A tip of the hat to the brilliant IronicLaconic, whose help with proofing this proved indispensable.
Our apartment is perennially scented with a tinge of tiger lilies. Not from a plush bouquet of flowers - the pollen would have driven me insane, but from the Diptyque candles I've been habitually planting in his place ever since I moved in. And as I let myself back into our home, the scent mingles with that of a fresh breeze from an open window.
The house smells and feels empty.
I kick off my high heels. Black pointy pumps, last season's Prada. On any other woman the heels would've looked ordinary enough, if not a little posh and expensive. But on my feet - an exquisitely dainty size 4, with an equally fetching set of legs to go with - they look fucking fantastic.
No, I'm not being conceited. Quite the contrary, for that matter. The women who notice my petite feet tend to first coo about how cute my shoes are (anything looks adorable at that size, even if it's a pair of white Converses), and later lament about how broad theirs are and how it makes for pumps being an absolute hell.
The men, however, react rather differently. Their reactions can vary from a dismissive glance to a full-on double take, ending in either a comment along the lines of "wow, your feet are really small," to an exclamation-filled side-by-side comparison. "You're a four? Jesus, that's less than half my size" (suddenly basic arithmetic is a topic of fascination), then we line our feet up together, gasp gasp laugh laugh. And that's when I see it. It's a mere spark of interest, more intrigue than full-on lust, but it's the single thread of electric that will get the magnet going.
Sometimes men aren't the most subtle creatures. A part of me thinks that they'll enjoy anything petite and dainty, anything smaller than them. But I've learnt enough about men to know that no two are ever alike, or even remotely close.
Shoes off, bare feet cool on the floor, I pad into the study where a broad wooden desk holds four colossal computer screens - two iMacs and two prototype organic screens, accompanied by a stack of hardcover books and a framed photo of us. This is his sanctum, the solitary pod of mystique and maverick that he retreats into every day. To this day I maintain that it's physically impossible for anyone to focus on four screens at once, but it's his nightly routine as a means to relax from work.
I start fishing out some papers from my briefcase, intending to file them into a cabinet tucked away in my corner of the room. I've barely gotten around to doing it when I hear a cheery chirrup from one of the computers.
i'm not the prying type, and the nature of his work has nipped my past curiosities in the bud. Choosing to ignore the alert, I'm about to resume with my work when the electronic trill rings out again. Probably a message of some sort, I think, but I'm quickly proven wrong when the computer starts chirping rhythmically, as though waiting for me to come over and silence it.
With hesitant steps I edge over towards his seat to get a look at the screens. The screens are black but the sound is still chiming out at a static rhythm. Weird. I'm unsure of what to do, which isn't really in my nature. The alarm-like ringing in the room doesn't help and I can feel myself becoming increasingly bewildered.
I mean, I can't just touch his computer...Jesus, the first time I'd done that, three months into our relationship...I give a little shudder at the thought of it. I'd been so naive, having thought myself immensely clever, and stumbled onto a labyrinth I wasn't meant to navigate. I'd broken through most of the firewalls and encryptions with a cup of tea in hand (lavender chamomile in my favorite Van Gogh mug), and a cat-got-the-cream smile on my face. All done in my jammies, too.
Please, it's not as if I was to know that what I did was a federal offense. And to be fair, when your boyfriend calls you on the phone, hissing like a madman to "get away from the computer, get away from the computer", any sane person's reaction would be to treat it as a prank. I know I did. Wasn't one of my better judgement calls.
I won't make the same mistake again. Looking at the computer makes my heart start to race, but almost immediately I decide that it would be best to pretend I'd never heard the computer in the first place. And if it really happens to be an urgent matter, one of life and death, I would be totally exonerated of all responsibilities, no matter what they may be. With a sigh I'm about to move away from his desk when the words write themselves in a minimalist white font dead center on the black screen.
I start a little at the sight of that phrase. It can't be.
This message is meant for me. For a minute I stand there staring down at the computers, arms akimbo, trepidation keeping me rooted to the spot. I re-read and re-read and re-read those two words until I can think no more.
This is real. He wants me to do this.
