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Bound to the Truth: Prologue
Robin Howell sat on the floor of her living room watching Jin Mae play. The girl stacked yellow block upon blue block, alternating the two colors until she had a tower. Jin Mae seemed to sense when the height would become unstable and stopped. She turned to Robin and said, “Look, I made a building. Just like Mommy Nina does.”
The girl’s words bloomed like flowers in Robin’s chest. She got down on all fours to admire her daughter’s architectural feat. The two played together for a long time, until Robin noticed the slanted sunlight stretching out across the floor, suggesting it was late. She felt for her cell phone in her pocket to check the time. It showed an indisputable 7:36 pm, and a text message from Nina that she hadn’t noticed while absorbed in play: Taking a client to dinner. Go ahead without me.
Robin hoisted herself up off the floor, pulling the rough-hewn Guatemalan wrap around her for comfort as much as against the chill. “Come, Jin Mae,” she said, beckoning for her daughter’s hand. “We need to make dinner.”
Robin woke, her book still in her hand and her reading glasses perched on her nose. She heard running water and saw a slit of light beneath the bathroom door. Nina was home. Robin’s heart lilted at the thought of her wife climbing into bed with her fresh from a shower. But Robin craved more than that. She did not want to wait. She got up and walked to the door.
The bathroom knob wouldn’t turn. It was locked.
“Nina,” she said. “Can I come in?”
Silence. A pause. And then, “Oh, Robin. I’m so exhausted. I just want to sleep.”
Robin returned to bed, picked up her book and glasses, and set them on the nightstand. Nina finally came out after a few more minutes, and she was wearing a full set of pajamas.
“You used to sleep in the nude,” Robin said.
Nina did not respond. Her face was scrubbed of makeup, the ends of her chin-length hair wet. Robin made room for her under the covers, put her arm around her once she settled.
“How was your client?”
“Intense. But somehow still boring, in the sense that he was utterly predictable.”
Robin smirked. “What does he want you to build?”
Nina sighed. “What else? A mixed-use building with apartments above and retail below. It should have all the semblance of sustainability and green living without his having to invest in anything that would really make a difference.”
“So no go on the solar.”
Nina turned toward Robin, touching her face. “How’s Jin Mae? I looked in on her when I came in. She’s fast asleep, with Lambykins in her arms.”
Robin felt Nina’s touch smoothing the jagged edges of her worry. “She’s fine. Building apartment towers with her blocks. Wants to be like you.”
Nina smiled. “It would be better if she wanted to be like you.”
“Why do you say that? You’re a fantastic role model for her.”
“Oh, I’m just being self-critical. It’s been a long day.” Nina dropped her caress and turned to one side, away from her.
Robin snuggled into Nina’s back, spooning her. “I miss you.” She whispered it into her wife’s ear.
“I’m right here,” Nina said, grasping Robin’s hand.
But as they drifted off to sleep, Robin wasn’t so sure.
Robin’s knitting needles clicked as the women talked, giving their conversation a subtle staccato rhythm. The Wyld Womyn had come together as a group without fail for the past nine years. Staunch feminists to a woman, they supported a cornucopia of acronymed organizations that represented the fight against hegemonic patriarchy: NARAL, NOW, EMILY’S List, the FMF. More than half their number were lesbians or had dated women at some point in their lives. The ones who were currently partnered with men had chosen SNAGs, or Sensitive New Age Guys, as their mates. These were men who shared in the household chores and child-raising, took their turns in conversation rather than interrupting, and understood that their wives would retain separate bank accounts to preserve their economic independence.
Today’s topic: pornography and strip clubs. Marjorie Jackson, an organizer for Feminists Fighting Porn, had been invited to speak about their various initiatives.
Marjorie had chosen not to color her grey, which framed her face in dramatic streaks. Robin found the look both stunning and a little intimidating.
“We know that pornography is like a gateway drug for perpetrators of rape and child rape,” Marjorie argued. “Notice that I did not use the word ‘molestation’ in place of ‘child rape.’ I don’t want to minimize the act when it’s done to a child. Rape is rape.”
Robin felt a surge of emotion at this that made her drop a stitch. She thought of Nina’s father. It had taken Nina fifteen years of therapy to undo the damage that man did to her. Robin wondered if pornography had anything to do with his criminal acts against Nina.
“Now it’s everywhere, thanks to the Internet,” Marjorie continued. “We’re long past the days of banning porn from bookstores and convenience marts. Type ‘cock’ into a search engine, and it’s in your face.”
