You have three bruises on your inner thighs that are not from my hands, and they have begun to form a constellation on you. You have bruises on your legs and a scar on your hand now, so you are a relatively beaten up goddess.
You must be getting old.
The scar is from me, so I know what it looks like when I am the one who has done the affecting of you, and it’s because of this that I know these days you like to fake it. Slipping out of your sweat pants, you jump under the sheets quick so I don’t see the marks. I can’t even remember the last time you were that eager to get into bed with me.
Lee’s screams wake the cats before they wake Abbey. The cats have been sleeping at the foot of the bed, one nestled inside the other in a shape that resembles a crescent moon and its star companion. Both Boy and Girl lift their heads at once from their union of slumber. They look around as if investigating where the screams might be coming from. They dart their heads from the cracked door on one side of the room to the window on the other, every so often glancing up at the ceiling (they have always been under the impression that a creature hides inside the light fixture). While both cats’ ears are back, neither one runs under the bed. Instead, they remain in the warm spot between Abbey’s feet. Boy eventually decides the sound is no threat and rests his head. Girl, no longer curled in a ball but sitting upright and alert, remains on the defensive. She will stay awake until it stops.
Abbey is finally roused when the sound coming out of Lee makes its transition from holler to moan. Because this has been happening every night for the past number of nights, nothing comes to mind when she wakes except to shake him to consciousness; it is the couple’s ritual. Abbey knows, even though she is only partially awake, that getting Lee to wake up will take some time.
“Babe babe babe,” she stammers. She is still mostly inside her own dream while she struggles to get Lee out of his. Her eyes are still closed, and she can smell the faint scent of wet wood and dust inside the elementary school library she has been dreaming of. She remembers the look of the stacks, that she had been running her fingers along books just now, but cannot remember much else.
Lee’s moans get deeper and longer, so Abbey knows this must be the point at which he is either dying or about to die in his dream. She knows all about these kinds of night terrors because she used to suffer from them as a teenager. The feel of a blade against your throat. Three men approaching you in an abandoned playground of darkness. And the worst part about these dreams is that you can never, ever move. You are frozen. She is anxious to pull him out of it.
“Baby, wake up!” Abbey is sitting upright now, the movement of her legs having excited the cats. Both have disappeared under the bed.
She leans over Lee and shakes him for some time, which makes her more conscious but fails to wake her boyfriend. The dusty library is gone from her, and in its place is a vague sense of fear at her situation. She feels alone in the darkness. It is clear to her that Lee is somewhere very far from her, and the idea of it, the idea of sleep and dreams and their cries frighten her. Lee’s cries frighten her.
Irritable and groggy, Abbey starts hitting Lee, pinching the meaty part of his arm above the elbow, and with one long and final moan, he comes to. Even with the darkness of the room, Abbey can see the terror in his eyes when he wakes. It is the usual look of fear, but tonight it seems more desperate. His eyes are especially wide, filled with a terror she feels disconnected from. She imagines that his nightmare must have been of some different caliber than the ones she knows about. Perhaps he has seen a ghost.
“You okay?” she asks. “You were yelling so hard.”
“What?” Lee pulls his hand away from hers as if frightened by the touch. He sits upright and moves his back against the headboard, away from her. “What happened?” He stares into the darkness.
“Nothing,” Abbey replies, turning on the light. “You were just having a nightmare.”
“Oh,” Lee mutters, confused. Abbey wonders if he even recognizes her.
With the light on, she can see that he is drenched with sweat. He stares straight ahead and does not look at her. “What were you dreaming about?” she asks.
“I can’t remember.” He wipes the dark hair, wet with sweat, from in front of his eyes as though being able to see might better help him recall his dream. “I can’t remember,” he says.
The nasty scar on your hand is from the time you accidentally pushed too hard on the inside of a cheap wine glass while washing dishes: Leeeeeeeeeee! I cut myself Lee I cut myself I fucking cut myself! I came in yelling about how your hand was bleeding and not stopping, but you ignored me and wrapped a towel around your fist without even turning around to let me see the gash. Maybe you thought that if we didn’t see it then it wasn’t really there.
You looked down into the sink of broken glass, blood all over the counter, and I didn’t even have to see the wound to get sick to my stomach. I held you, though, from the back, chin on your shoulder. I wanted to know that you were okay, but also hoped to God you wouldn’t move that towel away from your hand. The towel had been beige but was then turning red so I had to look away eventually.
I never saw the wound.
But you know I don’t do well in those kinds of situations. Emergency ones, I mean, where someone has got to take control and make a phone call or pull a car up or come blasting down the hall with a first aid kit. But that day, I did want to take you to the Emergency Room, so I suppose I would not be too bad a father. Do you remember that I wanted to take you there and you refused to go? You said you had been there all day and would rather bleed to death than go back. I told you it wasn’t exactly a hospital you were in. You were very pale when you told me the two were pretty much the same.
