The girls at work know the difference between the panting of desire and the exigency of near-orgasm. It’s a fine line, they tell me. You’ll catch on. I think of this, for some reason, as I weave my way through the complicated traffic, careful not to bump into anyone. If my clothes happen to brush up against other people’s clothes, I do not say I’m sorry. In New York, have no mercy is the new city code.
Used to be take no prisoners, according to the florist on Fifth Avenue, who calls mercilessness a sign of evolution. I think it was a florist—the memory of that conversation is cross-breeding with the memory I’m having of a person who sells umbrellas in Times Square. I am stressed, like an animal undergoing vivisection. I am aborting, today, my child.
For every new city I live in—New York is my fourth—I first buy a map, spread it out, and mark it up, on my knees, until the vertigo of absolute disorientation recedes. Life is not a race, but a contest. First place goes to those who took a class in cartography, or applied themselves to learn.
I should feel free to invent myself here, I was told at a party, but that presumed I didn’t already exist, a not-unfair statement. I learned everything I needed to know about life—the masks are interchangeable—in adolescence, a crash-course on how to maintain invisibility. No one survived, but I still have the yearbooks: Have a Killer Summer! BFF! But the problem, as I see it now, is that 95% of people don’t just sport a mask, they are a mask: nothing underneath but static and the occasional short circuit of emotion.
I occasionally meet a human being when crossing the street. We exchange covert glances, like thieves.
My immediate problem, however, is not that of concealing wounds, but of orientation. I am fisting an address to an abortion clinic and have, therefore, a destination, and something to do when I arrive. I walk through the streets of The Big Apple alone, passing out-of-work actors, businessmen, nuns. I take the A train eight stops, descend. I pull out my map, and feel a slight twinge in my womb, a protest from my prescient fetus, in the only language he knows: wiggling.
I am looking for a nondescript building, and find it with minimal difficulty. I ring the outside bell, am buzzed in. They are expecting me; they are preparing, in a well-lit, antiseptic room, for the clean, clean excavation of my child.
To be someone is to do something; that is why I am here. What exactly one chooses to do, I learned, is of little consequence. Just get in the game. I moved to New York. Played poker. Did triple the amount of work than the men in my office, in a position originally designed to be staffed by two people, and complained loudly about others at crowded bars.
That part of the game, fortunately, was scripted before I was born, so that when my silence during happy hour becomes conspicuous, I say, “Yvette is a bimbo. As for Frank: jackass. Who does he think he is, trying to micromanage me?”
No one questions the authenticity of my words, because I say them with feeling. When I iced the cake with one night stands and buying stock in Bluetooth, I had every reason to believe I had officially arrived, because, in the world’s eyes, I had.
Last year, I woke up one morning, and had two successive epiphanies: I hate myself, and my job. By then I had become a doer, so I made a cup of coffee, congratulated myself for having the courage to face the darkness in my heart, and called my boss.
“You can do your villainous part in reducing the already-failed humanitarian struggle to a pile of shit,” I said, “but, I, for one, refuse to sacrifice my dreams. I quit.” I hung up, read the paper, and placed a call to an adult chat-room hotline, 1-800-SEXXX. The girl who answered the phone started right in on her throaty seductions.
“I don’t want you to jack me off,” I said. “I want to play on your team. Are you hiring for second-shift?”
“When can you start?”
Thus began my steep ascent toward the longed-for American Dream: eight-hour shifts with two breaks and a lunch, clean hands and decent pay.
Fetus, fetus, I remind myself, as I climb the stairs to the clinic. I can lift heavy boxes, type 65 WPM; my baby wouldn’t have had a chance. I ring the interior doorbell, identify myself as “Rachel the baby-killer,” and enter the clinic at the sound of the buzz. The receptionist is behind marbled glass, which parts.
I advance, sign away the life of my fetus, take a seat. After a while, my name is called. I am introduced to a male doctor, who tells me I will feel discomfort and pressure. There is a nurse to assist him, while simultaneously holding my hand. I love the idea of a ready-made friend and nod with way too much enthusiasm for the occasion. The doctor says, “Have you weighed your options carefully?”
I take a moment to think about the word weigh, but do not understand, ultimately, what it means. The word options and carefully are equally foreign. My life is lived on one speed: warp. I change into a white gown, lie down, and obey the instructions: do not move. After twenty minutes, the baby is sucked out. I glance up just as the nurse is lifting the lid of a bin labeled “Hazardous Waste.” A broken sob tears open my mouth: I wanted my baby’s remains. Not to be grotesque, just because. I’m left alone to dress.
