tagBDSMAnother Shade of Red

Another Shade of Red


Rained all day and into the night. Rained the next day too and it was Valentine's Day, and Neely stood at the bus stop watching the raindrops bead on her patent leather boots. Her fingers were bare aside from her two twinned rings-- the big diamond in the wedding ring looking as cold as the ice in the street-- and red from the cold. Her nose was red too, and her coat was pulled tight around her. She stared into the window of the gift shop and tried not to think of the cold.

There were red satin hearts and baby cupids and a big, white, cardboard Eros with lace wings: a King Cupid, revolving slowly, sweeping out a circle with his arrow, pointing first at her, then at the hearts, and then back into the store. Neely looked with distaste at the baby cupids. At Christmas Ronnie had declared that he thought they should start thinking about children, and since then he had started bringing her pictures of babies and contented families and even giving her crib toys.

He'd already given her a dozen red roses today and a box of candy, and if he was anything like last year he'd give her more tonight: candles at dinner and more red hearts, and champagne in an ice bucket and the special glasses. Last year he'd made fondue so that their forks could mingle in the thick cheese and whenever her bread fell off her fork he made her kiss him. This year she supposed it would be the same if not worse, and she dreaded it.

Last year too there'd been a red negligee in a box lined with pink tissue too, and he'd showered and waited for her on a bed made up fresh with red satin sheets. This year it would be worse, and more biological. He might make her get up on her knees afterwards, so the semen could drip the right way. She didn't know if she could take that.

Neely sniffed and looked up the street and here was the bus, splashing through the sleet and pulling clumsily up to the curb with a squeal of wet brakes, the windows steamed from the human warmth inside. She folded her umbrella and squeezed in, falling against a thickset man as the bus lurched forward. He turned and glowered at her for an instant before he saw that she was just a woman and a small one at that, and his lips curled into a polite and indulgent smile and he nodded.

That angry face, though: that one instant of darkness in his eyes made her think of someone else. She'd been thinking about Ronnie, but the man's dark look brought her old lover to mind, and she realized as she did every day that she wasn't over him even now. She forced herself to look out the window at the shops, all decorated in reds and pinks, and tried to make her mind a blank.

When her bus reached her stop downtown she exited through the rear door, hopped over a puddle and hurried into a shop near the office, but once again this years she'd waited too long and all the good valentines were sold, or at least the appropriate ones. The sentiments in the cards that were left made her feel slightly grimy, as if she were reading someone else's mail; the gushy, anonymous prose written with a pen sweeping across the page in transports of controlled joy: insert beloved's name here. Nothing said what she wanted, but then she really didn't know what she wanted to say.

She didn't have much time, and so she selected the most expensive blank card she could find, a great huge monstrosity of lace and foil with some sort of plastic pressed flower behind a cellophane window. She grabbed a pair of black silk boxer shorts with red hearts that were cutely packaged in a clear plastic tube and took them and the card to the cashier. The shorts were on sale, this being Valentine's Day, and Ronnie loved naughty little gifts like that. She'd think of something to write in the card later. For now she put the shorts in her bag and stuffed the card into the huge pocket of her raincoat and headed for the office.

There were more flowers for when she got to her cube, and candy too, and the other girls teased her, but it all made Neely feel slightly ill. The scent of the flowers was almost more than she could bear, especially when it was mixed with the overpowering perfume that Sheila Cappitano invariably wore, and by nine-thirty Neely had a dull, ugly headache and the thick scent on her empty stomach made her feel queasy.

Ronnie called her for the first time as she was taking a couple of Advil and washing it down with mineral water.

"Happy Valentine's Day, darling!"

"Happy Valentine's Day to you too, Ronnie. But you really shouldn't have. You know it embarrasses me."

He laughed with delight. "It's 'cause I love you, darling, and I want everyone to know. Did you like the flowers? They get there okay?"

"Yes, they're lovely."

Ronnie was a lawyer and worked at his father's firm where he did very well. They had plenty of money and he loved to spend it on her, so Neely really didn't have to work. She just dreaded staying home in the huge house, which was much too big for two people. They had three empty bedrooms just waiting to be filled: four if you counted Ronnie's home office, which he never used.

