MONDAY: I Can’t Open My Legs

BY SHAUNA CLINNING

Copyright is held by the author.

A FLOTILLA of books acts as my barricade. I’m typing madly on my laptop, hiding behind them at the public library. A grey-haired man paces the floor between my desk and his. He wears the look of someone who wants to chat and is throwing earnest looks my way. His movements, they’re a distraction and I try to ignore him.

Turning back to my screen, I concentrate on the words I’ve just written. Within seconds, the man is standing before me, invading my space. I sigh audibly, hoping my deep exhalation is taken as the off put it’s meant to be.

It’s not. The man clears his throat. I look up and we make eye contact.

“Can we talk for a minute?” he asks.

Is he hitting on me? Before I can respond to his question, he pulls out a chair and sits down.

Damn. He is hitting on me and I’m an idiot for looking at him.

Only, the thing is, he looks to be worried. His lips are pursed and he’s rubbing one hand across the afternoon stubble of his chin. He says, “I’m not sure what to do.”

I don’t answer, but I do give him a somewhat half-hearted sneer, another message that I’m not at the library to talk.

Still, the man continues unabated. “I’ve overheard a conversation and wonder if you can help.”

My chest tightens. Why is he listening in on private conversations? And why is he telling me? I don’t want to get involved with whatever this man’s problem may be — although, I’m becoming curious. \

My eyes flip right and then left to see if anyone else in the library is aware of this guy. All heads are down-turned; no one appears to be interested in us.

He says, “See that girl near the window?”

I follow the point of the fellow’s hand and see the back of a dark head. It’s pressed into the slats of a high wooden chair that’s tucked into an alcove overlooking the street. The niche looks cozy to me, compact and solitary. It’s dimly lit by filtered sun.

“I heard her on her cellphone,” the man says. “She says she can’t move.”

It’s possible she feels trapped, I think. Has he been hitting on her too?

Still, his words are puzzling. I decide to take the bait. “What do you mean?”

“It’s strange. She said she can’t move. Maybe she’s on drugs.” He squishes up his nose and looks pained. He leans toward me and lowers his voice. “Or maybe it’s something else.”

I’m not sure what he means by “something else” but my stomach twists in response. I look at the back of the girl’s dark head, and then back at him. I tilt my head toward the library’s entryway. “You should tell the staff at the Reference Desk. They’ll know what to do.”

The man looks past me to where a librarian is standing. She’s staring at a cart overflowing with books, wearing the look of someone about to climb Mount Everest.

The man turns back to me. “She’s too young.”

Too young? I squint my eyes to see. The woman looks to be about 25 years old, which means, I suppose, that she’s short on life experience. By extension, I must look draped in maturity.

Once more I sigh and the man offers me a shrug in apology. He says, “I know it seems strange, but something’s wrong with that girl at the window. And I’m worried.” He waits a beat before adding, “I have two daughters of my own.”

That’s when I finally look deep into this man’s eyes. They’re the bluest blue, partially shadowed by bifocal glasses. Even so, I see my husband’s reflection within the dark denim; the father of two girls himself and a very good man.

Back to the alcove. The girl’s head hasn’t moved, although my conscience has shifted. It niggles, pinching my mother’s intuition. I rise and close the lid to my laptop. “I’ll go have a look.”

As I step away from my overrun barricade, the fleeting thought rushes through my mind that someone might steal my computer. Not this man, I decide, but a stranger. I have 90,000 words of the next great Canadian novel saved on my hard drive, and can’t risk losing it. Yet, the man’s blue eyes and the girl’s stiffly-held head push and pull me at the same time. I turn my back on my work, knowing that whatever the outcome, I’ve lost the battle.

Nearing the alcove, I make pretense of glancing at some teen magazines piled high on a shelf. My senses, though, they’re honed in on the girl.

Her legs are crossed.

In fact, she grips them tightly together, wrung like a Celtic knot. And sure enough, like the worried man has said, she’s gripping a cellphone in both of her hands. Her body, everything about her, is rigid. I can see — no, I can feel — something is terribly wrong.

In three short steps I’m by her side; I bend to my knees. “Is everything all right? Do you need some help?”

Light brown, hazel-rimmed eyes turn their gaze on me. They are the same colour as my two daughters’ eyes, but dull, almost listless. It could be that this girl and my daughters are about the same age, 24 or 25.

She parts her lips slowly and says, “I can’t open my legs.”

What an odd thing to say.

I look down at her legs and my stomach plummets, hard. I’m hit with an uncertain knowledge. This girl, she’s barely holding herself together. And I know on some level, she’s been assaulted.

I want to cover my mouth with the cup of my hand but I can’t and I won’t. She’s somebody’s daughter. She needs somebody strong, a mother.

