SKIN OF CLOTH
By Skin of Cloth
My wife called and told me she will be home from the supermarket soon, and I can't wait. We've been married almost two years, but I never get tired of seeing her come through the door with groceries in hand. I'll take the bags from her, give her a hug and kiss her gently on the forehead.
For a second, but only just that long, I will wish I knew what she looked like.
We met when I was working at Bramwell's, a downtown department store which catered to upper end tastes. I was working in the shoe department -- a dream job, since I have been a closet foot fetishist since high school.
My fetish is very specific, though. She's got to have nicely-shaped feet. She's got to enjoy having her feet touched. (You can tell by how her breath will quicken when you take her arch and ankle into your hand.)
Most of all, she's got to be wearing hose.
I don't know what it is, exactly. There's something in my brain which sees a woman's stockinged leg as something actually made of cloth instead of being covered in a very thin pair of waist-high socks. I am like a magnet when a pretty woman comes in the room wearing nylons. I can't take my eyes off her. I follow her around discreetly and try to strike up conversations with her, just so I can stay close to her.
I love the way sheers are almost invisible, showing details beneath like toenails, ankles and muscles -- while subtly changing the color. I love how opaques turn a woman into an abstract shape of herself, hiding everything except her basic silhouette. I love imagining how half a woman's body has been replaced with a cloth version of herself -- and she doesn't even know how remarkable that is.
I've never met a woman who actually enjoyed wearing nylons. Most seem to view it as a professional chore, or take it for granted -- like putting on a shirt or a pair of earrings. However, if she *seems* to enjoy it, by idly stroking her legs or dangling a shoe at the end of her toe, it drives me wild.
Needless to say, the shoe department at Bramwell's Department Store is exactly where I want to be. I have hundreds of lovely clients who indulge my interests without even knowing it. I even work with six women who wear nylons almost every day, which kept me in a state of constant titillation -- until I met Kelly, and my nylon fetish began to pale in comparison to the world she would introduce me to.
I saw her for the first time at a staff meeting. Actually, I saw five of her.
The store manager, Richard, was saying how this performance artist had chosen Bramwell's as a place to try out one of her pieces. This happens a lot -- both as a marketing ploy and a genuine work of art. Bramwell's is an historic place with a lot of foot traffic, and many local designers and artists love to show off their work there.
This person was going to take five models, each identical in size and weight, and dress them in opaque, skintight suits that covered every square inch of their bodies. Hands, feet, faces...everything...would be covered. They'd be wearing identical navy blue business suits and wigs, and each would be wearing a Bramwell's name tag labeled "Kelly."
My jaw dropped. I had to cross my legs to hide my boner.
"The models are here today," said Richard. "Would you like to meet them?"
The training room door opened on cue and the five women walked in. They were each blank-faced behind skin-colored cloth. You couldn't tell them apart. They approached each of us and greeted us with two-handed shakes, surrounding our hands in smooth, velvety lycra.
They took their seats in a row in front of us.
"These are "Kelly," said the manager. "They'll be with us for the next two weeks, and longer if we get good response."
We applauded as the women's faceless heads regarded us and their featureless legs shifted and crossed in unison.
"Now, let me introduce the artist, so you can get to know more about how this project will work," said the manager. "Meet Kelly Szabo, the woman who created what you see before you."
We looked back at the entry door, and the crowd started murmuring. "Where is she?" said Alice, a blond woman I work with, who today was wearing a somewhat glossy pair of black sheers. But, for once, I wasn't noticing her.
After a full 60 seconds, one of the models began to speak. I could see no one's lips moving, so it took several seconds before I figured out which it was.
"Good morning, everyone. I'm glad you like us," she said. "I'm Kelly Szabo, a performance artist. My medium is lycra. What you see before you is an exhibit I've done over 60 times -- in shopping malls, museums, celebrity parties and festivals. Two of these four models has been with me since the very beginning."
Two of them raised their hands. I was still agog over how Kelly's voice was coming from a face that did not seem to move. (She was the second one on the right.) It was as if she were a talking statue.
"For the next two weeks, these other four women will also be known as Kelly. We're going to walk through the store, pretending to be saleswomen, but while we're on duty, you'll not hear any of us speak. In fact, our mouths will be sealed with extra-thin surgical tape like hospitals use to tape medical instruments to your skin. It doesn't hurt when you take it off, but it does a good job keeping our lips sealed."
"We're going to be living mannequins, walking works of art. Please pay us no attention, and let us blend into the background of your store. Pretend like we're not even there."
"Easier said than done," I whispered under my breath. Chris, sitting next to me, chuckled.
"If you have any specific questions about us, please ask Richard. You won't get an answer from us. Thanks for you help in making this installation a success."
"Also, please refrain from using the breakroom up by women's shoes," said Richard. "We've got it set aside for these women to take bathroom and water breaks. They'll be working from 10 to 3 every day from Monday to Saturday. Please make them feel welcome, but as Ms. Szabo said, don't be offended if they don't say anything."
All of the women stood up and started walking around almost frantically, mixing up their order. They all sat down again. I couldn't tell which was Kelly anymore. They each had brown shoulder-length wigs, with no bangs, curled at the ends. Their hair framed an oval expanse of simple skin-colored cloth.
I was beside myself. I hadn't seen anything like it. I wanted to meet Kelly so bad, but I didn't want Richard -- or anyone else to know how interested I was.
The five models stood up and filed out of the room. I began my shift doing everything I could to keep one of the Kellys in sight, struggling to do my job without falling to crippling distraction.
Local TV showed up to cover the installation, as did newspaper. CNN was even there for an hour for one of their fashion shows. They interviewed Kelly -- or I thought it was Kelly. She never took off her suit. On television that night, her blank face was glistening in the bright lights. I couldn't even make out the shadows of her eyes beneath. I certainly didn't see enough to know anything about what she looked like.
For two weeks, the women walked around the store, shaking customer hands and pantomiming specials the store was offering. When customers asked directions, the models gave them by gesturing with their cloth-covered hands. During their breaks, I watched as they disappeared into the breakroom by the water fountain, and heard their laughter behind the door. But at the end of the day, they left the store together in costume -- never breaking their illusion.
On Thursday of the last week, at around 3:30 -- after their time was up -- one of the Kellys showed up in women's shoes.
I begged Chris to let me wait on her. "Sure, dude. Whatever," he said, rolling his eyes.
"Hi, um....do you have anything in black crocodile skin, maybe with a two inch heel?" She was holding a burgundy pump, her face expressionless and turned toward me.
"Sure...What size are you?"
"I'm a nine."
I found six shoes that would fit her bill, and three more than might work too. I wasn't going to let her go too soon.
When I returned, she was sitting in one of the fitting chairs, her shoes off. She was rubbing her cloth feet, which bore light stains from the shoes she was wearing.
"Here," I said. "You want me to help you."
"Yes," she said. "Yes, I do."
Then, she put her hand on my arm. I inhaled sharply.
I knelt before her, easing her foot -- warm and a little sweaty, I observed -- into the first shoe.
"Very nice...you see how it makes your calves look longer?" I asked. "Can you really see?"
"I see more than you might think," she said, pausing enigmatically and lowering her head. Damn, but she was a master at flirting without using her face.
We went through three more pairs of shoes, with me quivering inside from the feel of her calves and feet. It didn't help that she was laughing, talking about customers she'd freaked out that day, and putting her gloved hand on my shoulder.
"Listen," she said after shoe number five. "I'm not going to buy any shoes today. I saw you watching me."
"You did?" My heart almost launched itself into the shoelace rack.
"Yeah. You couldn't seem to take you eyes off us. Every time I walked past, your head swiveled and it looked like you were trying to catch a fly with your mouth." She grabbed my hand and squeezed as she said this, to let me know she was kidding. I became weak in my knees.
I was no more than 18 inches away from her face, but I still knew no more about her than I did the day I saw her. I couldn't even tell which Kelly she was.
"Can I ask you something?" I said, finally summoning the courage.
"Why are you still in your suit?"
"It's called a zentai," she said. "It's a Japanese word."
"Okay, why are you still in your zentai?"
