The Stain by Mary Grabar
Let me tell you, it doesn't begin the way most people think it does. You see, I was the one to hit him first. I did. I had a saucepan in my hand and would have knocked him out if he hadn't stopped me. My arm couldn't go anywhere once he held it, but when he let go after forcing the pan out of my hand I used my bare hands to pull his hair, scratch him, slap him. The sauce had splattered the wall as the pan had flung backward. It was sauce he made for our dinner on Sunday night, before I would have to leave early the next morning, going against traffic though, out of town. He let me go, but then right there was his bookshelf. I could not stop myself. Those were his books, some from college even. He had kept the textbooks on human sexuality and The Story of O. He bought hard-covers and was careful to set aside the dust covers while reading them. He would let me read them, curious tomes by scientists making order out of evolution, spelling the progress of humankind scientifically and socially, multi-chaptered recipes for human satisfaction and peace. He scolded me if I left one open face down; it would ruin the binding, he said.
They were the next thing to throw and I was still mad from his having said it. I started pulling the books out, throwing them. I threw them all over his apartment, at him, at the desk with the nude reproduction from the Getty, at the file cabinet from where he had pulled out the card, and his new laptop where he kept lists and notes and journals I was not allowed to see. I did not care if some of them were the books I'd given him with my inscription and signature, the Donne for our first Valentine's Day to be remembered for every Valentine's Day until one of us died, the Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I even pulled out the Peter Rabbit from the bottom shelf.
It was because he smiled as he said it. I was screaming, screaming at him you son of a bitch. He had to get me again to calm me down, pull me from behind, wrestle me to the bedroom, put his hand over my mouth. He threw me down on the bed. "You bitch." He looked down into my eyes as he said it. It was the first time he said it. And I was not used to looking so directly at his eyes. This time they remained steady, fixed on me, on my eyes. The brown-gold of them pierced me, rendered me unable to move more so than the hands digging into my wrists. You will say I am crazy but he said the word with love. Yes, love. Love and hate. It was always mixed up. I was crying, spitting. He was calm now. The light that had danced in his eyes as he had geared up to say it was replaced by an animal calm. He held me that way until I stopped screaming, until I was looking at him. He let go of my wrists, leaving brown marks I would wear like bracelets the next morning. "I like it when you get this way," he said, releasing his grip with satisfaction. "A blue-eyed devil." He was smiling a little. He rose from the bed and walked into his kitchen.
He started cleaning. He did not look at me, but worked methodically, putting Mr. Clean into a bucket and swabbing the red-stained wall with it. The sauce was all over the place--the light fixture, the glass-topped table, the Parson's chairs. It came off the cupboards and counters but not off the wall and chairs. I sat in the recliner like a naughty child while he cleaned.
"I should call the police," he said. "Andrew said I should break up with you before the police are called out here and they haul me away. You're lucky the neighbors didn't call the police." Andrew, the MSW he had started seeing in order to deal with his issues and me, was the final arbiter in such situations.
I offered to paint the wall.
I didn't dare bring it up to him again. But this is how it happened: I had said I told you I don't want you talking about her before my arm had raised itself with the spaghetti sauce in it. Her name had that effect on me and after the cards that he showed me, the cards that came while I was in the hospital, I could not bear to hear her name. And he had joked about her, one of his little anecdotes about something I did that reminded him of P. I will not write her name.
In the card she wrote that she was sorry to hear about our loss, but that it must now be a relief to him and that she was still as ever (as she was throughout the whole three months and more) available and waiting for him.
"I am not interested in her, didn't you hear me say it in front of your counselor. She's just a friend. Why are you so insecure.
"That's what he said after he showed me the card. I had torn the other ones up, the other ones that in fact were his, his property as Andrew said, property that should be respected by two individuals in a relationship and that what had gone on between the two of them had nothing to do with him and me.
But after it had happened Andrew had said well it was a good thing maybe after all, given how unstable this relationship is.
I couldn't leave after that. It would have been harder than ever to leave. I wanted to try again, to recoup what was lost and for many weeks I would be told how beautiful I was, how loved, how the love he had for me scared him and that was why. . .
But sometimes I'd come over and he'd find me in that little dining area, press his body, the body whose smell intoxicated me and that I loved even more because it had helped produce the little thing that I had loved and lost, and he'd press his body against mine, glance at that wall with the stain, turn my head toward it, hold it there, force me to look at it: "See what you've done? Hothead."
I had decided by that point not to paint it. I guess I wanted him to claim his part in it.
You are saying I should have been stronger or more virtuous. This is beyond help. Crazy. Leave.
I did. He would find me. Not with threats. But with an invitation to talk, dinner. He could not bear to lose me, plus what else we had lost. The error of his ways. Looking away. Not daring to meet my eyes. The drinks making him sentimental, his voice almost a crack. The stifled emotion later in the night as I was held by him again in the bed where we had made it in a moment of caution thrown to the wind and when he sounded the way he would sound only in the complete darkness, a little boy coming out and saying, "sometimes I think I love you too much.
"That was it. He couldn't handle it. And so he had to turn, turn the other way, back to the place he had been before, back to the way he had been before he first met me, the one who had made him want something permanent. But it scared him.
I do believe he was scared.
Have you ever known a love so intense?
There is the union that goes beyond the rational, that is whispered in the night, and denied in the day. That is what I have known.
