Authors: Elizabeth Bennett
“Well,” she laughs, “and how was the artist's colony up north?”
He grins at her, clasping her hand. Pauline has tactfully left them alone in the apartment, claiming another appointment. For hours, the three of them have been locked in conference, pooling their information, setting their objectives, making their plans. Joanna feels flushed with energy and power. For the first time in her own recent memory, she has something important to do.
“Just fine,” Christopher says. “I thought of you.”
“You did?” she asks, pleased.
“I even painted you, my memory of you.”
“Oh God.” Joanna flushes. “Not tied up in a closet, I hope?”
He laughs fondly. “No,” Christopher says. “Wait here.”
She watches him rise and leave the room. The late afternoon sun darkens in shadow across the Persian rug, and Joanna knows she will have to leave soon. She dreads the ride home to the suburbs, the simple, immaculate meal Curtis will prepare, the simpleminded chatter he will expect of her. She helps herself to another cup of tea, now cold in the silver teapot.
Christopher returns, carrying a stiff piece of board. “For you,” he says. “I want you to have it. It isn't signed, for obvious reasons.”
Joanna takes the painting, a sweet watercolor of herself, reclining in her white strapless bathing suit on the pale sand, the ocean stretching before her in beautiful colors. “How lovely,” she says. “This is how you think of me.”
“Yes,” he confirms. “Just before you woke up. I could see all of it in your sleep, the passion inside you, and the innocence. I thought you were the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen.”
Joanna blushes. “Thanks,” she says, leaning over to kiss him. He takes her head in his hands and offers her his tongue. Joanna sucks it, loving its curve, thinking longingly of the beautiful curve in his cock and wishing she could suck that. He draws away, panting.
“Mm.” Christopher smiles. “There's so much time. Afterwards, I mean.”
“Yes,” Joanna nods.
“But I do want you,” he tells her.
“I know,” Joanna says, kissing his nose. He leans back against the cushions and sighs happily.
“I guess you can tell me now,” Joanna says. “About your hair. Your hair turning white, I mean.”
He nods, his eyes closed. “Yes,” Christopher says. “Dear daddy.”
Christopher chuckles. “The same. We were living in another apartment then, farther downtown along the park. Mother was away. I was in school and I ate some sordid thing for lunch and got sick, so they sent me home in a cab. When I got there, I heard sounds in the bedroom. Squealing. I thought my father was having another heart attack so I raced in, and there he was.”
“There he was,” Joanna repeats glumly, guessing the rest.
“He was spread-eagled on the bed. Tied up. With some ludicrous thing sticking out of his ass and a woman letting him have it with a riding crop. I nearly died.” Christopher shakes his head, remembering. “I threw up on the spot. Then Dad started screaming and I promptly fainted. When I woke up, it was two days later, and I was in the hospital.”
“And your hair was white,” Joanna concludes.
“And my hair was white,” he says.
She pauses, thoughtful. One hand reaches out to touch it, stroke it between her fingers. “Did your mother know?” Joanna asks quietly.
He shakes his head. “She hadn't known. But I told her, of course. They got divorced the following year.” He laughs to himself. “I guess it inspired her, because âO' was born almost as soon as she was living apart from him. And over the years he got a little bolder and called her up, and she started looking after him, as a client.” He pauses. “She's been waiting a long time for this, Joanna.”
Joanna nods. “I know. I can tell.” She leans forward and nuzzles the white hair away from Christopher's ear until she can speak directly into it, into his heart. “I'm going to get him for you, too,” she says.
Slowly the summer progresses, growing into a dense and humid August. Increasingly, Joanna's life begins to revolve around her Tuesdays and Thursdays in the city, the subtle unfolding of her own revenge, Pauline's revenge, Christopher's revenge. Here, she feels, she is free to meet with her husband for the first time as a whole and ironically honest self, and to meet him in his most honest incarnation: open to pleasure, pain, negotiation, humility. A truly naked intimacy, Joanna thinks. And an unexpected satisfaction.
Often, even when she is not in the chamber, Joanna spends her time thinking of that empty room, its possibilities and potential. She devises torments for her husband, small offerings of pleasure, instructions, punishments, combinations of restraint and freedom. At home in the evenings he continues to be infuriatingly gentle, concerned, devoted. Joanna exudes sweetness over the dinner table, chattering on about art, her class, her latest attempt at a still life or a landscape. Curtis swells with maddening fondness. She goes, seething, into his arms.
