Authors: Elizabeth Bennett
The following morning, after Curtis has left for the city, Joanna dials the number again. This time the phone is answered immediately. “Yes,” the woman's voice says. It is a low voice, gravelly but soft and strangely peaceful.
“I would like to speak with âO,'” Joanna says.
“This is âO.'” A pause, then, “How may I help you?”
Joanna takes a breath. “I think,” she says, “I would like to work for you.” There is silence along the line.
“May I ask,” the woman says finally, “whom you are working for now?”
“No one,” Joanna says. “I would like to work for you.”
“I see.” Again, a long silence. “How did you come to hear about us.”
For a moment, Joanna considers telling Curtis' former wife the truth, but the secret feels powerful to her, and she holds it in. “From a man,” she says instead. “I think, a client.”
“I see,” the woman says again. “You know, we have a rule. âAll persuasions, no brutality.' Did you know that?”
“I knew,” says Joanna. “I mean, I know. I understand.”
“And you are interested?”
There is another pause. Joanna counts slowly to herself, breathing softly. “We should meet,” the woman says at last. “We should meet and talk about this.”
“Yes,” Joanna says.
“Next week, on Tuesday. For lunch. Will you meet me for lunch?”
“Yes,” Joanna says.
“What is your name?” The woman asks.
“Joanna,” says Joanna, without hesitation. Then, remembering herself, she adds, “That isn't my real name. I mean that you may call me Joanna.”
“I understand,” the woman says calmly. “You may call me Pauline. SoÂ .Â .Â . we will meet and talk, then?”
“Yes,” Joanna says.
“You will wear a red shirt or dress,” says Pauline, “so that I will know you. You will wear no jewelry. You will sit with your hands folded on the tablecloth.”
“Yes,” Joanna says.
Curtis' first wife names a time and gives Joanna the address of the restaurant, but Joanna doesn't write it down. She has been there already and she knows she will have no trouble finding it again.
None of Joanna's dresses or shirts are red so, the following Monday, she drives to the department store and tries on a red sweater very much like the one the black woman wore during her own lunch with Pauline. The sweater is soft and clinging. It covers Joanna's upper arms and dips low across her chest, revealing pale, smooth skin. Joanna has never seen herself dressed this way, and she studies herself for a long time in the dressing room mirror before changing back into her own clothes. After she pays for the sweater, Joanna gets back in her car and drives home.
The following day, Joanna removes her wedding and engagement rings and places them in a drawer of her bedside table. Then she puts on the sweater and a straight black skirt and goes into the city. It is raining, not slight, indifferent rain but loud and drenching rain. Even in the short distance from her taxi to the restaurant door, Joanna is heavily spattered. Cold drops run over her shoulders and down, under the lip of the red sweater, pooling between her breasts.
The restaurant is nearly empty. Only one table is taken by a group of men who look up when she enters, their gazes firm on the glistening skin of her chest. Joanna asks for a table for two and the waiter leads her to the dark rear corner of the room. She orders a glass of wine and, when it arrives, drinks it quickly. Then she folds her hands on the tablecloth and waits.
Curtis' first wife arrives exactly on time, pausing in the vestibule to fold and fasten her dripping umbrella which she leaves in the stand just inside. She nods to the waiter and approaches Joanna smoothly, smiling as if she were greeting an old friend. “How nice to see you,” she says happily as she sits. And then, “You are Joanna.”
“Yes,” Joanna says.
“I'm Pauline,” Curtis' first wife says.
“Yes.” Joanna nods. “I know.”
Pauline studies her carefully. “You are a very beautiful woman,” she says. Joanna thanks her. The waiter comes and takes their order. Joanna asks for another glass of wine.
“Are you nervous about this meeting?” Pauline asks. Her smile is gentle, concerned.
“No,” Joanna says. “I'm not nervous. I called you.”
“So you did.” Pauline smiles. Her curly red hair is run with grey. There are small lines around her mouth and eyes. Briefly, Joanna imagines Curtis' fingers touching this face. “May I ask you a little about the man you mentioned before? The one who told you about us?”
“Well.” Joanna looks at her hands, still folded on the tabletop. “I don't know much about him. I don't know his name.” Pauline watches her, silent. “He gave me a book,” Joanna continues. “Your telephone number was written on the title page.”
