dr. van helsing
light shining through trees
people with wings
the unassisted triple play
Nine LiveJournal users list "van helsing" as an interest, though, possibly because of the movie of the same name, currently in production, slated to come out a year from yesterday. Yeah, they're making a movie about him -- a movie that, by the looks of it, will be a ripping yarn about the two-fisted adventures of the young Abraham as he swaggers through eastern Europe vanquishing (get this) not only Dracula but Frankenstein's monster and the Wolfman, too. The information on the official movie site is exceedingly scant, but to judge from the image on the main page, what we're looking at here is Hugh Jackman tarted up like some kind of Wild West leatherman, with a crossbow in one hand and a blunderbuss in the other. (This Van Helsing resembles nothing so much as that bloodthirsty bishonen Vampire Hunter D, especially with regard to the floppy hat, but I am also irresistably reminded of Dr. Von Goosewing from the old "Dangermouse" spinoff "Count Duckula.") Yes, Universal Studios is turning my childhood hero, the kind and brilliant Dutch doctor Abraham Van Helsing (M.D., D.Ph., D. Lit., etc., etc.), into some kind of Victorian Matrix reject.
It's cool, though. It's cool. By throwing Frankenstein's monster and the Wolfman into the mix Universal is conjuring up the grand old monster movies it made in the past; probably Van Helsing will be ironic, self-aware, willfully cinematic -- in other words, it probably won't want anything to do with Dracula the book. So the Dr. Van Helsing of my childhood, that valiant hero of the mind, will not be degraded by it. Or rather (because Van Helsing as Bram Stoker wrote him cannot, more or less by definition, be degraded by anyone other than Bram Stoker) I will not be made to feel hurty inside because of it.
In other news, I finished Chapter Nine. God, I'm sick of it.
Talking, praying, and masturbating, as far as Becker was aware, were Matthew's only forms of recreation, and two of them he only did when he thought she wasn't around. When she was, he talked; he rarely had anything of great importance to relate, but that had never stopped him. Becker got the feeling that he would get equal satisfaction from whistling or humming or rapping his knuckles on the floor, just so long as she did it in return. I know you're there, Matthew. You still exist, Matthew.
She had gotten a meager advance from Drywater, and, having returned from depositing the check at the bank, was talking to him. She had not felt so desperate for money in over a decade, and she had forgotten the shame and fear that come with poverty, the anxiety that sat cold in her bowels. And now it was worse, much worse, to be thirty-six years old and to have to beg for money from someone like Marilyn Drywater.
She had come home, made coffee, and sunk down in front of Matthew's door. "Tell me what you look like," she had said.
In the half hour that followed she had managed to extract from him only that he was "mostly white." They stalled on this point, because Becker wanted to know what "mostly white" meant.
"See, here's the problem, it kind of depends," he said.
"Depends on what?" asked Becker.
"On what you think white means," he said. "Okay, look. My father's father was Puerto Rican, right? And some people will say that that means he was basically white. But my father's mother, she was a Jew. And some people will say that that means she wasn't white, she was, I don't know, Jewish. So either my father was half white and half Jewish, or he was half white and half Puerto Rican, or he was all white, or he wasn't white at all. See the problem?"
"All right, then, what color are you? Your skin?"
"Hold on, I'm just getting started. My mother's mother is where it gets complicated."
"Where it gets complicated?"
"Yeah. Well, she's what I'm talking about when I say mostly white. She had a grandmother who was full-blooded Cherokee. My sisters both have that really thick straight black hair."
"What about you?"
"Nah, I got hair like my mother's father. He was Irish."
Becker was forced to smile. "You're a Puerto Rican Jewish -- what are you?"
"I'm a Puerto Rican Irish Cherokee Catholic Jew," said Matthew, after a moment's hesitation. "See what I'm saying? It takes too long to say. And there could be other stuff for all I know."
"Forget about that, then," she said. "What color are you?"
"White. Mostly. Just not white white. Swarthy, maybe?"
"And your eyes are brown."
"And your hair."
There was that word again. Becker was by then familiar with Matthew's habit of speaking in terms that were as vague as possible. He just didn't care about detail the way she did, didn't understand what made such things important to her. He probably wasn't used to anyone taking such an interest in what he had to say, either, but this was not something Becker liked to dwell on. "Mostly again?" she said.
"It's got a little red in it, actually. It's dark, you can't see the red very well. Hey, we tried this before, remember? You asked me what I looked like and I tried to tell you?"
"You didn't try very hard."
"I'm going to have to try hard this time?" he asked. She could tell by his tone of voice that he was smiling.
"I would -- Matthew, are you flirting with me?"
"Flirting?" he said, and this time he laughed outright as he said it. "What's flirting? We live together."
Becker felt her face flush. She could hardly contradict him, so she had to change the subject. "I'm taking pictures of people for an assignment," she said. (Three hundred dollars, Drywater had allotted her -- barely enough for the groceries.) "I don't usually take pictures of people."
