Blunted Affect by John Warren
The dockside cranes were skeleton finger outlines against the downtown’s glow, but the only light amid the shipping containers and deserted buildings came from widely separated security lights. Great pools of darkness were everywhere, and the surface, even where it wasn’t crisscrossed by the rails on which the cranes moved, was uneven and treacherous. “An apt analogy,” Susan thought as the walked down the long pier, but the “security lights” in her soul were even dimmer and further apart.
“Blunted affect,” the shrinks had called it. Like primitive magicians, they thought that names had power, and by giving names, they could twist the various components of a human soul until it fit the picture they deemed “acceptable.” “I just don’t feel!” Susan thought viciously. Then, her heel caught for a moment and she fell, her elbow scraping viciously on the sandpaper-like surface. She lay on the ground savoring the pain, but like everything in life, it faded all to rapidly. Frustrated, she cried and smashed her fists into the asphalt in a rage, but even the rage faded, and the feeling of frustration and emptiness returned.
Awkwardly, she got to her feet, and continued on her way, dodging around various pieces of equipment and piles of detritus that littered the pier until she could see the line of bollards that marked the outer edge of the long, concrete structure. In the distance, the lights of ships at anchor flickered on the water; to one side, about half a mile away to the right, floodlights illuminated one that was working late into the night, unloading its cargo, but the lights were aimed at the loading area and little of it crossed the intervening water to brighten her surroundings.
She suddenly felt an overwhelming exhaustion and sat on a bollard, ignoring the metallic chill that penetrated her long coat. As she sat, looking out over the water, she searched her soul for memories of feeling. Drugs, sex, thrill rides, insane wagers. The memories were there, but they could no more stir her than the image of a glass of water could slake the thirst of a man dying in the desert. She pulled up a sleeve of the coat and looked at her arm. The oblique glow from the offloading freighter’s lights cast the scars into stark relief. For a moment, she regretted leaving behind the kit, containing its razor, Betadine and tape. Then, she shook herself. That was over, behind her.
She stood and unbuttoned the coat. Putting her arms a bit behind her, she looked out to sea and shrugged it off with a twist of her shoulders, letting it fall to the pier. The night was cool against her naked skin, and absently she felt her nipples pucker a bit. She thought about stepping out of her shoes, but that would have meant bending down and unbuckling them. It didn’t fit with this moment of high drama, her Last Act. She stepped to the edge of the pier and looked down, but the water was invisible in the darkness. Taking a deep breath, she got ready to step off.
It wasn’t a sound, and the blackness on her left was impenetrable, but somehow she sensed… something. It broke the concentration; the high drama, the Ultimate Gesture dissolved into a frenzied movement as she stared wildly into the darkness while she dropped into a semi crouch and her hands frantically tried to cover, what a moment before had been Classic Nudity, and now was simply helpless nakedness.
“Who’s there,” she called in what she had intended to be a confident tone but came out more as a timorous squeak. She forced her voice to a lower register and tried to constrain her cowardly hands, forcing them down to her sides. “You can’t stop me!”
She was beginning to think it was all her imagination, berating herself about fucking up even this ultimate act. Turning what should have been high drama into low comedy. For a moment, she considered going back to her hotel, writing this off as another manifestation of the universe’s inherent hostility to her. Then, she straightened up, stepped toward the verge.
“Now, why would I want to do that?” The voice was quiet, yet somehow resonating and … amused.
To her considerable embarrassment, Susan found herself in exactly the same pose as the one she had adopted when she had first detected the presence. This time, she tried to control her voice. She succeeded … somewhat. “What do you want then?” she demanded.
Again, the disembodied voice had an air of amusement. “To finish my evening walk, to see the stars over the water, perhaps to watch you discover that drowning isn’t the poets speak of. Besides,” the voice gave a short laugh, “you can’t see it in this light, but the harbor is hardly a pristine pool.” A pause. “Diesel oil tastes lousy.”
Susan automatically took a step back from the verge. This wasn’t right. Part of her ennui came from her ability to, willingly or not, use her intelligence and beauty to dominate any relationship, any conversation. Lovers became her slaves. She could manipulate business associates and even superiors effortlessly. So often she had thought, “There’s no damned challenge!” Now, this disembodied voice was making fun of her.
“It’s my life!” she retorted.
The voice was unchanged. “So it was, and so it will be with your death.” There was another pause, somehow thoughtful and when it resumed it was softer, almost as if the unseen figure was talking to himself. “And the last free choice any of us ever has the chance to make.” Then it resumed its amused tone. “I’d never consider depriving you of free will. That’s the realm of gods and bureaucrats. Carry on.”
