The Little Things

There are always little things your significant other does, which elicit an uncontrollable response in your body.

They are tiny things, things that no other person outside your bubble would ever understand, or react to. Things that are yours alone…

Like the way you can tell which footsteps are his in a crowded room.
The way you can sense that he’s coming up behind you to rest one hand on your shoulder as the other stretches out to shake that of the person who has just introduced himself to you at the party.
Or sometimes it’s the sight of his keys in the change bowl when you come home which causes your heart to flutter and skip a couple of beats.
What about the way that you know exactly how he is going to react to something based solely on the manner in which he has removed his shoes for the afternoon?

For some of us, these things bring warmth and love and gentle sunshine smiles that fill up all our corners.

For some of us, these things are catalysts that elicit the fight or flight response. They fill you with fear – Fear of the known, but unpredictable. The fear of his raised voice, or that quiet, cold one he gets when he pierces you with his eyes. The dread that fills you when he places his hand on your shoulder while he shakes the hand of that man who introduced himself to you at the party.

… the fear of a man introducing himself to you at a party.

You ignore them, at first. If you do mention them, you are embarrassed to be informed that you merely overreacted. Sometimes this news is given to you with an indulgent smile and a little pat on the head as your significant other walks out of the room, silently letting you know that the conversation is over.

So you shrink away from the world. Away from the people asking the odd question here and there – Are you okay? You’re very quiet tonight. Is Significant Other okay? He seems a little cranky. You run out of excuses and cover stories quicker than you’d suspect.

So you shrink into your bubble with him, where you can somewhat control the environment to limit the things that cause his hand to ball into a fist and find that soft spot just to the left of your spine.

Your voice becomes small and your vocabulary shrinks to “please”, “thank you” and “I’m sorry”. You ask for permission to read your book, to shower, to go to your family’s house or a friend’s birthday. Your every move and every thought, handed to him in the hope that by asking for his permission, you will not only be allowed to apply for a new job but will be rewarded for your obesiance.

You think about leaving. You do. It crosses your mind a lot, but then you hear his gentle arguments, explaining why you deserved it. You feel his fingers brushing your hair back from your face, the tendrils stuck to your wet cheeks, cold ropes of hair being tucked behind your ears as he whispers all the ways in which you wronged him, and do you understand now? Do you understand what your actions did to his feelings? The way you confuse him? You can be so loving sometimes, and then you disrespect him like that. Or sometimes you just imagined it, you must have been having a different conversation with a different person because that’s not what was said in the one you had with him.

You stop listening to any voices who try to convince you to end it. You don’t have the energy to listen to them, your energy is all gone now, it is constantly being used to predict his next outburst, to tiptoe through your own life and make as few ripples as possible to mark your passage.

Eventually you can’t even hear your own voice, begging. You hear it through his ears where it has become an ugly whine, a pathetic whimper from a useless, weak, ugly woman who will never amount to anything.

It is by this point that nothing in his behaviour shocks you anymore. You are used to the fear that fills you when he does something nice for you. You know that you will have to pay for it one way or another. You are used to him dangling carrots of hope before your eyes and the enjoyment he gets when he takes them away from you. You are used to your place in the world, now, curled at his feet, covered in dirt, ready for the kicking.

You are used to feeling like a spider, stuck to a tiny strand of web, floating on the whim of a breeze with no idea where you are going to land or what you are going to be faced with when you get there.

And you don’t deserve anything better.

You don’t even remember the girl who once knew she deserved better. You don’t think of her because, like everyone, she is judging you and finding you wanting.

And still, you can pick the sound of his footsteps in a crowd. Your heart still skips a beat when you return home to see his keys in the bowl or his shoes lined against the wall. Only now, your heart is always hammering, your breath always catching in your throat, and the only reason you now use the word “please” is to place it before the words “I’m sorry, don’t hurt me”.

The world outside knows there are troubles. They know he can be a little bit cranky. That he is a little stingy with money, or that he doesn’t like you to go out without him, but the world doesn’t know that every time you feel him lift the covers to climb in beside you, your entire body goes rigid, tense and fills with a blind, raging hatred that finds you clenching your fists and digging your fingernails into your palms to give some kind of voice to the invisible, voiceless pain you feel at not just losing your soul to the whims of another, but handing it over, willingly, to gutlessly save yourself from whatever may happen next.

