by Dave Housely
Right away I know it’s her. She shakes my hand, introduces herself as Martha, but I know it’s Jazzmin. Of course I’ve never seen her like this: in person, up close, her breasts tucked away behind layers of sensible cotton, the little mole on her ass hidden beneath a workplace-appropriate skirt. I almost don’t recognize her face anymore without the jizz all over and the “is that okay, baby?” look from the latest round of pictures.
We’re standing outside the Devotions Conference Room and the Lord’s Prayer trickles out into the hallway. I smile, shake her hand, pop a boner right there, with Dr. Hickey standing only a few feet away, going on in his overly calm preacher’s voice about how Martha here is going to be handling the copy editing for Sally while she’s on maternity.
I push at the erection through my pocket, smile and nod and mumble something about how the Kinship Foundation is a great place to work while my hands sweat and my glasses fog around the edges, my heart pounds and I get this feeling in my throat like I’m about to cry and I’m sure she can hear it all in my voice — all the nights poring over the pictures, memorizing every detail, following her progression from girl next door to internet amateur porn queen.
I wonder if she and Blue have broken up. I try to remember the last time he posted pictures to PeekerWeb.
“Jeff here is our director of communications. Acting director of communications,” Dr. Hickey says. “He’ll get you squared away soon as we finish our little tour.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say. I almost say, Nice to meet you Jazzmin. All I can think is Jazzmin. PeekerWeb Jazzmin. Lingerie Jazzmin. Sexy Secretary Jazzmin. Catholic Schoolgirl Jazzmin. Steamy Weekend Jazzmin.
She takes a step toward me and I back up. Dr. Hickey is already wandering down the hallway, past the exhibits and the handwritten letters from children around the world, the pictures of him hugging orphans or receiving honorary degrees.
I try to give Jazzmin some kind of private smile, an inside joke kind of look. I want to pull her to me, kiss her, hold her, ask how did she wind up on a dirty voyeur site with losers like me paying $39.95 a year to see her at her most intimate.
“This is a dream come true for me,” she says. “To do God’s work, and for the Doctor and the Foundation, I mean, this is just…” she dabs a tear and I wonder if maybe I’m wrong, it’s not her, just a similar-looking true believer. Then she leans over to pull a tissue out of her purse. I catch an eyeful of cleavage and I’m more sure than ever.
“Martha, I think you might be interested in this,” Dr. Hickey calls. He waits by the cornerstone exhibit, a relic from the tiny country church he turned into the multimillion dollar Kinship Foundation.
“You better go check out that rock,” I say.
She nods and places a hand on my shoulder. She smells like Jolly Ranchers — sweet and sour and artificial. Her hair is frizzed out and I can see the dark roots bleeding through the blond. She gives me a look — warm, friendly, but a little odd, like she’s just recognized me after coming out of a coma.
She follows Dr. Hickey toward Human Resources and I watch her ass punch back and forth in the skirt. She looks back once, waits for my eyes to move from her waist to her face, and then follows him down the hall.
When I get home I pay an extra fifty bucks for the full archive on PeekerWeb. It’s easy for me to find the first photo. It was a few months after Sarah left.
The First Set:
- Jazzmin is wearing a pair of white panties, not even a thong. She’s hiding her face behind a cowboy hat and her arms are folded across her breasts. Like most of the pictures on PeekerWeb, it’s obvious that these really are amateur photos — digital camera, flat, unflattering lighting. In the background, clothes are piled on a chair, CDs scattered around a boombox, a few candles and the sports page from the Sun rest on a nightstand.
- One arm hangs down so we can see almost all of her right breast. The cowboy hat is still on but now we see her cute little nose, those lips. She’s smiling, shy, like she’s not sure but she’ll try anything once.
- Turned around on the chair now, arms at her sides. The underwear rides up a little.
- Facing the camera again. The hat is off, and it covers the left breast. The right breast hangs free. It is perfect.
- Finally both breasts. The hat sits on the bed and her arms are on her hips. In the corner of the picture, the fuzzy tip of Blue’s finger edges into the frame.
