Undress

Daniel Torday

The spot of psoriasis on her left ankle looked like what? And did she always take her socks off first? It seemed as if this must always be her way, it seemed as if she always took her socks off first, but how could he know? She’d never undressed for him before, not while knowing he was watching.

A cookie? A brittle red cookie? No, it didn’t look like a cookie.

This undressing was the product of a litany of charged moments, of which Winston had been an equal culprit, abetting himself in a crime he had not yet committed and had promised he would never commit eight years prior, when he was married.

The first close call had been at Coney Island not long after he’d hired her. Or more accurately, on the trip down to Coney Island. Jenna was in graduate school and his firm needed an intern who might eventually work there. He hired her. He wanted to show her a brownstone they would be renovating, her first project. She said she’d never been to Coney Island, it wasn’t too far past on the train (he’d accepted this foggy illlogic), so he said they would do that, too—they could quit the office for the day—hoping he wasn’t too forward, knowing she was.

They rode down together on the Q train, having transferred from the 1 express, and it was neither of their faults that the train kept stopping so abruptly and swinging her against him, that the only seats left were those that jutted perpendicular out of the chrome subway wall, and that each time the train stopped it became abundantly clear how close their bare arms—she wore a sleeveless lavender sundress and he had a sleeve pushed up against the summer heat—were to each other, how they kept rubbing and sticking (what would it feel like if it were their bellies rubbing? Not even undressed, but just their shirts pulled up so that when they hugged it was bellyskin against bellyskin?).

They ate a hot dog at Nathan’s, then sat on a blanket Jenna brought from her sofa. His suit pants and her dress made them no less freakish than any of the other denizens of this place. Back in her apartment he’d suggested maybe she should consider something less precious, less often used—did she have a beach towel? Bath mat? Butcher paper? But no, and the beach was relatively empty, all the way from the boardwalk to the water, all the way up to Brighton Beach, where they now walked, triangulated by the Cyclone off to their left. They walked back down the beach and sat again on the beach blanket and got it all sandy.

A Puerto Rican couple lay wrapped entirely in a Puerto Rican flag, the tight bulb of one ass—his or hers?—bobbing and writhing. More than the wind could do.

It was probably a mistake to take his shirt off, but the sun was hot and it felt good to him, the sun on his body (was his monastic pastiness repellent to her? Like it was to him?). She looked at the little bulge of stomach he’d built all winter and spring, and he draped the shirt he’d taken off across his midsection. She kept the lavender sundress on. She put her face to the sun as if waiting for a peck on the cheek.

On the ride back on the Q train, she slept with her head against his shoulder. The skin pressed sharp against his clavicle and he endured the pain. They could both believe that she had fallen asleep and her head had lain down unintentionally. Twice he passed his nose through her hair and breathed in, though he knew he should not do so. Tea tree oil. Lavender. Headsweat. When someone got on and asked if the seat next to her was taken—they were on the horizontal seats now, three across—he started to say that it was, and with her eyes still closed Jenna said to the rider, “No.”

She might as soon have turned to him and said, “Yes.”

Every time Jenna looked at him she looked him directly in the eyes, but her eyes were flashing minnows darting about in the yellow sunlight. He could not tell if it was because she was nervous, or excited, or if this was just her way.

He walked her to her apartment and the heat lifted out of the sidewalk, disgusting like a lint-covered hard candy—stashed away all day and corrupted.

On Canal Street the fish entrails smelled as if the buildings themselves had vomited the stink out, as if the buildings had forgotten they were buildings.

They entered her building and the elevator hurtled them upward. When they hugged good-bye, she rubbed her nose back and forth across his chest. Her hair met his nose again, but he held his neck rigid and told himself he had not done anything. If they never both did the same thing at the same time, it was never agreed they were doing it.

The next two times were drunken and dangerous. His firm was in Brooklyn, in Carroll Gardens. They renovated brownstones. He’d hired her, of course, she was his responsibility. He hired her because she was qualified for the job.

