Into the Labyrinth

tunnel

We wake and stretch and find ourselves together. Lula takes my pages and reads them before I can tell her not to, by buglight, and when she’s done she doesn’t say anything. She puts them away, stands, walks to the far wall, and says Jesus, even though I’m pretty sure she doesn’t believe. I’m pretending I’m more in a stupor than I actually am. She comes over. I get up and hand her a buglamp, grab one for myself too. She takes it and walks down the hallway, past the endless procession of identical concrete cube rooms, lightning bugs blinking spots on the wall to light the way. I reach her and touch her arm. I say:

“I’m sorry.”

“This is kind of like how it was underneath the Center. Maybe a little spookier, but pretty much the same.”

“The Center?”

“We had matches, though. All we could sneak in. The light would go out and you’d get your fingers burned if you weren’t careful. I always was, but some of the other girls weren’t.

“They’d sneak cigarettes because that’s the only way I’d let them come with me. I knew my way around underneath the Center and they didn’t. We called it the labyrinth. I called it that, anyway. I don’t know what they called it.

“Anyway, after a while I figured I’d smoke the cigs instead of using the matches since the matches always went out. Cigarettes lasted longer.

“They weren’t all cutters. I mean, I was, but some of them were like bulimic or anorexic or something like that. We had this doctor. Dr. Charon, and he’d lead us in what he liked to call Allegorical. He’d tell us to speak our Hurt in one word. He told us it was capital H Hurt. He had a bunch of weird games like that. I don’t think any of it helped. I remember one day he asked for my one word and I just left and went under the Center, into the labyrinth, and I smoked my cig, and pulled out the bobby pin I took from one of the RNs and sharpened it on the concrete and started stabbing it into my ankle. I had thick socks that hid the blood, is why I chose the ankle. In case you’re wondering.

“Anyway, I made like little constellations with the pin, in my ankle. No one knew about it. I’d come up and Charon wouldn’t ask. Just welcomed me back into the group.

“The other girls always talked about boy problems, friends who were dicks to them, that kind of shit. I was there ‘cause my mom had cancer and so I cut myself. There were other reasons, but that was mostly it.

“Anyway, when I’d feel really shitty there was this one girl. Liza. We were roommates. She was there because when she was four and five and six her dad molested her. Had her wear dresses and sit on his lap when her mom wasn’t home and would have to adjust her clothes for her, under her dress. She told me all of this. Well it went on for a few years and then just stopped. For a little while after that she could be a normal kid. Or about as normal as you can be after something like that. Her dad drank for a while, then didn’t, then drank again. Her mom wouldn’t leave him alone with her. She never said anything about it, but she didn’t have to. Liza’s words, mind you. So anyway, it was okay for a few years. Until Liza started developing. Keep in mind, when I knew her she was gorgeous. Liza would never admit it, of course. She’d say she just looked normal. I knew her when I was fourteen and she was fifteen. She started developing around twelve or so. Becoming a woman and all that. Meanwhile her mom and dad’s marriage was pretty much nonexistent. Her dad would ‘work late’ till like ten p.m. At first he’d call and say he’d be late. Then the calls dropped off. Then he didn’t even bother giving excuses. So her mom started ‘working late’ too.

“Anyway, eventually Liza’s mom was out more than her dad was, and she was developing, and he started hanging around the house, after work, reeking of booze. Started conveniently doing the laundry across the hall when Liza was in the shower. Their bathroom door had one of those old timey keyholes you could peek through if you wanted to. When Liza realized this, it’d already been like weeks of this going on, but then she started hanging her towel over the knob to cover up the hole.

“So then her dad said she couldn’t lock the door anymore. Said it was a fire hazard, or that she could pass out, and what would he do then, just let his own daughter die? She left it unlocked.

“She was thirteen the first time her father raped her. Thirteen and in the shower and singing some song by Christina Aguilera and he pushed her against the wall. Stopped her singing. Left the shower running. Got his clothes all wet. And she grabbed at the curtain and pulled half of it down but he wouldn’t stop.

“This went on for a year. Like clockwork. When Liza locked the door, he busted the door open. Fixed the lock before her mom got home. When she stopped showering he went into her room at night and did it while she was sleeping. Woke her up. When she locked her bedroom door he jimmied it open with a screwdriver.

“It got so death was preferable to life. She fantasized about killing herself. Tried a few times. Or at least said she tried. I think that fighter part of her refused to let her do it. No matter how bad it got. Finally, it was either she’d die or she’d tell someone. She was resourceful. She found a hotline. Told them everything. Gave the cops the whole story when they came. Detailed everything. Her dad was arrested. Tried. Convicted. And so she went to the Center and her dad went away.

