Jocelyn Cullity's work has most recently been published in the award-winning Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53), TWJ Magazine, The Writers Chronicle, and Blackbird. She teaches Creative Writing in the BFA program at Truman State University in Missouri.
Alan and Melissa Shaw were content with what they had. But once in a while they were reminded that their aspirations were modest compared to those of some of their peers. His salary in sales at the Hartford Courant, the city’s newspaper, and hers, managing the website for the Connecticut Insurance Department, put limits on what they could do. This fact had been brought home again recently by their new neighbor, Milton Dawes. He’d knocked down the bungalow next to their own in West Hartford and built a tall home, fronted entirely with windows. It somehow made Alan and Melissa’s fondness for the oval glass pane in their front door feel silly.
Dawes was an investment broker who spent half his time working from home and half his time in New York. He was friendly enough, waving good morning from the back of a sleek cab when Melissa and Alan rode their bikes to work. In June, he sent them an invitation to his Saturday afternoon housewarming, with a reminder to bring their swimsuits.
In the foyer, Alan shook Dawes’ hand, and Dawes put his arm around Melissa’s shoulders. He steered her through a group of people in the midst of a joke and over to an open kitchen.
“Great place,” said Alan.
“Great part of town,” Dawes said. “Make yourselves at home, look around. Beautiful day for a dip. The pool, or there’s a hot tub inside.”
Melissa nodded, and adjusted the purse slung over her shoulder. She switched the bathing suit and towel she was holding to the other hand. Melissa and Alan carried matching brown towels with their names embroidered in red, gifts from a friend. Alan put the bottle of wine they’d brought among the others on the table. Scanning the labels, he nudged their bottle further in. Four men in white uniforms prepared trays at the counter.
Dawes indicated an iron-wrought staircase on the other side of the foyer. “You guys feel free to use the bathroom upstairs if the ones downstairs get too busy.”
“Well, thanks,” Melissa said.
“Help yourselves to drink,” he said, and patted Alan’s arm. A man offered them a tray of glasses – something red and bubbly.
“Great,” Alan said.
A small crowd came through the door. “You guys okay?” Dawes said to Melissa and Alan, walking backwards towards the crowd. They nodded, and raised their drinks in his direction.
“Could you imagine?” Melissa said to Alan, indicating the spaciousness, the light streaming through the front windows.
“Just the kitchen alone,” Alan said, putting his towel over his shoulder and reaching for Melissa’s hand. They passed the back doors, open to the deck and pool and more guests – no one they knew. On the other side of the foyer, they climbed the stairs.
In a long room, a terra-cotta hot tub sat below a skylight. Alan took off his shirt and shorts and adjusted his trunks. “The bathroom must be through there,” he said, nodding at a door. He dipped his hands in the water.
Melissa shut the door to the large bathroom and paused. She could smell freesia, and there was a lightness about the room’s silence. The bronze figure in one corner held two quilted towels on its outstretched arms. Melissa remembered seeing three delivery men carry the figure up the drive. How carefully they’d walked, hands gripping the head, arms, and feet.
She slung her suit, bag and towel on the back of a chair and removed her dress and underclothes. A row of white cupboards lined one side of the room. She opened the one nearest to her and found a glass bottle of deodorant. Removing the cap, she slicked the liquid under her arms. She put on her bathing suit, studied a snag, adjusted the racer-back straps, and went over to the double shower enclosure where she squirted orange foam soap onto her toes. Turning on one of the two showers, Melissa let the water run over one foot, then the other. She patted them dry with the bronze figure’s towels.
Melissa stared at the sky through a high window shaped like a star. Then she looked around for her towel and opened the door.
“You okay?” Alan said when she emerged. He sat in the swirling water with his drink in hand.
“I’d trouble with the suit, the straps,” Melissa said, and slipped into the warm tub beside him. She reached under the water and touched him playfully.
A few guests drifted in, said hello, and surveyed the room. “Has he got a hidden camera in here?” asked a tall woman in a purple sundress. When Alan and Melissa peered around at the bare walls, the woman smirked. “Not to worry,” she said. “Milton’s not tacky.”
Judging from the faint hooting and splashing, the party had moved outside. Melissa wrapped herself in her towel and went down to the kitchen where she collected two more red, bubbly drinks from a tray on the counter. On her way past the doors to the pool, she spied Dawes sitting at a blue table under an umbrella with several friends. Plenty of blue and orange tables and chairs were set up on the deck and surrounded the pool. “Having fun?” he called to her.
