PAUL could still see the lights from the club reflected in her bathroom mirror. She turned on the faucet and ran her hands under the water, feeling her skin contract with the cold. She put her fingertips to her forehead attempting to ease her headache. It was nothing she hadn’t experienced. As far as anyone could see, she was safe. She was in her own bathroom, protected. She caught her eyes in the mirror and tried to focus on them, and then it came back to her in flickering snippets, something she wanted to tear out of her head like an annoying roll of unraveling film, plastic negatives slicing into the edges of her skin as she pulled. She climbed into the empty bathtub and held her knees. Stef would be there soon.
Stef stood behind Paul, set her hands on her shoulders, and gave her a squeeze, not knowing it was the entirely wrong thing to do. Paulina tried to catch her mirrored eyes again. “I always knew something like this would happen to me.” Stef had found Paulina crouching in the bathtub, her hands pressed against her face, but nothing wet coming out. Poor, poor girl. Poor, careless girl.
“Paul, of course it wasn’t going to happen … I mean, it’s not like it was meant to happen. He’s just some sadistic asshole.”
This was definitely the wrong thing to say. Paulina pulled away from her friend’s hands, where they still strained to comfort. She pulled her golden hair away from her face and tucked it over one shoulder. “It doesn’t matter. It’s stupid. I didn’t even get assaulted. Not really.” But Paul knew, from her dreams, from the way things always went, an assault would eventually come.
They first met when Paulina moved to Toronto. Stef had brought her daughter, Bronwynn, to a Mommy & Me art class. Most Mommy & Me art classes at the facility were geared towards infants drooling over their paint-covered hands. This one was specifically for ages 5-7, a bonding experience for mother and child. Wynn liked to paint and draw, but she was still silent the entire lesson. Stef had her at twenty and was constantly trying to prove she could have a good job and have a good relationship with the man she lived with, and was A Good Person. Paulina came around, assisting the children and parents on their projects. She introduced herself as Paulina, but said everyone called her Paul. She seemed like the good person Stef wanted to be, the way she helped the kids cut out shapes and gave each student, parent too, her full attention. She was filled with a light Stef had never seen before. At the end of the lesson as Wynn continued to spread glitter glue overtop her picture, Stef ended up confiding in Paul about her silent child, asking about ways they could bond through art even if Wynn was withdrawn. Paul had told her that she was new to Toronto, and Stef said, “Well, now we’re friends!” And she meant it. Real friends.
Stef brought Paul into her friend group, and Paul started spending time with the people she met there, even when Stef couldn’t get a sitter. But Stef did have a sitter the night that it happened, and friends do not let bad things happen to friends.
Stef could still remember the way her mouth had tasted the morning after losing Paul. The soft mildew texture of her tongue. The alcohol smell. She’d rolled over and hovered her fingertips across her boyfriend’s naked skin. He didn’t wake, even with her non-touch sliding over his back. She’d come in at 3 a.m., had texted Paul that she hoped she’d made it home from the club safe. But Paul hadn’t made it home safe. Stef had gone over as soon as she heard, right away, leaving Derek to watch Wynn, let herself in with the key Paulina had given her, and found her in the tub, as if it was the only place she’d ever belonged, a water spirit without water. And she couldn’t say the right things, she couldn’t believe she had lost her the night before.
Stef’s boyfriend was watching soccer when she returned. “All okay?” he said without looking up.
Stef wanted to tell him about what had happened, but how can you explain that? Last night at the club Paulina went missing and it turns out something bad happened to her and I can’t believe we lost track of each other and I should have called the police instead of coming home and why do things like this happen can you tell me why men do things like that or not even men just people in general do you know how to make it stop you were here with Wynn and didn’t even hear me when I got home how powerless are we is there a way we can make sure this never happens to Wynn what are my responsibilities in this why can’t you do something don’t you know I count on you?
And Stef was dedicated to getting along with the man she lived with, and this was sure to start a fight. “Yeah, all’s okay. Paul’s just a little upset.”
“Who knows? You know how Paul is.” Paulina never talked about herself. Not her feelings. As much as Stef had wanted to take Paul in her arms, she couldn’t understand what she was thinking.
Wynn was playing with plastic dinosaurs Paul had given her by the television set. Stef got down on her hands and knees in front of her daughter. “Hi.”
“What you playing?”
“I want you to always tell me if something is wrong.”
Someone scored a goal, and Stef’s boyfriend hollered from the couch. Stef moved to make sure she was out of the way of the television screen.
“Like even if you just feel wrong, and like you have no one to talk to.”
