I knock on James's door. His windows are covered, but they glow faintly from the inside light, the steady glow of electricity. No candles tonight. Although it was only yesterday I spied through his windows, it seems a long time ago. This time I didn't sneak up to his house, and I didn't wait until after midnight. I drove, parked my car next to his, and it's barely nine o'clock.
When he opens the door, my resolve falters for just a second. In his presence, I get a clear sense of my own inadequacy. I push the feeling all the way down, then say, "I don't want to forget about it."
He looks at me, one hand on the door, his blond hair slightly damp. Although I left the main house soon after he did, he still, apparently, had time to shower and change. He looks as if he's going out for the evening -- gray dress slacks, long-sleeved maroon shirt, a faint trace of cologne, something musky. He doesn't seem surprised to see me. He opens the door farther. "I've been expecting you," he says.
Although he doesn't invite me in, I squeeze past him, stepping into his house. Automatically, I lay my car keys on the table by the door, as if I'd done it many times before. The lights are dim, the paintings on the walls too dark to see clearly. Upstairs, in the loft, a brighter light illuminates what I assume is his bedroom. "What made you think I'd come?" I ask.
"Just a hunch," he says, and he shuts the heavy door. It closes with an ancient sound, a hollow thud, like the sealing of a tomb. "This afternoon, on the patio, you looked as if you were unwilling to let it go. I didn't expect you so soon, however, not tonight."
I walk over to the stone hearth fireplace. A long black leather couch and three large chairs are arranged in front of it, in a U shape, with an Oriental carpet in the center. Taken by itself, his furniture appears hugely out of proportion, oversized, yet in this room, which seems as large as a medieval hall, it fits right in.
"Sit down," he says, switching on a light.
I choose one of the chairs. He sits opposite me, on the leather couch, and he runs his fingers through his damp hair, gazing at me directly, openly. His jaw, square, solid looking, is like a chunk of granite. There's a power to his presence, and he seems as he always does -- sure of himself, a man who doesn't hesitate if action is required. I'm still wearing the clothes I've had on all day -- paisley walking shorts, a long vest, a white knit top -- and compared to him, in his tailored slacks and elegant shirt, I feel dressed down, wilted. Patiently, he waits for me to begin.
"What I saw last night," I say. "I liked it. I'm not sure why ... but I did." I know I sound unsure of myself, my sentences chopped, my voice tentative. I say, "I really liked it."
James leans forward, places his elbows on his knees, then rests his chin on his interlocked fingers, looking me over. I feel awkward in his silence, as if I'd said something wrong.
"You don't know me." He says this quietly, but it sounds like a warning. "Not at all."
I shrug, as if I'm unconcerned.
He gazes at me for a minute. Finally, he says, "I don't get involved with inexperienced women. Things can get ... out of hand. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
I can tell he doesn't expect an answer. He leans back, drapes his arm along the back of the couch.
I get up and sit next to him. Having never played the seductress before, I'm unsure what to do next. Tentatively, I place my hand on his chest, feel the smooth fabric of his shirt, feel the heat of his body coming through.
He slowly smiles. He says, "Gina warned me about you."
"What did she say?"
"That you'd be trouble."
I slide my hand over the contours of his chest, the planes of muscle firm against my palm. He allows me this touch but doesn't utter a word. I say, "It sounds to me like she's jealous."
"Maybe you're right," he says, smiling a little. "Maybe you're right." He adds, "Still, she made a point -- you're not the type of woman I get involved with."
I say, "This is something I want." I hesitate, searching for the words to convince him, then add, "Something I need."
He watches me, thinking. Finally, he shakes his head, a small movement. He says, "You don't know what you're saying."
"Maybe not. But I want to learn."
I can tell, by the way he's looking at me, as if he's reassessing me, assigning a new value to my worth, that he will not refuse me now. Embarrassed, I gaze off to the side.
He puts his hand under my chin, forces me to look straight in his eyes. "Are you sure you want to do this?" he asks. "Because once we get started, I may not let you back out."
