|He got out of the car and slammed the door, hoping Chloe would hear. He did not look up to the window again. He slammed the house door, stepped into the kitchen, and froze. Each chair at the kitchen table was draped with a wet piece of clothing: a thin, floral-print dress with puffy sleeves, a pair of pink cotton underpants, a set of stretched-out-knee-high socks. The clothes dripped onto the floor steadily. The white kitchen counter was littered with spilled coffee grounds, a piece of half-eaten toast, a mug lying on its side in a small dark pool of liquid. His note was there, splashed with water, the black words bleeding into one another. David set down the mail in a neat pile on a dry spot on the counter, put his briefcase on the floor, went to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of beer. Chloe appeared, standing in the doorway. He half expected her to be naked. Instead, she was wrapped in his bathrobe.
I wanted to wash out my things, she said, her voice a small, light vibration in the air. I forgot to bring a change with me. And I found this in the bathroom. I hope you dont mind. She fingered the thick terry cuff at the end of the sleeve. Its very lovely.
Why the hell didnt you use the washer and dryer? David said.
Chloes eyes went flat and her face hardened over like drying clay.
I dont know, she said.
Im sorry. Nevermind. Look, Chloe, youve got to tell me whats going on here. Why did you run away? Where are you going? Why are you living with your mother? Youre a little old for that, arent you?
Im twenty-seven, she said, evenly.
So whats going on, here? What are your plans? David tried to soften his tone. Why did you leave your mother? You can tell me. You can trust me.
My mother is a very nice person, Chloe said. I Will leave soon. As soon as my clothes are dry.
No, no. Thats not what I meant. David looked at his watch, then at the clock on the kitchen wall. Chloes mother would arrive in less than an hour. He didnt want Chloe leaving before she got here. I just want to know whats going on. Thats all. You can stay here. Please dont leave yet.
Here, let me clean up, Chloe said, suddenly stepping across the room to his side. A flume of scented air came with her. The familiar, false sweetness of the lotion mixed with other smells: something more like the bitter fragrance that sometimes wafts up from between a womans legs, and something more musty, more like the smell of his own body. He closed his eyes, lifted his brows and turned his face away from her.
He heard a door slam. He looked back and saw Karen getting out of her car, her image broken into several pieces by the tiny window in the top half of the back door.
Shit, Karens here, he said under his breath. He turned to Chloe. They stared at each other. David wanted her to say something. Chloe stood absolutely still, her eyes steady in their pressure against his. He slammed his beer onto the counter, harder than he meant to. He watched it foam up and over the top of the bottle and bleed into a spray of coffee grounds.
Im going to take a shower, he said, and left the kitchen before his wife came in the door.
He kept the shower water cool and closed his eyes. A picture of Chloes naked body floated on the inside of his eyelids. He though of Karen coming into the kitchen, and imagined Chloe standing there, wiping the counter, naked. He had read about that somewhere, about women who cleaned house in the nude. David felt his loins fill with pressure, and touched himself experimentally. He found his own body unfamiliar. He made the water warmer, and picked up a bar of soap. There were a few pubic hairs clinging to it. He knew they were Chloes; Karen always used a wash cloth. He lathered his hand and then touched himself again. His own sudden and complete hardness surprised him. He leaned into the shower wall, using one arm for support and tugged at himself awkwardly. The water beat hot needles onto his back and he was afraid he might slip. But the pressure in his body heightened, rose and spread though his chest and legs. He began to tremble. He tugged harder. Then he heard the bathroom door open and slam shut.
David? Karens voice came through the shower curtain, a nagging plea. He slowly stood upright. His arms hung at his sides, aching. His legs felt weak. He watched his hardness fade, as if it was being swallowed up inside him.
David?! Did you see what that woman did? Did you see the mess she made? And shes wearing your robe! David, youve got to get her out of here. I cant take this.
David turned the hot water down and washed himself in a cold spray, his hands trembling with unreleased tension.
I still cant believe you brought her here, David, Karen continued. Give her some money and sent her to the motel downtown. Shes not spending another night in this house.
There was a pause and then a squeal.
Look! She used my lotion. Can you imagine? Using someones toiletries without asking? That bitch. David heard a bottle crash into the trash can.
He turned off the shower, pushed the curtain aside, and stood naked and dripping wet in front of his wife. She looked startled, quickly turned her head away and passed a towel through the blind and empty space between them. He snapped it from her hand. She stepped across the room to the window, grabbed the curtain, and flung it shut.
Did you open this, David? she said to the curtain. It must have been Chloe. How gross. God, I just hope none of the neighbors saw her.
David stared at her back. Shut up, Karen. Just shut up. He wrapped himself in the towel and left the room.
David tried to tell Chloe that her mother was coming. He sat with her at the kitchen table--Karen had gone out again--and told her that perhaps she needed some kind of help. He said that she was not like him and Karen, that she played a different game by a different set of rules. Chloe said nothing, only looking at him, her eyes shifting focus, showing shadows of emotion that changed from wariness to fear to confusion then back to wariness. David did not know what to say. He searched his mind for a different vocabulary, a different way of speaking, but eventually gave up and started cleaning the kitchen. Chloe stayed at the table, watching him like a dog watching a stranger approach.
