The Impressionists #2 - The Replica
Here's the second excerpt from my soon to be released (perhaps as soon as tomorrow) short story collection, The Impressionists. This is from The Replica and concerns spousal abuse. A number of years ago I received an email from a woman in the UK asking if I could send her a copy of my short play Degraded to read. Degraded was one of several plays I wrote at the time in response to the invasion of Iraq. I used the analogy of a former abused wife in a halfway home who receives a visit from the Department of Social Services, who then proceeds to abuse and rape her, all the while telling her that he's come to help her and that it's all for her betterment.
The woman who had written to me was a former abused wife and had read the sample of Degraded and was interested in reading the complete play. I sent it to her, of course, but I also l took a big risk and sent her a copy of The Replica also. This was not an analogy of anything - simply a character study of an abused wife. I was extremely nervous as to what her reaction might be. After all, I had never been an abused spouse, I was a man, and the piece ends in a certain sort of gray area that I thought might open me up to criticism. But, to my great relief, she absolutely loved it and identified with it no end. She was confused how I could have written such a piece from an outsider's POV. But I have to say, The Replica and all of the stories in this collection were very heavily researched - the most, I think, I've done on any project bar one.
Anyway, here's a brief synopsis followed by the excerpt:
An abused wife reflects on her past and deconstructs the emergence of the replica that now haunts her present.
When I got up this morning the first thing I did was use the bathroom, just as always. Afterwards, as I washed my hands in a liquid soap scented with chamomile, I happened to glance up…and there it was, ever so sheepishly looking back at me. I wasn’t shocked or surprised. It’s there every morning. Sometimes I look at it, sometimes I don’t. But it’s always there…there in the mirror…the replica.
I’m not exactly sure when I first started seeing it. It wasn’t as if it appeared overnight. It took shape gradually, over time. But I couldn’t tell you when it began. When I see it now it almost feels as though it’s always been there. But it hasn’t. That’s what makes it hard to look at.
I think the earliest I can recall it beginning to take shape was about four years after I’d married Karl. Nothing too pronounced at first; nothing to set off any alarm bells. Just a slight stiffening around the mouth, the eyes ever so slightly less…curious. It’s strange how these things creep up on you without you noticing. Until it’s too late, of course.
I married Karl in a fit of existential panic, and, like most decisions made in a state of panic, it wasn’t a particularly wise one. He was older and colder, and quite successful. He ran his heart, mind, and business with ruthless efficiency. Not to be outdone by anyone, his rivalrous nature sought supremacy in all things – all but a popularity contest, that is, shrewd enough as he was to know that that was one battle he had no hope of winning. The very fact that he didn’t give a damn what those around him thought of him made him doubly despicable to those who were unfortunate enough to have the pleasure – including most of my family. Unburdened by the need to please, he was free to treat people in whatever way would best achieve his goals, however callous the method.
Why, then, would I have married such an autocratic bully, I hear you ask. Ah, but that’s a trick question, you see – because I didn’t. Not the person you see now. Not the one I can barely stand to look at anymore. No…it was a very different person that married Karl, as she wandered through the woods with her little basket on her way to granny’s house.
She was…well, she was many things, but most of all she was lonely. Lonely and unloved. Yes, I know, I can almost hear the strains of a violin in the background myself, adding its cloying accompaniment to those hackneyed words. How pathetic it sounds now – especially now. And how ironic that the emptiness I felt then took me firmly by the hand and led me to this hollow place I now dwell in.
Back then, she was the middle child of middle-class parents with middling expectations of her. They loved her, I suppose, as best they could. But in truth, they were both so busy resenting each other there was very little emotion left to go around. Rather than their child, she sometimes felt they regarded her as an all too real and unwelcome reminder of a time when they were once intimate.
Nevertheless, despite their indifference, she’d decided she was destined for greatness and before long would be celebrated and adored the world over – as a novelist. First a bachelors in English at a prestigious university, followed by her masters, then on to a hectic life of publisher's deadlines, endless book tours, interviews, children, more deadlines, more interviews, more children, holidays in far-flung corners of the earth in order to reclaim her sanity, then back to more of the same, and so on.
When she met Karl she fell for him in an instant. Not because of anything he said or did – though he could be very charming when he wanted. No, it was his face that sealed her fate. It wasn’t particularly attractive or handsome – not by accepted standards. But it almost broke her heart to look at it. It was so pitiful and forlorn – despairing, even. He had the sort of features that gave one the impression he was perpetually on the verge of tears. How could she resist? She wanted to make it all better.
Ah, the treachery of images.
She wasn’t accepted into any of the colleges and universities she’d applied to, but higher education or no, she was determined that she would be a writer. Six months later, she’d completed her first novel and felt a level of pride and self-fulfilment that she’d never imagined possible. After a flurry of rejection slips from all the publishers and agents she’d sent it out to, she felt decidedly less so. Still, unbowed, she continued to write, pouring her thoughts and feelings into her little worlds of love and longing.
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in great pain as Karl enters me from behind using a mouthful of spit and a great deal of force. Sometimes I have to bite the pillow to stop myself from crying out as he thrusts into me with increasing fury, muttering insults and abuse under his breath as he does so. It’s not directed at me, I don’t believe. It’s directed at whoever he’s imagining me to be at the time. I often wonder if it’s always the same person or if it’s someone new each time. Once, just as he was coming, I distinctly heard him say, “Fuck you, Cohen, fuck you!” I wondered if it was the same Cohen I thought it was.