She is a pretty girl, though she covers herself with sweaters and scarves. She’s learned to hide her loveliness because beauty is often mistaken for ignorance in her field of study, where crotchety old men glorify long dead young ones who burned their passion on the very thing she has in abundance.
Walking to the library, where she spends most of her time, she notices how the colleges and the community bump up against each other. Flags and insignia compete on the doors and windows of the dormitories. A curry house in the middle of the block opens at noon. A man wearing a long white apron stands in the doorway smoking a cigarette. She sees him every day, though she doesn’t know his name. He stares across the street at the German bakery where the girl at the counter wears a dirndl that forces her cleavage tight together. Further down is a dry cleaner, and the sweet smell of the solvents remind her of plastic and lollipops. On the corner, the steps of an unassuming brownstone lead down to one of the university’s research centers.
She never thinks to stop until the sign in front reads: Healthy adults wanted for research on Managing Transference in Dynamic Psychotherapy: Generating Narrative Variation in Interactive Fiction. Must be 18 or older. $250 compensation.
A week before her scheduled appointment, she finds herself sitting in a room with one of the most attractive men she’s ever seen. He is about her age, or slightly older, and looks like he should be hiking or teaching or just about anywhere but in the monochrome room with the fluorescent lighting and the metal desk.
The crimson along his jaw shows he is as much affected by her as she is by him. She is beautiful and round in all the right places. His questions start out easy enough: age, education level, sexual orientation, before becoming more direct.
“Age at first intercourse?”
“Fifteen,” she said, then is quick to add, “I know that’s young.”
He knows better than to comment, but he wants to ease her mind. “You’d be surprised.”
“Number of sexual partners?”
She is completely adorable. He’s screened enough people to know who is participating for the thrill and who is participating for the money. He’d been right to insist on the higher compensation because there is no way this girl would be here otherwise.
“How many total, I mean.”
“Are you currently in a relationship?”
“Last sexual encounter?”
“A year?” She shrugs. “Maybe a little more?”
He has been trained to be observant but also impartial; still he can’t help thinking this is a travesty. Continuing this line of questioning, he comes to the one that makes everyone squirm.
“Do you masturbate?”
She crosses her legs and accidentally kicks the desk. It makes a hollow thunking sound. “Um. Yes.”
He stifles a smirk. “Never. Rarely. Sometimes. Regularly.”
“Sometimes, I guess.”
Normally the questions flow in an orderly fashion. He checks the right box and moves on. He’s taking her answers personally, though, and sees how a less aware screener might project his own desires onto a candidate. He wonders if he should record the possibility of countertransference so it can be considered with the rest of the data. Instead, he asks the rest of his questions and describes the process in more detail. Awarded this assignment for his shrewdness, as much as his empathy, this is the first time the screening is uncomfortable for him.
“The research is quantified on a number of different levels, so let’s talk about measurement. There’s a cognitive aspect and there’s also a physical one.”
Research is a common enough subject for her. Her methods may be different, but she understands the benefits. Funding, for one. It’s the reason she’s here after all, since her small grant barely covers her expenses.
He sees her intelligence, so decides to use the technical term he sometimes avoids at the risk of scaring others off, though he’s pretty sure he’s going to lose her once he gives her the details.
“Your brainwaves will be measured by the computer…and your level of sexual response by using a photoplethysmograph.”
“You’re going to take a picture of… something.”
“The instrument is inserted into the vagina to measure blood-flow and pulse. It’s how we track which images a subject finds arousing.”
“Oh, that’s… uh.” She laughed weakly. “You can’t just ask?”
He smiled. “The subconscious is a funny thing. Sometimes a person is unwilling to admit, or maybe not even aware of what they’re attracted to, so we need to circumvent the obstacles.”
On Saturday morning, she wakes to a blizzard. The windows in her apartment rattle in their casings.
Her bed is big and cozy and half of it is piled with books and papers. Her study is focused on a nineteenth century American artist whose work captures moments of ordinary beauty: a girl seated, women hanging the wash, a boat in a harbor. Lately, she’s spent almost all of her time in the Special Archives reading his letters, trying to understand one simple painting: a picture of a young woman reading a book while lying in the grass. She tries to discern the meaning behind the image, it’s narrative structure, why this painting mattered so much to him. So she has two lives, the one she lives, anonymous and dedicated, and the one she interprets — part him and part her — understanding his motivations, even while hers go unexamined. This is mostly satisfying, except when it’s not, and the more time she spends trying to understand his existence, the less she occupies her own.
Though he lived on the cusp of the modern age, little is known about him. Late in life he became almost a recluse, but even before then he was circumspect and terse. His early work is almost journalistic in nature. His middle career contemplates the transience of human life. And then finally, as he closes himself off in a studio on the coast of Maine, driven by silence and privacy he focuses relentlessly on the timelessness of nature. He never married, and his brother’s wife was the recipient of much of his intimate communication.
She notices that his handwriting is looser and sloppier when he writes to her. Their relationship never crossed the bounds of propriety, at least not in any documented way, but the simple sketches he included in the margins make her curious.
In one, he starts, “It was very pleasant to visit your house, and I would not have anything different.” He goes on to describe the noise of the rain against the tin spout on the roof and the birdsong that woke him earlier than he liked. Small illustrations on the page detail the offenses — a part of a window, a sparrow’s nest inside the eaves. The pen and ink sketches are threadbare in their beauty, much like his closing line: “But I do not wish or deserve anything better.”
Her letters to him are lost, which is odd because he kept meticulous files of his correspondence. Still the longing in his words sparks her own. Though the top of her head is cold, her body is warm, and she hunkers down beneath her quilt, slips her fingers between her legs, and listens to the storm blow in.
On this day, the hottest of the year, his chest is bare. The muscles in his arms and shoulders surprise her. She has not seen him this way for years. He is still lean as ever, his stomach flat and tight, where his brother’s has always been a bit of a pot. She remembers them as boys, then closes her eyes and shakes her head to stop. He politely slips his shirt back on; she is efficient as she lays out the table with linen and china.
She smoothes her hand across a perfectly starched napkin, walks to a small circle of flowers she planted near the back door, and picks the head off a dead marigold. He watches her from behind his canvas.
