living room with sofa, plant

David Priest

Danielle hated her feet. She hated that the knuckle at the base of each big toe bulged out like a Ping-Pong ball. She hated that if she pressed the pad of her finger against, say, her right foot, it would leave a little oblong mark for full seconds before blood seeped back in. They were always cold, too, but sweated continuously. This was the worst part. It was the reason she wore socks in her own home. Otherwise she’d leave moist negatives of her feet on every hard surface in the house.

But now Danielle was barefoot. She was walking slowly, allowing each foot to light on each tile, one at a time, in Constance’s house. When she closed her eyes Danielle was Constance, with her white pants that boasted a runner’s lithe confidence, confidence that rendered the usual socks unnecessary. Of course, neighbor Constance was really at the gym—Monday/Wednesday/Friday—and daughter Harmony was at school and husband Dorian was working till five-thirty. She had the house for hours.

Here was Danielle—walking tile-by-tile, sitting at the kitchen island, perusing Fitness Magazine, sauntering to the fridge and pulling out a futuristic glass cylinder of sparkling Norwegian water, drinking it luxuriously, savoring the carbonation tickling down her throat. Danielle straightened a picture magnet of the pert young Harmony gripping a platinum-blue tennis racket and resting it on her shoulder—the sinews of her forearm pronounced as if she’d been perfecting her backhand only moments before the photographer had snapped the shot.

Danielle turned, screwed the metallic top back onto the water bottle, and gazed at the rich cream tile floor. In the bay window light, her damp footprints tracked from the front hall to the kitchen like soft gold islands. The tracks led to ten wiggling toes, nails colorless.

Danielle turned to the clock as Constance had probably done countless times while making dinner, waiting for Harmony and Dorian to come bursting in, poised to smile and laugh—activities catalyzed by Mother’s wonderfully aromatic food. Spaghetti and meatballs, a classic, magically infused with joy. Dorian would cup one breast while Harmony looked away, embarrassed by her parents’ carnality. He would nibble her neck in just the way to make her shiver. Danielle shivered.

Danielle’s daughter Julie had screamed the night before. She’d been standing in the center of her pink room, Danielle in the hallway looking in. Husband Bob was downstairs on the couch. In the silence right after Julie’s first shriek (“You’re such a bitch!”), Danielle thought she heard the volume on the television downstairs tick up.

Danielle made herself small. She felt apparitional in the dark hallway. Julie was standing splayfooted, hair mussed, the ceiling light above her purging the room of shadows. One side of her head was shaved.

Danielle didn’t fully understand why Julie was screaming. Mother Danielle had simply expressed concern for her daughter’s romantic possibilities with such a haircut. Dark purple tears were tracing parentheses on Julie’s face, around the “o” of her mouth. It was like some indecipherable text message.

“Why do you even care?” Julie had screamed, fists balled at her sides and torso tilted forward. Danielle thought her daughter looked cartoonish, a mannequin donning adolescent fury.

The teen curled her upper lip—experimentally, Danielle thought. “You’re going to die alone, you know.” Now the girl was aiming for cruel. “But you don’t know. You have no idea. I almost feel sorry for you.”

Be the adult, Dani, Bob had chided some years before, when Danielle had shouted at Little Julie to go to her room. Little Julie had said dinner tasted like dog shit.

The casserole wasn’t worth a fight, he’d said. Be the adult, Dani.

“Julie,” Danielle said now, arms folding, “don’t you think you’re being a little melodramatic?”

By this time, Danielle knew Constance’s home intimately. She visited twice per week, on Monday and Wednesday, since schedules seemed a bit more fluid on Friday, what with Harmony returning home early to pack for weekend tennis tournaments, and Constance of course pumiced and made-up to drive her daughter counties or states away, as needed, always smiling.

But today (Wednesday) fell in the middle of the workweek when, Danielle knew, most men of the subdivision would be preoccupied amid the routine of eat/work/sleep, and most women’s to-do’s would dwindle to kiddycare, hubbycare, and bodycare. She and Bob were no different, only he stayed late most weekdays now.

