Frost

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic


“It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” – Norman Maclean

Submitted: January 07, 2018

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Submitted: January 07, 2018

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It was April when they met for the first time, in a bookstore in Harlem on a suffocatingly sinus-effecting afternoon. He’d been to lunch with a friend, who’d then taken his leave to catch up with his agent last-minute. Robert had meandered around the streets alone for a bit, in no real rush to retire back to Manhattan so soon. This had, after all, been his ‘plans’ for the day. Depressing, perhaps, that a twenty-six year old’s only plans on a Saturday had been a casual lunch with an excitable friend whom he didn’t see nearly often enough. So, he’d decided, as he didn’t take the trip often, to dawdle around the streets a while to see what was out there, before hailing a cab.

The bookstore was a chain, but admittedly a bit of a hole in the franchise – certainly not the company’s proudest location - almost unnoticeable if not for the racks of sale books out the front: books which clearly no one cared if they were stolen or bought. He pushed decisively on past, initially, but it was an effort wasted. He couldn’t fight the temptation – he had to see to it that his own book wasn’t among those toss-outs. Robert doubled back on the sidewalk of West 132nd Street, and into the subtle air-con breeze of the store. He would check the shelves first. It was always a wonder to him, the location that different bookshops deigned his work to be. Sometimes (bizarrely, he thought) Poetry, sometimes Biography, sometimes, Humour. Never, thankfully, Self Help. Truthfully, even a year after publishing, he hadn’t made his own mind up about it either, and so was barely in a position to judge. In this particular location, though, he found it in the Humour/Comedy section. He also found, in that same space, reading the blurb of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, a young woman. “Sorry,” she said instinctively, taking a step back to let him past without looking up at him.

Robert gave a tight-lipped, white-guy smile to the shelf he was looking at. “It’s okay,” he mumbled, breathing a silent sigh of relief when he spotted his own work: Privileged and Depressed on the shelf about waist-height. Not in the bargain bin of this establishment, he was pleased to note. Sales had been good when he first released the hopefully witty and clever first dive he took into writing, but it had always been a paranoid tic-like behaviour of his: he just needed to know that he wasn’t failing, and this seemed the only objective way to tell that he wasn’t.

Swimming in his self-involvement, Robert failed to notice that one of the shop assistants had stepped into what was fast becoming an increasingly crowded aisle until she spoke. Not to him, he noted quickly, though looked up and listened in shamelessly anyway. “Miss Danes, we wanted to thank you for coming in and doing a signing at our store today,” she handed the alleged Miss Danes a bunch of flowers and a card.

“Oh!” The young woman beside him looked genuinely surprised at the gesture. “Well, thanks so much for having me,” she recovered and smiled, confirming officially an Australian accent that he hadn’t quite been able to pick up with the two previous words. He’d always liked this accent.

The girls exchanged polite promises of having the writer Danes back, before continued civility in their goodbyes, and then the attendant was gone, and he decided that he was more curious than was socially awkward, for once: “You’re a writer?”

“Trying to be,” she grinned, winced as she realised that the actual answer was, indeed, a yes. “I just got my first novel published – well, not novel, book - and my second is in the works, which actually is a novel,” she explained, excited, clearly. But there was something humble radiating from her: something in the way she spoke that made him guess she was pinning it all on luck, that fortune had just befallen her, and not her own will and talent that had proven to get her this far.

“Well, now you have to show me your book,” he flirted, assured enough to admit – if only to the mocking voice in his mind - that yes, he was flirting with this woman he just met and that yes, he was enjoying it. And perhaps she was too, because sure enough, she guided him to the corner of the store that included Horror, Thriller and Sci-Fi to a display shelf containing a depleted stack of deep purple books covered books entitled Free Money and Other Lies. Along the bottom of the shelf was a hand-written staff recommendation: “An exciting first collection from Danes. Don’t read before bed!” He picked one up, examining it, sensing rather than seeing her grow self-conscious under the pressure of his exploration. More than anything else, he noticed that Erin was the first name of this Miss Danes.

“They’re short stories. Horror, thriller, well, not really… but creepy, surrealist, I guess. That sort of thing,” she explained, sounding apologetic. Not his idea of a good time at all, but he held onto it anyway. And certainly, he planned to read it. If nothing else, it was entirely intriguing that this lady, younger than him, he thought: clean cut and slightly shy and almost a head shorter than his 6 foot 4 could produce tales said to “rattle one’s sense of reality” - as the New Yorker so boldly claimed she did on the front cover. Bizarre, perhaps, but he didn’t doubt it for a moment. She smiled when he didn’t replace it on the shelf.

“So, what do you do?” She asked when he turned back to face her.

“Anything I can get my hands on, really,” he confessed. “Acting, playing in a band, a slightly infrequent spot on SNL… writing, too.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Well, now I have to buy your book.” And so, with his guidance, back to the Humour section they went.

“Privileged and Depressed,” she considered, before trying out how his name would sound, too, “Robert. It’s nice to meet you, Robert.”

“Would you like to have coffee with me, Erin?”

~

Their biggest fight – not their first, and most certainly not their last - had been in mid-January. And, apart from the few, light-hearted squabbles they tended to have over little things - easily resolved moments they would come to laugh about later - their fights were generally all on the same topic. Up until this point, they’d mutually agreed (though it had never been spoken aloud) on snide comments and passive aggressive mutters when it came to their more serious – though still overarchingly petty - fights: he would do something to piss her off, she would be annoyed, but not admit that she was annoyed, and this, in turn, would serve to frustrate and make him annoyed. An hour or so later, she would be cheery again, genuinely not holding anything against him, and he would be left confusingly grateful that this hadn’t blown up, though wondering what it would be like if it had. ‘Repressed’ was the word that always swam the length of his thoughts in these moments, though he never chose to wade over to it, not quite sure it was something he ever wanted to officially pin to his associations with her.

