I think that is who I am… That’s not who I am. That’s who I want to be. A shrugger. Someone who can throw off the past without a thought. Someone who lives in the present. Just like the tense of this story. Always in motion, moving forward. Never reflective, looking back and tripping over my own two feet. Always present, always perfect. Present perfect.
That’s what everyone thinks, isn’t it? That my blond hair and blue eyes afford me privilege, make me perfect, especially in this place—this palace. Strangers take photos with me as if I’m a space alien. Because I am an alien, of sorts. I’m a foreigner living in India.
You think you’ve read this story before, but you haven’t. See. There it is. Present perfect. Being present is hard enough. Add the pain of perfection to it, and you’re stuck. Stuck in an unspecified time and place that you can’t escape like some damn song caught in a repeat loop.
That’s how I feel. Like I’m stuck in a loop. That’s what trauma does; that’s how the clinicians describe it. The memories replay in my right brain, but can’t seem to shift to my left, where logic rules emotion and can reconcile the past to the present.
I stand in front of Diana’s bench. It’s my bench now. I’m a Diana, too. Not the Diana, of course, but that’s my name nonetheless. For me, this monument to love resembles nothing of the kind. It’s just a pile of rocks, crumbling after centuries of abuse and neglect. The Mughals built this palace, and the British…well. Let’s just say the Taj Mahal was the fanciest army camp ever not built for that intended purpose. Now, the Taj must surrender herself to the unwanted, destructive touches of tourists. We breathe out our toxic fumes and destroy what remains of her delicate carvings.
She used to hold jewels. Did you know that? Fantastic legends surround her jewels and gold. Terrible tales of plunder at the hands of brutal invaders unfold among the guides who wander the grounds. You can still see a few sapphires up at the very tippy top of her exquisite minarets. If you squint, and Agra’s industrial smog doesn’t cloud your view, you might experience a brief taste of her former magnificence. Or perhaps that’s another myth I’ve created just for you—and for me. Like so many other lies I’ve told over the years.
As I sit on the bench, in the land of the Kama Sutra, I’m unable to do the one thing that matters most to me—and to my husband Jack. The one thing that makes me a wife in his eyes. For five long years, I’ve tried and failed. All because I can’t escape my mind, and free my body from the pain of trauma. Years have passed, one after the other, marching across a field filled with desire, left to rot. All because of another man who’s shared our bed with us—or at least with me—every night.
His name was Colin. Such a proper Irish name, such a sexy voice. That was his allure: sex mixed with otherness. He was living, breathing erotica. His eyes recalled the Emerald Isle’s rolling hills and cliffs at sunset. Soft blond curls framed his face. His high cheekbones gave him a sculpted look.
It all started with a lie. A stupid lie to my parents about going to the library with a friend after school. The day before, Colin and I had agreed to meet. I should have known he wouldn’t show. What was I to him? He was older, sophisticated, and employed in a dead-end retail job at the mall.
Did I mention he was sexy?
I waited for 30 minutes and then called him. He had forgotten, of course. I’ve never been memorable. One of life’s ironies is to be cursed with a prodigious memory and yet not be memorable myself. He came when I called, but later on, when it mattered…
As he pulled up in front of the school in his black Trans Am, the front covered in Bondo, my stomach flip-flopped with butterflies. I’d waited long enough. It was time to get busy, as they say. Or so I thought.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” was my useless reply.
We drove down Laurens Road and found a secluded spot among the trees. I could hear the birds over the low rumble of traffic passing along the highway. A Carolina wren whistled her shrill call.
Listen. Can you hear her?
She hopped down as we laid out my coat, but, finding no crumbs to scavenge, she flew back to her nest. My coat was an oversized military-style jacket made of wool. You remember that horrible look? Americans pretending to be Russians at the height of the Cold War. And, there I was playing Russian roulette with my life. At least we had the coat and didn’t do it in the back seat.
I laid on the ground. It was cold and damp in late December. Hardly, the romantic scene the movies create. He didn’t even kiss me first. Just straight to business. He had some body lotion for lubricant. He shoved his jagged nails inside and scraped me. The lotion stung as he applied it. He straddled me—mounted would be more accurate— like he might a prostitute. But, Julia Roberts I was not.
