On Tuesday Miriam arrives at work at the Glistening Emporium a little earlier than usual and is surprised to see a woman waiting by the door. There are usually no customers at the shop on weekday mornings. Miriam spends the time reading comics – or sometimes working on her own. The fluorescent lights make it difficult, though, or that’s what she tells herself.
“Don’t mind me,” the woman says. “I’ll just wait here till you open for the day.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Miriam says. “You can come in.”
“No no. I know how annoying it is when a customer comes storming in. I’ll wait.”
“But it’s cold out. Listen, come in and I’ll make us a cup of coffee.” Miriam doesn’t know why she says this. She has never been particularly interested in the customers, as much as they think she is. The woman is in jeans, an oversized army jacket and boots. She looks very small. A gloved hand pushes a strand of dark hair out of her eyes.
“Really?” the woman asks.
Miriam wants to say, “No” but instead says, “Why not?”
“Okay. Sure. Thanks,” the woman smiles.
Miriam fiddles with the many locks on the door, walks in and shrugs out of her coat while turning the lights on. They blink on with a hum, lighting displays of dildos and mannequins in leather dominatrix and maids’ outfits. The store is windowless and painted entirely black.
“Well,” Miriam says, “I’ll just put the kettle on.” The woman stands with her hands clasped together, just inside the doorway. She nods.
In the tiny kitchenette, Miriam begins to really regret her offer. Coffee takes long to get cool enough to drink – 10 minutes at least – and then it takes a further 10 minutes to drink. That’s 20 minutes minimum before the woman can politely leave. And that doesn’t even count her shopping. What will she say to this stranger amid a sea of butt plugs and clitoral stimulators?
Miriam never felt embarrassed working at the sex shop. She had finished high school and needed a job quickly so that she could flee and begin her life. She got the job easily and soon moved into a tiny flat above a wheel repair centre. People got used to seeing her behind the counter. This was after months of them wandering in, seeing her, then mumbling an excuse and walking out. People were strange about sex and their bodies. Reserved, afraid but also full of need. She liked sex, she thought, a normal amount and had it a normal amount. She never felt ashamed of her body. When she was in high school, she would happily change in front of the other girls, chatting and gesticulating with her ample breasts gesticulating, too. She got her reputation, she thinks, from this. You have to have a reputation in small towns, no matter what – either as someone shy, or charitable, or nasty, or as a slut. She was not named a slut but was considered loose.
Loose and strange for the pictures she drew of women in spandex and men with bulging crotches leaping between buildings and taking to the sky. It didn’t bother her too much. She would like to find people who were wider and broader than the people here. She was saving money, but she had a lot of it now, and so began to understand that she might never go through with it. Sometimes she would look up different cities and stare at their lists of parks and humming nightlife spots. She’d often look at flats, too. Once she made an appointment to see one. On the day, sitting in the silent shop, she watched as the time for the appointment came and went. She imagined herself there in a place with wooden floors and exposed brick walls, a place thrumming with possibility, shaking the hand of a real estate woman in a Jackie Onassis dress.
When she takes the two cups of coffee out, the woman is gone. Miriam feels a wave of relief mixed with annoyance.
“Rude,” Miriam mutters, turning to dump the coffee.
“What’s that?” the woman asks, emerging from behind a display of gay porn. She is carrying a black leather dominatrix whip. She puts it on the counter. When Miriam first started at the shop, she was plagued by the need to comment on people’s purchases. “Ah, the 12-inch black dildo with ridging and veins for verisimilitude. An excellent choice.” The buyers had gotten angry with her. They thought she was mocking them while they were at their most vulnerable – at the necessary juncture where those things hidden in drawers and at the back of cupboards emerge in the unlovely light in their hands.
“Oh. Ah, coffee. How do you take your coffee?” Miriam says, looking at the whip. Two minutes, this could have taken two minutes.
“Milk and three sugars please.” She takes off her gloves. “I know it’s a lot, but I love sweet things. There’s nothing quite like a cup of sweet coffee, don’t you think?”
