THE PROUSTIAN VERSION
She sits down in a straight-backed
wooden chair in my living room and, for the first time, we look directly into
each other’s eyes.
“I could use a
drink,” she says.
“Beer?” I ask.
“That’d be nice,” she says.
I go to the
refrigerator and pull out a couple bottles.
I enjoy watching the foam lick the sides of the glasses as I fill
them. There’s a one-inch head on top of
the drinks when I’m done pouring and they look to me like artwork.
Thrilled with myself, I return to the living room, where my guest has made herself comfortable. She has moved into my favorite spot. Now she’s sitting back in my brown leather wing chair, next to the woodstove.
I bend over and hand her one of the beers, then I settle down in my second-favorite chair, a rocker. There is a slate and metal coffee table between us and I place my glass down on top of it.
“Would you like
me to build a fire?” I ask. “You look
“No. I’m fine,” she says. She takes a big swallow of beer, wipes the
foam off her upper lip with the back of her hand, glances for a moment at the
clean spot that made on her hand, shrugs and takes another
She gazes blindly
into the doorway leading to the kitchen, sighing occasionally and slugging down
“What happened to
you?” I ask.
After a few
moments, she looks at me with her face all twisted, and I can see that she is
fighting back tears.
“I, I can’t,” she
says. “Gimme a minute.” She takes another drink and then she tells me
she needs to use my bathroom.
“It’s right in
there,” I say, pointing down a dark hallway.
“Do you, do you want to clean up?”
“Yes. I need to.”
She follows this statement with a question: “Can I take a shower?”
I inhale some
beer at this point and I follow that suave maneuver with a life-saving choking
fit. Twenty seconds later I wipe my
watery eyes, smile sheepishly, hammer my glass down on a coaster, and
lurch out of the room. “I’ll get you a
wash cloth and a towel,” I call over my shoulder.
I collect these,
and a heavy terrycloth robe that’s several-sizes too large for her, and I pile
it all on the edge of the bathtub. I
look around anxiously for evidence of male bachelor filth, but it’s okay. The room is presentable.
I untangle some
bandages, tape, Band-Aids, peroxide, and first-aid cream from the bathroom
closet and I display these beside the washbowl.
I look at myself in the mirror.
I’m unshaven and rumpled. My hair
is an abandoned bird’s nest. I splash
some water on my hands and scrub it in to my thinning hair. Then I fumble with my nasty-looking hairbrush
before I use it to rip my hair flat back on my head. Looking like a wet vampire, I pull as much
hair out of the brush as I can and I pitch it in the wastebasket.
Of course, a gob of it sticks to my wet hand and I just about have a fit getting it off. I put the brush down next to the bandages. I give myself another furtive glance in the mirror. This time I use both hands to ransack my scalp and to form a crooked part in the hair on the left side before scampering back to the living room. For God’s sake, you’d think I was a teenager on his first date.
But it’s weirder
than that, isn’t it?
I’m a man on the
deep end of middle-age, suddenly attending to a young, attractive and
mysterious woman who’s soon to be naked in my shower. This just doesn’t happen every day. And let’s not forget that this is occurring
late in the same evening that I had a date with another woman! My thoughts were like fish in the hold of
a factory trawler.
“It’s all ready
for you,” I sing. My voice sounds a few
octaves too high. She doesn’t appear to
notice, however, as she drains her glass and clunks it down on the coffee
table. I have scurried back into the
living room, now. The top button of her
blouse is missing and I hope she didn’t notice my contemplation of that shadowy
I’m in the
clear! She actually smiles at me, a
warm, glorious smile. She purrs her
appreciation for my kindness and she rises gracefully. She’s standing now, facing me.
back up and I wave her regally towards the
bathroom. My inner voice is screaming at
me, “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” Why have I been transformed into an
adolescent? And where is my
curiosity? Why am I not asking her
dozens of probing questions, delving into her unexplained appearance in the
woods behind my home in the middle of the night?
moment passes as she crosses in front of me and closes herself in the
bathroom. I hear the click of the lock
and the water beginning to run in the shower.
I scramble to get
myself another beer and to start up the fire.
I have decided not to go to work tomorrow. At this point, I’d just as soon stay up all
night, being charming and debonair,
I’ve been alone too long. I don’t know how to act. Even if this was a normal encounter, a lost motorist, or a misdirected phone call, I know I’d become a tongue-tied jerk. I toss off a fourth of my beer with one prolonged swallow. Then I am down on my knees wadding up newspaper and breaking bits of kindling for the fire.
Finally, I was
doing something I was capable of, and the preparation went smoothly. I opened the flue and lit a match to the
small pile I’d laid on the grate. It
caught and flared up immediately. I had
another pull on the beer and lay some larger chunks of wood on top of the
fire. These bathed in smoke for more
than a minute before raising a couple tongues of flame. I fanned it for a moment with a magazine,
dropped a double-handful of still-larger pieces on the top and closed the door.
Within thirty seconds, a muted roar came
from the firebox and I knew I had a fire.
