Taking off her clothes
Even as I hung up my best peach jacket I felt strange, like I'd caught a cold and my body knew it but my mind wasn't yet aware. It would find out later, when I reached my panties and pushed my thumbs under the side-elastic. Though it wouldn't be a cold I discovered, more a modest revelation.
I picked up the Spek-Collector from the dresser and brushed my jacket down, starting at the yoke and changing hands to keep the little bristles pointing in the correct collecting way. Behind me I could hear Roger's formal black shoes hit the carpet. They would lay there where he'd thrown them, empty and pigeon-toed in the corner, until he put them away in the morning. At least he was tidy with his socks and boxers, always dropping them in the laundry basket by the dresser. And if he was too lazy to put his suit and tie in the wardrobe he usually folded them on the bedside chair, though not always perfectly.
"Your sister," he started.
I should have guessed.
"She was playing boss again," he complained. The complaint was mild, as gentle as the complainer.
I took off my pearls and unbuttoned the Jaeger silk blouse. I turned to look at him but he was sitting on the other side of the bed, facing away from me, battling with his trousers. "In what way?"
"Well... after the christening, when she loaned your car to Terry and Andrea."
"She did ask."
"She only asked you for the keys. Then at the reception she had you serving champagne."
"She's my sister. She can ask me to do things like that."
I slipped out of my pleated skirt and clipped it to the hanger inside the jacket. Normally I would get quite tense when Roger criticised the family, but today - I don't know - that strange feeling of my body knowing something that my mind didn't. It was a distraction.
"Danielle, it wasn't even your family's christening. It was somebody else's family."
"Brenda just likes to be in charge," I explained. "She's the eldest."
Roger shook his head and smiled at me. He has a beautiful smile. I married that smile. He was sitting in the centre of the bed now, relaxed, nude and lightly athletic, lit nicely from the side by a single bedside (my side) lamp, so the bald spot didn't show. I moved to my side of the bed and took off my bra. He held out his hand to receive it and flung it across the room to the laundry basket. It landed on top, but not squarely, and slid off to lie like discarded origami.
I could have coped with this if it applied only to my pants, but it applied to almost all my clothes. My bras too, were perfectly regular in design and barely distinguishable from those of my sisters, my friends, and probably more than half the female population. If that discarded piece of origami by the laundry basked had been thrown on a pile with every boob-holsters from the women at the christening, I would have been forced to search through the labels to find my own, and even then I might have failed.
The silk blouse, the pearls, the linen suit, how many other people had I seen wearing something almost the same? Maybe a nuance of a different shade here or there, an extra pearl or two, a smaller button, a sleight of cut, but put us all together in a moonlit room and the chamber could be a pod to our twin-set peas.
"Is anything wrong?" asked Roger.
"Oh, sorry." I must have been standing like a statue. I followed through with the flowing and stepping movement to remove the panties that I'd previously thought were mine, Roger's hand still upon my breast.
"Is something bothering you?" He moved forward to kiss my belly.
"Not really." I lied. I wasn't used to revelations and this one had hit me like a brick - that I was wearing a uniform, that I hadn't really chosen my own clothes, not in the wider sense, but simply chosen which group of clothes-wearers I was going to join and made a few minor selections from their basic uniform. It was difficult to face the fact that my personality, my taste, counted for so little.
"So what are you thinking about?" murmured Roger, his mouth taking a pause from the early routine of sex.
I always fibbed when he asked this question, at least partially. "Do you think people behave differently when they wear different clothes?"
"And different again when they're not wearing any? Ouch!" A bite for an answer. I whacked him playfully on the head.
"Hey, the grass is in a bad way. No ball games allowed."
He was good with his mouth, and with his hands. My body was thinking about sex now, sensitised, flushed in places, moving beneath his fingers and lips, my hands midway on his sides, caressing lightly a little-known erogenous zone, but my head was still way up there in the clothing department and wouldn't come down.
"So, if a group of people wear the same clothes, they'll probably behave the same way?"
"What about people who dress as individuals?"
"Unpredictable." He stopped kissing and sat upright. "Nobody trusts them. That's why business people always dress the same. Sometimes when I'm with a pompous lawyer or official, I imagine them with no clothes on, but still pompous, still toffee-nosed and strutting around. It becomes quite comical. What brought this on?"
