“That he said ‘love, love, love’ at the point of orgasm does not, in retrospect, strike me as ironic.”
Jenny and the Jaws of Life
“Under the Bed”
by Jincy Willett
On November 6 of last year, at around 8:15 p.m., I was beaten and raped by a man named Raymond C. Moreau, Jr., who had entered our first floor apartment through a living room window while I was taking a shower. This is neither the most significant event in my life nor the most interesting; nevertheless it is a fact, around which cluster many other facts, and the truth is always worth telling. As I approach forty I am learning to value the truth for its own sake; I discover that most people have little use for it, beyond its practical applications, except as the glue which holds together rickety constructs of theory and opinion. As a rule the brighter and better educated select their facts with great care.
I teach philosophy at our mediocre state junior college. My husband teaches physics at the University. He is the real philosopher, like all good scientists, although, like most good scientists, he amiably resists this description. We self-styled philosophers window shop through metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, until we settle on those views which suit us, and then we tailor them to fit our idiosyncracies. The more cynical among us deliberately choose unpopular or bizarre philosophies the more easily to establish a reputation. My husband is a born verificationist. He does not ask unanswerable questions; he does not whine, or posture, or plead, or shake his fist at the stars. His agnosticism, unlike mine, is consistent throughout, utterly free of petulance and despair. It is he who taught me to hold the truth in such high regard, as he has taught me so many things. He believes in a rational universe. How I love him for that! He is worth a hundred humanists, a thousand priests.
My husband was at an evening seminar on November 6 (or, as we now refer to it, with some humor, “The Night of the Thing”) and did not return until 9:00, when I was again alone in the apartment. Of course he blamed himself, especially at first, for having been away, for not coming right home when the seminar concluded. I am very glad he stayed for coffee. Had he interrupted us he would have had to do something, as would Raymond C. Moreau, Jr., who had a gun.
As it happened, and for reasons I shall try to explain, when he came home I was under our double bed, asleep. He did not notice that our television set was missing; there were damp towels on the living room floor, and the bedspread was considerably rumpled, but this did not alarm him so much (for I am not very neat) as the apparent fact of my absence. He was smiling when he opened the front door—I know this, because I am usually there to meet him, and he always smiles—but when he sat on our bed to puzzle out where I might be he was not smiling. I imagine that at that moment he looked his age (he is older than I) and that he let his shoulders sag, and that his expression was blank and vulnerable. I cannot imagine how he looked when, bending down to untie his shoes, he sawthe fingertips of my right hand protruding from behind the gray chenille spread. Thank god he has a good heart. He dropped to his knees and took my hand and lifted the spread, at which point I woke up. A farce ensued. (Unfunny, as farces so often are.) I immediately realized, from the way his voice cracked when he called my name, that he was badly frightened, as who wouldn’t be; since I did not want to frighten him further I determined not to let him see my face, which was bloody and ugly with bruises. “I’m fine,” I said, idiotically, in an exaggerated reasonable tone. “What the hell do you mean,” he said, and yanked on my arm. ”Come out of there.” I braced my other arm against the rail. “I will in a minute. I have to tell you something.” Then, unfortunately, and rather horribly, I began to laugh, at the picture we would have made to an impartial observer, at our outlandish dialogue. This is usually called the “hysterical laugh,” to distinguish it substantially from genuine laughter. Now my husband—and good for him—wasted no time, but gave the bed a hard sideways push. It flew on well-oiled casters and thumped against wall and windowsill; and for the second time in an hour I was well exposed. A pitiful and wrenching sight I must have been, clutching my old red bathrobe tight around me like a cartoon spinster, hiding my ugly face in the dusty green shag. (To this day a breath of dust makes me flush a little, with artificial shame. The body remembers.) Well, then there was reconciliation, and explanation, and generally the sort of behavior you would expect from lovers to whom such a thing has happened. These events were not extraordinary, except to us, and I shall not record them, here or anywhere else. These are private matters. We are very private people.
Raymond C. Moreau was twenty years old and looked thirty. He had long sand-colored hair, which hung in greasy ropes; small deep-set eyes, I don’t know what color; thin lips and receding chin; and a rough, ravaged complexion: the right side of his face especially was seamed and pitted. I gave this information to the police artist and he drew me a picture of Charlie Goodby, a paperboy we had in Worcester when I was a little girl. He—the rapist—wore a soiled yellow windbreaker, an undershirt, beige chinos, and jockey shorts. Obviously he must have worn shoes, but I never noticed. His breath was terrible. He looked, as you would expect, like a bad man and a loser.
