I buy my groceries from Pink Dot and get 99 percent off non-grocery items on Amazon. I pay online, say leave them at the door. But sometimes I can’t wait. I need to go to Target today. My love asked me to get him an electric razor. I said I’d go. I know what I’m doing; I’ve done this before. And I like Target. It has the cheapest paper goods and clothes that fit my lifestyle. Clothes that I can throw away.
I put on a skirt and sleeveless top, because this October, Los Angeles is hot, like the inside of a plastic bag. Never sandals; in sandals my feet get crushed. I wear combat boots that make my feet look big. I tie back my long hair and coil it round so no one can grab it. I make the drive to Hollywood, park in the garage, strap my helmet under my chin. It’s a good helmet. Black. It grips my skull and goes with everything. I take the elevator up.
I have a certain number of minutes. Whatever it is about me that people hate takes time to accumulate. This Target is big; it’s a new Supertarget. In here I can dissipate. I unplug a red cart from its row and start grabbing. Paper towels. Cotton balls. Tiger balm. Bandaids. I shop like shopping’s a race. I figure I’ve got twenty minutes. I don’t.
In the personal care aisle, I see a man: his nostrils flare, his pupils grow like a cat’s in the dark, but his are growing in the fluorescent light as he looks at me. These men (usually, but sometimes women), don’t look me in the eye, they look at my ribs or my jaw or wherever their fist is about to connect.
I’ve gotten good at caving inward; the man is aiming for my ribcage, but he just gets my shoulder. It’s the second man who cuffs my eye. I can take it. Most people don’t keep at it, they get you once, they want to hurt your body with their body, then they’re done with it, they feel better, they move on. It’s almost always over in seconds. A few minutes at the most.
When they’re gone, I pull myself up with the hand I kept on my cart. I grab the nearest razor and go to the checkout. I have my choice of red-shirted cashiers. I choose the transvestite. I’m not in the mood for judgment.
Growing up, I was my own best friend. I hid in the back of classrooms. Spoke little. Sidestepped glares. When there was no helping it, I curled into a roundworm ball.
I grew up with the question What is it about me? I knew it was something deep. Once, after I left home, I went to a gynecologist. The nurse shot me a glance while slipping my file into the plastic file-holder on the door. The room was small so I figured I didn’t have much time.
The doctor came in and took out his speculum, but I saw his eyes and shut my legs, unlatched my feet from the stirrups, ran out shoeless in my paper gown. I left my purse there but I didn’t go back. I cancelled my credit cards. I forgot about getting answers.
I was sure my life was an arrow pointing away from happiness.
By the time I make it back to my apartment in Santa Monica, my face is red and swelling. I hang my helmet on the hook by the door. I ball up my clothes in the trash. Shower. I open the big windows wide, and lie down. I don’t have much furniture, but I have a mattress in the bedroom, and a TV, in the living room, which I watch from the floor. Boxes; I’ve forgotten what’s in them.
My love has said move in. He says his place by the canals is bigger. (I’ve never been.) He has furniture. He has tables where I have boxes and chairs where I have a floor. Pictures where I just have walls.
But here, I know the patterns. I know my neighbors’ schedules. I know whose footsteps are whose. If I must go out during the dangerous times, I know how the neighbors hit. It’s a nice area, liberal and scholarly. Most of the fists are small and weak.
I haven’t explained this to my love. I tell him my rent is cheap, I hate moving; the boxes, the newspapers, all the things behind the things you didn’t know you had in cupboards, all the decisions, all the times you have to ask yourself what do you really want? How much breaks.
“Here’s your razor,” I say, when my love comes over. I don’t tell him what happened. Who can love someone the whole world is against? I want him to love me, so I tell him I ran into one of the columns in the parking garage when I was putting my shopping cart away.
Usually he looks distinguished but right now he looks concerned. He inspects me, his hand under my chin. He feels my shoulder. He has delicate prodding hands.
“At least you didn’t break anything,” my love says. He sees the positive in situations. I’m not an optimist, myself.
I lie against my love. “My clumsy girl,” he coos. He presses a bag of frozen blueberries against my ocular cavity as we watch the news. I have a freezer full of frozen berries and smaller vegetables.
When I was little, my dad called me his blueberry. I think of my nickname every time I make a miscalculation, and my face in the mirror is blue rosing into purple. I think of it every time I press cold blueberries to my face and hope my eye stays open.
I thought I would always be alone. But now my love and I spend our time alone together. We stay in, at my place. We watch movies on the TV. We go to bed early. He makes me breakfast in bed on weekends.
