The Double Bind
By Chris Bohjalian
All right reserved.
Laurel Estabrook was nearly raped the fall of her sophomore year of college. Quite likely she was nearly murdered that autumn. This was no date-rape disaster with a handsome, entitled UVM frat boy after the two of them had spent too much time flirting beside the bulbous steel of a beer keg; this was one of those violent, sinister attacks involving masked men–yes, men, plural, and they actually were wearing wool ski masks that shielded all but their eyes and the snarling rifts of their mouths–that one presumes only happens to other women in distant states. To victims whose faces appear on the morning news programs, and whose devastated, forever-wrecked mothers are interviewed by strikingly beautiful anchorwomen. She was biking on a wooded dirt road twenty miles northeast of the college in a town with a name that was both ominous and oxy-moronic: Underhill. In all fairness, the girl did not find the name Underhill menacing before she was assaulted. But she also did not return there for any reason in the years after the attack. It was somewhere around six-thirty on a Sunday evening, and this was the third Sunday in a row that she had packed her well-traveled mountain bike into the back of her roommate Talia's station wagon and driven to Underhill to ride for miles and miles along the logging roads that snaked through the nearby forest. At the time, it struck heras beautiful country: a fairy-tale wood more Lewis than Grimm, the maples not yet the color of claret. It was all new growth, a third-generation tangle of maple and oak and ash, the remnants of stone walls still visible in the understory not far from the paths. It was nothing like the Long Island suburbs where she had grown up, a world of expensive homes with manicured lawns only blocks from a long neon-lit swath of fast-food restaurants, foreign car dealers, and weight-loss clinics in strip malls.
After the attack, of course, her memories of that patch of Vermont woods were transformed, just as the name of the nearby town gained a different, darker resonance. Later, when she recalled those roads and hills– some seeming too steep to bike, but bike them she did– she would think instead of the washboard ruts that had jangled her body and her overriding sense that the great canopy of leaves from the trees shielded too much of the view and made the woods too thick to be pretty. Sometimes, even many years later, when she would be trying to fight her way to sleep through the flurries of wakefulness, she would see those woods after the leaves had fallen, and visualize only the long finger grips of the skeletal birches.
By six-thirty that evening the sun had just about set and the air was growing moist and chilly. But she wasn't worried about the dark because she had parked her friend's wagon in a gravel pull-off beside a paved road that was no more than three miles distant. There was a house beside the pull-off with a single window above an attached garage, a Cyclops visage in shingle and glass. She would be there in ten or fifteen minutes, and as she rode she was aware of the thick-lipped whistle of the breeze in the trees. She was wearing a pair of black bike shorts and a jersey with an image of a yellow tequila bottle that looked phosphorescent printed on the front. She didn't feel especially vulnerable. She felt, if anything, lithe and athletic and strong. She was nineteen.
Then a brown van passed her. Not a minivan, a real van. The sort of van that, when harmless, is filled with plumbing and electrical supplies, and when not harmless is packed with the deviant accoutrements of serial rapists and violent killers. Its only windows were small portholes high above the rear tires, and she had noticed as it passed that the window on the passenger side had been curtained off with black fabric. When the van stopped with a sudden squeal forty yards ahead of her, she knew enough to be scared. How could she not? She had grown up on Long Island– once a dinosaur swampland at the edge of a towering range of mountains, now a giant sandbar in the shape of a salmon– the almost preternaturally strange petri dish that spawned Joel Rifkin (serial killer of seventeen women), Colin Ferguson (the LIRR slaughter), Cheryl Pierson (arranged to have her high school classmate murder her father), Richard Angelo (Good Samaritan Hospital's Angel of Death), Robert Golub (mutilated a thirteen-year-old neighbor), George Wilson (shot Jay Gatsby as he floated aimlessly in his swimming pool), John Esposito (imprisoned a ten-year-old girl in his dungeon), and Ronald DeFeo (slaughtered his family in Amityville).
