Fiction | March 01, 2003
Wired for Life
JANIE MET THE ELECTRICIAN Charlie Song in August. The AC adapter to her laptop had frayed, and the connection kept failing. Thus, she was forced to jiggle the plug until the current returned, at which point she would have to remain very still for many minutes at a time—she worked with the laptop on her actual lap, which was ridiculous, she knew, pathetic, but there you had it-lest the sadistic plug icon disappear and the machine revert to battery mode, which was supposed to last six hours but which ran down (and this Janie had timed) in seventeen and a half minutes. It was a little like being a hostage.
Charlie Song’s shop was on a stretch of Mass Avenue that was constantly being torn up. Great chunks of asphalt lay about, while men in hard hats and dirty shirts murmured into cell phones. They were hostages, too, though they seemed somewhat liberated by their proximity to loud and senseless destruction.
Inside the shop, dozens of computers had been disemboweled. The remains were so: dusty circuit boards, magnets, stripped screws, woofers like little black eggcups. Keyboards dangled from their cords. Had Torquemada worked in the high-tech medium, this would have been his style.
From the back of the shop, Charlie Song emerged, weaving through the lifeless monitors. He was middle-aged, the color of a weak varnish. He smiled, shyly, as if embarrassed by the size of his teeth.
You need help?
Janie said yes and began to explain her situation, rather too elaborately, while Charlie Song nodded and blinked.
Right, Janie said.
Charlie played the plug between the tips of his fingers. He licked his lips.
Okay. We try. Thursday.
Oh no, Janie said. I mean, if there’s any possible way, see, all my work is on the computer, I’m a designer and I’ve got these projects, deadlines, so if there’s any way, I could even wait—
Charlie nodded. It was a complex nod, one that seemed utterly to dismiss Janie’s words and yet somehow (was it the mournful aversion of the eyes, the slightly injured stoop?) to acknowledge the panic behind them. He carried the adapter to his work table.
A pair of pliers appeared in his hand. With these he snipped the cord and peeled back the black casing to expose the wires. The spot where the connection had frayed looked like a tiny copper fright wig. Charlie gazed at it and let out a sigh and played at the filaments with rib. Then he turned on the ancient contraption—something like a whisk—at the center of his table.
Is that a welder? Janie said.
Charlie Song said, Sadder.
Sadder. Sadder gun.
Janie wanted to ask him what did he mean, sadder gun? She had head of a warm gun, a Gatling gun, even a love gun—and now she thought of Drew, her beautiful boyfriend, whose beautiful love gun she would not be sucking this evening, nor receiving inside her with delicious slow-and-hurried difficulty, but which would, instead, lie tremendous and pink across his thigh while she quietly pleasured herself and wept, there in the dark, quietly. Charlie pulled a spool of silver from his desk drawer, and right there on the label was the word he had been trying to say: solder.
He grazed the shaft of the gun against an old sponge and listened to the feint hiss. The tip came against the thread, and the solder dissolved into a shiny glob and released a coil of white smoke. Charlie touched at the glob with great tenderness. It was a tricky business, coaxing the wet solder into the space where the wires had come apart. The muscles between his knuckles tensed. His tongue dabbed, a bit rakishly, at his upper lip.
Janie felt she should use the occasion to learn a new skill. She might her own adapter the next time it broke. But there was something else. It dawned on her, as Charlie gently replaced the solder its holster and pressed the fused wires to the ohmmeter and watched the needles happily bounce, that she was … how to put this? Well, there was no other way—the flush of blood, the sudden moist warmth and down-below pulse—turned on.
* * *
He was so precise, Janie said. Like a surgeon.
Drew nodded. Isn’t it amazing, he said, how hypnotizing the simplest repetitive motions can be? I used to watch my grandpa whittle for hours.
He took a bite of fried dumpling, and Janie gazed at his glistening lips, the boyish enthusiasm of his chewing, and at his sideburns, which she’d had to beg him to grow out. They looked devastating.
Yeah, it was like he had this touch, you know. Janie paused. Almost like a sensual thing.
She wanted to elaborate, wanted this terribly, but Drew had stopped chewing. His eyes began to narrow with dread, and she knew that anything more she said would be construed as an unacknowledged passive-aggressive attack because Drew didn’t happen to feel comfortable expressing himself physically. Or as Janie sometimes put it after a glass of wine with friends: he refuses to fuck me.
