What Can I Do If the Fire Goes Out?

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It’s not every night that you earn a ride home in the back of a cop car.

My forehead rested against the cool window as my unbruised hand grasped my girlfriend Sara’s hand. My leg bounced as I replayed everything that happened just a couple hours ago when Sara and I were at 7-Eleven buying chocolate milk, packets of mini donuts, and Advil.

Nothing good ever happens after two a.m., and I should’ve known better than to go out, but my head was pounding, as if some hateful giant were knocking. I did it all for a little Advil with chocolate milk, my special cure since I was sixteen. The headache had begun as a small throb Thursday night, after everything happened. It stuck with me like a great friend in the worst of times, all the way through Friday morning.

Friday began, and already my eyebrows were scrunched in the middle as if they’d been stitched together. Sara kissed between my eyebrows with no effect. She smiled at me sadly before getting up to shower. We didn’t talk about what happened.

At work, every time someone knocked on my cubicle wall, my jaw involuntary clenched.When someone spoke to me, I rolled my eyes before turning to face them. I thought maybe I could go on with my day, pretending like yesterday never happened, but there was an incessant spark of anger inside me the entire day.

The flame had yet to extinguish when I arrived back home. Sara texted that she’d be late since she was being held over for a meeting at the firm. I went to the gym to blow off some steam; it didn’t work. I rubbed my head as I slumped down in the middle of the bed at home, waiting. I wanted to talk about what we’d avoided because this feeling of wanting to punch someone wasn’t going away. If anything, it was catching fire again.

I was laying with my pillow over my face when Sara finally returned. I heard the door, sat up, and waited. She walked in hesitantly. She knew it was time to talk, too. It was inevitable.

“Come here,” I said, patting the space in front of me. She sat, instead choosing to kiss me hard, until I pulled back.“Sara…”

“I know,” she said, looking down, hiding her sharp blue eyes with her hair.

I sighed, and squeezed her thigh. “What are you thinking?”

Sara shook her head, in a showing of disbelief or anger or because she genuinely didn’t know what was going on in her mind. I wasn’t sure what she was feeling until she spoke. “Why does who I love always have to matter so much?”

The small, flickering flame of the candle in my chest suddenly grew into a chimney fire. “It doesn’t,” I said. “Look at me, Sara.” It took a second, but she met my eyes, hers now brimming with tears. The fireplace sized flame within me grew into a bonfire. “It doesn’t matter, but you know that every now and then, someone is going to think it does.”

“He told us to kill ourselves, Jess. He was just a kid,” she whispered. “Not even older than twelve, it seemed! God, it was humiliating. Feeling like a child had this power over us.”

We held the power, Sara. We showed him he didn’t affect us.” Even as the words left of my mouth, I didn’t believe them. They felt like a script, something I’d memorized from a social media post. The truth was, I’d felt it too—the powerlessness, the humiliation. She must’ve heard it in my voice—as a lawyer, Sara had to be good at reading people—because she didn’t say anything. Instead, we ordered Chinese and binge-watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine. By ten, we were in bed.

I fell asleep quickly, but was up twenty minutes later. After five minutes, I fell asleep again, kind of. I moved constantly, turning onto my side, my stomach, putting a pillow over my face. Nothing. When I threw the blanket off my legs, Sara finally had enough, “Oh my, God, Jess.”

“I can’t sleep! I’m so pissed and my head hurts.”

“Well, I can’t sleep because you keep moving,” she said. After a moment of silence, she threw the blankets off her body, and said, “Come on. We’re going for chocolate milk, Advil, and some fresh air.”

“Are you crazy? It’s two in the morning!”

“Do you want your headache cure or not?”

I groaned and got up. Big mistake.

. . .

The 7-Eleven was empty, save for the young man behind the counter. He smiled tiredly at us as Sara and I walked past him hand-in-hand. I wasn’t usually a touchy person, but Sara’s presence had always grounded me. That’s why I didn’t let go, not while Sara picked up what we needed, not while we walked to the front to pay, not even when a man around our age with a neat beard walked into the aisle. I had made eye contact, so I automatically smiled. He didn’t smile back. Instead, he scrunched his nose up in disgust. My smile dropped as quickly as I was about to drop him. The bonfire had instantly turned into a forest fire. Sara noticed a change in me because her grasp on my hand was now cutting off my blood circulation.

“Don’t,” she said. “He’s not worth it.”

I knew she was right, but my anger had lit up the darkness in my chest like police sirens on a black night, and it’s hold was far tighter than Sara’s. So, instead, I turned to face the man.

“Excuse me, is there a problem?” I asked, crossing my arms. My back was straight, my head held high. When the man turned to meet my eyes, I didn’t even blink.

As if he’d expected me to react, he instantly answered, his voice rough like sandpaper, “I do got a problem. You and your gal pal here are strollin’ ‘round here, holdin’ hands, no regard fer others.”

I narrowed my eyes and scoffed. “No regard for others? What exactly am I supposed to be regarding?”

Sara placed her hand on my shoulder. “Jess,” she said in a low voice. “Can we just go? Please?” I should’ve paid attention to her, but hadn’t we just gone through something like this yesterday? How many times would I have to keep walking away like their actions didn’t hurt?

So, I just kept looking at the man as he spoke louder, “Me! I’m sick ‘n  tired of you people walkin’ ‘round like it don’t affect us good people. You’re the third pair I’ve seen today! And forget about me, a child could walk in here for God’s sake. You two are disgustin’!”

At the mention of a child, Sara stiffened beside me. My arms fell at my side, hands clenched. The young man working the register stepped into the aisle, and in a surprisingly stern voice said, “Is there a problem here?”

