Step One: Surrender
Step Two: Courage
Step Three: Trust
Step Four: Generosity
Step Five: Fearlessness
Step Six: Confidence
Step Seven: Curiosity
Step Eight: Bravery
Step Nine: Exuberance
Step Ten: Liberation
Had it been only a week? A week since I put on that black-and-white lace camisole with the matching panties? My ear pressed to the door, I listened to him take the steps in twos, forcing myself to count to five after he knocked lightly, trying so hard to appear a little less excited to see him than I actually felt. I only made it to three seconds and then whipped open the door.
There was my Will, with a fistful of scurvy flowers clearly stolen from a vase at the Café.
“For you,” he said, holding the flowers under my nose before tossing them over my head onto the floor behind me. “And for me,” he said, scooping me up and carrying me backwards to my bed.
He threw me down on the bedspread. I squealed, delighted, as he pushed my camisole up over my breasts to kiss my stomach. Then I went lax, watching as the mere taste of my skin inflamed him, making him hungrier, rougher, which I found agonizing and thrilling. The sound from his throat as he worked off my camisole and threw it aside . . . I can still hear it.
“Are you real?” he asked as he gathered my breasts in his hands.
“Well, I thought about implants, but I’m just not that kind of girl, you know?” I said, lazily running my fingers through his thick, dark hair.
But he wasn’t going to be distracted by my joke. We weren’t “just friends” anymore. We were lovers. And he was lost in me, in my body, my hair, my skin. I was an ocean, allowing desire to wash over me, my blood pumping, sending small shudders through my legs, making me ache in places he would soon be touching. He pulled off my panties and whipped them over my head. They hit the window and fell to the floor. He regarded my body as if it were a banquet, unsure where to kiss first. His hands knew where to be, his fingers especially, as they traced along the curve of my pelvis, gracing where I was wet and waiting.
“I want you so badly,” he said, his hot palm on my skin, urging a finger inside. There were more words, but I don’t remember them. My eyes were shut, the blood now pounding in my ears, my anticipation so great I threw my arms over my head presenting my body to him like a gift, just to see what he would make of it. And that’s when he flipped me over onto my stomach, lifting me, sinking his teeth into a cheek, not too hard but hard enough to mark me as his. I heard him yank his clothes off. Then his hands squeezed my hips and he arched me farther, opening me up to him, my arms stretched to the sides, my cheek against a pillow. I felt his prodding erection and I writhed to let him in, heated now, hungry for him to fuck me. I was like an animal, my fingers now claws pulling on the duvet. His own hands pushed their way down my back, caressing the skin before him.
“Oh god, Will.”
I couldn’t explain hunger like this any more than I could the fullness I felt as he began to inch inside me, his palm on my hip for leverage, since it was clear there’d soon be madness. But at first what I remember was this perfect, slow, slide in, then this gorgeous ache as he pulled out. Over and over he thrust, and I began to match his fucking to my moans, or my moans matched his rhythm—it was hard to know. My thighs widened, my back bowed farther. I felt his thumbs press into my hips and then I looked over my shoulder at his face, so determined, so astonished. I think I wanted to snap him out of his trance, because why else would I say it? Why would I ask him to slap me? He paused.
“Do it,” I hissed, my hair in my face.
This had never occurred to me before. But we were in a different place, an animal place, and then I felt it. Will gave me a swift, sweet slap—just like that—followed by a mellow rub, and I loved how it felt, the way his skin on mine sent vibrations straight to my core, now wrapped so tightly around his thrusting cock.
“Yes. Do it again,” I commanded, my face now pressed into the duvet eyes closed. What is happening to me?
But by then he was lost in the fucking. He was driving so hard into me, I couldn’t have changed the direction of things if I tried. I sent a dizzy finger to my tight clitoris, greedy to come, but he roughly pushed it away, his own finger finding me—and feeling far better against that knot. All I could do was grab the duvet, hold on, and buck backwards as white stars crowded my vision.
“You’re so hard,” I said, and then it happened, the hot wave of my orgasm sneaking up on me, sending me up, up and then over the side, as I sighed, Oh, yeah, yes, oh god, oh Will, just as he was saying, Jesus, Cassie, I’m coming, and pulling out just in time to release across my spine, both of us knowing condoms were essential, but man, at a certain point there was just no looking back, no way to stop it, and no need to either. He was mine and I was his. I picked him, he picked me. We were each other’s. If there were consequences, we’d accept them. After a few seconds of shuddering joy, he collapsed across me, pressing into me, pulling me to him, gasping and laughing at so much good fortune.
“Holy . . . holy . . . fuck,” he whispered, his mouth at my ear.
“I know,” I said, shutting my eyes for a second and thanking the gods of sex for this man.
“So . . . where did that come from?”
“Where did what come from?”
I had already forgot that, ass in the air, I had asked my sweet Will to spank me.
“The ‘slap me’ stuff,” he said, still a little out of breath but now carefully peeling himself off my back to collapse next to me.
I flipped over to my side to face him, my hand going to the part of his stomach I loved the most, the part still sticky with us. I thought of how the embers of friendship had so long been stoked that I had once worried we’d never be able to generate enough heat between us.
I no longer worried about that.
“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging. “I guess . . . I was overcome with desire.” I laughed into the pillow. I sounded ridiculous!
“Why are you asking me?” I asked, coming up for air. “Did what I say bother you?”
“Hell no. I just never took you for a spanking enthusiast.”
“I don’t know if that’s what I’d call myself, but yeah, in that moment, it felt, I don’t know . . . like it was just the right kind of spice to add.”
“I’ll keep that flavor on hand in the future,” he said holding up a wide palm to high-five me, the punctuation to a lame, sweet joke.
Just as I was thinking, how lucky am I that my friend Will is next to me in bed, he pulled my whole head to his face for a long, deep kiss.
His mouth on my mouth—that’s what I’ll remember the most about that day.
“Who knew you were some kind of sex goddess,” he whispered, cupping my chin.
I threw my head back and laughed, because he had no idea about S.E.C.R.E.T.
But less than a week later, he would discover from whence his so-called sex goddess learned to be so goddess-y—and she would be left standing in a dark hallway at Latrobe’s. Soon Will wouldn’t see me as a goddess. He’d think of me as some dirty slut, covered in another man’s scent, another man’s pleasure, eight different men not counting Will: all from S.E.C.R.E.T—nine if you count Mark Drury, my recruit.
Soon I would no longer be a sex goddess to Will but rather, a dangerous woman.
Soon this man who once could not get enough of me would not be able to get away from me fast enough.
I grew up in this house so I knew every plane and corner, every nook and cranny; the cracks in the tile roof from hurricanes that failed to do more than bruise the siding; the grouting that needed tending to on the only stone porch on State Street. These flaws always drew my eye when I pulled my Volkswagen into the cobblestone driveway. My dad had bought this Craftsman-style house from its original owners, and for a time we were the only black family for two blocks in Uptown. So I was still conscious of keeping it looking as pretty and pristine as he had. But lately I’d let things slip. What can I say? I’d been busy.
Still, when I pulled up that warm fall day, I knew something was not quite right. Or that something was very right, depending on how you looked at it. The broken roof tiles had been replaced, the newer ones now a little more vivid than the old ones surrounding them. And the grout was dark where it had been newly filled in around the porch stones. My ten-year-old son, Gus, was with my ex, Julius, for the weekend. These were jobs he had said he’d help me with. When he got around to it. I said, No. I’ll do it. I can take care of myself, thank you very much.
But between ten-hour shifts with grumpy news crews chasing breaking stories and weekends anchoring, I had no time to properly research the right maintenance company or to ask around at work if anyone could recommend a good contractor. They were so hard to find in New Orleans, so many booked up on the condo boom in the Warehouse District, or on big government reconstruction jobs. And Julius was never any good as a handyman. My ex-husband was an entrepreneur, a creative type, or at least that’s how he saw himself. So how the hell had these repairs come about? Surely if Julius had tackled them, or found someone who could, he’d have told me.
