Question Mark

What. If. The. Goddess. Brought. You. To. Me.

Anjuli Rathod, A Place Called Home. 2016, acrylic and flashe on canvas. 33 × 26''. Courtesy of the artist.

No one had ever loved her out in the open. Unconditionally. That had been Julie’s problem from the start—nobody, nobody, ever wanted to walk out into the light with her, even though they all needed and relied on her to break open their emotional seals. I’ve never told anyone this before, they said within minutes of meeting her, before launching into something they had kept shut up inside them for decades. I didn’t even know I felt this, they said after a full minute of sobbing about their childhood pet who slept in their bed until they went away to college and, shortly thereafter, died in the most horrific way. (She baked to death! My brother said she looked like a rotisserie chicken that had been left in the case for weeks. Shriveled and dried up to the bone. She was cooked! Literally cooked! How could they have left her on the balcony like that all weekend?) They cried in her arms when their withholding parent died (I didn’t even know her!), buried their faces into her chest when their overbearing parent died (She didn’t even know me!), crawled into her embrace when some trivial but crucial memory from their childhood resurfaced (It wasn’t cilantro . . . it was parsley!), and despite a lifetime of hiding behind their heavily armored egos, they were able to drop the mask and access something softer around her. They made her the keeper of their pain. She was the only mirror they ever allowed themselves to gaze into.

What had once been a marker of being special and chosen was now a dirty reminder of how she always had to sing for her supper. Why did she have to be special? Being special was work. And for years she gave that shit away for free. Couldn’t she be loved just because? It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some people were treated as worthy their whole lives and those people weren’t attracted to people who required them to prove their worthiness or serve a purpose. Why was it that people who were raised to love and respect themselves were the most likely to find more people to love and respect them? What kind of justice was that? It incensed her to her core.

At first she had been empowered by the decision to charge money for her emotional doula-ing services, but over time it did something bad to her brain and soul to put a price on human connection.

Psychologists do it, Julie’s friend Erin pointed out. They seem to be just fine.

Not John, Julie said.

True. He’s pretty sick.

John was a regular of Erin’s who was a highly sought-after Freudian psychoanalyst with a roster of famous clients. He had been asking Erin for a while if she had any special friends who were just like her—aka someone of the “more naturally submissive phenotype characteristic of women from that region of the world.” It was a common request from men of the entitled, ruddy-faced Casper-the-fugly-ghost phenotype, and so Erin always suggested Julie and Julie always suggested Erin.

The first time Julie met him, he spent an hour bragging about all the gorgeous, famous young actresses he saw in his practice.

I can’t tell you her name—confidentiality and all that—all I can say is she’s had a few high-profile affairs with married men.

Oh, is it—

Unh unh unh, he wagged his finger at Julie as if they were in a sitcom. And maybe they were. After all, what was someone like her doing with him, listening in rapt attention to a middle-aged man with flaking skin on his forehead and cheeks, knowing that in fifteen minutes they would head to the bedroom, and she would have to suck his cock in that carefully calculated, enthusiastic way, bringing him to the edge several times until she ran out of to-do lists to compose in her head and had to entertain herself by sexually objectifying his despicability, which was actually easy for her; heterosexuality was inherently sickening and Julie had always dealt with the lack of power in her life by eroticizing it. If all orgasms were an act of conquer and surrender, and all life was subject to humiliation and disgust and violence, well then she might as well get off on it. 

John’s story was common, a variation of the story all her clients eventually told her: it was always some impossibly hot young woman who made ordinary men drop to their knees the second she entered a room, but of all the men she could have had wrapped around her little finger, she wanted Julie’s client! Prostrated herself at his feet and begged, begged him to unzip his pants and just let her have a little taste. Please, she’d moan with her tits exposed and her cunt showing, I think about you night and day. And John, the way he told it, was rock hard, yet still, he resisted . . . unless you count a few sucks and tucks! 

How noble of you, Julie commented.

This was all a lead-up to trying to get Julie to agree to spend time with John for free. If famous Hollywood actresses were paying to see him and willing to do just about anything to fuck him, then clearly he was a sought-after man. Only the most superficial dum-dum of dum-dums focused on the glut of his gut that hung over his belt like a fanny pack, and the receding hairline, and his sunken eyes and sloping forehead and yellowing brittle nails and overall repulsive personality! Couldn’t Julie see? He was a dreamboat on the q.t.! Only a fool would decline a “free” dinner at a Michelin three-star restaurant with him.

These johns needed her father to be the father that they were to their daughters, or would have been if they’d had any.


Did persistent psychological battering by sociopathic people who thought of all human interaction as power play always work or did it just work on Julie? What was it about Julie that made her so susceptible?

