“Before you move onto a sexual relationship, check his bathroom cabinet.” Lorraine paused for gasps and note taking to pass. She gave her students a sideways glance. “You’d be amazed at what you can discover.”
The third class in her Wednesday evening course: Internet Dating – Avoid the Pitfalls. Experience had taught her that sex injected renewed interest. Attendance could decline by waiting until week four or five. Scanning the group of 23 women, Lorraine’s heart cramped. So keen, so hopeful.
“Here’s a list of common prescription medications, their indications and addictive qualities.” She distributed the paper copies. “If you can’t memorise it, just jot down the names you find and compare them to the list when you get home.”
“What about Viagra?” A blonde 35-year-old in a slim suit waved the sheet. “It’s not on the list.”
“Well, it’s not physically addictive for him.” Lorraine winked. The class tittered and shuffled in their seats. Oh, you’ve a lot to learn.
The following Friday evening Lorraine stepped out of a black cab onto the Chelsea pavement. She smoothed her royal blue bandage dress and re-buttoned her coat. Date number five with George Wheltby, PhD, Head of the Social Anthropology Department, City University. He waited longer than most, but when George invited Lorraine over to his flat for dinner, they both understood the intent. As usual at this stage, she arrived seven minutes past the appointed time. Too early could be taken as eager, later than 10 minutes would be rude. Slipping her navy velvet coat from her shoulders, George leaned forward, nose brushing the back of her neck.
“That’s a wonderful scent. What is it?”
Lorraine ticked another box in the positive column. “Thank you. It’s Jo Malone Pomegranate Noir.” A future gift perhaps? At the very least he is thorough.
“Serendipity!” George laughed, low and melodic. “I’ve made duck breasts with a pomegranate coulis for dinner.”
George’s culinary skills and wine choice further ratcheted him up the long-term potential scale. Main course finished, they lingered over a full-bodied Rioja.
“Lorraine, I see from your MatchMePerfect profile that you enjoy yoga. How many times a week do you manage to fit in a session?” George leaned across the table. She watched candle flame reflections flicker in his pupils.
“I alternate between cardio and yoga – each three times a week. I take Sundays off for recovery.” She stroked the top of his right hand with a fingertip. “How about you? You seem quite fit.”
George smiled. “Yes, I workout every morning, but I’m not as flexible as I would like.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Perhaps I need an incentive or a good personal trainer.” He lifted her hand and kissed her knuckles in turn.
“There are loads of men at my yoga classes these days. Perhaps you should give it a try?”
“Hmmm, that’s an idea, but I find I do best with personal instruction.” He squeezed her hand and placed it on the table.
Rising to clear their dinner plates, George suggested espresso in the living room. Lorraine tilted her head, looking up through heavy lashes. “That would be lovely. May I freshen up?” He ushered her to the small, but well-appointed bathroom. Listening for the whirr of beans grinding, Lorraine opened the large mirrored medicine cabinet.
Painted black with multiple shelves, it contained more bottles and boxes than most she had explored in the past. Could George be a bargain buyer or a hoarder? Despite his high stock, the contents had the standard spread: paracetamol, cough syrup (suppressant and expectorant), plasters, a toothpaste box stack, fresh mint mouthwash (medium and travel size), dental floss and Vaseline. She sighed. Although the Sudacrem tub could be flagged as a little odd for an early-forties bachelor, the remainder seemed mundane. She took the Sudacrem out, turning the tub and running her finger around the cap – the original seal still in place. Perhaps he had a well-meaning mother who had supplied it. Reaching to replace the tub, Lorraine noticed a small box peeking out from behind a cough syrup bottle, previously hidden by the Sudacrem. She ferreted it out – Zolpidem, for short term treatment of insomnia. Hmmm…this could be interesting. Opening the box, she found the blister pack intact and two years out of date. Nothing extraordinary. George passed Level Two.
The sound of stacking plates filtered in through the door. Lorraine closed the box and went to slide it back in place. She stopped. A small semi-circle of peachy paint glowed against the black background. She placed the Sudacrem tub and Zolpidem onto the white wash-hand basin. Removing the cough syrup, a buttock cheek the size of her thumb nail came into view. Lorraine peered closer, her index finger moved along the painting’s thigh, over the knee and to a set of miniature toes. Her scalp tingled, breathing becoming ragged. Removing more bottles and boxes, another set of contorted limbs appeared. Pulse pounding along the sides of her head, she emptied the shelf, the contents a haphazard pile along the basin edge. “Oh my God,” she whispered aloud. “It’s from the Jain Temple frieze.” Soon all the shelves were bare, revealing a series of intricate sexual paintings. She stepped back to take in the entire sequence.
“Lorraine? Everything all right?”
Holding her breath for a moment, she swallowed and forced a light tone. “Oh, yes. Sorry, out in just a tick.” Pushing bottles, tubs and boxes back into the cabinet, she tried to remember their order, cursing her lack of attention to detail. Lorraine smoothed her hair and freshened her lipstick, patting away the perspiration on her upper lip with a square of toilet tissue. As the tissue flushed away, she regretted she hadn’t used the toilet before investigating the cabinet, but her bladder would have to hold.
The recessed ceiling lights had dimmed and candles scattered around the living room gave a soft glow. George reclined in an overstuffed leather chair his long legs extended out in front of him, ankles crossed. Two bone china espresso cups sat waiting on the ancient trunk that served as a coffee table. When Lorraine entered, he rose in a single, fluid movement reminding her of a cat. Indicating the red velvet couch with his left hand, he watched her sit down, settling in beside her.