In truth, even if she hadn't grown up in West Egg she would have known enough to be scared when the van stopped on the lonely road directly before her. Any young woman would have felt the hairs rise up on the back of her neck. Unfortunately, the van had come to a stop so abruptly that she couldn't turn around because the road was narrow and she used a clipless pedal system when she rode: This meant that she was linked by a metal cleat in the sole of each cycling shoe to her pedals. She would have needed to snap her feet free, stop, and put a toe down to pivot as she swiveled her bike 180 degrees. And before she could do any of that two men jumped out, one from the driver's side and one from the passenger's, and they both had those intimidating masks shielding their faces: a very bad sign indeed in late September, even in the faux tundra of northern Vermont.
And so with a desperate burst of adrenaline she tried to pedal past them. She hadn't a prayer. One of them grabbed her around her shoulders as she tried to race by, while the other was hoisting her (and her bicycle) off the ground by her waist. They were, essentially, tackling her as if she were a running back and they were a pair of defensive linemen who had reached her in the backfield. She screamed– shrill, girlish, desperate screams that conveyed both her vulnerability and her youth– at the same time that a part of her mind focused analytically on what might have been the most salient feature of her predicament: She was still locked by her shoes to her bike and she had to remain that way at all costs, while holding on fast to the handlebars. This alone might keep her off the sides of Vermont milk cartons and the front pages of the Vermont newspapers. Why? Because she realized that she couldn't possibly overpower her assailants–even her hair was lanky and thin–but if they couldn't pry her from the bicycle it would be that much more difficult to cart her into the deep woods or throw her into the back of their van.
At one point the more muscular of the two, a thug who smelled like a gym– not malodorous, not sweaty, but metallic like weights– tried to punch her in the face, but she must have ducked because he slammed his fist into the edge of her helmet and swore. His eyes beneath his mask were the icy gray of the sky in November, and around each wrist she saw a coil of barbed wire had been tattooed like a bracelet. He yelled for his partner– who had a tattoo, as well, a skull with improbable ears (sharp ears, a wolf's) and long wisps of smoke snaking up from between the fangs in its mouth– to put the god-damn bike down so he could rip her foot from the cleat. Briefly, she considered releasing her foot herself so she could kick him with the hard point of her bike shoe. But she didn't. Thank God. She kept her foot pointing straight ahead, the metal clip in the sole snapped tightly into the pedal. He tried yanking at her ankle, but he knew nothing about cleats and so he wasn't precisely sure how to twist her foot. Frustrated, he threatened to break her ankle, while his partner began trying to wrench her thumb and fingers from the handlebars. But she held on, all the while continuing to scream with the conviction that she was screaming for her life– which, clearly, she was.
Meanwhile, they called her a cunt. In the space of moments– not minutes, but maybe– they called her a cunt, a twat, a pussy, a gash. A fucking cunt. A stupid cunt. A teasing cunt. Fish cunt. Slut cunt. Dead cunt. You dead cunt. No verb. Even the words were violent, though initially three sounded to her less about the hate and the anger and the derision: Those words were spoken (not shouted) with a leer by the thinner of the pair, an inside joke between the two of them, and it was only after he had repeated them did she understand it was not three words she was hearing but two. It was a made-up brand name, a noun, a flavor at her expense. He had reduced her vagina to an aperitif on the mistaken assumption that there could possibly be even a trace of precoital wetness lubricating her now. Liqueur Snatch. That was the joke. Get it, get it? Not lick her snatch. A French cordial instead. But the joke elicited nothing from his partner, no reaction at all, because this was only about his unfathomable hatred for her. What therapists call that moment of arousal? For all Laurel knew, it would come for him the moment she died. The moment they killed her.
Finally, they threw her and her bicycle onto the ground. For a split second she thought they had given up. They hadn't. They started to drag her by her bicycle tires as if she and the bike were a single creature, a dead deer they were hauling by its legs from the woods. They were dragging her to the van, her right elbow and knee scraping along the dirt road, intending to throw her–bicycle and all–into the back.
