Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
2520 words
SHJ Issue 5
Spring 2012

Fitted Blouse—Silk

by Roisin McLean

Five minutes late for Geoff’s reading at Fowey River U., you stride your black suede heels into Lostwithiel Library past the chevron-bricked lobby to the sunny Arbor Room, where you spot him up front, chatting with three perky young female students. His hair glints more silver than a year ago. He’s rolled up the sleeves of his black shirt with teal pinstripes in a rugged, sexy way. You do not love him.

Unable to manage eye contact yet, you thank the gods that his back is to you. But his back is to you, which sends up a red flag; he usually faces the door to gauge the scene. Your cheeks flame scarlet over his for-fun-only flirtatious emails and your liquor-soaked responses—keystrokes with no sense of propriety: “Let me drink from you; be my sustenance.” Your clothes and dignity turn to glass. If he turns, his baby blues will see you nude.

You hide in the back row, and your sexy black pencil skirt rides too short up your thighs. You cross your legs and shift your bottom. Better—although a blue-haired lady in polyester stares up your muscled calves to your fitted silk blouse to your feathered hair, meets your eyes, looks away.

During the eloquent introduction, which you know by heart, your eyes drift from the faux marble tile floor to soundproofing tiles in the ceiling—twelve across by twenty deep—to young potted yews casting shadows on a mural of firs. Strange—no dust motes in this late afternoon sun. Geoff strides on applause to the podium. You center yourself on the back of a broad navy blazer, study the frayed end of a scarf casually slung over the shoulder. Geoff’s voice, quavering—a first—washes through the room. You send him lapis blue light to calm his nerves. Clutched on your lap is his book, which you’ve read twice already. You float, cradled, on the rhythmic waves of his words.

He cannot be reading the scene about the conference five years ago. Your torso twitches. From twenty feet away, he reaches right through that massive woman you’re hiding behind and pokes you square in the chest. Reaches through time itself to that very conference, when you won a raffle to meet with a famous author. A singular conference during which, on the penultimate day, you sat, hands in your lap, at an antique table in a room with books shelved from floor to ceiling. The hypnotizing aromas of old paper, the glue in case bindings, Geoff’s wool overcoat, his nasty chest cold. His hands paging through your short story manuscript, his right index finger pausing here and there, touching your words. As you listened to his mesmerizing voice, his kind comments and astute proposed changes, something unworldly, psychic, possessed you, forced you to feel an invisible cord binding your sternum to his, which ruffled your passions, flustered your senses. Observing your sudden fidgeting, he finished quickly, asked if you had questions. You said no, thanked him, and fled. Pondered the strange feeling for days. Wondered if you were lovers in a previous life. Dismissed it entirely as a strange symptom of jet lag or an eruption from the Muse of creative joie de vivre. Joined a master’s program, were astonished to find him on the faculty there. As if it were all meant to be. But what all, what be? All too silly for credibility, you think. And yet—

“…synchronicity.” Geoff’s voice lingers on the word to signal the end of the passage, which is clearly the end of the passage, but he is an experienced reader and empathizes with his audience, with humanity. Applause ends your reverie.

As you join the long, languid flow toward his thick black autograph, someone behind you shrieks “Mekka!” It’s Dona, a former classmate, a petite poet with jet-black hair in a stylish wedge, whom you haven’t seen since you both graduated last year, the oldest two in a class of intergenerational students.

“Look at you!” Dona says.

“There are fringe benefits to divorce,” you respond, stooping to hug her, remembering with pleasure her earth-mother embrace.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“I’m not,” you say.

“Which explains your relieved and happy glow,” Dona says. Her smiling eyes roam your face, pleased for you.

With lowered voice, you tell her that last year was a year from hell, the year you divorced your lying husband and suffered anorexia, inordinate fear, night after month of little sleep, and the suicidal rock bottom of the Betrayal Trench, a regular Bermuda Triangle where you longed for oblivion. Instead, into that maelstrom of agita and angst, up popped Geoff’s email in your lonely inbox. You don’t tell Dona about him but wish that you could. That he lived too far away, Vancouver, for in-person get-togethers, but he drank merlot and chatted online with you throughout the day, many nights, and you found self-preservation and the courage to rise, exercise, lift weights, three pounds to five pounds to eight, dream of springtime and sex. He was a good and kind friend to hold your hand figuratively through the typhoon of emotions, which he was weathering himself, still devastated by his partner-split. You held his hand in return, and he somehow surged into your heart like “you’ve got male” along with a flood of libido in your nether regions—hardly part of any rational plan, but your heart and hormones didn’t ask your brain first.

