I dropped out of college at twenty. I got so depressed the words blurred on the pages of the PDFs I was supposed to be reading, even when I printed them out. Books were out of the question: I’d read the same sentence over and over again and get through a thirty-page chapter in a week and a half. All food tasted grainy, mealy, grey. I stopped going to the dining hall and ordered pizza instead, which tasted the same as the food in the dining hall. I emailed professors saying I was sick and they responded kindly, offering to set up times to meet with me during their office hours. My philosophy professor said she’d meet me at a coffee shop over the weekend if that was more convenient for me. She added that “we all run into hard times, especially in college when we’re away from our support systems,” and that I should please let her know if I needed to be connected with a counselor at the student health center. I got too broke to keep ordering pizza so I didn’t eat much. I let the professor help me set up an appointment at the student health center, where I saw a therapist with a PhD named John Neely. John Neely asked about my childhood trauma and I told him I had none. He said to please be honest with him, everything I said would be kept confidential. Desperate to come up with something, I said that both my parents had had affairs. He asked if they were divorced and I didn’t want to disappoint him but I told him the truth anyway, that they were still together and that their marriage was maybe even stronger as a result.
“All mental illness stems from childhood trauma,” he said. “You have to understand that.”
He told me to come see him next week but I didn’t. For three days, I didn’t get out of bed except to pee and rummage in the kitchen for peanut butter. All the professors emailed me, and when I lifted open my laptop I saw a few emails from the same professor, the French one I had five times a week, with the words How are you doing? and then Where are you? and then This many unexcused absences is going to result in a failing grade. I looked up at the ceiling of my dorm room, which I shared with a girl named Abby who stuck little plastic diamonds around the contours of her eyeshadow. She didn’t talk to me much but she didn’t seem to mind me. On the ceiling was a crack that made me think of an artery traveling the length of a body. I followed the crack from where it began above my bed to where it ended above Abby’s bed. I thought of blood moving through a body. I thought of the fragility of bodies. A body crushed under a fallen tree. A body crumpling to the ground from a blood clot in the brain. All the ways a body could kill itself or be killed. I thought of freak accidents where someone’s artery gets opened and blood jets out. Blood draining from a body.
I didn’t shower for two weeks. Abby started staying over at her boyfriend’s on the weekend, and then during the week. I watched Netflix on my parents’ account, shows I couldn’t remember watching minutes after finishing them. My mom called me and I didn’t pick up. My dad called me and I didn’t pick up. Eventually Abby told someone—I have no idea who—and a “wellness check” was performed. Campus security with walkie talkies and chunky belts. But by then the semester was over and I’d already failed all my classes.
I was placed on academic probation. I lost my partial scholarship. I told my parents I didn’t want to go back and my mom told me that was OK and my dad said, “Why are you saying that’s OK? What are you teaching her?” And my mom said, “She’s clearly suffering.” And my dad said, “She’s already cost us a small fortune.” And then he looked at me and said, “If you drop out of college, you can’t come back home, do you understand? We’re not going to support you anymore.” My mom cried and begged him not to be so harsh with me. My dad shrugged and said, “Play it as it lays.”
I wound up in Chicago, two hours north of college. Someone I kind of knew named Jules had an apartment in Uptown that she was sharing with four people. I had a “room” in the living room made out of bedsheets with a mattress on the floor. Jules had been two years ahead of me in college, graduating around the time I flunked out. I knew her from a production of Edward Albee’s Seascape the drama department had put on where she played one of the lizards. I had done some tech for the play but didn’t really like doing it and never did again. Jules wanted to get famous doing improv in Chicago and so did all her friends but all of them were nannies or dog walkers making googly-eyed gourds and Smash the Patriarchy needlepoints for Fiverr and Etsy and working as “teaching artists” in after-school theater programs. I got a job at Oly’s, an all-night burger-and-quesadillas-and-gyros place on Granville. I made $11 an hour. My mom texted me every day and my dad every week and I sent the shortest responses possible. At night when Jules and her friends were out or asleep, I made little welts in my arm with a pocket knife. I grew my nails out and scratched into my wrists, seeing how close I could get to a vein. It made sense that one day I would be all alone, my phone turned off and the door locked, and I would finally get close enough.
I was a virgin. I had never even kissed anyone of any gender. One time in high school a guy tried to finger me in his car and I hit him in the head and ran home. He never said anything about it because he was the kind of guy who’d be embarrassed about being beat up by a girl. When she did talk to me—or rather, at me—Abby described how big her boyfriend’s dick was and how great it felt inside her. She had a nickname for his dick: Dwayne Johnson. She asked me how many dicks I’d sucked and I lied and said twenty-four. She looked worried and told me she could tell I was lying. She said that if I stopped dressing like the guys in Pineapple Express maybe I’d get some. She said, “I honestly think you might be too messed up to fuck. You need to get that fixed.” Jules had a boyfriend who lived in Pilsen, which took hours to get to by train, and she had threesomes all the time without him, sometimes with her friends, sometimes with other people she knew from improv classes. The living room was next to Jules’s bedroom, and I could hear her through her wall and my bedsheet. If the noise of the fucking made me feel bad, I took the pocketknife to my arm. Sometimes I took it to the tops of my thighs.
One night I got off work early and Jules was in the apartment alone. All her friends were at the screening of an independent film. They all knew the director but Jules was in a fight with him so she’d stayed home. When I walked in and hung up my coat she was sitting on the couch looking at her phone wearing a tartan crop top and black jeans with a hole in the right knee. Her hair was up but a strand had fallen loose and hung next to the curve of her jawline. I hadn’t noticed her jawline before, but now I couldn’t stop looking at it.
“Hey,” she said. “You busy tonight?”
It was nice of her to pretend I was ever busy. “No, actually.”
“Do you know what a speakeasy is?”
“Like, in the ’20s?”
She laughed, so I laughed too.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s sort of the concept behind them. Except we don’t need them for alcohol anymore, obviously.”
“There’s this one in Albany Park. You can only get into it if you know someone who’s already in. And you can only bring one guest.” She looked at her phone and began texting, briefly absorbed in some drama. Then she looked back up. “Wanna be my guest?”
The speakeasy was underneath a boring-looking liquor store on the block across from a bunch of Victorians. Jules knocked and waited to be assessed through the peephole. A guy who was maybe in his 40s opened the door, the kind of guy who would roll into my place of work around 3 a.m. after a Weezer show. Jules said “Kenny,” and then she said, “Don’t water the flowers,” and the guy nodded and stood aside.
Inside was what looked like a garden apartment made into a performance space: there was a three-person band playing in one corner, high-quality photos of oiled bodies having sex in another. People were walking around drinking and talking. There was a couch and two easy chairs in the center where people sat and smoked, and on the coffee table were massive, purplish nuggets of weed. The walls had been painted with Day-Glo paints: flowers and dinosaurs and elves and hairy monsters.
“Oh my god, machine elves,” Jules said, pausing at a scene of squinty-eyed elves piecing together a human body out of gears and electric wire.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Do you know what those are?”
I shrugged and gave a half nod, trying not to lie while not revealing my ignorance. She smiled.
“You see those when you do DMT,” she said. “God, I want to do DMT.”
A guy in black glasses and a T-shirt which pictured what looked like a demon making out with a ’50s housewife came over to us. Jules hugged him and said, “Kenny!”
“Who’s this?” Kenny pointed at me.
“Oh, this is my roommate. She moved here a few months ago.”
“Nice,” Kenny said. “You know, everything here’s free. Like, literally. Whatever you can get your hands on, you can take.”
“Even the photos?” Jules asked.
Kenny smiled and puffed out his chest. “Even the photos,” he said. “I took them, actually.” Then he grabbed Jules’s hand and pulled her close and whispered something in her ear.
“Hey,” she said to me. “Kenny needs to show me something. Are you gonna be OK on your own for a minute?”
I worried I wasn’t going to be, but I nodded anyway.
“Cool,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
I watched Jules and Kenny disappear into the crowd. I decided to do what I had done at parties before, which was get a drink. It was harder to get into awkward situations when you were holding a drink.
The surface area of the kitchen island was completely covered with liquor bottles, and people were taking and leaving them at a steady clip. A girl in a dress made of newspaper gave me a cup of what she told me was hot buttered rum. An inch of newspaper on her left boob had gotten wet and the ink was starting to run. I sipped the rum, unafraid of roofies because a girl had given it to me. It tasted thick and sweet. I stood against the wall and nodded back when people smiled at me in passing. I began to think then. I thought of drinking moonshine and going blind. I thought of drinking so much my organs would begin to shut down. I thought of getting my stomach pumped and choking on my own vomit. I drank faster.
Then there was a woman leaning against the wall next to me. She looked older than everyone else there, and her face was thin but in a glamorous way, with creases from her chin to the corners of her mouth like Charlotte Gainsbourg. She wore a maroon velvet jacket and metal bracelets on her wrists that disappeared beneath her sleeves and reappeared as she ran her hand through the uncombed length of her hair or raised her mug to drink. Her legs were wiry and crossed at the ankles, and she wore leather shoes with massive buckles and low heels, the kind that belonged in the 19th century. I wanted to look at her for hours.
“Do you like it here?” she asked.
“Like, at this place?”
She tilted her head to one side. “No, like in Chicago.”
I became anxious that I’d already messed up the conversation. “Yeah,” I said.
