In the back of the taxi as it courses through streets that wind through the enveloping dark and its punctuations of light, he feels the nervous murmur of the tires humming on tarmac. He won’t sleep tonight, he thinks. If he holds his hand out in front of him, every heartbeat is apparent to him and his entire body pulses with his internal rhythm, his hand ticking in place like the second hand on a dying clock.
He checks his phone, looking at the screen only briefly because focusing on it too much gives him motion sickness as the cab leans through turns that should be gentler, save for the velocity that expresses itself in the moments that feel like antigravity hops over the construction ruts in the roadway. The words glow, his first, and then hers.
What are you up to now?
Eating chocolate. Just hurry.
At city hall now. There soon.
He wonders why the hurry.
It’s late enough to be early, no longer Sunday night. He reads over their brief message thread, the first one from her.
Whatcha doing neighbor?
The first time anyone has said anything to him in days even though he speaks for a living. He listens daily, for hours on end he repeats and annunciates. His voice aches. His voice itself a hollow vessel, and he himself a vessel for it, a dual emptiness, like a brass singing bowl that supplicates no deity no matter how sonorous its chime. Of what import is his daily incanting?
Not in a sense of emptiness or longing does he ache but in the internal rhythms he cannot calm. He wants to be pressed down, to be grounded. A conduit to touch him to the bedrock, to sap this frenetic buzz from his veins and direct it into the darkness, into the subterranean, the root of the springwater that feeds the mountains that lumber like slumped giants behind the vertical stacks of lights in messy cubist array, streaking by in the hazy glass and slipping into the dark nothing of the sky, and all the while the hum of the tires like high tension wires beneath him, suspending his emptiness between heaven and earth.
Hey there yourself, he writes after reading the first from her. She spoke first. She asked.
Just at home and indeed, looks like you’re nearby.
He follows with this, its timestamp nearly half past one. He sits, restless, in flannel pajamas and a long-unwashed grey henley on a tousled bed, its sheets unwashed of the scent of the lover whose absence deepens the darkness of the late hour, whose scent he inhales into his emptiness.
Needed a snuggle partner for the night but it’s getting pretty late, she writes and he wonders at her need, her wanting. Is she a sex worker? he wonders.
He draws her picture down, looks at her the way he looks at models in magazines, at unreal beings drawn as though from the air rather than built from flesh and blood and flaw and scope. Her face is sharp, its features striking, eyebrows sculpted and angled, her lips painted, an ephemeral seriousness weighing almost invisibly on her brow and hardness in her eyes. There is a starkness about all of her points of contrast, her colors, her lines.
I’m always up for company. Do you have an early morning?
No, but I do have kids.
He thinks on it for not long at all and types back.
I don’t mind, are they asleep already?
Of course. Get them ready for school and I have something in the afternoon. I’m on my period, though. No sex.
That’s ok. Do you want to have a late night conversation?
We can have a conversation at my place.
The taxi arrives at a place familiar to an early version of himself and he slips back into the space of a former life not dead long enough to be forgotten but long enough that he feels like an understudy shadowing a ghost. He leans forward and points the driver towards the place he intends to depart. He offers his card to the driver, who swipes it, nods, smiles, and drives off. The cold of the early morning settling around him, feeling it creep across his scalp and into his ears, between his fingers. He draws the mantle of the cotton fleece sweatshirt more closely about his and draws its zip upward and starts downhill through the alley.
Her hair is longer than it is in the pictures, her body thin and almost floating in the dark, her leggings black beneath a long body clutching shirt and though she’s short she seems lengthened, stooping as she does to set down a bag of garbage as she waves him over. She puts a finger to her lips to hush him and steps gingerly, tipping almost as she walks, delicate and awkward as a newborn lamb, to a door the handle to which she clutches tightly to keep it from vibrating as she struggles with the key in the lock.
You want to smoke, she says almost immediately after pulling her shoes off on the three steps which descend into the basement apartment.
Sure, he says, uncertain if she was asking him or telling him.
He begins to pull in his shoes again but she turns on a small exhaust plastic fan set into the white ceramic tiling beside the door and lights a cigarette. She gestures to the next room, where two slumbering children lie buried in blankets.
You want some ritalin? she asks. I’ve been doing it all day. Eighteen pills so far.
