[Content warning: This piece of fiction contains sexual violence and self-harm.]
She had a black eye and it hurt like hell.
He told her he hadn’t meant it and besides it was her fault for not blocking him better. It was always her fault. Like she was stupid or something.
She opened the freezer to grab the bag of frozen peas, ignoring the stickiness of the door handle. Amazing how difficult it was to aim your hand at the handle with one eye swollen shut and a pounding headache.
She reached past the frozen orange juice and the Mr. Freeze from last summer, everything covered in a thick coat of frost, enough to make a tiny snowman in there. The peas in the bag were lumpy and hard, the result of having been thawed then refrosted half a dozen times since she’d bought them on special at the Cash N Carry for $0.89. A good deal, considering.
She applied the bag to the left of her face, near the base of her eyebrow. It had started swelling right away. Every time she got hit in the head she got painful bruises, some as big as an egg. It was her body’s way to protect her skull, reminding her not to hit it again.
The frozen peas made her skin feel like it was being burned, but after a few minutes she couldn’t feel it anymore. If she tried to open her left eye all she could sense was a mass of burst blood vessels running the length of the bony ridge above her cheekbone. Her own face, the left side of it anyway, felt almost foreign to her. Like when you put a finger to your lips after a particularly involved visit to the dentist.
She didn’t cry anymore when he hit her. Instead she calmly and methodically inventoried her injuries. There was a rib she thought was cracked on the right side, one of the tiny ones at the bottom of the thoracic cage. It made it painful to cough. Her arms were covered in red marks where his fingers had squeezed too hard. She was pretty sure her cheek was cut, but she didn’t have the heart to look.
And anyway she’d removed the mirrors from the tiny house by the railway tracks where she tried to make ends meet in ways that left him enough money to drink with his buddies whenever he wanted which was nearly always. The only mirror left was in the bathroom, and it was covered in spit and soap scum. The windows to the outside were thick with grime. She could only see shapes outside. Shadows of other humans.
Nobody could see in. It was better that way.
One injury she failed to note on her mental spreadsheet was her battered ego. Yet she knew none of the pain she felt was as acute as the one in the pit of her belly. Unless he’d injured her liver with the kick that cracked the rib? She wasn’t sure what a broken liver felt like.
The hurt she felt inside was invisible to everyone. She felt it without knowing it. She had become adept at blocking emotional pain, existential dread or just plain sadness from her consciousness.
She never laughed anymore, and rarely smiled. She’d forgotten what happy felt like. She could hear some of the people outside whistle sometimes as their shadows floated by, behind the dusty living room curtains. She ignored that. Music hurt her ears.
Sometimes she watched Dr. Phil or Judge Judy on television, and saw couples who reminded her of her own. People who shouted instead of talking, lovers who fought in public, partners who argued. They sounded so familiar, these people, yet so foreign. She wondered if they made up their stories just to be on television. That possibility made her feel both better and worse about her own situation.
She bit her lip and scratched the scars on her forearm. It didn’t occur to her to ask herself what other life she might have, how things might be different if only she’d gone to school longer. Education was for other people, he’d said to her often enough that she’d started to believe it.
She looked at a few stray bits of corn from the frozen shepherd’s pie they ate last night, sitting on the laminate counter in the cluttered kitchen. There must be a bunch more in the oven, but she didn’t feel like looking because she wouldn’t have the energy to clean the appliance if she saw what was covering its walls.
She felt alone, never more so than when he was home with her, watching football on television with a case of beer by his side. Sometimes she got drunk, too, but he didn’t care.
He never paid attention to her feelings, even that time she nearly walked in front of a train late at night on their way home from the bar. Anyone with a smidge of common sense would have known right away this was no accident, that it was a cry for help. But he was not such a person.
He’d taken her out for her birthday, only to spend the night playing darts with his friends while she nursed beer after beer in a corner booth. “Stop being so stupid,” he said as the train operator honked at her. Assistance would never come.
The wounds inside her body isolated her from others in their run-down neighbourhood and made it difficult to maintain friendships. She felt unseeable. A few months ago she considered getting a tattoo but could never find a bruise-free spot on her body big enough for the dark hole she wanted inked into her skin. She forgot the idea, the same way she stopped thinking about what she was doing with her life.
Her family no longer spoke to her since she told the police about her step-father. They didn’t believe her; the police, her family, nobody. They said she’d made it up to get attention, which hurt more than what caused red blotches in her underwear that was not period blood.
She left the house late one night and came here, to this grimy abode by the railway tracks with the crusted oven and dirty windows. In her backpack were all her possessions; a few changes of clothes, a phone, and a tattered rag doll. They’d been dating on-and-off for a year, she believed he loved her, and in any case she had nowhere else to go. She was only 17.
He was 19, a man practically. He had a job with a roofing company. Worked long days in the summer, collected unemployment benefits the rest of the year. He didn’t want her to get a job. He wanted her at home, making him food, sucking his cock every night after dinner, like clockwork. Cockwork by the clock, that was his idea of how relationships should be. At least he didn’t cheat on her.