“I see.” Curtis' first wife smiles. “Have you read this book?”
Joanna nods, her eyes on her hands.
“And what did you think of it?” Pauline says softly.
“I thoughtÂ .Â .Â .” Joanna says, “I thought I would like to work for you.”
“Good,” Pauline says simply. The waiter brings their food. Pauline eats with relish. Joanna sips her wine.
“Tell me,” Curtis' first wife says, “how old are you, Joanna?”
“Twenty eight,” Joanna says.
“And are you married?”
“No,” she says, without hesitation.
Pauline watches her carefully. “How did you support yourself until now?”
Joanna thinks. “I was an actress,” she says. “I used to be an actress.”
“Good.” Pauline smiles. “That's good. That can be helpful.” She pauses. “Your face isn't familiar,” she says.
Joanna puts down her wineglass. “I worked mostly in the northwest,” she says. “In theater.” She hopes Curtis' first wife will not press further. She has never been to the northwest.
“I see,” Pauline says. She turns to her food and eats silently. Joanna finishes her wine. Finally, Pauline sits back in the seat and turns to her.
“Let me tell you something about âO,'” she says, smiling pleasantly. “âO' concerns itself primarily with issues of control. Control is our medium, our common denominator. Our clients are all men and our employees are all women, but even with that qualification there is a great deal of variety in the services we provide. No employee is forced or pressured to accept a specific assignment, or to perform any service she is uncomfortable with. An employee is free to work as much or as little as she likes, but she is required to keep and be on time for any appointment agreed to beforehand. The client pays âO' for these services, and âO' pays its employees one half of that amount. I do not cheat our employees,” Pauline says. “No one has ever left in anger. Disillusionment, yes, but not anger.” She smiles, almost fondly, at Joanna. “The purpose of âO' is to give pleasure,” she says. “Sometimes we are lucky enough to give pleasure to everyone involved, employee and client alike. Do you understand what this means, Joanna?”
Joanna nods, spellbound. Pauline's hand reaches across the table and covers her own. “Would you like to work for âO,' Joanna?”
“Yes,” Joanna says.
“Yes,” Pauline echoes, her voice low. She is silent for a moment. “I'll tell you what I would like,” she says, continuing. “I would like to send you to see a friend of mine this afternoon for several hours. He is not a client, but you will be paid for the visit nonetheless. His name is Mr. Stephens. Are you free to see him this afternoon?”
“Yes.” Joanna nods.
“There are several reasons for this visit,” Pauline says, her voice low. “It will help us to evaluate you, and your potential as an employee. It will give you a taste of what would be expected of you, and help you to make your own decision. You will have an opportunity to ask Mr. Stephens questions, and he will have an opportunity to give you some helpful criticism, if that is necessary. When the session is over, he and I will discuss it and I will decide whether to offer you employment with âO.' Conversely, you can decide not to contact us again. If you decide not to contact us again, all three of us will forget that these meetings took place today. If you do decide to contact us, I will give you our answer then. Is this agreeable to you?”
“Yes,” Joanna says.
“Please wait here for a minute,” says Pauline. She rises and crosses the restaurant, pulling out her cell phone. Joanna watches her dial and speak briefly. Then Pauline returns to their table and sits down.
“This is for you,” Pauline says, removing a long white envelope from her purse and handing it to Joanna. “Here is the address.” She points to the front of the envelope. “Inside is your payment. Please go there directly, by taxi. You are expected. Please follow Mr. Stephens' directions exactly.” Abruptly, she stands and reaches for her raincoat. Joanna stands and follows Pauline out of the restaurant. Outside, the rain has softened to a drizzle. Pauline extends her hand and Joanna takes it.
“Good luck, Joanna,” Curtis' first wife says. “I wish you well this afternoon, and hope to speak to you again.”
“Thank you,” Joanna says.
Pauline sees a taxi over Joanna's shoulder and raises her hand to hail it. It pulls up to the curb.
“Thank you,” Joanna says again as she climbs in.
Pauline smiles, bending down. “Enjoy yourself,” she says before turning away.
Joanna reads the address from the envelope aloud to the cab driver. He heads downtown. Slowly, she tears open the white paper. Inside are five crisp one hundred dollar bills.
