An empty bottle of 94-point Napa Cabernet sat next to the bed. He had purchased it through a collector. They were not alcoholics, but at a bottle plus per night, she supposed they were falling into that class of lush who wrap self-medication up in exquisite packaging. He thrust on top of her. Too enthralled by approaching orgasm, Noah was oblivious to the silent tears streaming down her flushed cheeks, beading like ice droplets on windows.
At 35, Sarah had begun to notice the faintest trace of crow’s feet webbing around her eyes when she crinkled her face in the mirror. She paid them no mind. Inside the medicine cabinet – invariably shined spotless by the maid recommended to Noah by a colleague – sat an orange and white tube of acne medication prescribed by her dermatologist. Insurance didn’t cover it. Not that it mattered. A 35-year-old woman with acne was an absurd concept. She had gone at her mother’s encouragement, but only Sarah was privy to the knowledge that the spots were the result of an anxious skin-picking habit. Dermatillomania, the internet called it. There was a word for everything. All our poor habits were sicknesses now.
They weren’t so much having sex as mutually masturbating, using each other’s genitals to climax. It felt clinical. Well, Noah was going to get off whereas Sarah had resigned herself to the fact that orgasms were part of her past. Even if he remembered foreplay existed and acted out the delicate deeds that once got her there, the concentration of the antidepressants coursing through her veins had more or less chemically castrated her.
She stared at the pristine ceiling as he continued to thrust into her. She was nothing more than a receptacle. The chandelier burned into her vision, round glass bulbs like squid eyes. Sarah had a recurring fantasy of the thing coming undone and falling on top of them as they slept, or more romantically, as they fucked, killing them both. Most of her suicidal ideations were like this – passive in nature. Walking across the traffic of Lexington Avenue near their townhouse on 67th Street and allowing a bus to run her over. Smush. She let out a little giggle, like a burp. The woman squished to death by the bus won’t even know what line it was. She’s never been on the bus.
Her noise pulled Noah out of whatever fantasy he was making love to and he paused, still inside.
“Are you crying?”
“No, it’s good. Keep going.”
He continued. On her back, surrounded by plush grey bedding, she turned her head to the left to look fixedly at the empty wine bottle. She imagined grabbing it and breaking it over Noah’s head. Smash. She wouldn’t, of course. She maintained her position, lying in silence in Ralph Lauren luxury. White and grey, Fall 2013 collection, she believed. Selected by the interior designer that same colleague of Noah’s had recommended. Violent fantasies had become a fixed part of her sexual experience. Having come to realize her own darkness, what her mind was capable of terrified her, yet humans were inherently evil. She was glad she understood that now.
It was three months ago. The fall. Her fall. Noah was in Los Angeles with the agency. He likely flew there seated next to the woman with the maids and the interior decorators, drinking airplane-sized Belvederes. Sarah remained in New York as the leaves rustled. She purchased a burgundy pea coat. Her sister came to visit, and they went out for drinks at a bar she hadn’t frequented in a decade.
Sort of a friend of a friend of a friend, Alex wore red suspenders. He was the type of free-spirited Brooklyn boy she used to date before Noah had married her and moved her to Lexington Avenue. Before she exchanged vintage leather jackets for burgundy pea coats, and grown acquainted with chandeliers. Alex was charming, if infuriatingly selfish – smacking his hand on the table, ordering round after round, before the rest realized they were paying for it.
Through his open white button-down shirt, she spotted the beak of a blue sparrow tattoo – the one you see on flashboards. Sarah was attracted to Alex. It was an instinct she had no desire to act upon. Perhaps get drunk enough to flirt a little, but she had grown up enough to run cost-benefit analyses and decide against harmful decisions. Other than cheeky conversations, and a few kisses between friends at parties, she had not cheated on Noah in the four years they had been together.
Hanging lanterns lit the dark wood tables. A prohibition theme. Sarah was waiting for the bathroom as Alex approached. At first, he simply stood in silence next to her.
“So, Don Draper has left you alone again?” he asked, auburn beard arching with a smile.
“Excuse me?” replied Sarah.
“All alone … Poor, little girl.” He was facing her now. They held eye contact. He leaned in to kiss her.
“No, no, no, not interested,” Sarah nervously reprimanded, exactly as the bathroom door opened and some other woman walked by, glancing at them.
“Yeah, we’ll see,” said Alex, turning on his heel with a wink and walking back towards the bar.
The red bathroom was hung with black and white photographs of naked women. Sarah hovered over the toilet, convincing herself it was a drunken fluke. She washed her hands, and returned to the group, agreeing on another round.
After bidding adieu to her sister, Sarah buttoned up her coat, flung her large purse over her shoulder and went to stand, bouncing on her heels, on Hudson Street to wait for a cab.
“Care to share a cab?” She turned around. Alex was at her side.
“I’m going uptown. Don’t you live in Brooklyn?”
