What Is It Then, Between Us?

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Hightower lay naked in the cold darkness, waiting for Jenny to return from the bathroom. The heat was out again, and he stroked himself absently beneath the sheets, listening for the radiator to rattle and kick on. Ever since she had taken it from behind on a pile of coats at a Christmas party in Canarsie years back, Hightower knew she was all he would ever want. At one time or another he had done Jenny upside down and backward and everywhere in between: he’d gone down on her on the F train and flicked his tongue so she’d come as the train burst out of the tunnel and shot past distant, doll-like Lady Liberty, he’d spanked her with the sole of his shoe and she cried out for more, he’d even fucked her in the ass dozens of times and she had bucked against him saying, harder Vinny, harder.
    But now, her ass was off limits, and last month she scolded him when he came in her mouth. “You wanna get me pregnant or not?” she’d said.
    Hightower couldn’t figure out her cycle, and he was forced to find relief in Jenny’s perfumed lotions, gels and creams, mixed with his own spit to find the slickest glide.
    “What are you doing?” Jenny stood in the doorway wearing a sickly, snot-colored bathrobe Hightower had been threatening to throw down the air shaft.
     “I’m getting ready for you.”
    “It looks like you finished,” she said, tossing him some wrinkled tissues she dug out of her bathrobe pocket.
    “Oh yeah? I can go again.”
    “Forget it,” she said. “I’m not ovulating.”
    Everything was about her uterus and her tubes and her ovaries, and other things he’d never heard of before. He’d thought an embryo sounded like some sort of burrito and that the birth canal was where

He felt like his prick would fall off, like rotten fruit from a branch.

Moses had been born in the reeds. Hightower wasn’t used to fucking on a schedule. He felt like he was failing science class again, because he couldn’t understand why you couldn’t make a baby any day of the month. When she gave him the cold shoulder, he felt like his prick would fall off like rotten fruit from a branch.
    “There’s no heat,” Jenny said. Her dyed blonde hair looked green in the dull light of the hallway.
    “We can make our own,” he responded, flexing his abs so his penis reared up momentarily.
    “Enough. All right, Vincent? I’m crampy, I’m tired and I’m freezing.”
    He climbed out of bed and began dressing.
    “Where are you going?” she said.
    “To get the boiler fixed.”
    Jenny stood before Hightower, her arms crossed. She looked to him like the schoolteacher she was, her big glasses perched on her thin nose, her shoulders straight. Hightower pulled a sweater over his head and stared at her for a long, empty moment.
    “What is it then?” she said. “You want your wife to go out in the cold?”
    He leaned in to kiss her.
    “Not my lips.”
    They were coated with some sort of glossy medicinal salve that smelled to Hightower of gym class and sweat socks.
    “I don’t care,” he said leaning in again.
    “But I do. Okay?”
    He kissed her throat and down her neck towards her breasts. He felt a vein jump and thought he heard Jenny gasp the way she did before losing herself, but it was a long, exasperated, frowning sigh.
    “Vincent. Find Cliff and get the heat turned back on.”
    “Well I’m turned back on,” he said, trying to ignite a spark.
    “Please,” she whispered plaintively. “What if we had a child freezing to death in there?”
    Her blue eyes were watery and cold, reflecting in them that loathsome needy creature that Hightower became when he couldn’t get close enough to Jenny. He’d already gotten rid of his bench press and weights to make room for a hand-me-down crib and changing table from Jenny’s fat older sister. There was no child and already she was taking its side like it owned a piece of her. He got a handful of her hair in his hand and pulled her close; her heart beat between them.
    “Don’t,” she said.
    “Don’t yourself,” and he kissed her hard on the mouth.
    Cliff was their alcoholic super who lived in a basement apartment two blocks over. His phone was usually dead, and sometimes he had the shakes so bad he couldn’t screw in a light bulb, but he was the only person east of the Hudson with the key to the basement and the furnace. His barred window was dark, but staggered footprints in the dirty snow pointed Hightower in the right direction.
    Jackie’s Fifth Amendment was the local dump where Hightower had learned to drink. He’d watched his father kill afternoons there as a school kid and later he had taken Jenny there when they first started going together. But he hadn’t been to Jackie’s in a long time, not since he’d gotten out of jail and started hauling crates for a local soda company.
    “Turn over a new leaf,” Jenny had said optimistically. That was when she started yakking about babies, and Hightower figured he’d better make like a husband or else.
    The long, low-ceilinged bar was jammed with laughing young men and women, many of whom had recently crossed the East River to escape Manhattan’s runaway rents. The bar was interspersed here and there with the hardened faces of old-timers who had been a fixture at Jackie’s as long as Hightower could remember. He saw his next door neighbors Hank and Cele Polniaszeki squeezed together at a small banquette near the salt streaked picture window, drinking screwdrivers that seemed to glow in the half-darkness. He saw Elvis Doyle stumble from the

