“Moonlight And Shadows” is a story about a man who has braided together love, lust, guilt and anger into a noose around his own neck.
I wanted to understand how a man arrives at the point where he hits the woman he loves and what happens to his sense of self afterwards
* 1 *
Moonlight bathes the bed, washing away the darkness, making the shadows pool in the corners of the room. The woman on the bed is curled into a foetal position. Behind closed lids, her eyes move rapidly from side to side. Beads of sweat, made silver by the moon, sit like dew on her forehead. She is whimpering, troubled by what she sees in her sleep.
A shadow detaches itself from the corner and moves silently towards her. It stops at the foot of her bed and waits.
The shadow’s name is Max Hertz. He still thinks of the woman on the bed as his wife, although the lawyers, who have plagued him with their restraining orders and demands for money for the past eighteen months, would disagree. They say he is divorced. Max doesn’t believe in divorce. Marriage is for life. The only thing that should end it is death. His or hers. He is sure that Jenny knows this. They took vows. They made promises to each other before God. No lawyers could change that.
Max isn’t sure why he came here. At first the chase had been the thing. They’d refused to tell him where Jenny was. Told him to stay away. From his own wife. Max was good at finding things out. He was patient and thorough and he had the money from his half of the house that the lawyers had made him sell. It had taken three months but he had eventually discovered her address. And now he was here. Paying Jenny a visit.
((So why the ski mask and the dark clothes and the knife?)) the voice in his head asked.
He’d listened to that voice a lot once. Used to think it was the word of God transmitted especially for him. But recently it had started to sound like Jenny. He knew the voice was watching everything he did, judging it, finding him wanting and then using Jenny’s “reasonable” tone to try and get him to change. Except it doesn’t make him want to change, it makes him want to explode. It makes him angry, so angry it frightens him.
Max can feel the shadow of that anger rearing up behind him as he stands at the foot of the bed; a wave of hate and violence that he can either ride or let wash through him.
(( You don’t need that knife. You don’t want to hurt her. That’s not why you are here. ))
Max hadn’t realised the knife was in his hand. Moonlight bleeds along the sharp edge of the blade as he holds it before him, so that he seems to be cutting the night itself.
(( Put the knife down. You love Jenny. Remember?))
He’d spent the past three months doing nothing but remembering. The walls of the little room he lived in were covered in photographs of Jenny; a Jenny who laughed and pulled faces and told him she loved him. Each night he watched their wedding video, listening to the promises they had made and wondering if Jenny had ever meant to keep them. All of it is on the surface of his mind. He can play any part of the movie of their marriage at will.
(( Don’t give way to the anger. Think about the good things. Remember when you met her on that plane?))
Of course he remembers. Meeting Jenny changed his life; changed who he was and who he wanted to be. Max believes God arranged that meeting. The movie in his head begins to play, scene fading into scene.
* 2 *
He is on a flight from London to Basel; yet another trip to Switzerland. Business class is half-empty. He has a window seat in the first three rows as usual and is looking forward to some solitude. Max doesn’t talk to people on planes. He prefers to look out of the window or to sleep.
There is a flurry of activity at the hatch as the last passenger arrives, breathless and apologetic. Max looks up to see what the fuss is about and catches his first glimpse of Jenny. A strand of hair is stuck to her cheek, her face is flushed and she is wearing her smile like a shield against the havoc her lateness is causing.
He is irritated when he realises she is going to sit next to him. All that space and he gets to sit next to someone who is barely able to catch a plane.
She has a flight-bag as well as her laptop. He watches her struggle to load it in the overhead locker. Her suede bolero jacket falls open and her white cotton shirt stretches against her breasts.
He can smell her perfume. From her looks he’d expected some kind of cK1 frivolity, alcohol with a citrus topnote, but this is subtler and infinitely more sensual. His interest is snagged and he assesses her frame. She is the kind of woman his mother would have described as of peasant stock; rounded, slightly heavy around the hips, strong bones and a broad regular face that isn’t pretty but will age well. Her skin looks soft and smooth. Smooth as butter his mother would have said.
She starts to talk to him before she even sits down. Apologising for being late. Telling him about her nightmare trip and how she is usually always on time. He can’t prevent a mental grimace at the inaccuracy involved in that combination of usually and always. Still, her accent announces her as American so he makes allowances.
As she sits she tells him her name and makes him shake hands with her. Her skin is warm and soft. She is still talking but he isn’t listening. He is caught up in her smell. The perfume is musk based. An interesting choice for daytime wear. It isn’t corporate clean or pretty-in-pink feminine. Its success depends on the acidity of the wearer’s sweat. He knows that it is expensive and wonders if she selected it herself or if it was a gift from a lover.
While his nose draws in her scent, his eyes focus on her mouth and the fall of her short hair. Max doesn’t like women to cut their hair. It despoils what, for many women, is their main asset. Jenny’s hair is thick and heavy, mid-brown with strands of copper that catch the light. It is cut into a bob that still allows the slow flow of motion through the hair that Max finds so sensual. She pushes her fingers through her hair while she talks, an absent-minded caress that draws him to her. He notes that she is left-handed and isn’t wearing a wedding ring.
When the seat belt sign goes out Jenny exclaims that she is hot, as if this is a matter of public interest and stands to take off her jacket. Max’s eyes are on her breasts. She appears to be wearing a sports bra. Still standing, she rolls up her sleeves and undoes the top two buttons of her shirt. As she sits down he notices a small silver crucifix just above the swell of her breasts.
“Is that an ornament or are you a believer?” he hears himself say. The tone is more hostile than he had intended and he wonders why. He hadn’t meant to speak at all.
Her hand goes up to the cross, covering it protectively. Her smile is gone and her eyes seem ready to show hurt.
“It belonged to my brother. He was a Christian. He had cancer. When he knew he was dying he asked me to wear it in memory of him.”
The guilt Max feels at having asked this question surprises him. He is not normally an apologetic man. But Jenny triggers something new in him. Her dark eyes are wide open and looking straight at him. She isn’t crying but her eyes are moist. Her hand is still wrapped defensively around the crucifix, as if she is warding off a vampire. Max feels a strong desire to defend her… from everything.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he says, “that was completely uncalled for. Your faith is your concern. It’s just that I get so annoyed at the way fashion devalues symbols.”
He pauses. This is more than he has ever said to anybody on a plane before.
She releases the crucifix. He tries not to look at it resting against the warmth of her skin, tries not to imagine his finger tracing a line from the indentation at the base of her neck through the swell of her breasts. Max’s ability to imagine this kind of thing is a constant source of distraction to him.
“I’m sorry about your brother,” he says, and then, from nowhere, another uncharacteristic statement, “You must miss him a great deal.”
This makes Jenny relax. She starts to tell him about her gifted older brother whom she clearly loved to distraction. As he listens he imagines what it would be like to be the centre of that much affection.
The one-hour flight flashes by. When the crew announce ten minutes to landing Jenny leans towards him, places her hand on his wrist and says, “You are such a good listener that all I’ve done is talk at you. I haven’t asked you anything about yourself. All I know is your name. Look, there’ll be folks meeting me at the airport but I’m here all week. Maybe we could meet for dinner and you can fill me in on all there is to know about you?”
He makes himself smile. He knows that Americans make this kind of offer lightly.
“That’s very generous of you but I’m afraid it wouldn’t take very long or be very interesting,” he says.
“Wow, you really know how to schmooze don’t you? Just kidding. No look really. I’d like to talk to you again,” she says.