You care, Erin said. Look at me—I pretend to be a ditzy airhead. I spent two hours of my last three-hour appointment napping. I show up in jeans and a hoodie. But you try. You listen to them, you make an effort.

I feel sorry for them sometimes, Julie confessed, even as they’re trying to rip me off. I feel bad that they have to pay for . . . me. Like I want to give them their money back. Do you ever feel that way?


I’ve never even gotten tipped. Maybe like twice ever?

I get tips more than half the time. A lot of my clients send me gifts in the mail—expensive stuff, Hermès scarves and Chanel bags—or they take me on shopping sprees.

How?? Julie asked, ashamed that not only did none of her clients treat her to anything extra, they also regularly hounded her for extra time off the clock.

I don’t ever show extra gratitude. I just say thank you once and that’s it. I put on this dumb girl act. But you’re different. You show them your personality. Even if it’s fake to you, it’s still a personality.

I can’t let go of this feeling like I’m taking advantage of them.

Stop feeling sorry for them, Erin said. You’re working way too hard to “connect” with them.

Erin was right. It was just scary for Julie to imagine losing the one thing that made her believe there was still softness in the world—connection. If she couldn’t connect to other people then . . . why was she even alive?

Are you afraid of me? Julie asked Merv one of the last times she saw him.

How could I ever be afraid of you? Merv said, his head cradled in her lap. 

I mean, I could quote unquote ruin you, Julie said, stroking the top of his head.

He looked up at her with the reverence of a pilgrim. He especially liked being mothered by young girls. Bouncy flesh made him feel alive and their desire to take care of him made him feel capable of love. Capable of being loved or of loving someone? Julie wondered, even though, deep down, she didn’t trust herself to know the difference. Merv was turned on by the kind of love that Julie found immoral outside of a transaction because it was only unconditional in one direction—from a woman to a man. (That’s all marriage, Erin said when Julie started ranting about Merv’s lack of reciprocity. That’s like, being straight. That’s me with Steve. Except Steve loves me more than I love him. You should get someone like Steve—stable, dependable, and knows how to make you squirt!) Like all johns, on some level, it bothered Merv that he had to pay for it. Why didn’t Julie offer herself freely to him? After all, he was handsome, interesting, a Hollywood insider received with the cachet of an outsider. He had won several Oscars and still went to punk shows. In his twenties, he made movies she had loved as a teen. On their second meeting, she revealed to him that she only owned three VHS tapes growing up—one of them was Batman Returns, the other was on a list of “100 Worst Movies of All Time,” and the third was his second film, a philosophically complex art house–mainstream crossover film that blurred fiction and documentary in a recursive exploration of loneliness. She told him it set her imagination aflame, and he seemed genuinely pleased.

His was the first movie she ever saw that felt like the good kind of escape, not the sugary, empty, can’t-legally-call-it-butter kind that left you useless and unfocused, but the kind that was filling, plump with real magic. She had grown up without adult supervision in a neighborhood where girls got pregnant before tenth grade and slapped before first, though neither of those things had happened to her as much as the men she saw wanted to believe. Knowing bad things—truly bad things—had happened to her allowed them to feel like a hero rather than a creep. They were eager to turn her childhood trauma into pornography. Did he touch you? they asked about her father. Was he abusive? Did he step out on your mother? No, none of those things, she would say. He was just a workaholic who was never home. So you’d think! they all said. He was probably out whoring when he said he was working late. 

Julie didn’t bother to argue. She had heard on a podcast for women over 40 searching for their “last first date” that neglect was a form of abuse that often goes unrecognized. These johns needed her father to be the father that they were to their daughters, or would have been if they’d had any. It was important and she let them have it. She knew her father really did spend his whole life working because when he died he had 180 unused vacation days. His boss came to the funeral and spoke with a steady quiver of tears in his eyes about how Julie’s father was the best employee the company had ever had. Ever since he was a boy, he lived in service to “work.” He had escaped a genocidal communist regime to come to a genocidal capitalistic regime and had worked his way up from delivering Chinese food to the corporate suits in the World Trade towers to being one of them. He only lived to see another day on September 11 because the night before he had come home at 10 PM, shut himself up in his basement office, and continued working until 4 AM, when he abruptly and uncharacteristically passed out. Perhaps the decades of sleep deprivation finally caught up to him, causing him to sleep past his alarm and arrive late to work, emerging from an unsettlingly empty WTC subway station to find a smoking plane sticking out of the North Tower and then see a second plane fly into the South Tower. He saw a woman hobbling in high heels get crushed by a piece of falling debris and people jumping to their deaths. Two days later, he was driving to New Jersey to work in the temporary office that his company had set up. The title of his favorite song translated into English was “Work As Hard As You Possibly Can.” At the age of 40, he developed irreversible spinal damage from too many hours of sitting hunched over at a computer. His damaged nerve endings caused crippling migraines so bad that, once, Julie lightly touched his arm to show concern when he was in the middle of an attack, and he violently crumpled, vomit shooting out of his mouth like a laser—he could not be touched by anyone. He went rigid at his workstation from a ruptured brain aneurysm and died twenty-four hours later. He had been drinking a cup of plain hot water. He never treated himself to anything—no whores, no drinks, no drugs, no sugar. Other than the occasional channel flipping, he lived an anhedonic life of martyrdom. Julie could probably add up all the minutes she had ever spoken to him and it would have equaled the running time of an action film. Her mother maintained her whole life that there was no man more exemplary than her father, but Julie never forgot how her mother revealed to her in the ICU waiting room that her father wasn’t at the hospital when Julie was born. I was alone, Julie’s mother said. All the other women in the hospital felt terrible for me. They assumed he was one of those shitty men who get women pregnant and then disappear or run off with someone else. None of them believed me when I said he was studying for a test. He wasn’t present for your birth. But he aced the test. And that’s why we’re here.

