By Sandra, Xanii@aol.com
For days after, I would feel her fingers in my chest. Like they were going through my skin, through my muscles, inside, inflicting their damage.
I'd do like I remember Mama doing and pour table salt into extremely hot water and make a compress and put it on the bruises. If I did that right away, my brown skin wouldn't turn a blackberry blue, it would be a slight maroon, easily concealed behind a bra strap or thick shirt.
She'd outline them later, the bruises, with her thickish rough fingers and look at me. If I looked back, like I had poison in my eyes, she'd know I was upset. Most of the time, she would get no looks, which meant she was somehow not kept accountable. Like I had forgiven her, but she didn't know I had been afraid, terrified in my silence.
On the outside, there was nothing to seem unusual. They could never know, my coworkers or neighbors, friends, not really, unless I told them. I'd always hope one of them, someone would have said something, anything to me, to ask me. But they never did. They'd never know.
I convinced myself going home was always the best thing to do. So that was were I found myself, after catching the train, the bus. I'd walk this way, everyday. They never knew. But tonight, for the past few nights ... after... things would find their way, I was sure of it. Pretty sure.
The pangs still came every time I slipped the silver key in the slot.
I wouldn't relax until I had opened the door and peered in, watching the pinkish watercolor washout of the sun ebbing into the apartment through the balcony shades. There wasn't anyone waiting by the sliding doors though, no one wanting dinner or simply watching for my return.
The smell came, like expired milk - acid, stale, volatile, every time I opened the door but this was home. If she had been here, I know the smell wouldn't. Most evenings found me in bed or in the kitchen. Never cleaning anymore, never washing overalls or ankle socks or being afraid.
I found my pair of jersey shorts in the bottom of the box, pulled them on and rummaged through a pile of clothes in the corner for this big white shirt she used to hate to see me in and crawled it on. Still, I live like a bohemian, my things still packed from my last attempt at moving, at leaving, at running. I sat on the floor by the pile and wondered what, this time would make me wash it? What this time would help me to stay.
I found myself in front of the kitchen, mice and roaches scurrying back to their darkness, back to their homes. Here I was in mine.
The range light was the one I preferred. For one, it didn't spread light on the floor, with the eggshells from Tuesday or the spilt sugar milk and cereal that had lost its sour smell but managed to meld into a sticky caramel colored ooze on the tile. Two, the range light blocked out the tangible things, like cleaning and laundry and the bills stacked on the table in the entry and just let me concentrate on the range: Fire, food.
There was a growing pile of used matches on the top of the range. I'd light them when I turned on the gas and I'd stack the spent match sticks on the top: half burnt pieces of ready to ignite wood. I heard the brittle rattle of a few of them falling to the floor. There must be a pile back there by now. My eyes focused on the steady blue flame. The fire was waiting for the bottom of the darkened pan. Seasoned she would say, seasoned, like it was a piece of steak or chicken.
Is that what she would call what she did to me? Seasoning? Most of the time I would stand in front of the stove breaking eggs into the hot pan. The butter would almost be burned and I would turn the eggy mixtures into it, watching as it splashed and popped and danced around the edges. Sunnyside up, scrambled, wet, fried. And I'd break and mix and break and cook and break and drop till I had a plate full of eggs I would never eat. I knew she would have liked them though.
Marney said I looked thinned out. You girls and your diets he said. But he didn't know I mainly ate tuna now, which she hated and I drank my orange juice from the carton, which she hated and bit down into the creamed coconut bar in the fridge, which she said would one day clog up my heart valves and kill me. Lard-o. She didn't realize I'd put some in her beans to give them flavor. But she said they would kill me, maybe she hoped it would if she didn't first.
She pushed me once, into the door and the knob and key ring made deep bruises on my belly. Later, when it was dark and late and I was tired of hiding my tears, she'd snake her rough hands beneath the sheets toward me and gently rub the bruises, whispering silvery I'm Sorry's into the back of my hair. I'd turn and she'd kiss my neck, pulling me toward her, apologizing with the way she made love to me: slow, deliberate, thoughtful.
And I'd wake up in the mornings, after, if I wasn't too bruised or if the bleedings had stopped and I'd make breakfast, like nothing ever happened. It never happened. No, I must have done something this time.
Next time, I'll watch what I say or what I do or stop the expressions on my face.
