The ad in the back of the paper claimed she was twenty-three. As she climbed the stairs and smiled, chin lifted toward the landing, Jack saw the lines in her face, the gray strands at the crown of her head where roots showed beneath the bleach job. He tried to tell himself it didn’t matter but the best he could do was recognize that one got what he paid for, one hundred-twenty-five dollars. She wasn’t fat. She had a shapeless paunch to her, a full body flaccidity highlighted by tight, lacy clothes. He wanted desperately for this to be satisfying. Her hips were too narrow for her lumpy haunches.
She took his money, asked what he wanted and where the bathroom was. He told her.
“Undress, sweetie,” she said.
She gave him perfunctory head, which he knew was par for the course. They all made it clear they didn’t like this part, though they all did it. When he was stiff enough she handed him the condom. They began in the missionary position but his erection flagged as he looked at her. He couldn’t, when he closed his eyes, erase Kate’s face. And the call girl’s was impossibly haggard. He pulled out and asked her to get on all fours.
“That’s my favorite,” she said.
He wasn’t hard anymore.
“Suck it again?” he said.
“I want to fuck.”
“Just to get me hard.”
She did it. Her mouth was cold. He imagined he felt the filth and acid breath seeping from her porous, wet tissues into his prick.
He got behind her and squeezed himself to maintain his tenuous stiffness. It was a miracle he got it in again. He pumped gingerly, hoping there’d be enough friction to get him worked up so he could screw her in earnest and get this over with. He stared down at her greasy anus. Its tang and musk were overpowering. Perhaps she hadn’t taken a proper shower in days. He knew he couldn’t do it. He became angry, lost his diffident erection that much more quickly.
Apologizing, he pulled out and tried to make small talk while the woman waited for her car service.
“Got any blow?”
She stared at him. “I’ll wait downstairs, I guess.”
At twenty past eight he watched her climb into a Lincoln town car and ride away. He’d still be on time for work. He felt like utter shit, scraped out inside and disgusted with himself. He’d wanted to do something to Kate without her knowing, something he could gather within and use later to cut her. He hated her a little more for the embarrassing way his attempt had played out.
* * *
A week earlier Jack had switched on Kate’s computer and shut off the internet connection. Browsing through her history he found troubling email exchanges. One contained a breathy confession to a friend: She was no longer in love with Jack and had feelings for someone else. Another email detailed plans to meet a man named Sean at a dark bar with high-backed booths.
“Because I’m tall and this is a secret,” she wrote.
He sat before the screen, his stomach turning and tightening. His head felt huge, membranous and diffuse. It was difficult for him to be still, but he hadn’t will to move from the chair. When she came home he confronted her and she screamed at him, berated him for invading her privacy. They fought until they were both exhausted. Jack’s rage subsided in increments, giving way to tearful bewilderment.
“What did I do to you?” he asked.
“Why don’t you love me?”
He stared at her. There were more questions, but he knew well enough he wouldn’t like the answers. And anyway, to speak would mean to lose hold of the weeping and moaning he’d at last subdued. His eyes burnt. His head ached. He wanted Kate, loved and admired her. He’d believed she would stay with him, only him, but that—he now understood—was foolish, a case of believing what he wanted to, rather than what made sense. She was twenty-one to his thirty. It occurred to him he should leave or tell her to sleep somewhere else. He imagined explaining it all to any of his few friends, and a pang of nausea twisted his gut. She sat across from him in the small living room, her big legs crossed at the knee. A stubborn white stain they’d dripped together onto the sofa, just a few months before, peeked from beneath her haunch. She was still angry but had stopped yelling. Something like sympathy tempered her speech. The sound of her soft and reasoned words enraged Jack. He imagined raping her. For two seconds: One hand would claw deep into the flesh of her waist, the other would grip the back of her neck, four fingers gently deflating her windpipe. His bloated prong rasping in and out. Perhaps there’d be spots of blood on his shaft, to gloat over. He blinked it away, not sickened by the violence of it but by the knowledge that he wasn’t capable of doing more violence to her than that entailed in begging.
They lay down in the same bed. Jack curled tight against Kate, not sleeping. He wanted her even then, her big frame and comforting height, her long legs, broad shoulders and equine buttocks. He gazed at the wall over her shoulder, traced a crack in the paint. He sniffled.
She touched his shoulder and asked, “What did you expect?”
