Blame

(after Blythe Baird)

Blame the boy you sat next to in English / the cop who took your number as a trade for no ticket /

the way you were brought up not to need anyone / the man who cut into your skin /

the color of your eyes / your professor who didn’t know the meaning of boundaries /

your weight and where it sits on your body / the boys on the bus in sixth grade /

the family member who slid his hand up your thigh / the length and color of your hair /

the man who followed you on your walk home / the boy who called you a cunt when you said no /

the boy who taught you not to say no / the fact that you think too much / your panic attacks /

the man who left you for being too cold / the man who left you for being too emotional /

your height / the rape defense course that taught you to scream “fire” instead of “help” /

your smile / the man who slapped you for being stupid /

the kid in eighth grade who pretended to like you so he could make fun of you afterward /

the fact that you never took therapy seriously / the way you hid your bruises /

the fact that you like sex / the fact that you’re traumatized by sex /

the boy who proposed while watching Saw / your anxiety / the song that was playing on the radio /

the jury trial where you listened to descriptions of rape all summer / the clothes you were wearing /

your taste in men / the time you were told you were too sexually aggressive /

the fact that you can’t sleep /

the fact that you can’t process emotions

until you’ve written them down.

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Dragons

I don’t want to compete with your trauma.
It’s not a contest I want to win,
so I smile and nod and sympathize
and swallow the bitterness of untold truths.

Live your truth, they say,
but fuck you, maybe I don’t want to.
I live IN my truth, or rather it lives inside me,
it survives deep in my chest
like a dragon I’m never quite brave enough to slay.

Every day I inhale my truth
and exhale my frustration that
I haven’t let go of it yet,
and sometimes
I do it
so fast
I get dizzy.

Speak your truth, they say,
But fuck you, maybe I can’t.
Maybe it’s been years and
I still can’t make the words come out
no matter how many times I try to write things down.

I don’t want to live my truth,
I don’t want to speak my truth,
I want to get as far away from it as possible.
I want to run until my muscles fail
and then ask for more space.

But aren’t you so free,
that you can chase after your truth,
that you’d want to,
that your truth is worth living.

-COKIKAY-

celebrate

We always said we’d celebrate this moment together
but here we are, ten years later,
somehow both strangers and deeply tied
but the promise means nothing now

Still, I’m raising my glass to you
because while we’re being honest,
if our love was an ocean
I finally understand why captains go down with their ships

-COKIKAY-

brimming

I never told you:

I set fire to your hat.

After destroying all traces of you, there you were

crushed between long-lost umbrellas and old receipts

curled, inconspicuous, no screaming or blood.

Even so, at first I wouldn’t touch it;

there were too many ghosts in the fabric.

I finally moved it to my room, the closet;

shoved it to the back and hoped I’d forget.

But its heartbeat grew louder

until it was all I could hear

and I had to look it in the eyes.

It took a bright, hot, sunny afternoon

to chase away the chill of holding it.

It breathed whiskey and charcoal and paint thinner to me,

but probably didn’t to anyone else.

Your first kiss was entwined in the threads,

the last wound you left ran along the seam.

-COKIKAY-

Iago

The key, I was told once,
is to play Iago…
and make them all love you.

Hero. Villain.
Good. Bad.

Perfect. Flawed.

Look at me,
right in the eyes
and tell me you aren’t both.

Well I’m the hero…..aren’t I?
(Are you?
Probably.)

So prove it, prove you’re the hero.
Make me believe you are flawless.
Tell me you meant well for every single action you’ve ever taken.

But then there are too many heroes,
this town ain’t big enough,
etcetera….

I can see it in your eyes,
in everyone’s:
the storm clouds of doubt roll in.

Am I the villain in someone’s story?
(Are you?
Probably.)

So prove it, prove you’re the villain.
Make me believe you’re broken and damned.
Tell me you wanted to destroy everything you’ve ever touched.

But then we’re all bad guys,
misery loves company,
etcetera….