Time for another white lie. "I didn't like wearing a jacket today. I thought it was boring, another wear-a-jacket occasion."
"Not everybody was wearing one. You didn't have to wear one."
"No, I suppose not."
And we kissed, lightly, yet clumsily, which is often a good sign, and finally I caught the lift and moved down from clothing to a lower level, where the party was about to begin.
"Can I get you anything?" Roger was busy at the cocktail cabinet.
From the safety of the sofa, I heard an extra-large avalanche of ice. "I'm not sure I should have anything more."
"I recommend it. What are you not sure you should have?"
"Vodka and orange."
More ice, more bottle movements. I pried myself from the sofa, from its quicksand of comfort, and closed the tall curtains. Roger sometimes teased me for closing the curtains. The window looked out on to falling ground, on to the crowns of trees and the fairylights of a village far in the distance. Nobody could see in, and it wasn't cold outside. I wasn't closing them for warmth. I was closing them because curtains are there to be closed.
Usually, closing them felt right - a feeling of accomplishment, like reaching the end of a book or finishing the ironing - but today, very strangely, even without Roger's teasing, it felt wrong. I stared at the overlapping curtain ends, at the muted flower patterns, wondering what was different about today. I couldn't remember, and for some reason it seemed relevant, whether an epileptic's moment of utter comprehension comes before or after the fit.
Ice tinkled behind me. I turned. The drink in his left hand was orange-coloured, in the right, clear-brown and very large. I stared at it.
"I deserve it," said Roger, gently. "A whole day with your wonderful family, staying sober at the reception and two hours driving back."
He was right. That was churlish of me. I took my drink and clinked his glass and smiled at him. Four years together and still in love. Time had been kinder to us than I'd anticipated, had improved things rather than making them worse, which isn't something you experience too often after adolescence.. My eyes misted slightly and I blinked a lot.
We kissed, very lightly.
"So how about your dear old mother, then?" he asked. That was mildly facetious. She hadn't been a dear today.
"She is getting a bit cranky in her old age. That bit about Brenda's kids and whether they should go to private school." I shook my head. "Twenty people must have listened to that. It wasn't fair."
I moved back to the sofa. Roger sat beside me.
"Really." He said it neutrally. My mother versus my sister was for Roger a battle of scorpion versus snake, with no favourites.
"She was a little difficult today." My sister I was talking about now. Roger would follow the unspoken change. I looked down at my top, my shoestring blouse. She hadn't stopped going about it. If the subject had died naturally she'd always resurrected it within half an hour.
"So loud," said Roger, mimicking Brenda. "So inappropriate." Then in his own voice, "I think we should get her one for Christmas."
I giggled. The vodka was topping me up. "But you like it, don't you?" I must have asked him five times already but he still said yes. I believe he meant it.
"Honestly, Danielle, they're just jealous, the whole troupe of them. You dress so much better than they do. They can't deal with it."
I kissed him on the cheek. "You're so sweet." I was still woozy from the afternoon champagne and wanted to put my hand on his thigh to steady myself, but I waited a moment, waited for his hand to move first, to glide across the silk flames to the raised ember of a nipple.
I wore no bra. Or as Brenda had put it - easy access for the bald eagle. Fortunately Roger hadn't heard the comment.
We kissed again, more passionately this time. My jacket, under the guidance of Roger's expert hands, slipped down to my elbows and with a little more effort came free. We fooled around on the sofa like schoolchildren for five seconds. But there was no need to take longer, knowing each other so well.
"C'mon," murmured Roger. "Time for bed."
The sofa released us, bouncing us to our feet in choreographed motion, fast with the energy of anticipation. I couldn't decide what to do with my drink. Eventually I abandoned it where it stood on the coffee table. Did I do that?
In the bedroom I opened the closet and took out a hanger for the salmon jacket, then stood stock-still with the jacket and hanger in hand. Roger was sitting on the bed. I could hear his leather-soled shoes hit the carpet in the corner, clunk, clunk, and the rattling of his belt as he took down his trousers. He folded them and put them on the chair, I could tell by the sound. And I was still dressed, apart from my jacket.