Robin fought a snicker at the woman’s unintended literalism.
Danielle Everton, a fortysomething financial planner, piped up. “I caught my son watching a YouTube video the other day about how to give a better blow job. The girl in the video demonstrated with a carrot, and she was alone and fully clothed, so I guess the parental filters didn’t recognize it as porn.”
“I don’t know why men like that so much,” said a woman named Sharon Koal. She pushed her turquoise frames back up to the bridge of her nose. “I’ve always found it disgusting.”
Robin thought of Sharon’s husband, who wore his hair in a ponytail and always smelled of the mushrooms he grew in their backyard.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said one of the younger members of the group. She’d only recently joined. “They can be just as good for the woman as for the man.”
“Really?” Several women spit out the question at once.
The newbie looked caught off guard, and as if she wished she’d kept her mouth shut. “Um, yeah. I mean, why not? It’s the variety of sexual expression, right?”
One of the heteros sort of leapt to her defense. “If a woman truly enjoys it and isn’t just doing it to please her partner, that would be all right.”
Robin remembered furtive, awkward attempts at going down on her high school boyfriend, back when she was trying really hard not to think about her attractions to the girls who were just her friends. She hadn’t quite known what to do with that thing. It tasted like the terrible brie hors d’oeuvres her mother served to guests. So she closed her eyes and hoped for the best but ended up cutting him with her teeth. She had to admit, there was something satisfying about causing him pain there. And he never insisted she do it again after that.
“I think we’re getting off-topic,” said Helen Dubus, the host. “And there’s been an awful lot of cross-talk.” She cast looks at both Danielle and Sharon, who had effectively derailed their guest’s speech.
“Sorry,” both women murmured.
There was a pause, and then Marjorie spoke again. “So, anyway, there is not a lot we can do to put a stop to pornography. But what we can do is try to prevent strip clubs from obtaining licenses. They prey on young women who are already victims in society and create centers for drugs and crime.”
She distributed a flyer advertising a rally to protest a new strip club opening in a Seattle suburb. “We need as many people to show up to this as possible,” she said.
Robin wondered if she could get Nina to go. This protest would be something they’d do together. A question occurred to her.
“Would it be appropriate to bring children to the protest?”
Marjorie considered it. “I think that would be all right. There won’t be anything that children can’t see at this, not in our signs, and the club itself will be closed at the time. It’s during the day.”
Sharon spoke to Robin, but she meant her words for the group. “It would be a good experience for Jin Mae. Anyone else willing to bring their daughters?”
“—And sons,” corrected Marjorie. “They have just as much to learn as girls do. Maybe even more.”
The day of the protest dawned warm and drizzly. Robin made them all pancakes, a smiley face on Jin Mae’s, a banana mouth and strawberries for eyes. Nina brewed coffee, Robin’s favorite free-trade brand from the shop near their house. She poured in enough coconut milk to turn the coffee tan, just the way Robin liked it.
They told Jin Mae they were taking her to a protest, an important one for women. “Wo-men,” the girl said before sticking a strawberry into her mouth.
Robin always let Nina drive. The few times Robin drove, Nina spent the whole trip telling Robin where to go or pressing an imaginary brake on her side of the car. It wasn’t that Robin wasn’t a good driver. It was that Nina liked to be in control.
When they got to the building that would soon open as a strip club, Robin was dismayed to see only Marjorie, the woman from Feminists Fighting Porn, along with a handful of women who were also part of the organization. She, Nina, and Jin Mae were the only ones from the group of Wyld Womyn, and Jin Mae was the only child in attendance.
Still, they held their signs high for the news cameras. A few passersby joined them, including an elderly couple who lived a few blocks away and didn’t like the idea of a strip club opening in their neighborhood.
The building was brick painted black, with a garish pink stripe across the top. A glittery sign spelled out its name: TOP LET’S. The windows had all been blacked out, and there was an enormous satellite dish on the roof. It was on a busy intersection, and the sound of tires swooshing through the rainy streets gave the proceedings a constant white noise, punctuated by an occasional honk, which the protesters took as gestures of support.
Through the constant wash of cars and steadily building commotion as more people joined the protest, Robin sought connection with Nina, who seemed distracted. Robin reached for her wife’s gloved hand. Nina clasped hers in return. But her gaze went elsewhere, to the gaggle of media people milling in front of vans, their crew swarming around them like flies.
One man, holding a tiny microphone, stared right at them.
Or at Nina, rather. He cast a quick, mildly curious glance at Robin, but his stare was directed at Nina.
