Sex in a box. That’s what it was. Spine-tingling, heart-stopping, decadent sex in a box.
Lorna Rafferty pushed the tissue aside, and the heady smell of leather filled her nostrils, sending a familiar tingle straight through her core. The feeling—this thrill—never got old, no matter how many times she went through the ritual.
She touched the tightly stitched leather and smiled. She couldn’t help it. This was wicked pleasure at its sensuous, tactile, hedonistic best. It made her skin prickle from head to toe.
She ran her fingertips along the smooth surface, skidding over the graceful arch, like a cat stretching under the midday sun; she smiled at the sharp but satisfying prick of the spike. Yes. Yesss.
This was hot.
She knew it was wrong, of course. Twelve years in Catholic school hadn’t been for nothing: she’d pay the price for this indulgence later.
Well, hell, she’d been planning on that for years.
That debt was going to have to get in line with a lot of others.
In the meantime, Lorna had these peep-toe ankle-strap Delman platform sandals to comfort her. She could walk right into the fires of hell if she had to, in shoes to die for.
One of the only things she could remember about her mother was her shoes. Black-and-white spectators. Little pink sandals with kitten heels. And Lorna’s favorites: long, slim satin shoes, with heels like narrow art deco commas, and tiny bows at the toe that were frayed slightly at the end from the years since her wedding.
If she closed her eyes, Lorna could still picture her own small feet shoved into the toes of those shoes, the heels clapping treacherously behind her as she traipsed across a faded Oriental carpet in her parents’ bedroom toward the fading blur of golden hair and big smile and the waft of Caron’s Fleurs de Rocaille perfume that was her memory of her mother.
Of all the things she knew or remembered about her mother, and all the things she didn’t remember, Lorna knew one thing for sure: clearly the love of shoes was hereditary.
She took the Delmans out of the box slowly, mentally shoving away the memory of handing over her credit card and waiting—like a gambler who’d bet it all on red—for the yes or no from that faraway Credit Card Roulette Approval Commission.
This time it was yes.
She’d signed the slip, promising (to herself), Yes, of course I’ll pay for these shoes! No problem! "My next paycheck will go to these shoes), while assuming an expression of one who pays their entire balance with every statement and whose entire life couldn’t be repossessed by Visa at a moment’s notice.z"
She’d ignored the other voice: I shouldn’t be doing this, and I will make a promise, here and now, to God or anyone else that if this charge goes through, I will never ever spend money I don’t have again.
Best not to think about the repercussions.
If pushing away uncomfortable thoughts about money burned calories, Lorna would have been a size 2.
She admired the shoes in her hands for a few minutes, then put them on.
Pleasure that, treated properly, would last a lifetime. Pleasure she’d always be ready and in the mood for.
So what if she’d had to charge them? By her next paycheck, she’d be able to throw some money at her debt. Within—what—a couple of years, maybe three, possibly four at the most—and that was assuming she wasn’t all that strict with her spending—the debt would be gone completely.
And these Delmans would be as awesome then as they were right now. And probably worth twice as much. Maybe even more. They were classic. Timeless.
A good investment.
No sooner had Lorna had that thought, sitting in the living room-dining room of her small Bethesda, Maryland, apartment, than the lights went off.
Her first thought was that the electric company had turned off her power. But no…she’d paid the bill recently enough. Had she missed a thunderstorm somehow? Summers in the D.C. area were notoriously hot and muggy, and this early August day was no exception. Citizens like her paid monthly for electricity that occasionally—in the worst of summer—went off for hours, sometimes even more than a day.
She got up from the sofa and tottered in her Delmans over to the phone on the hall table. She called the power company, fully expecting to be told everyone had overtaxed the power grid by cranking their AC, and that the power would be back on soon. Maybe she’d go to the mall and kill an hour or two in the cool air there before work, she thought idly, dialing the number on the old pink princess phone she’d whispered secrets into since she was twelve years old.
Ten minutes and perhaps fourteen automated-system touch tones later, a power company representative—who had identified herself as Mrs. Sinclair, no first name—gave Lorna the response she had, deep down, been dreading.
“Ma’am, your power was shut off due to nonpayment.”
Okay, first of all, that ma’am was totally condescending. And second--nonpayment? That wasn’t possible. Wasn’t it just a couple of weeks ago that she’d had a couple of really good tip nights and had come home and paid a bunch of bills? When was that? Like mid-July? Early July? It was definitely after the Fourth.
Or, wait, maybe it was just after Memorial Day. One of those cookout holidays. She’d worn those adorable pink Gucci sandals.
She looked dubiously at the pile of mail on the table by the door—it added up so quickly—and asked, archly, “What do you show as the last payment received?”
Her mind ticked back like the calendar at the opening of a bad 1930s movie. Okay, she’d gotten that July windfall, but maybe she hadn’t paid the electric bill that time. Maybe she’d paid it the time before, which was, what, maybe June? Could it possibly have been back as far as May?
