The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Lucy and Kit sat waiting side by side on a black leather couch, before a long glass window that looked out over Tribeca, the winter sun in their laps. Kit stole sideward glances at Lucy, who hummed, twisting her hair around her fingers in a compulsive fashion. Her hair was long and lionlike with a slight wave to it, gold with yellowy shades around her face. Kit couldn’t look at her for very long. She cringed and recoiled, as if faced with a bright light. Lucy was too radiant.
A low glass table stood before them. Fake potted plants flanked the sofa, their waxy leaves coated with dust. Lucy crossed and uncrossed her legs. Her eyes were quick and green, flitting about the room like birds. She wore a blue minidress with a white collar and peep-toe black heels. On her lap sat a chestnut leather purse with a brassy curved handle. Lucy was both plump and long limbed. “A tall cherub,” she had once said of herself with a laugh of self-hate. She mocked herself constantly, but with a certain joy. Her joy had a tough edge to it and seemed wonderfully defiant considering the pleasureless nature of their business. Kit was captivated by her. It seemed magical and impossible that one could laugh so heartily while waiting to be handled by a perfect stranger.
At the far end of the room, Sheila sat at a steel desk, staring at the bright page of a catalogue, poised with her red pen. She booked all of their appointments sulkily, sighing whenever the phone rang. Kit and Lucy considered her a bitch, though she rarely said a thing. “She does it all with her eyes,” Kit had quietly remarked. They spent much of their time on the black couch talking shit about Sheila, leaning near one another and giggling conspiratorially.
Lucy removed a gold-tone compact from her purse and clicked it open. She patted powder onto her chin and gave her mouth a glance. It was pale pink and without lipstick, open slightly, her teeth and tongue peeking through. When her client arrived, she ate a green Tic Tac, biting down on it. He was a short, swarthy guy with a newspaper under his arm.
Lucy rose and clacked across the room with the steady grin of an assassin. It was her third appointment that day but she was an enduring faker, tossing her hair and sucking in her stomach. The man twinkled as he handed Sheila a white envelope full of money, which she counted and placed in a small drawer, then led them to their room with a crabby smile, one hand extended.
Once she was alone, Kit raised her butt off the sofa and pulled her stockings up. Sheila returned to her desk and groaned. She circled something in her catalogue and Kit’s client called to say he would be fifteen minutes late.
“But he’s already fifteen minutes late,” Kit said.
“Well,” Sheila said, without looking at her, “there was some sort of emergency. I told him you would wait.”
“Yeah, I remember that.”
Kit walked to the bathroom. The walls were gray with one frosted window and a big beige air freshener that hissed vanilla perfume every ten minutes. She yanked the window open and a great wind came into the room. Snow rushed onto the black tile floor. Kit lit a half-smoked joint from her purse. She kept several on hand at all times in a battered Altoid tin.
She took a squinty suck and held the smoke in, liking the long burn, then leaned her head into the wind and exhaled, snow pricking her face. She peered down at the neon-white streets below, car tops mounting quietly with snow. Kit shivered. She took another long toke and thought of the miserable year she’d spent at Bennington, where she had barely attended class, watching snow fall from her dorm window. She had been bored there. All anyone wanted to do was get plastered and sleep around. It was a lot like being a prostitute, she thought, only she had never gotten paid.
Kit took another tug of smoke. She stubbed the joint lightly in the tin and licked her index finger, daubing the orange ember. With one hand, she pushed on the window until it clapped shut, then walked to the oval mirror. Kit stared at herself like a doctor who—right away—sees something very wrong. She wore a sleeveless black dress that she had bought in high school for her aunt’s funeral. Her body hadn’t changed much since then. She still had narrow legs and a lean, gloomy face, half-moon shadows under her eyes. There was a pubescent look about her, a Peter Pan shapelessness. She flickered between boy and girl.
Kit returned to the black couch, reeking of pot, and began eating a flattened corn muffin from her purse. Sheila shot her a look of amazement and Kit glared back at her. She took another bite of the greasy yellow muffin and a man walked in. He removed his collared black coat and looked pensively about the room, tugging off his leather gloves. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Ned.”
Kit smiled, her mouth packed.
He stared at her and she tensed with embarrassment, knowing that he was comparing her face to the one he had seen on the Internet, a photo in which she sat posed on the arm of a beige sofa with the stricken look of a woodland creature in captivity. Kit hated to have her photo taken. The fact of one moment being yanked from all the other moments scared her. It was the same fear when people stared at her, much as Ned was doing. Her fear looked fresh and clearly he found this attractive. She seemed unaccustomed to it—unable to hide it—which suggested that she had not been a prostitute for very long. To Kit, Ned looked a little desperate. Like someone on Judge Judy, fighting for old furniture. She watched as he counted out ten twenties on Sheila’s desktop, then wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Sheila led them to a square bedroom with scuffed white walls and brown carpeting. Once she’d shut the door, Ned removed his suit jacket and the two sat on the edge of the bed.