It was only when I threw my car into park that I noticed the white utility truck in front of my house, a long ladder jutting out. Someone was here. I quietly exited, not fully closing my car door. Just then I heard a metal on metal clanging sound coming from my backyard.
My journalist instincts were on high alert. Leave your purse in the car. Just take your keys. Be prepared to throw them. Don’t go into the house. Observe from the outside in. I was wearing heels so I padded on my toes, navigating the side drive, noticing as I did so that the leaky hose had been repaired. Wow. Nice. But still. How? And who?
I looked across the street. Dr. Franz in the brick Colonial was washing his car. Okay good. There’d be a witness, someone to hear me scream in case whoever was in my backyard tinkering and hammering is actually breaking into it my house.
Ding, ding, plink, plink. The sounds continued. Feeling bolder, I made my way to the gate and raised my hand to unlock it, but the lock was completely gone, removed by the screws! My heart leapt. Should I stop here and call the cops? I padded around for my phone, but realized it was in my purse in the car. Damn it. I stepped onto the grass, my heels sinking into the moist lawn. Who watered it? Carefully peeking around the corner, I saw him: a young man bent over a portable sawhorse, hammering away at something. It was seventy-three degrees, a hot day for November, so he was shirtless, an expanse of muscled back deeply browned by the sun. When the police asked for a description I’d say he was probably Italian, Greek or Hispanic, lithe, with more of a dancer’s body than a construction worker’s. No. I wouldn’t use the term dancer’s body with the police, would I? I was five-eight, shoes off, so I put him at five-eleven. Full head of curly black hair. Sinewy forearms. Not that I would describe them to the cops as “sinewy”; I wouldn’t say that. Thick, maybe. Ropy? No. Wait. Why would I even describe his forearms? Well, his were remarkable. He looked to be twenty-five, thirty tops. Faded khaki work pants, naked torso, a white T-shirt hanging out of his back pocket.
He continued hammering at something finicky resting on a platform strung between the sawhorses, his tool belt hanging crooked around his lean hips. More tools were neatly laid out on a portable worktable set up on the back patio. (“Yes, Officer, that’s when I came upon a young, lithe Italian man with a dancer’s body, brown rippled skin, black curly hair, lean hips and incredibly sexy forearms—he was doing repairs on my place. Arrest him.”)
The man looked relaxed. At home. At my home. Maybe police weren’t necessary.
He didn’t hear me.
“Hello,” I said a little louder.
That sent his hammer flying out behind him, landing just a foot in front of me on the grass.
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed, turning around. “You scared me!”
“I scared you? This is my backyard you’re hammering away in.”
I finally took in his face, full on. He was seriously handsome but with gentle features; soft brown eyes, full lips. He gave me an easy smile and rested a fist on his hip, his other hand pulling the T-shirt out of his back pocket to wipe his brow.
“How long have you been standing there?” he asked.
I realized I was holding my car keys so hard they’d pressed grooves into my skin.
“I just got home. How long have you been working here?”
“All day. I fixed the broken tiles on the roof, reset some of the stones on the porch, watered the lawn—”
“I know. I saw. Who hired you? I certainly didn’t.”
“—and I was just fixing the fence lock, but this here’s just going to be a temporary fix. You’ll have to get a new lock. One with a dead bolt, I think. I mean this is Uptown, it’s pretty safe, but you never know.”
He had a very slight accent, not from around here—maybe East Texas? For me as a journalist this instant awareness of details was an automatic skill, one I was known for. I took a step closer to him as he thoughtfully tilted his head; he was taking in my shoes, my legs, my waist, my breasts. I was wearing a blue silk blouse, deep jewel-toned, the same one I had worn to anchor the news that morning. I felt a current dance through my body, instantly warming me. Solange, this is a very young man. And you are a professional, a divorcée, with a young son and a high-profile job in the city. It would not be fitting to flirt. With this man. Who is trespassing on your property. Who is fixing your house. Who is younger than you.
“Who are you and who hired you?” I repeated, a hand moving to rub my neck. Nerves.
“I’m thirsty. I’m wondering if I can get a glass of water maybe? Then I can tackle the leaky dishwasher—that is, if you’ll let me into the house.”
Sexy man, this one. He had swagger; he had a bit of game.
Sounding firm but not angry, I said, “You will remain thirsty until you tell me who sent you and what it is you’re doing on my property.”
“Well, I’ll tell you . . . if . . . you accept the Step.”
As he said it, literally as the words were coming out of his mouth, I knew. Finally, it was starting. The thing. The S.E.C.R.E.T. thing.
My guide, Matilda, had said it would begin within the month, that’d I’d be warned about some of my fantasies but that others would simply . . . unfold. God, how many times had I thought to pick up the phone and cancel all this sex-fantasy nonsense before it started. I didn’t have time for this. Sex used to be important. Certainly it was a big part of my life with Julius, before things turned sad for us. But I was forty-one years old, for crying out loud. I had a kid. I had no business gallivanting around town, or even my own backyard, having sex with strange men, even if they did have a dimple in the left cheek and wore pants that kind of draped around their lean hips.
He walked over to the garden hose. Actually, he sauntered. Damn.
“If you won’t quench my thirst, I’ll have to do it this way,” he said, raising a cool arc of water to his lips.
I held up my hand.
“Wait, you can come in.”
“And?” he asked, letting the water run onto the lawn.
“And . . .”
My mind was scrambling. How will this go? Oh god, what if I am bad at sex? It has been a while . . .
“Will you accept the Step?” he asked, taking in another mouthful of water, letting some of it splash across his bare shoulders and chest.
I almost burst out laughing. “Do you know how old I am?”
“Do you know how hot you are?”
“Are you guys told to say those things?”
“Yes. We are . . .
I felt my face drop. Do I look crestfallen? I’m too old to be crestfallen.
“. . . but we’re also instructed to say only things we mean.”
He dropped the hose and shut off the water, standing stock-still in front of me, his expression calm, cool, his beautiful arms relaxed at his sides, one hip cocked, his stomach muscles contracting.
I closed my eyes.
“All right what?” he asked.
“All right.” I shrugged, waving my hand. “I accept . . . the whatever. The Step.”
“Sure, why not? What do I do now? Am I supposed to go upstairs and put on some lingerie? Or should we just do it back here?”
His mouth fell open. I could hear Julius in my head: Why do you have to be like this, Solange? Can’t you turn off the defensiveness? Can’t you just relax and be a woman?
“We could do it here if . . . you want . . .” he said, casting his eyes around the yard, thinking. “But I should take a shower first.”
“Okay. Yes. Fine. Good idea. I’ll show you where it is. Follow me,” I said, about as seductively as a librarian taking someone to a stack of books.
He stood behind me as I tried to unlock the back door, the keys shaking in my hand. Covering my trembling fingers with his, he turned my whole body so I was facing him and pressed my back firmly against the siding.
“Solange,” he said, looking me sternly.
“Uh . . . ye-es,” I stammered, swallowing hard. I looked over his shoulder at the backyard.
“If you want me to, and only if you want me to, I’m gonna do some things to you,” he whispered, boxing me in with his hands, his eyes taking in my body.
I could feel his breath on my clavicle, my back growing warm against the hot siding.
“At first these things I’m gonna do to you might feel . . . awkward. But then I think it’s gonna start to feel really . . . good.”
I nodded nervously.
“That’s what I’m here for, to make you feel good. That is all I’m here to do. That’s my job.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Dominic,” he said.
“Where are you from, Dominic?”
“Tyler, Texas. My parents are from Colombia.”
“I knew it!”
“Your accent . . . forget it.” I giggled. Nerves again. Solange, relax, just let him do his job. He’s been good at it so far. Don’t kill the moment with your brain.
He stopped my nervous laugh by pressing his lips to mine, waiting a second to part them with his tongue. He kissed with the depth and flourish of someone who knew what he was doing. He kissed older, like a more experienced man. He kissed well. He kissed like he wanted this. Really wanted this. This kiss was going a long way towards convincing me that this was the right thing for me to be doing right now.
