She always steps behind the screen to undress. She's had the screen for as long as I have known her, but she will not speak of it. If I ask she changes the subject; if I press her she becomes reticent, and soon enough it is clear that it would be better if I left. When next we see one another, she pretends it was never brought up.
The screen is of Japanese origin, and depicts a series of couples; porcelain-skinned ladies with pursed rosebud lips and hair pulled up in tight buns, turned away from men whose suggestive postures match their animal masks. Or perhaps they are not masks--at times I have been convinced that these are not men but anthropomorphized beasts. The women's faces are turned up, as if to indicate that they are meant for higher purposes than those the man-beasts propose. Some of the women stretch their hands out behind them in a warding gesture, while others tuck their arms together, with one hand free to wave an elaborate fan towards their white faces.
She is not shy when she is naked, has no flaws or birthmarks to hide, but in the stages between clothed and naked she is pathological about her privacy. If I put a hand on her knee (fully clothed, usually with a calf-length skirt or dress) or kiss her neck (above the collar), she pushes me away. If I persist, she either throws me out or excuses herself, steps behind the screen, and with agonizing deliberation strips to her flushed and perfect skin.
Sometimes, if she is in a playful mood, she tells me what she is removing as she does it. "I am unbuttoning my blouse," she will say. "I am stepping out of my skirt." By the time she describes the way her silk panties feel as they slide down her thighs I am dizzy for all the blood that is not reaching my brain. I become like one of the beast-men, with paws instead of hands, unable to stand erect, all language lost to me. When she steps from behind the screen she is a goddess, an elemental force, with a power over me which I do not wish to resist. I fall on her like a predator on prey, knowing that I am the one being devoured.
She will not allow me to touch her in public. Once, at a dinner party, we held hands because other couples were doing so. Her hand was cold and lay limp in my grasp, and at the earliest opportunity she reclaimed it with the air of a person forced to bear some indignity. Yet later, in the naked dark, that same hand was warm as it stroked and squeezed me, covered my mouth and tore bloody scratches into my back.
I have imagined that I am having a relationship with two women, one who lives naked behind the screen, another who walks the outside world in elegant clothes. I have imagined a landscape beyond the screen like something out of a Kurosawa adaptation of a C.S. Lewis novel: a window in a paper wall overlooking a row of street lanterns hung over a snowy landscape; beavers and fauns in kimonos bowing one to another beneath cherry trees. Realism fails me, as it always has. Secrets have an intrinsic magic about them, and it seems disrespectful to assume that the truths behind them are any less magical.
But part of the magic of secrets is that they are invitations as well as interdictions, and as time passes I am more inclined to play my expected role. She must know that my transgression is inevitable--or perhaps she thinks of this as a continuing test of my respect for her boundaries. But we have reached a stasis point in our relationship. An action must be taken, whatever the consequence.
She has never given me a key to her condominium. Invariably, regardless of how late into the night our lovemaking should stretch, she is dressed and groomed before I wake, at which time she tells me to leave. But it was easy enough to get in. I hired someone to switch purses with her, make imprints, and switch back while we dined at the bistro she favors. Today a set of keys was delivered to my office. I took the afternoon off, knowing she always works late, and now I stand in her bedroom, facing the screen. The beast-men leer at me, as if compliant; the women avert their eyes. I should not be here, but it is too late for scruples.
I hold my breath as I step behind the screen, but there is no paper house, no snowy landscape populated with talking animals. There is only an enormous wardrobe of dark mahogany. If it is an antique it must be worth thousands. It is carved with vines of thorns and roses, so delicate that I can almost believe the petals would come away if touched. The vines, which are elaborate without being ostentatious, delineate the two doors above and the two drawers below.
There are thorns on the door handles and the drawer pulls, a warning against transgression. I ignore them and swing the doors open first, on hinges that make no sound. All of her things hang on padded hangers, black dresses, bold-colored blazers, long skirts. Many of them are designer creations, but others she has discovered in vintage shops. She has a consistent taste in clothing; elegant, attractive, but never vulnerable, never soft. But I have not come to see these. I shut the doors and pull open the top drawer.
Inside, neatly folded, lay her unmentionables: silken prayers, elastic promises, lies without seams. Some are innocent and girlish, others are brazenly seductive. I stroke them--they have the fragile feel of memory, the thin feel of hope. There is a pair of childhood fears, unflattering but well worn. A set of fantasies with the tags still on them. A stack of old dreams, stained with disappointment. I tremble as I sort through, flush with shame or excitement or both. I take an forgotten secret from the drawer and touch its smooth material to my cheek, then quickly fold it and return it to its spot. I did not expect to be aroused by this. Shame wells up in me like tears, and I slide the drawer shut. But there is another drawer.
It might be better to stop now. It may not be too late to go back to the static, repetitive relationship we have developed--a romance with no past and no future. But I have transgressed this far, and I still have not found the answers I seek. I grasp the pulls and open the bottom drawer, only to find myself.
My arrogance lies within, unfolded over tight vanity, flashy greed, boyish white helplessness. Loose-fitting memories, constrictive prejudices, jealousies too small to fit anymore. Her collection spans my entire existence, from pre-adolescent illusions to adult neuroses, from my first nocturnal emission to my last episode of erectile dysfunction.
I realize that she is next to me, arms folded in front of her. She does not speak. I meet her eyes, flush with shame and lust.
I don't know if there is a difference between love and obsession, whether they are sides of the same coin or points on the same continuum. Whatever it is that I see in her face, I know that it is reflected in mine. And I know that we cannot survive this recognition.
I hand her the set of copied keys and walk away, wordless. She will not call after me. This, finally, is something that neither of us can pretend did not happen. Even small talk is impossible now.
I will leave her this collection of my imperfections. It will serve her well until she forgets me. For myself I fear I will always remember that when we had truly stripped each other bare, we saw ourselves.
About the author:
David J. Schwartz's fiction has appeared (or will soon) in such publications as The Third Alternative, Strange Horizons, and the anthologies Twenty Epics and Spicy Slipstream Stories. He lives in Chicago.