The woman who would eventually come to be my wife was raped when she was thirteen. The man—the rapist—was a transient trucker nearly twice her age. She was small town, or at least that’s how she’d explain it.
No one in her family had ever shown her care—there were no hugs, no I love yous—and so his paying for her cigarettes, sneaking beers beneath the table at highway diners, those gestures counted for a lot. And when he finally got tired of hearing her say no, when he finally just took what it was that he wanted, she was still so swept up in his previous kindnesses that she didn’t realize what had really happened for years to come. The psychic scars cut deep, I guess. She became the woman she is today, the woman I married—the woman whose behaviors I struggle to understand.
It’s not that I haven’t tried, or that I don’t try. Some hurts are just forever.
* * *
It happened on the train tracks, the dividing line separating the dirt-poor from the not-so-poor. They’d been drinking—Old Grand-dad—and talking about leaving, about how she could ride with him in his truck, see the country in all its immense beauty. It was the middle of the afternoon and the harping of insects was as inescapable as the summer heat. He got her down on the ground, her back against the slats, her hands clasped on the cool metal rails. It was difficult because she was wearing jeans and they were tight. There was something of a struggle. The slats dug into her back—left lines that she felt for days. When he was done he sat on the rail, legs spread wide, elbows resting on his knees. He rolled a cigarette and lit it. Neither of them spoke. She watched those big plumes of blue smoke fall apart and disappear. It wasn’t until the tracks hummed with the vibrations of an oncoming train that he helped her up and took her home. Each step she took ached her insides.
* * *
My wife, she told this story to our daughter, Sam, just before midnight one dark night. Our daughter was in her senior year of high school. My wife was drunk, hunched over the kitchen counter, cigarette bouncing on her lower lip. Her face looked like a fist.
“He was just a trucker and he wasn’t so smart,” she said, looking at Sam, those small, vertical wrinkles near her mouth betraying any niceties in her voice. “You don’t appreciate the life you got.”
* * *
The first time I saw my wife’s hometown, Sam wasn’t much older than thirteen. We drove there—her, our daughter, and I—because one of her innumerable, perpetually jail-bound cousins had died. The roads were lined with electrical pylons. We passed a small church, its whitewash chipping in chunks. A tight triangle of bullet holes punctured the green population sign—its number no more than three digits—a country cliché if there ever was one. The radio seemed to only pick up the staticky crunch of church organs.
She asked me to pull over on the side of the road, that she wanted some air. She got out, left the door open behind her.
“Is she sick?” Sam asked.
I mean, how do you answer a question like that?
We followed her into the field of grass, as dry as straw, crunching beneath our careful steps. My wife stood before a fence, electric wire strung up from wood post to wood post.
In the distance, the steady, growing sound of an oncoming train.
Three cows clustered beneath the bloom of a beautiful, old South Texas oak. She turned to us. “Aren’t they so big?” The chugging of the machine, closer now. “Don’t they just look so hungry?” She turned her back to us. The release of its whistle. And in all that noise, I could just barely hear her scream as she reached out and grabbed hold of the electric wire, the muscles in her arms tensing.
* * *
Sam is in college now, living in some evergreen enclave, some snow-bound cluster of cabins and classrooms. Maybe she’s learning to appreciate her life. I’m not sure. She hasn’t said so in either of the letters I’ve received.
Sometimes, in bed, I lie awake in the darkness and listen to my wife’s breathing, my heartbeat skipping over the strange silence after she exhales, deep hollows of silence, and I am able to visualize a concrete wall before me, as big as I can see.
I’m calmed by this vision because I know I harbor thoughts of an extreme nature. And I feel it growing inside me, an unbearable heat, all-consuming.