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Constance's Law by Bridget Hardy

 

Bridget Hardy has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona and has been published in Indiana Review, Blood Orange Review, and Flashquake. She currently works as a personal trainer and group exercise instructor in South Bend, Indiana.

It’s a small town, so everyone knows. There was a trial and national press, but a couple loud conversations at the bank spread the word just as well.

People always ask, “Are you taking care of yourself?” and I don’t know what to say, so I describe my days. I go to work at the post office—I switched from the counter into the sorting department after it happened. I cook some, more than I used to. I eat with my folks twice a week and sometimes my mother will talk me into a shopping trip or a sad yet uplifting movie.

Usually this list makes me need a glass of wine, which I drink a lot more of now.

Except this week the list changed.

The new addition: I have a date. The first in years.

Calvin Bettler is his name. We went to high school together. I’ve always liked him, which is why I agreed to meet him for dinner. He’s chatty and laid-back, the kind of person where a lot of conversational work isn’t required. On the phone he confirmed this, saying after I picked up, “Hey, it’s Cal Bet. ’Member me?” It had been years, but he didn’t wait for an answer. We had been good friends. He knew I remembered. “I’m kinda bored. Are you bored?”

I was, though it took someone asking the question for me to realize how much. Bored! I thought, almost happily. Maybe that’s it. Not clinically depressed or PTSD, just bored. This was by far the lesser of any evils I had considered.

“You sound like you,” he said, a comment that could have meant a lot, but the way he said it was only simple and happy. “It’s nice.” He was visiting his parents, and he took a few seconds to tell me about them. “Mom has corns. Dad has bifocals. Everyone’s old all of a sudden, even me. I have a sty in my eye. What are those from, I wonder?”

“The Sty Store?” I said, because we used to say this a long time ago. Where is Sheila Tannebaum from? The Sheila Store? I went on. “Actually, I don’t think you get sties because you’re old. You just get them, and they go away on their own.”

“Let’s discuss this more, Con. I want to take you out. Somewhere not boring.”

And because it was so easy, I said okay.

“I’ll do some research,” he said. “Browse the Date Store.”

“The Date Store?” I said, troubled by the word.

He laughed again. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I know there’s really no store like that.” And before I could say anything else, he said he’d pick me up on Thursday at seven and hung up.

I poured a glass of wine.

For a while in high school, I had thought I wanted to marry Cal. He was skinny and long, his limbs taut and dark. He had a soft voice, and glasses. Perfect, I’d always thought. Absolutely perfect.

He and his parents were one of a handful of black families in town, and still are. No one else has moved in to bolster the numbers, though one man might have. Now he’s in jail.

.  .  .

At my parents’ that night, we eat chicken and something my mother calls Oriental Slaw. They discuss the upcoming Notre Dame game. “We’ll be on the fifty,” my father says. “Not bad, huh? Not bad for a man from Walkerton.”

My parents love Notre Dame, though they have no connection to the place other than living less than an hour away from it.

They’re Catholic, and maybe that’s enough. I don’t go to church anymore, and we stopped discussing religion, a product of me finally going through something so awful they will never fully understand it or be able to make it go away.

“We’re having some people over Thursday,” my mother says.

“A pre-game thing,” my father adds, though the game isn’t until the following week. Pre-game in his mind is about a month out, with different pre-game periods frequently overlapping each other. “You should stop over.”

“I’m making pies,” my mother says. “Want your first pumpkin of the season?”

I’m reminded that I’ve put on some pounds since the last time I saw Cal. For a moment, I’m almost tempted to say yes to their invitation. I’ve spent many nights with my parents and their friends, letting the predictable patterns and topics of their conversations—riding mowers, recipes, cholesterol levels—cover me like an old quilt. It’s almost like sleeping to be with that group, and it’s not unpleasant. I tune in and out and feel warm because they keep the house at seventy-four degrees. I have no responsibility beyond sometimes refilling a basket on the table with napkins, and responding however I like to inquiries about my work and my apartment, and every once in a while, the complex lives of “young people today.”

