A 21st century tale
By Eve’s Rib
3: HIM INDOORS
For now, Leo gave in and took on responsibility for the housework. He was a good worker. He had always worked; he had spent five years at ColourPrint. He had done a three-year apprenticeship before that, and before that again he had delivered papers, washed cars. He could adapt; if there was an aspect of a job that he didn’t like he’d try and make it less distasteful. He could make this work. Just so long as he remembered that Men Mattered!
Gina had always done most of the chores, even when working full-time. Leo tried to keep the place clean, but his heart wasn’t in it. Gina said that coming home to his wretched cooking was like being a student again. A couple of times they laughed at his burnt pastry and overboiled vegetables and ordered a takeaway. Then one night Gina came home to find him scraping another dinner into the bin and stopped seeing the joke.
“We can’t live on takeaways, Leo. You’ve got to start reading our cookbooks properly.”
She meant it. As Leo slowly considered taking up her proposal, he found cookbooks collecting on the shelf — Gina had taken care of the whole thing.
One afternoon Leo had just fried himself an egg and was doing the ironing. He laid Gina’s best shirt on the ironing board and noticed a greasy blot on the sleeve. He must have touched it with an oily finger. Shit, she’d skin him alive when she saw it! What should he do? Put it in the washing machine? He’d just done a load and it didn’t seem worth it for one item. How did you shift grease? He didn’t even know. He didn’t like to feel incompetent, so he swallowed his pride and turned to Brian nextdoor.
Brian was the exemplary modern husband. He stayed at home and did the housework while his wife Kelly did a high-powered job. Leo found him hanging up washing in the back garden. Like Kelly, who was slightly older, Brian was in his twenties. He was good-looking with a long, affable face and flaxen hair that drooped down either temple in a rather effeminate style. Leo leaned over the garden fence, Gina’s shirt draped over his arm, and watched him for a moment with misgiving. Brian was wearing a print dress. He wore it without self-consciousness or embarrassment. He took it for granted.
After a minute Brian finished his pegging and looked up. “Oh, hello, Leo. How’s it going?” He paused, and straightened his flowery apron.
“Hey, Brian. I, uh, just wanted to ask. I’ve got a problem getting a stain out of one of Gina’s shirts...”
“What is it? Ink, blood, ketchup?”
“Grease, actually.” He held the shirt up.
“Oh, that’s easy. Just put it in cold soapy water and scrub it with a brush. Give it here, we’ll do it now. Come into the kitchen.”
Leo vaulted over the low fence with exaggerated athleticism and followed Brian into his spotless kitchen. Brian ran some cold water into the sink and started scrubbing the shirt sleeve with a little brush. Seeing him at the sink in a dress like some Fifties housewife made Leo uneasy. It was the sort of sight you had to accept nowadays, however unthinkable it would have been when Leo was a kid. Was this really supposed to be his world from now on?
“Would you like a cup of tea?” said Brian.
“I’m putting it on anyway, it’s no trouble!”
“Kelly was telling me that you and Gina have come to an understanding,” said Brian, putting the kettle on.
Leo felt like Brian had scored a point and was annoyed, because he had always treated Brian with mild disdain. Well, Kelly and Gina were friends. Word was bound to get round. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Welcome to the club,” said Brian. “Any time you want advice, I’m right here. I’m usually in, though I do a sewing class on Wednesday nights and flower arranging on Fridays. A man’s got to get out occasionally, after all! You might want to join in. You’ll pick up all sorts of tips.”
Leo shook his head vigorously. “That’s going too far for me. This is temporary, Bri. Really I’m still looking for work, see. I’m an independent spirit. I want to keep this an agreement between equals.”
“Equals? Good luck,” said Brian doubtfully. He held up the shirt. “That’s clean now, it just needs to dry. — That’s fine if you can find work, Leo, but what if you don’t? You think when Gina’s working and you’re cooking her dinner, she won’t be the dominant partner?”
“What we’ve got is a partnership, Bri. It’s not like you and Kelly. I mean, no offence...”
“Kelly’s an ambitious woman,” shrugged Brian. “She’s very assertive. Good for her, I say. Women have taken enough shit from us over the years, haven’t they?”
Leo leaned against the kitchen table while Brian got two cups and saucers from a neatly filled cabinet, the cups all hung from hooks, the plates slotted into racks. “It’s nice and quiet now,” he said. “Leanne’s out with her mates at football practice. She sprained her ankle the other day, those girls are terribly rough.”
“She’ll mend in a day or two. How do you take your tea, Leo?”
“Milk, no sugar, please.”
“Fancy some cake, or some biscuits?”
“No, look mate, that’s fine. Don’t worry.”
“Oh, I must just fold these things,” said Brian. He lifted something white from the little clothes rack in the corner.
“So, uh, not job-hunting then?” asked Leo.
“Goodness, no! Kelly would never hear of it. These things came out nice and white, didn’t they?” Brian put the folded shirt on the table, smiling like a househusband in a TV commercial.