“What was your name? Tammy?”
“It’s Tonya,” she said, crossing her legs. “So what are you into?”
“I’m not going to touch you.” Ned pressed his temples. “But I’d like you to get undressed.”
Kit nodded absently. Her eyes were bloodshot and her thoughts floated somewhere near the ceiling. Ned leaned his face toward her neck, as if about to plant a kiss there, but instead took a sniff.
“Your hair smells like pot,” he said. “And like that big piece of cake you were eating.”
Kit turned in alarm. “It was a corn muffin.”
He smiled oddly. “You should be careful, eating all the muffins you want. You’ll get fat.”
“No I won’t,” she frowned. “Not if I tried. No one in my family is fat.” It was absolutely true. They were a bunch of beanpoles with long feet and sunken faces. Ugly, Kit thought. But uglier was his smile and his warning. His wish for her not to eat. For her to remain locked in a single state of attractiveness, like a woman in a painting, with no body fat or smells, nothing to say.
Kit could smell Ned too. Strong cologne with the scent of his underarms screaming behind it, a bright, beer-like tang. She tried to imagine the women who loved his smell. A wife. Daughters. Possibly girlfriends. These women were lurking in the private lives of even the ugliest men she saw. Ned was neither ugly nor handsome. He had the sort of face that there had to be hundreds of. A pale white oval with a slight shine. Small eyes and a largish nose.
“I bet you drink a lot too,” he said, still smiling foolishly.
“Youth is an incredibly buoyant medium,” he mused. “What you can do at twenty you can’t do at forty.”
“So you’re forty?”
Kit undressed. She lay on the bed with shining eyes, like some dog awaiting the strange and particular abuse of its owner. Ned stripped down to his boxers and stood alongside the bed, staring down at her.
“You are so stoned,” he said.
“Not so much,” she said.
“Yes you are. You’re barely here at all. It’s like you’re dead.”
Kit felt a flash of panic pass through her eyes and knew he’d caught it. Ned was right. She was completely stoned. And because of this, certain things in the room appeared huge. The pink-flowered Kleenex box. The pump bottle of generic lube. Ned’s oily, egg-like head.
Kit was arranged facedown on the bed. She shut her eyes and Ned rocked into the quiet space between his hands. “I think you like this,” he said, which was what they all said.
She fell into a partial sleep. Dreamless brown darkness closed around her. She heard her heart beat. It was like a fist pounding at the bottom of a swimming pool. Ned groaned. He came onto her buttocks and she woke, a dull hate glowing inside her. She stood and wiped off her butt cheeks with a tissue. “Are you married?”
“Does she know you come here?”
“I think she does.”
“And it doesn’t bother her?”
“She has a very good life,” he said. “She’s not gonna go and fuck that up.” He lay down on the bed next to her.
Kit refrained from pointing out that he had not answered the question. He went on to say that his wife didn’t work. She took care of his daughter. He talked about her in a frank and vulgar manner, like she was an animal who had eaten out of the same can for years. He said she was really interested in astrology. He said all women were. He said his wife kept a dream journal and he laughed gently, slightly like a madman. “Who cares about dreams?” he said. “They don’t mean anything.”
Ned said he was a dentist and Kit wondered how he handled all that revulsion. He complained about his practice and boringly recounted the events of a cocktail party in which he had humiliated a fellow dentist in front of several beautiful women. “That took a bite out of his swagger!” he said. And Kit laughed obediently, which felt like the worst kind of sex.
Kit and Lucy walked to the train at dusk, snow swirling past their faces. The sky was a pearly gray, the moon dimly visible. The two walked along a narrow path of brown slush, bookended by white humps of snow. In their boots and coats, they looked like the children that they were. Each bundled and waddling, their tight dresses and biscuit-colored stockings buried underneath. Lucy wore a long tweed coat with big glossy black buttons, Kit a brown leather bomber jacket and sagging wool-knit hat. They hooked arms, steadying each other.
“He, like, reprimanded me for eating a corn muffin.”
“What an asshole.”
“It was like he wanted me to be dead. Like I was interfering with my potential hotness by living.” Businesspeople passed swiftly in black coats. “I hate this neighborhood,” Kit sneered. “I hate every single person.”
