Function: noun
Etymology: Italian, from chiaro clear, light + oscuro obscure, dark
1 : pictorial representation in terms of light and shade without regard to color
2 a : the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts in a pictorial work of art b : the interplay or contrast of dissimilar qualities (as of mood or character)
3 : a 16th century woodcut technique involving the use of several blocks to print different tones of the same color; also : a print made by this technique
4 : the interplay of light and shadow on or as if on a surface
5 : the quality of being veiled or partly in shadow

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2007

***   ***   ***

I sit with Sara in the little room, neither of us speaking.

On the walls, the masks look down at us, and I remember some of them from closer examination so many years ago. The collection is impressive; exotic—a lot like the woman who’d brought them together here on the walls. I remember too, her explanation for them and the irony of her words come back to me as I stare at them.

“What happens here isn't about violence.  It's about challenging preconceived notions of Victorian normalcy.  Bringing people's fantasies to life.  Making them real and acceptable.”

I’m not immune to the power of a metaphor, and since that first meeting with Lady Heather I’ve come to understand her unique position in the social strata. As a woman who lives with the day to day exposure to our darkest wishes and most shameful desires, she holds a perspective that I respect.

Now it’s a perspective that I need use of for reasons more personal than I care to admit, even to myself.

Sara shifts, uncomfortable but determined. I want to put her at ease, but I can’t. I’m not at ease myself. The two of us were ushered up here and have been sitting for nearly seven minutes now; it’s not like Heather to keep visitors waiting. I check my watch, and seeing me, Sara gives a little grimace.

“Maybe . . .” she begins, but just then we both hear footsteps down the hall. Heels by the sound of them, unhurried and coming closer. The door opens, and Heather; Lady Heather I suppose since this is her Dominion, enters. She closes the door behind and turns to us with that unflappable serenity that’s so much a part of her persona.

“Please excuse my delay; I was arranging to free up the rest of my night so we would not be interrupted at any point,” she says.

“Thank you,” Sara murmurs, and I’m surprised. I wasn’t expecting her to speak up. Heather gives a tiny smile and extends her hand to Sara, who hesitates and takes it for a brief shake. Then the hand is extended to me and in sheer Pavlovian response I shake it too, even as I catch on to the reason for her polite formality.

Of course—we’re clients.

Well, in fairness, potential clients; nothing’s been decided beyond this initial meeting, and even this one is still hard to fathom. I set it up, and Heather agreed, but Sara was the one who initiated it, from her first candid suggestion months ago to this wary culmination here on our night off.

It’s fascinating to see the two of them in the same room, and while there are certain physical similarities between them, it’s the differences that catch my eye.

Lady Heather is a woman of nearly perfect proportions according to society’s norms: height, weight, ratio of hips to bust, blue eyes over brown, long hair over short, pert nose, lush lips. Along with those slightly disturbing statistics, she also carries ample grace and the slightly displaced serenity of a temple-full of Buddhist nuns. Whatever she’s feeling, be it anger or amusement, it’s always filtered through that imperturbability.

Her mask, as it were.

Sara is long, lean, with the blend of features that bring second and third glances every time. Brown eyes, short hair, pointed nose, quirky lips. She’s been quick to anger and quick to laugh, but lapses into deep silences too, all the more heart wrenching for the guarded pain in her eyes. Sara has a way of cocking her head to one side that reminds me of the Madonna looking over the broken body of her son; the weight of pain that can barely be borne.

I hope that Heather will see it. Not only see that pain, but know intuitively the root of it, and through that understanding, know what it is we’re hoping to change. It’s a lot to ask; Sara’s pride and my own inability to cope have taken their toll on our relationship in this last six months—longer, if you taken in all the years of hesitation and frustration.

“Tell me what I should know,” Heather asks.

***   ***   ***

I am surprised, but I don’t show it; that’s always the first rule. Don’t react, stay open and listen; let the client open up. From the way Ms. Sidle is sitting: arms folded defensively across her chest, one shoulder higher than the other, legs crossed and topmost leg flexing towards me I DO sense a bit of hostility.

Countering that though, is the straightforward gaze and the tilt of her head. She’s feeling insecure, but is open to dialog—at least we have that much to work with for the moment. Thank goodness Grissom isn’t touching her, and creating a confrontational presentation of the two of them against me—that would make things very difficult to counter indeed.

I move to sit opposite the two of them, choosing the old embroidered Ottoman. This puts me slightly lower than Ms. Sidle, and I shift my feet to point to her. A careful placement of my hands on my skirt-covered thighs, and I’m cueing her that I am receptive and passive. I meet her eyes and wait; it’s a posture I can hold as long as needed, and the beauty of it is that few can resist the appeal of a listener.

“Tell me what I should know,” I say, very clearly and gently, my tone soft. For a long moment, nothing happens, and the room is still. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Grissom watching me and Ms. Sidle, his anxiousness apparent in the tensing of his gaze. I will him to stay quiet; she must speak first if we are all to start on the right footing. The one most in need initiates—a good rule for most situations in life, I have found.

Then, slowly, reluctantly she draws a breath, and with it, courage. I’m already proud of her for making the start. I count in my head, and by ‘four’ Ms. Sidle is speaking.

“We’re here because I’m having a problem,” she says slowly, eyes on mine. I wait for her to expand on that. Grissom seems to realize what I’m doing; this drawing out. He’s waiting a little more patiently than before. Ms Sidle speaks again. “A . . . dysfunction.”

