TW: Violence and domestic abuse.
“Where I come from, you watch the water from the inside of the bridge, not the outside.” I said it as a joke. The moment Romea turned I saw that there was nothing to joke about.
“Julian?” She asked. She had a bruise across her face in the yellow light of the streetlamps. “Stay back.”
“What happened?” I asked her. My brown eyes absorbed the awful sight of a mark that was a bruise and a cut all in one. A scratch stretched across her cheek below her left eye. Looking back down at the raging currents below, she leaned away from the bridge.
“NO!” I yelled, holding up my hands. “Wait. What’s going on?” I inched closer, moment by moment.
“I can’t do it anymore, Julian. I can’t take it.” Her tawny coloured hair faced me, flickering in the wind as she looked away. I imagined her eyes peering down into her doom below.
“He says he’ll never do it again, every time. He always does.” My assumption that her pyjamas had a pattern was wrong, the pattern was her own blood across the front and back.
“Who?” I asked. I’d known her since kindergarten, but we’d grown apart after high school. I reached the railing her shaking hand was holding onto. One foot had already taken a step into oblivion.
“Don’t try to stop-” She began, trying a corny last words thing. I wrapped my arms around her, leaning over the railing. She asked, “what are you doing?”
“If you go, I go. I’ve known you for seventeen years, Romea. I’m sorry I didn’t keep in touch with you. I don’t want to lose you. If you go, I go.”
“That’s mad, Julian. You can’t kill yourself.” She had the same tone the whole time that my father had when he’d told me to go into nursing school instead of art school.
“Neither can you. Come back.” My feet were slipping on paving wet from the rain an hour before. “Quickly please, I’m gonna fall.” I used my knee to awkwardly anchor myself, dangly bits chastising me when they collided with the solid metal of the railing.
Romea swung her free hand back to grab cold, wet steel. She turned slowly. I looked up at her. Her angelic oval face looked down at me. Bones flaunted themselves beneath her sallow skin. The wound was worse up close.
“Come back onto the bridge,” I said. I was already crying because I’m a sap and seeing her like that made me feel like a failure somehow. I’d harboured a crush on Romea for years, imagined our wedding, a life. I’m a daydreamer and a romantic.
Anyone trying to get back over a wet railing with an idiot wrapped around her midriff would be awkward. A childhood friend and crush struggling to lift her leg over a metal beam as you look up at them past their chest in pyjamas is a dozen kinds of weird.
“There. I’m back. Happy now?” She asked, looking at her bare feet. Her phone began ringing in her pyjama pocket.
“Who is that?” I asked, nodding to the glow that showed through the material of her pyjama trouser pocket.
“Ross.” Her chest began to heave. I knew the first signs of hyperventilation from a first aid class.
Not wanting to stand over her, I knelt on the concrete slab beneath. “He’s not here. He’s not going to hurt you. Come with me.” I held out my hand. Not looking up, she took it.
The spell was broken. She sobbed.
“My house is nearby,” I said. “Do you want my shoes?”
“They’re too big for me. I made it this far without shoes.”
“Who is Ross?”
“My boyfriend. We met after university. He was sweet. He did everything for me. He bought me flowers. He cooked for me. He paid all the bills.” There was a long pause, but I knew the story had continued in her head. Things she couldn’t tell me were running through her mind.
“He said I didn’t need a job. I didn’t need my own account. He bought everything. He said I shouldn’t be out flirting with other men. He got so angry. He’d tell me it wasn’t right that he paid all of the bills and I would go out and talk to people he didn’t know. My parents told me to leave him.
I love him. He said they were just trying to tear us apart. He told me he loved me. After every row he bought me flowers. He bought jewellery.” Her bare feet slapped the wet pavement. A car passed us, slowing to take in the view of her.
“That’s not love,” I said. It was a reflex. “Was today the first time he hit you?”
She shook her head. Her free hand wiped snot from her nose.
The bridge became a housing estate. Hundreds of identical four storey apartments distinguished themselves by the upkeep of their four by two feet gardens. Mine had overgrown grass and two beer bottles to set it apart.
I unlocked my door, looking back at her shivering in her ruined pyjamas.
“Come in. I’ll get you some clothes.”
“Hi Julian, how was work,” said my flatmate from the living room. I knew he would be sacrificing the skin of his thumbs to his PlayStation.
“Eh, good.” I didn’t know what else to say. Regular shift at the bakery. Now I’ve brought home a girl I was infatuated with as a kid. Her boyfriend beat her up and she tried to kill herself. Now she’s basically half dressed in our flat and I don’t know what to do. Even in my head it seemed ridiculous.
“I’ll get you some clothes,” I whispered.
She nodded. Following me like a stray puppy, she kept her head down.
My first feeling as I opened the door to my room was embarrassment. Dirty clothes on the floor, magazines. No sheet on my bed. None of that really mattered. I grabbed some baggy clothes that had to fit her.
