Nan’s name at the Nutcracker was O, after the most famous slave in literature, and she found the initial fitting. O, after all, was for open, for offering and obliging, for obedient and obsequious, for Ophelia and odalisque. O was for order and ordeal, for overtaken and owned. For outcry and orgasm and obsession. For orphan. And like O herself, Nan held her body in a certain way whenever a man stood in the doorway looking them over. She never crossed or closed her legs, never even allowed her knees to touch. Her lips, too, were always slightly apart. She would raise her gaze to the man’s for the briefest moment, then lower her eyes for the duration of his decision. To smile at him or to speak first would have been unthinkable.
She was an unusual submissive by anyone’s standards. Many of the regular clients never once contracted for her, preferring the lighthearted, the childish, the coy or sexually overt. But the ones who did choose her tended to be what she wanted: serious, deliberate, devoted to form, desirous of a regular liaison. Many of them arranged to see her outside the establishment, where they initiated her into their ongoing service.
One of these men, for instance, insisted that she call him at ten o’clock every night. He would accept no reason for her failure to do so. He had a special phone line for this purpose alone, with an answering machine that would record the time of her call in his absence. The hour had to be precisely ten, not a minute before or after. Nan learned not to see a nine o’clock movie, lest she lose several minutes of the film to a payphone in the lobby. She learned never to book an evening flight, nor to go to bed early without setting an alarm, nor to accept a dinner date after eight o’clock. If she were on the subway, she would have to get off the train at 9:50 wherever she happened to be, find a phone in the station, or go up to the street before paying the fare again.
On the rare occasions that Nan was a minute or so off, his retribution during the following session was merciless. Once she was on a train that stopped between stations for half an hour. She pleaded with him to take this into account, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
"You should consider every possibility before putting yourself into a situation you can’t control," he told her. "You’d leave yourself an extra hour to get to the airport—wouldn’t you?—if you had an urgent destination and a non-refundable ticket. Because if something went wrong, all the good reasons in the world wouldn’t keep you from missing that flight. It wouldn’t matter that it wasn’t your fault, that you couldn’t get a cab during rush hour, that the main roads were closed or that there was a five-mile gridlock. Your plane would be gone.
"I’m sure you play it safe whenever you travel," he continued. "Your commitment to me should call for the same consideration and forethought. In fact, it should call for more."
He punctuated this lecture with ten searing stripes of a rattan cane, and when it was over she went to her knees and, still weeping, kissed the full length of it as he drew it across her lips. She loved this man. She loved having some version of a curfew. She slept better, within the inflexibility of his rule, than ever before or since, until she began working for Abel. She was bereft when he accepted a job offer in Hong Kong.
Another man would not allow her to say the word "no" in his presence. This went beyond expressions of refusal or defiance to include any use of the word. She couldn’t say Oh no or No problem or I have no idea.
"Sir, may I ask a question?"
"Sir, if I’m not using...that word...to defy an order or oppose you in any way, then what is the purpose of the rule?
"Its purpose," he said, "is that it will force you, always, to think before you speak to me."
And it did; in mid-sentence, Nan often had to stop and rephrase what she was about to say.
"What’s the chance of having you accompany me on a business trip next week?" he asked on one occasion. This was in the lounge of the Paramount Hotel, where he liked to have a late-night drink.
"Sir, I’m afraid there’s...that there isn’t any chance, unless one of the other girls is willing to work double shifts every day I’m gone."
"Well, don’t you get vacation time?"
"Sir, I’m afraid I don’t."
"Miss," the hostess hailed her on her way back from the ladies’ room. "Would you please tell your companion there’s no smoking in the lounge?"
"Sir," she said, when she returned to the table. "The hostess has asked me to tell you that smoking isn’t permitted in the lounge."
And then there was the man who didn’t believe in bondage. He considered the very idea of it an affront to his authority. "If I tell you to assume a certain position," he told her, "and to hold that position until I give you permission to break it, then you’re not going to move. If I have to resort to physical restraint—if I need cuffs or chains to keep you in place—then there’s something wrong with the way I’ve trained you."
It felt so strange afterward to be given tips. The man transformed, his pretend rage dissipated. No, not pretend, it was never pretend, but it was no longer apparent or accessible. He would be kindly, distracted, in a hurry.
Out on the street again, Nan would walk gingerly, her body welted and tender beneath the hooded jackets and sweatpants she always brought along to wear home. She often felt hollow, transcendent, as if she were pure spirit and the pain was what weighed her to the earth. Other times, in a way that made no sense even to her, she felt hurt and close to tears. She felt pangs of aftershock, arousal, and bewildered grief all at the same time.
The world outside was always jarring, with its noise and neon, its crowded sidewalks. Making her way home after a heavy scene, the text of the session written into her body, she kept her arms and legs covered even in the summer. If the encounter was a good one, she would stand naked before her full-length mirror, survey the marks on her body with a kind of pride, and savor the sight of them over the next several days. If it was bad, she would hide the bruises even from herself.
Her favorite part of the job was her occasional trips to other cities to visit wealthy men well known to the establishment. It was at these times that she felt most free: moving through foreign airports toward the homes of strangers, where her job would be to endure whatever they brought down upon her. To stand trembling, waiting. To suffer and to beg. She used to dream that she would find her true place in one of these houses. But she always knew within minutes that she would be turning around and coming back.
The opposite happened the day of her interview with Abel. Then she could see that the little room just off his office was where she belonged: underground and spare, threadbare and sad, two floors below his bed, and her covetous heart hurt with wanting it.
Copyright © 2013 by Elissa Wald.