04/23/2013 - 11:25pm
The Dare
by Anita Anand

Erzulie (by Dave Senecal)

“How could you stand there naked in front of a bunch of strangers, stark naked?”

Phil didn’t get it, and that saddened Karen a bit. He usually got her perfectly.

“Well, for a shy person, it was the perfect job. I didn’t have to talk to anybody, or make eye contact with anyone. It’s like what I do now.”

“Writing? How so?”

“I am a shy exhibitionist.”

The first time Karen went outside naked was after that conversation, and it was because Phil had dared her to. He was curious about her past, about how much was still in her. In a way, her former life as an artist’s model made it easier for her to take off her clothes. But the people she had posed for as they sketched were strangers, whereas the people who may or may not have been standing at their windows were her neighbours. Neighbours, she had learned, tended to judge.

When Karen first moved to Belleville, she was friendly to everyone, and everyone was polite and icy towards her. She invited the women who lived next door over for coffee. The first one, a social worker named Denise, came but only stayed a few minutes. As Karen got up to walk her neighbour to the door, she looked at the untouched cup of coffee and plate of muffins and reflected that Denise was probably wary that she would become part of her caseload. Karen knew she must have appeared troubled, although she was only exhausted and overwhelmed from her move. As Denise went out the door, Karen timidly asked her if she could borrow her husband to help move a bed from one room to another.

“ That is, if he doesn’t have back problems,” Karen added with a nervous laugh.

“Well, actually, he does,” Denise said.

Karen apologized for asking, but half an hour later, Guy showed up at her door. Unsmiling, he asked her where the bed was. They went upstairs, moved it, and then he bolted out of the room as if pursued by wasps. He continued running down the stairs -- Karen stood at the top of the stairs and called down, “thanks, goodbye” -- but there was no answer as he ran out the door.

The other woman was Christine. She told Karen that she had intended to come over that day but that both her husband and her father had bad colds. Karen didn’t understand why that stopped her from going next door for a coffee, but she just thought, that’s all right, I gave it a try.

About a year later, making small talk with Christine and her husband Robert, Karen mentioned that she didn’t know how to program her thermostat. Robert’s reply stunned her.

“Well, maybe you could get one of your men friends to help you.”

Men friends? Was he referring to Karen’s brother, the colleagues she occasionally carpooled with, her (gay) personal trainer? She hadn’t met Phil yet. He wasn’t in the picture back then, and after Robert’s comment, she made sure to avoid dating locally.

Now, not wanting to disappoint Phil, holding his gaze, Karen took off her clothes and put them on a chair. They were in the living room. She took the three or four steps to the door, half-expecting him to call her back. He didn’t, so Karen opened the door, went outside and stood on the front step for about two minutes. Not much happened. She wasn’t cold. It was about seven on a Sunday evening at the end of July, a warm rainstorm brewing, pleasant enough.  She felt breezes where we don’t usually feel them: through her legs, on the tops of her breasts and on her nipples. She heard the sounds of cutlery clinking together, a faucet running and then being turned off, and an unseen woman calling her cat. Two cars passed by. In one, a child stared at her through the window and then turned and called to her parents in the front seat. That was all.

But Karen felt completely exhilarated.

She came inside, beaming.

“You look great!” Phil said.

“Thank you.”

“Not just because you’re naked.”

“I know,” she said, and they smiled at each other.

Later that evening, fully clothed, Phil and Karen went for a walk. As they left, it started to rain. They encountered the Harris’s, the family from across the street, arriving home from their own walk. The kids were Amanda, a dreamy, wild-haired redhead of about fourteen and her slightly older, autistic brother Jordan. The parents gave Phil and Karen a strange look, but then maybe that had something to do with the fact that it had started to rain. When it started to pour Phil and Karen finally did give up. As they reversed direction, running home shrieking with laughter, they came upon Amanda standing still in front of her house, as the rain poured through her hair and clothes, soaking her.