He was an architect because he wanted to put structure to the city he loved. She told him she was trying to become an architect because she liked the lines, the straight lines and the clean glass, and the order. There were rules and you followed them, and buildings went up and they stayed up and that was neat. She liked neat.

They were not being neat.

The last time he walked her home after a work event—and this was the tenth time now, maybe a dozen—they hugged for nearly two minutes. She pushed her shirt up so that her middle was bare. He pushed up his—he had to work the tails out of his wool suit pants—and then their middles touched. Where was this now?

Soon it was nowhere. The day the buildings fell he thought that he should call her to make sure she was OK. He didn’t. At the office he listened as she told a coworker how her fiancé—she called him by his name, Keith, he was only her boyfriend then—had survived.

“You’re so lucky,” the man said.

“I doubt it was just luck,” Jenna said.

After she said it, she caught Winston looking. He smiled. Her eyes did not dart when she looked at him. That was new. She seemed very sure of something.

Sometimes they talked in the hallway so someone would notice and think nothing of it, though no one would have remembered anything from those months anyway. Everyone in the whole city was being duped by some nefarious card trick since that day. Winston was not the type taken by such a trick. He got a lot of work done.

After that day she tried to stay away from him more. But by November they left parties together again. Springtime, and at the end of the night he would crawl his hands up under her shirt to feel the heat come off her back. They were really not being neat.

So now it was three days before her wedding, and he had done nothing about it. It came as a surprise but also as a given when she entered his office and asked him if he would come to her apartment that night at 9 P.M. so that she could talk to him. She wrote down her address on a Post-it note she snatched off his desk. He already knew where she lived, Sixth Street between First and Second. They had been there together twenty times. Keith worked late nights. She walked back to the door without looking at him. She stood with her arms behind her back, each hand grasping his cold, chrome, horizontal door handle, making her look guilty or naive.

And then when he arrived that night, she said these things:

I am attracted to you; you are attracted to me; this is inevitable; would you like a beer; the cat’s name is Blue. He reached down to pet the new cat and it swiped his hand. The cat had been declawed.

You were my boss; you are married; I am to be married; let’s get this over with so that we don’t have to think about it; here’s what I propose; let’s take our clothes off.

“I just think that if we see each other naked we’ll find that we’re not attracted to each other anymore,” Jenna said.

     • •

Then she took off her shoes, pushing toe-to-heel, toe-to-heel, then did the same for her socks.

Jenna wondered if he would notice the patch of psoriasis on her ankle. She scratched it whenever she felt nervous around him—it was a mark of her love for him, and evidence of her guilt. Her dermatologist said that it always acted up when one was under a great deal of stress.

She wondered if Winston had any birthmarks. She wondered if he shaved anywhere other than his face. She had played softball when she was a girl and when she missed a fly ball because the stitch in her side had suddenly doubled her over, she concurrently: fell to the ground, and got the ball in the back of the head. She was taken to the hospital where they removed her appendix and stitched her head. She played with the scar (the appendix scar) sometimes when her psoriasis had cleared up and there was nothing to scratch. The scar was frequently inflamed.

This new thing, this thing she suggested—them, naked, together—it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Only a year before, Jenna thought she was witnessing the end of the world, which she supposed seemed silly now. Unreasonable? No, just silly. Even though she didn’t because you cannot, neurochemically, remember smells, she could still conjure it anytime she wanted: the smell of ten thousand burnt robot metal-and-rubber raccoons. In the subway, in her apartment. She kept scrubbing and spraying until it was finally gone. When the smell finally was gone, it was by nothing she did, but by something the wind did, and the months.

