Authors: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
“He wasn’t part of this?”
“He could have been anyone,” Dr. Shields says. Her voice is airy and distant. It’s almost as if she is reciting from a script. “I needed a man with a wedding ring to test as part of my study on morality and ethics. I selected him at random.”
“You were using me as
bait? To trick some guy?” My words come out too loudly for this hushed, serene lobby.
“It was an academic exercise. I did let you know there would be real-life scenarios involved with this phase of my research.”
I can’t believe I’d ever thought we might be eating dinner together. Who was I kidding? I am her employee.
The tightness in my throat eases, but I can’t let go of my anger.
Nor do I want to, because it’s what is finally giving me the courage to ask questions.
“Did you really expect me to go up to his room, though?” I blurt.
Dr. Shields’s eyes widen; I don’t think anyone could fake that kind of surprise.
“Of course not, Jessica. I merely told you to flirt with him. Why would you ever consider that?”
The minute she says it, I feel foolish. I look down
at my feet. I can’t meet her gaze; it was such an extreme assumption.
But Dr. Shields’s voice contains no judgment; it holds nothing but kindness. “I promised that you would always be in complete control. I would never put you in danger.”
I feel her hand briefly touch mine. Despite the warmth of the fire, it is so delicate and cold.
I take in a few deep breaths, but my eyes remain
fixed on the herringbone pattern on the wood floor.
“Something else is troubling you,” she says.
I hesitate and look into her cool blue eyes. I hadn’t planned on telling her this part. Finally, I blurt out: “Right before he left the table . . . he called me ‘Sugar.’”
Dr. Shields doesn’t reply, but I know she is listening to me in the way no one else ever has before.
My eyes fill
with tears. I blink them back before continuing.
“There was this guy . . .” I hesitate, inhale deeply, and then continue. “I met him a few years ago and at first I thought he was amazing. You may have heard of him, he’s a well-known theater director now. Gene French.”
She nods almost imperceptibly.
“I was hired to do makeup for one of his shows. It was a huge deal for me. He was always
really nice, even though I was a nobody. When we got the
printed, he showed me my name in the credits and said I should celebrate it, that life had so many hardships and we should honor the triumphs.”
Dr. Shields is utterly still.
“He did . . . something to me,” I say.
The images I can’t ever seem to erase seep into my mind again: Me slowly lifting up my shirt, up over my
bra, while Gene stands a few feet away, staring. Me saying,
I really should go now.
Gene positioning himself between me and the door to his office, which is closed. His hand moving toward his belt buckle. His answer:
Not yet, Sugar.
“He didn’t touch me, but . . .” I swallow hard and continue. “He told me a prop was missing from the show, an expensive necklace. He said I had to lift up my shirt
to prove I wasn’t wearing it.” A shudder runs through my body as I recall standing there in that claustrophobic, darkened room, trying to look anywhere but at him and what he was doing to himself, until he finished and dismissed me.
“I should have told him no, but he was my boss. And he said it so matter-of-factly, like it was no big deal.” I look into Dr. Shields’s light blue eyes and I manage
to shake off the image. “That guy Scott reminded me of him for a minute. Just the way he said ‘Sugar.’”
Dr. Shields doesn’t respond immediately. Then she says softly, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”
I feel her hand graze mine again, light as a butterfly.
“Is this why you aren’t interested in a serious boyfriend?” she asks. “It isn’t uncommon, when a woman endures an assault like
you did, for her to withdraw, or to change her relationship patterns.”
I’d never thought of it like that. But she’s right.
I suddenly feel depleted, like I did after our first session. I reach up and massage my temples with my fingertips.
“You must be exhausted,” Dr. Shields says, like she can see inside me. “I have a car waiting. Why don’t you take it home? I’d prefer to
walk anyway. Text or call if you want to talk over the weekend.”
She stands up and I do the same. I feel oddly disappointed. A few minutes ago, I was furious with her; now I don’t want her to leave me.
We head together toward the exit, and I see the black Town Car idling by the curb. The driver comes around to open the back door and Dr. Shields tells him to take me anywhere I want to go.
