He’s staring down her shirt again. I grind my teeth as I bang on the letters of my keyboard. I can’t seem to get any work done, what an unproductive day. When I look up again, he’s patting her on the shoulder and walking away. Correction, he’s walking towards me.
I feel a wave of something pass over me. It happens every time he’s nearby, It’s a feeling of intense nausea (the kind you feel when dropping off the highest point of a rollercoaster) and (sickeningly) a bubble of anticipation. It’s sick, I know, and yet, there it is. Bright as day, that small bubble just grows bigger instead of popping.
I heave a sigh of relief and disappointment as he walks past me, but not before leaning down and whispering, “Clare, that is one sexy skirt.”
I feel my heart flutter and simultaneously, a horrible, unclean rag feels like it’s been dropped all over my brand-new sleek mini black skirt. It’s the kind that sits snugly on your thighs, outlining all the right places. And yes, it’s damn sexy. Maybe too sexy. Oh hell, definitely too sexy. Suddenly I wish I’d worn pants.
I don’t remember exactly when it started happening. When had I become obsessed with the need to please him? Why had I become obsessed? Perhaps it was the office party, the one where I’d stupidly worn the bright red, ‘cherry-coloured’ fitted dress. If you’d asked me what I was hoping for in that little number, I’d probably have told you, “to get laid”. How, where, by whom was irrelevant. I’m lonely, 34 years old and still unmarried. I have a crappy job in a crappy town working for a crappy boss who does crappy things. I’m totally loving my life.
Obviously, he noticed. I’ve realized it’s the easiest way to get his attention. Flash him some flow charts and he’s yawning in 5 seconds but flash him some cleavage and you’ve got his full attention. I had his full attention.
“It’s so refreshing to see you out of uniform Clare,” he said ‘refreshing’ while licking his lips, “I should have a word with the boss about easing up on you gals. I’ve always found the boring work uniform a bit restrictive. Oh wait, I am the boss!” He laughed as he touched my arm.
‘Breathe Clare. It’s just a hand. Breathe. Use your words. Be engaging,’ I chanted to myself.
I laughed with him even though I felt he was being an utterly sexist, demoralizing pig. Why, though? Why Clare? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. It might seem stupid and crazy but when you’ve been alone as long as I have, even unnatural ideas seem appealing.
So I was engaging. I engaged his laughing; his words; his tongue being shoved down my throat; his snakelike hands; his shallow, raspy breaths and later, I engaged his, “I’ll see you at work Clare” as he drove off after dropping me off at home.
I stood on the pavement in a daze. I didn’t even realize I was crying until the daisies on the front lawn became blurry. I could feel teardrops splattering on my red dress. The red now not so much ‘cherry-coloured’ as it was the colour of blood. I turned and walked slowly into my dark, empty house that screamed of despondency. The first thing I did was pull off that dress and throw it in the trash.
So I’d dressed, felt and acted like a slut. You would think I’d had enough. Evidently not as I realized when Monday morning rolled around, I pulled on my tightest pencil skirt (it went all the way down to my knees, but really it left little to the imagination) and that lovely white blouse with a v-neck specifically for the ‘sexy-chic’ look. There was NOTHING chic about it. I turned heads alright. All of them head an opinion. Some were concerned, others were disgusted, but most just sat back and enjoyed the show.
Of course, it was mandatory for him to say, “Is it hot in here or it just… oh, it’s you, Clare.”
I’d made a joke, something stupid about freedom of dress. He’d laughed.
“We’ll see how free that dress is willing to be later,” he took one more look, licked his lips, spanked my butt and walked off.
I hated it, I hated him, I hated all of it, but mostly, I hated myself because I knew that secretly I loved it. I loved the attention, I thrived on it. I was sick. Sick to the very core of my being, deep within my soul.
I was only 13 the first time Steve touched me. He’d come to pick me up in that rusty red pickup truck that constantly looked like it was on the verge of collapse and the red, red seats. The smell of sour booze, tobacco and, strangely enough, blood never really left the air, no matter how many windows you opened. I’d never really like Steve. He had that creepy way of looking at you that made you feel like you had spiders crawling on your skin. He made my momma happy, though, so I said nothing about my discomfort. I wonder if things might have turned out different if I’d spoken up in the beginning.
