Breakfast was prepared the next morning with a kind of bullying haste. No sooner had Lance sat down and unfolded his newspaper than the plate was slid under his nose, steaming, immaculate. He looked up at Diane, whose face had an eager, doting smile stretched convincingly over an urgent desire for him to leave. He tilted his head.
“Not cereal today?” he asked.
“You don’t like eggs?” she squeezed out of her smile.
“I love them. I just can’t remember the last time you put together a breakfast like this. This is…”
“Well, dig in,” she urged, “It’s going to get cold.”
She stood and watched placidly as he ate, while behind her back, her hands were squeezing and rubbing at each other furiously, nearly twisting her fingers off one by one.
“You okay? You’re watching me like a hawk.”
“What?” She forced her smile wider. “I’m fine…I just want to make sure you like it. If you like it, I can make it like this again.”
“I do, actually,” he said, chewing slowly. “And there’s the perfect amount of salt on it. This is just…I mean, good morning!” He laughed and looked back at her fondly. “You know, you look absolutely beautiful this morning. C’mere.”
Diane came over to him. “You don’t want to be late.”
“Listen, Harris doesn’t tell me what to do anymore. I make my own hours.” He patted his lap. “Have a seat.”
“Oh, I don’t know…you really don’t have time…”
Lance laughed again and pulled her down onto his lap. “I, uh…I know I haven’t been around as much lately. It’s a different ballgame now. They’re asking for a lot more of my time.”
Diane looked away. “It’s okay. I’m really fine.”
“But listen. We’ve got maybe 5 accounts lined up that we need to knock clean out of the park. And once we do…I think we can finally go on vacation. Just you and me. No work, no family, no friends, nothing, just us.”
The idea filled her with a churning anxiety. There was something unspoken, lurking. And then he said it.
“And I just think that could be a perfect time to make a really good go of having a kid.”
She took a deep breath and smiled so hard her face hurt. She shook her head and let out a small, abrupt laugh that she hoped would register as something joyous. “I think that just sounds wonderful.”
Lance pulled her in close and kissed her. “Doesn’t it?” His features took on an impish delight. “Look, I could take the day off…”
She finally just put her hands on his shoulders. “Five accounts. Mister Executive.”
He examined her face with a flicker of effort. Then he kissed her once more. And then he was gone.
Diane watched his car roll out of the driveway. As the car faded from view, she began to shake a little. And she tore out of the kitchen and into the living room.
There was a small basket of magazines by the armchair, mostly women’s wear and gossip. Diane pulled every single one out, throwing them into a pile in the middle of the room. Sweating all over and heaving in breath with difficulty, she started flipping through them. One at a time. Trying to focus on every page, every image, every face.
“No, no, no, no…”
Nothing was recalling the face that she had somehow conjured the previous night. It all looked blurry, indistinct, wrong. Her hands were now trembling as though possessed. As she worked her way through the magazines, she left them crumpled and torn, scattered all over the carpet.
Finally, she stopped and looked down at her hands. There were several paper cuts on them, one or two bleeding daintily. But she felt no pain. Only the wild, panicked throb of her own pulse. She clenched her hands and released them, clenched and released.
Looking around, she barely recognized the room. The mess she’d created was a slightly ghoulish one; a galaxy of smiling faces, all perfectly coiffed and styled, now creased and ripped. She pulled herself to her feet, and her head swam. Wrong, wrong, wrong. None of these were The Face.
Diane took three long breaths, and finally concentrated on her heartbeat. Only her chest was pounding now. Everything else swam slowly back into normalcy. And her hands were suddenly stinging. She bit her lower lip and her eyes swam with tears.
A bath was run. And while the gleamingly white bathroom filled with steam, Diane decided that she needed some music. Something she knew, something beautiful. Diane stepped back into the living room and opened the cabinet below the record player. It was a cabinet of records Lance never let her play when he was in the house. She decided on Nozze Di Figaro. She set the needle down, undid the buttons at the neck of her dress and dropped it where she stood. She returned to the bathroom.
The music swelled as her toes dipped into the near-scalding water. Every molecule on her surface was alive and screaming. She sank in an inch at a time and decided to watch herself as she did. Her feet, she thought, were rather cute. As her legs dipped into the water, she decided that what she had always thought of as a bit thick actually reminded her quite favorably of the Italian women in a film she’d seen with Lance (he’d never forgiven her his boredom, though she was riveted by those insinuating, voluptuous widows). Her hind quarters touched the water and for a bristling, surprising moment, she felt a hint of the thrill that had come with seeing The Face. After a brief hesitation, she sank in further. Her breasts remained buoyant in the water, and her long, brown tresses snaked over them.
