Leo wanted to tell the young woman sitting across from his desk to close her blouse by one more button, to make sure she wore sensible shoes at all times rather than the flimsy heels she had on her feet walking into his office. He wanted to add that even with her youthful confidence and the false security given by a can of mace, she would never be safe. Not as long as she was a woman in this world. These thoughts seemed destined to flow out of his mouth as simply as advice on what appetizer, entree, or wine to order. But to utter these would surely cause the woman distress. No one liked to be told they were vulnerable simply by existing.
"Holidays can be a little crazy," Leo said.
He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms behind his head. "Think you can handle that kind of pressure?"
"How many people does this restaurant seat?" The woman shifted in her chair, exposing a small patch of pink lace beneath the opening of her blouse. She was slender and tanned with the kind of long drooping hair style worn in the seventies.
"Fifty or so."
"I shouldn't think that would be a problem."
"People can be rude when they're hungry."
"That's true in any business."
"Can you start tonight?"
The young woman nodded, and before she stood, Leo pointed to her blouse. He made a motion with his finger on his own shirt for her to close a button. She ignored him.
"See you later, Mr. Baxter."
When his wife had told Leo she didn't want to work at the restaurant anymore he'd thought at the time it would be temporary. He assumed she'd get through the initial trauma of the rape. They'd worked side-by-side to build the restaurant's reputation and keep it alive for over twenty years. When Maggie told him she was quitting, he thought she'd be compelled to override that decision by a lifetime of habit. That same night, he'd been shocked to see the hostess stand empty. They argued about it the following day.
"You going to let some asshole steal your life? You need to get beyond this, Mag." Leo stood in the doorway of their living room. Maggie was arranging a large vase of yellow dahlias, her shoulder-length silver hair pulled back off her face into a ponytail. She wore a baggy black sweatshirt and a pair of cream-colored jeans. A green and purple bruise covered most of her right cheekbone.
"I don't want to do it anymore."
"You won't be alone. I'll be with you every minute."
"That's hardly the point."
"Would you just look at me?" Leo moved closer and with his hands on her shoulders, gently turned her to face him.
"I've come this close to death, Leo." She showed him how close with her fingers. "Something like that has a way of lending perspective on how to live the rest of my life. I'm done with the restaurant. That's your thing, not mine."
Now, with unfinished requisition forms lying on his desk, Leo wondered if he'd want her back at work so soon anyway. Ever since the night she was attacked, he'd been at a loss as to how to help her. At home they were like strangers made to endure an arranged marriage. Having her in the restaurant would be one more thing to worry about. It couldn't be easy for her to see Lois, their head chef. Even though Maggie hadn't said anything yet, he suspected she knew about his affair with Lois.
His cell phone vibrated against his thigh.
"Are you leaving soon?" Maggie sounded tired.
"About an hour. Need anything?"
"Milk and unprocessed sugar. Laura doesn't like our brand at the restaurant so you'll have to stop at the IGA on the way home." There was a pause and then a long sigh. "The girls will be riding up together. They'll be here around six."
"They staying over, or just for dinner?"
"Julie has court in the morning. I imagine she'll want to go home."
"I'll be there to give you a hand."
He heard the soft click of the phone.
The pheasant had to be placed in the pan now if it were to be done by dinnertime, but Maggie couldn't seem to lift herself from her chair by the window in the living room. Outside, squirrels worked with feverish ambition. The stark and bony woods beyond the back yard looked empty, no sign of any movement. She set her book down on the stand beside her, only having read two pages in the last hour. She would force herself to move out of the chair and into the kitchen. She'd begin by taking the bird out of the refrigerator. One thing at a time.
In the kitchen, she called Leo at the restaurant. It seemed they were always running out of something these days. She used to be organized: lists and filled-in squares on the calendar. But now even the thought of searching for a pencil to write something down was too much. She spent a good share of her day fighting the desire to sleep.
Laura and Julie were coming to dinner, no doubt to see for themselves how she was holding up. They would talk around it: Julie would offer discussion of the month's most interesting cases in court and Laura would indulge the table with information on her dating scene. Laura was always generous in sharing the details of her life. But even as their lips moved, their eyes would give them away. They were both worried about her. It wasn't as if they each hadn't had their share of encounters with violent men. A young man once stalked Julie through her last year as an undergrad. And Laura was date raped by a man who thought she'd be into rough-sex.
