By Carolyn Geduld
The Single Women By Choice Society had been invited to march in the July 4th parade. Patsy was rummaging through her exotic clothing chest for an outfit. Everyone was supposed to wear red and white. Some of the single women by choice were also celibate by choice. There had been a skirmish between those who wanted to wear white to celebrate their celibacy and those who wanted to wear red to celebrate their sexuality. In the end, it was decided that they should wear both.
Patsy was one of the celibate by choice members. At forty-five, she was still attractive, with cropped blond hair and regular features. She could have had any number of relationships. Starting in high school, she had refused to date or have sex. It was not for her. But she was very sociable. Besides the Single Women By Choice Society, she belonged to the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, two book clubs, a rotating gourmet group that cooked meals at each others’ houses, and she was active in the Democratic Party. Also, she worked full-time at the reception desk at the hospital. She figured that she must have greeted half the town during the twenty years she had the job. She refused promotions rather than give up interacting with the public.
At the bottom of the chest, Patsy found the red boa she had purchased during one of the cruises she had taken with friends. Travel was her passion. She lived simply in order to save for trips. That was how she acquired her exotic clothing. A dress from India decorated with tiny mirrors and beads. An embroidered peasant blouse from Poland. A hand-knit fisherman’s sweater from Ireland. The boa was from somewhere in the Caribbean. And—aha!—there was the white linen skirt from Belgium. Perfect.
She decided that she would wear all white, to signal her celibacy, with just the red boa to comply with the Society’s requirement. As far back as she could remember, Patsy hated being touched. She endured hand-shakes and hugs, but when someone laid a hand on her otherwise, she startled as if she had been burned. It felt like a burn. Being touched was painful. She always stifled a scream. Her mother called her unnatural. She especially did not want to be touched by her mother.
After many years of secret shame, Patsy now wore her celibacy like a badge. She proudly spoke of her identity, even in lectures given to the Single Women By Choice Society and to other groups.
“Choosing to be celibate is a rational decision. It does not have to be due to a traumatic sexual history or even a dislike of sex. It can be philosophical or spiritual. It is as deliberate a decision as the decision to become a vegetarian, a pet owner, or an avoider of social media. It is a personal choice and nothing to be embarrassed about,” she would say.
July 4th was sweltering that year, but the Single Women By Choice Society members gamely marched, carrying their banner and wearing red and white. They were between the South High School Baton Twirlers, in colorful cheer-leader outfits, and a semi-cab pulling a cumbersome comic hero float. The pavement was so hot that the bottoms of Patsy’s sandals stuck with every step. Perspiration streamed uncomfortably down her shirt. Many of the onlookers stood under umbrellas or grouped under shade trees.
They were nearing a local brewery when three young men banged out the door and began to catcall the twirlers. Clearly, they were drunk. As the twirlers moved ahead, the men noticed the women in the Society. For a moment, they quieted, as if puzzled by these older woman with the unintelligible banner. Single By Choice? Were they a bunch of man-haters? Lesbos?
“Hey, Cunts. Wanna fuck?” one yelled out.
All three were guffawing loudly and staggering.
As Patsy moved a few steps nearer to them, the one who had yelled reached out and grabbed the boa by each end, yanking her closer to him.
“I’m gonna fuck you, bitch” he slurred into her ear.
The women stopped marching. They shouted at him to release Patsy. As she struggled, he pulled the boa tighter. She began to choke. Then, in a fast swirl, both the club members and the two friends of the assailant rushed to rescue her. The driver of the semi was running in her direction. Further back, costumed comic heroes were climbing off the float. The onlookers were dragging their astonished children away from the scene. Finally, a motorcycled policeman arrived and ordered the assailant to let Patsy go. The assailant did as he was told. The policeman told him to lay face down on the ground.
Patsy fell down next to him. She was having trouble breathing. Possibly, she passed out because the next thing she was aware of was an EMT taking her blood pressure in an ambulance. There was an oxygen tube in each nostril.
“Just try to relax. I’m making sure you are breathing properly,” he said. “Don’t try to talk.”
During the next several hours under observation in the emergency room, the policemen came to take a report, which she wrote out so as to leave her bruised larynx undisturbed. Her elderly mother showed up. Society members came and went, observing the two visitor rule. Over time, Patsy’s breathing and blood pressure stabilized. Someone brought a pair of yoga pants to replace the ruined linen skirt.
But the emergency room was harder to endure than the memory of the attack during the parade, which seemed faded and unreal. Patsy could only recall sketchy moments. The heat. The tightness around her throat. The man’s voice saying “I’m going to fuck you, bitch.” The inability to take a deep breathe. The crumpled skirt. She did not remember fearing for her life or any particular emotion.
In the hospital, she was examined by the medical professionals, who held her arm while taking blood, prodded her neck, placed the head of the stethoscope on her chest and back. Her friends patted her arm and kissed her. Only her mother knew to spare her the agony of touch.
For Patsy, the assault continued for hours after the choking. She trembled whenever anyone approached her.
