The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Normally I wouldn’t have found them, because I am an exceptionally lazy housekeeper. Or maybe I’m not so much lazy as inept. I discovered in my teens that if you didn’t know how to do housework, you wouldn’t have to do it, and now that I’m living on my own and have to do it, I don’t know how. Anyway, one summer morning I had the day off. I woke up, saw my messy flat as if for the first time, and got a shock. I fetched the vacuum cleaner and vacuumed the bedroom violently; then I pulled the bed back from the wall so that I could suck the filth from the dark, in-between space, and there they were, among the dust and long black hairs (there are always long black hairs, even if you are blond and have no recollection of sharing your bed with a dark-haired person), among the crumbs and lost books and empty ballpoint pens — a pair of his old pyjamas. I switched the vacuum cleaner off. I took his pyjamas in my hands and sat on the bed and tried to think.
He was a man a little older than me and not so good-looking. He used to say I was a “knockout.” I’m afraid his face was too round and pink for me to return the compliment, but he was nice all the same. For two years he would come and visit me. All good things must come to an end, however (Why?), and now all I had was my memories, as they say in the American pop songs, and a pair of his pyjamas.
His initials were embroidered in gold on the breast pocket, and the pyjamas were made of silk: white silk of the very best quality. Lord Byron — who allowed only the whitest, purest, softest silk next to his noble skin — could’ve worn these pyjamas. It was odd to think of him being like Byron, even in such a remote way, and I started to laugh a little, then harder, and then even harder until I was sprawled on the bed, clutching the pyjamas and rolling back and forth. After a few minutes I couldn’t remember what was so funny, and I stopped.
In the movies, after someone dies or leaves, the person left behind will find an article of the departed’s clothing and smell it and start crying softly. I nuzzled my face into the pyjamas and inhaled the fragrance, but they didn’t smell like him. They smelled like pyjamas that had been stuck for over two years between a bed and a wall. I managed to cry anyway. I imagined him coming in and seeing me, and his heart being torn in two, and his saying, “I’ve come back, because I love you with all my soul, and I cannot do without you anymore.” Then I’d raise my tear-stained face to him and say, “You’ll lose everything, everything you hold dear” (meaning, of course, his wife and daughter), and he would take me in his arms and say, “Everything I hold dear, I am holding now.”
Bloody movies. They can completely muck up your mind.
I hung his pyjamas on the line in my grubby little backyard to air them. I won’t say that they looked ghostly and ominous, swinging out there in the breeze, and that I had a terrible sense of foreboding, because they didn’t, and I didn’t. They looked like white silk pyjamas hung out for airing.
Before I went to bed that night, I took his pyjamas off the line and sniffed them. The moldering smell was gone. Maybe the wind peels off surface odors, as though they were thin, filmy layers of tissue paper (rustle, rustle, rustle), leaving only the real scent underneath. In any case his pyjamas smelled like him now.
Most people my age do not own a pair of pyjamas. I sleep in an oversized black T-shirt with a picture of Elvis Presley on the front. That night I decided to wear his pyjamas to bed (my ex’s, not Elvis Presley’s). I was feeling low, and I remembered that the poet Radclyffe Hall used to order new silk underwear from Jermyn Street when she felt oppressed. So I decided that something soft and luxurious was just what I needed to stop my soul from corroding. I slid into his pyjamas and got into bed. I thought I’d dream about him that night, but I didn’t. He was my first thought when I woke up the next morning, however, which was odd, as I’d barely thought about him since the day he’d walked out the door (7:43 A.M., May 17: a sunny morning followed by a cloudy afternoon with periods of drizzle and northeasterly winds). He used to wear beautifully tailored clothes: well-cut trousers, jackets that were works of art, and crisp shirts that I would borrow when I got out of bed to make breakfast. And it suddenly came to me that the clothes people wore told you all you needed to know about them.
I sat on my pillows, hugging my white silk knees hard against my white silk breasts. Then I took the phone from my dressing table and called in sick to work. My supervisor (plain black skirts and neat, unflattering cardigans) said she hoped I’d feel better soon, which meant that she knew there was nothing wrong with me whatsoever.
