Nina Shepard was in love with a man she'd never met. Perfect, she thought, as she relaxed in the bath she was taking on this sweltering afternoon. The notion made her laugh out loud with that throaty gust of hers. Normally, she couldn't care less about the irony-is-dead-or-not-dead argument, but now at least she knew which side she was on.
It was funny how she could know more about a man she'd never met than all the men she had met put together. She knew that he read books. Okay, so it was that trendy kind of real-life adventure-tragedy-on-Everest-in-Antarctica-in-Krakatoa-with-sharks-with-fire stuff. Sure, it was Dick Lit (a term Nina had coined in response to Chick Lit), but they were books, for god's sake, and not just the sports or business pages that many men considered "reading." She knew he listened to Mozart as well as Lenny Kravitz, neither her favorite, Mozart being totally overrated, and Lenny being just plain derivative and white-bread, but she appreciated the scope. That he periodically went to hear live jazz and even see a Broadway play now and then. She knew he had what seemed to be a nice relationship with his mom and dad. That he had a lovely dog, if she could excuse the fact -- and she could, but on this issue, it took some consideration -- that he hadn't gotten him at a shelter, but had bought him for who knows how much through a breeder. That he'd gone to Penn, that he worked for a high-powered corporate law firm, which gave her pause, the lawyer thing, but they paid him pretty goddamn good for a guy just turning thirty-two. That he liked to ski, to watch baseball on TV, to play poker every Wednesday night in a coed game. That he ran in Central Park five days a week and that his next vacation would be spent river-rafting down the Bio Bio in South America. That all that exercise gave him an outdoorsy look that was so appealing and sexy and masculine. That he had a singular nose. That he was a Democrat, and contributed generously to a variety of good, liberal causes from the ACLU to Coalition for the Homeless. That he was a non-practicing Catholic, though Christmas was important to him. Christ, he would begin his shopping in September, if he was to repeat what he did last year. He was that organized and thoughtful. He was her wish list, with only a couple minor infractions, personified.
Now, if only she could meet him.
It had been one of those hot and muggy New York City summer days that cooks the garbage, making a stink so profound that Nina promised herself yet again that next summer, no matter how poor or rich she was, how much work she had, or didn't have, who she was involved with -- she should be so lucky -- or not, no matter what, she'd be sitting on some beach in California, breathing the cool fresh ocean air, drinking a Corona out of the bottle. With lime. And it was only June, for god sakes. August was going to be like the Mojave, without the dry heat. She was feeling sorry for herself and very disgusted with feeling sorry for herself.
As usual with Nina, it was no win, no win.
So she felt as deserving as she could of this luxuriant bath, fragrant with bubbles, that she was now so decadently taking on a Tuesday afternoon at four. She'd finished her morning and afternoon walks, taken the last dog home and finally had some time for herself. As her head rested against the tub, she let her mind drift along with her hair, which, like a mermaid's, flowed through the water, this way and that, softly. Had she only fins instead of legs she could swim to that distant California shore, free, easy, and dogless, where she'd meet a dangerous pirate who would somehow turn her into a real woman and fuck her brains out and read her poetry and gently stroke her face with his beautiful hands and they'd live happily ever after in a shack, which they'd chosen because they could live anywhere since they were filthy rich from his booty, which had been stolen from a mean dictator whose demise meant freedom for all the people in the land, so it was okay.
After thirty-five years, she liked her legs. A year of dog walking and they were still short, but in good shape, strong and lean and brown. She took the loofah that was sitting in a wooden slatted Japanese box and brushed them, feeling life there in those limbs. She brushed her hips, her arms, her neck, and shoulders, easing her strained muscles and scrubbing her skin just as she was told to do by that bitch at Bloomingdale's who had asked her, all incredulous, "You don't exfoliate?" The things she didn't know.
Just yesterday she had gone into the Town Shop on Broadway, which her best friend, Claire, had sworn by, to buy a new bra for these breasts of hers that now, as the water lifted and separated them, looked pert and lovely as they poked out of the bubbles. Nina had a body she was told men loved, but having large breasts required a serious bra. Claire wore a size 34B and that sexy push-up smoothie kind. Bra shopping was easy for her. And she'd always get a thong to match, because that's how women like Claire dress. Or don't dress, depending on your point of view. Nina wouldn't wear a thong on principle. The principle being that one wears underpants to cover one's butt, not to simulate a wedgie.
"But you don't see the panty line," Claire had argued.
"I want to see the panty line," Nina countered. "I want to know I have panties on. And I want everyone else to know I have panties on. The thought comforts me. And god knows it comforts my mother. If you don't want a panty line, why wear panties at all? Thongs make you feel like something -- or someone -- is up your butt."
