David: In order to understand quantitative easing you have to understand what a bubble is. Basically, a bubble happens when the value of assets—that’s stocks or houses or something—just starts going up so much that people feel like they’re wealthier. They haven’t actually gotten any more income, but the assets they own are worth more and more. Say you have a house and it triples in value and so you think of yourself—your net worth—as being a lot higher, so you go out and spend more money. That’s called the wealth effect. Have you heard of that?
Joni kicks her shoe so that it skims right past David’s ankle and lands beneath the blackboard where he’s standing.
David turns to look at her. Their eyes meet briefly before each turns away, Joni’s face flushing. She bites her bottom lip.
They are in an empty classroom at Columbia, where David is a graduate student, a transplant from South Africa.
David: So the wealth effect is the fact that when the value of your assets rises you spend more of your income. You save less money because you feel like your house is doing the saving for you. So, asset bubbles, wealth effect. What happened in these recent bubbles was based in housing. A really high percentage of GDP growth in the 2000s was from people borrowing against the value of their homes, taking out loans on their homes and spending the money. Like if you bought.…
David continues, but Joni does not hear. His voice is a sound that pleases her, that enters her and leaves her just the same.
She had genuinely wanted to learn when she asked David to tutor her—paid him $100 for his time and companionship—but she finds herself unable to follow. Impressive-sounding, incomprehensible words flow in and out of her ears, as if she were listening to a lecture in French. She focuses on the things she likes, sensual things: the sound of his accent, the tap of the chalk as he writes, the silhouette of his tall, slender body, the air of authority that being at the front of a classroom gives him.
And she likes the feeling of breaking a rule, of sneaking into an empty school she isn’t even enrolled in after midnight, the sense of camaraderie she felt gliding through the large empty hallways in the dark with David. Perhaps it is the air of the illicit that makes her unable to focus on economics.
David: Do you have any questions?
David fetches the champagne she brought for them and the mugs he stole from the staff break room and sets them next to her. She slides her bottom across the black table, reaches up and gently places her arms around David’s neck, softly kissing the sides.
He doesn’t stop her, but he hesitates. He is looking straight ahead, seeming not to know what to do. Joni runs her chubby fingers through his blond hair and continues to kiss his neck and ears. He kisses Joni’s mouth lightly.
David’s eyes reveal a trace of something he is normally able to suppress. He places his hand on Joni’s thigh.
David: I’m going to get in trouble for kissing my students.
They gather the champagne and mugs and walk to the staff room. The mood changes. Joni cannot keep the momentum going, does not know what to say to David now. He washes the mugs silently. When he is finished he looks past her as if to say it is the end of her lesson, time to go home now, school is done for the day.
As they walk by David’s office, Joni places her hand on the doorknob and turns to face it. She does not want to leave him. Joni looks over her shoulder at David.
Joni: I have to show you something.
She walks into his office and sits at his desk, which is covered in a flurry of books and student papers.
David follows her, closing the door behind him but for an inch.
David: What do you have to show me?
He sounds as if he knows she is up to something.
Joni stares shyly at the dull linoleum floor. She thinks about calling the whole game off, but she does not want to give up so easily. She thinks, I have to answer his question—he is the teacher, after all—and so she lifts her black dress to reveal large white breasts, sagging out of a purely decorative quarter-cup red lace bra.
David: Oh, those are impressive.
Joni: See, it’s cute. Because of the lace.
He nods absentmindedly.
Wordlessly, mindlessly, he approaches her, and his slender hand, ringed finger and all, reaches out and touches her breasts delicately, cups them. David always handles her so gently. He is the only man ever to have touched her in a way that was always pleasant. But six months after they met, friends of friends, she wonders if it is that same gentleness (timidity perhaps) that makes him run away after just a kiss. Will he finally give in tonight?
She places her fingers on his belt buckle and snakes toward the clasp. He sighs wearily.
David: It’s getting late. You should probably go home.
She has been too rash, and David has panicked and sent her away.
