"Lex" woke up on the floor. Her mouth was dry, her boxer-briefs felt crusty and gross. She was still wearing her sweatshirt, and like five layers of clothing under that. She had been awakened by the heat and stench of her own body.
The room was dim, but she could see through the window that it was reasonably late in the day. The window had Venetian blinds. The carpet was brown. Next to her was a backpack, a bus schedule, a copy of The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that she had been trying to read, and a porn magazine with instructions for making burritos written on the back.
It was the house from the party she went to yesterday. She had smoked marijuana and fallen asleep on the floor. She could hear someone banging shit around in the kitchen. She wondered if she could get to the bathroom without being seen by whoever it was.
Lex wrestled with her unconscious will to death. She got up. As a result, she could see over the counter. Sure enough, there was a dude in the kitchen. He appeared to be putting dishes away. He left the many plates, bowls, and paper towels with food already on them well enough alone, however. A clock on the microwave said it was almost three.
"Hey, uh, good morning or something," said Lex to the guy.
The guy turned around. He was just a late-twenties white guy with glasses and a beard.
"Uh, hey there," said Lex. "I was gonna ask if there was a bathroom here I could use, but I guess I don't need to, right? I'd better get going if I'm gonna start looking for a job today. I got fired from my old job like a month ago," she explained.
The guy picked at his beard.
"Do what you want," he said.
"Oh," said Lex, flustered.
Lex noticed he actually had nice European features under that stupid sloppy beard. A lot of people did, Lex realized. Maybe that's what Rousseau looked like, she thought, except with no beard and a wig probably. Lex wondered about other people's personalities the way a layperson might read astrology, and wonder about the stars.
The guy went back to the shuffling around in the kitchen.
"Well, then I'm off," Lex told him. She put the bus schedule and the copy of Confessions into her backpack. She looked at the porn magazine. With bemused dismay, she remembered the events of last night.
At a certain point in the evening, they had gone to either Eric or Jeffy's room to smoke marijuana. Among all the crap on the floor, Lex's eye had been drawn instinctively--as would anyone's--to the bright lurid cover with the unreadable name, obscured by two topless women with prominent, shiny, gumdrop-shaped breasts that leaped right off the page and into your face. It was Club magazine. Whoever's room this was had two or three issues lying around.
"Hey, look at that!" Lex had said, after clearing a place for herself close to the door. She picked up one of the issues of Club.
Lex looked at Maureen. Maureen had cleared a place for herself against the bed, next to Eric, some guy who lived here. She was a full-figured young woman with red, glossy shoulder-length hair and dull, pale skin that probably had to have lotion applied to it on a regular basis.
"My god, just look at this incredible--artifact!" Lex continued excitedly. She was encouraged by the look of lively interest in Maureen's Prussian blue eyes, directed at her. Lex pointed at the two thong-clad models on the cover.
"Ha, ha," said Maureen.
"Heh, heh," said Jeffy's girlfriend, Katie or something. She was sitting on Jeffy's legs the bed.
"The girl on the right looks like Maureen," said Eric. "She has the same hair."
"God! Shut up!" laughed Maureen, flipping her hair.
Jeffy didn't say anything because he was smoking from the pipe. Jeffy was the younger manager (not the one who fired her) of the coffee shop where Lex used to work.
Lex struggled to express what she meant.
"No," Lex cried. "Well, I mean--yes--maybe she kind of does have the same hair," she admitted, looking at the magazine again and at Maureen. "But that is only because her hair actually has the same degree of unreality as this image. I mean, I used to think porn was so forbidden and exciting, but now? Well, let me tell you, I'm a pretty decent judge of female sexual attractiveness"--she looked at Maureen--"but I find this image to be pretty much the opposite of sexual, just because of how stridently it refers to sex. Maybe that's why I find porn so fascinating, artistically―precisely because of its remoteness from physical desire! Contemporary porn is Platonic, ascetic--pure."
"Wow, I know what you mean," laughed Maureen. "Does anyone find these women attractive?"
She prodded Eric in the ribs--a tall, thin, sporty, leathery sort of dude with cutoff shorts and a good smile.
"It's not about the women," said Jeffy, above her. "It's about lusting after what you can't have." He looked lazily under his girlfriend's shirt.
"Hey!" said the girlfriend. She passed Eric the pipe.