His hands grasped my rib cage, a thumb boldly traveling over my nipple, which was hardening through the silk, his mouth moving from my mouth to my ear. He smelled like a man—musky, woodsy, soapy. When was the last time I smelled this smell, this glorious man-smell?
He pulled his lips away from mine and commanded me, quietly in my ear, “Gimme the keys.”
I dropped them in his hand and he leaned across me, unlocking the door. The house was bracing cold. I had left the air conditioning on again. He dropped the keys back into my hand.
“Brrr. I hate when I forget to shut off the air,” I said, rolling away from his body into the house, feeling dizzy. I walked over to the thermostat, moved the needle from 67 to 71 degrees.
“If it were up to me,” I said, “I would just get rid of the air con—”
When I turned around, Dominic was gone. The kitchen and dining area were empty. A few seconds later, I heard the hiss of water through pipes. He was upstairs filling the bathtub! Oh jeez. It dawned on me: this was happening exactly the way I had outlined it three weeks ago as I sat at this very kitchen table. After that weird and wonderful day at that mansion on Third Street, Matilda had told me to write them down, all of them, every sexual fantasy I’d ever entertained, all the things I’d like a man to do to and for me but was afraid to ask.
For one of my fantasies, I wrote: I would like to come home and just for once have all those gnawing little tasks and chores taken care of, by someone sexy . . . who has also drawn a bath for me. I wrote that in the little folder they gave me. And even while I was filling it out, I had my doubts. I still thought: this is crazy, this is a joke. These things don’t happen. And they don’t happen to forty-one-year-old workaholic moms.
“Solange! Where do you keep your towels?”
My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it reverberate in my ears. I removed my watch and put it next to the fruit bowl. Then I unbuttoned the cuffs on my blouse and stepped out of my heels, leaving them side by side on the tiled floor. Then slowly, I headed for the stairs, moving toward the sound of the water, because apparently I was wrong. Apparently these things do happen. And they were happening now, to me.
Three stories were brewing at that S.E.C.R.E.T. charity event, which was where I first met Matilda Greene. But most journalists present only knew about two.
There was the Carruthers Johnstone story, of course. The recently re-elected D.A. was in the corner issuing “no comments” about his new girlfriend and their even newer baby. And then there was the story of a small philanthropic organization that no one had ever heard of suddenly donating a staggering fifteen million dollars to various charities. We were told that S.E.C.R.E.T. stood for the Society for the Encouragement of Civic Responsibility and Equal Treatment, a legit charity registered with the city since the late ’60s, but I couldn’t find anything else about them. (It was only a while later that I’d come to know its off-the-books acronym.)
But the biggest story of the night actually staggered in a few minutes after my crew set up near the bar to interview Matilda. A very drunk Pierre Castille, one of the richest land developers in New Orleans, had crashed the party. He was generally extremely private, so to see him there at all was strange. To see him so incautious and disheveled was shocking, though I might have been the only journalist there who recognized him. Few pictures existed of him, and no video. He had never given an interview, let alone a brief comment about any of the goings-on of his company, which he had inherited from his equally elusive father. His was a name that would likely appear at the top of every journalist’s wish list, if you asked any of them who they’d most like to profile. After all, he owned half the city and was scooping up cheap land along the river near the French Market. Plus, he was a bachelor, and to look at him was to wonder why. He had to be the sexiest beast I’d laid eyes on in a long time. And he wasn’t even my type. And now, there he was, weaving over to a small crowd in a dark corner near the kitchen.
A few minutes later, a drama erupted and it looked like a punch was thrown. Matilda emerged from the scuffle whispering something to a bouncer, before joining me for our interview. By the time I had a chance to ask her what the tussle was all about, Security was escorting Castille out the door. As he passed us, his eyes narrowed at Matilda. He was about to say something nasty to her when he noticed me standing nearby. He smirked.
“Hey, Action News Nightly,” he said. “There’s a story here. It’s just not the one you came for.”
Just before the bouncer shoved him out the door, he yelled over his shoulder, “Goodbye, whores!”
It was a vivid moment, but one that Matilda Greene did not care to expound upon when I asked her how it was that she knew Pierre Castille and why in the world he was talking that way.
“Actually I don’t really know him,” she said, brushing imaginary lint off the straps of her evening gown.
“You just had the Bayou Billionaire forcibly removed from your party, he called you and your other guests whores, and you say you don’t know him?”
“A good hostess would have anyone that inebriated removed, billionaire or not,” she said. And with a wave of her hand she expertly changed the subject, launching into a smart interview about her charity’s goal to help women. Minutes later she ducked out of our conversation to comfort a teary brunette in a black satin dress who was also leaving the event in a hurry.
It was a perplexing, dramatic night.
Afterwards, Matilda and I exchanged cards. Even if nothing mysterious was going on with S.E.C.R.E.T., the fifteen million dollars, an agitated billionaire, and an upset brunette, I filed that party away as a strange story to revisit. So when Matilda called me a couple of weeks later to ask me to lunch, I was thrilled, determined to poke around a little more.
We met at Tracey’s, a strangely masculine place for such a feminine woman. But they seemed to know her there, as though she were a regular at a sports bar. Matilda was prettier than I remembered, her red hair pulled back into a thick ponytail, the tension of that evening completely absent from her face. Seconds into our meeting, however, it was clear Matilda wasn’t there to talk about Pierre, her charity, or bawling brunettes. On the contrary, she was completely (and strangely) fixated on me, namely, on a recent profile New Orleans Magazine had done on me after my port lands story broke and I was promoted to weekend anchor.
“Thank you so much for meeting me, Solange. Or should I say ‘The Formidable Solange Faraday’?”
Ugh. Matilda was referring to the magazine’s headline. The article itself was not really about my career. Instead, it was focused almost entirely on the fact that I was a single mom who hadn’t dated much in the eight years since my divorce.
“I cringe every time I see that magazine at the checkout lines.”
“I should think you’d be thrilled for the coverage,” she said.
“Normally you’d be right, but the article . . . it was a joke. Yes, I am divorced, but my parenting relationship with my ex-husband is good; he’s a great dad. We work hard at that. Calling me a ‘single mom’ is an insult to women everywhere who are actually raising kids alone, and to divorced dads who are doing their half of the work.”
And then I unleashed weeks, months, years of bottled-up indignation, the depths of which even I was unaware of until just then.
“They said it would focus on the hours, days, weeks and months my whole team spent on my port lands story, the one our network broke last year. We put some local politicians in jail over that graft scandal. But instead they portrayed me as some lonely, workaholic divorcée!”
I could almost see the ends of Matilda’s hair getting singed by my diatribe, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t admit to her or anyone else that almost a decade had gone by since I’d been in a serious relationship. There had been dates here and there. I’d had sex. But it was usually lousy, furtive, and just not worth giving up the rare night I had to myself. I wasn’t really looking to get married again. I certainly wasn’t looking to introduce a new man into my son’s life. Besides, raising him was so deeply fulfilling it didn’t leave much room for anything or anyone else. And it was true, I loved my work. If anything I was married to that. But oh man, to feel a pair of warm feet in a cold bed every once in a while . . .
“How was the sex? With your ex-husband?” Matilda asked, blithely stirring her coffee.
To this day, I do not know why I was able to discuss my sex life with a complete stranger, but Matilda had a gift, a way of making it easy for me to tell her everything, even though she herself seemed to be a closed book.
“Julius and I were very compatible in that arena,” I said. “Then I gave birth to Gus, and everything . . . changed. I changed. He changed, or rather, he didn’t. And sex kind of just fell away. At first it was because I had a baby to take care of. Then it was because he took care of the baby while I worked. A lot. Then I got ambitious, and really busy. And he . . . he didn’t. It took a toll on him.” My mouth wouldn’t stop moving! It felt like being hypnotized.
“Sounds like he had a crisis of confidence,” Matilda said.
“Yeah. That’s exactly right.”
I told her how Julius had been fine being a stay-at-home dad. At first. But one failed venture followed another and sex went the way of his self-esteem. Despite counseling, we drifted too far apart to ever really recover what we had.
