You are reading Fiddleblack #7
Chess wakes to a tingle in his nose. He reaches to scratch it, but his wrists chafe against their metal cuffs. Suspended horizontally in a sling three feet above the floor, he pulls down on the handcuffs to ease tension on the testicle belt. He then extracts his left foot from its stirrup. The foot dangles, and his weight shifts, which tightens his torso harness. To compensate, he thrusts his pelvis. But this cranks the testicle belt tighter—a major design flaw. “Goddamn frack,” he says—but the ball gag makes his words come out as “Mmm-mmmm mmph!” Then last night comes rushing back. He asked Priti, to strap him into the device moments before she walked out of his world forever. How had she put it?
“This phase of my life ends now.”
“What phase?” he asked.
“The warped, psychotic phase.”
Then she cinched a nylon rope to the bed frame and looped it through the torso harness. Though Chess had not designed the device with auxiliary ropes in mind, he went with it. Now, in more pain than he has ever known, he lifts his right foot from its stirrup and kicks at the release switch on the primary crossbar. He misses and flops sideways, but kicks again. This time his foot hits squarely on target. And the device’s accessories click and release: first the wrist cuffs, then the arm binder, the latex surrender collar, and the locking rubber knee separator. On cue, the suspension swing lowers him to the floor. He unsnaps the ball gag and spits it from his mouth then removes the testicle strap. He unties Priti’s surprise nylon rope, retracts the secondary crossbar, folds the device downward and inward, and stuffs it into a suitcase in the closet.
“Dear God,” Chess whispers, “what have we done?”
He grabs a towel, puts a bagel in the toaster, and goes for a shower. When he gets back to the kitchen, he finds no cheese in the fridge. And no eggs. Priti must have tossed them. He picks up his phone and sends a text: “Did u veganize again?” His nose tingles. He sends another text: “I miss u.” And another: “Sorry. I will stop. Goodbye.”
Standing before the mirror in skinny black jeans and a trench coat, he feels overcome with love and gratitude for Priti. So he texts, “Thank u for everything.” Then, hands tucked in pockets, eyes angled low, he heads out the door. He trudges up and down every glistening corridor of the mall and lingers awhile at the food court, hoping Priti will stop by for a falafel. She does not. “I wish u a lifetime of bliss,” he texts. Then he cruises the coffee shops, music shops, head shops, and porn shops on Colfax and walks over to the deserted Greyhound station, which reeks of piss and chlorine. “Ick!” he texts. “Bad smells!” Then he texts, “Sorry! Not u. LOL!” Then, “Icky bus station.” Then, “ROFL!” Then, “Am sad. Not ur problem. Love u. Bye.”
He returns to the apartment five hours after he left. “Plz call me, Mistress,” he texts. “I still have pics of u pegging me.” He eats a burrito and smokes cigarettes as fast as he can roll them. His nostrils itch. When he rubs them, they hurt. Just before midnight, his phone emits three whip cracks. It’s her.
“Hey,” she says all chipper and warm. “Would you please delete the pegging pics and stop texting me?”
“My nose hurts,” he says. “I’m in pain, Mistress.”
“I’m not your mistress anymore. Don’t call me that.”
“Where are you?” he asks.
“Why did you make me cuff you into your stupid device last night?”
“So I wouldn’t stalk you,” he says.
“Oh,” she says in that sarcastic schoolgirl voice that would be cute if it weren’t so devastatingly sexy. “Just do your breath meditation.”
“I don’t need anger control.”
“The other one,” she says, “for migraines: out with the poison, in with the love.”
“I’m drowning here, Priti.”
“Take aspirin. Goodbye.”
“Wait.” Chess presses his wrist to his forehead. “I don’t know how to be alone.”
“You’re not. You have your device.”
“I don’t need the Master. I need you to tie me up and punish me. You’re my top, Priti, and you will always be my top.”
“I am not your top anymore, and you’ll always be a passive-aggressive control freak,” she says. “Destroy those pics or I will kill you.”
The line clicks.
“Deleting them now,” he texts. “And I will always be ur bottom.”
