(Content Note: Some readers may find elements of this story disturbing.)
The greatest tragedy of Lydia’s life was when she broke her boyfriend during sex. Admittedly, he was a brain in a jar, but she’d been trying to make do.
Ross hadn’t always been a brain in a jar, but he’d been cerebrally canned long before Lydia met him while fielding calls on the “Naughty Nurses” phone sex chat line. Lydia was the number–one earner at Naughty Nurses, perhaps because she didn’t consider herself just a sex worker; she was a writer, goddammit, taking a temporary job until her dazzling essays on single female life in the big city could find a market.
As such, when the other girls moaned orgasmically through Farmville games to pass the time, Lydia did research. If she was to be a Naughty Nurse, she reasoned, then she would be a competent one.
So each day, Lydia visited the local hospitals to gather telling details: the peroxide–and–starch scent of nurse’s outfits, depraved things which could be done with thermometers, sexual positions possible only upon a hospital bed’s adjustable frame.
It was the little things, Lydia thought, which made the difference between a writer and an amateur.
But until Ross, none of her clients had intrigued her. Her panties, despite her moans to the contrary, remained as dry as a box of crackers. Her callers were pleasant but interchangeable—a little deferent to her status as a nurse, their voices hushed in an effort to please, often just calling to chat. They ached for a connection, and would pay $2.99 a minute for it; Lydia pretended to interview them for her own “only in New York” reality show.
Ross, however, was instantly compelling. His fantasy wasn’t unusual—the old “patient in a sling with broken arms and legs, Naughty Nurse must relieve him” routine—but his specificity was.
“All right.” She lowered her voice to a dusky whisper. “You’re in your hospital room when I—”
His voice was calm, insistent—yet as rich and slow as syrup. “What kind of hospital room?”
Lydia had never been asked this before.
“It depends. How did you injure yourself?”
There was a long silence—so long, Lydia feared she’d offended him. “Let’s say,” he finally offered, “It was a skiing accident.”
“Well, then you wouldn’t be in the Critical Care Unit.” She leaned back in her chair, nibbled on a pen. “That’s for patients who need constant monitoring. You’d be in the Trauma Center—three patients to a room, curtains separating you, one window looking out to the street, one wide double–door entryway looking out to the circular nurses’ station. Gray tile. Smells of bleach and urine.”
For a moment, Lydia thought she’d gotten too clinical. But then he made a unique sound Lydia had never heard before: the ragged, hissing breath a man made when you grazed your fingernails across the underside of his balls, underlaid with a buzz of static.
“I suppose,” said her client in the low, urgent tones that most men used to describe pussies, “That it’s an old room with a radiator underneath the window. It wheezes heat once in a while, billowing the yellowed curtains open, providing glimpses of the traffic below.”
“It does,” she agreed with satisfaction.
“But the windows don’t open all the way.”
He chuckled. “They don’t want the crazy ones jumping out.”
She hadn’t known that. She also didn’t know that when you were in a full–body cast, they duct–taped your nurse’s buzzer to one hand and the TV remote to the other. But she could tell him how you had to tug the skin gently when drying a patient after a sponge bath, to smooth out the creases where leftover water lurked. He listened hungrily.
After they’d agreed upon the placement of the supply cabinets—a process that took twenty minutes of careful negotiation—Lydia suggested, feeling curiously timid, that the patient in the next bed might be a Puerto Rican father with appendicitis. He riposted that perhaps the father’s visiting wife fingered a set of worn rosary beads.
He spoke slowly, with the rhythmic cadences of surf racing up and hissing back down the beach. She could practically run her fingers along the peaks and crests of his syllables. His thoughtful enunciation made his every word seem handcrafted, a gift dropped into her palms.
All her nursing station trivia was used to build this imaginary hospital room. Her client moaned as they discussed the television’s wall–mounts—which engendered an unheard–of excitement.
She never thought she’d be so wet over architecture. But she was dripping.
After they laid the last of the ceiling tiles, he thanked her. She jumped with guilt, fingers halfway down her panties.
“Don’t you want to have the bad ol’ nurse get you off?” The pleading in her voice shocked her.
“You already have.” His confidence baffled her. She knew the sounds men made when they orgasmed, and it hadn’t happened. “I’ll call you tomorrow. Perhaps we could… meet… in a Greenwich village apartment?”