Susan half turned so she again faced the edge of the pier. The spell had been broken, and the familiar numbness had returned, but to turn, put on her coat and walk away would be to invite more mockery from the voice. “I don’t have a life, I don’t have hope,” she thought, “but I still have my dignity.” She steeled herself for the water and took a half step, looking into the blackness.
“I will admit to being curious.” The voice so startled her that she almost jumped. Oddly, it frightened her and she found herself backing away from the edge with a kind of horror at what she had been about to do nibbling at the edges of her mind. “If you could spare a minute, I’d really like to know what brought you here.” Somehow, the voice didn’t seem to be amused any more, but interested. Susan’s self control crumpled. She sank down on the bollard, her body insensate to the chill of the iron, put her face in her hands and began hard, racking sobs. She scarcely noticed the man who came up, slid her coat under her and wrapped it around her and held her while all the desperation and tedium flooded out.
Susan’s first thought was pure surprise. This wasn’t any room she recognized. Then, she realized that she couldn’t move her hands from above her. What almost seemed to be an electric shock ran through her when she looked up and found leather cuffs attached to a short chain; with a rolling twist, she got to her knees facing the head of the bed and discovered the chain was, itself, fastened to the wall over the bed. An experimental tug convinced her that it was fastened firmly indeed. Then, the memories returned. Just what had she been thinking? The bastard had manipulated her as adroitly as… as… she realized that he had manipulated her as adroitly as she had manipulated others all her life.
Now she was furious. How in hell did he get the right to chain her like an animal? She’s have him arrested. He’d go to prison. Then, she remembered his voice asking her if she would like to sleep in bondage and hers meekly giving assent. That shook her. Who in the hell was…
“I see you are awake.” As she tried to spin around, hampered by both her kneeling position and the chain on her wrists, she recognized the voice. Finally, by pulling herself up to the headboard beside where the chain was attached to the wall, she could turn enough to see him. It was the same man all right, medium height, middle aged, not ugly nor handsome. But his brown eyes held her. They were gentle but firm… and like the voice, mildly amused.
“Where am I?” Damn the man, he had a way of making her voice sound like that of a frightened child.
“You’re in my place,” he said unnecessarily. That much was obvious. “You came home with me.”
“Where are my clothes?”
That elicited a chuckle and Susan blushed as she remembered.
“Your clothes, my dear, consisted of one pair of Gucci shoes, which are by the bed, and a rather nice Republican cloth coat which is, as we speak, being cleaned. The dockyard is not the kind of place where you can freely drop your clothes and expect them to be serviceable later. The cleaners promise me it will be delivered this afternoon.”
“You can’t expect me to stay like this all day,” Susan blurted, knowing as she said it, that he could easily expect and, given her cuffed hands, demand just that.
“Frankly, I don’t have much expectation one way or another,” he said. “However, you told me so very interesting things last night.” He moved over and sat on the bed, reaching out and tracing the scars on her arm with his finger. Susan made up her mind not to flinch or pull away, but was surprised when her body accepted his touch.
Still, her conceit demanded that she fight this feeling of passive surrender. “I suppose,” she said, “you’re going to rape me. Isn’t that the usual ‘fee’ for a white knight riding to a lady’s rescue.” She tried to make her voice acerbic.
He laughed. “You’re free to leave any time you want to. There are even a few woman’s coats in the closet if you object to providing a free show for some pedestrians and a great tale for some cabby.” His voice became a bit harder, more appraising. “But, the same, how did you put it…” He paused. “Ah, ‘gray nothingness’ is still waiting for you.” He raised one eyebrow. “I thought you’d like to try another path.”
Susan was interested, but the armor of a thousand disappointments was thick and resilient. Trying to keep the acerbic tone, she responded, “And just how are you different from the others. The guys… and girls… who promised and couldn’t deliver.”
“I may not be,” he said with a thoughtful tone, “but, isn’t it worth a try? You can still choke to death on diesel and bilge water.” He paused as his words sank in. “If you’re real nice to me, I might be able to arrange a more … intriguing departure.”
Susan had been staring straight ahead; now her head snapped around to look at him, but as she was moving so was he. His left hand pushed hard against the small of her back, sliding her ass down the bed so she was suddenly lying again with her hands over her head and her body supine. Then it moved to hold her head flat against the pillow, while his right appeared holding a shining knife. She had only a moment to see the knife as it vanished under her chin and she felt a sharp burning across her throat. Bright panic filled her and she opened her mouth to scream, but his lips were there, hard against hers. Instead of screaming, she found herself returning the kiss, twisting and turning on the bed as if an invisible lover was thrusting deep within her.