Gingerly, I reach out and touch the Herman Miller chair, giving it an experimental stroke, feeling like a child who's just been allowed to touch her newborn baby brother. This is it. This is the throne he has never shared with anyone, not even with me...and now he's sent me an open invite.
I won't lie, I'm a little afraid, but it's a good kind of scared. It's the same kind of fear that creeps on my skin whenever I'm on my tiptoes, peering over the edge of a tall balcony. It's the same kind of fear I had when I was trying out for the MIT chess team (daunting enough for an adult, completely terrifying for a fourteen year old).
The same kind of scared I was the first time I found myself alone in a bedroom with him.
The best kind of fear.
Breathing in deeply, I settle myself into the plush chair and swivel myself into position, pulling myself up to the desk. I've seen him work at this desk enough times to know better than to look for the keyboard and the mouse. All I need to do is hover my hands over the table in front of the screen, like I'm waiting to play the piano. Flex all my fingers, starting from the pinky to thumb, to activate the positioning system.
The laser keyboard flickers to life, glowing white against the dark ebony of the desk.
An almost inaudible electronic whine starts, only discernible because of how quiet the room is. The processors are kicking in, networks are opening up, programs are running themselves. My surprise is about to unfold itself before me.
The words disappear, replaced by a thin white progress bar on the screen. As soon as it finishes loading, the following message pops up.
NOTICE ANYTHING NEW?
The question isn't quite what I expected. We know each other well enough, and truthfully I was anticipating something along the lines of a dynamic Gorrelinium fractal for me to solve. I lean back into the chair, cross my arms and frown at the screen, running a list of possibilities through my head. Notice anything new? How about the fact that I'm touching his computer, for instance?
There's the obvious, which calls for me to examine the room for clues. Immediately opposite his desk is my smaller glass-topped one, set to face his. The only things on it right now are two holders full of watercolor pens and white markers, and the desk doesn't have any drawer space to conceal anything.
Shelves run throughout the length of the wall to my right, bearing a trove of ancient tomes that we acquired as a joint collection. Red, brown and dark blue leather with their titles embossed on the spines in a fading gold ink. Mostly in French and English for me, Latin and Germanic for him.
I squint at the books, pondering the possibility that a clue has been slipped into the zoo of papers. Statistically probable, but it doesn't sit well with me. That smug little bastard likes hiding things in plain sight, challenging the nature of one's skills of observation. It took me forever to notice that my favorite mug wasn't actually my original favorite mug (he said that replacing it without me knowing was like eating watermelon on a summer's day. Never quite forgave him for that, though)
I turn back to the shelves of books and sigh, pulling a face. A small voice in my head insists that he wouldn't have hidden anything in there. Maybe I'd peruse them later, if all else failed. It wasn't high up on the list.
Unless he hid something in the safe behind the Derain painting that flanks the door, the only other option would be his desk. My left knee brushes against a small recessed drawer, lacking a keyhole, guarded by a stamp-sized square of black glass. Fingerprint recognition.
I smile to myself, remembering the first time I met him. I was supposed to meet up with a few friends from my alma mater, but work dragged out a lot longer than I'd expected. Heading to the bar wearing an office-friendly dress and blazer hadn't been my ideal choice, but I shrugged it off and told myself that I wouldn't be dressing up for anyone worthwhile, anyway.
How wrong I'd been.
Everyone there was dressed much more casually - jeans, shirts and pretty frocks. I recognized his foreign presence immediately, the only person at the table I knew I hadn't met before. As I went through the motions of apologizing for my lateness I couldn't help but sneak glances at him.
He wasn't particularly good-looking, per se, but he had a pleasant physiognomy. Cute-ish, in the right angles. He was tall, though, and tall is always good. Tall is always fantastic. Perfect for those days where you need a chest to snuggle your face into. There was nothing extraordinary about his physique either. Lean-skinny, long legs, toned forearms.
What really had me breathing hard was the presence he exuded. I'm not sure I can describe it accurately, but here's a try. He was the obvious outsider in our group of friends and said little throughout the night, but he never looked ill at ease. Aside from the sporadic pithy jokes he'd shoot into the conversation, all dry and sarcastic and unruffled, he drew little attention to himself.
As if that helped detract from his status as the dish of the night.
