Sarah was deep in that twilight place between wakefulness and sleep when she felt the cat jump on to her bed. She felt it walk around the bed and finally curl up in the small of her back. The room was cold, and she pulled the down comforter up around her ear before she suddenly awoke fully, startled.
“I don’t have a cat,” she thought.
There was a hesitation of a moment or two while she thought about she should do, and then she reached out gingerly for the bedside lamp, feeling her way around in the dark, and finally flicked it on.
There was no cat on her bed.
But there was an indentation on the comforter. Sarah put her hand on it and found it warm. She felt other parts of the comforter for comparison, and then looked around the room. The door was closed and the room was mostly empty. There was a stack of sealed packing boxes against the far wall. The closet door stood open and the closet was empty. The only furniture in the room was Sarah’s bed and the lamp, which stood on another packing box.
She climbed out of bed and crossed the room, turning on the overhead light. The light was brass with a frosted glass shade that hung on chains in the middle of the ceiling’s big plaster medallion. When she first came to look at the place, her landlord had told her it was original to the house. It had been a gas light and was now wired for electricity. He explained how he had both renovated and restored the old Victorian at the same time, building in modern convenience while he lovingly replaced and fixed the antique details. He had found the gas lights in the basement, he said, and had created a workbench where he restored them, replacing them room by room, working in the evenings after the plumbers and plasterers had left for the day.
She opened the bedroom door and walked out into her flat, fumbling for the unfamiliar light switch. As she groped the wall, she felt the cat rush out of the room, brushing against her legs as it left. Once the light was on, she scanned the area. From where she stood, she could see all of her little one-bedroom flat. Her couch sat haphazardly in the middle of the living room, surrounded by more packing boxes. The coffeemaker was on the counter, set to go off in the morning. She peeked behind the couch. Nothing. There was nothing on the other side of the kitchen counter either, in the little dining area in the bay windows. She stood in the windows and looked down at the quiet street, wondering what to do next. A black cat darted out of the shadows near the front door of her building, and dashed across the street, the light from the streetlamp shining on its back.
Finally, realizing that there was nothing she could do but go to sleep, she went back into her new bedroom and closed the door. She climbed back into bed and snuggled into the bedclothes. She took a final glance around the empty room before turning off the lamp.
“How can there be a cat?” she thought. “Especially a cat I can’t see?” There was certainly no place in the apartment for a cat to hide right now.
“Maybe I dreamt it all,” she thought, and then sneezed violently three times in a row, remembering that she was allergic to cats.
In the morning, the apartment was cold. Sarah thought she could see the faint puffs of her breath. Her eyes were itchy and swollen and she rubbed at her nose as she made her way to the kitchen.
“Damn, cat,” she thought. She was sure that today, in the daylight, she could find the cat and shoo it out of her apartment, if there was, in fact, a cat, and she hadn’t imagined it all.
Her coffeemaker sat on the counter, staring back at her, unblinking. It was as cold as the air in the apartment and the pot was as empty as the day she purchased it. The digital display was black. She shook the plug in the socket but got no response.
She looked around the room, bathed in the cool, dim morning light, and tried to remember where the thermostat was. Finally she saw it on the wall. It read 49 degrees. There was, of course, no cat.
There was a knock on her door. “Sarah, it’s Michael, from upstairs.” Michael, her new landlord, lived on the floor above her in the old three-story Victorian. “Welcome to San Francisco. The power’s out, but it usually comes on pretty quickly. Everything alright in there?”
She opened the door. “Cold but otherwise fine.” She hugged her robe around her.
Michael glanced around. “Well, I’m glad to see your stuff arrived okay. Let me know if you need anything for the unpacking – tools – that kind of thing.”
“Most of it’s okay,” she said. “I’m missing my coffeemaker right now.”
“Well, I’m sure it will come back with the power,” Michael said, stepping into her bay window. He pointed across the street. “That little place right there has pretty decent coffee and they’re open every day.”
“Okay then,” Sarah said. “I know where I’m headed. Thanks for the welcome. I’ll have you down for a glass of wine when I’ve finished unpacking.”
“Whenever that is,” Michael said. “Take your time.”
Sarah pulled open a box in the bedroom and dug through it. She found a hooded sweatshirt and her down vest. She traded her sweatpants for a pair of jeans, and slipped into her sneakers. This wasn’t how she had pictured her first morning in the city. She had envisioned herself sipping French roast coffee at the table in her bay window, looking down at the street, reading the paper. Later in the morning, she would throw on a trench coat and a cashmere scarf and explore her new neighborhood, returning later in the day with cut flowers and fresh sourdough bread. Of course, she didn’t have a trench coat or a cashmere scarf, but these were the details she was sure city life would eventually supply.
She pushed the box into her closet with her foot and closed the door. Just as she was leaving the apartment the power came back on. Her coffeemaker blinked at her from the counter, and she heard the thermostat click. At least it would be warmer when she got back.
A black cat was lying on the bottom of the front steps. It stood and stretched when it saw her, winding itself around her ankles. It made a little trilling sound, trying to get her attention.
“You’ve got the wrong girl, Cat. I’m allergic to you. I’m not going to pet you. Sorry to disappoint,” she said. The cat wandered off and rubbed itself against the carved post at the foot of the stairs.
In the tiny shop across the street, the barista was just turning off the battery-powered lanterns. “Come on in,” he said. “We’re open. We’ve got back-up power for the coffee machines, and we cook with gas.”
It was warm in the little shop and Sarah lingered over a vanilla latte and a croissant, reading the morning paper. Then she wandered down the street a ways, looking at the other “painted ladies” that filled her neighborhood, some of the Victorians converted to apartments and some businesses. Interspersed were some that were clearly still single, stately residences, with neatly trimmed hedges and iron fences. She spotted a corner drugstore and ducked in.
“Can I help you?” The Asian woman behind the counter wore a pink smock that looked like something out of the 1950s. Her name tag said “Lulu”.
“I think I’m having allergies,” Sarah said.
“Hayfever?” the woman asked. “It’s sort of late in the season for that.”
“I think it might be a cat allergy,” Sarah said. “I’m allergic to cats, and –” She paused here, wondering how to continue. “I think there might have been one in my apartment before I moved in.” She gestured toward her building down the street.
“Any of these would probably work.”
Sarah read the packages and chose a box. The woman rang her up and handed her a little pink bag, neatly folded at the top. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” she said.
On the way home, she passed a narrow building, wedged between two larger Victorians. In contrast, it looked like a sliver of a place. Even the front door and window were tall and narrow. The door was painted a deep lacquered red. Gold velvet curtains covered the window where an arc of deep purple letters proclaimed, “The Women’s Room”. Underneath, in smaller letters, was listed: “Books, music, herbs, tarot, tea, & good company”. Sarah tried the door, but it was locked. A small brass plaque on the door said “Wed. – Sat., 2 p.m. ’til midnight”.
She ran into Michael on the way up the front stairs.
“Found your coffee?”
“I did,” she said. “It was just what I needed. Hey, Michael, can I ask you something.”
“Was there a cat in the apartment before I moved in?”
“No,” he said. “You’re the first tenant since I finished the renovation. I don’t have a cat and never have. The Grossmans in the ground floor place don’t have one either, although they have that little hand-puppet of a dog.”
“So the black cat I see sometimes on the steps doesn’t live here?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it,” Michael said. “But why are you asking?”
“Oh, it’s no big thing,” Sarah said. “I’m just having some allergies, I think. Must be getting used to the new neighborhood.”
Back in the apartment, she turned on the lights and opened the blinds in her little living area. She gave the couch a push to one wall, considering how it looked there, and placed a couple of boxes in front of it as a placeholder for a coffee table.
“I guess it’s time to start unpacking,” she said, to no one in particular.
The bedroom was still cold, but considerably warmer than when she woke up. She pulled up the blinds, and began straightening the covers on her bed. That’s when she heard the faint “meow”. She looked around the room, but it was empty save for the boxes and the bed. She got down on her hands and knees on the polished hardwood floor and looked under the bed, but since she’d only moved the bed in the day before, there wasn’t even a dust bunny under there. She looked toward the closet.
“Meow,” she heard again. It was muffled.
She opened the closet and peered inside. There was the box she had pushed in there after she got dressed, but nothing else, not even clothes hangers. (“Remember to get clothes hangers,” she thought to herself.)
