Samira forgot the hat the first time, so he had to go back to see her again. Except for the absence of the hat, it had been fine the first time. She had done everything the way she always did it, with the murmur of her crisp accent, and the glare of her blue eyes. It still felt like there was something missing somehow, and, when Leon left her little room and went down the steep, twisted staircase, and into the brisk air of the street, and the glow of the red lights against the gloom of the night, he realized what it was. She had forgotten to wear the hat.
It was not the same without the hat.
She called it a hat, because her English was limited, but it was really a cap. It was made of black rubber, kept to a dull shine, with a wide latex peak and a sharp crown molded to a soft point at the crest. There was a white latex band that ran around it in a thin stripe. It fit snugly on her head, making her seem even taller, over six-foot in spiky heels, with her golden hair streaming, and her gimlet blue eyes gazing from beneath the peak.
Leon had bought her the hat on a business trip one year. He had not been looking for a hat, but he was looking for a gift. When he saw the hat, Leon knew immediately that it was what he wanted for her. She loved the hat, when she received it, although she loved anything if it was a present. There was no such thing as a disappointing gift. Leon never arrived empty-handed. He brought her designer jeans, perfume, inexpensive jewelry, t-shirts from his travels, and once, for her young son, a toy train.
From the first time that Samira wore the hat for him, it became part of her costume. It matched her long latex boots, and her long black gloves, and her golden locks brushing her shoulders. It went with the exposed girders, splintery rafters and hanging chains and the smell of wax in the dim light of the room. They heard the raucous noise of the passers-by, drunken singing outside, and accordion music from a nearby bar. He sometimes gulped down a stiff shot of vodka there, before he knocked on her door. He did not want to feel like himself, he wanted to hide behind intoxication when they played out their ritual.
They had to do everything again from the beginning – with the hat this time – when he went back the next night.
She had a short crop, and she strutted up and down upon the mat, stopping with her face nose-to-nose right in his face, and her riding crop teasing across his unclothed body. He felt the heat rising from her, and there was a sweet, musk scent when she was close to him.
She exuded a commanding presence. She barked orders and made him march naked from wall to wall with one hand swinging at his side, and the other hand clutching his genitals.
“I am the Kommandant,” she insisted, tucking the crop under her arm, “Left, right! Left, right! Left, right!”
“I decide what is good, and what is not good,” she said ominously.
“Good, good, good,” he pleaded, “I am good.”
“If you are not good, you know what will happen to you,” she warned.
His eyes filled up with terror, and she smiled wickedly.
He always felt such a cathartic sense of relief when it was all over, as if she had done him an enormous favor by filling a desperate need.
She took the hat off, indicating that they were finished, and she could not wait to get out of the boots and back into her walking shoes and her street clothes. He got dressed one button at a time with his back to her, so that they did not have to look at one another.
Afterwards, they sometimes went for dinner together in Chinatown. There was a place where the ducks were hanging in the window on S-shaped hooks, and they shared a lemony dish with hot oysters on the half-shell. They drank sweet beer served in chilled tankards. She spoke to the waiter in a guttural language that he could not understand. From the restaurant, they could see the barges floating down the canals and the colored lights from the district reflecting on the ripples of the water. They heard the peal of the bells chiming the hour from the Old Church, as it grew later, but they lingered over the meal. Neither of them had anywhere in particular to go, and the kitchen stayed open until midnight.
The square tables were close together, and the people beside them could overhear their conversation, but they kept everything innocent. They had known each other for many years, and, like old friends, they talked and joked about everything under the moon, except the taboo of what had just occurred between them in her room. Now, after the fact, when it had worn off for both of them, what they had done seemed traumatic and depraved. It felt like they had committed a crime. They had a familiar aftertaste that lingered from the time they did it before until the time that they would do it again. They were not ashamed, but there was a grubby feeling that stained them on the inside. She never wanted to speak about it; for her, it was work, and the dinner was personal.
There was only one other subject that they never talked about, and that was what had happened to his family. It was a long time ago, and besides, that was in another country.