Trigger warnings: The following short fiction contains triggers for sexual violence, sexual assault, drug usage, physical abuse, violence. Please practice self-care.
On Sunday mornings, we would wake up baptized in the sunlight streaming through the curtains, draped in his white sheets. I would lie still, listening to the sound of his breath, the city sounds, and the chatter of the people streaming in (or out, depending on when we woke) of the church across the street from his bedroom window, the one with the massive two-story mural of Jesus half-naked and draped strategically in white cloth holding his arms wide open. When he would eventually stir and roll toward me, there was a tangible warmth between us that I would find myself longing for years afterward. I’d rest my head on his chest and he would stroke my hair, and we would listen to the church-folk together, quietly meandering toward the particularly inevitable kind of sex that happens when you wake naked and deliriously happy next to someone important. His apartment was on the second floor, so giant-Jesus and I would often make eye contact if I happened to glance out the window when we had sex, the noises of our mutual contentment filling our ears and dampening the church sounds. The first time I noticed it, I placed a hand on his chest, pointed out the window, and said, “Jesus is watching us.” We laughed. He fucked me harder. We were heathens, sure, but we were heathens in love and that was enough. *
I will always love him, that much was certain, though it is long after we fell out of love. I still woke in the middle of the night every night for months after I returned to sleeping in a twin-sized bed. Sometimes it would be an instinctual panic that would rouse me, a learned, habitual need to listen for his careful, steady breathing, to make sure he was positioned on his side, to make sure I had remembered to sneak out of bed to hide the syringe that usually sat on the nightstand. Such a delicate, transparent object: it would be so easy to smash if I had only been able to find the courage. I still shudder with guilt when I think of every time I touched it and placed it back down unharmed. Sometimes when I woke, it would be just to reach for him, to feel the warmth of his body occupying the same space as mine, to scoot over and rest my head on his chest to listen to the soft swish of his heartbeat and close my eyes in a silent moment of appreciation of he and I simply being. Whatever it was that woke me, I would jolt when I remembered that I was alone, filling with a weight so heavy that it sunk me down to the bedsprings of my mattress, cementing myself to my new life. My friends tell me they are proud of me for what I’ve done. I still can’t tolerate silence; when I am not filling my ears with some sort of noise he creeps into my head and takes root there. *
Our first real date, I took him to my favorite book store. He joked that printed media was a dying art, but swooned just as much as I did over the first edition copies behind glass and the stacks and stacks of worn, used books. I opened one and inhaled.
“I like used books because you can smell the lives they’ve lived right on the pages,” I told him. He thumbed through a copy of Ulysses. It was an insurmountable challenge neither of us had found the courage to complete. I looked at the inside cover where the previous owner had written their name and the year. The title page was coffee-stained. He bought it. For months afterward, we spent dawn hours after long nights handing the book back and forth and reading aloud.*
We liked to take drives. During the day, they were aimless adventures. We would drive until the city turned to country and we reached a mutual and completely random stopping point, pulling over to fuck—in the car on the side of the road, in abandoned barns, in forests—anywhere we could manage to get our hands on each other, the same hunger for each other manifesting as a hunger for life. We would find these stopping points, places of pilgrimage, and once they were thoroughly explored we would just sit and be. One time, we found a big grassy hill, an ocean of lush green blades meticulously cut to the same length, the kind of place kids have soccer games. We spent an hour log-rolling down the hill, lying in a heap at the bottom, gazing at the infinite sky. When we would drive at night, it was a different type of adventure. These adventures had no endpoints, were just twists and turns until we got tired and went home, our travel path painting fluid lines all over the map. The night drives started when we had exchanged memories of being small and being taken for car rides around the block when we wouldn’t sleep. The world seems so massive when you’re eight years old and in a car past your bedtime, full of possibilities you didn’t know existed. The same rules apply in your twenties. He would roll down the windows and sun roof, crank the music up high enough for our ears to sting a little, and I would recline my seat and breathe. The faster we went, the further we got out of the city, the harder the air filled my lungs, leaving me breathless and full of breath at the same time. The street lamps along the highway would flit in and out of my periphery, the orange haze interrupting the faintest view of the stars, which most nights served as a guide to tell us that if we had gone far enough out of the city to see sky not obscured by smog, we had gone too far. Driving that fast, on those impulsive adventures, was the same feeling of incomprehensible freedom as being on a swing as a child and tilting your head way, way back until the world flipped and you felt like you were flying, feet pumping away as the inverted horizon filled your view. *
On one such adventure, we had climbed into his car on a Friday morning when both of us were playing hooky, I from my minimum-wage internship with a small non-profit group and he from his Kwik Trip cashier job that he hated, when he turned to me and told me there was a planned destination to this adventure. I asked him a dozen times where he was taking me as we drove and each time, his answer was a smile and a shrug. We drove to the country as usual, taking a side road that wandered for a few miles to the river, where we pulled into a graveled parking lot next to a small concrete outpost-style structure in front of a massive dam. “There’s a dam here? How did you even find this?” I asked.
