“You’re Susan,” she said.
“I’m Medea.” Her voice was low, and her speech at once unac-cented and foreign-sounding. An exotic creature, Susan thought, and followed her into the apartment, which turned out to be a textbook example of minimalism—eggshell walls, pale beige wall-to-wall broadloom carpet, and, along the walls, a couple of built-in ledges covered with the same carpeting as the floor and equipped—ooh, a sumptuous touch—with beige throw pillows.
Overhead there was some track lighting, and, on the wall to your left as you walked in, a single monochromatic unframed canvas three feet by four feet, just one big yellow-brown rectangle. It was not artless, it had texture and tone that indicated the artist had labored over it, but the whole business was so utterly different from what she’d expected that she burst out laughing.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and covered her mouth with her hand.
“It’s the color,” Medea said. “Primal, wouldn’t you say? I probably smeared mine on the wall myself, but I never could have made such a neat job of it.”
“My God, it’s baby-shit brown. I hadn’t even thought of that.”
“Then why did you laugh?”
“Because I was expecting a gypsy souk,” she said, “though I don’t guess you find many of them fifteen floors up. And because I’m scared stiff, I suppose. I’ve had my ears pierced, of course, but this is different.”
“Of course it is,” Medea said, and reached out to touch Susan’s earlobe. It took her a moment to recall which earrings she was wearing. Teardrops, lapis set in gold. They’d been a gift, from and to herself, on her last birthday.
Medea’s earrings were simple gold studs. More minimalism, Susan thought.
The almond-shaped eyes—their irises, she saw now, were a vivid green, which pretty much had to be contacts, but who could say for sure with this unique specimen? The eyes took her measure, sized her up. “Scared stiff,” she said, as if the phrase were one Susan had invented. “But excited as well, I would say.” She felt a pulse in her earlobe where Medea had touched her.
Was that even possible? Was there a blood vessel there that could have a pulse?
“A little,” she said.
“You want your nipple pierced.”
“I don’t know.”
“And what is it you fear? The pain?”
“Is it very painful?”
“You’ll feel it,” Medea said.
Her complexion was darkly golden, though some of that might be from the sun. She looked like a woman who spent a lot of time in the sun. But there was also the suggestion of a mix of races, to the point where race disappeared. Asian, African, European, swirled in a blender.
“I think,” Medea said, “that you’d be disappointed if there were no pain. But then what exactly is pain? I’ve heard it said it’s any sensation we make wrong. Do you like hot food?”
“Spicy, not thermally hot. Picante rather than caliente. Curry, chili, three peppers in a Szechuan restaurant, five stars in a Thai one.”
Was this a test? “The hotter the better.”
“The person who insists on bland food,” Medea said, “experiences the identical sensation you do when she puts a chili pepper in her mouth. But, instead of savoring it, she finds it painful and unpleasant. She’s afraid it’s going to burn her mouth, or make her sick, or, I suppose, kill her. She makes it wrong.” Contacts or not, the green eyes were extraordinary, their gaze compelling. They held Susan’s own eyes and kept her from glancing down at Medea’s breasts. She couldn’t help wondering if the woman’s nipples were pierced. Her ears were, of course, once each in their lobes, but she saw no nose ring, no other visible piercings.
No tattoos, either. None that showed, anyway.
Maybe she wasn’t into that. Maybe she was one who did, not one who got done. Were there tops and bottoms in the world of body piercing?
Who would pierce the piercer?
T W O W E E K S A G O H E R part-time assistant, Chloe, had shown up at the gallery with a loopier-than-usual expression on her face. She looked as though she knew a secret, and it was a good one.
Susan noticed right away, but had no time to waste wondering what had the girl looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. In a pinch, she could probably guess what Chloe might have swallowed, with the choices narrowed down to illegal substances and bodily fluids. Or the occasional hot fudge sundae; Chloe, while by no means fat, had clearly escaped the heartbreak of anorexia.
But she had a string of phone calls to make, and she had the photos of Emory Allgood’s work to go over, most of which were fine, but a few would have to be redone, and she made notes for the photographer, and Lois would complain, as usual, but would reshoot as requested, also as usual.
The sculptures were in storage; she’d booked an artist who owned a van and consequently doubled as a mover, and he’d rounded up a couple of auxiliary schleppers in paint-stained jeans, and somehow they’d found the house on Quincy Street just off Classon Avenue. She wasn’t sure about the neighborhood, whether they were in Fort Greene or Clinton Hill or Bed-Stuy, but the address turned out to be a fine old four-story limestone row house, a little rundown but a long way from falling apart, and the Barron family had a whole floor, and Emory Allgood, the eccentric uncle, had a large room at the rear, overlooking the garden.