Following a failed engagement, she’d invited him to stay in the cottage on the grounds of her house. This is not the first disappointment he’s suffered, though he seems angrier this time and more withdrawn. Her husband should be comforting him, but he is in the city, too busy to make the trip north. In many ways the artist is much like his older brother — handsome and well-mannered — in other ways not. He sees everything in great detail and is oftentimes critical in his assessment. While painting, he keeps uncivilized hours and is short when anyone tries to speak to him. For a moment, she sympathizes with the girl he’d been attached to, and wonders if it will ever be possible for him to marry. Still, he makes her laugh with his wry observations and is a good companion during the endless dinners she hosts in the interest of her husband’s standing, even though he himself stays a hundred miles away.
Each day, she brings a basket filled with roast meat and a few bottles of beer to him. He’s carried a table outdoors and placed it near his easel. She lays a cloth on it and arranges the food. He barely acknowledges her presence. She knows she’s babying him and wonders, if she had her own child, would she put up with his poor behavior?
Nothing else to be done and no welcome forthcoming, she wipes her hands together and announces her departure. “Well, then. Lunch is served. You’ll be happy to hear there are no dinner guests tonight. I will ask Mary to bring your supper here so you may continue to work.”
He has pushed her too far. “Are you hungry?”
“Stay with me. I’m suffering from my own poor company.”
“This is no fault of mine.”
He opens the ale and offers her one.
“From the bottle?” she asks.
“Unless you’d prefer me to pour some into a teacup.”
She frowns at him and takes a sip. The bitterness makes her nose wrinkle.
“Your lips are puckered up like a button.”
She covers her mouth with the back of her hand.
“You have a pretty mouth. I’ve always thought so.” The compliment is so matter of fact it sounds like an insult.
She takes another sip of the ale and tries not to grimace.
Neither speaks. Neither eats. He watches as she looks out across the ocean. Her fiery hair is wound into a coil at the nape of her neck, though a few escaped tendrils curl around her face. The lines of her profile are perfect.
“Sit for me.”
She turns toward him, thinking he might be poking fun at her but finds him serious.
“I am in need of a figure but don’t want to send for someone.”
“Send for someone? How do you mean?”
“I use a girl who lives in town, but it’ll take a day to get her here, and I don’t imagine you want to put up another guest.”
“In the house?”
“Of course not. She’d stay out here with me.”
He sees the flash of anger sweep across her face.
“Though she doesn’t please me half as well as you. No one does.”
She stands abruptly and begins to clear the table, though nothing’s been touched. She knows she is behaving badly and tries to gain control of her emotions. She looks him full in the face. His eyes dance with amusement, but her response is cool. “I run a household and am without the time to lie around while you sketch me.”
“You assume I’ll ask you to lie down?” He drags his eyes over her body and pretends to ponder. “It’s an intriguing idea, but I think I’d rather sketch you at your chores, or as you are now, with pink in your cheek and your hair shot through with gold.”
Though the day has grown stifling, even more so since her arrival, she pulls the neck of her blouse closed. “This is not seemly.”
“The young ladies in Boston would consider my request an honor.”
She straightens her spine and assumes an air of prim disdain. “I am no young lady of Boston, and without patience for sitting quietly while you consider the length of my nose or the shape of my ear.”
“You don’t have to pose for me to consider you.”
She takes a moment before she replies and tries a different approach. “I understand that you have been disappointed, but it is not natural for your affections to transfer to me.”
“It is the most natural thing in the world, Mattie, as familiar as my own skin, a regret as constant as my heartbeat.”
“You are lonely.”
“I have more company than I can tolerate.”
“Why do you come here, then?”
“Because you ask me to. Each time I leave, I swear I will not return, but my mind grows weak. I write to read your words, and you respond by telling me you miss me.”
She frowned. “You misunderstand.”
“You don’t miss me?”
“I miss you as a brother. I miss the companionship of your days.”
“But not your nights.” This was not a question.
“I am married to your brother. Think on it.”
“I think on it constantly. When he is here, I hear the eaves creek and think it the squeak of your bedspring. The wind sighs, and I think of your voice at my brother’s touch. I can’t sleep for the amount of thinking I do when I’m here.”
“And when you’re not here?”
She can’t believe she allowed the question to slip from her lips. The gossip of his affairs has interrupted her sleep on countless occasions. She imagines the muscles in his arms as they wrap around a faceless girl, his mouth as he stops up another’s with a kiss — and fumes.
When he answers her question, his voice is more gentle. “When I am not here, I imagine he is also not here and that you are alone.”
“I prefer my solitude.”
“Why am I here, then? Why set me up in this luxury? Why summon me to entertain you while this and that one comes to enjoy your hospitality? Why have me play husband, then walk me to the door when everyone has gone, and wish you hadn’t put me up so far from the house?
“You read too much into my gestures.”
“You read too little into mine.”
She pulled the wicker basket to her and prepared to leave. “This is a ridiculous conversation. I have gardening to do. Do what you must with your… figure. I will send Mary out with dinner.”
“Perhaps I will ask Mary to be my muse.”
“You will do no such thing,” she snaps and turns to leave.
He stands quickly and grabs her wrist.
“Please, Mattie. This once.”
“I will go back to town and live my life.”
“What of your brother?”
“When I see him, I will remind him of the young wife he leaves alone for far too long and far too often.”
“And what of me?”
“Would you like me to offer you an option?”
She wakes up with a pounding heart and burrows back into her pillows to recapture the dream, but all that remains is an ache between her legs. It has been like this ever since she found the letters. Each time she shuts her eyes, she imagines scenarios they might have lived, what they must have been like as adolescents, if at the end of their lives they were happy. No matter how hard she tries, though, she cannot bring them together, which in turn contributes to her own discontent. This is no way to finish her thesis, but it is a mystery that she cannot stop from trying to solve, even if it is all of her own making.
Time ticks past. The snow softens the sounds outside her window, other than the occasional shrill whistle of the wind. She is due at her appointment at eleven. She’d signed the waiver indicating that she understood the process, although she didn’t have to commit to the research then and there. Instead, there was an on-line sign up during which she’d be assigned an appointment. She didn’t think she would, but one night, unable to sleep — and thinking about repressed desire and how it might have influenced her artist’s work — she’d leaned over to her laptop and registered before she could think twice.
She takes out the sheet of instructions and reads:
Our ultimate goal is to make the practice of psychotherapy more direct and affordable by enabling transference of the emotive state from the subject to the computer. Your input will be added to the experience collage, thereby enriching the themes available to future patients.