“You have me to talk to. Always. Tell me. If you think something bad will happen. Or if something bad has already happened. I’m not going to be mad, I promise. Even if you think it’s something wrong. You can tell me.”
“Mom, a pterodactyl is biting your ankle.”
She hugged her daughter and held her the way she’d wanted to with Paulina. “Always, always feel like you can talk to me.” A commercial came on, Derek’s attention turned to Stef and Wynn, and the three of them decided it was best to go out to dinner that night.
Perhaps he’d taken pictures of “her perfect body,” as men liked to call it as they slapped, and slapped. Maybe the cause of her nightmares was that she didn’t know what had happened. She had found a man at the club to kiss and dance with, the music creating a beat behind their gyrations and sweat-covered bodies that she could mistake as the start of love. She had lost sight of him later in the night, and Stef had come dancing beside her. “Do you really like that guy?”
“Sure,” Paulina said, but she knew it was the music she liked and the dancing and the lights, the way they shone patches of colour across the floor and sometimes across her skin. But she did like him. She did.
The thing was, she was unharmed. And this was almost more confusing than if she had been cut up into pieces and left all over Toronto.
It all got mixed up in her head as she read a psychology article about BDSM and how being submissive was a choice and being dominated was okay if that was your preference. But how to know if submissive truly was your preference if it was just always what you were expected to be and, in your sex dreams, you were neither, just a coming, fleshy blob, not man or woman, just energy that fractured into multicoloured lights, like the ones in the club. Maybe the best way to have sex was just to be drugged to sleep, while someone watched you, mesmerized by your stillness.
It’s time to go, she told herself, and took transit to the hospital where she explained what had happened, the drink she drank and not knowing who she was when she regained consciousness, the experience of loss, how she had been found and was lucid within minutes, still missing her clothes. The sexual assault worker asked her, “And you’re sure there wasn’t an assault?”
“I don’t know what happened.”
She took her from a waiting room with couches and chairs, made to feel safe. In another room, she was handed pills, just in case she had contracted chlamydia or gonorrhea from him. She swallowed them and tried not to throw up. She peed in a plastic sample jar, but the sexual assault worker told her it would probably come back negative. “The drugs leave your system so quickly. Even if you went right after it happened, it probably would still not show up. You black out for about 3 to 5 hours and it’s already gone by the time you’re conscious. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to apologize,” Paul said and handed her the jar.
She spent her days with the doors locked. The curtains drawn. Fascinated by his obsession, she Googled the name of a cousin who had claimed to love her, wanted to marry her, touched her, had sex with her, tried to kill her, tried to kill himself, and caused her first pregnancy scare all before she was fifteen. He’d moved to Vancouver years ago – the restraining order her parents had placed made sure they didn’t contact each other, but she tried to find him sometimes, through the safe distance of the internet.
Except it was impossible to be safe, people were everywhere, all over the streets. Paulina couldn’t help smiling at them all as she watched them glaring into the screens of their smartphones or pacing quickly towards a job they hated. Someone should smile at them, but there was something about this open way that her friends chastised. “You’re asking for trouble, Paul.” But Paul wasn’t naïve; she knew people are always pressing, they are always everywhere, there’s always something they want.
Stef went to meet Paulina the day after the day after. “I went to the police station,” Paul said. “I feel stupid talking about all this really. How’s Wynn? How are you?”
“What happened at the police station?”
“The usual things,” Paul said and sipped her Americano. Stef had never been to the police, not even after the things that had happened with Wynn’s dad. He’d just disappeared, and she’d started teaching college, proud of herself for being able to support Wynn on her own. And then she’d met Derek and learned to count on someone again. She had wondered for a brief moment if she should call the police after Wynn’s dad had left. If she should steal Wynn away in the middle of the night to protect them. “Nothing will happen. There’s not enough proof. The officer told me, ‘As far as we know you guys could have both just gotten retarded drunk.’”
“Are they allowed to say retarded?”
“Well, she did.”
“Maybe you should complain?”
“It doesn’t matter.” The café suddenly felt too small. Stef didn’t want to cry in public, not when Paul should be the one crying. “I’m just trying to figure out how to go to work tomorrow.”
“Maybe it will make you feel better? To see the kids?”
“I’m teaching Daddy & Me. How stupid is that? Parents that want to get their kids into art lessons before their motor skills are developed. I’m just sick of it.”
Stef had remembered the way Paul used to describe her work at the art centre, her private art lessons. She had told her there was something about the kids that gave her hope. “Are you feeling really bad today? Are you okay?”
