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I Wrote This Note About Someone I Used to Know

I told him I had been in a car accident. I told him that my arm had been broken. I complained about the cast, about needing to wear a sling, and how this would be awkward to deal with at work.

But I didn't tell him that the painkillers the doctor had given me made me itchy and nauseous. I didn't tell him that I wanted to take a few more than I perhaps needed to. I didn't tell him that I just wanted to be held.

---

I told him about my stressful day at work and collapsed onto his couch as he made me dinner. I giggled as he tried to sing in an Italian accent, and I quipped that, if he listened closely, he could hear Italian people screaming at his butchery of their beautiful way of speaking. He tossed a washcloth at my head, and I stuck my tongue out at him.

I didn't tell him about my awfully tight shoulders and back that could have used a massage. I didn't tell him that I just wanted to feel him touch me so I could forget about everything else. I didn't tell him that I just needed to hear him say that he loved me. I didn't ask him for a long, protracted kiss.

---

I told him that I had been abused as a child. I had told him it had been because of my father's alcoholism and my mother's inability to fight back. I explained a few of the most horrifying moments.

I never told him about the man at the tutoring center I had gone to throughout middle school who had robbed me of my self-worth. I never told him how that had rocked me to my core. I never told him how I just wished someone would get goddamn angry for me because I had never felt like I was allowed to.

And I certainly never told him that I wanted him, him, to try to replace some of the bad memories with good ones.

---

I could always tell that, just around the edges of her existence, Olivia was a very breakable woman. She wasn't weak by any stretch of the imagination, but she was teetering on the edge of an abyss no one could really understand. She was alone, even though surrounded with friends and willing hands. Even when she was surrounded by me. She didn't let me in, and I realized that. But I stayed with her because I wanted to be there to stem the bleeding when she finally couldn't stand the pain anymore.

"Stephen?" came her voice, drawing me, almost embarrassed, from my thoughts.

I looked up and met her blue eyes across the table. We were eating cereal for dinner -- glamorous, I know -- and there was a shimmer of milk across her upper lip. I reached over to wipe it away for her with my sweatshirt sleeve, but she recoiled slightly, eyes cast away from me as she swiped the back of her hand over her mouth.

"Sorry," I murmured, unable to understand the pinprick of hurt I felt.

"It's okay," she replied hollowly, still not really looking at me.

I couldn't think of anything else to say, so I took our bowls and washed them out at the sink, setting them in the dishwasher. I stayed there a few moments longer than necessary, trying to compose myself. I knew something was wrong. They say that women have intuition and just know things; in this moment, I had the same gut knowledge. I knew something was wrong. I had no idea what it was, when it had happened, or who had done it, but something wasn't right.

"Olivia," I suddenly said, my tongue clumsy as I gathered the few threads of courage I possessed.

She looked up as she was standing to go to the living room. "What's up?" she asked, eyebrows up in casual questioning.

"You're not..." I took deep breaths, looking down at my wet and dripping hands, my elbows that were resting against the counter, the birthmark on my forearm. "You haven't been honest with me."

"I haven't lied to you, Stephen," she responded, a laugh in her voice. "I wouldn't do that to you. I care about you."

"I know that." Except I didn't. I knew how I felt about her, but the other way around? But that wasn't the point. "But not telling me things isn't lying. And I just..." I finally turned around to look at her, feeling like a fool with dripping hands that I hurriedly wiped on my jeans and with the inability to speak properly, it seemed.

"What?" Olivia asked, a hint of annoyance in her voice.

I crossed my arms over my chest and looked away. "I don't even really know. I just get this feeling sometimes, in the way you look at me or touch me or don't touch me, that something's wrong, and I don't know how to make it better or make you feel better if you won't tell me what it is."

Olivia seemed to shrink before my eyes. I could see her mind going to exactly what 'it' was, and I wished I could read her mind, see what she was seeing in her head, relive whatever had happened to her or what she had done.

