It’s just that it’s been over a year and it still bothers her. And now she’s having this creepy church group of hers over. As if this will solve anything. I just figured that we’d be over it by now. That that sonofabitch would be out of our lives, but those dumb-ass doctors and that prayer group of hers, you know, they told her to say everything on her mind to someone: me, and so she tells me everything, I mean everything, and so how can she forget when she talks about it so damn much.
The other thing that bugs me is that we don’t have sex as much. I mean we used to have sex every other day, but now it’s maybe once a week, if I’m lucky. Christ, my parents do it once a week for their Sunday nap after church! And all the positions we used to do… forget it. No more pinning her arms back. Now she has to face me, and she has to be on top. And there’s only so much of that you can take. Once I begged her to let me go on top for just a little bit, and she agreed of course. At first it was fine. But then I started thrusting too much. It was too “physical” for her, and she said I had stopped looking at her. She said that it felt like him. I still can’t believe that she said that to me. I guess I shouldn’t whine too much. I mean she didn’t have sex with me at all for three months after it first happened.
She lost her job pretty soon afterwards, and I'd told her she would. She refused to tell any of her co-workers what had happened and she missed too much work. She made up a story about tripping and falling to explain her dislocated shoulder. If she had just told one of them the truth it would have spread to her boss and she’d still have her job. But she didn’t want it to spread. She didn’t want anyone to know, not even her parents. She acts like it was her fault or something. That’s why I hear all about it, because I’m the only one who really knows and because it’s also my fault. It was my habit to not lock the deadbolt in the morning from sheer laziness. Sure, I always locked the twisty lock on the front knob. It just turns out that the twisty locks only require a Mastercard, VISA, or even a Costco membership card to jimmy open. That’s all it took for that sonofabitch to creep in. Maybe he was just after the TV but what he did was so much worse. She always says if she had been sleeping fully clothed, it might not have happened.
“That wouldn’t have made a difference, if I’d done the deadbolt…”
“He’d have broken a window.”
We moved from that apartment. We’re renting a two-story house now, and it has an alarm system.
My wife went through these phases afterwards. She would shudder and cry a lot. I actually recommended the therapist. He wanted to talk to both of us because according to him, these things involve the husband a lot more than most people think. So I went a few times with her. Every session was the same. She would tell me things that I was doing or wasn’t doing that upset her, how I didn’t listen, etc., and the doc confirmed that I needed to be more comforting. I didn’t say much, which was also a problem according to the doc. But I didn’t have a lot of emotions bouncing around my brain like her. I just felt angry. Not at her of course, at the sonofabitch who did this and at myself too, for not doing that damn deadbolt.
You know what also eats me up? She said that he looked like me. Brown hair, brown eyes, white, not bad looking. Not bad looking! Rapists aren’t supposed to be nice looking. They’re supposed to be greasy middle age louses that lurk in dark alleyways. At least her shoulder healed up in no time.
We saw the therapist once a week for about two months. And then one day I told her I was too busy to go, which I was, and she said, “That’s fine.” She never even asked what I was busy with. By that time she had lost her job and felt that the whole therapist thing was too pricey anyway.
She started attending church again. Then she found a weekly bible study to top it off. She went to that for a month or so, and then she finally discovered her true calling: a bible study/self-help group geared for people who had suffered a trauma. They met twice a week: Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“So what do you do there?” I asked one night while doing the dishes.
“We take turns talking, we read the bible together, we pray together, and sometimes we…,” she trailed off to an unheard mutter.
“What? Sometimes…we what?”
“You’re going to think it’s weird.” She paused to collect a few glasses for me. “Sometimes we speak in tongues together.”
“You mean you guys sit around and chant and pretend it’s God’s voice or something.” I scrubbed the plate harder.
“It’s not that simple, and not everyone has to do it. It’s voluntary.”
“Do you do it?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied calmly.
“My aunt spoke in tongues. She was nuts. Very nuts.”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand.” She handed me the last of the dishes.