Joanna pays the driver and gets out of the taxi. The address is a tall white town house with elaborate iron railings over the first-story windows. She climbs marble steps to the front door and pushes a thick black button. Inside, a low bell sounds.
Almost immediately, the door is opened by a tall, thickset man. He is entirely bald but the skin of his scalp is smooth and curiously compelling. He motions Joanna inside and closes the door after her.
“My name isÂ .Â .Â .” she begins to say but he cuts her off with a swift wave of his hand.
“Don't tell me your name,” he says. His voice is deep and fierce. “Your name is unimportant. Only my name is important, and you already know my name. That is Jeremy,” Mr. Stephens says. Joanna looks where he is pointing. Across the marble floor, a young Indonesian man waits at the foot of the stairs, his arms obediently limp at his narrow hips. “You will go with Jeremy,” Mr. Stephens is saying. “Jeremy will wash you. You will do precisely as Jeremy tells you to do. When Jeremy has finished with you, we will talk again. Do you agree?”
“I agree,” Joanna says. He is wonderful, Joanna thinks suddenly. She has a fleeting urge to touch the contour of his sleek head.
“Then go,” Mr. Stephens says. “Don't wait to be told twice.”
Joanna turns and walks across the polished floor. As she nears him, Jeremy begins to climb the stairs and Joanna follows several steps back. Behind her, footsteps sound and diminish.
Jeremy climbs two flights of stairs and turns along a corridor. He opens a mahogany door and holds it for Joanna, then locks it behind her and flicks on an overhead light.
They are in a black marble bathroom, mirrored on all sides, including the ceiling. At the center of the rectangular room is a low wall of marble, about a foot high, circular, with a drain in its center. Above it a showerhead protrudes from the mirror. It is, Joanna realizes, a shower without a shower curtain, like at the beach, to wash off at the end of the day. Below the showerhead, a thick iron bar hangs down, horizontal. Joanna wonders what it can be for, since it looks to be directly in the downward path of the water. There is no sink, no toilet, no bidet. There is just shower, mirror, iron bar.
“Remove your clothing,” Jeremy says. His voice is thick, mottled. An accent, Joanna thinks, but there is something else.
“Everything?” she asks, but he only looks blankly at her, and she knows that he is deaf.
“Remove your clothing,” he says again, motioning with his hand for her to hurry. She steps out of her shoes and starts to unzip her skirt. Behind Jeremy's back, the wall of mirror gives a flicker. Joanna senses the glare of eyes behind it.
She pulls off the red sweater and reaches back to unhook her bra, then hooks her thumbs inside her underwear and pulls it down. Jeremy watches, expressionless. When she is finished, he stoops and gathers her clothing and places it inside a cabinet, hidden in the marble. From the same cabinet he removes something curious and small and black, some kind of manacle, Joanna thinks. Jeremy returns to her. They are rubber, and he fastens them, careful not to close them too tightly about her wrists. Then he motions with his hand for her to step backward and, when she does, he lifts the manacle overhead, fastening it to the iron bar with a buckle. Her hands are not uncomfortably bound. She moves them and grasps the metal. This is what it is for, Joanna thinks, almost happily.
Jeremy dims the light from a switch on the wall. He turns another switch and the shower over Joanna's head comes to life, first cool and weak then growing warmer and stronger. Joanna tries not to flinch. Through the wall of water, she watches the mirror, trying to meet the gaze hidden behind it.
The water stops. Jeremy holds a large tube of clear liquid and is squeezing it, letting it ooze over her skin: shoulders and chest and stomach and pubic hair. He puts the tube down and turns back again, his eyes lingering briefly at her breasts. Then his small brown hands begin to touch her, small circles at her neck and over her breasts where his thumbs brush her nipples firmly, as if they are especially dirty. Joanna bites her tongue to keep from moaning. The hands lift each breast and rub carefully in a polishing motion, gliding over the skin, then descend her ribs and abdomen. She feels a sinking, a heat between her legs. He kneels on the short marble wall and begins to wash her legs, first one then the other, squeezing them between his hands and running them up and down. Then, standing again, he reaches between them. The motion of his hand is like a beckoning, as if he were saying “come here.” Jeremy's expression is blank, professional. He gathers fists of soapy hair. His fingers do not enter her, and she wishes they would.
