Henry was making bacon again. There was something both charming and annoying about his propensity for, and enjoyment of, elaborate breakfasts. Beth had grown up on cold cereal, as had Henry if she recalled correctly. Bacon and eggs were reserved for the weekends when there was time to eat unrushed.
But Henry made bacon almost every morning, though not always eggs. Most of the time it was just bacon and toast, which was hand cut sourdough spread thick with butter and jam.
He would roll the sleeves of his fine dress shirts up and don a simple white apron, as not to get splattered with grease before work. He looked somewhat absurd, but as always dashing, with his salt and pepper hair and its perfect part. His gray or black suit trousers always holding a distinguished pleat. His attention fixed on his cast iron skillet.
Beth had indulged for a while, when they were first dating and there was still a novelty to waking up in his bed, but six months into living with him she had gone back to her own adult version of childhood morning rituals. Grape Nuts with banana or berries. She would often steal one strip of bacon from his plate some mornings but would never ask for her own.
They both liked that. The little intimacy of her morning theft. The little hurt furrow of his brow at her crime. Her smirk and inevitable kiss on his cheek as penitence.
They had dated for less than a year before trying out cohabitation. As it sometimes happened in New York, it was partly for love and partly from necessity. Her lease was up, his apartment had plenty of room.
He had lived with another girlfriend before he had met Beth. The mysterious Nora. There were still little reminders of her around the apartment that sometimes bothered Beth, and an undeniable feminine quality to the sheets, pillows, and drapes that Henry wouldn’t have picked himself. It often made her aware she was still the new girl.
Perusing the archives of Henry’s Facebook one day after he posted some pictures of one of their fabulous dinner party, Beth was confronted by a picture of Nora. She knew it was her without any tags or labels.
Nora was much more beautiful than Beth had imagined. Striking really, with olive skin and high cheekbones. Something wild in her eyes and flashy in the way she dressed. Her eyes thickly rimmed in black and her dark hair a wild mane, lustrous and elegant.
It set off her jealousy and in some strange way made her even more attracted to Henry.
Henry had an intense and time-consuming job that Beth only partially understood. Something having to do with cellphone apps. It made him a lot of money, but it often took him to San Francisco or Seattle or occasionally London for weeks at a time.
She found the box when he was on one of his long business trips.
She didn’t really get lonely when he was away, in fact, she liked having the place to herself. She would often plan spring cleaning or other large projects to keep herself busy.
It was in her building of the California closet that she came across the black box labeled Nora.
In it were perhaps three dozen envelopes, many the same size, one or two that were obviously birthday cards. Some of the envelopes were from a personalized stationery set and were fat with thick letters. As well, there were glassine envelopes, all filled with stacks of photographs.
Though later she might have convinced herself that she paused to consider privacy and respect, in actuality she immediately plucked an envelope from the box and pulled out a letter.
“Sir,” it started, “As always, I am in mourning when you travel. I wear only black and I sip the tea you brought me from Paris and sit in the window seat and pine for you.”
The first paragraph and Beth was nearly in tears. The handwriting was perfect, looking almost like a computer print-out save the imprint of the pen on the delicate white laid paper.
The tone was so romantic, perhaps even silly sounding, but in the context of a private note, it was gut-wrenchingly intimate.
“I have already read the book you laid out for me, but I will save my thoughts on it until you return and we can go over it properly. I will only say I loved it and it made me very angry. Both reactions I’m sure you planned.”
Beth remembered being both happy and confused when Henry had very simply said “read this,” and handed her a book. It had happened a few times and although she often bucked at being told things instead of asked, there was something charming in his way and she read them.
As she held the letter, she wondered if some of them were the same books.
“Each evening you are away I dress in the nightgown you left for me. It is so delicate and pretty. Its slight weight on my body reminds me of you. The way you keep your hand on my hip when we sleep together.”
Beth stopped reading there, putting aside the letter and browsing the other items in the box. She took the first bundle of photographs. Her heart was racing. Looking at the first photo, she found the same women from Facebook, though she was nearly naked. She wore a nearly transparent chemise, sitting with her face turned down, looking artful, dramatic, and sexual. Beth was filled with equal parts jealousy and lust.
The swath of pictures was heavy and she could only imagine what sorts of things she would find.
The next photo was even more of boudoir picture, with the beautiful Nora laid out on a bed, the same bed Beth slept on every night.
The next was more revealing, Nora sitting on the bed, facing the camera, legs open, breasts spilling out of a corset, eyes glazed with lust.
