by Voodoo Slide Rule
Jennifer's sleep was disturbed by something inside her. At two in the morning she woke up and went into the kitchen of her apartment to get something to eat. She got chills staring at the swarm of silverfish on her kitchen floor. With the lights off Jennifer could see their shiny slender bodies glisten and slither in the dark. Her skin crawled. She flashed on the light to scare the insects away, and strike back at them for disrupting her sense of personal cleanliness.
Jennifer's appetite was spoiled so she went into the bathroom. Her spice racks flanked the mirror above the sink. Most people keep their spices in the kitchen, but let's not make too many assumptions. Jennifer glanced at the labels and selected three jars. She drew a hot bath then threw some saffron, some nutmeg, and a tablespoon of oregano into the steaming water. There were some tools on the ceramic shelf just above the bathtub. After sitting down in the warm water, Jennifer began working on herself with one of the tools.
She was such a sexy girl. Two different men in her apartment building had images of her in their minds at that very moment. One of the men was masturbating, his member slick and reaching, with a political talk show on his radio -- Rush Limbaugh -- and a baseball cap on his head.
The second man was asleep, and Jennifer was part of his dream. They were both in a large empty dirt lot neighboring a cemetery. The one square mile area had been cleared of its trees to make room for more graves. Jennifer and the fellow were at opposite ends of the lot, driving towards each other on motorcycles at 45 miles an hour. It was a game, designed to test courage: they sped towards each other and the first person to turn off of the crash-course lost. At their combined speed it could not have taken more than one minute for them to reach each other, but in the dream they moved with the pace of an ancient clock's tick. Their motorcycles were silent. As Jennifer came within twenty feet of the man he saw that she wasn't wearing a helmet; her hair was like a stray raincloud that had wandered down from the overcast sky; it would never protect her head. When they were fifteen feet from each other they made eye contact, their expressions challenging each other to continue riding for another split second. When they were within ten feet from each other they both turned simultaneously; suddenly he could hear their motorcycles, and the sound was deafening. They had not planned the game well; instead of both turning either to the right or left, he turned to his right and she turned to her left. They crashed into each other. Their motorcycles exploded into fragments, and his right side was paralyzed. He saw Jennifer's eyes roll away from the ruins of her bike, and he saw one of her lungs lying on the ground like a fish stolen from its world, still inhaling and exhaling. The man's face was immotile lying on its side in the dirt, but moving his eyes around he looked for Jennifer's head. He couldn't find it.
The dream changed. Now only the masturbator was thinking about Jennifer. He removed his baseball cap -- it was getting too hot -- and switched off the radio so that he could concentrate better. When he ejaculated, Jennifer wasn't even thinking of him. He was spent, his mind buzzed in vacuous contentment. Now no one was thinking about Jennifer.
Jennifer became sleepy in the tub, and relaxed. Then like a pin pressed into her mind, she began worrying about her financial situation; she got fired over two weeks ago and would soon be broke. If only you could send in some money for her. But no, she would have to call her mother. Jennifer became angry. She thought of the silverfish. To calm herself she began imagining a new tool. Maybe she could get a stranger to test it so that she wouldn't have to take the risk again.
Floating in the corner of the tub was a bay leaf left over from her last bath. Jennifer was usually careful to drain her baths, as everyone should be, but she considered it a good auspice to find some remains from the previous bath in the tub with her; baths were miniature other-worlds, connected to each other by a language of left-over objects. When she noticed the bay leaf Jennifer thought to herself, That's there to tell me I'm the richest girl on earth. Matter of fact there was something wonderfully unique about her anatomy. Lots of people would want to marry her for it.
Sleep became irresistible. Jennifer stood up in the tub, her smooth skin glistening with a fine pale film. The ends of her hair were curly and dark with moisture, while the hair closer to her scalp was still dry and straight. A thousand drops of water fell off her body as she stepped over the edge of the tub onto the bath mat. She did not slip and break her neck. But she did decide not to bother draining the bath, and to go directly to sleep instead. She knew this was foolish.
Jennifer fell asleep and dreamed that one of the silverfish crawled into bed and seduced her. The tiny movements of its snaking, segmented abdomen mesmerized her.