Once, though, he’d invited a few friends and told her she was to service them by the clock, too. She was too scared to refuse so she downed another beer and did as she was told. He’d beaten her black and blue after they’d left, accusing her of being a slut who liked it too much.
After his shift he’d walk home along the tracks, a 12-pack in one hand and a joint in the other. He sang vulgar songs loud enough to get yelled at by the mamas who covered their babies’ ears like that was going to make a difference. She thought he especially enjoyed shocking people whose eyes had already seen so much pain and misery, whose ears were permanently creased where their sense of decency had been. Being a nuisance to others, even to folks beaten down by hard living, was proof of his existence somehow. If others shouted at him to lower his voice, it meant they’d noticed him.
She loved the onion rings the food truck across from Walgreens sold for $1.50. She always asked for mayonnaise to dunk her rings in. Big George laughed at her so hard his fat belly jiggled. But he always gave her extra, in a small paper cup. You must be French or something, he said. She had no idea whether that was bad or good, so she ignored him as she focused on how the salty spicy coating made her lips sting.
She had learned table manners watching television, and it showed. Growing up there was no such thing as family dinners. She couldn’t remember any occasion where they were all at the same table at the same time.
Her mother didn’t have a job, unless you counted cleaning other people’s houses for cash. That way she could still collect enough food stamps to afford four packs of Salems and bottle of Jack Daniels a week.
Liquid welfare, she called it. The best kind there was.
Her step-father was not married to her mother, and had no intention of doing so. He was still married to someone else, someone he called The Shrew. He didn’t have a job either, at least nothing legal. He sweetened his benefits acting as go-between for neighbourhood men who wanted to bet on horse races but didn’t know how.
Her beat her, too, her step-father. Their mother was usually too tired or too drunk to notice. Or maybe she couldn’t bear to. Besides, the beatings were never severe enough to leave visible marks. He was clever enough to avoid getting caught doing something that stupid. The real cruelty he inflicted was emotional. No bruises hurt as much as the cutting insults he threw at her head as though she were a dart board for his self-assumed superiority.
You’re crazy, he told her. Delusional just like your mother. If you don’t shape up soon you’ll be dead in an alley.
His words reverberated around the small kitchen, making the bacon grease on the wall around the hot plate stink even more.
The crispy pork bellies, she knew, were a reward her mother cooked when they managed to copulate without hurting themselves. She had grown up listening to the sounds of their less successful attempts, when he would yell at her mother to be more energetic, punctuating his requests with slaps to her face. Her mother would yell back that if only he knew what he was doing she might feel like moving more. This would usually lead to more blows, sad subdued thuds when his fist connected with the tired flesh of her breasts. Next would come the aroma of cigarettes smoked with the vigour of people who substitute nicotine inhalation for achievement.
Her childhood bedroom was very small, barely big enough to hold a twin bed with a mattress that never had springs worthy of the name. She had no idea where her mother had acquired it. She also had a small desk and a chair with one leg shorter than the others. The furniture was always dusty, and she had no books except for a tattered copy of the New Testament her third grade teacher had given her. There was wallpaper on three walls that had been installed by the previous owners two decades before she was born. The other wall had been painted white sometime during the first Reagan administration. She’d asked her mom for hooks on which to hang her school bag and the jean jacket that was her most precious possession.
The furniture was supposed to be where she did her homework, but instead she used it to learn how to apply mascara. She liked how the other girls in her class made their eyelashes so long and thick.
There had once been a lamp above her bed. It probably had a shade, even. But she couldn’t remember where it was. All that was left was the glare of a naked 100W light bulb dangling at the end of a power cord. Her world was either too bright or too dark. It never looked right.
These other girls had real bedrooms. Hers looked like all the money in the house got drunk or smoked or both. The last time she’d invited a few friends over they laughed about it at school the next day.
Her cutting got worse around that time. Something she’d started doing for the hell of it when her first period came evolved (if that’s the right word) into a full-fledged habit by the time Archie forced himself on her behind his parents’ garage one rainy afternoon.
Little drops of blood would pool at the surface of her forearms and smear themselves onto the sharp blade. She would lift the utility knife and hold it right in front of her eyes, hoping she could see red blood cells dancing and slowly dying as the drops started coagulating two inches from her nose. She used Kleenex to wipe the blade clean, which she then flushed down the toilet.
She liked the smell of her blood, the slightly metallic tinge it had, that stayed at the back of her throat. Sometimes she tasted it, too.
Cutting herself gave her a sense of control. She was the one in charge of deciding how deep it went, how much blood would come out. At first it was only drops. Then she started getting the knife deeper under her skin of her left forearm. The pain was reassuring, somehow. Like it made her insides match her outsides.
I hope you didn’t believe that. There is no way to make the pain on the outside match what’s on the inside. She was so lost she had no idea what love was supposed to feel like.
His blows kept coming, as it to cover up the fact that he didn’t know how to express himself. Her skin made a sickening plop sound every time his fist connected with it.
One blow, no more special than any of the others that had preceded it, made her lose her balance. She fell backwards. Her head hit the soap holder hard, on the spot two inches away from her right eye socket, where’s it’s a little softer than elsewhere.
She felt herself floating, slowly and without sound. Then, finally, there was no more pain.