"Because I like it in here. Because it's my free time, and I spend every moment I can in here."
"You never take it off?"
She circled both my wrists with her suede-like fingers.
"Of course I do. Do you have any more questions?"
I couldn't speak for a moment. Had I finally met someone out of my most secret dreams?
"Well?" she prompted.
"What sorts of questions would you like me to ask?" Dork! I thought. Why did you ask that?
"How about starting with my phone number? I'd enjoy seeing you after the installation is over. How about asking me if I like movies or walks in the park?"
She reached in the inside pocket of her navy blazer and pulled out a business card. It was mint green, with a very close up image of a stretched out swatch of mint green lycra with her contact information printed on it. The card read, "Kelly Szabo, zentai artist."
"Call me anytime," she said. "Even e-mail me. It's rare to find someone with like interests."
I was taken aback. A woman who loved being enclosed in stretchy fabric -- one of my secret fantasies magnified to maximum resolution -- had just asked me out.
"How do you know you can trust me?" I asked, clumsily. I seriously hoped I hadn't shot down my chances.
"To be honest, I've been watching you too, trying to get up the courage to say hi. I've been watching how, I don't know, reverent you are with your customers," she said.
"The clincher was the way you touched my feet. You were so gentle. I can tell a connoisseur when I see one." she said. "Please call me soon."
And then she gathered up her coat and was gone, out in the bustling crowd, drawing ever so many admiring stares.
SKIN OF CLOTH, Chapter Two
"Is meatloaf okay tonight, hon?"
Kelly is in the kitchen now, all in black -- black loafers, black jumper dress, black wig and a matte black microfiber zentai she made herself back in her studio. Backlit in front of the big bay window of our kitchen, I can't tell where the zentai ends and her clothing begins. The suede-like fabric of her zentai seems to drink in all ambient light, reflecting not even a glimmer. She looks like her own shadow.
"Sure," I reply, "Do you need any help?"
"Yeah...could you chop the onions?"
I get out the chopping board while she pulls a pair of loose plastic gloves -- like the ones butchers wear -- over her cloth hands. She starts kneading bread crumbs into the ground beef, and singing to the radio. It's impossible to see her lips moving or even tell if she is concentrating on the meat or idly gazing into space.
"Here ya go." I hand her a bowl of chopped onion, which she folds into dinner. She adds tomato sauce and spreads it out in a baking dish, covering the top layer with more sauce. She takes off the plastic gloves and puts on oven mitts, sliding the meatloaf into the oven.
"Thanks, hon," she says, turning her black oval face toward me. "You want me to pour you some wine?"
"No, thanks. I'll just have some with dinner."
She opens the fridge and her uniformly black frame, lithe as a dancer, bends down, her black arms rummaging into the back behind the Brita pitcher and the ketchup. "Ah....there...."
She pulls out a bottle of Chardonnay, then takes a glass out of the cupboard.
"I'm going to take a little bath while the food is cooking. Will you keep an eye on it?"
"Sure, babe. Just toss your clothes outside the bathroom door and I'll move them to the hamper."
"Thanks," she says, stepping in close, so close I can smell her perfume, and feel her warm breath diffusing through the cloth covering her black face. She kisses me, a slight depression caused by her mouth rubs across mine. I feel her teeth trying to grab at my lips through her mask, and failing to find purchase in tantalizing frustration.
"Oh, Kelly. I don't think I'll ever get tired of this."
"Me neither. But I need that bath. I took a run in the park today and my legs are sore."
She steps back. "No peeking now!"
"Don't worry," I reply.
And with that, she fetches another zentai from her bedroom and goes in the bathroom. I carefully avert my eyes when the door opens again and she drops a bundle of black clothing and lycra in the hallway.
I pause for a moment, smiling. How interesting my life has become.
Four years earlier, I was standing in the middle of the women's shoe department at Bramwell's, the department store I used to work at. My mind had just been blown. A woman, completely clad in skin-tight lycra, came on to me, gave me her phone number and left me weak-kneed and agog.
I have had a serious nylon fetish since high school, but I've kept it to myself -- save for a couple of confessions made to girlfriends who either gently mocked me or blew it off as a "guy thing." Now, a woman whose fetish for tight enclosure which far eclipsed anything I'd ever imagined, was showing interest in me. On the one hand, I was blessing my lucky stars. A guy with my predilections couldn't have gotten luckier. On the other hand, I was wondering what was the matter with this picture. Was there a pre-op transsexual under there? Or a burn victim? Or worse, was she toying with me?
What would a performance artist with a thing for wearing lycra all over her body want to do with a shoe salesman? I felt like I was wearing a sign around my neck which said, "Closet pervert seeks same for fun or long term relationship."
Normally, I would wait the required two full days before calling a woman I was interested in, but after arriving home for and pacing around my little efficiency for three hours wondering if I was dreaming, I had to call her.
"Uh...hi. This is Rob from Bramwell's. You gave me your card."
"Yes, Rob!" Her voice brightened. "I was hoping you would call me."
"You were? Well, I couldn't help myself. Forgive me for saying so, but you're the most interesting person to walk into my life in a long time."
She laughed, not unkindly, a perfect arpeggio. "How do you know I'm so interesting? You hardly know me."
"You make quite a first impression. Not many other women do what you do."
"I suppose you're right," she said, chuckling.
"So, now that your gig at Bramwell's is up, I was wondering where I could see you again. Are you exhibiting anywhere else?"
"Well, this weekend, I'm doing an IBM banquet with three other models -- all in blue. I've also got a birthday party Tuesday. I'm going as Raggedy Ann. Or, you could come to this children's museum thing I'm doing on the 22nd. I'm still making the costumes for us."
Drat. "Sounds like you're busy, but I don't know if I could crash a banquet or a birthday party."
"Or, I have another idea. What are you doing right now?"
"Now? It's almost nine."
"It's Friday night. You're not planning to stay home, are you?"
"Uh...no." My heart was racing. I was finally going to see this Kelly Szabo I've been fantasizing about. "I guess I could meet you someplace."
"How about River Pavilion? It's a nice cool night, and I feel like a walk. Wanna meet in, say, an hour?"
"Sure, um....I mean sure," I said, as nonchalantly and non-eagerly as I could, wincing when I realized my voice had cracked like a teenager's.
I surveyed my closet, wondering what to wear for a "walk date." I grabbed a pair of clean jeans, a plain white t-shirt and my leather jacket. My hands were shaking as I tied my shoes. Then I realized I still had 55 minutes to go, and River Pavilion was only 15 minutes away on foot.
I paced. I watched TLC. I brushed my teeth, twice. With 35 minutes until our appointed time, I said, "screw it" and decided to be early.
Riverside was busy tonight, with dozens of young people sauntering down the boardwalk or ducking into shops, pubs and restaurants. This kind of vibe was why I moved into the city in the first place, but I'd taken precious little advantage of it. As I approached the Pavilion, I kept seeing women alone on park benches, leaving me to wonder which could be her. One was looking around anxiously as if to spot someone she knew, but she looked right past me. Another sat idly, reading a magazine by streetlight.
I arrived at the Pavilion, looked around the grass amphitheater and bandstand for anyone of roughly the same shape and height as Kelly. I kept reminding myself I was 15 minutes early. She probably wouldn't be here yet.
But then I heard a voice. "Hey, Rob."
I spun around to look. It was her.
"Sorry I'm early," she said.
Kelly was wearing a black dress with white polka dots. Her face, hands and legs were glossy white lycra, shining in moire patterns under magnesium lights. The hair of a blond wig was swept back by a polka-dotted kerchief that matched her dress.
My breath was taken away. "I didn't expect to see you in costume."
"Are you disappointed? I usually wear something like this when I'm out and about. It's good for business."
"No...no...I'm not disappointed. It's just...I don't know. When do you take it off?"
She laughed, and put a soft, slipper hand on my face, cupping my ear. It was just a quick, intimate touch, over in a second, but it made me ever so glad she worn zentai.
"I think we're going to have lots to talk about, Rob. Wanna walk toward the paddleboats?"
