New York |


by Shannon Robinson

edited by Emily Schultz

The house and all its dirt waited for my touch. I was parked by the curb with the engine running. I wanted to go in; I wanted to get on with it. I also wanted to drive away, go fast and far until I ran out of gas, until I dropped off the edge of the earth. But the earth is round—so round and round we go. And there I was, back again, in my disintegrating Chevy Malibu with my rubber gloves, bucket, and dollar-store cleaning products all riding shotgun. I switched off the engine and leaned my head on the steering wheel, pressure just shy of sounding the horn. It was time to face the filth.

* * *

I went to college, and somehow I imagined I’d have a house of my own by now. That I’d be paying off a mortgage, planting a garden, maybe remodeling a kitchen. That is to say, I didn’t expect to ever end up cleaning other people’s houses. While my résumés circulated like so much debris in an asteroid field, I couldn’t have John paying the rent all by himself. Have him doling out cash to me—an allowance—from his slim salary as an adjunct. I wanted to be a kept woman only in the sense of not being dumped.

John didn’t laugh at that one. So much for earning my keep. “You’re too hard on yourself,” he said.

“You have to say that,” I said.

“There’s no penance to be done. You made the choice you needed to make. No call for martyrdom.” He was smiling, but there was a tightness to it. Well, good.

Truth be told, I had the kind of cleverness that readily alchemizes into stupidity by way of vanity. Five years in a PhD program, and nothing to show for it except a box of rambling notes. So this is indeed my penance for being so fucking entitled, so ineffectual, I’d tell myself as I scrubbed, wiped, scoured. The idea was, it was a temporary gig, a stop-gap, and soon a real job would surface. Like a magical island. Or a dead body.

* * *

Hartley Spencer said he’d found me through my Craigslist ad, which I’d more or less forgotten about. Most people seemed to hear about me through word of mouth, as my name passed through a network of busy people with enough money to outsource the boring, time-burning business of keeping house. My email exchange with Hartley was terse, on his side—little more than a name, an address, a time. I’m one of those people still stuck on the idea that email should resemble correspondence of yesteryear, with salutations, full sentences, grammar, etc. I need to just get over it and stop crafting epistles.

The picture I’d formed in my mind of this Hartley—young, maybe a snappy junior executive in a silk tie—began flickering as soon as I saw the house, with its unkempt lawn and peeling paint. I wondered if the neighbors ever complained.

The buzzer didn’t work so I knocked, knocked again, and finally the door was answered by a short, pale, potato-shaped guy of indeterminate age. He was balding on top, and his frizzy clown-wig hair stood out from the sides of his head. Amidst the constellation of acne on his chin, an unpopped whitehead shone like Venus.

“Hi,” I said. “Hartley Spencer?”

He hesitated, as if he were about to be accused. “Yes,” he decided.

“It’s Sandra. We have an appointment today?”

“Oh,” he said. “Oh.” His eyes looked past me to the street and then zigzagged over me, down and up. “Should I pay you now?”

“Sure,” and then as I took the bills that he extended to me, stiff-armed, I added, “thank you.” I never knew if that was the appropriate thing to say. “I’m going to start in the kitchen,” I said. The house smelled of b.o., must, and Chinese food. It looked like it had been furnished with cast-off hotel furniture: that weird blend of indestructible and cheap-looking, all dull gloss, pleather, and tweed.

“Okay,” he said. “It’s through here.” He sat down at the kitchen table, presumably to watch me work, so I started with the dirty dishes piled in the sink. Whatever, dude. A little while back, I cleaned for an old lady who followed me around the house. She would sit with her tea and a book, affecting the premise that she just happened to be there, in the background. Whenever I moved on to a new room, she’d come drifting along, teacup rattling, and settle herself within a sightline. “You missed a spot.” She actually said that, and at first I thought she might be kidding. Not the case. She was supervising from behind the fourth wall. After a few weeks she turned me out for using the bathroom. “I will have no locked doors in this house!” she said. I wondered who she was really talking to.

But this guy, he was silent. Near-silent. Between intermittent blasts from the faucet, I could hear him breathing. I moved on to the counters.

“I thought you’d be dressed differently,” he said.