"I don't want to talk about it," she mumbled, turning around and exiting the kitchen abruptly.

"But --" I tried to stop her, but I could only follow. She had thrown herself on the couch, and she was lying on her side. Her eyes were staring, unseeing, up at the ceiling, and her legs were bent haphazardly over the plush cushions. When she noticed me or heard me, she sat up. The vulnerable position seemed to be too open. She wanted to close up, but I just couldn't let that happen. Maybe I was invading her privacy, but it was killing me inside, and I could tell it was destroying her.

"Look, I said I don't want to talk about it," Olivia said, trying to wrangle in her growing frustration. I wanted to stop there and not say another word about it; I'd never seen her really angry, and we'd never had a serious fight about anything. She was too diplomatic, and I liked compromise. But this would try the foundation we'd manage to cobble together out of broken bricks and half-made emotions. I took an unsteady step on our mangled creation.

I swallowed and just looked at her for a moment. She was facing forward, and I could only see her profile. Her arms were crossed over her stomach, and her shoulders were hunched forward slightly. She looked as though she had just been punched in the gut, and I hated the swilling guilt that was pulling at my intestines. But I couldn't let this go.

I remembered the way shied away from any touch more intimate than my hands on her hips or lower back. She didn't like being touched too high on her legs or below her knees. She hated it when people yelled in real anger, and she never liked being hugged from behind. I had my suspicions, of course, but I didn't want to believe them. Maybe it wasn't so bad as I thought it was. Maybe I was just imagining everything. I didn't want it to be true.

I watched Olivia's eyes fall to the carpet beneath her feet. She fidgeted with the hem of her shirt and didn't look at me.

"There was a man who was a tutor or an assistant or something. I needed tutoring in middle school; the transition was a big stress on me," she began, her words raspy as they raked through my ears like coals. "There were these little rooms in the building the tutoring place was in, and people would go have their sessions in there."

I slowly sat down on the couch, leaving a giant space between us. I felt as though I would have to polevault to get closer to her or trek across the mountains. I kept my hands in my lap, even though all I wanted to do was hold her close. I had a feeling it would make it worse, attach horrible memories to such a simple, loving act.

"I had a lady for a few times, and I really liked her. She always called me 'girlfriend' and explained things really well," Olivia continued her narrative, her voice impossibly small and wavering with every syllable. Her chin trembled, but she stopped talking and clenched her jaw shut until she had control over herself. "Then a man replaced her because she had gone on vacation. His name was Bryn, and I didn't like him from the start.

"I didn't like how he towered over me and how he said everything in this oily tone he had," she commented, pulling her legs up onto the couch, tucking them underneath her. "But he explained things, so I didn't mind. Then I was having trouble on some math... and..." She clenched her jaw again. "He started sliding his hand up and down my leg. I pulled my leg away and glared, but he grabbed my chin. I don't remember what happened after that, it's blurry, but I remember being too scared to tell my mom."

Olivia fell silent for the longest time, and I tried to think of something to say.

"Every time after, if I messed up on too many problems, he'd make me sit there as he..."

She couldn't finish her sentence. I didn't know what to say.

"He touched me," she finally said woodenly. "He put his hands under my clothes. I even liked it sometimes. No one else was paying attention to me, not my parents. He was, though, and even though I felt dirty and disgusting, like a whore who wasn't good for anything, I still liked it. Sometimes he had to hold me against the chair so I'd stop squirming and moving around when he stuck his hand in my pants."

My throat constricted, and I felt like I was drowning. Horror slunk through my skin into my chest and started to rip apart my organs.

"I feel like it was my fault sometimes," Olivia mumbled, "I didn't say anything, and I even liked it. Sometimes I never said anything or told him to stop it; I just sat there and enjoyed it. Sometimes I messed up on purpose. I could have said something or complained or called the police. I thought about it sometimes, but sometimes, I let him."

