How did we live? Uneasily, I would say. After that first withering blast of self-revelation, she backed off from intimate explorations of her past, preferring to concentrate on the here and now.
To be honest, she was never that much of a talker. Cleaning, cooking, organising the house – those little things were her forte.
She expected little from me, too. I helped her sometimes, then less and less as it didn’t seem to make any great difference to her.
The problem was, I never had any idea whether I was pleasing her or not. Was she happy? Was she unhappy to the point of desperation? How could one possibly tell?
She might just as well have been a doll or a clone (sorry – but that’s how I felt) for all the communication we shared.
Sometimes we would discuss ideas. My work was getting ahead. I’d finished my degree, got appointed to a new job, managed to move out of my box coffin on the fringes. We were living in more comfort now.
I’d talk about my work and try to get reactions from her. And you know, when I compelled her to it, she showed great insight and would strike invariably to the heart of the matter. Which is why I persisted, I guess.
I never hit her – shouted at her once or twice, I suppose (more, really, to be honest). She would never retaliate, but then I’d hear her sobbing late at night when she thought I was asleep, which negated the whole point of the enterprise. To break through. You understand? Perhaps not.
I asked her, once or twice, if she’d like to see her father again, but she just stared at me with those big doe-like eyes. I said we could go down and look for him (or better still, pay someone else to go down there for us). No reaction. She never mentioned that part of her life, which was one reason I felt so inordinately curious about it, I suppose.
And that’s how it went. For the first few years, at any rate. To all appearances we were a very close couple. Unmarried, of course. She had no identity papers, birth certificates, official proofs of existence, but those could have been retrieved or fabricated somehow, I suppose.
Then one day I came home from work to find the whole place in a mess.
It was as if a gang of robbers had been through the apartment. All the machines and monitors had been smashed. There was broken glass (mingled with blood) in every room. I called for her – no answer. I stepped gingerly into the chaos of our living room. Nothing. Checked all the other rooms. Nothing. Had she been kidnapped? I was on the point of calling the police, had actually highlighted them when I heard what sounded like a faint mewing noise from upstairs (we shared a roof garden now – I was prospering in my profession).
I followed the sound, went up, saw nothing – stars, the plants in their little rows, the parapet … the parapet! No, nothing visible down below. Then, turning around, crouched in the tiniest little corner of the wall, curled up like a hedgehog, naked as she was born, Celeste, the tiniest of sounds coming (no doubt unconsciously) from between her clenched teeth.
She was covered with blood, slicked over her like a second skin. She wouldn’t speak to me, but didn't really resist my attempts to uncoil her, check her for wounds and lacerations. There were a few cuts here and there – mainly on her feet, from the broken glass, but only superficial.
I hugged her, rocked her to and fro in my arms, put my jacket around her. She didn’t resist, didn’t respond.
Finally I had to call for help. The doctor, when he came, was sympathetic but nonplussed. By then I’d managed to get her into the bathroom and the shower. She was clean and clothed – but still acting like a catatonic ragdoll. He said it was beyond him – that they‘d have to take her in.
So that was the first time. The first of many. I came to be able to sense them approaching – like the metallic taste in the mouth you get sometimes before a thunderstorm. There were little hints in the air of her actions and her style. She’d be as polite and unassuming as ever right up until the crash. And then it’d come. She’d go berserk, rant and rave, destroy everything within reach (even, later, trying to hurt herself with any objects that came to hand).
Nothing – no treatment they could come up with – seemed to help. It was a like an irregular curse. Sometimes they drugged her like a zombie – sometimes they sparked her up to try and discharge the negative energy prematurely.
It was as if she was two people. I wasn’t sure which one was real. It wasn’t possible that both could be. Increasingly I suspected the real woman was the one I’d held in my arms that night on the roof. Sad beyond sobbing, naked and simple in the dark, bathed in her own sweat and blood.
So that was us. That was our happy little home. The frequency of her attacks varied greatly. Once we went for a couple of years without one. I began to think she was cured. Then, one day out with friends, I saw it start again. What’s worse, they saw it, too – everything that was most private between us dragged out into the light of common day.
It’s one thing to hear about the wife of a close colleague that she has to go to a clinic for a little rest from time to time. It’s another thing to watch her raving and smashing things, tearing off her clothes and trying to cut herself. I saw my friends and acquaintances – most of them, at any rate – turn into strangers at that moment.
Any outside invitations we received after that I took care to turn down. She never complained about that, either.
And what of me? How did I deal with all this? Was I a tower of strength, a shoulder to cry on, a saintly orderly mopping her fevered brow? Yes, most of the time I think I was. I say that without conceit. I have little enough reason to fel conceited about anything in my life, but I do think that I did as well as a man in my position could have done.
Or at any rate there’s nothing I can think of, even now, that we didn’t try.
But nobody can be on duty all the time. You can’t live on a cabin on the side of Vesuvius, perpetually waiting for the eruption, without some sort of release – some method of escape. The bouts of madness were hers. And mine?
Well, affairs, of course. A teacher has plenty of opportunities for those, generally speaking. Young students who mistake second-hand professional commonplaces for the voice of inspiration. In a crowd so large, there are bound to be a few who like you or develop a crush on you.
So I spent a fair amount of time and ingenuity arranging such little incidental matters – taking care that Celeste never heard about them. To this day I don’t know if she knew or not. Probably she did. It’s hard to believe that it ranked very high among the various demons tormenting her.
Worse, I suppose, was the drinking – and the late night skin parlours – and the drug haunts. I tried all those things, but my mainstay was (and remains) that traditional, banal thing of drinking to excess.
And yes, I would come home drunk, and maybe shout at her, demand she tell me what was on her mind, why we had to live like this, why she couldn’t simply love me, as human beings do, why she couldn’t tell me what to do to cure her? What magic potion, diamond tear, fragment from the giant’s heart, would be the key to tearing it out of her?
“It” — as if it were a kind of original sin, like a curse she'd been born with, or had been implanted with the day her mother died, or worse, at the moment she saw her father’s chamber of horrors – the artificial agony he'd created for the pleasure of others.