The woman had no body hair at all, not on her legs, not under her arms, not at her crotch. There was the faintest trace of sun-bleached golden down on her arms, but that was all.
“I’d recommend studs,” Medea said, touching her own for illustration. “Certainly at first, and for general wear. They don’t show until you want them to. And you can always switch to hoops for special occasions. Do you like the way they look?”
“There’s more, if you’re interested.”
But she’d seen the woman, front and back, top to bottom. How could there be more piercings?
A tongue stud? But wouldn’t she have noticed it? And wouldn’t she have simply stuck out her tongue?
No, it wasn’t a tongue stud. Of course not.
“Are you interested?”
“You have to say so. You have to ask to see it.”
“Please,” she said.
“Please show me.”
Medea backed up, sat down on the carpeted ledge, a pillow beneath her bottom. She opened her legs to reveal gold hoops half an inch in diameter affixed to her labia. The sight was not a surprise, by this point Susan had guessed what she’d see and where she’d see it, but there was something so intimate about the display that emotion flowed over her like a wave. She thought she might cry, or cry out.
“Rings,” Medea said, “because studs would sort of get lost here.
And so you can do this.”
And she took a ring between each thumb and forefinger and opened herself up.
Susan stood there. Her heart was pounding, tolling like a bell in her chest.
“Go ahead,” Medea told her.
She sank to her knees.
T H E R E W A S A N O T H E R R O O M where the piercing was done, and it looked like a surgery, with white walls and a white tile floor. There was a padded table one could lie on, a high-backed chair one could sit on. There was a shelf of books, and a copy of Gray’s Anatomy open on top of a small metal cabinet.
She had undressed in the other room, even as Medea had donned the white shift again. She might have left her slacks on, but she took everything off, blouse and bra, slacks and panties.
She waited for Medea to indicate whether she was to sit in the chair or get up on the table, but the woman made no sign. The far wall, Susan noticed, was curtained, and something made her ask what was behind the curtain.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to keep oneself still,” Medea said. “Fear, pain, excitement—one moves, and it’s better not to move.”
“I can keep still.”
“Sometimes it’s a relief not to have to try to keep still, Susan. To be able to let go.”
Medea drew the curtain. Behind it, in front of a windowless wall, stood a black metal frame in the shape of an X. There were black leather wrist and ankle cuffs attached to the four arms of the device. For a moment Susan experienced what she thought was déjà vu, until she realized that she actually had seen a similar apparatus at the club on Gansevoort Street.
Wordlessly, she stood with her back up against the cold metal and allowed Medea to fasten the cuffs. She hesitated for only a moment when Medea showed her a black leather hood, then gave a quick nod. The hood covered her entire head but was cut out in front so that she could breathe through her nose. Her mouth was covered, so she couldn’t cry out, nor could she see a thing through the black leather. And, when Medea secured the hood to the upper arms of the cross, her head was immobilized.
She realized suddenly that she hadn’t told Medea which nipple she wanted pierced, nor had Medea asked. And she knew that she was not going to be allowed to choose, that it would be Medea’s choice, and something deep within her, something that had been wound tight, suddenly relaxed. It was her fear, she decided. She hadn’t known she was afraid, hadn’t permitted herself to feel it, and now the fear was gone.
There was a timeless moment, and then Medea was touching the tips of both of her breasts at once. Her touch was feather light, but hardly necessary to prepare her for the ordeal. Both nipples were already firm and fully extended.
The touching continued, and finally stopped, and then she felt Medea’s mouth on one breast, and then on the other.
Making her choice, she thought. She gets to choose. You get to not choose.
She chose the right breast, and a moment later Susan felt what she at first took for fire, and then knew was ice. Odd how you could mistake the one sensation for its opposite, cold for hot. Odd how the ice, numbing her nipple, sent currents of energy coursing through the rest of her body.
Something brushed her nose. She breathed in the scent of oranges. Then she felt something pressed against the tip of her right breast, and then she felt the sensation she had planned to steel herself against. But she’d forgotten to do so, somehow, and now Medea had thrust a needle through her nipple, and she opened herself up entirely to the sensation, and God, it was too much, but no, no, it was not too much.
It was only fire and ice. It was only pain.
T H E B L A C K M E T A L X was a St. Andrew’s cross, Medea told her.
Her wrists and ankles were still fastened to it but the hood was off and she could look down and see the gold stud that had been thrust through her right nipple, with a little gold bead showing on either side.
Medea was asking her how she felt.
It took her a moment to realize she could speak now. “Good,” she said. “What was the orange for?”
“To receive the needle. Otherwise I might stick myself.”
“I’ll cut it in quarters. We’ll eat it.”
