Scoundrel Time

The Ashen Light

It was July and James, my husband of four months, and I had just driven straight through from Oregon to Chicago. I had lined up a second-year summer internship at a cat hospital in Chicago so that when I graduated from Oregon State’s veterinary school I could more easily find a position in the city, and we wouldn’t have to give up the steady income from James’ paralegal job. Once I had a salary, he could apply to law school.

The previous time I had gone to Chicago, over my spring break, we had decided the day after I arrived to go to the courthouse and get married. We had been dating on and off for ten years, since high school, and the past year or so he had been on a kick that we should get married. I still had two more years of vet school and James thought it would forestall the doubts that being apart for those two years might sow. On my end, I did not believe it was possible to understand someone completely if you had not grown up together, and vice versa. Not only had James and I gone through adolescence together, our combined passages from childhood to adulthood had shaped the adults we had become, which was its own catch-22. We’d had our first orgasms with another person together, his shape and smell and the feel of his skin were all imprinted on my brain as the ones my body knew and immediately responded to. Except for the incident, as I called it to myself, I had never had sex with anyone else, and the idea of someone else having to learn their way around my body was unimaginable to me. For James, it was something more like survival. His brother had committed suicide shortly after we got together our freshman year, and James believed his brother’s death might have been avoided if he, too, had had a refuge. When his father was finished beating him and had gone to bed, James knew, once the snoring reached a certain rhythm of longer intervals, he could sneak out without anyone waking up and end up in my bedroom. More than a year passed after his brother died before James could have sex without crying. When he was on top of me in the dark and I placed my hands over his cheeks, I could feel tears sliding down the face of my fingers and then into my palms and pooling in the hollow of my hand.

When we left Corvallis, the bank marquee on the way out of town read 103. The air conditioning only worked on the driver’s side of my Chevy Impala, so whenever James was in the passenger seat his mood was irritable and glowery, and his lovely thick eyebrows were pulled into a dark slash of unibrow. Since he didn’t tolerate heat well, he did most of the driving so he could be near the cooler air. I had always loved driving and being in cars with James. He’s a very good driver, which I find extremely attractive. He could drive with his hand between my legs even in tricky traffic situations and at high speeds. But if any big trucks went by he’d pull my dress down over my knees as fast as he could because the idea of some truck driver getting turned on by watching us bothered him. I didn’t understand the concept of jealousy aimed at random strangers because who cares who can see you as long as no one can actually get to you? I felt protected by him, and by the bubble provided by the car, like the whole rest of the world could go screw itself.

A thousand miles into our blur of fast-food drive-thrus and not stopping at roadside attractions, we crossed the Nebraska state line and entered a low-pressure zone. I could feel the barometer falling, but the air refused to give up its rain. The sky went from blue to black in a matter of seconds, and the humidity was hot and thick and crackled with electricity–like something was trying to crush us as flat as that pancaked and crazed earth. My tight Lycra dress was sticking to me and to the hot vinyl seats uncomfortably and giving me sweat prickles. I looked out the window to try to find something that would distract me and also silence the voice in my head that said, Tell him, tell him, tell him, over and over. I felt as though the plummeting air pressure itself was going to force it out of me. But there was nothing to look at–just the straight black highway shimmering in the heat, some grain silos, and here and there a water tower.

If only it would rain, I thought, then I could tell him, though I knew this was ridiculous. What did rain have to do with anything? James’ right hand rested between my legs and the weight of it was warm and heavy and distracting. His fingers twitched slightly, which felt pleasant, almost tickling my inner thighs; he was probably practicing a piano fingering, which he did unconsciously sometimes. He played keyboard in a jazz band.

Without looking at his face, I said abruptly, “Something happened in April I’ve been wanting to tell you about.” James looked at me with raised eyebrows, his expression puzzled. I could see he had no idea what I was going to say. I had rehearsed telling him countless times, pictured myself perhaps holding his hand, our fingers interlaced while I did, and pressing it reassuringly. But now, with his hand in my lap, that was not an option, so instead I shifted my weight to press my thighs together around it. I thought, If I tell him and he takes his hand away, that will be a bad sign, and I willed his hand to stay put as if I could trap it there with my thoughts.

All the times I had envisioned bringing up the incident, I imagined starting off with some words to reassure him I was ok, something to soften the blow of how much time had gone by in which I had not mentioned it. But that didn’t happen; despite my planning and practicing, all I could do was lick my suddenly dry lips and blurt, “I was assaulted by a friend.”

James immediately pulled his hand back as though his fingers had gotten too near a flame, and the car swerved as his other hand inadvertently yanked the wheel.

“What do you mean? Why didn’t you tell me at the time?”

