Mike Wilson's work has appeared in magazines including The Seventh Wave, Fiction Southeast, Narrative Northeast, Chicago Literati, and Anthology of Appalachian Writers Vol. X. He is author of Arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic (Rabbit House Press, 2020). He resides the USA in Central Kentucky and can be found at mikewilsonwriter.com
David sorted through his theory as he drove them to the restaurant. The theory concerned gender difference. Inspired by a little weed and armed with his otherwise useless philosophy degree, David had concluded that men cognize women as possessing a discernable indiscernibility. This wasn’t a Zen koan, like the sound of two hands clapping, it was a literal description of a cognitive experience akin to seeing a figure through an opaque shower door. To the objection that his theory was a sexist social construct, David’s response was that it was not an ontological axiom – he wasn’t postulating that women actually were in some way indiscernible. And David had even come up with an explanation for this phenomenon. As in physics, where either momentum or location of a subatomic particle can be measured, but not both simultaneously, David hypothesized that the measuring instrument – in this case, the human sensorium – was responsible. He had no idea how the sensorium was responsible, or whether a sensorium in female-gendered bodies similarly perceived a discernable indiscernibility in men. But what else could it be?
David’s slammed on the breaks, barely avoiding a rear-end collision.
“Sorry about that,” he said to Chloe. She put a smile on it, like a good date would, but looked shaken.
David pulled into the other lane and resumed driving as if nothing had happened. Soon the unsettledness of the near-accident dissipated like fog burning off. Prompted by his nose, his eyes turned to Chloe. She was wearing more perfume tonight than before. He felt like a dizzy bee in a bouquet of flowers. She noticed him looking and responded as if it were a cue to make conversation.
“I hear the restaurant has vegan on the menu.”
The first two times they’d gotten together had been on the cheap – coffee during the day, a drink at a bar early one evening when she couldn’t make a night of it because she had book club. He’d felt slighted, but she’d said she liked being with him and touched his arm in a way that encouraged, so on the spot he’d asked her to dinner and she’d said yes. He was even wearing a tie tonight.
“Are you vegan?” he asked as he switched lanes.
“Not strict,” she said, smiling as if he’d said something brilliant and penetrating. “I eat cheese.”
She was seated in his Audi like she wanted to be there, dressed to kill in a short skirt and silky beige blouse. He took a deep breath and resolved to turn off his brain, enjoy her company, and, hopefully, get laid like normal people did. He turned the steering wheel hand-over-hand. The parking lot was full.
“It’s crowded,” she said, as if danger lurked.
“I made reservations,” he replied, swooping in to rescue her.
She was acting girly, making it easy for him to feel manly, helping get him out of his own head. He appreciated the assist. They’d shared information during the earlier dates, but he hadn’t mentioned the so-called anxiety disorder because he’d never agreed with the diagnosis, though he took the medication prescribed by the doctor.
A parking spot was empty near the front door of the restaurant like the gap in a child’s smile after losing a tooth. David maneuvered over and eased his car in, observing that the process seemed sexualized. Was this the mind seizing the reins of the sensorium or the sensorium seizing the reins of the mind? He didn’t know whether his head or his body was in charge. The head-body dichotomy. There’s no away around it, if you’re honest. He glanced at Chloe to see if she had an inkling that random thoughts were running amok in his brain. Under parking lot lights shining through the windshield, Chloe looked like a man wearing lipstick, an image she dispelled when she turned and smiled at him, like she understood. That made David nervous, too, because he didn’t know what she understood. His necktie felt tight, so he stuck his finger inside the knot and pulled it away from his throat. He turned off the ignition and they got out and went inside.
The hostess found David’s reservation in the computer and they followed a different girl carrying menus to a booth. The menu girl began a song-and-dance identifying their team of servers – one person to bring the water and bread, another to take their order – as if the meal were a gustatory vehicle with its own pit crew.
“Could you bring us a wine list?” Chloe asked. Her voice was commanding, like the sound of a Winchester rifle being cocked. The menu girl left to get the wine list. Chloe’s face softened, a flower opening to the sun. David wondered whether he’d taken too much medication before the date. He’d thought he would need it.
“Do you have to work tomorrow?” she asked.
“Good,” she said, as if she’d just written his name on the tag of a Christmas present. The menu girl was back with wine lists, which they studied while waiting for her to finish the “specials tonight” rap.
“Can I start you off with a glass of wine?” the girl asked.
Chloe ordered white, he ordered red. When the wine came, along with a basket of bread, he toasted to the evening they were about to have and took a sip. It tasted good, so he took another, feeling encouraged, the way he sometimes felt when reading Hegel and suddenly getting a real feel for the dialectical method.
