CONJUNCTIONS:55, Fall 2010

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Emma Smith-Stevens




Jan can hear Mike’s neighbors listening to Billy Joel. Before he started beating her with twelve inches of thick rubber piping, he’d said, “Forgive me, they do this every Friday. They listen to Billy Joel and Bon Jovi, the ladies who live across the way.” Then he’d sighed and said, “Airshaft apartment,” and pulled a neatly coiled rope from under his bed.
     Jan knows what other people, women in particular, would think about what is happening to her. They would say that she hates herself. They would talk about things like abuse and disrespect and childhood. They would use the term self-esteem. Some people she knows would bring up Equus. But this is religion. This is surrender. Pain is a power greater than all others, because it is with pain that we come into the world, and through pain that we leave it. In be- tween the darkness of these twin passages, the Gemini of agony, is life. For the past five months, this is how Jan has found her life.
     It is night and there are pigeons in the airshaft, perched on a ledge, beating their wings. It is spring, and through their efforts, the under- fluff of winter is freed from their plump bodies. Against the darkness, it falls like snow. There is the groan of a machine, something pushing air, the whirr of a fan blade. Then all is quiet. Her body is sensation; it is geography, forming itself through volcanic eruption, the heat of renewal. Jan remembers herself one strike at a time, the sting of the rubber piping amplified by the silence of the blow—a whisper: This is me, and this is me, and this is me.
     Childhood. Does anybody really identify with their childhood, as though that memory is really a part of who they are? Does anybody really own that little person as a miniature version of themselves? To Jan, childhood is a story, mainly told by others. She is not sad about this. It is freeing. Where other people say, I am such and such a way because x, y, and z happened to me as a kid, Jan says, Whatever. Jan is responsible for the here and now. Jan likes Mike because he is that way too. He never talks about his childhood, never blames other people for the way he is.
     Here is how it starts. Jan shows up to Mike’s midtown apartment at the appointed time, wearing what he has told her to wear, clean and fresh from the shower. She has waxed off all her pubic hair, as per his request, and is wearing white cotton panties. Her boots are knee-high, and her hair is in a ponytail and smells like freesia. She raps her knuckles against the door three times, and he opens it. Sometimes he leaves it cracked, if he is busy with something and may not hear her knock. When she comes in there is no greeting. She follows him to the bedroom where he sits on the bed. She lies facedown over his lap. He lifts her skirt and spanks her a few times over her panties, then lowers them and runs his fingers over her skin. She feels the calluses on his fingers, from playing some stringed instrument. She guesses that it is guitar, but for all she knows, it could be mandolin, or banjo. She has never asked. Then he spanks her bare flesh, rhythmically, predictably, stopping to caress her, followed by a blow when she least expects it. She smells the pillow upon which she rests her head. It smells like Mike.
     Before Mike, Jan spent two years with a boy named Benjamin. Once, she started to tell Mike about it, describing the relationship as “stiflingly appropriate.” She thought he would find this clever, but he seemed profoundly bored. Another time, after they were spent and lying in his bed, Mike had said a few words about his ex-girlfriend. He said that she’d been “spectacularly disloyal,” but she could tell by the way he stopped there that he still loved her. No That bitch. No But that was a long time ago. Jan knows it wasn’t very long ago at all, and that Mike is still in love. He never makes eye contact with her. He has never kissed her on the mouth. After six months, Jan wonders if she has not arrived at the intermission of a something far grander than what she and Mike have. She has begun to worry when she smells him on the pillow, because she likes the smell of his bad cologne.
     Around the same time, she wants to say things that cannot be said. I want more. Kiss me. I had a rough day. She begins to wonder if the rebellious code under which they conduct themselves is not stifling in its own way. There seems to be very little room for error. She doesn’t know how to be anymore. Still, when she sits on the subway, riding downtown to her dorm, she likes the feeling of the hard seat pressing against her bruises. Each time she shifts, she is reminded, This is me. Where was she before Mike? She was any girl, any girl in her school, going to class, dating a human rights major, listening to singer-songwriters. Now she eats meat, listens to classical music, and wonders what will happen when she graduates. She wants to think that her being a student doesn’t matter to him, that she possesses some kind of maturity that makes it irrelevant. That it is something they have transcended. But in reality, she knows that the opposite is true. They have transcended nothing; the fact that she is a student is part of why she is there.