I stared straight out the front window. I didn’t want to see the two red spots that formed high on his cheekbones when he was angry or hurt.

“I was trying not to think about it. And get my school work done. Anyway, I’m telling you now. What does it matter when I tell you, it doesn’t change anything.”

“You know this person? Are you talking about a date rape?”

“A friend,” I said. “Well, we were friends then. And we weren’t on a date. Why would I be on a date, we had just gotten married, remember?”

He ignored this question. “What happened?”

“I was asleep and he knocked on my bedroom window. He had climbed up the rainspout and I was afraid he would fall if I didn’t open the window and let him in.”

“Then what?”

“He was drunk. He wouldn’t listen.”

After James steered the car over to the breakdown lane, I was able to put my arms around him and comfort him while he cried. I was guiltily relieved he was crying too much to talk, because it meant he stopped asking me questions. I knew if he asked enough questions he would eventually get to one that could not be un-asked.

The first couple of days after the incident, I cried several times a day, but then I stopped. In fact, since then I had stopped crying all together, which was disconcerting. Shouldn’t a feeling of despair cause one to cry? I started having terrible stabbing headaches, but with a lot of Tylenol in the morning I managed to get out of bed, put on my scrubs, show up at the hospital for rounds at six am, take care of my patients, and participate in complaining with my friends about our workload. In other words, have a relatively normal vet-student day. I did not tell anyone what had happened. I saw my ex-friend almost every day somewhere in the hospital corridors, but as soon as I saw him and began to steel myself to walk past him without either actively avoiding his eye or actively making eye contact, he would save me the trouble by hightailing it in a different direction so we did not have to look at each other or not look at each other. Once–unusually because the long corridors of the hospital almost always had multiple people hurrying somewhere with an animal in their arms or on a leash or a lead—we were alone in the hallway and walking toward each other. I noticed him first and decided this time I was going to look him in the eye. Before we reached each other, he looked up from his clipboard and saw me too. There were no intersecting hallways between us so he would have had to turn around to avoid passing me. On the right side of the hall, though, there was a door, and when I was still about thirty feet away, he opened it and stepped inside, pulling it closed behind him. I had never noticed a door there, and when I walked past I saw the sign on it that said Janitor Supplies. I was pleased to think of him there in the dark, squashed among the mops and buckets waiting for me to pass so he could come out. He wanted to see me even less than I wanted to see him, which made me feel like I must have dreamed the whole thing, and in our waking life I had somehow, I had no idea how, hurt his feelings terribly.

Once, though, about a month after it happened he called late at night, drunk again and crying. I didn’t have caller ID but I knew it was him because who else would call me at 1 a.m.? When I asked him what he wanted, he said he just needed to make sure that I was okay, to know everything was going to be all right for me.

“I can’t talk,” I said, “I’m busy right now. I’m sorry,” and hung up. Then I sat in my blue armchair the rest of the night, listening to the clock on the campus bell tower chime every other hour and the shouts of a large and raucous snowball fight happening somewhere nearby.

*

After I told James, we were mostly silent for the last five hundred miles of our drive. It had finally rained and then, as we crossed into Iowa, the sky threw down jagged white pellets of rage in the form of gravel-sized hail. I thought the windshield would split into little pieces, but James did not pull over. I figured he was trying to imagine what had happened, and wondering what was okay to ask and what wasn’t. He must have needed to place someone’s face into whatever scene he was picturing because almost immediately after we started driving again, over the deafening crash of hail, he shouted, “Who was it? Reed? I know it was Reed.”

My class only had fifteen men out of seventy-five students and James had met most of them, so he had a pretty good chance of guessing just based on who I hung out with.

“No, not Reed. What does it matter?”

“It matters to me.”

“Chris,” I said reluctantly. “It was Chris.” They had met a few times, at a bar a lot of the students hung out in occasionally, and they had even played pool a couple of times.

That little guy, are you shitting me?”

*

We pulled up in front of James’ building, two and a half days after locking my apartment in Corvallis. His apartment was on the fourth floor and inside it was almost as hot as the car. When he turned on a rickety ceiling fan, it provided no significant ventilation and only disturbed the odor of grease from something cooked a week earlier. The kitchen and living room looked like he had dashed out in the middle of several consecutive meals taking place in those areas, and the bedroom looked like he had departed during the process of transferring all his clothes from the closet to the floor.

After we finished unpacking, James suggested we go across the street to the convenience store to get a cold drink. His refrigerator seemed to have stopped working while he was gone, and my opening it had been a big mistake. I already felt like I’d been trapped my whole life in those four rooms that smelled like sour milk. I was still wearing the dress I’d had on for the past two days while we drove, and some men hanging around the parking lot stared and muttered comments when I paused to pull open the door. I tugged the material farther down my thighs, but my failure of confidence only emboldened them to repeat their comments more loudly, this time with gestures.

