Terminal Girls by John Pistelli

1. The Lightning Is Its Striking

On a storm-forecasted day in late April, Professor Lazarino—thirty-seven years old, recently tenured, and a decade married—had just concluded one of the final lectures of his early American literature course with an explication of Emily Dickinson’s poem 465, in which the speaker lies dying in a room full of loved ones:

— and then it was
There interposed a fly —

With Blue — uncertain stumbling Buzz —
Between the light — and me —
And then the Windows failed — and then
I could not see to see —

“Emerson and Whitman,” he said, “argued that one spirit streamed through all of nature, including us. Which means that there's no fundamental separation between humanity and the universe. No Biblical Fall, no Original Sin, no alienation—all is One. All action is the action of the world-spirit, and the spirit is in motion. All pain and conflict are caused by this movement; they are necessary parts of the whole thing and, if we understood that, we would cease to regard them as evil. There is no lightning—there is only its striking. We are all spirit.”

Lazarino paused, electrifyingly agitated. Some stared at his shoes to avoid meeting his eyes when he was possessed.

“And Emily Dickinson challenges this idea, because just when her speaker is about to die,—when you might expect a visionary experience of the Over-Soul, you get what? A fly—a piece of nature, which Emerson would say is just as much a part of you as your arm or your leg, and part of the world-spirit too. But here it's a source of alienation—it is an alien. It interposes between Emily and the light. Its noise—meaningless, unignorable, droning, vulgarly synasthesiac, reducing everything to the senses, to the body—precludes her vision. And so her vision fails, both because she dies and therefore literally can’t see any longer, but also because she cannot make a holistic visionary experience from her experience, as the Transcendentalists could.”

The students, over-worked and under-read, then packed up and went home. Lazarino didn’t want to go home: it was too early in the day, his wife was not at home, and he would waste his time watching television or looking at internet pornography or—worst of all—break down and smoke a cigarette. It had been three months since a nasty bout of bronchitis scared him away from his habit, but sometimes he felt almost overcome by physical temptation coupled with cheap fatalism: “The damage is done; the tumor is probably already in there. It wouldn’t do anyone any harm to light one up.” But he managed to resist returning to the smoke.

Internet pornography was a different matter: in that, he had both a professional and a personal, vested interest. One day, trawling a website that served as a clearinghouse for many varieties of fetish porn video clips, he noticed a new category of fetish promoted by the site amid all the wearingly familiar toe-sucking and ball-busting, squirting and scatology. The category was TERMINAL. Clicking through, he remarked that: Terminal Girls: Their Final Days…Your Finest Pleasures, proclaimed the site’s top banner. The most prominent clips displayed for sale featured girls, usually young, under thirty, at the moment when they first experience a symptom or notice a sign of what they will later learn is a terminal illness. This moment of first discovery, when death makes itself known and inevitable in the middle of what had been an ordinary, invulnerable moment, served as the money shot for this type of porn. Professor Lazarino figured that you’d want to time your orgasm to just the right second when the girl in the video feels the lump in her breast, notices the blemish on her leg, begins to cough blood, starts to slur her speech, realizes she can’t feel her hand. But these were not the only clips on offer, though they were the ones Professor Lazarino most wanted to write about, and the ones that, though his erotic tastes had never inclined that way before, he now made a habit of watching for his own pleasure. Later clips would show the girls getting the doctor’s diagnosis of their fatal condition, their screaming and crying or numbed resignation or cheery over-compensation, and still later clips would depict them in the later stages of futile treatment and progressive decay, and some even followed them to their deathbeds. He wondered if the actresses were really sick or just heavily made up; he had seen amputee and paralysis fetish clips before, so he knew that some women parlayed their debilities into a side job, but would a young woman, bald and bloated and vomiting from chemotherapy or twitching in the last throes of neurological degeneration, consent to be filmed for the solitary sexual pleasure of perverted men? In any case, he had no interest in the later clips. There had always been medical and sadistic fantasies about suffering women for men to get off to; no, what was new in his erotic experience was the moment of realization, the flash transition from health to sickness, from life as a potentially unbounded string of days to life as a narrative whose end is known.