“Yes,” she said. “The hot tub is grand.”
Upstairs, Alan looked up from drying himself off. “What’s happening outside, Melissa?” he said. “We should socialize.”
“There’s nowhere to sit. Why not finish these drinks first?” she asked.
He let her take off his towel and put it down. She contemplated the bathroom door before pulling him back into the hot tub.
“Melissa,” he whispered, catching her wrist under the water. She brought his hand between her legs and climbed on top of him.
Later, they sat on the rim of the tub with their towels draped around their shoulders, the embroidered names, “Melissa & Alan,” hanging across their backs.
“Let’s change,” Alan finally said. “Wait. Maybe I’ll go for a swim first.”
“I don’t think I’ll swim,” Melissa said. “You go ahead. I’ll join you after I’ve dressed.”
Melissa locked the bathroom door behind her, put down her drink, barely touched, and removed her wet suit. She trailed her fingers over the water lilies painted on the sides of the sink. She opened the cabinet above it, took out a nail clipper and trimmed a fingernail.
The sunlight seemed whiter in this room. She wondered if it had to do with all the marble. An airplane soundlessly crossed the star window and disappeared. She walked around the bathroom, gazing at the pink and green streaks on the counter, the beveled glass design on the shower enclosure, the ornate cupboard handles. She had the feeling the bronze figure was watching her and she dropped her towel over its face.
She put on a green bathrobe hanging beside the counter and stood with her hands in its pockets, prodding her thighs with her fingers. She thought of all the people at the party and Milton Dawes. She wondered for a moment if they really were downstairs. Looking up at the mirrored ceiling, she studied herself amongst the reflected objects.
In one of the cupboards there was a rack of clothes, some with tags still hanging from them. She selected a bright yellow Speedo and carefully removed it from around its wooden hanger. Hoisting it over her hips, she did the can-can in front of the mirror. Melissa took off the Speedo, and turned on the two showers in the glass enclosure. She lathered herself with orange foam and sipped her drink as the soap streamed off. She found a fresh towel in a cupboard and wrapped herself in it before she climbed onto the counter by the sink. Out the star window, she gazed at the skyline over her own rooftop for some time. Then she hopped down, returned everything, and bundled her swimsuit into her damp towel.
“I was just coming to find you,” Alan said, walking towards her when she opened the door. She watched him unwrap his towel from around his waist.
“Why don’t you go mingle while I change,” he said. “The crowd seems fun. Finish your drink.” He put the towel around them both and kissed her.
Melissa went downstairs. Outside, she walked among the blue and orange tables as if she were looking for someone, twisting her towel across her shoulders into a coil. She stood near some people in conversation. They didn’t take notice of her standing there. After a while, she went back inside and considered a painting in the foyer – a tiny, blue wildflower in amongst grey shapes.
She went upstairs and knocked on the bathroom door. “Alan?” she called.
She heard a shuffling sound. Then, after a minute, Alan came out. “I guess I took a while,” he said, putting his arm around her and moving towards the stairs. “You almost forget everyone else in there.”
He paused at the top of the staircase. “It feels so personal,” he said. “You know, to be in someone’s private space.”
“It is,” she said.
Downstairs, Alan led her across the foyer. He smelled of fresh cologne, of ginger and pepper. She kissed him hard. “Let’s go home,” she said quietly.
“Gotta run?” Dawes said behind them.
“Yes, we should run,” Melissa said. “Thank you for having us.”
“See you around,” Dawes said, and gave them the peace sign as he went upstairs.
Outside, they blinked in the bright sun. Alan glanced at Melissa. “I broke a bottle of cologne. I had to clean up the mess with my towel.”
She touched his arm. “I’ll wash your towel,” she said. They crossed the grass divide between Dawes’ driveway and their own. “Where is it?” She stopped and looked at him.
“Oh no,” he said, turning all the way around. “I forgot the towel.” His mouth opened and closed.
They stared at each other. “We can’t go back now,” Melissa said hoarsely.
They walked up the path towards their front door with its new oval glass, their moving figures distorted in the reflection it cast, human spirits blinded by all the light behind them.~Jocelyn Cullity