The night I left him, he threatened to take a baseball bat to everything we owned, only we didn’t own a baseball bat. He didn’t even like baseball. He said he would smash our 37-inch flat screen, the glass coffee tables and end tables, the microwave, even the computer where he spent thousands of dollars on porn, where he hired the prostitute on Craigslist.
The girls in the videos he filed away looked so much like me. The photo of the prostitute, in the email I found, looked even more like me. So did the classmate he had the affair with. The one we had dinner with once at a Mexican restaurant. She and her husband.
“I’m going to kill myself if you leave. If you leave, I will kill myself,” he said, treading a footpath through our living room carpet.
“Okay. Okay. I won’t go right now.” I hoped he didn’t notice how indefinite this sounded.
I stood up and walked away, going to the bedroom and shutting the door, locking it. He didn’t follow me.
The cordless phone was in the bedroom, and I dialed my mom. “I’m leaving Theo.”
Mom, the minister’s wife, paused for a moment and then said in her church voice, “Oh, Bri. Everyone goes through hard things in their marriage–” Mom hated divorce. Divorce was never an option. According to her, it was the worst possible thing that could happen to a person.
“Mom—” and then I told her what he did. All of the ugly details. I could hear her breathing on the other line—long wispy breaths that eventually caught in her throat.
“I guess I don’t know how you feel,” she said. “I’m so sorry, honey.”
I packed everything I could think of in the suitcase he gave me. It was covered in skulls and crossbones, the tops of the skulls adorned with hot pink bows. He gave it to me for Christmas the year we got engaged, two weeks after my eighteenth birthday. His buddies chided him for the decision, telling him how unromantic luggage was and that I would probably hate his gift. I didn’t hate his gift. I decided that buying luggage was his way of showing his commitment to our life together.
I was such a moron, then.
Cindy once dared me to go skinny dipping when we were kids. I was twelve. She was fourteen. Cindy took a clear bottle from her purse and sprayed her dishwater blonde hair with lemon juice. Streaks of faded pink had already formed as the sun touched the darker strands. I laid my shorts, t-shirt with a rainbow, and underwear on the flat, sedimentary rock that extended at least twenty feet over Lake Superior. I jumped in. The water was cold—so cold that I hardly noticed the movement of my body. Minnows brushed my ankles. I wished them far away from the space between my legs. I looked to the area we had come from. We had crossed through a campground, had found a trail in the back and then made our way down a sand dune, slicing seagrass, cattails, and tall, slender bulrush with our hands. What if someone else found our trail? What if they were watching me swim naked?
“Get in with me,” I pleaded.
“I can’t,” she said. “I’m on my period.”
“No, you’re not.” I thought she was avoiding my dare.
“I’ll put in a tampon. Don’t watch.”
I turned around, leaving one hand on the rock, my shoulder stretching awkwardly. Chequamegon Bay was empty, the water black with no visible coastline. I felt like I was lost at sea.
“Look at all that blood,” she said proudly, and I turned around, both hands now on the rock, my newly developed boobs floating just under the surface. She was wearing only her panties and a tank top. She leaned over to let me look at the maxi pad in her hands, a large red streak down the center. It was the first time I had seen anything like it.
On our third date we threw buttered popcorn at each other in a dark theater and we laughed during all of the disturbing scenes, not because we were masochistic but because we were together and laughing was the thing we did when we were together. It was what everyone noticed about us as a couple— “you two are always so giddy,” they said, peering at us with envious eyes.
When we walked out of the theater, his long fingers tangled through mine, he let go and held up his palm. “Stay here for a minute,” he said. Theo walked ten feet away and lifted his leg, then bent over. A low rumbling sound echoed across the parking lot. When he came back, I was on the pavement, roaring. I never stopped laughing in those first few months. “I think you’re my new best friend,” he said, grinning.
He told me on the way home from our date that when he met me at the pool that first day, he noticed my boobs. “I’m a boob-man,” he said as his beat-up van tore down Highway 10. He loves my body., I thought. It made me feel beautiful.
I was seventeen when I met him. His sister was a friend. She invited me over for the night and we swam in their inground pool. He was nineteen and still living in his parent’s pool house, roasting coffee beans at a coffee shop, touring with his band when he was able. I was wearing a one-piece because daughters of ministers aren’t supposed to wear bikinis. We didn’t say much to each other. Just said our names and moved on with our lives. Or so I thought.
