Eileen Pollack is the author of the novels The Professor of Immortality, The Bible of Dirty Jokes, A Perfect Life, and Breaking and Entering, named a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection, as well as two story collections, The Rabbi in the Attic and In the Mouth. Her work has been selected for Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays. A collection of her essays, Maybe It's Me: On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman, is forthcoming from Delphinium Books. A former director of the MFA Program at the University of Michigan, she now lives and writes in Boston. Photo by Michele McDonald
I should have guessed when he called me naughty. I should have said: “I am a woman of sixty, not a disobedient toddler.” But I wanted to believe I finally had found a man who was attracted to me because, as Ellman put it, I was “so powerful and independent.” I wanted to believe I would never again need to sign on to OKCupid. I wanted to believe I had a date for New Year’s Eve.
Besides, the word might have been meant ironically. Infantilizing at worst. Not threatening.
Apparently, this same man had sent me a message the summer before and I hadn’t bothered to respond. New to town—I had just moved to Manhattan, having retired from the university in Ohio where I had been a professor for thirty years—I found the catalogue of single men my age shockingly rich in possibilities. Back then, I hadn’t been in the market for a stocky businessman with overly large front teeth and a round red face.
But I had been chastened by a series of horrifyingly bad first dates. So many of the men my age seemed broken or lost. They only pretended to be feminists. They seemed terrified by the idea of dating a writer who had published more books than they had. And so, a few weeks before Christmas, I went back and sorted through all the men I had overlooked. I was stopped by the self-assured smile and knowing gaze of a man who claimed to be the founder of several businesses. According to his profile, he lived on an historic estate in one of those quaint but exclusive towns on the east bank of the Hudson I had heard of but never visited.
He was, he claimed, a “sapiosexual,” which meant a woman’s intelligence turned him on. What he enjoyed, Sapiosexual went on, was a “spirited conversation,” preferably about politics, art, or literature. Most of the business types I had met read little but The Wall Street Journal. But under his favorite books, Sapiosexual listed Waiting for the Barbarians and Cry, the Beloved Country, along with Pride and Prejudice and My Brilliant Friend, although any man who hoped to get a date these days professed to admiring Austen and Ferrante. “You are so wonderfully articulate, playful, and beautiful from head to toe!” he had messaged me four months earlier. “An absolute dream!”
Maybe I had passed because his tone seemed so affected? Then again, when had I become so critical? Clearly, I had spent too many decades editing my students’ stories. A few messages passed between us. And the next thing I knew, my cell phone chirped and I was listening to the most seductive male accent I had ever heard. British, I assumed. But no … the Coetzee and Alan Paton … my suitor must be South African.
“I am so very grateful you decided to take a chance on me.” The silvery syllables popped from my phone like bubbles from a champagne glass. “A woman needs to be devilishly careful with these online dating sites.”
His real name, he admitted, was Ellman Goodbahn. I should feel free to ask any questions at all (A-tall), and he would answer them. His great-grandparents had fled the pogroms of Lithuania and ended up in the wilds of South Africa, farming, of all things, ostriches. When the European craze for feathers died out, the Goodbahns had migrated to Johannesburg. By his parents’ time, they were “doing quite well as purveyors of market produce,” which, for all I knew, meant they sold vegetables from a cart or owned half the grocery stores on the continent.
That Ellman was a South African Jew struck me as both exotic and reassuring. Any Europeans must have been at least partly responsible for enslaving the population. But Ellman’s family wouldn’t have chosen to emigrate if they hadn’t needed to escape the pogroms and Nazi genocide. Then again, growing up where and when he did, wouldn’t he have been tainted by apartheid? He had offered to answer any questions, so I asked him.
“I am afraid my grandparents, even my parents, were willing to tolerate the inequities far too long. But my generation, by the time we arrived at university, no longer had an excuse for such blind self-interest. I can hardly take credit for anything too courageous. But yes, I did take part in several acts of protest. Which is why I needed to flee to the United States.”
Sensing my qualms, Ellman explained that his childhood in “Jo’berg” had been his initiation into politics. Now, he was attempting to overcome the same reactionary forces in the country to which he had emigrated. After winning a position in village government, he was using his entrepreneurial skills to root out corruption and mismanagement, safeguard the environment, and, as chairperson of his county’s Democratic party, “recruit viable progressive candidates from more diverse constituencies.” These were the early, shell-shocked months of Trump’s unpresidency and, as Ellman put it, we could ill afford to leave this ruffian’s powers unchecked (unaccustomed to his accent, I thought he had said unchicked).