Like the first time, the feeling hits me deep in the gut, a mixture of jealousy and lust, wonder and anger. Like that first time, I polish myself off quick, complete the act in a few pulls. Like that first time, after it’s over and I’m still sitting there behind the keyboard and she’s still smiling and I can still see Blue’s stupid finger in the frame, what’s still with me, twisting in my gut like a sickness, is the anger.
I wake up ahead of my alarm and open the Bible before I have a chance to get on the computer. I turn a few pages, read Sarah’s inscription: Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be condemned. Solomon’s Song VIII. Love, Sarah. I realize for the first time what a strange thing that is to write in the Bible of somebody who is finding the church for the first time, how doomed the whole thing sounds.
I put the book down and pray. “Give me the strength…” But strength for what? To fight my desire? To slog into work every day, pretending I’m not in love with her, this other version of her, the one that smiles out from my computer screen, beautiful and open?
Finally I put away the Bible and start up the computer. By the time the browser opens, I’m already wiping myself down with a tissue.
“Dude,” Monty says, “you see that new proofreader?”
“She’s a temp,” I say. “And I think she’s a true believer.”
Monty’s face screws up into a look of genuine pain. Monty is the graphic designer and technically I’m his boss. His acting boss. Our department produces annual reports, brochures, direct mail, just about anything that comes out of the Foundation.
She walks in and I elbow Monty. She’s wearing an outfit I recognize immediately from the Sexy Secretary set: long pants, white button-up, hair tied into a bun, blocky glasses. “I’m half done with the newsletter,” she says, handing me the proofs. They are completely covered in red ink, tiny blurbs in perfect cartoon handwriting graffitied up and down the margins.
“I really want to do a good job,” she says.
“You sure are thorough,” I say.
“Missed you at daily devotions this morning,” she says. “It was very moving.” She pushes her glasses up on her nose and I wonder if they’re prescription, or if they’re just a prop, something Blue bought along with the crotchless panties and Catholic schoolgirl outfits.
“Was it?” I say.
“Was it what?”
She gives me that look again, studying my face, her wheels turning as if she’s trying to remember me. “May I ask you a personal question?” she says.
Here it comes, I think. It’s obvious. She can tell. Maybe this happens to her all the time, PeekerWeb perverts coming out of the woodwork. I wonder if she’ll get me fired. “Shoot,” I say.
“Are you saved?” she says.
After Sarah left me, I couldn’t get her out of my mind — her smell, her taste, the way she’d bite her lip when she was reading, the plain cotton underwear she wore, the way it rode up when she walked to the bathroom in the morning.
But that wasn’t all. Sarah was devout, and I had fallen in with her good habits. YCMs — Young Christian Marrieds — that was our demographic, according to the direct marketing databases. And we were happy YCMs. We went to devotions every day, Bible study on Friday nights, church on Sundays. I’d never been much of a churchgoer, but I was surprised to find that I liked it — the routine, the casual niceness, the pleasant feeling of floating, letting somebody else make all the decisions. After a lifetime of sliding from one thing to the next — high school to college, one copyediting job to another — I finally felt like maybe I was settling in, maybe this was what it was all leading up to. For the first time, I felt like a grown-up.
When she left, I tried to go back to church. But it didn’t work. What before had sounded pleasant and commonsensical now felt silly and archaic. All this smoke and mirrors, sitting and kneeling and greeting our neighbors. All it made me think about was that blue dress she used to wear, the way she’d look when she was slipping it on, the sun shining through the sliding glass door behind her.
I stopped going to church. Bible tucked away, my hands wandered downward. In my fantasies, Sarah and I did things we’d never even talked about. She was my doting wife, my porn star. But this just made it worse. It was like my wife had been replaced by some fictional porn tape running on an endless loop.
I tried to pray but it felt like I was talking to myself. Who could be listening? There was only one thing I wanted, and I’d already run that thing all the way back to her mother in New Jersey.
It went like that for a few months. Always Sarah. And then I found PeekerWeb and some of the regulars started trickling into my fantasy life, like guest stars on a sitcom. Little Red, DevilGrrrl, Allyson Cream, SexyKitty333. They filtered in and out, sharing space with Sarah in my sixty-second fantasies.
