I come looking for a job,
But I get no offers
Just a come-on from the whores
On Seventh Avenue
I do declare
There were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there.
–Paul Simon, “The Boxer”
God help me people used to say. Maybe they still say it but I haven’t heard it in years. And now I who have no business saying it find it hovering in my mind all day every day.
Even as a girl I never thought of the deity as having a sex or being particularly human. I never doubted that something out there was responsible, but I was sure it wasn’t anything you could ask for help. In my seventies now, I see god as a kind of science cartoon. A mass of pastel gases in different hues, a seething cauldron of divine belligerence and whimsy, with equal measures of pure meanness and blinding kindness. No gender, nothing like a human language, doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, pays more attention to beetles, Koala bears, hummingbirds, and rocks than to the affairs of homo sapiens. Watches all of it like we watch TV. Turns it off and turns it on. Switches channels.
Moody, though–I could get behind a god who throws temper tantrums or falls into decades of a deep sadness that won’t go away. I have stupid, stupid thoughts, a head full of them! I sometimes wonder if intelligence of any sort has ever paid a visit to my brain.
I who have always questioned the intellect of others now find myself doubting everything I think. Maybe the god I am so reluctant to ask for help configured us all to be idiots. Seven point eight billion stooges.
Only a dozen or so people in my lifetime have found my conversation desirable. Of those I’ve been able to tolerate maybe five or six–and one of those was a dead man I chose to continue talking to for nearly a year after I read his obituary.
When I was in my early twenties I lived with a man in New York. I left him not because there was anything wrong with him but because being with him magnified the awful things I saw in myself. He was probably the only person on the planet who could have put up with me year after year–and I think I knew that, but I also knew I couldn’t stand who I was in my own eyes when I was around him.
After I moved out, I got pretty crazy and went into what I’ve thought of as my “Sound of Silence” phase. I listened to that song a lot, but it was “The Boxer” that I fixated on. The verse of it about the whores on Seventh Avenue just kept ripping my heart out. For several months I was at its mercy. I needed to feel the pain of it again and again.
I began to think about going down to that corner of Seventh and Broadway where I knew the prostitutes still snagged their customers. At first it was just one of my ridiculous ideas, especially because I was a woman. But given what I’d just been through I definitely wasn’t about to look to a man for help. And the worse I felt the more seriously I took the notion of seeing what a woman could do for me–a stranger and somebody who knew about hard times. I had a little money, I’d seen where they did their business, and it would be easy enough to get there. What was to stop me?
I thought I might ask one of them—one whose looks I liked—just to go someplace and lie on a bed with me, maybe snuggle up and talk about our childhoods or what we liked to eat. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to have sex with a woman, but I felt so alone it was like I had a terminal illness.
One Saturday afternoon I took the Seventh Avenue bus down to 42nd Street and the minute I stepped down onto the curb, I saw the prostitutes. Their outfits weren’t subtle, and I didn’t hesitate–I walked by the line of them and did it slowly. Even though I looked into the faces of a couple of them–women about my age whose looks appealed to me–they paid no attention to me. So I wandered around mid-town a little while and ended up going to the bar in the Wellington Hotel.
The sight of those prostitutes from close up–and there must have been fifteen or twenty of them, black, white, and brown–had riled me up in this peculiar way. My excitement was too general to be desire but it felt like desire’s first cousin. I wondered if it would be so bad just to ask one of the prostitutes for sex and pay her for it and see what it was like. Even if the sex was horrible, I knew it would at least temporarily stop the lonesomeness that was making me crazy.
In the bar at the Wellington, I took a booth, nobody on either side of me, and when the barkeep walked over I ordered a Whiskey Sour. Good choice of a place to sit, bad choice of a drink. But that was okay, because it meant I’d drink it slowly. The place was dimly lit and quiet; there were only a few customers. I figured it was around three in the afternoon, a warm sunny day outside, as I remember it, though that bar was completely set off from the street–it was like its own little world. The only thing it lacked was a jukebox that would play Simon & Garfunkel for me. If I’d been able to hear my songs, I knew I could unleash one hell of a good cry right there in that booth. But even without music, the place was just fine the way it was. It answered my need of the moment.