Everything in the world was spinning, everything except her. She was starkly still against the blurry, spinning-out-of-control world. She wasn't crying or anything. Her voice wasn't even wobbling anymore. Her eyes were staring into a world I couldn't see, and she looked empty and absolutely drained of anything and everything.

I guess it made sense. I couldn't've lied and said I hadn't guessed. But it was even more horrible to have my guesses confirmed. It wasn't just a vague idea, something I'd heard of before on the news and in health class in high school. It was a crime that had been committed against Olivia. She had been hurt. She had no scars, but the scars were in her eyes. She had been violated.

I had seen pictures of eleven-year-old Olivia, and the thought that some monster had rubbed his filthy hands over that innocent, beautiful little girl, the astonishing, beautiful woman that sat across from me, crushed me.

But then I got angry. My hands were trembling. How dare -- damn him, the b******. I wanted to find him and rip him limb from limb, watching as his blood stained everything as he died. It was the least he deserved for hurting her. I wanted to kill him, to end his life for ending Olivia's innocence, for hurting her, for in any way harming her. It was the -- God damn him, I wanted to kill him.

"God, Olivia," was all I could wheeze out past my burgeoning anger and twisting horror and encompassing sadness. "I... I'm so sorry."

She only shrugged, and I wanted to laugh at what a small reaction that was. I wanted to laugh at my own weak words.

"It wasn't your fault," I choked out. "You were only a child. Even if you l-liked it," I stumbled over my words, feeling like a failure for not having the confidence and power to soothe all of her insecurities and fears and nightmares, "it wasn't your fault. He was a monster, and he did things to you without your consent. You couldn't give your consent. You were eleven."

---

Olivia listened, but she didn't really respond. She made a non-committal sound and got up. I let her leave. I listened to her footsteps in the kitchen as she crossed through to the guest bedroom where she slept when she was too tired to drive home.

I sat there, almost numb except for the stabbing uncertainty in my chest. What should I do? What could I say? How could I help her? Was there anything I could do? Should I ask around for good therapists? Was I enough for her? Did I have the capability to help her? Did I have the capacity to support her?

I wanted to leave her alone for the rest of the night, but the thought immediately felt wrong at an elemental level. I got up from the couch and followed her. I feared her reaction, what she would say, what she might not say, everything I didn't know about her, but I couldn't just leave her alone.

I knocked on the door.

"Please go away, Stephen," she begged me quietly. I could barely hear her through the door.

"I can't," I replied in the same tiny voice. "I just... I'm so sorry and so angry that someone dared to hurt you, so... everything. I want to... be here. I don't know how to do anything else."

---

I leaned against the door, fiercely biting the inside of my cheeks, taking violent breaths to keep myself from crying. All throughout my teenage years, I grieved and cried over this. I hated myself, I tried to starve myself, I ate way too much, I threw myself into worlds that didn't exist, I thought I had dealt with it. I thought I had made an uneasy peace with it. But I hadn't. It haunted me and crawled into every portion of my life.

I didn't know what to say to Stephen. I didn't know what to think. I felt raw, like my skin had been scraped away by concrete. My chest felt heavy, and I was suffocating in my own agony. All of the scars had been ripped open, and the blood was seeping from between my fingers as I tried to cover my wounds, hold back the pain from pouring out.

"I love you," he was saying through the cold wood of the door.

Tears burned at my eyes.

"I do," Stephen whispered, "I really, really do. And I'm not just saying this, but I think you need to hear it. I don't think you're broken or ruined or anything."

I slid down onto the floor, my back against the door. I crossed my arms over my chest, my knees under my chin. I swallowed tightly and jiggling my foot against the hardwood floors.

"I think I am," I whispered back.

"You're not, though," he said with such conviction that it forced tears to my eyes and down my cheeks.

I lifted a shaking hand to my face to wipe some of the tears away. "I wish I could have sex... but everything reminds me of him. I don't want to even try. I think sex is bad and ugly and horrible, and feeling good like that is bad."

