***trigger warning for physical abuse***
She colours her face so even her mother would not recognize her. The green dress slips over her body and hugs her. The waistline suffocates her, but only slightly. She twists to look at herself in the mirror, admiring the full red lips, the smoky, bright eyes, the low neckline of the garment. Smiling, she props open her window. Sitting on the sill, her legs dangling outwards into the chilling October air, her stomach tumbles in exhilaration. Her breath leaves her like steam from steeped tea in the night. She jumps the five feet to the damp ground.
She walks to the front of the house, quiet but quick. When she is out of sight of the house she goes on her way with a practiced stride. At the end of the block a car sits, lingering. Its engine spews hot exhaust fumes into the clear night. She settles into the back seat.
“Hey, kid. Ready for a night you’ll remember?” the driver asks, his voice puncturing the quiet. The car is dark and she can only see the driver’s eyes reflected in the rear-view mirror. She feels them waiting for an answer.
“If it’s a really good night, then she won’t remember it,” the front passenger interjects. The voice is husky but feminine and she feels a rush of relief in the realization.
She takes a deep breath and inhales the scent of the car: smoke, alcohol and sweat. The mixture is unfamiliar and tantalizing. The seat under her is warm. Her stomach churns but the eyes are still staring, so she smiles and says, “Here’s hoping,” also hoping that she does not sound too strained or too eager.
The car pulls away and is soon enveloped in traffic. She does not recognize her surroundings; all the landmarks of her childhood are gone. Her elementary school, boarded up, ready for demolition. The convenience store her friends used to walk to on sticky summer days for freezies and slushies has become a Starbucks. The empty acre lot they used for adventuring is now a Rona. She is surprised when they stop driving so soon. They are downtown, parked in the stone-filled lot of “Phil’s Son’s.” She’d thought this place was abandoned, like the rest of the street except for the Stag Shop down the block. A blue neon sign tells her they are open. She follows the other two and wonders how the city she’s lived in her entire life could be such a stranger to her.
As the bouncer checks her I.D., she feels sweat trickle down her neck into her dress. She smiles when the large man shines the light in her face and nearly gives it all away when he stamps her hand and lets her in. Once inside, they go down a set of metal stairs that open out to the bar and coat check. It reeks of hormones, beer, sweat and something she doesn’t quite recognize. She feels blind; it feels darker here than in the car. Bodies rub against hers; “Phil’s” is a busy place for a Sunday. The tables and benches are full and the bar tenders rush to keep up with the demand for watered down tequila shots. The dance floor is over flowing with gyrating bodies. She blushes, seeing the three stripper poles decorating one wall of the dance floor. Each is adorned by two or three girls in mini-skirts and crop tops. “Anything goes at Dirty Phil’s,” the boy smirks, eyeing her. She follows the boy and girl to the bar. Her shoes stick to the floor; she doesn’t think about what could be coating them. The boy orders them a round of something that burns her throat. She holds the liquid in her mouth too long and it brings tears to her eyes.
Another drink takes them to the dance floor. She sways and weaves to the bass line of the song. Her nerves dissipate as the music and shots loosen her muscles. The music here is raw, crude, natural; nothing like what she has listened to on the radio or on the Top 40 CDs lying beside her bed. Closing her eyes, her hips grind to the music and she smiles in utter abandonment.
A body brushes against hers once. Twice. She turns.
Long hair, dark eyes, bearded cheeks. A man stands before her.
She smiles, says hello. He grins and with an easy arm around her waist, leads her to the bar. The music surges, unyielding, preventing them from speaking. They share a drink and this time she remembers to swallow quickly. He brushes a loose strand of hair from her face and mouths “Want some air?” with unquenched lips. It takes a moment for her to understand, and then she nods.
She leads the way outside with her practiced strut. He is close behind and they graze hands and hips as they enter the cold, clear air.
Walking down the street, slowly, leisurely, he takes out a cigarette and offers her one.
“Oh, no. I’m, trying to cut back,” she smiles. She is dizzy. She concentrates on walking the sidewalk and not onto the street. The cold breeze helps. She tries not to swing her arms too much, ignoring the urge to walk like a soldier.
He smiles and looks down the street, the cigarette a bridge between his lips and fingers. She looks at him from the corner of her eye. Under the yellow light of the street lamp, she can see more clearly. His skin, the colour of coffee, shines with sweat. A plaid shirt hangs underneath a worn black leather jacket, dark jeans ending in tatters. His hair, dark brown, falls past his straight chin to broad shoulders.