He is aware of her hand on his wrist. He looks into her eyes and smiles, this time without effort. Her pupils dilate. Max knows that he is good looking in a dark and mercurial sort of way. He is used to seeing desire in the eyes of women and sometimes men. He is pleased to see it Jenny’s eyes now.
“Doesn’t have to be dinner,” Jenny says, “How’s about coffee. I’m staying at the Drei Konige. Do you know it? There’s a coffee shop by Mittlere Brucke that has a great view and we would be completely in a public place honest.”
This is encouraging. He had expected her to be at the Hilton, not at a good European hotel and she managed the Swiss German words without mangling them.
“Actually, dinner would be rather nice. Shall we try Churassco’s? They are close to you and serve the most wonderful steaks.”
That night he lies in his bed thinking about her. Not letting himself deal with his erection. Saving himself for something that he isn’t willing to think about just yet.
* 3 *
Churassco is a little piece of Argentina in Switzerland. It celebrates the dead cow in all its forms. Even the seats are made of black and white cowhide. The waiter seats them at a quiet corner table. In Max’s opinion he spends too long helping Jenny to be seated and stands too close to her while he does so.
“I’ve seen this place from the outside lots of times,” Jenny says “but I’ve never been in. It looks a lot of fun.”
“The food is an excellent example of its kind, so I think we can forgive the ostentation of the decor,” Max says, scanning the menu.
The silence that follows makes him look up.
Jenny is trying not to laugh.
“Are you always this pompous or are you trying to impress me?”
Max is not amused. He knows that he is sometimes stiff and over formal. He resents having it pointed out.
“I’m sorry if my manner has caused offence,” he says.
“I’ve worked with a lot of Brits,” Jenny says, “but none of them have managed to have an upper lip quite as stiff as yours. What’s the deal? Oh come on. Don’t go getting all defensive on me. It’s a pose right? I mean it has to be.”
Max is shocked. How dare this, this, this… woman, speak to him in this way? He is so angry that his face becomes completely immobile. Every muscle in his body is tensed.
At some level he knows that she is right. It is a pose. He is a working class lad who has painstakingly clad himself in middle class affectation. But to have some American woman point this out violates his sense of how the world should work.
“I won’t impose upon you further,” he says, getting to his feet.
Even now, when his bluff has been called, he can’t change his manner. He is a hermit crab who has worn his borrowed shell for so long that he can no longer extract himself from it.
“You look very sexy when you’re angry,” Jenny says, standing and offering him her arm.
People are looking at them. She presses herself against his side and leans her head on his shoulder.
“Smile and lead us out of here like a gentleman,” she whispers.
They leave the astonished waiter in their wake as they push out into the street.
Jenny lets go of Max and stands directly in front of him.
“I upset you didn’t I. I’m sorry. I just can’t help it. You look so delicious and yet you act like you have a rod up your ass.”
Max finds himself torn between anger and vanity. He says nothing.
“I’m going back to my hotel now. If you want to show me the real you then ask for me at reception,” she turns away from him, then looks back over her shoulder and says, “You really do look sexy when you’re angry.”
Max lets her go. He starts to walk. He always walks when he is angry. He walks all the way through the old town and ends up in the pianobar at the Stadt Casino on Barfusserplatz. They know him there. He doesn’t have to talk to anyone. The bartender brings him a cognac and a cigar without having to be asked and Max settles into the pleasure of routine.
His anger ebbs as the alcohol flows. By two a.m. he can almost laugh at himself. When Max stands and says to no one in particular, “I won’t impose upon you further,” the bartender discretely arranges a taxi.
During the drive home Max sobers up a little and finds himself thinking about how brave Jenny had been to confront him like that. No one who works for him would ever dare say such a thing. And she clearly found him attractive. “Do I find her attractive?” he asks himself. No one answers, but his body remembers the sensation of tingling heat when she pressed against him in the restaurant. His last thought as he drifts into sleep is “Jenny” but he can’t discern the emotion associated with the name.
* 4 *
It’s not difficult to find a clown’s mask in Basel in March. People are preparing for the carnival at Fastnacht and all kinds of costumes are available. Max’s mask has large red cheeks, an exaggerated forehead, and bright green hair. It covers everything except his mouth. He decides that black tie will get him into most places, even with the mask, and that the flowers he is carrying will make him seem less threatening. The final touch is a conference-style nametag that has the word MAX in large black letters. People in Basel are used to accommodating the strange ways of conference-goers.
He knocks on the door of Jenny’s room in the Drei Konige and waits, feeling more nervous than he has in a very long time.
Jenny is wearing a bathrobe. Her hair is wet. Her face lights up with joy.
“OH MY GOD, look at you.”
Behind his mask, Max finds it much easier to smile. He is not used to being so enthusiastically welcomed. He decides he likes it.
“Turn around and let me see you,” Jenny says.
The long pointed shoes make this a manoeuvre Max can only achieve with some difficulty but he complies stoically.
Jenny claps her hands and jumps up and down. Her robe falls open slightly.
Max notes that she is still wearing the crucifix and that the smooth strong curves of her shoulders demand to be touched. He wants to push open her robe and discover the round warmth of her breasts. Even wearing a mask he will not allow himself this. Not yet. Instead, he bows from the waist and silently, like some maddening mime artist, offers her the flowers.
“Why thank you, Mr. Clown,” she says.
The jet of water spraying out of the bunch of flowers catches her completely by surprise. He is gleeful that he has managed to hit her right between the eyes.
“You bastard,” she says, laughing and wiping the water away with her sleeve. “Well, I guess I was pretty bad with you last night. Take a seat while I put some clothes on.”
Max shakes his head in the exaggerated fashion customary with clowns. He has no idea what he is going to do next. He lets the moment decide. For once he acts without thinking and raises his arms in a clear invitation to dance.
Jenny looks at his hand and says, “Promise you won’t zap me with one of those buzzer things hidden in your palm. I’d hate that.”
Max smiles by way of reply and Jenny steps towards him. She giggles when she realises that to get close enough to hold his hand and have his arm around her, she must step on his long pointy shoes.
Max holds her hand high and pulls her close to him. She smells of shower gel and toothpaste. He is achingly aware that she is naked beneath her bathrobe. He starts to dance in a grotesque parody of a waltz. Jenny laughs and lets him move her around the room.
He ends the dance with a dramatic swing that tilts her backwards until her whole weight is on his arm. Her robe slips open but he keeps his eyes on hers. He lowers his head slowly until their lips almost touch. She moves the last few millimetres to meet him and their first kiss starts.
Max isn’t thinking now, he is kissing. Nothing exists apart from the points of contact between their bodies. In his mind they flare like firebrands pushing back the darkness but blinding him to anything except their flickering light. The kiss has a momentum and a rhythm of its own. Their lips meet and part and press with increasing speed, dancing to the urgent music pulsing through their bodies.
The dance carries them to the bed, locked together, as if they are only able to breathe by a mutual effort. Her hands grip his hair, pushing his head down towards her breasts. He lets himself be directed. The browns circles around her nipples are slightly raised, as if they had been added like icing on a cake. He traces one of the circles with his tongue.
“Oh yeah, that’s good,” Jenny says.
Max dislikes having his performance commented on but he lets it pass because her voice is soaked with desire. He presses the whole circle of brown flesh into his mouth and sucks.
Jenny holds his head against her breast and opens her legs. Max’s dinner-suited thigh presses up against her wet sex. He can feel her juices seeping into the material. Jenny lets go of his hair, lies back on the bed, pushes her mound up against his thigh and reaches desperately for his zipper.
