Excerpts from Sex Work by Maura Pellettieri

                                                                                                  Sex Work
            The man paid for lunch, of course.
            I didn’t want to be seen eating bread. So I ordered the salmon and left leaves behind in the bowl. The server cleared the plates before I could decide.

            Then I went to the Greek markets alone and bought the large package of honey cookies that had been waiting for me, since someone else’s early morning—of burnt hair tips, flour, sweetness congealing in the pores, sludgy coffees, hours marked by leavening. I didn’t have mornings, not like that, not working—to go to the same location every day, to be reminded of friendship by repeating faces, and know friendship in the anger of the daily. My hours were unmarked. All faces that I met were one face, and I saw no one twice—
            I mirrored to each person their own desire. I was each face I looked upon, I was that one who lived beneath the skin, the eyes—I gleaned what was love for that body, without learning more than I wanted to know. I did not do the work, but was myself the work.
            I squandered the honey cookies in a desperate bender. I was hungry, yes; but more than that, in a splendor of fatigue, a pallor of auto-rejection—from listening to the man of course, which had been work, and from my shoes. It was very basic of me to be seen worn and wearing like that, dressed not for efficiency but the appearance of efficiency—just as a gymnast makes the vault look simple, I had made it look easy to present myself as magazines, though it is nada but arduous to be a professionalé femalé. Exhausting, basically, to look at—
            I was a temperance of perfection—I was not merely basic exhaustion, but basically, I was in the intricate circles of a deeper life: Exhaustion, as though I had descended many times through Dante’s Heaven e Hell—as though I was, in some sense, many characters at once in Paradiso e Inferno—Yes, many characters at once. Just as Dante named himself after Dante, so it was that I was both Beatriz and another, also named Beatriz, who—in this approximation of a dialectical melodrama—has only ever been performed as Dante’s illusion of Beatriz. Never Beatriz herself.
            We have never known Beatriz!
            Beatriz! as you thought you knew her, thought you read her, never existed. Women are depicted improperly when imagined perfectly. Perfect women: a boring continual problem in poems (fictions) because they’re only ever fictions (as poems) within poems, (which are fictions). Too much fiction drives too much reality. Or: The (false) creation of one woman yields the false creation of ‘the women,’ writ large.
            O, how the culture’s notions are conflicted.
            Everybody on the street had their notion of who I was. I could see that they were looking only at my skin,
            and wherever they projected my translucence, they met only my performance.
            We know you well, they said.
            Only looking at the surface of my eyes. My hair.
            Nobody spoke to me. No one looked at my feet. The ones who touched my body touched their illusion of me. They bargained with my exterior; they made stories of my muscles or my slimness. They made stories of my fat. This is what you are, they said. They did not ask.
            The false creation of one woman yields the deranged melancholy of all men. Which they bring upon themselves by creating their own creations (illusions). Illusions are powerless.
            However, I could relate to the other circles in the story—to the demons and the angels leading Virgil leading Dante round and round. I was moving the circles, and moving through the circles, but I couldn’t always say if I went up and down or they went left and right. I was tired in a comprehensive way, from the fire, from the clouds; I was tired in past lives, which were relevant though gone, as the past is always every day to now. In every century I could remember, in every country I’d been born to, I’d arranged a protocol of lethargy in my body. I had made these choices in order to be basic—to be the mirror—less like Beatriz and more like Dante’s fiction of her. But the fiction never worked. Still: I assured myself thatI felt well in heels.

