Extract from Without Flinching pages 177-184

He put on his brown shoes and his good white shirt that he brought for this occasion. It was Saturday morning, late enough that she would be up, but not likely gone. He stood in front of the door for a long time. His hands were shaking, his heart beating, and he wasn’t sure he would be able to talk. He rang the bell.

“Who is it?” came the cautious question.

“Alice,” he said hoarsely, “It’s Paul, please open the door. I came to talk with you.”

A long painful pause followed. Would she let him in? Then the lock turned, the door opened, and she stood in the doorway, completely pale, half blocking the door. She had no smile on her face, no invitation. He nodded awkwardly. She looked at him for a long second. He lowered his eyes involuntarily, then raised them again with effort. Her eyes were not greeting him. What was she going through? She scrutinized him, her eyes going up and down, a little squinted, but not from light. Still not a word, but it looked like she had made her decision, and she moved aside with a silent gesture to let him know he could come in.

She walked ahead of him, not looking back, not welcoming. But her body still commanded attention from him, graceful, still sexy. The years had not taken their toll yet. She was wearing grey corduroys, and a slightly faded black sweatshirt. From behind he didn’t need to hide that he was looking at her.

They walked into her simple living room, with one couch, a small coffee table, a large TV, and a couple of chairs. She motioned him to sit in one of them, and sat down on the couch. She didn’t say a word, just looked at him. Her mouth was just as beautiful as he remembered it.

He didn’t know where to start. [Continuing from novel’s home page:] His armpits were wet with anxiety. He hadn’t talked with this woman since he beat her and left her on the floor of their apartment. At the court, they never looked at each other. He never looked at anything during the whole process. Now, 20 years later, the weight of all the unspoken words was palpable in the air. She must be so angry. Why isn’t she saying anything? Fear crawled on his body like a cockroach. He worried he wouldn’t be able to speak. Her silence felt ominous.

He cleared his throat awkwardly, and she looked at him, empty of expectation. He figured he would get straight to the point. “I’m falling in love again, Alice,” he said, and examined her reaction. She remained blank. So many years, so much had happened to her that he would never likely know. Where was Jennifer? Could he ask about her? His courage was dissipating. He looked around again, more closely. Pictures on the wall, many with Jennifer. He fought the urge to go look. He would get to that later. Right now he wanted to stay focused on why he came. “You showed up in my dream, and more than once, so I had to come and talk with you,” he proceeded, not as carefully as he wanted. Why should she care?

“I wondered for a long time if you would ever come one day. And….” Her hands were moving nervously, and he couldn’t keep his eyes off them. They were clutching the edge of her dress, then letting go, and back again, telling him a story he couldn’t yet decipher. Maybe she wasn’t happy, after all. She wasn’t really answering him. But he didn’t really ask anything, either.

She caught his eyes looking at her hands, and turned red. She waited for him to look at her again. It took him a moment to notice, and then he turned red, too. She proceeded, in the same empty voice. “…In the last few days I felt you. It was strange, never happened to me since you were gone. And now here you are. Why did you come? Why couldn’t you just leave us alone? It took years to make it all go away. I don’t need to be reminded.” She grimaced, and he understood at once the effort it took to make a life again, to let go of what had happened with him. He wanted to comfort her. He didn’t know what to say, amazed that after so many years she still could sense him around, but not wanting to call her attention to it. He looked at her expectantly. For a moment he thought maybe it would be easier than he dreaded, and his body relaxed.

She must have noticed that he was relaxing when she looked at him again, because suddenly she pulled herself back from the unexpected momentary softness. “What do you want from me?” She sounded so cold, as if she wanted to let him know her life was hers, not his.

He recoiled from her distance, unsure of himself. What did he want? Why had he come? “I want to know what happened to you, what happened to Jennifer. My mother told me you had moved in with her. But I want to hear from you, too.” His mouth tasted funny. He was scared. He didn’t rise up to the occasion, wasn’t brave enough, perhaps. How could he be so stupid?

“Oh, I see,” she started icily, as if she was reading his thoughts again. “All these years you never once cared to inquire after your child. Now you’re falling in love again, and suddenly you show up. Why?” her voice was getting louder. Alice had never been sarcastic, and he had never seen her angry. “All these years I was supposed to be fine without anything from you, Jennifer was supposed to grow up without you. And now you want something, and I’m supposed to just be ready for you, right?” She was yelling those last few words, throwing them at him through clenched teeth, like arrows at his heart. He waited, imagining more was coming. His heart was beating fast, and he looked again at her hands, lying in her lap, agitated and delicate.

“Look at me when I talk to you,” she went on, gathering energy. “You wanted to know, right? So now you listen to me.” Her face was red all over. Her eyes were full of fire, staring at him intently, holding his gaze, not letting him move an inch away from the truth. “How dare you come here now after all these years and disrupt my peace? I worked too damn hard to gain it. I can’t believe I let you in! I should have told you to go away. If I wanted to see you, I would be looking for you. Your mother told me you were back as soon as you came the first time. We’re good friends.” That last one sounded sadistic, like she knew how much it would hurt. She was breathing heavily, on the verge of crying. But she went on. “Where were you when we needed support? Why didn’t you look me up then? Yes, I know what you’re thinking, you were sending us money. That was worse than a joke, that pitiful amount of money. Do you have any idea what it takes to raise a child? Why didn’t you send us some real money? We were struggling so fucking hard to get by.” He wanted to protest, but what was there to say? She was right. The money he sent them was little, and much too late. He had been so preoccupied with himself, with what he had done to a woman who was already dead, that he didn’t think much about the woman who was still alive, and about the child she was raising, their daughter.