Then he crumples to the floor and does some migraine-relief breathing: out with the noxious poison of life, in with the golden luminescence of love. It doesn’t work. His headache settles in. And his nose burns. And he’s a worthless speck of crap who should delete the photos and stop ruining Priti’s life. But the thing is, she is his mistress. They were so good together. And they could be good again. And his nose never hurt before she left. He must win her back. After midnight, he goes to the closet, pulls out the Master of Submission, unfolds the device, and fastens himself in to sleep.
At work, a framed snapshot sits on the receptionist’s desk, showing her pudgy adult children seated at a picnic table with jaundiced babies in their laps. In the photo, they all have barbecue sauce on their shirts, and the whole mob seems to find this funny. Their mouths contort with laughter.
“All that sauce could be blood,” Chess says, “It looks like they’re clawing their children to shreds. Oh, did I just say that out loud?”
“Not funny,” the receptionist says. “What’s the matter with my poor little Chessie Poo, anyway? He looks so glum.”
“Chessie Poo feels like someone drizzled carbolic acid into his nasal cavity,” he says, and he loosens his necktie. “Plus, despite Chessie Poo’s superpower to get anyone to do anything he wants, his girlfriend dumped him on Saturday night.”
“Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry,” she says. “For the nose, go see a doctor.”
“I don’t have insurance.”
“I’ve never used it.”
“Don’t you read your pay stub?” she says.
“I signed up for e-deposit.”
“Then you get an e-stub,” she says. “You also receive a link to an updated directory of system physicians every six months. And I bet a nickel my poor little Chessie Poo carries a member ID card in his wallet.”
He hands her the wallet. She fishes out the card, pulls up the URL for the directory of physicians, and emails it to him.
“Psych,” he says. “And thanks. You just saved me ten minutes of research.”
“Ooh,” she says, “my little Chessie Poo pulled a fast one.”
Twenty minutes later, on his way out of the office, Chess sends Priti a text: “Off 2 see doc re: nose pain.” And another: “Come back or I post pegging pics online.” And another: “Sent flowers to ur parents house. Red roses & black tulips. Ur fav.”
Framed photos of Dr. Kaplan’s family clutter the walls of the examining room: his emaciated wife and bucktoothed kids looking nauseous at the Rock of Gibraltar; he and his wife grinning in the mist of a massive waterfall; the whole family propping up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They seem so peaceful and so not-in-intense-nose-pain. And here’s Dr. K himself, in a white coat, pressing an otoscope into Chess’s nose. A mentholated lozenge rattles in Dr. K’s mouth. With moist fingers, he pokes Chess’s ribs, prods his belly, and asks if any of this hurts. It does not.
“Just my nose,” Chess says.
Dr. K clears his throat. “OK, may I offer something personal here? It’s important that you hear this from a stranger who knows nothing about you except that you’re allergic to penicillin.”
“Go on,” Chess says.
“I visit with many patients. When I travel the world, I see many people. I fancy myself a keen observer of human behavior.” He takes another lozenge from his pocket and pops it into his mouth. “With that in mind, you are—or, rather, you appear to be—conspicuously, perhaps even intentionally, oh, let’s say, morbid. Down in the dumps. Depressed. It’s as if you cultivate the appearance of mortal despair. Plus, the eyeliner is just odd.”
“Can I go now?” Chess says.
Dr. K writes a prescription for 200 milligrams of Asinil. “Twice a day every day for five weeks,” he says and hands the slip to Chess.
“Your co-pay’s fifty dollars,” the nurse says and takes his debit card.
“$38.95,” the cashier behind the counter at the drugstore says. She’s sluggish and droopy-eyed, with hair held in a bun by chopsticks. And she’s young. And thin. And kind of edgy looking, in a sexy-librarian-in-a-lab-coat way. On a whim, as she passes him his receipt, Chess reaches over the counter to pull out her chopsticks. She flinches and retreats behind a shelf. Then she calls over the P.A. for the manager. Chess rushes out of the store, cursing his stupid lack of impulse control.