     Mike has a bin where he keeps ropes and toys underneath his bed. Spring is turning into summer, and the window to the airshaft is cracked. Jan, blindfolded, can hear him rummaging through the bin. She wonders for the first time, on what other women have these toys been used? How well has he cleaned them? She has been tied masterfully by Mike, who recently took a course in Shibari, a Japanese form of rope bondage. She had asked him what sorts of people had shown up for the course.
     “It was hilarious,” he said. “All these couples dressed in sweat suits, tying each other up. And meanwhile, the class was taught by an Amazonian dominatrix, dressed in black leather.”
     Did you bring someone? Who was your partner? More things that cannot be said.
     She hears him slide the bin over the wood floor, back under the bed. “Have you been a good girl?”
     “Yes, of course.”
     “Did you touch yourself today?”
     “No. I promised you I wouldn’t.”
     “Liar.”
     “I swear.”
     “Slut.”
     This has become an old routine. Jan is addicted to the life that it gives her. Afterward, the people on the street, her classmates, and professors, even her own parents, have been painted, arriving in the world anew. Before Mike, Jan used to wonder if she was the only thing that was real, and if everything and everyone else was a figment of her imagination. Now people have secrets and insides and worlds of their own. Lines are crisp, yet there is a penetrability to the world around her, and Jan skirts along the edges of boundaries, pressing herself against the divides between people and objects and other people. I am a thing, says each entity she comes across. You may pick me up, you may chew me, you may use me, but you can never be me.
     Jan does not tell anyone about Mike, not because he is thirty-seven, or because of what they do together, but because she met him on the Internet. She knows that she is attractive, and has begun to find confidence in her intelligence, and would find it humiliating for people to know that she went onto an alternative-lifestyle dating Web site. So long as it is her secret, it remains empowering rather than mortifying. The power comes from the fact that she acted upon a private thought, and made it materialize. This is what I want. This is what I shall have. Yet as time goes by, Jan begins to regret the particulars. For example, after exchanging several e-mails, Jan let him have her body without so much as going out to dinner, or sharing a cup of coffee, or having a conversation about anything other than the task at hand.
     When they are through, Jan takes a shower. She does not feel dirty, and is not washing him away. She likes the bar of Dove soap and the generic shampoo that he uses. There are no pictures hung on the white bathroom walls, and she is glad, because there is nothing to distract her from her own soapy fingers over her own body. She feels that it is the gift he gives her. When she gets out of the shower she dries herself with a white towel. She carefully hangs it over the curtain rod.
     In the living room where all surfaces are covered with neatly stacked papers and binders, books and CDs, she sees he is not there. Nor is he in the bedroom. She finds him in his office, checking his e-mail. He tells her he will be through in a moment. She dresses, but now he is wearing headphones, his face bathed in the light of the computer monitor. She says his name, and he turns around, his index finger raised. Just one moment. Jan sits in the kitchen wanting a bowl of cereal, but there is no milk in the refrigerator. She waits for fifteen minutes, coughing through two of Mike’s Camels. Finally he pops his head out of his office, headphones around his neck.
     “Ach, so much to do tonight.”
     He calls her sweetie in e-mails, and ends them all with xo. This fact suddenly seems sinister to her. She smiles and waves, slinging her purse over her shoulder, and lets herself out.
     It begins to dawn on her that Mike does not respect her. She has looked at things all wrong, assuming that because she is giving him the gift of herself, he will be grateful. He approaches her body with hunger, with precision, but not with passion. Jan wonders if there is any truth to common beliefs that she had dismissed as sentimental: if perhaps there is a connection between passion and love. She begins to realize that respect cannot be assumed, and she detests Benjamin all the more for spoiling her that way. She had lost interest in him quickly, but stayed with him for security. Passion had always eluded her in that relationship, but only now was the reason becoming clear. He was too easy, he gave her respect for nothing. She does not want to become Mike’s Benjamin. She is learning how things work. At the very least, she has learned that there is a definite connection between desire and deprivation.
     Jan is in her dorm room, alone, writing a paper for a sociology class called Domesticity and Power. She does not like the class. She disagrees with the basic premise of the course. It is the assertion of her professor that women have wielded tremendous power through their influence in the domestic sphere, as the bearers of children, and the effective heads of the household. Jan believes that this is a phony rationalization for the continuance of what is clearly a sexist dichotomy from the start: the separation of the domestic realm from the outside world. Call it what it is, she wants to say to her professor. Don’t use words like archetypal and womb and goddess.