After more introspection than he had ever been prone to when it came to matters of the heart, Robert realised that the thing that so unnerved him was that he’d never dated someone like Erin before. His short-lived high school girlfriend, Mia, and his first and only ‘adult’ relationship with a slightly older woman named Audrey just hadn’t been like this at all. In those cases, he’d long since confessed to himself that he was the brooding, moody one, hung up on the idea that to be an artist he had to be reclusive and enigmatic in his personal life – even to those closest to him. He was the one who enjoyed being alone; the one whom these girls he’d dated would have to painfully extract admissions about feelings from. And, shamefully, the arrogant side of him had actually enjoyed that. In these previous courtships, they were so willing to talk about how they felt, and were so clear – so, so clear – about what irked them when he’d done something they’d perceived as wrong. Of course, sometimes it felt nagging, sometimes it felt unnecessary, but it was always a help. And he supposed that, somewhere along the line, he began to take advantage of people being so honest and open with him. So perhaps it was natural – if not also a very presumptuous way of thinking - for Robert to expect the same yielding and giving in this new relationship with Erin. Perhaps natural for him to be disappointed when, just days ago, he had whispered that he loved her during the credits of yet another The Office episode binge, only to have Erin squeeze is hand in thankful acknowledgment, and nothing more than that. But perhaps, he eventually considered, it was just arrogance to think every girl the same, to think that he would always get to be the less emotionally available one in all his romantic endeavours. It wasn’t that she didn’t say “I love you,” back to him that kick-started the fight. No, he swore to himself it wasn’t that. Surely he wasn’t so much of an emasculated jerk that he would blow up over something so personal and heartfelt and something he was sure she was just waiting to say on a day she actually meant it. No, it was more so the fact that she didn’t say anything at all. This young woman, whom he’d met in April, and evidentially successfully charmed until July when they’d officially started dating, didn’t tell him anything. Yes, that was the frustrating part.

A couple of days later, in her apartment after dinner and a walk through the park, he decided to test this, outright, no passive-aggression allowed. As happy as he was with her, a certain tension had grown, and he didn’t know how to diffuse it, but considered his continued avoidances far too cowardly, and thus resolved to see it through the right way. He began softly, “Hey, Erin? I know you heard me the other day when I said I love you… I don’t want you to say it back if you don’t want, but, like, you didn’t say anything…” he took the mug of tea she was extending to him and watched her sit a safe distance away from him on the sofa. Bracing herself, it seemed.

“I do, though,” she ignored the half of what he was saying, seeming to supply him with something she thought would satiate his needs and end the conversation. She had a tendency toward this: to only answering what she deemed were the important – or, more likely, easy – questions.

Robert frowned into the steaming mug. “You do… love me?”

“Yeah. I do,” she searched his face, exhaled through her nose, “I do love you. I love you.” Another idiosyncrasy of hers: repeating the words she said again to make sure she was happy with the way they sounded.

He couldn’t help but feel relieved, but managed to keep the smile at bay. This wasn’t all they had to discuss. “Erin… I don’t know how you think I’m supposed to know stuff like that when you won’t tell me, you know? Sometimes I actually have to hear the words, and the thing is, you never tell me anything, and I just don’t get it. I don’t get that if you love me, you still don’t trust me to talk about how you’re feeling,” he placed his mug on the coffee table, kept his voice measured. It was surprisingly easy not to get mad; surprisingly sorrowful how downtrodden the words made him as he said them.

“Sorry.” Her usual avoidant response. “You know I don’t really know what I’m doing with this… stuff.” Her usual avoidant excuse. Erin was turning twenty-two in February, himself, twenty-eight in September, and she frequently used their barely notable age gap as an excuse, like she was less experienced in life and therefore didn’t know any better and couldn’t be blamed for the many misunderstandings and miscommunications in their relationship. He didn’t know for sure – because she never told him anything – but he guessed that he was her first ‘proper’ boyfriend. A flattering, frightening thought.

“Okay, I do understand that, but it’s not really an excuse right now. Like, as a human being you must know that when you have anything with another person – a friendship, a relationship, love, whatever – you don’t just take it all from them and give nothing back. Does that make sense?” He’d taken on the lecturing persona of his father and dismissed the urge to grimace. She looked away, giving him the invitation to continue. “It feels like you want to know me, but you don’t want me to know you,” he finished, satisfied with himself for articulating what he actually meant for once.

“You know me…” she still didn’t meet his eyes.

Yes, it was true. It wasn’t fair to say she never revealed anything about herself to him, but he couldn’t quite find the words to purvey that while yes, he delighted in knowing her in what he had come to personally call her Post-Australia phase, anything before that was just a blank canvas. He knew mundane things, easy things, like her favourite foods, and how long she’d been in the city, and how she hated animated films and biopics, but revelled in anything starring Hugh Grant or Meryl Streep. He knew she always got hot when she slept; how she didn’t like running but hated the gym more and so committed to the task everyday anyway. He knew she was lousy at making desserts, never drank coffee in the summer, and could enjoy nights out with him regardless how poor their entertainment had been. Eventually, he’d come to learn even more personal things, still: her goals of writing (not monetary or fame-related, but her desire to always shock and disarm readers, to always write characters fundamentally realistic and flawed); her insecurities (that she felt socially inept at book signings and interviews - she never decided the right things to say until later; that she didn’t like her stomach or her thighs); a side of her it was obvious nobody but him knew about. There were plenty of unspoken things that she allowed him to witness, also. He sensed a surprise whenever he touched her, at first he thought it was one of discomfort, but later began to feel it was something she desired, but would never initiate to his dismay. The first time he’d waved his arms wildly, telling her some far-out, embellished story of his, she’d flinched suddenly, almost violently at the motion. Immediately, she’d laughed it off with an apology. But more recently, she was unapologetic in her flinching: a gap in the armour she was allowing to rust, allowing him to see through. Yes, he did know her now, and he loved her now. But he thought, dismally, sometimes the now just wasn’t enough.

