The Transit of Venus
We lived in New York then. We both wore Paul Smith shirts—you’d found a sample sale where we bought them cheap. I was in the habit of wearing clothes that were too large. My Paul Smith shirt was puffy, yes, but made of fine cotton, a pattern of newspapers (Le Monde, la Repubblica, The Telegraph) on a pale blue background. The news: nothing lasts forever, but that wasn’t what we were talking about. We were eating dinner in our apartment on Central Park West and 110th Street, and you told me that a new acquaintance—one of the new fast friends you made almost on a daily basis—was a hand photographer, and that he offered to talk to me about hand modeling: the prospect thereof, a career of a kind.
A week later we were sitting in a coffee shop on Sixth Avenue. The windows were bright and out there in the city people went where they were going. Our table was oak, glossed and sticky with spilled Cokes and the swab of a gray cloth. We didn’t often go out to lunch, being broke, with no perceived margin. We were out that afternoon anyway, waiting for the hand photographer. You saw potential everywhere, like an explosion. You spent the day making up stories, by evening believing them. Some things really did come true: we lived in a doorman building, after all.
The photographer arrived. You carried the conversation. As we ate soup and drank coffee, my hands grew to monstrous proportion, naked, nasty, beautiful hands. I picked up my cup, fingers wrapped around the ceramic with creaturely determination. I held my spoon with all manner of delicacy. I let my hands drop to my lap, unseen and impotent, and then I slowly lifted them back up again, positioning my right hand in a jaunty splay between you and me, my left in a submissive curl by the fork. All the while the photographer listened to you, and sometimes spoke himself about various recent assignments, and later about a kind of wood you both liked in furniture. He did not, to my knowledge, even glance at my hands. He had an overly large jaw and a thin, long face overall. He was about thirty, with sparse blondish hair, decked out in dorky, non–New York hiking gear.
At the end of lunch, we spoke briefly about my hands. If I were to pursue hand modeling, I would have to target the “wife and mother” market, he said. I would have to, nonetheless and in advance for a matter of months, keep my hands in gloves all day and night. My veins were a problem, the roadways and paths of pale green patterning my skin. A “model hand” had no veins.
I’m attached to my hands. A joke, obviously.
We walked to the subway together, you and me. We’d been going out since college—living together for three years. Where was I going, where were you going? Swaths of time-away-from-one-another in that city could stretch for hours, would easily take up half or more of each day. It didn’t seem like our choice, really, rather that we both had busy lives, with jobs and friends and possibilities. What exactly is possibility?
I got a seat on the uptown 1. I pulled my hands out from my pockets and placed them on my knees. We had a dog, two cats, and we’d painted our bedroom Bianchi green, like the bicycle. It was an exceptionally cold winter, but our apartment was hot, especially the bathroom. We had the best bathtub. We ate meals at a small table in the living room near the one window with a park view. I remember lying in the bed together at night, with the red curtains and the pale green walls, and your pink face.
You didn’t always feel the lift of endless, almost fake possibility. Sometimes you were tamped down. We were both optimists by nature with a propensity for the wry comment. My hand reached out for your head, felt your hair, trailed down farther, to your shoulder. Did you know that when humans are touching there is a 1/250 of an inch separating them, always? It is in that space that great engines of steam and breath and life collide.
I am a sex worker, and it’s a good gig, because the bawdy room is everywhere.
I slice pickles for sandwiches and the tense guests await this enactment and then I enact something else, tilting my body so they can see the full, one hundred percent poster-board of who I am. “These sliced pickles might be excellent on your sandwich,” I say, moving forward with the platter. It’s a descent from the sky, my parachute emanating from behind. My face is large and wide, and then you’re taking a camera ride into my mouth, sliding along my tongue, clutched by my throat, and on and on and deeper. I can do one person at a time, but it’s especially nerve-racking and advantageous if there’s a group around the table, ideally relatives.
Sex is multidimensional. I don’t want to be patronizing, but people don’t understand how multidimensional we’re talking.
At the stoplight. At Target. During the flossing ritual. With insects.
I’m very tired, of late.
But let me start at the beginning of my career. I was naked in my room with the blue shag carpet, standing before the full-length mirror. I saw it—an invitation, an opportunity. This body, as it turned out, was built for something, as a rocket is built to propel into space. It was a job, and the tools were handy.
