Trigger Warning: This essay mentions rape.
By Joan Wilking
The job was supposed to take just a couple of days; we’d been there four. The inside of the club had already been painted flat black like a chalkboard. We added the dayglow lightning bolts, a moon face, and a rising sun with multi-color rays meant to mind-fuck the drugged and drunk hippies who would soon be whirling dervishes on the dance floor under pulsating black lights. It all looked pretty shabby during the day, but come nighttime – magic. We cleaned up our mess and asked to be paid.
“There’s still the billboard,” the owner said.
“That wasn’t part of the deal,” my roommate said.
She was small but tough. One of her eyes was a little off. More so when she was mad.
“Three hundred bucks,” she said. “That was the deal.”
“Three fifty if you do the billboard.”
“Four hundred,” she said.
“Three seventy-five, then.”
It was 1967. She was the one who got us the job. I didn’t know the guy. He was a friend of a friend who sold her some pot. He wore fitted black shirts and gold chains and had a voice that sounded like he ate nails for breakfast. He walked us outside. The club was in an industrial building on the New Jersey side of the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia, where we lived. The highway was a truck route. Semis and tractor-trailers flew by, spewing exhaust fumes. The billboard looked homemade, the supports were rickety. It was smaller than a real billboard, more of a big rectangular sign. It was July. So hot and humid I started and ended each day soaked in sweat.
The guy said, “I want black with a big fluorescent rainbow and a yellow arrow pointing at the club. No name.” He described the rainbow’s arc with a sweep of his hand and added, “The radio ads will pull the suckers in.”
“How are we supposed to get up there?” I said.
He left and returned with a couple of wooden ladders. We each took a side.
We were just out of college, young and thin with tight tits and asses, which, in our tank tops and short shorts, were much appreciated by passing truckers who catcalled and blasted their air horns throughout the blistering afternoon. By the time we climbed down we were sun burnt and verging on heatstroke. When we stood back to get a look at the billboard I reeled, dizzy from the heat.
“It sucks,” I said.
The damned thing looked like it had been painted by amateurs, which we were.
“It’ll be fine at night,” my roommate said. “Let’s go get our money and get out of here.”
The place inside looked as slapped together as the billboard. A couple of sketchy guys with big necks and biceps were helping the boss set up a makeshift bar. Not the high-class operation we expected at the start. A disappointment since we had hoped the job would break us into doing interiors for the burgeoning music scene. It was a scene but we suspected it had very little to do with music. The way the place was set up made me wonder when the stripper poles were being delivered.
“We’re done,” my roommate said.
“Good for you,” the boss said and winked at me. “You want a drink?”
I was parched but before I could answer she said, “Just the money.”
“Look doll,” the guy said. “I’ve got a little problem. The financing I was expecting today didn’t come through.”
“What the fuck,” she said, her weird eye going squirrelly.
I could feel the burn on my shoulders sizzling. I watched one of the guys pop the top off a bottle of Coke and suck half of it down.
My roommate planted her hands on her hips and pulled herself up to her full five feet. I tried to hide behind her, acting nonchalant. The boss looked like someone you didn’t want to piss off regardless of whether he owed you money.
“We’re not leaving until we get paid,” she said, “And if we don’t get paid, we’re going to go out there and tear that billboard down.”
The boss grumbled some expletives in a language I didn’t understand, walked behind the bar, felt around and pulled out something wrapped in a man’s white handkerchief, the kind with a hand stitched edge. He palmed it and opened the cloth to expose a chunk of hashish the size of a baseball.
“Fair trade?” he said.
Our eyes widened. It was the biggest lump of hash I’d ever seen. We looked at each other.
“Sure,” my roommate said.
“Don’t get too excited ladies,” he said and laughed. “I’m not giving you the whole thing.”
He put the hash on the bar, pulled a knife out of his pocket, cut the ball into quarters and handed her a chunk the size of a ping-pong ball. Still a good deal, considering, definitely more than three hundred and seventy-five dollars worth.
