She’d been ready. Or so she’d thought. She’d rehearsed what to say, even written down key words and phrases. She’d tried on different outfits. She’d bought a black lace something. She didn’t know its name — a teddy, maybe.
He was out of town. Her husband. So far out of town there was no chance he’d appear unexpectedly. Even so, she had a story on hand: a trip to New York for the museums and the streets and her old aunt.
She went. And she did walk the streets and lunch with her aunt and see a photography exhibit from China and a perplexing sculpture show at the Museum of Modern Art.
She didn’t have his number. She knew the building where he lived, but it felt at once too bold and too pitiful to loiter there on the chance of encountering him.
She thought of staying over in a hotel anyway. To show that seeing her old lover was not the main reason she had come. But it seemed silly.
The black lace was folded in pink tissue inside a zippered compartment of her purse. She heard the paper crinkle when she dug in the bottom of the bag for change for the bus. She was glad now that she had hesitated to wear it. It would have added to her sense of defeat.
She decided to walk to Penn Station, even though it was a good mile away and her feet were already tired from the day’s meanderings. She forced herself to take long strides, tacking around other pedestrians so that she could keep up a good pace, and soon her spirits began to lift a little. As she marched along, she remembered how they used to spend whole days in bed, and how she’d feel weak afterwards when she walked, a light, anti-gravitational sensation very different from the aching in her legs now.
She hadn’t felt the need for black lace in those days. Then, she had believed herself beautiful and adventurous simply because he had desired her so thoroughly and so recklessly. Sometimes, when they found themselves alone for literally minutes, he’d pull her hand against him and want her to coax him into a hardness that couldn’t be slaked.
It had been like a river, his desire, and they had both thrown themselves into it, he, it had seemed, because he knew no other way, and that gave him a kind of purity in her eyes that she did not allow herself, for she saw always, out of the corner of her eye, what she had cast off to enter that river, and what she had cast off was no less than everything else she was besides the object of his desire, and so, of course, she was aware in every pleasurable moment of the specter of disaster.
She stopped at a curb to wait for the traffic light to change. It was getting dark. Some cars had put on their headlights. The window of a dress shop on the corner was brightly lit. She turned and went inside.
She thumbed through a sale rack, selected a red knit dress, and took it to the small fitting room at the back of the shop. A bored salesgirl looked up from a magazine and nodded at her from the cash register.
She hung the dress on a hook and gingerly unzipped the purse compartment. She took off her blouse and skirt and her underwear, and put on the black lace. An alluring stranger stared back at her from the mirror. No, not quite a stranger. She was there. Only she was in disguise. And she recognized that, too. She put her clothes back on over the black lace and left the shop. She felt secretive when she passed the salesgirl, as if she were a shoplifter.
She walked more slowly than earlier, mulling over the day. She found that in a bittersweet way she was relieved to have been thwarted in her hope of meeting her old lover. It was his idea of her she wanted, not him. And his idea of her had rested on a carefree pose that wasn’t true.
It was dark by the time the train pulled out. Occasionally, she saw a lighted apartment window and glimpsed a table and chairs or a stuttering television, but her eyes were tired. She leaned back against the hard headrest. It smelled like the sofa section of a Salvation Army thrift store.
She slid two fingers inside her blouse and touched the black lace. It was warm from her body, and so thin it was more like a second skin than a garment. She fell asleep like that, rocked by the train’s laggard sway.
“Basic Black” was published in the journal Fathoms, #4, Tallahassee, FL, 1995.
Excellent short story, one of my favorites. Thanks for sharing with us.
This is not a new story to me – but it is today. Now I see how carefully it is written: a meandering sentence when you mention the river, the details: shopgirl giving a nonchalant glance, a Salvation Army thrift shop smell and finally, the laggard motion of the train. So good.