So what to do, then,
with the vacillating emotions
of our own tell-tale pendulums?

The key is to play Iago,
and make them all love you
despite themselves.

Almost Love: Part 10

Half a year passes without him. We speak here and there, but never anything too meaningful. We see each other just once, and pretend we didn’t. I do what I always do with him — pretend it doesn’t affect me. Save my tears for when I get home.

Considering the number of times I walked away from him, with every intention of never coming back, it still feels like a knife to the chest to realize he walked away properly the first time he ever tried it. I’ve always known I loved him more than he loved me, but I don’t enjoy being proven right so casually.
He’s always been impossible to rid myself of; I’m heartbroken now that I’ve finally managed it. I think it’s because he managed it for me.

It’s been months, and yet I can’t let go of him. I don’t date and I don’t flirt, because somewhere in my mind I still hope he’ll come back through my front door, say it was all a mistake, a test, something. I’d be furious but I’d take him back. I hate this truth, but I know it’s real: I have never been able to turn him away. Not for long.

He writes me out of nowhere, on a rainy spring day. My heart painfully skips a beat when I see his name. I don’t want to read his words; I have a pit in my stomach. The smart thing would be to ignore it.
Haven’t you been paying attention? I’ve never been smart when it comes to him.

I read it and immediately regret doing so, because my damage has just begun.
My fiance, it says, which makes the rest of the message irrelevant.

Six months ago he was in my bed, so the word fiance clangs around my mind like an unwelcome guest, shaking things loose, rattling my teeth. There are alarm bells going off somewhere, an incessant wail telling me that I’ve always known, that I should have known better.

I don’t ask if it’s the Queen or someone else. Because that isn’t really the question I need answered, is it?
For once in my life, I protect myself from knowing any more about this than I already do. I sit motionless for a long moment, staring at his words.
His word, really. Only one of them matters.

Then I burst into tears.

It’s as if the dam finally breaks, and all those months of holding it together since he walked out the front door are suddenly collapsing. I cry until I make myself sick. I cry until my body is empty. Until everything feels numb. I want to tear my skin to shreds, just so something else will hurt more than this. I need something to distract me.

For days, weeks, there is nothing. No distractions. I am trapped in this perpetual nothingness; all I want is to sleep, and I can’t. I find myself unable to eat, and I can’t even articulate why. I cannot explain why this somehow hurts far more than everything else he’s done. I can’t express my turbulent emotions to anyone in a way that makes any sense. I feel held together by threads, and every tie I tie one off, another ten break. I feel like parts of me have fallen away, all the parts anyone could love, and I am some kind of hollow person.

It takes me months to decide how I should handle this. Eventually I do what I’ve always done: I write.
I gather my emotions, tuck them neatly away, and write him a letter. Notes to my Someday lover.

Ultimately, of course, it contains mostly lies. How I hope he will be happy; that even if I wasn’t who he wanted, I hope that she is. That all I want is for him to make the best choices he can for himself. That I enjoyed our time together, and that I will always care for him.

Yes, I understand that this is me, once again, putting him first. I can’t help it, don’t you see that yet? I’ve never been able to help it, with him.
I make this one final sacrifice, because I need a way to finally amputate the limb that is my love for him. So I lie, as I always have, to make him happy. So that he can feel peace about his decisions. So that he never believes, for an instant, that he has probably ruined most pieces of my heart for everyone who comes after. So he never knows that some parts of me will always be his, whether I want them to or not.

I drive to his house at night, wishing it were raining to match my mood. I sneak onto his front porch and leave the letter by his front door, stand for a long moment in the summer air, say an unintentional but necessary farewell to his house and all the memories it contains.

I drive away from his house, from him, from everything we were. As I drive I think about the end of my letter, the part I hope he remembers forever.

Goodbye, it says at the bottom.
I have decided that in this, at least, I should not say one thing when I mean another.

