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As Francesca (Martha Baer)


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  No one had ever brought me to my knees like that before.

"Get ... down," she would say. The lights were dim, the heavy drapes closed, absorbing the smells of wet soap or melon. The walls were blanketed with shadow that dipped and folded around the moldings. And there'd be a moment, right about then, when I'd start to hear my own breathing. I was indecent. I was incorrigible. My back would arch and my shirt pull away at my chest a half an inch further and the street lights from below would edge in under the curtains and melt into the glow from the monitor.

I would stare, hard, into the light that was cupped in the darkness of the room. I would stare at each ready, blank line as if I were peering through a filthy grating, peering into an incalculably deep space whose bottom may have been just a foot below or may have been fathoms. The waiting made me despicable.

And then, long breaths later, the letters would spill across the screen. They'd come quickly, like fingers executing a musical scale.

"Get down on your knees and shut your mouth," they said, the last words each to a line, "and

"don't

"move."

Now I was making sounds with each breath. I was supposed to comply.

"DON'T MOVE," they said, bigger. But I would slide my hand down inside my clothes.

The next day I would feel refreshed. After all, short of the most predictable morning-after effects (heaving self-hate, sickening remorse, abject shame, et cetera) bright-eyed affability seemed the next most appropriate. The kettle would pipe up, flutes and reeds would pipe in through the vents from the neighbor's downstairs, the wind would play against the windows, and I'd feel full of energy, alert and focused, like some exemplary bank clerk who's congenial from dawn till night and never seems to lose steam. I felt blessed with intelligence. There was work to be done, mounds of it, but as keen as my mind was, as steady my sentiments, it would be a cinch to complete. Everything seemed manageable--no trace of doubt, nary an epistemological wrinkle.

That was the fall. All through the city, dead leaves circled the signposts and flipped their undersides upward on the air. The weather was cleansing and prescient, and I felt for the most part it treated me well. Every now and then, the winds would pester and divert me temporarily, like a grating mendacious politician making headlines on the 24-hour news, and particular gusts would suggest some cosmic disregard for my value as a citizen. But through it all, through the sometimes battering wind and through all my dark judgments of our town's material distributions, I was forward-looking most of all. I was alive to everything, sweet or ill. And most notably, during that satisfying passage in my life, now several years back, I was always capable of seizing upon goodness. I could build in my imagination, brick by brick, a palace of rewards. Pouring my thick black coffee in the morning, penciling in a thick black brow, or zipping a black jersey around my neck, it was as if I had a bull's-eye view of a future, and somehow it all looked good.

At work, I felt magnanimous. I was liked and I liked everyone in return, particularly Roberto and Kay. For four good solid months--and I mean that, "good," "solid," in several ways--I would stop by Kay's station in the mornings where the lacy lamp she'd bought for her desk lit her cubicle with its anomalous yellow glow, and I'd apprise her of my long-term intentions, my well-conceived solutions to yesterday's problems, my plans for the day ahead. I'd listen to her opinions with fastidious regard. We were voluble, but never excessive, and Kay was loyal and smart. She would lean back and watch me gesticulate, the expression on her face knowing and bemused, her arm sprawled across an open file drawer, and I always knew my pronouncements would be met by some sort of witticism or affection.

In those months, it seemed, Kay had grown even more likeable than she already was. Or at least my fondness for her had grown more acute. I remember one morning, for instance, when a wash of such deep appreciation came over me I made a conscious note of it to myself. I shook my head and smiled. She was dressed as usual in a long liquidy dress, her bony frame and girlish outfit contrasting with that vigor, simultaneously athletic and intellectual, that I admired, and standing up close to her, murmuring, I was underscoring my contempt for Gerald, our division head, with another outrageous anecdote illustrating his dearth of enthusiasm. Kay laughed and motioned with her hand, a gesture that anyone with even a slightly versatile imagination would have read as a grab for the genitals of an adversary male; I loved the way this delicate girl never abandoned her sweetness even in moments of total vulgarity.

"King Gerry," she said, and I saw, as she leaned in to grin with me, the glass beads of her earrings casting pools of multicolored light on her neck. She was laughing, the muscles of her face shifting over her jaw. She whispered something else flip, like, "He's the worst dressed version of Satan to emerge in this millennium," or, "He must have got his brain implant from Dow," and then leaned back once more. I looked at her for a moment, with the unspeakably lifeless carpeted wall behind her, that supremely unimaginative padding all the cubicles had, and I registered in the vivid contrast of it what an uncommon young woman she was.

