Paul and Miriam Kaufman met the old-fashioned way. He picked her up at a bar, and they went immediately to his place and got it on. She heard the waterfall in his backyard almost immediately.
“My, my,” she said in the morning, straightening out her pantyhose and pulling the first leg over her ankle. “I haven’t done that in a while.” The small, antique picture frame atop Paul’s bureau held a photo offering the only intimate detail she’d seen in the house: two college-age boys that had his same cleft chin, bugged-out eyes, and were balding at the temples. She’d peeked out back in the faltering light of dawn while he was still asleep and could barely make out his koi pond and all the toys and doo-dads to take care of it.
Paul nicked himself with a razor and then tried, unsuccessfully, to dab the blood away before she could see.
“How much longer you think you’ll be, babe?” he said. He glanced at the gold watch he’d received after twenty-five years with West Coast Insurance. “I have a meeting.”
“Slam, bam, thank you, ma’am?” Sure, Mr. Stud. Mr. I’m-too-good-for-this.
He mumbled, “Nothing personal . . .”
Miriam padded straight. over to him and kissed him on the mouth, wet. “There’s personal for you,” she said, winking and almost falling over as she stepped into the adjoining bathroom, one pantyhose leg dragging behind her, skirt shimmied into but not yet zipped, blouse pulled on but not yet buttoned over her black lace brassiere, the one she wore for occasional nights on the town with the women from the hospital.
She didn’t embarrass like she used to and refused to let him ruin a perfectly fine evening. Besides, he was cute in a mature, man-who-can-hold-down-a-decent-job way, though definitely too nervous—probably new to the bar-hopping scene. She was no expert, but a girl was entitled to a little fun now and then.
“What are you doing?” Paul said. “I have to go.”
From the sink, she grinned a goofy grin. “I’m using your toothbrush. I’m washing my face—like most women attempt in the morning.”
He didn’t like having a woman in his house. Scratching his head, Paul turned away to give her more privacy. The truth was she’d been a tender surprise last night when the rest of his life had been far too orderly lately. He spent almost as much time at the office as he did at home, maybe more. But he’d been married before, and there was no chance he was going to get tied down again. A little slam bam was fine once in a while. He’d gotten pretty good at it, if he did say so himself. The ladies liked him.
“Don’t be such a grump,” she said, fluffing her hair as she returned to the bedroom. “It’s a beautiful day out. I’m almost ready.”
“Fine. Okay.” He paced. The pushy, young guys at his firm were all over his work if he wasn’t there every minute. He had to get to the office. He didn’t have time for this.
Not that he didn’t enjoy being kissed. There hadn’t been as many women lately. Okay, he hadn’t been with a woman in six months if he was going to be honest. And Miriam was definitely attractive—40ish with that big frisky ass of hers and the come hither eyes. She smelled like flowers, and her crooked smile made him want to laugh, though he didn’t dare. He didn’t want her thinking she could come back again. Having Miriam’s soft form beside him in his nearly always empty bed reminded him that occasionally he longed for something different. Not after the split with his boys’ mother, though. He couldn’t leave himself open for that kind of pain. He needed to get to work. He could count on work.
He grabbed his cufflinks, tried to line up the buttonholes in the oxford fabric but got them all tangled up. Instead, he threw the links on the floor, then picked them up, and tried again. “Do you think it’ll be long before you…” he said.
Miriam sat leisurely on a leather chair to pull on her other leg, listening to the trickle of the small waterfall out back. “You have a lovely place here.” Peaceful was what it was. She could get used this. She’d like to get to know a man like this better—responsible, didn’t throw his underwear all over the floor. Tending to and counseling addicts at the hospital didn’t prevent loneliness. Occasionally her patients’ breakthroughs made it all worthwhile, and she really did care about them. But she also saw lives being wasted. Yesterday one had called her a batty old bitch. This Paul had purpose. Integrity. She could tell by the way he spoke.
Standing, she told him, “I saw your koi pond outside.”
“I think anyone with a koi pond has a special quality.”
“Well, I did, I mean, I built it myself.” Paul slowed, messed his hair.
“You did? Yourself? Hey, I’m impressed.”
She swept out of the bedroom, her arm wedged through one jacket armhole, the bulk of the material following after her. “I’ve got to see it again.”
“Wait a minute. Wait! You’ve got to leave. I’ve got an important . . .”
“Oh, give it a rest.”
“Listen, all we had was a few drinks.”
Following her, though, Paul did admire her slim waist, and you had to give her credit for being open to new surroundings, curious, her interest in his interests, even if she wasn’t coming back again. If she insisted on dragging him out to the garden, he hoped at least he’d get there first so he could better explain his design. But when he saw she’d already pressed her nose against the sliding glass door, smiling and enjoying his creation covered with water lotuses and hyacinth, he was pleased.
“Well, then, at least let me explain a few things here,” he said, lunging to pull the wood handle and glide the glass door over its coasters so she could see up close.
“Oh, no,” she said. “You’ve got to get to work, and I have to leave. But it’s just gorgeous.”
She seemed to appreciate the garden, his waterfall, his ingenuity in building the pond.