“So,” his voice low, “what’s your name, anyway?”
She grins at the question. “You can call me Kat.”
“Hi, Kat,” he grins back. Stamping out his cigarette, he leads her to the parking lot. She follows, wanting to see where this adult game will lead. He leans her against a cold, graffitied wall and his lips taste like smoke and sweat. She briefly wonders if she likes this combination. She decides it doesn’t matter as his tongue touches hers.
Later, as they lie in the back seat of his car, her thoughts and his hands wander. He whispers endearments and directions. As his lips trace the faded marks of puberty, she drifts back to the girls’ changing room in seventh grade.
She had slipped her damp gray shirt off, aware of how it clung to her chest and back. Swiping Lavender Vanilla Sunset deodorant under her armpits, she’d glanced around the room. The girls, in various states of undress and adolescence, were chatting until a hum filled the room. Vibrations bounced off the white brick walls. Her black blouse had slipped from her hand and she had bent to pick it up off the speckled tile floor.
“What’s wrong with your body?” a high, scratching voice asked. It pierced through the hum of conversation, sharp and grating.
Heat had engulfed her body; instinctively her blood knew the voice was talking to her. She’d stood, turning slightly seeing the voice’s owner. Ashley. The girl was known for bidding others to stuff dried up clots of grass down their shirts and had a penchant for turning best friends against one another. The vibrant hum of the room had faded as she’d stared at Ashley. She was short and had a rabbit nose. Her body was all angles and corners. Ashley stared back with her dark beady eyes.
“What are all those marks?” she’d pierced again, each question a snake bite on her soft, exposed skin.
Overnight, her body had been traversed by small beings that had made a pilgrimage across her stomach, thighs, breasts and back. They had left behind red and purple lines to mark their progress. Since then, she’d often felt like she didn’t know where her body began or ended. Boundaries blurred and edges curved unpredictably. But in that moment, with every girls’ eyes on her, shirtless, wearing a bra a woman had measured to fit her exactly, she knew exactly where her body started and stopped. She knew exactly where her body was: Hell.
“Are you being abu-u-u-sed?” the serpent bit. The mocking, extended “u” had hung in the air and she’d practically sung the question. Ashley’s smug smile proved her intent.
Shock had filtered through her body, mixing with the embarrassment. Her skin had turned a mottled red and their eyes had started a wild fire on her cheeks. Her teeth ground together, her fist clenching the soft cotton blouse. She’d looked closely at the little Medusa. Her dyed red hair was in a high pony tail, bangs clipped up. Her bony frame was only covered by her white cotton flowered underwear and an unnecessary bra from a plastic box. Her eyes squeezed together and her lips formed that satisfied smirk. Ashley had the body of a boy still; hers had twisted into a woman.
Her silence had played into Ashley’s hand. The blush that covered her face and chest didn’t help. Ashley craved her tears, but she hadn’t given in to the clot of embarrassment building in her throat.
“No,” she’d answered, quietly, bracing her sword. “Are you?” she’d asked, beheading the Medusa.
Ashley pulled back, her smirk gone. A few girls chuckled, most just took a breath and continued changing.
“I was just joking!” Ashley retorted, pulling her shirt back on over her head.
Victorious but cautious, she’d dressed quickly. The hum of the girls filled the room again. Adrenalin coursed through her body, radiating through her stretch marks.
Almost invisible in the shadows of the back seat, the stretch marks still mark a pilgrimage across her body. He doesn’t notice when she tenses under his hands or when she stops responding with soft moans and giggles.
When he finishes, a combination of shame and judgement envelopes her as she slips her dress back on. She ignores this as he takes her chin between his thumb and forefinger and smirks into her eyes before grazing her lips once more. She mumbles that she should get back to her friends and ducks out of the car, the cold air sobering her. He says he should go too, asks for her number. She rattles one off for him, trying not to make it sound like a jingle. Her practiced strut is forgotten as she walks back up the block to the bar. He shouts his goodbyes as he drives by. Kat: the name he calls out, the name that his lips had whispered. It was not the same name on her I.D., real or otherwise. It was not what her parents called her when being lectured or praised. It was not the nickname her friends had given her in sixth grade and had stuck through high school. It was not what her first boyfriend had called her when they were alone. But, it was who she was for this man. It was who she would be when he remembered her. It was who she was in his phone’s contacts. It was who she would be as he recounted the night’s events to his friends.