"You always have salad and coffee," Jennifer told one of her friends at the City Cafe, where she ate lunch. "Black coffee and Thousand Island dressing. I don't like the sound of that combination." The other woman, whose name was Samantha, stared at her. "You people from New York sure have strange habits," Jennifer concluded.
After staring for several moments more, Samantha said, "My husband is dying of AIDS."
Jennifer felt uncomfortable in the taxi on the way home. The driver never stopped staring at her through the rearview mirror. She held out a five dollar bill to him when the ride was over. He didn't reach for the money, he just gazed at her. "Look, Miss, I'm only going to ask you this once. I don't usually proposition my customers, but if I asked you to do something with me, say, like --"
"No!" She dropped the bill on the front seat and stepped out of the cab, then ascended the stairs of her apartment building. At her apartment door, Jennifer realized she left her keys in the taxi. She got an extra door key from the apartment manager, but when she called the cab company -- and she called four times that evening to make sure -- they reported that no keys had been turned in. The driver had apparently decided to keep the keys.
Jennifer's sleep was torn open from the inside. She awoke up at about two in the morning and went into the kitchen of her apartment. Even though she expected to find silverfish on the floor the sight of their wisping tails and antennae still made her shudder. She switched on the light, but this time it did not faze all the insects; some continued scrounging around the kitchen. Would poison spray work? Roach motels?
Jennifer decided to ask the apartment manager to call an exterminator the next day -- in addition to hiring someone to change her lock. Jennifer went into the bathroom, and found the water from the night before still in the tub. It was completely still. It looked more like a solid mass of milky quartz than water. This water was petrified, and a line of extinct movement rested on the surface of it in the form of a thin layer of soap. The tools on the ceramic shelf stared into the water with Jennifer, and while she looked embarrassed and a little guilty -- she had given in to her laziness the night before -- the tools looked aggressive. Threatening. They wanted to plunge into the water and strip it of its hydrogen, reducing it to pure air. At one edge of the tub Jennifer saw the bay leaf, which looked more like a dark stain by now than a leaf.
"My husband is dying of AIDS, and you're complaining about my salad dressing. Jennifer, you are the most stupid, careless person I know. Your amazing body will ever make up for that."
When Jennifer was really young she fell off her kiddy stool one night during dinner. When she hit the linoleum floor she felt like everything hated her -- the kiddy stool, the floor, her throbbing shoulder -- the whole world. And then her father yelled at her for being so clumsy. Several years later her father shoved her across the kitchen. He was angry at her for something, she never remembered what. Jennifer fell and her forehead banged against the handle of the cabinet under the sink. Her skin was torn open, and she needed eight stitches. The scar would be visible for the rest of her life.
As if to make up for the tragedy and the blemish it would leave on her, her body began developing in a delightfully unpredictable way. Even the weirdos who work at condom factories never imagined this. When Jennifer was in the eighth grade -- her parents had divorced and she was living with her mother -- a letter from the school arrived for her Mom. It reported that Jennifer would not be allowed into high school next year because her grades were so miserable. Jennifer felt like a complete failure. She was one, scholastically. But for the life of her she couldn't figure out why.
The fact that she genuinely tried to get good grades made Jennifer's disappointment in herself acute. Her Mom said, "Why don't you try sleeping with your teachers?"
Jennifer asked, "Couldn't you do it for me, Mommy?"
"He has AIDS? Oh my God, Samantha, I'm sorry. I had no idea. I feel so callous. I would never have thought he was sleeping with someone besides you. And a man? No wonder you feel terrible; that shows you weren't satisfying him. I'll bet you feel really guilty, because it's your fault he has AIDS; he wouldn't have wanted to sleep around if you'd been good enough. If I were you, I'd feel like shit. And to top it all off, you're probably going to get AIDS now."
The second man began dreaming about Jennifer again. This time she was sitting in a garden, on the edge of a large marble fountain. Shiny white lotus blossoms were on the water behind her, bubbling in the light reflecting on them. Jennifer's hair looked radiant. Her dark brown eyes were turned away from him as he looked at her, and waited for her to say something. He stared at every point on her body like she was diagrammed on graph paper. Her fingernails weren't painted. Her stomach was empty. She looked up at him, and there was a ladybug crawling on her lower lip. She didn't notice this; he ground his teeth in frustration.
