I crossed paths with the porn star Nina Hartley in the months just prior to my wife leaving me. I’d gone to an appearance she made at Fantasy Adult Video and asked her to sign a copy of the Boogie Nights soundtrack as part of a wedding present for a friend. He wasn’t really into porn—I was into porn. The present was an excuse to get Nina Hartley to sit on my lap and pay ten dollars to have a Polaroid taken for later perusal. I was a teenager during the late 70’s and early 80’s, so this was a woman whose movies I’d spent my formative years jerking off to and feeling shameful about. Nina Hartley loomed large in my sexual mythology. Maybe a small, stunted part of me was still stuck in that place, hunkered down in front of the family TV at 3am, watching Nina Hartley riding John Holmes on the Beta-Max machine, adolescent dick in hand, hoping no one would wake up and find me like that—paranoid, guilt-ridden, excited, watching the movie, watching my back, feeling freakish, stopping, starting, listening for footsteps in the hall, a doorknob turning, a cough. Nina Hartley moaning. Nina Hartley with that massive cock in her mouth. Nina Hartley bending over and showing acres of ass. My heart pounding in my throat, excited, dizzy, coming on the carpet like a halfwit dog—Oh God did mom just get out of bed to use the bathroom? Wedding present for a friend, check.
“Lance will get a kick out of it,” I told my wife.
“I think we know who’s going to get a kick out of it,” she said.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” I told her.
I brought along one of my paintings to give to Nina. It was a nude.
“Wow, she looks just like me!” Nina said.
“I know. It’s funny, isn’t it?”
“I love it!” She waved her P.R. guy over. “This is my new friend. He made me this painting. Take a picture of us.”
He took a picture of us, our arms around each other, holding up the painting of the naked lady, grinning.
“I’m going to put that on my website,” she said.
I didn’t have a computer. I didn’t really know what a website was. “Hey, is it true that you were a nurse before you got into porn?”
“I was a nursing student. Porn was how I put myself through school. But porn paid a lot better than nursing, so porn won out.”
“I saw you play a nurse in a movie once.”
“Oh, yeah, I play a good naughty nurse.”
“Well, thanks, Nina.”
“Hey, let me give you my card. I’m directing now and I’m always looking for art to dress the set with so there’s something to look at besides people fucking.”
“Do people want more than that?”
“Not really, but I like it.”
She wasn’t wearing anything you could carry a business card in, so she waved the P.R. guy over again and he gave me one.
“My address is on there,” she said. “Send me some art. Maybe I’ll be able use it in a movie.”
“Alright, I’ll do that.”
“I know you will,” she said.
There was a small army creepers queued up behind me, all wanting autographs and photos. Nina gave me a kiss on the cheek and signed my Boogie Nights soundtrack. Boogie Nights was a mainstream Hollywood film in which Nina had a small part, playing a woman in the porn biz who drives her sap of a husband to suicide. She wasn’t half bad in it. I thanked her and got out of there, holding the movie over my crotch to hide the hard-on.
I told my wife about it when I got back to the apartment.
“She gave you her business card?”
“Yeah. My paintings in a porn film—think about it. Nina Hartley will be on a couch with all of her orifices filled, cum will be flying, and right there on the wall behind her will be one of my paintings—maybe a nude of you.”
“Great, our finest hour.”
“I know, it’s absurd. It’s perfect.”
“Nice Polaroid. I like how she inscribed it.”
“For Butt Boy, yeah. I’m not sure what that’s about.”
“She’s looking a little long in the tooth.”
“Well, yeah, she’s in her forties now—but look at what the tooth is attached to.”
“I can see what the tooth’s attached to, Butt Boy.”
“I’ll race you to the shower,” she said.
