On my first day back to work at the salon after my mom dying over the summer, I see from across the shared parking lot my cousin’s rapist and his wife picking up their daughter at the Holy Family daycare. The last time I saw him this close was when I was 20 and working at a Joe’s Crab Shack. Of course he and his wife sat in my section on a busy night. I went outside and smoked a cigarette because I was still smoking in those days, and almost got in a catfight with a coworker when I asked her to take my table. I’ll never forget the way her hard eyes broke, her sass softened, and she held me when I told her why I couldn’t serve them and was quaking all over like I’d overdosed on caffeine. Fuck him, I got this, she told me, anger instantly redirected and heightened. In a six-table section there was no avoiding him, and I knew he knew me, remembered who I was and how we were connected, but my coworker helped carry out my steam pots and crab nachos so I could mostly hide. I wonder now if he was as shaken by me as I was by him.
But here in the parking lot I’m not shaken, I’m curious. Before today I’d seen him around town only occasionally and at a distance, sometimes with his wife, but never his child. A little girl with cupidlike hair in his arms. He wears glasses now, keeps his hair cut close to balance the balding. His wife is short and reminds me of a champagne bottle. They look like anyone. There’s no going into work after that.
When my husband Luke asks how it went that day, I almost lie, but I was bursting.
“I saw Rebecca’s rapist,” I tell him. “In the parking lot.”
He’s sitting cross-legged on the couch eating his pizza on a paper towel like the manchild he is. He’s 35 and I’m 30 and we don’t want kids. It makes us feel younger, I think, to not want kids. Last year we bought our little blue bungalow in a cul-de-sac three blocks away from downtown and the house where I grew up, but our investment in suburbia only grows to a certain height.
“Rebecca was raped?” Luke asks through a bite.
I can almost hear him tack on his usual that’s a bummer, man, but thankfully he returns his focus to chewing.
“Use a plate.” I hand him the second plate next to the pizza box. “And yes, I told you this, forever ago. In high school. By a guy who graduated with me.”
“And you saw this dickhead in the parking lot?”
“With his wife and daughter.”
Luke speaks with a clot of food rolled toward the back of his mouth. “That sucks,” he swallows, “for Rebecca.”
The last time I saw Rebecca was a month ago when she flew in from New York for my mom’s funeral. After the burial we were out on my porch where I was bitching about her mom. My aunt had been crazy controlling about the picture boards—the picture boards which I spent all night arranging and rearranging, digging through piles of stuck-together photos in soft cardboard boxes and plastic crates and my mom’s luggage trunk that she used as an ottoman. In our old house on Court Street I spent the night before her wake making sure I collected every last photograph of her most joyful faces because that was how she needed to be remembered by family and friends— voluptuously big-lipped and frizzy-haired, not the chemo-sick and drained woman she became in the end—but my aunt took one look at the packed picture boards and started criticizing, pulling away silly or semi-scandalous shots, ordering the images as though straightening the fringe on a rug and removing all the honesty of my wild-child mother in lieu of a cultivated portrayal; in almost every picture she had straight hair.
“I fucking hate your mom,” I told Rebecca that day, “and I’m never speaking to her again after this.”
“We both know that’s not true,” Rebecca sighed. Her eyes were passive and red, fixated on the old house across the street. It was rumored to be haunted, but I wasn’t the kind to buy into ghost stories. “For what it’s worth, sometimes I hate her too.”
Neither of us wanted to consider how we would act if we had sisters to lose.
Now Luke goes out to smoke and that night when we have our bi-monthly sex it feels more routine than usual. He tires quickly, tries to get me off with his fingers; I squeeze away from his touch. Once he starts snoring, I roll over in bed and scroll through my phone to spiral into my nightly social media black hole. I search Rebecca’s rapist’s name. His name has always been strange in my mouth and I hate saying it or thinking it. How could any woman be married to a man with that name, a name that hexes you if written down or spoken aloud? My own name is difficult enough—Prudence—but that’s nothing compared to his. Why didn’t they just call him Lucifer, or better yet Beetlejuice, a beetle for grinding under my boots. The thought of killing a bug never sounded so good. Bingo, I find a profile that he and his wife share, featuring pictures of their daughter and lots of Chicago Blackhawks fandom. They seem happy and in love enough.
