In My Defense
by Uvi Poznansky
In my defense I have this to say: When men notice me, when the lusty glint appears in their eyes, which betrays how, in their heads, they’re stripping me naked—it’s me they accuse of being indecent.
The problem is, men notice me all the time.
How can a girl like me ever claim to be innocent? Even if I haven’t done nothing wrong, I’m already soiled, simply because of their dirty thoughts. And sometimes, it’s because of their actions. Like the time I was twelve, and Johnny shoved me into the bathroom and pinned me to the floor; and afterwards, he pointed his finger at me, saying I made him do it; because to him, I looked sexy, more sexy than my ma, whom he was about to take on a date, just as soon as she would come back from her evening shift and like, freshen up. But I, he said, was already fresh.
I try to forget the yellow stain at the foot of the toilet, and the hard, sticky floor, both of which took care of the freshness all right—but still, I have to go on learning how to live with the blame.
And it doesn’t matter, really, if I try to keep my eyes lowered, and stay out of the way, and wrap myself in something modest, like this old, rumpled blanket which I’ve just fetched from the sofa, because any second now, they may be coming in here. So I bundle myself, bringing the corners of the blanket under my arms, and tying them tightly over my breast, so the edge winds up gathering the flesh, a bit like the pleats of a curtain. I don’t care. I’ve come to dislike the way I look, and dread that thing in me, which they see as a power—but I know as a curse.
The more bewitched they claim to be by me—the more I know I’m in danger. I swear, I’ve had it up to here with men who say they are ruined by a woman. In the end, they tend to recover, and build themselves back up; and they do it, without fail, by destroying her.
So, like ma says: To keep myself out of trouble, and my name clean, it’s strength that I need—not power.
Which is why I’ve turned away, the moment Ben came in and was kissed by his father, because I knew right away that I must put as much distance as I can between us. Even there, from across the room, I could feel, like, something which couldn’t be denied, passing between his eyes and mine, behind Lenny’s back.
Right now, Ben is freeing himself from Lenny’s arms, trying to shrink away; his back kinda bent, his shoulders—angled forward, as if to defend himself, in his own timid way, from his father, and to avoid any further show of love. And his gaze, hanging heavy under those long, dark lashes, seems so sad, so full of regret, because of his moment, a brief moment of joy in that embrace.
The features of his face are so fine, they seem to be penciled in. By some mother-like instinct—which is entirely new to me—I can tell Ben is kinda lost; like a boy, longing to feel the worn-out, familiar feel of his mama’s apron, and breathe her good smell, and just stand there, giving himself up, and crying, and waiting for her to wipe his wet face, with great patience, and take away the hurt.
In my head, I can only guess how shocked he must feel—despite knowing about Lenny and me—to find me in this place, instead of his ma. You can tell he’s swamped by this new reality, as well as by his memories, and like, hopelessly sunk in his daydreams. Perhaps, somewhere deep inside, he wants me to be her.
I think Ben has an old, vague image of his ma, from a long time ago. By the way he looks at me, I know he can find her so clearly in my face, as if for him, I ain’t here at all, or like, I’m see-through. When he realizes his mistake, he seems to become annoyed. Perhaps he’s worried about his ma, and about the past that keeps haunting him, keeps coming up to the surface.
I can’t even define how he relates to me, exactly, because it keeps changing. In the last two days, ever since I met Ben, I’ve found him confused—and confusing: I pity him, seeing how consumed he is by desire. His entire body is like, burning up; and his eyes are fluttering around me until—like a moth heading, in a roundabout way, into a light source—they connect with mine. I sense his hate sometimes, and at once pull back from him, because I spot how hard his jaw is set, and even, how murderous the spark right there, under his lashes, which reminds you an animal, getting tense, getting ready for the kill.
And so, while Lenny and his son are still huddled together by the door, exchanging words, I sneak out of the living room. First, I tighten the blanket again across my chest; then I rush past them, across the hall and the corridor, and into the bedroom. From the closet I pull out an ice-blue, long sleeve dress. It’s hers—but all the same, I put it on. It fits. I’m safe. I’m shielded.
After a while I notice that their voices, which have been flaring out in heated talk, have given way to silence. So I crack my door open, and listen, and I can’t hear nothing at all, so I tiptoe down the corridor; and from there I catch sight of Lenny, lying there across the sofa. After a night with no sleep, fatigue must have caught up to him. His glasses are askew: One lens magnifies the high forehead, the other—his thinning, sleeked-back hair.
My heart aches, it goes out to him: His lips are tight even now, guarding the gate, like, the gate between being awake and dreaming. He doesn’t talk in his sleep, not even a word—but right now a snore escapes, quite by surprise, from the corner of his mouth. His arms are folded across his chest, as if even now, he’s holding himself prisoner.
And around the corner, there’s a sound of steps; so I know Ben is there. He’s pacing back and forth around the walls, as if to measure his cage; just like his father—only with a loss of nerve.
