Showers (2006; 2,746 words)

    Lena was relieved that the garage door was down. David was not home yet and she would at least have a head start in the shower. She came to a stop in the garage, turned off the engine and hurried into the house. She dropped her duffle bag and yoga mat at the door of the laundry and took the steps two at a time up to the master bedroom, ripping off her leotard by the time she reached the door of the bathroom. She turned on the water in the 6x6 white-tiled stall, not waiting for it to warm, and jumped under the spray face first. She felt around for her strawberry soap in the squeeze bottle and squirted her palm full. Smearing her forehead and cheeks, she then thought she heard David’s car. She kept her eyes shut and turned off the water.
    “David?” she shouted. “Is that you?” No sound.
    It was too soon for him to see her. She hadn’t had time to downshift, to slow down to her serene attitude that should follow meditation and stretching. David commented each time about how relaxed she looked, about the glow in her un-made-up skin. “I’m all wrinkled,” she would protest, but he never gave up saying she was radiant after Yoga.
    She finished and quickly toweled off. She stood still in front of the vanity mirror and looked at her pink cheeks surrounded by wet, uncombed, highlighted strands of shoulder-length hair. “You’re glowing,” she said, and let herself smile.
    That afternoon had been like many others over the last three months of workdays. They had met at the apartment managers’ banquet a year before. Charlie––she loved that old-fashioned name, Charlie––had simply left off asking for anything when he made his usual after-lunch call. He didn’t hint that he wanted to get her alone, didn’t talk dirty into the phone the way he had sometimes done in the beginning. He just asked her how the new porch was coming along and agreed with her that the association chairman was a twit. But today, like other days that went her way, she said her own code words to Charlie: “What are you doing?” and plans were not required; they both knew what to do. At two-thirty they’d slipped out of their respective offices and met at the neutral Starbucks, the one that no friends of either would even be able to find, let alone frequent. She got latte with a thirty-syllable name and he got black coffee before they took a corner window seat.
    “Don’t you sometimes want to kiss me right here in this window,” she said, leaning back on the wooden chair, one hand resting on her lap, the other slowly spinning her paper cup on the table before her.
    “Of course. I want to kiss you all the time,” he whispered, his discomfort as obvious as his pleasure in being showered this way––by Lena––in every moment they spent across from each other. Charlie’s eyes showed her that he was as hooked as she was, as hooked as she wanted him to be.
    “You know I can’t talk about it without doing it,” she said.
    “Doing what?” he said, stifling a grin.
    And, like always, that’s all they had needed. They each drove to his apartment where they had sex. But, in reality, the lovemaking had begun with the phone call and continued through coffee, all the way to Charlie’s couch. They then sat outside in matching, red terrycloth robes she’d shipped to him from a business trip in Boston. The language they now used was developing into an intimate idiom. Short phrases, single words now had the power to convey secrets or sooth hurts. And sentiment––exclamations of vulnerable sentiment––poured out easily.
    “Nothing hurts when I’m here,” Lena said after a lengthy silence. They bobbed slightly in twin bouncing rockers and looked over the rail of his twelfth-floor balcony. The city skyline was close. She reiterated, “Absolutely nothing hurts.”
    “Not even when I smack your ass?” said Charlie.
    “Shhh,” she said, in pretend shock. She whispered, “Especially then.”
    “Hah,” said Charlie. “We should hurt, though, right? Because of what we’re doing?”
    With a bad Italian imitation she said, “Fahgeddaboudit,” and tried to make a funny face, uttering that phony mafia word that her husband worked into conversation any time he could.
    “Hold on, there. Now that I think of it, maybe I’m off the hook.” Charlie said, but it didn’t sound like this was the first time he’d had the thought. “I’m just making love to my girlfriend. Some of us are cheating on a husband.”
    “Okay. Next subject,” Lena said. But even these vaguely accusatory words of his reassured her about her actions, about her options. She had two men, each of whom counted on her for some piece of his life.
    “Do you feel your power sometimes?” said Charlie, as if hearing her thought. It wasn’t the first time he had done so.
    “Whatever do you mean?” she answered coyly. “I have only the power to ruin my life if I don’t wise up.”
    “Or if they cancel yoga one night and David finds out you didn’t go because he comes looking for you.”
    “Very funny,” she said, then “Holy shit. I better at least drive by every night, huh?”