“We could.” She envisioned knocking pipes and water–stained rugs and a futon scavenged from an alleyway. “What’s your name?”
“Ross.” He hung up.
She pressed the phone to her ear and touched herself. Within seconds, Lydia stroked herself into the most satisfying orgasm she’d had in months.
The following months provided clues to Ross’s condition—and Lydia misinterpreted them all. Which was a shame, because she spent her spare time sifting through their conversations, trying to figure out who this educated mystery man was.
Yet getting clues out of him was like prying nails from a wall.
She knew he was a “freelance” architect, a detail unearthed when they orchestrated a dinner in a hole–in–the–wall Indian restaurant. He worked unlicensed, selling plans to first–time homeowners at scandalously cheap prices, because he couldn’t lose his disability payment.
“Why?” she’d asked. “What’s wrong with you?”
“The bowls that hold the kachumbar,” he’d replied. “What color are they?”
Another session riding up an elevator in the Eiffel Tower (a fantasy she’d done extensive research for—he’d never visited) produced the revelation that he still lived at his parents’ house. Nor was he happy about that. “They treat me like a pet,” he’d said, the first time he’d complained about anything personal in all their calls. “No, worse; they’d show off a pet. They’re happy I’m holed up in my room. They lock the door behind when they leave.”
“Why don’t you find a new apartment?” she asked.
A bitter laugh. “Not an option.”
All the pieces fit together. The cheap buzzing landline, the money he spent on the sex line, the way he resented his parents, the fallen career, the disability he refused to discuss: It was straight out of The Sun Also Rises.
Ross had clearly lost his penis.
She envisioned him slumped in a cluttered room, unshaven, afraid to leave the house because he feared every woman saw straight through to that laughable nubbin of scar tissue between his legs. His parents, embarrassed by his injury, allowed him to rot in his bedroom.
Lydia read up on the psychological effects of penectomies, learned men often became hypersensitive to giving their partners satisfaction — which explained, she thought, why he described rooms to make her wet and yet never orgasmed himself. If Lydia could show him he was still potent, that he brought her pleasure in ways no man ever had, then he would meet her.
She began, covertly, to masturbate for him.
Lydia let the truth out in small gasps. Telling him what she was doing would have made it feel cruelly artificial, and she wanted it to be good. So when their mutual world–building of a Pakistani–owned 7–11 brought her to moist heights, she let her fingers roam free.
“Are you… coming?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, then added: “For real.”
Another slow sizzle of static.
“Maybe I should call on your home phone, then.”
The calls came fast and furious after that—unshackled from the rituals of phone sex, they discussed politics (he watched a lot of newscasts), she read her stories to him (he suggested concrete details which tied the piece together), and whenever the conversation ebbed they built mind–architecture. She discovered new tempos in that contemplative voice—when he expressed opinions, he’d break into rapid–fire piccolo trills of sentences, eager and quick. But no matter how fast his revelations came, his smooth intonations were never marred by an “oh” or an “um.”
Yet whenever they crafted rooms together, which was frequently, he sank back into those languid rhythms she adored.
When she was too tired to create new places, they returned to the Eiffel Tower, a pleasingly complex (and romantic) locale. She barely slept, amazed at his willingness to talk to her no matter what time it was.
“You don’t want to meet me,” he said as they took a boat trip under the tower’s chill shadow. “It’s gone… poorly in the past. Once people see me, all they can see is my condition.”
“Oh, Ross,” she laughed. “I know what’s happened.”
“Hello, silly—how many nights did I spend looking up medical techniques? I’m not ignorant, Ross; you have nothing to be ashamed of. I love you for your brain.”
The word “love” had slipped out, as unexpected as a hiccup. But she refused to take it back.
“If you say.” His voice was thick with doubt. “Most people think otherwise once they see me.”
“I’m not most people.”
Lydia braced herself to meet Ross’s parents—she imagined his mother, all Botox and hairspray, offering corpse–stiff grins. Lydia removed her facial piercings before visiting.
But Kathleen and David Meyer were warm, their wallpapered home filled with flowers and sunlight. They hugged her—“Any friend of Ross’s is a friend of ours,” they chirped. Though their smiles strained at the edges, like a bridge under too much weight.
“Does Ross… get many visitors?” she asked, feeling her suppositions crumbling.
