Ruth doesn’t know this but a man in the café is watching her too. He has a sketchbook in front of him. He is drawing her outline. He is sketching her dramatic silhouette. A young girl pensive watching out the window. She is an unknown. He has discovered her. A beautiful sight. She has a beautiful figure, this slip of a girl. He wouldn’t mind poking her a bit with his pencil.
The rain has let up momentarily. She gazes at the top level of a double-decker bus stopped outside. The passengers seem unaware that they are being looked at, secure in being so high up from everything. They are in fact naked there, relaxing their tense city selves except for the small dramas of transport, the bumping and pushing and excuse-me’s, no pardon-me’s. The looking without looking. She catches a boy regarding himself in his reflection, shaking out a light caramel shag, a mustard scarf, a leather jacket the color of toffee. A bled-out brown. She meets his eyes boldly, safe within her bubble. I see you. I see you.
Moments ago she was on her stomach distractedly rubbing herself against the mattress. When she masturbates the face she usually conjures up first is her own. In her fantasies she is beautiful, more beautiful than what youth naturally lends her. But not only is she beautiful, in her fantasies she is beautiful through another’s eyes. Her fantasies are of being witnessed, of being watched. By HIM, the one she must banish from her thoughts but that she allows to star in these fairytales. She can feel his gaze upon her. But today she tries not to think about HIM, she thinks about Olly, with HIS face, or maybe the reverse, trying not to think about HIM so making HIM look like Olly….It wasn’t working. The only way she could get off, could ride herself to ecstasy dry humping herself on her bed was to resurrect the past starring HIM her episodic Lazarus, peeling off the Olly mask, yes it was HIM, HIM, HIM, gazing at her face like it was composed of stained glass, she allowed herself to remember his face, just one last time, but she was having trouble recalling it exactly. And if she remembered his face, if she could only remember his face…
She groans and rolls onto her back and picks up the magazine, lying underneath her.
Knock on the door. Insistent.
Come in. Feebly. It is Agnes, with her red lips still on, wanting to hang out.
They are in Agnes’ room. They sit on Agnes’ bed. Agnes’ walls are plastered with posters of actresses. Monica Vitti. Hanna Schygulla. Corinne Marchand. Anouk Aimée. Rita Hayworth. Agnes’ makeup kit is strewn across the bed. Ruth is trying on a dark blood stain which she thinks with her pale hair lends her a definitive Greta Garbo appeal. She admires her strange red lips in Agnes’ large mirror propped up against the bed, pursing them, pivoting her pale chin from side to side.
What do you think?
A demonstrative head shake from Agnes. Not you.
Ruth sighs, wipes with the back of her hand, and against her better judgment begins to confide in Agnes about the scene with the terrible girls in the toilet.
Staring into the dull silver of the elevator doors Agnes swirls out her red lipstick, which she strokes firmly onto her lips, back and forth, a brick the same shade as her penciled-in Marlene Dietrich eyebrows, matching her china doll moon face framed by brazenly red hair carefully flipped up. Agnes’ hair color changed with her whims, more violent seasons than the city’s monochrome. It’s my signature she would say. For someone like Agnes it was important to have a signature. How else will she remember herself?
I masturbate throughout the day, so much that I pull a muscle in my writing hand, which makes me feel like Robert Walser. The herbs I’ve started taking to try to shrink the cyst make me unbelievably horny. I know, I masturbated five times this morning, Anna writes me. The summer recreation of the middle-aged woman novelist. I jump on John when he gets home from work, even though Genet protests with yelps when we are affectionate. Perhaps I think this will take the edge off my loneliness, which is severe in the summer. Or maybe my loneliness somehow is what makes me horny.
My editor later reads this above passage, and wants to inquire exactly why the narrator is masturbating. Is it to relieve excess creative energy, or because she has the time, or . . . ? I don’t really know what to say. She masturbates because she masturbates.
The year before, in that same office, I had repeatedly found pornography on the desktop of the shared computer. Seeing the pop-ups of naked women in various postures, I initially wondered whether they were left there by the other instructor I shared the space with when I was not on campus. Perhaps it was her research, as she was a sociologist, one of the other adjunct faculty who everyone assumes is more permanent than we are. The images were the sort of pornography that seemed designed for men who hate women. I imagined in turn that she was also suspicious, or curious, about me. I wonder if, as a resident of this city—and a partial resident of the city that is the internet—I have become almost numb to absurd or hostile encounters. I did wonder later whether the joke was on me specifically, if this pornography was left there for me, but that would take some awareness of me, or what I had written about. I never figured out if it was a form of targeted or general harassment, or what—masturbatory carelessness?
I finally said something to the woman who worked in the office downstairs, an awkward conversation I tried to laugh my way through. We were asked to lock the office afterward, and the password to the desktop was reset. When the French sociologist (she was French) was told, she apparently just made a face of distaste, I imagine in a very French way, and asked if there were antibacterial wipes we could use to wipe down the computer and the desk, since we both ate our lunches there. Which, upon hearing this, I felt was the right reaction—and wondered why I hadn’t thought of that.
As she closes her door, she sees Agnes coming out of her room down the hall. A girl like Agnes spends the entire morning putting herself together. Or putting herself back together. Agnes did not wear clothes. She wears a costume. Green girls and their costumes, their trying on of brazen identities. Some green girls very in vogue wear cigarette jeans, but girls like Agnes and Ruth only smoke cigarettes. They are the type of green girls to model themselves on La Nouvelle Vague, they are new and they are vague. They are the type to wear skirts and dresses with stockings, a specific classification. Today Agnes is wearing a tight cherry-red cardigan and a vintage mustard yellow A-line. A darker mustard trench coat. Enormous sunglasses engulfed her face, as if to cultivate an air of mystery.
I am made of literature, Kafka confesses to Felice in an early courtship letter, recalling their conversation about Goethe when they first met, in the Brods’ living room. I am nothing else and cannot be anything else.