The first time he hit her, it left a small bruise on her cheekbone that reminded her of a crushed jelly bean. She watched it fade, day by day, from a deep purple to a dead sunflower sort of yellow. She told people that she had run into a door, and everyone believed her. Why shouldn’t they? Hell, if she tried hard enough, she almost believed she had deserved it.
He said it was because he saw her checking out some guy at a party she barely remembered going to. (He dragged her to so many that they all become a bright blur of hot skin and slurred words you could barely hear over the pounding street-jungle music.) He had yelled a lot but she didn’t remember much of what he said. He had yelled a few times before, so this time she blocked him out. Then she looked up at him, and he hit her. She hadn’t cried. She thought she should, but she had simply sat there, with her hand pressed to her burning face. There had been a moment of awkward silence, then he had dropped to his knees, saying he was sorry and smothering her with kisses. He assumed he was forgiven and went to get ice.
She remembered sitting there, the couch scratching at her bare legs and the summer heat pressing on her chest, and wondering if she should cry. But she didn’t. She had slowly stood, wobbly as the baby deer she had seen in the woods, and walked to the kitchen. She leaned on the doorway, arms crossed and stared at his back.
She had fallen in love with his back, first. She had stared at it all the time during chemistry because he sat in front of her, so at that first big party of the summer - where everyone is tipsy like bees swollen with pollen and everyone’s hot and heavy and looking to be loved - she had known his back instantly. She barely remembered their first kiss, sticky with summer heat, but she had thought they would love like that forever.
Now, he turned and looked at her with his winter-blue eyes, and hugged her. And she remained frozen. But eventually, as the bruise faded, she accepted him. Until he hit her again, harder. But he was still so quick to cry and say he was sorry and that she was his beautiful, sexy love goddess whom he couldn’t possibly live without. And he would kiss her until she smiled, hesitantly, and pushed away the thought that what was happening was dreadfully unfair and she told herself it was okay because he loved her. No one had ever loved her like he did.
It wasn’t that she was not beautiful, she was, in her own crazy way. Her white-blond hair was short and fine, a shaggy metallic pixie cap. Her jungle-green eyes peered out at the world through a thick choppy veil of hair that hung to her thin, straight nose. Pale rosebud lips pouted against her almost transparent skin that was stretched tight over her tall, frail frame. If you looked closely, you could make out the veins that ran under her skin; she thought they spelled out a secret message (maybe the answer to life) and spent hours lying awake at night trying to read it.
He wasn’t anything like her. Of course, not many people were. Where she lived, everyone was cinnamon tan from baking in the sun and hip and showed off too much skin. He was like that. He was gold and brown and freckled and muscled and everything she thought would never love her. So she loved him back.
And he hit her, more and more, freckling her pale skin with deep purple and ocean-blue bruises. He cut her with words, and these hurt more than the bruises. He sliced up her heart and she wore baggy sweaters because she was afraid people could see her soul bleeding through her skin. But he always said he loved her afterward, and he brought her roses dripping with nature’s best perfume and took her to the beach and they swam until their toes were wrinkled. And on these days, she thought she would never be happier.
But one day, he hit her too hard and she fell to the ground and hit her head on a rock. When she woke up, her head was pounding and she was lying in over-starched bleached white sheets and there was the most beautiful boy she had ever seen standing over her. The police came, because they had seen her bruises, and she didn’t even realize she’d told them everything until they were nodding and frowning and closing their notebooks. And she never even cried.
Then the other boy was there, and he was listening, too. He said that was what he did - come to hospitals and listen because he liked hearing stories. It made him feel connected to life. So she told him her story and when she left the hospital, he left with her. They never went to parties. Instead, they sat under trees and he drew her and wrote poems about her and she sang to him and together they wrote songs about love. They danced to the crickets in the moonlight and he never, ever hit her. She traced his pouting lips and his brownish eyes that looked like dying grass and she saw the pain in his eyes, too. And they talked and danced and wrote and drew each other until all the pain was gone and then they soaked up each other like there was no tomorrow.
She loved walking down the street with him, intertwined so that the whole world knew they were in love. Her hand in the back pocket of his skinny jeans, his thin pale arm around her fragile waist, like they were all that was holding them together. They browsed thrift stores that smelled like cigars and dust and old sunlight and bought crazy clothes. They went to concerts where the singer sang away all his pain and they sang with him, wailing and swaying and kissing in the dust.