They smelled of perfume and sweat and cigarettes, and something reckless Hightower had been missing.

bathroom zipping his fly, and the panhandler from the ATM on Ninth Street counting coins in his gloved hands. Cliff was usually perched on a stool before the lone television that hung above the cash register, his face dipping to meet the edge of his glass. But now a group of young women crowded the bar waving folded bills in the air. Their asses looked like big, fat hearts and Hightower wanted to crush himself into them. Some were pretty and some weren’t, but they all smelled of perfume and sweat and cigarettes, and something reckless Hightower had been missing in Jenny since she’d gotten it in her head to get knocked up.
    He pressed himself up to the bar and ordered a Maker’s Mark on the rocks.
    “Look what the cat dragged in,” Jackie said, laughing until he was overcome by a dry heaving cough. “How’s jail?”
    “Been out a while,” Hightower said.
    “I mean the marital prison,” Jackie said. “You’re only free when you’re dead.”
    “Come off it,” Hightower said. “You seen Cliff?”
    “I told him to take his D.T.’s and hit the road. He hasn’t paid his tab in over a year. What do you want with that deadbeat anyway?”
    “Oil burner’s on the fritz, and Jenny’s on the war path.”
    Jackie winked and laughed. “You know what I’d do to warm her up?”
    “Beats me,” Hightower said.
    Jackie made a crude pushing motion with his closed fist. “Nice and easy,” he added slapping his palm on the bar for emphasis.
    “Are you talking about fucking my wife? Is that it?” Hightower said. He felt like reaching across the bar and pummeling Jackie in his ash-can face. “You thinking about fucking the mother of my child?”
    “Vinny, relax. I was joking around. I had no idea.”
    “You can say that again.” Hightower straightened up and added in a voice he did not recognize. “I’m going to be a father.”
    “Well, congrats,” Jackie said sliding the drink towards Hightower. “This one’s on the house.”
    Hightower raised the glass and downed the bourbon in one burning gulp. Jackie smiled and poured another. “Believe me, Vin. I couldn’t be happier,” he said sliding the second drink forward. “Couldn’t be happier.”
    The jukebox played a sad song that Hightower recognized but could not place. The bar was full and there was nowhere to sit; Hank and Cele were arguing again and Elvis was pacing in front of the two rotary payphones waiting for one of them to ring. Through the picture window Hightower could see a Daily News truck skidding through the falling snow, the flickering red-and-orange lights of the adjacent bodega blinking on and off. Long, jagged icicles hung from the frayed awning outside.

“I want to fuck your friend,” he whispered into her double-pierced ear.

