The prince can’t remember the duration, but believes the heat continued for at least a week, maybe two. Even in the evening the temperature remained in the upper nineties. And he recalls the photograph in the Times: a neighborhood in one of the boroughs (he can’t remember which) where tenants without air-conditioning had towed their mattresses each night onto the fire escapes so they could sleep. The bare flesh of the men who’d removed their T-shirts, the transparent billowing gowns of the women reminded the prince of Weegee’s urban grotesques from decades before, reclined similarly on fire escapes. The Times photograph had the same sense of impoverishment, of defiance.
Another recollection, one that haunted the prince, was that of Anna Freud. Her identification with the aggressor, specifically, the impossibly varied, occasionally bizarre reactions to psychological trauma; how a mind copes with the threat of aggression. What had always impressed the prince — once he began seeking these impressions — was how the aggression filtered through the victim’s peculiar fears, experiences, and genetic inclinations. Patty Hearst witnessed in video footage smiling as she robs a bank with the SLA. Why? Child soldiers in Liberia slitting the sleeping throats of mothers and fathers. How? Fallen dictators torn to pieces by crowds who, days prior, had vowed complete and absolute servitude.
Anna Freud’s examples, by contrast, seemed quaint to the prince: A child suffers some abuse by a schoolmaster, and later dresses up in her mother’s clothes, tearing the arms and legs from her favorite doll. That sort of thing. Simplified, perhaps for the utility of instruction.
All of the papers told of the looting and increasing violence; each act blamed on the heat wave. Crime followed power outages. The sudden absence of light triggering another kind of generated, human energy, but uncontained, continually dispersing, unshielded. Human beings attempting to contend with an oppressor they couldn’t rob, whose throat they couldn’t slit, converted into true believers of their most mangled impulses.
We try to take the heat for granted, like the rhythm from a jackhammer outside the window whose pounding repeats until we no longer seem to notice it, the prince said; yet we can’t explain sudden groundless arguments between lovers in a room, the violence our thoughts direct to strangers who pass on the stairs. When the source of our rage — the oppressive hammering, or heat, any natural disaster, any human interaction that makes us feel helpless — anything beyond our control, in other words, is going to speak into our actions. And then he drifted off.
The name of the prince’s wife was Sheila. Her skin was olive. Her eyes still are dark. She could have come from any number of places. If asked where, she would say Persia.
The slash in her face had required twenty-seven stitches. Her right eye soon went black — shortly after they arrived at the hospital. The cut by then was mostly hidden under gauze and ointment. The fresh expansion of purple now surrounded the eye and the dressing. The doctor explained (rather coolly, the prince had thought) the muscle affected (zygomatic major), its purpose (the smile), the difficulty in suturing (the spread, complexity, the very purpose of the muscle, the facial artery that had been severed).
Our only power against nature is the imagination. It’s the only thing we have that’s airborne enough — was the first full sentence the prince was able to piece together after witnessing, helplessly, what had been done to his wife. He said this at the hospital. To which the doctor said, I beg your pardon? Sheila stared out from her gauze mask. She hadn’t been listening.
Sunlight shouting off the chrome trim of passing cars, tracers, blue spots darting into his vision. The automatic doors of a pharmacy opening as they passed. Cold air shooting onto the street. This is what he remembers.
But after this his memory fails. He can’t seem to bring back the group of women, or girls, who approached him and his wife. He can’t imagine even the one who reached out. The prince saw nothing, in fact. Certainly not the razor, none of the faces of the girls, not the face of the one. Just another crowd on the street approaching them. And as it happened he could only focus on his wife. They were stopped outside of the pharmacy. The doors opened and again the cool spilled onto the street. A small crowd now surrounded them.
The prince had more than once felt somewhat guilty over his reaction when he saw others with the scar. When I’d see women, occasionally men, with that kind of disfigurement, he now would think, I’d try to stifle my first reaction, one of mild alarm. It’s just skin, you could always argue. But I began to realize that the shock of the sight came from the extremes involved: the thoughtless effort (it must have happened with such ease, almost gracefully) required to do such a thing to another person, and the terrible consequences. Why are the victims so often pretty? Have you noticed this? Did you see the face of the attacker? How many others were with her? Did anything about them stand out? (The knife! the knife! his wife, suddenly shrieking.)
Any distinguishing features, anything that might help to identify the attacker? Any unusual marks or tattoos on the skin that would help to identify the attacker? The style of clothing? Height, roughly? Age? Was the attacker shorter or taller than you? Was she this tall, this tall, or this tall? What was the color of her hair? Color of the eyes? Was the attacker Caucasian, Black, or Hispanic? Asian? Did the attacker appear to be homeless, mentally ill? Did the attacker wear colors? Would you like to take a ride in the cruiser?
The doctor informed the prince that his wife — now sleeping in a private room — was fortunate because the blade, though not particularly sharp, had at least missed her eye. The prince thought, You may feel some minor discomfort. And then: You have the right to remain silent.
The following day, late afternoon, they returned to their apartment in the Village. Her posture, he noticed as she sat at the kitchen table, had improved.
The evening editions ran the same stories. When the prince finally glanced up from the papers he’d spread onto the table and had been poring over, he realized that Sheila was in the bathroom. He heard the tap groan, then splash the basin. He heard his wife speaking into the mirror behind the closed door.