In the car, he washes down the Asinil with a chocolate cream soda and waits for the pain to stop. It doesn’t. For several minutes, he sits there and feels no change in nose pain whatsoever and tries not to punch himself in the face. It’s maddening. He prefers to pick and choose his pain. He wonders how many pills he would have to take to kill himself. He hits the dashboard. What hurts deeply is not so much his nose. It’s this: What would happen if Priti walked past right now, by pure chance? Even if she saw him, even if they made direct eye contact and saw into each other’s souls, Priti would see his pain and refuse to get into his car. Which would be pathetic enough. But, knowing her, she wouldn’t be alone. She would have some new guy on her arm.
His phone buzzes. It’s a text: “Post even 1 of those pics online and u will die.”
“I am a bad boy, Mistress,” he texts. “Spank me.”
And he follows that with about a dozen texted apologies and promises to go straight home and delete the photos from his hard drive.
He backs up the photos on a flash drive and hides it in the bathroom medicine cabinet, behind a tube of anti-itch cream. For good measure, he burns the files onto five CDs which he tucks into drawers and under cushions around the apartment. Then he slices his black leather pants, patches the slice with a dozen safety pins, and heads over to Goth Night at Club Forsaken. At ten o’clock, the club lives up to its name. A couple of ghoulish fags make out at the bar; a dominatrix commands a middle-aged bald guy to lick her boots in the far corner; and DJ Lugosi sways to an Eternal Deformity remix in his black-lit booth above the dance floor. Chess orders an ice-water and sits at a table behind the go-go cages. From there he’ll be able to spot Priti if she comes in, but she won’t see him. As he waits, he rubs his nose with ice chips.
An hour later, Raven—friend and ex-lover of Priti’s—descends the stairs in knee-high black boots, a red corset, and a black mini-skirt shredded at the hem above fishnet stockings. The club throbs with sweaty freaks, and Raven is ordering a drink at the bar when Chess gets to her. He grabs her elbow.
“Where’s my Mistress?” he says.
“Hands off, little perv boy!” she says. A smug grin bends her blackened lips. She hunches over her phone and texts someone.
Chess covers her phone with his hand. “Where’s Priti?”
Raven cocks her head like she’s thinking hard. “Priti? Why?”
“She told me she’s never coming back.”
“Ah!” Raven chuckles. Her eyes go wide. “Then you need a new mistress. Visit my dungeon. Tonight. Bring your own collar and this device of yours I’ve heard so much about.”
He considers this. In many ways, Raven offers an adequate replacement for what he has lost. But she is Raven. She is not Priti. “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe it’s too soon.”
Raven gives his earlobe a bite. “Your heart knows nothing yet of the depth of your own pain,” she whispers, and she seeps into the crowd.
The next morning, Chess buys a latte and a blueberry scone in the lobby at work and takes them to the roof. It’s a gray day. He sits on the parapet and dangles his legs. After a week on Asinil, the nostril pain is gone, but the nasal swelling has increased. The bushes and trees around the office campus look artificial from up on the roof. Even the marble fountain in the plaza looks like a digitized simulation of water. Chess could probably jump into it. Actually, he could just slide forward a few inches and goodbye cruel, quasi-holographic world. But the scone tastes good. And the latte is all right.
“This is it,” he texts to Priti. “If u do not come back tonight, I send pegging pics to friends.” He looks at the sky. “I am a bad boy,” he texts. “ Punish me.”
A chubby Greek or possibly Italian woman steps out of the stairwell. She has long, dark hair and awe-inspiring cleavage, and she’s not chubby-fat, exactly, but sort of chubby-thin like an old movie starlet. She takes a deep breath of freshly polluted air, and she wrinkles her nose. She coughs, looks at Chess, and gives him a shy, well-here-we-are wave. He waves back. She sets her coffee on the parapet. He looks at the coffee, then down at the fountain, then back at her.
“Don’t jump,” she says.
“Crossed my mind.”
“Well then,” she says, and she pulls a pack of cigarettes from her purse. “I guess it’s up to me to talk you out of it.” Her voice is a touch deep and breathy, and her navy-blue suit dangles open at the lapels. “What’s your name?”
“Hi, Chess,” she says. “This is going to sound weird—”
“I’m down with weird,” he says.
