Winfield Payton awoke to a mother’s voice. Not his mother—but someone’s mother. It was the commanding yet compassionate voice mothers develop, stern but apprehensive. It was a voice rarely heard in Downer Estates, an apartment complex housing the usual collection of “singles” who live within Frisbee range of urban universities, attend jazz concerts in the park, practice safe sex, drive alphabet cars (BMWs, SUVs, VWs), cybersex on company laptops, faithfully recycle their Heineken bottles, and sip low-cal cappuccino in Starbucks while checking the fates of their mutual funds.
It was a suburban voice, a beach voice, a picnic voice. The voice of a concerned mother directing her brood. “Now, look, Brandy, I told you before. Mommy will be home in just a little while. You can have cereal. Where is Heather? OK, tell Heather to make you some raisin bran. Take your vitamin. And don’t go into the pool until I get back. Do you understand? Don’t go swimming until Mommy comes home.”
As yet Win had not opened his eyes; he was too exhausted. Confronting daylight would be painful. Feeling the sun on his naked back, he buried his face in the pillows. For a moment he imagined he was at Bradford Beach, snoozing while mommies and kiddies trooped over him, sprinkling his blanket with sand and popsicle drippings.
But no, he was in bed. His bed. His fingers felt the familiar smooth lacquered headboard. The pillow bore the scent of Old Spice, his cologne—mundane but reliable.
Home. He turned his aching neck. This simple movement triggered intracranial alarms. Now everything hurt. His head throbbed. His neck tightened. His back ached. Streaks of raw flesh burned across his chest and thighs.
Oh! His body bore the imprint of what his clouded mind failed to recall. Opening an eye to the sun, he saw a gleaming bottle of Absolut on the bedside table. The bottle was nearly empty. Oh! A ceramic ashtray held the twisted remains of weedy joints. Oh! Two broken poppers lay on the carpet. Oh! Leaning over, he saw—amid the tangled debris of his clothes—three lipstick-stained balls of Kleenex, each containing a spent condom. Oh!
Rolling over, Win groaned, feeling like a crash victim. The female voice in the other room called out to him. No longer the mommy voice, it was the supportive, deferential, eager-to-please voice of a Sixties sitcom wife. Mary Tyler Moore exuding “Oh, Rob!” compassion. “Do you want Motrin?” she asked, “I’m making coffee.”
He heard the sounds of housewife bustling in his bachelor kitchen.
“Motrin,” he croaked, like a wounded soldier begging for morphine. Motrin, hell. He needed intensive care. IV’s. Oxygen. Band-Aids. Sitting up, blinking in the sunlight, Win noted the thin, blood-lined scratches and nicks across his chest and thighs. Steve McQueen tangled in barbed wire at the end of The Great Escape.
The woman standing in the doorway bore no relation to the voice flowing with flight attendant charm. She was pretty. Despite the black eye makeup, false eyelashes, and hooker-red lipstick, she was clearly pretty. Her sensibly short blonde hair was cutely, boyishly cut. It complemented the husband-bought Mother’s Day earrings. No doubt she had been trying to look like Debra Harry since fifth grade.
But below the chin she was decidedly dissimilar. Her neck was gripped by a two inch leather choker studded with steel points. Metal chains led to a leather corset which maximized her cleavage and girdled her waist with tight belts and more chains. Handcuffs dangled over a thigh encased in torn fishnet. Her wrists and ankles sported matching leather cuffs.
Instinctively, Win drew back. Only her soft voice reminded him he was in no danger.
“Oh, honey, look at those scratches. I’m so sorry! I forget about these nails.” She wiggled the fingers of her right hand, their dagger like points flashing blood red in the sunlight. Her left palm cupped three red caplets.
He took the pills, then, reaching for a water glass accidentally gulped three and half ounces of Absolut. God!
Sitting up, Win rubbed his eyes and brushed his unruly hair. The woman sat on the edge of the bed and began unbuckling her cuffs, dropping them into a black leather shoulder bag.
“Mind if I take a quick shower? I have to get home to the kids.”
“Go ahead, Barbie.”
Barbie. Gratefully her name came back to him. She disappeared into the guest bath. The architects of Downer Estates had thoughtfully equipped each two bedroom apartment with two full baths. Single tenants and their partners of choice could shower at the same time, going through the customary after-sex hygienic rituals in private. Alone in the main bath, Win gargled with Scope, doused his sore member with hydrogen peroxide, then drew a bath.
