by Satya Nelms
My feet fall into a rhythm, and soon I am on auto-pilot. The thoughts in my head are the usual white noise clutter you hear when you’re trying to still your mind. What meetings did I miss today?What do I have on my agenda for the rest of the week? Oo! Those flowers are pretty. I wonder if I could grow those at home. Maybe I should take that gardening workshop in the park next weekend. And on, and on. Then the heavy hitters start to drift in. When am I going to go home? I can’t wander around the park forever. Will Aidan be home when I get there? What will he say? What will I say? How will the two of us be able to go on after this morning?
I try to do like they tell me in meditation class and let the thoughts pass like clouds in the sky. I try my hardest to disappear in the space between the thoughts, but peace and tranquility will not come easy today. The weight of my musings makes me feel weary, and I look for a place to sit. I stagger over to the nearest bench, and collapse rather than sit down.
My breath begins to pick up the pace and I scold myself. No! Not again. Breathing in, I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I’m breathing out. I fill my belly with air on my inhale, and try to release my pain on my exhale.
My eyes dart first one-way and then another, willing a sign to appear and offer me some direction. I heard somewhere that when we look for signs, we really already know the way we ought to go, or at least the way we want to go. We’re just looking for some external validation. I have no such inclinations in this moment.
So I look out in front of me. I allow the full weight of my situation to descend upon me. I let it consume me, because I have no other viable alternatives right now, nothing to distract me. I give myself over to the pain for lack of better options.
Tears form a film over my eyes and blur my vision. The park becomes a stained glass window of fuzzy shapes and colors. I listen to my heartbeat thump. I feel it pound at my temples. My tears and I come to an impasse. I will not let them fall and they cannot retreat.
“Miss?” A voice breaks my concentration. My eyes take advantage of the weakness and a tear falls from each of my eyes. The world comes back into focus.
A woman stands before me slightly crouched over with her eyes narrowed. She’s a young woman around my age, average height, with deep brown skin and corkscrew curls springing from her head every which way. She moves them out of her eyes when she leans in to speak to me.
“Miss, are you all right?”
I part my lips as though to respond but no sound comes out. She chews at the corner of her lip and looks off down the path. She glances down at the watch on her wrist.
She straightens up, and starts to back away from me. Something inside of me panics. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I don’t want her to leave.
“I’m not alright.” I whisper.
She stops. Did she hear me?
“I’m not alright.” I say again. I shake my head back and forth and repeat it once again, more to myself than to this woman. “I’m not alright.”
She takes tentative steps, approaching me like a wild animal she’s afraid of spooking. She places a hand, palm side down on the bench next to me.
“Is it alright if I sit here?”
I nod. My voice seems to have gone back into hiding. My tears on the other hand, have taken complete advantage of my preoccupation with this woman, and are flowing freely. She sits next to me in silence for a few moments. She is looking straight ahead, just like me.
“My name is Kiera.”
“My name is Shae.”
“That’s such a cool name.”
“Thank you.” I feign a smile through my tears.
Kiera lifts her hand up from her lap, and then puts it back down. She turns her head and looks at me. I see her out of the corner of my eye, but I don’t move. She lifts her hand back up, and takes one of my hands in hers. She looks forward again. I squeeze her hand. My head drops and my shoulders shake with the heave of my sobs.
My words tumble out in fits and starts. Kiera turns to look at me, but she does not interrupt.
“I don’t know how I got here. I’m sitting on a park bench next to a stranger, balling my eyes out.”
I turn to look at Kiera. “This isn’t me… I mean I am not this person.”
She cocks her head to the side and looks at me quizzically. “What person might that be?”
“A person without a plan. A person who has nowhere to turn. A person who lets her boyfriend…”
“A person who lets her boyfriend what?”
I take a deep sigh. I bite my lower lip so hard I nearly draw blood.
“Have you ever had something you know… and you know you know it, but you still can’t say it out loud, cause that would make it real, and you just can’t stand to bring it into the world… to make it real?”