“Good. Has anyone ever told you that you have an extremely sexy nose?”
Chess rolls his eyes and the stained-glass sky ripples like someone skipped a rock across it.
“Hmm,” he says and touches his nose. “Not to my face.” He dips his scone in his latte and stares at the buildings glittering in the distance.
“I’m surprised,” she says, “But, then again, I’m freakishly attracted to big noses.”
Chess checks his watch. As he swings his legs back over the parapet, he spills his latte. The woman reaches for it but taps it in the other direction. The cup tumbles through the air and just misses a cart of vending machine snacks. The vending machine supply guy looks up and flips off the roof. The woman touches Chess’s arm and hands him her card:
Ornella Delvechhia, Account Representative.
“Call me,” she says.
“OK.” Chess pockets her card. “I probably will.”
In the elevator, he’s thinking that if Priti had any idea some Mediterranean chick with a nose fetish had given him her business card and said, “Call me”—hoo boy! Jealousy made Priti horny. In fact, it made her crazy. Like that night at Wet Willie’s Wonder Palace when a voluptuous blonde in knee-ocks and a plaid skirt kept asking Chess if wanted a lap dance, and all he said was “Maybe later”every time she came to the table, until Priti went all shock-and-awe on the poor stripper, spitting and hissing and shouting so loud the bouncer threw Priti over his shoulder and dumped her in the parking lot. That was the first night she tried anal beads on him (or, rather, in him), and the first night she snapped cuffs around his wrists.
In the men’s room mirror, Chess examines his nose. It’s pinkish in the bridge region, and the nostrils look perhaps more than slightly swollen. But intensely handsome? His stomach flutters. Could be the Asinil or the scone or the business card. Who the hell likes big noses, anyway?
Back at his desk, Chess texts Priti: “Pics deleted. Done with U. Found new girl.”
Priti replies: “Good. Now fuck off.”
Several fat families with fat kids are crammed, fat upon fat, on benches in the foyer of Davey’s Downtown Bistro: An American Dining Experience, so Chess and Ornella wait at a mini-table in the bar until a regular dining-room table becomes available. Davey’s was Ornella’s idea, and he’s determined to go with the flow. He wears no eyeliner, for instance. And no nail polish. The place reeks of onion rings and mozzarella sticks. Ornella sips a Chocolate Rum-A-Dum-Dum through a straw then orders another. Between sips, she lightly caresses Chess’s nostrils.
“Wow,” he says, trying to get into it. “I’ve never been touched like this.”
“Lucky for me,” she says. Her hands smell like bubble gum. He’s thinking, Go, Ornella, go! And at the same time he’s wondering what Priti would do if she him now. Would she rip Ornella’s eyes out? Or would she slap his face and make him crawl to the car then whip his ass until he begged for mercy and order him to sleep naked and shivering on the closet floor with nothing but a washcloth to keep him warm?
Ornella pushes aside her empty glass and leans forward in a way that emphasizes her awe-inspiring cleavage. “You’re quiet,” she says, and she caresses the ring of his left nostril with her pinkie finger. “Ask anything. I’m an open book.”
“All right,” Chess says. “What does the name Ornella mean?”
“Mmm,” she says. “It’s Italian. It means a flowering ash tree.”
On the word tree, Ornella slips her pinkie through the outer ring of his nostril, into his nasal passage. Which feels abrasive but good, and for a fleeting moment Chess wonders if there might be a market for nasal lubricant. Nasal massage oil, he’d call it. Or nose lube. Health food stores could carry it. But what would differentiate nasal massage oil from non-nasal massage oil? Then Ornella’s finger thrusts too deep into his nose. Alarms shriek in his brain. His whole body buzzes, even his crotch—in fact, his crotch vibrates so hard it hurts. He pulls back, dislodging Ornella’s finger and nearly tipping his chair in the process. He clutches at his groin. But the buzz isn’t in his crotch. It’s in his pants pocket. It’s the pager the hostess gave him. Their table for two is ready.