Abruptly, he straightens up and steps back. “Turn around,” Jeremy says, circling with his hand. Joanna turns and the iron bar over her head turns with her. He coats her back with liquid from the tube and begins to spread it with his hands, running his thumbs firmly up and down her spine. Hands rub her underarms and neck. Jeremy loosens her hair and caresses that, too, with soap, massaging her scalp. Then he reaches lower and squeezes the liquid directly into the crack of her buttocks, spreading it back and forth with the side of his thin hand. Joanna shivers, arching back to him, but he does not seem to notice.
He starts the shower again and Joanna closes her eyes, feeling the soap run down through her hair and over her body. Behind her, Jeremy is silent. After a few minutes, the water stops and he turns her again with his hands on her hips. He is holding a long black towel, and now he begins to dry her in small pats along her limbs, briefly lifting and pressing each breast, reaching back to unfold the towel along the length of her back. He dries carefully between her legs, rubbing the pubic hair, then kneels to press it around each thigh and calf. Finally, he motions for her to bow her head, and pulls forward her wet hair. She hears a whir as he turns on an electric dryer.
When he has finished with her, Joanna's hands are unhooked from the overhead pipe and fastened again, behind her. She leans slightly against Jeremy as he lifts first one leg then the other to roll on black stockings which end mid-thigh. He hooks them to a garter belt and fastens that too, then steps behind to fit her with a black bra, strapless, which barely covers Joanna's nipples. A pair of black, high-heeled shoes are placed before her, and she steps into them. Finally, Jeremy wraps her in a large dressing gown, black silk, which, curiously, has no arms. He ties the silk belt at her waist.
There is a tap at the mirrored wall. Jeremy motions for her to follow, and opens the door. Joanna walks behind him down the carpeted hall. Her wrists rub behind her back, slightly uncomfortable. At the end of the hall, Jeremy opens a black door and waits for her to pass through it. The room is large and dim. Joanna can discern an array of objects, tables, chairs, couches, and some things which defy classification made of wood and straps with metallic buckles. “Walk to the center of the room and face me,” Mr. Stephens' voice says. She turns her head. He is sitting, cross-legged, in a black armchair. Joanna sees the glow of his cigarette, the rising coil of smoke. She walks farther into the room and stops a few feet from him. Behind her, the door shuts with a heavy click. A minute later, Jeremy's hands fumble at her waist, untying the robe. It slips off easily and he takes it away and goes to stand behind the armchair.
For a long moment, nothing is said. They merely watch her and Joanna watches them doing it. Jeremy's expression is blank, but Mr. Stephens examines her with frank interest, scrutinizing her breasts and crotch. His scalp shines in the dim light. Joanna presses her thighs together and feels moisture. Her nipples harden inside the bra.
“You are here for evaluation,” he says suddenly, without preamble. “You are here at our request, but at your own consent. Your silence implies consent.” He pauses. Joanna watches the smoke of his cigarette. “You may leave at any time,” Mr. Stephens continues, “simply by asking to leave. If you ask to leave, we will immediately stop whatever we are doing. You will be given your clothing and allowed to go. We will not ask you to return the money we have given you. If you leave at your own request you will forget completely about this meeting. You will make no attempt to contact either myself or âO,' ever again, and we will make no attempt to locate and contact you. Do you understand?”
“Answer aloud,” Mr. Stephens says.
“I understand,” says Joanna. Her voice is flat, expressionless.
“You should be aware that every aspect of this session will be discussed with âO' in detail. How you look, feel, smell and taste. There will be no privacy. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Joanna says.
“You will be penetrated vaginally, orally and anally. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Joanna says.
“You may experience some discomfort. You may also experience some pain. At âO,' we do not advocate the causing of gratuitous pain. We believe in causing pain to the point of pleasure. Clients of âO' are forbidden brutality of any kind, but many enjoy experimentation. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Joanna says.
“At the end of this session, you will have an opportunity to ask questions. Until then, you are not to speak unless directly asked a question, or, naturally, unless you have decided to leave. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Joanna says.
“Pauline tells me that you have experience as an actress. You may find it helpful. Often, you will have to decide for yourself what attitudeÂ .Â .Â . what character, is desired of you. For the purposes of this session, I would like you to pretend that you are here unwillingly. You are neither defiant nor submissive. You are afraid that you will be hurt if you do not comply with my wishes. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Joanna says.