Professor Lazarino typed away at notes for his a monograph in a café. He drank coffee, tried not to think of cigarettes. “In a time when we can no longer tell history to ourselves as a story,” he’d written, “the terminal fetish provides the consolation of narrative. What erupts into mundane reality is not death, but meaning and order. The intrusion of mortality into the consumerist world of wall-to-wall culture confirms that life is bounded by forces beyond cultural control, that life is a story complete with climax, falling action, denouement. The skull beneath the skin appears, and upon it is tattooed a cognitive map of our affective territory.” Beneath that, he made notes for just the opposite argument: “We know all too well what the future holds: the decline of empire, the end of credit, the passing of the American era. Terminal pornography allows us to experience our inevitable ending as fetish—thus preserving our self-regard—and as pleasure—thus resigning ourselves to our fate.” Albeit that these arguments—terminal fetish as apprehension of order, terminal fetish as resignation to disorder—were mutually exclusive, they were also equivalently banal. Any half-awake academo-pundit could have come up with them, with their mix of exsanguinated Marxism, urgent cynicism, portentous phraseology, and, finally and most importantly, the correct political opinions plastered over all the gaps in the argument.

Was Lazarino even half-awake? All was vanity. He clicked away from his notes to Facebook. Two weeks ago, an old girlfriend from high school had friended him—he hadn’t seen her in over twenty years—and posted scans of old photos. There he was, seventeen years-old, illegally clutching a beer can in somebody’s yellow garage, wearing a Pearl Jam t-shirt and jean shorts. Best not to think of this at all. He bought another coffee and stared out the café’s front window. Heaped-up black-bellied clouds crowded the spring sky. Everything turned dark and airless. A woman sat to his side, a few years younger than he but some kind of student even so, reading from a huge textbook with a pencil in her hand and a notebook at the ready. He didn’t look at her, but he felt, perhaps wrongly, that she stared up at the clouds along with him. He felt united to her just then—not because he wanted to know her, talk to her, fuck her; but because he did not. Because they would remain unknown to each other, just two people together in a moment without words or meaning. These were the deep pleasures of alienation, and he regretted that hardly anyone ever spoke of them.

It occurred to him that he had better get home before the rain. He had planned on walking the mile distance. He left the café and started out as the clouds continued to sail urgently above, rain-laden. Now he was cursing himself again for his failure to come up with a thesis about the terminal fetish, something that would illuminate the pain and complexity of life in our time. And now he was cursing himself because he didn’t really want to write about those videos at all. He merely wanted to watch them, to share them with others. What had Emerson said? Sometimes a something is better than a thesis. A cry? A blow? A body? A strike?

He was passing across a short bridge over some weed-choked, disused train tracks when the bolt shot from the clouds to the top of his skull and then crackled out through the wall of his perineum. He tumbled limply over the bridge-rail and down into the dirt and weeds as the rain began to fall.

2. Sometimes a Scream Is Better than a Thesis

He had lain for three and a half days in the weeds before the weather cleared up and a twelve-year-old out for a bike ride found his body. The kid, inexperienced in the ways of life and death due to the comforts of her upbringing, pinched her nose with one hand and tried to feel for a pulse with the other, but didn’t know where one could be found. Finally, she resorted to poking the corpse of Lazarino, first under the ribs, then in the cheek, next (with a thrill of mischievous guilt) the testicles, and, at last, the eyelid. When the body, pale and green in patches, and bloated from bacteria colonies now forming in the flesh, didn’t respond, the kid—her thirst for eschatological experience now more than sated—called the police. She waited by the corpse and watched, pinching her nose all the while. Flies circled listlessly, and the body from time to time emitted a belch or a fart, waste of the heavy biological industry now transpiring in its abandoned vaults and passages.

Paramedics came and carried him away. He was pronounced dead at one thirty-two P.M., and his wife, who had reported him missing three days before, received the news she’d been dreading. At least that was how the news anchor put it. His heavy make-up, caked and visible under the studio lights but not sufficient to hide the webwork of leaking capillaries on his nose, made his face appear deader than the unfortunates whose stories he recited. His death’s head hovered over the words at the bottom of the screen: LOCAL PROFESSOR FOUND DEAD. The anchor, just slurring, had said, “Then she received the news she’d been dreading.”

For her part, Mrs. Lazarino paced the bare wood floorboards of their top-floor condominium, unable to think or work. Giving in to the desire to receive some human word of well-wishing, she had set up a memorial Facebook page; posted pictures of Lazarino's and her life together, gathered his favorite quotations, linked to videos of his best-loved songs. Soon, messages came from the ether. His high school girlfriend shared a picture of him from long before Mrs. Lazarino knew him: a beer clutched in his underage fist, Pearl Jam t-shirt commemorating the zeitgeist. Other words arrived. Religious work acquaintances of hers wrote boilerplate about Heaven and God, while his intellectual colleagues left studied and passionless sentences meant to signify grief without actually expressing it. All agreed to lament his “passing,” as if he had decided to skip his turn in a game.

