"If You Touch Me, I'll Kill You"—A Guide to Sleeping and Only Sleeping with Women
Jason Feingold's work has appeared in the 99 Pine Street literary journal and Allegory and is scheduled to appear in Infernal Ink Magazine in October of this year. He is also contributing to and editing a yet-to-be-named anthology centered around a ruined house, which is scheduled for release in mid-2015. A former teacher, he lives in Henderson, North Carolina, with his wife and son.
1) You come to her.
"Can I help you?" the doorman asks coldly. He does not recognize me, and his unfriendly tone is unmistakably that of someone who intends to do his job and help me find the door again shortly. I expect no less. I'm in the vestibule of a building that fronts Central Park. I've just come from my job as an administrative assistant of a Jewish organization located way the hell uptown, and I'm not dressing for the next job because there is no next job. I have no hope of advancement there, but at least my job is mine as long as I want it. I'm wearing jeans, an army-surplus jacket, a stocking cap, and I'm carrying a frayed gym bag. I am short and crumpled-looking and I could use a shave. It is here that I am most acutely made aware of my shortcomings, by a doorman, no less.
"I'm here to see Jenny," I tell him. "She's expecting me. My name is Arthur Cohen."
His tone softens. All the doormen like Jenny. He still doesn't recognize me, though. "Do you know where her office is?" he asks.
"I've been there before."
"Go ahead up."
2) She has to be out of your league.
I knock on Jenny's office door and she tells me to come in. She looks good, as good as the day a year ago that my former roommate introduced her to me. He'd dated her briefly, but it didn't last much longer than it took him to get her into bed. It was not nearly as long as my friendship with her.
Jenny always looks good, even behind a desk with most of her small trim body hidden, wearing the glasses we sometimes joke about, the ones that make her look like Thelma from Scooby-Doo. If she's wearing glasses, it's because her allergies are acting up and she can't wear her contacts. She's allergic to just about everything airborne. The fact that I know this is a testament to how well I know her overall.
3) She has to have baggage.
"Oy, Hershel, should I be done by now?" she says to me, pronouncing Hershel as "hoi-shell," the way my grandparents would say it. "How are you?"
"Eh, how should I be?" I counter. The object of this game is to answer all questions with a question. She taught the game to me.
"How should I know?"
My name isn't Hershel, but that's what she calls me. She thinks it sounds more Jewish than my given name. I'm not particularly Jewish, but my surname is, so it's hard to convince anyone otherwise. I roll with it.
Jenny's wearing black. She always wears black. I think that started when her husband drowned, but that was long before I knew her. She told me about him once when she was drunk. There were a lot of tears, and I held her while she cried. I'd wanted to kiss her then, and I have ever since.
In turn I told her about the son from my failed marriage who I haven't seen since he was a month old, three years ago. I tried to make us equals in lingering sadness, but her sadness is more profound than mine. She hides hers well, but sometimes it's palpable, like the stench the garbage makes before you're forced to take it out. She really loved him.
It is winter. It's five-thirty on Friday night, and from the window of Jenny's tiny office I can see streetlights and the glowing roofs of taxis and the lights in the windows of the priceless buildings that run up and down the avenues next to Central Park. I've taken the subway from where I work in the Upper West Side, where I was let go early so I could make it home or to shul before the Sabbath, but I don't care about that, just as I don't care that Jenny is Catholic.
4) Be patient.
I sit down on the extra chair crammed against her desk in the tiny room, not quite out of the way. I don't mind being made to wait. I'm optimistic. I know it's going to be a fine night, just the two of us, and anything can happen. Hope and anticipation make a delicious appetizer.
"I'm almost ready," she says half an hour later. She grabs a toothbrush and toothpaste from the top drawer of her desk and leaves the tiny office to go brush her teeth. She does have very white, very perfect teeth. As she passes me I inhale deeply, surreptitiously, smelling hints of soap and perfume and peppermint.
5) Ignorance is bliss.
