If she were ever to speak to anyone about it, she would begin by admitting with some embarrassment that it took her a long time to realise what was happening. For a while, she must have been swept along by the situation, and in retrospect can hardly recall a single thought or emotion she experienced in the leadup. It was as if she had blacked out, but she remembered the events themselves too well for that to be it. At any rate, the first moment of clarity hit her when she was pinned against the tree, the rough bristles of a man’s beard rubbing uncomfortably against her neck.
Though she was too surprised to make the connection at the time, she would later come to associate the incident with another she had experienced in her twenties. This was the case of the stranger who had accosted her in the dark and put his hand over her mouth during the act to stop her apologising. She had been deathly afraid on that occasion, but she had not immediately been angry, and so rather than shouting for help her instinct had been to repeat, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Please stop, I’ll do anything, I’m sorry.’ She had been ashamed to disclose this detail when recounting the story to the police, and later to her close friends, fearing it made her seem pathetic, irrational. She did not like her own instinct for submission. But she had told the story.
What makes the other story, this one, harder to tell is not the details, which are if anything less gruesome, but the identity of the man. This man, the one pinning her against the tree, was her husband, and it was this fact that so disordered her thoughts on the matter. The stranger had been a stranger, and in a way that had made the telling easier, facilitated the necessary distance. This man she had been married to for a decade now, she had borne him two children, now five and seven years old, they had shared a bed for most of twelve years, he snored, they had fostered a number of cats, for an indeterminate period of time she had loved him, he was pinning her to a tree roughly kissing her neck against her will, he had a slight lisp, he was a good dancer.
Were she to sit down with someone and commit to telling the story, she would clarify at this stage the chain of events leading up to this tableau. She would attempt not to dwell on them overmuch. They had dined with friends. It was one of those social occasions she looked forward to not out of any strong desire to see the hosts but rather as a welcome break from the routine of family life. She was driving (they shared a car, and took turns), so that he felt at liberty to drink during the meal. He had had more than usual, but not (she would clarify hastily in the telling) a great deal more. The evening had unfolded not unpleasantly, there had been no cloud of apprehension hanging over proceedings, as easy as it would be retrospectively to project such a grim feeling onto the innocent reality of the dinner. Their friends and acquaintances at any rate had made no inquiries as to whether anything was perhaps wrong, at the time or since. They had departed in what she supposed were good spirits, a babysitter was looking after the kids at home, they had to get back. They had lingered on the doorstep after the door was shut behind them for say fifteen or twenty seconds, she putting on her jacket which she had only flung over her arm on the way out, he standing very slightly swaying. She had left her coat unzipped, the weather was mild. No words had been exchanged but there had not been an atmosphere of dread forbidding words from being exchanged, as such. She had perhaps laughed. The car was parked quite a distance down the road, it had been busy when they’d arrived. The street was lined with trees, and quite empty now. It was darkish, and damp from rain earlier in the evening which had since cleared up. It was neither hot nor cold. The month was September. On the slightly longer than she’d have liked walk to the car—which medium-distance walk she still has to resist blaming, absurdly, for providing the space in which what happened happened—on this walk he had begun to make advances. They had not been intimate in three years, a de facto arrangement they had not discussed but rather drifted into. Now he had started in with hoarse whispers in her ear, pushing himself against her. He had said, ‘I want you.’ She had thought little of it, she had realised he’d had too much to drink and attempted undramatically to keep him at arm’s length, addressing him by name and gently rebuffing his advances—putting up more like gestures of symbolic resistance to his advances than actual resistance, treating the situation as if it were not happening, retaining plausible deniability that there was any noteworthy back-and-forth going on here whatsoever. This tactic proved effective for maybe twenty or thirty seconds, at which point (she theorised after the fact) some switch had flipped in his somewhat but not unconscionably inebriated mind and in as if instinctive response to one of said gestures he had caught her wrist in his right hand and put his left hand on her side and pinned her against a tree.
She felt as if jerked awake from a complacent daze. She was in the situation now but unable to find words to respond to it. Her husband was clumsily pulling off her jacket, scrambling to unbutton her blouse. She could feel him as an uncomfortable weight pushing against her. He unbuttoned her jeans and tried to yank them down. He ran his hands over her chest and stomach. His hands were cold, clammy. This constituted of course the embarrassing and unpleasant moment when she realised what was happening, when the difference between their respective blood alcohol levels, or some other difference she would rather not countenance, still, manifested itself in this lumbering and thoroughly one-sided attempt at intimacy. As he touched her, he raised his head and looked at her with a very sincere expression, all the worse for its earnestness. He thought this romance; he saw nothing in the situation to suggest otherwise. Oh (she would exclaim, she imagines, in the telling), to have seen only lechery!
As he tried to kiss her again, she regained some self-possession and held him back with her hand. She said, still not too loudly, ‘No.’ She used his name. She cannot remember now if she used his name like one would scold a dog or rather like one would name a lover. He blinked dumbly and then loomed towards her again. She said, ‘Stop.’ Then his lips were on hers, and a moment later she reacted with a hard shove which sent both of them tumbling to the ground. She put out her hand to stop her fall and it sank into a patch of mud. Both of them lay on the ground for a moment, surprised to find themselves there, on the muddy ground beside a tree on a quiet residential street, in the evening in September, respectively thirty-seven and thirty-five years old, him and her. Her husband seemed pacified. His trousers had fallen down to his knees, which in another situation might have seemed funny. His passion, which she remains unsure whether she ought to dignify with that name, seemed to have departed him. He groaned gently.
She rose quickly and walked the rest of the way to the car, rearranging her clothes as she went, buttoning her blouse and shrugging her jacket back over her shoulders. A flurry of thoughts went through her too quickly to properly register. She pulled out her keys and opened the car door. It took two attempts. She got in the driver’s seat and looked at the dashboard, the steering wheel. She looked to the left, out the window. None of it made any sense. She looked out the back window. None of this seemed to apply anymore.
After a minute the back door opened, and her husband got in. He looked soberer. He had pulled up his trousers. She didn’t turn around but looked at him in the rear-view mirror. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking from his face. It didn’t look like anything in particular. She started the engine. She pulled the car out of the parking space. Mud dripped from her hand down the steering wheel.
On the drive home neither of them said anything. She gazed at her husband’s illegible expression and thought about where they stood. The next day he would shamefully recall the incident and resolve to address it indirectly, without explicit acknowledgement, by means of a series of small gestures of intimacy. He would buy her a gift, tell more jokes than usual, peer intently at her reaction to every little thing he did. She would eagerly collude in the effort to bring their relationship back to its stable resting point, both parties having made up their minds to forget this unhappy interlude. The tension could not be sustained for very long. All this she knew immediately, though she did not know it.
They arrived home. She parked the car in the driveway and got out. She opened the back door for her husband. The children were awake, waiting at the front door with the babysitter for their return. The spirit of reconciliation, of appearances, possessed her. Husband and wife walked together to the door, side by side but a little distance apart. She smiled and called out a greeting to the children. Nothing was wrong. She reached out and tousled the hair of the eldest, forgetting the mud still coating her hand, leaving a thick black streak in the blonde.
© Jack Caulfield
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Jack’s interview]