Issue 14 · Fall 2014
Rhoda had always had the feeling that strangers sensed something terribly socially wrong with her, some basic hole in her character or some total hygienic flaw. So it was really cool when she came out as a trans lady and now suddenly she had something that in fact was terribly socially wrong with her, so no sweat. It was kind of political. She could field strangers’ anger with anger now, and she was totally right to do so. So when she caught the alcoholic woman staring at her throat, she returned the stare like a tennis pro, held it long enough to Make A Point, then splayed her dogeared book like a folding fan over her eyes.
The alcoholic woman was with some guy, a feathered blond man-without-a-shirt in a music video from the late 1980s. He looked as if he’d been sealed in a jar of liquor for twenty years, wrenched out, and pressed clean by well-meaning twelve-step programs. He looked like he'd faded into a nice and understanding guy. The fat on his arms had long since gotten over its need to be muscle, and he left his hands on his lap mostly while he ate. The alcoholic woman surged forward into the space he left behind, punctuated her sentences with her fork, and let bean sprouts scatter from the tines to the floor when she spoke. The two of them had suitcases on wheels and wore white, freshly laundered T-shirts.
I'm telling you, people don't do no meaner shit than on tequila, said the woman. That's why they call it that. To-keel-ya.
Unexpectedly the woman turned full face to Rhoda, caught her eye again. Rhoda returned her stare and the woman smiled.
Get it? she hooted. TO-KEEL-YA.
The husband chuckled. Rhoda pushed her lip out and went back to her book.
Her book was great. She'd read it thirteen times.
How many of you, the great mass of men, sweat and strive to overcome your obstacles of the day? Business? Board and lodging? The sorrows of desire? Is it not said that man is the equal to the greatest of his opponents? And yet what of those to whom the door opens, and himself he is made to wrestle with? What merit you he who, in overcoming, is——self-overcoming?
Rhoda had underlined the words twice, two different colors of ink, two previous readings; she moved her lips as she read them, felt the words in her mouth. The great mass of people, what merit you she?
Hi, said the alcoholic woman, suddenly standing beside her table.
Rhoda looked up. The faded husband was paying the check, arguing over what the price ought to be on one of the indecipherable items on the tiny receipt. From this close you could see the places where vast blood-transport highways in the woman’s cheeks had exploded, spreading purple concrete rubble beneath her translucent skin. Her cocoa eyes seemed kind.
I'm sorry if I'm being forward, honey, said the woman. I just wanted you to know I think you're a really pretty girl.
Oh, said Rhoda, raising her eyebrows. Thanks.
Would I lie? asked the woman, and she looked Rhoda up and down, heavier on the down. Yeah, really. You have got it, got something. You look like a beautiful Jewess, like an olive.
Thank you, said Rhoda, lowering her book again. She felt uncomfortable, like the MSG in the food was reacting badly with the acid in her stomach, but it was nice to hear the things the alcoholic woman was saying. There were so few people who said anything to her lately.
You are more than welcome, honey, said the woman, and here she leaned in. Now, listen. The two of us, my husband and I, we're from out of town. Here seeing the sights. Now, we're staying in a hotel just around the corner from here. Just upstairs from here. And we got nothing else going for the night.
Uh huh, said Rhoda, pretending not to see where this was going.
So we were wondering said the woman, and here she leaned in still more. We were wondering if maybe you wanted to come upstairs with us, and have a beer or two, and you're so pretty, and maybe you wanted to let us take a look at you. We could have some real city fun.
Rhoda set the book down and tried not to make any decisions on instinct, such as saying no. She thought instead. It was strange, she thought, that she didn't find anything strange in this invitation, that this was the kind of thing she expected to happen all the time, expected it when she sat on the subway, ankles crossed and thighs tensed together and drawing goofy pictures in her sketchbook, when she looked up and tried to read the pinhole stares of the possible sociopath passengers opposite her and tried to see if they were looking up her skirt. She hadn't ever taken homemaking in high school. The Real Girls who had taken it one time did this assignment where they had to carry around an egg for two weeks to simulate pregnancy, or maybe it was childrearing they were simulating, or maybe they were simulating being ground down and trained for arbitrary submission by a brutal school system, or maybe that was just happening. Anyway, her whole life was like that assignment now; she wrote trains and waited for someone to crack her egg. So all she could feel about being propositioned in a Vietnamese restaurant by Aryan drunks was relief, and with it a new sense of purpose and possibility. What merit you she who, in overcoming, is self-overcoming?
