Helen of Troy
“What were all the world’s alarms
To mighty Paris when he found
Sleep upon a golden bed
That first dawn in Helen’s arms?”
– William Butler Yeats
We fell into the sea.
Did they tell you that? No? Well, after the headlines wind down, people move on. So much time spent at war, we forgot how to live together, and we fell into the sea. When it comes right down to it, we forgot how to wake up next to each other, go to work, pay bills. So, we lost the house. We lost everything. We live underwater, now. This town’s so gone the only school in town that isn’t in debilitating debt is fish. We moved into this track house two blocks from the diner where I work. The place is infested with octopus, but there isn’t an exterminator in town. Even if there was, who could get rid of them? Worse than spiders. Bigger. Hungrier. Smarter.
That’s our life, now. Has been this way for a while. It’s not so bad, underwater. I actually like it, a little. I work at a diner where we mostly serve oysters. He stays home and watches TV, and drinks. When I get back, he’s usually too drowned to do anything to me, even if he wanted to.
We’re still married. Technically, we never divorced. I could never get him to sign the papers.
I’m never as pretty as people think I’m supposed to be.
I never was more than just a little pretty.
I had to be pretty to make it all worthwhile, though, so that’s how I’m remembered. That’s how people’s minds think. Only beautiful women deserve a sacrifice. Women who are just wives, just mothers, like I am now? They forgot me completely after I was past my prime.
Anyway, it had nothing to do with beauty. It never did. It wasn’t my face that launched all those ships. It was him. Just him. Honestly, his brother helped him just to make sure the drunken fool survived coming after me. He would have gone after me by himself, beating on the walls and screaming my name, drunk in a blind rage.
The foreign boy wasn’t the first to see the bruises. Everyone saw them. My husband liked to make me walk around with short-sleeves, all my bruises showing along my arm. Back then, there was nothing a woman could do about it. This before even the rule of thumb. What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t go home, be a spinster, or stand up to the huge, hulking mass of flesh that came upon me in the dark, looking for ways to trip me up, make me shiver and shudder and quake, and afterwards, hold me so tenderly, and swear it was all a mistake, all an accident, all because he loves me so much he can’t think straight.
Have you ever seen a man like that in a rage? They just stop thinking. They’ll chase after in their car, slam into you again and again, and run out of the car in heavy traffic just to drag you from the window and put you in your place.
It’s hard to find a shelter because nobody can tell you where they are, because if anyone posts the information anywhere, men like my husband come with bats or guns. They’d walk over hot coals and spikes to hurt you, and blame you for the blood they bleed from hurting themselves on the chase.
The foreign boy wasn’t the first to want to help me.
“There’s an army,” I said.
“My city is older than his. It has walls from many armies.”
“He would do anything to hunt me down.”
“My brother, he is a great warrior. If anyone treated his wife like this, that man would be a dead man.”
“My husband’s brother is worse than a great warrior. He is a rich man, and he can hire great warriors. And he knows his brother, and what’s been going on, and he doesn’t even try to protect our children from it.”
“You could change your name. You could run away and change your name and never tell anyone where you are. Never even tell your mother or father.”
“Leave my children?”
“Does he hurt them?”
“Not yet. Not with his brother watching.”
“They’d understand, someday.”
“They’d never understand. They’d blame me. Everyone would blame me. We are always children, all our lives, petty like children, and no one understands it.”
I can see my husband as a child on the schoolyard. I can see him throwing rocks at the girls that would not talk to him. I could see him defending his brother from bullies to the death, cutting off heads in the fourth grade over matters of honor. That’s how it was when they are such important, little men. My husband says the first woman he ever kissed laughed at him for trying to use his tongue, and he showed her by yanking hers hard enough that she never laughed again. It isn’t right to laugh at a man who is trying to express his love.
Which is why, I laugh at him. And, he hates it. I am supposed to be loyal to him, and I laugh at him. I’m coughing up blood and laughing at him.
The foreign boy slipped into my room when I was unable to go downstairs to the party. I was so clumsy, and so sickly, and I had to retire early.
The boy came in quietly, saw me lying in the middle of the floor, weeping and bloody. I couldn’t move my right arm. I think it was broken. The foreign boy picked me up, and helped me to my bed. He covered me with a cloth.
“If my brother were here, he would kill your husband. Do you want me to try to kill him?”
I said nothing.
“Because I don’t know if I can.”
“Don’t look at me,” I said. I started to cry again. “Just don’t look at me.”
But he kept looking at me. He just looked at me. It was the most horrible thing that anyone ever did to me, that look. It was like he was pitying me. I don’t want anyone’s pity.
“Come with me,” he said.
“No one has to know.”
“They’d know. He’d know.”
“We could tell him something else. We could tell him that you died.”
“He’d never believe I was dead unless he killed me himself. He’d go to the gates of hell to bring me back just to beat me again.”
“All the more reason. We are all children, all of us, so let us be children. If this were a playground, would you keep playing with him, after all he’s done to you?”
I am the sandbox that he moves around into an imaginary kingdom with his hands.
The foreign boy leaned over to kiss all of my wounds gently, one-at-a-time. He was ten years younger than me if he was a day, and so handsome, and so innocent. He couldn’t imagine raising his fist at my husband. How could he imagine hurting a woman he loves?
I was too sore to speak. My silence was interpreted as consent. Maybe it was.
So, I left with him. And my husband would have come by himself if he had to, would have thrown himself against the walls in his car, punching and kicking at the stones for all the days of his life in a blind, drunk rage.
My face launched no ships. Possession launched ships. Men launched ships. Men turned their blades upon daughters to feed the winds to rule over the wives.
My beautiful foreign boy would never hurt me. He couldn’t hurt anyone. How could he have known the depths of love?
We live underwater, now, in a drowned city. It’s better here, even if it’s cold and damp. One of my husband’s old war buddies comes by sometimes. He’s living with a woman in town, and who knows what his wife knows about him. He comes to the lunch counter and shucks oysters for us. He doesn’t talk much. Talking used to get him in so much trouble.
My husband still gets jealous, but it’s hard to punch anyone underwater. The tides pull against the knuckles, hold them back. The blow comes, but it’s deadened like being pushed a little with no bruise, no blood.
There’s an octopus in the living room. It lives behind the couch, I think. It looks at me with a sad wisdom. It’s the most horrible thing, to see the octopus in the bedroom, with those eyes looking at me. Unblinking, and sad. Pitying eyes in such a hideous face, like when the foreign boy was looking at me. My husband can’t do anything about it. They’re too smart for him, those octopi. They slip into the kitchen and rummage through our pantry while we’re sleeping. We hear them. By the time he runs into the kitchen with a broom in his hand, they’re already gone. Sometimes, I wake up, and they’re pushed into the walls like errant spiders. They’re bigger, though, and their eyes are bigger. They really look at me. They really look at us. I hate that about them.
I see all the old faces come through the diner, from the war. I ask them how things have been. If my husband’s around they talk about the old battles, and all the armor they stole, and the women they took from the temples and the fields.
What are they supposed to say to me?
Nobody says anything to me, really.
Even now, it’s all my fault.
I can’t escape him. I know that, now.
Please, stop looking at me like that.