The dog in the yard next door was going ape again. Its shrill yelps could often be heard piercing the night sky, while the new owners were warm and safe and comfortable inside, drinking overpriced wine and discussing the variety of ways in which the modern world had failed—was failing—them. Jill knew what it was like in there, because she’d once—in an effort to discover what ancient torture was being inflicted upon the poor animal in the yard—actually gone over there and more or less confronted them. Nevermind that said confrontation had consisted of little more than a polite query as to the nature of the dog’s distress, and had ended—after an excruciating hour and a half of wining and opining—with Jill being more or less involuntarily volunteered to check in on, and even walk (walk!), the unusually spirited animal. At first, having ascertained beyond a reasonable doubt that it was the owners rather than the dog that were at fault, she’d felt sorry for the beast and had made a handful of well-meaning sorties to the adjacent yard in the hope of soothing the great and terrible sorrow from which the dog—Lucy—was clearly suffering.
Now, less than a month later, she hated the dog, at least as much so as she hated the owners, possibly more. Especially when, such as now, she was up too late working on a piece for her fiction workshop, and making nothing that could honestly be called headway. Trying to ignore the handwritten notes clotting the margins of her page (“this doesn’t make sense”; “this makes too much sense”), Jill struggled to remember what had inspired her to write the story in the first place. And not just that particular story, but any story. What was the point? She used to know. Or at least she thought that she used to know, but even that might be an illusion. An illusion she’d believed for so long that she couldn’t…
Lucy was howling. Blood-curdling, top of the lungs type stuff. It sounded as though she were being jabbed with hot pokers, or having her fur plucked out with vise-grips one little bunch at a time. Of all the horrified denizens of the neighborhood, it was possible that only Jill knew the truth, which was impossibly more banal, though somehow even more upsetting than whatever gory satanic theories were shared over the tops of local fences, the fence-tops worn smooth from years of well-meaning but inexorably misguided sharing of theories. The new owners weren’t committing animal sacrifice. They weren’t drinking blood and dancing around in leggings made from the shorn appendages of goats (an image from the 1995 film adaptation of Dragnet, and one she’d never been fully able to shake, for some reason); they didn’t beat the animal, didn’t even mistreat it (aside from leaving it alone outside all the time). What they did was drink and talk about wine and feel sorry for themselves.
Drifting in through her open window (it was too hot to close the window, despite the noise), along with the barking, shrieking, ululating dog, was the sound of a reality TV show. Reality television had a certain sound, a familiar timbre that you could recognize even if you couldn’t tell what they were saying. She could tell what they were saying. The show was about brides-to-be shopping for wedding dresses. Their wails of joy and dress-related anguish mixed with the horrible sounds Lucy was making, all bright and low and keening, throttled Jill’s head and throat, pushed brutal thumbs into her temples. She started to cry. She stood up and did twenty-three jumping jacks before someone below her started pounding on the ceiling. It was nearly midnight.
When the phone rang, Jill assumed it was someone else’s phone. Her phone rarely rang, and never so late. Not since she’d stopped hanging out with everyone she used to know. Why had she done that? She couldn’t remember if it was because she thought that in order to fully devote herself to writing she had to become isolated, or if she’d just gotten bored of everything. Or she’d gotten too broke to go out. Of course that was always the case, even before, so it wasn’t a very good excuse. Not that she needed an excuse to improve her life. She’d now spent every night for the last three months alone at her kitchen table, listening to a dog lose its mind. Was her life improved?
The phone was still ringing. By the time she realized it was her phone, and actually found the thing under a pile of not just mediocre but honestly dreadful short stories written by her classmates, whoever was calling her had given up. But her phone had caller ID, naturally. It’s impossible to disappear in the digital age. The person calling had been Mrk. Like Mark, but without the A. She knew him from last semester’s workshop, but only obliquely, tangentially. She didn’t know how he’d gotten her number, because she sure as hell hadn’t given it to him. Or had she? She’d been drinking a lot that semester, so anything was possible.
