“My terrible child” The subject line makes Mary Anne’s heart stop. The email address is unfamiliar, but she knows who it is. She clicks to open the body.
“My terrible child- I will be in NYC this weekend for a conference, which will undoubtedly be a bore. It would be heartless of you not to join me for dinner one night, perhaps Friday? I will be staying at the Wyndham Downtown.”
Mary Anne lets the cursor hover in large circles around the email, a habit she developed in grad school, when she first met him.
She had been ethically slutty for six months, carrying the book around with highlighted passages, and after a carousel of kink workshops, swingers parties and poly meet-ups, she had settled into a fairly consistent network of people she liked. She had a couple that she played with, a dom woman she experimented with, and a young ponytailed stand up bass player in an open relationship who came over for vanilla sex every so often. Everyone was very honest, boundaries were discussed and discussed some more. Mary Anne liked the rules, keeping the order in place so jealousies weren’t flared and feelings weren’t hurt. She thought, “I’m really good at this!” She even found herself getting smug with friends who questioned her about her lifestyle, out of curiosity and often skepticism, saying things like “labels are irrelevant, really” and “it takes a kind of maturity to give your partner that freedom”. This was actually just speculation, Mary Anne didn’t have a partner of her own in this life, she was a lone wolf, drifting around in cinched waist dresses and dramatic shoes to whatever appealed to her appetite moment by moment. Then she met Mathieu.
She had seen him around on campus many times, but didn’t take any particular care in noticing until they were on the same M1 bus one morning. He taught English and German Romanticism. He wore a cigar colored blazer and frumpy khakis. His dark beard had a sharp swath of pure white hairs right by his mouth, and he had an insane looking mop of salt and pepper curls, slightly receding at the temples. He peered at her from over his tortoise shell glasses. She noticed his wedding ring on his left hand and she felt dizzy. She braced herself, and by the time she looked him in the face directly, he was already smiling at her like the cat that ate the canary.
He was her first married man, and the only one whose wife was out of the loop. They never called or texted, only using their university email addresses, which he would immediately delete after reading. She saved them in a special folder labeled “From Sir”
They always met at her place, she was lucky that her roommate spent most nights at her boyfriend’s. He would bring her little gifts: a book of Germanic poems about death, baklava, and stockings from the Herald Square Victoria’s Secret. He was very hairy, which she loved. He made guttural sounds when they had sex, and he called her “my terrible child” throughout. He had many bizarre terms of endearment for her, besides Terrible Child, he called her his Juicy Duckling, wenig Apfel (little apple), and Marzipan (a play on Mary Anne).
“Little Mary Anne and her tight, perfect Marzipan….” You get the idea. He liked to be rough, and bought whips and paddles, but the discipline was mostly novelty. By the end of their lovemaking, he would be stroking her hair and whispering nonsense into her ear.
After he left, she would take a shower and find hairs of him on her arms and chest. She liked thinking about how when she was a baby, he already had hair on his chest, and had for years. When she was six, he was going gray. When she was in high school, he was middle aged. It all felt very glamorous, very arty, like a David Cronenberg movie from the eighties.
It ended, as all things like this do, when his wife was offered research position at a university in Colorado, and his course schedule had lightened enough to make it impossible to turn down. They moved away, but not before he had one last meeting with his little Marzipan Mary Anne. After some very fast missionary style sex, Mathieu presented Mary Anne with a Russian doll, kissed her on the top of her head, and whooshed out of her apartment, his herringbone overcoat billowing behind him.
Mary Anne stared at the Russian doll in her hands. She didn’t understand this gift. She began opening the dolls, thinking maybe he had planted something meaningful, or at least funny, at the bottom. But when she reached the end, it was only the last little wooden doll there, its painted face blurred in its tininess, the size of a pencil eraser.
Now, walking up to the restaurant to meet him, Mary Anne is nervous beyond her own recognition of herself. She had agonized over what to wear all afternoon. She wanted to look mature, like the woman he had hoped she would grow into, but also light and innocent, like the young lady he remembered. She settled on a simple navy tea dress printed with a wash of pink rosettes, she is already dampening under the arms and breasts.
Mathieu chose a Bavarian restaurant, with elk tusks jutting out from above the doorway. It takes a moment for Mary Anne’s eyes to adjust to the dark interior before she spots him sitting at a cozy table in the back, swirling a pour of liquor in a snifter. Her legs feel gummy and unstable on her heels as she approaches the table.
