Authors: Melanie Marchande
“I’m going to undress you,” he said, his voice low. “But first, I’m going to ask you one last time. Are you sure you’re up for this?”
I swallowed. “Of course I am,” I said. This was something about which I was confident: Daniel would never give me more than I could handle. He’d never push me further than I could take.
His fingers slid under the bottom hem of my shirt, brushing against my stomach and sides. I couldn’t help but giggle a little, flinching away from his touch instinctively.
“Oh, no,” he said, sounding very amused. “You aren’t ticklish, are you?”
“Not usually,” I said, although of course he already knew that. Something about this experience had left my nerves heightened to the slightest touch. “You won’t take advantage of that, will you?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” He was grinning. I could tell. “Lift your arms above your head, darling.”
He rarely ever called me by anything but my name, so when he broke that habit, it made goosebumps rise all over my body. I did as he asked, and I felt him lift my shirt over my head and toss it aside somewhere. I made a slight clucking noise of disapproval.
“What?” he said, his fingers resting on the clasp of my bra. “Don’t tell me you just ironed it, because I know as well as you do that you’re incapable of operating such a device.”
I had to laugh. It was true - all of our clothes that needed that sort of treatment got it at the dry cleaner. My mother had put the fear of God into me as a kid about getting burned on her iron, and the hesitancy to even go near it had stuck with me into adulthood.
“I didn’t,” I said. “But it’s still clean. I can wear it again.”
“I can’t believe you’re still thinking about something like that,” he said, nimbly undoing the hooks and sliding my bra down my arms. “I must be doing this wrong.”
He unzipped my jeans and slid them down my legs, pulling my panties down with them. Afterwards, he lingered there for a while. I could feel his breaths on my skin.
Finally, he stood back up, and I stepped out of the pile of fabric. I heard his footsteps retreat, and then return. Something brushed lightly against my ribs. I giggled again, and then shivered.
“Try to relax,” he said, in a voice that was pure silk. “Prepare yourself for the feeling, and then it won’t feel ticklish. It won’t be able to take you by surprise.”
I felt the light touches again and again, running up and down my sides, across my stomach, and up to my chest. Drawing in a deep breath, I felt my nipples harden and pucker. A feather. It had to be a feather.
“Stay very present,” he said. “Focus on the feeling. It can’t run away with you, if you keep it in its place.”
Breathing deeply, I discovered, to my surprise, that he was right. If I really put my mind to it, the tickling sensation felt much less intense than what I expected it to.
The feather was running up and down my spine.
With my vision blacked out, everything else was thrown into sharp relief. I’d heard about this phenomenon before, of course, but I’d never actually experienced it like this. My ears picked up every breath, every little rustle, every small noise as he circled me. I felt the radiating heat of his body, and every sharp intake of breath through my nose was filled with the familiar smell of him; that cologne so expensive it didn’t have a name on the bottle. I had no idea when or where he bought it. I’d never seen him bring a bottle home, but it was never absent from his side of the bathroom vanity. Sometimes when he was away I would unscrew the cap and carefully sniff it, but it just wasn’t the same. Something about its cool, fresh scent just wasn’t quite right unless it was mixed with the warmth of his skin. Habitually, he smelled almost as good as he looked.
And I could picture him now. He was smiling. Sometimes, when we played like this, he would affect being stern and he tried to hide it. But with me blindfolded, there would be no reason to. He wouldn’t have to put any effort into pretending he didn’t practically
to see me like this, placid and obedient and pliant for him. Standing naked in the middle of a room without shame.
“Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” he breathed, almost as if on cue. He was standing very close behind me; when he exhaled I could feel it, hot and insistent on the back of my neck.
“Especially when I’m following orders,” I replied, dodging the question.
“No,” he said. “All the time.” He slid around so that we were face-to-face, or so I judged it. “Well - yes, all right. Especially when you’re following orders.”
“What else would you like me to do?”
There was a moment of silence. I didn’t always have to prompt him like this, but there were times when he was more hesitant than others. Considering what had just happened, I understood his reluctance to push things too far. It occurred to me that he must feel horribly guilty for “causing” me to have a panic attack, even though that wasn’t how I saw it at all. But it made perfect sense.