During the fifteen or so minutes of our association he said the following:
Get it off. Drop it.
In there, lady.
On the bed.
You got a husband? You all alone, you stupid bitch?
Spread them, bitch.
You’re all alike. All alike. All alike.
Shut up. I’ll kill you.
Oh. Love. Love, love love, ahhh, love. Ahhh.
Stay there. Stay away from the phone. I’ll come back and I’ll kill you.
That he said “love, love, love” at the point of orgasm does not, in retrospect, strike me as ironic. On the back of his windbreaker the initials “CHSE” and the numerals ”1972″ were stencilled in brown. “CHSE 1972” is heavier with implication than “love, love, love.” “CHSE 1972,” now that I think of it, is eloquent as hell.
He never looked me in the eye. But he did not, I think, purposely avoid my eyes. He was not nervous, or ashamed, or fearful. It just never occurred to him to look there.
I used to be afraid of everything. That is, I was a functioning, relatively happy person with a great deal of fear. Spiders, heights, closed-in places—I had all the phobias in moderation. I never answered the phone without first composing myself for bad news—I always waited a beat before I picked up the receiver. (The ring of a telephone on a late sunny afternoon was particularly menacing to me.) Every time I got on a plane I knew I was going to die; and I was ever aware of the dangers inherent in any form of transportation. If I had to enter a dark room I hurried to the light switch, even though my night vision is excellent. At night I never let my hand or my foot dangle over the side of the bed.
Once or twice a year I would experience a few days of serious dread, touched off by something Walter Cronkite said, or a remark overheard at a sherry hour. Once a colleague mentioned a Roman Catholic legend to the effect that the last Pope would be the first non-Italian. “Then what,” I asked him, with a false conspiratorial smile. “The end of the world,” he said, and lifted his glass as if to toast this hideous prophecy. Oh, I despised him then, and all the laughing doomsayers, who spread terror all unmindful, precisely because they do not know what terror is. Cassandra never laughed.
It is not that I have ever believed the holocaust inevitable, or even probable; rather, I was forced on some occasions to admit the possibility. And on these occasions suicide had a certain appeal for me. I would lie beside my sleeping husband and try to think about a universe purged of human beings—surely there was some comfort in this concept; but then, I would be reminded, there would be no concepts either. A universe of particles, morally neutral: black, a pitiless black whole, with no memories, not even of the finest of us. I kept imagining the moment of purging, the dying, the knowing, and terror froze me so I could not even cry. I feared most that we would see it coming, that we would be spared nothing; that I would be separated from my husband, unable to get to him in time—in the last moments of time; or that we would be together but helpless to end in our own way. Plans must be made, I would think: emergency rations of cyanide. But even then we would not both die at once; one would have to endure alone, for however long it took. . . .
When I had had enough of this I always sought to calm myself, with craven prayer, and with the warmth of my husband’s body, and the cool dry cross-grain of his skin; and magically, on the third or fourth sleepless night the terror would slip away.
And other nights, when nothing weighed on me at all, and fearless as a movie hero I lay in wait for sleep, I would suddenly have to rise on one elbow, just like a robot, and strain to hear the sound of my husband breathing; and if I could not be sure of it I would brush and push against him, as though by accident, until I had drawn out a sigh or shaken him into motion.
I was not so much neurotic as superstitious, as though through occasional ritualistic suffering I could save us all. I carefully hid this, and only this, from my husband, my talisman, because I did not want to worry or disappoint him; and if he ever suspected the depth of my perverse irrationality he kindly left me to it.
I am not superstitious now. Whatever else he did to me, Raymond C. Moreau measurably improved the quality of my life. My body sometimes jumps or shrinks from the unexpected casual touch, and this can be awkward. But I know no fear. I don’t worry any more.
I used to have a good friend. Regina Montgomery is the only woman outside my family for whom I have ever felt physical affection. She is an Amazon, sturdy and large-breasted, with plain coarse features; she smiles like a big cat and is made beautiful. We are opposites physically, emotionally, politically; she is ten years my junior. She pleased me. She was exotic in her proportions and in her strength; earthy, passionate, intense, everything I was not.
