1994. Autumn. Manhattan.
She has a tattoo of a dolphin on her ass. She’s always talking about dolphins and how they’re spiritual and more intelligent, more pure, than humans. Shit like that. Later, Martin won’t really remember much of what she says because he never really pays attention. She talks way too much. No way he could get it all. Plus they’re usually drunk.
She lives in a “theatre space” down in Alphabet City—a big room on the ground floor, lofts and makeshift bedrooms wedged in around on the other floors. Maybe it was once a firehouse or something, but the bohemians took it over and converted it into a place to live. Sort of.
The name of the place is Collective Unconscious. Ave. B and 2nd St.
The first time Martin meets her she’s working the door at an open mic night—buncha freaks reading poetry and singing songs and doing monologues from plays they’d never finish. They almost all suck. But Martin and Dan need a space and these bohemians have one so Martin and Dan go down to check it out.
She’s sitting on a stool with one foot (in a Doc Marten boot) propped up across the doorway, her leg showing skin all the way from the boot to the bottom of her cut-off jean shorts. Martin makes a vaguely sexual comment and she laughs. He pays the cover and she lifts her leg like a drawbridge and he moves past it.
He doesn’t remember now how it first happened that he was in her bedroom. It was probably after his show.
Having performed Mona for a few years by this point, he has decided that he’s just going to do the show to pick up women and he isn’t going to feel like a whore anymore. Or if he feels like a whore, he isn’t going to let it bother him.
(This change of heart comes remarkably easy, it should be noted.)
She likes to smoke in bed. While fucking. She’s on top of him one of those first nights, grinding away, and he’s holding back, dutifully waiting for her to come—which isn’t difficult, thanks to the condom—and when she reaches her peak she laughs triumphantly and settles herself into an upright position, with him still inside her.
She leans over and grabs her purse off a cardboard box that doubles as a nightstand and book shelf. Candles are burning around the room. The temperature is barely warm—the kind of warm that feels dry and uneven; the kind of warm you can tell is coming from the radiators, pushing away at the constant attack of cold air coming from outside, the way it always feels on a winter night in New York or Boston.
She takes a pack of Camel Lights and tosses the purse back in the room, almost knocking over one of the candles. She lights up, takes a deep drag, inhales, and lets it out slowly, as if she had just devoured a 16-ounce Porterhouse steak. She looks down at him. He looks up at her. Neither of them move.
A still moment.
He has had lots of moments like that with women. Those moments are dangerous because it’s still early in the relationship and you’re both asking yourselves, Is it okay that we look at each other like this? Are you okay with it? Am I okay with it? Am I going to let myself love you? Could I love you? Could you love me? Could this become a love that bears out quiet stillnesses like this one? It’s also dangerous because the answers remain unspoken—perhaps one of you is thinking Yes while the other is thinking No.
Martin can tell she is thinking Yes. He can tell by the glimmer in her eyes. By the way she lets her lips part to take a breath—breathing, not into her lungs, but into her heart.
Martin makes himself look like he’s thinking Yes but he’s really thinking No.
Martin’s good at that. Too good. It’s a terrible, terrible thing to be good at. He doesn’t do it anymore, of course. He doesn’t know why he ever did it. He thinks maybe because he wanted to love her. To love her and all the others like her. If he didn’t love them he just kept trying to. He liked the act of falling in love. When a woman is falling in love with you it feels like a thousand angels taking flight in your heart. When a woman looks at you with the glow of new love, hopeful love, love that sees the future opening up before her, it fills your bloodstream like a drug, a pure clean opiate—you know it won’t last but that’s okay because you can always get more.
She looks down at him like that.
And she starts to grind.
He takes the cigarette from her, drags deeply, hands it back. She holds it in her mouth, the smoke streaming up, and takes each of his hands in hers to balance herself. She grinds harder, leaning into him, putting weight in her arms to push back harder and faster with her pelvis. He looks up at her and thinks to himself, There is nothing else in the world but this. I am here inside this strange and wonderful woman. New York City. 1993. I am 23 years old. My life is full and I am still hungry.
Thinking that makes him come. When he does, he sits up fast, buries his face in her chest, wraps his arms around her, holds her, shaking gently, as if to say to her, That wasn’t just sex, that was something more. Or more specifically, That started as just sex, but somewhere in the middle it turned into something more. Something surprising that scares me, but I like it.
She takes the cigarette from her mouth and strokes his back. He looks up into her eyes. Another dangerous still moment. He kisses her soft and carefully. When he stops kissing her, he doesn’t pull away, he just holds his lips against hers, his cheek close to hers, his quivering heart close enough to hers for her to feel it.
He doesn’t really love her, but he’s trying to. He wants to. He wants her to love him regardless.
Everything goes on like that for a few weeks, then one night the two of them are out with some of his friends and she gets too drunk and embarrasses him. They speak on the phone once after that. They can’t officially end it because it never officially began. When they hang up, nothing is settled. His mouth tastes bitter.
A week later her house burns down.
Martin gets a call from Dan.
DAN: The Collective Unconscious burned down and we aren’t going to be able to do the show.
Martin is relieved to know that they won’t have to do the show, but he doesn’t say so. He doesn’t say anything. He’s hungover. He had been up all night doing blow and drinking vodka, so he’s had only a couple of hours of raw, after-coke sleep and he’s more annoyed at having to answer the phone than shocked at the news. Dan senses this.
DAN: I just found out. I thought I should let you know.
And the way he says it sounds almost like an apology—but more than that, it sounds like Dan is incredulous that he has to apologize for this, incredulous at Martin’s lack of concern, at Martin’s annoyance, at Martin’s hungoverness, at Martin’s everything. Which, of course, Dan is. And which, of course, Dan has every right to be, what with the way Martin has been acting for the past, oh, year or so. Martin grumbles out something.
MARTIN: Of course. No. Thanks. Yeah. Wow. So.
Dan realizes that Martin is an empty sack of detoxing cells and wraps it up without hiding it.
DAN: So. Okay. That’s it then. Sorry to wake you.
Martin goes back to sleep.
(This guiltless sleep comes remarkably easy, it should be noted.)
A few hours later, he calls the theatre. One of the half-dozen other people who live there answers, speaking into the phone as if he had been fielding annoying calls from people like Martin all morning—without so much as a “hello,” he just picks up the receiver and says:
ARTSY GUY ON PHONE: The fire burned half of everything and the water destroyed everything else. The theatre is closed. Nobody got hurt.
And just as abruptly, the artsy guy hangs up.
Martin is free. He’s off the hook. He can’t even call her. She will have to call him.
She never does.
He can’t even remember her name now.
It might have been Crystal, but he’s probably wrong.