“Are you okay?”
“No. I’m freezing. And I hate these tights.” She wiggled with discomfort. “I hate this dress.”
“Well,” Lucy grinned, “they need you to remind them that they want to fuck you.”
Kit laughed. They stopped in front of the train station and looked at each other. “Do you wanna come over?” Lucy asked. There was snow in her eyebrows.
Kit couldn’t help but smile sheepishly at the offer because, until that moment, they had only ever spent time together in diners or on the black couch. “Yeah,” she said. “I do.”
Lucy’s apartment was small and lit like a bar, one long room with yellow light in every corner. There was an old claw-foot tub next to the stove and a mattress on the floor by the wall. Kit stooped to pet a brown rat terrier with a silvery snout. He rolled under her hand with a guttural moan, groveling with delight. “That’s Curtis,” Lucy said.
“It’s like a dirty-sock sex club in here,” Kit laughed.
“I know.” Lucy smiled without embarrassment. “Curtis pulls them out of the hamper. I should probably throw some of them away,” she said, lifting a white ankle sock off the floor. “That way I would be forced to do laundry more often.” She jammed the little white sock into an overfilled wicker hamper. “I won’t go until I’m completely out of clothes. Hate it too much.”
“Seriously, I could look anywhere and see socks.”
“Do you want anything?” Lucy asked.
“Well. Beer or water.”
Kit laughed. “I’ll take water.”
“Help yourself, okay? I’ve gotta take him down.” Lucy velcroed a little red coat onto the dog and left.
Kit ran tap water into a Charlie Brown Christmas mug. She roamed around the room, sipping water and snooping vaguely. Apart from the strewn socks, Lucy’s apartment was relatively bare. There were tall Mexican candles on the floor by her mattress, a tiny cactus on the windowsill. And on the floor there was an old mint-green record player with brown accents. Lucy’s possessions looked misplaced, but because there weren’t so many, the wrongness of their arrangement had a childish charm.
Kit spotted several photos of a younger-looking Lucy, tacked by the bed in a crooked cluster. In one she sat in an auto rickshaw, in another she stood handling fruit in a marketplace. Kit approached the images intently. She sat cross-legged on the bed and stared up at them.
The door flung open and Curtis raced inside. He leapt onto Kit’s lap and squirmed on his back in ecstasy, biting her fingers gently, his wet paws paddling. Kit stroked his underside, her eyes fastened to the photographs.
“He likes you,” Lucy said.
“Does he not like a lot of people?”
“No. He likes pretty much everyone.”
Lucy hung her coat on a hook by the door. She pulled off her boots and stockings, then fetched a can of beer from the fridge and tapped the top of it with her fingernail. She turned to Kit, who still sat staring at the photographs. “In India I just went around buying things. You can spend a quarter in like a half hour,” she said, cracking the can open. “It was so beautiful there. Every single person was doing something. It was such a sensory overload, but way softer than America.”
“I want to travel,” Kit said. She looked at Lucy. “I sort of feel like I have to do it now, while I’m still cute. Like if I wait till I’m old and ugly it won’t happen.”
“You might be right,” Lucy said and took a swig from the silver can. “But I’m really looking forward to being old and ugly.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’ll be nice to be left alone. I want to get a little house somewhere with grass out front for Curtis. There’s no grass here. I mean, there is grass but you aren’t allowed on it, not with a dog, anyway. It’s like walking through some holy museum.” She stooped to pet Curtis. “Sucks.”
“Nothing. I just like when you talk about how much something sucks.”
“I’m serious! That’s always how I know I like someone. They’ll be going on about their own hell and it should be tedious to listen to, but for some reason it’s not. Something about their face or the way they’re joking about their unhappiness is so … attractive.”
“I know exactly what you mean. It’s like perfume.”
Kit set the mug down on the floor and hugged her bony knees to her chest. Curtis trotted over. He lowered his snout into the mug and began lapping.
“He does that,” Lucy said unapologetically and smiled at the animal. She knelt beside the record player and put the Modern Lovers on. The record turned and crackled. Jonathan Richman sang Roadrunner, roadrunner in his hot, sloppy way and Lucy began to dance, shouting along with the words. Gonna drive past the Stop ‘n’ Shop with the radio on and I love loneliness … I love the modern suburban bleakness. I love to drive alone late at night with the radio on!
“You’re so retro,” Kit marveled, staring up from the bed.
“I know, right?” Lucy said, catching her breath. “The record player was my grandmother’s but all the records are mine.” She began to sing again, gaily shaking her hips and shoulders. Say hello to that feeling when it’s late at night. Say hello to that highway when it’s blue and white.Lucy was a silly dancer, but in the way only someone who is confident of their sexiness can be. She flailed about like she had no respect for anyone or anything, whipping her gold lion hair from side to side.