The night she was attacked, Maggie left the restaurant early, before last seating. She'd lied to Leo about a headache and he kissed her on the cheek and told her to tuck herself in bed. She drove past the dark huddle of her house and on to the next town where she met Samuel for a glass of wine at a quieter, less fancy, restaurant than the one she and Leo owned. Samuel was in his sixties and widowed. She didn't know why she felt the need to lie. There was no illicit relationship to hide, simply a friendship that shared a love of books and art. They'd met at the library after Samuel's lecture on the "Effects of Globalization on Art." They'd gotten together a few times since, always in a public place. She rather enjoyed having this secret life from Leo. She'd known of Leo's own secret for a while now.
Samuel was already seated in one of the booths at the back of the long, narrow restaurant. The lamp hanging over their table gave off a dim light. Samuel had a glass of ale in front of him; when he saw Maggie, he stood, kissed her cheek and went to the bar for her wine.
"How was work?" he asked when he came back.
Maggie sighed. "People have an incredible amount of need. The worst are those resentful of it, so they try to deny it and come across as pretentious, arrogant bores."
Samuel smiled. He was taller than Leo, his build more refined. His hair stood up off his scalp in unruly white tufts. There was a softness about him that enabled her to relax around him.
"Maggie, you need a vacation."
"I want a vacation from life, I suppose."
"What is it about mothers that makes them feel responsible for the world anyway? My wife lived in constant fear of disappointing people."
"It's tribal instinct. And speaking of instinct, why do men think they need more than one woman at a time?"
Samuel laid his hand on her arm. "Not all men think that way."
She felt herself threatening to shatter, and that was the last thing she wanted to happen here with him.
"I think I'd better go home early tonight," she said. "I'm sorry." She reached inside her purse for her wallet and Samuel shook his head.
"You didn't even drink it. I can't let you pay for it. We'll do this another time."
Maggie smiled at Samuel, though she felt an unexpected irritation at him. Didn't he have any other mode than understanding and compassion?
As she walked out into the night to her car, through the restaurant's window she saw Samuel sitting at their table, sipping at his beer. He looked smaller, just an ordinary old man ruminating over his glass of ale.
Their house was dark when she pulled into the driveway. The bulb over the garage must have blown. Wind blew down in her collar and underneath her coat; she shivered. She looked up at the sky: clouds concealed the stars. As she neared the door, she readied her house key. Footsteps sounded behind her, and though it didn't make sense, she first thought it was Leo. Surely he wouldn't have been sitting out in the cold waiting for her. But the thought went through her mind, nonetheless, that it was Leo out there with her so when the man barreled into her and forced her against the side of the brick wall, she was unprepared.
She opened her mouth to scream only nothing came out but a squawk. The man, whose features she couldn't make out in the moonless night, was simply a block of dark shape. She flailed against him but one of his hands cupped the side of her head and slammed it against the brick. The violence of it stunned her. The man hit her head on the side of the building again and again, until Maggie felt the enervation in her legs and her body's slow-fall to the ground.
While she was on the ground, the cold of it seeping into the side of her face, soothing the ache in her jaw, she thought of her daughters. The thought of them finding her bloodied body on the ground in front of her house elicited in her an agonizing regret.
She tried to say something to her attacker, but her words mixed themselves up in her mouth so that her sentences were nonsensical.
He whispered to her to shut up. Hands circled her throat and squeezed until the pressure in her head became unbearable. Tiny, yellow fireworks appeared in her vision. She willed her body to go limp.
After it was over, after she felt the weight of him lift from her body, after she felt rather than heard his footsteps retreat into the soupy darkness, her mind worked hard to determine if she was alive or dead. The relief that she'd been granted another chance at life flooded her and made it nearly impossible to move. She risked a glance up at her front door. How to get inside? Miraculously, her key was digging into the flesh of her fisted right hand.
Her hands shook as she locked the door behind her. She walked to the kitchen, put on the water for tea, and called 911. Then she'd sat at the table, heard the tea kettle whine, peak to a full shriek, and left it sounding off until the blue and red lights from the police cruiser flashed in through her windows.
Maggie pulled the pheasant from the refrigerator and ran it under warm water. She dug in the drawer under her stove for her roasting pan, and after arranging garlic and vegetables around the bird, she slid it into the oven. That's what she needed to do: mindless tasks like these. Not think about the rape, or about Samuel, or about Leo and Lois. Just concentrate on how the carrots felt in her hands as she worked the peeler over their length, the smell of the garlic and sage, the way the sky darkened to a cobalt blue in the northern patch she could see above the sink. Her girls were coming to dinner. She'd get out the good linens tonight. And the candlesticks. Make the table something lovely to see.
The gloominess of the countryside unsettled Leo as he drove the winding, back road to the IGA. It was the week after the end of foliage season. What few leaves still clung to the branches had withered and turned brown or a chalky gray-green. Low purple clouds spread out from behind mountains over pastures and farmland and threatened rain or snow, depending on how low the temperature would eventually drop. Leo drove past the turn he'd normally take to see Lois at her house. They hadn't really talked since they broke it off the night after Maggie was hurt. A mutual decision. They hardly needed to say anything. She gave him her notice and he'd felt relief.
About a year after her husband died, Lois began staying late at the restaurant, drinking wine with Leo, talking about old times. Jack had been Leo's best friend. The four of them would often vacation together in the Adirondacks. One night Lois confessed an attraction to Leo. That first time, he remembered feeling surprise at the difference between her body and Maggie's, in her wiry muscles and tan skin underneath the chef uniform, at the paleness of her gray eyes once he allowed himself to really look at them. He wished he could say the reason for his infidelity was a distance that had crept between him and Maggie, but no, things at home were as they'd always been. It was more this feeling of duty to Lois, this feeling that he needed to take care of her now that she had no one else. And the fact that he, bit by bit, felt drawn to her so that one afternoon as he watched her prepare for the evening's meal, he told himself he could love them both.
A small group of boys were gathered around a couple of wooden ramps in the corner of IGA's parking lot. Leo sat in his van for a few minutes and watched them on their skateboards, swinging up and down between both ramps like human pendulums, their torsos bulky in winter coats. The wind made his eyes water when he made his way to the entrance. It was going to be a cold one tonight—it probably would snow after all.
The store was almost empty. An old building, it reeked slightly of stale cigarettes, beer, and sour milk. In a couple of months, skiers would crowd the place, making it difficult to maneuver through the narrow aisles. And their affluence would make the prices skyrocket—to hell with the locals. He picked up the raw sugar his youngest daughter Julie liked, a couple of gallons of milk, and at the last minute, he chose a bottle of Pinot Noir, though he could have brought one from the restaurant.
A young boy and his father stood at the checkout in front of Leo. The boy, freckles on his round cheeks, hair hidden by a thick sheepskin cap with flaps that hung down over his ears, kept whacking the back of his hand against the candy rack next to him. His father, a bulky man in a plaid hunting jacket, his face reddened by weather and hard living, snapped at him to knock it off. The boy ignored him and continued to bat at the candy. The father threw his wallet down on the counter, turned to his son and cuffed the side of the boy's head. The boy let out a yelp and his father told him to shut his face.
"Kids will be kids," Leo offered. He'd never laid a hand on his own daughters. Never had even felt the urge.
"Mind your own business," the man said to Leo. Without looking at his son, he grabbed the boy's collar and pulled him closer. "Now just stand there and don't move."
The boy looked down at the floor.
Leo watched the two walk through the automatic doors as the clerk rang up his items.
On the way home, Leo thought about the look he'd seen in the man's face. Like he'd taken the boy's behavior personally, like he believed the only thing his kid wanted in this world was to piss him off. And maybe that was one of the reasons for violence. Leo knew from his college psych class there were many types of aggression, but the summer before his third year at UVM he got drafted and he knew he'd be studying aggression up close and personal.
Vietnam changed the way he saw the world for the rest of his life. He learned to see people's bodies as imperfect, destructible, necessary, and yet in the larger scheme of things, ultimately disposable. It was the soul that remained sturdy, untouchable. By the end of his second tour he could sit next to a gutted soldier and hold his head for the few minutes it took for him to die without the horror of the blood, the stench, the mutilated tissue lying unnaturally outside the body, penetrating through to his mind. He learned to see the body of a woman as a potential weapon, a possible container for explosives, instead of merely something to desire, and that the wisdom of age or the innocence of youth didn't prevent old people and children from playing a part in the brutality. And though he witnessed many acts of heroism, he also saw men do things they wouldn't ordinarily do: give in to reckless nights with Thai whores; drink to near death on leave; and once he came upon three of his squadron gang-raping a North Vietnamese girl and he did nothing but walk the other way.
