The soft sun grazed the ocean’s surface with a languid haze and I breathed in the salty air that wafted through our curtains. The weight of his hand on my knee secured me to the earth, so I did not need to break my gaze from the open window to feel the sense of safety that comes with being loved. That’s why I agreed to spend two months backpacking around India by his side, not just because he was a big guy, but because he held my hand in the train car when it got too crowded and I thought I might have to jump out the window for air.
Last night, we rode around on the back of a rickshaw for two hours after our train delivered us to Kochi. Our driver could not locate a vacant hotel.
“I told you we shouldn’t have gotten on that train. It’s the middle of the night and we have nowhere to sleep now.” My voice was agitated. I hadn’t slept in twenty hours. I finished the last of my crackers two stations ago.
“What do you mean you told me so? You agreed to buy these tickets, too. I didn’t force you at gunpoint.” His voice was harsh. I expected too much from him.
“It wasn’t like I had a choice. I have to stay with you.”
“Honestly, I don’t give a shit what you do.”
I cried then. It was an irrational, but necessary cry, releasing the tension burning in my throat. Lesser men have called this deliberate outpour phony, but he held me and apologized sincerely. Soon after, our driver spotted a hotel with lights on and let us off on the curb. I didn’t care what the room looked like. In India, we had stayed in everything from a pad on a dirt floor of a shack for $1.50 to a luxury palace for $20 a night. The room was perfect. After a warm shower in a mildewed bathroom, we passed out on our stiff but clean bed.
In the morning, we bought two lattes at a coffee shop on the corner, a luxurious expense. I found a flyer for a yoga class. The barista showed me a map and explained that it was a two mile hike across Kochi to the yoga studio. I was not a particularly brave person though I prided myself on being independent. Having traveled around India for two months, I felt confident that I could make the walk alone. Yes, Indians tirelessly stared at me, deadpan, like staring at a TV set and, yes, they were apt to push their way into my personal space with aloof disregard, but I wanted an afternoon that belonged only to me.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?” he asked. He kissed my bare shoulder with sweet concern. I turned toward him curled up on the bed beside me. We both felt a residual fragility from the fight the night before, like walking on a tight rope holding hands. If one slips, we both fall, unless the other chooses to let go.
“I can do it. I’ll be fine. It’s a short walk.”
“This isn’t because of what I said, is it?”
“No, of course not,” I lied. “What are you so worried about anyway?”
“That something might happen to you.”
“I don’t know, murder? Rape?”
I smirked to appear incredulous, though I was glad he was concerned. Most men I dated didn’t understand why I wouldn’t go out at night or hike in remote woods alone. Not that they were rude, but they were naïve. At least he got it. Still, it was daylight and the city crowded with friendly people.
“Did you know that 1 in 6 women in the United States are raped? Isn’t that crazy?” I said.
“I did know that. Thanks for reminding me.”
“I think it’s even higher in India.”
“It’s kind of crazy that I haven’t been raped.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said.
“1 in 3 women experience sexual assault. And that’s only reported cases. Seems like it would be more.”
“I don’t know.” The wind picked up and the curtain flipped across the blue wall. People on the street shouted at each other in Hindi. My throat tickled and I coughed.
“Have you been assaulted?”
“Once or twice.”
“Once or twice? Why are you so nonchalant about it?” He combed my hair with his thick fingers, careful not to pull at the knots.
“I don’t know.”
“No, it’s dumb.”
“I want to know.”
Then I told him the story about something that happened to me in high school. I had nearly forgotten about it. There was a party one night downtown at my friend Jack’s. Jack graduated the year before and had his own apartment close to the convenience store where my boyfriend Andy bought forties of beer and cigars to use for blunts that he would seal artistically with honey. That’s where I saw Francois again; maybe it had been five years since our paths crossed or since I noticed them crossing, considering that the probability of passing in the hallways at school was likely.
