Dear Penthouse

Lost in the place beneath thought, she moves inwards, outwards. Without quite articulating it, she senses that there might be a balance, a certain point from which she could comprehend the city, her world. But that point lies on the parabolic arc, rising and falling, and with everything, even the faint tidal weight of the moon, pulling against equilibrium. Still, flying or falling, you might pass through it: a piece of space-time, still and wondrous, the vantage of old gods who no longer speak, who have themselves fallen from that grace.

 

*

 

Pebbles suddenly wonders how long she’s been listening to the radio, standing in the doorway of the Lucky Dumpling. For a while she had been listening closely, picking out a few Mandarin phrases, trying to figure out if there was a studio full of voices or just one, doing impressions. At some point, the noise had faded to a white-wash of sound, and Pebbles lost track of time. Now she shakes it off and looks around, making sure she hasn’t lost her place in line.

The Dumpling has one table and three chairs, a token gesture at a dining room buried deep in boxes of napkins, chopsticks, soy sauce packets and Styrofoam take-out clam-shells. In the narrow space left open, a line wriggles in from the street.

At the counter a dumpling rookie stammers. Pebbles can’t see his mouth, or hear him over the clatter and sizzle of the kitchen and the buzz of the radio, but his arms flail in semaphore, with a Brooklyn accent. The disjointed angling of his puffy sleeves says, ‘Get tah fuck outta here!’

Cradling her chin in her palms, a young Chinese girl in a white smock rolls her eyes. Behind her, two grey-haired men stand in sepia-stained chef’s jackets, their hands blurring over piles of chopped chives and pork. One of them calls out to the girl, the corner of his mouth hinting at a joke wrapped inside wooly syllables.  The girl keeps a straight face, straight enough to fool most, and leans dramatically to her left.

“Next?”

A man in pin-stripe suit steps quickly and carefully up to the counter. He hands the girl a one dollar bill and grabs a small Styrofoam box, all in one hand motion, the finesse of a narcotics delivery. He turns on one foot and is gone. The rookie watches, a dry tongue crammed into the hollow of his cheek.

Now just two deep in the line, Ziggy fishes through his wallet, then his jacket, then his jeans and finally turns to Pebbles. She folds open her pocket-book. There are two bills inside; the one she pulls out is a battered, taped-together single.

The kid in the puffy jacket is standing off to the side, his face wrinkled, his mouth opening and closing. Pebbles imagines: he’s gnawing on his possible options, attempting to figure out how harshly he has been penalized for his ignorance. Can he try again? Does he go to the back of the line? Must he leave the store in disgrace, sans dumpling, trudge with a rumbling stomach back uphill to Grand Street, slink down to the subway, collapse across the orange plastic seats in hungry depression, allow himself to be deported back to Brooklyn? Finally his eyes focus, swinging around like twin searchlights. Pebbles quickly drops her head. She can feel him looking at her, wanting her to look up, almost like fingers under her chin. She scrunches her shoulders up in a slow shrug.

“Next?”

Another suit-and-tie steps up, looks away as he hands over a clatter of change. The girl’s eyes narrow as she counts by touch the nickels and dimes. She doesn’t take her eyes off him. He looks up only to apologize, cheeks hot and splotchy. He looks down again to guide his hands to his box of dumplings, takes an awkward, long step towards the door and then has to stop and shuffle sideways past the line and into the bustle of Chinatown.

Inside an arm’s reach of the counter, Ziggy’s body is humming underneath his clothes. His lips pop and snap, his fingers drum to some breakneck beat, his eyes lock with deathly intensity on the massive woks. He swats long strands of dark hair out of his eyes and pulls them behind his ear, so that he can have an unobstructed view. Pebbles can see only a third of his face, but from just his cheek and the corner of his mouth she can make out:

“Ommahgah ommahgah ommahgah.”

Pebbles smiles, shaking her head.

“Jesus Ziggy, wild dog? Don’t you, like, get to eat whatever you want at work?”

“Yeah, naturally, best perk in the world.”

“So, calm down, they’re going to think you’re here to rob the place.”

“Nah, nah, it’s cool. They know I’m just here for a snack. A drop in the bucket. I’m a growing boy, I needs my dumplings.”

Ziggy puffs his chest up under his jackets and flexes his arms. Pebbles laughs, Ziggy, despite his constant intake of food and his attempts at weight lifting, has barely cracked a hundred pounds.

A grinning fire hydrant of a man steps up to the counter. As he slides a neatly folded single across the counter his grin breaks apart into two porcelain arches. His lips smack once and lock shut, but from deep in his throat, down in his chest, comes an mmmm-hmmmmm so profound that while Pebbles can’t hear it, she can feel it. With bouncy shadowboxing steps, he bobs out into the street and into an idling cab, the reverberations of satisfaction trailing behind him.

His head bowed, Ziggy steps forward and presents his dollar. His vibrations have calmed and he presents a tenuous serenity. The girl behind the counter looks at the dollar, runs her finger over the tape that holds Washington’s seasick face together. She looks at Ziggy and sighs. Ziggy spins, knocked out of his zen trance, and looks wide-eyed at Pebbles.

Pebbles puffs her hair out of her face, opens her wallet again and offers a replacement dollar. With thumb and forefinger, the counter-girl sets the bandaged dollar down in front of Pebbles like a soiled diaper. She sighs, pinches the bridge of her nose, and then hands Ziggy his box of dumplings. Before Pebbles can even turn on her heels, Ziggy is at the door on his way out, faster than if he had stolen the dumplings. Pebbles picks up the wounded dollar, folds it back into her purse and follows in Ziggy’s wake.

“Sorry,” Ziggy says with a mouth full of dumpling, “didn’t mean to give you the stink eyes there, I just always worry they’ll blacklist me.”

“Like the Michelin man?”

Ziggy laughs, chokes, coughs, and laughs again. Pebbles steps closer to him and rubs his back, her reaction delayed enough to make her feel slightly awkward.

“I’m okay dude,” Ziggy says.

“Yeah, okay, cool,” she turns abruptly and starts walking again while Ziggy’s rapturous enthusiasm for his dumplings intervenes. A lot of girls, Pebbles thinks, are in a constant state of annoyance at this, the teenage boy’s constant pinball careening between appetites: sex, food, drugs, toys. For Pebbles, this is the mercy of boys, hopelessly spastic as they are. Unlike the epochs of obsession and disgust that girls go through, boys present a blank slate every few minutes. Hormonal etch-e-sketches. God bless ‘em.

She could expose herself to Ziggy, right here, and face the fiery car-wreck of rejection. And then Ziggy would still stare down into the cabbage-lined Styrofoam box and go:

“Ommahgah ommahgah ommahgah.”

And all would be well, forgiven and forgotten.

Ziggy spears the carmalized bottom of a fried dumpling with a single chop stick and spins it gently around with his index finger, soaking up sauce. He takes a bite, Pebbles watches as his lips press and hold the dumpling for a second before his teeth cut through the doughy filling. The tip of his tongue flashes, a glint of metal clicks against the back of his teeth. A few strands of hair slip from behind his ear and fall in front of his face, but Ziggy is too lost in dumpling ecstasy to bat them away this time.

“These fuckers are amazing,” Ziggy says, an orange smear of chili and soy sauce burning on his lips, “I don’t blame that rookie, I can never believe they’re only a buck.”

The rickety thunder of the D train shakes and booms down from the bridge. Pebbles watches his lips. She watches them purse and release the ahm in amazing. She watches as his lower lip disappears and explodes back into view with the buh in buck, a strand of hair puffing out of the way. In her dreams, Ziggy doesn’t even speak, he just moves his lips. Once she dreamt that she ran a juice stand in Central Park, red and white checkered cloth and wood panels like an old fashioned lemonade stand. Ziggy came running by, wearing only his shorts, shining like wet rock, streaked and beaded with sweat. Right time, right place. She offered him a drink, a tall glass of juice, and watched his lips.

I love juice, his lips said, I’ve always loved juice.

 

*

 

Nothing tastes as good as thin feels, she thinks.  She drops her hand to her side, still holding the menu from the building’s cafeteria –she still thinks of it as a cafeteria – which is Michelin rated and booked out a month for non-residents. She looks across the carpeted acre of living room at the kitchen. It’s brilliant, some sort of modern art. It’s an exercise is chrome and onyx, beautiful largely in its uselessness. There’s a half bottle of champagne in the fridge and some peeled cucumber. In the pantry is a box of special Norwegian crackers that require more calories to chew and swallow than they contain.

She walks to the balcony and steps out into an unnatural shade. In an hour or two the sun will pass around the corner of the Millennium Hilton and set a blinding fire to the southern façade of her building, a honeycomb of mirrors and ledges. For now, it’s shaded and she’s comfortable, wrapped in her robe.

At this height the city murmurs; every cry and shout, every siren and squeal, everything faded and smeared, dopplered into a seashell roar, red-shifted into a haze that hangs right past the little ledge that goes around her balcony.  She closes the mirrored door and with a hushed glide, the southern tip of Manhattan replaces her apartment. She still remembers the realtor gushing about this: the mirroring, a layer within the actual glass, is activated remotely by a computer connected to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, a hundred miles or so above Tribeca. Depending on the weather, a certain amount of the mirroring activates, reflecting just enough sunlight and, in theory, lowering cooling costs. It is part of the building’s eco-friendly marketing campaign, although most of the tenants understand it about as well as they understand the principles involved in their microwaves or televisions.

Today the mirroring is just translucent enough to allow the strange image of the lady Liberty toddling in her kitchen. It’s reaching, improbably, for the pantry door handle. It’s strange to see anyone in the kitchen, anyone in the apartment, really, besides her own mirrored twin.

Nothing tastes as good as thin feels. Again, the mantra, but – let’s be honest, she thinks – self-discipline is about the stick, not the carrot. Something Vicky’s mother used to say. That Old World hard-ass attitude, the religious pride in self-flagellation. No one else could ever be as hard on you as you could be on yourself, and that was the only way.

The way to get Jesus-skinny: Clavicles scooping up the light, cheekbones throwing a veil down over the jaw, ribs like insignia of rank, the more the better. And hip bones, even hunched over, that you could hang your hat on.

In last month’s editorial, the photographer gushed endlessly about her hunger. As if that were the ideal metaphor at a time like that, three hours before a total electrolyte shutdown from her white diet. A Vicky joke. No sugar, no salt, no flour. All the coke your heart can take.

Vicky mailed her a cut-out with her giant looping, crayola-thick notes on it. Insane focus. Delirious presence. Manic hunger. And, of course, because Vicky could be a sycophant and a snobbish bitch but not, it pains her to admit, an idiot…strong use of personal pain.

Pain. Someone’s cliché-filter is glitching.

Four years ago, twelve pounds heavier, sitting in a beach-chair with a happy, slightly stoned grin and trying to get a pair of ten dollar flip flops to catch the light, she had seen Vicky staring at her. Vicky wanted to give her The Speech. Went into her locker, grabbed the protein bar, the yogurt cup, and dragged her to the bathroom. Made her unwrap them, crumble the bar, scoop out the yogurt, watched it all splashing into the blue water of the toilet. Worst of all, she tore up her gym membership card. Vicky ripped it off her keychain and tore it apart, the tough lamination wilting and sloughing off between her vicious fingers.

“You wanna make dyke porn or you wanna model?”

Vicky reintroduced her to a harsh vocabulary, prized for its emotional effect, its bluntness, its use as a weapon. Vicky collected words in two categories, words for speaking up and words speaking down. One language with two dictionaries. Vicky kept a statue of Janus on her desk and loved that nearly no one really knew what it was.

“You know why everyone loves the blues but no one can do it? Why Ray Charles is an icon and Billy Joel is a schmuck from Long Island?”

She had nodded. She wasn’t stupid.

“Pain.”

“Pain,” Vicky said slowly and stopped The Speech in its tracks, which, she admitted later, had been quite difficult. Vicky had a whole doctoral thesis on pain and artistry locked and loaded, curled up behind her tongue like a pit viper, ready to lash out and reduce models to crumpled, weeping piles of spoiled, upper-middleclass snot.

But this time, Vicky had just stopped and nodded.

“Nothing tastes as good as thin feels,” she heard, nearly every day, when craft services came through, when the watery crunch of celery sent pangs of frustration through her guts, when this week’s Don Juan got them a seat at The Restaurant.

But be honest, she thinks, shaking it off, that ain’t what’s going on here. Goddamnit…nuthin, no hunger, no cramping, no dry, bloody stool, nuthin hurts as bad as fat feels…

She can tell the last fast-acting Xanax is fuzzing out, when that twang comes slipping back in around the edges, a bad habit, like everything else that might utter a breath of her life before Vicky. She fishes around in the pockets of her robe and plucks another one out. She holds her mouth shut and puckers her cheeks in, swelling up her mouth with saliva so she can swallow it without water, another useful trick of the trade she picked up from Vicky. Less obvious this way. She knows it’s funny that this seems to matter, even hundreds of feet above the street, but what can you do?

…the thought sinks like a penny, flashing in the light as it disappears, like a star on a hazy night. That’s not what’s going on here. Her face in a photograph, the body that’s sliding away from beneath her as her robe falls open, throbs of hunger getting further and further away, further apart, sirens heading to another neighborhood.

This was never about thin. What’s thin? Thin is like dead. Only the legends, the icons, and the lucky few have achieved it, and they refuse to give up the secret. Not the how-to secret of tabloid diets. The real secret. The secret of skinny Jesus smiling down from the cross, a little laugh on his lips…these nails…these thorns… to think they once bothered me…

The sun flickers through a corner suite of the Hilton, a lone figure stands, black against the brilliance. She imagines a man, standing naked, one hand holding binoculars to his eyes, the other hand wrapped around himself, waiting, pulsing, waiting…

She wonders what she looks like to him. She lets her robe open a little more. Maybe she looks beautiful. Maybe he’s repulsed, locked in private war with some disorder. Maybe he spends one day a week, hiding from his family in that hotel, trying to squeeze the demons out of himself. Maybe she’s just the ritual fetish, the talisman, the wax simulacra. Maybe it’s Jesus, perched, alone, in his corner suite, looking for someone worth saving.

Maybe he’s not looking at her at all. Maybe he’s staring at the place where she used to be, watching to see if she’ll reappear, catch the sun one more time and twinkle from the depths.

