Undressed, A Portrait
for Connie and Colleen
The jacket is the first thing to go. Turn on the heat, and a good hard hike up two flights of stairs to the classroom makes for two blushed cheeks, and spreading arms pull off the coat—a gift from a love so long ago now you cannot remember whether they preferred you make tea or coffee in the morning.
Both. Surely both.
Chairs are empty. Tommy sat straight up there all summer smell of briny playground sweat. In front, he’d two lost teeth, one sharply growing in, one hiding. He said, “You are pretty, Ms. A.” You blushed. You are 59, too old for blushing.
The walls need a touch-up of blue-as-the-sky Celebration. You stand on tiptoe and roll up down up down into corners, dexterous and strong still, always on your feet. The next thing to go is the buttonup. Who in the blessed world thought buttons between breasts was a good idea?
The children return on Monday. They will like Celebration blue (How tired, how bone-tired-old you feel), each one intent on growing down down into someone they have no idea they are becoming. And you—you kick off your shoes, having no qualms about shoelessness—didn’t Jesus of Nazareth walk barefoot in the sand? Your heels are supple from cream and care.
It is a mild winter evening, and the children are abed and wired by candies sucked and swallowed all holiday. When they finally sleep, they toss and turn and dream the anxious, simple dreams of minds fixed straight ahead. When you dream lately, you are a young woman again ascending three flights of stairs—or five or eight—and always she is there at the top, on the landing, and you say you are painting the room for when the children return from holiday and she takes the collar of your shirt, measured fingers brush the line of your jaw, the flutter-thrum of blood in your throat like the sound of water at the mouth of the bay when the tide is out out, far from you.
Nothing new lately. Everything, seen before. You pause your roller at the top of the bookshelf. There your hand falls upon a book you wrote her into accidentally and won a prize for some time after she was gone.
Tommy had a pair of eyes, bless his punkin heart, could pierce you, seemed to know you down into the depths of who you were running away from. He asked, “Ms. A., are you married?” You are 59. You have been married twice. You are still ripped open.
In your dreams of late, she is standing on the stair. She takes your jacket, places kisses on your collarbone—one, two, three—says, You are valuable to me, sister of my heart, you must not give yourself fully or all away, keep back what is only yours and precious. Give me only what you want. I take at my own risk, don’t I?
You take the pins from your hair.
Still cool, the room is warming up nicely. It is ready for the children. The school is filled with ghosts, the footsteps of their coming and going.
Moved, you take the shirt up over your head, unbutton your jeans and slip out into the chillbump air of the empty classroom, proud your body is still strong and warm from the work of painting.
You unhook the bra next, modest and nude, padded to conceal. It falls away. You lift each breast to look, a mottled hide of years hidden there. “Look how changed,” you say to no one and hope she hears, though this she is long her own doppelganger and not the true bright presence you long for—especially these cold winters when readying for another spring drives you gladly to the classroom, crazy for touch. For the incandescent voices, shrill, uncensored, are a comfort, reason to go on.
The children do not know this you who stands in the empty room, in the slant of pale winter sunset emptying through the window. You barely do.
Sharp, the new paint and cinnamon candles in a deep breath that comes like sudden memory, unbidden, as you hook two thumbs and slough the sensible white underwear so gently softly falling around bare feet. Step out.
The air gluts, filled with acute absence: no other bodies but yours.
A smallish sound, a creak of door or wooden stair. If she were here, she’d laugh as you whirl to face only the wind between the school’s wood beams, your heart full in your throat where her fingers found you long ago once, much like this evening, vulnerable and still discovering the silver in your hair, the mossy breath of your moving and being she liked so well, the quarter webs of wrinkles at the corners of your eyes, all your edges and underneaths.
About the Author: Post-MFA from the University of Arizona, Lora Rivera worked as a literary agent, children's biographer, and crepe maker. Today, she's a rock climber, e-Learning developer, and the senior editor of a community-driven climbing anthology. Her fiction and nonfiction have recently appeared in The Voices Project, FLAPPERHOUSE, The Chattahoochee Review, and Eastern Iowa Review, to name a few. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram or read more here.