            Did I say already that we had gone to the museum? We saw the many baby Jesuses lined up along the high wall, and the yellow wallpaper, which reminded me of Perkins Gilman, though my situation was essentially dissimilar to hers. She was bound to a bed, in a sense, forever, though she didn’t stay in it, nor within the walls of the room in which the husband-entourage had kept her. Whereas I was free to move freely but had found myself inside a within. Did I say already that the place where we went was called a museum? It was not my choice—or at any rate I would have chosen a different museum (a long hallway or the pond outside with trumpet swans)—but it was a place that we went to. We were there. We existed in a marble sphere
            though we both wore other names. Who can remember, what we did or what was said. The cookies,

            called melomakarona, were loaded up with sugar instead of honey. I could taste it in my feet immediately. In the streets beyond the markets, where the air was wrangled into damp aromatic spheres of cardamom and the deodorants of immigrant Kavoures, I bought an overpriced coffee because I deserved it—a form of arch support—and then proceeded onward—to enjoy it! as though the replacement of my need was the entirety of my desire, but the whole time I was thinking about the earth. I was thinking about
            sex, too. Once I’d been in love with a Greek
            woman, so I knew all about Greek cookies. You could say that I’m a kind of expert
            On recipes. I’m an expert on all the things I know about, especially about a certain type of bitterness—as I’d experienced the cookies previously, in kitchens I’d once belonged to, I known them to be made with honey, not sugar. However, I felt no disappointment. I was in the fullness of the now. I was having a time that was vigilantly wonderful; no one could undo me; I couldn’t be harmed: I claim I’ve never been:

            The man and I went to a museum, which was filled with darkness and austerity and mediocre bits of northern midday winter light to such degrees that I couldn’t see myself in mirrors. There were mirrors everywhere, but I wasn’t in them. She was there though. You know. She looked that way, and people were startled by her even though she receded, and even when she receded, she was revered, and when she was revered, she hid in the mirrors, and was seen. Her externality!: The man revered her, but didn’t know how to, so he felt intimidated. He said this out loud, eventually. An admission that continued through the silences, and ate time, knocked up the pleasantries until smart little conversations had to be birthed on the stone floor. It didn’t look good.
            He had no interest in finding her in the mirror—where they both lived, incidentally but to keep her in it. In the mirror, he was capable of knowing her. In the mirror, she was capable of being
            trapped. But not really—at any rate, not for long. She tried to soften herself, even dimming her voice considerably, creating an illusion to “shrink” her nature’s size, but the performance wasn’t realistic for anyone. It disappointed everybody. She was a professional femalé. She proved it every time she took a step on the shoe-sticks. She proved it when her makeup didn’t drip in precipitation.
            The man was a professional quitter. He had retired. Or maybe he was dead, she wasn’t sure. People, when they passed by, didn’t seem to see him. At lunch, the server couldn’t hear him when he spoke, had turned only to her. Perhaps all of this was proof. There had been so many iterations in her life already, of conversing with Dead People. Perhaps he was simply another duplication—a poor poltergeist, a craven projection. In any case, he acted dead. It was the same. Mirrors are so truthful, even when they lie. He could not be found in the mirror; only his sweater. He was a beige bag, a tan.
            If she existed, she was an over-splintered blue, a thin, a see-through red, a suede, a gold needle spinning up a golden thread into the infinity of disasters, most of which pussed and fell apart at her feet. The few non-calamities sprouted small bird bodies and flew into fictional, yet lineated, horizons.
            In addition to mirrors and marble, the museum also had empty chairs, to show where you weren’t allowed to sit, and a piano, to show where you weren’t allowed to play or hear music, and empty gold picture frames, to show where there had been a heist. Eighteen years later, and they still weren’t over it. She/I walked in circles in the shoes she/I was wearing.
            The paintings are gone, the Eternal Voice said.
            The eternal voice? No one all day had been speaking of God.
            Is that the bat kol1? we said.
            From a gilded frame, a baby Jesus rolled his eyes. Mary looked on from another painting, tired. She had no shoes, but too many expectations laid upon her. I rolled my eyes at Mary. “You have it easy,” I told her. I whispered illicitly to her while the dead man, my companion, fingered an obtuse foreign sculpture. “I have shoes and expectations. Besides which, after you die, they turn out to revere you. Wait and see.” Mary heard me but she didn’t take her eyes off the baby Jesus.
            In the aftermath of the heist, the museum hired new guards—the special sort—who looked at me like they wanted to eat me or nail me to a bench. Maybe both. M Magdalene’s martyrdom, a block or a room or a century over, looked differently than the Jesuses’, and had been approached by the painters differently. M Mags was hungry. I don’t know whether she wore shoes. M Mags had important information for me, but she was speaking a language I would have needed to be fully alone to decode. The other Mary, the clever virgin2, may have been martyred too. I looked back. She glared at me so quickly before turning her gaze back to the Jesus that I almost thought I imagined the meaning: She did not feel revered; she felt used.
