who was not his flesh and blood. For this she would make him pay, even if Jose Sr. never knew what it cost her heart.
Bringing Tonio home gave Carmela a rush. She luxuriated in the sting of his palm as it fell upon her flesh, taking care not to let him know how much she craved his dominance. She delighted in his comings and goings, for never knowing where he was or when he would return made her secret assignations all the more thrilling. She reveled in the danger of defying each man by playing the game better than any of them ever could. And in this way, she unknowingly avenged the spirit of Violetta, a woman of whom she knew absolutely nothing for her father never once discussed his life on the island with her.
Violetta’s spirit stayed close to her family; she watched Jose Sr. very carefully. She was sure to stay out of his way, for there was something about him that let her know he understood she was near. She saw that though he was not a good man, he was a strong man, and that was enough. But it was her granddaughter that needed her most, and she did her best to protect Carmela from herself.
Violetta saw Nino arrive and something inside her broke apart; she saw the scars of abuse etched deep inside his heart. Dry tears never fell from the eyes that watched him stagger into her granddaughter’s home. She fell before his knees as he sat upon the sofa until she realized that her presence sent chills through his bones. She pulled herself back, not wanting to leave him, and willed Carmela to give him love. Violetta had watched the two grow close over the past month, both of them in need of something good. She smiled the smile that has no teeth and no lips as she watched her granddaughter give Nino comida y cafe. Proud that her girl still had the heart, she floated around the house quietly singing a song.
Photograph by Jean-Claude Claeys
A song came into Carmela’s head and she couldn’t stop the refrain from repeating time and again. She started singing it to herself as she cooked breakfast, feeling wonderful that she could help Nino, if only in the smallest way. For he was the kind of boy she admired, the one she knew would never betray. And yet, she knew nothing about him, nothing at all…but she felt his pain.
As Carmela whipped up a storm in the kitchen, Tonio walked through the door. He was in a glorious mood, his skin was shining like the sun, his shirt smelling of liquor, sweat, and sex. He grabbed a beer from the fridge and strolled into the living room where Nino was sitting with his head in his hands.
“You got any?” Nino mumbled with the last remnants of his strength.
“Of course! I got you, you know that!” Tonio slapped him so hard on the back, Nino coughed like he had been choking on a chicken wing. “Carmela! Get my stuff! So Nino, what’s good? You look like shit.”
“Ain’t nothing good,” Nino said and lit a cigarette. The sweet taste of tobacco soothed his frayed nerves. Smoke expelled through his nose, floating into the air and disappearing near a gold-framed painting of Jesus done tastefully in pastels. He looked Jesus in the eye as if to stare him down but Nino knew he wouldn’t win this (or any other) round. He mechanically made the sign of the cross, asking for forgiveness for his anger at God and Man.
“I ain’t slept in two, maybe three days,” Nino said. “I just been walking around, looking for vics; got some change off one sucka after he took a fist to the head. He was one of those white boys who think they tough, hitting girls cause they too pussy to throw down. Last night I seen him smack this beautiful girl to the ground; I came up on him and he never knew what happened. He probably still there now.”
Nino smiled fondly at the memory of that nigga getting his. He hated to see women get hurt and thought that only punks ever raised their hands against a girl. What kind of man could be so weak? Faggots, that’s what they are, Nino thought to himself.
And though he loved to fight, for money or for vengeance or for sport, the opportunity to save a lady from abuse, the chance to set things straight so that the faggot knew what it felt like to lose? That made him feel like a king. Up from the gutter, he sprang. Into action, into life. Now, beaming with pride, Nino threw in this little aside: “Yea, I took his money and his girl…”
“What’s up? You tap that?”
“Nahh. Not yet. Something about her; she ain’t like that…” He trailed off, confused, remembering how walked away from her after she touch his neck, angry and ashamed to have felt hurt by her curious caress.
“Well you ain’t gotta hit it but she gotta suck your dick. If she don’t, she gonna think she’s somethin‘ special and you know these hoes ain’t shit. Remember that last one, the chinky bitch? Yea, she fucked you good ’cause you didn’t put her in her place. Now if that was me, I would have set her straight. No bitch of mine is ever going to play me for a sucka.”
With these words, Nino recoiled in silent anguish; his face masked the pain that ruptured his heart. His expression remained stoic and unmoving, unwilling to give Tonio ammunition to use against him at another time. But despite his self-control, his body betrayed his turmoil as his muscles tightened into a knot, his legs tensed and ready to spring, his arms aching and poised to swing. His jaw clenched to keep his tongue in check. Nino closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. He told himself to chill so he didn’t knock this nigga out.