Wednesdays were Danielle’s favorite, because she felt the safest in others’ homes. Less chance of being interrupted, of having to slip out a sliding glass door in back as she’d had to do twice before—neither time a Wednesday. But today was not just any Wednesday. Today was special. Danielle could feel it.

The back stairway hair-pinned, a strip of plush carpet rolled directly down the middle of each flight, hugging the contours of each stair, attached with a line of heavy-duty construction staples under each wooden flange and at the crook of each step. Danielle knew the staples were hidden in the carpet’s abundant pile because she’d examined them closely the first time she’d explored Constance’s home.

Danielle was proud of her eye for detail. She went barefoot on these expeditions to memorize the feel of each carpet, laminate, tile. She laid her cheek to each countertop, watched how her breath stayed or dissipated from the marble, the soapstone, the quartz. Danielle could write a book on the empty homes of Court of Spruce, a book only for her.

First floors, for example, tended toward the immaculate, with untouched sitting rooms and wife-kept kitchens. The only rooms that occasionally showed some wear were those the men inhabited—shoes congregating in the corners, plates with crusted-on unidentifiables slid halfway under the couch, video game consoles in the middle of the floor with bundled cords slithering out and toward the televisions. When one visited another’s home (socially, that is), one was almost guaranteed a brief tour, including the controlled mess of the male-inhabited living room (which sometimes even boasted a live specimen before he fled upstairs).

On Wine Wednesdays, for instance, Ilana Burkins made a habit of clicking her tongue in gentle reproof at her eighth-grade twins finishing a shooting game on the TV.

“Boys,” she would say knowingly, and the other women would sigh and roll their eyes.

Boys, men, and their mess were to be displayed, within reason. Danielle knew this, because she’d often seen Ilana’s house six hours prior to Wine Wednesdays, and she knew which rooms were tidied, and which weren’t.

At first, Danielle had found first floors to be of great interest. She discovered pornography stashed in cardboard boxes and external hard drives, sometimes in plain sight. She quickly came to understand that most men on the block watched pornos, and many women were either fully aware or in denial. Bob was one of the few who seemed not to masturbate daily, and Danielle had secreted in her chest both a bud of pride at this revelation and a flowering, prurient captivation with the unfulfilled sexuality in other husbands. Like animals caged, she thought.

With time, though, Danielle tired of the performance of the kitchen, the living room, the entryway. The clearest windows into the life of each house were in the bedrooms.

The second time Danielle had visited Ilana Burkins’ house, she’d found a large, purple and elaborately textured dildo tucked snugly between the baseboard and the mattress of the master bedroom. She looked at Ilana differently for weeks.

While Ilana was out of town, though, Danielle made the discovery that Ilana Burkins wasn’t the one who utilized the tool. It had been moved, recently scrubbed with lavender soap, midway through her vacation. It had to be Husband Alex. Danielle seriously doubted that Ilana was unaware of its presence, and would smile to herself while making dinner, imagining that Alex may in fact have asked his dutiful wife to penetrate him with it. Danielle had to fight back the titters imagining it. She was certain Ilana would comply with any such requests.

The drama reached its pinnacle, though, the week Ilana and Alex celebrated their anniversary in the Caribbean, when Danielle had found the dildo missing from its usual spot. Instead it was tucked haphazardly under the bed of one of the twins. The boy must have fantasized about his vestigially pretty mother using it. The families on Court of Spruce all had such secrets that only Danielle knew.

Constance Jones’ home was the first Danielle visited. This was a year ago now, after Bob had asked whether Danielle still used her gym membership. Realizing he truly wouldn’t notice, she canceled it, leaving two hours of every weekday suddenly unoccupied. She began by reading, picking up a stack of books—mostly romances—from the library and flipping through them while cradled in the front window seat. But she couldn’t concentrate, and so found herself watching the other homes around Court of Spruce. It was like a miniature society, so slickly routined Danielle could unfocus her eyes and the day would pass in moments.

