Sofia Pt. 05 - cut-glass
Sofia hadn't heard Toby coming up behind her as she sat reading on the sofa. The sun had set and the house had been quiet for a long time.
"She's out? I thought the two of you had had an early night."
"She went out. I'm not sure where she is. She left her mobile behind." There was an edge to his voice and Sofia noticed that he looked truculent, with a clenched immobility about his jaw, as if he had a bad toothache. He held a cut glass tumbler half full of neat whisky.
"Oh, gosh. Is it something to worry about? Do you think, should we call the police?" Where had Anabelle gone? Could it be a coincidence that she had disappeared so soon after what had - or rather hadn't - happened between her and Toby. Had she sensed something?
"I already called the non-emergency number. They didn't have any information, but I gave them my number just in case. I'm sure it's fine." He didn't look sure. "I had a drive around the neighbourhood area earlier. If she's not back by midnight, I'll go out again. I'm not sure where I'd start."
"If you go, I'll come with you to help!"
"No. Best to have someone here, in case she comes back."
He came around and sat down in the armchair, close enough to touch. He saw the book she'd been reading.
He took the book from Sofia's hands and rotated it, looking at it from every angle as if it were an object he didn't recognise or an antique piece of china rather than a paperback.
"What do you think of it?"
She felt ashamed to be caught reading it, particularly after the afternoon. She felt like she was deliberately painting herself as some nymphomaniac. Still, it was their damn book.
"Well - it's pretty disgusting. And its disgustingness is rather repetitive." He laughed, a slight snorting laugh. "I knew it would be violent and nasty, but, somehow, I thought that it might be exciting too. It really isn't. I keep reading it, I'm almost through it now, but I come back to it in the way you might periodically sneak glances out the window if there was some awful car crash outside your door - not with any pleasure, and being interested doesn't feel very good. I think I understand now that he didn't actually want it to be exciting - despite it being so graphic - or if he did, he was really just trying to rub in people's faces the fact that they could be excited by ghastly things."
"Mmm." His face, which had been by turns amused and interested as she was talking, lapsed into irritability. "Yes, it is ghastly. But you don't find yourself excited by the ghastly things?" he laughed again, ironically, this time devoid of any warmth or real amusement. If there was a joke it felt like it must be at her expense. Jesus. It would have been seedy, but it was too nasty, too deliberately nasty, for that. Bastard. Was this where it was going? He was making it personal, trying to push her buttons.
"How do you feel when you read his description of innocent Justine being sodomised by the old priests?" Sofia wasn't in the room, she was somewhere else, staring up at the stained brass of an elaborate chandelier hanging down from the ceiling above her head, she could feel the fields of goosebumps growing on her naked skin - too cold, and how sharp her ankles felt in her hands - and the impact was like fierce the sound of fierce banging on a slack drum; it was her womb and it was very far away, the smell of his sweat was closer.
Toby was still talking. She wrenched herself with an effort off that bed and back into the sitting room, the sitting room where she sat letting this bully insult her, dragging his eyes down her body as he did so. "The violation of innocence! His special cocktail of humiliation and violence and sex. It doesn't get you going - deep down?"
What the fuck did he know about sex and violence? A few toys and some kinky games, probably. Fuck him, the smug, arrogant prick.
This was about earlier, of course. He was - what? - ashamed about being caught spying on her and trying to drag her down into shame too? Or he'd found he'd enjoyed manhandling and bullying her and was trying to provoke another round? Had she really felt, in the kitchen, like she'd be ready to let him take her. If he tried now, she'd spit in his face.
"What? Because that's what all us stupid sluts want really?" She hadn't wanted to give him the satisfaction of knowing he'd made her feel uncomfortable, but the retort just leapt out, the echo of his earlier insult. And as it did, a third explanation for his behaviour drifted, more quietly, through her mind - he's feeling guilty that he's drawn to you, and he's just flailing, trying to get close to you and to run away at the same time, the accelerator and the brake both floored. That didn't really make it any better.
He jolted in his seat, and seemed to grow instantly pale. Satisfying - a blow that connected this time.