Walking back to the bar alone, she wipes a tear away from her cheek, supposing it was from the cold wind that had picked up. As she pulls her hand away from her face, she looks at her fingertips. They are as black as the leather of his jacket.
She reminds herself to breathe deeply. She leans against the graffitied wall again. She feels something rustle deep inside of her. It wants to rush, screaming past her lips, out of her body but is tethered in her gut. Maybe it would be easier if she let the beast go. Her lips are chapped from the man’s urgent need. The October chill finds its way through her clothes, cross the pores of her skin and nestles into her bones. Her body feels brittle; her ribs ache in the cold. Will they ever feel normal again? She feels the night surround her, embracing her in the way she’s been desiring without knowing. She thinks about how she could disappear. How it would feel to be gone. The idea is tantalizing. No one knows where she is in this moment. How easy it could be to stop.
The beast calms, steels itself. Her chest hardens and eyes narrow slightly. The air she breathes in is from a different source than the air she breathes out; it strengthens her body, her muscles tingle. In the stillness of the night, she decides to exist.
Two tomcats vying for a mate shriek at each other. She brushes the night air from her arms and walks towards Phil’s Son’s. The bouncer’s dull eyes scan her then see her marked hand and wave her in. She is enveloped in the sticky warmth of the bar again and her eyes slowly adjust to the dark. Two waitresses rush around vacant tables, picking up empties. A few men crowd the pool table and bar, watching for stragglers. The dance floor is half empty now; only the completely sloshed and desperate remain, gyrating to Salt-n-Pepa talking about sex. The music still pulses as she walks around the dance floor, searching for her friends. She trips over the word in her mind. She stands beside the bar and bites her lip. Someone walks by and brushes her butt. Her fingers pick at a hangnail. Could Maureen have left?
The bartender asks what she’ll have. She stumbles a moment, wonders if she can just ask for water or root beer. She didn’t realize how thirsty she is till he asked. She answers, asking for a rum and coke, something her dad drinks when his old university friends come over for pool and poker. She watches as he pours in the ice, alcohol and cola into the clear plastic cup. She gives him a ten and he doesn’t return with change. She stands at the bar and scans the room again in search of Maureen’s tight bouncy curls and Steve’s tall, lanky frame, sipping slowly through the thin white straw. The bar looks as tired as the people in it; both just a bit dressed up for appearances. Everything is covered by a layer of filth, dozens of weekends worth of spilled drinks and various body fluids mixed together. A section of couches and benches in the corner hold a few sagging couples together at the lips. Posters, road signs and license plates decorate the pine walls. She wonders if some of them are just there to cover holes from bar fights and mishaps. Her brother got into a bar fight once; he ended up with a broken nose for rooting for the wrong hockey team. He’d proudly told her how he’d fixed it himself because the line at the E.R. was too long.
She ignores the looks some of the men and women give her and finishes her drink. Her feet are tired and her dress is sticky with sweat. She misses her bed. She wonders where the other two have gone and walks to the bathroom.
The bass of the music is softened in the grimy girls’ room. She can still hear the music but the sound of her shoes sticking to the tile is louder. A woman in her forties wearing an orange plunging halter top is applying lipstick at the mirror while an ageless woman retches in a stall. She grimaces at the sound but hopes it’s Maureen.
It isn’t. Another middle-aged woman with another plunging neckline comes out.
Luckily, the other stall is clean enough and there is just enough toilet paper to do the job. As both women leave, she relieves herself. She washes her hands and sees her reflection. The girl on the other side looks tired. Smudged eye makeup, lipstick gone, bra slightly showing, hair frizzy, bangs sticking to her forehead. Her neck reveals the temporary marks of her temporary fun; it’s covered in large red and purple hickies. She frowns thinking of his bite and how he growled “Mine” against her neck. Even her mother would not recognize her.
She would have to wear her long sleeve button up to school today and remember not to roll the sleeves up. She hoped the school wouldn’t be too hot in the late May day. She’d also have to wear the scratchy gray pants, the ones she hadn’t worn since last spring. She’d have to wear a belt to keep them up.
Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, she examined her body. She started with her neck. It was covered in small red and purple bites from the early part of the evening. Some had already started to fade a bit. Those she could hide with some makeup and a scarf. Next, her arms. Bruises around her wrists and forearms were a dark purple like a priest’s Lenten robes. These marks were from when the movie had gotten boring. She was mesmerized by the colours painted on her breasts and stomach. There were deep reds, purples, blues and blacks. They bled into each other creating blends she didn’t have names for. There was not a single spot that betrayed her fair tone. Her shirt would cover this stormy sunset across her chest and torso. Her knees: blue and purple like she’d been resting them in a blueberry bush, small red cuts stinging from the Bactine crisscrossed with no discernable pattern. She turned and looked at her backside. The reds, purples and blues from her chest painted her back and butt as well. Her eyes sank into the colour. She began to touch the darkest purple-black spot on her side. Her finger had barely brushed it when she gasped at the pain. Tears flooded her vision.
Do not think. Do not think. She chanted to the rhythm of a dimmed heart.
She snapped her eyes away from the mirror and turned the hot and cold taps of the shower. She tested it for a few moments and stepped in. She let the hot water ease the ache from her body and washed away any scent of him.
Do not think. Do not think. You will break.
Her body groaned as she used the shower head on her intimate areas. She hissed in pain and dropped it. It clanked on the tub floor, water spraying everywhere. The pain drummed through her body and she moaned, tears flooding clenched eyes.
She pushed away thought, inherently knowing that if she gave in to the pain, if she let one tear escape, if she even thought his name, she would lose. Against her nature, she had to act on instinct. Thought was the enemy. Thought would leave her in a bruised heap. She breathed deeply and reached for the shower head, putting it back in place. She stood for some time under the spray of water. She stood till the hot water was used up and the cold water numbed her muscles and thoughts and her lips shook with unspoken words.
She walked through her day, her body and heart begging her to stop, to rest. Her friend asked her why she was so slow walking to Biology for third period. She shrugged and said she hadn’t slept. It wasn’t a lie. She had spent most of the night fevered, unmoving as she hadn’t wanted to find anymore pains. She’d waited. She didn’t know for what.
Her pencil fell off her desk in Film class. She didn’t reach to pick it up. No one noticed.
It was a beautiful May afternoon. She took the bus home from school. She usually walked. No one noticed. She sat with Maureen who was gloating about her new fake I.D. Maureen told Kasia and Sam about last weekend and how she got into Phil’s Son’s, how she saw Mr. DeRizo, the history teacher, and how he bought her a shot. Maureen said they should all get fakes, that she knew a guy, that they have a date next weekend. Maureen talked a lot, but her painted on cherry lipstick never smudged. Kasia and Sam listened, heads hovering over the back of their seat, enraptured. They lived vicariously through Maureen’s stories. The four of them had been friends since kindergarten and while Kasia and Sam were now on Chaplain’s Crew and Maureen was seen more often in the smoking pit than in class, the four had stayed fairly close. She tried to listen as Maureen recalled a shot that tasted like a white freezie but the bus jumped a curb, jolting her in her seat. She gasped as a piercing pain enveloped her side; playing it off as surprise that a guy had tried to grope Maureen while dancing. She tried to focus on the story and the trees they passed, making her brain stay present. She wished she was somewhere else, someone else. No, she wished she was gone. Just to disappear in that moment.
The four girls got off the bus together. They lived in a cluster of crescents on the same street. As Kasia and Sam walked away, Maureen asked about her date last night and flipped her hair back. She spat out that nothing happened. Maureen scoffed, saying “Dan’s so hot though!” She asked for a fake, blocking out the vision of Dan, the green couch under her, Jim Carrey’s voice in the background. Maureen grinned and said she’d text Steve, the guy, her guy.
She doesn’t tell anyone. She doesn’t write it down. She doesn’t text Dan back but she doesn’t delete his number either. She doesn’t give the night, the act, a name. She walks through her days until the bruises fade back into ivory.
She clenches her eyes shut and shakes her head, blowing the memory back, away, spiralling like a fake snowflake in a snow globe. She breathes in the stale bathroom air and walks back out to the bar. Maureen and Steve are still nowhere. She thinks maybe they’ve disappeared like she wanted to.
She walks out to the parking lot, looking for Steve’s car. The stone lot hurts her feet. The car is still there, though the windows are fogged and it is gently rocking to the hushed sounds of the bar music that filters out the open door. She sighs. She fiddles with her hangnail. She kicks a few stones under her foot. She waits.