"You told me," said Matthew. The smile was still audible in his voice, and Becker imagined that he was smiling at the effect his words had had on her. We live together. Well, it was true, they did. She also lived with seventy-four cookbooks and a reproduction of a Tiffany lamp; so what? She didn't blush when she thought of those things, or when she passed by them on her way from one place to another. Of course, she didn't talk to them, either.
"How's that going?" Matthew was asking her.
Becker shook her head slightly. "It's all right. I don't like it, but I can do it. It's not like taking pictures of branches, or drops of water falling into a puddle, it's -- I don't know why, it's different."
"It's the ego, I bet," said Matthew -- suddenly, as if the idea excited him. "Branches and things don't have an ego. Is that it?"
Becker was startled. That was it, without any of the useless addenda with which Matthew ordinarily ornamented his thoughts. "Yes," she said. "Yes, that's exactly what it is. Ego. It comes through, somehow."
"Every now and then I think of a smart thing to say," said Matthew. "Just don't get used to it."
* * *
She had said that she didn't enjoy taking pictures of people, but in a way she did. It was predatory in a way that taking pictures of cracked tiles and bowls of fruit was not. Cracked tiles and bowls of fruit had no ego to force into submission; there was a challenge in it that she was unused to and that she was forced to admit was fun, in a way. In a way; but she was unwilling to own the traitorous thought completely. She was still being imposed upon, invaded, deprived, by Matthew and Drywater and the world.
She sat on a park bench, sipping the thermos of iced tea she had brought with her. I have never wanted anything from them, she thought. Even this, she knew, was not exactly the truth. She had let her brother make her life easier in high school; when her parents fed her, she hadn't chosen to go hungry instead. She worked and she took the checks she was sent and she deposited them. She didn't kill her own meat or grow her own vegetables.
Maybe it had always been an illusion, her independence. She had told herself that the things she got from them were her payment for enduring their presence, but she could have chosen to live apart from them, really apart, she could have lived halfway up a mountain with some chickens and a couple of goats. But she hadn't. She had stayed because people were useful to her, and now she had to pay the price for having thought she could have it both ways.
So what? she imagined Matthew saying. It's okay to need people. Everyone needs people, it's normal.
Normal? What do I care what's normal? If there's one thing I've ever wanted, my whole life, it's not to be like them -- so don't try to make me feel better by saying it's normal!
I'm not, said Matthew, as plainly as if he had actually been there. But that's the truth. I'm only saying, it's not a compromise to need people. Isn't that what bugs you?
You're wrong. It's all compromise, all of it, my whole life.
You can't always have exactly what you want, he said. It doesn't work like that. And if you can salvage something --
No, he wouldn't have said salvage. The word was hers, so the thought must be hers too. If they were useful to her she would use them; and if she enjoyed it that was not compromise, it was defiance. She screwed the cap back onto the thermos and put the thermos in her bag. Then she removed the camera, turning it slowly in her hands as if examining it.
When she got home she decided to see how accurately she had rendered Matthew's half of the conversation. "I used to think I didn't need them," she said. Then, quickly, she added, "I don't mean before you came, I mean before that, when I was little, I used to think I could live without people -- and I could, if I really wanted to, but --" The sentence died with a small, frustrated noise that came unbidden from her throat.
"You want to try again?" Matthew asked, pleasantly.
"I could live without people," she said. "But I don't."
"I see what you're saying," he said. "But then you'd have to do everything for yourself. That would suck. Like, you'd have to pump your own water, and grow stuff -- it would be hard, you'd never have time to do anything else. Actually, I don't know if you could do it, really. I mean, what would you do if you got sick?"
"Get better," said Becker. "Or die."
"That's no way to talk," said Matthew. "It's okay to use people to do stuff for you, isn't it? That way, they're just like machines. You use machines."
"Yes, but I don't mind machines," said Becker. "I mind people, but I still use them for things. I'm a hypocrite." She wasn't sure if she really believed that, but it was a depressing thought regardless. Her imaginary conversation with Matthew had also proven to be totally inaccurate so far, and that was depressing as well.
"Everyone needs people sometimes," he said. "It's not a compromise to need people."
She was glad he couldn't see her face. "You're wrong," she said. "It's all compromise, my whole life has been compromise."
"You shouldn't take everything so hard," he said. "You can't always get everything you want, right? So you shouldn't let it depress you. I mean, if you can use people to make your life easier."
"You believe that."
"Sure. There's a word I'm trying to think of, um --"
"Salvage," she said.
Becker waited for him to express surprise, but he didn't.
* * *
Five foot ten or maybe eleven, dark brown eyes, dark brown hair with some red in it, nose too big, chin too pointy -- these were the things Matthew had told Becker about his appearance. But how pointy was too pointy? How big was too big? He redoubled his efforts. His hair was fine, and grew in ringlets when allowed to become long. At the moment it was between his earlobes and his shoulders in length. His nose was not so much too big as shaped so that it looked bigger than it was: broad, which would be all right, except for the startling bump in the middle, which made it look like half each of two completely different noses stuck together. As for his chin -- "I don't know how else to put it -- it's just too pointy, that's all," said Matthew.
The tip of his left pinky finger was missing -- "I know that, you told me that already," said Becker.
"Well, what do you want, measurements?"
