The first time it happened, I was thirteen. I was in a bar, but not because I wanted to be in a bar. Because my Uncle Louis took us to a fancy restaurant in a fancy hotel that had a fancy bar stuck down in the middle of it like a freaking gauntlet you had to run for the privilege of peeing. I didn’t see it as a gauntlet then, not yet. But now, looking back, remembering those trembling fawn footsteps in my cheap, barely–high heels, I can’t believe my mom just flapped a hand at me and told me I’d be fine.
I so wasn’t fine.
On the way there, I hurried. Because I’d had three Shirley Temples and my grandfather’s funeral wasn’t the sort of event where you excused yourself. So, yeah, I hurried. Head down, legs kinda crossed, I had zero problems getting to the glass–doored room with the little lady in her triangle dress on it. I remember checking myself in the mirror and feeling so grown–up, so mature. I hadn’t hit puberty yet, but I almost had boobs, and my black dress almost made them look good, and my skin was pretty clear and my hair didn’t suck, and it seemed like that was all you could really ask for at thirteen.
So on the way out, maybe I sashayed a little. Maybe I tried swinging my hips. Maybe I didn’t. It’s not a crime to feel pretty, after all.
The first thing that happened was I heard was a long, low whistle, one that surely was not for me. My head jerked back, and I saw a guy my dad’s age at the bar in a business suit with a beer. He smiled at me and lifted his brown bottle, and I kept walking.
The second thing that happened was a guy grabbed my wrist. Just straight up grabbed me and jerked me to a halt, and I wobbled a little in my almost–heels and didn’t even know what to say.
This guy was older, like a young grandpa, with slicked–back gray hair and a jacket over a turtleneck and he smelled like nail polish remover as he pulled me close, his hand flat on my back and my wrist still caught in his.
“Let’s dance, pretty baby,” he said, and if what he did was dancing, then there is no God.
“No. I’m sorry, I—stop.”
He didn’t stop. He pulled me close, put his face to my neck and breathed in, and inside my body was a riot that wouldn’t let my arms and legs move. I looked over his shoulder for help and only saw my mom and Uncle Lou and Aunt Lisa laughing and drinking their wine, and finally my brain started working and I shoved him away, hard, wishing that he would bust his face open on the bar and get glass slivers in his eyes and never look at a girl again.
The man tripped and caught himself on a chair. He seemed stunned for a minute, then furious. “Who do you think you are, you little slut?” he said.
I shook my head and ran away, back to the table where I hadn’t been missed.
“I got you another drink,” my mom said.
My Uncle Lou pushed the Shirley Temple toward me with a grin under his mustache. “You look very pretty tonight, Maria.”
It didn’t feel good. I didn’t drink the drink. No one noticed that I was freaking out.
I didn’t want to be pretty anymore.
I did not think I was a slut.
The next time it happened, or at least the next time I remember it happening, I was fifteen. I’d been babysitting this little kid for my mom’s boss, Susan, and it wasn’t too bad, just watching cartoons with him and feeding him crackers shaped like fish and hoping he wouldn’t need a new diaper before his mom came home. But his mom didn’t come home first this time. His dad did. And he offered to drive me home.
It was getting dark then, and the little boy fell asleep in his carseat. I lived twenty minutes away, which didn’t seem far when Susan drove me back and forth and we talked about work and books and stuff. But the dad, John, was silent. It was a weird, expectant silence, the kind that I didn’t know what to do with. I could tell that he was watching me at stoplights or when we passed under the white–blue lights of storefronts, and it made me feel strange, like maybe there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t see in the mirror.
In my driveway, he put the car in park and his hand on my knee.
“You look really grown–up,” he said. “Really pretty. I can’t believe you’re only fifteen.”
“I am,” I said. “Um, the door is locked.”
His chuckle was low, but like he was trying to be sexy. “Yeah, it’s the childproof lock.” His hand slid to the thigh of my jeans as I messed with the door and got the window open. Before I could start yelling, he laughed again and unlocked the door. “Just playing around,” he said.
But he wasn’t.
I didn’t babysit for them again. I told my mom I was allergic to their dog.
By the time I was sixteen, I wore hoodies like armor. My skinny jeans were weapons, tight and thick and impossible to pull down, if some guy on the street decided that he wanted to make his threats truth. My boots were tall and stompy, laced to the knees and ready for kicking shins. I never wore ponytails or braids or kept my hair long and loose, because I’d read an online article about how that was basically giving a rapist a handle. I wore jogging bras and fierce eyeliner like a goth football player daring anyone to mess with me.