Surely not April! No! No way. She was sure there was a mistake. “That’s impossible! I—“
“We sent another notice on May fifteenth, and on June fifth,” Mrs. Sinclair’s voice rang with disapproval, “and on July ninth, we sent a cutoff notice, warning you that if we did not receive your payment by today, your power would be shut off.”
Okay, she did vaguely remember at one point she was all ready to pay her bills when Nordstrom had sent a notice about their half-yearly sale.
That had been a great day. Those two pairs of Bruno Maglis were a steal. So comfortable, she could have run a mile in them.
But she’d definitely paid the bill the next month.
“Now, wait a minute, let me check my files.” Lorna scrambled to her computer and pushed the button to turn it on, waiting a full five seconds or so before realizing that the computer, which held her payment records, ran on the very electricity the snarky woman on the other end of the line was withholding from her. “I’m sure I’d remember if you’d sent a cutoff notice.”
It was easy to picture Mrs. Sinclair as a nasty little troll sitting under a bridge, with a pinched face and curly hair. You want electricity? You’re gonna have to get past me first. So riddle me this: When was the last time you paid your utility bills?
Lorna gave an exasperated sigh and reached for her wallet. She’d been here before. “Okay, forget it, just tell me what it will take to turn it back on. Can I pay over the phone?”
“Yes. It’s eight hundred seventeen dollars and twenty-six cents. You can use Visa, MasterCard, or Discover.”
It took Lorna a moment to digest that. Mistake. Mistake. It had to be a mistake. “Eight hundred dollars?” she echoed stupidly.
“Eight seventeen twenty-six.”
“I wasn’t even here for a week in June.” Ocean City. A week of espadrilles and Grecian tie-ups that made her feel like she was vacationing on the Mediterranean. “How could I have used eight hundred dollars’ worth of electricity? That can’t be right.” Something had to be wrong here. They had someone else’s bill confused with her own. They had to.
Maybe that was the collective bill for her entire floor of the building.
“That includes a one-hundred-and-fifty-dollar reconnect fee, and a two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar deposit, on top of your three-hundred-and-ninety-eight-dollar-and-forty-three-cent bill and finance charges of eighteen dollars and—“
“What’s a reconnect fee?” They’d never asked for that before.
“The fee for reconnecting your power after it’s been turned off.”
This was unbelievable. “Why?”
“Ms. Rafferty, we had to turn off your power and now turn it back on.”
“And that’s, what, like a switch or something you have to flip?” She could picture pinched-faced
Mrs. Sinclair sitting next to a great big cartoon ON/OFF switch. “You want me to pay a hundred and fifty dollars for that?”
“Ma’am”—there it was again, that ugly condescending tone—“you can do whatever you choose. If you want your power back on, it’s going to cost you eight hundred and eighteen dollars and three cents.”
“Whoa, wait a minute,” Lorna interrupted. “A second ago, you said it was eight seventeen something.”
“Our computers just refreshed, and today’s interest was just added to your account.”
The apartment was getting hot. It was hard to say if it was because the air-conditioning had been turned off or because Lorna was getting so frustrated with Mrs. Sinclair—whom she’d now decided was probably not married and had taken this opportunity to tag Mrs. onto her identity despite the fact that she hadn’t had sex in years, if ever.
In fact, her name probably wasn’t even Sinclair. She probably just used that as a pseudonym so that people wouldn’t hunt her down and kill her at home after talking to her on the phone.
“Can I speak with a supervisor?” Lorna asked.
“I can have someone call you back within twenty-four hours, ma’am, but it won’t change your bill.”
Except for the added interest by the time they got back to her, of course.
Lorna took her Visa out of her wallet. It was practically still warm from the Delman purchase. “Fine.” The battle was over. Lorna had lost. Hell, she was losing the entire war. “I’m going to use my Visa.” Assuming the charge went through.
A split second of satisfaction seemed to crackle over the line from Mrs. Sinclair to Lorna. “And the name, as it appears on the card? ...”
After hanging up with Mrs. Sinclair, Lorna decided to look in the pile of mail by the door, to see if there really was a cutoff notice. Somehow, right up until that moment, she had remained half-convinced that there was a mistake.
There was a mistake, all right. In fact, by the time she’d opened all the envelopes, there was a large, ugly pile of mistakes, all of them hers.
To be honest, Lorna had known for some time that she needed to go through the stuff. The pile had sat there by the door, like a thing on fire, and she had tried to ignore it and the dull ache she felt in the pit of her stomach every time she passed it, or thought about it in the middle of the night when she couldn’t sleep. She didn’t have the money to pay the bills, but she always felt like she’d have it soon. Another paycheck, a good tip night. But her spending was out of control, and she knew it.
She just didn’t know how completely out of control it was.
What on earth did she buy with all that money?
And why did she still feel so empty?
