Sometimes Sienna stood naked in front of the window that faced the empty lot. It made her feel liberated and bold, different from the everyday dirge of her ten years married to Gleason. Before he left, she never could have done anything so daring, so unconventional. Some shred of the satisfaction would have showed on her face and he would’ve called her on it, accused her of stealing his mad money or cheating with the mailman—a ridiculous threat since the poor mailman had such bad arthritis he could barely stretch from the front seat of his left-handed car to the mailbox. As if Gleason had ever made enough from the hardware store to have money left over for whims. Cooler air filtered in through the open window and made her nipples tingle. She felt young again, though thirty-one was hardly old. Gracefully she swung her arms in great loopy circles as if she were exercising, in case anyone was actually looking, improbable with the state of the neighborhood. The lot across the street had been empty as long as she and Gleason had been living in the little brick ranch, as long as they had been play-acting at being married. Ten anniversaries, ten birthdays, ten Christmases, ten Fourth of Julys, all with Gleason parsing out a dollar at a time for curtain fabric or an azalea or gasoline for the mower. The place had never looked so good when he’d been around. And the shame of it was it could have, if only he’d let her get a job, be someone besides his wife. The waste of those ten years was her own personal tragedy. Dancing here by herself wasn’t exactly showing off. Still it made her smile. Any minute someone could look up and see her, bare-chested, knees kicking up above a dark blur of pubic hair. It made her feel as if she were thumbing her nose at Gleason wherever he was. Chicken-hearted worm. After ten years of rules and provisos and promises, he’d left her with the mortgage payment and the electric bill and a car that only worked half the time. She’d had to take not one but two jobs, waitressing on weekends when she’d vowed never again once she had her degree. But the money was good and next spring she would refinance, lower the monthly payments, maybe borrow enough against the equity to get a reliable car. No matter what Gleason thought, she was quite capable of making plans and sticking to them. Every day now when she rode the bus to the library where she catalogued new books, she analyzed the faces to see if anyone recognized her as the wild woman from Bedford Terrace who paraded nude. So far there were no furtive examinations or whispered finger pointings. Without Gleason she did other things she’d never done before. She went to the movies alone and treated herself to the large popcorn with butter. If she felt like walking after dinner, she went without worrying about locking every door and window or doing the dishes first. If the sky was cloudy, she made a point not to take an umbrella. She’d gotten caught in the rain, but it didn’t matter. Clothes dried. Hair curled. No one seemed to notice. And there was no one at home to warn her she’d catch pneumonia or ruin a perfectly good pair of shoes. She actually did ruin one pair. Gleason had given them to her that last Christmas, a huge concession on his part to the whole idea of not buying anything that wasn’t a necessity. Later she realized he must have bought the shoes on sale at the end of the summer season and saved them until December. After they disintegrated from the puddles, throwing them in the trash had made her laugh out loud. Other women she knew fell apart after their husbands left. Barb Rathbone had been hospitalized for depression. When Carleen Bell showed up at church on Sunday mornings—although it had been more than a year—she wore scotch like perfume. Sienna had to bite her thumb to keep from reminding the other parishioners about glass houses when they edged away from Carleen. It was sad to think neither Barb nor Carleen appreciated themselves enough to see the bright side of being on their own. And tragic that the people around them didn’t encourage them to think otherwise. Only one person had asked her about Gleason. She’d stared right back at Pastor Waltham’s wife and explained how Gleason was like a used car, cheap and unreliable, and it had been time to trade him in. “You traded him in for what?” Rita Miller had interrupted while Mrs. Waltham’s jaw was still falling. “I don’t see any new fellow sitting in your pew.” Sienna had grinned. “For me. I traded him in for me. I didn’t want to take a chance on another clunker.” She watched Rita blink. “Plus, I like to walk. Always have.” “And the city has such good public transportation,” Polly Waltham said, patting Rita’s hand, not Sienna’s. Sienna liked Polly more in that instant than she ever had. Of course Rita clutched her own husband’s arm whenever Sienna was close. As if any single woman would want what Rita had. It meant an immediate withdrawal to the ladies room to save Sienna from embarrassing them all. She didn’t want to hurt Rita’s feelings, but Barr, Rita’s husband, was as wide as a dumpster and almost as smelly. Still Sienna conceded—only to herself—that she missed having someone to share her umbrella or to go out for ice cream. Some nights she lay on top of the bedspread, afraid to be alone in the cold sheets, and tried to remember their early life together. Had Gleason ever kissed her cheek as he left for work? Rested a hand on her shoulder while she chopped and stirred? She devoured movies about romance, analyzed the small ways lovers on the screen or in books communicated to each other. But when she tried to dredge up some part of those messages in her own married life, nothing came to her. While Gleason had not enjoyed her craving for impromptu celebrations, he hadn’t always refused point blank. It was the pall of gloom he cast on every occasion that gave her the sense of liberation she was relishing. For now it was enough.
