Søren buttoned a gray shirt, stepped into a pair of dark green pants, and threaded a brown leather belt through the loops, his hands bright against the dark fabric. It was a cold morning; I didn’t know what time. I watched him for a long while before I said hi.
He bent and brushed his lips against my cheek. “Good morning, little sleeping Roxana.”
“Are you going somewhere?”
“The library.” I looked for a nonexistent clock. White walls, white light. “To work on my thesis. Why we came here. Remember?”
I sat up and the duvet fell away, exposing my breasts. “Will you be back soon?”
Søren covered me. “In the evening, around six. A true workday.”
He pressed his lips to my forehead, another brief, dry kiss—a peck, now I understood what that was—and left again, stopping in the doorway. “Are you upset?”
He sighed. “You are.”
“I’m not! Of course I understand you have to go work. I just thought we were going to spend the day together.”
Søren put a hand to his head. “I am sorry, Roxana. I thought this might be a problem, and I apologize. Perhaps—”
He was going to say that I should go back to Copenhagen. “It’s fine! Just tell me how to get to a restaurant or a coffee shop or something. I’ll go exploring.”
Søren winced. “I must tell you.” He withdrew the large key ring from his pocket and dangled it from his left hand. “That will not be possible. There is only one key. And I need it.”
“What do you mean?”
“The door downstairs is open, always,” he said. “But the door to the apartment locks automatically, to secure it.” He smiled at me. “To secure you. One must have a key to enter.”
“Can you get another key made?”
“I will try. But for now there is only one.”
It was Tuesday. Søren jiggled his knee, looking pained.
“I must keep my work schedule. I am behind. I have not been productive for several weeks, with life in Copenhagen being what it is.” He put the keys back in his pocket, avoiding my eyes. “Things must be different here.”
Then why had he brought me? I wanted to ask but didn’t. “Okay,” I said, not meaning it.
Søren sighed and sat back down on the bed. “I apologize, Roxana. It has been such an event, meeting you. I have felt happy, powerful even, for the first time in so long. For the first time ever, perhaps. It seems so natural to have you here with me. Almost as if it has always been this way.”
“I think so too!” I said automatically, my mind working. Søren was complex I thought. He had many layers. I wouldn’t immediately understand him. I had to be patient to have what I wanted, to be here with him. Everyone always said relationships were hard work.
“Unwittingly I have involved you in my oldest fantasy,” he said in a low voice, looking at me sheepishly. “You see, since I was a small boy, I have had one dream of adult life. I saw myself working, although I hardly knew what that work could be. All it meant was that I must leave home, my most beloved place. But in my fantasy I did not leave my home empty. I had within it a lover who waited for me. A special woman occupied by her own affairs. Keeping the home fires bright, as they say in your country.”
Oh. Under the quilt I relaxed my legs. Opened them.
“This dream has been with me so long I forgot it was mine alone. And now I have subjected you to it. I am sorry. I will not work today but find a way to make another key. Of course you should not be trapped here.” He nodded firmly, as if accepting the right course of action despite his own desires.
I put my hand on his shoulder. “Go to work.”
He lifted an eyebrow. The light from the window made his eyes translucent.
“I like your dream,” I said. “I want to make it come true.”
It felt simple, as if I held the fantasy itself in my hand, a blind cephalopod in need of my protection. This was a kind of bravery I could manage.
“You are certain?”
Before I could answer he covered my mouth with his and kissed me until my assent was a moan. Then he rose. “You are wonderful. Wonderful!” He sped out of the room and returned with a thick older-model laptop. “This is my computer, my first one,” Søren explained, placing it beside me on the bed. “It is yours while you are here. So you can find the Internet.”
I thanked him, eyeing the latch that held screen and keyboard closed.
“Shall I show you how to turn it on? No, of course not, you are much more intelligent than I.” He hastened back to the door. “And so beautiful. I am so lucky! Until this evening!”
He beamed at me from the threshold. I blushed and blew a kiss, which he caught. Then the front door shut hard.
“Søren was complex I thought. He had many layers. I wouldn’t immediately understand him. I had to be patient to have what I wanted, to be here with him. Everyone always said relationships were hard work.”
I lay quite still, trying to recapture the sleepiness I had felt in my first waking moments. Maybe I would feel better if I let the day get a little older, curled up under the covers and induced a nice dream. First I was cold, and all the covers couldn’t warm me, not even when I layered Søren’s duvet over my own and pulled both over my head. Underneath the light was pink and thick.
Then I became frantically hot. The tang of my sweat lodged in my nose. I had last shaved the day before graduation. I fingered the fuzzy hair that had grown in the ten days since and then held my hands under my nose. My sweat was vinegar sharp. Three sticky dried lines demarcated the creases between the rolls of my stomach. I scraped their whitish stuff up with my fingernails and rubbed it between my fingertips until it dissolved into oil.
Farther down was another smell, one I sensed rather than inhaled. The place between my legs. A force, an idea.
I had never settled on a name for it. Mama, ever a nurse, hated the use of “vagina” as a blanket term for the urethra, clitoris, and labia minora and majora. Nicknames like “pee-pee” and “private place” were even worse.
