Odera’s high heels echoed crisply off the underground cement walls. Each step grew louder and boded evil as we approached the stairwell door. When she slid the cardkey through the chrome runnel, and the light went from red to green, I expected to hear hinges eerily squeak. Odera unhesitatingly passed through the space where she had been assaulted. The dramatic build-up had been all in my head. How many other times in the past had I assumed the worst and then acted out of context with the truth? How many opportunities had I missed because of tunnel vision? How many times had I allowed fear to influence my perspective? Odera’s Utopian beliefs were becoming more appealing than maintaining my state of readiness habit.
“Would you come with me to Gram’s tomorrow?”
“What time is she expecting us?” I said around a small grin.
“Do I detect distrust?”
“You detect anticipation.”
Odera’s dipped head beamed happiness as she unlocked her door and stepped inside. I followed while feelings of trespassing dissipated. The door clicked shut with finality. That gallows feeling had returned.
“Cozy and warm. Edgy modern art. It speaks of you.”
“Thanks. White carpeting makes it seem bigger.”
“You and your cuddly needs.”
“You haven’t complained yet.”
“Let’s close the curtains. If we’re going to be exhibitionists, we’ll keep it a private showing.”
“Seen that one coming,” chortled Odera moving to the window.
“That’s the whole point of nudity,” I bantered from the kitchen.
“There are others upstairs,” she told me in the hall. “What did you think of Dr. Brinkman?”
“Intelligent. Sincere. He’s restoring my faith in shrinks.”
“He’s a sex therapist as well as a trauma specialist.”
“Did you know what was coming?” I said following her into her bedroom.
“No. I thought he’d give us stuff to work on, but the content surprised me.” She sat on the bench at the foot of the bed, canting forward, hands pressed between her knees. “You first, I want to watch.”
“What? No music.”
“Can you dance?”
“If you start slipping twenties into my boxers, I’ll learn.” As Odera unbuckled my belt, I tossed my shirt over a chair. “I thought you wanted to watch?”
“Changed my mind. Move your hands, please.”
I asked, “Is this quid pro quo?”
“Do you want to undress me?”
She tapped my foot.
“Since the first day we met.”
The tenderness in her gaze felt less alien. She smiled and tossed my pants to the side.
“Hmm, what do we have here? Impure thoughts?”
“Or too pure of thought,” I admitted as she removed one and then the other sock. “I’ll never look at that pin-striped shirt the same again.”
“Last piece of clothing. May I have a drum roll, please,” laughed Odera and yanked boxers from waist to ankles.
I kicked them into the corner deriving comfort from our banter. Rising from her knees, Odera took a full step backwards to view me in a long, unobstructed, blue gaze. An aura of intimate acceptance glowed around her. On the fringe of intimacy, I felt myself relax.
I said, “Come stand in front of the mirror. I want you to see what I see.”
A ghostly shadow slipped across her face as she complied. Using our reflection to guide my hands, as though I unfurled ancient papyrus, I opened the first porcelain button. When the last fell free, I slid the blouse off her shoulders and waited, studying her reflection.
“Do you remember how to undo a bra?”
“I’m sure it will come back to me, first, though, off go your jeans.”
“Hmm, uniformity. Should have known.”
“How’s that?” I opened the button and zipper and slid them over her hips.
“You seek balance. It’s the artist in you.”
She kicked the jeans aside.
I viewed her in the mirror; knees pressed tightly shut, hands clasped over her delta. Rather than continue, I waited. Watching. Studying. Odera sighed. I turned her around by the shoulders. When our eyes met, I moved a tress of wayward hair behind her ear, the way she put it there when it fell in her face. Reacting to my questioning glance, she nodded.
I reached behind her and felt for the hook. When the bra straps slipped from her shoulders, her breath came shallow and light on my throat. Her eyes fought to keep in contact with mine.
I warned, “No turning back.”
I tried to sort out why this was harder than showering together. After this morning, that personal barrier should not stand before us. Odd.
After a scrutinizing look, one final attempt to reconcile her doubt, I knelt in front, hooked a thumb at either side of her waist, inside the stretchy band of her panties.
“Fast or slow?”