If the question made sense—and it did—it meant he was a fool. It meant he’d never had the right to expect anything but this.
“Why?” he said. He spoke softly, hoping for a reassuring lie. But as he repeated himself his voice rose and cracked. She held him. He knew that in allowing her to touch him he forfeited some of his few remaining scraps of dignity. He couldn’t help himself.
* * *
He sat at his desk writing sloppy code and feeling aware of his groin. He hadn’t showered. He wondered whether his coworkers smelled the latex and lubricant on him. His office mate Steve used cocaine often, daily. Jack asked if they might go out together after work and Steve said sure. He knew of a good band playing in Manhattan. They’d stop at his place in Astoria, call his dealer and head into town.
They stopped at Molly Malone’s for a beer and a rail in the bathroom. They stayed there because they no longer cared about anything else. Jack snorted a fat one off the top of the toilet paper dispenser. The mucous and powder paste dribbled down the back of his throat and he savored the bitter chemical flavor presaging the rush. They took turns handing off the bag and bracing the door. Then they were on their barstools, babbling, laughing and talking seriously about how great each thought the other fellow was. Jack wanted to have sex with someone, almost anyone. He looked around at the shabby women there and tried to make inviting eye contact. A plain brunette around forty looked back. She stared through him with severe purpose. Jack and Steve drank more beer and snorted most of the cocaine. Steve went to the bathroom alone and returned with a handmade paper envelope for Jack.
“I gotta crash,” he said. “That’s the rest of yours.”
They stumbled out and said goodnight. Jack stood on the sidewalk believing he wanted to screw, not merely to lie next to a naked woman and feel the warmth of her skin as a stand-in for affection. He thought about money, knew he really hadn’t any to spend. He couldn’t make it matter. There was a video store with peep booths three blocks away. He walked to it.
Inside were white wire racks of videos categorized into four aisles, plus the rear wall of gay porn and the narrow dead end corridor lined with red formica stalls. He might change a twenty for singles, feed them into a booth, masturbate, and go home. That was a possible choice. But a rack of adult classified papers sat by the door, plain black and white print, dozens of photos of nude women with eyes blacked out, local telephone numbers, rates by the hour and half-hour. Standing under a streetlamp he scrutinized them.
He called five numbers before finding an in-call service that didn’t require an advance appointment, in Midtown. On the N train platform he slipped a hand into his trouser pocket and tried to rub some feeling into his penis. It was numb and soft but the train came and he got on. For forty minutes he held his adult want ads, thought about the last flakes of cocaine in his pocket, wished the old man across the aisle would leave so he could stuff his nose into the unfolded envelope and suck it up before he got to the hooker’s doorstep. He missed four calls from Kate while the train lumbered beneath the streets, out of her range.
He emerged from the subway wanting the last line badly, but foot traffic was surprisingly dense at three in the morning and police saturated Manhattan heavily. They kept driving past him. He became paranoid. It seemed a particular cruiser circled the same ascending blocks he did, watching him. He tried to remember the call numbers: one seven one two? Was that the same number as the last cruiser he’d seen? The intensity of his craving beat the logic of his fear. In an alley behind a dumpster he squatted, smelling piss and garbage. His fingers shook but he got the envelope out, opened it, poked with the cut straw and broke the clusters into powder. It wasn’t much but he would feel it.
He knew what he was doing. This wasn’t revenge or one-upmanship. This would have no effect on Kate, other than providing her with occasion to tell him again how little she thought of him now.
He found the address easily and called.
Their toneless female voice message said, “Leave message after beep. We call back in minute. Please no private numbers.”
“Uh, yeah,” he began. He left his name.
He’d never been to an in-call service but the procedure made sense to him. Four minutes passed and he answered his phone to a heavily Slavic male voice. He repeated his name and the door buzzed. His phone rang again: “Home.” He pressed the ignore button before shutting off the ringer.
The apartment was cramped, furnished with a loveseat and one upholstered chair in the square living room, a bed and nightstand in each open-doored bedroom, a bare unlit galley kitchen. There were two girls, one on each seat, a plump bottle blonde who, Jack thought, might be slightly pregnant, and a bony brunette with royal blue eyes. They wore matching snug velour tracksuits.
“You can choose,” the blonde said. “Me or her.”