“What’s to understand?” I asked, submerging a mug.
“Never mind, John. You don’t even ask if it helps.”
She stalked off and yelled from the other room, “I don’t know yet.”
She got pretty worked up about that group. She got to know the members pretty well too. The actual group only met for two hours or so, but it felt longer. She stretched it out in every way possible: what snacks to bring, what to wear. She had afternoon tea with some of the ladies and went out to lunch with their group leader. Plus, she wasn’t working, so she kind of let her life revolve around the damn thing. She pulled her mother’s bible off the bookcase. I never saw her read it, but she displayed it on our coffee table in a haphazard manner as though someone had just plunked through it. I asked her if she was going to ever look for work again, and she said she was rather enjoying the break.
One night, she came back especially late from a meeting. She was all flushed and excited, like she’d had a cup too much coffee.
“Jonathan says I’m making great progress.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Our group leader’s name is Jonathan. I thought I told you he has your name.”
“Maybe you did. Why do you call him Jonathan?”
“You go by John. It’s just to tell the difference that’s all.”
“Jonathan is my full name and you do call me it. When you’re mad. Only when you’re mad. Now why does he get the privilege of my full name while I only get an abbreviated half-ass name most of the time.”
“Do you want me to call you Jonathan?”
“No… it just sounds funny. When you get mad at him, would you be sure to call him John? It’s just to be fair.” She circled her hands nonsensically.
“I think they understand me, John. They’ve all been through something. Some of the things that have happened are so much worse.”
“I can’t tell you. It’s like the AA. We have these vows of secrecy.”
“Come on, I’m not working a tabloid. Who am I gonna tell?”
“I’d like to, but I can’t.”
“Well maybe I need to hear their stories too. Maybe I need to hear about someone who is worse off than us too. Maybe it will make me feel better too.” By the last line I’m shouting.
She stepped into the kitchen and shouted back, “It’s not like you’re the one with the problem, John!”
The worst part was when she came back from church or a bible study or something and she strolled through the door and said,“John, I’ve forgiven him.”
And I said, “Huh?” as if I had no idea what she was talking about.
She repeated herself and I further feigned that I didn’t comprehend. She said it a third time. Then I told her that I’d never forgive that sonofabitch and asked how the hell could she.
“John, come on. Aren’t you happy for me at least?”
“No, why should I be? What if you saw him the street? Would you turn him in?”
“That’s not going to happen.” She struggled with her coat, and I came to tug a sleeve.
“He could do it to someone else, you know,” I added.
“That’s not the point.” She batted me away.
I couldn’t even forgive myself, and I was sure as hell not going to forgive that bastard. But she seemed to get better after that night, like she was moving on. So I let her be. Forgive and forget. I was just waiting for the forget part. Sooner or later we would get back to what we were before: a simple little duo again. I know it’s not romantic sounding but we used to be like a pair of old shoes, naturally mated and stepping in unison, and comfortable with each other. Of course, it’s not like this is all that we think about. Most of the time we’re pretty normal. But then I get to thinking about how we were, especially in the sack and how we are now, how careful we are with each other, how careful I have to be, and it just kills me. I mean, why the hell did this have to happen?
Every Tuesday and Thursday night she strolls off to her little bible study class and I eat my dinner alone; she acts as if everything is hunky-dory, but I can tell it’s not since she still has to go on top all the time. At least she doesn’t get irrational about it. But what’s worst is she’s volunteered to hold the group meeting this week. She’s having them here, in our house. She spent the day cleaning, buying refreshments, and arranging the bible on the table just so.
At eight o’clock sharp in pranced a line of women, mostly middle aged and fat. They all toted bibles. Some of them even had little bible carrying cases as if carting a bible alone wasn’t enough or the book might feel naked. I shook hands with all. One lone male eventually trailed behind. The man with my name, the assumed Jonathan, was balding. He wore a button down collared shirt, tucked in neatly and cinched with a belt. Very clean. His bible took the cake. Not only did he have the carrying case, but it was filled with colored tabs. A tab for every page at least until the edges look like multicolored confetti.
