Literature : Word Choice


Dara Friedman, BIM BAM, 1999. 16mm film installation.

Boy do I wish I lived in the Penthouse 808Ravel. Whenever I walk by its ample surfaces, its hacienda-style balconies and black moribund palm trees, a shiver runs through me. I learn things by relation. For example, now I write moribund—it sounded plausible, but who knows? Better to have said doomed, expiring, or how about at the end of one’s rope? Penthouse 808Ravel. I love looking at it. It’s not “sucked caramel,” the color that’s so popular now, or even “Jersey cow.” It might be “sea urchin roe,” that glop I push aside with my chopsticks on sushi Tuesdays, but really, there’s nothing slimy about the firm Reagan-era stucco of Penthouse 808Ravel.

The windows are always dark when I cruise down Hamilton Avenue, carefully peering up at what might one day be mine. Picturesque barely cuts it. The oily swath of the Raritan glimmering so meanly. Like a zipper? Man vs Machine it says on the bordering fence—a relic of times gone by. Man is machine, I mutter. But even that thought is years late, barely worth repeating.

But Penthouse 808Ravel has promise. Shag carpet. Doors that shut heavily. Porridge doors thicker than mush. I have sexual feelings about Penthouse 808Ravel. Ligature feelings. Relational feelings, knots, bandages. I want to look at the floor plans. Even now I can smell the mimeograph ink that reminds me, in a sharp inhalation, of last night’s freshly snuffed out sky.

I work across the street at the state university. So does Sheila. I think that’s a great name. If I had a pet I’d name her Sheila. My knees have gotten a little sweaty now, bringing her up. Soon you’ll want to know what the deal is. What’s up with you and Sheila? If I murmur nothing, you’ll squint and frown—It’s ok, you’ll say, you can tell me. Then slowly at first, but soon enough, as if an ambulance is screaming behind you, you’ll get irate—Why’d you even bring her up? Now get out of lane, and let the poor fucker drive.

I can’t imagine ever needing an ambulance at Penthouse808 Ravel. Sure, it’s a decadent place. There will be a series of indulgences. A party where all of us from the state university’s English department show up in sweaters on top and nothing down below. Not cardigans either. Big hairy sweaters, mohair—or, better yet, horse. Quaker stuff. HolyRoller stuff. At Penthouse 808Ravel each window has its own private balcony, a place to air your parts. This is also where they keep the moribund palms. I can just picture it, some new gawker walking down Hamilton, taking my place even, getting misty-eyed about Penthouse 808Ravel, and then bang! between the palms—it’s Buzz Snyder from Vic Lit., showing his rolls.

Yes, I did have dinner with Sheila. Yes, I did approach her on false pretenses, the false pretenses being: Dear Sheila, I am on my last nerve, I’m begging you please give me some great advice about these lesbian circuit parties I keep attending and the women who are always loitering outside my Subaru Outback 1999, begging for a ride. Sheila was happy to do it, she said. More than happy to do it. Which brings me to another question. Why Sheila and why not the state of Nevada? I personally think the comparison is obvious.

But this isn’t even what I wanted to talk to you about. There’s something more pressing, something I call: “Jeff.” Let’s forget about Penthouse 808Ravel and Sheila, travel back to before the state university, before my name had PTL attached like a plume to the end of it, back when I was just: Jess.

 

* * *
 

The first time I met Lily Tomlin she was so nice. She called me Jeff. “Hi Jeff,” she gushed. I’d been her bartender but she only drank water. “Hi Lily,” I blushed back. What a warm handshake, what a firm and knowing grasp!

“Wow!” my pal said from her barstool, “Is she progressive or what? She didn’t even bat an eyelid!” Lily Tomlin gets gender ran the tabloids above our heads.

“I think she just thought my name was Jeff,” I said.

That was the only time I met Lily Tomlin, our solo tete a tete. But the name Jeff stuck. Actually Jeff had been trailing me for sometime. My box was stuffed with Jeff A____ bills and junkmail. Jeff was horrible, like an insurance salesman. That’s how I pictured him—thick neck, coarse red fur sprouting from his ears. I knew he wore a Mormon-white short-sleeve button down and that his lips had zero color but were the texture of banana peels stretched tight.

Jeff gave me the heebie-jeebies.

How to then explain the small satisfaction at reading my universe-generated new name? I mean it’s very similar, first two letters—same. Next two letters—not same, but double, which leads me to an auxiliary concern: is “f” intrinsically more masculine than “s”?

It felt like a consolation gift. Like the universe saying, Hey, sorry about that boob thing. Oh and we kind of flubbed it dividing the world in half, and language as enforcer of binary divide? Yeah. Not to mention bathrooms. OOPS. But now that we’re in a new era and all, we’ve started making amends, and gosh, well . . . here’s Jeff.

Other days the cosmos didn’t speak to me. Things seemed more mundane. Jeff was just . . . there. But it couldn’t be some clerical error. Lily had said it too, and she wasn’t linked via paper trail to the unglamorous annals of my bill-paying life. Still the Jeff thing continued. I called to schedule a surgery and the receptionist was effervescent. ”Hey Jeff!” she bubbled.