Karen went outside naked again on Wednesday evening.  She put the porch light on this time. It seemed to her that the street got a bit quieter, as if holding its breath. A teenage couple she didn’t recognize passed. They were very deep in conversation, and didn’t glance her way. But she felt watched nevertheless.

She did it again the following evening. This time she went down her front steps and stood in front of them, in the moonlight. A few houses away, there were children playing on the street, which struck her as unusual. The children on this street were kept inside after supper, in front of screens. They did not react to her though. It was if she and they were part of the natural landscape, like the birds in the trees. I am at one with the universe, she mused, smiling to herself. She did the tree, a yogic position she had once tried to learn that required her to stand on one foot with the other tucked up inside the opposite thigh. For the first time, she had no trouble at all keeping the pose without wobbling. Her trunk was solid and straight, the sole of one bare foot rooted in the grass, the other curled up and nestled tightly inside the back of the opposite knee, her arms stretched out from her sides like strong branches.

On Saturday morning, Christine from next door beckoned to Karen from her front porch as she was getting the newspaper from her front steps. Karen was apprehensive, but then Christine added:

“My dad. He’s painting eggs.”

Painting eggs? But Easter was months ago. Since when did men, especially of that generation – Donald was ninety years old – engage in Easter egg design anyway? Christine put her finger to her lips as she led Karen through her house to the sun room in the back, where her frail, bespectacled father was sitting across the room from a small table adorned with a red tablecloth and a small bowl of ordinary white eggs.  Directly in front of Donald: an easel, a palette, an orange ceramic vase containing paintbrushes. His hands trembled slightly as he raised his paintbrush to apply a swirl of white paint to the canvas. He didn’t hear them come in, absorbed as he was in his work. On the floor, against the wall beside him were several other paintings. All depicted eggs.

Karen wondered why Christine had summoned her. It could be that like most people, Helen misunderstood what Karen did for a living, which was writing publicity brochures for art galleries. Maybe Christine thought her dad deserved some world renown in return for ninety years of dull existence. Or maybe Christine was ready to move on to a deeper level of neighbourliness. Until now, they had never been in each other’s houses, had never shared much besides shovels and tomatoes.

The fourth time Karen stood naked outside was the following Tuesday, later at night. She went down her front steps, crossed her yard and planted herself where the grass met the sidewalk, under a street lamp. The street was completely still, apart from the sound of crickets. She wondered if everyone was in bed, and then decided that she hoped so. When she had modeled for art classes, she had been young and unself-conscious. No spring chicken anymore, she thought, looking down at her stretched belly and dimpled thighs. This will be the last time. I am running out of nerve here. As she turned to go back into the house, she felt something bore into her right foot. Walking barefoot next to where the garbage got picked up probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. She lifted her foot, brushed her palm across the sole, and to her relief a piece of eggshell dropped onto the lawn. Lucky. Maybe running out of luck though.

She came inside and found Phil waiting for her in the vestibule.

“It’s okay,” he said, studying her face and understanding everything. “You’ve been really brave.”

He hugged her and told her that he had decided to take her advice and quit his job as a high school teacher and try to make a living singing.

“Brave and slave don’t go together,” he said simply.

“You make me happy when you sing,” said Karen.

“You’re not worried about money?”

“You could go to Vegas. I hear there’s lots of money there.”

“No, but seriously.”

“You could be a singing teacher, Phil. You could teach the world to sing.”

The next evening, as they returned from their walk, they heard a song they recognized from their university years. Then they saw Janice, who lived next to the Harris’s, dancing on her front lawn in her nightgown. She had let her grey hair out of its bun and it swirled around her like a silver cape. Her lips were moving to the words of the song: I would go out tonight/ but I haven’t got a stitch to wear/ This man said/ it’s gruesome/ that someone so handsome should care.

On Sunday, Karen was pulling up dandelions from her front lawn with a weed whacker.  A young blonde woman she didn’t recognize walked by with a blond toddler and suddenly slowed her steps and called to her.