But they couldn't, and this, too, is probably a reason why she survived. They had so much gym equipment crammed into the rear of the vehicle that they couldn't fit her inside it while she was attached to her bike. She glimpsed discus-shaped weights and benches and metal bars when they lifted her up, and what looked like the vertical components of a Nautilus machine. And so they tossed her back down onto the hard dirt while they made room for her in the van, shattering her collarbone and leaving a bruise on her left breast that wouldn't heal completely for months. She felt daggers of pain so pronounced that she was instantly nauseous, and it was only adrenaline that kept her from vomiting. Still, she continued to grasp the bicycle's handlebars and keep her feet locked to its pedals. One of the men barked at her not to move, which, for a variety of reasons, wasn't an option: She wasn't about to let go of the bike, and with a broken collarbone it was highly unlikely that she could have managed to release her feet, stand up, and ride away in anything less than half an hour.
How long did she lie there like that? Ten seconds? Fifteen? It probably wasn't even half a minute. Her assailants saw the other cyclists before she did. There, approaching them down the road, were three vigorous bikers who, it would turn out, were male lawyers from Underhill on their way home after a daylong seventy-five-mile sojourn into the Mad River Valley and back. They were on road bikes, and when they heard Laurel screaming they stood up on their pedals and started streaking toward the van. It was the sort of into-the-fire valor that is uncommon these days. But what choice had they? Leave her to be abducted or killed? How could any person do that? And so they rode forward, and the two men raced into the front cab and slammed shut the doors. She thought they were going to drive away. They would, but not instantly. First they spun the van into reverse, trying to run her over and kill her. Leave her for dead. But she was, fortunately, not directly behind the vehicle. They had dropped her just far enough to the side that even clipped in she was able to claw the foot or foot and a half away that she needed to save her life. They ran over and mangled both bicycle wheels and bruised her left foot. But her bike shoe and the bicycle's front fork probably spared it from being crushed. Then the men sped off, the vehicle's wheels kicking small stones into her face and her eyes, while the exhaust momentarily left her choking.
When she was able to breathe again, she finally threw up. She was sobbing, she was bleeding, she was filthy. She was an altogether most pathetic little victim: a girl trapped on the ground in her cleats like a turtle who has wound up on its back in its shell. She would realize later that one of her attackers had broken her left index finger at some point as he had tried to force her to loosen her grip.
Gingerly, the lawyers turned her ankles so she could release herself from her pedals and then helped her gently to her feet. The van was long gone, but Laurel had memorized the license plate and within hours the men were apprehended. One of them worked with bodybuilders at some hard-core weight-lifting club in Colchester. He didn't live far from where she had parked, and he had followed her the week before. When he realized that the Jetta wagon with the girl with the yellow hair that fell out the back of her helmet had returned, he saw his chance. Laurel was the first woman he had tried to rape in Vermont, but he had done this before in Washington and Idaho before coming east, and he had slashed the wrists of a schoolteacher on her morning jog in Montana and left her to bleed to death in a field of winter wheat. He had left her tied to a barbed-wire fence, and the tattoos on his wrists– like many a tattoo– was a commemoration. A piece of art that he wore like a cherished memento.
His partner, apparently, hadn't had any idea that his new friend was a murderer: He was a drifter who had come to Vermont and presumed now they were merely going to have a little fun together at the expense of some young female bicyclist.
Afterward, Laurel went home to Long Island to recover, and she didn't return to college in Vermont until January. The spring semester. She took courses the following summer to catch up– she was in Burlington that July anyway for her assailants' trials– and by the autumn she was back on the same schedule with the rest of her classmates and would graduate with them in a couple of Junes. Still, the trials had been difficult for her. They had been brief, but there had been two to endure. It was the first time she had been back in the presence of either of her assailants since the attack, and the first time she had studied their faces in the flesh. The drifter, who would dramatically reduce his sentence by testifying against the bodybuilder, had pale skin the color of cooked fish and a nut-brown goatee that elongated a face already tending toward horsey. His hair was completely gone on top and what remained was gray mixed in with the brown of his small beard. Even though it was the summer, he wore a shirt with a high collar to hide his tattoo. A part of his defense was the contention that he had dropped acid before the attack and wasn't in his right mind.
Excerpted from The Double Bind
by Chris Bohjalian Excerpted by permission.
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