The Steve Machine: an excerpt
One of Niko’s charges held the door open when I arrived, a great, moon-faced smile of a girl who says, ‘Glad you could make it,’ as if she really meant it. She looked maybe eighteen going on twelve, symmetrical pigtails bouncing as she walked me through Niko’s postage-stamp kitchen, where we stopped long enough for me to put a beer in each fist. Nothing worse than having to stand around wondering what to do with your hands at an orgy, right? She led me into the back, and it occurred to me that this was the only other room in Niko’s apartment. Privacy was definitely on the shelf for the evening.
There were about a dozen people circling the floor, and every one of them on the sunny side of twenty, young and poreless and beaming back at me with names like Brix and Svet and Lou, which I forget as soon as it leaves their Pepsodent glows. Niko was in the corner chatting up a heavy-metal blonde who was so thin I could have lain a thatch of straw on his head and swept the room with him. What was I doing here?
Auden, glad you could drop by. Stan, this is Auden.’
‘Stan’s thinking of getting a facial tattoo, aren’t you Stan?’
Stan looks at Niko and then over at me, weary over the long march of his eighteen years. He’d already come back from the end of the world, that’s what his eyes were telling me, though his scrub was a little too fresh for life on the streets. I wondered if he wasn’t still living at home with Mom and Dad, the acne support system of his face wrapped in hip-hop cans and net speak. The kid looked like borrowed rhymes, like he had downloaded a personality especially for tonight. So what was made me so nervous?
There’s a bar code, like they use in the Supersave and shit. For like, shit they don’t, you know, have a thing for. A category. And these things like, they could be anything, right? Like strawberries and fucking cream or like, whatever. But all this shit that doesn’t belong has like, this barcode on it which just means like, whatever. That’s what I want to get, right?’
‘You want to get this barcode inked on your face?’ I asked him, not quite sure I was catching the rap.
‘I’m gonna like, wear it. Loud and proud.’ He smiled at me and I found myself smiling back, wishing my needs could be laid up where everyone could see them.
I swung both beers in the general direction of my face, trying to wash down the bad feelings. We were here, weren’t we? Weren’t we here? Because this was an o-r-g-y I tried not to look at anyone too long, which mostly meant I made detailed studies of the ashtray and the way the long tongues of wood didn’t quite meet to form the floor. Everyone was a little tight, like we were all in the green room waiting for the show to start. Niko was loving this, for him this was going to be the best part. The waiting and fugitive glances, the shy smiles that might mean yes, maybe later, okay if you like. Or not now, I need another drink, and then, surely then.
There was a couple on the couch, paler-than-pale brunettes, sunless liplockers who fumbled with tops not entirely relieved of duty. I tried not to stare, and caught them in glimpses out of the corner of my eye, when a tidy Szechuan girl rubbed them each across their shoulders and offered up a joint. They looked over in surprise and she tendered them with a shy smile and pushed on, headed in my direction. There was something easy in the way she did it, no need for headlights here, never going to hit anything on these roads. Nothing but green country. Our country.
‘You must be Niko’s friend.’ She offered me the bomb and I took it, just to be polite. Weed was something I usually did to take the edge off and right now I needed all the edge I could get. I gave it a long haul.
‘And you?’ I gasped through the smoke.
‘I know Dee,’ she said, still smiling, nodding over to the girl on the couch.
‘Is that her boyfriend?’
‘I guess you could call him that,’ she said through eyes that narrowed just enough to see if I was kidding. ‘For tonight I mean. I don’t know. His name’s Ben.’
‘I know, you’re Niko’s friend. I thought Niko didn’t have any friends, except for Steve of course, but Steve doesn’t really have any friends either, so it figures. You know?’ Her words erupted from that soft face like a warm blog widget spitting headlines.
‘Who is Steve?’ I asked, trying to ignore her friend on the couch, Dee was it? She was naked now, grinding herself down on her one-night boyfriend who was steadily losing his grip on the couch universe. There were a couple of others huddled in the corners, necking mostly, but for now Dee was the main attraction. Everyone did their best not to stare.
‘You don’t know Steve?’ she asked, still holding onto the bomb. ‘He’s really the one that started all this.’ She waved her hand distractedly around the room. ‘Although it’s funny, when you see him, the last thing on your mind is sex. You know what I mean?’