The autograph line moves up. You greet the man joining Dona, the always-smiling poetry professor, his beard and tweed jacket of complementary silvers and grays. A student interrupts, and you can’t focus on his multisyllabics over snippets of Dona’s conversation now behind you: “never seen such a transformation …looks like Marilyn Monroe.” Gross hyperbole, but you smile and stand straighter, gut and butt tucked in—shades of Miss Georgianna’s charm class way back in sixth grade.

“Should I address this to you or someone else?” Geoff asks, not smiling, reaching for his book in your hands.

Too late to run. You swallow your tongue and point to your chest, are not sure then if he recognizes your more-svelte self. He’s flushed as he writes “To Mekka” with great flourish. Is he ill? Your eyes trace the familiar G as he signs: Geoffrey. Not his customary autograph. Formal, far away. Your breast touches his bicep. You jump back, regain proper territorial distance. As distant in time as Chaucer, for whom Geoff’s parents had named him.

“Did you miss the reading?” he asks, still not smiling. Which is when you realize, You Screwed Up—maybe he wanted, needed, to see you, greet you, before he read. Or maybe you’ve spun an intricate web of self-lies to trick your mind into playing masochistic games. Your explanation of rush-hour traffic sinks into mumble, and you step aside. So that’s that. Dream dreamt. Reality sucks. What could you have been thinking?

Outside in oddly warm March air, you fish for your keys, too confused to cry.

“Mekka.” It’s Dona. “The department will go out after—want to come?”

Back inside—you resist looking at Geoff—Dona updates you on her chapbook prep, then segues into the phenomenon of conversing with lesbians about the beauty of women, which is not a discussion, she says, men can have with men. You venture it’s socio-cultural and don’t ask if she’s suddenly switched sides of the fence. Then she’s on to other tip-of-the-iceberg comments until Geoff and stragglers meander toward the door. Geoff doesn’t look at you.

Outside in front of the gang, he says, “Mekka, I like your blouse.” You could have intrigued with the name of its color, Aegean Sea Blue, been glib and gay, but no, your eyes drop involuntarily as you whisper thanks and blush. You look up to see Geoff crimson but beaming. Too big a smile? Is he laughing at your awkwardness? He wouldn’t do such a thing—would he? Would you? Has anyone noticed your adolescent exchange?

At Rendezvous, a restaurant/bar in a converted railway station, complete with three-ton chandelier and stained-glass windows, you set your purse on a stool at Geoff’s high table, chat with his friend, the smiling bearded professor, and drink a vodka on the rocks like it’s iced tea in August because Geoff, king of the mixed message, once again won’t look at you. You float to another table and, with Dona, stroke current students suffering lack of confidence. Share their fried calamari and memories of summer residencies in Rome. Promise to attend their graduation. Write their names on a napkin because you won’t remember. Back at Geoff’s table, you order another vod. It tastes weaker than the first, so you drink it fast, too. You can’t look at Geoff. You watch the piano player, who checks you out to and from the restroom. Nice, to be acknowledged, even like that.

“Mekka.” Your questioning eyes, swimming in molecules of music pooled and reflected on the glossy black piano, catch up with your turning head, and you are looking into Geoff, who is looking into you and smiling in shadow. Who turned out the light over the table? Where did everyone go? He smiles so big, his eyes squeeze closed. You smile back in kind. Two people smiling at each other, blind. You ease up on your smile so you can see. So has he. He raises his glass to toast. You have only ice in your glass. Does a toast count if there’s nothing to drink? You clink glasses in silence. You try to drink melt from the bottom of your glass. There is none. Your mouth says, “I tried,” your shoulders shrug, and your head turns back to the piano. You tried? Tried to what? Tried to let your sabotaging other-self scare him away? You’re so shit-faced you’re lost between psychological observer and participant, between twit and “intelligent person with advanced degree.” What, now you’re schizo? You’re too old for this crap.

The light returns. You help the smiling, bearded professor count the gang’s collected currency, which is cracked because you’re crocked and he’s been drinking Perrier. People rise. Stool legs scrape.

