Dorian Gray awakens as if from the grave. A great weight presses down on him from above, but when he looks up to determine the cause, he realizes it’s his head, which feels so heavy upon the stem of his neck that he expects it to tumble off and land on the crumpled bedding beneath him. Even the air itself is heavy, as if he were trying to breathe through cotton wool.
He blinks several times to clear his vision, the effort of moving his eyelids far too strenuous an endeavor to undertake without discomfort; they feel as if cast-iron window weights have been attached to them. The bluish haze that blurs the objects in the lavishly appointed bedroom make him wonder if he has somehow developed shortsightedness. His puffy, burning eyes struggle to focus and make sense of his surroundings. He hears the sound of breaths being drawn in and then released in a steady rhythm that might have been soothing if not for his disorientation. Are they his or someone else’s?
Red velvet draperies cover the tall windows and move sluggishly in the breeze as if they too are affected by the overwhelming sense of heaviness that afflicts him. They remind Dorian of curtains in a theater; he expects them to swing open, revealing players on a stage. Instead they reveal irregular chinks of yellow light that insinuate themselves inside the room, informing him that it’s morning.
The clarity of his vision slowly returns, bringing with it more detail. Embroidered silk cushions lie scattered across the wooden floorboards, as do overturned glasses and random bits of gray ash. The bed upon which he finds himself appears to be a tangled heap of arms and legs, the more slender among them female. They crisscross in a haphazard pattern. Arms as white as the first winter snow. Arms as black as polished ebony. Some look as if they belong to the same body, though Dorian knows this to be physically impossible.
Lying amidst the jumble he detects the gentle curve of a woman’s breast and unless he’s mistaken, the graceless wedge of a man’s foot. That Dorian is inside a bedchamber becomes obvious to him. It might be his, though he can’t be certain.
He seems to recollect a small man with a pencil-thin moustache and a worn yellow tape around his neck measuring the window frames with extravagant meticulousness, then producing several swatches of fabric, one of which was red velvet. The memory’s returning to him in more clarity now. Monsieur Larouche, the curtain maker. His men finished hanging the red velvet draperies a few weeks ago.
As for the hours that have just gone past, they remain a confused jumble of images in Dorian’s mind, though the fragrant after-scents of smoked opium and female pleasure tease at the edges of his memory like a tickling finger, gradually bringing him back to consciousness. Painted scarlet lips pulling on the tip of an opium pipe, then later on the tip of his manhood. Secretive openings being filled by inquisitive fingers, as well as other objects not generally suited for the purpose. Yes, the mislaid hours of the night are finally being located!
At some point Dorian must have lost count of the number of times he spent himself, though he suspects it transpired at least once with each person present in the room and likewise with those who have already departed to seek out the familiarity of their own beds. He squeezes his eyes shut and reopens them, the burning less troublesome now. Despite the tiny veins of red marring the sclera, their blue is as pure as the sky on a perfect spring day. Yet the tableau laid out before him is anything but pure.
Is that a young man lying unconscious on a heap of silk cushions by the window, or a young woman with short-cropped hair? He’ll never grow accustomed to these young ladies who shear off their pretty locks in this masculine manner. He prefers men to look like men and women to look like women; at least then one can always tell who the players are. The figure on the cushions moves ever so perceptibly, yet it is enough. It offers Dorian a pleasing vista of two well-formed hind cheeks that remind him of hot-cross buns. The sight of them makes him hungry, though it isn’t a meal he hungers for. On the contrary, his is a hunger that never ceases—and it cannot be appeased with anything so mundane as food.