“Hey, what a great floppy sun hat!” the woman exclaimed.

Karen wondered if they had already met.

“Thank you…”

“What are you doing?  Are you making holes in your lawn?  Look Victor, she’s making holes in her lawn. How curious!”

“I’m pulling out the dandelions.”

“You’re pulling out the dandelions?”  She was obviously new to suburbia.

“Well, yeah,” Karen said, secretly pleased that she didn’t seem to get it, “I do it a bit for the neighbours.”

“For the neighbours?!”

Karen decided she liked this young woman very much.

“Well, look, all the neighbours around have immaculate lawns.  I don’t think they like these dandelions.”

“You could also just leave them…”

“Yeah, but sometimes you have to do things to get along with other people.”

The young woman’s name was Louisa, and she and Victor had just moved back in with her mother.

“I’m Janice’s daughter. Do you know Janice?” Louisa pointed to their house.

“Oh, I know Janice,” Karen said uncertainly; the truth was, she didn’t know a lot about her until now. Until the dancing the other night, she certainly never would have pinned her as a Smiths’ fan.

Victor was pulling Louisa’s hand and trying to drag her to the park, so Karen went back to work.  Louisa looked back at Karen a few times as Victor pulled her down the street. Karen didn’t let it show, but she was very pleased to have made a new friend.  It was about time.

Louisa couldn’t go anywhere; she had to stay home with Victor. She passed some of the time baking. Her mother didn’t babysit anymore. That was okay; she was starting to make friends during the day; she was coming out of her shell -- her mother’s expression. She imagined both of them, awkward and ugly as giant reptiles, emerging through a white filmy membrane, pecking and tapping the ceiling and front of their oval houses, cracking large white chips and slowly stepping through the doors they’d made. Louisa winced at the metallic clanging the cookie tins made as she slid them onto the racks. She closed the oven door as quietly as she could and listened for sleepy cries from upstairs.

She crept upstairs and sat next to Victor for a few minutes and wiped the sweat of his forehead with the heel of a floury palm. She watched his chest rise and fall; she watched his tiny perfect eyelids flutter. Then she turned to the window and waited for the angel to appear. The Dandelion Killer occasionally turned into something soft and surprising at night. Set us free, naked lady! Suddenly she realized that the quiet man from across the street was standing at his window too. Was he the one?

At night, Phil and Karen began to hear noises coming from one of the houses on their block. At first they thought it was cats in heat. Then they thought someone was in pain. Then, they wondered, those kinds of moans?  From which house?

One morning Karen found a package of homemade cookies at her door with a note that said, “to my angel-hero, from the anonymous baker”.

There was so much more she would have liked to say. “My mother is doing a lot better, thanks to you. I came home so that she could take care of me, but she was doing so much worse. She is really busy now, though, and I have nobody to talk to except my little boy. I hope you like the cookies. They’re full of cashews and macadamias. I hope you’re not allergic to nuts.  I don’t usually like to cook or bake, although I wish I did. I have always wanted to be the sort of person who liked to cook; I associate cooks with generous, friendly people, the kind of people who smile easily. When I spoke to you the other day you probably thought I was a different kind of person. The fact is, I had rehearsed. I always rehearse.”

Then one day Christine invited Phil and Karen over for supper. The first frigging invitation from anyone in ten years. Karen thought. I can’t believe it. They brought two bottles of white wine and half a watermelon. Christine’s dad proudly introduced Tickle, their new beagle, and Tickle wagged his tail and happily piddled next to Karen’s feet. Everyone laughed except Donald, who looked mortified, and kept apologizing to her. They ate in the back yard. Phil and Karen noticed a change: the lawn was cheerfully overgrown.  Christine served several courses of food: daikon salad, roasted carrots, zucchini in a tomato sauce, chicken in a cream cheese sauce. Robert and Christine’s son, Charles, an investment banker in his early-thirties, arrived wearing bicycle shorts that Karen found tight, weird and hard to look at. As if sensing her discomfort but getting it all wrong, Charles looked deeply into her eyes all evening.