“Different how?” I was wearing yoga pants and hoodie, with the sleeves pushed up. Perfectly presentable. He kept quiet as I sprayed a cabinet and then scrubbed at the goo around the knob. “Like … wearing a uniform?”

“Maybe. Yes, I think that could be nice.”

“I’m just a freelancer.” Freelancer. God, my diction—the vestigial tale of my pretension. “I’m not with a company.” And just then it all became very clear, and I stopped scrubbing. As I’ve already admitted, I’m not as sharp as I used to think I was. I heard myself ask, “So, what kind of uniform? A French maid?”

Blushing did not become him. He looked like he’d been scalded.

“I think there’s been some misunderstanding,” I said. In the film of my life, during this scene there will be a subtitle underneath my dialogue, providing translation: “Fuck off, perv.”

* * *

You’d think I would have hightailed it out of there. I did, but not before scheduling another session. Historically, I am terrible at recognizing and making exits; let me be completely up front about that. Lousy romances, lousy friendships—my shaggy-dog grad-school experience. Oh, I stick it out, I try to make it work; blame it on my Catholic mother, who wouldn’t leave her shitty marriage; blame it on my private girls’-school education, with its constant subtext of Just who do you think you are? Blame it on Rio; blame it on the rain. Hartley made me do all the haggling. I started at three times my fee, then lowered it in five dollar increments until he finally unglued his gaze from the tabletop.

I drove home and reviewed the whole episode in my mind, doing my best not to talk to myself while at stoplights. I thought you’d be dressed differently. Why had he expected anything, and why hadn’t I thought to ask why? At least he hadn’t said, “I thought you’d be prettier,” although maybe he’d been thinking that. Hell, it’s what I think, whenever I catch a glimpse of myself. The way he’d scanned me on the doorstep, without even trying to be subtle. He was someone, I thought, who didn’t have much of a relationship with his mirror, judging from his goofy hair and his unharvested zits. Granted, the lighting in that house was fucking awful. My eyes hurt from squinting in the dim.

* * *

“You know, your English is really very good. You barely have any accent.” A client—my next one, after Hartley—said this to me as I was unpacking my supplies. I just nodded. She seemed to have gotten the idea that I was a recent immigrant from Poland, although we’d never had a conversation about my background. We’d only ever talked about things like rinsing the recyclables and never using paper towel on the stainless steel.

Do widzenia,” she said, by way of farewell.

Her assumption seemed fitting, in a sidewise karmic fashion. John’s parents had a Polish cleaning lady, and that’s where I got the idea of cleaning houses. Aleksy was wiry, jolly, pretty; John’s father had a bit of a crush on her. As she crashed the vacuum cleaner around the living room, she’d told me about how she used to be a stripper, how that was her first job in this country. In her current line of work, she appeared to have done all right. She used to give helpful, instructive Christmas presents to John’s parents. A spoon rest. A fresh set of dishcloths. A deodorizing spray for their bathroom.

* * *

It wasn’t exactly a French maid’s uniform, but it was the best I could manage, both in terms of what I had in my closet, and what I was willing to wear for Hartley. White T-shirt, black pencil skirt. Black flats. I looked like catering staff. It would have to do. Had I told John about any of this? I wanted to, but every time I tried, I didn’t. Didn’t actually try, that is.

Hartley preferred that I just clean the kitchen, and that was fine, because the place seemed to have reverted to extreme filthiness within a week. Like I’d passed through a wormhole to a month’s worth of splatter, crust, and neglect. Could he really be such a slob? Maybe it was part of his whole fetishistic deal. The cleaning session was a replay of the last time: I cleaned, while he watched from his position at the table. Lather, rinse, repeat. Although this time I spot-scrubbed the sticky kitchen floor, and I gather he especially liked this activity, because I could hear his chair squeaking as he tried to be subtle about adjusting its angle. And I could hear his breathing change. I thought I heard him take a shot from an inhaler, but it’s possible I was imagining that.