It wasn’t always like that, you know? That’s what we always say when asked why we stayed.

Because it didn’t start that way.
It started with The Little Things. 

It was an accident

“I killed a bee once” she said through lips twisted by that one eye she has closed to block out the sun.

“In a glass, I mean. Not like, from it stinging me”.

Her hands were hidden beneath her thighs, her legs swinging back and forth over the brown water flowing in the river beneath us. This old, rickety bridge was just where we went to once everyone found out what happened to her sister.

I looked at her, but remained silent, wondering whether this story would be the one that turned the key in the lock.

“It was buzzing around in the daisies and I’d just finished my drink. I just wondered how long it would last under the glass but I forgot about it. I got bored of watching after awhile, and then I just forgot, and then that afternoon, mum came in from the backyard carrying my glass”.

She was picking at a freckle on her knee, knowing it wasn’t going to come off.

“I went back out there and it was under the flower, just laying there. It didn’t move when I poked it, so I guess I killed it”.

She was staring at me again through that screwed up, sun-staring face of hers, waiting for me to say something. To connect the dots between this story and the question I’d asked her.

“So was it kind of the same deal with Ashley? Just something you did and then got bored and forgot about?” I asked.

She nodded, watching the brown water below us.

“You wanted to see how long she’d hold out, waiting for you to find her?”, I pushed.

She shook her head.

“She wanted to play, I wanted to not play. I got sick of her whinging. I told her to go hide and I’d find her. But I didn’t even look. I forgot she even existed once I told her to hide. I just.. I was busy. Stupid busy. Just chatting online and tumblr”.

Faster now. Her words weren’t flat and far away like they had been these past few months. They had feelings in them and I could almost taste the tears they carried.

“I got hungry. Like, hours later. Hours. The sun had moved so far. The house was dark on my side and I remember that I suddenly got real cold. Heartcold, not weather cold. I remembered her. And then I heard the silence. It was the silence of her not being in the house.”

The words hadn’t slowed as much as they had started to detach from her. I could feel my skin begin to prickle as she recounted the moment that the pure horror of her realisation began to walk up her spine.

“Four hours, Tristan”, she whispered.

“It was an accident”, I reminded her, watching teardrops bloom on the denim of her shorts. “You didn’t know she’d hidden there. You didn’t hear her in the shed. You didn’t know the coolroom had locked and you didn’t know she’d had an asthma attack”.

The silence stretched as we watched logs and leaves come and go beneath us. I didn’t know if she’d heard me.

After awhile, she looked up at the sky again, barely needing to screw her face up.

“The sun’s moved”, she observed in the sad voice she had been wearing since Ashley died.
She grabbed the rail and pulled herself up. “I’d better go”.

“See you tomorrow?”, I asked the back of her.

She shook her head, stopped at the end of the bridge.

“They don’t want to be here anymore. The house. The town. The sympathetic looks they get”.

“So.. what? You’re going? You’re moving? When?” I shouted in panic, taking a step towards her as she began to turn around to face me, hurt and fear clouding her face.

“Two days, if we can get packed. Mum doesn’t stop crying. She sits in the shed, outside the cool room. She won’t let removalists come in to do it for us. Dad’s stopped talking to me. To anyone that isn’t mum. Now the only thing that breaks the sobbing is mum’s crying and dad’s shh’ing”.

She was gripping the railing and I could feel the guilt radiating from her.

“Abby, it’s not your fault. It was a horrible accident. You know her asthma was bad. You didn’t do anything to her.”

“I didn’t do anything for her” she whispered. I didn’t know how to respond.

“They don’t say it, but they hate me just as much as they love me. I’ve killed pieces of all of them”. This time the words fell in ragged, drool-dripping heaves. Her eyes were pouring pain onto the worn boards of the footbridge. I was beside her in seconds, helping her to the ground.

“Have either of them spoken to you?” I asked, my arms wrapped around her as she shook. Inhuman sounds came from her throat.

“This is the first time you’ve spoken about any of this to me. Is it the first time you’ve spoken to anyone?” I asked, squeezing her, desperate to hold her, to love her.

More inhuman wailing. Guttural, choking, mournful cries so painted in pain that I felt my own tears dripping from my chin.