"Well, I don't know about that," he countered. "I mean, yeah, I used to jack off to porn all the time. What can I say? I was a deprived young man."
"Then I discovered most porn can't even fucking begin to compare to the real thing," Eric expostulated triumphantly. "Fucking, that is."
Anticipating objections from the girls, Eric quickly explained: "Note that I say 'fucking' to connote all sex acts, not some stupid-ass euphemism. 'Making love'? Please. Fucking is dirty. But it's a good dirty. It doesn't have to be degrading, that's what people who don't really enjoy--well, fucking--don't understand."
"Uh, that's a valid concern," said Lex. "But what about the neutral, descriptive term "having sex'?"
"'Having sex,'" Eric mocked. "OK. I am having sex, you are having sex, we are having sex. Come on"--he looked at Lex--"are you a lesbian, or are you asexual?"
"I'm like Rousseau," Lex said.
"What?" said Eric.
"Fucking," said Jeffy's girlfriend, smiling lewdly.
"Fucking," said Maureen, smiling thoughtfully.
Maureen took a drag from the pipe.
Watching her, Lex thought about riding the bus every day when she lived in Los Angeles. There was a billboard for "Law and Order" she used to see all the time that always made her wish that she had a girlfriend. One of those girls who used to have major family/emotional problems in adolescence but then got her act together, went to college, and got a good job. A girlfriend who would buy entire seasons of "Law and Order" for them to watch in a high-quality format, and talk to Lex about how "addicted" she was to its hard-hitting, impartial accounts of hardworking city officials. She would make Lex watch the episodes with her after work under a big puffy blanket that smelled like girly shampoo, in a house or apartment that had hardwood floors, and a refrigerator full of good groceries. Now that was pornography, Lex thought. She smiled to herself at this irony.
Unfortunately, as she was smiling, she saw Eric start to massage Maureen, the object of Lex's pornographic desire. At the same time, Maureen passed the pipe to Lex. Not knowing what else to do, Lex proceeded to take a huge hit, inhaling somewhat more than the others. She coughed and coughed. She was something of a "pot lightweight."
All too quickly, Lex felt herself becoming distant from what was happening. She started having trouble following conversations. The complex, witty sentences she would have liked to use to describe her strange, subtle point of view to the others fell apart just as she was about to say them. Inwardly, Lex compared her situation to that of a brain-damaged servant, trying to impress his masters by cooking an elaborate meal whose preparation went far beyond his meager abilities to read, remember, and follow directions. She wondered what would happen if she actually cooked a meal for everyone right now.
"Uh, is there a computer here I can use real quick," she asked.
"Huh? Uh, what for?"
"I believe that I have 'the munchies.'" Lex made quotation marks with her fingers. "I need to look up burrito recipes on the internet and prepare them right in your kitchen."
"Ha, ha--you don't need a recipe to make burritos."
However, Lex did. After a trying period of figuring out the internet connection, she finally found a site of simple recipes for people under the influence of marijuana. With cheeky, knowing humor, the site boasted that all of the meals it listed could be prepared within minutes "right in your dorm kitchen."
Using the back of the same issue of Club magazine that she still held in her hand, Lex wrote down the instructions for how to make vegetarian burritos. She wasn't a vegetarian but she thought it would be easier. She went into the deserted kitchen. Most people were still drinking outside. Many hours later, hours that included a trip to a nearby 7/11, issue of Club in hand, Lex managed to create five or six enormous, more-or-less intact, perfectly edible burritos that contained beans, rice, vegetables, sour cream, and cheese.
Feeling somewhat more coherent, and accomplished, Lex returned to the room with her burritos piled high on a plate. She stepped inside, however, only to find that Jeffy and his girlfriend were gone; Eric and Maureen were having sex on the bed with the lights were still on. Their bodies had that sordid, rough, realistic look of European porn. Lex quickly exited the room. When she'd been talking about the abstractness and asceticism of contemporary porn, she had forgotten about the phenomenon of European porn.
Lex had fallen asleep on the floor of the abandoned living room, trying to summon the energy to discreetly masturbate to Club. Now, as she was getting ready to leave, she was debating whether or not to put the magazine into her backpack. Would the dude in the kitchen notice if she just took it? She thought she could use those burritos instructions, if nothing else.
"If I could just take this, uh, porn mag with me," she said.