I'll do it, she announced, if you'll pay for my dinner.
The woman smiled and shook her head.
Aren't you cute as a button, she said. Sure, that's fine. Have you ordered dessert yet? Why don't you pick yourself out a dessert.
She went back to ask her husband to settle this new bill as well while Rhoda pushed her book aside and picked up the menu. In the process, turning the poorly-laminated pages, she mentally tallied what she'd ordered and realized she'd sold her body for eight bucks, plus whatever dessert cost. None of the desserts were over two dollars and they were the worst desserts anyone could offer anyone. Something called honey noodles, just apple, whipped cream rice. Did that mean rice pudding? Probably not?
How much dessert you ordering, sweetie, asked the woman from across the restaurant. So we can figure tip?
Um, said Rhoda. Nothing actually.
You sure? asked the woman. You don't like anything here, we can go to the little store down the block and get you some Oreos or M&Ms or something. It's not so far out of our way.
No, it's really fine, said Rhoda. You don't have to go to any trouble. Desserts, desserts are for the weak!
The woman eyed her. —I mean I like something sweet once in a while, she said.
Rhoda stared at the waterlogged bean sprouts left on her plate and tried to decide if she was turned on by all of this or not; she couldn't tell. The waterlogged husband came back over, eight bucks plus tip poorer; he extended his hand to Rhoda and smiled.
Name's James, he said. James Geitner.
Rhoda, said Rhoda. She extended her own hand and returned the shake, firm grip by terrible instinct; he flustered.
Pleasure, Rhoda, said James. Now my wife Bethany here says you're gonna come upstairs and join us for some fun, that right, honey?
Rhoda closed her eyes.
That's sure right, she said. That's sure what's happening.
James wanted to go to the store to pick up condoms and batteries, so Rhoda collected on her dessert deal by ordering coffee and putting six sugars in it. James happily counted out the quarters and Bethany ran her hand down Rhoda's side and batted her sticky eyelashes. Rhoda looked at the cars passing by, carrying tourists out of this neighborhood and into other ones farther away from here, where the lights were brighter and there were happier adventures to be had.
To get into the hotel you buzzed a night guard and said your name into a speaker, rusted over and slicked with tobacco stains and mystery urban grease, and you waited until the guard flipped the magnetic lock. Rhoda followed James and Bethany up the stairs, the wallpaper blue-on-blue stripes and not actually extending all the way to the ceiling or the baseboards, as if someone had consistently cut the strips six inches short and decided to just center each of them vertically rather than choosing an edge and running with it. The Geitners were on the sixth floor of seven. There was an elevator, but Bethany said it smelled like urine and she didn't like to take it.
It's the thing I like least about this city, she said. It's so dirty here. I'm not used to dirty. I’m a little bit of a princess about that. You feel me, honey?
Oh yeah definitely, Rhoda said nervously. She used to brag, she remembered, about how much she liked the dirt of the city. For is it not out of the blackest mire, the rankest offal, that the tallest tree achieves its destiny?
Two rooms branched off of the sixth floor landing. James swore and fumbled with the key of 6L and finally got it open.
And yet what of those to whom the door opens?
Those to whom the door opens see into a single room, a low flat bed in a very dark frame, styrofoam cooler resting on the dresser with a cold puddle on the carpet beneath it, a couple of pairs of shoes, tennis and loafers, neatly lined up by the closet, the TV left on to some exuberant network broadcasting reality programming as a ward against theft. Bethany quickly crossed the room and turned off the set while James closed and locked the door behind Rhoda. The radiators pumped in ash, MSG, putrefying lemongrass.