Riverside is a two mile stretch of manufactured nightlife stretching along both shores of the river, where you could count on finding street jugglers, live bands, hot dog vendors, swank nightclubs, posh national-chain restaurants and throngs of young people any night of the week until well past midnight. Tonight, the crowds were looking at Kelly, then at me and back at Kelly, wondering who she was and why they couldn't see her face. It was a little embarrassing, but more than that, it was arousing.
We walked by by a dozen high school girls, who silently gawked then erupted in nervous chatter after we passed.
"Do you always get such a reaction?" I asked.
"Yes, and I never get tired of it."
"I was asking how often you wear this zentai thing. Do you ever go out in public without it?"
"You think it's weird, don't you?"
"Yes, but you don't know how curious it makes me. I want to know what kind of woman would do this?"
"I'm glad you appreciate it," she said. "I've only been a zentai nut for a couple of years, and I always wonder what people will think of me. I walk the line of wanting to create shock value and desiring approval. When you only meet people from behind the mask, it kind of makes them stand off."
"When did you start?"
"Well, I was a dancer when I was a little girl, and I loved wearing the tights and leotards. Even when I was just going to class, I would wear nylons and a leotard under whatever else I was wearing."
"In high school, I was in this private dance school where I played a bird in a ballet. I had to wear something like a zentai -- with feathery wings and big white eyes on the side of my head. I wore it for hours in practice, and got used to it. It was comfortable. I didn't want to take it off when practice was done. I loved how people looked at me back stage. It was like I was from another world."
"Wow. Tights and nylons have always had a, ahem, stimulating effect on me, but I didn't know that women could feel the same way," I said. We sat down on a bench, facing the black river, where colorfully-lit barges drifted past. A couple wearing identical puffy ski-vests locked eyes on Kelly. Their heads swiveled as the walked past. "Holy shit, did you see that?" said the guy.
"But at some point, you started wearing it all the time."
"Yeah, and maybe some day I'll tell you why. It's a very long story. Anyway, I'm sure it looks like just a cover to let me wear zentai and get paid for it. My models get uncomfortable. Most of them say its constricting and beg me to cut down their shifts -- though some seem to like it. Me, I often wear zentai from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed. I even sleep in them most nights."
"Wow," I said, taking this in. "When did this fetish start to kick in?"
"In college. I went to Western to major in art. I used to wear a white unitard when I was painting, and then I would wear the paint-splattered thing under a miniskirt to the actual opening. I didn't know about zentai until I came across a picture on the Internet."
"They have zentai sites online?" I asked.
"There are dozens," she said. "Mostly in Asia, but also some in Europe and now more here in America. I saw one by a person -- I don't know if it's a guy or a girl -- a person named Marcy Anarchy. Oh...wow. By coincidence, the person was wearing something a little like I have on now. A polka-dotted dress, black wig and white zentai. She was relaxed on the bed looking natural, but I couldn't see her face at all. I wanted one immediately."
"So you bought one?"
"I didn't know where to get one. But then I found some dance companies that sell them, and so I shelled over about $80 for my first one -- it was white and shiny like this one. I was living in a student apartment at the time, so I would take it out when my roommates weren't home and just lounge around in it with the door locked. There were a few hasty undressings, but I never got caught."
"When did you wear it in public for the first time?"
"Mom, look! She doesn't have a face!" It was a little boy, about seven, out far past his bedtime. He was bent over and gawking at Kelly with wide blue eyes. His parents pulled him back and ushered him along quickly. He looked back, soaking in Kelly's bizarre appearance until he and his parents rounded the bend.
"In public? That would have been a Halloween party in college. I went as The Grim Reaper. A black zentai and a black hooded robe. It was also the first time my roommates saw me in it. They thought it was cool, and I ventured saying that it was so comfortable that I wouldn't mind wearing something like this more. They thought that was cool too, so I started wearing a couple of my zentais around the apartment with the hood down. They pretended like they didn't notice, except one of my roommate's boyfriends spent so much time hanging out with me that she got mad at him."
"When did you start doing it for money?"
She uncrossed her legs and crossed them at the ankles, then clasped both of her white hands together, rubbing the top of her left with the thumb of her right. They were such natural gestures from an unnatural looking woman. I couldn't take my eyes off her.
"I had a senior project to do, so I got four of my friends together and dressed them all in zentai. We served punch at the senior exhibition, and that counted as my project. The dean of art liked it so much, she hired us to do it again for her daughter's wedding reception. We got a lot of referrals from that."
"So now you do it full time?"
"I make pretty good money," she said, putting her hand on my knee. "It doesn't pay all the bills. I also do websites for people to cover the rest of my expenses -- and no, I don't wear a zentai when I'm coding and color-adjusting photos. It's too hard to type with these gloves."
"What do you wear?"
Another laugh from behind her blank face. "I still keep some dance clothes around. I like things that are tight and clingy."
She was funny, articulate and thoughtful -- plus she was an artist. I was so in the moment that I didn't notice how much time had passed until a cop came up to us and told us the Riverside was closing.
"Can I walk you home?" I asked.
"Yes, I live just off the blue line in South Edgewood."
"I know just where it is."
We found the light rail station and bought our tickets from a kiosk. As we waited for the train, she grabbed my hand again. I wonder if she knew how much her forwardness turned me on.
"You've got to tell me a few things about yourself, now, Rob. Why do you find zentai so intriguing?"
"You'll laugh. I don't think I've ever told anyone."
"I've had this thing for pantyhose, tights and such since I was in eighth grade. This was the late eighties, remember. Girls wore hose all the time. I've always tried to put myself in situations where I can be around nylons, lycra and other tight things. I was in marching band because our color guard wore these sexy tight unitards on the field. They were black with a diagonal red and white stripe across the front, and had matching black gloves and the legs ended in stirrups, which they wore with boots that came halfway up their calves. I always tried to sit on the color guard bus when we were on trips. I never told anyone why."
We got on the subway. A frumpy old lady sitting near us got up and moved a few rows farther away, scowling at us. I tried to ignore her.
"In college, I worked in admissions, where all the student interns had to dress up for incoming students. I also majored in theater so I could be around people in costume. It doesn't hurt that I can act."
"What are you doing working in a shoe store?" she said, tapping the top of my hand lightly. "No offense."
At this point, I became aware that she had had her right foot pressed into the back of my calf for several minutes. I shifted so that my calf pressed back harder, signaling that I liked what she was doing.
"I work at Bramwell's because it pays good. I am there part time while I'm in graduate school. I'm getting a screenwriting MFA."
"Cool. Maybe you'll make a zentai movie," she said. "I wonder who would see it."
"Probably a couple hundred obsessed fans on those websites of yours," I said. "It would be a small niche market."
She laughed again. How I loved her laugh, intensified by the fact that it was the only way she had to let me know she liked my sense of humor.
"Rob, can I tell you a secret?"
"Sure, Kelly. What?"
"You and I went to high school together."
"What? You went to Livingston High?"
"Yeah. I was four years behind you."
"You were?" My mind was reeling. Livingston was a huge suburban school that graduated almost 1,000 seniors every year. Who could this woman be?
"I was in the band too. I used to watch you take those awesome trumpet solos. Especially on that Chicago opener we did. You were so hot, Rob. I had such a crush on you."
"What did you play, Kelly?" I was blushing, burning to know more. I couldn't remember a Kelly Szabo and I thought I knew everyone.
"I didn't play anything. I was in the color guard. The rest of the year, I did gymnastics."
I was painfully aware then of how little regard seniors paid freshmen. With over 40 people in the color guard, I couldn't remember them all. I was dying to get home and look at my yearbook.
"I wish I remembered you, Kelly. I was chasing other seniors and juniors. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. I was just a kid then, and you were almost a man. I got over my crush and have had several boyfriends and one disastrous marriage," she said. "But I remember how you looked at the older girls, and gave them foot rubs after competitions. When I saw you working at Bramwell's during that first orientation meeting, I knew I had to get to know you again. It's been several years."
"You said you've been doing this since college, but you would have graduated from Livingston in, what, 1995? What have you been doing since you finished your degree?"
