The attraction was based on a flaw of logic. I knew that.
Miss Bennet and Mr Darcy, Scarlett and Rhett, Edward Rochester and the wife in the attic stuff viz. the half-cock theory that mismatch is irresistible attraction in disguise. Who knows how to be themselves any more in the face of self-help tips by dint of social media, advertising, Fifty Shades of Tripe and what is irresistibly comically named post-feminist gender politics? An age where liberating one’s inner slut is a Thing. I’m smart. I have a PhD from the Sorbonne. I’m fifty-five. But I ran with it anyway. The brain, at the thought of loss of inhibition without consequence, quite literally fucks up.
The Singles Night Valentine Special was a first for the Psychology Department (a bit less staid never hurt, Simone – even Kierkegaard must have had a laugh sometimes) and I thought why not? Shed a few inhibitions, don’t be a stuffed shirt or a stick in the mud: allow yourself some fun. In retrospect, aware that Singles Night Valentine Special was code for Speed-Date Night for Divorced Academics who have Almost Forgotten what Sex for Two is like I launched myself upon the prospect of notional rebirth with shocking bad faith.
Anyway. The Speed Dates How-To postcards they dished out at the door made a thoughtful start: three-minute (strictly timed) chats at separate tables, at least three personal statements each, ladies move on at the bell. Like A Canadian Barn Dance. I saw him right away, sitting at a table and simply waiting. Not stressed. With enough savoir faire to know not to fiddle with his bloody phone. I licked my teeth to make sure all the stray signs of Liquorice Allsorts I’d knocked back for courage were gone and headed across.
Eugene, he said. He turned his name card round. Theatre Studies, 20th Century Absurdism. He held out a hand and we shook. You?
Simone, Psychology – all clued up on the central nervous system. Also double in 20th century French Philosophy so we have something in common even before we start talking.
20th Century French Thought, he smiled. What does that tell us about each other?
That we have three minutes, I said. You first.
Ok. I’m here trying to learn what I want to do, not what I’m supposed to do, before I ossify. Being open to something new, taking a risk and discovering I won’t die of embarrassment if it doesn’t work out – that kind of thing. I think the reason so many of us are alone is we’re too inhibited. In short, I’m trying to free up.
Ah, I said. That’s exactly it. I’m here because I believe I limit my chances in life by being pointlessly cerebral – afraid to make a leap of faith and all that stuff. It’s my first time doing anything like this and already I suspect I’m being defensive.
Me too, he said. I’m sitting here under the impression I’ve got the brave front thing down to a T.
It’s good, I said. You haven’t made any self-deprecating jokes about not knowing your Existentialism from your Elbow or feeling you’re being analysed yet. Some men get the jitters with my type.
Really? he said.
Yup, I nodded. I have every idea why.
We smiled. Properly. We may have laughed out loud.
First date was at a sushi bar just off Chambers Street where we chose chopsticks and tried to show our lighter sides. Of course we did. We believed our short stints of self-revelation had been sincere. We also achieved that slightly-self-conscious-touching-hands-whilst-walking thing and tried a vaguely lippy kiss before we said goodnight. I rated this a success.
Date two was his place: he didn’t drive. I got to his front door out of breath from the stairs and hoped he didn’t take it the wrong way. He opened the door wearing a thin silk dressing gown over a loose white shirt and casual trousers. Bare feet.
You found me, he said.
Yes, I said. In addition to my everything else, I can follow a sat-nav too. No bother.
He pointed at his deshabillé. This is not presumptuous, I hope. Putting my money where my mouth is.
Great, I said. Your choice of clothing is entirely in tune with our stated primary agendas.
Not sure whether I was making a joke, he reached for my coat, found some chat lines. The three-minute bell thing has woken me up to a need to be direct, he said. Expect a little free-thinking!
OK, I said. I can cope if you can.
It’s because I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do as opposed to what we might presuppose we do as per conversation the night we met. I already have an idea or two, but we’ll get there. You look great, by the way.
Without the coat, in a version of a little black dress, I felt I’d perhaps overdressed, then caught myself and kicked off my shoes to signal lack of inhibition. So do you, I said. Look great. I meant it.
You don’t paint your toenails, he said.
No, I said. Seldom have occasion. Do you? Hahaha.
He mini-toured me round his very tasteful flat; a chance to imbibe his books, the thoughtful plug-in air freshener scents, the music playing in the background. Actually it was pretty good music, not intrusive and not jazz thank god, delivered via a fancy stereo system. Sound and low light, my feet on the thick wool rug. Nice. As a refinement, he had set out shop-bought sandwiches cut into triangles, a bunch of fat black grapes and three bottles of red – my choice at the sushi bar – on a low table near the sofa. The care he’d taken was plain. So when do you unleash the ideas? was a question I chose not to form. Say yes to some wine, I thought. Enjoy the newness for once. Slowly does it.