My wife was gone now, but I still had Nina Hartley’s card in my wallet. I opened a bottle of wine and drank it while listening to old records. I fished out Nina’s business card. It had a tiny drawing of a naked lady on it. It said, Nina Hartley: Actress. There was a mailing address. Her phone number was on there, too. I opened another bottle of wine and started to put together a package to send her. I rolled up four or five of my paintings and put them in a mailing tube. I put half a dozen erotic drawings in there, and an old watercolor of my wife for good measure. I wrote a long unpunctuated letter using a ballpoint pen and mentioned that my wife had recently left me and that I was drinking wine and listening to old records but the old records weren’t doing it for me anymore and I had opened yet another bottle of wine and was now listening mostly to my fear and thinking seriously about jumping out the window with a rope around my neck because what did I have to live for really pushing forty and stuck in the service industry and I’d better turn off that voice and go back to music or give the cats a bath or religion a shot before something bad happened and I hoped to see my paintings in a skin-flick some grand day before I died and that my wife’s name was Tia and she had raven black hair and the most amazingly beautiful eyes I had ever seen…
I signed the letter, stuck it in the tube with the paintings and drawings, sealed the ends with duct tape, addressed it, pasted an entire book of stamps on, and set it outside my door for the mailman to pick up. I loved that the mailman had a key to the building. It was magical. You licked a stamp, put a piece of yourself in the hall, and the following day it was on its way out and into the world—message in a bottle style. Maybe it would get lost in transit. Maybe some twelve year old boy would find that tube washed up on a beach somewhere on the other side of the globe, jerk off all over it, and feel weird about the whole thing.
I got on the landline and called Tina. It was 4am. She didn’t answer. Anger came first, followed by grief, then panic, and I hung up and smashed my head against the wall hard enough to put a hole through the plaster. This is going to cost me, I thought. I felt wavy, ghost-like. The music was loud. I wasn’t sure whose it was, or if it was coming from the inside or out. My vision blurred and the room swam away.
I woke up on the floor the following afternoon, dried blood in my hair, on my face and hands. The telephone was off the hook, the receiver next to my head. “Your call cannot be completed as dialed. If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and dial again…” I hung up and went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror and said, “Boo.” Looked again. “Oh, shit.” I heard the mailman in the hall, felt my heart seize, and made a run for the front door.
“I need that back!”
The mailman jolted, dropped my package, and wheeled around. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
I felt like an ass. “Take it,” I told him. “Whatever will be will be.”
He stared at the blood in my hair. I was in my underwear. He bent down while maintaining eye contact, picked up the tube, pushed his hat back, and opened his mouth to speak, but didn’t.
I thought that was nice of him.
Marcus was over, chopping up tabs of dilaudid. We were going to see a band later that evening. We were preparing ourselves for nothing special.
“This stuff has a different effect when you snort it,” he said. “There’s more of a rush. You might want to start with this small line here.”
He handed me the mirror. There were six or seven lines laid out. I did the small one, looked at the ceiling, and immediately did two of the super-sized lines. Marcus made a face.
“You already like this shit too much.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty good this way.”
“You should put some music on.”
I walked over to the stereo. A person can live without many things, but a stereo isn’t one of them. I put on Methodrone, by the Brian Jonestown Massacre, dropped the needle down, turned the volume up.
“This is good,” Marcus said.
“Should we do the rest?”
“What’s this band we’re going to see, anyway?”
We ended up in a Chinese restaurant downtown. It was just a movie to me, colors, smoke, swirling lights, people weaving in and out and around me. I was swaying along with it all—peaceful, distant, detached—feeling good, feeling groovy, keeping my cool, wondering what kind of music we were in for. I had a bag of mushrooms in my pocket. I pulled out two small caps, gave one to Marcus, and ate the other one myself. Snorting dilaudid was okay. I was relaxed, elated. I didn’t have a care in the world and I felt no pain. It was a nice feeling, much better than when you swallowed the stuff. Then a one man band began to play.
It was Experimental Music.
I began blowing massive amounts of money I didn’t have at a club called Magic Garden. The girls there weren’t the plasticized porn dolls you saw in the more upscale places around town. They had their own individual style and talents. Best of all, they played and danced to whatever music they wanted, and most of them had great taste in music. To hear Billie Holiday or Edith Piaf was not unusual, or the Stooges, or Roxy Music, or Tiny Tim. I was there because I was lost and out of my mind lonesome, but the music was a bonus. I became an instant regular. I’d get off work and head straight over. I got to know the bartender real quick. She was old and her name was Patty and when I got drunk enough she reminded me of my grandmother and I’d get a little teary eyed and hide it. She called me honey, and she called me sweetie, and because I was a good tipper and an obviously harmless fellow fringe dweller, the girls began doing likewise. “Hi, Sweetie. Hi, honey.” It made me feel better about myself. “It’s okay,” they’d say to new bouncers after last call was called and the doors were locked. “He’s one of us.” So I’d often stay, sometimes till dawn—and have to function at work the following day.
