T/W: Mentions of sex, suicide, child abuse, mental illness, offensive language
How many ways are there to suffocate? It’s a question I lock inside a cage in my mind and pretend it isn’t there. I do this on the drive home from work. It’s a mundane trip on the same streets Monday through Thursday. Images of gnarled trees rush past my car windows with twisted arms and sagging bodies. Early morning joggers hit the trails underneath them with spirit in their steps. Toward the end of my commute there’s a pedestrian bridge with an ebony river running below it. Blood orange waves glitter across the water in the early light of dawn. God help me… I want to drown myself in it.
I consider it for a moment, pulling the car over. How I’ll stand adjacent to the white bars of the bridge a breath away from my own demise. A thrill building in my abdomen as I drink in the pleasant expressions of smiling faces running past. The same people are on the bridge every day like they’re on autopilot. Is it sick? The way I envision stepping off the bars of the bridge right next to them, a small moment of silence, and then - I’m falling backward into the water. It’s exciting to picture horror unfolding on their faces.
The truth about me is this: I hate the way we sleepwalk through our lives. We do indistinguishable things day after day, as if we know there’s a tomorrow. Routine is such an arrogant beast. It tells us we have control when we don’t.
“I’m getting in the shower,” I tell my husband this when I make it in the door. It’s 6:37 a.m. I don’t have to look at the clock to know when the route home never changes. “Have a great day. See you when I see you,” I say.
We work opposite shifts. I’m chained to the night shift while he’s married to the day. We hardly see each other, and I like it this way. I need the house vacant to breathe. He seizes his coffee from the counter like it’s his lifeline and tells me he will. It’s an empty statement. A series of words bumping into each other creating hollow sounds with no substance.
I detest these deflated conversations but it’s a necessary façade. Routine, structure, predictability - all these are needed to survive in the cookie cutter life that’s incarcerating me. A place called civilized society. It’s not a real place but we tell ourselves it is while we ignore everything uncivilized about it. The horrible situations that will never happen to us, in our neighborhoods, or in our own homes.
He doesn’t look at me as he opens the door. He doesn’t kiss me goodbye. He doesn’t tell me he loves me. “See you tomorrow,” is all he says. I’m to blame for this behavior. My icy demeanor smothers even the hottest of flames. He leaves, and when the door shuts, my shoulders relax. It’s the same feeling I get when I think about freefalling from the bridge on the drive home. Freedom – oxygen – or something like those.
If this sounds like a story about two people who have fallen out of love, it isn’t. I have a nasty secret, you see. Another truth about me. I’m not suitable for love. There is no room in my chest for useless emotions. I’ve been told it’s a side effect of someone who is confined to their past when they live in the present. A person who uses fight or flight like others might use a spoon or fork. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Labels don’t really matter when results are the same. Love is patient and kind and I’m neither. Living one way, only, has kept me alive. You’re either a threat or a tool I can use to survive.
Jeans scrape coarsely down my thighs while I undress in front of the full-length bathroom mirror. My legs are my greatest asset. I inspect them inside my reflection appreciating them for the weapons they are. Warm steam from the shower fills the room. It casts a light fog over the glass and the image of my naked body. There are faded burn scars on my arms. You can’t tell unless you know where to look. Rust colored hair rests against my breasts in startling contrast to pale skin. Dark eyes stare back at me and to anyone else, I bet they’re beautiful. I can’t stand to look at them. They’re a permanent reminder - staying in one place for too long is one cause of asphyxiation.
These mirror checks are important. Attractiveness is paramount when it comes to getting ahead in life. It’s why my husband won’t leave despite lack of affection. When he fucks me - does he tell himself that it’s love? He doesn’t understand I can’t feel emotions like he can. Those moments where he’s inside me… he’s the only one there.
The alarm on my phone goes off. It’s 5:40 p.m. We’ve made it toward the end of Wednesday. Dusk is coming. Another night of working, breathing, and eating. Why am I alive again? My feet are silent against the carpet on my way through the living room. My husband fiddles with his phone on the couch without looking up.
“How was work today?” I ask. It’s like I’m a concerned wife. It was alright. I know before he says it.
“It was all right,” he tells me. “Can’t complain.”
His words pull the oxygen from the room again. The walls close in on me. The ceiling tips downward. All of a sudden, we’re too close to each other even though we’re on opposite sides of the room. Everything is always “alright.” He never has a single complaint. It’s like I’m the only one who has moments where I can’t breathe. I don’t say this to him. Not only do we operate on different sides of the day, but we also function from entirely different mindsets too.
