Around this time I became a frequent visitor to a sex-ad bulletin board. Real-life meetups were the focal point. Another year and the site had become overwhelmed by spam robots and prostitutes; one year more and it had become a tabloid target for the occasional murder; but for the happy moment in question it was a haven where perverts freely mingled without too much hassle. It is important to remember that all paradises exist under the shadow of their elapse.
In my experience people claim not to understand why looking for sex online is so hot. Presumably it’s like junk food—one of those things everyone publicly finds revolting but in private gobbles and gobbles. In a fashion no longer possible except though the Internet, hours drain away. One sits immobilized and aroused, perusing a seemingly infinite number of sexual possibilities that seem tantalizingly immediate. Coyly indistinct head shots, cock pics, descriptions of desires rote and yet appealing in variation after variation. It was a limitless interactive archive of erotic fiction; a lazy article in a lazy magazine might have described it as “Borgesian.” Just thinking about it makes me want to stop writing and try out some old URLs. (The perpetual proximity of sex on computers is a prime reason it’s taken me so long to finish this book.)
Picking their way through the mob of those seeking sex were also drug users, people using the most rudimentary, stupid, and paltry of code languages to deal and solicit painkillers, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, even pot. The two communities overlapped in the large number of people, typically women and gay men, seeking “ski partners”—anybody out there who was awake, lonely, and wallowing in cocaine. The possibility of this sort of exchange turned me on a lot, since in reality things never came close to being so blunt and efficient, or so satisfying. Younger, cooler, at all really ruthless, and probably more handsome, and I might have gotten somewhere with this approach in the real world; but in the banal, liberal, genteelly coercive circles I inhabited, getting a woman coked up might make you feel like she owed you something but only made her more determined to let you know otherwise. Of course if you hung around long enough, til sunrise say, then coming down might feel so horrible that both of you would want to fuck; “just crashing” for the night was a good strategy that often afforded relieving DT sex in the morning. A surer and cheaper bet for lowering defenses was, as is traditionally observed, alcohol; unfortunately smoking a bowl after a night out was as liable to get you puked on as fucked. I suspected opiates could be helpful, given the polymorphous perversity of junkies, if you could muster the energy between nods.
Unlike sex ads, the ads posted by women looking for men with “lift tickets” rarely seemed fake; the rate of seemingly sincere reply was much higher. Generally you would exchange pics and make some innuendo. Of course none of the women really wanted to get high and fuck, one learned quickly; they wanted to do some bumps and “see what happened”:
SUBJ: What to do …
Bored SWF …
lookin to ski, no money to go
I dunno hit me up if ya wanna chat
We can sit around … See what happens.
Just plz don’t be a psycho. I’m down
The social transactions in this alternate universe were of the same finely graded character as those in my primary one; they lay in the cultivation of various ambiguous relationships such as those my friends and I performed daily. In hopes of gaining professional advantage you might have sex with somebody you wouldn’t otherwise, or courteously buy them dinner, or have an extended dialogue with them that flattered their intelligence (and yours), or cut them a line in the bathroom—it all depended on what they liked. The complication was that you couldn’t say how much of it was mercenary. There were numerous exceptions, of course; the world I inhabited had real sociopaths and date rapists and total assholes as much as any other (plz don’t be a psycho). But I found that people tended to believe in things while they were doing them, believe in the affection or expression of affinity or gesture of kindness as it was underway, at least a little bit. Eight out of ten of the gross manipulations of social bonds I saw in a week—tainted friendships, tainted romances, workaday quid pro quo—had enough confusion, thoughtlessness, and actual affinity to pass as sincere in the minds of the persons tying the knots. But again, I was insulated by class, and mediocrity. This was only the bottom of the top.
Nothing is all true on the Internet, there may have been a mathematical law codified to this effect; and so I felt guiltless one night when I posted an ad in which I alluded to being in a highly alert state and implying certain reasons for it—totally false, of course. But being already coked up would make me more approachable. I indicated the supplies I had and described my height, weight, body type (“slim”), degree of fitness (“fit”), degree of freedom from sexually transmitted disease (“clean”). I requested a photograph and uploaded one of myself, a head-and-torso shot in sunglasses. While I waited for replies I browsed the ads for conventional dating on the same site, women for men and men for women. They all came across as the efforts of confused, deeply sad people.
I edited my posting, removing the photo with the sunglasses and replacing it with a photo of me shirtless, cut off at the neck and shot from below. It was from eighteen months or two years ago, from a period when I had been starving myself out of unhappiness. It flattered.