As Chess follows Ornella’s car to her apartment, he texts Priti: “New girl not working out. Come to apartment at midnight or I send pics to ur mom.” He’s going to ditch Ornella as quickly as he can. But her bizarre living room distracts him. It has sky-blue walls with pastel-pink clouds. Ornella flips a switch, and track lights with pink-tinted bulbs go from dim to ever-so-slightly bright. A huge woman materializes on the far wall, above the sofa. The face seems familiar. Ah yes, she’s Dolly Parton. Or, rather, she’s an airbrushed portrait of the face and bust of Dolly Parton. The image rises a full five feet from her breasts to the tiptop of her puffy yellow hair. Dolly winks at Chess with a glimmer in her eye. The collar of her rhinestone blouse has fallen open. This reminds him of Ornella’s cleavage—which he suspects is the point. It’s all so conventionally yet quirkily erotic that he finds it uncanny. Instead of excusing himself to leave, he takes out his last cigarette.
“Bum me one?” Ornella says.
He sets it in her mouth and lights it.
“So, you like Dolly Parton?”
“I’m obsessed,” she says.
She tosses her coat over a chair and presses a button on the stereo. Dolly Parton’s voice rolls in on a wave of banjos and slide guitars. Ornella invites him to sit on the couch beneath Dolly’s massive breasts. The room could pass for an exotic fish tank, murky and blue and bubbling with greatest hits. He leans back as Ornella unbuttons his shirt. He holds his breath as she kisses his nostrils. He hates this. No, wait, he likes it. No. Help. He’s drowning.
Twenty-six hours later, his lips and nostrils are as sore as hell, but he hasn’t thought of Priti since about twenty-five and a half hours ago. This gives him the urge to text her to declare he has forgotten her. Then he remembers he said he would meet her at the apartment on Friday night. His stomach churns at the thought of losing Priti forever. He lies in bed with Ornella but feels like he’s falling. He falls and falls, and there’s no splash. Just a plume of smoke from Ornella’s lips as headlights sweep the cottage-cheese ceiling. He wants to ask Ornella what it’s like to live so close to a K-mart, who was her last boyfriend, how many boyfriends has she had, how many girlfriends, what kinks she’s into besides nostril play,etc. And he wants to tell her about the Master of Submission, and about his mother who died in a tour-bus crash in Poland, and about Priti’s propensity for bathing in a latex hood. But where to start?
“Do you believe in God?” he asks.
For a long time, it’s quiet. Ornella’s eyes stay shut. Chess pinches the burning cigarette from her fingers and stubs it out. Her ashtray has a logo printed on it: DOLLYWOOD. He presses his ear to the pillow and, all night long, dreams he’s crawling across a field of bubblegum-scented breasts.
On Monday morning, sixty hours after Chess took his last Asinil, his nose aches as if someone has stapled it to his face. He flips Ornella’s omelet and adds three extra slices of Swiss cheese, the way she says she likes it. He carries both plates to the breakfast nook, where Ornella sits with a towel around her torso. Her hair is up in another towel, turban-style.
“Let’s go,” she says. “Let’s just go.”
“No,” she says. “Like in a week or two. Maybe next month?”
His omelet feels cold, so he eats it with his fingers. “What’s with this Dolly Parton obsession, anyway?”
“She’s Dolly,” Ornella says and sets her fork on her plate. “She’s an icon. She represents how life can turn out good, like when you’ve come so far from humble beginnings and now you get pretty much whatever you want.”
“Your own amusement park, even,” he says.
Ornella shrugs. “Do you like her music? I mean, honestly?”
A sharp pain jabs his nose,spreads across his face, and burrows back into his skull. “Ouch,” he says.
“No pressure.” Ornella pokes at her omelet. “Some days I can hardly stand to hear Dolly, myself.”
“No,” he says. “It’s my skull. My nostrils, too.”
Ornella tips his head toward the light. “Oh my god, Chess, your nose is raw. You need a doctor.”
“No,” he says.
“He’ll prescribe something to bring down the swelling, and you won’t want me anymore.”
Ornella puts her arms around his shoulders. “Of course I will, Mr. Sexynose.” She kisses his cheek.
“But my nostrils,” he says. “They’re usually a lot smaller.”
She shuts her eyes. “It’s fine,” she says. “Make an appointment.”
