Excerpt From The Motel Room


“List Item #10: The Motel Room”

Excerpt from The List, a novel
forthcoming from Scribner, March 2007

published in Tin House, Winter 2007

Back in film school, when Al and Julie were briefly, erratically, going out – that phrase isn’t right, but they never came up with a better one, although she liked “fuck buddies” – she showed up once at his apartment with a plastic dropcloth and an industrial-sized bottle of storebrand baby oil, and the key to a syphilitic-looking motel on Cahuenga near Universal.  She’d picked up the idea from some article on lesbian bed death, she told him: Ways to Keep The Edge Alive between you and your lover.  He didn’t know whether to be hurt or honored that she felt they were suffering from lesbian bed death, but then she said she’d never have the nerve to inflict this too-precious, too-self-conscious maneuver on anyone she was really in love with, so let’s us do it, as a hoot.  You have to love that, so why not?  Sex with Jules was a hoot, anyway, cheerful and gritty and gymnastic, very activity-oriented, involving trips to the Pleasure Chest for anal beads and Cronenberg-style devices.  She had a strap-on with a rosy rubber dildo she was always pestering to use on him, the appeal of which, despite her quoted testimony from gay guy friends and a few more-progressive-than-Al straight guy friends on the delights of a massaged prostate, eluded him.  I suppose I am simply, as you would say, he said to her, an Immutable Top.  She insisted it was all about being willing to give up some control, but when Al asked her if she could think of anybody more willing to give up control than he was, she conceded he had her there.

It just seems unpleasant, he told her.  Being reamed.  I don’t even want to picture that.  Even to imagine being reamed is unpleasant as hell.

Okay, she’d said, that’s fine, no reaming, we can move on.  They were in the motel room, actually, when they’d had that conversation, spreading the dropcloth over the bed as if the quilted nylon spread, already a patchwork of stains, needed protection from them.  I think we need protection from it, she said, stripping off her clothes.  The room stank, like latex and pizza and sea bass and the bad, cologne’d-over kind of guy sweat.  She squirted out a long stream of baby oil, then plopped down on its pool, rolling around like an otter.  One thing he’s never forgotten, or quite gotten over about Julie, is how a girl who’s had as much sex as she’s had could still be so unbelievably tight.  She gets this great, greedy, sucking hold on your cock or fingers that makes you wonder, almost worry a little, and the memory of that sneaks up on him out of nowhere sometimes.

So, when Isabel said to him Okay, Item 10, the last one, your choice, choose, he just happened to be picturing at that exact, stupid second being in that seedy as hell motel room with Julie, both of them dripping oil and sweat, and the image of his hand working to get all the way inside her.  He was up to four fingers, but there was no way his thumb was going to make it – he didn’t want to hurt her, for Christ’s sake – and she was laughing, daring him to try, and picturing that made him laugh, too.

What are picturing? Isabel had asked.  She looked suspicious.

Nothing, he told her.

Why are you laughing?

I was just remembering something.

You have an eidetic memory, she’d said in accusation.

Okay, he said.

You remember everything visually.   In detail.  You’re picturing something right now.
I guess.  Huh.


She’s always had a problem about Julie.  She seethed, once, about how hard it was to sit there with him and some old girlfriend, the two of them sharing little private jokes and teasing each other and making her feel left out, and Al pointed out that at least she knew that he knew what it was like with Jules, but that all he could do was picture her with other guys,  and wonder if she wondered what it would be like with him.  She said it was worse for her, because she knew he could call up the memories of being with other girls in vivid and explicit detail, he could probably see every hair, every eyelash, every vein, visualize the shape of every breast, every lip, and her brain didn’t work that way, and how could she be sure he wasn’t picturing someone else like that, having those lurid, lucid visions, when he was with her?  Christ.  What can you say to this kind of paranoia?  She’d shoved him off her that night, for the first time, and he’d sat up watching Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill! on bootleg video.