I put the hanger back on the rail and threw the jacket on the floor. It was cotton. It landed like a deflated balloon. The top followed a few seconds later. The trews I let drop and stepped out of them. I turned towards Roger and hooked my thumbs in the sides of my panties, red and black patterned silk tangas from Thai Silk, and wiggled side to side, sexy rattlesnake, as I lowered them.
He was in his bedtime nude repose, on the plinth of the mattress, a noble sculpture by Rodin, one knee raised and supporting an elbow, the other flat against the mattress, back curved, belly creased but not fat, a splendid chin. His eyes... couldn't decide whether to watch me and my pelvis or take in the debris on the floor, especially the trousers - two material circles, two eyepieces joined by the bridge of a saddle-crotch, binoculars in folded corrugation. And I wasn't sure that he approved of the trousers as they were (of my dancing crotch he certainly approved) and I'm not sure that I cared.
I wondered if I was drunk, but I wasn't. And apart from that and the thought of sex, there wasn't a single thing going through my mind.
After another Christening
My favourite coffee mug was still in the dishwasher, my second favourite was by the sink and two of the middling alternatives were here on the bedside table, almost empty. I leaned down and pushed them sideways with the full mug to make space. It was a green and leafy mug in a 3-D way and didn't bear looking at for very long.
My coursework was lying on the floor near the table. I shuffled it further away with my feet, so there was no risk of spilling coffee on it. Slowly and mechanically I started to disrobe. Behind me I heard Roger closing the bedroom curtains.
I wasn't sure how I felt about the day. Pleased, in a way, but also battered, quite shell-shocked. I'd survived the hits, was still intact, apart from a few bits of mental broken glass and plaster dust. The damage was all down to Brenda again, of course.
In the background I heard the familiar clunk-clunk of flying footwear.
"Are your all right?" asked Roger.
"Yes," I lied, and made an effort to pull out of the mental fog, at least for the moment. I kicked a pair of crumpled jeans into a corner of the room and took off my waistcoat and half-folded it on top of them. The ornate, wide-sleeved blouse and culottes followed. All this would have to be tidied up tomorrow. The chaos of the bedroom was starting get to me. My need for slovenliness had peaked. I'd gone to the extreme and I was now ready to come back to middle order, a mix of tidiness and spontaneous disregard. "Still a little wound up, that's all."
"Not an easy day."
That was an understatement. Brenda had been screaming at me until mother took her to one side. And all from such an insignificant trigger - Brenda and her snide comment about my evening classes, about my studying Italian, something along the lines of regular people not being good enough for me any more. I truly couldn't remember her exact words. And all I'd said in reply was that it was a nasty thing to say.
Brenda hadn't been able to deal with that, with a simple truth, a rebuke from a younger sister. She'd coloured, raged, called me all kinds of names, asked me who I thought I was in my arty-farty weird clothes, trying to better myself, trying to pretend I was worth educating.
"I think it's been brewing up for a while," said Roger. "You've changed a lot. People are having difficulty coping with it."
Then mother had stepped in and taken Brenda's side. What was wrong with the old me? Why did I feel I had to be different to everybody else? And Sandra, my younger sister, had added her words to my mother's, though quite ineffectually, bless her, like the smallest in a pack of hounds barely managing to tear flesh from the fox but trying hard because that's what the bigger dogs are doing. What a fierce and wordy christening.
But I'd stood my ground, repeated that it was an unpleasant thing to say and all I'd done was point it out. Mother had stormed off. Brenda gasped and fumed. Sandra had smiled, slyly, and drifted away.
I read somewhere a long time ago, it might have been a biography, about the averaging theory of families. When you're down, families are great, everybody tries to pull you back up to a pleasant, happy level. But if you start moving too far ahead - success, money, bliss, whatever - they can't wait to drag you back down again. Everybody has to be average, no blips or spikes allowed. I'd discarded it at the time. I suppose I wasn't a blip or a spike back then, but right now it seemed to me to be the most perceptive thing I'd ever read.
"You're challenging the pecking order," added Roger. "It's not easy for any of us."
My thumbs were in the waistband of my panties. It really doesn't matter what colour they were. This was my thinking pose. If ever I become a philosopher (unlikely) and a sculpture is made of me, deep in thought, I will have my thumbs tucked into my panties.
I looked across at Roger, who wasn't in his Rodin pose, and hadn't been for days. He was in bed and sitting upright, also looking thoughtful, and only half-relaxed.