As he started thrusting, all I felt was pain. No joy. No ecstasy. Nothing else. Just pain. A ripping, tearing pain pierced my insides over and over. I was being impaled with a six-inch stake, like some vampire in a bad B movie. But instead of wood, this weapon was made of flesh.
When I asked him to stop, he did. Mid-erection, no satisfaction. I told myself later that it wasn’t rape. Rape was about consent, which I had given freely.
But, was it trauma?
Blood stained my coat. The lining had ripped. It was like my period had come too soon. He might not have come, but the blood did. So much blood…
He drove me home in silence. What more was there to say? I had failed, and I didn’t fail. I was a topper. But not in this.
I entered the house and hid my coat in the hall closet. After my parents went to bed, I tiptoed downstairs. The coat hung undisturbed. The bright red blood had faded to rust-brown. Maybe I was too late.
I took the coat into the half-bathroom, but it didn’t fit under the faucet. The basin was too small. The wool was slick against the marble. It kept sliding off the counter.
I turned on the faucet. Water poured from the spout, overflowed the coat’s makeshift basin, and dripped on to the floor. As I moved in to stop the flow, the water soaked my shirt.
I squeezed the Softsoap on to the lining, and scrubbed, and scrubbed. My hands weren’t abrasive enough. I slipped into the hall closet, pulled an old rag from the bottom of the towel pile, and hoped mom wouldn’t notice a missing towel.
I scrubbed some more. The soap and blood blended into a foamy pile of shame. I rinsed the coat as best I could. Yet, a light brown outline remained to map the borders of the solitary country called Trauma where I now lived.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and stared. My baby blues no longer stared back at me. They’d turned to slate, cold and steely, empty.
I did my best, but nothing could wash away the stain inside the coat—or me. I tried to dry the coat and hang it in the hall closest as if it had remained undisturbed.
The coat appeared undisturbed, but I was not.
I am not.
I am broken, and my husband and my marriage are, too. Pieces—of me and of Jack—some jigsawed together, others solitary—lie scattered on the ground in front of this bench. Even in the shadow of this monument to love, Jack and I can’t seem to consummate ours.
I think last night was the last straw for him. As he tried to penetrate me, my nightmare was triggered. I was back in the woods. On the cold, hard ground. I recoiled. Another failed attempt ended in frustration for him. I rolled away in shame, humiliated at having put him through this futile exercise once more.
Yet, here we are. Morning has broken. The sun has risen on the Taj. But rather than lifting my spirits, the sun haunts me and blinds me. Spots pass before my eyes. Blue, purple, violet, and red wander across the color spectrum of my mind. As they fade, I finally see the truth.
After years of rejection, he’s sought comfort elsewhere. Can you blame him? I can’t.
I don’t know her name. I just know he’d rather be with her—than with me. Her nameless face and body haunt my nightmares. Does he love her or is she just a physical vessel, a mechanism through which he satisfies himself? Is he being safe? Am I at risk?
Building on a foundation of pain, I’m adding another layer now. Cement made from fear connects the layers and makes it harder to knock down this wall. I’m in the middle of a Pink Floyd rock opera, unsure whether I’m the bird soaring overhead or the soldier dying on the ground.
Again, I’m stuck on repeat.
The fear of this memory has been stuck inside my head. Now, that fear has wedged itself deep inside my pelvis, hardened the flexible walls of my vagina, and cemented them shut so that nothing can penetrate. Nothing. Not even love.
I sit alone, waiting, sweltering in the September heat, yet frozen to this bench, frozen in time.
Jack approaches me.
“Are you ready?” he asks.
I shrug. I’m unsure of the shrug’s meaning. It feels like a release—of emotions ranging from pain to anger and from grief to joy.
“Joy? Where does joy come into this?” I ask myself. I shrug, inhaling as I bring my shoulders to my ears, exhaling as I let go. Of everything.
Am I ready to shrug the past? Truly?
Have I moved from present perfect to simple present? Tense seems less important now than tension—or rather the lack of it. As I shrug again, I relieve the tension and melt into the bench—and into myself.
Am I ready to become simply present?
This short story is a work of fiction; any resemblance to real persons is unintentional and purely coincidental. This story was inspired by Anita Nair’s Write India passage. Write India is a mentorship program sponsored by the Times of India that connects aspiring writers with India’s bestselling authors. All first place entries will be published in an anthology.