While she's gone I examine her desk. There is a framed photograph on it, and I've never seen it. It would be easy to lean over and grab it and turn it around, but I never have. I wouldn't even have to get out of my chair. I don't know who or what is in the photo, but I suspect it's her late husband. I wonder how she can stand to look at it. He haunts her. Sometimes I can see it on her face when she thinks no one is looking. I know how she feels, but I'm not as strong as she is. I can't stand to look at pictures of my lost son.
The door opens. "Should we go, or what?" she asks, putting her toothbrush and toothpaste back in her desk and donning her coat, nearly hitting me in the face in her little office. I don't mind. It would be the first time anyone has touched me in a week. My coat is already on, so I grab my bag and follow her out. We've already decided that I'll sleep at her place, and I look forward to it. My bag has a change of clothes in it along with a very optimistic condom hidden in one of the pockets. I remembered buying those condoms. It was some time ago. The rack they were on was just out of my reach and I had to jump up to grab the box. It was embarrassing. I felt like a dolphin performing tricks in exchange for sardines.
6) Be prepared to travel.
We take the subway to Penn Station from Columbus Circle, the first leg of our journey to her New Jersey condo. The train is crowded. We both hang on loosely to the same handhold. We are two New Yorkers through and through despite my Midwest origins. We know when to hold tight and when to relax our grip. The train shimmies and jerks and sways as it always does.
From Penn Station we cross the street and board the Sphinx bus to West New York. It costs five precious dollars, dollars I could pour down my throat. I do not pay for Jenny, and she does not pay for me. We always go Dutch treat, except for the time she asked me for seventy-five dollars to get her hair done, right out of the blue as we were walking down Broadway this past summer. I gave it to her and waited, watching the stylist sculpt her head. When she was done we went to an ATM and she gave me my money back. I've never understood why she did it that way.
The Sphinx bus is a comfortable bus, unlike the New York Metro buses, and we gratefully sink into padded seats next to each other. This is as physically close as we'll ever get. I am extremely conscious of her shoulder touching mine. She is relaxed. She does not try to fold herself away from me, and I pretend that it is no big deal.
"Oy, Hershel, you know what kind of day it's been?" she says.
"Could it have been worse than mine?"
"I need tequila." It's her second straight line. She drinks tequila unmixed, a shot at a time. I can't stand the stuff, but I've done tequila shots with her and pretended I like it just so we can have something in common. I do a lot of pretending. I pretend I live in New York when I actually live in a basement in Queens. I get in to my apartment through a set of bulkhead doors through which no woman will ever pass.
We share a companionable silence. The bus rockets out of the lot and into traffic, heading for the Lincoln Tunnel.
7) Make pathetic attempts to become more attractive.
"I sold a story," I lie. It's a spontaneous lie. It just jumped up out of nowhere. I have never published anything. I am twenty-nine years old, so I probably never will.
"Congratulations!" she says. I am ashamed of myself. "How much do you get for that?"
"Fifty whole dollars," I reply. In truth, the most I would earn is an author's copy, but she doesn't know that. She's not the literary type.
"We'll celebrate," she says, but fortunately she quickly forgets all about it.
8) Be vigilant.
We go to her condo so I can dump off my stuff and she can change outfits. She leaves the bathroom door open a crack as she sits down to pee, no doubt out of habit because she lives alone, like me, but, unlike me, she lives alone by choice. I know I shouldn't peek but I look, and I'm rewarded with seeing her naked hip. It's been a long time since I've seen any female anatomy beyond the neck or the wrists. As she wipes I retreat to the living room and sit on the couch and try to act like I've been sitting there all along.
9) Expect the unexpected.
The house phone rings. "Hershel, get that!" she shouts from the bathroom. "I'm changing!" I pick up the phone. It's the doorman. He wants to know if he can send Maria up. I relay the message to her and she tells me to tell the doorman to send her up.
"I didn't know Maria was coming!" I shout through the bathroom door which is now modestly and unfortunately shut. It hadn't occurred to me that Maria would have been invited. I hope I keep the disappointment out of my voice as I announce her, because all of the loving fantasies I had entertained regarding Jenny go out the window. They are BFF's, and when I am there in the role of court eunuch a closed circle of protection forms that no one can pass through, including me. I wait for Maria to come to the door, and when she knocks I answer it.
