Authors: Elizabeth Bennett
Afternoons of a Woman of Leisure
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have control over and does not have any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
AFTERNOONS OF A WOMAN OF LEISURE
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
Running Press Books edition / January 1993
InterMix eBook edition / January 2013
Copyright Â© 1993 by Elizabeth Bennett.
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A Woman of Leisure
Joanna is a woman of leisure. She knows this for a fact because in the two years since she married Curtis she has had nothing to do in the afternoons. Their shingled house, technically in the suburbs of the city but perched on a sandy bluff above the shore, lets in salty breezes and light and seems to require little cleaning. Curtis likes bare things: wooden floors, uncluttered surfaces, a lack of frills around windows. Curtis is also the acknowledged cook in the household, and every evening he returns from the city with a cut of something or a limb of something else and drifts into the kitchen like a ghost in the place it has always lived. Joanna, sitting out on the porch, hears first chopping and the clatter of pots being taken down, then smells, invariably, something rich and inviting. He likes to cook for her, she knows. He likes to remove the smells of money and office politics from his hands by dipping his fingers into spices and flour and the softness of ripe vegetables.
Curtis is many years older than Joanna, who is nearly twenty-eight, and Joanna is not his first wife. Curtis' first wife was his own age, a reportedly small and aggressive woman who was made wealthy by their divorce. She now lives in the city and apparently runs some kind of lucrative business from her penthouse east of the park. She is not a woman of leisure, Joanna knows, and Joanna wonders what her afternoons must be like. She imagines the ringing of telephones and the clatter of fax machines, the rushed dressing for lunch and dinner appointments. Joanna thinks often of Curtis' other wife, whom she has never met. Sometimes, and more and more frequently over these past few months, she has tried to imagine what their lovemaking must have been like, but the only image she can conjure is of bouncing beneath covers, the tops of two curly heads barely visible at one end of the bed.
Joanna's own hair is not curly. Curtis calls it gossamer hair, and it is pale blond, unbleached and pure. When she takes it down from its customary knot at the back of her neck, it settles in wisps over her breasts and the pink of Joanna's nipples peeks through. Again and again, Joanna has performed this strange and private ritual during her afternoons, while Curtis is away at work, first removing her sweater then reaching behind her back to unhook the lace bra with a flick of her hand, then pulling the bronze-colored metal pins from her hair and easing it down over her skin. Then she backs up and sits on the edge of the bed and watches herself in the full-length mirror mounted on the closet door. Just watches.
Sometimes, as she sits at the foot of the bed, a stronger breeze comes through the screened window and lifts the hair again, revealing not only the pink of the nipple but its point, suddenly hard as the cold brushes over it. Joanna takes her breast in her hand and tests that hardness with the tips of her fingers, and a current runs through her at the touch, sinking to the soles of her feet like melting water then shooting upward again, gathering damply in her crotch. At these moments, she feels herself to be at the edge of understanding something important, something unique to herself, something Curtis has neither explained nor even intimated. Joanna would like to know what it is, but when Curtis holds her it is in the manner of a father holding a child, snug in his lap, her head settled in the crook of his neck.
This is why Joanna is sometimes tempted to telephone Curtis' first wife, despite the fact that they are strangers. She would like to ask her about the bouncing figures underneath the blanket, and whether Curtis ever held her snugly on his lap, his broad hands warm on her thighs over her skirt. She would also like to ask whether Curtis, during his first marriage, kissed his wife tenderly on her forehead before going to bed in his own room at the end of the hall. Joanna is fairly certain that he did not. After all, Curtis' first marriage produced a son, now as old as Joanna, or perhaps even a little older. Joanna has never met him, either.
