Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Tenant (fiction)

Throwback Thursday: This story was originally published several years ago on my first website. Here it is again, in case you missed it...

The Tenant

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.

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.”

He couldn’t tell if she meant it, was being evasive, or had become suddenly irritated.  He didn’t want her apology either way.  He walked over to a stack of records, next to the player, rifled through them, turned a few over in his hands to examine the lists of songs on the backs.  He chose one, and replacing the opera with Beethoven, turned up the volume and turned again to face her.

“Will you dance?”

“I don’t dance.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too intimate.”

He snorted under his breath in sarcastic disbelief.

“Closeness scares you?  You walk around here with the confidence of a damn courtesan.”

She scowled at him and looked down at her hands.

“I’m not a whore.  I know you think I am.”

“I don’t.  I don’t know what you do with your time, and I don’t question it.  But you damn near bleed sexuality everywhere you step.”

He paused and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his shirt.

“I don’t believe you’re a stranger to desire, at least.”

“Desire is entirely different from intimacy.”

She stopped, forehead wrinkled in consternation, trying to figure out the right words to explain what made so much sense in her mind but so little now that her mouth must be the vehicle for its arrival.

“Desire is what comes before obtaining the object of that desire.  It’s still innocent – maybe not in thought, but in its inaction; it is not the sin itself.  Desire is clean.  And no, I am no stranger to it.”

She was gaining momentum as her thoughts were finding new life through her words; it encouraged her confidence to blossom in to a rising wave of indignation.

“Neither, sir, do I fear intimacy, as you have so boldly assumed.  However, just because I allow you look at my naked body, and just because I walk around this house with nothing under my robe does not mean that I am necessarily seeking your attention.”

“But how can I ignore it?  And why should I?”

“I don’t want to dance.”  She closed her eyes again, looking exhausted and beaten.

“Alright.”  He felt as if he’d overstepped some boundary.  She’d never spoken so many words to him in all the time he’d know her.  And in her words he saw something he hadn’t expected: vulnerability.  She had become defensive.  She wanted to think herself clean.  And he knew she was now.  Somehow, knowing this gave him courage.  He felt like he’d won some little battle with her and with himself.  He’d been afraid of what he thought she was: impure, imperfect.  She was creeping into his veins, slowly, warmly, and he sighed with the release of his own silent admission of her.

“I’m tired.  I think I’ll turn in.”  She took her glass with her as she glided into the darkness of the hallway and into her bedroom.  He heard the click of the latch on her door.  She’d never locked it before, and he was struck by the sound.  Was she afraid of him?  Or was she making a point?

Suddenly he felt angry.  How could she assume that he would do anything warranting a locked door?  He was a good man.  He’d never hurt anyone in his life.  Had he?  He sat on the couch and put his head in his hands, resting his elbows on his knees.  Was it something he had said?

“Stupid!”  He said under his breath.  He pounded his knee with his fist in scolding.  He’d compared her to a whore.  Somehow, in his observation of her, he’d stripped the humanity from her and plastered her with a hideous label to explain his own fear of her.  He’d found it so natural a comparison that he assumed  her to be like his impression of her:  heartless.  And now he realized his error.  He also realized the problem – her problem.  If he – this nice, kind, unassuming fellow – could think this of her, then imagine the creeps who followed her home every night.  Lecherous men with wives and old enough to be her father.

It was her burden.  Men looked at her and didn’t see pure, natural, innocent beauty; they saw sex – a whore to be bought and fondled and left.  He began to feel the irony of it all as the light from under her door disappeared and he heard the springs bound in her bed as she sat down.  She was as pure as they came.  Maybe, somehow, purer.  She was like faith, which cannot exist unless it is tested.

He lay down on his bed, fully clothed – his mind unsettled and restless.  He couldn’t put his finger on it, couldn’t make sense of his sudden need for her.  It was like she’d just come to life for him, just become human, and she was expansive – taking up his every breath and each incandescent thought.  She was seeping through his pores.  She was on his breath.  Her essence was in his blood, and he was hot with her presence; it was practically burning his skin, making his thighs itch and his chest sweat.  His temples pulsed.  He made fists of his hands as he remembered the feel of her lips around his finger—her tongue sliding along the underside from the base to the tip; not difficult to transfer the sensation to another more expectant part of his body.  Raising his hands to cover the throbbing movements, make them cease, he groaned deep in his throat.  It felt like she was on top of him, straddling, riding him.  He could almost hear her soft moans, the little cries, the soft quick breaths that mimicked her touch.  Her fingertips…he felt them tracing lightly the soft brown hairs that began at the V of his collar bone and led to his sex.  Her lips…he saw them wet and glistening as she arched her head back, moving rhythmically over him. 

She wasn’t really there.  But it didn’t matter: he felt her.  This was desire.  And he was content to drown in its complexity.  This…this feeling was what he saw in her eyes.  He’d seen it the first time he met her at the pub.  In the darkness of the bar: desire – not for him – maybe for life…the sky…the bombs going off overhead in the distance.  It filled her to the brim and overflowed, spilling onto the floor.  That’s what all those men followed.  And he’d just slipped and fallen face first into its sweet density.