Then Jazzmin showed up and everything changed. It was like recovering from a long, slow illness. Sarah slipped out of my fantasies and eventually the ache in my gut faded. Or maybe a better way to put it is the ache for Sarah slipped away, but the thing for Jazzmin was just beginning.
A postcard in the mail. On the front:
Give, and it shall be given to you.
For whatever measure you deal out to others,
it will be dealt to you in return.
On the back, in Sarah’s handwriting, three words: I miss you.
At first I can’t breathe. I run a finger over the handwriting, wave the card under my nose. I flash on Sarah, our wedding day, too much make-up and an up-do her mother insisted on. Then the last night, her face scrunched and red, tears falling silently while she packed the bag, and me just standing there, too stunned or stupid to do anything, and somewhere in my gut knowing it was already too late.
I place the card inside the Bible and tuck it away.
After two weeks, Jazzmin is on every committee at the Kinship Foundation. She is a part of every group. She has so cleanly insinuated herself into the social fabric of the organization that Monty and I can only watch in awe. She is on the Christmas Committee, the Summer Picnic Committee, the Christian Book Club, the Bible Reading Group, the softball team.
“You sure are busy,” I say one day.
“Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” She tugs at her sweater and I have to really concentrate to pull my eyes away.
I’m holding her work on the annual report. She’s changed back things that have been corrected, suggested replacing “rehabilitate” with “retaliate” throughout, littered the entire thing with question marks and random suggestions. “Replace with cuter?” is written next to a picture of a starving child in West Africa.
“How’s it look?” she asks. There’s a light purple bruise under one eye, almost hidden by a layer of make-up. I stare at it and she half-turns. “The annual report?” she says.
Two weeks later and work is difficult. I just sit at my desk, watching her all day long. I feel like she’s onto me, like Monty is onto me. Reverend Hickey has formed a search committee for a permanent Director of Communications. I have not been asked to throw my hat into the ring. Jazzmin has. This should be driving me crazy. I should be pouring myself into the job, proving my worth, but all I can think about is Jazzmin.
I finish my work and hurry out to my car. She’s standing in the parking lot. “See you tomorrow,” I say.
“Can I tell you something?” she says.
My heart leaps. This is it. “This is really embarrassing, but…” She puts a hand on mine and I notice scratch marks up and down her forearm. “I really don’t feel, I mean, I know now it isn’t my fault…”
She’s asking me for something, I think, looking for a way out. Maybe she owes Blue money. We can pay it off together, settle her debt. She will move in with me. At first, of course, I’ll sleep on the sofa while she gets her nerve back, reassimilates with the normal world. She will come around slowly, maybe develop an interest in art. I’ll arrive home one day to find her at an easel, painting the walnut tree out back in nothing but one of my dress shirts. “I hope you don’t mind,” she’ll say, tugging at the starched collar, “but it smells like you.”
“Go ahead,” I say, staring at the parking lot gravel.
“Working here,” she says, “even for just this past month or so, has really made me realize that I had to make this change, had to finally set things right. Everything happens for a reason, right?”
I nod, take a step toward her. I wonder if I have clean sheets, if there are eggs in the refrigerator.
“I’m not baptized,” she says.
A silver XTerra screeches to a stop and she jumps, gives me a quick wave, and scurries into the passenger seat. I try to catch a look at the driver. Blue. He’s younger than I imagined, maybe twenty-five, with a fake tan the color of nacho cheese, dirty blond hair, a thin beard and mustache combination copied from some boy band. He’s wearing aviator sunglasses and driving gloves, a sleeveless t-shirt that he bought that way. He gives me a quick nod, tilts his head, smiles briefly, like there’s something funny about me but he can’t tell for sure if I know it or not. He hits the gas and they’re gone. The vanity plate says “BLUEJZZ.”
Another postcard comes in the mail:
Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath
joined together, let not man put asunder.
On the back it reads: I am ready to forgive.
I study the verse. One flesh. What God hath joined together. I put it in the Bible with the other postcard, read them both one more time, and put the book away.
At home, I watch TV for awhile, then try to read my book. I Google Sarah’s name and nothing comes up. I don’t know what I’m expecting. I try to pray but all I can see is the view of the copier, Jazzmin bent over punching buttons. Finally, I check PeekerWeb. Not only are there new pictures, but she’s still wearing her work clothes: a polka dot dress that was a little small, black stockings, the fake glasses. It’s like work Martha has finally crossed over to PeekerWeb Jazzmin. Either that, or I’m losing my shit.
