Val snapped her fingers and pointed to the gently undulating water before her. Front. Kneel.
I don’t have to do this. I can say no if I want to.
I stepped forward and tumbled into the pool.
“She’s such a clumsy girl,” Val assured the staff, and liberally bribed them into letting me dry off in a vacant hotel room. I sat alone, wrapped in hotel towels, watching television while they ran my clothes through the dryer. Val, of course, didn’t wait around for me, but went shopping until I called to say my clothes were dry.
It was a very humble, quiet doll who finally got back into Val’s car.
I spent the trip home wondering what it was about this woman that made me endure such bizarre trials. It wasn’t the sex, which had only happened twice so far. No, it was the way she enveloped me, defined and restricted me. Valeria amplified my sense of being, of existing in a tactile, physical, unpredictable world. Each day was an adventure beyond anything I could have imagined. With her, the simplest objects or situations took on wholly new meanings. A single word from her could mean bliss, or despair. And as dreadful as they were, my plunges into darkness were always, always followed by the sweetest attentions later. I knew it was classic Pavlovian conditioning, yet I learned to welcome her punishments for what was sure to come after. She touched something deep within me which no one, not even I, had known was there, and it made me brave. Because whatever I did, or was made to do, Val was there to assume all responsibility. With Val I felt cherished, and fully alive .
She parked by the gate outside my condo.
“Thank you for a most enjoyable brunch,” she said, and kissed me on the cheek. “Do have a lovely Sunday. I expect you’ll be working on your commissions, yes?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I said, climbing out of the car. I bent down to look at her through the open passenger window and waited for her farewell.
She studied me for a long moment, as if searching for something in my eyes. But then she smiled and released me from her penetrating gaze.
“I’ll be out of town for about a week and a half,” she said.
“Ta,” she said, and zipped away.
FAILING VAL’S FIRST task, that of choosing a confidant from among my long-time acquaintances, troubled me. Of course my initial shock at the brunch stung, but even worse was the guilt that gnawed at me after. The dip in the pool wasn’t the end of the matter. There will be serious consequences , she’d warned.
My guilt, and her absence, made it easy to apply myself to my new task of creating four more portraits of Val. And over the next two weeks they slowly took shape.
I called the first one Benthic . It started with a photo I’d taken of Val a couple weeks earlier, when she’d worn nearly the same outfit as at our meeting at the jazz club, but with her hair up. My camera had been handy, and she’d permitted me to snap a few pictures. I’d posed her in one of the chairs in her study, in the style of those stiff, long-exposure Victorian portraits with murky lighting. In this photo she presented a nearly head-on angle, sitting up straight with an expression of detached amusement.
The twist, as in the first piece, was the image I used as a replacement head, this time a great white shark. Seen almost head-on, the creature had been photographed with its entire head above water, its blood-smeared mouth ringed with teeth, some of them broken. The perspective blunted the shark’s fighter-jet shape into something more box-like. The eyes were so far around the sides as to be almost hidden, but the nasal openings were in full view, bridged by an arc of wrinkled white flesh beneath the pointed nose. It was more demon than fish, all mouth and expressionless snout.
Blending the two images required clever morphing and paint fixes around the neck, but the resulting join was perfect. I added horizontal motion