She wasn’t extravagant. She hardly ever went out, and it wasn’t as if she was sitting around sipping Dom Pérignon all the time. The only thing she bought that could, conceivably, be considered a nonnecessity were a few shoes here and there. That is, if you could possibly consider shoes unnecessary.
Sure, once in a while, when she found a really great pair, she’d get an extra, just in case. Like with the Maglis last summer. But, seriously, one pair cost a mere fraction of her rent. How did that add up to tens of thousands of dollars?
Until that moment, she’d kept thinking she’d pay the debt down. Money would come in, and she’d go through the bills and everything would be fine. She’d had $250, even $300 tip nights at the restaurant now and then. August was always slow in the restaurant business, but as soon as September rolled around, she was sure she’d make a lot.
But looking at the bills, it hit her hard that she was never going to be able to make enough to get this debt under control. There were late fees, over-limit fees, finance charges...two of her five credit cards had raised the interest rate to within spitting distance of 30 percent. Of the $164 minimum payment on one, $162 was pure interest. Even Lorna knew that paying down the capital at two dollars a month would take decades.
And that was assuming she didn’t use the card anymore.
She had a problem.
This was serious, serious debt.
It had begun simply enough, with a Sears charge card the department store had been gracious enough to send her in her first year of college. Having grown up very comfortably in the posh D.C. suburb of Potomac, Maryland, she always assumed that she would not only meet but would exceed that upper-middle-class suburban life. That was a starting point, not the high point of her life.
So when she got the credit card, it just felt right to go out and make a few small purchases that she would pay for herself.
Her first purchase had been a red pair of Keds. She’d seen them on the Lucite stand and immediately pictured herself dockside at the Chesapeake Bay with friends, her skin a deep bronze from the sun, her blond hair gleaming like the front of a box of Clairol Hydrience 02 Beach Blonde, her new boyfriend—the son of a wealthy family who owned car dealerships all across the D.C. Metro area—so enamored of her that he would propose and they’d live happily ever after.
At just eleven dollars and ninety-nine cents, plus 5 percent tax and a mere 16 percent interest on the Sears card, those Keds seemed like a good investment. She’d pay them off before the first statement was out.
On the way out of the store, though, she'd seen just a few more things that caught her eye; the new Sony Walkman was a steal at ninety-nine dollars, and who could begrudge her buying one little pair of silver earrings—seriously, come on, they were shaped like flip-flops. ...
Unfortunately Lorna was a little bit short when it came to paying the bill, and the boyfriend had dumped her a few weeks later, after cheating on her rather spectacularly with her best friend at her own birthday party; she’d spent the summer working miscellaneous temp jobs indoors, so the tan had never materialized; and her hair had grown out to a light brown that was lank and flat from the artificial environment of office buildings, rather than the spun gold she’d pictured blowing fetchingly around her face as she stood on the bow of the boat, sailing comfortably toward happily ever after.
But come fall she met a new man—one who loved salsa dancing. The footwear was magnificent. Stilettos, strappies, the man was a dream come true. It wasn’t cheap, but who could put a price on a dream?
Of course the dream ended, and Lorna woke up and finished her college education as a single girl. Which isn’t to say there weren’t great shoes along the way—she got credit for taking ballet (she didn’t make it to toe shoes, but the slippers were fun), jazz (there were full-sole and split-sole jazz shoes as well as boots), and tap (noisy patent leather!). She was a terrible dancer, but the shoes—the shoes!
So Lorna had marched steadily on toward her future in one pair of appropriate footwear after another, hope springing eternal that she would finally find the Prince Charming that went with the shoe. In turn, Lorna would lead the easy upper-middle-class life she’d grown up with—two or three kids, a golden retriever, a walk-in closet in her bedroom, and no money troubles.
It hadn’t worked out that way. Boyfriends came and went. And came and went. And came and went, long beyond the time when people stopped saying, “You’re young, you should play the field!” and began saying, “So...when are you going to settle down?” When she’d dumped her most recent boyfriend—nice, but dull dull dull George Manning, who was an attorney—her coworker Bess had all but called her stupid, saying, “He may be boring, but he wears Brooks Brothers and pays the bills!”
But that wasn’t enough for Lorna. She couldn’t stay with the wrong guy just because he offered financial security, no matter how tempting that financial security was. So she’d lived as if some answer—some miracle that would wipe her slate clean—was going to turn up around the next corner. The solution was always coming right up, in her mind.
Therefore, Lorna hadn’t done nearly so much as she should have to find her own solutions and stop her spending problems before they got out of control. Like the gambler who kept doubling the bet with the idea that the big payoff had to come, statistically, Lorna kept doubling her troubles until finally, now, she realized she was holding a losing hand no matter what she did.
She was in a very real crisis. If she didn’'t change something, and quick, she was going to go broke.
Not just I can’t buy these strappy sandals broke, and not even beans and rice for dinner for the next few months broke, but honest to God, corrugated cardboard is warmer in subzero temperatures than plywood, so hang out behind Sears and get a refrigerator box before all the good ones are gone broke.
She had to do something.