Sofianne was making a mental list of ways to break up with Alexander when he proposed to her. The waiter hovered over them, smiling, then disappeared as soon as he realized what was going on. On the table amidst the remains of their lunch sat a black velvet box, open, with a gorgeous ring inside. “Oh,” she said. “I don’t know what to say.” He suggested: “’Yes’?” She said, “Well, I need time to think about it.” His face broke for a moment, then recomposed itself. He slid the black velvet box across the table. “Take it. I want you to wear it while you think.” She said, “Okay.” She closed the box and tucked it in her purse.
An hour later, her cell phone rang as she stood sharing a cigarette with a coworker outside the Frick Museum, where she led tours; it was Alexander. She stepped away from her coworker and answered: “Still thinking.”
A breathless voice said, “Is this… Sof-eye-annie? Are you friends with Alexander Menable?”
“He’s my boyfriend,” Sofianne said. “Why do you have his phone?”
It was someone from the ER on First and 33rd. Alexander had been struck by a cab while crossing the street; his condition was not good.
When she got to the hospital and asked about Alexander, a doctor came out and told her he was dead. “What was your relationship to Mr. Menable?” he said. She began to cry. “I was his fiancée.” HOLY FUCK, she thought. Appropriately, her dress was black.
In the bathroom, she took the black velvet box out of her purse and examined the ring, which glittered appealingly. She put it on and liked the way it looked on her finger.
She wandered lower midtown for a long time that night, surprising herself with occasional tears, and finally stopped into a small French restaurant to eat dinner alone. She felt both rescued and bereft, as well as slightly glamorous. HOW CAN HE REALLY BE DEAD? she thought. Her dinner was duck with a raspberry bourbon sauce. Halfway through the meal she realized that she’d been to the restaurant before, with Alexander, perhaps a year ago, in the first month of their relationship.
At that time, he’d seemed impatient with her and indifferent to her feelings, an attitude she loved. As months passed, however, he became attentive, gentler in bed, and generous, frequently buying gifts and even arranging vacations to Europe and the Virgin Islands, until she began to despise him. For which she felt guilty.
Sitting in Union Square after dinner, Sofianne got a call from Alexander’s mother, who was crying. “He was planning to give you a ring today,” Alexander’s mother sobbed. “He was going to ask you to marry him.”
“He did,” Sofianne said. “I’m wearing it now. I said yes.” She heard her voice say these words independent of her mind and her conscience. After she got off the phone, she began walking home but experienced uncontrollable feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and panic. She called her coworker Janos—the same coworker she’d been sharing a cigarette with when she got the call about Alexander—but hung up after one ring. By the time she reached her apartment, he hadn’t called back. Exasperated, she called again. This time he answered.
“It’s Sofianne,” she said. “I called you by accident before, I was trying to call someone else. Sorry, I’m a mess right now.”
“Oh,” Janos said. “I thought it was somebody’s wrong number.” He didn’t keep her number in his phone, then. FUCK YOU, she thought. She could hear another language in the background; it sounded as though he was watching a movie.
“It’s okay, don’t worry,” she said. “I’m just a huge mess right now. Sorry.”
“It is okay,” he said in his accent.
“I mean, I’m just—the world’s upside-down. I’m such a mess.”
“Oh,” Janos said. “What is wrong?”
Sofianne began to cry a little—genuine tears that embarrassed her. It felt strange to cry real tears on false pretenses. She told him that Alexander was dead. “Oh, no,” he said slowly. “Very sorry to hear. Are you going to be okay?”
“He didn’t know anything,” Sofianne said. “I was thinking about telling him and I didn’t. Thank God.”
“Yes,” Janos agreed. “It’s better this way.”
“I’m at my apartment,” she said. “I don’t think I’m going to be okay. Do you think you could come over, please? I just need someone here so I won’t be alone.”
“Okay,” he said. “Where do I go?” That night last week had been at his apartment. He had never been to hers.
She looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair was fine, but her mascara was badly smudged. She left it like that. She studied the engagement ring and wished she had wanted to say yes. If only he had understood how to act.
The buzzer sounded. She slapped herself with force across her right cheek, then hurried out of the bathroom to buzz him up.
Janos entered her studio and stood rigid in the middle of the room, as if suspicious of a trap. Or maybe—since there was no sofa, only the bed—he just didn’t know where to sit. Janos, at twenty-five a year younger than Sofianne, was tall and Hungarian. He had a handsome, unfriendly look. Also there were language difficulties, and he seemed to hate or distrust Americans.
“Thanks for coming,” Sofianne said.
“I’m very sorry to hear what happened,” Janos said slowly. “How… are you.”
The multi-part answer appeared in her head like this:
- needing something, not sure what
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Do you want to sit? Or something to drink?”
He shook his head warily.
“The worst thing is,” Sofianne said, her hands grasping each other and squirming, “we had just gotten engaged. He proposed to me at lunch.”
His eyes went to the ring. “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t notice. You will still wear it now?”
“Yes?” she said hesitantly. For the first time, she wondered how much the ring was actually worth. Alexander had never taken half-measures when expressing his affection materialistically; it would have cost at least $10,000. She felt dizzy. Guilt attacked her like a bird pecking at her heart.