When Abbey gets home from the clinic, she is still groggy from the drugs the nurses had given her before the procedure. There were two of them, and both had been unnecessarily kind to her, asking more than once if she was comfortable or if she was feeling any pain. When she told them no, they still did not leave. The doctor had gone off to his office with some paperwork, allowing her to rest in her half-haziness. She was not advised to leave until she could sit upright on her own, he told her, and she listened. It would be about a half an hour, he told her, and the women stayed with her through it. One sat on the counter and the other stood with her back against it. Abbey watched them from her reclined position, and since she was high from the Twilight they had administered her, she allowed herself to wonder if they were mothers or not. The sitting one was, for sure. The sitting one who had squeezed her hand and smiled a fierce warmth at her when Abbey first arrived and told her she had a boyfriend waiting for her in the next room. Is that your man out there? the nurse had asked, and when Abbey told her it was, there was an expression of relief on the nurse’s face. It seemed to say no worries, then, you will be fine, and while Abbey was not so sure she agreed, it was a relief to have someone there concerned about her in the way her mother would have been if she had known.
Abbey remembers the nurses while she sits on the couch with Lee for six cigarettes staring into the television with a pillow across her stomach. Other than asking her if she was okay twice, Lee has not spoken since she met him in the waiting room. He looks at her every once in a while as if meaning to share something but inevitably cowers each time, which Abbey expects, because that is just the sort of thing he would do in this situation. She wants to take the pillow on her lap and smother him with it. Maybe just this once just this once we could do without was exactly how he had said it. He had looked just like a spoiled child when he asked for it, and as if too tired or too lazy to argue, she agreed. But he was the one who had always wanted a child young. He would point out children and put his hand on her belly. He would say Baby, let’s have a baby, which was cute for Abbey so long as it was a joke. It did not stay a joke, though, because even when they tried the diaphragm he said he didn’t want to use it he said I don’t want there to be anything between us. And yet Abbey knows that everything will change starting today, that once her head is cleared and she is ready to talk, Lee will undoubtedly understand where she is coming from. He loves her, that is for sure, and while he might be disappointed in her for having not wanted this for them, there will be another time where things will be done right, where things will be different, where they will both be on the same page. She will never want anyone but him to share that sort of thing with her.
After a long time of quiet, Abbey lights a final cigarette and walks into the kitchen to do some dishes. Today she is more ready than she has ever been to change something she hates about herself, and as a twenty-one-year-old woman smoking up to two packs a day, she sees quitting as the perfect opportunity to do just that. Abbey is sure that this will be the last cigarette of her life. The same way she is sure she didn’t want the thing growing inside her, the same way she is sure that telling her mother would have been a mistake. Her mother would never have scolded her or made her feel guilty about her decision, that she knows, and she certainly would never have attempted at swaying her in the other direction the way Lee’s mother most definitely would have. Abbey’s mother is a caliber of woman who believes deeply in choice and in freedom, and yet Abbey will never tell her about today, because that would mean admitting to her own weakness. It would mean failure in the department that her mother has so mastered in every life choice she has ever made and ever taught her daughter to make: that tricky and so often convoluted department of Strong Womanhood. Even if her mother never acknowledged this failure with Abbey–through a look or a word or even a touch, the way an ordinary mother would–Abbey would know in her heart that she would never be able to see her daughter in the same light again. The truth is that the only thought Abbey cannot bear more than giving birth to a child in nine months is the thought of her mother’s disappointment at her having chosen not to.
It is her own weakness of character, after all, that caused this whole mess, so she cannot allow for any weakness in herself anymore, especially when it comes to smoking, which her mother has been adamantly against ever since her daughter started at sixteen. Abbey’s mother has always viewed it as a direct damage she chooses to continually inflict upon herself – and with joy! She is a bit dramatic in this regard, often referring to the act of smoking cigarettes as a form of “cutting,” an indication that someone is, perhaps, “screaming on the inside.” Once, Abbey and her mother were out to dinner with family friends and had fallen into a conversation about habits and how they form. The table had been through three bottles of wine between the four of them when Abbey’s mother said, in reference to her daughter’s unbreakable tendency of biting her nails, With Abbey, you never really know why she does the things she does. It was the single most wounding sentence her mother had ever uttered in her direction. Abbey wasn’t even completely sure of what it meant, but it stung her in such a way that kept her from ever asking for clarification.
You bite my bottom lip, my top lip, and then you arch your back. You run your hand along my face and I kiss the scar on your knuckle. You dig your fingernails into my hair, pulling at the bulk of it, the bulk of me. A bulk of me down there and now I am in your hands. You push the back of your head into the mattress so you can feel the stretch of your neck and all the other muscles throughout you. And then I am throughout you, too. Your legs are wrapped around me tightly and some of your hair is caught under one of my elbows. Don’t worry, I won’t move my elbow. Then you look at me for a long time, and I know this is going to be one of those mornings when a tear runs down your face while we do it and you think I don’t notice. When I grow tired and want to rest, I will put my face into your shoulder and let you do the work. You know this about me, and I know you’re always waiting your turn.
But you finish before the tear comes, before I finish, before I can take my downtime in my sacred nook that is a part of your body. After you come, you fake tenderness with the soft push that allows my body to drop, slimy, at your side, and it is at that moment that I can confirm what I’ve been thinking about those bruises on your legs. I can confirm it because I’ve never seen you see my body that way before. Slimy, I mean.