When I looked in the mirror in the morning, I saw a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or perhaps, to be more accurate, as my English teacher was always urging us, a gazelle in a rhino’s bulletproof vest. Everything I did was strategically planned to keep myself from becoming a victim.
Which is kind of funny, because it’s kind of what made me a victim.
I was doing my homework at the dining room table last night, and my dad came in from cutting the grass. I knew he’d been drinking, because he was always drinking when he was in the yard. But he was drunker than usual, and I didn’t know that until his fist slammed into the table just a few inches away from my Calculus book.
“Why do you dress so weird?” he said in a haze of moldy wheat breath.
“Because I like it,” I answered. I moved the book over, sighed, and tapped my pencil against the table. “Do you mind?”
“Hell, yeah, I mind. You look like a lesbian. Short hair and baggy shirts and army boots. Is that what you are?”
I bit my lip and forgot everything I knew about numerals. My dad hadn’t talked to me much since I’d gone through puberty, and I’d just gotten accustomed to being ignored most of the time and staying out of his way when he noticed me. I wasn’t ready to have this conversation, but his other fist landed on the other side of my book, and I could feel his sweaty shirt against my back. My mom wouldn’t be home from work for another hour, and there was nowhere else to go, nowhere at all.
I took a deep breath.
“Yeah, maybe I am gay. Is that a problem for you?”
I didn’t know if it was a lie or a truth or a half–truth, but does it matter?
He shoved my face down into the math book, the paper cold against my cheek. “No, you’re not.”
I exhaled, my hands in fists. “Make up your mind, dad.”
He growled and pressed harder, and I closed my eyes and wished that he would quit, that he would just explode, that he would catch fire and scream and go away forever with his stupid face and bad breath and bigotry.
Something popped overhead.
“What the hell?” He released me and backed away, staring at the dining room chandelier. All four bulbs had exploded, and tiny bits of hot glass covered the table, my book, the arms of my sweatshirt. His bloodshot eyes jerked back and forth from me to the chandelier. His hands were covered in glass, red with tiny cuts and burns.
“Did you do that?”
I smiled, or maybe sneered. “Yeah, maybe I did. Is that a problem?”
“You didn’t. You can’t.”
I didn’t blink, didn’t waver.
“Make up your mind, dad,” I said.
That was last night, and this morning there are new light bulbs in the chandelier and my dad already left for work. My mom says nothing, just goes about her routine of coffee and pills and a sensible breakfast. When she’s left for work, I put my Calculus book on the dining room table, place my cheek upon it just so. I try to think of every horrible thing anyone’s ever said or done to me, try to remember what it felt like when my dad was hurting me again, try to make the rage bubble up, to remember what I was thinking exactly when it happened, but nothing happens. I walk to my car with a red splotch on my cheek and brighter red lipstick on my mouth, because I feel strong.
I pull into my space in the student lot at school and get out, and the ape who parks next to me knuckle–walks around to my side of the car.
“Nice lipstick, slut,” he says, and his sportsball buddies laugh and creep closer. “What you got under that hoodie, huh? Do the curtains match the drapes?”
“That doesn’t even make any sense, Chad,” I say, and I feel bolder than I did just yesterday.
They box me in, four guys against one me, and my butt hits the car door as I drop my bag. Chad puts a hand on either side of me, presses his stupid pelvis toward me, and smiles like what he’s doing is going to actually work. He runs a thumb over my lips, and I turn away and close my eyes and imagine him dying suddenly, run over again and again by a monster truck, his heart a ball of mush and his legs severed from his torso at the exact juncture that he’s trying to rub against me.
But nothing happens. No car lights explode. Chad doesn’t scream. He just pumps against me once, grabs my tit, and walks away, laughing. “It feels like my little brother,” he calls over his shoulder, and I bite my red–painted lip until it bleeds.
I guess I was wrong.
When I walk into third period, half the girls are crying, and all the guys are trying not to.
“What’s going on?” I ask the cheerleader who sits behind me.
She shakes her head and wipes away mascara–splattered tears.
“Chad Bird had a heart attack in PE. He was doing sprints and just… collapsed. Like, his heart exploded in his chest. I just can’t…” And she starts crying again.
It’s hard not to smile. Hard not to pump my fist. Hard not to laugh.
Because it’s working. It has to be.