A look of understanding flits across her eyes and her brow furrows. “I’ve had something like that before, yeah… but sometimes bringing it into the real world is the only way you can begin to deal with it.”
“I think some part of me knows that, but fixing my mouth to say the words is something else entirely.”
“Maybe I can help?”
I look back down at my lap. “How?”
“Why don’t you tell me how you and your boyfriend met… start from the beginning, and then we can make our way to how you got here… that sound ok?”
“Yeah, but if you don’t mind me asking… why are you doing this? You don’t even know me.”
Kiera leans back against the park bench and looks up at the sky. Her curls bounce with each movement. She rakes her fingers through her scalp and gathers her hair in a fist at the crown of her head. She purses her lips and turns back to me.
“To be honest, I don’t really know. When you live in the city, you’re trained not to notice people. You learn not to see the homeless people lining the streets, or the panhandlers on the subway platform. You learn to mind your business, and treat things outside your bubble with concentrated indifference, but, for whatever reason, that has always been hard for me.”
She squeezes my hand.
“I stopped because I noticed you. I stopped because something about your pain felt raw and familiar, and I couldn’t imagine continuing on like I hadn’t seen you.”
Kiera smiles. “Is that a good enough reason?”
I return her smile. “Sounds like a good reason to me.”
“All righty then… so about this boyfriend…”
“You sure you have time for this?”
She winks at me.
“One of the perks of being your own boss.”
I laugh, and am surprised by the sound.
“Must be nice.”
“It has its advantages.”
She shoves my shoulder lightly. In a matter of minutes we have assumed the intimacy of old friends.
“Stop stallin’ and get to it,” Kiera tells me.
“You caught that huh?”
“Yeah I did.”
“Alright, alright… How did I meet Aidan?”
“The boyfriend’s name is Aidan?”
“Cool. Yes, how did you meet Aidan?”
“We met in Sociology my freshmen year. He was a nice guy. He was one of those guys that looks good on paper, ya know? At the time, I actually had a boyfriend, another jerk… I confided in Aidan. Not just about the boyfriend, but about everything. About my life growing up with my mom… stuff I’d never told anybody, and he would say the sweetest things…”
I bite my lip to stifle a surge of emotion.
“He’d tell me how I deserved to be treated better, and he told me I was beautiful and amazing, and I needed to hear those things. Looking back on it now, I think he knew I needed to hear those things. I don’t know that he ever meant a single word.”
A curious look passes over Kiera’s face. “Why do you say that?” she asks.
“Once things with my boyfriend ended, Aidan was there waiting in the wings, and falling out of one relationship and into another, didn’t feel too fast, it felt natural. But once we got together, everything changed.”
I chew on the corner of my mouth. “You know, when Aidan and me were friends, when I was with him, talking to him, that was the first time I felt safe, so when things started to fall apart with him, I just kinda resigned myself to this hopelessness. I figured if a guy like Aidan…”
“What do you mean a guy like Aidan?”
“I mean a guy everybody likes. I mean the guy that professors loved, had tons of friends, half the campus wanted to be with him. He’s smart, and beautiful… If someone like that could do the things… I just don’t see how or why I should think there’s someone better. So, I guess I stay because I figure it could be worse, and I don’t really have faith that it could be better.”
I pause a moment. “We weren’t always like this. He wasn’t always like this.”
“Like what Shae?” Kiera nudges gently.
I continue as though I haven’t even heard Kiera. It’s almost like I’m talking to myself. “When we finally decided to start dating, it was so easy… like slipping into sweatpants after a long day in a business suit, but then…” I stop and purse my lips.
“But then what?”
“But then he stopped being my friend. It’s like my friend Aidan and my boyfriend Aidan were two different people.”
“After we’d been dating a little while he started having all these ideas about what a girlfriend should be…what I should be. So many of his sentences started with, “No girlfriend of mine would ever…””
“Would ever what?”
