All indications of fear vanished from Odera when we returned topside. Cathartic life danced through eyes bursting with energy. I recognized that look. The prison psychologist had labelled me a 4–9er, an excitement junkie who fed on thrills and adrenaline rushes. When our eyes met, her gaze felt less alien; her presence less unwanted; her tongue in cheek wit, engaging. I suddenly wondered if she would be fun in the sack and just as quickly cringed inwardly. What kind of man fantasized about a messed-up rape victim? Did a few friendly words from a female now mean so much?
Easy silence encased the cab. The atmosphere felt awkwardly comfortable. Those straightforward questions, including the observations she had posed, felt unfamiliar, but refreshing, like a cold dip on a warm day they had a disquieting appeal. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her glancing again in my direction. Was she waiting for me to fill the emptiness?; to comment on the parking lot?; to start a conversation? I turned the radio to a popular station. She left it on.
“My shrink said that I needed to regain control of my life,” Odera blurted. “The judge sentenced him to seventeen years, and I was promised they’d tell me when he tried for parole or when he was released, which isn’t for a while yet, but even so, the place creeps me out. Just being down there made it feel like it happened yesterday all over again. No way could I have done that alone.”
“Oh,” I said marvelling at her ability to lay herself bare.
“Most people tell me that I should not be frightened. I don’t know which is worse, being told my feelings aren’t warranted or being felt sorry for.”
Before I knew what I was doing, I said, “Unspoken pity is worse. You can always tell ’em where they can put the other, and that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.”
Odera’s smirk said, ‘I agree, though I would never have said so aloud.’
“Is your arm okay? Before I realized how hard I was gripping it, my wrist cramped up. Oh my god, I thought that I was going to wet myself. The smell took me straight back to that night. I wanted to scream and cry all over again. Just the sound of the door opening made me jump out of my skin.” Odera kangaroo jump to, “My grandmother took me to Scotland to begin healing. In case you were wondering how I knew so much about Hadrian’s Wall.”
Fraught with hard-won accomplishments, a rewarding smile met my glance. Pearly teeth shone back, not that phoney bleached look. The little gap between her teeth suited her. Odera turned to half-face me, one leg pulled beneath the other and then settled back in the seat, languid and fluid, unconscious of her attractiveness, unconscious of how alluring she looked leaning against the door, legs tucked and folded, hair covering half of her face. Focus on driving.
Rape survivor and the boss’s daughter.
This woman had more issues than Oprah’s magazine.
“You could move. Take self-defence lessons,” I suggested, though two seconds earlier I had counselled silence.
“I thought about it, but changed my mind. Why should I leave?” Her eyes turned darker blue. “It’s my home. I’ll be damned if I’m going to move. Screw him!”
“All we have to fear is fear itself.”
“That’s Sun-Tzu. Right?” At my nod, she asked, “Have you read The Art of War?”
“A few times. His philosophies are helpful. I steal, borrow and adapt without shame. My kendo instructor quotes him, so he stays fresh.”
She wore an interested look, as though she was truly listening and not just passing time until we parted company.
“Oh. With funny masks and wooden sticks?”
“One and the same.”
“I had scads of time to kill after my attack. When I couldn’t sleep I tore through books. Rape is power and control, guerrilla warfare. I pulled Sun-Tzu off the Net,” she explained and tugged her skirt back over a knee. “I read more in Scotland. Scottish libraries abound with history laced with struggle and warfare. There are tons of historical sites ― so many romantic events to examine. I just love the Bonny Prince Charlie era. My ancestors actually fought in the war of 1765 to keep Scotland free. I thought that I recognized The Art of War in your novel.”
“You…read my work? What work?”
“Silver Armour, Broken Lance. I’m halfway through. I read your pen name in the header of your laptop. Found an ebook online. Why don’t you use your own name?”
“Controversy. Maybe my past would stimulate sales, but maybe people would boycott me. According to criminal justice hard-liners, I still owe several pounds of flesh. I don’t want my work to fail because a reporter boarded their bandwagon. Let it succeed or flop on its own merits.”