She had watched on television as the second building came down and Keith—whom she chose not to think about—was at work there. In the building. When she picked up the phone then she’d heard nothing—no dial tone, she had no e-mail—and she watched on TV (though she could have just walked down Broadway and stood down from Trinity Church and been safe, but who was she to think that then?) as the great plume of dirt and debris rumbled out like a Chinese New Year’s dragon. On the TV it looked as if the cloud had just consumed everyone she knew.

She could not make her mind not see the outline of the building still, which made her feel a tad insane, and she watched the TV tell stories—the Pentagon building, the rural fields farther south—until it felt like the hand of God might reach out of the sky and swipe her across the face for holding on too long to the body of her boss, the architect Winston. She expected it. She pictured it, the hand of God, and in her mind it was a single, immense talon, at once big enough to take down a tower and small enough to swipe a face, though she did not know why a talon. Hers was not an avian god.

She’d said aloud then: “Dear God, if you’re really that close right now, please let him have left the building, I’ll never see Winston again, I’ll never not never not.”

She didn’t even know if she loved Keith like that yet. She only knew that she was unprepared for a death that might keep her from finding out, and make it permanent, or true.

Later, when it turned out he had survived and that she did not love him that way—she never had, though had he died she might have been stuck with the façade of love—she was relieved.

Keith had gone for coffee at half past eight that morning and was eating a doughnut as she said her prayer. He stood outside the chain coffeeshop, and though only ten blocks from the building when it went down, he stood watching on TV as well. It might as well have been happening in Myanmar. He was standing outside, looking in on an electronics shop window next to the chain coffee shop while he was meant to be inside. Jenna would never not resent him for it. Perhaps it and not she had kept her from ever loving him that way again.

When she prayed, she was sitting up with her hands clasped on the table, not knowing if she should do otherwise.

Jenna did not break the engagement. She was free from not only wishing Keith not die, but also from wanting to be sure he’d not missed the spot on his jaw where he frequently forgot to shave. It was a safer love, and true. Now when he left for the morning with a poppy seed in his teeth, she let him go without pointing it out. If a man bumped into her on the subway, she scrutinized the stray whiskers on his cheek and chuckled a perfidious chuckle. It felt safe—like picking a scab.

From then on she tried not to hug Winston as much.

The most difficult moment had come the day Keith proposed. It was mid-winter. When he proposed, he even brought up that day, although it seemed gauche to her to mention it then. People kept saying the numbers as if they’d won the lottery with them, or as if it were the name they’d decided on for their newborn.

She wished simply to put it behind her. April came, and she rode the train to 125th Street. On the great, green, Columbia University lawn before the library a string band busked. It was spring—it was as if October November December January February and March had disappeared never having transpired, though the memory of those months prevailed over her heart—and Jenna applied for a different job and got it. She would soon have her degree. Now she would be working for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The office was only a couple blocks north of the site. They would be working on the rebuilding. She would be married.

Sometimes she would get an atavistic whiff of the burnt robot-raccoons and cover her nose, but it did no good.

During one of her last three weeks with Winston’s firm, he took her to a job. She had not told him she was leaving for the bigger firm and knew he assumed she would continue on.

He explained the brownstone system first.

“In between each wall along the way,” he said, pointing at a gaping hole in the drywall behind which was a rigid oval outline and then an open space looking into the next home, “they left these large air ducts. All the heat was shared between houses, and they shared the heat costs, essentially. All the way down the block,” Winston said, pointing in one direction and then the other, “everyone was breathing the same air and sharing the same heat. It was communal, in a way, without their knowing it, everyone living together but for the walls.”

“Didn’t some of them pay more if the others chose to be cold? And not use their heat? Not share? Would it make them colder?” Jenna said.

“I don’t think the temperature fluctuated that greatly. It was more vague than that.”

“But they were all breathing the same air? And giving off body heat,” Jenna said.

“That’s very subtle,” Winston said. “The effect of that would be very subtle. But yes, I suppose.”

Jenna moved up next to him. Her left breast was against his elbow. His neck was febrile. She’d promised herself not to do this. She knew he’d gathered his friends and his family and his God eight years before and promised the same.