I got up and drew the curtains back, and the sun poured onto his white silk pyjamas. Epictetus said you should know first who you are and then adorn yourself accordingly. I wondered if this meant that I was lying to myself by wearing a pair of pyjamas that weren’t mine. I wondered if there was any way of getting the pyjamas back to him (my ex, not Epictetus). I could post them, I thought: fold them up neatly, slip them into a brown paper mailing bag, and drop them into the mailbox. They would arrive at his house the very next day. He lived just on the other side of the city in a big, expensive, white, rather ugly house, in a big, expensive, white, rather ugly suburb. (I was about to write, “with his big, expensive, white, rather ugly wife,” but that would be unkind.) I imagined the parcel arriving in the morning. His teenage daughter (dingy-colored smock top and artfully ripped jeans) would get the mail and walk into the open-floor-plan kitchen/living area and hand the morning post around the breakfast table. He would open my parcel, and out would come the pyjamas. “Who on earth sent those?” his wife would ask, and he would reply . . . he would reply . . .
Or maybe the parcel would arrive in the afternoon. Maybe his wife was one of those suspicious sorts who steams open her husband’s correspondence and then glues it up again. Or maybe he would be away at a conference, and she’d worry there was something important in the parcel that he needed for his conference. Maybe she’d phone him, and he’d pick up the phone in Tokyo or New York or Rome, and perhaps he’d have a ghastly premonition as to what the parcel might contain — although, when it comes down to it, a ghastly premonition would be unnecessary if she said, “Darling, there is a parcel here for you. The postmark shows that it is from a suburb in the East End. Do you want me to open it in case it contains some urgent information that you may need?” What would he say? “No, you are on no account to open that parcel — with its postmark showing it is from a suburb in the East End — which is quite unlikely to contain urgent information that I may need and will certainly not contain any information that you may need”?
I shifted my weight, and his white silk pyjamas caressed my rough bedspread. I decided to address them to his wife. She’d know how to wash them, after all, and they probably needed a good cleaning after so much time spent behind my bed. So I took his pyjamas off, put my coat on, and walked to the post office. Within an hour they were lodged safely at the bottom of the mailbox on High Street.
For a while after that, life was all right again. I went back to work. My supervisor said that my “little holiday” had done me good — and she didn’t say it in a cold, annoyed way, but in a chummy, conspiratorial way, for never before had I typed up so many letters, organized so many appointments, and raced so quickly from one floor to the next delivering messages and taking orders.
Two weeks after the day I sent the parcel, I came home feeling exhausted and virtuous, checked my letter box, and there — among the bills and the library notices and the April edition of my favorite gossip magazine — was my parcel, soft and brown-papered, with “NO LONGER AT THIS ADDRESS” scrawled across it in thick, black felt-tip pen. I walked slowly up the garden path to the house, my head bowed. Then I went into my room, got undressed, ripped the parcel open, put on his white silk pyjamas, and went to bed.
I dreamed that he and his family had gone to live in Paris. I tracked them down at a fashion house — him in a green corduroy suit and a starched pink shirt, his wife trying on beautiful dresses that all became the same garment the moment she put them on: the red and gold printed silk dress she’d been wearing the one time I’d met her. In the dream I tried to tell her that something less fitted, with simpler lines, would be more flattering to her pear-shaped figure. I told her what Leonardo da Vinci said: that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. But she turned on me with scorn and said that she, a woman of wealth, taste, and experience, was not about to listen to a twenty-seven-year-old swot who came marching into Parisian fashion houses wearing stolen white silk pyjamas.
When I woke up, the sweat was pouring from my back and forehead. I tore off his white silk pyjamas and flung them to the floor. Then I picked them up again, smoothed them out, folded them up neatly, and carried them into the backyard. There are three rubbish bins there: you’re supposed to put your recyclables in one, your household rubbish in another, and your compost in the third. After some deliberation, I decided on the recyclables bin. I opened the lid and carefully placed his white silk pyjamas inside. The moment I shut the lid, I felt better. I also realized how cold I was, standing in the backyard with nothing on but my underwear.
“Good morning,” said a voice. My next-door neighbor’s head floated above the fence. “Unusual to see you out in your garden at this time of the day. You’re normally at work.”
“I have the day off,” I said.
He looked disappointed. I think he hoped that one day I would lose my job and have to sell my house to a nice old retired couple who would keep the garden tidy.
“Lovely day for it,” my neighbor said, and I suppose it would’ve been if he hadn’t been around.
“I must go in and put some clothes on,” I said stupidly.