Chloes mother drove up in an old, nondescript American car, the color of split pea soup. David watched Chloe watch the car through the kitchen window. She showed no emotion and said nothing. She knew, he thought. She knew her mother was coming. God, what an ass I am.
||He wiped his hands on a towel and went outside to meet Chloes mother. She was as wide as she was tall, her round legs and stomach stuffed into a pair of polyester pants. She wore no makeup and had a cap of dark grey, tightly curled hair that reminded David of steel wool. Her brother, a massive mound of flesh, stayed in the car and only inclined his balding head slightly in Davids direction. David led Mrs. Davies into the house.
Why Chloe! her mother said. Youre all cleaned up and showered and ready to go!
Mrs. Davies knelt in front of Chloe and began pulling clothes from a brown paper bag she had brought with her. Chloe did not move or speak.
See, darling, I brought you favorite things to wear! She held up a cheap pink sweatshirt with a blue puppy and kitten printed on the front, and then a matching pair of sweat pants. She began untying the belt of the robe Chloe was wearing. Stand up dear, so we can get you dressed. Cmon honey, help Mommy out.
Chloes mother pushed the robe off her shoulders, folded it neatly, and set it on a chair. Chloe stood naked in front of David, her eyes steady, unflinching.
Mrs. Davies false sing-song voice was like an irritating tickle in the back of his throat. The beer rose up from his stomach and he struggled against a belch.
Let me get her coat, he said to no one in particular, and ran from the room.
When he came back, Mrs. Davies handed him the brown paper bag. It was stuffed with Chloes wet clothes. She asked him if he would be so kind as to throw these things away. He traded the coat for the paper bag, then set the bag on the floor and followed Chloe and her mother to the car. He watched Mrs. Davies guide her daughter into the back seat, throw her cloak in after her, and then shut the door.
Thank you so much sir, for all youve done, she said to him. I know weve put you out terrible, and I am very sorry for that. Id like to reimburse you for your long distance calls and any other troubles that her visit has caused you.
David stared at her, stunned, while she fumbled in her black, vinyl pocketbook. His eyes jumped from Chloes profile in the car to the old woman in front of him. He suddenly remembered that he had meant to stop at the bank on the way home, to get some cash, to give Chloe some money.
No! he barked at Mrs. Davies. And then more quietly. No, thank you. Dont be silly. He paused. Look, if theres anything I can do, anything you need. I mean... wait here, let me get my checkbook.
Chloes mother stopped him with her hand on his arm. Now sir, dont you be silly. Youve done enough. Im sorry I didnt get the chance to meet your wife. Please thank her for me.
As the car drove away, Chloe turned in her seat and stared at David out the back window. He watched and waited for her to do something--cry, wave, stick her tongue out, shake her fist, give him the finger. But her eyes remained empty and still, like two holes in a cloud. David stood in the driveway long after the car was out of sight.
He went back in the house, poured himself a drink and went to the living room. He leaned against the mantelpiece and looked at the pictures there. He saw one of himself in college, kneeling, his arms wrapped around the neck of a big, black Labrador retriever. He remembered the day he had taken the old dog to the vet and laid him on the table. He was almost blind, had several tumors, and his bladder control had become sporadic. His dog had watched him, his eyes steady against his own, even as the vet stuck him with the needle that put him to sleep.
David looked at the other photos, on his wedding day, vacationing with his family, his mother and father and wife and brother, all of them slightly different shades of blond and tan against the white sand and blue sky of a Caribbean island. He turned and looked around the room, his eyes scanning the brilliant shapes and colors of the flowers that upholstered the chairs, the crisp mauve and green pattern on the sofa, with its down pillows puffed up like some womans buttocks. He and Karen had once had sex in here, on the floor, on this rug. It seemed an impossibly long time ago, and it occurred to him that it would never happen again. He tried to count the number of cocktail parties that had taken place in here, the quantity of hours filled with the sound of voices and ice tinkling in glasses. He thought of the dark ring on the coffee table, hiding underneath last months issue of Town and Country. He left the room and went through the darkened house to the kitchen.
He picked up the brown paper bag, went to the basement, put the clothes in the dryer, and sat on a stool, sipping another drink, while they spun. Then, he removed each article and folded it carefully, considering where the creases would fall and rest. He took the small stack of clothing up the basement stairs--such a light bundle, he thought, no wonder she was so cold--and then up the next flight of stairs, to his bedroom. He opened the lowest drawer in his bureau, moved aside a pile of cotton tennis sweaters, and nestled Chloes clothes there, in the bottom and at the back of his drawer. Then he placed a few of his own sweaters on top, covering her things like a blanket.
Ill keep them, he thought. Ill hold onto these for her. Someday, she may need them.