I kind of hope someone messes with me on the way home, just so I can see what will happen this time.
After school, I pull over at the gas station and head inside to get a Coke. Two skate rats outside whisper about me, and when I walk back out, one of them says, “Hey, sexy.”
I stop and look him up and down.
“I’m sorry, but were you talking to me? My name is Maria.”
“Hey, sexy Maria,” he says with that weird, narrow–eyed, smiling nod that dumb guys do.
“Do you have any idea how unwanted your advances are?” I say. “Catcalling, whistling, staring. I mean, no girl ever said Wow, I’m so glad that strange guy outside the convenience store told me I was sexy because now we’re married. It’s just so offensive.”
The first guy is totally dumbfounded, but his thuggy friend gets in my face. “Girl, I don’t care if you’re offended. We all know what that mouth’s good for.” He looks me up and down and spits on the sidewalk. “And you ain’t sexy, anyway.”
I give a polite smile and punch them both on the arms like we’re friends.
“I hope you die in a fire,” I say. “Sexy.”
As I’m pulling away, I watch them in the rearview mirror.
When I get home, everyone on Facebook is talking about how two kids got shot outside of the gas station.
The next morning, I don’t put on my usual hoodie. I wear a normal bra, normal skinny jeans, and a normal shirt, the blousy kind the popular girls wear. Instead of stompy boots, I put on dainty flats. And I keep the red lipstick, because it makes me feel fierce.
“Well this is a welcome change,” my dad says. “Finally, you look like a girl.”
“You look pretty, honey,” my mom says. “The guys are definitely going to notice.”
“So let them,” I say with a shrug. “What other people do isn’t my problem.”
My mom tears up and hugs me, and my dad just looks uncomfortable, like there’s something he wants to remember but can’t quite grasp.
“Be careful out there, honey,” he finally says. “Not all guys are nice.”
“Oh, I know,” I say. “I’m counting on it.”
At lunch, I end up sitting with a couple of kids from Calc class. It’s cool but weird, as if they didn’t actually see me when I was wearing my gray hoodies and then I suddenly just sprouted up among them in class this morning looking normal. But they’re nice enough, and I’m better at math than most of them, so it’s okay.
I’m sitting next to a boy named Bryan Kim, and he keeps looking at me and smiling this sweet, shy smile. I can’t say I didn’t notice him before, because I did—I just didn’t talk to him or anything. He likes Adventure Time and Tumblr and we have a lot in common. I like his dark brown eyes and spiked, ink–black hair. When I say something, it’s like he really sees me, and his eyes don’t stray too much, and his smile is real.
“Why didn’t you ever talk before?” he asks.
I shrug and look down like I got caught doing something wrong. “I don’t know. I guess I was scared.”
His hand lands on my arm, gentle and warm through my shirt. “You didn’t have to be. You’re really cool.”
“Thanks,” I say. “You are, too.”
When the last bell rings, I walk down the hall with my head up high, my hips swinging. I feel as fluffy as frosting, untouchable.
“Woo hoo, sexy mama.”
“Mm hmm. I want me some of that.”
I stop and spin, and they lean against the lockers wearing sadistic grins and letter jackets.
“You shouldn’t talk to girls like that,” I say.
“It’s a free country,” says the first little piggy.
“Hos don’t tell me what to do,” says the second.
“What’re you going to do about it?” says the third, and the other two fist bump him. I hold out my fist, and they fist bump me, too, although they’re obviously pretty confused about the whole thing.
“I’m going to let karma take care of it,” I say.
“Hell, yeah!” one of them says. “She’s down.”
As I walk away and they make animal noises and promise to do all sorts of horrible things to my various orifices, I smile and imagine them being crushed under a steamroller, their leers exploding in cracked teeth and their bones flattened and gushing marrow.
They’re not in school the next day.
It was a car accident, I heard.
I’m not going to the funeral.
Too many stupid girls at school are crying about dead boys who deserved it, so I decide to take my retribution to another part of town where the pool of misogynists is bigger and less likely to arouse suspicion. I know that a heart attack and a car accident can’t be connected to me, but it’s still a lot for one high school to handle in one week. The way I see it, I have a gift, and I’m ridding the world of filth. Everything happens for a reason, right?
