by Marie Coyle
Marie Coyle has a B.A. in English from the University of New Hampshire. She has taught middle school English in the Bronx, NY, and Rockville, MD. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex kept shoving shredded cheese into his mouth as he chopped vegetables for the salad. Sarah watched the path of his hand: bag to mouth, reaching for the knife, cutting a cucumber into slices thicker than she would have preferred, back to the bag, back to the mouth. The idea of his saliva blending with the artificial bright-orange shreds revolted her, even though he was the only one who ever ate it.
"When did you buy that cheese?"
"I don't know. Why?"
"Oh, there's a reason."
Sarah ran her hands through her hair. "It's just, it's like, half gone already. That's a lot of dairy."
"Well, not everyone's a psycho-anti-dairy activist," Alex said cheerfully, grating carrots.
"Fine." She traced invisible patterns on the counter. "Just don't put that in the salad, ok? It's gross. And it's so bad for you."
"No, it's not."
"Alex, I think I know what I'm talking about."
"Oh, nice. I didn't know you were moonlighting as a professional diet expert."
"No, not whatever, it's called a nutritionist."
"I know what it's called, and you know what? You don't always have to be right about everything."
"Gee, thanks for the heads up. But when I am right, I want to get credit for it—is that a crime? Jesus Christ."
"No, but see, you manipulate everything—you know—you just always have to have it your way." He cupped his hand and scraped carrot shavings from the cutting board into the salad bowl.
"No I don't!"
He reached for the bag of cheese.
"Are you seriously putting that in?"
"Seriously?" He leaned towards her and raised his eyebrows. "Yes, I seriously am. You know, I am so sick of your celebrity diet 'dairy is bad for you don't eat sugar don't eat bread don't eat anything that casts a shadow' bullshit."
"But it's not bullshit, cow's milk really—"
"No! No. I don't want to hear it."
"But you don't even—"
"Sarah." He raised his palms, fingers spread, and took a deep breath, released it. "If you say one more thing about dairy. I swear to God." He picked up the bag.
Sarah bit her lower lip. She stood up, picked up two enamel plates. She paused halfway to the kitchen table; turned back to face him again.
"Alex, it's so bad for you! You know it makes you all bloated."
Alex slammed the bowl down on the counter. Shreds of lettuce flew up, landing on the counter in limp clumps. "All right. Either get out of the kitchen, or shut up and help me get this ready."
Sarah carefully, deliberately, placed the dishes on the table. Her heart was racing and she felt caged, furious, as if the raw force of her frustration could propel her through the ceiling like a jet-pack. She stalked to the counter, took a tomato from a heavy ceramic bowl. "Fine," she said, flinging it at his shoulder. "Here's a tomato, you dumb fuck."
His palm slapped against her cheek, light and sharp. It seemed that his arm was not really attached to his body—it darted too quickly, instinctively, thrusting towards her face of its own accord. Alex looked horrified and slightly delighted, like a child who has spilled grape juice on a carpet, knowing that, in terms of misbehaving, he has crossed the point of no return: intoxicated with his own power.
Sarah walked quickly out of the room, eyes down, hands by her sides. She shut the bathroom door behind her and inspected her reflection in the mirror. Her face looked exactly as it had the last time she'd caught a glimpse of it—she'd expected something, not a bruise necessarily, but a red mark at least. Did it count if there was no change in appearance? Did she want a change in appearance? At least then there would be proof. Proof of what, though, and for whom? Sarah sat on the toilet seat. What did someone do in this situation?
Alex knocked. "Sarah," he said. She locked the door and sat on the edge of the tub. Did he really just do that? Did that actually happen? Impossible. Impossible not because Alex was gentle, passive, caring, though he usually was. But couples like Sarah and Alex did not slap each other. They had vegan Tofutti and Smart Bacon in their fridge. They rode their bikes by the C & O Canal on Sunday mornings. They went to free outdoor concerts at the Kennedy Center in the summer. They were not the type of people who did this sort of thing.
She stood up to look in the mirror again. Nothing out of place, nothing changed; she looked upset but not abused in any way. Oh, Alex, she thought. You ruined everything.