    Charlie got out of his chair and knelt beside Lena’s. He opened her robe at the collar and planted a kiss at the nape of her neck. “Keep talking,” he said. “About something else.” And she did. Lena resumed verbal consideration of her Theory of Proximity: that men and women choose the best available mating objects from the sample nearest to them––geographically, socially and intellectually. They are, therefore, bound to fuck up at fucking when they settle down; it’s just too much to ask that good sex would accompany good business, those good partnerships that marriages should be.
    “Is that why you don’t have any kids?” said Charlie. “Because you guys can’t do it? Or do it right?”
Was he teasing her? She wondered.
“I take all that back,” he concluded. “I don’t want to know.”
    “I will remind you that nothing hurts when I’m here,” she said and reached to squeeze his cheeks with one hand, like an old aunt to a four year-old.
    “Hey, don’t,” he said, pulling away and taking his seat again. “I hate that.”
    “I’m sorry,” she said.
    His face changed. “Just because we say it, that doesn’t make it true. Just saying ‘nothing hurts’ doesn’t make it a fact. What about the stuff we don’t say?”
    “We don’t require a lot of words.” She stopped rocking, looked at him and waited for him to speak. He looked away from her, fixing a stare across the rail at nothing in particular.
    Magic phrases were suddenly unavailable to her. Their common language would need to be enlarged on the spot or they would descend into serious conversation further, leaving the fun behind. Instead of releasing thoughtful expression, Lena released her body again, allowing it to overtake the moment of doubt with the certainty of what they both were here for, what they had already done and could do again on cue. Their claim on safety would be lost without the force of ordinary flesh, and they both implicitly acknowledged this by their surrender.
    Lena opened her robe and, straddling Charlie’s legs, sat down on his lap. And as she’d expected, he showed no holding back now, no pouting as a result of the pinch on his cheeks or the faintly cross words of moments before. Taking his collar in her hands, she pulled his head to hers and kissed him. He responded and, in the familiar sequence, stood to pick her up. She laid her head on his shoulder and put an arm around his neck as he gathered her up. He carried her to the kitchen and sat her on the counter where she dropped her robe over her shoulders. Though she was not ashamed of her body, Lena found herself average in the boring, physical sense. But Charlie’s attention to all her fevered places assured that her racing mind didn’t dwell on her flaws; instead, she saw in his moves, his abandon, the thrust of her own strength, her ability to inspire and enthrall. Whether he was jazzed in his brain, waiting for the next moment of her theoretical brilliance, or aroused in that oblivious way dictated by his body––that was immaterial. She was near explosion before he could enter her, and she let go three times during the ten minutes he was inside her, all while she sat on the counter.
    Charlie smiled at her from their close distance. “I don’t know anyone like you,” he said. “Who can do that like you do. Over and over till you lose your mind.”
    Eyes drooping, mouth turned up pleasantly at the corners, Lena pulled the robe around her again. “Well, maybe I don’t know anybody like you, anybody who can do that to me over and over.”
    “How about a shower?” Charlie said, lifting her and setting her on the floor in front of him. He then bolted like a kid toward the bathroom as Lena followed him, caught up and yanked off his robe from behind. They stepped in and Charlie sat on the molded fiberglass seat opposite the three-headed waterspout. As she put her body between him and the spray, he first watched her then leaned over to put his face into his hands. She turned from him.
    “Don’t leave me,” said Lena, rinsing her body with her back to Charlie, keeping her face and hair clear of the water.
    “Where am I going?” he answered, not looking up. “I really don’t have anyone else. Not like some people.”
    “Okay, that’s twice today you’ve done that, honey” she answered.
    Charlie went silent, stepped out and dried off, then left to retrieve his clothes from the living room floor where both of their outfits had been carelessly strewn when they entered his place––after the phone call, after the coffee and instead of Yoga for Lena. She followed his lead both in the silence and in dressing again. Lena, naturally, had to put on her Yoga clothes under her long coat for the drive home. She would now need to hurry because she could arrive after her husband was already home, raising the possibility of making up stories for him. Those lying things should be saved for the big stuff, not the afternoon sex covered by her blanket fib about yoga class.