“Here,” I handed them to her. “Have a shower and put these on. Give the water a minute. It goes from freezing to burning, then to normal.”
“Thank you, Julian.” Her eyes were still glued to my disgusting carpet.
“No problem. Sorry I don’t have a bra for you.” She looked up at me. I blushed.
Romea shuffled into the shower room and closed the door.
I looked at the mess in my room, and got to work. Throwing all my dirty clothes into the empty wash basket my mom had left during her last visit was so fast I wondered why I’d put it off for six months. Putting a sheet on the matrass felt as though she would think I was expecting something.
The sound of the shower lasted for about ten minutes. It was a good amount of time for me to throw dirty magazines in a drawer and to arrange my camera and lenses on a shelf instead of the clear patch of floor next to my laptop.
The awkward creak of the bathroom door made me jump.
An anguished angel emerged from the steam of the shower. My clothes hung from her frame the way a circus tent would on a car.
“They’re a bit big,” she said. “Thank you though.”
“Sorry, I subscribe to the Jesse Pinkman school of fashion.” All my words died there. She turned into the light. Her bruise had darkened. A well of shame for my species filled up again the way it does when I watch the news, but more so.
“Are you tired?” I asked. “I can sleep on the couch next door. You can have the room to yourself. I have sheets.”
She shook her head, looking down again as if her head was too heavy for her neck to bear. “No. Can you bin my pyjamas for me?”
“Romea,” I said, and paused to search my mind for the most sensitive words. They shot out of me in a nervous volley. “Your clothes are evidence of a crime. Ross hit you. Your pyjamas are the proof. It doesn’t have to be now and I’m not telling you that you have to, but I think you should report him to the police. It sounds like he’s done it before. It sounds like he’s not going to stop. You need him out of your life.” I gulped. She was uncomfortable. So was I.
“I don’t,” she began and stopped. “I can’t, Julian. I can’t do it. I love him.”
“He doesn’t love you, Romea. You don’t do that to people you love. Whether you go to the police or not, please don’t go back to him.” I wanted to wrap my arms around her but that seemed like it would be threatening.
“I’m not going to go back. I don’t know where I’m going to go.” Wet curls of dark hair had streaks of grey at odds with the youthful girl I had known. She was twenty, looking a haggard thirty.
“What about your family? They’ll have you in a heartbeat.”
“I told them to leave me alone,” she said. “Ross took my phone from me and said awful things to them, pretending to be me. I don’t think they’ll ever forgive me.”
“Your parents are wonderful people. They’ll see that it was lies. They love you. They made you a barbie unicorn cake for your seventh birthday. It looked like a pink ghost riding a hippo, but they tried.” Romea smiled her unequalled smile. “Your brother punched Eric Ruiz for pulling your hair. Your dad made us that castle out of spare decking in the garden. They called you every day of school camp. They’re helicopter parents for sure, but they love you.”
Shaking her head in amusement, she looked at me. “Do you have their number? Ross deleted it from my phone. I know your parent’s number but not mine. How sad is that?”
“I guess you never had to phone your own number.” The old yellowing phone hung on the wall in the hallway. I dialled her parent’s number, as if I’d only used it the day before. In truth it had been years.
“Hello, is this Romea’s mom? Hi. It’s Julian. No, I know she’s not there. She’s here with me. She needs to talk to you.” I handed the phone to the red and blue clad girl with wet hair.
As they talked the door from the living room creaked open. An eye peered through the gap. “Who’s the girl?” Mark asked.
“An old friend of mine, she’s had a really bad night. She needed somewhere to go.” A ‘you old dog’ smile turned to worried sympathy.
“Is she alright?” He whispered. “Should I go? You two can have the living room.”
“No. It’s fine. Maybe shove on something light to distract her?” I nodded to the TV.
“Yeah,” said Mark, nodding. The door creaked open. Mark’s gaming den was a crack addicts’ shrine to the television. A single cushion adorned our wooden floor, too close to the screen. Empty energy drink cans were stacked in towers of three on the television stand. The lights were off because he’d been playing since lunch time and hadn’t noticed when the world went to sleep. Being an art student is like that. His empty breakfast cereal dinner was the finishing touch.
“Can we clean up a bit?” I asked, looking at Romea.
“Most of the mess is yours,” he said. He looked at my stacks of DVDs, my stacks of magazines, the clean ones. My own gaming shrine at my end of the couch was where my Xbox was connected to my television.
“Agreed. Sorry. Please?” I pressed my palms together.
“For my brother from an alternate mother, alright.” The following minute of cleaning was the fastest in human history. I maintain that as a fact.
“ROMEA. I KNOW YOU’RE THERE. COME OUT HERE.”
Mark and I looked out of our window. Outside our flat was an angry looking little man holding his phone.