“May I ask a personal question?”
“Should I be worried that you’re suddenly asking permission?”
“Maybe. Depends on whether you can handle blunt questions the way you dish blunt replies.”
“You may not like my response.”
“I’ll risk it.”
A crooked grin showed an honest smile.
“Fine,” I told her.
“Have you found dating difficult? It must be hard after being out of circulation for so long.”
“It’s been complicated.”
Accompanying her question, Odera’s eyebrows knit together.
“Change the subject.”
“Are you gay? You were in prison for a long time.”
“Not that long,” I defended before I realized that she again had slipped beneath the mask I presented to the world.
“Then answer my question, please.”
“I gave you your answer. Move on.”
“You said it’s normal to be curious.”
“When’s the last time you dated?”
“When I was married. My husband used to surprise me at work and whisk me off for a picnic. We divorced a year after the attack when Michael couldn’t deal. I took back my maiden name and haven’t dated since.”
Her eyes went flat, and her head drooped slightly.
“Look, I didn’t think before I spoke. It’s not exactly something you ask a stranger.”
“And we’re not exactly strangers. I’m not afraid to speak openly.”
“Go shrink someone else.”
“Most guys would love the opportunity to brag. Here’s your chance. Thrill me with your forays into Casanova lands.”
“Are you taking a survey?”
“Aren’t writers supposed to possess a certain amount of wit?” she snorted gleefully, her voice a wry mixture of amusement and merry acumen. “Show some courtesy and answer my question. I can’t frighten you that much.”
“Do you always blurt out whatever you’re thinking the moment it arrives?”
“Pretty much. Shall we take shelter in weather conversations? Honesty is better. I never took you for someone who put conditions on being candid,” she forecasted.
“Fine. I haven’t had much success. As soon as my dates learn I am on parole, my calls go unreturned. When I omit to mention that deal-breaker, the years I served become a conversational black hole impossible to account for. For some reason, I cannot seem to engage people without offending them, especially women.”
“That’s a real shocker. And with your unique bonding style and everything. Wow. Your dates must have been stone-cold hard bitches not to have responded to your charm and charisma.”
“Mockery will not guarantee you a ride back ― boss’s daughter or not.”
“Your turn. Shoot.”
“A question. That’s how you learn about another person; you take turns communicating.”
“What makes you think that I want to?”
“Let’s see,” she began ticking off items on her fingers, “you avoid everyone. You don’t date. You use gruffness to avoid engaging in anything remotely personal. You put in so much OT you cannot possibly have a life, and you probably spend your free time writing. How am I doing so far?”
Whenever I forgot that Odera’s finest character traits paralleled in exact opposition my worst shortcomings, she politely reminded me.
“Were you going make a point somewhere along the rambling way?”
“You really are out of touch. Take a risk and make a friend. Join the human race. I promise honesty, nothing more. C’mon, after telling you about my attack, what could be worse? You spend enough time studying me when you think I’m not paying attention. You must be curious about something.”
The more I strove to stay distant, the closer she pried. Tossed my caution and roughness to the side and kept coming full bore. An open, frank gaze studied me. Emptying faster than a beaver dam, my frustration drained. Her candid disposition felt soothing, our bantering, amusing. A five-ton truck carrying bottled water passed too close. I gave him room. For the first time since I could remember, I was not looking to terminate a conversation, but to extend it. Quite suddenly, I discovered my tooth-flashing smile returned her open scrutiny, matching her infectious good humour. I scowled deeply, which only broadened her grin. My misery and discomfort were too often becoming her reward.
“Fine. Point made and understood,” I said at last. “What would it take for you to stop prying?”
“That’s your question?” At my nod, she said, “Coffee after work and you can crawl back under your rock.”
“You’re asking me out on a date?” I clarified and pulled into the plaza where the Techshop was located.
“Yeah, Bruce, that’s it. I cannot get my fill of your warm and cuddly personality. No. Wait. Your polite, informative and gentle conversation style lured me in. You’re a real Metro-man,” scoffed Odera behind a waterfall of laughter that adroitly lampooned the qualities I liked most about myself by accusing me of being everything that I disliked about twenty-first-century men. “It’s a ‘thank you’ for the other week, and for today. Leave poor Damocles out of it.”
“I’m going to interpret that comment as a Freudian slip that you prefer rough and ready types rather than Ken dolls.”
As I rounded the front of the pickup, I considered her invitation. Coffee, or any contact outside company hours, was out of the question. Today was unusual, but new friends were not part of my agenda. I was not ready to join the human race. As sure as purgatory was hot with leaping flames, I was incapable of being a friend to an attractive woman, who was also my boss’s daughter, who was furthermore a recovering rape victim. I may not know much, but I knew that much.
“Well?” she asked as we met at the front of the truck. “Have you decided…”
A mother, accompanied by a toddler dressed in a blue jumpsuit, walked hand-in-hand along the sidewalk. Halting mid-sentence, Odera watched the little boy march three tiny steps to each of his mother’s strides. The toddler stopped. Two arms stretched upwards until his mother picked him up and placed him into the crook of her arm. A beautific smile split his face when she kissed his pudgy cheek. He smeared a wet kiss back. Odera covered her mouth with one hand. Silent tears splashed asphalt. Misery riveted her gaze to the passing pair.
“Are you okay?”
Of course, she was not okay. Emotionally healthy people did not suddenly burst into. Odera knuckled her eyes. My hand went hesitantly to a shaking shoulder. Intimacy felt alien. I imagined Robert stood nearby. Any moment he would round the corner to see me with his distraught daughter. I pulled my hand back. Unsure what to do, I stood by impotently. She stepped back, sniffling and wiping her eyes.
“I’m sorry. It’s just…my attack…sorry. Once in awhile I’m reminded of…usually I’m okay. I’m in therapy.” She daubed her eyes with a tissue. “Would you mind if we ate first? I need to sit awhile before we tackle store clerks.”
“We can do a take-out window if you want to avoid people,” I offered, and climbed into the truck.
“After witnessing that meltdown, I guess coffee is out of the question.”
“I must be a glutton for punishment.” I wondered whose voice spoke. A glance in the side mirror showed the way clear. “Do you like chocolate?” At her confirmation, I said, “There’s a coffee and dessert place across the city, The Chocolate Factory.”
“Far from work.”
“Same rules as your condo,” I said.
“Do you want my promise?”
The outline of her mouth changed, compressed as if a thought struggled to be born. The dull dampness that had cloaked her eyes a minute earlier was lifting.
I asked, “Do I need it?”
Her voice faded as she pushed a lock of hair behind one ear. A slow grin toiled toward recognition as she straightened and smoothed her clothing. It was a grin that I would learn to associate with victory. One that often provoked a compromise.
“I might be sorry that I asked, but it depends on what?”
“Whether you will make me a promise.”
“What did you have in mind? Buckle up.”
“Can I read your novel before it goes to print? My trip to Scotland may provide an insight or two. I’d be glad to offer whatever help I’m able,” she said and opened her blouse’s collar button.
The heartfelt interest she radiated made me say, “But not before. Rough draft is off-limits.”
“We’ll see,” she baited, measuring my words. “I visited William Wallace’s memorial. The one displaying his sword. I’ll trade rough chapters for my story. I’ve got a glossy picture of it in its case that I bought in the gift shop. Did you know they don’t let tourists photograph it? It’s a national treasure.”
“Forget it. Don’t even go there. You haven’t a chance. No one reads rough draft. Ever.” Having turned a corner, I inquired, “Braveheart’s sword? Really?”
“Yup. That’s the one,” she taunted holding her arms out wide. “A humongous, two-handed broadsword.”
“Truly? Never mind.”Sure would be nice though, to see that picture and hear her firsthand account.