The closest Larry came to rooting into the world in an essential way, he tells Liz, was this one night after prayer. He was in his mid-teens, in bed. Praying helped him fall asleep, kept him from overthinking distressing things, like for instance about a class he was failing, or a person he’d argued with and would otherwise dissect the argument all night experimenting with things he could have said then imagining a counter to that thing and responding again in kind. He tells Liz he wasn’t really praying, it was more like focusing his conscience through whatever passed for emptiness in his head. It was like beaming a flashlight into the night sky but saying Dear God first. This one night when he came close to something essential, something Godly he couldn’t explain and what would get him laughed out of a room full of lab coat-wearing weenies if he tried, he sensed something on his face and on his feet; it felt like suction, or like flowing water the exact temperature of his skin. What is was, Larry explains, were bands of aureate light, one moving slowly down his chest, another up his legs. It wasn’t projected from above, the light. He says his skin cells were glowing, like pixels. The bars converged super bright then absorbed into his body in this one spot just above his navel. It was in there, radiating high frequency vibes, he says. He didn’t freak out or anything. Some people would freak out. Larry says some people would probably imagine they’d got abducted by aliens and implanted with some futuristic alien technology and go around ruining their lives persuading people something extraordinary was in their gut. Larry has only told three people about his light, so far. He says he could feel the absorbed light trying to tell him something. A single word, but that word was powerful, like the answer to a very hard question he’d been working on in math class or something, the resolution to a super confusing and painful equation. He says he closed his eyes and concentrated on what it was telling him: the word. “And then it shot from my navel. It was a shock. My back bridged and light beamed from my stomach. Shined right through the goddamn ceiling. I could see up this light tunnel through the ceiling into the sky, saw it flaring into the galaxy.”
“Were you high,” Liz asked.
“No, I was fifteen,” he told her. “Sober as a newborn babe.”
“Maybe you were dreaming. My dreams are so real sometimes I’ll be talking to a friend and I’ll bring up something I think happened with them the week before, but then they’re like what the fuck are you taking about and I remember it was a dream.”
“I had a problem sleeping back then. This was before I went to a psychiatrist. I was a real insomniac.”
“So what, you think you died or something?”
“No. I’m just telling what happened. You don’t have to believe me.”
“Of course I believe you.”
“I saw it, the shooting light. And definitely felt it. But that’s not even the thing. The thing is that afterwards, for like an hour, I was really calm and peaceful. I was all charged up with positivity, which is like the total opposite of who I am as a natural person. Even if I dreamt the light and the shock, I know how I felt after. It left something in me. I was awake in bed and feeling really good. You know how there are like master feelings? Same as how your tongue can only taste salt, sweet, sour, and another thing I forget. But taste and flavor are different things. There are four tastes but flavors are unlimited, right? Feelings are like that, too, I think. You can feel happy, or sad, or angry, or horny or whatever, but there are like unlimited flavors to your emotions. Well this one feeling was ultra-sweet. It sort of overwhelmed my emotions. I could only feel good, positive things. I kept testing it, the feeling.”
“Bitter’s the other one. The one you forgot.”
“Like I’d remember the worst shit: people I hated who did nasty things. And I felt good about them. Don’t get me wrong, they were bad people who did sick or evil stuff, and if I saw one of them right now I’d smash their goddamn mouth. But after the light, I couldn’t feel negativity. It was the opposite. I adored them. I was grateful for them. What that master positive feeling was, the word, it was forgiveness. And man did I want to feel like that all the time.”
“So you just go and do heroin?”
“No, I went to church. I wanted to be like Christ and forgive and get a charge out of forgiving. It worked for a little while, I could turn the light inside me up or down, like a dimmer switch, sometimes sitting around thinking about the bad times and people. But after a while it faded. Church didn’t come close to making me feel how I wanted to feel. The sermons were interesting. I felt something. Especially when we sang hymns it felt near, like a discount version, something like the light, but dimmer.”
“I’ve felt that way without drugs, Larry. You don’t take drugs to forgive people.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“I’m not telling you what you mean. Don’t get ahead of yourself. You talk a lot.”
“That’s true, Liz.”
“I’m half Jewish but I don’t go to Temple, for instance. My dad’s a Catholic and we only went to mass on Christmas Eve. I’m not religious at all, so I’m not getting defensive about it. But you can’t compare Church to drugs, Larry. I mean, I see where you’re going but it’s not the same.”
“I’m not though. Comparing it, I mean. The light and the Church, they were steps. Dope was a step.”
