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The dentist's drill of the alarm probed viciously into the diseased pulp of his dream, and Georgie Cornell awakened. His baby-doll nightgown was up to his sternum, exposing both his pudenda—he never wore the ruffled panties, which chafed—and his thrusting breasts. His member would remain tumid until he tinkled. He staggered to the bathroom in his bunny slippers and did his business.
The bathroom mirror had too harsh a light. He returned to the bedroom for first look at himself, lighting the flanking pink lamps on the vanity table and sinking to a seat on the pink-skirted bench. Blah. It was getting harder every morning to make a joke of what he saw. He was twenty-nine years old. He put a finger at each temple and pulled the pouches and birdtracks taut, made himself a temporary geisha boy.
His eyes were trying to do something behind the restraint. He released them, and they wept, foolishly: he felt no worse this morning than on any of the others in the past—he began to count the weeks, months, years. Suddenly a cavity of absolute dread opened from his navel to his backbone.
He seized the pink Princess phone and called his shrink.
"I'm going up the wall," he said. "I can't make it through the day."
"See you at ten," she replied, after keeping him forever on Hold. "Meanwhile, try to be a man."
"Isn't that the trouble?" But he said it to dead air. Dr. Prine's impatient manner was part of the therapy. He understood that intellectually, but emotionally it often rankled. Were there more favored patients with whom she dawdled? That stripling with the marvelous ankles who was often leaving the office as Cornell arrived. Cornell's legs were only so-so; they looked best in black or blue-gray pantyhose. They were almost repulsive when left bare, tanning unevenly in summer and in winter turning livid behind clear nylon.
Now that he had made the appointment, a certain tranquility came over him. A leisurely foam bath and an electric shave of face, chest, and calves also helped. He was almost composed as he returned to the bedroom, rosy from the towel and fragrant, and though his search for a decent pair of pantyhose was unsuccessful and he would have to put on a set of which the right ankle was laddered, he put a fingertip in his mouth and stayed together.
In bra and bikini briefs he did his eyes. When they were finished the mirror told him he would get by. When he had brushed his auburn hair, which was straight and gleaming and turned up softly just above his shoulders, he was actually pretty, or anyway formerly pretty: after a certain age a retroussé nose seemed no longer stylish. He was something of an old boy. But he was far from finished. It was amazing how his spirit had risen. At this moment he could yet believe that one day the right woman would come along and carry him off.
Still in his underwear he drank a cup of instant coffee and ate an unbuttered oblong of melba toast. Then he slipped into a little white tailored blouse and a pleated skirt in Kelly green. Beige pumps and matching purse completed his outfit. Having clipped on a pair of silver circlet earrings and run three slender bracelets, thin as silver wires, over an elongated left hand, he closed the door behind him and secured all three locks.
The elevators in Cornell's building had been out of order for a week, and the stairways were dog toilets. You also never knew when you might meet a sex criminal or, perhaps worse, a junkie desperate for funds with which to maintain her habit. Three men had been robbed at knifepoint in the corridors or the lobby, and a freckle-faced manicurist, a tall, gentle fellow with whom Cornell had often exchanged idle chatter at the mailboxes, had been maimed for life by a savage beating at the hands of a degenerate after she had emptied his purse.
Still, the building was safer than most in the jungle of the East 70's, and the rent for Cornell's one-and-a-half was still fairly reasonable as those things went, being temporarily arrested by law at fifteen hundred a month. How long the current controls would be operative was in doubt, but meanwhile he enjoyed the classic but rare rent-to-wage ratio, working one week to earn the rent for a month, though the actual take-home from $1500, after deductions and levies, was currently $947.63.
The burly doorwoman, her face a purple bag of muscatel-swollen veins, shifted her shotgun to the other arm and winked at Cornell as he emerged from the fire door into the lobby.
"P.A.," she said.
Pollution alert, as usual. Cornell fished his gas mask from the purse and put it on. The doorwoman waited until he had blown the mouthpiece clear before depressing the switch that opened the inner door of the airlock in the vestibule. He breathed in and out the requisite five times and then signaled her to admit him to the sidewalk. Not unexpectedly, the outer door jammed after having gone only a third of its travel, and he had to squeeze out sidewise into the morning. At such a time he was pleased he had been modest about the silicone injections: with larger breasts he would never have escaped.
The usual throng of derelicts, some of them quite young women, had formed their gauntlet on the sidewalk, and Cornell steeled his soul to run it. His purse was of course equipped with a snatch-resistant shoulder strap, and he clutched the bag itself.
He closed his ears against the more loathsome obscenities and kept his gas-mask windows on the concrete passing under his pumps—a prudent technique, anyway, owing to the high incidence of dog droppings. But the coffee bubbled in his tummy. What an outrage that a sizable portion of his hard-earned salary went to maintain these hyenas on welfare! He supported them so they could abuse him. He did not find this irony amusing. He was a compassionate man and acknowledged his obligation to the less fortunate, victims of a society in which he could function, at least with the help of Dr. Prine. But at the moment, if he had had a flamethrower he would have incinerated these scum, one of whom, a brunette with a skin condition and sucking a stained cigarette, followed him for half a block hooting filthy imprecations, and before dropping away, goosed him painfully with the neck of a wine bottle. How these people could survive outdoors all day without a gas mask was beyond him.
