We all know men like Russell. Successful. Bold. Intelligent. Men who know their own minds. Men not afraid of hard work. Men who would never sit around all day looking at their own navels. Such men remain, emotionally at least, immune to the distractions of love.
But Russell is in a compromised position. Having, to date, been fairly successful in his relationships with women, he finds himself at a loss. He is not what we would call a player. He has always liked interesting women, but he has never found one interesting for very long, so his relationships have tended to be short—fleeting even.
On a Friday night in late September, things change in Russell’s life. He is picked up by a woman. In theory, he has no problem with aggressive women, but has found that he prefers initiating contact. The drama develops quickly. He finds himself a prisoner. He feels utterly powerless but tells himself that there must be some way to unchain himself and be free. Russell hopes that he might outwit her, invent some kind of escape. He is an inventor, after all, he tells himself, an engineer, an artist. Until now, he has always had faith in his abilities.
Just recently, he’d given a toast at his birthday party, claiming he had accomplished more in his forty years than many did in a lifetime. His words were intended as an expression of gratitude (although there were more than a few eye rolls among his gathered friends). Now they seem prophetic.
Russell looks around the room where he sits. One of his molars has been pulled out. He lets his tongue feel the socket. Pain radiates from deep inside his jawbone all the way to his ear. With his free hand, he touches his face which feels swollen. The other hand is not free. She has attached it to the radiator.
How many days has he been here? Four, at least. She picked him up during his evening bike ride. He cycles every night, rain or shine. Friday, it was raining. A woman in a car hit him, purposefully, and brought him here. The tooth was pulled on the third day, so now it must be…he feels stupid and decides it must be Tuesday. The socket of his tooth is smooth and tender. A rancid taste.
She doesn’t always chain him to the radiator, only when she leaves. Mostly, she gives him tests, which he fails. She can’t always hang around; she must leave to get supplies. She calls this “running errands.” Occasionally she’ll say, “I’m popping off to run some errands!” Sometimes she says, “Enough! I need some fresh air.” Mostly, she says nothing.
Even when he is blindfolded, Russell can tell when she is leaving by the jingle of her keys as she grabs them from the mantel. When she is gone, Russell is more able to think objectively about his predicament. He is fairly certain that in addition to the tooth, he has a fractured tibia and a fairly serious laceration on his back, which he cannot see, but feels more keenly than the other places where the whip has bit him. Blood cakes and mats the fur of his chest; it makes him think of moss. He cannot appreciate this as a metaphor however, and dismisses the thought as impractical. Russell is practical. His work requires it. But she has not given him anything to work with. Nothing is in reach, not a glass of water, not even a plastic cup. He is parched, but there is nothing to be done. He’s already tried to break the radiator. The first day he screamed and screamed, but no one heard him. He, on the other hand, can hear many things from the street and the adjacent apartments.
From the street below he hears a song. Frank Sinatra moons, “Luck be a lady tonight,” and then it fades. Music from a passing car, he decides. This is too much. Tears darken his long, thick eyelashes, beading before falling to his tanned chest. His legs, muscular from cycling, jerk as he sobs, muscles rippling like vibrations through a glass of water. He is naked except for his underwear, which she changes for him daily. She has not touched his penis yet, but he has this horrid feeling that when she gets to that part of her sadistic game with him, the end is certain.
If Russell were in a better frame of mind, he would notice that her living room is sparsely decorated but the few items are high quality and of what, he would assume, people call good taste. On the walls hang framed Georgia O’Keefe prints of soft, voluptuous flowers. Russell doesn’t know who Georgia O’Keefe is but he recognizes them anyway. He is an artist, but one who works with machines and large moving sculptures (in the daytime, he designs mechanical heart parts—that is how he makes his money), but he is not familiar with female painters. When he had first seen these paintings on Friday night, the only glimmer of recognition was that one had decorated the foyer of his grandmother’s apartment, a woman that, he thinks privately, had lived a bit too long, outliving his grandfather by fifteen years. Otherwise, the paintings do not affect him. He does not think of vaginas when he looks at them. If anything, they look like mouths to him, mouths without teeth—another prophecy.
Other than the O’Keefe prints, the room contains a small couch, a chair and an antique coffee table. On the wall nearest the door and furthest from Russell, stands a bookshelf with used books, the bindings creased from frequent readings. A few of them are by famous writers he recognizes: Shakespeare, de Quincey, Joyce and Beckett. Otherwise, these writers are female, and he has never heard of them.