That’s what they all are, Leo thought, these modern men: actors in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers, shampoos and deodorants. Pretty actors with big petticoats and small brains, playing suburban home-makers.
“Bri,” he said. “You started out in the car factory, didn’t yer? I mean, you used to have a job. Are you happy now? You know, living a full life?”
Brian nodded. “Yes, I’m happy,” he said. “Kelly’s work is important, and she couldn’t do it so well without me. We’re a team. — There, that’s the folding done. Sorry, Leo, but I wouldn’t dare have it undone when Kelly gets home.”
They took their mugs into the living room, which was as immaculate as the kitchen and every other part of the house. Flowers in vases flourished in each corner. Brian smoothed his skirts under him and lay his hands in his lap. “What do you think of these cushions? They’re a new design but I got them in a special offer.”
“Yeah, nice. Kelly still at work?”
“She’ll be back soon. Oh, I must tell you about her promotion...”
They sipped their tea as Brian nattered proudly about Kelly. She was prominent in a law office and was a formidable, intelligent woman. She was a lot like Gina in some ways and it was no surprise that the two were closer friends than Leo and Brian. But Leo found Kelly very over-powering. He often suspected that some of Gina’s recent assertiveness was inspired from Kelly’s example.
“And how’s your Tommy?” he asked, to get off the subject of their wives’ salaries.
“Oh, he’s fine. He’s done better than expected at school this year,” Brian said beaming.
“Is he around?” Leo asked. “I suppose he’s out with his mates.”
“No, he’s out playing in the front yard. I should check on him, actually.”
Leo followed him to the window, expecting to see Brian’s son Tommy kicking a football around, but all he saw was a short-haired little girl playing hop-scotch on the flagstones in front of the house. It took him a few seconds to realise that the ‘girl’ was Tommy. He was wearing a pale blue dress with puffy short sleeves, its knee-length skirts flaring out from a neat waist and filled out with net petticoats. To match the dress he wore pretty blue shoes and white ankle socks.
Aghast, Leo watched him hop happily across the yard. Tommy had never been the most macho of boys, but this was something he hadn’t noticed before. “Brian, what’ve you got him wearing, mate?”
“Just one of his dresses.” Brian tapped on the window. “He looks so cute, doesn’t he? Another tea?”
“Boys shouldn’t wear dresses,” Leo retorted. “It’s demeaning.”
Brian gave him a sideways glance. “Oh, I know you think it’s terrible. But you shouldn’t be so old-fashioned. Nobody’s forcing him, he picked that one out himself. Boys can wear whatever they like these days. And look at me.”
“Yeah, but you’re an adult, Bri. If you really want to dress like that it’s up to you...”
“Actually Kelly has the final say, but go on.”
“Is that what Tom likes? Dressing like a little girl?”
“Not like a girl, Leo, like a boy. That dress is from the new boys’ range at C&A. They’ve given up trying to sell dresses to girls. Anyway, he doesn’t like to admit it but I think he loves being a bit sissy. A lot of boys hate it, of course, but there’s heaps of pressure. From girls, mostly.” Brian went to the front door, opened it and called out, “Tommy, lad, come and get your juice.”
“What about your Leanne? She was always quite, well, girly.”
“Oh, you really haven’t been paying attention! Leanne’s moved on. She absolutely refuses to wear dresses,” said Brian. “She thinks the idea’s scandalous. ‘They’re boys’ clothes.’ We’ve given up and given her girly things to Tom.”
“To Tom! Doesn’t it... worry you?”
“Why should it? It’s him and every other boy his age. Boys have changed, Leo. Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed. It’s all dollies and frills these days. Girls have beaten them and they’re finding a new identity for themselves. Girls think boys having to wear the frocks is a big laugh. Oh, they love that.”
“What do you mean, ‘having to’?” demanded Leo.
“You go into a modern school as a boy,” said Brian, “among these loud smart-ass girls, and try to survive for ten minutes. Wear trousers and you’re liable to get your bits thumped.”
It was exactly what Trigger had said. Tommy came skipping into the house. “Hullo, Mr Powers.”
“All right, Tommy?”
Leo had to admit that the boy looked adorable in his frock, and was about to pay him a compliment, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He watched Tommy skip past them into the kitchen to collect the orange juice that Brian had left there.
“I never really understood your objection,” said Brian, sitting down again. “Men have worn non-bifurcated clothes throughout history. Christ and the Apostles wore long gowns. Roman soldiers wore skirts. Scotsmen wear kilts. Men in East Asia wear sarongs. What you need, Leo, is a bit of cultural relativism.”
Leo had no idea what cultural relativism was, but he got the point. “There’s one crucial difference, Brian. Those men were in charge. In our country a frock belongs to the second sex — to women — and means having no power.”
“Power isn’t everything,” shrugged Brian, arranging his skirts upon his crossed legs. There was no rattling him. Leo had always suspected it — Brian enjoyed being a househusband. He liked Kelly being the boss and he liked wearing dresses. It was a scandal.
