Substantial

January 13, 2016

The inebriation flowed through my veins. I could smell burning rubber on my clothes- the smell of my dying car. I longed to get this smell of death away. I took my shoes off and walked through the dirt until it turned to sand. I felt the sand between my toes, pressing into my heels, like clay I was molding with each step. I started dancing, molding the sand into words, but I couldn’t remember how to spell, so I stopped and stood there on the beach, with baby waves lapping against my legs and stinging the gashes on my calves. It felt healthy, it felt like the good kind of stinging, so I took off my pants too, and then the rest of my clothes, throwing them down into the water so they looked like strange water lilies floating out to sea. Even from just a few feet away I couldn’t recognize their outlines. My clothes seemed like alien beings to my body. The darkness was complete, except for when occasionally, past the beach and the trees, a car sped by on the main road I had crashed on, its headlights flying off into the oblivion it was racing towards.
I knew that before I would’ve been terrified, naked on this beach. Yet now I felt unexposed, like a part of the ocean, nothing but an object adrift in the water. My flesh was warm from the heated core of alcohol inside my guts, and I waded out deeper.
As I walked and stumbled out into the ocean, my memories began to escape from their temporary prison, flooding my brain. They started in bits and pieces…the wrinkles of pity and anger above his eyes…shame…I could see the glass I’d broken after I’d integrated the wine into my brain, and then the vodka. I could begin to feel the worst memories coming back, and I knelt down into the water, feeling despair starting to flood my head, and feeling the salty ocean spray on my tongue and all the wounds on my body. The shock of the cold blurred my eyesight, but only jolted my memories closer. As my memories returned, so did my fear. I swam a little further out into the water in panic, trying to cover my naked body from the dark world surrounding me.
It was so dark I don’t think I saw the man until he came very close, and I was sure he didn’t see me very well until he was standing there with the water up to his waist, shivering. He hadn’t taken off his pants so his jeans were soaked, and he was quivering there, in front of a strange naked woman in the ocean.
“I saw a crashed car by the side of the road...” he said. I nodded.
“Yeah,” I said, “It’s mine.”
“Can I help?” He was a little scared, I could feel it. It was surreal- how could I be a naked woman in the cold with the power to make him afraid?
“I’m fine, you can go,” I said, chill beginning to sink into my bones. I needed to get back to reality, figure out how badly my car was smashed, figure out what to do now…my head buzzed and ached.
“I really don’t think I should leave,” he said, hesitantly. “I mean,” he added, when I glared at him, “You seem really hurt, and you’re all alone out here and like… naked… You’re bleeding, can you see that you’re bleeding?”
I looked down at myself. “Oh.” Back to him. Maybe I should be afraid or worried, but I couldn’t find the strength. Fear was more than I could handle at the moment.
“Fine,” I said. “I’m not that hurt though, you shouldn’t worry about it.”
“You really sure?” he said.
I examined myself- I found a cut above my right eyebrow with my fingers, warm blood seeping into the fine lines around my eye. Some thin cuts, probably from shards of my car’s shattered window, all along my arms. Another two, longer scratches on my legs, but nothing so serious that I was losing a lot of blood. I could feel the grogginess of alcohol tainting my motions, but it already felt more like a hangover than a buzz. It had probably been a few hours since I first got into the car, maybe more. I couldn’t seem to get a grasp on time.
“Here,” he said, stepping towards me. He took his shirt off and held it outstretched, his head turning away in… Modesty? Embarrassment?
“Thanks,” I said, surprised and amused. I put on the shirt which hung like a dress just above my knees- although naked skin seemed trivial now, anyways. When had I really been naked, these last few years? I was layered in memories plastered onto my skin, and covered in bits and pieces of life I’d lost. I was already almost buried in them.
“Will you come to my car with me? I can drive you to the hospital,” he said. Another moment I should’ve felt fear. I didn’t.
“I just need to be driven home,” I said. In the dark I could only see the outlines of his face. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Kat. Yours?”
“Christopher.” He spoke so quietly. I think he was trying to be comforting. I wasn’t afraid, but I liked the gesture. I liked his name. He started wading out towards the beach and I followed him slowly, my steps dragging through the water.
Before I knew it, Christopher and I were walking side by side. I turned my head and looked at him again. He looked a little younger than me- he was probably thirty, twenty-five, I thought. I hoped he was ugly, but I knew he wasn’t. I tripped, the water blossoming up around me as I fell to my knees.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Christopher said, kneeling down into the water. I couldn’t stop laughing. I couldn’t stop- it was hilarious, wasn’t this all a little ridiculous, really? It was hysterical, at least to my alcohol fogged brain, but poor Christopher… He was practically lying in the ocean next to me, taking shallow breaths in the cold, his hands splayed on the sand near mine. How unafraid he was to be close to me, in this moment of panic. He stood up and offered his hand, his haste receding and his prudence returning.
I stood unsteadily and he followed, watching me warily. I sighed and walked onto the beach, leaving the water’s protection, my legs dark, distant masses swinging beneath me. As I walked, I scrunched the sand between my toes, dancing right, then left, letting the remainders of my drunkenness sway my motion like a pendulum. When I looked up, Christopher wasn’t walking quickly in front of me to escape the cold, but was still at my side, swaying and weaving from side to side as I did to keep from colliding with me. In a brazen moment I stepped closer to him. I could finally really see his face, his jawline, his eyes, and immediately I knew he was beautiful. Yes, totally beautiful, and it made me feel like crying. So this was what I found beautiful. I’d forgotten.
We kept walking until we reached the road, the cement a dark and hard contrast to the sand of the beach. Off to the side, a wreck smoldered, sending off tendrils of grey smoke into the night.
“Kat, your car is destroyed,” he said. Did I like him saying my name? I think so, I think I definitely did.
“Can you take me home?” I said, “It’s cold.”
He seemed taken aback- I think he expected me to be more afraid of getting into his car with him than I was.
It was a long green car, and reminded me of the kind of car only really young people drive, before they can afford a real one. Christopher opened the door to the driver’s side, the orange light inside turning on. He hopped onto the lid, sliding across, and hopped down to open the passenger door. I followed him slowly, studying him, and got into the passenger seat. He smiled at me nervously. I turned away, my face carefully neutral. I felt sadder, but safer. Christopher sat down beside me, and we both closed our doors and sat there as the orange light began to dim. He reached up and switched the light back on. I watched his profile cautiously from the corner of my eye. He drew his brows together.
“I really want to take you to the hospital,” he said. I shook my head.
“Please?” he asked, turning to me. I just stared at him, and he raised his eyebrows plaintively. I laughed.
“I don’t need to go to the hospital, Christopher. Just take me home please.”
Christopher reached back over my shoulder, and pulled out a blanket from the back seat. He handed it to me, and I placed it over myself like a tablecloth, covering me from shoulders to toes. He hesitated, then carefully tucked in the edges around my shoulders with just the tips of his fingers. I smirked but giggled, and he seemed to take courage from it.
“Please? I’ll only ask this one last time, I swear. I know I don’t know you, but it’d kill me to just drop you off somewhere without, like, a doctor present,” he said. I sighed and pulled the blanket closer around me, burying my nose in it. It smelled like warm cologne, and I wondered if that was what he smelled like.
“Tell me a story,” I said, closing my stinging eyes. 
“What?” he said.
“Well,” I said in a tired voice, “You already know far more than you should about me. I should know about you, before I let you kidnap me.”
“I don’t know anything about you.”
“That’s not true, you found me naked and bleeding on the beach in the middle of the night. How many times have you met a person under those kinds of circumstances?” He couldn’t answer. I continued, “Tell me a story about yourself. Something comparable to me finding you bloody and naked in the water.” Christopher blushed, and looked out at the stars out his fogged up window. Second after long, drawn out second passed inside the car. I fidgeted, playing with the radio dials, even though the car was off, and I flipped the car light above my head- on and off, off and on. The light left imprints behind my eyelids.
“I was addicted until about a year ago,” said Christopher. I flicked my eyes over his face. No telltale signs, no yellow teeth or wrinkles, no red veins crisscrossing his eyes.
“To what?” I asked, shyly.