"Sofia - no - I don't think - I didn't mean - "
But she broke him off. "Sure, whatever. Well, anyway" - she had the momentum now, it felt good to have him on the back foot - "I don't know. Yes, violence can be sexy, maybe even humiliation too, though I'm less sure of that: maybe other people's humiliation!" she cocked her head and gave him an ironic smile, realising too late that the joke let him off the hook more quickly than she'd intended. "But this" - she gestured at the book - "maybe I'm hiding something from myself - but honestly, what he describes isn't even slightly sexy, it's just grotesque and bleak. More than anything it's bleak. They always describe him, de Sade, as a libertine, but it's just nihilism, pure and simple. Maybe there's not a difference, but I feel like there is. I imagine a libertine being unscrupulous and wild and maybe ammoral, but because of a joy for life, a desire to push it's boundaries, savour all it's possibilities even at the cost of creating some huge wreckage. It doesn't feel like de Sade was like that. It feels like rape and torture are so important, because they're the sledgehammer it took for him to feel something, to feel anything.
Toby was smiling at her now, a nice smile, the malicious edge of before seemingly melted away.
"That's very well put. I agree with you, really. He was trying to make some serious points, of course, against the hypocrisy of the church and the two-faced morality of the society around him. But it's got a rotten taste to it. He deliberately created scenarios where sex was stripped of all emotion, all meaning other than gratification in abuse. But I'm not sure he would have done much better if he'd been trying to portray something richer. It isn't easy writing about sex."
"Why? I don't see why that should be true." She actually felt interested now, the conversation almost felt like it might not turn into a competition to see how thoroughly he could squish her under his shoes. "Why should writing about sex be different from writing about anything else? And, I mean, it's something almost everyone has experienced. If you write about killing someone most people will need to get themselves into an alien mindset. It isn't like that with sex - everyone's done it!"
"Perhaps that's partly why it's so difficult! But, no, that isn't the real issue. The reason sex causes so many problems in fiction, the reason it's so damned difficult to do - I think anyway - is that it seems so obviously a physical thing, and yet that aspect of it is really the least significant part. If you write about sex in purely physical terms you can write realistically, after a fashion - perhaps you can even write in a way that's arousing - but it's basically useless to anyone who is actually interested in sex. Because it captures none of the essence of the thing. Look!" He placed a thumb on the outside of her thigh, just below the line of her skirt.
She started. Shit! Everything had shifted again. If he'd reached out to touch her - touch her anywhere - five minutes previously, she'd probably have picked up his glass and smashed it across his face. Even now, she almost jumped, almost slapped him again. But it wasn't instantaneous, charged by real outrage and hatred, so of course it never happened. She'd found herself absorbed in the conversation, listening intently, enjoying the enthusiasm in his voice as he spoke, softened by the respect she'd seen in his eyes when she'd been talking. She couldn't seem to keep a hold on what she felt - by the time she'd managed to perceive and articulate to herself how she felt, she was feeling something quite different. Ever since she'd looked up to see him looking at her through the window, she'd felt like she was trying to keep in time to unfamiliar music, doing a dance she didn't understand.
Now he waved a hand at her dismissively, keeping that thumb pressed against her skin - a few minutes ago he'd been hangdog, just before that malicious - his face twitching slightly with impatience, but the impatience of enthusiasm, enthusiasm in their sharing some spark of insight. "No, this is serious, and this isn't about me putting anything over on you, so you don't have to start any crap - really, I'm trying to talk to you, not to get off." She didn't reply or move. There was a lump in her throat that she felt the need to swallow and couldn't.
He began to talk, talking slowly, dragging his thumb slowly upwards as he did so. It was gentle, it felt nice, but he did it rather absent-mindedly, continuing to gesture with his other hand as he spoke, looking around the room almost as if speaking to an audience.
"If you wanted to write about what I'm doing on the physical level you could say - 'he stroked her leg gently with one thumb, starting just above the knee and working up towards her waist. Her skirt rose with his hand, inch by inch, revealing her thigh, pale, almost translucent, the hint of blue veins showing through in places, and a single, small dark mole an inch below her hip-bone."' His hand was, indeed, now up near her hip, her white thigh was exposed, if he'd felt like moving his head a little he would have been able to see not just the black of that mole but of the lace underwear between her legs. He removed his hand, smiled, and look at her properly again.
"Perhaps, that's a perfectly adequate description of what just occurred and perhaps not. I described the physical act fairly accurately, I guess, and someone reading or hearing the description would have an incomplete but fairly vivid visual impression of what I saw. But what about how it felt? What about what it meant - for you? For me? Would anyone reading my description have any meaningful sense of how you experienced what took place?"
She felt exposed, the beginnings of arousal oozing inside her, but the lump in her throat had dissolved. Strange, but she felt almost too relaxed for it to fit the word excitement.
"And what I did was very PG and - I'm sure you noticed - I deliberately disassociated from it, internally and through my body language I worked to dilute any emotional and sexual charge that might have been there. The problem is much starker the more sexual and the more meaningful the act. For anything truly sexual you end up with this huge divergence between the facts of the physical act, the words required to give a visual impression of the scene, the experience of those involved and the significance of the act, it's meaning.
