BY JANE ROSENBERG LAFORGE
In the time it takes for a welt to rise like the dawn—or is that too real for you? Not enough of the figurative, the obscure, the intrigue but the naked, naughty horror? I don’t apologize, nor do I exaggerate. A politician once described it as it is, which should be enough, though in his case, it wasn’t—my ex-husband began a novel, about the naming of a boy after a saint in his adopted hometown on the Chesapeake. The water is significant, because it could have put out the fire, but you can imagine how that went, in the middle of a block of row houses; though by now you can also picture how that didn’t work out. If I were a man, I would be able to attach a pithy affirmation, something enmeshed in physics and repetition, about how the earth keeps turning to the detriment of its citizens.
As capillaries bloomed below a thin layer of skin, demonstrating that violence is neither a statement nor a method of affecting dominance, but a test of endurance and of looking away, my ex-husband created a night a conflagration on the page. They were too common in that era, the flowering of heat and ignition into the winter sky; into frost and frostbite, the shivering and recognition that there are greater forces, arbitrary yet predictable, that do not distinguish man from animal. These fires were inspired by candlelight, or overtaxed circuits, space heaters or ovens left on and open as though families were meant to roast together, buns in their beds, until they burned to a crisp or worse, summoning an anarchy of alarms and neighbors, all looking to pitch blame. It was the high season of the summer when he started this tale, while we were stranded at the beach for a job I was lucky to have, the best money I would ever make in this marriage, though you can guess how my ex felt about that, all that prosperity at the cost of his wife shoveling it out, like coal in a boiler, a sentence in the basement.
I was a journalist, keeping track of the bay and oceanfront, thousands of tourists drinking and whoring and regularly torching their hotel rooms with alcohol or ether, and their butane lighters that fueled their very dirty habits. He had the summer off, to research his theory about the wrongfully convicted killer; to buy lotions and bath salts and all the other skin care products he could find in the pharmacies up and down the beachfront because he said I was rough and calloused and a careerist, chasing ambulances on nights and weekends. I did not have access to a police radio. Every time I heard the siren go off at the nearby volunteer fire department, I had to get in my car to follow the trucks, see if they were fighting off a disaster or rescuing a trapped animal, because the sirens did not differentiate. I ran off to bus accidents and boats sinking and once a car that was purposefully dashed into the drink, and he said I was too mannish. My then-spouse carved out a model female character, bent over in prayer as her house burned in a virtual ice chamber.
He had her bent over in prayer because he had seen this act in a church—not his own, where the congregants did not bend, but shout out, shake in the lips, delight in the theatrics of the tongue and teeth—and thought it humble, thought it deserving. He had this woman promise Saint Jerome that should her family be saved from the inferno, which had spread its thighs like a wanton creature to encompass other houses, porches, the trees stricken with Dutch elm disease planted on the curbs and sidewalks, that she would name her next born after him. She was not pregnant at the time, but could soon arrange that. She had arrived at the scene after a day and a night of work, something spiritually onerous but it paid the bills despite what it did to the marriage, and in her despair she had dropped to her knees and submitted to prayer. She prayed to the patriarchal lord and his pantheon of assistants, helpers, aide-de-camps, and begged for the life of those she labored to the bone to feed, clothe, and shelter, though they hated her for it, hated her for doing what no one else could, apparently, because isn’t the best man for a job a woman? And she pledged to Saint Jerome, the patron of cosmopolitan women everywhere; who told them how to best serve, adore, honor, and deserve the love of the child, the man, the god who embodied all of the above and then some; that if he reversed her fortunes as they were currently unfolding, her life would be so dedicated. My ex was a great believer in transactional relationships, the tit for tat, a punch for a tap; a kick for a punch, an assault for an insult, a day in the city jail for all those things, with a baloney and white bread sandwich as he waited for the charges to be processed. Acquitted, he was, for some incident he would never fully discuss with me, at his old job, the one he had lost.
It was quite the scene, coming from him, he who hated women—his mother, me, the female goddess whose statue we spotted one day in the beginning of our marriage, perched upon the ledge of a high rise, as if she was about to jump. He wanted to call the police, the fire department, purchase film, lights, set up a perimeter and hire extras so he might make a motion picture, direct the authorities as they swarmed to rescue the cement deity, a princess of their own making. He wanted to get it down on the record, because sand and water, a mold and setting, was all she was: a nothing. An aspirational woman, though no one is perfect, not even a virgin. Or so he said as the blood vessels broke around my eye socket, like a sunset that smeared itself across the sky rather than drop beneath the horizon: people congregated at the shore each night to witness it, and isn’t that what I wanted more than anything, he asked, to be noticed if not celebrated? He could at least give me that, and the story that would go with it.