It was nothing at all that started it. Constance’s daughter, Harmony, the last to leave on Tuesday mornings, left a cup of coffee on the roof of her car—a cute European toy made life-size. It slid off the roof, smashing on the street as she raced away.

Danielle walked out to the street, gathered the porcelain shards, and gingerly carried them to Constance’s front door. She knocked, though she knew no one was home. She tried the knob, found the door unlocked. Then, without knowing why, she entered. Closing the door behind her, Danielle realized suddenly that she hadn’t taken a full breath all day, maybe all week. She inhaled the lingering essence of Constance, and discovered it to be the same Sweet Pea perfume Danielle had worn in high school. She recalled holding her wrist to a friend’s nose, the friend breathing and sighing. I like it. When had Danielle started wearing more “adult” perfume, and then just deodorant? She couldn’t remember.

Danielle started testing the doors of all her neighbors, at first bringing long-forgotten borrowed eggs or cups of sugar, then bringing nothing. Only two of the women on the block worked. One, Charlene, had a maid. The other, Breena, couldn’t keep her home clean. When she made it to Wine Wednesdays, she would half whisper her contentment to the other women, her confidence that Husband Barry fully supported her law practice. But Danielle knew Barry didn’t even delete his laptop’s history, which boasted video of busty maids after video of “lonely wives,” grinding against various cleaning and cooking tools. There were no videos, Danielle noted, of sexy lawyers.

The stay-at-home mothers like Ilana had their secrets, too, their weaknesses. Danielle would remind herself of this while staring in the mirror after the evening she hosted Wine Wednesday, where Katerina Fuchs averted her eyes from the kitchen sink, empty but still streaked with grime. How had Danielle forgotten to scrub the sink? Well, thought Danielle, how had Katerina allowed her daughter to get pregnant in college?

Yet in all her time inspecting Constance Jones’ home—two days a week for a year now—Danielle never found anything out of place. Nothing to suggest sexual kinks in Constance and Dorian’s room. No drugs or alcohol or even condoms under Harmony’s bed. Closets were in order, desks were work-only, and computers practically sparkling.

Danielle stood in the center of Constance and Dorian’s room. The carpet was beige, the walls white, the bedding brown with ornate, crème stitching. In one corner of the room a door led to the master bathroom—all marble and frosted glass. On Dorian’s side of the bed (right) lay a short stack of police novels, edges flush. Constance’s side was furnished with a vanity. A gold carousel of jewelry and a makeup bag rested on top.

Danielle felt something click inside her chest, like a clock’s hour hand locking into place. She picked up a glass bottle of Crybaby-Pink polish and hopped onto the bed like she was at a slumber party. She’d always wondered how the bottle would feel in her hand, how Crybaby-Pink would look on her toes. She’d always wanted to lie in this bed. The perfect bedspread broke pleasantly underneath her. She rested her chin on her knee as she layered thick polish in even stripes onto her toenails. She sat back against the pillowed headboard and stretched her toes, worming them in the gentle draft of the A/C.

Danielle could breathe out, reclining on Constance’s bed. This house was calming her. She could always count on that, from the first time until now. Everything was organized, proper. Everything was soft. She pulled the lump of her cell phone from her back pocket and dropped it on Dorian’s pillow. She turned toward the open closet door and began planning the outfit she would put on when her toes dried.

Lying there, Danielle fell asleep.

Last night, Mother Danielle had pulled Julie’s laptop from her backpack and sat in the living room. She decided to read some of Julie’s school assignments. Maybe there she could find some sense in the girl’s behavior. It’d only been a few months of this, of new music, new clothes, new makeup—all darker. Maybe it was just a phase. Or maybe, she thought, mousing through folders on the desktop, it wasn’t.

“Not a good idea,” said Bob, feet on the coffee table, hand on the TV remote.

It’d been a few months since Danielle had inspected her own home, let alone Julie’s laptop, but she quickly found a folder called “School.” She skimmed an essay on the Civil War, on democracy. She read the introduction of an essay on an author she’d never heard of, tried to bite her imaginary tongue, failed, thought, Well, it’s not grabbing my attention. She deleted a comma, exited without saving.