David is married, afraid of taking advantage, afraid of intimacy. But Joni doesn’t care. She wants him to get over it. She wants him to fuck her in his office. She has long fantasized about a professor or TA like David leaning her against the bookcases full of Marx and Ricardo and taking her. The fact that he is married and 15 years her senior only adds to it. His guilt is getting in the way of her pleasure, yet it is also indirectly part of the cause of her desire for him. How much longer will it be until she can feel pleasure? Or is it actually just the chase, the anticipation that she enjoys? It doesn’t seem to matter. Time is running out. She is 23, too old—in her mind—to be a schoolgirl. Too old to be thrilled by sleeping with older men, married men.
A long cab ride home to her Alphabet City apartment. She stares out the window. New York is hideous, with gray dilapidated buildings and filthy streets mottled with failed asphalt and garbage heaps. And the people are even worse. It’s like living inside an eternal cocaine comedown. Why does anyone live here?
In New York she always wants to break the rules because she can’t fit in, isn’t capable of it. She wants to want to learn about economics, but all she can focus on is sex with the man who is supposed to tutor her. She is a bimbo, and true to bimbo form she cannot accept it. Even though she always ends up like this, vaguely humiliated after his polite rejection. “Misery and the Bimbo Form.” Yet she will continue to surround herself with smart people like David.
It is unsurprising but eye-opening how it follows, from the statement (often incorrectly attributed to Primo Levi) that Palestinians are the Jews’ Jews, that whores are women’s women. Textbook.
Honestly, one reason I sense that sex workers who aren’t forced into the trade are subject to so much hatred is that the implication of their work is that the patriarchy doesn’t spoil general heterosexual relations. And that a woman can use sex to her own ends. I don’t mean that in an idealizing way regarding how sex work actually operates; I mean that there’s a fundamental refusal of the premise that “sexual access” in itself is a kind of harm or wrong, which is what is absolutely implied when you hear about patriarchy being all about sexual access to women. It certainly is, in part, but that doesn’t mean you confront the patriarchy when you deny sexual access.
I’m not sure I’m expressing this with the requisite nuance.
Put another way, it’s the structures of sexual access, rather than the desire for it, that get conflated. And the latter usually supplants the former in critiques of sex work, porn and so on, and it tends to focus on women who find their sexuality viable. Not unproblematic, not painless, just viable. And not because they’re brainwashed by patriarchy, but because they happen to be well-adjusted against the ubiquitous sexual conservatism.
But many people are deluded that we live in a world of sexual liberation. The mainline feminist argument is that women are not sexually liberated but men are—at women’s expense. Not in my view. Men sexually exploit women all over the place. That’s not a product of liberation but of the ongoing conservative organization of sexual exchange. The fact that women can’t access men sexually in anything like a public and impersonal way says everything about this. –Anonymous.
George: You know, you remind me of…an actress from a French film.
Comparing a doughy ginger like Joni to a Karina or a Bardot is laughable. No, she is more reminiscent of a Todd Solondz character. But he knows that, and he knows how to flatter her. Still, she has never been able to fully suspend her disbelief.
He had asked her to meet him in front of Coffee Shop on 16th Street near his office in Union Square, where he works as a bespoke shoe-maker. She feels embarrassed standing in front of such a place, with its garish blinking neon sign and NYU freshmen clientele and fried plantains covered in off-puttingly red ketchup.
They have not seen each other in eight months. She likes his well-fitting corduroy suits, his blond hair and the thick-framed glasses he wore specifically because he’s aware of Joni’s infatuation with intellectuals.
George is Joni’s older married friend. She remembers part of their very first conversation:
Joni: Do you have a wife?
George: Yes, but I don’t have a girlfriend.
But now, he tells her, he has five of them.
George: Sometimes I feel bad, cream-pie-ing these 21-year-old Jewish girls on the floor of my office. But I’m like Don Draper. I’m thinking of pitching a column about my sexcapades to somewhere like Esquire or Playboy, somewhere with real money.
Sensing Joni’s disapproval, he defends himself.
