فصل 41

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فصل 41

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Salvaging

CHAPTER 41

I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow.

Maybe it is about those things, in a way; but in the meantime there is so much else getting in the way, so much whispering, so much speculation about others, so much gossip that cannot be verified, so many unsaid words, so much creeping about and secrecy. And there is so much time to be endured, time heavy as fried food or thick fog; and then all at once these red events, like explosions, on streets otherwise decorous and matronly and somnambulent.

I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.

I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?

Nevertheless it hurts me to tell it over, over again. Once was enough: wasn’t once enough for me at the time? But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in heaven or in prison or underground, some other place. What they have in common is that they’re not here. By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.

So I will go on. So I will myself to go on. I am coming to a part you will not like at all, because in it I did not behave well, but I will try nonetheless to leave nothing out. After all you’ve been through, you deserve whatever I have left, which is not much but includes the truth.

This is the story, then.

I went back to Nick. Time after time, on my own, without Serena knowing. It wasn’t called for, there was no excuse. I did not do it for him, but for myself entirely. I didn’t even think of it as giving myself to him, because what did I have to give? I did not feel munificent, but thankful, each time he would let me in. He didn’t have to.

In order to do this I became reckless, I took stupid chances. After being with the Commander I would go upstairs in the usual way, but then I would go along the hall and down the Marthas’ stairs at the back and through the kitchen. Each time I would hear the kitchen door click shut behind me and I would almost turn back, it sounded so metallic, like a mousetrap or a weapon, but I would not turn back. I would hurry across the few feet of illuminated lawn — the searchlights were back on again, expecting at any moment to feel the bullets rip through me even in advance of their sound. I would make my way by touch up the dark staircase and come to rest against the door, the thud of blood in my ears. Fear is a powerful stimulant. Then I would knock softly, a beggar’s knock. Each time I would expect him to be gone; or worse, I would expect him to say I could not come in. He might say he wasn’t going to break any more rules, put his neck in the noose, for my sake. Or even worse, tell me he was no longer interested. His failure to do any of these things I experienced as the most incredible benevolence and luck.

I told you it was bad.

Here is how it goes.

He opens the door. He’s in his shirt sleeves, his shirt untucked, hanging loose; he’s holding a toothbrush, or a cigarette, or a glass with something in it. He has his own little stash up here, black-market stuff I suppose. He’s always got something in his hand, as if he’s been going about his life as usual, not expecting me, not waiting. Maybe he doesn’t expect me, or wait. Maybe he has no notion of the future, or does not bother or dare to imagine it.

“Is it too late?” I say.

He shakes his head for no. It is understood between us by now that it is never too late, but I go through the ritual politeness of asking. It makes me feel more in control, as if there is a choice, a decision that could be made one way or the other. He steps aside and I move past him and he closes the door. Then he crosses the room and closes the window. After that he turns out the light. There is not much talking between us anymore, not at this stage. Already I am half out of my clothes. We save the talking for later.

With the Commander I close my eyes, even when I am only kissing him goodnight. I do not want to see him up close. But now, here, each time, I keep my eyes open. I would like a light on somewhere, a candle perhaps, stuck into a bottle, some echo of college, but anything like that would be too great a risk; so I have to make do with the searchlight, the glow of it from the grounds below, filtered through his white curtains which are the same as mine. I want to see what can be seen, of him, take him in, memorize him, save him up so I can live on the image, later: the lines of his body, the texture of his flesh, the glisten of sweat on his pelt, his long sardonic unrevealing face. I ought to have done that with Luke, paid more attention, to the details, the moles and scars, the singular creases; I didn’t and he’s fading. Day by day, night by night he recedes, and I become more faithless.

For this one I’d wear pink feathers, purple stars, if that were what he wanted; or anything else, even the tail of a rabbit. But he does not require such trimmings. We make love each time as if we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that there will never be any more, for either of us, with anyone, ever. And then when there is, that too is always a surprise, extra, a gift.

Being here with him is safety; it’s a cave, where we huddle together while the storm goes on outside. This is a delusion, of course.

This room is one of the most dangerous places I could be. If I were caught there would be no quarter, but I’m beyond caring. And how have I come to trust him like this, which is foolhardy in itself? How can I assume I know him, or the least thing about him and what he really does?

I dismiss these uneasy whispers. I talk too much. I tell him things I shouldn’t. I tell him about Moira, about Ofglen; not about Luke though. I want to tell him about the woman in my room, the one who was there before me, but I don’t. I’m jealous of her. If she’s been here before me too, in this bed, I don’t want to hear about it.

I tell him my real name, and feel that therefore I am known. I act like a dunce. I should know better. I make of him an idol, a cardboard cutout.

He on the other hand talks little: no more hedging or jokes. He barely asks questions. He seems indifferent to most of what I have to say, alive only to the possibilities of my body, though he watches me while I’m speaking. He watches my face.

Impossible to think that anyone for whom I feel such gratitude could betray me.

Neither of us says the word love, not once. It would be tempting fate; it would be romance, bad luck.

Today there are different flowers, drier, more defined, the flowers of high summer: daisies, black-eyed Susans, starting us on the long downward slope to fall. I see them in the gardens, as I walk with Ofglen, to and fro. I hardly listen to her, I no longer credit her. The things she whispers seem to me unreal. What use are they, for me, now?

You could go into his room at night, she says. Look through his desk. There must be papers, notations.

The door is locked, I murmur.

We could get you a key, she says. Don’t you want to know who he is, what he does?

But the Commander is no longer of immediate interest to me. I have to make an effort to keep my indifference towards him from showing.

Keep on doing everything exactly the way you were before, Nick says. Don’t change anything. Otherwise they’ll know. He kisses me. watching me all the time. Promise? Don’t slip up.

I put his hand on my belly. It’s happened, I say. I feel it has. A couple of weeks and I’ll be certain.

This I know is wishful thinking.

He’ll love you to death, he says. So will she.

But it’s yours, I say. It will be yours, really. I want it to be.

We don’t pursue this, however.

I can’t, I say to Ofglen. I’m too afraid. Anyway I’d be no good at that, I’d get caught.

I scarcely take the trouble to sound regretful, so lazy have I become.

We could get you out, she says. We can get people out if we really have to, if they’re in danger. Immediate danger.

The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him.

Telling this, I’m ashamed of myself. But there’s more to it than that. Even now, I can recognize this admission as a kind of boasting. There’s pride in it, because it demonstrates how extreme and therefore justified it was, for me. How well worth it. It’s like stories of illness and near-death, from which you have recovered; like stories of war. They demonstrate seriousness.

Such seriousness, about a man, then, had not seemed possible to me before.

Some days I was more rational. I did not put it, to myself, in terms of love. I said, I have made a life for myself, here, of a sort. That must have been what the settlers’ wives thought, and women who survived wars, if they had a man. Humanity is so adaptable, my mother would say. Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.

It won’t be long now, says Cora, doling out my monthly stack of sanitary napkins. Not long now, smiling at me shyly but also knowingly. Does she know? Do she and Rita know what I’m up to, creeping down their stairs at night? Do I give myself away, daydreaming, smiling at nothing, touching my face lightly when I think they aren’t watching?

Ofglen is giving up on me. She whispers less, talks more about the weather. I do not feel regret about this. I feel relief.

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