I finished the first beer and was looking for a place to put it when she calmly relieved my grip and stashed it in a corner generously furnished with forgotten recipes and never-used sporting equipment. Did I know what she meant?
‘Everybody here’ she said as she paused to wrinkle her nose at a slack-faced skateboard refugee who already looked a little unwound, ‘well almost everyone here took the same English class, right? And then some bad Asian flu took out the teacher, her substitute and half the class, so they were trying to find someone to come in. Monday morning and who should walk through the door but Steve. I don’t think Steve ever gets sick, he doesn’t have enough of a body for sick to hold onto. You know what I mean?
‘Meee-ow,’ I laughed, raking my nails through the air. The beer had settled in nicely.
‘Sorry. So, anyway, instead of walking us through the rest of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venus, he said he had something to show us. A videotape. Something he’d made himself.’
‘Steve is weird. So he shows us this tape right? And it’s really fucking long, excuse my French. It’s about an hour or something, and at first it seems like nothing’s going on, it’s just, you know, signal noise before the show starts, and then we realize that this is the show. Although by then, okay, a lot of people had nodded off or asked to be excused or something. To tell you the truth, I didn’t catch any of that until later because, for the first time, like maybe the first time ever, I was paying attention, or finally had some idea what attention really was. You know? And all the time he’s talking on the videotape I mean Steve never stops talking, and it’s funny, because I can’t remember anything he said. Nothing at all. And when I asked Dee about it later, she couldn’t remember either. You know what I mean?’
‘I know what you mean,’ I told her, not understanding a word, but hoping she wouldn’t stop either.
‘So maybe a bunch of people had already left, and maybe I got bored with being bored, but I started making out this body in the middle of all that static and noise, and not just one body but all kinds of people were up in there and the crazy thing was that they were talking to each other without making a sound. They were all, you know, making sense to each other just by…’
‘Touching. They were just touching each other, and that was enough.’
‘Like Dee you mean?’ I asked her, hoping she wouldn’t look over to where her friend lay helpless in the grip of some new communication paradigm. I felt that if she stopped looking at me, even for a moment, I was going to fall down, and even though I’d arrived too late to read the fine print, I knew that was definitely not orgy protocol. Mercifully, she held my eyes steady while I finished off the bomb and she started up another.
‘When school was out Steve let us pinch the vided for homework, but now we don’t need the tape anymore.’
‘Yeah,’ I mumbled, trying to hold on. The spliff was really taking hold, lifting me into gravity-optional sightlines. Stranger still, whenever she talked it felt as if I were saying the words, only they were coming out her mouth. Why wasn’t she handing me back the bomb?
‘Most classrooms are machines for producing language. Even math is a conversation between numbers, right? But what if talking wasn’t a question of mouth-to-mouth? What if your whole body could talk? She paused, and I felt the wooden floors take a long breath so they could keep holding us up. All that effort and who ever noticed?
‘That’s why we come here,’ she concluded, and I followed her look back over to her nappy-haired comrade who had finally struggled out of his too-tight clothing. He was busy rubbing himself across Dee’s flanks as if he were making a gravestone relief.
‘You mean the way she’s, that they’re both…’ I stammer.
‘They’re studying together. Yes. I can show you if you like.’
‘I don’t know, I think, it’s not that you’re not lovely and all, but…’
‘Sure, next time,’ I said, wondering if I’d ever set foot in here again. So this was Steve’s idea. Steve Reinke. Funny Niko had never mentioned him. But then Niko was always soft on names. When I said I didn’t know him some weird mix of wonder and curiosity settled over that round face, like I’d told her I’d never heard of the pope. Steve fucking Reinke. Who was this guy anyways?
Niko regained the living room wearing something that bore a striking resemblance to a bathrobe. ‘You’re right Niko,’ I wanted to tell him, ‘terrycloth is much sexier than leather,’ only a helpless stutter came out of my mouth instead. He put his arm around me and bussed me on the cheek, and whispered under his breath, ‘Relax, Auden, they like you.’ I knew then that it was working, the long hours I’d spent rubbing away the person I used to be were finally coming due. And then I excused myself to go to the bathroom and threw up.