The water was still running joyfully in the bathroom. I hadn’t heard that sound, the sound of another person showering, in a long time. It made me feel good. I felt needed and I felt, for that brief moment, that I was part of something. It occurred to me that I should have sat out a bottle of shampoo for her. I finished the beer, turned on the television, took my beer bottle and the two tall beer glasses into the kitchen. Her glass was dirty from her hands. I put it in the sink, ran some water in it, and grabbed a clean one from the cupboard. I was reaching into the fridge for two more beer bottles, when the water in the shower stopped flowing.
I pushed the
refrigerator door closed with my shoulder and returned to the living room. I sat the beers down on the coffee
table. Next, I opened up the wood
burner, and put two sticks, each about two inches in diameter, on top of the
kindling. I figured they would take off
okay, and I closed the door back up. The
intake baffles and the flue were wide open.
I turned on the television, then turned it off, turned on the stereo,
then turned it back off. Finally, I
turned the tv back on. If she was
listening, she must have assumed I’d gone insane.
I turned the tv
down: background noise. David Letterman. No.
Wait. We weren’t going to be
watching tv. We’d be talking. Right.
The stereo. I turned off the
television again and turned on public radio, late night jazz, yeah. That would work.
I spun back to
the kitchen, to the refrigerator, to the beer.
Back in my element. Mindless
movement. I pour the beer more slowly,
down the sides of the glasses so there is no head this time. A study in amber. Liquid gold.
I wish I had more.
What was she
doing? Was she going through my medicine
cabinet? No. She would be using those bandages and cream I
had left out for her. She was pretty
scuffed up. Probably the hot shower had
loosened some scabs. There was probably
blood on my towel! I shouldn’t have
given her the new one. No. That was a nice gesture. She would appreciate it. No.
She wouldn’t notice. Should I
soak it in cold water immediately? As my
head was exploding, I heard the exhaust vent in the bathroom start up. Seconds later, the bathroom door opened, and
there she was.
She steps out
into the hallway looking squeaky-clean and beautiful. Steam from the shower follows her for the first
step and then rolls backwards and upward behind her. Her feet are bare and she is wearing that
white cotton robe. It’s cinched up
tightly at the waist, emphasizing its extreme oversize. She has it pulled up around her neck, but as
she comes closer, it slips open a bit.
She has band-aids on the back of both hands and I can see a three-by-three
over her collarbone. Her copper-colored hair
is wild and fluffed-out. She’s parted it
in the middle with her fingers, but the look is pure cave woman. I like it.
I like it a lot.
“Feel better?” I
“Much. Thanks,” she replies. “Say, I, I don’t have a comb. Do you have one that I could use?”
“Of course. Would you rather have a brush?”
“No. Just a comb.
Oh, I was such a filthy mess…”
She’s talking to
air. I’ve jogged past her to the bathroom. In the upper left-hand drawer of the vanity, I’ve
got one that’s in good repair. I run it
under hot water in the sink just to make sure.
I shake it dry and see that she’s hung the towel neatly and it doesn’t
look stained. I turn around and nearly run into her.
Flustered, but not completely out of control, I wave it at her with a flourish. She smiles and brushes against me as she returns to the bathroom. This time, she doesn’t bother closing the door. She turns off the vent and leans over the sink. She combs her hair straight down over her face, straight up over her head, down over her face, straight up over hear head, down to the sides, straight back. She shakes her head and parts her hair deliberately and precisely. She stands upright, pushes her hair back across both shoulders, assesses herself momentarily, then takes the time to remove a few stray hairs from the sink. She places the comb next to the sink, rolls the shed hairs between her palms, and flicks them into the wastebasket. Now, she looks frankly at me.
What next? What indeed?
“Your clothes need washing. Would you like me to put them in the washing machine?” I ask.
She smiles demurely and says, “Men don’t know how to wash clothes. Where’s your washer? I’ll take care of them, if you don’t mind.”
I lead her down the basement steps and pull the string connecting to the one lightbulb on the ceiling. It’s really not as primitive as it sounds: the washer and dryer are less than a year old and the basement is dry. I’ve just not had the pleasure of entertaining down here, before. It had never occurred to me. Squatting beside the washing machine, there’s a utility sink. On top of the dryer, there is a bottle of detergent and a spray bottle with some kind of pre-washing chemical. Everything appears adequate.
She attends to her clothing, scrubbing and spraying a couple especially stained bits before tossing everything, her torn white blouse, her colorful skirt, her playful-looking white lace panties, and her ankle-high white stockings, all together in the washer. She sets the temperature to medium and she dumps in a half cup of detergent. She closes the top of the machine and looks over her shoulder at me.
“Okay,” she says. “Let’s go upstairs.” Then she adds, “Thanks for everything.”
I smile like an idiot and follow her upstairs.
Back in the
living room, she pauses before the fireplace.
The fire is roaring merrily, now.
I open the door, lay a split log on top of the pile, close the door, and shut down the dampers. Success.
I stand, my knees cracking loudly, and hand her another beer. She nods her thanks and snatches the robe closed with her thumb and forefinger as she eases herself down into the rocker.
“To you,” she
smiles, holding the glass at arm’s length towards me.
“To you,” I
counter, reaching back for my own and touching her glass with it.
The heavy leather
chair feels substantial and comforting underneath me.