She greeted me warmly, as she had for the past two weeks. That’s why I’d picked her. Her cheerful smile and gentle eyes. How she bobbed along to the faint music playing off to the side. Gleaming lights hung behind her. Plush, purple pillows propped along her headboard, and an array of dildos at her disposal—short and pink, long and brown, some with a handle. I couldn’t imagine her using any of them. She seemed too innocent, her voice too girlish, but then she’d run her finger across her lips, down her neck, caressing herself. She cooed my name: HandyHank. She asked how I was, she called me baby. She said I was hers to take away. She was the kind of woman I’d never met before. Though when I first saw Bellarosa, I thought I had.

I’d only clicked into her cam girl room because of how much she looked like Beth. Her cheeks were a little sunken, her lower lip fuller than Beth’s, her nose pointier, but the resemblance was there—how she laughed, her frown as she looked offscreen, her thoughts elsewhere. Her skin was a shade or two lighter (even in the winter Beth had managed to maintain a slight tan), her hair slightly darker. Her age in the bottom right said twenty-two, also the same as Beth and only a few years younger than me, though she seemed older. The more I watched her, the less I saw these differences.

But today, there was something else about her. Maybe the royal blue of her tank top, one I hadn’t seen before, or the sliver of red from her panties at the bottom of the screen. A late-January light filtered in from somewhere to her left. I’d never been on during the day—for the past two weeks I’d signed on in the evening, scrolling through the screens, refreshing the page until she came on around six. Soft bells chimed; other men messaging her in the live chatroom. DaddyDan: “you beautiful babygrl lets see that pussy up close” and girthyman: “bckrm show…bounce those titties on my fat cock.” She smiled through each response: “Sorry, DaddyDan, only in the backroom,” “Yes, girthyman, whenever you’re ready I’m yours,” and she held up the brown dildo, close to her mouth. Her voice remained pleasant, as if she expected the requests being made. I closed the live chat, but still heard the chimes and her responses to the other men, watched her react to them. I opened a private messenger. My messages were the same as they had been each time I came into her room: I asked how her day had been, I told her how beautiful she looked. She grinned and told me again I was hers to take away to the Private Backroom for some alone time.

“what do yuo feeel like??” I typed slowly, my left hand clumsy.

“Whatever you want, baby,” she said.

The chimes continued. Bellarosa adjusted herself. I settled into the couch and arched my back, sore from work earlier that day and the days before. For weeks we’d been taking down trees all over the golf course at the Chestnut Hill Club, and recently I’d been on the chipper with Jorge, carrying branches with frozen hands to its mouth and tossing them in, the grinding gears catching the wood, crunching and pulling until it came out the other end, finely chopped, spraying into the back of the dump truck. And each evening I sat on the couch, the lights off because they weren’t very bright anyway, uncomfortable in the lonely silence. I ate out of boredom. I flipped through books I’d bought but still hadn’t read and instead reread the sources from my thesis that I’d never been satisfied with. I opened the fridge, looking for food I knew wasn’t there. I sat at the table in the corner, running my nails along the scratches, scraping at streaks of grease, and rested my feet on the heater that occasionally blew out warm air. The chimes continued. Bellarosa spoke in her soothing voice. I sank further into the couch, watching her. Other men sent her tips, and with each one Bellarosa touched herself, rubbing the inside of her thighs, moving her hands to the hem of her tank, lifting it to expose her midriff until her tits slid out like crescent moons. I stared, not really listening until I heard her say, “Whatever you want, baby.” And then she was gone from the screen and a message popped up: “Join Bellarosa in the BACKROOM.” I hovered the cursor over the “Come With Me” button, adrenaline pumping. I glanced at the time. I’d been online since one p.m., and it was nearing three—an hour till confession started. I clicked on “Go Back To Play With Others” and the screens of other cam girls appeared. I watched them, but with little interest, and closed my laptop.

It took just over thirty minutes to walk to the church in Mt. Airy, fifteen if I caught the next bus a block from my apartment in Germantown. I waited to stand until I wasn’t as stiff and slipped my sweats off, stepped into the bedroom, and pulled a pair of khakis from the closet. I looked at my laptop, tempted to sit back down, open it, and log back on. Bellarosa would still be there, maybe finished her show, and if she wasn’t, it wouldn’t be too late to join. I imagined what she was doing then, the other men watching with uncontrollable lust. I moved to the door instead and then the hallway and the stairwell, my sneakers soft against the creaking wood, and out of the building into the blistering cold.

▴ ▴ ▴

Fin, a coworker on the grounds crew, was the one who first showed me the cam girls, back when I lived with him for a few weeks over the summer. Fin said he’d spent more on PrincessLola in the past year—the Backroom, but also gifts he’d sent, used panties he’d bought—than he spent on his wife during their twenty-five years together.