Julie’s door opened upstairs, and Danielle slid the laptop back into place, pulled her knees against her chest, and hugged them.

Danielle’s phone was vibrating beside her head, floating across the pillow as though trying to creep away unnoticed. It was an unknown number. She picked it up.

“Hello, this is Constance.”

“Hello?” A man’s voice. “I’m sorry, I’m looking for Mrs. Danielle Kimpan.”

“I’m sorry,” said Danielle, yawning the sleep from her voice. “This is she.”

The clock beside the bed said 2:20. Constance should’ve been home by now. Danielle stood, surprised by her own calm.

“Your daughter is Julie Kimpan? This is Principal Quinn.” The man covered the mouthpiece of his phone and spoke to someone on the other side. He returned. “I’m sorry to call you, but Julie’s in my office right now. A teacher found her smoking marijuana in a school bathroom. Can you come in today?”

He sounded bored. Danielle could empathize.

“I can’t,” she sat on the bedside, gazing down at her new toes. They looked nice, and for once, Danielle didn’t mind her feet. “Actually, can you call back another time?”

She hung up. After a few moments the phone vibrated again. She silenced it.

Where was Constance? Danielle wondered again at her cool, wondered if it was simply this home, so perfectly composed, that made Constance herself so perfectly composed.

Another part of Danielle nagged. Something was wrong. Then again, Constance was often late. If she met up with friends for a post-workout brunch. If she stopped at the bank or grocery.

But maybe something else had happened. Maybe, maybe Constance was in an accident. Maybe she’d gone to the hospital. Maybe she wasn’t coming home at all.

Danielle yawned again, stretched, and felt her whole body expand. Why worry? She tossed her phone back onto the bed. Who cared where Constance was? She was here.

That morning, Bob had been eating breakfast in his dress shirt and boxers, daubing flecks of egg from his plate with a too-small bit of sourdough. His fingertips were yolky. With the other hand, he scrolled through headlines on his phone, reading them aloud the same way he read signs and billboards as they drove, to fill the silence.

“South Carolina man dives off waterfall trying to save dog,” he said. “New Jersey mom strangles newborn, throws her in garbage.”

Danielle sat beside him, taking slow bites of yogurt, setting her top teeth to drag against the curve of the spoon, her tongue to hollow it out. Suddenly, she realized it’d been weeks—maybe more—since she and Bob had made love. Finishing another bite of yogurt, she scooted her chair toward Husband Bob, and slipped her feet under his thigh to warm them.

“Entitled parents are hurting their kids.” He lifted his leg, pushed her ankles with his yolky hand. “Jesus, your feet are clammy. Put on some socks.”

Danielle waited until Bob left for work, then she went to his desktop to watch porn—perhaps just to leave a single blemish on his history. When she clicked on the browser, a window was already open—an icon for an online document, connected to Bob’s work email. It was titled, “Dear Danielle.” For a moment, she couldn’t think who would’ve written it. To Julie, she was “mom,” and to Bob, she was “Dani.” Yet there it was. She hesitated a moment, then clicked it open.

Dear Danielle, We’ve been married for a long time and it has not been an unhappy marriage but not a happy one either.

Danielle cringed at the punctuation.

I think it would be best if we took some time apart. Julie says it is better to grow up with divorced parents than miserable ones, and I think we are both miserable if I am being honest.

Danielle felt her jaw pop, and realized it was locked shut. She tried to open it, failed.

Next steps might be hard but they are what we must take. We both contributed to the house but I think whoever Julie decides to stay with should keep it.

Son of a bitch. Of course Julie would pick Father Bob, because Father Bob—soon to be Bachelor Bob—let her do whatever she wanted. Fifteen years ago, they’d used Danielle’s inheritance from her dead aunt to put a down payment on this house, and now—now what?

