Suffocating

AGE 22

A breeze rushes up my legs and tousles my sandy hair. My arms fall to my sides and I close my eyes. It’s like electricity. I am nothing and I am everything.
I am falling.

I fall. I fall and I fall and it’s like the ground just keeps getting farther and farther away and I think about nothing but the falling and the way the windows look as I pass them by at over a hundred miles per hour—window, brick, window, brick swished into one great streak of glassy red till suddenly I’m

SMACK

down on Matt’s ratty couch, in Matt’s ratty basement. We had just smoked out of a 20 oz. soda bottle. Granted, we could have rolled something instead, but Matt prefers to smoke his weed with water.

I prefer to smoke my weed with Matt.

I shuffle with the cups and plates haphazardly arranged on the table before me and pretend I didn’t just zone off.

“You’re doing it again.”

I shift another plate on the table. “Doing what?”

“You’re rearranging everything.”

I look up from the cups I have now strategically arranged in line with the grain of the table, the plates I have moved equally one thumb-length apart on all sides. He has no idea.

“I’m keeping it fresh.”

I see the corner of his lip turn in smile, but then: “No you’re not. You’re keeping it controlled.”

I give him my signature “shove it, Matthew” look and continue arranging the plastic dishes.



AGE 7

My dad isn’t home, but my aunt and grandparents are. My aunt Chrissy is smoking out the back room, as usual; a chain-smoker as long as I’ve known her and never the common sense to crack a window. My grandpa is yelling at the dog in the kitchen; he’s always yelling at something, man can’t hear a thing. Grandma’s knitting.

I get up from the couch in the living room to join my grandma. I don’t say anything; I just walk into the front room and sit beside her. She smiles and runs her fingers through my hair.

She puts her needles to the side and asks me if I know what a period is. I say no. She says my mom will be mad at her for tellin’ me this, but I’m old enough now I should know. I say okay, and I really mean it. My grandma turns and looks at me close. She says when I get older I’m going to bleed from my hoo-ha. It’s going to happen for a week or so every month for a very long time. She says they have hygiene pads, diaper-like things I can wear when it happens, or tampons, something like a plug I put inside myself to stop the flow. She says it’s a good thing when I get it, it means I’m healthy, and when I don’t it means I’m pregnant, but I don’t have to worry about that yet.

I say okay, but don’t really get it.

My dad pulls up; I greet him at the door with a hug. He smells like oil and latex and cigarettes. He asks grandpa what’s for dinner? Grandpa yells I DON’T KNOW WHAT DO YOU WANT? I chime in with Pizza Hut. Grandpa yells WHAT? I say, louder, Pizza Hut! My dad says don’t we have anything we can make here? I scrunch my face and say Pizza Hut.

My dad takes me for Pizza Hut. We get it to go. It is a delicious victory.

AGE 21

Matt is about to see me naked. We’ve just walked to a local diner to discuss our new sex life, as if it’s just casual talk. Like a midterm paper or Craig’s new tattoo.

“Are you sure you really want to?” Matt’s face looks serious and sincere, so much that I have to stifle a laugh.

“Yes,” I line the edge of my placemat with the edge of the table, “as long as you do. I told you this isn’t my first time.”

“I know….” He trails off, visible shame in his eyes. “But it’s mine.”

That’s something I didn’t know about Matt. But to be fair, he still doesn’t know many things about me, either.

After I fix the alignment of my napkin in coordinance with my plate, my fork and spoon perfectly parallel to both each other and the edges of the napkin they sit upon, and my glass dead center of the tile in the table at the upper-right side of my plate, I blurt out, “I’m sure you’ll do fine,” and immediately regret saying anything.

Matt turns tomato red. “Gee, thanks.”

I push the food around on my plate trying to think of something to say to say. Then it comes to me.
“I didn’t mean it that way, I love you, Matt.” And really I sincerely mean it. I’ve known him almost a year and I love everything I know about him and everything I don’t. I don’t want to fuck Matt, I want to make love to him.

“I love you, too, Emma.”

AGE 7

We play Rummy 500. I win the first game, he wins the next two, but then I break the 500 mark in one final, glorious game, adding 432 to my current score of 103. My dad just misses, totaling 498. My dad tells me no one can beat him at Rummy but me.
He goes to the bathroom after; takes a good half hour. I joke that maybe he’s fallen in but he yells in a serious voice, “I’m almost done just leave me alone!” When he comes out he looks disheveled, his eyes more bloodshot than before. I act like I don’t notice and flip through the movie channels.