And she'd grab her hard hat and peck me on the temple and pull the door behind her. And I'd be left with the dishes and the soiled sheets and my bruised forearms, puffy face or half shut eyes.
Like I gave her permission to do this to me, like I made it okay to be her punching bag.
The last egg was beginning to burn, so I turned the pan over the plate with the other eggs, then dump the whole pile down the disposal. Like I do every time. Tomorrow, maybe it will be bacon or pancakes or waffles in the waffle maker Joe and Allen gave us for house warming a few apartments ago. One time I baked cupcakes and almost brought them to the office but threw them over the balcony instead.
I try to look for the measuring cup and wind up clearing the counter. The smallish kitchen looks like something out of Dr.Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. I decide it has been long enough and begin to clean. Systematic. The dishes and bowls and spoons and mugs in the dishwasher. The wrappers and paper towels and empty microwave dinner boxes in the trash. I empty the fridge, throw out the moldy bread and rotting produce and stale soda. I scrub the floor on hands and knees, emptying buckets of water as I reveal the slight beige of the tile.
"Umm... Sorry to bother you but... do you have any salt?"
I glance up, scurrying to cover my chest with my hands and protect my side. The stranger, she looks at me like a scared animal then finally squats down near me.
"Didn't expect me? Well, Umm, if you keep your front door open people might just walk in."
She turns her head of blondish corkscrew curls toward the open door and nods.
"You always do that... leave your doors open?"
I stand and take my ground.
"I was cleaning, I had to empty the trash can... I must have... Umm, left it open."I reach over to the cabinet above the stove and hand her the salt.
She stands and looks at the brand.
"Thanks. My name is Jagudaev. Friends... everyone call me Eva for short."She reaches a strong worked hand out to me and I jump back.
"Don't worry... I don't bite."
I timidly step forward and give her mine. My back tenses.
"I've come at a bad time. I'll be leaving... um, I live down the hall actually, so I'll be back... umm, when I'm done with this."
"That's fine."I reach a hand behind my neck and look to the floor.
The first time she hit me, she said 'I Love You' in the same breathe that came washing over my face, up my nostrils in through my bangs. She wasn't drunk or doing drugs and she made sure she didn't smoke around me.
The welts came exactly where her fingers touched the skin on the side of my thigh, through my skirt. We were kissing in her apartment, on the couch, as the cat watched. Silent. She whispered her desires and I pulled back from her, appalled.
"No!"and I pushed her away.
Her hand came crashing against me.
That night, I went home and started my salt water compresses. The bruise lasted two weeks. She never apologized for that one. I didn't know to make her, to demand she never touch me like that again, to tell her that if she hit me, ever, I'd make sure she never saw the light of day.
"You gonna be having a dinner party?"
I startled at the voice. Turning quickly, I kept her gaze a short while then studied the patterns of the carpet in the bookstore. I looked over the books in my arms, catching a brief glimpse at her corkscrew blonde curls and her blue eyes.
"I just, wanted to try out different recipes."I shook my head in assurance.
"Personally, I find that the spicier the better."
I turned to leave.
"You don't remember me do you?"
I froze in my tracks as I mentally reviewed the faces I had seen, trying to match the voices I remembered, hers' was a blur.
I turned in wonder, sure the color had retreated from my face.
"No."And I shook my head more than said the word.
She stepped closer and crossed her arms in front of her. A slight smell of her musk perfume jogged me. Vague memories locked me onto her blue eyes.
"Denise... You and Denise. I was one of the people invited to your house warming a while ago. I was kinda late but Allen invited me kinda on a last minute thing."
I kept looking at her, sure she could see through me, sure some news had circulated though our small lesbian circles, sure everyone knew now what had become of Denise and me.
"Umm, yeah, vaguely, sorta."
Eva. Joe introduced me to her, she was the one who gave us the blender. The one I used to make finely chopped ice to put on my arm when Denise broke the wine bottle against it. Eva.
"It took me a while last night to figure it out but it's Claire... Claire Deveroe, isn't it?"
I nodded slowly.
"How have things been?"
She didn't know.
"Fine..."I scarcely whisper before a flood of tears made its way to the rims of my eyes.
"I should be going."
"Did I say something wrong?"
She stepped to me and I only backed away, dropping the books, running away, angry that She still got to me, even though we weren't even together anymore, even though she didn't use her hands, she still beat me.
The pile of laundry got done that evening. Whites and colors and delicates that no one got to see. Washed, dried, folded, immaculate. There came a knock at the door.