Mrk. Dropping the vowel from his name was a relatively harmless affectation, but it bothered her more than it should have. In fact she’d always made a point of correcting the omission whenever classwork made it necessary to address him in writing. When making notes on his stories, which didn’t even really require writing the person’s name at all, she would write it as often as possible: Mark, the way you write your female characters makes them seem, Mark, more like gay men. Something to keep an eye on, Mark. Or: Sometimes, Mark, your descriptions are so pointlessly descriptive it makes me want to word vomit all over my neighbor’s dog, Mark. These were actual comments she’d physically written on his story. And not just in the margins, like most people. She’d written her comments all over the fronts and backs of his pages, obscuring his words, blending in with them, rendering all of it unreadable (which was probably the only reason she hadn’t gotten in trouble for the gay men comment).
Jill was drinking a lot that term.
Mrk was gay. A fact Jill learned only after deciding that if the opportunity arose, she would probably go ahead and sleep with him. Having discovered his gayness, the sacrifice she felt she’d made in deciding to possibly sleep with him became like an open wound. A wound she was positive everyone could see. In class she’d feel paranoid, like everyone knew she was horny enough to sleep with a guy who spelled his name without vowels, and felt pity for her because it obviously wasn’t in the cards.
Mrk had left a voicemail, which she deleted without listening to it. One of the things—one of the only things—she liked about new technology was being able to delete voicemails without listening to them. The story Jill had written all over, Mrk’s story, focused mostly (graphically) on anal sex. At the time she’d assumed the ass being repeatedly and, like, pornographically, penetrated in the story had been a female ass. In fact, having read over the story a few times, she’d started to get the feeling that it was specifically her ass. She’d never tried anal. Had never even dreamed of trying anal.
Once she’d decided it was her own ass being fictionally penetrated in the story, and after the initial anger/indignation had subsided, she found herself oddly aroused, which fact in itself provoked another wave of anger/indignation on a scale Jill wasn’t totally prepared to deal with, though she tried to deal with it by withdrawing to the women’s restroom that was on the other side of the engineering school and therefore usually empty. Having furiously masturbated for at least three minutes, Jill sat in the stall (such a messed up word for what it is) and made the previously mentioned notes on Mrk’s story: Mark, the way you write your female characters makes them seem, Mark, more like gay men. Something to keep an eye on, Mark.
Lucy had been quiet for a while, Jill realized. She wondered if—and honestly kind of hoped—it had died. She couldn’t hear anything, not even the phantom bridal show. Thank God, she thought. But almost immediately the silence made her feel lonely. She spent a few minutes Googling how to undelete deleted voicemails before giving up. She thought about calling him back. She hadn’t even washed her hands that day, before writing on Mrk’s story, leaving translucent smudges all over. At the time it had seemed/felt poetic. There was a thin line between poetry and a simple lack of hygiene, she thought. She wrote the sentence down: there’s a thin line between poetry and a simple lack of hygiene. It was a good sentence. She cached it away in the part of her mind that produces scathing and pithy comments at precisely the right moments.
What the hell could Mrk possibly want? What was he thinking, calling at midnight? Was it possible that she was wrong about his being gay? True, she’d seen him making out with another guy from the workshop in one of the back booths at Turtle Bar, but that was neither here nor there. There was also the fact that Mrk had had the other guy’s erect penis wedged in his fist, and was vigorously stimulating said penis with long—cartoonishly long—strokes of his lean and perfectly/vaguely muscular arm. She’d imagined both of them, their hands all over her, their perfect arms. Their perfect poreless faces…
The phone was ringing again. The name said Mrk. Obviously she’d not only given him her number, but had saved his as well. She didn’t remember doing that. She picked up the phone.
“Hello,” she said.
There was a brief silence, then a male voice.
“Um, hi. Who is this?” the voice said. “Is this Peter?”
“Do I sound like a Peter?” Jill asked.
“That’s because this is a Jill.”
“Jillll…” the voice said, stretching out the ells to an absurd degree. “Jill!”
“Holy shit. Uh, this is Mark. Remember? From workshop?”
“I remember. What can I do for you?”
“This is embarrassing, but I was actually trying to reach someone else.”