“Dress like that, talk like that, stay out that late, dance like that at a party. The list could go on forever. It got to feel like nothing I did, nothing I was, was good enough, and I ended up in this place where I feel…”
“No. No, I feel lucky.” My chest heaves as all the pain of the last few hours pours into my words. “I feel lucky that he still wants to be with me. That with all my flaws he still wants me. That he puts up with my many shortcomings, except I didn’t know they were shortcomings until he told me they were. I feel. Lucky.”
I turn to Kiera. “When I was growing up, it was always just me and my mom. Nobody else.” I shift on the bench away from Kiera and stare out ahead of me. “I’d ask my mother where my father was, and she’d tell me, ‘he left us.’ That was it, no other details except for the colorful names she liked to call him. I’d ask about grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and she gave me all these stories about how this person was untrustworthy, and that person had betrayed her, and the other one was chronically unreliable. One by one, she gave me an excuse for why these people weren’t in her life… weren’t in my life. You would think that would have hardened me… would have made me really suspicious of everyone in my life, but it didn’t.”
My words get caught in my throat, then trickle out in fits and starts. “I always wanted people to like me. I’d meet a person and the next day, I’d be calling them my best friend. And if they weren’t the nicest people, or if they did something to hurt me, I just accepted it. I grew up believing that that’s what people do. I mean that’s what everyone had done to my mother, and she made sure I knew I wasn’t special. I expect people to hurt me. I expect love to hurt.”
I stop a moment to process these words, these words that were nothing but half formed feelings up until a moment ago. Then, I continue in barely more than a whisper and Kiera must strain to hear me.
“So, I feel lucky. I feel lucky to be with someone who criticizes me more than he compliments me. I feel lucky to be with someone who berates me like a child. I feel lucky to be with someone who comes home drunk and rapes me twice a month, because at least he’s still here… at least he hasn’t left me.”
“Shae, what did you just say?”
“He rapes me. I said he rapes me.” And just like that my words make it real. “I hear him stumble into the house and I know it’s coming. So, I lay there and squeeze my eyes shut and pretend to be asleep. And when that doesn’t work, I ask him, I beg him not to. And when that doesn’t work I press my thighs together, sure that nothing but the jaws of life will pry them apart. And when that doesn’t work, because none of it ever does, I lay there frozen, clutching the sheets to brace myself and wait for it to be over.”
I look over at Kiera and her face is covered in tears I never heard fall. When did she shed the first? I wonder absently. What pushed her over the edge?
I become aware of the energy this exposition has cost me and I am all at once exhausted. My shoulders drop and my chin dips forward, “I have to go home.” My words are laced with a heady combination of fatigue and defeat.
“You can’t go back there.” Kiera barely keeps the horror in her voice in check.
“I have nowhere else to go.”
“You can come home with me.”
“Really? You would let a perfect stranger come home with you?”
“Perfect stranger?” Kiera wipes her tears with the back of her hand. “Girl, we’re practically family now.” She chuckles.
I smile. “That’s sweet of you, but say I do come home with you… then what? I can’t stay forever, and my whole life is in that house. Childhood pictures, work files, high school yearbook, my cell phone… I’ve gotta go back sometime.”
“None of that stuff matters, Shae.”
“That stuff is my life…” I hang my head and grab handfuls of my hair. “We never stayed anywhere for very long when I was growing up. I got really good at packing, and even better at packing light. I don’t hold on to much, so the things I hold onto count…They matter. You can’t ask me to give those up too… I’ve given up so much already.”
“Ok, ok, I get that. You’ve gotta go back at some point, but some point, doesn’t need to be today. You don’t even have a plan! What if he’s there when you go back? How is that gonna work out?”
Keira looks at me and sees all of her unanswered questions reflected in my eyes. I stare at her blankly. She starts up again.
“You’re right, we are strangers, but if you’re not gonna come home with me, there’s gotta be somewhere else you can go.”
There is a long pause. Kiera hopes I am running through my mental address book, but something in my eyes indicates otherwise.