Whenever had he wanted a woman this badly?  Not her succulent thighs or thick, dirty blond hair – but the hidden depths?  He thirsted to be let into the shadows inside her.  He wanted into those eyes so badly his chest ached.  He made fists of his hands and pounded the mattress on either side of his reclined body.  He felt he could actually die of this feeling.  He pressed his open palm down on his erection, willing it to subside, forcing it, as much as he could without truly paining himself.

And then there was a “click” from the hallway.  Her door.  Was she coming out?  Another drink?  A cigarette?  He couldn’t hear her in the hall.  He moved slowly to his own door and peered out toward her room.  The door was still closed.  He furrowed his brow as if to question her gesture.  Had she unlocked her door to emerge and then changed her mind, forgetting to re-lock?  He stood in front of her door and looked down.  No light emerged from beneath.  He put his hand around the door knob; it felt hot.  He pulled away quickly as if he’d been burned.  He looked at his palm in the darkness, opening his mouth to let escape a silent breath of painful yearning.  Confused, he tried again.  Turning the knob, slowly, as to not alarm her, he felt an icy chill up his forearm; it continued in a lightning jet of pain to his shoulder.  Once again, he let go of the knob.  But having turned it somewhat already, the door creaked open an inch. 

He peered through the crack, a stab of guilt slicing through his thoughts, like a child seeing something beyond his years, something he should not see but cannot look away from.  Wanting the view all the more because it seemed wrong, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness within.  Searching the bed for the curve of her form, he could not see well enough.  He glanced away, back into the hall.  He hadn’t seen anything, but the desire to had set the vision hard in his mind, as if the lights were bright on her body, highlighting its contours, its shadows.  The imagining gave rise to his manhood. The cotton and wool could not hold him in.  Quickly, he shuffled back to his room, bare feet sliding almost silently on the wood floor, angry with his own anatomy.  He simply couldn’t go to her like this, like some inexperienced school boy looking up to woman of knowing.  He had to offer her more.  She’d been propositioned too many times to be impressed by this.  He could see her reaction—rolled eyes, a sigh, a demeanor of pity.  She would be disappointed because that’s what she’d expect: his erection, his pleading eyes.  It’s what he felt but could not show.  She wouldn’t be able to see what was silently waiting behind the veil of the biological reactions of his body…that this was not about that.  He didn’t have to fuck her.  Indeed, his body craved her in the most primal sense, but his mind railed against it; intellectually, he could rise above simply wanting her, but his animal instinct was strong.  She’d hear it as a lie if he tried to explain.  Others had probably tried it as a method for sounding trustworthy or sensitive.  He didn’t have any reason to be either.  She wouldn’t respect those qualities anyway.  But she wouldn’t respect an erection staring her in the face on its knees pleading for her touch, either.

He sat on the edge of his bed, waiting for it to subside.  He drained the last few drops of whiskey and returned to her door.  It was open wide.  He looked behind him, back down the hall toward the living room, then stared again into the darkness of her room.  He reached back down and briefly attempted to tame himself, pressing the base of the shaft toward his left thigh.

“What do you want?”

Her words made him jerk and take in a startled, sharp gasp of breath.  A drop of sweat floated down his left cheek.  He said nothing.  What could he have said?  How could he tell her?  He had to touch her skin and smell her.  Walking to the foot of her bed, his silhouette was framed by the glow of the drapes.  He couldn’t hear her move.  She remained still and silent.  Placing his right knee on the bed, he let his weight fall forward on to his hands.  Knee over knee…hand over hand, he crawled to her side, spun sideways, and lay next to her.  He inhaled slowly and deliberately, taking in her musky aroma.  It burned his nose and made his throat constrict.  He closed his eyes tightly and fumbled for her hand.  She made no effort to close her fingers around his.  Like a dead body, she let him take her hand, but didn’t respond to him.  Her warmth, though, radiated into his palm.  She was so hot.  But she was dry.  How could her palm be so dry---not perspiring in such heat?  He held her fingers in his hand tightly, willing his words into her skin without speaking.

“It’s alright,” she whispered.

He could feel her looking at him, the heat of her eyes on his cheek…could almost hear the single tear sliding down her own.

Her body turned toward his.  His breath stopped, his heartbeat quickening.  Fear.  She placed her hand on his chest, traced her fingernail to his shoulder and down his arm to the hand that was still holding hers.  She picked up his arm, stretched it straight across her pillow and lay her head on his shoulder. 

He lay awake for several hours in that position, not knowing if she slept.  It didn’t matter.  He was holding her, holding the essence of desire in his arms.  He let it wash over him like the sweetest shower, saturating his skin.  He was cool now.  She wasn’t burning him anymore.  He’d survived somehow, and now here he was, relaxing in its wake, the softness of its contentment.  He’d never again know desire like this, like an electrical storm, all-consuming.  And all at once he understood that to bully the current or force it into submission would be futile.  Men had been trying for thousands of years to bridle the power of these waves.  But it was not until this moment that he realized simply giving in was far more satisfying.  He knew there was no battle to win but within himself.  She was not an enemy to be conquered, a book to be read, a project to study.  She was not to be simply enjoyed or entertained.  Or feared.  She needed to connect: only connect…the most basic of human requirements.  And this moment, a moment that could not be recaptured, was the only thing he wanted of her.  A kiss, or more, would be a knife in the back of this feeling.

In the morning, he would pack his things and go.

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