George: In New York there are so many beautiful girls, it’s like a buffet! I mean, wouldn’t you?
Joni smiles, unsure of what to say.
George: Nah, you’d just have a bite of potato and go to bed.
They walk in silence. Joni does not want to go to his office but follows him there anyway.
George: I remember you being quiet. I don’t remember you saying nothing.
It’s true. She has still not forgiven him for the night after the Verso party.
Who goes to a Verso party?
Bitchy East Coast girls who grew up in an idyllic Boston suburb and went to Sarah Lawrence, who have parents who read books (instead of growing up in a cultural wasteland that exists solely to provide casino service and labor, in a family where avoiding teenage motherhood and attending a third-tier state college were almost unattainable achievements). Pompous girls who desperately want to be boys or—lower in the hierarchy—catering girls who serve a purely aesthetic and/or care role to the boys.
Mediocre, mean, arrogant boys. So many of them. More boys than subway rats. Rat Bastard who had twice (twice!) soberly hit and humiliated his girlfriend in public apropos of nothing. Now he is held up by New York as an example of a good male feminist—in contrast to all the bad ones, and there are so many bad ones—but he’s good, he says, because he critiques his own overwhelming but problematic instinct to protect women.
Joni heard a blonde catering girl squeal to him, “Your dog is such a Situationist!” and climbed out on the fire escape. Or tried to. Her sock caught the corner of the frame and she fell on her knees. (“Fuck!”) Partygoers saw her and scoffed. She climbed down to the street and called George, not knowing who else.
They were in his office then too. She sat on that rug—the cream-pie rug, apparently—legs crossed, revealing pink panties, eating a rare steak with her bare hands. Chewing deeply into thick sinew, ripping it apart, myoglobin trickling between fleshy fingers—she licked it off like berry juice.
An “old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes British affair” is what George called it.
He gave the black delivery boy a 50 percent tip to impress her and she did feel happy, yet slightly embarrassed, when the kid jumped for joy.
She excused herself to go to the bathroom down the hall. She needed to expel the six tall boys of Bud Light, whose brackish taste she did not like but which she chose knowing they would sneer at her at the Verso party for drinking it. Those quiet looks that said so much. Sitting on the toilet in the dim gray bathroom, Joni imagined their disgust: Very tacky. She seems to pile on the carbs as heavily as her makeup. Graceless. Graceless.
She certainly felt graceless when she returned to find George holding her phone, looking through her e-mail.
George: Isn’t that funny! You’re having sex with everyone but me. Can get all these hot JAPs but can’t get a hooker to do it with me.
Despite all the clammy, unwashed body parts that had been jammed inside her, she had never felt so violated by a man.
Joni’s mind reels; why did she agree to meet with him today? She once liked him because he had taken her to see the delicate My Night at Maud’s at Film Forum, had eaten steak tartare out of the palm of her hand at Balthazar (“like a good boy”) and because she had sat in his office on calm summer afternoons sipping $4 iced tea, admiring the jovial, charming way he interacted with clients and how he gently, meticulously spent hours perfecting a child’s tiny leather shoe.
But that seems long gone. Now there’s just this. There is only ever this moment. An obnoxious alcoholic who trolls Tinder for girls (age range 18 to 25), too cowardly to admit to himself what he is doing (see: his wife’s supposed “tacit agreement”) yet too much of an asshole to be ashamed and not brag about it. He is a man who calls himself Super Dad for taking off one afternoon a week from cheating on his pregnant wife to bring his son to the park. He embraces no conclusion, no role entirely.
She isn’t ashamed of the things she does for money; she’s done worse for free.
Joni’s rule is that if you do something, you should do it completely. She would like to say that no matter how many flaws she has, she wants to fully experience the consequences of her actions. Her favorite example is how she tells herself she is an escort and so she is the most high-end escort one can be. At least when one weighs 162 pounds. She ignores the ways in which she does not measure up. She loves to make generalizations, black and white. It makes life more comprehensible. Amy, her old friend, had told her that relationships are a “dynamic process.” But she wants a right party (Joni) and a wrong party (whomever she disagrees with), determined by completely static rules. Amy was now convinced she could not enable Joni to do evil things like date a married man. (“We don’t do that!”)