“I wouldn’t mind going.”
“Good,” she says.
“No,” he says. “I mean, to Dollywood. I wouldn’t mind going, someday.”
Under the table, Ornella’s toes slide up his shin, into his pant leg, all the way to his kneecap.
“Can I take naked pictures of you?” he asks.
“No fucking way,” she says, then she laughs.
At a stoplight on his way to the doctor’s office, Chess texts Priti: “Sorry I missed u Friday. I will delete all pics.”
“Too late,” she texts seconds later. “I deleted them and destroyed ur backup discs. And smashed ur hard drive.”
Chess swerves his car to avoid slamming into a fire hydrant. No way. Priti is bluffing. Sure, she is hot-tempered, but he has never known her to destroy property. Did she take him seriously about posting the pics online? He would never do that. He just wants her so badly, wants her with him, wants her to hurt him. Clearly, if she believes he could post those pics online then she does not know him. Not at all. She never did. What a bitch. He feels used. He was nothing but a vessel for her aggression. He will show her. He will punish her. Oh dear god, what has he become?
“There is intense swelling in your nasal musculature,” Dr. K says. He steps back and reaches into his pocket, unwraps a lozenge, and pops it into his mouth. “Let’s take care of that.” He scratches his chin and prescribes 200 milligrams of Bewilderol three times daily.
“Can you prescribe something for my emotional state?” Chess asks.
“Which is what exactly?” Dr K asks.
“I have no self control and I want to run screaming out of my own skin.”
“No,” Dr. K says, “I have nothing for that, but this will stop the nostril pain and bring down your swelling.”
“Co-pay, fifty dollars,” says Dr. K.’s receptionist.
“That’ll be $26.73,” says the pharmacy lady with the elegant hair bun. No chopsticks today. Chess hands her a twenty and a ten. She counts out $3.27 from the drawer and places it in his palm. Chess nods and tries not to look at her as he walks away. But, at the end of the hair products aisle, he spots her reflection in one of those round mirrors that supposedly deter shoplifters. She’s watching him. He grabs his crotch and blows her a kiss. She reaches for the phone, and he runs through the automatic doors.
In the car, he washes down a Bewilderol with raspberry soda. Driving to Ornella’s apartment, he pictures himself on a roller coaster zipping up and down an immense steel replica of Dolly Parton’s breasts. Priti was always so flat-chested, no wonder she hated strippers. But why the fascination with strip clubs? She would drag him along, but what for? To watch the dancers stumble, to comment on how they dressed, and to watch him watch them. Afterward, when they got home, Priti would pull out the straps and handcuffs, the whips and paddles, the ball gag and hangman’s mask. And Chess would comply. Always comply. Always but once, that is. One night, he turned the tables. He threw Priti down and strapped her to the bed. “I don’t think I like it,” she said, and this killed everything. This smashed the looking glass and soured the milk. Priti did not object to his aggression. She didn’t even cry. She just went cold and yellow and started shaking. He released her within a few seconds, and she curled into a fetal position. He spread a sheet over her, slept on the sofa, checked on her often, and made her breakfast. Then he put his faith in the healing power of saying nothing. For a month, they had no sex. So he invented the Master of Submission. When he assembled it and showed it to Priti, her jealousy knew no bounds. And that’s when she agreed to let him take pictures.
Sure enough, Chess finds the apartment ransacked. Cushions, sheets, and clothes have been tossed everywhere. The hard drive is gone from the desk. The flash drive is gone from the medicine cabinet. All five backup CDs have vanished from their hiding spots. Yet the Master of Submission is still locked away in its case, in the closet, intact. This is a relief. But Priti came home. She walked through these very rooms once again. She even touched his shirts and underwear. And Chess wasn’t there.
He claws at his cheeks. He has never felt so bereft.
He pulls out his phone, texts a polite greeting to Priti’s ultra-conservative Hindu mother, and attaches a snapshot of Priti in a black bustier and a strap-on dildo, snarling at the camera—just a little something stored on his phone
On his lunch break, Chess takes a seat at Cafe Lieu-de-Travail in the lobby. The elevator dings, and Ornella steps out. Her purple dress has a high neckline that covers her cleavage—a tragic loss—but the dress makes her waist look thin—a net gain. She walks toward him but slows as she gets closer. She sits and forces a smile.