I didn’t believe him until I saw my own charges popping up on my credit card statement—no charge was under ten dollars, and most were in the mid-twenties. I wouldn’t do it every night like Fin did, I told myself, though I wanted to. But when I’d stayed with him, after he texted me to say I could come back to the apartment—sometimes I walked around his neighborhood, but mostly I sat on the stoop of the apartment complex, scrolling through job listings—I never saw him happier. That wasn’t hard, with how unhappy he was otherwise, but there was something more to him when I returned. His smile seemed real. His voice lighter. Most nights I liked that Fin. But sometimes I resented him and his happiness, its reality so seemingly impossible. I knew because I’d lived Fin’s life for nearly a year now. Six days a week at the club since early March. Leaving in the morning and coming home in the afternoon to no one, with nothing to do but sit and stare and wait for the next day. There was a freshness at first—outside during those bitter mornings I’d found pleasure in the slight warmth of sun, but then with spring and summer and fall, with each passing season I wondered how Fin, how anyone, could last. No one wanted to be there, and at one point or another the others talked about leaving for something better.

Though I never said anything. I kept to myself mostly. The men I worked with didn’t need to know where I’d been, or where I wanted to be. And also what no one had to know: that every day at work for the past two weeks I’d only thought of Bellarosa, of seeing her at night, the hope I had in those moments, what more I wanted: from her, our time together that I wanted to last.

▴ ▴ ▴

I didn’t see the need to confess what I’d been doing online with Bellarosa. I’d only gone into the Backroom nine, ten times, and never for too long. But on the walk up the avenue to the church, I felt the same guilt I had so often before, guilt I attributed to being raised by a father who demanded modesty in women and a mother who followed his word without question. I told myself Bellarosa chose that work, and whenever I saw her, she did seem happy to be there. She wanted me to watch her. She was complicit in it. She invited me in, told me to stay with her. Me, and the others, she talked to us, encouraging us to spend our money on her. She smiled when the men sent her dirty, demanding messages. She spoke to some as if she’d known them for years, bringing up movies they’d talked about before, or some conversation they’d had a few months prior. Those men, who tipped her ten, twenty, a hundred dollars in just a few minutes. She asked how their jobs were, asked if they’d been traveling much or had gotten that promotion. They asked how her classes were, if she’d enjoyed her recent trip to the Mayan Riviera. I could’ve been sitting on a barstool, overhearing friends at a nearby table. I’d seen her nearly every day for the past two weeks and knew nothing about her except for what I heard, though I could’ve asked her more. When she said she was studying the Greek Gnostics in philosophy, I could’ve told her I’d read them, too. When she talked about her class on environmentalism, I could’ve told her about the use of pesticides and herbicides. I could’ve told her I’d never been to Mexico, but every day at work felt like it. But I didn’t want to know more. And then in the Backroom, I watched as she performed, as others told her what to do, what to say. That was all she was there for, after all. She wanted us there, spending money on her. She would be in the Backroom even if I wasn’t, doing nothing different, listening to the men, talking to them, knowing them. I could leave, and she wouldn’t know it. It wasn’t me doing anything, and by the time I reached the church, old in its stone, vaulted way, I decided to remain silent as I always had.

Only a few gray-haired men and women were scattered around, still wearing their overcoats because the heat didn’t flow throughout the pews, their heads bowed as they waited their turn. As one rose to take the place of a departing woman, he shook off his coat and left it behind, as if the heat of his sins would be too great to keep it on. These were congregants who had grown up when the priest still said the Mass in Latin, who revered the men that led them, and they held on to the past even as the world around them changed. I couldn’t imagine their private lives and what they told the priest inside the confessional, either the tedium of their sins or the turmoil that ravaged their souls.

I slid into a pew in the back left, away from where I’d sat with my parents as a kid, where they likely still settled in every Sunday morning, and I reviewed my sins: I’d yelled at my mother, I’d muttered that my dad could go fuck himself. Father McCloskey knew my parents and I wondered if he remembered my voice from when I was an altar server over a decade ago or from when I led youth groups for the archdiocese just a few years before. I didn’t care. If he did, he would’ve understood, knowing my parents as he did, having been over for cookouts, and he’d heard similar sins from me before, when confession had been compulsory, Sister Immaculata coming to each classroom and leading us down to the church for the weekly confession, and again in high school when I’d continued to go out of habit. Sins were simpler then: we lied about doing our homework, disobeying our parents, and, when dared by another boy, admitted to masturbating to someone’s sister or mother or Mrs. O’Leary. Staring at the crucifix over the altar, I knew there was more to what I had to say than those early days. That I’d regretted too many decisions to count, from studying Theology to going back to graduate school to starting this job at the country club. That I knew how much I’d disappointed my parents: my father because of what I’d studied and where I worked, my mother because she’d always told me everything would work out, that good things came to those who waited. That it didn’t matter if I told myself I’d find another job soon, if I’d been telling myself that for a year. That I just didn’t care what happened. No amount of Hail Marys or Our Fathers would ease my mind. Nothing would’ve let me go back to that time when I could’ve changed my life because I hadn’t actually begun it.