When we had sex for the first time, months later, I cried and I thought, God won’t forgive me for this. Because sex before marriage is about as bad and dark and shameful as divorce. Maybe worse.
I wore a thin, metallic band on my finger, one given to me at thirteen by my dad. “This is to remind you of your purity,” Dad said in front of our whole church. I wonder now why this exposure of my sexuality, or lack thereof, didn’t rattle me. The whole ceremony feels invasive now, inappropriate for a girl so young. I turned the band around and around my finger as I lay in bed beside Theo, and I knew I had crossed a line with God. It felt wrong, all the things we did as my skin warmed the coolness of his sheets, his fingers, coarse from bleach, moving over my body. But I could feel something open up in me that day. I remembered the swimming pool the day we had met, and I felt I was back there swimming in all the coolness and freshness, but I would never, ever be able to get out of the pool. All the joy of the sun might, some day, burn my exposed skin but the plastered blue walls held me captive. There would be no ladder or diving board to cling to. It would just be him, standing over me, enjoying me, marching around the edge to keep me from pulling myself up.
At twelve, I started to want this thing that happened to Cindy each month. I read articles on the internet about how I would know for sure that I had started my period. I checked my underwear for spots of red and even white, which is what some of the articles said might happen. I talked to my mom and my Aunt Lauren incessantly. “I have cramps today,” I would say. “I think it’s going to start soon.” My mom gave me a book with pictures of a penis and a vagina and ovaries and a uterus. She said that when she got her period, she wondered if she was dying. She didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.
I was 13 when it happened. During the summer my girlfriends and I would set up a tent in my back yard where we microwaved Bagel Bites and talked about boys. When the end of the summer came and things began to cool, I thought it would be funny to wear my fuzzy pink pajamas with the feet; the one with the zipper all the way up the front and a trapdoor buttoned over the back. I woke up the next morning feeling a stickiness all over the lower half of my body. When I stood up, Cindy screamed, “Bri, there’s blood all over you!”
I smiled and stood proudly before my girlfriends, making sure all of them saw the gory sight of my rear-end. Like I had been stabbed many times, in a struggle, and survived to tell of my triumph.
His sister was in the shower, and I was hanging out in her bedroom listening to music, laying on my back across her bedspread with its psychedelic swirls, singing, “I found my place in the sun, lied my way there/ I’ve looked in your eyes/ I’m coming clean…”
His head appeared in the doorway. I teased him later about his exaggerated, tall hair, bleached tips. He stepped inside the room, the definition of chest muscles showed through his thin cotton t-shirt. His right bicep displayed a portrait of Jesus with one eye closed as if He were winking at me.
“The Getup Kids?” he asked, even though he knew exactly who they were.
He sat down in a chair by the door and grinned like a bored chimpanzee. His limbs were so long, all legs and arms folded up in a too-small chair. I stopped singing.
“Keep going,” he said. This embarrassed me. I refused to sing on command.
I hadn’t spoken to Cindy for years. She lived in a town across Chequamegon Bay. Her parents had stopped coming to my dad’s church. I heard she was pregnant and that didn’t surprise me because she snuck out of the house a lot to meet boys. One time, right before we grew apart, she took me with her. I sat on the boy’s bed and saw posters of naked women plastered all over his walls.
She came into Walmart, where I worked in high school, pushing a shopping cart with a toddler inside. She was wearing a black leather biker jacket. I was wearing navy blue velvet jeans from The GAP. I was seventeen, and she was nineteen. It was right before I met Theo.
“What have you been up to, Bri?” she asked.
“Looking at colleges. Just trying to finish school. I’m so ready to get out of here.” I had decided on a small school in Texas, in a town that was half-desert with one or two man-made lakes and no trees. “What about you? I mean.” I paused, not knowing how to ask the question I really wanted to ask. “How are you?” I felt the patronizing concern in my eyes but I couldn’t seem to shake it.
Cindy smiled half-heartedly, like she would forgive me because I didn’t know any better. She seemed more grown-up than me and it wasn’t just because she had a child now, or even the fact that she was two years older. “I’m learning things,” she said, “I’m learning that adulthood is not some kind of idealistic fantasy that I always thought it was.”
Before our first date, I purchased a blue mini skirt, platform sandals, and a t-shirt with a dragonfly on the front. I snuck out the back door. I had always been the kind of girl my mom expected me to be. I didn’t want her to know I might be turning into someone else.
