She was always on the lookout for I’m Alive moments. There was a Venus flytrap on the windowsill above the desk where she translated, and when she felt uninspired she would touch the plant’s delicate jaw. Its snapping noise, Renée thought, was what the turning Earth would sound like if everything else went quiet.
The Venus flytrap had no muscles, yet somehow it moved. This was a miracle. Renée figured that if a plant could move without muscles, she could at least translate a few sentences from French into English. If the plant alone was not sufficiently encouraging she would go to the sink. She filled it up so far with water that only the cohesion of its particles kept the counter dry. Then she held her hair away from her face with the same gentle but decisive grip she used on her clients. She leaned toward the water, broke the surface with the tip of her nose. This activated what her ex-husband Charlie called the mammalian dive reflex. It was soothing.
When she split her own reflection it gave her a sense of peace.
Today she was anxious, and all morning she relied on her I’m Alive tricks. She was thinking of Charlie. He knew French too—he helped her translate every while they discussed the past in sidelong glances.
Renée could not live happily without causing other people harm. They’d been married for three years when she tried to explain it, how wonderful it was to create a phantasmagoria of pain that could, with a single word, end at any moment. A lucid nightmare.
It was perfect, she said, because it was the opposite of actual life. She wanted to be an architect of agony, a place where people could fake-fight themselves in preparation for the real thing.
When at dinner she tried to make Charlie understand her words tripped over themselves and she sounded crazy. She loved him, his gentle body and the way he talked—like each syllable was a gift. But her mind glazed over during sex and she found herself fantasizing about the layers of his skin, the reddening by degrees.
She said she wanted out. He’d called her a freak and then put his arms around her. Later, he’d cried so hard it rattled the china in his cabinets.
The man who loved his wife arrived at 1:32 p.m. holding an envelope that contained two hundred dollars. When he rang the doorbell Renée was still in the bathroom adjusting her fake eyelashes, which reached up into infinity like supple stalactites. She had never been a fake eyelashes kind of person, or the kind of person who worried why one breast was slightly rounder than the other, or who panicked when she walked barefoot across the hardwood floor after a shower and the stray cat hair made her feet itch. Yet she worried about these things. She thought she was supposed to. On most days Renée got along just fine with the jillion intersecting bits of mind and body that made her who she was. But she wasn’t feminine enough. The feeling was like an itch seated at the bottom of her lungs or in the hollow of her stomach where she could never reach. She couldn’t shake the idea that maybe—no matter what they said—all men who wanted women shared some ideal of She-ness that they spent their whole lives looking for. This She-ness had many components. Most women, thought Renée, possessed one aspect or another. A certain slimness about the waist. A benign sort of humor. A keen way of blinking. Renée had none of these—or if she did, they existed only to disguise an ingenuity of self, a fundamental grossness that lay beneath layers of lotion and foundation.
This was what Renée thought but she barely acknowledged it. Self-deprecation violated her moral principles.
As Renée tugged a single eyelash into place with medical precision the man rang the doorbell again. What an impatient little shit, she thought. Fourth visit and he still had a lot to learn.
She’d started with his first name, his preferences, and the fact that he was fat, which Renée found endearing in the younger ones. It made them humble, and Renée understood people who quarreled with their bodies. She’d been told time and time again that she was too short and skinny to bring anyone to their knees but she proved them wrong. With her voice and dexterous hands she did the impossible every day. Still, each time felt like the first time.
She examined her bland features in the mirror and licked her lips. “Decide you’re worth something,” she mumbled, “and stick with it.”
This was her father’s mantra and though it was a little too cheesy for Renée’s taste she liked the idea that you could choose. She turned on the faucet, washed the sweat from her hands, and dried off with a fluffy towel. She rehearsed what she would say to today’s guy. He was funny, if a bit shy. He liked her jokes.
I bought a paddle from an S&M shop—it was brand spanking new!