So here he was, a witness after the fact, to a similar violence upon his wife, the woman he'd loved for over two decades, the mother of his girls, and he'd been unable to prevent it, and afterward, completely ineffectual in reaching beyond the barrier she'd erected. He felt he'd essentially, once again, walked away. Maggie lived in terror; he could see it in the way her muscles moved tight and bunched underneath her skin, in the way her eyes darted, with a haunted but exhausted tightening of the flesh around them, and in how she avoided dark places by turning on all the lights in the house. He saw her fear, although she wouldn't admit it to him, nor allow him to help her move through it.
As Leo pulled up to the house he saw Julie's tan Porsche in his spot in the driveway so he parked on the street. It would be good to sink into an evening full of stories of his daughters' lives instead of trying to avoid his and Maggie's.
"Let me do it, Mom." Julie reached over and took the potato masher out of Maggie's hands. "Go take a minute to freshen up, if you want. Relax."
Maggie tried to protest but Julie waved her off and Laura grabbed Maggie by the shoulders and pointed her to the door. "Go sit, Mom."
"Actually, I think I'll have a bath. Thank you."
Having her girls in the house comforted her. Gave her something else to focus on. They'd arrived in a flurry of movement and sound. Tall, delicate-boned Julie, with her wide-set eyes that could pin a person in place. She'd always been the brilliant debater: when she was little she'd argue the case for the underdog, even people she didn't know. She had a gift for seeing the world from unusual angles. And Laura, also tall, but built more solid than Julie, a bit thicker around and more muscular, with a career in ad copy, and like her sister, she capitalized on her skills of persuasion. Maggie was happy to have them, but at the same time she felt the need to pretend everything was all right and pretending sucked so much energy from her. To the few friends that dropped by since the attack, she hid the fact that she felt lashed and drained; to Lois she hid the fact that she knew about her nights with Leo; to Samuel she pretended that seeing him made her feel better somehow; and to Leo, she hid the fact that his inability to really be there for her after the attack was the hardest to bear, even harder than his infidelity.
She bent over and started the hot water for her bath. With her daughters down in the kitchen she felt safe for the first time in a week. She'd stopped taking showers, fearing the torrent of water falling over her would prevent her from hearing an intruder. Alone in the house, her baths were quick—heart-pounding quick—one eye always on the door, or fixed on the doorknob to catch the slightest indication it was being turned by someone on the other side. The belief her attacker was invincible, could walk through closed doors, even walls, followed her around during the day and she understood this belief to be distorted, due to what she'd been through. Still, reason did not discharge the tension that lodged in her body, refusing to leave. For now, it would have to be enough to have an evening of relief from it. And if she could get away with it, she'd sink down against the porcelain tub and stay there until the water turned cold and her flesh became wrinkled. She'd stay despite the pounding on the door and the pleading from her people, people who needed her to be the same as she'd always been: untouched and strong.
Her legs stretched out under bubbles to touch the end of the tub. Leo had always loved her legs—he described them as concise the first time they'd slept together and she'd kidded him about that for years. Even before the attack they'd stopped kidding each other. She'd been running from Leo's infidelity. She thought by not talking about it, it would lose its power to hurt. Or by having a friendship of her own, it made it okay. But that kind of thinking was a mistake.
She stayed in the bath even when kitchen smells made their way into the bathroom and overpowered the lavender in her bath. She heard Leo's low voice rise and fall in conversation with the girls. One of them squealed and then broke into laughter: Julie? Maggie finally lifted herself out of the water, her skin puckering from the chill. She toweled off and slipped on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt.
Leo and the girls were gathered around the pine table in the kitchen.
"Daddy thinks we should forgo formalities and stick the bird on a platter in the middle of the table and have at it," Laura said. She wore a simple tee shirt with a long black skirt. On her feet she wore boots. Her blonde hair was pulled back off her face in a pony tail.