I became so absorbed in my thoughts that I paid almost no attention to what went on in the bar. The sadness I was going through had a way of narrowing the world around me and insisting that I pay attention to it and it alone. People came, people went, while I stared at my hands, reviewing the faces and the outfits of the women on Seventh and Broadway. I kept remembering how purposeful they’d been in ignoring the signals I’d tried give them. No come-on for you, my dear, was what their manner had conveyed.
I was savoring my misery, which I was sure was the worst I’d ever experienced. I wasn’t hurting quite bad enough to try to get in touch with the man I’d been living with, but that thought did cross my mind. I knew he’d come if I called, but I definitely didn’t want to pick up our old life again. I didn’t feel like apologizing for leaving him, and I didn’t want to see disappointment in his face–ever again.
“May I join you?” said a man standing beside the booth. He seemed to appear from nowhere, and he startled me, even though he’d kept his voice soft and stood a polite distance away. I looked up at him, the words No, thank you, making their way down from my brain and up out of my chest. He’s old, was what my eyes told me, and I suspect that fact alone stopped me from saying anything at all to him, at least for a moment. Instead, I let my eyes pass down over his clothes and back up to his face in what he must have considered a brazen way.
He wore a gray suit, a navy blue tie, a white shirt, and shiny black wingtips. He was clean-shaven and his silvery hair had been recently cut. So this was a businessman who had an understated polish in his face and the way he dressed. Not quite handsome, probably in his early sixties, he looked like a man who was accustomed being treated with respect.
My trance of misery and mild general arousal still had its hold on me, and I knew it would be ever so easy to send this man on his way. Thank you, sir, but right now I need to tend to my loneliness. I was on the verge of saying something like that when I suddenly saw myself through his eyes.
I’d been silly enough to wear a dress that was more maroon that it was red but that was sleeveless, that fit me nicely at the neck and shoulders, and that modestly presented the little bit of bosom I had to offer. I’d picked my outfit with the aim of making an impression on the Seventh Avenue ladies, but clearly it had not impressed a single one of them enough to meet my eyes as I’d walked past them.
The man I’d lived with once observed that I had a Sunday school sexiness about me, a remark that pleased me. It was the closest anyone ever came to saying that I was sexy or pretty or good-looking or cute or any of those terms. Beautiful and terrific had always been out of the question, but I’d often wished for a word or words that went further than the nice-looking my parents awarded me all through my teenage years and that a boy named Felton Wadhams was rumored to have said of me in high school.
At an early age I’d reconciled myself to the fact that my physical appearance did little to recommend me. So I wasn’t surprised that the prostitutes had paid me no mind. But evidently the way I’d tricked myself out for them worked for at least one person in the city, and here he was politely asking for permission to join me. I almost snickered at the term, which I was sure he hadn’t intended in a lascivious way.
It was a what-the-hell moment, of which I’d had probably fewer than half a dozen in my life, and most of those I’ve refused. Something kept me from speaking, but the private joke I’d made of his word-choice helped me put a tight grin on my face, and I lifted my hand in a little welcoming gesture toward the seat opposite me.
The man scooted into the booth–with some grace–folded his hands in his lap, and straightened himself a bit, all the while not looking at me. After a moment of settling himself, he raised his eyes to mine, so that I had an instant of thinking he’d noticed how carefully I’d scrutinized him.
“Joe Arnold,” he said. He had the good judgment not to extend his hand toward me. And not to smile.
“I’m Hazel,” I told him. My smile was long gone by now. In fact I felt a jolt of wishing I hadn’t let him join me. I wanted my loneliness back–I knew it would give me no trouble. I leaned back and gave him the least friendly face I could come up with.
Joe Arnold nodded, as if to acknowledge my bad attitude toward him. Then he looked over at the bar and around the room. I thought maybe he was checking to be sure that I was the best company he could find at the moment.
When the barkeep appeared, Joe Arnold asked for a Coca Cola for himself and a fresh drink for me. I told the barkeep that the whiskey sour wasn’t working for me, and I asked him to recommend something. When he said he made a really good Rusty Nail, I told him that sounded like just the drink I needed.
After the barkeep was out of hearing distance, Joe Arnold told me he knew better than to start drinking this early in the afternoon. I told him that I wasn’t much of a drinker at any time of the day.
Then we sat and regarded each other while we waited for our drinks to arrive. I thought that when we did speak we might both say in unison, “So what are you doing here?”