When she was discharged with instructions to not spend the night alone, she went to her mother’s house and curled up in her old bed. She pulled on a quilt even though it was summer and later kicked it off. She was alternating between icy chills and feverish heat flashes. Far into the night, she stared at the ceiling while shivering, then sweating. Her throat hurt, reminding her of the sore throats and other illnesses of childhood, suffered in the same room. Her mother would try to put her hand on Patsy’s forehead, but Patsy would bat it away. Then her mother would turn and walk out. Now that Patsy was an adult, her mother did not even try.
When she finally fell asleep, she had a nightmare that startled her awake again. She could not remember what it was. It was still very dark. Lying in bed in the dark, waiting with a sense of foreboding, not being able to make a sound—this seemed familiar to Patsy, although she did not know why.
The next day, Patsy returned to her apartment. She had arranged to take several days off from work until her larynx healed. She spent the days as she had in her old bedroom, lying in bed, tossing the blankets on and off. The tv was on a news channel, with the volume turned low. Patsy was unable to concentrate on anything but her own scattered thoughts. She wondered what had happened to the boa. Was this what made her a target for the assailant? The blaring red material on her white outfit? The assailant had been inebriated. She knew that meant he was not in his right mind. Maybe the red color was enraging the way it was for a bull. What a bull who saw red tried to do was gore the one who enraged him. Sex is a kind of goring, isn’t it?
Patsy shuddered. Her deepest objection to sex was the pain. She knew she could not tolerate it. Possibly, she could not survive such pain. When she pictured a man entering her, she imagined a bull’s hot breathe from its enormous flared nostrils, rough hooves scraping at her fragile skin, and an oversized, insistent penis pounding its way into an opening that was too small to accommodate it. She knew she would be split, torn, and left bleeding, dying on the ground as she could have been when the ambulance arrived on the day of the parade. As this terrible vision subsided, she became aware of the twisted sheets beneath her. The pillows had been tossed onto the floor. The blankets lay in a crumbled wad beside her.
She dragged herself out of bed and to the shower. The bedding and her pajamas would have to be laundered. She did not recall whether she had drank any water that day. No doubt dehydration was partly responsible for her condition. And lack of food. She had forgotten to eat.
Forcing herself, she put on a clean sweat shirt and sweat pants, made tea, stripped the bed, and managed to eat a banana. Looking at her phone, she saw many texts, emails, and voice mails from friends. Peeking out her front door, she saw casseroles, flowers, and cards in a pile. She left them there.
Patsy would soon force herself to respond to her friends and then return to work. She would put on what she now knew had always been a mask. To those who knew her, she would return to the cheerful, sociable persona who had made a rational choice to abstain from relationships and sex. She had always believed this was true. Now she understood that she had been faking for most of her life. Beneath the cheerful exterior was stark terror. She was sociable to appear more normal than she felt. And her rational choice was based on irrational fear.
The image of the bull popped back again. She shuddered. Then, as if it had been there all along waiting for her to remember, Mr. Bull came into her mind. Mr. Bull. One of her mother’s boyfriends when she was a child. A big man, larger than any of her mother’s other boyfriends. Sometimes he grabbed Patsy, leaving bruises on her arm.
“He doesn’t know his own strength,” her mother would say.
Even more than the memory of the parade, the memory of Mr. Bull was shadowy and scattered. Mr. Bull gripping her arm with his enormous hand. Mr. Bull pushing her away from her mother with force. Mr. Bull red-faced with anger. Mr. Bull bellowing at her.
How terrified she had been of Mr. Bull.
Then he was gone. She never saw him again. She stopped thinking about him. Instead, she thought of other kids and clubs and activities and school work. She built a solid fence of friendships around herself. She did not allow anyone to touch her.
Her assailant at the parade was in jail awaiting sentencing. One day he would be back in the community again when he was released. That did not bother Patsy. Instead, she had another worry. Where was Mr. Bull? Was he still in the area? She dropped the mug of tea she had been holding when this occurred to her. Shards flew over the kitchen floor. She left them to look out the window. She needed to see if Mr. Bull was lurking outside of her apartment.
Patsy knew she was becoming crazy. It was highly unlikely that a man who must now be in his seventies would have any interest in her. She had simply been the young daughter of his old girlfriend, who sometimes got in the way. He could be a thousand miles away or dead. Surely she would have noticed such a strikingly tall man if he had been stalking her all these years.
Although Patsy, who had prided herself on her capacity for reason, knew this, she could not stop herself from looking for Mr. Bull wherever she went. At work again, she waited for him to come limping to the reception desk. In public, she scanned the area to see if a towering figure was approaching. She startled at any loud angry voice, remembering his roar.
Slowly, the memory of the assailant who had choked her was replaced by Mr. Bull. It was Mr. Bull who choked her. She was wearing her pretty white dress when he put one of his massive hands around her neck and squeezed. Someone in the background screamed at him to let go.
Patsy’s larynx healed and in a few days, her voice returned to normal. Anyone who did not know about the parade would just have thought she had recovered from laryngitis.
But although no medical reason could be found, Patsy’s throat never stopped hurting again.
Carolyn Geduld is a mental health professional in Bloomington, Indiana. Her fiction has appeared in Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Not Your Mother’s Breastmilk, Dime Store Review, Dual Coast, Otherwise Engaged, and others.