“Meow.” She jumped a little. It was louder, plaintive, and clearly right in the closet. She pulled the string to turn on the light, but still saw nothing. Then, bending down to move the box, she felt the cat brush her arm as it left the closet. There was the unmistakable softness of cat fur, the movement of air, the soft sound of padding feet, and the flick of a tail. But again, there was no cat.
In the daylight, the invisible cat seemed much more real, and somehow less scary.
“I’m sorry, kitty. I didn’t see you in here,” Sarah said, as she scratched her arm.
After all, what else could she say?
By early afternoon Sarah had unpacked her kitchen. Crumpled paper and empty boxes were spread all over the floor, but the cabinets were full. She made herself some soup for lunch, and ate it with crackers and cheese, sitting at the little table in her bay window. The fog had burned off and outside it was clear and sunny. She cracked one of the windows a little. It was still cold.
Down on the street, cars passed back and forth, people on foot and on bicycles. Despite all the activity, it was surprisingly quiet. A woman walking down the street caught her eye. She was wearing a fitted black coat with a hood that hung down her back. She had glossy black hair that glistened almost blue in the sunlight, and it fell straight to her shoulders, cut into heavy bangs above her eyes. There was a slash of deep red lipstick. She stopped in front of the red lacquered door of The Women’s Room and pulled a key out of her pocket. As she unlocked the door, the black cat darted across the street and wound itself around her ankles. She reached down to pick it up, and carried it into the shop with her.
Sarah carried her lunch dishes to the sink and began to rinse them, but she heard a noise behind her, and when she turned it seemed the crumpled paper on the floor had been moving. She couldn’t quite tell. She went back to the dishes, and again there was the rustling sound, and this time when she turned she saw some of the paper just settling back down on the floor. She stood there with her back to the sink and watched a ripple run under the pile of paper, as though a cat was playing in it. A cool breeze raised goosebumps on her arms, and she remembered that the window was still open. She closed it, and began to gather up all the paper and flatten the boxes. She had moved three times in the past four years, and each time, it seemed there was more packing material when she was done than there was when she started.
She stuffed all the paper into a trash bag and put it near the front door. Just as she set it down she thought she heard a little trilling sound behind her. “Sorry kitty,” she said. “We’re all done with the paper.” She felt self-conscious talking to a cat that wasn’t there, but the ghost cat didn’t seem to be going away, and she felt like making friends.
She stood the flattened boxes against the back wall of her bedroom closet, although she had second thoughts as she did this. She was hoping that San Francisco would be her real home, but the one thing she had learned in all of her moves was that good packing boxes were worth keeping.
It didn’t take long to unpack her clothes. Her business wardrobe was still on hangers, carefully folded into boxes. Her casual clothes were going to have to stay in the packing boxes until she could make a trip to Ikea for a chest of drawers. Another thing she had learned in her moves: Pay to take the things you love, but sell the rest before you leave.
After her apartment scouting trip, when she had found this place and signed the lease with Michael, she went back to Minneapolis and cast a critical eye on her furniture. Finally, she decided to take only her little dining set, the beautiful antique couch that had been her grandmother’s, and the iron bed that made every place she lived feel homier.
Michael had said that Golden Gate Park was nearby, and she decided to set out on a walk. She grabbed a jacket and stuffed her cell phone and keys into her pocket, along with lip balm. On her first trip, when she was here for her job interview, she had bought a small map of San Francisco from the honor bar in her hotel room. It was a fancy little thing that folded up and snapped shut, and it added $15 to her hotel bill, but she’d found it useful. It listed most of the major landmarks and was easy to read. She spread it out on the counter and studied it. It looked like she only had to walk a few blocks west and then a few blocks south to reach the east entrance.
She carried the bag of crumpled newspaper to the recycling bin in the driveway, stuffing them down to take up as little space as possible. Then she looked around. The black cat was there, watching her, sitting placidly on the sidewalk, its eyes amber and unblinking.
“Hey, kitty,” she said. The cat walked over to rub against her shins.
“Remember, I’m the one who’s not going to pet you.”
The cat looked up at her and and made a chirping noise, then turned and walked across the street, toward the little shop with the red door. On the other side of the street, it sat down and looked back at her, twitching its tail.
Sarah felt compelled to follow the cat. She looked both ways before crossing the street on the diagonal, walking toward it, but just as she approached, the cat turned and darted into the open door of The Women’s Room.
Inside the shop it was dim, and it took a moment for Sarah’s eyes to adjust.
The space was long and narrow, and after blinking a few times, she realized the walls were hung with crimson velvet and light came from a series of mismatched crystal chandeliers scattered across the ceiling. Big and small, hung high and low, they glowed softly. The breeze from the open door caused them to sway slightly.
“Wow,” she thought. “It would be a pain in the ass to have to dust those.”
The walls were filled with shelves, glass cases, and a few racks of clothing. Thick patterned carpets covered the floors. At the far end of the room there was a stage. In the middle of the floor there were overstuffed chairs with footstools, and a big couch and coffee table. Several small tables with chairs dotted the room also. She became aware that the air in the room was rendolent with the scent of books and spices, and also with smoke and vanilla.
“Welcome. Would you like some tea?” asked a voice behind her.
Sarah turned to face the woman behind her. It was the same woman she had seen from her window earlier, with the glossy black hair and the slash of red lipstick.
“Oh, it’s you,” the woman said, smiling in recognition. “I knew you would come here eventually.”
Sarah felt the cat winding around her ankles and looked down.
“This is Owl,” the woman said. “He always wants the people he can’t have.” She held out her hand, “And, I’m Lupa.”
Sarah took her hand. “Sarah.”
“I know,” Lupa said. “Owl said you’d moved into the place across the street. He’s friends with your cat.”
“I don’t have a cat,” Sarah said.
“But you do,” Lupa said. “I see her all the time. Come look.”
Together they walked to the doorway and stood in the sunlight, peering across the street. Lupa pointed. “There.”
On the second floor of the Victorian, sitting in the bay window where Sarah had just had her lunch, was a fluffy cat, every bit as white as Owl was black.
“That’s your place, right?”
“It is,” Sarah said. “But I just moved in and I didn’t bring a cat.”
“But she’s still yours,” Lupa said. It wasn’t a question. “I don’t know what you call her, but I think of her as Alba. Come on, let me get you some tea.”
The tea that Lupa handed her was in a ceramic cup without a handle. It looked like it was handmade, with a dark blue glaze, and the irregular curves of the surface nestled into her hand. The steam coming off the tea was heady with the smell of fruit and flowers and spices, but there was also the hint of smoke she had picked up in the room.
“It’s my own blend,” said Lupa. “It has a base of lapsang su chong, a smoked tea, but there are herbs and berries in it too.
“It smells so good,” Sarah said, breathing in deeply.
“It’s supposed to be mildly euphoric,” Lupa said.
Sarah’s eyes widened.
“Only mildly,” Lupa said, chuckling. “Don’t worry.”
Sarah studied the other woman for a moment and then took a sip. “Oh, it’s wonderful.”
Lupa’s dark eyes flashed with pleasure. “I knew you would like it,” she said. “And it will help with your allergies, too.”
Sarah wasn’t certain she’d heard her right. “Excuse me?”
“You’ve been having allergies, yes?” Lupa asked.
“I have. But how could you know? We haven’t met before, have we?”
The question hung in the air. Even as she said it, Sarah realized there was something about the woman that felt familiar.
“Not exactly,” Lupa said.
At the back of the store, a couple of young women were moving things around on the raised stage, setting up microphone stands and chairs.
The two women watched them for a minute.
“The stage is always available,” Lupa said, “whenever I’m open. Sometimes artists perform here during the day when it’s quiet, just for practice. If I have a moment, I’ll cast a spell to make them think the room is full. That way they learn to get over their jitters.”
Just as she spoke these improbable words, Sarah felt the room grower warmer and heard the murmur of an audience. She briefly glimpsed the rows of wooden folding chairs, the backs of bodies facing the stage, and then the room returned to empty. She blinked and shook her head a little, unsure of what she had just seen.
