Would You?

(Originally published in Leonardo Literary and Fine Arts magazine)

I think you are absolutely stunning and I would like to take you out to lunch. Maybe just text? (222) 555-3082.

            I unfurled the folded index card out from its wedge in the door handle of my tiny white Nissan and felt my stomach curl into itself. Was the universe just trying to mock me?

Chris

Gino

Alex

you,

and now this. This was the cherry on top of the constant bombardment. My shaking legs carried me across campus until I stumbled to the tiny white haven of my car, only to be met with someone’s pick-up line haphazardly stashed, like a secret, in my door handle.

           Was this supposed to be cute? I wondered. Was this supposed to make me feel better? Is the idea of someone watching me climb out of my car supposed to turn me on? Have me yearning and falling all over myself to text him?

            I traced the fading grey indent of the ink scrawled across the paper. Whoever he was, he’d traced a shaky smiley face underneath his number, but in that moment it just felt mocking. Sardonic. Don’t I like that he watched me wiped away my tears? Don’t I like that he watched me re-apply my eyeliner after crying it all off? Don’t I like having his eyes on me? Or just yours? Doesn’t this make me feel better?

            The crooked, faint squiggle of the face’s smile only invaded my privacy. It dragged off to the side and sharply down, almost as if he was projecting his anxiety into it. Looking at the expressionless dotted eyes, I sat there in awe at the sheer ridiculousness before bursting in tears. My shoulders shook weakly with laughter, but tear after tear rolled onto the index card. His smiley face rubbed away until nothing was left but a blurred smear of blue ink. Erased.

            I threw it aside and barked out a laugh before slumping over the steering wheel. The past hour kept spinning itself endlessly through my thoughts. Your bright blonde hair caught the sunlight in rays of gold while your dark red beard framed your face and cradled your relaxed, easy-going smile. Dark blue aviators concealed your stare, but I could still feel your eyes licking flames down my spine.

            Despite the distance between us, your shadow effortlessly towered over me like always. I was suddenly on the inside of fogged glass and unable to escape; a fading firefly bashing against your glass jar. Your footsteps echoed after mine as I ran inside the glass doors of the library and, just like that, I was frozen. I turned around to face you, waiting.

            You appeared in front of the glass, wild eyes searching until you met my gaze. They hardened to a cold, dead stare when they met mine. What were you thinking when you saw me from behind, ponytail bouncing with each step, faster and faster when I realized you were trailing me? What did you think when I pressed my phone to my ear and tugged my jacket tighter to me? Did you like my dress? Could you remember complimenting me on it inside the airport gift shop all those years ago? Could you spot the dog tag dangling from my neck, and how you’d left it behind under my nightstand? Could you even remember anything? Did you want to talk to me? Repeat how much you missed me? Would you tell me how much you wanted to talk to me each night while you sobbed in bed?

Would you think to apologize? Would it enter your mind at all? Would you apologize for the death threats? The suicide threats? For leaving dried blood, snot and tears caked on my dashboard? For the sexual assault examination I needed? For the lies and nightmares? For the fear drenched like ice in the frosty sinews of my bones? For the flashbacks and nightmares rotting me from the inside out?           

Would you think sorry is enough?

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Not Your Survivor

Two years ago today you weren’t living; you drifted seamlessly through the motions of carving out a hole for yourself so you could survive and, by motions, you were really just trying to un-stitch yourself from the fabric of his life. By motions, you really meant how he tossed you so hard to the ground you turned into rain pelting pavement.

You were not living as your back braced against the wall, jaw clenched tightly as whimpering birds escaped from the cage of your ribs; but still, you survived.

You did not live through the suffocation of his thumbprints on the veins of your neck; but still, you survived.

You did not live through the sea foam trickle of his screams that somehow reminded you how he brought his Virginian shores to the crib of your arms in the sun-beaten cradle of Albuquerque; but still, you survived.

You did not live through his sword vibrating through the air and grazing your skin, and you weren’t listening to his screams. Instead, you stood paralyzed. You helplessly watched the curl of the dragon’s tail spiraling along the hilt as if it was attacking you and trying to hold itself back all at once; but still, you survived.

You did not live through that hazy spring equinox, plucking cherry blossoms from the earth and hiding them in the golden crown of his hair; but still, you survived.

You did not live, and it withered away all your rough edges into a stone so smooth he couldn’t help but skip you across the river where he first pulled your mouth to his; but still, you survived.