Robert pinched the bridge of his nose. “I think you know what I mean,” he murmured.

He saw the slightest nod in his peripheral vision. “Listen, I’m sorry, but I’m really tired. I’ve got a breakfast meeting at the publisher’s tomorrow so could we talk about this another time?”

“What the fuck? Are you kidding me? That is such a lie, Erin! Can you not see how blatantly you’re disregarding my feelings – and your own – right now? Talk to me!” he was on his feet now.

Erin frowned pensively, the closest thing he was sure he was ever going to be to seeing her cry. “I can’t,” she decided, and her expression was blank again.

He shook his head, “I’m going home. I can’t stay here tonight. I’m gonna go home because I don’t want to say something awful, and right now I’m feeling pretty… pretty awful.” Still she wouldn’t look at him, “I’ll message you tomorrow,” he vowed, more to himself than her while walking to the door, noting the lack of confirmation from her. “Erin?” he waited for her to look over at him, “I really don’t think… I don’t want this to be the end of this conversation. Can you please try to understand that I only want to know you more?”

~

Erin had ignored his texts the next day, all day, and he was beginning to feel a cold concern pool high up in his gut. Had she thought that fight was a break up? He’d never intended it to be a break up. In fact, he’d tried to make it pretty clear that it wasn’t. But he’d never stormed out on her in a toddler-esque tantrum before, either. Of course, he’d not intended last night’s conversation to veer into a fight at all, but it had happened, and he didn’t think he’d said anything he hadn’t actually meant. He didn’t think he’d been unkind. He hadn’t any pride when it came to messaging her, apologising: he’d texted four times and called twice, all to no avail, all to nothing so much as a ‘read’ receipt. He didn’t care if he seemed frantic, needy. He was frantic, panicked that this would not be the end of them just when he felt he was getting somewhere, even if it was in a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ kind of travelling. He cared that they were still together. He needed that. Her. And she – he indulged his ego just for a moment – seemed to need him, though she fought it stubbornly, valiantly.

Robert felt void of hope the day after that, a Tuesday. Though he wasn’t quite resigned to the fact that they may be breaking up because she thought he wasn’t happy (the worst thing he could have conveyed, the worst way things could end: because he was, largely, happy), but also struck by how petty, how miniscule their break up had been, if that was what they were going to call this. Again, he’d texted with frequenting intervals of desperation. Again, he called, this time the number reaching double digits. But at six in the evening, his prayers of yesterday were answered, his bleakness of today combated, as his phone buzzed once, gloriously.

Are you home? The text from Erin read. He was quick to reply, auto-correct compensating for his fumbling thumbs: Yes. Please come over. I want to see you.

Not a minute later – she had always been a considerate replier (a genuine asset for a person in their generation) – she responded. Yep. On my way. Perhaps all hope was not lost. It helped that he didn’t consider himself a pessimist.

When he buzzed her up, already opening the door in anticipation, she looked so small when she arrived. So empty, with usually absent bags under her eyes: she’d either been as sleepless as he, or as tortured over the last two days. He didn’t know if he should feel trivially triumphant that this had affected her, too; or distraught that he’d been the cause. As usual, as he had come to recognise of the few times she actually allowed him to see her upset, she just looked blank, unreadable to one who didn’t know her better. Which was saying something, though he wasn’t sure what, because he didn’t consider himself to know her at all, sometimes. As a first, he was lost for words, giving her the rare opportunity to speak first instead, “I wrote you a letter,” she pulled an envelope out of her parka pocket, handed it to him with a brush of freezing fingertips against his warm ones, “I think it’s the stuff you want me to say.” Her voice betrayed her blank expression: she was so, so sad. He couldn’t find his voice, which was for the best, because no doubt he would have put his foot in his mouth by saying something like, “I don’t want you to tell me things you think I want to hear; I want you to tell me things because you want to tell me them!” He blinked back tears, cleared his throat, “Well, come in, it’s freezing.”

Erin stayed rooted to the spot, “I don’t really want to be here when you read it, so I’m gonna go for a walk while you do,” she explained in a voice void of life. “Call me when you’re done?”

Robert nodded, swallowing hard, “Don’t go, it’s snowing out. You’ll freeze.” Of course she would freeze. She had no idea how to dress for a New York winter. She was in sneakers, leggings and a down parka. Not at all equipped for the crisp, biting wind outside, the flurry of snow falling.

“It won’t take you long.”

He leant into the hallway, kissed her on wind bitten cheek. “We’re not broken up, are we?”

“Not yet,” she grimaced. The words churned in his stomach like his insides were eating themselves. He watched her retreat, before looking down finally at the envelope, his name printed neatly on the front.

~

Robert,

Honestly, I don’t really know where to begin or what to say right now. I’m sorry, obviously. But at the same time, I kind of don’t know what I’m even sorry about, because, for starters, I’m sorry we’re even fighting at all. I don’t enjoy it, even though you seem to think I do. So, as much as I’m sorry that we’re arguing, I can’t lie and say I’m sorry about why we’re fighting. Even though, I know, it is all my fault. Because, essentially, what we’re arguing about here is me. What we’re always arguing about is me. And how can anything me-related not be my fault? It just doesn’t seem possible, and, given our circumstances, we both know it’s not. So, yes, this fight is my fault. I don’t think I’ve ever disputed that. I am the cause and the reason it’s ongoing, I’ve decided, and I know you have, too.

