The Terrible Riddles of Human Sexuality (Solved)
1. Pink and blue rabbits, in pairs, in rows; heads leaned together, sniffing each other; each body cocked forward, each bunny intrigued; white background and two pink buttons on a side-stitch. What am I?
(Answer: It’s an old superstition that wearing children’s panties under the uniform will bring in more trade. May claimed they were for a niece when she bought them. She took the two cellophane packages to a restroom and tried on a pair. It was almost exciting. The tightness or the rabbits’ sincerity.)
2. Rubbery sounds bending over or sitting down. Deep indentations in the skin. That worrisome pain. Smell of plastic, like a booth in a diner. What am I?
(Answer: May puts on her uniform long before she needs to be at work. She’s trying to get herself used to it. Wearing it feels like being scared. No deep breaths, as though you’ve been running.
The weather is warm, but May can’t bring herself to go out in the outfit uncovered. Some of the other girls do. May thinks they look like hookers, coming in to work. Her boots she doesn’t mind people seeing. They’re steel-toed, which costs extra, but they give just the right clunk on stairs and tile. May thinks they look cute below her oversized, rumpled red sweater—the six or so inches of nyloned thigh that peek out between them and the uniform’s hem, underneath the wool. May imagines kicking the shit out of the first guy on the street to make fun of her get-up. It’d be easy with all that extra weight. At work, though, she has to be careful. High-heeled numbers with pinched and pointy toes are the norm there. Dainty but forbidding. With that extra weight, May has to know her own strength.
To her face the other, older girls call her their little soldier boy. Behind her back it’s “Leadfoot.”)
3. There’s yelling in 3E, television in 2W, garlic 2E, music 1W, 1E dark. Keys cold between index and middle, middle and ring, ring and pinky, claws. What am I?
(Answer: It takes longer heading out to work than getting back. There’s less traffic, of course, at quitting time—the streets are deserted. Every night she thinks, “The streets are deserted.” Even the walk upstairs to her apartment seems abridged on the way in.)
4. St. Christopher, Catwoman, Krishna, and Christ. Black and white Catherine Deneuve under a bedsheet. Mardi Gras beads and a snow globe from Texas—yellow sand, plastic cacti, and a russet armadillo. What am I?
(Answer: The taxi dashboard has the contents of a junk drawer glued on with creamy white Elmer’s. The driver is bald, and the back of his head is dotted with liver spots. They don’t reflect passing streetlamps like the rest of his skin. May watches white blobs curve down his scalp and disappear.)
5. Large and purple pastries filled with grape, dripping over a tobacco-stained counter where loose gray hairs have collected, confused by the air conditioning. What am I?
(Answer: May can imagine the texture of the driver’s ears in her mouth. Cartilage is sexier than skin or bone. She is assembling a book of aphorisms. May sees her mouth in the rearview: wide, with perfect square herbivore’s teeth. She spots lipstick on an incisor, even in the darkness of the cab, and takes out her hankie to erase it.)
6. A mountain of intricate women, naked, hairless, tarnish-green and bruised: clinging to one another by breast and buttock. Then, adrift in the sky, lovers engaged in various acts of copulation—thirty or so pairs of Paolo and Francesca making an inverted funnel, stained teeth bared, aureoles and fingernails similarly tinted, whirling, a violet tornado. What am I?
(Answer: Midway up the stairs to work, May’s boss Milton has hung two paintings he considers very classy. Clunk clunk clunk.)
7. Baseball game on the radio. Two men, one standing, the other in black silk pajamas on a four-poster. The corner posts are bent and splintered at their tops, the ceiling scarred, sooty.
Hey May, the pajama-man says. Standing-man leaves, brushing past her. She twists away from the contact. Her ribcage is a shrill whistle in the uniform. What do you think, is two thousand dollars enough to cut someone’s hands off? pajama-man asks. I mean, if you got the offer? I mean, how much would make you not think twice?
More than that, May says.
By how much?
What am I?
(Answer: Milton’s office is the first room, just off the landing. He says he settled there to see the customers coming in, but his door is usually closed, and Milton is usually asleep. He should have bedsores by now, the other girls say. They get him to take them down the street for Chinese, or else to inspect their rooms and equipment. That’s what the boss is supposed to do. Keep on your feet—it isn’t so hard. But Milton says he’s tired.)
8. May complains. I don’t think they like me.
You’re being paranoid, Milton says.