"It would certainly be simpler, wouldn't it, if we threw away unnecessary civilities," Maggie said. She grabbed the bowl of potatoes her daughters had mashed and the butter dish.
The four of them stood a moment before settling into their usual places. Maggie felt tense, as if they all expected her to lead the conversation.
Julie reached for the bowl of Brussels sprouts. "I used to despise these, now I could eat the whole bowl."
"I'm not sure they're all that good for you," Leo said. He carved thin slices of pheasant breast and placed a slice on each woman's plate.
"It's the butter you love," Laura said. "You could care less what it's slathered on."
"Maybe," Julie gave Laura one of her sarcastic smirks. "So do the police have any news on who might have raped you, Mom?"
Laura dropped her butter knife; it clanged against her plate with startling loudness. "At the table? We need to talk about this at the table?"
"You think we should hold court or something? I think Mom can handle talking about it over mashed potatoes and fowl."
"What do you think, Daddy?" Laura turned to Leo.
"I'm not the one to ask, am I?" Leo looked down at his plate; pushed a Brussels sprout around with his fork.
Maggie swallowed her bite of meat and sighed. "They haven't found anyone yet, no. It's likely they won't. The dogs lost the scent. There's that bit of DNA on my clothing, but they don't seem hopeful."
"I can check and see what recourse you may have against the detectives," Julie offered.
"It's hardly the fault of the detectives." Maggie took a sip of the wine Leo had brought home. "This is good. I don't recognize it as one of ours," she said to Leo.
Leo shook his head. "It's not."
"So where were you Dad, when mom was attacked? You two never told us why you weren't together?" Julie looked at her father.
"Mom always gets home before Dad." Laura motioned to her father to pass her the salt.
"At almost midnight?"
"You know, I actually don't feel like having this discussion, after all." Maggie placed her hand on Julie's arm and gave it a squeeze. "I thought it would be okay, but let's not."
"I don't understand why he wasn't there, that's all." Julie had never been able to hide her feelings; they showed up like a large and vibrant marquis on her face. Maggie could see that she was worried about something other than details of the attack.
"Julie, I'm touched by your concern. I simply don't want to spend one more moment going over the details of that night if I don't have to." Maggie took another long sip of her wine.
"Did you see that movie? About a man who takes care of a woman in a coma?" Laura asked.
Maggie shook her head. "Tell us about it."
They sat back in their chairs and listened to Laura talk about the movie. How this male nurse who cared for a comatose woman touched her inappropriately. He considered it love, while others considered it rape. When tension at the table grew palpable, Laura changed the subject and told them of the woman living in the apartment above her who sang arias on and off all evening from the time Laura walked in the door until well after eleven o'clock some nights. Maggie played with the stem of her wine glass and Julie picked thin strands of dark meat off the bones that lay haphazard on her plate.
"How do you know she's not a real opera diva," Leo asked.
"Because she sucks."
"Like I said, how do you know she's not real?"
"Daddy," Laura smiled and swatted her father's arm.
The near skeletal remains of the pheasant sat in the middle of the table, the bowls of potatoes and vegetables empty beside it. Maggie looked around the table at her family and for a moment, felt outside herself. As if a part of her had forgotten who these people laughing and talking next to her were.
After the dishes were washed and put away, containers of leftovers equally divided for the girls, Leo saw them out to their car. Maggie felt utterly exhausted. Her body paradoxically felt like a pressure cooker and a soft cloth: ready to burst with tension and yet unable to stand upright on the ground. She'd had a few hours free of fear and she could feel it settling back in again, an ominous blanket hovering over her. She went upstairs to her room without washing her face, turned the lamp on next to her bed, slipped out of her jeans and put on a pair of sweatpants.
The next afternoon, Leo and Maggie argued during lunch in a café in Rutland. Maggie had hardly pushed anything through her mouth: food or words. When Leo asked her if it was something he said, she looked at him with a wryness he didn't remember seeing in her before.
"So will your new hostess be the replacement?" she asked. Her hand trembled slightly as she drew her glass of water to her lips.
"Mag, I told you everything's all set." He signaled for the waiter. "You don't have to come in anymore. In fact, I think the kid is going to work out fine."
"That's not what I mean."
He was stuck then. He knew anything he said would sound ridiculous and small and possibly patronizing, so he said nothing. He paid the check, walked outside holding her elbow, and was careful to open the door for her when they reached their car.