I was a chirpy schoolgirl, young enough for braided pigtails but old enough for puberty and apparently, old enough for him as well. When he pulled over on the side of the empty road, a heavy feeling settled in my stomach. When he switched off the gas, pure terror seeped in. Then when he flicked open his penknife, reached over and popped the buttons of my shirt, I screamed bloody murder. I hopelessly tried to get out of the car, but he had a lot more advantage. I was trapped. I sometimes feel like I still am.
After what seemed like an eternity of pain and blood, he got off me and zipped up his pants. I was numb. Partly from the experience but mostly from the severe pain. It felt like something had broken inside me. It felt out worldly but I know now that it was so deep that it reached the innermost cortex of my self. It was like a flip had been switched. For him, it was the beginning of a series of pleasurable moments he would steal from me, destroying my innocence, one painful thrust at a time. For me, it was the start of a revolution. A churning, boiling, seething ball of anger that was growing with each chip in my soul.
I remember him pushing my legs off the seat, starting the truck and driving ‘home’. When he got off, he stretched as if he’d engaged in a recreational activity. Before stalking off to the house, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “You tell your momma and I’ll kill you.”
I believed him. So when momma came home that night and he kissed her, (I remember him looking me in the eye as he did this, as if daring me to speak) I said nothing about how filthy his lips were.
In the years that came, I remained silent. I lived in constant terror. I couldn’t tell momma, not about how many times it happened again or how many babies I lost. In my naivety, I felt I was being selfless. Momma deserved happiness, right? She’d been through so much already, I could take this small difficulty for her. She didn’t need to know more upsetting things and I wouldn’t be the one to tell her. So I endured it all until he stopped being good to her. At first, I didn’t see the actual act, just the bruises. After a while though, he didn’t even care about being discrete. The day he slapped her so hard that she lost a tooth, was the day I snapped.
Later that night when momma had gone to sleep, I enticed him outside. The sick pervert happily followed. We drove out in his truck to the same place it had happened for the first time, but this time I wasn’t trapped. This time I was in control. I’d been prepared, the knitting needles that I’d stuck in his eyes, groin and chest worked well as unorthodox knives. They’re quite sharp, those needles…
I jumped out of the truck and looked at the hated thing one more time. The seats were still red, but now I know that it wasn’t paint. I smashed the windows with a rock simply because I could. When I got back to the house, the frozen night air had chilled me to my core, I went to give my momma one last kiss before hoisting my back and walking away into a new life. At least this way I knew that she would be safe and happy, at least for the time being. I never saw her again.
Of course, I believe there are good men in the world. They can’t all be monsters. It’s just that I’ve always been a magnet for all the bad guys. Steve was just the start of a series of terrible relationships. I don’t really know what it was, I still don’t. Come to think of it, there’s a lot of things I don’t know about myself. What I do know is that the day I find a good man, I’ll start wearing red again. Right now, it’s just a painful reminder of painful memories. It’s strange, isn’t it? How a simple primary colour can be so meaningful and so damaging.
Red is the colour of passion, blood and death. It’s also the colour of love, according to popular belief, but I don’t necessarily believe that love should make you think of a war. Not even if you have to go through war to find it. Love should be the colour of roses. Not the blood red kind that looks dangerous enough to cut through to your soul with their thorns, but the subtle, soft, pink kind. Love should be gentle and kind and patient. At least, that’s what the movies tell us. Of course, that’s never true, is it? Life isn’t like the movies. Love is almost always the colour of blood. It’s violent and demanding and leaves you feeling like you’ve been broken so severely that you have no hope for recovery without your ‘other half.’ It’s damaging, but still, you yearn for it. You yearn for him.
When I started my new life, I’d pulled all the stops to ensure that no-one from my previous one would ever recognize me. New name, new face, new family. I’m an abuse magnet, but I’m no idiot. If there’s anything I can thank Steve for, it’s for the survival instincts I’d picked up in my years of surviving him. You’d be surprised how easy it is to become invisible, to be wiped off the face of the earth, to convince people that you’d never existed in the first place. In those starting years, I imagined that the folks back home wondered. Maybe they even figured out a solid story, one that everyone could believe and be happy with and maybe they might have even been right and for a while, the entire town would be buzzing with sympathy and heartfelt sorrow for the girl who ran away. They would have sent momma condolences, for losing her husband and her daughter in one night. They would have sent her microwaveable meals and visited regularly, as good neighbors do. Some might even have stayed. But, with the passing of time, things move back into normalcy and people forget. They stop whispering about the missing chair in the classroom, they stop sending the dinners and they stop asking the mandatory, “How have you been?” because they already know the answer. They know how devastated you are at the loss. They know how much you miss them. They know that you just throw the microwave dinners out for the cats because you’ve lost all appetite and don’t care if you waste away.