“I heard about it from a friend, and thought you might like it. Do you?”
I nodded and led him by the hand onto the dam. We leaned over the railing, staring down into the rushing water three stories below us. When I looked back over at him, he was gazing at me, a look in his eyes that nobody but he had given me before. I smiled at him and we stood there on this dam that I hadn’t known existed, wind-whipped and desperately in love. I stared back over the edge into the chaos. “When I was little,” I said, “I dropped this Disney watch I used to wear all the time over the edge of the third-floor railing at a mall.”
“Why?” he had asked, his eyebrows scrunching in amusement. I shrugged.
“I just wanted to watch it fall.” He kissed me on the cheek. I moved in to his apartment two days later. *
I’m walking down 8th Street a few blocks from my apartment, a bag of groceries in one hand and my phone in the other. Thunder rumbles and the sky bursts open, rain pouring down. I half-heartedly jog the last block, but I love the rain even as it drips down my face in little rivulets, drenching the cuffs of my pants, dampening my groceries and the mood of the city. I open the door to the lobby and stop to check my mail. Setting my groceries on the ground next to me, I reach into the little metal mailbox, my cubby in a wall of strangers, and I pull out a stack of envelopes. I flip through them uninterestedly until I get to the heavy cardstock of an official government letter. It’s suddenly massively heavy, and I rip it open and unfold the paper inside. The restraining order. They approved it. The breath leaves my lungs and I sink to the ground against the wall of mailboxes, sitting on the dirty apartment lobby floor and holding the letter with shaking hands, my tears blurring the lines that say my name under complainant and his name under respondent. I clutch the letter to my chest, tilt my head up, and thank God. *
I had seen him go through my meds every once in a while when we would get drunk with his friends. He would swipe a few Prozac, a few benzos, and while I didn’t love him trivializing the pills I needed to hold myself together, I didn’t think much of it. There was the weed, too, nearly an ounce of it in a plastic bag on a shelf in his closet. We’d smoke a bowl or two while we drank, and the longer we were together the more often he’d reach for it the moment he woke, a ‘cure’ for his never-ending hangover. One night, his friend Julian showed up with a backpack. Julian hung around a lot, was unemployed, and had his own set of keys to the apartment. I would shuffle out of the bedroom in the morning and frequently find Julian passed out on the couch where he had not been the night before. On the night he brought us the backpack, it was only the three of us in the apartment. We had been drinking before his arrival, and when he bustled through the door all he said was, “You’ve gotta see this.” He unzipped the backpack and took out a brick of coke.
“Julian. What the hell?” I said.
