"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


Exceptions

She grew afraid of walking to the grocery store. It wasn’t far, but the evergreen trees and one-way lane gave the road a claustrophobic quality she didn’t like. The fifth time Celia heard the voice, she told her husband to walk it for her. Rich thought it a fair trade, as she was the better cook. She didn’t cower from the stove. She had no fear of fire.

She worked in human resources. They allowed her to complete her assignments at home. She attended a few happy hours, a bridal shower, and a week-long company convention, but these were exceptions. Rich pulled her close on the nights she had to return home, knowing better than to think of letting go before she fell asleep.

There had been an event. Her husband and her boss were the only ones who knew. They pitied her. Her father laughed at her. His mother adjusted her hair. She didn’t blame them; she hadn’t told them. There was something about putting it into words that was unthinkable. Her husband told her boss.

She had one friend left, a coworker. She hadn’t known Celia like the others did, so she didn’t know she should be disappointed. They didn’t speak of anything substantial. Celia talked of what she and her husband used to do, and the coworker talked of what she and her boyfriend were planning. The coworker often traveled, and wherever she went, she’d return with gifts for her friend.

One gift became indispensable: a wind chime her coworker found in a garage sale. Celia and her husband had a terrace that was too small with too poor a view to enjoy, but with the wind chime, these deficiencies became bearable. The rods were a faded green, and a triangle of three rusted keys contained them, adding a muted musicality when the wind was strong.

On gusty days, she would drag a chair outside to do her work. She would remain there long after she was finished, ignoring colder weather and the runoff from the dripping roof. The baby within her would stir, and neither would suffer dread.

The first time Celia became conscious of her own scream was as a child in a crib some late night, a dark figure haunting the space above her. It might have been her father, or a grandmother. She couldn’t recall what happened after. She could picture the figure reaching for her, though she might have imagined that. Her scream pierced something within her, scratched it open to convey that this was important enough to remember, that this terror was to be repeated, that fear meant a ringing in her eardrums.

She felt badly for her husband. She had become the type of woman he had engineered his life to avoid. When it happened, and her husband found her, she looked at him and she knew. She knew what would happen to them. He wasn’t the type of man who could understand the gravity of the situation. He could wait, but he couldn’t empathize. He knew how to hold her, but he didn’t know how to dwell in grief, how to take another’s pain and feel it like it was his own.

She knew her daughter would be the picture of him. Growing in the midst of apprehension, she’d hate how Celia encroached on every bit of joy she could find. She’d hear about the attack and pity her father’s guilt. She’d wonder why her mother didn’t say the man’s name.

Rich took Celia to restaurants to fall in love again. A good meal could bring her back. The smell of agnolotti and honey soothed her, made her throw back her head and crinkle her eyes. She would flirt with the waiter, swirl her wine, trail her fingers down Rich’s arm. An older gentleman would lean over and say, wasn’t it lovely to have found the right one, and it wouldn’t be a question. They would return home, and Rich would take her in his arms, and she’d fall away again, her eyes closed, her body limp to his touch. She would not stop him, but he could not continue, either. It was as if she wanted him to become that man, the man she would not name. Rich felt a strange jealousy for what the man had done, that he had taken his wife’s feelings, energy, mind, heart, consumed them in minutes and left nothing for the person she actually belonged to.

Rich began to imagine what it would be like to hit his wife. He wouldn’t do it, it would be outside his character, but he wondered what it would look like. He wondered, too, what she had looked like when it happened. How she sounded. He had been the one to find her, but whatever words she and the man had screamed were long gone.

He couldn’t remember how they got home. She took a shower while he sat on the couch and stared at a painting his sister had given him as a present two years prior. He had never understood what it meant. There was an abstract figure dressed in shades of green that consumed the left side of the canvas. It offered neither emotion nor character. Shades of blue, red, and violet consumed the other half. No silhouette formed, but the strokes were agitated. His sister said he could call it what he liked. “It didn’t turn out the way I wanted,” she said. “But the colors suit your living room.”

She wasn’t wrong, and he was too afraid of hurting his sister’s feelings to refuse it. His wife liked that it filled the space beside the television, and he enjoyed the questions it engendered from visitors. He would tell each of them a different name for it, and laugh after with his wife about how long each person had gone on to explain what it meant, and how the title was so central to the piece’s power. That was what he had done, of course—they had no visitors these days.

There was one name he had concocted that filled him now with shame. A few months after his sister had given him the painting, the super had come by to fix a leak in the bathroom, and before leaving, he stopped to ask about the painting. His super was very much a man’s man, and had likely belonged to some terrible fraternity in college. Rich had donned a serious expression, and nodded in the painting’s direction. “My sister drew it,” he said. “It’s called Rape.”

It had taken all of his willpower not to laugh at the super’s struggle to contain his own mirth. Rich had planned to tell his wife about it when she came home, but somehow forgot as they went through the motions of making dinner and telling one another about their respective days at work. The story was forgotten, and would have been left so, if it hadn’t been for what happened. But he comforted himself that there were worse things to have said, worse things to have done.

The night it happened, his wife left the bathroom door unlocked. Conscious he might frighten her, he said her name. She said something he couldn’t decipher, but it didn’t matter. He stepped over the tub and into the shower, fully clothed, wrapping himself around her. She clawed his skin, her nails leaving marks that would linger for months, her face red with rage and embarrassment—but her eyes pitied him, as his did hers.

He wondered sometimes if his wife had been negligent, if she had encouraged the man’s attentions, if she had hoped that something would happen and regretted it too late. The idea haunted him, and he would indulge the concept after she went to bed as he nursed a glass and watched replays of the previous night’s game.


Allison Lamberth was raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She now lives with her husband in New York City, working as a writer, high school English teacher, and adjunct professor. Twitter: @allisonthen

Cover photo by NOTAVANDAL on Unsplash

Life Drawing

Life Drawing

Your last salutation, lost forever on the ethernet

Your last salutation, lost forever on the ethernet

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