Then he looked at Chloe and saw a pellucent bow around her throat, shimmering like a hologram. A question he couldn’t articulate flashed in his mind like a neon sign. His entire nervous system itched as if he’d taken poison. She noticed him staring at her neck.
“You can see it, huh?” she whispered, lifting her chin and tilting her goblet. He watched her swallow, the wine pulsing down her throat like the gyrations of a belly dancer. The bow disappeared.
“It’s gone,” he said.
“What’s gone?” she asked.
Her voice was different, now, rounder than the rustling whisper that had said you can see it, huh? Had he imagined that whisper, imagined the bow? Clearly, there was only skin at the hollow of her neck.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
He nodded, wondering if his medication was interacting with the alcohol.
“I thought I saw a bow around your neck,” he said. He cringed at how stupid his words sounded.
“Really?” she said. Her eyes widened. “We just read a story in my writing class about a woman who had a red bow around her neck. This is so . . . Jungian.”
David assumed by Jungian she meant coincidental, like Carl Jung’s ideas about synchronicity. That was something he liked about Chloe, how she effortlessly went back and forth between girly and intellectual. He wondered whether she was familiar with Hegel.
“You take a writing class?”
He took another sip of wine, adopting the proposition that alcohol would make him better rather than worse. He half-listened as she talked about her writing – it sounded aspirational rather than something she really did – and then she started telling him the story about the bow on the woman’s neck.
“The husband wants to remove it, but she won’t let him. They marry, have a child, but she never takes off the red bow.”
“Why?” he asked.
“The bow represents something important about her that she keeps to herself.”
She stopped as if that should be a sufficient explanation. But seeing that it wasn’t
sufficient to him, she added, “It’s something unknowable to the husband.”
A discernible indiscernibility. Was this evidence for his theory?
“Sounds archetypal,” he said, demonstrating his knowledge of Jung, “like a fairy tale.”
“Actually, it is. A fairy tale, I mean.”
He reached for a roll and put it on his bread plate. It occurred to him that their table was an altar, the bread and wine sacraments. his wine glass a chalice in an occult ceremony. Suddenly everything was Jungian.
“How does the story end?”
“She lets him undo her bow and her head falls off.”
He choked on his wine, then wiped his mouth with his napkin and asked, “Why does her head fall off, for Christ’s sake?”
“People say the bow may be a reference to women who wore red ribbons around their necks during the French Revolution to show solidarity with victims of the guillotine.”
He didn’t know what to say. Chloe reached into the basket and took out a roll. He watched her pull it apart, releasing a warm, yeasty aroma that reminded him of other warm, yeasty things. His sensorium definitely had seized the reins. Or was it his mind?
“But actually,” she said, smearing butter on her roll in an erotic, if not obscene, way, “women have worn chokers for thousands of years.”
The tone of her voice was one he hadn’t heard before, not girly or intellectual or the Winchester rifle being cocked or the whisper he thought he’d heard. It was witchy, like she was leading him into darkness. It was his turn to speak.
“Was that to make themselves attractive to men?”
Chloe’s facial expression told him he’d made a faux pas. She bit into her roll and chewed. He watched a tiny lump slide down the line of the throat as she swallowed, hypnotic, like a pocket watch swinging in front of his eyes. Then she smiled again. She was giving him a pass - he’d been judged, but his violation excused because he was a juvenile she could redeem.
“Sumerian and Egyptian women wore jewelry around vulnerable parts of the body, like the throat,” she said, “because it gave them special powers and protected them.”
“Protected them from what?”
“I don’t know.” But the accusation in her eyes said she did. David sensed the collective guilt of patriarchy falling toward his shoulders and slipped aside before it landed.
During the salad course, Chloe described chokers and neckwear worn by women through the ages, taking it through the Renaissance up to modern pornography with bondage overtones, a topic she seemed remarkably well-informed about. While they ate their entrees, Chloe summarized the history of men’s neckwear, starting with ancient Pharaohs and the Knots of Isis around the necks of mummies and finishing with the neckties of CEOs.
“Ties are a badge of power for men,” she said, pointing to the very tie he was wearing, “but it could be something else.”
“What do you mean?”
She described an energy called kundalini that she said was coiled like a snake at the base of the spine. When the snake tries to slither up the spine, she said, it gets snagged on the way by the attachment we have to our bodies.
“Yogis raise the kundalini to the crown of the head,” she said, “and it makes them enlightened. Ties choke off the energy before it gets there.”
“So if we loosen our ties, we’ll become enlightened?’
Chloe looked at him as if he were a dolt.
“Truth is a dangerous thing,” she said. “The structures of society and the economy depend upon keeping everyone ignorant.”