So? she asked again.  So, what are you seeing right now?

So, he told her he was remembering some old porn video from the seventies where there was this cheesy thing it’d be a hoot to do, something cheesy and fun for their last activity together, ever, and she bought it, but barely, suspiciously.  Item 10.   The last item on The List.    Things To Do Before Breaking Up.  A good idea, at the time, maybe.  A way to have closure.  A way to ease the transition.  A way to part friends.  Right.  The fucking list.

*            *            *

“The first time,” Isabel is saying, “the first time was just over maybe a year ago.  And I was really only watching, not even assisting.  It was my first surgery rotation, they don’t just hand over the knife, you know?”
“Uh huh,” he says.  They’re lying side by side on their backs without touching, pearled and beaded, the plastic dropcloth under them feeling like some used, oily skin they’ve just shed.  No, like a body bag.  She’s talking and he’s lying there in a shared and unzipped body bag, a twin-bed body bag, looking up at the stained cottage cheese.  The light fixture is a medieval-looking sconce-thing hanging too low on a chain over the bed.  It’s a different seedy room from when he and Julie were here.  This one has a shitty composition.  The bed is up against the wall – he’s on the trapped side, great – and this swag-chained fixture overhead, which strikes him as the very stupidest place to hang the light fixture in a room like this.  Some poor bastard’s going to rear up, get all up high on his knees while he’s banging somebody and crack his head on that, he thinks.  He feels so sorry for the poor bastard it makes him want to weep.  This room stinks, too, but now this one stinks to him like how he imagines dying babies to stink.  That Johnson’s crap.   Yeah, Isabel had bought the pricey kind.  He pictures a huge vat of babies in oil, bobbing around, finally gulping and drowning in oil and being suspended there in a moment of slow sink, like sliced, hovering bananas in Jell-O.

“Dr. Sayles was doing it, and she’d invited me to be there.  Sheasked,” Isabel says.  “She asked me.  Like she’d been keeping an eye on me, wanted to see what I was ready to do.  What I could handle.”

“Uh huh,” he says.  He doesn’t know how they got on this, or what she’s talking about.  He doesn’t care.  He hates to admit it, but yeah, Jules has always been right about Isabel.  Controlling, manipulative, a Venus Flytrap kind of gal.  He can see that now.  He can’t wait until the end of The List, until this is finally all over.  He tries to call up a better mental picture to get in a better mood, some past scene where there was no talking or planning or listing anything, back when he’d seen all the milk and lace and glow about her.  But all he really wants to do is slap her.  And not the foreplay kind of movie-slap – he wants the severing kind.  He wants the burst piñata of her on the floor.  He wants to kick her flat, stomp around on her hair.  He wants the bloodspray on the wall.  The last thing he wants to do is fuck her.  Or see anything in her that glows.  He didn’t care if he ever does that again.

So here she’s blathering, fine, she paid for the seedy room and the overpriced baby oil and if they’re not going to fuck at least she’s maybe getting her money’s worth by rambling on like that, with him there, trapped, imagining dead babies and their stink.  What does he care?  He’d planned on bringing some tequila or something to this one, maybe go to the store in Glendale where the guy sells the last bottles of Chinaco from the original distillery for like two hundred bucks a pop, and those are worth two hundred bucks, but in the end he didn’t bother.  He wasn’t going to waste good tequila on this, and now he’s glad he didn’t.  I should move the fucking light, he thinks, That’s what I should do.  Get up and go to the office and borrow a screwdriver or something, and swag it back into the middle of the fucking room where it belongs.

“Then they use a rib spreader, they crack through the sternum, the breastplate and crank it open, and sort of unfold the ribcage.  It reminded me of this jewelry box my mom bought me when I was little, the side parts opening up and there’s red velvet inside.  But, there was the heart.  And, I mean, we’ve all seen that, right?  Who hasn’t seen open-heart surgery by now?  On Nova or something, you know?”