“Could you to do me a favor, please, Janos?” she said quickly so she wouldn’t have time to stop herself. SPEAK. “I’d really appreciate it. Could you slap my face? And could you pull my hair really hard while I’m on my knees giving you head? And then maybe we could have sex?” The act of asking and the feeling of vulnerability it triggered seemed to conduct a fuzzy electricity upward through her stomach and chest.
He stared at her with a judging look, as if probing her motives. Or perhaps he just wanted to be sure he’d understood all the English words. His face looked like a face that never smiled; he had come to America six months earlier as part of an art student exchange program but she had never heard him speak of any friends here, only of his sick mother at home. There was something off-putting about him. Although he was handsome, his coldness and weak English alienated people, and she sensed that he was nursing carefully withheld rage over what he perceived as his poor treatment.
“No,” he said. “Not if you made the engage. Very disrespectful to the fiancé.”
A blush of bruised pride warmed her face. She understood that she had miscalculated: He hated her and it gratified him more to judge her and reject her now than it would have to have actually fucked her again. So he was one of those men who understands intuitively how to humiliate. She began to cry, arms hanging at her sides, full-body sobs that shook her shoulders.
“You’re right,” she said. “I’m so embarrassed. I should never have asked you that. The truth is, we didn’t… we didn’t really get engaged. When he proposed, I put him off because I didn’t have the nerve to say no… but he made me take the ring anyway. I only put it on after he died. And then I lied to his mother and told her I said yes.”
Janos slapped her face. She let out a cry. She had a thought, sharp like a firework: HOW CINEMATIC. He said something sharp in Hungarian and for the first time, his mask-like expression grew animated. She saw exasperation there, and anger, plus other things like relief. He dragged her to the bed by her arm. Pulling her very close, the fronts of their bodies pressed together, he said in an assuring tone, “What you asked for, I will do that now,” and then said something in Hungarian and slapped her face again. NOT TOO HARD, she thought. (It hadn’t been too hard, but almost.) Then he grabbed her by the hair at the back of her head and yanked.
That melted something in Sofianne; she was unfrozen. She dropped to her knees, undid his pants, and took out his penis. “Your cock,” she said. She liked the automatic sense of slight, childish embarrassment she felt when she said it. “Hungarian cock,” she said, and put it in her mouth. In fifteen seconds, it was hard. The shaft was thicker than the head, which impressed her. With her mouth and hands, she performed something called “Heartbeat of America” that she had seen on HBO’s Real Sex program; it seemed to work because it caused his penis to throb, and his fingertips dug into her scalp.
He said something in Hungarian, then repeated it in English: “Be naked.”
Sofianne visualized herself completely naked, kneeling, with his penis in her mouth: a picture of vulnerability that she found profoundly compelling. She stood and unzipped her dress so it fell around her feet, then slid her underwear down, stepped free of it, and got on her knees again. He grabbed a fistful of her hair at the back of her head and said something in his language that included the word “American.” She put his penis back in her mouth.
The harder Janos pulled her hair, the freer she felt. I AM A BAD FEMINIST, she thought, feeling decadent. She did not actually think she was a bad feminist. They were working into a good rhythm. Then he pulled her hair so hard she was yanked back, she cried out.
She looked up at him. “You hate me, don’t you?” she asked.
He thought about it for what seemed like longer than necessary. He said, “My feelings are complicated.”
She started to get on the bed but he pushed her down onto the cold hardwood floor. She waited on her stomach while he undressed and then she heard his knees touch the floor on either side of her thighs and felt his hand on the nape of her neck. His penis slid into her easily despite its thickness. She always felt slightly embarrassed, for some reason, when she was very wet before intercourse even began.
He thrust violently and without any apparent regard for her pleasure. It hurt. She rocked her hips in the appropriate rhythm. “I lied,” she said. “I even lied to his mother.” Janos slapped her several times on each buttock. She liked the sound it made.
Janos’s breathing sounded healthy, like he was releasing air that had been trapped and heating up in his lungs for months.
He slid out and turned her on her back. He was flushed and animated, like a conductor in the middle of a concert. Sofianne pushed her hair out of her face. His penis slid inside her again. She closed her eyes and made noises. He pulled her wrists above her head, pinning her. The engagement ring dug into the wood. Janos held her wrists down with one hand and began to fuck her with dedication—near-religious vehemence. He had let go of everything. Her hips were moving in good collaboration with his thrusts. She felt euphoria. OH THANK GOD THE TEMPORARY OBLITERATION OF ALL THOUGHTS, she thought. She had an orgasm but it was an accident, offhand; she only noticed when it was already happening. She was crying a little but the tears were like blood leaking out of a wound, just a physical phenomenon.
Janos gasped something in Hungarian and Sofianne didn’t understand but understood. He pulled out. She sat up, gripped his penis, and put it in her mouth just as he began to climax. She pumped with her hand but kept her head still. After she swallowed, she lay back on the floor. She could feel her heartbeat in her vagina. He settled beside her, breathing hard. They rested side by side for a while, although at no time was there a caress or a kind word. That would have spoiled the moment.
Read more about Nick here.
Read more about Michaela here.