As before, he’d paid me up front. This time he offered an envelope that had been sealed with so much Scotch tape, you’d think the contents included something alive and capable of escape. How canny of him to judge that I wouldn’t want to mangle it open in front of him. I did that later, as I sat in my car, parked around the corner. Inside the envelope, along with the cash, was a picture torn from what appeared to be a costume store catalogue. He had circled a picture of a girl in a French-maid outfit, and on the picture he’d double-circled the high heels. A uniform. Fine. I’d worn stupider clothes, by choice and in public, back when I thought I was hot stuff.

* * *

The next week I turned up in the outfit, which I’d hidden beneath a jacket. The lace edging on the sleeves was so cheap it scratched my skin, and the asbestos-like fabric of the skirt had already put a run in my nylons. Yeah, nylons, courtesy of the 1990s. The shoes were just as dated—shiny black cockroach-killers from the Goodwill with battle scars on the four-inch heels. I handed Hartley the receipts.

“You never finished cleaning that first time,” he said. By the time I’d processed this non sequitur, I found that I was already cleaning, the moment of possible protest gone.

The kitchen table was sporting a tablecloth, and I thought maybe Hartley was trying to class the joint up. But the tablecloth was, like my dress, a sleazy facsimile. The real purpose of the vinyl draping became obvious soon enough. Obvious is the wrong word: evident. Maybe there’s some change in barometric pressure when a dick gets pulled out of a pair of pants; I sensed something. And then, yes, it got obvious, and I pretended not to hear the little grunts. Boy, did I make those cabinets sparkle. Every time an image appeared in my brain, I just kept clicking the little x in the corner of the box. His slitty eyes—click, his busy hand—click, his purple cock—click.

* * *

Masturbation is supposed to be a punchline, but it’s funnier in the abstract. As with so much in life. And even then. About a month ago, while on the job in another house I came across some porn mags under a mattress. I’d been stuffing in the ends of some over-long sheets when I touched a stack of soft paper, and I just knew. The smut-stash must have belonged to the teenage son, since it was his bed. I only knew the boy from the awkward photos of him that sulked throughout the house: the camera hated him, and he hated it back. I’d never laid eyes on the parents, who for me were just disembodied objects (keys, email, voices, notes, cash). They seemed nice enough, although something about all those photos struck me as being performative.

I spread the magazines on the carpet, making a fan shape of topless, puffy-haired women not so much smiling as near-panting. I considered flipping through them, but didn’t. The pages were orange-hued and brittle. It was all wrong. What teenager would rely on old magazines instead of an iPad, or a phone? The posters on the bedroom walls weren’t retro, they were out of date, and the place was far too groomed. This kid had moved out all right. Had he died?

I wondered how long ago a different cleaning lady had emptied the fossilized Kleenexes from the trash. I was about to get rid of the magazines, but then I pushed them back into place. For all I knew, the parents would miss them.

* * *

The next week, Hartley was at it again. His usual position at the table, that vinyl tablecloth, hands where I couldn’t see them. I was gathering up garbage—soda cans, Doritos bags, a plastic container half-filled with some desiccated yellow dip.

“It’s pretty messy today. Did you have a party last night?”

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t talk,” he said. That few seconds’ pause before he spoke, a bit of breathlessness, and I knew it. I kept cleaning, moving on to wiping down the filthy counters. If I turned around and made eye contact, we’d both burst into flames.

While waiting for him to finish, I started to work on the fridge, swabbing at an arterial spray of red sauce on the door. When I opened it, the light did not come on, although a cold stink rolled out from the contents, packed in to capacity. I pulled open a vegetable crisper, saw plastic bags full of green slime, closed it again. Closed the fridge. My high heels were now hurting my feet, like I was balancing on steel tent pegs. Finally, I said, “What you were doing … that wasn’t part of the original deal.”

“It’s my kitchen,” he said.

I turned to look at him. He was flushed. Exertion, embarrassment, but there was something else in his rigid posture—in the silly, ugly, upside-down U of his mouth, and in the way he not only met my eyes, but wouldn’t look away. These things said something else, and said it louder.

“Okay then,” I said. And in that moment, that’s when the instincts of a normal person kicked in: get out of there. Take your bucket and cheap soap and get out. I made as dignified an exit as I could, in my stupid French-maid uniform that reeked of sweat.