(END)

Almost Love: Part 9

I wake up warm, and surrounded by him. His scent is all over my sheets, on my skin, in my hair. I breathe him in whenever I can; having him here like this is still rare, though it shouldn’t be. We spend the early hours in bed, and then he leaves. It’s not enough time, and I protest, but he tells me he’s coming back this afternoon. Twice in one day, for us, is either exciting or ominous.

I am suddenly and inexplicably terrified that he drove home to get a ring.
I spend the day quietly panicking. “Afternoon” is much too vague a time slot for those of us who worry. Every time I check the parking lot, I hate myself a little more. His comings and goings should not impact my day; he has no idea how much they really do. I will never tell him.

When he returns, I hear him drop his wallet, keys, and phone on the counter; distinct sounds that I know by heart. I hate when he makes himself at home in my apartment. He’s already inhabiting so much room in my life that having him here sometimes feels like one too many concessions.

He spins my life into chaos whenever he’s in it, like a tornado I’m deeply in love with but ultimately will cause my destruction. The fact that I keep asking the tornado to come back is definitely a deep-seated psychological something, which I’m not keen to explore.

He comes into the room and sits next to me, and I feel my heartbeat pick up. I can’t tell if it’s hope, or fear, or both. I hope that he is, and isn’t, about to propose. I am ready and not ready. I am terrified and brave. I want him and I don’t deserve him. I deserve him and I don’t want him. I am panicking and endlessly calm. All of my emotions are on a collision course, and I no longer know what my face is doing.

What he says, though, makes all of those emotions hit an invisible wall.
“I’m not happy.”

Like a record scratch, my world stops. An eraser scrubs the chalkboard of my mind, and I become aware that my face is too open, so I close it. I experience a profound silence, in which I grasp for words and find none.
I have no thoughts. I have no emotions.
I am empty. I am quiet. I am still.
He hardly bothers to explain. A few sentences, evidently, is all I’m worth. He ends things faster than I knew anyone could. I went from being loved to being left, and I’m not processing things fast enough to understand why.

The longest silence I’ve ever experienced follows. I have nothing to say. My stupid mind is still thinking about him down on one knee, and it makes this awful moment exponentially worse. I eventually realize that I’ve been silent much too long, but it’s very clear that this is less a discussion and more an announcement; I understand that whatever I add, it will change nothing. Speaking now would make me appear weak, and I resist it as long as possible.

It’s the right moment for self-preservation, only I never learned that lesson, remember?

All I want is for him to be somewhere, anywhere else. I cannot be near him if I’m going to fall apart, and I recognize as though watching myself from a distance that collapse is probably imminent. It must be, though I feel nothing of it yet.

I go hunting for my voice, because it has run off somewhere, away from this place where everything hurts. It takes longer than it ever has for me to find it.
“You don’t have to stay here,” I say, hoping he doesn’t know what it costs me to say so.

He stands immediately, a tempest on a hair trigger, relieved to be released from my custody. I try not to think about how often he may have felt that before. He always said he felt like he was trapping me, but maybe I was the one putting him in a cage.
It’s not like I have any kind of gauge for normalcy.

He stands in the doorway for a moment. He apologizes, as if that will make a difference, but I don’t look at him. I want to remember those eyes loving me, not leaving me.
I hear the front door slam behind him. I momentarily consider getting up to lock it behind him, but I don’t. Maybe some part of me hopes he’ll come back. I desperately hope no one ever knows I’m so pathetic in this moment.

I realize, after hours of silence, that I’m still sitting where he left me. If I stay in this position, what happened won’t be real. If I move, the spell will break and reality will hit. I haven’t cried yet. I keep waiting for the tears but they aren’t there. I wonder if I care less than I thought, but my heart objects to this assessment as it shatters inside me.

I still love you, he writes later. I consider writing back, something in all capital letters, but decide against it. How do you love someone and also break them?
There are easier ways to say you don’t love someone than the way he chose.

Eventually, I fall asleep remembering how I woke up this morning.