I wear headphones in between classes so I won’t hear what they say about me. It’s not that I’m even dressed provocatively or that I’m super pretty or have a great body. It’s just part of being a girl, having things whispered in your wake. All that time I hid in my hoodie, I heard the guys by my car talking about Jessica McCarthy’s boobs and Gin Martinez’s butt and how Coley Boone had the best kind of lips for you–know–what. I’ve heard the dorkiest guys making outlandish claims about the chicks they banged at summer camp, and I’ve seen the coolest guys nod as they slipped baggies of pills to their friends, promising a night of whatever–you–want–bro, wink. Even when it wasn’t directed at me, it might as well have been. Nobody ever did anything to stop it. Including me. But now I can make up for that.
After school, I drive downtown and park my car in an alley by a strip club. Not that it matters, but I’m wearing skinny jeans, flats, a tank and a loose sweater. And makeup, but that doesn’t change anything. I feel pretty, but it’s not like I’m trying to look hot, showing off my cleavage or wearing high heels that make my butt stick out. I seriously went out of my way to choose something normal, just what any girl would wear. Because that makes it seem more fair, somehow.
I sling my bag over my shoulder and walk to this coffee shop I like, where I usually huddle in the corner with my hoodie pulled over my head and my feet tucked up as I suck down Americanos. From my corner, I’ve witnessed hundreds of bad pick–up lines, of unapologetically staring dudes, of loomers and sighers and intruders and is–anybody–sitting–here creepers. It’s a college town, after all, and there’s always at least one dude planted out front with a puppy or a guitar or a leather notebook, waiting for some soft–hearted girl to notice how deep he is.
Today’s artificially deep guy has a carefully placed ukulele case and a notebook into which he’s staring soulfully, a fountain pen in his hand. The pages are empty, but as I approach, he writes something in a flurry of loopy catscratch, shaking his head and leaning back to stare up into the stark branches of a cherry tree as if hunting for meaning and fifty–cent words.
“Are you a writer?” I ask. Because this is what he wants, you see.
His smile is immediate, smug. “I wouldn’t call myself that, but I guess I am.”
He puts a hand on the ukulele case and takes a sip of his latte, and I play along.
“Are you a musician, too?”
He shrugs, as if he’s not sure.
“Oh, I just mess around a little. Writing songs and poetry. I’m trying to start a band, but everybody in this town is so…” I smile, encouraging him. “So alpha male, you know? I’m more sensitive. Like, a warrior poet. I’m Drew, by the way.” He holds out his hand.
I shake it. “Maria.”
“So what’s your major?” he asks, pushing out a chair with his foot.
And I’m bored already and sick of his transparent dance. “I’m in high school.”
“Wow. You look so much older. Like, really mature. Like you have an old soul.” He pushes the chair out farther. “Can I buy you a drink?”
I waver. I’m pretty sure this guy is a class–A douchebag using a carefully constructed facade to lure in stupid girls and use them until they’re dried up husks, but I don’t want to suffer through his entire song–and–dance just to make sure. So I’ll give him a lightning round.
“Thanks, but I’m a lesbian.”
He squints, like he can’t quite see my sexuality on the surface and it’s impossible to reconcile short hair and a pink sweater. “Are you sure? Because I thought we had some chemistry there. I just feel like we’re connected. Don’t you feel it?”
He holds out his hand, and I take it. His palm feels like a dead fish.
Drew looks down and snorts. “You shouldn’t tease guys like that. Acting interested.”
“I stopped and spoke to another human being. How is that being a tease?”
He looks beyond me and must see a better target heading up the sidewalk. “Whatever. Just go kiss your girlfriend.” He flaps a hand at me and goes back to staring at his journal.
“I hope that next girl sees right through you and your fake romantic crap,” I say. “Good luck with your next polite date raping.”
I walk away before he can say anything else and hurry inside to get a good table where I can watch his peacock dance. When I leave to order my drink, there’s a pretty blonde girl standing at his table, swaying back and forth and smiling shyly. When I come back, she’s in the chair he offered me, listening to him play his ukulele. From here, he seems so earnest, so real, like he actually is a human being with a soul who writes deep things and plays sweet songs and genuinely has a connection with this girl.
She does not, as I wished, see through his line of BS.
But when a swerving car hits the cherry tree and a branch spears him through the stomach, she definitely sees through that.
I sip my Americano and smile.
When Mrs. Koenig asks us to select partners for a Calculus project, Bryan looks at me hopefully, and I give him a thumbs–up and blush. It’s a little awkward, at first, since it’s clear we’re both new at this boy–girl thing. He walks over with his hands in his jeans pockets.