She shook her head. “First do the other one.”
“Of course. Do you want the hood?”
Did she? She didn’t need it, but it streamlined the process, taking away the options of sight and speech.
Before her mouth was covered, she said, “No ice this time.” M E D E A ’ S B E D R O O M W A S A N O T H E R surprise. It was Victorian, the bed a four-poster, the mattress soft, the sheets cool cotton. Susan lay on her side, enjoying the postlovemaking languor, feeling the sweat cooling on her skin, the soreness at the tips of her breasts.
She was thinking of Medea’s hairless loins, and without pream-ble she said, “Isn’t it a nuisance, having to have it waxed?”
“I do it myself.”
“And it could be a nuisance, but I don’t like body hair.”
“I was so excited when I finally started to get some.”
“I was excited when I got my first period,” Medea said. “It ceased to be exciting some time ago.”
“The most excitement,” Susan remembered, “was one time when I didn’t. If I’d had her, how old would she be?”
“It was a girl?”
“They never told me. I just always think of it as female, I don’t know why.” She rolled onto her back, looked up at the ceiling.
“I’ve mostly been with men. How about you?”
“Some of each. I’m mostly by myself. When I do the waxing, I make a ritual of it. Music and candlelight, scented oils. I’ll spend hours. So it’s not such a nuisance.”
“You did your own piercings, didn’t you?”
“Not the ears. They were done ages ago. But everything else, yes.”
They fell silent, and then Susan was surprised to find herself telling Medea about the incident at L’Aiglon d’Or. “I just wanted to do it,” she said, “and I did.”
“You’re very bold.”
“Am I?” She thought about it. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a whore.”
“You could be both.”
“But you’re not a whore,” Medea said.
“I have to ask you this. Were you with Chloe?”
“My assistant, I mentioned her before. The blonde with the crew cut and the nose ring.”
Medea laughed. “They’re all blondes,” she said, “and they all have nose rings. But I remember her, and no, all I did was pierce her and send her home. That’s all I ever do. This never happens.”
“Two, three times in as many years. Some repeat clients like to be immobilized and hooded, and of course it’s sexual for them, but not for me. I wanted you. I don’t know why. It won’t happen again.”
“If I wanted more piercings . . .”
“Wait at least three months, dear. Give yourself time to integrate the piercing you just had.”
“And if I decide I want a waxing?”
“I can give you the name of someone who’s very good.”
Medea leaned over her, kissed her lightly on the lips, rose from the bed.
“A L C O H O L O N A C O T T O N ball several times a day,” Medea told her.
“Rotate the posts ninety degrees once a day. You can take aspirin for the pain.”
She’d have stuffed her bra in her purse, but Medea suggested she wear it to prevent her sore nipples from rubbing against her blouse as she walked. When she’d finished dressing she realized she hadn’t paid for the piercing. She reached for her purse, asked how much she owed.
“Oh, please,” Medea said. “There’s no charge.”
“But that’s not right. I took up a couple of hours of your time.”
“I enjoyed the experience.”
“And the gold studs, at the very least let me pay for the studs.”
“They’re a gift. You may feel like a whore if you like. But there’s no need.” And, when she hesitated, “We won’t do this again. We’re not going to become lovers. But I’ll think of you when I masturbate.”
Medea held the door for her, ushered her through it. She rode the elevator to the lobby, walked out onto Fifty-seventh Street.
And I’ll think of you, she thought, next time I blow a lawyer in a restaurant.
Her nipples tingled.
THE MAN WHOhad registered at the Hotel Clinton as G.T.
Strong, the man who had left his Tuborg untouched on the bar at the Kettle of Fish, the man who had lost his entire family in or after the 9/11 attack, stood in the shadowed doorway of an apartment house on East Twenty-eighth Street and watched the building directly across the street.
He was dressed differently, in clothes he’d retrieved from his storage locker. He was wearing a dark suit and a white shirt and a necktie, and he’d replaced his sneakers with lace-up black oxfords.
He’d shaved that morning, as he did two or three times a week.
During the afternoon he’d found a leather briefcase in good shape at a thrift shop. A hardware store supplied a hammer, an ice pick, a large screwdriver, and a cold chisel.
It had taken him a while to get to this point, and there’d been some changes in the external circumstances of his life. He lived in a different hotel, and was registered under another name. He’d finished that volume of George Templeton Strong’s diary and had exchanged it for another book, Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York. He liked Strong, but the man had been deeply interested in music, he’d taught it at Columbia, and the diary entries were full of music. He’d had enough music for the time being, and he always enjoyed Asbury, had read the book many times over the years. Picking it up was like taking up an old friendship.