It flashes, fades, flashes, fades. Tell me…

As the soft fuzz of ‘maybe’ fills her head, she thinks:

Tell me, Jesus…

What’s it like?

 

*

 

Ziggy leaves Pebbles in front of the Rutgers Houses and heads up to Essex Street. His mom’s place, home until graduation, is a cramped subdivision on top of a pierogi joint, a holdover from the Eastern Bloc days of the Lower East Side. Ziggy will undoubtedly stop downstairs and get a few heavy dumplings, despite the fact that he’s just eaten, despite the fact that he’ll eat again at the cafeteria. No small part of Pebbles’ attraction to Ziggy is, she knows all too well, her nauseous fascination with his metabolism. He takes his lunch break as soon as they’ll let him, sometimes only thirty minutes into his shift. Ziggy feels strongly, he tells Pebbles, that if he doesn’t do this he’ll end up eating some resident’s steak tar-tar right in front of them in a rabid frenzy. In the basement of the fancy hi-rise apartment building, Ziggy will eat a half-dozen butter rolls while he waits for his shift-meal, a hamburger or, if the manager’s feeling lax, a steak.

Ugh.

She’s not a member of the starvation-nation or anything. It’s just one more thing that’s apparently easier for boys than for girls. Just saying, Pebbles thinks, just saying.

Pebbles gets home before her parents. In the tinplated mail locker are bills, junk, and a slender, weightless envelope from Columbia University.

Dear Ms. Van Peebles…

She already knows what the little envelope means but it’s okay, her heart was never really in it. Another teen drama Pebbles is not going to play into or try and cash in on, she’ll get in where she gets in, go there, and be worshipped as a queen.

Pebbles laughs.

Okay, well, she’ll have to work up to that. She’ll be okay.

Up on the twelfth floor, she opens the door, and just has time to set the mail down on the hutch before Mascot attacks her. A fifty pound ball of fur, Mascot is technically twenty pounds over the official limit for the housing department but no one has complained.  Mascot knows his tricks in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, English and several dialects of middle-class ghetto slang. For everyone else in the world, Mascot immediately assumes the sitting position, feet together, eyes big and brown, mouth respectably closed, tongue poking out with calculated adorability.

Pebbles gets tackled. Fifty pounds is a lot when its airborne, as Mascot is for a moment as Pebbles turns and goes down with a thrashing ball of matted fur, pink and yellow tongue, hot breath that stinks of cheese and tunafish.

“Did you eat some Trout?” She says. Mascot drops into a crouched ready position. Pebbles gets up and dusts herself off. She reads the grocery list on the chalkboard in the kitchen. Absently, she tears the Columbia letter into long strips, layers them and rips them into tiny squares, drops them like school-play snowflakes into the trash, keeping an eye on Mascot over her shoulder while she works.

“What’s this all about?” She says. Mascot’s hind legs tremble, but he stays in place.

“There’s no need to pout!”

Mascot barks, almost loses his composure, shakes himself in a fully body spasm but keeps crouched. Pebbles slides by Mascot and walks into the living room.

“You’re such a lout!” Mascot leaps forward, nips at her shin, and then quickly scuttles backwards into a crouch again. Her little brother’s lunchbox is sitting in the middle of the floor, latches sprung, a baggie of cheesepuffs torn inside out and emptied, shards of tinfoil and lettuce scattered like confetti around the room.

Forgetting the game for a second, Pebbles says:

“Something very bad happened here.”

Mascot disappears from the hallway into the kitchen. When Pebbles gets there, he’s sitting at attention, looking at her feet.

“Mascot?”

His tails flops but his head remains down. She’s debating whether to try and discipline Mascot in some way or resume the rhyming game when the house phone rings. Her father, she thinks with a smile, still slowly wrapping his head around the idea that his daughter is the kind of person who might have a cell-phone. She picks up the phone and thumbs the volume wheel up to maximum.

“Yello?”

“Hey kiddo,” her dad’s I Will Be Home Late I Am Really Sorry But Something Came Up voice.

“Oh man,” she says, playing it up a little. It’s not so bad. Her mom gets home at eight, and she doesn’t hate the microwave lasagna that she’ll end up eating. In fact, the thought of it sends a squeezing tug up from her stomach. She didn’t eat much today and is just realizing it.

“I know, I know, I’m very sorry, I really – I am, I’m going to be home late.” He doesn’t realize it, but he slows himself down when he speaks to her. It doesn’t really help that much, but she hasn’t stopped him, she likes that he does it.

“Something came up,” they say together.

He sighs.

“I’ll pick up Mervin.”

“Thank you pumpkin.”

“He left his lunchbox here again.”

“Oh…” his father swallows hard, loud enough to rumble in the earpiece of the portable phone.

“Well, it didn’t go to waste.”

“Mascot?”

“I’ll clean up whatever he missed.”

Her father’s sigh is loud and warm: relief, love, trust, understanding without words. There should be more like this one and there isn’t, and Pebbles is suddenly and sharply aware of this.

“Your mother will appreciate that.”

“We don’t have to tell her, it’s no biggie.”

“She worries about Mervin.”

“Dude, he’s fourteen, I’m sure he eats. Ziggy was eating like, half a cow a day by that time. I’m sure he eats all his friends’ lunches. Maybe he doesn’t like tunafish, huh?”

“I know. I know. We just worry. We’re parents. Parents worry about kids. Did you call me dude?”

“Don’t worry. You’ll get an ulcer.”

She can almost see him smile now.

“Ulcers are a sign of vigilance.”

“You’re a sick puppy, dad.”

“I love you pumpkin.”

“Yeah-yeah. I love you too.”

Mascot is still waiting patiently when she comes back from putting the phone on the stand.

“You think [you] have all the clout, don’t you?”

Mascot, having waited so long, forgets that they’ve gone back to the rhyming game and explodes into the other room, grabs his leash off the floor, and bowls Pebbles over a second time on his way back down the hallway. Pebbles rolls over on her side to avoid Mascot as he barrels back down the hallway, she’s looking straight into Mervin’s room.

She sighs and gets to her feet.

“It appears that the victim was attacked in the living room and dragged into a bedroom off the main hallway, and ritualistically murdered there,” she says, appraising the shards of lettuce and tin foil with a hawkish squint. When she fixes that look on Mascot, he heads back for the kitchen.

Pebbles drops down to one knee and gathers up the majority of the tin foil pieces and the lettuce. She’s down on her stomach, tugging a last piece out from under Mervin’s bed when she sees it. Pulling it out from under the box spring she sees it’s the Vogue from last month. It smells faintly of coffee and milk, and when she opens it, a few coffee grounds roll out onto her lap.

“Aw, Gross.”

Mascot makes a whining, yawning noise outside the bedroom, baffled as to why he is still indoors. Pebbles looks over her shoulder and hushes him. He makes a quieter grumbling noise and lies down in the doorway, the leash still in his mouth.

As she shifts her weight back to avoid the grounds, the pages flip to an editorial shot. A body is splayed across the top of a boulder, the surf pounded into a spray behind her. She’s wearing only panties and a hooded cashmere sweater. And heels.

“Aw! Really gross!” The cloud of annoyance and hunger is suddenly parted with a visceral image of Mervin crouched over his desk with the magazine in front him. She slams an imaginary door on the thought and drops the magazine. Shaking off the image of her brother in that most iconic of adolescent moments, she looks down and notices something about the photo, something she had somehow missed about the model. Someone has cut the model’s head off. The jagged line bolts down from the top of the page and makes a crooked octagon around where the face should be.

In spite of the missing face, Pebbles knows this picture. It’s Jamie Ithaca, the face of La Maison Couture, except, well, here, she’s faceless. Pebbles chuckles to herself, distracted, and behind her Mascot has slowly crept into the room, barely lifting his body off the ground, approaching like a Navy SEAL. He nips at her hand but she brushes him away.

Jamie Ithaca is Ziggy’s dream girl. This is why Pebbles knows her name and why she knows this picture. Ziggy had a t-shirt made out of it, or one obnoxiously like it. Except, of course, Ziggy’s girl still has her own head. She wonder if Ziggy’s been cut’n’pasting her magazines for masturbatory purposes and shivers involuntarily. She’s seen the inside of plenty of lockers, knows all too well the many brides of Frankenstein’s monster…boobs from Maxim, legs from Cosmo, arched, suntanned stomach from Sport’s Illustrated. Just shy enough of pornographic to keep the janitors popping their locks and confiscating the whole collage.

The whole thing makes her a little queasy for a minute. For a second she thinks…if you weren’t already decapitated Jamie Ithaca…

Dolly Van Peebles! Jealous? You?

Well, okay, she thinks, she’s not completely ignorant that Jamie Ithaca is pretty much gorgeous. And she doesn’t totally pretend that Ziggy sits around planning picnics in the park with her. She isn’t utterly stupid, Ziggy probably spends as much time jerking off as the rest of the boys in their class, which is likely a lot. And Pebbles isn’t a prude, she’s not totally grossed out by the idea of Ziggy as a penis-having sort of person. So there’s a little jealousy, okay. And a little bit of being grossed out. But it isn’t anywhere near the psycho level.

Mascot presses his cold, wet nose against a patch of skin where her shirt has pulled up in the back.

“Cut it out Mascot!”

She realizes too late that she’s said the magic word and Mascot tears out of the room in celebration. He’s on countdown to blast-off now, she thinks. If she doesn’t get him down to the grass promenade she’ll be cleaning up the stairwell instead of doing homework.

Pushing the magazine back under the bed she gets up and manages to wrangle Mascot to the door. She grabs a plastic bag in case the sanitation guys are around and she has to pick up after him. On her way out the door, she’s laughing at this mental image of herself, steamed pink with jealousy, cutting the faces out of editorial spreads. Headed down the stairwell, with a slightly guiltier laugh, she imagines, briefly and loosely, Ziggy’s possible reaction to a photo of her. The panties and cardigan look is a tricky one, she laughs to herself, but she might be able to pull it off.

Outside, Mascot breaks into a purposeful stride and Pebbles mostly forgets about the magazine. Still, the thought wanders aimlessly, quiet but there: who goes around cutting peoples’ faces out?

 

*

 

The extra Xanax blankets everything and when the concierge arrives with half a grape-fruit and a carafe of coffee, she opens the door and stares into his face. He’s got long black hair, pulled tightly to the top of his head, some of it tucked under a maroon bell-hop hat. But what catch her eyes are his lips.

“Ms. Ithaca?”

Her last name clinks, metal on enamel. He says something else but she can’t hear it, she just watches the pink tip of his tongue dart in and out of his mouth, watching his lips bunch and stretch, waits patiently for the dimples around the corner of his mouth to appear and when they do she claps and sighs.

“Are you,” he stops, blinks, swallows, “you okay?”

She nods.

He pauses for a second, looks at her and then at the brass cart he’s wheeled into the room while she has been staring at his face.

“Oh, coffee,” she says. Somewhere, she’s aware that she really ought to drink the coffee before she takes the Xanax, to keep from spacing out quite this much. But at the moment, she’s content to pick up the carafe and hold it against her chest, very warm against her bare skin where her robe has parted at the top.

“I, um, I’ll leave this with you.” His lips quiver between frowning and smiling as he backs out of the rooms and turns on his feet.

She pours a cup of coffee and takes it with the grapefruit half to her desk. Sitting on the ink-blotter is a little white box, like a fancy-dress version of a Chinese-takeout container. It’s embroidered with pink silk, and laced up on the top with a platinum band. She slowly pulls the lace out through the eyeholes, it’s cool and smooth, the links in the chain so small that it feels like a living thing, the unexpected softness of a snake. And, of course, jewelry like this sparkles beneath the water and hides the barbed hook, the one that slides in easy but rips and tears and holds fast when you try to shake loose.

Shiny things in the water, and we dart like fish.

She thinks to herself that the entire point of jewelry ought to be that it reminds you of that moment when and where someone puts the jewelry on you. A man kneels and puts a ring on your finger, the dampness of his palm on your wrist as he holds your hand steady, his hand shaking. Your mother stands behind you and clasps your grandmother’s necklace, her hands dry but soft as they brush your neck, hold your hair away from the lock. A girl you once knew makes matching rings from the twist-ties her mom uses to pack her sandwiches. Two green plastic bands: the constant scratching at the webbing between your fingers is a reminder of that smile when you held out your hand.

She opens a drawer and drops the necklace into a pile of gifts, trinkets, house keys, tokens of need, friendly and vulgar alike, all empty, all temporary, mostly expired, all stuffed in a drawer.

Inside the white paper-box is a vial with a light baby-pink powder in it. The vial sits in the folded crook between the wings of an origami swan, folded out of a five hundred Euro note. Beneath that is an E-ticket to Prague. With a clipped accent, the ticket speaks to her: ‘Come and see me in Europe and we’ll have a good time on my account, and I’ll even go down on you, maybe even get you off, before the inevitable jackhammering, and to make up for leaving you alone and sore in a strange chateau in the Czech Republic, I’ll leave you with enough narcotics to opiate a small third world country. And if you’re not in the mood, my cock and I will miss you, but please, enjoy this sample of my wares with your friends as a token of my affection.’

She unscrews the vial and presses the boney tip of her pinky finger over the top, flipping it over and back. She puts the lid back on and lifts the pink dust up to her nose. A classy gift, she thinks, credit where credit is due.

It occurs to her, as a wave of prickly heat rolls over her body, and boils up to her cheeks and forehead, that the poor boy that brought her coffee was probably waiting for a tip. She looks down at the Euro note. She laughs at the image of him, nervously standing in line at the currency exchange kiosk on Broadway, visions of endless wealth dancing in his head.

Suddenly it occurs to her that she’s been cock-teasing this poor boy since she moved in. Answering the door in her Xanax fuzz, a skimpy robe and not much else. No wonder the poor boy is stuttering half the time. Poor kid, dragged behind his own dick like a blinded harness racer behind a crazed thoroughbred.

And for a minute, a deep, warm surge moves in her. She sees herself standing there. She’s dumbstruck at herself, silently wishes her robe would fall open, terrified it will, her mouth hangs open.

Beautiful.

She picks up the phone and calls down to the cafeteria.

“Hi, it’s me.” She says.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Ithaca.”

“The boy, the kid, the guy who just delivered my coffee?”