Joni hates moralizing. “Let us have a bit of fun first.” She often thinks about Molly Bloom’s soliloquy—has read it many times, listened to it being performed—but has not bothered with any other Joyce, does not care. She likes to read it at face value, feels validated by it. A bad feminist looking for a good time.
Of course, here she was with George, but did it count if she didn’t verbalize it? Just flash a smile and play with her hair, forming the mosaic of George in her brain. After all, she was neither sleeping with George and having a torrid love affair nor ignoring him and, what—maybe telling his wife?
His wife. George’s favorite pastime is justifying cheating on his pregnant wife.
George: I’m not saying I deserve a medal for what I did. Cleaning piss out of the sheets, rubbing vomit out of the carpet. And once when she was drunk, we were fighting and she was standing in the door of our bedroom and said, “You’re not man enough to hit me.” So, so I did. And I was made out to be the bad guy, when she started it! What was I supposed to do, Joni?
As he says this he staggers toward Joni, grabs her wrists and presses his body to hers. His pungent whiskey smell nauseates Joni. He cannot stop telling her about his penis.
George: Do you think I’m a scumbag for having sex with a hooker? It was a classy $600 one. And I think I was quite a change of pace for her. First I thought, She’s faking it, she’s faking it, whatever, but then at the end I started to really give it to her and she says, “You are like a passionate Italian man, not British!” Some Russian girl who could barely speak English.
George: Now I’m going to sit down and you’re going to sit on your Uncle George’s lap.
As he moves to sit she pushes him off her so that he falls to the floor, and she escapes. She cannot stand to talk to that kind of man for free.
Why is my life so lurid these days? she wonders as she begins to cycle—her thick, firm legs the only solid part of her, the only powerful part of her. Those legs that turn the wheels of the vintage banana-pudding-yellow cruiser, the one she bought for $60 on Long Island three months ago. The one her friends laugh at due to its rust and bodiless pedals but which she loves, truly loves.
The leftist reading group meets every Wednesday night at six. A different kind of left than the Verso party crowd. People who’ve spent their lives working and avoiding work and sneaking away at work to read obscure Turkish communist texts, people whose parents couldn’t pay for them to go to Harvard or Brown and who go on to intern at n+1. People who didn’t secretly aspire to become socialites among The Nation’s readership.
Sarah: —moved away from the Communist Party, put out things that were kind of crucial to the commie left in the 1960s and of course the 1970s and Bologna was also a leading intellectual working on oper…oprerr…workerism—and some of the other things that are important at this time is a movement away from the traditional labor movements and the women’s movement, the student movement coming in and having to redefine what the workers’ movement was, now that it had been sort of starting to separate from the traditional labor movement. And so a lot of these articles are attempting to reiterate, like, what to do with that split. And the way that Tronti describes that I find really nice, that the moment of discovery has returned, that the time of political vanguards is over and that gives us a new way to discover political organization——
A circle of chairs in a classroom.
Joni is late; she is always late. Late or not, it doesn’t matter. She is never present. She drifts in and out of listening, does not care about any of this. Even her wish to care is vain and insincere. She wants to be an impressive orator, wants to destroy rat boys in political debates and wants someone to declare her intelligent. She wants to hang around now as much as she did when she first met them and thought to herself, These people are intelligent and compelling and I want to be them.