Francois was in my French class in junior high, and though we mingled with different sorts, we were friends. I sat next to him in class for a whole semester and we joked about the teacher, Monsieur Didier, which Francois swore translated to Mr. Dude. Mr. Dude was always telling us to quiet down or he’d separate us. I got a C in French that year.
In high school, all people dispersed into new groups, new friends, more segregated, more exclusive. I didn’t know where Francois dispersed to. I mostly gathered outside of school with boys on skateboards and girls in bell bottoms. Eventually, I had a boyfriend, Andy, who was hopelessly goofy for me and did not hide it. We kissed once and, another time, he got me drunk and we made it to second base.
Francois and I talked the way people do at a party when they are drinking underage and don’t know what to say to someone – over-excited, optimistic. I don’t remember what we talked about. I was glad to reconnect with him, someone I fondly considered a friend. This must be why, when it came time to leave, and Andy told me that he was driving home Sean, Chris and James who lived in the same apartment complex as Francois, I offered him a ride.
Five big guys in baggy jeans hovered around Andy’s dad’s Camry awaiting the sound of disengaged locks and as they climbed in with the effort of lumbering giants, I reconsidered my girlfriend privileges of automatic shotgun and offered it to James, the biggest of the big guys. Instead, I piled into the back, onto Francois’s lap, because he was nearest the door.
That’s when I felt a hard bulge beneath my ass, which I could only assume was a penis because Andy had done an admirable job of not taunting me with such a thing, and a hand climbing up my inner thigh. I firmly pushed Francois’s encroaching hand off of my leg, hoping he would get the message and stop his doubly inappropriate advances since we were shoved in the backseat with two others and my boyfriend was driving. But he did not get the message. Instead, he began gyrating his hips beneath me. My head pulsated with the vibration of a million tiny scratches and pounding decibels from the hip hop’s thundering bass. I kept my body as still as possible like a fish taking its last breaths, coming to terms with the fact that it was no longer submerged in water, safe under the ice, that it was on top of the ice after being sucked through the hole by a hook in its lip, giving up on flailing, cursing itself for taking the easy bait.
Frozen in Francoise’s lap, so as not provoke, an undetectable cringe pulsed through me with every bump and cough. The uninvited boner persisted like a knock on the door. I wondered if I led him on, if the others would defend him, if I was willing to embarrass him and make a scene. When the car finally reached its destination after an infinite amount of long minutes, I quickly opened the door, took my place in the front and did not turn around to say goodbye. When I told Andy what happened, at first he did not believe me and then, considered it no big deal. I must have over-reacted.
Though I hadn’t thought about the incident in years, thinking about it then made me want to puke. I wished I had done something different.
“What?” he asked. But I didn’t know. I felt so trapped.
“Let me rewrite the story for you?” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’ll show you. Okay?”
I nodded hesitantly. He lifted his head from the pillow and sat up on his elbow.
“In the new version of your story, the hip hop still boomed out of the small speakers in Andy’s dad’s car, but instead of adding to your discomfort, it energized you like a loud thumping heart might propel you forward. You focused on the words you could barely make out, the deep baritone voice spitting out sadistic rhythms. You let the anger grow inside of you from a deep boiling pit. You leaned over and tapped Andy on his right shoulder, yelling over the pounding bass, ‘Pull over.’
“’Why?’ He did not bother to hide his irritation. He was already on the highway, doing sixty and in front of his boys, was not a good time to be a high-maintenance girlfriend. But, you shouted louder, this time insistent, ‘Pull over.’
“As soon as the car touched tires to curb, you jumped out and turned to Francois, pointing a furious finger, ‘Get the fuck out of the car or I’ll drag your ass out.’ You were sure that you could have; a fresh strength flowed through you, a whirl within your anger. Francois just sat there looking up at you like you were crazy, like he had no idea what was going on. He slowly got out of the car and you jumped back in and slammed the door. ‘Just go,’ you demanded. And Andy went, leaving Francois alone by the side of the highway.
