As his handprint sears into your back, you wonder how you became the sort of woman who lets a man steer her through a crowded barroom. An old friend, a young waitress, and a once-loved setting help give you a glimmer of the woman you once were, but will it shake you free from the trance?
“Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.” Genesis 3:16
She began this out-of-body perching months ago, shortly after she married the man whose hand now presses into the hollow above her waist. He propels her past the throng of smokers gathered in the sunlit alley. Never in a million years did she think a man would rule over her. Yet here she is allowing her husband to grind his palm into her back as he nudges her through the door.
When the pressure stops, she comes to a standstill. She used to come to Bud’s every Saturday afternoon to listen to the musicians jam the blues. Her feet would hardly hit the floor before the regulars swallowed her into their world. But she stands blinking away sunspots, waiting for—well, she’s not sure what she’s waiting for.
Years ago, before they got serious, her husband loved how she lit up the room. She was carefree in jeans and a pony-tail. Her crinkled eyes and contagious smile were her only adornments. He caught her off-guard the day he suggested a little lipstick and mascara, saying she’d look prettier. Though hesitant, she complied. Her metamorphosis began.
Over the years, his suggestions grew more demanding. He hinted that bright synthetic dresses suited her better. Each time she cut her hair, he grumped, so she grew it long. He was adamant about her wearing her hair down when they went out. With each small change, she faded.
Shortly after their nuptials, he pouted because she laughed too loudly. When he suggested that maybe he wasn’t the only one annoyed by her exuberance, she balked. Ever since she’s been paying attention. Hovering has given her a better perspective.
Today, she’s decided to come to the jam to see her friends—it’s been months since she’s seen them. Her breath catches in her throat as the waitress she’s somewhat befriended spins past them, loaded tray held high about her mauve head. What if her friends saw her being steered in like a cow? Heat flushes her cheeks.
“I gotta go to the can,” her husband says. “Don’t wander too far.” There is no hint of a smile—a warning? His piercing grey eyes pin her in place until she nods. Her stomach knots up.
Eddy’s voice replaces the clash of symbols on the stage, “Let’s give it up for Ziggy, Dave and Bryan. Next up, we’ve got the Byrds, Nick, Brandon and the beautiful Niiiii-ka.”
A colony of baby bats has taken up residence in her abdomen. Her roiling stomach has jostled them awake. She winces as their claws dig into her gut as they rearrange their wings.
Her husband schlepps down the narrow hall behind the stage—saggy jeans creeping dangerously low, a pilled polyester t-shirt that’s not quite long enough revealing hairy flesh. And those awful rubber shoes! She regrets wearing her electric blue dress—the one he insisted she wear even though it’s much too fancy for this place.
He disappears. She exhales, and the baby bats nestle into their wings and settle their little upside-down feet and drift to sleep. Pinpointing her friends shaking it up on the dancefloor, she descends from her roost and heads toward them.
“He determines the number of stars. He gives each one a name.” Psalm 147:4
The waitress twirls towards me, her tattooed bicep bulging beneath the loaded tray. Flicking long mauve bangs from her eyes, she says, “Double on the rocks?”
Smiling, I nod, and she juts her chin toward a silver-haired man. She knows where I belong. Draft beer in hand, my old friend leans against our usual table. Sailing on the jammers’ notes, I soar past the ladies busting loose on the dancefloor. The musicians are on fire today—the singer croons, and the young kid twiddles the strings and his guitar weeps a raspy exhale.
I scooch up against him and say, “Hey.”
His eyes twinkle when he sees me. He swaddles me up in his Old Spice and ink and whispers in my ear, “Hello, Sweetheart. It’s been a while.” The worn planks creak in time to the beat thumping up through our feet. Closing my eyes, I travel to the library of my first house. Patchouli rises like fog from the mantel, and Norah Jones purrs, “Come away with me in the night…” My silver-haired friend and I lie on the scarred hardwood and fix our eyes on the night sky shimmering beyond the window. In that room, the possibilities were as numerous as the stars.
The waitress delivering my drink—the rattle of ice cubes on glass—returns me to the jam. “Pretty dress,” she says. I unravel from the past and blink away the bite of tears.
Clearing my throat, I hand her a twenty and say, “Keep the change.” Her painted-on brows shoot up. Later, if she asks, I’ll tell her that despite the barroom bustle, she made me feel remembered—and less silly in this party dress. That should count for something.
I tilt the glass to my lips. Ice clinks against my teeth before a chilled trickle of whiskey kisses my tongue. That younger me looking out at the stars could never have imagined I’d end up in a situation like this. She would not come to this grungy bar wearing this festive dress. She would have shirked off a man who attempted to change her.
On stage, the young guitarist closes his eyes. He leans into the beat and his fingers unfurl a breath-taking riff.
When the waitress returns, I’ll point to the young jammer and tell her, “See how he lets himself go?” Or maybe, “We’re all like the jammers and the dancers—we just make it up as we go. Trust your gut, and you’ll rarely make mistakes. Life’s possibilities are as numerous as the stars.”
Next to me, my old friend clears his throat. The pulling away is subtle. Our eyes fix on my husband barrelling through the crowded bar.
When the waitress returns, I’ll say, “All around us, people are breaking free. What are we waiting for?”
“How long will your wrath burn like fire?” Psalm 89:46
Shame—like flames—licks your cheeks and quickens your heart. How dare he insert himself between you and your friend!
Now, he drapes a beefy arm around your shoulders, compressing your vertebrae like the plunger in a syringe.
You take another sip of whiskey and hold the fire on your tongue.
If you open your mouth, the pent-up rage that’s accumulated in the past months will burble up and you won’t be able to stop until you are shrieking. You aren’t the type to make public scenes, so you clamp your teeth. Dark curls are pinned under his arm. You manage to tug a few ringlets free, but they’ve been crushed, ironed flat, by the hefty heat.
Tears—your internal waterline—rise to the surface. You had such beautiful hair, but now it’s threaded through with grey and Velcroed to your electric blue party dress. Even in this somber room, the bright purple and orange flowers catch the light. It used to be you who lit up a room.
It shouldn’t be so difficult to breathe around this man. What used to feel protective has grown burdensome. You toss back the whiskey and hold the half-melted ice cubes on your tongue. You’re unsure who changed—you, him? Whatever happened, you’re suffocating.
Shrugging free, you turn to signal the waitress and point at your glass. Beaming, she nods as applause spreads through the bar like a wildfire. Eddy takes the mic, “Let’s give it up for Mike, Cece and the beautiful Victoria Lynne! We’ve got more jammers in the house, so don’t go too far.”
The jammers unplug from the amps and the dancers disperse. The friends you came to see flock to table. Warmth floods your heart as they reach out, preparing to wrap you into their arms. Before they reach you, your husband binds his hand to the small of your back.
Your stomach summersaults.
Don’t go too far—he warned earlier, and he meant it. When you walked across the barroom, you could not shirk his handprint. You still carry it like a brand.
RACHEL LAVERDIERE is a Saskatoon-based writer. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction pieces are published in journals such as The New Quarterly, filling Station, and FreeFall Magazine. Rachel’s flash fiction was shortlisted for the Geist 2015 Short Long-Distance Writing Contest.
Featured image: Suhyeon Choi photography on Unsplash.