     Jan’s cell phone rings, and it is Mike. She holds the phone in her hand, letting it ring three times, then answers it.
     “What are you doing?” he asks in a low, velvety voice.
     “Writing a paper.”
     “What are you wearing?”
     “I’m a little busy actually. Can I catch you later?”
     “Sure, OK.” He sounds surprised, although not clearly disap- pointed. In the past, Jan has always dropped whatever she is doing when he has called, and it occurs to her that he must know this.
     “All right. Bye,” she says, consciously tuning her voice to a cheerful yet distracted pitch.
     “Be a good girl,” he says, and hangs up.
     Jan listens to the silence for a moment, and then closes her phone and puts it in a desk drawer. She sits at her desk, and is surprised to find that ideas for her paper come readily, and she is soothed by the click-click of her own typing.
     A week goes by, and Jan begins to wonder if she might have read Mike all wrong. He did, for example, once give her an unsolicited massage. On another occasion, he asked her what she thought about a novel they had both read. Did he make eye contact with anyone? His aversion to it was so extreme that she wonders if perhaps it wasn’t personal, that maybe it was part of some pathology. Simultaneously, Jan begins to consider the fact that there is a whole community of people who are into bondage and sadomasochism. She and Mike are not the only ones. Thinking about this begins to excite her. She contemplates going to parties where she might meet people, but knows that she must first acquire the appropriate clothes. Leather, latex, heels. She does not have these things. But they are there. All of it is there. Mike is no longer the gatekeeper.
     By some magic, he seems to understand this. He sends Jan an e-mail in which he states that he’s missed her, and would she like to have dinner. They have never gone anywhere before, only to his apartment. Jan replies that she will have to check her schedule. A day later, she responds that she will be free on Saturday night, and Saturday night only, so if he wants to eat, it will be then. But, she adds, she only has a couple of hours. Only enough time for a meal. She sends the e-mail, instantly desiring to take it back and change it. She wants to be in his bed. She wants bruises. No, she tells herself. She wants respect. She wants to start over.
     They meet in the East Village, at a Japanese restaurant of Jan’s choosing. She arrives ten minutes late, having lingered in a coffee shop, watching the clock, waiting for the time to pass. A warm night, the sky is heavy with impending rain. The glow of the city illuminates the undulating clouds. She is dressed up, wearing a black miniskirt and a black sequin top. She is not wearing her knee-high boots, and her hair is down. Each time that lightning illuminates the sky, Jan thinks, I am doing this. And this. And this.
     Mike is sitting at a corner table when she arrives. She spots him from the cover of the darkness, outside under the awning, peering through the window. He looks terrible. His fingers are laced through his disheveled blond hair, and he is grimacing at the table, biting his lower lip. She has never seen him in any condition other than collected, calm. He looks like someone who has been stood up. No, worse. He looks like a madman.
     He kisses her on the cheek, holds out her chair, peels her coat from her thin shoulders. He says he is not hungry. Although she is not sure she is, she orders three sushi rolls and two pieces of sashimi. While they wait for the food to arrive, she realizes that there is something going on with him, something beyond anxiety over her lateness, or her recent reticence toward him. Again she feels as though she has arrived at the intermission of something grander than what they share, and all she can do is wait for the show to start.
     “Hey.” His eyes meet hers with a tired smile. Jan has just finished her last bite. “Do you remember in the mideighties, how they changed the names of the dinosaurs?”
     “No.”
     “No, of course not. You’re too young.”
     “Maybe I remember. I wasn’t really into dinosaurs when I was a kid.”
     “Get this. They changed all the names of the dinosaurs, which I’m totally convinced is a big conspiracy. Like, brontosaurus became apatosaurus. Therosaurus became iguanodon. How ridiculous is that?”
     “Yeah, that’s crazy.” Jan realizes that Mike is trying to introduce himself to her. She listens keenly.
     “There’s a lot of stuff like that, where experts make these so-called discoveries, and rename things. I’m convinced that they are in cahoots with the toy-store companies, and book publishers, and they do it all so that people can’t pass on their toys and books to their children, because they have become historically inaccurate. Do you see what I’m saying?”