We lie on the couch together and watch Fly Away Home, his arm cradling me from falling off the side. He tells me the girl in that movie reminds him of me—saving the animals and all. I tell him the father reminds me of him because they both like building model airplanes.
What I don’t say is the difference: the father in the movie built airplanes as a hobby; my dad builds them to sniff the glue.

AGE 10

I’m standing at the top of a tall building. This time, aunt Chrissy’s behind me. “Don’t jump!” she’s yelling, but I don’t understand why. It’s as if she’s a million miles away, but I know it’s merely feet between us. I can hardly hear her.

My hands are covered in blood, my own. I’m not injured, I’m just bleeding. From everywhere.

“Don’t jump!” She’s yelling, but I’m not going anywhere, and I don’t understand. I’m just standing here, bleeding. Can’t she see the blood?

I look down and the distance seems so close. I see my dad: “Up here! Up here! Can’t you see me?” my words choked in gore, “Can’t you hear me? Dad!” But just like every other time, he disappears.

So does aunt Chrissy. Now it’s my grandpa behind me, but he’s not yelling. He’s just breathing heavily, not speaking, inching closer to my bloody hands. The blood drips down my legs in pools, pools that turn to yarn that my grandpa begins using to bind me. I don’t stop him.
“Dad!” I yell again, but it’s useless. My grandpa pushes me over the ledge.

When I wake up I feel moist; the blankets blood spotted.

AGE 7


A man has been coming here more and more often for aunt Chrissy. Next to her soft features, her long, curly locks, her petite 5’4” frame, this guy looks like an ogre, like Haggard from the Harry Potter books, only a little less hairy. Just a little.

He smells like aftershave and cheese dip and cigarettes. Neither of them talk; they sit just across the table and smoke their cigarettes and stare. Their teeth match.
To be nice, he told me he would buy me something, anything I wanted. I asked for a cat.

AGE 16

“What should I have?” I’m at my first house party. It’s Eric’s house; his parents are in Aruba and he invited the whole class.

“Tequila shots!!” Someone yells from behind, stumbling with a bottle of Jose Cuervo and a plate full of lime wedges.

“Wanna try a tequila shot?” Sam giggles.

First we lick our hands to hold the salt. Sam gets more on the floor than on us. Then we ready the lime in our other hand.

“It goes salt, shot, lime. Got it?”

Lick, gulp, suck. Then Brian pours us another.

AGE 7

He really did it. Rob really bought me a cat. Aunt Chrissy’s boyfriend. I named him Baxter. The cat I mean, not Rob. It’s funny because he looks like a werewolf. Rob I mean, not the cat.

Baxter is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I love him all to pieces. Even right now he’s purring in my lap like a little motorboat: purr purr purr.

Rob’s alright. I still think aunt Chrissy is too pretty for him, but at least he keeps to his word; he talks to me more than she ever has.

When I asked grandma what she thought she said she just couldn’t wait till he gets her to move out. She said aunt Chrissy and my father have been living with us for far too long and at this point she doesn’t care what they do as long as it gets them out of here. I said what about me? She turned to me and smiled, “you, little girl, are always welcome.”



I smiled back, more out of courtesy than respect.

AGE 16

I’m drunk. All I see is Brian, and I want all of him. I push him to the bed, he has that giggle-grin with one eyebrow crooked, I love it, and I straddle my legs around his hips, ripping off his shirt at the same time. I kiss him shamelessly from his chest down to his navel; he pulls my face to his, caressing every ounce of skin with lip, with tongue.
His hands slide down my spine, catch the hem of my shirt and pull it over my head. He unbuttons his pants and leans up, swiftly kicking them off of his legs, leaving his erection half exposed through the hole in the front of his boxers. He pushes the fabric to the side and there it stands.

I’m not quite sure what to do from here. His hand slides down my waist, between my legs. His fingers search as my legs spread wider over him. They enter me. Delicate, in and out, they glide until the wetness comes. Then the brief hesitation. Then the condom. The sign that means this is it. Part of me isn’t sure this is what I really want; most of me is drunk.

He opens the package and slides the slippery skin over his. He pulls me back over him, one hand pulling my waist down, the other adjusting himself, finding me. He enters. There’s an immediate rush of blood, chills down my spine. I sigh. He sighs too, and catches my bottom lip between his. He pulses into me, like a rhythm, a heartbeat. It hurts but it doesn’t. I like it but I don’t. He gets faster. It hurts more.

“Be gentle.”

His eyes are closed. His face is in my neck. He flips himself on top. He almost looks angry. He somehow pushes himself deeper. I sigh. He grunts. He never slows down. I start to wish it was over already.

“Be gentle,” I say again, louder.

He is deaf to me. He moves in and out like a bicycle spindle, up down up down up down, until his whole body spasms and he grunts again, this time louder and drawn out. He falls flat, exhausted, all of his body weight and sweat upon me. Inside me.
I say I’ve got to go. He doesn’t walk me home.

AGE 7

I wake up and my father is gone. My grandmother is crying in the shadows of the kitchen. I pull up a chair beside her and see her bra lying on the table, one side like an empty cup, the other full with cushion. Fake. She tells me they had to remove it. Her breast. Remove the cancer. She tells me she feels hideous. She cries into her hands. Her hair is thinning. She will soon be in wigs. I don’t really understand, but I sense she doesn’t want me there any longer, so I leave in search of Baxter. When I finally find him I’ve gone full circle; he’s fast asleep in her lap.

AGE 12

I hold my breath. I count the seconds, 23, 24, and I try to break my own record. To my happy surprise, I have found this particular challenge to come with quite a reward, for a jolt of elation spreads through my body each time I challenge it longer. 68, 69, my legs cross into a pretzel and my muscles tense harder and harder, 81, 82, I’m pinching my nose with my thumb and pointer finger and pushing the rest of my fist into my mouth to keep from releasing the breath that my body so badly desires, 90, 91, something inside me spasms at the pressure, my whole body is swimming and I let go, gasping at first, then calming, serene.

I wonder if this is what sex is like.

AGE 8

Baxter has been spending lots of time with grandma. It’s almost like he knows she’s sick, but unlike me, he has the strength to still go near her, to console her.

Grandpa yells at him a lot, but then again he yells at everyone. “Get out of here!” Sometimes he says, or “get off of that! Shoo!”

The thing is, ten minutes later grandpa forgets that he doesn’t want Baxter there anymore and begins petting him; sometimes even gets him all wrapped up in his arms like a baby.
We all have different ways of loving, I guess.

AGE 13

I know what sex is, but it just doesn’t sound pleasant. With my finger, I’ve explored. But all I feel is my nail scraping up against my insides. It scares me to think something even larger could ever go in there, and actually feel good.

It feels better on the outside, the pressure of squeezing my legs together and not breathing. Holding my breath. It feels better to think no one will ever see me do this; I will never have to do this with anyone. This is just my little secret.

Still, I’m scared I must be broken; I’m obviously doing it all wrong.

AGE 8

My grandma died. The only person who really seems affected by it is my dad, surprisingly, but poor Baxter’s little heart is broken. He hasn’t eaten in two days now; he doesn’t understand.

My dad’s actually started going to church, wearing nice sweaters and all. But I know that’s only temporary. Mourning period. It won’t be long before he’s back to the disappearing act and I’m left home alone again, with grandpa and aunt Chrissy.

Aunt Chrissy, who is too engrossed in Rob to care much about her mother’s death at all. She never even left the smoky backroom for the funeral service until Rob came over, and still neither of them said a word, shed a tear.

I wonder, the roles reversed, if grandma would have cried for Aunt Chrissy, or for Rob.
I sit in grandma’s room and try to cry for her myself. I sit right in the middle of the floor, cross my legs, close my eyes and squeeze. Then I stop squeezing and really try to concentrate. I try to think of the good times with grandma.

She cheated at Parcheesi, though she was always willing to play it with me. She was always complimenting me and telling me how beautiful she thinks I am. (At first I think, that’s a good one, I’m gonna miss that, then I think that’s a selfish thought because it’s about getting complimented and not about grandma.) I need to concentrate harder.

So I think about the stories she used to tell me about her and grandpa when they were young, her first kiss, his third. And all that’s nice I guess but I really never understood it, I still don’t; they never seemed happy to me, and she never left the house. I just can’t make it happen. I can’t cry.

I apologize to the sheetrock above, just in case she really is watching. I want her to know I at least tried.

Grandpa never even shed a visible tear; though he did begin cracking open a beer or two more than usual. If I were older, maybe I would do that, too.

AGE 22

It’s not like it’s the first time Matt and I are having sex. Not even the second or the third. It just hits me out of nowhere almost a year into our relationship.

“What’s wrong?” He asks me over and over.

I’m crying. We’re naked and he has his hand between my thighs and we’re breathing heavily and everything was going great until, out of nowhere, I’m crying.

