When he was in high school, he was hurt during a football game. He was sacked and his leg bent and twisted, caught up in a divot on the field. “He went down like a ton of bricks.” That’s the expression his dad always used when retelling the old story. His girlfriend, by all accounts, was the “prettiest clarinet player,” and she stood stoically and wide-eyed in her ornate band uniform, one hand over her mouth. Hot breath steamed through her fingers into the cold night air as they rolled her boyfriend, “The Star,” off on a stretcher and into a waiting ambulance.
People spoke in a hushed way but when there are close to 5,000 fans filling the stands, that soft hush sounds more like a blustery, howling, angry wind. Some claimed they heard the crack of his bones breaking, the minute it happened, while others shook their heads and called the play “as dirty as it gets.” He almost had a full ride. Almost. But in that moment, the moment he witnessed the trainer’s head recoil with the scrunched brow of uncertainty, he felt an unexpected wave of profound relief. He was relieved he couldn’t play anymore because privately, he didn’t want to. He was exceptionally good at something he didn’t love. In his own head, but certainly not in the hearts of those collected along the sidelines, he was miraculously handed the gift of a valid reason to stop playing. A reason that wouldn’t be judged or questioned. So he took it and feigned disappointment throughout the rest of his senior year, and the following fall, he shipped off to college a free man. “It changed his whole damn life,” they all grumbled. But what he knew to be true was that it didn’t change him at all. Instead, it saved him. And he never told anyone this rather big, little secret until her. His leg, smashed in two places many years ago, still throbs a bit when it rains.
He is watching the game when she enters the room. She straddles him immediately, inside their favorite chair, and without so much as a pleasant greeting she begins to seductively “dry hump” him. He looks around her shoulder to catch the last play of the drive. She makes exaggerated porno-girl sounds and she giggles because she thinks the whole sex thing is a riot. Copulation, my God. What a funny thing people do. Hard, slippery sexy parts fit together and they grind and groan and make each other feel good and then they each go on their merry way like nothing ever happened. She thinks it’s weird, but of course she likes it. He yells, “yes!” at the TV and then grabs her ass and starts to play along. In a low growl he murmurs “yes, Turk, yes” and squeezes her backside with both hands. She says, “oh no you don’t” and springs off him like a cat. “What’d I do?” he starts as she leaves the room. “You killed the mood, asshole,” she says, sort of laughing but it’s not a full laugh because there is bruising mixed inside the new tone of her voice. He smiles obliviously, missing it, and flips the channel. “I didn’t kill anything,” he thinks. “Not by a long shot,” he says out loud, to their good boy, resting at his feet.
She comes back, this time keeping her distance. She wears her new, expensive jeans and she asks and he doesn’t have an opinion either way but he tells her he likes them as she twirls around a few times. She has her back to the wall mirror and she does that thing where she looks over her shoulder with her hands on her hips, making sure she likes them at home as much as she did at the store. “I like,” he says, and his eyebrows dance up and down. But really, he likes her yoga pants. That’s all she should ever wear, he thinks.
He brought her flowers once, at the very beginning, which was an honest mistake. “Poor babies,” she frowned. She doesn’t like flowers to be cut or picked and put into containers, imprisoned inside houses on tables in foyers. Beauty should always remain free. “They need to just be,” she said. “How would you like it?” At the time, he thought her sensitivity was a little wacky, but it worked out well because the scent alone made his head hurt and his eyes feel like burning, scratchy, granulated salt pots.
She told him the story about how her mother would steal Hydrangea from the neighbors yard in late summer. When the air grew crisp, and just as the colors of the magenta flower balls began to turn, she would sneak over and snip off a few branches under the cover of darkness. She hung them upside down in the attic for a week. When her daddy was out, her mother sat on the sofa with a glass of Cabernet and a magazine to keep her company. She perused pages upon pages of gorgeous kitchens and mantles, all heavily installed with dried Hydrangea arrangements, seemingly all the rage at the time. She grouped the stolen, papery blooms all through the house so that their tiny cottage by the sea would look similar to a page from a glossy magazine, one that sold dreams to women by way of decoration. Her mother liked her small home to look pretty and perfect, even if it was dead inside. She, on the other hand, was born bleeding for broken things.
