It was the pants that caught my eye on the way to meet an old friend. Suspended in the boutique window, the fine wool drape’s exquisite softness was meant to draw the attention of a certain type of man. I knew a man of this sort, though I hadn’t thought of him since college. I saw him there, a ghost through the window, his pale hands. How carefully he’d drape the pants over the back of the chair. How much he valued these things, his clothes, from the attention, the honor, really, that he paid them. He’d match the legs at the hemlines and shake them gently until the creases met, then drape them over the back of the boudoir chair because, he once remarked, there was no butler. At first I thought he meant there should have been another man, a butler, in the room. I later came to learn he meant a stand for gentleman’s clothes. As I was required, I reported his preferences to my employer.
It was difficult not to notice these details as I had to focus on something while I stood silently. It was cold there beside the bed, but the orders specified I be nude and already in position when he entered the room. He did not speak much, and never to me. He basically ignored me, except to shift my body ever so slightly for his comfort, once I was in position. I do not know how it would have felt had he addressed me directly. I was to remain silent throughout the entirety of the session, and so I did not risk disrupting his preparations with a request for a blanket. He was what you might call early middle-aged, his pale face pristine except for the shadows below his eyes and his chin, which suggested sleepless nights followed by the emergence of a beard come morning. His hair was brown and unremarkable, except for a cowlick that caused one lock to fall forward. This revealed his impatience on occasion, when I saw him rake it repeatedly out of the corner of my eye at the end of a session.
These sessions would become one of the easiest and best paying jobs I have ever held, undemanding of physical labor, mental prowess, or wit. I could leave the room and collect the funds which enabled my education, and with discretion, look back on these times through a mist that would (eventually) exonerate the woman I intended to become. This man, whose name I did not know, wanted one thing from me only, like no one else. My own disposition and inclinations meshed as well with this task as any career ever suggested by a guidance counselor.
When the man had disrobed and arrayed his clothes such that the tale of their removal would not be borne in wrinkles, he’d take an object from his valise and approach me. I could not help but flinch at the sight of it the first time, until I recognized it was not a hairbrush, strap, or paddle, but a slim black volume and pen. He sat at the end of the bed and waited, as I reviewed the orders in my head. I lay across his lap, as my employer had directed me to, and rested my elbows on the arm of the chaise. The skin of his legs was as cool as my own and I could feel the horripilation nearly sand the smooth skin of my abdomen. He shifted his legs to adjust my back until it was as flat as a table and it was then I felt him place the book upon my skin. He began to read aloud from the book, words I wish I’d committed to memory. Poetry he read, sonnets, and other times the stories he wrote upon my very back. The language carried me out of my uncomfortable position in that room to faraway places I’d never seen but came to hope I would, one day, because of the pictures he drew with his words. His voice held a tension, a forward propulsion that made me fear its interruption, not for myself but for him. It was as if the words poured from his soul and were his existence revealed. There was no movement other than that of his arm and hand as he wrote and turned the pages, his breath I sometimes felt against my back, the rise and fall so slight of his belly against my ribs.
I thought at first that I was to him a table, a piece of furniture, in this tableau, but later came to see it was a vessel of sorts that he required, the open reception of my shell-like ear. At the end of every session, he would end the written work, the reading aloud, and I felt his sadness pass into me through his voice and the sharp clap of the closed cover. Still reeling from inexplicable emotions I would stand, as I had been instructed, and step into the bathroom to dress, never looking back at him or entering the room until he had well gone. Each time I would report, as required, the man’s experience, and each time my employer would inhale sharply, surprised at what did not occur. Then she’d laugh. It was in those moments only that I felt undesirable, for the events that occurred in that room felt more intimate to me than anything I have ever experienced in any other bedroom. Back then, though, I harbored a fear of failure, that with all the gentleman had at his disposal, what he saw in me was a living nightstand. I know much better now.
And now, years later, he is in the restaurant where I’ve come to meet my friend for brunch. The man was my first and only client of the sort. I’d found the malaise that followed the end of our sessions too distracting from my studies, and turned to other, more time-consuming ways to earn a living, ways which took up much less residency in my thoughts.
The man in the cafe is older, of course. His hair has grown silver and thinner, but the cowlick persists. He is with a woman, his wife I presume from the left-hand ring and the three children at their table, one of whom bears the same forelock, the smallest. I feel subdued in his presence, and my ear itches to hear his voice. If it were possible, the ear closest to his table might swell to better catch his words. I try not to stare, but I am desperate to know if he remembers me. Was I to him merely an object? The thought is overwhelming, unbearable. My breath catches and I draw air in gasping, quiet sobs. There arises in me a strange desire to see his trousers, to know if they are of the same soft cloth I remember, that I have never touched. I cannot see the fabric below his table but catch bits of conversation over the clatter of silverware and plates. It is his voice, but it lacks that certain intimacy of our sessions. And then they are finished, the bussers clearing the plates. The man and his wife are quiet, bathed in a golden light from the French doors behind them. They both look dignified, if not happy. The youngest of his daughters begs to go out back to the garden to see the cats. The older two rise obediently to accompany her, and the wife stands and takes her purse from the table, as if she is going to powder her nose. She is as finely angled as the cut of his pants, and as crease-free, dressed in a boucle suit and shoes whose origins I could never name but whose expense I can identify. Her bobbed hair is a perfect shade of honey. They’d both done well by each other, I think. Meanwhile, he is up and counting off bills, tucking them into the black folder with the check. The friend I was waiting for is obviously not going to show up and I must look pathetic, a woman alone at a table with two mimosas, past the age when bubbles start to go flat. He finally makes eye contact as he walks past. I’d like to think I see recognition there as I hear the gentle swoosh of fabric brushing at his inseam. The sound calls to mind the last story he read over my body, one that did not end happily for anyone.
Tessa Rossi writes, edits, and professes. She received her MFA in ’22 from SLC and her JD from NYU. She is the Associate Managing Editor for Variant Literature (@VariantLit), her prose is featured in Roi Faineant and MER, and her poems in the Red Ogre Review and Grey Sparrow. @TRossiWriter.
Allison Liu (she/her) is an emerging writer currently studying in the Boston area. She can often be found working on her novel, photographing the unusual, and conducting bioengineering research. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Yellow Arrow Vignette, The Violet Hour Magazine, The Foredge Review, and elsewhere.