She began holding forth on Marx and class struggle. He let her talk without interruption, bathing in the moonlight of her intellect, his eyes involuntarily dropping to her breasts, looking for the outline of nipples pressing through the thin fabric of her blouse, but the restaurant lighting was too dim to illuminate what he knew was there. He recognized that he had stopped listening and was in a trance, so before she noticed and said you’re staring at my breasts, he forced his eyes back up. But instead of looking her in the face, his gaze settled on her throat and he saw it again. The bow. It was tiny, almost transparent, and he had to be very still or it faded. But if he was careful, if he focused his eyes and concentrated in a certain way, he could see it.
“You’re staring at my neck,” she said.
Her words broke his attention and the bow disappeared.
“Sorry,” he said, prepared to be chastised, but her smile was flirty, as if her antitheses was rubbing against his thesis and there might be synthesis later. His heart pounded like a big bass drum being softly struck.
They finished dinner and went to her townhouse. She took him by the hand and led him to the bedroom, flipping the light switch that turned on lamps on night tables on either side of the bed. But the room seemed brighter than two lamps could make it. David looked at the ceiling and saw the mirror.
It was huge. He pondered the logistics of installing a mirror that big without cracking it. Butterfly anchors wouldn’t suffice – the mirror had to be secured in the ceiling beams to hold that kind of weight. David felt Chloe’s hand on his face, and watched in the mirror as her hands wandered over his body and slowly undressed him. Once he was completely naked, she told him to tie his necktie around his neck.
She looked at him, which he took as yes is there a problem? He did as she asked, excited by his own vulnerability, not knowing where she was taking him. When he was knotted up, Chloe smiled her approval. Then she opened the top drawer of her dresser and took out a red scarf. She undressed herself, and when she saw how he was watching, slowed down, turning it into a tease. After everything was off, she tied the red scarf around her neck.
They sat on the bed and kissed. The tie and the scarf became part of their foreplay, exotic undergarments, something to loosen and tighten and slip fingers inside of, as if their throats were a second set of sexual organs. They managed their momentum as long as they could and then she rolled over, raised her knees and opened her legs. He slid in, and she grabbed the ends of his tie and pulled, choking him.
“You do it, too,” she said.
Supporting himself with his elbows, he pulled at the ends of her scarf until it circled tight around her neck. It was a race to the finish, either orgasm or passing out, as they pounded against each other at one end and choked each other at the other, two link sausages that couldn’t break apart no matter how hard they tried. They climaxed together, letting go the neckwear, and endorphins from oxygen rushing into his head combined with those from the orgasm was like being catapulted into a state of non-ordinary consciousness.
They lay on the bed, recovering. Everything was dreamy, except David’s throat hurt. He studied Chloe’s reflection in the ceiling mirror. Her eyes were closed and she looked sated. Then he saw it again – the bow on her throat.
Very carefully, he turned his head and looked. The bow was transparent, delicate like blown glass, but amorphous like plasma, and he was only inches away. He reached to her throat and touched it. The bow felt like spooky gelatin.
“That tickles,” she said, not opening her eyes.
The bow represents something important about her that she keeps to herself. That’s what she’d said at dinner. David felt an overpowering desire to untie Chloe’s bow.
The knot was small and it moved away when he touched it, as if his fingers were coarse. Holding his breath seemed to help stabilize the knot. He took hold of it. He sensed that she realized what he was doing and wasn’t going to pull away. She was going to let him undo her bow.
“Are you sure you want to?” she asked, her eyes still closed.
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted,” he said, something he hadn’t known until he heard the words come out of his mouth.
“Will you still want me?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
He spoke gingerly because the bow was starting to fade. He slowed his breath and the bow became substantial again, like a radio station signal becomes strong when the dial is tuned just right.
“You want the meat sack,” she said. “You like the meat sack.”
Meat sack? Her gibberish was interfering with his concentration. He caressed the knot, gradually enlarging the opening, and worked his finger in.
“After it’s undone,” she said, “will you love me?”
Her eyes still were closed and when she spoke her lips didn’t move.
“Yes,” he said.
It was the yes of a dream. He realized that he was asleep. She was asleep, too. They were dreaming together. Chloe’s knot was a dream that could only be untied in a dream.
“Are you afraid my head will fall off?” she asked.
He could tell that she wasn’t afraid – she was worried for him. He tried to block her voice from his sensorium as he worked his fingers deeper into her knot, now so familiar that it seemed part of himself. The knot was almost undone.
Suddenly, light exploded from Chloe’s neck. The room filled with countless faces expanding in every direction like corridors of mirrors, faces male and female, faces both and neither, inside a giant mind that that had no discernable boundary.