I know I’m trying to sound mature and detached but it’s probably just coming off as pretentious and annoying and awful. So I am sorry for that. Can’t say I’ll be expecting a Pulitzer Prize nominations for this one. That was a joke. There might be a few of those to be expected – something of an attempt to ease the tension.

We both know – or, at least, I hope you’ve come to understand, by now - that I’m not going to talk about any of this. I mean, that’s the reason we’re at this cross-roads in the first place. So, I figured I’d throw you a bone and at least try to write down my thoughts. That seemed more possible; more like something I could do. These are thoughts I don’t want to think about, have been trying not to think about, and I really don’t want you to know about. But, to be honest, I feel like you think I owe you something. Anything. And since you’re too nice of a guy to ask for some of the other stuff I’ve been withholding from you (sex, affection, warm fuzzy feelings), I’ve decided to give you the information that you seem to think is the root of all my problems. And who knows, maybe you’ll be right. It was hard to decide to do this, you know. I had to take a day without speaking to you before I could really decide on my own. Eventually, I figured that yes, this was something I have to do. I only hope it doesn’t blow up in either of our faces. The cliché, “I have nothing to lose” isn’t the one I’m looking for, but it’s the closest thing I can think of right now. There’s a fair bit more on my mind.

Again, the half-mocking, half-clinical tone: I think I need to keep acting like a robot for the remainder of this of this letter or I’ll probably vomit or pass out or have an absolute screaming meltdown (just a prediction). Please don’t think for a second that I’m not taking this as seriously as you are. I’m just different to you. I’ve always thought that a good thing: that we’re quite different from one another. Now that I’m preparing to write this all down, I’m realising that I’m the absolute worst. And that’s something I can be sorry for. I am, actually.

~

“Tell me a secret,” He yawned. They had been ‘officially’ dating for little over a month, and they were sprawled on her sofa, his head in her lap as she scratched his head. It was only three in the afternoon, but this always made him drowsy.

“No way, you tell me one first,” she challenged, and though his eyes were closed he could hear the smile, the joke in her words. It wasn’t going to be that easy. “Alright…” he had to ponder for a moment, “Uh, in high school I told everyone I was gay because they all assumed I was anyway, and then I got offended that no one even acted surprised.” This elicited a laugh, and he smiled lazily at the sound. “Now you,” he urged her.

“Okay. Well, since moving to the states, I have felt less afraid of spiders, and more afraid of, like, getting shot in the street.”

He snorted, “That seems fair,” he allowed. It was a miniscule confession, a throw-away truth, but maybe now they were getting somewhere. “Okay, so: afraid of spiders, afraid of being murdered by a gun, noted. What else are you afraid of?” He held his breath without realising it. He didn’t know what he expected, if she even answered at all. Discussing fears, though it was an innocent enough choice of subject, just seemed way to close to childhood-related matters. He’d began to learn that childhood was synonymous with taboo, to Erin.

“The dark, I guess,” he felt a tiny shift beneath him that must’ve been a shrug. He stayed silent, and she continued, “My brothers dying… that’d be… not good.”

“What about your parents?” he prodded casually.

“No.” The head scratching had stopped, and her hand rested now on his chest.

“You’re not close with them?” He pressed. A beat. And then, “Not really, no,” and Erin went back to running her fingers though his hair again, as if that had ended the discussion and he had no say in the matter. “Anyway, what about you? Tell me more about your parents…” she chattered on, changing the subject as he was quickly beginning to realise she did when the territory felt too unknown, too intimate. Sometimes it made him wonder if she liked him at all, this unwillingness to share, but that was probably selfish, and vain, and insecure, because of course she liked him: she’d agreed to be his girlfriend in the first place. No, this was just something that was going to take his patience. At the time, he didn’t think he’d minded.

~

So, in an attempt to address why I’m dead inside:

You don’t know a great deal about me, but you do know I have three brothers: two older, one younger. That much, I’m sure I’ve divulged. You know my coffee order, and favourite bands and colour and in short: you know me now. But I guess you don’t know me then. Who I was then. I’ve kind of agonised over why you want to know about my past, and have ,admittedly, been kind of obsessed with the – unhealthy, I know - idea that you must be looking for a reason to find something wrong with me, to figure out that you don’t like what’s on the surface because I’m rotten below it. Paranoia? I don’t know, I hope so. But I digress. In fact, I procrastinate. I have a mother. I have a father – I don’t think I’ve said much to you about them. I feel like you’ve probably assumed they’re dead, which is reasonable enough. They’re actually alive, I just don’t like to talk about them. I won’t talk about them. As for extended family: my mum has a brother, Joseph. He’s got a wife and two sons, my cousins. They were really close – my mum and my uncle, that is. There’s plenty more people on my dad’s side, but they’re not really relevant to the things I’m going to say.

When I was young, (5?), my parents and my aunty and uncle started doing this date night thing on Fridays, so on every first and third Friday of every month, Josh and Nathan (cousins) would sleep over at our house so that Uncle Joseph and Aunty Melanie could go on a date. And on every second and fourth Friday night, we kids would stay at Jo and Mel’s so that our parents could have a night off. I guess it was a success, overall, since none of them have had a divorce yet.

When I was about 7, Uncle Joseph decided to start making me sleep in a different room to all the boys, because I was the only girl out of all the cousins. At 7, of course I didn’t understand what that had to do with anything. all I knew was that I had to sleep on the sofa bed in the office, and all the boys constantly teased me because I had to spend our sleepovers alone, and they all got to be together in Josh’s room. I remember hearing them talking down the hall, having the time if their lives while I lay still and bored. I imagine that, as an adult with an understanding of how awful the people in this world can be (hello, POTUS), you can guess why my uncle decided to quarantine me when I hit the ‘right’ age. But, as a full-disclosure, I-never-want-you-to-bring-this-up-in-person type thing, I will tell you as much as I can manage.