She smiled and I looked straight ahead. I could feel her gaze traveling from my feet to my face.
“I’m Vanessa,” she said.
I told her my name.
“You ever see someone and like them instantly?” she asked.
I wanted to say I had but I hadn’t and knew I probably never would. I stayed silent, downing the last of my drink.
“Of all the people here,” she wagged her index finger across the length of the room, “I think you’re the most interesting.”
I swallowed and then barked out a laugh and then got embarrassed and rubbed the rum from my lips with the back of my hand. “OK, well, that seems wrong.”
Vanessa smiled. “Why’s that wrong?”
“Because I’m a fuckup.”
“I’m going to get another drink,” I said.
“You’re very beautiful,” she said.
I felt my heart begin to race. “Are you hitting on me?” I asked. “Is this a trick?”
“I’m not beautiful,” I said. My hair was boy-short, shaggy, my legs thin and my stomach thick enough that I had a small belly. I wore sneakers and skinny jeans that were too tight at my waist and, over my long-sleeved shirt, a hoodie for a mediocre metal band that Abby’s boyfriend had discarded in our room.
“You are, but I’m not going to sit here arguing with you. I can’t convince you of anything. I’m just some idiot in a drug basement.”
I didn’t know how to preserve my dignity. “I am too,” I said.
She brought the mug back to her lips. “Sure, and you’re also beautiful.”
I drained my drink. “I’m gonna go find my friend.”
She grabbed the sleeve of my hoodie and pulled a flash drive out of her back pocket. It had what looked like her name and number taped on the side. “Take this home and tell me what you think. It’s my work. Or, at least, some of it. If you like it, give me a call.”
I put it in my pocket. She looked down at my shoes, Timberlands my mom had gotten me for my 19th birthday.
“Do you lace those up every time? Or slip them on?”
I looked down with her. “I slip them on.”
“Yeah,” she said, and grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “I could tell.”
Kenny and Jules had taken molly. They were making out in the Lyft and made me sit in front with the driver, who tried to talk to me about how he never went south of Roosevelt because “thugs live on the South Side.” When we got home, Kenny and Jules tore their clothes off in the hallway and he started fucking her against the wall, his pants at his ankles. I watched for a minute, my hand around the flash drive in my pocket. It was like a video of praying mantises I’d seen in the fifth grade, the female’s body bobbing a little up and down while the male stayed relatively still. Jules’s face screwed up when her eyes met mine.
“What the fuck?” she said. “Stop looking, seriously.”
I stopped looking and went into my room, where I could hear Jules moaning. Eventually they went into Jules’s room and the moaning got a little more muffled. It felt like the barometric pressure had suddenly dropped in my head. Involuntarily, I imagined Kenny stabbing Jules, Jules stabbing Kenny. I imagined stabbing myself, stabbing them both. Was it possible to accidentally stab someone? Was I someone with such awfulness inside of me that I was capable of accidentally stabbing someone? I used the pocketknife to make a little slice in my forearm. I took my pants off and made another one on my thigh. I felt sick and restless, like a swarm of bees was pressing to be released from under my skin. I got a knife from the block in the kitchen and brought it back to my room and set it next to me. The blood from my forearm and thigh was starting to drip. I didn’t do anything about it. My mom had texted me I love you sweets. I hope you’re having a good night. I turned my phone off.
I opened my laptop. I had watched everything on Netflix. I had streamed every movie and show that wasn’t on Netflix. There was nothing left. There was no use for my laptop. Might as well infect it with the malware that was probably on Vanessa’s flash drive. The laptop would make screeching dying-robot sounds that, if blasted at full volume, would drown out the noise of the fucking.
The flash drive was called OPUSES and there was one folder inside: TO WATCH. I clicked on it and the thumbnails of a bunch of files showed up with names like TheInquisition.mp4 and AnInquiry.mp4. I thought about Vanessa again, thin in her velvet jacket, and imagined her filming a beheading like ISIS. I pressed my thumb into the knife and drew a little blood. I felt disgusting, the kind of person who would end up grabbing people’s wallets on a train platform, begging on the corner for someone to buy them a pack of cigarettes from a bodega. I decided I would watch one video and then try to find a vein.
I chose NotesFromUnderground.mp4. The screen read “Vanessa Redwire Productions” in Metropolis font. There was the thick staticky sound of a video without music. Then the title screen vanished and Vanessa was sitting on a folding chair in shorts and a tank top in a room full of soft white light. Behind her was some kind of metal frame, like a medieval torture rack but friendly-looking. Vanessa was beaming. She crossed and uncrossed her legs.
“How are you feeling about this?” said a man’s voice behind the camera. It, like the rack, was friendly.
“Amazing,” said Vanessa without hesitation.
The man laughed good-naturedly. “I’m glad to hear that.”
Vanessa adjusted the straps of her tank top. She was acting at least ten years younger than the woman I’d met at the speakeasy.
“Can you tell me when this started?”
“Well, as a kid I always wondered what it would be like to be tied up. And then as a teenager I wanted the room quiet and dark while I made myself come. And then in my twenties I bought a sex swing to use with my boyfriend but…”
They both laughed.
“I’m guessing that didn’t work out so well?” the man said.
Vanessa grabbed the edges of her seat and rocked forward and back. “Obviously not.”
Then there was a cut and Vanessa was in a full-body black suit made of what looked like Lycra. Something about her bare head made me feel like I was watching an explorer-queen, someone beautiful who didn’t care about her beauty when she was cutting through thickets in an uncharted wood. The Charlotte Gainsbourg creases at either side of her mouth were softer in the white light. A black-haired woman in a shiny latex dress and very high heels was standing next to her holding a leather hood with buckles on all sides and a hole for the mouth. Vanessa stood still as the latex woman put the hood over her head. The latex woman had a hard time getting it on, and Vanessa, the latex woman, and the man behind the camera all laughed. Once the hood was on, the latex woman began to buckle the buckles and ask repeatedly if the buckles were too tight or too loose. Vanessa directed her and the latex woman responded promptly to her direction, a look of worried compassion on her face. Then the hood was secure and Vanessa was giving a thumbs up to the camera.
Another cut, and Vanessa had been tied to the rack and was completely suspended. She pretended to be struggling. She made moaning noises as she struggled. The latex woman had gone offscreen but now appeared onscreen again. She was holding a vibrator that looked like a massive microphone. She asked Vanessa if Vanessa liked being tied up and Vanessa nodded. She asked Vanessa if Vanessa wanted to come and Vanessa nodded again. The latex woman held the vibrator to Vanessa’s crotch and Vanessa’s muffled moans intensified. Then the latex woman took the vibrator away and said, “Not yet,” and Vanessa made a whining noise. The latex woman laughed. She turned the vibrator on again and traced Vanessa’s breasts over the Lycra. She traced the inside of Vanessa’s thigh. She teased her like this for a few minutes. Then she pressed the vibrator to Vanessa’s crotch and Vanessa’s muffled voice said, “Oh, oh, oh!” and I didn’t really notice what happened next because I was feeling better than I’d felt in a long time, something bright and colorful was flooding my brain, and there were stars on the ceiling, and my whole body was shaking.
* * *
I watched all twenty-four videos in the TO WATCH folder that night and then started watching them again and fell asleep on the fifth. I had seen porn before: on my parents’ computer as a kid, when TorontoDude87 sent me a picture of a woman licking an erect dick on AOL messenger; when my friend Trish had dared me to Google “hardcore porn” sophomore year of high school and we’d watched a video of a man thrusting into and choking a woman who wheezed, “Thank you daddy”; when Abby showed me her “dream,” which was a video of a woman on all fours with one guy’s dick in her mouth and another guy’s dick in her ass. I didn’t understand porn, and on the rare occasion that the subject of porn came up in my parents’ house, it was referred to as “degrading” and “obscene.” I decided not to watch it because, I told myself, I didn’t want to be involved in something that was degrading and obscene, but really it was because I didn’t like it. The women always acted scared and worshipped the men. There was always a close-up shot of the man coming on the woman’s stomach or her breasts or her face. Sometimes the women would come and scream and the men would put their hands over the women’s mouths and tell them to be quiet, especially if it was one of those storylines where the woman was cheating on her husband and he was in the next room.
Trish told me she could make herself come without touching herself. All she had to do was think of her boyfriend naked and cross her legs together really tight. A lot of people’s boyfriends made them come multiple times in one session: the highest count I’d ever heard was thirty-one. At night while my parents watched PBS I lay in my bed wearing the oversized T-shirt I’d gotten from sleepaway camp and no underwear. I’d touch myself and think of Jake Gyllenhaal and Channing Tatum. When they first appeared in my mind, they were fully clothed. I tried to undress them but I couldn’t imagine them without clothes for some reason. Sometimes they had my dad’s upper body when he walked around shirtless in his towel after a shower (in which case I stopped touching myself immediately and pulled the shirt over my knees and cried), and sometimes they had the oversized biceps and thighs of bodybuilders. They were usually in mid-conversation with me when I imagined them, saying their lines from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or Magic Mike XXL, and I felt rude for interrupting them. So I tried to imagine Trish’s boyfriend instead, his peach fuzz and hi-tops, but that was somehow worse than imagining my dad’s shirtless body. Then I tried imagining erect dicks, veiny and hairy, but whenever I tried that I’d start laughing because I’d be thinking of bratwurst or elephant’s trunks. By the time I left for college, I’d stopped trying altogether.