“I don’t know” is all I can manage.

He holds me, naked, until the crying ceases, like two newborn babies. Only I’m the only one crying; he’s left wondering what could possibly have gone wrong.

AGE 13

A girl in my grade got caught sucking off a guy behind the stairwell. What’s the worst part, it’s not a teacher who caught them, but a camera, so the image can be seen over and over again: her hair all dangling in her face, her cheeks packed full with flesh, her eyes closed tight so you can almost make out the wrinkles of skin by her lashes, even in such poor lighting conditions. No one cares what he looks like.

She’s suspended for a week; he just has detention. Granted, it was his lunch period; she was skipping class. Still, I don’t understand why she got in more trouble. Her life is utterly destroyed now as it is, and from the look on her face, it definitely wasn’t worth it; the only person who got any pleasure out of that was him. I don’t know her, but I don’t think you have to know someone to feel for them. Life is unfair.

AGE 8

I pretend to be asleep as he pushes the door open and steps lightly into the dark. I don’t hear any more movement for a long time. I almost doze off again, forgetting he had ever even come in. Then I feel it: the blankets being pulled away from my body. Lightly, so as not to wake me up, but I’m already awake. Pretending. He places his hand on my calf, gently, as if he a butterfly and I his flower. Sliding his fingers across my skin, he reaches the bottom of my nightgown and lifts it up to my shoulders. My eyes flitter but the dark keeps them hidden. I try to keep my breathing steady even though my heart is beating crazy.

A wrinkly finger hooks itself around my panties. I shift in my pretend sleep. It doesn’t stop him. My panties are off in an instant and I roll onto my belly, grasping for blankets. I want to stop him, but I can’t find the words. He has to know I’m awake by now. I don’t understand. Then I hear him: “Ohh yeah, uhh, that’s right,” he’s mumbling, running his finger down my spine and into the crease of my behind. It’s as if someone had taken my voice away.

Suddenly he grabs my wrists in his hands and climbs on top of me. I’m still laying on my belly, facedown. He’s breathing rapidly, crazily, I can hear the saliva moving around in his throat. I squirm beneath him, trying to wriggle free, but he pins me to the bed with his weight.

Then I feel it. Like a knife, foreign, not belonging. Both of us gasp as I find my voice. STOP, I scream. Just once. My whole body tenses. Something breaks inside me. I feel it and he continues to probe the sore. In and out. Tears stream down my face and I begin to sob. Words try to form but they come out merely as wines and groans. Broken pieces of pain. Mouthed emptiness. His fingernails rip into my thin skin as he pulses, grunting like a hog. He pushes his chest up close into my back and I smell him, stale beer and Vaseline. He tries to tongue my ear, but I shift my head to the side to block him. “No!” I make out. “No, no, no…” but my voice cracks in and out. In and out. Like salt on a wound. Worse.
This continues for twenty-three minutes, according to the clock on the nightstand. And every one of them feels like an hour.

AGE 22

Matt passes me the soda bottle and I suck. I suck hard. Matt’s speechless. I move things around on the table.

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” He asks.

“Because I hadn’t remembered it.”

He lets this soak in a minute before getting up, walking outside. I remain where I am for another minute or so before I follow him. When I find him he’s sitting on the back porch, chain-smoking.

“I just don’t understand,” he says without looking at me, “how you can be so casual about it. You said you weren’t a virgin. You didn’t say you were raped by your grandfather.”

I don’t say anything for a long time. I light a cigarette and inhale.

“I mean, I’m really sorry that happened to you and all, but why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

I don’t need to answer to him; I still have my own unanswered questions.

“And why does that have to come between our sex life? I mean, I never hurt you—”
“You’re hurting me now.”

He turns to look into my eyes, glassy, filling.

“How?”

I want to say, Matt, you asshole, that wasn’t what I was referring to when I told you I wasn’t a virgin; I slept with Brian before you. I was referring to Brian. I want to say Matt, you asshole, I didn’t lose my virginity to my grandfather; it was taken from me! How could you even say that? That’s how you’re hurting me, because you don’t understand and you’re not even trying.

But I don’t say anything. Instead, I finish my cigarette and flick it straight past his face.

“You’ll never get it.” I say this more to the floorboards than to Matt. He looks away, takes another drag. I walk back into the house.

AGE 8

Baxter died. I found him, stiff as a board, behind the couch. He starved himself to death.
We all have different ways of coping, I guess.

I’ve begun holding my breath.
 
 
 
 
…as published in The Brooklyn Art Library, 2013.

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