And she loved him more than she ever thought she could love anyone. She knew every secret about him and she knew the backs of his ears, under his long shaggy curly brown hair, that she loved to whisper her secrets into and he knew every curve and sharp turn on her. And she was very happy.
And then, one day, he hit her - but it wasn’t in any way she thought someone could hit you because it hurt so much. He told her there was another girl with lighter eyes and more curves and more secrets and that when he was with her he was really, really happy. And he said he was sorry and he knelt and hugged her, and she lay with the grass itching her back, staring at the sky, feeling for all the world like a dead girl. And when he finished kissing her cheek one last time, he walked away and she thought that his back pocket looked too empty and her waist felt very alone. But she didn’t cry. It hurt so bad though, like a million iron hands were reaching inside her and twisting all the pieces around and shoving them back in all the wrong places. And she felt like her heart, so recently repaired, had been broken again in a totally different place and she wasn’t sure it would ever be fixed.
So she moved to her own place and lived alone. She began to paint and she painted for days sometimes, painting her pain and soul away and drowning in color and the smell of raw hurt. She walked numbly through the streets, seeing only pain and tears. She saw the goose bumps on a homeless man’s arms, and the mascara tears on a hooker’s painted face. She saw the hurried walk of a person running from the world and a child’s fear when crossing the street alone for the very first time. And she painted it all.
Her apartment walls were covered with the paintings that mirrored her soul, and she got so caught up in it that she stopped working and when the landlord came for the rent, she stared at him and the paint dripped on the floor when he kicked her out.
So she wrapped a thick scarf around her neck and lined the walls of a bridge with her paintings, and rested on the cold concrete of her new home. And she sat there, staring at the world, seeing people’s faces freeze in surprise when they saw their pain on a canvas. They would blink fast, then grab fists of money, not even caring how much, and run madly away with their new possession, like it was all that mattered. And really, it did, because, she knew, that if you could see your pain, then it couldn’t hurt you so much.
Then one day, the owner of a museum fell madly in love with her paintings and bought them all, saying the world needed a little dose of pain. And she found a house with a gingerbread roof that was so close to the ocean that the hinges on her doors were caked with salt, and she swam every morning until her toes were wrinkled, then painted until night.
One morning, a skinny dog with matted fur that looked like dying grass came to her door, whimpering and pawing at her steps. She looked into its eyes and she saw herself, begging for anyone who cared enough to love her. She opened the door and the dog gingerly stepped inside. She fed it hamburgers and fish and it grew sleek and strong. It slept by her side and she would wake up in the middle of the night and see it there, so peaceful and trusting, and she would feel calmed. It would stare at her when she painted, and when she sat in the woods drawing and writing poems it would lay by her feet or pose for her or snap at butterflies. It loved her, and she felt that she was beginning to love it back.
Then, one night, she woke to see the dog sitting rigid at her screen door, the moonlight spilling onto the floor like foamy milk, and it was staring out to the ocean. It looked back to see her, leaning in the doorway, and whined. It leaned restlessly back and forth, and thumped its tail on the floor, sounding exactly like a heartbeat. It froze, its gaze glued to something outside, something that was tugging and pulling hard. It looked back at her, and she understood. She knelt and hugged the dog, and it hastily licked her ear, whimpering. She stood and opened the door, letting in a stiff ocean breeze and letting out yet another one whom she had thought she might possibly love like no other. She watched it run, never looking back, to something she would never know. When it disappeared, she closed the door and climbed back into bed, staring at the ceiling fan that was lazily chopping the moonlight into shards of creamy glass. But she didn’t cry.
The next morning, she sat, staring at nothing, pretending to eat breakfast. She stared at the empty seats, and realized they would always be empty. She would never have anyone forever, because you can’t own anyone. She knew then that she would possibly love again. Maybe she would dance and laugh and write poetry and walk with her hand in someone’s back pocket - and quite possibly she would be hit again, perhaps in different ways. She would hurt, and she would love, but that was life, and who was she to think she was any different from everyone else who gets hurt? So she would fight to love, and live, and she would keep on painting away her pain and she would be happy to dance alone and even happier to wake up to someone. And she would make it, whether by herself, or with an arm around her waist.
She pressed her hand to her flushed face, and was surprised to find that she was finally crying.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the February 2006 Teen Ink Fiction Contest.