“Contents of House” by Jane Ciabattari (from Long Island Noir)
Contents of House
by Jane Ciabattari
Sag Harbor, Long Island (from Long Island Noir)
If you’re watching this, I’m dead. But don’t stop. Watch all the way through, and I suspect you’ll know who did it. This is my confession, and his . . .
The most hostile thing Casey did after the breakup was sell off the contents of our house on the beach, the place we bought and furnished our first summer together in Sag Harbor. I chose each chair and lamp, each dish and towel, anticipating life together.
I left him on the first day of April. April Fool.
He retaliated by putting an ad in the Star for the Saturday after Memorial Day: Contents of house. Eleven a.m. to five p.m. No early birds please.
My best friend Sally had the nerve to go.
“By nine-thirty there were a hundred people lined up outside the front door,” she reported as we ate dinner the following Friday night at the crowded sushi place in Sag Harbor. “By eleven a.m. the house was empty.” Poof.
This was all clearly against the separation agreement, but Casey believed rules were for idiots. Id-juts, was the way he pronounced it.
“He was virtually giving it away,” Sally said. She had taken notes. “He got ninety dollars for the brown leather couch.”
“He could have gotten more,” I said. “I bought that on sale at Ikea for five hundred, marked down from a thousand. How about the four Italian stacking chairs?” I’d found them on the Design Within Reach website for eight hundred.
“Ten dollars each. He sold all the crystal wineglasses for two bucks each.”
“Just like Casey to sell my stuff cheap.”
“He had bins of stuff in the backyard, he told them everything there was free.” She paused.
“And what was it?” I prodded.
“Well, I saw leather thong panties, a couple of whips, a Polaroid camera.”
The bastard. He’d put it all out there for everyone to see. The zippered leathers, the leopard-print miniskirts and stiletto heels, the homemade videos, all pawed over and carried off by neighbors and assorted strangers.
“I didn’t know if I should tell you this part,” Sally said, “but I figured you should know.”
She looked away. She was shocked. Sally was loyal, and she kept her mouth shut, which was more than I could say for my other friends during the divorce. But she was a bit of a prude. How could I explain what went on between us?
“We were just being . . . theatrical.”
“Whatever,” Sally said.
One humid morning a few days after the yard sale, drinking coffee at the Candy Kitchen after getting a haircut, I spotted my former sister-in-law Patty, the monster gossip, talking to a skinny blonde with a tight face. She was describing the costumes and videos Casey had given away. Looking out for her big brother. God knows what Casey did to her when they were kids.
I stared straight ahead at the sign over the croissants: PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THE BREAD.
“Nothing is ever what it seems,” the blonde said.
“You never anticipate this stuff,” Patty continued. “She seemed so good-natured, volunteering at the LVIS on Saturday mornings. More like she was twisted, if you ask me.”
Did Patty really think it was my idea? Casey was thirty years older than I. I was still in college when we met. I was tentative, malleable. From the time I was small, I’d been trained to “behave.” My dad was a contractor, brawny and tanned year-round from being on construction sites, prone to drink too much beer on winter weekends when work was slow. My mother used him as her enforcer. She liked to joke that all he had to do was look at me sideways and I’d stop doing whatever it was she didn’t want me to do. The habit of obedience served me well through the Sag Harbor school system and into college, where I studied computer science and web design. It didn’t prepare me for Casey.
When we met, I was a college senior, a tall, long-legged runner with curly strawberry-blond hair pulled back from my face. I was given to wearing jogging shoes, tank tops, and shorts, adding a sweatshirt when the weather was cool.
Casey was nearing fifty, tall and lean, with a firm jaw and silvery hair. He painted massive canvases of large-breasted women dressed in suburban drag.
“What do you think?” he said when he approached me at the drinks table at his show in a gallery near campus. I was flattered. I had seen the sharply positive reviews of his work in the New York Times. From his bio on the gallery wall I knew he had paintings hanging in museums all over the world. He took me out for lobster after the opening. He laughed a lot, a low chuckle. He reached out a couple of times and flipped my hair off my face, but otherwise he didn’t touch me. He drove me back to the gallery to get my car, and asked me out to dinner again.
I was used to guys my own age. He talked more than they did. I listened. Every time he sold a painting at his gallery in the city, he boasted, the dealer sent him a check for $150,000. That was minus the commission. “Someone out there likes my work,” he said. He was getting another $60,000 a year as a consultant to a museum in Amsterdam. He didn’t say what he did for them.
The first time he took me sailing, I nearly got knocked out of the boat several times, blindsided by the boom or whatever it was called. He laughed a lot at that. He had grown up on sailboats. I had seen them from the beach, and from the Sag Harbor Long Wharf, where I took ice cream breaks from my summer job waitressing at a fish restaurant. But I’d never been aboard.