“When I met her she was doing pretty well. Really well, actually, considering the kind of shit she went through. You couldn’t meet a more positive chick. The whole time her father had been raping her she’d gotten super skinny. Scary skinny. But when she came to the Center she ate healthy, drank a lot of water, went on walks around the grounds and told her Hurt in one word, spoke at every Allegorical. She was like the model resident, but none of us were jealous or anything. She was the kind of person you wanted to see succeed no matter what. No matter who you were. Everyone loved her.

“But she went out on a belt anyway.

“I found her first. Her toes were purple and she was swaying, back and forth. Like she was on a swing or something. She wasn’t on restriction, which is why they let her have a belt. In case you’re wondering. ‘Cause I was wondering. I was wondering how come they didn’t take away her belt and her laces and her sheets and tie her hands behind her back if this is what she was capable of. If this is what she’d do to herself. I hit Charon in the face and I punched a window out and I clawed the wallpaper and knocked over everything I could knock over and I cried till I couldn’t cry anymore and could only sleep, right where I was crying, on the floor. I’ve never cried like that in my life. I don’t cry.

“I didn’t know why she did it. Still don’t. But nothing will change what happened. Nothing will bring her back. And I was hurt for a long time after that. I couldn’t deal. And I hated Liza, wished I’d never met her, all that.

“But then I stopped hating her. I stopped trying to blot out the memories we had and I saw her how she was, before she went out on a belt. In her stories and her smile and the way her eyes lit up when the sun came in just right and it looked like they went from green to blue, just like that.

“Okay.

“Okay, I’m done.”

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You’ll Have to Save Me

Alone

It’s going to be a Harry Potter party. I get my costume ready in the bathroom: hike up my skirt, get my makeup right, tousle my hair to look like Hermione’s. You’re watching Netflix in the other room, trying to make it seem like you don’t care. You’re still mad about me flirting with my coworker last week. I don’t know why I did it, but that didn’t stop me from calling you a baby. I don’t know why I’m doing the things I’m doing anymore.

I thought of inviting you, of introducing you to my new work friends, maybe trying to mend what’s been broken. But I didn’t. What I did was accept the invite, order the pieces I was missing from my costume, and hide the Amazon boxes once they got here. What I did was change my mind, wait till you got home, and try the costume on where I knew you’d see me. And the way you tried to be nonchalant about hanging up your coat, but how your eyes trailed over me as you walked over to the closet. And when you didn’t say anything, when you started to walk away, how I asked you what you thought. How I looked. How your eyes showed your hurt, but you said I looked good. How you opened your mouth to say something, to ask something, but stopped yourself.

It’s gotten so I’ll stay at work till 7 or 8, tell myself I need to stay late to prepare for the next day, but I know that isn’t true. I know that I just want to walk past my coworker one last time and imagine what he’d smell like on top of me. I know that he’s staying late on purpose too, that we’re moving past each other over and over, closer and closer, waiting for one of us to bump into the other. He’s single, and I think about this as I fiddle with my engagement ring, as I pee one last time before heading home, staying in the stall so long that the lights automatically go off.

We haven’t fucked in weeks. I find an excuse every time, and when you remind me how long it’s been, I go to the bathroom and use my vibrator. The last time I did this, I walked back in the room to find you jerking off, not bothering to hide it under the covers. You left yourself out for a while even after I walked in, and I acted like I’d seen nothing. I got into bed and under the covers, and when your foot touched mine, I told you to move over.

When we do touch, it’s in the form of a play fight, and we grapple and vie for control because to hug and to hold would be too much at this point. But by the end of these play fights, we’re sweaty and tired, leaning up against each other like spent boxers, and you’ll try to sneak a kiss. I’ll jerk my head away and tell you how sweaty you are. If you’re lucky, I’ll pretend to be dead weight, and you’ll have to grab me and pull me back up. You’ll have to save me.

I think of all the ways I could end it. I could sit you down over dinner, or call you when I’m at my mom’s, or text you after work. I could pack up all my things and leave without saying a word. I could do these things, any of them, without hesitation. Don’t think I couldn’t.

When it’s time to go to the party, I rush to get my shoes on before you can get up and go to the door. I just say, “bye,” and I leave. I sneak out the bottle of Jim Beam I’ve stashed in my purse and nurse it for courage before getting on the CTA bus.