* * *

Later, I got an email from Hartley. I can give you more money if that’s what you want. If that’s what you want. Yes, I want. Compensation. He was utterly ridiculous to be paying for this; I’d always felt that. But he owed it to me. The cons were that it was creepy and gross. The significant pro was that it was easy money. Good money. He never touched me, he barely talked, and he didn’t want us to talk, as he’d made clear.

I wrote back, What fee did you have in mind? Should we have been in a café, writing down sums on napkins, passing them back and forth? Did that only happen in movies? Were we in a movie? You tell me.

We settled on a raise. I have no idea where he was getting the money. While the house may have been valuable real estate, it was slumping into decay. Maybe he had a modest trust fund. Maybe he worked from home and didn’t care about things like interior décor or curb appeal. He hadn’t demonstrated any flashy or generous impulses when it came to cash, but he didn’t seem to be short of it, either. Our appointments were for mid-afternoon, and if he ever had pressing business elsewhere, he never so much as alluded to it. From carrying in his mail I knew that a married female relative bearing his last name (his mother?) had once lived there, but I could not tell where she had gone. Since I cleaned only the kitchen, I wasn’t afforded the unobserved roving and licensed snooping that my regular gigs allowed. In my mind, Hartley existed in the house like a figure in a cuckoo clock, making fixed mechanical movements along a runner.

* * *

“What is this?” John asked. He’d come home from teaching and had gone into our bedroom to shed the dress shirt and tie he called his “teacher drag.”

“What’s what?” I rounded the corner from the living room. John stood by the bed, where the French maid uniform was spread out like some sad invitation. Oh, God. I’d hung the rumpled dress in the bathroom in an attempt to steam clean it while I showered, then I’d lain it on the bed and forgotten about it. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“I found it in a secondhand store for five bucks. It’s hilarious, right?”

“Hm. Yeah, it’s pretty tacky.” John had yet to shift his bag from his shoulder.

“I thought I could go as myself for Halloween. Reveal my superhero identity.”

“Go where?” he asked. He had a point. When was the last time I’d been to a costume party? When was the last time I’d even put on a dress? He sat down at the end of the bed—away from the dress. He said, “Can I talk to you about something? And don’t take it the wrong way.”

Never a good preface for any conversation.

“You know, it’s great that you’re out there, every day, working hard. But I think maybe you need to stop … hiding, and start looking for a real job.”

“Why? Are you getting tired of all this real money?”

“Something that lets you use your brain.”

“I use my brain. In my own way, all day, no interruptions.” This would have been the time to talk to John about Hartley, but talking about it would also have involved talking about why I hadn’t talked about it. I guess I felt like metabolizing the shame was just part of the job.

* * *

I continued to show up at Hartley’s each week at our scheduled time. The kitchen was configured like a set, with the sink, stove, and fridge all along one wall, and I confined my movements to that strip, keeping my back to my audience as much as possible. The tablecloth was becoming Jackson Pollocked with streaks and blobs, but I never tended to it. I spent about an hour each time, sometimes less. I’d become sure that Hartley was deliberately crapping up the kitchen before I arrived. No one could be that much of a pig. So many dirty dishes, so many spills in so many layers, so much untended garbage. Whenever possible, I ran the tap at full force so that I wouldn’t have to hear him breathing. Or beating off.

“The fridge needs cleaning, on the inside,” he said, one day. He added, “It’s still dirty.”

I wanted to object, but it’s hard to call someone on an unspoken rule—that I was cleaning, okay, but that I was also just “cleaning,” and that I wasn’t expected to venture all that sincerely into the workings of his real life. Like the maintenance and organization of his food supply. Also, that fridge stank like a festering wound.

Normally, cleaning someone else’s fridge would involve a bit of Q & A (How old is this sauce? Are you really going to eat this last slice of bologna? Even though it’s green?) But I didn’t want to violate the “no talking” rule, so I didn’t consult Hartley. I just threw out anything obviously putrid, which was a lot. Toss, toss. Toss toss toss. He must be loving this, I thought. I tried to look without looking at what I was doing as I peeled back the lids of Tupperware and knocked the murky contents into a garbage bag, then threw the empty containers into the sink to let the water blast them clean. Something must have clogged the drain and suddenly overflow was imminent—I switched off the gushing tap.