There. It’s out in the open, labeled, albeit reluctantly. I’ll need more to go on, but it’s a good start. I nod encouragingly and she speaks again, the words a little faster now, with a flatness that tells me she’s rehearsed this. “A sexual dysfunction.”

This is a little surprising. Not the dysfunction, unfortunately. There are many women out there with them in one form or another; everything from low desire and painful intercourse to unresolved emotional issues and physical problems. No, the surprise is that such a strong woman would admit to it. I keep still in my listening posture and wait.

She sighs. “I can’t . . . have an orgasm during sex.”

Immediately a question pops in my head, but I hold off asking it. Instead I nod, and turn my gaze downward a little; she’s done the hardest part already now—she’s labeled the problem and shared it with another person. With me which is enormous for a woman as self-assured and private as Ms. Sidle is. I wish I could reassure her, but that will come later.

“Have you sought any counseling or therapy before?” I ask, keeping my gaze and my voice low. We’re still at a very delicate stage and I’m pleased Grissom is quietly patient.

“I’ve has some counseling . . . but not for this.”

I speak again, in a respectful tone. “Have you had a complete physical?”

Ms. Sidle shifts her thin shoulders and I sense a new pique of anger; to counter it I add, “It’s wise to rule out any medical factors that may play into the issue.”

For the first time, Grissom speaks up, his voice almost apologetic. “No, she hasn’t.”

I sense her annoyance edged with embarrassment and look at her expression. The desperation is clear in the biting of her lip as she holds back a remark she may still send his way once I’m out of the room.

Between the two of them there is a lot of surface tension, yes, but what’s more interesting is the underlying emotions I can read in the purse of Grissom’s lips and the flick of Ms. Sidle’s gaze past him. The very way they’re sitting makes it clear that they’re a couple: tilted slightly towards each other, edges of their personal space overlapping comfortably.

And yet the power struggle is evident too. Neither is yielding, neither is pushing, both are . . . unhappy.

This is fascinating.

***   ***   ***

Not happy. SO not happy. I know what we’re doing is the right thing, but I’m wishing now that this meeting would just end. The worst part isn’t her, actually, but having Grissom right next to me. And that doesn’t make sense because we’re in this together, but it’s just . . . too much. Like having him in the room when I’m having a PAP smear or something—wrong, you know?

It’s just hard, laying it all out like this—baring it and admitting that there’s a problem. There wasn’t supposed to be a problem, that’s the fucking irony. At least, not one from my end.

I’d been in love with Grissom for years; turned on by the set of his shoulders and the scent of his skin for longer than I wanted to admit. My hormones were then and are now attuned to him; he’s the sun I orbit around if you count me as one of those planets who keep the same side facing towards him as much as possible, because that’s how it was like for ages. Light side; dark side. Why does the sun need to know about the dark side anyway? Sometimes a little darkness is good for the soul. Lets some aspects of a person just . . . be.

And yet, damn it, I know things can’t just . . . be. This thing can’t be, can’t go on, for much longer. We’ve talked about it, and it hasn’t changed; we’ve avoided it and ignored it and Grissom’s been good and bad about it and I’ve finally had to admit that if it’s going to change, it’s going to have to come from me.

I know I’m a grown-up, but sometimes I don’t want to claim my issues. Sure, they may have started back when I was a kid, and a lot of things weren’t in my control, but right now, at this moment I know damned well that I’m the one who can let them fester or get them treated. I’m the only one who can.

Why does she have to look so perfect? I know Grissom respects her, and I know she’s more qualified to deal with a situation like this than she ever admits to anyone, but Christ, it’s hellaciously unnerving to see her in full majesty; Lady Heather® as it were.

“I’d like to speak to each of you separately for about twenty minutes. Also, I have an intake form—a questionnaire for you each to fill out. The contents are confidential, seen by no one but myself. It’s essential that you each fill it out as honestly as possible. I’ll speak to Ms. Sidle first please, so Mr. Grissom, if you go to the room next door, to the left, you’ll find the questionnaire on the desk there.”

Me first? Yeah that would make sense since it’s MY problem, right? There goes Grissom, not even looking back. Must be something about the air in this place that does it to men.

I know I’m not being fair. I don’t care at the moment, I just want this over with.

“Ms. Sidle, you have every reason to feel uncomfortable, but I’d like to put you at your ease. I recommend that before we consider any therapy, you see a gynecologist I respect—Doctor Keiko Gunderson. She’s the top specialist at Desert Palms, and would help determine if there are any factors that are inhibiting your sexual response. It’s imperative that you do this,” she says in that calm voice of hers.

I don’t feel like being reasonable. “And if I don’t?”

“Then I have a list of other therapists you may take with you when you leave today. Time is too valuable to waste, and too much of it already has been in regard to this situation, don’t you think?”

Wow—a statement like that would be ice-cold coming from anyone else, but damn it, Lady Heather says it in that soft voice while she’s looking at me—through me—and I can’t deny the truth of what she’s just said.

Shit. This really is it—I didn’t think I’d be put on the spot so damned fast. I take a breath, hoping I can wait it out, but one look in those eyes and it’s no go. She’s better at it than I am.

“  . . . Yeah. I think . . . I . . . I don’t know what to think. I’m just not . . . ready for this,” I mumble, a little slowly.

Then she does something that startles me. She hands me a box of Kleenex. I’m not crying—what the hell?

“Yes, Sara, you are. And I’m in awe of how brave you are to face it.”

Oh God—I feel the heat, the wet prickle, no . . . no . . .

I bite my lips hard, but it’s no use, and I grab for some of the tissue, ripping it out of the box.


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