Becker pursed her lips and snorted, because she wasn't sure what she wanted. "I've been taking pictures of people," she said. "I don't usually look at people that much."
Matthew made a noise that might have been a laugh, or part of one.
"I've been looking at people -- for days now," she said. "I take pictures of them and then I come home and look at them again when I develop the pictures."
"And?" said Matthew.
"And, they all -- it doesn't make sense. They all look different, but at the same time they don't."
"What, you mean like everyone has two eyes and a nose?"
"It's not just that. It's proportions. The eyes are always one eye-width apart. Lips and teeth..." She trailed off, trying to grasp the idea and force it to shape itself to words, but it eluded her. She had an image of herself: she was trying to grab a handful of water and stuff it into a bottle. "I've been staring and staring, but they just look more and more the same."
"And?" said Matthew.
"And? And? How can they look the same and different at the same time?"
"You pick weird stuff to let bother you," he said.
"It's not weird," she said. "It's a contradiction."
"Like why do people drive in parkways and park in driveways."
"What are you talking about?"
The noise was definitely a laugh this time. "Nothing. Hey, cats all look the same but different. Do cats bug you?"
"I never gave cats much thought," she said.
"I know, it's weird, women who live by themselves usually have cats. Especially if they're lesbians, have you noticed that? It's like there's a law."
"I'm not a lesbian. I have a philodendron."
"Are you sure? I'm not being critical or anything, I'm just, you know --"
"Damn it, Matthew, what are you talking about? I am not a lesbian and I don't have a cat. Cats don't bother me but I don't have one, all right?"
"If you're not a lesbian then what are you?"
"Why are you always changing the subject?"
"Well, how come you always get to decide what the subject is? How come you get to ask all the questions?" Becker would have thought he was trying to start a fight, but she could hear that he was smiling.
"Matthew, this is serious."
"Of course it is. Everything you do is serious."
"I need your help."
She had to think about this for a moment. "Because you're not like me," she said. Not like me, those words that had belonged for so many years to her brother, sounding anew every time he was allowed to sprawl in the back seat of the car without buckling his seat belt, every time he wasn't grounded for coming home five hours later than he'd been told to. They had been a privilege then, or the key to a host of privileges. Maybe they still were; maybe they were a key that Matthew could use for her.
"I'm normal, you mean."
"You're more normal than I am."
"I can't argue with that," he said. "So?"
"I need to figure out how it's possible that people look the same without looking the same. I need to know what you look like."
"Why do you have to know what I look like?"
"I just do."
So he told her that he had a beard, which from previous experience he knew was darker than his hair, and without the red highlights. He told her he bit his fingernails, and that his ears were just ears, though several years earlier when he was high his girlfriend had pierced them with a safety pin and some bleach. It hadn't hurt a bit, even afterward. For a while he had worn little gold hoops in them, but he'd stopped for some reason. Now the holes had healed up.
"Was it Tammy who did it?" asked Becker.
"It was before Tammy. It was this girl Shelley. Her parents named her after Shelley the poet. She had a brother named Blake and another brother named Byron. I forget her last name though. She tried to pierce my nose another time, but I stopped her because it started to hurt about halfway through, even though I was high then too. The nose is tricky, there's, uh -- what's that stuff?"
"Right. I wouldn't even let her try to pierce my nipples. She wanted to pierce my nipples real bad."
"Ugh." Becker shuddered.
"Yeah, well, nothing seems like ugh when you're high, which is part of the problem. Ordinarily it's not like I'm like, 'Oh, you want to shove a needle through my ear? Sure!' But when I was high everything sounded like a great idea. Nothing was scary or gross or stupid."
"Now, the rest of the time, everything was scary or gross or stupid. Like, did you ever really look at an egg, like a half-cooked egg?"
"I meant keep describing yourself."
"Is this really going to help? If everyone looks the same, don't I just sound like I look like everyone else?"
"I don't look at people's ears. I don't think about the details."
"Well, maybe you should try it."
"Maybe," said Becker. But to her the idea was overwhelming, like the idea of counting all the leaves in a forest or all the stars in the sky. There would always be more details; once she started noticing them, how would she know when to stop?
She found, after several days of searching through camera-equipment stores, a zoom lens for her Pentax. It was of a kind so powerful that it was generally used only by nature photographers. Touching it, regarding it, Becker felt a transport of the same emotion -- esteem plus a kind of quivering desire -- that she had felt years before when regarding the Pentax as it sat in the glass cabinet at the shop. It was so pure, so simple, the love she could feel for an object. A tightness rose in her throat.
"I'll take it," she said to the salesman, who had been scrutinizing her the whole time.
Even used, the lens cost nearly six hundred dollars. She held her breath and paid for it with the credit card, telling herself it would amortize itself in six months. When she still felt anxious, she tried telling herself it would amortize itself in four months. That was a little bit better.