"What time will you be home, then?" he asked. "I want to get everything ready."

"The usual I suppose."

Sheila was coming towards her cube, so Neely turned away and cupped her hand over the phone.

"Ronnie," she whispered, "Don't go overboard, okay? It's all lovely and I appreciate it, but let's keep things simple tonight? No strawberries and champagne?"

He laughed, a kind of throaty, self-satisfied sound. He prided himself on what a good husband he was and he loved spoiling her.

"Would I do that?" he asked slyly. "Just wait till you see. I'll be home before you, darling. You're going to be amazed."

Sheila walked into her cube, preceded by a cumulus cloud of intense musk and tea rose, and hovered over the open heart-shaped box of Godiva chocolates, her fingers fluttering like bees. Neely covered the phone with her hand and nodded towards the box and said, "Go ahead. They're too sweet for me," and Sheila plucked up a goody with a naughty little wag of her eyebrows and popped it into her mouth as she walked away.

"Okay Ronnie. I've got to go. I've got a meeting and I think they're waiting for me."

The scent of tea roses was so thick she could taste it in the back of her throat.

"Okay, Darling. I'll give you a call at lunch."

"I might be going out."

"Well then, after lunch, then. Now tell me, who loves you?"

"You do, Darling."

"Damned right I do. Ciao!"

Coffee helped. Coffee black and hot, without her usual sweetener. The bitterness felt good in her mouth, the heat scalded the perfume from the back of her throat. She'd lied about anyone waiting for her, but she did have some things to go over with accounting, and it was good to sit in the small conference room with the sleet streaming down the window and go over columns of numbers. Neely was a small woman and compact, with delicate features that made her look especially young and frail. It pleased her when people saw how organized and methodical she was, and how firm she could be when she knew she was in the right.

The woman from accounting was flustered. She wore a large valentine heart on her jacket festooned with some little white flowers: lilies-of-the-valley, Neely guessed. She wasn't very good with flowers. Still, she enjoyed catching and correcting a few of accounting's errors. That put her in a better mood. She almost took the elevator back up to her floor, but instead she felt the tug of the third floor mailroom, and she gave in.

The mailroom was nothing special. It was where the shipping and packaging went on, and it was enclosed in a strong steel mesh. That's what drew her: the steel mesh, the iron bars, and the harsh overhead lights. It looked like a prison, and it always gave her a little thrill. It always reminded her of him, and she couldn't help it, it still excited her.

When she got to her desk her mail was there, and a huge pinkish red envelope from Ronnie. Sighing, she slit it open. She knew he'd ask her about it when he called at noon.

It was an eight by ten photo, a picture of them on the beach in Michigan when they'd visited friends a few years ago. They'd been squatting on the sand and smiling happily up at the camera, their friend's collie between them, but Ronnie'd had the dog airbrushed out and a baby's body put in its place. The baby had no face though, just a gray smudge with a big black question mark inked in. He'd drawn red hearts around their heads.

Neely dropped the photo as if burned and sat up, rocked by a wave of revulsion. For a long time she didn't move, then she opened up her bottom left hand drawer where she kept her shoes and threw the photo inside. She crumpled up the envelope and threw it in the garbage and sat there, staring at the papers on her desk and bracing herself, as if the photo might start screaming from her drawer.

Here eyes were on the rest of her mail, but it took her a moment to focus and realize what she was looking at. There was another card – a white envelope this time -- and she recognized the broad, quirky handwriting in which it was addressed immediately. Her heart jumped into her throat.

She slid her thumbs under the flap and tore it open.

The card was a picture of a woman's hands cuffed together and holding a rose, and when she opened it up she read, "Happy Valentine's day, Precious. I'm back in town and thought I'd drop you a line – Liam". There was a phone number.

She'd already reached for her phone and punched in the first three numbers before she stopped: no, it would be better to call him from outside the office.

Neely stood up and took her coat. She stuffed the card into her pocket and took her umbrella, then stopped by Sheila's desk.

"Sheila, I'm going to run out for a bite. I'm really not feeling very well though, and I may not be back. I'll see how I feel after I eat. Will you cover for me?"

"Sure, hon. What's wrong?" Sheila regarded her and then smiled slyly. "Nausea? Don't tell me it's nausea!"

