A line from "The Waste Land", by T.S. Eliot.
Recurs later in the poem with "Time, Gentlemen": literally, the last call in English pubs.

Eliot was au fait with Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of Eternal Recurrence: knowing that everything that has, is, and will, happen, will just go on and on and on and on, over and over again.

"Hurry up please, it's time" could very well be an admonishment to people sitting on their hairy bums on padded velveteen pub seats to actually do something with themselves before they die, because they - just like you and I - will.

Hurry up please - it's time who is your enemy.

There is still the matter of packing.

When will she get a chance to put what she needs into a bag, perhaps two bags? She tries to concentrate on the woman's back underneath her hands. Mrs. Banks is tight today, all sinew and lumps under her ruddy skin. Alice focuses on dissolving that manifest tension. She kneads and tries to shoo the thoughts away. They are like gnats, a swarm of tiny imperatives.

She gazes at the basil-scented candle burning in the corner. Whispery new age music dribbles from the hidden speakers in the far wall. She works the tight muscles that lie just beneath the woman's tanned skin and absently wonders why these women are all so very thin. Is it a conspiracy against pasta, or a way to assert some sort of control over their bodies, their lives? Have their husbands declared fat a divorceable offense?

Alice winces. Her shoulder hasn't healed completely, and these deep-tissue massages are hard work.

Will she have time to pack before Fitz comes home?

"Ow, dammit, Alice! Where is your head today?" Mrs. Banks flinches and bats at Alice. Her manicured talons glint in the dim light. She rises on her elbows and clutches the sheet to her breasts, turns to glare at Alice.

Alice bites her lip. She tastes coppery blood. "Sorry." She doesn't elaborate, doesn't quite know where to look as the older woman's impatience fills the room. A vapor of irritation rises from her like steam.

"I've had enough. That's twice now I've told you to go easier. Get Billy," Mrs. Banks snaps.

Silently, Alice rubs her oiled hands on the towel she keeps around her neck and walks toward the door. "I'll be right back," she mumbles.

"I don't want you to come back. I want Billy to come back." Her voice is petulant and laced with entitlement.

Alice turns to stare at the woman. A bubble of sulferous anger rises in her stomach. She tries to connect what she is feeling to something, to anything at all, but it is too slippery, too unwieldy. Lately her emotions are like that: tottering, top-heavy, labile. This is unlike her. She flashes suddenly to last night, to the hot abrupt tears that rose in response to a commercial for long distance telephone service, and she cringes inwardly. Her jaw aches; she must have been grinding her teeth again while she slept. She sucks the bitten place on her lip, milking another droplet of blood.

Mrs. Banks notices that her orders are not being followed. She gathers the drape to her bony sternum and swings her legs around. She draws herself up to a sitting position.

"Alice, do I need to get the manager?" Her voice like slivers of ice.

"No. Sorry."

She closes the door deliberately, stifling the overwhelming urge to slam it, to pitch a childish tantrum right there in the middle of the spa.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It is all chrome and soothing lavender hues in the main area. Alice navigates the maze of elliptical and rowing machines, heads toward the front desk. The early tide of brisk businesswomen has subsided and the midmorning rhythm has begun. The club is dotted with resigned-looking housewives. A treadmill whirrs and a lone woman jogs, her sports bra soaked through with perspiration. She is heartbreakingly thin. Her eyes are desperate and furtive beneath her artfully dishevelled hair. Alice wonders what chases her. Is she running from or toward something?

She has a sudden impulse to approach the gaunt woman, to invite her for a cup of coffee, for a pastry. With startling clarity she sees the woman's even, white teeth flash as she bites into a chocolate croissant, her eyes closed in semi-private ecstasy as she tastes butter and sugar, forbidden things melting on her tongue, crisp golden flakes gathering at the corners of her mouth. She imagines the woman's pink tongue darting out to catch the still-warm chocolate, the kittenish curl of her smile. For an instant Alice pictures herself feeding the woman, sees herself as an evangelist of pleasure, a high priestess of decadence.

Take, eat, this is your sacrament. Enjoy, for this is your very own body. Do this in remembrance of yourself.

The image fades quickly. Alice sighs and turns toward the front desk where Billy scans the morning paper and sips from a mug of green tea. Even in repose he seems coiled, alert. He sees her immediately and rattles the paper in her direction.

"Aren't you doing Mrs. Banks this morning." It is not a question. He is aware of what is going on, though she has never discussed her circumstances with him. He is her husband's closest friend. She suspects, though she cannot be sure, that Billy is the one who supplies Fitz with the needles and the vials.

She'd found Fitz's stash the other day (she was looking, she was actively Invading His Space). The false bottom of the bureau drawer gave way to her gentle pressure and the stuff poured out, a miniature pharmacy. The names tasted foreign and ugly in her mouth as she whispered them like prayers to an angry god. Equipoise. Sustenon. Deca durabolin. A bag of weed - she knew about that, of course. She had intuited the rest, had smelled it on him, tasted it on him, but it still surprised her. Fitz always hated needles.

Take, eat, this is your very own body. Do this. Do this.