All she knew was she wanted to create, not just watch. She wanted to make things, not just be in them.


She felt too sorry for her father to be angry with him. He never even experienced the small pleasure of ordering a soda at dinner, and here she was, someone who had converted all touch into a monetary sum that she spent immediately on frivolous things—a three-foot tower of raw shellfish; velvet embroidered thigh-high boots that stained minutes after she went out in them because of a sudden downpour; a ninety-minute natal-chart reading followed by a sixty-minute aura cleansing; a last-minute flight to a spa resort in Tulum where she sat her bare pussy over two big rocks sizzling with a steady stream of “healing, medicinal” steam because it was supposed to flush out toxins that caused depression, anxiety, dull skin, UTIs, yeast infections, and a whole host of other disorders. Sometimes, she’d lose the money by accident, as in, cash would literally fall out of her pockets. (The number of times it happened suggested some kind of unconscious self-sabotage.)

She had tried with a few johns to tell her actual story, but it bored them. Her childhood was just her alone, all the time, with the TV on, the same five channels because they couldn’t afford cable. She became one of those people who always needed something on in the background—anything to keep her from being alone in her head. It helped lull her to sleep at night and made her feel safe during the day.

When she told all this to Merv, she liked that he actually listened.

How did you come across my movie? he asked.

I must have gotten it from Blockbuster? Or maybe the library had a clearing-out sale? She honestly couldn’t remember, but she did remember the afternoon when she came home from school and watched the movie, finished it, and immediately rewound to the beginning and watched again. From that point on, she watched it every day. It was always something new to her. There was always a new question. It had sparked in her a desire to make something that could make someone feel the way she felt every time she watched Merv’s movie—connected to the world and all of its mysteries. It was right then and there that she decided she wanted to be . . . an artist. What kind? She didn’t know. All she knew was she wanted to create, not just watch. She wanted to make things, not just be in them. She wanted to plumb the mysteries of the world and share what she didn’t yet know with other people who loved questions that led to more questions.

Fifteen years later, she was ignoring calls from debt collectors saved in her phone as BURNT ASS PUBE GO TF AWAY DN ASNWER, and was earnestly sending out her “CV” with her real name and the real schools she got degrees from and real pictures of her face and body to twenty different ads on Backpage. She spent two weeks working at a “high-class” incall that started out with plasma TV screens and top-shelf liquor and “female empowerment,” but quickly devolved into, “Sorry, but everyone has to pay for their own dinners,” which led to a heated brawl where one of the women smashed a bottle of Patrón into the plasma TV screen and stormed off, screaming that her sugar daddy, who was in the police force, would raid this place clean tomorrow if you bitches don’t pay me what you owe me. Julie took everything she learned from her two-week stint and opened up a Macy’s credit card—the only place that would still let her open an account—charged a thousand dollars for lingerie and a two-hour photoshoot with a so-called professional photographer, who kept wanting to hug her while she was buck naked, and uploaded the photos from the shoot onto a free WordPress site advertising for “The Bacchanalian World of Camille Maar: Poet, Dancer, Courtesan, and Muse.” The name was a mash-up of Picasso’s muse, Dora Maar, of whom he once said, “Dora, for me, was always a weeping woman . . . and it’s important, because women are suffering machines,” and Camille Claudel, Rodin’s muse, who spent the last three decades of her life in an asylum. Every now and then, some millionaire who went to galas at the Met and the Guggenheim would smugly pontificate on her name and either try to impress her with their art history knowledge or try to insult her by proving her lack of—or, most often, both. 