They don’t like having me around.
Tough to be the new girl, Milton says.
They don’t ask me out for drinks. They leave the room when I come in.
They’re busy, Milton says. Maxine and Mildred have kids.
They don’t trust me.
They don’t know you.
Milton says, They’re jealous.
They won’t leave me alone with the customers.
That’s customary, Milton says.
They make me leave the door open. Afraid I’ll give customers executive relief. For bigger tips. Lure trade away. Take money right out of their pockets.
Say “handjob,” May. Executive relief is vulgar.
What am I?
(Answer: May imagines men milling around the street outside, raincoats slung over their shoulders. Why don’t they come in?)
9. This cloud of tiny black lines and angles. Drifting els, sees, and jays. A soft sticky rain that tickles the face. What am I?
(Answer: May clobbers a centipede with tissue-box. She thinks she feels its broken legs land and stick on her forehead, straight up like a new hairline, or else get lost in her sweater. There are little itches on her stomach and shoulders now. The bug’s body, bald, she retrieves and wraps in a tissue; both go down the toilet. May washes her hands and goes back to checking her makeup in the bathroom mirror. One face. She shakes it back and forth and up and down, trying to dislodge the legs, making her neck pop and crack. Soon there’s a cloud of dust or dandruff and sweater-strands that coil and float in front of her. Her scalp starts itching too.)
10. Chains sprout from swelling red vinyl walls. A divan is cushioned in the same material; it whooshes out air when compressed by a body. A flyswatter and a chocolate bar on a short wooden table. What am I?
(Answer: May waits three hours in the Justine Suite before she gets a customer. Men come in to Milton’s steadily now, but they’re the regulars; they get assigned to the senior girls, with whom they have working relationships. May makes sure to bring a book to work; she’s gone nights with no trade at all. She reads while she waits on the divan. Sometimes the phone rings, startling her: the new girl has to take the calls. She speaks politely to nervous, skeptical men. Occasionally a woman, but they always chicken out—she’s never known one to show up. The callers ask for directions, sometimes the pricelist. May has to answer in whichever persona she’s using. Odd days she’s Chloe, even she’s Mistress Jocasta. Tonight she’s Chloe.
Her customer is middle-aged and clean. He carries a leather briefcase, probably come straight from work. He smells like fenugreek and mouthwash. He’s just been briefed, in the foyer, on Milton’s standards and practices: no scarring, no sex, nothing illegal. Though Milton suspects—correctly—that the girls themselves are flexible on these points. They don’t offer; they wait for their customers to broach the subject. Decisions are made on an individual basis. They still will not gratify in any conventional sense: they are not prostitutes. Most, however, can be convinced to breach certain statutes of the city health code. The penalties for this are negligible compared to a vice rap. Old men pissing in alleys would get the same charge.
May greets her customer. She stretches and stands, a tight-wrapped cylinder, her outfit squeaking. She imagines being rotated in an old phonograph, the needle bearing down and playing her as she spins. She wonders what sort of music she would play.)
11. A tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, a stapler, a jar of mayonnaise, three paper clips, a rubber bone, a pocket fan, a blindfold, three rolls of quarters, pancake mix, a nine-pin, two thousand dollars in cash, a Japanese radish, a water pistol, carpet samples in beige and white, fifty yards of twine, a yellow pad, a phone-book, a fountain pen, a brass alarm clock, a clown’s nose, a cowboy hat, fishnet stockings, a bottle of mineral water, a jump-rope, a square foot of Astroturf, a baguette, a nail-file, an inflatable flotation device, rubber gloves, felt gloves, three handkerchiefs, a false beard, a wig (blonde), a wig (white), a football, five refrigerator magnets with painted representations of classical composers, a slender vase, a box of Epsom salts, and a VHS copy of Lucille Ball in The Fuller Brush Girl (1950). What am I?
(Answer: The customer’s briefcase is full of strange shapes. May, on tiptoe, can’t keep from trying to see the combination he dials to open it. She does not hear his instructions the first time.
He says, We’ll just keep trying until we find something that works.
May, locking herself up, asks demurely what he means.)
12. Her age in hours and days and seconds—old phone-numbers—the rules of backgammon—nursery rhymes—Oscar Wilde—ways to differentiate male and female butterflies—the distance between the earth and the sun in furlongs—the atomic weight of carbon. What am I?
