Shame

Shame
image_print

Nights are hardest. Not the sleeping and not Joy’s dreams. Discomfiting, threatening, and incessant—at least Joy’s dreams consistently spit out the ticker tape of her refusing him.

Worse are the vestiges of something else.

Memories which horrify her on cold, sober walks still tick somewhere in her blood. At night, the rejected words sometimes run over her skin like a wave; she is still somehow primed for them.

He: “You liked that, didn’t you? You beautiful slut…”

She: “Oh, I would do anything to please you…”

Living nightmares, in which Joy valiantly and, often, futilely tries to hold off the old arousal. She feels angry and shriveled up when she keeps it at bay; ashamed, almost suicidal, if she fails.

*

Joy had fallen for Dan as she fell for Detroit—all the city’s rusted glory, things once cutting edge now shriveled and shopworn, the Motor City, Motown, a city which hailed forth the first highway, soda pop, K-Mart, the phrase “the Real McCoy,” the only place where a gigantic warehouse like Joe Kane Books could sprawl on with musty comprehensiveness while the rest of the country bought and read its books online. She spent hours and hours in the stacks there as a student. David Mamet’s plays, The Fire Next Time, Michael Herr and Nelson Algren all blew her mind. She’d met Dan socially once before and was in some way fishing for him also in the third-floor aisles, where he prowled from stacks to stairwell with a tarnished blue apron over his clothes, walkie-talkie in hand.

“Can I help you?” he asked, lips curling.

“No … I’m fine… Excuse me, are you friends with Billy?”

She began to come every week; in fact, more than once a week—and when he discovered her, browsing in the stacks he would smile this great smile, sly and knowing, and he was so attractive when his face softened like that, away from its usual scowl. She would instantly smile back, excited and a little afraid of her own power to elicit his interest. When he looked at her like that it made her inexperienced, tremulous body hum. She blushed when he read her Henry Miller. It seemed to her that Dan had read everything. “Ah, if you like Heller you have to read Celiné…” Gradually his attention and her curiosity, her desire to be guided, wore down the nervousness shrouding her desire. From the bookstore, to bars. From bars, to his bed.

He had been with other women, of course. “But—oh God—Joy—never like this.”

Because, not knowing any better, she gave herself up to him completely, reserved nothing.

She hadn’t seen the reading list for the giant red flag it should have draped over everything. On early dates he would actually call her “doll” which flattered and amused her. She took his bait, allowed her buttons to be pushed, as if “Don’t call me doll!” “Would you prefer dame?” was sprightly, original banter. The black and white world called forth by all those ’50s paperbacks, shadow-laden private-eye movies where two poles were available for women. On the one hand, the doe-eyed, fanatically loyal assistant—always available, always putting things together and sorting out his problems. She would be there, waiting, wistful, no matter what. And then the femme fatale, possessed of a loathsomely intractable magnetism—in the end put down and punished for her carnality. And of course those archetypes orbited in a solar system centered on calling someone “wife.”

Detroit, the only city where a smart, young motherfucker like Dan would still search out his literary ambitions at the bottom of bottles, in amorality, marriage and divorce, dolls and dames, with Miller and Mailer—and Celiné!—as role models. Whereas his counterpart in Bushwick or Austin or Portland would be, not divorced from some crime reporter, but in an open relationship with a silky Comp Lit PhD, discussing equality with her, and tinkering with neuro-enhancers and herbal teas to squeeze the most productivity out of his brain.

When she had tried to get some distance from Dan, to slow things down, he clung tighter, became more insistent, until eventually he clung so tight that all the reluctance and frustration that had been coiling up in her released, giving her enough momentum to leave and cut him out of her life. Her friend Catherine says he raped her, and she sometimes wants to think so, too. But the sense of collusion won’t rub off so easily.

*

Back in New York, she and Catherine got into an argument about a play. Walking alongside the old tenement buildings where the metal fire-escapes collapse down the walls, late on a winter night. People poured out of sliver-sized bars and clubs to smoke on the sidewalk in front of darkened boutique-windows. She and Catherine were leaving just such a bar for the L train. Earlier that night they had gone to see a production of The Seagull, directed by one of Catherine’s friends and held in a basement on the edge of Chinatown.

Joy doesn’t remember much about the play, only the pale, flat-nosed girl who played Nina. Her equine prettiness, clad for the first three acts in a transparent white dress… Joy felt an ax-blow to her own chest when Trigorin, a ginger-haired, boorish older writer looked at Nina appraisingly, comparing her to a happy, free seagull, traipsing around until a man comes and kills it, just because he can. Nina naively throws herself at the man …Literally bird-brained, she is hypnotized by him. He ruins her, her vitality taken just because she crosses his path, the innocent shine of her beauty drawing forth his desire and his malice, as if none of it was under her control. Even the last act, where Nina emerges, rattled, sad, and more self-possessed, wasn’t enough to stop the terrifying reverberation the early acts produced in Joy. Getting out of the play and all through the night, she felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her.