Not just that. There are times when my skin is beard-chafed and I want to put an icepack between my legs; those times, when my knees burrow in the nooks behind his knees, like arrows inside arrows, and I smell the smell of the world on his neck and back, its smog and salt and hope, I catch myself trying to memorize happiness, as if to store it against some future famine.
Then, sometimes, I wish he’d get off me.
Just last night, I was uneasy.
“Are you okay?” My love asked me. He was too close.
“Your beard hurts me,” I said, and that was a test.
In an instant, my love determined to shave, and the sooner the better. He said he didn’t want to hurt anyone. This, I thought, this is the man for me.
I met my love online. He works trying to prevent global famine. I saw that on his profile. In his picture, he looked handsome, with wrinkles that pointed to his eyes and a beard that clambered up to his cheekbones. A shy man’s beard, I thought. He asked me on a date, shyly: would you ever want. I told him I don’t like restaurants, bars, don’t like concert halls or movie theaters, sports arenas, shopping malls, flea markets. I told him I avoid rush hour, still days, hot days, holidays, any day there is a parade. I would not go anywhere on Friday or Saturday nights when the air is already charged. He said that was fine with him. He didn’t have many friends himself. He preferred to stay home, throw a steak on the grill.
“How do you cook it?” I asked.
“Well,” he said. “Blood makes me squeamish.”
“Come on over,” I said.
I looked at him through the peephole. He was short, small-boned. I bet the thatch of his beard hid a weak chin. I unlocked the door, slowly, unlocked the lock that turns, the lock that bolts, the lock that is a chain. I let myself be won, slowly, like a queen.
It is the morning after Target. I open my eyes and there my love is with breakfast and a ring. I wonder how long he’s been kneeling by the bed, waiting. He looks different: he has shaved his face smooth.
“Marry me?” he asks. He slides the ring up my finger. His beardless chin surprises me by being sharply chiseled.
I narrow my eyes. Little claws clamp the diamond into place. I imagine a wedding dress on me; I imagine the dress covered with blood. I ask, “Can it be a long engagement?”
“Of course,” my love says. Everything is fine with him. “Being engaged is the best part.”
“Why?” I ask.
“The expectation,” he says. I think he means, of happiness.
I do not say yes. When I imagine our future, when I see it unfurling, it is blank as a sheet.
My love leaves because I need time to think. I don’t think. I sleep the weekend away. I dream. I dream the stone falls out of my ring. I wake up afraid, and looking at my hand.
Monday is a workday. I go into the office in Malibu two or three days a week. I write copy for a furniture catalogue. It’s dry stuff, but I know my fellow employees and their styles, how my editor likes her sentences, how she bites. I know them all so well, from the chatter and the inter-office emails, that I can tell when they’re about to strike. If I have time, I crawl under my desk; if I don’t, I roll my shoulders toward each other, and pull my chin in, so I’m compact, but you can’t tense up. It’s important not to tense up, like riding a horse; you have to move, you have to allow the movement, you have to move in the direction of the movement.
Today, it’s the whole office. I don’t have time to crawl under my desk. I hold my helmet on and look for a way out between limbs. There is none. I have to wait until my coworkers scatter to their cubicles, my skin under their fingernails.
I leave work early, tying my shirt together where buttons are missing. I’m open to the world in dozens of tiny rips. My knees are rugburned. The hot air is a thick thing I move through and feel everywhere.
I sit in my car. Sticky hair frays out from under my helmet. I get old in the rearview mirror.
On the drive home, my love calls. I tell him I had a rough day. He says he’ll come over. I’m glad and not glad. I can’t tell what I want. Someone honks. I tell my love I have to go, and hang up. I make sure my doors are locked. My hands clench on the steering wheel. I don’t listen to the radio. I stay alert.
A blue car close behind me gets closer. I start clenching. I pull over at the Chevron on the PCH to let the driver pass me. He doesn’t look back. I catch my breath. While I’m there, I get out to get gas. The palm trees hang limp in the thick, gray air. The ocean to my right looks like melted metal, like molten nickel.
I used to run away to the ocean. It wasn’t far; I could smell its fish smell from our house. When I could see the ocean, the streak of it pulled taut across the horizon, where it always was, I was aware of how fast my own troubles came and went. The waves slapped the shore, and I felt my wounds already healing. Even the world is finite, I would think, look how the land ends in water. Alone I felt safe, and even sometimes strong.
I get back into the car.
Once home, I head for the bathroom. Knock, knock. My love startles me. I’m naked when he comes in. He looks at me, my ripped clothes on the floor. They have stiff dried blood patches. I kick them into the corner.
I spit into the sink, a fizz of spit and blood. “I fell out the window into a patch of brambles,” I explain, running the water.
“My girl,” my love says. “You’re getting clumsier.”