“Was it a bad split?”
“Not really. I mean, my dad died and my mother had a stroke. So I moved back to my childhood home to take care of her. We took it as an opportunity to separate. But after she died, I never really left that house. Like I said, we co-parent well. He’s the best dad. And Gus has never seen us fight. Because we don’t. Anymore. But, yeah, it wasn’t acrimonious. It was just . . . really sad . . .”
I suddenly felt choked up. I hated to think about what our divorce had done to our sweet, sweet boy, whom my whole body missed when he was at his dad’s. On the one hand, our separating before he turned three was good. He didn’t remember us together, all tense and crabby. On the other hand, he had never really seen his mother in a loving, affectionate adult relationship either. But maybe I was reading too many of those post-divorce parenting books.
At that moment, desperate to change the subject, I noticed Matilda’s bracelet and reached out to touch it. The gold was warm, heavy; the charms had little inscriptions on them that I couldn’t make out without my reading glasses.
“This is a beautiful piece of jewelry. An heirloom?”
“You could say that.” She smiled.
“Where did you get it?”
She tugged her arm back.
“I’m sorry to hear you hated that article, Solange,” she said, completely ignoring my question. She could teach a master class on evasion. “But in a way, that focus is what got me to call you.”
So there was a purpose to this lunch.
“Fact is, I came here to talk to you about that article and about your sex life. Or lack of it. And how I might be able to . . . help.”
Her utter directness made my face heat up. Oh dear. Now I understood. I wiped my mouth with my napkin and placed my hand on hers, clearing my throat.
“I should tell you, Matilda, I am deeply flattered, but, the thing is . . . I’m straight. Though if I were a lesbian—”
“Nonono. Oh my god. That’s not what I meant!” she said, smiling. “Forgive me, I’m not usually this blunt, but my approach changes for each woman and I have a feeling being direct with you is the best way forward. I’m talking about having sex with men. And not relationships per se. Just . . . relations.”
She scooted forward in her chair, suddenly taking on the demeanor of someone offering up a great deal, the kind you cannot turn down.
“These relations I speak of are purely sexual,” she added. “Fun, free, safe anonymous encounters. Ones you’re entirely in control of. Ones you define. They don’t define you. Sexual scenarios you come up with, executed exactly the way you want them to be executed. How does that sound to you?”
“You mean . . . you’re talking about sexual fantasies. About making them . . . real?” I glanced around the loud, boisterous bar, filled mostly with loud, boisterous men completely wrapped up in the game or their own conversations. This was the perfect place to have this kind of conversation.
“Yes. Now you’re a journalist, Solange. So what I’m about to tell you next has to remain off the record. Permanently. It’s highly confidential. So confidential that if I were asked to go on the record, I would have to deny this conversation ever happened.”
I looked around the restaurant. My interest was beyond piqued; my whole body was on Holy Shit alert, making me feel dizzy with anticipation. But I did my best to retain a cool facade.
That’s when she laid it all out, what her philanthropic group, S.E.C.R.E.T., really stood for, its history, and her role as one of its founders and chief guides. S.E.C.R.E.T. didn’t stand for the Society for the Encouragement of Civic Responsibility and Equal Treatment after all. It was an acronym that stood for Safe, Erotic, Compelling, Romantic, Ecstatic and Transformative: conditions for sexual fantasies her group arranged and executed for women. Women they selected. Women like me. Women in need of some help in that arena.
I was incredulous.
And completely riveted.
“Let me get this straight. You helm an organization that grants women sexual fantasies? Why are you telling me all this? As you said, I’m a journalist.”
“I know. But I trust you. And . . . well, we would like you to be our next candidate. And quite possibly our last, for a while anyway.”
“Candidate? Why me?”
“Well, in recent years we’ve selected women who were sexually numb, and others who were deeply broken. This time, for our last candidate, we want someone who just stopped making sex a priority. Someone with more life experience. Also, why not you? You’re beautiful, accomplished, and busy. As you mentioned in that article, dating is not something you ‘waste a lot of time on.’ You no longer bother, as you stated. What I’m proposing is that you let us do something for you that you’d never do for yourself. It’s what we’re best at.”
I was speechless for a few moments, then asked, “What do you mean ‘last candidate’?”
She seemed to drift away for a moment, before shaking off what looked like sad thoughts.
“Well, S.E.C.R.E.T. has run its course, I’m afraid. It’s been a lovely run, but after our next candidate, we’re closing up shop, whether we want to or not, I’m afraid. I can leave you with some literature,” she said, changing the subject again and motioning for the bill. “If you decide this is something you want to do, call me. I’ll bring you in to meet the Committee.”
“Yes. Other women like you, who’ve been changed for the better for doing this. Some are prominent members of New Orleans society—doctors, lawyers, performers and the like. Names you’d recognize. Others are waitresses, hairstylists, teachers. The men we recruit to fulfill fantasies are chefs, construction workers, entrepreneurs, business leaders. Still others are among the most famous men in the world.”
That’s when it hit me!
“Pierre Castille! That’s how you know him. He’s one of these . . . recruits, isn’t he.”
Matilda Greene would have been an exceptional poker player. Her expression didn’t change one iota. She didn’t flinch, and when next she spoke, she weighed her words carefully.
“Even if he were, Solange, I would never answer that question. We are nothing if not discreet, something I hope you will find very reassuring if you do consider us. And I hope I can be assured of your discretion as well.”
I looked down at the backs of my hands, feeling a little bad for my accusatorial outburst. Turning forty had started showing up in the oddest places: the way my skin puckered around my knuckles, that skin flap on my elbow, a stiff lower back in the morning, a grey hair or two in intimate places. I could turn a head still, but Matilda was right, I no longer bothered. I didn’t care about sex. Maybe a date here and there, sometimes enough dates with one man to get naked, lights off. But more and more the idea of giving up one of the very few relaxing nights I had to myself to go on yet another go-nowhere date, the idea of not sleeping in my own bed, of not having my own toiletries, of having my routine disrupted, well, it just wasn’t enough of a lure to make me want to bother.
“I’ll give it some thought,” I told her, nervously pocketing the card she gave me. I was surprisingly reluctant to say good night; she was the kind of company you didn’t want to leave.
That night, the house was empty. Gus was at his dad’s for the weekend, something that suddenly gut-punched me. Where I once looked forward to my solitude, my couch, my book, my glass of wine, my cozy pajamas, I suddenly dreaded all of it. When I was younger, I used to love going out. I used to love the ritual of it—dressing up, putting on makeup, hitting the hot clubs, and never being the kind of girl who waited in lineups. For chrissakes, I paid part of my tuition with singing gigs, closing down jazz clubs where Julius DJed, slow-dancing with him until the sun came up.
Despite his own career struggles, Julius’s sex life seemed to flourish after the divorce. The man had had at least two serious girlfriends in the last eight years. And if those women hadn’t been so kind to Gus, I’d have banned him from introducing any new ones into his life.
Still, vulnerability was not my thing; I had a phobia about asking for help. So it took everything in me to pick up that phone two agonizing days later and call Matilda. Mostly I said yes because it would make one hell of a story. Not one I’d be able to tell, but then, not all stories are meant for prime time.
I was a ball of nerves approaching the Mansion on Third to meet this Committee. But Matilda was right: the women, they did all look like me. I don’t mean because several of them were also African American, though it was a relief to see the Committee wasn’t all white. But rather, these women were of an age; not pretty young things, not girls but women, women who looked me square-on, who glowed with a kind of sexy allure I had long abandoned for professional polish. They wore their femaleness fearlessly, comfortably, proudly.
After my nerves calmed, introductions were made and they assured me that all of this would be anonymous. Obviously, I had questions. If I change my mind at any time, can I stop? Yes, absolutely. I have a child. Would you work around my parenting schedule? That’s the plan. I’m not looking for a relationship. Good, we don’t promise one, though they’ve been known to happen.
In the end I was more intrigued than scared, which, because I’m a journalist, was always a good sign.
