Better than Fiction! (creative non fiction)
by Alexandra Persad
How hard? How hard did he hit you?
It was a question that I didn’t want. I didn’t realize just how much I didn’t want it until after my mother asked it. I was sitting in the stairwell of my apartment building at two am, phone pressed against my tear-stained cheek. It fell out of my hand a few times, echoing throughout the stairwell. My hands were shaking too badly to hold it. I stuffed them into the pocket of my hoodie and watched it resting on the stair below me. I could faintly hear my mother talking on the other line.
I regretted calling her, I realized. She had asked the question so immediately, as if she was prepared for my frantic call, my uneven voice. I didn’t want her to be prepared. I wanted her to be at a loss for words. I wanted her to cry. I wanted her to scream. But she did not. Because to her, this is what men did.
And for the first time, I thought so, too.
This time, it was different. This time he had left a bruise. His fist was a hammer of knuckles that was fueled with nothing but unfiltered, sober anger, despite his claims of being drunk. He would later assure me that he was not thinking straight, his vision was hazy, and he was sorry, very sorry.
I almost believed him. I checked the bottle of spiced rum he kept shoved in the back of our freezer the next day. He hadn’t drunk any. I didn’t realize that I had been hoping he had. I was holding my breath, waiting to see that most of the bottle was empty, as if that would make it better or provide some justification.
There was no justification, I decided. I ended it and he became unbearably sad. Threats of suicide, hours of tears. But after the sadness, his anger returned, renewed and with strength and endurance that it didn’t have before. His screaming could last hours, his fist could barrel through walls, and his door slams shook the entire apartment like an earthquake.
Why was he so angry?
That was the question that I asked myself as I held the full bottle of rum the next day and as I held myself in the stairwell that night. I would continue to ask it every day, searching for the reason. But it couldn’t be boiled down to a single, perfect answer.
He was angry that I had a job. He was angry that I had friends. He was angry that I had straight A’s. He was angry that I had homework. He was angry he was angry he was angry.
Sometimes it made me cry, sometimes it made me scared, sometimes it made me angry, too. Anytime I felt anything, I left.
I went to my brother’s broken futon. He fed me jasmine rice and pistachios that I struggled to deshell myself.
Did he hit you?
That was the question that he asked me point-blank, as I sat with my head in my hands, inhaling the scent of the Asian market that he lived above. I stared at his walls. There were pages that were torn out of National Geographic magazines and posted around the room to cover peeling paint and pinholes. The Eiffel Tower, the pyramids, city skylines.
I didn’t know how to answer his question. Something gripped my throat so tightly that it burned. I felt like I couldn’t speak. My face turned to fire and tears became waterfalls.
It was shame.
It overwhelmed me whenever I ran to my brother’s apartment across town, seeking refuge from someone who once was supposed to provide comfort. My throat became tighter when I thought about his roommate, whose room was just beyond those National Geographic photos. I wondered if he knew why I was there or if he asked about me when I left. I wondered how my brother answered. Was there a polite way to say she’s afraid to be around her ex-boyfriend, the man she’s lived with for two years?
So I said no, he didn’t hit me. I couldn’t say any more. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. No he didn’t hit me, but he did. No he didn’t hit me, but I’m lying. No he didn’t hit me but please don’t believe me—help me.
The shame stopped all those buts. It forced me to cry on the walk home and wish I was sleeping on that godawful futon.
It pushed me to other men. Men who didn’t know me, who didn’t know that I was running, who didn’t know that I had anything to be ashamed of.
Did you want to stay the night?
That was the question they asked. I always said yes. Once, I hesitated. Only once. It was three am. I was watching TV with a boy that made me forget that I was running. I didn’t have to distract myself to push down the tight ball that sat in my throat—I simply forgot that it was there.
Alexandra Persad is a creative writing undergraduate student at West Virginia University. She works as the managing editor for Calliope, an undergraduate literary journal. She has also won awards such as the Waitman Barbe Creative Writing Award.
I wanted to spend the night, but he didn’t know why I would be staying. I wasn’t even sure why I would be staying. Would I be staying for him or to have someplace to stay? If I stayed for him, would he scare me, too? If I said the wrong thing, would he barricade me in the bathroom, too? If I left him alone too long, would he fill my voicemail with his yelling, too? If if if.
I didn’t know, so I hesitated before answering that yes, I guess I could stay.
I went other places, too. Other mattresses, other couches.
I liked my friend’s couch the most. There, I didn’t let the shame burn my throat, I didn’t blink back the tears.
Are you hungry? If I make you a sandwich, will you eat it?
That was the question that she asked me while I sat at her dining room table. I fiddled with the striped placemat in front of me. There was one that sat in front of each chair. Her roommates were all tucked away in their rooms, their lights still seeped through the crack under their doors. It was strange being there at night. I liked the loudness and the laughter that normally greeted me. Staying there at night was like a different world.
I told her that yes, I would eat a sandwich. I realized that I hadn’t eaten at all that day. I would continue to not eat. I let the worry consume me, fill up my stomach until there was no room left. My clothes hung off my body and I made an extra notch in my belts just to hold up my jeans. I wondered if I already looked too thin, if my eyes were already sunken from exhaustion and inadvertent starvation.
She fed me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread. With the crusts. She asked me if I liked them or not. I told her that yes, I did. She also gave me a room temperature Coke Zero, apologizing that there was no room to keep them in the fridge. They were small details. The coldness of soda, the crusts on bread.
The details didn’t matter to me, but I appreciated that to her they did. I ate the sandwich while I dried my tears on the back of my sleeve. It left a smudge of black.
When I stayed the night, she gave me extra blankets and pillows and a long hug. The kind that said a lot without saying anything at all. I let myself cry into her shoulder, inhaling her hair when my breath became short.
When I finally pulled away, I told her I would be fine. Because I knew I was not, but I was hopeful that in the future I wouldn’t be crying anymore. I never thought that I would be on her couch, not even after that night on the stairwell.
I never thought that I would be so full of rage and shame.
But I was.
So when I picked my cell phone off the stairs again and calmed my staggered breathing, I answered the question that I didn’t want.
Does it matter? Does it matter how hard he hit me?
It was a question that I wish I had asked with more conviction, not when I was reduced to a sniffling mess. I wanted to say it with as much anger as I felt. To express the words with as much desperation as they needed.
Because I was desperate, and I would only become more desperate. I didn’t know about the sleepless nights jumping from futons to couches to mattresses. I didn’t know about how tired I would become from running from him. I didn’t know that I would hate him more than I ever thought possible. I didn’t know that my heart would stop whenever I heard his footsteps. I didn’t know I didn’t know I didn’t know.
If I had known, I would’ve stopped myself. Stopped my blood from boiling every time I thought of him, every time I feared him.
Because all that hate and all that fear and all that shame made me become him. It’s where he got his anger from. A constant suppression of those emotions building up until there was nothing else left. There was nothing else left of me. I was all him.
I could feel his movement in my body, his thoughts in my mind, his words on my tongue.
Why don’t you just fucking do it already?
That was the question I would ask when he told me he was going to kill himself again.
How hard? How hard did he hit you?
Hard enough to knock myself right out of me.
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