“I must go mow my lawn,” said my neighbor, which meant When are you going to mow your lawn? From my bedroom window I watched him push his mower across his yard at breakneck speed, viciously scold his wife when she brought out a plastic bag for the grass clippings (“It isn’t biodegradable!”), and carefully rake the clippings into a pile and place them in his compost bin. After that, he (designer jeans, leather belt, shirt with brand logo on it) sat on the patio drinking tea from a thick-lipped mug.
It was Friday, the day they collect our recyclable rubbish. After the truck came, I went out to retrieve my empty bin from the street, and inside were his white silk pyjamas and a bright yellow leaflet with a list of things the council don’t want you to put in your recyclables bin. I took the pyjamas out — they smelled strongly of cat food and bean tins — and carried them into the house, thinking.
I was still thinking when my sister rang.
“I thought you’d be at work,” she said. “I was going to leave a message.”
“I have the day off.”
“Soooo . . . whatcha doing? Got a date?”
My sister knew that I would not have a date. She asks that question all the time, however, as it is a vehicle for her to introduce her own nights of passion into the conversation. My sister is a pale girl, with pale gray eyes and fair hair that stands up from her head. She wears designer labels (naturally): short dresses belted high; tall, glistening boots; and tight, brightly colored sweaters. She is very thin. She can even wear tight jeans and smock tops. I tried to wear tight jeans and a smock top once, but I looked like a pregnant milkmaid. I told my sister so, and she did not dissuade me but laughed heartily.
“I slept over at George’s last night,” she said. “You remember George?”
I did not remember George. I was not at all interested in George, but my sister told me about him anyway. She told me that he owns a row of houses that I pass on my way to work. His great-grandmother had a fall-by-the-sword love affair with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. And George is fantastic in bed. Last night my sister had an orgasm that went on forever.
I would kill my sister if I could work out a way to do it and not get caught.
“How would I get rid of a pair of white silk pyjamas?” I asked.
“I have a pair of white silk pyjamas I want to get rid of.”
“I don’t know. Give them to a charity bin or a secondhand-clothing store.”
But I didn’t like to think of someone else wearing his white silk pyjamas, so I hung up. Then I telephoned the office and told them I was extremely ill and wouldn’t be coming in for quite some time.
My supervisor was nettled. “Can you give us an idea of when you’ll be back?”
“No. Actually I don’t think I will ever come back again.”
I put on his white silk pyjamas, got into bed, and slept the rest of the day, right through until the next morning. When I woke, I couldn’t remember dreaming.
I put his pyjamas into a bag and went for a walk wearing brown corduroy trousers and a bulky, man’s jersey. I walked to the park, which was almost empty. There was just a lady exercising her golden retriever beside the stream and two girls practicing tennis on a patch of grass. I sat down on a bench and put the bag beside me. Then I got up and walked away as fast as I could, leaving his pyjamas behind. I was halfway down the road, wondering if I could live in a park after I lost my flat, when I heard the pounding of feet behind me. Such was the extent of my concentration that I did not hear them until they were almost upon me.
“Excuse me, lady. You left this behind.” It was one of the tennis-playing girls (grubby white T-shirt, grass-stained slacks, cheap pink sports shoes) holding the bag containing his pyjamas, her face shining. I should have told her that she was a right pain in the arse who ought to mind her own bloody business and not bother parcel-leaving grown-ups who only wanted to go about their lives in peace. But instead I thanked her and dug deep into my corduroy pockets. I found ten dollars and gave it to her. I don’t know why. She was extremely pleased and blushed with pleasure.
Conceding defeat, I walked home, let myself in, and shed my clothes as I passed through the hall. By the time I got to the kitchen I was naked except for my socks. It struck me that my neighbors could see into my kitchen from their upstairs bedroom window, and how would I look, standing there in nothing but my socks, making coffee? So I took my socks off, too. I got the coffee machine out of the cupboard, then put it back and decided to make instant coffee. The kettle was empty, so I ran the hot-water tap for a while, and when the water was steaming, I filled my coffee cup. I took his white silk pyjamas from the bag and put them on.
Upstairs I sat on the bed, drinking the bitter coffee. I turned the television on, then turned it off. I put the empty coffee cup on the dresser. I sat on the bed as the room grew dark. The streetlights came on. The lights in the house next door went out. A few cars crawled by on the street like beasts with harsh, unblinking eyes. I sat on the bed in his white silk pyjamas.
Josie Charlotte Jackson