I better address the paedophile in the room and just say yes. Yes, I’m sure whatever you’re thinking, wondering, what he did to me, he did. Hand stuff. Mouth stuff. Private parts stuff. Stuff he made me do and stuff he made me lie still for. All of it hurt. All of it made me hate him and made me hate myself even more.

And hate myself, I did. If you’ve ever wondered what self-loathing looks like on a child, here it is:

For starters, you should have seen my dolls as a little girl. Without any sisters to share it all with, I could absolutely wreck my things and no one would find out. Beautiful Barbie with her eyes scratched out all her hair cut off. Baby Born with pins stuck into her in places her nappies would cover (that’s diapers, to you). Dolls are, of course, made to be an extension of a child’s self, and I destroyed mine. I remember in school being told that no one should ever touch you in your ‘places that underwear usually covers’. That you should tell an adult if anyone touches or asks to see you there, or if they show you their underwear areas. But an adult already knew.

And Uncle Joseph had gotten to me first. To those areas, literally and obviously, but also to my mind. My easily-swayed, easily-confused mind of a child. Too young. He’d told me that Mum and Dad and Aunty Mel would be so upset, so sickened and disappointed in me if they found out about our secret. He called it my secret. He promised not to tell if I didn’t tell, because they would all stop loving me if they found out, and he wouldn’t be able to help me if that happened. They might even send me away forever. And always, he told me that he loved me.

It went on for a long time. Years.

I was just the angriest little kid. I had just about no friends, really, because I was a horrible, hateful nightmare to everyone around me. Nobody knew why. The kids at my school were okay, there was no bullying or anything, but I didn’t exactly make them want to be around me. It was mostly my own stuff that I ruined: my dolls, stuffed animals, sometimes my whole bedroom with very quiet, very contained fits of rage when something didn’t go my way (and this was at an age just way, way too old to be throwing tantrums, mind you). But nobody would lend me their rulers or share coloured pencils with me, either: they saw what I did to property. I used to bang my arms up against stuff, my wrists, mostly, on desks and hard surfaces, and totally cover myself in bruises. One time, I was in Year 3, I think, at school I spent all recess just slamming my arms onto the retaining rocks in the playground so much that I managed to fracture a bone, and I spent all day and night in the emergency room. It had been a Friday. I remember being relieved when I felt the snap.

At the start of Year 5, just after the school holidays, (so I must’ve been age 10), I got to school one morning and saw half of the boys in my class playing chasey (that’s ‘tag’ to you) in the playground. This was standard. Only, instead of tagging one another normally, with their hands, they were running up behind each other, grabbing the other boys around the waist and thrusting into them. It was alarmingly familiar. I couldn’t watch for long. I asked one of the more patient girls in my class, Jessica, what was going on.

“It’s rape chasey. You know, like kiss chasey?”

“But what’s rape?”

“My mum said that it’s when someone has sex with you even when you don’t want to.”

I knew what sex was. I wasn’t quite up to the “how babies are made” talk in school, just yet. But I did have brothers. And, more informatively (however false that information might have been), I had peers who had older brothers, too, which definitely counts for something in the field of misinformation that children are too young to hear. It felt like the penny dropped when Jessica told me that: I had just learnt it was possible to not want sex, that it could be a one-way street. It’s too difficult to explain how much this realisation helped; why it even helped. I remember actually being excited, because there was actually a real word for it. I felt relief. Imagine, a 10 year old’s relief that she had been raped all this time; not just participating in secret, wrong, sex. I decided to tell my mum the minute I got home from school, the minute we were alone away from the boys. There are some things you can just sense that your brothers aren’t to know, and this was one of them.

So I did tell her. Miraculously, my resolve didn’t fade all day. I don’t think I behaved so well in class my whole life. And so, alone in my room, sitting on my bed: “Mum,” I couldn’t look at her; didn’t know why. “Uncle Joseph raped me. He raped me lots of times.”

And then my mother slapped me, across the face, harder than I had ever been slapped before (which, admittedly, was not many times at all). And even though this can’t possibly actually be the case, it feels like I haven’t ever been slapped harder since.

~

On their 5th date – not including their spontaneous exchange-books-and-coffee meeting – he had kissed her. It was the first time he’d walked to her apartment building; before then he’d just seen her to a cab, or they’d had brunch or lunch and she didn’t even go home after, as there was so much time left in the day. But this evening, after a relaxed, entertaining time seeing a poorly-acted play and going for gelato after, they’d slowly, unintentionally made their way down the six blocks to her street, and suddenly they were standing in front of a shabby, red-bricked building. It was an unappealing place, and didn’t look overly safe. She was, more so than him, a starving artist.

“This is my stop,” she smiled. “Thanks for an… interesting evening,” she decided, doubtlessly referring to just how noticeably rubbish the play had been.

Robert laughed, “Anytime. Do you want me to walk you up?”

She deliberated, looking in several directions before meeting his eyes, and then: “Sure.”