“Luke.” I shake his bare shoulder, warm under my cold hand. “Luke, look at this.”
He groans and rolls over, squinting. His dark brown hair covers the pillow and spills onto mine.
“This is that guy and his wife.” I press on a photo of the daughter. “Daddy’s little girl. How do you think she’d feel if she knew her daddy was a rapist?”
“That kid is like four, Pru.” He grabs the phone from my hand and slides it under his pillow. “Why are we talking about this now?”
“Donald Trump is pres-i-dent,” I remind him, holding onto that last word like a curse. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he groans and rolls out of bed, making for our bathroom as an escape.
I know he hates when I do this but I don’t even try to contain myself.
“This creep has a daughter. Rapists shouldn’t be allowed to have daughters.” I can hear and feel my voice reverberating in my chest, body temperature warming like a battery around the center of me and charging toward my breast.
Luke pees with the door open in the dark. His bare ass looks like a serving platter. “Okay, babe. I just don’t know what you want me to do about it.”
He sounds tired, but really he’s guilty. Most people we know in northwest Indiana can hate our own Mike Pence for moral or monetary reasons, but we’re in the minority as far as Trump’s concerned. Luke even voted for him—part joke, part disdain for “sanctimonious Hillary,” and part nihilism—and was ashamed after. He’d never let me tell anyone, especially not my mom, who
would’ve cut him a fresh one. A hippie until the end, her Facebook page is still loaded with Politico articles, long and winding calls to action, rainbow pride stickers, regurgitated statements of sisterhood and solidarity. In the early days of summer she was more active than ever on social media, and even updated her status to let the world know she was dying of ovarian cancer, the same as her mother before her. She had over 100 likes on her death post.
I am the same age as my mother was when my grandmother died. What kind of twisted fate is that? But my mom was a mother when she lost her mother, so she had something to live for, something to do at least, whereas I just have Luke and somehow that never feels like enough even though I don’t want anything else, does that make sense?
“Earth to Prudence.” Luke flops onto the bed. “Paging patient Prudence.”
“I’m tired.” I tell him. “May I have my phone back?”
He kisses me, smiling in the annoying way. “No.”
In the morning we wake when the air is still cold enough to hurt my skin. Luke always arrives at the autobody shop right at seven, a good hour before anyone else, because that’s what pleases him: to work alone and without interruption or forced conversation. We always say that we hate most people and even sometimes each other; that’s our romance. Coffee with cream and eating cinnamon sugar cereal at our little circular table in the kitchen. Constantly hungry, Luke has two pours of cereal. When he asks about working at the salon today, I tell him that my next shift isn’t until tomorrow. He seems disappointed and I realize he’s under the impression that I worked yesterday, oh well. After we kiss goodbye—often my favorite kiss of the day, something in its sleepiness—I pour the rest of my coffee in a mug and drive over to the salon.
In my spot two slots down from the daycare’s front door, I can see every parent and child entering and every parent exiting, but I don’t see the rapist or his little girl, though I doubt I’d recognize the wife or daughter without him. After the rush subsides I wait a little longer in case they’re late, before eventually departing the field like a failed lioness, agitated and dissatisfied.
I drive around downtown Central for a while to let my mind rest on the red courthouse in the square, the fake fall foliage plastered to all the bulbous heads of our street lamps, the many small shops and four bars on each of the four blocks. Finally I decide to stop wasting time and head home for lunch. But as I’m pulling into the detached garage, using that extra toe weight to scoot the car completely inside, I accidentally overdo it and the car lurches forward. My initial terror is followed by a cringe-worthy crunch. Too frustrated to check the damage, I slam the car door and leave the garage without looking. Whatever it is, Luke can handle it.
Later that night I call Rebecca and ask if I can do something about the rapist.
She says, “What does that even mean? What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know, just something.”
I’m sitting on the couch with Luke, my legs sprawled across his lap as he watches the news. With my free hand I play with his hair.
