You first encounter it in the summer. It’s Brooklyn where things are pretentious and artsy and you don’t think it can happen, but it does. It’s always a surprise.
You don’t remember exactly what happened. Alcohol was there. It’s always the chaperone on your time together. Why would it leave? He pays for it. He always drinks more than you do. And, if you don’t drink fast enough, he finishes your drinks too.
You’re surprised. You didn’t know it was possible to fall up the stairs. There will be bruises on your right arm, under your left cheekbone. He’ll drag you to the bed with one arm. He might pull your hair the first time, but most certainly the next. In the morning, he’ll act horrified. He’ll scuttle you away from the delivery man. He’ll even cry. He’ll lean his head on your chest like a boy and cry and sob in a drowning voice that how could he let this happen? With his own hands. The guilt on his face will be red. He apologizes until the words start to sound sorrier and sorrier.
You’ll believe him. Why wouldn’t you? The first time is always a mistake. It didn’t even really happen–you’re making it up. The first time feels like there was a big misunderstanding. A glitch in the universe. Like a bad dream, if you forget it, it never really happened. Your computer froze. Reboot for a smarter operating system. The more you try to think about it, the more your brain will try to blur it and distort it. This doesn’t happen. This doesn’t happen to us.
This doesn’t happen to people who write songs together or plot adventures or laugh at silly heavy metal songs. This doesn’t happen to people who order the same Thai food and remember memories about each other that weren’t even theirs. This. This is for other people.
That weekend he’ll spend a thousand dollars: give you jewelry, a card, and take you out. There will be $15 cocktails with sage and elderflower. He is always sweet. He’ll talk about drinking less. For the both of you. You’ll wear the jewelry every day. And why not? It’s beautiful.
When you run into friends at a bar, they mention how wonderful it is that he has you. They think it’s great that you keep him in check. They say that you’re wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. It doesn’t sound like a word anymore.
There is a bruise under your cheek. Small, purple-blue, spidery. You take a picture of with your phone. That night, he made you give back your engagement ring. Tried to get you to move out at 3 am so he could lock the door behind you.
You gave him the silent treatment. A sloppy, slurring hand answered.
Truthfully, you made yourself forget about the bruise. Forgot about the photo. It wasn’t until an iCloud reminder popped up. And there it was – the bruise and your face puffy with regret and his alcohol. Technology is funny that way.
He loves social media.
He posts photos of you smiling, in sunglasses, in the dress he really likes, with cute dogs, with the dog you adopted, eating ice cream, holding records, laughing.
He calls you my queen, the best girl, my wife (you aren’t married–yet), girly.
People like it and say what a great couple you are.
Other girls get jealous. A red-headed one messages him to stop posting photos of you. He laughs. He said: Isn’t that great? She’s burning up inside. Over you. Then, he takes you to the bedroom.
You don’t know this yet, but there will be someone else. There will be several someones. There’s a man from the neighborhood that you convinced yourself you love. He has a false sense of mysteriousness and a duplex apartment. You stay at his place for three nights in a row: there’s red wine, fucking, and delivered breakfast. He buys you a black dress from Alter because you weren’t expecting to stay over for one night, let alone days. You take a bath together. You’ll lay on his balcony together. He’ll put his hand on your ass in front of his friends. You think: this might be something. He will disappear in two weeks with a nauseous parting gift: he thinks you’re beautiful and cool. Enough to let you go.
At first you thought your own life became a tv show. Imagine waking up next to someone choking on their own vomit.
You smack him so hard to wake him.
It doesn’t stop. He yells. You try to clean it up, but he falls back asleep in it.
The smell makes you feel so sick that you sleep on the couch.
When you’re at work he texts you:
What happened last night?
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
That night, you come home to red roses, champagne, and rehearsed promises.
Months later, when he chokes you for real, you’ll wonder if you made a grave mistake by waking him up. You won’t always feel guilty thinking that.
You don’t remember him getting kicked out of the bar for yelling at you and grabbing your shoulder a little too hard. A little too forcefully for public display. You don’t remember leaving by yourself and walking home. You don’t remember getting home at all. This is what everyone tells you – weeks later.
Things have to get better when the sun is out. How could you or anyone else be unhappy? It doesn’t make sense. You drag your canvas sneakers against the sidewalk. You didn’t sleep last night.
You tried to take a shower in peace but someone came in with nonsense sentences and managed to stammer out that you had floppy tits and the world is unfair because you’re not moving to Los Angeles, but you almost did for someone else.
It ends with him lunging at you in the shower, fully dressed. Just stay still against the wall and wait for it to be over. He’ll pass out soon enough.
The fantasizing starts. You start falling in love with strangers on the street. Handsome women. Beautiful men. You wish one of them would take your hand and you’d both go somewhere. There would be lots of kissing, of course. And laughter. Run away to Rockaway Beach. Or, hide out in a cabin upstate. Somewhere. Anywhere but here.
You told everyone that you tripped in your Crossfit class. But, maybe no one believed you.
You kissed another someone. The next morning you think you’ll feel guilty. You don’t.
Keep this secret to yourself. It’s the only thing you have right now.
It’s 1 am and you’re in the shower again. Hot water and orange tiles. Most of the time, it seems like a safe space. You think about the movie you watched together on the couch. He was quiet. It was good.
The two characters ran away on a road trip. They stole money. They stayed in seedy motels. They had each other. You think, that must be nice. To be in a quiet motel room in the desert. With someone else. Hiding.
So, you pretend. You pretend to shower away the screaming. The hand that struck your face so hard that your glasses fell off. You pretend there is a new lover on the bed. A suitcase. Bottles of diet soda on the table, jeans on the floor. A blue tee shirt on the chair. Your Vans sneakers neatly waiting by the door.
It would be nice to hear your new lover’s voice when you get out of the shower. Calm and safe. You keep showering. The hot water closing around your body. You could stay there forever. Waiting for your lover. Worrying about hiding a bag of money. The uncertainty could be delicious. Things could be different. Your lover waits. You’re good at pretending.
Stephanie Valente lives in Brooklyn, NY. She has published Hotel Ghost (Bottlecap Press, 2015) and waiting for the end of the world (Bottlecap Press, 2017) and has work included in Susan, TL;DR, and Cosmonauts Avenue. Sometimes, she feels human. http://