She could legitimately cancel because of the weather. She doesn’t even like going for physicals, but a tiny part of her finds this exciting, in a nerve-wracking way.
Trudging through the snow, she’s surprised at how empty the city is. All the businesses are quiet; some aren’t even open. She wonders if the research has been cancelled after all, but the lights are on when she gets there.
She stomps her boots in the vestibule of the building and shakes the snowflakes from her hair. The reception area is empty. She takes off her scarf and coat and hangs them on a hook in the waiting room. At the desk is a clipboard. On the sign-in sheet there are two people before her, or she assumes so because the registration codes look similar to hers. She jots her information down on the next line, then sits on the edge of a thin looking couch and leafs through dog-eared magazines to calm the butterflies in her stomach. Fifteen minutes pass and then twenty before a door across from her swings open and the guy who’d interviewed her appears. He’s wearing snow boots, too and has a day’s growth of beard. At first he looks harried, but grins when he recognizes her.
He’s slightly annoyed because the receptionist has called in, along with the other tech and the other assistant. He was certain she wouldn’t sign-up and her appearance compensates for the chaos of the storm. The sleeves of her sweater reach almost past her hands. Without makeup, she looks even younger than she is.
“Sorry about the wait. We’re off to a slow start because of the storm. Mattie, right?”
She nods, pleased that he remembers her. Mattie isn’t her real name, though. It’s the name of the artist’s sister-in-law, and she likes the idea of being someone else and someone specific at the same time.
He pushes the door open and holds it for her as she crosses the room. She admires the stretch of his arm as much as his politeness. “You’re in room 3B. To the right.” He follows her to a very small room, which contains a funny looking chair.
“No problem with claustrophobia?” he jokes. He thinks they should probably add that question to the screening list.
“No. I don’t think so.”
He struggles with what to say next, because he never has anything to do with the subjects after the screening, nor with the experiment itself. He and the technician are tag-teaming this morning and she’s down the hall in a room with another subject.
“The session runs about two hours, more or less. The technician will fit you with the headgear… and the uh… the probe.”
She nods at his discomfort but can’t quite meet his eyes.
He tries to lighten things up. “Then, all you have to do is interact with the prompts on the computer screen. That’s it. Make sense?”
“I guess so.”
Neither of them says anything for a moment or two. She looks around the room, waiting for him to continue. He walks to the counter and tries to look businesslike as he tries to remember if there’s anything else he should be saying.
“If you don’t have any more questions — “
“No. I don’t think so.”
She’s so embarrassed, but still so polite.
“Right, so then you can get undressed in the bathroom. There are robes in there.”
“Everything off or just…”
He knows she’s uncomfortable and wants to sound professional and straightforward, but his blood is pounding in his ears. He wishes it could be this easy in real life.
“Yeah. I need you to take everything off.”
In the bathroom, she removes her jeans, her top, then her bra and underwear, and hangs everything on the back of the door. It’s overly warm in the room, but her skin prickles at being naked in a strange place. Her feet are cold on the tile, and she puts her woolen socks back on. The robe is standard hospital fare, though it takes her a while to figure out how to tie it, because her fingers are nervous.
When she steps back into the room, his eyes become warm and appraising. Stripped of her giant sweater, she is surprisingly slim. She wonders if this is a test of how gullible she is, or how desperate.
A knock on the door to the hall brings an older woman in a white coat pushing a cart.
“We’re ready, yes?” She has an accent that the girl can’t quite place.
She points at the chair authoritatively, and the girl tentatively approaches. It reminds her a little of the ones in the barbershop her grandfather owned when she was little.
The seat has a cutout in the bottom, which is circled by a raised band. It forces her legs slightly apart and causes her robe to ride up. She immediately feels a rush of discomfort at being exposed and tugs the fabric over her thighs for privacy.
“Arms and legs against the cushions,” the technician says with clipped efficiency. Each of the arm and footrests is separately articulated and padded with vinyl. She feels like she’s being fitted into a mold.
The tech proceeds to take the girl’s temperature and pulse and records the results on a tablet. When she’s finished, she hands her a strange looking headset from the top of the cart. It looks like a pair of glasses with a box where the lenses would otherwise be and a pair of thick silver wires on the sides.
She slips them on and is immediately trapped in darkness.
The tech makes adjustments until she is satisfied. “You are comfortable, yes?”
It isn’t uncomfortable at all, but she imagines she looks ridiculous. “It’s fine.”
“I’m going to turn the headset on.” His voice comes from a direction she hadn’t expected him, and she turns to follow his voice. “I need to get you used to the screen. Okay?”
“The computer is going to try and understand how you think by measuring the activity in your cerebral cortex. That’s what these do.” Suddenly he seems closer, and when he lightly touches the wire on one of her temples the unexpected contact gives her a chill.
“Yeah, sorry. I’m fine. It’s just weird being in the dark.”
“I know. Sorry. Almost there,” he says.
She hears typing on a keyboard.
After a moment, she is surprised when each of her thighs is belted in place so that she can barely move.
“Just tight enough, yes?” the woman asks.
“I think so,” she says.
“You feel displacement. Restraints keep you safe.”
The headset makes her feel detached from her body yet focused at the same time. She is aware of everything in the room. Her hearing is sharp, and her skin is over-sensitive.
“I’m going to ask you to think of a pleasant image and focus on it. Then you’re going to hold that thought for ten seconds so the computer can synch up with it. We’ll repeat the process a few times. Make sense?”
She nods. She can’t believe how attuned she is to the expanse of the room, or to where he is in it. She wants him nearer.
“The glasses will track your eye movement to identify the way the image comes together in your mind. Once it has sufficient data, it will play a sensory sequence back to you. It might be a word or an image or a smell. It depends on your input. Your response to these will create the narrative.”
“The computer will see what I’m seeing?” It is very strange speaking to him while blind. She thinks he’s over against the counter, but when he speaks he is somewhere to her left.
“In theory. It’s different for different people. That’s part of what we’re testing.”
Electrodes are applied to her pulse points by a pair of cool hands: one above her heart, just under her robe; then her wrists, her ankles, the inside of her knees, and at the top of her thighs. She imagines it’s the tech, she wishes it was him. A random thought pops into her head.
