“No. Stop. Put it back.”
Note the full stops. Here is a voice that can afford those full-fat seconds.
We’re standing in his kitchen. I put the apple in the fruit bowl. Of course I can’t see through the blindfold but my eyes lower themselves anyway.
Anyway, it isn’t the right apple. The right apple is somewhere else. The wrong apple is now in the fruit bowl. I reach in and feel two apples. But I’m not sure which is which. He’s watching me and he knows which is the right apple.
I pick one. It doesn’t feel real in my hand. I lower it onto the table.
“No.” That would be enough if I wasn’t a slow learner.
“Stop.” As if I could move.
“Put it back.” No unstressed syllables.
When he sees me make the swap he says, “that’s good.”
The coolness of the fruit passes through my hand. I’m in love with this feeling, which I don’t have a name for.
There are seventeen pieces of fruit left on the table. We cannot rest until the right things are separated from the wrong things. When it is done and I’ve expressed my gratitude, I feel relief.
Then I’m free to go. It’s strange: just before that moment, I can’t imagine leaving. Then, suddenly, it’s the only thing thinkable.
With him, the right things and the wrong things are kept apart. For a full half-hour a week.
A block of flats in borderline suburbia. He buzzes me in. I take the lift to the seventh floor. There aren’t any mirrors inside the lift. I feel invisible.
As I pass through the half-open door, he passes me a blindfold. I put it on and remove my shoes. He stands near me and I can feel from the warmth that he has removed his clothes. But only his hand touches my arm as he leads me to a kitchen work surface.
He puts my hands down on a piece of printer-warm paper.
“What noise does this animal make?”
I run my fingers across the surface of the paper.
It’s ten minutes before I make the sound of a cricket.
The following weekend. We’re in a spacious living room. It’s later than usual. A stuffy evening, even with the windows wide open.
There is a bowl of marbles and I must separate the good marbles from the bad ones. This is harder than expected, made harder by the fact that he only tells me I’m making a mistake after the bad marble has slipped from my fingers into the good bowl. I try to find it again. I slow down, concentrating on the feel of each marble during transit. They all feel the same — but he has the power, with a single word or accented breath, to make me feel I’m missing something. The moment lasts. I lose track of time, only vaguely aware of evening sounds at the window.
His voice: he’s enjoying it but worries about pushing me too far. I’d like to reassure him.
He tells me to leave the marbles (unfinished) and kneel in the middle of the room. I pose on my hands and knees, back straight. He sits nearby. I feel his eyes.
“That’s good,” he says, relaxed.
I won’t have to stay here long. Soon he will finish and I can scurry out the door. While I’m thinking this, a thick fluttering passes my right ear. Like a card flicking the spokes of a bike wheel.
There are two things I have an irrational fear of: moths are one of them.
I can’t hear it now. But I feel it. Everywhere. On the back of my knees. Bristling the hairs on my shins. Burrowing into my ear. Rustling its dusty wings on my right hand.
I move it. Once, quickly.
“Put it back.” I do. But now it’s on my left hand, so I move it. This time, he puts his hand on mine and holds it.
If only I could explain! I don’t want to move. It’s the moth! Or, moths rather — they’re getting everywhere. They’re crawling down my spine and when I can bear it no longer, I slap my back with my right hand — and he reaches over and holds that down. He’s leaning on me now, pinning my arms down.
I shake my foot a little and he pushes further, and I slowly collapse onto my front. A pause. He’s almost done. But not soon enough — the moths are back, under my shirt, diving up my nose. I writhe, he pushes harder, I start to buck beneath him — and all the while, I sense his confusion and want to explain but we can’t talk— only physical force should say what needs saying — but there are moths, the vast hidden dimension to our situation — and my fear is too strong, too primal, to be outweighed by pleasure — and he’s on top of me and I feel half-dead, half-squashed moths going mad, and see the only way to be free is to get one leg from under his and back-kick it into the air, which he doesn’t expect and isn’t ready for, and I manage to get him half off of me, but then he’s back abreast, face to face — through a blindfold — both gasping but not speaking, not yet — and my hands around both of his wrists before he can do the same, and him sideways so that I’m above him, and when he tries to lift me, I hold him there and sit on his chest and, feeling secure, let one hand roam over me in search of moths. Finding none, I panic. Only one thing for it.
Before I remove it, I hear him trying to slow his breathing.
“No.” Then I see him under me. I can’t find any moths. “Put it back,” he says — I was already doing it. We both wait for something to happen. Awkwardly, I rise and stand there.
“Ok,” he says. “Good.” I keep the blindfold on until the last second, when I’m halfway out the door. Though I don’t look up, I can tell his eyes are on the floor too.
The next day, at work, I thought about nothing while waiting for the coffee to brew. Usually I stood there and my mind would run wild, brimming with possibilities. I could kick Sean’s chair over while Sean was in it and then he’d be on the floor — if I wanted to, that is. I didn’t usually want to do these things, I just wanted to think about them. I think wanting to think about kicking someone over is worse than wanting to do it, if the thought didn’t enter your mind voluntarily.
But in place of these thoughts, there was just a heightened awareness of my immediate surroundings. The way the ladies — from the other side of the room, I didn’t know their names — fiddled with the tap to get it to work, how the cleaning lady was sort of waiting but not waiting, and bits of two conversations at once. Just bits of drifting nonsense, in the midst of which I stood like a vacuum.
This happened all week, whenever I had spare time.
With one exception. On Tuesday Sean had a new mug. It had a cat on it and it said ‘Paws for tea’ and I thought about throwing it out of the window. Normally a thought like this would drop away quickly, as if banked for later use. But this time it remained, like a plucked string that goes on humming and only you can hear the vibrations. For the last two hours of the day, I felt extremely tense and relieved to be out.
Saturday: the same apartment. I thought that was a mistake. I thought the whole thing might be a mistake, but it only occurred to me in the lift.
The glass beads felt especially cool in my hands, which I took to mean that my palms were unusually warm.
Brisk. That’s how I’d describe it. The only time I’d ever felt time-pressed in his company.
Not only me. We both seemed in a rush to get through it without any more surprises.
When he told me that all of the right beads were in one pile and all of the wrong beads in another, I didn’t entirely believe this was true. The same voice lacked authority, as if trying too hard. It knew I could verify things now. It made me want to, which was absurd, because all of the glass beads looked identical, so there was no actual possibility of verifying it.
Yet I wanted to check it in his eyes. I think he sensed this because he finished very fast — not entirely sure he did, actually — and then I was in the mirrorless elevator again. I wondered whether he felt very sad like I did.