Neely made a sour face. "More like stomach flu, I'm afraid. It's going around. Just cover for me, okay?"

It was eleven fifteen, late enough so that her leaving didn't draw any comments, and Neely rode down in the elevator with her hand in her pocket, clutching the card, staring at the floor indicator but seeing nothing. She was only going to call him, she thought. Maybe just say hello and reminisce. Possibly he wasn't even home.

She called him on her cell from the lobby, hiding in a corner and facing the wall so that no one would see, and at the first sound of his voice she knew she was lost.

"Hello?" he said.

It was like standing in a rain shower after a long a dusty drought.


She could hear him smiling on the other end. She could see his mouth drifting into that wicked grin.

"Hello, baby," he said slowly. "How are you? Get my card?"

"Yes I did. Just now. What are you doing in town? How long are you here for?"

"Just got in last week," he said. "I've moved back. Konigsberg is putting on a new show and they need someone to make their dolls for them. I was done in New York so they gave me a contract. Just like old times."

Neely remembered Konigsberg: the Konigsberg Puppet Theater, an odd kind of upscale restaurant that put on elaborate puppet operas during dinner. They were a fixture in the city. Liam had worked for them before as a puppet maker and scenery designer

"So you're living here now?" she asked.

"Yeah I just moved into a little storefront in Uptown. Near Clark and Wilson."

"Oh my God!" she said.

Her laugh was supposed to indicate delight and surprise; but it alarmed her how hysterical she sounded. Her mind raced.

"Clark and Wilson! That's so amazing. I have to drop off some papers right around there this very afternoon. Maybe I could drop in."

"Really? That would be nice, Neely. I'd really like to see you."

"Hold on," she said, "Let me get your address. I want to write it down."

As she rummaged through her purse, Liam asked. "So, how's the match made in heaven? You two still together? Still with the lawyer?"

"Ronnie?" she asked brightly, taking out a pen and a scrap of paper and hiking her bag up on her shoulder. "Yes. Of course. We're still married."

"Oh." She heard his voice drop. "Well, look Neely. I'd really like to see you, but the place is a mess and I'm still moving in. Haven't even unpacked yet. Maybe you'd rather just meet me for a coffee or something? There's a place right around the corner."

"No, no, that's okay. You never were much of a housekeeper, Liam, I know that. It won't bother me. You can show me what you're working on. I'd like to see."

She heard silence on his end of the line, and she felt herself start to melt, felt thing slipping away. As if from nowhere, she smelled Sheila's perfume again and the scent of the flowers.

She turned and pressed her forehead against the solid marble wall of the lobby and said, "Liam, I need to see you. I mean, I really need to see you."

"Okay, Neely. If that's what you want."

She moved her mouth but didn't dare say it aloud: "Thank you."


She stopped in a Starbuck's and bought some coffee, then went into the ladies' room and locked herself in a stall. She turned off her cell phone and then took off her bra, and not knowing what to do with it, she stuffed it and the phone into her purse. She put her blouse back on, then checked her makeup in the mirror.

She tried to kill some time by walking around downtown, but everywhere she looked she saw baby cupids, and they depressed her. The arrows in their bows seemed to be tipped with poison; their intent malicious. Her stomach was tight and she couldn't finish her coffee, but the next time she looked at her watch only fifteen minutes had passed.

She got on the number 73 bus and rode it north, staring out the window at the frozen city. Things she had done with Liam came back to her,. things she hadn't let herself think about for years now. It had only been five years ago, but she had been a different person then, young and wild, and Liam had been her lover and her teacher. When he left for New York she was foolish enough to think that she could have what she'd had with him with any man. That's how he'd spoiled her. That's how easy he'd made it all seem.

It hadn't worked out that way. She'd decided her wildness was a sickness, and she'd put it away from her. She'd moved back home with her parents, stopped seeing her old friends and started making new ones. Then she'd met Ronnie, who'd seemed to be just what she wanted.

She remembered sitting with Liam at someone's kitchen table, the shades drawn, cigarettes burning in a crowded ashtray as he pressed her arm, trying to raise a vein. She held the belt tight as a tourniquet, and when he found the vein she saw the red spike of her blood in the dropper before he shot her up. Then he looked up at her and there was that smile.