“A surprising amount, for a man in his condition.” Her voice hesitated before settling, reluctantly, upon the word “man.”
“He sure gets around,” Ross’s father whistled.
They escorted her upstairs to dump her, bewildered, into a darkened reading room. It reflected a middle–class income with upper–class aspirations; verdigris–colored walls with tasteful ivory moldings, dark mahogany shelves bearing the complete works of Shakespeare, and—inexplicably—a padded couch facing a blank white wall.
Next to the couch squatted a formidable credenza, so heavy it seemed under–burdened by the art deco aquarium that rested upon it.
She realized it wasn’t an aquarium.
“Oh.” She looked up to meet the wall–mounted camera whirring downwards to face her. She followed the golden wires that trailed from the camera, noting how they plugged into the USB ports at the bottom of the teardrop–shaped tank—which, upon closer inspection, looked more like an oversized cookie jar than an aquarium. The clear plexiglass top was decorated with a single sleek, narrow dolphinesque ridge.
Yet in the center of the tank, suspended in a clear gel threaded with wires and artificial veins, was a dull gray lumpen thing.
“Oh,” said the overhead speakers.
The brain–jar rested on the thick–beamed credenza, affixed to a slip–proof rubber strip. A framed Monet print hung behind it—him—making this somehow more surreal.
“So what did you think was wrong with me?” The words came from recessed speakers in the ceiling.
“I, uh…” She rubbed sweaty palms against her skirt. “I thought you had no penis.”
“Well,” he said dryly, “You were part way there.”
She chuckled. The heavy awkwardness in the room seemed to stir a bit.
“To be fair,” he continued, “You weren’t what I thought you’d look like either.”
“You don’t look like a nurse at all.”
It was all right after that.
A month later, and the erotic charge had dissipated.
Oh, Lydia tried her best to keep her attraction to Ross alive. As it turned out, the pure white wall was so visitors could sit on the couch next to him while his wall–projector displayed reference materials he pulled from the Internet.
She watched documentaries on the Eiffel Tower with him, pressing her cheek against Ross’s warm, shatterproof glass—but it stirred nothing within her. Ross seemed to understand, never pressing her for more than good conversation.
Even though the lust had evaporated, Lydia still took the train to talk to him twice a week. Ross was fantastically well–educated—he had to be. If he didn’t keep himself occupied, the lack of sensory input would drive him crazy. He spent his time reading news stories, designing architectural plans, engaging in flame wars—frenzies of mental exercises. Otherwise, he explained, he hallucinated horrible things.
He escorted her on trips through his world. He’d take an afternoon to educate himself on the interplay of textures in Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses—and using his projection screen, he’d show her the pictures, ask her what she thought.
“I like having you along,” he’d said. “I have to look up things. But showing them to you mutates a survival skill into sheerest pleasure.”
It was her pleasure, too. She loved leaning back in the padded couch, listening to the seashore hum of his blood–circulator, his projection screen flashing beauty; a comforting womb.
When she closed her eyes, she could envision Ross cuddled up next to her, a sexy professor, all tweed patches and pipe smoke. She felt a deep longing—and then glanced over at the thing in the jar.
She squeezed her eyes shut.
He asked her to create spaces with him, but she made clumsy continuity mistakes: closet doors with changing handles, rooms that oscillated between emerald and sapphire.
“I don’t know what’s wrong now,” he mourned. “When I described a cheap motel room bureau and you put a worn Gideon Bible in the drawer, well—it was as though I had pulled that drawer open with my own hand. Is there something I’m doing wrong?”
“No,” she said. Yes. Before, his hunger had been satiable, a grand mixture of visceral lust and intellectual desire, but now? She felt like a crutch.
She was his nurse, and it wasn’t naughty at all.
“Would you date me if I was real?” he asked, cutting himself off during a discussion of Gustave Eiffel’s Victorian expressionism.
She flinched. Yet that word summed up everything wrong with their relationship: he wasn’t real. He was architecture himself, as still as a vase.
“I would,” she said.
“I want you to fuck me.”
His projector swiveled to face her. He bathed her in flickering white light, blinding her, putting her on stage.
“Lock the door.”
He ordered her with such conviction, her stomach quivered. The light played across her, reminding her this was the man who knew where every stud rested in each house they’d created. And now she felt as if he knew every ligament of her body, felt each fold of her white blouse as it rested against the swell of her breasts.