At that moment the front door opened and Kelly walked in, jingling her car keys. “I’m home!”
Leo had always secretly fancied Kelly. He wouldn’t have betrayed his darling Gina, but lately she had been less interested than she used to, and Kelly was a very sexual woman. She was like dark wine, smooth and lustrous. She could command a room with a languid gesture, a single slow piercing of the eyes, remaining calm and coolly aware of the yearnings she provoked in men. Her limbs were soft and robust, her breasts plump and pert, and her face, brushed by heavy black hair, had fine contours and a little mole on one cheek that only added to her attractions.
“Why, Leo,” she said. “What a pleasure. You haven’t been round in a while. Brian!” She turned to her husband, who had jumped up from his seat to help her off with her overcoat. “Have you offered Leo a drink?”
“Of course I have, love.”
“Well, my car needs hoovering. Can you go and do it?”
“Right away, love.” Brian swished out.
“I guess I should be off, too,” said Leo. He was nervous around Kelly. He wanted to stare at her, and was scared that she’d notice.
“Hang around a bit, darling. Sit down.”
Leo sat down.
“I hear Gina’s been flexing her womanly muscle,” said Kelly, settling onto the sofa and smiling at him. She undid the top buttons of her shirt and Leo could barely keep his eyes from her cleavage, her breasts large and pendulous under the crisp cotton. “You’ve come round for some housework tips, I’ll bet.”
“Yeah, I guess... That househusband thing’s just temporary, though.”
“Is it? I thought she told you to stop looking for work?”
“Well, hang on, Kelly — if I want to look for work, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Kelly looked him up and down, devouring him. “You always were a bit of a rebel, Leo. That’s what I like about you.”
Tommy came in from the kitchen, hugged his mother hello, and straddled the arm of the sofa, one hand plunged into the safety of his rustling skirts. “Mum, Daniel’s mother said I’d look pretty in ringlets. What are ringlets?”
“It’s when you wear your hair in long curls, poppet. She’s right, they would suit you. You’ll have to grow your hair longer first, though.” She ran her hand through his loose, chestnut hair.
“I’m going to be a househusband like Daddy,” said Tommy to Leo. “My friend Susie says she wants to marry me. She’s going to be an engineer.”
“You’ll make a lovely househusband, poppet,” said Kelly. “Why don’t we try tying up your hair with a ribbon? It’s just about long enough for that.”
“Oh, yes, let’s.” Tommy slid onto his feet and pulled his frock straight. “Can we try my blue one? Susie says I have to look pretty or she won’t marry me.”
“You’re always pretty. Run along and I’ll send Daddy up to help with the ribbon.”
Tommy ran out. Kelly gazed after him fondly. “You and Gina planning on having kids?”
“Yeah, I s’pose. Won’t be raising my son like that, though.”
“Oh come on, he loves it! What do you want, boys and girls to be exactly the same? Girls are aggressive and ambitious. It’s fabulous that boys are so darling nowadays. You can dress them so prettily.”
“What a loss that would be...”
“Leo, you old dinosaur!”
“I’m just giving us the rights you —”
“Oh, rights, schmights. You get the rights you deserve. It must be tough to be made redundant, but you should be grateful you’ve got a good woman to support you. You’re typical of these bloody has-been men. The workplace belongs to women. Gina earns more than you can dream of and can easily support both of you. So you have to accept the fact that you are not her equal — your place is in the home, cleaning her house and cooking her meals. Gina is the boss, and you must honour and obey her. You understand?”
“That’s going too far for me, Kelly,” said Leo. He lowered his gaze to avoid her bold, lovely eyes and plump tits, but he ended up admiring her fleshy thighs instead. There didn’t seem to be any part of Kelly he could look at without being turned on. His prick was stiffening and creeping up the gusset of his trousers.
“It’s not up to you. Anyway, try not to be selfish. It’s a lot of responsibility to be the breadwinner. Take me, with a husband and son to support. They depend on me.”
Leo stood up. “I have to get home and put Gina’s dinner on.” It wasn’t true — it was only quarter past four — but he guessed that Kelly wouldn’t stand in the way of an excuse like that, and he was right.
“Well, don’t be a stranger, sweetheart,” said Kelly, standing up too. “Gina should watch it, letting you out of the house. You’re looking good enough to eat.” She grinned broadly, with a suggestive narrowing of her eyes.
Christ! He had to get out!
“Don’t be afraid to borrow one of Brian’s dresses if you’d like,” she said on the doorstep. She put her hand on his waist and he felt a tingle of excitement. “You’re the same size and Brian wouldn’t mind. Would you, Brian?” she said, sternly.
Brian was leaning into the car with the mini-hoover. His skirts were standing out behind him, revealing a flutter of gauzy petticoats. He looked round and bumped his head on the car roof. “Oof! — No, of course not love, of course. Don’t forget Gina’s shirt, Leo.”