So I said yes, blushing at the resulting applause.
“With that ‘yes’ comes a symbol of our bond with you and with each other,” Matilda said, placing a purple box in front of me. Inside was a bare gold chain, the same color and texture as the ones the other women were wearing, except theirs were covered with tinkling charms.
“This is mine?” I asked, holding the heavy eighteen-karat gold chain up to the light.
“It’s yours,” Matilda said.
After hugs and congratulations, they sent me home with a folder I was cautioned not to open until Gus was asleep.
That night, I paid the sitter, double checked to make sure my son’s light was off, made some tea and turned up some classical music. I checked on Gus one more time before I sat at my marble-topped kitchen table, the one I had eaten my meals on as a child, and opened that folder with shaky hands. Inside was a long list of fantasies and scenarios, some shocking, some common, a sexual wish list of sorts, with several blank lines to improvise ideas. Matilda had told me to be specific and to be honest, that no fantasy scenario was too dull or too off-the-wall to be considered.
I sharpened a pencil and proceeded to give this task more thought than the guest list at my own wedding. My first scenario wasn’t hard to come up with:
Just once, I’d love to come home from a long day at work, and all the nagging chores and jobs would have been tackled by a very attractive man, someone sexy, who has also drawn a bath for me, and for whom I do not have to cook and clean or even talk to if I don’t want to. We would just . . . —this was where I hesitated—we would just . . . have sex?
I included the question mark at the end. The sex was not a foregone conclusion, at least not on my part.
And now, two weeks later, this scenario was unfolding exactly as I had written it. Here he was. My fantasy man.
The sound of running water grew louder as I neared the staircase. My hand seized the balustrade and I noticed my bare S.E.C.R.E.T. chain peeking out from under the sleeve of my blouse. Quietly I climbed, careful to keep my feet on the carpeted part of the stairs. Then the sound of water stopped, and so did I.
“I’m in the master bath!” he yelled. “I found the towels.”
I slapped my hand over my heart to calm it some.
“You can come in, Solange. I’m decent.”
Oh dear lord. I made it to the top of the stairs and turned down the hall to my bedroom, feeling my stomach clench. I’ve never had sex with a complete stranger. What am I doing? Am I crazy? The ensuite bath had both a shower and a tub, and Dominic was just stepping out of the shower, a towel secured around his sculpted waist. The dusky light from the glazed window blurred the room, or maybe it was the steam, or the fact that I was vibrating. But this bronze Adonis was dripping water all over my tiles and I’d never minded anything less. I realized my breath was shallow and tried to force it lower into my system to prevent fainting at the sight of him, his taut skin, his thick arms, his bare feet planted solidly on the floor. I pulled oxygen deeper into my lungs, the way I had learned how to in Lamaze classes . . . Lamaze! I have a kid! I shouldn’t be . . . STOP thinking.
Dominic was smiling the smile of a man who understood his effect on a woman. You’re going to get yourself naked in front of this man, Solange. And you’re going to be okay with it. The tub next to him was full, bubbles floating on the surface, a row of lit tea candles along the back ledge. It was very pretty.
“I took a quick shower and ran a bath at the same time. I probably used all the hot water in the house. My apologies.” That smile again.
“That’s all right,” I said, massaging the back of my neck.
“I think the water temperature is okay. Wanna check?”
His eyes stayed on me as I crossed the room. I leaned over and dangled my fingers in the sudsy water.
“It’s nice,” I said.
“Why don’t you get in? And . . . I’ll get you something to drink.” he said, perhaps sensing my shyness about undressing in front of him. “Any requests?”
Oh thank god.
“Yes. That would be nice. Some water, maybe? Glasses are in the dining room hutch. Or wine. Maybe wine? There’s an open bottle in the fridge door.”
I watched him disappear. Doitdoitdoit. I quickly slipped out of my skirt and blouse, piling them (neatly) on the vanity. I slipped out of my bra and underwear and slipped them under the pile of clothes. I tested the water with my toe, Ouch, hot, but fine, no time for inching in.
I sunk to my collarbones, my body neatly concealed beneath the bubbles, my knees now brown mountains with soapy snowcaps sliding off them. I loved my tub—a beautiful white oval model, one I’d picked out when I realized Gus and I were going to remain in my childhood home and I renovated the master bedroom and ensuite. It had seemed so decadent at the time, to install a whirlpool tub, but I did use it. It was often my only means of relaxing.
A few minutes later, Dominic came back up the stairs and into the bathroom, a sweating glass with one hand, his towel still clenched in the other. I leaned forward to wrap my arms around my knees, concealing my breasts, and averted my eyes from his seemingly airbrushed abs. He was so . . . this was too . . .
“Here you go,” he said, handing me the glass.
I accepted it.
“Are you comfortable?”
I nodded, took a sip and carefully placed the glass on the tiled corner of the tub. He kneeled next to me on the floor.
“Because if you’re not comfortable . . .”
“No. I’m fine,” I said, choking a little on the wine. I knew the smile on my face was a weak one.
“Really. This is just . . . I’ll get used to it.”
I’ll get used to it? Wow. So sexy, Solange.
He returned the smile and I felt almost like crying. I don’t know why. I wasn’t afraid; I wasn’t sad. Quite the opposite. I was . . . grateful. Moved even. His torso was inches from the rim of the tub. I could have stretched out a hand and touched it; I so wanted to. He wasn’t just beautiful, he was kind.
He took a folded white washcloth from the rim of the tub. Dipping it into the sudsy water and squeezing out the excess, he placed it on my shoulders and eased them down. I let him make long, slow circles with his cloth-covered hand, my head easing forward, relaxing. A hand on me, this human touch. I have been lonely. How have I not noticed?
The scratchy fabric, the warm water, his hand so near my skin, all served to calm me. I closed my eyes.
“How does that feel?”
“Good,” I murmured. Moments later I felt the cloth pull away to be replaced by his soft lips on my shoulder blade.
“How does that feel?”
“Good too,” I said.
He placed another kiss on my back, wiping with the washcloth as he traced a path from one shoulder blade to another. Oh god. I was melting into the water. How long had it been since I’d been handled so tenderly?
“It’s getting a little chilly out here,” Dominic whispered, pressing his mouth behind my left ear.
“May I join you?”
It’s happening! Breathe. I scooted forward in the tub to make room for him behind me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him drop his towel, and I glimpsed a thatch of short dark hair, a semi-aroused penis . . . a nice one. He stepped into the water, his knees bracketing my hips as he lowered himself in. He gently pulled my torso back against his warm chest. I could feel his erection against my lower back, getting harder as his hands moved from my shoulder caps down my front. My own hands still covered my wet breasts, and he curled his fingers around my wrists.
“Let me,” he said, coaxing my hands apart.
“Let you what?” I asked, stifling a nervous giggle. You are forty-one. You mustn’t giggle.
“It’s time to surrender, Solange. Just . . . let me.”
After a brief hesitation, my arms went slack, and he . . . well, he unwrapped me, opening one then the other arm, placing them around the outside of his strong thighs. It was fascinating, an out-of-body experience, one that I was both enjoying and observing. He trailed his hands up my smooth arms to my shoulders and then down again, this time cupping both breasts, now slick and wet and bobbing out of the soapy water. I watched him circle my nipples with his thumbs, sending a sharp bolt of arousal straight behind my belly button. I inhaled sharply, pressing back into his torso, his erection now fierce against my spine, my head tucked under his slightly stubbly chin. I was careful to keep my hair dry. I was game for a lot of things but getting my hair wet was a no-no. My hands curled around his as they kneaded my breasts, his thighs firm against the outside of mine. I swear it was like being held between two tree trucks.
“Mmm . . .” I said, my eyes closed as his hands loosened around my breasts, then slid down between my legs, plunging under the water. Would he be able tell how wet I was? He let his fingers gather and tug my short hairs and it was all I could do not to scoop out of the water to give him easier access. I was so turned on by then, I was pressing him back into the tub. I wanted him. I let my arms drift up and wrap around the back of his neck as he teased and tickled me, both of his hands now spreading my thighs as wide as they would go against the sides of the tub.