I’m not able to love him… and he’s unable to fathom the thoughts inside my head. If I’m honest, there is one thing I hate more than sleepwalking through our existence. It’s trying to make someone grasp something when they lack the capacity to perceive the vastness of its conception. What a lonely prison we call home.
“That’s good,” I smile at him. “Well, guess I’ll head in again. I’ll see you on the flipside.”
More joggers on the way to work, more trees, more emptiness in my chest. Ambushed by another night of putting out everyone else’s fires. Even so, it’s effortless to play 911 dispatch. This is how my brain works. I’m an expert at remaining calm for others in situations that are not. I coolly collect their information through the phone, assess their surroundings, and sort what’s needed for survival. This job is soothing. It’s what I’m best at.
It’s the moments in life without chaos that leave me gasping for air. There’s something backward about me. When I listen to other people panic, it makes me feel sane. Fear I can comprehend. Rage, bitterness, and emptiness - these emotions are applicative. They’re an immutable reminder to guard yourself against others. Love, happiness, and even peace... lull you into a false sense of security. How pointless it is to explore them when they make us forget the most important lesson of all.
We are never safe.
Thursday 6:37 a.m.
“I’m getting into bed,” I say. “Have a great day.”
Thursday 5:41 p.m.
The low thrum of my husband’s voice penetrates the kitchen while I fill a thermos full of coffee. The things he’s saying suggests he’s speaking to his mother. They have an invaluable relationship. He calls to check on her often. It’s a sour taste in my mouth every time they are on the phone together.
When we began dating, he had asked why my mother and I never speak. It’s questions like this that deliver me back to her. I’m a six-year-old girl sitting at a kitchen table. We don’t have neighbors close enough to hear the screaming. Sharp sounds echo from my chest. They ring in high pitches but do nothing to hold her back.
“Please… please no more! I’ll do anything,” I tell her, and it chokes into a sob.
She puts another cigarette out on my bare skin. Her dark eyes – my dark eyes – look at me and she laughs. It’s a laugh that never stops.
“Does it hurt?” she hisses. “There’s a demon inside you. I’m doing this because I love you.”
She speaks like this to me in unpredictable moments. One minute she’s laughing and the next she’s violent. Paranoid schizophrenia. It’s untreated. She’ll tell you she isn’t sick and that it’s everyone else. After years as her daughter, I can’t help but wonder if she’s right. Love doesn’t exist inside me because I am possessed by something evil. A mother often witnesses things in her child no one else can see.
“We didn’t have a good relationship,” is the only answer I had to give him back then. “I have no idea where she is now.”
It took years, but one day, a lady in a carbon-colored jacket with sharp shoulder pads appeared at the door of my childhood home. She stripped me away from my mother. Her steps, a wide and forceful lunge. A pair of candescent dress shoes dragging me from the only home I knew. Her name was Monica. She thinks she saved me that day. Did she?
One fact is inarguable. Whether it was the first foster home or the fifth, I learned a great deal about a female’s body. What it can offer. What it can receive. It’s incredible how much a child can endure and still survive. They are like weeds that acclimate to any harsh environment they find themselves in.
Use everything you have in order to live. My mind became shaped like this. It uses everything from my body, and how I look, to my brain and the intelligence inside it. It examines everyone around me and analyzes their weaknesses to use against them. Empathy and compassion never stir within me. Despite that, acting like they do is a skill I picked up along the way.
Is there a darkness inside me that needs to be burned? Do mothers always know their children? It explains why I relish the night falling over me while others hold their breath for daybreak.
Friday. 5:41 p.m.
A small window of time has opened for my husband and me. I don't have work tonight. We’re like normal people if only for a moment. His lips are against my collarbone tasting my skin. The scent of him is too much with fresh spring soap and spicy deodorant. His hand slides in between my legs hungry for intimacy. Intimacy is revolting. It doesn’t matter how hard I try; I don’t like to be touched. He hasn’t caught on yet. It’s amazing how easy it is to fool even those closest to us. The only person I can’t lie to is myself.
It’s silly, isn’t it? How I work to convince my mind that if I follow the rules of society like everyone else, somehow, I will become like them. I’ll learn to love. I’ll feel safe in a house with a white picket fence and a dog. I’ll look forward to dates on Friday nights. I’ll even run alongside the river and wave at people who pass me by. Even if my husband can’t get inside my head - I’ll work harder to climb inside his. That will fix me, won’t it? It’s not like he doesn’t deserve to be loved.