When you turn over, my legs are still intertwined with yours, and as you twist yourself and break free of me, I wonder if you were ever there at all.
There are a few things I know for sure about us: (a) You bruise easy/when you get cut you bleed a lot, and (b) I am made of something different than you.
I also know that if I had a dime for every bad dream you gave me, I would be a wealthy man and then if you kept giving them to me and kept giving them to me and kept giving them to me for the rest of our lives we could actually have the next one because I’d be making a hell of a living.
There are a number of reasons why I wake up in the middle of the night and find you not there I know there are probably a million different reasons and perhaps one of them is that you are texting him in the dark somewhere another is that maybe you can’t stand the feel of my skin on you anymore and another is that maybe it’s both reasons at once.
Abbey is no longer feeling the effects of the Twilight when she starts cleaning the dishes, but it has been an emotional day, and some other form of haze has taken over. She is disoriented and alone with Lee in the next room watching sitcoms, and for a few moments she basks in her loneliness. She wipes her sponge in soft circles around the rim of each glass with a rhythm. She takes the dish soap and squirts it along the insides, then drops the sponge and feels the suds with her fingers. When she gets to the wine glass, she does not put soap in it. Instead, she holds it up while it is still dirty so she can see the lip mark from the pink balm that was on her lips when she drank from it. She wipes the mark with her soapy fingers, feeling the thinness of the glass. She imagines herself as an old woman doing dishes in an old, rundown house with a twenty-three-year-old son in the living room watching daytime television.
Without fully realizing what she is doing, Abbey puts her right hand in a fist and pushes down into the bottom of the wine glass as hard as she can. When she does this, the top breaks into some pieces leaving a stem with sharp, jagged petals in her left hand. She pushes the glass flower into the knuckles of her right one. When the blood starts to come, she does not stop pushing because there is no pain there. It is not until the blood has covered the dishes inside the sink and the water is running with it that she starts to feel it.
“Leeeeeeeeeeee!” Abbey yells. “I stabbed myself Lee I stabbed myself I fucking stabbed myself!”
“Oh my God, what happened?” Lee asks, running into the kitchen. “What did you do?”
“It’s fine,” she replies, grabbing a towel. “I’ve got something for it. Just please go get me a cigarette from the living room.”
In the dream, you are always a girl of four years old. You are bright and cheerful and in yellow clothes that match your yellow hair and you bounce around the playground like a star that has been dropped by the sky on purpose. You are the child from the photographs in your mother’s living room. You are that child, but with more color in you. And I watch you … Is it you? You? You. You, in and out of the monkey bars … Flash! … appearing and reappearing for me as I tilt my head to the left and then the right of the tire swing so I can see you in just the right way before you vanish again behind the rubber. I sit cross-legged in the sand there, fumbling awkwardly with the tube. I am a child, too. I want to touch your little porcelain arm with my fingers or my cheeks, so at times I stop the swing from moving and hold it against my face for a moment so I can feel you there. The tire swing feels like you because in the dream, it is from behind it that I watch you. It is my only way of getting at you.
In my hands, the rubber feels exquisitely shapeable, so I squeeze it until the muscles in my fingers get sore. I scrape on it something indecipherable: AbbeyAbbeyAbbeyAbbeyAbbeyAbbeyAbbeyAbbeyAbbeyAbbeyAbbey (it looks like nothing, since I am writing each letter over the last one). I let the grit get beneath my nails. Where it hangs in the playground, the swing is warmed by the sun. The heat of its surface against my skin is constant.
More often than not, you stop your running suddenly between two poles and place your little hands on them (no matter how many times this recurs, I never expect it). You glare at me then through the chain links that both divide us and connect us and you stick your tongue out at me. You stand with your legs spread wide apart, tummy protruding, sneakers turned in with the fronts of them pushed deep into sand. You are wearing the shirt with the big fat sunflowers on it, the one you got angry with your mother for giving away. You said you had wanted to save it for your daughter.
No more flashes, but your eyes are on me so I feel fragile still. You stay put and look me over.
This feels like it lasts for hours.
Hey! What you staring at? is the sort of thing you holler at me then, when I find you stopping short between the two jungle gym bars and glaring at me for an entire afternoon. What you looking at, I said! It is the expression on your face when you say this–that animated one I know so well, the one where you are poking fun at me because you love me more than anyone in the world–that immediately plants the seed. The seed is the promise that at any moment you will morph back into you-as-you, and that the you-as-child will be gone for good. This excites me, as do your eyes, which seem to be telling me that this world where we are separate is not real.
By summoning me, you are turning me brave.
It is always at this moment that I realize I am dreaming, and want to have a little fun. I want to get up from behind the tire, which is now making me feel more like a coward than a voyeur. I want to conjure out of me the guts to scream back at you something silly–I want to say that you remind me of a star!–because I know this will change you back to the woman I know. But I never can, because the little girl behind you who is you only with dark hair is calling your name from the top of the slide and, just like that, you are away from me again.
When you turn to make your way toward the slide, I sink into the sand and I wake.
Photo by Bobby Keith