     “Yeah.”
     “Another example! Oh, and this is a good one. Did you know that Pluto got demoted from planet status? I would bet anything that they did that just so people would have to buy all new stuff. Think about all of the millions of classrooms around the world that had to buy new books, just because Pluto is no longer a planet.”
     Jan does not know what to say. Mike pays the check, and she notices that he is a good tipper.
     Mike’s house is messy when they arrive. It is usually clean, but there is more junk everywhere than Jan can imagine possible for a mere week of accumulation. There are dishes all over the counter, clothes strewn on the living-room sofa, kitty litter crunching underfoot in the bathroom. She is shocked. Mike is a very neat person. It is important to him that things be in their place.
     He asks her quietly if she would like to get in bed, and she is relieved. She waits for him to sit down so that she can lie over his lap to be spanked. Instead, he kicks off his shoes into a pile of debris, and collapses facing the airshaft. Jan lies down next to him, noticing that he does not smell like himself. He is not wearing his bad cologne, and she misses it.
     “Do you swim?” he asks, running his fingers through her hair, pressing his limp body against hers.
     “Yes.”
     “I didn’t learn how to swim until I was twenty-one.”
     “You just never learned?”
     “I was afraid.”
     “Why?”
     “I had an accident when I was a kid. I almost drowned in my uncle’s pool.”
     “Why did you decide to learn?”
     “I had to. You have to know how to swim in order to graduate from Columbia. It is a requirement.”
     “Are you still afraid of water?”
     “I am still not a very strong swimmer.”
     Jan imagines Mike flailing in the shallow end, a grown man, spitting out mouthfuls of water, the tendons in his neck straining to hold his head above the surface.
     “I love to swim,” she says.
     “Are you a good swimmer?”
     “I was on the diving team in high school.” This is a lie, the first one she has told him. “I was the captain.”
     “Frieda says she’s getting married. She can’t be serious,” says Mike.
     Jan does not have to ask who Frieda is. Mike rolls away from her, pulling his legs into his chest, tugging Jan’s arm around his body. He seems small. She imagines him shivering, wrapped in a towel, a child having faced death. She wonders if that was the last time he felt pain, like the pain she knows he feels now. The brink of major loss. Perhaps he spent his life on that brink, and now he has finally been pushed over the edge.
     “Do you want to sleep here?” He kisses her hand.
     Control is like a sheet of paper tossed out a car window, whipping this way and that. Nothing to ground it, no anchor, no hand. He has let go. He falls asleep in her arms, but she is not tired. She gets up and walks into the living room. There are dirty socks on top of the microwave, and the cat’s eyes glow from within a heap of bedsheets and bath towels. There is no sense to the mess. Jan begins to put things in order.
     As she cleans, momentum builds. She is not cleaning to make him happy. She is grabbing the loose paper, snatching it from the wind. She is mastering something: the world to which she has been bound, first by desire, then by need, now by ambition. The objects are so disordered that it is impossible to determine their origins, so she creates the apartment anew. Books on shelves, papers in drawers, trash in the bin. She is the director, the objects her players. Mike is irrelevant, and Jan is on her knees sweeping kitty litter into a plastic grocery bag. There is power in domesticity after all. Then the thought comes like a smack in the face: No, all wrong. Mike is asleep, Jan is clean- ing, Frieda is gone. Jan is now Wife Number One.



Mike deteriorates. He misses work, preferring instead to lie with Jan, talking. He talks about his childhood, about how his mother is an alcoholic and his father is a workaholic. He talks about how his sister is a lesbian, and how this tore his Irish Catholic family apart, dividing it into those who stood by her, and those who stood by the church. He talks about his childhood dog, who was hit by a postal truck, and about the nightmares he had as he recovered from a tonsillectomy. He still hits her, they still sleep together, but it has all turned into a childish game. He is dirty and messy, he cries, and he hungers for touch. He asks Jan questions too, about when she was a little girl. Did she have nightmares then? What was her family like? Jan doesn’t know what to say. Her childhood had been ordinary, existing in her memory as bullet points: birthday parties, lost teeth, chicken pox. Yet these mundane remembrances seem too personal to share with him. She tries to discipline herself to disconnect, to tune him out. She wants things to be as they used to be. These days she feels that she is the user, in a harsh, pure way. She longs for the days when the using was mutual, when it was a simple exchange of flesh for flesh. But Mike has become complicated.