That was the farthest she had ever gone with him, the farthest she'd ever gone with anyone, and there was no one else in the world she would have done that with. Even now the memory shamed her and excited her in equal measure: to have that kind of trust in someone. What had she been thinking? She was lucky she hadn't died or gotten AIDS. She wasn't the same person. Not at all.

The windows of the storefront were covered with newspaper. hastily taped up on the inside. She knocked on the door but there was no answer, so she used the stone on her wedding ring to tap against the glass.

She had one fleeting thought of Ronnie and forced it down and then there was Liam: big, imposing, dressed in jeans and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his thinning hair tied in a pony tail and the shadow of a beard on his face, the way she'd always told him he looked best.

He smiled at her and unlocked the door and Neely walked in.

"Neely," he said. "You haven't changed."

He closed the door and before she could say anything he took her in his arms, and suddenly it was as if her body took over. Something rose up inside her and pushed aside all the witty things she was going to say and made her arms reach up and embrace him the same way they used to. There was the feel of his shoulders and the back of his neck under her hands, and she just stood there and held him as the feelings unreeled from inside her, spooling off from five years ago as if she'd just left him this morning. She dropped her purse and her umbrella clattered to the floor at her feet, and she just stood there and held him. She couldn't make her arms let go.

He was a big man and dwarfed her and yet she still fit as perfectly against him as she always had, and he brought his hands up to her head and smoothed her hair back just as he used to do and tilted her face back to take his kiss.

He was tentative at first, his lips testing her, asking whether she was still the same woman he'd known, and then, more confidant that she was, his kiss deepened into something more sure and it all came back to her: that same blend of seeking tenderness and consuming passion that she realized now she'd never forgotten and never would. Maybe she'd put it out of her mind but her body remembered and had ached for it every day of her life.

He kissed her hard, bending her small frame back and Neely let herself go; let herself fall into her need for him. It was as if ever since he'd left she'd been like a clenched fist and not even known it, and now that fist relaxed and unclenched for the first time and all her need and desire for him came rushing to the surface.

She raised her wind-chilled hands and took hold of his hair and used it to pull his face from hers so she could look at him.

The face was the same. There was more in his eyes than there had been, but the old Liam was still there: the hunger, the humor, whatever it was that made her want to always be the object of that gaze.

Words failed her, and she brought his mouth to hers, kissing his lips, and when kissing wasn't enough, biting them too, her tongue slithering against his and against his beautiful face. He lowered his hands to her ass and held her buttocks, pulled her against him so she could feel his burgeoning hardness and Neely felt almost faint with the knowledge that he still wanted her.

Liam released her slowly and stepped back. He looked her up and down, his eyes fixing on her rings. He picked up her hand and looked at them.

"That's quite a rock," he said. "He does all right then?"

"He gives me everything," she said. "Almost. Why didn't you write, Liam?"

"Why didn't you? You're the one who wouldn't come with. I thought you didn't want to be bothered."

Neely opened her mouth to reply, and then closed it. There was no sense in trying to explain, not now, when all the choices she'd made suddenly seemed so wrong.

She tore her eyes from his face to look quickly around. Some cheap furniture, a lot of big boxes, newspaper spilling out of them. A couple of large Sicilian rod puppets hung from the wall: knights, looking wan and defeated.

"He wants me to have a baby," she said.

Liam stared at her for a long moment. "Sounds nice," he said dryly, his eyes never leaving her face. "Is that what you want?"


"Do you love him?"

Neely looked at the puppets, lifting the hand holding the painted sword. "It's complicated."

Liam smiled. "It's always complicated."

She was going to tell him no, not for Ronnie it wasn't, but she didn't want to talk about it. She started taking off her coat and she felt the large valentine in her pocket. For a moment she didn't remember what it was, and she pulled it out.

It was a little crumpled and had gotten wet in one corner. On impulse she handed it to Liam.

"What's this?"

"A valentine."

"For me?" He took it from her and held it in his hand as if weighing it, then he laughed. "So these are the papers you had to deliver?" He shook his head in disbelief. "I worry about you. Neely. You were always such a shitty liar."

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