"If you write only in physical terms about penetration, about fucking, you end up with something that's at best cold and incomplete and at worst a medical textbook, as grotesque as those anatomical exhibitions where different layers of skin and flesh are cut away. But look!" He put his hand back on her thigh, again just above the knee, this time just the plate of his finger nail resting lightly on her skin. This time he looked her in the eyes as he drew his fingers up over her flesh. It was different. The eye contact, made it different. Or rather the look in them. The first time, he'd been lecturing, now she could see longing, barely constrained need, and his voice sounded thicker. She felt countless nerves to quiver and ejaculate electrically, streams of sensation converging into rivers rushing upwards to her brain, where her thigh tingled. Her lips parted slightly, her hand gripped the arm of the sofa, each breath felt like it was taken at a Himalayan altitude.
"You could write, 'his touch sent a wail of pleasure through her body, quite quiet, but with the intensity of a violin string plucked in a silent auditorium.'" He laughed, a laugh of genuine mirth this time, that seemed to shake loose the sexual that had been building. He removed his hand again and looked at her differently, back to lecturing. "Probably not an accurate description on this occasion. And metaphorical. Almost inevitably metaphorical, because the vocabulary at our disposal to directly describe our inner experiences is strangely limited. And so you end up writing mid-twentieth century Mills & Boon, hyperbolically figurative, verging on the euphemistic."
Had he faking the passionate intensity - yes, it had seemed like passion - of a moment before, or was this levity the façade? Perhaps it would be most interesting if both were real. But it was disorientating. And he was still talking.
"I think that's why so many writers, those who take themselves seriously, steer largely clear of sex, they allude to it, describe the before and after of it, or give you a sketch of a few lines that propels forward the narrative or somehow deepens your understanding of the characters. But to capture the drama of sex itself, for itself, seems hard, very hard, to do. Something is always missing, something is always strained. De Sade, of course, got around the problem, by pretending that sex is just something nasty." He trailed off, less like he'd finished and more like he'd permanently lost his train of thought.
She laughed. "So could you do better?"
He grunted. "Me? I'm just a neuroscientist - I'm quite busy enough working out what happens in Brodmann's Area 10 when you're deciding if you want salad or an ice cream." He snorted. "But if I ever find time for writing some sexy fiction, I'll be sure to let you have the first read."
"You better. I'll expect the first draft under my door by this time tomorrow." She was smiling, she was joking, clearly, but found that he wasn't any more. The clouds seemed to be back around his face. He picked up his whisky glass and drained it. He'd seemed perfectly at ease, when he'd been touching her like that, but these last, light, little jokes had flipped some switch again. His face looked contemptuous agin, but this time it struck her, with something approaching certainty, that it wasn't directed at her; he was telling himself that he was a dirty old man, that he was preying on her somehow, and that in all their games and flippancies he was betraying Anabelle, betraying his wife. He hated himself, and hated the fact that a part of himself felt ready to go on hating himself - sinking deeper into the dregs of his self-worth - rather than to stop. How silly, she thought, he hasn't really done anything, just words and the end of his fingers on my legs for a few moments.
She hadn't pulled her skirt back down to cover her thigh, but now he leant forward and did it for her, bruskly, and began smoothing the skirt back into the position that he'd taken it from. It was like he was obliterating the evidence of his crime, hiding his transgression from an invisible audience. Somehow she felt this gesture as a more invasive act than when he'd pulled the skirt up - it was one thing for him to push her physical boundaries because it excited him, for fun, or as part of the odd cerebral game they had been sharing. But it felt quite different to have him physically policing her modesty.
She pushed his hand away. "Get off me! Toby! What right? What right do you have?" She let out a strangled cry of anger and frustration.
Then he stood up, stood over her and, reaching down, pressed under her chin - with one thumb again - levering her neck up so he could still see her face directly. His eyes seemed slightly less than sane. She thought he might hit her or kiss her and she half wanted him to do one of them, if only to break the tension. He let go and at the same time released the grip of his other hand on the empty cut glass tumbler. It landed with a shriek on the flagstone floor six inches from her left leg, transforming itself into countless small missiles. A few splinters found her calf and her small, bare foot.
"Sofia. Do you think she saw us?"
She didn't reply. She hadn't so much as moved her foot. Little streams of blood had seeped out from the glass punctures and were beginning to meander down towards the floor.
He turned and left the room, heading out into the dark garden through the French windows.