“Look, it’s dead and buried,” Rebecca sighs. “Remember when you wanted to poison his milk with eye drops?”
I laugh, remembering. “I could’ve killed him.”
“But I didn’t let you. And same as then, I just want to forget about it. I mean,” she pauses, “let it go. I need you to respect that.”
“He has a daughter,” I tell her.
Her clipped, all-knowing tone makes me sick. Indigestion from the leftover pizza microwave-heated. After we hang up, I make Luke turn off the TV. I can’t stomach any more glossy talking heads tonight.
When I can’t sleep, I text Rebecca. With a sudden flash of thought, I write, “If/when you have a kid and it’s a girl, you need to come up with a P name for it. I want to pass my P necklace on to someone. Also, if you could shoot for a January birthday, I want to keep my mom’s garnets in the family.” Followed by the thumbs-up emoji. I send her a petition to Impeach Trump Now. And then a screenshot of Luke’s very attractive younger brother’s social media profile and say, “You should date Luke’s brother if you ever move back here.”
* * *
The next day I’m early to the salon before my shift and see Rebecca’s rapist almost at once. He’s one of the first parents to arrive at Holy Family, wearing a standard flannel and jeans like a dad or like Luke. How distinct and indistinct at the same time, I can’t get over it. There’s still an hour until the salon opens at ten, so when he leaves the parking lot, I make the conscious decision to follow him until that time. It’s fine, rational, even, to make an appointed schedule for stalking, with a specified start and end time, impenetrable boundaries. Same goes for cybersurfing, if anyone calls it that anymore—you can get lost for hours in that worm tunnel and completely lose sight of the sun. Moderation is key.
Following a light distance behind his silver sedan, I trail the rapist downtown and see him pull into the parking lot between the Tainted Skin tattoo parlor and Papa’s Deli. Idling in a parallel spot in front of the deli, I scooch a little in my seat as he moves from the parking lot to the tattoo parlor, the same parlor where my mom and I went for our matching tattoos when I turned 16, silly peace signs that I lazily drew, disconnected at the center, but it was my mom’s idea of a birthday present and I loved it and still do, the thumb-sized memento on our hips. I take out my phone and find the tattoo parlor’s website, look under Artists, and there he is, with a poorly lit picture and everything.
It’s almost time for work and I know I don’t want to go, don’t want to force chipper conversation with clients over the phone or answer any questions about my family or how I’m doing or how Luke is doing or when we’re planning on having children. The concept of work is an inky cold swimming through my body, so I reject it, not today—if it doesn’t feel good then you don’t have to do it, no one is forcing you. I rationalize myself unnecessary, auxiliary, at the salon. I’d just sit there snipping my shears, waiting for walk-ins. What I’ll do is pick up sub sandwiches from Papa’s Deli for dinner, take those sandwiches home, put them in the fridge, and then come back here and wait for Rebecca’s rapist to leave again, because that’s what feels good. Excited now, I text Rebecca, “When you come home for Xmas we should get matching tattoos.”
As I’m walking through the front door of our house carrying the sandwiches, I somehow manage to smack my face into the edge of the door as I’m opening it. The underside of my chin collides at an angle with the wood and I rebound back onto the floor of the porch clutching my chin, the plastic-wrapped sandwiches in a pile and my ass throbbing on concrete. My chin pulses and burns. There’s blood on my hands. In the bathroom I tilt my face under the faucet and let the water sting the gash before taking a look.
“Fuck me,” I say out loud. The cut looks like a broken halo and bleeds. But at least now I have an excuse for not working today. I text the receptionist at the salon so she’ll spread the word: “Just gashed my chin. Can’t come in so sorry.”
Even hours later it bleeds; I bring a paper towel to dab my face in the car as I’m following the rapist after work. I hope he’s going where I think he’s going, which should be home. Out of downtown, past the Jewel-Osco grocery store, way up the 9 Mile highway, to the back roads and farmlands. Across the highway overpass and after the funeral home is the rapist’s house, tucked in a secluded neighborhood that seems strangely more autumnal than mine even though it’s only September. A small jealousy for their life crawls onto me, but I brush it away before it bites. At least their house is as compact as ours. They have a fence and potted plants and a dog yapping at the window as the rapist exits his car, welcomed to the warmth of his house and his family.