After some hesitation, I say that I’ll be with Calvin Bettler on Thursday.

“Really?” my mother says, raising an eyebrow, but I can tell that she’s pleased. The prospect of me with any man is almost too much for us to hope for, and I immediately regret mentioning it. Now there will be eagerness, follow-up.

My father, though, remains silent through dessert and when my mother brings up a cousin’s wedding, he looks up suddenly and says, “When was the last time you talked to Cal?”

I know what he means: before or after.

My mother trails off and says, lightly, “Not that it matters.”

I speak sharply. “Three years and five months ago. About.”

All of us can dothe math. Weeks before I was raped.

I remember Cal’s call then. We were both graduating from colleges miles apart. He’d called from a party, and I had been with a girlfriend in my apartment, getting ready to have dinner with her and all of our parents.

“Con, are you a graduate yet?” he asked as soon as I said hello. We hadn’t spoken the whole semester, but he always skipped the pleasantries of identifying himself, the accounting of how long it had been. He talked like that with everybody, though I sometimes entertained the idea that with me it was special.

“Can’t you tell by my voice?”

“Ah, you were born graduated,” he said. “Now it’s just official.”

I was valedictorian of our high school class, and had been subject to some of the teasing that comes with teenage achievement. Cal had teased me, but only in the kindest way.

He said that he hoped we could get together over the summer.

“I’d like that,” I said. “I really would.”

And he called me over the summer, two or three times. I listened to his voice echoing through my parents’ house on the machine, but couldn’t call up his face like I used to. I deleted his messages as soon as I could, pressing the erase button again and again. The whole summer was like that. I wanted to delete everything.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for Cal, you know that,” my father says, looking up with concern. He looks like he is going to go on, but he doesn’t.

“I know,” I say. “Don’t worry about me, okay?”

“I’ll always worry about you, Connie,” he says.

And I know it’s true. My parents will carry deep unspoken fears to their grave because of what happened. My father likes to distract himself from these larger wounds with more everyday concerns. When reporters contact us, for example, he flies into action, citing the tenets of confidentiality and basic human decency. When Mrs. Stukey, my old Sunday school teacher, led a national legislative push, my father called her up. He told her she had to change the name from “Constance’s Law” to something else: no one wants to be singled out for the misery of her experience. He said yes, he knew she was just trying to help. He said all kinds of people were trying to help, that the road to hell had been paved by such helpers and much more.

And now, this new worry: Calvin Bettler.

When he used to say he was worried about me, I would brush it off, feeling embarrassed or overprotected. I would remind him that I could take care of myself. But it’s only ignorance that makes people think that.

.  .  .

When I open the door Thursday Evening, Cal is standing there with flowers, the clichéd boy on a first date from every movie and television show I can think of—though I can only think of one where the boy is black. I look askance as he puts the bouquet (roses, but pink) in my arms and says that the Date Store closed early, but the Flower Store was packed.

He looks good, like I remember, only older and the age suits him. He looks comfortable with himself—has comfort to spare, in fact, and I feel some of it jumping off him and perching on my shoulder. His body has lost the angularity it had when he was eighteen. He’s more blockish and muscular now. The frames of his small, tidy glasses and his leather shoes look European.

I suggest we stay in, cook some pasta. I admit to having wine in a box. “And Diet,” I add, thinking that I don’t know whether he drinks or not. Neither of us did when we were teenagers.

He agrees to my plan, lamenting the slim restaurant selection in this town that automatically makes dating hard.

“You keep using that word,” I say.

“Date date date date date,” he says.

I go to the box of wine. I spill a little on my blouse, the least-frumpy top I own. While I stand over the sink dabbing at myself, Cal looks around the kitchen, opening cupboards, taking stock. He pours his own glass of wine, sips it, and says, “Mmm good.”

While the linguine is boiling, I have to ask, just get it out. Sooner or later, we will come to it, so best to put it behind us.

“You know, right?” I say.

