Art by Sendra Uebele

Prime Piece

A fiction story by Caitlin Lent.

Eleanor examined her naked body in the dirty mirror that hung on the back of her closet door. She marveled at the space between her thighs, moving her hips back and forth like a pendulum, taking a perverse pleasure when the wobbly bits squished together and came undone. It was cold in the stark, bright dorm room where she stood, feet together. The chill raised goosebumps on her legs and stomach, casting minuscule half-moon shadows.

She was scared she looked like a child and always joked that all the weight she lost since high school came right from her tits. It was funny, how much she wanted to be thin, and how disappointing it was. She thought of paintings of bathing nymphs, round and wet. Dripping and yearning. She was as sexy as an anatomical drawing. Arms, legs, hips, breasts. Woman, neutral.

Still, she liked the way her torso looked when she lay down, the fat settled around her bones and made them emerge like small knives, exposing ugly, hidden crevices and ribs. She recoiled when she allowed her fingers to run across where skin stretched taut over bone. She felt distilled to a rigid vessel. It was skeletal masturbation. The thought made her laugh. Pleasure was a wet, fleshy thing. Sins were of the flesh, not of the bone.

She was obsessed with her body though she knew so little of what it was capable of. She was newly eighteen, a virgin, a nephalist, though she once smoked a poorly rolled joint in her sister’s boyfriend’s attic the night of his junior prom. The triangle-shaped room was warm and smelled sour, like pine rafters and light beer and damp cigarette butts. She was jealous of the loose, laughing faces around her, and wanted to believe they were all faking it because she didn’t feel a thing. She contorted her face into the same silly smile and tilted her head back, closing her eyes and hoping she’d come to feel something too. 

She nursed a strange, sick fear that the world might end when she had an orgasm–or at least that’s what she told people in a hushed, breathy voice, hoping they’d think she was a mystic, or conspiracy theorist, or just remotely interesting. In honesty, she was afraid it wouldn’t be a beautiful, shattering truth. It would just be her in a dirty bedroom, panting and swollen and wrung out. 

She was afraid it would change her and afraid that it wouldn’t. She wished she was religious because the thought of disobeying God turned her on. She didn’t believe in God, or really anything, but wanted something to fight. She was raised Catholic and remembered standing hands crossed in a line of girls dressed in white hoop skirts like child brides, receiving a thin wafer from a young priest. “Let the body of Christ be with you,” he wheezed (no matter their age, they all seem to wheeze). She remembered closing her eyes, taking a deep breath, and placing the wafer on her tongue in wait for some divine intervention. She remembered feeling nothing but hot and ridiculous standing there in an itchy dress with a dry cracker stuck to the roof of her mouth. She remembered that she stopped praying after that.

Eleanor was a lesbian in a matter of fact way but wished she wasn’t. She desired older women, but they didn’t desire her back. Old men like young girls. They want to fuck the youth out of them. Eleanor imagined with grim satisfaction how terrible she might feel if she could bring herself to sleep with men. Then again, it wasn’t as though she was making much of an effort to sleep with anyone. It scared her to be able to decide that sex was nothing.

Eleanor shopped online compulsively, ordering tchotchkes and pilled cashmere sweaters for negligible sums of money. While deep in a bidding war over a Ronson lighter, she became consumed with the idea of auctioning off her virginity. She hated how important it felt to her and wished it into a commodity. She wondered how she might advertise herself–“You are bidding for a prime piece. 18 years young, NO PREVIOUS OWNERS! Shipping will be covered by the vendor, item is non-refundable.” Her face felt hot thinking of her pussy scrawled across an eBay listing. She wondered what price she’d place the cap at. Buy it now.

“It’s funny that you hate men so much,” chuckled Eleanor’s roommate, looking up as she cut the thick toenails from her knobby feet, clipping each half-way and peeling them off with gross satisfaction, placing them one by one on a faded purple face cloth.


“Most girls hate guys because they want to fuck them. But you don’t want to fuck them, you just hate them. That’s sort of mean.”

