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Souvenir by Laurie Stone
After Sammy and May broke up, he was left with the whip. He thought of throwing it away but kept it on the windowsill in his bedroom. There were little grains of soot he noticed every time he looked at it, but he didn’t dust the area. The shade he pulled down partly obscured the black crop, with its flap of leather at the end, shaped like the head of a cobra, but he knew it was there. The times he thought about himself and May, he saw an unwashed teapot left on a counter. When he lifted the lid, there was fuzzy mold pluming on sodden leaves and an odor that was acrid and sweet. When he went after her, he hadn’t known a whip would come into his life, but in another way he had.
     He attended a performance of hers and approached her after the show, inviting her to a wine bar on Ludlow Street. He wasn’t surprised she said yes. He had an effect on women that he’d cultivated, a way of seeming interested in them — almost enraptured — while giving them space. He was interested in May: in her life as an artist and the manner she had of not needing to please people. He taught literature to inner city college kids, packaging the Western canon in Marxist theory. He didn’t think he belonged in academe, though he’d spent his life there. Every day he worked out until pain: lifting weights until his muscles failed, rowing until his calluses bled, running stadium stairs until his mind went bleary and he felt like a speck on a windowsill.
     He could feel hope and sadness rise off May. He could feel her. It was uncomfortable. The bar they went to was dark, lit mostly by candles. They drank red wine and ate spicy rice crackers from a bowl. They talked about Shakespeare. She had been offered the part of Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Do it,” he said.
     “You see me falling in love with an ass”?
     “I see you playing someone not you.”
     “I don’t like Shakespeare.”
     “Then, you’re an idiot,” he said, making it sound like, “You’re adorable.”
     He liked the way they were arguing. It reminded him of his brother, Jules, the only person he loved, now that his father was dead. When their family left Morocco and settled in upstate New York, they’d been the only ones around with dark skin. Jules hadn’t been taunted, but Sammy had been treated horribly, and it had been a shock going to school, because at home, with his mother and aunts, he’d been adored.
     “I like Shakespeare’s view of love,” he said. “People are interchangeable. You love the one you’re with. Sex happens in moonlight. It’s random. Passion is the thing that can ruin you, the way it does Marc Antony.” Sammy’d had scads of girlfriends. He’d lost count. “Power’s what matters in Shakespeare.”
     May sat up. “I don’t think people are interchangeable. That’s why we can keep doing the same things with each one, over and over, and it doesn’t feel like repeating.”
     He wondered about the things May did “over and over.” He’d followed her career. In her monologues, she talked about sex casually, making teasing references to power games and something called “edge play.” It struck him that it was similar to what he did to his body in sports, pushing it to extremes of pain and then pressing past to an altered state. He liked pornography with Victorian settings — lace knickers, disobedient students, riding crops — but he’d never experimented. He thought he might like to with May — that her larky manner would ease him. He was uncertain how much of women he wanted to explore. He’d shot up tall in high school and started lifting weights. Girls looked at him. He was a reader, and he would find a way to talk to the smartest girls, provided they were pretty. May wasn’t as attractive as the woman he was currently dating, Candace, a professor in the psychology department. May had a sense of style, though, and he found her sexy, not just her worldliness but her combination of containment and an air of having no secrets. He was willing to let go of Candace. It felt natural.
     May ate crackers and asked about his life. His answers were wry and self-deprecating. He could see her mind ticking away. She was like a journalist, and he liked being investigated. Raking fingers through her ragged bob, she asked about his history with women. He was honest about the revolving door, seeing it as something of an accomplishment. She cocked her head to the side and extended her hand, and as he slipped his broad palm into her small mitt, she said, “Nice knowing you. I won’t be seeing you again.”
     He laughed. “Why not?”
     “You’re an arrested case.”
     He gulped, a little stung, though it was enjoyable. “Can’t we be friends?” The thought appealed to him. He would have liked her as a friend, someone to tell his tales of loving and leaving other women. He could imagine May browbeating him and slamming the door in his face. The women he dumped never did that. They left the door open, and he sent them Christmas cards and sometimes called them on Sunday nights.