“Yo, where’s it at?” Nino asked with studied nonchalance, changing the subject like he don’t give a fuck what Tonio thought.
“CARMELA!” Tonio hollered. “VEN AQUI!”
“Ay dios mio! I’m coming! Don’t worry. I got your shit right here,” Carmela said as she came into the room and handed Tonio a box. From it, he took out a little bag and cut four fat lines on the glass-covered coffee table in front of the sofa. Tonio took a bill out of his wallet and rolled it up, did two lines, then handed the bill to Nino, who snorted as quick as he could.
The drugs disconnected him from the past and from the future, making the present an infinite void. His features relaxed and his muscles released, his body sank back into the sofa in a state of total peace. A small grin spread across his face like cool butter on warm bread. His heart began to drop into the quiet murmur of a babbling brook as all thoughts and memories finally stopped. In this state of euphoric silence, his soul was set free and drifted out of his body and towards the soft glowing energy that floated overhead.
Something enveloped him in warmth and kindness, like a grandmother baking cookies on a snowy winter day. He knew that he was being spoken to; he could hear a woman’s voice reaching towards him, whispering Nino.
He knew that other words were being spoken but he couldn’t make them out. Instead of struggling, he relaxed and floated along the ceiling, wafting through the room like he was on a raft in crystal blue waters, sipping margaritas and getting his dick sucked.
He lay back luxuriating in the life upon which he had been bestowed, thanking God for all that he was given, the good, the bad, and the ugliest moments he had known. Heroin could do that, you know, it can let light into the darkest place of the heart. And what had become a prison was that no more for the walls had come down and the captive was liberated from his own confinement, finally able to feel Ell Ohh Vee Eee as time became infinite.
“Yeaaa,” he said real calmly. “I needed this. Thanks bro. You always look out. I love you, man.”
“Word,” Tonio said, taking Nino’s loyalty for granted. He was focused on more important things, thinking about how his nephew had been alone for too long and seeing how badly he was hurting living this way. Tonio felt a sense of responsibility, seeing as how Nino had been abandoned by his sister at such a young age. He tried to take Nino under his wing but the boy had resisted and the wall between the continued to grow as Nino set forth on his own path to hell.
Tonio understood that Nino was proud and he admired this. But all the same, he was much too young to look so wrecked. Tonio thought the best thing would be for Nino to get himself a good woman like Carmela, a ride or die bitch who would keep his stomach full and his balls empty, no questions asked. Inspired by his revelation, Tonio started on it again, asking, “So what you gonna do about that ho you met last night?”
Drifting through the room in a state of bliss, Nino’s heart filled when he thought of Jade. He could feel how soft and vulnerable she had been, how desperately she needed a man to protect her, and how beautiful it would be if he could give that to her. But it was too soon, Nino was not ready, for the moment his heart began to open, a door in his head slammed shut.
His soul sank back into his body and returned to the world. Nino was wondering about Tonio. Why is he all up in the business? Tonio didn’t know about the Doctor or any of the men, but he knew about Jia and he played that like a gun to the head. Maybe he should get another woman, just to get Tonio to shut the fuck up. And Jade, who the fuck was she? She took a hit and rolled with it; she didn’t complain at all. Not like these other bitches he knew, always talking shit, always with something to say about who they were and why they were better than the next whore.
But Jade came close, too close, and that made him nervous. It reminded him of Jia, of his mother, of… Fuck that. Nino was a man with no past, none that he wanted to remember. He answered Tonio, saying, “Yea she told me to come by. You should see where she lives! In the Village, in a high rise. She gotta be paid, living in a place like that.”
“That’s how we do. Free rent. Free food. Free pussy. And no rules. Get the fuck outta here. Make that bitch your slave and start living good. You look like shit.”
“Let me get a Newport,” Nino said as he pulled himself together, taking the hint. He guarded his voice against a simmering resentment that lurked beneath the surface.
“Take the pack. Carmela got cartons in the kitchen. She never lets me do without. You need a woman like her,” Tonio said as surveyed his kingdom with pride from his seat on the sofa, the throne of the American Man.
With those words, Nino was out. On his own once again, he drifted through the streets like a ghost, walking slowly and frequently stopping to take in the velvety air of the new morning. He stood on the sidewalk for some time, nodding in and out, before he remembered where he was going. Eventually, he got back on the train and headed downtown.
With his eyes closed, he fell into a trance and allowed the words to be spoken, the words from which he ran. The words echoed in his head and ricocheted through his heart.
No eres mi hijo.
And don’t come back again.
Photograph by Marianna Rothen
When the male and female combine,
all things achieve harmony.