“This is how I’ve always been. You’re just here more now.”
“You don’t want me here?” He is play-pouting.
“Will you protect me?” I ask.
I want him to protect me. A fantasy: we walk down the street; our two hands make one fist; we swing our straight arms. He carries a walking stick, or a baseball bat; when someone lunges, he strikes. And everywhere we walk, he clears the way. Bodies fall like jungle branches.
“I will hold you,” my love says. I can feel his arms most distinctly where they press up against my bruises. I soften against him and I’m ready to soften more.
“Protect me?” I ask again. Certain thoughts are swelling and certain other thoughts are gone.
“What are you so afraid of?” my love asks.
I don’t say what I am starting to know: I am afraid of the future I can’t see. I am afraid of the moment he will stop being immune: the moment he will look at me and hate me.
I back away. I go into the bedroom and lie down on the bed.
“Don’t you know you’re safe with me?” he asks.
In this moment everything throbs. “No,” I say. I don’t know that. In fact, I’m sure with enough time, he’ll lunge at me like everyone else, but it will be worse because I won’t be ready. I won’t have my helmet on. I must want him to leave, because I tell him the truth. I say, “I didn’t fall. They beat me.” My voice cracks because I’m ashamed.
“The people.” It hurts to talk.
My love furrows his brow. “It was probably an accident. They probably didn’t see you there. Or they meant to hit someone else. They didn’t mean to hit you.” My love is always cutting people breaks.
“They meant to,” I say. It hurts to wince, and I’m wincing.
“You’re talking nonsense,” he says. “Why? Why would anybody beat you?”
That is the crux of the matter. “Something about me. I make them angry. I don’t mean to.”
“You hit your head hard this time,” my love says, tenderly. He doesn’t leave. He stays. He strokes the hair back from my temples. I almost relax. I start to fall down that well. I can feel my hair going gray, like beads of mercury down my scalp.
“Your head is bleeding.” My love pulls away, looks at his wet hand, then at me. He is recoiling. I close my eyes because I don’t want to see his face.
I can’t sleep. The pain moves from my head to my stomach to my ankle to my heart. It doesn’t stay any one place long enough for me to get used to it. I toss and when I toss my love is a continent in my way. “I don’t want to get married.” I say it. I say it again, louder, so my love wakes up.
“It’s too late for this,” my love says, but he leaves, pulling a blanket over him like a robe. He turns on the TV in the other room. The floor creaks as he lies down on it. Blue light outlines the bedroom door.
I’m sure I will never fall asleep. I am hot and then cold; the TV is loud and then laughing; I can feel my love’s back against the wall. I ache for him, but it is under all my other aches.
I get up in the morning and my love is already gone. I feel relief at how my thin life is thinning. I put on makeup and go. The day is hot again, hotter even. The straps of my helmet itch and my fingers swell. At my office, I am trying to pry the ring off my finger with a letter opener when my editor speakerphones me.
My editor tells me my copy has lost a certain zest. I know this, but I’d hoped she wouldn’t notice. I have to go to the showroom and sit on the couches I have been describing poorly.
“After hours,” I say, so no one else will be there.
North Hollywood. A big woman with big earrings and a keyring clamped to her beltloop lets me into the showroom. “Just you?” she asks. I nod. She says, “Buzz to get out.”
The showroom isn’t a showroom. It’s showrooms. Possibility after possibility. Arrows on the floor tell me where to walk. Tracklights shine down from high ceilings and the new furniture glints for no one except me.
I go up the stairs, follow a chain of bathrooms and bedrooms. In a girl’s room, everything is the stainable color of cream. A rug tufts up. I take off my shoes to feel the softness under my feet. In the closet, I touch metal hangers; they cling like bells. Chinese lanterns hang low over dangling bulbs. I lie on the small bed, my arms and legs reaching into the time and quiet beneath the mosquito netting. My heart is loud with wanting.
I try believing in the kind of life these rooms imply. I try believing in an incarnation of home that won’t hurt, another possibility, unlived-in. There is the sound of a door opening and I think it’s somewhere in me, that slow creak open, the beginning of something. I hope it is not too late. I text my love, Marry me?
Then I hear men below, men coming upstairs with grunts and heavy footsteps. I sit up straight and see them, carrying bureaus in pairs. They put the bureaus down and I’m already hurting. Then, faces and fists all around me, and I hurt more. Chinese lanterns bob like the air is water.
When they’re done, I roll onto one elbow and curse the strong arms of furniture-movers. I vomit over the side of the bed.
I gather my strewn possessions. My phone says, Of course, my clumsy girl. Come over. I feel a rush of warmth and wonder what I tore. I buzz to get out.