“So drug addicts you’re saying are really spiritually enlightened beings? Give me a break.”
“That’s not what I’m saying. You have to look at it thoughtfully.” This was not the emotional territory Larry wanted to wander, not where this high intensity topic had lead in past post-coitus conversations. This was not therapeutic. Larry needed to be understood and to witness the understanding, and Liz just didn’t seem to understand him. Nor his need. He was making no progress with Liz, in terms of like spiritually. He was naked and anxious. He could feel the old desire raise its maw, a howl ready in its throat. “I’m not an addict. I wasn’t born that way. I’ve got my guidelines.”
“Had them. You don’t do that shit anymore, you said. You’re clear as bell, remember?” That of course was a lie he’d told and Liz repeated with the sheets pulled tight to her chin hiding her breasts and would reiterate to her friends. Larry could practically see the dishonesty rippling wildly out, a toxic impression his behavior stamped into reality and would eventually, he just knew it, kill this relationship as the substance had killed so may emotions inside him.
Forgiveness on one shoulder, a killer on the other.
Liz peeled off Larry’s well-worn jeans and tossed them over her vanity’s stool. His boxers had inverted and rolled off with the denim, so now his freshly shaved balls sagged self-consciously as he leaned back on his elbows in a black T-shirt and striped socks. Larry watched as Liz undressed. She didn’t do it showy, it wasn’t a striptease or anything. It was almost perfunctory. She was a stylist and all, and she changed outfits a dozen times daily, trying on clothes for clients before dressing them, the client, for a gala or an editorial spread in some European magazine he’d never heard of. It was an unconscious strip. The bed sheets were very soft, with an extremely high thread count, or maybe a low one, he wasn’t sure. He thought he’d seen high thread counts in advertisements but it went against his reasoning that a long single thread meshing loosely around itself weaving a king-sized sheet was more special and carefully softer than a thousand threads crossing each other dryly. She’d gotten completely undressed and stood naked at her bed’s foot, side-lit by the videoless TV’s ghostly light as it phased through cool screen-saver colors. It occurred to Larry he’d never actually seen Liz from the waist down.
The week before, when Larry’d arrived to a Crown Heights restaurant on their first date, Liz was already sitting behind a table and didn’t get up until after Larry paid the bill, which included two Borolo’s and a goddamn Brunello di Montalcino the waiter upsold, calling Liz principessa and claiming, “When-a the chef arrive in America to open-a this restaurant, he had-a the same soil under his-a fingernails the wine-a grapes they grow in.” Bullshit, probably. They’d staggered from the Italian and got a cab and went to Liz’s videoless TV-lit room and Larry’d hurried up and fucked her already and unloaded his psychic burden until sunrise, then when they woke that afternoon Larry left her laying under the gossamer high-or-maybe-low thread count sheets and hadn’t seen her whole; a strange omission considering her bottom half belonged on a different person, a shorter, more fulsome woman. It’s something you’d think you’d notice, Larry thought.
Now, leaning back on his elbows after their next dinner date, Larry watched Liz undress through his own parted knees. The cool TV light made his shaved balls appear the color of a fresh bruise, he noticed. He felt self-conscious about it, his balls, and he worried the self-consciousness he felt would make it hard to achieve an erection. Liz crawled onto the bed and over him, running her breasts along his belly, her nipples like two fingertips tracing his skin. Her legs were chubby, the kind that dimples the knees. She had large breasts made to seem even larger by her narrow waist and shoulders. No, they were not breasts, he corrected himself. It’s way early in the relationship to start transforming her. They were tits to grab hold with both hands. Her nipples slid into the Vs his index and middle fingers made. She wanted to fuck and had said so at dinner, at another restaurant she’d chosen and gotten there before him and sat at the table without getting up once during the meal, had leaned across the table and said with stained lips, “I want you to take me home and fuck me,” about halfway through their second bottle of Chianti. Larry’d made a big show of calling the waiter over and dropping cash on the uncleared table then practically threw Liz over his shoulder on their way out. Larry didn’t like to drink since he started microsnorting heroin therapeutically, but now he was drunk, had two big tits in his palms and a wet mouth sucking on his tongue. This is a woman, he told himself, designed to fuck a man. His penis pulsed and raised. He’d shaved his balls for the first time two nights ago on an impulse. He’d needed to feel trim and neat. The course hairs springing in unruly directions had repulsed him, so he shaved them. The hair sprouted sharply back almost immediately, were prickly and had itched him at dinner, and that concerned him now as Liz kissed down his body because he’d always associated itch and discomfort with an unpleasant smell. Liz’s bald vagina did not have an unpleasant smell, he knew, and not a single clipped hair prickled on it. It was soft as a velvet lined purse. It was not a vagina, he corrected himself. It was a pussy, and when it was wet with his spit it glistened like a shucked oyster shell. This was a woman designed for pleasure, to seek and enjoy it. A woman who cared for her pussy, made appointments for its professional upkeep, who demanded with wine scabbed lips to be taken home and pleasured. Her mouth was on him now, pleasuring him. Not pleasuring him, he corrected himself. She was sucking his cock to life. Only it wouldn’t rouse, his cock. And this concerned him, because he’d spanked her along the city streets, dragged her up her apartment steps, grabbed with his hand her neck’s nape and pressed his lips promisingly hard against hers, sucking at her tongue. He’d made a big show following her orders, taking her home to fuck. He felt responsible for her pleasure, to extinguish it some histrionic way. She was a woman with expectations, velvety needs. Treat her like a woman, not a wife.