“So did you—”
“Do you want to—”
“Oh, sorry! Go ahead.”
“No, you. I mean, what were you saying?”
It’s like a dance that neither of us knows the steps to, and it’s refreshing, especially after the carefully coordinated script that Drew tried to pull on me yesterday. Which only makes me like Bryan more.
By the end of the class, we’ve exchanged numbers and sent our first wobbly texts.
Him: uh hi it’s bryan
Me: i know i’m sitting right here but it’s maria in case you forget
We laugh and put away our phones before Mrs. Koenig confiscates them.
“So do you want to come over tomorrow to work on the project?” he asks. “After school, I mean. My dad will be home, he works from home, so it’s not like…”
“Yeah, sure,” I say. “It’s just Calculus.”
But I like that he’s as confused about it as I am, and I like that his dad will be home. I’ve never been to a guy’s house before, not for school or fun, and it’s nice that he recognizes that it would be weird to be alone there when we’re supposed to be working on math and are both thinking about something else. I like Bryan, and I really, really want him to pass this weird pH test that I’ve become. I feel, deep down, like he’s a good guy. And for his sake, I hope I’m right.
When the bell rings, he walks me to my next class, our shoulders almost touching.
“I’m going to Bryan Kim’s house after school tomorrow to work on Calculus,” I tell my mom that night.
She puts down her wine and leans back against the granite countertop, mouth turned down. “Do I know this boy? Who are his parents?”
“Um, I don’t know who you know. His mom’s a dentist and his dad does IT. They live in Foxhall. He’s in the National Honor Society.” When she doesn’t acknowledge any of that, I add, “He’s a nice boy, and he doesn’t do sports. His dad will be there.”
She pulls her old address book out of a drawer and flips through it. “Is his mom Sheila Kim? I think I played tennis with her ten years ago. She was quiet.”
“Bryan’s quiet, too.”
Mom nods and picks up her wine glass. “Okay, but be careful. Don’t let him make you do anything you don’t want to do. Boys your age…” She shakes her head, and I can see her reliving old memories.
I don’t tell her it’s not just boys my age. It’s old men at the hotel bar, and the nice dads you babysit for, and college guys with guitars, too. It doesn’t matter what age they are, what race they are, how much money they have. It’s a free country when it comes to saying things about a girl’s body, looking at it with proprietary eyes, or sometimes taking what they can from us, with or without our consent and consciousness. It’s a free country when a man rules his household, when he has one drink too many and pushes his family too far and no one talks about the bruises in the morning, about the red marks on our cheeks and the holes in the wall we cover up with family portraits.
I don’t tell her any of that, because the way she’s sipping her wine tells me that she knows, she already knows.
She knows, and there’s not a single thing she can do about it.
But I can.
There’s a knock on my door when I’m reading myself to sleep. I think it’s my mom, but it’s really my dad. I can smell the beer on him from across the room, and I wince. He never comes into my room, which is why it feels safe. And now it doesn’t.
“Your mom said you had a boyfriend,” he says, leaning against the door to stay upright.
“I’m going to a boy’s house to work on a Calculus project,” I say, careful to keep my voice neutral and not let him hear the disgust. “His dad will be home. No big deal.”
“It’s just that you’ve been dressing different. Acting different.” His eyes accuse me of something I haven’t done, something different than what his mouth is saying.
I pull the covers up and put the book down. “You told me to stop being weird, so I’m acting more normal. Isn’t that what you want?”
He weaves across the room to sit on the edge of my bed, and I pull my feet up, drawing my knees to my chest.
“You know, I was at the country club last summer with Ed, and there was this girl by the pool, and she was just…” He gives a low whistle and burps. “Smoking hot. Everything a woman should be. Long blonde hair, little bikini, perfect body. And Ed says she’s in your class. Coley Boone? And I told him I couldn’t believe it, that you and her were the same age.”
I exhale slowly, my hands in fists. “Are you saying you wish I was more like Coley Boone?”
“What? God, no.” He shakes his head, aghast, and puts his foot across his knee like he might stay a while. “I’m just saying that you need to be careful. Going to this guy’s house. Wearing red lipstick. How you dress. You don’t want to give guys a reason.”
“A reason to what?”
He sighs. “Just be careful.”
He looks like he’s going to pat my knee or something, like he’s real pleased to have dropped his wisdom on his only daughter, who might be a lesbian or a slut, depending on what she’s wearing and how drunk he is at the time.