I’m sorry, I say, to the wall. So sorry, I repeat. This last part is said on the floor, where I’m now sprawled, bleeding, in a torn paper gown. Knock knock. I rise.
Back outside, I gather my bearings: I may as well be on Mars. I look at the post-operative brochure in my hand. On the cover is a pensive young woman, looking into a full-length mirror, as if practicing her lines for an off-off-Broadway debut of Grease.
In the First World’s epicenter, people make big splashes, and leave with unpaid utility bills and broken hearts. This could be my fate, too, if I wanted it. I do not want it, cannot think of anything else. I am wearing a yellow slicker, levi jeans. I could pass for a normal, well-adjusted, 24-year-old city girl, because that is who I am.
My name is not Rachel, it is Helen. Henceforth I will refer to my baby as Paul.
I see a couple across the street, arguing. The man smacks the woman across the face. She reels, then charges, beating him with her purse. A scuffle. It starts to rain. I sing to Paul, who never existed, and who is now dead. There are no words, only sounds. It is a dark song, for a dark day, but gives me a reason to keep walking. People stare.
Through years of indiscriminant eavesdropping during house parties, I learned it is advantageous to establish oneself financially before going about the complicated business of fucking strangers and crying into flat beer. Hmm, I thought. That’s odd.
But the whole world, it seems, with the exception of me and John Cage, believes deeply in the importance of sequential harmonic composition. Adolescence may have been when I learned how to read a map, but it was preschool when I learned that B comes before C. I know that’s how it goes, I said, but why? Drink your sippy cup, they said.
In height, weight, hair/eye color, and personality—I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings—I am a poster child for the girl next door. I am a demographic wallflower. My baseline IQ is further proof of my mediocrity, and I no longer date because I would rather watch chimps at the zoo chase each other in circles and throw blunt objects than do it myself with Joe Schmo ad infinitum. Time is money: that’s the best line I’ve heard yet.
I have no worldly claims to fame or property, nor am I histrionic or depressed. My existential dilemma is simple—I do not want to be alive.
Last year, in-between my job at an investment firm (where I was paid good money to fax documents, provided I wore racy blouses) and the chatroom, I worked at a typing pool for six months. After Christmas, the typist two stations over began arriving to work ashen, accompanied by a steady stream of pagination errors and daily switcheroos with her screensaver, from the wintry forests of New England to the sandy shores of Tahiti, then back again, all before lunch.
In mid-January, when she settled on fluorescent geometric cubes flying vortically at the viewer, our office manager called her in for The Talk. Rhonda was fired that day for alleged theft of the bathroom key (attached to a wooden paddle), which had been missing from its hook for a week. I went berserk: Rhonda and I had not yet concluded our conversation as to why, exactly, gently murmuring to the roots of potted ferns stimulates growth, among other crucial matters. Turns out Rhonda was a little spaced-out that holiday season because her son had died of internal hemorrhaging during hazing season at Alpha Sigma Phi. When the key to the restroom was found later that week in the backseat of our comp controller’s Mazda, I fired God myself.
I enter a café, sit down, and open my wallet. Inside is a prepaid phone card with four minutes of credit, a business card from a stranger who told me I looked like Parker Posey, and a five dollar bill, on which someone has written God Save the Queen. I cash the five in for a muffin, and scan the classifieds, for apartments: there is a serial killer loose in my building on the Lower East Side, and the victim count is rising fast.
I see an ad for a Casio keyboard and get excited: though I have an associate’s degree in marketing, $500 in cash minus $300 for a First Trimester Abortion, and a talent for memorization, all I ever really wanted to do was write hip hop songs and sing them to my own accompaniment. I scrutinize the font. Sam is asking $250, but the word “negotiable” is in parentheses. I wonder if he’s desperate. My guess is yes, but I am a puritan: I will wait until I have saved up every penny, myself.
Someone needs help with their retarded child. An area hospital is calling for volunteers to help ship freeze-dried cases of blood platelets overseas. The hospital ad says Emergency! The ad for the retarded child does not.
I take the subway back to my apartment: the street is one of squalor, as is the building and the unit, which I share with another young woman. I have no idea what she does for money; I think it involves sprinkler systems and data analysis. Is my line of work illicit? I wonder, while showering. I was taught the value of a dollar, and I’m earning several. Does not the end justify the means?
My apartment has a sink with running water, and I have my own bed; I count this as mounting evidence that I am indeed a spoiled, ungrateful American who doesn’t know how good she has it. That night, I rise every hour to vomit in a bucket.