I was in there on a Tuesday night, perfectly high, when I first laid eyes on Leticia Blake. She was slim and snake-like, slow-mo hypnotic, all legs and hair and big dark eyes that locked onto mine. She finished her set and I moved from the rack to the bar, hoping she’d join me there—and she did. I asked her what she was doing later, because I was on that perfect blue cloud, and it gave me a careless courage, and I knew we were on the same page.
“I have to move my shit out of my boyfriend’s place,” she said.
“What about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow I’m going to the coast to visit a friend.”
“What are you doing Thursday?”
“Thursday I’m doing something with you.” She laughed.
“What would you like to do?”
“I’d like to teach the world to sing,” she said, and grinned and straightened her back.
“Sounds good, Audrey.”
“I’m only Audrey when I’m dancing. My real name is Leticia. Call me Leticia.”
“Leticia. How do I get a hold of you?”
“Let’s meet somewhere—in the daytime.”
“Wanna go to Powell’s? I’ll buy you a book.”
“I think they’re on strike over there.”
“You won’t cross a picket-line for me?”
“Sure, I’ll cross a picket-line for you.”
“Why are you being so nice to me?”
“Because your eyes are pinned.”
“Is that all it takes?” I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.
“No, but I can tell you’re not a creep. I meet a lot of creeps. You’re kinda sweet.”
“My boyfriend doesn’t think so.”
“I’ve been with him for seven years.”
“That’s a long time.”
“He’s my husband, if you wanna know. I’ve been with him since I was twenty. We’re separating.”
“It’s hard, isn’t it?”
“Can I buy you another drink?”
“All right. But only for pretend.”
“Cheers,” I said, and we clinked our empty glasses. She was sitting up against me, in panties and bra, in thigh high black leather go-go boots. My cock felt like a fist balled up in my pants.
“Cheers,” she said. “This next one is for you.”
She put on a song I hadn’t heard in years. I moved to the rack with my ten dollars. She leaned over, letting her long black hair brush my face. She smelled like a flower.
“Keep your money,” she said.
The following evening I got a phone call from Tia. I was on the couch with my cats, a glass of wine in my hand, glazed over and gazing inward, listening to post-modern psychedelic music and picking the lint from my navel.
“Hi, it’s me.”
“Hey, how are you?”
“Where have you been?”
“I’ve been right here.”
“No you haven’t. I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for days.”
“I’ve been around—why?”
“I’ve been worried about you. You haven’t called since that message you left. I came looking for you last night, I thought you were dead.”
“Why would I be dead?”
“Something’s going on with you.”
“You sound funny. Are you on something?”
“Am I on something?”
“That message you left was fucking bullshit.”
“You know goddamned well what message.”
I looked at the hole in the wall above the phone stand. Something stirred in my memory, rolled over and groaned. I scratched the scab on my forehead, felt the goose egg there. Felt guilt. “Listen, whatever I may have said, I’m sorry, alright?”
“You made it sound like you were going to kill yourself. You were saying goodbye.”
“I was drunk. I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.”
“You’re always drunk.”
“That’s what happens when you’re fucking wife leaves you.”
“I was in your apartment last night.”
“What were you doing in my apartment?”
“I was looking for you. I still have the keys you told me to keep. I thought you were dead in there!”
“I was alive—elsewhere.”
“You got a call from Nina Hartley.”
“Last night, when I was sitting in your apartment, fucking crying, she called.”
“What did she want?”
“She wanted to talk to you.”
“Your paintings or something. I don’t know, I was crying.”
“What do you mean, you were crying?”
“I looked all over town for you. I called everyone!”
“I was fine.”
“You hadn’t been home in days. Craig told me so.”
Craig was my apartment manager. He lived in the unit above mine. His floor was my ceiling. He was a stoner, rolled an immaculate joint, played his music really loud, which allowed me to do likewise, and he never bothered me about the rent being late. The rent was always late. He never fixed anything. We had a quiet understanding. My wife was friends with him, too. In fact, Craig knew she was leaving me before I did. She used him as a reference while looking for a new place to live. He never gave me a heads up on that.
“Sometimes I don’t come home,” I told her, because I didn’t want to tell her I was afraid to be alone most nights, and that the city was full of others just me.