That wasn’t how it went. The barkeep set down our drinks and went away. We let our glasses sit untouched. And I liked it that Joe Arnold didn’t seem to know what to do or say in the silence. I was fine with neither of us saying anything. Maybe this would be all there was to it, an afternoon of sitting in this booth, occasionally taking sips from our glasses, and saying nothing. Just sitting in proximity with each other.
“You first,” he said.
“What?” I said.
Then he nodded. He knew I knew what he meant.
I did know. I also knew that no matter what I told him, he probably wouldn’t challenge it. He just wanted me to tell him something. Or make some noise. I could have hummed “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain,” and he’d have been grateful. So I thought I would see how much of the truth I could pry out of myself. I felt reckless. What did I have to lose?
“I’m originally from Vermont. I’m doing graduate work at Columbia. I’ve just moved out of an apartment I’ve been sharing with a man for the past year.” I paused between sentences and said each of the sentences slowly while looking directly at Joe Arnold. “I can’t seem to adjust to living by myself,” I told him. I was certain I’d said more than I should have, but I didn’t care. I’d liked hearing my voice deliver those solid facts to another person. I was proud of myself for having stuck to the truth.
Joe Arnold had stared at me while I spoke and seemed to absorb each statement as I made it, but now that I was finished, he looked away. I thought maybe he was blushing and I wondered if I’d embarrassed him.
“I’m sorry for what you’ve been going through,” he said.
Whether or not he meant it, I appreciated the sympathy. I nodded.
Then he couldn’t seem to bring himself to speak. I was determined not to say another word until he took his turn, but he seemed paralyzed. I noticed that now he was indeed blushing. For a minute or so I thought he might simply stand up, apologize, and walk away.
Finally he shook his head and raised his eyes to meet mine. His face was slightly contorted. “I want to leave my wife,” he said. The words erupted out of his mouth in way that made them sound like I think I’m going to throw up.
I wasn’t horrified. I tried to be sympathetic since I knew what it felt like to leave somebody. I made myself say, “I’m sorry.” He probably heard the truth I wasn’t saying: I wish I could feel your pain, but I can’t.
“I can’t imagine you’d want to hear the details,” he said.
I nodded. He was right–I didn’t.
“I haven’t ever said it aloud,” he murmured. “Maybe that’s all I needed to do. Get it out there where somebody could hear it.”
I blinked at him. Our conversation seemed to be moving us farther and farther away from each other.
“If you want to, you can leave,” he said, his voice very soft. “I’ll pay for our drinks.”
I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And didn’t know what to say. So I stared at him with what had to be a very stupid face.
“I probably would if I were you,” he murmured. “Leave,” he said. His expression was a weird combination of shame and relief. Truth be told, I preferred this look on his face to the tight-and-in-control version of himself that he’d presented when he asked to join me.
So I smiled at him. Or rather I realized that I was smiling at him–I hadn’t exactly decided to do it.
He seemed to relax then. “Look,” he said, leaning forward, clasping his hands together on the table top between us. “I asked to sit with you because I thought maybe I could persuade you to let me get us a room. I thought we could go upstairs and spend some time together. I guess I hoped for sex. Sure, I should just say so. Because you’d know it even if I didn’t say it. I’m sorry if you’re insulted. It’s taken me a little while to understand that you weren’t sitting here by yourself because you wanted company.”
I heard what he said and understood him perfectly well. And having recently cruised the line of Seventh Avenue whores hoping for a come-on, I could hardly be insulted. But I couldn’t put everything together in any way that helped me know what to say or do. I didn’t want to go upstairs with him–maybe just because I couldn’t imagine how it would go once we closed the door and stood in the room with a bed directly in front of us. I didn’t want to take my clothes off, and I definitely didn’t want to see Joe Arnold naked. But I also didn’t feel like standing up and leaving the bar. And I didn’t want to go on sitting in this booth by myself.
I wished I could just beam myself out of there, but then I realized I couldn’t think of a destination.
I closed my eyes and thought maybe this was the lowest moment of my life.
I kept my eyes closed until I was sure I wouldn’t cry if I opened them. The thought occurred to me that maybe Joe Arnold would take the opportunity to leave some money on the table, slip out of the booth, and head for the door. But when I opened them, he was still there.