It was a third floor walk-up, and up they went, not touching, but still talking. She was apologetic, explaining that she knew her apartment building was shitty, but it was all she could afford at the moment and the location was as good as she could get.  He got the sense he was indeed only walking to her door; he would not be allowed in on this particular night. A primal measure in him was disappointed, though unsurprised. He decided, consciously, that this was okay; this was enough. So when she slowed at the end of the narrow hallway to search for her keys in that too-big bag of hers, Robert, slightly stunning even himself, lifted her chin, closed the gap and kissed her. There was a second of panic in which she didn’t move, seemed statuesque, she didn’t even breathe as their lips first touched. Had he read this whole thing wrong? Surely not: they’d held hands before; she’d kissed him on the cheek; he’d referred to their outings as ‘dates’ when he called her to plan them. He couldn’t have been that misguided, could he? Before he could ruminate on the anxiety of the situation a moment longer, his worries were dissolved when she – after what seemed like a thousand years – started to kiss him back. Slowly, tentatively, one of her hands met his shoulder, the other the back of his neck. He cemented his own in place: one on her cheek, one on the centre of her back, not daring to shift them for an eerie, half-formed fear it would shatter the moment entirely.

~

They hadn’t had sex. Of course, he’d wanted to: couldn’t conceive of a male in his twenties who wouldn’t want to. It was a lie to act like he didn’t want it, he knew that. But there just seemed to be something so… off limits about it with Erin. They’d never discussed it, and so he’d never really tried anything on with her. It was unspoken, and inexplicable, this sense that she just would not want to. The closest they had come to it had been an utter disaster. They’d been on her couch, arguing playfully about why she didn’t want to celebrate Halloween the coming weekend, and the bickering had turned to poking, and playing, and just rolling about and being sickly-sweet-stupid on her enormous (second-hand) sofa, which, eventually, had led to making out. Certainly not for the first time, he was rather thankful. This, kissing like this, was fairly commonplace to their budding relationship. Kissing seemed to be okay in the undeclared communication they had had somewhere along the line. His hands had wandered during these moments – never to her breasts; never to her ass – but her arms, her back: these places were fine. And this time, lost in the moment, in his own blood rushing, Robert forgot himself. Unwittingly, he rested a hand on her thigh. Like lightening, she slapped it away, wrenched herself away from him. “Don’t touch me!”

Robert recoiled, his own shock mirroring the surprise on her face exactly. Was she surprised at his unconscious forwardness, or her own knee-jerk reaction? He couldn’t tell. Before he could begin a throng of profuse apologies ready to hurtle out of him, she spoke instead. No, first she laughed. Breathless and surprised and contrite, she laughed. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry, I don’t know… you just surprised me, is all.”

Robert found he couldn’t say anything. Perhaps (no, not perhaps, but undoubtedly) he was just too cowardly, because later he determined this dreadful moment to be a major insight into her life. Deep down, he knew he just didn’t feel ready to delve into what those secrets she worked so hard to conceal could be. Secrets which, when he considered what they could possibly be, would keep him awake over the next few days. And later, much later, he would regret not making her talk about these things, the why to her what, in the moment.

~

Things didn’t get better after that. Quite the opposite, obviously. She didn’t believe me. My own mother. She wondered how she could have such a despicable, deplorable, disgusting liar for a child. She hated me, and she told me she could never forgive me for the lies I had told about her brother. It was about this time I think I learnt to shut up about just about everything. I guess we are learning things, now. Are you sure you’re a comic, and not a therapist?

Anyway, things got really bad. My mother really did hate me. I’ve heard a lot of people, friends and such, mention that they think their parents hate them, but it’s usually not true, I suspect. Or I hope, at least. But Mum really did hate me, I could tell. Plus, to clarify matters in case I was confused, she did repeat it quite a bit. Also, I think, looking back (something I DIDN’T WANT TO DO), that she actually did believe me about Joseph, but she just felt bad about it, or something along those lines but far more articulate. Because that’s too simplified, ‘felt bad.’ Yes, some part of her had to believe me. I think she loved me up until that moment, but then ultimately decided that she loved her older brother more. I think the only way she knew how to process it all was through hate. It happens – hopefully not often – but it does. I think after that first time she hit me, she thought the damage had been done. Maybe she didn’t think she could take it back. In the years since, on the rare occasions that I indulge myself in the torture of these years, I’ve wondered if Joseph did the same things to her when they were kids, and that her hate for me was born of a kind of twisted jealousy, like she was mad I had replaced her. It seems likely. Whatever her reasons, after that first time she hit me, things just seemed to roll downhill from there.

They fucking snowballed, Robert.

She was startlingly creative about it all. She, of course, was trying to hide it from my dad and my brothers, and so the abuse I was experiencing almost came across almost like pranks. Like a dangerous, spiteful, one-sided series of pranks.

Again, I don’t think I can reiterate with enough force just how much I don’t want to tell you these things. How actively ashamed of this treatment I still am. Even now, so far away from her, from who I was then. That’s what this all comes down to, I suppose: shame. Shame and, of course, fear. I don’t think you can truly torture someone unless they’re afraid. And I’m afraid even now. Not of my mother or uncle anymore. But of how it’s all still following me around. Writing this all down has just got me picturing you sitting there reading it. And, I know it’s only my imagination, but seeing you become so disgusted, so incensed, so repulsed because of me really isn’t something I want to picture. It’s something I wish never had to happen, something I wish I had been better at hiding, ultimately. But I can’t help it. Things were bad then, when I was a kid, because of me, right? And now it just feels like I’m making those already bad things duplicate, by sharing them with someone. So I’m sorry, again. Sincerely. I feel like I should have learnt my lesson from the first time I told someone, and how poorly that went. I could have just kept it all shut up inside myself, and not told her, and waited for the day I outgrew my uncle’s preferences, and was freed from this duty I’d been landed with. I know the things we did were worse than anything my mother ever came up with, but had I taken this route, would my mother still love me? It’s not something I can ever have answered. And even if I could, what good would it do me?

I stopped hurting myself pretty soon after my mum started to. I mean, that would just have been counter-productive. Why send an amateur to do a professional’s job? And she really was a professional at it. Still, I don’t think the shock value ever left her actions, from the day she decided not to believe me, to the day I turned 18.

