Over November I house-sat and did things like flick through the books on their bookshelves and go through their home movies, watching and re-watching their children being born. I found the family’s Christmas stash, deep in the master bedroom’s closet, and from that stash took out the foot bath and slid it back into its box after use. I didn’t feel bad about this as I took great care to wipe out any dead skin and reasoned that the water and salts in the foot bath were hot enough to kill anything that might linger. Afterwards I would dry my feet on their carpet and slowly paint my toenails.
Though their eyes, or the vivid blues of their children’s, watched me from photographs framed along the walls, I enjoyed being in the house because it was spacious and cool as opposed to my flat, where the lights seemed to flicker and air and little scurrying spiders came in through vents in the walls. I was also being paid.
The house had a refrigerator that could fit an entire calf or the severed torso of a stocky, middle-aged man. Their dishwasher was so powerful that glasses came out crystalline like something from an advertisement. And they even had cake forks with delicate prongs slightly curved like a spoon, and with them, dainty in my hand, I ate from aluminium tins of store-bought, oven-baked frozen desserts.
After being there for three weeks I got a call from Claire and David. They said I was doing a great job and I asked how their holiday was but they didn’t answer and instead told me they had gotten a call from Mrs Scott. Mrs Scott, the woman who lives alone across the road, said the house looked great but that she didn’t realise someone was in it. They asked me if it were possible to make it seem more “lived in.” That was the term they used. Say, maybe, I could switch on and off the lights in the front rooms. Maybe play some music with the windows open, splash in the pool, even yell out Marco Polo. I said alright and they said they were excited to have me on board. To emphasise, David sent me an email listing ideas in bullet points, and wrote at the end “Remember mi casa es su casa.” He attached a photo of the children eating tapas, their fingers sticky with marinades.
It irritated me that Mrs Scott would call them, all the way in Europe, on their emergency number. That she had nothing better to do. That she called them solely to say she had seen someone, me, inside their house at twilight and that her heart started as if she’d seen a phantasm. Though I myself doubt she used that word, phantasm, as David said she had over the phone, as like “apparition” and “spectre” they are not words commonly used and rather sound like something from a nineteenth century novel. I doubted this until I realised the time and, specifically, which room she would’ve seen me in. The front rooms, street facing with large windows, were uncharacteristic of me to be in unless I was on my way to the kitchen to refill my glass of ice. If so I would have been walking with my open laptop in hand, my hair all out, my face lit from beneath by the screen, in which case the word phantasm is perhaps appropriate.
I began to watch Mrs Scott and time her for her morning walks, generally taking up the half-hour between 7 and 7:30. At 7:25 I would borrow Claire’s pink Adidas tracksuit, walk into one of the front rooms, put music on and do aerobics. I do not know how to do aerobics and simply improvised. Some mornings, even though the water was cold and caused me to shiver, I would belly flop into the pool and once surfaced would wave my arms about and slap one lone, foam noodle against the water. Splash, splash, splash.
I didn’t care if someone robbed the house or attempted to rob the house if it looked abandoned, no. What difference would it make to me? I’d say sorry and who could blame me, a woman alone in a house that wasn’t hers. No, I didn’t care for any of that, but I wanted to be known.
One night I invited a few girls I work with at the library to come over for drinks but just as the guests were about to arrive I saw Mrs Scott’s car reverse out of her driveway, and then watched Mrs Scott’s silhouetted profile glide into the distance. I had intended to greet my guests down on the street. I had already found and put on, underneath my dress, Claire’s elastic sheath that moulded my stomach into an almost sheer vertical drop. All for nothing.
Only one guest came and she brought two $4 bottles of wine, drank them all, consistently ignoring the coasters I had put down, and then asked if she could stay the night. I said yes because I am weak and I resented her because unlike I, she was a girl who, if pushed, would not repeal library fines.
I considered making a profile on an online dating site and inviting strange men into the house to sit in the front room with me and drink wine and occasionally passionately embrace. This did not come to pass as I felt embarrassed to say my age was twenty-eight and was hesitant about strange men. I kept imagining myself stuffed into Claire and David’s oversized freezer.
I do not need to justify myself in front of this woman, I thought. She is nothing. Mrs Scott is nothing.
One night I watched her watching television. She was alone, always alone. I saw a lightbulb turn on in her front room and then the lightbulb turn off. I could see, faintly through the windows, Mrs Scott lit by the light of a television, a blue incandescence that flickered across her skin and hair. I looked in the garage, in the kitchen, the bedrooms, the children’s toy cabinets, running from room to room, but couldn’t find any binoculars. I kept thinking to myself, why don’t these children have binoculars, why don’t these children have binoculars, and finally, panting, I stood in Claire and David’s front room, the lights all off, my palms against the window, and squinted. I saw her put a teacup up to her lips, or maybe she was touching her cheek, maybe a limb didn’t even lift. It was hard to tell, the distance between us made her featureless. And then the TV was off and all I could see was black. For a moment, for less than a second, I thought I saw her stand at the window. It happened so quickly that all my eyes registered were an afterimage and I doubted and still doubt if I had seen her at all.
The next day I imagined myself, dressed all in black, climbing into Mrs Scott’s backyard, the plan being to peer through her back windows. But she had come back from her walk early and my heart would pound in my chest and I’d roll under a hedge as she came outside. I’d watch her water her flowers and deliberate over whether she would or wouldn’t prune a rosebush, her hands shrunken inside two gigantic, yellow gloves. In person she would be so small and by the way she’d stare at her pruning shears, lips pursed, brow furrowed, I would be able to tell that she’s the type of woman who reads novels in big print.