And honey, although the time for survival has long since passed, it has stretched its way into your skeleton and made its home in the tears of your muscles. It sprouted new cherry blossoms along newer, stronger branches. It gridlocked your breath for two years too long and became, instead, that dragon’s fiery choke-hold stoking a bonfire in your lungs.

Let the survivor’s feverish venom pass through your veins. Cleanse them with honey scented candles and cherry blossom ink. Let that survival seep deeply into your freshly plowed soil and sow the roots of a new soul stitched back even stronger.

Let that survival fall at your feet in a crumpled pile of decomposing pink petals.

Let that survival finally, painstakingly, turn back into the grace of living and re-living.

Somebody Else

Tender purple bruises rose garishly on my neck, like little black lotuses drifting in a still pond. Bloodstains still splattered along the edges of my car windows. If I squinted, they became faint cherry blossoms clotting along the faded dashboard. It’s just paint on canvas, I told myself. My eyes gazed back at me in the mirror, but they weren’t really seeing me anymore. I saw someone else entirely. The harsh flickering lights of the police department bathroom highlighted sunken bags beneath my smeared eyeliner and tangled hair. With every twist of my wrist, fresh blood dotted the fragile cuts and burns in my arm.  Twisted red thread, I whispered. That’s all this is. Pretend they’re just the red hair ties I stole from Trisha that morning. Wouldn’t she be mad if she ran out of hair ties to tame her crazy, wild waves?  

I don’t have time for this, I wondered. School was starting soon. My sister was going to come home soon from work to an empty home. My mother, she couldn’t know anything about this. They couldn’t know what happened to me. This would unravel what little binds Jace and I had left together. After this, there was no going back. No more protecting him. No more nights tucked away together to fend off the cold chill. No more picking myself up again,

and again,

and again.

I choked back more water for my dry throat and tossed it into the garbage can before adjusting my old, grey sweater. I may’ve only gotten three hours of sleep last night, but I did my best to dress in clothes I felt like myself in. I carefully re-applied my eye liner on my watery, swollen eyes. It may be hopeless, but I needed to feel like me. At home, I had pretended not to see the bruises and dabbed slowly at my neck with foundation.

Just hours before, I stood at my bathroom with foundation in hand, but suddenly I was twelve years old again. The pale pink walls of my childhood room glowed brightly from the sun rays falling through the large, open windows. Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana posters lined the walls. I had stolen my mother’s MAC make-up over the weekend, excited to color match my skin. Despite her creams and powders being three shades too dark for my skin, I dutifully followed each make-up tutorial to its fullest extent. “Blot your neck” bright-eyed girls with perfectly curled hair and pale skin said. “If your cream isn’t the right shade, blending down to your neck will look more natural.”

Now, cowering in the Albuquerque police station, I realized what blending your neck really meant for women like me. It meant hiding bruises. It meant concealing the scars and indigo thumbprints that tenderly caressed my neckline. For some women, their necks were a pillar for their children to cling onto for piggy back rides. For others, they held fragile necklaces of amethysts, emeralds and Swarovski crystals. For me and others like me, though? Those necklaces melted into chains binding us to the silence we were forced into as threats were spat in our ears. Our necks, rubbed raw, told stories more beautiful than any gem could tell, and we wore them with pride. We wore them from the police stations, to examination rooms, to courtrooms, for judges, for lawyers, and for ourselves each night when we broke out of those chains and cracked away at our perfectly polished masks.

A sharp knock rang on the metal bathroom doors just then, signaling the detectives were back with the evidence photographer and, just like that, I wasn’t the bright-eyed twelve-year-old anymore. Instead, my reflection revealed the ten years ghosting back over my face. Somehow, I felt even older than I was. I offered up a smile at the girl shaking in the mirror, but she couldn’t meet my eyes anymore. I paused, second-guessing myself, before retrieving a single make-up wipe. I erased all the careful work I’d done, revealing the secrets he left on my skin.

I took a single deep breath, then two. I left the blood and make-up soaked wipe in the trash before swiveling on my feet and stepping out to the new reality that waited with the police officers outside. I realized then that those beauty tutorials had it wrong all along. This was the beautiful strength I’d come to know in the years that followed. Beauty is the absence of hiding in fear, and growing stronger in spite of it.