My breathing becomes shallow, anxious. "I won't back out," I tell him.
He nods, his hand still under my chin. "All right," he says suddenly, making up his mind. "I have to make a call," and he walks over to the desk, picks up the phone. After he punches in a number, I hear him talking to someone, saying he can't make it this evening. As soon as he says this, I feel a sudden twinge of panic. I didn't think we'd actually do anything tonight, especially when I saw he was dressed to go out. I assumed we would begin another day.
He hangs up the phone. "Come here," he says, walking over to the wrought-iron staircase.
Slowly, I rise. I say, "I told my neighbor I was going to be here tonight, with you."
He chuckles, a low amused laugh. "There's a term for that," he says. "It's called a silent alarm -- you tell friends where you'll be and that you'll check in at a certain time; if you don't, they notify the police." He unbuttons the cuffs on his maroon shirt, then rolls up his sleeves, taking his time, first one, then the other.
"Except I don't believe you," he adds. "I don't think you told anyone at all." He rests his hand on the black railing of the staircase. "Now come over here."
When I reach the staircase, he points for me to go up. As soon as I start to climb the stairs, he wraps his hand around my arm, making me stop. I feel the strength of him, of his fingers pressing into my flesh.
"Do you really think anyone can help you now?" he asks.
Feeling uneasy, I walk up the stairs. The upper level, like the lower, is open, without dividing walls, the only partition a high brick barrier screening off the bathroom. A wooden balustrade runs along the length of the loft, and the floor, also, is planked with wood. As with the main level, my first impression is one of medieval elegance -- exposed rafters, lots of space, a brooding darkness even though a light shines in the far corner. On the left, I see his sleeping area, an extra-large bed, dark wooden furniture, a long trunk on the floor; on the right, the brick-enclosed bathroom; and in the center, a spacious painter's studio, an easel pushed off to the side, a table cluttered with brushes in glass jars and squished tubes of paint, a stone hearth fireplace, similar to the one downstairs, a couch and two chairs, and an enormous arched window, framed in brick, where the loft door must have once been. Stacks of canvases lean against the balustrade and the brick barrier.
I go over to the studio. In the middle, near the large window, a hoist-and-pulley device is suspended from the rafter in the ceiling. And from the hoist hangs a contraption of chains and clips and metal bars and black leather straps. It seemed part of the studio at first, but now I see that it isn't. With my eyes, I follow the hoist line, see that the rope is tied off on a metal cleat that is bolted to the wall.
James comes over and stands behind me. Faintly, I smell the muskiness of his cologne. He doesn't touch me, but I feel his body close to mine, almost brushing against my clothes. "That's a harness," he explains. "For suspension bondage. I don't usually keep it out, but I used it last night. After I whipped her."
I reach out and touch it, the smooth leather, the chain slightly cool. I finger one of the clips.
"That's called a panic snap," he says. "It's a quick-release device, in case something goes wrong." He reaches over my shoulder to show me how it works. With one hand, he slides up part of the clip. Instantly, the hook drops open and, with a thud, the leather harness falls to the floor. "A panic snap can get you out of a dangerous situation," he says.
A panic snap. My amnesia is like that, allowing me to escape a dangerous situation. It's my own quick-release device, so I don't have to face the truth. But the past is still there, and something did go wrong. A panic snap didn't save me from that.
Reaching up, I touch the clip again. The hook, empty of the harness, dangles open. The contraption, the hoist and chains and metal bars, frightens me. "Maybe we could save this for another time," I say.
He closes the drapes on the loft window, then walks over to the trunk and sits down. The trunk looks antique -- dark wood, intricate hand carving on the panels -- and it's very large and sturdy, with metal rings secured on the bottom. He says, "Lesson one, Carly: You don't make the rules, I do."
I don't say anything.
"Do you understand?" he asks. There's a slight edge to his voice, a tightness.
"Good," he says. "Now take off your clothes."
I hesitate for a minute.