Her anxiety was swept away the moment she started taking pictures with the new lens. Here was a world whose existence she had never suspected, here was an almost magical power, the power to move out of her body and stalk unseen the everyday world. She could focus on details nearly a hundred feet away. There, across the street in the park, a leafy branch: she felt as if she could put her hand out to it. And on the ground under the branch a man half covered by a filthy blanket, and to the right of that man a bench on which sat a boy and a girl, kissing. The boy had his hands in the girl's back pockets. Becker could have touched any of them, too: she lowered the camera and looked with her naked eye to remind herself that they were far away.
She spent the afternoon taking pictures of people. Specifically, taking pictures of their faces, which now after a lifetime of indifference and dismissal seemed to burst upon her eye like suns. She was a ghost and she haunted them, unseen, harvesting noses and eyes and earlobes, a curl of hair flirting on a forehead. There was a savage pleasure here that her clumsy earlier attempts had only hinted at. They were hers to dissect, to study and to sell. She would pack them up and mail them to Drywater, and Drywater would squeal over them like an overjoyed pig, not understanding.
She said as much to Matthew that evening, when triumphantly she came home with the news that she was beginning to understand the mystery of faces. "It's not as hard as I thought it would be," she said. After all, cats were all the same but different, and they didn't bother her; what had she found so bothersome about people, their faces and bodies?
But Matthew, though he was congratulatory, nevertheless seemed put off by the bloodthirsty way in which she expressed her satisfaction. "Why do you have to put it like that, like murder?" he asked.
Despite the fact that she had thought of dissection and dismemberment, Becker hadn't precisely thought of murder until that moment. She wondered why. "That's how it feels," she said, frowning.
"Yeah, but -- I don't know, sometimes you seem very violent to me." His tone was reproachful -- Becker was certain of it -- and she wondered about that, too.
"What about Jake? You told me to hit him. Remember?"
"Him? Yeah, but --"
"And when I did hit him you were ecstatic. Overjoyed."
"Sure, but he's a creep. These people -- they never did anything to you."
"And I never did anything to them."
"It just doesn't seem healthy," said Matthew.
"Look, if you're worried I'm going to end up killing someone, I'm not," she said. The aluminum baseball bat was visible from her place on the floor, propped up by the door as always. The barrel glinted dully as she swung it at his head. There was a thud, both soft and firm, and another as the bowl he had been holding fell to the ground. The glass shards jumped over the carpet. She swung again. Again there was a thud, that sound like a melon hitting the ground, the grotesque yielding of a body too soft to break....
"Wait," Matthew was saying. "Let me tell you something, all right? There's something I want to talk to you about. It's not a bad thing."
Time started again. The baseball bat was leaning by the door. It had been weeks, maybe months, since she last touched it. "All right," she said.
"It's my father, is what it is. I know I'm not supposed to say it, but the thing about my father is, he was kind of a bastard. And, and -- he was kind of a violent bastard, is what I mean."
"Oh, I get it."
"Wait. Just wait," said Matthew. "Let me say this."
"So," said Becker. "I'm not stopping you."
"Thank you. My father was a bastard. And he used to, uh, he used to hit me. I mean, not like -- I mean, he used to hit me a lot. I don't think it was normal. Remember we were talking about dreams?"
"Most of the time my dreams don't mean anything. I just dream about stuff. Stupid stuff, everyday stuff, stuff. But sometimes -- sometimes I dream about my father, still. And when I dream about my father--"
"He's hitting you," said Becker, in the interest of speeding things up. She had said, or at least strongly implied, that she would listen to what Matthew had to say, but her mind was beginning to wander over to the refrigerator.
"Please," said Matthew. "Listen. Did your parents ever hit you?"
"No. They didn't believe in it."
"Didn't believe -- what, like it wasn't real?"
Becker shrugged. "They read it in a book, I think." But Matthew's question hadn't been serious; he was laughing again, but it was a tight, high-pitched laughter, like the laughter assigned to crazy people on television shows.
"My father -- my father choked me. I mean, with his hands, he put his hands around my throat and choked me, until I almost passed out. I don't remember why. But what could have been that bad? What could I have done that was so bad he had to do that?"
"I don't know," said Becker.
"And it wasn't just once, either, it was a couple of times. And sometimes he would just hit me with whatever was in his hand. He hit me with the phone once, like the receiver part of the phone? I remember I was hoping he wouldn't think to strangle me with the cord. If he'd thought of it I bet he would have done it, too. Isn't that insane?"
"Yes," said Becker, honestly. "That's insane." Why did people have children, anyway? Why did people have children that they would only come to hate, sooner or later? It had to be some kind of biological imperative. Or it was stupidity; or maybe stupidity was a biological imperative.
"I'm twenty-eight years old. I haven't seen my father, I haven't even talked to him on the phone for six or seven years. I don't want to, either. He's a fuckup and a bastard and just -- he's just not a very good person. I'm not a very good person either but I'm better than he is."
"And I'm still scared of him, okay, even though I probably won't ever see him again I'm scared of him. Because he was like that. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"I understand what you're saying," said Becker. "But if there's more than what you're saying, then no, I don't understand."
"I'm saying I don't want it to be like that with you."
"It? It what?"
"It I live in your house with you. You know? It we talk to each other. Maybe it's nothing to you but to me it's something. I don't want to be scared of someone I live with, that's fucked up. Is what I'm saying."