When the Moon Eclipsed the Sun

  There are worlds inside of you that need to be seen you whispered in a voice that dripped with sugar and honey. You smiled smugly, as if proud to be the first to murmur these words to me in my lifetime. Flickering across my mind were the images of my twenty-something fourth grade teacher as she rustled my short, curly hair. You have stories to tell she’d scrawl in my margins, red ink across blue lines. She shifted from her red-headed curls to the hay-colored ponytail of my middle school English teacher, whose watery blue eyes seemed perpetually magnified behind her glasses. You have girls to teach and books to write she’d declare between us like a secret. Back then, I wasn’t sure if they were herding me along in school, or if they truly trusted the fledgling heartbeat hidden in the valleys of my words even back then. It felt wrong, then, to grow up listening to the crooning words of women ushering me forward when what really struck my heartstrings weren’t their words, but his.  

            Write you’d tell me. Why aren’t you writing? Shouldn’t you get going on that? You’d bark in a command, trying to force the creation of something you should’ve known would never come for you. It was a far cry from how you’d nudge me step by step to pick up the pen, open the laptop, and create. I know, I wanted to say, but these worlds within me were never yours to peel back. You are not the asteroids that can split apart my atmosphere.

            How wrong that turned out to be. If I was that world you claimed I was, you couldn’t just be the God ruling over the skies like you wanted. Instead, you were the asteroid hurtling into a universe I struggled to keep hidden from you. If I was the sun, you arched into orbit, grasping at invisible strings to tether us together. You watched as the planets warmed at my touch, hoping you could steal it in place of your own.

Like Mercury, I braced myself in an iron shell to defend against your implosions. You waited patiently for your solstice so you could crack away at the heart of Venus beating delicately in my rib cage. You threaded a necklace of meteors along the constellations of my collarbone, then convinced me to ignore the way it burned and asked, instead, won’t you give me that beautiful smile? You tugged at Saturn’s rings like a wind-tossed sailor, until you were close enough to light into me like a solar flare; my Jupiter irises colliding with your cold Neptune gaze.

In the way stars eventually succumbed to super nova, though, you knew you weren’t built to last burning so brightly that you destroyed everything you touched. Your rings of Saturn disintegrated, one by one, into stardust between us. Thousands became hundreds, hundreds became dozens, and dozens fell to the twist of one last coil in your grip. As your fire flared out across the constellations, you realized what you were up against all along. The sparks of your rage faded to embers, and all at once you hardened into the cold shards of Pluto; abandoned and trailing behind all the others.

  Is this why you masqueraded as my moon instead? You settled yourself into the free-fall of a new orbit this time, so you could always trail from a distance.You crept along your crescent path and reflected my light from the safety of your shadows. Was it to catch the glimmer of warmth that trailed from the soles of my feet? Did you want me to witness how your rage stole the oceans from my shores every night? So I could see you plunge my world into darkness, over and over and over?

If this celestial dance betrays anything, it’s knowing you can’t help but be sucked into the void, straining just out of reach for the light within me. It betrays knowing that your battalion of asteroids will always fall to dust in my oceans and deserts. Yes, your meteors can strangle life and cloud the light radiating from me, but the dust will always give way to a sea of stars. New life will begin in me again and I will rotate on my axis to heal what your emptiness fought so hard to destroy.

I thought back to the words that set our celestial collision course in motion. What would I have said then? Worlds are inside of me, I should’ve answered, but just like the solar eclipse, your darkness will not hover me forever. I am the halo of light you failed to hide.

So in your bloodstained absence, I finally set out to do what you tried ripping from me all along; I opened my laptop, smoothed a fresh page over, and picked up my pen.

Before the Rose Became a Sword

Nestled in the lush, green nest of cypress trees stood the concrete building of the Urgent Care; a small oasis hidden in the desert mountains of Albuquerque. I had just pulled into the lot after packing more clothes for my weekend at his house, and I walked in brandishing fresh cups of coffee from the shop down the corner. I ordered his staple: an iced caramel macchiato and, for me, a steaming cup of peppermint tea. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to stave off the hunger after the endless waiting.

                I cradled my tea in my hands to ward off the chill and shuddered. Even as spring seeped along the branches of the cherry blossom trees and clung to the dew in those early March mornings, the warmth wasn’t quite there yet. Jason took his iced coffee and shifted in his seat, trying to disguise his wince. “Thanks Bri, I really needed this.” I offered up a smile and planted a kiss on the crown of his blond waves.