One might ask, “so why didn’t you go back?’ “If you knew how your mother was suffering, why allow her to?” “What were you achieving?” I.. wait for it… didn’t know. I don’t know. Heh, told you I don’t know much about myself. I don’t know the real reason. All I know is that going back would have been far worse than the road I’d chosen. How would I explain my disappearance? Steve’s death? I’m pretty sure they would have figured out that the 2 were connected. How would I explain the reason I killed Steve? Sure, they would listen, but who’s to say they’d believe me? The first person they’d ask if I was telling the truth is momma and considering that I never spoke up, would mean I wouldn’t have 1 solid witness to testify to my innocence. It would be jail for me. Come to think of it though, would jail really be all that worse than the life I’m living right now?
You know once upon a time, I didn’t hate this person I’d invented so much. I didn’t hate Clare. Maybe I don’t really hate her so much as I do the life she’s living. I can’t hate her because if she’d never been invented, I would never have met Lou. The sharpest rose of the lot, my Lou, the love of my life.
I wish I could say that he came along and my life was suddenly beautiful. It wasn’t. If anything, it was even worse. Red is the colour of love and war remember? He was the kind of boy who wrecked you. You could even see it happening. But you couldn’t leave him. No matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t leave him. It wasn’t just the constant manipulation and blackmail that made him damaging. He hurt you without even touching you. I can’t even remember a number of times I had to talk him out of a suicide that he made me feel responsible for. He was horrible, and yet, I loved him. I still do. Yes, he was all those bad things but he was also kind and comforting and sometimes when he held you in his hands, the sweet smell of flavoured hookah (usually strawberry, he knew it was my favourite) and cinnamon enveloping you, you felt like there was nothing in the world that could hurt you. It was like sleeping in an inactive bombshell. You feel warm and safe but you know that it has the potential to destroy you. That kind of relationship… you can’t just leave. So you don’t. He does. He’s just there one day and gone the next as if he never existed anywhere other than your memories. He just leaves, and you’re left picking up your broken pieces all by yourself.
‘It’s a vicious cycle’ I thought, looking at him leer down at her yet again. From abuser to abuser, it doesn’t stop. I fingered my needles, today was the day.
She was getting uncomfortable, you could tell. He constantly tried to touch her and she kept pushing him off. He was pushing it, she was young and easy bait. Younger girls succumb simply to keep their job, he knew that. I was a different story, I was using the abuse as fuel. But her? Her only sin was being too pretty and dressing like she’s a Victoria’s Secret model. She’d been trying to sober up, really she had, but he clearly didn’t get the hint. Stupid boy, too bad he was too dumb to see what was coming.
It was mostly quick but I threw in a few unnecessary tortures. He was surprised to see me. Shocked at first but then his lips curled into a disgusting smile and I could clearly see what was running through his mind.
“Come in Clare, please, do come in.” Don’t mind if I do.
I probably shouldn’t have made it look like he was a murderer. By the laws of the world, his crime wasn’t as dangerous as ‘serious’ crimes like theft or murder, but by my law and by the law of all women around the world, he might as well be given the same punishment.
I think we brush perverts off as being “harmless” too often. They’re the reason young girls are terrified to walk a few steps out of their house. They’re the reason innocence is lost. They’re the reason women and men never feel safe, not even in their own houses. They are the reason that the cycle of abuse continues till every human in the world, male and female are infected. Women don’t trust men, not even the good ones because it’s difficult to know which ones are really trustworthy.
“Hey! You’re Clare, right?” I turn and smile. A friendly face! How refreshing.
“Yep, how can I help you?”
“Adam,” he holds out his hand, “I’m here to fix the PC.”
“Oh, you’re from IT,” I shake his hand, “thanks, man you’re a lifesaver.”
He looks uncomfortable. At first, I can’t understand why then I look down and suddenly wish I had more buttons. That’s strange. I’ve felt immodest before but never to the extent of embarrassment. He’s trying so hard NOT to look, which is a first for me. It must be really difficult for him, considering I’m basically open like a free-for-all gawk fest. Why feel ashamed for the IT guy though? Because he’d chosen not to look when everyone else drooled? How dumb, and yet, there’d been dumber things.
