Janet was tired.
She had been watching the sea from a shallow canvas deck chair that was now at the water’s edge. The sun glinted about her face and chest, which had grown a deep pinkish brown color. The tide, which was coming in fast, was now licking and sucking about her ankles. Some children played near a sandcastle, scooping out a moat and a channel with their cupped hands. The sounds of their laughter filled the salty air about Janet and she drew in the air sharply and felt at peace for the first time in weeks.
Roger had left her two months prior without much explanation, though really, neither of them needed to say a lot. It was clear to both of them why their marriage was ending. He told her that her moods had become increasingly intolerable – she did not believe he was having an affair, despite the fact that they had not been, due to physical and psychological reasons, able to make love. The truth was since the attack, she had been moody. She had terrible nightmares in which the attack was repeated in graphic detail: she saw flashes of herself with blood in her hair which was whipped around and gagging her mouth such that she could neither breathe nor scream. She was mute in every sense of the word, during the attack, and, as a consequence, after the attack. When Roger asked her to talk about it, when he was eager to make love in a quiet way, Janet froze up and told him, “It’s over… there’s nothing to say…”
“Talk to me, please…” he pleaded. But Janet said nothing and made herself one of several gins that she would drink quickly - a new habit.
The truth was, Janet was paralyzed with fear. Since the attack, she felt quite literally frozen up inside as if she had consumed the tundra, icicles clinging to her heart, her voice-box, the walls of her sex, leaving her unable to speak or move, the wind whipping sharply about her insides.
The sun felt good. It warmed the surface of her skin, almost but not quite, denting the thick veneer of ice that had formed about who she really was, some effort to protect.
The buildings on the beach began to light up with neon and tubes of white light, names of hotels in serifed and unserifed type. They looked to her like art deco cut-outs on a perfect sandy beach. The sky was mauve and pink and settling into a darker blue as evening made its approach. Janet gathered her few things – her flip-flops, her towel and visor, a small beach bag, and folded the chair beneath her arm and made her way back to the shack she had rented at the far end of the boardwalk where it was less populated and where the crowds were less likely to go due to the fact that there were fewer shops and rides down that end. Her end of the boardwalk had little gatherings of shacks with names like Shell Village and Sea Foam Palace and Colony Club and Deco Villas. Her particular hut was at Shell Village – a cluster of six cottages gathered in a horse-shoe configuration that lay just beyond the scrubby and overgrown dunes and that had a swimming pool that lit up at night.
The sand felt good between her toes as she shuffled up through the dunes. Janet propped the chair and her things against the side of the hut and rinsed off her sandy legs beneath a tap that was attached to the side. Her skin was pink but not burned and she felt warmer and more alive than she had in months. She had a new bottle of gin, which she opened and poured herself a tumbler and topped it off with a slice of lime which she took out to the picnic bench that overlooked the kidney shaped pool.
Families and singles were all packing up now, though most of the families had left the beach earlier, preferring to get back and feed the kids before it got dark out. Janet lingered later, almost until dusk, with the other singles and couples many of whom took to kissing by the shoreline, holding hands and walking along the beach. Some runners went quickly by, their heels splashing up the foamy shoreline.
It was then that Janet saw him. His face was set in the same look that he had the day of the attack: pug-nosed and stupid looking, like a cat who got the scent of something and curled up its lips. He had a scar down the length of his right cheek and his hair was almost gone, closely cropped and almost undetectable.
How Janet was able to say this was her attacker as opposed to the many other men who fit this description she could not say – only that she was sure that this was him. That she knew him as if she could smell him or taste him in the air, the idea of which made her wretch and gag.
He was loping along the waterfront, a bucket in his hand and looked to be gathering shells. Janet eyed him from the distance, suddenly all of her nerves alert, her skin burning where it had felt moments before comforting and warm. Now she felt on fire, bristling.
She got up from her seat and ambled down the beach, ducking behind the sand dunes, following him from a distance, not taking her eyes off of the dark figure by the shoreline.
How could she take her eyes off of him. He had raped her. Had beaten her. Had left her, for all intents and purposes, for dead in her own home. He had taken everything she had – he had stolen her sex, her privacy, her body, her identity, her very soul. He had beaten whatever light she had out of her and left her lifeless body there where Roger had come home to find her some hours later, bleeding from a gash in her forehead where he had banged her head against the door frame.
The doctors had told her that she was lucky to be alive but she did not feel that way. She felt remarkably unlucky, wishing instead that she had died or that he had died. But that she had lived and he had lived was intolerable to Janet. She did not want to live in a world where such things were possible: where such a person could do such things and then walk away and live. That he maybe bragged about the attack, that another person alive knew what had happened to her and had seen her at her most vulnerable, was too much for her. Had she a gun, Janet had no doubt that she would have shot him dead.