“Are you a doctor?”
“Not yet,” he says. His amusement makes her happy. “How about you?”
She feels movement near one of her arms and the ripping sound of Velcro, then a tight but reassuring pressure as each forearm is wrapped in a cuff that anchors her to the chair. She has a vague sense that this might be a problem, but she is too snug to care. Her legs are similarly secured. She hears the sound of a sheet being unfurled and then the pocket of air it creates as it slowly covers her body from her chest to her knees.
In spite of the weirdness, she is very much at ease. They might be giving her a lobotomy for all she knows, but at the moment, none of that seems very important. She laughs from nerves. She hears the woman’s heels walking away from her at the same time as a warm hand rests on her knee. She hears a door open and close.
“Still okay?” He is right next to her.
He draws an almost complete circle on her skin with his thumb before he catches himself.
“Can you feel the mouse? It’s under your right hand.”
She feels the rounded plastic in her palm and the button under the tip of her index finger.
“I’m going to activate the screen.”
Two things happen at once. The first is that the lenses glow from black to blue before an orange square appears. The second thing is that he removes his hand from her knee, and she feels a span of emptiness on her skin when it’s gone.
“Do you see the cube? It should be floating in the middle of the space.”
“Below that is a start button. When you’re ready, I want you to capture an image in your mind and click the button. Concentrate on the image for ten seconds. You’ll see the status bar move as it gathers your information.”
The first thought that comes to her mind is how comforting the guy’s hand was on her knee. This reminds her of her morning dream, which reminds her of her artist, which reminds her of the real Mattie, and she wonders, for the thousandth time, why the artist didn’t keep any of her letters when she saved every one of his.
“Are you focusing?”
She thinks about his face. She remembers the way he took her in when she was standing in front of him in her robe. She wonders if he is looking at her now. She wonders if he was flirting with her before. She wonders if he has a girlfriend. She wonders if he’s good in bed and makes herself laugh, which sounds funny in the box that she’s in.
She imagines his strong jaw line. He is classically proportionate, but his features are roughened by a lack of care. She wonders what he looks like under his clothes and imagines him naked, leaning back against his metal desk. She imagines him stroking himself and watching her. She imagines his fist. She imagines his face.
“Mattie? You okay? Focusing?”
“Press the start button when you’re ready.”
She clicks start.
The bar on the screen fills up as the data is extracted. When it’s complete, the screen reads: Image complete.
“One last thing. I’m going to put a pair of headphones on you. Mostly they’re to help you concentrate, but if you pick up any sounds, it will amplify them and add to the experience.”
A thought drifts into her head. “Can you see what I’m seeing?” Her own voice sounds muffled in her head now.
While it’s true that right now he can’t see the images as they’re being collected, nor as the story unfolds in live time, he could see the imagery on a delayed feed on the computer in his office, if he was actually performing the job he was hired to do. He’ll definitely watch it later, for purposes of analysis.
“No,” he lies.
So she lets herself go, and a certain character starts to develop. She imagines her artist, solitary and brilliant, but with the face of the research assistant. She imagines his wide mouth. His lips. He seems vulnerable and powerful at the same time. She remembers images she’s collected from the artist’s paintings, feels his desperation, and the strength of her response trips the machine into narrative mode.
The screen begins to fill with pictures from her mind. Some are familiar, some are not, but none of them are linked and they all float haphazardly in front of her eyes. It’s like being wide awake in a fantasy.
The door to the room opens again, and she feels movement on the air. She can hear, but sounds are no longer sharp: the clicking of the keyboard, voices in the room.
“She is slow.”
“No. I think she’s unfocused. Maybe she is trying to process too many images at once.”
“We focus her then.”
He opens his hands. “What are you going to do? It takes as long as it takes.”
“No. You must help. She will focus.”
“It’s a process. It can’t be rushed.”
“We are behind. This is test of efficiency, no? The professor will get new assistant, I think.”
“It’s potentially damaging to —”
The woman’s phone pings with a message, and she cuts him off. “Moment,” she says.
The girl feels the stillness in the room. A sense of expectation churns between her legs. The orange cube breaks through the images and floats gently in space. She’s hypnotized as it turns on an imaginary axis. Her body is light. Her mind bounces from place to place.
“There is malfunction on strain gauge in 4A. Get her ready.”
“You never prep girl?”
“Well, not… not clinically.”
“It is same.”
The girl hears purposeful footsteps cross the floor and then the sound of a switch as it flips. She feels the compressed air as it moves through the pneumatic joints of the chair. A momentary wave of vertigo sweeps over her as it tilts back. Everything seems to grow very far away as many things happens in slow motion. Her head drops slightly below the level of her shoulders. Her legs are spread wide, then raised slightly. She is open and accessible to whomever is in the room. Instead of terror, she feels anticipation. The orange cube floats in front of her eyes.
He takes a deep breath and pulls a stool in front of her. He gently pushes the sheet up to her abdomen and looks at the soft edge of her sex, the curve of ass. She is smooth and firm. If the data she shared during intake was honest, and he gets a feeling it was, it has been a long time since this girl has had sex. His fingers twitch to touch her.
“Focus on the screen. Okay?”
“Okay,” she whispers.
The computer organizes its first set of sensory input: a porch railing, ribbons, fireworks, and a vague sense of longing. All of these are familiar, a hodge podge of collective memory, but also images from what she knows of the artist’s life. The computer adds a picture of the research assistant’s mouth, and her first prompt: Have you ever been kissed, Mattie?
They are neighbors for two summers. She is fourteen, and his family has rented the house next door for the entire season. Two of the sons are already grown, and two are still at home but on their way to their own lives. They are different enough from one another but rough-and-tumble together. The older one is sweet and funny and, on occasion, will toss her a ball unexpectedly or splash at her while she sits on the beach. The younger one is taller and leaner. He keeps away from her and has a darkness about him that thrills her deep down, even though she is only just finished being a child.
This is the first year she’s been allowed to stay on her own with the young people for the fireworks, though she isn’t confident enough to mix with them and keeps slightly off. The group is content with itself and makes no effort to include her, but somehow the younger brother senses her discomfort and stands with her while the drums from the band beat loudly against her heart and the explosions burst and flicker in the night sky.
