New and Perfect
by Rebecca Rowland (first appeared on WiHM's Women With 2020 Vision)
Despite years of harsh New England weathering, the words on the dilapidated green and silver road sign could be seen clear as day. Welcome to Mansfield: Where Life is New and Perfect. The irony of the carefully lettered town motto snaking around speckles of rust and dull streaks where the reflective paint had worn thin was never lost on Rachel.
At twenty-two years old, Rachel was at the age where most of the girls she’d grown up with in Mansfield had fled the isolated suburb for dorm life at a big-city college. If they had resolved to stay, it was only to storm the market for a spouse—some big, strapping young man with a shadow of forgotten puberty hidden beneath a neatly-trimmed beard, a husband who could provide her with both the freedom to quit her entry-level job and the imprisonment of caring for household and children. Rachel had neither an interest in pursuing a career, nor a strong urge to couple with anyone, and so, she spent most of her weekdays as a mail clerk at the factory—Sealing’s, a domestic goods manufacturer and Mansfield’s chief employer—and most of her evenings alone in her two-room apartment on the edge of town. She had a few friends, all girls from work who fell squarely in the second category of young Mansfield women, and she liked being around people, but she was perfectly content to go to work, walk the hour-long commute home to an empty abode, and fall asleep each evening with a book on her chest.
Mansfield’s main street was three blocks in length and boasted a town hall and post office, a library whose annex housed the parks and recreation department, a health and safety complex complete with police and fire stations, and one long building with three small stores: a grocery with a built-in pharmacy, a hair salon, and a hardware store. On the edge of the main drag sat Sal’s, a family restaurant that doubled as the town’s only bar. There were no clothing stores in Mansfield, and residents could travel a few towns over to peruse the department or discount superstores, but most simply ordered their necessities online. It was easy for any girl to do when she knew her measurements. Her parents had always taught Rachel that a lady watches her figure, and Rachel’s hadn’t changed in six years. Nothing had changed in six years, really, and Rachel was content with that as well.
On a Friday evening in late January, two girls from Sealing’s persuaded Rachel to accompany them to Sal’s after work. Rachel knew one of the women vaguely—Tina was her name, Rachel thought—but the other was new. She’d graduated from high school only seven months before, and she’d befriended Tina in the secretarial pool where they both worked. “Hi, I’m Nancy,” the new girl said brightly, holding out a tiny manicured hand toward Rachel as the three walked briskly to Tina’s car in the Sealing’s employee lot.
When she held Nancy’s tiny hand in hers, Rachel felt its feminine softness nearly melt in her grasp. “Rachel,” she replied, doing her best to watch where she was walking while still looking at her companions. Both of the women wore fitted overcoats over soft, fuzzy sweaters; sheer black stockings peeked out from beneath tight black skirts and above neat black shoes. Rachel glanced at her own attire, a simple navy dress hidden under the well-worn pea coat she’d owned since freshman year. She shoved her hands back into her coat pockets.
On the short ride to Sal’s, Rachel learned that Tina and Nancy frequented the bar on Friday nights. “It’s payday, so the guys are in good moods,” Nancy explained. She added that she hoped a man she’d met there weeks ago—Tad, or Ted, or possibly Tom (it was hard to hear clearly over the rush of hot air screaming through every vent, making the windows fog slightly)—would return. He was a broad-chested man with a quickly rising position at city hall, Nancy pointed out, and he was twenty-five, a prime age for settling down. She said this and smiled conspiratorially, then turned her body back to the front and pulled down the visor to inspect her face. Rachel ran her finger slowly along the wet condensation of the narrow back window. Her cuticles were dry and ragged.
As the car came to a stop and the heater abruptly silenced, slivers of rain began to dot the windshield. Almost in unison, Nancy and Tina pulled their hoods over their heads and opened the doors. The three women ran to the door of the bar just as the sky opened and sheets of icy water poured down behind them.
It was warm in Sal’s, almost oppressively so, Rachel thought. The cacophony of happy voices amplified by liquor ricocheted off the walls. A jukebox in the corner shuffled through pop songs from the late twentieth century. Dale McLauren, the high school’s new football coach, appeared behind Tina. He was the type of person who introduced himself using his full name, and in turn, when others referred to him, they did so as well. Tina and Dale McLauren had been dating for a few months, and Tina had confided in Rachel that she hoped he’d propose commitment soon. “Dale McLauren is the kind of man who takes care of things,” Tina had said. “He will take care of me.” Dale kept his arm wrapped tightly around Tina for most of the evening, unclenching it only to pay the waitress who brought him another beer. Three other men that Rachel recognized as ex-football darlings from her time in school soon joined the group, and the conversation vacillated between NFL draft predictions and the upcoming Super Bowl. Bored, Rachel focused most of her attention on manipulating the jukebox playlist using an app on her smartphone.