Another man rose and moved to the confessional. I lowered the kneeler and dropped down, my elbows propped on the pew back. I felt a cold rush of air as a door to the alley opened behind me. A shabbily dressed man shuffled in and I smelled his urine-soaked clothes. He knelt at the end of my pew and stared ahead. I glanced over as he bowed his head. I didn’t like how close he was to me, and tried instead to focus on the words I’d say: Bless me Father, for I have sinned. Bless me Father, bless me.

If anyone should be there, I thought, it was Bellarosa, her sins greater than mine. I imagined how her words would slip from her lips so gently, so seductively, that no matter what she said the priest would blush, and what she would say might make his head light and dizzy. I heard her voice rolling around my mind.“Whatever you want, baby.” “I’m yours whenever you’re ready.” Blood surged through me. I leaned forward, pressing against the daily missal. I felt myself harden and lowered my hands, adjusting. How often this had happened years before, looking around the church and watching the girls in my class and their mothers, imagining what they’d look like without their church clothes, and now I did the same with a woman I didn’t know. Another man left the confessional, and it was my time. I dropped my head and again heard her voice. I didn’t know her, but if I did—if we met one day on the street, if we’d gone to school together, would she speak softly, telling me that I was all hers?

A coarse voice disrupted my thoughts. The man stood near me, staring. His eyes were sunken, his thin cheeks barely covered with his patchy beard. “Well?” he said.

“Go ahead,” I said.

He side-stepped out of the pew and hobbled over to the confessional in the back corner. Father would know who it was behind the screen, first from the voice, and then the smell that would soon fill the narrow box. I didn’t want to follow him—to kneel in his filth, to have Father hold his sins in mind as he listened to mine, to compare us, to wonder whose sins were worse. I could wait until the following Saturday. I recited an Our Father and pushed against the pew, lifting myself up, and left out the side door.

▴ ▴ ▴

The sun was setting as I walked back down the avenue, the sky dark by the time I was on the couch again, watching the women in front of their cameras, staring at their screens as I looked back at them. Some lounged, leaning on an elbow, others sat crossed-legged, and still others stood beside a bed, swaying to music. I clicked back and forth, from woman to woman, seeing so many I forgot whose room I’d already gone to. One said, “Welcome back, Hank.” Another said, “HandyHank, I’m glad you’re here, let’s head to the Backroom,” but as I typed a response, she said the same to another man, her voice steady. And another: “HandyHank, if you don’t talk to me or tip me I’m kicking you the fuck out.” I didn’t wait to see if she would.

None of these women interested me, and I refreshed the page, scrolled through the thumbnails, searched Bellarosa’s name again and again. An hour passed, and then two. My fingers swept over the mousepad. My phone dinged—a message from my friend Mark, telling me to come out in the city that night with his friends. He said they were meeting up with girls from his physician assistant program, and he’d only hooked up with one of them before, not that I cared about that. In high school we’d passed girls between us like baseball cards. Most of those girls still lived nearby, and I saw them sometimes at the store or church or on the bus. Mark was one of the few of our friends who could afford to move to Center City, though he remained close with me and liked to remind me I’d always gotten better grades than him, offering this as a compliment that never quite felt like it. Mostly he talked about his job in the E.R. and I listened, thankful I didn’t have to say anything about the golf course, the tennis courts, taking down trees all winter long. But Mark plus his friends, all of them going on about school and work and patients? The questions they’d eventually ask ​​me: “What do you do for work, Hank?” and “You must know a lot of Spanish” and “I didn’t know you went to school for that kind of job?” and “Oh, wait, didn’t Mark say you studied religion? Is that just the Bible and stuff? So I guess you’re pretty religious then?” I flipped the sound on my phone off and turned it over, screen down. I’d text him later, saying I’d fallen asleep early, and went back to scrolling, sometimes clicking into rooms and reading what the men sent: unhappyhusband: “my wifes asleep on the couch next to me…lets have some fun” and BigBoyMcGee6969: “show those titties!!! titties titties titties!!!” and girthyman, still on: “im throbbing over here baby.” I stayed in the rooms with men who kept the women happy with tips because then they wouldn’t notice me. I watched, barely blinking, until I was too tired to sit upright and clicked back to the main page, the thumbnails staring at me as I swung my feet onto the couch and fell asleep.

▴ ▴ ▴

I slept till the sun beamed through the crooked blinds, illuminating the dust that floated around the room. I closed my laptop (I didn’t even look to see if Bellarosa was on) and poured a handful of cereal into a mug. The milk was old but not yet spoiled. I emptied it, filling the mug to the rim, and ate at the counter, waiting for my upstairs neighbor’s kid to start watching his cartoons, the volume always at full blast.