The older girls direct jealous glances her way. She feels proud and fierce. So much so that when he asks to walk her home, she agrees without a glance at her mother, who is across the way near the pavillion. Her house is just a few blocks away, but once they leave the safety of the group, her newfound maturity is instantly shattered at the prospect of being alone with a young man. Neither speaks, and she tries to keep up with his pace. A strong gust blows off the ocean, and she hugs herself. He slows down and wraps his arm around her shoulders to warm her up, but halfway there he stops and pulls her around a hedge. The night is dark, and the stars are out in abundance. There isn’t a soul anywhere that she can see or hear. Her blood pounds in her ears.
“Have you ever been kissed, Mattie?”
Before she has a chance to respond, his mouth is on hers, and her lips tingle under his touch. His hand finds her waist, and he pulls her to him tightly. He forces her mouth open and touches the tip of her tongue with his. She steps back quickly, puts her hand to her mouth, and runs away, dizzy and horrified, only to meet up with their parents just rounding the corner.
Her legs are long and strong. Her socks make him smile. It is absurd how drawn he is to her. He’s seen girls up close, but not one has ever let him examine her this intimately. To get through this he thinks it’ll help to think in terms of anatomy and not in terms of sex. Her thighs are tight, but he reminds himself that it is actually the adductor muscles of her hips which are stretched by the chair. Her labia are silky and sweet looking like a flower. He wants to rub his thumb over her pouty lips.
He pulls the cart closer to him and removes a few things from the top drawer. He slips a rubber glove onto his right hand and squeezes a dollop of clear gel onto his fingertips. The skin on her chest is flushed. She is swollen, aching for any touch at all. He reminds himself that he might be projecting.
This is it, she tells herself. Breath. Focus. Cube.
The computer screen goes dark for only a moment before the computer presents her with a new set of input — the smell of flowery pine and sour milk, laundry on a clothesline, a wicker basket. It remembers her pride and her horror from the first set, and it plays it back in kind. The prompt reads: You’re hiding from me?
The next summer, he’s back only for a week before heading off to the battlefields in the South to illustrate the war for one of the journals her father subscribes to. The entire town is talking about it. She hates the war. She hates his assignment. Mostly, she hates him and makes no effort to say ‘hello’ when she glimpses his arrival next door, deciding instead to keep out of the heat and spend the day reading in the hammock on the porch.
She makes it through almost the entire week without having to face him, until the day before his departure, when he surprises her at her chores. The bed sheets are heavy and wet. Her family has a washerwoman who wrings everything through the machine, it is her job to hang them on the line. The bedding billows toward her and dampens her dress. She doesn’t care because it keeps her cool in the heat.
Her mind is nice and empty when he pushes a sheet aside and moves in close to her. She might have been daydreaming. In fact, it might have been about him, so she is truly not so surprised at his appearance. He is taller than she remembers, but she’s grown, too. Her first instinct is to run away, but she likes that he’s come looking for her. It’s very confusing, and her cheeks burn with anger and eagerness.
He stops and takes her in. Her blue eyes are round, and her hands are clenched into fists at her sides. The way her white smock is gathered clearly outlines her tits. Pink tips show through where she is wet. He places his hands on her breasts. He raises his eyes to hers.
“You’re hiding from me.”
She doesn’t respond, too stunned by the way her nipples have responded to his touch. She looks down at his hands on her chest.
“Remember the kiss I gave you last summer?” His voice is hoarse.
“I need to take it back to have with me on my travels.”
She finally finds her voice. “So you can give it to someone else?”
“No. So you won’t.”
The wet sheets smell like lavender soap and wind. She places her hands on his cheeks and stands on tiptoe. One of his hands wraps around her waist, the other tangles in her curls, and she kisses him for only the briefest moment before she hears her mother call her name.
“This is cold,” he says, unsure whether she will hear him, and puts his left hand on her leg. She breathes in quickly when he runs his fingers along the outside of her pussy. It takes every ounce of his control not to massage the muscle of her thigh.
He runs his fingertips down either side, then strokes her center slowly from front to back and back to front. His thumb drifts gently across her clitoris, but he tries to remain as dispassionate about this as possible. He slides one finger inside of her. She tries to buck, and he forces himself to go slowly. He inserts a second finger into her opening and stretches her, to make sure she’s ready. When she tries to lift off the chair again to get at him, the straps keep her in place. He obliges by fingering her in and out, back and forth, up and down, making sure she’s adequately slicked up, but when she starts to squirm he stops before he gets her off and ruins the whole thing.
She breathes out a quiet objection and strains under his hand.
“It’s okay,” he says. “You’re doing great. ”
His heart is racing with lust. He wonders if the techs ever get used to this feeling of power. Her opening winks at him a few times. He looks away and tries to imagine anything else – the amount of paperwork on his desk, the professor’s nose hair, the technician’s cruel thin lips – and when he’s more in control of himself and sees that she’s settled down, he turns to the cart to collect the things he needs, but leaves one hand cupped between her legs to comfort her.
The computer shows her vibrant color. The brightest orange, emerald green. There is wood. There is shadow. There is desire. The prompt simply says: Yes.
He didn’t expect her, but she arrives at lunch, this time without her picnic basket but clutching a book. She looks him dead in the eye and says, “Fine.” Her cheeks are brilliant red, like she’s just been slapped.
“What’s fine, Mattie?” He is resigned following their conversation and can’t imagine finding anything “fine” at the moment.
“Fine. I will sit for you.”
He never expected she would agree. She has no idea what she’s said yes to. He doesn’t know what this is. She’s still not even sure he’s not teasing. Still a great sense of expectancy builds between them.
“You want to be my model?”
“Are you sure?”
She wasn’t, but when she realizes how it has changed their dynamic, she nods. “Yes, very sure.”
She is wearing her orange dress, the one she sometimes does chores in. The fabric is sheer and lightweight; the neck is loose, and the sleeves only reach to her elbows. It is a complete contrast to her usual dress. He has always found her beautiful, if slightly delicate and easy to tease, but now she is ripe and real. She looks like fire.
“What shall I do? Shall I sit?”
He holds his hand out to the chair she customarily occupies and straddles the one across from her. She opens her book to read, and he begins to draw. After a few bad starts, he rips out the page and starts over. He repeats this frustrating exercise for an hour, until he finally stops altogether and simply watches her. After another few minutes of his staring, she flicks her eyes up at him and asks if he would mind if she sat in the shade. He shrugs, frustrated at his inability to draw a single line.
