» Fiction

In the Nude

Brendan Gillen

Charlotte lived in the Village, where the buildings shared narrow courtyards, so it was not a matter of neighbors seeing. Of course they saw. She sometimes waved. The uptight spinster across the street who pulled her curtains. The young men whose kitchen window was adjacent to her bedroom. They did not stare. They smiled giddily and waved and went about their business. Who knows what they said when they ducked out of sight? Charlotte didn’t care. Her days of giving a damn were long gone.


One afternoon, the police came. The knock was polite. Charlotte answered in her robe. She could have been their mother. They hardly looked old enough to drive, let alone carry weapons.


“Good afternoon, ma’am,” said the bearded officer. His nameplate read: Finn. He seemed to be in charge. “There’s been a report of a disturbance.”


She clocked the shaven one eying her figure, which she maintained with water aerobics.


“A disturbance?” Charlotte said. “Here?”


“Yes, ma’am,” Finn said.


Charlotte wondered if one of them always spoke, if their roles were set, or if they sometimes traded.


 “I make a real effort to keep to myself,” she said.


“It has nothing to do with noise, ma’am,” Finn said.


The clean-shaven young man adjusted his belt. His radio chirped. His name was Bradford.


“There was a call that you’ve been going about your apartment in the, ah, nude and whatnot.”


Charlotte bit her cheek to keep from laughing. In the nude! For such a progressive city, New York’s sense of civic propriety was practically Victorian.


“I see,” she said. “Is it illegal? This is my home.”


“Not exactly, but if it continues to be a public disturbance—”


“Who was it that complained?”


“We can’t divulge that information, ma’am,” Finn said. But Charlotte knew. In some ways, she’d been waiting for it. She didn’t know the woman’s name, but they’d passed each other plenty of times on the street. In another life, they might have been friends. In this life, her neighbor was stoop-shouldered and severe, and she pushed her chaotic hoard of belongings around the neighborhood in a rolling cart.

“All we’re asking,” Finn continued, “is that you cover up.”


Instinctively, Charlotte released the clutch she held on the collar of her robe so that it fell open at her throat. Bradford stole a glance at her cleavage. Finn dropped his hand to his taser.


“Ma’am,” he said. “It’s a simple request.”


She thought of Donald. How could she not? His mustache. His overcoat. Always layered. Their marriage was full of love. Over thirty years. Toward the end there was no sex, not because they didn’t want it, but because of his condition. It worsened precipitously in the final months. He was hollowed out, hunched over. Clothes hung about him as though they’d been donated by a much bigger man. It was awful to see. Yet Charlotte had felt an undercurrent of liberation. An unburdening, a shedding of skin. She waited until Donald passed to express it. To do otherwise would have been cruel. She sold the house, bought the studio in the city. She began to paint, went for cocktails. It wasn’t even a year before she brought a man half her age back to the apartment. She was taking control of her grief. Of her life. She knew Donald would have understood. She’d given up her career at McCann to make their home, raise their boys. This was her time. Yes, he would have understood. She was certain. She was the only woman he’d ever loved.


“Let me ask you something,” Charlotte said to the officers. “Have either of you tried it?”


Finn cleared his throat. His hand twitched on the taser. “Ma’am?” he said.


“Walking around the house,” she said, “in the nude.”


Bradford swallowed. The arrowhead of his Adam’s apple dipped.


“Ma’am, this doesn’t have to be difficult,” Finn said, losing patience. “This isn’t a negotiation.”


“Oh, it’s not difficult at all,” she said. “You’d be surprised how good it feels. The world is constrictive enough.”


“I’ve tried it,” Bradford said, seeming to startle himself. “Sleeping naked, I mean.”


“See?” Charlotte grinned. She clapped involuntarily. Heat rose to her face. “And?”


“It was okay. Little chilly.”


“Enough,” Finn snapped. He’d been undermined.


“Oh, give it another shot, Bradford,” Charlotte said. “You too, Finn. Your wives or girlfriends or boyfriends, whatever, will notice the shift, trust me. Especially after a long day in those uniforms. Don’t they itch?”


“Wives,” Finn said, flustered. “Listen, if we get another complaint to this address? We won’t be so cordial.”


Charlotte looked Finn in the eye and smiled. He flinched, and she saw his guard drop. It was all very silly. The roles we convinced ourselves to play.


“That won’t be necessary,” Charlotte said. “Message is loud and clear. All I can say is that I hope you gentlemen find comfort in your own skin before it’s too late.”


“And I hope this is the last we see of each other,” Finn said. One of their radios crackled. “Good afternoon.”


Finn turned and made his way from the threshold. Bradford lingered a moment, and, ever so slightly, smiled, as if to say, Thank you. Then he ducked out of sight.


Charlotte closed the door, went to her nightstand, leaned against the bed. She picked up the framed photo of Donald, touched his face through the glass. He was squinting in the direct sunlight, ballcap pulled low, one of their last journeys to the desert.


“Miss you, love,” she said. “We would’ve had fun. I’d’ve loosened you up.” At least she would have tried. But had he never passed, would she have arrived here, at herself? It was impossible to know.


She went to the window and looked down on the street, the slow-moving traffic, the bustle and flow of a Manhattan afternoon. The spinster was not at her window, but Charlotte could see the tunneling squeeze, the decades of accumulation. She decided she would get dressed and go over there, try the third-floor buzzers until she found the right one. Maybe all the woman needed was someone to talk to, or, more likely, someone to listen.


For now, she closed the curtains against the glare, dropped her robe, studied her figure in the mirror. It was something you had to work for. Not the body, the love for it. That alone was worth the heartbreak.


“Oh, I hope you’re watching,” she said.


Then she danced to the song in her head, the one Donald loved most. A slow bolero, a languid ache, an invitation to the rest of your life.


Brendan Gillen

Brendan Gillen is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. He is the recipient of the 2023 Mythic Picnic Prize in Fiction and his work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. His stories appear in Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, Maudlin House, Taco Bell Quarterly, X-R-A-Y and elsewhere. His first novel, STATIC, is forthcoming from Vine Leaves Press (July '24). You can find him online at bgillen.com and on Twitter/IG @beegillen.