Laura picks through the wild assortment of jars, bottles with droppers, oblong packages, and tubes. Poking around in someone else's medicine cabinet is not a mortal sin but it is more than socially unacceptable behavior. "It's just not right." Laura's Grandmother would say. Not right in the moral sense, not in the its-not-what-a-lady-would-do sense. Gran, a teacher, bought lunches for children who came to school hungry, adopted a cat that was dumped on her doorstep, insisted on telling the truth, and didn't tolerate cheating in school. She didn't really care what you wore to church as long as you were there.
Muscles tense, she balances on the balls of her feet. Her heart ricochets inside her chest. Her body is ready for flight but she forces herself to stay. It isn't right but Laura is tired of doing what is right. She reads the labels of body cleansers and medications which purge, flush, sweeten, freshen and drug. A Mary Kay makeup stick erases blemishes, Nice 'n Easy natural-looking hair color covers gray completely, and Revlon tweezers remove unwanted facial hair without leaving marks. Rummaging through this cabinet feels like a more intimate invasion of privacy than reading a person's diary. The contents shout here is another woman searching for the formula for youth and beauty.
Laura's eyes and fingers discover a square box of carbonated bath tablets behind a jar of Vitamin E moisturizing cream. The words on the box promise therapeutic benefits of fragrant water which will float away tension and stress. It reminds her of the basket of perfumed shell soap, bathsalts, and rosewater lotion nested among rolled up pastel wash cloths and ribbons her sister gave her one Christmas. She put that basket on the back of the commode, saving it for a special day of self indulgence. But the day never came when the house was clean enough, when she wasn't two or three loads of laundry behind, when her kids and husband didn't need her or she didn't have to work.
Impulsively Laura flips the lever that plugs the tub and turns the spigot to fill it. She drops a tablet into the water and watches it disintegrate into Caribbean blue bubbles, then sheds her clothing. Blue water laps against the sides of the pure white porcelain as she slides her body into the steamy warmth. She sinks low in the water and observes her nipples poking out like little brown islands in a tropical sea. When she is heated to the core she emerges enough to soap her legs and run a pink Daisy razor up her slippery shins. Clots of frothy soap float on the surface around her ankles as she shaves off the stubble. She would never buy a pink frufru razor for herself. At home she leans against the wall of their three-by-three foot shower cubicle, balanced on one leg while shaving by feel with a cheap razor, trying not to lose her balance and hoping not to slice her leg open.
Laura swishes water over her legs to rinse them. "Baptized in the water, clean and pure." Ministers' voices through the years fade in and out. She laughs out loud at the words that come to her mind -- a hot sardonic barking laugh. Gran said once that if you hear or read a bad thing you will have a hard time expunging it from your mind. Well those voices from behind the pulpit won't leave her alone either. She remembers her back and buttocks pressed against the hard, unforgiving pew, her feet unable to touch the floor. "Love one another as I have loved you. Unto whomever much is given...shall much be required." Faith and assurance, peace and joy, hope and aspiration, obedience and consecration, purity and holiness. What admonition would fit this occasion? No, she is not listening to Gran and those ministers today.
The large cotton bath towel doesn't absorb the moisture well as her skinny ones at home, too much fabric softener makes it feel slimy against her skin. She drops the towel on the floor. The maroon puddle of color out of place in the neat bathroom gives her satisfaction. Complete orderliness is unsettling. This woman must use every cleaner advertised on TV to get these gleaming fixtures, sparkling mirrors and such a shining white toilet.
The bedroom is as perfect as the bathroom. No misplaced pillow, no article of clothing, no magazine mars the composition except Laura's own coat and purse tossed on the bed. Black and white checkerboard tile, bold and precise, with black throw rugs builds tension. The pattern repeats in the little black rectangles scattered on the white background of the bedspread, framed by a black filigree headboard. The walls are white and the lattice doors to the closet gleam even brighter white. She opens the closet doors and finds that the order extends behind closed doors with matched shoes placed side by side, clothes lined up according to color, sweaters folded on shelves. She fingers a plush robe and pulls it out to cover her nakedness. The softness enfolds her and sticks to her still damp back. Rose scent clings to the material, Laura doesn't like roses but it is very faint.
Not bothering to shut the closet, she moves on to a black lacquer dresser with a beveled mirror. It reminds her of the Chinese furniture she had seen in an import store on the waterfront. In the mirror she sees that her blonde hair is damp and tangled so she picks up an ornate brush and draws it through her hair from crown to ends with swift strokes. Lighter, ash strands lie between the bristles on top of a fine mat of brown hair. She can't quite remember the exact position the brush was in so she just lays it down. She opens each drawer and rifles through the contents. The first is devoted to slips, the second to bras and matching panties, the last to nightgowns. All are white or black. She is disappointed. She expected something more exotic. A friend told Laura that this woman once bought a bra that cost one hundred dollars.
