ALTERED LIVES

by Roy L. Pickering, Jr.


Richard took a look of appraisal at the decrepit motel before climbing its familiar stairwell. Most men walked this path to purchase illicit pleasures, provided either by drugs or sex. Richard sought neither, but was a regular visitor nonetheless. He hadn't planned for things to work out this way, but plenty in his life had worked out as it damn well pleased.

In the beginning he had come to satisfy his basest desires. But his conscience did not allow him to, despite the overwhelming urges of his flesh. That first time had been torture, infinite longing fighting helplessly against even more guilt. Torture turned out to be precisely what Richard needed. It was what brought him back over and over again.

"Hello, lover."

Richard smiled wryly in recognition of the irony laden nickname she had bestowed upon him. Linda's ordinarily placid green eyes danced to life. She touched Richard's cheek, a tender gesture other clients did not receive, no matter how much they paid. He held his head down to avoid the poignancy of her gaze.

Lowering his eyes brought into focus Linda's voluptuously proportioned torso. It was as if she had been constructed in the heavens to his exact specifications, a woman built for making love. Many had used her at their disposal. Richard was no exception, and yet he was, for they had never been intimate in the carnal sense. He had been visiting her once a week for two years, paying for her time yet not allowing her to earn the money in her usual fashion.

"How's everything with you?" Richard asked.

"Same old freaks wanting the same old things."

Richard wondered if he was included in the statement. Frustration occasionally made her cruel. He deserved it, so tried not to complain. After all, he had come here to serve his penance.

"Everything the same at home?" Linda asked.

"Of course."

The routine began. Richard sat on the edge of the bed while Linda undressed slowly, undulating torturously. Each time they went through this, Richard was sure he would finally break, draw her close and let his body indulge in the fantasies his fevered mind had concocted. Once again though, he remained perfectly still, completely powerless to her whims. If she stepped forward, he would be too weak to resist. But out of respect for the boundary he long ago set, she kept her distance. A single tear rolled down his cheek, as did a pair of hers.

"When will we stop this game?" Linda asked, already knowing the answer.

"Whenever you choose."

"That will be soon, you know."

"Yes, I know."

Eight months of forced abstinence is what first brought Richard into this then unfamiliar world. One night too many besides a woman who had grown cold to his touch. A woman half dead physically, fully deceased in her heart. Richard didn't blame her. How could he? He deserved every one of the poisoned darts shot from his wife's eyes, as well as the barbed wire fence protecting the region between her legs. Her feelings were more than warranted, for his crime was unpardonable.

He had known three drinks were his limit, but let a celebratory mood influence him to down five. Richard was nothing if not a practical man who pre-weighed the consequences of all actions. What a time for a lapse in standard procedure. To get behind the wheel in that state was unthinkable, but no thinking had been done. He still saw the oncoming headlights in his dreams, heard the screeching of tires, felt the impact of metal colliding and collapsing. The words of the doctor continued to echo in his head. Spinal injury; lower body paralyzed; never walk again.

There was something else he still saw regularly as well. The look of blame that masked his wife's face. Michelle did not need to say a word, and indeed never had. Her feelings weighed heavily and constantly in the air.

Sensation through lovemaking had not abandoned her, but Michelle declined him access nonetheless. His wife was no whore. She couldn't make love if she didn't mean it, and she simply didn't anymore. Her affection would remain on hold for as long as her legs were immobile. Forever.

"I'm starting to get old," Linda said. "This business is for the young. I still have my regulars, but the others tend to pass me by more and more. Crow's feet and cellulite are no match for those tight thirteen year olds."

"You're as stunning as ever."

"Not for long, lover. You better come and get some while it's still worth getting."

Richard didn't answer. No surprise there. He was quite dedicated to the self-inflicted torture payment plan he had devised for himself. Linda knew now that her best chance had been the first. When he threw himself down and cried out "I can't", she could have easily shown him that he could. But at the time it hadn't mattered. She had already been paid, so this man could fuck her, talk to her, or spill tears into the cracks on the floor. She had seen plenty of men cry before, and this one moved her no more than the others. She was a long way from being in love with him then.