“Do you have people in your life who would have your back no matter what? People who you wouldn’t give a second thought to telling pretty much anything?” I surprise her with my question.
“Uh, yeah. I mean not a ton of people, but yeah, I have a few people like that.”
“And would you say those people know you pretty well?”
Kiera lets a nervous laugh trill through the air, uncertain where my line of questioning is going. “Probably better than I know myself.”
“I have no one like that.”
“Oh, come on, you’ve gotta have at least one person, there can’t be…”
“I grew up with a lot of rules, but there was one in particular that my mother made sure I never forgot.”
“What was that?”
“Never let anyone know what goes on inside this house. She made it very clear that I was not to run the streets telling people our ‘family business.’ And the few times I slipped, she made sure I regretted it”
I chew on my lip and take a breath before continuing. “Those few people you say you have, not a ton, but a few… I have no one like that. No one knows me well enough. I don’t know that I know me well enough.”
I have stunned Kiera speechless “No one knows about Aidan. If I’m being honest, I think the only reason I told you is precisely because I don’t know you. You don’t know me, you don’t know Aidan… What’s the likelihood that I’ll ever see you again after today unless it’s on purpose? Telling you feels safe.”
“Telling me means nothing has to change.”
“Unless I want it to.”
Do I want this to change anything? Would it honestly be easier at this point to go back home, and pretend this never happened? Pretend I didn’t say the things I said. Pretend I didn’t just admit the things I’ve admitted to, to someone I’ve never met. Pretend I never ran away.
Doing that would mean more nights spent sitting on the shower floor watching the water pool around the drain, wondering if my life is headed in the same direction. I think about the way I feel after that brief moment when I wake up and forget for a split second what has happened. My throat closes in on itself, and I’m never sure if I’m going to suffocate or vomit. No, nothing about staying would be easy, but at least it is a familiar pain.
“Shae, you still with me.”
I don’t know how long I have been sitting here weighing bits of my life on some arbitrary scale. I look into Keira’s eyes, long enough for her to worry I suppose.
“I’m still here. I do want things to change. But, I have to go back. I can’t run from this. “
“There is a difference between running away and walking away.”
“I would be running. I at least know myself well enough to know that.”
“Why is that a bad thing?”
“Because when I run away, I don’t even bother to look back over my shoulder. I leave it all in my rear view mirror. I don’t think about where I’m going or how I’ll get there, I just start running, and before I know it, I’m back where I started because I was so busy running away, I didn’t notice I was running in a circle, and I can’t end up back here again.”
“So then walk away Shae! Walk away with both eyes open!”
“I can’t do that until I say the words to him.”
“Say what words to who?”
“To Aidan. I need to say them… say what I said to you, to him. I need to make it so we can’t go back to what we were. Without those words he’ll apologize, and I’ll paint this picture for myself about how he’s not really a bad guy, I mean everybody’s got their flaws right, and I’ll say okay. But he’ll do it again, just like he has before, and nothing will change. I have to say the words.”
Kiera just stares at me. “You said you left your phone, right?”
She rummages through her purse, and starts emptying its contents on the bench between us. Lotion, cell phone, sunglasses, tissues, lip balm. Finally she produces a piece of paper and a pen. She tears the paper in half, and scrawls something on it. She hands me the blank half.
“Address and phone number.”
I blink and tilt my head to the side. She offers an explanation.
“I want you to call me tomorrow. If you don’t call me, I will call you. If you don’t answer, I’m gonna pop by and make sure you’re ok.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Yes I do, Shae. Address and phone number.”
I sigh and take the blank piece of paper and pen from her. I hand it over. She takes her half of the paper, gives it to me, and then encircles my closed fist between her hands.
“This happened, Shae, do you hear me? This conversation, this happened.”
My breath gets caught in my chest and I nod.
Satya Nelms is a writer, creator and lover of words. She states, "Writing has helped find my voice, and sharing that voice is one of the most terrifying, but exciting things I've ever done." For more of her work, visit www.satyanelms.com.