I turn back and the minute I mount the bed, I hear someone rapping softly on the closed door, saying, “Anita?”
“What is it, Ben,” I ask, bluntly. “What d’you want?”
His voice is muffled. “I hope you are feeling all right this morning,” he says. “I think I am going out in a few minutes, to see my mother. I mean, to visit—”
Which takes me completely by surprise, because since she disappeared, I’ve been waiting to hear word about Natasha; and from time to time I would ask Lenny—only to get a kiss and nothing, nothing else in return. So, for the last five years I thought, maybe she doesn’t want him to speak. He must be silent for her sake.
So I fling the door open, and as I face Ben I let slip, “You are? Where? I mean, she’s back?”
“He did not tell you anything about her, did he,” he says, stating rather than asking. I don’t even have to say it; Ben knows. I can tell he’s been through secrets. Like me, he’s been fooled. He understands how it feels.
And so I have to lie, “Tonight, for sure, Lenny’s going to reveal everything. Really; I swear.”
Which curls his lips in a strange way; if not for the bitter look, you could call it laughter. “Would you like to know? Would you? Would you want me to tell you,” he advances, “right here, right now?”
“No,” I insist, hoping he can’t see through me. “I’d rather he did.”
“I see,” he shrugs. And so I counter, “Do you,” and then we’re just waiting there, on each side of the threshold, not knowing what to say and where to go from here.
Finally Ben comes up with, “So, here is something I wanted to ask you. Forgive me, I know nothing, really, about you—but please, try to put yourself in my place. Suppose you were going to visit your mother, and wanted to remind her, I mean, about the past. About your childhood, perhaps—”
“The past? Ma isn’t too fond of that. I wouldn’t bring it up with her, if I was you; but of course, if you was to pay her, that’s totally different: She used to be a fortune teller, for real; and like, she could tell you a thing or two about the future.”
With a confused look, he passes a hand through his tousled hair, trying to smooth it the same way as his father—only in his case, it resists and falls back over his brow. “Please,” says Ben. “Help me... There is no one else. I mean, no one I can ask about this; no one I can trust. And it is not easy for me to try, to beg you for an answer. I find it nearly impossible,” he says, “to seek advice like this, without giving up something, some information about her; which apparently, you do not want to hear.”
“So,” I say, “just don’t,” which makes him angry.
“You,” he snaps, “you must find all of this strange, and much too ambiguous.”
“Ambigu-what?” I say. “Just tell me plainly, Ben: What is it you want?”
He stands there, kneading his hands, looking kinda torn. “Mom and I, we have not talked for a long while,” he admits. “I want her to be able to look back, somehow... I mean, I want her not to forget. Now, how would you go about it?”
In spite of the pity I feel for him, I don’t really want to help him. It is against my interest, because Natasha is my enemy even when she isn’t here. If she wanted to, I think she could take my power away. Go, go away already, I tell him in my mind; but aloud I say, “Just talk to her; she’ll get it.”
“No; I am afraid she won’t,” he says, grimly.
Against my interest I pity him again, this time for being so full of doubts, and so sad, and most of all, isolated. “Just tell her a story,” I suggest. “Bring up something from the heart.”
“I cannot. I do not know how,” he mumbles, painfully.
I must be out of my mind to try to take him out of a tight spot; which in spite of myself, I’m getting closer to doing. “Think of something you share, both of you. You’ll be surprised, she’ll listen. She’ll tell you stories about you, which you don’t even know about yourself.”
“No,” he says, with a grave tone in his voice. “I doubt she can.”
And I say, “Wait here; don’t move. I have an idea.”
Which is the moment when, because of that nagging sense of pity, I ignore a gut feeling that tells me to shut the door in his face. Instead, I make a bad mistake: leaving the it open I take a step back, and roll myself twice over the bed, all the way across, to Lenny’s side. And from his drawer I pull out a thick album, with a metal clasp, which locks over the gilded edge of its pages, about which I know: I’m not supposed to know nothing.
Still, I can tell you that there’s one picture, one special picture missing there, in the middle of the second page. The reason I’m so sure about it, if you must know, is that it took me a few tries—first by trying to pick the corner, then by heating the glue with my hairdryer, which kinda damaged the surface, and later, by threading a floss under it—to remove the picture and finally, stash it away.
“Here,” I say coming back, carrying the album to him. “You must know this album, right? Just look at it together, you and your ma. The rest will come easy, I promise.”
He smiles, like he’s overcome by a thrill. As if being greeted by an old friend, he passes a hand, so tender like, over the cover, feeling the fine cracks in the leather, the raised spine. Meanwhile, he lets me go on holding the thing; so by now I have to support it with both hands, it’s so heavy. At last I give up. I take a step back and sit there, on the edge of the bed. Ben draws closer. He unlocks the clasp. Now he’s spreading the pages open, right here in my lap, over my wrists.