Later, Luke tenderly touches my chin and says I probably could use stitches, but I don’t care, I just want to tell him what I’ve learned. As we eat our sandwiches, I take out my phone and show him the Tainted Skin website.
“That’s him?” Luke squints at the picture. “He looks average and unremarkable to me. But how, exactly, did you uncover this intel?”
Shrugging, “I Googled him.”
“Want to tell me what’s really going on with you and this guy?”
“Nothing’s going on.”
“I thought Rebecca told you to drop it.”
I ruffle my feathers, broaden my chest. “I’m not doing anything.”
He raises his voice in that judgmental—sanctimonious—way. “You’re cyberstalking him, Pru.”
“As though that’s even a real crime.” I roll my eyes. “Of course you don’t understand.”
Luke stares for a moment before saying, “Right,” and abandoning me on the couch to hound the fridge for a beer. “Because I’m a dude it means I don’t understand anything.”
Can we not? I want to say but I’m suddenly too lazy to defend myself. My chin aches. We sleep that night without touching, and every few hours I wake to study the rapist’s family pictures, published for anyone to see, even someone who wished them harm.
* * *
The next morning, I leave immediately after Luke, still wearing my sweatpants and house slippers. Easily remembering the route, I park a safe distance down the block and wait outside the rapist’s house. To bide my time, I pop a zit on my chin and use the balled-up leftover of my bloody paper towel to soak up the ooze.
“What kind of product do you use to wash your face?” I text Rebecca, though she still hasn’t responded to my tattoo text, or the texts before that.
A short while later I’m rewarded with a clear view of the rapist and his family heading for their car. His wife is speaking to their daughter, but even with my windows rolled down I can’t understand the words. After a lengthy struggle with the car seat, Rapist & Co. finally drive away. I walk up to their front door and peer inside. The dog is at the window, a small black-and-white thing, angry-barking at me, the intruder. Through the window I see barely anything: a couch, the scattered toys, a large TV, a standing clock. It looks like anyone’s house. Of course I would be disappointed by anything less than the word rapist scrawled in red across the walls. The dog is protectively furious with my presence, and I pity it for its blind devotion to the abominable master.
Just as I am about to leave, I decide I want more: I want to cause harm to this house and this family. Let them be confused. Let them be alarmed. Turning around, not even checking for neighbors, I swing my leg back and kick the potted plant. At the moment of connection, I have to hold back a howl—the orange pot shatters, but so does my foot. I hadn’t even considered that I’m wearing slippers, not shoes, and as the dirt pools onto the concrete porch it occurs to me that I may have broken a toe.
Back home, I limp around the house, my mind focused on the rapist and only the rapist, as though the rest of the world shouldn’t exist while this man participates freely in society, with his family and his dog and his perfect profile, happy with his life. The day spent stumbling around getting lost in rooms, unable to put my hands or my mind on what I’m looking for, fixated on the thoughts, not the movements back and forth and here and there and everywhere in my house. I try to put in my contacts and end up brushing my teeth. We’re almost out of coffee so I find myself in the Starbucks drive-thru line. But afterwards, I don’t drive away, I stay parked in the lot because I am suddenly concerned that in my distracted state I’ll forget how to drive. My clutter-minded clumsiness will be my doom if I’m not careful. Just sip your latte and act like nothing’s wrong.
Flipping through social media, I see Rebecca’s posted a picture of her and a friend out at a bar in Brooklyn. Isn’t that nice, how easily she’s enjoying her time in a distant city while I’m at home in the real world fighting her battles. Look at her, living her best life on her profile, and my own profile essentially empty. How irritating, how rude, that she can’t text me back but can post pictures online? I bet she didn’t even sign that Impeach Trump petition, and it takes two seconds! Fuming, I begin to type the rapist’s name, already saved in my search bar, and start feverishly liking every last one of their pictures, filling all the empty hearts with red. I’ve already decided I don’t care, that I want him to know I’m watching. Screw boundaries, I’ll do what I want.