     At four o’clock Charlie went back to the bathroom to check himself in the mirror and comb his hair, an awkward exercise since he held the cell phone to his ear with his shoulder, checking messages. Lena heard him from the living room as he cursed into the air over what one message said. Checking her own calls, she was relieved that her absence seemed to have entirely escaped the notice of her office mates. She arrived at the bathroom mirror as Charlie dialed his phone and began an obsequious apology, apparently to his boss for being out of pocket at some artificially crucial moment.
    “I’ll be right there,” he said. “I had to run home and check on the cat. I’m sorry.”
    “You sound so pitiful when you do that,” Lena said when he hung up, not looking at him. “You don’t have a cat––or is that me? Meow. Are those guys really that scary?”
    “It’s a job. I need it, that’s all. Besides, I don’t have the luxury of a boss wrapped around my finger because I’ve seen him naked. I’m not as lucky as you.”
    “I can’t believe you today,” said Lena. “As soon as I said the thing about how nothing hurts, you began looking for ways to get me.” She put her arms around him and looked at his face and his eyes that wouldn’t look back. “Listen,” she said in her mistress voice. “Easy times, right?” she said, quoting their lovers’ mantra, the short phrase that encompassed their promises to each other, such as they were.
    “But it’s true,” Charlie persisted. “You slept with your boss after you were married to David. Now me. Why am I here with you? Why did you pick me?”
    “Be careful, buddy,” she answered, still in the flirting voice, still seeking his eyes. “Don’t make me have to smack your ass.”
    Charlie made eye contact now and forced a gentle laugh, but the pain in his face had hardened since the second lovemaking, since they washed up, since the call to his office. Lena’s mind now flashed on every transgression of her own, many of which she had spilled to Charlie since she’d known him, since they’d been coming to his place for playing at sex and hiding. In this quick inventory, she was unsure about a couple of things she had or had not revealed to this lover. She knew she had told about her twenty year-old cousin, the one who got sex from her the first time when she was fourteen; there had been no reason to hide the story about her history professor, because that had been a campus joke for maybe five of her girlfriends he’d also nailed. That was just a funny story. But had she told Charlie about why she was fired at the last job, by her old lady boss who accused her of screwing the intern, even though she hadn’t? Ironic. Or about the fire chief in Boston who picked her up at a hotel bar in Natick, Mass.? Well, maybe she picked him up, but she didn’t make him fall in love with her or show up at her house back in Minneapolis promising to leave his wife. Thank God David had been out of town that night. Would it work to tell Charlie every single thing so maybe he would grow up and relax? Or maybe he would run away. Or make anonymous phone calls to David. All this thought reminded her how little she really knew Charlie, how spare the real revelation between them had been. But, she had long since decided, there’s a lot to like about a man you hardly know.
    She placed her palm on the side of his face and held his gaze. “I need you now. Don’t let me go,” she said.
    Charlie’s brow furrowed, and his shoulders heaved slightly as tears formed in his eyes.
    She had done it again, made a man think he was in love with her, even with all the disclaimers they both had made, even with some freely-revealed bad manners of her past, even though there was no chance she would break David––her husband, after all––from her life. Boys just don’t get it sometimes.
    “Easy times, baby,” Lena repeated, and Charlie collected himself, put his arms around her and squeezed her to him. He kissed her neck, that gesture of passion that doesn’t imply a single thing about trust––not the way a kiss on the cheek or a peck on the mouth does between confident lovers. Charlie’s gentle, wet touch of lips to her ear made Lena smile to herself.
    “Easy times,” he whispered.


    Now standing in front of the mirror at home and acknowledging her glow, Lena had completed her second bath within one hour. She heard the rumble of stereo bass pounding through the doors of David’s BMW as the garage door made its rattling sound and closed. She wrapped her hair in a towel and slipped into her bright, turquoise silk robe, the one that David had shipped to her from a business trip to Hong Kong.
    “Hi, hon, I’m home!” David called up the stairs, imitating Wally and Beaver Cleaver’s dad in the way he thought was funny. It amused Lena only in that David thought he was funny, even though he simply could not pull it off. She walked to the bedroom door and smiled at him as he ascended the stairs to greet her.
    “Look how you shine,” said the smiling David, then kissing her cheek and brushing past her as he yanked at his necktie. “I’ve got to go in here and wash this day off me,” he said, disappearing into the bathroom as his wife sighed with satisfaction, removed her robe and lay naked on their bed, anticipating the sound of splashing water.