“Yeah. Do you know him? Nevermind, of course you don’t.”
“What’re you up to?”
“Just trying to get ahold of Peter. I was supposed to meet him at this place off Broadway, but I can’t find it and now my phone’s about to die.”
“Where are you supposed to meet him?” Jill asked. “I assume it’s a him.”
“I already told you it was a him.”
Mrk told her the name of the place, which happened to be a few blocks from her apartment.
“I know that place,” she said. “It’s a few blocks from my apartment. Why don’t you just come over here and I’ll take you there.”
She gave him her address and told him not to knock on the bottom door but just to come up the stairs because the only person who would hear him knocking would be the old man down there who hates it when people knock and only loves to bang his ceiling when emotionally vulnerable people were doing jumping jacks on the floor above him.
“Okay,” Mrk said. “Or you could just tell me where…”
Jill hung up the phone, took a quick stock of her apartment, knew there was nothing she could do about it, other than drape a red silk scarf over a lamp, for mood.
She was deeply into her shower routine before realizing Mrk was probably already in the neighborhood and would probably be knocking on the downstairs door before she finished rinsing the soap out of her asshole. Which is exactly what happened.
“Sorry Mister Crenshaw.” Jill tried to sort of whisper to the angry old man face leering out through his window in moonlit silhouette.
Crenshaw glared at Jill, wrapped in a towel, then at Mrk, then shook his head and coughed up some phlegm and disappeared into the darkness of his apartment.
“Sorry, Mister Crenshaw.” Mrk aped, laughing. He’d obviously already been drinking. Jill hadn’t drunk anything more than a glass of wine in nearly two months.
“Jill.” Mrk said entering her apartment. He said it without inflection, as if repeating a fact that was so well known that nobody knows what it means. “Jill.”
He took off his jacket (how could he be wearing a jacket on such a hot night?) and threw it over a chair, visually scrutinizing her apartment, squinting hawkishly. He was better looking than she remembered. And better dressed. Until that moment she’d remained blissfully unaware of how terrified she was to have a stylish gay guy scrutinize her apartment. He saw her George Michael poster and grinned appreciatively, or maybe derisively, it was hard to tell in the dim red lighting. Finally his eyes rested on Jill herself, standing there in a towel, water dripping onto the floor. Involuntarily she thought about her asshole.
“Okay,” he said finally, as if having arrived at a decision. “Holy shit.”
“Let me get dressed real quick.” Jill said. “Have a glass of wine.”
She opened a bottle of wine and poured two glasses, handing one to Mrk and taking the other into her bedroom, where she spent a few solid minutes staring at her naked body in the mirror, sipping the cold Pinot Gris, kind of gurgling it for some reason.
“So what’s up with this Peter guy?” Jill asked, emerging from the bedroom in a red cotton dress embroidered with a variety of animal species.
“What?” asked Mrk. “I can’t hear you.”
Lucy was at it again.
“Peter.” Jill repeated, a little more forcefully than she’d intended. Crenshaw banged on his ceiling. “Who is he?”
“Just some guy I met at Pride the other day. He’s some kind of marketing executive. He said he might be able to help me with a job.”
“Probably he just wants me to suck his dick, but what’re you gonna do?”
“I don’t know,” Jill said. “Suck his dick?”
“Probably.” Mrk agreed.
“Remember that guy Mathew?” Jill asked. “From workshop?”
“Of course,” Mrk said. “We hooked up at Turtle Bar, but that’s as far as it went. He was huge. I didn’t want that thing in me.”
“I know what you mean.”
“I bet you do.”
There was a long pause. Pregnant, maybe. Fecund. Fecund was like pregnant but better because it was more obscure and intellectual sounding. The kind of long delirious pause that might compel less hearty people to throw themselves out of windows. Then, because anything was better than that kind of silence, and because she’d poured a second refill of wine, Jill told Mrk how she’d thought his sex story was about her, and how she’d masturbated in the bathroom, clutching his abused pages in one hand.
“How poetic.” Mrk said, sounding actually somewhat sincere.