It had been filled with his constructions, his sculptures, and they’d overflowed into the rest of the apartment. “I’m just glad to be getting these out of here,” Reginald’s mother had said, “except I suspect I’m gone to miss them, you know? You get used to seeing something, and then it be gone, and you miss it.” Reginald had assured his mom that Uncle Emory would be making more, and indeed she’d barely met him, a wild-eyed, wild-haired little man, all skin and bones and knobby wrists and a bumpy forehead, who’d grinned and mumbled and then scooted past her, taking an empty laundry cart with him, and bumping down the stairs with it. Out looking for more materials, Reginald had assured her, and eager to get to work on more projects.
And all the work at the Quincy Street house was now tucked safely away in her storage locker a few blocks from the gallery, all but one piece that, finally, Mrs. Barron had decided she couldn’t bear to part with. Susan could see why the woman liked it. It was the most conventional and readily accessible piece of the lot, and for that reason it was the one she herself was most willing to leave behind.
Her uncle’s very first piece, Mae Barron had said, and Susan could believe it. The poor devil was just starting to go nuts then, or just beginning to figure out how to make something out of his craziness. He’d come a long ways since then.
She took care of business, and when she came up for air she saw that Chloe still had the same expression on her face. “All right,” she told the girl. “You’re dying to tell me something. What is it?”
“I got another one.”
Chloe put thumb and forefinger together, as if gripping a needle, and thrust forward. “Another piercing,” she said.
How was anybody supposed to notice? The child already had both ears pierced to the hilt, not just the lobes but all up around the outside of the ear, with a little gold circlet for each hole. And, inevitably, there was a stud in her nose, a little gold bead, which she could only hope Chloe would live to regret. Because one fine day, barring an overdose of Ecstasy or a losing bout with some virulent new sexually transmitted disease, young Chloe would wake up and find herself a fifty-year-old woman with fallen arches and varicose veins and a fucking ring in her nose.
She studied the girl, who maintained her enigmatic-and-glad-of-it expression. What had been added? Another gold circlet? Who could tell, and how could that be such a source of impish delight?
There was still just the one ring in her nose—and thank God and all the angels for that—and she couldn’t see any evidence of any further facial mutilation. Nothing in her eyebrows; she recalled one sweet young thing with multiple eyebrow piercings, each fitted with a little gold hoop, and you found yourself waiting for someone to add a little rod and hang curtains. No safety pin through the cheek and—
God, not a tongue stud? Those made her slightly sick to think about, and didn’t they thicken your speech, or get in the way when you ate?
“Not your tongue,” she said, and Chloe extended the organ in question, and no, it was whole and untouched, and, the way it stuck out, just the least bit provocative. The girl retracted it just before Susan would have had to tell her to do so.
“That’s a relief,” she said. “Okay, I give up. Whatever it is, I can’t see it.”
Chloe giggled, and yanked down the front of her scoop-necked blouse, and there were two plump and pert and very charming breasts, and one of them had a gold stud in the nipple.
She looked around in alarm, but the gallery’s only customer, an out-of-towner with schoolmarm glasses and a fanny pack, was on the far side of the room, trying to make sense out of one of Jeffcoate Walker’s monsters. By the time she looked at Chloe, the girl had tucked her treasures safely away.
She said, “When did you—”
“Friday, right after I left here.”
“How on earth—”
“I know,” Chloe said. “I didn’t think I could go through with it. I thought, oh, shit, this is going to hurt like a motherfucker. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
“Well, she puts ice on it first, and that numbs it a little, and—”
“No, that’s not what I mean. Why do it? Why have it done?” The question seemed hard for the girl to grasp, as if she’d never learned to think in those terms. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve just been wanting to do it for ages. And I heard about this woman, that she’s really good, and like the person to go to if you’re serious about piercing.”
“You’re not concerned about infection?”
“I never had any problems before.”
“But the location . . .”
“You just turn it once a day, same as with an earring, and, you know, put alcohol on it. It’s easier, because you can see what you’re doing.”
She let it go at that, but later, when Chloe was getting ready to leave for the day, she told her she still couldn’t understand why she’d had the urge to get her nipple pierced in the first place. It wasn’t a fashion statement, after all, because in the ordinary course of things it would go unseen, except perhaps at a topless beach, and—
“It’s exciting, Susan. It’s like this secret thing. But you could do your navel and it’d be just as much of a secret, but it wouldn’t be the same thing.”
“Because your tit’s not the same as your navel, I guess. It’s tender and intimate, so that makes it scarier to do in the first place, and it’s not just a secret, it’s like a sex secret.”