Three years before, when she and Drew had met, this had not been an issue. They’d had sex then, not as much as she would have liked (never as much as she would have liked), but she felt this was somehow only fair because he was so beautiful, after all, even his cock was beautiful, venous, unwavering, with its soft swollen head like an Italian plum, and she so thrilled to the music of his body and the sweet painful inconvenience of love between them, and told herself that such gifts were not to be gone at greedily. He was a good lover, too, generous in the modern fashion, determined to bring her off, though he tended to shy from his own pleasure.
All of which memorialized the occasions when he slid come, when he would let her suck or stroke to the end, the prodigious and sticky end, which wrenched him free of his poise and brought the blood to his skin and the ooze of him down her chin or thighs and the final weepy shuddering. He held her so violently in these moments, she felt sure he would crush her ribs, that they would perish together, ecstatic and doomed.
Drew was starting in on the cashew chicken, asking her if she wanted green tea. It’s good for the lymphatic system, he said, gesturing with the pot. His eyes were so lambent, Janie wanted to poke one with a chopstick.
Whatever it was, the danger of vulnerability, some past trauma, a chemical deficit—whatever—the sex had diminished. He had grown more and more uncomfortable with contact, until she wasn’t allowed to touch him in suggestive places at all; his body would go cold and flat. She finally convinced him to attend couples therapy with Dr. Dumas, who spoke with great fluency about libido dynamics and intimacy paradigms and asked them to engage in tummy therapy (circle the lower abdomen, please, with just the tips of the thumbs), a ritual they both considered so humiliating that they had agreed, without actually discussing the matter, to stop seeing her.
Now Janie worried this topic, the Drew-won’t-fuck-me-touch-me topic, all the time, on the phone, to her friends, and when she hung up the cuff of her ear hurt. They always told her the same thing: get out, get out, get out. Or: have an affair, call an old boyfriend, that one who used to play in the new wave band, just to see, you’ve got to. They pleaded with her, keened at her, and she agreed with them, made little vows and planned her speech. But then she would actually see Drew, the cleft in his chin and the long, elegant hands, and this would completely fuck her up.
She was becoming a person she hated.
Besides, her friends, with their chintzy Cosmo-girl-empowerment shtick—she had seen them in Drew’s presence, the way they fussed and preened and found excuses to touch him. Is that a new watch? I never noticed that freckle. Once she had walked in on a scene in which Margo and Ali seemed to be asking Drew if he had ever seen their nipples, and would he like to, a charge they denied with much forced laughter.
Janie was a set designer. It was her job to make things look perfect, and that was at least part of the problem. Drew looked perfect. When they entered a party, there was always a brief hush, a flurry of swung necks and murmurs.
On Sunday mornings, he sat in the bay window with his tea and his cat, a stray he had named Clawed Rains, and the sun scrolled down his face, and Janie tried to determine if she would still love him if she were blind, and the answer was, well, she was pretty sure. Drew was funny and self-deprecating, and he could dance, he was graceful. (Often, as she set about a new design, she would envision Drew waltzing her under the house lights.) There was a decency about him. He designed curricula for at-risk kids, a little tiresome on the subject, yes, but committed. Noble.
But the point, the point, she wasn’t blind, thank God, and oh, dear God, he was good looking. He was another species. He was Elvis, Elvis in his soldier days, with the Egyptian profile and the crew cut, only Drew was pale and something Janie wanted to call ruddy, kind of pink and splotched, which sounded bad, but on him, on his particular person, his face, and the veins that stood out on his inner arms, and his calves and his muscled strawberry of an ass…
He was Scottish. Andrew Coletart, Drew. His people were ugly people, the Coletarts, mule-faced and benevolent. Every time Janie looked at Mrs. Coletart (whom she privately thought of as Mrs. Muletart), she thought: how could this be? How could this creature have sprung from your loins?
This was how she managed the whole affair: she relied on her own shame, her inexhaustible shame, and converted his rejection into something bearable by assuming that she was at fault, that she’d pushed too hard for his love or wasn’t pretty enough for him or smelled funny. He had asked her once why she didn’t wear perfume more, and now she was convinced that she smelled funny, funny down there, and washed obsessively and even douched, and it was odd, really, because her old boyfriend, not the new wave bassist but the one who taught preschool and whose fingers smelled of paste, he had told her how good she tasted, like the juice of tulips, and insisted that she taste herself on his tongue, and yeah, it was hokey—the juice of tulips, Christ—but every time he said it she felt a damp surge.
