At that moment it occurred to me that there were no other exits. No need to look. There was only one door in the bedroom; there had never been more. I tried to hold his gaze, to look him right in the eyes. But even that close, despite the fact that his gaze was ostensibly directed at me, there seemed to be no eye contact. As if his eyes were shrouded by a membrane, an extra layer of glass behind his glasses. I don’t know how long we stood like that. Certainly not long, or I wouldn’t have still been standing there, with my bucket in one hand and the mop in the other, when he reached out and closed his hand around one of my breasts.
I still don’t know why I didn’t pull away, why I didn’t resist, toss the bucket’s contents on his head, something. Just a step or two backwards, it would have been easy, because it all seemed to be happening in slow motion—at least that’s how I remember it. I guess I never thought of it. It was like a gap in time. An empty, white hole in reality that spread with lightning speed, threatening to swallow us up. Anything resembling free will or intent had abandoned me. My body had become an impersonal object waiting, with cool, almost detached interest, to see what his next move would be.
That’s pretty obvious, you might say. We were standing right in front of the bed, me with my back to it, him in front of me, both bigger and stronger than I.
I remember that at some point while he was pressing me up against the headboard, I was thinking about that blue elephant in the children’s room on the other side of the wall. I was standing there with it in my hand less than an hour earlier. Its eyes, made of some kind of plastic, had felt quite cold against my fingers. I don’t know why that had surprised me —it was cold in that room too, and it was on the bed right beneath the old single-pane window—it had almost made me pull my hand away, as if I had burned it.
On the other hand, it didn’t really surprise me that anger was his actual motivation here, also. What did surprise me was the ease with which I surrendered to it, made it my own. I discovered that I enjoyed frustrating him, inflating his anger just to get the chance to puncture it, to see it fall pitifully to the ground. What did he have to be so angry about? He had this way of pulling his lips back and baring his teeth that I had never seen on anyone else. Like some predator that has just dug its claws into its prey to tear it apart. It would have been almost funny if it hadn’t seemed so desperate.
It went on for the next few weeks. Or months—it’s hard to say exactly. I don’t really remember one time from the next or how often it happened. Only the first and last times stand out. We were more combatants than lovers. Basically, he had handed me the ammunition. What was my ruthless gentleness other than his own church’s requirement to turn the other cheek?
The final time was different. I knew it as soon as I heard him on the stairs. I hadn’t seen him at all that day. It sounded like a herd of cattle was barreling up the steps. At times I could hear him huffing and muttering. Then there was a distinct bang followed by a thump, as if he had slammed into the wall and fallen. For a moment there was total silence. I was about to go out and see what had happened. And then I heard him huffing and rumbling about again. Shortly after he stood there, stinking drunk, leaning up against the doorframe in a way that was supposed to appear nonchalant. A sour stench of booze and cigarettes wafted from him. His hair was hanging in greasy wisps on his forehead.
“Sooo … you’re fuckin’ standin’ there again, huh…,” he slurred. He scowled over the rim of his glasses while he struggled to gain control of his knees, which were bowing and flexing, threatening to give way beneath him.
It didn’t take much to knock him down onto the bed—he almost fell over on his own. He made some half-hearted attempt to pull me with him, but he soon gave up. He let himself fall back and just lay there. His muttering was soon replaced by a light snoring. He was lying flat on his back with his legs hanging over the edge of the bed. I stood for a moment watching him. On the front of his pants, from the fly down along one thigh, was a large stain. He lay with his arms at his side, slightly bent at the elbow, his palms facing upwards. It almost looked as if he was in the process of giving me benediction.
I backed cautiously toward the door. Just as I was on my way out, I felt something tugging at my arm. It gave me a start before I realized that it was just my sleeve, which had gotten caught in something. A key. The loose knit fabric had caught on a key sitting on the inside of the door. On an impulse, I took it with me and locked the door from the outside. Then I left the key in the keyhole.
I still have that blue elephant somewhere. I kind of regret taking it. I don’t know why I did it—it was foolish and irrational. Maybe I wanted to see if anyone would miss it. Some sort of proof that the children even existed. How I imagined I would get this proof I have no idea. Surely I must have known, as soon as I took it, that I would never come back. And of course the children existed. Why wouldn’t they?
Henriette Houth was born in 1967. Her publications include two collections of poems, two books of architecture and design, two collections of short stories and a children’s book. ‘Greatest of These’ is from her recent collection of short stories, ‘Mit navn er Legion’ (My Name is Legion). Currently Ms. Houth is working on a novel.
Mark Mussari has his Ph.D. in Scandinavian Languages & Literature from the University of Washington in Seattle and has done translation work for numerous Danish publishers. He recently translated Dan Turèll’s Murder in the Dark for Norvik Press, as well as Morten Brask’s The Perfect Life of William Sidis. A scholar of Danish literature, art, and design, Mussari has also translated books on Finn Juhl and Hans J. Wegner for Hatje Cantz. He has written a number of educational books including books on Shakespeare’s sonnets, popular American music, Haruki Murakami, and Amy Tan. He is currently writing a book on Danish design for Bloomsbury Press.