When Luke comes home, I ask him what he thinks about adopting a dog from a shelter. Something big, I suggest, to scare away intruders.
“You think someone is going to break into our house?” Luke laughs. “We don’t even lock our doors.”
“But we could name it something funny or raunchy, like Shitstick or Fuckwad.”
“Tempting,” Luke says, opening the fridge. “What’s for dinner?”
“Oops, forgot. We can order something.”
“Or what about Dipshit? That’s kind of cute.”
Luke sits next to me at the kitchen table and looks a little serious. “Pru, we probably shouldn’t be investing in a dog right now.”
“Dogs are cheap to adopt.”
“But not cheap to care for.” He hesitates like he wants to say something else.
“I mean, once you’re working full-time, we might be able to afford a dog.”
Not this again. Immediately annoyed, I stand and walk to the living room to get away, to order a pizza, to distract myself or clean something, but Luke follows me.
“I think we need to talk,” he continues.
“Never mind, I’ll drop the dog thing, okay? Now leave me alone so I can order your fucking food. God forbid you figure out dinner for once.”
Luke sighs and lets that one go. “Hey, did something happen to your car? There’s a crack in the front bumper.”
“Oh yeah,” I shrug, tapping on my phone, avoiding eye contact. “I ran into something in the garage. Figured you could take care of it.”
Resting on the arm of the couch to relieve the tight pain in my foot, I look at pictures of old friends and strangers and shitty family members and one rapist. Luke grabs the image-filled screen from my hands.
“Look, the phone stalking has to stop. If Rebecca wants you to leave him alone then you should respect that and leave him alone.”
“He raped her!” I shout, upping the velocity of our fight. It’s as though if I say the word enough, loud enough, it will make something happen, something bad happen to him. “We have to acknowledge it. We have to talk about it.”
“He raped her, Prudence.” He takes my face in his hands. “He raped Rebecca. Not you.”
I push Luke away. “What the fuck is wrong with you? I know that.”
“Are you sure?” Luke is yelling now, too, in a way I’ve only heard while watching sports, never directed at me. “Because ever since you ran into this guy, you’ve been acting like a psycho killer with a vengeance. And I think you’re in need of a reminder that this is not your V for Vendetta, babe.”
I start shaking all over, a spark crackling its way down my fuse. Shivering cold, the hair on my arms stands statically on end. Don’t even think, just speak, just say what will hurt. “I want a divorce.”
He laughs and throws up his arms, moving around the living room. “First you want a dog,
then you want me to fix your car, and now you want a divorce! Anything else I can get for you, Pru?”
“I want this house!” I shout. “I chose it, picked it out, made it ours—”
“And who’s paying for it?”
“Don’t you dare put that on me.”
He takes a step in my direction, exclaiming, “You think I want to work 12 hours a day every day? I feel like shit at work and then I come home and you make me feel like more shit. We bought this house to be closer to your mom—”
“And now she’s dead. That’s not my fault.” I want to bite his lip or spit on him.
“I am not saying it’s your fucking fault!” he hollers and kicks the wall. “Stop putting fucking words in my mouth. I loved your mom and you know that. Everything I have done has been for you and our family, and you act like I am paying off some debt, which I am, we are, to this house, not your mother’s feminism.”
“Go to hell!”
“Go to work.” He snaps me the nastiest look I’ve ever seen, as though I’ve mutated before his eyes. My stomach clenches and turns. There is bile in my mouth that tastes of acid and the insides of a car. With his back to me, Luke moves down the hall to our bedroom and slams the door like he meant to break it.
* * *
I can’t even move until hours after Luke leaves in the morning. My chin aches, my toes swell. I miss my morning shift. For a while I think how careless, no, dangerous, it is to assume that one thing doesn’t lead to another, that one man’s behavior doesn’t evolve into another man’s behavior, that one powerful person evading justice doesn’t result in another powerful person evading some similar justice. Whatever power the rapist held over my cousin was something I could never understand, and yet that power touched me too. For Luke to dismiss me like that, say the vendetta wasn’t mine, was like being defeated in a battle I was never even asked to fight.
