by Taylor Sykes
It’s Friday evening and her lover will arrive soon and she will wear the red nightgown. She loves that word, lover. She’s never had a lover before. Or a red nightgown.
There’ll be champagne. In her little apartment in this dark city there will be champagne. She will hold the glass close to her chest so it glows red. Ten days since last they touched. It was the coffee counter and the sugar packet passed between them, the brushing of their skin harsh static in her ears.
Now her lover will soon arrive. Soon for her is three hours, and she has them all for waxing her legs and dreaming of the future. Too often she has found herself sleeping through her life, but tonight will be different. The opposite of sleep. She dreams in luxurious imaginings. Draws up a beach house with a wide oceanfront porch where they can curl together to the sound of ships sailing in the distance. Where her lover will say her name over and over and again, louder than the waves can crash, and she’ll say her lover’s name too and they will be alive at last. And always in her nightgown.
The legs first. She can steam in the shower. Let pores spread.
She’ll answer the door in her nightgown. At her lover’s knock, her heart will pounce, but she will force herself to wait, prolonging on the threshold. Soak in a few more seconds of dreadful desire. And when at last there is no door between them, no roomful of people, no age, no space, how will her lover look at her differently? In her red nightgown? Don’t let her touch me. If she touched me, I would crumble.
Her lover always wore blue suits—that’s what she liked best. Not gray or black like the others. Royal blue. Blue for me, she thought without reason. She had a small desk and her lover had an office and then one day her lover called her into that office and said her name and asked how are you liking the city? your apartment? your job? Let me know if you need anything at all. Since then, when they looked at each other they looked for longer and so did her lover’s hair grow as time went on and yes she wanted it between her fingers and teeth, wanted to hold her lover’s ballpoint pens and metal calculator, wanted to be the buttons pressed, the marble circle closing a checkered shirt sleeve. Ten days ago, the sugar packet. Three days, the buzzer rang and up five floors came a silver Nordstrom box. The red nightgown. She marveled. She’d never had anything from Nordstrom before.
Her own short hair soaks down her neck and tangles in the drain. The stick of wax burns hotter than the water. Her tiny typist hands move quick with the pull but she tries to stay slow, savor her time, extend this pain like an unending spool of thread, remember this is not every day this is today and today something is happening at last.
She starts to laugh. Revel in it. Me, a lover. Pretty for her town but not really for this city, nothing special, nothing standout about her, and she knew it the second she arrived. She didn’t come to be a star like all the rest, but yes to shine. Her mother called her the wild horse she couldn’t keep in the pen. And now, a lover! Another strip.
Then, she notices a red bump. Like a pimple on her inner thigh. She clenches her eyebrows, brushes her finger against it, tender. Not like a pimple. Her heart picks up at once and she soothes, shh, shh, just hold on. But it’s marring the picture. Her instinct is that it must be like a pimple, pus-full. If she pops it she can at least diminish its size, and dab concealer to hide the stain. She fumes, squeezing the spot. A brief pain like a slit of glass hidden within. Bending over, her foot claws the edge of the tub. She pushes against the pain and holds the bubble near its popping point. Her eyes focus on a black speck at the center. There, a buried hair.
The key is to leave it be. She reaches for another strip of wax, but her eyes remain on the red dot and the hair now so apparent underneath. Of course she can’t just move on. The situation must be handled. Could the hair be crushed out? If she holds on long enough, will the volcano explode? She tries to envision the hair rising like the sword from the stone, but the thing only bleeds. The dark spot remains veiled under the swell.
If she plucked it. That would do it? Yes.
Her lover cannot see this bump bursting at the edge of her nightgown. The nightgown is silk and so her legs must be silk too. Her legs must be as smooth as porcelain plates, as spotless. Think of the beach house, think of champagne, think of answering the door in the red nightgown. Think—your dream is awake!—just think! How lucky you are now to have a lover, to be a lover, to live in a city with a little apartment all your own, far away from any fences to hold you in. Concealer will do just fine.
The phone rings in the kitchen. In her towel she answers, smiling. But wait, her lover is whispering… A hurricane in the south, a trip rescheduled, her lover’s other lover questioning the Nordstrom receipt… It is boring. This phone call is boring. She has silked herself for nothing, bought champagne for nothing, come to this city for nothing, and she feels none of it. She tightens her towel and walks the five steps from the kitchen to her vanity table. The bump is there and she pinches it. Lifting a pair of tweezers, she edges under the flaky first layer of skin. With a firm grip she pulls and pulls again, watching the hair unwind. Splinter. Thorn. Porcupine quill. She wraps the wild hair around her hand and reels in like a prize fish at the end of her own line. She stretches the strand until tightrope taut. A quick pluck of pain. And there, the buried hair, and there, it’s gone.
Taylor Sykes is the author of the novella Many Small Disasters. Her fiction has appeared in The Masters Review, the anthologies The Horror is Us (Mason Jar Press) and Dreamland: Other Stories (Black Shuck Books), and on All Things Considered. She is the recipient of the 2017 James Hurst Prize for Fiction and a 35 in 35 Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. Originally from northwest Indiana, she holds an MFA in fiction from North Carolina State University and teaches writing at UNC Asheville.