She would get to his core, the scared-and-sacred parts, and shoot them through with sensation until in the great throes of pain he was made invincible. That was what Renée did. She brought people down to lift them up, broke them to fix them. Except on bad days she just hurt men for money and wondered why.
Her clients never came directly to her door. She left her apartment and plodded downstairs to the ground floor where the walls smelled like mildew. Outside the man was standing in the snow, trying to decide if he looked cute or pathetic with a slew of snowflakes melting in the bristles of his hair.
When Renée let him in he saw again how her hands were smooth like his wife’s. He saw that she was short and not pretty. But the smile that spread across her face like fire made him feel something and he followed her wordlessly through the fog of mildew-smell into her apartment.
They sat on the faux-leather couch next to the bookshelf rife with mysteries. The dishwasher was on and Leo was curled up against its throbbing heat, eyes half-shut with contentment. Renée watched him watch the cat. She liked how he opened his mouth slightly when something was interesting. She thought he was cute, in a pathetic short of way. She brushed the snow-water from his hair. His face was lit up with many colors. She opened her mouth to say something kind when he stood, said “I don’t think I can do this again,” and stuffed the money into his coat pocket.
“It’s okay to be nervous,” said Renée.
She was going to offer him a soda, ask him—as men ask—to stay awhile, but she could taste the bitter shame in the back of her throat. She did not know how long it had been there. Perhaps she was born with it. It was difficult, too, to know the money hid behind the thin layer of his jacket.
“I love my wife,” said the man. “I just wanted you to know that. She works in healthcare. She’s always trying to help out.”
“Of course,” said Renée. Then, silence. The man thought he was a bad person. People were just people. The boss at her first ever job, she remembered, was a narcissistic bitch who had rescued an injured raccoon from the highway and nursed it back to health, lovingly counting the white rings on its tail. Her psychology teacher, who dragged Renée back from the brink of academic despair with words of encouragement, also showed her how to present data in a way that lent artificial credence to her hypothesis. Renée’s brother once lifted her up by the armpits so she could drop a quarter into a Salvation Army bucket. A couple years later he took her to shoplift candy bars from CVS.
She wanted to tell the man all this but she just said, “We don’t have to. You can leave if you want.”
The man nodded. He nodded and he couldn’t stop, like a bobblehead. Renée noticed he had a tremor in his eyelid.
“I get that too,” she said. “The eyelid thing.”
“Is that right,” said the man.
“It started when I was on Cymbalta, and then I got off Cymbalta because it raised my blood pressure. But the flickering didn’t go away. Makes you feel like you’re a robot and nobody told you. Part of you is malfunctioning but in like a mechanical way. With a rhythm. And you can’t do anything about it.”
“Oh.” The man blinked hard. “Do you see that bouncy shadow or whatever?”
He hesitated. “If you could get rid of it,” he said, “would you?”
“The eye thing? Of course—”
“I mean kink.”
Renée thought about Charlie. Finally she said, “I can’t answer that.”
“Because it wouldn’t be me anymore.” She crossed her arms over her chest, felt the smallness of her body. “I’ve spent the last several years justifying myself to myself. And I’m sick of it. Question your ethics, sure, but apart from that—might as well let yourself be screwed up. While you can still be anything but dead.”
The dishwasher beeped and Leo swatted its shiny front with his tail.
“Damn,” said the man. He thought Renée was a little conceited—he had not let the blanket of obeisance overtake him—but also right, kind of. He wanted her to be right. After the last three sessions he had sat in his car, overcome with tension, sore in places that had up to this life-point felt almost nothing. Each time he said “It should be snowing,” and each time it didn’t snow because he could not pay the sky, as he paid Renée, to create an environment conducive to his personal growth. Snow was the best for thinking and Renée’s apartment was the best for falling backward into yourself.
When he came home the freedom was paralyzing. His wife would say Where should we go for dinner and it killed him and this image popped into his head—not of Renée but of her plant, a Venus flytrap, and how nice it would be to sit in the sun all day. Sometimes he wanted to know absolutely nothing, like in death. Maybe that would be the ultimate knowing. No assumptions, no emotions, no arbitrary conclusions. They say devotion is the ultimate surrender and surrender is the ultimate devotion. What that means is you sit on the windowsill of someone’s mind and grow in their light and you are safe because it is like the Godfeeling but closer.