Her mouth has suddenly gone completely dry.

“Oh my, was something wrong?”

She walks into the kitchen.

“No, no, no-no. No. Good coffee.”

She opens the refrigerator and takes the champagne.

“Who delivered it? The busboy, the delivery kid, what do you call them?” There’s a pause, she pops off the vacuum seal and takes a sip. It’s held up well, she smiles, feeling the bubbles fizz up through her throat and into her head.

“Your porter was Mr. Jonah Ziggler.”

“Porter,” she says, rolling the word around in her mouth like candy. The feeling of her own tongue on the back of her teeth makes her shiver.

“Yes.”

“Can you send him back up, I forgot something.”

“You forgot to order something?”

“I forgot to leave him a tip. I didn’t tip him.”

“You can always leave an envelope for the staff with the doorman, or you can add it to your maintenance payment, just call down to the main desk.”

“I’m old fashioned.”

“Pardon me?”

“Is he there?”

“He’s,” there was another pause, she takes a long drink of champagne, a tidal surge of bubbles roll over her brain, leaving her with the giggles, “on his lunch break. Shall I call you when comes back?”

She’s quiet. The fizzy pink tide is receding. Strands of driftwood and seaweed litter her head.

“Ms. Ithaca?”

“No,” she says quietly, “no, that’s okay. Thank you.”

She hangs up the phone and stares at the champagne bottle. Empty fucking calories. Her head suddenly feels heavy, poorly supported. She sits back down at the desk. She looks at the pink vial. It’s good stuff. Too good.

What goes up must come down down down…

Coffee before Xanax, booze before coke, up and down, no hope of equilibrium. She wishes there was one pill you could take, a happy medium pill. But, as Vicky would say, no one’s in the business of making you happy, only those in the business of selling you something. Happiness is bad for business.

Business.

She nibbles at a slice of grapefruit and tries not to think about her stomach, a black, acidic sea, burning away in darkness.

In the corner of her desk is another gift, this one from Vicky. A word-a-day calendar. Vicky considers it to be a private joke between the two of them, because she imagines she’s turned this ugly hillbilly dykling into a transatlantic Swan. They can laugh, now, about some of Vicky’s more drastic criticism of every last word that came out of her mouth. Way back then, all those years and pounds ago.

Today’s word is, “untenable.”

She’s heard Vicky use the word before, once. Vicky constantly chased the newest hot neighborhood, determined to already be a local before the potential models of the coming years migrated there. As the city’s attention span dwindled from decades to years, from years to months, Vicky found herself a high-income vagabond, always renting, subletting, month-to-month-ing, constantly saying she didn’t mind, that she liked the constant stream of male-model potentials who came in and out of her life hefting sofas and boxes of magazines. Only once, very early one morning, did she see Vicky, on the tail end of a very nasty Percoset bender, look around her apartment and scream, wordlessly, a sick mash of a laugh and a cry. Then Vicky had dabbed her eyes with a towel and composed herself.

“Really,” she had said, “all these places I live, I’ve never had a home. It’s like living on a sandbar or being married to a cancer patient. Taxing, I swear, I don’t know how people did this before Paxil.”

She had reached out her hand but Vicky’s composure was already iced over, hard as steel. Vicky had pulled her hair up into a bun, pinned it into place and  with a practiced laugh said: “Really, life in this city is untenable.”

Vicky had moved twice since then. Two part-time furniture movers were now part-time male models in her portfolio. She had gone out to dinner with the broker from the second place. He had an allergic reaction to the condom they used that night, but Vicky took pity on him and stayed. It wasn’t until he told her, in a naked, confessional moment, that he really believed the era of home ownership was over, and that renting was the new buying, that she faked a stomach ache, lifted a Barolo from his study, and went home to get drunk with a vibrator and an old Carey Grant movie.

“Yes, really,” Vicky had said, “at this point I prefer a dead queen to any living, straight fuck in this city. At least Grant had some class.”

A knifing pain stabs at her, from behind her navel, rolling away quickly into an ache. The burning in her guts flickers quickly, a little too fast for the Xanax cushion, like falling into water, but from too high, it still hurts for a second.

.           She looks down at the calendar. She could hear Vicky’s voice reading her the new words she was going to use, her new vocabulary to keep her from betraying herself. She heard that voice flirting with the knife edge of irony.

“Untenable, adjective, unable to be held.”

The pain rolls again, not as sharp, but lower, towards the small of her back and then lower still. She gets up, shakes off a twinkling fog of dizziness and heads to the bathroom.

Oddly, in the cold glare of the bathroom light the pain disappears. The cold, smooth ceramic at the back of her thighs centers her. Slowly, she feels a fist squeeze in her lower stomach. A gasp of hot, dry air escapes her. The fist squeezes again and brittle, scratchy pain rips up from her asshole to the base of her spine. It feels like her guts are made of paper and they’re ripping.

Vicky should be here to do some headshots.

She tries to think how long it’s been since she’s eaten more than grapefruit, had anything besides coffee and champagne to drink. She can’t remember anything since the last shoot she’s done, it seems like she’s been in this room since. She’s been out, of course, shopping, salons, dates even, but she can’t remember eating. She should be proud. Intestinal distress is a sign of dedication, progress, success, glamour.

Another ripping feeling leaves splinters in her diaphragm. It feels like her stomach has been ringed in razor wire, every twitch, every ounce of food she eats, pushing it out into the blades. A smile frosts her mouth.

The faces, the hungry, lean, beautiful faces in magazines, this is what she sees: Dedication. Ulcers, constipation, diarrhea, cramping, hemorrhoids from enemas, the esophageal lesions from stomach acid, the pain so deep in the chest it might be that heart-attack the anorexia Nazis are always screaming about. The photographers are too slow, or too frightened, to capture that actual moment, the clamping down fist of pain that freezes the face into solid marble. The better ones capture the premonition, the rest the echo, but the every once and a while, as if by accident, like photos of ghosts, you get the thing on film. At that moment you are truly beautiful, like last month’s editorial…

…and, of course, like today’s word du jour…

Another pain comes, but this one is already rolling and blunted, swaddled in a Xanax blanket when it tumbles through. It’s distant thunder. There’s no crack, no flash, just a mumble somewhere, somewhere else, the murmur of someone else’s heart…

She’s been sitting still, elbows propped on her knees, for so long that the lights go out. They are set to a motion detector, another part of the building’s trendy green-living theme. She sits in the dark and listens to the hum of the building, or the inside of her head, she can’t tell.

Fading, now, from her mind, is the other voice, the quiet voice of whoever it was the Porter saw in the doorway. A kind of childhood beauty, a bad habit, worse than the rest… didn’t she see it too? Hair tumbling down, robe open, a smile on her face…Jesus…tell me…something flashing as it sinks…

 

*

 

Pebbles opens the stairway door and calls up. No one answers.

“Okay, ready?”

Mascot nips at her ankles and struggles to keep his haunches on the ground. Pebbles drops to a racing start, one knee hovering above the chipped paint on the cement floor.

“Ready?” She whispers, Mascot’s nose wrinkles.

Somehow, a second before she can release the tensed muscle in her thigh and push off, Mascot senses it and explodes up the first flight of stairs in a brown blur. Pebbles leaps after him and they pound up the stairs, strong, even steps, two stairs at a time. Mascot is fast on the straight-away, barrels up the actual stairs as if they were flat ground, but he doesn’t corner well and has to all but stop, shake off his momentum, and then explode again at each landing. She easily passes him on the third floor, and keeps ahead of him all the way to the eighth where she slides a little on a bath towel sitting, for no discernible reason, on the landing. The brief and unexpected magic carpet ride throws her off, and Mascot bolts past her again, barely missing her shin with his open mouth, a spray of joyous slobber settling to the ground in his wake. When she finally makes it to the twelfth floor, Mascot is sitting patiently by the door, panting heavily.

“You cheated,” she says and lets them onto the floor. Mascot, looking and probably feeling like he has won, fair and square, saunters happily to the apartment door, walks in ahead of Pebbles as she opens it and heads off to her room to collapse, no doubt, in her bed.

Pebbles drinks a glass of water in the kitchen, leans back against the wall and feels her heart pound. Her head feels a little detached. She pinches her nose and blinks her eyes, little pinwheels of lights flash, superimposed over the sink. A second later they’re gone and she feels better. She should probably eat something, she thinks. She opens the fridge and sighs. Her father has been shopping. Steak, ground hamburger, sausage, rolls. The cabinet has his signature on it as well. Rotinin, Linguini, Macaroni, Lasagna sheets, the last of which indicates a moment of optimism later replaced by pragmatism in the form of frozen lasagna. Cookies – brand and flavor, admittedly her favorite and toaster-pastries…is there nothing vegetable in this house? The vegetable crisper has lettuce and tomato, hamburger garnishes, no doubt. A single stalk of celery sits nestled between the two Romaine hearts. Pebbles grabs it and snaps it off in her mouth.

“Vegetables.” She says this out loud as she writes it on the chalkboard, and adds, “Dad!”

Her cellphone shakes frantically in her pocket, startling her. She pulls it out, the letter “Z” blinking on the screen.

“Hey dude,” she says, flipping the phone open.

“Uh, are you home?” Ziggy’s voice sounds thin, even with the cell-phone volume all the way up.

“Yeah, but I got to go get Mervin in a minute.”

“Okay, okay,” he says.

“Ziggy?”

Pebbles can’t hear anything.

“Are you whispering, I can’t hear you.”

“Yeah, sorry. Um, could you stop by?”

“The cafeteria, don’t I need, like, fancy dress?”

“The service entrance.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I think that model chick is overdosing.”

“Model chick? Overdosing? Who’s overdosing? On what?”

Someone shouts in the background, Ziggy shouts something back. For the first time, Pebbles hears the round clang of copper-bottom pans and realizes Ziggy’s in the kitchen.

“Remember, I told you, that Jamie Ithaca model chick moved into one of the penthouse suites.”

“No,” Pebbles says, harsher than she means to, “it must have slipped your horny little mind.”

“What?” Ziggy says, with the blank honesty only a teenage boy could muster.

“Nothing, nothing.”

“What should I do? She didn’t look good, she looked pale, thin, I think she was sick.”

The hint of panic in his voice swamps Pebbles, it feels like her heart is barfing on her stomach. Usually, Ziggy has the voice of a radio announcer, the awareness that people are listening, the confidence, the mystery of performance, the presence that outweighs his hundred-pound frame by so much. Half the time Pebbles lets people’s voices sink under the crashing surf of white noise, the endless trains, buses, construction, crowds, traffic, the constant wind and thunder of life. But for Ziggy she strains, closes her eyes on the phone, stairs at his lips in person, reaches out to find each word, bring it home safely. All this is too much and tears slip out of hiding from the corners of her eyes.

She doesn’t know why, other than the image in her head’s such a sad one. Ziggy, lost in the baggy folds of his Porter’s get-up, his tiny frame buried in the hustle of the basement of the Tribeca Lux, pining away for some over-medicated…

Pebbles sucks in her breath and shakes it off.

“You there Pebbles?”

She nods, then catches herself and says:

“Yes. Look, it will be fine. Just find an excuse to go back up there, and check on her, if she looks really bad, just call the police.”

“We’re not supposed to, I mean, unless they’re like dead or something.”

“Well, then tell your manager. Let him worry about it.”

“Okay.”

“Okay? Easy. Just go back up, if she stills looks bad, maybe you could take her a hamburger or something, she could use it.”

Ziggy laughs a little.

“Yeah, she’s a little twiggy,” Ziggy says, his voice louder and steadier now. Boys, she thinks, you turn upside down and shake ‘em and they’re good as new.

“Don’t act like you’re not obsessed with her.”

“What?” Ziggy laughs.

“You had a shirt made of her face!”

“Dude,” Ziggy laughs again, “your little brother made that at the silk-screen place on Canal. He gave it to me because Mr. Felding said it was inappropriate. He’s the fan, you should see his locker.”

“Oh, that’s gross. I found one of my old Vogue magazines in his room, he trash-picked it.”

“Way-to-go Merv!”

Pebbles gasps at him.

“Hey, he’s a growing boy. Your mom’s got all those parental internet things, he’s got to improvise. I was quite the collector when I was young. I used to score left-over Victoria Secrets from the bulk-mailing place on Houston street.”

“One, that’s gross. Two, ‘when you were young’ – you’re eighteen!”

Ziggy is laughing hard now, someone coughs his name nearby and his voice drops.

“This conversation is too gross to live,” she says, shaking her head. Ziggy is still chuckling, muffled now, on the other end.

“Too weird to die?”

“No, it needs to die.” Pebbles says, trying not to smile.

“Alright, I should probably go, you want to hang out when I get out.”

“Maybe you’ll save little miss Jamie’s life and she’ll want to take you out to thank you.”

“Yeah. That’d be cool too. But I’ll probably just tell Uncle Frankie and let him deal with it. I don’t think she likes me, she never tips me anyway.”

Pebbles laughs, for some reason, this makes her feel much better.

“Call me later,” she says by way of forgiveness.

“Okay. Must go. Frankie mad! Frankie smash!”

Someone grumbles in the background and Ziggy hangs up.

 

*

 

While she sits in the bathroom, time passes. This seems logical, but it only becomes obvious when her cell phone shudders its way out of her purse on the dresser and onto the floor. She moves to look, triggering the light again. Through the crack in the door she sees the battery pop loose and skitter across the floor. Her phone, throwing itself to its death to get her attention.

She has a bad bathroom habit. It’s not one of her Dixie symptoms, it’s new. Rising, her knees numb and tingling from where her elbows have been resting, she half turns over her shoulder to see what’s left in the bowl. She tries to get a visual estimate of the weight-loss. A cruel necessity of life is that food must go in, the least she can do, in the face of that fact, is to make sure that it comes out. A function of the cold logic of dedication… this is no more or less than the musicians who tune their instruments or the scientists who check their math.

There’s nothing in the toilet.

She stands there so long that the lights go out one more time. In the sudden darkness she can just make out her reflection in the water. She reaches out a finger and flushes, the lights come on as the water level is rising again, and she can, for the moment at least, forget about it.

In the bedroom she reassembles her phone: she has three messages. Two are after-noon booty calls. One actual[ly] sings a few bars of ‘Afternoon Delight’ before switching on the bedroom voice and propositioning her. The third message, which the phone died delivering to her, is from Vicky.