Vanessa’s videos were different from anything I’d ever seen. The women had ideas and Vanessa let them act the ideas out. Rope, leather, buckles, straitjackets, Lycra, latex, gas masks, ball gags, rubber gloves, hoods, duct tape, vibrators, swings, saran wrap. And when the women came no one told them not to make noise. And other women made them come. And they talked to each other, told each other their ideas, said they were feeling great about their ideas.
For a few days, I woke up, watched the videos, went to work for nine hours, came home, watched the videos. I felt sick and dizzy when I was away from the videos. I felt like I was falling in love. I barely saw Jules and her friends—I barely took the time to take my shoes off in the hallway before running to my room, closing the bedsheets around me, and watching the videos. Sometimes I would come up for air—get a glass of water, pee, change into pajamas from work clothes—and wonder what it meant that I liked the videos. Before I could draw any conclusions, I’d whisper You like the videos because you like the videos, and then I’d plunge back in again. I came constantly, involuntarily.
I decided this was feminism, and that I was a feminist. I began reading feminist sites: there was one I liked in particular that talked about how women’s sexuality should be respected by men. Then I read an article on that site called “The Seeds of Sexual Violence Are Planted Early.” It told the story of a serial rapist and pedophile who remembered being five years old and fantasizing about the way Jabba the Hut put Princess Leia in shackles. “When you’re five and already thinking about shackles, where do you go from there?” the rapist asked. I stopped reading that site and all the rest of them. I thought about destroying the flash drive. I thought about telling Jules and asking if she could help me. But ultimately I made an incision in my left forearm and told myself to stop thinking about it. When I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I decided I owed it to myself to call Vanessa.
I called on a Friday, my only day off, around 10 a.m. When she answered, her voice was foggy and tired. She had either just woken up or been up all night. I told her I was the girl from the speakeasy.
“Beautiful girl,” she said. “How are you?”
I told her I was fine.
“Did you watch the videos?”
I told her I had.
“Very nice. Did you like them?”
I was silent. I had no idea how I would begin to say the things I wanted to say.
“Well,” she said dreamily. “I know you did, because you’re calling. I don’t give flash drives to a lot of people. If I did, people would think I was a pervert.”
She laughed but the word destabilized me and I could feel myself beginning to sweat.
“I’m guessing you want more of them,” she said.
I could barely say yes, but I did. She gave me an address. I promised I’d be there next Friday.
* * *
The house was in Humboldt Park, a Chicago Greystone with a neon pink-and-green palm tree filling a corner of the lower left-hand window. Someone was smoking on the porch, a blond girl in a striped hoodie. She was frowning at her phone. When she turned so I could see her face, I recognized her from DontJudgeItUntilYouveTriedIt.mp4, in which a woman in a latex dress puts her feet up on the back of a woman in a full-body cast who is serving as her ottoman. In the video, the blond girl wore full makeup and her hair in ringlets. Now, she wore smudged mascara and strands of her hair stuck out from under her hood like straw.
I was worried the blond girl would see me and think I looked suspicious, so I checked my phone, too. I had no new messages and no new notifications on any social media app. I scrolled through my own camera roll: covert pictures of other people’s dogs, a poorly lit picture of some plastic-wrapped food lump whose label read HAM AND RESINS, a picture I’d taken of my arm right after a fresh cut. The blood had swelled to the surface and begun to trickle out the edges, which was always something I liked to watch. I looked at it for too long and then, feeling as though I was about to be found out, put it away.
“Hey!” the blond girl was shouting. Her voice was hoarse and deep, not at all how I’d expected it to sound. “Are you watching me?”
I shook my head and halfway raised my arms as though I was about to be arrested. “I’m here to see Vanessa,” I said, quieter than I probably needed to. I crossed the street and stood in the front yard and pulled the flash drive out of my pocket, my hand shaking as I did. “She gave me this.”
The blond girl looked at me skeptically. She extended her arm and I gave her the flash drive. She inspected it, rubbing her finger over Vanessa’s name and number.
“Who are you?” she asked.
I said my name.
“That’s a horrible name,” she said. “I never heard of you.”
She smiled and then wheezed out a laugh. “Thanks for apologizing. Vanessa’s not here right now.”
This sent an explosion of adrenaline through my stomach and chest. The buzzing under my skin picked back up in full force.
“I’m Andie,” she said. “Spelled with an I-E.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Yeah,” she said, and took another drag on her cigarette. “Do you want to sit inside and wait for her? She’ll be back in twenty.”
The walls of the living room were crowded with photos of women tied to beds, gagged, wearing collars. They were all tamer than much of what I’d seen in the videos. The couch was large and stiff but obviously expensive, and I more balanced myself on it than sat on it. Where a TV would have been in front of me was a photo blown up to be larger than all the rest, of a woman in Lucite heels and a latex bodysuit with a circular cutout in the chest that showed her cleavage. She was standing facing away from the camera but turning back to wink at the photographer. In her right hand she held a riding crop.
Andie went into the kitchen and left me sitting there, surrounded by the pictures of beautiful women. How could Vanessa possibly find me beautiful when she had so many pictures of women like this—well-proportioned, with perfect hair and teeth, capable of holding your gaze even in a photo? I began to feel self-conscious. I was here because I wanted more videos. I wanted them so badly that I was willing to be humiliated by these photos of beautiful women to get them.
Vanessa came in through the front door wearing jeans over a leotard patterned with images of outer space. When she saw me, she ran to sit on the couch next to me and held my face in her hands.
“Beautiful girl,” she said. “I’m so glad you came.”
We went into the kitchen where Andie no longer was and Vanessa made me tea. For herself, she pulled a bottle of Miller High Life from the fridge. She slouched against the counter as she drank, squinting up at the ceiling. I looked up there with her and saw only drywall and light fixtures.
“I’m so glad I found you,” she said. “I think I’m a fairly good judge of character, but I didn’t know quite how good until I took a gamble on you.”
“I really liked the videos.”
She nodded. “I know you did. I knew you would.”
“They were like my favorite thing I’ve seen all year.”
“My videos? Really? I think that’s one of the highest compliments I’ve ever been paid.”
She rubbed the back of her long neck and looked at a point on my face just below my eyes. She was thinking, and it felt as if I was somehow helping her think. She raised her eyes to meet mine.
“Have you ever had a boyfriend? A girlfriend?”
I shook my head.
She frowned. “Have you ever had sex?”
I shook my head again, slower this time.
She clucked. “My poor beauty.” She got out her phone and began texting. I looked away, as if texting were as private a thing as getting undressed. She put her phone back in her pocket and a woman appeared in the doorway between the kitchen and the next room. She was the most beautiful woman I’d seen in my life, and not because she was wearing silver gradient eyeshadow or a shiny latex halter and miniskirt. There was a softness about her, a fullness, a warmth—the way her thighs pressed together, the way her bangs fell within exactly a few centimeters of her eyebrows, the way she ran an index finger over the edge of her shining lower lip before smacking both lips together. She tilted her head and looked at me as though I were an interesting toadstool she’d found in the woods.
“This is Stella,” Vanessa said. “She’s taking her fifteen. Right, Stella?”
Stella smiled and nodded. “Davey treats me well.”
“Yes,” Vanessa said, assessing me once again from the ground up. “We all love Davey.”
Stella took a step closer to me, then another. Her face was inches from mine. I could feel her breath on my chin.
“Hi,” she said, and grabbed my hand.
My first instinct was to pull my hand from hers, but I didn’t want to disrespect her or Vanessa, so I squeezed her hand instead. She laughed.
“You’re cute,” she said.
And then suddenly Stella’s tongue was in my mouth. I felt panicked at first, suffocated, but as her lips folded over mine I started to shiver. I started to like it. I kissed back, wanting to be soft, too. I got her lip gloss on my own lips. I grabbed her other hand.
“Very nice,” Vanessa said. I’d forgotten she was there.
Then Stella was holding the back of my neck and I was leaning in deeper to the kiss. Heat flushed my cheeks, my hands, my chest. There was a tightness in my crotch, the kind I’d felt while watching the videos. Then Stella’s hand was on my chest. She pulled her lips away from mine to kiss my neck, my collarbone. She pulled down my shirt collar and kissed the tops of my breasts. I felt dizzy. I felt warm. I grabbed her by the waist.
“Well done, beautiful girl!” Vanessa said.
I should have been bothered that Vanessa was still there, but I liked it. I wanted to be watched. I wanted someone to bear witness to Stella and me. To what we must have looked like locked in that kiss. I had nothing to compare it to, but Stella must have had one of the softest mouths in the world. She pulled her lips away from my chest and said, “Is this your first time?” I told her yes and she grabbed me by the waist and pushed me onto the counter. Then she was unbuttoning my jeans and pulling them down to my shoes and pulling down my underwear and I didn’t even think about the cuts on my thighs because I was holding onto the knobs on the cabinets and her tongue was inside me, and Vanessa was saying with a little laugh, “I’m going to leave you two to your business.”
* * *
The new flash drive of videos was somehow better than the last one. I watched them every moment I was awake and not working. I thought about Stella, too. The way she had electrified me and then come up from between my legs and put her forehead against mine and said, “You’re wearing my lip gloss all over now. It’s peach.” And we’d laughed and I’d put my pants back on and she’d poured me a glass of water and we’d talked about Illinois winters and growing up with dogs and then she’d told me that I was welcome at Vanessa’s house anytime. I composed texts to her in my head. Do you like getting your arms wrapped up? Do you like the way Vanessa laughs? Do you like me?