Catherine said, “I hate these plays, with female victims at the center.” That’s how the conversation had started. “‘I am the seagull,’” Catherine continued, quoting the play. “I mean, duh. Throw me out the window. It’s too obvious, no? That fucking symbol weighs down the whole play.”

“The seagull gets killed,” Joy said quietly.

“And, oh, it’s tantamount to a young woman’s sexual innocence getting ruined. Ugh.”

“No … I meant … the play doesn’t follow the symbol. Nina lives.”

Catherine shrugged sharply. “It doesn’t bore the hell out of you? You don’t hate her passive-ass?”

Catherine’s bent was to be hotly rational when discussing things she cared about. At such times she did not think of anything beyond the unfolding argument … and so she was unable to see the rawness of Joy’s feelings. That must be why Joy is getting generous emails and text messages now, Catherine is trying to make amends… Lately, she’s been noticing the same pattern in many of her friends: they’re tongue-tied, abashed, eager to help her now to make up for their blindness then.

“But don’t you think it happens?” Joy had asked, her words coming irregularly, because she couldn’t articulate what she felt. “Don’t you think it’s sometimes like that … with men and women?”

“Of course! It’s just not interesting to me. I would rather watch Arkadinia,” Catherine said, pronouncing the name with a heavy Russian accent that she’d learned God-knows-where. Catherine meant the regal, imperious older woman, the fading star actress. “The moment when Arkadinia convinces Trigorin to come to Moscow with her, when she molds him to what she wants without making him feel that way—well, I think it’s the most tense, dramatic moment in the play. There, she and Trigorin are equal forces, pulling on each other. Not just the old story where a girl is defined by the man she meets and he walks off unscathed.”

“But would it be better if Trigorin fell apart even more than Nina?” Joy murmured.

“No … that’s not what I meant…” Catherine spoke cautiously, for the first time realizing they hadn’t only been talking about the play.

During the whole subway ride they were quiet except for the most basic questions and replies.

*

She’s been driving circles around Detroit for more than an hour. The drive is disorienting—had she visited that when it was a deli? Or is she confusing it with some other corner, one that still has a pulse? She can’t remember… She carries an inner compass of where the radial avenues lead, but the old day-to-day distinctions vanished during her four months’ absence, leaving a drear expanse. Arsons for profit, arsons for sport, for lease signs put up and never answered, buildings left to rot for tax reasons, buildings foreclosed on by banks which then walked away. Inside, there would be a wreck of glass, warped plastic, wood, and ash. You can never fully reconstitute what it had looked like, can never really wrest a memory of the building’s life from its death.

Somewhere in the outer air, she can hear the grind of a freight train, pushing along one of the veins of railroad that vivisected the neighborhood. On the other side of the street, neat rows of workers’ bungalows stand. Never built to last. Trim, humble fences and curtained windows alternate with vacant houses, burnt-out, branded with graffiti initials and X’s. At Wayne State, in her early flush of being energized about Detroit, she’d written a poem on the theme that abandoned houses have a stronger presence than ones people live in. Her second year of college? No—embarrassingly, later. How did it go? Something like, “Lamp in the window, curtains drawn over the panes. A full mailbox, the raked driveway. Nearly invisible, lost in their inhabitance. Only vacant do they take on true personality. Darkness staring from punched-out windows, gaping menace of a roof fallen through…” Et cetera.

Does she believe that, about inhabited homes lacking presence? Had she ever believed that? A yen to glamorize city over suburb. It doesn’t matter. She looks at the clock: 5:38. Daylight’s chill gray has already contracted into darkness. The empty glove of night stretches before her. Her headlights cast weak beams up the pavement. Along the sidewalks, shoots of unilluminated streetlights. Lurid scandals have been roiling the city government. One of the most damning complaints against the garroted mayor had been: streetlights. There they stand above the avenue, gray and unlit. Throughout the city thousands are permanently extinguished, have not worked for months or years. The absence of artificial light submerges the streets in a murky darkness. She hasn’t thought of that since—

Unbidden, her mind flies back to a porch, their porch in Corktown. She and Dan are sitting there, chairs pulled out, speaking to a few friends, drinking Stroh’s beer and whiskey sours, arguing about a group of artists who had covered arsoned houses with neon orange paint and tarps. Was it exploitative? No, it drew attention to blight, blahblur. She couldn’t follow the conversation because she was drunk, and getting drunker. She tried to listen but rainbow LCDs in the distance drew her eyes. On the Motor City Casino the lights shimmered from yellow to blue to pink and back to yellow. She was sitting on his lap, and as he talked he wasn’t really saying anything, he was rubbing his hand up her thigh, rubbing his hand against her extremely short skirt. She didn’t have that skirt anymore, she’d thrown it out. All their friends—no, his friends, they could all see him rubbing her like that, and she hadn’t cared, they could all see she wasn’t listening, she was taking swigs of the beer and smiling while he worked his hand between her legs.