When previewing the ad, I changed my mind and canceled the edit. Then I looked at the starving photo some more, changed it back, and made it live.
A response came in: spam. Another response: troll. This kept up for a while. Then there was a reply that seemed to be real, a woman who purported to be twenty-eight years old and said she had been partying at a club but got bored, went home, wanted to be hit up for more partying. Wasn’t really feeling it in terms of getting down physically, the third email in our exchange indicated, but “you never know.” She made hardly any spelling errors, which was de-eroticizing since I wanted the authentic experience if I were to slum it, but it was also practical. We might be able to communicate.
What nabe do u live in? I wrote. I like to think of myself as the kind of person who can talk to anyone in their own terms. Miraculously, she named my neighborhood.
The photograph I had received, taken at a kilter so that her height aligned with a diagonal, showed a slim woman around thirty, freckly and of indeterminate race, wearing a brown tank, a candy-pink skirt just over the knee, and ugly beige boots of the kind that resemble a sheep turned inside out, with Frankenstein stitching. It was trend-aware. In the background a door stood ajar; the digital grain and flatness of the image transformed the aperture to the next room into a thin column of dark patterning—you could see the pixels as whatever life lay behind her decayed into data. In the shadow at her side on an end table stood a lamp whose sensuous shape resembled a human form, arm held high, but without higher resolution, no conclusion was possible.
I called her number. Nina? I asked.
Hey Dean, she said, calling me by the fake name I had given her. The voices of people you meet online always surprise you when you hear them, just as faces of radio personalities inevitably provide a shock.
So you’re in the hood? I said.
Yeah, she said, why don’t you come over with your stuff? You don’t sound like an ax murderer.
I don’t even own an ax.
Well bring it then. But listen, you’re OK with not fooling around right?
The way she made this proviso implied her having learned from experience a scrupulousness in declaring and negotiating boundaries. It was almost professional.
The address she supplied was only a few blocks away. It was not a direction I would have chosen to walk in at this hour, but I distracted myself by thinking about the strange and vaguely repellent sex we would have. Her reserve existed only because she didn’t know me, and there are so many freaks and assholes out there. I would charm her and roll that pink skirt up over her hips. My boots, she would protest, as I threw her on the sofa. No no, I would say. Leave them on.
A bottle smashed somewhere up ahead. It was after 2 AM. The path to my new friend’s place lay directly past a housing project. They were called Independence Towers, which I found cruel. In mid-June hand-lettered posterboards appeared in the windows of what must have been rec centers or common rooms, declaring Celebrate Your Independence at Independence Towers! When the day came a large number of tenants gathered on the complex’s roofs. If there were an apocalyptic flood, their dogs would be stranded there, barking at helicopters and eating corpses.
Independence Towers, while not known for drug supermarkets or gang wars, were still considered dodgy territory by the young, mostly white, artistically inclined types like myself who had recently begun to inhabit the warehouses and dilapidated brownstones around them. We cautioned each other not to walk past them after dark. The neighborhood had improved in the last few years but I was a coward and at night would walk only in the cardinal direction that led directly away from the projects, which led through a curious enclave of Hasidic families that went on for some blocks.
I put my head down and walked quickly, trying at the same time not to look nervous in case I encountered anyone. I passed Independence Towers and checked the addresses of various slowly collapsing row homes, a couple with the bright yellow wheatpastings that indicated they’d been seized by city marshals. I had missed Nina’s place, somehow, which was odd.
Then I considered that her apartment number was 11G. The only buildings of any size in the area were Independence Towers.
The elevator was structurally sound and free of garbage, painted institutional mint. The hall was tidy, quiet. Half the fluorescents overhead were off, one in each pair, on a nighttime timer setting, like in a dorm or prison.
Hi, she said, guarding herself with the door for an assessing moment before swinging it open around her smile. She wore not the outfit of the photo but those ass-hugging sweats of the sort that had become appropriate for cigarette runs, trips to the gym, etc.: again, trend-aware. The word PINK dripped down one leg in sorority block letters. On top she wore a plain white V-neck tee, with a bra. Small breasts but the way the shirt declared their presence was appreciated.
I thought about pecking her on the cheek but she touched me on the shoulder, keeping me at a distance, and steered me in, her eyes drifting quickly away. It was a small apartment, the entry opposite a closet-sized kitchen off a nominal hallway into the living room, reasonably sized and dimly lit. It was cluttered—women’s clothes, sketchpads, an old desktop computer, a sofa, end tables and a blocky wardrobe, a stray chair. It was the space of the picture she’d sent but smaller and shoddier; in photos even a ratty interior takes on a flimsy dignity. Club music played from an all-in-one stereo propped on a wood-frame chair with a rattan bottom that had popped several of its strands. The rig itself was years out of date; you could tell by the bulbous styling of its gray plastic shell.