The room began to spin. Danielle gripped the arms of her chair, felt their edges dig into her palm. She squeezed her eyes shut, lowered her forehead between her knees. She tried to breathe, found her lungs weren’t working properly, and ran outside, across the street, into safety.

Constance’s closet was organized by season and color. Across from the monochromatic tones of Dorian’s suits, Constance’s blouses (top rack) and pants (bottom rack) opened up like a box of pastels. On one end of the pants rack was a bureau with the top-drawer half open, bras carefully folded inside.

Danielle shed her clothes in a small pile and walked to the dresser. No pushup bras, she knew. Constance was pragmatic. She fished out a lacy bralette Constance didn’t wear enough and pulled it over her head, cupping her breasts into place one at a time. The underwear drawer remained, as usual, unopened. Danielle slid on a pair of white jeans, sucked in her belly, and buttoned them. She couldn’t wear them as low on her hips as Constance, but she could wear them.

For her top Danielle already knew the tunic she wanted. It matched her toes—a pink, loose fitting, button-up whose translucence whispered of the bra underneath. On Constance, the top hung loose with subtle swells at her breasts and over her bottom. But as Danielle buttoned up in front of the mirror, she thought it fit her better. The buttons at the bosom looked eager to unclasp, revealing a hint of black lace and soft flesh underneath.

Constance’s summer heels were still under the bed. When Danielle looked for them, she realized they had migrated closer to Dorian’s side over the cold months. She circled the bed, knelt, and stretched, hooking two fingers over the straps of a pair of toeless heels. Suddenly she noticed the tearable fabric under the mattress falling strangely: the faint shape of an envelope. New since last week.

Sitting on Dorian’s side of the bed, heels beside her, Danielle turned over in her hands what she’d found. Thick paper. Plain white. Written in tiny, exact print on the front: open alone. The flap looked to have been torn open hastily. She pushed it open and pulled out the card. On the white front, a glittery gold print read Happy Birthday, Daddy! Inside the card was one line, penciled by the same hand as the envelope front: 10:30 in the copy room. -Catie.

That was all.

Danielle’s throat tightened. Dorian didn’t have a second daughter. Little dark-eyed Catie—an intern, Danielle was sure—waiting in the copy room. One lamp would be on in the corner. Her highlighted hair would be teased, playing at her collarbone. A little diamond stud would be tucked in her bellybutton, under that fitted dress shirt and high-waisted pencil skirt.

Danielle snapped the card closed and strapped on her heels, a perfect fit. She stood, a little wobbly at first, and walked to the bathroom. Danielle stared in the mirror at her red-rimmed eyes. She slapped herself, just once. A sharp sting radiated on her cheek before receding into a dull warmth—a cute half-blush, she thought. Danielle turned on the faucet, cupped water, and washed her face.

After she finished, she walked to the bed and picked up the letter, sliding it back into the envelope. As she tucked it into her pocket, she noticed how sexy her heels looked. They were nude leather, and her toes poked out like a pink bouquet, like roses.

She walked down the front stairway, pulling her hair back into a tight ponytail. Someone had left the door cracked, so she closed it. Her heels clicked tile-by-tile down the front hall to the kitchen, Crybaby Pink gloss shining in the light. A glass water bottle was sweating, puddling on the counter. Dorian was always leaving the kitchen such a mess, she thought. She put the water in the fridge.

She walked to the pristine sitting room—where she’d wiped the coffee table and pounded the couches two weeks ago for spring cleaning. The curtain rings squealed on the rod as she let in the sun. Dorian would be home soon. Constance sat on the couch. She folded one leg over the other, reversed them, and set the envelope on the coffee table in front of her, in full view of the front door. She folded her hands. She waited.


David Priest author photoDavid Priest is a journalist and a 2018 International Regional Magazine Association (IRMA) Gold Award recipient for Nature and Environmental Writing. His stories and essays have appeared recently in The American Literary Review, Salon, Arkansas Life, Reservoir, Transect Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Louisville, KY with his wife, Lindsey, and two sons, Idris and Atticus. In his spare time, he can be found playing board games with his family.

Image credit: Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

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