Lesson Learned

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
“Lesson Learned” is a 3,000-word creative non-fiction story. Just dumped by her first serious boyfriend, the narrator seeks solace with her friends - and a pitcher of beer. But as the narrator thinks back on what went wrong with her relationship, she comes to realize the abuse she suffered, and the fallout it left behind, will haunt her for the rest of her life. Told in the third-person, “Lesson Learned” is a familiar story to any woman who has ever been assaulted, and taught to believe that it was her own fault.

Submitted: July 25, 2019

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Submitted: July 25, 2019

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“I’m only telling you now to give you the chance to learn.” The text message says more, but that is the only sentence she can see anymore, the sentence that rings through her head like a digital alarm clock she can’t find the snooze button for. She wants to ask what lesson she was supposed to learn. She wants to smash her iPhone on the pub’s table. She wants him to take her back. She wants him to never talk to her again.

Last Saturday he was competing in a longboard race in the Catskill Mountains, and dislocated his shoulder. In the hospital she kept running her fingers through his soft brown hair, his head nuzzling into her hand as he moaned in pain.

The day after the hospital they went hiking up to a meadow within the campground. His arm was in a sling and his body was full of pain meds. Despite having to miss competing in the finals of the race he seemed happy. They stood in New York, but from the meadow they could see four different states. They made love in that meadow. He was behind her, both of them looking over the tree-lined mountains. A golden haze from the morning sun illuminated the mist, covering everything in a veil of light. She didn’t know if his eyes were open, if he was more interested in the sex than the moment, but she hoped they were. She wanted to know they had shared that view.

On the way back to their camp they walked through a field of flowers. Yellow, purple, white sparks of colour dotting the high brown grass like stars in the sky. Near a drainage pipe were tall flowers, the petals orange flames. She made an offhand remark about how beautiful they were, how they seemed more special because there were so few of them in a field of so many different flowers. She had never seen that type of flower before, but after that day she would notice them growing out of nearly every drainage ditch she saw. The orange tiger lily. He climbed down, and with one good arm picked the tiger lily and awkwardly crawled back up. She put it in her hair.

Tuesday night he slept at her apartment back in Toronto. She was a light sleeper, constantly waking up in the night and then coaxing herself back to sleep, but that night every time she woke up she stared at him. His face kept contorting in pain from his shoulder and she wanted to reach out and touch him, as though her fingers could give him comfort. She couldn’t bring herself to touch him though. She worried she would wake him and make him suffer more. Wednesday morning they were happy. Thursday afternoon he dumped her.

Somehow she manages to put away her iPhone and talk to her friends. They order another pitcher of beer. She goes through her pockets, using up the last of her spare change. One of the quarters has a red poppy on it instead of the traditional caribou. She collects all the different coin variations she finds. She always gets excited when she sees a new one she doesn’t have. He used to save these for her, dropping them in her hand when he came over.

“Aren’t I a good boyfriend?” He would smile.

She would kiss his forehead.

She already has the poppy coin. She lets the waiter take it. The beer drowns the memory away. She knows drinking led to this breakup, but the idea of being sober knowing that her first serious relationship was really over was too much so soon. Now she was drunk-texting him.

Did you learn your lesson?

Yes, always turn off your phone before drinking.

Back in December they had known each other for over a year. He majored in math and her in English, but they had taken a Japanese class and ended up sitting next to each other in the lecture, sharing brief conversations every week. At first they would just discuss lessons, but soon connected over their mutual interests, like longboarding. They started seeing each other more, liking each other more, wanting each other more.

She didn’t have too much experience with men. She was uncomfortable with their advances and hardly ever thought about having a relationship. If she had a type, she didn't know what it was, but he didn’t act or look like any of the men she had been close to before. He had a scruffy look to him, tall with broad shoulders, always wearing baggy shirts and shorts, always carrying a skateboard with him. He looked young, but was three years older than her, though he had all the enthusiasm and energy of a teenager. She thought his face was handsome, what little of it she could see beneath his beard. It took her a long time, but she finally convinced him to shave, and her intuition was proved right.

They would go longboarding together, and one night in October she fell broke her ankle. He spent the day in the hospital with her, and when he came back the next day he had made her a get-well card out of coloured paper and crayons, dotted with stickers and doodles. She still had it. They had both watched over the other while in the hospital.  She had told them they were even. It wasn’t true though. They would never be even for December.