Sitting in the steaming water, he felt his muscles unwind. Since his thirty-seventh birthday, a loosening morning bath had become a necessity before he could take a shower and actually wash. Rubbing his neck, Win heard water running in the next room. The grip of alcohol fading, the night’s events played over in his mind.
Win had labored under the naive impression that you would have to call an escort service, scour deviant websites, or stalk AOL chat rooms to locate someone like Barbie Monreal. It seemed highly unlikely to run into a woman with her tastes at a real estate seminar.
Normally, Win avoided attractive, professional women with wedding rings—unless he met them in bars. A real estate seminar held in the student union of his college was an improbable place to get lucky. Money not lust was on his mind that afternoon. He accepted Barbie’s Century 21 card gracefully enough and was prepared to move to the next booth when she suggested a rendezvous at Henri’s for drinks.
Barbie Monreal reminded him of Doris Day in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. Attractive. Cute. But too domesticated to arouse any libidinous interests until her third white wine spritzer. That’s when she calmly announced her motives.
“Now that the kids are older and I have some time, I’d like to get back into psychodrama.”
“Acting?” Win asked naively.
“In a way,” she smiled, giving him a patronizing nod. “Role play. Fantasy. I like the tension, the intimacy. I like power. Both asserting and receiving. Strength and submission. It’s like sexual I Ching. Give. Take. Dominate. Submit. But nothing violent, you understand. I play it safe, sane, and consensual,” she said as if repeating radio jingle. “Nothing too perverse.”
“Nothing too perverse?”
“Consider it a hard massage. I like it both ways, but nothing painful.”
"Nothing painful,” he repeated slowly, recalling his dentist’s reassuring lie about the ease of root canal.
“Not at all. I mostly like the costumes. It’s like adult Halloween.”
“Sure. It’s playing dressup. Gives you a chance to let your mind go, explore the dark side. It’s the ultimate safe sex. You can’t even consider it cheating. Not really. I never do straight. Well, maybe oral,” she added quietly, sounding like a dieter surrendering to a Weight Watcher dessert.
“I have the rest of the afternoon off,” she said, fixing her eyes on him with Nancy Reagan admiration.
Thus began the first of many encounters, most of which Win could only perform or endure under the influence of alcohol.
Lying in the tub, Win rubbed his temples, then forced himself out of the warm embryonic water to shower and, more tentatively, shave.
Clad in a bathrobe, Barbie was making his bed when he returned. She fluffed the pillows, smoothed the comforter, then collected the accouterments of modern romance—body oil, vibrator, adult DVDs, and five inch spike heels.
“Honey, you really shouldn’t drink so much.” She smiled, offering him coffee.
He nodded, taking burning gulps of Eight O’ Clock French Roast.
As Win dressed, he watched Barbie slip into white pantyhose, cream skirt, white blouse, and gold Century 21 blazer.
“I’ve got to buzz home to check on the kids,” she said, consulting her smart phone. “I’ve got appointments the rest of the day. Do you want to get together Thursday? Around two?”
“Sure,” Win agreed, feeling like a casual user sliding into addiction.
The July morning was cool. He walked Barbie to her car. “You know, I used to live in New York,” she said. “West Seventy-Second. I love that town. Went to Hellfire once. Didn’t like it.” She wrinkled her nose as if recalling a disappointing lunch at Le Cirque.
Still the neophyte, Win volunteered an apology, “I hope I didn’t hurt your wrist.”
“Oh, this?” She pulled back her sleeve, revealing a circle of darkened flesh. “My bruises fade. I tell Jerry they come from aerobics.”
They reached her car, a dark blue Volvo sporting a “Have You Hugged Your Kids Today?” bumper sticker. She opened the trunk and dropped the black shoulder bag with a heavy thud.
Donning sunglasses, she smiled at Win. “Until Thursday. If something comes up, call me.”
Win nodded, the fresh air reviving his headache.
“Look, Win, I’ve just gotten to know you. I realize I shouldn’t make any judgments or tell you how to live your life, but I am beginning to care about you. As a special friend.” She paused, grating the steel tip of her heel against the curb. “Win, I think you should really consider going condo.”
Mark Connelly was born in Philadelphia and grew up in New Jersey. He received a BA in English from Carroll College in Wisconsin and an MA and PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His books include The Diminished Self: Orwell and the Loss of Freedom, Orwell and Gissing, Deadly Closets: The Fiction of Charles Jackson, and The IRA on Film and Television. His fiction has appeared in The Ledge, Indiana Review, Cream City Review, Milwaukee Magazine, and Home Planet News. His novella Fifteen Minutes received the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 2005. In 2014 he received an Editor’s Choice Award in The Carve’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest.