by Bettina Rotenberg
She woke up and carefully climbed down from the large bed which seemed like a vast sea of pillows, sheets, and quilt, rumpled now, as she tried to organize her covers into a semblance of comfort from her place on the floor, so that she’d be able to fall asleep again; as though the memory of never having been alone had kept her from experiencing the bliss of unconsciousness, even in this solitary retreat of her bedroom. So she walked uncertainly across the wood floor in her bare feet, and her white cotton nightgown, which fell down to her ankles, was creased in places where she’d hiked it up above her waist while lying in bed, for any pressure but the soft smooth pale blue sheet bothered her skin.
“I must go quietly,” Anna said to herself, “for Sam is asleep.”
She pushed the door to the kitchen open, exerting a little force, for it had been jammed shut with a wine-colored cloth with ridges on it, since the other rooms must be closed off for the night, or she didn’t feel safe enough to fall asleep. The two bedrooms faced each other at opposite ends of a hallway that opened on to a bathroom where the light from the neighbor’s night lamp streamed into the hallway and allowed her to see without turning on a light when she left the circumference of her bed. Sam, her husband, slept in the adjoining library when he came in late at night from working and then drinking at the Albatross, a local pub down on San Pablo Avenue where homeless men panhandled, sitting or lying down on the sidewalk.
He’d constructed bookshelves, floor to ceiling, to house the myriad books in his library. Frequently he’d organize them alphabetically, lovingly handling them as he shelved and reshelved them. He didn’t like to disturb Anna when he showed up after midnight, so he’d flop down on an easy chair and immediately fall asleep.
He was a handsome man with a good deal of charm, and worked in a book distribution business, writing the catalogues every season. Each catalogue summarized essential aspects of hundreds of small press books which he learned to describe by digesting publishers’ comments on each title. He was deft at this work and was respected in the community of writers as someone who had a finger in every book published in that world of literature and criticism.
Though relatively unemotional, he could be compassionate, and was popular among their friends for this quality; but he could also be mean, and this fluctuation was exaggerated by his bouts of drinking followed by periods of abstinence. He inflicted his cruelty primarily upon Anna, but kept her tied to him by his intermittent kindness.
Anna entered the kitchen, a large room in comparison to the close quarters of her bedroom. It seemed particularly vast this night for she was so tiny, so unbalanced on her small unsteady feet. She reached for a cup half-filled with milk and drank it. Her mouth felt dry; her feet were cold.
When she reached her room again, she scanned its contents: the paintings, her tiny sculpture, the large dark mahogany wooden dresser, the orange enclosed light that beamed gently from a small table beside the bed, and a long rug pinned to the wall woven into a complex pattern of colored stitches with no rhyme or reason, so that it made her eyes somewhat cross-eyed when she tried to follow its zigzagging paths while lying in bed. Why the weaver of this old Moroccan rug hadn’t composed a sane repeating motif of colors, why he had chosen to confuse the eye by never leading its observer into a harmonious, peaceful resting point, she failed to question. So her attention would not deviate from this particular wall where the rug hung, and she found she couldn’t leave her side of the bed, arrested as she was by this visual quandary.
And if she tried to abandon this sight upon which her gaze fixed before a reasonable hour and climb out of bed, Sam’s voice, suffused with fear and anger, would exclaim, “Don’t get up! It’s much too early. Go back to sleep!”
It seemed to her that this panic about her night-time movements had followed her all her life and culminated in this particular voice that became furious at her disruption of his sleep. She wondered, was it fear for her safety? or was it outrage at her departure from normal sleep behavior? Was it the rug hanging the length of the wall that drove sleep from her eyes or an unhealthy animation of the mind? She learned she had to limit her clandestine movements to those times when no one was watching her. But if she went outside the bounds of her usual day time activities – if those expecting her to keep appointments missed her and she strayed beyond the predictable temporal and spatial bounds, then all the forces circumscribing her burst into calamitous activity – to locate and restrain her and bring her back. All this activity was unleashed under the heading of “safety”, and certainly, once she was encumbered by nurses and doctors in the confines of a healthful setting, and she happened to listen to a message from a loved one from far away, she heard such heart-rending tones of entreaty for her to return the call that she became very contrite.