"They're stupid." She didn't mention that she'd kill herself before getting one of those Brazilian bikini waxes that seemed to have become a prerequisite to thong-wearing. When did women her age decide that being totally hairless, except for one narrow vertical strip, was a cultural requirement? Was it that facing forty made them want to look like four?
At the Town Shop Nina had been met by a trim and orange-haired fifty-something-year-old African-American woman, her one-inch nails painted red, and topped with gold and black butterfly decals. A jangly bracelet of keys hung on her wrist.
"Hi. I'd like a new bra," Nina explained.
"Come with me." Letting the bracelet fall into the palm of her hand, the woman sifted through the keys to find the right one and unlocked a dressing room door. There were tags on the floor, a couple of bras lying on the old wooden chair, and a mirror that could've used a nice shpritz of Windex. "Take off your top."
Nina waited for the woman to close the door behind her, but she just stood there. So Nina did as she was told. There is no modesty in the Town Shop.
"Honey, you got the wrong size bra. What is that, a 36B? My lord, look at that gap. It doesn't fit you!" She pulled on the sides and tugged at the back.
"I've worn a 36B all my life," said Nina.
"And you been wrong, too, baby. Take that off. I'll get you something."
Nina took off her bra and waited topless until the saleslady returned with a dozen bras, hanging by their straps from her arm, the one with the jangly wrist.
"Try this one." She pulled off a black number, all lacy and seamed, just the way Nina hated them. It got caught for a second in the keys to The Brassiere Kingdom.
"Not my style," Nina said. "Something simpler, smoother."
"Okay, baby. Try this one."
And she handed Nina a plain beige one, seamless and soft. As she tried it on, the woman took the keys off her wrist, put them in her pocket, and dug her hands with those nails down the sides of Nina's breasts and lifted each one into its cup.
"Now stand up and let's take a look."
"Now that bra fits you, child."
And it did.
"What size is this?" Nina asked.
"A 34C. That's your size. Would you like a thong to match?"
And it was. And she didn't. Nina tried on the other bras and picked three and left the store marveling at how little she knew, especially about herself. When, at the age of thirty-five, you find out you've been wearing the wrong-sized bra for how many years, you realize one thing: you don't know much about anything.
All she knew was this moment, now, in this bathroom, in this tub, washing herself with this loofah. With vigor, she sloughed her heels, the sides of her feet, the calluses on her toes. Her feet that gave her so many problems, these feet with arches as high as the Empire State Building, as wide as the Atlantic, these used and abused dog-walking feet that over the course of the past year had caused her as much embarrassment as pain.
Last month at the podiatrist, she'd gotten the ultimate lesson in how little she knew about anything. There he was, so handsome, so masculine, yet so gentle in his touch. He had pulled up his little doctor stool on wheels, and taken her bare foot in his beautiful hands. He had looked at her foot with his bright blue eyes, then up at her face. Then at her foot again. The Prince had found his Cinderella, Nina thought. Maybe he'll ask for her hand in marriage right then and there. She took a deep breath and smiled.
Then he gazed into her eyes and said, "These are the closest things to club feet I have ever seen." And flashed a brilliant smile right back at her.
Nina knew he was kidding, sort of. But she felt totally humiliated just for thinking what she had been thinking. And still, weeks later, after shelling out $400 for leather orthotics to support her arches and soothe her Morton's neuroma, the thought of what she'd been thinking made her face flush with embarrassment. How could she have believed that these feet would inspire romantic love? She looked at them and noticed that she could use a pedicure. Even these piggies deserved positive attention. She laughed again, remembering the time, a few years before, when Michael, her cinematographer-libertarian-vegetarian-qigong-expert ex-husband, had recommended a chiropractor for her aching feet. Maybe she just needed an adjustment, he'd said -- an understatement. She had delayed and delayed going, knowing the kind of alternative medicine he was into. So when this so-called doctor had recommended a high colonic, she simply replied "No thank you" and "No fucking way," to Michael. It was her feet that needed help, not her digestive tract. It turned out to be her heart as well.
But she didn't want to think about this stuff. What was it about a bath, anyway? Her broken heart, her bad feet, her legs, her breasts, her ex, her next, love, sex, and colonics: all this going through her mind while she stared at the hand-painted faux oxidized copper ceiling while drowning the bubbles under palmfuls of water. She was supposed to be relaxing, her mind clearing itself of life's daily detritus. But here she was, getting nuts. Baths! You soak in your own filth, the water goes from hot to lukewarm, the bubbles become a thin soapy film on the water's surface, and your mind goes to places you can't control.
