When Bertram Salkey asked if I’d be comfortable coming to his neighborhood, where people would be jogging and gardening and checking their mail and otherwise living in the nude, I said into the phone, “Of course, of course. I don’t mind.” Darren had moved out the week before and I was missing his share of the rent. What were a few bodies in the stead of me making a living? I drove past the tennis courts and outdoor pool and walking trails focusing on the basic beauty of it all — how a human body was just as improbable as a dragonfly’s.
Still, it caught me off guard, to see him out in the open like that, on the threshold of his condo, and me never having met him. It’s just, you know, he’s my dad’s age, seventy-six, and there are certain things that hang, that sag in a way that you don’t want to know about. It was hard for me not to glance at it every now and then, is what I’m saying. The graying jumble of hair. The wrinkled mass. I don’t know if it would’ve been better or worse if he was circumcised.
Anyway I was polite. I listened attentively when he told me what he wanted done. He wanted a redo of the entire place — an update on the furniture and appliances and kitchen cupboards and bathroom vanity. We went over his budget at the kitchen table that his father-in-law built as a wedding present. Thank God Bertram’s pelvis was blocked by the oak. His wife, Marjorie, wasn’t home, which I thought was odd. Usually it’s the wife who wants the consultation. Usually I don’t talk to the husbands at all. Sometimes I never even meet them, and when I do all they want to talk about is money.
But not Bertram. Bertram wanted to look at my fabric swatches for reupholstering the couch, and wanted to discuss his taste in curtains. I showed him options on my laptop. He liked abstract patterns: lines in zig zags, cross-hatching, a wavy motif inspired by Matisse. He offered me a glass of sweet tea. I sipped it and contemplated the spindly black hairs growing in a ring around his right nipple, while he hunched over the screen and scrolled through vanity light fixtures. I had him click the heart for anything he thought he might like, no matter the cost.
“I’m trying to get a feel for your style,” I told him. He smiled like a kid and said, “Oh, I’m so excited.” Then he put his two palms together in the sort of clap you might see a bride do during a bachelorette party. This was a seventy-six year old man. A seventy-six year old naked man with a low voice and a short way of talking. He was the father of an acquaintance of a friend of mine, and he’d retired to Gate Springs Community near Orlando three years ago. He’d worked in nuclear power as an engineer. He drove a truck three times as big as my sedan and had a gun rack in the master closet.
To look at him, with his balding head and droopy eyes, you’d think he was the type of man who wouldn’t say anything other than pass the yam casserole during Thanksgiving dinner, and then when everyone was getting heated about politics or why Aunt Nancy was moving to Tulsa with that guy Gary, he’d wander off into the living room to stare at the television and pretend he was somewhere else.
Even his naked body was reserved. His chest was covered in hair, as if in hiding. The hair crept up his shoulders and claimed a good part of his back. His shoulders sloped downward. His nipples were medium-sized, well-proportioned, so that you almost forgot them. His belly came out a little, but not too much. His arms hung slightly away from his frame, as if he was carrying flattened cardboard boxes underneath his armpits. I tried not to look at it, but his member was modest, almost cute. It reminded me of those ancient Greek statues. I had a client who kept a framed picture of Michelangelo’s David in her bathroom — Mr. Salkey’s body in general was softer, but his penis was about the same proportion.
When I got home, Pops was barking like crazy and trash was strewn around the living room floor. Without Darren walking him at lunch, Pops was pent-up. After I took him on a run, I examined myself in the mirror: my boobs were the same size they’d been since ninth grade, not miniscule but not sizeable either, three freckles dotted the perimeter of my belly button, the hair between my legs had gotten unruly, like an overgrown briar patch. My stomach started flat but then bulged at the bottom, as if I was storing something in there. Pencils, maybe. In seventh grade I used to pinch the fat between my fingers and fantasize about cutting it off with scissors. The hair on my legs was prickly, my toenails were painted green. I wasn’t young, but I wasn’t old. Soon, I’d have to date again. Thirty-six was not the time of life to sit around, waiting for someone to emerge from the ether. It was the time of life to be proactive, to open one’s mind to stepchildren and a house in the suburbs. What would those new guys see, when they looked at me? What messages did my body send without me knowing?
When Bertram and I went to the furniture store or the fabric store or the lighting store, he wore saggy jeans, worn loafers, and a faded polo shirt. Nothing flashy. Nothing flamboyant. But his ideas for his house — sheesh. He might’ve been an artist. He wanted loud, green curtains with squiggly, purple lines scribbled all over them. He wanted a couch with a pattern of brush strokes covering it, as if a child had painted the fabric while the designer wasn’t looking. The kitchen cabinets he wanted white, which suited, but he picked out this vintage stove from the fifties, which was a soft pink. With any other client I might’ve tried to talk him into something more lasting, something that he’d still like in ten years, but with Bertram I let him do what he wanted. Maybe he had ten good years left, and then who would care what his walls looked like? I made my face stay steady when he talked about painting a mural of a giant sea turtle on the ceiling. I suggested trying a canvas or a framed photograph first, but I didn’t discount the idea.