“Now then,” Ellman said, “that is far too much chattering about myself.” He asked about my childhood, my divorce, my son, and when I told him Darius was a union organizer in Chicago, Ellman exclaimed: “Jolly good for him!” He asked my surname so he could order copies of all my novels. How could I not fall for a man who professed such admiration for my accomplishments? I apologized for not having responded to his message earlier.
Which is when he chided me for being naughty.
Perhaps the word had different connotations if you were South African. Christmas was in the air; he could have picked up “naughty” from that song about Santa keeping track. I agreed to meet for dinner. The restaurant he suggested was two blocks from where I lived. Was that creepy? Or a mere coincidence? I googled his name to make sure he wasn’t married or a criminal. But his address checked out as the location of a stunning Gothic mansion that was part of the National Trust. On his LinkedIn page, the gobbledygook of buzzwords left me little enlightened as to what products his companies made or sold. But a dozen corporate titans seemed willing to vouch for my date’s integrity.
Most convincing of all, I found evidence to back up his claim that he was the leader of his local Democratic party. There he was, leaning forward to speak into a microphone at some political event. In another photo, I saw him resplendent in a tuxedo, hugging an elegantly attired Black woman, and I couldn’t help but admire how the starched white shirt set off his halo of bright white hair.
And so, on a Thursday in late December, I walked to the new Italian restaurant in my neighborhood and found the man from the photos waiting beneath the canopy. He was shorter than I had imagined, but sturdy and broad chested, and the black wool coat, charcoal scarf, and well-heeled black boots made him all the more imposing. Having dressed up more than usual for an introductory date, I had been forced to cover my lightweight sheath with the puffy black parka that had gotten me through so many Ohio winters. Ellman helped me take it off. The zipper stuck, but he stood patiently as I struggled to unsnare it.
Stepping back, he smiled that full-toothed smile. “I hope you won’t mind if I say you do look ravishing.” He shrugged effortlessly out of his own scarf and coat, revealing a leather vest and soft white shirt. He handed his coat and my parka to the hostess, then guided me to our seats. When the waiter brought our drinks, I asked Ellman to tell me more about his grandparents’ adventures farming ostriches, thinking I would follow up with a further inquiry into his involvement in the battle against apartheid.
“Oh,” he said, “I would prefer to learn more about you than rehash all those dusty stories about my progenitors.” Rather than add to my understanding of whatever had caused him to go into exile, Ellman revealed he had placed orders for all my books. He was astonishingly well read, although more in the classics than contemporary fiction. I could have sat there all night, drinking in the way he pronounced in-tel-LECT-shual. I loved watching his lips purse to pop out book, which he pronounced as if he were saying boo before adding a guttural Afrikaner k. Never had I felt so flattered. Never had I been in the company of a man so worldly, so grown up, so secure in his masculinity.
Ellman caught and held my gaze across the candlelit table. When he got up to use the men’s room, he slid his hand along my shoulder. When the hostess fetched our coats, he hoisted my parka so I could snake my arms through the sleeves.
“Might I accompany you to your apartment? I hate to think of you walking alone at this late hour.”
Usually, I didn’t allow a man I had met online to figure out where I lived. And yet, I told Ellman yes. I nestled against his coat as we wove among the families buying Christmas trees at the pop-up kiosks, the evergreens lining the walk like immigrant children hoping a kindly family might take them home (although they first needed to submit to having their bottoms sawed off and being shoved head-first into a funnel from which they emerged bound in netting). As we neared my building, I thought of stopping a few doors east, so Ellman wouldn’t know my true address. But what if we ended up in a relationship? I would need to admit I hadn’t trusted him.
Enveloped in his arms, I smelled the good, masculine scents of leather and wool and the gin from his Martini. He knew the exact length of time to remain with his lips pressed against mine. Knew, mercifully, not to use his tongue. When he pulled away, I surprised myself by leaning in for a second kiss. Then, afraid I had given away too much, I thanked him for dinner and hurried past the Christmas tree and menorah in my lobby. I pushed the button for the elevator, hoping it would come quickly and, when it did, stepped in and turned, shocked by my disappointment he hadn’t waited to wave goodnight.
He didn’t email or call. I would have written him, but even in twenty-first century Manhattan, a woman who called or texted first might be perceived as too forward or needy. I googled him again, lingering on the photos of Ellman at that Democratic gala with his arm around that Black female candidate (maybe they had been more than friends?), Ellman leaning in to deliver what must have been a plea for a more socially conscious government.