I stagger to my car. All my bones feel about to crack. I make it in. I take off my helmet because it’s too heavy; it’s pushing me down. I smooth my hair with a hand that shakes. My car goes fast and then slow because my foot on the gas pedal moves like someone else’s foot. I try to go fast because I want to see my love. Finally. Pico: the ocean in front of me is black, indistinguishable from the sky. I make my last left.
I park on Venice Boulevard. My helmet is on the passenger seat. I decide not to wear it. I am going home. I ease out of the car. I walk my hands up the side of the car to see if I can stand. I can stand. I close the door.
I limp along the canals, through the burgundy smell of flowers swooping over fences at night, the thick smell of algae on water. The moon is the fullest it’s ever been. I count numbers. His house will be on the other side, across the next bridge.
From my side of the canal, I can see the tip of my love’s house behind a high fence, a wide arrow pointing up. In life you get some choices. I don’t want to be alone. I try optimism. I cross the bridge.
I open the gate. I hold my dress together in front with a fist. My love is sitting at a table under a cone of light, in a yard full of shadowy banana plants. He looks up at me; his eyes give off wrinkles, proof of happiness.
“You came.” He stands up and comes closer. His smile crumbles as sees my face. I must be swelling.
I say, “It’s nothing. I don’t even feel it.” I don’t.
“I’ll take care of you,” my love says. He walks inside and comes out with a steak for my face, and drinks in glasses, ridged with lime. We toast to ourselves. I hold the cold meat to my jaw. I drink and the ice cubes feel good against my lips. The air is soft against my skin. It has cooled off; November, almost, tendrils of November in the air. Every time it cools off, things get better.
It is nice here. I can almost see my future: an outdoor wedding, in this yard, at night, under strands of Chinese lanterns, my helmet draped in lace.
“My clumsy girl,” my love says.
I attempt a smile and feel a tooth dislodge. I press the tooth into its notch with my tongue and hope it holds. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I say. I drape the steak over the rim of my empty glass, to save it.
My love shows through the dark house, into the bathroom. He turns on the light. There is one small window, round and high like a porthole. The still air smells like mildew. My love enfolds me from behind. I can see us in the mirror: my hair mussed, my face a ripening blue; the top of his head as he buries his face in my neck. My focus blurs.
“My love?” He looks up. I feel myself wilting. I want him to go; the adrenaline is leaving me, and I need to wash off my blood and other people’s sweat. “I need to be alone,” I say.
My love’s eyes are narrowing into arrows of blame. “This again.”
“Just for now. Just for a minute.” I turn my body to face him, straight-on, like a target. “Are you mad?” I ask, using my lips to hold my teeth in.
“I’m not.” He is. “I don’t want to be mad. But the way you made me leave, in the middle of the night…”
“I thought you forgave me. I thought you understood,” I say weakly.
“How can I ever trust you now?”
When everything starts, I’m not surprised. I close my eyes. My love is very quiet and I don’t scream. I feel a scribble of pulls on my hair and scratches down. I close my eyes so I don’t see him. Then I am on tile and rug. I tuck myself into a ball. My bones that were about to crack, crack.
The honesty under the honesty: there is relief. When it starts, and when it’s over. I remember the pond of safety after the danger. I remember the apologies that I tested with my toes, then stepped into gratefully.I let myself be won. I let my father win me. My blueberry. Blueberry blueberry blueberry blue, and I forgave him.
“I am sorry,” my love is saying when I open my eyes. He crouches next to me. “I’ll get help.”
I look at my love redly. I ask him not to call 911. I ask him please not to, as clearly as I can, but my voice is not working. I hear a gurgle. It doesn’t sound like a sound I know how to make, but it might be coming from my mouth. Something is happening to my throat. And my stomach, and one lung. I can’t tell which one because this is bad.
My love calls 911. There is a sound of sirens, getting closer. I hear dripping. Rain? The ocean when it rains: water joining water, no break between the ocean and the sky. I want to go to the ocean. I try to move but I flop like a fish.
Two men in uniforms come through the door with a stretcher. My love leans over me, face close to mine, eyes as big as ponds. “They’re going to make you better,” he says. I want to be better.
I smell metal and latex gloves. The men are in a hurry. The first man puts one hand on my chin and one hand on the top of my head, and the second man holds my shoulders, and the first man twists. By the time I hear my neck break, it’s done. I am the stone falling out of the ring.
It is true that my suffering ends: the light above me is indistinguishable from the light inside me, and I can’t see that I am alone.
Amber Burke is from North Dakota. After graduating from Yale, she worked as an actress for several years in New York and LA. She is in the process of completing her Writing Seminars MFA at Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches creative writing and yoga.