“Did he follow you?” Mark asked.
“No,” I said, frowning. I looked at the doorway. I saw a knee. Romea had curled into a ball. “It’s alright,” I told her. “He can’t get into the building without someone buzzing him in.”
The outer door banged as Ross hammered on it. I locked the door.
“Why don’t you go to my room,” I said to her.
“Get lost,” I whispered. I looked at his bright red face through the peep hole. He was down the stairs, banging on the frame of the outer door. Glass panels in the lower door gave a good view of Ross in all his maniacal rage.
Click. The door opened and he charged up the stairs.
“Dammit. He wasn’t bringing pizza. Why would you buzz him in?” Someone in the building was going to get the deadeye from me later.
My door rattled as he pounded on it. “Romea. I’m sorry. I said I’m sorry. Come and talk to me, darling. Please. I’ll do anything you want. Anything. Please come outside. Come home with me.”
“Stop banging on my door,” I growled. I was already angry at him for hurting Romea and now he was triggering my anger at invasion of space.
“I need to talk to Romea. Who are you?” The letterbox opened. “Let me in.”
“No chance. Go home. Get out of my building. You’re trespassing. It’s the middle of the night.”
“I’m calling the police,” said Mark behind me. I nodded to him.
“Who’s that? Two men? What are you doing with Romea? She’s mine. My girlfriend. ROMEA. COME OUT, NOW!” He was shouting as if he wanted to rupture his vocal chords.
“Hello, police. There’s a guy outside my door trying to break in.” Mark began giving the police our address.
Rattling again under a hail of kicks, the door coughed plaster from the frame.
“Get lost Ross. Romea doesn’t want to see you.”
“What has she been doing with you? Having an affair? She’s mine. ROMEA.”
“She’s not yours. Go away. We’re calling the police.” I looked at Mark. He gave me a thumbs up as he held the phone to his ear.
Through the peep hole I saw a short knife in Ross’ hand. It was the kind of flip knife with a corkscrew on it. I leapt back as he began slamming his foot into the door again. I put my weight against it. With every kick I was thrown away a little.
“LET ME IN.”
I ignored him. My heart was pounding in my ears. Praying for a quick response from the police, I threw myself back against the door to brace against his assault.
The door frame began to crack. Splinters flew off.
“YOU CAN’T HIDE FROM ME ROMEA. LET ME IN. I LOVE YOU.”
“Liar. You hit her. You don’t love her.”
“SHUT UP. YOU DON’T KNOW ANYTHING. I’LL KILL YOU IF YOU’VE TOUCHED HER. SHE’S MINE.” The door frame where the lock held the wall snapped away. I was flung against the opposite wall.
A foot shot into the gap.
I slammed the door back on his foot. It hit his arm as he tried to rush through.
Panic took over. I wasn’t a fighter. I didn’t like clubbing because of the animosity of drunks. “GET OUT!” I screamed. It was primal. Terrifying but not exactly manly. It was a roar, half monster, half teenage girl.
“Close my bedroom door, make sure he can’t get to her,” I said to Mark. After hesitating for a moment, he turned and closed the door of my room behind himself.
A knife stabbed through the gap in the door.
“HELP,” I yelled.
“LET ME IN.” His blade caught my finger, barely a scratch but I recoiled and was forced back. He stormed in. Ross wasn’t much beneath the rage. Shorter than me and skinnier, but with an aura of rage that extended well beyond his physical limits. He kicked my bedroom door, ripping my Avatar poster in the process.
I threw myself against him. We smashed into the door of the toilet and collapsed in a tangled heap. I felt a sharp pain and saw his blade emerge from my stomach. He didn’t even look at me as he got up again. I held his ankle weakly. He kicked me in the face. A splash of red hit my eyes and my world blurred.
I woke in hospital with Romea and Mark by my side.
“You nearly died is what happened.” Mark held my hand. “That freak trashed the whole apartment, but he didn’t get into your room. I shoved your dresser in front of your door. The police arrived and arrested him while he was doing his Shining thing.
He’s been charged with attempted murder and a whole lot of other stuff. He was tracking Romea’s phone. Her family are here. Your family are on their way.”
Romea was silent. She was smiling with tears running down her cheeks. Her bruise had turned from purple to yellow. Her scratch was a scab. I reached out my hand and she took it.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry about Ross. He almost killed you.”
“I don’t feel so bad,” I said.
“You’re on a painkiller drip, Julian. You’re high.”
“And it feels great,” I lied. My eyes caught on the tubes everywhere around me.
“Can we have a moment alone?” I asked Mark. He nodded and walked out.
“Romea, when other stuff is dealt with, can I buy you dinner somewhere?”
“I’d like that.” She smiled, wiping her tears away. Then I felt a wave of exhaustion as another dose of painkiller wiped me out.