"Yeah," she said nervously. "It's a long story. I was married to this guy I met here in the city, dropped out of school for a bit, left him and started again."
So her name isn't Szabo. I had to find that yearbook!
We got off at Kelly's stop. A middle-aged woman came up to us and put her arms on her hips. "Aren't you that artist woman I saw on the 8News Wake-up Show?"
"Yep, that's me," said Kelly, stretching out her white arms, palms upward.
"What kind of are art you doing now?" she asked.
"I'm not. I'm getting home from a date," said Kelly. The woman looked puzzled, mind obviously blown. "Yeah. Have a nice night," she said, hurrying off.
We walked a couple of blocks to her apartment building, a four story sandstone walk-up with a broad stoop.
"I loved talking to you, Rob," she said, up on tip toes to give me a kiss on each of my cheeks. I held her a little longer than politeness called for, savoring the brush of fabric on my face.
"When will I see you again?" I asked.
She said, "Come to the children's museum thing next week. I'm going to be there with my models. We're wearing bright yellow zentai with smiley faces sewn in. It's going to be a hoot."
"If I can wait that long," I said.
She kissed me again. "You're sweet. And it's almost 3 a.m. You should get home so you don't sleep your Saturday away."
"I don't think I'm going to get much sleep tonight," I said, and I took her chin in my hands and kissed her face where I thought her mouth was. I had to shoot lower when I felt her upper lip where I didn't expect it to be.
"Goodnight, Rob," she said, and walked quickly up the steps, turning to look at me again at the top before going inside.
When I got home, I tore through my junk boxes looking for an old yearbook. I had to know who she was, what she looked like. An hour later, I was sweating and frustrated when I found it wrapped inside a black velvet backdrop I used for photography.
I was relieved that it was my senior yearbook -- the only one she and I would both be in. I turned hastily to the band group shot and looked through the names of the color guard members.
At the end of the list was, "Not pictured: Kelly Tremaine."
This began my long, ongoing wait to know what she looks like.
We saw each other three more times before the children's museum gig the following weekend. It was as if we couldn't stay apart.
SKIN OF CLOTH, Chapter 3
I love watching Kelly when she doesn't realize I'm there.
Today, she's looking outside from her window seat, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the occasional breeze cooling patches of her cloth skin. She seems to be staring out into space, but from what she's told me, and from my own few zentai experiences, I know she is almost blind when bright light plays across her face.
Kelly is sky blue today, with puffy clouds screened onto a lightweight stretchy cotton fabric. She wears the cotton stuff when it's especially warm out so that she doesn't get overheated. It's almost 90, very warm for October.
The cumulus clouds on her blue face are framed by a platinum white Marilyn Monroe wig and a white sleeveless dress. Kelly is idly stroking her knee, maybe watching the faint outline of her hand and enjoying the friction of cloth moving across cloth. Maybe she's looking at me. It's hard to tell.
"Kelly," I say, but she doesn't move.
"Kelly," I say more loudly. She startles and sits up.
"Sorry. I was zoning out."
"No problem, it's just that I'm going for a walk. Wanna come?"
"Sure," she says, stretching her arms. I watch her mouth-dimple widen into a yawn.
Kelly does this a lot in her zentai, zones out. She says its like being in a meditative state. She becomes less aware of the world around her and more aware of her own body. Sounds are dampened, except for the sound of her breathing, heartbeat and the shushing of her limbs moving across each other. She likes to face into the light when she is meditating because it robs her of sight.
Sometimes she wears three or four zentai at once, dimming her vision to a faint awareness of light sources and extremely muffled hearing. Today, she stayed in her one layer, trying to keep cool. I have the air conditioner on in the house to chill things off and make her more comfortable.
"Hang on," she says, stopping to check herself out in the hall mirror. "My wig is crooked."
After she pulls on her knee-high white leather boots, I take her gloved hand and step out onto the stoop with her.
People are staring, as usual. Some avoid looking at us directly, while others peer out of windows thinking that they are somehow invisible when they sit behind a pane of glass. When people stop to ask questions -- why she is wearing the suit, if she's hot -- Kelly hands them a business card out of her pocket. She's always the promoter, and dozens of jobs come to her from these jaunts up and down the street, to the supermarket, to the post office and sometime to nowhere in particular.
We arrive again at one of our favorite parks -- few and far between in this new Western city we've come to call home. I miss the river and the old buildings in my neighborhood. But Kelly has found her calling here, and I am happy to support her.
I hand her a water bottle and she presses its straw against her face. Lips form out of flat featureless fabric and start sucking. "Thanks," she says, handing the bottle back. A small wet spot has formed where her mouth would be. It dries quickly in the desert air.
I find it hard to let go of her hand, unless I am stroking her arm, squeezing her knee, or in some way, making contact with her.
"You just have to be touching me," she says.
"Yeah. It's a bad habit."
Her cheekbones widen a little. I think she's smiling. "Not such a bad habit, is it?"
"I don't know. I've been hooked since Day One."
That day was the day she walked into my shoe department, after a two week stint as a living mannequin. She was dressed identically along with four other women who were her exact body shape. I remember the clouds zentai from that job, though the one she's wearing now is the third one she's made herself since then.
She approached me at work, swapped numbers and met me that night at Riverside, where we sat on this very same park bench.
I went home that night, my mind reeling, and didn't fall asleep until almost five. I woke up several more times before noon, with the image of her egg-like white face framed with wavy blonde hair burned into my mind's eye. I was going to see her again the following week, but what if she thought better of it or lost interest in me. I didn't want her to think I didn't appreciate her kinks. By the same token, I didn't want her to think I was too eager -- or some kind of pervert who wasn't as enthralled with the woman as I was the zentai.
I thought that it couldn't hurt to send a text message to her phone. "Tonight was great," I tapped with my thumbs. "I don't know if I can wait until next weekend."
I laid down, trying to sleep, but also waiting for my phone to buzz, indicating a new message. Nothing came.
Nothing, until about noon the next morning. I had finally fallen into a deep sleep when I heard my phone chirp.
"Why wait?" was her reply.
"Call me. Please." I sent back.
My phone rang almost immediately.
"I'm sorry I didn't call sooner," she said. "I couldn't read your message through my zentai, and it wasn't time to take them off yet."
"Wasn't time to take *them* off?"
"Yes. I am trying to beat my old record. Four layers for eight hours. I fell asleep in them last night, and woke up around ten," she said. "I knew there was a message on my phone, but I couldn't reply until 12. I had to take them off for a shower."
"Why didn't you just shower in one of your suits?"
There was a long pause. "Oh." she said. "That would work. I wouldn't have to hand wash them."
"Nice image. Can I watch?"
"Kelly. Can I be honest?" I said, changing the subject. "You're the most interesting woman I've met in a long time. I don't mean just the zentai -- it's the absolute balls you have in public, daring people to judge you."
"I've never been accused of having balls," she said, giggling.
"No, it's like you don't care what people think. You're going to make a statement."
"It's easier when people don't know who you are. The real me is actually more shy than the zentai Kelly. I wouldn't dare wear a zentai in public if it didn't have a hood. Then, people would be staring at *me* and not some anonymous statuette."
I reminded her of her text message. "You were saying, "Why wait?"
"Yes, Rob. I want to see you again soon. What are you doing today?"
"Um...I, um. I don't have plans."
"I don't either. Wanna come over for a cup of coffee? I make a nice cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain. I won't be joining you, though, because coffee stains my masks."
"You're going to be wearing a mask again?"
"Of course. Why stop now?"
She gave me directions to her apartment, and I hopped in my car and drove to her place. There was no parking nearby, so I frantically drove up and down several side streets until I found something in front of an old American Legion hall six blocks away. I briskly walked to her building and rang her buzzer. The door clicked open and I dashed to the elevator.
She was back in black, with a bit of a shine to it. Her skin looked like a killer whale's slick, shimmery hide. She was wearing denim shorts and a bright yellow resort t-shirt from Cozumel, Mexico. Wearing no wig, her head was a solid black bulb sticking out of her t-shirt. She had black dance shoes over her black feet, and I could see why. Her old hardwood floor would have snagged her zentai.