Julie could endure being treated like a stupid child, but what she couldn’t tolerate was when these men got it into their heads that they were actually lovable. If she couldn’t bring herself to love extraordinary men who actually contributed to cultural history, who turned their creepy sexual obsessions with women into art, then what made these losers think she could love them? They who contributed nothing and were part of a power structure that benefited the rich and stole from the people—the goddamn people!—by which she meant her parents and the families she grew up with, not these men who paid for every aspect of their personality, who couldn’t get off unless there was an element of coercion. Julie loathed the class of rich, untalented men who felt entitled to purchase anything at all, including human connection, but what could she do? She couldn’t open jars on her own. She looked like someone who made a certain kind of man feel strong and capable, which wasn’t much of a feat: you just had to be skinny in that way that didn’t look like it came from deprivation or too much time at the gym and have big doe eyes and long lashes, a tiny but full rosebud mouth, rosy cheeks, and soft skin—that was it! It was nothing that couldn’t be bought or passed down genetically (and all things passed down “genetically” had to do with intergenerational consolidation and hoarding of power, money, and resources anyway). The more difficult thing was when a woman successfully adjusted her personality over time to remain interesting and intriguing and nonthreatening without ever revealing needs of her own.

Yes, she had gotten bitter very quickly. So when Merv’s appointment request came through her contact form, she braced herself for another asshole. It wasn’t until she found out his real identity from one of his references that she felt something she hadn’t felt in years—excitement. And if she hadn’t been disappointed in every way by how her life turned out and hadn’t been burned by every single man whom she shared something real of herself with, she would have been more excited. Not that she didn’t immediately escape into fantasy in the hours leading up to their first meeting. They would fall in love and she would move into his 8.4-million-dollar home and their lovey-dovey walks on the street would end up in magazines that people still bought at newsstands. And when people asked her about him, she would smile and say, I don’t talk about my private life, and when they asked, Is it true you got married in a secret ceremony that friends and family had to be privately flown to? she would smile and say, Is that what they’re saying on the internet now? Neither confirming nor denying, for she had already secured her prize—knowing, night after night, in their deluxe king bed spacious enough to fit four, they willingly chose to occupy the smallest sliver of mattress in order to hold each other tightly entwined, totally uninterested, even while unconscious, in letting any part of their bodies not touch.

It didn’t take long for the fantasy to die. They did have more to talk about than Julie did with her other clients, but in the end, he was still a man in pursuit of “purity.” It was so stupid. The problem with men like this was that they all saw themselves as ruined. Once a woman entered their orbit, she was immediately sullied by association, worse if she chose voluntarily to pursue them. These men hated themselves so much that they could only understand someone wanting to be with them if that person was truly warped. The endless cycles of searching and dissatisfaction gave Merv a sense of purpose, stability, and meaning. He was just like all the others. Come to think of it, the only thing that made him different was that Julie liked him. She was instantly charmed by his smallness, his squeaky voice, how he moved like he was still an adolescent. It was unfair that when you liked someone you’d make exceptions for them, but if you didn’t you’d subject them to all kinds of punitive censures. But that was life, wasn’t it? The dream of equality was always ruined by the humans who had to be involved in creating it.

Merv had been rich his whole life. He came from family money, found the life his parents wanted for him to be stifling, and got into the punk scene early on. By 14, he was emancipated from his parents in every way except legally and was cast as an extra by an MTV talent scout who had ended up at a house show where Merv had managed to somehow climb up a wall and jump into the mosh pit without breaking any bones. He was a badly behaved extra, never followed orders, and was always disappearing when he was needed and popping up where he wasn’t supposed to be. The 1st AD started calling him Zippy and it caught on. Or maybe he gave himself that nickname and made movies under that moniker. Julie couldn’t remember his origin story anymore. He had told her a few stories that seemed personal enough that it would be offensive to ask him to tell them again. She had been in hooker mode when she first showed up to his not-penthouse-but-still-luxury apartment that was visible from the bridge that connected his borough to her borough. He told her his real name, which at the time seemed so significant, but later she realized it was in the first sentence of his Wikipedia bio, and though she had never crossed this line before, she decided to tell him hers. No public names, they agreed. We’ll only use the names our mothers gave us. Julie didn’t tell him she had been born under a different name, but no one used that name anymore, not even her mother.