After a while, she simply lies down and falls asleep.
He contemplates her peace.
At first it had bothered him greatly to be away from her, but his work provided enough distraction to keep him from despairing. A year went by, and then another. He followed the troops. His work became known, but all the war in the entire world couldn’t keep his rage in check when he received the announcement of his brother’s marriage.
He looks at her on the ground. The green of the grass sets off the flame of her dress. The heat of the day burns on her skin. He’s seen cities razed, bodies rotting where they fell, but nothing has ever destroyed him like her innocent voluptuousness. She is still so young. Perhaps she would still be unmarried if his brother hadn’t snatched her barely out of adolescence.
He reminds himself that his work is far more satisfying than any woman could ever be, than all the money in all the pockets of all the men his brother seems bent on profiting from. His success brings unimaginable riches, not all of them the kind you might find in a bank. And he’d gotten over her, especially when he’d heard she was carrying his brother’s child. He remembers the vinegar that ran through his veins when his mother had written with the news. It had cauterized his feelings. Even when he’d heard she’d lost the baby, his emotions did not flare – not until he saw her this past Christmas and realized she was just a girl herself, without parents, her siblings gone before them, and left alone to rot on her own in a big old house.
She rolls onto her stomach, her head on her arms and a sweet look on her face, the swell of her hips creating a lovely silhouette. When she shifts her blouse falls open, and the curve of her breast is all he can see. A trickle of sweat runs down the side of her face. His reaction to her makes his skin hurt.
“Wake up,” he says.
He holds out his hand to help her up, and she stands, barely awake.
“Come inside. It’s cooler there.” His words are considerate, but his voice is not.
He unwraps a condom and puts it on the probe, marvelling at the absurdity of his situation. He smears more lubricant on it for good measure, then turns back to face her.
The headgear is ridiculous, but she really is a beautiful girl. Her lips are slightly parted. Up to this point, he’d thought he had the more impressive job – hypothetical modeling, data analysis, therapeutic applications – but for the first time understands that the technician clearly has the better seat in the house.
He wishes he didn’t have the gloves on as he gently fucks her with his fingers, just to be sure she’s ready. He’s mesmerized by her warmth and the heat of her skin. He wonders what she is thinking, then gently puts his hand back on her thigh and eases her open with his thumb and index finger. She feels her folds pushed back and tries to relax as he runs the tip of the probe up and down against her vaginal opening.
She moans when the head pops in, confused by its unfamiliarity and size. The rush of expectation wipes her mind of any thought.
The computer senses her dizziness, and her vulnerability. It identifies curiosity and fear. It even picks up the apprehension of the research assistant. She smells linseed and hardwood, canvas, salt and ammonia. The prompt reads: Get undressed.
All the niceties she had installed for him, even her mother’s rugs, have been moved against the walls. It has always been a dark space, ceilings and walls of dark bead board, but now it is stark, and her heart breaks for him, because she sees what his dedication has cost him. Everything about the place shows the privation and harshness of his discipline, but for the daybed, which she’d had restuffed, and furnished with quilts and pillow for his warmth and comfort. She sits on it, the chairs being stacked against a wall. All the surety of her life evaporates, and the pose she assumes is girlish, one foot flat on the floor, the other leg bent back at the knee on the mattress.
He is different, too. She hadn’t imagined that he’d have to touch her, but he places his pad on the bed, and suddenly his hands travel over her body and moves her limbs into positions that are unnatural and sometimes uncomfortable. She feels like an object – a vase or a piece of fruit – her cheeks flush under his scrutiny, but he is self-possessed.
As he adjusts her, panic rises in his body. He’s finally managed to bring her into his world, to let her see him truly, but he doubts he will even be able to lift a pencil, let alone a brush, and instantly decides he must treat her as he would any other in her place.
“Get undressed,” he says with cool authority.
He suffers to watch her make the decision to do as he’s asked, then waits an insufferably long time for her to remove her clothes, but when she appears from behind the dressing screen, she is perfection. He has always thought of her as small but realizes now that she is probably taller than average, and in spite of her slight build, her body is lush. Her breasts are tipped with pale pink. She has a small waist and wide hips, and long shapely legs with a tuft of downy red hair between them. She is so real yet everything he’s imagined. She gazes at him through increasingly bold eyes, and it occurs to him that he is losing control and becoming the subject.
“Lie back on the pillows.”
Her hair spreads out in golden curls, and she instinctually puts her arms above her head. Her fingers flutter like butterfly wings. Her tits are full and tilted up. Her belly is rounded, and she has a little crease where she bends.
Models do what they are told. He knows this. She knows it, too.
“Open your knees, Mattie,” he whispers. He sees her discomfort, but when she finally does as he asks, he knows he’ll never draw her, not as long as he lives. He could never have another man see her this way, because she is meant to be his.
When she does, he slides one finger inside of her. His entire body burns from the warm, wet suck.
He nudges the apparatus inside of her little by little, letting her get used to its size. It’s been modified from the standard instrument and is larger than a average-sized penis in order to exert the pressure needed to measure the pulse along her vaginal walls. Her muscles are tight, and he knows it’s been a while, so he doesn’t want to hurt her. Her body puts up a little resistance, and he twists it back and forth, then forces it slightly forward until it starts gliding in. He looks up at her from in between her legs and watches the short, detached breaths in her chest as he inserts the entire length. She wriggles once it’s inside her entirely, and he wiggles the handle slightly to make sure she’s comfortable.
Her muscles squeeze against the sweet pressure inside of her, and she waits for movement, for what must surely come next, but nothing happens. She tilts her hips up as best she can, but the straps at her thighs limit her movement. She tries to reach down to touch herself, but her hands are held fast to the chair.
“Oh, god,” she whispers.
His only job now is to observe and take notes, mark the time of anything unusual, but he cannot believe this is the state he has to leave her in. She tries to adjust her position in the chair in an attempt to move closer. Her longing is banging off the walls and onto his own body. He knows that this is pure biology, native drive, but the pull he has toward her is like nothing he’s ever experienced, and her frustration is making him unhinged. She groans and shifts, trying to get leverage against the equipment. He reminds himself of the experiment. The probe is meant to stay firmly in place to tag the images being recorded by the computer. He cannot fuck her with it. Low-penetration mode is the least invasive of the settings, meant to capture her natural responsiveness to the narrative but not contribute to or encourage it in any way. If he changes the setting, or interferes in any way, he’ll void the input. Any movement on his part will be read as a data error.