About this time, Professor Lazarino, sick-colored and swollen, rolled with some effort off the morgue slab. Memories and ideas and impressions blinked in his mind, but they seemed to crackle with static, as if they had to travel a long distance. “The brain,” he would have written in his monograph on internet pornography, “is analog, not digital.” As in the movies, he knocked down the attendant and took the man’s clothes. He passed out of the morgue, nodding to the guard, who marveled at the rotting stink of those charged with attending the dead. On foot, gently ashamble, Professor Lazarino crossed the city and made his way home.

With his distended fingertips, the skin around the nails suppurating greenly, he stroked Mrs. Lazarino’s hair. She had finally fallen asleep with a balled-up Kleenex loose in her hand and the laptop at her side, open to the Facebook page where message after message continued to appear; everyone wanted in on the event of Professor Lazarino’s death, the most interesting thing that happened that week. Slowly she woke, her lips curling involuntarily into an expression of disgust. His dead stench filled up the room. She blinked up at him and said, “Oh fuck.”

He took her head between both of his fish-belly hands and said, “You are not dreaming.” He laid his tumid lips on hers, knowing she would recoil but believing that if he didn’t have some contact, didn’t touch some person, he would forever remain across the border of the living, condemned to walk but never act, a ghost stretched on a skeleton and wrapped in rotting meat.

She pressed her palms flat on his chest and thrust him back. He went over the side of the bed, feet flailing in the air, and then regained his dignity by pulling himself up and sitting against the wall, from which spot of exile he continued to stare at her face for some sign of recognition. She looked confusedly at his morgue attendant’s uniform. She pressed the Kleenex to her nose and politely confined the sounds of her gagging to the back of her throat. A stray fly circled his head, and it felt to her that all she could hear was its droning. “What happened?” she finally asked.

“I came back.” He tried to sound confident, jubilant, dazzled by the miraculous turn his life had taken. But he raised his hands before his face in the dim bedroom, and they looked remote, as if someone else were moving them. He was a flicker inside himself. “Sort of,” he said.

She came down to the floor and rested her fingers on his thigh. A practical woman, one who heeded the ready wisdom that said, “Only worry about the things you can change,” she knew that she could not allow this into her life. She was a nurse, one without patience for those who put off the inevitability of dying; she serviced with mockery and disgust those who had their hearts re-started over and over again, or who went back for their third or fourth rounds of chemo, or who insisted on having this liver or that kidney even though everybody knew it was all over. “When your number’s up, your number’s up,” she would say with a smile. He married her for her pragmatism, this unworldly professor, and she married him for a charm she could not locate in men as tough-minded as herself. Now, at this dead hour, she did not disappoint him.

“You need to go, hon,” she said. “We all think you’re dead. And you’re clearly in no condition to be walking around. I don’t know what all this is—” she waved a hand in the air, more or less at the very universe—“but you need to go.”

“But did you hear me, I’m back. We can be together again—”

“No. I’m sorry, but we can’t. If you are back—and honey, trust me, I see people in bad shape every day, and I can tell you nobody comes back the same or with everything they had before—anyway, if you are back, that means it’s a new phase of your life. One you’re going to have to figure out on your own. I just need to move on.”

She leaned over and kissed the cracked, rough skin of his cheek, where bristles of beard had come in even while he was dead.

“Good luck,” she said, “and I want you to know that I loved you very much.” Above them on the bed, condolences flashed into being on the laptop screen. She considered showing him, but decided against it. She climbed into bed, properly this time, pulling up the covers, and she set her alarm for work the next morning: she had to get on with her life.

On his stumbling way through the dark apartment, Professor Lazarino gathered some clothes from his dresser and plucked a few beloved books from his shelves. All these he stuffed into a grocery bag. He left his keys on the kitchen table. He closed the door behind him, unable to lock it, pressing his palm flat against it for a moment as if that would somehow seal it, and then he took the elevator down to the ground floor. As he floated in the metal box, a scream welled up from somewhere, as if it were the excrescence of the germs working in his gut, as if it came from somewhere else entirely, and it tore through his body and out his mouth.