The third time they met, she let him fuck her without a condom. Just pull out and don’t come inside me, okay? He came on her stomach and then told her all the things he couldn’t express the year before at a two-day ayahuasca ceremony in a hippie port town in the Olympic Peninsula. There had been so many middle-aged white people there, sobbing and speaking earnestly to an oily, lizardlike creature they had seen emerging out of their outstretched arms, but Merv couldn’t conjure up any kind of creature and could only sit there in an unnaturally stiff position, frozen with paranoia that maybe someone in the group recognized him and pitied him, for he was alone and hadn’t come with a partner or even a friend. Afterward, he decided to reconcile with his estranged ex-wife. They never got formally remarried, but they had a non-legally-binding commitment ceremony off the Amalfi Coast, and one month into being a changed man, he went back to his old standby, the online marketplace for “high-end escorts and modern-day courtesans.” He instantly went into a euphoric high followed by a flattening numbness—how many juicy tits and round bums could a guy see in a row? It all became as tasteless to him as caviar, literal caviar, he revealed to Julie. He yearned to taste something for the first time, to return to that childlike state of being guilelessly open to the world, before we armored ourselves against disappointment and danger. He wanted, essentially, to feel again.

And that’s why you’re with me, she said.

Maybe, he replied.

Merv wasn’t afraid of Julie ruining him. He had gotten to his current level of notoriety without ever being stalked, without being dragged into any kind of public dispute. The worst thing that had ever been written about him, as far as Julie could tell, was a blog post on his love life: “Hopelessly Romantic or Hopelessly Grim?” It was badly written and crammed full of clickbaity sentences about Merv’s divorce and the steady stream of beautiful but unusual women he dated since her. It made him seem boyish and harmless, and the comments underneath the story were filled with young women thirsting not just after him but after what he represented—a kind of elusive cool that was easy to worship and project onto. Julie thought of herself as different from those women, but at her core she believed what they believed. If she could only walk into a place with Merv, be known as his, all her problems would go away. Other people’s envy was the only salve against inner turmoil. It was. It had to be. 

Their secret story would be what would bond them to each other—that he met her when she was a prostitute and realized she was the only one who ever understood him. Someone who was as damaged as him could only be loved by someone who was as damaged as her and vice versa. Fuck that noise about loving yourself first and being a whole person before finding another whole person to love and be loved by. Fuck all those inspirational graphics about being the person you needed when you were younger. No, that was for the portion of the population who were born loved, ensconced in safety, who grew up with parents who cared for them while giving them the space to grow and make mistakes. Let those smug little twats use all the extra time they saved from not being triggered and not being born into a legacy of inherited trauma to further self-actualize. Julie had no time for that shit. Fuck everyone and what they publicly agreed with for likes. People like her were suffering, and what was so wrong with wanting to be saved?

There had been a shift right after Merv was diagnosed. He kept his illness from her, but Julie could tell something was up when they saw each other a few days after he found out. He had looked fine that night, exactly the same physically as he always did, but she could sense something had changed. She didn’t know what, only that, whatever it was, he had finally lost the last shred of childhood innocence that made people bold with immortality. How lucky, she thought, to make it to middle age with your innocence intact. She was immediately bitter. How old was I when I was robbed of my childhood? Four? Five? Was I ever even young?

What’s going on with you? she asked. There’s something different about you.

He was romantic with her, looked right into her eyes and traced the outline of her face.

I finally realized something.

What is it? she asked, barely able to contain herself.

Love, he said. It’s the only thing that matters.

There were no pronouns, no subject-verb-pronoun, just the concept.

I tried to tell you, she joked, but it came out sounding like a reprimand.

He had never loved anyone, not really. Not in that pure way a mother is supposed to love her children, he confessed to her, before disappearing for almost a year.

All men, Julie realized, blamed their problems on their mothers, and all mothers have been traumatized by men and their money—lack or surplus, it didn’t matter. Everything came down to resources and domination. Sex was just one way men could hurt others. Julie understood the physical repercussions of unwanted P or F or M on or in V or A or M. She had experienced it many times—the tearing and the scarring afterward—but what really troubled her were the nonphysical repercussions, aka everything else. Whatever that was, it had the power to transform a person’s entire personality; it was robust enough to outlive generations and be passed down so many times that it became foundational, ancient. It was virtually undefeated. The amount of love that would have to be repeatedly applied against it . . . impossible. And who exactly was going to apply it? It was too much—all the women who had been primed by their traumatized mothers to be further traumatized, who had been traumatized by their mothers who had been traumatized, and so on and so on and so on. No one could go back to the source and undo all the pain. Everyone just felt bad for themselves and occasionally for the people in their lives who were directly related to why they felt bad for themselves, which was not the same thing as caring about other people.

She wanted to be alive to cradle the dead.


Ten months into not hearing a peep from Merv, Julie vowed she would never speak to him again, no matter what his excuse was when he would inevitably reach out to her again.

Saying things out loud doesn’t make them true, Erin said, diplomatically. He’ll find a way to pull you back in.

There’s nothing he can say at this point.

He’ll say he’s dying or something.


You know what my advice is: find someone like my guy—

I don’t want someone like Steve! Julie blurted out in a moment of unguarded frustration.

