By Eleanor Cowan
A young woman from my building banged on my door at 3 a.m. “It’s me! Darlene!” Soon on the couch and sipping the hot tea I made for us both, she wept uncontrollably. “I know what happened,” the twenty-four-year-old cried as we waited for the police to arrive.
“I know what happened. He ordered me a night cap at the bar while I was in the washroom. I don’t remember going to his place. I woke up undressed and in pain. Oh! I’m lucky I escaped.”
“Wow, a nightcap knocked you out like that?” I asked, tucking my shawl around her shaking form.
“No, not the drink but the drug dropped into it when I wasn’t looking!” she replied, in tears.
The two responding officers, both women, gently comforted Darlene and led her to their car and then to the hospital for the caring medical examination that I never got.
That very night, Darlene’s abuse enabled me to recall my own trauma. Memories began to surface.
Twenty years earlier, also at twenty-four years old, I’d been so excited about our trip – the light breakfast served on the plane, the fancy hotel room with tiny bars of perfumed soap, mountains of white towels and pillows piled on the bed – and the soft mattress that I never got to sleep on. In my second year of enjoying the title of Business Manager of a trade magazine, my aging boss and I flew to represent his company at an elegant firefighter’s convention.
In our roped-off area in the main hall, among the other sellers, Mr. Normins set out dishes of expensive chocolate to tempt firefighters and their families. Behind a cardboard ad of a blazing red fire truck set up on our table, my boss tucked his Marilyn Monroe ashtray, the one I cleaned compulsively. It bothered me to see her lovely smile ground out by the cigarettes he smoked down to the filter, her body smeared in ashes and butts.
“Now, always take a few seconds to jot down one identifying feature, a bit of data on the back of their business cards right after you meet, say ‘Joe Blow,’” instructed my boss as we awaited visitors. “So, when Joe happens to blow by next year, you can ask him if his daughter, Tootsie, did well at school this year or if his wife, Flossie, is still with Toastmasters. Little hooks work. Right away they think they’re supposed to know you, and if you look a little slighted, why, that helps reel in the ads too.”
After that busy day, I was stretched out in front of the TV in my quiet, restful room when my boss knocked on my door. Sucking on a cigarette, his mouth wrinkled into a corrugated grimace, he asked, “May I prevail upon you to do an old man a favor?” He confided that tonight marked the first anniversary of the death of his long-time mistress, Jean.
Earlier that day, at the booth, he shared that many years ago he’d made a bad mistake. He’d married an academic bookish type who over the years managed to get Crohn’s disease. “Problems with her female plumbing system. Now don’t judge me,” he added, “I didn’t abandon ship. After all she birthed my four children and I’ll always finance her. Still, with all the nightly bathroom moans and groans, you can understand that I quietly moved into a second bedroom.
“Then I met Jean, the prize of my life. Man, could she hold her liquor! We were glued solid for twelve years till she died suddenly last year. Stomach problems. Ulcers. Boy oh boy, have I been unlucky.”
While I imagined the nameless mother of four agonizing in her bathroom and Mr. Normins’ former business manager dying with ulcers, my boss said he desperately needed to honor Jean’s life right here, in this hotel where they’d spent their last time together — before she’d abandoned him to desolation.
I glanced back to my new book, my Rosette chocolate buds, and my big soft bed in such a beautiful room. Perhaps Mr. Normins gauged my reluctance.
“To tell you the god’s truth, Eleanor, I feel suicidal tonight.”
I disliked my boss and planned a speedy departure as soon as I finished my last courses that term. Still that didn’t mean I’d abandon a suicidal man. After all, in my teens, I’d rescued my own mother from her first suicide attempt. Sadly, I didn’t make it for her last.
“In the main lounge?” I agreed. “Ten minutes?”
“Eleanor, I’d like us to do a small eulogy for Jean, in the exact same room she and I shared last year. I pre-booked it months ago. I’ve already placed two of Jean’s personal items, a ring and an ankle bracelet, both gifts from me, on a little table by the window. The Maître d’ lent me a linen dinner napkin and, in anticipation of your kindness, I half-filled two crystal glasses of Jean’s favorite wine for our toast to her. I’d be grateful for even a half hour of your time, Eleanor.”
The next morning, I awakened in his bed to the scent of cologne. I opened my eyes groggily to see Mr. Normins standing over me dressed in his pin-striped suit and tie. He smiled down at me. “You were a tigress, Babe” he said, a lit smoke in one hand. “God, I couldn’t keep you off me. I tried to get you out of my room and into yours but you stripped naked and jumped my bones so fast I couldn’t handle you.”
Shame seared my body from my confused head to my stunned toes. I began to shiver.
“I’ll be at the booth,” he said. “I won’t speak of your behavior to anyone and I suggest you follow suit.”
It was my turn to feel suicidal. When the door closed, I stumbled into the bathroom, my body sluggish. The floor-length mirror reflected dozens of small bruises, round, the size of thumb prints, red lacerations and bite marks all over my breasts, abdomen and back. My left nipple was bleeding. My buttocks were black and blue as though spanked. I spotted his razor on the back of the toilet.
“In two minutes, this could be over,” I thought. I knelt there, believing every word my boss told me.
“Get up,” said a calm voice inside me. “Get dressed and get out of here. That’s Step One.”
When I saw my novel and my untouched chocolate in my room, I longed to turn the clock back to yesterday. Flying home was punishing. My internal organs ached during the one-hour trip. It was painful to eat, drink or sit, even on plush first-class seats. Mr. Normins downed my complimentary drink and then, slipping his empty dinner platter onto my tray, transferred my meal to himself.
“Why waste good meat?” he said.
Darlene called me in the wee hours. I sat where she’d sat. I wore the shawl she’d worn. I wept too.
“It’s me. May I stay with you tonight? My bruises were photographed and a rape dossier filled out. I’m going to press charges. I’m so glad you were home.”
She began to cry again, and so did I.
I’d just realized that I’d believed a lie about myself for twenty shameful years.