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A t night, in the city, you wouldn't be able to see the color-coding. Come night, the neighborhoods all turn a watery gray, and distinctions, though in truth they're probably sharper, seem slightly less severe. Perhaps that's why, come night, people often test them. In little spurts of fantasy, they make florid attempts to cross over into spheres they don't really know about or dress up in garb of castes they've only read of in books. Tight-assed professionals, for instance, venture down rough alleys heading to the seamiest clubs, and minimum-wage earners on dates rent limousines, wear gowns, and generally outspend their incomes. In a challenge to daylight's static hierarchies, you might step to the curb where a car is waiting, fantasizing your own celebrity and wealth or dip into street drugs otherwise reserved for the underprivileged, crashing afterward into chemical despondency as you return from a night spent slumming.

I walked alone along Arthur. Storefronts and tenement doorways were interspersed among loading docks, all under a layer of night's gray, which disguised the details of city life the way a painter's dropcloth hides a room. The whole town seemed blurred, degenerate. I felt free, in a nihilistic sort of way, and, similarly, hopeful. In a gesture of resentment, I was forsaking all my friends and associates, blaming them for the confusion of identities and maddening ambiguity that had reached a peak last weekend. And the act of leaving all of that behind felt freeing. I was heading toward a different world where none of it would matter. It would be a whole new paradigm, filled with a different sort of data, a place where you could smell and see, sense moisture, feel thickness.

I turned the corner onto Dwight. The street looked eerily swept clean or evacuated, the site of historic dramas now long past. Only up ahead, at the very end, there were two or three figures milling around a doorway. It was The Mansion. As I approached I saw there was no sign, just the number, 405, stencilled in white on the door and out front two huge men, the size of discus throwers or Vikings. One wore a leather vest, the other a black jacket. "How's it going?" the latter asked me. The other took my money. I passed down three concrete steps through the doorway, then down a dozen more into what must have been the refurbished basement floor of a factory warehouse.

And as I lingered for a minute in the foyer, ostensibly to empty out my pockets before I checked my coat, I observed distinctly in myself the first signs of calm I'd felt for ages. It was like love or courage or comfort or something, or perhaps it was just the first unfettered, fearless moment of intention I'd allowed my unmoored psyche since I'd been abandoned. Maybe it was the darkness, maybe the anonymity, but I felt as if I were online again with someone waiting for me there. I handed my coat through the window.

The club was dim, its open central room leading onto dimmer passageways, little rooms, and stairways, all of which were stirring with people - people dressed in black, people dressed in leather, people with their shoulders bare. I felt my own skin against the air, which was wet like breath. The mere fact of flesh and presence, of all those surfaces, hard or pliant, made me glad, not because for me the physical world is necessarily reassuring or seems especially true, but because I know that, in it, things can shatter. All the lauded wholeness of real, material experience - the places, trains, the individuals - were breakable. So was I. I swung my arms at my sides, just to get acquainted with the air moving past them. I felt unburied. This was the world, I thought. These were bones. These were wishes. These were bodies.

I'd passed across the main room and turned to watch the people milling. Half completed, like a movie set, the area was made up to look like a large boudoir or the mansion's parlor, with dark divans and ostentatious sofas from mismatched eras arranged alongside deep, cushioned chairs and ottomans. Several standing lamps had fringes, and, from fixtures high up on the ceiling, the light was amber. I saw a woman straddling a seated man. She was unbuttoning his trousers. He was reaching up beneath her shirt and brushing his hands over her breasts. I leaned against the wall. Bodies passed back and forth in front of me, but I was too fixed on the sounds the two were making to see where anyone else was heading. Across the way, a lanky man in an undershirt sat down on a couch to watch them also. The woman reached into the pants of the man who was helpless beneath her; she was staring into his unblinking eyes, hovering and swaying. Her arms were bare save the leather strap buckled tightly around one bicep, and her thin straight hair was snaking around her shoulders. Now she was reaching down with both her hands. He was losing his focus. You knew her nipples were hard.

Eventually the woman crawled down along his front, he with his hands gripping the chair behind his head, both with their torsos turning, in the gold light, slightly reddish, and across the way the rangy man in the undershirt thrust his head back against the sofa.

I headed down a hallway. Several times I had stopped myself from touching the zipper of my jeans because that wasn't the way I wanted it. If I let myself get satisfied too easily, I knew, it wouldn't really change me, it wouldn't dig in far enough, dismantle and rebuild me. I slipped into another passageway on my right. You could almost feel the hallways were elegant, if they hadn't been crowded with half-bare men of every size and women dressed like gogo dancers, movie stars, and athletes.

Up a set of wood steps was a row of low-ceilinged rooms, meant, I supposed, to be the maids' quarters. They resembled the sort of cheap hotel a runaway might find in Paris, not now, but in a different century, and you could imagine church bells sounding as the morning sun poured over a wooden dresser. In one room, I saw a woman, dressed in a tiny black dress and lace-up boots, sitting on a cot-like bed, sucking in huge gulps of air filled with fear and pleasure. Two others, like herself skinny and austere, stood above her, to the left a pale man, slight and effeminate, to the right a black woman with dozens of braids. But what made me stop and stand abruptly in the doorway of the little room was the rope the "butler" was uncoiling. It was long and coarse and silver. On the bed, the small woman breathed harder as they gently leaned her back, and her short blond hair looked almost slick from perspiring. I stared intently at those wrists as the delicate man took his time, flipping the cord once, then twice, three times around the bed frame. Alternately, her hand grew tense, fumbled for the rope, then dangled. And when they unlaced her boots and coiled that rope around her ankles, her whole body grew hard, then slack, as she alternately struggled and surrendered. Her captors moved more and more deliberately, while they strapped her down and contemplated what was next, and I knew then, as I watched the scene unfolding, that somehow, before I headed home that night, I would beg for something.

The farther back you went, the darker it became. One room - it must have been intended as the master's suite - was lit with red. A smooth-skinned white man with long muscles and brown curls was lying naked on the bed, perfectly immobile. Across the room another man, this one Asian and stocky, sat squarely in a plush arm chair, his skin bathed in the red light, watching.

Then as the little hallway turned sharply, a sort of lobby, itself much brighter, served to introduce the darkest room of any. Its double doors were open, but the high-ceilinged, final space was too dark at first to see in. Its walls were painted black, its rugless floor solid shadow. What was this? I conjectured; the stable? Or the cellar? Leaning up against the door frame, peering in, I could make out nothing but what seemed like extra roof beams criss-crossing in the corners, several high black benches and a few vague pairs of people. I could hear a shuffling, I could feel a blast of ventilation, but I couldn't see what they were doing.

Just then, fast like an accident, sudden like a theft, the sort of shock or disaster that produces a groan in your rib cage and a whiteness in your mind - erasure - I felt a bruising grip around my wrist and a yanking at my arm. Someone had pulled me into the darkness. I stumbled, barely righting myself before falling face first to the floor. A knee was forced between my thighs, hands at my shoulders as if bolting me to the wall. It all had the fury and speed of a raid. I caught a breath, like the silence after sirens pass, and closed my eyes. "Yes," I said aloud, though I had no idea to what. This, whatever this was going to be, was what I wanted.

P r e v i o u s C h a p t e r s

B y M a r t h a B a e r

A r t b y D. U r b a n k a n d J. M o s e s


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