Eleanor laughed at the truth in the matter and didn’t mind being called mean because at least it was something. Helene, her second roommate, thought she had a monopoly on the trait. “I’m mean,” Helene would assert, full of self-satisfaction. She always said that, toting it around like a merit badge, like it made her better and more honest than everyone else who kept their cruelty to themselves. The worst part was that Helene was good at being mean, her insults more like intimations, because they spoke right to what was fucked up about you. She thought it made her a writer and not just a bitch. Once Helene sent her a link to a story from the Paris Review on transcendental meditation. Eleanor read it and complained she’d never write like that.

“Stop framing things around yourself. You think about yourself too much,” Helene snapped.

“It’s because I’m a fucking narcissist.”

“You’re not a narcissist, you’re selfish. You just call yourself a narcissist because you’re lazy. Being a narcissist is like, a diagnosable thing. It’s not like you can’t change, you don’t want to.”

 “Is it narcissistic to believe I have the right to self-determine whether or not I’m a narcissist?”

Helene turned over in her bed and pulled the threadbare sheet over her face. Eleanor shut her laptop and hopped off her bed, grimacing in the direction of the cloth-swaddled being that had replaced her roommate. Still scowling, she lifted a damp, ratty beach towel off the hook at the foot of her bed. She frowned as she searched for the bottle of castile soap that had rolled under her desk. Stooping to her knees, she craned her neck and fished the royal blue bottle of Dr. Bronner’s from its dusty underbelly. She turned away from Helene and wriggled out of a bleach-stained T-shirt (“Connecticut–Still Revolutionary!”). Wrapped only in the mildewed towel, she skulked barefoot down the carpeted hall. When Eleanor reached the door of the communal bathroom, she caught the eye of her bathrobe-clad R.A. who was taking swigs out of a giant bottle of Listerine and spitting the froth violently into the sink. The two smiled vacantly at each other, the fluorescent light flickering softly through the steam.

Eleanor unhooked the latch of an unoccupied shower and slipped in. She cowered in the corner of the cold metal stall, reaching out towards the knob and sharply turning it to the right. Eleanor relished the burn of the near boiling water and the thick, singular stream. She raised her hands to touch the shower head, letting the water race down her arms and torso. Small black flies buzzed lazily around the drain and colonies of mold clustered in the tile grout. The air smelled biotic and saline, like a saltwater lake. A damp, handwritten petition to exterminate the bathroom was hastily taped to the frosty window. All Eleanor cared about was the warmth. 

Earlier in the semester, she was brought in a university ambulette to a hospital for a suicide attempt, for what she thought would be for the night–“a suicidal gesture, but I was probably dissociating” she told the admitting psychiatrist. She was held for a week. Eleanor didn’t remember much of that time, only the cold showers and that her head pounded and the hoarse voice of the nurse who took her vitals on that dark September night.

The psychiatric floor was kept frigid with whirring fans and industrial air conditioners. Eleanor was admitted to the hospital during a heat wave wearing a sundress. On the fourth day she got a new roommate—Priya, a lanky grad student from Buenos Aires who definitively told her thesis advisor that she wanted to kill herself after a bad mark on her sound art final. A nurse took pity on the girls and supplied them with clothes from the lost and found. Still, Eleanor rarely rose from her bed, the heavy hospital blanket wrapped around her like a self-imposed straightjacket. 

On the fourth day, the attending physician stuck his head into her room. “A research study, you’d like that,” he said with a wink. Men often winked at her. She could never tell if it was in “hey kiddo” jest or a come on. In her corduroys and moth-eaten turtleneck, she assumed it was the former. “You’ll be paid by check.” His eyes stopped on the hem of her pants pooled on the linoleum floor. “Maybe you can buy some new clothes.”

After seven days of taking pills from deadstock Dixie cups and three of filling out forms in a sterile room that looked out onto Amsterdam Avenue, Eleanor was finally released into the care of a single lithium script and the strong suggestion that she find a psychiatrist. She talked on a decommissioned payphone in the hall to her class dean who told Eleanor she had to start seeing her own therapist, instead of stopping by the counseling center before her 6 p.m. film seminar whenever she decided that her thoughts were becoming too scattered or that she wanted to die. Eleanor had $300 in her checking account and a referral for a doctor who charged $200 a session.