“Your nose,” she says. “It’s tiny.”
“I know. The doc gave me anti-swelling stuff.”
“How strange,” she says. “I wish you had texted me with a warning. God. I feel like such a bitch right now.”
“Thanks for the weekend,” he says. “It was fun.”
“Yeah,” she says. “It was.”
“You should steer clear of me,” he says. “I’m trouble.”
“Oh. Wow. All right.”
They nibble their scones and listen to the murmur and squeak that passes for silence in the lobby. Ornella takes his hand then drops it a moment later to sip from her coffee. After a while, she scurries back to her office.
Chess spends the afternoon with his head on his desk, chewing his cuticles, waiting for Priti to text or call or show up at the office, screaming.
But it’s Ornella who calls.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I think I love you, Chess.”
He leans back in his chair. From his cubicle, he can see through the clear glass wall of the conference room, out the windows, and into a forest of mirrored buildings against a tableau of distant mountains. A hawk flies past with a silver fish clutched in its talons.
In the car on the way to the grocery store, everything goes gray. Chess’s hand on the steering wheel goes gray. The red-and-white Safeway sign goes gray. Even the rainbow-colored bears marching stupidly across the bumper of the car he parks behind are gray. He tells himself, Forget Priti. That flat-chested freak—what the crap does she mean to me? Why did I ever give a crap about her?
And sure enough, when he gets out of the car, Priti’s there. She does not see him. And she does not look upset. She’s walking through the parking lot, holding hands with some guy. The guy looks Indian. Ah, so that’s what all of this is about. It’s racial. The Indian guy’s collarless linen shirt hangs to his knees. His Indian pants are white. He holds a sack with a pineapple in one hand and, in his other, he holds Priti’s hand. Plus, he sports an actual mustache. It’s thin, the kind that would look sleazy on Chess but looks suave and ethnic on this guy.
Chess ducks back into his car as they walk past. Priti doesn’t seem to notice him.
He picks up his phone and texts her: “I c u in the parking lot.”
She looks at her phone, stops, and turns around. She spots his car instantly.
Ten seconds later he gets a text: “FUCK OFF!!!”
“U owe me sixty bucks,” he texts.
“Last month’s utilities.”
The mustache guy reaches into his shirt and pulls out a hemp wallet that hangs from a piece of twine around his neck. He walks over and slips a hundred dollar bill under Chess’s windshield wiper. “Keep the change,” he shouts. “Prick.”
Chess gets another text from Priti: “Get a therapist.”
“I need a top,” he texts. “U r the ideal top.”
“U top from the bottom,” she replies. “And u r the worst bottom imaginable.”
“I sent a pic to ur mom,” he texts.
Priti stares at her phone for a minute. Then she glares at Chess and slowly shakes her head. Then she turns away, calls someone, hangs up, and hurls her phone at his car. The phone hits the windshield and smashes into pieces. Priti crumples to the asphalt, and the Indian guy bends over and puts his arms around her. A gray pickup driven by a gray lady backs out; and when it drives away, Priti and her Indian boyfriend are shutting the gray doors of a gray sedan. Sitting there, watching them pull out and roll away, Chess waves. He wants to get in that car with them and lie down, handcuffed, in the back seat. But he’s here, in his car, in a parking lot, clutching his phone.
As he walks into the store, his nose goes numb.
Ornella cuts gray cheddar slices with Priti’s old gray knife on the gray cutting board formerly known as Priti’s, atop the counter where he first convinced Priti to order him to do dirty things. Ornella does not know these things are Priti’s things. She does not know the countertop’s history. How could she know anything about any of this when Chess hasn’t even mentioned Priti—much less the former dungeon of his bedroom or the Master of Submission packed away in the closet. Chess beats a bowl of gray eggs with a whisk. His hands tremble.
“You want to fly or drive?” Ornella asks.
“To Dollywood,” she says. “Remember?”
“Well, fly or drive?” She sets the knife on the counter. “Is that enough cheese?”
