The man and woman raised their heads to the snow falling in gentle sprinkles of white around them. The fluffy flakes that fell endlessly from the sky seemed to have no beginning, only a continual shower of glimmering white shavings that shined iridescent in the light of the dewy morning. As they looked toward the eternal flurry, steamy breath mingling in the air above them forming faint clouds, it appeared to them the world was on their side. That at that moment they and their love were invincible. The only thing that mattered, that was forever like the snow surrounding their embracing bodies. She thought not of the monster waiting at home, nor he of his lies and the home he lacked. Today, tomorrow, and even what was to come was forgotten. Only the now concerned them. Only the feel of her plush body folded inside his strong arms and his warming heat radiating on her back was real. Only their hearts, harmonious. Gentle yet strong, beating thump thump to the same rhythm. She sighed into him and he tightened his hold around her, puzzle pieces fitting firm and solid and complete, as they gazed together into the snowy abyss.
. . . . .
The first time he saw the bruises was the morning after their first night together. In a flash of remembrance, realization, it dawned on him why she had wanted the lights off. Why in the heat of the moment she had softly touched his face and with a long slender finger pointed to the lamp by the bed. He protested. She was insistent. He complied. For even without his eyes, he saw with hands, lips, flesh. Every touch, every stroke, every tender, tingling caress drew a map of the pleasure wonderland that was her body.
That morning seemed so long ago, he thought as he laid in her bed, fingering the fresh purple bruise below her breast. Since then he had spent nearly every weekend with her in dingy motel rooms, the backseat of her van, and even occasionally her home when her husband left on overnight trips for his work. This was not unfamiliar to him. Unhappy adulterous wives and sneaking behind their incompetent, balding husbands had been the source of his livelihood for years. He knew the game. Bait, hook, reel, release. Get in and get out after making some cash and keep it clean. Never get involved. Love means nothing, it’s just a sorry excuse for pathetic unfortunates that lost the game. But even so. Even after years of playing and ingraining this mantra, he couldn’t seem to convince himself when he was with her.
He threw the blankets off her naked body, revealing the discolored bruises that stained her battered flesh. Milky white skin turned foul and rotten, a peach fallen from its basket onto cold, unforgiving terrain, and almost unrecognizable from what it had once been. Despite his futile denial, it pained him to see her like this. To see what was beneath the long turtleneck sweaters and shapeless slacks. The horrifying secrets she hid from the world with simple cloth and buttons. His heart clenched, wrung like wet laundry, with every mottled bruise, old and new, and every ugly scar that disfigured a body that was meant to be beautiful. It was hard to deny further, the care he felt for this wounded bird. Never had he, the veteran player, imagined that one day he would succumb to that same laughable infliction that infected those he had spurned and condemned. Is it possible… could it be that he had lost? But even then, lying there watching the rays of golden sun kiss the deep purple patches tainting her naked skin, he knew the answer.
. . . . .
She opened her eyes to his grieving face. She knew what he was looking at, looking for; knew by his eyes traveling the length of her body and the pauses and hesitations where she knew was another ugly reminder. She silently cursed herself for not waking earlier, precipitating this. She sighed and her lover met her eyes.
A statement, not a question. His eyes bored into hers, challenging her, speaking the unspoken accusation, resolution.
“David. Stop,” she cast him a withering look, pleading silently that he would drop the subject and this moment would remain unsullied by such dangerous talk, “Please…leave him alone. We’re just going through some… problems.”
He cupped his face with one hand, fingers pressing against his eyes. It was no use. Under the dark of his closed eyes he could still see with vivid, painful clarity the unnatural marks that colored her pale skin. A human ragdoll, David thought. Not one area devoid of bruises, rope burns, dull and shiny scars, evidence of “husband and wife” quality time. The image, the contrast of black, purple, yellow, red against white was tattooed to the inside of his eyelids.
“Elie…he’s going to kill you. Do you understand? You’re going to die like this, we have to- we have to do-”
“Stop it, I won’t. David, this is nothing. We’re working through this together. This doesn’t concern you…”
Elie drifted off. Because it was then that David raised his head, removed the hand from his face, and looked at her with pained eyes and an expression so unlike his usual youthfully cheeky self that he seemed an entirely different man. Older, sad, and tortured with agonizing years far beyond his own. Yet his eyes showed no weakness, no mercy, only intensity as he looked at her and said,
“Run away with me, Elie. Let’s just run away.”