As the sky darkened, Janet could no longer be sure it was him. Not entirely. She had thought she was sure, but now as a haze rose off of the water, the sea mist, her mind began to blur and the gin and sun made her feel slightly giddy. Perhaps she had been wrong, though she did not think so. The closer she drew to the figure, the harder it was to tell. She could remember his touch: the smoothness of his hands, the outline of the ring on his middle finger, which she looked for on the figure but could not make out. The scrubby texture of his head, which was shaved and stubbly, which, she had felt when she tried to push him off of her. Looking at him now she was sure but beginning to doubt herself. Without Roger there to steady her, she felt curiously untethered, as if her head were floating miles above her neck and looking down on the whole seen from afar.
By the time Janet turned back to the shack, it was dark out, the sky the color of indigo and cobalt, the lights of the hotels glimmering on the cool waters, creating pools of iridescent color on the waves. A voice in Spanish was singing something about love and honeymoons and it swept into her ears as if there to wash out the fear she had just seen and felt. The sound of the woman’s voice steadied her: maybe it was Brazilian – but it was smooth and accented and made Janet calmer. Once back at the hut, she poured another gin and edged into the pool up to her neck, letting her body float out in front of her while she held onto the steps with her bare arms. The edge of her suit fluttered, showing stark white contrast to her brown belly.
The air filled up with the sounds of crickets and the shhh-ing sound of the ocean, which rolled in over the dunes. The sound made Janet sleepy and she toweled off and picked her way over the flagstones to the small bedroom where she settled beneath a woodblock print of a pink and grey heart.
Janet had never forgotten about her attack, but after Roger had left, she had found it easier to slip the memory behind her. With no one urging her make love or have sex, she was less aware of her physical self and was frankly, grateful, for the reprieve. The sight of the man on the beach, the man who could be her assailant, brought back a flood of memories. Still, without the physical insistence of Roger, they seemed at once less real and more real. Janet was alone with no one to protect her, yet at the same time, there was no one to push on the boundary of her body: no one, that is, except another potential abuser. This knowledge gave Janet pause: after the attack, she had felt unsafe even with Roger. Now she felt doubly vulnerable all over again. She had never considered that she might see her attacker again or be attacked again. The fact that the attack had occurred at all was to Janet a gross unreality, for in her life as vulnerable as she had felt, she had never considered herself a victim. That she had been made one through another’s will and perversion was to Janet perhaps the biggest violation.
Still, she slept calmly that night, the warm Miami night enveloping her, the door bolted and blocked with the couch, which she had slid in front of it after deciding it best after her third tumbler of gin.
When she awoke the next morning, Janet checked to make sure the couch had not shifted in the night then sipped coffee out by the picnic table in front of her cottage. The day was warm, hazy. She settled herself into her chair by the pool for a while, swam a few long laps, the cool crystal droplets rising and cascading down as she lifted her arms with each stroke making long careful swipes through the air, cutting the water with a clean slice.
She toweled off, then made her way down to the beach, her deck chair under her arm and she settled herself on a warm sandy spot not too far from the edge of the water, burrowing her umbrella deeply into the sand so that it would not blow away, bracing it on its side then bracing that with a sort of sand wall, like a lean-to against the wind. The sun settled on her tan skin, making her feel warm again, safe.
It was just past noon when the figure cut in front of Janet, the same willowy form leaning over the sand, scooping up shells then ambling along the shoreline, the brim of his hat bopping up and down and outlined against the water. Janet took her wrap and pulled it tightly about her, then stood and began to follow the figure as he moved down the beach. Sand pipers chased the watermark with their beaks, dipping into the frittered and frayed edge of the sea, running away from the approaching waves then chasing the sea back in when it receded.
He had on a blue over-shirt an oxford that hung down on one side and had bare feet. She could not make out his face at all and even if she had been able, Janet wondered whether or not she would be able to tell if it was him. It was not that it looked like him, she reasoned, but more that it seemed like him – and why it seemed to be him she could not say only that it did and the idea of it was insistent.
Janet followed the figure for about two miles of shore, until he cut up the beach and into the Hotel New Miami where she lost him. She steadied herself in the lobby, searching the desk area and the other area off to the right of reception but he was gone. She even checked by the pool only to see that he was not there either. He had vanished as quickly as he had appeared. She felt woozy from the heat…slightly giddy.
“What sort of hotel is this,” Janet asked a man in a bellhop uniform. He had on a sort of badge, which made him look to her official, like a cop.
“I’m sorry,” he said studying her carefully. “I don’t understand….”