He had taken her to a house party, a house full of people she didn’t know. They were longboarders as well. To these people, and to him, longboarding was more than a hobby. They had created a community around the sport, organizing races and meets, and this was just one such event that brought these skaters together.

She hated meeting new people. She didn’t know how to act. She felt self-conscious and out of place. She thought she would be fine so long as he stayed by her side, but he went off to be with his friends and she found herself alone – alone save for the girl who kept pouring her straight liquor. She didn’t have dinner that night.

The next thing she remembered was trying to find him in the house, but he was gone. Everyone she asked said he had left, and she kept asking because she couldn’t believe it was true. She felt a panic in her, an old child’s fear of being abandoned suddenly taking over, until she was banging on every closed door screaming wake up, wake up! He wouldn’t answer his phone, and she called so many times her own phone died.

It was well past three in the morning by this point and she must have woken up every sleeping drunk in that house. One of them led her to the door outside. It was hard to think of him now, to remember the details of his face, hair and clothing. The only detail she really held onto was he was tall, white, and angry. The tall man shoved her outside, telling her to look for him out there. She just turned around and started banging on the door as it was locked from within.

WAKEUPWAKEUPWAKEUP!!!

The door opened so fast she nearly fell through, and the tall man grabbed her. His warm fingers grabbed her throat – and squeezed. She tried to scream, but the sound caught in her throat like a frog’s croak. She pried at his hands, felt her eyes bulging out of her face, and then he threw her back. There was a pain on her face. Had she hit the table she now clung to for support? Had he punched her? She couldn’t even conceive of where the pain had come from, only that it was there. She looked up at the tall man. There was no look of horror on his face, no sudden realization of what he had been doing, no guilt or remorse. Only hate.

She couldn’t move. She clung to the table. If I move he’ll come at me. If I move he’ll come at me. She stayed still so long, shivering in the cold, until she finally noticed that the tall man was gone. The door was closed and locked. Still she stayed stuck to the table, still she felt the tall man’s fingers around her throat, still she saw his angry eyes. Her mind began to wind down. The danger had passed, and she began to feel the cold through her sweater.

She had to leave, but realized her crutch was in their house. The cast had only come off her leg two weeks before and she could only walk short distances without it. What was there to do? The subway had stopped running. Her phone had died from her texting and calling him multiple times. She began to walk, limping and crying, confused and frightened. She limped an hour before a cab finally pulled up alongside her. Thankful she had brought her credit card with her that night, she got in and was finally taken home so she could collapse into her familiar sheets and let the fear slip away so only the tears remained.

The next morning it hurt to swallow, it hurt even to speak. Her right eye had a black patch around it. She had never had a black eye before. She covered it with her bangs, and wrote an email to the man who had taken her to that party, the man who had disappeared. She told him everything she remembered. She wanted him to come over, hold her, and tell her he was sorry that had happened to her, that they could work through this together. She wanted to know why any of it had to happen. If he could show her the slightest remorse, everything could just be forgiven between them.

He did come over, she thought to talk, but really it was to take the things he had left at her place. He wanted nothing to do with her. He stood in the doorway, towering over her as she sat on a chair, unable to stand because of the pain in her ankle. He didn’t bother to take his coat off. He didn't plan on staying long.

“I don’t know what happened last night,” he said. But I wrote you! She wanted to scream, but she still couldn’t talk. She had barely managed to say hello. He wouldn’t look at her. He looked disgusted just to be in the same room as her. “But whatever was between us, you’ve destroyed.”

Did you learn your lesson?

Yes. Never drink at a stranger’s house.

She brings her pint of beer up to her lips and begins to steadily gulp it down. Each time she swallows and feels her throat contracting and expanding she feels relieved. Sometimes she still feels those fingers around her throat, and forgets for a moment that she can still breath.

She found out later why he had left her at the house. She had gotten so annoyed with him for ignoring her the entire night, that she’d told him she’d rather hang out with some other guy there. She didn’t remember saying it, but he had read something far more sinister in her words, and had simply left. Why he never answered her frantic texts or voicemails, she never found the courage to ask.