"Matthew," said Becker. "You realize that I can't actually hit you."
Again the horrible laughter. "Of course you can't," he said. "Of course -- God. My father can't either. Look, I never said it made sense, I'm just trying to tell you how I feel."
"I don't know. Hey, you know I think about you sometimes when I jerk off."
Becker nearly screamed. She wasn't even sure what he meant, but a shudder of revulsion ran down her spine and into her toes, and she suddenly felt cold. A squeak escaped her throat before she could smother it.
"See?" Matthew said, after a few seconds. "You can hurt someone without hitting them."
Becker found her voice again but didn't speak right away. After a moment she noticed that she had drawn her knees up to her chest, and she lowered them again.
"Is that true, what you said?" she asked. "Or did you make it up because you knew I wouldn't like it?"
"No, it's true," said Matthew. "I don't lie to you, there's no point. Also I'm not a very good liar."
"But you said it because you knew I wouldn't like it."
"You say things I don't like."
There was another pause. "Are you mad?" asked Matthew. "It's just that it's hard to get through to you sometimes."
Becker was fairly sure that she wasn't mad, but felt as if she probably ought to be. Then again, maybe she was: the anger could be lingering somewhere inside her, under the revulsion, waiting to show itself. "I'm going to make dinner," she said, standing up.
The act of getting to her feet, of moving, seemed to dislodge an emotion from its hiding place, as if her feelings were grains that moved about in her bloodstream and could be agitated that way. To her surprise, she found after a moment that the emotion wasn't anger, it was guilt -- guilt because there was no anger. But that didn't make any sense.
"Look, try to see it my way," Matthew was saying as she moved off toward the kitchen, looking at her hands as if she expected to find something in them.
"Quiet," Becker said to her hands, but Matthew couldn't hear her from there.
* * *
Becker was worried about herself. She thought she might be coming down with something. Several times a day for several days she stopped what she was doing and swallowed hard, trying to detect the beginnings of a sore throat. No such beginnings were evident, and yet she felt fidgety, nervous, unable to concentrate. Her mind kept drifting, latching onto the oddest things, to incidents she hadn't even realized she hadn't forgotten. Becker didn't like the idea that these thoughts had been lurking at the back of her mind. She wanted to know what she knew.
There was, for example, her sudden recollection of Peter Badenschmidt, who by virtue of the alphabetical seating plan in her tenth-grade homeroom had spent fifteen minutes every weekday staring at the back of her neck. He stared at her outside of homeroom, too. Sometimes he would follow her through the halls, making a show of hiding whenever she seemed about to look in his direction. Even if he really hadn't wanted her to, though, she would have known that he was there: Peter wasn't in the habit of bathing very often, and he stank like low tide.
Later that year he was expelled from school for some idiotic reason, the details of which Becker did not recall, though she was certain that the idiocy had been Peter's own. He had stolen another student's car or come to school drunk or threatened a teacher or something like that. Becker came out of a reverie one day and realized she was trying to remember what Peter had done; why? It was bad enough that she had been saddled with him for the first half of tenth grade; why was she summoning him up, twenty years later? Why was she wondering what had become of him?
Maybe it was the zoom lens that had done this to her. It made taking pictures of people so much easier, it freed her mind to wander where it would. Maybe once she got used to it her mind would start behaving itself again, and not drift at random from one long-dead incident to another. But it was the sense of randomness, after all, that she was trying to cultivate, the sense that there were no real reasons for anything that happened, that all humanity was adrift in a maelstrom upon which any attempt to impose order was futile. "Adrift in a maelstrom upon which" was a phrase from the sample copy of Dulcinea Drywater had sent her. It had lodged in her mind.
Becker returned to the loathsome eatery where she had taken pictures a few weeks before. Though not far from the financial district, it was located on a block that was just beginning to undergo the process of gentrification. In addition to the eatery itself, one side of the street housed a Starbucks, a cut-rate electronics store, a Lands' End outlet store, and a shop whose front window was filled with sun-bleached travel posters. Becker could only assume it was a travel agency.
The other side of the street was dominated by a squat four-story building made of red brick, on the roof of which were ten-foot-tall metal letters spelling out the words St. Albion's Hotel. Becker had heard of hotels that charged by the hour or even the half-hour and she had a feeling that St. Albion's Hotel was one of those. Its windows were small, and black against the morning glare. There was no doorman, and no awning, though the door itself was fitted with brass that someone had recently polished. She yanked on the gleaming door handle and entered the dark lobby of the hotel, which smelled faintly of Lysol and soggy peanut shells.
"I want a room on the first floor. With a view of the street," she said to the man at the front desk. He was younger than Becker; realizing this made her realize that she had expected him to be older. St. Albion's Hotel did not suggest youth. It suggested decay and compromise. Even the gleaming brass on the door had had black grime congealed in its engraving.
"How long?" asked the young man.
"One hour," said Becker. She had the horrible sense that he would laugh at her and tell her that there was no such thing as a room you could rent by the hour. But he retrieved a key from some hidden recess under his desk and handed it to her.
"Twenty dollars," he said.