Julian was already high, and the words gushed out of his mouth almost faster than his brain could keep up with them. He told us his plan: that we would cut the brick to stretch it and start selling, that there was nothing easier or more lucrative than dealing, and then he took out a small baggie of powder from his backpack and cut three lines, one for each of us. Julian went first, offered me the mirror where he had cut the lines like little banks of snow. I shook my head no and Julian shrugged and did the remaining two lines. He made a sort of grunting, groaning noise of elation, shaking his head violently and getting up to run to the window. As he stuck his head out of the open window and let out a whoop into the night air, I turned to my right on the couch. We made eye contact, and I gave him a sort of ‘what do you think?’ glance. He shrugged. Julian scurried back over to us and sat down for a moment before getting back up again to walk around. It’s not like I hadn’t seen cocaine before—I had even done it once or twice—I just wasn’t expecting Julian to show up at our apartment at one in the morning with a brick of it, asking us to deal. We told him we’d think about it, and he left later that night. When we had gone to bed, I felt him stir next to me.
“Julian’s totally insane, right?” he murmured, slinging an arm over my hip and pulling me closer.
“I don’t know. The money is good. I’d lose my internship and you’d lose your job, though. We’d end up homeless. I don’t think I can live in a cardboard box,” I said. He chuckled, then sighed.
“You’re probably right,” he said, and his eyes were still wide open when I drifted off to sleep. The next day, he came home with half of Julian’s brick, wrapped in one of my reusable grocery bags. *
It was four in the morning, and I was sitting on the floor of our bedroom in my underwear, the nubs of the carpet making patterns on my legs. I was sitting in front of a scale, weighing out baggies of coke, double checking the weights, and then passing them along. He sat at a card table set up in the corner, counting, sorting, taking notes. I had refused to sell, but I had helped him with his homework when we were still in school and I damn well wasn’t going to refuse to help him with what he needed help with, no matter what it was. So there we sat, measuring out the drugs, looking at each other every few moments and smirking. He liked to listen to public radio. I carefully measured out 8 balls while Ira Glass’ voice filled the room. He was high; I wasn’t. I never was. We cut and packed as much as we could before I—half asleep—crawled into our bed and lured him in with me. We slept, our bed an island in our newfound sea of crime. *
I brought him to my parents’ house for Christmas with my family. My dad took a picture of us sweater-clad standing in front of the tree that I would print and frame a week after we went back. On Christmas Eve, we lay awake in my childhood bed. He tossed and turned, wound up with the same nervous energy we would have felt if we were waiting for Santa. He got up and slid the window open, folding himself into the armchair next to it, and taking his bowl and a baggie of weed out of our shared suitcase. I rolled over. I looked at him, my eyebrows raised. He rolled his eyes and chuckled, putting it away and tiptoeing back to the bed. He leaned over to kiss me and I rolled away, annoyed. He put a hand on my shoulder and I turned my head to look at him, his eyes searching mine.
“I can stop anytime I want to, you know,” he told me. I placed a hand gently on his face, feeling the sandpaper start of stubble on his jawline. I wanted nothing more than to believe him, so I pocketed my doubt and nodded, kissing him. *
The longer he dealt, the more he started drinking. He wasn’t a nice drunk, especially to me. Julian would come by and make drops at our apartment, and they would sit on the fire escape together with a bowl and a bottle, talking about life. I’d gaze out and wait for them to come back in. He’d come back and yell at me for one reason or another, on edge from the chemicals invading his bloodstream and his brain. The person he was when he drank was not the person he was when he did, but the sober version of him started to dissolve with every gram he sold. He quit his job, because he had hated it anyway and the drug money was enough to get us by and then some. He’d drink starting from the beginning of his day, and the periods of early morning lucidity between the drugs and alcohol were my sanctuary, my few moments a day when I could reach for the man in bed next to me and he would not be a stranger. When the time of night would roll around, usually two or three, where he would start double fisting, I would wait until he was gone enough to be confused easily and dump the contents of his glasses into the toilet and flush. I’d push my back against the bathroom door and take a few deep breaths, dreading what was waiting for me on the other side. *
Our bedroom was always so dark, the only light coming from the moon sneaking through the curtains in parallel lines across the bed, bars locking me in place next to him. He wasn’t a nice drunk. He wasn’t himself when he drank. This became my mantra. It’s what I would repeat in my head over and over when I had to tell my friends lies when they asked me about the bruises, and it’s what I repeated in my head the night he lost himself forever. We had been lying in bed, me reading and him staring intently at the TV, Xbox controller in hand, bottle clutched between his knees, pipe with god knows what in it on the nightstand, empty syringe on the comforter next to him. When I had protested the new drugs and the new ways he was using them, he had looked at me like I was insane.
