There was a lot about our relationship that worked. The part that I had a hard time dealing with was the constant sense of being off balance. The men in my life, my fathers and brothers, had always been predictable. Nick, however, reacted differently at different times to the same behavior. I was never certain when I did something if it would be received with praise or displeasure. It made me anxious, always hunting for clues about how I should behave.
Nick remembered everything I had ever told him about my family and childhood, but he colored it all differently. He told me I had never really been loved by anyone but him. He told me what I really thought, who I really was, and he was so authoritative on the subject of me that I began to doubt my own perceptions. Especially when he echoed the standard phrases from my childhood . . . "You need to get over it."
"You take everything too personally." My own mother had said those things to me, and now Nick was saying them too.
His temper exploded without warning when I made the wrong sandwich for his lunch, when I'd forgotten to run a particular errand. Since I didn't have a car, I had to walk or bike a quarter mile to the grocery store, and I didn't always have time to accomplish all I needed to do. Nick never hit me after that first time. Instead he broke possessions I valued, jerking a delicate gold necklace from my throat, throwing a crystal vase. Sometimes he would push me against the wall and shout into my face. I dreaded that more than anything, the force of Nick's voice blowing all circuitry, shattering parts of me that couldn't be reassembled.
I began to lie compulsively, afraid to reveal some little thing I had said or done that Nick wouldn't like, anything that might set him off.
I became a sycophant, assuring Nick he was smarter than everyone else put together, smarter than his boss, than the people at the bank, than anyone in his family or mine. I told him he was right even when it was obvious he was wrong. And in spite of all that, he was never satisfied.
Our sex life went downhill, at least from my perspective, and I was fairly certain Nick didn't even notice. We had never been all that successful in the bedroom — I'd had no experience before Nick, and I had no way of knowing what to do.
In the beginning of our relationship, I'd found some pleasure in being with him. But gradually he had stopped doing the things he knew I liked, and sex became a slam-bam deal. Even if I had known enough to explain to Nick what I needed, it wouldn't have made a difference. He had no interest in the possibilities of sex beyond the simple matter of one body entering another.
I tried to be as accommodating as possible, doing what was necessary to get it over with quickly. Nick's favorite position was from behind, driving into me with straight, selfish thrusts that gave me no stimulation. He praised me for being one of those women who didn't make a big deal about foreplay. In truth, I was fine without foreplay — it would only have prolonged an act that was messy, often uncomfortable, and not at all romantic.
I realized that I was not a sexual person. I was not moved by the sight of Nick's well-exercised body, toned from spending most of his lunch hours at the gym. When we went out, I saw the way other women stared at my handsome husband and envied me.
I Got a call one night from Liberty, and from the sound of her voice,] knew instantly that something was wrong. "Haven, I've got some bad news. It's about Gretchen . . . " As she went on, I felt weighted with shock and despair, and I strained to understand her, as if she were speaking in a foreign language. Gretchen had had a headache for about two days, and had fallen unconscious in her room — Dad had heard the thud from down the hall. She was dead by the time the paramedics arrived. A cerebral aneurism, they said at the hospital.
"I'm so sorry," Liberty said, her voice tear-clotted. I heard the sounds of her blowing her nose. "She was such a wonderful person. I know how much you loved each other."
I sat on the sofa and leaned my head back, letting tears run in a hot trail down the sides of my face. "When is the funeral?" I managed to ask.
"In two days. Will you come? Will you stay with Gage and me?"
"Yes. Thanks. I . . . How is Dad?" No matter what the state of our relationship was, I ached with sympathy for my father. Losing Gretchen would be hard for him, one of the hardest things he would ever face.
"I guess as well as could be expected." Liberty blew her nose again. She added in a constricted whisper, "I've never seen him cry before."
"I haven't either." I heard the key in the front door lock. Nick was home. I was relieved, wanting the comfort of his arms. "How is Carrington?" I asked, knowing that Liberty's little sister had been close to Gretchen.
"You're so sweet to ask . . . she's really torn up about it, but she'll be okay. It's hard for her to understand how everything can change so suddenly."