He went on to tell her about the accident, Michelle's detachment, his isolation. Linda managed not to laugh at his theory that if he paid for it, if he kept emotions out of the picture, then it really wouldn't be cheating. Not in the true sense of the word. He hadn't been able to convince himself any more than he had her. Being intimate with another woman, hooker or not, would be one more crime against his undeserving wife, one more brick of guilt added to an already over-stacked load.

Richard learned something that day he would not soon forget. Denying himself pleasure which was right at hand amounted to inflicting punishment upon himself. Punishment was exactly what he felt he deserved, for what else could make the guilt tolerable? By not allowing himself what he most longed for, tender, sensual human contact, he was paying back what he owed. Michelle was his wife. He had made vows in a house of God to always be there for her. If because of his actions all she could be was miserable and tortured, then Richard would be so as well.

Thus it became a routine. Once a week Richard would allow Linda to give him a glimpse of what he desperately wanted, but no more. Since Michelle's body could no longer do what she wished it to, Richard would not allow his the release it craved. A simple plan which enabled him to maintain sanity.

The plan was not flawless, however. As the amount of his appointments with Linda increased, so did their knowledge of each other, and their degree of emotional attachment. When she finally confessed her feelings, Richard realized what a mess he had created. He could have simply ceased the visits. Instead he examined his own heart and realized that he felt the same. He continued to see her, once a week on the same day at the same time, because love added to his lust made the act of refraining from her touch even more difficult. The worse he could make himself feel, the more demons he would be able to exorcise.

As for Linda's take, it would simply have to not matter. She was a professional, one used to being emotionally uninvolved with what was taking place. She should have been able to handle it, and after her initial declarations went unrequited, she did just that. Richard would one day make it up to her for the trouble he had brought into her previously uncomplicated life. But when it came to making amends, Michelle was first in line.

"Is your daughter still having problems with her husband?" Linda asked.

"Last I heard she was planning to get legally separated from him. Of course, next week they'll probably be going on a second honeymoon. It's so day to day with them. I want to tell her to dump him for good, but I think it's best if I stay out of it. I prefer not to be seen as the bad guy every time he convinces Susan that he's her hero."

"You should let me have a talk with her. I'd explain it to her real good how guys are scum. Not one of them is worth the hassle."

"You really believe there are no decent guys out there?"

"Those are the worst ones."

He wouldn't be surprised if Michelle knew where he went every Tuesday evening. His less than iron clad alibi was that his department's weekly meeting needed to be held after five, due to conflicting schedules. A single phone call would have exposed his lie. There were times when Richard sensed he was being followed, though it may have merely been paranoia. If she did know, but was keeping her knowledge a secret, Richard could only guess at his wife's motivation. He was an expert at hurting women who loved him, not understanding them.

Even if she was aware of his itinerary, Michelle would certainly not suspect that the affair was one of the heart rather than body. She considered Richard, as herself, to be a person of refined tastes. A woman of the streets, particularly these sordid ones, could be seen as nothing more than a workhorse, a soulless body to be used at will. Exactly what he originally sought. But Richard had found that even more than his wife's touch, it was her company he yearned for. Their conversation had been reduced to hollow pleasantries, words treated like fragile china to be used sparingly, when necessary. Most of her communication was transmitted soundlessly, leaving Richard to translate the silence any way he saw fit. By not making love to Linda, there was no other way to spend the time but by getting to know her, and letting her know him. She had become a substitute for his wife in a way far more cementing than lover.

Richard may have originally saw Linda as beneath him, but by not allowing her to be so literally, she had risen to higher ranks in his sights. Maybe he was not as discriminating about the company he kept as he supposed. Maybe Linda was different from the other members of her profession. Perhaps people, regardless of their stations in life, were not as disparate as they believed themselves to be. Or maybe loneliness was the virus that the body fought against hardest, causing folks to cling to anyone within reach.

"Did you finish the book I loaned you?" Richard asked.

"Yes."

"And?"

"And you were right as usual, lover. Vonnegut is a genius. What do you have for me this week?"

"Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I think you'll like him very much."

"I like everybody, lover. It's in my job description."

"Cut it out, Linda."

"Whatever you want. I've been paid already. The customer is always right."