“Stef, the thing is I work all day with kids whose parents want them to be special. They expect them to be artistic geniuses. And it’s not because they want their kid to be an artist. That’s the last thing they want. But they want their kid to show that they are the best parents, magical almost with their ability to give their child the money and guidance and private lessons they need to develop their gifts and become a special kind of well-rounded.” Paul paused and downed the rest of her coffee. She remembered being five and being held by the first person who claimed to really love her. Eight years old and her cousin. “But none of those children will ever be special, or an artistic genius, or anything. Or maybe they all will be geniuses, I don’t know. Another genius, a product of money and private education. Another unique child exactly the same. The real special kids are the damaged ones. The ones that won’t speak to you because what’s in their head is already beyond their comprehension. Because they’ve seen things or had things done to them or done things that have messed them up. But they don’t get paid attention to, maybe because they are too poor, or because people don’t realize that when bad things happen, that makes you special too, and not even in a bad way. Just in a different way.”
Stef thought about Wynn and her games, how quiet she could be staring out the window. She thought about Wynn seeing Stef get shoved against the wall before her father walked out for good. Did she absorb it? Was it in her too? Had Stef let Wynn down, just like she let Paulina down, and none of the worrying, the pacing in front of her door at night, would ever undo the moment Stef had chased her father into the street, where he flagged a cab and called her a crazy bitch and then got into the cab and was never heard of again? She’d smacked her hand against the roof of the cab as he drove away. Fractured her hand in two places.
“I’m sorry,” Paul said. “It’s just been a hard couple of days. Of course I’m still going to work. I love it.”
Stef now couldn’t properly hold back the tears and so she said she needed to get home to Wynn and marking. The two women hugged as they parted.
Wynn was entranced by something out the window. Stef cut up celery sticks in the kitchen, watching. The way Wynn moved her head when she caught sight of a bird, a yearning cat in a little girl’s body. “What’s wrong with you?” Stef thought. Had she watched birds in the same way? Had she been quiet the way Wynn was, disappearing for hours in a closet or under a bed, or even on the living room chair, not even reading, “Just thinking, Mom.”
She brought the snack into the living room. “How much blood is in a person?” Wynn asked. The dinosaurs were still tossed by the television, but Stef was too tired to get her to pick them up.
“I don’t know, Wynn. A lot.” Stef went to her bedroom, lay down, and let the tears come.
“Hey, what’s the matter?” Derek asked.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing,” she said.
“I have to go to softball. Did I do something?”
“No, it’s not you. It’s just the world.”
“How can you be sad about the whole world?”
“I just am.”
“The world’s too big to be sad about.” He kissed her at her hairline. “I’ll be back in a few hours. Call me if you need me home… I’ll skip the drinks.”
“It’s fine, just go.”
She could hear Wynn rummaging around in the living room. After two hours, she put out dinner and then went back to bed. She let sleep ease the tension from her eyes, neck, calm the ache that was developing in her chest. She could use a cool hand pressed to her forehead on a night like this.
His name had been ordinary, yet Paulina, of course, remembered at the police station. Another Paul. They’d joked about it, Paul and Paulina, what a couple. But that was before he took her home, and then a gap, and then Paulina not remembering she was Paulina, in a hallway, naked.
Her nightmares were slow and long. She wasn’t able to move, pinned to her bed or maybe her limbs were incapable. She had read about sleep paralysis, but this wasn’t that – where you woke but couldn’t get up – this was paralysis within sleep. Men stood around her bed and took out bags of sand. They passed the bag around slowly, while Paulina tried to get her mouth to work, begging them to stop. Each man took a limb of hers in their hands and pulled it to the side, straightened it to its full length. They put her fingertips and her toes in their mouths and sucked, then they bit. They gnawed away her skin until blood ran along the bed and onto the floor. Then they used the sand. They ground it into her fresh wounds and along her skin until it was raw and peeling.
In the morning, she texted Stef: What a night, and now, off to work!
Stef texted back, How are you?
Paulina typed, I’m not sleeping right, and erased it. She wrote, Fine, and erased it. She wrote, Stef, can you sleep here tonihgt and something about the spelling mistake made her start to choke on tears, or no, it was her cousin’s hands around her neck when she was twelve years old; it was the men in the nightmares, hands covered in sand; it was the fact she couldn’t move and she knew he was watching her, but didn’t know what he wanted, and Paul clicked send.
Stef texted, Of course. Do you need me now?
Paul wrote, I have to go to work. How can I look at the kids?
Stef said, Cancel your class. It’s not worth it.
I finish at five. Come then?
You got it.
