They’d been living in the same house for 67 days. But she looked at the dog with more affection; and she spoke to herself more often. He was immanent, however. His circumference was widening in her space. He was filling the air with his need for the smell of her hair, a glimpse of the garter holding her one threadbare pair of stockings in place, too low, just above her knee, to be sexy, just high enough to remain out of sight, for the most part. They were flesh-tinted; though she’d wanted black, she could not afford color. She could barely afford the heat it would take to warm the bathwater she was running. He could smell the lavender and mandarin wafting on wings of steam from under the door and hear the tinny sound, echoing and muffled by the closed door, of the water hitting the porcelain. A book of human anatomy was splayed across his lap, a glass of cheap whiskey in his hand. His mind clouded, his vision hazed, and his breath became shallow as an tingle sprang forth, with rising insistence, like the tickle of an insect, down his neck, through the hairs on his chest, and finally landed with softness and urgency at the seat of his sex. Instantly, he felt guilt.
This was not a woman he loved. They’d never even touched, except casually, in the process of handing off a drink, giving and accepting rent money in the hallway. But the aroma she left behind, even during inconsequential actions such as these, undid him. It wasn’t the lavender, but something deeper, closer to her skin; something emitted from within. She was sex, and she seemed to know it. No modesty, no decency, no seeming understanding of her effect. Or maybe she did. Maybe she figured any power a woman could have should be used for gain, for a place at the table, for a seat on the bus. Maybe that’s all she was. And maybe that’s why he couldn’t help himself, wouldn’t stop his thoughts, pressed her image onto himself in his mind, guilt growing more transparent with each inhalation of the thickening smell in the room. He wondered which see-through nightgown she would traipse around the house in tonight. He imagined her in burgundy, his Helen of Troy, knowingly smiling, feigning desire she could not, would not, feel anymore.
Her faults: those were the things one remembered about her—the things that made one crazy with need for her…the need to touch with one fingertip the tear in her stockings, to graze with one’s lips the fraying hem of her black sequined dress, to kiss with one’s tongue the chipped red polish on her nails. From a distance: just enough shadow to highlight the crevices and curves; just enough space to hide the scars, loose threads, and lipstick two shades too dark for her pale face. It wasn’t even painted on straight—a slightly crooked line on the right side of her upper lip made her look reminiscent of a child playing dress up with her mother’s things.
She’d been in need of a boarder. Money was tight. More than that. There was danger of going without. It was an advertisement that had drawn him in. But the crimson slickness of her smile sealed the deal. He’d met her over lunch to quibble logistics…but there was nothing to argue. It was a simple handshake kind of agreement. She needed the place in the daytime. He needed a place to study at night, a place to set his hat, lay out his clothes, prepare a meal, take a drink…sweat in peace and masturbate to a dirty magazine once in a while to ease the stress of exams. He wasn’t to be there from 8:00 until 4:00. They could share a few minutes in passing; but she made it clear she needed quiet, time alone, while the sun was up. She worked at night. He wasn’t to ask. But he didn’t have to. He didn’t want to. He couldn’t tell that to his naive Midwestern parents. He couldn’t explain that. So she became Matt, a young medical intern at the hospital where he was observing twice a week. She became 19, studious…there could be no calls to the house; he’d have to make the calls home. And they didn’t ask either. And he thought to himself that it was amazing how little asking happens when we think we know the answer already. It’s always when one question, the right one, the only one, the obvious one, is the one that would shock us into reality…someone else’s…and show us how wrong, really, most of our suppositions are. And yet, realities, whole lives, are based on those assumptions. Without them, we forget how to breathe.
He’d signed on only for the summer months, hoping to find a better, less finicky situation, a more appropriate roommate. She hoped by that time, she’d have enough money to leave town for good, head to New York where she’d find work writing for a magazine. She was a writer; which came out sounding false, almost laughable, through her wine-stained lips as she brushed a strand of dark blond hair out of her eyes. Everyone knew brunettes were the writers. Blonds were good for the cover. They were good between the sheets. They were meant to be heard screaming your name, seen licking their lips, not asking the difficult questions or wrinkling their pretty white foreheads in consternation, sweating over a typewriter.
But these thoughts had not melded until now. The picture was beginning to matter to him…as he inhaled the scent of her bath water. Why did he remember her eyes across the table during their first meeting? Why did it matter that they were blue with her first sip of cheap Chianti? Green when he handed her his deposit…his last ten dollars? Grey when she came home that first morning as he passed her without comment, hardly a nod of acknowledgment, that first morning in the hall? More importantly, why did this remembrance bring to his chest a tightness? And why was he walking toward the bathroom door?
It was an odd night. Classes were canceled, something the university called “dead week”, the week before final exams when there were no classes so students could study. He had nowhere to go really and no money to even buy a coffee to keep himself occupied and out of her way. So they’d been stumbling around each other for a few days.
The sensual overload was almost too much for him. The scent from under the door was suddenly overpowered, momentarily, by that coming from her bedroom as he passed it. He couldn’t help but stop for a moment and take it all in. And he couldn’t quite help pushing his hand against her slightly open door, exposing the shadows of its interior. Glancing briefly, somewhat guiltily, down the hallway to make sure he was safely viewing in solitude this place which had always been closed to him—forbidden, therefore all the more desired, he stepped into the room. With only the light from the hallway and a small lamp on her nightstand, it was difficult to be precise in his collection of information. A simple wood-framed mirror harboring several cracks trailing from a wound in the near center (an object thrown in anger? by her? by a former tenant?) on the wall above the dresser–almost identical to the one in his own room and most likely furniture that came with the apartment—sturdy and without embellishment, in need of refinishing. Next to the mirror, on stucco wall: a browned photo of an older woman with the same languidly empty eyes, a similar sultry pout, looking odd and in contrast to the high lace collar and cameo brooch of a more restricted age. Running his eyes across the dresser, he uncovered from the gray a hairbrush, thick-bristled, almost black with tarnish, a small make-up bag with expected items peeking from within: a lipstick case, a compact, a handkerchief. His fingers itched to open the drawers; they trembled as they pulled the drawers, which stuck and squeaked slightly, making him nervous, and yet, that much more excited. The top drawer was filled with her under things, mostly beige, mostly worn, with fraying lace and dulled satin. He ran his fingertips across them, suddenly feeling the urge to grab a handful of them, bring them to his nose to smell, to suck in her scent. He felt himself harden as he inhaled; but to his disappointment, every trace of her had been stolen by detergent. Disappointed, and more stimulated, he moved on. The next drawer held a few sweaters, some folded shirts, a brown belt and a box of dull silver- and gold-coated jewelry, several pieces encasing fake gemstones. However, it was the bottom drawer that held what he was looking for. A black nightgown, still fresh with her scent. Two pairs of stockings, pairs she was unwilling to discard, but which had too many holes to wear any longer. Garters. He closed his eyes and imagined her wearing these things…all of them. He could see her standing before the bed, placing her foot on the edge so she could reach underneath her thigh to attach the garter. He could see her hair falling into her face, the cleavage of her breasts as she leaned. He imagined her straightening up, both feet, in black heels, on the floor, arms reaching up to pull the hair out of her face and up off of her back, letting it go to fall, to shake it straight, smoothing it once more before walking toward him, splayed naked and waiting for her on the bed. It was almost too much.
And then he heard the water splash in the bathroom and was shocked grudgingly awake from his mental meandering, pushed the drawer closed too quickly, making a noise he hadn’t wanted to make. He stood up from the bed, mussing the covers where he had left a slight imprint, and his heat. His last glance of the room, as he quickly exited, was of her pillow, the curve made by her head still in the center.