Drew had cleared the dishes and set a bowl of ice cream down in front of her. It looked like a lump of wet rust. Red bean, he said helpfully. He was into themed meals. Do you want hot fudge, babe? I can heat some.
Janie knew somewhere inside her that Drew loathed himself or didn’t really love her enough or was gay (themed meals?). But this part of her remained unconnected to the other part, which gazed at him, in his beauty and bearable kindness, and told herself to settle down if he didn’t want to hump for a while and quit being such a trollop.
In October the adapter began fritzing out again. Janie spent a week jiggling the cord and remaining frozen until some motion, a tic, a yawn, a sneeze, would cut the connection and she would curse very quietly, or sometimes louder, and once she even shoved Clawed Rains hard enough to send him thudding against the entertainment center.
Back she went to Charlie Song, but she arrived too early and had to stand on the sidewalk and watch the road crew, still joyously ripping up the street. One of the men straddled a jackhammer and flipped a switch, and suddenly the blade bit into the asphalt and the great tool sent violent shudderings through his body.
Charlie Song appeared a few minutes later, short and disheveled in the clattering sun. Wisps of black hair lay across his scalp. The flesh around his mouth was finely creased. He was nonplussed to find Janie waiting for him and entered the shop with his hands brushing the air before him, as if to clear away cobwebs.
Janie pulled out the adapter, and Charlie began his nimble inspection; he looked pained at the state of the cord, whitish at the rim of the coupler, like old licorice.
How you hold? You use rough? Janie said, No.
Charlie squinted. You hold funny?
Well, of course she did hold the machine funny, and this did lead, rather directly, to a severe bending of the cord. But she saw no reason to confess all this to Charlie Song.
The receipt says your work is under warranty, she said.
At the word warranty, Charlie shied away and his eyes welled into little pools of sullenness.
October, he said.
Janie nudged her boobs against the glass counter. The receipt says ninety days.
Charlie smiled miserably. He did not look at Janie, nor especially at her boobs, but carried the adapter with its cord dragging behind, set it down on his work table and disappeared into the back of the shop. He with his spool of solder and hunkered down before his “sadder” gun while Janie pretended not to notice. There was a delicious, excruciating aspect to the tableau.
The components in Charlie’s shop seemed now to be replicating: resistors and volt relays and hard drives in their shiny silver antimagnetized baggies, tangles of taffy-colored wire. The display rack nearest the door was stuffed with CD-ROMs covered in—Janie was almost sure of this—bird shit. On one shelf sat a small portable TV monitor. There, in the watery green light, was a man hunched over a desk, with the young woman looming over him. It took a moment for Janie to realize she was being filmed.
Charlie Song worked intently. He snipped the coupler and stripped the wires in his hands, his nicked, runty hands, moved with an extraordinary attention that seemed to Janie the most obvious and overlooked aspect of love. Charlie peered down at the thin silver bridge he had installed, the fissure was barely visible, but it was there, enough to current. He let his fingertip linger on the spot.
On with the sadder gun, and Charlie jumped up from his desk. He few moments later with a jar of water, into which he dipped the old sponge. Quite suddenly there was music in the shop as well, a Bach fugue, a mournful drift of violins, and Charlie dabbed the gun against the sponge and gathered solder at the tip, and Janie felt a sudden trill in the place where her thighs met. She understood now what they had been up to earlier; a kind of flirty spat, a kind of foreplay. The coils of smoke rose up from the dissolving solder. Charlie sneezed, three times in a row. Janie had to restrain herself from touching his cheek.
* * *
That night she went back on the promise she had made to herself, which was not to touch Drew till Halloween, nor to entice or seduce or cajole, but to let him come to her. Earlier, at Taco Loco, Drew had drunk not one, but two beers, and his mood had been buoyant as he discussed a new funding source for his truancy seminar. She was preoccupied by his breath, its bouquet of yeast and poblano chiles.