And then I heard Hartley yawn. I couldn’t help whipping my head around to look at him. He was checking his phone. He looked up at me, expressionless.

“I’ll be done in about ten, fifteen minutes,” I said. I started digging at the clog, so I could get that water going again.

“You can stop now,” he said.

“Oh. All right.” What’s wrong? What am I doing wrong? So what, he wasn’t into it today. Not a problem. Not my problem.

But it bugged me, and it continued to bother me over the next few days. True, the costume was getting a little bedraggled. Puffed sleeves deflating, lace dragging—damn thing couldn’t be washed without it further disintegrating. I knew I could just get a new outfit; I could make more of an effort with some makeup, a hairstyle … but if he wanted upgrades, I felt it was up to him to ask. I kept thinking about the moment when I headed to the door: Hartley gave me a little close-lipped smile. Some reflex of pity or politeness made me smile back, although he was already turning away. His reflection in the hallway mirror showed me that he was still smiling. I wasn’t sure if he knew that I could see him.

* * *

On the day of my next appointment with Hartley, it took me fifteen minutes to psych myself up to get out of the car. That was me, sitting there with the engine running, thinking of making a run for it. Finally I unclenched the steering wheel and hauled myself to Hartley’s doorstep. I hadn’t even knocked when the door swung open and Hartley was there, his doughy face a vague glow against the gloom.

I took it as a good sign that the kitchen had been studiously destroyed, with the usual spills, dirtied dishes, and soggy clutter strewn about. Hartley settled into his usual position at the table, while I turned on the tap and started filling up my mop bucket. The floor needed a good wash; it had a movie-theater stickiness underfoot. I imagined myself getting fused there, like a mouse on a glue trap. The tiles would get slippery with the soap, which would be tricky for me in high heels, but Hartley would enjoy the show. Once the bucket was ready, I dipped and squeezed the mop, then started to push the damp gray mass over the floor; I felt like the old energy of the room was seeping back. The mop made soft click-clicks with every movement.

Hartley’s chair suddenly scraped against the tiles. “I’m going out right now,” he said.

“So … do you want me to finish?” I said. “I mean, I barely started.”

Instead of looking at me, Hartley was looking at my mop, which I was leaning on more like a cane than a spear at that moment. There was that inscrutable little smile again—what I deemed his apology/smugface. It made me think of one of those pictures that appear to be either a duck or a rabbit, this one, that one, not a double perspective but a mutually exclusive choice.

“Yes, you can finish up in here, and then clean the living room,” he said, before walking across my wet floor and leaving the room.

I waited until I heard the front door close before I pried off my shoes and set back to work on the floor. You might think it would have been easier to clean without an audience a few feet from me, but without that element, the tasks were reduced to a flat essence of tedium and squalor. The kitchen had been dirtied just to make me undirty it. As I scrubbed and swabbed, I half-wondered if a camera were hidden somewhere, capturing my movements. At first, I kept expecting Hartley to return, to make more requests, to observe me from a different angle, say, from the anonymous pleather ottoman in the living room, screened by the couch.

By the time I’d finished in the kitchen, I suspected he might not be back anytime soon. There wasn’t much to do in the near-empty living room other than deal with the dust, which had lightly furred the vertical blinds, the coffee table, and the two matched end tables. No knickknacks, no books, no pictures in sight. The room, with its odd hotel lobby-type furniture, seemed itself to be waiting for someone to acknowledge it as other than a placeholder for a space somebody cared about. Maybe Hartley mostly lived in the upstairs rooms. I put one foot on the stairs and considered heading up. Were those boxes or stacks of magazines lining the hallway? I could flick on a few lights, have a look around. Then I pictured myself standing in Hartley’s bedroom as he stood staring at me from the doorframe, having glided noiselessly up the stairs, knowing just where to step without making any creaks. I turned, gathered my stuff, and walked out of the house, padding along in bare feet all the way to my car.