3. And Then the Windows Failed

A trickle of greenish jism ran over Sienna’s hand as Professor Lazarino finally came. Orgasm was now a minor delectation: whereas once it had been the concentrating and then bursting of his entire essence upon the end of his penis, it was now more diffuse and seemed to happen in distant and off-center places, the top of his shoulder, perhaps, or the small of his back. It pleased him more than eating, though: food was no pleasure at all since he could not taste or smell much of anything. When asked, he often said that his condition was a lot like having a bad head cold; it didn’t prevent him from doing anything he needed or wanted to do, but it also dulled his senses, isolated him inside himself, and made him feel as if he were floating through the world. But it didn’t matter whether he liked it or not: orgasm was now business rather than pleasure.

She leaned down and kissed his neck, her nipples grazing his forearm, and then the director, Andy Lee, yelled, “Cut!” Professor Lazarino patted her knee, somewhat condescendingly, to indicate a job well done, and staggered up from the yellow couch. He pulled on his jeans and, since the director didn’t want to start the next clip for another hour, walked shirtless and barefoot out of the trailer. Standing in the red rock-strewn sand, he let the sun irradiate his body as he stared out over the empty highway. Brownish red plateaus shimmered in the distance. He lit a cigarette, because there was no reason not to.

Inside the trailer, Sienna removed her plastic stripper shoes, pinned up her hair, and put on a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Andy said to her and to his two assistants, “Back in a half hour.” But she motioned toward the door with her chin, toward where Professor Lazarino would be standing in his usual daze, and he relented: “Okay, take an hour for lunch—we can still get four more clips made till quitting time; Sienna, you’ll be masturbating, pissing yourself, vacuuming in heels. The good professor seemed down, so I sent him home for the afternoon.” Sienna nodded, bundled Lazarino’s shirt and shoes into her arms, and followed him outside. He seemed unusually morose today, his gray skin sun-blasted, his eyes fixed on the whole lot of nothing offered by the Southwestern landscape. All she had to do was touch his shoulder, and he followed her without a word to her car behind the trailer. He dressed and then folded himself in to the tiny ancient hatch-back Pontiac that smelled of fast food and cigarettes, and he allowed her to drive him into town for lunch. In the car, they smoked and sat cosseted in the roar of the desiccated wind blowing past. She hoped his silence would lift when they got to town; his was the only intellectual conversation she usually got to enjoy. While in many ways she didn’t regret leaving academia with her master’s—an M.A. who waits tables and stars in porn is less depressing than a Ph.D.—she did miss having people, even narrow-minded specialist-type people, to talk with about books. He even read her gravely unfashionable master’s thesis lauding female sexual archetypes in male-authored modernist novels; he pronounced it “daring.” Sometimes they even traded books: he insisted she read Emily Dickinson as a philosopher and not a madwoman, while she pressed D.H. Lawrence upon him with much the same assurance. They drove into a dusty little nowhere city to buy a couple of overpriced sandwiches in a high-ceilinged, trendy café (formerly a warehouse), full of office workers on their lunch breaks.

Professor Lazarino paid for both lunches because, in truth, he was the more successful. Whether pornography exploits latent heretofore-unspoken tastes or produces new heretofore-unimagined preferences, his deathly appearance in sexual situations, alone or with women or with men, grew popular. Andy Lee’s website prominently displayed Professor Lazarino’s dull-colored visage, and his clips sold best. Lazarino had specifically sought him out, shortly after leaving his wife and job, because the director was the most prolific producer of terminal fetish material. A skinny, canny man, Andy knew an opportunity had arrived when Lazarino came through his door; here was a chance to sell to a market neglected because the true objects of its pleasure—the dead—were forbidden them. Professor Lazarino, though, was a walking, talking, living dead man, and apparently everybody wanted to fuck a dead man. Even the barista who handed over the coffee and ciabatta-bread veggie sandwiches seemed to give him an randy look—the kind of look the less experienced girl gives on a sitcom when she tries to mimic her urbane best friend’s or sister’s technique for inviting a man with her eyes and lips.

He shuffled to the outdoor table with their meals awkwardly balanced. Sienna smoked and took long draughts from a huge water bottle so that she could copiously piss her shorts later for the watersport crowd. The sun shone on the metal mesh of the tabletop, casting a shadow on her bare legs that made it look as if she were wearing fishnet tights. Lazarino raised his eyes and stared, as he often did, at the Ouroboros tattoo that encircled her wrist like a bracelet; mouth met tail on the terminal rise of her ulna. The two well-dressed professionals at the table behind Professor Lazarino made a great show of finding his appearance and odor distasteful, and loudly scraped their chairs over the concrete as they stood to go. He turned and watched them, and then turned back, his lips involuntarily pulled downward. Sienna found his eyes and mouthed silently, “Fuck them.” He nodded and ate his sandwich with pestilent lips.