Is that incense? I asked.
Yeah, it’s nice, right? You live around here—you can get it from the guy down on Marcy by the train.
(Marcy was the avenue we were on. The name always struck me as discordantly cute for the main drag of such a historically murderous neighborhood.)
Does it do anything?
It just puts out good energy, for purification. You know we both need it, she laughed.
Just as in the photo, the door on the far wall stood ajar. In real life it was possible to see past its threshold into a slotlike bedroom, clothes piled at the foot of a futon on the floor, some papers lying on the carpet, blue hand weights. This kind of glimpse was in a way more thrilling than fucking. The humanoid lamp on the living room end table, meanwhile, revealed itself to be a dancer in a bustier and skirt, crinoline frozen in a mixture of bone powder and dirt. The figurine wore stockings with a garter belt and held one arm upthrust to support a socket and shade.
It’s pretty, right? This is my grandma’s place. She’s in North Carolina. She’s not doing too well lately so she’s taking it easy for a while, getting out of the city.
You both live here, usually?
No, just her. I’m just taking care of it right now. Gotta have somebody living here. Me, I bounce around.
Good place to live?
Oh yeah. You hear all this shit—here, make yourself at home. You want a beer? But yeah, you hear, Oh, the projects this, the projects that. Some of them ain’t so bad.
This is a housing project?
Ha, she said. It’s not that bad, believe me. Lots more old people than you think, and people take care of each other. Damn, she said from the kitchen, I should’ve told you to pick up a couple beers. All I got is two twenty-twos.
I removed the coke from my wallet and started flicking the bag with my finger, rubbing it. She wasn’t unattractive at all. A glass of beer appeared on the table in front of me, and a CD case.
Everybody’s getting iPods now, she said. What are we going to cut our coke on?
Mirrors will come back into style, I guess. Glass is better anyway, it’s sexier, I said. Then, on a hunch, I added, Plastic seems so toxic.
Oh yeah, absolutely. I used to have one of those Nalgene bottles until that stuff about the cancer started coming out. I’m back to a metal thermos now.
Are you in school?
I was. I mean, I’m in school and out. I’m going back probably not this semester but next. You don’t have to cut ‘em too big. We’re not in any rush.
We each did a modest line. Our hands did not touch when I passed the jewel box and my rolled-up five-dollar bill.
Nursing, she said, rubbing her nose. That’s what I’m studying.
You can make a lot of money, I said.
Yeah, I know. I was reading in a magazine that it was one of the top careers for the twenty-first century. And I like helping people.
The population is getting older, I said.
People keep getting sick and dying.
Maybe I should get into undertaking.
She laughed. Just because peeking into the bedroom was satisfying didn’t mean I didn’t want to fuck.
Looks like we’ve got ourselves a real comedian, she said. What did you say you did again, for real?
What I do is really boring.
What, you don’t like it? Nobody likes their job. Do you mind, she said, gesturing with her chin at the bag I was again idly caressing. I passed it over.
Thought you wanted to take it slow.
This is taking it slow, she said. She had a habit of laughing at her own jokes, which I liked.
Let’s talk about something fun, I said. Like you in your sexy nurse’s outfit.
Yeah, right, she laughed, gracefully but without any sense of invitation.
So you were out dancing earlier?
For a little while. I wasn’t really feeling it. I went to high school with this guy who’s a bouncer at this club down on the Lower East. It’s not that exclusive or whatever—he doesn’t really keep people out so much.
Even I would get in?
Oh yeah. You’re a cool customer.
I couldn’t tell if she was teasing me, or mocking me, or if she was simply in earnest. The drug’s serrated edge was cutting up through the surface of things; its rise began hinting at its fade. We would start finding each other tiresome in the next ten to fifteen minutes. She’d tucked one leg up under her butt, and her head lolled over the edge of the chair back as she basked in her high, which would start waning soon. One of the problems with coke was that once you got a nice warm buzz, you couldn’t hit that peak again; the rest was chasing a high, warding off tremors, and keeping up with your friends. Coke was a way to guarantee you’d be disappointed, but you went for it, we had gone for it, whatever it was. That was something.
She changed the music to something mellower. So you like to dance? I asked inanely.
