Escalation (an excerpt)
By Monika Woods - Feb 21, 2017
Victor had never been sure what he needed, but he’d always been propelled by bursts of pleasure and want, the joltings of which brought violence to his mind. He loved the tension between how he felt and what he was supposed to be, supposed to feel. The window on West Street called to him all day, the glowing light, profane in its feminine lushness, lured him as he walked, made the requisite turns to arrive, to stand below it, looking up, to climb. It had never been epiphanic for him, the knowledge that people weren’t supposed to do whatever they wanted, and the fact that he did made him different, made him monstrous.
Victor had never had these thoughts, he simply did whatever he wanted to do. He thought, “I want this one to come home soon,” as he gazed into the window on West Street, the window annoyingly dark, the tree comfortable, the anticipation pleasant. Recently, he’d been experimenting with meteing out his pleasure. He’d avoided thinking about the window, the girl he was watching through it, during the day, during what he’d started thinking of as “Rowen time.” He strained to focus on Rowen, to banish the window from his mind. He was exerting control over his own tendency for unmitigated reward. He wanted the window to be separate, which was why he wanted the girl to come home soon, he wanted to catch a glimpse, taste the feeling of that scooching down. To balance.
Over the past few months, that’s what West Street was. Victor thought it was the perfect street. It was dark and removed but residential. The people who lived on West Street were interesting, he thought they’d lucked out. Sometimes he wished he could move from his house on Nassau to West, not a big move at all, but the worlds were different. But in truth, he didn’t really want to move there, he just wanted to keep going there.
Victor had no way of knowing, really, if the girl who lived in the apartment behind the window was home, occupying a different room, or out. He looked at his watch, deciding to wait 15 more minutes for her appearance before heading home.
Rowen was wearing jean shorts, sitting cross-legged in his living room. The space covered by jean Victor could see was a span of four inches, the material hard and ungiving if he were to slither up to her and poke her there. She had her hair tied up with a bandana. She was concentrating with her eyes squinted, hand flexed under her chin. “I think we should keep your couch. I decided. It’s fine and I don’t feel like dealing with couches. But let’s move it to the other side of the room and put my TV across from it. OK?” “Sure babe,” Victor replied. He was drinking a can of beer, exerting patience and repression. But he looked at Rowen’s pursed lips, and found them endearing. He smiled at her. “You know I trust you.”
Rowen, in a move that impressed him every time she did it, stood fluidly and fast from her uncomfortable position on the floor. Her body just worked. She never held out her arm for a hand. Rowen was deep into nesting mode, and her official move-in date wasn’t even until the next weekend. Rowen was careful as they merged their belongings, and her caution surprised Victor. He was unhappy at her guardedness, unhappy at the sticking moving parts of moving in together. Rowen vividly remembered advice her mother had given her one night when she was twelve, advice which influenced her in every romantic endeavor. She’d been sitting on top of the washer while her mother folded laundry out of the dryer and into the plastic basket. Rowen had gently pounded her heels against the white give of the appliance. Her mother had said, “Rowen honey, I’m going to tell you something important which may sound weird, or it might sound like I have regrets. I don’t. But I want you to always have your own bank account. It’s a little thing, honey, that can mean all the difference.” At the time, Rowen had accepted her mother’s wisdom with openness and slight befuddlement, which may not have been the case had her mother waited one year to share it. She’d felt reinforced and validated, and had dug into her already blossoming fierce attitude toward independence.
So moving in with Victor was hard for her, and while she came to understand that he truly lacked opinions about any detail, she fretted over who would be on the lease, who would pay the electric bill, how would they split groceries, where to hang her small but precious collection of art. But she knew she needed to do it. She knew it would be an important step, not just in her relationship with Victor, but in becoming a full-fledged person. She’d learn how to share, how to split. Victor, who never troubled himself with the depths of a person, assumed Rowen was feeling ambivalent about moving closer to Lila and Clark. But truthfully, Rowen had chosen Victor the same way she felt that Satchi, Ben, and Clark had chosen Lila, and she was quickly forgetting them to make room for him.
The night before the U-Haul was bringing Rowen and her belongings from Bay Ridge to Greenpoint, Victor went through his apartment doors and headed toward West Street while feeling troubled, anxious, excited, and hopeful. He remembered when he and Lila moved in together and it felt so much less serious. It’d been an unpolished situation, there were no white walls involved. He’d had lower living standards back then. Back then, he didn’t even put sheets on his bed. His attitude toward his surroundings, minimalist as it was, had by now evolved to include comfort. Their refrigerator had been pathetic, the floor dingy, the walls covered in what he’d decided were streaks of many years of dirty hands. Shoddy. Lila had just been fine with it all, just brought her clothes and her CDs. They’d bought what they needed at the thrift store. They’d lived a life that looked transient, but had become permanent with their intransigence.
