He asks me do you ever come out of your shell, and I look at him from across an ocean and just shrug, ever evasive. Do I ever. Come out. I guess not, I say. What is there to say? Islands don’t have voices. I’m drinking something undefinable and deathly sweet from a red plastic cup. My keys are hidden in the hollow between my breasts because my jeans are too tight to fit them. There are two twenties tucked into my jacket pocket like a couple of talismans, wards against hunger. As long as I’ve got cash I can eat. It takes a while to let go of this scrabbling thought pattern even though it’s been a long time since I’ve ached for food. These are the early days, before I carry a nondescript metal water bottle full of wine or rotgut liquor around with me like a pacemaker, something you need always that nobody else sees.
He looks at me, waits for a better answer. I won’t remember his name or his face. I will remember that he was the only black kid in this house full of drunk whites, and that he left early with the set of his jaw like a barbed wire fence, walking out into the night across a gravel parking lot and into no easy future.
I’ve got one hand folded across my chest, the other tapping in multiples of threes on my hip bone because it helps me think and stay calm. The noise of the party swells around us, people elbowing each other under black light, always looking over the shoulder of the person they’re talking to, their faces animated but somehow blank at the same time. I’m eighteen and I still go to parties. This is my first semester of college and part of me still thinks that I will l be spared, that I will be lifted up somehow, whole, beautiful, and unmarked.
Habit, I say suddenly. It’s mostly habit. And I see something flicker in his eyes, regarding me, and I think for a second he knows what I mean. How could he not? He knows better than me what it is to need to pass unseen and to blend into the corners, the necessity of assessing the risk of other people. How to leave early.
Years later, I’m riding my bike in a suburb of Sacramento. It’s October and I’m looking for a job, dropping off resumes wherever they’ll take one. I didn’t graduate after all. I couldn’t make it work. I live on my friends’ couch now because I still can’t quite make it work. My fingernails are tattered around the edges, pink and painful and sometimes bleeding, but I breathe a little better than I used to. A little deeper. I’m old enough and wounded enough now to know that sometimes, just being able to breathe evenly is not a small thing.
I ride along and look over and there’s a park, and I see a young mom with her baby, sitting on the grass. Her dark hair piled in a loose knot, as if she absently put it there while absorbed with the ordinary tasks of her life, maybe with the traces of soapy dishwater or onion smell on her hands. The tasks of putting her baby into the carrier next to her, lying loosely on the grass. Lifting him in with her small strong arms, and then walking down to the park with an open afternoon spilled out in front of them, the hours just rolling ahead. The ordinariness of just sitting there, what a miracle, does she know to call herself and that kid and her hands and her life a miracle?
They’re sitting there on the grass and she’s looking at her kid and smiling, and I get all caught up in the implications, what it means to be able to sit there with your baby, with this baby you made with another human being, and teach them grass, teach them sun, teach them love inside trips to the park. I look at this woman and her baby and I think of the man that stuck his fingers inside me even though I was dry, dragged my head forward by my hair until I choked, the sound ugly and echoing in that room. How we used to be friends, how he still emails me every six months or so to ask what’s up?
I drank and drank that night, not out of sadness or even boredom, just out of habit, because that’s what I did when there was something to drink. I was a black hole and nothing could fill me. I was blind and sat down next to him so maybe he’d put his arm around me and I’d get a moment of still and pure comfort, the lull of an animal heat echoing the way our parents once held us, safe and wrapped up tight—the dark looming outside the window, too far away to cast its shadow yet.
Instead he reached under my shirt, pushing my bra up to grope and pinch me so hard I flinched and found dark red bruises there the next day. I remember the rising tide of panic, waiting, staring at the ceiling. The way he washed himself in the sink and told me I had to leave, it was too late for him to drive me the five miles home, and couldn’t I just catch the bus? The way I went out the door with my bra unhooked, my clothes all wrong, my body all wrong. Saying good night and bye, bizarrely polite, already in damage control, just make it better, make it over. Walking all the way home, numb to the cold or just unable to care, one foot in front of the other, not thinking, just breathing. The way a man alone in a white car pulled up next to me as I walked, two blocks away from my apartment, creeping slowly so he could talk to me from the open window. Me trying not to go any faster so I wouldn’t seem scared, him gesturing for me to get in, where was I going? I was too pretty to be out so late, and didn’t I want a ride?
When I got inside I crawled into my bed and slept for fourteen hours, waking up in the dark the next night and switching on my lamp, hungry and thirsty. It shone sickly and yellow, as if the light itself was diseased. Then I thought it must be my eyes that are wrong, my self that is diseased, and I stuffed the hem of my nightgown into my mouth to muffle the force of my weeping. The neighbors could hear everything in that place.
I gave away the dress I had worn that night.
I just couldn’t look at it anymore, strung up in my closet like a dead thing.
With this memory come all the others, overlapping like a stack of photographs, sharpening into an unbearable point in the middle of my head. Shadowed faces, blunt hands, every time I was touched after that and then recoiled as if I was being cut with a knife. The way my body became a stranger to me, deaf to all the reason and tenderness in the world.
All of this in the October sunlight in those moments I rode by. Thinking for the billionth time, not for you not for you anymore and you think that your heart is broken but it’s not, it can always break again.
When my dad left when I was a kid, it was night in the kind of pitch black it only gets out in the woods, where it seems like you may as well be a million miles from the nearest streetlamp for how cut off and groundless you feel. We clung to our light sources out there, in the northern mountains of my childhood. Light is what made you feel like a person when the sun went down and the wind began calling, rushing through the leaves of the black oak trees. We would fill the cabin up with candles, and I would do my homework in between the flickering shadows they cast across the linoleum floor.
The best light in the house was a single bulb hooked up to a car battery that sat on the table. It would run out of juice pretty fast though, and my time using it was always brief and monitored. It would steadily fade from bright clean white to a dull yellow that barely illuminated the pages, and I would try to get as many seconds as I could before somebody told me to give it a rest already. Sometimes I’d click on a flashlight anyway, curled up on my mattress in the attic, so that I could read more. I never wanted to stop reading.
The house itself was a tiny red hunting cabin, down off a long dirt road. We moved out there after my dad got busted and the money stopped coming in and he finally got a job at Burger King. He’d talk about seeing the cop that got him in the aisles at WINCO, about how he suppressed the urge to bring the glass bottle he was carrying down over the man’s head. He got off lucky with just probation and no prison sentence, and we packed our things and disappeared even deeper into the hills.
I knew it was a hunting cabin and not a regular cabin because there was a long beam sticking out of the front of the house, and I had asked my mom what it was for when we moved in. She said it was where you slung the deer carcass after you killed and bled it. This seemed reasonable enough, brutal enough for life in the woods. That beam held a gruesome fascination, and I’d stare at it sometimes, imaging dead meat hanging down, blood dripping onto the deck. Grizzled hunters living inside our house, using the sink, cooking on our wood stove, never speaking and only killing. Deer were common out there, but seeing one then was always like seeing an angel to me—all I could do was stop, wait and watch and hold my breath, both afraid and reverent. Silently understanding that they were made of something beautiful that people were not, something that had to do with the way the water ran in the rivers, the way snowflakes could come down in hauntingly perfect spirals.
The night my dad left two of the dogs got into a fight outside. We always had so many dogs. Back in San Jose after I was born, Dad bought a puppy off a man who should not have had one. His official name was Curly for the ragged hair that stuck up in little half-moons, but I called him Bone Boy in my head because of the ribs that still jutted under his skin. He never could gain weight very well, and he always had a crazy look in his eyes like the sparks that burst up from a campfire. The owner had tied him to a metal pole in his backyard with a foot long lead, and beat him so many times that he no longer barked. He had been broken before he got a chance to grow.
Dad worked for months every day, trying to get him to play, to trust his hands, to eat without checking to see if it was safe first. The first time he barked, he cowered, expecting to be hit, and my dad crouched next to him softly saying good boy, you’re a good boy. Waiting until the dog was calm enough to come forward and lick his hands.
Eventually his fur grew out and covered his scars and you couldn’t tell anymore how he had been raised, what he had been born into and managed to survive.