I typically worked the night shift at Oly’s, and the guys working with me were both in their mid-30s and had been there for years: Miguel and Dustin. Miguel, solidly built and bearded in a Cubs snapback, led and Dustin followed. If Miguel wanted to talk about girls, Dustin talked about girls. If he wanted to talk about baseball, Dustin talked about baseball. I usually stayed quiet. Sometimes they called me Lil Sis and made jokes about me burning my hand off in the deep fryer. I laughed along even though they weren’t funny. The night after I got the second flash drive was slow, and Miguel was asking Dustin if he’d seen a subreddit called r/weirdshit.
“Yeah,” Dustin said, clearly a lie.
Miguel snorted. “Yeah man there was this fucking pervert on there. He fucked his dog, apparently.”
My head pulsed.
“Yeah he like, was so in love with his dog that he fucked her and she got pregnant.”
Dustin paused, the limits of his understanding tested. “I think that’s impossible?”
“Well, yeah, but he like put dog semen in his dick. So like the puppies aren’t his but he did the fucking.”
I put some cheese curds in the deep fryer. They hissed and bubbled.
“That’s fucked up.”
Miguel nodded an exaggerated nod. “I mean yeah. There are people who do all kinds of sick shit out there.”
Dustin considered this. He put a pasty, floury tortilla—the only kind we had in stock—on the stovetop and sprinkled some cheese on it. “I saw this one movie where this woman wanted to get fucked by a mechanical dick.”
Miguel laughed, childishly high-pitched. “Yeah, man. A movie.”
“No, for real! It was like a movie in theaters. Like a mainstream movie. She wanted to replace her husband with this, like, machine. And then in the middle of the night her husband leaves because he’s been cucked by this machine-thing and this other guy breaks in and like blindfolds her and tapes her mouth shut.”
I retrieved the cheese curds and let them cool on the counter. I tried to think of Stella. Miguel wasn’t saying anything.
“So like,” Dustin persisted, “this guy uses the mechanical dick to fuck her but she can’t say yes because she’s blindfolded and gagged so he’s just raping her, and then he basically makes the thing go so hard it kills her.”
“Sounds like a bullshit movie.”
“I swear I saw it in theaters.”
“Yo, Lil Sis,” Miguel said, and tossed me a loaf of frozen garlic bread. I caught it close to my stomach like a football. “You OK with this? We being too weird for you?”
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Because we can stop. We can stop talking about this fucked-up pervert shit.”
I involuntarily thought of Stella’s tongue while looking at Miguel and my face flushed.
“Aww shit you’re blushing! Listen, we don’t have to talk about this. But, OK, this is the last thing I’ll say. You need to be careful.”
“Yeah,” Dustin said. “These streets are dangerous.”
“Like, seriously. This girl who lives a block down from me on Argyle got raped two days ago. By some random dude she didn’t even know.” He lowered his voice. “And they found a child pornographer in Uptown.”
“Fuck!” Dustin spat.
“Dude, fucking be quiet. We’re gonna have customers in like six seconds and you’re gonna be up in here yelling FUCK like some idiot.”
Dustin shook his head.
“This dude was doing shit to infants. We’re talking like some kind of Hannibal Lecter sicko. He was tying kids up.”
I swallowed and put the brick of garlic bread in the oven.
“So I just want you to be safe, OK?” Miguel’s voice came from behind me. “Just carry your pepper spray or your brass knuckles or whatever. There are too many messed up people walking around this city.”
When I got home, I didn’t go straight to my room. I sat on the couch and sent my mom a picture of a new pair of shoes I’d gotten. Doing my duty as a daughter. She wrote right back: Wow! Looking good! Getting such an earnest text from her made the skin on my hands prickle with anxiety. Jules wandered into the living room with a bowl of ramen and asked me if I wanted to watch some old Sailor Moon episodes with her. We sat on her bed and I tried to focus on the screen, on Sailor Moon’s ribbony hair and pink mouth, but I kept feeling sick. Maybe I was a bad person. I should stop being a bad person. Maybe all the things I did and said were wrong. I imagined Jules taking a sledgehammer to my head, my skull breaking apart in pieces, frothy spumes of blood. I told her I was getting tired and went back to my room.
I made a cut I had to really focus on this time, testing to see how deep I could go without opening a vein. I never cut when there was a risk other people could see my silhouette against the bedsheets, but I wanted to get this one in really quickly, because I was going to be sick if I didn’t. The blood came up fast and thick. I panicked. It was dripping on my sheets, the floor. I tried putting a towel over it, then a pillow. Five minutes in and it looked like someone had been killed in my bed. Crying, I ran to the kitchen and twisted a rubber band around my arm above the cut. I pressed a wad of paper towels against my forearm and looked out the window. In the building across from ours, a greying man in a green sweater was drying dishes. I was pathetic. I was so fucking pathetic. The sound of Sailor Moon paused in the next room and Jules was in the doorway, looking at me, her mouth open.
“Oh my god. Do you need any help?” she asked.
I shook my head, still crying.
I didn’t know what to say. There was no way to explain it. Blood dripped on the floor.
“I did it.”
Jules’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”
“OK,” she said, backing away, her fingers curled at her sides. “Feel better.”
I couldn’t go to the ER. Bad things would happen if I went to the ER, because they’d see the other cuts. I got out my phone and called Vanessa.
“Beautiful girl,” she said, sounding half-awake again.
By then I was crying so much I could barely speak. “I had an accident,” I managed. “I’m bleeding a lot.”
Her voice sharpened. “What happened?”
I made a mewling noise.
“Where are you?”
I gave her the address.
“I’ll be right over.”
I was waiting on the front steps, my arm swaddled in paper towels, when Vanessa pulled up. She got out of her car, saw me, and then went back and came out again with the kind of rubber tie phlebotomists tie around your forearm to make your veins pop. She tied my arm off and sat next to me while we both watched the bleeding stop. Then she wrapped me in what felt like yards of gauze and told me to get in the car with her. We sat parked in front of my building, both of us staring ahead. Snow began to fall around us, smudging my view of the streetlights.
“You have a lot of scars on your arm,” Vanessa said. “Show me your other.”
I rolled up my sleeve. She ran her fingers over the bumps.
“I saw some on your thighs too. The other day.” She sighed. “We can’t have this, beautiful girl.”
I began to cry again. “I know,” I said.
“What makes you do this?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
She put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me into a hug. I cried into her chest, which was moist and warm and smelled like rosewater. “I’m going to be seeing a whole lot more of you, I think,” she said.
* * *
What happened next happened fast. I went to Vanessa’s that night and met Davey, who was thin in a button-down and tight jeans and thick glasses. As we shook hands and he said, “Pleasure to meet you,” I recognized his voice from the videos: the man behind the camera. When I told him my name, he shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “please don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s an awful name. It doesn’t suit you at all.” He turned to Vanessa. “Do you see her hair right now?”
Vanessa collected a few loose strands and tucked them behind my ear. “Yes,” she said.
“Short and slicked back like that, doesn’t it kind of look like Warren Beatty?”
Vanessa burst into an awkward caw, but quieted quickly when she looked at me. “I mean, it kind of does.”
“You’re probably too young to remember any Warren Beatty movies, hon,” Davey said to me, “but right now you kind of look like Bugsy. I was so into Bugsy when I was a kid.”
Vanessa clapped her hands. “Oh my god, Bugsy!”
Davey held my chin and gently swiveled my head back and forth. “You look like a gritty gangster lesbian. Like a dykey Al Capone.”
“I love it,” Vanessa said. “Can we call you Bugsy?”
“Sure,” I said.
The rest of the house was dark, so as we walked through it Davey kept running ahead of us to flip on lights. Here were the wooden stocks in which the girl in the sensory deprivation hood had been locked. The rack from which Vanessa had been suspended. The table to which the girl in the full-body Lycra suit had been strapped and tickled. There was tons of equipment: high-quality cameras, boom microphones, and the kinds of lights I’d seen in pictures of movie sets.
We stopped upstairs, in a completely bare room with nothing but white sheets attached to the wall. “We still have to light and stock this one,” Davey said, hands in his back pockets. “Vanessa tells me you’ve been liking our videos.”
“Well, I knew she would,” Vanessa said. “I know a freak when I see one.”
I wanted to ask her what “freak” meant in this context, but I was feeling so good after feeling so bad that I didn’t want to ruin it.
“So, I’m the producer,” Davey said. “But really the girls and Vanessa are the directors. And actors.”
“Davey’s an aromantic asexual queer,” Vanessa explained, moving to put her arm around him. “He feels neutral-to-negative about sex and he doesn’t get off on anything we do. But he does like filmmaking.”
Davey smiled and shook his head at the floor in an enough-about-me way. “Have you seen our page? It’s called Our Hands Are Tied.”
Vanessa tsked him. “Why would I make her go to our page? There’s a paywall. She’s a kid working a minimum-wage job.”
“Maybe when you get a raise you can become a monthly subscriber.”
Vanessa shook her head and slid her fingers through my hair. “Bugsy’s not going to lose money to us. She’s going to make money from us.”