     May narrowed her eyes. “Why would I want you as a friend if I don’t want you as a lover?”
     “I’m good as a friend. It’s as a boyfriend I stink.” She seemed amused by his bragging. “I love people I don’t know. People in developing countries with fascist governments supported by the CIA. Someone with a houseboat that burns down. The boat contains that person’s earthly possessions. I get an email from a friend to send a check, and I’m right there.” He leaned in close. He could smell hot pepper on her breath and smoky perfume on her neck, like tree bark. He covered her hand and pressed down. She didn’t try to wriggle away, and he felt his chest expand. He felt suspended, the closest thing he knew to happiness.
     She slapped a ten-dollar bill on the bar and walked out the door.




He called Candace, who said to come over. He wanted to have sex with her while thinking about May. He imagined ordering May to bend over a table with her hands straight out. He imagined lifting her skirt and pulling down her panties, while she stayed in place and listened to the whistle of the riding crop cutting the air before it came down hard on her ass.
     It took months of calling and writing to May before she relented. He was surprised that she did. By then he’d broken off with Candace. He would have anyway. May had given him time on the phone and had read his letters, which were poetic and expansive. They had gotten to know each other. A part of him was disappointed he’d won. How could she have hope for him? It had been exciting to press her, but winning didn’t feel safe, unless he thought about whipping her and of her wanting him to. He wanted to say the words incorrigible and rebellious to someone he couldn’t control.
     He went to see her in Midsummer Night’s Dream, bringing French tulips. She played the scene of professing love to the ass as if doing one of her monologues about weird relationships, at once deadpan and rapturous. He was proud of her. Afterward, they went to her place. There was a red velvet sofa and a wood coffee table with ring stains. She didn’t like coasters. He thought the rings made it look better. The walls were stripped to reveal underlying layers, a pentimento effect of pinks, siennas and blues, suggesting an Italian ruin. While they were involved, they stayed at her place for the most part, so he could get up and leave.
     When they played with the whip, he didn’t think about disappointing her, and from what he could make out she didn’t think about what was missing. When they’d first become lovers, he’d asked what she liked, wondering if in real life she enjoyed the handcuffs and spankings she described in her tales. She’d dug her foot into his ribs and said, “Yes, my little pervert friend, and what chateaux scenes have you been harboring?” He’d laughed, not wanting to say at first, but she’d dug her toes in further until he confessed what he wanted to do with her. A few days later, they went to a sex shop and bought the whip. Once they were back in her apartment and he took it in his hands, he wasn’t shy about using it. It amazed him he’d waited so long.
     She liked their power games and the teasing way they played them, making fun of themselves and at the same time goading each other on. They would start out kissing, and then he’d invent a misdeed of hers, a contemptuous way she’d spoken to him or a time she’d ignored him, acts deserving punishment he described wryly. Then, like a car racer, he’d shift gears, moving her across his body and holding her firmly and transporting them to a realm where he could leave marks on her skin and they would both become intoxicated. He felt he’d learned a dance with steps and space for improvisation, a form that contained him and he could bear.
     She wanted other things, too, expressions discrete to them, not necessarily tenderness but a sense of connection. He supposed she was waiting for this to materialize, knowing it never would, resisting the idea of such an exchange. She would lick her fingers and slide them over his chest, wishing to set up camps of arousal, but he didn’t want those parts to feel alive. He was embarrassed when his nipples responded and when she unlocked other corridors of sensation. Steering her in another direction, he would insert two fingers into her mouth. He would open her legs, wanting to make her feel exposed. He would turn her on her stomach and probe her from behind, open her ass, enter and withdraw in a teasing rhythm, coaxing her arousal forward like a snake from a basket, wanting her to desire only that. She would come, but she still wanted something else, and it made him angry.