“Hey doll. I heard you missed out on the Milan shoot. Don’t beat yourself up. And don’t do that infantile shit, no security blankets, if I find out you’ve ordered that truffle mac’n’cheese I’m going to get a fucking court injunction barring you from room service.”

There’s a long series of wet, nasal sounds, like Morse Code: sniff-sniff-sniff, snort… snort… snort… sniff-sniff-sniff. A couple of deep breaths.

“Also, that pink shit that Pascal sent you. Don’t touch it. It is way too strong. The comedown will have you swinging from the rafters. You better set it aside. I can swap it out for some Paxil, or some Wellbutrin.”

Someone is talking in the background, but Vicky hushes them.

“Okay, so that’s that. And don’t worry about the shoot. Fuck Milan. Milan is lousy with hack photographers. They’ll make you look like a milk-fed whale, they’re betting on a comeback of the size two model. Fuhgaddaboutit. I’ll call you tomorrow, we’ll talk about getting you back on top.”

And then she says:

“Click.”

And hangs up. Vicky’s messages go on, this one being the briefest lately, and with voice mailboxes suffering from increasingly severe cases of ADD, she says ‘click’ now, to indicate that she’s really, truly, in fact, done. No ‘click’, best to call back and make sure she didn’t leave you some gem at the end of the message.

Like, “getting you back on top.”

This is cheery news, unless you don’t know you’ve fallen off.

She takes the battery back out of the phone. Maybe it wasn’t trying to get her attention. Maybe it was trying to spare her.

The door bell rings.

She pulls her robe shut and walks into the living room to answer it. She has never used the tiny spy-glass hole in the door. This strikes her as being deeply foolish, all of the sudden. The Xanax must be wearing off, she thinks, because that twang is back in her head, and not just her own, it’s joined by the sharper twang of her mother and her aunts.

“Y’all up there think tha only reason someone’d beatcha door is to bring you sumptin or to tell you how pretty y’all look.”

She shudders, reminds herself to get another Xanax from the desk in a minute. Her hand is on the door knob and she stops. She reaches up and flicks the round cover over the little window. It’s the Porter, standing outside. He doesn’t have a cart, and she can’t remember if she’d ordered something. Maybe she ordered Mac’n’Cheese and didn’t even remember. Was she planning on hiding in the bathroom, picking the truffle slices out and flushing them one by one?

The doorbell rings again.

She opens it and lets her robe fall a little open. She watches his eyes dart to her waist where the robe closes and back up to her face. A warm little flush blossoms behind her temples.

“Come on in,” she says. She walks over to the desk and takes a Xanax out of the top drawer. He stands on the rough mat in front of the door, hand still on the door frame, anchoring him to the real world.

“Well, come on in, all the way in. Close the door.”

He steps in, swallows his lips and lets them bloom again. She turns to face him, making sure her robe is somewhere painfully between open and closed. She opens her mouth and sticks out her tongue, places the Xanax on it, tastes the bright, bitter surface. Then she swallows, tilts her head back and imagines he watches as the pill rolls down her throat, disappears between her breasts.

“Are you okay?” He says, finally, a hint of stammer.

“You mean is this okay? Of course, it’s my apartment, isn’t it?” She smiles at him and sits on the desk, crossing her legs.

“I mean, before, when I was here before, with your, um, breakfast, you seemed, you seemed really… out of it.”

She laughs. She reaches over to the white box on her desk and pulls out the vial of pink powder. She unscrews the top, tilts it onto her finger, and snorts it up one nostril. A fresh buzzing starts up in the base of her skull and suddenly, she positively cannot stand how far away he’s standing. It’s like he’s on the other edge of a flooding river. She reaches back into the box and pulls out the origami euro-note, tugs at the corners until it’s recognizable as a bill again.

“Because?”

“Because you seemed drugged,” he says, looking awkwardly at the pink vile, then at her, “I mean, like, bad drugged, like you got something bad.”

“And you know about that kind of thing?” She says, grinning.

“A little,” he says, looking down again.

“Are you sure it’s not because I forgot to tip you.”

“I get tipped out of maintenance fees, I’m okay.”

“But sometimes people tip you, you specifically, for…extra services.”

“Sometimes I get things for people, a late edition, cigars, wine, stuff like that.”

“And you get compensated.”

He shrugs.

“I brought you coffee is all.”

“Still,” she smiles, “do you know what this is?”

“A Euro?” He says, looking halfway up at her.

“Yup. You could have a pretty good time with this, you could cash it in for a little more than a grand. You and your girlfriend could eat out at a different restaurant every night. Nice ones.”

The porter brushes his cheek with the gold epilate on his shoulder. A strand of hair slides from under his hat in front of his face and he tucks it behind his ear. The gesture, immediately, maker her dizzy.

“I don’t know any nice restaurants. ‘Cept for downstairs.”

He’s silent, she doesn’t know for how long.

“And I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“Maybe I should take you out to dinner then, introduce you. Thank you for your services.”

His cheeks are two pink stains, his lips are open, and a slow, steady clicking comes from his mouth. She takes another bump of the pink powder, her eyelids crashing shut in a moment of joy, though the rush is still swelling in her chest and not yet bursting into her head. Only the first little tendrils of ecstasy are reaching into her mind.

“Come here,” she says. He walks, nearly stumbles over to her and stops a few feet away. She hops down from the desk, realizing with a little cry that he’s taller than she’d thought.

“Oh, you’re tall.”

“Too tall, I can’t gain weight.”

She looks at him with a stunned expression. A malicious glint shines inside her eyes but he’s too nervous and too distracted to notice. Her back teeth click together. She crumples the euro-note violently, watches his eyes swell. For a second, she wants to claw at him, but her anger slowly boils down, settles and she steadies her hands. He’s looking down at her fist, two month’s wages in tiny manicured hand.

She opens her fist and smoothes out the bill, refolding it and pressing it on the desk. She takes another step towards him, her face inches from his face. He looks at her, his speechlessness delights her utterly.

She reaches over and grabs the vial, rolls a lump onto her palm and offers it.

“I can’t,” he says, “drug tests.”

“You can’t beat ‘em?”

“Not for that stuff,” he says, “they test your hair.”

“And you’d have to cut that sexy hair off,” she says.

He nods, she takes the hit instead. She folds the euro-note one more time and reaches around the awkward angle of his hip to slides the bill deep into his front pocket, pleased as punch to find his cock solid and shaking. She lets the back of her hand brush against him as it slides out of his pocket. He’s holding his breath and the only sound in the whole room is the sound of the fabric of his pants rustling as he shifts his weight, the sound of her fingers drifting over the hemmed edged of his pocket.

“Maybe you should find a girlfriend,” she says, “or a boyfriend.”

“No,” he says quickly, then adds, “I mean, I like girls.”

“I know,” she says, glancing down at his pants, “I can tell.”

“It’s too bad,” she says, “you probably have to get back to work.”

He nods.

“And I probably won’t be in this kind of mood later.”

He shakes his head.

“And if you were going to get fired anyway,” she shakes the vial, “we wouldn’t have to worry about cutting all that gorgeous hair off, would we?”

He nods again.

“My mom,” he says. She sticks a finger over his mouth.

“That’s not who you need to be thinking about in a situation like this, sugar.”

He straightens up a little.

“My mom needs help with the rent.”

Tears slam into her face. A tiny little croak comes out of her mouth. A violent, crashing tide of blinding light comes roaring into her head as the first real wave of dopamine floods out of all those little pleasure centers that lay, so often, dormant in her head. She burst out weeping and laughing and he takes a step backwards.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“No, no-no-no.” She says. She closes the gap between them and pulls his head down, his Porter’s cap tumbling over her shoulder. She holds his head to her chest and kisses his forehead.

“Jonah’s your name?”

“Ziggy,” he says.

She looks at him for a minute.

“My friends call me Ziggy.”

She smiles.

“You ought to go back to work, Ziggy.”

“Are you going to be…?”

She touches his hand with hers. She crouches down, picks up his hat and stands up. She tucks the pesky stray strand back behind his ear, and sets the hat back on his head. Being so close to him is making a deep place in her chest hurt so she backs away and walks over to the balcony.

“I’m aces kid.”

He nods.

“You sure?”

She nods and opens the door. She takes a step backwards.

“Don’t spend it all in one place,” she says. He looks down, blushes, tries to smooth the bulge in his pants, gets it somewhat under control and looks back up. She drops the robe and stands naked. His eyes go wide. She closes the door.

The southern tip of Manhattan slides into view, the Statue of Liberty back at the pantry. His face appears in hers, looking at her. His body standing inside her body. He looks happy. He looks beautiful. A penny glimmers, catches the sun, she can’t tell if it’s sinking to the depths or falling from heaven, winking, tumbling, here, then gone, moving through something warm and shimmering…

Jesus smiles. He looks happy. He looks beautiful. He waves with one hand, holding onto her gift in the other.

Her image in the mirror looks perfect, her body rounded by the slightest curve of the door, part of the gentle curve of the building, somehow less harsh, more kind. Her face is shining with tears, as is his.

She looks happy. She looks beautiful.

A penny flashes in the sun, slipping through the sky, slipping down into the ocean. There is only one way to hold on to it.

The sun finally comes out from behind the Millennium and everything explodes into blinding light. She closes her eyes, feels the sun’s warmth on her naked skin from behind and from in front of her, feels basked in it, cradled in it, wrapped in a warm place that’s more like the womb, more like love than any pill.

 

*

 

Mervin is happy to see her, his cheeks lift up under his bangs.

“God,” he says, rolling his eyes, “I had such a day, the last thing I wanted was a pep-talk from Dad.” He shifts the weight of his backpack from one shoulder to the other; the thing is nearly his own size.

“What happened?” She asked, forgetting about the magazines and his abandoned lunches.

“Ugh, same old caveman routine, every time we have gym, it means I have a date with the pavement.” He rolls up his jacket-sleeve, a small archipelago of scabs trails down his arm.

“Jesus,” Pebbles says.

“I know, you should see my knees, they were calling me the blowjob queen. Which would be funny, if it was about someone else.”

She rolls her eyes at him.

“Gross,” she says, shaking her head, “I can’t believe you just said blowjob.”

Mervin laughs.

“I bet Ziggy doesn’t think they’re gross.”

“That’s it!” She says, “what did you eat for lunch today.”

“Oh no,” he says.

“Well, at least Mascot likes tuna-melts.”

“You didn’t have to-“

“I did.”

Mervin’s face screws up tight. They walk in silence for a block, down the canyon of Warren street. Pebbles takes out her phone and calls Ziggy but gets a busy signal.

“I’m sorry Dolly,” he says.

“It’s alright,” she slugs him in the shoulder, “I didn’t tell Mom.”

“Ugh,” he says again, “ugh.”

“You could tell Mom you don’t like her sandwiches.”

“It’s not that,” he says, “it’s just, I don’t know.”

Pebbles is about to ask him about the magazine, the question that’s been murmuring in her ear all afternoon when something explodes across the street. Mervin drops to his knees, the weight of his backpack sending him tumbling, his head disappearing between his knees.  Pebbles tries to cover him. There is screaming and a car alarm and a loud hissing noise, like a giant balloon deflating.

Across the street, a silver Jaguar coupe is missing its top and windows. Pebbles can’t make sense of the image. She keeps looking for the other car, but the street is empty. Down the block a siren goes off and starts squealing higher and higher in pitch, coming towards them. The street is littered with pieces of silver metal and green shards of glass, sprayed out in a fan away from the car. Pebbles leaves Mervin and inches past a parked car into the street. The front end of the smashed car is sitting lower now, one of the tires is popped and a ragged flap of rubber is sitting limply on the street.

She looks down. A tiny piece of glass, sprayed with light pink foam. She keeps thinking: cotton candy. Someone is yelling at her. The two words roll around in her head, the taste somewhere in the back of her throat. The hints of sweetness coalesce on the tongue and turn bitter, leaving the flat sting of metal in her mouth.

She’s jolted out of it when too heavy black hands, gloves, land on her shoulder. A mouth appears, teeth gritted for a second before they open.

“Are you okay?”

Her eyes focus, a tall cop is standing in front of her, a heavy-set face, dark skin, she can’t place him. His face looks friendly, he has long, deep dimples that frame his mouth like parentheses. His lips are big and expressive.

“Do I know you?” She says, watching his mouth for a response.

“I’m going take you to sit down,” he says, and then leans into his shoulder, “ten-fifty seven, looks like, I need an ambulance”

The radio crackles, but she can’t make it out.

“They called in a what? From where? This looks like a-”

He stops and turns away from her. He looks at the car. She starts walking towards it again, not entirely sure why, when the cop reaches out and grabs her, tries to turn her away.

But she has already seen.

 

*

 

In a way, she looked happy. Her eyes closed and her head tilted a little backwards, pointing at the sky. Her mouth was pursed, slightly, a little hint of a final word, or a smile. Her arms were folded over her chest, and you couldn’t see much blood from the far side of the car, although, later, when Pebbles found it caked in the treads of her shoes, she realized how much there must have been.

She couldn’t remember how long she stood there, after the cop suddenly left her side to stop traffic, and for a long time she stared at that quiet, peaceful face until her chin was slowly lifted by invisible fingers and her eyes slowly drifted up over the face of the building, the top half of it shining in the sun. She stared at the light until specks danced in her vision, winking in and out, dancing…

Finally, although it must have only been the time it took for the elevator to get from the penthouse suite to the lobby, Ziggy came bursting out of the door. He froze, standing nearly in front of the car. There were several squad cars there by then and the cops pushed him out of the way, placed a large traffic cone where he had stood and started stringing out the yellow tape.

He had embarrassed them. Somehow, it wasn’t until Ziggy showed up that it occurred to anybody that the body lying in the wreck of the car was naked and somebody threw a shock blanket over her.

Ziggy made his way past the cops, the firefighters and finally the crowd that was starting to swell up around the edges of the police tape. He didn’t say anything. He just put his arms around Pebbles, who was still looking up at the sky. She slowly lowered her face onto his chest.

It was Mervin who spoke first.

“Did you see her?”

Pebbles nodded. Ziggy looked away. Mervin said:

“She looked so beautiful. She was perfect.”