Apprehensive about the bath water, Jennifer shut the bathroom door. She took a sleeping bag out of her bedroom closet, and slept inside that. With the zipper almost completely closed, she didn't dream of anything.
"Jennifer, look, it's your fault you left the keys in the cab. I'll call the locksmith for you, but you have to pay for it. It's your fault."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what about the bugs? The silverfishes? You can't say that they're my fault."
"No? I'm not so sure. No one else in the building has complained about any. Are you sure they're there? Have you seen them yourself?"
"Yes! I see them every goddamn night." "Are you sure? You're not just imagining them or anything, are you? You're not hysterical?"
"No one else has complained about them! Not even your next door neighbor."
"Oh, for chrissake, that guy probably isn't hygienic enough for insects. And he wouldn't notice them unless they crawled out of his TV screen; all he does all day is watch sports and listen to Rush Limbaugh."
Matter of fact there were other things he did as well. He hung out at the YMCA and local gyms, periodically approaching beginning weight lifters and swimmers to offer helpful tips, or crumbs of humor. He went to beaches and infiltrated volleyball games. In the middle of an otherwise normal game the members of a team would collectively realize that a total stranger just served for them; they'd whisper to each other, "Who is this guy?" "I don't know!" "Well, who did he come with?" And no one would know. But they'd let him keep playing because of his strong serves and his good cooperation on the team. He'd invariably leave before having to answer any direct and revealing questions.
Occasionally at the YMCA he'd approach a stranger in a locker room, asking to borrow an extra pair of shorts or socks, or offering some of his own. And once in a while when he was alone in the locker room with a young boy or an adolescent, he'd walk over and occupy the neighboring locker. At some point he'd reach over and put his hand on his neighbor's body, then offer to exchange sexual favors with him. More often than not the other person would accept. Even if he was customarily straight, or had never had sex before. But when he wasn't engaged in any of these activities, the guy was at home watching sports or listening to Rush Limbaugh.
An agency sent over an exterminator. He walked around Jennifer's apartment with a red hose that had a metal tank at one end and a shiny silver nozzle at the other. The tank hung over his muscular shoulder on black cloth straps. He sprayed around the edges of the carpets, in all the corners, under dressers, under the sink, and behind the toilet.
"Oh, excuse me, mister? Could you unplug the drain in the bathtub?" The Exterminator looked up at Jennifer, then down at the bathtub filled with murky dead water. "I'd really appreciate it. You have to reach in and take the plug out of the drain. Please..."
He reached out, then hesitated; he saw a pair of large aquatic snails gliding slowly along the bottom of the tub. He looked up at the strange woman. She was anxious, shifting, but he felt something special about her. He shrugged, then plunged his hand into the liquid. The drain had looked closer than it was; his whole arm got wet, right up to the shoulder. When the last of the water, silty and dark, had swirled down the drain, the snails were gone.
"Thanks so much! I really appreciate you doing that for me."
The Exterminator smiled.
"Mom! I met a man I really like."
"Have you met any men you don't like?"
"Gee, that's really funny, Mom. Seriously though, he's a really fine person."
"Congratulations, there are only three of them in existence. Actually I'm happy for you. I hate men right now. Did I tell you I'm becoming a Lesbian?"
"No, I'm finally going to do it. I haven't found the necessary literature yet, but I hope to soon. So tell me about Prince Charming."
"He's extremely handsome -- I'd even say statuesque; he has an amazing smile; and he's an exterminator."
There usually seemed something very gender-based about the components of Jennifer's reality, but on her first date with the Exterminator she found her male and female distinctions melting. When the Exterminator removed Jennifer's clothes, he found one of her tools working on her body. She had forgotten it was there.
"Oh. It's new. I designed it myself. What do you think?" Jennifer tried to ask only yes-or-no questions with the Exterminator, since he was a mute, but in this case she slipped. The man didn't scrawl a note on his pad of paper; he didn't know what to write; he thought the tool looked like a cross between a lobster and a totem pole, and it smelled like salt water taffy. He just stared.
"Want to see me turn it on?" She quipped, "It could turn you on."
He half shrugged. Eager to excite him, Jennifer turned the new tool on full blast -- which she promised herself she would get someone else to do first, since she wasn't sure it was safe. But she courageously merged the untested tool -- straining in