Whatever else had changed, I was still in love with him. Of all people in the world who'd been affected by my stumbing movement into new territory, he was the one with most cause to complain, but he hadn't. When his socks and underwear had formed a cone on the laundry-basket lid, he'd queitly moved them to the washing machine. He'd taken to putting his clothes away in the wardrobe every night without fail - a hint no doubt, but a subtle one. When I'd started my evening classes he hadn't been jealous or doubtful, instead he'd brought home holiday brochures for Tuscany and Rome. I had an urge to leap on top of him, to smother him with kisses, but resisted.
Instead I stepped out of my pants and got into bed beside him, breaking his concentration. He smiled momentarlily. His arm came around me and I snuggled against his chest, ignoring the coffee I could no longer reach without separating. We made eye contact for a brief moment. He twisted to reach the bedside (his side) table lamp, and switched it off.
We didn't say anything. He didn't move for a minute or two. But eventually his hand journeyed up and down my lower spine, and in time we made love, not as tenderly as usual, both distracted by our inner dialogues, and not so much as a couple, more for individual release, untightening those pelvic springs.
Out across the valley the lights of the far-off village were shimmering; fairytale lights in a grotto, or candles held up in lines by villagers romantically-inclined. I felt poetic. Whole.
Brenda was no longer talking to me. She'd ignored me at the wedding today so studiously it must have dominated her afternoon. Roger and I both found it very amusing. And it was good that mother, after the hiatus of recent times, had finally got back to speaking to me, however tentatively. There was a new respect in her voice. I liked that.
Roger finished his whisky and moved on to the bathroom, then the bedroom. I could hear the cistern refuelling in the background. I drank my vodka with the lights off and watched the distant flickers tickle the dark horizon. Eternity was in view, solid, unchanging, calming. It stroked my soul. I surprised the sofa, standing quickly, and followed my lover's trail.
He was sitting on the bed, partially undressed, shoes already sleeping in the corner. The room wasn't too messy, one chaired cardigan, a dropped pair of chinos, his shoes, one coffee cup. On automatic, I began to walk round to my side of the bed, then changed my mind. I stood on his side, unusually. He looked up at me in puzzlement.
I was smiling but he wasn't. He just looked at me. He'd stopped undressing but now started again, carefully, fastidiously.
"Here, let me do that," I said.
He was down to his underpants now. Awkwardly, he stood up in front of me, mildly frowning. I moved forward and hooked my thumbs into the sides of the elastic, and stood there, motionless. I could smell his body heat and it was good. I kissed him softly on the neck.
"What's... what's happened to you?" he asked, quietly and evenly.
"What do you mean?"
He put his arms around me, lightly, resting his hands on the disappearance of my spine. "You're a difficult woman to keep track of. Over the weeks. You've changed so much, so quickly."
I kissed him once again. "I've been..." What exactly had I been doing? I was so involved it was hard for me to see. Yet it felt natural, so right. I'd been turning into me. Not some anonymous woman in her twin-set and pearls, but me, Danielle. It wasn't just my panties that had been somebody else's, but my attitudes too, my entire place in the scheme of things.
All those constraints removed, all those... imposed values gone, all those broken cocoons. How could I put it? I'd been shedding shells like a Russian doll, sloughing bark like a dirty plane tree.
No, not good enough, not with me standing there with my thumbs in his waistband, so close to my pants-elastic philosophy pose.
"I've been taking off my clothes."
Yes, that was it. Taking off my clothes. Taking off all those clothes so I could find my true self underneath. Peeling off the garments of middle-class life that had hidden the real me.
"But what about us, Danielle?" he said, not whining. "How am I supposed to deal with this? It's not easy. You're not... the same."
"Maybe," I said, realising straight away it wasn't a true word, just one spoken to comfort. I needed to say more, to explain. "Think of it like this - you've always seen me before with clothes on, clothes that weren't mine but had been chosen for me. Now I'm nude. This is me."
Slowly, I knelt in front of him, thumbs still holding on. I kissed him softly on the side, just below the bottom rib. The body heat was stronger lower down. I drew down my thumbs, and the waistband of his underpants with them, those white underpants with elasticated waistband and modest fly and comfortable medium-cut legs, those pants that a million men must wear.
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Copyright Andrew Starling 2002 www.foxglove.co.uk