And then, just as I had steeled myself to the likelihood I would never hear from him again, my phone pinged and I had a message. He had been debating whether or not to take our acquaintance to a higher level. He was, he said, a highly passionate man, and he needed to be cautious about whom he trusted. With me, he could sense a certain lingering reticence. (Why? Because I hadn’t invited him up to my apartment? How could that be reticence, as opposed to an instinct for self-preservation?) Still, he couldn’t dislodge me from his memory. It was so rare to find a woman of my caliber who was a compassionate, nonjudgmental listener.
He was, he said, fairly desperate to reconnect. He could take the train back to the city. But his village looked positively enchanting this time of year. There was a bistro that served what passed for Continental cuisine. Or he could whip up a meal himself, which would provide the opportunity to show off his “humble abode.” I probably had an engagement for New Year’s Eve. But if I could see my way clear to spend the holiday with him, he would be supremely honored. I could stay overnight at the estate. But if I didn’t feel comfortable with that arrangement, he would, he promised, take me back to the train im-MED-i-ate-ly.
Ordinarily, I would have considered it too risky to travel ninety minutes to have dinner with a man I had just met. But how could I not indulge the fantasy of falling in love with a foreign businessman, moving to his quaint yet sophisticated village on the river, and becoming mistress of his grand estate? Especially when I would otherwise be alone on New Year’s Eve.
In the week that followed, Ellman texted frequently, letting me know how much he was looking forward to our assignation. Not wanting to be perceived as a cold fish, I waited for the moment I could respond honestly to his advances. Then, two days before New Year’s Eve, I opened my eyes to find feathery flakes tumbling past my window so thickly I imagined them rising to fill the alley. Snuggling beneath my quilt, I thought of a poem by Mary Ruefle in which the speaker says that whenever it starts to snow she feels compelled to stop what she is doing and have sex with a lover who “also sees the snow and heeds it,” someone for whom “the snow sign” is an ultimatum “beyond joy as well as sorrow.” I cut and pasted the poem into an email, then hit send before I could think better of my daring.
Within minutes, my cell phone chirped.
“How could you possibly have known? Are you a witch?”
Known? Known what?
“A woman …” He seemed barely able to go on speaking. “A woman who was once very dear to my heart. Whenever it snowed, we had a contract. No matter what she was engaged in, even if she was directing a meeting—she was the CEO of a very large corporation—she would excuse herself and show up at my door wearing nothing beneath her fur coat, and we would engage in the most glorious session of lovemaking.”
I couldn’t help but feel jealous.
“Agreements like that, little games … they add such delicious excitement to one’s existence, don’t you think?”
My stomach tightened. I sensed Ellman was about to toss a rock into the shimmering reflection of my fantasies.
“I had hoped we might discuss this face-to-face. But perhaps it would be fairer if I were more forthcoming. What I had with that lover was more binding than a mere agreement. Whenever it snowed, she truly was obligated to drop everything, show up at my door, and submit to our having sex.”
He paused, I thought, not to find the courage to go on, but to allow me to prepare for whatever followed.
“You see, I am what you might call sexually dominant.” SEX-sue-ally DOM-in-ant.
Dominant? He was into S&M? Or were those two separate and distinct predilections? Did he want to be the one who made all the moves? Or tie me to a post and beat me? “I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “I’m not … I don’t think I can … But I promise, I’ll get back in touch.”
I hurried to the bathroom. My stomach heaved. I finally had met a man who made a point of prizing me for my accomplishments, my independence, my strength, and what did he want but to dominate and debase me? Of course. What pleasure could a man like Ellman take in forcing a weak woman to submit to his will? There was far more satisfaction to be gained in making the chairman of the board show up at your door and crawl naked across your floor. Sure, there were guys who were looking for submissive partners. But they frequented other sites. Or they stated their proclivities in their profiles. I had spent my life trying not to be dominated—by my father, my brother, my classmates, my professors, my colleagues at the university, my ex-husband, even my undergraduates. If Ellman thought he could handcuff me to his bed and flog me with some British riding crop …
And yet, if I were completely honest, the queasiness I felt wasn’t revulsion so much as it was excitement. Hadn’t I moved to New York to be braver about my life? Hadn’t I vowed to write more courageously about what it really meant to be a woman in America? And how could any woman who had grown up in America not be conditioned by every story she had ever read, every movie, advertisement, or television show she had ever seen to be a masochist?