It wasn’t until the voices quieted around her that she looked up again; the crowd had thinned, Nancy was nowhere to be seen, and Tina was sliding her hand into the arm of her jacket. “Dale is taking me home,” she said as Dale helped her the rest of the way into her coat. “Nancy took my car to follow Todd. Dale’s house is just two blocks from your building. Do you need a ride?” Tina looked deliberately at the two men who remained at the table, then let her eyes snap back to Rachel’s.
“It’s okay,” Rachel answered, awkwardly pulling her pea coat from the back of the chair and wrangling it about her shoulders. “I’m used to walking.” Before anyone had a chance to argue, Rachel had pushed open the exit door and was walking briskly toward home.
The cold rain had evolved into sleet, and although there was no wind, Rachel felt the weather pierce the exposed skin of her cheeks and ears. Thin rivers of icy water trickled down the nape of her neck and wriggled down her spine. It was at least two miles to the apartment building. She regretted declining Tina’s half-hearted offer.
A long-hooded car slowed alongside her, the passenger window lowering as it did so. “Hey,” the man’s voice called. “Hey, Rachel. It’s really coming down. Get in. We’ll give you a ride.”
Rachel looked up. The football darlings. The two who had remained at the table as Dale and Tina prepared to depart peered out at her from the front seat of a dark-colored sedan, one of the expensive, American models Rachel had seen advertised in a magazine once. Watery mucous dripped from her nose, mingling with the sleet on her face. Without another moment of hesitation, she walked to the car, opened the back door, and climbed inside. In the interior light’s dim illumination, the upholstery resembled red velvet cake. She pulled the door closed. The air smelled like dry cleaning and fresh dollar bills.
“Thank you,” she whispered, her lips shaking from the cold. Rachel raced to remember the two men’s names. The driver was Henry? Harvey? The other, Jeff. Yes, and Harvey. She was sure of it now. Jeff and Harvey.
The three rode in silence for a long minute as the wipers waved back and forth, parting clumps of slush like spindly Moseses. Harvey glanced at Rachel in the rearview mirror. “You never dated much in high school, did you?” he asked suddenly.
Rachel considered his question. No, she couldn’t remember ever going out on a date. Come to think of it, she couldn’t remember if she had attended prom, which seemed odd, since it had only been five years ago.
Doesn’t she like men? The men asked, more as a criticism than an actual question.
She answered without hesitation. She likes them fine. Why did they ask?
The two men chuckled and glanced at one another. And then, Rachel spied the edge of her building two blocks ahead of them on the left, and she asked Harvey if he wouldn’t mind pulling the car onto the side street beside it. As the car hugged the curbing, Jeff turned his body to face Rachel. “Hey, mind if we use your bathroom?”
There was something in the way his words lilted that made Rachel’s back stiffen. She paused, her hand on the door handle. Sensing her hesitation, Harvey chimed in. “It’s the least you could do, I mean, after we saved you from this awful weather.”
“Sure,” said Rachel slowly. All she wanted was to strip the damp clothes from body and get into a hot shower to warm up, but Harvey had a point. She owed them.
As sheets of frozen rain again poured from the sky, the three ran toward the main entrance, clutching their jackets close to their bodies to keep the wind from forcing them open. Once they had made it inside the foyer, a warm blanket of air immediately enveloped them, and Rachel led the way up the stairs. Her apartment was on the third floor, the top floor. The men said nothing as they followed immediately behind her. With every step, the relief she felt after escaping the weather was gradually replaced with prickles of unease. Something wasn’t right, but she shook off the anxiety, attributing her misfiring intuition to exhaustion and paranoia.
Her parents had always taught Rachel that a lady makes everyone feel at ease. As she slid the key into her lock, Rachel tried to fill the awkward silence with innocuous chit-chat. “The weatherman said the precipitation would stop before morning. I hope the sidewalks won’t be too slippery tomorrow.” But her hand hadn’t even grazed the light switch before Harvey grabbed her from behind and wrestled her to the floor, knocking her head hard on the shiny oak floor. Rachel was stunned and speechless. What was happening? What did she do? What was HE doing? As she tried to speak, a wave of shimmering dizziness flooded her mind. Jeffrey’s hazy silhouette hovered in the doorway above. When she felt Harvey’s hand reach roughly up inside her dress, she clawed instinctively at his face.