Mark had sent me messages throughout the night, the last one just a few hours before. He wouldn’t be up for a while.

I left for Mass before ten, walking along the same sidewalks to the bus that rumbled up the cobblestone street to sit in the same pew from the day before. When I got to the church, fifteen minutes before Mass started, it was only somewhat filled, men and women and families clustered, empty pews between them. There was a family in the pew where my family sat when we had gone to the eight o’clock together, where I guessed my parents had sat earlier that morning. I knelt, staring ahead, until the music started, Father processed in, and the Mass began. I sat and rose with the others, recited the words I knew, but I could only think of Bellarosa, what she was doing right then.

Mrs. Daly stood behind the lectern and began a letter to the Corinthians. “I want you,” she began, “to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” She paused, brushed a strand of dyed-brunette hair back. I’d seen Bellarosa do the same so often before. I felt my face grow hot as I slipped my coat off and pressed the back of my hand to my forehead. She continued: “And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.” Bellarosa couldn’t be married—what husband would allow his wife to do what she did?—but how was she anxious about the affairs of the Lord? And how was I?

When the new year had started a few weeks before, I told myself that it was time. To go back to church, to move on from my work at the club. To figure out exactly what I wanted. I’d hoped, as I’d been told so often growing up, that God could guide me. But no one could do as Paul asked the Corinthians. No one had the control. I couldn’t focus on the words Mrs. Daly said, and instead thought of Bellarosa, her soft but striking beauty. I closed my eyes to see her clearly, to breathe in the imagined smell of her breath, her body. From that first day, her scents were those of Beth. This had happened by mistake, and their beauty was so close that I couldn’t change it. Sometimes, even, I couldn’t distinguish their voices, but then, in that moment, I could hear the softness of Bellarosa’s. My heart began to pound. I wondered if she was online, or when she would be. I wanted to see her. I adjusted myself and felt that I’d stiffened, though not fully. I opened my eyes just as Mrs. Daly’s voice rose, coming to an end: “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” I dropped my head, willing my erection to go away as I stared at the cracks in the toes of my boots.

I looked up. Father McCloskey glided across the altar, his green robes flowing around him. He adjusted his glasses and began the Gospel from Mark. I half-listened to his words. Capernaum, sabbath, synagogue. Synagogue, unclean spirit, Jesus of Nazareth. I heard a pause, and his voice thundered: “Be silent, and come out of him!” My body warmed, my face flushed. Father McCloskey scanned the room, as if waiting for the unclean spirits to burst forth from his parishioners’ bodies. I pulled my coat closed. My head felt light, empty. The glimmering gold dimmed. I couldn’t hear any of the words that bounced around the vaulted ceiling as Father rambled through his homily—not even the words I spoke as I answered the priest’s calls:​​ “I believe in one God,” “And lead us not into temptation,” “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” I stood and sat and knelt, walked forward to receive the Eucharist, blessed myself, knelt again, sat and stood, and at the end of it all muttered, “Thanks be to God.” I stayed for a while after Mass ended, until the next swarm of congregants arrived for the noon. I zipped up my coat and left for home.

▴ ▴ ▴

I got there just before twelve. Eighteen hours till I clocked in the next morning. I opened my laptop and signed on, began scrolling through the women, waiting for Bellarosa. This was the first Sunday I’d been on and didn’t know when Bellarosa would log on, if ever. Then it was one, seventeen hours to go, and then two, sixteen hours. I shuffled around the apartment, kicking at clothes, sweatshirts, and work pants that were crusty with frozen-on dirt, sweatpants that I wore underneath, all of it needing a wash. I stopped in front of the bathroom mirror, hazy with age, and stared at my dull, dejected reflection. I went to my laptop. Fifteen hours at three, fourteen (and the darkness coming) at four, the dread as Sunday evening approached.

When I’d first moved out from my parents’ house, I still went over for Sunday dinner. For a few years I did this, and my mother asked how I liked working for the archdiocese, if I’d thought more about graduate school, and then when I started classes, how they compared to college. My father had never said much, and neither had my sister. She was still in undergraduate for most of that time, concerned with her own studies in nursing, and where she’d end up. But my mother didn’t have to ask her much—she’d get a job as a nurse, as expected.

I hadn’t been to dinner in almost a year, and the Sunday evening calls I’d started had stopped, too. I told them I was too tired from work, that I was busy. But really I didn’t want to hear what I’d heard that last dinner: my father telling me it was time to rethink my career (how he’d laughed, said what I had then wasn’t even a career). My sister asking if I planned to go back to school again, this time for a doctorate, sneering as she did. My mother saying I could move back in for a while, until I got set up somewhere better. Only I didn’t know exactly what that meant. In the months since then, when I saw my family over the holidays, the same words weren’t said, but no one needed to say anything. And I wouldn’t call that night, my eyes instead fixed on my laptop screen, waiting. Bellarosa signed on later in the day during the week, and Sundays could be the same. I didn’t need to hear what my parents would say. I would wait for Bellarosa, and then we would talk.

