BY KERRY CULLEN
I think she started it, but I don’t know. One day we were in a relationship in that beautiful phase where we still liked each other so much, and we washed dishes for each other and chopped onions side by side, laughing about crying, wiping each others’ eyes. Then the next day we were in something different. The place where her shoulder blades almost met was suddenly purple, and I tasted blood, slick and tangy, against my lipstick when I opened my mouth too wide.
Whoever touched the other one that way first: I don’t think it matters. I remember the conversation before it, and how that was. I remember sitting in the corner near the window, waiting. Pressing my fingers one by one against the glass, leaving prints. She had just walked in. She scraped her shoes against the doormat and pulled her rain-wet hair back from her face. When she looked at me, she smiled as if she couldn’t help it.
I was having some trouble that day, because I didn’t want to tell her about Max--but I couldn’t not tell her about Max because the wonderful, rare thing about me and her was how when we asked each other how our days were, we honestly did care about the answers.
Now, for the first time, I couldn’t do that--or, when I thought about it, I felt like I really didn’t need to after all. It was barely a kiss, after all. A chaste kiss, maybe. Purely polite and hardly any tongue whatsoever. But how could I ever explain that?
So instead, I went to her. I slid my hand around her neck and gripped her shoulder hard, with all of my strength. My fingers shook from the effort, and I knew that this would make her wake up bruised. My nails dug sickle moons into her skin; when I let up, I brushed her skin more softly, and I could feel the grooves I’d left.
So yeah, I guess I started it.
If I’d told her, it would have just separated us. She would have been cold, and whenever someone’s cold to me, I can’t help but be colder. I’m terrified of that, the idea that two people can go dull until everything that sparked or hurt is only a low ache. I wanted us to be different.
The funny thing was how she jumped right into it with me. It’s almost like she was just waiting for me to start the thing. The next day she walked in with this stone-hard look on her face. It was pretty sexy, actually. She stalked over to my window, pulled me to my feet and slapped me hard in the face, so hard that my tooth gashed the inside of my cheek a little bit.
I felt this rush for her--I mean, she had always been a damn attractive girl, and I’d felt everything I usually feel for a girl like that, a girl who’s gorgeous and also goodhearted and witty and everything else. Maybe I had even felt a little bit more for her; I’m not quite sure. I can’t tell now.
After that, we were something very different than I had ever been in before. And I felt like it was one of those situations where it seems like it should be a bad thing, or a dangerous thing, because of everything you’ve ever learned about relationships and love and all that. Especially when you’re already existing outside of social norms. But I didn’t feel like it was wrong. Do you know what I mean? I felt like maybe we could understand each other in a deeper, more intense way than other couples let themselves.
A few days passed. We didn’t talk about it or anything. She flinched once when I brushed by her. When we fooled around I didn’t worry so much about whether she was completely comfortable or enjoying it in the traditional sense. Anyway, she never said no.
Otherwise, things didn’t change very much at all. We still made dinner together and the cat still tried to get out all the time, and we still ran all around the backyard trying to catch him when we should have been sleeping, because we both needed to get up early in the morning.
Except that night, I had opened a book while she cut up vegetables for dinner. I was sitting by the window. Rain tapped and slid down the glass. I was half reading and half thinking about how adorable she was when she got excited. She tripped over her words and sort of lisped on certain syllables. If I could have kept her constantly excited so I could always hear that lisp, I might have just died from the cuteness of it all.
So I wasn’t quite paying attention to what she was saying until she mentioned Max’s name, and then I didn’t know what she’d said before and couldn’t make any sense at all of what she was saying after, but I got up and hit her in the ribs--not too hard or anything. I don’t even remember if it bruised after. I don’t think so: barely anyway, just a light hint of green like a watered-down paint smudge.
She didn’t respond. We ate dinner, and it was delicious--some kind of stir-fry with noodles and a spicy sauce. I told her she was a genius in the kitchen, she smiled a sardonic little smile, and I jumped up from my chair and kissed her to the ground.
Right before I took off her shirt, she pushed herself on top of me and looked down into my eyes, the tips of her hair brushing across my face and collarbones, and then she reared up and slapped me again, this time harder. I almost stopped her. But she was wild-eyed and gorgeous, and her heartbeat felt like something strong falling down stairs, so instead I pulled her down to me and we opened each other with rough fingers.