“You’re a good singer,” Kit said.
“I’m not kidding! You’re really good.”
Lucy rolled her eyes and threw herself back into the air. Jonathan sounded more like a loud talker than a singer to Kit. I’m lonely and I don’t have a girlfriend but I don’t mind. He made her wish she were in a band.
Lucy tired herself out dancing to the next few songs and the two wound up lying on her mattress. They talked about dropping out of college, how it had been the easiest decision in the world. Lucy had studied dance at Sarah Lawrence, which surprised Kit.
“What was that like?”
“It was like being abused. Routinely. By people I had no respect for.” She sighed. “What did you go for?”
“Writing,” Kit said.
“That makes sense.” Lucy smiled. “So when did you know you were a writer?”
“I don’t know. About ten, I guess. But I didn’t consider myself a real writer. I had one skill and that was to lie in bed,” she laughed. “I loved being alone in my room. I mean, that was the real love. I just wrote because there was nothing else to do. It didn’t feel special.”
“So were you a slow kid or a fast kid?”
“Well I was both.”
Kit raised herself up on both elbows and crawled over to her bag. After some digging she brought her Altoid tin onto the floor and surveyed its sooty contents. She returned to the bed with a crooked smile, a joint pinched between thumb and forefinger.
“I can’t smoke pot,” Lucy said.
“Oh. I thought maybe you just didn’t like to at work.”
“No, I never do. Some people get all focused and brilliant when they’re high but I don’t.”
“Well I can only focus on like, cleaning my bathroom,” Kit said. She lit the joint and dragged on it.
“I can only focus on hating myself,” Lucy said. “It’s like I can feel every cell and every pore and I’m hating them one by one. Then I put giant signs on them like CRAZY, FAILED, FAT.”
Kit laughed and smoke leaked from her mouth. She set the joint down in the open tin, coughing into her fist. She imagined saying: I love that you’re fat. I love everything about you.It was the absolute truth. But she said nothing and strained not to look at Lucy. She heard her heart beat. She began branding herself. LESBIAN. LOSER. WHORE.
“So you never get paranoid?” Lucy asked.
“I definitely get paranoid.”
“I just get scared I’ll say what I’m thinking or do something insane. Like tell someone what a shit they are or like, assault them.”
“You want to assault people?”
“No! I mean, not really. It’s just this fear of losing it. I mean, I have that fear anyway. ‘Cause you hear about people doing crazy things out of nowhere. And the slight possibility that I could be one of those people, that someone else could be inside me … it’s the loneliest feeling. Like what if I didn’t know myself?”
“You aren’t one of those people.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I just am.”
Kit smiled. This was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to her. You aren’t crazy.
Curtis curled beside Lucy and laid his chin on her breast. She began rubbing his ears and he went limp, collapsing into a state of bliss.
“How old is he?”
“I think five or six. I got him two years ago with my boyfriend. We were totally wrong for each other.” She smiled, shaking her head. “I mean, I loved him but we argued constantly.” Lucy looked down at Curtis. He was asleep. “I wonder what it’s like to hear people fighting in another language your whole life.”
“You hear the tones,” Kit offered. “You understand. There’s probably only one language.”
“That seems true.” Lucy began stroking Curtis and he roused for a second, then went soft again. “I wish I knew what his life was like before I got him. It’s so strange. Dogs are the repositories of stories we can never know.”
“That’s probably part of the pleasure of looking into their eyes.”
“He’s very cute,” Kit said.
“You think so?” Lucy said in disbelief. “I mean, I think so, but no one else does. I got him from a shelter. He was scheduled to be killed the next day.”
The dog raised his head and yawned. Up close, Kit could see that he had an underbite and one gluey eye, both of which truly were cute.
“He destroyed my sofa,” Lucy said and Kit tried to imagine where a sofa could have fit in the apartment.
“Yeah. He also hates when I talk on the phone. And when I masturbate.”
“Oh God. What does he do?”
“He just stares at me with this totally disgusted look and then pouts for the rest of the day. Actually, he also does that when I cry.”
“He doesn’t want to see you become an animal.”
The next morning, Kit got a call from Sheila. Ned had made an appointment to see her that afternoon.
“I can’t believe it,” Kit said.
“The corn muffin guy?” Lucy asked.
“I guess he liked you.”
“It really didn’t seem that way.”
