He didn’t knock. He simply placed hand to doorknob and twisted his wrist. It didn’t surprise him to find it unlocked. She wasn’t trying to draw him; he knew that. It was only the way she was. Immodest. Dangerous in her inattentiveness. Unguarded. She never tried to draw the attention of men; but maybe that’s exactly why they were always looking and always following her home. It made the young man nervous. He feared her, but the fact that he feared her made her seem strong enough, in his perception, to take care of herself.
She looked up at him from the claw foot tub. A lady would have tried to cover herself, would have at least feigned surprise, mock humiliation. A woman pretending modesty would have at least widened her eyes, opened her mouth to protest. But she simply looked at him as if she were fully clothed, comfortable to meet with a stranger in this way.
“I just want to look at you.” He spoke without fear of rejection. Because he knew she’d let him sit next to her, touch the water, in silence.
She said nothing, just continued with the business of grooming, sliding the razor down her cream-lathered leg, extended over the edge of the tub. Moving slowly, methodically, as if creating a work of art, sculpting her own smoothness. For the first time in his life he wasn’t worried about what to do next. He didn’t even care if this was it: the last time he’d ever see a naked woman. Somehow she had that power. It was her seeming confidence. Her carelessness with him. She wasn’t asking for anything, wanted nothing from him. Lying there in the water – engulfed in steam – she seemed cruel and enticingly exotic with mascara melted in half-moons beneath each eye, her cheeks rouged heavily with heat. She seemed ripe for the touching, soft and slightly swollen from the steam.
“Do you want to touch me?” She didn’t look at him as she asked the question; but she sounded sad somehow, and he thought to himself, that in other circumstances, he would be trembling. He knew he could have her here and now on the bathroom tile. He knew she wouldn’t resist. And maybe that’s why he walked away.
Half an hour later she emerged from the bathroom in a faded peach silk kimono – her hair piled on top of her head, wet only at the tips, creating a frame for her glowing face. Her bare feet, toenails painted red and chipped, made a little puckering noise on the wood floor in the hallway, then turned to a padded whisper once she reached the ancient Persian floor rug (too old for the colors to be deciphered) covering the most worn, and possibly water-stained, section of the living room floor. She poured herself gin, straight, in a chipped glass. On the front of it was etched the emblem of some hotel on 5th Street that had closed down years before during the Depression. She’d probably picked up a whole set for free when the business (and the owner) collapsed. He watched her from behind his evening paper. Floating to the record player, she put on some obscure Italian opera and slouched into the graying ivory armchair opposite him, swung her head back, letting the last sip of her drink trickle down her throat, and let her left leg hang over the threadbare arm of the chair. The pose forced her kimono to slip open across her upper thigh; and with each metered swing of her leg, it opened a little bit more. But her head was still laid back. Her eyes were closed and her lips silently mouthed the sad story coming from the speaker. He put down his paper, set it on the table beside him, stood, and walked toward her. He took the glass from her and turned to refill her drink, when she grabbed his hand. His back was to her, and he stopped his next step. She caressed his fingers, leaned forward and took his index finger in her mouth, letting her tongue mingle with the salt of his skin. He remained a statue, unsure in his immobility. She sucked the finger to the tip, her lips releasing him before her tongue, and then fell into her previous pose, yet this time – due to her sudden movement – her kimono lay completely open from the waist, exposing the soft down that hid her innermost workings. This he didn’t see as he continued his route to the bar, struggling to control his composure, his desire to turn to her and take her into his arms. He would not let her unnerve him, use him like another of her witless toys. She would be the death of him. Her indifference would kill him, if he let himself feel anything for her. And he knew he could never really have her…really – like a lover. He could only have her like a whore, empty inside. Too many others. And now she was mad, and there was a certain power in her coldness and distance. Once, she must have been amazing, vivacious, the kind of woman men clamor around, like moths to a burning flame, knowing but not caring that she would ruin them. As far as he could tell, she was just a beautiful shell now. Something someone puts on a shelf to admire and takes down once in a while to hear the ocean again, remembering more pleasing times.
She closed her eyes again as he handed her another drink. He didn’t stare at her from his chair like an animal. That’s what she loved about him. He tried so hard to avoid being like the others. She found it charming, and it made her feel less mean…somehow less numb. But with this, came the fear. The smile left her lips. She opened her eyes and looked directly at him, hiding from her, even out in the open as he was. He was looking out the window, his back to her. She’d seen him do this a dozen times before; he was trying to gain control the only way he knew how: to avoid her eyes, as if she were Medusa and might turn him to stone if he looked into them…as if to look at her were to communicate something deeper than either of them were ready for. But her gaze bore in between his shoulder blades. She traced the suspenders down his back and took inventory of his countenance – as if to memorize: white dress shirt, cuffs rolled to the elbows, thick, strong neck jutting from an unbuttoned collar, brown curls, soft cherubic lips – almost feminine in their curve. His grey wool pants hung from his hips as if tailored. Bare feet made him look like a child. She brought a finger to her lips as she noticed the light brown hair on his right foot. He curled his toes under, an absent-minded movement someone does without thinking. But he was feeling the heat of her observation, knew he was being watched, and the movement was one of discomfort and anxiety. He felt cemented to the floor, wanting so badly to move anywhere – to just walk around the room. But he couldn’t will his feet to do anything more than curl his toes back and forth.
Her audible sigh breathed air into his lungs, and he turned toward her boldly.
“What do you dream about?”
She looked at him, a reluctant smile playing at the corners of her overplayed pout. Pupils widening, eyebrows lifting slightly, her reserve seemed almost imperceptibly more shallow, penetrable even, for a moment.
He took a few steps toward her as he spoke.
“Because a person’s dreams tell much more about them than the life they actually lead.”
“And why should I tell you, then? Why should you know more than what you see everyday? More than anyone else?”
“I suppose I can’t answer that. I simply wonder. It’s like you’re oblivious to how you must appear to me.”
Read part three here.