“How about you,” said Renée. “Would you get rid of it?”
He pulled the money from his coat and gave it to her.
The agreement hung between them.
“Are you sure?” said Renée.
“Yeah.” He paused. “I mean…yes, Ma’am.”
She made as if to touch him—his chin, his mouth—then turned around. She left the room, put away the money somewhere, and came back with a blindfold. “If I remember correctly,” she said, “last time you told me you wanted to be scared. Which was a really stupid thing to say.”
The man swallowed.
“You don’t know fear. Not yet.”
When Renée blindfolded him the man suddenly wondered what his wife would do if she knew. Meanwhile, Renée considered her own performance. Most of what she said was about the tone and not the words. The line about fear was good, though. She wanted to write it down, made a mental note to make a note. Or was it a total cliché? Had she heard it somewhere? Like in porn? God, what was she doing with her life?
She checked the man’s blindfold, dragged the tip of her thumb between the cloth and his forehead. He was sweating.
No, it was a good line, a very good line. Not yet. She would use it again. As she touched him the image of his wife faded. It was starting. The inner glow, the all-encompassing silence, the ocean rush of anesthesia. And beneath it the self-doubt and unbridled panic that rose to the top in brightly colored pieces. She would take them out, show them to him, put them back, and send him home with the memory of their molds—how smooth and hollow they were, how empty life would be without pain.
She grabbed him roughly by the arm and led him into her bedroom.
She rarely used her bedroom with her clients, but she needed an unfamiliar environment. It was the warmest room, the place where yesterdays stuck around the longest. She sat him down at the edge of the bed and focused on his mouth. He was laughing, silently, tersely.
“Nothing, Ma’am. You know how I get when—”
She slapped him across the face, watched him recoil.
“Put your hands out.”
He put his hands out.
“Palms up,” said Renée.
Once he got it right his hands shook with some invisible weight, as though he we carrying something both fragile and heavy, mortal and lethal. There were fireworks in front of his eyes—those bursts of color you see when your world goes dark. Maybe the best way to get yourself to do or see anything was to surround yourself with nothing.
Renée trailed her thumb— he knew the specific roughness—down his wrist. Then she pulled away and said, “Feel this. Tell me what it is.”
She placed an object in his hands. It was short and thin, with a padded handle. He recognized it immediately, as one recognizes a good friend or bitter enemy by the smallest aspects of their person.
Here Renée, with no acknowledgement of his success, took the implement from him and swished it through the air. Both Renée and her client liked the sound of the crop better than any other tool. It was musical. Underneath its tiny wind were melodies wrought aerodynamically and completed in the imagination, and each smack was not really a smack but more of a thwap, a drumbeat.
Renée twirled it around again. They both listened.
The man drew back from the edge of the bed but no blows were forthcoming.
“That was the first day,” said Renée.
She sauntered around the room in her heels, watching the man’s body grow tense. Though she was short she chose her shoes for noise instead of stature and her footsteps reverberated against the hardwood floor, leaving gaps of soul-splitting silence. Then she stopped, stood before him, picked something new.
Day two was a flogger, its leathery fronds splayed like the leaves of some aquatic plant. The man was fascinated by the discrepancy between its gentleness when inert— it felt almost friendly— and the shimmering pains it left behind. Still, the flogger was nothing compared to day three, a single-tail whip that Renée had coiled around her arm like a snake. She took it away but the weight was still there, that weight, growing heavier and heavier. Finally she said, “Today is day four. And you get a choice. You said you wanted to be scared— so it’s either the whip, or this.”
She dropped something cold in his hands. “Tell me what it is.”
He knew but he said nothing, hoping his senses had betrayed him.
“Tell me what it is,” Renée said again.
“A knife,” said the man.