“Happy?” the guy said.
I could smell the tang of the hash. My roommate rolled it around in her hands to form it into a more cohesive ball and dropped it into the bag containing the paintbrushes we’d brought with us. She licked her palm.
“Good shit,” she said. “Pleasure doing business with you.”
I said nothing.
In the car on the way back I said, “Let’s make a pact. We don’t smoke it. We sell it.”
She was driving. She looked like a little kid hunched over the wheel of the Volvo station wagon her parents gave her. The car smelled of the hash. The prospect of being pulled over and busted felt very real as she wove through the rush hour traffic to get up to 21st and Pine, a couple of miles and a world away from the gang of thugs tapping kegs in Jersey.
I’d known my roommate since high school. We were the artsy kids. We cut school to go to the Museum of Fine Arts and got drunk at the shore. I threw up on a couple of my dates back then. We came from well to do families. My father was a name on the door of his law firm; hers owned a big stationary store downtown. Our mothers didn’t work. We fancied ourselves entrepreneurs. We were artists. We were going to live big lives, bigger lives than our staid parents. That summer our big lives started out with us crocheting teeny weeny chenille bikinis for our friend Ken’s boutique, where he pranced around in ladies stilettos he referred to as Joan Crawford come fuck me pumps, until he came out and his divorce and a lack of sales forced him to close the place down. That’s why we were scrambling to take any kind of artistic job we could find. We had to pay the rent.
Our apartment building was on the corner. The place was small but the ceilings were high and there was a lot of light. We were on the second floor. A long hall ran from one end to the other. The first door opened to the bedroom, the second to the bathroom. At the end was one big room that served as living room, dining room and kitchen. The kitchen was concealed behind accordion doors. We’d decorated. The wicker sofa and chairs came from the J&W thrift shop on South Street. There was a rug we picked out of the trash. Assorted lamps and tables and a rocking chair, we found in our parents basements. We’d bought rolls of black and white checkered contact paper and adhered it to the panels in the doors enclosing the kitchen.
When we got back I went to the bathroom. When I came out my roommate had a pipe out and was packing it with hash.
I said, “I thought…”
“Got to test the merchandise,” she said.
One bowl led to another. Word got out. Friends who weren’t really friends started showing up to smoke with us. At some point, I’m not sure how many days in, we started wearing crocheted cloches we’d made. Hers was red. Mine was green. We wore them outside, and inside, and to sleep.
The building next door housed a med student on one floor and an aspiring rock group on another. The rockers were sweet guys, really into their music. The med student was as uptight as they were open and relaxed. He had a long, tongue twister name.
“Greek, he said.
He came from a strict Greek Orthodox family. They had high standards he was expected to live up to. I told him my Jewish parents had high standards, too. Standards I was trying hard not to live up to. He frowned at that.
He was beefcake swarthy, not my type. He rubbed both of us the wrong way. He liked to come over, unannounced, to complain about the rockers, how they stomped around their apartment and came in late at night. He didn’t drink or smoke dope. He seemed oblivious to how high we were all the time. The rockers got it and appreciated the little balls of hash we doled out to them. One of our friends told me later she started getting worried when, instead of throwing the trash away, we started gluing the cereal boxes, soup cans and Ramen packages to the walls.
A week or two into our hash binge the Greek came over and plopped down in our rocking chair. We were annoyed because we were dressing to go out. He liked to sit in that chair and talk about himself, about med school, the expectations his family had for him, how becoming a doctor was his ticket to success, that kind of thing. We tolerated him, but we didn’t like him. We stood in our bedroom, my roommate in her red hat, me in my green.
“I think it’s time we got him stoned,” she said.
I stuck my head out and looked down the hall. He was rocking away.
“Good luck,” I said.
She went into the front room and I followed. It was early evening, still light out. She pulled the hash and pipe down from the high shelf on the kitchen wall where we kept them hidden in an old tea tin. She packed the pipe, lit it, toked and handed it to me. The sweet stench filled the room.