“Hey,” she said finally, tapping his hand with her black nails, “You seem kind of sad today. Everything all right?”

He sighed as if disappointed with himself and pulled his phone from his pocket. With thick, infected fingers, he typed out an internet search and then handed her the result. It was a university press website, advertising a new book: Deathbeds of Empire: Terminal Fetish and the Erotics of Necropolitics. She tried to read the capsule description and the blurbs, but her eyes blanked out at the usual list of proper names and magic words (“a bold new materialist theory that provocatively engages with Jameson and Deleuze in interrogating the Marxist nostalgia for historicity and exploring a queer-Spinozist eroticized embrace of imperial capital’s immanent death drive”). Yes, she had been right to choose waitressing and pornography over the intellectual life; her current bosses might demand her body, but they left her mind free, and there were always the poems she wrote at night, every night.

When she had read as much as she could stand, she looked up questioningly at Professor Lazarino.

“That was my project,” he said. “A graduate student of mine wrote it, and it’s dedicated to my memory.”

Sienna shrugged. “You can’t wish you’d written this verbose, abstruse shit. I mean, you’re living it, right?” She stabbed at the screen of the phone with her first two fingers, between which her cigarette was strangulated. “This dude is just writing about it, but you’re living it.”

After they ate, they took a stroll to the end of the street, where, just beyond a guardrail, the land dropped away, and they looked out over the valleys and canyons to the mesas wavering on the heated horizon. She put her arm over his shoulders, not like a lover, but like a friend. He felt a melancholic happiness with her, always, because he knew they shared something rare and fragile that went beyond words—but this meant that they spent much of their time together without words. His shift with Andy was over; she offered to drive him back to his apartment on the other edge of the town, but he insisted on catching the bus. She stood with him as the old dirty white bus wheezed to a stop, and she watched him climb on, holding the rails like an old man, even though he was not yet forty. The silhouettes in the bus window moved as if scripted: he sat, and the people around him got up and sat further from him. The whole scene blurred in her eyes.

All afternoon, she thought of him, her mind spiraling and meandering as her fingers mechanically pleasured herself, as her bladder mechanically released its torrents, as Andy's camera mechanically turned it all to digital information. All night, she thought of him, as her feet ached from standing and her face burned from smiling, and she by force of habit alone put off all the gentlemen who flirted with her as she brought them their steaks. She knew so very little about Professor Lazarino: he had volunteered no information beyond his name and the rudiments of his strange experience, and she was sure of only what her internet searches had turned up (a few of his articles, and his obituary). And even this proved nothing. The names might be a coincidence; he might be a deranged liar. Nothing was miraculous in this life, after all, and the dead did not return. If they did, they would surely be happier than Professor Lazarino.

At midnight she climbed the stairs to her filthy apartment, her shoes in her hand, and then she flung herself onto her unmade bed, amid a pile of books and clothing. Automatically, expecting little and caring less, she checked her email, and she found this short note:

Dear Sienna,
You know, you’re right. We’re living it. We should be grateful for whatever we have. Thank you for reminding me. See you tomorrow?
Professor L.

She rolled, smiling, onto her back. Her heavy eyes began to close, but she kicked her legs and slapped herself awake. A poem a day. Otherwise, she would be just another boaster, just another poser who proclaimed herself an artist but had empty hands to show for it. She sat up and took out her notebook. Her life these days seemed to cry out for a ballad, something about desolate landscapes and languid, uncertain adventures. A fly knocked itself against the screen of her window, looking at the large moon outside through what must have appeared, from its vantage, to be a lattice of thick metal bars. She chewed the end of her pen for a while, and then she wrote out a title: “The Death and Life of Professor Lazarino.”

John Pistelli was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he teaches literature and writing. His reviews and essays have appeared in Rain Taxi, Powells.com, New Walk, and Ragnarok. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Three Rivers Review, The Legendary, Whole Beast Rag, Revolver, and Winter Tangerine Review. His novella The Ecstasy of Michaela was published by Valhalla Press in 2012. Find out more at johnpistelli.wordpress.com.