“I just mean,” she began, then she felt flustered. What had she meant? What sort of people stay here? How could she say without sounding crazy, I think you may be harboring my assailant. Then it struck her that the very idea that she would be considered crazy by virtue of the fact of asking such a question was really the truly crazy thing. If something was off at all, it was the fact that she the victim was now considered unstable and unwell and that he was a free man. That she appeared untethered or frazzled or undone ought be no surprise to anyone. She had been raped, beaten, and left for dead and in her own home. Now she was expected to share the world with this man. To be, as the social worker had put it, reasonable.
Janet shook herself back to the present moment. “Are you looking for a room?” the man in the uniform asked. “I can take you to reception…”
“No. No I’m…” she began then asked if he might know the way to the bar. “Do you have a bar,” she asked.
“We do – it’s to the left of reception.” He pointed with a gloved hand and offered to walk her, which she gladly accepted.
The bar was well-lit with white French style chairs that led out to the pool area beneath a striped awning. There was a wrap around porch with deck-style chairs where couples gathered drinking hi-balls and madras colored drinks. They also served a high tea with clotted cream and scones, which seemed strangely appropriate and not at all out of place.
Janet settled into a white deck chair and ordered a gin and tonic. She was midway through when the willowy figure from the beach approached and asked if he might join her. She startled and looked into the stranger’s face trying to see if she could determine who he was. Was it him? She could no longer tell. What she had been so sure of now was fading quickly. In fact, everything that Janet thought she knew began to shift and dissolve as if made entirely of sand, like a sandcastle at the low tide mark. She was reluctant to let a stranger sit with her – then she saw a little girl running up to his side.
“Daddy, daddy - ” In her small hand she held a starfish. “Look what I found….”
“Qu’est que tu as? Ah… c’est jolie….c’est une asterie…”
“May we join you?”
The fact of the sudden child surprised Janet. Could this be the same man, she now wondered, and anyway, what did she think – that men who had children were incapable of rape? No; of course not. But her assailant had not had an accent – this much she was sure of. There was no way it could be him. And Janet loved children. The little girl smiled and held out a shell from her father’s bucket. “Vois…” she said. “Look how it glimmers…” she held up the mother of pearl mussel shell to Janet’s gaze. “Do you see how it is like magic…”
“I do see,” Janet said, feeling suddenly very calm.
“This is my little girl,” he said, “Chloe… and Chloe this is….”
“Janet…” she extended her hand to the stranger and to his little girl who saluted her sailor style. “She likes to pretend,” he said. “Today she is a sailor… tomorrow who knows…” and he laughed.
For one who had the night prior blocked the door with her couch, Janet was strangely at ease in the company of the same man. Perhaps it was the fact of his accent that made her relax. Or maybe it was that he had a little girl who seemed so happy, so well-adjusted. She could not say exactly what only that she felt more at ease with this stranger than she had for a long time with any man. After the attack, Janet had taken emergency contraception to ensure that she did not become pregnant. She had bled and bled, a bright red scream that felt to her like a final exhalation.
The stranger and his child sat down at Janet’s table. Now that she could make him out clearly, she saw that he didn’t look at all like the man that attacked her. First, he had a foreign accent, which her attacker had not had. But more, his hair was not a stubble at all but a loose tangle of waves. His eyes were a mellow green color and his lips the color of persimmon. He wore a white pullover and khaki shorts and brown sandals like she had seen in Mexico. He had a large long-lens camera loped about his neck worn on a thick strap. Does it bother you? He said at last. The camera?
No. No,” Janet said, but she wondered what it was for. He leaned over and scrolled through the images with her. They were of the beach and brightly colored umbrellas and of his daughter playing along the tide-mark.
“They’re beautiful,” Janet said and she meant it. “You take good photographs….”
“It isn’t hard with this camera,” he said. “It does all of the work for me…” He smiled. “You want to have a try?” He handed her the camera with the long lens and Janet pointed it toward him. He was calm and offered up an easy smile.
The shutter clicked rapidly over a few times and froze his image on the screen: his eyes and his hair appeared the sepia color of tea.
When she was done, Janet put the camera down. The sea was roaring in the background and it was getting dark out. “Listen,” he said at last, “I hope you won’t think it too forward, but, we are staying here and it gets awfully lonely at night. How about staying for dinner and a swim later….”
Janet thought back to her things which were still on the beach, the umbrella’s edges fraying in the wind with the wall of sand holding it in place, her towel draped over the back of the deckchair. She had not left anything of value there though – and while she was reluctant to leave the things, she found that the prospect of company excited her the way it would a child who had just been invited to a sleepover. She felt happy – calm.
“Sure, sure I would love to stay.” Her towel lifted a corner in the wind and blew off the chair, and went tumbling down the beach, alighting here and there like a magic carpet.
Chloe and Jean went upstairs to change and emerging some minutes later in sharp swim suits, hers was pink with ruffles, his simple black shorts. They went quickly to the pool where they all jumped in. Chloe was learning how to dive. “You can hold your nose if the water bothers you,” Janet told her, and so she did. Chloe made her way to the deep end, pinched her nose and said, “Watch me watch me!’ before slipping into the deep waters in one simple arc. She did not push off with her feet, but rather sort of flopped into the water gracefully.
