The second-floor room was not only packed, it was also stuffy despite the droning efforts of a small I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can window air-conditioner. Knowing anything can happen at a public open-mic event—dreadful poems about cats or pizza, 5,000 words delivered in a monotone—I considered the exit.
Beside me, a writer pal rested her hand on my thigh. “I brought something to read. Please stay.” I smiled and relaxed my grip on the soft, bright sweater in my lap.
When the first reader centered his girth behind the podium, my mouth hitched to one side. He usually goes last, I thought. I braced myself.
He said he’d be reading a poem. It wasn’t poetry. It was porn.
After the first few words, I squeezed my eyes shut, hugged my ribs. A few more syllables and I began to hum ever so softly, twined my legs and leaned forward and back in tiny increments, didn’t stop.
I opened my eyes when I sensed motion nearby. My friend stood and headed for the hall. “Take me with you,” I told her but she didn’t hear. My words were silent.
Through narrowed eyes, I studied my right foot, meditated on its crushed-twenty-years-ago sesamoid bone and how the pain had flared recently. I imagined myself walking without shoes, without the custom orthotic that guarantees freedom from pain. Barefoot, my arch tries to make a fist with muscles and tissue someone seems to have scraped with a vegetable peeler.
Pondering pain, I decided, was preferable to hearing hurl.
The moment my mind brought up vomit, I recalled the stench of grade-school spew, the kind that on one level smells like cheese. I pictured a teacher summoning a janitor.
When he entered the room, he’d locate the splat then dip his hand inside the sack he’d brought. He’d lift out a mound of evergreen-colored crumbles and with his fingers splayed slightly he’d shake his hand over the mess on the desktop or floor.
The absorb-the-barf bits would rain onto the wet, and shortly after, the room would reek of minty cheese, like if you ate pizza then chewed spearmint gum. As much as I love peppermint, I hate spearmint. It makes me seasick. I think. I’ve never been on a cruise.
I had trouble sleeping that night. The morning after, I slipped into obsession mode.
“Why did last night rattle me so? Why didn’t I just leave?”
I asked myself those things over and over. “Like my friend did. I sat in the back not far from the door. It would’ve been easy.”
At the kitchen table, I stirred my cappuccino to incorporate the steamed milk into the espresso. I like all of the beverage to be foamy, not just the top layer.
“I’ll tell you why I didn’t move.” My words sounded loud, sharp. “Because every one of my body parts weighed two tons. There was no way I could move. It was just like when…”
I relocated to the kitchen floor, my back against the snack-cabinet door. My bunnies Domino and Coal Pepper, out for a romp, approached. I cringed as all 32 of their one-inch nails assaulted my thighs.
“Am I talking in my I-have-a-treat-for-you voice?” I asked. “Sorry, I don’t. Shoo!” They didn’t shoo.
“I was like Bambi in the headlights,” I told them. “Or rather, his girlfriend, Faline.”
Like a doe in the road with her eyes glowing in the dark and she won’t, can’t, budge. Instead, she’s stuck stiff-legged in the purgatory between fight and flight. Freaked. Frozen. Incapabable of doing the one thing that’d save her. I sighed.
“That was me. Me was she.”
Domino climbed my shirt front to get at my face. Licked the salt she found there.
Later that day I sat cross-legged on the sofa in the living room, journal open on my lap. “Why didn’t I leave last night?” I asked the golden walls of my living room. “I thought I was all better, healed. Am I not?”
Those words—why didn’t I—they’re not four-letter words but they could be. Blame isn’t a curse word but it ought to be.
When the finger that’s pointing at you is your own, it’s so much sharper than someone else’s. Freddy Krueger sharp.
That morning, with further contemplation, I realized that yes, I am better. And also considerably healed. But the memories that trauma slaps down in your muscles and your mind, they will never disappear altogether. They may retract in times of peace like an animal’s claws, but given the right circumstances–words, sounds, smells–they can suddenly reappear, dangerous.
And then I began to write.
“I’m done being oblique, finished alluding to the rest of the story.
All my life I’ve felt like a freak for it, like the child left in the center of
the circle at the end of a game of Farmer in the Dell. I’m not alone.
Statistics say at least 1 in 6 women have been sexually abused.
Count the women around you—1, 2, 3, 4,5, 6 … 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
Don’t think for a second the eyes of the wounded ones will glow.
They don’t always. Sometimes I can spot them, but most of the
time their Suzy Sunshine Syndrome runs way too deep.
More often than not, their competent functioning misleads.”
I shut my journal and leaned forward to collect my phone off the cocktail table. I tapped a message to my writer gal pal: “If that ever happens again, grab my hand and take me with you when you go.” I poke the SEND key with a metallic fingernail.