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 42
The echo is louder now and stirs Nino out of his transcendent state. When he opens his eyes, he realizes he is in Jade’s apartment and notices that she is checking him out. She looks fresh and clean. He loves how her long black hair is now a mass of wild and unruly curls that spring from her head and do as they wish, twisting whichever way they feel best. They frame her face and fall across her shoulders, and for the first time Nino notices her eyes, the warm and healing blue of a summer sky. He moves forward slowly and looks deep inside. Then he laughs unexpectedly. “I can see myself in your eyes,” he says and starts waving at his reflection like a little boy.
A giggle slips from Jade’s lips and in her smile there is a question but she does not know what it is because in his presence, words disappear, thoughts evaporate, and eternity is all that that remains. His energy at this moment gives her the most profound sense of peace and be stills all her fears; she feels safe, protected, and embraced.
Yet something is amiss. Jade is remiss to speak. It is difficult for her not to fill the air like a chirping bird for she consumes words, words, and more words with every waking moment. She writes, she reads, she speaks, she thinks; words are the basic unit of her existence, added and subtracted from her fortress, brick by brick.
It is these words that define her existence, that lead her to believe things simply because logic is plastic. Of anything meaning can be made and once established, it ensures argument cannot shake faith. Words can transform experience, conjure emotion, and construct meaning in our lives. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Something about Nino renders Jade speechless and this fascinates her like no one she has ever known. Perhaps it is his proximity that overwhelms her senses, his body vibrating energies she feels deep in her bones. But there is something about suffering that has made Jade feel other people’s emotions in ways that are unhealthy. Her boundaries were violated, but she unconscious of what this means. She feels something that is too intense, one-sided, and very destructive. But the real problem is, she easily becomes attached to and repulsed by that feeling. Thus, she lacks the ability to make people feel that she understands who they are and what they need—and to love them without asking for anything in return.
His psychic waves are scrambled, almost as though he has encrypted his energy to protect it from any interpretation but she feels a potent force lying deep within, muted by surging pain. He smiles as easily as he scowls, and the speed at which his emotions shift leaves her dizzy and confused. And frustrated. Last night he took off without a single word. This morning he arrived at her front door as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Who does this?
In her presence, he feels equal parts magnificent and modest as he basks in the seeming splendor of the middle class. Her elegance thrills him with the smallest effects, whether it is the way her pinky hovers in the air while lighting a cigarette or the way she softly switches her hips when she walks to the kitchen for a glass of water. Nino wants to rest his weary head in her lap of luxury. Tonio was right. Women are the land of milk and honey.
“Your life is a bed of roses,” he smiles again, delighted with this discovery, for at the center of her apartment lies a bed adorned with two dozen red silk roses wrapped around the wrought-iron head and footboards. He eyes the crisp sheets and the mountain of pillows piled one on top another. The bed of roses becomes a birthday cake, all rich and thick and frosted sweetness.
Nino unlaces his boots and places them under the chair. Jade thinks nothing of this until he stands and pulls his sweatshirt over his head. Naked to the waist, Nino’s arms, shoulders, and chest are adorned with tattoos, indelible emblems of his life upon this earth. On his right shoulder is an exquisitely rendered pair of hands clasped in prayer, holding a rosary, and bearing the legend, “Only God Can Judge Me.”
Jade looks at these words, barely aware that she is staring. Entranced by his audacity, her eyes are liberated from all modesty as they comb every inch of his dulche de leche flesh. His chest is smooth, hard, and hairless. On his left breast is a name written in a script so ornate, Jade can not read it unless she moves closer but she resists this urge for she does not want to violate his privacy. Underneath the name, there is text that is easier to read. Very simply it states: R.I.P. (1996).
She flashes back on Nino rejecting her advances on the corner. Her eyes dart away, afraid to be seen crossing into unfamiliar territory. She continues her tour across his form, feeling her hunger grow, her mouth wet and warm as the sweetest ache begins below.
His body tapers into chiseled abs: one, two, three, four, five, six, belt, jeans. The top of another tattoo reveals itself, it is a series of Chinese characters written vertically. It occurs to her he might want something from her and she is nervous with her heart beating in her throat. Something inside her pulls back; its hold is tenuous, like a child’s tooth about to fall out. She wants to let go but everything about Nino is unknown.
The nervous energy grows stronger and she chews her thumb until she pulls away some skin and draws blood, releasing tension through the pleasure that can only be found in the creation of pain. The taste of metal traipses across her tongue and swims down the back of her throat. Jade sucks her thumb until the bleeding stops.
Photograph Found on Tumblr
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