This is the first word he has spoken and it has come out as a command. Behind his mask, Max is surprised at himself. He is not normally this forceful. Something about Jenny pulls at him. He wants to control her, to feel her submit. Jenny’s hand is still reaching for his zipper. He grabs both her wrists.
“Max, what are you doing?”
His answer is to lift her hands above her head and press them back against the bed.
“Games,” Jenny says, “I like g…”
Max stifles her words with a kiss, letting his full weight press against her. She relaxes into the kiss, trying to wrap her legs around him.
Holding both her wrists in one large hand, he rolls on to his side and says, “Look at me.”
He sees it in her face then. She trusts him. His eyes stay on hers. He feels that his gaze, not his hold on her wrists, is pinning her to the bed. Slowly, gently, he pushes two fingers into her. She is slick and warm and yielding.
Max lowers his head to her throat and opens his mouth wide across it. When the next two fingers enter her, when she starts to buck against him on the bed, when it takes all his strength not to release her hands, he sucks on her neck. A little more effort and he could rip her open. Instead he holds her in place with his mouth, running his tongue across her sensitive flesh.
Her first orgasm comes quickly but he doesn’t stop. He isn’t listening to the words she is moaning. He is concentrating on her smell. The smell of sweat and lust and pleasure that is close to pain. It is a smell that makes him completely hard.
After the second orgasm he withdraws his hand, now coated in her cum, and is pleased by her soft moan of loss. Behind his mask he realises that, for the first time in his life, he has found a woman with whom he can do anything he wants, anything at all.
Something fundamental inside him shifts at this knowledge. There is a camera flash across his mind as new connections are made. His libido flexes itself like a man being released from shackles. It is about to celebrate its new-found freedom.
Max flips Jenny over on to her belly, pulling her robe down off her shoulders and bringing her hands together behind her back. He is surprised by the speed at which he is able to bind Jenny’s hands with the belt from her bathrobe. He lifts her by the hips, flips the lower half of her robe up over her bound arms and looks at her exposed arse. Her labia are swollen, her legs are spread, her brown rose winks at him.
Jenny is struggling to turn her head and look at him. She makes no effort to free her hands. She seems about to speak but he doesn’t wait. He pushes his fingers back into her, bending them down and in to press against her G-spot. Then his tongue finds her arsehole and the licking begins. Long slow licks that drop into the dell of her arsehole, slide over the smooth flesh below and then slip along her labia, barely parting them.
Jenny’s breathing in laboured now. At this pace he can keep her on edge forever. But the smell is getting to him, the beautiful complex smell, stronger even than the best blue cheeses. He withdraws his fingers, letting them stroke down her inner thigh, then he pushes his tongue into her swollen slit, bringing his nose close to her brown rose. He slips slowly downward, sipping her, drinking her, until his nose is parting her labia, being coated by her juice.
Dimly he realises that Jenny is saying “Oh God. Oh God,” over and over as her next orgasm builds.
He stops before it arrives. Her whole body tenses, waiting. He is in charge now. They both know that. He stands. The sound of his zipper opening fills the room.
The first slap that he lands on her arse is more loud than hard.
“Tell me what you want Jenny”
She seems too lost in sensation to reply to him. He slaps her again.
“I want your cock.”
He slaps her again.
“Please give me your cock. Please fuck me.”
The lust he has unleashed was questing for this answer, finds it exciting, takes it as a tribute, but in another part of Max’s mind the word “slut” surfaces. He pushes it away but the echo stays with him.
He kneels on the bed behind Jenny, still fully dressed, still with his mask on. She is wet, split and waiting. Her hips fit into the palms of his hands like carved handles of bone. His cock slides into her wet cunt like it was slicing through ripe fruit. He sinks so far into her that it feels like falling. He tightens his grip on her and then starts to fuck: rapid, deep, lust-driven strokes that merge into one another until they feel like one prolonged penetration. Now he understands why vulgar Americans call this screwing: his cock would work its way up through her guts if it could. He comes with his cock buried in her, her arse pressed back against him, his head thrown back. The first scalding moments are almost too intense to bear.
When the flow stops and he can move again he finds that he is not yet sated, his cock is still swollen and insistent. He lets himself fall forward onto Jenny, trapping her bound hands beneath him, pressing her into the bed. His head is behind hers. He can hear her moaning. Her eyes are closed. He doubts that she is even aware that she is making any noise. His hips move slowly, creating a rhythm to appease his sensitive cock. He can feel her all along the length of him. He can smell the sweat in her hair. He wants more. He wonders if, from now on, he will always want more.
He pushes his hands under her, until they are between her breasts and the mattress. The heat of her flesh when he closes his fists ungently around her breasts is startling. She moans with pleasure and arches her back against him.
The second fuck is slower, and takes longer. He is in a trance of friction and almost painful pleasure. When he comes for the second time, the release feels like the moment just before sleep takes you. He rolls off Jenny onto his back. Sleep would be good. Sleep seems inevitable. As he gives way to it, still fully dressed, still behind his mask, a memory flickers across his dissolving mind: in the slow build to his second come he had been silently chanting one word with every slip and slide. A word he didn’t choose. A word he didn’t realise he was using. Only as sleep hits does he process it. The word is “SLUT”.
* 5 *
Max hasn’t had the dream since his mother died, but it returns to him now.
He has taken off the pyjamas he has been told all good boys wear and is lying, wickedly naked, on his bed. His erection trumpets for attention. He should ignore it. He should pray until it goes away. He should not wrap his fingers around it. He should not think of Stephanie Blum’s breasts, so clearly visible beneath her storm-drenched blouse. He should not, but he does.
In the dream his erection is impossibly large and painfully hard. He needs two hands to hold it. His dream-self closes his eyes to concentrate on the pleasure. The sleeping Max whimpers: – ‘Don’t close your eyes. If you don’t close your eyes everything might be ok’ – but it is not ok, it is never ok.
His mother’s shadow flows across Max’s face like the sharp edge of an ice-cube. He opens his eyes in time to see the belt descending. “Bad Boy. BAD BAD BOY. BAD BOY. BAD BAD BAD BOY.” Her words set the rhythm of the belt as it lands again and again between his legs.
Max wakes from the dream sweating and half sitting up. He is not sure whether he has spoken aloud. He is not even sure where he is. Naked. On a strange bed. On the pillow next to him is a clown’s mask. “Jenny”, he says as he remembers.
Then he sees her. Jenny is standing on the balcony, looking out over the Rhine. She hears Max say her name and turns towards him. The sun forms a halo behind her but it seems to Max that the room still gets brighter when she smiles.
He will tell Jenny many times that this is the moment that she stole his heart. She will reply that lovers are not thieves and take only what is freely given. The phrase will stick with him, haunting him, making him wonder about what she has given so freely and to whom.
Sometimes Max thinks it was the dream that helped her to capture him. It left him raw and vulnerable. He needed some to be in love with: someone good, someone who would love him forever, someone like the angel (SLUT) angel in front of him.
Jenny comes in from the balcony, her hips swaying slightly, her robe loose about her. Max’s mother would have said that she is smiling like the cat that has eaten the cream.
“You look better like that,” Jenny says.
Max is suddenly aware that in sitting up he has pushed the sheets aside and is now naked in front of Jenny for the first time. Reflexively he moves to cover himself.
“I meant without your mask,” Jenny says.
The amusement in her voice darkens Max’s mood, he does not manage embarrassment well and usually greets ridicule with aggression. Things might have ended then. Max might have grown haughty and formal and swept out of Jenny’s life, but what she does next disarms him. What she does next would, in memory, sometimes make him feel snared.