* * *

The next week Hartley sent me an email, cancelling our appointment. I had to contact him to suggest a different time. I sent him a follow-up email, and then followed up on that one. Don’t wear the costume this time , he wrote in response. So that was it: I would now be a wildly overpaid cleaning lady. Or, more likely, as with our last appointment, he would find some way to get his money’s worth.

Two days later, I was standing on his doorstep, waiting. It had almost been a minute since my second bout of knocking. I was about to leave when Hartley opened the door.

“Come in,” he said, in a high, soft voice.

He was dressed in a French maid’s uniform. A much nicer one than I’d worn, more like a proper theatrical costume. The cut was conservative, covering his knees and arms, with a white ruffled apron, tied at the waist. He wore a wig that echoed my own color and cut. I reached up and patted my own hair. Red lipstick, slightly smudged, appeared to be the only touch of makeup he’d applied.

I hustled inside—as if stepping over the threshold would return us to normal. Hartley was already walking to the kitchen. From the back, he looked matronly and slightly robotic, arms extended on invisible guard rails, ready to correct any wobble of his high heels.

“You sit there,” he said, again in that soapy voice. I sat down at the kitchen table, and smoothed my fingertips against the tablecloth, which was white linen now, and pristine. A strong scent of artificial lemon hung in the air. For once, there was no grease on the stove, no dirty dishes, no goop on the counters. Undeterred, Hartley pulled on a pair of pink rubber gloves and began making slow circles with a sponge on the kitchen cabinet. Okay then, I would watch this performance. I tried to think of myself in the role of dominatrix, watching her submissive run his paces, yet I was the one who felt embarrassed. Hartley seemed to be perfectly, sensually at ease as he mimed different chores, moving as if to music, throwing little shoulder heaves into his swabbing. At one point he crouched down on all fours and began to scrub the floor, swaying his hips with each swish of the rag. I couldn’t tell if this is what he thought I’d looked like, or what he thought I should have looked like; I settled on the latter. Every now and then, he would throw a quick glimpse in my direction, as if watching to see whether I was watching. So maybe I’d been doing it wrong, but he also was getting it wrong. At least I had sustained the illusion of unobserved action. Under that frilly apron, he was aroused, no doubt.

I was worried that Hartley would draw the whole show out, but after about an hour, he said, “Well, I guess that’s it for today.” That’s what I had taken to saying, about ten minutes after he’d gotten himself off. Hartley would then typically say nothing and stay seated.

I nodded and rose from the table. Hartley hadn’t paid me at the start of our session so at the door, I stuck my hand out and said, “The envelope, please.” A little joke—surely we’d come that far. I’d decided to postpone any conversations about what this development would mean in terms of added fees.

“I think there must be some misunderstanding,” he said. “I believe I’m the one who did the cleaning.”

It was tempting to rip the wig off his head to try to wrench him out of character. In drag, he was bigger—taller in those heels, padded out in the chest; the tightness of the clothes emphasized the breadth of his shoulders and his girth. Even with the door closed, I could hear the wind rattling the leaves in the trees, and I couldn’t wait to step into the fresh air.

“Yes, but I watched you,” I said.

“You liked it.”

You liked it.”

“You liked it,” he said.

We were getting stuck, and I fumbled for the right lines in this script. Some jolt was required, I thought, so I said, “You liked it, you dirty slut. Now give me my money.”

Hartley’s eyes widened, before narrowing, along with his red lips. “You need to leave,” he said.

I agreed.

* * *

“What happened to you?” John asked. When I arrived home, he was sitting on the couch with his students’ papers spread out on the coffee table. “Have you been crying?”

“No. No, I’m just exhausted. Long day. Some rich bitch lost her mind over a scratch in her hardwood. I should just carve her initials on her dining room table. Give her something to justify her level of outrage.”

“Don’t let those people get you down. They don’t know who you are.”

“I know. I know that. I’m going to have a little nap before dinner, okay?”

Once in the bedroom, I cracked open my laptop. For all my notions of online politesse, I’m leery of email as a place for discussion, because it’s a portal to crazy. All the same, I needed to talk to Hartley, and I wanted to choose my words carefully. I wrote, Hartley I don’t like how that ended. While I appreciate the improvisatory nature of our last appointment, clear communication is always important. I performed a service for you in that I participated in a scenario of your own design, for your own enjoyment. Therefore I should be paid for my time.