She handed him a twenty-dollar bill; he held it up to the light, turned it over, and put it in the same recess from which he had retrieved the key. "That way," he said, pointing.
The room itself smelled entirely of Lysol. There was a bed, made up with hospital corners, and a disenfranchised chair with a padded plastic seat, which looked as if it should have been sitting next to a cheap kitchen table. This Becker drew up to the window. The blind was down; she parted the slats with her fingers and peered out at the eatery. Then she lifted the blind just enough to accomodate the zoom lens.
It had been hard to think of Peter Badenschmidt as a real person. He reminded her of those medieval morality plays in which each actor represented an abstract concept, like Virtue or Sloth. From what Becker could tell, Peter represented a consuming, pathetic need to be admired, which he generally expressed through contempt for everyone around him. Sometimes, though, and without warning, he would become grotesquely obsequious, fawning without success on some fellow student. Either that, or he would attempt -- again without success -- to insinuate himself into a large group, to talk and joke with them as they did with each other.
That year the topic of virginity and how to dispose of it seemed suddenly to be on everyone's mind but hers. She supposed it was on Peter Badenschmidt's mind as well, and that in some convoluted way this was what prompted him to follow her from classroom to classroom, sighing theatrically. When he wasn't doing that he was generally doing something equally pointless. By tenth grade it had become clear that no one would ever like him, and he had deliberately adopted a whole slew of habits that ranged from the off-putting to the repulsive. In the courtyard during lunchtime he read Hobbes and Nietszche, laughing to himself and making notes in the pages. In the halls between classes he would produce a pewter hip flask from his coat pocket and make a show of drinking from it. Sometimes he went a week or more without bathing, and he often wore the same clothes for three or four days.
Because they were of the same caste, and because it was amusing, the other students had no trouble imagining that Becker and Peter were a couple. That they very obviously weren't -- that Becker never so much as acknowledged his presence -- made no difference. The others hated her because she was immune to their sickness, and this was her punishment. They even pretended that they believed that she had had sex with him. Her brother was by this time in high school, and already popular, but even he couldn't save her from the tidal wave of mockery attendant upon being perceived as Peter Badenschmidt's girlfriend.
Becker herself couldn't imagine what it was that Peter expected from her. Was he just trying to romanticize what was ultimately the same distasteful urge the others felt? Was that what he wanted, just a hole to thrust himself into? Did he want to debase her because she didn't care that she was unpopular? Or did he have some private, unknowable reason for acting the way he did? Although she didn't want to, Becker couldn't help but wonder -- and she found herself wondering again as she took photographs of unsuspecting people from her hiding place in St. Albion's Hotel.
Her appearance hadn't changed much in the intervening two decades. She had learned by tenth grade that her hair was least bothersome if she kept it shoulder-length and pulled it away from her face in a ponytail. To appease her mother, who for some reason worried that she was not sufficiently "feminine" (a concept Becker found hazy at best) she usually wore drab, amorphous skirts and correspondingly drab long-sleeved cotton shirts. She walked with her head down most of the time. Eye contact only caused trouble, and there was nothing to see in her hometown anyway.
So she didn't see Peter in time to avoid him on that day when he approached her on her way home from school. It was mid-winter, December or January, and Becker was wearing a large wool coat over her baggy skirt and long wool stockings under it. Just the same, she felt the skin on her legs prickle when she looked up and saw him. He was standing squarely on the path in front of her, and there was a tall bank of snow on either side, so that she could not walk around him. His long greasy hair whipped around in the wind.
At least a minute went by but Peter didn't say anything, or move so she could go past him. Finally, in a transport of irritation, Becker clenched her fists and said, "What do you want?"
Unfortunately he chose this exact moment to speak, and in her skull the sound of her own voice drowned out his. She was unwilling to ask him to repeat himself, and so this put them back where they had started. After another minute Becker began to fear that this deadlock would continue indefinitely -- she had a vision of night falling, the street darkening until only the snow on either side of the path was visible -- and so she turned and walked back the way she had come, though she knew with a dreadful certainty that Peter Badenschmidt would follow her. She did not relish the idea of turning her back on him, but she had to do something.
"Patricia! Patricia, wait," came his voice from behind her. She did not wait, but kept walking, and so, of course, did Peter, two steps behind her.
"You're the only one who understands me, Patricia. I've seen the way you look at the others. You know that we're not like them."
Becker couldn't have argued with him there, even if she had cared to speak to him at all. They were different; that was why the others were so eager to mash them together, to insert him into her and make them into one entity. And in that respect, evidently, he was just like everyone else.
"You walk with your head down. You're bowed down by." Peter evidently figured she could complete this thought without his help, because he stopped in the middle as though he had completed it himself, and jumped immediately to a different one: "We were made for each other, Patricia."
Becker wouldn't have reacted, even to this, if Peter hadn't simultaneously grabbed both of her shoulders from behind. "Get off!" she shrilled, twisting all the way around to free herself from his grip. Unfortunately, this brought her face to face with him.
The look on his face was possibly the strangest she had ever seen. It was a kind of beatific leer. "We were made for each other," he said again.