I sink onto the seat and tilt my head back against the soft leather as the driver walks back around to the front of the car. Then I hear a gentle tap on my window, so I roll it down.
Dr. Shields smiles at me. Her silhouette is backlit by the bright city lights. Her hair is a halo of fire, but her eyes are in the shadows. I can’t see their expression.
“I nearly forgot, Jessica,” she
says, pressing a folded slip of paper into my hand. “Thank you.”
I look down at the check, feeling oddly reluctant to open it.
Maybe this is all just a business transaction to Dr. Shields. But what exactly am I being paid for now? My time, the flirtation, my confidences? Or something else I don’t know about?
All I know is that it feels unclean.
When the driver pulls away, I slowly
unfold the check.
I stare at it for a long moment as the car’s wheels spin almost soundlessly against the asphalt.
It’s for $750.
Saturday, December 8
Saturday evening. Most couples call it date night.
Traditionally, it has been for us, too: dinners at Michelin-star restaurants, nights at the Philharmonic, a leisurely stroll through the Whitney Museum. However, after Thomas’s missent text, he moved out and these encounters were terminated. Gradually, after the counseling, apologies,
and promises, they were reinstated, but with a new focus: An emphasis was placed on connection and rebuilding.
At first the atmosphere was infused with strain. If you were watching us from the outside, Jessica, you might assume a new relationship was unfolding, which, in a sense, it was. Physical contact was kept to a minimum. Thomas was solicitous, verging on overly so: He arrived with flowers,
rushed to open doors, and filled his unwavering gaze with admiration.
His pursuit was more ardent than even during our initial courtship. At times it had a desperate, almost fear-laced quality. As if he were terrified of losing our relationship.
Over time, a softening reshaped the interactions. Conversations grew less stilted. Hands found each other across the table once the plates had
Tonight, a mere twenty-four hours after the experiment at the hotel, progress has been reversed. It is clear that not all men are susceptible to the attention of a beautiful young woman. The man in the blue shirt resisted you, Jessica, yet Thomas was not immune when the opportunity was offered.
As a result, an invisible agenda has been superimposed over this Saturday evening’s
encounter with Thomas.
An intimate location, the town house we once shared, is selected to eliminate outside distractions, such as an overbearing waiter or a boisterous party of six at the next table. The menu is carefully curated: A bottle of Dom Perignon, the same vintage served at our engagement party; Malpeques oysters; a rack of lamb; creamed spinach; oven-roasted baby potatoes with rosemary.
For dessert, a variation of Thomas’s preferred sweet: chocolate torte.
Traditionally, the torte is purchased at a patisserie on West Tenth Street. For tonight’s meal, however, ingredients have been procured from two separate gourmet markets.
My appearance tonight is also a departure. Jessica, you were the one who illustrated how seductive a smokey shadow and sable liner can be, when applied
The makeup rests atop the dressing room vanity. Beside it is my phone. The device sparks a reminder: a solicitous text or call is the appropriate course of action following an incident in which an acquaintance or friend is unnerved.
Jessica, I wanted to check in and make sure you are feeling better after last night’s assignment. I’ll be in touch soon.
One more line is needed.
A moment of thought. Then it is typed and sent.
Saturday, December 8
If you need I’m always here.
Dr. Shields’s text arrived just as I was entering Noah’s building for his famous French toast. I began to type out a response, but then I deleted it and shoved the phone back in my purse. As I rode the elevator, I ran a hand over my hair, feeling the dampness of freshly fallen snowflakes.
Now, as I sit
perched on a stool in Noah’s kitchen and watch him uncork a bottle of Prosecco, I realize it’s the first time I haven’t replied to her immediately. I don’t want to think about Dr. Shields and her experiments tonight.
I don’t realize I’m frowning until Noah asks, “Taylor? You okay?”
I nod and try to hide my discomfort. My first encounter with Noah at the Lounge, when I introduced myself
with a fake name and fell asleep on his couch, feels like a lifetime ago.
I wish I could undo that decision. It feels immature; worse than that, it seems mean.
“So . . .” I begin. “I have to tell you something. It’s sort of a funny story.”