As often as it was surprising, sex confused him. Liz’s bald-by-appointment pussy appeared to Larry as pure denuded sex. Laying on her back, legs spread, tulle Eres panties twisted around an ankle, it couldn’t be more exposed. It was all business, and Liz was poised to get down to it, the business. But he also sensed he was wrong about that. Making spa reservations and applying depilatory products and swaddling her pussy in breathable lingerie were not hours spent prepping it for sex. Like he’d totally misread that. Liz would go on waxing if she were the last person on earth, just as she’d continue changing outfits. She had this whole other nonsexual relationship with her pussy. It was a pet or something.
Liz turned out to be unaggressive sexually. She was passive about her own pleasure, she didn’t chase it from the carnal brush and clobber it. She submitted to it, bared her throat. The first time they slept together… No, they fucked, he corrected himself. The first night they fucked Larry had zero problems intumescing without a thought in his drunk head, both bodies naked, his ungroomed cock an oak root. Liz was pretty much a stranger to him. He was proud and sat on his knees displaying himself. But she closed her eyes, sat up, hugged and kissed him then dragged him back down. It happened twice. Larry showed off the old oak and Liz pulled him down, he remembers. She got very excited about kissing, though, he had to give her that, changing her face’s angle and her tongue’s tempo, sometimes not even kissing like a goddamn human but rather goatishly licking his tongue without touching lips. Other sexual departments were his responsibility. Liz lay and let it happen. Head to the side, eyes closed, a passenger on her way somewhere nice. Her quickening breath was the only indication she was aware of her own pleasure. She either came or didn’t, he wasn’t sure after he’d spent about ten minutes down there trying different tongue and finger combinations. It’s like he was eating from a small jar without a spoon. Liz had grabbed his hair, trembled, and with three peeps collapsed into her pillow. Larry sat up on his knees, wiped his chin and drove in the oak. But aside from that crazy kissing, fucking Liz was like humping a pile of laundry.
He doesn’t like that comparison. Laundry. He feels gross for thinking it, which feelings of remorse and self-reproach are just about as new to him as his relationship with Liz. He’d never regretted appraising the women he’d slept with, neither internally nor vocally to friends. And he’d slept with a number, a big number, had worked at and assiduously built on that sum, banking it like currency. The number was a potent symbol, reflecting his growth or something, or more like a graduated distance between Larry and the Marlboro Man. He could point to his number and be proud, unashamed. Short women, tall ones, blonde women, brunettes, heavy gals and skinnies, even some different races at his beck and call when the neurological bushes started rattling. Each woman was a distillation in his contaminated sex pool.
Thank God he discovered a weapon to chase down and incinerate certain little monsters plaguing him at night, instead of shoving women at them and hiding. Thank God he’s gotten active in his own psychological transformation. Thank God he found the key to unlock the light inside him, dormant for so many years. Two lines the size of an equals sign is all it takes to go shaking bushes and flush out the psychological plague and blaze forth with high-watt forgiveness. The night before his shaved dinner date with Liz he’d snorted therapeutically and shook this one seriously infected neurologic bush planted way back in kindergarten when the Marlboro Man put Larry to work organizing his attic.