Theo and I drove all over town with the windows down in his beat-up Dodge Caravan. It was an ugly brown with one of those wood-paneled stripes along the side. He apologized for the van and said that he once owned a 77 Chevy Impala in high school but sold it for something that could haul his amplifiers and bass. I thought he was boasting, but I wasn’t sure. We told our life stories, me, with one arm out the window, palm open, feeling fresh lake air rush through the spaces between my fingers. We went for a walk on a trail near the campground. The same place I skinny-dipped with Cindy. My hair was long then, and it stuck to the back of my neck in the summer heat. I self-consciously pulled a few strands of sweaty hair between my lips after the wind had forced them into my mouth. The rocks and tree roots were jarring as I stumbled across them in my platform sandals. He eventually grabbed my elbow and guided me back to the car. When he asked me what restaurant I wanted to eat at, I said, “Wherever you want to go. I don’t care.”
When we registered for dishes several months later, he said, “I think we should register for something plain and neutral. Like this white set, right here.” He didn’t ask me what I preferred. We registered for the white.
Cindy was married when I next saw her. I was married too, but I was nineteen, had a short pixie cut, and wore glitter on my face. She’d just given birth to her second baby. We met at one of Theo’s shows in a smoky club in Duluth. It was loud in the club, and Cindy and I had to yell to have a conversation.
“We are best friends! We do everything together!” I screamed, trying to describe my perfect relationship with my new husband. I watched him as I spoke to her. He leaned over the merchandise table chatting with a petite blonde. She reached up and touched his tall hair. He didn’t pull away.
“That’s great! So happy for you! Steve and I are lucky if we get one Friday night a month to have a date,” Cindy yelled back.
We shared a greasy pizza and a pitcher of beer while my husband played on stage and her husband bobbed his head in front of the platform. Theo spun around the stage holding the neck of his bass like one would hold a machine gun, pointing it at various fans in the crowd. A wet half-circle began to form around the neck of his t-shirt, and as he shook his head violently, in time to the music, droplets of sweat flew from his head. Some unsuspecting observers were the victims of this energetic performance. Young girls screamed. God, he was sexy. I could see Cindy’s face though. Some hesitation rested there as her eyes turned to Theo and the screaming girls and then back to me again.
Looking back, I have no idea why Cindy would have wanted to spend time with an idiot child like myself, but she asked, “So I’m home all day with the baby. Do you want to come over sometime and eat lunch? I’m close to the university. You could stop by after class or something.”
“Can we have pizza?” I asked.
Just after we were engaged, he invited me over to his pool house one night to watch The Big Lebowski. I sat Indian style, and he laid on the couch. The tiny lights of his grandmother’s diamond mingled delicately with the blue of the television screen. It had been glaring at me from my left hand for weeks like a lighthouse warning me of difficult times ahead.
Theo enjoyed the attention of women. It was clearly one of his favorite things about being a musician. He attracted women like a can of tuna attracts cats. They showed up everywhere, smiling at him coyly with their chests thrust out, their teenage tongues maneuvering bubble gum as if they were maneuvering a part of his anatomy. When our laughter began to die away, I wondered why he wanted to marry me with all of these other available women around. He never really told me why. I think he just liked to see the ring on my finger, as if it was his way of branding me or spraying me with his scent. It kept the other dogs away.
“Do you want a beer or something?” he asked. I was silent and leaned toward a throw pillow, further away from him then I was before.
After a few moments with no words exchanged, he nudged me with his toe. “What’s wrong?”
If I mentioned my concerns, it might throw the entire trajectory of our relationship into a tailspin. It might make him angry with me. It might mean he will break up with me. “She’s too much drama,” he would tell his friends. “I need my freedom.”
“Come here.” He directed me to the space next to his body–the body that I was sure I could not survive without. When I didn’t come as he commanded, he sat up straight, his thigh touching mine. His fingers slid down my forearm and he cautiously reached for my hand. I thought, just for a moment, that it was some kind of romantic gesture. Some acknowledgement of my pain. Instead, he placed my hand on his crotch where an erection had already formed and pressed my hand on his penis. He moved it slowly at first and when I began to resist, he clutched harder, moving my hand faster while it caved into the bones of his knuckles.
“Stop!” I said and pulled my hand away, frantic. I didn’t see it coming. The back of his hard-knuckled hand made contact with the area between my clavicle and breast. My body drew up and my head hit the wall above the sofa, finally folding into itself. I took a moment to catch my breath. The shock of it all had locked the air up in my lungs.