As his fingers traveled along my folds, he sunk his mouth into my neck, his lips covering his teeth, sucking, kissing my skin hard. I felt devoured as two fingers slipped between the most tender parts of my flesh, then inside.
“Ohh,” I said, my back arching, the water between our torsos gently slapping. I raked my fingers through his thick black hair. His other hand massaged up my side, cupping my breast again, this time harder, more urgently, as his other hand worked me, his fingers thrusting a little deeper now, a little faster. He would stop and circle as I engorged under his touch. His other hand moved from my breast and cupped me under my chin, turning my head slightly so his tongue could tease my ear. He was moving me this way and that and I had completely surrendered to him. Then he stopped what he was doing, shifting away from me, leaving one hand reassuringly on my back. I looked over as he pulled out a condom packet from beneath a stack of washcloths, ripped it open then slid it over his hard cock.
“Turn around, Solange, so I can look at you when I fuck you,” he whispered.
With strength that surprised me, he lifted me out of the water and flipped me around, his magnificent erection just below me. I took a hand to guide him deep inside, sighing as he entered and pulled me in tight to him, holding me there as I felt him pulse deep inside of me, my legs wrapped around him. It was an exquisite sensation. Then he began to rock beneath me, his arms around my waist.
“Lean back on your hands,” he said. “I want you to watch me fuck you.”
I did so, both of us fixated on his cock easing in and out of me, slowly at first, the water lapping against the sides of the wide tub. His fingers had only to grace my clitoris, which was so fat I knew I could come like that.
“Mmm,” I said involuntarily, one of my hands grabbing onto his shoulder, the other holding the side of the tub until I could find and match his rhythm. His dark eyes on me were too much to bear. I threw my head back and squeezed my eyes shut. I cannot believe this is happening to me, here, in my own tub!
“Oh, Solange . . . you are so fucking gorgeous,” he moaned, thrusting into me, his thumb circling my clit, the muscles in his upper arm flinching with precise effort. We were splashing bubbly water between us and over the sides, extinguishing a tea candle, then another one. Then, leaning forward to cup the back of my neck, he placed his lush mouth next to my ear.
“Come for me, Solange,” he whispered. “I want you to come. For me . . .”
Then I felt it—my tense core melting, giving way. My legs braced the sides of the tub as it rippled out from my center through to the tips of my limbs. I fell back onto my hands, his gaze now ardent as he caressed my hardened nipples, dripping with soapy water. He continued to push his cock up and into me, fucking me hard, while gently massaging my clit, a masterful combination that finally made the ache all too much to bear and suddenly I was letting go, I let it all go, and I came hard and fiercely, his pumping still relentless, as I moaned into the ceiling (Oh yes, oh yes . . .) and he came then too (Yeah, oh god!), his whole body emptying into mine, and no one could hear us with the windows closed, not the neighbors out back on the other side of the pine trees, not the ones across the street washing their cars, not the pedestrians walking their dogs past my cozy house on State.
Gasping and spent, I fell forward, draping my wet body over his torso, my arms dangling over his back, pulling in breath like a drowning victim. He wrapped me in a tight embrace, kissing my shoulder cap. We stayed tied in that damp knot for a few moments until my breathing subsided and the water began to cool. Then he carefully peeled himself away from me and stood up in the bath, water rivulets dripping down his magnificent thighs. He stepped out of the tub and unhooked my robe from the back of the door, hanging it from his fingers, inviting me in.
“Madame, your robe,” he said.
I stood up, feeling dizzy, a bit sheepish, happy.
I stepped onto the bathmat and turned around, putting my hands through the robe’s arms. He enveloped me with it and did the sash up from behind, rubbing my arms and sides vigorously to dry me.
“Thank you.” Was that a silly thing to say?
As he bent to wrap a towel around himself, he said, “Check the pocket, Solange.”
I reached inside and pulled out a small purple box. Inside was my first charm, a golden raindrop in the center of a puffy cloud. Surrender was spelled out in cursive on one side, a Roman numeral one on the other. It was just like the ones on Matilda’s bracelet, and on all the bracelets the women at the Mansion had worn that day.
“Would you mind,” I said, handing him the charm. My heart was pounding.
“Of course,” he said, his talented fingers easily securing the charm to the chain.
I walked over to the vanity to get a look at it in the mirror.
“It’s lovely,” I said, dangling it in front of my eyes.
“As are you.”
I turned to face him. “Thank you, Dominic, for . . . tackling all these odd jobs. And for that . . .” I said, pointing to the tub. “Now what?”
“Well, now I suggest you rest a bit. And let me take care of that dishwasher and anything else you might want me to fix before I go.”
“I can think of a few things on my to-do list,” I said, throwing a shy smile at him from the mirror.
He plucked his clothes from the floor and left me standing very still in the bathroom, my legs quaking, the windows all steamed up. I did it. I did something I’ve never done before: I just got laid by a beautiful young man I will probably never see again. And I’m . . . I’m proud of myself.
I made my way over to my bed, peeled back the duvet, dropped my robe to the floor and slid naked between my cool sheets. Closing my eyes, I let my hand travel down to where I was just starting to feel a little sore. Ow. Wow. I heard him downstairs as he started and stopped the dishwasher. Then I heard the plink plink of tinkering and repairing. Nice.
Drifting off, I was thinking of at least one more thing he might be able to tackle before he left. Just one more thing . . .
It had all happened so fast. Something had told me not to bring Will to that S.E.C.R.E.T. charity event. But I didn’t listen. Something had also told me to pull him away from Pierre Castille the second he opened his mouth to reveal the truth of my involvement in S.E.C.R.E.T.—the sex, the fantasies, the men—using the vilest of terms, slut, bitch, whore.
But I froze in the dark corner of Latrobe’s that fateful night. I said nothing when Pierre told Will that S.E.C.R.E.T.’s mandate was to “use and discard men.” When Pierre spat out that I’d do that to Will, too, if he let me, Will believed him.
How many men, Cassie? How many? And since when?
Secrets and lies now surrounded me the way they’d surrounded his ex, Tracina, a woman who had convinced Will for the better part of a year that the baby she was carrying was his. It had been only a month since he heartbreakingly discovered that that wasn’t true, that the baby was the product of her affair with Carruthers Johnstone, the once-married-now-separated D.A. she really loved. Not that Will had loved Tracina. He didn’t, but he had so loved the idea of the baby. I had hoped our blissful reunion would help heal his wounds over that, but they were gaping once more, and I was the one who had ripped out his stitches.
“I–I’m sorry I never told you everything before, Will, but I was worried you’d react like this,” I stammered.
My hands on his chest, I tried to explain to him what S.E.C.R.E.T was about, what it had done for me. But he wasn’t listening. He was glaring at Jesse Turnbull, my ex-lover and now friend, who had come to find me, to see if I was okay.
“Was he from this year’s roster or was he last year’s model, Cassie?” Will hissed. “Maybe you’re into having him spank you too.”
Jesse took a step forward. He had already decked Pierre and I had no doubt that if necessary he’d do the same to Will.
“I’ve had enough bedroom drama to last me a fucking lifetime,” Will said, before storming out of Latrobe’s, leaving me in a pile for Jesse to gather up and carry home.
And just like that, Will Foret was no longer in love with me.
On the way home from Latrobe’s, I was inconsolable. Jesse tried to explain that Will wasn’t rejecting me, he was rejecting the duplicity. I listened, watching the city smear past me in the passenger window. He pulled the truck up to the curb in front of the Spinster Hotel, shutting off the engine. He turned to face me.
“Want me to come up?”
When the love of your life tosses you over because of your past, it’s easy to imagine running into the arms of the man who accepts everything about you, especially when those arms are warm and taut and welcoming. But while I did invite Jesse upstairs, I didn’t so much as kiss him.