She felt weightless.
“Unbutton your blouse.” Every speaker in the room lowered into subsonics, surrounding her.
“Ross—” Her mouth was dry. “I’m not a stripper—”
The lights dimmed.
“You’re in a small, dark reading room. It smells of scented candles and the dusty heat of computer exhaust fans. A projector’s light is playing across your body as you stand there, knees crossed, lips open as if in shock—your fingertips are tracing small circles around your black blouse buttons. The fierce light throws harsh shadows across the hollows of your neck. Can you feel them? Can you feel them moving, Lydia?”
She exhaled once, leaning back to expose her throat to the lights. She could feel the shadows on her skin, soft as silk blankets drawn across her body. She hadn’t realized she was touching the buttons—but now she felt their hardness under her fingers, felt the faint pressure of round plastic beneath the chafing fabric, felt her knees touching.
Every inch of her was being viewed. Viewed, like a room.
She unbuttoned her blouse. Her fingernails grazed against the top of her breasts, and she shuddered.
“What do you feel?” Ross asked.
“It’s—” She squirmed her fingertips along her left breast. She was a fumbling teenager again making out with a boy, except the body she explored was her own.
“God,” she whispered. “My skin is so soft.”
“Slide your fingers under the your bra.” His hissing breath rose around her. “Can you feel your nipples stiffening, Lydia? What happens when the fabric rubs against them?”
She thrust her hand back in again, hungry to feel herself, and her nipples reached precisely as Ross said they would. She wanted to touch her nipples so badly, to roll them in between her thumb and forefinger, but Ross demanded to know every aspect of how her bra touched her; the white lace, the front clasp, where the straps hung on her shoulders. She felt the bra against her body in such exquisite detail that it caged her, defined her.
She tugged at her hair, moaning, feeling the prickle on the nape of her neck, enveloped in the projector’s hot light; she found moles on her shoulder, sensitive as nipples. Ross projected images upon her, placing shadowy cocks on her cheeks and thighs.
“I want you,” she said. In all this time, the one place she hadn’t explored, the one place Ross had never asked about, was her pussy. She traced figure eights in the slick juice on her thighs. “God, I want you.”
“Use me,” Ross said. “Look at me.”
She smiled up at the blinking red camera.
“No,” he said—not impatiently. Firmly. “Look at me.”
She fumbled a moment, feeling coltish—then realized what he wanted.
She knelt down, feeling the fuzz of the rug against her knees, to stare at the glass jar.
“Look at my lid,” Ross chuckled, the indulgent laugh of a father unveiling gifts underneath a Christmas tree.
She cocked her head—the first time she’d really examined him. His container still had that dolphin–shaped hump, an inverted “V” that…
“Oh.” She grinned.
“Make love to me. Rub that beautiful pussy against me, Lydia—against everything that I am.”
He said it more needfully than any room.
She mounted him, found that the dolphin pressed against her aching clit. His glass was skin temperature. Suddenly, the monstrous table made sense; it could support the weight of two.
She settled down onto him and gasped.
The screen before her displayed her as he saw her—head thrown back, skirt hiked up around her thighs, grinding her hips against the tank.
She thrust herself against him, knowing everything Ross was lay underneath her cunt right now, her whole boyfriend, everything she loved—yes, loved, oh God she loved him and the whole room breathed like a lung as Ross static–hissed with desire, she spreading herself open, transforming into glorious porn, feeling naked and new as a wet butterfly.
Lydia howled Ross’s name as the tank jittered underneath her and the table rocked but did not fall, and she came and came and came until the top of his tank—of Ross—was smeared a milky–white.
“There’s some cleaner in the cabinet,” he said. “And some towels. If you wouldn’t mind…”
Lydia wiped down her lover’s tank, feeling loved and sated.
It was as though Ross had given Lydia a new body. She was hypersensitized to everything—her skirt brushing across her calves, the warmth of sunlight on her forehead, the jiggle of her earrings. She half–walked, half–danced through Union Square, bliss–tripping on body awareness.
Ross suggested new things she could wear to highlight new bodily sensations. Lydia acquiesced greedily, cinching corsets around her waist, walking with one shoe.
It took a few days for her boss to adjust, because Lydia had stopped pretending to be a nurse; her clients’ puerile attempts to create nursing homes felt like clumsy fingers plucking at her bra.