"Hi, Rob. Come in. Make yourself at home."
She took me by my arm and pulled me into her apartment, a large one-room efficiency in an old elementary school classroom. The high ceiling had a platform loft where her futon, still unmade, was visible through a metal railing. There were built-in coat racks left over from the room's Kindergarten days.
On each of 30 hooks was a different zentai, hanging from its hood. I saw metallic gold, purple velvet, polka dots, bright primary colors, pastels, sparkles, lace, tie dyes, jungle animal patterns and snakeskin.
I felt a soft black hand take me by my chin. "Hey, I'm over here," she said with mock impatience.
"Sorry. It's a nice place you've got."
"Yeah, it gives me room to spread out and work."
She pointed toward a large work table with a sewing machine and several other machines I didn't recognize. She had bolts of many kinds of fabric laid out, with tissue paper patterns pinned to the table's cushioned top.
"You make your own zentai?"
"Yes, of course. I used to order it online, but that's so much more expensive. I buy fabric online now and make them to custom fit me and my models. There's so much more variety that way too. Can I get you something to drink? I have cold water, lemonade, iced tea...and maybe a couple of beers."
"Oh...you know, if you were drinking with me, I'd say beer, but water will do."
"You sure?" she said, and I nodded. She walked into the kitchen and poured me a glass of water, offering it to me. The sight of a black silhouette doing such a mundane task was oddly arousing.
"You're such an beautiful sight," I said.
"Thanks, Rob. I'm glad you like it. I wasn't sure I'd ever meet anyone who wasn't a little freaked out by me."
"I am as far from freaked out as I could get."
She laughed, put her hand on my shoulder and turned me toward the couch. "Please sit."
We sat and she looped a black leg in behind mine. "Rob, can I be honest too?"
"I really like you. I thought I was over you, but seeing you again has reawakened my little puppy crush. I hope we can see a lot of each other."
My heart was pounding. I just heard a heartfelt confession from a woman who was obviously attracted to me, but I couldn't see her eyes or her lips. I was starting to become focused on her voice -- slightly higher than average and a little sing-songy, varying its pitch from word to word like a elementary school teacher's.
"I'm so sorry, Kelly. I feel a little guilty that I still don't remember you from high school."
"I was an ugly ducking back then," she said. "I had a way of fading into the background. I was gangly, small boobs and braces. I didn't really blossom until after you graduated."
I stroked her black arm, feeling the smooth fabric slip along under my fingertips. "Oooh, that feels good," she said.
"I think I could touch you all night."
"Why don't you, Rob," she said, and then she wrapped her legs against mine and melted into me. I didn't withdraw. I just held her, smelling a hint of perfume in the fabric and feeling her warm breath against my face.
"Who are you, Kelly?"
"What you see is what you get," she said, taking my ear between her slick black index and ring fingers. I reached around behind her head, and felt her smooth round skull under the fabric.
"Do you shave your head?." I said, bemused.
"Yes, Rob. It makes the hood less stifling," she said, matter-of-factly. "Besides, why worry over my hair when no one's going to see it?"
After a while, she leaned in for a kiss, me trying to find her mouth, which was just a warm spot on a shiny round expanse of blackness. I found myself on top of her, removing her shirt, she trying to take mine off at the same time. I reached around behind her to find the zipper of her zentai, only to have her grab my hand and pull it away.
"Not back there. That's what this zipper is for," she said, reaching down between her legs. "Wait. I should blindfold you."
She tied a silky black cloth over my eyes, and then leaned close to my ear, whispering. "I'm all yours, Rob."
"And I'm all yours too, Kelly."
I heard a sigh. Sounded like relief. "I was hoping you'd say that."
The sex was amazing, and so in the moment. Deprived of sight, I was focused on her silky "skin," and the soft hands that ran across my chest. I felt her cloth-covered head tilt back and heard her soft moans.
She untied my blindfold and we snuggled each other afterward, me drinking water and her sipping at the glass, getting the bottom half of her mask wet. I laughed a little at the mess she was making.
"I'm going to have to change into something else anyway. This zentai needs a wash."
She stood up unsteadily and padded away behind me into the bathroom. I heard the subtle sound of fabric sliding off skin and the sink running. I realized I might finally be able to see this woman who has haunted my dreams.
But tonight wasn't going to be the night.
She came back out in a plain white zentai, made from the same cloth you'd find in an extra stretchy t-shirt. She had on a pair of men's boxers and a tank top.
"There. That's better. Wanna watch some TV?"
We met like that twice more that week, each time spending longer talking and learning more about each other. I found out she came out of her shell in high school and won several awards in speaking contests and ballroom dancing. I found out her father left her mother when she was in 11th grade, bringing her social life to a grinding halt when she and her two younger brothers had to move into a small apartment.
"Dad had a damn good lawyer. He got the house and we got the two cars. Not that it did us any good. It's hard to entertain boys when you sleep on your mother's sofa."
In college, she did art modeling, sitting absolutely still while others painted their versions of her naked body. She told me learned to stand up to the scrutiny of others then. She also worked as a magician's assistant, wearing cheeseball costumes and pretending to be sawn in half, pierced with swords and turned into tigers.
"I suggested wearing a zentai to this magician. It was this black velvet thing that made me fade into the backdrop. With the right lighting, I could make the audience believe he was producing scarves, flowers and other objects out of thin air. It also worked like a charm when I helped him levitate other assistants."
She married the guy, and divorced him three years later. "That didn't turn out well."
"Why not? What happened?"
Her jersey knit face turned away. "I don't really want to talk about it."
"Okay," I said. I was puzzled why she was being so secretive, but I could tell she wanted to change the subject.
"Let's go back a little more. What about college?"
She majored in art, and learned quickly that she could get lots of attention from her teachers if she turned her own body into the canvas. She started with body paints, mimicked Veruschka by reproducing background on her body so that she appeared invisible, made herself into a statue once, appearing to emerge from her waist up from a solid block of clay.
Still, she remembered the zentai and started working it into her projects. It was an absolute hit.
"I started wearing it to art department functions. Even to class. I loved the effect it had on people."
"What did you do after college and that magical marriage of yours?"
"I was a waitress for a while, trying to get some zentai installments set up here in the city. And I got sick a year after i divorce," she said, her tone darkening.
"What happened?" I asked.
"It's hard to describe. I am not sure I want to tell you yet. Is that okay? Don't worry. It's nothing contagious or life threatening. It did alter my appearance quite drastically. After I got over the initial shock, I found I needed the zentai just to fit in."
She had my curiosity piqued, but I promised never to pry until she was ready to tell me.
"But you got better right?"
She put a bright red microfiber finger to my lips. "Rob, I'll tell you more when I'm ready."
We dropped the subject, found other subjects, and had more intimate moments, sometimes with the blindfold and sometimes with me tied up in her bed with strips of lycra.
By the end of the week, I was in love. Simple as that. I couldn't imagine my life from that point on without Kelly in it. I knew I would be there for every moment of the children's museum function the next day and for every public appearance of hers after that. I wanted both to protect her -- and watch her turn heads.
"If we're going to keep seeing each other, I want you to promise me two things, Rob Malone."
"What, Kelly? I'll promise anything to keep seeing you."
"Promise me you'll respect my privacy when I need to be alone and that you'll never ask me to take off my suit."
I was puzzled, but I promised anyway. "You got it. Scout's honor."
"I love you, Rob. You make me very happy."
"I love you too, Kelly. Whoever you are."
Her cheekbones raised again in a hidden smile.
"Do you remember our first dinner together?" I asked Kelly as I passed her a large bowl full of salad.
"Yes," she said. "We had those TV trays and I made you sit with your back to me. I wouldn't let you watch me eat."
With the lights down low, her black body is featureless. She wears black zentai most of all, but in so many varieties of fabric -- matte, shiny, textured like a snake, even corduroy.
A shadow of a hand dishes out lettuce and radishes, depositing them on the plate next to the chicken. Black shoulders pivot back and forth as she reaches for the potatoes. Her hood is down. I really should be used to it by now, but I still can't help but stare after all these years.