He squats with a screwdriver in hand. He’s probably grateful that the computer allows him to face his back towards me.
“Hey, have you seen the boss around?”
“Nope,” I reply without missing a beat, “he’s been out for a few days, maybe sick (yeah, sick and rotten in his luxury bathroom with pieces of flesh probably already falling off him) or traveling. You know these big CEO types.”
“Yeah,” he says with a laugh, “That’s the dream, isn’t it? Have enough money to travel whenever you like.”
Enough money to travel but not enough to buy decency, respect or a conscience.
“Done,” Adam smiles, packing his tools away, “You’re good to go.”
“Thanks,” I say. Then a primitive and also challenging part of me wills my hand to rest on his as I smile a dazzling Colgate smile. I flutter my eyelashes for added effect. I notice pink lines on his shirt. They’re subtle, soft.
He raises an eyebrow before shaking my hand off.
“What are you doing?” he asks in disgust.
A piece of my soul soars.
“Saying thank you,” I say innocently.
“Yeah, right.” He turns to walk away.
My heart sinks but then he turns back around. The dark part of me hopes he’ll kiss me, the other hopes he’ll ask me out. He does neither.
“Listen, I know it’s not really my place, at all, to judge or say anything, especially considering we just met and you do have freedom of dress, but well, I think you’d be beautiful covered too.”
I’m dumbfounded. Who is this person?
“I don’t mean you’re not beautiful, it’s just, well you don’t need anybody else’s approval, is all I’m saying.”
“What the... Who do you... What makes you think I care about what other people have to say!?” My outburst is more out of shock than anything else.
“Maybe you don’t, maybe you just enjoy dressing that way or you really were just saying thank you. Maybe I’m wrong, but I have a strong feeling that I’m not. It’s ok to be insecure, you know? But that doesn’t mean you’ve got to believe that who you are is based off what others say you are. You’re a lot more than that.”
Then he walks away, leaving me completely speechless. What the hell? Who does he think he is? My shrink?
I seethe for a while, wallowing in self-pity until I can’t hold it in anymore. I storm off to the IT department. I’m confused, not entirely angry but a whole new feeling altogether. It’s like I’m upset that he had the nerve to judge me but I’m also quite pleasantly surprised that he did. In a world full of men who want more women to show skin and be provocative, here was someone who wanted the complete opposite. I mean it’s the 21st century, for crying out loud! Who gets shy because of a little cleavage? Who feels uncomfortable when a beautiful woman flirts with him? Adam, the IT guy, apparently.
I see him from down the hall.
“Hey, you! Adam!”
He turns, surprised to see me and a wave of fear passes over his face. I walk up to him till we’re standing face to face. I’m flustered and out of breath.
“Y…yes Clare?” he asks nervously.
I narrow my eyes at him then reach up and give him a swift slap across the face. You can hear the sharp inhalation of breath around the room. It’s pin drop silent.
Adam splutters, “What the…?”
“Thank you,” I say evenly.
“What?!” He looks more shocked than I feel. So does everyone else in the room.
“Thank you, for what you said. I needed that.” Surprisingly, I’m being completely sincere and I realize that the reason I was upset was not because of what he’d said, but because I needed him to say it before I could actually believe it myself. He’s right, I do base myself off other’s opinions.
“Errr, you’re welcome, I guess, but what was the slap for?”
“For not saying it sooner. It’s because of men like you, who don’t say anything that women like me believe men who say a whole lot.”
He looks taken aback. “I don’t make a habit of confronting people about their choice of dress.”
“Huh, so should I apologize or something?”
“No, but a coffee would be nice, I am in a higher department. It’s sort of your duty to serve me.”
He laughs. His eyes twinkle when he laughs, it’s like a speck of innocence, it’s beautiful. It’s not just the shirt. His entire demeanor is subtle and soft and pink, the perfect colour for roses. It’s the colour of true love.
“Sure, as soon as I can look you in the eye without being distracted.”
I smile. “See you around Adam.”
As I walk away, a new feeling envelopes me. It’s neither nausea, terror nor discomfort. Instead, I feel warm and fuzzy inside, almost as if something’s being fixed.