     He was angry at himself for becoming sucked in. She made herself available and gave him space. She wanted the same in return, but he didn’t want parity. He wanted to see how much he could get, and for a few months he didn’t hate himself for taking. He liked listening to her. He would draw her out, and she would wind her sentences around him like velvet cords. Hearing her voice in bed, he felt peaceful. He told her about his childhood, past women, colleagues at school, the books he thought he should write, the changes he wanted in the world. He thought he might love her more if he emptied himself out to her, but he only got to know how deep her feelings ran. She told him she had room to risk romance with him. She thought she should practice giving a lover time. She said she liked aggression, but he didn’t think she’d bargained for him. She was too responsive, too awake, and he wanted to crush her for that.
     It got so he could smell her when she wasn’t with him: on a towel, a pillowcase, a pair of his boxer shorts. He felt assaulted. He watched cars prowl the streets outside his window and thought about Marvel and Donne, how much he was moved by their poetry, though he refused, with stupidity he could feel was willed, to apply what he learned from literature to his life. He had never missed a woman after they’d split. People said he’d be sorry and wind up alone, but he was never sorry and was seldom alone.
     He’d never seen anyone disintegrate the way May did when he confessed he was having an affair with someone else. He’d been with her almost a year and hadn’t given her clues he was bolting. He knew he wasn’t going to change, and it angered him that she didn’t accept it. He’d started sleeping with a woman named Janie, whom he’d met at a bicycle race. He told May at his place, in the kitchen, and she collapsed against the refrigerator door. She sobbed, but when she gathered herself, she said she didn’t want him to call or write. As she walked into the hallway, he felt, weirdly, as if he’d been the one who was dumped.
     In the weeks that followed, he wanted to use the whip on Janie, so it wouldn’t be “May’s whip.” He didn’t know if Janie would like it. May had said everyone did, but now that he wasn’t in her orbit, he wasn’t sure. Janie was twenty-eight and writing a dissertation on technology and the body. He thought her ideas were trite, but he reveled in her looks. She was sleek, big-boned and Nordic, closer to his type than May. He wasn’t afraid of sinking into Janie. May was small and scrawny, and he’d been able to enclose her in his long body. When he had sex with Janie, it felt like getting on a beautiful, powerful machine.
     Before the breakup, May had written a piece about their relationship. He thought her view of him was romantic, and it had alarmed him. He preferred to think about May from afar. He wouldn’t have minded watching May through a peephole for the rest of his life, and in a sense, now that he had broken up with her, he could.
     It surprised him how often she came to mind. It felt like their conversation was still going on. He thought he’d trespassed a limit that shouldn’t have been allowed, and the feeling lasted for a while. He found himself drifting to the window. One night he tried the whip on himself, first his calves and thighs, then his back and buttocks. He stripped bare. He liked the feel of the leather biting his flesh, liked the red welts it raised. He was unprepared for the pain, though. He hadn’t realized he’d hurt May. She’d never shed tears during their games. She had only cried that time in the kitchen, and it had been a torrent. He’d marveled at her ability to show herself that way, wondering how it was possible not to die from such exposure. Feeling the stinging on his skin, he was back with May, through the peephole. He felt alive and ashamed, and he didn’t know how to separate the feelings or understand how May could. She still confounded him, but she didn’t enrage him anymore, and he could miss her as much as he liked. He could think about why he didn’t like change. No one would know what he was thinking. There would be no sign. The marks the whip made faded in the shower, and he didn’t know if Janie noticed them in the dim, candlelight they had sex in, and if she did what she made of them.



©2001 Laurie Stone and

Laurie Stone is author of the novel Starting With Serge, the memoir collection Close to the Bone and Laughing in the Dark, a collection of her writing on comic performance. A longtime writer for The Village Voice and The Nation, she has been critic-at-large on Fresh Air, has received grants from The New York Foundation for the Arts and MacDowell Colony, and in 1996 won the Nona Balakian Prize in Excellence in Criticism from the National Book Critics Circle.
  For more Laurie Stone, read:
Two on One: Survivor
Two on One: Dirty Pictures
Two on One: “Picturing the Modern Amazon”
Eat and Be Eaten