Working With Available Light: Chapter One

It's as if a deep wound, long buried, has been laid open. Lying beside my wife, I'm confused by my maleness — so hard, so insistent — and feel somehow implicated in her wounding. Every caress feels coercive. Yet there is another kind of touching she welcomes. In the past, I often gave her massages; sometimes as a prelude to lovemaking. Now massage has become a lifeline between us. I imagine my fingers are drawing out the tension and fear that have invaded her body. And for the moment at least, it seems to be so. 

She lies on our bed on her stomach. I straddle her from behind, lean forward, and work my fingers through her hair, massaging her scalp. I rub her neck and shoulders, then work down her back. How fragile she seems, this woman who runs marathons, climbs mountains, skis the most demanding trails. Her shoulders and neck, her wrists and fingers seem impossibly delicate. This is a perception I have often had of the children but never before of her: how breakable a human being is. 

I move down to her buttocks. Years ago she taught me how to make bread. Now I am the baker in the family — a better bread maker than breadwinner, we used to joke — and the children have grown up eating what they call "Daddy's bread." As I massage her there, I am invariably, helplessly, reminded of kneading dough. And vice versa. This is one of the surprises life has held: this ripening of sexual passion over time — the way it deepens and ramifies, embracing not only children but also garden and kitchen in the sexuality of the household. 

Looking down at Patsy's backside, I am shadowed by the knowledge that there was a moment when he was in much the same position I am in now. After smashing her in the face with his fists, he dragged her off the lakefront running path, his hands around her neck, choking her. In the middle of a small grove of trees he forced her to the ground and straddled her from behind. With one hand, he yanked her head back by the hair, blood streaming from her face, as he forced his other hand inside her. The perception is hard to absorb: tenderness and cruelty inhabit the same space in the world. All it takes is two bodies. 

I massage her strong runner's legs: thighs, calves, and — her favorite moment — feet. She relaxes completely, gives herself over to pleasure. Her feet are endearingly ugly. Misshapen and calloused, they testify to all the miles she has run and skied. Bunions protrude. Her toes are a tangle. Some toenails are blackened or missing altogether. Yet these abused extremities are the sites of such feeling. Thousands of nerve ends converge in the feet. Hence the sensations that radiate through the body when they are rubbed. (And hence the widespread torture technique of beating the soles of the feet: the torturer, like the lover, is drawn to concentrations of nerve ends.) When I have finished — this is part of the ritual — Patsy asks, "Are you sure you did both feet?" 

Heavy with relaxation, she turns over and lies on her back. A lovely sight. Amid all my confused feelings of desire and frustration and grief, I feel much simple affection for her body. I stroke the area defined by hips and pelvis — a loose and fleshy drum, as soft as an infant's skin. No number of sit-ups, thank God, will completely eliminate the hint of a pouch across her abdomen — the residue childbearing has left on her body. 

We had been together close to ten years before we had our first child. The pregnancy was a revelation for me. After a lifetime of being excited by women's bodies, I found that they finally made sense. Patsy's round belly seemed not a distortion but the missing piece that completes the female form. It was as if she had always been slightly off-balance, then in pregnancy had found her center of gravity. 

Bearing a child was, for her, an immersion in her animal nature. Soon after she learned she was pregnant, she stood before a supermarket meat counter and sized up an eight-pound turkey, taking the measure of the thing inside her. As the pregnancy advanced, she grew ever closer to the presence within her. A photographer by vocation, she compared the process to the focusing of a lens. Toward the end, she interacted with the fetus constantly — feeling it hiccup and change positions, making out its limbs, head, buttocks. When she was by herself, she was not alone. 

I remember being awakened by an August thunderstorm several weeks before the birth and seeing her naked by the shuttered bedroom window, in full pregnant profile, inhaling the night. It was as if the natural world were reclaiming her. No longer simply an individual in the environment, she was herself an environment for another. I came to think of her as a watery sort of ecosystem — a bog or a marsh or a tide pool. 

When she felt the first stirrings of life, she laughed. 

"It feels like a little fish," she said, "like a fish's tail slapping against the side of the bowl." 

For me, it was different. I put hand and cheek on her belly, felt the kicks, made out the shape of foot and buttock. Yet the child was not there for me in the same way. Early in the pregnancy, Patsy had a funny, punning dream: she was in the ninth month, awaiting the birth, when she received a phone call. The voice on the other end informed her, "Your baby has been delivered in Buffalo. You must come and pick it up." My experience was more like that — as if the baby were en route toward us, traveling across a great distance, getting closer day by day. One day we would go to the hospital as if to the train station and pick it up. 

The second pregnancy was in some ways different. No longer pioneers pushing back the frontiers of the unknown, we knew the shape of the process, knew where it led. We didn't joke, as we had the first time, about the fetus as a blind date. Also, this time there was another male looking on, one deeply implicated in the sexuality of the household: our son Josh, then three years old. 

It was Josh who named the fetus. Given a doll for Christmas, he christened it "Tummy" as in "the-baby-in-Mommy's-tummy." We followed his lead and throughout the pregnancy referred to — and addressed — the fetus as "Tummy." After the birth, it took us all a few days to break the habit and get used to calling her Betsy Rose. Today she is wholly Betsy. What the name "Tummy" evokes for me now is how my feelings for my children began as an extension of my love for their mother, how loving her body I felt within me the first gentle fishtail slaps of love for the life it contained. 

For some minutes during the attack, Patsy lived with the thought that it was up to him whether she lived or died, that she would only live if he let her. Overpowered physically, utterly alone, she sought in him something she could appeal to. Prepared to concede the rape, she pleaded for her life. 

"You can't kill me," she sobbed. "I have a baby at home." 

This falsehood was not calculated. It issued from her deepest sense of what a human being is. He was unmoved. 

I massage her breasts, trace the line of her collarbone with my fingers, stroke her cheeks and forehead. It's astonishing how quickly the physical wounds, the visible signs of suffering, healed. The effects of the attack are intensely physical, but they are on the inside. That's how she talks about it. The knowledge, the fear — it's something she carries within her. Harrowing images seize her in the night, and she cries out. I hold her and feel the terror inside her — a shudder in the hollow where she carried our children. 

When I arrived at the emergency room, I was met at the door by a woman doctor. 

"Your wife has been assaulted and badly beaten," she told me. "She's hysterical. She needs you to be calm. Can you do that?" 

I nodded, and she led me to the curtained enclosure where Patsy was being attended by nurses. The police were in attendance, too, at a discreet distance. Patsy was half upright on the bed. She was dressed in a hospital smock. Her running shorts and T-shirt, blood-soaked, lay on the floor. Her face was impossibly swollen; her eyes almost sealed shut by the swelling. A nurse was cleaning caked blood from her face. I took her hand and tried to comfort her. She released a sob and began, in discontinuous fragments, to tell me what had happened. 

I didn't know what she was feeling, only that it was overwhelmingly powerful. At one point, there in the emergency room, she spoke of a conversation we'd had the week before about endings, about last things — the last time we'd go out for a walk, the last time we'd awaken to dawn light, and so on. She recalled that I had said, "There'll be a last time we make love." 

"Last night," she said, "might have been it." 

Our children were born in this hospital. As Patsy labored, her face swollen with effort and pain, I stood by the bed and held her hand: a man, looking on, filled with awed recognition of what it means to be a woman. I find myself saying now words I said then. "Breathe deeply." "Try to stay relaxed." "I love you." Flooded by feelings I haven't the words to speak, I stand by her savaged body and hold her hand. A man, looking on.