He looks me straight on, unflinching, and nods. I relax just a little. How could he not know was what I’d been thinking earlier, but still, even in small towns, things slip through. More troubling was that he would know but pretend not to out of some misguided idea that I wouldn’t want him to have heard from someone else, or that it would be best to have me tell him in my own way.

“My parents called as soon as they heard.”

“So you knew before or after you tried calling me that summer?”

“Calls one and two, no. Calls three and four, yes.”

There were four calls? Suddenly that sounds like a lot.

He puts down his glass. “I would have kept it up, but I didn’t know what was best.” He pauses. “There was no best, I guess.”

The light-hearted Cal is gone, and I’m thankful for the side of him that is serious without melodrama, that there are no Oh-My-Gods, You-Must-Be-So-Strong, I-Couldn’t-Believe-Its.

He believes it.

“Yeah,” I say. “There was no best for a long time. Only the least-worst.”

“I don’t know what to say,” he says, which is how most people feel when I talk about it, but they say something anyway. “Is there a right thing to say, have you found?” he asks, matter-of-factly.

I down the last of my wine.

“That’s a stupid question,” he says, sounding uneasy for the first time in the evening.

“No,” I say, “it’s not bad.”

“I’m just going for least-worst,” he says. “I don’t need to be anything else.”

.  .  .

Dinner is nice. So nice I become nervous, and by the time we are eating ice cream on the couch, I’ve become quiet thinking of how things get jinxed. He talks about Chicago, where he lives now, describing Millennium Park as a mix of chrome and greenery and water. Chicago isn’t that far but I haven’t been there in a long time.

“I don’t get out much,” I say. “But I’m working up to it.”

“Do you kiss much?” He asks, again so matter-of-fact. He leans closer and takes my hand.

“No,” I say, inhaling sharply. “But maybe I should work on that, too.”

He helps me practice, and it’s pretty good. I stall at first, saying things like, “Are people still using their mouths these days?” but once I feel his lips, I know it will be okay, at least for now. For a while, I can even give myself to it entirely, for the first time letting myself squeal inwardly. I’m kissing Cal Bettler! Oh! Oh! Oh! It’s like the time before, when I would imagine myself with men, and even before that, when I was sixteen thinking only of Cal, playing out the scenario in my head that would allow me to be his prom date instead of part of the couple he and Jan Taylor doubled with.

When we pull away, I say, “Thank God,” which sounds awkward and weird, so then I say, “Thank you,” which is equally awful, so I laugh and add, “I’m sorry. I’m so … old already, you know?” I put my hand over my mouth. “That was the wrong thing, too.”

He smiles and shrugs, so I keep blabbering. “I feel relieved,” I say. “Your kissing relieves me.” There’s a long silence before I say what I really want to. “It’s not the kissing,” I go on. “It’s you.”

“I’ve always liked you, Con,” he says. “Why didn’t we do something like this a long time ago?”

I shrug and say meanly, but joking, “That damn Jan. How could I compete?”

He waves his hand through the air in a she-meant-nothing-to-me-gesture. “We went to church together as kids, that’s all. She was low-risk.”

“Low-risk but high-chested,” I say.

“A sty in my eye,” he says, pointing to the little tiny yellow spot on his eyelid. “I knew she’d eventually go away on her own.”

I touch his eye gently myself.

“She did have big breasts though,” he says, and I wonder how well he knew Jan’s breasts.

Suddenly I am in Dangerous Territory, as I call it, though my therapist refers to it as Opportunity Land. I think of the knife against my own breasts—I see it for a moment—and then shut it out, replace it with a picture of my breasts today, the long pink scar across them, though fading, a mark of all things opposite romance or new love. Could I ever show those breasts to Cal?

“Hello?” he says, leaning toward me.

“Sorry,” I say. “Just spaced out. Lost a few seconds.”

“I’m fine with spacing. Space,” he says. “Yep.”

He doesn’t probe, but just picks up where we left off. “What about Pinkie Cartwright? He would have followed you to the ends of the Earth.”