It was Lucy’s day off. She padded around the apartment in a short silk robe. Pale blue, with a pattern of multicolored fish, the sash tied loose at her waist. It was a tiny garment, her thighs on full display, a flash of her bum here and there. She made coffee and fried eggs over toast, humming all the while, feeding scraps to Curtis with her fingers. “You can come over later if you want,” she said and tucked a blonde strand behind her ear.
“Alright,” Kit said, smiling slyly. She squatted in the tub, washing her armpits and vagina. Lucy handed her a pink disposable razor. She opened a window and poked her head out. It was oddly warm. Shrunken gray mounds of snow hugged the sidewalk below. Dirty water dripped from the eaves.
“I can’t believe how warm it is,” Lucy said.
“And people still say global warming isn’t happening.”
“Yeah, well, American stupidity is accelerating at the same rate.”
Ned arrived in a mute daze. He wore a flat, melancholy expression and seemed barely to register Kit’s face as she waved from the black leather couch. Sheila led them to the same awful room and Kit sat tentatively on the edge of the bed. Ned removed his coat and sat beside her. He stared at the brown carpet and said nothing.
“Are you okay?” Kit asked.
Ned grunted slightly. With averted eyes, he rolled her onto her stomach and hiked up her dress. Kit sat up and pulled her dress off the rest of the way, then lay flat on her front like a routine sunbather. She heard his belt fall to the floor. Ned began jerking off and Kit thought of other things. Lucy dancing. The dog. Donuts on a plate. She studied the nicks and scuffs on the white wall, her head on its side. Ned’s breath quickened. He gasped and Kit sat up, turning to make sure he had come.
Ned stood naked with his arms at his sides. He was crying.
Kit stiffened. Goose bumps raised over her body. She considered dashing out of the room naked, but Ned lurched toward her. He sank his hot face onto her breasts and sobbed for what felt like minutes, then withdrew his face with sudden embarrassment.
Ned moved to the edge of the bed with his back to her and Kit didn’t ask what was wrong. She didn’t want to know.
“My kid is sick,” he said. “Six fucking years old.”
Kit said nothing. She eyed the shininess between his shoulder blades.
“I can’t see her. I don’t know what to say to her.” Ned looked over one shoulder desperately, his eyes flashing. “What do you think I should say to her?”
“I don’t know.” Kit crawled over to him and forced her hand onto the small of his back, patting it. “What does she have?”
“Leukemia,” he said, as though Kit were an imbecile.
Her hand hardened on his back but she continued to pat him, almost harshly. “It’s okay,” she said uselessly. “It’ll be okay.”
Ned turned sharply. “You don’t know that. No one does. No one knows what it’s like … to cease.”
Kit removed her hand from his back. She stared into space. “I bet it’s like a drug experience,” she said finally. “Especially if you’re at a hospital and your insides are failing you. Like you probably have odd sensations. You feel really warm or you hallucinate. Then just drift off.”
“Not everyone goes peacefully. People die screaming.” He had his arms folded.
“My uncle died screaming. He didn’t want to die.”
“How did he die?”
They leaned back on the bed and each looked at the other’s feet. Hers were long and bare. He wore red and black argyle socks. Kit looked at them awhile and then through them, at nothing, her thoughts wild. She was angry. She hated Ned for dragging some dying little girl into the picture, for crying all over her breasts. She looked down at her knobby knees, the brown beauty mark near her crotch. I’m like Lucy’s dog, she thought. I don’t want to see him become an animal.
Kit considered her own animal self. A wild thing looking out a window. A wild thing made to be a doll. For a moment she loved herself deeply, whoever she was. It was hard to know in the awful white room. She felt as if a circus tent were draped over her existence.
Ned uncrossed his arms. “I’ve upset you,” he said and touched her leg gently. It was jarring and repulsive. He had never touched her this way.
“No. I’m not afraid of death,” she declared. “I’m glad the human experience ends. I mean, what if it didn’t? What if you were just stuck here forever? That would be scarier than death.”
He seemed to consider this peacefully, folding his arms again. “So what are you afraid of?” he asked and a slight smile tugged one side of his face. It was as if he had just remembered she was a prostitute.
“Swallowing glass,” she said.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because they can’t do anything about it. Glass doesn’t show up in X-rays. It just takes one tiny piece and you die a slow, painful death.”
“A bartender told me that.”
They were quiet awhile.
“I like that you don’t wear makeup,” he said finally.
“Yeah. I don’t think women should,” she said. “It looks so clownish.”
“No. Some women should definitely wear makeup. But not anyone your age. Makeup on a youngster is redundant.”
“You think I’m a youngster?”
“Well you are.”