Cloth bunched between the side of her vulva and inner thigh, before pulling free. In the time required for her underwear to hit the carpet and for me to look up, three jagged and curved scars came sharply into focus. Four inches long and puckered, three ragged incisions bisected Odera’s right labia, sliced through the eclipse of her right vulva, past the joint of her leg where the knife had come to rest deep in the thigh muscle. Her right vulva and labia majora were deformed. The skin where her leg joined her hip was cloven and sunken where a chunk of muscle was missing. Old surgery expressed new brutality. Rather than stand, I pressed my cheek to her stomach. Her womb, barren as a graveyard, would never feel a child growing inside, but that did not bother me. Neither did the scars.
I did not trust myself to look up. Not yet. Not until I had regained control and stopped picturing the knife entering her flesh. Blood rushed and roared through my veins. Furious vengeance prevented me from feeling anything but rage. Words would not form. My heart pounded deeper than jungle drums. Breath issued shallow. It was everything I could do not to clench my fists. I wanted to shout, to smash something to purge the helplessness binding me. Odera clasped my head to her stomach and started to sink to her knees. I picked her up and carried her to the bed. Hot tears wetted my shoulder mourning children she would never bear, the infant that would never suckle her breast, never smear her cheek with a mushy kiss. I rocked Odera, holding her close while something primal awoke in me. More quickly than in the past, she regained control, imparting oceans of feeling across the gulf of our embrace. As I moved another lock of hair, she pointed to a pink box of Scotties.
“Your heart was thumping like mad against my leg.” She wiped her nose and eyes. “Why didn’t you ever ask about the attack?”
“It was your secret. None of my business.”
“I love your eyes. So much feeling it isn’t necessary for you to say a word.” She straddled my waist. “They have forever called to me, like now.”
“Don’t spread that around. It took a long time to perfect my thousand-yard stare.”
She drew closer.
“You bring out the worst in me.”
“Be serious.” Odera ran her hands through my hair, watching it slip away from her fingers. “Tell me. I want to know everything about you. I know so little.”
“To most, I’m cold, without much depth. From the start, we’ve spoken without filters. I like that, most of the time.”
“Often your eyes betrayed your feelings,” she enlightened me, as though part of me would always belong to her and nobody else. “Do my scars bother you?”
“Woman, you switch gears faster than a Porsche. And the answer is no.”
“What’s this scar on your arm from?”
She traced its faded contours.
“A fight. A long time ago.”
“And these longer ones along your ribs?” She kissed a faded scar. “I can just barely make out stitches.”
“The same,” I told her, meeting her eyes in time to watch sadness enter their blue depths. “I was young and inexperienced.”
“Did you lose?”
She kissed each scar in turn.
I said, “Survival is victory.”
“They were only shallow cuts. I didn’t move fast enough,” I explained, captured and held in trusting faith that expanded my universe.
“Did you have nightmares? replay the cuts in your mind? wakeup screaming with cold sweats?”
“Some of that. For awhile. Only the occasional bad dream remains.”
“Then you do understand steel’s horror.”
She repeatedly traced the longest scar.
“Partly. But I was prepared to be hurt, you weren’t.”
“I have to use the bathroom. Don’t move. I like being naked with you. It’s easier to talk.”
Disclosure did come more naturally. I imagined prison self-help programs packed with naked prisoners. It would not work. Too many tattoos to hide behind. The sound coming out of the bathroom dragged me out of my private thoughts. As with most things that I had discovered about Odera, even her bathroom habits were open.
“There’s something you should know before we tell Dad,” Odera called out through the half-open door.
“What would that be?”
I absentmindedly noted the differences between feminine toilet sounds and those of males. My odd personal quandary made me shake my head. I constantly evaluated, instead of accepted.
“He thinks you’re gay.”
“Why would he think that?”
“Your stupid promise required I ease his concern about how much time we spent together. I kinda hinted that David was sorta more than your climbing partner by a smidgen or three.”
“Yeah, um, I said Daddy should accept different sexual orientations, ah, lifestyle choices in a round-a-bout way. It came out something like just because you don’t lisp, doesn’t mean you aren’t gay. Are you going to freak out on me now?”
“No.” I laughed. “I’ve been called worse. I’ll have to remember to lisp once in awhile. Maybe touch his shoulder here and there.” Giggles and laughter sounded. When she re-entered the room, I ordered, “Stop right there.” As she performed a saucy pirouette, I remarked, “Whoever said clothed women have more appeal, didn’t know you.”