Stomach growling and essentially grocery-less, I decide I might as well do something useful with my life. The Jewel-Osco is a short drive away. My car moves automatically through the familiar stop signs. Inside, the grocery store gives me goosebumps and makes my skin sting. Thinking of our fight last night, I fill the cart with store-brand everything. Cheap and healthy. Bananas. Red leaf lettuce. Chicken breast, though I’m not really sure what to do with a chicken breast. Never been much of a cook, but surely I can manage. My mom only taught me the desserts. I’m comparing toilet paper prices when I happen to glance up and see Rebecca’s rapist at the end of the aisle, pushing his daughter in the cart.
He hasn’t seen me. If there were a magnet in my body, it would pull me out the door and back to my car, if I had any respect for my cousin or semblance of control, but all I can feel is my stomach burning, mixing with the refrigerated air, spinning into a tiny tornado that carries me forward with my cart, gaining speed down the aisle as he bends to a lower shelf, thinking about crashing into them, scaring the child, making her scream. The force of our carts colliding would reverberate through the whole store, causing the shelves to shiver and collapse, the contents crashing to the tile floor and the aisles themselves dominoing down around us. Let’s see what my clumsiness can blow off the shelves, what a mess it can make on the floor. But he looks up just in time. My cart squeaks to a halt, inches away.
He stands so small in his too-big shirt and looks at his daughter for support, as though her presence and purity might absolve him, but that’s the problem, it’s just the opposite.
“You raped my cousin.” I stare at him, watching his eyes tremble behind his glasses, somehow feeling his fearful sweat on my own skin, before flicking my gaze down to his daughter. Let her hear. Let her repeat that word. “You raped her. So.”
We stand like that for a second. I may as well have announced it over the store’s loudspeaker for the dreadful silence that follows, and I know I’ve done my part. If this doesn’t spook him into shame, nothing will. Turning on my heel, I float away from our carts, relieved by the welcoming sunshine of September.
In my car I sob into the steering wheel and wish and wish and wish that my mom were here, but she’s not, she’s dead, and there’s no changing that fact, it’s all out of my control, all the bad things and daily disasters of being a woman. Yes, it felt good to say that word to him in front of his daughter. It felt like swinging a sword, but a sword that immediately shattered in my hands. Now I am the broken one, in my cracked car crying for my mommy, just like I did as a sick kid waking from an especially vivid fever dream. The car is full of suffocating heat and I am suddenly in desperate need of a cigarette. I’m never having kids, so it doesn’t matter.
When I pull up to Luke’s work, I’m still crying hysterically and it takes him 20 minutes to notice my car parked across the street. Eventually I see him running through the garage door, his face tight and scared, scared for me, and I love him.
“Pru.” He opens the passenger door and I’m kissing his stubbled cheek, pulling his body into mine across the car, clinging.
“Can I have a cigarette, please?” I ask into his neck and his skin ripples with a small laugh. This person—this one person—is enough, is everything, or needs to be enough and everything. I need to make him so. We smoke and I’m done after three long drags. My mom was a smoker but that’s not why she died.
At home I sleep through the day and into the evening, only moving to touch Luke’s hand on my shoulder. In the middle of the night when I wake shivering with sweat, I search through my phone to find that Rebecca’s rapist and his wife deleted their account. The feeling that has crept into me unaware is complicated; it has a difficult name.
Originally from northwest Indiana, Taylor Sykes is a graduate of North Carolina State University’s MFA program in fiction, and currently teaches writing at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Her fiction has appeared on All Things Considered as part of NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction contest, as well as in the anthologies The Horror Is Us (Mason Jar Press) and Dreamland: Other Stories (Black Shuck Books). She is the recipient of the 2017 James Hurst Prize for fiction and a 35 in 35 Fellowship from Vermont Studio Center, where she was a writer-in-residence in July 2019. Her novella Many Small Disasters was recently published by Los Galesburg Press.