Describe yourself in three words, Khal says. He prods the growing fire with an unravelled wire hanger.
Um, I start, pulling my blanket a little tighter over my shoulders.
Abrasive. Creative. Driven.
Good ones, Chris says, nodding.
I don’t think you’re abrasive, Suzanne offers kindly. I shrug.
I have created a misty kind of coat; it envelopes my tougher memories, the sad ones and the bad ones, making it hard for me to remember things exactly as they may have happened.
Some people know about my divorce and some who don’t. There is also one, Chris, who knows but does not wish to know. So I keep to myself most of it, good and bad, but there are jolts like a metal stick against wood amidst the heat that hit me when I am unprepared.
I fell asleep most nights alone, before and after, before because I was actually alone, during because my ex-husband worked later, and after because I had no choice. I remembered moving into a dingy, ugly, unhappy apartment and thinking that I would be ok if I could fall asleep that night. I did fall asleep quite easily, but I was not ok. Sleeping was the only thing I was able to do with a relative routine for two years. But I have been abrasive long before this.
I often talk to my therapist about how masculine my house was. My father, my brother, my mother, my pets. Looming, loud, competitive, confident. Dark hair, dark skin, dark fur. Masculine. I asked for a canopy bed, purple walls. I had tangled hair that refused to be brushed smooth; my mother had to spray it with a detangler, yank the comb through. My skin, covered in thick Portuguese hair, became dry in the heat, eczema scabs up and down my arms and legs. I craved softness, quiet. I’d ask my mom to teach me how to do makeup, and her face would twist like she’d tasted a lemon. I don’t wear makeup; she’d say and toss her hair behind her shoulder. I don’t need it.
I was and still am obsessed with feminine beauty. I dye my hair blonde and blow dry it straight. I whiten my teeth, shave my arms and legs and feet, and my face and my pubis. I rub lotion all over myself, inject my forehead to make it smooth. Every day I put on makeup. My underwear is lacy. I am the ugliest I’ve ever felt in my life.
Standing in a dark bar trying to reconcile after the cheating, I am drunk and holding onto a pool cue with its base pressed into the ground for balance. My misty jacket of protection disables me from remembering exactly what I said that night, but my ex-husband leaves alone, tears brimming in his eyes.
After it was over, I only sought out men with girlfriends. I didn’t cry or ask for help. I wanted to prove that what happened to me could and would happen to anyone. Two years later, I was a sick and bruised skeleton. I developed something close to shame, but there’s a better word for it I haven’t found yet.
I treat my body like it’s as disposable as I feel. I pump it full of alcohol, allow it to stumble, to be handled, unloved. I talk to myself like a nemesis; I punch my mirror and let it break on my hand. Disgusting, I say to the shards of my reflection and my blood. You are disgusting.
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If you can figure out a way to get fucked up every day and ruin all of your relationships, you have to be pretty creative. I am dependable and eloquent enough with my words to maintain a job as a freelance writer. I make just enough to buy enough bottles of wine every night to send me into a coma.
Years later, I attempt to turn everything I hate about myself into a collection of stories to be sold and held and read. Creative.
I find Chris at a small table on a Tuesday morning because we are reading the same book. I am pleasant enough, but I have not loved anyone in years, and I certainly haven’t touched anyone that I got close to liking, including myself. Even though I am shiny and new, my insides are still sick and decayed, healing but slowly. I am grateful that I now live somewhere with seasons, as I can attach imagery to my innards. My outsides are spring, blooming. My insides are winter. Dead.
But I try, I try with Chris because something inside the dead forest of my winter tells me that he is worth it. And while I am terrified of love and even more terrified of myself, I let him in. Time passes, and I begin to see myself in different ways. I finish the things I’ve started. I treat my skin and body better; my insides bloom.
You are very bright, so creative. My boss says to me. We are speaking over the phone, so I wince like I’m about to take a punch. She never says but. She just leaves it there. Bright and creative.
Are you a creative person? Suzanne asks Chris.
Not at all, he laughs, puffing smoke out of his mouth.
That must be hard, she says, considering her hands. She is so creative that it must be intimidating.
Whatever pride I had is shoved back into a drawer and saved for myself. I remember that my grandmother when she was alive, used to sew.
I sip my beer and nod, re-writing this whole story in my head.
I can tell you that I know what it’s like to want to die, to hope that you will just drop dead, so you don’t have to do it yourself.
But I can also tell you that I know what it’s like to want to live. To really live, to feel everything with such an immense magnitude that you could turn it into something beautiful if you held onto it instead of trying to wash it away.
I will tell you that I gathered up everything I had and tried to save my life because of these two feelings happening inside me all at once. I can say that the wanting to live felt bigger but much scarier. I can tell you that I held onto the armrest of my airplane seat, shaking on my way to a new life, still very much afraid of my old self. I had two suitcases and was sitting in a pad filled with blood from the baby I’d aborted two days before.
I cannot say that I figured anything out or that everything is ok. When people tell me I am brave, I tend to diminish those words, wave them away in the wind. I did the things I had to do because I didn’t see any other way. I am not brave because if that plane had started to go down, my grip on the armrest would have remained the same.
I do not say any of these things tonight, with my friends, or ever. I hold onto them, and I look at the stars. I take my three words, and I hold onto them; they are mine, I like them.
Kaleena Madruga received her BA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and her MFA in Creative Writing from Roosevelt University. She lives in Chicago. Kaleenamadruga.com