Authors: Cara McKenna
This is the third title in the
series, follow-up stories to the novel
Didier Pedra can read a woman’s body like a book, sense her deepest needs and satisfy her every craving. It’s his job, after all.
But drop him in the center of Paris, the only city he’s ever known, and he’s lost, reduced to a trembling wreck by agoraphobia. When the world feels too frightening, he eagerly escapes into sex, that realm he could navigate blindfolded. Except one of his lovers—Caroly, the only woman who doesn’t pay for the pleasure of his gifts—insists she prefers the real Didier to the capable, seductive façade. She urges him to let her lead for a change, so he can confront the fears that haunt his mind through the familiar safety of his body.
A night’s cathartic reversal, when the masterful tutor submits to his student’s darkest curiosities.
Thanks again to Ruthie and Bobbi, brave samplers of my strange new recipes.
The deadbolt clatters in my shaking fingers, twisting into place with a click.
and my heart slows, if only by a fraction.
Still it thumps, a thousand beats for every footstep as I cross the room, moving so quickly I startle the pigeons into flight from the window ledges. I tell myself,
Don’t look beyond the glass
, but I sense the city all the same, the labyrinth of Paris spreading out boundless as a sea.
One set of curtains shut, then a second, finally the third. Panic left me faint but gravity’s returning to my limbs, focus settling my jumping gaze. My head throbs with every heartbeat, white light pulsing at the edges of my eyes.
I hurry to the bedroom and shut those curtains as well, drawing darkness across the room. Not dark enough. With their ties freed, the drapes hanging from my bed’s canopy fall into place. I crawl between them and lie on my side, hugging my knees. I’m a child in the womb, in the warm, safe darkness. I imagine the slow, calming thump of an omniscient heart, its rhythm telling my own pulse to stop racing. But there’s no soothing heart. Just the harsh wheezing of my breath, the faintest tick of a clock on the other side of the wall.
I could go to the clocks, to the cabinet in my living room, once my panic has eased. I could take that brass carriage clock apart, the one Caroly gave me in the spring. I picture it, March seeming so very long ago, the time when she still paid to enjoy my body for an evening. Years ago, surely, yet mere months.
I could take the clock apart. Putting it back together would take me days—days I would happily sacrifice if it meant I could stay in one place, making sense of the wheels and springs, hunched over the coffee table with a magnifying lens at my eye, so relieved to let the world pass me by.
It’s safe inside the belly of that clock. Its bounds are so finite, the order of things so precise. I can make sense of things, inside…
Tick, tick, tick
, comes the murmur through the wall. The time. What time is it?
Caroly will be here at seven. Is it seven now? I haven’t any idea, but my compulsions have me thrusting the curtain aside and swinging my feet to the floor. Perhaps it
still early. Perhaps I have as many as two or three hours before she arrives—
But no. When I hurry into the living room the whispering clock tells me it’s twenty of seven.
I should have started dinner long before now. I don’t even have time for a shower. All because of that stupid, stupid notion. And that awful parade. Yes, the parade is to blame.
I shake my head at the thought.
It’s not the parade, you idiot.
No normal man would find a scapegoat in that.
No normal man would go out for an hour’s errand and get lost for four.
Not in broad daylight, not in the only city he’s ever called home.
Now dinner will be late and my beloved guest will find me white and trembling from my own failure.
No normal woman would put up with a man like you. Your brain is a knot of frayed wires, too much bother to untangle. Be grateful anyone’s deemed your body worth buying for an evening’s distraction—
The buzzer jolts me like a shock. She’s early, and I’m too late. Too late to pretend I’m at all prepared to see her, too late to dress myself in the trappings of a functional man.
I press the button to let her into the building. For a minute I stand still, counting my flaring breaths. My mouth is dry and tastes of old coffee.
Soon I feel the faint echoes of her footsteps coming down the hall. I twist the deadbolt back open, that click again, but this time it feels dangerous, as if I’ve freed the city from its cage and welcomed it into my flat to prowl and sniff.
Yet when the door does open, all that slips inside is Caroly. Her wide lips smile, her soft curls bounce as she turns to lock up.