Mr. Stephens puts out his cigarette and rises slowly. He is wearing a black silk robe like the one Joanna wore, but with arms. He walks towards her and stops less than a foot away. In her high heels, Joanna is nearly his height and their faces are very close. Involuntarily, she begins to tremble. Mr. Stephens watches her carefully.
Suddenly, she feels his hands at the sides of her breasts. He pulls roughly at the strapless bra, yanking it down until it rests over her garter belt. Her nipples are hard and throbbing. With his thumb and forefinger, he pinches the right one and twists, like a switch. Joanna's eyes widen but she says nothing. He twists the other one with his left hand, then both together, slowly, back and forth. Joanna moans, her eyes on his face. “Shut up,” Mr. Stephens says, simply.
His hands grab at her breasts, caressing them roughly. His thumbs meet between them. Abruptly, he bends down and takes a nipple in his mouth. Joanna feels his lips, his tongue, then the crush of his teeth around it. His hand on the other breast is still. She is breathing quickly. She would like to touch his smooth head, holding him against her, but her wrists twist in their rubber manacle behind her back. His teeth gnaw at her nipple, then his lips cover it and he sucks, loudly, making sounds, then he torments her again with his teeth. Her cunt aches and seeps.
He straightens up and puts his hands on her shoulders. His lips are red and glistening. He presses her down. “Kneel,” Mr. Stephens says. There is urgency in the word, Joanna thinks, but his face is calm. She is awkward on her heels but the hands on her shoulders steady her. She kneels at his feet and his hands calmly undo the belt of his robe, parting it. He is naked underneath, pale and nearly hairless. His cock is short and thick. It tilts against one thigh, throbbing slightly. His fingers lock behind her head and he presses into her face, rubbing himself over her nose and mouth. She catches the scent of him, ammonia and almonds. A drop of salt is dragged over her lips. She keeps her mouth closed tightly and tries to pull away but he holds her head firm. His own hand reaches for his cock and lifts it, its head at her lips. He brushes it back and forth.
“Open your mouth,” he says. Joanna's lips part but her jaw remains locked. He waits a moment, then slips a thumb into the corner of her mouth, behind her teeth, then pries her open like a horse forced to accept a bridle. “Don't disobey,” he says softly. And then: “You will have to be punished.”
One hand twists in her hair. The other guides his cock into Joanna's mouth. His pubic hair bristles in her nostrils. His hips circle and begin to thrust. His cock fills her cheeks and flattens her tongue. She gasps through her nose. He finds the back of her throat and hits it over and over. “Suck me,” he hisses, and she does, gulping at him, sliding from root to tip. He seems to thicken between her lips. He rocks into her. She hears his low wail and swallows that too. Her wrists chafe against each other. She wants to grab him. He starts to come, a warm leak then a punch at the ridged roof of her mouth. He thrusts deep and hard. She is aware of his knees, pressing her shoulders between them, the yanks in her hair, the thick salt coursing down her throat. Suddenly he pulls back. She knows he hasn't finished. Standing over her, he yanks at her hair until her head tilts back, then shoots semen over her face, hot and sticky and white.
When Joanna opens her eyes, Mr. Stephens has not moved. His cock is limp in his hand, and flushed red. He is watching her face, which stings with drying semen. “Get up,” he says finally. She climbs unsteadily to her feet.
Turning her roughly, he nudges her ahead of him across the room to a strange leather chair, with steel arm and footrests. Mr. Stephens unfastens her wrists and brings them to her sides. “Sit,” he says.
The chair is cool and smooth and tilts slightly back. Mr. Stephens fastens her arms to the armrests with buckled leather straps. Other straps fasten her feet, each to its own footrest. The leather panel beneath her thighs suddenly folds down, leaving only a ledge to perch on. He presses a button on the side of the chair and slowly the footrests begin to move apart, spreading her wider and wider. She tries to keep her knees together but the chair is insistent, irrefutable. She is stretched and separated, her knees bent, as if she were giving birth. Mr. Stephens presses the button again and the chair stops, freezing her open. He leans forward and fastens a final strap, this one at the undersides of her breasts, pushing them slightly up.