 

*

Dear Penthouse

 

Lost in the place beneath though, she moves inwards, outwards. Without quite articulating it, she senses that there might be a balance, a certain point from which she could comprehend the city, her world. But that point lies on the parabolic arc, rising and falling, and with everything, even the faint tidal weight of the moon, pulling against equilibrium. Still, flying or falling, you might pass through it: a piece of space-time, still and wondrous, the vantage of old gods who no longer speak, who have themselves fallen from that grace.

 

*

 

Pebbles suddenly wonders how long she’s been listening to the radio, standing in the doorway of the Lucky Dumpling. For a while she had been listening closely, picking out a few Mandarin phrases, trying to figure out if there was a studio full of voices or just one, doing impressions. At some point, the noise had faded to a white-wash of sound, and Pebbles lost track of time. Now she shakes it off and looks around, making sure she hasn’t lost her place in line.

The Dumpling has one table and three chairs, a token gesture at a dining room buried deep in boxes of napkins, chopsticks, soy sauce packets and Styrofoam take-out clam-shells. In the narrow space left open, a line wriggles in from the street.

At the counter a dumpling rookie stammers. Pebbles can’t see his mouth, or hear him over the clatter and sizzle of the kitchen and the buzz of the radio, but his arms flail in semaphore, with a Brooklyn accent. The disjointed angling of his puffy sleeves says, ‘Get tah fuck outta here!’

Cradling her chin in her palms, a young Chinese girl in a white smock rolls her eyes. Behind her, two grey-haired men stand in sepia-stained chef’s jackets, their hands blurring over piles of chopped chives and pork. One of them calls out to the girl, the corner of his mouth hinting at a joke wrapped inside wooly syllables.  The girl keeps a straight face, straight enough to fool most, and leans dramatically to her left.

“Next?”

A man in pin-stripe suit steps quickly and carefully up to the counter. He hands the girl a one dollar bill and grabs a small Styrofoam box, all in one hand motion, the finesse of a narcotics delivery. He turns on one foot and is gone. The rookie watches, a dry tongue crammed into the hollow of his cheek.

Now just two deep in the line, Ziggy fishes through his wallet, then his jacket, then his jeans and finally turns to Pebbles. She folds open her pocket-book. There are two bills inside; the one she pulls out is a battered, taped-together single.

The kid in the puffy jacket is standing off to the side, his face wrinkled, his mouth opening and closing. Pebbles imagines: he’s gnawing on his possible options, attempting to figure out how harshly he has been penalized for his ignorance. Can he try again? Does he go to the back of the line? Must he leave the store in disgrace, sans dumpling, trudge with a rumbling stomach back uphill to Grand Street, slink down to the subway, collapse across the orange plastic seats in hungry depression, allow himself to be deported back to Brooklyn? Finally his eyes focus, swinging around like twin searchlights. Pebbles quickly drops her head. She can feel him looking at her, wanting her to look up, almost like fingers under her chin. She scrunches her shoulders up in a slow shrug.

“Next?”

Another suit-and-tie steps up, looks away as he hands over a clatter of change. The girl’s eyes narrow as she counts by touch the nickels and dimes. She doesn’t take her eyes off him. He looks up only to apologize, cheeks hot and splotchy. He looks down again to guide his hands to his box of dumplings, takes an awkward, long step towards the door and then has to stop and shuffle sideways past the line and into the bustle of Chinatown.

Inside an arm’s reach of the counter, Ziggy’s body is humming underneath his clothes. His lips pop and snap, his fingers drum to some breakneck beat, his eyes lock with deathly intensity on the massive woks. He swats long strands of dark hair out of his eyes and pulls them behind his ear, so that he can have an unobstructed view. Pebbles can see only a third of his face, but from just his cheek and the corner of his mouth she can make out:

“Ommahgah ommahgah ommahgah.”

Pebbles smiles, shaking her head.

“Jesus Ziggy, wild dog? Don’t you, like, get to eat whatever you want at work?”

“Yeah, naturally, best perk in the world.”

“So, calm down, they’re going to think you’re here to rob the place.”

“Nah, nah, it’s cool. They know I’m just here for a snack. A drop in the bucket. I’m a growing boy, I needs my dumplings.”

Ziggy puffs his chest up under his jackets and flexes his arms. Pebbles laughs, Ziggy, despite his constant intake of food and his attempts at weight lifting, has barely cracked a hundred pounds.

A grinning fire hydrant of a man steps up to the counter. As he slides a neatly folded single across the counter his grin breaks apart into two porcelain arches. His lips smack once and lock shut, but from deep in his throat, down in his chest, comes an mmmm-hmmmmm so profound that while Pebbles can’t hear it, she can feel it. With bouncy shadowboxing steps, he bobs out into the street and into an idling cab, the reverberations of satisfaction trailing behind him.

His head bowed, Ziggy steps forward and presents his dollar. His vibrations have calmed and he presents a tenuous serenity. The girl behind the counter looks at the dollar, runs her finger over the tape that holds Washington’s seasick face together. She looks at Ziggy and sighs. Ziggy spins, knocked out of his zen trance, and looks wide-eyed at Pebbles.

Pebbles puffs her hair out of her face, opens her wallet again and offers a replacement dollar. With thumb and forefinger, the counter-girl sets the bandaged dollar down in front of Pebbles like a soiled diaper. She sighs, pinches the bridge of her nose, and then hands Ziggy his box of dumplings. Before Pebbles can even turn on her heels, Ziggy is at the door on his way out, faster than if he had stolen the dumplings. Pebbles picks up the wounded dollar, folds it back into her purse and follows in Ziggy’s wake.

“Sorry,” Ziggy says with a mouth full of dumpling, “didn’t mean to give you the stink eyes there, I just always worry they’ll blacklist me.”

“Like the Michelin man?”

Ziggy laughs, chokes, coughs, and laughs again. Pebbles steps closer to him and rubs his back, her reaction delayed enough to make her feel slightly awkward.

“I’m okay dude,” Ziggy says.

“Yeah, okay, cool,” she turns abruptly and starts walking again while Ziggy’s rapturous enthusiasm for his dumplings intervenes. A lot of girls, Pebbles thinks, are in a constant state of annoyance at this, the teenage boy’s constant pinball careening between appetites: sex, food, drugs, toys. For Pebbles, this is the mercy of boys, hopelessly spastic as they are. Unlike the epochs of obsession and disgust that girls go through, boys present a blank slate every few minutes. Hormonal etch-e-sketches. God bless ‘em.

She could expose herself to Ziggy, right here, and face the fiery car-wreck of rejection. And then Ziggy would still stare down into the cabbage-lined Styrofoam box and go:

“Ommahgah ommahgah ommahgah.”

And all would be well, forgiven and forgotten.

Ziggy spears the carmalized bottom of a fried dumpling with a single chop stick and spins it gently around with his index finger, soaking up sauce. He takes a bite, Pebbles watches as his lips press and hold the dumpling for a second before his teeth cut through the doughy filling. The tip of his tongue flashes, a glint of metal clicks against the back of his teeth. A few strands of hair slip from behind his ear and fall in front of his face, but Ziggy is too lost in dumpling ecstasy to bat them away this time.

“These fuckers are amazing,” Ziggy says, an orange smear of chili and soy sauce burning on his lips, “I don’t blame that rookie, I can never believe they’re only a buck.”

The rickety thunder of the D train shakes and booms down from the bridge. Pebbles watches his lips. She watches them purse and release the ahm in amazing. She watches as his lower lip disappears and explodes back into view with the buh in buck, a strand of hair puffing out of the way. In her dreams, Ziggy doesn’t even speak, he just moves his lips. Once she dreamt that she ran a juice stand in Central Park, red and white checkered cloth and wood panels like an old fashioned lemonade stand. Ziggy came running by, wearing only his shorts, shining like wet rock, streaked and beaded with sweat. Right time, right place. She offered him a drink, a tall glass of juice, and watched his lips.

I love juice, his lips said, I’ve always loved juice.

 

*

 

Nothing tastes as good as thin feels, she thinks.  She drops her hand to her side, still holding the menu from the building’s cafeteria –she still thinks of it as a cafeteria – which is Michelin rated and booked out a month for non-residents. She looks across the carpeted acre of living room at the kitchen. It’s brilliant, some sort of modern art. It’s an exercise is chrome and onyx, beautiful largely in its uselessness. There’s a half bottle of champagne in the fridge and some peeled cucumber. In the pantry is a box of special Norwegian crackers that require more calories to chew and swallow than they contain.

She walks to the balcony and steps out into an unnatural shade. In an hour or two the sun will pass around the corner of the Millennium Hilton and set a blinding fire to the southern façade of her building, a honeycomb of mirrors and ledges. For now, it’s shaded and she’s comfortable, wrapped in her robe.

At this height the city murmurs; every cry and shout, every siren and squeal, everything faded and smeared, dopplered into a seashell roar, red-shifted into a haze that hangs right past the little ledge that goes around her balcony.  She closes the mirrored door and with a hushed glide, the southern tip of Manhattan replaces her apartment. She still remembers the realtor gushing about this: the mirroring, a layer within the actual glass, is activated remotely by a computer connected to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, a hundred miles or so above Tribeca. Depending on the weather, a certain amount of the mirroring activates, reflecting just enough sunlight and, in theory, lowering cooling costs. It is part of the building’s eco-friendly marketing campaign, although most of the tenants understand it about as well as they understand the principles involved in their microwaves or televisions.

Today the mirroring is just translucent enough to allow the strange image of the lady Liberty toddling in her kitchen. It’s reaching, improbably, for the pantry door handle. It’s strange to see anyone in the kitchen, anyone in the apartment, really, besides her own mirrored twin.

Nothing tastes as good as thin feels. Again, the mantra, but – let’s be honest, she thinks – self discipline is about the stick, not the carrot. Something Vicky’s mother used to say. That Old World hard-ass attitude, the religious pride in self flagellation. No one else could ever be as hard on you as you could be on yourself, and that was the only way.

To[The – ed.] way to get Jesus-skinny: Clavicles scooping up the light, cheekbones throwing a veil down over the jaw, ribs like insignia of rank, the more the better. And hip bones, even hunched over, that you could hang your hat on.

In last month’s editorial, the photographer gushed endlessly about her hunger. As if that were the ideal metaphor at a time like that, three hours before a total electrolyte shutdown from her white diet. A Vicky joke. No sugar, no salt, no flour. All the coke your heart can take.

Vicky mailed her a cut-out with her giant looping, crayola-thick notes on it. Insane focus. Delirious presence. Manic hunger. And, of course, because Vicky could be a sycophant and a snobbish bitch but not, it pains her to admit, an idiot…strong use of personal pain.

Pain. Someone’s cliché-filter is glitching.

Four years ago, twelve pounds heavier, sitting in a beach-chair with a happy, slightly stoned grin and trying to get a pair of ten dollar flip flops to catch the light, she had seen Vicky staring at her. Vicky wanted to give her The Speech. Went into her locker, grabbed the protein bar, the yogurt cup, and dragged her to the bathroom. Made her unwrap them, crumble the bar, scoop out the yogurt, watched it all splashing into the blue water of the toilet. Worst of all, she tore up her gym membership card. Vicky ripped it off her keychain and tore it apart, the tough lamination wilting and sloughing off between her vicious fingers.

“You wanna make dyke porn or you wanna model?”

Vicky reintroduced her to a harsh vocabulary, prized for its emotional effect, its bluntness, its use as a weapon. Vicky collected words in two categories, words for speaking up and words speaking down. One language with two dictionaries. Vicky kept a statue of Janus on her desk and loved that nearly no one really knew what it was.

“You know why everyone loves the blues but no one can do it? Why Ray Charles is an icon and Billy Joel is a schmuck from Long Island?”

She had nodded. She wasn’t stupid.

“Pain.”

“Pain,” Vicky said slowly and stopped The Speech in its tracks, which, she admitted later, had been quite difficult. Vicky had a whole doctoral thesis on pain and artistry locked and loaded, curled up behind her tongue like a pit viper, ready to lash out and reduce models to crumpled, weeping piles of spoiled, upper-middleclass snot.

But this time, Vicky had just stopped and nodded.

“Nothing tastes as good as thin feels,” she heard, nearly every day, when craft services came through, when the watery crunch of celery sent pangs of frustration through her guts, when this week’s Don Juan got them a seat at The Restaurant.

But be honest, she thinks, shaking it off, that ain’t what’s going on here. Goddamnit…nuthin, no hunger, no cramping, no dry, bloody stool, nuthin hurts as bad as fat feels…

She can tell the last fast-acting Xanax is fuzzing out, when that twang comes slipping back in around the edges, a bad habit, like everything else that might utter a breath of her life before Vicky. She fishes around in the pockets of her robe and plucks another one out. She holds her mouth shut and puckers her cheeks in, swelling up her mouth with saliva so she can swallow it without water, another useful trick of the trade she picked up from Vicky. Less obvious this way. She knows it’s funny that this seems to matter, even hundreds of feet above the street, but what can you do?

…the thought sinks like a penny, flashing in the light as it disappears, like a star on a hazy night. That’s not what’s going on here. Her face in a photograph, the body that’s sliding away from beneath her as her robe falls open, throbs of hunger getting further and further away, further apart, sirens heading to another neighborhood.

This was never about thin. What’s thin? Thin is like dead. Only the legends, the icons, and the lucky few have achieved it, and they refuse to give up the secret. Not the how-to secret of tabloid diets. The real secret. The secret of skinny Jesus smiling down from the cross, a little laugh on his lips…these nails…these thorns… to think they once bothered me…

The sun flickers through a corner suite of the Hilton, a lone figure stands, black against the brilliance. She imagines a man, standing naked, one hand holding binoculars to his eyes, the other hand wrapped around himself, waiting, pulsing, waiting…

She wonders what she looks like to him. She lets her robe open a little more. Maybe she looks beautiful. Maybe he’s repulsed, locked in private war with some disorder. Maybe he spends one day a week, hiding from his family in that hotel, trying to squeeze the demons out of himself. Maybe she’s just the ritual fetish, the talisman, the wax simulacra. Maybe it’s Jesus, perched, alone, in his corner suite, looking for someone worth saving.

Maybe he’s not looking at her at all. Maybe he’s staring at the place where she used to be, watching to see if she’ll reappear, catch the sun one more time and twinkle from the depths.