She shivered. Elie pulled the blankets over her exposed body, feigning cold, and turned away from him. Turned away from the truth in his words and eyes and withdrew into herself. To escape the escape she had created from her husband. David was her solace and she loved him, but though she would never admit it, Elie still couldn’t leave the man she had been with for twelve years. Gil. Since she was just a girl, seventeen, wild and rebellious, she loved him. Loved him from the moment he moved in next door, muscles glistening in the hot summer sun as he travelled back and forth from the moving van to the house carrying cardboard boxes that only further enhanced the strong biceps pulled deliciously taut over smooth skin. Gil. The first boy that had her, and for a long time, the only. Elie closed her eyes as she became awash with the pain, the regret, her memories. Sweaty skin sticking to the hot leather of his proud, rusted truck. Salty lips against hers that somehow, inexplicably, tasted sweeter than anything she’d ever known. The murmur of her name on his lips after they dozed off together, fingers intertwined, and her fervent wish that this moment never end.
That was then. Yet still, she couldn’t leave behind and forget, despite the suffering and agony, the tenderness only he could give her. And such tenderness. After the rages and the tears and the screams, Elie would hide away in the closet and wait for the storm to pass, for the werewolf to transform back to her beloved. And he would come, knocking gently on the closet doors, opening them, and crouching low to hold the trembling woman to his warm chest. She would tentatively look up, leaving a bloody mark imprinted on his shirt, and search for the all clear, the signal, his smile. The slightly sheepish, apologetic grin of a little boy caught in the act of doing something naughty. Sorry, yet the mischievous mouth seemed to say ‘no promises!’.
It was a sickness, this love. A sickness that was killing her.
Elie could feel David shifting behind her, sitting up and facing her. She didn’t turn around, afraid of what she might see, might have to do if she met those eyes.
“Elie. I love you.”
. . . . .
Gil was in a bad mood. The overnight weekend conference he had gone for his company had been cut short, delayed by some bigwig pricks that refused to show. For months he had prepared and rehearsed his presentation. Everything was in his suitcase as he dropped it next to the front door, unseen and unpraised, as he arrived home that morning. Gil wondered if his wife was awake, though she was probably still in bed since she thought he wasn’t home. Elie was just lazy like that. Had no consideration for her hardworking husband that brought bread to the table and took care of her troublemaking tendencies. Gil had to fix that. Even as a child, Gil knew he was different from the other kids. He felt an inexplicable duty, a righteous sense of justice and responsibility that often manifested itself in tantrums, rash impulses, violence. However, the explosive childhood temper only worsened as Gil matured into a dangerous teenager. And when his mother packed her bags and left their broken family, Gil came to the realization that women required discipline and order. Seduction came naturally to Gil. Girls had always flocked to his side, but he knew how fickle and volatile a woman’s love could be. Women were no different than dogs to him. Wild bitches that needed to be leashed, dominated, and subdued by strong men like Gil, despite what society foolishly deemed acceptable. The man of the house controlled the house. Elie had been a particularly difficult challenge to tame, but that only made Gil try that much harder to woo and eventually break his bitch. And broken she was. Gil saw to that. From the way she now walked, shoulders slumped and eyes meekly cast down, avoiding his hard glare, Gil knew that he had claimed her. His wife, his pet. Elie was his and his alone, forever and always, till death do them part.
Gil had begun to chuckle, wanted to see his sweet, beloved pet and give her a good long quality reunion, until his eyes drifted to the floor and his laugh died in his throat, never leaving his lips and making a sound. Shoes were strewn haphazardly on the floor, creating a mess in the parlor, but that was not what caught his eye, unnerved him. It was one of the pairs. They were an old pair of battered tennis shoes. Filth clung to the sides and soles of the sneakers and turned the would-be white shoes an ashy gray and black. They were much larger than Elie’s sandals scattered next to them- men’s shoes. Unrecognizable men’s shoes.
Gil grit his teeth, grinding them together until the sound of bone on bone filled his head as he charged into the house, not bothering to shuffle off his own hard leather loafers. He knew where to go. If this was as he suspected, then there was only one place to go, only one thing to do. His mind was still blank, disbelieving, though his face had taken on a frightening expression, jaw protruding and teeth bared like a hound’s, ready to bite.
He stopped in front of the closed bedroom door for just a moment before he gripped the knob tight and swung it back so forcefully that it nearly broke from its hinges. A crash of thunder resounded in the house, shook the foundation and the world itself seemed to vibrate violently the moment the door struck the wall, revealing the bedroom lovers. In that brief second before they were exposed and their world began to end, Gil heard the murmur of Elie- his Elie- choke, “I love you, too”.