Instead, she described the way her breasts weighed on her breastbone, the hardness of the metal desk she had kicked her heels up onto, the pale blue veins squirming up the inside of her wrists—cataloguing her muscles with a thoroughness that would have made an anatomist blush.
When her clients tried to hurry her along to the parts they deemed more interesting, Lydia hung up.
The ones who called back found a strange mistress. She might describe the scent of her pussy, but only when she found that part of herself intriguing. She was self–steering, and though her vagina was occasionally of interest, it was old territory—almost cliché.
She was far more interested in squeezing her Achilles’ tendon. She cuddled cans of Pledge, smelled rugs, pressed her tongue against mirrors. Any experience could be an erogenous zone—and when her body–interest flagged, Ross would ask a question like, “What happens to the muscles in your temple when you smile?” And she would be aware all over again.
Most people complained about wasted money; who wanted to hear a woman describe the crinkle of folded envelopes? But her manager, realizing she’d ceased to interact with her clients anyway, opened up a new, one–way chat line for Lydia alone. And a small, huddling mass of men and women tuned in.
Yet though her job finally aroused her, perhaps because she now did it for herself, she would not allow herself to come. That sticky pleasure was for Ross, and Ross alone.
She drew attention on the train out to Long Island, her fingers stroking the handrails as though they were a lover’s thighs, but she didn’t care. Ross had unlocked something within her, and she was greedy. She got out there only twice a week—she was saving for an apartment to accommodate Ross’s needs—but the gaps between her boyfriend’s fucks made it hotter.
“Are you writing?” Ross’s mother asked, catching Lydia’s arm at the front door. Her fingers closed over the bandages that wrapped Lydia’s new tribal scarring. “Ross told me you were a writer.”
“Not now.” Lydia expressed both answer and irritation all at once. She’d realized a sexual awakening from a brain in a jar was killer material, but… condensing this ephemeral beauty into words seemed a sin.
“Do you know how Ross lost his body?”
“A tragic skiing accident, right?” Lydia laughed, repeating Ross’s old joke. Yet Lydia felt ill–at–ease; she wanted to get upstairs and make love to Ross, didn’t his mother know that? She must have.
Lydia flushed with anger. Were Ross’s parents so ashamed they’d talk her out of this? In months of visiting, they’d never done anything more than smile.
“I’m deathly allergic to nuts and gluten,” said Ross’s mother, plucking shyly at her apron. “Ross’s father has chemical sensitivities. And Ross, well… he got the lot. I couldn’t wash his clothes in anything that wouldn’t blister his skin. Practically everything in the supermarket made him throw up. It got worse by the year. And we…”
She swallowed, withering under Lydia’s flat gaze before shrugging her shoulders back and continuing.
“When he was twenty, we moved to a settlement in the Arizona desert where people with multiple chemical sensitivities could thrive—no electricity, no soap, just dust and clean water. To take care of him. But Ross, he… he got bored. He ran away. Multiple times. He’s always, you know, wanted what he wants. We told him please, consider your condition before you wind up dependent on us, but… Eventually, things got to a state where full–body flensing was the only choice.”
She lifted her gaze, meeting Lydia’s eyes for the first time.
“There’s nothing special about Ross. A lot of people are… are like him.”
Ross’s condition was rare, but by no means unheard–of. Yet something in the way Ross’s mother put the emphasis on “nothing special” implied she was trying to pass Lydia a secret message—leave him.
She dashed up the stairs, past Ross’s mother.
“He needs me,” she called down. “He’s moving out soon, and he’s getting away from you!”
“He needs lots of people,” his mother whispered. Lydia slammed the door shut.
Ross’s speakers hummed to life. “Don’t mind her.” He flashed a photo of a jail. “She’s jealous, is all. She wishes she had someone as sexy coming to visit her.”
“Oh, Ross.” Lydia leaned over to kiss the top of his tank.
It was too warm.
And it didn’t smell like her.
“Was someone else… on you?” She backed away from his tank.
“Jesus Christ,” Ross muttered in disgust. “I told Katie to use the 409. She’s not as diligent as you; I’ll talk with her…”
“Answer the question.” Lydia’s hands trembled with rage. “Is there someone else?”