“Have you noticed that we’ve stopped mowing the lawn?” Robert said happily, his eyes sparkling. His hair, white with a few streaks of black, seemed longer too.

“That’s such a good idea, Robert,” Karen said, thinking of their new neighbour, Louisa. “ Let’s make it a movement. Enough with the mowing and weeding. I wonder if we could get Denise and Guy to join us.”

“Oh, I think it’s just Denise now,” said Christine. “Guy’s gone; he’s left her. He was obsessed with some other woman.”

“Oh, that’s really sad,” Karen said, surprised.

“I know. Poor Denise. She didn’t know what was wrong and then he finally told her.  He’d just stand and stare out the window all the time until she asked him, and then he finally told her.”

Karen nearly choked on her wine. Phil stroked her arm reassuringly.

“Told her what?”

“What do you mean? He told her what was bugging him, that he was obsessed with some woman.”

“Oh.”

The four men – Phil, Robert, Donald and even Charles –exchanged looks.

A pause. Then, chimes. They heard the knife-sharpening man’s truck roll slowly into the street.

A few evenings later, Karen was sitting alone at her picnic table in the backyard, listening to the crickets, when Denise suddenly appeared through the crack in the fence that separated their properties. She was walking slightly unsteadily and holding a glass of red wine. She sat down across from Karen and gave her a rather frightening smile.

“Good party the other night?” she asked, and then cackled. “Were they talking about me?”

Although ten years had gone by since Karen had tried to befriend her next-door neighbour, they had never stood on each other’s property,  nor discussed anything much besides the weather, what exactly they were supposed to put in the recycling bin, how much the tinker charged, and for what sized blade. Once Denise and Guy had tried to get Karen and Phil to share the cost of setting a skunk trap, and Karen had told them that she liked skunks. Karen was silent now, trying to think of an answer, as if trying to figure out how to say something in a foreign language.

“Are you afraid of me? Are you afraid of Virginia Wolf?” Denise asked, and cackled again. Then she grew quiet, but her smile stayed.

“That’s funny. I used to be afraid of you,” she continued after a while.

“It wasn’t my…it wasn’t what I did that…”

“What?”

“I didn’t think … with my clothes off, you know, I’m not young anymore, and I’m not exactly voluptuous…”

“Yes, yes, quite true,” said Denise impatiently. “Anyway, it’s much better now that he’s gone. Good riddance to her too.”

Her.

“The boys have grown up and left,” Denise went on, “so what did I need him for? To move my bed? Not likely!”

She laughed again. Karen wondered if she could be excused.

“You know,” Denise continued, “when you are in a shitty mood and you just need a guy whose shoulder you can cry on?”

Her voice was getting softer and friendlier now. Karen nodded and smiled sympathetically.

“Well,” Denise said, abruptly pushing herself up from the bench and shouting again. “He was NEVER that guy.”

“To hell with him, then,” Karen said, imitating Denise’s drunken voice, but she immediately regretted her lack of inhibition.

Denise didn’t notice. She just said “exactly” and waved her glass at Karen before turning toward the gap in the fence. She added, shouting over her shoulder, “Mid-life crisis. What a cliché.”

Going off with a young blonde and a new little boy. Karen despised clichés. They kept getting in the way of her writing, like weeds.

“That stupid old cow with her stupid Smiths records and her stupid nightgown,” Denise shouted out her kitchen window.

The words took a moment to digest.

As Karen returned into the house through the back she saw Phil ahead of her down the corridor, closing the front door. In his hands: another bag of baked goods. They smelled wonderfully nutty.

——-

Anita Anand lives in Montreal, Canada.  Her stories and essays have appeared in Frostwriting.com, the Louisiana Review and  the Toronto Globe and Mail.

-----

Fiction on Omnibucket is powered by Fiction365