The following night, when I met with Greg in his study, our story took a dangerous turn.
It was innocent enough at first.
We were standing face to face in front of the desk, preparing to say goodbye for the night.
“I’m in earnest, Justine,” Greg harped. “Marry Winterbourne. You need a good life in which you’re serving your own family, not mine.”
‘A man like Anthony Winterbourne will never understand me.”
“He won’t need to because you will have learned to understand yourself.”
“And what good is that if I’ve no one with whom to share my true self?” I shot back.
“You’ll know where to place his hands at night, where to guide his kiss,” Greg replied darkly. “You’ll know which questions to ask to hear the words you need to hear. And besides all that, a man with an unquestioning disposition like his won’t ever question your hunger to write.”
“Quiet! Greg! Stop!” I whisper-shouted. “I don’t want an unquestioning man who lives from the surface. I want you—you—you—” With every ‘you’, I pounded my fists against his chest.
“No – Justine.” He gripped my wrists and held them between us, leaning his forehead against mine. “The corporeal us is over.”
“Why?” I could barely get the word out. “Why must it be over? Why can’t we carry on as we always have? I thought you loved me.”
“I do love you – which is why I have to let you go.”
“So, let me go in a decade or more,” I pleaded. “Let me go when you die.”
In that moment, I could feel the sting in his eye, the lump in his throat, the ache in his chest. I could feel his pain all over my body. And I knew he felt my agony too because he bit his lip to stop mine from quivering and he blinked his eye to flick the tear in mine away. Even like that, clothed and separate, our bodies were interchangeable.
We stayed like that for a time.
Eventually, he dragged his lips onto my crown and spoke through the last of his kisses. “Long ago, when I left Mexico,” he said. “I thought I had a broken heart. But I didn’t realise – oh God—Justine—oh God—my Love—I didn’t realise—Justine—I was such a fool—I didn’t realise you were waiting for me in the future. This—this—this—is what a broken heart is. Last time, I broke my own heart to save myself—but this time, I’m breaking it to save you. Last time was for selfishness. This time is for love. So, please, from now on in, wherever you go and whatever you do, promise me you shan’t forget me.”
“Tell me you’re joking,” I murmured.
He stayed silent for a minute or two, girding up the strength to speak. And as he did, I felt his body stiffening, growing colder.
“Listen to me,” he continued through clenched teeth, separating my wrists and pulling them from between us whilst tightening his grip. “For the next five minutes, I’m going to be crueller than you’ve ever seen me. I’m going to be contemptible – unforgiveable – vile – and you’ll have no choice but to marry Winterbourne and move on with your life. But just remember one thing. There is always a lie in the truth and there’s always truth in the lie.”
“I’ve been nothing but a lecherous old man,” he said, gripping my wrists even harder. “A lecherous old man fucking his maid behind the back of the wife who he still makes moan –”
“Gre –” The blood drained from my face and I could feel myself wilting.
“Sir,” he corrected, twisting my arms. “What? Did you think for a moment I cared about you at all, or even found you remotely beguiling? You? The wench who presses my britches and polishes my boots. The servant who scrapes the dinner plates and cleans the latrine?”
“Gre – Sir – No –”
“You whore of a girl,” he spat, dropping my wrists and pushing me away. “What did you think? For the crass truth be told, from the moment I laid eyes on you, I thought you’d produce a good bit of tallow in which to dip my wick. And as for your writing? It’s nothing but trite fodder to make the beggars seep into their tattered gloves under the dirty city bridges. And it was I who groomed you to write the filth. You were simply a channel for my depraved mind as you were the pipe in which to spew my aging seed. That’s all you are – a vacuous slut.”
“You’re lying!” I retaliated, recoiling. “I refuse to believe it.”
“Ah, but like I just said, there’s truth in the lie.”
Standing opposite him, I felt a surge from deep within me. It was so powerful, so heavy, it must have come from another life, an ancient well of primeval resilience.
The Battle of Words was coming; I could sense it.
“Do you think you’re the only one who can play this game?” I asked, my eyes suddenly turning cold. “Because for you to tap the language out of me, it had to be there in the first place. Like the gold you plundered from the Mexican sierras, my words were already deep inside me. When it came to my intellect, you were just the salivating prospector. So, mark these words for these words are my words –”
He was startled, taken aback.
