The dance as sunlight and shadow gracefully execute their routine over the rolling, yellow green landscape that teases with the promise of spring. She watches from the hilltop, to where the dance completes. Lines form, encircling her eyes wherever the deepening sunlight catches her gaze. Arms outstretched, back arched, she turns her face to the sky. Taking in the glorious sweeps of pink and gold, as her hair floats in the wind washing the fragrance of dogwood and lilac over her. She inhales deeply, the scent of beginnings.
She didn’t notice the way the sun reflected brilliantly off the ice droplets which slickly coated the rust-worn barbed wire. It had been shiny and new only two summers before. Her hands, stiff in the brown jersey layered under yellow leather. The leather was worn nearly away in the places where the cut of the baling string had hardened calluses. Her hands would never qualify as pretty, with their stubby fingers ending in unpainted, chewed fingernails. But she wore the calluses with pride. And relief. The replacement of festering blisters, regularly agitated by an endless cycle of responsibility, had happened gradually. She didn’t notice when the pain began to ease, it just did. Until one day, she discovered it was gone. If she took the time for such things, she would have imagined that inside, she was as hardened as her hands. That process had occurred unnoticed as well. One day the little girl with dreams and plans woke to a world void of emotion. The passage of time, now marked by a ceaseless cycle and the transitions of gray to green to brown that ruled the calendar. How is it possible to be suffocated by acres of space? As she pulled the gate taut with the twisted loops of wire and practiced ease, she was grateful. If this was her life, at least she had the hands for it.
You told me it snowed that first day in early April. I picture the first hint of spring dusted white. You told me I was extraordinary and that I wasn’t better than anyone else. You told me to always take care of my little brother. You told me daddy didn’t love me. Or I told that one to myself. I can’t remember. You told me to be a good girl and follow directions. You told me not to ride my bike in the street. You told me when the bus turned the corner I needed to get inside because the driver wanted to kill me. I called him grandpa, and he slept in the room across the hall. You told me not to cuss, but I heard that time you said “shit” on the phone. You had just found out Desert Storm had started. Soon I would stand on the end of your bed singing God Bless the USA along with Lee Greenwood. You told me to be proud to be an American. You told me I was smart. You taught me the names of the Ivy League. I was five. You told me I was wrong to call the police that time you got a black eye. I was ten. Did you see the bruises I had when he returned? You told me my teacher was trying to turn me against you. It was the time she gave me the book to read about the little girl who kept getting hurt until she told someone and then she lived happily ever after. It was right after the time I went to school with belt marks on my face. Do you remember those? You told me I was beautiful. You told me I was loved. You told me to go to my room when Michael Jackson was being interviewed on Inside Edition, even though you knew I was supposed to practice my recorder for you as homework. When I got mad, you told me to go outside. You told him to lock the door. Did you see what he did when I banged on the door to come back in? It was February and I didn’t have shoes on. You told me I ruined everything the next day when I told. You told me it was my fault my little brother didn’t get to pass out his cookies at the Valentine’s Day party the day he drove us to the office where the police were waiting. I never slept under the same roof as you again. But I never forgot what you told me.
It starts in the middle of my chest and rises. It’s funny that way. Maybe I first felt it before my mind understood that heaviness sinks. I prepare my face into the constrained vacancy I have carefully cultivated. Unseeing, but for the garish whiteness of your perfectly tied tennis shoes, my mind empties of your words. I fleetingly ponder how they might look in scarlet.
The anticipated shift in timbre. It is almost my turn and I must respond correctly. Preempting the call for eye contact, I begin to slowly lift them. Before passing even the sweeping hem of faded denim, I realize where the rising weight has flooded. Not quick enough to stop myself, I blink.
Your eyes pierce mine at the precise moment the salty wetness teases the corner of my mouth. I deepen my expression. My rebellion lies in my refusal to let you see me wipe dry my face. Or to watch your cheek twitch, almost imperceptibly, while I do.
Inequitably armed for the encounter, I falter. My words stammering out without the confidence I will later try to remember projecting. I will myself through it. Temporarily satiated, you allow my escape. Skipping the groaning spot where the step is weakened out of instinct. Through the string of doors my knees bend in synchrony with the slope of the roof. Until I am crawling. In the deepest closet of the attic.
It takes effort to get here, where the body must move in positions it’s unaccustomed. The light is weak and the shadows, deep. Deep enough to squeeze beyond an outstretched arm. It’s where I go to delay the inevitable. Where I can tell the walls my secrets, and tell myself lies.
Swaying. Gently. Like a breathe. It takes a moment to realize. I am in motion. It passes. The subtle hint of comfort is gone. Rocking. Shaking. Ever increasing tempo. A violent tremble. A few desperate seconds. Maybe it will pass. I have to break through. Find the calm past the storm. When will it be over? Some storms last for centuries. I surrender. Eyes open to the darkness. I count the stars. Sometimes. Only if I try hard enough. I can see the lovers. The belt discarded. The sword, carelessly rested in the corner. Top, upright. Much like when it was raised. In protection. Who is the protector now? Accepting the inevitable. I rise, gingerly making my way through the darkness. Senses flooded. I begin again. Next time. Perhaps. It will be different.
When is it okay to ask for help? I mean… there’s a limit, isn’t there? Is it okay to ask for help once? Of course. But, only if the need is great enough, right? How do you measure need? If I measure need differently than you measure need, and yours is the higher standard, if I ask you for help for my lesser need, how will you perceive me? How will you respond to me? Will I be humiliated, or, somehow worse, left questioning what you really think of me? When you say call if I need anything, you don’t really mean anything, right? I can’t call you to, let’s say, come get my mail from my mailbox and bring it to me, right? If I have a medical emergency, I call 911, not you. So I can’t cold call you, out of the blue, asking for help, because I don’t know how we measure need against each other. And, even when you offer assistance I don’t know what anything means. Aha! But sometimes, you tell me, “Let me know if you need a ride!” Something to finally work with, until I realize. What does need mean? I have a car, and a license; I’m physically able to drive. What if I’m just tired, I didn’t get much sleep? Or, what if I just want company? Maybe I feel lazy. But laziness is deadly, one of the forbidden sins. If I don’t have money for gas then I must not have worked hard enough to earn my way through life. If I didn’t earn it, then I don’t deserve it, I could call you, and we could drive, if needed I could make up a suitable story. In the end it doesn’t matter, because you hold all the power.
It’s been 40 hours. 37 if you don’t count the three hours I spent drifting in a state of near wakefulness.
I’ve desperately tried to exhaust my mind, to purge it of the debris that has built up inside.
To no avail.
Even this? An act of desperation.
How did he know? Am I that transparent? Within moments of our greeting he spoke the words I had only briefly considered speaking to him.
Is it possible to think a thing into existence? Did the very act of speaking my worst fear make it true? Or was it recognition?
I reach out, urgently seeking. Seeking affirmation I won’t trust. Seeking connection I can’t reciprocate.
Will you reject me? Was failing to know myself an act of dishonesty against you?
I’m lonely; please leave me alone. I can’t contribute to the conversation.
The glimmer has turned into a floodlight, and I understand it is almost over. But, I can’t help but wonder if there is anything more tragic than falling within feet of the finish line.