For the generation that wrote these stories, New Order was something that needed an introduction. For me it was my dad, who’d crank this ancient sounding dance music through the system of the family van. It had a certain air of mystery – legitimate, popular, and catchy sure – but consistently off-kilter. Power Corruption & Lies is a record that became more important as you grew with it, when “Age of Consent” stopped being about the bass and started being about the longing. —Luke Winkie
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard
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“Age of Consent”
by JAMIESON COX
Tom leaned over the platform, peeking at the streetcar whose light was just rounding the bend into the station. “I don’t know, it’s really hard to describe — I guess it’s like I’m feeling way more physical, like, sexual, than emotional right know. Do you know what I mean?” He kicked a pebble, watched it skitter over and down into the track.
I stood up, grabbed a seat on the car, rolled my eyes. “Yeah, you said it earlier, I get it.” Tom had mentioned something very similar just a few hours earlier, tracing a finger idly down my chest as we laid on his couch listening to Washed Out. We had met a few weeks earlier via Grindr, that gateway to modern romance: his haircut was cooler than mine, angular and arty-looking, and he struck up a conversation by commenting on the Dirty Projectors T-shirt I was wearing in my profile picture. He studied urban planning at a school downtown, the major I pined for while stuck in engineering; he wrote indie pop songs in his spare time; his body was gymnastic, compact, and tightly wound. He was shorter than I was. I had already told myself several times that he was the first real boy I’d met, the first one who could turn the others into footnotes, laps on the track before a race.
We rolled down the track together, bound for a Kensington Market bar tucked above a second-rate tattoo parlor, the sort of place where they serve your beer in ancient plastic patio glasses and there are tiny mountains of melted wax on top of the bar and scattered mantles. The DJ was spinning typical homo party fare, clubby remixes of Top 40 hits and R&B diva vocal stems laid over thumping four-on-the-floors. I grabbed a drink out of one of those ancient glasses, waved to a few nearby friends, and made for the center of the dance floor with Tom, pulling him tight against me. He snuck into an open space after just a few songs and headed for the stairwell, saying something about fresh air.
Time acquires a certain malleability when you’re dancing, minutes and seconds compressing and stretching depending on the night and the beat. The songs I had with Tom raced by, over in a matter of seconds while I focused on the way our bodies fit together, sending signals and messages with varying levels of urgency. The minutes he spent outside each contained eons, libraries full of assumptions and projections and hypothetical scenarios. I took my own leave from the floor and found him outside, sitting on the curb and smoking a cigarette.
“Hey, are you alright?”
“I’m OK. It’s just, like, I don’t really know what’s going on right now, I don’t know how I feel, it’s stupid.”
“I think you should just try to let go of it for now. Come back up, dance with me, have a drink. You don’t have to think about anything.”
“Yeah, just give me a second.”
He ground out the butt of his cigarette and stood up, adjusting his Blue Jays cap, and we moved back into the bar. Stepping into the bathroom while he grabbed a pair of drinks, I felt satisfied with myself: I had managed to capture Tom’s attention, even if just for the night, and his nascent waffling bullshit could be dealt with later, perhaps post-coitally. Coming out back onto the floor, I looked for the blue brim of his cap and found him talking to another guy, a tan twig with beautifully shaped eyebrows in a pink tank. Operating under the naive assumption that he had seen a friend, I began to swim through the dancing hordes, grinning widely.
And then slowly discrete pieces of the interaction began clicking into place, forming a disconcerting whole. A light touch on the arm, finger lingering on a muscled ridge; a devastatingly effective head tilt-lip bite combination move, something I recognized from my own time with Tom; the piece de resistance, phones swapped back and forth with newly keyed numbers and names. An awful vacuum occupies your brain and chest in the instant you learn you aren’t enough for someone. A friend standing nearby leaned into my somehow upright husk and spoke into my ear.
“That guy’s a jerk, it sucks. You have two choices now: you can say ‘fuck him’ and move on and have fun with us, or you can break that shit up and try to get an answer.”
I somehow put together enough neurons to move in the direction of the latter, stepping into the middle of their conversation.
“Look, I don’t know what the deal is here or what you’re doing or where you’re staying tonight, or whatever, but my bag’s at your place, and I really don’t want to get it in the morning, so I want to go get it now. And then you can do whatever you want.”