I wore a relatively modest black-and-white-striped bikini and sandals. He wore a white jersey and khaki shorts, boat shoes, no socks. He sailed to an inlet he knew, served grilled tuna, orzo salad, and sauvignon blanc. He asked if I wanted to sunbathe topless. “No one around but us,” he said.
“No,” I replied. He chuckled and called me old-fashioned. He reached over and dabbed zinc oxide on my nose.
Casey waited until I was wearing his engagement ring before he brought me by his older sister Patty’s house in Bridgehampton.
He made a point of mentioning that I’d grown up in Sag Harbor. And he told her my age.
“Ah, twenty,” Patty said. “Where were we when you were twenty, Casey? Italy? Yes, that was the summer we all had such a ball in Cortina. I was dating that awful Englishman.” She turned to me. “He used to drink two bottles of red wine at lunch and simply pass out.” Back to Casey. “And you were with, which one was it? Glenda the good witch. Came from the Midwest, looked like Grace Kelly, had promised her parents she would stay a virgin until the wedding deed was done.”
Patty was tall and lean like Casey, with the same startling blue eyes. Casey had let his hair go gray. Patty colored hers a shade of beige I assumed was expensive.
“What color was Casey’s hair when he was my age?” I asked.
“Strawberry-blond like yours,” he said.
“Dishwater, ashy, not really blond, not really red,” Patty said.
By the end of the afternoon Casey had convinced Patty to handle the wedding. “Rhonda’s parents are of modest means,” he said teasingly. “Let’s make it easy for her.”
We were married on a warm September day on the beach behind Patty’s house. As we stood in the receiving line afterward, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the surfers riding the incoming waves.
“Think of this room as a place in which you can do anything you want, anything you can imagine,” Casey said on our wedding night. He had ushered me into his master bedroom a few hours after all the guests had driven back to the city and Patty had sent us off on our “honeymoon” at Casey’s house in Southampton.
That night he began taking the Polaroids. He’d put together costumes for me to wear, isolating one or another erotic part of my body. “Just for us, later,” he explained.
He talked constantly in bed. If he brought up something he wanted to do and I resisted, he called me neurotic. He began to use that word a lot. He also used the word lick and the word crave and the word orifice a lot. I assumed that was what happened when you got married. You adapted to each other’s tastes. Just as later we chose the beach house together.
In the new place, he brought home tropical-tasting lubricants, moved on to “first-time” appliances with several speeds and pop-it beads he’d originally tried in Tijuana before I was born. Over time I realized that the quality of agreeableness that had served me well with everyone else in my life to date might, with him, become a liability. As he pushed me past each threshold, I began to say no. He cajoled and pressured. Over time, that became his favorite part of the game. He needed the accoutrements, the sense of sport.
One night I watched him watching me and watching himself in the mirror over our bed with a cold gaze. No doubt he was calculating curves he could use in his next painting. There was a growing resemblance between his new paintings and my body. My body was selling well.
Finally I pushed him away. I told him I wanted what I wanted.
I used the word hate. And despise. Feathers appealed to me more than spikes and leather and cameras and videos, I told him. I imagined birds, floating and perching here and there like carnival creatures. Leda and the swan.
He produced a whip.
I said I didn’t want to hurt him.
He said I wouldn’t be hurting him.
He pushed the handle of the whip into my hands.
I refused to grip.
“Damn it,” he said. He slapped me.
I shoved him away and ran downstairs. I threw on a shift and thongs I kept in the mudroom for after the beach, grabbed my shoulder bag, and left.
“The bastard,” Sally said. “And that sister of his.”
She and I were sharing avocado-shiitake sushi and vegetarian miso that Friday night. The restaurant was across the street from the tiny apartment I’d rented over a bookshop on Main Street. After I left Casey, I got a job right off the bat managing the college website. It was demanding work, coping with viruses and updates and system maintenance and trying to keep the design clean and easy to use. Not as creative as I might have wanted, but it paid well, and I had to cut back on expenses, living on my salary alone.
The minute I was single again, Sally had suggested we meet for dinner at a different restaurant each Friday night. Sally knew the ropes. She was almost thirty, single a long time, picky. She only went out with men she met through someone she trusted, and only on Saturday nights. The rest of the time she filled with dinners with girlfriends, Italian classes, hikes, bike rides, kayaking. Sally was barely five feet tall. She kept herself trim, wore her dark hair short and her skirts just above the knee. Standing next to her, at five-eight, I felt monstrous. And I felt worst about myself on Friday nights. During the week work kept me busy.
“When did that stuff start?” Sally asked while picking at her sushi with chopsticks. I was eating mine by hand.
“You mean the costumes?”
“Well, whatever it was.”
“I’m not sure you want to know . . . or I want to say.”
“Did you know when you got married?”
“Beforehand, he was, Whatever you want, as if I were calling the shots. Hah.”
“Do you think you ought to see someone?”