▴ ▴ ▴

That night I dreamt I was lugging slices of tree trunks the size of me to the chipper and shoving them in, watching as the gears chewed them up. Trunk after trunk, I dragged and pulled and rolled, lifted and pushed, again and again. I stayed there, and the trunks kept coming—ten then twenty then a hundred, all of them the same. I counted them and sang as I worked, and my voice sounded far-off but then came closer: the wood goes to the chipper, chip, chip, chip the wood, and the wood goes away, the wood goes away. My voice rose and fell as I struggled with the trunks, some words coming out only as grunts, and I grabbed and tossed, grabbed and tossed, my gloved hands gripping the trunks and releasing. My hands grew tired and my gloves began to rip, and as I pitched another in, a thread caught on a ridge of the bark and the glove unraveled, spinning around my hand till it got to my wrist and tightened, yanking me toward the chipper’s gaping mouth. I dug into the ground. I pressed one foot against the violently shaking edge, watching the thread disappear into the turning gears, and then it slipped off and I was closer, my feet kicking at the gears until each disappeared, painlessly, then my ankles, legs, knees, and thighs, all the way to my waist when the machine stopped. Bellarosa appeared above my head and she sang what I had: the wood goes to the chipper, chip, chip, chip the wood, and the wood goes away, the wood goes away until she became hazy, beginning to fade, her voice softer and softer until she was gone and the gears started up again, swallowing the rest of me and spitting my remains into the back of the truck. I didn’t wake up then. The spray of chips continued, the truck overflowing, piles building beside it, overtaking it.

▴ ▴ ▴

In the breakroom the next morning, Fin told me about his night. He’d been with PrincessLola, like he was most nights. Twenty minutes of bliss, he said. He called Sundays “The Sunday Special” to get him ready for the coming week, said the hundred bucks was always worth it.

I wanted to tell Fin about my dream, to ask if he’d had them, too. To ask if he’d felt the guilt early on, and how long it would last. If the happiness was real, or only in the moments he spent with her. What I did say was that I couldn’t work the chipper that day. My boss said when I’d been there as long as Fin, I could have a say in what I did. Until then, I was on the chipper. And all day that’s what I did, and for the rest of the week, too. It was me and Jorge out there, carrying bits of trunks and branches and twigs. With each one, I worried about nubs and splintered pieces, waiting to feel a tug toward the chipper.

It never came.

▴ ▴ ▴

As the week went on, as I rode the bus to and from, up and down the avenue, as I walked the mile from the stop to the club and the one block from the stop to my apartment, and as I was out on the course, I did what I could to forget about the dream, but I couldn’t forget the cold. My hands were numb, my ears burning, my throat sore, the taste of blood trickling down my tongue. It wasn’t till I was home and showered, bundled in a sweatshirt and sweats, my laptop in front of me and Bellarosa on the screen that I felt the warmth return.

I asked her how the weather was, hoping she’d give a hint, some indication of where she lived, but she only said it was below freezing at nights, but sunny during the day. Another message popped up in the chat, from Cockstrong: “where you live bb? let me warm you up”

Bellarosa smiled, said, “I can’t say, baby, but I’d love for you to warm me up in the Backroom.” She leaned forward, to her camera, tongue out and eyes closed.

Cockstrong, again: “i can do it beter in person bb just tell me where and im there bb”

Bellarosa, still smiling, still as charming as I’d seen her. Still responding to other messages, about her day, about her weekend, about how wet she was right then. She responded to each, one by one. The same men, the same questions, the same answers. Night after night, until one of them took her to the Backroom where sometimes I’d join and watch as they typed what they wanted and she complied: legs up, on her back, touching and licking and caressing. And other times a man would take her to the private room, leaving me and the others to wait, and we did, clicking back into her room as soon as she returned, and the conversations continued, and still I watched.

▴ ▴ ▴

At the end of the week, I signed on before she did and waited, refreshing the page until she appeared, and as I typed my welcoming message, she sighed, staring off beyond the camera. Chimes sounded, one after the other, her room filling up before she said a word. Girthyman was there, because he always was, and Cockstrong again, and ready4luv. All the names I’d seen before. They sent her messages, they asked how she was. She responded to each, her eyes moving between message board and camera, off to the side of the room that I couldn’t see, and back. She pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear, tapped her phone and changed the song. It was one I’d heard but didn’t know, and Bellarosa sang along, I only wanna do bad things to you, and hummed as the song continued, sang a word and hummed, sang another word and hummed. She stopped, told us how much she was obsessed with this song. The chimes continued and messages popped up, Bellarosa responded. She paused. “HandyHank,” she said, “I don’t think I’ve heard from you today. How are you, baby?”