The girl rubs her hands down the thighs of her skinny blue jeans and I watch her leg muscles tighten. I put on a blank expression. It’s time to curtain my own eyes, just like she’s done. If this girl can’t look at her own emotions, how can I let her see mine?

I settle back on my heels, careful to position myself lower than her, mindful not to intimidate. “What do you mean?”

“It hurts. I can’t open my legs.”

Although it seems impossible, this girl’s thighs weld closer together, like the clamp of a vise. I reach out and place a hand on her forearm.

My touch is like fire. She flinches when skin touches skin, a terrified bird about to take flight. I pull my hand back and lower my voice. “Is there someone I can call for you?”

She shakes her head and stares at me. When she speaks, her voice is plaintive and small. Again, she says, “I can’t open my legs.”

My lungs contract. It’s then that I hear a muffled voice on the phone that she’s still clutching in her hands. I gesture at the phone with my head. “Is someone waiting for you?”

She stares at the phone for a few seconds and then puts it to her ear. Mumbling to whoever is on the other end, I hear her say something about needing to go to the hospital and calling an ambulance. She repeats, “I can’t move.”

The call ends and the girl turns her head to look at me. Something about the look is desperate and pleading and I wonder who was on the phone. Male or female? And why isn’t that person here for her?

My stomach fills with dread. “What’s your name?”

“Fiona.”

“Has someone hurt you, Fiona? Do you need to go to the hospital?”

She nods yes. To which of my questions I’m unsure so I try again, one question at a time, already knowing the answers. “Has someone hurt you?”

“Yes,” Fiona answers, but her voice has gone tight, as tight I think, as her crossed legs.

“And you need to get to the hospital?”

“Yes,” she says, inhaling deeply, “but no one can see me. No police and no ambulance.”

I glance over my shoulder. People are everywhere. They sit in conference at tables, browse the shelves in the stacks, or chat in intimate groups of two or three. Some have noticed Fiona and me now, as though they too have honed in on an unspoken signal that something horrible has occurred. I feel the vibration of high alert. “I’ll call a taxi and take you to the hospital myself. No one will know.”

Fiona opens her mouth again. It’s a tiny O. “But my body won’t move.”

“Well, how did you get here?”

“I walked.”

I force a smile in an attempt to lighten the moment, hoping it will loosen what cements Fiona to her seat. “So we know you can walk.”

“But I can’t open my legs.”

Biting down on my lower lip to think, I wonder again who was at the other end of that phone. The fact the person won’t come to Fiona’s side makes my decision.

I say, “Eventually, the library will close. If you don’t move, they’ll call someone for help, maybe the police. I can wait with you until then or I can call a taxi instead and we can go to the hospital now.”

Fiona’s hazel-rimmed eyes dart left and right. She’s weighing my logic.

I stand to give her some space, returning to the desk where I’d been working to pack up my laptop. I pass the worried man, now sitting at a table nearby and watching us. I tip my head toward him and we make eye contact again, a tacit acknowledgement that he wasn’t wrong after all, he did the right thing. He, too, knows what has happened.

When I return to Fiona, I let her hear me on my cell phone arranging a taxi. “It’ll be here in 10 minutes,” I say. “Maybe we should start walking if you find it hard to move.”

But again, “I can’t open my legs.”

I kneel beside Fiona once more, this time being sure to keep my hands to myself. “But you got yourself here, to a safe place. It’s a few more steps.”

“If I move, I might vomit.”

“What if I help you stand?”

Panic takes over. She’s startled again, a bird with clipped wings. “No. No one can touch me.”

“How old are you, Fiona?”

“Eighteen.”

She’s much younger than I thought, even with her dull eyes.

“I have two daughters,” I say. “One’s 24 and the other’s 26.” I hesitate to confess more, not wanting to give Fiona too much. Who knows what terrible things have been done to her? I don’t want that energy near me — or near my daughters.

But I do want Fiona to stand and I know I can’t touch her. If I do, she might collapse and never get up. She could melt right here, right between the biographies and teen magazines.

“We’ll take as much time as you need. If the taxi leaves, I’ll call another.”

I stand, pick up Fiona’s coat from the floor and lean against the stacks, waiting for her to gather her clipped courage. She surprises me by uncrossing her legs. Her upper body sways and she teeters to one side but I don’t reach out to her. With a forced intake of breath, she pushes herself from her chair, wobbles on her feet and then finds her balance. “I can’t wear my coat.”

I look outside. The sun is almost gone and I know the air is crisp. It’s a balmy minus 10 today, the second day of spring. “Did you wear your coat when you walked here?”

She nods yes.

“I can carry it for you or I can hold it while you put it on. I promise I won’t touch.”

Fiona surprises me again by sticking out her arms and dragging on her coat sleeves. That’s when I notice two women — younger than me but older than Fiona — staring at us. We catch each other’s eyes and a message passes between us, a perfect triangle of understanding: Fiona has been viciously assaulted. There are no visible scars but we three, we recognize the wounds of internal despair.