“No no,” I feebly protested. But she seemed let down at the news. People liked Jeff.

Plus—if, as I correctly guessed, we do not live in a benevolent universe, then there was only one conclusion left. I was purposefully muffling the last two letters of my one-syllable tag, I was prank calling my own name.

My father always told me I had marbles in my mouth. Wait, no: “Put marbles in your mouth,” he said. “Put marbles in your mouth everyday and talk for ten minutes. It’s essential to be c-l-e-a-r.”

Of course I never did it. Marbles, how 1950s, like I just had them lying around. But I admit it, thinking of it now sounds kind of nice—smooth hard globs of color rolling around my gums and tongue. What would Sheila think of that? Hey Sheila, I’d say, whatcha doing this friday? It’s Jethhh.

Sheila again. I can’t get away from the “now,” from the state university and her office ladies, her Scarlet Knights. The other day a famous writer came to talk to us. They’d even made a movie out of her book. She gives a reading and at the end she says she wrote the book because she wanted to talk about something that was unreported: male rape.

I agree with her. Of course I do. Then I miss my train. No problemo. I want a substantial drink. Sitting in a chain BBQ joint with carbon copies of my students jammed around me, I survey the scene. My mind drifts. What’s going on at Penthouse 808Ravel? I wonder. I’ve never seen anyone enter or exit the place, but I’m sure it’s a pleasure picnic—deluxe fun. Just thinking about it feels good. I order fries and sauce. A guy to my left is flirting with his girlfriend. “That asshole,” he says about someone else. He rubs his finger down her hair. “I should just fuck him in the ass.”

I snap shut like a clam. It’s a hostile universe at best and these overgrown kids, my best and brightest, are all violent offenders with newly thickened arm hair, whispering sweet nothings into their sugar-soaked Texas Tea’s.

Still an hour until my train, everything true and mean around me. I go to pee. A big BBQ joint kind of door. Shiny tiles. At the sinks, a familiar squadron of girls who giggle as I approach. Embarrassed I stare in the mirror—oh god, it’s Jeff. Hair like a scrub brush. Perv gleam in eye. Flat dry fingers holding wads of receipts.

Sitting back on my stool I am sweaty and red. The rapist and his girlfriend are waving sticky ribs at each other and canoodling. Jeff, Jeff. He needs a lesson, someone to give him a firm talking to. I imagine bending him over, his pleated pants going flat. No it’s ok! Lesbians can talk about fucking men in the ass, can talk about teaching them a lesson, about giving them a “firm” talking to.

You get it. Extra points if they’re straight and white, which Jeff of course is.

For the next week I dream about Jeff. He begs me to do all kinds of humiliating things. Tease me about my cuticles, he says. They’re so flaky and hard. Make me eat cereal with no hands straight from the box. Tell me I have a bad memory. Put my head in a bidet. Now pull it out and put marbles in my mouth. In my dreams, these activities and more take place at Penthouse 808Ravel.

Then it’s spring break. I go on a wine tour. We stare into the big sweaty vats of red. “Wine fermentation,” the expert says, “happens when all of the individual grapes explode against the walls of their bodies.” How nice, I think, for them.

I ask Sheila to dinner again. This time to a Mexican joint—well-applauded, etc. First we park and saunter along the banks of the Raritan. Or at least along a pathway that occasionally comes in view of it.

“What’s going on with your circuit-thingys,” she says. She has on open-heeled flats that make a kind of slap-slap as she walks. Her wildly weather-inappropriate footwear seems promising.

“Oh nothing,” I yawn. I really haven’t been getting much sleep with all my Jeff dreams. They’re getting worse. The things I’m doing to Jeff are ugly. “Actually Sheila,” I say. “This might come as a surprise, but my Subaru’s parked for you.” Slap-slap go her heels. And that greasy river, god it looks good.

Over chicken chimichangas I pop it to her. “Do you like Lily Tomlin movies?” I say. This is a segue to something I need to say, something about Jeff.

“She hasn’t been in that many movies,” says Sheila. “She’s pretty much a TV actress if you ask me.”

That night I can’t sleep, period. I play the rest of our date over and over in my mind—the salsa verde that splotches onto my pants, the way Sheila drops her cactus-decorated napkin down. “Oh,” she says, touching the bag of air, the wasteland of nothing, in my crotch. “Oh my,” she giggles, “you’re large.”

Poor Sheila, I’ve been waiting for women to tell me this my whole life. Is this why I pay the check silently and drop her off three blocks from her house, even though I know full well where she lives? Sleepless, I watch myself push marble after marble into Jeff’s ever-expanding ass. I’m hurting him. I know I am. Somebody help him! I think. But he has everything. Jeff.

It’s spring now. The blossoms are out. I don’t walk on Hamilton Avenue anymore. Sheila and I ignore each other in the photocopy room. She giggles up to Buzz Snyder mercilessly. Out the window: an abandoned building the color of I don’t know what. Penthouse 808Ravel is a creepy building, a creepy place.

Jess Arndt writes fiction and co-edits New Herring Press. She has most recently been published in: Matchbook, GLU, The Diner Journal, and Parkett. She also bartends in Brooklyn.

Tags:
Gender identity
Body politics
Gender
Fiction
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