It flashes, fades, flashes, fades. Tell me…

As the soft fuzz of ‘maybe’ fills her head, she thinks:

Tell me, Jesus…

What’s it like?

 

*

 

Ziggy leaves Pebbles in front of the Rutgers Houses and heads up to Essex Street. His mom’s place, home until graduation, is a cramped subdivision on top of a pierogi joint, a holdover from the Eastern Bloc days of the Lower East Side. Ziggy will undoubtedly stop downstairs and get a few heavy dumplings, despite the fact that he’s just eaten, despite the fact that he’ll eat again at the cafeteria. No small part of Pebbles’ attraction to Ziggy is, she knows all too well, her nauseous fascination with his metabolism. He takes his lunch break as soon as they’ll let him, sometimes only thirty minutes into his shift. Ziggy feels strongly, he tells Pebbles, that if he doesn’t do this he’ll end up eating some resident’s steak tar-tar right in front of them in a rabid frenzy. In the basement of the fancy hi-rise apartment building, Ziggy will eat a half-dozen butter rolls while he waits for his shift-meal, a hamburger or, if the manager’s feeling lax, a steak.

Ugh.

She’s not a member of the starvation-nation or anything. It’s just one more thing that’s apparently easier for boys than for girls. Just saying, Pebbles thinks, just saying.

Pebbles gets home before her parents. In the tinplated mail locker are bills, junk, and a slender, weightless envelope from Columbia University.

Dear Ms. Van Peebles…

She already knows what the little envelope means but it’s okay, her heart was never really in it. Another teen drama Pebbles is not going to play into or try and cash in on, she’ll get in where she gets in, go there, and be worshipped as a queen.

Pebbles laughs.

Okay, well, she’ll have to work up to that. She’ll be okay.

Up on the twelfth floor, she opens the door, and just has time to set the mail down on the hutch before Mascot attacks her. A fifty pound ball of fur, Mascot is technically twenty pounds over the official limit for the housing department but no one has complained.  Mascot knows his tricks in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, English and several dialects of middle-class ghetto slang. For everyone else in the world, Mascot immediately assumes the sitting position, feet together, eyes big and brown, mouth respectably closed, tongue poking out with calculated adorability.

Pebbles gets tackled. Fifty pounds is a lot when its airborne, as Mascot is for a moment as Pebbles turns and goes down with a thrashing ball of matted fur, pink and yellow tongue, hot breath that stinks of cheese and tunafish.

“Did you eat some Trout?” She says. Mascot drops into a crouched ready position. Pebbles gets up and dusts herself off. She reads the grocery list on the chalkboard in the kitchen. Absently, she tears the Columbia letter into long strips, layers them and rips them into tiny squares, drops them like school-play snowflakes into the trash, keeping an eye on Mascot over her shoulder while she works.

“What’s this all about?” She says. Mascot’s hind legs tremble, but he stays in place.

“There’s no need to pout!”

Mascot barks, almost loses his composure, shakes himself in a fully body spasm but keeps crouched. Pebbles slides by Mascot and walks into the living room.

“You’re such a lout!” Mascot leaps forward, nips at her shin, and then quickly scuttles backwards into a crouch again. Her little brother’s lunchbox is sitting in the middle of the floor, latches sprung, a baggie of cheesepuffs torn inside out and emptied, shards of tinfoil and lettuce scattered like confetti around the room.

Forgetting the game for a second, Pebbles says:

“Something very bad happened here.”

Mascot disappears from the hallway into the kitchen. When Pebbles gets there, he’s sitting at attention, looking at her feet.

“Mascot?”

His tails flops but his head remains down. She’s debating whether to try and discipline Mascot in some way or resume the rhyming game when the house phone rings. Her father, she thinks with a smile, still slowly wrapping his head around the idea that his daughter is the kind of person who might have a cell-phone. She picks up the phone and thumbs the volume wheel up to maximum.

“Yello?”

“Hey kiddo,” her dad’s I Will Be Home Late I Am Really Sorry But Something Came Up voice.

“Oh man,” she says, playing it up a little. It’s not so bad. Her mom gets home at eight, and she doesn’t hate the microwave lasagna that she’ll end up eating. In fact, the thought of it sends a squeezing tug up from her stomach. She didn’t eat much today and is just realizing it.

“I know, I know, I’m very sorry, I really – I am, I’m going to be home late.” He doesn’t realize it, but he slows himself down when he speaks to her. It doesn’t really help that much, but she hasn’t stopped him, she likes that he does it.

“Something came up,” they say together.

He sighs.

“I’ll pick up Mervin.”

“Thank you pumpkin.”

“He left his lunchbox here again.”

“Oh…” his father swallows hard, loud enough to rumble in the earpiece of the portable phone.

“Well, it didn’t go to waste.”

“Mascot?”

“I’ll clean up whatever he missed.”

Her father’s sigh is loud and warm: relief, love, trust, understanding without words. There should be more like this one and there isn’t, and Pebbles is suddenly and sharply aware of this.

“Your mother will appreciate that.”

“We don’t have to tell her, it’s no biggie.”

“She worries about Mervin.”

“Dude, he’s fourteen, I’m sure he eats. Ziggy was eating like, half a cow a day by that time. I’m sure he eats all his friends’ lunches. Maybe he doesn’t like tunafish, huh?”

“I know. I know. We just worry. We’re parents. Parents worry about kids. Did you call me dude?”

“Don’t worry. You’ll get an ulcer.”

She can almost see him smile now.

“Ulcers are a sign of vigilance.”

“You’re a sick puppy, dad.”

“I love you pumpkin.”

“Yeah-yeah. I love you too.”

Mascot is still waiting patiently when she comes back from putting the phone on the stand.

“You think [you] have all the clout, don’t you?”

Mascot, having waited so long, forgets that they’ve gone back to the rhyming game and explodes into the other room, grabs his leash off the floor, and bowls Pebbles over a second time on his way back down the hallway. Pebbles rolls over on her side to avoid Mascot as he barrels back down the hallway, she’s looking straight into Mervin’s room.

She sighs and gets to her feet.

“It appears that the victim was attacked in the living room and dragged into a bedroom off the main hallway, and ritualistically murdered there,” she says, appraising the shards of lettuce and tin foil with a hawkish squint. When she fixes that look on Mascot, he heads back for the kitchen.

Pebbles drops down to one knee and gathers up the majority of the tin foil pieces and the lettuce. She’s down on her stomach, tugging a last piece out from under Mervin’s bed when she sees it. Pulling it out from under the box spring she sees it’s the Vogue from last month. It smells faintly of coffee and milk, and when she opens it, a few coffee grounds roll out onto her lap.

“Aw, Gross.”

Mascot makes a whining, yawning noise outside the bedroom, baffled as to why he is still indoors. Pebbles looks over her shoulder and hushes him. He makes a quieter grumbling noise and lies down in the doorway, the leash still in his mouth.

As she shifts her weight back to avoid the grounds, the pages flip to an editorial shot. A body is splayed across the top of a boulder, the surf pounded into a spray behind her. She’s wearing only panties and a hooded cashmere sweater. And heels.

“Aw! Really gross!” The cloud of annoyance and hunger is suddenly parted with a visceral image of Mervin crouched over his desk with the magazine in front him. She slams an imaginary door on the thought and drops the magazine. Shaking off the image of her brother in that most iconic of adolescent moments, she looks down and notices something about the photo, something she had somehow missed about the model. Someone has cut the model’s head off. The jagged line bolts down from the top of the page and makes a crooked octagon around where the face should be.

In spite of the missing face, Pebbles knows this picture. It’s Jamie Ithaca, the face of La Maison Couture, except, well, here, she’s faceless. Pebbles chuckles to herself, distracted, and behind her Mascot has slowly crept into the room, barely lifting his body off the ground, approaching like a Navy SEAL. He nips at her hand but she brushes him away.

Jamie Ithaca is Ziggy’s dream girl. This is why Pebbles knows her name and why she knows this picture. Ziggy had a t-shirt made out of it, or one obnoxiously like it. Except, of course, Ziggy’s girl still has her own head. She wonder if Ziggy’s been cut’n’pasting her magazines for masturbatory purposes and shivers involuntarily. She’s seen the inside of plenty of lockers, knows all too well the many brides of Frankenstein’s monster…boobs from Maxim, legs from Cosmo, arched, suntanned stomach from Sport’s Illustrated. Just shy enough of pornographic to keep the janitors popping their locks and confiscating the whole collage.

The whole thing makes her a little queasy for a minute. For a second she thinks…if you weren’t already decapitated Jamie Ithaca…

Dolly Van Peebles! Jealous? You?

Well, okay, she thinks, she’s not completely ignorant that Jamie Ithaca is pretty much gorgeous. And she doesn’t totally pretend that Ziggy sits around planning picnics in the park with her. She isn’t utterly stupid, Ziggy probably spends as much time jerking off as the rest of the boys in their class, which is likely a lot. And Pebbles isn’t a prude, she’s not totally grossed out by the idea of Ziggy as a penis-having sort of person. So there’s a little jealousy, okay. And a little bit of being grossed out. But it isn’t anywhere near the psycho level.

Mascot presses his cold, wet nose against a patch of skin where her shirt has pulled up in the back.

“Cut it out Mascot!”

She realizes too late that she’s said the magic word and Mascot tears out of the room in celebration. He’s on countdown to blast-off now, she thinks. If she doesn’t get him down to the grass promenade she’ll be cleaning up the stairwell instead of doing homework.

Pushing the magazine back under the bed she gets up and manages to wrangle Mascot to the door. She grabs a plastic bag in case the sanitation guys are around and she has to pick up after him. On her way out the door, she’s laughing at this mental image of herself, steamed pink with jealousy, cutting the faces out of editorial spreads. Headed down the stairwell, with a slightly guiltier laugh, she imagines, briefly and loosely, Ziggy’s possible reaction to a photo of her. The panties and cardigan look is a tricky one, she laughs to herself, but she might be able to pull it off.

Outside, Mascot breaks into a purposeful stride and Pebbles mostly forgets about the magazine. Still, the thought wanders aimlessly, quiet but there: who goes around cutting peoples’ faces out?

 

*

 

The extra Xanax blankets everything and when the concierge arrives with half a grape-fruit and a carafe of coffee, she opens the door and stares into his face. He’s got long black hair, pulled tightly to the top of his head, some of it tucked under a maroon bell-hop hat. But what catch her eyes are his lips.

“Ms. Ithaca?”

Her last name clinks, metal on enamel. He says something else but she can’t hear it, she just watches the pink tip of his tongue dart in and out of his mouth, watching his lips bunch and stretch, waits patiently for the dimples around the corner of his mouth to appear and when they do she claps and sighs.

“Are you,” he stops, blinks, swallows, “you okay?”

She nods.

He pauses for a second, looks at her and then at the brass cart he’s wheeled into the room while she has been staring at his face.

“Oh, coffee,” she says. Somewhere, she’s aware that she really ought to drink the coffee before she takes the Xanax, to keep from spacing out quite this much. But at the moment, she’s content to pick up the carafe and hold it against her chest, very warm against her bare skin where her robe has parted at the top.

“I, um, I’ll leave this with you.” His lips quiver between frowning and smiling as he backs out of the rooms and turns on his feet.

She pours a cup of coffee and takes it with the grapefruit half to her desk. Sitting on the ink-blotter is a little white box, like a fancy-dress version of a Chinese-takeout container. It’s embroidered with pink silk, and laced up on the top with a platinum band. She slowly pulls the lace out through the eyeholes, it’s cool and smooth, the links in the chain so small that it feels like a living thing, the unexpected softness of a snake. And, of course, jewelry like this sparkles beneath the water and hides the barbed hook, the one that slides in easy but rips and tears and holds fast when you try to shake loose.

Shiny things in the water, and we dart like fish.

She thinks to herself that the entire point of jewelry ought to be that it reminds you of that moment when and where someone puts the jewelry on you. A man kneels and puts a ring on your finger, the dampness of his palm on your wrist as he holds your hand steady, his hand shaking. Your mother stands behind you and clasps your grandmother’s necklace, her hands dry but soft as they brush your neck, hold your hair away from the lock. A girl you once knew makes matching rings from the twist-ties her mom uses to pack her sandwiches. Two green plastic bands: the constant scratching at the webbing between your fingers is a reminder of that smile when you held out your hand.

She opens a drawer and drops the necklace into a pile of gifts, trinkets, house keys, tokens of need, friendly and vulgar alike, all empty, all temporary, mostly expired, all stuffed in a drawer.

Inside the white paper-box is a vial with a light baby-pink powder in it. The vial sits in the folded crook between the wings of an origami swan, folded out of a five hundred Euro note. Beneath that is an E-ticket to Prague. With a clipped accent, the ticket speaks to her: ‘Come and see me in Europe and we’ll have a good time on my account, and I’ll even go down on you, maybe even get you off, before the inevitable jackhammering, and to make up for leaving you alone and sore in a strange chateau in the Czech Republic, I’ll leave you with enough narcotics to opiate a small third world country. And if you’re not in the mood, my cock and I will miss you, but please, enjoy this sample of my wares with your friends as a token of my affection.’

She unscrews the vial and presses the boney tip of her pinky finger over the top, flipping it over and back. She puts the lid back on and lifts the pink dust up to her nose. A classy gift, she thinks, credit where credit is due.

It occurs to her, as a wave of prickly heat rolls over her body, and boils up to her cheeks and forehead, that the poor boy that brought her coffee was probably waiting for a tip. She looks down at the Euro note. She laughs at the image of him, nervously standing in line at the currency exchange kiosk on Broadway, visions of endless wealth dancing in his head.

Suddenly it occurs to her that she’s been cock-teasing this poor boy since she moved in. Answering the door in her Xanax fuzz, a skimpy robe and not much else. No wonder the poor boy is stuttering half the time. Poor kid, dragged behind his own dick like a blinded harness racer behind a crazed thoroughbred.

And for a minute, a deep, warm surge moves in her. She sees herself standing there. She’s dumbstruck at herself, silently wishes her robe would fall open, terrified it will, her mouth hangs open.

Beautiful.

She picks up the phone and calls down to the cafeteria.

“Hi, it’s me.” She says.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Ithaca.”

“The boy, the kid, the guy who just delivered my coffee?”

Her mouth has suddenly gone completely dry.

“Oh my, was something wrong?”