If Russell had been a better student, he may not still be in this room. He is doing poorly on her tests. The first day, she was quite civil. They drank tea together, he with a plastic cup, she with a proper tea set. Dalton China. He made a point of describing her in his mind so that he could remember it for the police later: young, tall, medium build, dark hair, glasses. Attractive with a slight British accent. No, Australian. No, Irish. He did not know then that every day her appearance would change. Sometimes she was squat and fat, sometimes she was very old. She was like some villain in that old show, Mission Impossible, with a perfect rubber mask for each day of the week. But she was always she. That much he knew.
That first day, she had asked him a series of questions. “To give me a sense,” she had said, “of what your own capacities and strengths are. Think of it as a diagnostic.” He had almost enjoyed this part. It was like a job interview.
“And assuming that I should decide to let you go…”
“Then you’d certainly be doing the right thing, wouldn’t you?”
“Obviously, a young fit woman like yourself wouldn’t have to worry about your heart, but there are people”—had he really chuckled? He was fighting for his life, he remembers— “older people, women too, you know, who need people like me who can invent, build, these parts.”
“Interesting, and so, you are an inventor?”
“I’m an artist. Inventing is something I do to pay the bills.”
“Pay the bills?”
“That, yes, and help people. Helping people too, of course.”
She had smiled then and scribbled something on a notepad. Was she going to rape him? The thought did cross his mind.
“What else would you say makes you someone of particular value?”
Did he take credit for the wheel of monkeys that Alex had built at Burning Man? He did. Did he minimize the work of the other engineers on the mechanical spider? He may have. Did he make it sound like he was a good son, an attentive lover, a philanthropist even?
He now regrets exaggerating his accomplishments. At that time, her discipline had been a kind of pantomime. It might even have been funny if it was just a story.
On the second day, she tied a rope around his neck. “Up Pig!” she hollered. He resisted her, threw the plastic cup at her, let the rope burn his neck. “You think that hurts, do you?” she asked. “You think you are being brave?” The next day the tooth pulling began. He made more of an effort after that, but his answers did not please her.
“What do you make of that poem?” she asked.
“It makes me hungry.” He was trying to be honest. He thought that, as with most women, honesty would be what she was after. It was the wrong answer, and he got the whip. It was true he hadn’t eaten much. He didn’t like her cucumber sandwiches.
“What do you make of that painting?” she asked.
“My grandmother had it in her building,” he said.
“Excellent. What was she like?”
“Yes, like you. Today.”
“What was her favorite colour?”
“I don’t know. She didn’t have one.”
“She didn’t have one or you don’t know?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did she like to eat?”
“I think she liked… I don’t know.”
This was the wrong answer again. This was the day she broke his tibia. After, he got better at lying. He is, after all, an inventor.
She has prepared the room, moving anything useful out of the reach of someone chained to the radiator. She has set her materials on the mantel above the fireplace. The whip, coiled and innocent; a Bosch Oscillating Multi-tool; duct tape; a bottle, unmarked, of medical grade chloroform; a taser; a baton bought from a group called Indecline who sell such paraphernalia online at a reasonable price; and a book of Emily Dickinson’s poems which she reads to him intermittently, but which he doesn’t understand. Sometimes she picks another book. He is hoping that soon she will pick Joyce, who he has read once in high school, but not Ulysses, which he hasn’t read. But she is always picking obscure authors.
She is not needlessly cruel. There is something she is trying to teach him.
Russell registers the objects on the mantel, the bookshelf, the tasteful furniture, but without understanding how they fit together. He would like to reach some of her tools. But he is not getting any stronger by the day and she will always be stronger. He must try to supplicate her. If only his life had trained him better in the art of supplication.
Time passes, but no ideas come. He wonders when she will be back, and it occurs to him that she might not return. The only sound is the boom and hush of outside traffic. The last of the sunlight casts the room in red. He is not chained so tightly that he can’t recline, so he does, hoping it will help him think. The boundaries of his body lack precision, a halo of pain radiates and blurs them. Russell is a tender arch of pain, but he manages to slide onto his back, his head resting against the wall, his legs splayed out into the room. He looks handsome like this, in a helpless, awkward way. Even with his head at a right angle to his chest, his chin barely doubles. His chest and abdomen are well-formed, athletic without being bulky.
Russell examines his empty bellybutton. No lint, no blood. An imperfect oval. A flash of understanding almost breaks through the film of pain, but not quite. There is something to be understood.
He longs for the sound of her keys. He listens. He waits.