*

Since the divorce, Joy hardly ever drinks.

She avoids it to avoid who she’d been, to evade the habits that accompanied the worst months of her life. In the same spirit she’s rid herself of all the threadbare copies of what Catherine calls “Misogynist Lit” and discovered she is unable to listen to hip-hop, his favorite genre, without feeling queasy, as if every cell of her body takes up arms to shut out anything associated with him. For a while she gave up strong coffee for the same reason: during their marriage it had been fuel that allowed her to rev up, conjure energy, and seem normal to everyone even when she should have been quite dulled—adrenalin shots to her battered heart. All the things that rent apart her self-awareness, that allowed her not only to ignore but to plunge into the pain.

Alcohol—especially hard liquor—unnerves her not just because it once gilded her fall. It also possesses the power to lower the gates, to invite the old demons to return, insisting…

A craving is a craving, difficult to unlearn.

*

To be drunk, to feel the old, unhinged swell rise in her … sometimes the desire returns, bottling up from wherever she has pushed her wildness, increasing slowly, harder and harder to contain or predict…

*

Different forms bob up from the fog on Van Dyke Avenue. A tin sign rattles against a corrugated warehouse wall—we pay cash for scrap—as Joy’s car clatters over railroad tracks. Gutted apartments, lined with the punctures of small, blackened windows and storefronts loom over the street. The worn boasts—Sam’s Bar: You’re Only a Stranger Once … Detroit’s Finest Tailors—turn into threats on empty buildings that can no longer fulfill them. She is in the thick of the east side. The longer she drives without making out human forms, the more charred buildings she distinguishes—that one a soul-food restaurant … in a different place, letters spell “Day Care” beside gaunt, blown-out windows. The longer she drives, the deeper the gloom.

Then, she sees first bright spot in miles and miles, bright because it’s near an interstate exit. A yellow and relatively new sign—liquor lotto deli—glows out of the mists. An oasis… Joy drifts towards it.

“You sure you don’t need nothin’ else to start your night?” the heavyset man at the register asks a young guy in pinstripe jeans, who stand at the checkout with a pint of vodka.

“Nah, nah, that’s good.” He takes his change.

“What, you a college boy or somethin’?”

“Why you think I’m a college boy just ’cos I don’t need nothin’ to start my night except some liquor?”

Joy has entered—ping as the door swings open. She hesitates for a moment, and then gets in line behind him, which ends the discussion. Joy briefly wonders about the clerk’s racket.

“Whatever, you have a good night,” the young man huffs, bunching the thick black bag around the bottle.

“Same to you, brother,” the older man calls after him.

Joy knows they assume she is lost, or else a hooker. A flash of indignation mixed with thrill burns through her.

The door pings as the young man steps back out.

“Well now, hello sweetheart. What can I do for you?”

“One fifth,” she says with unaccustomed roughness, motioning behind the counter to the rum. “Yes, the silver.”

*

After midnight. She had thrown flannel sheets and the quilted comforter onto the floor of her apartment. Her clothes are heaped near it. She wears a flimsy white nightdress, pried from her mother’s attic, stained off-white by age. She peaks her body against the sheets while hip hop and static crackle out of a radio in the corner. Beside her lies a pewter mug, drained of rum. The aromatic fire spreads in her bloodstream. The glass bottle lies on its side: a little bit has leaked out onto the wood floors and the smell envelops her, too. A sort of giddy invulnerability spins her head. Blood rushes between her legs, immediately flooding her with a complete and painful ache. The ancient notes of anticipation travel her spine. There is no denying the sensations, the ache pent deep inside her. A pattering rhythm surrounds her, Joy is vaguely aware that it is raining … she raises her hips to the spectral tempo. Fragments wash through her brain, never full scenes but repositories, the ghosts of earlier arousals.

In the back of a taxi, they zoomed home, back to their loft. He was resentfully accusing her of flirting with his friend at the bar. “Nononono … Dan … no,” she said, shifting on his lap, covering his face with kisses. “Nonono … don’t think that.” She’d worn no underwear under the gauze-thin acrylic skirt or else he had taken it off her. He slid his fingers inside her, he began to work them back and forth, his low voice, “Is that true? Can you prove it?”

“Oh,” she moaned, melting. “Dan, you know I’ll do whatever you want me to…”

He suddenly scooped his whole hand up into her, so that she cried out. She was vaguely aware of the taxi driver watching but didn’t want Dan to stop.