The corner of his mouth lifts in a wry smile. "You look as if you're being forced to swallow bitter medicine," he says, folding his arms across his chest. "Don't tell me you're not enjoying this -- isn't this what you wanted?"
I don't reply. I kick off my sandals. I take off my vest, then the walking shorts. I start to fold them so they won't wrinkle, but change my mind and let them fall to the floor. I pull the knit top over my head.
"The rest," he orders when I hesitate.
Reaching around my back, I unhook my bra, slip it off, then slide down my panties. I step out of them, I drop them on the pile of clothes. Anxious, I wait for what comes next. I want to cross my arms, but I don't. I just stand there, feeling ill at ease.
He stares at me, taking his time. I shift to my other foot. He looks at my arms. I'm strong for my size, my biceps toned and fairly well defined from my habit of lifting weights. He motions for me to come near. I walk forward.
"Closer," he says. When I get to him, he reaches over to a chest of drawers and turns on another lamp. He continues looking at me closely, inspecting my body as if it were a blueprint to be carefully studied. He doesn't touch me, not once. With each passing minute, my discomfort increases. I feel my scars expanding, snaking across my body, as purple as varicose veins. I realize this is all in my mind. Most of my scars have disappeared, and even the remaining few, from the deeper, more serious wounds, are faint after fifteen years of healing, just thin white lines, delicate, like fine thread.
He tells me to turn around, looks at me from behind, then, when he's finished, has me turn back again. Still, he keeps his hands off me.
He looks at my face next. It's unnerving to have someone stare for so long, taking in every detail, every defect. The doctors took special care with my face, using extra-small stitches and frequent dressings so the scarring would be minimal. The few facial scars that do remain are hidden -- buried in the hairline, behind my ear, under the chin. Even after all these years, I embarrass under scrutiny.
Finally, softly, he says, "There's a vulnerability about you -- around the eyes."
I think, Of course I look vulnerable -- you fractured my eye sockets in several different places.
He examines the rest of my face. I stare off to the side, barely able to endure this. Other than my doctors, no one has looked at me this closely, nor for this length of time.
When he's finished, he leans back slightly. Only now do I look at him. "You have a few scars," he says.
Immediately, I tense, fearing, although I know it's unlikely, that he's guessed who I am. My heart pounds. "I was a tomboy growing up," I say, making my voice sound natural.
He puts his finger on my skin, and I jump, startled by his touch. He traces the scar on my hip.
"Not many men notice them," I say, talking out of nervousness. This is true. I like to keep the lights off while I'm making love. If men notice, they see them the next morning -- but even that is rare. Men, I've found, aren't as perceptive on the morning after.
"I noticed," he says. He traces another scar, the one near my waist, his finger moving slowly, lightly, like the gentle brush of a feather. I hold my breath.
He looks up at me and says, "Are you nervous?"
"Good," he says. "You should be." He places both hands on my waist, holding me firmly. He bends his head and -- surprisingly -- licks the scar, his tongue a wet glide, a sliding glissando of moist flesh over flesh, the gesture so sensuous it almost makes me relax, almost makes me give in to the gentle movement of his tongue. And then he bites me.
I suck in my breath, a short gasp, feeling the sudden sharp sting of pain. He holds me securely, his hands spanning my waist so I can't move away, watches me as I look down and see the impress of his teeth marks on my pale skin. His bite didn't draw blood, but it wasn't gentle either. It hurt.
He holds me tighter and starts the process again, licking and biting. He goes from one scar to the next, and then the next. I clamp down on my lip so I won't call out, but after a few minutes, I start to cry, silently, angrily, just a few tears, a quiet protest against his biting teeth. I don't cry for the pain -- he isn't biting me that hard -- but for the gross unfairness of the act, the infliction of fresh wounds directly over the old. I hide my scars, he magnifies them. It doesn't seem fair. He sees my tears, but he doesn't stop. He turns me around and continues, his hands grasped firmly around my waist.