And he was putting money on the table in front of him.
So he’s about to leave was my thought. I felt myself blushing. Out of some weird sense of decorum I didn’t look at the money.
I watched his face while he put his wallet away. He looked relaxed now, a little pleased with himself. I didn’t blame him. He’d hoped I’d be somebody other than who I was. I had often hoped the same thing.
“Yours,” he said, tapping the table.
Lined up like Monopoly money were four one-hundred dollar bills.
He saw my shocked expression. It made him smile. “Yours,” he said again.
I couldn’t keep my eyes from glancing out through the lobby toward the elevator–the Wellington was a one-elevator hotel.
He chuckled. “No,” he said. “It’s not for that. It’s just that I could have gone the rest of my days without ever saying aloud that I want to leave my wife. If you hadn’t been here. If you hadn’t let me sit with you. If you hadn’t said what you said, I’d have never gotten those words out.”
I know I looked down at his money again, and my expression must have been really comical, because he laughed out loud.
“Look,” he said, “here’s the thing. I may never leave my wife–I almost feel like now that I’ve said those words, I don’t need to leave her. But whether I do or not, you’ve saved me thousands of dollars I won’t have to pay my therapist if I keep on going to see her. Which I’m pretty sure I won’t.”
I stared at him. I wanted to feel like he felt. Free of something. Out from under this loneliness that was like a bully waiting for me every morning when I woke up!
“Yours,” he said.
It was the third time he’d said that word, and what struck me then was that maybe he didn’t know it, but this man was trying to buy his way out of hell. I wasn’t offended. In fact I was sort of thrilled. It came to me then that maybe I could make the deal work for both of us. I sat up straight.
“I’ll take it,” I said. I picked the bills up one at a time, all the while looking him straight in the eyes. I took my time because I was excited by what I was about to tell him.
“But I want to go upstairs,” I said.
His face changed. He actually looked a little afraid.
“With you,” I said.
“You and I, Joe Arnold,” I told him. “We’re going up there.”
I was a lot worse off than I realized that day in the Wellington Hotel fifty years ago. And Joe Arnold was just as bad off as I was. He had no idea what a deep pit he’d been living in for years. Maybe that ignorance is a mercy of some kind or else a survival component that comes with the human apparatus. Like those soldiers who get shot up so bad they can’t live more than a few minutes thinking Hey, this isn’t so bad, I’m going to be fine.
I’ve come to believe that relentless pain can sometimes be a help to you. It humbles you, it realigns you with your brother and sister human beings, and it prepares you to be healed if you can find your way to something or somebody that can fix what’s wrong with you. Maybe non-stop hurting even guides you to that right something or somebody. Ridiculous as this may sound, I’ve come to think of loneliness as a kind of corrective angel. My deity of the pastel gases and the seething cauldron might dispatch such an angel to nudge a human creature who needed to be turned in one direction or another
Joe Arnold and I got our clothes off pretty quickly in that room. I’d had no faith we could get that far without one or the other of us saying, I can’t do this and walking out. But we didn’t turn on any lights as we walked through the door, so what we had was just the late afternoon sun beaming through the window shade. Probably if I’d had a look at Joe in better light, I’d have been put off by what age had done to his body. I don’t think he’d have been put off by the truth of my body, but he also would have seen very little to convince him he should have come to that room with me.
A meticulously made-up big bed is a thing of beauty, a beacon of comfort, a reminder that respite is possible. We sat side by side on it and took our shoes off. From there the bed gave us permission, so that getting naked was easy. Joe and I had no problem making our way into that bed. From opposite sides we hopped under the covers like sixteen-year olds. Clean, ironed sheets whisper sweet messages to almost anybody’s skin.
All right. About the sex. We had it–I can certainly say that. It was clumsy and funny for a while, then it turned sad when it looked like we weren’t going to be able to make it happen. I think we both had thought failure was inevitable, and I don’t know about Joe, but I would have been in seriously awful shape if I’d had to walk out of that room without even being able to have intercourse.
Joe propped himself over me while we both struggled to get him inside me. Finally, when I knew he was about to give up, I told him to let me get on top and try something else. I asked him to turn with me, and I said please. Desperation can improve your manners. Something had transpired in those minutes of his trying so hard and wanting it so much and failing. Just plain old flat out failing. So I knew it was up to me, and at that point when we had every reason to be angry at ourselves and each other I think we both saw that kindness was really our only option.