I grabbed his arm and pulled him down the stairs, hailing a cab and climbing in. We sped through five minutes’ worth of leafy residential streets before either of us said anything.
“So, um, are you alright?” I loosed a drawn-out sigh and rubbed my forehead.
“I’m just so disappointed. I’m disappointed, and I’m tired, and I thought you were going to be different and you aren’t.” I cracked the window, let in a little fresh air. “It’s just… this whole thing is bullshit and I don’t get it. I don’t understand why I’m not enough. We went out together! Why would you do that?”
“I didn’t think… that’s what I was talking about beforehand, at the station, about feeling more physical and stuff — I just thought we were going to do our own thing but, like, still hang out and do stuff.” We were pulled up outside of his midtown house. I moved to take out money for the cab; he brushed my hand away. “You might need that to get home.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s clear to me you didn’t think.” I could feel heat rising off my skin, my temples throbbing in the cool air, the ends of my fingers shaking. “Can we go somewhere? I’m… I’m not done.”
The next half hour was an exorcism of every early demon I’d collected, a period of renewal like shedding layer upon layer of calloused skin. I was naive, lonely, horny, hurt; I yelled, cried, laughed with malice, whispered. Tom mostly sat there and took it. And when I told him that I had to stay the night, even if it was on his floor, because I couldn’t imagine anything more pitiful than going home alone in this state, I didn’t yet understand that the only decision that was truly more pitiful than that was the one I had just made. And when I slept with him that night and left the next morning and cried on the subway home, weeping into a soggy Subway sandwich, I still couldn’t quite figure out why, exactly, I had made the choices I had the night before.
Tom was educational in the same way all boys that fly foul are educational: he taught me something about myself. You can share interests with someone and experience mutual physical attraction, and there are still thousands of ways for it to go wrong. You will find points and values on which compromise is simply not an option. You might need to blow it up and watch it burn to reach something better. I’m still learning from Tom, too. We’re guided by the ghosts of everything we’ve ever done before, and one of them is him, and the tiny part of me that’s haunted by it isn’t leaving anytime soon.
“We All Stand”
by PAULA MEJIA
Ted was from Tampa, he’d told her, as soon as she had put her purse down on the wraparound couch. She had lied and said “Missoula” when asked about her upbringing.
“Wow. So how big is Montana’s Big Sky?” he asked, while untying his leather shoes.
Montana’s big sky – she’d never seen it, but the thrill was probably that no one cared enough to find you there. Yet more people find solace surrounded by skyscrapers than mountains. It’s the same urgent tranquility that spurs rosary-clinging worshippers to throw themselves at the feet of the altar. The skyscrapers’ alternating heights give the illusion of a glittering upward mobility, if you choose to look up.
“It’s…well, it almost hurts to breathe in all at once.”
Pausing, he had come near her. Slowly he brought a fingertip up to her face. She stepped back, wincing involuntarily. He smiled, brushed the hair out of her face while inhaling her in.
She had been used to men being forceful – more so than two years ago when she had begun working in the industry. The breed of men she catered to now was needy. They craved romance, had the money to buy a girlfriend for an evening, and paid extra for them to occupy the spaces between the sheets of their king beds. Money, more than anything, purchases an illusion.
She had taken it as the cue to begin undressing. He stopped and took her shirt in his hands. “Allow me.”
“You know, this is business.”
“Yes,” he said, while peeling the skirt from her hips. “But feeling your skin against loose fabric makes it real.” He slipped $100 from his pocket and brushed it against her bare stomach.
Right after greeting the customer, she always takes in a room’s surroundings with the precision of a forensic detective at a homicide scene. Men think they hide their secrets well. Some do, better than others, but most rely heavily on another’s lack of perception. They rarely conceal well.
Last night she had located, mentally, the nearest exit (backdoor), the closest blunt object in her proximity (the cerulean vase on the oak table near the bed), and the safe (behind the stippled painting of a man’s profile on the left-most wall). She’d long since abandoned the habit of her early days — picking men’s slumped pants pockets for watches and stray cash as they lay prostrate right next to her, snoring soundly after a toe-curling blowjob. The safe’s location was always valuable to know. In the occasional hostile scenario, leverage is necessary.