“You know, I thought you looked like someone else…” Janet said when they got out of the water.
Janet paused for a moment then realized that she had spoken without meaning to. That for as much as she wanted to tell him about the case of mistaken identity and what a relief it was that he was someone else, someone good, someone like who he was, it would necessarily mean inviting the stranger who had assaulted her into her bed once again – and into the present moment, which was the last thing that she wanted to do.
“Oh, they say everybody looks like someone else…” she said at last, bluffing.
“You’re mysterious,” he said without pause. “You don’t like to reveal a whole lot, do you?” Janet thought for a moment about how open she used to be and about what she had become – a closed off person with high walls and who was guarded, suspicious, always seeing the face of her assailant on men she was attracted to.
Yes, that was it. It occurred to her what she had not before realized: that every man she was attracted to in some way became guilty or complicit in her attack: It was a unique way of blaming herself over and over again for something that she had never been guilty of. Yet there it was: if she had been attracted to her attacker in some way, then maybe she did have some control over the event. Maybe it was not about fault but about power. It was about decision as if the decision had been hers to make.
Janet reeled at the thought. She had found her assailant repellent. But now when she was attracted to a man it was his face she saw at first, as if she herself had become like him: become a predator.
And in some way, perhaps Janet was now a predator. After all, she wanted her life back. She was hungry for a man she had to admit this. She wanted a relationship again, the feel of a man inside of her. She wanted all of this and more. He had stolen from her not only her heart but her very soul, cut to the core of her with such flaming bladed violence that she would never be the same again if she did not fight back. And her way of fighting back was to pursue with force what she wanted. Not that she would ever be like him or act with force or force any person against his will: never this. But that she could now act so decisively and deliberately – well, this was a marked change from the Janet right after the assault, who had grown meek, frightened, and afraid to act.
“So you won’t say who it is,” the stranger said. He was flirting with her now and she had grown a little tipsy from the gin.
“I honestly cannot remember now,” she said at last. He was leaning sideways to listen to her, leaning in toward her, his arm almost touching her arm. Janet suddenly ducked to his side and planted a kiss on his cheek.
“You are feeling brave,” he said. His face had pinkened slightly and Janet could not tell if it was from the sun or from her kiss. It didn’t matter. He then leaned toward her and kissed her full on the mouth.
Chloe was playing near the water still, scooping it out of the pool with her bucket. The pool guard, a teenage boy, was looking on with some dismay but said nothing. Chloe was happy watching the water trickle and darken the red brick area by the pool. “I’m painting it with water,” she said. “See?” and she pointed to the darker area.
Jean spoke to her in reassuring tones. “I see,” he said, his arm touching Janet’s now, his hand reaching for hers. It was unlike Janet to kiss someone so deliberately or so soon after meeting them, but then, when she was sure she was sure, she reasoned, and that had always been the case. She knew whether or not she could be with a man from within ten minutes of meeting him. It either was there or it was not. This new thing of seeing every man as potential threat slowly began to ebb away after she kissed him and he kissed her back. He kissed her with force, with desire, with absolutely no hesitation. He was determined and deliberate and full of desire in the best possible way and in such a way that Janet found reassuring. His desire matched her desire to over come. In this way, they met squarely in the middle. His eyes glinted the color of wheatgrass, shooting off sparks of amber in the late day sun.
“It’s more complicated now, with Chloe…” Jean said after a pause. Janet ordered another drink, though truthfully she no longer felt like drinking it she ordered it as if by rote. “My wife, when she died – when she was dying – I said I would take care of Chloe forever. That I would always put her first. And so far, I have been true to that promise…” Janet understood. When it was your child, you would put them first: before even the world. That is what we do for our children. “I am here,” he said after a long pause. “I am here with you.”
What he meant was that he had not before felt drawn to any other woman in the same way that he felt toward Janet. He had had a couple of casual partners but even these hardly registered now or, frankly, at the time. Janet was different. Despite the fact of hardly knowing her, he was quite sure (as she had been) that he did know her. That she was the sort of woman one could build a life with. He saw them together on windy wintry beach days, a warm sweater wrapped about her, her hair blowing about her dusky cheeks, photographs of her building sandcastles with Chloe, collecting shells to be washed back at home. There was a quality about her that he could not quite put his finger on but one that was so evocative…
Later, they made love on the beach while Chloe napped beneath a sun-warmed towel on a deck chair. The lights of the hotels were beginning to come on and the air filled with a haze of twilight blue light, colored here and there with hints of pink and white that seemed to lift from the grey outline of buildings that lined the beach, their deco facades blurring to the twilit sky.