Now she slipped into bed in her camisole and reached out to touch the muscles along his spine. She was careful not to linger, to carry on her chatter. Drew listened to her and did not tense up, and he smelled sweet and gamy, and his hair was just oily enough to shine in the dull light from the alley, and he had, after all, drunk that second beer, so she let her hand slip down his back, then lip beneath the band of his boxers, at which point Drew murmured, Do you want to cuddle?
This was his new ploy: cuddling.
A stroke of genius for the truly sexually avoidant, it technically fulfilled the requirements of affection while providing none of the actual benefits. For Drew, cuddling meant she could spoon him, or he could spoon her, but if certain unspoken boundaries were crossed—say, playing with his earlobe or making a sudden grab for his scrotum—then it was no longer cuddling but had become pressure, which was bad, oh very bad, that pressure, the source of all their problems. It caused Drew to tense and begin speaking as if he were addressing a grant committee.
Still, she took the offer to cuddle. She took it and wrapped her body around his and stroked his shoulders in a manner she hoped would be deemed innocuous while simultaneously triggering the elusive chain reaction that would wake the blood within him.
She hugged Drew from behind. Her pubic bone—her poor, neglected pubic bone—pressed against his tailbone. His hair smelled like an herb garden. She kissed the back of his neck and let her lips linger until she felt the shifting muscles. He was turned on. At last he wanted her, and she reached for him, tugged at his hipbone, and the straps of her camisole slipped free, and her fingers skimmed his belly on the way down. But suddenly something clamped onto her wrist, sawed at the bone, and she heard Drew say, Dammit.
His body was a pale outline in the dark. We talked about this, he said.
Get away, Janie said, sobbing a little.
Which he did, of course, the clever bastard, and slept on the couch and in the morning sent Clawed Rains in as an emissary. Then he brought her breakfast on a tray.
I don’t want breakfast, Janie said. What do you want? he said.
She tipped the tray and watched skim milk soak her big, stupid tits.
Why are you doing this to me?
Drew sat on the edge of the bed and took her hand. I don’t know, he said quietly.
Are we ever going to touch again?
Give me time, Janie. I’m going through some changes.
What sort of changes? The sort that involve wanting to have sex with men?
Drew ran a hand through his hair, which still smelled like herbs. No, Janie. Nothing like that. I just don’t feel … He mumbled a word that sounded like sassy.
You don’t feel sassy? Is that what you said?
Sexy, Drew said. He rubbed his face with his hands. I don’t feel sexy.
Janie wanted very much to laugh. She wanted both to laugh and to run her tongue along the rim of his nostrils, which were flaring deliciously.
Is this some kind of joke, she said. Not sexy? You can’t possibly, do you have any idea, my God, you are one of the most, honey, look in the mirror.
Drew shrugged. I just don’t feel it.
Well, then let me feel it. I can prove it to you. She reached for his shoulder. We can take care of this right now. Please.
Drew refused to look at her. Instead, he began setting the overturned dishes back on the tray. That’s not how it works, honey. You have to feel it from the inside.
Janie wanted to tell him: No no. Wrong! That is how it works. Our sense of beauty comes from outside, from the world. We aren’t born feeling desirable, you lummox.
Please. Let me help you.
But his shoulder had gone dead under her touch, and now he was flashing her his adorable sulky underlip and asking: Can’t we just cuddle? Please, baby. Don’t give up on me. I’ll get it back.
* * *
Janie would realize only later that she had provoked the third visit to Charlie Song. It was the holiday season, which meant naked trees and slosh and a walloping case of seasonal affective disorder. She’d taken Drew to visit her folks for Christmas, which was really two trips, one to the Mother, the other to the Father, who, though technically cohabitating, lived on separate floors of a camphouse on Squam Lake and did not, as a rule, speak.
The mother had survived cancer. But the dark fog of decay had left her prone to eccentricity. She tottered down the shore, flanked by her Shih Tzus, cussing at the speedboats. She despaired of the rustling spruce. Winter had flayed the mountains around the lake and layered the roads with mulch. The silver bass slept in beds of frozen mud. Drew was magnificent. He chopped wood and beat hoarfrost off the granite shingles and helped the Father manage the terrifying new gas heater. He lumbered about in a mackinaw and a stocking cap with a look of dumb, radiant industry. The Mother and the Father adored Drew. They gazed at him with abject lust, competed for his attention and seemed to regard Janie as the lucky but not-quite-appreciative-enough recipient of a Lotto jackpot. They made loud, dithering comments about future family vacations. Eagerly, creepily, they transitioned from potential in-laws to groupies.
