She was one of the luckier ones, the sickness in her blood ate away at the flesh that had coated her bones and distorted her like a fun house mirror, eroding baby fat to reveal the svelte cheekbones and stilts that the fat had disguised as stumpy legs. Gone was the ring of belly that pushed her dress out of shape and mocked the illusion of a cinched waist. She’d been here many times before, fighting for her life, hooked up to mechanical things that did all the hard work, leaving her with the hardest task of all, willing herself to keep living. She was too weak to do anything but turn her head and weakly gesture with her arms but even that looked exotic on this new, thinner her. He sat by her bed, stroking her cheek, swearing undying fealty to the person he thought he saw, trapped in her pain riddled body.
“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”
“Neither do you.”
It was true; this was her first time living this nightmare. Every crisis was treacherous uncharted land and she, a reluctant inexperienced adventurer with few tools and no knowledge. But she was the adventurer, the one whose life was the on the line. He didn’t seem to understand why she never offered him a chance to go with her, why she never asked him to be at her side and she was too tired to try to explain. She stifled a groan as she turned away from him and the earnestness that lit his eyes. She felt him stroke her hair, rub her shoulders with gentle fingers, his breathing heavy beside her. It didn’t help much with the pain, it bypassed her aching limbs and her throbbing temples and permeated to the parts of her the aching couldn’t reach, where his little gestures registered as pure bliss. With everything she had to endure, she could allow herself this one selfish thing. She could allow him love her wholly, selflessly, including the parts of herself she couldn’t quite reconcile with enough to like.
Emotions leached through the blankness of her face, roiling deep inside her, churned up by thoughts that had been suppressed for so long, they’d transmuted into a thin layer of impenetrable resolve. He was a torrent, bilious words surging from lips that once gave her comfort on uncertain nights. Her face remained unwrinkled as he fumed and threatened, waving a phone at her. Her brow never once betrayed the typhoon in her chest as he dialled a set of numbers, ones he’d obviously memorized and held it to her face, the tinny speakers reverberating with life. The susurrus of flirtation waved back and forth between him and the disembodied voice projected into their sacred space wounded her, but not as deep as his ultimatum, delivered with relish, an anvil to her quivering heart.
“She’s coming here. You either give me what I want, or she will. And you’ll excuse us when she does.”
She ached as she shed her jeans and her briefs, his lust crazed eyes watching every gesture. She lay limp as he drove himself into her, afraid to move, to betray the wreckage that was her insides. He didn’t seem to notice that she didn’t moan or whimper, that her body was rigid under him. Her thoughts were sojourning, fixated on the details of this other person he’d reduced to a threat, and with her a part of himself she never knew. He’d deliberately confirmed the existence of a doomsday weapon that could incinerate the life with him she’d meticulously built, a silent threat that didn’t disappear just because there were peace treaties. She tried to reconcile the person grunting on top of her with the earnest boy from the hospital all those years before, the one who was so chivalrous it practically crippled him. There are many kinds of rape she realised as she shod herself into clothes that now felt awfully inadequate to shield her from his gaze. He drew her to himself and tucked her under a shoulder. The familiar feeling of comfort returned, but it didn’t quite dispel the new sensation of revulsion that his touch brought out in her, the way you never really got out blood stains from a brand new carpet. But her face remained unwrinkled and another layer of thoughts began the torturous process of transmutation under the weight of silence.
He didn’t see it coming. No one did, not even her. It started behind her back, flashes of impulsive behaviour she could never quite justify after. The day she spent nearly four hours going through the almost one thousand pictures they’d taken over the six years she had loved him, and deleted every single one. She unfurled from the heart of the web he’d spun around her, withdrawing into herself and away from all the people she called her friends, people she realised she’d taught herself to like because they were originally his. Finally able to see them from the outside, she realised they’d only accommodated her, an extra passenger in their frat bus, but their loyalties always remained with him. Her mother murmured, his mother too, but he was so blinded by his certainty in her that he dismissed them with a wave of his hand and tucked her under his shoulder as always, where the once faint sense of revulsion was now a pungent cloud. It came out of her like vomit, unexpected and nauseating, the crest of a wave of relief.
“I’m leaving you.”
He didn’t seem to hear her, chortling with his friends who grew suddenly solemn at her declaration. He turned to her, his features shifting like quick sand, from confusion, to surprise to understanding then settling on panic.
“What are you talking about?”
“I love you, but love isn’t enough.” She laughed ruefully. “It never is, is it?”
He stood from his pack and took her by the arm, leading her away to a quiet corner where they could ‘talk’. She let herself be led, the quiet work coalescing her thoughts, rearranging the veneer of suppressed emotions and thoughts into a plain simple explanation, one that she was surprised she’d never realised earlier. He finally stopped and she with him, and he looked at her, really looked for the first time in a long time.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked. “If this is about that girl, I promised you and I keep my promises. I don’t talk to her anymore. That was just a stupid thing I did once. And you forgave me, or at least you said you did.”
“This isn’t about that.”
“Then what is this about?”
She sighed. “I’m sick, TJ. Like really sick. My Sickle cell isn’t going to go away; it isn’t going to get better with some miracle drug or just because you love me. And I thought you understood; that you knew what you practically forced your way into. But you don’t. You never did. That was why what you did with that girl hurt me. Not because you dangled her before me, but that you didn’t even consider that I didn’t give you sex because I was in pain. You put your need to nut before my life. And it’s something you have done over and over, in many ways.”
He tried to pull her into his arms but she resisted him, weakly at first, then with all the vehemence she had buried deep inside her. He couldn’t mask his surprise, it sat flush on his face like curdled milk, spoiling the arch of those pretty brows. She clenched her fists at her side and used them as plumbs to steady her resolve.
“I’m leaving you T.J, because I am a bigger person than you are. And because I forgive you. We were young and you weren’t ready. And you shouldn’t have to be. I wasn’t lucky enough to get that choice but that’s how my cards were dealt.
“Good bye T.J.” she whispered as she walked away, breaking with every step but lighter of the resentment and the unsaid reciprocations that had muzzled her and kept her docile and grateful. He never understood her reasons for letting him trod on her, the crippled puppy with a shiny coat that he had adopted and treated badly.