Jenny grins and slips out of her robe. She is naked apart from the crucifix between her breasts. Her body is not perfect but she wears it with an easy grace that says ‘you’re gonna enjoy this’. Playfully she strikes a beauty-contestant-pose, hand on hip, one leg forward, shoulders thrown back, chin up. Then she giggles and moves towards Max. He follows the bright triangle of pubic hair as it sways towards him, moves up the swell of her belly to the fullness of her breasts and then on to her smile. By the time Jenny sits on the bed beside him, Max is hard again.
“Mmmm. That does look tempting, and I haven’t eaten yet,'” Jenny says.
To Max’s surprise she bends forward and takes him into her mouth as if it was the most natural thing in the world. This is not something he normally allows. This is what whores and porn stars do. It is debasing and degrading and… he discovers that he likes it. It feels good, normal, friendly.
Jenny lifts her head with soft ‘plop’ and says, “Relax, Max. You were so good to me last night. Let me please you this morning.”
She doesn’t wait for a reply. She puts her hand on his chest and pushes him back against the bed. His erection seems like a flagpole as he lies back, something separate from him, signalling a desire that is his but is also involuntary. Jenny presses her breasts against Max’s thigh, lays her head on his belly she starts to please him.
Max can no longer see Jenny’s face, only a swathe of auburn hair draped across his belly, but he pictures his cock in her mouth: how it stretches her; how her fingers work his shaft and caress his balls. It feels wonderful, like a gift. But the closer he gets to coming the more troubled he becomes. Images flash across his mind. He sees himself forcing Jenny’s head down over his cock until she chokes; tying her; beating her. He struggles to free himself from her but she misreads him and forces her head further down his shaft.
Jenny takes him out of her mouth and looks up at him, her chin on his groin, his cock in her hand. Smiling, she works him, fingers around his shaft, thumb brushing across the head, until he sprays cum everywhere: onto her face, into her mouth, in her hair. His cum runs over her hand like melting ice-cream. Jenny milks Max until he is limp in her hand. She doesn’t look alarmed or ashamed, she looks… satisfied.
Max is speechless. Many of his fantasies focus on coming on woman’s face, marking her as his own, but he had never expected to live the fantasy and find it so… wholesome.
“My, aren’t we eloquent when we come?” Jenny says. “But then you do come copiously and sometimes semen speaks louder then words. Come on Max, let’s hit the shower and I’ll show you how much fun getting clean can be.”
Jenny bounces towards the shower without looking back. Max lies still for a moment trying to make sense of what has just happened. It felt nice, normal, right. Too nice to be real. Too nice to walk away from. In the post coital warmth of that moment Max shrugs off the part of himself that he doesn’t like; the part that doesn’t know how to have fun. By the time his feet touch the floor he has decided that Jenny is his personal angel he can do anything and everything with her and it will still be ok.
Jenny talks to Max all through the shower. She cleans him playfully but thoroughly. It is a wonderful mix of sex and affection. As he lets Jenny dry him, Max decides that he will make Jenny his forever. He knows it is too soon to ask her to marry him, but he has no doubt that when the time comes she will say yes.
* 6 *
Max opens his eyes. The shadows in the room slowly form shapes that take on meaning. The present jostles the past aside and demands his attention. It seems that during his mental movie Max has dropped to his knees beside the bed. Jenny is still sleeping. He can smell her. He would recognise her smell anywhere. Only as he sits back on his heels does he remember the knife in his hand. It looks large and lethal. It is an extension of his own anger, a promise of his purpose. He tries to focus on what he must do next but he can’t take his eyes off the blade. Then he hears the voice again. It has the careful tone you use when you are trying to coach a would-be suicide back from the edge of the building.
<<So you found the love of your life, an angel to redeem you?>>
Max is angry at the voice. He thinks the voice may not be his friend. He decides to argue with it.
“You know better than that.” he hisses. “If she was angel it was a fallen one. I should have seen that on that first morning but I was weak. I wanted to believe. She said we were good together and I agreed because I wanted it to be true but in my soul knew that whatever it was we were together, it wasn’t good. Only a whore would have sucked my cock like that. She had tapped into my dreams, my fantasies, my temptations, but they weren’t something I was proud of, they were a weakness I gave way to. She sucked that weakness to the surface the same way that she sucked the seed from my balls.”
<<Yet you married her.>>
“I married her because I loved her. I still love her. The sex thing wasn’t her fault. I think it was something that was bred into her. The wedding should have shown me that.
“We went back to her ‘folks’ in Texas for the ceremony. It was one of those rehearsed affairs with all the dignity of a cabaret: saturated with the kind of saccharine sentiment that Americans think is romantic but which has the lack emotional depth of you would expect of their have-a-nice-day society.
“I decided not to fly anyone over, my mother had been dead for a year by then and there wasn’t anyone-else I felt needed to be involved. Jenny’s family took that as a sign that I was a loner and made excessive efforts to “integrate” me into the family.
“Meeting the family, I was amazed that Jenny managed to have so much natural grace. My mother would have summed Jenny’s mother up with one phrase – ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. She was in her late fifties but still behaved like a dizzy girl. As for my new father-in-law, I’m sure the man dyed his hair. He had perfect teeth, a firm handshake and a smile that spread straight from the fridge. Then there were Jenny’s two sisters: even in the virginal white of the bridesmaids’ dresses they looked corrupt – painted nails, painted faces and breasts that they seemed to aim at people. And they hugged me at every opportunity, lascivious hugs that compressed their breasts against me in ways that would get a lap-dancer arrested.
“I put up with it all without comment. I even walked through the silly rehearsal with more dignity than it deserved, because it made Jenny happy.
“On the morning of the wedding I woke to find Jenny standing by my bed dressed only in her underwear. She saw the question on my face and said, ‘It’s unlucky for the groom to see the bride in her dress before the wedding – so I took it off.’
“She laughed, grabbed my wrist and pulled me from the bed until I was standing in front of her, naked and erect. She placed one finger on my lips, forbidding me to speak.
‘I know,’ she said, running that finger down my chest and belly, ‘how much you’ve hated the last few days.’
“Her finger found my erection, halted until it was joined by her thumb and then grasped me at the base.
‘I want you to know,’ Jenny said, kneeling and looking up at me, ‘that I love you.’
“She kissed my cock gently.
‘That I belong to you.’
“She pressed my cock along the side of her cheek, cradling it.
‘That I will do anything to make you happy.’
“She took an amazing amount of me into her mouth and sucked.
“I wanted to stop her and I wanted her to go on forever. I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
“Then she let go of me. Kneeling back on her heels with her hands resting on her thighs, she said, ‘I have a request. I want to walk down the aisle with your seed inside me. It will be our secret sacrament, confirming our love.’
“At the time it seemed right. She made it sound so reasonable, so loving, so pure. And I wanted her so much. I took her on the floor in her dead brother’s bedroom. I took her so hard I had to hold my hand over her mouth to muffle her cries.
“Sex with us was always a dance. I’d feel as though I was leading but in reality she was pulling me further and further out of myself. It was like we were tied together. The more she let me do, the more I had to do.
“She was on her back, under me. I was holding her ankles, pushing them back towards her head, trying to find a way to push deeper, harder, faster, but all the time I was watching her eyes, drowning in them. I’d learnt by then that she always cried when she came, little tears of surrender. I was drilling for those tears. I was hungry for them. I needed them. Seeing them flow across her cheeks was a sign for my own release. When I started to come I stayed very still inside her. I wanted to plant my seed deep. I wanted to plant what I’d ploughed.