“There’s a thin line between poetry and a simple lack of hygiene.” Jill beamed, leaning slightly closer to make it easier for Mrk to fall on her shoulders laughing.
“Huh.” Mrk said, neither laughing nor falling on her shoulders. “That’s funny. I’ll have to use that.”
“Why the fuck would you use it when you didn’t even seem to like it?!” Jill roared, smashing her wineglass against the wall, fragments of glass shivering onto the floor, the glass’s former contents splashing in a jagged halo around her George Michael poster. She hadn’t been drunk in a while, had forgotten the extraordinary efforts it took to control herself.
“Whoa,” he said, flashing his palms. “You got some kind of fire, girl.”
She’d meant to terrify him. To show him what sadistic evil she was capable of. To demonstrate what fits of poetic rage she was totally proficient at deploying. To prove that she was the real deal. And she expected him to show her the face that boys had been showing her all her life. The face that was a combination of fear and pity, with just a little bit of something else, but not enough of that something else to make it worth sticking around. It was the same face her neighbor’s twins gave her whenever they saw her trying to jog. Take a good look, kids, she’d told them in her head. This is what the world does to you.
But Mrk didn’t do that. He didn’t even seem to notice how gruesome and terrifying she was, and she loved him for it.
“What’re you doing for work now?” Jill asked, sweeping up the broken glass and golden pooled wine.
“Nothing.” He said. “I was working for the AFL-CIO, going door to door. I quit a few weeks ago.”
“I can’t imagine going door to door.” Jill said. “It sounds like a nightmare.”
“I didn’t mind that,” Mrk said. “It was kind of fun, actually. The reason I quit is I lost my faith in donation based charity organizations. Talk about irresponsible spending.”
“What’re you, some kind of republican?” she asked.
“More of a libertarian.” He said, either missing or ignoring the implicit joke.
“A gay republican who spells his name without vowels,” Jill choked on her new glass of wine. “And here I thought I was the unicorn.”
“Libertarian, I said.” Mrk corrected her. “And what makes you such a unicorn?”
“A willingness to have sex with couples without trying to destroy their relationship.” She lied. She’d almost done it once, but had backed out at the last minute. And she’d tried to destroy their relationship anyway. “I’m not really interested in politics.”
“Politics is effecting your life whether you’re interested or not. Or don’t you even care about anything?”
“I care, just not about that. I’ll leave politics to someone else. My talents are better utilized elsewhere.”
“I don’t know. Writing hilarious yet strangely moving fiction that helps less evolved creatures stand in the light of the sun, if only for a moment. You know, the whole Wordsworth thing.”
“Having read your stories, I’d say your use of the word hilarious is a little on the flexible side.”
“You’re a little on the flexible side.” Jill countered, rewarding herself with a top-off of wine.
“Like I said.” Mrk said.
Jill sensed she was losing him.
“So are we going to this place? You said it was close, right?”
“That place isn’t even there anymore.” Jill slurred. “It’s this other place now. Why don’t you just relax? Take your shirt off if you feel like it.”
Mrk squinted at her through the dim red lighting, glanced at his watch.
“It is seriously hot in here.” He said. “What’s the deal with that? Between the heat, the red lighting, and that dog being murdered next door, I kind of feel like I’m in hell. No offense.”
“Have you ever been with a woman?” Jill asked, unperturbed by Mrk’s feelings.
She saw him edging towards his jacket, then picking up the jacket. But he didn’t put it on. Instead he grabbed something from the inside pocket. A small plastic jeweler’s bag.
“Want a bump?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said, not totally sure what a bump was. “Why not.”
Bumps turned out to be wonderful. Very wonderful. So wonderful that Jill pulled the loops of her dress off her shoulders and dropped the dress on the floor.
Mrk squinted at her, pursed his perfect lips, nodded slowly.
“All right,” he said. “Okay. I think there’s been some kind of misunderstanding.”
“No there hasn’t.” Jill said, staggering towards her bedroom, her voice suffused with what must’ve been sufficient gravitas to draw Mrk as far as the doorjamb.
Mrk stood in the open doorway, looking at Jill looking at him.
Lucy was going ape again.