Jazzmin in the dress. A hand lifts the hem over her thigh. She looks tired. I wonder if I’m giving her too much work.
- Dress off. Shot from behind. She is wearing a red thong and a sheer white camisole.
- Naked and spread. She is not smiling.
- On her belly. Same position. Face down on the comforter. On the top of her ass, there’s a bruise like a handprint, purple and gray on white skin. I can make out the fingers.
- Close up of Jazzmin’s vagina.
- Same as above.
- Same as above, with addition of semen.
This does not look like sexy, consensual fun.
I sit down and look at them again. I can’t even see her breasts. Her face is covered. The vagina shot is too close to even tell what’s happening. This could be snails. Or the inside of a colon.
Everything feels rushed. My heart is jumping, adrenalin pushes through my arms, makes my hands clench and unclench. Blue has hit her. She is not happy. Everything happens for a reason.
I look at that handprint, clear as any brand on any steer. I kneel down and pray: dear God, just tell me what to do.
I listen for a response, but all I can hear is the computer’s low hum, steady and near.
The thing with Sarah: it was supposed to be a love tap, a playful little slap — sexy and maybe a little kinky, the kind of thing I saw all the time on the internet. It was a Friday night, we’d had a little wine. Sarah was on her belly. I was on top, one hand on the bed, the other on the small of her back. Her face scrunched into the sheets, her hands grasping at the pillow. I kneaded her behind. She moaned, and in my head, a replay of grainy video: slap, jiggle, moan. Then I just did it. Slap. A sharp smack, a muscular little jiggle, a quick intake of breath. I was getting ready to do it again when all of the sudden she was crying, rolling away, pulling the comforter into a fetal position. In a flash — slap — everything was all wrong.
“You hit me,” she said. She thrust herself under the sheets.
“I was just,” I started.
She reached for the phone. “What are you doing?” I said. I was still kneeling on the bed, my erection flagging, candles burning on the nightstand, Van Morrison singing about crazy love.
She dialed 9-1. “Oh no,” I said. “I was just trying to…”
“To what?” she said.
“People do that, that’s a, a thing that people do.”
“I’ve been praying for you,” she said. She put down the phone, picked up the Bible, opened to a passage and read silently. She said Amen.
“Look. I’m sorry. It’s really not a big deal.”
“I’d like you to turn around while I get dressed and pack.”
The invitation comes through inter-office mail:
Please join us in celebrating the adult baptism of Martha Leigh Kerstetter.
A glorius day for celebratating god’s love.
Please join us for a post-baptism celebraton.
March 22, 2:00
Matisse Court, #224
The envelope has been sprayed with perfume and I suck it in, close my eyes. I flash on that first picture, Jazzmin in her white underwear, shy and innocent and beautiful.
“Dude,” Monty says. “I thought we talked about this.”
I tuck the invitation into my pocket. “About what?”
“I know what that is,” he says, “what you’re, like, smelling, over there.”
I’m trying to think of some way to explain when she comes in. She walks like a deer, light, her feet barely touching the ground. She hands an invitation to Monty and floats toward her cubicle.
I take out the invitation and put it on my desk. I pretend to drop my pencil and take a deep breath, suck in the smell of her perfume. I open up my web browser, type in the PeekerWeb address. I’m sweating, little beads running down my underarms. I’ve never done this at work before. Onscreen, Jazzmin in the red thong. I open my pants, grateful for the old-fashioned wooden desk.
She walks toward the copier, bends over and punches buttons. I finish it off and sit there sweating, thinking about that handprint on her ass, about Sarah and those postcards, wondering what kind of thing I’ve crossed and how I’ll ever get back again.
The mail comes just before I’m about to leave for Jazzmin’s. Nothing but junkmail, a few bills, and then, stuck to the J. Crew catalog, another postcard:
Song of Solomon – Chapter 2:10-13
The winter is past; the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come.
The cooing of doves is heard in our land.
The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.
On the back, she’s written I forgive you.
