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William, sitting on the edge of his bed in his underwear, took a long, thirst-quenching pull from a 1.5 litre bottle of Evian.
What you did down there, Megan said, was exceptional.
Thanks, he said, wiping his mouth with the hairs on his forearm.
No, she said. I’m serious. You think your handprints are—
Probably, he said, they usually are.
Megan, who worked at the bank where he did business, jumped up on the bed, twisted hips and torso and looked at herself in the mirror.
Ooooooh, she said. What a naughty boy you are.
William watched as she, at first tentatively, then confidently, touched and lifted the skin he had just reddened and raised with his hands. He was 37, the co-owner of a small, profitable vegetarian restaurant, a man who had made enough mistakes, repeatedly enough and over enough number of years, to earn experience and a smooth, relatively uncomplicated life. He thought of himself like a monk in the city, minus the silly rules, and sitting there, watching Megan, he felt the pride a man feels after satisfying a woman in bed, after doing so aggressively and in a primal and masculine way. He liked that, but he wasn’t a primal, aggressive, or masculine man. He told himself he wasn’t and that he didn’t want to be. The world’s problems were male problems, and he wanted to leave such problems and worlds behind. But the bedroom was different. The bedroom was tricky.
Megan crouched, completely naked, and stared at him. She was beautifully unselfconscious, so free of the usual insecurities. She was only 26. He wondered what men had come before him.
She did a kind of duck walk and made her way to the edge of the bed where he was seated. He had been thinking, recently, about asking her to move in. A woman’s presence was something he had come to rely on, and it was time for hers.
She started massaging his shoulders. I wonder what it’d be like if you…
What? he asked.
Did that to my face.
He turned. His immediate reaction was No, No way, but when someone was bold enough to speak them, it was necessary to be careful with desires. Women had been careful with his.
You would really want me to? he said.
I don’t know, she said, maybe.
He watched her, watched for a sign.
No, she said.
She held out her hand and helped pull him up and onto the bed. She leaned against the headboard, her feet tucked beneath her, and reached down between his legs.
He was facing her, sort of kneeling, and he hadn’t come earlier, which changes things. He let the water bottle fall from his hand.
I want you to, she said.
She bent forward, got off his underwear, kept touching him.
Do it, she said.
He had never done it before. The only time he had ever hit a girl’s face, by accident, was when he was five. He had merely meant to push his cousin – she deserved it – into the bushes, but he had tripped over her bicycle and clipped her face, and his aunt, who had only witnessed the end of things, lectured him as she led him into the house for a spanking.
Little boys, she said, pinching and bruising his arm with her tugging, meaty hand, don’t hit little girls, and big, strong men, she said with even more passion and cruelty, don’t hit women. You want to become a man, don’t you, William?
But over the years, he had thought about it. Not out on the street or thanks to anger or anything brutish and stupid like that, but in bed, in the bedroom. In the bedroom, he wanted to approach, if for no other reason than variety, that type of masculinity.
Now, Megan said.
One mood-killing word of hesitation and the moment would pass.
Do it now, she said.
Would it be a loss? Irretrievable?
He had sodomized them and let them ram their dildos into him. He had spanked them all and played with hot wax and heated knives and had urinated on their faces, though he would never do that again, not with someone he loved. He had pushed and learned, but this wasn’t that, not exactly. Or was it? Violence is tricky, too, much trickier than anyone would have you believe.
Now, she said.
It’s so hard to know where the lines are.
Do it now.
What man hasn’t, at some point in their lives, thought of doing it?
His hands were by his thighs, palms down on the mattress; he looked at the right one and then snapped it across her cheek. He hadn’t used his full force – not even a quarter of what he had done to the flesh of her behind – but the noise was crisp and her head whipped to the side and he was ready to apologise, to say, never again, but her face turned back and the grin on that face changed things even more.
You lied, he said.
Again, she said.
He would have liked to have been disgusted with himself or with her, to feel shame, but he didn’t.
Earlier, he said.
Again, she said.
You’ve done it, he said.
Do it, she said.
Sex is the trickiest.
He hit her again, and once more, and then he was on top of her and inside her and soon he was finished, exploded, and she looked even more satisfied, but her face was a mess, puffy and red and not beautiful.
Don’t worry, she said, I’m a genius with makeup.
He wasn’t worried. What he had done was neither fortunate, nor unfortunate: it was knowledge. This was just one of those moments in life, neither right nor wrong, where he had crossed an unsolid line. One day he would regret the crossing, and it would become wrong, as things do, but not for a while. By then the line would be well constructed, another solid piece of self-knowledge, personally impassable, and Megan would be long gone and he would be left to wonder, rarely – so very rarely – if he had become a man, the kind his aunt had once mentioned.