Her breath came in long pulls as though the focus of her attention, away from the penance she’d chosen willingly but had perhaps grown to regret, a decision mulled and reaffirmed and reconsidered while I slept, while the sunlight grew feverish and fimbriated the dark curtains with its alchemical tincture. Through their narrow aperture a blade of light in which dust eddied orgiastic as gnats, the light daggering across the waxen hardwood floor and the bed to lance my eye. Something providential at play here. Something malevolent. A half hour clocked by her industrious breath, by the warmth of that point carving the bridge of my nose and into my other eye and finally I sat up. A chain clinked.
Bedsprings squeaked as I stood and she lay on her side with her head in the crook of her angled arm, her hand drooping from the wrist cuffed above her, the sunlight slicing the integral of her brown back. Maybe she slept. I padded the bed’s length to a long window and looked out and four floors below was the city’s quadrate sprawl. The neglected roofs of pastel townhouses rising into the shadowed backs of downtown office buildings and a rabble of feral parakeets swooping across this concrete geometry. The sky a whipped blue and the bay steeled and the horizon engrailed by bridge and invected by mountain. I took all this in with no wonder and, Morning God-o, I said. I stood naked and waiting and to His perennial silence clapped the curtains closed.
Shuffling across the large loft to the bathroom I heard her mutterings like a strange language leaked from a dream yet in the apartment’s dimness there was something reciprocal. Rainbow stained tables cluttered with oil paint tubes, paint crusted tin cans and glass jars, old sketches strewn deciduously and long scrolls of ink drawings unfurling onto the floor like haphazard runners. Two windowed and curtained walls meeting where the bed and a mirror stood, the windows embattled by canvases and easels and shelves for all manner of trinkets and disheveled books. Another wall into which a web of shoddy plywood shelves had been screwed in impromptu architecture and some of these precariously aslant with the weight of the baubles they held. I traipsed through this quixotic spectacle that blinked red with the answering machine’s flash, kicking aside pencils and crumpled papers, and ambled into the hall’s deeper darkness and the bathroom’s deeper still.
I pulled the light chain and rubbed my eyes and in the spackle of the mirror’s past flossings bared teeth whose subtle shades I could name: ghost, beige, seashell, pearl, lemon, rotten. I left the door open. The toilet’s gargling and her whimpering; the shimmying metal; remembering a nightmare I flushed.
Master, she called.
I brushed my teeth and spat into the sink over dried giblets of old paste and she called again and I turned on the shower. I lathered with the last dregs of soap. She called again and I poked my head from the curtain and shouted: Put your gag back in.
I dried with a mildewed towel and the mirror steamed an old message whose emotion no longer pertained and with the towel waisted I returned to the hall’s dusk but went into the kitchen where I boiled water and stirred in oats and sat at a stool at the island counter to eat with my back to her. The jittery clatter of handcuffs on wood, oatmeal like soggy newspaper. I poured a glass of orange juice and returned to the bed.
Did you wear it all night? I asked.
Her brow furrowed over her large bistre eyes. She lay on her back with the sheet up to her naked chest and her mouth roped by a twisted bandana and her head propped in the arm shackled to the headboard. Pale fingers wriggled.
I placed the juice on the nightstand and with a knee on the mattress massaged her manacled hand. She whimpered and I plucked the gag from between her teeth letting it hang round her neck and I asked again:
Did you wear it?
She looked at me solemnly and then she said: It was too uncomfortable. I got so thirsty but please—
Yet I replaced the gag and the answering machine blinked the unformed darkness in red lineament and I locked her other wrist to the second set of cuffs. Even in the darkness I could see her eyes dilate. She angled one leg to rub its ankle on the other’s calf and the sheet slowly slipped down an areola like the lid of a clay teapot.
I stood contemplating her and she watched me warily and I turned round to swipe open one curtain and then another. In the long parallelogram of sunlight she tried to hide her eyes in a cuffed arm and she simpered, this Venus borne of torment, til I grabbed the sheet and yanked it off. Her legs shifted modestly trying to hide herself yet nothing to be done for the brown torso stark against the white cotton of the fitted sheet beneath her, for the waist and hips like the lower bout of some consummate luthier’s making, for the large breasts robbed of their decorum and adamant in their grievance, and I was about to speak when I saw in my periphery a lone spectator in insolent mimicry. Then I realized it the cheval mirror’s reflection. I went to it and tilted it downwards and looked at her once more. I lay on the bed, stood, readjusted the mirror’s decline, and lay down again. My towel bulging, her vigilant eyes following me.
I propped myself on an elbow and traced her contours, her bellybutton, an armpit. I watched her squirm and her gagged words came unheeded as I teased the fine hairs trailing down her pelvis towards a crevice denied by clamped thighs and I slithered my hand back up to grab her chin. I cranked her face towards the canted mirror and in its reflection cars and pedestrians passed on the street below.
Look, I said.
A siren wailed, an ambulance raced the mirror’s span, and I lowered my hand to squeeze her neck. I watched her face redden and her nostrils flare and I felt her pulse quicken and I followed her sightline to the street’s reflection where a man stood on a crate on the opposite sidewalk shading his eyes.
I whispered into her ear.
She spoke muffled words and shook her head no yet I ran my nose down the length of her forearm to that pocket of darker pigment where old deodorant met danker pheromone, sniffing down past poled globes hung askance, down her satin belly to musty nethers where her legs writhed in disobedience yet relented to force and her tamped moans crescendoed til a sudden caesura when I arose untoweled and cruel.
Do you want breakfast?
Her chest heaved. She stared wide-eyed. She nodded.
From her clamped lips I removed the bandana and I reached for the glass of orange juice. I placed its rim on her lip and slowly poured til her mouth filled and she swallowed but I kept pouring and she coughed and gurgled and it trickled down her cheeks and neck and stained the pillow.
Do you have work today?
She coughed and shook her head and looked at the glass not yet empty and then at me with a wild panic. Juice pooled in the hollow of her collar.
Good, I said.
But I have errands, she started loudly and coughed again and still coughing: And I have to use the—but I resecured the gag and it ballooned with more coughs, her eyes aglimmer and demiluned with tears as I stood and placed the glass on the nightstand and shoved my towel beneath her.
To be an artist you have to be observant, I said. Focus on the details.
For a moment incredulous she calmed and I kissed her forehead and touched the mesh of her black hair and I said: Use today wisely.
And then her eyes widened two wells of disbelief and that man was still reflecting in the mirror when she began gyrating violently, her body thrusting upwards in fearsome curvature, the cuffs clanking and her shouts coming muzzled maledictions while I donned a t-shirt, holed and paint streaked jeans, sneakers mottled with watercolor, and her choked shouts fierce but muted as the door shut behind me.