I wear a psychedelic pink shirt to work the next day and try to act cheerful, like an activist who refuses to be put off by slowed donations. My first call of the day is with a man who identifies himself as Abraham, deadbeat dad of the flock. He asks me what I am wearing. Jeans and a shirt, I say. Is the shirt tight? he asks. I pause: I am paid to say my heaving size-D cup tits are quivering at the sound of your voice, keep talking, don’t stop, it is me who will climax first, you filthy, filthy man. I cannot.
“No,” I say. “It’s a loose-fitting tunic that allows my healthy, limber body maximum mobility. But it was made in a sweat-shop overseas, by a teenage girl who cannot afford braces. Does that turn you on, you sick fuck?” I hang up, and pay my respects to my boss, a 65-year-old Korean woman named Flo.
She starts chattering to me in Korean. I tell her my address is on file, thank her for the “educational experience,” and leave.
Fifth Avenue: bodies. Mass transit. I feel Paul’s absence like an ax buried in my spleen. All around me, people are laughing, their voices shrill. They are elbowing each other, but not in a friendly, conspiratorial way, in a way that says move your stupid ass or I will take you out. I reel like a drunk, though, born into a Mormon family, I have never touched a drop of alcohol in my life. I stop walking, then just stand on a corner, winded, and open a bag of corn chips. Why hurry? I have all the time in the world.
“Hey sweetheart,” I hear. A man has materialized beside me. He is tall, stooped. My eyes are so watery I can’t distinguish much else.
“Hi,” I say.
“How much,” he says.
“How much for what?”
He rolls his eyes, and bends closer. “An hour.”
I may have an average IQ, but I am definitely not stupid. “I’m not a hooker,” I say, trying to think of a dignified ending to this modern transaction. I offer him my bag of corn chips. “But I just lost my appetite, so have at it.” I can tell he finds my candor refreshing.
“Thanks,” he says, taking my chips.
“Do you mind my asking if you’re married?”
“I’m Mormon,” he says. “I have a wife in the city, and three more in Salt Lake.”
“Can I help you find something?” asks the salesperson in the bookstore, where I wander next. Though moved by the solicitation of help, I shake my head. Walking outside, I contemplate my future—there is nothing to think about.
I bend to pet a Pomeranian. The owner yanks it away. “Seal the fucking deal, Stan,” a lady says into her phone, storming past me. I have a friend who thinks a pair of great heels can solve everything. She may be right, but I’m broke. I curl up on a bench. New York is gnawing away at my ambition to be somebody. I am scathed.
“Paul,” I cry suddenly, reaching out my hands. This is the life instinct. It will not last. Sure enough, I wake up in a hospital for the indigent. “Heat stroke,” says the attendant. “Are you drinking enough water?” The bill is $4,500.00: I am released on the condition that I’ll pay online, via credit card, or via snail mail, with a check.
Life hasn’t always been this good, I muse, on my way to the welfare agency the next morning. There was a time when, as the head cheerleader of Weston High, even my body couldn’t keep up the fiction of appearances. Rather slight in figure (I take after my aunt Polly), I stood at the top of the human pyramid during pep rallies, like a sphinx. During my senior year, at an away game two counties over, my legs broke out in a rash from the fiberglass seats in the stadium, where the squad sat braiding each other’s hair and watching our team fumble ten-yard passes.
When I went home to examine the damage (my once tanned legs looked like a medical experiment on the aftereffects of shrapnel), it occurred to me that I was wasting my enthusiasms—quite charged, at the time—on a losing team. But it meant something, to belong, so instead of quitting I applied an entire tube of Bengay to my legs and the rash cleared up. At the next game, I covered the bleacher with a hefty bag.
The urge to do a series of round-off back-handsprings hits me, suddenly, in the unemployment line. “Excuse me,” I say, to the man chewing tobacco in line behind me. “Can you hold my place?” He looks me up and down.
“Honey,” he begins, but I leave before he can finish his sentence. I clear a path of righteousness on the street by screaming FIRE, and, in Paul’s honor, inhale sharply, take a running start and perform my tumbling routine right there in downtown Manhattan.
“10! 10!” the crowd bawls.
I knew what that man in line was about to say: “Honey, for you, I’d do anything,” but that is not what I want. I want calypso music. I want him to lead me, blindfolded, to a field with a sacred animal: the white buffalo of Native American mythology, born in Janesville, Wisconsin, circa 1994. That is what I want. But what I need is a balm poured into my suicidal ear, year, life, in the form of the words don’t leave.
Then, to know he is watching my demothered figure stride away, when I do.