Beth’s eyes stung and her heart raced.
It was a dozen or so photos in when the pictures started to become strange. Nora standing in her corset, in a crowded room wearing a mask with the ears of a rabbit. The background was artfully blurred, but Beth saw that everyone at the party wore masks.
She tried to make out where it was taken. It wasn’t their apartment, but it looked familiar somehow.
The next photo was taken at the same party, the image was that reddish yellow tone of a picture taken without enough light. Nora looked at the camera, her mouth open, bent forward with her large pretty breasts in the blur of swaying. A man, who was not Henry, was behind her, fucking her, a woman kissing her neck, in the background was someone wearing what looked like antlers.
On the back of the photo, in ballpoint pen, was written “March 2008, OoD Initiation.”
That was the first time Beth saw those three letters. O. O. D. Somehow even that first time she knew that there was something significant about them. She knew they meant something.
The inscription placed it seven years in the past. Before Henry broke up with Nora and before he met Beth.
The picture illuminated many things. Henry had been to sex parties of some kind. He was part of something that had “initiations.” Nora had been fucked by other men and perhaps women during their relationship.
In her time with Henry, she had known of his kinks. It was one of the things that most attracted her to him. On their second date, sitting on his couch making out, he very calmly and confidently asked her if she would like to lay across his lap and get spanked. She blushed at how quickly she agreed.
“That’s a good girl,” he whispered as he pet her hair and took down her panties.
Still, spankings and occasional bondage were one thing, orgies were quite another.
The next few pictures were more of the same. Nora with a pretty blonde woman’s head between her legs. Nora, in a spotlight, with four pairs of hands coming from the shadows around her, touching her breasts, between her legs, pulling her hair, fingers in her mouth.
Beth bit her lip and clenched her thighs.
One of the last pictures was not of Nora, but of Henry. She knew it was him from the crooked grin and Roman nose, though he wore a mask. The mask was a dark red and covered the top of his face and then came up to form two pointed ears tipped in white.
He wore a black suit, no tie, the white shirt open exposing his chest, which sported a few red marks that looked like they might be nail scratches or bites. In his hand was a whip. On the back of the photo was written “Dec. 2008, OoD, Henry as Renard.”
She remembered high school French. That meant a fox, which now that she looked at the mask again, the design eluded to.
For a few hours she went through the photos and the letters. There weren’t many more scandalous ones, she seemed to have found dirtiest first. The others were just as painful though; picnics in the park, a vacation in Paris, Nora looking breathtaking on a beach.
The letters were sweet, kinky, sad, dirty. It seemed they played games. Henry would have her write out fantasies, withhold her orgasms, once even loaning her out to a friend and her husband for the weekend.
It wasn’t until one of the last letters that Beth got the next clue about Henry and Nora’s relationship.
Inside one of the white envelopes was a small card of thick red paper with Nora’s sweeping black script on it.
“Sir, I’m sorry for the things I said, though we both know they needed saying. This wild adventure we have been on has been fantastic, but doesn’t seem to fit with your new career, your new plans. I wonder if I still fit into your new life. I wonder if this might be the last letter I begin with ‘Sir.’ That breaks my heart.”
Beth felt some little dam inside of her break. Tears came as she read on.
“You have been a patient teacher. You have been an amazing lover. You have been a good friend. You have been a divine Master. I am off on a long trip and when I get back we can discuss what comes next. I have been given a great opportunity to apprentice at the Order’s retreat on Prince Edward Island. We have a breathtaking castle there. I hope you see it one day. It feels like Dionysus’s eyes are on me when I am on the grounds. I will always love you. I hope your recent choices bring you the life you want and need, even if they may not include me.”
The three letters suddenly made sense. “The Order,” and “Dionysus’s eyes.” An Order of Dionysus.
The next few days were a battle. Beth tried to put the black box out of her head. She felt guilty for breaking Henry’s trust, but at the same time, she felt the weight of his secrets.
The internet was no help. “Order of Dionysus” brought only vague returns about some historical “mystery cults” around Europe that didn’t seem to have anything to do with New York or Prince Edward Island. Still, she searched on.
She found an odd used copy of a book from the 60s on eBay that mentioned “the history of sex cults, from its roots in ancient Rome to London high society, to the New York underground. From the Hellfire Club to the Orders of Dionysos and Bacchanal Cults of the Old and New Worlds”
It was only available used and at a steep price, but she was desperate for any other information, so she paid for the book and expedited shipping.