“Of course there is. I’m a brain in a goddamned jar – a shark. If I don’t swim 24/7, I die. Of course I’m talking to other people; that’s how I treat my condition. And some of them come here, and sometimes things happen. I thought you understood.”
“Lydia…” His projector strobed thoughtfully, impatiently. “Whenever you call, I hang up on everyone else. But you’ve got a job to work, showers to take, eight hours of sleep a night… what do you want? To lock myself in a void for your convenience?”
“I’ve been coming here for months, and you never mentioned anyone else.” She thought of the thousands she’d saved up so they could…
God, she felt foolish.
“For a girl of your intellect? I didn’t think I had to.”
“Fuck that, Ross—you spent hours lecturing me on Le Corbusier’s concrete structures, and you never once said, ‘By the way, when you’re on top of me, you’re grind–mopping other women’s juices’?”
A new hiss drifted down from the speakers. “So what do you want me to say, Lydia?”
She wanted him to say he loved her. Yet though she’d expressed her love to him a thousand times, only now did she realize he’d never said it back.
“I want you to be worthy of what I’ve given you!”
She stormed out. On her way to the door she noticed Ross’s mother peeking out of the kitchen, staring with pity.
Lydia blushed from cheek to toe. She could still feel every inch of her body. Except she felt soiled.
Lydia swallowed back nausea on the train back home. Had she really caressed that handrail? Had she actually squiggled with delight into the seat’s plastic hardness? Now it was just the MTA train, full of stenches.
Lydia slapped the windows as though they were Ross’s face, feeling a gratifying sting bloom across her fingertips—but no. Self–loathing would be a luxury.
She huddled in the corner, stroking her shoulders as though she could coax that exquisite awareness from her skin again. But she felt her fellow passengers’ gazes, grim businessmen and shaggy homeless women; she radiated vulnerability, not strength.
Ross had given her something beautiful, a unique sensation—well, not unique. Others had travelled her bliss. She’d thought Ross had given this solely to her, but she was simply another customer on Ross’s line.
Shouldn’t she, of all people, have understood the goal of any erotica was to make the recipient feel treasured?
Ah, but who would have thought a brain in a jar could cheat?
By the time she got home, she knew what to do. She couldn’t fix it—no, once your heart broke it always had fracture lines, thin and sharp. Yet she could, at least, transform this ache into something she owned.
She sat down at her keyboard. And began to write.
Six months later, Lydia had a column in the Village Voice—a weekly 500–word essay called “Every Thing Makes Me Moist.” In it, she described her mysterious turn–ons: the scent of comics on Sunday mornings. The clean curve of a cold lightbulb. The gentle give of cell phone buttons beneath a sensitive finger.
The title of her column was the most salacious thing about it. Lydia never referenced her own body in her essays; only the items at hand, describing a kitchen faucet’s water–spotted chrome.
Yet the way she described them was unmistakably erotic. People wrote emails. Some had never thought of an ice tray in such a fashion; still others gushed relief that someone else saw the world as they did.
A book contract came. Not a big one, but enough to quit the sex line. Her boss, who sold her recordings for a pretty penny, was sad to see her go.
When Lydia got her box of authors’ copies, she took the train to Long Island.
Ross’s mother escorted Lydia upstairs with a smile, asking solicitous career questions. Lydia answered with a cautious pride; Ross’s mother nodded happily. She seemed to brighten in Lydia’s presence, which gave Lydia the unsettling feeling that somehow her post–breakup success was a vindication of all the disappointments they’d had with Ross.
And then Lydia was alone with her ex–boyfriend.
He searchlight–flooded her with his projector; she felt nothing but queasy heat.
She brandished the book at him.
“I saw you sold that,” Ross said. “You did well.”
“Damn right I did.”
“I read your column. It’s quite good.” He paused, then added: “Maybe excellent.”
“Yeah, well, I had to do something with our relationship.”
Another exasperated hiss.
“Look, Lydia,” he sighed. “I’m sorry. I should have told you. But… I was stupid. And now it’s like you’re dating the whole world. I try to get some other phone sex operator to describe the Eiffel Tower with me, and they’re like, ‘Aw, you’re a Lydia fan.’
“So you won.” Ross’s light dimmed. “I lost you, and I regret it.”
Lydia turned to leave.
“Before you go,” he whispered, the room darkening, “Could I ask one last favor?”