She noticed the shoes, polished to a shine, before she realized the fellow in the library foyer was waiting to speak with her. She kept her voice low out of courtesy for the other patrons. “Can I help you?” she asked in her most professional voice. “I’m having trouble finding Carson.” “The essayist or the cowboy?” “The one who writes about how to find happiness.” When she tilted her head, she noticed his overcoat had real brass buttons. He bent his head to follow her eyes. “Rebecca, I think it is. Rebecca Carson?” “Ah-hah. Rachel. Non-fiction, basement level, fourth row on your right, just beyond the water fountain.” She returned to alphabetizing the books on the re-shelving cart. “You’re not going to show me?” “Oh, well.” Sienna stood. “Sure, I can show you.” Without speaking he followed her to the stairs and descended behind her. His expensive leather-soled shoes slapped against the metal steps in neat punctuation to her own practical rubber soles. They turned the corner in perfect symmetry like parade marchers, except that when she stopped at the water fountain, he pulled up so abruptly to avoid running into her that he had to grab the shelving to steady himself. She could smell the mint on his breath. Still, he didn’t speak. “It’s right down here,” she said, “Self-help.” “With Richard Simmons and I’m Okay, You’re Okay?” Sienna shrugged, allowing the humor to show in her smile, not unkindly. The stranger smiled too, but he didn’t move forward or examine the shelf of ‘C’s’ to find his book. He stared at her. She pointed to the shelf. “Carson wasn’t exactly a prolific writer. Which one were you looking for?” This part is what Sienna later had difficulty recalling in the correct order. She told the police he opened his coat, one neatly manicured hand on each side, his watch glittered, and his bare skin shone slick and pale in the library’s antiseptic fluorescence. But later, alone in her living room, when she relived the moment without being bombarded with questions—for time suddenly had ground to slow motion—she thought he must have unbuttoned the coat first while she, unsuspecting and eager to serve, scanned the shelves. His body was rugged, handsome with its ebony curls of chest hair and the muscles of his abdomen straining. She stared in fascination. His face lost its puzzlement, as if the revelation of his bare skin explained everything that came before so that no further explanation was necessary. When she didn’t scream, the color drained from his face as if he were the one who was surprised to find himself standing exposed before her. She explained it just that way to the officers. “He was angry?” The first policeman on the scene had asked as he derailed her recitation with pointed official questions. He’d strong-armed her into the head librarian’s office after arriving with enough lights and sirens for a bank robbery. “No.” She recalled the stranger’s face, the first cautious smile, the droop of his shoulders. “I’d say disappointed. Like when you are expecting someone to get off the train and they don’t. You look around with a fixed expression, pretending to smile, but your shoulders fall and you keep looking back where you expected the person to be. The person that was supposed to meet you there.” The policeman who was her father’s age hadn’t understood. “What person? He had an accomplice?” “Don’t be ridiculous. If he had any friends, he wouldn’t be exposing himself now, would he?” “Did he touch you?” She shook her head, unable to shake the image of the man’s eyes welling with tears when she had laughed. She hadn’t meant to laugh, but the whole idea of his choosing someone who routinely paraded nude in front of open windows struck her funny bone. If she’d known how miserable he was, she never would have laughed. Her memory was fuzzy on what happened next. “I touched him.” The policeman’s turn to stare. “You sure he didn’t reach for you first?” “No. I mean, yes, I’m sure.” A second set of revolving lights spun wildly outside the library window and the circle of faces, staff and library visitors, thickened on the other side of the glass office partition. The older officer was joined by two young ones in pressed uniforms. “Any offensive touching is chargeable as a battery.” The senior deputy announced in an advisory tone, much like Gleason’s lectures on how to microwave leftovers to avoid overcooking. “I didn’t mean to offend. He was crying. I . . . I’d made him cry. I felt terrible.” She worked at tucking her shirt back into her slacks to avoid their eyes. “He broke the law,” the first officer said. She didn’t know how to explain the wash of emotions that