(Answer: May tries to distract herself as the customer goes about his business. His briefcase is open beside him at her feet. She is brought back, always brought back to the sight of the top of his head. It’s beneath her; she doubles her chin to see it. His hair is thinning at the top, damp and matted from exertion. Poor thing, she thinks.)
13. An unfamiliar woman sitting in a cold bath. She’s listening to Bach. Her back is turned. She is killing herself. Blood moves over the lime that’s growing on the tarnished tub, over the side, onto the toilet, everywhere. The tepid water wobbles around her feet, which are pushed up by the faucet, making them grow and shrink with the tide. Her toenails begin to look as though they’re polished. What am I?
(Answer: In his dream, Milton can’t speak. He struggles, needing to tell the woman that she’s doing it wrong: the bathwater should be hot. Amateurs are the ruin of every profession. He is assembling a book of aphorisms. He is tortured by his helplessness. When he wakes up, he can’t be sure the dream isn’t a memory. Who was she? He feels terribly guilty. It takes some time to sort it out.
He likes it when May stops in his office to talk—or just to be there while he sleeps. He sleeps better when there are people around. His building is old and infested with bugs, and he’s terrified of them crawling on him while he can’t feel it. This is worse than feeling it. But they won’t come out while there’s activity in the room—someone awake, watching the TV, reading a magazine. Just sitting for Christ’s sake. The girls knock off at three in the morning, and then someone usually peeks in to keep him company, hoping to be taken out. When he can work up the energy to eat.)
14. Chromatische Fantasie d-moll, or Fantasie chromatique en ré mineur, or Fantasia cromatica in re minore. What am I?
(Answer: A tinny piano piece from Milton’s radio concludes just as the customer is withdrawing, leaving money in May’s paperback, marking her place. It’s ten minutes before one of the other girls looks in, made suspicious by the quiet, ready to quash any violation of house-etiquette. She unchains May and takes her to the bathroom. May brings along her book. She washes her one face and counts her money.
That’s some boodle, May’s co-worker says, indicating the tip. What did he want—did he want golden showers?
No, says May.
He wanted cutting then. Little cuts on his butt? He brought pins—collected from new shirts and saved in a cardboard earring box. Pearl-headed?
Not at all, says May.
Racial slurs? Call him kike and whatnot? Put your storm-trooper boots into the small of his back?
I’m Chloe, May explains. She sits on the lid of the toilet. I didn’t do anything to him. Jocasta does the doing.
May places the book between her feet, her chest and lower back tingling. There’s a pain on the right side of her body, as though it had been pulled foot-first out of alignment with her left. Still bent, she holds her ankles, massaging them.
Well, May’s co-worker says, a little concerned, what did he do to you?)
15. Landscapes of sand or prickly evergreen leaves; oriental paper houses; cold lodestone mountains; old iron walkways; hot asphalt avenues; mesa shelves and tundra. What am I?
(Answer: May cannot fathom herself. She feels phantom foreign objects of various textures on and inside her body.
It was a circus, she says. She will not say more. She longs to get back into a cab, to curl onto its seat. But it’s hours yet until she’s off. And then she’ll still need to see Milton.)
16. You ever have a sweetheart? one of the other girls is asking. They always tease him; they want to know more about him—how did he get into the business, and who took care of him before they came around? Milton kicks his blanket and sheet into eddies around his legs.
Not so’s you’d notice, he responds.
It’d be easier if you went out sometimes, says the girl.
You’d think so, says Milton. May sits by the radio, tuning. She finds a violin.
So what’s the problem? asks the girl.
Milton is getting dressed. He has Velcro straps on his shoes, a clip-on bow tie. I couldn’t be bothered, he says. I never really wanted it.
To May his interrogator says, Isn’t it funny that men can only manage it when they want to.
May remembers a few bars from the middle of the piece. She was wide open when she heard it, and tunes catch so easily in her head. Many of the regular customers insist on their girls bringing music. May wonders what could possibly be appropriate. Until today, nothing she could think of would have fit the work. Nothing would work with the work. You could try to make it pretty, but what could make it pretty? You could try and make it uglier, but this would be a tall order—to find sounds less appealing than the balloon-animal squeaks and eructations natural to the business. The best thing would be to find something to make the work necessary. The best thing would be to find something to make the work essential.
We do essential work, says May, sifting through the static.
What am I?
(Answer: They adjourn to Hunan Palace.)