He didn’t attribute the difference in the melding of worlds just to Rowen. He’d grown up since then and now he wanted to have clean sheets. He wasn’t as mature, as homemaking, as Rowen, but his belongings were clean, white, and yes, spare. There was a style. When Lila and he had lived together, the whole thing felt like watching TV light reflected on a face from behind the set.
As he walked, he passed bars that were in full Friday swing. First Pencil Factory, then The Black Rabbit, then Lulu’s, then the one he called “Bar Bar Bar” after its flashing sign and which he didn’t know the name of. They all had their place in the fabric of his evenings, they all had significance for him. He’d drank a beer across the room from Lila at Pencil Factory a year ago, watching her laugh with Rowen while they thumbed their phones and waited for Clark. When Clark had gotten there, Victor’d stood up and left, unnoticed by his beholden. He’d taken Rowen to The Black Rabbit the night he’d finally met her, after they’d made it to the end of the night, sparkling at each other, and needed a way to keep it going. She’d come home with him after.
“Bar Bar Bar,” he only associated with himself.
He made the right on West Street and could see the tree in the distance, and right when he settled in the crook of the branch, the girl’s light snapped on. Victor trembled, quite surprised. He’d been accustoming himself to patience. The girl was still young, beautiful, thin, creamy. He hadn’t caught sight of her in some time. She hopped onto her bed with excitement, the laptop open in one hand. Victor gazed at her, enthralled. He could see that laptop light on her face. She lay belly down and her eyes vagued, her forefinger moving on the pad. Victor concentrated especially on her half-smile. The girl squirmed. Her ass moved. Victor gripped the branch as she flipped herself upright and balanced the laptop on her spread knees. He held his breath and exhaled in time with the shimmy. The girl reached down. She rubbed herself. She put a finger in her vagina, moving it gently. She looked at the screen intently. The girl’s smile edged sultry. She took her finger out of herself and made circles. Her circles quickened. She closed her eyes. She tilted her face to the ceiling. Her lungs expanded, her ribs rose, her tits in her camisole spread outwards. She came.
She sighed and smiled widely, pure relaxed joy, and bounded back up, laptop still in hand, and left her room.
Victor looked at his hands, one then the other. One gripped the branch even still. The other was draped gently over his penis. His blood was pumping through every part of him, his limbs buzzed. He felt an energy that didn’t fade or crescendo as this girl’s had crescendoed. His energy smoldered, and even with the semen oozing inside his boxer briefs he felt engorged and wanting.
Rowen’s bandana caught the droplets of sweat that otherwise would have slowly moved down her temples. Victor’s sweat slid down his skin, and, when caught at perfect moments and angles, looked like large plops of pimples. Rowen would always be more elegant, Victor thought, than everyone. Then he flushed, in a way that is unrecognizable as physical flushing but more like feelings in a toilet, with pride that she was with him, that she was now under his roof. He’d caught her, he’d won, he gotten someone to love him, not just someone, a strong, beautiful, intelligent woman who couldn’t tell the difference between him and a person. Thinking about the way Rowen moved, about her instinctive grace, the image of his window girl flashed through his mind. Rowen, graceful, elongated, composed. His window girl, breathy, ecstatic, supplicating.
He composed himself, practicing his repression, but knew he would need to go to her that night. The first new night. He was disturbed at himself. He couldn’t help but wonder when other people had started to infect him so. When other people had the power to move him down his own stairs, up and down, sore with arms above his head, and down then up, exhilarated. He pushed this awareness to the back of his mind, purposefully compartmentalizing, he’d think more about this in the tree, waiting for the girl. What to do about it, if he cared.