crashed against the carefully constructed devil-may-care attitude she’d curried since Gleason’s disappearance. In spite of the intensive scrutiny of the three officers and her conviction they considered her an unreliable witness, she was having trouble fighting back the tears. One of the younger officers moved closer and spoke softly, his handkerchief extended. “Where, ah, exactly, did you touch him?” Her head jerked up from where she had been analyzing her shoes to keep from letting the men see her cry. “Where?” “You said you touched him?” “On his shoulder. To let him know I understood how he felt.” Their eyes burned into her skull. “He was so sad. So lost . . .” Her voice trailed off into the chasm between what had happened and what they were making of it. “You’ll need to come to the station and make a formal complaint.” “Is that necessary?” “The next girl might be thirteen.” “How can you be so sure he’ll do it again?” “These kind of people are sick. They can’t stop themselves.” Sienna thought of the open window at home, the cool dampness that crept through the screen from outside and settled on her bare skin, the glow beyond the empty lot where the neighbor’s curtained lights reassured her she was invisible to them. Maybe it was an illness to yearn for more than you had. She wished again that the stranger had just asked her to have a cup of coffee with him in the break room. They could have talked about Carson, about turning science into philosophy, the ocean, the future. There would have been no harm even in her inviting him. A simple courtesy. Two people talking in a public place. What was there about her in particular that had encouraged him to step outside propriety and risk ridicule? Or worse, arrest. The officers, pens and pads at the ready, shifted their feet, looked up at her and away. Her hesitation must have confused them. She weighed their possible reactions if she refused to cooperate. “If I won’t go?” Three brows knotted. Three sets of eyes focused on her own. “Without a written complaint, we can’t proceed. Plus he’s on the loose. And dangerous. You’d be partly responsible if he hurts someone.” “If he wanted to hurt someone, he would’ve hurt me.” “That’s not really your call, missy,” the older policeman said. “Some girl’s mother might feel otherwise if we find her daughter in the bushes.” The three men in their steel gray uniforms blockaded the door, all but tapping their boots, insistent that she concede. Angry at their obvious bias, she faced them squarely. “You didn’t see his face.” The officer closest to her hit the doorframe with his fist. His muttered words of disgust that silted into the whispered conference between the other two. Heads together, their shoulders leaned away from where she stood her ground. The youngest deputy handed her a card. “If you change your mind.”
The touching part came back to her in the middle of dinner. She was sitting on the sofa, eating couscous from one of the bins at the health food store by the metro station. She wished she’d thought to bought snap peas to add to it and maybe a bottle of wine. In the empty room she stretched out her hand and rested it gently on an invisible shoulder. The bones rose up ever so slightly at her touch as his had in the library basement. Perhaps it had not been the wrong thing to do. Somewhere out there was a naked man, wandering about in an expensive overcoat, wishing someone would talk to him, aching for someone to love him. Or maybe just to see him, all of him. Outside the wind had come up, typical early March. It hummed through the irregular gaps between windows and sills, a mournful kind of bass line in a third movement, the barest hint of a spectacular crescendo. Otherwise the neighborhood was silent, asleep. Heavy clouds hugged the rooflines of the next block. Sky and earth coalesced, purple to black in the moonless night. Standing in front of the window Sienna slipped off her shoes, peeled off the suit jacket, stripped out of her blouse and skirt, underwear and stockings, and let the clothes sink into a pile at her feet. Bare feet on polished wood, she stepped forward and lifted the window to let in the night.
-- Sarah Collins Honenberger’s novel Catcher, Caughtis a Pen/Faulkner Foundation selection for its Writers-in-Schools program. Audio, German and Korean editions have been released. With numerous short fiction awards and a fellowship from the Virginia Creative Arts Center, she appears regularly on literary panels and at book festivals. Her other novels include Waltzing Cowboys(2009) and White Lies: A Tale of Babies, Vaccines and Deception(2006), and Minding Henry Lewis(2014).