I say, “It’s time to go.”

Fiona stares at her feet. She pushes one foot forward and we begin our slow escape from the library, past where the worried man sits, past the two women who quickly cast their eyes to the floor, past the young librarian, still staring at her mountain of books.

I’m careful to move slowly, to not touch Fiona, to appear as though I have all the time in the world. I look at the wall in the lobby as if it is the most interesting wall I’ve ever seen and Fiona keeps moving. She has more courage than she knows. Without thinking, I say this out loud. “You’re a brave girl. I’m proud of you.”

She gives me the ghost of a smile.

We get outside, cross the plaza and climb into the waiting taxi. Fiona goes in first. She moves with a sudden swiftness, scurrying across the bench so I won’t sit too close to her. I pull the door shut and the cabbie’s eyes meet mine in his rear view mirror.

“The hospital,” I tell him. “Emergency.”

Without saying a word, the cabbie pulls away from the curb.

The hospital’s only a few blocks away and I know this girl and I have just a few minutes left. Fiona must know this too because she turns her face from the window to consider me. “What were you doing at the library?”

She is curious now, her thoughts drifting away from herself; a good sign.

“I’m writing a book.”

She has the faint look of surprise. “What about?”

“My grandfather. He was abandoned at eight years old and sent to Canada to work on the farms. Sort of like an indentured servant.”

Fiona’s shoulders relax. She glances out the window. “I write too.”

It occurs to me that in some small way, Fiona and I are connected.

My mind leaps to my daughters. I feel gratitude that they’re safe and without Fiona’s dull eyes. I am blessed, and decide to anoint the moment with a chilled glass of chardonnay when I get home.

The taxi pulls into the emergency lane at the hospital and I pay the cabbie. Nine dollars and 50 cents. It seems a lot for a few blocks. Life’s little details, so unimportant, and I’m ashamed for my thoughts.

We climb out, Fiona still careful to keep her distance from me. The hospital’s automatic, glass doors slide open. We walk into the Emergency Room and straight up to Triage.

A thick window pane separates us from the nurse on the other side. She sits with a microphone positioned in front of her mouth. There’s another one for people like me on the lobby’s side of the glass.

I lean into the speaker and say, “I’m here with Fiona. She can’t open her legs.”

15 comments

  1. Lyanne

    What an excellent story. You’ve done a wonderful job pulling the reader into Fiona’s circumstances and equally into the narrator’s point of view. Tension, compassion, action, inaction; you’ve delivered.

  2. Pingback: I Can’t Open My Legs | Shauna Moore Clinning
  3. Walter Giersbach

    This is a disturbing story on many levels, not the least of which is the lead with a stranger interrupting the MC’s work. I with there were more resolution to the ending, or perhaps I’m particularly stupid this morning. But, five stars for the quality of writing and dramatic tension you created.

  4. Michael Joll

    I’m with Walter all he way on this one. What happened? If a story is about something happening, where is the resolution? And Fiona’s back story? Without these essentials, can it honestly be said to be well written (although the prose is excellent)?

  5. Glen Benison

    Powerful story, great compassion on behalf of the narrator; I like to be left with a need to provoke my thoughts…and you’ve done that.

  6. Dave Moores

    Awesome writing, Shauna. Guess I’m another old school type who wants more resolution. How about a sequel?

  7. JAZZ

    Sorry, Gentlemen, I disagree with your comments. Let us consider the title: “I can’t open my legs” this is a metaphor and a powerful one.
    Is it not obvious to you, Michael that this yet another story about a young female victim of sexual assault. This is a well told story and not a police report. The resolution you call for is open to speculation and certainly cannot be tied up in a pretty bow.

  8. frank

    Jazz: I am 97 percent in agreement with you. It is a powerful metaphor and well-told, and I don’t need a tidy bow, but I need just a little more at the end. What that ‘little more’ is? I don’t know. Why settle for very good, or damned good, when it is just one more revision away from freaking great?

  9. Dave Moores

    Jazz, of course we “gentlemen” realize that this is a story about a victim of sexual assault. A person, male or female, would have to be rather oblivious not to see that. So it’s regrettable that you cast our comments as stemming from gender-based insensitivity.

  10. Nicosia

    Maybe its just me. though I find this story to be well written I find it highly implausible. In my opinion the characters’behavior seems unrealistic. It’s almost an idealized reaction to crisis.

  11. Mary Steer

    This story sucked me in fast and kept me in its anxious claustrophobic grip all the way through – but – I do agree with Frank that a tad more revision is needed for it to be freakin’ great. It’s so close, but the odd little thing here and there kicked me out. I disagree with some other comments here – the ending is superb. (I’m also curious – Shauna, did some version of this actually happen to you? Because I happen to know you’re also working on the next Great Canadian Novel…!)

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