Noah raises an eyebrow.
“My name isn’t really Taylor . . . It’s Jess.” I give a nervous laugh.
He doesn’t look amused. “You gave me a fake
“I didn’t know if you were a crazy person,” I explain.
“Seriously? You came home with me.”
“Yeah,” I say. I inhale deeply. With his bare feet and the dish towel he’s tucking into the waistband of his faded jeans, he looks cuter than I remembered. “It was a really weird day and I guess I wasn’t thinking straight.”
A weird day.
If only he knew how much of an understatement
that was. I can hardly believe I met Noah the same weekend I snuck into the study. That too-quiet classroom, the questions creeping across the computer screen, the sense that Dr. Shields could know my private thoughts . . . And yet things have only gotten stranger since then.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Jess,” Noah finally responds.
He hands me a glass of Prosecco.
“I don’t like to play
games.” He holds my gaze, then he gives an almost imperceptible nod.
Before I can block it, the notion flutters into my mind that I’ve just passed a test. I wouldn’t have had this thought a few weeks ago.
I take a sip of Prosecco. The tangy, sweet bubbles feel welcome against my throat.
“I’m glad you’re being honest now,” Noah finally says.
You must be honest
. . . that was one
of the instructions waiting for me on the computer screen when I first entered the survey. Even when I’m consciously trying to dislodge Dr. Shields from my mind, she finds a way to sneak back in.
Noah starts to lay ingredients neatly on the counter and I take another sip of Prosecco. I still feel like I owe him a bigger apology, but I don’t know what else there is to say.
I look around
his small, gleaming kitchen, noting the heavy cast-iron pan on the stove next to the green stone mortar and pestle and a stainless-steel upright mixer. “So, is Breakfast All Day your restaurant?” I ask.
“Yep. Or it will be if my funding comes through,” he says. “I’ve got the space picked out, just waiting on the paperwork.”
“Oh, that’s really cool.”
He cracks eggs with one hand, then
whisks them in a bowl while he pours in a drizzle of milk. He pauses to swirl foaming butter around in a griddle pan, then adds cinnamon and salt to the eggs.
“My secret ingredient,” he says, holding up a bottle of almond extract. “Not allergic to nuts, are you?”
“Nope,” I say.
He stirs in a teaspoonful, then sinks a thick slice of challah bread into the mixture.
When the bread
meets the pan with a gentle sizzle, a mouthwatering smell fills the room. There’s nothing better than fresh bread, warm butter, and cinnamon cooking together, I realize. My stomach growls.
Noah’s a tidy cook, cleaning as he goes: The eggshells are dropped into the wastebasket, his dish towel dabs at a few drops of spilled milk, the spices are immediately returned to their drawer.
watch him, it’s as if a buffer forms between me and the tension I’ve been carrying around. It isn’t gone, but at least I’m getting a reprieve.
Maybe this is the kind of Saturday night date a lot of women my age experience; a quiet evening in with a nice guy. It shouldn’t be that remarkable. It’s just that we’ve already kissed, yet tonight seems more intimate than a physical act. Even though
we randomly met in a bar, Noah seems to want to get to know the real me.
He pulls place mats and real cloth napkins out of another drawer, then reaches into a cabinet for a couple of plates. He slides two pieces of golden-brown French toast onto the center of each plate, then sprinkles fresh blackberries on top. I didn’t even realize he was warming the syrup in a saucepan until he ladles generous
spoonfuls atop it all.
I stare down at the food he serves me, feeling a wash of emotions I can’t easily identify. Other than my mother when I go to visit, no one has cooked for me in years.
I take my first bite and groan. “I swear, this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”
An hour 1ater, the bottle of Prosecco is empty and we’re still talking. We’ve moved to the living room sofa.
“I’m going to Westchester to see my family for Hanukkah later this week,” he says. “But maybe we can do something Sunday night when I get back.”
I lean over to give him a kiss and taste sweet syrup on his lips. As I rest my head on his solid chest and his arms wrap around me, I feel something I haven’t in months, or maybe years. It takes me a moment to define it: contentment.