There are no more phone calls between the house in the suburbs and the penthouse overlooking the park. Indeed, it is regrettable that there are any, permanently recorded. But no one is especially worried about the situation. After all, it's hardly unheard of for a husband to keep in touch with his wife of so many years, especially given the fact that they had a child together. There is nothing, in the end, to firmly connect Curtis to “O.” “O” itself is underground. No documentation, except for a small collection of business cards, exists to confirm it. Its transactions are restricted to telephone conversations and cash. Its phone is listed as private. Its profits disappear into a numbered account, hidden beneath the cobbled streets of Zurich. Its employees and clients guard it from outside attention. It is, in many ways, as Mr. Stephens (who is so fond of secrets) has said, the best-kept secret in the city.
The apartment on the west side of the park is technically owned by a corporation which, upon further examination, consists of Curtis himself. Expensive soundproofing has dispensed with the problem of curious neighbors, and the brownstone, in any case, tends to be rather deserted during the day. As does the street itself. It is, quite plausibly, a place retained for his own use and which he regularly uses, either with company or, quite often, alone. And Curtis' will, safe in Mr. Stephens' vault, leaves nothing to Pauline anyway, a situation agreed to and contracted for in their divorce settlement. Where is the motive? Everything goes to Joanna. Everything, that is, except a thoughtful gift to Mr. Stephens and a generous bequest to Christopher. An apology of sorts, Joanna thinks. An apology for his beautiful white hair.
Curtis had had one heart attack before the day Christopher found him at the mercy of his mistress, and upon being discovered by his son, he dutifully had another, ironically realizing the fears that had made Christopher open the door in the first place. He had a third heart attack only months before his marriage to Joanna, but chose to tell her nothing about it, nothing about the previous one, nothing about the one before that. He is so fragile, Joanna now understands. And despite his own claims, he surely is past his prime, well past it, unforgivably past it. But still he subjects himself to the stress of his sexual needs, his desire for humiliation and punishment, driven by something so deep within himself that it carries the force of demand over reason. Such secrets, Joanna thinks, shaking her head, such powerful secrets. And now they are all hers.
He waits for her in the corner, hooded, obedient. She makes him bend for the whip, spreading himself open to her without dignity, then she punishes him for that with the whip, with the rough violation of her fingers, with her own palpable disgust. Joanna torments him, goads him, makes him ricochet between promises and threats. Her punishment is frenzied.
She makes him stretch and bend until he is exhausted. He visibly sags as Joanna's watch approaches four o'clock. She forces him to brace himself against the walls, to grab the surfaces of the room, to turn the pages of the pornographic magazines she brings him, even though he can't see the pictures, just to cover them with his fingerprints. As for herself, Joanna has been wearing leather gloves to her meetings with Curtis ever since her conversation in the penthouse, wiping the surfaces in the apartment, anything she might ever have touched, anything Rochelle might ever have touched. She thoroughly scrubs the bathroom, removing every stray hair from the drains and then, after the session is over, gathering strands of Curtis' hair and plastering them to the toilet and sink and bathtub. She does not use the bathroom herself. Gradually, she cleans out the drawers and closet of the rear bedroom, leaving plastic bags of leather, silk and lace in garbage receptacles around the Red Light district, where, she knows, they will soon be discovered and recycled.
Increasingly, she forces him to masturbate to climax, filling the room with patches of drying semen like an animal marking his terrain. She brings him a large inflatable doll and commands him to fuck it, to pretend it is his wife so that she can watch him. Over and over he fills it with semen. She makes him push rubber phalluses into his own body, gradually working her way through the entire stock of them until they are all marked with him, his fingers, his secretions. She puts the whips into his hands, one by one, telling him to feel the length of them, the hardness, the thickness, imagine how much they will hurt when she uses them against his skin. He moans in anticipation as she takes them back, into her gloved hands. Joanna no longer wears a scent of any kind. The air inside the chamber reeks of sex and shame.
Sometimes, when she has finished beating him, he collapses in weariness at her feet, breathing hard. She stands over him, her crotch to his face, and lets him lick her in apology for his disobedience. His mouth is tender, poignant. Joanna stands, letting herself wash over with pity, absentmindedly stroking his head through the leather. She is not, after all, without regret, but her regret is for what might have been, not what was. The mouth at her cunt, the scarred, exhausted body at her feet, is part of a past already dimmed by the glorious promise of her future, a future she wants as she has never wanted anything before. That's good, she tells him, murmuring, stroking his head and rubbing herself softly against him. He sucks, straining to please her, and she moans for him because it isn't hard to moan and it won't be much longer now, in any case. Not much longer.