Honestly, I’m getting really tired now. So tired of writing all this, of trying to remain objective and concise and like it was some other little girl’s worst nightmare come to life, instead of my own. But I’m also aware of the time you told me it can be cathartic to actually get stuff out and not bottle it so much. I’m not sure I can agree at this stage, but I’ll try to see it like that. I just need to get this all out. Just a little bit more. At the very least, I’m a sucker for the word ‘cathartic.’ You know that.

As things got worse, I found myself categorising the things she did into two piles: bad and worse. How optimistic. The bad days were, relatively speaking, the good days. And the worse days were exactly that. The best day was a month after it all started, and we inexplicably moved two and a half hours away from Uncle Joseph. He never touched me again. Something that proves to me that some small part of her had really listened, and really believed. She started small. Apart from the hitting, she would trash my room while I was at school, and once when I was 13 she locked me out of the house overnight. Sometimes it was just tiny, petty things designed to tip me over the edge. She’d give everyone else dinner except for me, explaining to them I felt sick and shouldn’t eat for another 24 hours, just in case. She was never hateful in front of the boys, just perfectly polite and full of pre-determined excuses as to why I was treating me differently. I started sneaking into, Casey’s (oldest brother, in case you’ve forgotten) room after he’d fallen asleep to sleep on his floor, convinced she wouldn’t do anything bad to me as long as a brother was present. As much as she repeated so many of the shitty, small behaviours, she also never ran out of new ideas, new ways to punish me for what I’d done. I have to wonder if there’s a How to Torment Your Children: For Dummies handbook out there somewhere. Either that, or she’s more creative than anyone’s ever given her credit for. The worse-brand stuff happened more as I got older, as I got a part-time job and was away from the house as much as possible. She’d drug my dinner (first weed, then roofies, then LSD). She actually arranged online an exchange of cash for my ‘virginity’ with some middle aged guy. That was bad. The hitting continued. If I dropped a glass she’d push me into the pile of shattered pieces. She locked me in the shed. I know that one sounds less bad, but you know how much I hate spiders. And the dark. So, to me, that was one of the worst ones – and more frequent, too, once she realised how it got to me.

And, not to focus my would-be-there-if-I-wasn’t-emotionally-inept rage on the wrong person, but my dad knew about this. I know that I didn’t officially know that he knew, but how could he not have known? How could he not have? I don’t think I’ve ever thought someone as cowardly as I think he is, and I know he’s well on his way to drinking himself into an early grave. What I don’t know is how I’m going to feel when that day comes.

As for my brothers: I think they’re okay. I don’t think they did anything wrong, and I don’t think they could have helped even if they did know the half of it. They’re fine. They’re good people. They’re about the only thing I miss from Australia.

~

On New Year’s Eve, they had gone to a party at his friend Tobias’ apartment uptown. They were going to stay in, but then Erin voiced a concern about whether it was weird that they hardly did anything other than lounge around at one another’s homes. He laughed, and had to concede. If unprovoked, both he and Erin were the type who could stay in their apartments for days without realising they were severely lacking human contact. So, they decided to actually go out for New Year’s, even though it meant that getting a cab after would be hell. At least Tobias resided at the other end of the park, away from Times Square.

The party had been fine; she’d met a lot of his friends; and they’d each gotten considerably drunk while doing the obligatory rounds of introduction and socialising. Her more so than him, he suspected.

It was half past two when they’d finally arrived back at his apartment, where they agreed it would be easiest for her just to spend the night. It wasn’t the first time either one of them had slept over; they’d each accidentally fallen asleep at one another’s abodes countless times. Sometimes it was on the couch; sometimes it was in bed. Every time it was after far too much Netflix viewing. This night was, however, the first time they’d actually arranged it. In synchronisation, they crashed onto his bed for a few minutes, collecting themselves. After a few moment of stillness, she got up and pulled her shoes and dress off, seemingly unaware of her only-underwear-clad state as she delved into his closet, looking for a t-shirt to wear. She was comfortable around him, sure, but never before to this height. He knew the liquor had everything to do with this newly-determined confidence. Robert himself had only gotten as far as kicking off his shoes and unbuttoning his jeans, not quite sure taking them off was worth the effort that lifting his ass up off the mattress would be. Erin may have been more inebriated, but she was a much higher-functioning drunk. He felt full, and lazy, and hazy, and a little ill. Turned away from him, she removed her bra, replacing it with the shirt she’d found, before drunkenly waltzing over to his underwear drawer in search of some boxers, he presumed. He kicked off his pants.

She lunged back onto his bed, pulling the covers awkwardly over herself as he finally sat up, fumbled with his shirt buttons for a minute, eventually removing it and shrugging on the first okay-smelling t-shirt he could find wadded up on his side of the bed. They had sides, now. His was on the right at his place; on the left at her place. When he climbed in behind her, Erin shuffled backward, making herself the little spoon. She pulled his arm over her belly, and her hair smelled of cinnamon (courtesy of whomever had spilt a shot of Fireball down her back a few hours ago). Foggy, Robert still noticed that this was the first time she’d ever initiated their contact, and he felt warm.

“You got any resolutions?” She asked.

He shook his head, and prompty stopped when the room started spinning. “No. I don’t believe in them. You?”

“Mm,” she allowed. “Two, this year.”

“What are they.”

“Well, the first one’s just the usual,” she explained, as if he had any idea what she was talking about. When he said nothing, she prompted him, “you know: try to forget.”

“Forget what?”

She sighed. Didn’t respond other than that. So he went for a different angle: “Well, what the second one?” He wasn’t entirely sure that she hadn’t fallen asleep.