“Are you seeing someone?”
“What the hell do you care?”
“Where do you go?”
“I have friends, you know. I’m not a hermit.”
“She’s really nice.”
“Nina Hartley, she was nice.”
“She was really supportive.”
“Supportive of what?”
“She could hear I was upset. We talked.”
“You talked about what?”
“She helped me calm down.”
“What exactly did you talk about?”
“You, that message—everything!”
“Okay, I understand.”
“Do you?” she said.
“Do you have to italicize everything?”
“Did she say she’d call back?”
There was the sound of smashing glass, and the line went dead. I reached for a ballpoint pen, snatched a piece of paper from the floor.
It didn’t do fuck-all for my depression, but one thing I began to notice about the Paxil I was taking was that it prolonged my erections. I’d get hard and stay hard—over nothing sometimes. I’d lay there alone in my Queen-sized yard sale hospital bed on wheels, homesick for Tia, feeling the sadness of that, and the fear, and bam, it would happen. A three hour erection. I’d whack and whack at that thing to no avail. I’d roll onto my side and try to ignore it. I’d think about my impacted wisdom tooth, focus on that.
I finally looked it up. There was a word for it. Priapism: a prolonged, painful erection. It affected only a small percentage of users, but it was one of the possible side-effects of Paxil. I thought it might come in handy when I saw Leticia on Thursday. I wondered how that would play out. I wondered if Nina Hartley was going to call back. I wondered if my erection would ever go away, and if not, how I could best use it to my advantage…
I’d been sleeping in the living room since Tia had left. I rolled my bed out there. The bedroom was now just a place to store my paintings. On the wall above the bed I’d taped up all the photos I had of her. Tina at the beach. Tia on the mountain. Tia standing in the rain. Tia on an El platform in Chicago. Tia in the kitchen with a can of RAID. Tia throwing an unopened can of marinara sauce at a fire in the bedroom. Tia jamming an Easter egg into her mouth at the age of five. It looked like a shrine and it frightened me in my more objective moments. At other times it was a comfort. Mostly, it made me sad. I made some paintings of her, and hung those up, too. The Church of Tina. My friends thought I was bonkers, but I rarely had friends over anymore. The people who stopped by were strangers for the most part—drinking buddies, drug dealers, musicians, fuck-ups I met in bars. They didn’t give a shit what I had hanging on my walls. I liked that about them.
“Dude, that is so fucked up.” Toxic Scott was over with his nurse girlfriend. Scott was a quasi friend of mine. I called him Toxic because he always looked like he was dying, but I only called him that when he wasn’t around. I’m sure he had a nickname for me. He was looking at my wall. The nurse was too. I’d recently gotten a couch and a coffee table from a regular at the bar where I worked. They had once been the epicenter of his studio apartment. He got married and moved them into the basement of the house he bought. He reconstructed the living room of his bachelor pad down there. The coffee table, lamps, stereo, records, posters, pool sticks. The big old gaudy couch. His wife got fed up because he spent too much time down there. She made him get rid of the stuff. “She wants it out by the end of the day. Take this shit, will you?”
So I did, and now Scott and the nurse were sitting on the couch, drinking beer.
I scratched my head. “How do like that couch?” I was sitting on the unmade bed. My cats were staring at us.
“It’s comfortable,” Scott said.
“It’s leather,” I told him.
“White leather,” the nurse said. “It’s straight out of the eighties.”
“That’s true. I got it for free.”
“Nice coffee table,” she said. “You should maybe clean it off, though.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
“Those photos on your wall, that’s really fucked up,” Scott said.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I said.
“Be nice, Scott,” the nurse said.
“Yeah,” I said, “be nice, Scott.”
“She’s pretty,” the nurse said.
“She’s my wife,” I said.
“Oh, Christ, let’s get out of here,” Scott said.
“My name is Heather,” the nurse said. “Scott has no manners.”
“Sorry,” Scott said. “I should have introduced you.”
“Nice to meet you, Heather.” Heather was hot. Heather was a nurse.
“It’s nice to meet you, too. I was married once.”
“I was married for twelve years.”
Scott cleared his throat.
Heather began to tear up.
“Oh, Christ.” Scott said.
We got out of there and went to a bar.
It was karaoke night at Suki’s and we sat at a table in the back and waited for our names to be called.