As if he knew her.
As if there was something between them.
Nina’s hand in Robin’s felt weak. Robin felt her wanting to break the hold.
But then the man turned away. He fell into conversation with his crew member.
Robin thought she heard the slightest noise come from Nina, just a tiny note, as if she were trying not to react to a sudden pain.
He turned back around, his eyes scanning the scene but avoiding Nina and Robin. He clipped the microphone to his tie. Robin strained to pick out his voice above the din.
“I’m at the scene of a protest here in North Seattle…”
Robin felt Nina pulling her away from where the man stood, but Robin held her ground.
“Regular listeners of my radio program know I’ve been covering the Rizzio family saga for the past three years…”
Robin had heard his voice before, when flipping the channels in her Subaru. As soon as his distinct baritone came out of the speakers, in fact, she knew to keep flipping. He was a conservative radio talk show host, and she never agreed with a word he said.
She nudged Nina, who was already staring at him. “Isn’t that…”
“—Sam Waters,” Nina supplied. “Yes.”
“Right,” Robin said in a whisper. “What an asshole.”
“That’s for sure,” Nina said, but the look on her face seemed to betray something else.
Sam Waters filled his microphone with his own rapid-fire, loud, inflammatory speech. “…The police have so far failed to provide any solid evidence against the Rizzio family in what amounts to a politically motivated witch hunt. Meanwhile, the radical feminists have descended, all eleven of them…”
Robin held one of Jin Mae’s hands, and Nina held the other. “You’re hurting my hand, Mommy,” Jin Mae said to Nina, shaking the hand Nina held.
Nina, appearing startled, glanced down and let go of Jin Mae. “Oh, sorry, honey.”
“He just lied about the protest,” Robin said. “I count twenty-one of us.”
“Like it matters,” said Nina, coughing out a laugh.
Someone behind them began to chant. “No More Porn! No More Porn!”
Robin picked up the chant, and so did Nina. Even little Jin Mae joined in, though coming out of her three-year-old mouth, it sounded like, “No Morn Corn!”
Working late, said Nina’s text. Nothing more.
But Robin had received that message at 6:13 pm. It was now morning, and Nina was not there.
Robin could hear Jin Mae making wake-up noises in her room down the hall. Nina’s side of the bed was cold, the sheets still tucked under the mattress.
A panic attack surged through Robin, turning her palms wet. She felt as if she were being choked.
She leapt from the bed. “Nina?” she called through the house, though she knew her wife wasn’t there, could feel Nina’s absense in her bones. She had felt it for some time. She’d known this was coming.
She thought of the man at the protest. Sam Waters. Nina had dated men before, but no one like him. How could she fall for someone like him?
Robin did not know how to stop it. She couldn’t imagine life without Nina, her love, her everything. How would they raise Jin Mae if they weren’t together?
Robin wondered for a flicker how the money would work out, if she would have to go back to work or if Nina would continue to support her.
“You’re dependent on me financially,” Nina said to her once. “Does that bother you?”
“Does it bother you?” Robin had asked her.
“Of course not,” Nina’d said, rolling Robin onto her back and gazing down into her face. “Your work keeping up the home and caring for Jin Mae has value to me.”
Nina kissed her then, passionately. “I love you,” she’d said.
It had been a long time since they’d been intimate like that, Robin thought with alarm. And now it seemed like it was too late to get back there.
She shook the notion from her head. There was still time. She could save this. She had to.
Robin kept checking her cell phone for messages but found none. She expected to hear from Nina by noon, but lunchtime came, with Jin Mae getting parmesan all over the dining room. No matter how many times Robin swept the sponge across the table, she’d find flecks of cheese she’d missed.
Then the front doorbell rang. Robin expected someone selling siding for the house, or cable services. But it was two police officers, a man and a woman. She let them in. They seemed so out of place in her living room in their starched uniforms, shiny shoes. Instinctually, Robin picked up her knitting needles. It seemed important suddenly to finish Nina’s sweater. It was taking her forever, and soon it would be too warm for it anyway.
“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this,” said the man. To Robin, it sounded as if he were more sorry about his role as messenger than he was about the message itself.
He cleared his throat, hesitating.
“Yes?” Robin prompted him. She didn’t look up, though. She didn’t want to drop a stitch.
“Your wife was found dead this morning,” he said.
Too late, too late. The words Robin had been worrying over all morning rang in her ears. She dropped the unfinished sweater and looked up, but not at him. Her eyes met the woman cop’s, seeking comfort.
But there Robin saw only pity.