She walks into the kitchen.

“No, no, no-no. No. Good coffee.”

She opens the refrigerator and takes the champagne.

“Who delivered it? The busboy, the delivery kid, what do you call them?” There’s a pause, she pops off the vacuum seal and takes a sip. It’s held up well, she smiles, feeling the bubbles fizz up through her throat and into her head.

“Your porter was Mr. Jonah Ziggler.”

“Porter,” she says, rolling the word around in her mouth like candy. The feeling of her own tongue on the back of her teeth makes her shiver.

“Yes.”

“Can you send him back up, I forgot something.”

“You forgot to order something?”

“I forgot to leave him a tip. I didn’t tip him.”

“You can always leave an envelope for the staff with the doorman, or you can add it to your maintenance payment, just call down to the main desk.”

“I’m old fashioned.”

“Pardon me?”

“Is he there?”

“He’s,” there was another pause, she takes a long drink of champagne, a tidal surge of bubbles roll over her brain, leaving her with the giggles, “on his lunch break. Shall I call you when comes back?”

She’s quiet. The fizzy pink tide is receding. Strands of driftwood and seaweed litter her head.

“Ms. Ithaca?”

“No,” she says quietly, “no, that’s okay. Thank you.”

She hangs up the phone and stares at the champagne bottle. Empty fucking calories. Her head suddenly feels heavy, poorly supported. She sits back down at the desk. She looks at the pink vial. It’s good stuff. Too good.

What goes up must come down down down…

Coffee before Xanax, booze before coke, up and down, no hope of equilibrium. She wishes there was one pill you could take, a happy medium pill. But, as Vicky would say, no one’s in the business of making you happy, only those in the business of selling you something. Happiness is bad for business.

Business.

She nibbles at a slice of grapefruit and tries not to think about her stomach, a black, acidic sea, burning away in darkness.

In the corner of her desk is another gift, this one from Vicky. A word-a-day calendar. Vicky considers it to be a private joke between the two of them, because she imagines she’s turned this ugly hillbilly dykling into a transatlantic Swan. They can laugh, now, about some of Vicky’s more drastic criticism of every last word that came out of her mouth. Way back then, all those years and pounds ago.

Today’s word is, “untenable.”

She’s heard Vicky use the word before, once. Vicky constantly chased the newest hot neighborhood, determined to already be a local before the potential models of the coming years migrated there. As the city’s attention span dwindled from decades to years, from years to months, Vicky found herself a high-income vagabond, always renting, subletting, month-to-month-ing, constantly saying she didn’t mind, that she liked the constant stream of male-model potentials who came in and out of her life hefting sofas and boxes of magazines. Only once, very early one morning, did she see Vicky, on the tail end of a very nasty Percoset bender, look around her apartment and scream, wordlessly, a sick mash of a laugh and a cry. Then Vicky had dabbed her eyes with a towel and composed herself.

“Really,” she had said, “all these places I live, I’ve never had a home. It’s like living on a sandbar or being married to a cancer patient. Taxing, I swear, I don’t know how people did this before Paxil.”

She had reached out her hand but Vicky’s composure was already iced over, hard as steel. Vicky had pulled her hair up into a bun, pinned it into place and  with a practiced laugh said: “Really, life in this city is untenable.”

Vicky had moved twice since then. Two part-time furniture movers were now part-time male models in her portfolio. She had gone out to dinner with the broker from the second place. He had an allergic reaction to the condom they used that night, but Vicky took pity on him and stayed. It wasn’t until he told her, in a naked, confessional moment, that he really believed the era of home ownership was over, and that renting was the new buying, that she faked a stomach ache, lifted a Barolo from his study, and went home to get drunk with a vibrator and an old Carey Grant movie.

“Yes, really,” Vicky had said, “at this point I prefer a dead queen to any living, straight fuck in this city. At least Grant had some class.”

A knifing pain stabs at her, from behind her navel, rolling away quickly into an ache. The burning in her guts flickers quickly, a little too fast for the Xanax cushion, like falling into water, but from too high, it still hurts for a second.

.           She looks down at the calendar. She could hear Vicky’s voice reading her the new words she was going to use, her new vocabulary to keep her from betraying herself. She heard that voice flirting with the knife edge of irony.

“Untenable, adjective, unable to be held.”

The pain rolls again, not as sharp, but lower, towards the small of her back and then lower still. She gets up, shakes off a twinkling fog of dizziness and heads to the bathroom.

Oddly, in the cold glare of the bathroom light the pain disappears. The cold, smooth ceramic at the back of her thighs centers her. Slowly, she feels a fist squeeze in her lower stomach. A gasp of hot, dry air escapes her. The fist squeezes again and brittle, scratchy pain rips up from her asshole to the base of her spine. It feels like her guts are made of paper and they’re ripping.

Vicky should be here to do some headshots.

She tries to think how long it’s been since she’s eaten more than grapefruit, had anything besides coffee and champagne to drink. She can’t remember anything since the last shoot she’s done, it seems like she’s been in this room since. She’s been out, of course, shopping, salons, dates even, but she can’t remember eating. She should be proud. Intestinal distress is a sign of dedication, progress, success, glamour.

Another ripping feeling leaves splinters in her diaphragm. It feels like her stomach has been ringed in razor wire, every twitch, every ounce of food she eats, pushing it out into the blades. A smile frosts her mouth.

The faces, the hungry, lean, beautiful faces in magazines, this is what she sees: Dedication. Ulcers, constipation, diarrhea, cramping, hemorrhoids from enemas, the esophageal lesions from stomach acid, the pain so deep in the chest it might be that heart-attack the anorexia Nazis are always screaming about. The photographers are too slow, or too frightened, to capture that actual moment, the clamping down fist of pain that freezes the face into solid marble. The better ones capture the premonition, the rest the echo, but the every once and a while, as if by accident, like photos of ghosts, you get the thing on film. At that moment you are truly beautiful, like last month’s editorial…

…and, of course, like today’s word du jour…

Another pain comes, but this one is already rolling and blunted, swaddled in a Xanax blanket when it tumbles through. It’s distant thunder. There’s no crack, no flash, just a mumble somewhere, somewhere else, the murmur of someone else’s heart…

She’s been sitting still, elbows propped on her knees, for so long that the lights go out. They are set to a motion detector, another part of the building’s trendy green-living theme. She sits in the dark and listens to the hum of the building, or the inside of her head, she can’t tell.

Fading, now, from her mind, is the other voice, the quiet voice of whoever it was the Porter saw in the doorway. A kind of childhood beauty, a bad habit, worse than the rest… didn’t she see it too? Hair tumbling down, robe open, a smile on her face…Jesus…tell me…something flashing as it sinks…

 

*

 

Pebbles opens the stairway door and calls up. No one answers.

“Okay, ready?”

Mascot nips at her ankles and struggles to keep his haunches on the ground. Pebbles drops to a racing start, one knee hovering above the chipped paint on the cement floor.

“Ready?” She whispers, Mascot’s nose wrinkles.

Somehow, a second before she can release the tensed muscle in her thigh and push off, Mascot senses it and explodes up the first flight of stairs in a brown blur. Pebbles leaps after him and they pound up the stairs, strong, even steps, two stairs at a time. Mascot is fast on the straight-away, barrels up the actual stairs as if they were flat ground, but he doesn’t corner well and has to all but stop, shake off his momentum, and then explode again at each landing. She easily passes him on the third floor, and keeps ahead of him all the way to the eighth where she slides a little on a bath towel sitting, for no discernible reason, on the landing. The brief and unexpected magic carpet ride throws her off, and Mascot bolts past her again, barely missing her shin with his open mouth, a spray of joyous slobber settling to the ground in his wake. When she finally makes it to the twelfth floor, Mascot is sitting patiently by the door, panting heavily.

“You cheated,” she says and lets them onto the floor. Mascot, looking and probably feeling like he has won, fair and square, saunters happily to the apartment door, walks in ahead of Pebbles as she opens it and heads off to her room to collapse, no doubt, in her bed.

Pebbles drinks a glass of water in the kitchen, leans back against the wall and feels her heart pound. Her head feels a little detached. She pinches her nose and blinks her eyes, little pinwheels of lights flash, superimposed over the sink. A second later they’re gone and she feels better. She should probably eat something, she thinks. She opens the fridge and sighs. Her father has been shopping. Steak, ground hamburger, sausage, rolls. The cabinet has his signature on it as well. Rotinin, Linguini, Macaroni, Lasagna sheets, the last of which indicates a moment of optimism later replaced by pragmatism in the form of frozen lasagna. Cookies – brand and flavor, admittedly her favorite and toaster-pastries…is there nothing vegetable in this house? The vegetable crisper has lettuce and tomato, hamburger garnishes, no doubt. A single stalk of celery sits nestled between the two Romaine hearts. Pebbles grabs it and snaps it off in her mouth.

“Vegetables.” She says this out loud as she writes it on the chalkboard, and adds, “Dad!”

Her cellphone shakes frantically in her pocket, startling her. She pulls it out, the letter “Z” blinking on the screen.

“Hey dude,” she says, flipping the phone open.

“Uh, are you home?” Ziggy’s voice sounds thin, even with the cell-phone volume all the way up.

“Yeah, but I got to go get Mervin in a minute.”

“Okay, okay,” he says.

“Ziggy?”

Pebbles can’t hear anything.

“Are you whispering, I can’t hear you.”

“Yeah, sorry. Um, could you stop by?”

“The cafeteria, don’t I need, like, fancy dress?”

“The service entrance.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I think that model chick is overdosing.”

“Model chick? Overdosing? Who’s overdosing? On what?”

Someone shouts in the background, Ziggy shouts something back. For the first time, Pebbles hears the round clang of copper-bottom pans and realizes Ziggy’s in the kitchen.

“Remember, I told you, that Jamie Ithaca model chick moved into one of the penthouse suites.”

“No,” Pebbles says, harsher than she means to, “it must have slipped your horny little mind.”

“What?” Ziggy says, with the blank honesty only a teenage boy could muster.

“Nothing, nothing.”

“What should I do? She didn’t look good, she looked pale, thin, I think she was sick.”

The hint of panic in his voice swamps Pebbles, it feels like her heart is barfing on her stomach. Usually, Ziggy has the voice of a radio announcer, the awareness that people are listening, the confidence, the mystery of performance, the presence that outweighs his hundred-pound frame by so much. Half the time Pebbles lets people’s voices sink under the crashing surf of white noise, the endless trains, buses, construction, crowds, traffic, the constant wind and thunder of life. But for Ziggy she strains, closes her eyes on the phone, stairs at his lips in person, reaches out to find each word, bring it home safely. All this is too much and tears slip out of hiding from the corners of her eyes.

She doesn’t know why, other than the image in her head’s such a sad one. Ziggy, lost in the baggy folds of his Porter’s get-up, his tiny frame buried in the hustle of the basement of the Tribeca Lux, pining away for some over-medicated…

Pebbles sucks in her breath and shakes it off.

“You there Pebbles?”

She nods, then catches herself and says:

“Yes. Look, it will be fine. Just find an excuse to go back up there, and check on her, if she looks really bad, just call the police.”

“We’re not supposed to, I mean, unless they’re like dead or something.”

“Well, then tell your manager. Let him worry about it.”

“Okay.”

“Okay? Easy. Just go back up, if she stills looks bad, maybe you could take her a hamburger or something, she could use it.”

Ziggy laughs a little.

“Yeah, she’s a little twiggy,” Ziggy says, his voice louder and steadier now. Boys, she thinks, you turn upside down and shake ‘em and they’re good as new.

“Don’t act like you’re not obsessed with her.”

“What?” Ziggy laughs.

“You had a shirt made of her face!”

“Dude,” Ziggy laughs again, “your little brother made that at the silk-screen place on Canal. He gave it to me because Mr. Felding said it was inappropriate. He’s the fan, you should see his locker.”

“Oh, that’s gross. I found one of my old Vogue magazines in his room, he trash-picked it.”

“Way-to-go Merv!”

Pebbles gasps at him.

“Hey, he’s a growing boy. Your mom’s got all those parental internet things, he’s got to improvise. I was quite the collector when I was young. I used to score left-over Victoria Secrets from the bulk-mailing place on Houston street.”

“One, that’s gross. Two, ‘when you were young’ – you’re eighteen!”

Ziggy is laughing hard now, someone coughs his name nearby and his voice drops.

“This conversation is too gross to live,” she says, shaking her head. Ziggy is still chuckling, muffled now, on the other end.

“Too weird to die?”

“No, it needs to die.” Pebbles says, trying not to smile.

“Alright, I should probably go, you want to hang out when I get out.”

“Maybe you’ll save little miss Jamie’s life and she’ll want to take you out to thank you.”

“Yeah. That’d be cool too. But I’ll probably just tell Uncle Frankie and let him deal with it. I don’t think she likes me, she never tips me anyway.”

Pebbles laughs, for some reason, this makes her feel much better.

“Call me later,” she says by way of forgiveness.

“Okay. Must go. Frankie mad! Frankie smash!”

Someone grumbles in the background and Ziggy hangs up.

 

*

 

While she sits in the bathroom, time passes. This seems logical, but it only becomes obvious when her cell phone shudders its way out of her purse on the dresser and onto the floor. She moves to look, triggering the light again. Through the crack in the door she sees the battery pop loose and skitter across the floor. Her phone, throwing itself to its death to get her attention.

She has a bad bathroom habit. It’s not one of her Dixie symptoms, it’s new. Rising, her knees numb and tingling from where her elbows have been resting, she half turns over her shoulder to see what’s left in the bowl. She tries to get a visual estimate of the weight-loss. A cruel necessity of life is that food must go in, the least she can do, in the face of that fact, is to make sure that it comes out. A function of the cold logic of dedication… this is no more or less than the musicians who tune their instruments or the scientists who check their math.

There’s nothing in the toilet.

She stands there so long that the lights go out one more time. In the sudden darkness she can just make out her reflection in the water. She reaches out a finger and flushes, the lights come on as the water level is rising again, and she can, for the moment at least, forget about it.

In the bedroom she reassembles her phone: she has three messages. Two are after-noon booty calls. One actual[ly] sings a few bars of ‘Afternoon Delight’ before switching on the bedroom voice and propositioning her. The third message, which the phone died delivering to her, is from Vicky.