She gave me two weeks to start talking on my own about my experience with Raymond C. Moreau. Actually I did not let her see me the first week, until the marks faded; and when she came to the door it was she, not I, whose eyes were red-rimmed and puffy. I remember she had part of a foil-wrapped fruitcake in her hand, and that she kissed my husband on the cheek and hugged him fiercely—it was so strange to see them embracing, she had always been so shy around him; and that she waited for some sign from me and didn’t get it, for she kept her distance, fluttering like a great clumsy bird, saying how wonderful I looked. I was cruel to her, surprising myself; I was bland and cheerful and gracious, serving up the fruitcake, making light, maddening conversation, meticulously avoiding even oblique allusion to the single topic she had come to discuss. Her anxiety, so ingenuously displayed, was as comical as it was touching. I kept thinking that at any moment I would let down, but after awhile she left, unsatisfied and bewildered.
“I understood,” she told me after, when we finally had it out. “You couldn’t stand to be touched in any way.” I let her think this. The truth is, I have a mean streak. Obvious people bring out the worst in me. I was not proud of having tortured her like that; I loved her for her genuine concern, her simple candor, her trust. I made a gift of my confession, describing the attack in detail, answering all her questions. It was not enough for her. “You talk as though this—this horror—happened to someone else. How do you feel? Or don’t you even know?” “A total stranger invades my home, hurts me, rapes me, calls me names, turns my life into a melodrama. How do you suppose I feel?” She opened her mouth, shut it again. She had decided, I could see, that I was still not ”over it.” She would bide her time.
And she watched me closely, obviously, over the next few months, impatiently waiting, I suppose, for me to start drinking, or break into sobs at a faculty meeting, or something like that. Armchair psychoanalysis has always annoyed me, it is such an undisciplined activity. I deeply resented such presumption on the part of a friend.
We went out for wine one afternoon and had an awful fight. Our friendship has not recovered.
“All you can say is, you’re not changed, not outraged, not afraid, not anything. Christ, you make it seem like a—an embarrassing incident!”
“Or a shaggy dog horror story?” I said, smiling, and poured us wine from our third carafe. Wine makes me happy and reckless.
“But you have changed,” said Regina, who was not happy at all. “You’re icy. Icy. Not like your old reserve. You’ve become rude, do you know that? Well, not actively, but I swear you look at people with such—I don’t know—contempt”
“You’re just a bad sport,” I said, teasing her. The difference in our ages was never more apparent. She was flushed, earnest and drunk, and childishly adamant. “Reggie, look. He just got me on a good day, all right? You know how sometimes a movie will make you cry, and other days you laugh yourself sick”
“That’s disgusting! You were violated! Violence was done to you!”
“You say that with such an air of discovery.”
“And not just to you. To me. To all women.”
“Oh, really?” I was angry now. We had argued the political point before, but this was personal. “Then why don’t you tell me about it, Regina? It must have been a ghastly experience.”
“You are bitter! You see.” She was triumphant.
“Only about you. You want me to be a martyr, a role I find repellent in the extreme. I was victimized, yes, but I am not a victim. And I am not a symbol. I am not in the symbolizing business.”
In the end I said she was no different from Raymond Moreau. Always willing to take a metaphor and run with it, she stared up at me, stupid and open-mouthed, trying to understand in what way she had been “raping” me. I could see clear into her skull. I threw my money down in disgust and left her there. I had meant only, she thought we were all alike, all alike. All alike.
I padded on damp feet into the living room, wrapped in a big yellow towel, another towel on my clean hair. I was going to turn on the television, for the comforting noise. He was winding the cord around its handle; a nice breeze came in the open window. I said, “Hello.” I thought to say, “I’ve been expecting you,” for this was true; I had been expecting him all my life. I thought to scream, but then the gun was out. Another woman—Regina—might have screamed without thinking first. I never do anything without thinking first.
I let my body have the fear. Bodies are designed to handle fright. It rippled and shuddered, the heart panicked, the blood scampered in terror. I watched. Really, it was not so bad. It was nothing like the end of the world.
He lay me on my back, arranged my legs this way and that, pushed against me like a vacant idiot child; his belly was soft and slack, it rested on mine light and warm and unmuscled; when my flesh shrank away it followed, spread thick, a cloying intimate layer of skin and fat. His upper body he kept to himself, propped up on rosy eczematous elbows. I could see each row in the machine-weave of his undershirt, the irregular rows of tiny hairs and diamond-shaped skin segments in his neck and jaw, the arch of his upper teeth, filigreed with silver. If there is a god, I remember thinking, he certainly attends to detail. He hit my face, alternating open palm and knuckles, with precise unhurried rhythm; and from my mouth came a terrible sound, as from a grunting pig. But I did not make the sound. I could never make a sound like that.