Ah no thanks, I never really got into pharmaceuticals, he says.
I took oxy earlier. I’m so itchy, she says, her hands straying over her legs and shoulders.
Oh? he says, nonplussed.
Stupid asshole flaked out on me or I wouldn’t have taken it, she says. We were supposed to take some together. Took two. I’m so tired. He finished band practice at eleven and then we talked for an hour and then he said he was too tired so he just went home.
Sorry to hear it, he says. He wonders if he sounds patronizing.
They finish their cigarettes and stamp them out in a stuffed ashtray beneath the fan, and she walks with aimless energy about the room, straightening boxes leaning out from cheap metal shelving, its open edging and thin lattice like a warehouse and suddenly the room feels clinical.
Are you tired? she asks.
Yeah, he says, rising to move towards what seems to be a guest room, its own warehouse shelving piled high with clothes. It’s hard to tell which are hers and which are not in the low light.
Do you think this will catch on fire if I cover the light? she asks, gesturing to the one lamp in the room. It’s so bright, right?
He walks over to the lamp and feels it, a cool compact fluorescent. It’ll be fine, he says.
She drapes a gauzy scarf over the lamp and the mood is almost welcoming in the dull, diffuse light. There is a small bed against the far wall with a single duvet.
Shit, she says, No pillows. Wait a second.
She leaves and he hears from the other room her talking to someone else, and a quiet cry
You can use the blankets, he hears her say above the wordless complaint that hangs in the air like an alley cat in shrill heat.
She comes back and throws two pillows on the bed, stirring her long black hair with a clawed hand as it keeps falling over her face as she surveys the room endlessly, straightening, fidgeting, scratching her chest and arms.
He lies down, clothed in his belted jeans, his undershirt and loose long sleeved shirt, his socks. Only his heathered gray hooded sweatshirt and a navy anorak sit beside the bed, sloughed off and in a puddle like an old skin.
I’m not comfortable in my pants so I’m going to take them off, she says, But it’s not an invitation, she says and wriggles out of them on her side as she struggles to remove herself from her black leggings.
I won’t do anything you don’t ask me to do, he says, lying on his back, his head finding the soft lumps of filler in the unsheathed pillow beneath him.
I’ll keep my clothes on if you like, he says, and she almost laughs.
Make yourself comfortable, she says, and so he peels off his layers and adds them to the anorak and the sweatshirt, like layers of scales over fat brought on by wind and winter.
Do you want a xanax? she asks.
Sure, he says, and she sorts through her purse, large and rectangular and almost large enough for her to slip into entirely and hide, and pulls puts a small pill in front of him, with a differently colored half beside it as she takes for herself each of the same.
What’s this? he asks.
It’s like a sleeping pill, she says, What’s it, oh, ambien.
He lies there on his back in only his briefs in the dim light.
You can hold me if you want to, he says.
Come snuggle me, she says, and so he rolls over and holds her.
She is so small and slight in every way under his touch, like a withered tuber, drawn in upon itself by its exposure, the way one who does not grow scales and fat in winds and winter might, left in a forgotten root cellar to mummify in the dark loneliness.
As he holds her she continues to play at her phone. A steady stream of messages or calls come through even though the clock shows its hands well past two now. And she, always attentive, never sits it down for too long, always in reach. She draws chapstick from her bra and applies it to her lips, rolling in discomfort.
I’m hungry, she says, Do you want a pizza?
No, he says, almost laughing. He wonders if he sounds condescending.
I’m going to make a sandwich, she says, Do you want a cigarette?
Sure, he says after a moment.
They repeat their meeting, on the three steps leading from the door to the main floor of the kitchen dividing the apartment, and so large are its boxes of packaged food that he feels like a Lilliputian in Gulliver’s pantry. She makes half a sandwich, peanut butter and jam on white bread and pours a glass of milk, and he looks on. He feels separate from himself, as though he is watching a film in the dark as the dim lights in either room play their shadows upon the walls.
Can I use your toilet? he asks, and she nods.
Door to the left, just don’t use the center grate, there’s shit right under it so it smells horrible. Confused, he goes to the door and it won’t open.
Is it locked? she asks, and he says, It seems to be.
