A walk with an abused friend
"A Walk With an Abused Friend"
You ask me to walk through the house with you, and I say I'll go.
Time has worn it down, made it so fragile that even our breath can make the walls shudder.
"It makes me blind," you say. "Every time I come here, every time I walk in the door. I don't know why that is."
"That's okay," I say. "We will go together. I won't leave you."
We shut the door behind us, and I see your hand flutter, searching for something. It lands on a thin red string, a string that I see runs all through the house, ducking behind faded picture frames, turning around door knobs. You whisper to me that we have to move carefully because the end of the string is tied to the pin of a grenade.
You take me to the kitchen of that house, and your hand pulls the refrigerator door open. The electricity has been cut off, and there is no food inside, no hum of current. A dead fly. We breathe in air that’s been trapped inside of a metal box for two decades.
Dirty sink water is draining like a hateful sentence once spoken to you, and that water goes round and round, always leaving the room, but never able to empty itself.
"How does that work?" I ask you.
"I've never been able to figure it out," you say.
I follow you following the red string down the hall to that bathroom where you tell me that you used to cry in the shower until you puked. You run your hands over the hot and cold taps, crank them so that they make dry heaves, while cave crickets launch themselves like men from canons, blasting their little brains against the cold ceramic.
You remember folding your seven-year-old self into a naked ball here. The water hit your back in needles, and you tell me how you rocked back and forth on your toes and sucked the water off your own knees until you made four purple marks. The water tasted like salt and Irish Spring soap, and you wanted to stay behind a locked door in this womb forever.
The red string us leads down to a crude basement where words were shot at you with such fury that you wonder aloud if they left bullet holes in the stone walls. "If we could find them, I bet we could count them off like tick marks of days passed in prison," you say.
You feel for the shelves where your young trust was packed scalded into canning jars beside the skinless peaches and tomatoes. Those shelves are now empty, but you try to tell me what it was like to come down here and see yourself floating in glass quarts of brine.
Here was where the jar sat holding the first time he hit you.
And here, the first time she threw you down the steps.
This spot was for the names they used to suck the breath out of your chest.
They scalded you, and strained you, and packed you down in the cellar of "private things we don't talk about to neighbors." And your childhood was archived by years written in permanent marker on the tops of all those jars.
We make our way back up the staircase, and you feel the weight of yourself making the house supports groan and cry. You fear that the load bearing walls cannot bear you, that being honest will bring down everything into rubble around you. Because for so long you just had to survive, you never learned to be comfortable with your own gravity.
And it is strange, because even though you are smaller than I am, I seem to weigh nothing here, while you weigh tons and tons. This house remembers you. It nods back and forth for you, like a beloved friend mourning at a funeral.
You show me where you went to hide. This is where you learned to make yourself quiet and unobservable. Where you learned how to keep from pulling the trigger. Where you learned how to stop caring, how to slip out of your body and hover above yourself. This is where you learned to look down on the world like a character on a stage. This is where you learned how to light a match, and throw the flame into gasoline, and run.
You learned how to survive and to react, but you never learned to be your whole self there.
I ask you how tall you are. You say 5’6.”
I ask how tall she was. You say 5’5.”
I say, “Well, that’s a full inch taller. You’re bigger now than she ever was.” And you ask me to carve a groove in a wall so you can feel where 5’5” ends.
We start at the top of her head and carve our way down and around the shape she would have been. Here are the edges of her face. The edges of her arms. The edges of her hands. The edges of her legs. We dig deep furrows in the plaster of that house, and you trace them around and around for twelve or thirteen minutes, thinking.
You stand up and press your back against her outline, and ask me to make a groove for the top of your head so you can you feel the space the difference between you makes.
“But then there’s love,” you say.
And you tell me you think it would be easier if there were no love, but that children cannot help but kiss the hand that strikes them. You tell me this second pain is even more terrible than the first, the pain of remembering how you cared so much about pleasing her.
And then you tell me the stories you’ve learned from aunts and cousins, pieces from an ugly jigsaw puzzle that you have collected slowly. This disease was inherited. A violent grandfather. A brutal injury that change him. Alcoholism. Abandonment. And then hurt children who became adults who had children. The family graveyard. A nest of copperheads.
You feel a twinge of compassion, then a rush of fury. You don’t want to betray the child you were by being too accommodating. You were too accommodating for too long. Never again.
You ask me where forgiveness ends and where weakness begins, and I say that I can never tell in cases like this. But I tell you that I trust you to find that answer because you are brave, and kind, and smart, and that you’re my hero for even asking that question.
“Let’s go,” you say. And you release the string to run your fingers down my arm until they find my hand. You grab it and squeeze hard.
"You're there?" you say, but it's not really a question.
“Thank you for trusting me enough to show me,” I say. “I’m sorry it was like this. Can you find the door without the string? Do I need to guide you out?
You laugh and your voice grows stronger when it answers. “No. No. That door… I know where that door is. I’ve got it memorized. I could find it in my sleep.”
Then you lead, and I follow. And we step out together into the open air.
“I can see again,” you say.
So we watch a Northern Harrier stretch his wings against the summer currents, sailing like a ship on good seas.
We watch a mass of yellow foxtails nodding their tickly heads.
There’s a beetle with legs too small trying to haul himself through some clover, and we laugh at his determination.
We realize that we’ve been breathing shallow, so we lean back and suck the wide world down into our lungs while the sun makes the oil on our faces shine.