He took her to the basement and showed her the oak-and-teak floors. They had a very rigid art deco pattern that circumscribed the room. A workman was lacquering the floor when Jenna almost stepped on an open spot in the wooden detailing. Winston put a hand to her back to guide her over it.

“Watch it,” the workman said.

     • •

Now her shoes and socks were off. There it was on her ankle. Was it like a splotch of wax on the table? It wasn’t like that. It was scabrous, and wax would be waxy. Winston had never seen a spot of psoriasis on an ankle before. It was red, but it was flaky and white at the edges. When he was an undergraduate, he had read a story by Colette called “The Hand,” in which a woman is in love with a man and then suddenly finds him repulsive because his hand is unattractive. He’d judged the narrator and found her petty. He liked to know how raw things looked underneath. He had never been untrue to a woman in his whole life. Once, as a teenager, he had cheated at bridge with his grandparents and apologized for years. They, his grandparents, never quite forgave him.

He judged his friends that did cheat by smiling when they told him they had and saying, “Man.”

He never judged aloud.

“This is a little crazy to me,” Winston said when she had unbuttoned her pants and was now beginning to struggle them over the pleasantly wide bulge of her hips. When he thought bulge, it had a d in it: buldge. She stopped and her shirt jagged up off the skin of her sides. This was Winston’s favorite part of a woman, the subtle concavity of her side.

He pictured himself lightly swabbing his nose up her side and smelling her—tea tree oil, headsweat, didn’t all women before twenty-five smell like cucumber peels? He’d read once that it was ripe banana they smelled like, but no, in his mind he was across the room with his head against her ribs, and it was cucumber peels. It was all he could do to keep from going over there to find out.

“It is,” Jenna said. “It is crazy. But so is all this flirtation, and so is marrying this man and carrying on with you like this.”

“Carrying on like what? What carrying on?”

“C’mon,” Jenna said. “Last week I was drunk and barely a year ago I almost saw the hand of God and promised, then broke the promise. And there was that hailstorm—and nothing but counting kept me from you throughout.”

He didn’t know what she meant by “nothing but counting,” but he knew what she meant by the hail—the last time, the closest time, was two months ago. They hadn’t meant to touch each other. They were in Tompkins Square Park watching the handball games when the first huge drops hit. He explained the game to her. She’d never even heard of it until she moved here from Missoula a year before school, and he played when he was younger, having grown up in Carroll Gardens.

By the time they stood, it was not just raining in pelting pellets like liquid marbles, but the hail followed. The hail was only small, but it hit on their scalps like a dozen pinpricks every few seconds, and they decided by looking at each other not to run. She put her arm into the crook of his, and he kept squeezing her fingers between his bicep and forearm. By the time they reached Second Avenue they were both soaked through. People in the deli stared at them and ate thirteen-dollar corned beef on rye with Russian dressing.

They said no to four separate vendors trying to sell them five-dollar umbrellas. Each time they laughed.

She changed in the bathroom first, and he watched her through a crack in the door. She had left it ajar so that he could do it, not knowing for certain if he would or did. He knew which floorboards squeaked. He knew how to avoid them. He knew what kind of steel I-beams were used to brace her building, and where every nail met every board in her hardwood floor without looking at it. He could look at her body and feel her bones without touching her.

He knew also before seeing them that her nipples would look like this, hard and taut under her white cotton bra. He knew that the etiology of these breasts could be traced to her soul, before she was born, and that they were not what made her beautiful, but were instead a product of her being beautiful: evidence, not essence.

He walked away when she crossed her arms across her body to undo her clasp, and he crossed the room, not wanting to unknot that image—the wet bra and the brown nipple—from his mind.

When he changed, he closed the door, and she had to peek through a keyhole.

He left without hugging her good-bye.