     Months ago, Mike had given Jan a lecture about topping from the bottom. It is not to be done, he’d said. He explained that topping from the bottom is when the submissive partner attempts to control the dominant partner, either through manipulation or through more overt means. It is taboo. “You don’t want to be with a dom who will take it,” he’d said. “They’re not for real. They’re posers. If you try to pull that shit on me, you’ll be sorry.” But now Mike has started talking about switching. He decides that, despite what he has always thought, he is a switch—a person who will be either top or bottom. Jan tries to convince him otherwise. She tells him that he is the dominant one. “Think about it,” she says. “Don’t you want to tie me up? I have been bad. I deserve a punishment.” “OK,” he sighs. “If that will make you happy.” She realizes that she has just topped him from the bottom.
     The pigeons in Mike’s airshaft have been breeding. Jan can hear the mother pigeon cooing to her babies, who chirp back frantically in response. She imagines what they are saying: Me, me, me! Need, need, need! She envisions the gaping wounds of their mouths, red slits. What filthy things do the mother pigeons find in Manhattan to feed these mouths? The babies will take it, regardless. They will be grateful for whatever they get.
     Mike gets worse. He spends a lot of time on the phone with his mother, which only upsets him. He laments to Jan about the ice cubes that he can hear clinking around in the glass she holds to her lips on the other end of the line. He stops doing laundry altogether, doesn’t shave for days at a time. Jan buys him a new bottle of cologne, but he does not use it. He wants to snuggle, wants to kiss. He asks her why everything always has to do with sex. Jan is with him nearly every day, now that summer break has started, rather than staying with her parents uptown. She is working at a bakery and brings him sweets. She fingers crumbs into his open mouth, though she is nauseated by it. Yet she is determined that, when he is restored, she will be responsible. She resorts to being Wife Number One with the hope that it will lead her back to concubine status.
     Frieda gets married in a temple on the Upper East Side, to a man named Gregory Cohen. It is in the newspaper, which Jan is reading on the subway to Mike’s house. Jan is furious about what has happened to Mike. Yet the power of her loathing has made her consider the possibility that she loves him.
     When Jan gets to Mike’s apartment he is asleep on the floor with the cat. Jan steps over him, reaching for the pack of Camels on the counter. She lights a cigarette and nudges him with her shoe. She hands the paper to him, pointing to the announcement. There is a leaden silence in which Jan has the opportunity to contemplate the cruelty of what she has done. Her logic was that somehow the shock, the reality, when forced into his body, would reanimate it. As she watches his face she is reminded of images from a Latin textbook that illustrate the petrified bodies of the citizens of Pompeii.
     “Kick me,” Mike says, his face ashen and expressionless.
     “Get up.” She reaches out her hand, but he doesn’t take it.
     “Punch me. Kick me.”
     “That’s ridiculous, Mike. I’m not going to do that.”
     “I want you to. I need it.”
     Whenever Jan thinks about what Mike used to do for her, she is filled with the kind of nostalgia that borders on hysteria. It is a desperate feeling of having lost one’s church, the church that one was baptized in, the church that one buries loved ones behind, the church that introduced them to infinity. Without much introspection, she had showed up at his door with a vague notion of fun. Instead, he let her pray to him, and her prayers were either granted or denied. Now her prayers run on a closed circuit. She walks to the bedroom like an automaton. She slides the bin out from beneath the bed. She admires her bloodred nail polish against the black rubber tubing that her fingers now wrap around. She takes it in her hand. With the other hand she picks up two coiled lengths of rope. She says Mike and he comes.
     What she does to him, she learned from him. He cries. He begs and whines, and the sicker Jan feels, the harder she strikes. But it is empty. Jan is not a switch. Afterward, she cannot look at his face. He is satisfied and soothed, eating a bowl of cereal and checking his e-mail. He resembles his old self more than he has in months, straight backed, deepened voice. He announces that he needs a shave. She cannot make eye contact when he speaks to her. When Mike used to tie her down, choking her and forcing himself upon her, Jan never felt violated. The smugness with which Mike now wears the bruises that she has inflicted upon him make her feel soiled. Life has lost its color, blood is replaced by silt. As Mike preens himself in the bathroom, Jan gets her things together. Leaving, she wonders if he can hear her go, over the clamor of his serenity.