"I thought I would bring you some... uh, chili. I had some from the other day when I borrowed your salt, which, I've brought back mind you."
She smiles and I can see the questions behind her sun worn face.
"Did I come at a bad time?"She makes to step back.
"No, I was just doing some laundry. I was finishing up."I snatch the dryer sheet from the thigh section of my leggings.
"Whatever it was I said back there at the bookstore... I didn't mean it, honest."
I take the chili and the salt and the extra container with the rice, then look down at the floor.
"Thank You."And I close the door.
"You didn't have to do that."
"Buy those books for me."
Her eyes looked hurt as I noticed her muscled shoulders slump in defeat. She runs her fingers through her curls and pin me with her eyes.
"I know. But talking to you doesn't seem like an option. I thought if you had those books maybe I'd get invited to dinner and talk then. Guess it didn't work."
"I can't... I just can't."
And I leave.
"Then whatever happened, I'm sorry."She yells down the hall, to my back and finally to my closed door.
This time there is nothing to clean or wash or cook. So I spend the early afternoon in bed, watching cooking shows and dozing in small stretches.
The books stayed by the front door for three weeks before I thought to open one of them. Chicken Caccitore. Linguine in Clam sauce. Tandoori chicken. Talapia fish with Passion fruit Mango sauce. So I decide on the last one and leave a note on Eva's door.
Dinner, 7:00 tonight. RSVP - Claire
And I find a note in response:
Dinner, 7:00 tonight. Thank You. Eva
So now I was having company.
I tried to find something in my closet that wasn't trying to say anything. Not that I had broken up with the only woman I had ever slept with, not that I was tired of the loneliness, not that I was more nervous than when I had my first Het date way back when.
I set the black lacquered table with just two plates, forks, napkins and wine glasses. No candles or ambient lighting, just dinner. I decided on a sweater two piece set in a light pink and a white carpenter skirt. I put my long braids back into a ponytail.
"Thank you for inviting me."
I look down, a little embarrassed.
"Come on in."I point to the living area.
She's wearing more of that musk perfume and I find myself getting a little heady. She swaggers in a bit and I find myself wondering what she'd look like in a bathing suit.
"I bought some sparkling grape juice, I hope that's okay."Her clear eyes flash my attention.
"You look very pretty."
"I'm still working on the mango sauce, things should be done in a few minutes."
She takes a seat on the pillowy couch and sits like she is waiting for confession. I half hide in the kitchen, almost letting the mango sauce burn. Okay, this was just dinner.
"Nice place you have here."
I peek into the living room and find her wandering about. She stops at the box where I kept my clothes and pushes it with her boot.
"Just something I was meaning to throw out."
I come in and put a salad on the table and the mango sauce on a folded up dishcloth. She hurries back toward her spot and offers to open the bottle of juice. I grab the glasses from the table and extend one toward her. She sits back on the other side of the couch and sits with her ankle resting on her knee. Her jeans are loose around her thighs and knees and tight around the top of her black boots. She left her shirt slightly open and I notice she wore a tank beneath.
"So... What have you been up to?"
And she gives me this surprised grinning look. I sip my carboned grape juice and wonder where to begin.
"I've been working...and trying to keep it together."
I smile and adjust myself to face her, crossing my legs Indian style, pulling my skirt over my knees.
"Keeping it together is a good thing. Work on the other hand is what I am worried about. You mean to tell me you're still working with Gunthermier?"
"Gunthermier actually reports to me now, so-"
"YES!! Payback is sweet!"
I jump back a bit as she lifts her hand to high five me. She stops and eases away. Flustered, embarrassed.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't going to do anything... you alright?"
I scurry to the kitchen and check on the broiling fish. No, this was just dinner. I pace the smallish space in the kitchen, trying to calm down.
"The...the fish is, is ready."
I emerge from the kitchen and place both plates on the table. She looks at me from the couch.
"Maybe this really wasn't a good idea."
She stands to leave.
I grab the back of a near by chair and look at the clean clean floor.
I place my free hand against the wall and take a deep breath.
"She used to hit me, Denise...hit me. She broke my collar bone and fractured my cheek and turned me colors I never studied in school."
The tears made their way to the floor and fell on my foot on their way down. Hot, salty. Her arms came next, folding in my blinding grief, folding in what she did not know, what she did not really understand. Her arms came, rescuing me from the flood.