Alice senses the hormonal anger emanating from Billy before it rises in his eyes like red bile. He smells like Fitz, like something that should rightly be chained and caged.

"She asked for you," Alice says softly. Billy frowns. He had plans to finish the sports section, to finish his honeyed mug of tea, to gather a moment or two of quiet before the lunchtime rush. He regards her with annoyance and something uncomfortably close to disgust.

"Why? Can't you finish her? Her forty-five minutes are nearly up."

Alice studies her short, broken fingernails. She has been gnawing at them in her off hours, cannibalizing herself, and her cuticles are raw. She clears her throat. She shrugs. She says nothing.

Billy makes a harsh noise in his throat and brushes past her, pivoting on the balls of his feet with animal grace. "Fitz is due in thirty," he spits at her as he stalks toward the massage room. "You'll have to watch the desk until he gets in."

Alice nods numbly, but Billy is gone before she has a chance to form any words.

She shivers a little. The managers keep the spa meatlocker-cold, and she has once again forgotten to slip a sweatshirt into her work bag. When she left the trailer this morning a wall of humid Alabama air mugged her, smothered her. By the time she traversed the park and arrived on the back steps of the club she was damp and wilted, sweating in the flat predawn light. Of course she forgot a sweatshirt. Of course she did.

She is famished for a cigarette. Last month the manager had called Alice into her office and informed her with brisk disdain that she was no longer allowed to smoke while on break. One of her clients had complained about the smell, so Alice has to wait until after two every day to get her fix. 'Her fix'. Fitz's phrase. He hates her smoking. Says cigarettes are different from pot, that it is impossible to become addicted to pot (it is to relax him, dammit, godDAMMIT doesn't she know how hard he works, how hard he works for HER?) The smell of Alice's cigarettes bothers him less than the addiction itself. He regards her habit as weakness, she knows this. It is almost as repugnant to him as her lability, her ready tears.

He'll be here for the second shift in a few minutes. She dreads his swagger, his slow grin. She knows the events of last week will not show in his eyes, and this frightens her more than almost any other fact. Does he hide it or actually forget it by sheer force of will? She does not know. She suspects the latter. This sharpens the fear, and she absently nibbles at the ragged nail of her ring finger.

She fingers the freshest bruises, the ones on her neck, the ones scrupulously hidden by the draped towel. Fitz is getting careless.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It is two o'clock, and there is no sign of Fitz.

Alice is on break. She is sitting in the spot behind the building that used to be her self-designated smoking area, breathing in the hot Alabama summer in place of nicotine. She can't remember when she last ate, and the fact that she has no desire to do so troubles her slightly. She still has an hour before she is supposed to leave, but she does not want to go home, to risk an encounter with Fitz.

She sighs. She is irritated with her own sighs, with their limp hopeless quality, but they emerge unbidden. Sighs, tears, the way her jaw clenches. Weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth. Thoughts descend on the grey meat of her brain like a cloud of biting flies. She opens the door and is assaulted by the manufactured chill.

Billy waits at the desk, impatient to leave. "Here," he says, thrusting a pink phone message slip at her. "Fitz needs you to call." She looks at him, tries to get a reaction, but his eyes are hooded and expressionless.

"Now." Short. Rude. Fitz must be angry.

She picks up the phone, punches the digits, waits as the line purrs once, twice, knows Fitz will not pick up until midway through ring three.

"Lissa."

She's startled. He's not angry. He's something else entirely, and she's not sure how to answer. Her tongue goes dry as though she has bitten into something astringent.

"Come home. Now."

It's as though she's never had liquid of any kind in her mouth. Deserts are wetter. She struggles to make a noise, but before she can stammer a syllable the line is dead.

Alice turns to Billy, who suddenly looks interested, hawklike. "Jesus. Your lip."

"What?" She tries to swallow, swallows air, swallows nothing, makes a dry, clicking, insectile sound. "What?"

"It's bleeding," he says.

And it is, she can suddenly taste the warm metallic flood of it. Her face is hot in spite of the Arctic chill of the air conditioning, and she turns away.

I have to go, she thinks, but she cannot form the words.

She has to go.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Somehow she does go, she leaves, she grabs her bag and leaves without explanation. She knows she cannot explain, and she does not try. Billy follows her to the door, flushed and indignant. She hears his voice but his words are distorted, fuzzy. She concentrates on following her feet, which take her across the park through the scrubby wooded shortcut to the door of the trailer.

She briefly hesitates on the makeshift cinderblock steps, listens to the rush of blood in her ears. The thick cloud of thoughts has disappeared entirely. A yogic calm opens its many arms to her. Embraces her.

(Your very own body...do this in remembrance)

She opens the door, quietly shuts it behind her. Her eyes adjust to the low light and she sees Fitz sitting on the sofa. Not sitting - crouching Alice thinks, and she feels that calm clarity draining out of her; she feels like a dressed and exsanguinated deer.

"Lissa," her husband says, voice flat, eyes glittering in the low light. The endearment sounds obscene, insulting. She was right, he is not angry. He is worse.

