Saturday, February 23, 2013
I wasn’t completely finished with my cleaning, but the late autumn sun seemed so inviting that I decided I’d take a short break before it disappears altogether. After all, it could well be the last time before spring that I get the chance to do so. Quickly, I made myself a nice cup of coffee to enjoy along with a small, slim cigar. Normally, I’d change my clothes before going out on my balcony, but this time I threw caution to the wind and simply pulled on a thick sweatshirt over everything. Getting to the balcony and back inside would be risky, true, but once I was sitting down, the opaque fence of the balcony, my coffee table and the potted plants would do a good enough job of shielding me both from the cold as well as the peering eyes of strangers.
With my cup of coffee in one hand and my cigar case in the other, I carefully peeked out through the French window of my living room. My apartment was on the top floor of the building so that from the street view, no one could see me unless I leaned over the fence, but my next door neighbor’s balcony ended less than three feet away from mine. Once made sure she wasn’t around, I scurried over to my comfy bench as fast as I could without spilling the coffee. My heart was beating quite wildly and my fingers were shaking as I clipped the head of my cigar, but after a few sips from the cup and a couple of drags from the cigar, I began to relax and to enjoy the nutty and creamy flavors of my coffee, the mild taste of the tobacco smoke, but most of all, the warm, caressing rays of the late afternoon sun. Lured into a sense of security I even unzipped my sweatshirt and pried it open. Exposing myself to the sun rays even more directly, I all but let it slide off my shoulders completely.
Suddenly, I heard the sound of doors being opened from my left side. Waking abruptly from my dreamlike state, all I could do was to wrap my sweatshirt around me before my neighbor, Mrs. Jones walked on her own balcony.
“Charlie,” she said, practically leaning over her fence, “Nice to see you.”
“Likewise, Mrs. Jones,” I said.
The comfort, the coziness and the lazy Saturday afternoon feeling were all gone, replaced by pure, unadulterated, nerve-wracking fear. In all honesty, I had fantasized many times about meeting my neighbor like this, but now that it was actually happening, all I wanted was to be inside of the apartment, safely hidden from her view. There was nothing neither quirky nor naughty about risking that Mrs. Jones doesn’t lean over her fence enough to get a view below the waistline of my hoodie.
“Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?” she said.
“Sure is,” I replied as calmly as I could, without letting her pick up on my nervousness.
“I just came back from the town,” she went on, “I thought I’d get started on writing some papers but decided to catch the last of the sun for today. Same goes for you, right? Having a little break on the balcony?”
“I was just cleaning my apartment,” I answered, surprising myself. It was as if I was hearing someone else talk, someone who spoke in the exact same voice as me but I had no idea what they would say next, “I was going to finish dusting the shelves, but I wanted to catch the sun before it went down, too.”
“That’s nice,” she said and then produced a long, thin cigarette from her case.
“Could I possibly trouble you for a light?” she said.
My blood froze. My first instinct was to say “It was my last match, sorry,” but I didn’t have to look on the table to know that my lighter in full view, among my scattered cigar utilities scattered over my coffee table. Resigned to the fact that I couldn’t talk myself out of getting up to light her cigarette, I helplessly fumbled with the zipper of my sweatshirt for a moment, but then gave up on that, too.
Wordlessly, I picked up my lighter and stood up, well aware of how the petticoat I was wearing under my uniform was making its pink satin skirt flare out around my knees, offering Mrs. Jones an unobstructed view of pretty much everything.
“Thank you, dear,” she said as I lit her cigarette, then, still leaning over the fence towards me, gently pushed my sweatshirt off my satin-clad shoulders, first one, then the other, until it slid down on the floor. I felt a sudden chill on my thin, hairless arms, now covered only by the short elasticized sleeves of my maid’s uniform.
“Is this what you wear for cleaning up?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” I admitted.
Of all the things that I could have said, of all the things I could have done, stood proudly and told her to stuff it, the look in her eyes was radiating the singular undeniable conclusion that I was now completely at her mercy.
“Look nice on you,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said weakly.
“Makes a dull chore like vacuuming and dusting a bit more fun, does it?” she said, making it sound like a purely innocent form of entertainment.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I replied.
“Tell you what,” she said, now with a firmer, almost commanding tone, “Why don’t you come over to my place? Plenty of fun for you to have.”
I paused for a second, dwelling on the very clear implications she wanted me to clean up her place. But did she want me to do it just now? I glanced over my coffee table where thin columns of smoke were still emanating both from my cup as well as my cigar. When I turned around again, though, Mrs. Jones was gone.
Bending at the knees because my stiff corset prevented me from bending at the waist, I picked up my sweatshirt off the floor and hung it neatly over the back of my sofa. The clicking of my high heels, as I walked to the kitchen for a fresh apron, seemed to reverberate deafeningly in my ears. The bridge had been crossed and there was no going back. Freed from the necessity of hiding, I felt myself slip back into the dream-like state. With a new lace trimmed apron covering the bodice of my dress and the front of my skirts, I quickly walked out to the hallways.
Mrs. Jones was already standing by her opened front door.
“Come in,” she said.