Of course the Max thing continued--once you’re in that place, it’s difficult to go back. These things generally are, and it’s a damned lie to pretend otherwise. In fact, I think a lot these days about how maybe if people started accepting things for what they are, which is never castle-in-the-clouds Prince Charming shit, then maybe all of this would be a little easier. Or at least possible to talk about, with anyone or with her. But I don’t think she really thought about all that as much or as idealistically as I did.
So everything kept up for a little while: Max and everything that came along with Max. And meanwhile, things with her were sort of confusing but also interesting, and I woke up from turbulent dreams with marks I barely recognized, but I felt like I could taste our closeness. The dinners we made were thick stews and underdone red meats--weights that slid hard down our throats. Nobody ever asked any questions. Sometimes I wonder if our acquaintances and coworkers didn’t recognize and understand it in some way.
Anyway, after a couple of weeks, I did break it off. It wasn’t what I had been looking for; I just have a hard time saying no. Max is all glitter and drama, and I guess the secret part of it sounded exciting, but it wasn’t, really. Smoke breaks in unused storage space, knocking in code--kid things. Plus, Max asked about the bruise on my chest, the deep eggplant one with the brackish heart. So I ended it and of course there were tears and it was this whole big production--so I didn’t wonder till the ride home what that would mean for me and her.
It turned out, not too much. I stopped touching her in that particular sort of way. I tried not to question it all. I did realize, though, when she didn’t touch me that way either, that she never had unless I had started it. I sort of missed it.
One day, though, weeks later, she came home and grabbed my arm hard, pressing her nails in. She marched me to our bedroom with gritted teeth, and hissed that Max had told her and she couldn’t believe, though she obviously did.
To tell the truth, I had almost forgotten that she didn’t know. To me, it seemed so obvious, and after all, I was pretty sure it had made our relationship a hell of a lot more interesting at the time. For all she knew, I told her, we might have lost our spark if it wasn’t for that and we might not even be together anymore.
She countered with a sarcastic little quip about how tragic that would be for her and then her nails raked fast across my face. She pushed me on the bed, Her eyes were bloodshot and she fumbled at my throat, plunging her thumb in that soft hollow, but her hands were trembling, so she just spit in my face and collapsed, rolled away from me. I think she was trying to pretend she was asleep but she wouldn’t stop shaking for the longest time.
Deep in the night, I could feel that she was still awake. I wanted her to turn and look at me. I rubbed her back and whispered her name, but every time I touched her, she flinched, and whenever I spoke, she sucked in a small breath through her teeth that sounded like a kiss but empty. I kept trying, wrapped my fingers between her fingers, clenched them so hard that both of our veins stood out.
"I love you," I said.
She just shook.
When I slid my hand over her belly and down, she shoved me off of her so hard I almost fell on the floor. She stood and stalked to the bathroom, her spine straight, her shoulder blades sticking out. Her white underwear rode low, loose around her hips. She shut herself in and locked the door.
I pounded on the door, rattling the knob--not trying to scare her or anything, just wanting to know she was okay. Closed doors scare me more than just about anything, you know? So I kept on hitting the door until she opened it. She spun away from me, slipping, to face the mirror.
Our reflections looked identical in the sallow light. She glared at her face in the mirror, and bashed her fist against her reflection, shattered it. I watched the glass rain against the sink while she sank to the ground.
The room smelled like metal and tar. The night outside the window had no light in it. She held her arm tight at the elbow and sucked on her bloody knuckles, staring at me.
Against the white cabinets and shiny floor, she looked like a hurt animal, crumpled in. Every little mark I had ever made stood out starkly. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the splotchy constellations down her side, the tar-dark puddles on her inner thighs. I didn’t know what to say. I felt nothing. I don’t know what I felt, leaning against the cold tile wall. I felt too warm, blood pounding under my skin.
I could have cradled her in my arms. I could have whispered to her that everything would be fine or that I would take care of her for the rest of our lives together. I could have told her that we could change, that I would. I could have told her lots of things.
But I decided not to. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know. I felt sick, and I suddenly couldn’t stand to see her like that. I was done. So I told her, you’re free. You can leave, or stay, or do whatever you want. You can do anything you want to me. That’s what I told her. And I knew I might regret it--but I meant it.
She looked up at me and said, tell me what to do.
Kerry Cullen's fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, One Teen Story, Monkeybicycle, and more. She is an editorial assistant at Henry Holt, she earned her MFA at Columbia University, and she lives in New York. She is currently working on a novel about sex, god, and Christian rock. (@kermichele)