Sitting across from him, he starts talking, but she is absorbed by how different he looks. His hair is grayer, and there is a lot less of it. Deep wrinkles run from his eyes and make trails from his nose to his mouth. His skin has a waxy sheen. His eyebrows are…bushier? He’s more bloated than broad. He isn’t older, now he’s just old. Mary Anne struggles to snap out of it and listen to what he’s saying.
“…years of whiskey and all the caramel coloring they add to it, this has a more authentic flavor, more opulence” His drink. He’s talking about his drink. Okay, Mary Anne, you can get on board. You can handle this.
“Cognac is better for the body anyhow. It metabolizes easier in the blood, this one is particularly gentle on the veins because of the aging process. Just golden, lovely sap” He’s talking about Cognac. He’s drinking Cognac. Mathieu waves a waiter over to the table and taps the rim of his glass.
“Another one for the lady” His eyes follow the waiter as he leaves, then land on Mary Anne with a hunger that she recognizes. Finally, something familiar about him.
“You look lovely,” Mathieu’s voice has lowered, like he’s afraid someone will see them, like that would even matter now.
“Thank you,” Mary Anne’s voice is small and nasal, not fully her own. She takes her napkin from its setting and self-consciously arranges it on her lap. “How is Colorado?”
“Outside Boulder, quite lovely. Inside, Boulder is becoming more and more a strip mall with each passing day.” Mary Anne nods in assumed agreement, playing with the corner of her napkin on her lap.
“They opened a Sunglasses Hut right next door to my house” Mary Anne winces with the sort of pain she can sense he expects from this fact. The waiter plunks a pour of Cognac in front of Mary Anne, then starts to continue on, but Mathieu raises a hand to stop him.
“We’re ready to order,” though they haven’t even opened their menus. Mathieu flips open his menu and drags a doughy finger down the laminated page. “This beef stew, what cut is the beef?”
“I believe it is top round” the waiter clearly does not like Mathieu, but is putting on the pleasant face of a champion.
“Not chuck?” Mathieu asks, eyes cast down at the page
“No, sir. Top round.”
“Brilliant. We’ll have one of those to share, and….” He flips the page of his menu and sighs. “the dilled potatoes, the herring in cream sauce, and….” He clucks his tongue for a painfully long moment. Mary Anne sneaks an apologetic glance at the waiter. “The Deutscher Salat, and…the white asparagus with hollandaise sauce. And a knockwurst.” The waiter snatches up the menu from Mathieu and is gone.
“That dress is very becoming. You wore things like that back then, didn’t you? The sort of quasi-Lolita, nymphet in plain clothes version of a woman now?” What? What is he talking about?
Two things occur to Mary Anne at the same time. One is that this is not the first time he has called her a Lolita, or some approximation of it. He did it constantly when they were together those 11 years ago, and she had loved it. She thought they were doing some really hot, dom/sub literature-based sex play, when the truth of it was, she was less than half his age and he liked to verbally acknowledge this while he fucked her.
The other thing Mary Anne realizes is that Mathieu is on something. Though not hugely into drugs herself, Mary Anne has been around them enough to know that he is definitely in a state. She guesses painkillers, his mouth is sticky in the corners as he talks, and there is a euphoric glaze over his eyeballs. He is still talking about her dress, or just dresses in general. Its hard to follow, actually. She takes a sip of the cognac in front of her, which is just Hennessey as far as she can tell. From they way he was free verse poeticizing it moments earlier, she would have thought it was some sort of 15th century cave elixir distilled by faeries.
“You left those little dresses on the sink.” Mary Anne does not know what he’s referring to.
“How is Harriet, is she still at UCB?”
“We didn’t talk about Harriet then, why should we talk about her now?” Mathieu snorts
“Well, that was then. This is now.”
Mathieu leans back in his seat, staring at her, and then he smiles at her in the way that people on painkillers do, in slow motion. She is fighting hard not to squirm under the uncomfortable weight of his druggy gaze.
“What can I say? Harriet…She does her part, she does her hours, she has her world…it’s a marriage. Never get married, Marzipan, you are too pink to be ruined” Mary Anne realizes that it is going to be hard to have an adult conversation with a man who clearly (or not so clearly), still thinks of her as a child.