Almost Love: Part 8

I am trying my best to adapt to the idea that this man loves me. I ask him, often, if he means it, because I keep waiting for it to be a lie. Every time I ask, I wonder what percentage of me is joking.
Did I mention, yet, how much practice we’ve had at pretending?
It’s well within my character-flaw wheelhouse to assume that I am unlovable, but mostly I’m just too practical to assume we’re suddenly being totally honest.

He’s certainly the man I’ve loved the most, but also the man who’s hurt me the most, and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of that.

“I love you,” he says easily, like it isn’t the hardest thing in the entire world.
“I love you,” I answer, surprising myself more than him, but it comes out more like a promise than a declaration.
I promise I’m normal. I promise I won’t run. I promise this will work.
Promises can be lies, too.

When he steps closer and kisses me, I’m still thinking about what I said, and hoping I meant it.
He takes off my shirt and I let him, like I didn’t just hand him my heart.

Back when he loved the Queen, I never asked him to leave her, and the reasons for that are crashing down around my head. I never dared to ask because I’m not that bold of a person, but also because even if I were a betting woman, I wouldn’t bet on me. I can’t promise him forever. I can’t even promise him the next ten minutes. I am skittish and independent and damaged, and anyone can tell you that’s not a winning combination.

He is still with me, much more present in this moment than I am, and I realize all of our clothes are on the floor again. It’s the way we communicate best, probably because we don’t say much. I shelve my fears for the moment. I can’t imagine anyone being able to get off while wondering if the person whose heart they’ve laid their hands in is being honest.

I let myself fall too far into the moment, and I feel his name almost escape the tip of my tongue; I bite my lower lip instead. We are not those people.

Or maybe we are, now. I don’t know how this works. I don’t know anyone I can ask.

Almost Love: Part 7

Years after that first look across a crowded room, things look different but feel very much the same. The Queen has been banished, other men in my life pushed aside, and still we aren’t together in any meaningful sense. Our families have not met; we do not share our friends. Our lives continue on, parallel but still deliberately separate, somehow both easier and more difficult than before.

We share a whiskey on my porch, and he asks me something that I didn’t see coming.
“What would you do if I said I loved you?” he asks, which is such a roundabout way of admitting something you’d rather not.
“Run,” I reply shamelessly, determinedly unaffected by the question. I think we both know I’m lying. I can’t tell him I’ve loved him since before I was ever allowed to do such a thing. I don’t know who it would scare more.

I finish my drink and decide, once again, to keep my personal disasters to myself. I do that far more often than anyone should; I worry a lot about what that particular impulse means.

We’ve developed a lot of habits like that one, spent years building up walls to guard our hearts from one another. Now we’re suddenly trying to be the people we’ve always been, but with honesty and emotion this time. That’s a recipe for ruin if I’ve ever heard one. We’ve spent so much time hiding our lives and feelings from each other that now we don’t know how to share them, and it’s awkward when we try.

We keep discovering, over and over, how little we know one another. It’s disconcerting that I can love someone this powerfully without knowing much about him at all.

“You act like you don’t need me,” he says another day, which is supposed to sting, but doesn’t. I decide not to tell him how hard I’ve worked to ensure that I don’t. In recent years I’ve arranged my life around making sure I don’t need him, and I’m mostly just relieved that he noticed.

It takes him months to get up the courage to try again, and once again I don’t see it coming. I never learn.

“I love you,” he says, and there’s a long pause as I try not to panic. Why he thought it would be safe to love me, I don’t understand. I am emotionally unstable, certainly damaged, and a verified flight risk. I feel something inside me rise up in protest, but I don’t give it a voice.

I think I love him because he indulges my self-destruction without actively participating in it.

I don’t know how to exist in a world where this man loves me. I don’t know how to exist in a world where I believe he actually does. I’ve spent such a long time convincing myself that he never would, and now this strange and unexpected moment has arrived, and my mind shuts down like it needs to protect itself from harm.

Maybe it does.