In her apartment now, it was easier to take off his pants, having done so before, even if the space of months separated him from that moment. He had a hard time deciding whether to take his belt all the way off, or if he should drop his pants more haphazardly.

Last time he took off his pants here, “I’ll bring Keith’s sweats to work tomorrow” was the last thing he said before leaving.

     • •

What Jenna meant when she said “counting” was that each time she said good-bye to her boss, the architect, Winston, love—each time they would hug for too long and not kiss, she would make herself break off her contact with him by counting. When they’d first tacitly expressed their infatuation—was that it? An infatuation?—it was always twenty-five, a round number, a quarter. Now it was a year later and sometimes it was two hundred, six hundred fifty-eight.

The night it rained, he’d been looking at her in the bathroom for more than three thousand.

When she longed to remember him and put her fingers on herself like it was he, she often counted to three thousand.

She counted much slower other times.

She’d chosen this bra and this underwear for this night in particular.

That’s all she had on now.

Winston was only in suit pants. She was thankful that he’d taken his socks off. She hated a man in only a pair of black dress socks. She’d seen her father that way too many times.

Then they were both completely naked, and she was right.

His legs were aspic in their whiteness. When she wore no bra, her left breast hung down to the side like a messenger bag. His legs were hairy and bald at once—there was a slow sluice of bare skin rubbed away from two decades of dress socks. She hated dress socks, but now she hated their trail more. He wore white briefs. Her appendix scar in this light looked like a scotch-taped-on worm. She hadn’t had a bikini wax in months and that area was weedy. His arm muscles might have been big once but now they were fatty and his upper arm had his dime-sized vaccination scar from when he was a child and if they were in the shower or rainstorm-wet maybe they would glisten and be new but in this light their bodies were matte and dull and now all at once they both felt like autumn leaves and all at once Jenna realized that despite their desiccating attraction they did, they loved each other.

Jenna saw from his defeated slump that Winston knew it too. Jenna did not want ever to tell him that his white briefs made him look ashen and scrawny; boxer briefs would make his thighs look muscular—and black or at least jersey-gray, never white.

Keith had a drawer full of black boxer briefs.

Jenna looked at Winston, but he was looking down, picking at a blemish on his shoulder. It interested him now, now that he was naked before her, more than her blemish ever could. She needed to put cortisone on the psoriasis on her ankle.

So Winston picked up his clothes and carried them into her bathroom. It was too intimate to dress in front of her. More intimate than undressing, always.

He’d already left when at last she pulled on her sweater.

If not an avian god, then why not a leonine god? Ursine? Could it be an ursine god, for if there weren’t arms strong enough to hold this kind of love and if this had in fact been as bad an idea as it became clear to Jenna it had been, might not the bear’s teeth be all that could do the necessary damage?

     • •

A splotch of psoriasis? At the wedding, Winston figured out that that was exactly what it looked like, and it could be nothing else. He’d looked it up in a Merck’s Medical Dictionary and understood that’s what it was. It did not help for it to be something else.

At the wedding Jenna’s father sat in the front row in a wheelchair. He’d been in it for thirty years, she had told Winston, and yet this was the first time Winston had ever seen her father, and he, the father, still looked uncomfortable, sitting leaning too far to his left. He’d been in the chair almost as long as Winston had been alive. Winston’s wife was there with him, and Jenna kissed Keith and the groom kissed the bride. And Jenna was the bride. That would take time.

Now Jenna had an anniversary, seven-thirteen and some more numbers, a year, which was something she and Winston would never have, which had to be OK now.

When they left the wedding, Jenna didn’t work for Winston anymore. She had a building to build, though she only reviewed sketches. It would be years before there was even a plan approved for the rebuilding. Her work was on a deadline now, a necessity, the product of that day the towers fell. It hadn’t been particularly long—only months—since the hottest part at the bottom of the smoldering mess had still been smoldering. There was a deadline for the new plans, but no hurry. There would be time yet. There was still all that steel and concrete to haul.

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