Upon closer examination of her face, Sarah noticed several errant hairs verging from her brow line. Tweezing her eyebrows seemed, in that moment, to be the most logical and necessary act she could perform. She opened the drawer under the sink and started rummaging through cotton balls spilled loose from their plastic bag, razor blades, and a toothpaste tube squeezed limp and empty. She opened the bathroom door and walked into the entryway. Alex was putting food away in the kitchen, and turned anxiously when he heard her come in.
"What are you doing?"
"Looking for tweezers," she said tightly.
"God, Sarah." He rubbed his palms together.
"Shut up. Shut up, shut up before you say it." She picked up her coat and purse and started towards the front door. "When you finish the toothpaste next time, can you do me a huge fucking favor and throw it away? Is that too much to ask?"
It didn't make sense to her, no matter how many times she retraced the events of the night. She drove up and down the Rockville Pike, storefronts glowing, groups of people her age waiting outside clubs. Sarah felt incredibly removed from them; they were laughing and excited, alcohol loosening them already, while her brain was an aching knot and her hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly her biceps hurt. She flew back and forth between guilt and indignation, shame and self-pity. It wasn't so much that she deserved to be hit—she'd been steeped in third-wave feminism for long enough to know that she never deserved any harm that befell her. But a persistent flame of honesty burned in the back of her mind, and she understood what had happened in a secret, reluctant way. She understood the impulse. She'd only thrown the tomato, but in the instant, she'd been angry enough to throw the entire bowl.
Her cell phone rang. Alex. Her heart contracted, expanded: it was her friend Kristin's name on the caller ID. "Hello?"
"Sarah! What are you doing?"
"Ah, not too much, you?"
"We're finishing dinner—you should come over."
Sarah smiled in spite of herself at Kristin's directness, her confidence in arranging the lives of the people around her. "Ok. I'll be over."
"Yes! Drive fast."
Sarah made an illegal u-turn, heading east. Kristin would be a good sounding board, a good support. Kristin had very clearly defined ideas about everything in the world; she also had a way of making Sarah feel in the right, no matter what. Sarah had the uneasy feeling that sometimes she let her friend's opinions shape her own, but their logic often seemed flawless. At the very least Kristin would coddle her, and that was what Sarah desperately needed: attention, soft words, and someone to tell her that things would eventually end up just fine.
Kristin and her roommates lived in a small townhouse in North Potomac, 'within five minutes of five Starbucks,' they liked to say with disgust. They attended candlelight vigils in the city and as many protests as they could miss work for. Alex joked that they would one day accidentally end up at a Pro-Life march or NRA rally just for the sake of activism. Sarah saw lights on in Kristin's bedroom and knocked on the door. A small glittery sticker in the shape of a goldfish was stuck to the mailbox.
"Who is it," Kristin yelled from inside.
She cleared her throat. "Sarah."
"Oh! Hey! Sorry, come in."
Sarah walked into their tiny living room. Printed silk scarves hung on the walls; mismatched furniture was jammed in a friendly circle. The house smelled like marijuana and soy sauce. She sat on a flannel-covered futon. Voices were laughing and screeching upstairs. Water stopped running somewhere.
Kristin walked in, wiping her hands on her jeans. "Hey stranger," she said, grinning. "So Alex didn't need you tonight?" Kristin often accused Sarah, in a semi-teasing way, of being 'domesticated.' She folded her long legs underneath her on a love seat across from Sarah.
Sarah smiled tightly. "No, he didn't." She felt claustrophobic. "Actually, we, ah, we had a fight, kind of."
Kristin wrinkled her nose in disapproval. "That sucks. I'm sorry. About what?"
Sarah sighed and waved one hand expansively. "You know. Just stupid stuff."
"Oh, yeah, definitely. No I'm totally fine, just a little stressed, you know?"
This was a mistake. She realized that she could never tell Kristin about what happened. Sarah herself was not even quite sure how to explain the argument, how things had escalated, but looking into Kristin's wide, expectant face made it clear that no amount of explaining would save Alex. None of it would matter to Kristin: late nights, both of them picking fights, tension at work, Sarah taking out her stress by poking and prodding at Alex, provoking him, whining, generally being (she had to admit, guiltily) a brat. None of it would matter, because he had hit her.
Kristin used the word 'patriarchy' on a daily basis. She was fiercely protective and easily infuriated, and she would not pat Sarah on the back and stroke her hair, but would swear and stomp and rage. But worse, telling Kristin would make it impossible for Sarah to ever, ever return to him. "It's fine though," she added once more.