“Finally!” he says, smiling at her across the dinner table. “I'm delighted. I haven't wanted to push you, of course. I didn't want you to feel you had to show me your work before you were ready, but I'm very excited to see it.”
“Good,” Joanna tells her husband. “Wait here. I'll bring it down.”
“Wonderful.” Curtis pours himself another glass of wine.
Joanna goes upstairs to her bedroom and takes Christopher's small watercolor from a drawer in her bedside table. The simplicity of the picture belies its skill, and Curtis, despite his self-proclaimed knowledge of art, will almost certainly see it as the work of a talented amateur. She takes it downstairs and places it in his hands. Then she resumes her seat at the table.
“Well,” Curtis says, nodding slowly. He holds the picture delicately, braced between his palms, careful not to mar it with his fingers. Slowly, he smiles, his lips pursing. “Well, this is just lovely.”
“Thank you,” Joanna says. “Do you really like it?”
“It's beautiful,” Curtis tells her. “You're really very talented, do you know that?”
“You really think so?” she asks, excited, hanging on his approval.
“Of course. I must say, I'm very impressed. These colors, here in the ocean, and you here in your bathing suit. Just lovely.” He pauses. “And this is how you see yourself.”
“I suppose,” Joanna says absently. “Well, I mean, I wasn't thinking of seeing myself in any particular way. I just painted myself at the beach, you know? Why? How do you think I look?”
“OhÂ .Â .Â . soft. And pure. And very sweet. Just as you are.” He smiles. Curtis studies the picture again. “It isn't signed, you know.”
“Well,” Joanna smiles, “I didn't feel right about that. I mean signing it like a real artist.” She shrugs. “I'm not a real artist, you know.”
“Why ever not?” he says. “This is a real painting, and you made it. That makes you a real artist.”
She blushes. “I suppose.”
He smiles tenderly at her. “Will you sign it now?”
“All right,” Joanna says. “I'll sign it to you. You can keep it if you like. Maybe in your bedroom.”
“Yes,” Curtis says. “Thank you, darling. That would be lovely.”
He hands Joanna a pen and she takes the painting from him, signing in the lower right-hand corner. “For my darling husband,” she writes, “who inspired me to become an artist. I love you, Joanna.”
“Oh how sweet,” he tells her when she passes it back to him. “Thank you.”
,” Joanna says.
Curtis smiles down at the painting in his lap. “It's funny,” he muses. “It reminds me of something. Some of the paintings my son used to do, when he was younger.”
“Really!” Joanna says. “You didn't tell me your son was an artist.”
“He was,” Curtis says dismissively. “I don't know if he is anymore.”
Joanna pauses, letting the subject rise between them. “You've never told me much about your son,” she says quietly. “You said his name was Christopher, right?”
“Right,” Curtis nods, his eyes on the painting. “We haven't spoken in many years. Almost fifteen, I think.”
Joanna frowns. “But darling, why?”
He shrugs. “We were never very close,” he says, “and then we had a bit of a falling out, when he was a teenager.”
“How strange.” Curtis says nothing. “Over what?” Joanna asks.
“Oh,” he sighs, “the usual, I suppose. The usual reasons teenaged sons fall out with their fathers. I didn't get along with my own father, after all. I didn't respect him. He was such a slave to mother. AnywayÂ .Â .Â .” Joanna watches, silent, hoping Curtis will continue. “Anyway,” he goes on, “I've actually been thinking about Christopher lately, wondering if I should get in touch with him again. You know,” he smiles at Joanna, “since you've come into my life I feel so peaceful about everything. Perhaps I'm capable of mending bridges now. After all, I'm a much different man than I was fifteen years ago.”
“Of course,” Joanna murmurs.
“I'm not even sure where he lives now,” Curtis says, laying the painting down on the table and reaching for Joanna's hand. “But sometimes I think about him and wish I could see him.”
“My darling.” Joanna smiles. “You are such a sweet man.” She leans forward, confiding. “You deserve everything you want, and if this is what you wish for, I know you will get your wish.”