The street below — behind the shelled dead flies collected at the base of the bedroom window — seemed resistant to disclosure at first, like stars in the night sky that appear only after you stare long enough, and which, having clarified, may no longer even really exist. He stared, and activity on the street began to clarify in the same way: two men arguing outside a restaurant on the corner of Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue. A shoving match, unrelated, over by the public basketball courts. Soon, every living thing on the street rose up from its ordinariness. A man stood in the middle of traffic urinating on the sides of passing cars. In the doorway of a bodega another man was caressing the reclining, unfolding figure of a woman.
The prince was still watching the street when his wife came in from her bath. He had tried to memorize everything he had been witnessing. He didn’t realize he was whispering each new event to himself. Woman with child taking child’s ice cream and wiping the cone with a napkin. Tossing napkin. His wife was silent beside him.
Them, he said.
Them, she replied.
The prince found it difficult to pass anyone on the sidewalk without feeling that they intended to push through him. At first he felt the desire communicated from deep inside each stranger, from their psyches. It was just a subconscious, or even unconscious, impulse. It was directed silently, if aggressively, to his own powers of perception. But as his fear increased so did the realization that more than just their minds wanted to reduce him. In truth, they physically wanted to pass through him. It was a desire they felt the moment they saw him coming. They wanted their own bodies to penetrate and further diminish his substance. At traffic lights he watched crowds gather and organize on the opposite side of the crossing, so as to better penetrate him.
Sheila refused to leave the apartment. She did not speak unless she absolutely had to. Even then, sometimes she didn’t. She couldn’t weep as hard as she’d wished, for fear of aggravating the sutures, or straining the healing muscles beneath the dressing. And then, as the wound healed sufficiently, she refused to take off the dressing. She would change it in private. She kept it clean, fortified. It had replaced her vanity; had become her vanity. Something she preferred over the recognition of what was, past and present — past and present, the prince emphasized aloud. When the light changed the prince crossed the street, each time straying far to the right at the last available moment, feeling as if this time his cunning had spared him.
The night of the Fourth of July the prince moved quickly to pick up Korean take-out — staying as close to the curb as he could, curling around lampposts and garbage bins, sometimes losing his balance and stepping into the street, parked cars he brushed past rubbing dirt onto his pants. He kept his eyes averted from those he passed without ever losing a clear measure of their distance from him, registering their general velocity, their attitude, as the bodies, each, seemed to lunge past him.
When he returned with Korean take-out he convinced Sheila to join him on the roof. They could watch the Fourth’s celebration, the fireworks. The roof, he hoped, would have a view of the spectacle, removed from the crowds. They would be alone.
But too many taller buildings blocked the view, stood between them and the barge on the East River where the fireworks were being launched. Instead, blues, whites, yellows, greens, and reds pulsated behind the buildings — the city’s erratic synapses firing off. The sky, the prince realized, was lining a giant, angry brain.
A breeze blew against their skin, and the roof, to be honest, felt more comfortable than anywhere else the prince could recall lately. People below were smaller than even from his window. They seemed pacific from up here.
When it was clear that the fireworks had ended, Sheila mentioned that she was tired and suggested they go back down. The stitches on her face formed a crescent over the left cheek beneath the gauze bandage. The prince had taught himself to see through the gauze. She began putting the cardboard food containers into a plastic bag. The sutures, gauze. Antibiotic, lanolin rubbed over dead tissue and regenerating skin. She looked up and saw him staring at her. What? she asked. There were certain probabilities: Her wound would heal and more or less fade. Stop looking at me. The stitches would be removed with tweezers, leaving at best a long thin scar. A nurse had called. Sheila was overdue to have it looked at, to have the stitching removed. His wife glanced beyond him, then away. Are you coming? she asked. She was standing now by the entrance of the stairwell, the doorway leading down into the building. The scar would, for a long time, remind him that he could not recall a single detail of how this had happened. He had never had any illusions about his ability to protect anyone. Not her, not himself. He was just a man. What good is a husband. I’m going back down, she said. He answered, saying the first thing — the only thing — that came to mind: You are beautiful. She stared at him, left.
He heard her footsteps on the stairs.
She was unresponsive when he tried to make love with her. He began to suspect that what had happened to her had made sex seem no different from violence. Either could alter how you felt as deeply and humanly as possible; each could achieve this with sufficient amounts of hatred or love. Each benefited, often, from physical prowess, and poles of sensitivity so opposite from one another, that in their intensity they could appear to be the same. They both concerned one way or another an attempt to penetrate — physically, emotionally, psychologically. What was the term? Mindfuck. Each could produce insecurity, anxiety, loneliness . . . He felt it himself when he walked down the street now.
He was just a man. Though it killed him to think she might have drawn similar conclusions. And so it killed him, because she clearly had. Contact of any kind had fused into the handle of the box cutter, or the knife — who cared anymore about distinctions — and her cheek and the scar. He’d hoped that showing that his desire hadn’t diminished would help. The scar meant nothing to him in this regard. She was as attractive to him as she would ever be. And so he’d often lie beside her recalling other times they had made love. The positions she preferred, the way her skin felt, the way the texture and softness of her skin changed from one part of her body to another, the way the skin of her pelvis perspired when she was excited, the way . . . . He drifted off. You are my prince, she had said once. Back when they were relatively innocent. He had laughed: it was a little melodramatic. In time, maybe some of the youth would return. All we have sometimes is expectation. Maybe the scar would become just a scar. She might forget to notice it some days.
He woke laughing.
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|David Ryan‘s fiction has appeared in the Mississippi Review, BOMB,
Tin House, New Orleans Review, Cimarron Review, Alaska Quarterly, Denver
Quarterly, and others.