Shadows

The upstairs bathroom “throne” wasn’t the most glorious place to sit, but she loved it. Tucked back behind the wall, it provided a perfect spot to survey the world through the floor to ceiling window just beyond her feet. A white wide-slat shade hung in front of the window, closed against the intense early morning summer sun and prying nighttime eyes, but otherwise open, allowing visual access to the outside without being able to be seen. The sunlight cast shadows on the tall white bathroom cabinets ahead of the window, thin strips of horizontal gray for the slats and spindly vertical lines for the cords holding the slats in place. Beyond the window, a huge maple tree swayed deep branchy shadows behind the shade lines, the wind flickering faint leaves of gray here and there across the cabinet doors. As day dimmed to evening, the corner streetlight cast an angled light, recoloring and texturing the shadowy patterns on the graying cabinet. She loved to sit in secret, watching the variance of patterns, light and shadow from the safety of her own shadows. These shadows hid her regret over the shabby, nicked cabinet and the rest of the remodeling job that should have been completed years ago but was still not even started. These shadows protected her from the house below that vibrated with the lives of other people who did not miss her presence. Here she could rest in peace, knowing the shadows required nothing of her.

She was an accomplished cook and loved to entertain. She worked hard to make each event a moment to remember as she plied her guests with food and drink and delighted in their compliments. But, aside from informal pleasantries, she did not interact with her guests. The party was for them, and her lot was to hover in the background. There had been times when the parties might have been about her, times when she could have been the shining star, but not anymore. Her dreams became ladders others had climbed, claiming their own success, and she had quietly faded into the shadows, unsung, unhonored, and unknown. The dishes, the oven, the sink, and finally the vacuum provided safe occupation when the shadows of painful memories darkened her mind.

One such evening she stood at her sink, meticulously washing empty plates and glasses. A single fixture directly above shed its cone of light as if protecting her from the shadows that separated her from the laughing guests. She gripped a nylon scrubber as if it might slip away as she scoured a pate. Spotlessly clean, that’s how she needed it to be, ready for the next party. She was frightened by the anger that seethed just below her outward calm. Resignation, perhaps resentment, were normal, but not anger. Memories of what might have been wrapped her mind in suffocating shrouds as she put long-stemmed glasses carefully into the steamy suds and began to wash them. She shook her head as if to clear it.

Through the lace curtains she could see out onto the flagstones. The same streetlight that was making maple tree shadows behind the closed upstairs bathroom shade was haunting the patio. Shadows of the tall ornamental grasses gesticulated wildly as they danced to some unheard ancient music as if begging their gods for mercy. Normally she loved shadows; they brought her peace, they hid her in their safety. These shadows seemed threatening.

She jumped. Someone, or something, had just touched her elbow in a particularly sensitive spot.

“Excuse me,” a man’s voice said.

“Oh, you startled me,” she said, drying her hands and turning around. “What can I get you?”

“Nothing,” said the man. She noticed he wasn’t tall, he wasn’t thin, and he certainly didn’t look threatening.

“Then what do you need?” she asked, confused.

“I’d like to get to know you,” he said. “I’ve met or already know all the other people at this party. You’re the only one I haven’t met. You are the host for this outstanding gathering, and I think you should join in the fun. I’ll be glad to stay and help with the cleanup, if you’re worried about losing time.”

She noticed he was smiling. “No, that’s all right,” she shook her head. “This is where I belong, not out there,” and she turned back to the sink. “I don’t matter.”

“I beg to differ,” he said, taking a towel and drying the hands she had just dipped back into the dishwater. “What’s your name?”

She stood, blinking. Someone had just turned on the light.