Almost Love: Part 6

Once upon a time we agreed on an end date for this, like the optimistic idealists we probably were back then. We still pretend it’s true even though we both probably know we’re already in too deep.

We last four days without speaking, and then he calls. I feel some twisted sense of pride that he broke before I did, as if it matters.

“I miss you,” he says, and I feel a sudden falling sensation, like I’ve missed a step. Missing me is not something he has done before, at least not out loud. I miss him, of course, but I have never said so, because that would be indicating more of an attachment to him than I’m allowed. We don’t discuss our feelings because we are not those people; we have never had the privilege of feeling anything out loud.

“Do you miss me?” he asks, and though he has seen every part of me, this is the first time I’ve felt exposed. This is not how we operate. Mostly, he pretends to care and I pretend I don’t, and we carry on with our lives hoping that all of these lies won’t swallow us whole. We never made any actual rules about intimacy, and suddenly I realize what a glaring mistake it was not to.
“I always miss you,” I say finally, and desperately hope that someday it stops being true.

We spend a sunny afternoon on the beach, a rare day where I am suddenly allowed to touch him in public and realize, almost immediately, that I don’t know how. I have never been called upon to casually touch him; the only touches we ever exchange are intimate, and meant for dark corners. I don’t know the boundaries for carefree love; I spent too long memorizing the rulebook on hiding. I spend the whole day thinking about the fact that I have never touched him in the sunlight. It says a lot about us, I think, and none of it flattering.

He worries that he’s trapping me; he says it all the time, that I should be free to be with anyone, and here I am stuck with a man who belongs to someone else. I’m his even though I’d never say so, and he knows it even though he’d never ask. I don’t admit that it doesn’t matter.
I wouldn’t leave him even if I could.
No one ever tells you that’s much less romantic than it sounds.

He’s in the sun and he’s smiling at me, and I still feel the impulse to look over my shoulder. Maybe because I don’t believe it can possibly be me he wants; maybe because I’m still making sure we’re hidden from curious eyes. I don’t know if it’s my damage or his that I’m more aware of. I feel the structure of this — whatever we are — being pushed aside; I’m no longer sure what we are and more importantly, what we aren’t. I don’t know what to say when what I’m telling him isn’t a secret.

He says that I’ll be the death of him, which sounds dangerously close to admitting emotion. I want to tell him that I will, I promise I will; then I worry it will ruin the mood. He is curiously buoyant, and though he often infuriates me, breaks me, damages me, I won’t say anything to break the spell because somewhere along the way, his mood became more important to me than my own. I tease him as if I also feel light, because making him laugh is its own high. I worry that if I laugh, affection will shine through the sound, so I don’t.

He tells me, as he so often has, that his Queen is tearing apart his happiness and that someday soon, it will be over. That we can go to the beach once a week if we want; that he’ll kiss me in front of all these people we know just to watch them stare. I allow myself a few moments of fantasy, because that’s what it is. I know he’s lying, because I’m not the kind of girl anybody leaves somebody else for. I discard the dream almost as soon as he builds it; I am too inclined to believe things just because I want them, and I don’t think my body can handle the stress of believing in this one. I let him talk about it, though, because he lights up when he imagines futures we’ll never have.

He says we’ll be happy together. I tell him I agree, solidifying my suspicion that I might, in fact, be an idiot.

I wonder, suddenly and unpleasantly, if he has brought the Queen here; my tongue immediately tastes bitter and I regret the thought. I’m certain she knows how to touch him in public and the jealousy, for a moment, is unbearable. The idea breaks the spell of this afternoon, and now I want to crawl out of my skin when he smiles at me, because when he reaches for my hand I picture hers instead.

“How’s your girlfriend?” I ask, to remind us both that he has one. I ruin the moment on purpose, as I often do; I never know if I’m punishing him or myself. I am deliberately cruel because my own thoughts of him are hurting me, and I need to purge some of my heartbreak.

I don’t tell him he deserves to be happy, because given how many people’s hearts he’s currently destroying, I’m not at all sure he does.