"Hershel!" she exclaims as I stand aside to let her in. She's in on the Hershel joke. She pronounces it "hoi-shell" too. She is pretty, but in a different way from Jenny. Jenny is pale and Maria is dark. Jenny is pixie-like and Maria is voluptuous. She's funny, and when she and Jenny are together, Jenny is funny too. I genuinely like her, even though I resent her presence.
10) Keep it to yourself.
"Hi," I say. She greets me perfunctorily and then starts a conversation with Jenny through the bathroom door. I go out onto the balcony for a cigarette to hide my disappointment. I swore I wouldn't open the pack until I had my first drink, but that doesn't matter now. The view from Jenny's balcony is breathtaking. I can faintly see the hulking mass of the George Washington Bridge in the distance to my left and all of lower Manhattan on my right. An airplane flies over the Hudson on its way to JFK. The night is so clear it looks like I could reach out and touch the landing lights. I smoke quickly because it's cold. I flick the butt of the cigarette off of the balcony and watch it fall until I can't see its glowing ember anymore. By the time I come back in, Jenny is dressed for a night on the town. She's still in black, but her skirt is higher and her top is tighter and her black stockings are just a little thinner.
"You look good," I tell her, unable to form the remark into a question.
"What am I, chopped liver?" Maria asks in a Yiddishkeit accent.
"You look good too," I tell Maria.
11) Know that you are not the center of the universe.
Jenny and Maria start a conversation that has no part for me. It continues as we go down the elevator, into Maria's car, and as she drives. I have no idea where we're going, but it doesn't matter, since I'd follow Jenny anyplace she wanted to go.
"Hershel, why should you be so quiet?" Jenny asks from the front passenger seat, twisted around to look at me in the back.
"What, like I should cut in on your yenta time?" I say Jewishly. Jenny laughs and tells Maria what I said. She laughs too. I scoot up on the back seat so I'm nearly in between the girls. I don't worry about not having my seatbelt on. It's better to be included than to be safe.
12) Be imaginative.
We talk about nothing in particular. I imagine that one or the other of them is my girlfriend. I wonder what the conversation would be like then. Would I still be in the back seat?
13) Enjoy the ride.
There are so many turns that I quickly lose track of where we are. I'm scared to not know where I am, but that's just one more thing I keep to myself. When we get there I climb out of the back seat and look around, but nothing rings a bell. I'm in the wilds of New Jersey, unmapped territory, the Dark Garden State.
"Where are we?" I break down and ask. I can't help myself.
"What, you don't know Hoboken?" Maria says.
"How would I know?"
"Hoboken's a happening place," Jenny says.
"Who'd have known?" I reply.
14) Don't leave your comfort zone.
We walk to a bar. It's trendy. It's loud. It's not my thing at all. I can't hear worth a damn in here, but it doesn't matter because I'm not part of the conversation. I'm just there to keep the wolves away from Jenny. I work on getting drunk. The first shot of tequila tastes like gasoline smells, but once I get it down I don't so much notice the way the other ones burn. An hour later I'm pleasantly buzzed, and I am content to try to listen to Jenny and Maria talk. Of course they are talking about men I don't know and who aren't me, underscoring my role as a gelding.
I go outside for a cigarette. A pretty girl bums one off of me and touches my hand lightly as I hold out my lighter. She smiles and hesitates just for a second like there's something she wants to ask me before she turns back to her friends. The moment passes. I crush my cigarette under my foot and go back inside. I forgive myself for not talking to her. She would never have walked through my bulkhead doors. I remind myself that I have nothing to offer and nothing to trade.
Back inside the bar I stand behind and between Jenny and Maria. I cannot hear what they are talking about, but I can tell it doesn't include me. I start dancing to amuse myself.
"What the hell are you doing?" Maria asks.
"Oh," I say, and stop.
"What the hell was that?" she asks again. I can't dance worth a damn.
"Just trying to keep the evening lively," I say.
"Don't do it again."
I take my place on the barstool on Jenny's left. I sit on it obediently.
16) Follow directions.
"We're leaving," Maria says, downing the rest of her beer.