But this contrition didn’t last. Anything to break the constraints that bound her! And these bonds took multiple forms, appearing most frequently, it seemed to her, in the form of those relations who depended upon her finite resources: a lame and ailing mother, a sister shackled by a domineering husband, a brother who’d disappeared at the age of thirty when she remarried, a friend who’d cut her name into her forearm with a knife, a sister who’d slept with her lover…This parade of figures encumbered her mind and appeared during the hours that passed between the time of retiring to bed and the moment that sleep overcame her. She had strategies for eclipsing this mental theatre before it got too late. But instead of commanding her mental arsenal to fight this onslaught before sleep, she’d entertain them nightly with as much aplomb as a hostess, decked in fine clothes, presides at a dinner party during the hours accorded for polite society.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” she intoned, sending her voice into her pillow in a piercing whisper. She felt as though she was breaking in two, and her only comfort would come from this figure that was completely absent. She was the only one who could mend what was broken.
In her mind, Anna supplicated her mother:
“Come back, Mommy; don’t be sad. I’ve hurt you, and you’re a wreck. You’re never here when I call. You can’t speak? You won’t talk to me? What’s so important? Don’t you need me too? You do? So where are you? If I call you now, you might answer and speak to me. But you might not. Perhaps I’ll call you when you say you can’t talk, just to check, to see if this time you’ll speak to me, because I’m important to you.
But I won’t call – just to hurt you. You’ll see what it’s like not to talk to me. Then perhaps you’ll want to talk, just to hear my voice. Perhaps I’ll call you today, just to feel you close to me again. But that’s all over. We won’t talk like that anymore.
I’m so mad at you. You don’t deserve to hear from me. I won’t call now. I’m too angry. My anger maddens me. I teeter on a precipice when I tell how you’ve hurt me. I won’t go near you; I’ll refuse to see you. You take control of me, abuse me, enrage me. I beg you not to wreck the writing I sent you. ‘I can’t stand colloquial language,’ you say. ‘It’s perfect as it is,’ I tell you. ‘Don’t change it,’ I beg. ‘I won’t come to see you if you change any of it.’ You laugh like a hyena at the thought that you can’t change it. Your impervious voice sends me over the edge. You obliterate your daughter.
I see you. You’re a bee in my garden and you multiply. The azaleas, the camellias, the rhododendrons, the roses – all ensure there will be bees galore in the clover in the grass. You’re the baby I’m going to give birth to. My little puppy. You’re manageable – such a tiny one – the size of a fly on the place where my dog defecated. I put my face next to your blue wings, and you barely smell.”
* * * * * *
Anna arranged the sheets and the quilt on her bed and lay down so she could easily slip into slumber. Scenarios from her nightly array of images tumbled into her mind:
She was in the restaurant downstairs and was looking for her dog in every possible hiding place. She put him in her lap and he peed on her skirt. Then she shut him outside the door and lost him. The restaurant owner who was the waiter locked him in his car. She was so mad she threatened to report him for cruelty to animals.
She drove to the marina where she followed her dog’s tail that glowed blond in the dark and kept them both safe. They climbed over rocks, careful not to slip, completely alone on the island. Her father appeared briefly as Hitler, so she abandoned her dog, who she knew was not a murderer, though he was no longer protecting her, and drove like a madwoman to Mills College campus in Oakland.
She left her car and walked to a clearing where tall deciduous trees surrounded her. She lay down in the spikey grass and held her husband’s hand, though he was invisible. She talked to him in whispers and sang to him, and as morning came, she rose and made her way among the sprinklers, refraining from drinking the cool water for she could feel that her sister, Dinah, who managed this campus, was gassing her out of there. She’d usurped the college administration with the intent of getting rid of her.
Anna retraced her steps to her car, found the key, climbed in, and drove towards the exit. Perhaps her sister had forgotten about her. Dinah had a lot to take care of on the college grounds and she must have seen how weak Anna was. She didn’t even have a husband, for where was he as she drove slowly through west Oakland in the early morning traffic on route 80, headed towards Berkeley?
Anna stirred in her sleep, her mind struggling to hold all the images together in the half-light of early morning, and then submerged once again in a scene from her nocturnal adventures:
Sam was in the jeans she bought at the thrift store on 5th street. The label said ‘designer jeans’ and they reminded her of him because of the bulge at the crotch. She imagined she could double as him, and no one would recognize her. Or she could walk the streets in a sixteen-year old party dress with beige sandals and the idea that he made up half of her body; so still they were indissolubly united.
It was a boiling hot day and she didn’t have any water with her as she marched past the groups of kids, the army contingents, and the drunks lingering at the corner bar. It was all dangerous, all frightening, but she was safe because she was disguised as a teenage love-sick girl, and was with a man who put his arms protectively around her when she needed him.