Not all friendships were meant to last, and Julie and Erin’s was coming to an end. They were no longer bonded by the secrecy and compartmentalization of their lives. Julie had gone under-the-radar and pulled all of her ads but was still seeing regulars almost every day. Erin was retired and engaged to Steve, a regular dude with a stable corporate job who enjoyed watching sports and recently developed an enthusiasm for mixology. Julie remembered that early on in their friendship Erin used to say, I feel like I was meant to be an old married woman, watching my shows every night and sipping on a custom-cocktail made by my wifey-husband while he cooks dinner for me. Now they were sitting in a chromotherapy sauna room; Julie alternated between sitting with her knees pressed up to her chest in the blue light (to purify the imbalances in her liver that were responsible for “inappropriate anger”) and the purple light (to purify the imbalances in her spleen responsible for “excessive mental work and psychosis”) while Erin sat cross-legged in the orange light (to bring out radiance and vitality in her skin, the largest organ, responsible for “joy and optimism”) in anticipation of her upcoming nuptials. Erin had it all figured out. It wasn’t settling if you didn’t believe love was some pure thing abstracted and separate from resources, loneliness, society. It was good sense. What Erin believed in and what her loins wanted and how she actually lived her life—it was all in harmonious order. 

Not everyone wants to be with a tortured artist, Erin said before getting up to go to the Ice Room.

Erin was a prophet. The next day Merv popped up in Julie’s email. 

I’m very sick, he wrote and attached a photo of himself that made Julie gasp out loud. He was too weak to travel, but might she consider coming out to see him in his Hamptons home? 

Sitting across from him in a rocking chair, Julie was furious. Why didn’t you get in touch with me earlier? she demanded.

It was hard for Merv to make big emotional displays with his facial muscles but Julie could see he was trying, squinting beneath a layer of crust that the nurse aide hadn’t properly wiped from his eyes. His pupils darted around, were captured by an eye tracking camera pointed at his gaze and mounted below a screen that was then analyzed by sophisticated software to determine which keys he was gazing at in order to speak to Julie in a neutral machine voice with no inflection or tonal variety: Are. You. Serious. Question. Mark. 

Julie knew how she sounded. She knew she was being unreasonable. Merv was close to death. He had gone from impressive vitality to a shriveled claw attached to multiple machines, unable to breathe on his own. His skin felt like dust when she touched it. Literal dust. She had never seen a dying person before. Other than her mother, her entire family lived in the old country. A few of them had died in recent years, and they all made the same request—that Julie and her mother not come out to see them. When she told this to people who weren’t familiar with the old country, it made it seem like her people were coldhearted, but actually, they cared more than anyone. They knew one final goodbye wasn’t worth missing two weeks’ salary. It had been one of Julie’s goals from the beginning, when she started prostituting herself, to get to a place where missing a paycheck was a drop in the bucket. Not only that, but she wanted to be able to buy plane tickets for her mother at a moment’s notice and gift her relatives red envelopes every time she visited, although she would have to figure out how to explain where all this money came from. Anyway, it never came to that because, by the time she had paid off her debts and saved a good chunk of money, pretty much everyone she ever cared about in the old country was dead. And then there was her father, her poor, overworked father, dead by the time she graduated college. At the funeral, she tried to cry, but it was hard to cry for someone she never shared a single private moment with. She wasn’t even numb with grief. It was like she had crashed the funeral of a stranger—there was nothing to feel at all.

All this had built up death in her mind. She wanted to get as close as possible to experiencing it without actually dying. She wanted to look into the eyes of someone as they were dying, to hold their hand and feel it go cold and limp, to see the exact moment when someone left this world. She wanted to be alive to cradle the dead. Maybe it was sick that she was voluntarily seeking something others were traumatized by, that she wanted something other people begged God to spare them from. It was true: Julie and her privileged ass had no idea. None. Julie was trying to forestall pain again, to control it. She hadn’t gotten to see her father die and it was better that way. He had never been in her life and now he finally had the best excuse. 

OK, she knew Merv wasn’t going to die in her arms that night, though he did have that smell she’d heard about, like his body was already disintegrating. OK, she was being kind of a monster. If she didn’t stop now, this would be how he remembered her. Was that what she wanted deep down? Unlike all her other regrets, this was something she could live with. Or was that total bullshit? Maybe she was just being a pill because she could.

Or maybe she wanted power over him. He had gotten famous too early, was never humbled, was surrounded his whole life by people who treated him kindly and fawned over him because he always possessed something other people wanted, and even now that he was close to death and wanting to reckon with what his life had really been, there was still resistance. He couldn’t. It was too painful to open himself up to the possibility that all the people who purportedly cared for him, who idolized and praised him and boasted about knowing him, did so not because he was an uncontestably great guy but because he possessed capital—social, creative, and material—and that was the source of his value. He attracted people who were drawn to power, dazzled by it and desperate to claim some for themselves. 

