The evening birds of autumn are bip-bipping outside. It’s dinner time. I arch backwards from the stove to drive out the tiredness in my body. My spine rearranges crunchily and I wince. I wipe my hands downwards across my apron and sweep my eyes across the bench, making a mental tally of the number of steps left in the recipe. Bringing each to the foreground at once, I begin forming a case for impossibility and my insufficiency. It’s as easy as breathing. But I shake my head, and finding my place on the page, tell myself to take it one step at a time, because I know myself enough for that. I crack apart a bulb of garlic and begin fastidiously slicing too many cloves.
My husband wanders happily into the kitchen. He is feeling loved because I am cooking dinner for him. He walks over, reaches around my waist and I turn my head to the side to receive his kiss. He kisses me gratefully, sensually. I couldn’t tell you what I’m like to kiss. I am on to the next task. He leans backwards against the bench and begins telling me about something he heard in the news that day. I want to be a good listener, I want to be interested, but I am distracted by the laundry list of obligations that runs continually through my mind. And by the chopping, and by my growing unease as the sun goes down. I can only offer him shallow returns, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
Each day, when the sun goes down, I lose my sense of expansiveness. The room closes in tight around me. Perspective is lost. Life has taught me to fear the dark. I fear it in every possible sense; both the real and unreal possibilities. My right to know peace in the darkness was whisked-away at birth. Tonight, as always, I make efforts to retain my dignity, while our ancestors take watch in the corners.
As night falls my radar tunes-up. I am like my cat when her whiskers bloom towards an interest. While I make pasta sauce and my husband chats cheerfully, my ears and nose and eyes scan, scan, scan. It’s easy to hate yourself a bit for the fear, as though it’s cowardice, or evidence of my inferiority, that every foreign sound sees adrenalin coursing. I have a good husband, compared to most others that I hear about. When I demand that he investigates whatever has piqued my fear, he is usually good about it. I have had boyfriends who rolled their eyes, or puffed their chests, or teased. That wasn’t fun.
Recently, on a camping trip, my husband decided to teach me how to whittle. He likes to sit at the campfire stripping the bark off fallen branches from gum trees, using his pocket knife. He peels them back to their smooth and milky insides, then he carves bands and grooves. He wants me to know this male skill and I deeply appreciate it. I am overly, pathetically grateful. He bought a knife for me so that I could learn. It is a small and lovely pocket knife that folds in half to become a silver fish and it sits around my neck on a red string.
I love it.
The knife makes me feel more capable, more powerful. It has a sense of enormous worth, like I’m a tiny dog with a big bone. At first I noticed how wrong it felt in my hands, like it was a male object not meant for me. Sometimes I am startled by the ways that I agree to the small box. Still, it’s hard to know what you’re missing out on when you don’t know what you’re missing out on.
Dinner’s pretty good. I still feel like a disappointing sham in the kitchen. There was no pride in the one I grew up in, just a woman doing what didn’t bring her joy. Lately, I’m trying not to serve up apologies with the food and to believe that I might be bigger than my mother. I sift through the distaste I assume towards myself and notice some things to be proud of. It’s hard to see clearly.
After dinner my husband and I get caught up in some idea or other. He is my favourite person to talk to and we never run out of things to say. Our two brains spin and frolic around topics. We hold them up and peer at them and show off to each other and the room. Best friends. Minds and hearts in unison. We pick apart ideas until we feel sick from thinking and because now we’ve learned when to make ourselves stop, we stop. There is deep, deep love between us, but there are days when I wish that he was a woman, so he didn’t trample on me. Loving a man is not always joyful.
Our bedtime routine rolls around; we wind the kitchen window open so that our cats can come and go on their terms. We chatter happily while we brush our teeth. He pushes me aside to spit and grunt extravagantly over his part of the ritual. We spend a moment mimicking each other’s narrow inspection of our faces. We note that flaws abound. We go to the bedroom.
We undress without self-consciousness. Though I haven’t been spared a woman’s disappointment with her body, to my husband I know I am beautiful. I hold no fear about him finding me ugly as I grow older, or as I expand and contract through pregnancy and life. He is smart like that and our attraction is profound. Thank god.