While he boiled water for tea, I slipped out of that awful, beautiful black satin dress and pulled on my sweats. While the tea steeped, I sobbed for a few minutes on the futon couch, pushing away my cat Dixie’s attempts to comfort me. Jesse sat beside me and listened. From time to time, he’d lay a reassuring arm on my forearm, telling me everything would be okay, that Will would come around, that I had done nothing wrong, and that I just had to be patient.
“You heard him tonight, Jesse,” I said, tossing another ball of spent tissue onto my coffee table. “He’s done.”
Jesse studied my face for an opening. He was going to be honest with me and I could already tell I wasn’t going to like what he was about to say.
“Well, here’s the thing, Cassie. I’m a man . . . and I’m thinking . . . after the year that guy’s had, I’d be scared too.”
“He’s not scared, he’s pissed.”
“Let me tell you something about men, Cassie. When we get scared we don’t show ‘scared,’ we show ‘angry.’”
Maybe there was some truth in all that, but I wasn’t ready to let Will off the hook, or myself.
“Nah. He’s thinking ‘what a fucking whore, glad I found out now.”
It was a tossed-off statement, but Jesse leaned towards me, peering into my face like a concerned doctor. “Why would you say something like that, Cass?”
“You saw him, Jesse. He hates me. He is repulsed by what I’ve done.”
“No he doesn’t, and he isn’t. He hates that the woman he loves has been leading some . . . I don’t know . . . strange, sexy double life . . . And he has no idea what to do about that but feel scared and threatened. You following me?
“I am. I just . . . I’ve made such mess of everything. Will and me. You and me. I mean, why are you even here being so nice to me after the way I treated you?”
We hadn’t seen each other in about a month, not since the day Tracina’s baby was born, when it became evident that Will’s heart was mine, and mine his, and whatever I’d had with Jesse wasn’t going to amount to much more than sex.
“There you go again with the self-fucking-loathing. You need to cut that out, Cass. I’m serious. If Matilda was here, she’d slap those words right out of your mouth for good.”
“It’s true. I’m sorry.”
Jesse’s face softened, concern giving way to kindness.
“Don’t apologize to me. You never did anything wrong to me. Apologize to yourself.”
My eyes felt hooded and swollen from tears. I rested my head on my upper arm, outstretched across the back of the futon. I let my fingers glance Jesse’s shoulder. I looked at him through my damp lashes. Was I flirting? No. Maybe. I was looking for comfort, connection. Jesse responded by moving close to me, then by placing a soft, sweet kiss on my temple.
“Bye, doll. You sleep. I’ll call you.”
If he had reached under my chin and drawn my mouth to his, would I have resisted? I think so. Maybe. No. Yes! Who knows? In truth, I had no idea what I wanted that night. But ambivalence, blurry lines, confusion and sadness, these were not aphrodisiacs to the men in S.E.C.R.E.T.
Jesse rose and stretched, his taut stomach peeking out from beneath his T-shirt. I had never thought I was a visual animal, but since S.E.C.R.E.T., I had discovered that I had been wrong about a lot of things.
Too tired to get off the couch, I waved goodbye to Jesse from my spot. He gave me his trademark two-finger salute and left, quietly shutting the door behind him. Then I glanced down at my arm, down to my glittering bracelet, the one covered with ten charms, each one loved and earned. Suddenly it seemed to weigh heavy on my wrist.
The next morning, I dressed carefully for my regular breakfast shift at the Café Rose. I wanted to look pulled together, calm, adult, not like I’d been crying all night. Not that Dell would notice. She hadn’t paid much attention to Will and me kissing in the corners of the Café this past month, so I figured she’d barely register that we’d broken up.
Then I was slammed by another memory from the night before! Yesterday, in the throes of deep affection for me, Will had not only asked me to manage his new, fancier restaurant upstairs, but also had said he was naming it Cassie’s, after me, a gesture that had moved me to tears. Now, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to work there anymore.
Maybe what I needed to do was walk in and quit. This time for good. Maybe a good, long break from seeing each other, being around each other, hurting each other, was what we both needed. Then cold dread snaked up my legs: Will could fire me. I’d have a wrongful dismissal case of some kind, but I wouldn’t spend my savings on lawyers. Knowing me, I’d just leave, tail between my legs, taking Angela Rejean up on that hostess job at Maison.
When I got to Frenchmen Street, I made a right. The autumn sun felt comforting on my shoulders. I began to walk a little taller. If only I could make Will understand all that S.E.C.R.E.T. had done for me, not just sexually. But I could also stand up for myself. I could go after what I wanted. I was bolder, surer, no longer clingy and afraid. I wasn’t one of those women who would rather be with anyone than alone. Alone was not scary anymore. Alone was challenging, but it was also deeply satisfying. Alone was not lonely.
By the time I reached the Café Rose, I was certain today was the last day I’d work for Will Foret. And I was also certain I’d be okay. I looked upstairs to the new restaurant, its freshly installed windows still sporting the manufacturer’s stickers. I would be sad, but I would survive. Resilience was one thing S.E.C.R.E.T. had given me, and today it was the only thing I needed.
Breakfast was a blur. Dell and I passed each other going through the swinging doors, her emerging with platters of eggs, me punching in with dirty dishes piled in two arms, both of us at various times tapping our fingers while waiting for the coffee to finish brewing. It wasn’t until the late-morning lull that Will snuck in through the kitchen while my back was to him. I was grating lime rinds while Dell was prepping crust for one of her famous pies. When I turned around, my heart took a second to catch up to what I saw: Will’s handsome face now drawn, his dark eyes bloodshot, his lids heavy with grief.
“Hey,” he said, eyeing both of us as he deposited a crate of oranges on the metal prep table.
Dell ignored him, knowing that greeting was for me.
“Hey,” I said, mimicking his deadpan delivery.
“You got home okay?” he asked, his voice hoarse.
“I did,” I replied curtly, not turning fully around to face him, refraining from telling him that Jesse drove me home, but nothing happened.
“Good. Good,” he said. “I’m sorry I stormed out of there. But I figured you were in good hands.”
There it was, a dig about Jesse.
Dell wasn’t interested in overhearing any more of what wasn’t really being said.
“If you kids need me, I’ll be at my job, working,” she said, heading through the swinging doors back into the Café.
Will turned to finish unloading the fruit and vegetables. I went to follow him out back, to help, like I always did.
“No!” he said, turning around. I took a step back. “I mean, I can unload myself. Just take care of the customers.”
Claire, Will’s niece who must have accompanied him to work that morning, came bounding into the kitchen, her blond dreads piled on her head in a tight nest. I begged her to contain her unruly hair, as too many customers were finding her kinky strands in their omelettes. Finally she relented when her uncle threatened to send her back to live with her folks in Slidell, something I knew he’d never really do. He was thrilled to have her live with him while she went to art school. And I was becoming as smitten with her as he was.
“Hey, lovebirds, get a room,” she singsonged, shrugging off her jacket.
It was a phrase she’d been overusing over these past few weeks, because we could barely keep our hands off each other. She plucked a fat strawberry from a pile in the strainer and shoved it in her mouth. Our flat expressions, our dense silence must have given off a palpable tension. She glanced at me, then Will.
“O-kay then. I’ll just . . . go find Dell,” she said, slinking out to the dining room, rightly afraid of the storm brewing over our heads.
I looked into Will’s haunted eyes.
“Is this how it’s going to be?” I whispered. “Everyone tippy-toeing around us. Because if so, I’m happy to hand in my resignation. Today. Now.”
I was astonished at my own resolve. But I meant it. And he knew it. He raked his fingers through his sleep-flattened hair. Was he greyer than yesterday?
“Please don’t do that,” he muttered. “I’m sorry.”
“For what, Will? For . . . everything?”
“No. Not for everything, but definitely for the way I behaved last night. I know I left you feeling bad about yourself. I’m so sorry. That wasn’t my intention.”
I took a step towards him as though it were the most natural thing in the world to throw my arms around him, to accept his apology. He put up his hand as a barrier, keeping his voice even, calm, as though talking to a scared animal.