"You know I hate it when you talk like that. You know that's not how I see you."

"And you know that I love you, but you don't care."

"I do care," Richard asserted.

"Not enough."

"Let's not do this again."

"Whatever you say, lover."

Linda was in one of her moods. From time to time the lunacy of their relationship would cause her to come out swinging. Because it was so unlike her dealings with the other men she came in contact with, she sometimes had difficulty comprehending that it was just as strictly defined. Only once had things gotten out of hand. Richard often thought of that day, for it brought out a side of him he hadn't known existed, and added to his growing list of regrets.

"Why don't you confront her?" Linda had asked. "Maybe she's waiting for you to initiate things. If she really doesn't love you anymore, then she'll want a divorce."

"That's the last thing I would do. If Michelle wants out, she'll let me know. And I'll give her everything she wants and more. But if she doesn't ask, I would never bring it up."

"You'd prefer to torment each other."

"It's her call. I owe it to her to do things as she wishes."

"You have no idea what she wishes," Linda said.

"That's her call as well."

"You lied to me, Richard."

"How's that?"

"You said you loved me, but you can't if you still love her."

"The heart's capacity for love and hate is infinite," explained Richard as best he could. "You know that as well as I. I love my wife and I love you. If you're asking me to leave her for you, I can't do that."

"Because of what I am."

"Because of who I am, Linda. A man trying to make up for the pain he's caused, not trying to cause more."

"You are causing more, lover. You're hurting me."

"That's your call."

"Suppose she dies or something? Would we be together then?"

That was when he smacked her across the face and told her not to say such a thing again. She didn't lose her composure. Linda had endured far more physical abuse in her line of work than Richard had it in him to dish out. She just put her hand to her reddened cheek and clarified the question, explaining that she only wanted to know if she would be part of his life if his wife was out of it. Linda claimed to have no expectations, just idle curiosity. Richard expressed remorse over his behavior, then left their session early and her question unanswered. The next week he was back as usual. As requested, she never brought the topic up again.

Their meetings were not a secret to the entire world. Three months earlier, feeling an overwhelming need to confess, Richard confided in the person he trusted most, his brother. Burt had been sympathetic, saddened that Richard was in such tremendous pain and yet seeking even more. Richard told him to save his pity for Michelle and Linda, for they deserved much and he none. His recklessness had rendered his wife an invalid. His selfishness had given false hope to a woman who needed nothing less.

Burt then asked if he continued his visits in order to inflict a steady diet of punishment upon himself, or because bringing the sessions with Linda to an end would be even more painful than seeing her under the rules he had applied. Burt had always had a knack for posing questions that went straight to the heart.

"Your time is up, lover."

"I know. I know." Time was such a fickle thing, so often available in abundance when a person wanted no more of it, yet swiftly dissipating when one longed for it to remain.

An hour later, Richard entered his home. He chatted briefly with Nora, the woman hired to cater to his wife's needs, then entered the den where Michelle awaited him. On her lap was a prettily wrapped gift box.

"Happy anniversary, Richard."

She had learned to be so cruel. Or perhaps her malice had always been there, waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. You learn a lot about a person in twenty-five years of marriage. But there was always room for surprises. Everyone was a stranger in certain ways, leading their own secret lives.

Three years ago to the day, the event that would permanently alter the shape of their lives had taken place. Michelle lost the use of her legs, Richard lost her love. But she wouldn't leave him. She would stay, taking no more pleasure from life, except for moments like these. Richard would play the part of human voodoo doll for however long his wife saw fit.

"Were we happy before all of this?" he asked. Since she had finally broached the subject, perhaps they could now address it and move past. She could choose to forgive, or to officially condemn him. Anything was preferable to the silence.

"Would we be happy if things somehow went back to the way they used to be? Can we ever be happy again knowing that they won't?"

Michelle dropped the gift box into a wastebasket. "Sorry, Richard. I didn't mean to be cruel. I just have too much time on my hands. Why don't you wash up for dinner."

Linda rolled her wheelchair out of the room, leaving Richard's questions unanswered. He promised himself never to bring them up again.


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Altered Lives, 1 August 2005