“It will be a good show today. Martha has a lovely voice and plays the guitar. The other woman, Eve, plays the cello and the violin. They’re working on new material. Normally Martha fronts a rock band called The Golden Ratio. They’re sort of legendary around here. Curl up on the couch and take a break. Moving can be very disorienting and it can take a while for your soul to catch up.” As she said this, Lupa took Sarah by the elbow and steered her to the couch. Gratefully, Sarah sunk into the velvet cushions, suddenly feeling a little lightheaded.
On the stage, the musicians began to play. The tune was mournful, in a minor key, and Martha’s voice was rich and warm. Immediately, Sarah thought of amber, and firelight, and the color of Owl’s eyes. The words to the song were in Spanish, and Martha’s tan arms, inked with tattoos, wrapped around her guitar as she plucked the strings. Eve’s violin joined in a counter melody, winding around Martha’s voice, sometimes joining it, and then drifting away to rise higher, hanging in the air before plummeting lower and fading into silence.
Sarah set her teacup on the table in front of her and rubbed her eyes. “I feel like Alice in Wonderland,” she thought. “There is an invisible cat and a woman I’ve never met who seems to know me, a spectral audience, and this beautiful music.” She yawned and snuggled deeper into the couch. “What does the story say?” she thought. “Down, down, down… I’m falling down the rabbit hole.”
And with that, Sarah dozed off.
In her slumber, Sarah gradually became aware that the music had changed. It was louder and bouncier, with a rhythm that recalled an old-fashioned calliope. She slowly opened her eyes, still leaning on the overstuffed arm of the sofa, then sat upright at what she saw.
An audience filled the room, seated in rows of chairs and at at tables. Women leaned against the bookshelves and on each other. Indeed, Sarah noticed that the audience was mostly female, although, as she surveyed the room, she realized that what she first took to be men were probably butch women and trans and genderqueer folk too. Small candles burned on the tables, and the smoke from sandalwood incense hung in the air. Spotlights streamed through the haze, focused on the stage at the front of the room.
As the music slowed, and a deep drum beat began, the tapestry curtains behind the stage parted and a woman slipped through them. She began to dance, spinning slowly, her bare feet patting and brushing the stage as she swayed and shimmied. Her dance wasn’t like anything Sarah had ever seen. It wasn’t a bellydance and it wasn’t the stylized dance of a stripper, but there was definitely an erotic flavor to it. She wore a filmy dress that was almost Grecian in design. It joined at the shoulders, leaving her pale arms bare. And while the dress was long and narrow, it appeared to be made of layers of gossamer silk, in shades of silver and pink. The layers hung like handkerchiefs, and as she spun, they bloomed like the petals of a flower. She had long dark hair – a mass of tangled curls that shined under the lights – and as she danced faster, she gathered it up in her hands, lifting it off her shoulders and letting it fall down her back again. Indeed, it almost brushed the floor as she reached into a deep backbend, touching down with one hand. It was then Sarah realized, that as the fabric petals parted, the diaphanous base layer of the dress was almost completely transparent under the lights, and as the fabric pulled across the dancer’s arched body, the dark triangle of her pubis was clearly visible.
The audience gasped, fully engaged and leaning forward in their seats, and as she drew up out of her backbend, they began to clap. The dancer faced the audience, motioning with her hands, drawing some of the standing women closer.
A tall woman approached the stage. She wore a tuxedo with the shirt collar open and her untied tie hung around her neck. She had clearly done this before, and reached confidently toward the dancer and plucked one of the petals off her dress, kissing it respectfully before tucking it into her breast pocket. She motioned for others to follow.
At once Sarah realized this was a kind of burlesque, and she sat forward on the edge of the couch, mesmerized as woman after woman approached the stage, tearing away the layers of the dancer’s dress, each claiming a gauzy square as a prize. The clapping grew louder, and encouraging hoots and whistles began to fill the air as the drumbeat became more urgent. The dancer spun even faster at the front edge of the stage, the swell of her hips now clearly visible. As the layers were ripped away, the dress became shorter, and it was now a transparent shift, barely skimming the top of her thighs. At her chest, the fabric lifted away from her body, raised by her pointed nipples, clearly visible through the pale pink silk.
There was almost nothing left of the dress. With the light falling on the iridescent fabric, the dancer was alternately nude and veiled as she moved. The drumbeat began to slow and her spinning stopped. The audience grew hushed as the music began to fade away. Her eyes were closed, and she swayed to the music, running her hands up and down her body. They traced the curve of her belly and her waist. The fabric slid and gathered provocatively under her hands, and as she leaned back, her lips parted into a rounded O, one hand caressing her breast, pinching and pulling at her nipple through the silk.
The music had stopped altogether. Sarah sat frozen with the rest of the audience. There was only the whispering sound of breath – both the watchers’ and the dancer’s. The light caught the fine sheen of sweat on her skin, and then her hand slipped to the hem of her dress, beginning to gather it up, the other sliding through her silky pubic hair. She moaned, a throaty sound that was also an exhalation. Her eyes were still closed, giving her audience the impression they were observing her in private. She fell to her knees, as though overcome in her own desire. Then reaching for her shoulder, she tore the remaining dress away, letting the fabric puddle around her, and again reached back into a deep arch, knees wide, breasts jutting upward. For just an instant, her body was fully nude and open – a sculpture in shades of flesh and pink – and then the room went dark.
There was a pause in the audience, the collective breath ragged and the air thick and steamy. Then the lights came up to thunderous applause and flushed faces, as the dancer, in an antique silk kimono took the stage for a bow. Roses tossed from the audience landed at her feet and she bent gracefully to collect them. Sarah was surprised to see, as she left the stage, the audience already beginning to stand and move. Women began to carry chairs and tables to the edges of the room. Another group began to roll back the carpets in front of the stage, and music began to swell. Dancers took to the floor.
It was clear that the heated eroticism of the performance had removed all of the inhibitions that usually mark the beginning of a dance. At the onset, the dancing was already sexually charged.
“What did you think of Salome and her ‘Dance of the Seventy Veils’?” Lupa asked, sitting down on the sofa beside Sarah. She held a small iron teapot. “Here, have some more tea.”
“She was amazing” Sarah said, putting her hand over her teacup. “No more, thank you. Last time I dozed off, and I have no idea how long I slept.”
“Well, it’s after nine. You were asleep for quite a while, but it seemed like you needed it. I hope you don’t mind that I just let you nap while your soul caught up.”
“Wow. The whole afternoon is gone,” Sarah said, shaking her head as if to clear it. “There were things I was going do.”
“Were they better than Salome’s dance?” Lupa asked. “Or better than this?” She nodded toward the dance floor.
Sarah shook her head and smiled. “I don’t think so.”
Lupa rose to leave, but Sarah stopped her.
“So, tell me – I didn’t dream that performance?” she asked. “It wasn’t the tea, and you didn’t somehow make it…” Her question trailed off.
“No,” Lupa said, with a warm smile. “This is just another evening at the Women’s Room. Think of it as your welcoming party.”
She leaned in and kissed Sarah on the cheek and then walked away.
The place where Lupa had sat on the sofa was immediately filled by another woman. Her hair was shaved close to her head, and she wore small hoop earrings in both ears. The effect was more pirate than feminine, however. She touched Sarah gently on the arm. “Dance with me?” she asked.
Sarah followed her to the dance floor and allowed herself to be drawn into the woman’s strong arms as the music shifted to a Latin beat.
Sarah woke up to gentle paws kneading her. She opened her eyes and in the morning half-light, she saw a white fluffy cat sitting above her. Instinctively, she reached out and stroked the cat, who settled in and purred contentedly on her belly. She slipped back into sleep.
When she awoke again, the cat had crept up and was sleeping in the crook of her arm, cuddled against her chest. She flexed her fingers, playing with its fur, and when she opened her eyes, the room was bright. Sunlight streaked across her bed, and while she could feel the cat, she couldn’t see it.
“Alba?” she asked, using the name Lupa had used for the cat. “Is that you?” The cat gave a kittenish little meow in response, maybe part yawn, and she felt it stand and stretch. She thought, for just an instant, that she saw the faint outline of a cat in the sunlight. It was like looking at a jellyfish, she thought; the edges were more distinct than the body.
Before she could think about it, she rubbed her eyes. “Shit!” she said, running to the bathroom to splash some water on her face before an allergic reaction could start. But she didn’t itch. After she made coffee, she checked in the bathroom mirror. Her eyes looked fine. They weren’t red and they weren’t puffy. Her nose wasn’t running. In fact, the only red on her face was the streak of crimson lipstick on her cheek where Lupa had kissed her the night before.