“Here,” I said, “Try some of this.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” he said sounding smug. “I’ve smoked pot before. What a waste. I’m immune to the stuff.”
“Just try it,” I said and held the pipe to him.
He surprised me when he it took it and sucked hard. We waited for him to cough but nothing. He toked a couple of more times and handed the pipe back to me.
“See, I told you,” he said. “Nothing.”
We went back into the bedroom.
“Jesus,” my roommate said. “If I’d smoked that much all at once I’d be on my ass.”
“I’m going to check on him,” I said.
He was still sitting. Still rocking. But he’d pulled the chair closer to the front windows.
“You okay?” I said.
He didn’t turn to me. He just kept starting intently down the street.
“Did you see that?” he said.
I walked closer to the windows.
“The big black birds. Did you see them?”
I looked down the street. No birds, just cars and the traffic light changing.
“You know,” he said. “I can fly.” His voice had lost all affect. It sounded far away and I wasn’t sure if it was him or me, because by then I was pretty stoned, too.
“I have an idea,” he said. “Get her back in here.”
I called out my roommate’s name. She came in and stood next to me.
“No, no, no,” he said. “You two have to stand back to back.”
So we did, which felt odd because he wasn’t looking at us.
“That’s what I thought. It won’t work.”
“What won’t work?” she said rolling her weird eye at me.
“You’re too light. But I bet if you carry the suitcase we can even the weight out.”
“To do what?” I said.
He was still sitting, still rocking, staring out the window.
“To fly to Atlantic City,” he said. “You’ll hold onto one of my arms. She’ll carry the suitcase and hold onto the other. I’ll fly you down there.”
We were speechless. He sounded so calm, so serious. My roommate grabbed me and pulled me into the hallway. We stood about halfway down so we could see him.
“What the fuck?” she said.
I said, “And he’s studying to be a shrink.”
“I think he’s seriously crazy,” she said.
“I think he’s royally stoned.”
When he stood up, we rushed back into the room. I think we were thinking the same thing. What if he tried to fly out the window?
“You ready?” he said as though we were all going out to dinner. Then to my roommate, “Where’s the suitcase. We need the suitcase for the weight. I’m going to have to get a running start. You’ll have to keep up with me.”
“How about I make you a cup of tea,” I said.
She looked at me like I was the one who was nuts. I shrugged. It was the only thing I could think of to distract him.
She said, “You’re stoned man, you can’t fly. You’re just stoned. It’s the hash.”
He cocked is head and the look on his face was so distraught I thought he was going to cry.
She said, “Oh great.”
He stumbled backwards, back down into the rocking chair. I put the kettle on and made tea, some smoky Lapsang Souchong, which he refused. For the next couple of hours we sat sipping tea and watching him rock. Every once in a while he’d say, “There goes another one.”
“Another what?” my roommate asked but he never answered. I assumed it was one of the big black birds.
By eleven o’clock she was fed up. The night we’d planned was ruined. He was rocking and we were wondering how long it would take for the hash to wear off. We were both starting to come down. We’d smoked so much, so steadily, for so long, we were on a functional level of perpetual slow motion high. He was ossified.
“You go,” I told her. “I’m going to see if I can get him up and walk him next door.”
“You sure?” she said but didn’t wait for an answer.
I puttered around the apartment while he rocked. I thought about calling the poison control hotline but didn’t want to draw attention to us that might bring the police or queer things for him at the medical school. It got to be midnight, then one, then two.
“Hey, I said. You’ve got to help me get you out of here. You’ve got class in the morning.”
That seemed to perk him up.
“I’m going to walk you home.”
He stood up and walked over to the window and pressed his palms to the glass panes. I never paid much attention before to how big he was. Muscular. Big hands.
“Do you believe what’s going on down there?” he said. “There’s so much going on that nobody else can see, nobody but you and me.”
I gently pulled at his arm. My hand felt tiny on his bicep and that kind of turned me on. He looked pretty good. Mysterious, stoned like that. He could be a catch. He was going to be a doctor.