On the day after Christmas, Janie woke to the whinny of floorboards. The Mother laughed like a loon, delirious, absurd. Janie assumed she was being tossed by dreams. But then the Father produced a groan and the song of bedsprings began, and Janie decided she might just puke, that puking would certainly be justified in this instance. Drew lay on his back. His face was puffed a bit and softened around the cheekbones. She peeled back the comforter and watched his peaceful breathing. She imagined him flouncing through the Scottish highlands in a kilt, with nothing underneath, letting the fields of heather fan his lovely, pointless boner. Then she started packing.
Back in their apartment, Janie drank vodka tonics and tried not to cry. Clawed Raines mewed for attention and slid his gray gums along her knuckles. Janie tossed him away. But Clawed jumped back up and began to knead her lonesome boobs, and rather than comforting her, this persistence made Janie furious, and she flicked the cat, hard, with her index finger, right on his spongy little snout, which caused him to sneeze convulsively. This caused Janie to weep convulsively, and it began to snow outside, and the wind began to howl, and the phone rang and rang. She yanked at the coupler that attached the adapter to her laptop—viciously, rhythmically, while she made her choked little human sounds, until she felt the coupler snap.
Charlie’s shop was warm and cluttered; it smelled of cherry syrup or burned rubber, perhaps both. The man who appeared from in back was not Charlie Song but a younger, stockier fellow with an optimistic expression that Janie immediately resented. He spoke an earnest, hollow brand of English: customer servicese.
Where’s Charlie? Janie said. Who the hell are you?
It occurred to her that she had had too much to drink, though she was, pleasantly, drunk enough to forgive this perception.
The young man pushed up his spectacles. Charlie’s gone. May I help you with something?
What do you mean gone, Janie said. What does gone mean?
He’s running an errand. My name is Fred Lui. I’m his associate. Perhaps I can help you with something?
This is sort of a personal problem, Janie said. Fred cocked his head. Are you all right? he said.
Of course I’m all right. What sort of question is that? I just need a repair done, and Charlie is the one who’s done it previously, twice previously, and he asked me specifically, if I needed further assistance, as I understood the arrangement, I was to see him. Okay?
Fred held up his hands, as if he were being robbed. Okay, he said.
So Janie sat down amid the dingy keyboards and casings and springs and watched the snow fall on the road crew, who had constructed, by this time, a small crater.
The TV monitor was still on the shelf, and she glanced a few times at the tiny chrolophylled world which was her world, in which she was tucked, pretty and sad, in a far corner.
It was past five when Charlie appeared, and immediately Fred rose from behind the counter and began to speak to him in Chinese—she guessed it was Chinese. Charlie Song looked utterly ruined, with red under his eyes and his worn-out teeth.
Charlie, she said.
He was wearing a cap, some kind of foolish brimmed cap, and when he pulled it off, his hair rose up in black clefs.
Problem again? Why problem? I made good repair last time.
Janie straightened the hem of her dress. Yes. Of course you did. Charlie, please. It was my fault. I dropped the machine.
No warranty, Charlie said.
The flecks of snow on his coat had begun to soak through. Janie to throw a shawl over his shoulders.I was hoping we might discuss this—alone.
Charlie began shaking his head. No. No fix now. Very busy. You come back. January.
But Charlie, you know I wouldn’t ask unless it was an emergency. I’ll pay you. I can pay in cash. Janie took a step closer, and Charlie backed against the counter.
Holiday, he said.
Janie took another step forward, but Charlie ducked left, toward the back room, all the while shaking his head and saying: Comp USA. They have good technician there.
Please, Janie said. This won’t take long.
She began, then, to chase him, around the counter and through the thickets of zip drives and modems. Please. Charlie. Let’s not be like this. I need you—
Something caught in her throat. She was certain her face was a shiny and lurid thing. She’d put on lipstick and too much mascara, and she was wearing a gown, a fucking evening gown. The adapter was clutched to her bosom.
Fred looked on, mortified.