She felt inclined to grant favors, now that Ross was the supplicant. “Sure.”
“Would you… meet me in a gas station?”
Her hand hovered above the doorknob. “What kind of gas station?”
“An old Exxon station. Out in Kansas. So far in the cornfields that if you don’t fill up here, you might run out of gas before the next pump.”
She clucked her tongue, considering.
“Flapping, shot–up metal sign waving in the breeze?” she asked. “Sun–faded gum beneath a glass counter?”
“Gas pumps with dials,” he agreed.
Like all breakup sex, it wasn’t particularly erotic, but it had the comfort of the last dance at the prom.
He was, she hated to admit, still amazing at creating spaces. Yet his skill no longer turned her on; it just filled her with a sad finality. She stole his techniques for future writings and felt guilty about the theft.
The gas station’s bleakness suited them. It existed to be left behind.
In the end, she mounted him because it was what they’d always done. Ross seemed to understand; instead of showing her images of herself, he flashed montages of Kansas wheat fields.
She rocked back and forth on his tank, grinding hard, trying to force her body to complete what she could not do with her mind. She bucked harder, feeling she could somehow justify this if she came—
The jar toppled off the table.
Lydia lunged forward as Ross bounced off the floor. Inside his canister, his brain shimmied like a dropped Jell–O mold, threads of blood worming into the gel.
His mother burst through the door. Lydia was still half–naked, spotlighted like a criminal in a jailbreak, cradling the jar in her arms.
“I can explain,” she said.
In the end, an ambulance worker called a newsblogger, who got it wrong. The first headline—embarrassing enough—was SEX WRITER ATTEMPTS TO KILL BRAIN–IN–A–JAR EX–BOYFRIEND.
Hours later, Lydia had explained to the cops that something had gone wrong during a final bout of sex, and this had been an accident instead of assault, the headlines mutated: SHE LOVES JARS, SHE LOVES BRAINS IN JARS. Within hours, Lydia was one of the most–linked names on the net.
Sales were brisk.
Suddenly Lydia was a Celebrity, caught in a maelstrom of debate—normal folks expressing disgust, caretakers of the cerebrally canned explaining the jarred often had vibrant sex lives, strangers arguing whether objectifuckers destroyed traditional marriage or opened up worlds of sexual experimentation, shoe fetishists feeling defensive that all they liked was shoes.
She responded to every request, believing her fame would soon pass—but her book swelled into a best–seller. She was invited to talk shows.
Fans waited quietly outside her apartment, shyly bringing her their personal fetishes; sooty fireplace pokers, fly strips, DVD cases. When Lydia stroked their cheese grater and didn’t shiver in bliss, they slumped, disappointed. Non–fans recognized her at restaurants, pressing stained napkins into her hand and demanding that she describe it “sexy–like.”
No one asked about Ross.
At first, she’d been grateful for the omission of Ross’s name; she’d been afraid she’d have to share joint ownership of her hard–earned celebrityhood. The reporters spoke to her like she personally led the objectifuckation movement, but increasingly Lydia felt like she’d become a trashcan for disembodied fetishes. Her passions were designed to be an icy repurposing of physical desire, while her fans’ yearnings often seemed like excuses to masturbate.
All this media attention felt like a knickknack given to her by a once–beloved relative, a thing she’d have gladly tossed away except for some vestigial sentiment.
Yet the interviewers kept asking why she’d fallen for “a brain in a jar”—as if every jarred brain was the same. As if she’d fallen for the jar and not Ross.
Nobody thought of Ross as a person. The few reporters who’d snuck past hospital security to steal illicit interviews with Ross had the gall to gripe about his garbled, half–lucid replies—treating him like he was a poorly–programmed AI who refused to dispense Lydia–based gossip, rather than affording him the dignity of a man with brain damage.
Ross’s parents had forgiven her with a terse email: Something like this was bound to happen eventually. Bad luck it happened to be you. Which left Lydia wondering just how many women they’d watched march in and out of Ross’s room.
Still, she couldn’t deny that it was her final fuck that had given Ross a severe concussion. Healing Ross’s bruised brain would have required a complex coordination of glands and organs, and Ross had neither.
Ross’s brain swelled. He sent dyslexic emails whenever he regained consciousness, begging forgiveness. Sometimes he sent love letters, forgetting they were no longer together.