"What made you finally tell me your secret?" I asked. Her black hand brought a wine glass up, and she took a quick sip, then swirling the glass thoughtfully.
"I knew you were getting frustrated, not knowing who I really was under the suit. I knew you'd promised you wouldn't ask, but I thought I'd lose you if I didn't tell you."
She was right. The children's museum show had me worked into a lather. She and her other models came out into a donor's fundraiser to serve hors d'oeuvres. They were wearing matching yellow suits with sewn-in smiley faces framed with a black bob wig. Their skirts were 60's style jumpers, white with a smiley face pattern. White leather go-go boots completed the look.
All the women taped their mouths before putting on the suits, so they couldn't speak even if they wanted. Whenever they wanted to communicate, they had to do it through gesture.
They were a hit. Old men in suits - CEOs of companies around the city - watched the women furtively when their immaculate silver-haired wives weren't looking. Children brought in to remind donors of what the museum was for openly followed the women around and tried to engage them in conversation.
All five were exactly the same height, with similar proportions, as Kelly insists in her hiring process. Without voices to guide me, I kept losing track of where Kelly was. The mystery of it was exciting.
The Smiley Face Girls made a big impression. No doubt large donation checks would be written later that week.
One of the women pushed a note into my jacket pocket. I recognized Kelly's handwriting. "I have to help wrap up after this is over. Will you meet me at my apartment at 10?"
She met me at the door, blankly smiling, leading me into the large schoolroom of an apartment with a yellow-gloved hand shining like a lemon drop.
"Hello, my dear," I said. She shrugged and waved back. Her mouth was obviously still taped.
She led me to her sofa, and gestured for me to sit down. She pointed toward the kitchen, indicating that she was going to get something for us to drink.
A few moments later, she came out from behind her bedroom divider, impossible without a hidden passage or something. She sashayed over to the sofa and sat next to me, putting her hand across the top of my arm. Her mask smiled enigmatically.
When a Smiley Face Girl came back from the kitchen with a glass of wine, I finally figured out what was going on. I sipped as two women in yellow zentai tousled my hair and rubbed my shoulders.
A third came out of the bathroom, as if on cue - and a fourth came in through the balcony door. A fifth came from the kitchen, with a tray of cheese and fruit, which I recognized from the party.
I was hopelessly distracted. I had gotten it in my mind that the first woman was Kelly, and tried to follow her, but I couldn't be sure and with the women getting up from their seats, walking around behind me and resettling, I lost track.
The woman who kept rubbing her gloved hand under the buttons of my shirt, stroking my nipple must have been Kelly - or else a very courageous employee of hers.
One by one, they got up and left, in five-minute intervals. I could hear two of them in the hall outside Kelly's front door sliding out of their wigs and hoods, tearing the tape off and giggling. The last one left was Kelly, for sure.
"What did you think," she said, finally.
"You're not taped?"
"No, I took it off before we started. I wanted to be able to talk."
"That was amazing! I couldn't figure out who was who."
She laughed, a disconcerting effect since her smile never parted open. "They don't usually do private showings, but when I told them what I had in mind, they all couldn't resist a little practical joke."
I sipped my wine, and chatted with her about the show. After a while, I looked her in the two dots of her eyes and blurted out what was weighing heavily on my mind. "Kelly, can I point something out?"
"I've looked around your apartment, and I don't see any photos of you. Why not?"
"You're determined to know what I look like, aren't you?"
"It's just that, I wonder if it's healthy that you never want to see yourself."
She turned her smiley-face head away, its expression suddenly inappropriate for the moment.
"It's painful. I don't like to see my old self."
"Kelly, I promised I wouldn't ask to see you, but what the hell happened to you? I care about you and I can tell that there is a lot of pain behind your personality."
"Can I trust you not to tell anyone? I mean, not a soul."
"Kelly, whatever your secret is, it's safe with me."
She looked down at her hands, and laughed nervously. "This suit has to be freaking you out a bit. This is a serious discussion, and maybe I should change into something more appropriate."
She padded around behind her screen and I head lycra slipping off her body. A few moments later, she came back dressed in a skin-colored suit, tight Capri jeans and red halter-top. She was still wearing the black bobbed wig.
"Kelly, it doesn't matter. Come here and sit down next to me. Tell me your story."
She sat crosslegged on the couch facing me. Her cloth hands swished across the front of her calves as she began.
"You remember I said I was a magician's assistant?"
"Yes," I replied, with concern. "Were you scarred by one of the illusions? I thought you might be burnt."
"Oh thank heavens, no. Nothing like that. It's far stranger."
"This magician, he started experimenting with arcane disciplines. He brought in ancient swords he bought on trips to the Middle East which he could swallow and pull out, leaving him unharmed. He learned to change things into other things."
"Wow," I said, watching her blank face intently. "That's hard to believe."
"Well, I thought so too, until he told me he had a way to make the routine I did more believable - the one where I come out on stage in a black zentai and produce objects from a black sack."
"What did he do?"
"He told me he could make me vanish entirely. He could turn me into a ghost, and the only things in the world I could touch would be my own possessions."
"He did this to you?"
"Yes. When we performed that trick, it was like I was a ghost. I could move around the stage only if I were wearing a pair of black slippers and nothing could touch me unless if belonged to me. He could even make me materialize from thin air, causing me to vanish in one box and reappear in another."
"Wow, what was that like?"
"I got a thrill out of it. I used to want him to leave me in that state, but he always brought me back. He was nervous about letting me stay that way too long. He said there were stern warnings about it in the old books he read. In fact, after a while, he made me start using the black zentai again and only did the vanishing bit if it were a very small room."
"You stopped working for him, didn't you?"
"Well, that's a different story. He and I had a thing going for about a year, but he was moody and sometimes a little rough with me. I had to get out of the relationship to protect myself."
Her blank face turned downward toward her lap. "Sorry, this is a little hard to talk about."
I reached over and touched one of her cloth-covered knees. "It's okay. You sound like you've needed to tell someone about this for a long time."
"Yes, you're right. Anyway, it started happening about two months after we broke up."
"I vanished again."
"I was watering my herb garden on the balcony one minute and the next, my watering can was hovering in mid-air. I was gone."
"He did this to you?"
"I wasn't sure at first, not until I called him."
"What did he say to you?"
She shuddered, nervously plucking at the fabric on her calf.
"He said, 'If I can't see you, no one else can either.' Then he hung up."
I took her hand and held it tightly, her knuckles clenched tight under the nude fabric.
"I tried calling again, but his phone was blocking my number. I thought about going to the pay phone down on the street, but when I tried stepping out of my apartment and my foot couldn't find the hallway floor. I almost fell. My heart was pounding. What if I fell to the center of the earth?"
"You think that could happen?"
"Well, no. I don't really have any mass when I'm not in the suit. I kind of hover in place."
"Yeah-try picking me up."
I slid my arms under her legs and lifted. It was like holding a balloon. She couldn't have weighed more than a couple of ounces. I almost tipped her over.
"Wow, why didn't I notice this before?"
"I've been very careful to wear heavy shoes and not let you feel it. When we made love, I was on the bottom, remember?"
"Why didn't I discover it then?"
"You said 'I'm all yours.' Just like you do before we have sex every time. When we make love, I'm touching one of my own possessions."
"Anyway, this guy did a vanishing act of his own. By the time I got the courage to put on a zentai and go looking for him, I couldn't find a trace of him. He cancelled his phone, vacated his house and moved out of town. None of his friends would tell me what happened to him. It was like I was iced out. I even hired a private eye, but she couldn't find any evidence he even existed."
"So you've been like this for how long?"
She sobbed once, softly. "Three years."
"Oh God. I'm so sorry."
"It's okay, I've gotten used to it. I've learned to adapt. The zentais help, as does this apartment. It has everything I need at arm's reach. I can move about it freely. If I'm not in a suit out working, I tend to stay here."
"It must look haunted seeing you move things around in here."
"Not exactly. I don't like to see that myself. I always wear some kind of clothing so I can tell where I am when I walk by a mirror. In fact, I am most comfortable in a zentai, because I feel like a complete woman."
I touched her lips and felt a warm exhalation.