“Your turn, mister. You’re truly not upset? You’re not just saying that?” Odera presented her question in a demure voice.
“You kept your promise. The lies fall upon my shoulders.”
I stood at the end of the bed. One body length separated us.
“Our lies.” Odera stepped closer. “I thought you might have been mad. I teased Michael once about his feminine side and he blew a gasket. He was very macho.”
“Are you finally admitting that I’m in touch with my feminine side?”
Burying snuffling laughter, she said, “It means that I just discovered a man doesn’t have to be macho to be masculine. Do you want to do Brinkman’s exercise and explore my body?”
She took a half step closer.
“If I say yes, does that mean my feminine side is a lesbian?” Odera rolled her eyes. “Standing? Here?”
She stepped within easy reach.
Her head bobbed.
As I ran my hands through her hair, faded myrrh released into the air. I lifted those unbound tresses, pushed them back so I could trace her neck with my fingertips, sliding down her shoulder’s talus slopes, gliding down arms and hands, and then traced her ribcage with the backs of my fingers. Copying her light touch of last night, I feathered my hands over and around her breasts, heavy enough to leave a trail of goosebumps behind as they moved across a quivering stomach. Going to one knee, I hesitated, not knowing if I dared.
No longer besieged with fright, she stood firm in the tempest of my scrutiny. For a long and protracted minute, I studied those scars, committing each jagged tributary to memory, before repeatedly tracing each, fingertips crisscrossing back and forth. Soon they blended and faded to become just another part of her. Sometimes a lengthy stare was neither rude nor unwanted. Sometimes it healed. As I moved along her thighs towards knees Odera gained confidence. Practising the same light touch, I blindly roamed up over her calves, flowed up legs and onward until I stood facing her. Odera’s victorious smile made her more attractive.
“You did that quickly.”
“No. It was easier than I thought it was going to be.”
“I’ll be more thorough next time. I wouldn’t want you to believe my fetish for certain body parts false.”
“How very noble.” Turning nervous, she whispered, “Do you find me attractive, and I don’t mean sexually?”
“Why do you ask?”
“When I picture us together as a couple, I feel incomplete, marked with less value, and I wonder if that is how others see me. So much of who I thought I was included my ability to bear children and to raise a family. Now I’m damaged beyond repair. No matter what group I am part of, I feel separate.”
“Let me get this straight: the surgeon removed the crib but left the playpen, and you’re worried about what again?”
“Oh, my, God. Only you would dare humour of that calibre, at this moment.”
She smiled and grinned while trying not to do either.
“You are not to blame, Odera. How could you be less than?”
She drew closer.
“I don’t feel it when I’m with you, but at night, when I’m alone, it haunts me.”
“I admired you at the Watchtower. The way you held your head as we departed, even though you announced my parole to the whole dining room. Whatever possessed you to do that?”
“Before I realized what I said, it was too late. You’re so frustrating; so fucking stubborn.” Annoyance painted her face, softening as she spoke, “I like things my way, but you won’t retreat, not even when I use a crowd. I cannot push you around. My ploys often backfire. You make the mundane fun. I envy your strength, even when I want to scream and push you in front of a bus.”
“I thought you used the public forum a little too often.”
“It’s so nice to feel whole again. If you never give me anything else, this will always be enough. Most of my friends treat me differently. I can tell they want to ask questions, but they’re afraid they’ll trigger bad memories. The worst is entering a room, and everyone stops talking. Time has lessened it, but it still happens. Many of my old friends have drifted away. I was nonresponsive for so long I can hardly blame them. And afterwards, I just did not want to leave the house. Two of my closest college girlfriends had babies this year. They skipped inviting me to showers. Sometimes an intended kindness turns out to be worse cruelty.”
“Neither one of us inspires long conversations in others, do we?”
Odera laughed and squeezed my hand.
“I know! Whenever we have one of our blowouts the office girls wonder if it’s going to be enough to send you Postal. I swear to God they check to make sure their cell phones are working. One or two of them have wanted to meet you, but they’re scared, which of course makes you even more exciting. When I told Brenda how you whisked me away from the scaffolds, everyone wanted to know what it was like to talk to you.”
“Like your experience, mine has made me a novelty. I want to say that I’ve grown used to it, but I haven’t.”
“These days they don’t understand how I can work so often with you. You went from novelty to second rate. Occasionally I stir the pot. I laughed like mad when you came in asking to borrow the machete sharpener or looking for your axe.”
“You’ve never treated me that way.”
“I did at first, before we met face to face before you swept me off my feet.” A little laugh followed her words. “Sad Cinderella swept from snowy scaffolds.”
“Stop it, you’re torturing me.”
An Olympic grin showed her teeth. The worst part was I could not resist laughing with her, could not help encouraging her. Alliteration made her chirp like a beer-soaked chipmunk.
“When did you get your tattoos?” she asked, switching topics as she encircled my waist with her arms, maintaining a hand-width of distance between us.
“The Black Rose of Destiny I had done shortly after being sentenced. The wolf after I completed my first manuscript.”
I moved my hands to rest on her hips.
“Black Rose of Destiny. Sounds like a movie title. Why is it called that?”
“If you look closely, you’ll see a woman’s face: Lady Fate.”
“Lady Fate? I never heard of her before.”
“Ever heard of a hurricane named after a man?”
“Not that I can recall ― wait! Hurricane Rupert.”
“A brisk tropical storm,” I downgraded. “Mount Saint Helen wasn’t Mount Joe. We name most major catastrophes after women. Hell hath no fury…”
“Like that of a woman scorned. Best you remember that, too!” She slapped my bum for emphasis. “Tell me about Lady Fate.”
“I felt it fitting that a lady coroneted what I thought was the end of my life. And for luck.”
“You mean Lady Luck. Doesn’t fit your philosophy, nor does Mother Earth.”
“Not every philosophy is ironclad.”
“Does me asking so many questions still bother you?”
“Your openness isn’t always annoying, or exactly enjoyable. You baffle me with the lengths you go to reveal yourself. I’ve come to cherish that when I’m not thinking about gagging you.” After a few seconds of thought, I said, “Practicing this depth of honesty and openness creates a healthier relationship.”
“You know, you just might be on to something.”
“It takes the guesswork out of things,” I thought aloud.
“You should write this down in a self-help book, Bruce. That kind of deep thinking should be shared with the world,” she uttered wearing feigned earnestness and laughing eyes.
Odera moved closer, pressing herself along my length, feet wedged between mine. My skin turned cold where it did not touch her skin. She moulded herself to me until not even an air pocket, whose presence would have provoked envy, stopped me from experiencing her totality. We slow-danced to the rhythm of our hearts, rocking with punctuated slowness. The world and all its challenges and inequities melted away until there were only two of us.
“Bruce,” she whispered.
“Nothing. I just wanted to hear your name, to feel its sound and texture. Bruce, you’re the only Bruce I’ve ever known.”
She spoke my name to banish his ― to remind herself that I was not him, the destroyer. Again, Odera’s emotional strength earned my admiration for how diligently she strove toward normalcy and how deeply she suffered to attain that goal. It reminded me of a self-evident truth that I tended to dance around: the only way to get anything done was to do it. Sometimes you just had to jump in. Odera nibbled at my neck and hugged me tighter.
When she lifted her chin, her expression lacked the dread of days gone by. A slow smile unveiled her teeth. Contentment made her seem less driven. The gleam in her eye and the tilt of her head said, ‘Now that I’m almost yours, what will you do with me?’ Everything about her became softer, more feminine. Going up tiptoe, she kissed me. Her tongue flicked out, tasting my lips. Wearing a quirky smile, Odera grabbed my hand and turned for the door.
“Come, you chop vegetables while I cook.”
“Now I know the pleasures nudists enjoy,” I quipped drinking in Odera’s femininity.
Blushing demurely under my visual sweep, she said, “Except that it’s impolite to point in a nudist colony.”
“Consider it male flattery.”
“I wouldn’t venture too near the stove or kitchen drawers; the fridge could be cold. Are you certain chopping vegetables won’t pose a problem?”
“Are you up for a candlelight dinner?” Lilting laughter pealed out of her. “I was hoping we’d have supper followed by a bubble bath before bed.”
“Go easy on the domestication. Guys come with testosterone, bubbles do not.”
“I’ll get the vegetables out of the fridge. Knives are in the wooden block.” When I nodded, she said, “You weren’t very thorough this morning. I’m sure you can do better. If you behave, you’ll find bubble baths are slippery in all the right spots.”
It was often difficult to argue with her reasonable nature.