He was smiling as he said it and that is what made my arm go up with the pan not caring if I had had a two-ton boulder in it. He had started already and had already mentioned her name and I had said as I had been advised by Andrew please do not say it, that name, it hurts me when you say it. It would have gone down on him and yet he had not struck me. It was the smile. The smile that had charmed me the first time, when he had seen me across the floor and said I could dance and led me, his feet sure, his shoulders and back strong, leading me around between all the others. He said I could do it. And because he said I could do it, I did.
He would smile at me and I would melt. And you see him before you now. He is not smiling. His mouth is turned down. I loved that turn down too.
It was the "Tennessee Waltz" for our first waltz and I should have known right then that it was a sign; it was not the "Lover's Waltz." He reserved that waltz (the first time I heard it with him after we had started dating) for Marla who would not speak to me. On that first night when I met him, I had seen him on the edge of the dance floor talking out of the side of his mouth with Rod and I could tell they were talking about me. At other times, when he wasn't being asked to dance or offering his outstretched hand he was by himself, a tall dark-haired man slightly scholarly looking with wire-rimmed glasses. He had the best body of any of them. But his face was scarred.
He would tell me about it, about how once his face became covered with pustules at the age of 15 the girls no longer showed interest in him. He could not wear a belt. Would not go skinny dipping.
He said it matter-of-factly, though. He offered more about his past than anyone else had. About how he had come to respect his philosophy teacher and write 30-page papers for him, in high school. We were a year apart, and we'd often compare notes: what were you doing in 1973? Remember the Jackson Five?
I would kiss the scarred chin, look up at the wattles starting to form on his neck, run my fingers up the back of his neck through his thinning hair, careful not to mention the bald spot forming like a yarmulke, revealing the baby pink of his skull. He would relax then. We had a private joke about head squeezing, a technique from one of his ex-girlfriends from a therapy workshop or something. I would squeeze his head when he would mention some man who he knew was after me, who had smiled when he danced with me. He would squeeze my head when I got upset about P.
I believe we were both crazy.
But I had never been so in love.
He drew me in. I don't know why. He says we are irrational creatures and that I am more irrational than most and that is part of the appeal of me. So when I would ask him have you been seeing her he would reply no, you're crazy. Crazy. A mental case. The red stain was our visible evidence. He did not paint over it.
He would mention her and I would ask why she called, could he not say please do not call.
"Is this the Grand Inquisition?" he would ask. I knew I wasn't acting the way I had been advised to, the way Andrew said healthy couples should act: allow each other space, privacy. Trust.
She kept calling because she regretted breaking up with him and he could not be cruel to her. It was my issue. I tried to believe. I would not be able to sleep.
So that day I had tried to stop him from talking about her. But, no, he had not struck me and I could have walked out.
But it is not easy to walk away from a voice and a touch and a smell. His ghost would follow me, reminding me of the emptiness that surrounded me. And he would call and reveal that he felt an emptiness too.
I don't know why he had to say it. But he did. And he said it with a smile: "She said she would have had an abortion so fast it would make your head spin."
And the pan went up with my scream that went through the wall: "it's already dead!"
"So maybe she would have. Why does that fact bother you?" Those were Andrew's words. He said it in his office with the little electric fountain trickling, the statue of Buddha beaming down from the bookshelf behind him, the degrees on his wall. I could not explain it.
Andrew waved his foot clad in a thick sock and Birkenstocks. She had offered to have sex with him, yes. Some people are freer with their sexuality. But Michael had refused, didn't you just hear him say it?
And he had been ambivalent. It is better to be honest about ambivalence.
What to do now?
Work on the communication and trust.
I did. I trusted.
I did not come into town to spy on him. It was not our night. I was going to surprise him. I had bought dinners and desserts and a bottle of wine, his favorite.
I put in the card key and the gate lifted. He had told me earlier that he was going to stay in, read and do laundry.
It was a pretty spring night. The dogwoods were in bloom and there was a tree right in front of his building. It had been blooming the first time I had found his building after his directions, when we had made plans to see "Wings of the Dove." I was about to turn in to the lot. I was going pretty slow because of the speed bumps.
I saw him. Then I saw her. She looked like her picture. She was smaller than I was, thin, in high heels and a short dress. She pulled it off in spite of her age.
No, he did not have his arm around her. But he was looking down at her, smiling at her the way he smiled at me.
I had no proof.
The path was clear.
Every cell in my body charged. A green rage started boiling within me. I felt like the incredible Hulk.
I do not remember exactly. That's right. I had no proof.
I had no right.
But I drove that car toward them.
And he saw me.
He put his arm around her.
He pulled her away and saved her.
That's when I hit the car.
If he and she were alone in this room with me they would be laughing at me. He told me how she would laugh about some of my rages. Hothead. He said that to me often.
He would say she did nothing wrong.
That's what he said to Andrew.
In writing she said she would sleep with him.
Still no proof. I admit it.
He saved her. He saved himself.
Always he said that it is important keep oneself in shape and about that he was good; he showed me how to use the machines at the gym. As he had showed all his ex-girlfriends. He was swift and strong and he pulled her away, looking at me first with alarm, then a little smile forming.
It was what he wanted. I realized it then. He pulled her in to him. At the same time he had been willing to go to the edge in order to pull me in. His smile shone even more brightly because his face was red from the exertion. The craters of his skin became more pronounced and that light beamed from his eyes.
This was what he had been working toward. My attempt to kill him. I became dizzy, as if on the edge of a deep pit, from the realization of what I had almost done, of how I had nearly fallen into the place he came from.