She is pleased with herself, sitting on the edge of the metal-framed bed, her toes arched against the dirty wooden floor, a towel wrapped around her body. Combing her fingers through the wet rust of her tangled hair, she throws her head down and then back up, her freckled cheeks flushed. Meeting my eyes as she once again raises her hands to her head, she smiles, but I look away from the curve of her lips; the smile is not for me.
The room smells of soap and flesh and sex.
The living room.
In which she sleeps, yes, but it’s the living room.
I am annoyed, but I try to speak casually, “It’s late.” I reach to pull at the crumpled blankets on which she sits, trying to smooth the bed into daytime innocuousness, but she does not move. There is no way she is unaware of my efforts, but she hums softly to herself and runs her hands down and then up the smoothness of her calves. I release the blankets, inhaling the wafted dark leftover scent of someone who is not her, and I gesture impatiently, “I want to sit down.”
She looks at me in surprise, “So sit.”
Before I will sit, I need the bed to become less a bed and more a couch. I need her to be less naked. I need her to stop smiling and humming and running her hands over her body. I stand, considering all the many things I would like to say, saying none of them, “Never mind.” I can taste the venom of the anger behind my words, but she shrugs her shoulders, oblivious, “Suit yourself.”
At the bottom of the bed, there is a black metal chest, atop which are piled assorted possessions. The chest is roughly the same height as the bed, and so the impression is that the two items of furniture are connected, as though the bed has been designed to provide storage and table-space just beyond one’s sleeping feet. The dual-nature of the bedroom/living-room means that this chest is piled high at bedtime with everything that has collected on the “couch” during the day, and then in the morning, it is piled high with everything leftover from the night. At the moment, it is strewn with clothing and cups and books and shoes and newspaper and empty bottles and a single not-so-empty bottle of beer, which I lift in disdainful fingers, “I’ll just dump this out.”
“Mmm hmm,” she leans to rummage in the pile of clothing on the floor beside her feet.
I walk the few steps to the bathroom and dump the beer down the sink, the familiar scent bringing back unbidden and unwanted memories that coalesce into a single impression of uncaring selfishness. I thought we were done with this. How is she unable to see past that bed? How are the rest of us supposed to go on if she cannot see us?
When I return, she is shimmying into a pair of jeans, the towel still wrapped around her body. She drops the towel away as the jeans rise over the full curves of her hips, half-turned away from me, naked from the waist up. She sits back down on the still-unmade bed, and with a casual finger, she points, “Hand me my bra, would you?”
I retrieve it from among the shoes and clothing piled on the metal chest at the end of the bed, trying very hard not to imagine the moment of its tossing. I drape it over a single finger and extend my arm, “Here.” She takes it from me, and I watch as she fits the silky fabric over first one breast and then the other. Her arms and hands twist behind her as she tries to fasten the bra’s hooks, “Could you give me a hand?”
I hear her words as an invitation to approach . . . an invitation to touch her . . . an invitation to sit . . . an overture . . . perhaps an apology.
I sit beside her on the bed and she turns away, releasing the bra closure into my fingers and then moving her hands higher to gather and hold her hair atop her head. I reach to fasten the three tiny metal hooks, trying and failing to avoid touching her skin, “There.” She does not move, and so I say it again, patting the closure as I speak, “There.”
This time she hears me, and she releases her damp hair and pulls on a T-shirt, “Thanks.” She reaches for her glasses and puts them on; she is more the woman I know with her glasses, and I reach again to pull the blankets out from beneath her, “It’s late. Let me just fix the bed for you.”
She stands and watches as I smooth and tuck and press away the scent of him with anxious darting fingers, “You don’t have to do that.”
I finish and take a deep breath, as though my accomplishment is significant, “There. Much better.”
I sit down.
She considers me, “I have been very lonely.”
“Yes, me too.”
“Things have been difficult.”
I don’t say anything, because I do not need to hear from her that things have been difficult. Does she really not understand she is not the only one in pain? Does she really not understand that much of the difficulty is her doing? My throat aches with loneliness.
“I need someone.”
I sit very still, desperate to keep his scent trapped in the bedding beneath me. I want to slap her. She needs someone? She needs someone?
She laughs, “Do you want to hear something funny?”
I want more than anything in the world to not hear something funny, but I nod.
I look at her; I see from the smile on her face that this story is not for me. The smile is not for me and the story is not for me, but I smile in return, “Tell me.”
“The first time we slept together, he and I . . .”
I was right. This story is not for me.
“The first time we slept together, it was sort of a surprise. We just ended up here in bed. I had no plans to sleep with him, but then we were drinking and he was so sexy and so interested and so young and so eager.”
Stop talking stop talking stop talking.
“It was wonderful. I had been so lonely, so alone. I had forgotten what it felt like to feel connected to someone that way . . . to feel wanted . . . to feel desired.”
I stare straight ahead and try to fill my head with silent humming.
“In the morning, I woke up first and I just lay there in the bed next to him, surprised and happy.”
“I was lying there in bed, staring down at the pile he had made of his clothing at the bottom of the bed, when I noticed his shoes.”
I glance up at her. His shoes?
“His shoes were resting at the bottom of the bed . . . cowboy boots. I didn’t remember him wearing cowboy boots, but I had been drunk and I hadn’t been paying that much attention to his feet.”
“Thing was? The boots were tiny.” She holds her hands up in the air about six inches apart, “Tiny.” She laughs, “And so I lay there in bed in a panic, trying to remember if this man beside me had tiny little feet. How had I missed that? How could he even walk with such little feet? How had I slept with someone who had little stunted baby-feet? I was afraid to lift the blankets to look . . . I didn’t want to see the terrible mistake I had made.”
I stare at her.
She smiles, “I wouldn’t have slept with a baby-footed man . . . you know what they say.”
I do not know what they say, and I do not want to hear what they say.
“Anyway, there is nothing tiny about the rest of him.”
Stop talking stop talking stop talking.
“But I was in a panic . . . there was no way I could continue having sex with a man whose feet fit in those cowboy boots. I tried to think of a way to escape from the bed without waking him, tried to think of a way to never see his baby feet naked. I was horrified at the thought.”
I look at her questioningly. I have seen the man’s feet. They are normal-sized feet.
Giggling, she throws herself sideways and behind me to scrabble among the items on the black chest at the bottom of the bed. I breathe through my mouth to avoid the blankets’ sudden exhalation of musky scent. She finds what she wants and hands it to me . . . a tiny leather cowboy boot.
My little brother’s cowboy boot.
She howls with laughter, “I was maybe not all the way awake and I was maybe still a little drunk, but I so thought those were his shoes.”
I laugh weakly, running my fingers along the stitching of this tiny boot.
My father left small shoes to fill.