Each time I came over, Marjorie had stepped out somewhere. To the doctor or the market or one of her girlfriend’s. I began to get the idea that she was deliberately avoiding me. I began to get the idea that this was Bertram’s thing, and he didn’t want anyone else in on it.
Then, during our fourth appointment, we were sitting at the kitchen table, discussing energy-efficient lighting. “Marjorie died a year ago,” he said, looking away, staring out the back window. “Sometimes I pretend she’s out somewhere, doing errands. Sometimes I talk to her when I’m alone.”
I didn’t know what to do. It was an embarrassing thing for him to admit. “What was she like?” I asked.
He told me about the tie-dyed bandanas she collected and the way she’d blast pop music and bounce around the house. She was a hairdresser. “She would’ve loved you,” he said. “She was the type of person whose clients paid extra because talking to her was the best part of their month.” He stood and cleared our empty teacups, gold lining the rims and blue birds flying across the sides.
After that, whenever he brought Marjorie up again, I played along, asking after her as if she was tanning at the pool or getting the oil changed. I felt like I was giving him something beyond decoration, which made me feel wise. The power of surroundings to change how we see the world, and all that.
I thought about what Darren would look like, had we stayed together, had he proposed like I sometimes hoped he would. His boobs would probably sag like Bertram’s, although Darren wouldn’t have as much hair. His thighs might get that sinewy, twisted look, fragile and tough at the same time. But he hadn’t proposed, and now we were over, and now I should freeze my eggs if I had any itching for a family. Now I was back to square one, and my shoulders came up around my ears when I thought about all the steps I would have to do again: telling someone stories about my childhood, introducing my sister Lonnie and hearing her opinions, inviting him for the family reunion and getting wasted to drown my nerves. It was all too exhausting to think of. Maybe I would do like Bertram and pretend Darren was still around, tell everyone I was taken — my husband had a job overseas and we saw each other every other month for two weeks and during that time I liked to have him all to myself. I could live with Pops and buy any kind of furniture I wanted. Maybe Bertram had it right. I didn’t need to freeze my eggs, I just needed to freeze time.
It was during my third month of knowing Bertram that it happened. It wasn’t a formal session. Sometimes I’d stop by during the day to chat, see how he was doing. We were sitting there talking. I’d stopped noticing by then that Bertram was naked during our meetings. I’d stopped counting the moles on his back — fifteen or seventeen, I could never figure out which number was right. I’d stopped peeking at the red creases on his stomach after we’d sat and talked a while and he stood up, as if he was an origami man who’d been unfolded. He was on his new couch — he’d put a towel down where he sat, a wise precaution in a nudist colony. I don’t think I said anything thrilling, we were talking about the yard and what he might do about the honeysuckle that grew unchecked, overwhelming everything else. I was explaining that I knew a guy, Raúl, who was a master gardener and he analyzed exactly what was right for each area, he even tested the soil and things like that, and I leaned over where I suppose you might catch sight of something underneath my blouse, the little valley between my boobs, a crease of its own, the promise of something soft and unremarkable, comforting and unknown.
It was the look on his face, that look of shock and embarrassment that made me glance down. The mass had moved, had extended, was asserting itself. Bertram walked quickly into the kitchen under the guise of getting more tea, and I let him ramble about the honeysuckle a little more from there, but then I said I really had to go, that Pops had been alone all day.
Bertram didn’t stop me. We didn’t hug, though we’d come to like each other. It was the last time we’d see each other, the last time we’d work on the creation of his home, his space. I’d planned to schedule another appointment for the wallpaper, but instead I let myself out while Bertram was doing whatever in the kitchen, and told him to give my best to Marjorie.
In the rearview mirror, naked couples played tennis. Glossy trails of sweat brightened their broad, fleshy backs. Spanish moss hung from giant oaks. At the guard station, the gate was open and the guard was lounging in his chair, reading a magazine. He wore a khaki uniform. Mirrored sunglasses hung from croakies around his neck. There was what looked like three days of stubble covering his jaw, and his eyes were red-rimmed. I wondered if he and I were the only two in the area with our clothes on. I wondered if he was circumcised. If a trail of dark hair ran from his belly to his crotch and if his thighs were paler than the rest of his body. I wondered if I could feel his heart by resting my ear on his chest, if it would beat wildly at a clip, or at a slow and steady pace.
Powered by Froala Editor