I launched myself, stealthily draped, into the world. The town center was small, buildings made of brick with white doors. Tentative at first, I took big, slow steps. At the grocery store I bought a plum and a pack of cigarettes. I stood in the dimension and geometry of sun and shade by the liquor store. Men who were like my father but were not my father spoke in boisterous and ritualized tones. Other men sat in passenger seats, in idling trucks, staring forward.
Must we be paid? I don’t know about that, but some of my greatest working moments have been at least social in nature. There was the time the man flung himself upon my car. His look through the windshield at me, a lady with her hands on the wheel, a pink blazer. My look through the windshield at him, one cheek smashed up against glass, a comrade or a customer, pretty willing to go to another bar.
It’s Saturday. I take off my clothes and lie on a pile of sheets, a big heap of what I could find in the linen closet. I stretch my arms up and over in a dolphin curve; I scissor my legs in slow motion. I don’t put on music. I’m already attending to the music of the day: a dove cooing, a police siren, a glimmer of wind, even a neighbor getting into a car. There’s a connection between my naked self and these sounds. At times I sense I’m too low … I might be better off on a bier or perch. I’m a little landlocked, swiveling here on the floor. Nonetheless I wrap myself in the variously hued sheets, and wait for sounds to pass through the cloth to my ears.
Sometimes there is a grid element to sex work. Laying myself on the day, I’m an elemental formation, a cloud, and all the particulars of my body become the vastness of time and geography.
Sometimes in a social moment, I have sat with another person in a tent and marked the lines on our bodies, matching the lines together in private triangles and squares. Our blood pumped and coursed, as if we ourselves were planets with obedient rivers.
When I was young and the men hung around the liquor store, and some had already gone in, and some were going in later, I passed through their bodies too, as if they were made of netting, as if all the people were their own grids, and I was just wind, or the noon siren from the fire station, or the smell of lavender.
I open my eyes, which is, to begin with, a deep abrogation, denial, and slight of the black screen within. In there (you know where I mean, we’ve met there, naked and frank for a change) is a whole other set of recollections, premonitions, and alterations I can’t even get into right now. Keep in mind that what I’m saying from here on in, about the so-called life I’m leading? True, yes, important, sure, but unequivocally, cue the blackness, not the whole story. So, anyway, eyes open—oh, to be pitched once more and quite completely out of my cocoon, out from under my velvet snake man, my black jaguar—my initial perception is one of full-on and obedient immersion in the time-space continuum, nary a time machine in the air. No planes of image, no gnats of recall. Everything around me is pure surface. An ivory dresser. A window with a grate. Textured, rough plaster. A white door. A gold glass candleholder. Cold to the dream, I sit up. I go to the bathroom, come back to the room with the ivory dresser. On a small white table in the closet is where I store my hat. Thank you, Africa. Thank you, church ladies of all sorts. Thank you, Easter. Thank you, Kentucky. Thank you, satanic Arizona sun. Thank you, sports teams. Thank you, civilized men from other eras. Thank you, rappers. I pick up the hat. Thank you, Queen Elizabeth. Thank you, Carmen Miranda. I put it on, and I go, I go like a hustling marathon runner, I go like in a slow-motion immersion docudrama. I have wandered the ritualistic netherworld, and now in my tentacled hat I will make a break for it, lowering my forehead and leaning into the gleam.
A Case of Motherhood
I had a child, and then more children. A child, head turned and chin lifted, eyes shut in concentration, finding in sleep bounties of peaches and pork chops and Raisinets. A child, baby hawk tucked close to my body, flawless rider. A child, amid dinosaurs and their social graces, murmuring instructions, eyes on her creation. A child, decked out in all manner of scarf. A child, smartly outfitted for Washington, DC, with a stuffed dog in her purse. A child, walking to school, balancing guitar, lunch box, backpack, running clothes, art project. A child, adjusting the mirror in the car. A child, a child—and so many children. She is in her room creating. She is in her room dreaming. She is in her room suffering. The walls of her room have dissolved to nothing.
I am nervous. I feel completely nervous now, and usually I’m at least pretty nervous. Sometimes I hit a plateau of calm (but usually I’m nervous). If the circumstance is promising, say I’m meeting someone for coffee or I’m about to talk in an official capacity, well, I’m a bit jittery going in, then there’s a sliding descent, and, ultimately, the moment when I become a large person smashing a flower into a pancake or a large person trying to pick up a tiny flower and put it in a tiny vase on a tiny dresser. Granted, afterward I may experience a kind of calm, or ennui, or at least the mild contemplation of what could have gone better. Usually nervousness comes in anticipation and planning of what I’ll do, rather than what will be done to me, but there are exceptions. If there is a flying around of something, a buzzing, darting motion with possibilities of quick nesting and attachment—this gives me a completely different kind of nervous feeling. Let me add that there is also a jumpy intoxication that occurs if I’m standing close to the tracks on a subway platform and a train barrels in. But nervousness itself is not a train, it’s more of a boat, a canoe with a solid seat and a long oar I’ve got both hands on. A person might ask, and with good cause, does gravity keep us up, or is it solely there to keep us down? We remain footed on the ground, but we’re not smashed to the ground. Leaden air does not smash us down like pancake flowers, except for when we sleep and dream.
The heart technician has a shelf full of mysteries to read when she isn’t reading hearts. I close my eyes and try to go to the beach in my head, perhaps have a Guinness, while she is reading my heart. Thank you very much, I would rather abstain, for I’ve already taken the measure of my heart. Here is a small and important valve that moves like coral or leaves in the wind. Not everyone’s heart beats in time. Turns out a secret tribe of oyster robots run this place. How does it start, life? Pa-thunk? I’m terrified. I’m in love—with my heart. This is the sound of what can be carved out from underneath my skin. A fingertip, an orchid. I think the heart technician must have been drinking last night. She dyes her hair black. She is of a certain age, when hearts start to give out. I am a suitcase that contains a heart. Ka-thop, ka-thop, ka—a—thop. Hearts are commonplace. My husband and I have laid our hearts on top of each other and stitched. No political affiliation, can’t dress it up. Even naked, you are a sheath for the heart. The heart technician is relentless with her little knob—she’s a bitch who doesn’t even notice the sheath part. The sound my heart makes is the sound my daughter heard when she was inside my body. She had her own tiny little heart back then, and now it’s grown to be a medium heart. My heart is bothering me. Bland brown cereal is good for the heart. Once upon a time my heart, my dreams, and I were cavemen. The strands of my heart reach all the way up to my throat, and all the way down to that whole other soft part. She’s taking my heart by force. I’m about to have a heart attack. She’s a tin man. She has no heart. My heart is slurping. It’s a sea anemone. It’s a sea horse. This throb is killing me. If this ever ends and I survive, I want to smash my heart back up near my husband’s heart. I want to use my heart to do some Christmas shopping and cast an absentee ballot. I’m a rickety sculpture where my heart lives, I’m a tree, I’m a birdhouse.
The Mauve Notebook
When I was a child, I had a small, square notebook with French words and an etching on the cover. It was a color I don’t love, mauve, the etching in dark red ink. Inside, I collected quotations.
Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.
I used austere, forward-slanting, adult handwriting. My plan was to fill the pages with sayings, gathering to myself the words that would hold me together. I scanned books and magazines and waiting-room walls. Kittens in peril, squirrels snacking. You could find plenty of advice at the dentist’s, or in school offices, or just about anywhere.
We are all in the gutter, I added, going with the celestial theme, but some of us are looking at the stars.
The yoga instructor asks us to do a pigeon pose toward the end of the hour. It’s a lean-over-your-bent-leg situation. I get the feeling/thought of someone. Someone is trying to spread my legs, and I’m trying to close them. It’s a picture stored in my hip socket. There’s a triangle between my knees and the middle of me, must keep closed, must keep closed.
The shoot-for-the-moon quote isn’t actually in the mauve notebook, I discover, finding the notebook in a banker’s box in my storage room. Nor is Oscar Wilde. Nor did I start it when I was a child.
I wrote in the mauve notebook my junior year in college, after the summer I spent in Newport, drinking what was left of my mother’s liquor cabinet (Rebel Yell was my favorite, for the trashiness aspect). I’d worked all of June and July as a locker girl at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, reading Tropic of Cancer on rainy afternoons, or when waiting for tennis players to need new towels or toss me old ones. In the sober, narrow writing I remembered, rather than the moon quote, comes this: And maybe, when they were left alone with themselves, when they talked out loud in the privacy of their boudoirs, maybe some strange things fell out of their mouths too; because in this world, just as in every world, the greater part of what happens is just muck and filth, sordid as any garbage can, only they are lucky enough to be able to put covers over the can. Then Goethe, Cocteau, and a Yannis Ritsos poem.
At the same time I’m thinking about the moon quote and the mauve notebook, I’m thinking about a party I went to in high school. At this party they called me Brandy. I thought it was fun to have a nickname. A girl who likes to drink brandy. A driveway. Men. The gutter, the stars, the moon, sordid as any garbage can.