            The museum, not even a little bit over their “property,” felt entitled to the air itself, and so embraced all notions of retribution. “Someone will pay, someday,” the book nailed to the bench said. “We think, probably. No, we’re sure of it. It’s going to happen. They’ll get what’s coming and we’ll get our paintings back.” The museum had never learned to mourn, to let go. They invested in their wounds; they were still looking for the killers. Someone will pay, I thought, and it will likely be a Mary. It should’ve been Mary’s body those bloody Cathies drank on Sundays. The Virgin or the Magdalene—did it matter? One of them grew “Him” and the other one fucked “Him” both then were responsible for all he came to know.
            Jesus had never had a chance to tell us Jesus’s pronouns.
            Instead of hosting a funeral, having their friends over for cheese, and respecting that the paintings had moved on, the men of the museum nailed a book to one of the benches in the room with the Marys and the Jesuses and the empty brass-gold picture frames. “We’re really holding onto this,” the book said, “just as this bench holds me.”
            The book described the story of the paintings’ disappearance. The killers had dressed up as policemen and had gone in and out of the museum for 81 minutes. The museum had let policeman inside to look at art, and yet insisted that they weren’t culpable, insisted they’d been done wrong. But they’d invited in the policemen. I mean killers. I mean art thieves.

            The museum was looking for the killers and looking for the Rembrandts, which were long
since dead. How does a painting die? By being hid.
            The Rembrandts were on their death-beds in some lonely one-percenter’s gold-leafed room of black-market paraphernalia, which you could get to by pushing on a bookshelf that was really a door made out of one million million-dollar first editions of books no one was allowed to touch in a mansion that was hidden by a magic wall of invisibility (called money) and owned by a modern-day Bluebeard with an eternally-bleeding skeleton key.
            In a wife, this man had many closets.
            In a closet, many skeletons of wives.
            Or everything that had ever existed was in a single invisible vase in my pocket.
            A guard walked up to me and offered me five million dollars.
            Rembrandt is dead.
1The bat kol is the genderless feminine voice of the heavens in Hebrew liturgy. She comes without warning, cannot be summoned or commanded, and arrives to tell the truth and put an end to arguments. She doesn’t seem attached to God.
2Ancient moon priestesses were called virgins. ‘Virgin’ meant not married, not belonging to a man – a woman who was ‘one-in-herself’. The very word derives from a Latin root meaning strength, force, skill; and was later applied to men: virle. Ishtar, Diana, Astarte, Isis were all called virgin, which did not refer to sexual chastity, but sexual independence. And all great culture heroes of the past, mythic or historic, were said to be born of virgin mothers: Marduk, Gilgamesh, Buddha, Osiris, Dionysus, Genghis Khan, Jesus -they were all affirmed as sons of the Great Mother, of the Original One, their worldly power deriving from her. When the Hebrews used the word, and in the original Aramaic, it meant ‘maiden’ or ‘young woman’, with no connotations to sexual chastity. But later Christian translators could not conceive of the ‘Virgin Mary’ as a woman of independent sexuality, needless to say; they distorted the meaning into sexually pure, chaste, never touched. —Monica Sjoo
            Beatriz’s jaw is over-loose again. She avoids the word broken—though she worries that it’s true. Dante would never forgive the word choice. Too dramatic. Still, there’s a pocket of air where the joint should be. It doesn’t hurt unless she presses on it, but it’s difficult to speak. She’s not sure it’s safe to speak. She’s not sure she ought to chew, which is fine for a woman who is not supposed to look too earthly. She represents the Paradiso, naught else, says Dante—the author, not the man. The man loves her; the author is violent. She knows he doesn’t own her mind, but she likes to be friends with him. She doesn’t want to disappoint. She finds she bends, bends, bends for Dante, out of love, and the more she bends, the more often her jaw—
            She has the sense that if she says the wrong word, or the right words in the wrong order, or the wrong words in the right order, or the perfect words in the best possible order, the jaw will fall off of its hinge, finally, forever. Or having said the wrong words once before already, or the right words in the wrong order, (even if she has already been forgiven)—or being forever on the brink of saying the wrong words or the right words in the wrong order—is the reason the jaw is slipping. Or the words themselves or their order will hinge if the jaw keeps loosening.
            Either way, the demise is her fault.