Geoff opens his arms for a hug and says, motioning to your blouse, “To a silk day. It is silk, isn’t it?” WTF? Your brain can’t form the words that your mouth can’t produce. His smile crinkles his eyes closed again. Good thing—you’ll lose yourself in them this close. You lean in to hug, barely touch, no mixed message there. You can’t look back—a year must pass before you’ll see him next—and you manage not to tumble down the steps when your right heel slips. The car drives itself home—guardian angels at work. You won’t test them like that again. You try to look ahead, but the future yawns with boredom.

Four days later, he emails from Paris. You look fantastic, he writes. You perk up, but you won’t hear from him for three weeks now while he’s on tour in Europe, a different city or country every day or two. You brace for Geoff withdrawal. Plan A: Set your sights on the year-long horizon and roll with the waves, one day at a time. Plan B: Don’t ever email him again; it’s just an infatuation, or infantile desire, and it’s over—or should be. Plan C: Try navigating the “land-ho,” lounge-lizard route. Plan D: You’re not a whore, so scratch Plan C and instead seek a shrink, one who’s expert on hypomania, transference, and rebound relationships. Plan E: Scratch Plan D, and instead Google postmenopausal testosterone + intense sexual desire. Which it turns out is rare, but you’ve got it, per the blood test, but only for Geoff, who’s older than you, so you’re not a cougar, but that’s no consolation.

The best is yet to come, Geoff always says. To pass time between work, the gym, you drink absinthe at home, surf, and study self-help manuals, which define infatuation as three months long. Odd—you’ve been infatuated with Geoff for a year. Maybe three—if you were in denial the first two. Why do the emails feel so real, the fleeting moments of real him, in person, a dream shimmering in mist? Is it the L word, wrapped in a perky bow of delusion? You shiver, sip more absinthe, recall his flushed smile, wear it like dew. Wear it like the mirrored last image adrift in his eyes: fitted blouse—silk—Aegean Sea blue. Patient blue. True blue. More like hungry-loins you or “fifty-five going on sixteen” you. This is not normal. You weren’t always shallow, not to diminish Geoff’s virtues. Have you always been hormonally challenged? No. So how can you teach your heart that desire isn’t love? Is it even possible now—old dogs, new tricks, and such? Back to square one.

The Torso: painting by Susanne Rockwell; photograph by Eric Peterson “The Torso”
by Susanne Rockwell

With legs up on the sofa, new dog at your feet, and Augustine Pinot Noir in a crystal goblet this season, you’re still exchanging emails but less frequently and with no hint of flirtation. Your emotions have calmed. Stable is nice. And then he sends a summer photo, you can’t take your eyes off his bulging biceps, and you send a photo back, a low-cut tank with skirtini, which you always wear around the house. He messages three times, commenting on your “worthy cleavage.” And up pops your libido—creaming your panties like you’re a teenager again every time his name pops up bold in your inbox.

The Pinot Noir is smooth, no tannins. You pour another glass. You reflect on the relationship, how the titillating highs of your roller-coaster emotions gave you vertigo, how his mood swings sent you around the bend, how your mood swings flummoxed him—all via email. You decide, calmly and maturely, that someone must close this amusement-park ride: either care for him enough to spare him you, or care for yourself enough to spare you him. No other options sail into view, other than keep loving this man however he wishes, so you choose to sleep on it but second-guess yourself and suspect procrastination. Then you third-guess yourself and wonder if he, perhaps infatuated with you but still shy, is thinking the same thing.

“Mekka,” you say to yourself, “you’re fifty-six—grow up.”

You raise your goblet in the direction of Vancouver, toast this mesmerizing man who’s been lighting your world, and bid a silent and caring adieu to what surely must be lunacy. You take another sip, drain the goblet, and cry until tears drip off your chin, tickle down your cleavage, your sternum. Which is when you start laughing. Sure, adieu, for six hours until you change your mind again—could be six minutes this time. Or six seconds even, which, in fact, is how long it takes you to start daydreaming about seeing him in March at Fowey River U., when you will probably again wear that fitted silk blouse, Aegean Sea blue, with an extra button, maybe two, undone. What’s wrong, really, with a little cleavage between friends?


SHJ Issue 5
Spring 2012

Roisin McLean

has published fiction in Perigee: Publication for the Arts and Fiction Week Literary Review. Her essay in the anthology, Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging, will soon be available from Serving House Books.

She is working toward her MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, at Fairleigh Dickinson University, has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, and is currently working on a short story and novella collection.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury