Going by its exterior, the building was nothing special. Dingier than Diane had expected, perhaps. Stained with garbage, weather and age. Only some of the apartments were lit, creating the impression of a mouth missing several teeth. Was this really where all those pictures were taken, where fantasies were painted with flesh? Diane did not yet regret taking the train away from the false safety of her home, but this wasn’t inspiring an awful lot of confidence.
The ride into the city had been a blur of exhilaration. As trees whipped by the window and the black murk of the Hudson reflected a dazzling moon, Diane had been a bag of nerves. She was alone for much of the journey, the rattling car utterly deserted but for her. When the conductor had taken her ticket and exited into the next segment, Diane began to pace. She smoothed out her dress. She fussed with her hair. She shook out her hands and massaged them.
She took her isolation as an invitation to sing. In a quivering soprano, Diane worked through Beyond the Sea no less than five times, wandering from one side of the train car to the other, sometimes walking, sometimes running, sometimes swooping. Every time she began again, her voice was louder, stronger. On her fifth attempt, the train stopped and a man in a long coat and hat entered. She promptly buttoned her lip and sat down.
The man stared at her for the rest of the trip. When Diane decided that she would turn to look at him, shaming him for being so rude, he just maintained his unruffled stare. His lips curled into an inscrutable smile. Diane turned back around and sank into her seat, eyes once again glued to the window.
Once the man had put an end to her celebrations, the time seemed to pass much more slowly. But this did not turn her melancholy. Rather, it caused her to bottle her excitement up, each moment an excruciating effort at containing herself. It was all she could do not to leap out of the window and run ahead of the train.
Disembarking at Grand Central Station, Diane was in awe. She had been to the city a number of times, but never on her own. Everything seemed bigger now. Being under the protection of Lance, she had perhaps never lifted her eyes enough to grasp the sheer hugeness of it all. Had she really never taken the time to look up at the ceiling in here?
She was delighted to see something that she’d only read about in the newspaper, the Redstone missile in the center of the place. It was bigger than she could have possibly imagined. She paced around the base of it taking in its immense scale, and it seemed to go up forever. But no sooner had she felt sincere awe of its dimensions than she began to wonder: what was the point? Was America really a nation of boys so insecure that they needed to erect this gargantuan THING just to make people a little less insecure that the Russians had gotten there first?
This was not the sort of thought Diane was used to having, but her mind was abuzz and she couldn’t help it. After all, nearly every man she’d ever met was the sort of man who’d put up a rocket in the middle of a train station. A pushy, bullying boy in a suit, desperate to make the better impression. It was impossible that these could be the men in charge of everything, but Diane reflected that when she’d met him, Lance seemed the finest man she’d ever met. Could those running the show possibly be any better?
The cab ride proceeded without incident, though the driver asked her what she could possibly want in Greenwich Village. “Bunch of, excuse me, Miss, bunch of queers and nutjobs down there. Not your kind of people.”
Diane didn’t know precisely what the man meant by “queers,” but she understood condescension when she heard it. “And who do you imagine my kind of people are?” she asked, proudly.
The driver chuckled amiably. “Nice people. Decent people.”
“Well. Maybe I’m a…a queer. What do you think of that?”
The driver immediately went silent and focused on the road.
“What about it?” she insisted.
“Miss, it’s none of my business. But I won’t talk about it in my car. You wanted a ride, you’re getting one. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
Midtown, its lights and hubbub, darkened and shrank in the distance, like a dying star.
The rest of the drive was silent. When they arrived, Diane paid the driver in exact change and made sure to do as Lance always did, giving a little tip besides.
The driver handled her money with a quiet sort of disgust. “Have fun. That’s all your type seems to do,” he said before speeding off, leaving Diane looking up at the degraded edifice before her.
What had felt like excitement was suddenly turning cold and hard in the pit of her stomach.
But this was no time for doubt. Not now. To give in to doubt now would mean that she had failed somehow, that what she ought to be doing was playing wife. Giving up. No, this was the time to press on. Now more than ever.
She shook her head, took a deep breath and walked up to the door, which was at ground level and had a series of buzzers in a row next to it. She checked the stained page of the magazine. Number 5. She pushed the button and heard a distant buzzing. And then she waited.
A city bus rolled by. Somewhere a bottle broke against a wall.
A window shot open some floors above the street, and a head poked out.
“What do you want?” asked a voice both feminine and slightly hard.
“I…hello. Are you…is this…” She gave up trying to figure out how to word it and simply held up the magazine, smiling helpfully.
The woman squinted and cocked her head. “Yeah, that’s us. Are you Teddy’s new girl?”
Diane thought for about half a second. “Yes, I’m the new girl.”
The woman nodded. “I’ll come down and let you up.”
“Thank you!” Diane felt a bit foolish, but to whatever extent a plan existed, this seemed to be all of a piece with it.
Moments later, the door flew open and Diane was confronted with the woman she’d been speaking to. She was short and wiry, dressed in a man’s trousers, striped shirt, suspenders and flat cap. She eyed Diane up and down. Diane tried her best to seem presentable, smiling and folding her hands.
“Say, you’re all right,” the woman said. She held out her hand. “Lou.”
Diane took and shook Lou’s hand. “Diane.”
“Nice name. I’ll show you up.” With a flourish, Lou held the door open and gestured Diane in. “After you, madame.”