“There was a moment of stillness, just after that. A moment when I couldn’t tell her apart from me. A moment when our closest connection seemed to be via our eyes. Silently she mouths the words ‘I love you’.
“Then her mood changed and she was back to being playful. She pushed me off her and struggled to her feet. She adjusted her underwear like she was fully dressed. At some point I must have torn the panties. She ripped what was left of them off. ‘Looks like I won’t have to worry about a visible panty line when I go down the aisle,’ she said, handing me the torn silk, ‘Carry these in your pocket for me today.’ Then she was gone.
“I was left with alone, feeling ridiculously happy. The next time I saw her she was walking down the aisle on her father’s arm looking like a gift from God.
“It wasn’t until much later that I realised what a sacrilege we had committed that morning.”
<< Sacrilege? I thought you loved her?>>
“I did. I do. And I told myself that the wild sex was ok provided we continued to share that love. I hoped that if we lived like man and wife we could build something positive. And for the most part we did.
“At first there were fights. Jenny was scatty, disorganised, too impulsive. And her friends: godless, trivial. I had to correct her, to get her to change her ways.
“For a while she became the perfect wife. Living in England, away from her family, helped. She gave up her job and focused on building us a home. She let her hair grow and she wore more modest clothes because she knew how I felt about her displaying herself.
“But at night, in bed, the temptations would begin. She called them ‘games’. But we weren’t playing. The kind of things she did, the kind of things she let me do, weren’t right, even between a man and his wife.”
<<But you still loved her?>>
<<So what changed? How did you end up here with a knife in your hand and anger in your heart?>>
“One day, when I was shaving, I gave myself a good talking to. So good it nearly killed me…”
* 7 *
Max always shaves with care. It is not, he tells himself, an effeminate thing. It is a question of discipline. A man with facial hair is man who has something to hide. A man who shaves badly has no respect for himself or for the people he will meet. Max enjoys shaving. While he monitors the progress of the razor across the magnified image of his face, his mind slips into neutral. There is nothing apart from the cleansing sweep of the blade and the soft newness of his skin.
But this morning his mind won’t stay in neutral, the space is filled with images of his wife from the night before: her cheeks red from the spanking she had wanted; her arsehole gaping after Max pulled out her ‘toy’; the soul-deep sigh she released when he entered her.
The razor is so sharp that Max sees the line of blood blossom on his chin before he feels the blades cold kiss.
~She’s like that – so sharp you can’t feel her cuts but soon you’ll see the scars~
It is his own voice that Max hears. Blood drips unnoticed into the sink as Max looks into his own eyes in the mirror and listens.
~You know she’s using you don’t you? Don’t give me that shit about how she’s just trying to keep the passion alive, feeding your fidelity. We both know what she’s doing.~
Max shakes his head in silent denial. The image in the mirror smiles.
~She’s turning you into a pervert Max, a filthy little pervert.~
Max looks down but he voice continues.
~ Ask yourself this Max, who did little Jenny learn all this with?~
Max watches the blood diffuse through the water in the sink. He is trying not to imagine Jenny moaning under other men, doing things to them, begging them to do things to her.
~Do remember your wedding day Max? Your angelic wife, dressed in white, walking down the aisle, grasping her father’s arm while your cum slid down her leg. Do you think perhaps she learned some of these things at her daddy’s knee? ~
The noise the mirror makes as it shatters is much louder than Max expected. The cuts on his fist are deeper than the one on his chin and the blood is darker. Max pays no attention to the blood. It is a price he is willing to pay to exorcise the voice in his head. But the blood doesn’t stop. Each beat of his heart pumps out more of it. Looking down at the mirror-shard buried in his wrist, Max sees his own reflection.
Slipping into unconsciousness, he hears the voice again, except this time it sounds more like his mother.
~God sees what the two of you do, Max. Your marriage is cursed. It deserves to be cursed. There should be a child by now. Children are God’s blessing. Do you feel blessed Max?~
* 8 *
Jenny is asleep in the chair beside his bed when Max wakes in the hospital. She has been crying. The sleeve of her blouse has blood on it. Max says her name but his throat is dry and she doesn’t hear him.
~She never lets you out of her sight does she? Perhaps she’s afraid that you’ll break free.~
The voice in his head is back. In the coming months it will be Max’s constant companion, providing a commentary on his life, helping him to see things differently.
“Jenny?” Max manages to speak this time.
Jenny’s face turns towards him even before she surfaces from sleep. As she brings him into focus, Max sees a spark of relief, rapidly snuffed out by concern and worry.
~I think she knows you’re on to her ~
Jenny is on his bed, kissing him, almost smothering him. She is warm and soft. Max lets her hold him. It feels good.
~She’s a class act, Max. Credit where credit is due~
Max is too tired to argue. Too tired even to hug Jenny. Sleep reclaims him.
When he opens his eyes again, Jenny has changed her clothes. She looks refreshed. There is no sign of blood or tears now. She smiles at him. A careful smile. The kind you give to a nervous child.
~She’s ready for you this time~
Max tries to sit up. His arm hurts. He becomes aware of a man, wearing a stethoscope like a badge, standing behind Jenny. A doctor, small, Indian or Pakistani.
~They all are these days~
“Welcome back, Max.”
Max wrinkles his nose at the doctor’s Oxbridge accent. Max didn’t make it into Oxford or Cambridge and he dislikes his first name being used by a man he hasn’t met.
“I’m Doctor Brown.” The assured voice is accompanied by a professional smile that Max despises.
Dr. Brown places his hand on Jenny’s shoulder and says, “You’re a lucky man, Max. If Jenny hadn’t done such a good job with a tourniquet you might not be here today.”
~Jenny is it? He thinks ‘Jenny’ did a good job~
“How long have I been here?”
“Two days. We wanted to keep you under observation while we replaced the blood you lost.”
“When can I go home?’
“I’ll leave Jenny to take you through the details.”
“Get some rest. I’ll be back this evening.”
Jenny takes hold of Max’s arm, trying to get his attention.
~Protecting her brown doctor~
“Max,” she kisses his hand. “Max, they want you to see some one before you go home. They want you to see the Psychiatric Registrar.”
Jenny is feeding him the words one by one. Soothing him. Trying not to provoke him. He wants to explode. He wants to protest. But he stays calm.
“Why do they want me to do that?”
“It’s routine in cases like this.”
“Cases like what?”
“You slit your wrist Max”
She says it quietly but he can see the question, the doubt, in her face.
~They think you’re ‘Mad Max’. ‘Suicide Hertz’. Who gave them that idea do you suppose?~
Jenny hugs him. “I told them it was an accident, Max.”
“Of course it was a fucking accident!”
“I’m sorry, Max. It’s just I was so worried and there was so much blood everywhere.”
Max feels the sobbing start before he hears it. He holds her, stroking her hair, letting her get through it.
“I thought I’d lost you, Max,” she whispers in his ear.
Max kisses her. Kissing her makes the voice in his head go away. Kissing Jenny is like sunshine for his soul. For a long time they hold each other silently. Then visiting time is over and Jenny has to go.
Max wants to sleep. He can still smell Jenny. It is a good smell. Sleep starts to welcome him. As he lets go he hears the voice again
~ She almost lost you, Max. But she’s got you now~
* 9 *
Max felt he knew the Registrar before she said a word. She had that “I’m calm and centred. You are sick. I can save you.” look that he had seen in his childhood on the faces of the people who’d tried to take him from his mother. It was a look that he’d reacted to with kicking and biting back then. Now he had more control. Now he only savoured the thought of kicking and biting.