“Yes, silly, north Brooklyn. It will be easier for me to transfer to the G if I get on the blue line at 53rd.”
A cab honked and pulled up. Without asking further permission, Alex opened the yellow door and held out his hand. “After you.”
Top 40 hip-hop played crunchily from the cabbie’s radio. As the car rolled left, Alex slid across the seat and placed a hand on her leg. “Alone tonight…” he murmured, fixating on the word “alone.”
“Alex, seriously, stop. It’s not going to happen.”
“OK, of course. Forgive me. You’re just the most beautiful thing I’ve seen, and I can’t figure out how anyone could leave you all alone in this town.”
“He’s just doing something for work.”
She shouldn’t have let him up. She knew that. He protested. He said his building’s heat wasn’t turned on yet. He said he would stay for a drink, nothing more. Sarah knew better, but the sight of him pleading with playful confidence in the cab, like a small boy who was smarter than he let on to his parents, piqued something in her adventurous heart that she often kept tucked away. She agreed to let him come up and fix her a cocktail, which he did using Noah’s antique liquor cart, before drunkenly mushing his face into hers in an ugly kiss, slamming her head against the wall and dragging her into the bedroom. She disassociated throughout the entire event, staring at the sparrow tattoo moving above her. The bird that clipped her wings.
After he was done, he let himself out. Sarah lay sobbing, staring at the chandelier. The lingering smell of olive juice from their dirty martinis mixed with his grainy sweat to create a rancid salty odour on her sheets. Sarah showered, took three 1mg pills of Xanax and passed out on their extensive grey sofa – “tucked and sectional”, the product description had read.
Noah knew what had happened, but he did not understand. Sarah had called him in tears and told him with benzodiazepine-slowed speech the next afternoon. He knew it wasn’t right, but his immediate reaction was regret. Regret that Sarah was fucking that hipster hanger-on while he had passed up an opportunity that very same night with his voluptuous friend, the one who was soon to be divorced. He knew the proper response to hearing his wife utter the word “rape” was sympathy, and properly directed rage, but the person he found he hated was her.
He hated her for going out and getting wasted like some college skank. He hated her for being dumb enough to let him into their apartment. He hated her for allowing him to touch his liquor. He hated her for sharing the detail that he had got his mouth all over her, on his bed. He knew she was a victim, but it wasn’t rape in the terms that he understood. He even secretly felt she was an active participant. Part of her wanted it, he feared, and so he hated her. He began to become angry whenever she would bring it up, so he paid for another shrink to hear about it instead. And after about a month, they ceased to speak of the incident. Yet underneath the hate laid a foundation of loyalty, originally built through love, and so he coped the best way his emotional shortages allowed. He took on more at work, went on more trips and allowed the sexual tension between himself and his colleague to explode into an affair.
Noah heaved himself over Sarah, staring straight ahead. A porn film he had watched during his lunch hour playing on the screen of his mind. He came, and then rolled over, dutifully kissing her on the cheek before allowing sleep to overtake him. Sarah watched him as his breath ascended into snores, amazed once again at the ability of men to fall asleep immediately post-orgasm.
She lifted herself up and slid on her favourite nightgown, a 60s style, knee-length, tangerine chiffon garment. It rustled as she walked out of the bedroom to make a cup of chamomile tea in one of the few items she had retained since school – a faded coffee mug, masculine and white. She had a law degree, you know. At 30, she had been the entertainment lawyer to watch in downtown Manhattan, before getting fed up with the tornado of it all and becoming a freelance consultant. That practice had deteriorated to little more than an occasional email in recent months. Sarah glanced at the liquor cart. She debated adding a shot of bourbon to her tea, but had a flashback of Alex devilishly preparing drinks. Of Alex helping himself to copious pours of their liquor, before helping himself to her. She shuddered. That night is even ruining my methods of coping with that night, she thought, and let out another unexpected giggle. She curled up like a child on the ridiculously huge sofa and fell asleep.
It would be her last night in the apartment. The next afternoon, as Noah boarded another plane, without so much as a thought she would redirect her browser from a Hollywood gossip site back to her email, and compose a message to Noah explaining she was leaving him and could be found at her sister’s in Boston. He could have come after her, yet he chose not to, extending his trip out west and drinking a little heavier for a few months instead. He’d marry again.
After a few more bar brawls, a woman with more of a certain kind of courage than Sarah came forward with an allegation that Alex had raped her. Sarah hadn’t told anyone other than Noah and her therapists. She supposed she felt she knew too much about both how the media and law views women to have any faith in government authority. But after a while, she was spurred on by her subconscious to help with the case being made against him, and relayed the incident to the two friendly detectives who sat in her new downtown living room. And Sarah would be OK too, eventually. She simply needed the passage of many more moons to heal, and to be out from under that chandelier.
Photograph by Creative Commons