Hip to hip on the crimson sofa. Salmon, crab, avocado, mushroom pate. Neither of us were vegetarian, at least not strictly, so the fish disappeared first. Between triangles, we talked music and plays and current TV drama, the ridiculousness of trickle-down economics and the brutal face of internet dating. An app called NOT THAT ONE! allowed us to share the satisfying thrill of mutual distaste. Some things change for the worse, some for the better. The conversation was hardly rocket science and that was fine too. We’d finished every damn sandwich and as near as dammit all the grapes when he put on Ella Fitzgerald.
Who doesn’t like jazz? he said.
I smiled. That’s not jazz, I said. It’s Cole Porter.
It’s Ella Fitzgerald, he said. That’s all that counts. You dance?
Not just yet, I said. I’ll work on it.
Just an idea, he said. After a moment of barely perceptible indecision, he came in with another one. Actually, I have several ideas. I should just go for the best one. What I really want to say is, how about I run you a bath?
I looked at him.
I run a very good bath, he said. You won’t be disappointed. I may even have made a little preparation I think you’ll like.
He went out for a moment, came back with another dressing gown over his arm. See, he said. I’ve put some thought into it.
I put my hand on the folded towelling. It was plush, white, soft. Luxury goods.
It’ll be fun, he said. It’s not about getting your clothes off or anything crass. I like your clothes. It’s just about – well – freeing up. Being ourselves. Unless –
Unless you don’t want to. And he smiled. Big, generous smile. Obviously.
Ok, I said. Let’s not unless about the bush. Why not?
Indeed. Why not?
I undressed near the cast-off sandwich crusts listening to taps running in the bathroom which seemed to be right next door. If I did it now, my skin was in with a chance of melting out the compression marks that are an invariable part of underwear. Normally I don’t bother with underwear. I noticed I had tonight, and caught myself being coy. Behave, I told myself. It’s only a bath. I could take him in a fight if things get weird. But I undressed. I put on the dressing gown and let it stroke me like it was made of velvet. Thick velvet. He came back in and beamed. Just beamed.
Suits you, he said. I knew it would.
He poured more wine. Ella was gearing up for Let’s Face the Music and Dance. Everything’s ready when you are, he said. We could take our drinks. What do you say? He kissed my cheek, a tester. Oh. And one more thing.
One more thing?
OK, I said. Run it by me.
No hesitation, he ran it straight. What he wanted, he said, what he had wanted for some time was to watch a woman shave her legs. That’s it. He said. Warm bath, bubbles up to the armpits like a 70s Flake advert, pale pink-painted nails, a touch of lipstick, totally relaxed as if she’s all alone. But she’s not alone. Because I’m there too.
Why? I said.
Because I have express permission. Because she is a free woman, revealing the skin beneath the skin voluntarily. Because to watch a woman in total control of her situation, but choosing to allow me in on it too is the sexiest thing there is. No touching. I don’t need to touch. Just watch.
I breathed in deep. The radiant display from the fire making the wine look so red it was black. It wasn’t exactly a cast-iron argument he was putting forward here, then that was exactly what we had claimed to want to sideline. He was, I supposed, smiling at the irony, talking me into acting an impulse. Still, the weigher-and-measurer part of me held back. Was it demeaning? Was it icky? Or was it indeed a chance to be less pointlessly cerebral? It didn’t sound unattractive in and of itself. I’d had four glasses of wine.
Just a moment, I said. I’m letting the idea sink.
Sure, he said. Take your time.
After a minute or two of silence, he inched closer, gently pulled the collar of my dressing gown aside and touched my shoulder with his lips.
You’re in charge.
As he said it, he held up a tiny bottle of nail varnish – a rose-pink vial he must have been keeping in his pocket. Slowly, he unscrewed the top. How about I paint your fingernails while you decide?
My head filled with lavender and jasmine, twin scents clouding from the nearby bathroom. The metal tang of acetate from the varnish, a smell I identified with glamour ever since I was eight years old, bloomed beneath my nose like camphor.
Unleash the paint, I said. Stripe me pink.
My heart was thumping.
Let’s do this thing.
Getting the hang wasn’t difficult. The bathroom was stark white and pressure-steamer clean, the bath piled high with a meringue of bubbles. Over the sink, an old-style theatrical make-up mirror shone a surround of warm, bright bulbs. I loosened the belt of the gown, then hesitated. I wanted a few stage-directions, a little guidance. Instinctively, he knew. He would sit on the toilet seat, he said. Not inconspicuous, but out of reach; and unless directly addressed, he would be silent. A watcher by permission only, he could turn his back, if I liked. Until I was ready. If I liked.
