A literary short story (1265 words).
A cool evening breeze greets me when I step out on to the small balcony. I have taken my wig off so the wind can caress my poor bald head. The horizon is painted in swaths of reds and oranges and yellows, floating above a darkening ocean, the sun almost gone. The only thing standing between me and the dying sun is a narrow stretch of gray sand and an endless sea. I breath in deeply and memories rush in.
A hand settles on my shoulder. “Still beautiful, isn’t it?” says Jackson.
“It is as I remember it,” I tell him. “Though there are more boats now.”
I step back into the room. “I remember this differently.”
Tanya has come out of the bathroom. “It’s been thirty-five years since your honeymoon, mom. I’m sure it’s been redone several times.”
Jackson says, “You remember what it looked like?” He sounds skeptical.
I turn in a slow circle pointing things out. “The walls were pale blue, not this ghastly burnt umber color. The bed had a canopy. That alcove held a statue of the Virgin Mary; I’m not sure what that abstract teak thing in it is. The desk and chairs were real wood. The carpet had a colorful Aztec design, not this bland gray. And the ceiling — the ceiling was white stucco.”
My husband and my daughter stare at me.
“Jeeze, mom. Didn’t you guys have more interesting things to do than commit the room’s decor to memory?”
I sit down in one of the plush chairs. I am tired, and not just because of the chemo. “Something happened that week that I’ve never told anyone. I need to tell you — both of you — while I still can.”
Jackson pulls the other chair close and sits; Tanya claims the bed.
“Are you sure, Naomi?” Says Jackson. “Some secrets are better left unsaid.”
“I have thought about this for a long time. It’s the reason I wanted us to come to Cabo.”
He sighs and looks at Tanya. She looks at the floor.
I look into Jackson’s brown eyes, eyes that still pull me in even after all these years. Then I say what I have to say: “On the second day of our honeymoon, two men raped me, in this room.”
There. I said it; the secret I have carried for thirty-five years.
Jackson’s eyes close for a moment and then open. He takes in a deep breath and lets it out. I glance at Tanya. She’s still staring at the floor.
Looking back at Jackson, I press on, anxious to get it all out. “They were Americans, probably college students on an off-season break. You had gone to a tienda to get some snacks and bottled water. One of them held a knife to my throat and told me that if I was quiet and cooperative, they would not hurt me. Otherwise, he was going to cut me up.” I stop to swallow the lump in my throat. “I was quiet.”
A few moments pass before Jackson says quietly, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was afraid. Afraid you would see me as damaged goods. Afraid you would leave. Afraid … I don’t know. I was nineteen; I didn’t know what to do. So I cleaned myself up and pretended nothing had happened.”
I take a breath. I have to tell it all before I get sidetracked. “There is more. I know you were — “
Jackson puts his hand on my knee. “Stop. I knew something was up, but I didn’t know what. Later, when I found out that I wasn’t Tanya’s real father, I figured — “
Tanya interrupts him. “Dad, you were always my real father. That bastard was just a sperm donor.” She looks at me. “It’s okay mom. I’ve known for a while.”
I don’t know what I feel. They both knew. How? When?
Jackson looks at Tanya with a quizzical look and then turns back to me. “I was pretty messed up about it for a while. I hired a detective agency to find out the truth. It was surprisingly easy to find them. One of them had died in an automobile accident. The other had become an architect. He had a wife and three children.”
He pauses and takes a deep breath. “When I confronted him, he seemed truly sorry about what he had done, and begged me not to tell his wife. We made a deal: in exchange for my silence, he would set up an anonymous scholarship fund for Tanya.”
For some reason, the only thing I can think to say is, “You blackmailed him.”
He hesitates. “Yeah. I guess I did.” I think he had never thought of it that way before.
I turn to Tanya. “When did you know?”
“Yeah,” says Jackson. “How the hell did you find out?”
She smiles sadly. “My PhD dissertation. The Long-term Effects of Rape On Families.”
I shake my head. “I was appalled when your studies took you in that direction.”
“I know,” she says. “Here’s the thing: Most victims of rape find a way to move on. But not all. Some develop one of three pathological responses, all rooted in the belief that they are damaged goods, worthless people who deserve what they got. The first response is sexual promiscuity. The second is to form relationships with abusive men. The third is to turn it inward and become sick. That’s what you did, mom.”
She comes over to me and sits on the floor and takes my hand. “I researched your medical history. Before you married dad, you were a robustly healthy woman. Afterward, your health became fragile and you began a long string of illnesses and injuries. The suicidal ideation, the year bouncing in and out of the mental health unit, maybe even your cancer — that’s what those were about. You internalized your experience, and it poisoned you, physically and psychologically.”
I open my mouth but she holds up her hand to stop me.
“Then I thought about the scholarship. A full ride from an anonymous donor; that was too much of a coincidence. So one Thanksgiving break, I went through dad’s papers and found the detective agency’s report. Dad, you really should have burned it.”
She gazes out the balcony’s open French doors. Her voice becomes momotone. “Mom, that bastard stole your life.” She pauses. “So I stole his.”
A chill creeps over me. Jackson looks like he has been slapped in the face.
“Tanya,” I say. “What did you do?”
She is still looking out over the ocean. “He had become a professor of architecture. I audited one of his classes and started an affair with him. Complete with video. I sent it to his wife. And to the Provost.”
Her eyes find mine again. “His wife left him. Two of his children stopped speaking to him. His teaching career is over. I destroyed him, mom. I destroyed him. Just like he destroyed you.”
In the silence that fills the room I listen to the waves rushing up the beach and back down again. A party has started somewhere; alcohol consumption is well underway from the sounds of it. The sun has sunk into the gray sea, leaving the room dark. Jackson reaches back and switches on a lamp.
Thirty-five year ago Jackson and I came here for our honeymoon and I was raped and drank deeply of the poison that is slowly killing me and Tanya was conceived and Jackson became a blackmailer and Tanya destroyed a man’s career and family. And it all happened one night in Cabo.