STRIP

This is the eighteenth chapter of my month-long work of fiction, NOV.

He’s making supper for himself and Janet. He still hasn’t chosen a name for himself. He won’t know where he is until he chooses a name, but can he get back home if he does?

Can he get back home anyway? One was his way back. He made one disappear. Or just go somewhere else? One must just have gone somewhere else. One still has to be somewhere. The alternative is too unnerving to consider. The fact that he is not dispassionate tells him again that he isn’t dreaming.

But even if one is around, one may not be favourably disposed to helping him now.

He looks at Janet. Janet is leaning against the counter in faded jeans and a light cotton plaid button-up, watching him cook. Janet is favourably disposed. But not to helping him get home.

He’s a good cook but of course he doesn’t know all the best places to shop, so he’s making an old standby, a version of spaghetti all’Amatriciana: a tomato sauce with pancetta, jalapeños, and a nice Soave (“Yes, white. Trust me”). The sauce is ready, the pasta water coming to a boil. To go with it he’s tossing a salad of arugula with strawberries and pecans. The strawberries seem fresh and aren’t overpriced. In November.

“I’m trying to think of when I’ve seen arugula in a painting,” Janet says.

“I guess it doesn’t pose very well. Some sitters just wilt.”

“How about a pecan?”

“In a painting?”

She holds out her hand. A pecan half is resting across her mid-fingers. “A pecan.”

He takes it gently in his hand, like a very small bird. “A pecan… Canape?” He holds his hand flat out to her. It is now holding a canapé.

She raises an eyebrow, smiles, nods, takes it. Eats it. “It has a nutty flavour.”

“Well, a pecan can ape a canapé, anyway.”

She is looking fixedly at him, almost as if her pupils are two small vacuums that will draw him in and keep him. He looks steadily back for a moment, then turns casually and finishes tossing the salad. “Bowls,” he says, reaching for the cupboard.

“Let’s play Scrabble after dinner,” she says.

So they do. After supper is readied and served, after dessert is not served because he failed to make any, after they have conversed about art a lot and math a little and consumed a bottle and a half of wine, she goes to the bookcase and from the bottom shelf produces a travel Scrabble set. She sets it on the table between them and sits on her chair with her legs folded under her, bare feet beneath her shapely bottom.

He won’t ask her if she’s good at it. But he also won’t play to lose. He might play loose if she’s not good, but he suspects she is.

“It’s fun not to play for money for a switch,” he says.

“We could make some stakes,” she says, looking at him beneath her eyelids.

“Well, I don’t really…”

“What are you wearing.” She looks him over. “Need to get you some new clothes. Anyway, shirt, pants…” she leans back and peers under the table… “socks… are you wearing underwear?”

“Uh…” Then he smiles. “A nice clean pair, bought today.”

She smiles, holds up a finger, goes into her bedroom. Comes back holding a pair of ugly blue socks. She sits on her chair and puts them on. “Now we’re even.”

He’s been watching her all evening, her and that loose shirt, so he knows she’s telling the truth. Also he likes the direction this is going.

“One item per bingo,” she says. “Socks count as one together.”

He smiles lightly but with a hidden gleam. The way he plays, in two games she will be in skin.

The way he usually plays. As they start selecting tiles, he remembers that letters have been swimming around on him of late.

She gets first play. She’s smiling at her letters. She sets down RAMPIKE for 90 including the bonus. “Socks off.”

Damn. And his rack has some nice letters but… the closest thing to a vowel on it is Y. He reaches down, peels off first one and then the other of the new navy socks he is wearing. “RAMPIKE. A very Lawren Harris or Emily Carr kind of play.”

And then he lays down THRIFTY across the I and two double word scores for 64. Which would normally be a good play. But. Her socks are still on.

He goes for the tiles and draws a blank.

In Scrabble, that’s good. A blank is a wild card. You knew that, right?

But the other five he draws are vowels: AEIIU. So he has a consonant (N), a blank, and five vowels.

She plays REFORM off the R for 15. It strikes him as an oddly weak play. There must have been something she could play for more, no? But he’s not going to waste time playing her game for her. He has his own minutiae to attend to.

He plays MINUTIAE across the first T of THRIFTY with the blank as M. A mere 57 points, about as little as you can make on a bingo.

Never mind.

“Socks, please.”

She smiles and peels off her ugly blue socks and tosses them over her shoulder. And reaches her feet under the table and taps his toes with hers while she looks at her tiles. Then she plays TRIP with the P to make PREFORM for 26.

She’s leading him by 10 points. But he has an S and…

…the tiles start to move.

Dammit. He can see all of them but they keep reforming in front of him. He can’t very well play if he can’t get them to hold still. And there’s a bingo in there… RETTLES TELSTER STRELET TREELTS dammit what is it. If he could only get them to hold still.

No, he’s done for. He has to look away from the tiles, close his eyes. He will end up stripped as she looks on merely barefooted and retreats again to her bedroom.