"How do you breath? How do you talk? How do you see? How do you hear?"
"I don't know. I think the air belongs to us all. You can't really own it, or buy it, you know. I think that's why I can still hear, breath and talk. As for sight, I can't exactly see like I used to. It's a heightened sense, psychic almost. I can visualize everything within a direct line from my head. I can even see behind me."
"Wow...that's incredible." I rubbed her hand again. Inside, I was trying to make up my mind whether or not I really believed her. It all seemed so delusional. But then I picked her up as if she was a cloth balloon. She clearly wasn't there.
"This has got to be playing games with you head," she said after a while.
"Yeah, it is. I have to confess."
"Do you need to have some time away from me to sort your feelings out?"
I looked her in what I thought were her eyes. "No, absolutely not. I."
It was my turn to be nervous. I was on the spot, looking at a perfect, fractured creature who needed a confidante more than anyone I knew.
"I love you, Kelly. If it were up to me, I would never leave your side."
She sighed, and I could tell she was smiling a little under her mask. She reached up behind her head and removed her wig, then fumbled behind herself for the zipper. Her hood came up and slipped forward, revealing nothing at all. She sat in front of me like a headless doll.
"Are you sure, Rob? Will you have me like this?"
"Yes, Kelly. Yes."
I leaned over to kiss her, but my head passed over her neck hole. I settled for a deep, long hug.
"I'm yours, then Rob."
"And I am yours too, Kelly."
Suddenly, I could feel her face against mine, her lips starting to search for mine. She kissed me and I felt the warmth and moisture of her mouth, and her teeth nibbling lightly on my upper lip.
"Are you sure, Rob."
I realized then what was happening. "Yes, Kelly. I belong to you, heart and soul."
And with that, I broke her curse for a moment and she could touch me. She slipped out of her zentai and clothes, and I could feel the shape of her body against me. We made love in the dark, and except for the fact that I could not feel her weight on me when we rolled around, it was like any other time. In the dim light, I noticed my fingers disappear as she took them into her mouth.
"Thank you, Rob," she said when it was over. With the light on, I could see the shape of her body under the sheets, ending at her shoulders.
"Kelly, this was indescribable. You have me hooked."
"No Rob, you don't have to give yourself to me like that. You are still your own man. I release you."
Nothing seemed to change, except when I reached out to touch her, I could only feel her shape under the sheets. Above the hem was nothing but air.
She giggled, and threw the sheets off. I couldn't tell where she was.
"I love you, Rob. I've loved you for a long time." She seemed to be standing across the room, a fact confirmed when the top drawer of her dresser opened. Two black stay-up stockings floated out, and became leg-shaped on the side of the bed. They walked to her closet and slipped into a pair of three inch patent leather pumps.
"Can I get you a glass of water, dear?"
I watched, gobsmacked, as her legs walked out around the room divider and returned, with a tumbler of ice water floating above in mid-air.
A week later, I'd moved in with her, becoming her business partner, her enabler, and her lover.
"I don't know why we've never thought of this," said Kelly, coming through the front door with a bag from a nearby drug store.
"Thought of what?"
"It's a surprise," she said, her spooky, empty eyes staring back at me.
Today, she's got on a zentai version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream." She spent hours in the basement working with our new screen printer to get the effect right. We've made a tidy fortune doing screen-printed zentais and selling them on eBay. We've done the Mona Lisa, a couple of Picassos, and any number of celebrities from Marilyn Monroe (Kelly's favorite) to Julia Roberts. I understand that our female designs are just as popular with transsexuals as they are with women. We keep some of the profits to support ourselves and expand our little zentai factory. The rest goes into Kelly's charity.
She hands me the heavy bag and walks into our living room, pulling an old sheet out of the coat closet. I look inside the bag. It's filled with make-up -- especially liquid foundation, dozens and dozens of bottles worth, in the largest possible sizes.
"Kelly, this is a lot of cosmetics. And it's not the cheap stuff!"
"It's also deductible. You've got to be creative for the tax man. Anyway, the good stuff won't rub off."
"What are you going to do with it?" I asked. Kelly never wore make-up. She didn't even have a face!
"You've always wanted to know what I look like. Here's your chance." Her tortured grimace, garish in Munch's nightmare colors, clashed with her giddy mood. She disappeared into her studio and came back with a battered old stool.
She reached behind her head -- Kelly must be double-jointed to get to that zipper -- and opened the back of her suit. It fell away from her above her waist, collapsing as if it had been possessed. The suit fell as her legs did a little shimmy, then they vanished too.
It dawned on me then. She wants me to paint her into existence!
"You're right! Why didn't we think of this sooner."
I started with her feet, rubbing the foundation all over her feet and powdering it to get a matte finish. I rubbed the make-up off her toenails carefully and applied toenail polish. She did a little happy dance with her feet, making them go round and round each other impossibly. They looked like perfect, flawless women's feet -- minus veins, wrinkles, and hairs. I'd wondered why my razor was out of its charger this morning. Apparently, Kelly knew she was going to do this since then, and shaved her body.
Her legs took shape next, except I kept having to reapply the makeup where she crossed them across the knee and rubbed it off. Her legs would then look perfectly normal, except for smudgy holes on her kneecaps and the back of her legs.
"Zentai's better," she said. "I would never risk going out in makeup.
"What about make-up and zentai together? An open-faced hood," I asked.
"Still. I'd be nervous about it."
Nine bottles later, she was almost a woman, minus her face. The lights from the kitchen shone through the cosmetics on the back of her shaved head. I patted her down with powder to calm the shine.
"Maybe I should do my own face," she said.
She took the bag and went into the bathroom, leaving skin-colored footprints on the carpet. A few minutes later, I could hear sobbing.
I ran to the bathroom. "What's wrong, Kelly?"
There she was, a bald woman with missing eyes. Invisible tears left small tracks of mascara down her cheeks.
"It's me, Rob. It's been so long, but there I am."
I hesitate to touch her, not wanting to get make-up on my new shirt, but it could always be washed. I held her close. Put my hand on her head. "I love you, Kelly. You're fine. You're okay. I love you."
I studied her face, seeing details for the first time I had only guessed at before. There was a dimple in her left cheek, but not her right. Her eyes were almond-shaped, like an Asian woman's, except Kelly said her grandmother was from Russia where many races blended together. Her nose was long and narrow, and her eyebrows -- dusted on with a faint brown powder -- were a little bushy, streaking back like comets.
"Sorry. I haven't been to the salon to have my eyebrows waxed lately," she said. There was a momentary broad smile. Her mouth was black and empty of teeth.
"Rob...could you get me some sunglasses and a wig. I'm tired of looking like a jack-o-lantern."
We spend the evening like that, me touching up her rubbed off spots, though as the make-up dried on, it stayed on. The good stuff was worth it after all.
We played chess, had a bowl of popcorn with a movie, her long red fingernails depositing the white kernels into the glossy red "O" of her lips. She put on a pair of fishnets, a skirt and a black, lycra turtleneck. We went out to a supermarket, and no one gave her a second glance. A heavily-made-up woman is not such an oddity in this town.
Later, I remembered her jack-o-lantern comment.
"We did that pumpkin thing right before we decided to Vegas. Remember?"
"Ah, yes," she said, smiling.
We'd been together a year. I quit my job at the department store and helped produce her zentai installations. She got tons of publicity -- and was able to triple her rates. She even made it onto Oprah -- as part of a feminist's study on the objectification of women.
That year, for Halloween, we needed a really good costume for the Mayor's ball.
"It's simple," I told her. "We just need two zentai, one that belongs to you and the other which doesn't."
We took the one that belonged to her -- a sheer one she often used as an underlayer -- and cut its hood off, wrapping a piece of surgical tape around the opening to keep the fabric up around her neck. She regarded herself in a full-length mirror, the rest of the room clearly visible through the fabric. Light shone through her hands when she held them up to the window. She reached inside her improvised collar, feeling the inside of her neck. She was a headless, hollow specter of herself.
I took a disc of cardboard, shaped roughly like a small cake pan, and put it on top of her neck, taping it down securely.