When he's finished, he lifts me onto his lap. He looks at the teeth marks on my body, so much more pronounced than the scars. Tomorrow I'll have many bruises. He puts his hand on my face, feels the wetness of my tears. He's so much larger than I, that I feel like a child sitting on his lap.
"Is this what you wanted? What you needed?" he asks, pointing to the teeth marks on my inner thigh, his voice mocking.
I knock his hand away.
"I guess not," he says, and he quickly puts his arm under my legs and carries me to the bed, tosses me down. He goes over to a chest of drawers, opens one, pulls out something. I lie still where he threw me, watching him, the immensity of him, then feel a sudden burst of panic, wanting to be anywhere but here. Unable to stop myself, in a gut reaction to fear, I scramble to the edge of the bed and start to get up. But he's beside me, circling my waist with his arm. He turns me over and shoves me down roughly, my face smashed in the bed covers, then puts something around my wrist -- a leather cuff, I see, with a rope attached -- then ties it off to the headboard.
"I warned you I wouldn't let you back out," he says, pinning me down.
Physically, I know I'm no match for him. He holds me easily. I struggle not to fight against him, not to show my fear.
"Why don't you -- " I begin, but quickly, without warning, he slaps a gag on my mouth. Automatically, I reach up with my free hand. He grabs it, attaches a cuff, ties it off on the other side of the headboard so I'm face down, my arms spread. This happens so fast, it shocks me. He goes to the foot of the bed, grabs my legs, and pulls, sliding me down until the ropes on my wrists stretch taut. I try to speak, but my words, under the gag, come out muffled, unheard. He cuffs and ropes my ankles, tying them off to something beneath the bed, my legs spread wide. I'm too scared to feel the embarrassment of this position.
He returns to the head of the bed and looks down at me. His shirt is disheveled, untucked in the front, and a tuft of blond hair falls in his eyes. I'm breathing heavily, the gag tight on my mouth.
"Calm down," he says, brushing back his hair. He watches me for a minute, staring at my face. He reaches for the pillows -- there are four of them -- and tosses them to the foot of the bed. He turns, crosses the room, walks behind the brick partition closing off the bathroom.
I pull against the restraints, but the ropes, secured tightly, don't budge. I hear the toilet flush, then the sound of water running while he washes his hands. When he comes out, his shirt is straightened and tucked inside his pants. He turns off the light above the studio, then comes over to me. He removes the gag. I force myself to remain silent.
"That's better," he says. He lays the gag on the oak chest, then pulls a whip out of the drawer. It's the same one he used last night -- a short handle to grip, many black leather straps, each about two feet long.
"This is called a flogger," he says, then he leans over and puts the handle next to my lips. "Kiss it."
The handle is wooden, shiny with varnish, rounded, and with a knob at the end. Reluctantly, I lean my head forward, brush my lips against the wood.
"Now lick it," he says.
I look up at him.
"Go on," he says. "Lick it. You're going to be great friends with this whip."
I stick out my tongue, barely touch the wood. He watches, runs his hand along my outstretched arm, then he picks up the whip. He walks behind me. My muscles tense, getting ready to feel the sting of the whip, but it doesn't come. I twist my head around.
He bends over and takes the cuff off my left ankle, then he takes the one off my right. I pull my legs together, still looking back at him.
"If you kick," he says, "I'll put them back on. Do you understand?"
He gets three pillows from the floor. "Roll up," he says, tapping me on the side. When I don't move, he says it again, "Roll up," putting a stern edge on I his voice.
I lift up, and he pushes the pillows under my hip, then reaches around and pulls them through from the other side, until they're squarely beneath me, raising my buttocks in the air. I clench my jaw with indignation, humiliated to have my ass pushed up like this, elevated, on display, as if I were offering him a morsel, a tidbit, on a serving platter.