“You be careful, too, dad,” I say, scooting away from his touch.
“Me? Careful of what?” He laughs like it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever said.
“People like me.”
I shove out from under the covers and head for the door. I can’t be in the room with him for a second longer. Drunk as he is, he manages to surge up from the bed and grab the top of my arm, just above the elbow, hard enough to leave a bruise.
“Are you threatening me? In my own home?”
I still my breathing, look him in his bloodshot eyes. “Let go of me, Dad.”
“Not until you show me some respect.”
“You’re bruising me.”
He squeezes tighter, and I can feel his fingers pressing into my bones.
“You’re supposed to protect me, Daddy,” I say, and it comes out a whimper.
“No, I’m supposed to teach you to be good in a bad world.”
In the silence after his words, I go cold and rigid all over.
“Oh, you have.” I jerk my body away, and he almost falls over. “I hope one day someone teaches you as much as you’ve taught me.”
I hurry out of my room and lock myself in my bathroom before he can catch me. As I rub the bruises he left on my arm, I can’t stop the flood of images spilling through my mind. His hand crushed by a hammer, the little bones all shattered. His arm ripped out of the socket like a chicken’s raw wing. Him screaming and screaming and screaming while I’m as silent as he’s always preferred me to be.
Silent and good.
Not Coley Boone, not hiding in a hoodie. Something in between that doesn’t trigger his anger and disgust. Some random, nebulous, arbitrary, imaginary girl that he decided, when I was a baby, I would become.
I wonder who that girl is and if she’s happy.
I wonder if she has any idea who she is or who she wants to be.
I will never be that girl, so I just wonder what will happen to my dad, now that I’ve wished for revenge.
Can you guess?
Here’s a hint: Something got caught in the lawn mower, and my dad tried to get it out.
He lost his right hand.
I can’t say that I’m sorry.
He shouldn’t have bruised my arm.
I feel very pretty as I ring the doorbell of Bryan’s house. It looks like a happy house, like they don’t worry about money but still laugh at their garden gnomes and like somebody else cuts the grass. I’m wearing a tee and a cardigan and skinny jeans and flats and a necklace with a moon on it that I bought at the boutique by the coffee shop using the last of my babysitting money. My lip gloss tastes like cupcakes whenever I smile.
Bryan answers the door with a grin that focuses on my face. That’s one of the things I like about him—he doesn’t look me up and down like he’s sizing up a Christmas present. He’s wearing the same band shirt he wore to school, low–slung jeans, and black socks. Something about him not wearing shoes is adorable. I could totally stomp on his feet right now, and it makes him seem like a little boy.
“Hey! Dad, this is Maria. Maria, this is my dad.”
There’s an older version of Bryan standing just behind him, and he holds out his hand and smiles and says, “Nice to meet you, Maria. Please call me Dosa.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say, because the last man who told me to call him by his first name tried to feel me up in his car between a locked door and a sleeping toddler. But Mr. Kim—Dosa—has the same innocent sweetness as his son and hasn’t so much as glanced below my neck, and I know, because I always watch now.
“We’ll be in the kitchen,” Bryan says, and he inclines his head down the hall.
I follow him, Calculus book crushed to my chest, soaking in his world. Family pictures and bad watercolors line the hall, including a few framed crayon drawings with Bryan’s name scrawled across the bottom.
“You’re an only child, too, huh?” I say, and he laughs and rubs the back of his head.
“Yep. Welcome to the Shrine of Bryan.”
His kitchen is well–lit, and there’s a bag of sweet potato chips and two bottles of water sitting out on the counter.
“Thought you might be hungry,” he says, and I can tell he’s really nervous.
“You thought right,” I say, and we pull out our papers and start working.
It’s easy, being with him, once the awkwardness melts away. Our fingers absentmindedly graze in the sack of chips, and we both pull away, blushing. We finish the project early but linger over the papers, talking about the band that’s playing downtown next week and if the girl in our Calc class who’s been missing so much class and gaining so much weight is pregnant or what. Bryan doesn’t seem gossipy about it, though—more worried for her.
“I heard Chad and his friends talking about her before… you know.” Bryan shakes his head. “Talking about stuff they’d done at a party, calling her names. I just hope they didn’t… that she wasn’t… I just hope she’s okay. Those guys are jerks.”