She walked in the blinding sunlight, thinking about how she would make burritos for herself tonight. She thought maybe she could also stop by the laundromat on the way home, the one with the cheap Galaga machine.
Upon emerging from the residential neighborhood onto the vast, smog-covered plane of Burnet Road, however, Lex realized she didn't have the money for Galaga, burritos, or really, anything other than rent. She couldn't even take the bus. She'd spent it all at the 7/11 last night, on burrito ingredients.
Lex stood on a strip of dead grass at the intersection of Burnet and Romeria Drive. There was nothing but the blue sky above, pavement and stores and fields of dead grass below. To her surprise, for the first time that day, Lex actually felt relaxed. She thought about what she should do.
She could walk home. She could go back to the house and ask for her partially eaten burritos back. She could reply to romantic classified ads. She could ask her parents for money.
Lex rolled up the sleeves of her sweatshirt. It was a hot, sunny day. She was no one's servant now. She wasn't going to do any of those things.
Lex stared at the field of dead grass on the other side of the busy thoroughfare. Suddenly, she saw groups of children start to appear on the grass. There were many small clusters of fat, homely children in oversized white t-shirts and blue jeans. There were a couple of bigger groups of athletic, handsome children in black skater clothes (on the boys) and revealing tank tops (on the girls).
The girls in tank tops moved like they were part of a good, busy world of homework and friends. The boys in skater clothes moved with such underlying energy and power in their perpetually flexed backs and slightly too-large limbs, that it took Lex's breath away.
Lex realized that she was standing in front of a middle school, and that classes had just ended for the day.
Lex thought about her own middle school days. They were terrible. She didn't have her name back then. She didn't have her personality. The only thing she had was the internet, which had still been new at the time. Lex's mom had shown her daughter how to make a web page, and Lex used to pretend to be a normal middle school girl to kids in England, or at least people who claimed to be kids in England.
Then, the whole internet porn controversy came out, and Lex's mom started monitoring her daughter's internet use. There'd been a huge fight. Lex remembered how badly she'd wanted to look at porn, how badly she wanted the knowledge that would have, for once, put her above her peers.
In middle school, Lex would have paid anything for porn. She would have paid anything for just one photograph or obscene story. It was depressing how little that stuff was worth to her now.
Suddenly, Lex struck her own forehead at the obviousness of the idea.
She looked in her backpack. The issue of Club was still there. She took it out, ripping off the back cover with the burrito instructions. Soon, she'd have more than enough money for those burritos, she thought. Lex sat on the strip of dead grass and tore page after page from the magazine. She worked quickly yet carefully, trying not to tear into any images or text. When she was done, Lex had a sheaf of loose pornographic pages in her hand.
Lex looked across the street at the school. The clusters of children had diffused and moved closer, as though cooperating with her plan. A group of homely children were standing around at the bus stop, not twenty feet from her, playing with portable electronics or staring into space or something. Just behind them, on the edge of school property, a group of handsome children were throwing a ball aggressively.
Lex strode past the homely children. She walked through the gate in the chanlink fence separating the school from the street. She narrowly avoided a strapping boy who had been racing to throw a backpack at one of his friends.
Standing there, Lex put the hood of her sweatshirt up. She had the idea that this look was more likely to intimidate or impress the kids. Maybe they would mistake her for an older boy, she thought, or part of a gang. She tried not to overthink it. She didn't want to give herself time to succumb to "stage fright."
"Porn for sale!" Lex cried at last, lifting her sheaf of porn pages. "That's right--I have a stack of genuine adult publications for sale, right here in my hands! Come one, come all, to purchase some of this fantastic porn!"
The kids looked up from their game of sex and aggression.
"What the fuck," said a boy with big horsey teeth and the ugly, long surfer/emo hair that seemingly every suburban 8th grade boy had that year.
"Pornographic images and stories!" Lex yelled in explanation. "Scenes of hardcore fucking! None of this 'making love' bullshit." She addressed the boy with horsey teeth specifically: "You can see girls with enormous tits, who have no shame."
"Gross," said a dark, slim girl, and made a disgusted face.
"What the fuck, is that actual porn?" said the blond boy who was holding her hand.
"A page is only two dollars," Lex told the kids starting to gather around her. "Think about that! How much did your parents have to give you for that new Playstation, huh?!"
She waved the sheaf in front of individual kids' faces to show them it was actual porn.