She broke into tears. The memory of the early years brought with it such pain. She covered her face with her hands. He watched her for a while, and then reached gently across the coffee table to take her hand. He still wanted so much to comfort her. “Get your dirty hands off me, asshole,” she retorted, jerking her arm away from him. “You have long lost the right to touch me.” She was yelling and crying at the same time. Her nose was red and dripping, her cheeks were covered with tears, and she didn’t bother to clean herself, but she didn’t look ugly, only human, so human. “God almighty,” she was talking to no one in particular, certainly not to him. “Why do I have to go through this again?”

He sat across from her, awestruck. His eyes filled up with tears. His hands, now close to him, held on to the armrests, and were sweating uncomfortably. She looked up, as if noticing him for the first time. “Why are you looking at me like that?” She demanded. She saw the tears in his eyes. “What are you crying about, you monster?” She was screaming at the top of her lungs. He worried the neighbors would hear. He didn’t know what to do. So he remained quiet. Alice kept looking at him, measuring him with contempt. His spine chilled under her gaze, but he held it.

After a little while the wave of wrath seemed to have passed and Alice started crying again. This time she was more subdued. He sat motionless, waiting, not knowing what he was waiting for, but trusting himself a little more after weathering the storm without running away.

Alice got up and went to the bathroom. He heard her blow her nose several times. He heard the toilet flush a couple of times. A few more minutes passed in silence, during which he kept running through what had just happened. His chest was hurting, right where he knew his heart was. The fresh memory of her agony, the weight of her suffering, sat right behind his eyes, and sent out waves of stabbing pain that spread throughout his body. He cried, silently. He didn’t want her to hear him.

When she came back, she had pulled herself together. He could see that she put on a fresh layer of makeup. He felt such tenderness for her. She sat down again and looked at him, still cold. He got the message it was his turn to speak. He was trying mightily to swallow the tears. But he also knew he wanted her to see them and comfort him. A wave of self-disgust shook him. How could he be so low as to want comfort from this woman he had hurt so much? “Give me a moment to collect myself,” he managed to say. He looked at her. She sat erect and dignified, attentive. She looked puzzled. He was glad for the years of practice he had put himself through, for his tenacity in listening to her. He thought this must be what the priest meant. He was looking at what he had done, right in the eye.

“I want to thank you for talking to me,” he started, hoping she wouldn’t think he was sarcastic. She got it. “Please go on,” he continued. “I’m sure you have more to say.” This time he allowed the tenderness to break his voice. His eyes welled up again. “I really acted like a monster.” She looked at him without moving, still attentive. “I know you were really scared of me. I remember your face… I don’t know if you remember. When I came home you used to run away to the kitchen… you were hiding from me…” Each word came out with effort.

Alice started crying again. She signaled him to go on, but he waited. “What is it, Alice?” He asked, finding, at last, an outlet for the gush of care he felt. “I just can’t stand remembering this, it was so awful… so awful… nowhere to go… and I was pregnant, too… and you were so scary… of course I remember… I wish I didn’t… half the time I wanted you dead.” He guessed the other half, the attraction he knew she still had for him until the day he left, perhaps afterwards, he didn’t know that part. But he didn’t say a word, he didn’t want to shame her. “Then Jennifer was born… I was completely dependent on you… I hated you so much…” She paused often, crying a lot. He could barely make out the words. “Yes, I was so fucking scared of you… And I tried to please you, damn it.” Her voice rose, the anger was coming through again. “I can’t believe … you’re sitting here … and I’m talking to you. Why is this still hurting … so much … after all these years?” She was gasping for air, her nose completely stuffed up. She stopped speaking.

“And then you almost killed me in the end,” She added, lowering her voice, still angry. She looked completely wasted. “If the neighbors didn’t come in… who knows what would happen…” He nodded, even though he knew he had already stopped hitting her by then. What difference did that small fact make? He really could have killed her, after all, he was certainly capable of it. She looked at him again, calming down slowly.

“You’re different now,” she started, grasping for words to describe what was so clear to her. Not finding them, she repeated herself emphatically. “You really are different.” He nodded again, his eyes filling up with new tears. Was he different? He could see that he didn’t run away, or get angry, or defensive. “I hope you’re right,” he said. He couldn’t tell her about his daily efforts. He couldn’t tell her about trying to build a new relationship. He couldn’t tell her any of that. So he smiled wistfully, and repeated himself, like she had just done. “I sure hope you’re right. That would be such a relief.”

They sat in the silence until she calmed down completely. Neither of them rushed anywhere. “What’s next?” she said, a little embarrassed. “Would you like a cup of tea or something?” It was obvious she was trying to sound casual. “I think it’s best if I leave for a while. You need time, don’t you?” She frowned at him, once again deciding for her what she needed, like in the past. But he was right, and she relented, nodding silently. It was his last day in town, now he wished he had come here sooner. Tomorrow was Sunday, and he wanted to take the first train back home. He wanted a break between this and going back to work. “I am leaving town early tomorrow morning, but maybe we can see each other again in a few weeks, after you’ve had some time to digest?” “Where do you live?” She knew nothing about him, and was obviously curious. He named his town, told her about his job. He wanted to ask about Jennifer, badly. But he didn’t dare. It was time for him to go. They stood facing each other at the door, awkward. Then he turned around and walked away. When he looked back, she was still standing at the door.

Back at his motel he landed on his cheap bed, covered his face, as if anyone could see him, and wept.

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