A ringing starts in his ears, softly at first. He looks at Ornella. She seems oblivious to the sound. This is the fourth new symptom in under an hour, after shaky hands, a numb nose, and a world gone gray. Could be the Bewilderol. Could be the Priti encounter. Could be anything. Chess knocks the pepper grinder on the floor. He adds too much salt to the eggs. He drops a tomato slice between the drip pan and the electric heating coil. He can barely grip the spatula, much less flip an omelet.
“You look awful,” Ornella says.
“Uh,” he says. “Um. Urgh.”
He goes to the balcony for a cigarette—the balcony where he and Priti once slow-danced by candlelight, with fat cigars in their mouths and anal probes in their asses. Gray leaves wheel through the gray air. The breeze is warm. Down below, a gray dog sniffs gray bushes. Chess fights an urge to climb onto the rail and dive headfirst into the sidewalk. He can picture his head smacking the cement. His skull cracks. His spine snaps. His body flops the wrong way over. And his insides spill like a sack of rotten fruit. But he’s on the second floor, not high enough to do real damage.
He shuts his eyes and inhales. In with the poison, out with the love. It’s over with Priti, he tells himself. He has Ornella now. For now. He doesn’t deserve her. She will leave him in the end. Or sooner than the end. And that’s his problem in love: whatever and wherever the end is, he does not know how to get there. The odor of greasy beef drifts by from the burger joint on the corner. He feels hungry yet not hungry. The entire bloody universe has conspired to make him let go of Priti. And he can’t.
“I burnt the omelets,” Ornella says, leaning through the gap in the sliding door, looking gorgeous. “They’re black and crunchy.”
“I have to show you something,” he says, and he leads her into the bedroom. He sits her down on the edge of his bed and reaches into the closet. In less than a minute, the Master of Submission stands fully assembled.
“What the hell is it?” she asks.
“It’s a self-contained bondage and submission device.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” she says.
“I invented it.”
She presses a knuckle to her lips.
“With this,” he says, “a person can experience the degrading thrill of submission, without a dominant partner. Of course, if one is available, there’s no rule that says a dominant partner can’t participate.”
Ornella stands and walks around the device, touching its straps and testing the sturdiness of the secondary crossbar. She does not seem repulsed. Then again, she does not look turned on, either. Chess want to crawl into the device and fall asleep for a week.
“So,” Ornella says, “when you get into it, you’re the slave and it’s the master?”
“Yeah, sort of. You’re the bottom, so to speak, and with this you don’t need a top.”
“Cool,” she says and kisses his cheek. “Bottoms and tops aren’t my thing, I guess, but I bet a lot of people would buy this. You should license it and market it, or whatever.”
Chess feels so much relief that he suddenly wants to marry Ornella. He bites his lip. “I’m still working out a few kinks,” he says. “So to speak.” He leads her back to the balcony and wraps his arms around her shoulders. She leans against him, and they watch the sunset.
“We should go,” he says.
“For dinner? Good. I’m starving.”
“No,” he says, “to Dollywood. I mean it. Right now. Let’s go.”
“Oh come on. It’s twelve hundred miles away.”
The glass in the sliding door beside them reflects gray elm trees and the gray park across the street. A gray leaf blows onto Ornella’s black hair and quivers there for a moment before it floats away.
“Come on,” she says. “Don’t mess with me. Let’s order take-out. You want Chinese, Mexican, or seafood?”
She turns in his arms. Her thumbs rub circles in the hollows behind his collarbone. He could be the worst person on the face of the planet, but in this moment his heart overflows. With what? With compassion. He should probably spare Ornella the misery of knowing him. He should tell her to run before it’s too late. But she looks so shy and content now, and she feels so soft. And maybe this time his luck will change. Or maybe he’ll change. He nods, yes and yes and yes.
Eric Bosse’s short stories—which often explore gender and sexual nonconformity—have appeared in The Sun, Mississippi Review, Zoetrope, and other magazines and journals. Ravenna Press published his story collection, Magnificent Mistakes, in 2011. He lives in Norman with his family and teaches at the University of Oklahoma.