“We weren’t serious. His name was Pinkie for God’s sake.”

The truth was that I went to prom with Pinkie because I knew he and Cal were friends.

At the door, Cal and I make plans to have lunch the next day. Once he’s gone, I’m not sure what to do. I feel emotional in every sense of the word—like I could laugh or cry or jump around making loud whooping noises. I know I won’t be able to go to bed for hours.

.  .  .

At the post office, Ann Marie Weller comes back and says there’s some guy up front who wants to see me. “You expecting a delivery?” she asks, her cherry red lips pursed. She looks about seventy, but is probably no more than fifty-nine.

It takes me a second to realize that she’s talking about Cal. I shake my head emphatically and say, “Of course not. I don’t do intake.” I take off my latex gloves and add, “I’m going to lunch.”

She looks surprised. I never “go to lunch.” I always eat a sandwich in the break room and read.

“All right,” she says unhappily, and tells me not to be late.

“Am I ever?” I say, getting my coat. Technically, she is my boss, but we both know I am the smart one on her staff and she needs me. I catch the mistakes of others, work quickly and train new workers. I can get away with a little back talk, though Ann Marie doesn’t tolerate it from anyone else. Or maybe she doesn’t think that’s what it is because I speak softly, while she is used to telling rankled employees not to raise their voices. She will even cross her arms like a school principal and say, “Don’t use that tone with me.” My words are toneless, their meaning lost to her in lulling, regular speech.

Cal is looking at stamps when I come up. “I like the Olympic series,” he says.

“I like the dog breeds.”

“Hmm.” He touches the cellophane packet, rubbing it a little as if he might be scratching the neck of the Standard Poodle beneath his index finger. I see Eddy Carnes at the counter watching us, one long strand of his greasy hair tucked behind a multi-pierced ear.

I don’t have much time, so we go to the deli down the street. Cal asks when I will be promoted from postal sorting clerk to President of the Universe. “Really,” he says. “You’re wasting your talents with those people.” He waves his hand toward the post office and grimaces.

It’s true I had never thought I’d work there permanently. After that summer, I was supposed to start a PhD program in Berkeley. I had accepted a fellowship and even bought a pair of Birkenstocks, which my mother said were as ugly as dead possums on the highway. Now it’s hard to imagine leaving Walkerton and my easy, low-expectations routine.

“There aren’t a lot of President of the Universe openings around town,” I say.

“True,” he says. “You need a bigger city. The President of the Universe corporate headquarters is in Chicago.”

I like that Cal is offering up the place where he lives, even if he’s joking. But when I think of myself in Chicago, I know the crowds would make me nervous.

Back at the post office, Cal picks up the Olympic series stamps and one sheet of dog breeds, and then he approaches Eddy, who is tapping his fingers on the counter, watching the clock until his cigarette break.

“I need these,” Cal says, loud enough for me to hear. “I might be writing a lot of letters.”

.  .  .

We’re finishing a meatloaf. My parents want to know how it went.

“Good,” I say, chewing. “You know Cal. He’s as nice as ever.”

“Doesn’t he have to get back to Chicago soon?” My father asks.

“Wednesday,” I say, counting. Three days left.

They want to know what he’s doing these days, and I talk about his job writing for the Tribune. “He covers the mayor,” I say, explaining that the mayor is out of town this week too, so that’s why he took vacation.

“We should have him over!” my mother trills suddenly. “It’s been years.”

“Isn’t that jumping the gun a little, Carol?” my father asks, and I wonder what he thinks “the gun” signals, ultimately—more dates? A wedding ring? A broken heart?

“We’ll he’s our friend, too,” my mother says, a little proudly. “We’ve known that boy since he was as high as this table.”

My father hems and haws about the game, which isn’t until Sunday but requires extensive mental and logistical preparations on his part. “It’s a busy time,” he says.

At the door later, my father puts his hands on my shoulders and says, “You know I like Cal, right? But that doesn’t mean he’s right for you. Maybe you should start with somebody … somebody…

We both speak at the same time.