All That Jazz, he thinks.  The torn seam of Roy Scheider’s chest, the flash of wet, bacon-like muscle.  It looked great to him.  Obscene.  Like a peep show, the pump and grind of private flesh, the lure inside, just as much grip on you, you can’t look away.

“But seeing it for real…there isn’t as much blood as you’re expecting, and the tissue itself is sort of dull white, like a pearl white, and that startled me.  I wasn’t expecting a Valentine, you know, but still.  Seeing the inside like that.”

She shifts her weight, she’s sweating, so he hears her skin peel off plastic, and he’s thinking about lurid hearts, slick flesh on full, exposed view, getting that deep, and he suddenly sees the revealed, deep inside of her.  The speculum was his idea, he remembers thinking, Hey my girlfriend’s a doctor, she steals surgical clamps to cook with, what the fuck.  He’d pitched it to her as a learning experience.  Something good for him to learn, know about, appreciate, the physiology and workings of the female body, ha, and that was all it took.  A chance for her to teach him something, show off a few thousand bucks’ worth of knowledge, show off herself.  She’d brought it home and presented it to him: two long stainless steel tongues connected by a clamping device that let the tongues spread apart and snap there.  It looked like some weird sex toy from Metropolis, some robotic phallus.  It looked cruel, and then it made him nervous.  She’d handed it to him, with the leftover tube of jelly they’d used during the first few months together, when they’d had to put up with rubbers and Nonoxynol-9, then she reclined very carefully on her back on the bed, suddenly nervous, too, and shy.  Wanting to be clinical and impassive, instructive, but worried too clinical might kill something, be too harsh.  She was too aware of the ceiling light in the room, a harsh, florescent toplighting, he could see her overplayed squint.  He thought about offering to get some candles instead, but didn’t.  He was nervous, but he also wanted to really see, he needed the light.

Warm it up first, she’d said.  Rub it.  Use your hands.

He’d rubbed at the steel, up and down, and he’d started laughing, then, it was like jerking off this stainless steel robot-cock, and she laughed, too, they laughed together, and she eased her legs apart for him.  And that was it, forget too clinical, he got hard for real, wanting to be there, but first thing first, he told himself.  He lubed the speculum and slid it inside her, slowly, carefully, and he looked, deeper than he ever could, before, past what he already knew by touch, taste, smell.  She was saying labia minora, labia majora, and he was looking at crimson and smooth and damp,vestibule, anterior wall, posterior wall, at the wet garnet sheathe of flesh, all alive, the oil of her a sort of pearly glaze, Bartholini glands, and the bone-pale knob at the back – cervix, she said, thefundus, feel that, it’s like the tip of a nose – and it’s gorgeous, and she told him to slide two fingers in, put his other hand low on her stomach, he’d feel her ovaries, but he didn’t want to take his eyes off that long, rich conduit to inside her, this incredible journey to where he could see inside her so deep, he’d swear he could see far enough inside to get right through to her heart.

But this isn’t what he wants to picture right now.  He’d rather picture some cologne-sweating guy getting his brains fucked out by some heartless North Hollywood whore right now, that’s what he’d prefer.  Picture that.

He turns his head to look at Isabel, to see if maybe she’s hit a lag so he can suggest he has this little task to do.  Move the light.  Poor bastard, think about him.  But he sees her hair lying all over the place, and it’s wet with baby oil.  It’s like long dark swimming snakes.  Good, he tells himself.  Picture Medusa, a witchy evil, picture dark, picture blackish lips and death.  Picture dead, drowning babies.

“And it was pumping,” she says.  “I’d thought it would just look like twitching, but it was deeper than that, there’s almost a violence to it, this muscle keeps clenching itself and unclenching, you see how hard it has to work, to keep the blood going and going.  To keep it all going.”

“Uh huh,” he says.