They have not always been exactly chaste, however. At first, Curtis turned to her often at night, late, almost in sleep. His lovemaking was baffling to Joanna, ethereal, directed by some hidden authority within her husband and always leaving her wanting something just beyond her reach, something she couldn't quite identify. But slowly even those hushed and dark encounters became fewer and fewer, breezier, more breathless, more brief. Now Curtis only touches her in fond appreciation of her beauty: a finger tracing the softness of her cheek, a kiss to the back of her hand, a breath exhaled into the pale gold of her hair. One night, not long ago, she followed him to his bedroom and stood in the doorway, her thin nightgown fluttering at her ankles. Curtis sat up in bed.
“I was wondering,” Joanna had said. “I mean, about this.” She gestured at the room. Curtis was silent. “It's just,” she said finally, “that I miss you. I miss your touching me.”
Curtis motioned to her and she padded softly to the edge of his bed and sat down. His hand found her knee and settled there. “You're very beautiful,” he told her, his voice strange and low in the dark room. “It's a funny time for me. I'm not in my prime anymore, but I'm not old yet. I don't know how things will settle, but I'd like it if you stayed with me.” Joanna watched the shadow of his face. “Call it a phase,” Curtis said finally. “It may not last much longer.”
“Okay,” Joanna said, getting up.
Curtis turned over and went immediately to sleep, even as she watched by the side of his bed. As if, she thought later, they had been discussing nothing more important than the groceries they needed or their plans for a Sunday. Slowly, she felt her way along the wall and closed the door behind her. Back in her own bedroom, she carefully pulled her sweater over her head and reached back to release the bra, then picked the bronze pins from the knot at the back of her neck. The lights were off. Joanna had never done this at night, and now she felt, rather than saw, the hardening of her nipples under the soft shifting of hair. She closed her eyes, and when she did, blood seemed to pulse in her breasts, darkening their points, so Joanna imagined, to a deep red. She peeled off her skirt and leaned back on the bedspread, feeling its ridges beneath her back.
A phase, he had said. Her own fingers inched beneath the lace rim of her underwear, nesting in the soft and now damp hairs mounded there. Instinctively, the muscles of Joanna's thighs relaxed and parted. Her fingers slipped and slid into the warmth at the center of her body. With her other hand she reached for her breast and stroked it, testing the point, the stiffness of it. Her underwear gathered in the fold between her buttocks and Joanna arched against its tightness until the urge to strain was replaced with a numbness and a vague sense of loss and she relaxed. She had not come, exactly. Joanna had never actually had an orgasm, she believed, but she knew that whatever passion was within herself had barely been touched by her lovemaking with Curtis or her lovemaking alone. Curtis wasn't the only one with a sense of fleeing time, she thought then, reaching down for a blanket to cover herself in the cool darkness. Joanna's sigh filled the still room. It was time for a phase of her own. And now, before it was too late.
One Tuesday early in the summer, after Curtis has left for his office, Joanna dresses for the city herself. She puts on stockings, the kind with underwear sewn into them, a slip and a skirt, a lace bra, high heels and a white sweater. The day is warm and bright as she drives to the train station, and already she feels moisture begin to gather beneath her arms. She has not thought to put on deodorant, but before she leaves the car she reaches under her sweater and sprays perfume between her breasts, then inhales approvingly.
The train is full of women, sleek and groomed, their short hair tamed further by clips and hairbands. They hold their pocketbooks firmly in their laps as if they were small animals who might jump down at any moment. Joanna imagines that each of these women is on her way into the city to meet a lover in a hotel room downtown. For a moment she wonders whether she should abandon her own rather vague plans and follow one of them, instead, but when the train finally pulls into the downtown station the women quickly disperse, and Joanna takes the escalator to street level and gets into a waiting taxi.
The city swelters in the summer heat, and tempers run high. Twice Joanna's taxi driver leans out of his window to hurl curses at other drivers and passersby. To Joanna he offers only low mutters in another language. Farther uptown, the traffic thins and they begin to move faster, twisting aggressively through the streets until they reach the park. “Here,” Joanna says suddenly, leaning forward. It is not quite the address she had given him, but it is close enough. She pays him and gets out.