I say, “Somebody I don’t like as much?”

He says, “White.”

I shake my head in disgust. “I can’t believe you said that.”

My father apologizes immediately, taking his hands off me and holding them in the air.

“Associations,” he says. “I just worry…”

Feeling suddenly like maybe I do need to leave town, I wave and close the door. Around my parents I will always be a source of anxiety, inspiring misguided comments and meddling, a child done wrong by the world no matter how hard they tried.

They look like children themselves sometimes, on the edge of blurting out, “It’s not fair.” All those years of happy childhood trumped by one night of atrocity.

“Cheer up!” I want to tell them cruelly sometimes, raising my fist to chuck my father on the shoulder. “At least I didn’t get HIV! The stabbing didn’t even hit arteries, for God’s sake.

Still, we’re family and we’re all victims in a way. On a bad day, I know they see other women my age, their hearts hardened by unfamiliarity, thinking, Why not her instead? They are envious of my peers, even the ones they secretly pitied when I was younger, because they remain wide-eyed and indestructible.

On the way home, I actually run into one of these people when I stop at Wal-Mart to buy a new shirt. Helen Saunders, finishing an MBA at Columbia, is home for her father’s sixtieth birthday. She’s holding a bouquet of black Mylar balloons, most of which read “Over the Hill.”

“What a coincidence,” she says. “Both of us in town at the same time!”

I suppose if anyone would not know my story, it would be Helen. She was smart, but the kind of smart you had to jump-start and cajole. When teachers called on her, she’d always get around to the right answer, but first she’d say, “Huh? Could you repeat the question?”

Helen searches for the name of the city where I must be living now: “Let’s see … is it Pittsburgh? Somebody told me…”

I smile, and feeling reckless, say, “Chicago actually.”

“Oh, yeah!” She bubbles. “The Windy City.”

I tell her about Millennium Park and how it’s a great place to read.

We chat for a few minutes more about our folks and the weather, and I find myself almost perky at the end of it, as if I could in fact be perky—a woman on-the-go visiting family between adventures. I’m even holding a blouse with fairly risqué see-through sleeves, which Helen notices. “Very cute,” she says, pinching the thin fabric between her fingers. “Didn’t pack enough, huh?”

I realize that in her mind t,here is no other reason to buy clothes at Wal-Mart, and as I nod my head sadly, she goes on. “At least it’s cheap here. I mean, so if you only wear it once.” She runs a hand through the kind of hair that requires urban expertise—it’s shining and full of rich high-lighted colors, straightened and smoothed and moisturized. “If you lived here you’d be really stuck,” she continues, jabbing a finger into the air for emphasis. “It’s like the town of the elderly. Have you noticed?” She looks up at her father’s balloons and sighs.

As she waves and disappears into cosmetics, I think about the people—other classmates—who haven’t left, people Helen probably hasn’t thought twice about. There is Joey Wolowski who also works at the post office. He moved in with a divorcée when he turned seventeen. Brenda Jitts, who has Downs Syndrome and finished her senior year with us. The next Monday she began a work program for the developmentally disabled where she screws on the tops of shampoo bottles for eight hours at a time. Many people say those two are a success, Joey with a steady job now, Brenda with her own group of friends—like her, but perfectly nice, they say—all of them productively supplementing their disability checks.

And then there is me. I’ve heard the talk myself. If Helen hears nothing, I hear every whisper and more, watching for it. “Constance Buckel,” they say. “So much potential. Poor, poor girl.”

.  .  .

I lock myself in a stall of the Wal-Mart bathroom and put on my new blouse before leaving. It looks good even under fluorescent lights, and I take a minute to add some lipstick and run a comb through my hair. I’ve decided already that it’s too early to go home. It’s too early for a lot of things, including being old.

I go straight to the Bettlers without calling ahead, feeling rash and driven. Cal’s father greets me warmly, calling out to the rest of the house, “Company, everybody! Look sharp!”

