In this final excerpt from the novel Rat Park, super-agent and sex addict Lester Barnes shares his deepest wishes and darkest fears with his Brentwood shrink, unexpectedly meets the love of his life Raquel Donner, and then, in an instant, all is lost.
“Find your park, Lester. And you won’t live in a cage.”
“Is that what your fortune cookie said last night at Shanghai Palace?” says Lester Barnes, staring out the window of his shrink’s office on Montana Avenue in Brentwood.
“Do you have sex with people with whom you normally would not associate?”
“Yes,” says Lester Barnes.
“Do you usually want to get away from your sexual partner after an encounter?”
“Do you use sex to escape from uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety, fear, anger, resentment, which disappear when the sexual obsession starts?”
“Do you restrict your sexual life to fantasy, masturbation, and anonymous encounters?”
“Does life seem meaningless and hopeless without a sexual encounter?”
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“I got caught. It was your office versus going to County.”
“Think about a lab rat and a Native American Indian on a reservation,” says the silver-haired shrink. “What do they have in common?”
“One’s a cokehead, the other’s a drunk. They’re both victims of systemic genocide by white people.”
“Why do they hit the same lever over and over again?”
“They’re genetically disposed and can’t help themselves?”
“It’s because they live in cages, Lester.”
“My assistant died today. Maybe it was yesterday, I don’t remember. Her death was celebrated at Omniscience by assistants eager to clink glasses over her demise. Aurelie volunteered for a group of old maids, Saving Bassett Hounds of Studio City. They were the ones who found Daisy. She’s not doing too good, bone cancer. My dog, not the assistant. I heard Aurelie went to a showing at Sierra Towers and took a running leap off the 12th floor balcony to make her own star on Sunset Boulevard.”
“Did you ever hear about the experiment they did with lab rats to prove that drugs were not dangerously addictive?”
“This team of psychologists took two dozen rats and put half of them in cages of solitary confinement. The other twelve got to live in a park with food, females, and fun things to do. They gave the rats the option of drinking plain water or water that had been sweetened and spiked with heroin. All the rats in solitary OD’d,” says the shrink.
“There’s a pizza place in New York called Stromboli that puts sugar in the tomato sauce. The only people who go to Stromboli are cab drivers and junkies.”
“The rats in the park avoided the black tar water.”
“They were too busy fucking and eating slices,” says the patient.
“The psychologists behind the experiment realized the rats chose heroin not because it was addictive but because of how confined they were, the same way Native American Indians felt dislocated to reservations.”
“They needed existential relief,” says Lester Barnes.
“They chose an addictive lifestyle to deaden the pain.”
“They chose to escape through a double life.”
“Who are we talking about?”
“We’re talking about me,” says Lester Barnes.
“Lose the cage. Find your park.”
“The dream is always the same.”
“The Nightman is back?”
“I wake up screaming,” he tells his shrink.
“Who is the Nightman to you, Lester?”
“Last night it was Mildred—I mean, Mikey.”
“Mikey who gave you his porn collection? Who’s Mildred?”
“You said Mildred.”
“Mildred Dayton was Mikey’s neighbor and my first.”
“First what? First time, first kiss?”
“Both,” he tells his shrink.
“How old were you?”
“How old was she?”
“It’s really not funny, Lester.”
“I’m not laughing. I was with her the day she died.”
“What were her last words?”
“‘Lick it, Lester! Lick it!’”
“Did your father know? What did he say?”
“‘Don’t spend a dime of your allowance on rubbers.’”
“Lester, your father is the Nightman.”
“If the Nightman is back, obviously I’m terrified.”
“What’s going on at the office?”
“That’s not it. I didn’t think my plan would work, but it did, and now I can tell you about the new girl,” says the patient.
“I met this civilian and we fooled around on our second date, which scares me more than the Nightman. I never kiss on the lips, because, well, you know.”
“I saw Pretty Woman,” says the shrink.
“She’s a great kisser, let me tell you. I don’t know if I’m any good, it’s been so long, I mean, who knows?”
“They say kissing is like wine. I have a friend who owns a vineyard in Napa and people ask him all the time: ‘How do you know if a wine’s any good?’ And he says, ‘When you want to take another sip.’”
“Raquel spent the night at my place after we had a few drinks at Mink Slide II, but we haven’t done it yet.”
“When was the last time you paid for it?”
“This morning,” he admits.
“Couldn’t you have had bacon and eggs?”