“If you have just a minute . . .” He pushed the sliding glass all the way open. “Notice over here, where I built the cypress bridge. No nails whatsoever. Wood plugs. All natural. Takes real patience, but I thought the koi deserved the best.”
Miriam put her hand to her cheek. “Quite an accomplishment.”
Remembering the last time he’d tried unsuccessfully to interest his sons in the pond, Paul scrambled out ahead, excited someone might really be curious.
“I just got some new ones. They like a big community.”
Miriam squatted. “Oh, look at this guy here. He’s having a field day! What’s he doing?”
“They love snacking on the hyacinth roots—see over there? And the extra oxygen from the waterfall really makes them happy.”
“I used to be crazy about my neighbors’ koi pond. Did you know you can teach them to eat out of your hand?”
“I’ve never tried it.” Paul squatted beside her.
“You have to go slow and build their trust. My neighbor said quartered oranges are a real treat.”
“I don’t tell most people,” Paul said, “but that one—the gold one that looks like she has long hair—she’s a ki ogon. I call her Goldilocks.”
Miriam laughed so abruptly she fell over, right into the water. Too much that this big grouch had named his girl koi, touching when he obviously wasn’t great with human beings. Now sitting in the pond, water and dirt sloshed all over her skirt and jacket, she still thought it was funny.
“Oh, boy.” Paul glanced over, worried, and stood.
“It’s just water, for heaven’s sake. And I wasn’t laughing at you. Not entirely. It’s just such a perfect name for a fish.” She removed her shoes one by one, tossed them out of the pond and into the yard. Wiggling her toes in the big puddle felt delicious.
“Her locks are really trailing fins,” he said, rocking back on his heels. “Her nickname is Goldi.”
“Yeah, she’s a beaut.” The pond water was so refreshing, Miriam decided to sit and enjoy it a moment. She wasn’t in any hurry.
“She’s a butterfly koi. Looks like long, romantic hair, though, doesn’t it? Me and Goldi chat every morning before I run off.” He could feel himself cracking out of a chrysalis of his own making. This Miriam seemed to make it okay.
“Look,” Miriam said, “she’s swimming right over to you. She likes you.”
“Yeah.” It was true and made him smile. He stepped forward, glancing at the places where the dirt had left stains on Miriam. He didn’t know what to do until she held out her hand, and then he pulled. He checked his watch again. “Well, I…”
But she pulled back, causing him to splash into the pond on his rump, Goldi only a few feet away. He stood immediately and scowled when Miriam laughed. “Damn, I don’t need this.” he said, sweeping at his clothes. He should have taken her to a hotel instead. “I’ve got to present a new slogan in an hour. Otherwise, one of those new guys’ll come up with something.”
“Oh, relax,” Miriam said, swatting at the silt splattered onto her outfit. “You can probably get away with a washcloth, and I’ll go rinse these until I can get home.”
Now he’d never get her out of here.
“And then I’ll get a cab and be gone in no time. I’m taking the day off.”
Her crooked smile. Paul fought the one creeping onto his own face. He bent to pick up Miriam’s jacket and shake it out, then whisked to the bathroom sink behind her where she stripped down to her slip and dipped the worst spots on her skirt under the faucet.
“What are we going to do about your clothes?” he said, as he changed the ones he was wearing. “You can’t go out like that.”
“They’re only clothes.” She refused to look at him in the mirror. The old sourpuss.
“Here, put this on.” He handed her one of his shirts.
She reached in through the arms. He liked the way she looked in it, her long smooth legs.
“Listen,” he told her. “I’ll take your stuff to the dry cleaners on my way to work. I have to take some suits anyway. I’ll give some notes to my colleague. I’ll be right back.”
“I thought you were trying to rush me out of here.” She allowed her eyes to track up to his in the mirror. She didn’t like the despair she saw.
“Well?” she said.
“I . . . I . . . Please wait.”
So Miriam Sansbury chatted with Goldilocks while quartering oranges and waiting for Paul Kaufman in her slip. That day the sun dazzled, glancing off the pond and the glass doors, throwing shimmerings across the inside walls. Other days it didn’t. After two weeks of Miriam making no sudden movements, Goldi trusted her enough to eat out of her hand. It took four for the she-koi to allow herself to be petted.
“Sliding Glass” was originally published in LITnIMAGE: http://www.litnimage.com/zobell.htm
Bio: Bonnie ZoBell is surrounded by dogs, cats, and husbands in her sunny California casita, no koi. The animals and she have squeezed as many succulents as they possibly can onto her small property in the North Park area of San Diego, as well as a batch of tomatoes, while her husband keeps an eye on sports inside or leads tours in the Maritime Museum of San Diego at the harbor.
Bonnie is completing a collection of connected stories set in the North Park area of San Diego and a chapbook of flash fiction about women who are whack jobs. She’s received an NEA for her fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award for a story that was later read on NPR, and a spot on Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Night Train, The Greensboro Review, New Plains Review, PANK, Cosmopolitan Magazine, and Cutbank. After receiving an MFA from Columbia on fellowship, she has been teaching at San Diego Mesa College where she is the Creative Writing Coordinator. Currently she is Associate Editor of The Northville Review. More of her work can be found at www.bonniezobell.com. She will retire in 25,309 hours and 39 minutes