Kit stared at him, glinting with hate.
“Look at you,” he said. “Your skin.”
“It’s so new,” he said and touched her cheek softly, letting his fingers rest there. “Youth is a class all its own,” he continued. “You all look alike.” He took his hand away. “But the fat breaks down—the glow. And you’re left with a kind of specificity. You fall into racial stereotypes.” He pointed to his own face. “And now you can’t tell what I was. I was this beautiful kid.”
Kit averted her eyes. She folded her arms over her breasts.
“How old are you, anyway?” he asked. “Twenty-something?”
Ned smiled greedily. “What’s that like,” he said sarcastically, “being a teenager?”
“Everyone wants what you have so they try to control you.”
Ned looked surprised. He went silent and Kit turned to him, her eyes fierce. “Do you like watching two women together?” she asked.
“There’s another girl here and if you paid us both double, you could watch us.”
“Watch you what?”
“Are you a dyke?”
“No. I just think you would like her.”
Ned pondered a moment. He got up and reached into his coat pocket, withdrawing a business card. He placed the white card on Kit’s bare abdomen and broke into a smile.
Kit saw several other men that day and felt nothing. By nightfall, she stood in the bathroom getting high, staring meditatively out the window. Ned remained in her mind, the weight of his face on her breasts. He is a hog for sorrow, she thought. And maybe I am too. Kit had never envisioned this life for herself. This is really happening, she thought. Any awful thing seemed possible. She was afraid of the concrete and cars down there below, of the opportunity she had always to hurl herself out the window. Kit didn’t really want to die, but the fact of having a choice was frightening.
A flood of bothersome memories surged up as she put her pot away. She remembered her mother saying, “Your job should take a little piece of you that you don’t mind giving.” Kit believed that she had such a job. It’s just my body, she thought. And it didn’t seem like a lot to give away until she considered that it was all she had. This pussy is my only currency. It was a sickening thought.
Outside, the moon was huge with white fog in front of it. A twitchy streetlight shone on the hoods of cars. Kit walked carefully over silvery areas of ice. She stopped to peruse the bright aisles of a deli and bought an expensive bar of chocolate wrapped in gold foil.
On the train, Kit sat by the window and remembered that she had offered Lucy’s body to Ned and to herself. She imagined telling Lucy this and pictured her repulsed response. Kit broke off a cube of chocolate and sank into a whirling rabbit hole of panic. She almost missed her stop, loading chocolate into her mouth with a fixed look of dread. She walked to Lucy’s apartment haltingly, pausing whenever the image of Lucy’s disgusted face reemerged in her mind.
Lucy arrived cheerily at the door, barefoot in a black-and-white-checked dress with triangle pockets. They sipped cans of beer on her bed and Kit rolled a joint, which proved tricky since her hands were clammy. She puffed on the loose roll and they talked. Because Kit was nervous, there was an odd theatricality to what should have been mundane chatter. Eventually a silence grew between them. Kit mopped her forehead with her sleeve. She crawled over to her bag and ate the last corner of chocolate, then blurted her proposal.
“And he wouldn’t touch us?” Lucy asked.
“No. But he will say really degrading things. I actually …” Kit stared into space. “I think I really hate this person.”
“Why? Because he doesn’t respect you?” Lucy said mockingly.
“No. Because he’s crazy.”
“Look,” Lucy said. “Crazy people have one tactic, to convince you that you’re crazy. So you can’t let them.”
Kit nodded. “You’re right,” she said. “I don’t know why I even care. It’s the weirdest things that bother me about him. Like how he thinks dreams are meaningless.” She looked at Lucy. “He thinks his wife is stupid for analyzing them.”
“He’s probably just a rich guy who went to too much therapy. Those types are really against any sort of prodding of the brain.” In a mock-deranged male voice, Lucy said, “It means nothing. I kill women every night. It means nothing!”
Kit laughed. She considered telling Lucy about Ned’s dying daughter but quickly decided not to. She couldn’t bear to paint him as a tragic figure.
“If he’s paying us double, I’ll totally do it,” Lucy said and Kit smiled, dropping her head, letting hair fall in front of her eyes.
Later they lay in the dark, Curtis sprawled between them. “I feel weak and depressed from that chocolate,” Kit said. Lucy groaned softly, nearly asleep. She had hung Christmas lights on her fire escape and they cast a gem-like glow over the bed. Kit raised herself up on both elbows and studied Lucy. Her plump face in the colored light, wreathed with hair and shadows. Kit held her breath. It felt dangerous to watch such a beautiful person sleep. Lucy could wake at any moment, she thought, and there would be no mistaking the unflinching blaze in her eyes.