She nods at sophisticated-sounding remarks her fellow readers make and waits impatiently to gossip with the more socially competent members afterward. And they certainly gossip. Two hours later at a nearby bar, of a long-haired particularly odious and bespectacled Stalinist boy:
Paul: He wrote this shitty article and in the comments section, a scan of a kill order from his beloved Italian CP against leftcoms and Trots, and said, “Is this what is aspired to?” They write these shitty soc-dem papers. So boring. You can even tell who their Ph.D. advisors are ’cause they’ll, like, wheel out the hobbyhorse of their advisor’s old papers at any opportunity. [breathlessly] “This calls for guaranteed minimum income!” I don’t get people who think leftist politics are about, like, somehow for 40 years we’ve failed to market these reforms right and we have to find some magic formula to sell them to people. If history hinges on these cretins’ amateur-hour PR, then that’s the most depressing thing ever——
And so on. She doesn’t understand but loves the gossip, the tone, the ability to feel like an insider, as if she has some special knowledge (even if only superficially by association) that makes her privy to something no one else in New York knows. But she doesn’t really know. Joni has been a part of the group for only four months. Joni decides that she can leave, that there is no chance of having anything to contribute, that she lacks all context. She has to leave, actually, because she must work tonight.
“Are you going to be okay?”
The warm Manhattan night makes her feel calm but sickly. She breathes deeply. She is not drunk, yet the air will make her sober.
She hails a cab to the Renaissance Hotel.
Yes, she has to work. Unlike the real Marxists, Joni does not hate work. She only dreads everything leading up to work: how she must jam her legs into forever-running stockings and fasten unhookable hooks before finally throwing it all on the floor, telling herself that men don’t even like lingerie anyway; the car sickness she feels as she clumsily attempts to apply eyeliner in the back of a cab; the lotion she rubs on the patches of missed leg hair before scraping it away with a pink disposable Bic. A boy once told her he understood the uneven division of affective labor and that’s why he doesn’t mind paying for girls on dates. If only clients were so understanding, paying her her hourly rate for the time it takes to get ready.
But tonight she does not do any of that. It does not feel necessary.
She stumbles into the elevator and presses her head against the metal for support. With her eyes closed and the cool, sticky feeling of the metal pressed against her swollen face, she thinks back to several months before.
The day after her 23rd birthday, David had suddenly, cryptically asked her over Facebook Chat if she’d like to meet for coffee at Ninth Street Espresso. It’s true that the night before they had shared a first kiss, and it’s also true that they had held hands, running, laughing, pleasantly warm air in their faces, Joni’s comically stocky legs pumping, trying to keep up with David’s long slender ones. And it’s even true that when they had stopped and David announced he couldn’t go to the bar because he had to work, she had slapped him. He sputtered indignantly as she ran away, wide-eyed, manic and giggling. And it’s true that when they met at Ninth Street Espresso she had cheerfully shown him the photos of her stumbling around half-naked in the bar the night before, near-blackout intoxicated.
David: Joni—I think you’re very beautiful and sexy and really interesting. You’re just my type.
Joni could not contain the smile her joyful expectations created, clutching her hand to her racing heart, thinking, Oh, he’s complimenting me—he’s going to ask me out!
David: But I’m not ready. I freaked out when you kissed me.
Joni: I’m not good at these conversations.
David: I’m not either.
Joni: [Pleadingly] I’m not…socially…adept…enough…to navigate…this conversation!
She stared at the ground, sucking on her thumb, and brushed her hair in front of her face.
Joni guzzles the champagne and eats steak with her bare hands.
David sighed softly. She hoped he saw her then: vacuous, struggling, not just unwilling but actually incapable of responding. His eyes stopped scanning; he changed into someone easier. The superficial but courteous and patient person she imagined he became when he interacted with his younger, slower students.
David: So did you read those books I gave you?
Joni: Yes, I really like Women as Lovers. But I didn’t start the other one yet. Um.
They both stared at the adjacent wall.
Joni trembled. She could not stand sitting in uncomfortable silence—a situation she was intimately familiar with, one that never stopped feeling like suffocation. She suddenly nodded.
Joni: Will you walk me home, please?
Soon they stood in front of Joni’s building.
David: So, see you around?
Joni nodded again, thinking, Not all boys can handle being slapped. Even though they all deserve it.
In her apartment complex’s elevator she pressed her cheek against the metal doors, trying to cool her burning face.
Yes, that day was so humiliating. She isn’t ashamed of the things she does for money; she knows she has done worse for free.
But now she is being paid. She is on a different date. A four-hour dinner date with an investment banker.
