Though I was thirty-two, he liked me better this way: hair in pigtails, with white knee-highs and a tartan skirt, oxford-cloth shirt no starch, chewing gum, pouting. It worried me how much he enjoyed the look, but nevertheless I'd cook for him in such outfits, I'd dust and vacuum, unpack groceries and deliver Stoli-on-the-rocks to the corduroy chair where he slumped and burped and farted.
One time Mother came by unannounced, her face pressed to the window glass like a geriatric ghoul.
"You scared the crap out of me," I said, more nervous than frightened.
"What're you doing, looking like that?"
I waved my hand as if shooing away a bee or bad odor. I told her Halloween, but she said that was last month, and right away we got into it.
Mom had no right instructing me about love, her on Husband #5.
I never told her how I had caught #1, my father, watching me make out with my first boyfriend. Dad was up on the landing looking down. I didn't want him to know I'd spotted him, so I kept kissing Jimmy, me becoming anxious and afraid, using my fingers on Jimmy's face, his chest hair, worming my tongue across his molars all the way to the gluey tonsil bell. When I looked up a few minutes later, Dad was still there, his forehead glinting sweat blisters from the glare of the chandelier.
He left Mom about a week later, no note, nothing. That first day, she kept mumbling, "Fine. Fine. Fine," but then she got to work.
She took in men fast, a smorgasbord of them, though none stuck for long. They were like dirty water; the silty kind at the beach that you think won't slip through your fingers because it's so chunky, milkshake-thick, and yet it does, slyly through the spaces in between.
Out of the blue the other night, Bobby said we should think about taking our relationship to another level, which is what I've been dying to hear for going on three years now. I'm eager to be a good wife, a mom. But then he went on and explained, so I put on the outfit again and at the door, on the way to the restaurant, he stopped me, said, "Uh uh."
I asked, "What?" his fingers hot on my wrist.
"Just as you are," he said, "no coat."
At the diner, I stared into the window reflection, stared back at the patrons staring at me from their booths.
Zenith, our waitress, wasn't wearing any uniform other than that name tag. When she asked which hospital I was a nurse for, I heard chuckles from across the room where two men in fatigues and orange hunting vests sat. Then she asked if we were headed to a costume party, even though Bobby was dressed normal in a jeans jacket and flannel. On her return, she asked me, "More coffee?" and I smirked because I knew what she really meant, which was, Are you all right, do you need me to get somebody?
After she'd gone to fetch the bill, Bobby reached across and shackled my wrist again, then my finger, the one where a ring should have been. He rubbed for a genie. His eyes slid half-lidded. He grinned at me, Good doggie.
When we got home that night there were only fireworks for one, and thankfully these sputtered out in less time than it takes to peel an onion.
While Bobby snored, I thought about layers and costumes, hypocrites and survivors. I questioned my obsession with needing to be loved and the extent to which I'd sacrifice. I considered Mother, how those men came and went while she remained unflappable. One of us was braver, but for the life of me, I couldn't tell which. What I did know was that Bobby had been the only man to say he loved me, to use that particular four letter word. Sometimes it came after a strange engagement or after I'd agreed to a certain garment request, but nevertheless, it was the very word.
I lay on the mattress now, but pulled the blankets off me. I fingered the stretch marks guarding my belly button like jail bars. The scared skin was textured differently, felt slicker, like the Slip 'n Slide I had flopped down on all those years ago, back when I didn't realize that I wasn't pretty or how much that mattered.
Now I closed my eyes for just a minute. I imagined a sheik bending down to kiss me. I pictured him all cocoa-skinned with thick black brows and lashes long like a girl's, telling me I was beautiful, saying it in a foreign language only the two of us understood.
Afterward I slipped off the bed and stepped into the bathroom without bothering to robe myself. I stared at my naked body and, oddly enough, nothing stirred in me, not repulsion or shame. What I saw was simply somebody's dull history. And I liked it.
I reached in the comb drawer and pulled out a nub of lipstick with which to write Bobby a note across the mirror. I was brief but honest.
Then I tip-toed downstairs. I found the keys lumped next to an ash tray. In the coat closet I found a jacket. I put it on without worry. He could have the rest. I had all I needed.
BIO: Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State and an editor at the online literary magazine Metazen. Len's story collection, "I'm Not Supposed To Be Here And Neither Are You", debuts from Aqueous Books next year. You can find him at lenkuntz.blogspot.com.