Blind panic swept through her for just a moment, though she was not absolutely certain what she was afraid of. Suddenly her bladder ached and she squeezed the muscles between her legs to keep from wetting her stockings. She imagined itchy wet wool and the smell of ammonia. And then the panic was gone, replaced suddenly by fury. Would she, at the age of sixteen, be reduced to pissing herself because of Peter Badenschmidt? Not even in nightmares had she ever been subjected to such humiliation.
She opened her mouth and then shut it again because no sound seemed willing to come out. She tried again, and this time a sort of hiss emerged, very different from her usual voice: "Don't ever touch me again."
Peter immediately took an enormous step backward. This was an improvement, but he was still in her way. Also, he was talking again. "Look what they've done to us," he said. Finished with that thought, though Becker was by no means sure what he meant, he jumped to another even more baffling: "I can give not what men call love," he said.
"What?" yelled Becker. She couldn't help herself.
"Love," said Peter. "I can't feel love. I just wanted you to know that about me, so that you don't think that's what I'm talking about."
He took half a step forward. Becker took half a step back.
"We belong together," he said. "You don't have to love me, you can even hate me, but in your heart you must know it too." He took another half-step forward.
She had no specific memory of getting past him, but she must have done it somehow, because suddenly she was running, still clenching the muscles between her legs, not daring to look behind for fear she would see him gaining on her. Even when she was inside her own house with the door locked behind her she did not stop running, but ran all the way up to the second-floor bathroom, where she flung her coat off and relieved herself with unusual force.
After that Peter did not directly approach her again, but he no longer made a show of hiding himself when he followed her through the halls, either. Rather, he lingered just a few steps behind her, swilling from his flask. "Patricia, Patricia," she sometimes heard him whispering -- if the noise he made could be called a whisper, as it was obviously designed to carry. The other students pretended that they believed that Becker had broken up with him. "Couldn't he satisfy you?" one of them would ask. Once someone started it there were a million variations:
"I heard Peter didn't live up to his name."
"How long did he last?"
"Did you come?"
"Does he stink worse with his clothes off?"
"Which one of you was on top?"
This stopped after a few weeks, when Peter was expelled. "Cry for help" was a phrase she remembered hearing a lot after that. The students and teachers murmured this to one another, like some kind of primitive mating call, and often they were looking at her when they said it. She knew she was supposed to hear. But why? What did they want from her? It wasn't as if she could bring him back, or as if anyone would have wanted him back if she could.
Witnessing her confusion, Eric said, "You are supposed to mourn the loss of your mate."
"Badenschmidt's not my mate," Becker said angrily. Secretly she was a little pained that he didn't know better than that.
Eric laughed. "I know that," he said. "Actually, if you ever get one, I want a picture."
Suddenly Becker remembered what Peter Badenschmidt had been expelled for. He had brought a knife to school, that was it, but he hadn't used it on anyone but himself. Perhaps the nonsensicality of this act was what had prevented her from recalling it before. He had locked himself into a stall in one of the boys' bathrooms and started slicing up his arms. He was at it for some minutes before he was detected, the spreading puddle of blood on the floor drawing first a student, then the principal, and finally two paramedics. Peter was strapped to a gurney and driven away in an ambulance, and no one saw him again after that.
And his disappearance had made her, once again, lowest in the school's social order, and so the others had chosen to pretend to believe that Peter had tried to kill himself because of her and that she was a bitch because she didn't even care. She remembered now. Cry for help, they said to each other, looking at her. She wondered why they needed to make up reasons to dislike her, when they had always found it easy enough to dislike her for reasons that actually existed.
She swallowed hard as she left the hotel, and rubbed her throat with the hand that was not on the strap of her camera bag. But there was no discomfort. In her mind she ran through the symptoms of tuberculosis: lethargy, loss of appetite, persistent coughing, night sweats, chest pain. There was nothing on the list about an inability to concentrate, or about inappropriate feelings of guilt. Last night she had felt guilty after Matthew told her he thought of her when he jerked off -- she still wasn't sure precisely what that entailed -- and she felt guilty again now, because she was suddenly possessed with the urge to get him a present. The urge to get someone a present had only possessed her once before in her entire life, when she had gotten him the rosary -- and that hardly seemed to count, because it hadn't felt like a present at the time, unless food and soap and medication counted as presents too. Giving Matthew a rosary had been like giving a parrot a cuttlebone.
She stood on the sidewalk wringing her hands. This was different. This time she wanted to get him something he had no need for. And there was nothing wrong with that, was there? People gave each other presents all the time; people enjoyed giving each other presents; if she would enjoy giving Matthew a present it made perfect sense for her to do it, didn't it? If only she could be certain of her motives. If only she could be rid of the nagging feeling that she was trying in some way to appease him, the way he had tried to appease the Blessed Virgin by lighting a fifty-cent votive candle in front of a statue of her. That made no sense, of course. To prove to herself that it made no sense, she went to the liquor store and bought a liter of Johnnie Walker Black Label before driving home.
That night, after washing the dinner dishes, she put it down on the floor in front of the half-bathroom. "Hear that?" she said.