“I’m okay,” I promised him, when he didn’t respond for what felt like eons. “I’d let you know if I wasn’t.”
Suddenly, I felt his fingers on the back of my head, fiddling with the knot on my blindfold. I opened my eyes slowly, just as the cloth was pulled away.
“Maddy,” he said, his face drawn and anxious. “I don’t think I can do this tonight. I’m sorry.”
I felt a twinge of disappoint in my chest. “It’s okay,” I said. “I told you it would be okay.”
“But you…” he stopped, and swallowed hard. “I don’t ever want to see you like that again,” he said, more softly.
“It wasn’t your fault,” I insisted, folding my arms across my chest. I felt absolutely ridiculous having this argument right here, right now. “I’ve done that thing, that exact thing, a thousand times before because you told me to. And I always felt better after I did it. Not worse. This was some kind of freak happenstance.”
“I know,” he said. “But I don’t want to risk…” He laid his hands on either side of my face, locking his eyes with mine. He looked so worried that it almost broke my heart.
I couldn’t keep this secret forever.
“I have to tell you something,” I said, willing my voice to stay steady. “Can I just…can I put on some clothes, first?”
“It’s about your father.”
This was, perhaps, not the best way to lead up to it. He looked, by turns, confused and then irritated.
“Go on,” he said, looking at me like he didn’t know quite what to make of me.
“You remember Genevieve?”
He nodded in the affirmative, looking at the floor.
“Well, she got in touch with me. She said she would have contacted you directly, but she was afraid you wouldn’t be…open to the possibility. Based on previous conversations. And I can’t say I blame her. I’ve been struggling with the same thing. How to tell you. When to tell you. What to tell you.”
“For Christ’s sake, get to the point.”
“All right. Okay. I’m sorry. Here’s the deal. Right after that ‘baby bump’ story got out everywhere, someone contacted her anonymously asking if it was true. And in the course of her correspondence with him, Gen came to believe that this person was, in fact, your father.”
Daniel blinked. “You realize how ridiculous that sounds.”
“Of course I do. I’m not insane. But look. He - he all but came out and said it. He described himself as someone that was close to you ‘a long time ago’ or something, and that he wanted to make things right. You’re in the news at least once a month, for something - so it’s not like this was going to be the one thing that got his attention after all these years, unless he has some kind of special investment in the idea of you having an heir.”
He was pinching the bridge of his nose. “I can see why you hesitated to tell me,” he said.
“That’s a very diplomatic way to put it,” I replied. “But I really, really think you should at least pursue this. Enough to put everyone’s mind at rest.”
“Everyone’s mind? What, you mean you and Genevieve?”
“You’re telling me you’re not in the least bit curious?”
“I didn’t even think you liked her,” he said, ignoring my question.
“I hardly know her,” I said. “So you’re not curious, then.”
“Of course I’m not curious. It’s someone who’s completely out of their gourd, who thought of a particularly diabolical way of trying to get to me. Except it’s not all that clever, because there’s no way any sane person would fall for it.”
“That’s the thing, though, isn’t it?” I said. “It’s
insane it almost has to be true.”
He looked at me sidelong. “So this is why you’ve been pushing so hard for all that information about my father,” he said. “You wanted to see if I still had some secret hope of reconciling with him.”
“It was also interesting for the book,” I insisted. “See, this is exactly what I was afraid of. You won’t even entertain the possibility.”
“Maddy,” he said, scooting closer to me and gently reaching out to turn my face towards his. “Listen to me very carefully.
My father is dead
. That’s the reality of the situation. You’re letting your imagination run away with you. Genevieve is a lovely woman, but in this case, so is she.”
I sighed, pulling away. “I knew you’d say something like this,” I muttered.
“Because it’s the only reasonable response,” he said. “Look. Are there…are there unanswered questions? Of course. Would I gain something valuable by talking to him again? I mean - I might - I could. I wouldn’t discount the possibility altogether. This isn’t about me resenting him, or anything like that. It’s about the simple fact that he’s gone.”
