Trigger warning: Sexual assault, description of violence
My hands caress the soft, moist grass that moves under my fingers like a living, pulsating creature, wet in patches from the morning drizzle. A strikingly blue butterfly takes off from the nearby daffodils and finds a perch on his shoulder.
I look into his blue eyes, properly for the first time, and will him to stay still. While I stare at the butterfly flickering on his white T-shirt, I feel the warmth of his unwavering gaze on my face. A gentle breeze begins to blow, tousling his curly brown hair, bringing the spring-like scent of daffodils mixed with the fragrance of his cologne.
I jerk my head to the other side to hide the revulsion on my face just as the butterfly flies away. He too wore cologne, although it smelled quite different. I could always catch a whiff of it through his sweat, which overpowered every other odour in that small, wretched room.
“Are you okay?” he says.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Every man is not him.
“Do you want to walk?” I say, trying hard to steady my trembling voice.
I notice how he maintains a distance and does not offer me his hand as I stand up. I’m sure my parents would have briefed him on what to expect and how to behave when he came asking for their permission to take me to the spring festival.
The wind swishes through my cotton flower-print dress that my mother insisted I wear today. She wants her daughter back, but I don’t have the heart to tell her I’m not the same person anymore and will never be. I hold down my dress with both my hands, keeping the jagged scar on my thigh concealed. Each time I look at the scar and run my fingers over its ugly little mounds and crevices, the memory of that night runs through my mind like a bolt of lightning. There are many other scars, of course, from countless other nights, invisible to the naked eye but as solid to me as the ground over which we walk today.
You should consider yourself lucky that you got out.
Aunt Margaret’s words continue to haunt me. Lucky? She calls that lucky?
My therapist says it will be a while before I feel like myself again, but I think she’s wrong. I’ll never feel like myself again because I don’t know myself anymore.
I’m a million little shards of something that was once — a very long time ago — whole.
We have reached the hilltop from where the spring festival, now in full swing, is visible. The exhilarated shrieks of the people riding the Ferris wheel and the Columbus can be heard here. I used to love riding the Columbus ride, before. I loved eating cotton candy and drinking punch from the Styrofoam cups. I loved throwing the ring and shooting the small balloons. Before. Everything in my life is clearly segregated into Before and After. I feel like my soul has been swapped with somebody else’s so that I’m now a new person trapped in someone else’s body, whose memories I have but that’s all I have of her.
I close my eyes and try to visualize going up the Ferris wheel and dropping down, feeling the wind in my hair, the bubbles bursting in the pit of my stomach, closing my eyes to the mind-numbing view from the top of the wheel from where the entire town can be seen. I loved going up the wheel because then I could breathe and open my eyes. I hated and loved free-falling from the height, cursing myself for buying the ticket and at the same time, telling myself it would soon be over so I might as well enjoy it.
Now, in the After, I feel nothing. Like I’m dead inside.
How weird it is walking next to her and not knowing what’s going on in her head. Although, I can guess. She’s probably repulsed by men, all men including me. And I can’t blame her after everything she’s been through. But it’s still weird. I mean, we have been inseparable since the third grade. She was my best friend and then later, my girlfriend — all of it before that stormy night she disappeared.
I have gone over that night hundreds of times in my head, thinking of different ways it could have gone. If only we hadn’t fought that day — over something trivial I don’t even remember — she wouldn’t have stayed back in school till late evening with her friends, she wouldn’t have left school alone to walk home and that that evil bastard wouldn’t have kidnapped her.
Oh, the horrors I imagine unleashing on that fucking monster if I ever get my hands on him! I would bash his head in with my baseball bat after using pliers to pull out his teeth while pouring sulphuric acid on his dick. I’m told he would spend the rest of his miserable life in prison. At least he won’t be able to hurt someone like he hurt my girl. For two whole years! Two years locked up in that ten-foot by ten-foot room. I’m surprised she even survived.
I glance at her, but she doesn’t meet my eye. For a long time after she disappeared, I kept her pink jumper under my quilt each night, embracing it and picturing her inside it. It still smelled like her, but the scent faded with time. Her memories never faded though.
Through deep visualization each night, I kept her alive in my mind. A part of me knew she’d return one day and until then, I just had to hold onto her as best as I could. And hold on I did.
Each night, I replayed the memory of our first bicycle race on that windy August afternoon when the roads were littered with autumn leaves. We raced ahead, shoulder to shoulder, occasionally glancing at each other. For a girl, she’s really fast, were my thoughts. As we went down the slope near the park, she began blinking her eyes rapidly, wiping away tears with one hand. The dust was getting into her eyes as she’d forgotten to bring her glasses. My hand automatically pressed the brake and I slowed down, allowing her to overtake me and win the race. The boys teased me for a week for having lost to a girl. But that day I realized, she wasn’t just a girl. She was the girl.