But Charlie, who was backed against a door which read Employe Only, with his hand on the knob, peered at Janie for a long moment. It was not a look of pity, exactly, but of some larger human recognition. Charlie scratched his nose and glanced at the floor; he muttered a few words to Fred in Chinese.
Okay, he said to Janie. We do. But last time. Last time. Of course, Janie said.
Fred said something plainly disapproving and put his windbreaker on and marched out of the shop. The two of them were, at last, alone. Charlie went to his desk, stripped the wires and fired up his sadder gun; the snow continued to fall. Outside, the workers lumbered home, and the air above the road took on the shimmer of tinsel, and Charlie twisted the strands of wire and soldered them to the bridge. Janie pulled up a stool and watched him.
Can we listen to music? she said.
Charlie shrugged. He seemed to recognize that something deeply unorthodox was transpiring and ducked into the back room. A few moments later Bach filled the store.
Janie did not speak as he worked, but she imagined what Charlie’s life might have been like, how he’d come to this country on a boat, probably a very small boat, or else wedged down at the bottom of a very large boat, and how he had struggled to open his own shop and now sent money back to his family in a place like Latsou or Kandong and how his wife had died, oh his poor wife, and this had left Charlie Song a widower and he lived in a small apartment with very few windows and had to cook for himself and sublimated all of his erotic impulses to his stunning repairs of RAM drives and disc defragmenters.
And this life, for such a considerate man, made Janie quite sad, for the alcohol inside her had begun to fade, and it left a yearning behind. Charlie was touching the wires to the ohmmeter; he didn’t notice Janie’s tears. She sniffed, finally, and he looked up in alarm.
No cry, he said. We fix. Make good connection.
He began searching the drawers of his desk and the countertop and glancing back at Janie. He was a good man—an ugly man, true, but nothing a little dental work couldn’t improve. Or maybe she would leave the teeth be. They gave him character.
Charlie returned, cradling something in his palm.
New coupler, he said. Flexible. He pressed the device with his thumb. Now you wired for life. No cry.
Janie’s heart began to jump, and she set her hand on Charlie’s cuff. He stared down at this hand while, with her other hand, Janie grazed his brow and brought her face close to his. She scooted her stool forward and took a lavish breath. Charlie remained very still, like a squirrel. The sadder gun was smoking, and Janie thought for a second about Drew, his beautiful bum, and imagined the terrible joy she might feel in soldering his hairless cleft shut, though you couldn’t really do that, could you?
Charlie was not moving.
Do you like me? Janie said. I like you, Charlie. Do you understand? She felt the tremors in his arms.
Pretty. Very pretty lady.
Would you like to touch me? I’d like that. If you’d touch me. Charlie swallowed. His throat revealed an immense suffering. Married, he said. I have wife already.
Where, Charlie? Is your wife here? No. Home. Wife home.
He leaned back, but Janie leaned forward, into his airspace, and pressed her bundled breasts against him. Her hand settled onto his thigh, and this too was shuddering, and she set her lips against the damp skin of his temples, which smelled of burnt solder, and then he was weeping, sad little barks, and saying, Please, pretty lady, please no do that, in a tone of terrible confusion.
Now Janie saw what she had done and took her hands off him, and she too began to weep. They were both there, on the green monitor, weeping.
I’m sorry, Janie said. I’m so sorry. I thought—my God, I’ve been so stupid.
Charlie Song could not stop weeping. His tools were all around him, and his hands were at a loss.
I’m sorry, Janie said again. I had no right. Please. Will you forgive me?
Charlie took a minute to settle himself. He wiped at his eyes furiously, as if they were to blame. Then he did something quite wonderful: he gave Janie a gentle little touch, just the tap of a single finger on the back of her hand, or not so much a tap as a stroke, a soft little accidental stroke, in the hope that she would stop crying, and he said, Pretty lady, pretty lady, don’t cry. I fix. Promise. Promise. There was an electricity to this gesture, a hopeful twinge, which struck Janie in her gown and smeared face as a version of herself from the outside world, the stranger world, and communicated her worth in a way that she might never have known without him. And though he couldn’t have meant so much in the one part of his gesture that was public, in the private part he was trying to communicate to her that she was a pretty lady and she would be touched and that all the happiness she desired would be hers in time, if only she could bear to wait a little, to forgive herself a bit more, and to answer, when it arrived again (at last), the sweet alarm of love.
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