He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind the bar and saw that his chest was broad and muscular, his face was still handsome, and nobody could say no to Vincent Hightower.
    He heard laughing at the table behind him and saw that the four women with the valentine asses were toasting something with a dramatic clink of their glasses. Hightower slid his wedding band from his finger and dropped it into his jeans pocket.
    He squeezed in beside a redhead who wore her hair in a severe bob. She wore a tight, low-cut sweater. Hightower couldn’t help but think that her freckled white skin was waiting to flush red under him. “What are you celebrating?”
    “And who are you?” the redhead said flatly.
    “Oh come on,” one of the other girls said. “Be nice.”
    “I’m Vinny,” he said, extending his hand.
    “That’s too perfect,” the redhead said, turning back to her drink and laughing a dry laugh.
    “What’s the matter? I’m making nice,” said Hightower.
    “And I’m sure that’s your real name,” said the redhead.
    “I’m Antoinette,” said one of the girls across the table. She had a full, round face and ringlets that fell past her shoulder. “This is Jasmine, Emma and — “
    “Stella,” the redhead interrupted.
    “Stella?” One of the girls said. Her face was already a drunken smear.
    “Yeah,” the redhead said. “That’s right.”
    “Well, nice to meet you, Stella.” Hightower extended his hand. “What are you celebrating?”
    “Antoinette and Emma are moving to Brooklyn,” Stella said, sucking on a lime rind.
    “The Slope,” one of the others added with a nod of her head.
    What she could do with that mouth, Hightower thought. “Hey, Brooklyn’s more better than Manhattan. You’ve got the Cyclone and Coney Island . . . “
    “More better! Did you hear that?” Stella said to Antoinette and the others. She turned back to Hightower. “You’re the real thing.”
    “That’s the God’s honest truth,” Hightower said.
    “Do you say ‘dem’ and ‘dose’ and ‘dat’ as well, or is that just in the movies?”
    “I’ll say whatever you want me to say,” Hightower said.
    “Sure,” Stella said. “But first, buy us another round.”
    “Come with me,” he responded.
    Stella just shook her head slowly and crunched an ice cube between her teeth.
    Antoinette was short and pear-shaped, with the shining, pocked complexion of a new golf ball. She reminded Hightower of those Catholic schoolgirls up the street at Saint Savior; they walked with twisting hips, confident that what they had under their skirts was more valuable than gold.
    “Do you live around here?” she said. Her brow wrinkled with the question, and Hightower realized she was the dog of the group.
    “Yeah,” said Hightower. “Grew up here.”
    “I’m from upstate, near Syracuse,” she said, and Hightower could feel his face burning. “I got my MFA in the spring and now I’m sort of working.” She ordered four glasses of Beaujolais. And then: “Okay, whatever your house red is.”
    Hightower looked back to the table and saw Stella craning her long neck so the lean cords stood out against her skin. Antoinette asked Hightower what he wanted.
    “I want to fuck your friend,” he whispered in her double-pierced ear.
    “What about me?” she said, her large brown eyes wide, unblinking.
    Her breasts were big enough, Hightower thought, but she had a slight paunch. “Are you pregnant?” he asked.
    “I’m on the pill,” she whispered. “You could fuck me all night.”
    “What about her?” Hightower said, tossing his head in Stella’s direction. He felt Antoinette’s hand on his thigh.
    “She’s no good,” and then she pulled Hightower’s face down to her height and bit him hard on the lip.
    Lately Hightower was used to being the pursuer. It had been a long time since Jenny had initiated anything with him, since he’d woken with his hard cock in her mouth crying out for Jesus, and he couldn’t remember the last time she sat astride his hips thrusting him deep inside

He felt that irrational ache inside that said if he didn’t fuck her, he would die.

her. Now, she lay on her back with a distracted look on her face that made Hightower want to slap her silly. She counted down time as his come dripped inside her, a pillow jammed beneath her ass.
    Hightower and Antoinette took their seats at the table. His lip stung where she had bit him. He felt himself stiffen. Stella took her drink and, without thanking Hightower, clinked glasses with the others.
    “But seriously, all everyone wants to read these days is clever and ironic. Sometimes a manuscript comes in that I know is deep and moving, but my instinct tells me that nobody’s going to look at it because it doesn’t fit the template of what people are writing these days.” Stella put her drink down and shook her head. “I feel like a cigarette.”
    “I’ll smoke with you,” Hightower said, indicating the entry vestibule.
    A couple of regulars stood hunched beneath the awning outside, puffing damp cigarettes against the blowing snow.
    “I’m not a fucking addict, okay? I can control myself.”
    Emma laughed, and Antoinette rolled her eyes.
    “I was just trying to be nice.”
    “Well don’t. I don’t need your kindness.”
    “I should let you know,” Antoinette said. “She’s permanently on the rag.”
    “Fuck you,” Stella said.
    “I’m only joking,” Antoinette said.
    “So, what are you, some kind of writer?” He could feel the heat from her thighs moving from her body to his, and he felt that irrational ache inside that said if he didn’t fuck her, he would die.
    “I’m an editor.” she said, turning to face him for the first time. “Do you read?”
    “You bet I read.”
    “What do you read?” She tapped her short fingernails on the table.
    “What are you, kidding? I read books.”
    “Name one,” she said. Her eyes were hard and her thin lips were bright and unmoving like a slash of blood. “And it can’t be a movie as well.”
    “Ignore her,” Antoinette said.
    All the blood in his body flowed to his cock, but the words he had learned in school all those years ago appeared in his mind. “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep.”
    “Bravo,” Antoinette said, clapping her hands. She smiled at Hightower. “That’s good.”
    “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’ Frost.” Stella said. “Do you know what that means?”
    “Do you?” Hightower said.
    “Who else do you read?” Stella said.
    Hightower remembered that there were words etched into the low fence at the Fulton Ferry Landing where Jenny had taken him once to watch the sunset. The smell of the briny water had made him think Jenny was wet. He slid his hand into her pants and found out that she was. “That one about the Brooklyn Ferry.”
    “Whitman!” she said, exasperated. “Don’t you read anyone who’s not a dead white male? Have you ever read Toni Morrison, or Jhumpa Lahiri, or Edwidge Danticat?”
    “None of your goddamned business if I read any of those guys.”
    Hightower realized with stark, gut-twisting finality that the old Brooklyn that he had grown up in was changing in a way he did not recognize. He’d seen it coming for years and had cracked jokes as the moving vans came and went, but had never imagined a complete takeover. There was a time when kids on his block would laugh at you if you read a book, call you “perfessor” and kick you in the balls. Now bodegas were being turned into boutiques and bistros

