The Worst Place In New York
by Bruce Benderson
The worst place in New York is the surface of my bed, an area of 3,922 square inches bought by caring parents to support my lately overfed body in comfort and offer it a feeling of security that may extend my life by warding off illnesses caused by stress or fatigue. This mattress positioned in an East Village building of poorly renovated apartments on a noisy street is the locus of my life's sexual activities and now supports my body next to one of considerably greater density due to its much younger age and many street brawls, its seasonal stints on an Alaskan fishing boat, its past as a transient avoiding arrest warrants, and its subsequent terms of prison.
A feature of the body that shifts the surface of the mattress out of the zone of security intended by my parents into a zone of chaos and imminent danger like that of the busy street outside is the flat, tense chest. It would feature inflated pectorals if the body had been developed in a safe gym but has instead been hardened by all that fighting and flight and work. Most of the power is seated in the back and stomach and forearms and wrists and thighs and hands (instead of the chest and shoulders) due to hauling, shoveling, punching, running, kicking, or maybe because of the tension of buried anger smoldering in every gesture and hunching the muscles into coils of tremendous threat.
This is not to say that the scarred, tattooed body that lies on this bed after its most recent incarceration for assaulting an elderly woman who struggled against its theft of her purse is not capable of striking gestures of affection or even elegant tenderness. Actually, gestures of sensuality would be more apt a word: impulses of the moment with no follow-up, commitment, or sense of contradiction were they to lead to other impulses of violence, such as illegal appropriations of property or bursts of uncontrollable temper.
The possibility of this surface transformed from a place of rest and protected sleep to one of pleasure and risk and danger to become the worst place in New York seems somewhat likely considering the personal history brewing not very far below the sensual surface of this caressing, stroking, occasionally kissing, very dense body next to mine. He portrays himself as reborn and recovered thanks to months in a drug treatment program in which he was placed after serving this most recent prison sentence. Yet there is a hollow quality to his claims of new respectability touted by his starched, white short-sleeved shirt, his loose, pressed chino pants, and those improbable loafers that looked so out of place in the Times Square male prostitute bar where we met. Under the shell of this wholesome image I imagine deep chasms of hopelessness, promiscuous anger, black cynicism expressed in desperate ways. There are hints that he still looks at life in the same way as he did before his supposed recovery, which merely dumped him from the drug treatment center into a new bout of homelessness, though not yet long enough to wrinkle the wholesome white shirt and chino pants.
But it's too late. That shell of decency was removed long ago. His gloriously dense flesh is spread out on this space of the mattress. The lean, horribly strong hands covered with callouses and scarred cartilage are already gripping my shoulder, while the powerful arm with its home-made tattoo has my neck in something between an arm-lock and an embrace. The insolent, scratchy voice is already barking its boasts, commands, and interpreting as law what is happening on the television near the bed, while mocking my weak comments, or crowing about plans for success in the rainbow drug-free future, mentioning some of the objects in the room with a touch of angry envy, as he lolls against me, conscious of the excitement that young, strong limbs and hard stomachs sculpted by resentment produce in me.
The naked body on this quality mattress has immense authority, vigor. It's transforming my personality from that cautious, practical person supported by this surface supplied by hard-working parents into something coming apart. There seems to be an even greater promise of security in mere surrender to this strong authority with its unbudgeable granite thighs and proprietary arm, even though my superior education tells me that everything he is saying about the television program is naive and wrong.
It would be so dangerous to contradict him. Though his corded neck, slightly Asian eyes, and cruel mouth have the blank smoothness of a carved idol, there is a two-inch crack, or rather, scar, vertically notching the center of the forehead. It's like a crack of anger chipped into the smooth skull. It may have happened as a child during a rough and tumble, or more likely a father flew into a rage and used something hard and sharp to punish him that broke the skin...
It's just a blur of a memory now. The hospital... those months afterward in the group home after they took him away... Or was it in prison, when the edge of a steel pipe stolen from the laundry room or lavatory was cracked against his skull by a ham of a hand connected to a forearm hard as a tree limb, as rage flashed from black eyes for some small transgression, the mouth wet, contorted, until loud alarm clangings and the slam of steel brought the guards running? Too late... he is taken unconscious to the infirmary for stitches sewn into the thin flap of forehead...
I am becoming painfully aware of his insecure need to master everything on the surface of the bed my hard-working parents bought for me after they rose from immigrant deprivation to middle class affluence. That is why he is so interested in the cat perched at the foot. He keeps trying to order it over with a snap of his tense fingers as one would call a dog, as if there is no mammal which he would not master. But it stays seated like a sphinx, throwing back his gaze. He's not the type who'll let somebody humiliate him. His teeth are grinding so hard that I can hear the vibrations in my own skull. It always happened that a child, a girlfriend, a prison guard behaved in exactly the same way. But he can't let an animal get away with it. Because on that Caribbean island when he was eleven before the death of his mother he was forced to apprentice at a slaughterhouse. So that initial revulsion and tenderness and shame at lives cut short moment after moment soon changed into a sense of mastery after wringing neck after neck of chicken to put food on tables.
It's essential that the cat know who's boss. I have to use all my soothing, accommodating craft to lure him into forgetting that cat. I boost his ego, trivialize the incident and build him up, become ever more diplomatic, admittedly finding my nerve in my swoon over the miracle of such a hard, alert, young bodydropped onto the surface of my bed like a time bomb ticking and coiling toward an unknown moment of detonation.
That coil is winding tighter, like the hard curves of his lean waist against the sheet. The sharp, hurt laugh that sounds like something being cracked. It's ready to go off in an irrational flash. It is the prelude to the subjugation of one male by another, on this cut-out, electrified surface over which menace radiates in exhilarating waves.