Kristin grinned. "The lady doth protest too much! Seriously, though."
Sarah nodded. "Seriously. Are you all going out?"
"If you want, yeah, we're probably heading out around eleven." Kristin chatted on as Sarah stared at the floor. Upstairs someone was listening to music with a heavy bass beat. Sarah knew, miserably, that it would not be possible to tell anyone this without them immediately seeing her relationship as abusive, without them seeing her as a victim, without them seeing Alex as a monster. Telling anyone would shatter Alex's reputation, as well as hers. If she stayed, she would be a pushover. If she left—but she didn't want to leave him. None of this made any sense. Abusive relationships on television and in movies seemed to be shadowy, dramatic, with low-scored soundtracks. Her own life was very well lit.
# # #
She spent the night at Kristin's, nearly drunk, and next morning, the girls went out for breakfast and returned to take exhausted naps. She spent the weekend on Kristin's futon, which wasn't unusual enough to prompt serious questions from Kristin or her roommates. Thoughts of Alex persistently penetrated Sarah's thoughts, and she fought them away at each turn. He called her several times, leaving plaintive messages, but Sarah didn't pick up until early Sunday afternoon. She was beginning to worry about sleeping arrangements. Could she invite herself over for another night? How long could she avoid going home?
"How's it going?"
"Fine." Sarah leaned against the cool plaster of Kristin's living room wall. "What do you want?"
"I wanted to see if you were, you know, if you were ok and everything."
"I'm fine. Anything else?"
After a few seconds, he spoke quickly. "You know I hate to ask this, but tonight's the party for Dan and Julie and I wanted to see—you know—I just thought, if you still wanted to go?"
Sarah fumed. Neither of them wanted to go. Dan was Alex's boss, and he'd recently gotten engaged. The event was black-tie, catered. There was no way Alex could not go to this party; it would look bizarre and suspicious if he showed up alone. Sarah knew she would have to face Alex eventually, anyway; at least at a party, in public, they would be shoved into a state of normalcy that would—maybe, hopefully—extend itself when they left.
"Yes. I'll be home in time." She hung up, proud of her succinctness. She'd go to the party, for business purposes. The thought made her feel very mature: she wasn't a petulant child, after all.
# # #
At first Sarah can't tell if she is screaming. She knows her mouth is open, but the sounds coming from her throat are weak, protesting. Her entire body is trapped; she will think later of her Aunt Anne-Marie's collection of dead butterflies, their wings stuck to cork with tiny metal pins. But Sarah doesn't think of this now; now she only thinks of getting out.
She raises her hands, terrified, and says, "Oh, my God," when she realizes she can wiggle each finger. Around her people are yelling, cars are honking, she can hear sirens and smell smoke. But all she knows is that her fingers are moving. "I'm moving my hands," she says, then clears her throat, trying to force volume from the soles of her feet, "I'm moving my hands," over and over, although she is alone in what is left of her car and there is no one there to hear her.
Cautiously she allows her eyes to take in the scene. She is facing the wrong way on the four-lane street near her apartment complex. The glass on her windshield is cracked in thousands of small shards but, miraculously, holds together. It's a pale turquoise mosaic; she sees everything as if she is underwater.
"Sarah," someone is yelling. "Sarah, it's Eva Bruno." Sarah can't think of who this is. She sees too many things that are wrong: an inflated airbag against her chest, the hood of her car pushed up at a ninety degree angle, a fire truck stopping traffic on the other side of the road. Sarah thinks fire truck, gasoline, fire, and starts to cry, screaming sounds without words. This time she knows she is truly screaming because there are men—several of them, in yellow overalls—telling her it's all right. But they are outside of the car, not in.
Her left hand, which is still completely mobile, jerks towards the door handle on her side and tries to open it. Sarah groans, a low animal sound, and pushes as hard as she can against the door, which will not budge. The handle is far too close to her hand. The door is touching her knee. Her knee is covered in blood.
She closes her eyes. She doesn't know how long it's been when she opens them to a vibrating metallic sound on the door, inches from her bloody knees. Someone is sitting behind her, holding her neck still. "What's your name?"
"Sarah," she says apologetically. Someone else is sitting next to her, in the passenger seat, holding her right hand.