She looked so pathetic that he wanted to fuck her hard, so it hurt, teach her not to be kind to strangers.

were all up and down Fifth Avenue, nearly all the way to Sunset Park. A bar was where you went to get drunk. Jackie had poured generously, assuring a cheap buzz for his neighborhood friends. The cigarette smoke had been so thick it would choke you. Now you had to take your smokes outside in the rain and snow like a common criminal.
    “Enough with this elitist crap,” Antoinette said.
    “It’s not elitist. It’s the truth. I’ll bet I can tell you in fifty words or less his entire pathetic biography.”
    Hightower gulped down the rest of his drink, wiped his mouth and glared at Stella. “Give it your best shot.”
    Jasmine and Emma seemed to be paying attention to Hightower for the first time, their eyes locked on his sweating face.
    “You grew up within three blocks of here, live in the same building your alcoholic parents lived, or still live. You’ve never left the city, never seen the world,” and here she paused. “Unless you were in the service, or in jail. You think you need a passport to go to Manhattan and don’t cross the bridges more than three times a year. You’re a high-school dropout and you’re single. You’ll probably die penniless never knowing the first thing about life and you’ll be buried in Queens and forgotten, mourned by no one.”
    She stared at him hard, her eyes unblinking. “Truth hurts, doesn’t it?”
    “Ouch,” Jasmine said.
    Hightower did not smile. “Those tits of yours are fakes," he retorted. "I’ve seen better cans in the dog food aisle at C-Town.”
    “I’m going out for a cigarette,” Stella said, pushing past Hightower. “Don’t come with me.”
    Jasmine and Emma joined her, wrapping thick wool scarves around their pale necks. Hightower was left alone at the table with Antoinette, who smiled softly. “Don’t mind Jane. She’s got issues.”
    “She’s really Jane Templeton from Bethesda, Maryland. She likes to play the bitch. It makes her feel powerful when she’s away from Daddy’s money.”
    Hightower noticed that the crowds were thinning out and that Hank and Cele had left their spot by the window. The jukebox played an old Louis Prima song about love. “Why you so nice?”
    “I don’t know,” Antoinette said. “I like you.”
    By the way her voice wavered, Hightower could tell she was used to picking up the leftovers. She looked so pathetic that he wanted to fuck her hard, so it hurt, teach her not to be kind to strangers. What did she know about him anyway? He didn’t need her pity.
    He stood up and his thighs lifted the table, nearly knocking over the wine glasses. “I’ve got to piss.”
    Hightower slammed the bathroom door behind him, and Antoinette appeared seconds later in the tiny cubicle. A single bare bulb swung on a cord above them. The stamped tin walls were flaked with rust; the smell of fifty years of urine burned in his nose.
    “What do you want?” He saw her warped, blue-green reflection in the buffed metal slab that served as a mirror.
    “This,” she said, reaching for his buckle. She sat on the toilet seat and undid his belt. A hulking radiator hissed and sizzled behind him. She unzipped him and fished inside his pants. “You’re big,” she said. “It’s all right, honey. I know what I’m doing.”
    He wanted to piss in her face, show her that he was in charge, but he was too hard to do anything but lean back and close his eyes. He could hear her breathing slowly as she bent to take him in her mouth, and then the suction of her lips sliding around him. The radiator steamed and sizzled against his bare ass, the water bubbling up from the furnace below. He could feel his own quivering intake of breath as he leaned back against the boiling heater, his blood rushing through his veins, both pain and pleasure mixed as one. Antoinette cupped her hands around his ass and eased him away from the burning heater.
    He looked down and saw that with her ringlets of hair spread out against her broad back, Antoinette looked like a buffalo at feed. She was sucking with greater urgency now, her head moving in a brutal rhythm. But he couldn’t stop her, his muscles were as soft and warm as chewed bubble gum, and when he tried to pull away, he could feel her teeth scraping lightly against his shaft.
     And then he came, in her mouth, across her lips and in the stray ringlets of her hair, and her round face rose to meet his.
    “So we’re going to be neighbors,” she said. “We can make this regular.”
    “I gotta go,” he said, pulling up his pants.
    “What do you mean? I just gave you head.”
    “You want a fucking medal?”
    “No, it’s just — ” She still had his come in the corner of her mouth. In the meager light of the bathroom, he saw a child with vanilla ice cream on her lips.
    “It’s just nothing. That’s it. A big nothing.” And he zipped his pants and swung out of the bathroom.
    He was too upset even to insult Stella on the way out, and he burst into the cold night wanting Jenny more than he had ever wanted her before. The clouds above seemed to be lit from within, as if all of those who had died were casting down their frozen ashes onto his head. He made his block in a minute flat and he