Driving home by herself, earlier … that was before her car broke down … she was alone, just after another blizzard, her car felt like an ungainly ship, buoyant but unsteady on the deep snow. Joy streamed down the hypnosis of desire. Countless phone calls to friends and family unreturned, she went to work, and returned to strip naked and wait for him under the sheets. Every day she could feel herself dissolving, thinner and thinner in the pleasure’s haze, it hadn’t been like this before they moved in together, before they married … how long ago had that been? … She looked at the snow drifts, she was becoming insubstantial and entire as the snow, she remembered someone once told her freezing to death was the best way to die, you lose consciousness and slowly fall asleep, you feel serene as you fade into the black…

“…I’m sculpting your body,” he whispered to her one night, “you’re getting looser. Your breasts are getting fuller … because of me… You’re my wife, you’re mine… Say it … say it to me … I SAID, SAY IT.”

“You’re sculpting my body. I—oh—I’m getting looser. My breasts are getting fuller … because of you…” She whimpered his name … he was pushing into her harder, deeper, so deep she couldn’t … she shrieked, a high, surprised animal sound.

He continued, he was slicing her open, he’d reached the other side of her body and was trying to break through.

“Keep talking,” he hissed.

Suddenly slower … now he moved in her almost gently.

“You, Dan. My body belongs … to you…”

“What belongs to me?”

“…Only you. I … I do…”

“You what?”

Joy throws her head back on the hard, solitary floor on Antoinette Street.

“I HATE YOU,” she screams.

Her body answers only to the quickening pulse, to her own unremitting touch. The pulse throbs inward, corkscrewing deeper, a ribbon unfurling, a rose pushing open. Her breaths shorten, yanking her thoughts away. White-knuckled, she clings to consciousness, about to lose her grip and fall, the ravine yawning all around. The wave of oblivion washes over her, excruciating, sweeping her into the darkness…

She crashes back down, the pleasure ebbing further and further out of her, her hand damp… With not a second’s separation she is crying, her body convulsed in humiliation.

*

Her upstairs neighbor Marcus stares at the edges of the window. A wan light has begun to push through the blind-cracks. Not yet, he thinks. On the rickety folding table he’s spread all his business notes. The midterm is tomorrow or, rather, today. Marcus always feels too exhausted to think when he gets home from the night shift, so he often sets his alarm for the middle of the night to carve some shaky hours between night and dawn. His fatigue and his work-stained attention tense him, like two crossing, thin-stretched rubber bands.

Rain taps down the windowsill, growing heavier, like a metronome, reminding him to concentrate. To ignore whatever else is going on in the building… Weird, muffled human sounds keep coming up through the vents from the floor below. Little yelps and cries…

He sits back suddenly, ears cocked. The noises have become clear and dense. It’s definitely a woman. Not just crying, but wailing. He’s only ever heard it like that … death and prison. Unrestrained, choked screams … his mother sounded like that once, at his sentencing hearing.

He stands for a moment, then halts. It’s none of his business. He wonders if someone beat her up. He tries to think of who lives one floor below. It has to be … that white girl … what was her name?

*

For the first time that night, Joy can make out the sound of rain. She is aware of dawn’s violet light, pushing through the windows. Oh, God … what time is it? She has to be at work in a few hours… Whatever traces of drunken exhilaration ran through her body at the night’s start have vanished, leaving a dry throat, raw tear ducts, and pressure in her forehead. She needs to drink some water, to check the time, put on clothes. Everything in her mind has vanished, leaving behind dryness, all her body’s motion leeched out. She can feel a chasm around her skull, hollowed out by spent tears. She knows her face is haggard.

It had started as a game of seeing how far they could go … only then she couldn’t get back, she had permanently altered in his eyes and in her own. The premise—her premise—had been that their abandon was mutual, they equally discarded their selves—how could she have thought that?—that the liberties they took depended on the pleasure running both ways. Let no man put asunder… She assumed if she ever wanted Dan to stop, he would stop. Then one night, she told him to, and he didn’t. She told herself she was exaggerating. It happened again.

Joy lies crumpled on the floor. With the last of her strength, with a movement so limp and imprecise she barely feels she’s chosen it, she rises, bundling the sheets around her. She falls huddled onto her bed, crippled by shame.

Ingrid Norton

About Ingrid Norton

Ingrid Norton's essays, fiction, and reportage have appeared in publications such as Boston Review, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The St. Ann's Review. She is a doctoral student at Princeton University, and a former editor and journalist. Norton is working on a novel.

Ingrid Norton's essays, fiction, and reportage have appeared in publications such as Boston Review, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The St. Ann's Review. She is a doctoral student at Princeton University, and a former editor and journalist. Norton is working on a novel.

Leave a Comment

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *