by Iris Carden
It's one of those magical afternoons she could wait a lifetime to have, but here it is at last! There is nothing but her, the bike and the road. The mountains are ahead as she opens up the throttle. She can feel the power of the bike. It is a growling, barely-tamed animal. But it is also an extension of her. It responds to her slightest movement or even thought. Its raw power bends to her will no-one else's.
Tell me what you're thinking.
The voice is distant, like a half-remembered nightmare. It's not real. This is what's real. Leaning right into the curve, her knee only millimetres from the rushing bitumen, she begins her ascent of the winding mountain range. The danger here is exhilarating, never frightening.
I need to know what you're thinking.
She shifts her weight to lean into the next corner, laying the bike just as far down, but never losing control. Again she shifts her weight right as the road winds and the bike angles into the next curve.
You have to tell me.
He's not real. Even if he is, he doesn't need to know. She will never tell him, never bring him here. This is her sanctuary. This is her safety. Here she is free.
The trees are closing in overhead. She's riding through a green twilight. She slows the bike so she can enjoy the smell of the rainforest - the never-quite-dry earth, the trees, the moss. The road still curves, but at the slower speed, she keeps the bike almost upright. A snake darting across the road startles her briefly, but it is there and gone. It is not going to hurt her, and cannot make her afraid.
Her upper arm is hurting, crushing. It's the left arm of course. It's usually the left arm. It's less obvious if she can't use it for a day or so. Block it out. It's not real. Don't give in to it.
She leaves the bitumen for a dirt road which takes her down by the creek. This is a road bike, it's not made for rough surfaces, but the dirt road is well-enough made, dry enough and smooth enough that she is confident she can handle it. She knows what she is doing, and will not ride too fast for the road she is on. She is confident of everything here in her sanctuary.
Tell me what you are thinking. I need to know.
He's not real, not in this world. In the other world he knows everything. He opens her mail, reads her email, listens to her phone calls, stands over her while she talks to other people, reads her journal. He's even gone to her work to stand over her during meetings. He spends her pay to make sure she can never leave. In the other world, he has invaded everything and has control of everything. But in this world, he is not real. He can't come in. In this world she is safe.
It's him, isn't it? You're thinking about him?
She never thinks about him. She can't think about him. Him exists in his imagination, not hers. There is no him in any reality she inhabits. In this reality, there is no-one but her. In the other reality, she keeps herself overweight, and wears unattractive clothes and a bad haircut, all to reassure the man who controls her life that no-one else is or ever will be interested in her. She makes it as obvious as possible that there is no him and there can be no him. She has tried to explain once, twice, endless times, but of course she has always failed. His paranoia is as strong as her escapism. He is as certain that there's a him as she is that the sky is up and the ground is down. In his reality, him is as real, as the bike, the mountain, the forest, and the creek are in hers. In his reality, there will always be a him no matter what. She cannot change his reality, and she no longer dares to try.
She kicks down the stand of the bike, and walks down to the creek, pulling off her helmet and shaking free her shining long brown hair. In this reality, she is beautiful, and she feels as beautiful as she looks.
The creek is familiar, very shallow, bubbling rapidly over pebbles and around larger rocks. She can see the bottom, reach the pebbles easily if she wants to. The sunlight through the trees bounces and darts off the fast-flowing water. Just above her eye level, and a bit to her left, a lazy goanna dozes on a branch that overhangs the water. She can hear, but as always, cannot see, bellbirds all around her in the treetops, singing their strange but beautiful chiming song. She has always loved this creek - and visits it often. It's shallow but turbulent waters reflect the turmoil within her.
You have to tell me.
He doesn't exist. Not in this reality. In her sanctuary, she does not have to tell him anything. In the other reality, her arm is being constricted tighter and tighter. In the other reality, she will have another set of bruises the size and shape of his finger-prints, to match all of the other similar bruises that cover her upper arms, thighs, breasts, abdomen and buttocks - all the secret places no-one sees. She chooses not to feel it. She is not in that reality - she is here in her sanctuary. What is real is the creek, the earthy smell of the forest, the ting-ting-ting of the bellbirds in the trees. Nothing else is real. Nothing else can hurt her.
The pressure on her arm has stopped. He has given up. Perhaps she can be at peace and enjoy her sanctuary now. She remounts the bike, and turns back to the bitumen.
I heard you laughing! I know you were laughing at me!
We weren't laughing at you. We were laughing at cartoons on tv. They were funny.
How dare you? I'm your father! You should show me more respect! You don't laugh at me! You don't ever laugh at me!
But we weren't.....
Don't you dare answer me back! You show me some respect!
The bike, the road, the forest, and even the bellbirds, are gone.
She is in an ordinary, middle-class suburban dining room, far from the mountains or the forest or the creek. She doesn't have a bike or even a license to ride one. Her hair doesn't shine, the brown is streaked with its first grey, and it's pinned up tight so it is harder to pull or to rip completely out. It would be short if she was allowed to cut it. The coffee on the table in front of her has long ago gone cold.
She can see through a wide doorway into the lounge room, where two ordinary, middle-class suburban children are cowering together, as small as they can make themselves, in an ordinary lounge chair. A man, who other people tell her is wonderful, who they say she is so lucky to have; is towering over them, his fist raised and his face turning purple.
The pain in her arm is real, as real as what she must now do. She is a mother. She has no sanctuary, no peace, only a desperate need to protect the most precious part of this reality. This is the reality where the danger is frightening, not exhilarating, where snakes don't just startle, the constrict and bite. This is the world where she no longer has any confidence, any control. All she has left is the power of the martyr. She can, and must, sacrifice herself. Afraid and bruised, but determined and far from broken, she once again places herself between her husband and her children.