Another turn, another smile. “Hey you.”
Her face alone calms me, that pale skin and those cool blue eyes. A real calm, unlike the artificial safety of my cabinet. My shoulders drop and the stitch in my chest loosens. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so relieved to see someone, not since I was a tiny child, lost in the supermarket and rescued by the familiar tattoo of my mother’s heels on the tile floor.
I wrap Caroly in my arms, so tight I hear her huff with surprise against my shoulder. She strokes my back, realizing how desperate an embrace this is. “Didier?”
As I let her go she rubs my arms, gaze taking an inventory of her broken lover. “Is everything okay?”
I take a deep breath, swallow, clear my throat. “I had a scare,” I admit. Simply speaking English is a comfort, a tiny taste of security, hiding behind the affectations of a different man.
“I can tell. Here, let’s sit down.” Her eyes dart to my shoes. They tell her I left the flat, the state of me implying it didn’t go well. “It’s awfully dark in—”
I rush to flip on the lights before she can suggest we open the curtains. She heads to the couch and I follow. Seeking walls wherever I might find them, I wedge my hip against the armrest. Still I sense the city behind me, hear it growling, feel its hot summer breath on my neck.
Caroly scoots close and takes my hand. Her purse is still slung over her shoulder. “What happened? Did you go out?”
“Did you get lost?”
She rubs my knuckles with her other hand. “For how long?”
Her eyes widen. “How awful. No wonder you’re all shaken up. When did you get back?”
“Minutes ago. I’m sorry—dinner’s going to be late. And I didn’t have a chance to bathe or—”
“Shush. I’ll pick us up something from down the street in a little while. You can shower while I’m out.”
She says these things to fix the situation, to make me feel better, but in truth it only triggers more shame. It’s my job to be a perfect host, to be ready when a visitor comes calling. It’s my craft and livelihood to please and spoil women, and I’ve failed.
I fail Caroly constantly. She’s the only one I care for deeply enough to put myself in a position to fail.
This afternoon I’d gone out in search of a token, some trinket from a store my mother used to take me to when I was young. She would browse the jewelry while I mashed my face against the glass case full of watches.
I was going to buy Caroly something—a bracelet or a ring or a pendant, something shiny to excite her inner magpie. She always brings me gifts. I was going to get one for
, and tonight I was going to tell her I love her. I was going to go out into the city on my mission and nothing would keep me from it, and I’d return home triumphant from the longest walk I’ve taken by myself in years. I’d prove myself a recovering agoraphobe, not a terminal one, and tell her I’m in love with her.
I never reached the store. I made it six shaking, sweaty blocks in the July sun, only to find my meticulously plotted route blocked by metal gates, partitions corralling a parade. Any chance I had to find my way back was swept away in the streaming crowds, my brain wiped blank by the music and shouting and the squeals of children. Just remembering, I feel panic rising in me like bile.
“Where did you go?” she asks, still rubbing my hand. The contact smoothes the roughest burrs from my nerves, but my voice comes out thin and brittle.
“I was going to visit a store my mother took me to years ago. But there was a parade blocking the streets and I lost my way.”
She frowns her sympathy. “Four hours, huh?”
I nod. At least one of them I spent locked in a café restroom. “I found a cab eventually but…” I shake my head. Surely men get stranded in the wilderness for days on end and are less traumatized than this. Useless.
How had I ever thought I was ready to present myself as a man worth loving? Of asking this woman to consider me her boyfriend? She could have any number of men, and some day her self-consciousness will fade completely and she’ll realize that. She’d be a masochist to saddle herself with the likes of me. She’s smart enough to know she deserves a whole man, not some mess chewed half-hollow with the wormholes of his own anxiety.
“Well, you’re home now,” she says, patting my hand and sitting up straight. “Why don’t you take a shower, and I’ll get us some dinner.” It’s a statement, not a query. She’s already on her feet, checking her wallet for cash.
Her brusqueness has nothing to do with being weary of my breakdown. It’s merely her telling me that it’s no big deal, this change of plans. She doesn’t like for me to wallow in my disappointments, to give them as much power as I do.