“Later, when you told him what all the commotion was about, he said he was going to kick Francois’ ass the next time he saw his ugly face. You told him to forget about it. It was over. You handled it.”
He told me that this was the real story, now. “You can have it,” he said. “It’s yours.”
I smiled sweetly, a bit condescending. “It’s worse when you consider someone your friend,” I said.
“I bet,” he said. He bit at the cuticle on the side of his thumb, something he only did when he was anxious.
“4 out of 5 assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.”
“Aha,” he nodded, but I could tell he was distracted.
“What is it?”
“No, I know something is bothering you. Now, it’s your turn to tell me the truth.”
He sat up so that his body was at a 90 degree angle, which made him look like an awkward doll. He stared straight ahead at the door with the wavy lines of mandalas painted around the edges in red.
“I haven’t really thought about this in a while. I don’t think I had the maturity before to really reflect on it, but your story made me remember.” He paused.
“When I was in my twenties and fresh out of college, I got a summer job at a sleepaway camp in the Berkshires because my girlfriend dumped me that spring for another guy who considered scaling cliffs a fun activity. This sudden rejection caused me to feel inadequate. I needed something to help boost my self-importance, so I decided to get a job helping kids because I liked kids and I also hoped to meet girls.
“When I first met Christine, she was bouncing around the camp smiling at everyone with her big blue eyes and long golden hair, which was exactly the type of girl I was into back then. I tried desperately to befriend her and she seemed justifiably unsure of my motives, not warming to me immediately. I finally convinced her that I was okay when I told her that I had a girlfriend back home, which, as you know, was a lie.
“We ended up spending a lot of time together over the course of the summer, leading our team in Color War, staying up late to gossip about other counselors, huddling under oaks during thunderstorms, singing campfire songs and sleeping close together in the tent that one overnight trip to Montreal. If only I was a little older, a bit more confident, maybe she would have liked me. By the time camp was closing, I was madly in love with her.
“Over the course of the summer, we had discussed in great detail the camp’s forbidden swamp. The swimming pond was shut down by the state inspectors due to a high bacteria to water ratio. But it was our last night of camp, the kids were gone and we didn’t care. Sneaking through the new moon night, she hesitated, overcome by a sudden nervousness. I noticed, but I didn’t want her to bail on our adventure so I said, ‘You know you want to, let’s go.’
“I took off my clothes first and jumped in. I didn’t want her to see my farmer’s tan and growing mass of dark back hair. The algae was slimy beneath my feet. The grasses wrapped around my legs as I pulled away from the edge of the pond. In the middle, I was free to move in dark waters.
“Hiding behind a rock, she took off her clothes and called out, ‘Don’t look!’ before quickly staggering into the swampy waters. I caught a glimpse of the peach skin of her hip in the moonlight.
“Christine waved her legs together and circled them around like a belly dancing fish in a late night cabaret show, sucking in her cheeks and waving to her adoring fans before flipping onto her back and circling her arms up overhead. I could see her breasts buoyant over the swampy waters and considered that maybe she wanted me to see them.
“I darted by her, extending my arms and grazing my hands against her waist. She laughed. Maybe it was okay. Maybe she wanted me to touch her. I swam back to touch her again. This time my hands grazed her breasts, softly pulling her toward my body.
“’Cut it out,’ she said, laughing. Again, I came toward her and tried to close the gap between our naked bodies with an unexpected force. She pushed away. ‘Seriously, no. I just want to swim.’ She lowered her voice an octave. But she kept on smiling, like she always did.
“This time, I swam beneath the dark waters so she couldn’t see me. I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her down, her head dipping suddenly below the surface. The darkness swallowed us. She sunk motionless and waited for me to release my embrace, my grip, so she could float back up. When her head finally broke through the water, the thin skin of scum, she gasped spasmodic for air.
“Swiftly, she swam for the edge of the lake, climbed out of the water and toweled herself off. I swam out behind her, ‘You okay?’