Henry wouldn’t be home for another ten days. She had gone back to the black box and took one of the photos of Nora and put it on the table next to their bed.
Looking through some papers she found in another closet, Beth found an old bill for Nora Voros. Finally having her last name she searched Facebook and the internet at large but found little about the woman, other than some pictures of her on beaches, boats, and museum openings.
The book, when it arrived, had a soft worn cover the color of blood. The inside cover was a beautiful paisley design, with little naked nymphs and satyrs in gold on black.
The text was dense and mostly incomprehensible historical details of various Roman cults that sprang up in London and Paris in the 19th century and then again in America in the early 20th century.
There was very little about the Order of Dionysus or Dionysos as it was spelled in the book. There were a few paragraphs about “hedonist body worshipers” who “donned masks and performed pagan rituals and orgies.”
Then another entry that stirred a memory: “in New Amsterdam, wealthy merchants gathered with entertainers of the day as well as women of ill repute for imbroglios and opium-fueled orgies that lasted days. The cult went to great lengths to hide their name and membership and was only known as the fellowship of ‘Rode Deur’ or the Red Door, for the distinctive doorways of their headquarters.
She rushed to the box and returned to the pictures of the sex party. She knew she recognized the home. It was Henry’s friend’s apartment. The apartment with the red door down on Delancey! She just knew it.
She closed her eyes and tried to remember his name. Jacob something. Jacob Lansky. A wealthy jeweler who had built a fortune before he was thirty. Beth remembered the beautiful apartment, with walls covered in interesting contemporary art pieces. She saw parts of those very paintings and sculptures in the pictures.
It all made sense suddenly. The tension she had felt when Henry had brought her to the Lansky’s house. His beautiful wife flirting with Henry, hell, flirting with Beth! And Jacob’s remark that he missed the old days when they “had such lovely soirees.”
Beth had been in the very room where the pictures were taken.
Shock and anger filled her veins. She imagined herself there, in those extravagant lacy clothes.
She looked at herself in the mirror. She was beautiful. Perhaps not like Nora. Her skin was a soft tan, not as dark as Nora’s Mediterranean complexion. Her eyes were sharper in the corners, her nose was small, her cheeks peppered with freckles.
She opened her robe. She felt pride in the swell of her breasts, how they stood high, pert, topped with sensitive nipples that hardened before her eyes as she traced them with her fingers.
The light triangle of hair between her legs was soft and grew sparsely. She looked into the reflection of her own eyes. She was beautiful. She could be at one of those parties. She could wear a mask and a corset and-
Beth blushed at the thought and the images that appeared in her mind. She could bury her face between Nora’s thighs and taste her, please her, make her scream in pleasure.
Her hands moved from her breasts to between her legs, fingers slipping across wet skin. She kept eyes on her body. She held one breast. She remembered the photographs, all those men, all those hands and cocks, all those pretty women and their red lips.
She watched to see what an audience might see. She wanted to make sure she was pretty when she came. The red blush went from her cheeks to her neck and then down between her breasts. It was rare that she could come with just her fingers, but when she could, she knew it from the start. The want was overpowering, the tension, the fear, the jealousy and the anger.
Her knees gave when the orgasm washed over her. She panted on the floor, her hair falling over her eyes, her reflection a beautiful mess.
She smiled. She could do it. She could be one of the masked lovers.
That morning, perhaps because she missed her lover, she made bacon. As it sizzled and crackled, she nearly missed doorbell.
She was only wearing a thin robe, so she only opened the door a crack. In the hall was the familiar brown of a UPS delivery man’s uniform.
He held out a thin envelope, which she took, then a small stylus with which to sign his little computer tablet.
It was addressed to her, though she didn’t recognize the return address. Tearing the package open she found a smaller envelope inside, this one in a familiar red. Inside that was a neatly folded note.
“My dearest Elizabeth,” it started.
It was Henry’s handwriting. He was one of the few to use her full first name and only playfully.
“Always my curious cat. There are little birdies out there in the big world and they tell me you have been shopping for very interesting books. That makes me think you may have been looking in some very interesting boxes from the back of our closet.”
Once more a letter made her heart race, this time with fear.
“I’m not angry. You are a grown woman, and it was only a matter of time. I apologize for not being more frank with you. Unfortunately, I can’t return home for a few more days, but when I do, I will try to answer all of your questions.”
It was signed simply “Henry.”
The sadness that passed over her was like a very heavy blanket. She lost her appetite, turned off the stove, laid in bed.
