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"I REALLY DON'T UNDERSTAND," Julie said. "I just don't."
Her husband frowned and screwed up his eyes as though searching his mind for another, no more unkindly way to explain something that ought to have been accepted without explanation. Explanations were not going to help.
If only she could do that, Julie thought, if only she could say, "Okay," and get up and walk out of the room. What she said was, "Why don't you start from the beginning? I want to be sure I heard what I think I heard."
"You heard what you heard," Jeff said: a gentle voice, a message of stone. When Julie shivered in spite of herself, he put out his hand to her. She pulled away, and he turned the gesture into one of flicking dust from the arm of the chair. Despite all her housecleaning, a tiny cloud of dust rose and shimmered in the beam of early summer sunlight that angled across the living room.
"I'll bet there's no dust in her house," Julie said. "Or is she a slob? Am I too fastidious? Too much like you?" She didn't want to say the things she was saying. They simply spurted out. To forestall any more of them she pressed her knuckles against her mouth.
"You must have known," Jeff said, his sad eyes coaxing her to agree with him.
"How? Tell me how I was to know."
"Something. You must have known something."
"Is it my fault that I didn't?"
"No. It's not your fault. We don't communicate very well. We don't pick up on one another. You want me to explain, but how can I explain the inexplicable? I've fallen in love. I didn't plan to, but it happened."
"And what am I to do?" More words to regret. And underneath the pain and panic was the feeling that she had never been in love with him. Lacking in variety of experience she might be, but she knew there was more to loving than occurred between them. And yet there had been love.
"I don't intend to leave you destitute."
"I'm not talking about money," she screamed, and then in self-disgust, "Oh, why can't I shut up? Christ! Words don't mean anything. Not to a child, and that's what's wrong with me. I'm retarded. I refused to grow after hitting twelve." She got to her feet and stretched until her bones crackled, trying to break the tension. "Maybe we're onto a cure now. How about that?" She moved from place to place in this sacred room of his, this so-called living room in which she had not been able to live in all the nine years of their marriage. She was looking for a single object she had added to his exquisite collection of Victoriana, a china giraffe.
"I consider myself at fault there," he said. "I liked you that way."
Would it have choked him to say that he had loved her that way? Having found the ornament and taken it in hand, she forgot her purpose, if any, in looking for it, and put it back on the shelf. "You're not at fault, I'm not at fault, my mother wasn't at fault ..."
"Phyllis wasn't at fault either, was she?" Julie ranted on with the pointless mention of Jeff's first wife. "What you want is a no-fault divorce. Right?"
"Since you put it that way, yes. I suppose that is what I want. I want to be fair to you, certainly."
"I mean by that that I shall always provide for and take care of you."
"Always?" Julie whirled around on him. "I can't believe what I'm hearing, what we're saying to one another."
"I know," he said soothingly.
"Let me say something to you, chum. Before I let you take care of me, I'll find a jumping-off place and celebrate my independence."
"If that's to be construed as a suicide threat, it's not allowed."
"It's not a suicide threat! It's a survival plan."
"Then I'll be the first to celebrate your independence. I'm sorry, but you set yourself up for that. I think it's demonstrable that self-support with you is a recent and tenuous accomplishment. Look at matters squarely, Julie. You finally have a paying job, a column under your own byline ..."
"Half a column," Julie said of "Our Beat," the New York Daily column she coauthored with Tim Noble. She sat down, but on the edge of the chair, the easier to be off again if sitting became unbearable.
"Would you like it any better if it were all yours?"
"No. I don't see a gossip column as my life's work."
"What do you see?"
She gave an angry shrug and said nothing. It was mad, unreal, discussing her so-called career at this moment.
"You're almost thirty, Julie."
"Is that why you're divorcing me? How old is the new one? Getting on toward puberty?"
"I'm not amused."
"I'm not either. And you don't have the right to lecture me."
"I do love you, Julie."
"So why? ... Strike that. I know why. You love her—differently."
"We're very good together," he said, not looking at her.
That hurt deeply, a scalding splash of pain. But she managed, "And at your age you don't have that much time."
"Touché." A little twitch of nostrils showed the bristling: she had wounded his pride.
Julie sat up straight, feeling starched and stretched. "Why should I make it easy for you?"
"It's not easy for me. The whole thing is a torment. Easy? Half the time I feel like an idiot, this happening to me. I dream of castration. I dream I'm impotent and it's a relief."
"And the other half of the time?"
"When I'm with her ..." Jeff started slowly.
Julie stopped him. "Never mind."
"So," he said, cat-cradling his fingers.