“Did they ever find a body?”
He just gave me a look.
In Daniel’s defense, I couldn’t really explain why I was so invested in defending this insane possibility. For some reason, when Gen had first explained it to me, it had seemed so credible.
“People don’t do things like that in real life,” he said, finally.
“Sure they do,” I replied. “I Googled it. They say as many as one in four Golden Gate Bridge suicides might be fake.”
He rolled his eyes a little. “But what
would he have to do it? His wife was gone, Lindsey and I were supporting him - he had no responsibilities. He could have started his life over, anywhere he wanted, with anyone he wanted. There was no need to go through some bizarre, convoluted trickery…it just doesn’t make any sense.”
“Sure, it doesn’t make sense,” I said. “But people do plenty of things that don’t make sense. From the way you’ve talked about him, your dad doesn’t sound like the most logical guy in the world.”
“He certainly had his shortcomings, but he wasn’t a lunatic,” Daniel insisted.
“You don’t have to be a lunatic to do something irrational,” I insisted. “If he was just feeling…very depressed, or overwhelmed…sometimes people do something desperate like this if they feel there’s no way out of their current circumstances, but they also don’t want to turn to suicide.”
“Well, it’s good to know you’ve become an overnight expert on people faking their own deaths,” he said. “But this is absurd.”
I felt utterly defeated. “Will you at least talk to him on the phone? Just listen to his voice? You’d recognize it, wouldn’t you?”
“No,” said Daniel. “I wouldn’t. Because whoever that is, I don’t know them.”
And that was the end of our conversation.
Now serving number THREE…SIX…TWO…at counter number FOUR
.” The computerized voice at the DMV droned at me as I sat on one of their hard wooden benches. Renewing my license was really the last thing I wanted to spend my afternoon doing, but on those rare occasions when I did take my own car somewhere, I really liked having the option. Besides, there was no way in hell I was letting it lapse long enough to have to take those tests again. I shuddered at the mere thought.
Now serving number THREE…SIX…TWO…at counter number FOUR
I didn’t understand this phenomenon - did people routinely take numbers at the DMV and then just leave? I sighed, feeling a knot of frustration growing in my stomach. I couldn’t understand why, but I almost felt…nervous.
No, no, no.
Not here. Please not here.
But the fear of it coming only made it worse; I felt my heart begin to pound faster, my knuckles going white as I clutched the bench beneath me. I had the distinct sensation that everyone in the room was staring at me, even though I could look up and see that they weren’t.
My heart thumped faster and faster. I could feel my consciousness separating from my body, almost a physical sensation, as if my awareness of myself was floating behind me like a shadow. I gradually became aware that my breathing was getting heavier and heavier, and now people were looking at me.
I stood up suddenly and ran out of the office, stumbling out onto the sidewalk. I pulled out my phone because I didn’t know what else to do.
Daniel answered, thank God.
I could only think of one thing to say to him.
“Am I real?”
Daniel had left work to drive me home, so I wouldn’t have to leave my car in the stupid DMV parking lot. He hadn’t mentioned if he was going to bother returning for the rest of the workday, but he didn’t seem to be in any hurry.
“Are you all right?” he asked me, for the five-hundredth time, as he brought me a glass of water.
“I’m fine,” I insisted, more forcefully. “I just…”
“Maddy, please,” he said, softly. “I’m worried about you.”
I let out a long sigh. “I hate going to new doctors.”
“I know you do. But I can’t stand to see you like this. Please, at least look into it.”
Slowly, I looked up at him. “Will you do something for me, if I do?”
“Of course,” he said. “Anything.”
“Talk to your father,” I said, regretting it as soon as I’d spoken.
His face fell. I could almost see him counting to ten before he opened his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair.”
“You’re god damned right it isn’t fair,” he said, his jaw clenched. “When was the last time you called your parents?”
“This isn’t about me!” I insisted. “I know exactly what they’re going to have to say if I pick up the phone. Aren’t you curious about why he’s coming back?”