“See, like date?”
“I mean a shrink. Maybe there’s some sort of emotional damage?”
“Nothing that wouldn’t disappear if I could think of some way of getting back at him.”
I didn’t feel hurt anymore. I didn’t feel shame. When Sally asked, it took me awhile to define what I felt. I was furious. How dare he.
“Think about it,” Sally said. “If you decide you want to talk to someone, I can suggest a friend. And you should know that Patty is spreading the worst rumors.”
“I know. She’s busy pumping up Casey’s profile. There was a photo of him in the local paper, honored for donating a painting to be sold at auction with the proceeds going to a retreat for abused women. Meanwhile, I’m getting these heavy-breather phone calls at all hours. I think it’s him.”
“You know how to stop that, don’t you?” Sally explained how she could punch a few keys on the telephone pad and give the caller a shrill whistle. “A cop friend told me about it. As for Patty, I suspect she’s helping set you up for a bad settlement in the divorce.”
“It’s hard enough living on my income out here.”
We split the check and I headed back to my apartment. I missed the sound of the ocean at night. I missed my things.
A few months after the split, some stock I had inherited from my mother’s father suddenly went up from $25,000 to $200,000. I had money to play around with. When Sally came by for coffee early one Sunday morning, I got an idea for the game I wanted to play.
“Guess who just rented a house in Sagaponack?” Sally asked.
“Someone I know?”
“Exactly. Your ex. Six bedrooms. A sauna. Walking distance to the beach. Did you see the Science Times this week?”
“I didn’t have time.”
“I saved it for you. Take a look at the piece on revenge. It’s so you. Listen to this: Acts of personal vengeance reflect a biologically rooted sense of justice that functions in the brain something like appetite.”
“And here’s the kicker: The urge for revenge is even stronger than lust.”
Casey’s new house was a nondescript McMansion across from potato fields. I drove by several times a day to get a sense of his routine. He was still living the artist’s life, with irregular hours. But every morning he spent a few hours at the gym.
Breaking-and-entering was new to me. Luckily, the lock on the back door was flimsy. I slid in with my backpack of equipment.
The wireless video camera was tiny, impossible to detect. It fit neatly into the smoke detector in the ceiling of his new bedroom. The hookup took awhile. He had a new duvet cover in a faux-leopard print. He had his pants press set up in one corner. I slid open the closet door. A neat row of dark shirts and pants. He was addicted to Armani. The floor was littered with his shoes. I opened the drawer of the bedside table. Condoms, half a dozen sticky bottles of lubricant.
The bedside clock told me I had been there more than an hour. Time to go. And I was eager to see if the setup worked.
Back in my office, I logged in the coordinates of the site. With a click of the mouse I could see the empty room, ready to fill with images.
I wanted to give him a name that fit his persona. Kinky was the first word that came to mind. I Googled kinky. There were millions of sites. Under Casey’s first name I discovered an Antarctic webcam: Casey Station. Nineteen degrees below zero Celsius. Frozen tundra was too good for my darling.
I tried kinky sex. There were about three times as many sites as kinky, ranging from the direct—kinky sex, strap-on dildo sex, kinky girls—to the educational:
Restraint, role-playing, domination, erotic punishment, and discipline are all parts of the BDSM scene. The term “fetish” is used loosely to describe any general turn-on that might not fall into mainstream sexuality, such as leather or vinyl clothing, food-play, or certain parts of the body not normally associated with sexuality . . . Find other like-minded people in your area or around the world!
I didn’t want Casey to be watched by others like him. I wanted him to attract a broader audience. People who would be shocked. I decided on kinkycasey.com.
I inserted Casey’s new webcam data into the virtual voyeur’s hub of choice to kick up the traffic. With a few clicks of the mouse, the camera was broadcasting live over the Internet from his bedroom. Anyone could watch whatever he was doing. It was all there. I had access to that, and whatever kinky sex sites linked to him in return. I would archive it all. And someday, when the time was right, I would send him the link and wait for the fireworks.
It wasn’t long before the traffic numbers began to spike. Three months in, Casey was becoming notorious among the “peeping toms” on the web. I waited until he was at his bedroom computer alone one night before I shot him the link. I watched on the webcam as he scrolled for a few minutes, then stood up, hefted his laptop, and threw it against the wall. Aha.
On the off chance I push him over the edge, I am making this podcast and uploading it to a spot on the web where only you, Sally, have the password. I know I can trust you to leave it alone unless something happens to me . . .
JANE CIABATTARI is the author of the collection Stealing the Fire (Dzanc Books rEprint Series May 2013) and has had stories published in the Literarian, KGB Bar Lit, Chautauqua, Literary Mama, VerbSap, Ms., the North American Review, Denver Quarterly, and Hampton Shorts, among others. She has received three Pushcart Prize special mentions and fiction fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Posted: May 22, 2013