“You must be John,” He said, taking up my hand with too much eagarness. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Well, not half as much as I’ve heard about you, I’m afraid.”
“I’m just messing with you.”
“I have heard of your infamous sense of humor. The two of you are very lucky. I hope you know that your wife is a miraculous woman.” Mary smiled at us from across the room, hearing the compliment.
“Miraculous, eh?” I spoke softly. I couldn’t suppress a sheepish grin.
“There’s this saying,” he replied, “that’s kind of become our group mantra: to err is human; to forgive, divine.”
“That’s a pretty common saying, and I can’t say I agree with it. I mean forgiving works for the divine. They can get away with it because they’re off on some cloud. But people don’t have that bird’s eye view. Down here…down here if someone goes around forgiving everyone, people will take advantage of it. Start walking all over that person, I mean. It’s one thing if you’re Gandhi or some sacrificial lamb but for everyday use it doesn’t pan out.” It felt good to throw Gandhi in the conversation.
He started to laugh, and then he hushed down to a somber tone.
“You should try telling some of this to Mary. She says that the two of you have been distant lately. I just wish she were over here right now. She would have so much to say.”
“Did she really say that? Distant? I mean we’re closer than ever. Don’t you know? She tells me everything. It’s what her shrink, well her ex-shrink now, told her to do and…”
“Maybe she hasn’t been sharing as much as you think,” he interrupted again in the same serious tone.
What’s that supposed to mean? I think and then finally say. Mary, hearing my voice rise, instinctively bumbled between us with a tray of pink lemonades. She turned my way and muttered between clenched teeth, “Hon, be a dear and head upstairs. I think we’re going to start.”
Without a further glance at the man, I took a lemonade and retreated to the second floor. Mary followed, minus the tray.
“Have you seen my other slipper?” I asked her. “I think I misplaced it in the move.”
“John, are you ok?” Mary asked with genuine concern.
“I don’t know. Are you sleeping with that man?”
“Jonathan, what the hell’s gotten into you?”
“Just checking. Oh, and that’s his name by the way. I’m John…remember?”
“I can’t believe you sometimes. I really can’t believe you.”
I turned on the television and plopped down on the bed.
“We’ll hear that downstairs.”
“I’ll mute it. I’m sick of noise anyway,” I said, turning off the sound. “It’ll be a refreshing change.” I held up my half empty glass in a nonchalant toast.
“Are you drunk?”
“Then what’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing, what’s the matter with you?” But I couldn’t wipe the stupid smirk off my face. She walked off muttering, “Honestly, Jonathan.”
I flip through the channels, but hardly anything comes in. I haven’t bothered to hook up the cable yet. I’m still pretty worked up about that Jonathan nut. Who the hell did he think he was, giving me marriage advice? I hear glasses clinking below and a general hum of congenial laughter. Awhile passes, and then it hushes dead silent.
After another random flipping through the channels and ruffling of magazines I hear a murmuring beginning.
I stand by the door, and I can faintly hear it—a sort of soothing and rhythmic gurgle. So the speaking in tongues must have begun. I tiptoe into the hall. That’s when it happens. I’m in the hall listening when I swear that I hear it, my name, distinctly drift up from the middle of that goop. I’m convinced that I’m just hearing things when it comes again, softer. It tumbles forth in a whisper.