"You're doing great, Sarah," someone tells her, and she screams.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to."
"We know, Sarah, it's ok, you're doing fine. Talk to us."
They have removed the door and are strapping a foam device to her head. She can no longer move her head from side to side, and it is perhaps this that scares her more than anything else. "I don't need this," she tries to explain, "I can move everything, see?" No one is listening to her. "I can move everything." She wiggles her fingers as hard as she can.
"Honey, it's Eva Bruno from upstairs. Is there anyone I can call for you?"
There is a crowd of people gathered on the sidewalk. Someone is taking pictures and Sarah is mortified. "Why is he taking pictures?"
"For insurance," says one of the paramedics, who is shoving the inflated airbag back behind the steering wheel. "You'll be glad he's takin' 'em later."
"Tell him to stop! Tell them to get the fuck away!" The paramedic tentatively lifts Sarah's legs from the floor of the car and Sarah wails.
Two other people in blue jumpsuits approach. Sarah can see traffic backed up for blocks. "Ok, Sarah, we're gonna count to one, two, three, then pick you up, ok? You just yell as loud as you need to."
Sarah starts to shake her head, no, no, but can not; the foam device is keeping her neck still. She tries to scream "Alex" but it comes out as a choking wet sob. She is being pulled from the car, laid horizontally on a stretcher, and the view disturbs her. It is so out of line with everything she knows—to be lying parallel to the road—that she closes her eyes and decides that she will not open them again until it is absolutely necessary.
# # #
Sarah, subdued by twenty milligrams of Diazepam and the knowledge that all of her limbs are functional, watches a police officer slip a piece of paper, covered with names and phone numbers, into her bag. This intrigues her, and as soon as he is gone, she reaches for the bag, pain shooting through her arm. Stunningly, her possessions are intact. Her wallet, day planner, makeup bag, a copy of A Million Little Pieces, which she is ashamed to own, but secretly enjoys, so far. She is glad she didn't die; she would not like people to know she had been reading A Million Little Pieces.
Then, there it is, cutting through the hospital din: Alex's voice. It has been three days since their argument. She feels weepy and exhausted and her face crumples, her skin stinging from the speckled shards of glass embedded in her face.
"Is she awake?" As he says this, his face appears around the edge of the door. They make eye contact for a fraction of a second, and something in Sarah's brain clicks. The man in front of her is not the man who hit her. He's the one who sings commercial jingles in bed, tickling her until she shrieks, who can do a perfect George Costanza imitation, who can fix bikes but always buttons his shirts one button off on the first try. He is not the same person who slapped her. She has never been so glad to see someone in her entire life.
He sits down gingerly on a folding chair next to her bed. "Hey," he says. He's smiling but it's shaky. "You doing ok?"
"Yeah," she says. "Yeah." He takes her hand. She briefly wishes he would crawl into bed next to her. "They say nothing's broken. So. So that's good."
"Yeah, yeah it is," he says.
The police officer returns. He nods at Alex and turns to Sarah. "How you holdin' up?"
"Fine," she says absurdly, her face still studded with bits of rearview mirror. "You?"
Alex smiles, squeezes her hand.
The officer laughs. "I'm doin' great. Ok. So. Everything's pretty much all cleared up here from my end. Oh, and the other lady's doin' fine. We don't know all the details yet, but she's fine, a little bruised like yourself, but just fine." Sarah's stomach turns over. Until this moment she hasn't thought of the other driver, of the possibility that because of her, someone else might have died. She turns her head and bites her lip.
Alex leans towards her. "That's good news, hon." He turns to the officer. "So—do you have a card? Some way we can get in touch?" Sarah marvels at his professionalism, his ability to be, simply, capable—an ability she feels she lacks. All she can do is lie still, an object subject to collision.
"Yep." The officer hands Alex a business card, nods approvingly, and turns to leave. "I gotta tell you, m'am, you're lucky you were wearing a seatbelt. You'da gone straight through the windshield."
After he leaves, Alex moves the chair closer to the bed, grinning and shaking his head. "Some bedside manner he's got, huh?" Sarah smiles too, struggling to stay awake, the muscles in her body resisting every breath and pulse.
When the hospital minutiae are finally complete, they take a cab home. As Alex delicately loads her into the back seat of the taxi, she groans."Oh, Alex, the car."