And together we look at the pages: How they are turning yellow along the edges, how brown spots are like, blossoming all over them, and how the photos are fading, even though they’re protected, under the seal of clear plastic sheets. On each page there are sticky strips. This glue holds the photos in place—but also, because of the acid in it, destroys them.
“God,” he lets out. “It takes so much guessing to study these images. Just like a memory: You are left clinging to something which now, is no longer a record; instead, it is just... Nothing. I mean, nothing more than a hint, a suggestion.”
With a clap Ben shuts the album, and takes it off my hands, and slips it under his jacket; so now it’s held in place by the close-fitting waistband, and pressed to his chest by both arms. Already I see him standing kinda taller, more erect than earlier this morning, perhaps because of the weight, the extra weight he’s carrying now, next to his heart.
Like ma says, the heavier the load—the more you straighten yourself. For me this is something new, something that only now that I’m pregnant, I begin to understand.
So my hands are empty now, and I can’t give him no help no more, which wakes me up to a change: From the corner of his eye, Ben is looking down at me, and a glint flashes there, under his lashes; a glint which I’ve come to know all too well.
It exposes his desire, his craving to touch me; because to him, who cares what I have to lose. Who cares that I’m carrying a baby inside. Who cares whose wife I am, or whose son he is. Who cares how we got to this place. Suddenly here we are: A man and a woman and nothing in between—other than a tremble in the air, and the thrill of danger.
In a blink of an eye I can see the trap, and I hate him for setting it up—even if he did so without intent. And I hate myself for being caught in it. Sooner or later, my innocence will be called into question; and who’ll believe a girl like me?
This brings back a memory of ma calling me a bitch, because of what happened back then, when I was twelve, between Johnny and me. I argued with her, insisting that no, don’t call me that, I get to decide who I am and what I am, and what I would be, I—and nobody else but me. And she countered that if he touched me, we already knew—beyond any doubt—what I had become.
At this point the only thing, the only barrier that seems to make Ben stumble, and holds him back from taking me, is the sight of the dress—which Natasha used to wear—hanging stiffly, kinda like ice, over my body. I find myself grateful to her, because in a way, she’s shielding me. He can’t strip me naked—not even in his mind.
So I gather my strength, and before he can pour out his feelings, and confess to have fallen, like, under my power, and tell me he’s ruined, all because of me, I wave my hand and tell him to go, go away already.
Ben seems unhappy to be dismissed so casually. I bet he’s thinking me cruel to him. Perhaps he’s asking himself, why is the bitch playing so hard to get? She has drawn me here, to her bed—hasn’t she? He seems so unsure about himself, about what, if anything, he is supposed to do now; but if he’s feeling ashamed, it’s not for wanting his old man’s woman—but sadly, for this show of impotence.
He hesitates, then turns slowly, to walk out of the bedroom; at which time I can swear I see an outline there, far behind his shoulder, in the depth of the corridor.
Maybe I’m seeing things, but—for just a second—I detect a flash, reflected like, in someone’s glasses. Down there in the shadow, someone’s looking, recording every detail, every damn aspect of this scene: A man and a woman, and nothing in between.
I want to ask, Is it you? Is it you, Lenny? Why are you standing there nursing, like, the wounds of jealousy? Why aren’t you coming to my help? But instead, I slam the door shut. All I want to be is alone.
Why do I feel guilty when I haven’t done nothing wrong.
Then I raise the corner of the mattress, which is where I’ve stashed away that old picture, the one that was glued in the middle of the second page of the album. The sight of it calms me down, at first. I pick it up and study every detail—like I’ve done so many times before—because like, the image may go on fading, until in the end, nothing will be left. I’m so charmed by it. This moment delights me as if I had lived it, even though—or maybe because—it is stolen.
In it, a baby is about to be lifted from a cradle by his mama. The features of his face are so close—but barely visible. You can only guess them, because the surface is a bit damaged, and most of the lines are like, out of focus—except for a dark contour, which is still intact, marking the shadow of his long, curved lashes.
I put a hand to my belly, and touch my lips to the image, right there, over that shadow. I wonder if this is how my baby is going to look, and marvel at the thought of how his eyes would change when he wakes, or falls asleep, or rolls them, like, in the sphere of his dreams, and then later, when he grows up to become a man; because it’s so easy to fill in the details on a page that is almost blank.
On the other side, right there behind the cradle, the mother—whose lips, and cheeks, and freckled nose are just like mine—is leaning over with open arms. Her face is serious, without the slightest smile. She’s looking directly at the one observing her, whom I’ve previously imagined to be Lenny; but today, I find a change in her. This time, it is me she is facing.
The way she looks at me is severe, critical, even disapproving, perhaps because the laugh lines have dimmed with time; but then, her eyes! Oh God, they’re so clear, so full of pure, glorious light; which, for a moment, brings me close to despair. I’m in awe. The two of us look the same, just like sisters—but oh, how I wish I could be more like her!
I don’t have nothing more I want to say in my defense—except to ask you again: Put yourself in my place. How can a girl like me ever claim to be innocent?
|Uvi Art Gallery|