He wrote back almost instantly. The last girl wore lingerie. He’d attached a picture.

I suppose he could have been lying. That girl could have been crouched in anybody’s kitchen. But tell me, when has something that felt deeply shitty turned out not to be true? You know you don’t have to think about that too hard for it to make sense.

I will tell you something true. My disastrous exit from the PhD program was years in the making. Oh, the hours I’d spent in my advisor’s office, drinking the coffee he poured for me, smiling back at his smiling beard, listening to him talk about his latest investigation of Restoration comedy, about his days as a young theater wag. Meanwhile my chapters floundered, each one less coherent than the next. He would correct my typos and tell me to do more research. And I would oblige, increasingly less certain of what I was looking for, but I’d sit in the library, in the tweed skirt my advisor had so admired, determined to look like I knew what I was looking for. In the end I just couldn’t keep going back to his office, drawn further into a labyrinth with hedges of paper and nothing but the pulse of ego at the center of it.

When I woke up from my nap, it was early evening. In the fading light, I rummaged in the bottom of the closet for my French maid’s uniform. It was oily to the touch, and so rumpled it was barely recognizable as a dress. From the next room, I could smell spaghetti sauce on simmer.

* * *

“Maybe I should have fucked my thesis supervisor after all,” I said. I’d been standing in the living room, watching John grade papers for about five minutes. My words made him jump.

“What? Why would you say that? That guy,” John put down his pen and sighed, “was just a useless asshole.” He paused again. “Why are you wearing that?”

“For your viewing pleasure.”

“Right.” He laughed, but it sounded more like someone reading the words Ha-Ha. “Look, your thesis was never—”

“You like it, big boy,” I said and rustled the skirt.

“No really, I don’t. It looks stupid.” His mouth hung open, as if he hadn’t actually expected to give voice to that thought and wanted to gulp it back.

“I am stupid, John.”

“No, right now you’re acting stupid. There’s a difference.”

“And how the fuck am I supposed to take comfort in that?” I yelled. In that moment, I’m sure I looked crazed, all red-faced in a ragged dress, my hands raised in half-closed fists like I was about the claw down the ceiling. Then the wind went out of me. I sat down beside John on the couch and told him all about Hartley. He wasn’t angry—if anything, he looked incredibly sad. Was I so pathetic?

“I’m not even a good prostitute,” I said. I’d intended a quip, but it came out as a howl. I was a crying mess.

“No one’s a good prostitute,” he said, and hugged me as I shook with something between giggles and sobs. He revised: “I’m sure you’d be an excellent prostitute, if that’s what you really want.” Poor John—conscientious to a fault. He held soft handfuls of the dress, one grip on each puffed sleeve.

“No, that’s not what I really want.”

“What do you want?”

“That’s the real question, isn’t it?”

Maybe the real question was how I’d lived this long and had never put that other question to myself—what did I want?—much less summoned an honest answer. How obscene is that? My own naked truth, left to dissolve in a bleach of fear.

* * *

I want to tell you that it all worked out, that I got my shit together and lived happily ever after, but then I’d be getting way ahead of myself. In some version of this story, I go back to Hartley with offers of a new outfit, with lingerie. In some version, over time, I end up letting him touch me, and still later sucking his dick for a fabulous fee. Of course, this only happened in my mind. Unbidden, these scenarios play out in jump cuts on the back wall of my consciousness, all oversaturated colors on grey stucco.

In truth, I never had any dealings with Hartley after his email to me. My clients dropped off significantly after I stopped working for him, and although I can’t help wondering if he had something to do with that, I don’t know how. People just cancelled on me, citing vacations (that they never returned from), claiming revised household budgets, or saying nothing at all. My main occupation became, with renewed sincerity, looking for a job.

I threw out the French maid’s uniform. “Threw out” makes it sound like a light gesture: I walked a few blocks from our apartment and pressed it down deep into a garbage can in an alley, as if it were some cursed object. Now and then I think about that dress: I imagine it nestled against trash in a landfill, somehow defying decomposition. Some shadow. Someone else’s idea of sexy that had covered me like an ill-fitting skin.