Her mind was whirling, fragmented. Part was pure sensation. Part was terror. Was this how it ends? Part was… was… was it a kind of welcoming. She was out of her body. No, that wasn’t right. She wasn’t flying or anything like that. Not looking down at her body or floating toward some sort of light. She was… that was it; she was out of her mind. Not crazy but detached. Most of her was writhing in a kind of passion, a kind of release that she’d seen dim reflections of when she’d run the razor blade over her arm or across her thigh, but multiplied and magnified. However, another fragment of her, not all together cool and collected, but not overwhelmed with sensation, a tiny bit of cognitive thought remained. That looked at her fear and asked, “Isn’t this what you wanted.”
She had no answer for herself.
Then she realized. She wasn’t dead. In the same way, she’d pick up a shiny crystal on the beach, an objet trouvé, and turn it over in her hands, studying each angle and aspect, her mind explored this seemingly amazing concept. “I’m not dead.” Then, she realized she wasn’t even bleeding. She pulled back gasping as if she had run, and run, and run.
His laughter was amused but not mocking. There was an understanding in it. He took her chin in his hand and moved her head so she was looking into his eyes. She wanted to look around wildly, to confirm that blood wasn’t covering her breasts and belly, to reassure herself that she wasn’t dying, but the hand held her… his eyes held her.
That was all he said. No special emphasis. Just “I know.” Last night, that little detached portion of her mind reminded her, she would have laughed at him, mocked his implied perceptiveness. Now, she just looked and said, in a voice she’d never heard before, “You do?”
He released her head, and it fell back an inch or so to the pillow, but she didn’t turn away. His eyes, however, did break off and swept over her body. Gentle fingers traced familiar designs, and she knew he was exploring the scars. Still looking away, he continued. “You told me a lot last night and these tell me a lot more. There’s nothing wrong with you, you know?” He paused, and she nodded, uncertainly, unsure if she was agreeing with him or just… nodding. “You feel. You were wrong there; you’re not numb.”
Susan disagreed. She was numb. She had always been numb. She wanted to feel! She was about to challenge him when he lifted the knife so she could look at it. The sight of the gleaming steel paralyzed her tongue. He moved it closer. It was too close for her to focus on it, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the reflections… the edge. From a distance, she heard him. “You felt this?” Again, she found herself nodding, but keeping her eyes on the blurry image. It was so shiny. It seemed almost unreal.
When he had shoved her down, causing the cuffs to pull her arms sharply above her head, her unbound legs had been pushed toward the foot of the bed. A coolness, the touch of a vagrant breeze brought her attention to them and to her pussy. She felt her legs spreading, independent and uncaring of her will. Pulling apart, opening up, exposing her.
Again, he kissed her. This time it was just a quick peck, too short and too surprising for her to respond, but her lips burned. He shifted his body so he was kneeling next to her, and the knife’s point traced a line between her breasts, down her belly. She was startled with the sensation. It wasn’t pain; it was good; it was exciting. She felt herself welcoming it until she realized where the razor-sharp tip was heading. In panic, she pulled her traitorous legs together. Or tried to. If treason it be, then the treason was well advanced.
The knife reached her pubic hair, traced left and moved down the inside of her left thigh, leaving a sensation like delightful fire behind, and she felt her treacherous legs spread yet wider, and as she rose on her heels, her pussy seemed to be trying to lure the blade toward it. “Noooooo,” she moaned.
Again, that understanding laugh. “My lady,” he said, “how can I refuse such a delicious invitation,” and ran the tip of the blade over her labia.
The conflict between the hedonistic Angel of Light and the prudish God that ripped heaven asunder was echoed in Susan’s mind. “My God, he’s got a fucking knife in my cunt” dueled with “It feels sooooo good.” The pair were seconded by “This is just wrong,” and “This is what I wanted all my life,” and watched in confusion by that detached fragment of her cynicism. However, when the knife tip found the clitoris, all else was drowned in pure sensation. For the next eternity, the knife explored her. When he turned her over, she was barely award of the sheets touching her breasts and belly or soft leather cuffs holding her legs apart.
All this was done is complete silence, silence, at least, from him. Susan knew, somehow, she was being vocal in a completely incoherent fashion, but didn’t care. Her universe had shrunk to a tip of fire and the contrail it left behind on her skin.