Mr. Bettler was the dad everyone liked, always teasing and laughing, dispensing advice about girls to any boys who would listen (and they all did, whatever they pretended). Mrs. Bettler was the straight man to his comedy, following her husband with smiles and apologies, a chorus of don’t-listen-to-a-word-he-says.

For ten minutes or so I sit with Cal and his parents, sipping a glass of water and catching up. I give updates on my folks, the post office, even my apartment complex—“Yeah, you heard right. A new fitness room.”

Cal finally winks at me and says, though we hadn’t made any plans, “Well, Con and I better get going. Let you old folks get your beauty sleep.”

Cal disappears to put on his shoes, and his father excuses himself for a moment, though it only occurs to me later that he might have left so Mrs. Bettler and I will be alone.

She leans in and says, “Constance, honey, you know we think so much of you.”

I nod.

“I’m not just saying that,” she says. “You have so much going for you. I’ll never forget that speech you gave at your and Cal’s graduation. ‘Fear no one and no place.’ And that thing about the mind fortress …” she drifts off, waving her hand.

I know exactly what she’s talking about: Hold most dear your mind, not money, appearance or innocence. Thoughts exist without form, unconquerable, and they will stay true to you, existing beyond fleeting crises or material things. Your beliefs are an invisible fortress …

I laugh politely at the memory of this adolescent bullshit. I thank her. Cal appears in a different pair of pants, carrying his jacket. I say the words a person is supposed to say leaving someone’s house.

In the car, I put my hand behind his neck and pull him to me. I kiss him diamond-hard. My kiss is a fortress. Unconquerable.

When I sit back he takes a breath, smiling, and says, “Geez, you trying to knock my teeth out?”

“I’m sorry,” I say, though I’m not.

“Don’t be,” he says.

“Let’s go to my place.”

.  .  .

I would like to say that the next morning I opened my eyes in the Land of Plenty, a fearless, happy girlfriend to the man I had always known I should be with.

In the bedroom that night, the lights were off, both of our bodies dark. Our mouths worked on each other like paintbrushes making the small strokes of tiny leaves in a landscape. He didn’t think we should have sex, but I talked him into it, sure in the moment that it would be all right, that I would feel the way I should.

But I felt so sad when it happened that I cried out, a sob that might have sounded like pleasure. When we finished, I kept crying and he pulled me close to him and said he was sorry.

 I thought of how angry I was at my parents for being the sheltered people they were, for never knowing anyone who wasn’t exactly like themselves. I thought of Mrs. Bettler trying to convince me of myself—for myself, sure, but mostly, I imagined, for her son. I had seen the same worry in her face that I saw in my father’s, pictured her saying to Cal, “Maybe you should start with a white girl who hasn’t been raped by a black man.”

Cal held me and I kept at it, crying silently, fearfully, exactly the same way I had that night after a man approached me as I got into my car, asking to borrow my cell phone, which I didn’t have with me. He said his own vehicle wouldn’t start and could I please just drive him to the only gas station in town still open so he could call his wife?

To my credit, I hesitated, and he saw it. “I understand,” he said, with just the right mild but unthreatening indignation in his voice. “You can’t trust people in this neighborhood, and it’s late…”

I called him back, not to prove myself exactly. Of course I thought of the obvious rationales first—it would take him forever to walk there, and in this cold, plus, nothing bad ever happens in Walkerton, and I’ll take the main road…

But truthfully, I called him back because I was thinking, What if Cal was stuck like this, somewhere, some night? Poor, poor Cal.

A fortress of stupidity was beat out of me that night.

And in the morning with Cal, the sun slicing through my half-open blinds, I am awakened by his fingers tracing the scar on my chest. Looking at him, his eyes wide and almost scared, I know he didn’t see it before. “Oh, baby,” he says. “Oh, Con.”

I wonder if we will be good enough for each other. And I know in a wretched instant that the worst thing in my life could still be coming. Who holds their mind, or their body, dearer than love, really? It could hurt as bad as anything.

“Oh, me,” I say. “Oh, you.”