“So it wasn’t a dream,” Sarah said. As she talked to herself in the mirror, rubbing at the smudge on her cheek, she saw the cat reflected there plain as the day, sitting on the windowsill behind her. She turned around to face the window, but there was no visible cat. She turned back to the mirror – cat – and then again turned to the window – no cat. She walked toward the window and reached her hand to the spot where she had seen the cat. “Alba, kitty. Good kitty.” Her fingers hesitantly touched fur and the cat gave a little trill and rubbed the side of its face against her hand. She petted it for a moment and then washed her hands and poured herself a cup of coffee.
While she was having her coffee, sitting on the couch with her legs curled underneath her, she saw the cat walk into the kitchen. She saw it in her peripheral vision. Indeed, with the cat in the middle of the kitchen floor, grooming itself, she experimented. She could see the cat if she didn’t look at it. If her eyes focused above it, or off to the side, she could see the cat. But the moment she looked at it directly, it dissolved. If she swung her eyes to the cat slowly, the cat dissolved slowly, but if she cut her eyes to it quickly, it disappeared just as fast. She played with that for a while, seeing how close she could let her vision creep before the cat would start to shimmer and fade away.
She saw the cat look toward the front door and followed its gaze. There, just inside the front door sat Owl.
“Oh, great,” she thought. “Now there’s two cats.” But she didn’t say it out loud. That would have been rude. Instead she said “Oh, hey, Owl. Good morning to you.”
Alba walked over to greet the other cat. By keeping her eyes focused on Owl, Sarah could see them both, rubbing faces and curling around each other, one as black and sleek as the other was white and fluffy – a yin/yang of cats. She was still watching as they left the apartment, walking through the door as though it wasn’t there.
There was a sudden stillness in the room. “They didn’t leave so much as a smile,” she said to no one in particular.
Sarah head a familiar faint buzz and crossed the room to pick up her cell phone. The screen flashed a picture of her mother holding a coffee mug.
Her mom launched into a long story about how cold it was in Minnesota. “Colder than Great Uncle Bob’s rear end,” she said. (Great Uncle Bob had been dead since the 1970s.) She continued, detailing the types and varieties of hot dishes at the previous night’s church supper. At the thought of the night before, Sarah smiled a little, remembering the women and dancing. She had spun around the floor until she was dizzy and laughed until she was hoarse. Somewhere around midnight, a nice woman had thrown her suit jacket over her shoulders and walked her to the foot of the Victorian’s steps and kissed her gently on the forehead. Sarah returned the jacket before she let herself in the front door, and then realized after she closed it that she didn’t even know the woman’s name.
“Sarah,” her mom said. “Did you hear a word I said?”
“Oh, I did, Mom. I’m sorry I’m so quiet, I’m just waking up.”
“Just waking up?” her mom asked, years of sunrise baking adding judgment to the question.
“I’ve been tired,” Sarah said. “I’ve been carrying a lot of boxes around, you know, moving.”
“I’ll let you go then, and get settled. We just wanted you to know we’re thinking of you.” As always, her mother spoke for Sarah’s father too. “And keep an eye on the mail. We sent you a little something for your birthday.”
Sarah had completely forgotten about her birthday. When was it? Monday? Tuesday?
“Bye-bye now. You know we love our girl.”
Just as Sarah started to set the phone down on the counter, a envelope slid under the door with a soft, dry whisper of a sound. It was cream colored, and the paper was thick and rich, as she found when she picked it up. There was no writing on the envelope at all, but the flap was sealed with heavy crimson wax that had been imprinted with a star. She slipped her finger under the flap and carefully loosed the seal and removed the panel card inside.
“A small party in honor of your birthday. This Tuesday night at 8 p.m. Wear something festive.”
It was signed in purple ink, “Lupa”.
After breakfast, Sarah made a list of all the things her new flat needed, and headed out to see if she could find some of them. She was reluctant to move her car and lose her parking place, but she knew she couldn’t carry a nightstand and a dresser home on BART.
The heavy fog that had rolled in came as a surprise after the shafts of sunlight that had greeted her when she awoke.
“I guess this is what Michael meant when he said ‘If you don’t like San Francisco’s weather, just wait an hour,'” she thought to herself, peering up through her windshield at the sky.
The closest Ikea store was in Emeryville, over the Bay Bridge and as her little Honda crossed over San Francisco Bay, she tried not to be distracted by the fog-softened views of the Oakland skyline and ships on the water. As she arrived in the East Bay, it was beginning to drizzle.
“If I ever wondered what people in the Bay Area do on rainy Sundays, now I know,” Sarah muttered, as she jockeyed for a place in the crowed parking garage.
Even though the store was packed with people, she was happy to find that the layout wasn’t much different from the Twin Cities store. After stopping at the cafe for a cup of coffee, she headed off in search of bedroom furniture. The choices almost overwhelmed her, and she was tempted to buy the exact same items she had sold in Minnesota, but then she noticed a white dresser and nightstand that were entirely different than the streamlined modern pieces she had already owned. While they weren’t like anything she had chosen before, she understood how they would complement the white moldings in her carefully painted bedroom. She checked the specs carefully to make sure the boxes would fit in her little hatchback because this was a lesson she had learned the hard way. On her way out of the store, she picked up a shower curtain, bathroom rug, clothes hangers, and some throw pillows for the living room. Even though the pillows were bright and modern with big graphic flowers on them, she thought they would make an interesting counterpoint to her antique sofa.
The rain had stopped by the time she got home, but what had seemed like a simple trip had taken more than three hours. She was relieved to find another parking place near the Victorian’s front door. Michael arrived, striding up the street, just as she was starting to unload the car. “Look at you, decorator girl,” he teased. “Let me help you haul the goods upstairs.”
He wrestled the boxes up to the landing while she carried the bags. “Need help assembling these?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ve done it so many times,” Sarah said. “I could work for Ikea.”
Michael laughed. “I understand.”
“And,” she added, “this is why I made of point of giving myself nearly two weeks to move in before I have to report to my new job.”
“Are you getting to know the neighborhood?”
Again, scenes from the night before at The Women’s Room danced in her head.
“I think I am.”
After the chaos of the store, she was relieved by the quiet in her apartment. She listened carefully and peeked around the flat, but didn’t see any sign of the cat.
She opened the carton that held her new nightstand and spread out the directions and began to put it together. It didn’t take long and soon she carried it into the bedroom. She carefully lifted the lamp off the final sealed packing box that it had been standing on, and lifted the box onto her bed. She moved the new table under the window and stood the lamp on it. It looked exactly the way she had pictured it would, and she stood, arms crossed, admiring it.
Her attention drifted to the sealed box on the bed.
She had already unpacked her hanging clothes, and her folded clothes were in boxes on the floor of the closet, awaiting her new dresser.
She couldn’t remember what was in this box, which was clearly labeled “bedroom” in her own hand, written with the big purple marker she had used to label all her moving boxes. She tried to remember what was missing, but nothing came to mind.
She began putting the new hangers in her closet, and flipped through the few dresses hanging there.
“I wonder what Lupa meant on her invitation by “wear something festive”? she wondered aloud. After what she had seen the night before, she felt like almost anything would be fine, but the more flamboyant, the better. Her closet of winter wool skirts and dark knits would be perfect for her new university job, but were hardly right for a party. They made her feel competent and stylish, but certainly not sexy or festive.
She heard the cat pad into the room and felt it rub against her ankles. Absently, Sarah reached down and picked it up. As she looked at the closet, she could see the cat in her arms, but when she looked down, her arms were empty, filled only with weight and the sensation of a cat. She carefully placed it on the bed.
She had to rummage around in a drawer to find the little orange box cutter she had used when she unpacked the kitchen.
“How can something get lost in a kitchen I just unpacked?” she thought. When she finally located it, she went into the bedroom and carefully opened the last packing box. The first thing she saw was her old faded college sweatshirt, neatly folded.
“Oh, of course,” she said, and lifted it to her face, inhaling deeply. To her surprise, it still smelled like Minnesota, like the cedar paneling that lined her closet there, and faintly of mothballs. Her eyes filled with tears. Even though she was sure taking the job in San Francisco was the right move, this was the farthest from her family that she had ever lived, and she knew in her heart she wasn’t going home anytime soon.