She takes a bobby pin from the kitchen counter and jimmies it into the thin space between the rotating handle and its base until it clicks. Inside there’s a toilet, a sink, and two grates, circular, but covered, not the grilles he was fearfully expecting. He wonders if he’s meant to lift up one of the covers, if perhaps the toilet is broken.
He uses the toilet anyway, pissing into it, draining himself, and flushes and rinses his hands in the sink briefly before exiting, drying his hands on a towel that seems newer than anything else in the apartment.
Can I do anything for you? he asks her.
She arches her back and says, Would you rub my back for me?
She indicates small circles on the wall, facing away from him as they return to the bed and the tangled duvet and the lumpy pillows.
He does, and presses gently into the small of her back on either side of her spine. She grunts, and softens, her muscles like masses of knotted, fibrous reeds under his thumbs.
Oh, she moans, You came here to work.
Are you a masseuse? she asks and he cannot help but laugh.
No, but I enjoy making people feel good, he says. He continues until she deflates beneath his hands, and he gently wrings out of her the last whimpers she has to offer.
Kiss my neck, she says, turning her head towards him, her eyes tightly closed. He does, tracing his lips along her neck, below her ear, grazing her chin.
The familiar complaint from earlier rises from the other room, and he hears a voice.
Mama, it says, tiny, tinny, shrill with upset, and then he sees a short, stocky shadow standing at the foot of the bed.
What, she says, half asleep, his hands on her breasts under the blanket, his cock hard and full beneath only his briefs, half covered by the duvet.
I want chips, the shadow says, sleepily, like a drunk almost but the words are even more softly formed.
He remembers every cry from a child he has ever heard, rankling him with impotent frustration, the feeling on the surface of his skin like a rising solar flare but then like a flare it is gone, and his skin cools, and he is simply watching, as before, observing. Not present but for his hand on her soft belly, his fingers tracing the cleft of her vulva beneath so sheer a layer as to feel like nothing as she sits up and pulls her shirt down past her ass, stumbling out to the kitchen to retrieve a cylinder of chips or cookies to snack on in bed, giving a handful to the child who steps out from the shadow, short, pudgy, waddling, voice hollow and shrill.
A second shadow slips in and another child, also a boy, same shorn hair, taller, thinner, more articulate come sin and makes a claim on the chips.
It’s late, she says, Go to bed.
The two boys leave with chips in hand and again it is only the two of them on the bed.
He lies back and an exchange passes over him and he listens to the volleys of wails from the other room and she lies back next to him anyway, and he caresses her and she him, and the shadows crawl between them on the bed, trampling the duvet and like jetstreams in the sky he lies back and watches as anger and commands and pleading from each of three sides of an evolving triangle of need and want fly like volleys across the sky. He slips into sleep after a while, the voices growing more distant from him.
When he wakes it is still dark, but it is quiet, and her hands are roving across him, squeezing his shape through his briefs and she purrs.
Oh my, she says, Well isn’t this something.
You can do whatever you want with it, he says, and she pulls her shirt off, and he sees her dark nipples, plum colored in the early morning light, puckered and erect upon her breasts which sway beneath her, and she pulls his briefs down and she runs her tongue along him, and tries too hard to put him inside of her mouth and he feels like he is being bent in half and he winces and struggles against her, the softness of the bed in his clutching hands.
I want to see if I can get you into my throat, she says, and he demurs.
It’s ok, he says, You don’t have to.
She continues and she wets him with her mouth and she strokes his full length repeatedly, trying again to put his cock into her hungry self and she cannot though she does not cease the struggle to do so and he grasps the duvet with both hands and she must know it isn’t good, she must because she gives up and simply accelerates her strokes and suckles the head of his as shallow as she can until he comes.
She says, There’s wet wipes next to the bed.
What can I do for you? he asks. I want to make you feel good.
You really came here to work, she says, You rubbed my back. That was incredible. I don’t want anything else, and I’m on my period.
He cleans himself, and falls back asleep.
He wakes to an alarm, bright sun lighting the room.
He rises, dresses in the sloughed off skin of the undershirt and his long sleeves and the sweatshirt and anorak, and steps out, and she’s perched on the lowest of the three steps, her phone in her hand, busily tapping a message to someone.
I’m sorry I slept so late, he says, I meant to be up earlier.
Thanks for sharing the night with me, he says, and he says her name.
We should do this again, she says.
You have my number.