                “Don’t pretend!” I snickered. “If you wanted something else you could’ve asked, Jace. Really.” I stole his straw playfully and savored the cool ice chips melting on my tongue. He slipped an arm around me and tugged me closer, but his far-off gaze was somewhere else, worried. “It isn’t you honey,” he sighed. “Not for a second. I just want this to be over with.”

                He belted over in pain again, but this time he couldn’t stifle his groan. He clutched my hand and gently kissed it before turning to me. “I really appreciate it,” he wheezed. “I hate that you have to waste all day here.” In that moment, I didn’t care if I had to spend all night in Urgent Care with him. I didn’t even see it as a waste.

From our mornings filled with scrambled eggs, brown sugar oatmeal, and drowning his coffee in French vanilla creamer, I had felt a shift settling in the air around us. His version of peace was something I never tasted before those quiet mornings nestled in his arms to the tune of his gentle snoring. It drifted in lazily through the windows and carried us as if we were adrift in a warm, lolling sea.

                There in that waiting room before peace cracked at our feet in shards, it wasn’t just the beginning or the end. It was the haunting siren call bouncing through the distance trying to warn me that, even back then, something wasn’t quite right. He was the warm kiss of the spring sun before a shadow of clouds smothered the sky. He was the surge of livid energy when you felt brutally alive moments before lightning paralyzed the earth. He was a blooming cherry blossom bursting with life before falling to decay. He was that fleeting warmth, that taste of electricity, those small cherry buds cradled in the leaves.

                How do you paint the tale of a story in a flicker of moments when the story itself became cherry blossoms withering on the ground? When he became a lightning strike splintering apart a once-cloudless sky? When the electricity coursing through his touch wasn’t the taste of life, but its destruction? I want to go back before the beginning; before the rose became a sword, before his words ricocheted off me like shrapnel, and before the humanity hidden inside of me was pushed into silence by his fists.   

The Letter She Left

Unfurling the crinkled letter in my shaking hands, I wondered how he’d react seeing me cowering in the corner of the courtroom like this. The folded, trembling edges mirrored how I felt at that moment, like I was nothing more than a withered leaf clinging desperately to a decaying branch, afraid to fall; afraid to be carried by the harsh January wind. Hushed whispers and fleeting conversations rushed me from all sides. Tireless, electric lawyers were scattered around ornate silver coffee pots, stony-faced felons awaited their trial alongside frantic mothers…then there was me. I was the lone, frozen victim paralyzed in silence.

I uncapped my plum lipstick and applied it rhythmically, itching for anything to stay occupied. I’d rushed here thirty minutes before sentencing, terrified of seeing him in the hallway straightening his tie, smoothing back his blond hair, or waiting for the quiet ding of the elevator with his lawyer nipping at his heels. Suddenly, I knew how it felt to be a small, cornered fox dodging helplessly between the snapping teeth of two wolves.

A small tap on my shoulder shook me from my fever dream just then, pulling me back into reality. Holly shook my hand, offered up a sad smile, and sat down with her briefcase perched in her lap. “Have you done everything I told you, Bri? Get a good sleep? Eat some breakfast?”

I wanted to answer, but the words were trapped somewhere between the icy pit of my stomach and the coiled snake my esophagus became. Holly squeezed my shoulder gently, and her ginger curls bobbing as she spoke. “Just remember to breathe, hon. You won. You’re alive.”

The wolves, I decided, never left. They now faced the judge’s bench, suddenly in human form. He stood just feet away from my podium, tail tucked and hidden as he stumbled through his yes, your honor’s. While the prosecutor explained the laundry-list of charges and introduced me, I felt the fear slowly dripping from my stomach to my fingertips. Icy adrenaline snaked down my spine in its place.

Ten minutes. Just ten minutes was all I was given to declare the nine hours of my life he stole. The lawyers, judge, and advocates… they never once pronounced or spelled my name right. It rolled off their mouths in tangles without bothering to unravel it. In spite of the conversations erupting around me, I brought my shaking voice from its shriveled whisper, to a cracking waver, then to an unleashed, echoing battle cry. The courtroom, once alive with the energy of the buzzing lawyers, fell to silence in the end. My heels echoed as I walked away from Jason that final time and, after all this time, I finally realized I wasn’t just a trembling little leaf anymore. Now, I left fallen, burning leaves in my wake.