I stayed there that night, on an inflatable mattress in what I’d come to think of as The Bare Room. The next morning, Vanessa woke me up with black tea and a croissant. She told me they were shooting four scenes that day and asked me if I could be the boom operator because they were always getting one of the girls to do it and it would be good to have them all free. I said yes, trying not to make it seem like it was the one thing I wanted most in the world. I wore headphones in which I could hear the amplified sounds of the girls moaning, putting on latex mittens, wrapping each other up in chains. I stood by Davey while he sat behind the camera, stepping closer to or farther from the scene as he wished. After that, I thought I’d never feel the buzzing under my skin again.
Vanessa cut me a check for $120 at the end of the day and told me she was paying me $15 an hour. I went home that night and could barely sleep from excitement. I went back the next day to be the boom operator, and the next. My supervisor at Oly’s called to ask what was wrong with me. When I called back, it was to tell him I was quitting.
I saw Stella again. She lived in the house, along with Andie and three other girls: Dolce, Lea, and Missy. I memorized their names and how they looked wrapped up in straitjackets, taped to poles, suspended from racks. I learned what fetish objects were—girls who were immobilized and deprived of sight and sound and forced to orgasm repeatedly—and what orgasm belts were and what it meant to top and to bottom. Andie, who had grown up the daughter of mechanics, looked babydollish during shoots with red cheeks and full lips and preferred to be enclosed in cages with her head taped up so only her nose, lips, and ponytail stuck out. Dolce was the smallest of the group, a former nurse, and liked to be suspended in the air, blindfolded, tickled, and fingered. Lea had been a runner in college and loved anything that tested the limits of her physical endurance: she would be taped to wooden crosses or hung upside down, or forced to stand for hours with her legs apart as she was edged by a vibrator in an orgasm belt. Missy had escaped a Mormon family in Utah and loved to wear the kind of leather hoods with metal-ringed mouth holes that allowed dildos to be slid down her throat and showed the full edges of her lips as she sucked on them. And Stella did everything: scenes where she was hog-tied, scenes where she was a helpless gagged fetish object, scenes where her legs were spread apart with clamps and one of the other girls fingered her. After we filmed a scene and Davey let us take a fifteen, Stella and I would go into the upstairs bathroom and make out. Sometimes she’d have rope burns on her arms or imprints on her forehead from tape or a gas mask, and that would make it hotter.
I slept on the inflatable mattress more often than I slept in my apartment, and I’d arranged the few belongings I had around my new bed. I went to sleep looking at the soft white walls around me and thinking of the sky, or of outer space. I always woke up feeling better rested than I had since before going to college. One morning Davey was standing above me, pushing his glasses up his nose and saying, “Bugsy, if you’re gonna sleep here every night, you might as well stop paying rent at the other place.”
When I told Jules I was moving out, she told me that wouldn’t be possible, because I was covering one fifth of the rent and there was no one to replace me.
“I didn’t sign a contract,” I said. We were standing on the front steps and Vanessa was in her car next to the curb, smoking and watching us.
Jules crossed her arms. “You signed, like, an emotional contract. You moved in with me at the beginning of the year and promised you’d still be here when we renewed the lease.”
I looked at Vanessa and then back at Jules. Jules was wearing a too-thin jean jacket and her eyeshadow was smudged above her right eye. Her shirt read The Fantasticks All-Stars 2015, the iron-on letters cracking.
“I’m breaking that promise,” I said.
“Fuck you!” she spat. “You can’t just break promises like that! I tried to make you my friend!”
I stood back, watching her. She was small and furious in the cold.
“God, you psycho bitch. This is because you cut your arm open, isn’t it?”
“Fuck you too, Jules,” I said. I felt as good as I did making out with Stella, but in a different way.
Slowly, Stella told me about herself. She was six years older than me. She had lived in Chicago most of her life. Her father was a county judge who drank and beat her mother. He’d recently ruled in favor of a cop who’d shot a black teenager from Altgeld Gardens eighteen times, continuing to fire bullets into his back long after the teenager was lying face-down on the pavement. Stella hadn’t spoken to her father in ten years. Her mother, who had wanted only to be a well-treated and well-kept woman, had done sex work—that was how she and her father had met—and had died of brain cancer when Stella was fourteen, long before Stella had known she’d wanted to go into the business herself. But she’d always known she wanted to do something that would make people stop what they were doing and watch her. She wanted to be on people’s minds even when they weren’t looking at her. She’d read in a magazine that scientists had discovered that people could have whole clusters of neurons dedicated to recognizing a single celebrity. “You could go inside someone’s head,” she told me, “and point to the cluster of Lady Gaga cells, or the cluster of Rihanna cells.” She wanted people’s brains to have a cluster of cells for her. She decided that changing her name from Abigail Hermann to Stella Hardwycke would be a good start.
The thing about Stella, though, was she didn’t want to be famous. At least not Lady Gaga or Rihanna-famous. She wanted to be known and worshipped by people she didn’t know, but she didn’t want to be what she called “sugarpop,” which meant that the barrier to loving her would be so low that virtually anyone walking around in Target or in line at the McDondald’s drive-thru could come to know about her and love her. She wanted her people to have to find her. She graduated high school in Oak Park and went to New York for a few years, doing scenes in straight porn for $1,000 each and escorting on the weekends. In the scenes, which were elaborate, she was dressed in tartan skirts and given a girl to act with, the producer’s twentysomething girlfriend who had no industry experience and whom the producer constantly referred to as “pure.” Stella and the pure girlfriend would pretend to be gossipy teenagers texting on the girlfriend’s bed when Rico or Shane or Johnny would appear in the doorway and summon Stella to him by saying, “I don’t think you’re a very good influence on my daughter.” Ignoring the girlfriend’s protestations, Rico or Shane or Johnny would take Stella into his room, rip off her skirt and tights, and spank her. Oftentimes there’d be a close-up shot of Stella’s squealing face next to a bedside picture of the spanker and his wife and daughter. Then Rico or Shane or Johnny would pin Stella to the bed and fuck her from behind, saying, “I don’t want you in my house, you filthy little slut!” There were several variations on that scene, some of which involved the wife watching and insulting Stella, too. The scene work came regularly for a year but then started to wane when the producer’s eye wandered to different girls. Stella was not deluxe enough an escort to be able to afford her Brooklyn studio without the scene work. She moved back to Chicago and got a job with the civvies as a server at a steakhouse in River North. On weekends, she saw shows at a place in Humboldt Park called The Empty Bottle. It was there during a noise show that she met Davey, who happened to like the same band. He gave her his card in case she ever wanted work.
I told her I’d met Vanessa at a speakeasy and Stella laughed.
“I swear those weirdos always do their talent scouting in the grodiest places. Who do they think they’ll find?”
I snuggled up closer to her. “Well, they found us,” I said, and she kissed the top of my head.
Before I spent my first night in her bed, Stella told me we weren’t going to be exclusive. She didn’t believe in monogamy. She’d tried it too many times and it had been stupid every time. I told her I didn’t believe in it, either, even though I’d never done it. I was embarrassed when her room started to smell so much like me, but she didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes after we’d had sex for hours she would hold my forearms in her hands and rub her thumbs against the scars. Sometimes she was quiet when she did this and other times she said “shit,” and other times she said, “I’ve been depressed, too, but it’s never been like this.” Sometimes we strayed from the strap-on and going down on each other and did different things, the kinds of things I’d seen her get to do in Vanessa’s videos. She wrapped me up in tape. She tied my arms behind my back in a binder. Once she tied me to the bed and made me wear a leather hood that blocked out all light and let her lips hover above mine, breathing her Listerine-and-Mountain Dew-and-cigarettes breath into my mouth, and then denied me kiss after kiss. She ground up against me while I was tied down and screamed and spasmed and then I felt a pressure welling in me, an incredible pressure, and saw flashes of light behind my closed eyes and felt my legs begin to twitch and then in my brain every single Stella Hardwycke cell lit up, all cells were Stella Hardwycke cells, all cells were exploding. She took the hood off but left me flush and tied up and kissed me on the cheek. She asked me why I was so cute. I didn’t tell her I was in love.
On weekends, I played Catan with Lea, Missy, and Dolce. I ran errands for Davey, to Ace Hardware for a special type of screw whose name I would have forgotten had I not written it in my phone, or to Target to get Lysol or a broom for a scene in which Vanessa was going to buzz Missy’s head. In the credits for each video I was listed as “Bugsy….Gaffer, Key Grip, and Best Boi.” It was some film joke Davey was very pleased with that I didn’t get, but I never asked about it. Sometimes Stella and I went on long walks through the park, or to Garfield Conservatory to look at plants. She told me about monocots and dicots and how bivoltine bees were her favorite pollinators. She said in another, less interesting life she would have been a botanist. Sometimes we went to Wicker Park to get tacos at Picante Taqueria and talk about how the earth was created and why we’re all here and what emotions are made of. She called me Little One, which bothered me, but I didn’t stop her. When my parents texted, I told them how much better I was feeling working my job and living with Jules and that I might even consider going back to school. My dad made it clear I’d be paying for it this time. I told him sure, that was fine.
We were set up for a scene in which Vanessa was going to seal Lea in a vacbed and take a vibrator to her clit. I was in my bulky headphones wearing my toolbelt and holding the boom when Vanessa came up behind me and hugged me around the waist. I jumped and set the boom down as carefully as I could.