Julie continued to ply him with questions, knowing his machine couldn’t spit out answers fast enough: Why did you wait so long to contact me? What is it exactly that you want from me? Why, suddenly, was it so urgent for you to see me? Why did you make me come all the way out here? Remember you said you wanted to take me up here? You said you’d pick me up and we could hang out naked on your little private beach all day? Why did you say that if you weren’t going to ever follow through?

They were unfair questions, ones she couldn’t possibly expect him to answer, but that was the goddamn problem. Somehow, she always ended up seeming unreasonable. It was like speaking in a normal volume at exactly the moment when the rest of the world began to speak at a whisper. Why couldn’t they go out in public? she had demanded after six months of seeing each other every two weeks. Why did everything have to happen in secret?

I thought it was clear from the beginning? he said. I thought we both agreed? Was I wrong?

That was his secret. He answered all her questions with questions, yet somehow she could never manage to volley back a question to his question to her question. It always ended with her trying to calm herself and admit that yes, of course, she knew what this was! He found her on a site for high-end escorts! He was a high-profile movie director going through a difficult, messy, and protracted public reconciliation with his ex-wife, who was also film industry royalty, a scion of a long line of peroxide-blond actresses with button noses that were, over time, shaved down to a sneeze!

Whenever he texted her, it was always about sex, even if the prelude involved sharing something about his life, the heart of the matter was always the same: I want you to come over and make me feel good. Sometimes, he texted about his cock and how good her pussy made it feel or how tight her ass was the last time and how much it turned him on that she begged him to keep going even though it hurt. There were times when she thought he missed her, but later, looking back at the texts, it wasn’t her he missed, it was the sex: I just want to let you know I miss having sex with you. It couldn’t have been more explicit. He never promised anything he couldn’t deliver on because really he promised nothing. She had been the one who kept making promises with the ulterior motive to trick him into needing her which would then trap him into loving her. She was always the one violating boundaries, most of all her own. Their first two meetings had been two hours long and the third went over by ninety minutes, but she didn’t charge him for the extra time. A few times she even stayed overnight, but he continued to only pay her for the first two hours. After a month, she finally addressed it.

You never have to worry about the time, okay?

He nodded sleepily, didn’t even bother to express gratitude. She left his apartment that night floating with possibility.

Erin was horrified upon hearing about this. You need to get your brain checked.

I feel a connection to him . . . and I wanted to show him that.

By ripping yourself off? By allowing him to take advantage of your time and not pay for it?

I’m the one who suggested it, not him.

That’s their game, honey. They’re cheap asses. He has the money. I looked up his net worth online.

I mean, yeah, he’s like a multimillionaire—

Seventy-eight million dollars. Yeah, I looked it up. He’s loaded. That’s not love. That’s being cheap as hell. If he can’t love you and pay your hourly rate and get you at least one thing off your wish list, then he’s taking you for a ride. And guess what? You have no one to blame but yourself.

Of course Julie had experienced love of course she had experienced things in life that produced feelings other than pure bitterness of course she didn’t believe everyone who wanted to be loved by someone was entering into a power struggle that could only end in violation, regret, or sorrow. Of course she believed in emotions that could not be calculated and converted into monetary value of course she wasn’t just protecting herself from facing how deeply she hated herself of course she didn’t seek out people who repulsed her to her core so that other people’s faith in her eventually finding love could be debunked as naïve and even insensitive because could anyone understand the extent to which she kept meeting these fucking cretins, one disappointing man after another? No! No one in the whole world had ever had it as bad as her, no, of course not! And of course she wasn’t only attracted to damaged people who, by dint of being already-damaged, meant she wouldn’t have to feel as bad when she would, inevitably, behave so horribly and unforgivably, revealing herself to be just as damaged. Of course she saw herself as more than damaged.

She had loved someone with total abandon. She had loved them so much! She had imagined everything with them, not just the standard-issue partnerships her friends were so invested in crafting for their feeds, but a real dream of partnership, a life she had truly never seen anyone have—two people who loved each other without ownership, who encouraged each other to shine not so they could flaunt it later but because they loved to see their beloved radiant and soft with joy, two people who weren’t afraid to flower on their own and then willingly, of their own accords, come back together to their shared sanctuary, so true and so full of love that over time it became a sanctuary for others too. She believed love was a result of real fucking work and real fucking magic. Yes, she was the biggest dreamer of them all. Optimism was too crude and simplistic an idea to describe what she was. No, she was an idealist, a fucking believer. At her core, she believed in the “goodness” of all earthly creatures. Everyone had it in them to love deeply and to experience the kind of love Julie imagined was possible. This alone gave meaning to the universe, informed cosmic order and cosmic rightness. Without it, she would have killed herself. And anyone who wasn’t yet dead by their own hand was kidding themselves if they didn’t, deep down, believe in this too.