"It's not," he murmured, "I promise."

Stephen had never had actual intercourse -- we had that in common -- but I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe that if I let him touch me, it would be good. He would make me feel good. I wanted to believe that if I touched him, his pleasure wouldn't make me feel sick inside. Stephen was a good man. He was a good person. There was a reason why I had started dating him in the first place. But...

I huddled into a smaller ball, try to touch as much of myself as possible, as though there was some way I could comfort myself with my own touch. I was silent for a long time.

I eventually relaxed, closing my eyes, and I imagined I could hear Stephen breathing.

"I'm going to go to sleep," I whispered, even though I knew he had probably left.

I climbed up off of the floor and settled myself into the guest bed. I stared up at the ceiling for the longest time, blinking as my thoughts flittered in and out of my head. The darkness of the night seemed oppressive and menacing, and more than once did I wish Stephen was breathing next to me. I wished that I felt comfortable enough to lie next to him without feeling somehow sinful.

I turned onto my stomach and pressed my face into my pillow, falling asleep.

It seemed only a second later when I woke up, and weak blue light was filtering through the curtains over the window. I rubbed my face; I hadn't slept enough. My dreams had been full of evil, and I was eager to forget them. I stood up and left the safety of Stephen's guest bed and opened the door, heading for the kitchen.

I stumbled over a pair of legs and had to throw out a hand to steady myself against a wall. A surprised grunt came from what I had tripped over, and I looked down.

"Stephen?" My voice came out small and weak. "You... were you out here all night?"

He looked up with bleary eyes and shrugged sleepily. "I wanted to be here if you needed anything or wanted to talk," he explained, his voice scratchy and deep.

I knelt down next to him and slipped my fingers into his warm hand. He gripped them in return, smiling languidly at me.

"You're amazing," I told him, awkwardly sifting my fingers through his hair, "and I don't think I deserve you."

"But you do." He was swift to amend my statement, and I smiled. Despite the darkness of my dreams and the open wounds in my soul, there was something golden about him that calmed me.

I leaned down to kiss his cheek, and I reveled in the gentle rasp of his five o'clock shadow. The muscles of his cheek contracted against my lips, and he was smiling. He turned his face to look me in the eye, and I kissed his lips, morning breath and all.

When I straightened up to go find some breakfast, he got up to follow me, limping, his sore muscles protesting the night he had spent on the hard floor. We were quiet, and I still felt raw and vulnerable and too exposed for comfort. I felt ashamed. I felt disgusting. Maybe Stephen didn't see me that way, but I did. And as much as he might love me -- I wasn't so convinced that anyone could love me, just because of who I was and who I wasn't -- his opinion wasn't the one that really mattered to me.

The fact of the matter was that I thought my soul and body were stained and mangled and that I thought I would never be happy.

But when Stephen tentatively hugged me and I was surrounded with his warmth and arms and stability, I felt like a person. Maybe a broken one, but a person.

I mumbled a hesitant but candid, "I love you," into his chest.

---

I held Olivia, even though I felt like the one who was being held. Her words made my heart jump, and I rested my forehead against her shoulder. She moved just a bit closer, just a few inches, a slight shuffling of her feet, and she was flush against me. The closeness was intoxicating and heady, and she smelled of sleep and exhaustion and beauty.

There was a lot she needed to work through in her own head, and there was a lot I couldn't do. But I would sleep outside of her door every night if it would help, and I would hold her until Time crashed to a stop around us, and I would refute every hateful voice inside of her head that wanted her to believe she wasn't absolutely perfect in my eyes and in anyone else's.

I wanted to be her family and show her that what that monster had taught her was a distorted view of sex and physical contact. I wanted to soothe away her lingering fears with my presence. I wanted to teach her about the true nature of love and intimacy.

It would be a long road, but I loved her, as much in the daylight as I had in the desperate night.

So all I could say in return was, "I love you," into her hair and hold her until our stomachs grumbled.





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