“I have to make sure what I’m selling is decent,” he had said incredulously. I let it go. He wasn’t himself, after all.
I rolled onto my side and pulled the covers over myself, a cocoon of softness around me. “You’re not going to sleep, are you?” he asked. I nodded.
“I’m not,” he said, and I felt his hands on me.
“Please don’t. Seriously, I just want to sleep.” His hands slipped into the cocoon of blankets. “Stop it,” I said, louder this time.
“Don’t be such a bitch,” he said, and he slapped me before pulling the blankets off and ripping my pajama pants down. I curled up inside of myself and waited, frozen in time, feeling the way my body was moving like it wasn’t my own. This wasn’t him, he wasn’t himself. This wasn’t me. None of this was real. I shut my eyes so he couldn’t see me crying and repeated my mantra until it was over. *
When he rolled off me and passed out, I scooted over as far as I could, pressing myself against the cold of the wall our bed was pushed against, wishing I could disappear through it. I held myself there, as far away as I could from him, shivering. I made sure he was on his side, and I watched him sleep, listening to the rise and fall of his breath just in case it stopped. I stared out the window, mural-Jesus staring back at me through the transparency of the curtains, illuminated by the moon. He rustled in the night and turned to me and whispered an apology in a small, world-weary voice. *
We were never the same after that. I was never the same. He was never the same. The moments of lucidity, the moments when I could interact with the man I was still so in love with, became fewer and fewer until they disappeared altogether. I flinched when he touched me, shrank when he opened his mouth to talk to me. The fire burning under my skin was no longer one of lust and love, and it was building every moment of every day. I started to think about the dam, about staring over the edge, feeling like I was careening into love with him. Now I was careening, but I wasn’t sure where to and he was the one who had pushed me. We fought more. He was angrier: angry at himself beyond comprehension, angry at me, angry at the drugs, angry at the TV, angry at the walls, angry at the fridge for not having beer in it. The night before I left, we had a fight so explosive that neither of us could remember what we were fighting about, all we knew was we had released the fire from under our respective skins, setting our relationship ablaze.
“I can’t stay here if you keep doing this,” I said between sobs, pleading with him, trying to reach the man he had buried deep inside himself.
“Do I really make you that miserable?” he said, his eyes darkening. I don’t remember most of what happened next. I do remember hitting the wall. I remember his fists coming toward me. I remember his foot connecting with my stomach. I remember him crying, apologizing, on the floor where I lay in a heap, my breath ragged. I drifted in and out as he took me to the hospital in a cab, holding me against him, stroking my hair that was matted in blood, whispering his apology over and over again like a Hail Mary. I shut my eyes. *
I woke the next morning home again, the kind of time travel transport that happened as a child when I would fall asleep in my parents’ bed and my dad would carry me to my own bed where I would wake the next morning like magic. I was sore. I had a cast on my right arm, and a butterfly bandage on my forehead covering a few stitches. Everything hurt. Everything. I dragged myself from bed and shuffled to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet with my head in my hands, sobs raking my body, the resulting shudders making my ribs hurt, making me cry harder. I stood and looked in the mirror, at the bandages and bruises and cuts, searching for myself. This wasn’t him, sure, but this really wasn’t me. I found him on the couch in the dark, the morning light blocked by heavy blinds on the living room windows, chain smoking and dropping his butts into an empty beer bottle.
“I can’t stay here,” I said quietly from the doorway.
“I know,” he whispered. I approached him, crossing the vast distance between us. I straddled him on the couch, and he looked into my eyes. “I love you,” he said.