When we got back upstairs James sat down on a milk crate and scanned the room. He parted his lips to speak then paused, maybe on the brink of reconsidering. “If you could see how slutty you look in that dress, you’d be embarrassed, you really would. You wouldn’t do it. It makes me wonder if you think of yourself as someone’s wife.” I glanced around at the dirty dishes on the floor and counters, the clothes everywhere, the dust balls, pens, and coins in the corners, and thought that everyone’s idea of ruination must be different.

By the time the fight burned itself out, it was dark and we were hungry. Eventually I let James take me out to his favorite neighborhood ice cream shop because I’d said some not-too-nice things myself about what kind of adult leaves cooked spaghetti under the bed.

At the Big Dipper, we spooned strawberry shakes into our mouths in silence. I scooped off the whipped cream on mine and dumped it onto the pavement instead of adding it to James’ cup, as I usually did. On our way home, he wanted to stop and show me a new small observatory that stayed open to the public until midnight on Wednesday nights in summer. Some billionaire had specifically wanted underserved kids on the Southside to have access to a high-powered telescope. I felt a sliver of happiness cutting through my resignation, happiness that James wanted to share something with me from his life in Chicago.

“I go here a lot,” James said as we entered through a propped-open door and into a round room that smelled like carpet glue and instantly made my eyes throb. “Especially when I’m feeling down.” This was the first I had heard of any of it—the observatory, the feeling down, anything. We used to tell each other everything.

Inside there were six very old people clustered together, waiting at the bottom of the steep steps that led up to the telescope. A little balding middle-aged man the old people called Roger seemed to be in charge of keeping everyone in a group. The steps had a handrail but otherwise looked like a slipping death trap and I wondered what sadistic care-home event organizer had dreamed up this outing. Only two people could fit into the space where the telescope was at one time. We could hear one old man’s quavery voice and a woman’s voice, who I assumed was Roger’s assistant, talking quietly. The old people all looked slightly lost and baffled. They reminded me of pets in our hospital waiting room—despondent but eternally optimistic that any minute they would find themselves back in their fenced-in yards or inside their unpleasant smelling but familiar doghouses. Anywhere but where I am would be good, their resigned faces seemed to say, a feeling I understood.

The breeze through the open foyer door was surprisingly cool. James whispered that the observatory was more crowded than usual, because this week both Venus and Jupiter were closer to Earth, and to each other, than they had been in hundreds of years, maybe thousands. I wondered who else he’d brought there, and my moment of happiness evaporated.

Roger hitched up his zip-off hiking shorts and stared at the floor when he spoke and his hot, rummy breath drifted past my ear. “Jupiter is five hundred and fifty-five million miles away” he said in a quiet staccato burst. “Do you want to go up?” he asked my sandals. “Go ahead. Go up. See Jupiter.” I felt like I was jumping the line even though everyone stood in a random cluster and no one was in a line but I said, “Yes, I do, thank you.” He craned his neck up the stairs. “Please send Mitchell down, Anna. Thank you, Anna,” he called. “The young lady is ready to come up.”

Mitchell, who appeared to have permanently folded in half when he reached ninety, slowly descended and when he stepped off, I climbed the metal stairs up to the telescope. Inside the small space at the top, Anna, an elegant woman in her sixties, with short grey hair and a pair of fashionable green-framed glasses on a chain around her neck, waved me in and directed me wordlessly toward a large telescope. I stood on the step stool and put my right eye to the lens, and I immediately saw not Jupiter but Venus. She was huge and quivering, a giant crescent shape with a bright red color, the color of blood when it hits the air, but only around her bottom edge. I asked Anna why Venus appeared to be shaking.

“The shaking is from turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere and heat rising from buildings and the city in the air around us,” Anna answered. “It’s been so damn hot.”

“What about the red rim, what causes that?”

“Ah, that’s called the ashen light,” Anna murmured. “Which makes no sense because it’s red. It was described back in 1643 but was dismissed as an artifact of magnification until recently. Now, astronomers think that the extremely high surface temperature on Venus causes the coppery red color. Like the way an ember glows in the dark.” It dawned on me that Roger was her assistant, and not the other way around. She pulled hard on a rope that swiveled the telescope.

“Take a look at Jupiter,” Anna said. “Not nearly as impressive, I think, even though it’s quite a bit bigger.”