There, before his eyes in plain sight, was the lanky body of an unknown man sitting up in his bed. With Elie, his wife, beside him. Gil’s mind swam with questions, anger, incredulity- it was all too much to comprehend, to understand. What was happening here? What was going on? Before he settled on one solid thought, plan, Gil was lost. As it always happened during arguments and frustration, confusion, Gil’s mind shut down, became obsolete as his nerves, his wrath, took over. It was the rage that controlled him now. A powerful wave of black hate and bloody fury engulfed his mind and body and he was helpless, lost, as rage consumed him and compelled the actions that he would later remember, exempt, and justify.
Gil’s eyes blurred and reddened as he lunged toward the bed. Before the stranger even turned his head, registered what was happening, he was gripped by the shoulders by what felt like a stone claw and thrust off the bed in one rough movement, feet barely grazing the ground and striking the wall of the bedroom where he soon lay crumpled on the floor. With the man out of his eyes, his way, Gil focused on the truly guilty one. The whore that had betrayed him, defecated on their marriage vows and their love. He saw her for what she really was then, not his obedient wife, but a demon just like any other woman he had ever known. Just like his mother. A sinner, a monster. Elie.
The first blow with the iron fist landed on her screaming mouth. Gil’s hand came away crimson from her bloody face and his knuckles cut on her teeth, but the pain did not impede him. It was nonexistent. All that was now, this treacherous bitch and his fists. Evil versus justice. Gil’s hand caught her cheek next, felt the fragile bones of her face tremble, give way. Elie’s head snapped sideways violently from the force and a long sticky string of blood and saliva flew out of her mouth onto the pristine white pillow, staining it. Gil felt an involuntary wave of disgust as he looked at this messy slob of a woman and, without hesitation, landed another blow on her breast, creating ripples in the soft delicate flesh and relishing the gasp of pain that escaped her breathless lips. By now she was no longer screaming, only the struggle for breath and painful wheezing took over her voice as Elie drifted into near unconsciousness.
But Gil wasn’t finished. He was nowhere near done or satisfied. He raised his fists again for a blow to the nose, ribs, stomach, when he felt a heavy thud on the back of his neck and heard the shatter of a light bulb. And Gil was falling, falling, eyes wide and unseeing. The world froze and everything was black.
. . . . .
David wasn’t a fighter. He didn’t want to rely on that old maxim but he really was only a lover. Since childhood he had never needed to fight his own battles, blessed with bright blue eyes and a wide attractive mouth that seemed in a perpetual knowing smirk, it was girls that always fought for him and protected him. Other than his good looks and charm he wasn’t good for much else. Too ditzy to work an office job. Too weak and lazy to labor. He was poor and lived through the women he bedded, living with one acquaintance for a while and sleeping with another when he became unwelcome. David never thought ahead, he lived in the moment. That is, until he met Elie, who lived in the past, in her memories. Had he known that this strange woman concealed a secret that would force him to fight, David never would have approached Elie that unfortunate day he loitered around bored, lazily searching for a new target. Had he known he would be standing over a fallen man with a broken lamp in his hand and a shattered, uncertain future ahead, he would never have met the woman the next day after their encounter.
But it was too late. David was in love.
He stood above Gil, panting heavily and holding the metal lamp tightly in his hands. The bulb lay shattered at his feet. David glanced up from the immobile man and looked at Elie who had sat up, bloody face starting to swell, still naked on the bed. Her face was a mask of pain, relief, horror, as she stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed at her husband.
“Did… did you kill him?”
She winced, it hurt to speak. David looked at the body again. Unmoving.
“I don’t know.”
He shook his head. Cleared it. Realized.
“Elie! We have to go. We have to go now!”
David stretched his hand out to her, palm up, imploring her with his eyes to take his hand and be with him. Elie stared at his waiting hand. Half of a puzzle that needed the other piece, her hand, to complete it and make it whole. She looked again at Gil, at his still body perhaps growing colder or starting to awaken. For a moment she thought of calling an ambulance. Of getting dressed, washing her face, calling the hospital to take care of Gil before it was too late and waiting for him to wake up, forgive her, and grace her again with that sweet, childish grin. Gil. His gentle voice breathing her name in that old truck bathed in light and happiness so many summers ago. Gil’s hands, tender and loving. His hands, violent and relentless. Gil, her husband, her lover. Her tormentor. Elie’s eyes stayed on him. Gil.
She looked up from the sound of her name. David’s hand was still stretched towards her. Pleading her.
. . . . .
The woman stared out of the train’s window at the scenery zooming by. It was dusk now and the golden rose of the twilight sky kissed the plains of the horizon. She could see nothing but trees and greenery and the vastness above them and she had no idea where she was. Her eyes brimmed with tears and a silent sob escaped her throat. Glistening, they travelled down and gazed into her lap where her hand lay entangled with that of her sleeping lover’s. Two pieces of a puzzle, finally whole.
Together in this moment.