And yet...She put the loofah back in its cradle, and scooped up a handful of what bubbles remained. They still glistened in the afternoon light that wafted in through the small glazed window, the only one in the apartment that didn't look out onto Central Park. That was something she couldn't fail to appreciate, nor everything else about this bathroom, with its rich cherry wood, its walls and floor of stone, its copper fixtures, its yin-yang feel of modern and ancient, of hard, cold and sensuous. The sepia Chinese photographs that lined the wall over the toilet, the bidet. A bidet. The height of luxury, until you think about what it's for. Even Sid, the languorous weimaraner lying on the cool floor next to the tub, seemed a study in feng shui-ness.
She ran the water and stroked her 34C breasts, her stomach, between her legs, and let the water flow there, remembering that this was how she learned, in college, to come. Ah, those were the days. Having the time and inclination to teach oneself -- via vibrator, cucumber, brush handle, and running water, sometimes with help from a joint or a glass of wine -- the art of the orgasm. A nineteen-year-old boy wasn't going to take the time. So if you weren't for yourself who would be for you? And if not then, when? Since Nina was someone who went at things earnestly, this was a task she took to with devotion. And learn she did. She could feel it now, the old lessons taking effect, the flow of blood through her limbs, the ache in her thighs, her breath shortening, her neck elongating as her chin reached for the ceiling.
She thought of Daniel, the keeper of her heart. His light hair cut short, his rugged face with its incongruous boyish smile, his shoulders, his back, his chest with just the right amount of hair, his graceful hands and legs, his perfect ass.
She thought of being with him on the beach, laying in the sun, feeling its warmth on her skin, his touch all sweaty and salted and sublimely gritty with sand. She thought of him in the car, his hand around her neck, pulling her toward him with unmistakable urgency. She thought of him in her bed, kissing her belly, licking inside her thighs, then on top of her and finding his way inside.
Daniel, Daniel, this man she knew more intimately than any other in her way-too-long life, this man who'd made her come over and over again, as thinking of him made her come at this moment.
All this from going through his stuff. His mail, his drawers, his closets, his books, CD's, e-mail, photos. His pockets. And even, on those very rare occasions, she was loathe to admit, his garbage. Obviously, she knew that it was wrong. To violate the dog walkers' code of ethics: get in, get the dog, get out. But once she took that first step down that forbidden hall, once she took that first look inside that unauthorized kitchen cabinet, once she opened that first off-limits drawer, she was hooked. When had she first let herself snoop? She remembered babysitting when she was a kid, and looking through stuff for who knows what. And when she found something she shouldn't -- hidden jewelry, a diaphragm, a dildo, a dirty magazine -- how she felt both satisfied and ashamed. And still she couldn't stop herself.
What was to stop her? An overeater looks at an obese person and thinks that could be me. A person who drinks one too many too many times empathizes with an alcoholic: there but for the grace of god. You recognize yourself in another who has crossed the line because you realize how easy it would be for you to go there. But in the matter of the snoop, Nina had easily gone over her backyard fence and out of her neighborhood into regions unknown. Because, out of context, without relativity, without something with which to compare, boundaries are much more ambiguous. It all comes down to how well one's moral compass is working, doesn't it? Are the earth's magnetic forces strong enough to keep you heading north when you want to be going east? And how bad would it be to go east? If only once? Or twice? Would you get lost just by going off the beaten track, into a bedroom or a bathroom, for only a moment or two?
And then there's the question of bad behavior. She saw it every day in so many ways in almost every apartment she entered. Dogs ignored, dogs treated better than a child, dogs treated worse than, well, a dog. This did provide Nina with a kind of relativity. How bad was she when the owners of the dogs were so onerous? Does deviance in others provide adequate justification for being deviant yourself? It occurred to Nina as she soaked in her bath that maybe she was becoming worse than the crazy fucks whose dogs she walked.
Then she heard the front door. Oh my god, she thought. As she quickly sat up, the force of her body caused the water to slosh violently toward the front of the tub and back, almost onto the floor. She tried to still it by patting its surface, ridiculously. The dog's tail started thumping against the floor. He'd heard it too.
"Sid, ssshhh," Nina whispered. She pulled the plug and stood up, tearing a towel off the rack, putting her ear against the wall, as if she could hear better this way, through the wall, across the master bedroom, and down the hall to the foyer. The dog began to pace. Tub to wall, wall to tub, his nails tap tap tapping on the stone floors, his head cocked as he passed the door as if to hear what was happening, his whining as if a cry for help. "Ssshhh. Please, Sid, stop. Stay. Sit, for god's sake." She grabbed her clothes and began to dress.
Keys thrown on the entry table. Footsteps down the hallway.
Oh shit, thought Nina. What time is it? She found her watch on the sink and realized it was almost five. Oh god. She'd stayed too long. Her heart was beating so loudly, she was sure the intruder would hear it.
A drawer opened and closed. Coins on the chest of drawers. The computer turned on.
He was in the bedroom.
Sid was wild now, his paws up on the door, scratching. Nina jumped on top of him, pinning him firmly, one hand across his back and under his chest, so he couldn't move, as if in position to begin a wrestling match, the other holding tight across his muzzle to keep his mouth closed. A whine still crept out now and then, and all she could do was hope to god that it couldn't be heard through the solid cherry door, which seemed unlikely since she could hear everything out there.
A body sitting on the bed, shoes clunking on the floor. The rustling of clothing. Steps. The click click click of the computer keypad.
A yelp from Sid.
Daniel must have had heard it, because he'd stopped typing. Nina held her breath, trying to read the quiet.
"Sid?" Daniel asked.
A beat. Then.
"Hey. Where's my boy?" Daniel yelled. "Sid! Siddhartha!"
And then the damn dog was up, whining and scratching at the floor, trying to break free of Nina's clutches.
"Sid, please," Nina pleaded.
"Sid? You in there, boy?" Daniel was at the bathroom door.
Oh god, thought Nina. This is how I'm going to meet him?
"Please," she whispered. And as she opened the door a crack to let Sid out, it was pushed open from the other side.
"Wha -- who are you?"
"Hi." Was it just that she'd never seen him in the flesh or did he look particularly good standing there in those boxers?
"Do I know you?"
"I was just leaving," she said.
"It was just so hot outside, I drank so much water, I really had to pee. Use the bathroom, I mean. I hope it's okay."
She saw him look at her and hoped to god her hair wasn't dripping and that she'd remembered to pull up her shorts, pull down her T-shirt, and dry her face.
She stuck out her hand. "Nice to meet you." She picked up her backpack.
Daniel squinted at her, disbelieving. His eyes were much darker than she'd thought they would be. They were eyes that made her knees melt, eyes underlined with dark shadows as if they were tired and worn, as if they'd seen much more than their owner would ever reveal.
"Sure, it's all right, I guess. But there's one at the front of the apartment, off the foyer. The one for guests. Okay?" His hair was lighter than in his pictures. His shoulders broader. It was as if his pictures had dulled and miniaturized him. Here, alive, he was vital and huge and light and dark and accentuated. He had a scar on his chin. He had a dimple on his left cheek when he smiled.
"Sure. Okay. Sorry. I just..." And she edged past him, smelling him, faintly, deliciously. She eyed the bed, the comforter disheveled and wrinkled where he had sat. Oh, were I that comforter, she thought.
But Daniel raised his hand. "Your hair." He reached out, taking a few wet strands between his fingers, which she couldn't help notice were long and knuckly.
Nina laughed. "Yeah. The humidity." His eyes were on her and she let out a sigh. "It really does a number on me."
He looked at her fully, suspiciously. She looked back, trying not to swoon, shook her head, and looked at her watch.
"Gee. Um, I gotta go," she said. And with one lingering look at his face, at that scar, at those eyes, at his mouth, at that place where his neck met his shoulders, she also said very slowly, "I love...your dog."
Before he could respond, she turned and was through the bedroom and halfway down the hall. It was only then that Daniel noticed the towel on the floor.
He called after her. "Hey, Nina!"
But the door slammed and she was out. She didn't have to wait for the elevator and once it hit the lobby, she sprinted past the Persian rugs, the antique benches and chairs, under the chandeliers, and right up to the octogenarian doorman.
"Pete, what happened?"
"I didn't have time," he answered.
"Oh god, Pete."
"Mrs. Gold had packages, the mailman was here, those Butler twins climbing on the -- I'm sorry, Nina. You know I'd do anything in the world for you."
Nina smiled. "For me? Or for these?" She dug into her backpack and handed Pete a box of Goobers, as she had each and every day she had walked Siddhartha in the past month and spent a little extra time upstairs. "See you tomorrow?"
"But not so long next time." said Pete.
Once she got outside, she could breathe again. The sky was pale orange and lavender as the sun prepared for its descent, sending shadows deep across this most extraordinary day. That was a close one, Nina thought as she made her way home, but oh god, it was worth it.
Excerpted from THE DOG WALKER © Copyright 2004 by Leslie Schnur. Reprinted with permission by Washington Square Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.