I looked through the repositioned telescope and thought, There he is. Jupiter, the supreme god of all gods, was much larger than Venus–big and round, a rheumy yellow-brown color. Like a giant stripy egg yolk that took up almost the whole field of the telescope. I could see two faint rings around his middle, which made him look like a sucked-on gobstopper. There were three other round glowing spots in the field, which were some of his moons. At first everything looked perfectly still, completely fixed in the sky, but after a few seconds I could see Jupiter was shaking a tiny bit, too.

After I stared at Jupiter for a minute or two, Anna said “Did you get a good look?” and I pulled my head away and stepped down.

As I descended the stairs, I heard Roger murmuring, “Forty-nine seconds for the light from Venus to reach Earth,” and when I glanced down, the soft, wrinkled faces of the old people on the ground were turned up to me like sunflowers. I caught a glimpse of James standing off to the side, his balled fists stuffed into his pockets forming two bulges on the tops of his thighs. He was a half a foot taller than anyone in the room but somehow looked the farthest away, the only one with his head down. I’d like to say I climbed down from the telescope armed with a gut feeling about what I should do to make things better, or that I descended blanketed by some peace of mind borne from my communion with the vastness of space, but neither is true.

James and I tried for a couple more years before we admitted that we had already given up. I did move to Chicago after I graduated and worked in a clinic there, but physical proximity to one another was not enough of a bridge to inch our way across the chasm that had opened during our drive, though there were days when it seemed like we could turn things around. But even when we were having sex, James’ face didn’t lose the shuttered look I had seen from the ladder, the one that had settled on him after he’d stopped crying in the car and never really completely lifted again. While he moved on top of me or cried beneath me, I couldn’t escape what his question really meant—why hadn’t I succeeded in fighting off my friend? The shadow of that question cast a sorrow over me that I had correctly anticipated, which is why I had waited all those months to tell him and thereby created not one but two things he couldn’t forgive me for.

Most nights after we fought we had make-up sex, either incredibly tenderly or sickeningly coldly, depending on where in the course of the argument we turned to our bodies to try to repair the damage. But the night we’d gone to the observatory, when the idea first took hold in my mind that we might not make it, we did not have sex. I must have fallen asleep on the sofa because I woke up in the middle of the night, having rolled into an uncomfortable crevasse on the broken-down cushions, to the sound of wind rattling the windowpanes. For a long second, I had no idea where I was. I thought I was still in my apartment, but that someone had broken in and replaced all the furniture with grungier, more cluttered furniture I didn’t recognize. James had gone to bed without waking me.

The air was chilly and damp and my eyes felt heavy and gritty, as if I couldn’t keep them open long enough to get up. Finally, I roused myself from the sofa to get in bed. I noticed sheets of paper had blown off James’ desk and scattered on the floor and I crawled around retrieving them. The room was so light it seemed like daybreak must be just around the corner, though the little clock radio on James’ desk only read two thirty-seven. I could see well enough to make out James’ cramped, illegible handwriting, page after page of it. In some of the margins he had jotted phone numbers with area codes that were unfamiliar to me, with a man or woman’s name underlined nearby, nobody I knew or had ever heard him mention. Who on earth were these people? As I was looking for something on his desk to hold down the papers, another violent gust almost tore the pile out of my hands and I tried to lean across the desk to shut the window, but I couldn’t reach it.

I was still clutching the papers when I went around the desk, squeezed into the space between it and the sill, and knelt down, pressing my forehead against the cool glass. Clouds were zooming across the blue-black expanse at an impossible speed; there had to have been thousands of stars visible, but I wanted to see the real thing, to see with my naked eyes those giant bright quivering planets I had seen earlier through the telescope. I could make out a couple of brighter dots that might have been Jupiter and Venus, but they could have just as easily been some unmemorable stars that aren’t on anyone’s radar, like Wolf 359 or Barnard’s star. How could I possibly get any consolation from those lesser entities when the real things, true heavenly bodies, were out there somewhere, hiding themselves from me? But then, just for a brief second, I did. If the light I was seeing had left Venus nearly a minute earlier, if everyone seeing it was, in a sense, borrowing that light from the past and re-using it for other purposes, maybe there was a future version of myself I could borrow from who could help this version of myself figure out how to get through the next weeks and months. If the world could be turned back on its axis one tiny notch to reclaim forty-nine seconds of light, surely we could roll it forward for that same brief interval, less than a minute, to give me forty-nine seconds with her. In the meantime, the window was ajar just enough to fit my clenched hand between the sill and the bottom of the pane, and I squeezed my fist through the space and threw James’ papers out the window. An updraft caught them, sucking them toward the roof of the building next door, and when I could no longer see them I closed the window to wait.

__________

Image By: Fazal Sheikh, from Ether (Steidl, 2013).