Anna woke up to discover that her dog was outside in the yard and her husband wasn’t with her after all. Where was he? She’d called him three days before and told him she was writing again; and, as usual, he sounded pleased to hear from her; but, as the phone call dragged on, he seemed only minimally interested.
She tried to reach him in a hurry a few days later when her landlord threatened her with eviction after she showed up without a car, having braved the Sunday crowds, only stopping for a soda, and asked to spend the night with him and his wife. She thought she’d lost the keys to her apartment and her car, but they were in her purse all the time.
She begged Sam in a fraught voice to come to the landlord’s flat; and then there he was, standing at the door, in his usual brown coat, in his usual way, and she tore past him into the street, and her landlord cornered her after she hit him with a karate chop, and he forced her into his car.
The landlord drove Anna and his wife to emergency, and she sat on a cot, facing his wife, making faces at her until the doctor showed up and the wife nervously tried to explain why she’d brought Anna there. But Anna convinced the resident that it was the landlord’s wife who was confused and should be admitted, and the doctor let her go.
But Sam didn’t lift a finger in her defense on that occasion, and she soon forgot his treachery. After all, he was only her husband in name. She’d driven him out, and when she asked him to return, he’d understandably refused.
He’d cemented her need for him soon after they got together by showing up at a hospital and sitting at the head of her cot when she thought she was dying. By the end, however, she got the impression he couldn’t stand her, and if it hadn’t been for the tender way he’d clean her eyes out in the morning, she should have wondered what made him want to stick around. He disapproved of her so thoroughly. She remembered what must seem like minor incidents: the way he dismissed the “wimpy voice” she’d use to command the dog to “come,” “wait,” “ sit.” Clearly, she had little impact on the creature at those times, but she and the dog had an understanding, and if he didn’t want to budge when she softly commanded him to move, then she just yanked him, and he came; or he came, from time to time, when she spoke more urgently; but they weren’t unhappy with their arrangement, and her husband clearly was. Years later, his criticism came back to her, as she’d hear her voice from his point of view, and feel like the worst effects of their union would haunt her on her daily walks with the dog whose companionship she eventually relied upon.
At times she imagined he was beside her as she rode the subway, pointing out the men and women he happened to find fault with in one way or another, and she couldn’t help feeling as though she was a part of this assemblage of unfortunates. She thought that perhaps she conjured up this impersonation of his consciousness as an alternative to the absence of the actual man.
If she wished for a reprieve from the memory of his criticism of her, she longed, at other times, to run into him or just drop by his apartment and hang out for hours as he played CD’s for her. For on one or another occasion, he might show concern for some hurt or injury she suffered, and in that moment, make her feel completely enveloped by his attention. She couldn’t shake the feeling that the criticism he visited upon her, even in his absence, was overshadowed by a general intention to watch out for her and keep her person presentable to the outside world. She assumed that her wellbeing was fostered in this way because he believed she was hopelessly wanting without his overseeing eye. Ironically, it was her paranoid version of this view that she needed most protection from after he left.
If her subsequent visits to his apartment were punctuated by jabs at her appearance or if some anecdote she told him made him wince, she’d ignore it or simply brush it aside. But afterwards, the sensation of the pleasure of seeing him disappeared and she was left with plaguing memories of the distant coldness in his look when he said goodbye that always implied for her that her personal appearance gave him such pause that he was forced involuntarily to withdraw all warmth from her.
She kept a photo of his image in her pocket like a toy that she took out to examine now and then. But its cracks didn’t worry her at any particular moment of study and she clearly saw the blue eyes, the blond hair with hints of grey, the glasses that seemed to cave in at the temple. But the intoxication of his cold unwavering eyes blistered her like hot coals. The burn left marks on her eyes, but when she tried to tend them, she forgot how painful they were.
She’d recall that his hands and feet were shapely, as though the Creator had thought to bestow upon him some beauty to make her forget the ways he hurt her.
To be fair to the guy, he always met her when she called him, and if she needed him, he’d come early that day to meet her for breakfast. So she couldn’t shake the idea that the criticism he leveled at her was part of his general intention to care for her..
About the Author:
Bettina Rotenberg grew up in Toronto and studied History and Literature at Radcliffe College, expressive therapies at Leslie College, and got a PhD in Comparative Literature from University of California Berkeley. She taught literature at various colleges in the Bay Area. Bettina founded an organization called VALAL (Visual Arts/Language Arts) which sent all different kinds of artists and poets into public schools in the East Bay. She is currently writing, teaching, and taking care of her dogs in Toronto.