A car door slams on the street in front. Laura freezes with her hand in the bottom drawer. A child's laugh chills her, a woman's voice calls to the child and then there is a knock on the front door; the voice carries clearly through the window. "Pat and Jimmy must not be home, we'll leave them a note." Laura doesn't move, her breaths are short and shallow as she listens. Finally she hears retreating steps, the car door again, and then silence.
Laura stumbles to the bed and plops down. The rose scented perfume smells stronger here and it makes her nauseous. The same scent was in her own bathroom after she returned from a weekend seminar. Like the time she got food poisoning from a salad dressing and spent the night throwing up pizza and salad, now she can't stand the smell of pizza. She hasn't been able to stand the fragrance of roses since she found the little bottle her five-year-old daughter-it was a gift from Daddy's friend--spilled on the bathmat in front of the shower.
"To him who strikes you on one cheek offer the other also." The inescapable truth remains, she believed what Gran lived and she believed what the men behind the pulpit said. Her purse lays next to her. She unzips the side pocket and pulls out her atomizer, sprays Anne Klein Eau De Parfum on her wrists, on her neck and down the front of the smocked, velveteen bodice and then into the air around her. She uses her perfume like a deodorizer to obliterate the roses and stamp her own smell on the room.
After Laura drops the atomizer in her purse, she leans forward and rests her forehead in her hands until the sick feeling passes. When her head clears she is ready to explore again. The bedside table gives up a photo album, this is the most interesting find yet. Laura slowly leafs through the pages of pictures, examining each carefully. The frizzy brown haired woman with dark-chocolate eyes and wide friendly smile has to be the one who intruded on the privacy of Laura's home. She throws back the bedspread, stacks up two pillows to lean on and slides her legs between white flannel sheets. Her toes enjoy the warmth.
The woman has friends, parents, a little boy with the same chocolate-brown eyes, but his have a touch of mischief. There are the ritual pictures of Christmas, Easter, parties, pictures in the backyard and some of Disneyland and Mickey Mouse. Despite her astonishing eyes, she is homely. Laura is glad. She throws the album on the bed. The drawer doesn't yield more photos but she finds a package of Trojan condoms, wire rim reading glasses and a nonfunctional watch. Again she is disappointed by the pedestrian choice of plain flesh-colored condoms. Why not colored condoms, ticklers, massage oils or a vibrator?
There is nothing more to learn from this room. She will inspect each room of this house until she knows everything about this woman. Laura stands up and pulls the belt of the robe tight. Still barefoot, she tiptoes down the stairs and prowls from room to room. Neutral gray carpet is designed to coordinate with each room. The kitchen looks like a room in a show house that has never been lived in. Where are the child's fingerprints that show he lives in this house? There are no toys left out, no childish art work on the refrigerator, no little messes left by preschool hands.
A blue ceramic cat with yellow eyes sits on a glass shelf next to a green silk plant. It is the same design as the one in Laura's kitchen. She doesn't want to have anything in common with this woman. Too bad it will have to go. A tiny push with her index finger between the yellow staring eyes and the cat rocks gently backward off the shelf and crashes to the floor. Blue splinters and jagged pieces spread out on the white tile. Why would any sane person with a child want white tile in her home? Laura carefully backs away.
The entire house is understated, tasteful, current, trendy. The rooms could have popped straight out of "House Beautiful". A great deal of energy must have been expended to keep this house immaculate. Two years ago after her husband told Laura to go to a counselor, and the counselor told Laura she was clinically depressed, Laura gulped down antidepressants for six months. She couldn't sit still and found herself cleaning, picking up, rearranging closets, like a Stepford Wife. Laura's husband loved it but she lost herself. She couldn't sit down five minutes to write a letter or read a book. Imagining her life at eighty or maybe ninety and only having a clean house to remember, she quit.
She finds a clue in the living room--or the absence of a clue. There is no picture of the other woman's husband (soon to be ex) and the boy's father, no counterpart to the portrait of Mother and child sitting on the big screen television. The man must have been excised out of her life.
The boy's room is upstairs. Amazing, she didn't know you could keep a preschool child's space so neat. Laura wishes she had a little present to leave for the poor kid like homemade clay to smash in the carpet, watercolors to paint the white walls or big colorful stickers to plaster on the furniture.
Back in the master bedroom, Laura tosses the robe on the disheveled bed, retrieves her clothes from the bathroom and leisurely dons them. The sick, crawly feeling has dissipated, some of her curiosity has been satisfied. When she shoves her hands into her coat pocket she contacts the key ring. What should she do with it? She manipulates the oval plastic fob idly between her fingers and slides the sensitive pad of her thumb along the raised letters as she ponders her options. Return it to her husband's briefcase, toss it out the car window on the way home? She pulls the piece out of her pocket and reads the gilt-edged words again. JESUS LOVES. What does Jesus mean to this frizzy haired, brown eyed woman? Laura carefully places the fob and key ring on the night stand before she walks out the door.
"What so ever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, that you do unto me."