“Try not to mess this up,” she said calmly, like it were obvious. Like she was speaking to a child. They were quiet for a few minutes. He switched off the lamp, convinced he wasn’t going to say anything until it came out despite himself. In his drunken state, he could allow himself to be needy and apprehensive.

“You like me, right?” He mumbled.

“You know I like you, Inadequate Masculinity,” she yawned.

He guffawed, “You mean ‘Insecure Masculinity’?”

“Probably,” she laughed back.

“I like you, too. You could tell me anything, you know, and I’d still like you.”

“I think… I hope that’s just not true. Like, I hope I couldn’t tell you I murdered someone and you’d be fine with it. But thanks for the sentiment,” she sighed ad he yawned this time.

“Well, it depends who you murder.” She laughed at that. “You know what I mean though… I mean it,” Robert promised. “I know you don’t wanna talk about stuff probably, but who knows? It could be good for you. It could help… So, I don’t know, can’t you just tell me… what’s the saddest you’ve ever been?” his breath was warm on the back of her neck. He probably stunk, but she didn’t complain.

“When my eldest brother moved interstate for a job. Yeah, I missed him.”

Robert frowned at the back of her head. “Really? That’s the saddest?”

“No,” she breathed, “it’s not really, but it wasn’t a good day.”

“Then tell me,” he pleaded, pulled her in tighter.

“I don’t know, I’ve had lots of sad times. The first time he…” and she stopped, shuffled around until they were facing each other. “Don’t do this,” she demanded, decided. It was quiet, but forceful. He feigned ignorance immediately, though truthfully couldn’t exactly pinpoint what exactly he was doing wrong. “Don’t do what?”

“You know what, Robert! I’m drunk. You can’t just get me to blurt stuff out because I’m drunk.” He looked away from her, ashamed. When she put it that way…

“Do you want to fuck me, too? Because I’m drunk and I might agree to it? Well go on, then, have a go. Why not?” She tore the sheets off them, then threw them back down again when he made no move. She groaned, “That’s so wrong, Robert! Shit, honestly,” she grumbled, almost seething, though, conversely, she moved even closer towards him, instead of away from him. He still couldn’t speak. Miserable though he was, he guessed this was a good thing. In addition to these contradictory feelings already whirling around inside him, she muffled into his shirt, “you’re really important to me, and I want to share… I just can’t right now. Especially right now.

“I’m sorry,” he kissed the top of her head. “I really am sorry. That was shitty. I didn’t mean to… another time?”

She was silent, pretending to be asleep, probably. But he felt a curt, miniscule nod of her head against his chest. Just once. Perhaps he felt so lousy because he did know it was unfair of him to speak to her with her guard down, drunk, the only time she was willing to be vulnerable. He wasn’t sure it was entirely fair to be borderline accused of date rape, but it wasn’t a fight he was willing to argue. If only she could just understand this wasn’t about extracting information like he was collecting it… just a desire to actually get to know this person better. He wasn’t a therapist – something she’d declared she had a strong aversion towards – but her partner, who only wanted intimacy for their sake. For the good of their relationship. He considered what it would be like to leave it all alone, to never touch the subject again and just let it fester under her skin as it so obviously had been for years. No, that wouldn’t do. He considered whether he was asking for the right reasons, whether what was actually best for her was truly at the forefront of his mind. He wanted her to trust him, yes. But when it came down to it: he didn’t need her to tell him about her past: he would settle for anyone. Anyone she could trust to talk to about any of it would satiate him, because he got the sense she was a ticking bomb at times. He only wanted that pressure inside her relieved.

~

I’m getting to the point where I don’t think I can write anything else, Robert. I just cannot do this anymore. I think my past has been more than sufficiently dredged back up into the spotlight, and you should now consider yourself as fully informed of all the ins and outs of my childhood trauma. Perhaps you now have a glimpse of insight into why I am the awful, likely unlovable way that I am today. But at least you might know why I’m such a calloused bitch for so much of the time. Well, maybe. I could just be naturally bitchy. It depends on how you subscribe to the whole ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, I imagine.

I think I’m going to have to leave it there, for now. If you want to terminate our relationship after reading this, I will understand that. Part of me will understand that, at least. The other part of me will definitely still think you’re an absolute dick for forcing this out of me and then promptly deciding that my problems are too big for you. But mostly, yes, I will understand. And I do thank you for having the kind heart you do, and the patience to come at least this far with me. I’m sorry.

Erin.

~

After reading the letter – twice – Robert stared at the table for ten minutes before snapping out of it. His hands were shaking. Then, frantically, like he’d snapped out of a trance, he called her, relieved when she picked up after just two rings.

“Come home,” he choked, well aware they didn’t live together and so this request made no sense.

“I’ll be there soon,” she replied glumly before ending the call.

Twenty minutes later, he buzzed her up, running to meet her at the elevator doors on his floor rather than continuing to pace around his living room uselessly. When the double doors opened, he scooped her up in his arms, never having known her to feel as small as she did now. He hadn’t even realised he was crying until she started, too. It was a long while before either of them pulled away, even though snow on her jacket seeped into his own sweater, making his teeth chatter. She was shivering, too. They both apologised a hundred times over, neither knowing why, just that it felt necessary. He kissed her and kissed her and kissed her again.

Eventually, they made their way back inside his apartment, where, despite her written vowed unwillingness to do so, they talked and cried and sat up until three in the morning. She felt a great weight lift over the course of the evening, a weight she understood wouldn’t be gone forever; a weight that by tomorrow may have settled back down to drag her bones and spirits down once again, but for now had been lifted nonetheless. It wasn’t the act of confession that relieved her, but who she was confessing it all to. This boy, this man, who had, for reasons she couldn’t fathom, and honestly couldn’t quite yet believe, had decided to stay.


© Copyright 2018 E Bowshall. All rights reserved.

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