I nudged him over, and I rolled with him so that for a second or two we were the beast with two backs. On top of him I snuggled in, I tried to get my belly and chest as close to his as I could, and I had my head on his shoulder so that my mouth was right up to his ear. This was a way of lying together that I’d never experienced with the man I’d lived with, though I’d always meant to ask him if we could try it.
I talked dirty to Joe. Or rather I whispered dirty to him. And my level of talking dirty was probably about that of a seventh grader. I told him I was really, really wet. Which wasn’t true. I told him I wanted his cock. Which was true. I told him my nipples liked the hair on chest. And I moved my skin on his skin while I said these things–and some others–again and again in his ear. I licked his ear, too, and I’m pretty sure that’s what woke his cock up. I sensed it down there, and God help me I felt like I was his voodoo princess. “I’m your whore, Joe,” I said. “I want your cock, and I am most definitely your whore.”
Okay, I don’t think either one of us thought we’d get much further than hooking up, as they call it nowadays. For damaged people like we were it would probably have been okay if that was all we could do–intercourse without orgasm. Not ideal but better than nothing.
You probably think it is crazy and inappropriate for a woman in her seventies to talk this way, and I completely agree with you. But I have one more thing to say, and it’s maybe the most useful observation I have to offer. Suffering can teach you how to say and do what’s necessary, and even then maybe all you’ll get out of it is more suffering. But doing and saying what’s necessary can sometimes—maybe just occasionally—take you to the other side of your anguish.
So Joe and I got our clothes off, made our way under the sheets, and miraculously accomplished the act of penetration. When I felt him holding his breath, I realized that was what I was doing, too. We were right at that point of understanding we might not have more than a minute or two of being properly and happily joined. It felt really precarious.
“I’m your whore, Joe,” I whispered. I swear to the god of divine belligerence and whimsy that my sex registered his sex gaining what I’ll call conviction. So our bodies were doing their best to take us where we needed to go. “What are you?” Joe asked in a kind of rasp-whisper that startled me with his mouth so close my ear. I told him what I was. And when he asked it again, I told him louder.
It came on us fast–like maybe seven minutes. I could feel Joe moving way too quickly for me, and just about the time I was about tell him to stop or at least slow down, he bucked and grunted and trembled, so that my body spoke back to his body with a couple of contractions that brought a little shout up out of my chest. It barely qualified as an orgasm, but I never had one that made me any happier.
I stayed on top of Joe until I could feel him wishing I’d get off. So I did. And we lay on our backs for a while. Then he turned on his side toward me and said, “You know what?”
I turned on my side toward him, put my hand on his chest, and said, “What?”
I watched him getting his words straight in his mind. Then he said them slowly. “I didn’t even know I was dead. And now look what you did to me.”
I didn’t really want to, but I knew I had to cry, and so I just let it go. And Joe Arnold, bless his heart, just scooted up close and hugged me and let me keep crying as long as I wanted to.
Okay, half a century later, I’m the same fool I always was. Except that I don’t live in hell any more. What I did with Joe Arnold in the Wellington Hotel was nothing I ever wanted to do again. I might have thought of doing it if I’d ever gotten that deep down into sadness again. But I didn’t. I got back on track and I’ve more or less stayed there. I don’t think I lowered my self-esteem because of what happened in that room, but I did find it lots easier to see things in other people that made me respect them. I guess that’s what Joe Arnold taught me. If I had to say what it is that I know from what I hope has been a thoughtful life, it might be just that. Finding ways to respect other people makes me happier with myself. I’m a natural born fault-finder, so I have a lot of trouble doing it. But I’ve got this voice I sometimes hear when I need it, and I listen hard. What are you, Hazel? I’ll hear. And I know the answer. I’m your whore, Joe. I’m your little whore.
Originally from Ivanhoe, Virginia, David Huddle has lived in Vermont for 44 years. He teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English and in the Rainier Writing Workshop. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in The American Scholar, The New Yorker, The Sow’s Ear, Plume, and The Georgia Review. His most recent poetry collection is Dream Sender (2015); and his new novel is My Immaculate Assassin (2016).