Of course the Registrar was only a junior-shrink; her arrogance would not yet have been reinforced by the habit of domination. Her expertise was shiny and new and she’d want to show it off.
Max studies her carefully while she plays the game of waiting for him to speak: not yet thirty but already fighting to keep control of her weight; good skin, thick brown hair left long but tied back in an effort at professionalism; almost no make-up but her lips have a gloss that isn’t entirely natural. She’s dressed in non-threatening cotton in calming pastel shades – how considerate.
They say if you want to remove someone’s authority, you should imagine them naked. Max imagines the shrink tied to the chair she is sitting on, stripped to her soft pink flesh, her legs spread, her hands bound painfully tight behind her back. He pictures duct tape across her mouth or better yet her own panties balled into a gag. He knows how her hair would feel, wrapped around his fist. He wonders if she would cry. Or perhaps she would just moan in gratitude.
“You seem uncomfortable, Max.”
Score one to Max, she spoke first. She is using his first name to feign intimacy or perhaps to remove his status. Max smiles thinking that her method is much less effective than his. He stares at her left breast, letting her see his eyes go there.
Max reads her name on the hospital id she has clipped to the soft cotton of her top. It is the kind of clip that would fit snugly on her nipple and cause it to throb with pain.
Max puts some steel into his voice. “I’m not uncomfortable, Claire. I’m angry.”
The shrink makes no comment on the use of her name but her left hand reaches up to touch her id badge. Max follows the movement and she quickly folds her hands together.
~Who’s the uncomfortable one now?~ the voice in Max’s head sounds like his mother. She would have been pleased with this performance.
“I’m angry because I don’t like being accused of suicide,” Max says.
“Do you feel accused?”
“Feelings have nothing to do with it, Claire. I’ve been sent to see the psychologist because the hospital wants to cover itself in case I go home and kill myself.”
“I’m a psychiatrist, Max. There’s a difference.”
“Yes, I know. You are a Doctor, which means you can lock people up and inflict drugs and electric shock treatment on them. Do you like your work, Claire?”
“Are you afraid I’m going to lock you up, Max?”
She is better than Max expected. Time to step up the pace. He pauses to ensure she is paying attention.
“Do I look afraid?”
The shrink looks into his eyes and her smug calm ripples. She has never looked into eyes quite like his. Max knows that within an hour or so he could make her wish she had never met him.
The shrink regains her composure, at least on the surface and says, “You look angry, Max. Is that why you hurt yourself, because you were angry?”
“I hurt myself because a mirror broke in my hands.”
“How did that happen, Max?”
“I’m not here to explain myself to you, Claire.”
“Then why are you here?”
~good question, Max. Why are you here?~
“Because of my wife.”
~ Exactly! ~
“I mean because my wife wanted me to talk with you.”
“How do you feel about that?”
They all ask that question. It makes him want to hit them. Instead he stands up, takes one step closer to the good Doctor and bends forward as if he is about to share a secret. He can barely suppress a smile as she presses herself back into her chair. He’s made the shrink shrink; that almost makes this little charade worth his time.
“I feel, Claire” he looks down at her breasts again. They both know he is not reading her id card this time, “that my wife made a mistake.”
He straightens up and gives a smile that has no joy in it. “I’m leaving now.”
He reaches the door before she speaks again. She is braver than he expected.
“Anger like yours doesn’t just go away, Max. It’s like a river, if you damn it up you just increase the pressure. You have to find the source and divert it from there.”
~ She wants you to “use the source”, Max, Not much of an Obi Wan is she?~
“Right now, Doctor, you are the source and I don’t find you in the least bit diverting. Tell the hospital that the only thing likely to make me suicidal is having to spend time around witch doctors like you.”
* 10 *
Jenny drives Max home from the hospital. It seems strange to see her at the wheel, Max is normally the driver. She doesn’t ask any questions but it is obvious that she wants to hear how things went with the Registrar. Max lets the silence build until they reach home and Jenny switches off the engine.
“Do you know what Willy Russell calls a psychotherapist, Jenny? – ‘Psycho the rapist’. They plunder emotions. They sit in judgement. And they don’t make anything better.”
“Max, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. Just don’t ever take their side against me, Jenny. I would never be able to forgive you for that.”
* 11 *
The moon has set. The shadows have coalesced in Jenny’s room, possessing it, making it their own. There is no light only depths of shadow. The darkest shadow is rocking silently beside the bed, hugging the knife to his chest like a lover. His mask is damp. He is crying. He often cries when he remembers life after the hospital.
Max puts his hands over his ears but he can’t block out the God voice in his head.
<<Maybe the psychiatrist was right, Max. Maybe you were ill. Maybe you needed help>>
“I WAS NOT ILL. I was betrayed”
<<Who betrayed you, Max?”
“Jenny. I let Jenny inside the circle. I made her us, not them and she betrayed me to the shrinks and the lawyers. She cut out my heart and I want it back.”
<<Jenny loved you, Max.>>
“Love has no past tense. If you love someone, you don’t stop. You don’t EVER stop.
“The voice in the mirror was right. I see that now. Jenny had brought corruption into our marriage and I had colluded with it. That was what I had to change. The night I got back from the hospital I spoke to Jenny about the sex. I told her that I wanted to stop the games and focus on what sex was really for. I told her that I wanted a child.
“Jenny’s reaction made me doubt the voice in the mirror. She was joyful. So joyful that she cried. She told me that she’d always wanted children, that she wanted a big family.
“She made me think she had understood. I thought we could redeem our marriage. For three month’s we had sex to a timetable. For three months we kept charts and checked temperatures and focused on making babies rather than making love. We didn’t touch except when we had a reason, a purpose. I made sex into a chore I offered to God so that he would bless us with a child.
“I should have continued with that. God was testing me. But I was weak. Jenny made me weak. I should never have let her crying get to me.”
* 12 *
There is a moment, after he wakes, when Max can’t remember where he is. The bedroom in the new house. He thinks of it as the house he bought for Jenny. Not his house. Their house.
Sitting up in bed makes his head ache. His throat is dry. He doesn’t drink, not heavily, but he’s started to take more wine with his meals and it dehydrates him sometimes. Is it the thirst that has woken him? No. Something else.
Jenny’s half of the bed is empty. The sheet is cold. Max sits in the dark and listens. The sound is coming from the en suite bathroom: faint, deliberately muffled, heart-wrenching. Jenny is sobbing. Not the loud, unbridled sobs crying starts with but the slow dry sobs that come when you are close to exhaustion, when you have been crying for so long that it becomes perversely comforting.
The sound makes Max’s balls tighten. He remembers crying like that as a child, although the cause of the crying escapes him. He brings his hand to his mouth. Back then, when he wanted the sobbing to stop, he would bite himself in the soft tissue between thumb and forefinger. Bite hard enough so that there was room for nothing in his mind except the pain. He wonders if Jenny has her hand to her mouth.
He considers lying back down and pretending to sleep, but even as he considers it, his feet are guiding him to the bathroom door.
Jenny is bathed in moonlight that she cannot see. Her eyes are closed, her knees are up beneath her chin and her arms are wrapped around them as if she is literally trying to hold herself together.
Max casts a shadow as he walks between her and the window. She stops sobbing. Her stillness has the frightened quality of a mouse in the shadow of an owl.
He touches her. There is no purpose to his touch. It is just something he cannot refrain from doing. His hand rests on her shoulder. She is shivering like a nervous dog. He kneels beside her. Instinctively he enfolds her, cradling her in his arms and legs. Jenny clings to him as if she were resisting a fierce wind that might rip her away from him.