“You scared me,” I said.
She laughed in my ear. “I’m always scaring you, Bugsy. I’m scary, you’re jumpy.” Then she let go of me. “Do you want to do this scene and I’ll hold the boom?”
“Like, do your part in the scene?”
“Say yes,” Vanessa said. “You know you’re beautiful.”
“I have a potbelly,” I said.
She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. It’s better that way, actually.”
“Are the subscribers going to want to see a potbelly?”
“Yes,” she said without hesitation. “Our subscribers will.”
It should have taken longer to convince me but it didn’t. I got into the latex, which stretched and wrinkled in places it maybe wasn’t supposed to, and sat on my knees with a big smile on my face as Lea breathed audibly through her tube. Davey asked me if I was excited and I told him I was and bounced on my knees a little.
I did the scene, giggling the way Vanessa and the other girls did while they were domming, watching Lea writhe. Occasionally I pinched her areolas, hard beneath the black latex, and she squealed and shifted and Davey said, “Good, good!” When I had made Lea come a few times, Davey stopped rolling and everyone clapped for me. Vanessa de-pressurized the vacbed and Lea slid out and wrapped her ropey arms around me and told me she’d never had better. Vanessa proposed we all go to Picante Taqueria and then go dancing to celebrate my debut. I wore three-quarter length sleeves without even thinking about it. I sat next to Stella and we all laughed when she dripped sour cream down her chest. In the club I danced with Lea, Dolce, Missy, Andie, Vanessa, even Davey. Stella and I snuck into the bathroom and did bumps of coke and my head felt clear and my ideas were coming fast: We should recruit in coffee shops and boba places, where the hot queers go to mope. We should film a scene where Lea’s hog-tied and suspended from the ceiling and there’s a dildo in her mouth and Stella slides it in and out and denies her any pleasure. We should lower the subscription rate so more people working at Whole Foods or Petco and making zines could have the money to see our content—more subscribers over time would recoup any losses from lowering the rate. We should make Davey dress as Elton John for Halloween and we could all go in drag as his lovers, except Vanessa could stay female and go as his beard. Stella kissed me and told me to stop talking. She wanted to have sex with me in the bathroom stall. She locked the door and pressed me to the wall and shoved her tongue in my mouth. I had never felt happier in my life.
Then Cody showed up. He was just at dinner one night, in jeans and a pink hoodie that read MY MANTRA in a blocky mauve font. He had a sprinkling of acne at the base of his chin. I could see very clearly at least one whitehead that hadn’t been popped. He wore a double-undercut with his hair slicked back on top, which reminded me of Hitler youth. He kept complimenting the food, which no one had made: we were eating Chinese takeout. He sat in between Stella and me. When he made a joke—an unfunny joke—about trying to pop and lock as a white fourteen-year-old, Stella laughed and laid her head on his shoulder. The old buzzing started under my skin again.
Vanessa told us that Cody was doing some kind of web development at Venmo and wanted a part-time gig on the side. He was going to redesign our website and boost our social media presence. He was going to fiddle with the SEO so we would be the first or second hit when someone googled terms like “forced orgasm” or “multiple forced orgasms” or “lesbian BDSM.” Vanessa titled her head and smiled and said Cody had big ideas for us and was going to make magic happen. Cody deflected her praise with his brittle-looking hands and said he was no magician, he was just a nerd who believed in sex positivity.
That night, Cody slept in Stella’s room and I slept on my neglected air mattress. I hated the sound he made when he came: a strangled, breathy noise that would have been good as a soprano but was disgusting as a baritone. I hated the little murmurings they did in between rounds. I hated seeing him walk out into the hallway in his pink hoodie and polka dot boxers and look my way, staring long as if he could see me in the dark, as if I was a dormant threat that could spring to life at any minute. I hated when he showed up the next day and the next. I hated the way Stella checked her phone, waiting for his texts. I hated how Stella and I could only have sex during our fifteens, or in the mornings, and how distracted she was, how fast she made it. I hated his jokes, the way his ugly haircut grew out, the way one night he taught Vanessa how to Lindy Hop, saying he’d learned it in college because he was such a huge nerd and beer made him break out in hives so he’d found other ways to pass the time. And I hated the way everyone applauded them as they Lindy Hopped and Davey said, “I didn’t realize teaching a girl to Lindy Hop was the new spitting game.”
I asked Vanessa if maybe it was distracting having Cody around, citing the fact that Missy, Lea, Andie, and Dolce never invited the people they were sleeping with to dinner or to shoots. For the first time since I’d met her, Vanessa seemed annoyed with me.
“Unlike those people, Cody’s working for us.”
I told her I knew that, but maybe it would be better if Cody got some perspective on the whole thing. He was too close to it.
“Bugsy,” Vanessa said. She was chopping carrots, and she quickened her pace. “Stella likes to mix work and play. You of all people should know this. Do you think maybe you’re a bit jealous?”
I said I could never be jealous of Cody.
I didn’t know how to respond.
“Maybe you’re too close to it, Bugsy. Maybe you need some perspective.”
I wanted to be better than Cody but I had no way to be. I couldn’t do anything funny unless people were already convinced I was funny, couldn’t be charming unless people already thought I was. I worked extra diligently on set, setting up key lights and fill lights before Davey could ask me to, helping the girls apply their hair and eyelash extensions, buying organic makeup remover for Dolce, who was convinced that carcinogens were seeping into her skin at all times. We filmed what Vanessa called a Solo Series, where the girls were just alone onscreen being tortured by someone holding a magic wand offscreen. Sometimes I was holding the magic wand, but most often it was Vanessa. In one video, Stella was cuffed to a suspension bar with a full latex bodysuit and I was supposed to wear black—not even latex, just clothes—with my back to the camera and rub the magic wand against her clit. The goal, according to Vanessa, was to give the impression that the girls were getting off on the efforts of a nameless, faceless torturer who could very well be the viewer.
As the camera began rolling and I kneeled in front of Stella and turned the vibrator up to its highest setting, I could’ve sworn she stiffened. I jammed it against her clit and she moaned and flinched. Davey told me to go easy so I turned it off altogether and waited a few seconds while Stella whined and twisted back and forth. Then I set the vibrator to its lowest setting and traced semicircles around her upper thighs, listening to her muffled gasps. I thought of Cody. His skinny legs. His stupid jokes. I thought of her in bed with Cody, his dick inside her, her arms wrapped around his back. I thought of him breathing into her hair. I switched the vibrator up to high again and circled her labia, teasing her clit. She moaned, deeper and less self-conscious than she usually did onscreen. She had moaned like that before, but it had been for me only. I felt a pressure behind my eyes and blinked out a few tears. I made her come once, then again, then again. I thought involuntarily of the Garfield Conservatory and then of how raw her clit must be and made her come a fourth time, a fifth. Davey told me I’d done a great job.
That evening, she texted me to meet her on the front porch. When I came out to see her sitting alone with a blanket over her lap, her face pale and scrubbed of makeup, I was excited. I thought maybe she’d dumped Cody and I’d be the first person to learn about it. I thought maybe we’d kiss.
“Hey,” she said as I sat down next to her. “You were savage on set today.”
“You’re just savage all around, aren’t you?”
She tilted her head and looked at me like my mom used to when she was worried I was coming down with a cold. “How are you doing?”
“Yeah, I dunno, I’m fine,” I said. “Making money. Living the dream.”
“Are you taking any time for yourself?”
“I guess so, yeah.”
“Can you take my advice? As someone who cares about you a lot? I think you need to tell Vanessa and Davey that you need a few days off. I’m worried you’re not sleeping enough.”
There were pins jabbing the lining of my stomach. “I’m fine,” I said.
“OK. I’m just worried.”
We both looked ahead at the house across the street. I counted the cars as they went by. Six until she talked again.
“It’s getting serious with Cody,” she said, not looking at me. “I think I’m going to try and be exclusive with him.”
My brain began to swell. It felt like I’d just been given a diagnosis of stage four cancer. I clenched and unclenched my fists. “I thought you hated monogamy.”
“I know, I know.” She looked me in the eyes again, putting a hand on mine. “I feel like everyone says that until they’ve found the right person.”
“It’s kind of traditional, don’t you think?”
She laughed. “Little One, things change when you get into your late twenties. You start to want stability. You get it, right? He’s smart, he’s got a nice job, he’s cute. He makes me feel good about myself.”
“And seriously, you need to sleep with more people besides me! There’s a whole world out there.” She nudged my shoulder. I was rigid. “You gotta get that bang count up.”
“You get what I’m saying? No hard feelings, right?”
I shook my head. I felt like I was underwater. “No hard feelings.”
That night, the house was silent. My room was no longer The Bare Room: Vanessa and Davey had gotten me a cheap full bed and some plastic shelves from IKEA and hung a few old movie posters on the walls. My favorite was Who Framed Roger Rabbit because I loved the way Jessica Rabbit looked in her sparkling dress and blue eyeshadow with the sultry curtain of hair over her right eye. I lay in bed looking at Jessica Rabbit, feeling the buzzing under my skin and imagining for the first time in a long time the ceiling collapsing in on me, a single point of drywall becoming knife-sharp and stabbing me in the chest. It would be better to be stabbed than crushed, I thought, because a stabbing would preserve my body and Stella would have to see it when they all heard my screams and came running. She would have to think about how my dead fingers had once been inside of her and my dead lips had once kissed her all over. And the next day Cody would try to comfort her but what would he know about death? Some rich tech dude who cares about a website’s SEO? If we were living in purgatory and the only way out was suicide, Cody would be the last to catch on. The sun could collide with the Earth and he’d be sitting at his ergonomic desk playing League of Legends.