But her moment of homesickness was broken when she noticed the red tissue paper under the sweatshirt. She didn’t remember packing anything in tissue.
Carefully, she lifted the item out of the box and noticed that there were more items underneath it, each wrapped in a different colored tissue paper, the wrappings carefully folded and held in place with adhesive silver stars. She unwrapped the first item and sucked in her breath. It was an ivory silk blouse. She couldn’t tell if it was an antique, but it was beautifully crafted, like an old-fashioned camisole, sleeveless, with pin-tucks running the length of the front, and tiny jade buttons with rhinestones.
She was confused. This blouse wasn’t hers, and yet it was in the same box with her sweatshirt. Again she looked at the box, clearly labeled in her writing. She removed the next item, which was larger and heavier, wrapped in royal blue. She unfolded the paper to find a pair of wide-legged, cuffed trousers of the softest velvet she had ever felt. They were bottle green and shimmered softly in the light of her bedside lamp. The next item was wrapped in lilac paper. It slid inside the wrapping paper as she broke the star seal to find a wide cream-colored silk scarf beaded in a swirling pattern with iridescent cream-colored beads. Silk threads fringed the ends. She draped it around her neck, and it was sensuous, the cool silk both weighted into place by the beading, and yet seeming to slip against her skin with a life of its own. A pale green package yielded a gossamer bra and panty set, also in cream colored silk. They were just her size. Deep in the box, wrapped in rose, she found cream-colored lace stockings and a matching garter belt. A final purple tissue-wrapped bundle revealed an exquisite pair of black ankle boots, the leather beautifully punched and stitched, the heels only moderately high, but provocatively curved in the Louis style.
These were clothes beyond Sarah’s wildest dreams, certainly unlike anything she had ever owned. Garments like these were worn by movie stars and royalty, she was sure. And yet everything was exactly what she would have chosen for herself if she had ever had the opportunity to shop for such things. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the cat curl up on the velvet trousers and she picked it up and set it gently on the floor, picking a few long white hairs off the velvet.
She thought about calling the moving company, but then remembered that this was one of the boxes that came with her, in her own car.
“How could that be?” she wondered.
She spread the luxurious clothes out on the bed, and reached for the packing box to set it on the floor. Although she thought it was empty, she heard it rattle and looked inside. In the bottom of the box, not wrapped in tissue – as though tossed in as an afterthought – were four pairs of bottle-green velvet cuffs, attached to long, heavy golden chains.
( Part 8 )
Sarah looked at the cuffs warily. Then she carefully removed them from the box – placing them in the middle of the bed – and broke the box down. She stacked it in the back of her closet with the others. A shaft of late-afternoon light from the window fell across her bed, causing the chains to glimmer. Each of the cuffs was thick and padded, lined with a deeper green quilted leather. They fastened with gold buckles. Clearly designed to fit wrists and ankles, they were beautifully crafted. A shiver of pleasure ran up her spine, but from where it originated, she wasn’t sure.
The clock in the kitchen ticked, and Sarah was aware of the hush that had fallen over the house and the stillness with which she stood. She picked up one of the cuffs cautiously, turning it in her hands, and let the chain slide through her fingers. The chain was longer than her arm and solid and smooth. She noticed that it fastened to the cuff with a hook that snapped shut. The other end of the chain ended in a solid ring. She played with the ring for a moment. It was smaller than a bracelet and too large to fit on her thumb.
“Why a ring?” She thought.
She unfastened the buckle and tried the cuff on her wrist. The quilted leather felt both cool and warm against her skin at the same time. It fit perfectly and she pushed the sleeve of her sweater up to admire it laid across her arm. Again the shiver of pleasure and she saw the fine hairs rise on her skin.
She was struck with a desire to buckle them on.
Instead she removed the cuff and dropped it back on the bed. She sat there looking at it, her heart racing.
It was in that moment that she realized it had been some time since she had been intimate with anyone. There were a couple of girls in graduate school, and then her passionate, but drama-filled relationship with Carol that ended rather badly. She had a brief hot fling with a female co-worker when she realized she’d be moving to California. Sarah closed her eyes and remembered those lost days they had spent together in her apartment, many of her belongings already in boxes, even though the trip was a month away. They hadn’t needed much more than the mattress and the floor, and barely surfaced for food. Forty-eight hours of carnal pleasure, followed by some knowing glances back in the office.
It didn’t really make up for the years that had passed since Carol moved out.
She walked to the front door and bolted it, then rummaged around in the kitchen cabinets for some votive candles and her lighter. She brought them into the bedroom, and set them on the new bedside table in the waning light. They smelled like spice. She lit them and pulled the blinds, then stepped into the hallway and turned the thermostat up. Almost immediately, she heard the heater rush on.
Slowly she peeled her sweater over her head, and the tank top she was wearing underneath. She unfastened her bra and shrugged it forward so it slid over her shoulders. She let it fall to the floor without a thought. Already she was aware of her own desire, even though she was a little uncomfortable that it was sparked by these objects – clearly erotic in intention – that she had found in the bottom of a mysterious box of clothes. She slid her socks off and stepped out of her jeans, leaving them puddled on the floor.
Sarah sat in the middle of her bed and toyed with one of the cuffs. She realized the skin on her legs was dry and she slid off the bed to fetch a bottle of vanilla lotion. As she smoothed the lotion into her skin, it came alive in the candlelight, and she admired the green velvet of the cuff she had wrapped around her ankle. She looked at the ring on the end of the chain and realized that it was perfectly sized to slip over the finial on the foot of her bed. She leaned back on her hands, admiring the cuff on pale shimmering length of her leg contrasted against the deep burgundy of the bedspread. She scooted back a little, so her leg stretched, securely bound to the iron frame of her bed.
Although she wasn’t sleepy, Sarah was aware of a hypnotic haze descending on her. She liked the feeling of the cuff, and found it comforting, somehow. She fastened her other ankle, working the tab end and grommets through the cool buckle, and dropped the ring over the finial on the other corner of her bed. She took a moment to admire her handiwork, acutely aware of her own breathing, and of the hardness of her nipples as she looked down her torso at her bound legs.
“Oh, hell,” she said, realizing that she had chained her legs but left her panties on. She reached down and scooted them over her hips, but they clung awkwardly to her outstretched thighs, refusing to go lower. The white cotton looked rustic, crude even, contrasted against the rich color of the bedspread, her glowing skin, and the green of the cuffs. She couldn’t change the angle of her legs, and she suddenly wanted the panties off – now.
Glancing around her, Sarah spied the orange box cutter she had used earlier while unpacking. It lay on her bed, next to her pillow. She opened it and sliced through the side seams of her panties, pulling them away and tossing them over the end of the bed. She sighed in satisfaction at the sight of her own completely naked skin, and at the feeling of cool air suddenly playing over the warmest parts of her body.
Then, laying back on the bed she reached for the bottle of lotion, pouring some on her belly, and began to massage it into her skin. Her hands slid across her breasts, which now gleamed in the candlelight, and she gasped at her own touch, surprised at how much it felt like that of a lover lingering there. Turning her head on the pillow she saw the two remaining cuffs and reached for one. She buckled the cuff around her left wrist, and then twisting on the bed and reaching as far as she could, she just managed to slip the ring over the finial on the left side of her headboard.
“So this is what it feels like,” she thought, delighting in her three stretched limbs. Again, there was that hypnotic feeling. It was a heavy, warm, drowsy feeling. She felt more relaxed than she could ever remember, as her muscles yielded to the tension of her binds. Her right hand slid down her body, finding the wetness there, and deep inside her, a moan rose up.
In the distance, Sarah was aware of a knock on her door. It came once and there was a pause, then twice, more firmly.
Through her own soft cries, she thought she heard Lupa’s voice calling her name.
When Sarah’s heart stopped racing and her breath began to slow, she stretched her right arm up and unbuckled the cuff that bound her left arm to the headboard.
It was quiet, and she was pretty certain Lupa had gone, although she wasn’t sure how much time had passed since she first heard her knocking.
“What timing,” Sarah thought. When she realized Lupa was at her door, she had tried to stop the tsunami of pleasure that was swelling, but it was too late, and it began crashing on her shore. All she could do was try to muffle her cries in her pillow as she rode out the wave.