            She could tip the whole world into a new reality if she’s not careful. It might be the wrong reality, according to her, or according to some. She knows that some of the things she believes are not really her own. An angel named Josefa calls them “foreign installations.”
            Beatriz has a lover. He could be anywhere, but he chooses to position himself inside a knowledge of hell. His name is Dante. A man he doesn’t know, but nonetheless a man another poet—leads him through the decades, leads him through the circles. Virgil says it’s good for a woman to be a little hungry.
            Beatriz is full because near her, other people are eating bacon.
            Come around, Beatriz says. She touches a bone fingertip to her wasting cartilage knee. She’s said it many times. My bones are getting cold. My jaw is loose for you. She wonders when that started. Everything is a symptom of Dante. Everything she remembers, and everything she reads. The earthworms whisper facts to her, and she is born again by slacking jaw, by silting off—
            He would rather read mutable shapes as fixed shapes. He would rather impress a “god,” or hypnotize old masters, hypothesize dead data. He would rather castrate popes than love her in the way he loves her. He is afraid that if he touches her, his greatness will fall away in front of hers. He sniffs the ground at her supposed gravesite. At the place where he supposes that she died.
            I’m not dead, she says.
            He leaves her silent white roses dyed blue. “It’s terrible that you’re gone,” he says.
            I’m not, she says.
            He claws at his body, insistent.
            So silent now? she says.
            Saturday, says Dante. We’ll walk, we’ll talk.
            She waits at her grave. But on Saturday, he doesn’t come. There is another impromptu meeting with Virgil. Another pope to raise a wine glass full of piss to, and then after that, another wine glass to fill. Dante is right about the popes—they are corrupt—but Dante also loves to piss.
            When the jaw is loose, the auditory hallucinations increase.
            She lies in her bed in the middle of the silent evening.
            A cat jumps beneath her though there is no cat
            Clean wooden planks slap each other, falling in the woods, which spits melting ice and snow onto the ground, and other things are pitched from the trees. She hears all of this from her bed, high up in the boat. The boat’s highest room, on the mountain top in the middle of the ocean, on the train.

            It is because the jaw is loose.
            It is because she has been drinking roses again.
            It is because the petals themselves are drunk.
            Is her jaw like this because she spends entire eons every night and travels light years
dreaming with her mouth wide open?
            Is her jaw like this because in order to fix something you first have to break it?
            Is her jaw like this because someone else near her has a problem, and she has taken it?
            Is her jaw like this because of something she said, or will say, or has been in danger of
            Is her jaw like this because it’s a creature?
            Is her jaw like this because she has no jaw?
            Is her jaw like this because she’s an inventor?
            Is her jaw like this for no reason?
                                                                                                  Melons Marina
            When the city itself sings—not the people in it, but the threads of limelight in the air itself—she knows that it is no longer called Brooklyn, and that the people have all gone home. They are in the time before the time in which they live. The dimension is aerated and noiseless in proximity to present day. The technology is mainly soft and leathered. When sharpness occurs, it is buffered by know-how. A blind shift, precipitated by need and by the air and earth itself, and by desire—hers and others in her time, hers and others in a future time, as well as ones in the time before—has landed a gap in the center of the moment, and the whole city lifts to be superimposed on the land before the city’s time arrived in place, the geo-sphere. The points of things, and routes, once deadened with tar in the future, now require crucial and tender-spoken mastery, are made of manners and divine numerologies. That is true of the city’s present also, but with a diffidence of fever, distraction and the trebles of history—a trauma that kept dripping, even after the first beastly inventors of the colonial spell died—
            Along the pier, where she has not walked since childhood—and in childhood, had not walked since a previous life, and in that lifetime, never before—a new dusk bites the tops of terns’ bodies and beaks like small sea kites tied by knives of light. Serenades take all forms. She feels herself in being and in body as a renegade, just by living. She remembers ways the darkness sung to her, bettered her, keeping her at once within and beyond her mind. No one who died is gone. No one alive is forgotten. Birds take the planes of air back into proper form. No whales are lost in the harbor today. No one is sinking. The harbor unleashes and devolves upon the cement. The cement and cement-makers not even trying to bargain with the new shape of things.
            All serenades: One that takes all forms.