I felt as if all my energy was being directed to maintaining my corporeal form. There was nothing left inside of me, no guts, no brains, no emotions that Stella and I had once speculated were “half chemical, half spiritual.” There was a void, and that void was hurting me physically, as if I’d ripped a tendon in half but all over. Lying on my back hurt and so did sitting up and so did lying on my side. My head and feet were so heavy that it became difficult to change positions. My eyes throbbed. My wrists throbbed.
I lurched from my bed, making my blocky feet step painfully one in front of the other. At one point in the hallway I had to lean against a wall to catch my breath. The stairs took a long time. I had to sit down repeatedly, but eventually I got to the kitchen and then the laundry room, where Vanessa kept the first aid cabinet. I shook my hands, thinking I’d be better able to use them if they were “looser,” whatever that meant, and opened the cabinet. There was a bottle of sixty capsules of aspirin. I opened it up and saw that not all sixty were left, but there were certainly enough. I took the bottle and staggered into the kitchen and then swung open the fridge, where Missy was keeping a bottle of Smirnoff. I opened the Smirnoff and, gulp by gulp, swallowed a quarter of it and the entire bottle of aspirin. Then I slid to the floor and blinked.
Next, Davey was looking into my eyes and there were bright lights behind him. I couldn’t talk because my throat felt torn apart and full of something thick. My stomach was cold; I was cold. I discovered I could breathe out words, so I asked him why he was here.
“Why I’m here?” he asked, and he sounded angry. “Because it’s the hospital, Bugsy. Why would I not be in the hospital if you are?”
Vanessa was next to him, crying, asking me why I’d done what I’d done. I could see Missy next to her, texting, looking up at me and then down at her phone. She said something about Dolce and Lea taking the next train they could from Hyde Park, where they had apparently been at a party, and Andie getting someone to take her shift at Strange’s—it wasn’t a big deal because most of the patrons had cleared out for the night and no money was hitting the floor—so she would be arriving wherever we were as soon as she possibly could. Then Stella and Cody were at the foot of my bed, and Stella’s face was round and wet, and she was grabbing my ankles and saying “Jesus, Bugsy,” and Cody was holding her around the shoulders.
I had to stay in the hospital for a week. I sat in groups with other people in hospital gowns who wanted to talk about their cheating spouses or their theories about the president’s methods of mind control or their hatred of the other people in hospital gowns. I ate roast beef slathered in gravy that looked like frosting. I got up at 6 a.m. so a nurse who called me by my old name could take my vitals. When I told her my name was Bugsy she told me that’s not what it said in my file. I took 200 mg of Zoloft every morning out of a paper cup. When I was released, I was told to keep taking the Zoloft or else I’d end up back in the hospital.
When I got back home, Vanessa told me I wouldn’t be working on shoots for a few weeks but she would be paying me anyway. My mom was anxious that I hadn’t called or texted in a week, so I spent hours on the porch telling her made-up details about my life: how I was applying to office jobs, how I was looking into taking a few classes at DePaul, how I had just been taking a “tech cleanse” for a week and I was sorry I hadn’t warned her about it beforehand. I avoided seeing Stella as much as I could, only spending time in the house at night or when I knew she wouldn’t be home. I ignored her texts. I spent time in coffee shops reading books I had been assigned but hadn’t read in college: Sula and Written on the Body and the selected works of Guy de Maupassant. I got myself cheap dinners at McDonald’s or Taco Bell and ate under bright lights, reading the news on my phone. Sometimes I looked at social media and saw pictures of Jules—she hadn’t blocked me for some reason—at parties or music festivals or improv shows, her face painted with Day-Glo paint, flowers in her hair, a cigarette between her lips. The Zoloft made me feel cocooned. I could think about the videos I’d watched or help shoot, or about Stella naked, and I still wouldn’t want sex. My potbelly got bigger.
I spent enough time at the Taco Bell that I began to recognize the regulars. There was a couple, a man and a woman, who came in almost every night I was there, sat a couple booths away from me, and argued. The woman sat with her back to me, so I saw only her shoulders in her red, fake leather jacket and her green hair, roots growing out at the top. The man wore plugs in his earlobes and black-frame glasses and had a full beard. I listened as the woman said, “I just think we should try,” and he said to her, “No, babe. I’m sorry, but it’s fucked up. It’s against my personal morals.” One night I moved booths to be closer to them and they didn’t notice me.
“Seriously,” the woman said, “it can’t be so weird if other people are doing it.”
“Rule 34,” the man said sternly.
“What’s rule 34?”
He rolled his eyes. “If it exists, there’s porn of it.”
The woman’s shoulders slumped. “I just think it would be cool if we could use some toys.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Toys?”
“What kind of toys?”
“I don’t know.”
“So my dick’s not enough for you?”
“No, babe! No, I’m not saying that.”
“Lesbians use toys,” he said. “We’re not lesbians.”
“I’m just saying I saw this video. Just hear me out.”
He opened his hands, encouraging her to go on.
“There was this girl and she was, um, tied to like a wooden cross. And someone came in with a riding crop and was like, slapping her on the breasts.”
He gave an exaggerated nod. “Right. That’s porn. Not what we do.”
Then they started talking about how hard a time the man was having at work, how he had all these ideas but his boss wasn’t listening to him. A thought entered my head: Andie was supposedly twenty-two, but she could’ve been seventeen. What if she was lying about her age? What if she was younger than me? What if we were technically making child porn?
I lay in my bed that night thinking about it, running through my head every single time I’d seen Andie and what she’d been wearing and how she’d been standing and what I’d thought about it. I asked myself several times whether I’d been attracted to Andie and the answer was yes, I had, I had definitely found Andie hot. If Andie was seventeen or sixteen and I found her hot, then I was attracted to a child who couldn’t give her consent. What if she was fifteen? She had sometimes looked fifteen in certain lighting.
At 3:30 a.m., I knocked on Andie’s door. When she didn’t answer, I knocked again. I heard a whine of complaint and footsteps and then she opened the door, blinking herself awake.
“Bugsy, I went to bed like half an hour ago,” she croaked. “What do you want?”
“Are you twenty-two?” I asked.
Her eyes were suddenly wide, which sent ice down my spine. “Of course I am.”
“Why are your eyes wide?”
“Because I can’t believe you’re asking me this at 3:30 in the morning.”
“But it looks like you’re surprised. Or guilty.”
“Fucking A. Go to bed.”
She tried to shut the door but I held it open. “Show me your driver’s license.”
“Are we really doing this?”
“If you’re under eighteen, we’re making child porn.”
“You’re younger than me. Maybe you’re the reason we’re making child porn.”
“I never said we were making child porn. I said if—”
“Jesus Christ!” She stumbled back into her room and emerged carrying her purse, which she fished around in until she’d found her wallet. She opened it to show me her ID.
“See there? Born December 27, 1997. Are you happy?”
It occurred to me that it was a fake ID. “Is it a fake ID?”
Her face soured. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Then she closed the door in my face.
I laid in my bed but I couldn’t sleep. Why would Andie try to deceive me like this? Deceive us? When it was light outside, I tried to wake Vanessa up. It was entirely possible that she was unknowingly making child porn, but I still cared about her. What did that say about me, that I cared about a child pornographer?
I pounded on her door and listened. No noise. I pounded again. She was probably out. I texted her We need to talk. I waited a few seconds, then a minute, then five. No response. Davey wasn’t home, either. I didn’t try to text him, though. It felt more heinous to talk to a male child pornographer than a female one.
I spent all day at the Taco Bell, waiting for the couple. When they didn’t show up, I went to Myopic Books, where one of the workers, obviously genderqueer, started following me. They wore granny glasses and a chunky black-and-white sweater and had a round, red face. I disliked them instantly. Luckily, I was able to move quickly to avoid them. And as I moved, I was reading: a paragraph from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, a poem from The End of the Alphabet, six pages from a book about an angry accountant who’s lost in another dimension. I felt myself becoming stronger, smarter, increasingly prepared to fight a life-defining battle.
“You’ll have to put those back,” the worker said.
I told them I would and then didn’t. They watched me run out of the store. The fact that they cared about the arrangement of books in a store was sad to me, and I felt bad for them.
I didn’t sleep the next night, or the next. Colors were brighter. Cars seemed to be moving faster. I started a group chat with Vanessa and Davey, telling them I knew about Andie’s lies and just wanted to take measures for everyone’s protection. They sat me down at the kitchen table and asked me why I was making false accusations. I told them I was trying to be protective of the empire they’d built. Davey asked what empire. I told him to take what I was saying seriously, that Cody had made us bigger than we ever were before and if Davey didn’t understand that then I was just going to have to take matters into my own hands.
“What matters?” Davey laughed. “Have you been blowing rails of someone’s coke?”
Vanessa looked worried. “Bugsy, honey, I know it hasn’t been an easy month for you—”
“It’s been a fine month for me,” I said. “You’re either with me or against me.”
I didn’t sleep the next night either. I avoided Andie, which meant I was avoiding both her and Stella, which was difficult to do when I was living in the same house as them. I homed in on the Taco Bell, which was open 24 hours. Finally the man and the woman were back, the man in a black hoodie and the woman in her same fake leather coat. They finally sat down so the woman was facing me, and I noticed she was beautiful: round-eyed, with black lipliner and thick red lips, a slim nose, a mole on her right cheek. I took her beauty as a sign.
They weren’t talking, just eating their Supremes. I sat down in the booth next to the woman.
“Sorry if this is awkward,” I said. “But you were talking about porn a few nights ago.”
“What the fuck?” the man said.
The woman laughed. “I remember you,” she said. “You’re the girl who’s like always here.”
I nodded. “I happen to be in the industry and I’m trying to solve the problem and clear up everyone’s names.”
“Get the fuck away from us,” the man said.
“No, no, no,” I said. “I mean, I realize that child pornography is an FBI risk and I want to make sure we’re not creating the potential for a major sting, as all our names are attached to everything we make. I need you to know that we are normal, well-intentioned, hard-working people who do normal, well-intentioned, hard-working things.”
The woman frowned.
The man said, “Are you a child pornographer?”
A few people looked over at us. I ducked my head.
“Can we speak in private?” I asked.
“If you don’t leave this table, sicko, I’m going to call the police on you,” he said.
I left. I felt the woman’s eyes on me. I felt she might be falling in love with me as I had fallen in love with Stella.
It occurred to me that maybe the FBI was monitoring my bedroom because of what I’d said and done in the past few days, that my laptop was being keystroked and that the authorities had already found all of the videos Vanessa had given me. I stayed out all night, wandering around Humboldt and Wicker, giving what little change I had to homeless people, blessing them back when they said God bless you. I was the most afraid I’d ever been, since I was a felon, but also the happiest I’d ever been, since I didn’t need to sleep anymore, since I was smarter than everyone, since I could solve perhaps the greatest problem that was hanging like a specter over the industry: that everyone thought we were child sex traffickers, when really we were not. I could outsmart the FBI. I was going to outsmart the FBI.
After five nights of not sleeping, I began to notice giant security cameras attached to buildings on every corner. These cameras seemed to have the ability to see that I was a freak, that I liked “unnatural” sex. If I didn’t have missionary sex with a man in twenty-four hours, I was going to be arrested. It would of course be better to be arrested for being a freak than for being a child pornographer but to be arrested at all was a bad thing. I had accumulated tons of missed calls and texts from everyone during my night out. I ignored them all and called Vanessa.
“I need a car,” I said. “I need your car.”
“Bugsy! Where are you? What’s wrong?”
“Don’t ask. Please, for your own safety.”
“Tell me where you are. I’m coming to get you.”
“No!” I shouted so loudly that people on the street were looking at me, and I realized that maybe they were spies, too. That maybe it wasn’t just the cameras. “Just, please, no. My phone’s being tapped. My laptop’s being keystroked.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What we’re doing is illegal on accident and I need to get out of town. We should all get out of town.”
Vanessa started to say something else but I hung up. She was useless. I would take the bus to the Metra and then I would take the Metra to a different part of the state.
I was riding the bus downtown, avoiding calls from Vanessa for her own protection, searching how to stop my phone from being tapped on my phone that was being tapped, when Stella got on the bus. She was more beautiful than I had ever remembered her being. There was actual light coming off her body. I had never believed in god, but she looked like god. I realized she was god. She was god living under the same roof as me, pretending to be a human woman. I’d had sex with god.
“Don’t let any of them tell you what you want is wrong,” god-Stella said.
“But what I want is wrong,” I said. “It’s very wrong.”
She shook her head. “Don’t be scared.”
I stood, edging closer to her. The closer I came, the farther away she appeared to be. “Stella,” I said.
She raised her glowing head. “Yes?”
“I love you,” I said. “I’ve been in love with you for a long time.”
The bus screeched and I jolted forward and god-Stella walked through the wall of the bus and I stood at the bus’s pressurized doors, waiting to be let out, waiting to follow her, and I yelled at the driver, “Open these doors, shithead! You’re keeping me from the fucking love of my life!” And then I was in an ambulance.
* * *
It was the Zoloft’s fault, apparently. They gave me a different pill they told me was an antipsychotic and they changed my diagnosis. More nightgowns, more frosting-gravy, more boring groups. Vanessa and Davey came to visit me every day. The girls were all working during visiting hours, which were typically at night. After a week, my parents showed up. My dad had grown a beard and couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with me. My mom hugged me, but her hug was tense and resistant.
“We got a phone call,” she said, sitting down across from me. “We came here as soon as we could, sweetie.”
My dad screwed up his face. “Are you doing drugs?”
I told him I wasn’t.
“Then what’s going on?”
I told him I didn’t know.
“Sweetie,” my mom said, “We got a phone call from a woman named Vanessa Redwire. We looked her up.”
My dad’s eyebrows arched. A look came across my mom’s face that resembled the looks lawyers in TV shows give to clients who they know aren’t telling the whole truth. “Are these the people you’re associating with?”
I looked down at the table. My dad grunted.
“You’re my only child,” he said. “And you’ve flunked out of college and started hanging out with pornographers. How do you think that makes me feel?”
My mom put her hand on his. “We just don’t want this for you. These people are dangerous, and what they do for a living is morally wrong. We want you to come live at home until you get back on your feet.”
My dad withdrew his hand from hers. “I never agreed to that.”
“Kevin,” she hissed. “If the options are live with us or make pornography, then what do you think we should choose?”
“Make pornography,” I said, raising my eyes to meet hers.
“No,” my mom said. “Sweetie—”
A nurse came in to announce that visiting hours were over. My parents tried to linger, but she told them they needed to leave.
“You’re making the wrong choice,” my dad said.
“Think of your future,” my mom said.
I told the nurse to take them off my visitors list. I ignored their calls and texts when I got out, responding only to say I’d made my choice. I don’t consider you my daughter anymore, my dad wrote. My mom fell silent.
Every day I took three pills in the morning and two at night. I went to yoga classes with Vanessa. I ate a spoonful of peanut butter and drank a glass of milk before going to bed so I wouldn’t wake up hungry. My sleep was important. Seeing a psychiatrist was important. Davey found me someone I could talk to, a counselor who worked in West Lakeview. The counselor was named Randy: he was thin and knobby-jointed with a lilting voice and an eyebrow piercing and told me within the first ten minutes of meeting me that he specialized in LGBTQ issues. I talked to him about college, and the buzzing under my skin, and the pocketknife, and how the videos changed my life, and how I’d fallen in love with Stella.
After a few months, I started doing shoots again. The girls threw a party to welcome me back. Stella baked a cake for me. Cody, who was apparently a hobbyist cake decorator, wrote our long national nightmare is over in green frosting on top. He had done something to the SEO to make us the first result for “girl-on-girl bondage,” the third result for “forced orgasm,” and the second result for “forced multiple orgasms.” Subscribers were coming in by the hundreds: at the end of three months, we’d netted a little over 2,000. My hourly rate went up to $20, then $30.
On Sundays, Vanessa and Davey would do something called Girl of the Week, where they’d film a live scene with one of the girls for the “elite club” subscribers. They usually let me sleep in during Girl of the Week, deputizing whoever wasn’t in the scene to do the gaffer work. Once I woke up early to find Stella sitting on my bed in the same latex bodysuit and Lucite heels the woman in the giant picture in the living room was wearing. The one difference was Stella’s bodysuit had a hood, with cutouts for her eyes and mouth.
“You look good,” I said.
She laughed. “I know. It’s a classic look.”
“Are you Girl of the Week?”
She nodded. “They’re setting up now.”
She gave me her hand and I took it, sitting up.
“I feel like I haven’t been able to talk to you in a long time,” she said. “Like, really talk to you.”
I shrugged. “I haven’t really talked to anyone.”
She put a latex finger under my chin, her eyes blinking in their cutouts. “You know I love you, Bugsy.”
My heart swelled. “Yeah.”
“And I know you love me too.”
“But you understand why maybe you’ve got to live a little more life before you’ve decided I’m the one you need to be with, yeah? Like, I don’t even know what I’m doing.”
I nodded again. She took her finger from my chin and held my hands in both of hers. “I talked to Cody, though. A girl gets tired of monogamy all the damn time.”
“What do you mean?”
She kissed me, the same way she’d kissed me in the kitchen when we’d first met. Then she pulled away, her lipstick smudged. “He wants me to be happy. And he thinks you’re pretty cute, for what it’s worth. Would you do it with a man?”
I laughed and looked at my hands.
“No pressure, of course. He’s getting used to everything, too.” I rubbed my fingers over the imprint of her kiss. “Don’t forget about me when you and your wife get rich and famous, OK?”
“I definitely won’t.”
“Get some rest, Bugsy.”
Then she went downstairs, her heels clunking, and I heard Davey’s muffled voice cracking a joke, giving her directions. I lay back down and listened through my pillow: Stella saying, Hi everyone, I’m Stella Hardwycke and I’m your Girl of the Week! And then buzzing, cooing, moaning. Sounds I’d heard so often they’d become background noise, as much a part of my daily life as a spinning ceiling fan or falling rain. I rubbed Stella’s greasy lipstick off my cheek. Then I closed my eyes and breathed deeper and deeper until I fell asleep.