She thought about all the conversations to come, the explanations, the cool tone of Henry’s voice and how he always seemed to have the right words, the answers. She didn’t want his answers. She was enjoying finding her own answers and moreso, finding more delicious questions and clues.
She brought the book under the covers with her and read more by the early morning light. She felt tears welling up in her chest.
“Though many Bacchanal cults started as groups that worshiped to aid the fertility of both its members and their crops, later iterations were gathering places for wealthy men and often their lovers. Class differences were often erased by costumes and masks. Poor artists and poets mingled with lords and ladies, opera singers and ballerinas performed with burlesque girls.”
She smiled, thinking of that and imagining how well those traditions would work in contemporary New York.
She touched the pretty cover of the book, fingers tracing the patterns on the inset. She looked through the table of contents again, looking for clues. On the copyright page, something caught her eye.
“Copyright 1961, Edward Dunne. Divan Press, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.”
How could she have been so stupid as not to see who published it?
She got her laptop and brought it to bed as well, wrapping herself in blankets and sitting up, tears forgotten and the mystery afoot.
Divan Press was still active and still based in Charlottetown. Google showed her pictures of a castle outside of Charlottetown and a small office building in the town center. She saw Edward Dunne, who passed away in the 70s.
Though there was no website, she found a phone number. There was only an hour time difference. She nervously wondered.
Without really thinking, she dialed. The ring was strange, foreign. A man with a distinctly French accent answered.
Not knowing what else to say, she cleared her throat and said, “Nora, please.”
The line clicked, and she wondered if they hung up. Then in a moment an American accent, but soft, traveled, even breathy.
“This is Nora, who is speaking?”
Beth’s mouth was dry.
“Yes, um, hello, my name is Beth, I’m in New York,” she choked out.
“How may I help you?”
“I found some letters of yours and some pictures. I was snooping where I shouldn’t have. I’m very sorry. But I did, and now I can’t stop trying to find out more. About you and about-” she was unsure what to say, she thought she must sound like a stalker.
“And about the Order.”
There was silence.
“How did come upon these letters?” Nora asked softly, not seeming to be angry.
“I found them in my boyfriend’s closet. He used to be, I mean, you two were-” Beth started, but Nora stopped her.
“I see. Best not to talk about any more names. I know who you mean. Well Beth, how can I help you? What is it you are looking for?”
“You are very beautiful,” Beth said, wincing at the stupidity of the statement, but unable not to say it.
“Thank you, Beth,” Nora said in a soft kind voice.
“And the Order, the things I’ve seen, it’s like things I’ve imagined so many times. And the pictures, it feels like I know you, like I’m looking into a window into a world I very much want to be a part of.”
There was silence.
“Beth, hold on one moment, I’m sorry, I need to put you on hold.”
Then there was the silence again, for a while, perhaps three minutes, which felt like twenty minutes.
“Well Beth, what you are saying is understandable. Many of us find out about the Order by catching some glimpse of it. Most people ignore it though, or don’t do anything about it, or even worse come to it with demands and disrespect. Curiosity, though, is something we reward. It is perhaps the thing we most want to cultivate in the world. So you are lucky or at least you have the chance to be lucky if you wish.”
Beth’s heart was pounding in her ears. She had no idea what was coming next, but whatever it was she hoped she would be brave enough for it.
“Do you have money for a plane ticket to Canada?” Nora asked, now with a little laughter in her voice.
Beth felt a smile shining through the phone, the smile she saw in those pictures on the beach.
“I do. I could,” Beth said, realizing her eyes were wet again.
“Well, you should see about that. And perhaps a warm coat and scarf, it is a little chilly up here this time of year.”
She gave Beth an address and another phone number and an email address. She said she could make few promises, but she had a feeling Beth would fit in well.
Within hours, tickets were purchased, a small bag was packed, things were in motion.
On the table, Beth left flowers in a vase, the black box with its cover slightly open, and a letter. It was a little tableau that seemed like something Henry would appreciate.
I never got to call you ‘sir,’ not in letters or in our bed, but perhaps your time of wanting that title came to an end before we met. I realize there are so many things about you that were a mystery to me, yet some piece of me saw the answers to my many questions and those were the things I had always been attracted to about you.
I don’t know if this is goodbye, but for right now I need to attend to something. I need to attend to my curiosity. I feel like it is something I need to succumb to, with every fiber of my being. I feel like for the first time in a long time I am hungry for my own answers and my own mysteries.
I love you. I have never felt as loved as when I was with you, but this is something I must do.
If you need me, I will be with Nora. Yours, Elizabeth”