They drove in silence to the other side of the city to see a counselor, courtesy of the state of Vermont. Susan Hugo's office was on the third floor of a refurbished Victorian. It was a darkish room, the colors of the carpet and walls deep maroon and forest green. It had one floor-to-ceiling window from which Leo could see various shades of gray sky above the red brick building next door.
Susan introduced herself, and Leo adjusted himself in the oversized sofa. Maggie looked uncomfortable and stiff. He could feel the side of her thigh tighten against his.
"What I want to do is establish some sort of ground rules and then we can go on from there," Susan said. Her smile showed straight, bleached teeth. "It's important to know that both of you have been violated by Maggie's rape, and so both of you will need to do the work of healing. I ask that partners not interrupt the other and sometimes when asked to hear the other, I'll ask one to parrot back what he or she has heard."
"I don't know that I really need to be here," Maggie said.
"Maybe you don't." Susan leaned forward in her chair and explained that sometimes a couple of sessions was all it took for victims of violent crime to recover their sense of safety. "I'm sure you're strong, Maggie. What you may not know is that stress from trauma can have a rippling effect, much like a stone thrown into a pond it can keep showing up, with less and less intensity, until it runs its course." Susan stood up and walked to a tall bookshelf in the corner. "Some have found these books to be a comfort." She handed Leo two books. "Reading them together might be a good experience for you both." She sat back in her seat.
There was an uncomfortable silence while they waited for her to speak again.
"How has your marriage suffered because of what happened?" Susan asked.
"I think it was mildly suffering before," Maggie said.
"My fault," Leo said.
"Actually, I don't want to talk about our marriage," Maggie said. She looked out the window, away from Leo, as she spoke.
"That is exactly what we need to address." Leo rubbed at the pressure in his temples. "I screwed up. I need Maggie to believe me when I tell her it won't happen again."
"Tell Maggie," Susan said.
Maggie spoke before Leo. "What I don't understand is why you wouldn't just take my hand."
"What do you mean?"
Maggie's eyes went to her hands, one fisted inside the other in her lap. "After. When the police arrived and wanted to take me to the hospital in their cruiser, and I felt almost like a criminal myself getting into that car, and felt like my world had tipped, and what I wanted most was for you to sit beside me in the back seat and tell me everything would be all right. I remember reaching my hand out to you then, and I saw the dried blood on it, and you just looked at it. You must have seen it, the blood, and you didn't move. Not one bit closer to me."
"I'm sorry, Mag."
Maggie looked at Susan and snapped, "I wanted him to hold my goddamned hand! Is that such an impossible thing?"
Leo set his hand over Maggie's hand she held fisted on her lap. "I'll hold it now," he said.
"I don't know, Leo. It may be too late."
On the way home, they were quiet. Another layer of thick clouds hung low to the ground; a few spits of snow hit the windshield then stopped.
Leo took a back road that led past the turn off to Lake Glen. When he saw the bottom of the lake road, he turned onto it. Maggie's car bounced over the ruts and dips in the steep dirt road.
"Don't you need to get to the restaurant?" Maggie said.
"The staff can handle the first couple of hours."
Leo drove into the dirt clearing next to the boat landing and parked. Over the ticking of the cooling engine, Leo heard Maggie sigh. She folded her arms over her chest. "Can we maybe do this another time?"
Through the windshield, they could see out onto the lake. Clutches of birch trees stood along the bank, their branches a luminous white against the gray of the water. It was the quietest place Leo knew. Nothing around. Not even birds were audible this time of year. When he and Maggie were dating, they'd come up here to this place by the lake. Sometimes they'd swim naked at night, often they did nothing but lie in the grass on the shore and hold hands, talking about the future as if they could direct it. As if they had complete control and it was theirs to design. It was the place in which they first spoke of love and of children and of growing old together.
"Come on." Leo got out of the car and walked around to open Maggie's door. Her hurt was evident in her jaw and the way she refused to look him in the eye. He held a hand out to her. She stared straight ahead through the windshield, not looking anywhere but at the lake, maybe not even at that. She was a strong woman. He'd seen her strength in so many ways over the years. He hoped their marriage could borrow some of that strength. Leo kept his hand outstretched, reaching for hers, and waited.