“Yeah, they are,” I say, and I close my eyes for a moment and think of the three goons who helped pen me in by my car, and I imagine them being thrown out of an airplane and falling and falling and falling and splattering on the ground in a thousand pieces.
Bryan’s mom comes home, still in her dental scrubs, and she’s so nice to me, and asks me all the right questions about school and my future, and we all just stand around the kitchen, laughing and smiling and being the way people should be. Bryan’s parents really like him, and they’re so proud of him, and they just seem really glad to see me, to learn more about me. I kind of want to stay in their kitchen forever.
“I should go,” I say, although I don’t want to. If I’m home too late, my dad’ll have something to say about it, and I don’t think I can deal with him missing both hands.
“Oh, I made something for you. It’s in my room. Hold on.” Bryan grins and jogs upstairs, and his mom asks if my mom still plays tennis, and I tell her no, and she looks wistful.
I feel all rosy inside, wondering what he made for me. I didn’t know people made things for each other anymore. I can see the stairs from my stool in the kitchen, and I’m watching for him to reappear. He’s smiling when he comes into view, holding a CD or a DVD or something silver and flashy in a jewel case.
When his foot hits the second stair, he slips and falls backward. I gasp, and his parents turn, and I bolt toward him as he tumbles and tumbles down all eighteen stairs, his limbs and head all going in every direction and slamming into each wooden step.
It feels like slow motion, and he lands on the floor before I can get to him. His parents are right behind me, his mother trying to straighten his neck and his father fumbling with his cell phone. I pick up Bryan’s wrist, and the bone is poking out the side like a broken chicken bone, and I feel for a pulse even though I know there can’t be one because his head is at an impossible angle and his mother is moaning and his father is shouting into the phone about an emergency and hurry and help him.
His mom’s CPR doesn’t help. The ambulance can’t help. Nothing can help.
Because he fell and fell and fell and splattered on the ground in a thousand pieces.
I sit in my car and watch the ambulance pull out of the driveway, no lights on, the Kims’ SUV following it. There’s blood on my hands, and I wipe it off on an old hoodie in the backseat before slipping it on and pulling the hood up.
I thought I was karma and revenge.
But Bryan was good and sweet, and now he’s gone.
Because of me.
Because we touched while we were eating organic snack chips.
I put his CD into the stereo, and the first threads of The Heavy’s What Makes a Good Man slam out of my speakers, and I start crying and crying and crying.
I can’t control this thing inside me.
I can’t pick and choose, can’t play God.
I’m as much of a monster as they are.
Maybe life was better when I was hiding.
On Friday afternoon, I walk out to my car. I’m in a hoodie and stompy boots, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses and gloves and big headphones.
It’s the only way.
I don’t want to touch anyone, accidentally make a connection. I can’t control my thoughts, can’t control my hate, but I can control who I touch and who I let touch me. I want to be good. For Bryan, and for guys like Bryan. I never really got to touch him, and now I never want to touch anybody ever again.
Something yanks me backward by my hood, and I spin around and glare.
“Heard your little fag boyfriend died,” says some dude in a football jersey.
And I never thought I would do this again, but I pull down my headphones. Bryan’s music blares through the speakers as they dangle around my neck. Rage sings through me in time with the bass, in time with my heart.
“How can he be both a fag and my boyfriend?” I say.
“You tell me, freak.”
I lick my lips, smile, and take off my gloves.
I don’t know his name. Don’t know if I’ve ever seen him before. Every guy in a jersey or a letterman’s jacket looks the same to me. They always have. And they’ve always called me names. I step close and pat him gently on the cheek.
“I hope you win tonight, dude. I hope you guys just burn up that field, destroy the other team, and party until you drop. I hope you’re on fire.”
And I can see it, in my mind. The whole stadium full of people, screaming in a riot of flames and smoke and blood. Collapsed bleachers, locked gates, no survivors. Because anyone who worships guys like this, who lets them get away with what they do to girls like me and the girl now missing from my Calc class—they deserve the same fate.
Football dude looks half turned–on and half freaked–out, like he doesn’t know what to say to that. He stares into my eyes, and I see nothing but a scared little boy who doesn’t know what to do with a girl like me, a little boy who’s afraid of rejection and sexual confidence and indifference and anything but a pliant smile and a ready body and silence.
I look into his eyes, and I see terror.
“What’s your problem?” he manages to splutter.
“You were,” I say and walk away.
(Editors’ Note: Delilah S. Dawson is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in this issue.)
© 2015 by Delilah S. Dawson