Slowly, Sarah pushed herself up to sitting and scooted down on the bed, slacking the brass chains that tethered her legs to the footboard. She unbuckled the velvet cuffs from her ankles and flexed first one leg and then the other. Then she sat on the edge of her bed.
“Sarah?” she heard, from the hallway outside her door. Again. It was Lupa.
Sarah wrapped her robe around herself, fumbling with the tie. She ran her hands through her hair, finding it all tangled at the back, and remembered how, just minutes ago, she was tossing her head on her pillow.
The front door seemed a long acre away, as Sarah walked toward the sound of Lupa’s persistent knocking. Finally, she unbolted the door and opened it.
“Oh good,” Lupa said. “I thought you were here.” Her eyes sparkled as she surveyed Sarah’s disarray. “Did I interrupt you in a nap?”
“I’m so sorry.” Lupa said. “I’ve been sleepy all day. I should have come over and joined you.”
Sarah didn’t have a reply to that. She wasn’t certain what Lupa had heard, or exactly what Lupa meant. She seemed to know everything.
There was an awkward moment for Sarah.
“Or I could have watched,” Lupa said.
“Oh, I love to watch women nap,” Lupa said. “I never turn down an invitation to watch.” There was a mischievous quality to her voice.
Sarah felt like the conversation was rushing around her, pricking at her, and tickling her, but she couldn’t keep up. She was still back on her bed, and flashes of surf continued to gently rock her body. She took a deep breath and tried to collect herself.
“Can I get you some tea?” Sarah said, turning toward the kitchen.
“No, I’m fine, but I want to talk to you about Tuesday night.”
“Oh. Thank you for the lovely invitation,” Sarah said. “But, it seems like a lot of trouble on your part.”
Lupa waved her hand in dismissal. “Your birthday can’t go unmarked. Especially this one. This is the beginning of a big year for you. Your move was just the first of many positive changes.”
“I certainly hope so,” Sarah said. She gestured with a mug. “You’re sure you don’t want tea.”
“No,” said Lupa. “But you go right ahead. You look in need of restoration. Although,” she paused, “this dishabille becomes you.” She looked pointedly at the front of Sarah’s robe. Sarah looked down to see that it had slipped open, and a blotchy pink orgasmic flush still covered her chest. She gathered her robe closed again, trying to maintain some composure.
“Well,” said Lupa, “I just realized it will be the full moon. It must have snuck up on me.”
“Do you do something special?” Sarah asked.
“Well, I have a small group of women friends that like to meet and mark it. Sometimes it’s the only time we see each other all month.”
Sarah was curious. “What do you do?”
“Oh, it’s nothing special. We just hang out and enjoy each others’ company.”
“It’ll conflict with my party?” Sarah asked.
“It doesn’t have to,” Lupa said. “The thing is this, I was wondering if, after your party, we could come over here for a while. This is such a nice, intimate space. I hope you won’t think I’m imposing by asking.”
“No,” Sarah said. “You’re giving me a party. It only seems fair, but…” her voice trailed off as they both looked around the room. It was mostly bare.
“We’ll light candles, ” Lupa said. “Candles always warm a place up. And, I’ll bring a few cushions to sit on.”
“Sure,” Sarah said, uncertainly, “If you think it will work.”
“It will be so lovely,” Lupa said. “Thank you for this.”
After Lupa left, Sarah sat at the table in the bay window, drinking her tea. She watched Lupa cross the street, stopping to pick up Owl, who darted out of the shadows to meet her. Under the table, she felt Alba wind around her ankles.
A full moon gathering? Thinking about the aura of magic and mystery that surrounded Lupa, Sarah wondered what she was getting herself into. Her mind dashed through some of the possibilities, and unexpectedly, she felt her nipples harden against her robe. The cat rubbed against her calf and trilled.
“Not right now, kitty.”
Sarah left her tea on the table and wandered back into her bedroom, where the scented candles still burned next to her bed. The room was warm and her bed looked inviting. She closed the door.
(“As if that could keep the cat out,” she thought to herself.)
She opened her robe and let it slide down her back and pool on the floor. Then, Sarah climbed back on the bed and again reached for the velvet cuffs and chains.
On Tuesday, Sarah awoke to a knock on her door. She lifted the cat out of her way and climbed out of bed. Her landlord, Michael, stood holding the morning paper and a paper cup and bag.
“Oh, heck. I woke you,” he said. “Well, Happy birthday. I brought you a scone and a vanilla latte, and since it’s your birthday, the latte has whipped cream.”
Sarah blinked at him sleepily. “How did you know it’s my birthday?”
“It’s on your rental agreement, silly.”
Sarah laughed and took the cup and the paper. “Michael, you’re almost the woman of my dreams. You think of everything, don’t you?”
“I’m known for my attention to detail,” he said. “Now go have your breakfast in bed.”
The day’s mail brought a package from her mom and dad. She opened the box to find one of her mother’s spice bundt cakes. Dripping with sticky caramel glaze, it smelled like cardamom and honey. She ran her finger through the glaze and licked it. This cake recipe had made her mother’s coffee klatches famous all over Minnesota. There was also a birthday card with a picture of a fluffy white cat. The note inside read “This probably seems silly since I know you’re allergic to cats, but I thought you might like this card anyway.” It was signed “Mom (and Dad, too).” There was also a check for $50 and the post-it stuck to it said “Get yourself a nice pedicure – xxoo.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Sarah looked at Alba, sitting on the window sill in the bay window. The cat on the card looked just like her.
As unused as she was to cats, Sarah had come to appreciate Alba’s company. She had become fond of the spectral cat, and of her shimmering form in her peripheral vision. Her allergies abated after Lupa gave her the cup of tea, and Sarah enjoyed picking the cat up and snuggling her. She liked her weight on her bed at night. Even though she couldn’t always see her, she knew when Alba was in the apartment and when she was gone. The place felt much emptier without her. “I can’t really complain, can I?” Sarah thought. The cat never needed to be fed and never made a mess. Sarah never even had to open a door to let her out.
“You’re a good cat, Alba,” she said aloud. The cat trilled in answer and Sarah heard the thump as she jumped off the window sill to rub against her shins.
In the afternoon, Sarah set out to find a place where she could get a pedicure. She remembered seeing a salon about three blocks west of her apartment. The day was cold and sunny, the air crisp and carrying the tinge of salt that permeates San Francisco. She found the little shop and opened the door. A brass bell signaled her arrival. A tall man approached her. He had bleached white hair and was wearing a silk scarf. “May I help you?”
“Do you take drop-in appointments?” Sarah asked. “I would love to get a pedicure today.”
He surveyed the empty shop and said, in one breath, “I don’t know. Let me check the book. Okay.”
“I’m Marco,” he said.
She held out her hand, “Sarah”.
“Come.” He took her coat and gestured to the back of the shop where there was a raised leather pedicure chair.
Sarah moaned as she slid her feet into the warm water. The scent of lavender rose with the steam.
“Day off?” Marco asked, switching on the jets.
“Sort of,” Sarah explained. “It’s my birthday.” She closed her eyes and leaned back in the chair, relaxing in the swirling water and the hum of the motor.
It was 10 minutes before Marco reappeared.
“So this was meant to be,” he said, lifting her left foot out of the warm water. “You have a birthday and I had no appointments.” He rubbed her foot briskly with a rough towel and, pouring peppermint lotion into his hands began to firmly massage her arch.
“Wow, that’s good,” Sarah said.
“Feet love attention,” Marco said. “And they’re very erogenous, too.”
Sarah must have looked startled because he quickly followed with “But you don’t have to worry about me, Girlfriend.” She smiled.
“Your feet are tense,” he said.
“I’ve been on them a lot lately.”
“You know I can read feet like some people read palms.”
“Oh,” Sarah said. She wasn’t sure what else to say.
“Let me show you,” he said. “A birthday present.”
She nodded her assent and he began to examine her foot closely as he massaged. He inspected each toe and the lines on her sole.
“You’ve moved recently?” he asked.
“I can feel boxes and stairs,” he said. “A new job brought you here.”
She nodded again.
“It’s an academic job.”
“It is,” Sarah said.
“And a new love.”
Sarah shook her head. “Nope. No love.”
“Ah, not yet,” Marco said. “She’s right around the corner.”
Suddenly, Marco laughed a delighted laugh. “Oh. My. God. You’re Sarah! Lupa’s friend.”