“I know,” I whispered. We had somber, quiet, desperate sex, there on the couch where mural-Jesus couldn’t see. I left that afternoon. *
The left cop asks me if I remember the date of the incident. I shake my head. I was sitting across from two men with badges, stacks of file folders with his name on them surrounding us in the cold room, the metal of the chair hard beneath me. They had called me that morning and asked me to come down to talk to them, they had some questions about my relationship with him, he was in trouble, they had said, Julian had been caught with a brick in his backpack on his way from the supplier, he had named names. I sat in the chair and looked at the cops numbly, answering question after question while they took notes. You’re not in trouble as long as you tell us what you know, they said. Once I started talking, I couldn’t stop. The words poured out of my mouth onto the ground, filling the room, bleeding from my mouth. I tell them everything. I tell them about the syringes and the baggies and the scales, I tell them I weighed some but never did any or sold any, I tell them about Julian’s backpack, I tell them about slamming into the wall, I tell them about hiding inside of myself that night in bed. I tell them anything and everything I can think of, the balloon of all that I had been holding in deflating. I floated around the room, empty and weightless. “Will you testify in court?” the right cop asks. I don’t even think about it, just nod and say please, I would be more than happy to testify. Fear seeps through my skin in tiny doses, but I know better than to let it overtake me again. *
I had said no the first time he asked me out. We were at a bar. He was cute. He had bought me a drink earlier, told me he couldn’t stop staring at me, asked me for my number. I had smiled and politely said no. A bar was too cliché. Later, we had both stepped out to smoke, both away from our mutual groups of friends. Some drunken idiot had stumbled toward me, asked me for a light, asked me for my number, placed his hand on the brick wall behind my head just above my shoulder and leaned in, looming over me. Suddenly, I heard the thud of fist against face, and the shadow in front of me was now on the ground moaning.
“Now will you give me your number?” he said, smirking. An hour later we were sitting in my apartment, his hand in a bowl of ice, my head in his lap, so many words suddenly needing to be said that I felt as if I had never spoken before. *
A month later, I sat in court for the second time in too-tight dress clothes with shoes that hurt my feet, trying to look as presentable as I could. I watched him from where I sat on the witness stand, his eyes boring into me, his orange prison jumpsuit making his presence impossible to ignore. I closed my eyes, inhaled slowly, and looked at him, suddenly braver than before. For nearly an hour I answered question after question.
“Did he ever hurt you?” the lawyer asks. I nod numbly. I can feel his pulse racing from across the courtroom, from fear, from guilt, from anger.
I spend two hours in the hallway of the courthouse, my legs shaking, my fingers twitching, full of courage and adrenaline and fear, waiting for the decision to come in. Everyone is called back into the courtroom. I stare at him while the juror reads the verdict. Sound rushes out of the room, and for one tense moment all I can hear is the rise and fall of his breath. I will always love him, this much is certain. On assault in the second degree. Not guilty. On rape in the first degree. Not guilty. My eyes meet his and I see a flash of the man I fell in love with on his face, a wave of nausea overtaking me. The reality of the verdict is a punch to the face harder than I ever endured at his hand. I am full of fire and I look down at my own hands, surprised to see they are not engulfed with flame. I reach one forward to shake hands with my lawyer. “It doesn’t matter. The possession and distribution convictions are enough to keep him in jail for a long, long time.” I nod without realizing that I am moving, and I am itching under my skin, everything is uncomfortable and too tight and too hot. The fire overtakes me. They take him back to the holding cell, and I walk out into the hallway as they take him further and further away from me. I step into the buzz of activity—everybody going somewhere, everybody with something to do—and I feel the thread between us snap. This much is certain: I am on fire but at least I am free.
Caroline Jane Pokrzywinski is a junior Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies major with an English minor at a teensy tiny school in Minnesota. She’s headed to the Newberry Library in the fall, where she’ll complete her education with a research fellowship focusing on the intersection of gender and space/the idea of “home.” She is planning to pursue a career in campaign management, ultimately following her ambition of being a sex-positive sex educator and working toward sexual violence prevention on college campuses.