            Whatever squares Beatriz’s jaw, it comes when she is sleeping and it comes from outside.
            A gold thread lingers in the morning; she hardly notices.
            Beatriz walks along the pier, past the paths. A trumpet swan idles in the open ally of a current. Her hips pop in and out of sockets. Her jaw walks away easily. She takes her shoes off in traffic and allows them to be forgotten. Everything is in the lake.
            Dante imagines. What?—
            of the day, they say: eat a carrot or banana. get good rest. have a water and you’ll be just fine. they don’t acknowledge that someone has come and painted the sky with splatters, wrongly, carelessly, like a pollock. a pollock is fine, but not preferred in the sky. there is chaos, wantonness, disrespect; everybody feels disrespected; the sex workers and the johns are running away from each other. maybe all death is good birth.
            on this, of this particular day, everyone is afraid.
            someone says: just live in the moment. people stare, dumbfounded. the person says again: live in the moment! they are a baby.
            Dante takes a pill, and sleeps. Beatriz takes a walk, and walks. She’s alive again; she’s drunk because Dante took a pill, and when Dante takes a pill, she feels it. She’s awake, but drunk.
            You were walking down the street of another place that had become home; there were trees. There was a lock, and in the lock, debris. A new key was made; the key meant nothing. A vehicle named death desired all of us, was waiting, so they say.
            you were walking down the street of yet another site that had become your home; there were trees. beatriz had bought a motorcycle finally, and she drove it carelessly, because that was the only way she enjoyed driving. the motorcycle was dangerous, but it kept her from sleeping with bad boys.
            you were walking down the street of another place that had become home; there were trees. there was a lock, and in the lock, debris. a key meant nothing. certain locks dependent on a vacuum, or rain. you prayed, though you did not call it that. you meant only—would there be relief?
            dante said
            he had found home.
            you were walking down the street of another place had always been home, though you had not lived there long; there were trees. there was a lock in the sky, and in the lock, debris. a key meant nothing. some locks necessitated a strong vacuum, or rain. you had a friend who behaved as wind. you asked her to cut loose on the jammed lock; then you descended into neutrality when the clock wound tighter. you prayed, though you did not call it that. you meant only: would there be relief? relief in itself was proof of god, but not that god. no, no that way. you were your own authority. you drew your legs in under a thin blanket at night, thought of her—but which her? you tried to believe that you could distinguish between many. people gave unsolicited advice, and your warmed yourself with the thought that they were idiots. your knowing was a cool mystery that you did not understand. from under the blanket, you delighted in ignoring the advice you had been given. how little anyone knew of you, your inner world; how little you knew of everything. nothing startled you; everything. outside, your body into the cool night; a walking form among trees you didn’t recognize, in a town you didn’t know. and yet you had not left your bed she was there it was not a dream, though you had not left your bed—but which she? that one. it was that one again. not her but the
other. not the mother, nor the other one, but the one who reminded you of both of them. the goddess figure. for whatever reason, you could not distinguish between the different women—with exception to the one who was wind—you attempted to acknowledge this was a facet of your brain, not representative of the women, who were in fact different women. you couldn’t make the knowing stick. instead: they had different bodies but their brains were the same. that was god speaking, no?
            outside, in the street, in the bed, the near rain, the tunnel of bricks, and leaves deserting their green for that strange blueness, nothing startled you; everything. she was there, in dark form, her shadow—always only her shadow, never—well, you had wanted to touch her, and perhaps it remained. when she spoke, either it was that she pushed a door open, and you entered a room you had never seen, or she sent you spinning into old rooms. she, a beautiful trigger. therefore, she was dangerous. you repressed the place where you had touched her the moment she had
            owned you briefly
            in the bed, nothing startled you; everything startled you. the road, like all roads, too long for its own good, lined with trees. the trees, like all trees, had a propensity for invisibility. you likened ourself to them, rooting, maybe sprouting. as a god, you were neither amateur nor master. your home, like all homes, again—obsolete. and still you carried; you were carried; this dream.
Maura Pellettieri is a poet, storyteller, and art writer. Her work appears (or will) in the Denver Quarterly, Fairy Tale Review, Vinyl, Apogee, The Kenyon Review, Guernica, Tammy Journal, and others. She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis.