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You were one of the smart girls, and that’s why I never understood how you ended up with a guy like me.
You used to build long paths of dominoes, all intricately looping along the cheap old carpet of the hall outside your dorm. I came in drunk the first time I noticed. I’m so stupid that I had to be drunk to notice you.
If you don’t recall, you were in your pajamas. Your black eyes looked at me with an objective glance, like the eyes of all of your dominoes.
“Dominoes?” I said, sounding about as stupid as any drunk collegiate.
“Ah, and I thought you were one of those stupid drunk-guy jockish types,” you said, in that sweet sardonic tone that warms even the most offended of your verbally-abused victims. “You want to sit down?”
“I can’t exactly stand up right now,” I admitted, sliding beside you onto the carpet. You giggled.
I watched you stack those dominoes for god-knows-how-long, entranced into a drunken stupor that made your gestures seem so balanced and graceful. A few words occasionally broke the rhythmic silence, the breath of poised dominoes scraping the fabric.
“Are you a freshman?” you’d ask.
A few minutes later: “I’m Zoey.”
“Carl,” I said.
You laughed again. I laughed too. I’m not sure why.
Finally, you put your last domino into position. “Now,” you said, “I normally don’t let anyone else knock over my dominoes, but would you like to do the honors?”
“Are you sure?” I said with a tone of mock-enthusiasm.
You smiled. “Just a little collateral damage.”
With a clumsy hand, I hit the first, and watched the others spiral downward.
That’s how things always were with us – a small hit, a series of downward reactions.
Zoey, you really did deserve better than what you were given in life, and if there’s anything that you can take away from our whole experience, I hope it’s that.
We ran the routine – a certain allotted time mustering up coy little ways to get to know each other. Casual conversations when we “coincidentally” ran into each other on our way to class. You actually started attending parties, at least on occasion, and on other occasions, I failed to go. When we didn’t go to parties, we spent the evening more or less alone in the hallway, where you would align the dominoes and I would knock them over. I’m not sure why, but it all felt kind of promising, those moments away from throngs of people, where we simply stood back and watched things fall into place. On occasion you allowed for a glimpse of your life, mentioning friends or family. I don’t have to tell you that things were never easy for you, because you know, but what I should have told you with every pained confession of each story of abuse was how much I wished that people would stop acting as though you could be picked up and knocked down again, reset to tumble back down.
The first time I kissed you was in that hallway, just as you set that final domino in place. Your hands set it so tediously, as though that precarious little piece wasn’t bound to fall in thirty seconds anyway, and your black eyes looked at me with this blazing intelligence that scared me half to death as I wondered what you were thinking, and I wasn’t sure if it was out of admiration or fear that I suddenly, impulsively, clumsily pulled you towards me until my lips found yours. I’m just glad they did.
But I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
This time, the dominoes fell when I nudged them with my chest.
In the release of the kiss, you turned to the dominoes, and whispered with a clever, twisted smile, “Collateral damage.”
I did not stop drinking.
You were so good at being drunk, the same way you were good at being pretty much anything you wanted to be. I wasn’t. But I wasn’t an aggressive drunk until the night that followed.
I remember it vaguely. I remember a blaring bass-beat that never seemed to change even though we were there for at least three hours. One trashy pop beat simply bled into the next, just as each scantily-clad girl seemed to look like the one that followed. I remember your eyes – dark and glittering – as you pulled me out the door.
“Wha’s wrong?” I slurred.
“You’re too drunk, let’s get you to your room.”
You were drunk, I could smell it on your skin and see it in the subtle edge of your slack and plastered frown, but you never lost your demure.
“B****,” I repeated.
“You’re drunk,” you repeated. “I’m just making sure you’re okay.”
Somehow we ended up in that hallway, despite the fact that I was so dizzy that I could barely see that crummy, rotten, ugly carpet.
I don’t know why I did it, I really don’t.
But I did it.
I hit you.
I struck you so hard that you slammed backwards into the wall, although that slip may have also been from being so surprised. Either way, your head hit hard, so hard you let out a loud, startled wail, and when you put your hand back to touch your black hair, your pale, icy skin was dotted with drops of red.
I remembered the black eyes of those dominoes, the ones that had forever watched so blankly as I toppled them to the floor. Your eyes, just as black, were far too smart to be so blank.
They no longer looked at me with anything but fear, fear that swelled in their ebony orbs like bruises, clotting out the slow-earned trust, the brilliant light, their flickering echo of half-whispered words and prolonged confessions. Your eyes used to whisper things in the same accidental way that those dominoes whispered against the carpet. Now you just stared, and stared, and stared, as though I’d ripped those stupid dominoes from your hand, called it all a stupid game, all of it – you and me and those nights on the floor. Perhaps you thought of each time I’d knocked over those dominoes without a care, about how similarly I had just knocked you down to the same damn floor.
“Zoey – ”
You shook your head. The words that you pressed, so hollow, from your mouth. Perhaps they were the words you’d used to forgive everyone who’d ever hurt you. Perhaps you were always resetting them, waiting until they have to rattle like a domino-trail from your lips.
You whispered, “Collateral damage.” And everything collapsed, right there in the hallway, footstep by footstep as we fell away.