The smoking cessation group met in the basement of a Masonic temple on the Upper West Side. The air smelled like old tobacco and Eleanor choked on the dust rising with every step from the low-pile carpet. The room was lit with bare bulbs hanging from the water-stained popcorn ceiling. Participants were paid $20 a session. No one knew where the money came from–theories included a university-funded study or a public health initiative or the work of some neoliberal neighborhood association. The small room was packed with New Yorkers who came to take advantage of the hot, watery coffee and the easy paycheck. Eleanor hardly partook except on weekends, holding the smoke in her mouth instead of letting it slip into her lungs. She bought her first pack– Parliaments, and a black BIC lighter–from a street vendor who didn’t card on the way to an apartment party across the park during school orientation. The girl that let her tag along took a bump of cocaine while Eleanor steadied herself from the nicotine buzz on the building’s steps.

When Eleanor was admitted to the hospital she had the same half-full pack of cigarettes in her purse. Knowing Eleanor needed the money, the doctor who put her in his study slipped her the address for the group along with the standard-issue prescription of Nicorette patches.

Art by Sendra Uebele

Dark wooden chairs were arranged in a circle. Attendees chomped on sugar-free gum or sucked on the flat lollipops that came from a fraying wicker basket near the old Aramark coffee machine. Others let their gaze dart around the room. Eleanor fixed her eyes on the exit sign, glowing red above the doorway to the stairs leading up to the bottle-strewn alleyway that opened to the quiet sidewalk.

An hour passed. The grad student leading the group told everyone that they had done good work and that they would meet at the same time next week. A bearded Vietnam vet in a puffer coat covered in Semper Fi patches asked when he’d get paid. The room looked up. Flustered, the grad student assured everyone that their checks would come in the mail after four consecutive weeks of attendance and dismissed the group with a wave of her hand.

Several people took out Zippos as soon as they stood, and the dark, lichen-crusted stairwell was littered with cigarette butts. Most of the group filed out, hands in pockets, heads tucked against the wind. They quickly lit up in the practiced way that only lifelong smokers can. Eleanor loitered near the dumpsters, unsure of where to go next with so much free time. 

A tall woman in a long duster coat and leather gloves saddled up next to her. “Pick your poison,” the woman said like a carnival barker, pulling a tightly wrapped cigarette out of her pocket and a brass flask from her purse.

“What’s in there?” Eleanor asked sheepishly, surprised by the woman’s forwardness.


Eleanor shuddered. 

The woman scoffed.“Well…what do you drink?”

“Gin,” Eleanor answered with wavering conviction, naming the only liquor she’d ever enjoyed. Her mother, who was perpetually menopausal and always hot, drank gin and smoked menthols to keep cool. Eleanor had only developed an affinity for the former.

“Only psychopaths drink gin.” The woman said it decisively, like it was strange Eleanor wasn’t privy to such an obvious piece of information. “I knew a girl in high school. Legit psychopath. Diagnosed at 11, ‘went upstate’ at 13. Only drank straight gin.”

“I don’t drink ‘straight gin.’ I like gin and tonics. And like, I order good stuff. French stuff,” Eleanor postured, her ego slightly bruised.

“You’re, what, 19? What exactly is ‘good stuff’?” “I dunno, Citadelle? I had it at a bar near Cubbyhole one time. I think I was asking too many questions to compensate for being underage.”

The woman laughed and introduced herself in a stick-with-me-kid” lilt.

“Zoe, and you?”

“Eleanor. Are you, like, religious about the umlaut?” Eleanor asked. She had a childhood friend named Zoë who was very particular about punctuation.

“No umlaut. Just Zoe. I’m Greek. Though I did live in Düsseldorf for two years.” 