“I don’t remember,” Miriam says, “I take it without sugar.”
“Oh,” the woman says.
“So… what do you do?” Miriam finally asks into the silence, feeling the tiredness of the question. It is an old thing, passed between begrudging people.
“I am a sex worker. And you work here.” The woman takes a sip of her coffee, but it is still too hot, and Miriam sees her battle to swallow. Her eyes well up.
All of the woman’s smallness has dropped away from her. She watches Miriam.
“Oh,” Miriam says, trying for coolness. She almost says, “That’s nice,” but stops herself.
In her mind, Miriam takes the woman’s jacket off and drops it to the floor. Next, the baggy shirt, the jeans and shoes, which are all wrong, even in the cold. They should, obviously, be scuffed wedge heels or black pleather stilettos. The woman stands in her mismatched bra and panties – also wrong. Miriam disappears them, and now she is naked, watching Miriam’s face. She takes the dominatrix outfit off the mannequin and puts it on her. Now the mannequin is naked, and the woman is the dominatrix. She adds the whip from the counter. Yes. Now she sees it.
“Okay,” Miriam casts around for something to say. She sees the woman on her knees. She sees her breaking whips on pallid flesh. She sees her bloody in a ditch, on beds with black satin sheets, in hotel rooms with peeling paint. She sees her taking money from ringed hands and large wallets. She sees her on all fours, and begging, and laughing. “Baby,” her mouth says under streetlamps.
The woman is still looking at her, but her face has changed very slightly. There is nothing malicious in it. Just a species of curiosity. The silence is pulling taut between them. And Miriam knows now that the woman won’t break it. Maybe she is even enjoying this.
“No, but, I mean, what do you like to do? You know, in your spare time?”
The woman blinks and then slowly smiles. “Oh. Okay, yes. Well,” she pauses for a moment, and takes another sip of her coffee, carefully this time. She looks over the rim of the cup, then seems to decide something.
“I like to bake. Sweet things, you know. I’m actually,” the woman puts her cup down and leans forward, speaking conspiratorially, “teaching myself to make those little flowers on cakes. You know the ones on wedding cakes?” Miriam nods. “Well, I saw it on TV once on one of those baking shows. You make them with marzipan. I bought a book on it and taught myself.”
“That’s great,” Miriam says.
“Yes.” She pauses. “Would you like to see? I have pictures on my phone.” She is shy now, looking down at her coffee.
“Yes, very much.” Miriam is surprised that it is the truth. She is interested.
The woman produces her phone and scrolls backwards on her photos. Miriam sees snatches of dogs and a garden.
“Here,” the woman turns her phone to Miriam. “Swipe right,” she says.
At first, Miriam thinks she is seeing bunches of real flowers and has to look carefully to see that they are made of sugar. It is incredible work. In one picture, a close-up, Miriam can see the woman has added small imperfections to the leaves and petals.
She is speechless for a moment.
“They are incredible,” she says, looking at the small woman in her oversized coat. “They must take you hours.”
“Weeks, actually. That one,” she points out a bunch of lilies tied in a silky-looking ribbon of sugar, “took me almost a month.”
“Wow. Do you sell them?”
“Oh, no,” the woman says. “No. I don’t want to sell them.”
“But you could. I mean, they’re so good, you could really make a business of it.”
“No. I won’t ever do that.” She takes her phone back.
“What do you do with them then?”
The woman looks at her for a moment, then says, “I eat them.”
She smiles widely at her, then takes two gulping sips and drains her cup. Miriam is yet to take a sip of hers.
“Thanks for the coffee. It was just what I needed. This is a hundred even,” she says, pointing at the whip. She puts the note on the table and grabs the whip and her gloves.
“Thank you,” she says, and looks Miriam in the eyes for a second before clomping out.
The door jangles closed. The shop grows quiet except for the hum of the lights. Miriam sees the woman place a tiny, perfect orchid in her open mouth, close her eyes and bite down on the sweetness.