(Excerpt from a novel)




Shana Steiger





You send me letters and I try to write back.

I send you meaningless drivel. I say nothing, mean nothing, tell nothing about who or what I really am. Or I don't write at all. I do not tell the truth. The truth:

I read porn on the Internet.

You probably think it's a man thing - only men do it. You're wrong. I'm a woman and I do it. I do it all the time. I do it alone at night in my apartment with the curtains drawn and my hand working between my legs. I return home from parties, dances, the literature class I took for fun, taught by Cynthia Dalton who I can't stop looking at or thinking about, and I do it. I read porn. I do it to erase the emptiness. I do it to erase me.

What I read is not what I want.

I want Cynthia to notice me, think about me when I'm not there, want me. I want to be the person she thinks about at home alone at night in her bathtub. I want her to form my name with her lips and imagine touching me. I want to feel the soft skin of my face against the heat of her breasts. Her hand on my back. Her nipples against my tongue, my teeth. I want to feel - - - wanted. I want. I want with capital letters and empty places and that feeling you get when you dream Cynthia Dalton sees you in the mall and walks away fast thinking you didn't notice her, the feeling when you dream Cynthia Dalton agrees to meet you in her office and you show up and she has moved, put a deadbolt on the door, hung a sign: “You are not wanted.”

I don't want men. But I read about men on the Internet. I read about men to erase myself. To erase Cynthia who is nobody, just the latest person who doesn't really know I exist. I read humiliation, torture, pain mixed with arousal mixed with shame mixed with degradation mixed with desire. I read about men.

In my dream Cynthia turns her back and walks away as if I don't exist.

I sit alone in my apartment in front of the flickering screen, words and pictures scrolling, sweat breaking out streaming down my sides, my despair stale like old gym socks - that's how sex smells to me. Stale. Despair.

Lately I've been reading self-help. “How to Break Your Addiction to a Person.” “Keeping the Love You Find.” “Getting the Love You Want.” On the Internet you can join sex addicts anonymous, codependents anonymous, love addicts anonymous. You can type a few words and create a self that is not too needy, too intense, too much, too full of want, stale like sex, like despair.

On the Internet you can read porn and erase yourself.

When I was a teacher's aid in the drama program at SUNY Buffalo, I took the freshman drama students through an exercise: you close your eyes, breathe deeply, and visit an Important Childhood Memory. Feel the memory I told them. Smell it. Taste it. Hear it. Enter the memory. Once I went to a psychodrama workshop that culminated in pounding on a mattress with a baseball bat. At first I felt purged. Then I slept. Then I read porn on the Internet. It didn't change anything.

I listen to the message Cynthia left on my answering machine the night I skipped class: “Hi Rachel, it's Cynthia. We missed you tonight. Hope you're okay. Just wanted to let you know to read pages twenty-five through fifty in the text for next week. Take care.” I play it over and over. She noticed I wasn't there. If she saw me, hunched in front of my computer, purging myself of all the want, she would despise me. When class ends on Thursday nights I leave - fast. I escape. She probably thinks I hate her.

At the waitress job that pays my rent, I trace women's laughter, women's scents, dangling earrings, lavender shadowed eyes, soft expanse of skin just below necks, calves tight in high heels. Truckers squeeze my ass with tattooed arms and my body betrays me and my mind flicks unwanted images - grabbed and tied in the back of trucks, locked in dank rooms, mocked and shamed. Sometimes I am smothered under piles and piles of naked emaciated corpses. The others. I am one of many. Dead. I push the images out, numb my body, focus on what I want. Women. I want women.

The self-help books say sexual fantasies are a clue to repressed memories. I read that and I think of Stephen's attic. Naked corpses. One of many. What does it mean?

I play Cynthia's message on my answering machine and then I erase myself.

I do think of you Grandma. I do. But I don't visit. I think of the way you invaded our house, your black suitcases heavy with kitchen supplies enshrouded in bubble wrap and newspaper. Mother taut shouldered, chapping her hands in the sink while you purged our cupboards, dumping plates, bowls, silverware in black garbage bags, and I carefully organized the new forks and spoons in their separate kosher drawers with masking tape labels for meat and dairy. Father hiding in his study surrounded by magic books and boxes full of hidden compartments. I think of you at the kitchen table with my mother, inhaling curls of steam from decaffeinated Lipton tea and explaining exactly why we must honor the kosher rules. “Do you understand, Rose? We are in a covenant with God. The Jews were chosen by God to be pioneers of religion and morality; that is our purpose. You must understand this, and you must raise your children as religious Jews.” Mother nodding, sipping, nodding. Emptying our cupboards that day, you removed the big rose colored serving platter and my mother flung her arms out, spraying water all over the floor and surrounding countertops. She snatched that plate out of your hands.

“I'll keep this,” she said. “It was a wedding gift from my mother.”