I hated that what turned me on turned me on. Then again, why should anyone be ashamed of what turned her on? Maybe I had found a man with whom I could act out those fantasies. I was tired of being in control all the time. Calling all the shots. Earning every penny. Just thinking about showing up at Ellman’s door in a fur coat (not that I would ever wear fur), slipping it off and standing naked before him, with Ellman fully clothed in that leather vest and linen pants, excited me so much I needed to go in my bedroom, pull down the shades, and make myself come.
And so, when my phone rang and I saw Ellman’s name on the caller ID, I figured I could at least listen to what he had to say.
“I am so, so very sorry. I didn’t mean to shock you. To be frank, I didn’t see you as the type to be easily shocked.”
Oh God, I thought. Here he goes, appealing to my pride in being strong.
“But you can’t stigmatize a bloke for expressing his desires.”
Couldn’t I? My former colleagues in Women’s Studies would have told me that S&M was like any other fetish, its practice perfectly acceptable if it was consensual. (Already I could hear Ellman saying that word, con-SEN-sue-al, in a way that turned me on, or maybe it made my skin crawl, I couldn’t tell the difference.) Some men enjoyed having pain inflicted on them by women, or inflicting pain on other men. Some women led their girlfriends around on leashes. Even in Ohio, plenty of straight, middle-class couples liked to dress up and act out sadomasochistic scenarios—I knew this from my friend Francesca, who was a therapist. And what of the millions of suburban housewives who locked themselves in their bathrooms to enjoy Fifty Shades of Grey? The only reason I hadn’t bought that book was I had been afraid I would end up jerking off to such badly written prose.
“Please,” Ellman said, “I hope you might still be inclined to accept my invitation.”
I knew I should turn him down. But who wants to stay home on New Year’s Eve? I would ask Francesca to text me, in case I needed an excuse to flee. Besides, who ever heard of a Jewish man in his late sixties being a serial killer?
I told Ellman I would come, but I said nothing about whether I would stay over at his estate. Most likely I wouldn’t. But what harm could it do if we both felt turned on by the possibilities? How, if merely thinking about Ellman looming above me fully dressed as I lay naked on his bed caused me to pull down my pants and imagine myself as Anastasia Steele or O?
It was barely five when I left my apartment, but the streets were already shadowy. I descended to the subway and pushed through the tall revolving gate, which always scared me. What if I pushed the wrong way and got impaled on the spikes? Who designed a gate to so closely resemble an iron maiden?
Boarding at Grand Central, I was surprised to find the cars eerily empty. Everyone must be traveling into the city for the night’s festivities rather than to the suburbs. I took off my coat and settled in a seat on the left side of the train, as if beauty were a school of fish I might scoop from the river as we passed.
And yet, beauty there was. The Hudson churned restlessly against the shore, lapping the fringe of ice. The last rays of sun bled over the Palisades to the west.
I heard snuffling and giggling.
“I can’t believe we’re spending New Year’s Eve with your mother.”
“I love my mother. Besides, she’s a great cook. She’s making us filet mignon.”
“Do you even know what filet mignon is?”
“Never mind! She makes the best pot brownies you ever had. She’ll build us a fire, we’ll get sky-high and play Bananagrams and watch What’s-His-Name on TV.”
I stood and pretended to search for a restroom. Nestled in the seats behind me were a pixyish, dark-skinned girl, or maybe she was a boy, and another equally appealing creature with flaxen hair and skin so pale the freckles reminded me of a dusting of cinnamon across a frothy mug of eggnog. They cuddled into each other, licking each other’s lips. I pictured them sharing whatever narrow bed the mother let them share. Which of the two would dominate? Which submit? If neither did either, how could their lovemaking be erotic? Oh, why had I been raised to absorb the stupid, outdated images that ruled my psyche! I had fallen in love with my Hungarian ex-husband because he conducted himself in that gruff, European way I had found so exciting in all the old black-and-white movies I had grown up watching with my mother. Only when my husband’s experiments failed and he came home crying, revealing his fear that he was an impostor as a scientist, did I understand that his heavy, unshaven face and hairy arms were some sort of costume. Hollywood’s version of masculinity was a construct. And it wasn’t as if I had ever felt particularly feminine. Maybe whatever scenario Ellman forced me to act out would allow me to feel more womanly.
I only had time to find the restroom and calm my nerves before the train slowed and the conductor announced the village where Ellman lived. I thought of staying on the train, then getting off at the next station and heading back to Manhattan. But I couldn’t bear the thought of watching him crumple with disappointment when I didn’t get off.