Rowen was working. She viewed this Saturday as the day to get it all done. The dusting, the arranging, the moving of things. She wanted to wake up on Sunday to newness, to being settled. She felt that accomplishment in her grasp, pursued it relentlessly. She was quick and efficient, and laughed as Victor slowly finished one task as she was taking a break from her fifth. “Babe, how about you carry these bags of garbage downstairs, and start breaking down cardboard?” she asked, as she breezed past him with a touch to the small of his back. “OK!” he responded, with enthusiasm. She put dishes away, she folded towels, she made piles, she put a milk crate full of old t-shirts and strange knick-knacks on the curb with a “For Free!” sign. And it all impressed Victor, made him feel soothed by her competence. At the end of the day, around 10pm, they were eating pizza in their living room, everything was still white. “Wow, you really made it nicer in here somehow, but still, it’s like it’s just my place. Like you just made it better but still me.” “Aw, that is so nice of you to say! I really wanted you to feel exactly like that!” Rowen ate her slice slowly, Victor ate his third slice. She laughed. “Want to fold up this pizza box for old time’s sake?” “Not yet. I want to do something else first,” he replied, snaking his arms over to her. Victor pulled insistently at her shorts. Rowen gave in without convincing, didn’t give in at all. They had sex on their couch for the first time, Rowen giggling and Victor sweetly excited to have this new, better home. Victor pushed in and pulled out, Rowen hid her face with a cushion. They both came while they were having fun, and Rowen jumped up to take a shower right after. Calling, “I need to wash my body right now. It’s hot, I sweat more sweat today than I have all year, and now I have sex on me. Not that I’m complaining. We got so much done!” Her tight buttcheeks were all Victor saw as he lay back, pants unzipped and penis retracting, smiling.
In the bathroom, Rowen paused to look at her reflection. She always looked at her face when she had the opportunity ever since a friend of her dad’s told her mom, “Man, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble with that one!” as he pointed at her and continued, “She’s gonna be a heartbreaker.” She always looked into her own eyes and smiled briefly into every mirror, eschewing assessment. She just wanted to make sure she looked the same as she remembered. Rowen pulled her t shirt over her head, stepped into the shower, and leaned her shoulder against the tile. The hard work she’d done that day wasn’t what she was proud of. She was proud of finishing her slice of pizza, of relaxing, and knowing that she would feel good when she woke up in the morning.
As the water ran, Victor quickly zipped up and sprang up. “Babe, I’m gonna go get some fresh air,” he called. “What?” Rowen yelled. He opened the bathroom door, releasing the lovely smell of Rowen’s sudsing shampoo. “I’m gonna go for a walk, get some fresh air. Do you want me to bring you home anything? Ice cream?” He knew she’d say no. “No thanks! I’ll probably just pass out once I feel clean again, however long that takes.”
There’d been the redhead he’d followed home because she reminded him of Lila. There’d been the week he went to her apartment every night, watching her pace her room on the phone. There’d been a view. There’d been the moment when he realized what she was doing. There’d been her quick panting he could see. There’d been excitement, a glow of it. There’d been too many days of darkness in her window.
There’d been the blonde girl he followed home from “Bar Bar Bar.” There’d been the first purpose. There’d been the feeling of lucking out when he saw her walk home and a window light up on the first floor right after. There’d been dark nights crouching, pretending to himself to realize what he was waiting for. There’d been too long of a wait. There’d been nothing.
There’d been the girl with the tiniest waist at “Bar Bar Bar.” There’d been a day when he so clearly knew what he wanted. There’d been the discovery of West Street. There’d been his first walk down West Street. Where there’d been darkness. Where there’d been cover. Where there’d been trees right close next to buildings and windows. Where there’d been women.
In all Victor had by then watched ten women masturbate themselves from a perch, from a crouch, from a vantage point. They didn’t know. Victor had been patient, there’d been more than ten women watched, but he’d also known when to cut his losses. He’d come to know when one wouldn’t be making a dent in her bed. He’d learned how to know when they wouldn’t reach past their elastic waistbands. This new, creamy one was the tenth, he thought, as he sat in the tree waiting, looking at darkness framed by a frame, the darkness not so intense the longer he looked. He loved the variables of darkness. The darkness had so many blues to it. He loved when this one watched her laptop in the darkness. The bluenesses multiplying, her skin turning into skim milk, that blue creamy tinge.
Victor felt lucky he’d found her. The proportion of dark to light window seemed random but perfect. She was sexual in many ways. She didn’t seem to have a boyfriend. He couldn’t tell what was on her laptop, what kind of pornography she liked. He knew she liked to make herself come. He knew if he went to her, there was a good chance he’d see her come, like 25%. It drove him forward, it influenced his days. She made him practice repression when he was with Rowen. He found her compelling.
Victor realized he had two women in two different ways, and he smiled. Rowen was in bed and the girl would be in bed too, whether he saw her get in or not. They’d be in bed at the same time, Victor would be able to know that. He would always be able to know more than both of them, which made him feel absolute.
He hopped down from the branch, put his hands in his pockets, and walked home to the other half.
Monika Woods is a literary agent and writer who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, son, and two cats and tweets from @booksijustread.