I look back at him. He has the whip by the handle, his wrist turned over, dangling the straps, shaking them loose, it seems, and then he steps back with his right foot, draws back his arm like a baseball pitcher getting ready to throw. I squeeze shut my eyes, feel all my muscles clench, then gasp as the straps hit my flesh, my arms pulling against the ropes, a burning pain slashing down my right buttock. Before I have time to recover, he strikes me again, the left buttock this time, and I gasp once more, feeling the pain. He strikes me over and over, rapidly, each blow a racking jolt of pain that stabs at my flesh, almost unbearable, and then the pain of my surgeries comes flashing through my mind, and then, abruptly, the memory of the greater pain, lying still, almost dead, but feeling the broken bones and cut flesh and damaged skin, blood all around, sticky warm blood, blood in my mouth, darkness all around, and I'm waiting to die, wanting to die, but I didn't, and I am here, and now I am sobbing, begging him to stop, crying out his name.
He sits on the edge of the bed, places his hand on my back. "Breathe deeply," he says, but I am still sobbing. He leans closer. "Breathe," he whispers, drawing out the word, and he rubs my back slowly, his palm warm on my flesh, a gentle move I don't expect from him.
"Breathe with me," he says, his voice a soft whisper. And I begin to hear the rhythm of his breath, slow and deep, the exhale a long, leisurely release of air, a gentle sea breeze, a warm soughing of wind, and I close my eyes and breathe with him, his face close to mine, sharing the air. We breathe together, minutes go by, maybe more, his palm laying down lazy circles on my back.
When he straightens up, he reaches for the whip.
"No!" I say.
"Yes," he replies. "There is more."
"James, please -- "
"Shhh," he says, placing his fingers over my mouth. When he sees I won't say anything more, he sets down the whip and reaches over and takes off the right wrist cuff, then the left.
I think he's changed his mind, there won't be any more, but then he moves me down to the very edge of the bed, has me get up on all fours.
"If you fight me," he warns, "I'll put the cuffs back on."
He moves my knees apart, then tells me to go down on my elbows. Once again, my ass is in the air. I turn my head, see him pick up the whip. My body tenses.
He puts his hand on me, on my hip, my buttock, my thigh. "Relax," he orders, "breathe."
I think of the whip. I think of the pain.
"Breathe," he says again, his hand still on my haunch, and this time I close my eyes and try to relax. Several minutes go by before the touch of his hand leaves me. Again I feel the sting of his whip, the slashing pain on my ass. I clench my hands into fists, drawing them close to my body. He leans over and pulls out my arms, pries open my fists.
"I don't want to see you tightening your muscles, he says, "or tensing your body." He pauses, then adds, "Settle in, Carly, because I'm just beginning."
I close my eyes again, waiting for the whip. When it comes, I jerk, feeling the pain, but this time I concentrate on my breathing and I relax before the next blow arrives. He strikes me again, on the top of my back, and I shudder, wanting this to be over, but he whips me again and again, on my ass, my back, my thighs, and I wait for the memory of that earlier long-forgotten pain to return, the darkness and blood and the feeling of death in every broken bone, but it doesn't come. It is gone, faded away. The pain I feel now is of a different kind, sharp and burning, the pain of the here-and-now, and as I concentrate on my breath, my gasps begin to come out as low groans, and I keep my fingers unfurled, telling myself the pain will lessen the more I relax.
But it doesn't. I feel each strike painfully, and sometimes I forget to breathe, and James leans over and reminds me, then he hits me again, and again, and again. I don't know how long this continues, I've lost all sense of time, and it takes me a minute to realize when the blows have stopped. I wait, expecting more, but nothing comes. My buttocks feel warm and prickly, tender. I wait longer, then finally allow myself hope that he is through.
When I open my eyes, I see him walking toward me from the bathroom, his shirt unbuttoned, a glass of water in his hand. I dare not move. As he gets closer, I see he is flushed, and beads of sweat linger on his chest and face.
He gulps the water, watching me, sets the glass on the armoire, then takes off his shirt. His chest is broad, muscled, lightly tanned, with not much hair. I want to ask him if I can move, but I'm afraid to speak, afraid to disturb the silence. He slips off his shoes and socks, then picks up the whip. I close my eyes, waiting, knowing more is still to come. He's not finished with me yet.