At no time did I need to remind myself that this was happening, and not a dream. There was no feeling of displacement. Nor did I wonder why he did it. After all, he never wondered about me.
Where is the tragedy here? He did not touch me. Of course, it was unpleasant and wearing, but I have been more deeply hurt by rude bus drivers. It was just a collision of machines.
When he left I was faced with the problem of how to tell my husband. It does not seem now like such a great problem but then I had been under a strain and could not think clearly. Once, when I was in college, I was playing bridge with some friends in my dormitory room when a girl from down the hall—a secretive, nervous girl, a bare acquaintance—shuffled in, in nightgown and slippers, asked if she could sit and watch. She was very pale, apparently exhausted from crying. She sat still for half an hour, peculiarly ominous but circumspect, until finally, blushing with shame, she confessed, in an offhand way, that she had taken a lot of pills and didn’t know what to do. There is just no proper way to inform a roomful of strangers that you have attempted suicide. There is no way at all to tell your husband that you have been raped. Should I stay as I was, naked, unseemly? This seemed a gratuitously cruel method, almost amounting to accusation. Look what’s been done to me! I put on my robe and wandered through the apartment, looking for a place to light. Well, I could sit down, on the couch for instance, with a single dim lamp on, and greet him that way—but with what words? For awhile I thought seriously of cleaning up, combing my hair; I could stay in shadow, avert my face, never mention it at all. But now my body, which had served me so well, let me down: I was tired and could not even lift a cloth to wash myself. I needed a hiding place, where decisions could be held in abeyance; a place of non-commitment. Intending to rest for only a minute I slid underneath the bed, where the monsters used to be; and there were no monsters there, just me; and I slept without dreaming.
To say the least I have never been effusive or easygoing, but before the rape I got along well enough with my colleagues. There was mutual respect. I have no respect for most of them now; they have shown little for me. We live in an age when self-control, competence, discretion—all are thought abnormal, symptomatic of dysfunction. “But how do you feel,” they all want to know; their eyes betray them, they are so obvious; some of them dare to ask. “I’m sorry,” said our Kant and Leibniz specialist, a man I had always credited with sense. “I’m sorry!” “What for,” I asked him, infuriated by his gloomy hangdog look, ”are you responsible in some way? Did you once have adolescent rape fantasies? Do you believe in a common consciousness?” Shoddy, second-rate thinkers; bullies. Sentimentalists. Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me!
A police detective came to my office with a high school photograph of Raymond Moreau. After I identified him the detective told me he was dead, shot dead by some woman better prepared than I, a woman with her own gun. (What a stupidcriminal was Raymond Moreau!) “Well, that’s convenient, isn’t it?” I said, and shook his hand. And even he, this stolid, unimaginative fellow, even he paused, surprised, disappointed, waiting for some further response. Tears of relief, perhaps; a primitive whoop of joy.
There are so many like Raymond Moreau.
My disgust is not unreasonable. I know, because I have talked to my husband, and he agrees with me. He does urge me, from time to time, not to be too harsh: they mean no harm, he says. He contends that people usually do the best they can. I suppose he is right, although I do wonder if this is not really a tautology in lush disguise. He has always been a compassionate man. He alone sees me as I am, and loves me as he loves the truth.
We are closer now than ever. We seldom go out; neither of us spends unnecessary time at school. Evenings find us here, laughing, talking into the night. We seem again to have as much to say to each other as when we first were lovers. I have fixed up the apartment quite differently—the bedroom is completely rearranged, with all new linens and a white bedspread and a thick white carpet. (I happen to like white. White does not symbolize.) Often we have picnics, as we did when we were young, only now we hold them indoors on the living room floor; and we drink good wine, ’66 burgundies, ’61 bordeaux, rich wines of every hue from purple black to brick red. And I have never been so content.
But lately, and too often, as we lie in the dark, I curled away from him, peaceful and fearless, he rises, stealthy, gentle, and leans over me, watching my face; I can feel his breath on my cheek; and I must give him a sign, a sigh, a dreamy moan to ease his mind. Just like a robot he must rise, prompted by my old foolish impulse, unworthy of him, as though by watching he could keep me safe; as though the universe concerned itself with us.
There’s the violation. There’s the damage, and the tragedy.
—from Jincy Willett, Jenny and the Jaws of Life (1987)
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