She excuses herself to the ladies room, where she sits on a toilet and texts Mallory.
“I’m at dinner with Mathieu. He’s v hopped up on painkillers I think”
“what? ew” Mallory responds. She was still in undergrad when this affair was going on, and even had him as a professor for a War and Literature course she took junior year.
“I think he’s having a midlife crisis. It’s pretty grim”
Mary Anne watches the 3 floating dots of Mallory composing her response while boisterous polka music echoes through the ladies room from the sound system.
“he already had his midlife crisis w/ you a decade ago. This is his post midlife crisis-crisis.”
Mary Anne has a quick pee, then texts “gtg will fill u in later”
The food has arrived by the time she returns to the table, steaming from their various plates. Mathieu is blowing on a spoonful of beef stew.
They both speak at the same time. Mathieu says “I burned my mouth on the stew” as Mary Anne says “This looks good!” but she is lying, looking at the gluey looking platter of herring in cream sauce.
“This was my favorite restaurant when I lived here, Duckling” Mary Anne squelches an inner shudder. “I would’ve taken you then, but you know how careful we had to be. Leaping around and hiding like wild hares”
She loads up her plate with asparagus spears, one dilled potato, and a dollop of beef stew.
“The asparagus, or Spargel, is an aphrodisiac around the Rhine” Mary Anne wishes she hadn’t taken any asparagus. Not a one.
“Perhaps for its resemblance to the phallic thyrsus, don’t you think?” she nods, with a mouth full of potato. She loads up her plate with more stew and potatoes and focuses on keeping her mouth full. The waiter brings more cognac and ice water. She decides to just get on with this meal and let Mathieu talk and just wait for it to be over.
For the next 35 minutes, with virtually no involvement on Mary Anne’s part, Mathieu muses through the following topics: the stew (top round is good, chuck meat is for peasants), the potatoes (they really are best served cold), Asia, why are they all deciding to go to school here now? Bras, if you don’t need one, don’t wear one. Cognac again, also an aphrodisiac. Obama, a necessary evil.
Mary Anne is full, and slows her bites to small morsels that she chews on for a long time. She has just washed down the last of her asparagus with a swallow of Cognac when Mathieu takes her entire wrist in his damp hand.
“You will see me back to my hotel, won’t you, Terrible Child?”
Mary Anne has a black pit of panic in her stomach. She could just say no. She could say she has an early day tomorrow, or an Airbnb guest she needs to let in or…or she could just say no. Plain and simple. No, she doesn’t want to.
Instead, she stammers “I have my…time of the month. Not a good time”
Mathieu laughs, flecks of dill from the potatoes caking his dry lips. “Real men aren’t fazed by a woman’s blood.”
“Oh god” Mary Anne thinks. “OhgodOhgodOhgod”
“Real men are happy to part the Red Sea”
Mary Anne feels her overstuffed belly lurch, and her mouth waters. The lighting from the tacky, electric chandeliers seems to intensify. She grabs for her purse.
“I need to actually go see to that for a minute. Excuse me” Mary Anne bolts from the table towards the ladies room.
Inside the narrow wooden stall, it all comes up. The stew, the asparagus, the potatoes, the astringent wash of Cognac all comes up in perfect waves.
She shouldn’t have met him, she thinks. It was all a mistake. Vomit. He wasn’t an experiment, he wasn’t an experience, she gave a greedy man exactly what he wanted. He lied to his wife. He wasn’t interesting, he was pretentious. He was controlling. She was his tiny Russian doll he liked to play with, then pack back up in its layers for later. More vomit. Her ethics failed her, or more accurately, she failed at her ethics.
Once she has emptied herself of the last drips of the meal, she stands in the stall and smoothes her dress, noticing a big blotch of splash back around the collar. She dabs at it at the sink with a soapy paper towel, and searches her purse for a breath mint, but she doesn’t have one. She looks at herself in the mirror, and says out loud to herself, “Just leave.”
She peers into the dining room from the entrance way. Mathieu is at the table, staring down at his phone. The light from his screen is casting an ominous glow on his ghoulishly horny face. Maybe he is texting his wife, or maybe he is emailing some new plaything out in Colorado. By the time he pockets his phone and looks towards the restrooms, Mary Anne is already in a cab, rubbing her puke stained dress with a paper towel, and telling the driver, as she always wanted to, “Step on it!”