That night the dogs were fighting outside on the deck, and inside, Dad was screaming at mom because she came home late from seeing some guy after work. Every day she bundled flowers in an icy warehouse, her twenty-nine-year-old hands sore in a way that only endless repetition brings, the soreness that comes before the immobility of arthritis and carpal tunnel. He was screaming, hurtling his stuff into his red workbag. He would do that every now and then, fly off the handle, turn into a monster. Like the person he appeared to be was hiding someone else inside him, not our dad, but a stranger.
He looked huge when I was that small, his eyes over bright and his spit flying as he yelled. These days he looks so stooped over and beat down, his grey hair in short wisps over his head. I am not nearly so afraid of him now, only afraid of life and the regular kind of broken hearted you become as you watch your parents get old and collapse in on themselves like dying stars or sheds under the weight of too much snow. I look at him and have to remember the man who worked so long and with so much patience to care for a beaten dog.
My mom sat on the floor and took it, his anger. She waited like a house waits for the hurricane to pass, hoping it doesn’t shred away the foundation as it goes. I was sitting on the couch beneath the ladder that went up to the attic where my brother and I slept, waiting it out with her, caught in the shadows.
Dad knew us kids were watching, witnessing. He handed her a piece of cardboard with an ugly note scrawled on it, as if swallowing back some of the words he wanted to yell would protect us, as if the damage hadn’t been done already. I pretended to be watching The Simpsons. I pretended like I was deaf, like I was a wall, unmovable and impervious to all things. If you keep making that face, it’ll get stuck like that. If you keep pretending to be indifferent, you can find it hard to show anything at all.
He blustered himself out eventually and left the room. Mom got up without a word and checked on the dogs, opening the door and letting the cold night air come pouring in, like taking a clean breath the size of the whole night sky. One of the dogs came limping in, his eyes wild with hurt like my father’s, a valley of blood pouring from a wound in his neck. He was walking in it, panting around the room and leaving bloody paw prints on the linoleum.
That night, when I was sure my brother was asleep, I wept over everything I had seen and taken in with a sensitive kid’s preternatural emotional intelligence. I had passed over something, stepped across a line not of my own making. Dad heard me and climbed up the stairs. He sat on the floor next to my bed and put his hand on my back and said I’m going to look for a place in town.
And that was that. I said okay and he walked back down the stairs and into the rest of his life, nursing his own injuries. Our individual sadnesses resonating inside of us, scattered across the house, absolutely incommunicable, and the darkness pressed all around like we were stones at the bottom of an ocean.
There’s a story I want to tell that guy as he smiles distantly in my head under those black lights, looking at me so earnestly. A story I want to tell every time someone says why are you so quiet, you should really open up a little, trust people more. There’s a story I want to tell underneath every other story I’ve ever told.
You’re sitting in a room, and it’s the room of your life. It’s familiar, maybe it’s the living room of your parent’s house when you were a kid. Maybe it’s a motel room, with a table there, a couch here, everything just where you expect it to be, nothing shifting or disappearing. You’re sitting comfortably with your two feet planted on the floor, your hands loosely clasped, your back straight. There are paintings on the walls of soft, neutral landscapes, floating water lilies and trees obscured by rain.
You’re sitting in the room of your life, when suddenly the ceiling isn’t there anymore. And outside is black, no stars, and empty space too big to comprehend. What you knew is no longer what is. A terrible howling fills the entire universe, bearing down, opening up, and the ceiling never comes back down again. Your life is never again contained in a way that’s really bearable.
The phone rings and it’s just a telemarketer. The phone rings and it’s your mother, calling to tell you someone’s died. The calendar marks itself off in neat red X’s. The alarm goes off, you need to go to work—it’s 7 a.m. again; how can that be? This morning the window looks out on blue sky, but other mornings it’s the dirty cities of your youth. The howling is so loud you want to cover your ears, but there is no obscuring it, it’s in your head, it’s in your blood, it’s filling the room. And you go on because you have to go on. And it’s enough because it has to be enough, but within you is always dark with no stars—it’s the only thing you believe in that never really wavers, and that is why you never come out of your shell.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.