He hopes the tech comes back soon so he can go take care of the steel rod that is lodged firmly against the zipper of his jeans.
The computer picks up desire and the increased pulse of her heartbeat. It picks up restraint and struggle. It picks up cold and open and ache. The computer says: Get on your knees.
She shifts and leans her chest on the bed, her head on her arms. Her husband has never asked her to do this, and she is unsure what happens next, but she does as he asks and turns to judge his reaction. His face is a study in darkness. She has no idea what he sees. She is not unschooled. She has seen portraits of reclining nudes, and she knows through gossip that this is how it must sometimes go. She imagines he has had many women like this. She doesn’t even know what she wants anymore, other than what those others have had. The ache is indescribable. She wants to feel his hands.
“Lie with me,” she says.
The clank of his belt buckle is dizzying. He tugs his shirt over his head and watches the admiration in her eyes at the muscles at his stomach. He has seen her eyes like this before, and it has never failed to encourage him. He removes his pants and drawers so that she will see what she has missed with her foolish choices. His body is close to her face, and his cock is at the perfect height. He sees she wants to touch him, but when she tries to, his voice is strict and rough.
“Get on your knees, Mattie.”
Her name sounds like an indictment, and she pulls her hand back and places them under the pillow at her head. She is more exquisite than he ever imagined. He hasn’t seen her hair down since she was still almost a child. He leans over her and bends low next to her ear. His whisper is more like a growl. “I’m going to show you what it’s like to be properly fucked.”
She has only once ever heard that word, the day the horse trader brought home the mare her husband had bought her as a gift. It had been shocking then, but not as much as now. She had no idea that this might be a bedroom word, or that it might ever be spoken to her, and she thrills at the prospect.
She gets up on her hands and raises her bottom to him. He grabs the pillows from the upper part of the bed and tucks them under her belly, then pushes her down. He reaches over her bent body and gently slides her hair away from her smooth neck. His hands skim down her back.
Her spine is the most beautiful line he has ever seen, but he keeps this to himself.
He puts one hand on her hip and the other on the small of her back. “Arch up.”
He has had many women, and the more successful he becomes, the more pliable they seem. In the interest of art, he has contemplated unspeakable things, but always kept himself in check. Now though, he is not sure it is possible. He’s not even sure he cares.
She is in a position of ultimate acceptance, and her mind and body buzzes with it. She has never felt nor imagined anything like this in her marriage bed, or ever, except perhaps on the fringes of her mind in those very early days when everything was new, and he was only a dark and terrifying presence in her mind.
His hands wander up her body to her tits. She is quivering. He squeezes the firmness, savoring her nerves. He drags his eyes down her body. Her ass is in the air, and when he inserts his fingers into her cunt, he loves the feel of her wetness. Her moans are almost pitiable. He knows he is taking something precious from her, but if this is the only moment of truth he’ll have in his life, and it shows him to be a cad and a coward and a spoiled child, then so be it. He means to have her fully.
He pulls out and leans down and licks against her slit, manufacturing moisture in his mouth to spit against her. His tongue is in a place that she has not expected. She is embarrassed at the strength of her response and squeezes her eyes shut tight. She feels him rub his cock against her opening and holds her breath as he slowly pushes it in. She cannot believe how deeply he reaches inside of her and as he pulls out and pushes in again, her moan is involuntary and so loud that she is certain Mary will hear up at the house. She forces her lips together and drops her head to the mattress.
He has had heiresses bred with the finest of manners in this position, but none has ever been so well behaved. “There’s my girl,” he says and leans over to place a kiss on the small of her back. Chills run down her spine, and she contracts into herself, then arches back out for more.
He laughs and pulls out of her fast, but before another moan is even out of her mouth, he rams his cock back into her. She gasps. He pulls out again but doesn’t enter. She waits impatiently, until she can’t anymore, and turns to look at him. He sees her desperation and plunges back. His penetration is so deep that it hurts. She tries to pull away but he grabs her hips and brings her back to him.
“Where are you going, Mattie?”
He holds her still and pulls her hips toward him, then pushes forward with all his strength, until she settles, and when she has, he establishes a rhythm – a repetition he has built himself up to over time – perhaps for this very opportunity. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever have her again, and he is damned if he’ll let this slip away from him without an effort.
He dips the fingers of his right hand into her, then pulls them out and presses one against the opening of her backside. She is stunned and jerks away at the sneaky penetration, but he pulls her hips back again and tenderly tries to work his finger into her ass. He is gentle, but will not relent until she has given herself over, and after a while she simply drops down on her elbows again, and puts her head face first into the pillow. There is no clock in the room, and the weather grows overcast, time is not a consideration for them as his hips drive forward. Nothing exists but the feeling of him everywhere inside of her, and the faster he fucks her, the closer she gets, but to what she doesn’t know. She can only moan now.
Sitting watching her is impossible. He tries pacing the room, but the moaning girl – her mouth open, her body bound to the stupid chair, the probe inserted inside of her – is making him wild. Her noises are eating away at his equilibrium. He has no idea when the tech is coming back, but if she doesn’t get back soon, he’s pretty sure he’s going to lose his mind. He walks to the casement window and looks up. They’re in the basement, and the sidewalk is at his head. The snowdrifts have completely covered the view. He looks back at the girl. She is squirming and writhing. After a few more minutes of her anguish, he can’t take it anymore and steps between her legs, which are quivering slightly.
All she can focus on is the need to come. She needs movement. She needs anything.
“Please. I can’t.”
“Do you want me to turn it off?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. Something.”
He wraps his hand around the handle of the probe, unsure what he’s going to do, but once he’s got it, he can’t help but slide it out just slightly. Then stops.
“No.” Her breath sounds like agony. “You can’t stop.”
He watches as he pushes the shaft into her. He loves the resistance her body puts up but also realizes how huge the thing actually is. Her pink lips are so tender, and the metal object is so hard. He drags it back out slowly. It’s heavy in his hand and in her body. There are streaks of her wetness on it. He pushes it back in, then pulls back never removing the head entirely. He feels his balls contract and hopes he can keep it together. He brushes his thumb over her thigh, which is shaking. He wants to play, extend her torture, but reminds himself speed is the most important thing. He has to end this before the tech comes back in to check on the error message that’s surely been sent from the machine.
