The creature in “Subtext” traces his lineage to very old monsters. “Monstrare” is an ancient verb meaning “to show,” and in myths gods sent monsters to show people a lesson. But they couldn't speak except through body language; someone like Oedipus had to read it.
The “S” in “S & M” refers to someone from an old legend; the first two words give a clue.
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This morning I waited thirty minutes for a Broadway train. The gathering crowd started to cough from impatience. I occupied half an hour reading the New York Times down to the last memorial notice taken out for a car salesman by his Rotary Club. As the throng pushed me close to the platform edge, the subway's stench of soot and sewage stung my nose until I hoped that someone had died miserably to hold us up this long. I savored the lost and found notices, all of lost jewelry—good luck! Then the mice who scurried over the rails disappeared; rodents feel the rails vibrate from a train's approach before one can see its light in the tunnel.
I looked down the tracks, but all that emerged, lumbering slowly over the thick gravel, his heavy bulk swaying above tiny feet, was a dragon. Not a great, glittery, artistic one, but a squat reptile like a Komodo, though his skin wasn't as iridescent—more what you'd expect of a beast that lived underneath Manhattan. Scabs and scars marred his coat. Disease had stripped the thin, colored skin of the throat, and his back bore the usual subway graffiti. Tin cans clattered behind him on a rope—a children's prank, I thought, until I saw him pick up a discarded soda and string it on.
He looked so bedraggled that the one child on the platform didn't even glance up from his hand-held game. Nor did the businessmen pay any attention; they kept their noses in their financial sections—what effect could a lone animal underground have on the Dow Jones? Secretaries studied their lacquered nails. No one was surprised to find the truth yet again worse than reported—there weren't alligators in the sewers, but shabby monsters.
The dragon didn't look at us, either; he asked nothing, only dragged himself slowly over the rough stone bed and left a trail of blood. I turned to the transit officer nursing a paper coffee cup; he looked blankly at a waterfall poster advertising cigarettes. After all, what could he do, jump down there alone and wrestle it next to the third rail? The handcuffs wouldn't fit the animal's thin, fragile wrists, and the cop would never live it down if he called for help with a little dragon. The creature was better off on his own than caged in the state's care. And if he'd mauled someone at the last station to cause this delay, by now the police had surely arrested some other likely suspect they'd parade on the evening news to make us feel better. Tomorrow on the train, the same crowd would bury their heads in newspapers with the poor accused man's face under the headline, “Subway Beast.”
One night, in the dark, it hit me that his initial and mine are S & M. What does that stand for? Sadness and madness or sun and moon, son and mother, secrets and magic, sense and mind, snake and me, speaker and mute? Skin and mask, self and mirror?
Looking for the bathroom at one of his parties, I found a woman on her knees before him.
“Please, can I give you head,” she begged.
M turned away in dull disgust and saw me.
I wanted to tear his skin off; why should he have so much? I'd watched him for a long time, while he seemed to hardly notice me.
When he walked past, I slapped him in the face. Not hard. But he turned and gave me a look so soft the blood drained from my palm as roughly as sand. I saw that M didn't hate those who wanted him; he despised the way his looks twisted them like a strong wind.
He turned away but said when she had left, “If you want, come tomorrow night.”
“For revenge or punishment?”
He bent the question back at me with a stare.
What did I want from him? To find out, I went. No one had paid attention to me in so long that even I couldn't.
His loft door stood open; I walked through the dark entrance.
“So what do you want?” he asked, closing the door.
I panicked and tried to speak, to crowd out with words the fear that I was going to die—what did I know about him except that he had so much power over me in the real world, and that he loved it? His name had appeared in a list of desirable bachelors titled, “America's Most Wanted.” Had I crossed on his doorstep the thin line between two kinds of wanting?
I wanted to scream, “Just tell me what you want me to say.” But I can't hear in the dark, anyway.
I knew he had insomnia. Power and beauty meant nothing alone in the dark—was that why he couldn't sleep? He had so much more to lose than I.
I tried to make him surrogate dreams, but the men in my stories kept getting killed. He stayed silent; I tried to fill the bottomless silence between us, threw in everything I knew, stripped the inside of my head, and he became naked. The more I stripped from inside-out the less afraid I became, until there was nothing between his ear and my mouth and I felt weightless, as if we were swimming in ink. His dark quiet flooded my brain, swept all possessions away. The whole room was the soft black of his eyes that took in everything. His calm held me closer than skin.
At the start I thought I'd run out of stories after a short while, stumble over my own doubts, but the more I told, the easier words came; I just read his silence.
Telling tales must have been the second art we learned to do in the dark.
I never met anyone more beautiful or less interested in skin, more dangerously obsessed by what goes on under it. I came once every four months for three years. I still feel the night is M listening to me, now.
Only after a decade, when I met him and his new wife at a literary event, did M speak to me. He leaned over at the end and whispered, “For years I was obsessed with you.” I never said how much I loved him.
“I think therefore I stink,” I said, letting Descartes fall closed as the train braked to a halt. The conductor didn't even announce the stop.
“Excuse me,” I called as he passed. “Where are we?”
I pushed aside the curtains and saw an empty dirt road wind up a hill that water had stripped to bare rock. And suddenly I had to go. To hell with the conventions. I rushed along the road, though the high heels for my lecture slipped on the waterworn stones. I walked until the path ended at a low, thatched hut. In the one front window stood a sign that said “Room.”
The man by the door held out a key but didn't look up from his yellowed newspaper.
“What about arrangements?”
“There'll be plenty of time for that, Madame,” the old man said, waving me off.
I walked to the door at the back; my key slid into the lock. The room held a double bed, desk and wardrobe. Closing the door from inside, I heard one in back of me open and turned to find it led to a bath.
Behind closed doors we're all whores, or bores, and those who seem to be one can turn into the other once the door's shut. Let's see which we are, I thought and turned the lock. I left the key in so no one could enter from outside, opened the tap to the iron bath, undressed and hung my lecture suit in the cabinet.
Sinking into the warm water, I remembered my mother, who died just before my success. That she'd never know made it all meaningless. The name she'd given me was on everyone's lips, but she wouldn't have recognized the person who answered to it, I thought, rubbing the dead skin off. Finally I'd gotten the rewards so long sought for and found their taste bittersweet, like all fruit eaten too late. Now I had to say no to those who used to reject me—the tables turned, but still the same barren tables. Texts were the sole way I connected with others: no germs, no physical threats. I wrote only about works whose authors were dead.
My head felt cold. I stepped out of the water but found the towel racks bare. I walked to the wardrobe and opened it; my clothes had disappeared. Out of the dark emptiness stepped a boy as naked as I.
“What do you want?”
“To know what you want,” the boy replied. His beauty turned the air to ice.
“Nothing?” he asked, running his hand down my stomach.
I bent forward; my wet hair clung to his arm. So close I could see the blood pulse through his neck, I said, “Something to dry myself.”
“You already are,” he answered, sliding his hand up my thigh.
“You're too young.” I pushed him away.
“What do you know?”
“Ask me anything,” he offered. “I'll show you.”
“What happens when we die?” I stepped closer.
Slowly, without taking his eyes off me, he backed up. I pressed him against the wardrobe ledge. He lost balance and fell into the silence. I looked inside the cabinet and found a shaft so deep I never heard a crash. I stepped toward the hole, but the desk caught me in the groin. Falling back into the chair, I opened the inkwell and started to fill the emptiness.