If she made him angry, a voice deep inside warned, he might kill her. She stopped clawing and squeezed her eyes shut.
Stop it stop it stop it stop it please please please please stop
Although she said nothing, uttered not a word besides a terrible whimper, Harvey clamped his hand over her mouth. When he was done, Harvey grabbed Rachel’s neck and squeezed, only for a moment, but in her panic, Rachel twisted her head and looked around. Only then did she see the tiny light on the phone’s camera, the one Jeffrey was holding, pointing in her direction, capturing her nightmare for posterity. She closed her eyes again. She felt Harvey’s body lift from hers, the fetid breeze as he swung his leg over her torso, and finally, the clumsy rumble of boot stomps as the men exited without a word. They didn’t even bother to shut the door behind them, just stomp-stomp-stomp along the thinly carpeted hallway, down the fluorescent-lit stairway, and they were gone.
Rachel’s body, framed by the awkward triangle of light streaming in from the hallway, felt alien to her. Detached. Betrayed. After a moment, she pushed herself to a standing position. Statistics from PSAs, numbers written in fat red lettering blinked in her brain. 1 in 6 women. Every 75 seconds. She pawed the wall for the light switch, closed the door, and turned the lock, feeling the weight of this ironic action heavy on her shoulders.
In the unforgiving brightness of the bathroom mirror, a distorted face stared back at her. It was puffy and red, the skin on her left cheek and neck pink from where Harvey’s beard rubbed it raw. Rachel could still smell him on her. Fresh dollar bills, an oddly astringent scent considering how unclean she felt. When she returned to the front room, the apartment closed in around her like a coffin. She rebuttoned her coat and left, not bothering to lock the door behind her.
The Cadillac was gone, and so was most of the sleet, but in their place, a thin icing of clear slickness coated everything, a snail’s secretion. Rachel walked carefully down the block. She passed a bright yellow fire hydrant glazed and scintillating in the streetlight and felt an overwhelming desire to smash the ice with her fists, to crackle and craze its perfectly smooth coating.
Dale McLauren’s house was blue. She knew this from Tina’s descriptions. It stood near the end of the second side street, the last structure before a large open lot yet to be developed. When she reached it, Rachel could see lights in the windows, so she did not hesitate before ringing the doorbell. It was one of those camera bells and in the silent second following her push, she felt eyes size her up. Dale McLauren is the kind of man who takes care of things. Rachel heard Tina’s voice in her head. He will take care of me. A moment later, Dale was in the doorway, and a recount of the event poured from Rachel’s mouth, spilling onto the porch and splashing Dale’s face, turning it flat as stone.
Dale McLauren inhaled a long, heavy breath. “Rachel,” he said finally, “I need to take care of this right away.” He stared at her, his expression unchanged. “Come with me.”
She followed him to the curb and climbed into Dale’s truck, one of those oversized-cab models that made Rachel feel small when the passenger seat swallowed her whole, a toddler in a rocking chair. After a moment of the defrost to melt and clear the windows, the truck pulled away from the house and onto the main street. No other motorists were on the road. The town, most of its residents safe asleep in their warm homes, appeared as abandoned as a child’s playground in winter.
They passed the town hall that housed the parks and recreation department. They passed the grocery with the built-in pharmacy, the beauty salon, and the hardware store. They passed Sal’s, its parking lot empty and its American beer neons dark. Finally, they passed the health and safety complex. Dale McLauren did not slow the truck down. In fact, he continued on, off of the main drag and into the industrial park.
When Dale pulled into the parking lot of the Sealing’s, he passed the turn for employee parking and pulled into a spot for VIPs. Dale was a very important person, at least at close to three in the morning. What were they doing at the factory? “Relax,” he said, turning off the engine. “I told you: I am taking care of this.”
Her parents had always taught Rachel that a lady did not argue with authority.
She followed Dale McLauren through the doors of the main entrance and down a series of hallways Rachel had never seen before, each one broken into segments by shiny sliding doors. She followed him into an elevator and stood obedient as he pressed a button and the car dropped gracefully downward. When the doors opened again, she followed him down a long, dark hallway to a big silver door.
Inside of the room was a wide metal desk manned by two bearded employees wearing white overcoats. Behind them were two doors, each clearly marked with its purpose.
“Exchange,” Dale told the men, escorting Rachel forward. The man on the right grabbed Rachel by the arm and led her into the door on the left.
“Reason?” asked the other man. Rachel stood silent as the door marked Returns closed behind her, sealing her away in the darkness.
“This one is broken,” Dale added.
Then he crossed his arms over his chest and waited for the right door to open.