Why marriage? she wondered then. If that was his intention. And otherwise, why divorce? Was the woman pregnant? After two childless marriages, Jeff might like that. There was some faint solace in the idea, but she put it out of her mind when it began to rankle: already she was twisting it into something with which she could reprove herself.
"You'll want a little time," he said. "I didn't think it would be such a shock to you."
Julie snapped her fingers: a mere bagatelle. That was a phrase of her mother's she hadn't thought of for a long time. The pressure of tears she was determined to hold back bore down between her eyes. "A little time for what?"
"It might be helpful for you to see Doctor Callahan again for a few sessions."
"That's my business, Jeff."
"She could give you some support, that's all."
"She's not that kind of therapist."
"That's ridiculous. All psychiatrists are supportive when the patient needs it. But as you say, it is your business.... I thought I might return to Europe and stay for a year this time. Since I have a book contract, I may take a sabbatical from the paper...."
Her first thought was: in a year the affair could be over. "No! Let's get on with it here and now. You've got a lawyer. I'll get one. I don't think they're in short supply."
Jeff raised his hands placatingly. "I hoped we could manage a sensible arrangement before bringing in the lawyers. I intend you to have half my worth, do you understand?"
Conscience money. She gave each word a cutting edge: "I'm not sure half your worth, Geoffrey Hayes, is worth having."
Two patches of color tinged his cheeks. "You are probably right." He looked at his watch—as though it mattered that it was half past ten of a Sunday morning in June. "Would you like me to move to the club?"
"It's something I haven't given much thought to, Jeff."
"No. Of course not." All softness again. "I'm very, very sorry. I know I've hurt you, but I think in time I'd hurt you more if I didn't take this step now."
"Oh, shit." A glorious flood of anger finally released whatever clogged the tears. On her feet she said, "No, I don't want you to move to the club. This house is so much yours it can't wait for me to get out. And I want to be the one to go. It isn't as though I haven't a place of my own to go to...."
"Julie, you're not in a fit state to go anywhere," he called after her as she started from the room. "Come back and let's talk sensibly. I can make some coffee."
And drink it, she thought. To hell with him and Queen Victoria and whatever little flick was waiting to share his sabbatical. Running, half-blind with tears, she bumped against the pedestal and tumbled a marble bust of a woman masked in nineteenth-century gentility. She broke the fall of the sculpture with her leg, but left it where it landed, intact. She hauled the heavy sliding door closed behind her. It was still closed a few minutes later when she went out of the house.
SHE WALKED QUICKLY, unheeding of pace or appearance, her raincoat swinging open, a duffel bag slung from a shoulder strap from which she struggled to free her hair. Let it go, let everything go. Only her anger was real, a rage fueled by her helplessness, humiliation, and something that had to be jealousy. Not to have known ... Not to know now where or why or when it happened. Along Sixteenth Street and up Sixth Avenue, she strode through the flower district, where spent roses and irises and baby's breath lay wilted on the curb. She crossed the street because the light was with her and she could keep on moving. She turned uptown again toward Forty-fourth Street, where she had an office with a hot plate and a cot and chairs and a bathroom to throw up in. Virginia Woolf and her goddamn room of her own. The relief of a moment's amusement before the pounding anger took over again.
She found herself striding along a street she was pretty sure was in the thirties and too far west for where she wanted to be. The skeletal steel structure of a monster building project crisscrossed the sky. At street level was a wall of boards; in the street itself the giant cranes sat idle, like long-necked beasts dipping their heads to somewhere beyond the reach of her eye. And across the street, wheeled into place where the rubble had not been entirely cleared first, was a caravan of trailers that serviced the construction-site workers. So complete was the Sunday shutdown not even a security guard was in sight. The West Side Highway traffic provided a mobile border to that swatch of deserted city.
The Hudson River lay beyond the highway and, time no longer mattering, she set the river as her immediate destination, wherever she could gain access to a pier. Sky and water and ships that were going out to sea. She thought of an Irish seaman she had known who spouted poetry although he could barely write his name ... and she thought of her Irish father, whose very name had been taken from her.... And Jeff with his year abroad—to write a book, et cetera.
She stopped, hearing something at once familiar and, in that setting, strange: she thought she heard an infant crying.CHAPTER 2
OR WAS IT A CAT, perhaps, or a kitten, and what would she do about that? But the cry persisted, and she knew that it was human. It came from behind the nearest trailer, a whimper, then a series of gasps, then silence, then it started over again. She took a few cautious steps among the broken bricks. Nothing about the trailers suggested that some of them might be residential, but that didn't prove it wasn't so. Something, someone was alive there.
