TW: emotional abuse, domestic abuse, trauma
“The stars are bright tonight.”
You are sitting next to me, on the old wooden bench underneath the oak tree. You are pulling your jacket tighter around your freezing body, fingers tightened into fists to hide the shaking. You are always the first one to freeze. Maybe the cold is kinder to me because we are familiar.
“You don’t have to stay.” I look at you, your blue jeans and converse, the jacket that is way too thin for a chilly September night, but I know how much you despise thick jackets. It’s worth the sacrifice, you’d say while your teeth are chattering from the cold.
“I want to.” You take my hand, fingers warm against mine even though I know they should be freezing. I don't know how you do that. The gentle strokes of your thumb on my palm hypnotize me. You are tracing the lines as if they could answer all your questions.
I feel my chest tighten with the weight of being loved. Why does it hurt?
“She’s angry again. Something at work.” The words are hanging between us in the air and I direct my gaze back at the night sky above us. The stars are splattered paint on an endless canvas. The crescent moon barely visible, a quick stroke of faint white. I breathe in the chilly air. It smells like pine and wooden fire and silence.
She means well.
“I shouldn’t have asked her about dinner.”
“False. It was a simple question. She shouldn’t have yelled at you.” You squeeze my hand, for just a heartbeat. “She will calm down.”
I nod. A soft breeze tucks at my open hair, carries your scent with it. Chocolate and peppermint and warmth and safety. My chest hurts.
“You can climb in through the bedroom window,” you say.
I nod again, keeping my eyes on the sky. The feeling of insignificance under the vast greatness of all that is out there is soothing. It scares me a little.
“You’ll be fine. You can get some bread from the kitchen when they’re sleeping.”
“Unless she falls asleep in front of the TV again. Or Dad forgets his glasses on the kitchen table.”
“You have a bag of crisps in your wardrobe, remember? Right behind the sweatshirts.”
I do. I’ll need to stock up my supplies again, for days like this.
Another squeeze. This time I look at you and you smile. It’s this crooked half-smile that you always reserve for these moments, for me. It bears a sadness that makes my heart sting. I search in your night-coloured eyes but I can’t find any pity. I never have.
“You will get through this.” The soft embrace of your voice makes me believe, for just a second, that I will.
I want to say something, how? or how long?, but my throat is too tight so I smile and return the squeeze. Thank you.
I look back at the sky and drag out the inevitable.
You always find me. So many times I have asked you how you do that, how you know exactly when I need you but you just smile the same mysterious smile and I feel like I should know the answer but I don’t. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re here. Fingers intertwined with mine, your body next to me so I can faintly feel your warmth. Sometimes it is enough to know you are not alone. With you I never am.
We are sitting on the bench, the moon is a little fuller, almost a perfect half circle. The stars are peaking through the thin clouds, torn pieces of cloth slowly travelling down an endless stream.
“Do you think the stars know we’re sitting here looking at them?” I’m trying to distract myself from the memories of today. My heart still feels like it’s racing. What are you running from? There is nowhere to go.
You play along.
“Maybe. I’m sure they like being looked at. They aren’t this pretty for no reason.”
You are trying to cheer me up and I feel my chest relax just a little bit.
“I shouldn’t have put my shirt on that chair.” My eyes are fixed on the stars, searching for the constellations everyone seems to be able to see and failing again.
“False. She could have asked for help.”
She never does. Only complains afterwards when no one read her mind and understood that she wanted help.
“She could’ve been more careful.”
“True. It’s not your fault.”
But it is my shirt that has a stain now. I know better than this. I should have brought my shirt to my room straight away. None of this would have happened. The screaming, the crying.
“It’s not your fault.” You say it a bit more insistently this time.
“I know. But it feels like it is.”
“She’s gotten into your head.”
I can’t fake a smile this time. I grip your hand and wish we could stay here forever, just the three of us; you, me, and the endless ocean above.
I have to get away. From this place, this life. These people. You have told me countless times but it took a broken cup and a dent in the door of my room for me to realise you’re right. I need money so I search for jobs, take whatever I can get and hope that it will be enough. I think of excuses why I leave the house early and stay away until late at night. Not that they would notice but I’m scared they could.
I’m tired. I feel like I always have been, the endless caution takes its toll eventually. Cooking a meal without making a sound is harder than people think.
I save the money, every cent of it even though it’s tempting to be able to buy things. I’ve been wanting a new pen for so long, one that uses real ink and doesn’t stain my fingers right away. Yesterday I saw one through a shop window, black with delicate pink flowers on the shiny cap, the golden quill shining in the sunlight. I looked at the price tag and knew it would stay a dream. I need the money for more important things.
“Someday,” you say, brushing a loose strand of hair behind my ear, your warm fingertips lingering on the edge of my jaw. The darkness in your eyes soothes me. “Someday, you will have enough money to buy whatever you like. I promise. Just keep going.”
And I do. You keep me focussed on my goal, the dream of moving far away. I come to the bench less frequently but I don’t need to if I have work to keep me away from home.
No, not home. I haven’t found that yet.
I spend hours in front of my old computer, searching the internet for the city I want to spend my future in. I have never thought about going away so I don’t know where I want to go. The vastness of the world is terrifying. You help me pick a city, look for small apartments. I can’t go to visit them - I cannot think of an excuse for a trip this long - but I know you would have come with me. I choose an apartment and sign the contract. You smile at me and the knot around my chest loosens just a bit. I cannot believe I’m doing this.