Trust-games, I decided, would be my guide. I took two steps toward the bath as he turned away, slid a hand through the foam to the water to check the heat, then dropped the gown, gripped the edge, and took the near-literal plunge. It was huge. I managed to balance, turn and lie back comfortably without squeaking up against the resin or being in danger of drowning. He had judged the water level so well, I didn’t even have to dip down to hide my nipples. Without thinking, I sighed with satisfaction. He planned very well. I almost laughed.
Good? he said. His back was still turned. I hoped it might be.
Yes, good, I said. Take a seat.
I didn’t look in his direction – of course not, he wasn’t there – but caught him from the corner of my eye settling his back against the cistern. He’d opened his shirt, presumably for comfort in the heat of the room. It wasn’t a breach of the rules. Testing, I poked one knee out of the water, stretched a single foot all the way to the taps, watched the suds slither round my leg like creeping vines. In the rack, a brand new bar of soap, some shaving foam, and pink-handled, easy-grip safety razor had been arranged in a neat line. Since I shave my legs seldom and had at least a sporting crop of bristles to bring to the party, I had an easy alternative rationale. I lifted the can, eased off the lid. Then, despite the unfamiliarity of the surroundings and occasion, I was keen for the off.
To pay attention to the angle of the blade is an instinct of the experienced shaver. The thin skin of the ankle can unleash a steady river of blood if nicked even slightly, so I took my time. I bathed my arms in the scented water, then folded gently forward, stretching out one foot, en pointe, to a reachable height with the rest of me still concealed behind peaks of white froth. Then, with just enough froth in the palm of one hand, I lathered my skin from knee to Achilles tendon and took a first draw with the pink disposable. Long, slow strokes, a feather-light touch for tender areas – skill married to instinct is soothing in more ways than one. After the first leg, shaved twice with incidental checks, I aimed at the second. There was no thought of the man in the corner till I was done. But I wasn’t done. I wanted more. I lathered my armpits gently, shaved them too. Then, without looking in his direction, I asked out loud if he still had the varnish.
It could so easily have been an error of judgement, but it wasn’t. He let himself improvise. Let me know I really was in charge. Slowly, quietly, he stood and held up the bottle.
Toenails, I said, bold as you like. We both know I need a matching set.
You’re sure? he said. I may?
I said nothing, just waited, and felt him bristle with unconcealed pleasure. He approached, lifted my wrist and kissed my naked, still-damp armpit; first softly, then deeper when he sensed me respond. I slid back when he was done, hair beneath the waterline, and offered up my right foot for painting.
Oh wow, he said, cupping my ankle, setting the varnish bottle on the sill. These are the toes of a real woman, Simone. My god, they’re hairy.
It was true. I’d always had interesting toes. He placed my wet sole on his chest, slopping a trail of bubbles down his shirt like saliva.
I mean, really hairy. These legs like stripped pine then this, like the toes of a chimp or something, a half-wild foundling. An animal.
Overcome, he poked his tongue into the spaces between each toe again and again and again and again till I was shimmering with goosebumps, watching the blood rise in his lips. It could not get better than this, I thought, enjoying something wholly new. My entire skin surface was rippling. Then he slowed, stopped, patted my toes dry as I caught my breath, and brushed each see-through nail with dabs of pearlescent colour. Done, with drying time allowed, he helped me stand and held a freshly-laundered towel behind which I might shield my naked self if I wished. I did. He rubbed my legs and arms with oil that smelled of freesias to soothe the shaven skin, and told me it was time for one final detail. I saw a blade between his finger and thumb – just the blade, fresh edged, no holder.
You’re not going to shave my toes, I said.
He smiled. No, Simone. I’m going to take us a step further if you’ll come with me.
I looked at him.
I can handle a razor too. Those shadowy sideburns that grow along your jawbone are one thing. But I want more. I want to take on the down of that unashamed, fully womanly, perfect upper lip. I want you naked. I want –
But I didn’t want to know what he wanted. Not any more.
Maybe it was the overworked sentences. Maybe the wine was wearing off. Maybe I knew I’d had the best already and the theatricality of it all was beginning to show and file off the erotic edge.
Thanks, I said. But no thanks. I have to go home.
Underwear, shoes, no skimping. I dressed faster than I undressed and that told me something too. I could fetch the car tomorrow, sober. I watched the light in his upstairs window from the back of the cab, the vague shape of him waving goodbye, and appreciated with more than a little satisfaction that we’d done what we set out to do. How many people can say that? Now, our capacity for self-deception must be recognised and acted upon. If I learned one thing from Sartre, it was that transformation is fleeting. We’d peaked.
© Janice Galloway
A version of this story appeared in Gutter magazine.