She’d be so close. My breath could condense on her shoes. If I just reached one hand out, clasped my fingers around one stockinged ankle and tugged, she would fall down, arms flailing in the air, and I could escape. But I wouldn’t. I couldn’t be violent, not even in a dream and that made me angry, so, so angry.
I suppose I became bolder. One night I followed her to the gym, driving two car-lengths or so behind her. I walked through a parking lot that was lit up as if it were day. I paid $10 and joined her for a session in a room that was lined with mirrors and smelled like feet. I can’t remember what the exercise program was called but I know it was a noun joined with a strong active verb, something like body pump, cardio blast, power zumba. There was a lot of lunging involved and I didn’t know Mrs Scott was going to the gym so I wasn’t really dressed for lunging or squatting, but it was okay because when I tired the woman at the front smiled and bolstered me with an encouraging phrase.
It lasted for an hour and I can’t say I learnt very much other than that Mrs Scott is slightly more flexible than I am, and that her lungs seem more effective despite her age. She left the room flushed. She didn’t talk to anyone, no one knew her. She didn’t immediately head to her car but moved through a labyrinth of corridors that opened up to a pebbled walkway next to an indoor swimming pool that saturated the air with the stale smell of chlorine.
I saw a sign saying ‘women’s sauna’ and I wondered if she was the type of woman to avoid public saunas, and whether that’s because her ankles would bloat or if she fears that in all that steam she would simply dissolve into a bitter, barely-lingering mist. But she walked in and I hesitated, before following. I didn’t have a change of clothes but I at least had the forethought to take my shoes off and leave them on the little stoop outside the wood-panelled door.
The sauna was very small and what space there was seemed to all be taken up by two teenagers who lay on their sides. My socks, almost instantly, became heavy, absorbent, and my t-shirt stuck to my back. Droplets of water fell down the bridge of my nose.
Mrs Scott sat down, and the teenagers looked over at me once and sort of squinted as if I were from another planet, and then continued talking loudly.
The teenagers left and it was just the two of us. It was the closest we’d ever been to each other. Her eyes were shut but I kept mine open, even though the water gathering on my eyelids had begun to sting. Our breathing was almost in sync when she spoke, the first time I had heard her voice.
She asked me if I could pass over an extra towel. I don’t think she recognised me. I handed one to her and left. I power walked out of the gym, the reception staff staring, and, after walking to my car wet, I awoke the next day with a violent, summer cold.
Claire and David returned. Coughing, I handed them their mail. It was sunny outside and I lingered in the driveway before pulling out. The children stood in front of the car waving their souvenirs and I stared into my rear-view mirror but Mrs Scott could not be seen. Her house was empty or she was there, looking out at me, obscured, the windows all filled with midday reflections.
I drove to my flat across the bypass, my hands shaking with a fever. I slept and slept and slept.
Years passed, two or three, but I cannot say that I did not think about Mrs Scott in the interim because I did. She was nowhere and she was everywhere. At the library she would linger by the returns chute, the classical music aisle, be sitting in the computer bay. But it was never her.
When I went for my pap smear I was filled with a dreadful certainty that she would be there, at the doctor’s, sitting in the waiting room, quietly reading a magazine. She wasn’t.
I cut my hair short and then tried to grow it out. For a period I was intensely interested in Russian literature, stared at my reflection for hours at a time, and then read all the books the library had between 158.1 and 158.2—self-help—because I did not want to be like a character in a Russian novel. I did not want to covet overcoats or mistake myself for someone who I had never been. The manuals told me that self-help is based on knowledge of the self, on recognition. Recognition is the key.
Finally, it happened on a day I was leaving work early. My ideal shift is one in which I speak to no one, opening my mouth only to draw breath, but a new boy was working and it was to be his first shift closing alone. I had to go over procedures.
When we shut we rarely leave on time as we need to perform checks, rounds of the stacks to see if any children are hiding or if there are confused seniors with hearing deficiencies. It is a peaceful time. The lights are dimmed low.
These checks are very important. Occasionally we need to shoo out the homeless and elderly but I told him if it’s called for, we must do it gently, and for the most part it’s just people who are forgotten and slightly confused. I’m empathetic. Sometimes I walk through automatic doors that violently clamp onto my chest or pin one of my limbs as if I am not even there. I did not tell the boy this but I told him how once a woman was locked in overnight but somehow let herself out. The only traces, a cardigan left by the exit, an unlocked door and a security camera at 4 AM picking up a bent figure, opening a door and walking out of frame.
“Do they hide in the stacks?” the boy said.
“No, not really, they’re just quiet. They dress in faded, earth-coloured knits.”
I got out and it was 4 PM. I took a bus home. I had a book open but wasn’t reading it. My handbag was tucked between my feet and my head tilted towards, but did not touch, the window. I could see the Cheesecake Shop up ahead, the entire building painted green, and, as we neared, a little fold-out sign out front, ‘Slice of cake $2’ written in chalk. Though I wouldn’t have usually, I pressed the buzzer.
Stepping out at the next stop I ran a wet wipe up and down the lengths of my fingers. I walked into the store and looked at the display case, all the cakes lit up by overhead lights.
I ordered a slice of the tropical torte, a light sponge cake with slices of canned mango on top. It sounded festive.
A latex gloved teenager handed it to me, along with a plastic spoon, on a little cardboard plate. Inwardly, I smiled. I thought, I should do this every week. And then my stomach dropped.
There she was, Mrs Scott. Just sitting there in the corner, up on a stool, treating herself to bargain cake. Her back was to me but I knew it was her. Her profile, her clothes, her build, the exact way she sits. I knew her and I realised that both of our shoes were black, small-heeled and could be described as sensible.
If cake were in my mouth I would’ve choked but then a calm came over me. I sat down next to her. She turned.
I said, “hello.”