Where, then, do these other images come from? Memories, we’ll call them—though they don’t just verify but also, being mutually exclusive, fuck up my original recollection:
—Me in my bedroom at 10 Sunset Hill, where we lived until I was eleven, lying on my bed and looking out the window to the driveway, thinking about the moon quote.
—Me on my eighth-grade trip to Washington, DC, discovering the moon quote etched in marble at the Lincoln Memorial—I’m looking up near the ceiling, which is difficult in my brace, so I’m more like a hardcover book tilting.
At the party where I was called Brandy it is certain or at least likely that some pushing went on. Legs opening, legs closing. Sitting on a man’s lap (fun!). A sense there was more than one fun man at the party, paying attention to me.
Laurie, or another girl, might have first come up with the nickname Brandy.
The notebook’s cover illustration is of three animals, le renard, le loup, and le cheval, invoking, according to some unverifiable sources I’ve just consulted online, a folktale by Jean de La Fontaine. But I probably never did check the origins of le renard, le loup, and le cheval back when I was in college, and so associations with the fable, which I’ve downloaded into a PDF, are of glancing value, or irrelevant.
The mauve notebook contains a sequence of stills. It contains ratios of intent and rebuff, of violence and culpability. I can’t remember when I was raped because it felt like I was getting raped all the time. I know this wasn’t the case, logically.
because these and those both were hunted
because of this, only because of this, I told you lies
Anyway, I was a child.
The trick is to remember the truth, or to experience a sense of truth when remembering. I am lying faceup among the stars, a hammock of threads from one to the other, a constellation. Or I am lying faceup, the stars above me.
The Power of Sex
The power of sex cannot be underestimated, said I, sitting in the tub. I tried saying it again, with richer overtones. The power of sex, I said, feeling the words down in my throat, a rumbling like thunder, cannot be underestimated, I then squeaked.
I stared at the unpleasantly modernist “perspective exercise” of my thighs and my feet way down there, a little sturdier than necessary for this day and age. A profound amount of ticking and humming was going on in the world at large. The small men and women, they had cast their gazes up from their toil with the hybrid cattle and radish crops, and they were standing near their thatched cottages, watching me with wide, still faces, taking in the enormity of my thought.
They knew, I knew. They had experienced their own secret heat under tawdry blue blankets. They had been bestowed with prizes at large performing arts centers, and on such nights broken strands of pearls in public bathrooms. They had seen it in themselves, urges besting the virtues of modesty and decorum. Up against their poor little cars—the size of Tonka trucks and Mattel police cruisers. You can never get the damn doors open, but who cares, when you can lean your inch-high self against the inch-high side of the car, lay your minuscule arms above the small roof, making little dents with your teeth.
I sat silent, for a long while. What is power, thought I, a sorrowing giant, only longing to give a daisy to my little peers.
The Optimistic Walk
I advise against walking like that. Your optimism is on display, like a worn leather satchel with one wrinkly white shirt inside. It’s the natural gait of a very short—e.g., a one-foot-tall—man. It’s not reliable. It’s not likely to mean anything. Besides, the kind of person who walks like that—what happens when he lies down? His legs keep moving. That’s an unpleasant sight, in the hotel room, on sheets whiter than the shirt, with the map of Madagascar in hand. Swivel, swish. Hold down, lad. Hold down.
How nude am I? My toenails are crudely cut and I fear not clean enough either. My legs haven’t been shaved in days. My stomach and breasts droop, my thighs are ambiguous. I hurried here—I’d planned to shower and shave before the appointment, but I was sick, so I slept right up until I had to leave. Now under the fluorescent lights, the doctor and intern inspect every inch of my skin. They are, in theory, looking at it differently than I am looking at me. This is actually not me, I would like to say. For I usually do shave, or give the appearance of shaving. And I wear toenail polish fairly consistently, in the season. I can’t adjust for my age, but otherwise not so bad, eh? I exercise and I don’t overeat … though I admit I seem rather puffy.
Well, whatever, this is staggeringly humiliating. They’re both wearing dresses, and their hair and makeup is in order. I’m wearing a patient’s demeanor. But couldn’t this demeanor be just a little sharper, cleaner, smaller? Another, very nude me is waving a flag in my brain. Hello, here I am. I’m having a thought now. I’m making a joke now. But you keep trolling over my body with your caterpillar mouths, with your oven mitts and scalpels. After that come the notes, as you define me.