The sun moved a little closer to the hills as we sat on our bridge, grieving for Ashley, and for Abby. Eventually, her grief turned to exhaustion and her eyes began to stare into nothing.

“My mum misses you. I think it’s time you stayed over at mine again”, I said, guiding her to her feet. She followed, like a puppet, hearing nothing, seeing even less.

My mum was walking through the hallway when I opened the door. She took one look at me, at Abby, and her face crumbled. A surprised, hearthurt gasp broke from her chest and she took a couple of rushing steps toward us. Abby responded by throwing my arms off her and running to my mother, burying her face in her shoulder.

I walked around them to the kitchen, where I began to make cups of tea that neither of them would end up drinking. I phoned Abby’s parents to tell them where she was, but nobody picked up. I left a message, hoped they would check it.

Abby spent that night curled in my mother’s arms, their heads fused together, my mother’s caring whispers eliciting silent, healing tears from the girlfriend I lost the day her sister died.

The next morning at the breakfast table, as my mother fussed over bacon and eggs, Abby stretched her arm out, closing her hand over mine. She smiled, then, and her smile sparkled in her red, swollen eyes.

I smiled back, but inside me my heart swelled. Inside me, I wept with relief, and an overwhelming sense of love.

Too soon, this joy was broken by the flashing lights of a police car outside. Too soon, this sliver of peace that had settled on Abby was shattered by the Policeman asking Abby to confirm who she was. Too soon, did I once again hear the sound of inhuman wailing that had broken my heart as Abby was told her parents were dead. By their own hand.

I haven’t seen her in a long time. She hasn’t seen me in even longer. Abby doesn’t see anything anymore. She stares, but she doesn’t see. She doesn’t speak, listen, love, laugh, draw, write, cry or live at all – Abby sits in her hospital bed and stares.

Three years later, I still see that smile she gave me across the breakfast table, and I still whisper “it was an accident”.

She still doesn’t hear me.

She is my light in dark places

You know that place where the feelings disappear?

Where there’s nothing but silence, a companionable silence that has no meaning behind it, just acceptance of whatever is, and that vague sense that what preceded this place was the snapped-elastic sensation of giving up on everything, all at once? And now there’s no resistance, just a weightless silence of nothing mattering anymore.

You feel relief wash over you, like you’re bathing in it, swimming in it, just floating in freedom from yourself, but there, under the water is a current. If it had colour, it would be a cartoonish wisp of blackness that tickles your toes and reminds you that this isn’t a dream.. that this is real. You’re finally here. You’re at the place where the noose hangs from the tree, the poison sparkles in the bottle, the pills pile up in your hands, the gun glistens in the moonlight.

It’s when that brings no fear that you have to tread most carefully.

I was lucky.

It was the feeling of pure calm that made me realise it wasn’t me who was holding the reins that night. No, they were being held by The Girl Who Lives Inside – the little downtrodden one who finds her voice when I find the middle of the bottle.

I used to feel sorry for her, when I realised she was in there. She’s the little girl me, the girlfriend me, the one who kept trying to tell me to leave these harmful people and I kept telling her to shut up.

I don’t feel sorry for her now. She isn’t a nice girl. She is made out of knives and bee stings and hatred and vomit and just like those people she kept warning me to leave, she also tries to hurt me.

She hates that I know about her now. She hasn’t been allowed out because I haven’t opened a bottle. I haven’t left the shores of sobriety for seven months – not a single escape tool has passed my lips – no cigarettes, no alcohol, no drugs.

I suppose she’s in there just biding her time, knowing that in a few very short months, my main reason for keeping the lid on the bottle will be out in the world, no longer sharing my blood, my oxygen, my body.

And I wonder if she will pounce. If she will take me back to that weightless place a month or so into my lack of sleep, when the sound of crying causes me to do the same. When the responsibility of being someone’s world becomes too overwhelming, will that elastic snap again? When it all piles on too heavy, I know she will be there with her bee stings and dagger-eyes, laughing at me for thinking I could get away.

What she may not have taken into account is something I’ve just realised – She’s never met me. Not this me.

This me is someone who is now needed by someone who won’t go seeking a better version of me elsewhere. For someone, I am finally going to be enough. I’m going to be their mum. And nobody is going to make me feel like she would be better off without me.