In bed we assume the usual positions, which I love dearly and need to fall asleep. He curls up in front of my curled body and when he’s finished reading we turn out the light. Why am I always more tired than him? I smell his beautiful back and tell him that I love him. I tell him this every night, because if we explode in the night I want him to know.
Sleep doesn’t come easily to me. There is monitoring and worrying and planning to be done. My husband falls asleep quickly and confidently, while I skate across the surface keeping us safe. I monitor his breathing because he is most precious. I monitor the open window in the kitchen. I monitor every sound. Cat… neighbour… fridge… cat. I snap to adrenalin-fuelled attention for anything alien and it takes a long time to sleep again afterwards. I want so much to sleep deeply like my husband. And I want so much to stop being irrational and cowardly.
Once the brain-trenches for fear are laid, they are laid. It almost stops being important that they were laid for real reasons.
Some time after the trains stop running I hear what I’ve been waiting for.
I will only be able to assume afterwards - because I do survive - that he reached in through the cat-sized gap to wind the kitchen window open further. I thought he might. But he is inside much quicker than I had expected. In the time that it takes to wake my husband, it is too late. The advantage has been lost and now the game has changed.
The man stands in the doorway, while we sit astoundingly vulnerable in our bed and our love. We have everything to lose. He knows this and he knows to rely on it, since he is outnumbered. He assumes that my husband is the greater threat and it is in relation to him that he hopes to feel power. I am nothing in his eyes but a means. Non existent. Of no value. As I knew I would be. Of course this does not mean that I am not in the worst danger of all.
He summons my husband from the bed and ties him to the chair in our bedroom. It was intended as a place for our dirty clothes, not for this.
We can only think terror as we are separated. I am dragged into the spare room where I run my small business from. Inspirational quotes that I have taped to the wall to help me believe in my right to success seem pathetic. I am glad that my body is covered and that it wasn’t one of those nights where I try to feel liberated and sleep naked. I don’t know what will happen next, but I am glad that he cannot see me naked. I will fight to keep it that way. Like all women do. His superiority is an illusion. Deep in myself I always know this, despite the mental detritus.
He throws me to the ground. I do not feel revolted as he pulls my hair roughly and calls me names, because I am planning, planning, planning. There is time for revulsion later.
I know, as I have always known, that my weapon is his ego, and I will use it tonight, since we lost the advantage of hearing.
I will save my husband and myself.
I play the part of weakness. I shriek, I cringe, I go limp. I agree with my body and my sounds that I am nothing, no threat. So he turns his back on me while he tours the house seeking objects to take that are not really the reason he’s there. It wont take long. Our house is small and our objects are sure to disappoint him.
I know what he will do next. I know that he will not leave without violence. I can feel it.
I move quickly to the cupboard in the spare room where our camping gear is stored. I roll the doors aside noiselessly and reach in to where I know I will find my fish knife. I always know where it is. It is a small blade and not very sharp, but I’ve gotten used to working with less-than.
I slip the red string around my neck so that it will look like just another female adornment.
I assume the position of nothingness again. It will be my most powerful weapon tonight.
I cannot reach out to my husband’s fear and love. It will distract me and I have things to do.
When he returns to the room I am covered in snot and tears and helplessness. Just what he had known would happen. He says some carefully chosen, awful things. I plan where and how. I have decided that this time there must be violence. I am too fearful that he will kill my husband. I have seen the possibility in his mind and I cannot allow it.
While he attacks my body, I do not let him go with my eyes. I speak and speak and speak, stroking his ego, so that he does not notice one hand reach up to unclasp my fish knife. He is surprised when it is sticking out of his neck. I use his surprise and with his weapon I work fast. While he is curled in agony I run to the bedroom, where my husband is tied to the chair.
I still cannot bear to think of what my husband heard and imagined that night. Loving another is so much easier than loving yourself. But what matters is that it was us who ran free out into the night.
And one way or another, we always will.