“I don’t know why I did that. I’ve never, ever done anything like that,” was all he could say. He pulled back, afraid to touch me again. Afraid of what his hands might do.
I stood up and walked to the bathroom. My steps were stiff, even stilted but I felt as if I were simultaneously floating. Locking the door behind me, I saw blood blooming just under my skin. Its fine petals spreading and then thinning in fine lines across my chest. It was just another imprint of him on my skin. I wasn’t sure if this body belonged to me anymore.
The first time I saw Cindy’s house, her living room walls were painted in a bright yellow, so bright that my nerve endings felt blistered from exposure. It was a week after we drank beer and ate pizza at the smoky club. Her blonde hair had darkened to light brown since I saw her at the Walmart that day, but she still had the same haircut. The same messy waves that I remembered her by.
“Clark really likes bright colors. He says it has to do with his Filipino background, but I read once that yellow is not good for babies. The article said it makes them cry.”
I could understand this. I wanted to cry sitting in this ochre room of torture.
“So, when are you going to start having babies? After you finish school, you think?” She asked me this while scooping up two dirty diapers off the carpet.
Having a baby was on my checklist of things I was supposed to do as a woman. I looked at Cindy’s baby, the short, bulky limbs waving in mid-air; an expression of ignorance void of any kind of ambition whatsoever. The scant hair and tiny baby mouth made its large brown eyes the most prominent fixture on its face. I wanted one of these little humans to care for, but I wasn’t sure if that was because it was expected of me.
Laundry was stacked in irregular piles on her furniture. I sat next to a mound of clean socks, the tops folded over to form tight little balls. She didn’t apologize for the mess, and I respected her for that. I remembered the glasses of milk curdling on my countertop. I had been avoiding the sour lumps for days. Theo didn’t like dirty dishes left out, so why didn’t he wash them himself? He was the one who drank a gallon of milk a day. He should wash them. I rested one arm on the pile of socks, and I felt comfortable enough to put my feet on the coffee table. That is what it felt like to spend time with Cindy. Comfortable, even when throbbing, vulgar walls surrounded us.
The wedding ceremony took place in my dad’s small church. When I stood facing Theo, on the platform where Dad delivered his sermons, I could feel that familiar ache in my pelvis, the sensation of wetness, of blood dripping into my white panties. I silently pleaded with God to make it go away.
We couldn’t afford a venue for the reception, so we served cake in the lobby. The cake was made by the lesbian couple that worked at the coffee shop where Theo worked. It was their wedding gift to us. He asked them to decorate it with pink and blue flowers. We assumed they knew this meant pastel, but when the cake was delivered that day, my mom was horrified. Hot pink and fluorescent blue roses and a dark green vine covered its tiers. A little bowl of pastel mints and another one of cashews and peanuts sat beside it. We served a bowl of punch using Aunt Lauren’s recipe.
That night, as I attempted to put on my bridal lingerie, I saw the blood smeared on the insides of my thighs. I sent him to CVS for tampons on our wedding night. He didn’t mind. It made him feel like a grownup. When he returned, we had almost hypnotic sex, the kind that reminds you of how in love you are and helps you forget the ugly dimensions of that love. I slept the rest of the night in the red pool underneath me.
“If you could do anything with your life, what do you think you would do?” Cindy asked. She was flipping through the channels, trying to find something for us to watch on a Thursday afternoon. I had just come from my seminar on Faulkner and Hemingway.
“I don’t know. Just have a family, I guess. I like being married.”
“Really?” she asked.
I was sitting on the sofa, kitty-corner to the love seat where she sat. She stared ahead and didn’t return my gaze.
“What do you mean?” I said. “Isn’t that what you have? What you want?
“Well, yes. I like my life. I’m curious about you, though. Why did you go to college?” She avoided my stare. “He didn’t seem like he wanted you to go.”
“Well, he went too,” I argued.
“Only after you registered for classes. Do you think he did it so he wouldn’t feel inferior?”
“I don’t know. I mean, we talked about that. He’s okay with it now, of course.”
“So why did you? Go to college?”
“He said if we were going to spend all that money, he wanted to make sure I did something practical afterward. I’m going to teach high school English.”
“But why did you go?”