His emails were touching only by comparison to her fan mail. What had drawn her to Ross after that first erotic burst of creativity was discussing the news, critiquing stories, learning things. He still wanted that.
Her fans wanted her to channel their orgone.
The more people asked her about “her” objectifuckation movement, the more Lydia felt like a fraud. Yes, Ross was a cheating bastard. But he was also a catalyst. He’d shown her how objects could be alive. And now he was an object as far as the greater world was concerned, a jarred organ noteworthy only because she’d touched him.
She still resented Ross—but for him to fade into nothing at all seemed too harsh. So Lydia snuck past the bloggarazzi camped outside her apartment to visit Ross.
She knew his hospital room all too well; they’d reenacted his hospital stays before. He was raving when she arrived, muttering about flaming hummingbirds.
She ran her fingertip around his camera lens.
“Lih—Lydjuh?” His camera squeaked around to face her; his projector flickered in erratic strobes. “Are—you there, or um I, hallucinating?”
“It’s me.” Unbidden tears came. “It’s me.”
“They woan pulla plug,” Ross moaned. “Docs keep talkin mommin Dad outta it. But I cant heal—iss getting thonly thing that could save me rotted inna dumpster years ago—”
“Is it that bad?”
“Oh God.” His laugh was a slurred mixture of static and hysteria. “Worse alla time. I’m retreating to all the rooms I had, but they keep collapsinon me. I tryda env—envision myself in a field, someplace nicean cool, and the sky catches fire, the clouds drop fromma sky like burnt birds, and alla while I hearya laughing. Laughing.”
Lydia felt sorry for Ross; not sorry enough to stop being mad at him, but sorry in the way you’d feel bad for a deer hit by a car. It could be argued he should have known better, but he hadn’t, and his suffering required an ending—an ending his meek parents couldn’t bring themselves to give.
“I’m not laughing, Ross.” The tears had dried from her cheeks. “I want you to tell me something. You have to be honest.”
“I shoulda been honest allalong. Sorry I lied to you.”
“You should be sorry about everyone you lied to.”
“That, too,” he said—but it was almost an afterthought, and Lydia realized she had become the love of his life by default. She’d inherited that position by walking away, and succeeding where he’d failed, and he was foolish enough to think if he’d stayed with her things would have been the same.
“Tell me who you wish was here. Don’t lie. Tell me about the ex–girlfriends you still love, the friends you’ve lost—everyone.”
It was a surprisingly short list.
Then, carefully, she constructed his funeral.
She built him a body—putting muscled arms into starch–stiffened sleeves, a bearded chin resting on a silk tie. She constructed the coffin around his dead legs, resting him on padded cotton, enfolding him within a dark walnut casket with brass handles.
“What’s the church like?” He spoke in an exhausted whisper, a child who’d stayed up far too late falling into a lullaby’s rhythm.
Lydia told him of the white–robed choir that would sing to him, of the portly priest with a strawberry–shaped birthmark on his cheek, of the worn red carpets and faded stained–glass windows. She told him how the bouquets of lilies surrounding his coffin smelled, recreated the muffled sobs that echoed in the rafters.
Then she constructed the visitors. One by one, everyone Ross had wounded knelt by the casket, clasped his stiffened hands, whispered the strained forgiveness people give to the dead. Lydia didn’t know his ex–girlfriends—but she knew Ross, and could guess at the things he had done to them. She stood his parents next to the coffin; the mother sobbed, his father putting his arm around her.
The red light on Ross’s camera faded.
And finally, Lydia constructed herself, standing over him. She dressed herself in solemn black, a veil over her face, not crying but stern.
And then she paused: What would she say?
“Thank you.” She fumbled for other words that wouldn’t sound cruel, found none. “Thank you.”
Then: “I reach out over your face, and close the casket. It falls with the heavy sound of wood upon wood, leaving you in a peaceful darkness.”
His brainwave monitor went flat. The speakers let loose one final, staticky sigh, and Ross was no more.
She clicked off the monitor and walked away.
Seven months later, on the release of her second best–selling book, Lydia went to visit the Eiffel Tower.
It was nothing like she’d imagined.
© 2016 by Ferrett Steinmetz
2 Responses to “Rooms Formed of Neurons and Sex”
Billy Higgins Peery
This is so frigging weird I love it.
This is a wonderful story, touching and thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing it!