Max has never seen Jenny like this. He thinks of her as a strong, joyful, confident woman. Now she hardly seems a woman at all, more like an abused child. It dawns on Max that, for the first time since they met, Jenny needs him.
She still has her eyes closed. He kisses the top of her head. Blindly she turns her face towards him. Her cheeks are wet from tears; her nose has been running, her closed eyes look swollen. Max stares at her, lost once more in her beauty.
He kisses her on the forehead. He means it to be comforting. Her lips find his. The kiss is gentle, nourishing. At the end of it Jenny rests her head on Max’s shoulder and relaxes against him. He strokes her hair.
“I’m sorry, Max,” she speaks quietly, as if trying not to wake him.
“I didn’t mean to cry. I know you hate to see people crying. But I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t hold on to it any more.”
Max rocks them both gently backwards and forwards as Jenny speaks. He likes holding her like this. He likes to be needed in this way. He does not mind that she has been crying. Women need to cry sometimes.
“These past months I’ve felt so empty,” Jenny says. Lifting her head to look at Max, she places one hand on his cheek and says, “I miss you. I miss us. I want to have your baby so much, but I can’t do it this way. I need you to love me, Max. Please.”
Perhaps it is just that Max’s eyes have adjusted to the darkness of perhaps it is the way that the moonlight gilds Jenny’s skin, but it seems to him that, at that moment, Jenny is full of light.
He kisses her on each eye. Gently he disentangles their limbs and arranges her on the floor. He places a towel under her head as a pillow and arranges her auburn hair like a halo around her head. Jenny stays still, only her eyes following him. Max lies over Jenny, taking his weight on his arms, looking intensely into her eyes. When he enters her it feels like he has come home.
There are no games, no toys, no violence, just slow, intense, gentle, love.
* 13 *
“Everything felt perfect that night. It was pure, joyful, almost prayerful. When she slept in my arms afterwards I knew she was pregnant. I knew we had just created my son.”
<<So why do you say Jenny weakened you by crying? It sounds more as though she reconciled with you.>>
“Because she wasn’t pregnant. A month later she was still barren. I should have realised at once that that night had been a lie. It had been about us. About our needs. Not about creating a child. God was trying to show me that. But I didn’t listen. I was still under the spell of Jenny’s need for me. She cried when her period came. She said she was worried that there was something wrong, that there was something we needed to fix and we weren’t paying it attention, that we should go for tests. In my weakness I wanted to comfort her, so I agreed.
“I think that was when the marriage started to crack, when I left God and put my trust in science. It split wide open in the Doctor’s office”
* 14 *
In the perverse hierarchy of the British medical profession, the man sitting opposite Max is senior enough to have regained the title of Mr. This affectation is declared by the name plate he keeps on his desk.
“Mr.” Dawson is wearing a pinstripe suit from Gieves and Hawkes and a double cuff shirt from Jermain Street. It has his initials on it. Max wonders if the man dresses like a city trader to distract himself from the reality of making his money by sticking his hand up women everyday. The thought makes Max smile until he remembers that Jenny is one of those women.
Jenny is seated next to Max. She has dressed carefully and is wearing make up. It seems she too is trying to be professional.
“Let me see,” Dawson says, looking at the printouts in a file one of his team has prepared for him. “Hmmm. Interesting.”
~Interesting?~ Max hears his mother’s voice for the first time since he came back from the hospital.
~Not interesting enough to read the notes in advance of the meeting it seems. Poor Max, he makes you toss off into a jar, shoves things up your wife, holds the key to your happiness in his over-manicured hands and all he can say is “interesting”~
Dawson closes the file, smiles at them and says, “It seems that both of you test at the low end of the normal range for fertility. This means that there is no underlying medical problem, but the odds are not stacked in you favour.”
“What do you mean ‘not stacked in our favour?'”
It is Jenny who asks the question. Max is still dealing with the phrase “low end of normal”.
“Well each of you has the potential to be fertile but you are less likely to be fertile together than you would be with a partner who tests higher in the normal range.”
Max clenches his fists on his knee; Jenny shrinks back into her seat. Dawson spots the signs retreats into bluff and hearty.
“Not that I’m suggesting that you should swap partners. IVF might give you a helping hand. Of course both of you are still young, you could trust to luck: fire lots of shots and hope that one of them hits home.”
~Hit him. He deserves it. Hit him~
“I don’t like your attitude, Mr. Dawson” Jenny’s comment catches Max by surprise. Later he will wonder if she was simply pre-empting him, trying to contain the trouble she sees coming.
Dawson changes style. “I’m simply trying to create a context for the information, Mrs. Hertz. Would you like me to review the IVF process with you?”
Jenny looks at Max, reads his face, and says, “No thank you, Mr. Dawson. I think I’d rather go and practice shooting.'”
Max laughs, a big hearty laugh. Dawson actually blushes. Jenny and Max leave the office arm in arm, almost light hearted.
That afternoon Max fires three shots. Jenny is lying beside him, her legs in the air, aiding his sperm in their race towards her womb. Max is tired and almost content.
~Maybe it’s a sign?~
Max gets out of bed and goes into the bathroom. He doesn’t want to hear this with Jenny lying next to him.
~Maybe this is God’s way of telling you that she’s not fit to be the mother of your children.~
Max flushes the toilet trying to drown out the voice.
~All those wasted shots, Max~
He turns on the shower and steps under it. One word keeps repeating in his head: “wasted.”
* 15 *
Max returns from work early impatient to hear the news. As soon as he sees Jenny’s face he knows that her period has arrived. They have failed again. He cannot bring himself to speak. He can barely look at her. While Jenny is still crossing the room to greet him, Max turns on his heel and leaves.
* 16 *
No one pays attention to a drunk talking quietly to himself in the corner of a pub. It takes Max longer to get drunk these days, his body is used to the alcohol, but he has been persistent this evening. He has reached the point where his own body seems like something he is watching from far away. His life feels like a drama he watches on TV. He can’t change it and he can’t stop watching. Max would like to be a sad drunk. He’d like to slip slowly into sorrow, but as he drinks, as the veneer of politeness and control is washed away, Max discovers that his deepest feeling is anger.
~Getting wasted, Max? Aren’t you wasting enough of your life already?~
Max shakes his head slowly from side to side.
~Haven’t you got the message yet? She’s sucking the life out of you and giving nothing back. She is a parasite. Leave her, Max.~
“No,no,no,no,no,no,no” It comes out as a whisper, like a private prayer.
~Leave her before she leaves you. She wants children she says. How long before she finds someone who can give them to her?~
Max starts to tear at the beermat in front of him, shredding the cardboard with quiet precision.
~Or maybe she’ll find Mr. Potent and not tell you. Maybe she’ll raise his cuckoo in your nest. She’s got you so desperate now you’d just be grateful.~
It takes a lot of effort for Max to stand. He moves slowly but he still spills what’s left of his drink. Weaving a path that he thinks is a straight line, he leaves the pub. He needs to speak to Jenny. He needs to know that she loves him.
* 17 *
Jenny is curled up on the sofa in the dark, talking on the phone. Max stands shoeless in the kitchen, watching her through the serving hatch. When he saw the house in darkness Max assumed Jenny was in bed, took off his shoes and entered as quietly as he could. He knows he should announce himself but he doesn’t want whoever she’s talking to to know that he’s come home drunk.