I slip downstairs quietly and pause at the entryway. I hear ‘John’ murmured in the words, ‘John’ spoken in the words, ‘John’ shouted in the word. Am I going nuts? Why haven’t they stopped for Christ sakes? But then I realize how faint it is, it’s just that I’m listening so hard, I’m just listening, and no other senses are left in me. I peer around the corner, and I see them all sitting in a circle, holding hands, with their eyes closed. It’s damn near cultist. And I see Mary next to the despicable Jonathan with her hands clamping his, and her eyes are shut. She’s noiselessly mouthing my name. She is so small next to those fat women, and I just want to sweep her away from that circle to a place a year ago before any of this mess happened, to hold her small face in my hands and to protect her, but I can’t because I don’t want to disturb those chanting nuts. And then her eyes flicker open, and she spots me, and I want her to see me, to see that I’m here waiting for her and that I heard her call. But her face contorts in a look of exasperation. I turn and head back upstairs still tiptoeing. I sit hunched over at the head of the stairs. I strain for my name to come up again, but it doesn’t. When I hear them resume normal speaking I hustle to the bedroom. They are saying their goodbyes and pitter-pattering out. I hear the front door shut, and I wait for her to come to bed.
Mary changed in the closet, brushed her teeth, brushed her hair, and finally climbed in. I draped my arms around her and she gently nudged them away.
“I just wanted to hold you.”
“That’s what you always say.”
“No, I mean it.” And I wrapped myself around her with her hair all mashed in my face.
“This is kind of nice,” she said.
“Yeah, it is.”
“I think tonight went really well. Don’t you think it went well?”
“Come on John, what did you really think? I saw you staring at us like we were a bunch of madmen.”
“I didn’t mean to. Hon, if it works for you then I support it.”
“You know, sometimes I think I figure you out and then I’m just lost for words.”
“I know the feeling.”
“Stop agreeing with me and tell me the truth. This isn’t you.” She uncurled my arms and left for the restroom. I stayed in bed and waited for her return. She had to return sometime. When she did, she was apologetic.
“John, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I get so mad at you so quickly.”
She placed my arms around her again. Her skin was chilly and her hair had been brushed again. I was oddly aroused. She caressed my hand as if everything were fine. But it wasn’t fine. I wanted to say something to her.
“Mary, what happened to those other people at the meeting?”
“Is that why you were eavesdropping?” She laughed a little.
“Only a small part really.”
“One of them had a verbally abusive husband.”
“Mrs. Jenkins’ cat died.”
“That shouldn’t count.”
“Yeah, well, it was a horrible death. The thing just woke up screaming in the night and she couldn’t get a hold of any vet to come put it to sleep so she just stayed up with it till it croaked.”
“It’s a cat. Give me another one.”
“Martha, the kind of large one in the red shirt, she was in a wreck a while back and the passenger, a commuting coworker, broke her leg but that’s not the bad part. The driver of the other car was killed.”
“Was she at fault?” I asked.
“She claims so but she hydroplaned in the rain.”
“She’s just looking for something to feel guilty about.”
“Yeah, but those aren’t the worst. I’m not sure you want to hear about it though.” She paused. “It might make you uncomfortable.”
“Now you gotta tell.”
“It’s about Jonathan. He told me about it when we went to lunch that time. His uncle sexually abused him when he was around seven or so. And it went on up for a long time, I mean years.”
“Yeah, can you imagine? Someone you know doing that? That was what helped me to really get over my problems. I’m so lucky in comparison. He survived something so much worse, and he’s able to function. He inspired me really.”
“So what happened? Did he ever turn the uncle in?”
“No. He was young and it stopped when he was in high school.”
“Jeez, does he still see this uncle at family functions and stuff?”
“I would imagine so.”
“Well, he got over it.”
“That’s impossible. No body gets over shit like that!”
“He did. Just drop it, John. It doesn’t even matter.” She pulled the covers over her head.
“No it does matter. Because that’s what you’re trying to do too. You’re trying to drop the whole thing like it never happened, like you’re above it all.”
“I have to accept it. What else can I do?”
“I don’t accept it. You can be like me and not ever accept it. We can not accept it together.”
“What, and live our whole lives with a chip on our shoulders? Go around angry with everyone? Always suspicious? You know you pretend that you can listen to me for once, but you’re always the same. It always goes back to how you just can’t accept me. You can’t accept me and the fact that I’ve moved on and you haven’t!”
“How come you still need the group then?”
She sighed. “I like the meetings. I don’t have to defend them. Look, I don’t want to argue anymore. Let’s just go to bed.”