Larry moved boxes, stacked them meticulously, edges plum, corners flush, then swept up dust and mouse droppings into a Waldbaum’s shopping bag. He was always on the lookout for some moped part the Marlboro Man had lost and had been frustrated to find. “Still can’t find the damn thing, and I’ve looked, believe me. You know what monkey’s do when they get frustrated?” The spoken word frustrated gives Larry the willies, and he’s learned probably every synonym in the English language to use in its place. He can get to hate a person just for saying it. The boxes were about the same size as five-year-old Larry and moving them involved dragging them by a flap and tearing a seam then fixing it with masking tape while the Marlboro Man stood around smoking or pacing. Sometimes there was an old toolbox to rearrange, putting wrench sockets in order by drives. Whatever the chore, he’d eventually stumble on an old Hustler, like under the screwdrivers drawer or slid down the side of an overstuffed box he ripped in its lugging. The Marlboro Man would slap his head and say, “Jeez, another one? Good thing you found it before my wife did. She’d throw me outta the house with the rest of this trash.”
Larry never knew when he’d get a call and put to work. One of the issues Larry dissected the night before this second Italian dinner date with Liz was what’s worse; the work in the attic or the days spent dreading the call? It’s like the phone rang differently that summer. Or something else. Like maybe the phone never stopped ringing, he’s just gotten used to it and only notices the silence when he snorts an equals sign and the ringing suddenly stops. Larry knew it was the Marlboro Man when his father answered and said, “Yeah, I’ll walk him over, but he’s got T-Ball practice at 12:30. That enough time?” On close bush-shaking inspection, Larry discovered the Marlboro Man was on familiar terms with his Little League schedule, even counted on it in order to toss Larry out of his attic the second it was over. He wondered why this quirk in his timing never raised his father’s suspicion but wasn’t able to roust that monster out and shine a light on it.
“I remember this issue,” the Marlboro Man said picking up another “lost” Hustler Larry “found”. “There’s a good series in here. Lemme show you,” lighting a smoke then spreading the magazine open on a box top. To this day Larry can tell a lit Red from another cigarette by nose, and he’s physically sick when a smoker kills a butt by squeezing the cherry off the end. That’s what the Marlboro Man did, squeezed the cherry onto the floor then pocketed the butt in his brown trousers. He put his hand so heavily on Larry’s shoulder he couldn’t stand up if he tried. Larry knelt there, listened to him unzip and pull out. “Just watch,” he said. “You don’t gotta do nothing just watch.” Larry still has the habit of looking through uncomfortable things, focusing into the horizon behind them rather than look away. “You don’t gotta touch it yet,” the Marlboro Man said, friendly as hell. “I’ll tell you when.” Larry turned the pages for him. “Go to the next one. There. Keep watching now.” Larry never said a word in the attic, not a single sound did he make. Sometimes the Marlboro Man beat off with such vigor his trousers fell to his knees, and he’d lift his palm off Larry’s shoulder to pull them up around his buttocks. Larry wouldn’t stand up. He didn’t scream. Not a sound. “Turn the next,” the Marlboro Man said breathlessly, then, “that’s the one, that’s it,” and he’d reach over and pull Larry’s wrist. Larry’d learned to grab it way down at the bottom near the wiry hair and shake it like hell, keeping his fingers away from the tip so he didn’t get anything on them. “You don’t have to clean that up,” the Marlboro Man said after, chuckling like a helluva nice guy. “Man, was I backed up. What a mess. I’ll take care of it, don’t worry.” Then he’d look at his watch and say, “Shit, you got T-Ball buddy,” and practically heave Larry out the door, a twenty stuffed in his pocket and a dust-filled Waldbaum’s bag dangling from his wrist. By summer’s end, the attic was about as organized as the goddamn Library of Congress, and Larry’d made enough money to pay for new school clothes, which pimpish implication is a whole other bush Larry’s way too fragile to beat around. He’s already had to triple his microsnorting to shine on the Marlboro Man’s monsters and feel anything close to okay about them, let alone positively charged and forgiving. And he guesses that at this point it can’t be called “micro” anything anymore.
There was something different about Liz on this second night. It’s not like she was overly aggressive, she wasn’t, but something changed. She was on top. She took matters into her own hands by taking Larry into her mouth. “What’s wrong,” she asked.
“No, nothing,” Larry said. “Keep going.”
She was sucking his cock to life, but the life wouldn’t come. She was very gentle, almost kind, which to Larry felt like physical pity. She held him in her mouth and worked gently as if it were an ice pop she could carefully melt. He wanted her to suck it like a thick milkshake through a straw, pull blood and life into it. “Okay, seriously,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ll be good in a minute,” he said. “That last chianti got me.”