When I get there, I do that thing where I hug the wall, near my friends, and smile and nod when someone I know walks by and acknowledges me. My coworker spots me eventually, pours something I can’t see into a cup and brings it to me. He challenges my HP knowledge with some trivia, which I ace, but I smile anyway. He refills my cup and challenges me to a duel. Produces two wands and hands one to me. My cheeks burn as I smile and shake my head, but he challenges me loud enough that everyone hears. Gets everyone to clear out of the way and form a circle around us. It’s over in seconds: one shout of “Expelliarmus” and he tosses his wand high in the air. I send out my Patronus for good measure, but he surrenders.

An hour goes by, maybe two. My coworker and I stop drinking and just talk. When the party starts to thin out, he offers to give me a ride home. No sense in taking the CTA and dealing with weirdos, he says. I say yes.

When I tell him the address, he says he’s just a couple blocks away. That we’re practically neighbors. There’s silence for a while, and he says something about stopping by his place for coffee. So we can wake up. I say yes.

When he’s inside of me, all I can think of is our first date, sneaking into the mall with you after watching a movie, getting into the playplace that was meant to be a forest and lying on the grass carpet as Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” piped out of the mall speakers. How we were silent. How we had smiles, matching, unaware of the future. How we followed the song’s advice and just lay there, our fingers intertwined.

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Maya

DelhiSunrise

Madhan called last night and told me he needed to see me, called late at night so that I had to pull the phone’s cord as far as it would go away from Mama and Baba’s room, so they wouldn’t hear us talk. They thought I’d stopped talking to him after they told me to, but they were wrong.

I haven’t gotten any sleep since I hung up the phone. I got back home from night school, slipped in quiet so Mama and Baba wouldn’t hear, hid my books, and Madhan called right after, as if he knew. Maybe he did. I don’t know. That boy seems to know so much.

The night moves into morning, and I spend it by sitting on the grass, in a field near my home, watching the way the purple of the sky turns to pink, the stars disappearing into nothing. This place I’ve been to with Madhan so many times before, lying on the grass and looking up at the sky, far enough from New Delhi’s center that it’s quiet, close enough that the city’s lights erase some of the starlight.

Madhan said he’d be here by sunrise, like the times before, when we’d shield our eyes from the light and watch the city come to life, the stray dogs rising up from the ground like steam to wind their way through the city and find another meal. But Madhan isn’t here. I told myself I wouldn’t cry, but my eyes are clouding, letting the light take over everything. I’m standing up, the dew on the grass clinging to my feet, and I’m putting my sandals back on, trying to figure out which way to go.

I get to the bus stop, this bus that will take me to Madhan, that will get me the answers that he suddenly doesn’t want to give. I sit on the bench and wait, but after a minute I’m back up, pacing, waiting for the bus as the sun rises into my eyes and blinds me. Finally, I’m not even pacing, just standing, and this old dog comes up to me with his tail between his legs, big eyes looking at me, begging for food.

I put my hands out to show him I have nothing, but he persists. He sniffs both hands to make sure that I’m not hiding something, then walks behind me and sits next to the bench. I take it as a sign and take a seat, reach out and pet his head, scratch his nose, his gray whiskers moving as he smiles at me. I can see the dog’s ribcage, and he limps on one of his hind legs, but this old dog doesn’t seem to mind. He just sits there next to me with his tail wagging, brushing the dirt from the ground like a child who doesn’t know how to use a broom. I pet him so we can both forget for a while.

When the bus is in sight, I want to leave this stop and this old dog and go back to the field, back home. Somewhere else. But I don’t. I get on the bus, and I pay my fare, and I take a seat, and I wait for the stop that will take me to Madhan.

The beggar children try to stop me everywhere I go once I get off the bus. They cup their hands into little ponds that are waiting to be filled. When they reach out their hands, I hold them briefly and apologize. I have nothing to give.

I get to Madhan’s door and knock. It takes a few minutes, but finally he comes to the door and asks who’s there. When I tell him it’s me, he waits a while before opening up, peeks through the crack between the door and the frame to make sure it’s actually me. Opens it up the rest of the way and says nothing, only looks at me.

He puts on some tea and offers me a seat. We don’t talk until the tea is done, and he pours my tea with shaking hands. He starts by saying, “You know how I feel about you.” When he says this, my stomach drops. He sips his tea so he won’t have to say anything more, and I do the same. Finally, he says, “I have to do it.”

It’s his parents, he says. They’ll never forgive him, never let this go. They hadn’t approved of me, and they never would. Anyway, it’d be better for me. This way, we wouldn’t strain things with our parents. He could marry who they wanted him to marry, and I could marry Suddho. And when I tell him I don’t want to marry Suddho, I want to marry him, how Madhan takes my hands in his and kisses them both, first the left, then the right, then the left again. How he tells me we can still see each other, how he can visit me in America if Suddho is still to take me there. And when I ask him why we can’t run away together like we’d planned, how he looks away so I can’t see the tears clinging to his eyes. How he kisses me, deeply, and holds me to him.