Looking to her left, Diane caught a glimpse of herself in Lance’s shaving mirror, which had been abandoned on the side of the tub. At first concerned with the slight lines around her mouth and eyes, she began to study herself with a clearer mind. The full, lush lips that had earned her cruel nicknames as a child now struck her as a bit vulgar, and she wasn’t sure she minded. Her blue eyes, wide enough to project a blank panic even when she didn’t mean to, now looked relaxed. Deep. Pretty. She looked at the whites and began to smile.
Diane was suddenly struck with shame and looked away from the mirror. There was a word for women who admired themselves at length. And yet for the first time in years, she had looked at herself without feeling even a hint of revulsion. This gave her pause. She closed her eyes and breathed.
“You’re alone. No one’s here but you.”
It occurred to her that she spent an enormous amount of time alone. Further, she reflected that she never really thought of it as “real” time. Real time was time she spent with Lance, with their families, DOING things. What did she do when she was alone? Clean? Listen to records? She hadn’t done much to endear herself to the other women in the neighborhood, but she resented the idea that she’d had her social life chosen for her. These women spent much of their time talking about their husbands and clucking over the perceived transgressions of whoever happened to be absent at the time. Weighing the options, she decided she’d rather be reviled in absence than appalled in company. They can have me, she thought, and decided to spend her days elsewhere.
There was one woman who’d engaged her interest, but they’d never held a full conversation. Diane thought of the dark, lovely girl who worked at the grocery store. Rose. She was quiet, pretty, modest, with long fingers and the tease of a smile always on her lips. Diane had nearly embarrassed herself one day when her eyes strayed down Rose’s body and caught sight of an erect nipple announcing itself through the thin fabric of her dress. Diane immediately redirected her gaze upward, back to Rose’s eyes. If she’d been caught, Rose hadn’t indicated it, though the hint of a smile had grown almost imperceptibly.
Or had that simply been Diane’s imagination?
If so, why had she imagined it?
And there was The Face again.
Diane’s eyes jolted open. The record player was now crackling and skipping at the end of side one. She looked down into the tub. Inky red tendrils were rising up into the bathwater from a papercut on one of her hands. And the other was…invisible. Somewhere. Buried between her legs.
The offending hand sprang up out of the water and Diane considered very seriously the notion that she might be going mad.
Diane stood, letting the water fall slowly off of her skin. She was about to reach for a towel, but she realized something; The Face only seemed to show up when she allowed herself to experience a visceral, clear-headed sense of FEELING something. The awful memory of that drunken night. The thought of Rose’s breast under her dress. These were vivid memories that seemed to take over her entire body, for good or for ill. So she remained quite still, feeling every drop roll off of her in its time.
There was no Face, but there was a great sense of being present in the moment. Diane closed her eyes again, and in the darkness of her mind began to think about every drop of water on the surface of her body. She imagined them as beams of light, streaking down and leaving trails that glowed and pulsed.
Her eyes opened. She stepped out of the tub and, without ever reaching for a towel, she walked down the hall into the master bedroom. Her feet felt odd, tingly, alien on the hardwood floor. Diane stood still, beginning to shiver. What, really, was she looking for?
She took her customary inventory of the room. The bed, the table by the bed, the vanity, the dressers, the closet, Lance’s chest. Lance’s chest.
“It’s where I keep some things from my childhood,” Lance would shrug. “Yearbooks, fishing stuff, knick-knacks.”
Today she was trying all sorts of new things, Diane reasoned. She might as well snoop. She walked over to the chest, knelt down, and examined it. It was all red wood and black metal. Hinges. Trim. A latch on the front. Diane pulled at the latch, expecting it to be locked. It was not. As it gave, everything seemed to stand still. No noise but the gentle click of the mechanism and the creak of the hinge against wood as it opened. This was forbidden. It was also making her body hum.
As she peered into the box, the first thing that met her eye was a picture of Lance as a child. Next to his obviously smitten father, a 5(?) year old Lance grinned and beamed for the camera. Behind the two of them, rocks and sea. Those summers up at Sachem’s Head. She pulled the picture out, finding more. Shells from the shore. Cute handmade lures. The yearbooks. 4 of them. The years went backwards. 1948, 1947, 1946, 1945…
A face. Not The Face, but a new face. A woman. Black hair running wild. Bangs. She was wearing a leather corset that barely contained her bulging breasts. Thigh high stockings. Knee boots. She smiled with a cherubic sweetness, though she clutched a coiled bullwhip. At her feet, a faceless figure in chains, head bowed, cowering.
The name of the magazine was SMACK, written in bold, blazing red across the front. Headlines screamed luridly from the cover. “Spanking: Still the Path to Domestic Harmony?” “She Needed To Hurt Him!” “Candy Has a Secret!”
Diane’s lips were parted in surprise. She lifted the pulpy volume out of the box and revealed another SMACK magazine right beneath it. She began to lift that one and revealed another.
There were no less than 15 magazines in the chest.
Diane flipped open the cover of the first one and began to read.