This book is full of raw dialogue – raw because you can sometimes feel it resonate within you. Raw because it makes you think … would have I reacted the same way? Would I have done the same things? Would I have known?
Excerpt is taken from Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood – a discussion between kind Charis who is allowing Zenia (who poses as a friend) to stay with her and her boyfriend until she gets well. PS: Zenia’s refusal to say Charis’ taken name shows how little he cares about her and her glee in destroying a loving relationship is real.
Read on and tell me if you can spot the manipulative behaviour. It’s all in the pauses.
Zenia smiles thinly. “Maybe,” she says. “But Karen, really – don’t worry about me. It’s not your problem.”
“Charis,” says Charis. Zenia has trouble remembering her real name. And yes, it is her problem, because she has taken it upon herself.
Then Zenia says something worse.
“It’s not just that he hates me,” she says. Her tongue comes out, licking the applesauce off the tip of her spoon. “The fact is, he can hardly keep his hands off me.”
“West?” says Charis. A cold finger runs down her back. Zenia smiles.
“No,” she says. “I mean Billy. Surely you’ve noticed it.”
Charis can feel the skin of her entire face sliding down in dismay. She has noticed nothing. But why hasn’t she? It’s obvious to her, now that Zenia’s said it – the energy that leaps out of Billy’s finger-ends and hair whenever Zenia is near. A sexual bristling, like tomcats.
“What do you mean?” she says.
“He wants to haul me into bed,” says Zenia. Her voice is lightly regretful. “He wants to jump me.”
“He loves you?” says Charis. Her entire body has gone slack, as if her bones have melted. Dread is what she feels. Billy loves me , she protests silently. “Billy loves me,” she says, in a choked voice. “He says so.” She sounds to herself like a whiny child. And when was the last time he said that?
“Oh, it’s not love,” says Zenia gently. “Not what he feels for me, I mean. It’s hate. Sometimes it’s so hard for men to tell the difference. But you knew that already, didn’t you?”
“What are you talking about?” Charis whispers.
Zenia laughs. “Come on, you’re not a baby. He loves your ass. Or some other body part, how would I know? Anyway, for sure it’s not your soul, it’s not you . If you didn’t put out he’d just take anyway. I’ve watched him, he’s a greedy shit, they’re all just rapists at heart. You’re an innocent, Karen. Believe me, there’s only one thing any man ever wants from a woman, and that’s sex. How much you can get them to pay for it is the important thing.”
“Don’t say that,” says Charis. “Don’t say it!” She can feel something breaking in her, collapsing, a huge iridescent balloon ripped and greying like a punctured lung. What’s left, if you take away love? Just brutality. Just shame. Just ferocity. Just pain. What becomes of her gifts then, her garden, her chickens, her eggs? All her acts of careful tending. She’s shaking now, she feels sick to her stomach.
“I’m just a realist, that’s all,” says Zenia. “The one reason he wants to stick his dick into me is that he can’t. Don’t worry, he’ll forget all about it after I’ve left. They have short memories. That’s why I want to go, Karen – it’s for you.”
She’s still smiling. She looks at Charis, and her face against the weak light of the ceiling bulb is in darkness, with only her eyes gleaming, red as in car headlights, and the look goes into Charis, down and down. It’s a resigned look. Zenia is accepting her own death.
“But you’ll die,” says Charis. She can’t let that happen. “Don’t give up!” She starts to cry.
She clutches Zenia’s hand, or Zenia clutches hers, and the two of them hang onto each other’s hands across the tableful of dirty dishes.