You squeezed your lips and crossed your arms. “Well, I won't have it in a kosher kitchen. It's probably had meat and cheese on it at the same time.” Your tone implied my mother must have murdered somebody and served the body parts on that platter. My mother hugged it to her chest and crept out of the room like a dog just caught in the garbage. You patted my head and said, “No Rachel, that fork goes in the meat drawer. See, it was on the right side of the tablecloth.” You pointed to the shiny array of silverware on the floor, carefully organized on right and left sides of our picnic tablecloth, glinting like treasure against the faded yellow flowers.

So you want me to meet Robert Levy who goes to Beth Shalom here in Buffalo. Do you think he'll wear leather and order me to crawl and kiss his boots? Will he put me over his knee like a child? Will he lock me in his attic where I will cower in the corner behind skeletons of other women he once tortured and finally killed? Do you like that image of me - your Jewish granddaughter? Do I keep the covenant? Maybe Robert Levy will tie me to a kosher butcher block, beat my bare ass with a kosher serving spoon, choose me to crawl across the kitchen floor with masking tape stretched across my mouth. Maybe it will say “meat” on the masking tape.






Stephen fights behind the school cafeteria, by the swings. Other kids circle round, yelling, “Fight, a fight, a nigger and a white!” and he poses over the crunched guy, deliberately not cradling the knuckles of his right hand, even though it hurts.

Today he is six years old.

At home, his mother is out with a new uncle, but his grandpa says, “I heard a rumor that it's somebody's birthday today.”

They go up to the attic. For the first time, his grandpa shows him the guns.

They gleam on individual racks inside a tall wooden case with a glass front. His grandpa opens a cardboard box next to the gun case and digs down under a bunch of magazines until he produces a silver key. He inserts the key into the lock - very precise, as if opening that case is more delicate than shaving the whiskers around his throat. He shows the guns to Stephen, one by one.

There are six - all different shapes and sizes - three thick handled guns with narrow noses called Lugers, a smaller nosed pistol called a Walther, a rifle called a Mauser, and one Mg 34 machine gun that reminds Stephen of a barracuda he saw at Sea World once, with its fishtail shaped handle and barnacle covered snout. Stephen likes the rifle - its long brown nose seems sleek and dangerous. His grandpa cradles it on his lap.

“With this Mauser I killed a Jewish resistance fighter who thought he could get away. I shot him right in the chest. He screamed and fell back dead. He thought he could fight us.” He says something in German and chuckles until the chuckle turns into a long hacking cough. Stephen holds his breath until the coughing stops. Then his grandpa hands the rifle to him. The gun is heavier than he expected, nothing like the plastic rifles he plays with. He lifts the gun over his head, working his muscles, then settles it on his lap, running his hand over the long nose, the coarse handle, inserting his finger into the slot where the trigger is. He feels older than six - holding the gun. The Jew advances, menacing with his pistol, laughing like Stephen's last uncle the night his mother had the big fight and they moved. Stephen points the rifle. Fires. The Jew screams, clutches his chest, falls backwards. Dead.

His grandpa chuckles again. “We nearly got rid of all the Jews,” he says. “We nearly did it.” Then he laughs and shoves the box of magazines at Stephen. “Someday when you're ready, all those guns will be yours. And this too - these are the magazines we entertained ourselves with. When we couldn't get hold of any Jewish girls to fuck.” Stephen doesn't really understand what his grandpa is talking about. But he will. Soon he will.

Every Sunday after dinner, Stephen follows his grandpa up to the attic and watches him stroke and rub those guns, so careful with his big gnarled hands. Then Grandpa hands Stephen a gun to hold and he tells the stories. And sitting in the bright glow of the naked bulb, cradling the gun, surrounded by boxes of junk, mothball smell, and dust, Stephen drifts into the world of his grandpa's rambling tales: killing Jews and American soldiers, raiding houses, fighting for Hitler. And he forgets that his father missed visitation, that his mother's new boyfriend beats her up just as much as the old boyfriend, and that he sometimes wishes for an older brother, or even just a friend who never says anything that makes the fire explode in his chest and the blackness overwhelm him so he loses control and punches until his knuckles hurt and the friend isn't his friend anymore.

Then it happens:

Stephen stops in his Grandpa's room to say goodnight like always and his Grandpa coughs and rolls over and doesn't answer.

Stephen can't sleep thinking about it.

It is still dark when sirens blare red light in his window.

His mother pulls an oversized sweatshirt over her nightgown and goes to the phone.

Men carry a stretcher outside, his grandpa under the sheet gasping and rattling with his face all blue.

Stephen sees it over and over in his mind and throws up his scrambled eggs the next morning.

In the hospital room his grandpa looks at him with something to say - rheumy eyes beckon for Stephen to come close, and he does and leans in, even though his grandpa's breath smells like dead meat and his face looks like a skeleton or something from another planet - all spots and ridges and sagging pieces of skin. And his Grandpa whispers that the key to the gun case is in the box with the magazines and Stephen should get it and keep it.

“The guns are yours, Son. I want you to have the guns.”

That isn't the last thing he says before he goes on the respirator permanently and doesn't talk anymore. He says other things like, “Orange juice,” and “Pain medicine,” in a hoarse whiny voice that isn't his grandpa at all.







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