Renée laughed. “Don’t make that face. You know I’m a cruel mistress. Me and death. Now choose.”
In his state of terror it took him a few moments to realize she’d tried to be funny. He smirked.
“Knife?” said Renée. “Okay.”
During the following weeks when the man who loved his wife replayed what happened next over and over in his throttled mind the first thing he remembered was the moment Renée touched the blade to his lips, which reminded him of how at the age of twelve he’d kissed himself in a mirror and left a tear-sized drop of water in the center of the glass.
She pressed the cold behind his ears, to his stomach, to the tremulous flesh above his collarbone. He heard his own heartbeat like at night when he shoved his head too hard into his pillow. She told him she loved him. She told him he was beautiful. She told him she would take care of him; she told him he was ugly. She said he deserved to die. Or maybe she said none of these things but he felt them all anyway, because in the blast of fear all his emotions and his many truths came together. They were one and the same, the essence of living.
For a moment he was convinced he would really die and that it would also be alright because he was going to a place with sunlight. He would exist unwittingly in her glow like the plant on the windowsill. Then she stopped, pulled back, dragged the knife across his throat. Immediately he came back to reality. Holy shit, he was bleeding, she had really done it, suddenly he was terrified and irate and as he groped around the recesses of his mind for his safeword and thought you’re stupid stupid stupid she slipped the blindfold away.
“Be quiet,” she said. Her tone was gentle. “This place isn’t soundproof. Look—you’re fine. There’s nothing.”
His hands flew to his throat. Came back clean. He whimpered. She was smiling. The knife lay at her feet and she pressed something into his palm and though he could see she asked him, again, what it was.
He squinted. “Um,” he said. “That’s a…what the hell?”
It was a card. His Target rewards card. “Fell out of your pocket last week,” said Renée. “Feel the edge.”
“I didn’t touch you with the knife.”
He was breathing hard. She sat next to him and draped her arms around his shoulders so her fingers interlaced in the center of his chest.
The man who loved his wife smelled Renée’s shampoo—simple, clean, austere—and felt a twinge of preemptive guilt. He turned the plastic around in his hands. It was slick with sweat. Renée pressed her mouth against his neck and he was floating again.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” she said.
If she had seen him in the street she would not have looked twice. He was merely a man but what they did was greater.
They stared at the card.
“It’s crazy,” said Renée, “what you can make yourself believe.”
Quand tu reviens, tu verras comment les abîmes de la memoire s’effondrent si nubilement dans la gueule de cette petite mort. Ce n’est pas toi sans le passé, mais justement, t’es plus toi-même que jamais.
She traced the words like a child learning to read. It was almost night-time. When she looked out her window Renée could see flickers of movement in the city, the mass of barely intersecting human pieces to which, on bad days, she was loath to belong. Nobody really knew anybody.
She was lost in that place in your head that lets a word spoken in two different languages carry the same meaning. Maybe souls were made there, barred from unity by innocence, and came down into bodies to find each other. Sex was supposed to be the selfless fight, the breaking through. Or maybe that was her problem. Sex was sex. But she went after it with the rapt yet guilty look of a sinner waiting for God. She wanted God and she got rain—that was how she’d described the last time with Charlie. Rain at night while the house slept. Pleasant enough. But not that. Not enough enough.
She wanted to tell everyone that the only real mistake was him, that the error-frames of her life spreading out in Fibonacci spirals were merely byproducts of that inscrutable time zero when they chose to make something of themselves together. But big things are rarely the way we want them to be.
Renée likes to imagine that she and Charlie are four years old and running around in a park. They enjoy the luxury of boredom. They do not know the two forms of you—the singular vous and tu—that die so swiftly in translation. They do not know the ache of irreclaimable time. They do not know the feeling you get after you cry a grown-up cry and the back of your throat tastes sickly sweet, like rotten vanilla.
Rayne Pasqualini is a recent graduate of The Barstow School. Her work has been performed at the Coterie Young Playwrights’ Festival. She loves language but exists for the moments when words are not enough.