~Who is she taking to at this time of night? Maybe she’s found Mr. Potent already? Do you think little Jenny has phone fucks when you’re out of the house, Max? Can’t you just see her, curled up on the couch or lying in your bed, fingering herself to noisy climaxes so Mr. Potent can spill his “higher in the normal range” sperm over his fingers? And why not? There’s plenty more where that came from. And what sordid images does he sow in her mind for you to reap, Max? What words does he make her wriggle with? Maybe he suggests some of those things she asks you to do to her in bed? Maybe she talks about them with him afterwards?~
Max doesn’t want to believe the voice, but, in his drunken state, it taps into his anger. He is ashamed to find that it doesn’t just make him angry, it makes him hard.
~Pick up the extension, Max. Listen in on them. Maybe little Jenny likes threeways. Maybe Mr. Potent will let you have sloppy seconds.~
Stealthily, Max picks up the phone. Jenny isn’t talking to a man; she is talking to Stella, her eldest sister.
~The bitch with the really big tits. Remember how she’d lean them against you, Max?~
“I don’t know why you’ve stayed with him so long, Jen. He creeps me out.”
“Because I love him, Stella, I love him so much.”
Max sags, against the wall. She loves him. That is what he needed to hear. He is about to drop the phone when Jenny continues.
“You’ve never seen him as I have, Stella. I know he can come off as a stiff and pompous but that’s just with outsiders. With me he’s different. When he focuses on me I feel as though we are the only people in the world. He has so much energy, so much potential, and he’s the best lover I’ve ever had.”
Max doesn’t hear what Jenny says next, he is too busy thinking about the league table of lovers that Jenny keeps in her head. He wonders how many men are in that table and how many points he is ahead of his nearest rival. He wonders how Jenny can talk about these private things to her sister. He wonders what else she has “shared” about their sex life.
“But the creep walked out on you tonight.” Stella’s strident Texan tones penetrate Max’s consciousness.
“He was disappointed. He wants a baby so much.”
“Now you’re making excuses for him, Jen. What happens if there is no baby? You know he’s not firing with a full load.”
~She told them, Max. Maybe she sent out a newsletter. What do you think the title was: “Max fails to live up to name” or “Half shot Hertz” or “Misfiring with Max”?~
“Stella, that’s a nasty thing to say.”
“Well someone has to say it, Jen. What’s true isn’t always nice.”
“Anyway, that’s not going to happen. I’ve been working on improving our odds.”
“You mean you’ve been screwing someone else?”
“No! Shame on you. I’ve been taking fertility drugs.”
“But I thought Max refused treatment?”
“He did but the more I thought about it the more I knew we’d need help. So I went back to Dr. Dawson and he gave me what I needed.”
Max is unable to move. He is rigid with anger. Jenny has been back to Dawson behind his back.
~See how she deceives you, Max? Good old Dr. Dawson gave her what you couldn’t. Do you think he had her in the stirrups one more time before he gave her the drugs to use behind your back? Can you see Dr. Pinstripe sniffing his fingers after she left and smiling because he knows more about your wife than you do?~
Max lets out a roar of wordless anger.
“God almighty, what was that, Jen?”
Jenny drops the phone onto the sofa as she scrambles to her feet.
Max crashes into the living room almost blind with rage.
“Max, I’m sorry,” Jenny says, backing away from him.
Max moves towards Jenny’s voice. His hands are balled into fists. His face is red with anger.
Jenny freezes. Then she takes one step towards him, hands outstretched. Max hesitates. His hands relax. Jenny takes another step forward.
~She knows she’s been caught. She’ll try and manage you.~
“Max,” Jenny says moving forward slowly until she is close enough to touch him, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Her hand reaches out to him, ready to touch his face.
“Jen? JEN! ARE YOU OK?” Stella is shouting into the phone.
Max snarls at the phone. He looks back at Jenny and sees guilt in her face. Anger flashes red behind his eyes.
Later he will say that he only meant to brush her hand away, that he didn’t mean to hit her, that he would never knock a woman to the ground. Jenny must have been off balance, must have hit her face on the coffee table when she fell to the floor. It was all a mistake.
When he is awake he can make himself believe that it happened that way. But when he sleeps, Max remembers the way his hand moved through the air; he remembers the look of shock on Jenny’s face in the half second before his fist connected with her cheek: he remembers that he shouted the word “BITCH” and that it stretched out through the whole slow-motion moment from swing to contact; but most of all he remembers the sense of triumph he felt as she hit the ground and stayed there.
<< If you loved her how could you hit her?>>
Max shakes his head silently. His mask is wet with tears. He takes it off.
“My love for her is the hook I wriggle on. It is buried so deep even her deception could not cut me free.
“I tried to help her up from the floor but she wouldn’t let me touch her. She got to her feet and walked out of my life. I don’t know where she spent the night but the next day the police questioned me. Jenny didn’t press charges, instead she sent me a note saying that she could see that we had both made a mistake, that we loved each otter but couldn’t live together, that I frightened her and she causes me pain.
“I tore the letter up. I knew she didn’t mean it. I sent her flowers. I sent her love letters. Her lawyers sent me divorce papers. I tore them up too.
“I was being tested, I could see that. God wanted to know that Jenny and I REALLY loved one another before he granted us a child; all I had to do was win her back.
“It was hard work. Her family was poisoning her against me. Stella had flown over and rented a house for the two of them. I knew she was the one behind the lawyers and the talk of divorce. I needed to get to Jenny by herself so I started to follow her. That was when Stella dragged me into court and got a restraining order.
“The lawyers made me sound like some kind of homicidal maniac and Jenny sat there and let them. I thank she put a curse on me in that court. I wasn’t myself anymore. I couldn’t sleep. I started to drink to help me sleep. Then I started to drink to get through the day. I lost my job. I lost my piece of mind. I even lost my ability to pray. The closest I get is talking to you like this.”
<<And now you are here, standing over Jenny with a knife in your hand. What is that you want, Max?>>
“I want it to be over. I want my life back. I want to be free.”
Max looks down at Jenny, asleep on the bed. He imagines cutting her, one clean stroke across her neck is all it would take. The flesh would part like a well cooked chicken breast. Her life’s blood would flow from the gaping wound in her white neck, forming a pool of sticky darkness across her pillow. He stares at the knife in his hand. It could set them both free.
As he bends over her, Jenny turns onto her back in the bed, exposing her throat to him like an offering. The knife is very sharp. Max has honed it and honed it. It cuts the buttons off the neck of Jenny’s nightdress effortlessly. He is close to her now. He can smell her. With the tip of the knife he pushes the nightdress open, revealing the top of her breasts. He is not surprised to find the crucifix, her brother’s totem, lying on its chain between Jenny’s breasts, but what he sees beside it makes him catch his breath. Jenny has added her wedding ring to the chain.
<<Make your peace, Max. Find your path back to me.>>
Max stares at the wedding ring. He thinks about what it means. Then he nods. He knows what he must do. He leans over Jenny and uses the knife. The pressure eases as the blood flows. It is more difficult than he expected. It takes all the strength he has but he manages it. When Max leaves the room he is in pain but he is free, they are both free.
* 19 *
The dawn reaches through the window and paints the room, banishing shadows, restoring colour and life to everything it touches.
Yesterday the pillows the woman is lying on were white and clean. Today they are soaked with a crimson that complements the dawn sky. The dawn makes no judgements. Each day it lights whatever if finds, without comment.
Jenny no longer looks as if she is sleeping. She is almost awake. Almost but not quite. Her eyes have not yet been drawn by the glint of the gold wedding ring, have not yet discovered the pale bloodless finger which bears it or read the message scrawled in blood on her pillow: “Good-bye. I love you.”
© Mike Kimera 2002 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without written permission from firstname.lastname@example.org
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