“Heroin mostly. It was pathetic.” He laughed like he was choking. “If you’re addicted to heroin you’re supposed to have some sob story, you’re supposed to have seen things that are unforgettable. I used to lie...I’d say I had a past so tragic I couldn’t even talk about it.” His eyes pinched over the bridge of his nose, and his jaw clenched. “I don’t. I’ve had a really little life, Kat.” His eyes were far off. “But it made me feel completely alone, like it was just me and this drug in my blood. That was my whole world.”
I examined his face slowly, trying to imagine the boy with a needle in his arm. I took the blanket from my lap and put it over his shoulders. The warmth from the car’s heater streamed over my legs, pricking the hair up on my thighs. He tucked the blanket around his chin and shoulders tight, looking down like he’d forgotten I was there. After a moment he glanced up as if he’d remembered me.
“Thanks,” he said. His smile was a little forced, no teeth and his mouth stretched kind of tight. I felt so intrusive I wasn’t sure if I should’ve asked him about his story.
“Anyways,” he continued, turning on the car, “You’re right. I did see you naked, I owed you one.” The car aggressively rumbled, then stalled out, and Christopher swore under his breath. It took him three tries to start the car.
“You didn’t owe me anything,” I said, chuckling uncomfortably. He looked at me, his brow furrowed.
“Are you afraid of me now?” he asked. His dark eyes were imploring. 
“No!” I said. I was only confused. I felt as if somehow I couldn’t just walk away from him when I reached home. I couldn’t remember the last time someone told me something about themselves, anything personal. But I didn’t know what to say, how to tell him that, if I even could. Christopher cleared his throat awkwardly.
“Sorry, I have to wait a few minutes until the car defogs,” he said.
“That’s fine,” I said, in an overly cheerful voice. We descended into silence, listening to the car’s heaters vrooming away. I examined the car, the faded brown leather seats, the cracking green paint on the hood. The inside was clean if shabby, no dust on the dashboard, a collection of quarters in one of the cupholders, and books on the floor of the passenger seat. I nudged them with my foot, reading the covers. Two were by authors I’d never read, but the third was a book of poetry by William Blake. Christopher sat quietly, his nose pressed into the blanket, his eyelashes quivering. It felt like his vulnerability was pulsing, filling the car, and I couldn’t stay silent much longer.
“My husband, Andy, and I used to be alcoholics,” I said. I tried to be matter of fact. Christopher’s eyes flew up to mine, peeking out from his blanket-mask. I chuckled, and tried to be casual. “We would never admit it, not to ourselves or each other, but we both knew, really. We didn’t slow down till we started trying to have a kid.” Christopher’s eyes wrinkled, and I knew he must be smiling behind the blanket.
“You have a kid?”
Moment of truth. “Yes. Cecilia.”
“Cecilia is a pretty name.”
“Yes.” I had retreated, and while I felt ashamed, it also felt so very comforting. Christopher took the blanket off of his face, and put it back in my lap. His hands didn’t linger, although a part of me wished he would.
We succumbed to the silence again, watching the crystals on the windshield begin to fade. It was a gentle silence. If he’d been staring at me, I would’ve understood. But he wasn’t, and that was what disturbed me, because all I wanted in the world was for him to stare at me. Christopher…he made me feel soft. How could I feel so soft, so soon after being naked and crazed and drunken in the ocean? I haven’t felt so soft in so long… Yet this softness hurt more. It stung. This softness felt real, like I was real again, substantial. I’d been made of nothing for years, dropping shadows of myself into my coffee, leaving them in the shower, until at night I had so little to function with I could barely crawl into bed. Yet I could feel Christopher’s shirt like a bandage around me, keeping my last pieces of mind together, pressing me into a person, an entity, a solid. It felt so disturbingly good.
My gut began rejecting it. I felt sharp hot pains as this familiar, warm little feeling began to light me up. My insides felt prodded, like a weary animal, sleeping and comfortably numb and sad. I had decided to board up this old kind of animal forever. Certainly this was not what forever entailed.
Christopher pulled into the street and turned on the radio, and I cranked it up. I can’t remember what song it was, only that I liked it and it was good loud. We sped along, until after half an hour we reached my road. I couldn’t stop talking, even though with every breath my lungs hurt. I kept looking at him, and telling him more about my family. He bubbled out giggles to every story, which struck me as delightful. Delightful wasn’t a word I’d used, even in my head, for a while.
