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by Branden Hart
One night when my foster father isn't home, a night that up until that point would have meant vast amounts of sex in every position and place imaginable, she's washing dishes. I don't know what she had for dinner, because we don't eat together anymore.
"Why won't you look at me?" I ask, startling her.
"Jesus Christ!" she yells, catching her breath. "Don't sneak up on people like that!"
"You barely even talk to me anymore. Why?"
She sighs, and looks down at the sink.
"You know damn well why," she says, then begins scrubbing again.
"No, I don't." I walk around the table to stand beside her, where she can't help but see me, even if it is only out of the corner of her eye. "That's why I asked."
Silence forms a barrier between us. She breaks it at last. "You've got enough going on in your life right now. The last thing you need is for me to get involved."
She downs what remains in her wine glass, and with a shaky hand, fills it up again.
"But I want you to be involved. If you weren't involved, I wouldn't have gone to the psychiatrist in the first place. I would have gotten frostbite or died of hypothermia from sitting in that ice cold water too long."
"Yeah, well, maybe that would have been better."
I didn't think I had any emotional attachment to her. I didn't think I had much emotional attachment to anyone. I had my quirks to deal with, and they didn't give me much time to worry with things like friends, or love. So I was a little surprised when I felt tears well up in my eyes after she said that.
"Look," she said, then downed the new glass of wine. "You are a sweet kid, but you are seriously fucked in the head, and I know what it's like. I know…" She stops, and stares out the window over the sink. I don't know if she's thinking, drunk, or both.
"I know that what's ahead of you, what you're going to have to go through—I know that there will be times when it seems like it's too much for you to handle. There will be times when you think that it would be better if you were just dead. If there was no more you, no more 'quirks', No more anything. And I just think it's a shame you're going to have to go through that."
I listen silently because there isn't anything for me to say.
"And the last person you need trying to guide you through all of this is me. Jesus, I slept with you. You aren't even sixteen. Have you ever asked yourself why a woman my age would sleep with someone your age? Would sleep with someone they took in as a charge, when they were that someone's legal guardian?"
I shake my head.
"I'll tell you why—because you aren't the only one here who is fucked in the head."
I back away and watch her as her head falls forward on a loose neck. And while there is no sound, I know from my training in Hushedwhispers that she's crying. The way her head moves up and down, the way she is breathing. And though crying and laughing often look and sound the same, there's no mistaking that the way she shrugs her shoulders with every movement isn't a sign of joy.
"Just go," she says. "You probably have homework or something to do. Maybe a girlfriend to see. But just go. And forget about all of this."
I do have a girlfriend I can see, but I can't talk to her about fucking my foster mother. So when Melissa finally answers her door after I've been knocking for five minutes—hair a mess and clothes askew--and asks me what's wrong, what I'm doing there without telling her I was coming over, I say, "Panic attack."
My newest variation of "Hello."
"Jesus," she says. Something in the way her frame stoops down while she's talking indicates that she doesn't sympathize with me. "I, um. I have someone over. We were studying."
"I can come back?" I offer, thinking a walk around the neighborhood might be a good thing.
"Yeah, do that, would you? Come back in about fifteen minutes."
The stars aren't out that night. Masked by the dark clouds. The moon shines through only a little bit, and the pools of light on the street are from street lamps and storefronts, some of which close down as I walk past. Almost as if I have the plague.
My mind starts to run with that. I always think that other people think I have some sort of illness they can catch. Some of the pamphlets call that "awfulizing." They say that someone like me takes an idea and turns it into something horrifying. Instead of looking at my watch to see that it is nine o'clock sharp and coming to the rational conclusion that shops are just closing down, I think of it as a sign of something far worse. I think that people are putting themselves in quarantine when I'm around.
"Which is simply not the case," says a part of my brain that my psychiatrist will eventually call Rationality. But it's been so long since that part of my brain has said anything that it almost doesn't even register. Instead of listening to Rationality, the other part of my brain grabs onto the one word that will give it the footing it needs to be the One Voice again: quarantine.
Which then brings me full circle to STDs, which I think about all the way back to Melissa's house. I can't fathom how, with a couple of rash decisions made without decent information, I have put my health, and the health of other people like Melissa and my foster mother, in jeopardy. The phrase, "It isn't fair—I didn't know any better," cycles through my mind like a carousel. But the comfort it offers is minimal, at best.
"You have to call if you're going to come over," says Melissa as she lets me in. "What if I hadn't been here?"
I shrug. "I could have waited. I didn't have anywhere else to go."
She shakes her head. Whether or not it's what she wanted to hear, it was the only thing I had to say.
"This…panic attack," she says, leading me to the couch. "Was it a bad one?"
Again, I shrug. "Same as usual."
"Well," she says, smiling wryly, "I know something that might make it better." With that, she starts kissing my neck, slowly working her way down.
"Stop," I say finally, when I think I'm going to be sick. "Just stop. I don't feel like it right now."
She sits back in a huff. "You've said that every time I've tried to make love to you for the past week. What's going on?"
What isn't going on, besides the fact that I'm still grappling with the possibility that through my behavior, I might have caught a disease that could kill me slowly and painfully? And since I've had sex with multiple partners as well as unprotected, I might have passed that on to someone else. And that with all of that weighing on my mind, I can't even bring myself to get an erection, let alone make love to someone.
"So you don't want to talk about it," she sighs as she stands up. "You know, maybe we should take a break. Until this all works out for you."
This doesn't have the emotional impact I think it should. She's breaking up with me. My first girlfriend, is breaking up with me.
Yet, I have a hard time finding the energy to care.
It isn't a long walk back to my foster parent's house. When I walk in the front door, I hear sobbing, and smell something very strange—something familiar, but I just can't quite place it.
The sobbing in from my foster father. I follow the sound until I find him in his bedroom. He's looking at a piece of paper, reading something on it, and mouthing the words. I only catch the last part, but in Hushedwhispers, I can tell exactly what he's saying: I fucked him. I'm sorry. I just can't take it anymore.
The smell, I don't know what the smell is. Hours later, I understand and remember where I first smelled it, when I was with my father years ago. But at that moment, it's still a mystery. Had this all happened after I was up on this hill, I would have known it instantly. The smell is gun powder.
My foster father looks up and sees me. "Go," he says. "Get the fuck out."
"Where do I…"
"JUST GO!" he roars.
I go upstairs and get what I think I need. Thinking about what you need for the future and procuring those things is usually done in vain, because you are rarely correct about what it is that will eventually come in handy. Nonetheless, you do it, because you have to. Because, like so many other parts of your life, you can't imagine doing anything else at all.