Kit lowered her head back onto the pillow. She felt slightly gleeful that Lucy was willing to touch her, even if it was for money. It seemed, somehow, like a far-off compliment. She closed her eyes and Lucy’s body beamed in her thoughts. She thought of other girls too. All the girls who’d turned her on wildly and never knew. She rolled onto her side, sweating. Her crotch thumped like a big, wet heart.
Curtis stirred, as if in response to Kit’s rising body temperature, the zinging nerves between her legs. He shimmied under the covers and stationed himself between Lucy’s feet.
In the morning Kit felt like a criminal. Lucy tromped around in her skimpy robe, Curtis following close behind.
“I made eggs,” Lucy said, gesturing toward the stove.
“Great,” Kit said, reaching a slender monkeyish arm out for her clothes, which were scattered by the bed, much in the manner of Lucy’s socks.
Lucy twisted a strand of gold hair around her pointer finger. “I used to think you didn’t eat. Cause you’re like, emaciated.”
“I know. I look exactly like my mom. She’s built like a broom.”
“My mom’s built like a refrigerator.”
“Oh come on.”
They were both sitting on the black couch when Ned scheduled their appointment for the following week. Sheila responded with a look of mild revulsion as she penciled it in. Kit pretended to ignore the look but took it to heart. Later on, she called the number on Ned’s business card, which in the right-hand corner had a cartoon tooth. It was smiling and had a set of its own teeth. She held the card with her thumb over the tooth while arranging for him to fork over the extra amount in cash. “If you screw us over in any way,” she said, “I won’t see you again.”
Kit saw a number of men that week and avoided Lucy. She paid off one of her credit cards. She learned that Sheila designed clothes when a small green dress appeared on the arm of the black couch. Sheila asked in an oddly sweet tone if Kit would model it for her. She was smiling but a look of scorn remained in her eyes, pulsing dimly. “I need to see it on someone small,” she said.
The dress fit Kit remarkably well and she couldn’t help admiring it, but this only depressed her. It meant Sheila was something other than an asshole. She was an artist.
Kit bought herself a handsome leather-bound journal that day. She put an aqua mason jar full of sharpened pencils on the windowsill by her bed. Then she tried to write but couldn’t. Ragged stray thoughts circled in her mind. Kit didn’t want to sit alone with her life, with the memories of a hundred male voices. She didn’t want to fuss over how to describe their faces. Instead she walked around her apartment, smoking pot from a glass pipe with the stereo on. She played Nico, who sounded like a prostitute to her, used and woeful. These days I seem to think a lot about the things that I forgot to do. And all the times I had the chance to.
In the morning Kit grabbed the leather journal and jotted down her dream, which felt remotely like a tribute to Ned’s wife. She wrote in a panic, the dream whirling and vanishing. It felt deeply important as she raced on, snatching bits of the fleeing dream. Then she set her pen down and read the frayed, mystical prose with satisfaction. It seemed to be proof of something. That she had an inside. I exist, she wrote and instantly felt foolish, scribbling over the words.
Next she stood at the stove brewing espresso in a small steel pot, then went straight back to bed and sipped from her mug, a brown-tone afghan up over her shoulders. She watched hours of reality TV, which felt sleazy. This is the pornography of our lives, she thought.
Kit wondered if Ned’s daughter was dead yet. She hated to think of him sobbing alongside a hospital bed with a little girl on it. What is the difference between me and her? she thought. Between a daughter and a whore? Possession, thought Kit. His daughter belongs to him.
But they were girls in the same sea, she felt. Both their values had been established in relation to Ned’s sperm. It was gold when his daughter was conceived. It had taken a long, holy swim to the womb. But with Kit, his sperm had just been trash, just some muck on her ass. It was a weirdly gratifying epiphany. I am the receptacle, she thought. His daughter is a deity.
Time passed crudely. Kit had several dreams of leaping out of windows and becoming a ghost. She didn’t believe in the afterlife, but in her dreams it seemed so obvious. Even when she woke, it was true for a moment. Kit was deeply curious about death. We only know how to go from one place to another, she thought. How does it feel to go from one place to nowhere?Her thinking stopped at the point. She could only wonder. Death is the one thing you can’t write about, she thought.
On the day of their appointment with Ned, Kit woke in a sweat. She forgot her dream instantly, but felt certain it had been a nightmare. I was being chased, she thought. Kit hauled herself into the shower and then got high in the kitchen, waiting for her coffee to brew. She set her glass pipe down and called Lucy.
“What the fuck?” Lucy answered.