“Wait. No. The thing is, Cassie . . . I’ve been thinking . . . I’ve been up all night thinking . . . and I realize that I probably rushed into things with you. Clearly you still have some loose strings to tie up, maybe with that guy, maybe with that . . . group you’re in.”
“There are no loose strings, Will. There is no guy. Jesse is a friend. And there is no group. I left that . . . group once I realized you and I were . . . that we could—”
“That we could what? Finally be together? Right. As if you were pining away for me.”
Indignation flooded in. “Is that what you wanted me to be doing?”
“No, I mean . . . I meant . . . that’s what I was doing.”
“Ha. Wait. You’re telling me you were pining away for me while living with and sleeping with a beautiful young woman who was about to have what you thought was your baby. Meanwhile, I was supposed to stay celibate, not date, not have sex with anyone else, but instead sit around waiting for your relationship to die so that I could finally have you?”
“Fuck,” he muttered, rubbing his face furiously, trying to dig out a better answer. “I’m an asshole.”
“No argument from me on that,” I said. “Because yeah, you’re right, Will, I wasn’t waiting around. And frankly, now that it’s looking like it’s over again between us, I’m still not waiting around.”
We were a foot apart now, both incredulous at the things that were coming out of each other’s mouths. We seemed to be marinating in speechlessness and shock.
“Seriously. Tell me now, Will. Should I hand in my resignation?”
He straightened up, and when he spoke his voice was gentle, insistent.
“Cassie, as I tried to say last night, but couldn’t, you are one of the best employees I’ve ever had. I don’t want that to change. I want you to continue working here and training your replacements at the Café so you can manage the restaurant upstairs. It is going to be named Cassie’s, since that’s the name I registered, that’s the name on the liquor license, that’s the name that’s going to be on all the invoices and menus I’ve printed, and on a sign that’s going to be delivered any minute now,” he said, checking his watch. “I haven’t changed my mind about that.”
I’d been staring at his lips the whole time he spoke, wanting to kiss him, wanting to slap him for the words issuing from them, willing myself not to cry, not to stammer. I placed one hand over my stomach and with the other I braced myself on the counter.
“Will, tell me something.”
“What?” His shoulders dropped. He knew what was coming.
“Did you ever love me?”
He looked down as though the answer were scribbled on a piece of paper balled up in one of his fists.
“I . . . did. And I still . . . think the world of you, Cassie. I do.” He pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers before continuing.
“I still feel . . . very deeply for you, Cassie. But I can’t be in love with you. I won’t be. I won’t let myself. Because I want—no, I need, I seriously need my life to be more uncomplicated from now on. I’ve got Claire to look after now, and she’s going through some shit at school, and I’ve got a new business to run. Tracina and the baby are behind me now. And I just have to focus on having a quieter, simpler life. I need that. For my sanity.”
The silence that followed said everything.
It was over between us. Completely.
“But we can work together, Cassie. We’re not children. And good jobs aren’t easy to come by. Don’t punish yourself out of pride. Stay. I need you.”
What do you say to that? What do you do? Do you beat on the person’s chest, demanding that the heart let you in because the heart knows better than the brain? Or do you just nod and say, Okay. Fine. I will stay. For now.
That’s what I said, while a rivulet of liquid mercury entered my veins, solidifying and steeling me against any further rejection, or from ever opening my heart again. It happened so automatically it would have been almost awe-inspiring if it didn’t signal doom. This man had doomed me for love. I had shown him some of my true self, the parts I felt safe showing. But when my deeper secrets were revealed, he rejected me. And it wasn’t just rejection, it was denial, of everything I was and of everything I had been through.
“So that’s it then?” I asked.
“I think so,” he said. “We were friends for a long time. I hope we can be friends again. I can be yours, I think, with time.”
He held out his hand. He wanted me to shake his hand? I looked at it like it was on fire. Don’t cry right now. Cry later.
And that’s what I did. I worked like a dog for the rest of my shift, training both Claire and our new hire, Maureen, a bartender we stole from the Spotted Cat across the street and who’d eventually replace me downstairs. I hoped, despite their style clash (Claire was a hippy, Maureen a punk) and slight age difference (Claire was almost eighteen, Maureen, twenty-three) that they’d eventually get along.
I cashed out and left just as a truck pulled up in front of the store and parked. A huge canvas-covered signed jutted out of the cab, casting a shadow over the car behind it. I could make out the top of the big red C of Cassie’s, and that’s when it became all too much. I fled down Frenchmen, past the bike shop, past the Praline Connection and Maison, cutting a hard left at Chartres to the Spinster Hotel, marveling at how much life can change in twenty-four hours. Yesterday at this time, Will and I were heading to Latrobe’s dressed to the nines and looking forward to a future together. Today, I was in sneakers and a stained T-shirt, unlocking my door and running up the stairs leading to my third-floor apartment, barely holding back my tears.
Inside my little apartment, I stripped on the way to the bathroom, and when I got in there, turned on the shower, stepped in and let the hot water hit my skin. I stayed like that for a long time, forehead against the tile, not able to feel my tears. I must have scalded my skin a little because when I finally got out, it hurt to dry off. As I was throwing my hair in a towel, my phone rang in the next room.
Maybe it was Will and this was all a big misunderstanding and he was on his way over because while unloading the Cassie’s sign, all he could think about was how much he loved me. Or it was Jesse checking up on me while a beautiful girl lay napping next to him. When call display showed it was Matilda, I felt relief before I even heard the sound of her calm voice.
“Cassie, you’ve been on my mind all day. How are you doing?”
I told her everything, recounting what Will had said last night, today, and what he had decided going forward. Matilda sighed deeply. There was a longer than usual pause before she began to speak.
“This is not an indictment of Will, Cassie, but some men still don’t believe that a woman’s sexual appetite can be as important to satisfy as theirs. Or they don’t believe a woman’s sex life can or should be as varied, complex and interesting. Which baffles me, because, I mean, who are these men having sex with?”
I wasn’t in the mood for sexual politics or a long discussion about Will’s chauvinism or the dreaded double standard.
“I get all that, Matilda. But the thing is, my heart’s just busted,” I said, letting more tears flow. “I love him. And he doesn’t love me anymore.”
She let me blubber for a few moments.
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that.”
“Then what do I do?”
“Nothing. And I sure hope you didn’t apologize, because you’ve done nothing wrong. Your sexual history is your business. Your stint in S.E.C.R.E.T. would have benefited him. It’s his loss, Cassie.”
“So I do nothing?”
“Well, do what I always suggest you do when you’re in pain. Get on with living your life as best you can. And remember he’s just a man, a human being. Don’t let this stall your great progress. Get on with things. See what happens. Live your life.”
“I don’t know what to do with myself right now.”
“The Committee could use your help.”
I had quit S.E.C.R.E.T. a month ago when I chose to pursue a relationship with Will. And though I had been happy to leave, a part of me missed the camaraderie, the sheer fun I had with those women, let alone the men. But another part of me was mad at S.E.C.R.E.T.; I hadn’t yet reconciled my past in the organization with my present dilemma.
I stalled. “There’s a new candidate?”
“Not yet,” she said, “but I met someone intriguing at the charity event last night.”
“I haven’t approached her yet. But Jesse’s rejoined, so I’m sure that—”
“Jesse’s back in S.E.C.R.E.T.?” Why did this slightly sicken me?
“Yes, he is.”
“When did that happen? I thought he quit too.”
“He did. But then he was also feeling at loose ends after you two ended it, and he decided to come back to a place that gave him comfort and distraction and a little joy. S.E.C.R.E.T. helped you get over lost love, didn’t it?”
“And it can help you again, if you let it. Besides, this is our last go-around. I’m afraid we’ve run out of income, and after our next candidate S.E.C.R.E.T. must shut its doors.”
I glanced around my tiny attic apartment in the Spinster Hotel and at Dixie now lazily pawing dust motes in the sun.
“I don’t have much to give,” I said.
“Think about it,” Matilda advised. “Meanwhile, don’t quit a good job over a bad relationship. Never give any man that much power. There are opportunities buried in all this heartbreak. You just have to look for them.”