“Isn’t it a school night?” A cold drop of semen dripped down his pant leg.

stood at the door of his apartment a minute later.
    The stairs had never looked so daunting before, even when he had hauled a sofa up on his back. He stood in the dim foyer, his heart thumping in his chest, and then took the stairs two at a time. Jenny was still up, doing a crossword in bed.
    “Vin? That you?”
    He could hear the radiator banging and rattling, steam sizzling from the spigot.
    “Yeah. It’s me.”
    Jenny appeared in the doorway in an oversized pajama top, her hair tied back in a ponytail. “The heat,” she said sheepishly. “It came on by itself right after you left. I called out for you, but you didn’t hear.”
    “That’s okay,” he said. “As long as we have heat now.”
    “Baby,” she said. “I’m sorry for being like that before, making you go out into the snow for nothing. Come here.”
    He moved forward, but his feet felt like lead weights.
    “You been drinking?”
    “I take the Fifth.”
    “How many?” she smiled.
    “A couple.”
    She laughed. “It’s stupid, I know, but when you didn’t come back, I thought maybe something happened to you, you got beat up or something. And then I thought, ‘My man, he’s strong, he can take care of himself.’ And I got really horny waiting for you, and I felt we could do it like old times, however you want, or just plain old-fashioned fucking. What do you think?”
    “Isn’t it a school night?” A cold drop of semen dripped down his pant leg.
    “Don’t be that way, Vinny," she said, pulling him toward the bed. "I know I’ve had babies on the brain and haven’t been the best lover, but let’s fuck." Her hand was soft and warm.
    “No,” said Hightower. “Not tonight.”
    “Come on, baby. I know I sent you out in the cold, but I apologized. Don’t make me beg for it.”
    And Hightower saw in Jenny that desperation he had felt all those months when he couldn’t get close enough to her.
     “I’m not going to fuck you,” he said raffishly. “But I’ll help you out.”
    He tossed her onto the bed, pulled off her pajama shirt and yanked off her cotton panties. Then he buried his face between her legs until he was swallowed by darkness.  

©2005 Jon Papernick and
Jon Papernick is the author of the short story collection The Ascent of Eli Israel (Arcade, 2002), and has recently completed a novel entitled Who by Fire, Who by Blood. He lives outside Boston with his wife and is at work on his second story collection. His website is