I didn’t want to answer. I didn’t want to answer because it would never happen. At the time, I felt that Theo was the only thing that kept me connected to this earth. He was the only thing that made me aware that I was covered in skin, that I wasn’t simply a shadow floating over the surface of the ground. It felt as if Cindy was peeling back that skin, exposing veins and muscle and cartilage.
There are certain things you don’t ask God for, and a divorce is one of them. I asked God for one, anyway. But I would need proof, some sort of evidence that would support my decision. Something I could show my parents. Something Biblical in stature and proportion. God, get me out of this thing, I said, kneeling on my bedroom floor after I suspected an affair. After I realized I had fucked up all of my dreams so that someone else could follow their own.
I emptied out his pockets one Saturday afternoon to wash his pants, the contents strewn across the bed, a shining purple square conspicuous in the middle of all the day’s wreckage of receipts.
When I asked that morning if I could go with him, he said, “You’ll be so bored if you come. I’m just going to the post office and then Guitar Center. I’m gonna stop by a co-worker’s house on the way home. What will you do, just sit there in the car while I install this guy’s stereo?” He said he would be back that afternoon. But we did everything together. Everything.
When I heard him step out of the shower, I stood ready, facing him. He covered his wet, skinny body with a towel when he saw me there. “Why is there a condom in your pocket?”
“I didn’t know it was there.” His face was still.
“What do you mean you didn’t know it was there? I suppose it just magically appeared, huh?”
“I can’t believe it. You don’t trust me.” I didn’t know gaslighting was a term at this time, but I also knew that he was trying to make me feel crazy.
I persisted. “Tell me why this is in your pocket.”
“It was just there.”
“It has to be there for a reason. You’re hiding something from me. Why was it there?” I waited and he said nothing. “Tell me! Why do you have a condom?” It was the first time I had yelled anything at him. The first time I had raised my voice.
“In case something happened.”
“What do you mean, ‘in case something happened’? What is that supposed to mean?”
I saw a very slight shoulder shrug. A shrug of indifference or abdication, I wasn’t sure which.
“Let me see your email,” I demanded.
“Let me see your email. I already know something happened.”
He stood silent, staring, his body towering over me.
“If you don’t show it to me, I’ll pack my things and leave right now.”
He confessed with the towel still around his waist. I saw the emails from the classmate, the one I had let study with him at our house and whom we ate Mexican food with. She and her husband. The email to the prostitute requesting her service while I was out of town with a friend. The Quickbooks spreadsheets I had never bothered to investigate showing line after line of vague and mysterious purchases.
There is also something you shouldn’t feel when you discover your husband’s indiscretions. You shouldn’t feel relief or gratefulness. I felt both of those things, standing in front of him. Thank you, God, I breathed, my head turned away from his face.
When I drove up to Cindy’s house, I had to maneuver around one of those red plastic cars that toddlers like to scoot around in. The screen door opened before I turned off my ignition. She put her arms around me, and we stood in the driveway this way for a long time, not saying anything. I felt weary, so she opened my trunk, pulled out my suitcase, and rolled it to the door, looking behind her to check on me every few seconds.
Clark was feeding the baby who was propped in a high-chair, orange smeared across the child’s face. He waved at me and I nodded, walked silently upstairs and shut the door. I stretched my body over the Ikea rug on the floor, and I revisited all the reasons why I needed Theo. Why his body kept my body attached to this planet. How he had protected me from the future that I was so frightened of. And now my future was laid before me now like a wild, surging, stampede of rhinos. It was unpredictable. I no longer had him to corral me into safe places.
It was dark when I left the room. Cindy had laid my suitcase next to the door. Its skulls with their pink bows appeared comical now. Cartoonish. Juvenile, even. I touched the wall, brushing my fingers along it, feeling the bumpy texture as I made my way to the bathroom. I could no longer see the blinding yellow. I found the door and felt next to the doorframe for the light switch. Pushing down my sweats and my panties, I reached between my legs and pulled the little dangling string. Blood poured out, and small clots of red flesh landed in the porcelain bowl sliding down the surface into the hole. I took the tampon, heavy with blood, and yanked on the tissue paper, pulling out a few sheets. I placed the tampon on the sheet and rolled it inside the paper, dumping it into the plastic bin beside the toilet. I felt hollowed-out, empty, but the kind of empty you feel when there is space inside of you. When there are so many things left to be done.
Brooke Turner holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She is currently a Graduate Assistant in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern Mississippi. She has been published in Quills & Pixels and am the recipient of the 2018 Cooper Success Award.