That night in December had driven her into a constant state of unease. She kept thinking she would walk out a door and see the tall man standing there. A week before Christmas she got on a bus and went to visit her sister in Maryland. There were no tall men hidden behind doors in Maryland, only DC cupcakes and the tender words of an older sister.

During the visit he texted her to say he missed her. She stared at the screen wondering if she felt the same. He told her he wanted to give their relationship another try. She didn’t want him back. She didn’t want to have anything to do with him. She didn’t blame him. She didn’t feel any anger towards him.  She felt nothing towards him. She felt numb.

They met up at their university, common ground for a parlay. Somehow she managed to speak this time. She didn’t feel very optimistic. “It will just end the same way,” with you walking out on me. She knew it then, but she couldn't forget that day he stayed with her in the hospital. She couldn’t forget those nights they had slept side-by-side, before they even had sex, just because they wanted to hold each other. She couldn’t forget how happy she had felt with him. She thought she could give him a second chance.

Did you learn your lesson?

Yes. Always follow my instincts.

When they were together in the Catskills, they stayed a moment and just stared out onto the horizon. She wasn’t sure anymore who realized the meadow faced east, but they both knew seeing a sunrise from there would be something worth waking up at five in the morning for. They made plans to wake up early and watch it together. They woke up to a soft drizzle outside, but although there were clouds above them, the skies were clear in the east and red light was already beginning to bleed over the horizon. They began walking across the field of flowers with umbrellas, when the rain began to pour down on them. He turned to her.

“We should go back.” Her heart sank. She didn’t mind having wet feet, if it meant they could share something just as beautiful as they had the day before, but she didn’t argue. The rain would ruin it, and they had already talked about coming back here next year. They would watch it then.

That was Sunday. Thursday he dumped her.

Did you learn your lesson?

Yes. Planning is a fool’s sport.

The second time he didn’t go to her apartment to end things. They met at the mall food court – as he requested.

He told her he was leaving her again because of that night in December. He had tried to remain friends with the people in the house after that night. She knew that for a fact. She could remember him showing her a picture of her crutch nailed to their wall in February. It was like a hunter had mounted a part of her on their wall, a trophy of the beast they had defeated. They had all sorts of stories about her from that night, including one where she had been arrested. If only there had been police, she could have pointed to the tall man. She hadn’t blocked out his face yet. She could have had revenge. Yes officer, he’s the one who attacked me. Instead of hobbling down the street, the pavement pounding her three healing bones into dust, she would have been driven somewhere safe and warm. She never told him to not be their friend, never even tried to convince him of their worthlessness, but their friendship had cracked nonetheless. He blamed that night. He blamed her. It was very clear. If he got rid of her, he could be friends with them and be welcomed back into the longboarding community again.

“What could I have done?” She sat in the plastic chair at the plastic table, tears quietly running down her face. She couldn’t think of a worse place to be dumped, hundreds of people watching her cry. It was a public shaming.

His face was stone. He barely looked her in the eye. He hadn’t looked at her when he had started the conversation either. It isn’t working, he looked out the window. Let’s be friends.

“You could have apologized.”

She felt the floor fall away from her, felt her stomach lurch. Apologized? Would a friend tell her to apologize to the man in her nightmares? Should she have apologized to the tall man who had nearly choked her to death? Should she have apologized to her father after he slapped her face so hard it felt numb the rest of the day? Should she have apologized to her alcoholic Grade Nine teacher who told her she would never make it as a writer? That simple sentence meant he thought her actions merited their retribution. Even if he didn’t realize it, he was saying she deserved to be assaulted.

She sat in that court unable to move. If I move he’ll come at me. He must have said something, because she heard him say “are you going to answer or should I just leave?” The noise caught in her throat and her hand went to her throat, but there were no fingers there save her own.

“I’m having… trouble speaking,” she managed a hoarse whisper.

He left, and she made her way towards the bar. Her friends told her all the usual things. You were too good for him. There are plenty of fish in the sea. You’re beautiful. Any guy would be lucky to have you. He’s an idiot! You’re a total catch. Words meant nothing. “It will just end the same way,” she had spoken the words, but she hadn’t listened.

Did you learn your lesson?


© Copyright 2019 Guenevere Lee. All rights reserved.

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