To punish myself for not walking her home that stormy night, I masochistically relived those three months when she’d dated a senior. For hours, I parked my car outside the cafe staring at the empty table where she’d sit with her boyfriend sipping coffee and flirting with him. I imagined things that never happened between them with such vivid details that I shocked myself with my capacity for causing pain.
Occasionally, I allowed myself to think about those blissful nights when we’d lie on the roof of my house gazing at the stars. She’d sneak over to my house after her parents slept — she was a real boy about it — and we spent hours on the roof of my house. At first, we kept up the pretence of wanting to spend time together to work on our school projects. But slowly, school projects were replaced by common concerns about school, teachers and friends, discussions about beluga whales and the women’s rights movement and slavery and British colonialism and the latest from the house of Prada and child psychology and types of parenting and common misconceptions about sex and weird wedding rituals from across the world. Every day, I would spend time on my computer researching interesting and shocking facts that I could amaze and delight her with. I don’t know for sure, but I think she was doing the same. It was the year my General Knowledge received the greatest boost and my father was one day shocked and yet proud to see my internet search history. Of course, he had no idea I deleted everything that parents considered unsuitable for a sixteen-year-old boy’s consumption.
I think we were so hungry for each other’s company that we consumed everything that came along with it, including knowledge, sleep-deprivation, chocolates, cold weather, light drizzles and dents in our buttocks from sitting for hours on my rooftop night after night.
I turn around to look at her. She’s still the same person really deep inside.
“Do you want to eat or drink anything?” I say.
She looks at me and then looks away quickly as though she’s touched a hot pan. “I could have a cold drink,” she says.
As we descend the hill, I wonder how it would feel to immerse my fingers into her now long hair, cascading over her shoulders like a golden waterfall, and hold her close to me so that she can hear my heart beating to the tune of her name.
The fizzing lemonade cools me from the inside, leaving a sweet and tangy taste on my tongue. The sight of children galloping in glee towards their favourite rides with their tickets in hand and their beleaguered parents on their heels makes me smile.
He catches my eye and we exchange a look that doesn’t make me want to look away. A stirring in the depths of my stomach feels both familiar and exciting, reminding me of our first date, an unforgettable evening involving eating junk food at a forgettable restaurant, followed by a walk through the park with the stars peeping at us through the canopy of trees, the crickets providing the background score and the wind giving him an excuse to put his arm around me while I rested my head on his shoulder.
Does he remember our times together as well as I do? Does he know how many times I replayed our magical first kiss in my head during the times when the tunnel seemed dark and endless? Does he have any idea of how often I replaced the bitter reality of what was happening to me with mental pictures of our first dance together on the roof of his house with one earphone plugged into each of our ears? How often I laughed at the memory of him blushing and stammering when I found the cardboard box in his room containing the bills of each of the meals we’d eaten together when I should have been crying out in pain? How effectively — through repeated practice — I learned the technique of escaping through the anywhere-door of my mind into an alternate reality where everything was green grass and blue skies and soft rock music and dew-fresh tulips and laughing with friends and bicycle rides and the weight of his arm on my shoulder and the softness of his lips against mine.
“Listen, I have two tickets. Any ride of your choice,” he says, biting his lower lip, a nervous tic he’s always had.
The hopeful anticipation in his eyes makes me swallow the No that sprung mechanically to the tip of my tongue.
We queue up at the roller coaster ride. He offers me his hand as I’m getting into the two-seater car seat next to him. I hesitate only momentarily before slipping my hand into his, expecting to feel ants crawling over my skin at the point of contact or being hit by a wave of panic or feeling like my head is being held under water, but I feel none of those things. Seating beside him with his leg brushing against mine does not make me want to throw up my breakfast as I would’ve expected.
When the ride begins starting up, I realize he is still holding my hand in a steady grip. I look at him, acutely aware of the mere inches separating us, his lemony breath as he exhales sharply, the warmth radiating from his body and the fuzzy, tingly feeling behind my sternum.
“I... I want to say something,” he says.
The roller coaster begins its steep climb up the railroad track.
“Violet, I want you beside me on every ride of my life if you will have me. And I promise you I’ll never let go of your hand.”
My vision becomes blurry as he brings my hand to his lips.
“Is this okay?” he asks.
I nod through my tears as he kisses my hand.
“I remember everything like it was yesterday. You were never gone. You were right there next to me every day and every night.”
A thick ball of knots buried deep in my stomach begins unravelling, each of its loose threads finding a gash in my soul and filling it up.
We are still going higher and higher on the rollercoaster, nearing the top of the railroad track.
“Violet Davis, will you go out on a date with me whenever you’re ready?” he says. “Please, please say yes, because I’ve missed you so much.”
I nod, laughing.
He puts his arm around me and I rest my head on his shoulder and as the rollercoaster turns sharply and begins free-falling, I feel my hopes soar higher and higher.