Another chime, another man, but she didn’t respond.

I typed that I was good, then deleted the words, watched her looking at the camera, as if watching me back, and typed again, telling her I wanted to take her to the Private Backroom, away from the other men. I sent the message.

“Whatever you want, baby,” she said. “I’m all yours.”

I hovered over take bellarosa to the private backroom. If I didn’t, someone else would, and I’d have to join their show with other men, or wait until they were done. She replied to another message: “Oh, yes, baby, I want your big, fat cock between my tits,” and she tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and then traced her fingers down her jawline, to her neck, to her chest, and I clicked the button, there was a pause in the connection, and she reappeared, positioning herself closer to her camera.

“Hank,” she said, “thanks for taking me away, baby. It’s just you and me. If you have a camera, turn it on so I can see you.”

I typed back: “it isnt working rigth now…”

“Okay, baby,” she said. “What do you want to see?” She slipped one strap off her shoulder, then the other, holding her top up with one hand.

I stared at her staring into her camera, at nothing. She tilted her head. I had to say something or she’d think the connection was lost. I swiped at the mousepad, moving to the video button, and clicked. A light came on along the top edge of my laptop, and I saw myself appear in the top corner. My hair was disheveled and I hadn’t shaved in days. I saw a bit of dirt on my forehead that I’d missed, and my face was red from the wind and then the hot shower. I still didn’t say anything, but she smiled so wide I thought her face would split in two. “You have beautiful eyes,” she said. “And that mouth.” She moaned softly. She didn’t mention the worn fabric of the couch behind my shoulders or the cracked, faded paint behind my head.

I never wanted to leave.

And that’s how our nights went: I stayed up for as long as she was online. We chatted and went into the Private Backroom, and I told her what I wanted—Spread your legs and touch yourself. Face away from the camera and bend over. Reach behind, reach through, reach under. Get on your back. Suck on your toes, your dirty, filthy toes. Touch yourself. Tell me how you taste. Tell me, baby—and came back to the chatroom where there were other men, and then to the Backroom again and this time we’d just talk, the two of us. She asked what I did, and I told her I was a landscape architect, because saying I worked on a grounds crew just didn’t feel like myself. I told her that I, too, had read the Greek Gnostics, and showed her a book I had to prove it. She didn’t ask how I knew she’d studied that—she must’ve been used to men knowing things about her—and when she asked why I’d read the book, I told her I studied theology in college and again in graduate school. She asked why I’d picked that, what I wanted to do, and when I told her I didn’t know, that I still wasn’t sure, my face reddening as I remembered the times I’d told my parents that same line, when I’d told them about the jobs I hadn’t gotten, she smiled: “That’s okay, baby. You’re so young. You have time to figure that out.” And on we talked. Sometimes it wasn’t until eleven, twelve that she signed off, and I couldn’t sleep right away, my heart still fluttering, and I woke up tired, unwilling to leave the bed, waiting only for twelve hours from then when she’d return.

I worked later those days, till darkness, for the overtime.

I walked the three miles home to save the bus fare.

At the supermarket, I cut my already thrifty list by a quarter and stacked cut coupons in front of the register, and outside, when a homeless man sitting on the curb by the handicap spots asked for some money to buy food, I said, “I barely have enough for myself.”

And at night, I sat in the darkness, the faint light from the laptop illuminating my bent-over body, leaning closer and closer, and by the time I went to sleep, the bottom of my back was sorer than those long days on the chipper. I fell asleep slowly, roused by sudden jolts, imagining myself in the room with Bellarosa, on her bed, her whispering my name, but I could say the only name of hers I knew, saying it over and over: Bellarosa, Bellarosa, Bellarosa.

▴ ▴ ▴

I woke up to a text from Mark, telling me he’d be at the ten-thirty Mass and then brunch with his parents for his dad’s birthday. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw Mark, but I’d seen his parents from a distance the past few weeks, and when I got to the church they were already there, up front on the left, where they’d always sat. I’d wait till it was over to go over to them.

Mrs. Daly was the lector again. She began to read, from the Book of Job. How often I’d studied that book in college and graduate school. I became fascinated with Job, his suffering. Mrs. Daly’s voice lifted: “Do not human beings have a hard service on earth, and are not their days like the days of a laborer? Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like laborers who look for their wages, so I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me. When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I rise?’ But the night is long, and I am full of tossing until dawn. My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to their end without hope. Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good.”

I watched Mark’s back shift. He could never sit still, and especially in the hard, unforgiving wooden pews. Others around the church sat forward, shoulders squared, heads nodding slightly. How many of them heard these words but weren’t really listening—did they know what Job meant here, did they feel the pain that he did, losing hope with each passing minute and hour and day?