“I am,” Sarah said. “You can tell that by reading my foot?”
“Well, sort of,” Marco said. “And I put the details together. I’m stopping by your party for drinks tonight.”
“That’ll be lovely.” She meant it.
“Lupa has fabulous parties,” Marco said. “And tonight’s a full moon, you lucky girl.”
Sarah wanted to ask him what he meant by that, but didn’t feel she should, so she sat quietly while he worked.
When both feel were dry, Marco gestured to a large rack of polishes on the wall by the chair. “What color?” he asked.
“Oh,” Sarah said. “I never know. A soft beige maybe, or light pink.”
Marco looked aghast.
“Girlfriend. It’s your birthday. Live a little.”
He pulled a few bottles of polish off the rack. One was bright red, another was a sparkly metallic blue, and the third was a rich burgundy.
“See anything you like?” he asked.
Sarah hesitated. “This one,” she said, pointing to the burgundy. “That’s a beautiful color.”
He held it against her leg. “It will look beautiful against your skin, too.”
“It’s the color of my bedspread,” Sarah said, immediately blushing as she remembered how her skin looked against it in the candlelight.
“People should always dress their bed in colors that flatter them naked,” he said, winking.
After she spent a few minutes waiting for her polish to set, Marco gave her a pair of disposable sandals. “These will be chilly, but you’re only a few blocks from home,” he said. “I’ll see you tonight.”
And Sarah set out for her apartment, padding carefully up the street in pink foam flip-flops.
Sarah spent the afternoon doing her best to organize the apartment without smudging her new pedicure. She kept looking down at her bare feet on the hardwood floor, thinking that her feet looked both beautiful and foreign with their dark, shiny toenails.
There wasn’t much she could do to change the appearance of her mostly-empty living room, but she was both excited and nervous about the coming evening and fluffing pillows and pushing the couch around helped to calm her down.
She laid her new clothes on the bed, and as the light began to wane, she drew a hot bath and poured herself a glass of Chardonnay. “It’s my birthday, after all.”
Luxuriating in the deep porcelain tub, she realized it was the most comfortable she had ever been in. It was just the right length and depth, and reclined at a perfect angle. She reached one pedicured foot up and turned on a trickle of hot water. Alba sat in the bathroom doorway, watching her.
“Seriously, Alba,” she addressed the cat, whose faint image shimmered in the steam. “If I had known how perfect this tub would be, Michael could have asked me for more rent.”
The hot water and cold wine began to work their magic and Sarah drifted in and out of a blissfully sleepy state, buoyed by the water. Finally, when the bath begin to cool and her fingers began to prune, she climbed out and wrapped herself in a towel.
She was carrying the wineglass to the kitchen when she stopped in shock. Her living room glowed with warmth and color. The floor was covered in a thick rug with an exotic pattern that somehow enhanced her vintage sofa and new Ikea pillows. Her packing boxes had been neatly stacked in a corner and in their place was a rectangular coffee table of dark carved wood that matched the carved legs of her sofa. Enormous jewel-toned velvet floor cushions were piled around the room and a pair of standing lamps with stained glass shades lit the space with a soft rosy glow.
“How the heck…” she started in wonder, shaking her head at the sight. After all, she had bathed with the bathroom door open. How could she have not heard someone in the apartment? She stepped gingerly onto the dense, plush rug, feeling it yield under her feet, and ran her hand over the coffee table’s glass top. A soft meow drew her focus to the fireplace, where Owl and Alba sat on the hearth like a pair of andirons, an artfully laid fire behind them, just waiting for a match to set it ablaze.
“Did you kitties do this?” she asked the cats, who twitched their tails, but gave up no information. “Then who did?” she asked. They blinked slow inscrutable cat blinks – she could actually see it more on Owl’s face than on Alba’s – and then left through the front door.
Sarah finished drying and carefully smoothed on some vanilla-scented lotion before beginning to dress in her new clothes. She eyed the lingerie for a moment before gently pulling on the stockings and fastening the garter belt, which lay smoothly over her lower belly, and clipped easily to the lace stockings. Finally, she stepped into the wispy panties and fastened the bra. The delicate lingerie fit as perfectly as she knew it would. The velvet trousers were fluid and heavy, falling smoothly over her underthings, giving no hint of what lay beneath. The blouse fell straight from her shoulders, the weight of the silk crepe skimming over her body. Finally, she slipped into the black ankle boots and tied the laces.
She didn’t have a full-length mirror, but she didn’t need one to know she looked beautiful. Both the fabrics and her skin were luminous in the light of her bedside lamp. She stepped into the bathroom and tousled her hair. Sitting on the counter was a shiny black lipstick case. With a click, she opened it and found a deep berry lipstick, brand new and glistening. She rubbed a little into each cheek and then slicked it across her lips. It was both dark and sheer, complementing her hair and clothes.
She wrapped the beaded scarf around her neck, letting the ends trail down her back, and slipped her house key into her pocket (thinking to herself that she didn’t know why she bothered to do so, since everyone apparently came and went without unlocking her door). Then she walked into the night toward her party.
The door to the Women’s Room was open and warm light and a warm, spicy scent spilled out on the street. The butterflies in Sarah’s stomach banged their wings against the walls as she walked in the door.
“No surprise here! Happy birthday!” Lupa called out, greeting her in the doorway. All in one fluid motion, she pulled Sarah in close for a hug and a kiss on the cheek, wiped her lipstick smudge away with her thumb, handed her a sparkling flute of champagne, and turned her by the shoulders to face the room. “Meet your party. Party, this is Sarah.”
Someone reached out and grabbed Sarah by the wrist and pulled her into the roomful of women, where she was hugged and kissed, and passed from person to person. Marco gave her a quick hug and kiss as she went by him. The volume in the room began to rise as she was peppered with good wishes, introductions, and questions.
“How do you know Lupa?” an older woman asked, her silver hair and dangling earrings sparkling like the many chandeliers overhead.
“I moved in across the street.” Sarah pointed toward her building.
“Oh, are you the woman with Alba, the beautiful white cat?” the woman asked.
“I guess I am.”
Trying to mind her manners, Sarah returned the question. “And how do you know Lupa?”
“Oh, I’ve come here for years,” the woman said. “I think the first time was in the early 1960s, when I was a student at Mills. It was more underground then. There was no sign, no letters on the window, and her hours were more erratic. Sometimes the building wasn’t here at all. It would just disappear. But Lupa was always so welcoming, and she gave me special teas to help get me through my finals.”
Sarah smiled and nodded, but her head was whirling. Lupa didn’t look any older than she herself, but the woman speaking was clearly much older, maybe even 50 years older.
The woman continued on, oblivious to Sarah’s confusion. “I first heard about The Women’s Room from a professor. She told me on the sly, and said she used to come here during the war years. Like so many women she had gone to work in the shipyards, and sometimes she just needed the comfort and company…” Her voice drifted off as Sarah’s head spun with calculations.
“But Lupa wasn’t here then,” Sarah interrupted. It was a question, not a statement.
“Oh, but of course,” the woman said. “What would it be without her? She has been nuturing and caring for the women of the Bay Area for as long as anyone can remember. This room has been a nexus of political and sexual revolution. Some people think this IS the nexus. She’s in the history books, that one.” The woman cocked her head toward Lupa. “But you’ll never find her, or this place, mentioned by name. There is only allusion. After all, it’s all an allusion.”
The woman kissed her quickly on both cheeks. “Lucky girl,” she murmured, and disappeared into the crowd.
The thrum of background music began to swell and the conversation in the room grew louder and more raucous. Sarah was pulled from one knot of women to the next.
At the first sip, Sarah realized that what she had first taken to be champagne was some sort of sparkling herbal elixir, both fruity and spicy, with an aftertaste like a musky perfume.
Remembering her previous encounter with one of Lupa’s concoctions, Sarah asked her in passing if she needed to be careful.
“Not here, sweet thing. This is the one place you don’t need to be careful. I’ve always got your back.” Sarah looked at Lupa carefully, studying her smooth ageless face and deep red lips. Lupa’s eye crinkled only slightly as she smiled. “Oh, no you don’t. No questions. Now back to your party.”