“Okay,” I finally say, and stand. She kisses my cheek. As the door shuts behind her, my cabinet calls to me. But I turn my back on it and head for the bathroom. I brush the coffee taste from my mouth, feeling settled by a tiny measure. I’m tempted to shower with the lights off, as I sometimes do—warm water, calming dark, the steady shush drowning out my ragged breaths. I shudder to imagine what a psychiatrist would make of me, of all these artificial wombs I seek when the outside world becomes too much to bear.
But I feel better as I dry off. I groom, reassured by the familiar rituals. Perhaps it’s only a costume I wear, pretending to be this sophisticated man, but it often feels far better than the skin I was born in.
Caroly buzzes again as I’m uncorking a bottle of wine. When she meets me in the kitchen I see her overzealous shopping tendencies have gotten the better of her. She sets far too much food on the butcher block—half a baguette, soup containers and several steaming carryout boxes from the corner bistro.
I’ve calmed enough to see her properly, take in her clothes. She came from her museum, dressed for work in a striped silk skirt and a plain black top. The latter hides all but her slender neck and the grooves above her clavicles, the little well between them at the base of her throat. The most opportunistic bits of my manhood return as I wonder if I would taste her perfume if I drew my tongue along that skin. I feel arousal glowing pink, deep in my belly, embers coming alive if not yet crackling bright. Soon though. It will feel good to get lost inside her, lost in a mission I can’t fail—pleasing her. Pleasing a woman will always trump fixing a clock when I’m in need of comfort. I can be a worthy lover to her, if not a boyfriend.
We dole soup into bowls, bread and beef and roast potatoes onto plates, and I pour the wine. We toast, speaking for the first time since she left, I realize.
“To the weekend,” she announces.
“Indeed. To the weekend.” To waking with her in the morning—
The morning. In the morning she’ll make me go out again, for coffee somewhere. The notion drives a knife between my ribs, I’m still so upset by the day’s fiasco. The wine tastes acrid from the toothpaste and I drink too quickly.
My distress must be as plain as my prominent nose, as she says, “It’s much too early to worry about leaving.”
Then tell me we don’t have to leave tomorrow.
She won’t though.
“Plus you’ll be fine. Everything will go smoothly and it’ll wash away the bad taste this afternoon left in your mouth.”
“Perhaps.” But it still sours my stomach. We eat in silence for a little while, though I’m not hungry. I feel her gaze flitting from her plate to my face. She’ll catch my worries like a cold if I don’t snap out of this mood.
“Tell me about your day,” I say.
“Nothing special. Though I did find out one of the curators is pregnant.”
“Oh?” I imagine Caroly pregnant and for a split second an intense curiosity eclipses my anxiety.
She nods. “I’m hoping I might get to fill in for some of her duties while she’s on maternity leave in the winter. It’d put me in a good position the next time a curator position opens up.”
“How about you? Before you got lost, I mean. What store were you going to?”
I can’t tell her the truth, not in its entirety. She needn’t know I was so deluded as to think I was ready to present her with jewelry and a love proclamation.
“It was one of my mother’s favorite places. They sell antiques. Clocks,” I add, the perfect alibi and the truth.
“Ah. Run out of patients to operate on?”
“Something like that.” I eye the little crystal droplets dangling from her ears, wondering what I might have chosen for her at that shop, in some alternate universe where I’d found myself capable of the mission. I’d have enjoyed choosing. I’d have taken her up to the building’s roof this very evening with the box in my pocket, told her how I felt with that sky looming, those buildings sprawling. Shown her I felt for her, even surrounded by the things that scare me most… My chest would have swelled with pride to know I’d made that trip by myself, walked those twenty-odd blocks on my quest and come home victorious.
But quests and prizes are for knights. I’m no knight. Just some self-exiled wretch barricaded in his lonely tower.
I look to the woman so hell-bent on rescuing me.
“Yes?” she asks.
“I’m calming,” I say, though my voice is melancholy.
“What would you like to do tonight?”