"It's actual porn!"
"He doesn't go to this school!"
"I can't tell if it's a boy or girl!"
"Give me that!" yelled the first boy, finally, the one with the horsey teeth. He was another version of Eric from last night. "We can show this to Mr. Celeste," he crowed. He grabbed at the sheaf of porn with a swift, athletic, football-throwing arm.
Lex pulled the porn towards her body in alarm. Just in time: the kid only managed to tear off the top of the first page.
"Don't, uh--don't touch the merchandise," cried Lex. This wasn't what she expected at all.
"I'm serious!" yelled the boy with the horsey teeth. "I'm getting Mr. Celeste!" He started to trot across the field on his slim, powerful legs, clutching at the senseless pastiche of faces and breasts in his hands.
"You guys tackle him," he yelled when he was halfway across. "Just fucking bring him down!"
The kids closed in on Lex. A few of them kept glancing uncertainly towards where their leader had run off to. Mostly they kept their eyes on Lex, who clutched her sheaf of porn. Lex wondered what was wrong with kids these days.
"Uh, is Mr. Celeste your principal?" she asked, stupidly.
No one answered.
"Come on," she tried to reason with them. "I remember being your age. I fucking hated authority. I didn't even care what it was, if the adults didn't want me to have it, I wanted it."
"This pervert's gonna get in trouble," the blond boy observed to his girlfriend.
Lex began to feel humiliated and angry. The situation was forcing her to recall parts of her past that she would rather have forgotten. And if adults came, she might be arrested or, worse, have to pay a fine. Her parents would have to be told. Lex did not want this.
Lex instinctively ran towards the blond boy's girlfriend--the dark, slim girl who had before so easily contorted her face into such a delicate, unselfconscious expression of disgust. The girl fell swiftly when Lex slammed into her with the full weight of her body. Strategically, this was an effective move. The girl had been the weakest link in the chain of middle schoolers surrounding Lex, and she was able to run away in the ensuing tumult.
Lex ran through the gate in the chainlink fence, past the kids waiting for the bus. Cars honked at her as she ran across Burnet Road. She kept running in the direction she'd come from, towards the house where her unfinished burritos were, where Maureen was quite possibly having sex again at this very moment.
Yet, within a few blocks, Lex had to stop in the shade on someone's lawn. She'd been handicapped by her backpack, her heavy, weather-inappropriate clothing, and her relatively out-of-shape physical condition. Lex leaned against a tree and prepared for the worst: jail, financial ruin, humiliation. When no one came, she sat down.
As she rested from her exertions, Lex reflected on how her life had led up to this moment. She thought about failing college. She thought about pornography and emotional pornography, and whether there was any artistic merit in either. She thought maybe she should give Confessions another try. It was so hard to concentrate on anything. She daydreamed about what it would be like to lie in the shade with a girl in the Speech Language Pathology graduate program at UT. Insects crawled under her clothes.
She was lying on the grass when one of the unfortunate kids from the middle school approached her. She knew he was from the middle school because he towered over her and asked, "Excuse me? Are you the porn peddler?"
"What?" said Lex. She scrambled to her feet.
"I believe," said the kid, "I heard you shouting to my peers. You said, quote unquote, that you had genuine adult publications for sale?" The kid made quotation marks with his fingers.
Lex looked at the kid. Puberty had not been kind to him. He had an oily, sort of fat face, unmemorable except for its partial mustache. He wasn't fat himself, but he wasn't thin either. There was a picture of a dog in sunglasses on his t-shirt.
"Oh!" said Lex, returned at once to reality. "Um, yes, I do have them."
She had actually been lying on top of her little collection, and now it was scattered on the grass. She bent to gather the individual pages.
"They're uh, two dollars--one dollar--a page," she said.
"They're only one dollar?" asked the kid, incredulously. "Why, I'll take them all!"
Lex was embarrassed at how grateful she felt. She counted out twenty-five pages of bland, stylized nudity and sex. The kid took out a wallet decorated with orange flames, and gave Lex a twenty and a ten.
"Keep the change," he said. He was trying to be jaunty. "You know, I pay top dollar for this stuff."
"Um, thanks," said Lex. "I didn't know."
Lex did her trick of trying to imagine people in 18th century settings. She tried to imagine the kid as a young Rousseau. It was difficult. He just looked like some arbitrary kid, strictly of his time.