“Cecilia is going to be a black belt someday, I swear. Five months into my pregnancy, and I felt like she was giving my womb bruises. She’d wake me up in the middle of the night by kicking me...absolutely the devil.”
Christopher turned the radio down. “Do you think we’ll wake her up when I drop you off?”
I stiffened. “She’s with her grandparents tonight, actually.”
“Oh. That’s nice.”
I nodded.
We pulled into my long driveway, the gravel rough against the car’s wheels. I wrapped my blanket around me, unhappy we’d arrived already.
“Pretty house,” said Christopher, and I nodded, studying the brick house surrounded by trees, set back far from the road. My house was fairly small and non-descript on the outside, without a lot to distinguish it from the surrounding darkness. Christopher opened his door and ran around to mine, opening it. When I didn’t move, he peered inside.
“This is your house, isn’t it?” he said. I didn’t move. His eyebrows knit together, and he bent over so he filled the doorway, leaning against one side. He spoke in a quiet intense voice.
“Hey… Look, if there’s something in there, somebody you don’t wanna see… I can get you a hotel room if you want, somewhere to stay until you figure things out. I mean it.” His eyes drilled concerned holes into mine.
“No, I’m alright,” I said, and smiled. “I’ve never had those sorts of issues with Andy or my family.” I pulled the blanket tight around my shoulders and lifted it over my head like a nun, making a face at Christopher.
“I’m glad,” said Christopher seriously, getting out of the way so I could step out. My eyes instantly teared up from the chilly wind that tore through the branches. It always felt colder up here on this hill, in the shadow of the trees. Christopher turned, as if he was going to get back in the car. I reached out for him, my fingers brushing his arm.
“Will you come in with me?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, closing the car door. “I’d like to meet…Andy, right?” I didn’t say anything but led the way up the rock path towards the house.
I pulled the blanket tightly around my shoulders and glanced at Christopher walking beside me. He pulled a coat over his naked back, his collar turned up against the icy breeze. It was almost fall, and the chill was new to our skin. I watched the tattoo on my ankle as I walked- my chickadee. It looked as if the bird was flying- each step was a little flap, every time my foot moved and my ankle stretched forward to rest on the next stone. My heart began pumping wildly as we got closer and closer to the door, each breath crossing my lips like a gust of wind. I was making a huge mistake- how could I bring this man inside? We were at the doorstep, and I knew I hadn’t locked the door. The window pane glowed with a light just beyond the beige curtains. I took the first step, then the second, my fingernails digging deep into my palm. The third step, and I turned back to Christopher. He looked up at me. He waited expectantly, then awkwardly.
“Should I go?” he said. I paused, and my eyes floated down the curve of his cheekbones, down his ear and neck.
“No, please stay,” I said. “I was just trying to remember if I locked it.” I turned the knob, and it opened with a click. “I didn’t,” I said, smiling. Christopher half-laughed, and took the second and third step up to me, his jacket brushing my back like a wall against the wind behind us. I opened the door.
I didn’t want to look at him, or around. I kept my head down. I went inside, let him in, and shut the door behind us. I turned the outside lights on with the switch next to the door on the inside. I turned to the coat rack to my right and found a trench coat, which I pulled on over the shirt, letting the blanket fall to the floor underneath the coat. I buttoned up- one, two, three. I could hear Christopher’s rapid, uneven footsteps out into the hallway.
“Kat… someone broke into your house!”
I didn’t look up. I scanned the light green carpet and found my slippers where I’d left them the day before. I slipped them on.
“I’m so sorry, someone broke your stuff, it’s all over the place...where’s your husband?”
My eyes felt lifeless and prone within my skull. They met his, which were overflowing with confusion.
“Hey? Are you alright?” he said. I couldn’t help it, and I looked around the room.
Even at first glance, the place was chaos. The kitchen, farthest away from me, was worst- the cabinet above the counter was empty, its doors wide open. Huge shards of plates, bowls, cups, and vases were scattered and smashed across the wooden floor, covering every inch with ceramic blades. They glinted in the bright kitchen light overhead. The three tall lamps in the hallway were thrown over, and their lightbulbs were cracked and dead. On a short table in the hallway there used to be picture frames, which were now wooden frames and glass dashed on the ground, the pictures scattered, some torn into confetti. I looked on, my emotions exhausted.