Deep one February morning she’d felt a horrible hollowness after taking one politician’s wedding band, which had been in the right pocket of his pressed khakis. While standing in line to pawn the ring, she took it out of her clutch, weighing it carefully in her palm. Then she noticed the slight inscription cut in the stainless silver, “Sylvia” – incidentally, the same name as her cousin who had passed in childbirth two months before. For once the $1,200 hadn’t been worth the shame. Since then, she’d refrained from exploring men’s pockets, instead adjusting to the comfort of high-rise floors and no less than $5,000 a night, and that was relatively slow.
Last night’s customer weighed in at $7,500. He had even agreed to pay extra for the “inconvenience” of his request — the basket of roses and the massage candles lining the tables. The romanticism convenience fee was $500. Today she noticed the roses wilted in the wicker.
The Saturday sun seeped in residually, through floor-to-ceiling windows. Far beneath her, Spring Street was littered with statuesque women and pastel-printed men, flitting out of specialty boutiques and into bistros for brunch. Ted had vanished.
She lay still in the sheets, satisfied. For a moment she forgot where she was. She forgot the money she’ll immediately be returning back to the bank for the small business loan and student debt. She even forgot Ina’s building home care.
When she first began working, she couldn’t understand why cleft-chinned men like Ted, the urbane sort, paid for comfort when they could pick up women easily at places like The Standard. It had taken her a while to realize that what they were shelling out for wasn’t really sex, but the convenience of companionship, without the commitment. As for the sex, they wanted a woman who would take the drapes herself and pin them down with it.
Abstract sketches, framed in gold arches, lined the room. Across from her, a thin bookshelf spilled over with books. For a moment she’s surprised; these kinds of men usually have nothing on the walls, no indications of a presence. Some men collect books in order to seem more articulate than they actually are.
She runs her fingers over the tops of the novels, to see when her fingers stop collecting dust. Infinite Jest, A Hundred Years of Solitude, The Sun Also Rises. All untouched for years, at least evidenced by the gray fluff lining her fingernails. Her finger comes up clean when she reaches The Prince. She snorts. These Wall Street wigs, all trying to be Machiavellian men. It’s likely a relic from yellowing collegiate days, maybe. She flips through the pages. Many of them are carefully outlined and annotated with a spidery script.
Just then Ted returned with a tray. Two plates of poached eggs, smoked gouda, kale salad, and Bloody Marys.
“Ted. What is this?”
“Please. It’s just something I made us. Common courtesy.”
She smiled without teeth. Seeing his beaming smile, she nibbled politely on the cheese, then wiped her mouth with a napkin. Her hands reached for her demure lace lingerie.
“This is a transaction,” she said, pulling her shirt over her heard. Then she cleared her throat.
“Right. Of course.” He slinked into the walk-in closet and returned with a thin stack of bills. Silently she counted the remainder of her fare.
“Thank you, dear. You’re spectacular.”
Nodding, she refrained from saying anything. The room feels brighter.
“Do you like my apartment?”
She nodded silently. “It’s tasteful.”
“It’s the visual representation of Mark Rothko’s Earth & Green,” he explained. “Tones of green, red drapes, and blue pops in the furnishings. Very organic. Have you heard of Rothko?”
“The abstract painter.”
“You’re well-bred,” he cut in.
She chuckled. “A cane teaches you good manners.”
“No, you’re educated. You have good posture and speak more eloquently than most girls I’ve met,” he shakes his head. “What got you into this?”
“Why does anyone do what they do? Necessity. Why do you do what you do?”
“You don’t know what I do.”
“No, but I can guess. You work in finance and make more money than you know what to do with. The paintings on the wall – the stipples, the abstractions – they’re all some representation of your likeness. So, you’re vain. You also buy things like “earth-toned vases” to distract yourself from the inevitability of your pitiful existence – also, The Prince? Seriously? In what capacity do you practice practicality in your industry?” She bit her tongue then.
Ted gazed at her for a long moment. His lip quivered, and his shoulders began shaking. Tears welled in his eyes.
The shaking quickly became violent. He lost control of his limbs, and the tears became sobs. He tried to sound out words, but they became gurgled under the crying. Mucus dripped from his nose and splattered onto the pristine polished wood floor.
She stared at Ted. Teary, turbulent Ted. She then picked up her purse from the couch and closed the oak door behind her, leaving behind a man in the center of a large, lonely room, surrounded by everything and no one.