"Okay," I nod.
"We're going to a club," she continues.
17) Be self-deprecating.
"Will they let me in?" I ask.
"It must not be much of a club." It takes a while, but Maria laughs and then relays the joke to Jenny. She laughs too.
18) Hold your liquor.
The drive to the next destination is somewhat frenetic. I wonder how drunk Maria is. I use my seatbelt this time. The world begins to spin in the car as the last shot of tequila hits home. I close my eyes and wait for it to pass, and I don't open them until we're at this club. It's not much of a club, just as I predicted, but we get a table, and that's something. Jenny gets another tequila, and Maria gets another beer. I just have water and pray that I'll start sobering up before I say something that will leave me stranded in New Jersey.
19) Ask no questions, hear no lies.
Jenny and Maria tell me they're going to the bathroom. I stand up to let them by. They're gone a long time. While I'm waiting for them to come back, the crowd parts in such a way that I can see them standing at the bar being chatted up by two guys with enormous biceps and perfect, shiny hair. The women come back to the table half an hour later, thankfully unaccompanied by the Jersey Guidos.
"There was a line," Jenny says.
I nod. "Sure." I buy a couple of jello shots from a passing waitress. Her rack is a thing of ephemeral beauty. Neither Jenny nor Maria want one, so I drink them myself, knowing that I will live to regret it.
We're on our way back to Jenny's condo. I'm tired. I'm even more tired of following behind the girls like a lost puppy. My mood begins to darken even more.
Maria parks in Jenny's condo parking space. We make our way unsteadily to the elevator. Maria is just as wobbly as Jenny and me. I've just taken my life in my hands driving with Maria, but I don't care. At that moment I think almost anything is better than being in my basement in Queens.
21) Keep your hands to yourself.
We take turns changing into our sleeping attire in the bathroom. I've brought gym shorts and a t-shirt. Maria has actual pajamas, soft cotton things you'd expect to see on a little girl. Jenny is wearing a short gown. Her breasts are firm and her nipples are erect against the gown's teasingly thin material. I try not to stare, but my eyes keep flicking down to take her in. If she notices she doesn't say anything about it.
We snack on potato chips in the kitchen while leaning against the appliances.
"Did you have fun tonight, Hershel?" Jenny asks.
"Sure," I say with a brightness I don't feel.
"Who's sleeping where?" Maria asks.
"Herschel can sleep with me," Jenny says. My eyes bug out. Is this the moment? My heart skips a beat. I could drown in the sudden wave of hope.
"Really?" Maria says.
"Really. You punch and kick and try to push me off the bed in your sleep."
"No I don't."
"Yes you do. For real."
At this point I should insist that the floor is enough for me, but I don't.
Jenny turns to me. "If you touch me, I'll kill you."
"Naturally," I reply resignedly.
Eventually we go to bed. Jenny and I are in her bedroom, and Maria is installed on a fold-out in the living room. The bedroom door is open. Jenny falls right to sleep, her back toward me. I stay awake for a long time looking at her silhouette and thinking how good we would be together—two broken people who fix each other and thus become complete. After a while I want to go out on the balcony for a cigarette, but I'm afraid of waking her. I look out the window at Manhattan and listen to her congested snoring. Finally I fall asleep.
22) Know when to go.
I awake with the first rays of the weak winter sun. Jenny's calf is resting atop my own. I get an erection, so I know I won't get back to sleep again, but I try anyway. It's hopeless. Before I get out of bed I lightly rub the back of my hand up and down her exposed arm, but I don't dare to go further than that. It is soft and smooth and forbidden.
I go to the bathroom and put my clothes on. Jenny and Maria sleep through my moving about. I put my coat on and quietly let myself out. I catch the Sphinx bus back to Penn Station and spend an hour in the subway getting back to my basement in Queens. My hangover is an oppressive cloud of doom pressing against my head. I am grateful to pass through my bulkhead doors and fall into my own bed. I don't feel so lonely anymore. I know I belong here.
23) Tell yourself that it was worth it.
Even if it wasn't worth it, tell yourself that it was. Tell yourself anyway.