Stripped. There’s TRIP and he has an S… grab something… Wait.

It’s worth a try. Maybe it’s cheating and maybe it’s futile.

He plays LETS to make STRIP. Let’s strip.

He looks up at her. “The letters are moving. I can’t keep playing.”

She raises an eyebrow. But she’s seen him having to look away and close his eyes. He’s not lying.

“Well,” she says. “There’s another game I like. It doesn’t involve moving letters.”

Did it work?

“I ask you, you ask me in turn. For every layer of yourself you peel off – every secret you tell or thing you let go of – I remove a piece of clothing. And vice-versa.”

He’s not sure whether it worked. But let’s go. It’s three questions each for the remaining clothing. “Is there any more wine?”

She gets up and goes to the cupboard, gets two tumblers. Goes to the freezer and gets ice cubes. “Let’s move on.” She sets the glasses on the table, goes over to the sideboard, from the cabinet in it pulls out a bottle of bourbon. Uncaps it as she walks over, half-fills each glass, sets the bottle down on the table.

“I’ll ask you first,” she says, and drinks a decent swallow of her bourbon. “Tell me who you love. Really. In your life before you came here.”

He lifts the glass, swallows, purses his lips. “Everyone I ever loved, I still love. So there are a few. I had some close relationships. I know I loved them because they ended painfully. It’s easy to end the ones I don’t love. I love my parents, of course.” He looks up, inhales. “They’ll miss me if I don’t come back. I don’t see them often. But.”

“But you’re not with anyone now.”

He smiles wanly, shakes his head slightly. “No. But I miss them all. Even though I couldn’t be with any of them.”

She unbuttons her shirt, carefully, as though each button was a candle she had to put out with her fingertips. And stands and removes it, displaying again her nude torso in its perfectly reasonable glow, and drapes the shirt over the back of her chair. And sits.

He could ask her an easy one, just to get his shirt off to match. But no. “You had someone.”

She nods. Pause.

He’s not taking his shirt off for a simple nod, even though his upper body is nothing special. He waits.

“We lived here together. He was like you and me. One day I came home and he didn’t. There was a book missing from the shelf. And a him missing from my life.”

“He went back?”

“I don’t know where he went. I looked. I still look, sometimes. It was years ago now.”

He undoes his buttons, just one by one, nothing showy, untucks the shirt, pulls off a sleeve and a sleeve and sets the shirt in a heap on the Scrabble board.

“I want you to name your greatest regret,” she says, “and let go of it. Strip yourself of it.”

This takes some thinking. “I have so many regrets. I’m not sure which is greatest. I regret not being a nicer person. I regret not having done more with my skills. I regret taking money over doing something good. And yet I still do it. I regret…” It’s his turn to pause, and her turn to wait patiently until he makes it worth her while. “I regret building a wall around myself and not letting anyone come in and stay in. I want to let go of that.” He’s not one for showing emotion, but his nose runs slightly at one corner, an eye is just a little moist.

She stands up, unbuttons her jeans, takes off a leg and a leg. She is wearing simple medium blue bikini-style underwear. She drops the pants on the floor and sits on her chair again.

What does he want to know? Something a little less moody, please. “You said you like vices. What are your favourite vices? And which one would you let go of?”

She smiles. “You’ve experienced most of them. Almost all of them. Alcohol. Art. Such a good vice, art. Literature’s not bad either. I don’t like gambling so much. I think you can guess the other ones I like. All of them have been profitable to me, mainly from managing others who produce and sell them.”

Well, that’s interesting. He stands up and removes his jeans. He is glad he bought new shorts. He drops the jeans on the floor and sits down again.

Last question. And she goes first. He drinks more of his bourbon. She looks steadily at him, if a bit heavy-lidded, and drinks a matching swallow.

Sets down her glass. “Can you let go of the idea of ever going back?”

He looks at her. And looks. And blinks.

She adds: “Honestly? Peel that away and toss it to the side?”

He sits, he breathes. He can’t make himself lie but he can’t make himself say the truth. He looks down.

At last she nods. Stands up. Leans forward across the table. Takes his face in hers. Kisses him well. Straightens and says, simply, gently, “Good night. Maybe one more layer tomorrow.” He watches her unclothed spine, her fabric-cradled glutei, her naked legs and feet, cross over to her bedroom door. She looks back. “Sleep well.” And goes in, and closes the door.

No wonder she’s so successful.

But what does he want? What can he do? This is an opportunity, a pearl of great price that can only be bought with all that he has ever owned. Is the price worth it?

He finishes his bourbon. He reaches over to her glass and finishes it too. He stands up, leaving his shirt and pants where they are, turns off the kitchen light, and goes to his bedroom and closes the door. And lies on the bed. Every nerve ending incandescent with wasted flame.

With no one.

He closes his eyes.

No. With one.

He opens them. He is lying on a different bed, in a different room, everything in shades of red.

“Well, hello,” says one.

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