“From the moment I saw you shrivelling up in this crypt of a study,” I continued. “I saw you as nothing but a decrepit anthology from which to tutor myself on the treasures of my own mind and my own body. I educated myself on you, not with you. I tied you up and watched you writhe beneath me. And to pleasure myself later on, did I think of your lust-mangled face? No. I thought of lovers who’d fill me with seed which was younger and sweeter.”
“You whore,” he shot back.
“And we didn’t bless your grave,” I growled. “We defiled it. When you lie there with your flesh rotting away from those fragile bones of yours, I shan’t be drooling with my salacious memories. No. While the worms slither through your empty mouth, I’ll be at home doing what you want me to be doing – making love with my husband.”
“You’re a rapist with language,” he returned. “A violator.”
“So, call for the police then and have me taken to Gallows where they’ll chain me up before they hang me before your very eyes. Run those rich boy’s victimised fingers of yours on the sole of my shoe as it swings high above you. Look up the skirt into the void you once throttled.”
“God—Justine,” he said, wincing. “I can’t.”
“Can’t what?” I hissed. “Can’t finish the war of words you started?”
“It’s over,” he murmured, backing onto the desk, gripping the edges for support.
“What’s over?” I said, moving in front of him. “This? Or us?”
“Both.” He looked away. “It has to be.”
“You’re a weak man,” I said, “who’s never learned how to fight.”
“How dare you say that.”
Jerking his hands up from the desk, he grabbed my waist and whipped me around so the small of my back was against the desk. Pressing his body hard against me, he reached down under my skirt and up into my drawers, catching my first iridescent drops on his fingers. “You just can’t stop dripping for me, can you?” he hissed. “You’ll live the rest of your life sopping wet.”
“I’m not dripping for you,” I returned, pushing him back so hard, he had to reach back to steady himself on one of the chairs. “I’m dripping for myself.”
“Then you’re a nymphomaniac,” he muttered. “Oh, how I hate you.”
And I was up against him, clawing at his cravat and flinging it on the arm of the chair before yanking down his suspenders. “I want you to hate me,” I said, tearing open his shirt, fighting with the buttons below his waistband and wrenching down his trousers. “What made you think you could put your hand up my dress like that and take what you wanted?”
“Like this, you mean?” And, then, in the disarray that I’d caused, he clamped his hands on my shoulders and pressed me to my knees with all his might, dropping before me and pushing me onto my back. With wild eyes and cruel grimace, he jerked my legs open, leapt up and wormed from his trousers, intending to come back to the floor to get me.
But with time on my side, I was up, clawing at his sleeves and tearing down his shirt. “I hate you,” I seethed as he ripped off my dress and dragged my drawers down. “I hate you with all my heart.”
“Then hate me.”
I shoved him into the chair and climbed onto him, grabbing his cravat from the armrest and gagging him while he tugged the ribbon from my hair, tied my wrists and flung them back over my head. We were out of control, utterly mad.
“Once again, it’s me with the words,” I whispered. “And you with your silence.”
His hands spoke for him then. I felt him clutching my face before he brought his hands down and clung for dear life to the bars of my ribcage.
“I hate you, darling – God, how I hate you – I hate you so much, I could die.”
But without his words, he couldn’t reply. The only truth he had was his body.
I arched my back, allowing him to see the breasts he couldn’t devour.
He might’ve been tongue tied and I might’ve been half-crucified, but we pushed forward and pulled back without ever leaving each other. He was as deep as he could go; I was as close as I could be.
“Do – you – hate – me—dar—ling?”
He closed his eyes as his body strained upward.
“Am I really just a channel for your depraved mind?”
Releasing my ribcage, he reached up and held my face in his hands.
“Am I simply a vacuous slut?”
His thumbs pressed into my temples as his forehead bowed to my heart.
“Show me—Greg—prove it—show me—that—you—hate—me.”
I began to feel water running down my chest into our union.
He pulled his head back up and looked me in the eyes.
To my dismay, he was crying.
For the first time in all the time I’d known him, tears were streaming from his eyes, onto our bodies and into our shadows. And, as we convulsed together, I knew that, in the end, there are times when language means nothing at all. That night, Greg pledged his love without saying a word.