“Kat,” Christopher said quietly, but I didn’t respond. He took me by the shoulders, holding me arm’s length away from him. “Kat, did your husband do this?”
“My husband and I divorced five years ago.”
“What? What happened here then?”
I glanced around for a spot not covered in broken glass. Christopher took his jacket off, using it to sweep the broken glass of the bottom stair going to the second floor. I sank swiftly down, my body feeling heavy and my stomach heaving with shame. I had brought this man, practically a stranger, here.
“Hey...I’m really sorry, are you okay?” said Christopher. When I didn’t respond, he looked around, then asked, “Did you break all this?” I said nothing for a long time, then I stood and walked up the stairs. I could feel Christopher slowly padding along behind me. At the top of the stairs I opened the door with her name on it. I sat on her bed and picked up a stuffed animal from beside me- a little bear. It fit in the palm of my hand. I rotated its tiny paw between my thumbs. The silence hung in the air between us, he at the door and I sitting on the bed. The air felt so thick and stuffy I could barely breathe. Each inhalation was a tiny gasp that fluttered desperately across my lips.
“After my miscarriage, Andy left me.”
“What?” Christopher asked, his voice shaking almost imperceptibly.
“I couldn’t stop drinking,” I said, “even after I knew I was pregnant with Cecilia.”
The words hung from threads above us, light as snowflakes. They meant nothing for long seconds, refusing to sink in, floating aimlessly above our heads until they perched upon our shoulders. Gently, slowly, they melted into our skins, chilling us. I shivered violently.
I heard a quiet noise, and I looked up at Christopher in the doorway. His eyes shone with a liquid brightness. His face trembled as the brightness slid from his eye onto his cheek. I watched it like I’d never seen a man cry before.
“Why are you crying?” I said.
“It’s just...I’m sorry,” he said, rubbing his fingers hard into his eyelids, “It’s just sad. I’m so sorry, it’s just really sad. I’m sorry.” He looked around, and I saw what he saw, everything through his new eyes. The children’s books in the bookshelf, the miniature bed, the old dollhouse in the corner. The rug with the smiling giraffe. I watched him comprehend everything in one fatal moment. Absurdly, I felt the need to comfort him. I hadn’t cried in years- I’d stopped listening to my pain, and simply bundled it around me. Looking at him, I wanted to cry again. It looked simple. Instead, I tried to stay stay huddled inside my cocoon, as if none of it had ever mattered to me.
“Today was supposed to be her birthday,” I said offhandedly. “So I got drunk. I got drunk and did a lot of things.” I tried not to think of the photographs, the pictures of my family I’d ripped apart with my own fingers.
Christopher walked over and sat next to me, drying his eyes with his sleeve. He didn’t seem embarrassed that he’d cried- he’d even left a tear still clinging to his eyelash. When I had been naked in the water I had been less exposed than he was now, just sitting here. As we sat fidgeting I could feel myself slipping, like my body was pulling itself out of its wrappers. For a moment I struggled against it, but my exhausted armor was melting. As I felt it falling apart fear gripped my lungs. Without it, I was naked. To let down my shields would mean to re-examine the truths I’d held for the last five years- that there was no greater danger than to allow my infected past to air itself out in the real world. I had given up my right to feel warm and soft. Abruptly, Christopher wiped his eyes and stood up, stepping briskly to the door.
“I’ve broken things before, too… It’ll be alright in the end,” he said, and without any more words, walked away. I watched his back as he left the room. I stayed on the bed, panicked thoughts rushing through my head. The silence was crushing. For the first time the quiet of the room felt wrong, and empty. Then I heard sounds from downstairs I couldn’t place, and I slowly followed the noises, my naked feet silent on the carpet. When I got to the top of the stairs I could see down on the top of Christopher’s head. He was holding a broom from the kitchen closet.
“Wait a minute,” he said looking up at me, and swept the bottom of the stairs clear of glass. “Alright,” he said. I walked down, slowly, feeling the smooth wood of the banister in my hands.






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This article has 2 comments. Post your own now!

Michael_writes78 said...
Jan. 16, 2016 at 11:18 pm
Really good story.
 
CharlieSmoke This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jan. 17, 2016 at 9:43 pm
Thank you!!
 
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