“Does your arm hurt?” she asks later, looking at his leg, snaking an “S” down his thigh with her finger as they sit in Adirondack chairs parked around the fire bowl. “Not really,” he lies, covering her hand with his. She cares about his aches and pains and her kindness catches him off guard as it always does. He glances over. Her face is lovely and soft and pensive when she fears he might be hurting.
In the morning, they sit with their coffee and talk about productivity. “Well, Turkey-Girl, I think we need to tackle the garage,” he says and her eyes flash.
“If you want me to keep laughing, you will stop calling me that,” she replies tepidly. She has reached her tipping point. She has had enough. The “Turk thing” does not make her laugh anymore, and it never really did. She recalls a time in middle school when a group of popular girls and boys picked on her because she was overweight. They made up rap songs and called her “The Notorious P.I.G.” every day for a whole year and all it did was hurt. It relentlessly hurt her and she still carries that hurt around like an ID badge she can’t forget to bring just in case people forget. It is a growing up scar that no one can see but she carries it just the same. And he should fucking know better.
She does not like nicknames. She does not like labels. She knows he loves her and he is teasing, and she tried to go along, but it feels yucky, like she’s being picked on for simply being herself, for not covering her mouth, for not changing the funny way she laughs to make it acceptable and more appealing.
He grins like it’s no big deal and why is she making it such a big deal?
Fuck him, she thinks. FUCK HIM, she thinks again, this time louder, and her tongue tastes like metal.
And then, foolishly, just like his dad, he dismissively remarks, “You are adorable when you’re mad.”
Like bones splitting, the wash of pain is immediate, and his regret, like blood, rushes in. He lunges after his words, as she abruptly backs away from him, but he can’t get them back, those terrible words, and she’s moving further away. Her head reels like she’s been hit, and she is beyond furious. It’s the kind of stack blowing fury that sends objects flying, and no one recovers from. Her face, now ugly with anger, harbors beady black eyes that are suddenly just like shooting, twisting knives stabbing him in the face, the chest. He knows, just as anyone who causes a fatality knows, that there is no “do over,” there is no rewind. She will fight this one until it’s barely breathing on the floor. She doesn’t realize, in the heated moment, that she won the bout the second those careless words left his lips. But what he said will stick and stick for it burst from his mouth like dragon’s breath, scorching her, inflaming long ago insecurity like fire to straw.
“How fucking dare you find my hurt amusing,” she seethes. Her smoldering words are low and cold, and that’s how he knows he broke something within her all over again. Something she bravely fixed by herself years ago.
She turns on her heel, he hears the screen door slam, and she is gone.
He finds her splayed upon a large river rock, soaking and stewing within the sounds of rushing water, things creaking and dropping as small creatures shuffle through the woods. Her eyes still glisten, and as she turns away from him, the motion is but another stabbing knife. The makeup that covers her little scar has now slipped onto the back of her hand. “It was put there by a boy,” he remembers. He can’t help but stare at her body, and the way the sun shines upon her shins, and how her hair is fanned out over the hard, slippery surface. She is a forlorn, landlocked mermaid. And he would like to beat himself up first before throwing himself off a bridge.
He hurt her. Her. His beloved.
He has the urge to approach, to earnestly love her lights out, right there in the woods. To love her tears away, to love her back to him. Because most men think that they can fix things with sex.
But he remembers he is not most men. He has never been most men. He knows that their love is one that will always be learned and earned. He falls to his knees like a ton of bricks before her, quietly, quietly whispering, “Your hurt does not amuse me. I am sorry.” He watches her nod slightly, but she still won’t look at him. She can’t. He has disappointed her in a way she thought he never would.
The air is heavy between them, and now he must wait. He walks away, leaving her alone on the bank, in the sun, hoping her wet wings will dry, and she will find a way to again fly back to him. To them.
With just six stupid words, he severed part of her truth, and it killed some of the vulnerable raw beauty within the remains of her unaffected soul. Her laugh is something he loves, something he adores, and he wants it back. He knows it could take a lifetime of being a different man to banish that one small, biting sentence away from their growing story, but he will try. He will try to be better at love. He wants to be so good at loving her, that she offers him the miraculous gift of a full ride back into her sacred heart.
In fact, he has never wanted something so badly in his life.