“And then Dr. Sayles takes the heart right out of the guy’s chest.  She’s standing there, holding it like it’s some little animal, I don’t know, and she says ‘Dr. Lysenko, would you hold this a moment?’  And this isn’t pigs or mice or dogs or pictures in a book, this is some guy’s heart, and it’s still pumping, still attached to him.  And I sort of reached out….”

She holds out her hands, cupped, up toward the ceiling like she’s offering something to God.  He watches her reaching out, and he loves those long, skinny, white, royal Russian arms with their delicate, knobby wrists, and those long, delicate, frightened hands, he sees her fingers with their chewed nails and knows how she hates herself for doing that, and he loves her for those gnawed hands.  He loves finding those terrified little crescents of her in his bed.  He loves her for that, that she can’t stop chewing her nails, that she tears herself to bits and makes herself bleed, that she tries to hide it but can’t, not from him, he sees it all, he loves these splits, these small tender gaps of her he can see in to.

“And there it was in my hands.  And I remember thinking that this was….” She hesitates.  “Creation.”  She glances over again, as if she expects he’s going to laugh at her.  And he knows it would kill her if he did, and that he could, right now, kill her with it, crush her, but he doesn’t want to do that.

“Yeah,” he says.  “I get it.”

“I mean, I know they say surgeons are very controlling people—”

“No, they don’t,” he says.  “Who says that?  No one really says that.  Who says that?”
“Well, but it wasn’t that.  And it didn’t have anything to do with Dr. Sayles there, watching me, and was I going to drop the heart or hold it too tight, or be brilliant with it, or anything like that.  It wasn’t just an organ.  It was that I was holding creation in my hands, and this was something I could do, be part of.  Affect.  I could have a hand in creation.  And it wasn’t science anymore.  It was mystery.”

She gets quiet, then.  She’s holding her breath, like she’s scared of something finding her out in the dark.  He sees her face in profile against the wallpaper on the other side of the room, Mylar and gold-flocked stripes, and he suddenly hates being here.  He hates having brought her here.  He wishes they were in a palatial place.  Versailles.  The Royal Pavilion at Brighton.  The Hermitage.  A Roman villa, her untoga’d shoulder bare and her hair all snail-coiled, both of them eating mushrooms and figs.  Someplace worthy of her.  Clean linen sheets and twenty-foot ceilings, frescoes and gilt, marble floors he could watch her twirl over and glide across in her long violet dress, be regal upon.

“And I got this rush, like being high, maybe.  The sense that I was really small.  But also, maybe, important.  But not important in the way it’s supposed to be important.”  She takes a deep breath, and he can see she’s trying to hang in there with something, trying to let a tiny split go further and just follow herself into it.  “It’s all supposed to be about helping other people, right?  Giving back to other people.  Contributing.  But that isn’t it.  It isn’t that I could do something meaningful for other people.  It’s more that I could just…have meaning.  Be meaningful.  There’s a difference.  And I think that’s terrible.”

“I don’t.”  He picks up a long snake-ripple of her hair.  “But is that what you need, to think you have meaning?” he asks her.

“Not always,” she says.  “Not when I’m with you.”

And that’s it.  He wants to be inside her then, like breath, like blood.  He rolls toward the center of the bed but she’s already there and around him with her long white legs and arms, and he’s inside her so fast he has to slow down, because he wants it to go so slow it almost doesn’t begin, because that way it’s never over.  So, he thinks, he tries to remember, to picture doing this with Julie, or any other girl, and how that was another thing, all about what’s happening outside your skin not inside your skin, and he tries to picture his poor, shlubby, hairy, sweaty guy and his acne-d junkie hooker and the guy hitting his head on the light fixture, but he doesn’t have to worry about that because he’s down so close on top of Isabel, so deep inside and beside and alongside her there’s no space anymore for even the layer of oil, he can feel it thin between them, slide aside, and then he just goes back to how, really, this is the only place he wants to be, or picture, or imagine, ever, where it’s royal, crimson, alive, where he can feel and be everything, where he can get at and be part of Isabel’s heart.