You help me pack my things. It’s not much and I manage to convince my parents to give me the shelves in my room and my old bed frame. They won’t need them anyway.
My room is empty. Faint stains hint at the furniture that once lined the yellow walls. I turn around and leave. On my way to the van that I rented for the move I notice the tears stinging in my eyes.
I can’t believe that it’s over.
I stumble over cardboard boxes on my way to the living room. I arrived a couple of weeks ago, finally bringing the last boxes with me, though it feels like my mind is still stuck in the small house, those four walls I grew up in. I don’t want to think about my last conversation with my parents. I was relieved when it was over.
I turn on the light over the scraped dining table at the window. The night sky fades behind my reflection in the glass. The old wooden chair creaks as I sit down on the worn cushion that used to be green.
I focus on my chest, searching for a sign of relief. Something that tells me all this has been worth it. My therapist says it might be some time before my brain has caught up with reality. I still feel like I’m sleepwalking.
The darkness is still there, lingering at the end of the hallway, behind the door when I enter the small flat. I will have to buy more lights. You have always liked fairy lights, haven’t you? I will buy some of those and make a path down the hallway to the bedroom, a trail of stars spilled across the empty walls, stick some glow-in-the-dark stars above the bed. They will remind me of you when I’m feeling lonely at night.
My therapist says it will take a while, she couldn’t say how long. Until the darkness doesn't feel so scary anymore. Maybe I will even feel comfortable in it, someday. We’ll see.
She says I should go out more, talk to people. Make friends. I can’t remember the last time I tried that. I have always felt more comfortable with you.
She says I don’t have to let you go, not quite yet. I’m relieved because I know I would miss you. I already do. You have always been so much stronger than me. Do you think, someday, I can be as strong as you? Guide someone else through the darkness? I’d love to try.
There is something I need to tell you. I should have told you right away but I needed time to think. So many truths that you have helped me with, lies as well. I think it is time to return the favour. So, a truth for you:
Do you know that you don’t exist? Have you known all along? If you did, thank you for not telling me. Some secrets are better kept, I guess. But you can’t close your eyes forever. I realise that now. And you will never know what beauty you might find when you open them until you try.
You sit at the other side of the table, on the only other chair. Maybe I bought it just for you. I have no one who could visit.
You rest your head in one hand, fingers slowly tapping on your bottom lip. I know this smile, the sadness in your eyes familiar like my own.
Maybe because it is my own.
I let my gaze wander over you, a bit more intently now. I wonder why I have given you this hair, this face, this scent. What does that say about me? You don’t look like me. Where did I get my inspiration? Are you an accumulation of all the people I’ve met in my life? Or are you entirely mine, born from painful realities and the wish to be less alone? But even the faces in our dreams are ones we have seen before. We can’t make them up entirely.
Your smile widens, as if you know the answer but know that it’s best to stay quiet.
“You made it.” Your voice makes my chest tighten. It sounds like goodbye.
I nod. My hands are safely tucked underneath my thighs, a habit I established years ago. I pull them out and place them in front of me. My thumb traces one of the scratches in the wood. I wonder what the previous owner did on this table to cause all those marks. One of the guys who helped me carry in the furniture suggested I sand the surface, but I quite like the marks. They tell a story. It would be a shame to remove them.
You take my hands in yours, gently squeeze them, and I smile. Why does your touch feel so real when I know you’re not really there?
“I’m proud of you,” you say and I know you only say it because I want you to. Does it make a difference? “You didn’t give up.”
It’s all thanks to you, I want to say but I’m not so sure anymore. Yes, you have saved me from the darkness so many times, held my hand, listened to me when I didn’t have anybody else, but then again, you were never really there. Maybe I’ve lost my mind. The thought sends chills down my spine.
It’s a coping mechanism, I remember my therapist saying. To deal with the trauma.
All the touches and smiles, the nights spent under starry skies. A coping mechanism.
I don’t know how I feel about that.
I need to find other ways to move forward. Other people to talk to. Will anyone be like you?
“You don’t need me,” you say and I grip your hands tighter. Yes, I do. “You’re just not quite ready to realise that.”
“What if I don’t find anyone…” Who accepts me like you did. Who stays even though I am the way I am.
“You will.” Your eyes sparkle with pride and love and confidence. Everything I never had. “Promise. Until then I’ll stay.”
“I can do this.”
“True. You’ve done so much already.”
I sigh, the weight on my chest is crushing me.
You look out the window and I follow your gaze. “The stars are beautiful tonight.”
I cannot see the stars, only my reflection in the window. Wide eyes staring back at me. My hair is still dull, the shadows underneath my eyes still dark but it’s getting better. I’m even starting to get an appetite. My therapist says that’s a good sign.
“I’m going to be okay.”
“True. You’re stronger than you think you are. Look how far you’ve come.”
I like the way your fingers fit mine, as if I shaped them just to hold me. Your scent comforts me and with every breath, my chest feels a little lighter. A little less like it did back then.
Maybe I should turn off the light to see the stars but I don’t. I know they’re there and on some nights that knowledge is enough.