I don't know why, but I found myself immensely attracted to him. Okay maybe I know exactly why - I'm a huge sucker for those introverted geek types with a secretly witty interior. The types that were the nerds back in high school and eventually grew into themselves over time. Their prolonged isolation enriched their individuality. These men could be weird as coconut sherbet and it didn't bother them the slightest bit.
Confidence and self-assuredness like that, I found fucking attractive. Correction, present tense. I find, and I always will.
I spent most of the night feeling like my high school self again, trying my best to seem totally normal, having to modulate every laugh and joke, keeping the bitchy/friendly ratio in tune. I didn't want to seem too interested, so I exercised great restrain. He didn't seem to take any real notice in me, which disappointed me a little.
Do you men realize how it makes us women feel when you pay us no attention? Jesus, it does things to you. No matter how good we look, even if we've decked ourselves out in bombshell-level warpaint and slipped on the head-turning, eye-staying LBD we know we look good in, the unreciprocated interest drives us insane. In fact, it's a cussable lot worse when we're all dolled up and you look like you don't even care.
It gnaws at our pride. It leaves us feeling a little upset, pouty and a lot less confident. It leaves us with a faint thirst for your approval, and the more difficult you are to impress, the more we want to hook you in. That's how it was with me and him. I was dying to know more about him and he looked like he barely noticed that I was even alive.
Doesn't mean I wouldn't have made the first move, but you get the gist. It's nice to be wanted. Women love being wanted. Heck, I fucking love being wanted. And when this factor is removed from the equation, suddenly everything is thrown off balance.
So yes, I was sitting there, stealing furtive glances at him, when my ex-labmate Gareth starts talking about his work. Everyone is more than eager to listen - one of the perks of being a forensic toxicologist is that you end up with really torrid tales to share with everyone. My face twists as he describes, in juicy detail, the body that was found dangling from a chandelier in a colonial mansion near the countryside.
The victim was a young woman, her scalp brutally peeled off from eyebrow to neck, belly split open as she was suspended from the glass ornament by her bloody entrails. Her murderer had painstakingly pulled out each and every tooth from her skull, and apparently the condition of her face fared no better.
"I think I'm going to be sick," a girlfriend warned.
"How are they going to identify her?" another chimed in. "I'm assuming there wasn't any identification to be found?"
Gareth shook his head, but before he could answer I pulled on my self-made vainglorious crown of know-it-allness.
"DNA match, I suppose," I shrugged, trying to look humble. "Granted, the database is going to be a huge restriction, but it's as accurate as technology can get these days."
All eyes snapped to look at Him. I'd expected Gareth to correct me, not this...not Him.
"Dactylography." The words tripped off his tongue, clipped and pure, like a grammar teacher.
Damn. He obviously knew his stuff - terminology always gets me hot. Stop rolling your eyes, don't judge me just because I like my men brainy. There's an entrance exam into my pants, and it makes applying for Harvard look like a round of Mario Kart.
I'm about to rebut when my brain finally kicks into action. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I'd jumped the gun on my answer without thinking, too keen on being the first to get the right answer, and now that I've had two seconds to repossess my senses, even I can see how glaringly wrong I am.
Drat. Now all I really want is to shrink and disappear from all the shame. God, of all people to embarrass myself in front of.
"Identical twins," I say the words with a tone of defeat, acknowledging my mistake. Technically, a DNA test would have been more difficult to challenge, but twins could share DNA, not a fingerprint. "Still, statistically speaking - "
"Statistically speaking, yes, fingerprint matching is a lot less accurate. But as a matter of principle..."
"...yeah, I know." I brushed my hair off my face, suddenly remembering the crush I used to have on my Applied Math tutor, "Didn't think that through."
And that was it. Gareth picked up the conversation without missing a heartbeat, conjuring and manipulating all of us along with every word, looping us into a real-life game of Cluedo through the night while I sat there stealing glances at my man of mystery. My fingerprint sleuth, with the clear face and highborn brow.
My puzzle maker and clue master.
My - wait a minute, I've been sitting here at his desk for five minutes, blanking out like a retiree on a porch in Florida. Enough daydreaming, I shake my head and remind myself to concentrate on the task at hand.