Joanna walks along the edge of the park for another block and finally takes a seat on the bench. The bench faces the canopied apartment building where Curtis' first wife now lives. It is nearly twelve o'clock. She does not know how long she will wait here, or even exactly what she is waiting to see. Joanna decides to wait until something happens or, if nothing happens, to then get up and find something else to do. It sounds simple enough. People glance at her as they walk past, the women with distrust or dismissal, the men with interest. One hesitates, does a shuffle step, then apparently thinks better of it and walks on. Joanna begins to wish that she had brought some sort of a prop to explain her presence: a newspaper, a book, a sketchpad.
A brisk movement makes her look up. Curtis' first wife is standing beneath the canopy of her apartment building, talking with the uniformed doorman. Joanna recognizes her from a photograph which Curtis still keeps in his own bedroom, right beside a picture of Joanna. The woman is short and curvaceous with wildly red hair curling to her shoulders. She nods when the doorman speaks to her, her hands on her hips. She is wearing a short black dressâlinen, Joanna thinksâand flat black shoes. She turns and walks purposefully down the street and, abruptly, Joanna gets up and begins to follow her, careful not to catch up with her own longer stride.
Curtis' first wife walks away from the park and turns south on a shady, shop-lined avenue. She is carrying a leather briefcase that must be heavy, Joanna thinks, because the woman frequently shifts it from hand to hand. She pauses frequently to peer into shop windows, and Joanna stops too, a few windows back, trying to look interested in the merchandise. Her body seeps beneath the white sweater, and one of her toes has begun to rub against the leather of her high-heeled shoe. Suddenly, Curtis' first wife ducks into a restaurant and crisply closes the door behind her. Joanna hesitates for a moment, then, remembering her earlier mistake, goes to a newsstand on the corner and buys a magazine. She rolls it in her hand and enters the same restaurant, taking a seat by the window.
Inside, the air is beautifully cool. The flowers on her table move slightly in the air from an overhead fan. A waiter brings her a menu and Joanna studies it for a moment before asking for a glass of white wine and a salad. Then she unrolls her magazine and slowly, surreptitiously, looks around.
Curtis' first wife is seated across the room at a small table with a stunning black woman. Both are reading menus. The black woman wears a red, clinging shirt that bares her upper chest and much of her shoulders. She is tense, Joanna thinks. When Curtis' first wife turns to her she visibly quivers, but the question is apparently about food because they both turn back to their menus with seemingly increased interest. After the waiter leaves with their order, the black woman glances nervously around the room. Joanna pretends to read her magazine.
She sips her wine. The two women talk, leaning slightly towards each other, as if they don't want their conversation overheard. The black woman nods, her arms crossed protectively over her breasts. Curtis' first wife reaches into her briefcase and removes a pad and a calculator. The other woman watches as her hand moves briskly down the page, writing figures, Joanna thinks. She uses the back of her pen to punch buttons on the calculator and holds it up to show the result to the black woman, then the calculator is put away. The two women barely touch their lunch. Curtis' first wife is smiling. Frequently, she pats the arm of the black woman, familiarly, comfortingly. Then, without warning, they rise to go. Joanna had not noticed the arrival of their check, and now hurriedly signals for her own. Curtis' first wife opens her purse and hands the other woman a small white card which the black woman takes and slips into a pocket of her skirt. Joanna's check has not arrived, and her frustration builds as she helplessly watches as the two women leave, one holding the door for the other. As they pass by her window, however, something happens. Something unexpected. The white card falls silently from the black woman's pocket and flutters to the sidewalk, unnoticed. When she presses her face to the glass, Joanna can see it lying there, pure white on the grey of the pavement, a spattering of black writing on its surface. Her heart leaps. By the time she looks up, the two women have gone.
Outside, a few minutes later, she bends to it and it comes to her hand as if it belonged there. In the middle of the card is a single, capital letter: “O.” Beneath that is a phone number. Joanna puts the card carefully into her purse then, stepping to the curb, raises her arm to signal an approaching taxi.