He does not comment on Joni’s intoxication.
She holds him, strokes and gently pecks the top of his fat bald head. She feels genuine affection for her clients, but only in a customer-loyalty-program kind of way. (Thanks so much for coming!) Their intercourse is nothing much. Joni wonders how it is that this man, like so many men, arrived in middle age without ever learning how to touch a woman.
She guzzles the champagne the banker offers her. And again she eats room service steak with her bare hands, lifting the fillet to her mouth and ripping it apart with her hands. Still, out of habit her mouth is closed, she chews primly. She sees but does not understand the banker’s nonplussed expression.
She wipes her mouth on her arm and curls up next to the banker.
It speaks volumes, though, that men don’t achieve any sustained insight into how to have good sex. It’s an indication of how back-to-front things are when sexual activity is an unpleasurable site of experience. Certain strains of feminism seem to take this awfulness as indicative of women’s libidinal structure or something, like the inherent unpleasantness of sex. It’s odd. I don’t know. Sex should be a site of pleasure. Not in some natural Edenic sense but because it can be. Is that so naive? Obviously it’s difficult, if not impossible, to extract sex from the asymmetries of patriarchal society, so sex is unpleasant perhaps to the degree that it exacerbates or makes manifest those inequalities. But in that sense, sex is no different from any social activity, including pleasant activities.–Anonymous.
She wakes up.
She sees bright light—white light.
She feels heavy in a white bed—a hotel bed.
She’s curled up next to someone—her client.
She springs up like a Bobo doll, clutching the white comforter to her breasts.
Joni: Oh my God! I’m so sorry!
Bizarre, haunted, empty. Containing the desire to panic, to scream, to destroy. To confront herself: How could you?
Client: It’s all right. You were sleeping so soundly, I didn’t want to wake you.
Her body feels, looks untouched. She wants to stick her fingers into herself to examine if there is any blood or semen, but her body is frozen with shame. All she feels capable of doing is fixating on the TV screen. It is suddenly captivating.
A long, smooth, panning shot of a sleek black gliding SUV cuts to another shot of a white father and son duo, wearing camouflage, saying, “Rebecca has been in the wrong Los Angeles.”
Client: It’s not fair they suspended that guy. Whatever happened to free speech?
Joni: You’re so right! Right, right, right, right, right.
In stinging, shaming fluorescent light, heart racing, she assesses herself, pink clammy fingers spread on pink dry flesh. Finds nothing amiss. Nothing new. Same old, same old.
Thank God he did not take advantage, she thinks.
Guilty and grateful, Joni tries to throw $500 of the $2,000 onto the counter but it lands on the floor.
She slinks away head down, walks self-consciously in the way one does when trying not to look drunk.
She tumbles headfirst into a cab. Feeling the cool leather seat stick against her face, feeling her drunkenly pliable body sway with the movement of the car, she thinks of Coetzee’s protagonist in Disgrace, who in the back of his car has sex with an intoxicated streetwalker (“street worker,” she corrects herself), one so intoxicated she cannot manage a single coherent word. To think she—Joni—had gotten upset, wanted Coetzee to have a more enlightened view of sex workers. I’m not like that, she thought.
Joni does not want to think of what she actually is like. When her co-workers tell stories, they are not like hers, and they would cringe and say “Oh honey” if they knew. The bad whores have to be shamed, for they make the others look bad. She instead focuses on her indignation at Coetzee.
At home she lies on her now blackened bed, bought secondhand from a discount mattress retailer out of Queens via Craigslist. It is, as it has been for the past three months, strewn with cigarette butts (Marlboro Lights). At first she tried to contain the butts to her bed, but now they soil the things she keeps on her floor: clothes (Forever 21), three thoroughly worn pairs of identical black shoes (Toms), 14 empty tall boys (Miller Lite), the book she has been semi-honestly telling people she’s “reading right now” for the past seven months (Ann Rower), a broken $250 netbook (Acer) and an open tube of lipstick (Duane Reade). Her room is otherwise vacant.