He saw his jeans in the TV’s light as the screen-saver phased through warm colors. His wallet dangled from a back pocket and tangled in a loose stitch’s loop. It had been easy to fuck Liz last week when she lay like laundry. She was so smooth and bald he wondered if maybe she couldn’t grow hair down there at all, the way some effeminate men can’t grow beards. He was confused. She smelled like damp earth and sweet but rotten flowers. If he could not intumesce there could be no sex, and he felt terribly responsible for her pleasure. There was no power in his responsibility. No power in a limp dick. Larry had fucked a large number of women, and the number made him feel powerful. But he had not always pleasured them, and never cared to. He’d promised women many things in order to get them into bed but he didn’t promise to pleasure them. The women always pleasured him and made Larry feel powerful. With his limp cock in Liz’s mouth, he saw the lie. The woman always had the power, could always pleasure a man, ten men at a time if she chose to, ten times a day, ten times more than the most masculine bearded man could pleasure just one woman. Larry’s number looked pathetic, the counted times he’d fooled himself. His cock felt smaller and pitifuller in Liz’s generously working mouth. He wanted to tell her he’s seen it now, her power, and it rouses his cock just thinking about the unburdening pillow talk awaiting at least one orgasm (probably his, let’s face it), and there’s a sudden rush of renewed confidence. “Suck it harder,” Larry says, and Liz responds. His wallet is tantalizingly close to falling from its pocket, he sees. There’s a dope bag hidden in the wallet’s lining that Larry’s been doling out the equals signs from and he decides to sneak into the bathroom post-coitus and inhale two fat parallel dashes of dope deep into his sinuses just as soon as he’s done here, pleasuring Liz or not. The old oak is up so stiff Liz has to change her head’s position. “You want to get fucked,” he asks, flipping Liz to her back and dragging her to the bed’s edge. He stands right up against the mattress holding Liz’s thighs over his elbows’ hinges. He’s not fucking her gently. She lays like a pile of laundry, limbs flopping, head to the side, eyes closed. “Look at me,” Larry tells her. “Watch,” he says. Liz’s head rolls from one side to the other. He pushes her legs wide open. “I’ll tell you when,” he says. The force of Larry’s fucking drives Liz halfway up the bed. “I’ll tell you when.” Liz’s monochrome pussy is the same flesh tone as her belly, and as hairless. Larry’s cock is party-colored and shiny when he pulls it out and grabs Liz’s wrist and puts it in her hand “Finish,” Larry orders. Liz takes hold and shakes it like crazy, biting her lip with the effort. Larry’s very quiet when he ejaculates, holding his breath right up to the edge of passing out, and Liz is covered with so much cum it’s like a scene from Ghostbusters. “Man, was I backed up,” Larry says catching his breath. “I’ll grab you a towel,” he says, snatching his wallet from his broken jeans pocket and bolting to the bathroom so quickly Liz can practically feel a vacuum in his wake.
He was wearing nothing but socks. The bathroom tiles were the broad slippery kind and Larry nearly broke his ankles sliding on them when he shut the heavy door with force, locking it behind him. He tore open the glassine envelope and dumped what turned out to be more than half a bag of high-quality heroin onto a black Chanel Ultrawear Flawless Compact Foundation® case. He used his Visa card to cut a giant equals sign and snorted the thick brown dashes in quick succession. His nasal cavities burned and dilated and turned cold. Before he could taste the bitter drip in his throat he felt the dope’s warmth spread down his neck and over his shoulders. When the ringing stopped he floated in its warm silence. He didn’t have to beckon the old Marlboro Man into the light, he was already there, and he glowed for a while in Larry’s high-intensity forgiveness. Thank God he could forgive and feel good. He focused his conscience through the emptiness in his head feeling charged with the word’s positive vibes. What felt like a minute passing was really twenty, and he didn’t hear Liz call him, nor her knocking. So when she went and got this flat Allen key-looking tool that unlocks the bathroom door and found Larry sleeping in an awkward position on the toilet lid, the torn bag laying on the tiled bathroom floor and a rolled $20 bill between his fingers, he had to admit what he’d done. He owed her an explanation, he said. Liz went and made tea then laid in bed flicking her eyes from one of his eyes to the other, listening to him talk about the Marlboro Man for the first time in his life She cooed reassuring sounds and said it’s okay you’re safe with me I wouldn’t judge but c’mon there’re other ways to remember and forgive. She made him promise he was done putting that shit into his beautiful body, and she demonstrated such empathy and tenderness that when Larry nearly embarrassed himself by coming this close to tears he knew he’d found his soul’s mate.