Diane walked by the little gargoyle haltingly, keeping her pleasant smile plastered on.
“It’s just two flights up,” Lou chirped. “On the right.”
The place was falling apart. The stairs all creaked, the walls seemed to flake off, and the linoleum was peeling from the hallway floor. Diane tried to keep an open mind. As she reached their destination, Lou zipped in front of her and put her hand on the doorknob.
“Welcome to SMACK,” Lou smiled, and pushed the door open.
Another world lay inside.
Red. Red ceiling, red walls. Red velvet curtains on the windows. Red carpets on a dark wood floor. Diane had always been told this was a gaudy, trashy color, but as she entered the studio, it seemed as though a new dimension of perception was opening up. The room was sizable, certainly deeper and higher than the building looked capable of holding from the outside.
Standing out boldly in front of one of the walls, lit in pools of hot white by two standing lights, there were three women. One was a handsome, sneering brunette dressed in a long fur coat that hung open to reveal the bulge of two lush, buoyant breasts and a neat thatch of pubic hair. She was smoking a cigarette in a long holder and grasping two chain leashes. They led to two seemingly identical blonde women on the floor, both in what looked like immensely uncomfortable positions. Their wrists had been leather-bound to their biceps, and their ankles to their thighs, forcing them to walk on their elbows and knees. Both of them wore tightly fitted harnesses on their heads. The harnesses included black leather puppy ears that flopped this way and that, black leather puppy snouts protruding from underneath eyes flashing with innocent panic, and long leather bits forcing their mouths open and their lips wide.
Their breasts hung beneath them, swaying as they struggled to walk. Running her eyes along their bodies, Diane noticed a detail that shocked her more than anything: they both had wagging tails attached to…there was no harness, no mechanism to keep them in place. Whatever they were attached to was INSIDE the women. In their…
“Oh, my,” Diane said.
“Shh,” Lou whispered. “He’s working.”
Diane snapped back into herself and began to listen. The two puppy girls were whining and whimpering mock-pathetically, and everything was blanketed in a non-stop flurry of clicks and winding noises. There was a camera capturing everything. Of course there was.
Behind the camera was a man dressed not unlike Lou, though much taller and with a mess of wild, uncontrollable red hair poking out from underneath his cap. He said nothing, only nodded uncontrollably and snapped picture after picture.
The brunette yanked the two leashes, and the two blondes were forced up onto only their knees, their elbows waving in front of them as they balanced. The brunette bared her teeth and arched her eyebrows.
“I think the twins need a break, Teddy,” said Lou.
The redheaded man swiveled around like a shot. “They’re fine,” he said, not with malice but with a sort of blithe lack of awareness. He turned to the blondes. “Aren’t you fine?”
The blondes were still. The brunette spoke. “Give them a break, Teddy. They’ve been doing this for an hour now.”
The blondes looked at each other and then at Teddy. They nodded simultaneously and murmured through their gags, “Nnng-hnng!”
“Right, sorry. Sorry, sorry.” Teddy stood up straight and took off his cap, running his fingers through his tangle of curls. “Take, uh…take a minute. Take as long as you need to.”
The brunette began untying the two blondes’ limbs as Teddy approached Lou.
“Teddy,” Lou beamed, “meet the new girl. Diane.”
Diane looked down. “Hello.”
“You’re not the new girl,” Teddy said. Again, there was no confrontation in his voice, just a sort of confused lack of engagement. “The new girl’s name is Wendy. And she looks nothing like you. Who are you?”
Lou looked up at Teddy. “Wait a second.”
“I…let me explain,” Diane began.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Teddy said, backing away. “No, no.”
Lou examined Diane skeptically. “What the hell? You told me you were the new girl.”
“I can BE the new girl,” Diane said. “Listen, I just want to explain. I read your magazines. And I was…fascinated.”
“Fascinated doesn’t mean you can DO it. Have you ever done anything like this?” Teddy asked.
“No, but I think I can.”
Teddy scratched his chin. “You’re very pretty. You look lush. You look…I just, I mean, why didn’t you just send some pictures like everyone else?”
“Teddy doesn’t like meeting new people,” Lou said.
“No, no, I mean, wait, now listen, that’s not necessarily…I mean, how do I know WHO the hell you are?” Teddy sputtered.
Lou narrowed her eyes. “Maybe you’re working with the police. Maybe you want to get us shut down.”
“What?” Diane shook her head and held out her hands. “Oh, no! That’s the last thing I’d want to do!”
“I don’t know about this, I just don’t know…” Teddy was pacing and wringing his hands.
“Please,” Diane said, “just let me try. I don’t…I don’t really have anywhere to go.”
Lou shook her head and grimaced. “You come in here and lie to us, you never done snaps like this before, for all I know you’re some dame the fuzz hired to nail us on an obscenity charge…who the hell are you?”
“I know her,” said a soft, surprised voice.
Everyone turned to look at the speaker. Emerging from behind an Oriental folding screen was a face Diane recognized at once. She was dressed in a full body, skin tight unitard that appeared to be made of black industrial rubber. It squeaked as she walked. She held a riding crop in her hand. Her heels were so high it almost gave Diane a nosebleed to think about it. Her dark skin seemed to glow against the lurid red of the room.
It was Rose. The girl who worked in the grocery store. She smiled warmly as Diane struggled to make sense of this.
“I know her real well. Don’t I, Miss Diane?”