She stopped and listened for sounds other than the crying. None nearby. She took stock of how far she had come from the street, uneasy. But it was far from a cul-de-sac she was heading for. Beyond the trailers a long vista lay over the leveled rubble, climaxing with the lower-Manhattan skyline, its totems of trade etched into the horizon. A lone figure scratched among the debris with what looked like the shaft of an umbrella. He—or she—turned up bits of treasure and bent an already stooped back to where he could collect his finds and deposit them in a shopping bag. The crying grew more frantic, yet the solitary reaper paid no attention. Deaf, perhaps. Julie moved into the open on the far side of the trailer.
The trailer door was wide open, but there were no steps up to it. In the doorway, bundled in a blanket, the little bald head just visible, was the helpless figure that sounded barely able to cry any longer. And it was about to tumble out onto the ground.
Julie ran, her arms outstretched, to catch the child before it fell. The instant she saw that it was a doll, not a child, she tried to stop. But it was too late.
A man's hand shot out from the side and caught hold of her hair before she could pull back. He made a twist of it round her neck and at the same time compelled her forward and clapped his hand over her mouth. The scream was stopped in her throat. A second man clutched her arm, her bag, her clothes, whatever he could hang onto. The two of them dragged her up and into the trailer. She kicked and swung out at them and tried to use the karate she'd studied years before. But there was no time, no way she could position herself. Panic. She could not even swallow. Fear was stuck, a lump in her throat. She couldn't breathe. She was flung to the floor, facedown. One man jumped astride her and again clapped his hand over her mouth. The hand was soft and sickening with a putrid smell—vomit, stale medication.
"If you promise to shut up you won't get hurt. Hear me?"
He was leaning over her, his face close to hers. He was wearing a stocking mask, but she could smell stale beer and more vomit, and she tried to turn her head away.
He spoke to his partner: "For Christ's sake shut the door. What's the matter with you?"
"The lock's broke. We broke the goddamn lock."
"Get something you can tie it up with. Jesus."
Julie tried to beat on the floor. He raised himself and then thumped down on her back. She moaned at the pain in her ribs and breasts. That made him do it again, riding further up on her. He took his hand away from her mouth, but only to grasp her throat with both hands. She gagged with the pressure and the pain. He let up the pressure. "Promise you won't scream?"
She nodded. She couldn't scream if she tried. She opened her eyes and saw his hands: white, very white, with little clumps of black hairs on the fingers. She could see the open door, but no more of the outdoors than a fringe of distant skyline. Eye level was the doll where it had been kicked aside. She saw the other man for a second or two against the sky. He, too, was wearing a mask, and he waddled or was lame. He made a slipknot around the knob with an electric extension cord. She could not see where he fastened the other end in the near darkness.
She said the prayer of her childhood, the Lord's Prayer, and closed her eyes, waiting. Her mouth was dry, and the foul taste had to be of fear. But the panic had passed. She was able to remember a detective she'd heard lecture on rape and how he'd driven home the point again and again: don't fight it. Don't resist. It's your life that matters most. Save it.... Don't fight. Don't resist ...
The lame one, if he was lame, had a knife. While they pulled off her clothes, he slashed through buttons, straps, whatever obstructed them. To make her shape up, to take whatever position suited them best, he kept pricking her with the small sharp blade. They helped one another clumsily, obscenely. One sodomized her. The pain bolted into her head, all that way, with every thrust. When she passed out, they revived her. The knifer raped her, the pain just as bad, its source so close to the other wound. When conscious, she feigned unconsciousness and tried to concentrate on color, sunsets, Cezanne, oranges.
When they were finished with her, they bound and gagged her with pieces of her clothing they pulled out of her duffel bag. The smell of semen and sweat made her retch and choke under the gag. The sodomist removed the gag to let her vomit and get her breath. Then he gagged her again. He threw her coat over her and over her head something that smelled of dampness and mold. The doll's blanket, she thought.
She lay utterly still. They did not speak except to make sounds of urgency to one another. When the door opened, she could see a speck of light. It vanished when the door closed. She watched for the light to appear again. When it didn't she knew that they were gone.
With her first attempt to move she almost passed out again. After that she plotted every change of position before she tried it. First she got her head out from under the blanket and studied the contents of the trailer. A table and several folding chairs. A naked unlighted bulb hung over the table. Thin, horizontal ribs of daylight streaked the ceiling, seeping through the upturned slats of the blinds. She watched for some time until a shadow moved across the ceiling. She made a noise, but from behind the gag, it wasn't much of a noise. Nor was the thump of her head on the floor.
Excerpted from The Habit of Fear by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 1987 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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