So here's our little heaven, said Bethany. You can see our suitcases stacked over there; his is black and mine is red with white polka dots. We call them Mickey and Minnie! And we've got the other clothes all hanging up in the closets. And here's the bed. It's a little bit hard, especially for how much we're paying, a hundred and twenty a night! Can you imagine that? You can buy a house with how much that is a month. You can sit on the bed, honey, if you want.
Rhoda did, careful not to spill the coffee and sugar, still too hot to drink and too watery to enjoy. Bethany paced, chattered about how the view outside the windows was terrible and how the radiator was strange and how the hotels they were used to didn't have radiators and those kinds of things, they had been in a lot of hotels in their time all full of big beige boxes with any climate you wanted, and James dug in the styrofoam cooler for bottles of Corona for Rhoda and Bethany, Hawaiian Punch in a plastic pitcher for him. He popped the tops off the beers and offered her one and Bethany one, and Rhoda declined and Bethany didn't. She drank, put her hand over the top of the beer when the foam started to volcano over, kept talking about her impressions of New York and how busy it was and how rude the people who drove the trains were as Rhoda's coffee got cooler and the burned acid smell of it in its styrofoam cup got more and more evident, and finally Bethany stopped talking. Her beer was more than half gone.
Listen to me go on, she said. She walked over to James and slipped her arm around his waist. We better get started, huh?
Rhoda stared into the black circle of coffee.
You sure you don't want no beer? Bethany asked. Loosen up some? You want to watch us fuck a little first? Get more in the mood?
A white pattern of something moved over the black circle of coffee, some chemical ghost forming and disappearing.
He's shy, said James. Sweetness, you're embarrassing him.
Embarrassing her, said Bethany. That's what they prefer. You're the embarrassing one. James, baby, show her your dick. That'll break the ice, right honey?
Break something, he said, and he set aside his hotel mug of Hawaiian Punch and jiggled his belt like a friendly Santa. He took down his trousers and his mottle-gray jockeys in one fluid grab, revealing a penis that looked as if it had been left to soak in spray-tan. He stood there, navy stripes at the top of his new athletic socks hugging his calves; he smiled beatifically. Bethany dropped to her knees and stared up at the thing rising like a gargoyle. She reached up and stroked it like she was smoothing a kindergartner's cowlick.
Isn't it pretty, honey? she asked Rhoda. Look at it all snaking around, like the devil or something. I bet yours is prettier though, honey. Take off your little skirt, huh?
I'm not sure I really want to do this anymore, said Rhoda.
Frowning, Bethany withdrew her hand from James's penis. Like water coming down from a boil it began to spread out, blur. His eyes tightened up and he bounced on his heels; he seemed relieved.
After I bought you dinner and everything, he said. No, I'm joking, I'm joking.
Okay, honey, said Bethany, slowly. No one wants to make you do things you don't want to do.
It's fine, said Rhoda in a small voice.
You sure, though? asked Bethany. You sure you don't want to maybe think this over a little bit? Maybe have a beer with us and talk and we take this a little slower, maybe?
He don't want to, he don't want to, said James, biting his lip. Sorry. She don't want to. Sorry. Give, give her some room. She maybe ain’t never done this before either.
Rhoda could feel her eyes burning at the edges sometimes, and it used to be that when that happened, she knew that she wouldn't be able to cry, that she’d automatically make herself stop. But once someone forgot how to do that, it was hard to learn how again.
Oh no, sighed Bethany. James, why don't you go in the bathroom a while. Clean yourself up. Girl talk.
James shook his head, then padded in his clean socks to the bathroom, activated the fan, shut the door.
Bethany sat on her heels and looked at Rhoda for a while, the dead blood highways under her cheeks pulsing with taillights. Then she crawled across the carpet to Rhoda and sat in front of her knees while Rhoda dried the edges of her eyes and sucked snot into her throat.
Shit, honey, she said. I'm sorry. I really fucked things up for everything.
No you didn't, said Rhoda, hoarse.
Yes I did, said Bethany. I got greedy, is all. I got greedy and I messed up a fun thing.
She sat on the floor, let her legs splay to the side of her.