“I’m thirsty,” I replied, clambering out of the bed. I reached for my slippers but recalled there was only the left side to be found
Downstairs, I fetched a glass from the cabinet. I started thinking about poor old Jonathan. It infuriated me that he lived with it and that he was over it, that he was probably a homo because of it, and how much she must care about him for it. He had something in common with her in a way that I could never comprehend. No wonder she needed the damn group. They were all victims in some way. Unique in degree but like in kind, and I was only an accessory to her burden.
“We need a filter. The water’s yellow again,” I hollered.
“Let it run for a minute,” she called back.
I retreated to the couch and was about to turn on the television when I noticed a lone purple tab sticking out of her mother’s bible. In an act of stupidity, I yanked on the tab to slide the bible over. It popped right out. I flipped the thing around trying to find its spot, and finally stuck it dead in the center with a sigh. I was certain that it marked some favorite passage of Jonathan’s, that it was just what I needed to hear. Something with an answer so profound that it could spark a man to forgive an incestuous pedophile. Something that could easily remedy my problem, a speck by comparison.
I carted the book upstairs. I climbed in bed, rested the book on the side table, and hugged Mary’s side. She didn’t stir.
“John, I’m sleeping.”
“There was this tag in your bible. Was it marking anything?” I nudged her.
“I don’t know,” she replied sleepily. She sat up suddenly. “Why were you looking at my bible?”
I couldn’t think of what to say to her. “How the hell should I know? Look Mary, I’ve been thinking, and I think maybe I should go with you to the next meeting. I could just sit in as an observer, not actually participate or anything but just be there in the corner or something.”
“What? It doesn’t work that way.”
“It’s just ridiculous. You can’t just start going. It would be weird. And there’s no such thing as an observer.” She lay back down and rolled over to face the wall. “Why do you want to go anyways? I thought you hated the whole thing.”
“Maybe it would help me by being with you.”
“You’re with me right now.” She arranged her pillow.
“That’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean?” she asked with a sigh.
I fiddled with the silky edge of the blanket. “I don’t know. I heard my name tonight when you guys were, you know, speaking, and I just thought that maybe you needed me to be there. That I wasn’t the only one feeling left out. I liked thinking that way, like I was needed.”
“I do need you John,” she said, getting all tender, like she has figured me out now. Then she added, “Just… not at the group.”
She gave me a light kiss on the forehead. “We can talk more in the morning.”
I folded back the quilt and let it be. Where had that come from? I hadn’t thought it out. It came from nowhere—asking to go with her.
I lay back, but I couldn’t sleep just yet. She preferred me sane at least. That was good. I couldn’t figure out why else she wouldn’t want me to go. And I realized the only reason I had offered was because I knew she would refuse it. Maybe she sensed that I wasn’t genuine. She knew I wouldn’t be able to sit around in that cult circle. And if I did go through with it, it would just be a ploy to get to a lunch with Jonathan where he’d tell me his past there, and I would pity him, and he would tell me how he overcame it and that would be that. I would know the secret of what to do. Then it could go back to being just the two of us. No more crazy therapists or nutty groups. She wouldn’t need anyone else but me.
I wadded my pillow under my head until it was hard as a rock. I went over the places where my missing slipper could have gone. For the life of me, nothing was coming. I rolled over again. I listed the places it could be once more, and coming up with nothing, I made up my mind to chuck the solitary slipper come morning. For the oddest reason, the thought made me want to cry.
C.M. Vitali was born and raised in the Central Valley of California, earned her BA in English with a Creative Writing Emphasis at UCLA in 2004, went on to an MFA in Creative Writing in Fiction from CSU Fresno. Over the last several years, she worked in a variety of administrative roles at Stanford University. She is now entering a credential program to teach English at the high school level and seeking representation for her first novel.
“Moving On” received a May Merrill Fiction Award from UCLA but has not yet been published.
This is Vitali's first appearance in Offcourse.