“Hey doll. I heard you missed out on the Milan shoot. Don’t beat yourself up. And don’t do that infantile shit, no security blankets, if I find out you’ve ordered that truffle mac’n’cheese I’m going to get a fucking court injunction barring you from room service.”

There’s a long series of wet, nasal sounds, like Morse Code: sniff-sniff-sniff, snort… snort… snort… sniff-sniff-sniff. A couple of deep breaths.

“Also, that pink shit that Pascal sent you. Don’t touch it. It is way too strong. The comedown will have you swinging from the rafters. You better set it aside. I can swap it out for some Paxil, or some Wellbutrin.”

Someone is talking in the background, but Vicky hushes them.

“Okay, so that’s that. And don’t worry about the shoot. Fuck Milan. Milan is lousy with hack photographers. They’ll make you look like a milk-fed whale, they’re betting on a comeback of the size two model. Fuhgaddaboutit. I’ll call you tomorrow, we’ll talk about getting you back on top.”

And then she says:

“Click.”

And hangs up. Vicky’s messages go on, this one being the briefest lately, and with voice mailboxes suffering from increasingly severe cases of ADD, she says ‘click’ now, to indicate that she’s really, truly, in fact, done. No ‘click’, best to call back and make sure she didn’t leave you some gem at the end of the message.

Like, “getting you back on top.”

This is cheery news, unless you don’t know you’ve fallen off.

She takes the battery back out of the phone. Maybe it wasn’t trying to get her attention. Maybe it was trying to spare her.

The door bell rings.

She pulls her robe shut and walks into the living room to answer it. She has never used the tiny spy-glass hole in the door. This strikes her as being deeply foolish, all of the sudden. The Xanax must be wearing off, she thinks, because that twang is back in her head, and not just her own, it’s joined by the sharper twang of her mother and her aunts.

“Y’all up there think tha only reason someone’d beatcha door is to bring you sumptin or to tell you how pretty y’all look.”

She shudders, reminds herself to get another Xanax from the desk in a minute. Her hand is on the door knob and she stops. She reaches up and flicks the round cover over the little window. It’s the Porter, standing outside. He doesn’t have a cart, and she can’t remember if she’d ordered something. Maybe she ordered Mac’n’Cheese and didn’t even remember. Was she planning on hiding in the bathroom, picking the truffle slices out and flushing them one by one?

The doorbell rings again.

She opens it and lets her robe fall a little open. She watches his eyes dart to her waist where the robe closes and back up to her face. A warm little flush blossoms behind her temples.

“Come on in,” she says. She walks over to the desk and takes a Xanax out of the top drawer. He stands on the rough mat in front of the door, hand still on the door frame, anchoring him to the real world.

“Well, come on in, all the way in. Close the door.”

He steps in, swallows his lips and lets them bloom again. She turns to face him, making sure her robe is somewhere painfully between open and closed. She opens her mouth and sticks out her tongue, places the Xanax on it, tastes the bright, bitter surface. Then she swallows, tilts her head back and imagines he watches as the pill rolls down her throat, disappears between her breasts.

“Are you okay?” He says, finally, a hint of stammer.

“You mean is this okay? Of course, it’s my apartment, isn’t it?” She smiles at him and sits on the desk, crossing her legs.

“I mean, before, when I was here before, with your, um, breakfast, you seemed, you seemed really… out of it.”

She laughs. She reaches over to the white box on her desk and pulls out the vial of pink powder. She unscrews the top, tilts it onto her finger, and snorts it up one nostril. A fresh buzzing starts up in the base of her skull and suddenly, she positively cannot stand how far away he’s standing. It’s like he’s on the other edge of a flooding river. She reaches back into the box and pulls out the origami euro-note, tugs at the corners until it’s recognizable as a bill again.

“Because?”

“Because you seemed drugged,” he says, looking awkwardly at the pink vile, then at her, “I mean, like, bad drugged, like you got something bad.”

“And you know about that kind of thing?” She says, grinning.

“A little,” he says, looking down again.

“Are you sure it’s not because I forgot to tip you.”

“I get tipped out of maintenance fees, I’m okay.”

“But sometimes people tip you, you specifically, for…extra services.”

“Sometimes I get things for people, a late edition, cigars, wine, stuff like that.”

“And you get compensated.”

He shrugs.

“I brought you coffee is all.”

“Still,” she smiles, “do you know what this is?”

“A Euro?” He says, looking halfway up at her.

“Yup. You could have a pretty good time with this, you could cash it in for a little more than a grand. You and your girlfriend could eat out at a different restaurant every night. Nice ones.”

The porter brushes his cheek with the gold epilate on his shoulder. A strand of hair slides from under his hat in front of his face and he tucks it behind his ear. The gesture, immediately, maker her dizzy.

“I don’t know any nice restaurants. ‘Cept for downstairs.”

He’s silent, she doesn’t know for how long.

“And I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“Maybe I should take you out to dinner then, introduce you. Thank you for your services.”

His cheeks are two pink stains, his lips are open, and a slow, steady clicking comes from his mouth. She takes another bump of the pink powder, her eyelids crashing shut in a moment of joy, though the rush is still swelling in her chest and not yet bursting into her head. Only the first little tendrils of ecstasy are reaching into her mind.

“Come here,” she says. He walks, nearly stumbles over to her and stops a few feet away. She hops down from the desk, realizing with a little cry that he’s taller than she’d thought.

“Oh, you’re tall.”

“Too tall, I can’t gain weight.”

She looks at him with a stunned expression. A malicious glint shines inside her eyes but he’s too nervous and too distracted to notice. Her back teeth click together. She crumples the euro-note violently, watches his eyes swell. For a second, she wants to claw at him, but her anger slowly boils down, settles and she steadies her hands. He’s looking down at her fist, two month’s wages in tiny manicured hand.

She opens her fist and smoothes out the bill, refolding it and pressing it on the desk. She takes another step towards him, her face inches from his face. He looks at her, his speechlessness delights her utterly.

She reaches over and grabs the vial, rolls a lump onto her palm and offers it.

“I can’t,” he says, “drug tests.”

“You can’t beat ‘em?”

“Not for that stuff,” he says, “they test your hair.”

“And you’d have to cut that sexy hair off,” she says.

He nods, she takes the hit instead. She folds the euro-note one more time and reaches around the awkward angle of his hip to slides the bill deep into his front pocket, pleased as punch to find his cock solid and shaking. She lets the back of her hand brush against him as it slides out of his pocket. He’s holding his breath and the only sound in the whole room is the sound of the fabric of his pants rustling as he shifts his weight, the sound of her fingers drifting over the hemmed edged of his pocket.

“Maybe you should find a girlfriend,” she says, “or a boyfriend.”

“No,” he says quickly, then adds, “I mean, I like girls.”

“I know,” she says, glancing down at his pants, “I can tell.”

“It’s too bad,” she says, “you probably have to get back to work.”

He nods.

“And I probably won’t be in this kind of mood later.”

He shakes his head.

“And if you were going to get fired anyway,” she shakes the vial, “we wouldn’t have to worry about cutting all that gorgeous hair off, would we?”

He nods again.

“My mom,” he says. She sticks a finger over his mouth.

“That’s not who you need to be thinking about in a situation like this, sugar.”

He straightens up a little.

“My mom needs help with the rent.”

Tears slam into her face. A tiny little croak comes out of her mouth. A violent, crashing tide of blinding light comes roaring into her head as the first real wave of dopamine floods out of all those little pleasure centers that lay, so often, dormant in her head. She burst out weeping and laughing and he takes a step backwards.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“No, no-no-no.” She says. She closes the gap between them and pulls his head down, his Porter’s cap tumbling over her shoulder. She holds his head to her chest and kisses his forehead.

“Jonah’s your name?”

“Ziggy,” he says.

She looks at him for a minute.

“My friends call me Ziggy.”

She smiles.

“You ought to go back to work, Ziggy.”

“Are you going to be…?”

She touches his hand with hers. She crouches down, picks up his hat and stands up. She tucks the pesky stray strand back behind his ear, and sets the hat back on his head. Being so close to him is making a deep place in her chest hurt so she backs away and walks over to the balcony.

“I’m aces kid.”

He nods.

“You sure?”

She nods and opens the door. She takes a step backwards.

“Don’t spend it all in one place,” she says. He looks down, blushes, tries to smooth the bulge in his pants, gets it somewhat under control and looks back up. She drops the robe and stands naked. His eyes go wide. She closes the door.

The southern tip of Manhattan slides into view, the Statue of Liberty back at the pantry. His face appears in hers, looking at her. His body standing inside her body. He looks happy. He looks beautiful. A penny glimmers, catches the sun, she can’t tell if it’s sinking to the depths or falling from heaven, winking, tumbling, here, then gone, moving through something warm and shimmering…

Jesus smiles. He looks happy. He looks beautiful. He waves with one hand, holding onto her gift in the other.

Her image in the mirror looks perfect, her body rounded by the slightest curve of the door, part of the gentle curve of the building, somehow less harsh, more kind. Her face is shining with tears, as is his.

She looks happy. She looks beautiful.

A penny flashes in the sun, slipping through the sky, slipping down into the ocean. There is only one way to hold on to it.

The sun finally comes out from behind the Millennium and everything explodes into blinding light. She closes her eyes, feels the sun’s warmth on her naked skin from behind and from in front of her, feels basked in it, cradled in it, wrapped in a warm place that’s more like the womb, more like love than any pill.

 

*

 

Mervin is happy to see her, his cheeks lift up under his bangs.

“God,” he says, rolling his eyes, “I had such a day, the last thing I wanted was a pep-talk from Dad.” He shifts the weight of his backpack from one shoulder to the other; the thing is nearly his own size.

“What happened?” She asked, forgetting about the magazines and his abandoned lunches.

“Ugh, same old caveman routine, every time we have gym, it means I have a date with the pavement.” He rolls up his jacket-sleeve, a small archipelago of scabs trails down his arm.

“Jesus,” Pebbles says.

“I know, you should see my knees, they were calling me the blowjob queen. Which would be funny, if it was about someone else.”

She rolls her eyes at him.

“Gross,” she says, shaking her head, “I can’t believe you just said blowjob.”

Mervin laughs.

“I bet Ziggy doesn’t think they’re gross.”

“That’s it!” She says, “what did you eat for lunch today.”

“Oh no,” he says.

“Well, at least Mascot likes tuna-melts.”

“You didn’t have to-“

“I did.”

Mervin’s face screws up tight. They walk in silence for a block, down the canyon of Warren street. Pebbles takes out her phone and calls Ziggy but gets a busy signal.

“I’m sorry Dolly,” he says.

“It’s alright,” she slugs him in the shoulder, “I didn’t tell Mom.”

“Ugh,” he says again, “ugh.”

“You could tell Mom you don’t like her sandwiches.”

“It’s not that,” he says, “it’s just, I don’t know.”

Pebbles is about to ask him about the magazine, the question that’s been murmuring in her ear all afternoon when something explodes across the street. Mervin drops to his knees, the weight of his backpack sending him tumbling, his head disappearing between his knees.  Pebbles tries to cover him. There is screaming and a car alarm and a loud hissing noise, like a giant balloon deflating.

Across the street, a silver Jaguar coupe is missing its top and windows. Pebbles can’t make sense of the image. She keeps looking for the other car, but the street is empty. Down the block a siren goes off and starts squealing higher and higher in pitch, coming towards them. The street is littered with pieces of silver metal and green shards of glass, sprayed out in a fan away from the car. Pebbles leaves Mervin and inches past a parked car into the street. The front end of the smashed car is sitting lower now, one of the tires is popped and a ragged flap of rubber is sitting limply on the street.

She looks down. A tiny piece of glass, sprayed with light pink foam. She keeps thinking: cotton candy. Someone is yelling at her. The two words roll around in her head, the taste somewhere in the back of her throat. The hints of sweetness coalesce on the tongue and turn bitter, leaving the flat sting of metal in her mouth.

She’s jolted out of it when too heavy black hands, gloves, land on her shoulder. A mouth appears, teeth gritted for a second before they open.

“Are you okay?”

Her eyes focus, a tall cop is standing in front of her, a heavy-set face, dark skin, she can’t place him. His face looks friendly, he has long, deep dimples that frame his mouth like parentheses. His lips are big and expressive.

“Do I know you?” She says, watching his mouth for a response.

“I’m going take you to sit down,” he says, and then leans into his shoulder, “ten-fifty seven, looks like, I need an ambulance”

The radio crackles, but she can’t make it out.

“They called in a what? From where? This looks like a-”

He stops and turns away from her. He looks at the car. She starts walking towards it again, not entirely sure why, when the cop reaches out and grabs her, tries to turn her away.

But she has already seen.

 

*

 

In a way, she looked happy. Her eyes closed and her head tilted a little backwards, pointing at the sky. Her mouth was pursed, slightly, a little hint of a final word, or a smile. Her arms were folded over her chest, and you couldn’t see much blood from the far side of the car, although, later, when Pebbles found it caked in the treads of her shoes, she realized how much there must have been.

She couldn’t remember how long she stood there, after the cop suddenly left her side to stop traffic, and for a long time she stared at that quiet, peaceful face until her chin was slowly lifted by invisible fingers and her eyes slowly drifted up over the face of the building, the top half of it shining in the sun. She stared at the light until specks danced in her vision, winking in and out, dancing…

Finally, although it must have only been the time it took for the elevator to get from the penthouse suite to the lobby, Ziggy came bursting out of the door. He froze, standing nearly in front of the car. There were several squad cars there by then and the cops pushed him out of the way, placed a large traffic cone where he had stood and started stringing out the yellow tape.

He had embarrassed them. Somehow, it wasn’t until Ziggy showed up that it occurred to anybody that the body lying in the wreck of the car was naked and somebody threw a shock blanket over her.

Ziggy made his way past the cops, the firefighters and finally the crowd that was starting to swell up around the edges of the police tape. He didn’t say anything. He just put his arms around Pebbles, who was still looking up at the sky. She slowly lowered her face onto his chest.

It was Mervin who spoke first.

“Did you see her?”

Pebbles nodded. Ziggy looked away. Mervin said:

“She looked so beautiful. She was perfect.”

 

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Dear Penthouse

  1. Pingback: 12 Ways to Massacre Your Enemies on Valentine’s Day | Benjamin Schachtman

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