Sure, a little bit. I mean, I’m not one of those girls who always wants to go out dancing all the time.
What’s this music?
Placebo. Nice name, right?
Our conversation took on a strange rhythm, not what the manic caricatures of people on coke would suggest. Cocaine has a swooning undertone that two people can share, if they’re open to it.
So you do meet people online a lot? I asked.
Nah, not so much. I’m a friendly person, and I like a little adventure. A little, you know what I’m saying? I like to meet new people. And sometimes it’s easier to hang out with a stranger. You know what I’m talking about.
I wished that I could just stop time for a moment, freeze it, keep the night from turning into day, keep this woman’s old grandmother from dying in a nursing home down South, probably where she was from. Turning back the clock wasn’t necessary; just the stopping would be enough, to be able to move around in time without experiencing its constant tug deathward. It would be like walking on the moon.
I stood up and paced over to the end table in the shadows. I wanted to ask you about this lamp, I said.
It’s my grandma’s. She was a dancer once, a showgirl.
Oh yeah. She was big into it in the ’40s. She was just a girl. She was beautiful.
Well, it runs in the family.
She twisted her head around on the chair to cast an appreciative smile at me upside down. I walked over to her, touched her cheek with one hand and lowered the other onto her shoulder. She tensed, so I let go, returned to my chair.
You ever dance? I asked. Professionally, I mean.
Me? Ha. No.
Come on, man.
There was a bit of a silence.
I couldn’t do it if I wanted, I’m too sensitive. I know I might not come across like it—people see me as tough, but I’m not so much.
You just want someone to take care of you.
Sure you do. It’s not just women. Everybody does.
Maybe that’s just you.
Do you ever have sex with guys you meet online?
Nope, she said.
I did once. It wasn’t so great. The girl looked a lot different from her picture.
But you got yourself the pussy you wanted, right?
Hey. I thought you were the sensitive type.
I am. But I’m no-bullshit too. It’s all right. I know you’re a sensitive type also.
Yeah. You’re intuitive and you’re sensitive. It’s in your eyes. You’re a nice person, you can tell that right off. You want something, we both know you want it, but you don’t come in here like you expect anything. I have very good intuition, and I was comfortable instantly.
But I don’t want to be a nice person, I said.
She gave me a funny look.
You know, I should probably get going.
What? It’s early, stay a while, she said, like a good host but surely thinking of the bag in my wallet. Close to half was left. We both knew what I wanted, we both knew what she wanted.
You’ve only been here for like an hour, she went on. Relax. You want to lie on the couch?
The couch was covered in a plastic sheath. Not alone, I said. It was supposed to be suave but came out whiny like an adolescent.
We told each other that it was cool to meet each other. Maybe we should do this again sometime; yeah, that would be cool. That email I gave you, it’s not my real one. Me either. You have my cell. Text me. And so on.
We can go dancing or something, I said.
Yeah, she said, and smiled.
As she closed the door she hesitated. The view was a replay of the first glimpse. Maybe it was because I was a sensitive type that I had started to feel terrible. A kiss on the cheek, surprisingly, and the door swung crisply shut.
It must have been close to 5, in a way not so bad. The public spaces of the building were still mercifully empty. Crossing the complex on a footpath, streetlights studded the dead time between night and day with points of mineral-white light. A yellow glow on the edge of perception had begun to seep up from the obscured horizon to lighten the dark sky’s heavy load.
A man appeared suddenly, about ten yards away, and my heart did for a second seem to stop.
He was reasonably large, about my age, braids, the blotch of an old tattoo on his forearm. He wore the blue button-down of the transit authority, its patch on the sleeve, and carried a small gym bag. He was going to work while I stumbled angrily home for a few hours of sleep before rolling into work whenever I felt like it.
We both flinched. As our surprise subsided, we nodded politely without really looking each other in the face, as one does in the city. His graciousness infuriated me, given that I was so obviously up to no good. I turned to watch his back recede. He did not turn to look at me.
I just wanted someone to put a stop to all this. No wonder in AA they teach you to believe in a higher power.
Back on the avenue, figures materialized in any place crenellated enough to host a shadow—vestibules, overhangs. My chest hurt. This was all beginning to feel like an ur-state, regardless of my level of sobriety.
When I got back to my apartment I took off my pants, turned them upside down over my desk, and turned the right pocket inside out. Quite a few little yellow pills spilled out. I was pretty sure they were Ativan. I had stolen them while she was in the bathroom, not touching up her makeup for my benefit, from a flat, enameled case that had been sitting on the table near her grandmother’s lamp.