She spoke with such casualty, and Eleanor tried to place the slight accent that surfaced in Zoe’s voice. Eleanor stared intently at her mouth, the way Zoe’s philtrum crested and waned, and furrowed her brows. Eleanor found herself silently mimicking the syncopatic rhythm of Zoe’s tongue as it darted around her mouth—TTHH-TH-HHT-TC:H. Zoe noticed, smiled, and softened. 

“You’ve been standing here as I blow smoke in your face and you haven’t asked for one. Why are you here? 

“The money. And I’m a social smoker, I didn’t bring a pack and I’m morally opposed to bumming.”

“That’s cute,”  Zoe replied, taking a long drag. “My ex hated that I smoked. They had a public health class with one of the grad students that lead the groups. Ironically, they ended up fucking the grad student.”

“Then why do you come?”

“I’m a creature of habit. And it’s free therapy.”

Eleanor looked down at the pale pink piece of carbon paper with an address in scrawled in the doctor’s loopy handwriting– 226 W 122nd (between Claremont and Riverside), apt #4. The brownstone had a wrought-iron gate stamped with the same number and ivy curled between the bars and through the cracks in the crumbling stoop. Across the street was an elementary school, the low walls were covered in a cheerful, crude mural. All primary colors and tiny handprints. Kids were bundled up in scarves and puffer jackets and played on a frozen metal swing set that creaked in the cold. A busted fire hydrant dripped into a slushy pile and icicles hung off the building’s flat awning. She exhaled a plume of crystallized air and craned her neck to look at the clock that hung in a wire cage above the bench where a few sullen-looking older boys sat and passed around a magazine. She was five minutes early. She rubbed her hands together and stepped up to the silver intercom and held down the button next to the wood-grain label stamped with the name Dr. Natasha Felton. 

“COME ON UP!” a grainy, disembodied voice yelled from the speaker. A loud buzz came from the lock on the door and Eleanor twisted the crystal knob, shouldering her way through the sticky door jam. She scaled the steep wooden staircase, lit only by an ornate sconce covered in chipping white paint and the cloudy stained glass of the door. Once Eleanor reached the third floor the walls turned a deep mustard yellow and incandescent light came from the crack beneath the door. She shifted nervously in her stiff, short jeans and a shrunken thermal–parting gifts from her dead aunt whose wardrobe she received on the eve of the funeral, in plastic garbage bags lugged from her wind-battered house on the Cape. The wake was open casket. Eleanor let herself in.

She surveyed the apartment. A calico cat rested lazily on the arm of the tufted couch. Half-clean dishes caked in zhug and wild rice sat in the shallow sink. Rotting flowers drooped in a vase on the butcher block island and mail was piled hastily in a Biscoff tin. A hand stuck out and waved from a door halfway down the hall. Eleanor walked through the open door frame.

“My office!” announced Dr. Felton, gesturing widely to the shoebox-sized room. She didn’t look over 40, yet the framed diplomas that hung from nails on the red stucco wall were yellowed with age. She wore a gray turtleneck and wide-legged pants. Her glasses were rimless and her thick, curly hair was pulled into a low bun. The rattan chair where she sat looked uncomfortable and was shoved up against a tall wooden bookshelf. Eleanor sat down and noticed a bruise on Dr. Felton’s upper arm. It was shaped like the state of Massachusetts—Martha’s Vineyard was the freckle on her elbow, Nantucket the mole due East. Eleanor sat awkwardly on the sweat-puckered chaise, which was comically large for the room.

“Do you want me to lay down?” asked Eleanor.

“Most don’t. You’re welcome to.”

“That’s okay, this is Freudian enough already,” said Eleanor, gesturing to a beat-up copy of Studies on Sexuality sitting on the side table.

“That’s old, I’m old. I read it when I was an undergrad at NYU. Even my eighty-year old professor knew it was horseshit.” 

Dr. Felton reclined further. Eleanor tensed, rejecting the prescribed comfort of her wide cloth perch. 

“Memory lane?” Eleanor teased with a practiced smirk, her eyes darting to a knobby ceramic bowl filled with oblong ivory tablets.

“You have to be careful, Eleanor. The Freudians are alive and well in this city.” 

“I wouldn’t mind having someone tell me how to think.”