And now, sitting in front of Merv who was hooked up to a breathing machine and strapped into his wheelchair, she was supposed to try? With him? Like this? After all that? She couldn’t. That wasn’t love. She had been one of his many caretakers before he hired one full-time. He waited too long to value love. It was too late now.

He looked into his eye-tracking speech monitor. The words came out slowly: Are. You. Still. Mad. At. Me. Or. Can. We. Get. Down. To. Business.

She smiled. I’m over it. 

Come. Closer. Then.

She did.

Can. You. See. How. Hard. I. Am. Right. Now.

She kissed him on the lips. They were chapped and crusted over with dead skin. She wrapped her hands around his dick, the one part of him that remained completely unchanged.

Oh Merv, I love feeling your cock throb for me.

Make. Me. Feel. Good.

She started to do what she always did. He liked being licked all over. She often had to keep a tall glass of water nearby to stave off dry mouth.

Lick. My. Ass. Baby.

She wasn’t prepared to do that. Hygiene, the nurse aide had told her, is often compromised at this stage of the disease.

She put his cock in her mouth and started thumbing around his ass cheeks, afraid of what her fingers might come across.

Stick. Your. Tongue. Into. My. Dirty. Asshole. You. Slut.

She tried to remember if she had brought her little bottle of mouthwash. The three-hour taxi ride back to Brooklyn would not be a pleasant one without it. 

Oh. Baby. I. Need. Your. Nasty. Little. Tongue.

Where did this belief come from, Julie wondered, that she had to please everyone, that she had to do what she was told, that she was so powerful that to deny someone what they wanted from her was to kill them? Literally, an act of murder.

He was on the verge of coming. He didn’t like coming too fast, it made him feel cheated. She paused to look up at him and the atrophied muscles of his face seemed to quiver without movement. I’m his last experience of joy, she thought.

I know you’ve been thinking about this for months.

I’m. A. Lucky. Man.

Finally, they were on the same page.

She always thought that, in the presence of death, she would become brave, work up the nerve to say all the things she never dared to say before. She would speak with the tongue of a prophet, fearing nothing, communicating with the clarity of a vessel. All that earthly shit—fear of being scorned or of what other people might say or think—none of it mattered in the face of mortality. And she just assumed it would work the other way around too—in the presence of a dying person, she wouldn’t hold back, she would allow herself to be totally bare, do nothing to shield herself from the disappointment of being vulnerable with the wrong person yet again, from the pain of another abandonment. Just having a body was abandonment anyway. To be stranded in these physical forms . . . whyyy god whyyyyyyyy?

Do you . . . Julie started to say a few minutes into the post-coital.

He rolled his pupils slightly to the right: Question. Mark. Question. Mark. Question. Mark.

There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you. But I’ve always been too afraid to say it.

There’s. No. Time. Like. Now.

She had taken two trains to Penn Station, got on the Red Line and transferred at Freeport for the Purple Line, then called a local cab company to take her to Merv’s beach house. When she arrived, his aide answered the door. He’s really excited to see you, she said and took Julie through the house that she had lost so many days and nights fantasizing about: her summer home with Merv once they became a real couple, her weekends in the Hamptons while all those other bitches geotagged their lattes. God, she was even more basic than basic. She was a frigging amoeba. Walking through the kitchen, she saw a DO NOT RESUSCITATE notice signed by Merv’s ex-wife on the fridge.

Merv rarely talked about his ex-wife, but one time he had called Julie in the middle of the night, asking to see her, and when she showed up, he seemed distressed and swollen, like he had been hitting himself in the face. 

She’s a heinous bitch ninety-nine out of a hundred times, but then that one-one-hundredth time happens and I think . . . we’re meant to be together.

She and Merv had bonded over that at three in the morning. They were laughing with recognition. Everyone was implicated. Julie was Merv, Merv was his wife, his wife was Julie. The more they made fun of themselves and people who were addicted to being unhappy, the more Julie became convinced the future of her happiness rested entirely on doing the impossible: she had to make Merv understand that he had been running scared his whole life but he didn’t have to run anymore, she was here now to stand still with him, and if he would just let her, she could show him the softest of all loves . . .

It all made sense. She hated all the wannabe saviors because she was a failed one herself.

She started again, Do I . . .

Yes. Question. Mark.

Do I make you happy?

He spoke to her directly through a machine:

I. Keep. Thinking.

What. If. 

The. Goddess. Brought. You. 

To. Me. 

Question. Mark.

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