However, once clear of the menace, Cornell's spirits lifted. The sun was out, infusing the murk with a lovely lemon-yellow light, and random zephyrs would occasionally swirl away the smog for a good thirty feet ahead of him, revealing other persons hurrying along to work, lady executives in their homburgs and pin-striped suits, and little office workers like himself, some in colorful frocks which made him feel drab, but even more with whom he could hold his own. Cornell usually avoided the faddish and stuck to the basic classics in which you really could go almost anywhere. He saw a few boys with great legs, but his own were better than the average, a bit thin in the calf, maybe, but how awful it must be to have thick ankles!
Ah, there was a little stocking shop: PANTYHOSE SPECIAL, $31.50. He popped in and took advantage of the sale, purchasing three pairs, then, his derriere towards the door, exchanged the ones he was wearing for a new set. He worked discreetly under his skirt, but when he left the shop, a truck driver, stalled in traffic, tipped her cap to him: she had seen his behind, no doubt. He blushed and turned his head.
No buses ran during the high-pollution hours, so he walked north to the frontier of the Republic of Harlem at 110th Street, turned west and followed the turreted wall across town. At the Lenox Gate, a strapping coffee-colored sentry cradling a submachine gun waved flirtatiously at him with her free gauntlet. He supposed he should have resented that—black women wanted white men for only one purpose—yet he was flattered and let a faint smile ripple his vermilion lips, walking a bit more loosely both to maintain and to parody the white reputation for voluptuousness, though as he had so often read, and also experienced, it had no basis in fact.
"I am a simple person," he said to Dr. Prine, as he lay on the carpet of her office floor, looking at the cuffs of her navy-blue trousers. "All I want is peace of mind."
Her black oxfords strode away.
"You see," he said to their diminishing heels, "I don't envy women. I fear them. I fear you. I feel so defenseless. I'm afraid right now that you will beat me savagely. This alternates with a fear that you will ignore me completely. I want desperately to be desired. On the other hand, I am terrified at the thought of being raped."
The shoes marched back and a large leather sole descended onto his face, but arrested itself before his nose was actually crushed.
From above came Dr. Prine's harsh voice, which never failed to thrill him with its edge of brutality. "You must keep no secrets from me. Puke it all out. You can't expect to get better if you retain that sort of poison." She kicked him in the ribs then.
He cried out in pain, and shouted up: "I hate you! I hate women! I've never had a successful sexual relationship. There's no hope for me. Admit it!"
She bestrode him, and commanded: "Look at me."
His eyes rose along the knife-edge crease of her right trouserleg and verged over onto the flat fly when at the appropriate elevation. On up across the vest, with the heavy gold chain and Phi Beta Kappa key, to the striped tie, the stiff white collar fringed by the lower margin of the self-adhesive nylon beard, pepper-and-salt, neat. The mustache, he thought, was her own, black and sparse. She had a full head of vigorous gray hair, which she wore a bit longer than the current fashion. Massive spectacles in black horn-rims were supported by a nose the jutting imperiousness of which made it seem larger than it was.
She could be called a handsome woman, but it was difficult for him to imagine his assessment of her had she not been his therapist: only a pervert could look at his psychiatrist impersonally—which in itself was a revelatory thought. At the core, Cornell did not believe he was ill: perversely, he did not accept the reality of his perversion. Which may have meant he was even sicker than he didn't think he was.
"Irony, Georgie, is weakness."
He hastened to assure her: "Oh, I'm not being ironic, Doctor."
"Don't interrupt!" she ordered, and continued. "It is the loser's means of coping. It is a way of assenting without really agreeing, and turns back on the man who practices it. A grudging, niggardly acquiescence is useless. No cure is possible unless you surrender in the heart." Suddenly she turned rather tender, and caressed his cheek with the side of her shoe.
He was touched, and apologized for his earlier outburst. "I didn't really mean I hated you, Doctor."
"Oh, you didn't, did you?" She was grinning cruelly.
He struggled up to his knees.
"I want you to like me."
"You're not my only patient," she said, and strode away.
Now came the moment that he dreaded. From a cabinet she took out her dildo and strapped it over the navy-blue trousers.
He rose. "Is that necessary again?"
"Afraid so, Georgie. Until you voluntarily, freely, accept reality, this treatment will continue, distasteful as you can be sure it is to me."
He pulled up his skirt, lowered his new pantyhose and the bikini briefs beneath them, and bent over the treatment table, forearms on the white-paper cover.
The moment of entry was always worst, after which all else, though scarcely pleasant, was downhill. He looked back along his ribs, head under his left arm.