The Mass continued, and I half-listened. Corinthians and Mark, Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ. Father McCloskey moved from behind the lectern, preferring to take center stage for his homily.

“Well, I see we’re a little more crowded today,” he said. I glanced around. The pews didn’t seem much more filled than usual. Father McCloskey continued: “I suppose you’re here to pray for our Eagles, for victory tonight.” He laughed, and a ripple of chuckles spread over the congregation. When it stopped, he went on. He talked about the coming Lenten season, just ten days away. He held the missal like a football, sometimes holding it out, the cover facing us. He reminded us of our humanity, our suffering, how often we lose hope. But with the season of Lent, Father McCloskey said, comes the greatest hope in our faith, that soon the risen Lord will save us. He reminded us that the forty days prior were meant to prepare us, but that through those days of sacrifice, we would find ourselves pure and ready for the Lord to enter our lives in a more meaningful way.

Mark found me after Mass. He asked if I wanted to come into the city tonight for the game, told me I’d want to be there when they win, but I told him I was watching with some guys from work at a bar by me. I made a gesture, saying what could I do?

“The Mexicans watch football?” Mark smirked. He still looked young in so many ways—his hairless cheeks, his round nose—and his comments matched that.

“Yeah, but white guys, too.”

“Bunch of dudes, right? Okay, well if you change your mind, you know where I live.” He slapped my back. “I’ll text with where we’re going.” He started off, and his parents followed. “You should come,” he said, turning. “It’s been too long.”

▴ ▴ ▴

The game was all everyone talked about the next day. I hadn’t watched a single snap, but followed along through the shouts from different apartments, and knew who had won when the neighborhood streets filled with screaming fans.

Instead, I spent the night with Bellarosa. We chatted and went into the Backroom, back to chatting. I asked her what her perfume was, if she used scented deodorant, if she’d brushed her teeth since the morning. I asked her to tell me exactly what I’d smell if she were in the room, right next to me, but she always had the same answer: I smell like beautiful roses, baby. I asked, “If I were to kiss you, if I were to kiss you all over your body, what would I taste?” But still the same: Beautiful roses, baby. When she responded to other men’s messages, I took her into the Private Backroom. I carried my laptop around the kitchen, living room, and bedroom to show her where I lived, and she pointed out what she loved—the plates with the flowery rim, the piles of books (Gosh, Hank, how much do you read?), the antique chair I’d taken from the dumpster at the club.

In the grounds shop that morning, I repeated the lines about the game that I’d heard on the bus, and Fin nodded along with the others.

I didn’t care I’d missed it, and whenever anyone mentioned the game that week, I pumped my fist and said, “What a game,” but I thought of what Bellarosa had told me that night: “Your place looks so cozy, like it’s made for me and you.”

For a week, every night I carried her around, hoping to hear it again, and she said what I wanted to hear. She could picture herself on the couch and the bed, she said. She’d love to cook for me in that kitchen, she said. I was a gracious host, thanking her all along the way. I waited for her to show me around her apartment, but didn’t ask. I watched her chat with other men, but knew she’d keep our seven o’clock as best she could, hurrying along anyone in the Backroom, turning down requests if it got too close. She knew I liked to chat for a while first, and never pushed me into the Backroom early.

“Ready, Hanky?” she said, when seven approached.

“lets do this,” I typed back, fixing my hair and checking my teeth in the screen’s reflection before joining her.

Day after day, and I couldn’t remember my life before her. We joked and laughed, kissed each other good-bye. I sent her messages when she was offline, just to let her know I was thinking about her. She responded with smiley faces and winking faces, with hearts and “Aw, sweetie.”

I told her with Valentine’s Day coming up I needed her address to send her roses. “A dozen beautiful roses, for my beautiful rose,” I said. She lowered her head, “Oh, sorry, Hanky, I can’t do that.”

I played it off, said I was kidding, but that I still wanted her all to myself that coming Wednesday.

“You know I’m yours,” she said.

▴ ▴ ▴

When the day came, as Jorge drove us around in the truck, the chipper behind us, as I ate and pissed and walked to the bus stop heading home, I wanted to pull my phone out and sign on, to see if Bellarosa was there. And on the bus, hunched over in the hard plastic seat, I still felt that urge, but I focused instead on the storefronts and street signs that passed by. The bus rolled to each stop, the doors swung open, and I felt the cold rush of air and pulled my coat tighter around me. Men and women boarded and exited. A group of old ladies ascended the stairs unsteadily. On each’s forehead was a black smudge, and around the bus there were others with the same. I dropped my head, my thumb and forefinger pushing up my eyebrows.

It was Ash Wednesday, and I’d forgotten. It was the year before that I’d promised myself I’d find a job and start my career. I’d told my parents after the service, as we walked back home, that my degree was about to land me something special, maybe in education, at the college level. I told them that good things come to those who wait, and my mother smiled, having said those same words so often before.

