There are some things the body never forgets. The sound of my cell phone splintering against the dorm room wall. How my feet felt cool against the cinderblocks moments before it hit, that breaking I felt in my own chest because I thought I could save myself from him.
Those cinderblocks are never clean in my memory. A handprint in blood smears across three, after we wake up the night after carnage, I mean carnal, relations and my body is fetal away from him, oceans of space between two bodies in a dorm size bed.
“Good morning beautiful,” and he smiled that lazy grin I’d get lost in.
If I don’t look in his eyes, I won’t be ensnared.
Valentine’s Day. He sent me a black and white photograph of a heart-shaped ring of stones. “I took this for you,” he said. Only later, I found out it was part of a class project and this was the photographic outtake, the shot with no clear blacks or whites, uneven borders, textbook darkroom failure.
My own photography class taught me what my heart didn’t want to see: Nothing was ever for me.
“You’re sick,” he screamed, moments before my phone hit the wall. “You’re a sick, fucked up slut and I don’t know why I even date you.”
If the tears coursing down my cheeks made sounds, they’d be wimpers, not screams.
I hadn’t found my voice for him. My neck still remembers his hands around my throat, warm where his fingers hit veins. I pulsed for him, in ways my body remembers every time a new man touches me there.
Touches me anywhere. The body remembers what the mind works hard to forget.
He’d grabbed my wrists in sexual bondage. I told myself I liked it. Thrust once, then noticed, streaks of red down one side and twisted, hard.
“That feel good, bitch? That how you like it?” Brush-burned blood I’d used as refuge, because I could only find safety in myself if I dipped deep in. “You like pain?” Rhetorical questions never turn me on.
He wiped his hands on the wall so he didn’t stain the sheets. The next morning, scrubbed the ghosts of his anger from our walls before we went for a walk in the woods. Sun filtered through the bare tree branches like streams of rain, and I told myself that beauty meant he loved me. That the world wouldn’t grant me that privilege unless I’d earned it. Because love had to be earned, I’d learned. Because love always comes with a price.
“Worthless, lying whore. You make me sick.”
He broke up with me in a circle of strangers, at a Big, Bad Voodoo Daddy concert. His favorite band, and mine. I haven’t listened to their songs since he threw a bag of my belongings in my face. I caught them as he spat at me, as a ring of people watched him spew vitriol and sputum, as a crowd watched my heart splinter because I still thought that was love.
And even as I broke down in my car, the car a friend had to drive home because my hands were shaking too hard to drive, even after she told me it was for the best, even after I told myself it was for the best, it was for the best, every day like a mantra, it wasn’t over.
“You dirty slut. You’re sick. You’re broken. You’ll never be loved again.”
He never called, but left messages for me to find, like bags of flaming shit on porches. Except the shit was in me, underneath the skin that remembered his tenderest touches, his strongest holds. Messages in my inbox, my instant message queue, digital pathways to a hatred I missed because I didn’t know I didn’t need it.
“I just want him to forgive me,” I whimpered to a best friend, curled up on her floor with a notebook my therapist made me write my every thought in, every thought she read back to me like a parrot of the silly macabre, of the words I couldn’t own the second they left my pen.
He had his friends watch me. Eyes at the back of my head, at the bar or the grocery store. Cars parked outside my house that drove away when I opened the garage door. Whispers behind my back, or not. I couldn’t trust my own instincts, or I wouldn’t. Because I had earned this as much as I’d earned his love. Because my body still told me I wanted him. Because I didn’t know that didn’t mean I was wrong.
Years removed, I seek forgiveness from my own body first. When my stomach clenches under pressure, remembering how his eyes turned to liquid fire as he screamed. Spit dried on my cheeks doesn’t feel like my own, because my DNA can’t find a match.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’msorryImsorryimsorryimsorry.
The mantra in my head leaks out my fingers and I apologize for being bad, wrong, sick, whatever makes me worthy of anger. Because my first love was a wrong one, a virus that lies latent in my veins.
A worthless lying whore. Because the words are etched on the inside of my skull, twisted into my arms where scars still bear witness to the red-imprinted cinderblocks. And I’d apologize for anything to make that go away. Every day, I swallow apologies like nausea rising in my throat, and tell myself it’s OK to own my actions.
Every day, I read accounts of women raped, stalked, beaten, women who tell themselves they earned it. And I see my eyes in their faces, the same handprints around their throat. I see cinderblocks streaked with red, feel my college pillows behind my head, and tell myself it’s not our fault.
That it’s not our responsibility to protect them. We’re not the ones who are broken, even though the shards are in our skin.
And in the years since he finally faded into silence, his memory fades too. I don’t remember what his voice sounds like, except that guttural growl. Don’t remember his arms, except drawn back before I flinched eyes closed, no don’t flinch it makes it harder. Go limp, drunk driver in the front seat. Pretend you can’t get hurt.
But I’m finished pretending, and ready to add my voice to the chorus that’s rising as women stand up and say, “Me too.” I’m finished going limp and easy under bodies I didn’t summon, didn’t ask for, didn’t consent to touch. I’m not your rag doll, anymore.
My body hasn’t forgotten, but my voice is steadier now. Ready to warble with the rest of them, and find strength in solidarity.
Lizz is a writer, a reporter, an editor and an artist living and working in Buffalo, N.Y. She is the editor of a newspaper, and also writes personal essay, memoir, fiction and hybrid poetry. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary magazines, websites and journals, and her first book, “Buffalo Steel” came out from Black Rose Writing in 2013. She is currently working on her second book. Lizz can be found @eschumer, at lizzschumer.com or facebook.com/authorlizzschumer.
Featured image credit: Thomas Leuthard