When she was a little girl Alice was attacked by a pet retriever. The dog had never bitten a soul as far as anyone knew, not before Alice. One morning it looked at her in a new way and a ridge of fur rose along its spine. It rumbled somewhere in its barrel chest, the sound locking Alice's joints and freezing her feet to the carpet where she stood. The dog was not angry; the dog was purposeful. No reason for the attack was determined, and the dog was put down. Alice remembers that moment, the suddenness of it.

He isn't angry Alice thinks, and the thought comes like a distant SOS radio transmission shot through with static and panic. He's feral.

Before she can turn around (escape) he's there. His speed and grace are astonishing. Through her fear she still feels that awe, that admiration, even - god help her - that wet-hot rush that drew her to Fitz in the fist place. She'd never been with a man as purely physical as he is, and even now she responds to his touch as he grasps her shoulder - too firmly - and reaches behind her to chain the door.

The curtains are drawn over the window next to the door but she can see every detail of his face with the clarity of an accident victim. Green eyes edged with deepening lines. Redgold hair curling to his shoulders in almost feminine waves. Auburn stubble on his cheeks, his chin. She knows that his beard is shot through with barely perceptible silver, how conscious he is of that proof of his age, how assiduously he shaves. An odd thought calves from the glacier of her fear and drifts to the forefront of her mind: He didn't shave; he always shaves - he didn't shave; why didn't he shave?

He maneuvers Alice to the center of the room with alarming ease and turns her to face him. He holds her at an arm's length and grips her upper arms almost gingerly, almost as though he's worried about pressing on the fading garlands of bruises that encircle them. He looks her up and down, a parody of desire. He slides his hands down her arms past her elbows, caresses her forearms, and cuffs her wrists with his fingers.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It's a sense memory so strong it nearly knocks Alice over: the smell of his sweat, his avid eyes on her in the semi-darkness, his hands large enough to completely engulf her own. His scent. His flesh. Muscles bunched and rippling beneath his skin. From the very beginning he'd been rougher - more insistent, more impatient - than anyone else she'd been with. Hungrier. In her limited experience first times were always tentative, exploratory, almost apologetic. Fitz skipped the formalities. It was as though he already knew her body, and her body, thus known, responded to his almost-brutal touch with a gush of lust that made her glad she was already lying down.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alice watches him warily. She dimly registers her excitement, and hot shame momentarily sears her gut and burns away the frigid panic. He tightens his hands around her wrists and she winces in anticipation but he does something different this time. He draws her body against his, pulls her close enough to feel his own arousal, to feel what the smell of his sweat has already told her. He whispers "Lissa", and his voice has a strange strangled quality that makes her wonder if he's been crying. A vestigial tenderness wells up inside of her, and she remembers the wetness of his cheek against hers when they danced at their wedding nine months ago. He wraps his thick arms around her waist and kisses her, a deep kiss that for all its gentleness tastes like violence.

The tang of her own blood startles her and she resists the melt and buckle and tingle. She stiffens, and before she can even lean away his temper flares like phosphorus and the back of his hand connects with her cheekbone. There's a new force behind it, and the familiar fear rises like seasickness. The pain is in its blossoming infancy as he twists her arm behind her back and throws her facedown onto the sofa. She's too startled to make a sound until she feels his hands on the waistband of her shorts. His breath comes in pants and again Alice remembers the dog, remembers its growl and its lunge. Remembers her own paralysis, her inability to scream even as the dog began to shake her arm in its jaws.

She finds her voice. She screams.

Fitz punches her in the back of her head and the world explodes. She keeps screaming. He doesn't stop what he's doing and she keeps screaming. He grabs her bruised neck and forces her face between the sofa cushions. Muffled, still she screams. She can't feel him inside of her; she's barely aware of the pressure of his hand on her neck. All she feels is this unending scream clawing its way out of her throat, a jugular gout of panic.

She screams until there's nothing left of her voice but tattered whimpers. Then her screams are soundless. But she keeps screaming.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

She gets lucky. The elderly woman in the trailer next to theirs has finally had it with all the noise. She breaks the unspoken code of the trailer park (to ignore all noises before three AM and after five AM) and calls the police. When they come they are suitably appalled. Fitz is predictably belligerent. They take him away and Alice rides in another cruiser to the hospital.

Rape kit. She feels it now, under the hot lights, feels the full extent of the wounds, the rips and the tears. The anesthesia of shock and adrenaline has evaporated and she's conscious of every bruise, of abrasions old and new, external and internal. The technician is gentle with the speculum (I'm using the pediatric kind; it won't be as painful. I only need one more swab. Just relax.) and she irrigates Alice's raw flesh with warm saline. She murmurs soft and comforting words and Alice avoids her earnest eyes.

After the exam Alice walks stiffly to the toilet and pees cautiously, a thin stuttering stream that burns like acid. When she looks between her legs to survey the damage she's dimly surprised by the vivid red cloud of blood in the bowl, by the volume of it, liquid ribbons of scarlet stark against the white porcelain. She shivers, draws the paper gown around her body and watches dully as the crimson fluid curls through the water and stains it pink as innocence.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There is still the matter of packing.


submitted for MarriageQuest 2007. But it didn't start out this way. It never does.

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