Platters of amazing food made an appearance, deftly passed through the crowd by young, genderqueer waiters in white dinner jackets with pink carnations. There were lovely little tidbits that managed to be both savory and sweet, light and filling. The handsome, piratey-looking woman with the shaved head, that Sarah recognized from her first visit , wrapped an arm around her waist and leaned in close to her ear, conspiratorially. “I guess I’ll be seeing you after the party,” she said, before squeezing her and moving on.
Sarah had almost forgotten about the after-party gathering at her house and wondered if she should go home so she could light the fire and be there to greet people.
“Don’t you dare,” Lupa said, passing by and apparently reading her mind.
Instead Sarah sunk into one of the luxuriously overstuffed sofas and was soon flanked by women telling her stories and making her laugh.
The rest of the night passed in blur, but slowly Sarah became aware of the room getting a little quieter, the music a little softer. Was it her imagination, or was it even a little dimmer?
Lupa clinked a spoon against her glass and the room hushed. “It’s quarter to twelve, my friends.” And just like that the room cleared out. Remaining were Lupa, the piratey-woman, a delicate woman with a beautiful tumble of red hair (a mathematician, if Sarah remembered their conversation correctly) and the older woman with the silver hair. The waiters busied themselves tidying up the room.
“They’ll lock up,” Lupa said, referring to the waiters. “So, off we go.” And with that, she slipped into her coat and picked up a basket and headed across the street with Owl at her heels
When the group of women arrived at Sarah’s door, it was locked, as she had left it. But while Sarah fumbled for her key, Lupa reached out and turned the knob as easily as if it had been left open. They stepped inside.
“Oh, this is beautiful,” someone said. And it was. The fire was blazing and the room was warm. There were dozens of white pillar candles on the mantle, on the coffee table, on the kitchen table, and even on the kitchen counter. The room flickered in their light.
“Can I offer you something?” Sarah asked, suddenly, painfully aware that she didn’t have much on hand.
“It’s okay, Sarah. I bought another bottle of my bubbly, and even some glasses.” And with that, Lupa began to take myriad things out of her rather average-sized market basket: flutes, a giant bottle of her elixir, a linen cloth, linen napkins and corked bottles of a shimmering powder and a dark oil.
“First,” Lupa said, glancing at the kitchen clock, which showed it was nearly midnight, “formal introductions are in order. Sarah, this is Jacinda (the red-headed woman smiled), Myke (the piratey woman nodded), and Artemis, who sometimes talks to much.” The silver-haired woman grinned. “Let’s go to the fireplace and make sure Sarah’s year is a good one.
Organizing them into a semi-circle in front of the fire, Lupa passed in front of each and dabbed a bit of oil on their foreheads. It smelled heady and rich, like sandalwood, cocoa, and wine. Then, in a low voice, she said some words in a language Sarah didn’t understand. Artemis joined her and together their voices chanted softly with a cadence. They were finished almost as quickly as they had started. Lupa uncorked the bottle with the shimmering powder and poured a little into her palm. She blew the powder into the flames, which blazed up in all the colors of the rainbow and then died back down.
Then turning to Artemis, Lupa gently placed her hands on either side of the woman’s face and kissed her long and deep. Sarah fought the urge to look away. But then Myke kissed Jacinda. And Jacinda kissed Artemis, and Artemis kissed Myke. Jacinda’s lips brushed across Sarah’s gently and sweetly, and Artemis kissed her with a firm press. Myke and Lupa were kissing and when they broke apart, Myke turned to Sarah and kissed her deeply. Sarah felt her mouth open and the tip of Myke’s tongue brush across her teeth. She started to swoon.
“Easy girl,” Lupa steadied her. Sarah turned to face her.
“What is this Lupa?” she asked woozily. “Am I selling my soul to the devil?”
“Oh, no, honey. I’m helping you make your soul entirely your own. Remember – I’ve got you,” Lupa said, still holding her arm. And with that, she leaned into Sarah and kissed her with an enveloping that seemed to consume Sarah as it poured into her from the wellspring of Lupa’s lips. Immediately, Sarah felt she was back on steady ground.
“Well, that’s it for me,” Artemis said. “I need my beauty sleep. Thank you, Sarah, for the use of your lovely home and best wishes in the coming year. I’m sure our paths will cross again.” With that, she winked at Lupa and left, the door clicking quietly behind her.
“Let’s have a toast,” Lupa said, “to the first best year of Sarah’s life.” And she produced the flutes, already filled with elixir. They raised their glasses and took a sip. Sarah could feel the sparkle of the drink reach deep into her, including some places she hadn’t expected it. Her nipples hardened, and embarrassed, she immediately crossed an arm in front of her chest.
“It’s okay, baby. It does that to all of us,” Myke said, taking Sarah’s hand and running it across her own nipples, stiff and braless under her starched white shirt. Sarah smiled. It suddenly seemed like the most natural thing, to be rubbing Myke’s nipples.
Lupa took her basket to the coffee table and sat on the couch, tucking her feet beneath her. “Please, sit.” She gestured to the cushions. The three women gathered cushions by the fire.
“Here,” Jacinda said, and pulled Sarah back to lean on her. She smelled very lightly like honeysuckle and her red hair fell over Sarah’s shoulders. “You must be tired from moving. Myke, massage her legs.” And with that, Myke began to massage Sarah’s calves. “These are beautiful pants,” she said. “This velvet is so soft.”
“This silk is gorgeous, too” Jacinda said, stroking her hand down the front of Sarah’s blouse.
Suddenly, Sarah realized this was a seduction and her heart began to pound. She looked to Lupa, sitting on the couch, watching the three of them. Lupa smiled at her gently. “Just turn your head off, Sarah. Enjoy yourself and lose yourself in the night and the fire. You’re perfectly safe here.” Sarah nodded. “And if it’s okay with you,” Lupa said, “I’ll just keep watching. I like to watch.”
Sarah was vaguely aware of Lupa reaching into her basket and pulling out art supplies, which she was arranging on the coffee table. Myke’s firm hands continued to massage her calves and were moving upward toward her thighs. She moaned a little and closed her eyes, feeling Jacinda begin to unwork the delicate jade buttons of her blouse, letting it fall open.
“Oh, this bra is gorgeous,” Jacinda breathed. “Just perfect on you.” Her hands began to dance across Sarah’s nipples, clearly visible through the gossamer fabric. Myke slid the velvet trousers down, and without volition, Sarah lifted her hips so she could slide them away. Myke drew in her breath
Sarah looked past Jacinda’s hands at her breasts, down down to her legs, encased in the pale, crocheted stockings and delicate black boots. She looked Victorian and sensual and ridiculously decadent – like a delicately wrapped, perfect gift.
“That’s what you are,” she heard Lupa say softly. “A perfect gift. It’s your birthday and you’re the gift you’re giving yourself.” With that, she pulled a large pad of paper out of her basket and uncorked a bottle of ink, dipping a quill pen.
Myke began to kiss Sarah as Jacinda held her, the sound of their breaths punctuated by the scratching of Lupa’s ink pen. The fire continued to crackle and it crackled throughout the night as Sarah simultaneously learned to share and claim her soul. No one needed to stop and stoke the enchanted fire, and when it finally died out, Sarah could not say.
She awoke the next morning in her bed. The cat was curled next to her, tucked into her side, purring contentedly. She could tell by the angle of the sun streaming in her window that it was late, but she wasn’t sure how late. Nor was she sure when she had gone to bed, or even if she had gone to bed before sunrise. A flood of sweetly erotic images washed over her, and as her hands explored her nude body under the sheets, parts tender and damp, she realized the night had been both truth and magic.
Cradling the cat, she sat up in bed, and leaned back against her headboard. On the wall opposite the foot of her bed was the white dresser that exactly matched the carved moldings in her apartment. On top of it was a bowl of peonies in full bloom. But most amazingly, above the dresser hung a large framed piece of art. Rendered in ink and watercolor, it was a voluptuous tangle of bodies. Climbing out of bed, Sarah walked closer. There was a tumble of red hair, the glint of gold loop earrings and the curve of biceps. There were nipples, and hands, and the delicate trace of her lace stockings. The subjects of the painting were oblivious to the artist, engaged in acts so intimate that Sarah blushed looking at it. And yet, she recognized herself in the center of it, a pale wash hinting at the firelight playing across her skin and hair, her head thrown back in ecstasy.
The corner of the painting had been signed:
“To Sarah with love. Happy Birthday – Lupa.”
************* The End *************