I put the card in my back pocket and head for the party. A month ago, this would have been the most important thing that had ever happened to me. But now all I’m worried about is getting to Jazzmin’s, doing something, I don’t know what.
The place is in one of these new developments outside town. Everything is squeaky clean, cookie-cutter houses ringed by trees no larger than me and lined up along a series of cul-de-sacs named after famous painters. I turn down Rembrandt Avenue and take a left into Matisse Court. Their place isn’t a house so much as a townhouse with a small yard, just wide enough on all sides to require a few passes with a lawnmower. I recognize a few of the cars: Dr. Hickey’s BMW, Monty’s Dodge Dart.
There are balloons tied to the mailbox. I go to the door and listen. Soft conversation, some kind of new agey music. My heart jumps. I have no idea what I’m going to do, but this can’t go on. Blue can’t get away with this.
Inside, everybody is dressed for church, gathered around Reverend. Jazzmin wears the white dress from the Blushing Bride photo-set. Blue has his sunglasses on, a white suit with a lime green shirt.
“Come join us,” Reverend Hickey says. I shuffle in and put my present on a stack. “The lord is wonderfully good to those who wait for him and seek him,” he waits a beat. “Lamentations.”
Jazzmin hugs me and I breathe in deep, close my eyes for just a second. Her breasts push at my chest. “I have a surprise for you,” she says. Her lips brush my ear. “It’s a blessed day.”
Everybody is looking at me, half-smiles on their faces, like I’m five years old and they’re waiting for me to blow out the candles. Everybody except Monty. His smile is fake, grim. My stomach sinks. “What kind of surprise?”
“Through those doors,” she says, leading me toward a back room. Her hand is so soft I wonder how she doesn’t leave little marks on everything she touches. I flash on her proofreading, the red pen everywhere, imagine little fingerprints that smell like flowers and sweet candy. I watch her ass shake back and forth. She stops at a doorway and lets me through.
Inside, Sarah sits on the same bed I recognize from most of Jazzmin’s shots. There, next to the metal headboard where Jazzmin was handcuffed, Sarah’s face smiling sad and hopeful, her hair molded into a Sunday up-do. Her church dress sitting right there on the comforter shot-through with Blue’s DNA. Sarah’s sensible shoes tapping nervously on the white shag carpeting that makes such a nice contrast to Jazzmin’s all over tan.
Sarah. Here, in Jazzmin’s bedroom.
“No,” I say. “No no no. This is all wrong.”
“It’s okay,” Sarah says. Jazzmin slips out and the door closes with a tiny click. Sarah stands, puts a hand out. “I’m ready to forgive you. I know you didn’t mean it. I’m ready to come home.” She smiles like she’s just pardoned my sentence.
“What are you doing here? How…”
“Martha called, said God had a plan. You were ready. Isn’t there anything you want to say?”
A white piece of cloth edges out from under the bed. It’s frilly, thin, nearly transparent.
“Let us pray.”
I’m down on my belly. It’s a camisole, tiny and thin. It weighs no more than one of my socks. I draw it to my face.
“What are you doing?”
It comes back to me. The coasting, going through motions. Something more out there, something missing. “This wasn’t a good idea, coming here.”
Her tears start like a hiccup. She stands. The door slams and I sit there, my mind going fuzzy, Jazzmin’s perfume mixing with the smell of Febreeze. I push at my erection, like a monkey playing with a stick. I put the camisole in my lap and wait, trying to figure out if I should go to the window.
From the second story I can see them standing around a blow-up kid’s pool in the backyard. Reverend Hickey speaks about sin and forgiveness in a casual drawl.
Reverend Hickey asks Jazzmin, “Have you repented of your sins? Do you believe that Christ’s sacrifice was accepted by God, and that He raised Christ from the dead?”
Finally, the splashes and applause. Jazzmin hugging Blue and crying. She shakes hands with Reverend Hickey. Her dress is sheer and wet.
Dave Housley is the author of Ryan Seacrest is Famous, a collection of short fiction. His work has been published in numerous places including Columbia, Nerve, and Sycamore Review. He’s one of the founding editors of Barrelhouse. You can find an archive of his work at davehousley.com.