"It's hard even for grown-ups to understand." I pressed my sleeve over my wet eyes. "I don't know whether I'll drive or fly down. I'll call you after I talk to Nick .and figure things out."
"Okay, Haven. Bye."
Nick came into the apartment, setting down his briefcase. "What's up?" he asked, frowning as he came to me.
"My aunt Gretchen died," I said, and started to cry again.
Nick came to sit beside me on the sofa, and put his arm around me. I nestled against his shoulder.
After a few minutes of consolation, Nick stood and went to the kitchen. He got a beer from the fridge. "I'm sorry, baby. I know this is tough for you. But it's probably a good thing that you can't go to the funeral."
I blinked in surprise. "I can go. If we don't have the money for a plane ticket, I can — "
"We only have one car." His voice changed. "I guess I'm supposed to sit in the apartment all weekend while you're in Houston?"
"Why don't you come with me?"
"I should have known you'd forget. We've got something going on this weekend, Marie." He looked at me hard, and I gave him a blank stare. "The company's annual crawfish boil, at the owner's house. Since this is my first year, there's no way I can miss it."
My eyes widened. "I . . . I . . . you want me to go to a crawfish boil instead of my aunt's funeral?"
"There's no choice. Jesus, Marie, do you want to cost me any chance of a promotion? I'm going to that crawfish boil, and I'm damn well not going to go alone. I need to have a wife there, and I need yon to make a good impression."
"I can't," I said, more bewildered than angry. I couldn't believe my feelings about Gretchen would mean so little to him. "I need to be with my family. People will understand if you tell them — "
"I'm your family!" Nick threw the beer, the full can hitting the edge of the sink with an explosion of foam. "Just who is paying your bills, Marie? Who's keeping a roof over your head? Me. No one in your fu**ing family is helping us. I'm the breadwinner. You do what I say."
"I'm not your slave," I shot back. "I have the right to go to Gretchen's funeral, and I'm going to — "
"Try it." He sneered, reaching me in three angry strides. "Try it, Marie. You've got no money and no way to get there." He clenched my arms and shoved me hard, and I went stumbling back against the wall. "God knows how such an idiot managed to graduate from college," he said. "They don't give a shit about you, Marie. Try to get that through your thick head."
I sent Liberty an e-mail telling her I couldn't go to the funeral. I didn't explain why, and there was no reply from her. Since there were no calls from the rest of my family, I was pretty sure I knew what they thought of me for not going. Whatever they thought, however, it wasn't nearly as bad as the things I was thinking about myself.
I went to the crawfish boil with Nick. I smiled the whole time. Everyone called me Marie. And I wore elbow-length sleeves to cover the bruises on my arms. I didn't cry one tear on the day of Gretchen's funeral.
But I did cry on Monday, when I got a small package in the mail. Opening it, I found Gretchen's bracelet with all its jaunty, jingly little charms.
"Dear Haven," read Liberty's note, "I know you were meant to have this."
Halfway through our second year of marriage, Nick's determination to get me pregnant had become all-consuming. I half suspected he would kill me if he knew I was still secretly taking birth control pills, so I hid them in one of my purses shoved back in a corner of our closet.
Convinced that the problem was me — it couldn't possibly be him — Nick sent me to the doctor. I cried in the doctor's office for an hour, telling him I felt anxious and miserable and had no idea why, and I came home with a prescription for antidepressants.
"You can't take that crap," Nick said, crumpling the slip of paper and tossing it into the trash. "It might be bad for the baby."
Our nonexistent baby. I thought guiltily of the pill I took every morning, a secret act that had become my last desperate bid for autonomy. It was difficult on the weekends, when Nick watched me like a hawk. I had to dash into the closet when he was in the shower, fumble for the cardboard wheel, pop a pill out and take it dry. If he caught me . . . I didn't know what he'd do.
"What did the doctor say about getting pregnant?" Nick asked, watching me closely.
"He said it could take up to a year."
I hadn't mentioned a word to the doctor about trying to get pregnant, only asked for my birth control prescription to be renewed.
"Did he tell you when the best days were? The days you're most fertile?"
"Right before I ovulate."