"Is it lubricated?" he asked, his eyes watering in anticipation.
"You should bring along a cork to bite on," said the good doctor, skewering him. He closed his eyes and saw a crimson vista, which gradually darkened to deep purple.
"What do you feel?" Dr. Prine asked after several thrusts.
He could have lied, of course, but she was terribly keen.
"Maybe something's happening," he said through his clench of jaw.
"Don't fake it, Georgie, and don't force it." She rammed him again. "Unless it happens of its own accord, it's worthless."
But all he felt, in soul and sphincter, was pain. He had been frigid all his life.
The soothing suppository in place, pants up, skirt down, he paid her in cash.
She counted the bills. "You are fifty short," she said. "I told you I was increasing the fee to three hundred when you got your raise. I don't want you to run around with extra money in your purse. That's very degenerative. This therapy must mean more to you than a new wardrobe. Unless it represents a certain sacrifice, it will not be efficacious."
"But I didn't get a raise," said Cornell. "That must have been someone else."
"The point is, I've already made up my mind," the good doctor told him severely.
He gave her another fifty-dollar bill; he would eat no lunches until payday.
"Doctor," he asked, "do you really see any hope for my recovery?"
"That's not at all easy to say." She turned to the safe behind her desk, concealing the dial with a shoulder as she twirled it. "A recovery is not what we are seeking. You haven't backslid. You've never been there. Recidivists are simple to treat. They know what they've lost. You, on the other hand, may quite genuinely not have the capacity to be a man. There are such persons."
"And what happens to them?"
"Come, Georgie, don't play games with me. You know as well as I. Let's hope it doesn't come to that." She opened the layered iron door and placed the money on one of the stacks of bills which clogged the interior. She ran a cash-and-carry business, of which the Internal Revenue Service probably did not know the half. Cornell admired her for that: the government flushed tax money down the twin toilets of welfare and military expenditure, supporting degenerates and producing billion-dollar rockets which regularly exploded on liftoff. Yet when a girl friend once gave him a gold brooch, he phoned the IRS to ask whether he should have it assessed and list the value on his next return. "Are you a full-or part-time prostitute?" he was asked. Anyway, the brooch soon turned green.
Dr. Prine closed the safe and tested the handle. She then took a cigar from a desktop humidor and with an onyx-inlaid cutter clipped a wedge from the tip. She proceeded to char the other end with a kitchen match. At last she placed the cigar between her teeth, ignited it with another match, and puffed. Cornell always got pleasure from observing this ritual. He had once been dated by a girl who occasionally permitted him a drag on her cheroot, and he had liked it, even if it wasn't masculine.
"Don't worry," Dr. Prine said finally, flooding him with rich blue smoke, "you're still some distance from castration. I haven't given up, so don't you." Her eyes crossed as, without taking the cigar from her mouth, she inspected the burgeoning ash. She levered the intercom and told the receptionist to send in the next patient.
The newcomer approached the door as Cornell emerged. They avoided each other's eyes. Cornell saw a pair of exquisite legs in textured stockings, and smelled sandalwood as they passed. He couldn't help it: he flamed with jealousy.
Dr. Prine's receptionist was an ex-convict.
"Goodbye, Paul," Cornell said to him.
Paul had many years before been a patient of Dr. Prine's, but his illness had proved to be beyond the reach of psychiatry. He had persisted in dressing as a woman, in sweatshirt, baggy pants, and cowgirl boots, refused to shave for days at a time, chewed tobacco and spat into potted flowers. Finally he had lost all semblance of control, appeared at the apartment of a female acquaintance, forced her at knifepoint to strip and don lacy male panties and frothy brassiere and perform an obscene dance while he smoked one of her brier pipes. He was soon thereafter apprehended by the police and subsequently received the maximum sentence. After the emasculation he of course went quickly to fat.
Paul now returned Cornell's congé with a dull, eunuch's smile which hardly creased his bovine face. He must have weighed 250 pounds. His memory was also enervate.
"Goodbye, Mr. Corning."
Cornell had been coming here for three years.
Cornell's office was only a sixty-block walk from Dr. Prine's high-rent district on the Upper West Side. He went south via Central Park West and its continuous façades of plate glass on both sides, with bumper-to-bumper truck traffic between. At Columba Circle he met Broadway and followed it to the glass monolith on the corner of 53rd Street, the home of the giant publishing firm for which he labored: Philby, Osgood & Huff.
Above the inside elevator doors were listed the various subsidiaries and the floors relevant to each: The Osphil Press, Huff-books, Huff House. Of the three original partners, Philby was dead, Constance Osgood was now in senile seclusion, and only Eloise Huff survived.
Cornell deboarded on the eighteenth floor and greeted the brunette receptionist.
"It's almost noon, Georgie," said this snotty creature. "How some people get away with it is beyond me."
Excerpted from Regiment of Women by Thomas Berger. Copyright © 1973 Thomas Berger. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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