You're real pretty, is all, she said. You look like I'd want a daughter of mine to look. I mean, if she was a boy daughter, and all.
Rhoda didn't say anything. Bethany was looking her over.
Hell, if she was a girl daughter too, maybe, she said. You got them eyes, them Jewess eyes.
Thanks, said Rhoda.
James used to be real pretty to me, Bethany said. Real, real pretty. I used to think he was an angel, all that blond curly hair and his round little hips and everything, except an angel who was mean and smoked cigarettes and all. He probably used to think I looked real pretty too. I just saw you in that restaurant and I thought, damn, that's pretty. I want something pretty again. James, I said, get that pretty thing for me. And I knew it wasn’t real, truly I knew that, but after a while, I guess you quit caring about what’s real?
Rhoda sat on the bed, flexed her legs, felt her stomach churn from the coffee. Thought about how far it was to the door. Thought about how much better it would be if this woman was right; thought about how much she wished, really, that she wasn’t real.
You gotta roll with what you’re given, Bethany continued. People in our situations, we don’t get to pick so much what we want anymore. I mean you understand that.
You and your husband can fuck me, Rhoda said. I don’t mind.
Bethany scowled. —You don’t mind? You could pretend to be a little positive about it.
I am positive, Rhoda said hoarsely. I’m self-overcoming. She started to laugh, choking a little, and Bethany patted her on the back gently to help her. That made her start to cry.
Look at you, Bethany said. Don't be sad. Just sit there and don't worry about a thing. I'll talk to James. We're gonna have a good time, honey, a good time.
She opened the door—steam spilled out—and she said something to her husband that Rhoda couldn't hear over the water. She shut the door behind her. As soon as it closed, Rhoda got up and immediately spilled a gout of cold coffee on the carpet. She thought curse words and walked to the trash can, reached in—hand brushing past inside-out processed food wrappers, blobs of cold sugar clinging to the exterior—and she set the half-full cup neatly at the base of the can so it wouldn't spill when someone changed the bag, by some instinct she did that, and she got out of the room before the bathroom door opened.
They might see her if she went downstairs right away; instead, she went upstairs to the seventh and last floor. When she realized that she'd trapped herself up there like a cat on a branch, she found a corner that looked dark enough and crouched there and balled up on the floor, breathing. She could just see the floor below. Any minute now the door would open and the Geitners would storm out, come upstairs, find her crouched and crazy-eyed on the landing of a strange hotel. Maybe they would be kind to her, horribly kind to her. They knew how important it was to stick together. They understood things already that Rhoda didn’t want to understand, that she would spend the rest of her whole life, she was sure in that moment at the top of the stairs, slowly, slowly understanding.
And the door did open, but there were no footsteps, just moments when she refused to let herself breathe. The door closed sooner than she thought it would. She still didn't dare leave. She sat on the dirty carpet of the seventh floor landing by a black chip of ancient gum and she waited ten minutes, twenty, a half hour. She waited long enough that it no longer seemed strange to her; she was just in a place where you sat on the floor, all the comforting details emerging: the ochre water stain on the ceiling. The place where the baseboards didn't join right below the centered blue-on-blue paper. The flake of paint that peeled from the railing, fluttered through the heavy air that moved invisibly through everything. She sat and started to feel weirdly good about herself and thought about how one day you could walk through a door and people would just let you; they would take you at your word, and how it wasn't like walking through a door at all maybe, maybe it was a diving bell, and as you sank into the ocean with it you carried a little bit of air from the surface world with you, and the more you tried to breathe the more of it was gone, irreplaceable now, and you learned to breathe other things, or you stopped breathing.
Eventually, calm or something like it, she stood up and walked as briskly as she could downstairs and out the door.
She checked her purse to make sure she had her subway card and found that her book was gone. The shutter was down over the Vietnamese restaurant. She pushed herself against the grimy metal door and stared through the slit in the metal at the dark window of the restaurant behind. She imagined her book sitting in there, on some waxed and Lysol-stinking table, the twice-underlined words trapped between the covers and pages like moths pressed in some collection, final product of hours spent swinging long gossamer nets in flat sunny fields.