"It sounds like a bottle of something?" said Matthew, sounding uncertain.
"It is. It's a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label."
"You're kidding. You are fucking kidding me."
"No," said Becker.
"You never stop surprising me," he said. "Are you serious? What for?"
"For you," she said.
"You!" said Becker.
"But what for?" he asked.
Becker thought about this for a moment. "Well, it was cheaper than a Corvette," she said.
She had never heard him laugh as hard as he did then.
"Well, it's very nice of you," he said, when he had recovered. "I don't see how you're going to get it to me, though."
"I'll come up with something," said Becker, and eventually, after some experimentation, she did. It was a clumsy device involving a funnel and a drinking straw, and it necessitated Matthew's lying flat on the floor, but it worked.
"Oh. God," he said after his first mouthful. "Dude, you have got to have some of this."
"Dude?" said Becker. She had heard the word before, but was unsure of its meaning in the current context. Matthew seemed to think she was making a joke.
"Dude! Like, seriously," he replied, and laughed.
"Usually I only drink vodka," she said. The smell of the whiskey was sharp and sweet, like burning leaves.
"Then you've really got to have some of it," said Matthew. "I only drink liquor I can see through if I'm desperate."
It seemed to Becker that Matthew had formerly gone through life in a near-constant state of desperation, but she did not say so. She went to the kitchen and got a glass. "No ice!" Matthew called after her. "Ice is for pussies!"
"If you say so," said Becker, returning. Pussy was a word she was familiar with. She had heard it once or twice in some tirade of Jake's; therefore, it could be nothing good. She sat down and poured a few fingers of scotch into her glass.
She liked vodka because it was so efficient. It went down the throat with a quick and not unpleasant stab, and then there was nothing but the warm feeling in the toes. Whiskey, she quickly learned, was not like that. She took a sip and began coughing uncontrollably, tears welling up in her eyes.
"Matthew!" she said angrily, when she could speak again.
"Yeah, that'll happen," he said. "Sorry, it's been so long I forgot. You've kind of got to ease into it."
"I wish you'd told me that before."
"I forgot. I started drinking scotch when I was thirteen. You get used to it."
Becker took another sip. She didn't cough this time. "It's like drinking fire," she said.
"Yeah," Matthew said, drawing the syllable out reverently.
Becker drained her glass and set it down on the floor. "Do you want some more?" she asked.
"What is that, a trick question?"
She gave him some more and poured some more for herself. There was a warm feeling in her chest that she liked: it was like the warm feeling that came after the pain when she disinfected a wound with rubbing alcohol.
"What did you mean -- you said you think about me."
"Well, sure I think of you. What -- oh. You mean think of you, like that."
Even with scotch warming her heart Becker had a low tolerance for circumlocution. "I mean, you said you think of me sometimes when you're masturbating."
"I was trying to be delicate."
"Well, sure, sometimes."
"Do you pretend you're fucking me?"
"God. You're trying to give me a heart attack," said Matthew. "Of course I do."
"How? You don't even know what I look like. How do you know you'd want to?"
"I don't," said Matthew. "That's why it's pretending."
They were silent. Becker sipped her scotch. "I cannot give what men call love," Peter Badenschmidt had said; but what men called sex, he would have been able to give that. Or take it, or participate in it somehow, however it worked.
"I'll tell you something," Matthew was saying, "jerking off isn't rocket science. I mean, imagine the stupidest person you ever met, and I bet you they did it."
Becker thought, again, of Peter Badenschmidt. What men call love. She snorted. "I didn't say I wasn't smart enough to masturbate, Matthew," she said.
"I know, I know --"
"I just don't do it the way you do."
"It'd be pretty weird if you did, considering," said Matthew. "Hit me with some more of that stuff."
It took her a moment to parse this. "All right," she said.
"You just pretend your hand is someone else's hand, that's all," he said. "I guess I should have said, 'Jerking off isn't painting the Sistene Chapel.'"
Becker hastily swallowed the scotch in her mouth to prevent it from coming out her nose. But at the same time she noticed that it was there again, that messy, slippery feeling, and her nose twitched involuntarily with distaste.
"You're thirty-six years old," said Matthew. "You have light blue eyes and brown hair. You wear your hair in a ponytail. You're tall, which I guess means you're five-eight or five-nine. You're skinny, like me."
"Five-nine," said Becker. She was trying not to notice that her free hand was creeping toward the source of the distasteful slippery feeling. "I'm taller with my shoes on."
She realized immediately that this was a stupid thing to say, and Matthew must have thought so too, because he said, "It would be weird if you got shorter. Christ! I'm hilarious when I'm drunk."
"Are you drunk?" she asked. She might have sworn that her hand was moving of its own accord. What was its agenda?
"Pretty much. My tolerance is for shit."
Becker hastily put her glass down and pinned her creeping hand to the floor. She was drunker than she'd thought: against the palm of her hand, the back of her other hand felt somehow remarkable. She still wasn't sure what she had been about to do, but she felt certain that it would have been bad to let herself do it.
"What about you?" Matthew was asking. "How are you feeling?"
"I think it's time for bed," said Becker.
Total word count: 68,490