I looked out the same window until the familiar storefronts that told me I was nearing my stop shook me awake, and I yanked on the cord above my head.

▴ ▴ ▴

I was home in three minutes, showered and dressed in another five, and on the couch with my laptop open after that.

She was on, but in a Private Backroom show. It was earlier than we usually met, and I clicked through other women. Lola and Britny and Sammy were on, also in shows. I went back to Bellarosa’s page and hit refresh, refresh, refresh, waiting for her to finish. When she did, appearing on my screen as she pulled a pink tank top over her head and adjusted herself, I typed, “happy v-day baby”

She swept her hair to the side, her fingers flowing through. Her lips parted and then closed together, puckered, blowing me a kiss. The music played softly—her shoulders swayed. She tapped her phone, switching songs—the one I knew, that one she’d sung before. I sent her a dollar tip, and then another and another. She smiled coyly with each one.

“You ready, baby?” she said. “I’ve been waiting all day for you.”

I typed slowly, awkwardly: “me too babe…im ready for u”

I clicked into the Backroom and hit the video icon in the corner, turning my camera on. Bellarosa’s screen widened on mine and she dropped one strap of her tank top, letting it fall to her elbow. She leaned forward and ran her finger down her neck to the top of her chest and back.

“I’ve been thinking about you all day,” I said.

“What have you been thinking, Hanky?” she said. “Tell me all of it.”

I recited what I always told her, what I’d do to her if we were together. She interjected “oohs” and “aahs” and “baby, yes.” She told me how bad I was. She sang, I only wanna do bad things to you.

“You like that?” I said. “You like how bad I am?”

“I love it so, so much.” Bellarosa dropped the other strap. Her tank wouldn’t stay on much longer. “You’re so good at being bad, baby.”

“I am,” I said. “I am, I am.”

She crossed her arms and took the straps all the way down, and the rest of the top followed. I shifted on my couch and stared at her on the screen.

Upstairs, the kid began to scream. I glanced at the ceiling and rolled my eyes.

“Ignore that,” I said, but Bellarosa had lifted both straps back to her shoulders. She gazed offscreen, scowling. The kid was still crying—shrill and piercing. I watched Bellarosa slip a robe on and cinch it at the waist.

“Hey,” I said. “What’re you doing? Where do you think you’re going?”

She spun toward the screen. “Don’t tell me what to do,” she said. “Don’t tell me to ignore my kid.”

“Your kid?” I looked at the ceiling again, then back to Bellarosa. For a moment, I imagined her upstairs, living in my building, being so close to me these past few weeks.

“My kid,” she said. “Listen, I need to go. If you’re still on when I’m back, that’s fine. If not, that’s fine, too.”

Her bluntness confused me—I’d never heard her speak so shortly, not even with the men who harassed her with vulgar comments. What had I done to deserve that, after treating her so nicely? An emptiness filled me, deep in my gut. My mind went blank. I tried to say more, but all that came out was, “Your kid?”

Bellarosa shook her head and muttered something I couldn’t hear. She leaned toward the screen, her eyes darting back and forth. Her robe loosened and her tank top drooped. I stared at the opening, at the flesh that swung under her clothes, and then the screen shut off. A notice told me Bellarosa was offline, that I could go back to view other women who were ready to play.

The emptiness moved into my throat. I swallowed hard, afraid I might throw up, and felt my body rocking, a dizzying motion. I clicked back to the main page of women, the thumbnail images appearing. Some smiled seductively, others presented their asses, their faces half-turned to me. None of them interested me. I closed my laptop.

It was nearing six. There wouldn’t be another Ash Wednesday service that day, I didn’t think, but the church would be open. I grabbed my jacket and left, back on the bus and up the avenue to the church. The inside was dimly lit and nearly empty except for some old men and women up front and a man in the back corner where I’d come in.

I settled in on the other side of his pew and glanced at him as I knelt. There was a peacefulness watching him read, his finger running carefully along each line.

Father McCloskey appeared on the altar in his black priest garb. He passed by each person, glancing at them as they prayed. He stopped at the man and put his hand on his shoulder and then slid into the pew in front of me, his arm resting on the back, his body turned to face me.

“Hank, it’s good of you to come by today. If you want, I have some ashes from earlier. If you want a blessing to begin your Lent.”

My forehead felt bare. I leaned back, my butt pressing against the edge of the pew. “In a little,” I said. “I don’t think I’m quite ready yet.”

“Come find me,” Father McCloskey said as he nodded and moved along. I leaned forward, elbows on the pew back. I would find him, in a while, but right then that was all I wanted: the quiet of the church, the sight of others who had come there so late in the day, each of us there for a reason that no one else knew.

T.S. Bender is a writer and teacher who grew up outside of Philadelphia and now lives in Maryland with his wife and beagle. He is currently working on a novel, which includes “Bellarosa.”