“Your vagina is inside you,” she told me when I was very little. “You can’t touch it without reaching inside, and you don’t pee out of it, and the parts of you on the outside are not your vagina. They have their own names.”
The sex ed books she gave me were written by doctors. One had an exhaustive chart of “common slang terms for primary and secondary sexual characteristics,” which confused more than helped. Maybe they were antiquated; to this day I’ve never heard anyone refer to a woman’s “honeypot” or a man’s “peter.” Their pages were filled with scientific drawings of genitalia interpolated with commonsense explanations of swelling breast buds and involuntary erections.
If these pictures embarrass you, one book suggested, why not draw polka dots, zebra stripes, or other designs on them in colored pencil? Being a little silly will help you to feel more comfortable with these images, and with your own body. But I couldn’t draw on the illustrations. They looked like faces to me.
I liked the books, their dorky friendliness, but they didn’t answer my questions about my own body. What about the excretions on the crotch of my underwear at the end of each day? The books did not explain the white goo that sometimes appeared there. They did not unlock the secrets of the yellowy mucus that occasionally clung in ropes between my body and underpants, nor did they teach me to divine the meaning of the rusty pre- or postperiod clumps streaked with veins of purplish tissue. How to determine whether a given intimate paste was a yeast-infected “yellow-gray” and “foul smelling” as the books warned? My body always smelled interesting to me; even when my stink was unpleasant, it was mine. How could they expect me to call any of these substances I generated discharge?
There was no hope of going back to sleep. I flung off the duvets, walked naked into the bathroom, carefully locking the door with its latch mechanism, like the one at the foxwoman’s, and turned on the dangling showerhead, immediately spraying myself in the face with a torrent of freezing water. I screamed.
The shower took the better part of an hour. I turned it on, wet my hair, turned it off, frothed the shampoo against my skull, realized my hair wasn’t really wet, turned it on again, added more
shampoo, turned it off, poured a handful of minty liquid soap into my palm and rubbed it against my body, turned it on again, attempted to rinse. Repeated. The cold water made my skin so slick it was impossible to tell if I had rinsed away the soap. The water warmed only when I finally gave up on my hair.
“Wash between your legs,” Mama used to say when she bathed me. Or sometimes: “Wash your bunny.” That was what she and Dad settled on so he could bathe me without embarrassment—“bunny,” a compromise Mama accepted because it was so cute. I liked it because I liked bunnies generally, but even when I was tiny I understood the difference between my bunny and actual bunnies. When it was his turn, Dad helped me shampoo and soap up my flat torso and then looked politely away.
“Okay, your bunny now,” he’d mutter.
The last days rose around me, a cloud, as I washed my bunny for the first time in Søren’s apartment. I stood engulfed in a new smell, that part of myself newly and rightly used, until it diffused under the water, hot at last.
Sylvie had found the long violet linen dress with the cap sleeves for me in a store called the Blue Bell. When I emerged from the dressing room in it, she gave me a glittering smile. “You look so fantastic, Rox. You look like a motherfucking fox and a half.”
I twirled in front of the mirror, showing her the way the skirt inflated like a giant tulip, and even the shopkeeper came back to admire me.
I wore it that first day alone in Jutland, with all the jewelry I had brought with me. Rose-gold stud earrings, five neon Bakelite bangles, a metal ring that looked like a big cat climbing up my left middle finger. I smeared my lips with red gloss, tidied the room, made the bed, scooped up our dirty clothes from the floor. Domesticity!
The hamper was in the closet, under Søren’s seven hanging shirts and a crunchy gray garment bag that held a three-piece gray suit. When I opened it, the bag released a breath, the last memory of a missing person, and I knew that a woman—Mette, Søren’s ex?—had put it carefully away. I put my hand inside the jacket, feeling as if I were reaching into a body: the entire suit was lined in creamy salmon satin. It bore a hand-sewn label: SAVILE ROW.
I zipped the bag back up and lifted the hamper out of the closet, revealing a gray rectangle beneath. I tried to lift this, too, to see if there was anything under it, but it was surprisingly heavy, a metal lockbox with a complicated lock. The lid wouldn’t budge.
I dropped my clothes in the hamper and went into the kitchen, where Søren had left a French press with ground coffee already in the bottom of the carafe. There was even a note in his hand, which was more extravagant than I had imagined. Tall loops and lingering lines. Boil water in kettle and fill to top line. No salutation, no signature.
All day I made myself busy. I swept the apartment, gathering a palmful of golden grit I threw out the open window. I cleaned the toilet, wiped down the sinks. I took the racks and drawers out of the refrigerator, scrubbed them in hot water, and reorganized all the food in the fridge. I straightened the scanty towels and sheets in the cabinet outside the bathroom.
All day I forced my thoughts from the gray box, from what was inside. This is where I’m living now, I thought. It felt like it would go on forever. That I could.
From Open Me. Used with permission of Grove Atlantic. Copyright © 2018 by Lisa Locascio.