“Susan?” “Susan?” He had to speak several times before her eyes focused on him. With the return of cognition, came embarrassment. Not the least part of that was the sudden realization that she had actually drooled on the pillow. She could feel a great spot of wetness under her cheek, but before the emotion could take firm root, he spoke again.
“Was that pleasant?”
She tried to speak, but could only manage a croaking “Yes.”
“Pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin.” Susan looked at him uncomprehendingly, but he moved again. Lying on her stomach, her field of view was restricted, but she felt the knife tip against the inside of her knee. She waited for it to move, to begin its tracery, but instead the pressure increased. It hurt; it Hurt; it HURT. “Oh my fucking GOD!” Susan screamed and struggled, but the pain grew beyond reason, beyond thought. Then, pressure released, and she panted and gasped with her face in the pillow. A touch on her foot. This time the pressure increased rapidly, and she screamed wordlessly into the pillow. Just before it seemed her mind would shatter, the knife tip moved, pressed and she screamed.
How long it had been since the pain stopped, she didn’t know. She had barely noticed when he removed the wrist and ankle cuffs. She was more aware of the naked body sliding in beside her. Soft lips kissed her face, then her mouth. She recognized the taste on them. It was tears, her tears.
The next morning, she rose quietly so as not to disturb him and went into the kitchen. For what seemed like a bachelor pad, it was neat and well-equipped. She had planned on getting a bit of cereal or maybe making up a few slices of toast, but she found herself frying bacon and making scrambled eggs. When a few drops of hot grease spit from the frying pan onto her naked skin, she turned up the gas flame and, lifting her arms over her head, slowly spun letting the hot grease sprinkle her skin with kisses of fire. She laughed, really laughed for the first time in years.
She stopped turning and leaned forward, exposing her breasts to the tiny arrows of pain. She was so enchanted with her discovery that she didn’t realize she wasn’t alone until she was spun away from the stove, bent over the kitchen table and struck several times on the ass. Her first cry of surprise became a kind of mewing, accompanied by her raising and wiggling her ass.
This time his laugh was full bodied and easy. It didn’t lack the humor of before, but that was no longer the leitmotif, just part of the chorus. “You are going to be a handful, I can tell,” he said, turning down the heat under the bacon. “You’re going to have to clean those splatters off the wall, you know.”
Susan smiled and nodded.
Over breakfast, he talked about endorphins, the chemicals that can turn pain into pleasure, and about people who need pain to make their lives interesting. About intensity, the benefits and the risks. He told her about her.
As Susan listened, she wondered about the tens of thousands of dollars she’s spent on shrinks. Some of them had woven convincing scenarios, lives she’d tried to make her own, but none of them had resonated deep in her soul the way these words were.
Then he took her back into the bedroom and showed her the needles. She could feel herself drawing back. The razor had been a refuge, but needles had always put her off. They were the things of hospitals and drug addicts, unappealing hygiene on one side and unadulterated filth on the other. But she sat in the chair when he told her to, gripping the arms with both hands. The first needles were a shock. Not so much how much they hurt, but how they hurt. It wasn’t like the knife, but then a warm feeling filled her, one that she had felt before. Now she had a word for it: endorphins. But the word didn’t matter, only the feeling did.
She looked down. She’d always looked away when the doctor gave her an injection or drew blood, now she looked, and marveled. The needles were arranged in a semicircle in her breast, the points almost touching the areola and the colored ends making an arc facing her. She gasped as he bushed more of the disinfectant right on her nipple; part of it was the chill, but a larger part was prescience. She knew what he was going to do and it terrified her. Then she realized she could stop him. A simple objection at this point would be enough. He had never forced her. Then, she knew she wouldn’t object… that she didn’t want to, and that realization shook her to her core. Then, a warmth and languor seemed to spread from that core. She looked away from the needles and held his eyes with hers. With a calculated sensuality, she licked her lips and smiled.
As the needle thrust home and through, she sucked in a breath of air, savoring both the coolness in her throat and the fire in her nipple.
She almost didn’t hear him when he told her to stand up, and at first, she almost fell, but he guided her away from the chair and looped a length of elastic around the horizontal needle in her nipple. He took the other end of the elastic and pulled it gently. Reaching behind himself, he flicked on the CD player and a Chopin waltz filled the air. “Lean back,” he said; “dance with me.”
As she pulled back, the first tug on the pierced nipple caused her to start forward, but the second one was bearable. The third was … different, and soon she found herself pulling back hard against the elastic as they circled the room, dancing into a new life for her.