He stood in the glare of the fluorescent lights, to one side of a poster that advertised The Book of Mormon. No, wait, it was a parody called The Book of Merman. As in Ethel. He was shorter than I recalled. But his shadow was long, and the leather hat and riding boots added to the effect. Manly. Aristocratic.
When I walked toward him, Ellman beamed. “You will never know how much it means to me that you’ve come.”
He led me to the parking lot and stopped beside a dented blue Forester that must have been a dozen years old. He held the door, then went around to the driver’s side, turned to beam at me again, then drove us along the main street of his village, its tasteful white lights strung in glittering arcs above our heads. The storefronts and churches were almost too picturesque to be believable.
“This is our local bookshop.” Ellman pointed to a small brick edifice. “The owner didn’t need convincing to order your novels. In fact, she asked if I might persuade you to give a reading. I can guarantee that my friends and I would provide a most lively turnout.”
Naturally, I was grateful. I wasn’t prominent enough to take such invitations for granted. But Ellman’s manipulations on my behalf made me feel like the opera singer with the terrible voice who becomes the mistress of Charles Foster Kane.
We drove up a small hill, and Ellman indicated the refurbished schoolhouse where the community theater put on its musicals. His baritone was sometimes in demand, he said. Once, he had sung the lead in H.M.S. Pinafore.
As we left town, I grew more anxious. In a mansion so vast, set off from the road, who would hear me if I screamed? Then again, wasn’t the whole point to make me scream? I imagined myself tied to a bed, arms and legs outstretched, Ellman drawing the tip of a leather whip along one breast, then the other. Oh, who cared whether I had been born a masochist or whether this inclination had been created by a fucked-up culture? What was wrong with satisfying a desire you had been fantasizing about your entire life?
Then again, a desert yawned between the fantasy and the act. I didn’t even like to be told what I could or could not include on my syllabus. How could anyone be said to desire something she didn’t actually want to happen?
“Here we are.” Ellman reached above his visor and pressed a button that made the gate between two pillars swing open to admit us. We drove through. He pushed the button again, and the gate swung shut behind us. I almost asked him to take me back to the station right then. But he was describing the dinner he had prepared. He hoped I wasn’t a vegetarian because he had bought a magnificent cut of filet mignon, at which I stifled the wish that I was getting high with the couple from the train and playing Bananagrams with the mother.
As we rolled noisily up the gravel drive, Ellman entertained me with a tour guide’s patter. One couldn’t appreciate the views at night, he said, but the curving driveway was designed to expose “surprise vistas” of sweeping lawns, accentuated by stunning trees and foliage. The exotic varieties in the rose gardens—which Ellman tended—were famous for their fragrance, vigor, and purity of hue. Best of all, the railroad baron’s daughter had caused to be built the first steel-framed conservatory in the United States, and Ellman enjoyed cultivating orchids year-round.
Then there it was, a boxy stone castle constructed of local limestone. The mansion often had been rented out to film companies to serve as the backdrop for period romances. And yet, if the estate reminded me of anything, it was the home of the family of vampires who had populated the campy soap opera my girlfriends and I used to watch in high school. I wasn’t sure I wanted to step inside. I only hoped there might be a singing clock and a gay candlestick to keep me company.
He drove around back and parked beside a far more modest structure. The visitors’ center? The carriage house? The servants’ quarters?
“You don’t live in the mansion?”
Ellman laughed a laugh so artificial I shivered. “As I think I mentioned, this is a national historic site, run by a nonprofit trust, which is financed, in part, by an annual croquet tournament and the proceeds of a plant and orchid sale from the greenhouse. I have a special arrangement that allows me to live in the guest cottage, in return for which I manage those affairs.”
He worked in the greenhouse? What was he, the gardener? The gamekeeper? And who was I supposed to be, Lady Chatterley? I waited for Ellman to confess his fraud. But he seemed to believe he had nothing to atone for.
Inside, the cottage was furnished with shabby furniture, the air tinged with the mildewed smell you might expect in a poorly heated rental in the Adirondacks. And yet, it wasn’t lacking in charm or taste, with prints of hunting dogs on the walls and braided wool rugs scattered across the floors. On a table set for two, a bottle of champagne stood chilling in a bucket.
“Allow me.” He helped me off with my coat. “Don’t worry about the draft. I intend to set a glorious blaze going in the fireplace.”
