Flower in the Wind
Copyright© 2012 by Robert McKay
Our routine changed. I still made my bed on the sofa every night, but sometimes – not often, at least not at first – Al would ask me to go to bed with her. Sometimes all she wanted was to go to sleep with me holding her. Sometimes she wanted sex. But always she wanted to know that she could trust me. I was sure that was what was behind it, at least partly, even if she didn't know it herself. All her experience until we'd become husband and wife was that sex was something that men did to women – by force if necessary. And she was learning, painfully, slowly, that some men weren't like that. She was learning to trust me. She had to trust me to tell her the truth, to treat her with respect, to not force myself on her.
It was in a lot of ways a dysfunctional marriage. I felt the strain of it. It wasn't just the forced constraints on sex, though certainly that was part of it. It was walking on eggshells all the time, it was treating her like a piece of fine crystal in greasy hands. It was hard on me. It was especially hard when she'd take me into the bedroom and just want me to hold her.
But it was worth it. I could see my friend becoming herself again. She looked at men differently, without the calculating look on her face. She lost the little tricks of displaying herself that had become automatic during her years of prostitution. The wounds were scarring over. They might not ever heal completely. But they were becoming less sensitive, less obtrusive.
I took her for walks – longer and longer as winter moderated into spring. We'd hold hands, or put our arms around each other. She developed the habit of putting her hand in my back pocket – something I'd smiled at when I saw teens doing it, but which was poignant when Al did it. I realized that though she was ancient in some ways, and a woman in chronological terms, underneath it all a lot of her development had stopped the night her father had invaded her bedroom. Deep down inside she was still a child, and that came out in little things like the hand in my pocket.
I loved her more than ever. Admitting it to myself had taken the lid off, and being with Al and seeing how she'd suffered, and watching her recover, merely increased it. My heart swelled as I watched her, as I listened to her voice, as I held her hand or touched the smooth skin of her shoulder or traced the pattern of hairs on her forearm.
I learned a lot in those weeks. I found that a woman shaving her legs is at the same time both awkward and graceful. I learned that as her period approached Al became cranky, and sometimes didn't feel very well. I'd heard of PMS, but now I got to witness it, and sometimes be on the receiving end of it. I learned that she took a childish delight in clothes, and once we weaned her from her tendency to buy revealing clothing she showed remarkably good taste. I learned that whenever she put on jeans and a flannel shirt she was remembering – either her childhood before it all went bad, or the bad times.
If she was in jeans and flannel and quiet, I learned to simply hold her and let her hide in her familiar clothes, and in my arms, while the painful memories receded. I learned that if she sat on the far side of the table while she cried, she wanted to be alone. I learned that she did cry a lot – and I learned that it wasn't anything I'd done, but the slowly healing wounds of her life.
For it was almost half her life we were dealing with. She'd only been 13 when her father had betrayed her, and she'd been 25 when she'd escaped from the street. No one gets over that kind of experience in a night. I'd dropped out of the monthly witnessing visits to Central, but Tyrone understood. He'd told me that I was doing my own witnessing, and more intensively than anyone who was down on Central with the Gospel. And I knew he was right. I was, in my own amateur way, serving as a physician to Al's soul. And it was a long, slow, painful process of healing.
In April I took a week off and took Al on vacation. She needed one – prostitutes don't get paid time off. I doubted that she'd had a full week's worth of days off in her life, and certainly not that long at a stretch. She was due.
We picked a place by opening the atlas at random. It turned out to be the Oklahoma page, and I had her close her eyes, and put her finger down at random while I moved the atlas around. When her finger landed we both looked, and it was a little place called Marlow, south of Oklahoma City. Neither of us had ever been there – Al had never been further east than Albuquerque – and that was what we needed. We looked forward to seeing things we'd never seen.
Al in fact began walking around singing Willie Nelson's song "On the Road Again." I hadn't known that she knew the song, but it seemed she did. I hadn't realized she sang, for that matter, but it turned out that she could sing very well, her voice like a bell in its clarity. She'd quit singing after her father started raping her – something that I couldn't remember, though I must have observed it. I thought about that, and realized that it must have been a gradual tapering off rather than a sudden cessation.
We left early on Saturday morning, driving into the rising sun. I-40 goes east through Tijeras Canyon, following US 66, though westward it trends north of the old highway, which is in fact Central Avenue. We wound our way through the canyon, which really is a pass between the Sandia Mountains to the north and the Manzano Mountains to the south. I don't speak Spanish, but when I'd come to Albuquerque I'd asked about the names of the mountains, and now I passed that on to Al.
"You're kidding, right? The Watermelon Mountains and the Apple Mountains?"
"That's the truth, Al. You can look it up if you don't believe me."
"You've never lied to me, but you just might be playing a joke. I think I'll just do that. I need to get a library card anyway..."
That was another on the long list of items that were natural for ordinary people, but which Al wasn't used to. We'd had to get her a legitimate driver's license, replacing the fake she had when I married her. She'd never owned a car and still didn't. She had never owned her own television, and had never had cable – though she could discourse in detail on some of the channels available on cable in various Central Avenue motels. I didn't like her to do that, for those details didn't belong on film.