"Let's look at the calendar and figure it out. How long into the cycle do you ovulate?"
"Ten days, I guess."
As we went to the calendar, which I always marked with an X on the days my period started, my reluctance didn't seem to matter to Nick. I was going to be invaded, impregnated, and forced to go through the birthing process simply because he had decided so.
"I don't want it," I heard myself say in a sullen tone.
"You'll be happy once it happens."
"I still don't want it. I'm not ready."
Nick slammed the calendar onto the counter with such force, it sounded like the crack of a gunshot. "You'll never be ready. It'll never happen unless I push you into it. For God's sake, Marie, will you grow up and be a woman?"
I started to shake. Blood rushed up to my face, adrenaline pumping through my overworked heart. "I am a woman. I don't have to have a baby to prove that."
"You're a spoiled bitch. A parasite. That's why your family doesn't give a damn about you."
My own temper exploded. "And you're a selfish jerk!"
He slapped me so hard it whipped my face to the side, and my eyes watered heavily. There was a high-pitched whine in my ears. I swallowed and held my cheek. "You said you'd never do that again," I said hoarsely.
Nick was breathing heavily, his eyes crazy-wide. "It's your fault for driving me nuts. Damn it all, I'm going to straighten your ass out." He grabbed me by one arm, his other hand fisting in my hair, and he hauled me into the living room. He was shouting filthy words, shoving me facedown over an ottoman.
"No," I cried, smothered in the upholstery. "No."
But he jerked down my jeans and panties and drove into my dry flesh, and it hurt, a fierce pinching pain that turned to raw fire, and I knew he had torn something inside me. He thrust harder, faster, easing only when I stopped saying no and fell silent, my tears sliding in a hot salty trail down to the cushion. I tried to think beyond the pain, told myself it would be over soon, just take it, take it, he'll be done in a minute.
One last bruising thrust, and Nick shuddered over me, and I shuddered too as I thought of the swimming liquid inside me. I wanted nothing to do with his babies. I wanted nothing to do with sex either.
I gasped with relief as he pulled out, heat trickling down my thighs. There were the sounds of Nick zipping and fastening his pants.
"Your period's started," he said gruffly.
We both knew it was too early for my period. That wasn't where the blood had come from. I said nothing, only lifted myself from the ottoman and pulled my clothes in place.
Nick spoke again, sounding more normal. "I'll finish cooking dinner while you clean yourself up. What do I need to do?"
"Boil the pasta."
I hurt from my waist to my knees. I'd never had rough sex with Nick before. It was rape, a small voice said inside, but I immediately told myself that if I had only relaxed a little more, been less dry, it wouldn't have hurt nearly as much. But I didn't want it, the voice persisted.
I stood and flinched at the brutal throbbing soreness, and began to hobble to the bathroom.
"A little less drama, if you don't mind," I heard Nick say.
I was silent as I continued to the bathroom and closed the door. I started the shower, made it as hot as I could stand it, and I undressed and got in. I stood in the spray for what seemed like forever, until my body was stinging and clean and aching. I was in a fog of bewilderment, wondering how my life had come to this. Nick would not be pacified until I'd had a baby, and then he would want another, and the unwinnable game of trying to please him would never end.
This was not a matter of trying to sit down and talk honestly with someone about your feelings. That only worked when your feelings mattered. Nick, even when he seemed to be listening, was only gathering points to be used against me later. Someone else's pain, whether emotional or physical, didn't register with him. But I had thought he loved me. Had he changed so much since we'd gotten married, or had I made a fatal misjudgment?
Turning off the shower, I wrapped a towel around my sore body and went to the mirror. I used my hand to wipe a circle in the fogged mirror. My face was distorted, one eye swollen at the outside corner.
The bathroom door rattled. "You've been in there too long. Come out and eat."
"I'm not hungry."
"Open the goddamn door and stop sulking."
I unlocked the door and opened it, and stood facing him, this angry man who looked ready to tear me apart. I was afraid of him, but even more than that, I was utterly defeated. I had tried so hard to play by his rules, but he kept changing them.
"I'm not going to apologize this time," he said. "You were asking for it. You know better than to talk to me like that."