This hadn't been obvious to me right off. For years I'd lost touch with Kay altogether, after a brief stint as friends in undergrad calculus, and it had never occurred to me to track her down. She'd been the kind of acquaintance you easily hit it off with but in a sense had met too late, having already collected a pretty full slate of companions. We were both in our last semester in college, ready to move on, but both liked doing math, particularly if it included the element of speed. And so shortly into the course the two of us sank into the pleasurable routine of doing problems side by side in the library and swapping solutions while racing the clock. Kay wore the same exact sort of dresses back then, though her face was less narrow, and she exuded the same kind of roguish warmth. We laughed at length in between assignments and sometimes while walking out of class, but we'd lost touch nevertheless a month after completing our finals.

When I ran into Kay at Poplar--it must have been more than five years after--circumstances for both of us were different. Clearly, like me, Kay wasn't drowning in pals any more, nor was she likely to replicate here in the office that sense of familiarity and social abundance she'd been able to drum up on campus. In this incarnation, our attachment bore the added incentive of a little bit of need. We were elated at seeing each other. I have no doubt the look on my own face was precisely the one I saw on hers, when, in the middle of Marissa's giving me a tour of Domestic Sales and Fulfillment, on my third or fourth day on the job, we spotted each other simultaneously. It was as if we were not only surprised at the coincidence, and not only sensing with relief that our respective isolation might be lifting, but we were also electing each other immediately, hands down, as Most Favored Workmate, as Best Office Friend. Even despite Kay's frequent moods, despite how off-putting she could be in her dark spells, I probably would have cast that same vote every day for my next three years at Poplar.

But tempered optimism, reasoned determination, heartfelt camaraderie, good breakfasts--my own mood, in those days, persisted. It wasn't just the mannish silk jacket or the fashionable platform shoes, and it wasn't just the orderly office with the plaid curtains that in my daily life signified purpose. There was also the way I interacted with colleagues and friends, from His Highness Gerald to nervous Jean Fine and Vera the artist from Bogota. I was about as well-liked and organized as a girl could be for that salary and I was always willing to be more so. More salaried, certainly, but more trusted and admired as well.

There were only the mildest intrusions into my confidence and my constantly upbeat boot-straps energy, and these were hardly even discernible. Just for a second as I was taking a coffee in the stairwell where I'd hide with Roberto to talk, or heading home in the evening alone, one other mood might once in a while intervene. It was a flash only, always, and a feeling bearing not the slightest resemblance to the feeling of the day. Along Frederick, say, it might happen, that a wind would shove the debris along the foot of the buildings. Some empty bag would catch my eye as it rose suddenly upward, and following its path toward the parlor floor of a row house.

I'd glimpse an open window. Drapes, heavier than those in my own windows but similarly fleshy and crimson, similarly slow to billow and then rest, would fill up with air. They'd swell, creating an opening between their velvety hem and the ungiving ledge underneath them. In that dark opening, just then, where the folds peeled away from the private darkness of the room's interior, I'd see the insides of my own nights. It was a glimmer only, a spark. I would have been hard-pressed to describe it in even the vaguest terms. At best I could have called it a physical sensation, stirring up whatever substances were otherwise settled in my stomach, my knees, my thighs. It was a hum or spin. Behind my eyes I felt a drawing inward, a physical subtraction that brought all my sensations, all perception, down to one tiny, dense and living center, which, could you ever reach into it, grab it, in the hot and nebulous place of feeling where it lived, and know its name, there would be no other word for it than the one hushed iteration: "sex." It was the thing itself. And following that small and potent instant of satisfaction, there was a fleeting image that passed in my mind as quickly as a fish under water. Replacing the bulging drapes was an image of a hand, the hand of "Inez," coming violently across my face.

All this would take no more than a second to pass, and without even altering my expression, raising my brow or shifting my eyes, I'd proceed to turn the corner onto Stuart. There was no need to notice even, really. One extraordinary wave of lust that opened up all my mental and physical passages on a quiet walk home it had zero effect on my competence. What was significant, I noted, as I adjusted my black scarf under my collar, was how readily I left it behind and seamlessly returned to the absorbing concerns of my busy and wholesome day-to-day life.
 
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    Excerpted from As Francesca by Martha Baer. Copyright © 1996 Martha Baer. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.