He begins again, and the pain starts all over. There is a rhythm to the way he whips, although he breaks it up, surprising me with three rapid strikes within a sequence of slow hits. The pain mounts, a crescendo of blows, while he moves from side to side, slowly, striking me from here, lashing out from there, placing each stroke deliberately, like an artist covering his canvas, and then, despite the pain, or maybe even because of it, I notice something strange within myself, acceptance, perhaps, or something more urgent than that, some kind of temptation or hunger that comes from deep inside, a feeling too disturbing to acknowledge. I concentrate on my breath.
Then I feel his hand move between my legs, insinuating, and I open my eyes and forget to breathe. His fingertips brush against the lips of my vagina. I hold my breath, waiting, tense. Not once this evening has he touched me in a sexual manner.
"Spread your knees more," he says, pushing them apart farther with his other hand. He lays his palm on my buttock, and I feel the heat of my own flesh, the hotness left behind from the scourge of the whip. With his other hand, he slides the tips of his fingers along the opening of my vagina, barely making contact, a brushstroke touch. I remain motionless, apprehensive, waiting, but he neither penetrates nor causes me pain. The muscles in my back and shoulders, down my legs and in my calves, are tight, taut, and I feel the bare touch of him, teasing it seems, or torturing, and then I remember his appeal, forgotten in the pain, but it's coming back to me now, and I realize -- or maybe I knew it all along -- that I want him to fuck me.
As if he could read my mind, he pushes a finger inside me, twists it around. He puts in two fingers, and I relax, accepting him.
"You're dripping," he says. He removes his fingers and, leaning forward, with one knee on the bed, he shoves them in my mouth. I suck his fingers to the knuckles, tasting myself, smelling myself.
"Don't move," he says, taking his fingers out of my mouth, then he gets up, standing behind me. I hear him unbuckling his belt, the rustle of a sliding zipper, his pants falling to the floor, then more movement as he steps out of his underwear. I try to turn around, to look at him, lift up on one elbow, but he puts his hand on my back and shoves me down.
"There's nothing here you need to see," he says, and his fingers are inside me again, palpating. I hear him go down on his knees, and I think he is going to fuck me now, but instead he slaps my ass sharply with the palm of his hand. I tighten up, let out a sudden cry, surprised by the unexpected pain. He keeps his fingers inside me, moving them around.
"This feels better, doesn't it?" he asks.
I nod, not sure if he is referring to the pain or the pleasure, too afraid to ask. He slides out his fingers and goes to my clitoris, rubbing gently. He hears me sigh, a soft moan.
"You like this?" he asks, and I nod again, closing my eyes. He continues rubbing, then uses his other hand on me as well, his fingers hard and cool and pushing against me, determined, trying to wedge inside my vagina but not succeeding, and I feel myself growing wetter, wanting more, impatient, so I press back against him, then abruptly realize it is not his finger pushing against me, but something else, something hard and round: the wooden handle of the whip.
"James?" I ask, uncertain, a slight protest.
"Quiet," he commands as he continues to work it inside me, twisting it in bit by bit, nudging, prying me open with the whip that had caused me so much pain, and then, unexpectedly, I feel myself getting even wetter, yielding to the thought of this violation, wanting it, wanting more, and all of a sudden the handle slips in easily, slick with my own juice, and then he fucks me with it, his other hand still on my clitoris, rubbing, until he makes me come.
When he removes the handle, he puts the rounded knob up to my lips. I know what he wants, but I don't comply. I've had enough of the whip for one evening.
"Suck on it," he orders, and he shoves it in my mouth, holds it there, makes me gag. He pushes his penis inside me and fucks me roughly, his hands on my back and head, holding me down, getting what he wants, watching me suck the wooden handle of his black leather whip.
When he is through, he leans down and kisses the back of my shoulder -- the only kiss he has given me tonight -- and then whispers in my ear. "You don't understand anything yet," he says, "but before I'm finished with you, you will." He kisses my shoulder again, then adds, "And you'll give me what I want."
I don't ask him what that is.