"Wow," she giggled. I had intentionally kept my plan a surprise. "What are you going to do next, Rob?"
I handed her the other zentai -- the one that didn't belong to her. It was opaque, matte and skin-colored -- the same kind she used when she wanted to appear as human-like as possible. I had also cut the hood off this one, but sewed a disc of fabric over the head. Her transparent hand took it from me.
"Where's my head supposed to go?" she asked. Then I heard a single, loud chuckle come from the space above her neck. "Nice."
She wriggled into the headless zentai, sliding into the gloves, then pulling the zipper up to the place where her neck ended. The inner zentai gave shape to the outer one, but her phantom head passed right through the disc of cloth and the cardboard plate, giving the illusion that her neck ended in a stump.
I handed her a bag of clothes -- a long, black evening gown with a slit down the side and a pair of patent-leather strappy black heels.
"Very chic," she remarked, putting on the costume.
"And now, for the final touch..."
I brought a real pumpkin from behind the sofa. Inside was a small light powered by a large lantern battery. "This should burn all night."
"Am I the decapitated starlet from Sleepy Hollow tonight?" her voice said, and when she was holding the pumpkin, my mind convinced me it was the carved-out melon talking and not her.
"You could say that. So, what am I going to wear?"
She put down her pumpkin head, with one hand on her hips and the other scratching the flat top of her neck stump, seeming to regard me for a second, as if she were deep in thought. Of course, she had it planned all along.
"You're going to be a bee."
Her costume started with a black zentai, one which she had made for me right after we started dating. I liked wearing it at home sometimes, but she had never talked me into wearing it in public. She'd glued compound eyes onto the sides of the bulbous black hood and antennae stalks on top. The fabric was just right for allowing light through. I could see Kelly's headless form clearly, while she swore she couldn't make out a single detail of my face.
Over the zentai, I put on a puffy yellow and black bee suit, my black legs and stockinged feet poking out of leg holes. My arms protruded asymmetrically, one black gloved hand coming out near the shoulder, and the other coming out near my waist. I had to hold my elbow against my side to get it through the hole. Two mannequin's arms covered with black lycra completed the illusion I had four arms.
"Wow...you look amazing, Rob! Let's take pictures."
We snapped some shots with our digital camera, me with my hood down, trying to catch headless Kelly in some wild poses with and without the jack-o-lantern. She held the camera several inches above her neck, presumably at eye-level, to catch me waving my arms.
"If I hold one of your dead arms, you'd have two more to use. It'll freak people out."
At the party, we were a hit, winning a costume contest and making the front page of the local daily. No one could guess how Kelly was able to hide her head. Many people assumed she was a short person with a fake upper body, and we let them go on believing that.
The pumpkin head turned out to be a pain to carry around, so Kelly left it at our table as a centerpiece and spent most of the night headless. It was a joy to be with her on the dance floor. She held my two fake arms as we danced so I could hold her in my other two arms, and run a black finger along the rim of her neck. Her musical laughter floated in mid-air above her.
"You probably don't see me as well as you'd like," she whispered in my ear. Her voice seemed to come from inside my head.
"You're right," I replied, trying to be heard over the band.
"When we get home, I'll leave this on. I'll leave it on as long as you want me too."
And she was true to her word. She went to bed in her plaid pajamas, her flattened neck sticking out of the flannel collar. I stripped out of the bee suit, so I could feel her cloth body and kiss the edge of her neck. She curled up, spooned into the front of me, her neck stump pressed against my chin. I could hear her breathing as if she were inside me. I opened my mouth and heard her voice come out.
"I love you, Rob."
"I love you too," I said.
"Ohh...your voice feels rumbly. It's like my whole body is ringing."
She wore the headless suit all morning the next day, with a pair of jeans and a black rock band t-shirt. She loved the effect, and was thinking of other ways to use it. "I bet I could make my Raggedy-Anne costume look like I was missing one hand with stuffing coming out of the hole, or I could be a mermaid with a rigid tail, or an armless statue or a department store mannequin with no legs."
I was sure, before the end of the year, all that and more would be rolling off her sewing machine.
The phone rang. It was for Kelly, a voice I didn't recognize. Fortunately, our phone had a speakerphone function. Otherwise, I'm not sure she could have found her ear. I left the room so as not to eavesdrop.
"Oh, that's great news," said Kelly, when I walked back in. "Rob and I need to have a serious talk before I say yes."
"Say yes to what?" I said after she hung up.
"Let's sit down, Rob. This could change our life."
We sat on the sofa. I tried to focus my eyes on a place over her neck, where I thought her face might be. All I saw was a vase of roses on the hall table behind her.
"I've been offered a job that could make a lot of difference in some people's lives. But we need to move to Las Vegas."
I couldn't hide my surprise. Kelly never had anything good to say about Vegas, with its cheesy magic shows and runaway gambling addiction trade.
"Why Vegas," I asked.
"There are others like me, Rob. Magician's assistants who have been permanently altered. The magician's guild has a fund set up to take care of them."
"Yes, I remember when you found out about that. We started to get some nice settlement checks."
"The guild wants to start a support group now. A way for newly-injured assistants to come to terms with their transformations. They want to hire me as their executive director. You won't believe the salary, and we could live a nice quiet life without having to make such a spectacle of ourselves."
She put her arm on mine, as she does when she wants something big from me. She knows I can't resist her cloth touch, especially then, with her amazingly surreal appearance.
"Are they all ghosts like you?"
"No, there are a couple like me. In fact, one looks exactly like me right now. Her head was vanished."
"What kind of transformations are you talking about, then?"
"Unfinished sawings, mostly. I've been talking with some of them by email. One of them has to strap her two halves together at the waist. Another wears a zentai hood I designed to hold her head on her neck. It was an unfortunate guillotine accident. There are a few stretched out, flattened, pierced and twisted women too."
"Why so many?"
"Different reasons. Accidents sometimes, but mostly because magic -- the real kind that made me the way I am -- sometimes has a way of becoming permanent if it is repeated too often. It just so happens that the largest concentration of these "accidents" happen in Las Vegas, the magic capital of the world. There are 48 women signed up for the group, with one or two a year joining."
She was cross-legged on the sofa now, her stockinged feet poking out of the denim cuffs of her jeans. The soles of her zentai were dusty from walking around the house without her slippers.
"What does the group do for them?"
"We, um, I mean they provide medical coverage. They have to use special doctors who are trained to handle magical cases, and are sworn to keep a secret. There are also prosthetic fittings, custom equipment to make the women appear normal and function normally. They also do individual and group counseling to help members get over the trauma of their transformation and face the world without shame."
"Sounds like your own journey," I said, stroking her feet.
"It is, and that's why they want me. Actually, the group's president knew about me from my zentai work. Remember that week I spent in Vegas working at the electronics show? When she saw my name on the support group's donor list, she immediately contacted me and asked about my background. They like how I've adapted to my handicap and how I can draw attention to myself without giving away the secret."
"Do I have to decide now?"
"No, no...but it's almost dusk. We need to go do that walk if we're going to."
She got up, held my hands in hers for a long moment, her headless body seeming to regard me with affection. "I gotta go change before we go out."
When she came back, she was wearing a silver-gray zentai -- with head restored. She had on a black peacoat, black boots and a black, floppy hat. The edges of a short black wig were visible under the hat.
"You look rather like Audrey Hepburn in that outfit, minus the smile and the fluttering eyelashes."
"Why thank you, my dear," she said.
It took me an hour to make up my mind, as we were scuffling through piles of leaves on the sidewalk. "If you want to go to Vegas, we go to Vegas. I will support you and do whatever it takes to make us happy. I could even set up a side business and sell your designs on the internet.
"Oh Rob, thank you." She kissed me warmly on the mouth, over and over again. I felt her warm breath through the fabric. "I love you, Rob. This is a dream come true. I can help others now, instead of just trying to shock them."
"I love you too, Kelly. And that's why I have a surprise of my own when we get to Vegas."
"Have you ever been to a zentai wedding?"
We held each other tight, Kelly sobbing with joy, and me humming "Here Comes The Bride" and laughing.
A church bell rang in the distance.