We spend what feels like hours there, ignoring our tea, holding each other, barely separating, wanting this moment to never end. And when we finally separate, how he tells me he’ll call, he’ll see me. How I cry because I know this isn’t true. We both know it isn’t.

And how he takes me to the door, unwilling, and opens it to the bright sunlight shining in. How we kiss and we kiss and we kiss, and he moves me past the door, looks into my eyes and says nothing. How he closes the door. How I knock, and cry, and call his name over and over again. Madhan. Madhan. Madhan.

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Tallulah

At a little creek, beside the woods, a three minute walk from my old childhood Park Ridge home, there’s an awkward stone bridge that someone made, the idea being that you could hop from one stone to the next to get to the other side, where the woods would give you enough cover to get high out of sight and smell of parentals. I didn’t want to get high, but my tiny self did want to get across, if only so I could say I did. But every time, every damn time, I’d come up short about halfway across and fall into the creek, soaking my Converse. I’d have to turn back and head home in my soggy shoes, leaving wet footprints behind.

There was a gaggle of kids that would give me shit at recess, follow me home and shout taunts till I reached the house with the pitbull that was always in its yard, the pitbull that gave me slobbery kisses but growled at the kids anytime they got near. One day, I decided to pick up some rocks and whip them at the kids’ heads. That got them off my back, until a couple days later when they told me I was adopted. This was before I found out that I actually was adopted. But anyway, that’s what they said. Because you know. Escalation.

When I asked my parents about it, I got a bowl of mint chocolate chip and an episode of Pokémon. I don’t know why I didn’t ask them again. Why I didn’t press it. But I didn’t.

There’s a thing you do when you’ve just found out something that huge about yourself and are trying to get to sleep that first night, or at least there was a thing I did. I clenched my pillow with all ten fingers till my knuckles went red, then white, till my fingertips hurt and beyond even that. I smothered an invisible person and yelled into the pillow till I thought I might go hoarse. I punched the pillow, then the mattress, then the bed frame. I snuck into the kitchen, scooted a chair up to the fridge so I could reach the freezer, and iced my bloody knuckles. I didn’t want the parentals to notice.

I remember sneaking into our partially finished basement, dirt floor in the farthest corner, the place where the light didn’t quite reach, and plopping myself down, not caring if I got my pajamas dirty. Listening to the sound of the furnace dying out and coming back to life: a coughing, wheezing resurrection. I don’t know why, but I started digging. It wasn’t long before I found what I hadn’t been looking for: an empty Jim Beam bottle. Jim Beam, what Dad had been drinking before he “quit.” What he’d given up after Mom started needing surgeries and four hours of sleep in the middle of the day.

Anyway, I took the bottle and smashed it against the wall. I hadn’t planned any further than that, so I picked up all the shards and put them back in the grave I’d robbed them from. All except one. It was a big piece of glass, narrowing out to an impossibly sharp tip. What I did was I brought it to my feet, bare, dirt clinging to the bottoms of them, and I started jabbing little pricks into my ankles. I was careful not to go above where my socks would be able to hide what I’d done. I don’t know how long I sat there, alone, in the dark, on the dirt, and poked little constellations and swirling galaxies into my ankles. All I know is it kept me from crying, and that’s all I really needed in that moment.

I hate myself for it, but I never really said anything to those kids after that. Took all of their taunts, their laughter, their following me home everyday. I didn’t throw any stones, didn’t yell back. Just took it. All the while here I was, in my room, unrolling my sock and adding a little bit more to my painting every day. I’d work in sections, letting one part heal before circling back. I always had something to work on.

I guess it all came back to that creek for me. I’d go there day after day, hopping from one stone to the next, taking those leaps of faith, and inevitably I’d fall in about halfway through. The water would soak my shoes, and I’d get home to see that the individual pinpricked bloodstains on my socks had bled together and faded to a light pink. I let the creek launder my socks, hiding them from the rest of the laundry so that the parentals would never find out.

Until this one day.

This one day, I walked straight from the school bus to the creek. I went without hesitating, jumped from one stone to the next as if I was born to do this. Reached the halfway point, the creek rushing a little faster that day, the water lapping the stone’s edges, turning it a darker color. All around me, things were moving even though I wasn’t. Things were carrying on. So I jumped. And when I reached one stone, I jumped to the next. And the next and the next, until I made it to the other side. When I got there, I plopped myself down on the grass, on my back, and watched the clouds slice through the sky, watched the planes slice through the clouds. And it was like that for who-knows-how-long. But eventually, I left. Eventually, I went home.

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