She had the same accent as the man who’d called to check Jack’s number and buzz him in. The man was absent. Jack wondered whether he’d gone to another apartment in the same building, maybe next door, so he could rush in and violently come to the girls’ aid if necessary. He wondered how many apartments could be used this way without calling the business to the attention of law-abiding neighbors. The whole high rise might be a brothel made of two-bedroom, two girl cells.
He pointed to the brunette, “Her.”
The blonde shrugged and sat down. The brunette stood and looked at him from shoes to hair without expression. She led him to a bedroom, took off the tracksuit and, still wearing her plain white panties, asked him to help her make the bed. Raw, ragged scars underlined each of her small breasts. Before her surgery she must have had nothing but nipples riding a minute swell of flesh. A shame Jack thought, to ruin that in favor of this. She stripped the sheets and fetched another set, which he helped her tuck in.
“Oh, forgot to take money,” she said.
He’d had it ready in his back pants pocket, separated from carfare and identification. Most of it was earmarked for rent, which would now be late. She took it from his outstretched fingers, moved to the door, opened it. The blonde—who had stood waiting while Jack and the brunette performed preliminary chatter—took the money, walked away and, Jack heard, slammed the front door of the apartment behind her. Where would she go with the cash, to an apartment reserved for accounts receivable and bookkeeping?
The brunette faced him. “So what you like to do?”
The first time he had a prostitute he’d invited her into his home and stood in the middle of his living room waiting for anything to happen, until, after a long silence during which she looked at him severely, the girl told him, “First, I gotta have my money. Then you need to tell me exactly what you want, or we can’t do anything.”
Now he felt only a little less awkward describing what he wanted. He steeled himself and blinked slowly. This girl had said her name was Raina. He silently rehearsed a request.
“You give me head and then we fuck,” he said too softly.
She made him repeat and smiled, genuinely it seemed.
“You are good looking guy.”
“Thank you. You’re very beautiful.”
“No,” she said. “Take off your clothes.”
He’d paid for an hour but when he finished they’d used less than thirty minutes. She told him how much time he had left and looked at him in a way that did not appear to say she wanted him gone. He was disgusted at himself again, but wanted something more.
“Lay down on your stomach,” he said.
She did. He was jangling, exhausted, and the desire to use a human being had been false. It was an idea he’d tried to clutch, an effective distraction, but a brief one. He’d wanted to feel something. He was too preoccupied with the specifics—why wasn’t he good enough, how had he reduced himself so severely in Kate’s estimation, who was this “Sean?”—to perceive or admit to himself that what he wanted to feel was good, at whatever cost and for however brief a duration.
And then he thought this girl beautiful and genial, and these fine qualities failed to make one whit of difference. He recognized that much. He desired. He wanted painfully and maybe his want had no bottom. He wanted someone to want him back, to need him. He wanted more of Kate than could ever be on offer. There wasn’t that much to spare in any woman, unless she was like Raina and then it wouldn’t matter because anyone could have her for two hundred fifty dollars an hour.
“Now push your bottom up in the air.”
She turned her head, regarded him skeptically but did as he asked. He crawled behind her, between her legs. He gripped his penis and bent his face to her narrow, splayed haunches. This erection surprised him more than the last; its fervency did. He wanted to discover how far into her he could push his tongue. He pumped himself with his fist, licked and drooled over her wriggling bottom. He kissed it delicately. She squirmed and looked back at him, again smiling her possibly genuine smile.
“I like this,” she said.
He groaned, “I like it too.”
Raina smelled, not like a woman in the morning, but still musty and peppery with professional residue and sweat. As he ejaculated over his fingers and onto the scratchy sheet, his reasons fluttered about his mind, his love, his resentment, his counterfeit surprise at discovering the infidelity he’d suspected for months.
“You have time for fast shower,” Raina told him.
She held her flat palms beneath the anchor scars and said she mustn’t get them wet or she would have joined him. His penis was oversensitive from latex and friction and he tried to be delicately thorough with the soap and hot water. Would Kate smell how clean he was? Would she care? She’d called him so many times. Why? He stood under the near scalding water in a stranger’s shower thinking about the other men who must have used it. He ran the soap halfway across his chest. There was very little left of his hour in Raina’s apartment, seven or eight minutes. Runnels of water ran over his pubic hair and testicles and shaft, stinging the raw patches.
Outside the prostitutes’ apartment building Jack checked his phone and found he’d missed five additional calls. He dialed home.