She is exasperated and almost at her wits end. After a few minutes, she’s panting out small breaths. Her body is flushed everywhere now, and a sheen of sweat is on her skin. It’s there, just beyond her reach. She needs to come, but it’s not happening. She pulls on the restraints on her wrist.
He sees what she wants. He needs her to come. He senses the tech’s imminent return and makes a quick decision to end this torture for them both. He leans closer, covering the girl’s mouth with his left hand and pulls the probe out quickly. Her protest is caught in the palm of his hand. He replaces the shaft with the fingers of his right hand, then sits back and licks and sucks the girl’s swollen clitoris hard.
She has to trust him completely and let herself go. Everything focuses in her mind. Nothing matters but this. His mouth, his fingers, but still she isn’t there.
“Please” she whispers.
Her voice is gentle, but he understands her need is not. He pulls out of her and rubs tight circles on to her nub. He reads the signs of her body’s quickening: her mouth opens as she gasps, her body tightens under his hand. Time is of the essence, and he becomes efficient. He is fast and relentless, and as she starts to explode, he presses down on her mouth to stop her from calling out. Her entire body jerks with her orgasm. When her spasms have stopped, he pulls away from her, stunned by what he’s done.
The computer registers her plateau, her calm, and the endorphins in her body create a pleasant sense of peace. The deepest images in her mind are free for the computer’s taking as her mind opens itself to endless possibilities for what might and might not be. The prompt says: Yours, very sincerely.
Under a tiny, glass vase is a note with her name on the front. It reads:
Dear Mattie, I find I must leave here to open my studio in town before dark, as I am expecting a shipment of supplies and had forgotten to redirect the delivery. I am disappointed in not seeing you, but I must take advantage of the fine weather and get home before the storm, which the fishermen at the pier assure me will be here before dark. My trip has been very satisfactory and I return quite contented. I regret that I could not have remained with you longer. Yours, very sincerely.
It also contains a few dates and places of his upcoming travels, and a few other administrative details, the kind he has always been prone to remember, but there are no little pictures, no sweet remembrances, just his name, first and last, the way he signed all of his correspondence. She watches as the letter flutters to the ground.
When the tech walks back into the room moments later, he pushes past her out of the door. The tail of his shirt is sticking out just slightly from underneath his sweater. His hands are shaking and he is in agony.
The tech follows him out into the hall and steps up close as if in quiet conference. The last thing he wants is to be near her.
“You saw data stream?” Her whisper is conspiratorial. Her eyes are gleaming.
“No. I’ve been here.” His voice is tight, but he knows he needs to take it down a notch. “How’s the guy down the hall?”
“That is small matter,” she says with a wry smile and hands him her tablet. The images are fuzzy, sometimes grey, sometimes in full color. Afterwards, when he’s had a chance to decompress the data, it’ll be more clear, but there is no mistaking the fact that the face of the girl’s partner is his own.
He nods and hands her back the tablet.
“You are very cold-headed,” she says with an icy glare.
“You do not see beyond end of nose. Analysis and data. Bah.”
His mind spins. He can still taste her on his tongue, but he remains professional. “It’s just my face.”
“She replaced object of fantasy with you. She shifts emotions to you and not machine. Results not so good, I think.”
“I’m a random image. The face she gives the computer is immaterial to the results.”
“But you are real. This is confusing situation. I think you do not see her when she wakes.”
He takes one more stab at maintaining his professional equilibrium. “This situation highlights a problem in the method the professor is proposing.”
“You should be happy for this snow, handsome boy. Professor unaware of cancellations.”
“What are you talking about?” He wants to shake her.
“Girl with problem. Man stuck in gauge. I think today did not happen very much. I take care of things now.”
When the headgear is removed, the lights are bright, and the strap snags in her hair as the tech yanks it off. She rubs at the pull and looks around the room while the tech unfastens her arms and legs. The research guy is nowhere to be seen, but she can still feel his mouth on her. She is sad at the way her story ended, but it’s always been a foregone conclusion. They were never together. It was all conjecture. It is exactly what it was always going to be. All that matters is his work. For her, too, maybe.
In his office, he logs-in to the server, then deletes the girl’s data in one fell swoop and begins the process of coming to grips with himself. When the screen is blank and only the blinking cursor is left, the sense of guilt is overwhelming. He knows he’s got it all wrong: the hypothesis, the research, probably even the career. He decides to write a letter of resignation, effective immediately, but there is another urgent matter he has to attend to first. He steps out of the office to head to the men’s room to deal with his aching dick. It’s the final humiliation, the very thing he had tried to fix with this technology.
In the hall, he comes face to face with the girl. She’s wearing her big sweater again and her hair is messed up. She looks tired and beautifully used.
The tech is following her, yelling. “I tell her wait! She says no!”
“Are you okay?” he asks. His voice is gentle. He hopes he hasn’t hurt her.
She hazards a quick glance at his face. “I’m fine, I think.”
The guy looks tired, too. His eyes don’t stray from her face. He has no idea what to say or the protocol for dealing with this situation.
“Too soon.” the tech says sternly. “Too soon with snow and ice! Too soon.”
“Please. I promise I’m fine. I live just down the block.”
The tech looks at the guy and raises an eyebrow before pushing the girl to him. “Here. You have her. I must work.” She turns and disappears down the hall.
He catches her against his chest, and she feels like sunlight in his arms. She looks up. His beard scratches against her cheek. He smells like sex.
He puts one hand on her cheek. It’s rosy and warm. “You are so beautiful.” She smiles for a second, until his mouth on hers brings up images that are so long forgotten it’s like she’s remembering her dreams.
When he pulls away, the desire she’d seen in the artist’s eyes are reflected in his.
“You’re killing me. You have no idea.
“Yeah. You are.”
“Then I guess you should know my name is really Hannah.”
“Well then let’s get you home, Hannah. They’re predicting another foot.”
Photo: Young Woman with Morning Glories in Her Hair, Jules Joseph Lefebvre
About the Author Terence Plum
Terence Plum is the pseudonym of a writer who has used her degree in dramatic literature solely for nefarious purposes. She’s spent most of her life skirting the issues and on the best of days can be found wandering around Brooklyn.