“Hi? You’ve been ignoring me for days.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve been really busy.”
They met on the street. Lucy in her tweed coat and a pair of oversized amber frames with rose-hued lenses, her bright hair blowing in the wind. Kit leaned up against a brick wall, squinting. She wore dark slacks and waxy brown combat boots. Lucy removed her sunglasses and they exchanged subtle looks of terror.
“Your eyes,” Kit said.
“They’re so green.”
“Oh I know. I get startled in the mirror sometimes. Cause they change.”
“I’ve noticed that.”
“The Irish thought they were fairies,” Lucy said nervously. “If they had a baby with green eyes, they thought that the fairies had come and swapped it with one of their own.” She nodded as if encouraging herself. “So they basically murdered their green-eyed babies—threw them down a well, hoping the fairies would return their human baby.”
Upstairs they whipped past Sheila and headed straight for the bathroom. Kit changed into her same black uniform and Lucy removed her coat, revealing a silk camel-tone dress with opalescent buttons down the back. She beamed with anxiety. What was pink came soaring up to the surface of her face like a sunset.
Ned sat waiting on the black couch. He wore a gray felt hat with a top crease. As they approached, he removed the hat and bowed his head. Then a foolish smile came across his face. Ned seemed to be mocking the prospect of his own politeness. He was no gentleman and clearly found this hilarious.
Sheila led them to a large room with one mirrored wall and a creaky king bed. The three of them got naked and it all felt very clinical. The room was a bit cold. Ned seemed giddy. It was as if his depression had receded, he glittered temporarily while aroused. He stood alongside the bed and motioned to it until the girls climbed on. “You’re an odd couple,” he said, waving his finger at them. “One big and one skinny. But that must be part of the turn on.” He grinned. “Calm down. I’m kidding.”
A pained smile transformed Lucy’s face. She was posed like a mermaid on a rock, yellow hair half covering her breasts. Kit made a concerted effort not to stare.
Lucy’s kisses were muscular with no feeling behind them. She broke into breathy counterfeit moans and Kit cringed. Their teeth clicked. Kit felt a bit the way men must feel, she supposed, when they realize that the prostitute they’ve purchased is miserable to be near them. She wasn’t sure why she had expected it to be any other way. I’m just another creep who wants to touch her, she thought. A little creep hiding behind a bigger one.
Afterward the sky outside was a gray peach. They rode the train to Lucy’s apartment with amazed expressions. Once home, Lucy lit the candles by her bed. It was as if someone had died. Kit searched her face for disgust, but there was only hurt. Lucy sat on the floor beside Curtis, mechanically stroking his muscles.
They ordered Chinese food and stood in the kitchen, eating lo mein from takeout containers. Lucy’s glazed look of pain dissipated. She hummed and Kit hated her a little bit. For pretending to be unmarked by the last few hours. And by every other terrible hour of her life. Curtis hopped madly at their ankles. His cries were comically bad, as if a blade were being driven into his body.
“Is he okay?” Kit asked.
“He’s fine,” Lucy said. “Those are the screams of a manipulator.” She scraped brown slop from a can into a little blue bowl and set it down on the floor. Curtis trotted over with a look of slack-jaw joy. He bent down to eat.
“He appears well behaved when he’s eating,” Kit said.
“Everyone does,” Lucy said.
Kit set her lo mein by the sink. “Am I your only friend?” she asked. “I don’t mean that in a bitchy way. I don’t have any others.”
Lucy stared at her. “In a way you are. I used to have a lot of friends.”
Kit had never had a lot of friends. But she’d had a few that she didn’t have now. Becoming a whore is like getting very sick, she thought. You don’t want people and they don’t want you. Only she did want people. A little.
“Ned’s daughter is dying of cancer,” Kit blurted.
“He told you that today?”
“No. Before. I should have told you. I just didn’t want you to feel sorry for him.”
“I wouldn’t have.”
“I don’t feel anything for these people,” Lucy said dryly.
Kit reached into her bag and felt around. She wondered what Lucy did feel. Outside an ambulance wailed by, its twirling red lights passing over the ceiling. She lit a joint and stood with it burning between her fingers. “I don’t know why I get high,” she said. “My mind is so inherently trippy.”
“Maybe you should quit.”
“Maybe.” Kit let herself stare at Lucy. It was a quiet, burning stare. Her eyes blazed, pouring with feeling. Lucy continued to eat, as if she did not notice. But she did.
Leopoldine Core is the recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award. This story appears in her debut collection, When Watched: Stories, to be published in August 2016 by Penguin Books. Copyright © 2016 by Leopoldine Core.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.