“Are you feeling hot? You look flushed.” George began to stroke her forearm.
“Oh…I’m fine. I just can’t stop admiring the flat. The bathroom…it’s…beautiful.”
“Ah, it’s one of my favourite rooms too.”
“Your work, you mentioned studies you’ve done here and in Africa, but I wondered.” She tried to slow her rapid pulse. “I wondered if you’ve ever done work in India?”
George’s long fingers traced her collar bones. “India, a myriad of fascinating cultures. It’s a gold mine for social anthropology.”
“So you know it well?”
“Sadly, no. Recently I’ve done quite a lot of preliminary research, but I couldn’t get the funding for my proposed study. Grant funding administrators can be so parochial.” He sighed. “Have you been there?”
“Unfortunately no, but I’ve admired their temple carvings in many books.” She cleared her throat. “The Khajuraho and Orissa complexes in particular seem fascinating.”
“I couldn’t agree more. Illustrating the Tantric tradition – achieving a perfect union of the physical and the divine. It’s my proposed topic.” His lips moved up her neck and he began to tug her ear with his teeth.
“Really? How marvellous.” She stroked his chest and leaned in for a kiss.
Pulling apart to catch their breath, George offered his hand. “Shall we move to the bedroom Lorraine?”
Afterwards, Lorraine lay staring at the ceiling while George snored beside her. She hadn’t been looking for love, not yet, not that night. In class she would have described it as seeking a “physical release” consoling the wide-eyed optimists with “and that’s a perfectly valid need.” Now validated, but unsatisfied, she sank into the mattress, the weight of his thigh and arm compressing her. George ticked most of the boxes, perhaps bringing her search to a conclusion. Had the bathroom medicine cabinet raised the bar to unattainable?
She turned her head, the cool pillow a balm against her cheek. Lorraine observed George with the detached interest of a scientist probing a specimen. Overall pleasant in appearance, his body more toned than most of the other academics MatchMePerfect had provided. Genial, their conversation had been entertaining. George batted well above average if you discounted his lack of sexual prowess. She wished she could access her Excel spreadsheet to calculate George’s overall score and ranking. Lorraine sighed, sinking deeper into the mattress as the air exited her lungs.
With practiced skill, she nudged out from under his embrace. Clothes lay in scattered pools, remnants of their teenage like haste. Gathering her garments, she clutched them in a pile, tip-toeing out of the bedroom. The bathroom florescent flickered on and off before casting her in a stark whiteness. She blinked at her reflection. Ravishing when she arrived, now she just looked ravished. Lorraine sighed and turned on the tap. After dabbing away mascara crumbs and stray eyeshadow, she took a brush from her handbag and straightened her rat’s nest hair. Repairs completed, she did a final check in the mirror. Even with the help of Botox and facial fillers, she could see time’s footprints deepening across her face.
Lorraine hesitated, the cabinet calling her. Perhaps it had been a trick of the light? Had her anticipation created an optical illusion? She emptied the cabinet shelves with methodical precision. Contorted anatomical parts came into view, faces displaying silent ecstasy. Ten poses, the couple assured in their carnal expertise. No fumbling, no tentative touch, no inability to unhook a bra. She frowned. Her iPhone caught her eye, peeking out of the handbag. Lorraine captured the couple, snapping photos in close detail and full body shots, a nice addition to her research file.
She collected her coat from the hall and sat down on the couch to slip on her Jimmy Choo heels. Brimming with dusky liquid, the espresso cups sat untouched on the trunk; cold reminders of the previous evening’s exciting promise. Picking up a pad from the side table, she began a note and stopped. Crumpling it into a ball, she threw it into her handbag and closed the front door with a soft click. On the footpath, her steps seemed weighted, body weary. She bit her lip, filled her lungs. Right, that’s enough. Lorraine gave herself a shake. She hadn’t planned on attending yoga that afternoon, but Saturday had a high male attendance. One of the regulars had impressive stamina, holding the side crane pose for several minutes. She hailed a taxi.
When the alarm roused him at 9am, relief washed over George. Gone. She exited during the night. Grabbing the headboard, he stretched. A morning ritual, he detected no unusual muscle aches and grimaced, exhaling in a slow whistle. Lorraine the Life Coach had so much potential. Attractive, witty and clever enough to find the paintings on her own. She had the necessary flexibility, muscle tone and stamina. She recognised the Indian temple frieze origin. Yet the morning after their intimacy, the cabinet illustrations remained as mysterious to him as on the day he found them two years ago.
George replayed the morning of discovery. A stack of toothpaste boxes falling through his fingers. Shock, curiosity followed by a low throbbing that had persisted ever since. Last night, Lorraine didn’t provide any insight or relief. A crack of sun crept around the bedroom curtain, the light pillar slicing across his duvet. He opened the drawer of the bedside locker. Taking out a leather notebook and an engraved Cross pen, he scribbled a new entry. Number eight, Lorraine had rated above average for research, but poor on sexual innovation. George tapped the pen against the notebook spine. I really need to get that Indian research grant approval.
Marie Gethins’ work has featured in the 2014 National Flash Fiction Day Anthology, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Litro, NANO, Control Literary Magazine, Word Bohemia, The Lamp, The Incubator, Circa and Firewords Quarterly. She won or placed in Tethered by Letters flash, Flash500, Dromineer Literary Festival, The New Writer Microfiction, Prick of the Spindle and 99fiction.net. Marie is a Pushcart and Best of the Short Fictions Nominee. She lives in Cork, Ireland and is working on her Master of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.