Sometimes I leave the dirt on when I eat celery. Skip the sink, the cold water rubbing, the simple thought that enough liquid will wash away enough matter to matter. I still peel them, crack the ends and pull back close to the rib, the veins coming off like violin strings snapping. My grandmother made fun of my mother for insisting on deveined celery for stuffing, but she also refused to refrigerate opened salad dressings and dipped an already used spoon back into the mayonnaise jar while making lobster salad. Conflicted, I just nodded.
The first time he raped me, he pulled my hair back like strings he could use to tie me to him. Three months married, maybe only two, but somehow calling it a quarter year of peace seems important in my memory. A quarter year where disdain for mind, for passion, for ambition, for anything important to me was my daily dose, the bread that’s supposed to nourish but depletes, missing a grain or yeast and keeping you too weak to search for better. Repetitions of reasons why no one would ever love me as much. Why I’d always be lonely.
Sometimes I leave the door unlocked when I shower. Ignore the security, the piece of steel deterrent that pretends to keep me safe. I run the water too cold and too warm and pull soap over my ribs, the drops flaking off like paint from a rotting board. My uncle locked my father in a wooden box when he was a child, older-brothered him into the trunk, promising a game or adventure or something else a four year old favors, then closed the lid and left him dead bolted in pitch black. I imagine him screaming, wanting to feel the boards for a way out but frightened of what he may find instead, and I adopt my father’s fear of the dark. Fear of emptiness and eyelessness greater than any fear of intrusion.
The first time he raped me was the first night I ever got drunk. As though he knew I would question the event the day after, that I would wonder if I had a right to protest when I’d had one too many. As though the moment I cried out and begged for no more disappeared in the two extra Mike’s Hard Lemonades I’d had, at his insistence, while walking a straight line in front of his friends and reciting the alphabet backwards just to prove I could. We were in a dark cabin. We were on a dark lake. We were in dark, rustic paradise.
Sometimes I leave the apartment too late. Walk along the river or the skyscrapers, depending on where I live at the time, dare the night to catch up and overtake me. I still carry my keys in my palm, a single one sticking straight out of my punching fist, uncertain whether I actually have the stomach to shove a sharp object into someone’s eye. My grandfather waged war on the chipmunks, the rodents that tore up and stole off with his garden. He caught them in Have-A-Heart traps then drowned them in a trash barrel of rain water, shot them with an old rifle from his kitchen window while we ate Sunday supper, poured ammonium and bleach down their tunnels. His hands were calloused from years of metal-smithing at the local shipyard and he could tear apart a still-boiling lobster without a flinch. I model my emotions after him, heating them up to red hot and striking them with cooler metal until there is no more room to bend or crack.
The first time he raped me, I bled in random spurts for days. He stopped partway through, when I cried too loud. I started convulsing and grabbing my stomach to try to stop from vomiting when he finally let go of my hands. I left the room, came back, crawled into bed with him again, not wanting to wake our friends in the bedrooms separated only by the thin pine boards of camp, and prayed we were done. When I look back, I want to say I never prayed again. That after, nothing could convince me to throw hope at a void. But that would make me a liar. As he yanked me back down and tore through the only part of me that had never known him, I prayed again and again to die.
Sometimes I leave candles burning on the kitchen table when I go to bed. Refuse to blow out the flame after I change to shorts and a t-shirt, afraid to sleep naked, and dare the smoke, dare the ash, to jump from one place, safe, to another, unknown. My great aunt left the east coast at the turn of the century to work with the Navajo on their reservations, back when women never left their hometowns if there were enough men to find a husband. She packed her bags and went alone, befriended women and men alike, shared food and story and craft. As a child, I held the beaded bags with their reverse swastika, a symbol of good luck before it ever resembled evil, and wondered what it would be like to be so brave. When she returned, she kept small birds and read the dictionary, entry by entry, cover to cover, again and again, to make sure she didn’t miss a moment of language. If I ever have a daughter, I will name her Margaret, in hopes she will be strong enough to kill her parakeet when it destroys its own skin, plucked feather by plucked feather.
The first time he raped me was the first time I discovered you can sometimes sleep after torture. Your body can be beaten and broken and wounded for weeks and still tell you, no, now is when we rest. You can be unable to sit, bring extra pairs of underwear and an extra skirt everywhere you go because you no longer trust that you have control of yourself, but still manage to shut your eyes. The first time he raped me, I fell asleep in his arms, to his suddenly gentle reassurance that this was what I wanted. Within weeks, I began wishing for car wrecks. For maiming. Began hoping he would cheat or beat my face instead of parts of me unseen, so that I could leave him, still the good wife.
Sometimes I leave my eyes open when swimming underwater in the ocean. Let the waves crash over me and the salt dry me out, already conquering my fear of a pool whose bottom I cannot see and the creatures that may coast by my limbs. My other grandmother died, raving, in a nursing home, wailing as the years flew out of her, memory by memory, a reminder of every joy and every mistake she’d ever known. I heard her voice in the background as the nurse asked for my mother and, frustrated at the child home sick from school who answered the telephone, told me that the noise I was hearing was my grandmother dying. Have your mother call us, she said, and hung up. When I allow myself to remember my grandmother, I try to recall not the joys of playing with blocks on her living room floor or eating blueberry muffins before kindergarten at a Dunkin’ Donuts up the street, but the way her eyes lit up in the last few months when she saw me, thinking I was one of her students from back when she taught elementary school. Back before she knew any real pain.
Kathryn Roberts earned her BFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, where she served as Managing Editor of Guideword. Her work has appeared in print and online in various journals, including Six Three Whiskey, Slush Pile, Vine Leaves, and Literary Juice. In addition to writing, her endeavors include painting, baking and cooking, and attempting to stay warm in Vermont.