As if all I had to contend with were the draft! He stood before me, red faced, his filmy white hair rising from his head like stuffing from a threadbare pillow. How ludicrous that I would have considered acting out some sadomasochistic farce with a washed-up old man like this.
And yet, would I have gone through with my fantasies if Ellman had been rich and powerful? Did a man need to be Christian Grey to earn the right to abuse a woman? If the object was for the woman to be debased, wouldn’t it be more humiliating to be ordered to crawl across the floor by an absolute nobody?
“I’m sorry,” I said, then wanted to kick myself for apologizing. “I think I would like to go home now.”
Ellman stepped between me and the door. “At least allow me to take you on a tour of the premises. I think you will find the basement to be particularly interesting. And exciting.”
Fear rose in my throat. But what terrified me even more than Ellman forcing me to go down to that basement was how much I wanted to follow of my own volition.
The problem was, he was such a fraud. Men like Ellman led women to believe they were benevolent, sexy despots. But such men had no idea what they were doing. Which must be difficult for the men, to know how flawed they were and keep up the pretense.
“I’m going now,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” Ellman said. “But you have to promise you won’t tell anyone. About my preferences.”
Tell anyone? How could I tell anyone without being more ashamed than he was? Then it occurred to me he was frightened his constituents might find out. He portrayed himself as a feminist. How could a man claim to be fighting for women’s rights if, in his secret SEX-sue-al life, he wanted to tie those same women to the wall and beat them? No matter what anyone claimed, wanting to make a woman crawl across a floor, tie her up, gag her, whip her, wasn’t as harmless as other fetishes. It wasn’t the same as wanting to stroke a woman’s feet. What if a white person only could get off by making Black people act out a fantasy in which they were his slaves? What if someone acted out a preference for dressing up as a Nazi and ordering Jewish women to submit to his domination?
“If you won’t let me go,” I told Ellman, “I will ruin you.”
He made a dismissive noise. “How could someone like you ruin someone like me.”
“I’m a writer,” I reminded him. “You bought my books. Or was that a lie, too?”
“I bought them. But I didn’t read them. They’re not the type of literature I tend to read.”
Well, then, he would never read the story I intended to write about him. I wouldn’t use his real name. But I would invent a name close enough that people could guess whom I was describing.
“You wouldn’t dare,” he said.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
All his ebullience drained away, as if he were a snowman melting. “All right.” He took his coat from the chair. “There ought to be a train in half an hour.”
“Thank you, but I can walk.”
“Oh no,” he said, genuinely concerned. “I’m too much of a gentleman to allow you to do that.”
“Allow me? You won’t allow me?” I opened the door and fled.
Outside, the air was bracing and sweet. The snow sifted down on me like a blessing. But as I left the parking lot and rounded the first curve, the lights from the cottage dimmed and the ground grew slick. Hurrying, I lost my footing. The gravel ripped my tights. My knee was bleeding. God, there already was so much pain in the world, why would anyone wish for more?
I thought of turning back. I imagined Ellman leaning over me with a warm, soft cloth, the expression on his face pitying and sympathetic. There, there, he would say, soothing me as a parent soothes a child.
I heard his car and started limping toward the gate.
“Please,” Ellman called. “Do be sensible and let me drive you.”
Thankfully, once I reached the main road, the car behind me made a U-turn and headed back to the estate. Freer now, I took deep breaths, inhaling the minty fragrance of the wreaths hanging from the streetlamps, the wood smoke rising from someone’s chimney. Husbands escorted their wives into restaurants while children caught snowflakes on their tongues. A boy shoved his sister into a snowbank.
At the station, I bought my ticket from a machine, then stood looking at the river, whose surface was dappled with light from the buildings along the shore but dark and mysterious farther north. As the train approached, the weight of it, the momentum, frightened me. But it slid to a stop and stood there quivering. The doors opened. I leaped across the gap and climbed onboard. Again, I took care to sit on the river side of the car. But I was so exhausted I closed my eyes. Instantly, I saw myself lying in Ellman’s bed. Ellman leaning down. Putting his mouth to my breast. Kissing the nipple. Biting it.
I shook my head to clear the image, but it seemed frozen there. Nothing registered until the conductor announced we were nearing Harlem. I would get off at Grand Central, then head back to my apartment, where I would stay up until midnight and watch the ball drop in Times Square. The next morning, I would force myself out of bed, make coffee, read the newspaper, and prepare myself for the loneliness, freedom, and terror of a fresh new year.