“Don’t knock it till you try it.”
“I hope you’re safe. I can give you Truvada,” says the shrink.
“I’m so cautious I wear three helmets.”
“Is new girl aware of your transactional lifestyle?”
“I don’t want to scare away Raquel,” says the patient.
“Lester, I’m scared for you.”
The table in the back of Shanghai Palace is reserved for the Donner Party. Lester Barnes walks into the Sunday night family dinner at the Chinese restaurant, bumps into Raquel’s mother, and pinballs into the chest of his silver-haired father-in-law whom he recognizes as his court-appointed Brentwood shrink. Like flash-frozen fish sticks, the gentlemen defuse their epiphanies of horror with BAFTA-worthy performances that turn a familial fender-bender into a moment of postured laughter and warm introductions. Raquel’s father realizes something his wife does not: Their daughter has eloped with his legally mandated patient suffering severe childhood PTSD/deceptive relational sexual compulsivity disorder. Lester Barnes and his shrink communicate wordlessly by pretending to study their menus, wheeling cups of hot green tea on the lazy Susan, shielding their lips from Raquel and her mother discussing their whirlwind romance.
(“This. Is. So. Wrong!”) mouths the shrink.
(“I. Agree! Order. Some. Dishes!”)
The Chinese waiter writes down the order of pan-fried veggie dumplings, Orange Beef, sautéed garlic string beans, and Moo Shu Pork with extra pancakes.
Lester Barnes decides to tank the evening.
“Does anyone know where the word ‘honky’ comes from?”
Raquel and her mother shake their heads.
“In Harlem, whenever a white guy in a Mercedes wanted a hooker to come over, he would honk his horn so the streetwalkers called that guy a ‘honky.’”
“Fuck,” says the shrink.
“Dad! What’s wrong?”
“Since we’re on the subject, the etymology of the word ‘Fuck’ must be discussed. ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.’”
“The Van Halen album,” says Lester Barnes.
“You are half right,” says Raquel’s father. “There was this cop in New York City who got so tired of doing all the paperwork arresting hookers and johns ‘for unlawful carnal knowledge’ he made his own rubber stamp with the letters F-U-C-K so he could stamp that on the forms.”
“Honey, I hate to make you look bad, but the F-word was around centuries before your NYPD Blue,” says Raquel’s mother. “During the time of the Black Death, it was against the law to have sex in certain European countries. The only way to avoid imprisonment was to have a royal seal on your door that said: “Fornication under Consent of the King.”
“I don’t believe that,” says Raquel. “Golf doesn’t mean ‘Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden’ and Tips doesn’t come from ‘To Insure Prompt Service.’”
“Pluck yew,” says Lester Barnes.
“Screw you, Les.”
“No, I’m saying that’s where the word comes from. In medieval times, England and France were always fighting each other and the French would cut off the middle fingers of English archers they captured so they couldn’t shoot a bow and arrow, or ‘pluck the yew.’ Every time they went to war, the English would scream ‘Pluck yew!’ and raise their middle fingers at the French, showing they could still draw the string of their longbows. This one-finger salute over the years became ‘Fuck You.’”
The table erupts with laughter and extended middle fingers. Tsing Tao beers are served, poured, and clinked in a toast to the couple.
“Tell us about your family, Lester,” asks Raquel’s mother.
“You know what my father did to my mother.”
“How would my Dad know that?”
“It’s not for me to say,” says the shrink.
“Do I tell them about Mildred?”
“Who is Mildred?” asks Raquel’s mother.
“She took my virginity.”
“Pardon?” says Raquel’s mother.
“He knows me because he’s my shrink.”
“Wait, wait, what?” says Raquel’s mother.
“He knows my cage.”
“You were incarcerated?” asks Raquel’s mother.
“Tell them what we did, Lester,” says Raquel.
Raquel’s mother slams down her fists onto the table.
“What did you do, goddamn it!”
Chopsticks halt, E.F. Hutton beat, Shanghai Palace riveted by this unfolding Hulu drama.
“They eloped,” says Raquel’s father. “He told me in our last session.”
Raquel’s mother storms out of the restaurant pursued by her husband and daughter. Alone at the round table, Lester Barnes signals for a check before the dishes ever arrive.
* * *
Adam Novak is the author of The Non–Pro, Take Fountain, and Freaks of the Industry. Rat Park opens 3/15/22 courtesy of Red Giant Books.