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.