“Let’s get you home,” I said.
Out on the street it was a beautiful night. The heat had burned off of the day. The stars were out. The historical streetlights were on throwing a golden glow. It was only steps from my stoop to his, up a flight and into his apartment, which was small and messy and colorless. There were books and papers strewn everywhere. A suit jacket and tie hung over a chair in the kitchenette. He was starting to seem more with it. His body language changed as though being in his own space had jerked him back to reality.
“I’m tired,” he said. “I think we should lie down.”
I followed him to the bedroom. The bed was unmade. The sheets looked clean enough. He was age appropriate. He was going to make a lot of money someday. My parents would like that even though we were Jewish and he was Greek Orthodox. Then he looked at me and I realized that he hadn’t looked at either one of us all night. All the time he was talking about flying, he was staring out the window, watching the unnamed things fly by. I was in my usual uniform, tank top, cutoffs, the green hat holding my frizzy mane and hashish scrambled brain in.
“You know,” he said. “For a kyke you aren’t bad looking.”
He reached out and pressed his palm to my chest and pushed with such force that I fell backward onto the bed. He climbed on top of me and started to pull at my clothes. He was strong and heavy. It was hard to breathe. Fight or flight they say. But what do you do when neither is an option? I did nothing. I let him screw me. I didn’t participate and I didn’t resist. It wasn’t worth getting hurt. He had his forearm across my neck the entire time. It was just sex, sex that had nothing to do with me. When he was done he rolled off of me, onto his back, and slept like the dead. I lay there for a while. Stunned. I poked him a couple of times but he didn’t move and I wondered if he was dead, although he was breathing and smiling a little in his sleep. I was still pretty much dressed. I pulled up my panties, zipped my cutoffs and went home.
I never told my roommate. It was years before I told anyone. I’m still not sure what was more humiliating, the sex, which I can’t call rape because I never said no, never tried to stop him, or that he called me a kyke. The sex seemed less of an insult because I had a lot of sex in those days. It was before Looking for Mr.Goodbar. before AIDS. I thought nothing of staring a cute guy down in a bar and going home with him. I enjoyed the power I wielded, being able to do that.
We saw the Greek again, sometimes daily, going in and out of our buildings. He nodded but never leering or with so much as a wink to indicate he remembered that night. He never visited us again. We never talked about how stoned he was that night. We never talked. Eventually we all moved onto other lives. I fell in love and moved to the Cape, got married and had daughters and got divorced and had another daughter and moved again and worked and wrote and made pottery and retired to write more and make more pottery.
He graduated from medical school and did his residency in psychiatry in Boston. He married and opened a practice in one of the suburbs. He had sons. In the late 2000s his local paper reported: A state medical board on Wednesday indefinitely suspended an area psychiatrist’s right to renew his license, saying the doctor practiced medicine while impaired by mental instability. The board had been receiving complaints about him for years. A doctor friend of ours, who practiced at the hospital where he’d done his residency, knew him there and described him as strange. And I’ve always wondered. Did the hash make him crazy or was he already heading for the edge and we just helped to push him over it? The article about his suspension said he “practiced medicine… while severely depressed.” Were the black birds winging down the street in his nice neat suburban neighborhood all those years since he fucked me?
I never kept track of the men I had relationships with. I married and divorced one of them and haven’t kept track of him, except for what my daughters tell me. There have been others. I have no idea where they are. Friends have come and gone. Sometimes I’ve known where they were and sometimes I haven’t. My roommate and I lost touch for years. It’s only recently that we reconnected. But since that night, when the Greek thought he could fly and called me a kyke, not a day has gone by that I haven’t known where he is. I’m sure a competent shrink could have a good time analyzing that.
Joan Wilking has been published in Brevity, New World Writing and The Manifest-Station. Her award-winning fiction has been published in numerous journals in print and online. This essay was inspired by the surge in outcry about the rape culture that has tainted so many women’s lives, including her own.