I’m hollow inside as I climb from the bed in the dark. I stumble to the bathroom and rinse my mouth in the sink before climbing in the shower. I crank the hot water faucet all the way until I can’t take the heat. It burns my skin. It feels like my mother’s love for me. A laugh bubbles from my chest and it sounds like hers. It doesn’t stop and I slide down the shower wall.
“Do you think anyone is going to save us?” I asked my older sister this when we were children. I’m ten years old. She’s fourteen.
“No,” she tells me.
We’re hiding in a closet. Loud crashes come from the living room along with the sounds of things breaking. Mom is shouting again. She’s screaming at people who aren’t there. Hallucinations. Fear pounds in my rib cage like a heartbeat. My sister grips my fingers tight in hers.
“No one is coming to save us,” she whispers. “But I’ll never leave you.”
She meant it when she said it, didn't she? Except, we all have our limits. Two years after her promise and she’s in the wind. I’m on the doorstep of foster parent number one. People lie all the time, don’t they? That’s why - when my husband holds my body beneath his - arms begin to feel like prison bars. When he whispers he loves me against bare skin, I don’t feel cherished. Only used. I tell him I love him. It’s what he wants to hear. I’m a liar too.
Monday 6:27 a.m.
This time I do pull over on the way home. My shoes crunch against the gravel on the way to the bridge. The sun creeps up over the horizon in blazing streaks of crimson and gold. They surge through violet clouds thin like mist. The sky looks hand painted by divinity. People pass me by with ear buds in their ears and they smile. Once I’m on the bridge, I sit with legs dangling through a gap in the white iron bars. The cold iron presses against my chest while the wind lashes at my feet.
I could slip through the bars bringing my presence on earth to a brutal end but, despite intrusive thoughts, I’m not a suicidal person. I’ve done countless things to keep breathing and it seems wasteful to throw that work away now. Still, I can’t shake that I’m missing something important inside me.
My husband and I are like two sailing ships headed from their own respective locations. He grew up in a two-parent home. He never went without a roof over his head or suffered any kind of oppression. If my reality has been sustained by the darkness of nightfall then his has been satisfied with the kind of light that breaks it. Can two people who travel from opposing directions confront each other without one demolishing the other? I don’t have the answers.
“Deep in thought, dear?” An old woman interrupts my sentiments. She stands a few feet away looking out across the water.
Her weathered face crinkles with a knowing look as she casts intelligent blue eyes in my direction. Wind whips her white hair back and forth, but it doesn’t seem to bother her.
“The thoughts are deep in me,” I say.
“That does happen from time to time. There are moments when talking to a stranger can do more good than opening up to a person who knows you. Tell me. The weight of those thoughts, can you carry it alone?”
It isn’t in me to reveal myself to others and yet a lifetime of calculating everything I say has left me exhausted. Suddenly, I want nothing more than to empty my mind into anyone else’s head. I don’t want to be crushed underneath it anymore.
“I’ve tried everything to be like them,” I say, drained. “To look like them, laugh like they do, but I can’t seem to crack the code. Sometimes, I don’t think I’m human at all.”
She laughs and it’s a sharp jagged noise, “You sound pretty human to me.” Her eyes are soft as she says, “No two humans are alike. No sense in one trying to act like another.”
“What if I’m cruel when I’m not acting? A bit emotionless. I can’t bring myself to love like normal people do.”
Her lips straighten into a thin line, and she places her wrinkled hands on the bars of the bridge. “What is love, exactly? And where do we get off assuming it’s a human’s first concern? Life isn’t a bowl of cherries, you know. There are a great many ways to go about living and none of them are identical to the others. We walk the path we’re given. We do it the best we can. Some run, some crawl - quite a few of us stumble. There’s no shame in any of it.”
Her response baffles me and I ask, “If our first concern isn’t love, what is it?”
She pauses at the sound of feet pounding behind us. A pair of runners push themselves across the bridge in the direction of a dawning sun. There's something fascinating about their daily tenacity. Are they running from something or toward something? It's impossible to tell.
“Like a blade’s purpose is to pierce,” the woman says, capturing my attention once again. “A human’s purpose is to persist.”
The sun is above the water and the violet clouds have dissipated. Her words unravel a tightness in my chest. Despite the many causes of suffocation, there is one way to avoid them all. Keep breathing. “I do have another question,” I tell her. “What if a person’s path has been so different from someone else’s that it’s like night and day?” My voice lowers as I continue, “Can those two still walk forward together?”
The river gleams with golden light as the sounds of traffic increase on the streets around us. My day is over, but for so many others, their day is only beginning.
“That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.”