The scar on his forehead actually came from a foster father. When he was thirteen he took a dollar bill from the man's pants pocket. Rage gushed from the foster father's eyes and contorted, drunken mouth, as the father lifted a sewing machine and hurled it at the boy. The spindle dented his forehead and slammed the back of his head against the peeling plaster board beneath the velveteen print of Martin Luther King. The impact of the collision affected a nerve in his face, which partly explains the frequent grinding of teeth and the lopsided smile curtailed by that grimace. As if grimacing in the courtroom at the hearing when he was removed first from his own father and then this foster father. Grimacing still, when he was sentenced to jail.
The extra cartilage on his hands is from the bare-knuckled boxing he practiced one summer at the age of fourteen to win money to buy heroin. If he was knocked out, the small audience in the vacant lot bought him a bag to pay for the entertainment, and if he knocked out his opponent, he also got a share of the bets on him so he could buy more of the drug. This explains the slightly chipped front tooth, points to the blunt scars on his shins from tripping and falling on car parts in that lot after taking his shot of heroin and collapsing. It's the reason for all that extra knuckle cartilage, which at some fights must have been scraped to the bone, coated with his blood mixed with the blood flowing from the mouth and nose of his opponent.
In order to win he had to picture what happened when he was six and his father came in with noisy, humid breath, leaning over the mattress where he and his mother were sleeping, using superhuman strength to yank up the edge of the mattress until it was standing on its side as he and his mother rolled out of the warm, safe space and her bony body thudded against his on the chilly pine floor. He had to crawl away as his father grabbed her by the ankle and dragged her across the floor toward the stove against which he beat her head over and over until blood matted the long, dark hair.
The head of a whore, according to his father.
I really should not think about this. The more I look for reasons for the river of violence flowing below the voice and the sensual bedroom gestures, the more apt I am to provoke it. He pushes START on the remote control of the VCR. The Asian woman on the screen is being wrapped ever tighter with the silk cord, the legs spread-eagled at a wider and wider angle. The hairs covering her cunt seem improbably long. Her eyes roll upward in their sockets and her head thrusts back as she gnaws on the strand of hair in her mouth in pain or ecstasy as the shaft separates the lips of her vagina and plunges to the hilt.
It would be most sensible to surrender to this force field he has created on the mattress surface until that surface slips far from the influence of my parents who bought it. Farther and farther away we float. Or perhaps it is they who are receding like a camera image in reverse zoom. My best chance for safety is to believe implicitly in what is happening and accept my lot--his inflated claims, paranoid suspicions, ravenous mastery, tattoo, scars, chipped tooth, accusing empty eyes, bulging thighs, rapacious fleshy lips, steely back, deep sculpted armpit hollow. Now his teeth are biting playfully but too roughly into my neck, the broad calloused thumb and forefinger gripping my nipple in too firm a pinch, the marble thigh pinning mine under it, the mattress surface spinning in space or undulating in steep waves as surrender makes my nipple melt into the stinging pressure and my lips give in to a kiss that seems violating and mocking, until the full weight crushes the breath out of me.
So that I must breathe in and out in synch, can only breathe in when the terrific breath breathes out or when the probing, insolent tongue lets me come up for air. While the hands grasp my temples with such tearing force that I'm sure they are leaving marks, and the body shifts to push my head against the wall. The penis rends my throat in two like a stake thrust into rotting wood as my scalp smarts under his grip on my hair and I gaze up at the shoulders bulging as if they were about to rip a tree root from the earth. Ripping me by my roots from the everyday boundary of the mattress surface into a rushing world where whores must pay or die and where our father is god and enemy. Until I glue my face to the groin and let the entire circumference of safety dissolve into the most liquid sense of security, well-being, warmth, bliss, and surrender that I have known since my bowel and urinary functions were unseparated from my parents' care and the surface of the mattress becomes a luminous white liquid scintillated with opaline flashes.
In fact the surface of this mattress feels open and flowing. Lying on the bed next to me is a naked muscular man wearing a condom. The tip is flooded with semen. A sullen, humiliated look troubles his eyes. Light footsteps are heard through the ceiling in the apartment above. He leaps to his feet, pounding belligerently on the wall because people have no respect, then he is back down on the mattress surface again to light a cigarette as if nothing has happened.
But something has happened to me. I have become so relaxed, transparent, open, that the expression floating to my face immediately informs him of everything that I am thinking. The porno film is finished and the TV program is back on. He explains what is happening in it, but he can see by my face that it is not so. My lack of submission annoys him, but it is obvious from the bored tolerance in his face that he is not surprised this has happened. He takes another drag from the cigarette, and when he exhales it, he farts and laughs. But the laugh is at his expense, his vulgarity.
I roll aside. The surface of the mattress is reconstituting. It really is a quality mattress. Strongly stitched and reinforced, buttons sewn at predictable intervals, firm and regular, with a lifetime guarantee, the kind of mattress that might be a godsend for someone having to work in the morning.
He is getting dressed. Putting back on the same socks, which betray a faint odor, picking up the pressed pants that had been carefully draped against a chair, putting on the starched shirt, which looks slightly more limp than it did before. The cat comes back to perch at the foot of the bed. As he takes the money I have removed from the desk drawer, his eyes focus on the floor. In looking for his belt he has to walk around the perimeter of the wide mattress, which I have settled back on, the TV remote in one hand, waiting and waiting until he walks out and the door clicks shut.
To leave me alone on this strangely spacious surface, in the rank odor of sweat on the damp sheets, a stale silence clothing the hollow sound of the TV.
While the surface of the mattress expands its boundaries against the living world, gets infinitely wider and more barren, horribly bright and stale, turns gray, is surrounded by darkness, and becomes the emptiest, the most cursed place in all of New York.