"I know. It'll be ok. We can get a rental for a few days, it'll be fine. Don't even think about it now." He sits in front, shuts the door. "Don't even worry about it."
At home, he half-carries her to the front door, steering her towards their bedroom.
"Where will you sleep," she asks, her voice slurred with exhaustion and opiates.
"On the couch," he answers, as he arranges a glass of water and a box of tissues on the bedside table for her. She is deeply touched by this gesture—the traditional accessories for the ill, water and tissues, although she can move around and is neither thirsty nor dripping. Alex is fussing over her in a way that is both masculine and feminine. He is a provider, albeit a gentle one. He lines up her pill bottles next to the bed. He has not even turned off the light before Sarah falls asleep.
When she wakes up in the night her entire body is one pulsating bulb of pain. The apartment is dark. The only sounds are the occasional distant car horn or siren. She needs Alex. She doesn't remember what she is allowed to take for pain, or when, or any special directions. She says "Alex" aloud to the empty room, and her voice sounds very quiet. She tries to be louder and fails. Her hoarse incantations fail to produce him. She settles for a loud groan, pretends to be asleep, rolls to face the wall and then the groans are not faked but genuine cries of pain. She is crying but she's not sure why.
A light goes on in the living room. Alex's voice: "Coming, Sars." He pronounces this like "stares" and this old and semi-forgotten nickname makes the tears fall harder. Alex is there in the doorway, in sweatpants and an old tee-shirt with "Myrtle Beach" printed on the front. He sits on the edge of the bed and switches on the bedside lamp. The room is cast in light and her pain seems less frightening and more manageable.
"What's wrong?" He strokes her forehead, which is shining with sweat.
"Everything hurts," she whimpers, now fully confident in his ability to take care of her. His existence is her justification for weakness. If she were alone in the apartment, she would have sat up, read the pill bottles, figured it out alone. She would have wrestled her way out of the sweaty fleece robe herself, poured her own glass of water, and gone back to bed. But instead she is indulging in his attentive care, and despite the emotional toll the day has taken, she finds herself feeling guilty for accepting his help. Even as she lets him help her sit up, pull a tank top over her head, and count out little white tablets into her palm, she thinks: this is so wrong.
"Can I get you anything else?" Sarah feels awful; he has to work in the morning.
"No. No. Alex, I love you."
He leans forward and kisses her—kisses her with her sour mouth and greasy hair and bruised face. "I love you, Sarah. So much." He takes a deep breath, rubs his face with both hands. "I am so, so sorry."
"No," she mumbles, "you don't need to say that."
"Yes I do."
"No. Alex. Sleep in here."
"But don't you want the space?"
"I can't move anyway, who cares?"
"But if I move, it'll hurt you."
"So I'll take another Percocet."
She rubs his arm, he has goosebumps. "Come on." He turns off the light.
When Sarah wakes up around ten the next morning, she feels sobered, all midnight exchanges forgotten or imagined. She tries to stand up and shouts "holy fuck" to the empty apartment. It feels as if her muscles are trying to turn themselves inside out. There is a note taped to the mirror: 'Went in to work for a few, be back soon.' Sarah takes a pill and shuffles to the bathroom.
When his car pulls into the driveway moments later, she is in the kitchen standing in front of the open refrigerator. Ginger ale, orange juice. He has bought her sick drinks, though she isn't sick, and what she wants is a beer, a 10 a.m. beer; but that would probably be unwise, coupled with her pain medication. As it is, she is having trouble standing, and holds on to the door of the fridge for support.
His key is in the lock. He opens the door, unaware that he is being observed, tosses the mail on the countertop, nodding his head very slightly to an imaginary rhythm. "You're back," she says, and her voice is trembling, again, on the verge of tears—this must be the medication. She's never been the weepy type.
"Hey! What are you doing out of bed?" He walks towards her, arms open, to engulf her.
She leans into Alex and buries her face in his chest. His jacket smells beautiful, weathered nylon, fresh and clean from the cold with industrial smells of exhaust from the Metro. Mentally she excavates, working her way through his layers, the coat, a cotton sweater, white tee shirt (the one with the coffee stains on the hem) and then him, purely him, papery dry skin, layers of muscle and flesh, his blood flowing, his heart pounding.
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