Here is the situation: they work together, a man and a woman. Neither is boss of the other and they progress at more or less the same pace. Over time they become friends, and later lovers. Neither feels harassed or abused. Every move they make on the trajectory of their affair is consensual. He desires her. She desires him. Neither is married or otherwise committed. No favors are exchanged. No work advantages or disadvantages are part of the conversation. Nothing work related is at stake. They are friends and respect one another, and later, drawn by desire, when they come together, for a while they love.
Inevitably, things change. They compete for the same promotion. In the tension of uncertainty their sexuality waxes and wanes in unfamiliar ways, retreating, or rising with greater force, an exciting almost dangerous aggression, first from her, then from him, and again from her. Each sees the other, briefly, as a stranger. Desire intensifies, intimacy fades.
She gets the new job, the new title, the private office, the expense account, the raise. She begins to travel. He withdraws from her sexually. His jealousy grows. He flirts with other women at the firm, and after hours in bars. He calls her less frequently, lets her initiate contact, shows up for her when invited, but often brutally, or drunk.
What she means by brutally: no, he isn’t violent. But he is cruel, cold and withholding, or vicious with complaint, criticism, contempt, harsh words. She could leave him, but she can’t.
He looks for another job, at competing agencies, imagines besting her elsewhere, securing a better title, a bigger office, a higher raise, a more famous client list, an unlimited expense account. These fantasies excite him and prepare him to face her in her bigger bedroom, to satisfy her in her bigger bed.
The more he is with her, the more brutally he treats her—yes, he is willing to own the word—the more her desire seems to demand from him, as if with her new responsibilities she has become insatiable.
He begins to think he should ask her to let him go, but feels bound still to her body. Withdrawing from her increases her demands. He likes her demanding body. In fact, he craves it, as she craves his brutal withdrawing one.
She too thinks she should ask him to let her go. But where would she find another man to touch her as deeply as this one has, as this one does? She sees men, attractive men, and once almost slept with one, as if to free herself from his hold on her, until at the last minute she retreated, changed her mind.
She thinks a promotion, or a better job at another firm, would help him, would help them both to find their way back to mutuality, to respect, but she knows that to do anything on his behalf would taint his accomplishment, and would compromise her own integrity, and the integrity of their relationship, whatever might be left of it.
He has another explanation for why she won’t help him: she knows, or fears, that as an equal and competitor he would not need her anymore, would not crave her, would not come to her bed and her body. He says this to her in the night, when he is fucking her, bruising her, holding her hostage to his will. With his only power filling her, she fears what he says is true and acknowledges as much, yielding, surrendering to anything and everything in the surrender of her flesh.
He can find no way out, but collects young colleagues to confide in, young women—cautiously unlayering his life, revealing only a little, and a little more. He makes his confidences in quiet corners at parties, in bars, or during lunchtime walks in the park. He takes advantage of the younger woman’s sympathy until he feels it’s safe to breach professional decorum. His language gets more graphic. His hands draw closer to forbidden regions of her flesh. Sometimes he touches her. He always leaves her hanging, wanting more, and takes his brutal arousal back to the woman he would like to leave.
She knows what he’s doing and doesn’t care, as long as he comes to fill her. He knows she doesn’t care and in that moment he doesn’t care either.
But both are tiring of this game. It is a game of chicken now: Who will flinch first?
What if he abandons her for one of those younger women? Would she accuse him then, of emotional assault or battering or even rape? Would she harass him, come after him, stalk him, continue making demands? Could she contain herself? And if she cuts him off forever? Would he turn on her, charge her with harassment, abuse of power? And the young women? What if they spoke up, against him, or her, or both?
How has it come to this? They were such good friends once, not so long ago. They entered into their relationship with such innocence, with such good hope. Now neither can bear to look at that time, how naïve they were, how feckless.
They walked in the park one day. It was lunchtime. It was spring. They saw blue jays harassing a feral cat. They tried to rescue the cat and the cat scratched her. They went to a drugstore and bought rubbing alcohol and cotton and they sat in the grass and sunshine while he cleaned her scratches, which ran all the way up her bare arm. She kissed him. Or he kissed her. Together they were kissing. They were smiling, laughing, crying. They called in, separately, and didn’t go back to work that day. They went to his apartment, which was small, and dark, even on a sunny April afternoon. They were kind to each other, and gentle. She was in love. He said he was. She said she was too.
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