The message on the screen stares back at me. NOTICE ANYTHING NEW?
My strongest hunch so far would be the bookshelf, but even so it's a halfhearted choice. It's not like him to slip the second piece of the puzzle in there. The locked desk drawer is highly improbable - he likes games more than he likes challenges, and he knows that I can bypass the biometrics in a heartbeat.
I try my best to slip into his skin, to look at the world through his lenses. It's never easy, trying to get into the head of the man you love. Moments like this are when I wonder if I really know him well enough to call him my own. Whether I know him well enough to predict his next move at checkers. Maybe I do, maybe I don't. I'm looking forward to finding out.
Every ounce of my instinct is screaming at me to look at the obvious. My eyes run over the landscape of the room while my brain tries to recreate an eidetic visual recreation of it, to serve as a reference. There has to be something different - maybe the arrangement of my pens, or the position of my desk. It could be the tilt of my chair or the -
The stack of books on his desk. They used to be arranged upright, standing vertically, but now they are stacked up into the shape of a pyramid with the thickest and biggest lying flat as the base. I screw my eyes shut and force myself to recall the number of books I normally see at this desk - one, two....five. Yes, five. The numbers tally.
So that is it, then? All he'd done was rearrange a pile of books on his table? How the fuck is that supposed to be a clue?
At first guess I wondered if it might be the geometric progression of the books' dimensions. Given my field of expertise and the nature of this game...it seemed very likely. Then again, a puzzle of dull, diminutive data like that wasn't very him. He thrived on the scintillating border between the abstract and the unequivocal, throwing in mythology with algorithms and philosophy with microbiology.
Knowing him, this won't be straightforward. It'd be a mad prolixity between two trains of thought that no one else could ever have joined. But I'm not just anyone.
And I think.
I stare at the stack of books and flick through the matrices of probabilities. Mathematics. Chemistry. Geography. Arts. Biology. Anthropology. Literature. Phy-
Halt. Anthropology. Pyramids; yes, no? Likely.
Pyramids - possibilities are endless. Can range from geography to architect to pharaoh himself.
If not pyramids, it could mean -
Oh, oh, oh! you clever little creature. God, if you were here right now, I'd rip your shirt off and have my way with you for the entire weekend. My darling, my sugar, you are all kinds of exquisite.
A confident smile spreads across my face as I peck the answer out on the keyboard.
I press enter.
The screen goes black for an instant and the following message comes up on the screen.
PRECIOUS. COME SEE WHAT IT'S LIKE.
Come see what it's like to what?
As if to answer my question, the font dissolves into the beginning of a slideshow. The first image materializes on the screen, and it's enough to still the breath in my chest.
It's a picture of me. I remember the photo shoot well enough - we'd done it about two months ago, just he and I. Don't know why, but I never pestered him to see the products of the shoot. Too bad I didn't ask, I might have been able to see this sooner.
And boy do I look good.
I'm blindfolded in all the pictures, which was just what he wanted. Thick and elaborate black lace, trimmed at the edges with sateen, tied around my eyes with the ends dangling behind my head. Tight black tank top, thin enough to look like a second skin, thick enough to be completely opaque. Black denim cutoffs, the edges fraying, flattering my toned thighs to the extremes.
Look, I'm being exceedingly modest when I say that I look hot in the picture.
It's a fantastic photo, caught at the perfect moment. It was captured against a stark white background (white paper, if I remember correctly). My hands are above my head, held together by invisible rope, my whole body stretched out and taut as if suspended from above. I'm actually on my tiptoes, holding myself up and my head is cocked to one side, chin tipped upwards, lips slightly parted.
I looked like a girl who was entirely lost in my own world. If you were innocent enough, you'd think that I was dancing. I could be a dancer practicing her moves for Swan Lake, lithe and lissome and a little sad.
Or I could be a girl who was caught mid-striptease. If you look really closely, you can see that I held one hand a little lower than the other, like I was about to skim one hand down the back of the other outstretched arm in a sort of sultry dance move. And you would wonder if I was just about to spin around and show my ass to the photographer - my expression sure looked like it - the blindfold added a tinge of erotic tension to the photo.