by Marcia Aldrich
You find a janitor pushing his mop outside your office. “You’re late,” he says as you side-step his pail, but slip. And he has to grab you to keep you from falling. He holds onto your arm a little longer than necessary, you think. He’s probably your age, though hard to gauge in the twilight. When he looks down at his mop after he’s detached himself from your arm, you detect shyness.
You unlock your door and flip the light switch. Suddenly the room is illuminated and very clean. The shy man has washed your floors, every black skid and heel mark gone. You can’t remember the last time your floors were washed. And then, you notice something is missing: a candy bar, raspberry-filled chocolate, that was lying on your desk. You were looking forward to unwrapping its shiny red paper and slipping it into your mouth when your classes were finished. As you lock the door and head out, the janitor bows his head and bellows an overly-cheerful goodnight.
A week later, you are swimming in a pool by yourself, lost in the soft blue glow. A woman eases into the lane next to you. She uses only one arm, the left, for the first five laps, and then switches to the right. You think her motion curious, but say nothing. She finishes her workout before you do and hoists out of the water in one motion.
By the time you head to the locker room, you catch the back of her slipping out the door. When you open your locker, you know someone has been through your things. Everything has fallen from the hooks in a heap and you can’t find your underpants. Once they held a shape, suggesting sharp pelvic bones and a hollow stomach. But there has been slippage. Who would want them? You pull on your jeans, their stiffness a little closer.
You don’t tell anyone about the thefts. You imagine yourself saying, “Someone stole a candy bar from my office,” and balk. You don’t report the theft of your underpants, either. No, you won’t officially report the missing items. At first you were disturbed by the intrusions; now you begin to savor them. The world goes on, with its tedious classes and swimming lanes leading nowhere. You encounter the janitor in the cold evenings, lingering near your office with his mop as if he were standing in the center of a field. You swim next to the woman who took your underpants and feel her breath rising. You never speak to either, only give a quick nod.
Let him eat the candy bar slowly. Let him make the bar last, savoring the tiny bursts of raspberry quivering on his tongue. And let her wear the underpants next to her skin. Let them tuck the stolen items away in a secret cache and visit them nightly in a seizure of rapture.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of Girl Rearing (W.W. Norton) and is completing her follow-up collection, The Mother Bed. She is the editor of Fourth Genre.