Paul left the house, and the eyes of the people on the street followed her. She got on the streetcar and flashed her metropass and she was still being choked by those hands. She felt her lip to check it wasn’t fat. She’d forgotten to brush her teeth. Somehow she’d packed her art supplies for the class, but when. The streetcar slid to a stop at the subway and everyone crowded for the doors. The person who sat beside Paul pushed past her. Paul couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman. She didn’t even look. She remembered how to use her legs and she was back in the hallway moving like a mind outside a body, drifting. I need to escape. The doors at the bottom of the stairs provided a way out, but Paul looked down and realized she had a body and it was naked. If I am naked, I am more likely to be attacked. I can’t escape that way. She went up instead to the top of the staircase and pounded on doors. It was six in the morning. And a woman spoke to her through the door and Paul couldn’t make words properly and finally the woman took a chance and let her in and gave her clothes, and then Paulina went home and thought about it. Put together the pieces. The club. The man named Paul. His apartment. Kissing. Drinking the drink. The hallway. Nakedness. The doors. The woman. But why? Why when they were already kissing? Already in his apartment? The gaps made more gaps and then more gaps. She imagined him sitting by her naked body, just watching. Spending the whole night watching.
She walked down the steps to the subway and walked back up them. She walked back down the steps to the subway and tugged at her hair. She thought about buying a coffee. She forgot if she had her metropass. She thought about all the dads and their children and how they were waiting for her, to watch her and follow along and paint. To stare and copy her every movement. So many men trying to be like Paulina.
She got back on the streetcar. She texted Stef, Screw Daddy & Me. Come now.
Stef called her sitter. “I’m sorry it’s such short notice, but Derek doesn’t get home for another two hours.” She packed an overnight bag, texted Derek the details of what happened, finally. She would be there for Paul and make everything better. It would be as if it all never even happened. Their friendship was so strong.
As she headed through the living room, she tripped over something. A dinosaur tail smeared with red goo. Wynn was on the carpet with a bottle of ketchup. Some dinosaurs had been chewed through with scissors, their halves and dismembered limbs scattered across the floor. Others had their mouths clamped around the stomachs, legs, or tails of their dinosaur friends. Some stood mouth to mouth. To Stef, they appeared to be kissing, like the massacre was actually some sadistic dinosaur orgy. Wynn squirted ketchup over everywhere they had bitten. Scales sticky, scarlet red. “Wynn!” Wynn stopped squirting the ketchup bottle. “What’s wrong with you? What are you doing?”
“I’m playing attack.”
Stef ran to the sink and grabbed a roll of paper towels, wet them, and threw them overtop the decapitated dinosaurs. She came back in the room and grabbed the ketchup bottle from Wynn and threw it into the kitchen sink with a bang. Wynn winced at the sound and curled into a ball on the floor. Back in the living room, Stef took a garbage bag and stuffed the dinosaur parts into the bag. Wynn started rocking on the carpet. “What is wrong with you? Wynn, don’t you know things like this actually happen? People get attacked. It’s not something to joke about. It’s not funny, Wynn. Now you have no dinosaurs left.”
Wynn wailed, the sound muffled by the carpet. Through her howls, Stef thought she could make out Wynn’s saying, “I’m bad.” No, you’re not. I am. Stef put down the paper towels and cradled her hunched body. She held her until her tears stopped and then held her still when the babysitter came in and said, “What happened here?”
Stef said, “The world.” And the three of them cleaned up together, and then Stef went off to be a good friend to Paul.
The thing about friends is that even those you’ve known since childhood will still be a mystery. You can hear their words, you can hold their hands, remember the details of their past, believe what they are telling you. But you’ll never know all of it. What else is chattering away in their brains. What they are hiding from you.
At Paul’s house, Stef and Paul didn’t talk about it. They locked the door once Stef got in, and Stef made tea. They watched movies and read each other their horoscopes and talked about Wynn and talked about the future and talked about outerspace and talked about a rare bug that was found in the Amazon rainforest and talked about life with Derek and talked about teaching and talked about how much they missed clear nights away from the city (so many stars) and talked about how Paul once tried to learn how to smoke and failed and talked about their parents and talked about art and talked about books they had read and talked about this lecture Stef had seen on the internet, and then they went to bed where they slept head to toe.
Stef lay awake and wondered about her life. How she was twenty-five with a five-year old daughter she didn’t understand and was a college instructor and was probably doing everything right, but was so scared of doing something wrong. Or of all the wrong things in general. A murmur rose through the dark. “I am a full human. I am a full human. I am a full human. I am a full human.” Stef reached out for Paul, but couldn’t find her hand.
From CNQ 93 (Summer 2015)