“’I’m going to bed,’ she said already beginning the climb up the hill to her bunk. She was afraid of me. She wanted to get away from me as fast as possible.
“’Can I still visit you?’ I asked stupidly.
“’Yeah, email me. We’ll keep in touch,’ she said. I never heard from her again.”
He looked at me in anticipation. A car passed outside blasting bombastic filmi music. “Wow,” was all I could think to say.
“I was an idiot. I scared her. I almost drowned her. I was supposed to be her friend, but I let my feelings or my dick or my stupidity or whatever get in the way.”
“I know, but you didn’t mean to. You just liked her,” I said.
“No, I was wrong.”
“You didn’t even realize what you were doing.” But I saw that he felt deeply guilty. “I could rewrite the story?” I said and he agreed.
“In your new version of the story, Christine laughed as she threatened to kick you in the balls if you touched her again. When you came back around for another graze, you hesitated for a moment and then yanked her body close to yours. You got excited at the feel of her slippery skin brushing against your belly. Just then, she managed to plunge a knee into your groin while pushing down on your shoulders. Although the water slowed her force, the bony impact against your gonads was excruciating. Your head went under the murky waters and when you came up for air, your face was twisted in pain.
“Christine laughed, ‘I told you not to touch me again.’
“You apologized and you guys joked about that night for years to come. Maybe you even reunited and fell in love and married,” I said.
“I’m not sure I like that story,” he said.
“Because you get kicked in the balls?”
“No, that part I liked. I deserved that. Because I wouldn’t fall in love with her now. I’d be much more interested in someone like you.”
“Like me?” I said.
“Just like you,” he said, showing me his most charming smile. I snickered. The mood improved. “Baby, there’s something I want to ask you.” His voice stumbled a little. He looked away. My curiosity perked.
“What is it?”
“We’ve been through so much together on this trip. Our relationship just feels really strong, ya’ know?”
He continued. His voice sped up, “I thought, maybe, we can move in together when we get back. Get an apartment downtown together. What do you think?”
I said, yes. It felt inevitable anyway. I was surprised he even thought he had to ask. He smiled and held me close. We made out for a little bit, but I was distracted, anxious actually, for the walk ahead.
“Well, I better get going to my yoga class.”
“You sure you don’t want me to walk with you?”
“Okay, I’ll be here waiting.”
I pecked him on the cheek unceremoniously and headed downstairs to the street. Prepared with the map, I left our hotel early with enough time to get to the yoga class. The sky was a perfect azure and I smiled at my good fortune. Wrapped in a shawl, wearing dark glasses and a scarf over my hair, I passed the old church and the square where young men played soccer.
I consulted the map again before strolling down a deserted street where I could still hear the voices of people from the soccer field. I thought about what he said, about moving in together. I had never lived with anyone before. Would we hate each other? What if we didn’t hate each other? What would happen then? I imagined my wedding day as I had many times before. This time, I saw him in it, clearly, shining on me, placing the ring on my finger.
I barely noticed the young man on the bike as he neared me precariously close and at the last moment before I could exhale, he grabbed, with a gruesome squeeze, my left breast.
He cruised past me, laughing.
Shocked, I turned to yell, “You fucking asshole!” How I wished that I knew how to say that in Hindi. He glanced back at me with a gloating smile. “You fucking little prick,” I responded and he was gone.
A man and a woman, white tourists in zip-off trousers, rounded the corner chatting loudly about the architecture of adjacent buildings. I lifted my unravelling scarf to wipe under my eyes and quickly changed directions.
Johanna DeBiase freelance journalist and author of the fabulist novella Mama & the Hungry Hole (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2015). Her creative work, including short stories, flash fiction and video poems, has appeared in (or is forthcoming in) Hayden’s Ferry Review, Portland Review, Atticus Review, Monkeybicycle, theEEEL, Convergence and Prick of the Spindle, among others. She has received scholarships to attend the San Miguel Writer's Conference, Vermont Studio Center and Rensing Center. Find her at www.JohannaDeBiase.com