My eyes didn’t leave the bearded man’s. My fist didn’t relax. I shook my head and said, “Everything’s good here,” pausing for a moment, before launching my fist directly into the homophobe’s nose. The man groaned and he threw his hands over his nose. I stood there, my hand frozen in the air, shaking in pain. There was shock, sure, but I felt like, for once, I had the power. So, I hit him again, right by his eye. He let out a pained moan that reverberated in my ears.

“Jess!” Sara yelled this time, but it sounded like a scream from the bottom of a pit.

I kicked the man’s groin, and he fell to the ground. One hand remained on his nose, blood seeping through the gaps between his fingers, and the other moved to the newly hurt area. My chest was rising and dropping quickly as I looked down at him. I was going to kick him again, but Sara pulled me back by the waist.

“Let me go!” I yelled, trying to rip her arms away. I needed more. I craved the power.

“Stop it!” she said, dragging me to the end of the aisle. I pulled on her arms, and tried to run forward, but Sara was too strong. Or maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. Maybe a part of me was still working inside, fighting to keep me from shoving her out of the way to hurt the man again. Just a little more.

“I don’t want to stop it,” I said, half-growling as Sara brought me down to the floor with her. “Why do I have to hold back all the time? Why can’t I fight back for once?” My arms were getting tired, and now I was just slapping at her arms uselessly. Her grip only tightened. “Why, Sara?” I kept repeating that over and over again until it became weaker, until tears escaped me like the blood of the bearded man, until I was apologizing in her chest through sobs. Somehow, I felt even more powerless than I had before.

I don’t know how long I remained in Sara’s arms. Next thing I knew though, the newly arrived Deputy Sheriff was asking me to stand up. I stood without protest, glancing down at the broken man they would call the victim. My victim. Another deputy stood by him, checking his swollen eye. Behind me, Sara was trying to explain what happened, but our deputy, Deputy Annalise, responded if she had something to say, she could say it to the sheriff.

“It’s okay, Sara” I said, not meeting her eyes. I let them guide me away, into the backseat of a cop car.

. . .

The police station was your typical small town department. There were a few desks, a couple of cells in the back, and it smelled as if someone had attempted to mop the floor with the mop still filled with dust and dirt and wet. It was fresh and cool though, a welcome contrast to the humidity outside. My handcuffs were cold, and they hugged my wrists at a weird angle. I just wanted to take them off and get my bruised and bloodied hand bandaged. Sheriff Carter walked out, just as Deputy Annalise was walking me to the cells in the back. Deputy Annalise was explaining what happened, but I just stared absently at a fly trapped in a web in the corner, and tuned out their conversation.

Neither of them asked me anything, the deputy just took me to my cell. I thanked her when she took off my cuffs, but she just walked away. The cell smelled of rain—the odd dirt puddle scent that everyone seemed to love—and I got a whiff of urine just underneath that made me gag. There was nothing I could do though, so I walked to the bench (or was it a bed?) in the corner and sat, cradling my hand. It looked like a sunrise, with purples, yellows, and the reds of drying blood. Somehow, my headache lessened, now down to a manageable throb.

I was exhausted from the waves of anger. Even still, as I thought about the bearded man, I couldn’t help it, the flame burned within me again. The strange thing was, I didn’t care that I’d been arrested—it was proof of the power I had over him. I cared that he hadn’t been arrested. I may have physically attacked him, but his words were just as painful as my punches. My wounds just happened to be inside, but they were bleeding and growing purple just the same. Why was he somehow exempt?

I sighed and leaned my head against the cement wall, vexed by my own questions, which I knew the answers to. I didn’t know what else to do, so I finally succumbed to sleep.

I don’t know how much time had passed when I woke to the sound of Deputy Annalise opening the cell. I groggily attempted to sit up as she said, “It’s your lucky night.”

“What?” I asked, now sitting up straight.

“Your lawyer girlfriend talked to David, the man whose ass you beat, and he said he’s not pressing charges. Something about how he wasn’t about to let everyone know he’d been beat up by a girl.”

I raised my eyebrows and muttered, “Homophobic and sexist. Cool.” I should’ve been happy, relieved that David wouldn’t be pressing charges, but all I wished for was that I could have another taste of that power. Right now though, I felt more like the fly in the corner.

When I saw Sara, eyes red and puffy, shoulders hunched, I realized all of my mistakes of the night had hurt both of us. I’d been foolish to ignore her, to let my emotions get the best of me, to believe that the power I’d felt was good power. Tears blurred my vision quickly as I walked into her arms and melted into her embrace. She held me up, just like always.

I whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

She squeezed me and said, “I know, babe. I’m sorry I asked you to go out after two in the morning.”   

Despite everything, I laughed.

“Let me give you two a ride home,” Deputy Annalise said behind us. Sara said okay.

So, now, here I was, contemplating all my choices of the night, my headache miraculously cured. No Advil and chocolate milk needed this time.

The car ride home was quiet, and it wasn’t until we parked in front of my building that Deputy Annalise finally said something.

“I’m sorry,” she said. I paused with my hand on the door, and turned to look at her. “You shouldn’t have to go through this. It’s unfair, and it sucks.” There was more. I could tell.

“But?” I asked.

But, you can’t hit everyone who pisses you off.” Her voice was stern, like a mother’s.

“Am I supposed to keep letting them win?” I asked. My voice didn’t sound angry anymore. It sounded desperate and vulnerable, and I hated it.

“They only win when you show them they got to you. They lose power when they realize they can’t hurt you.” She paused, most likely to allow her words to sink in, before speaking again. “I know it doesn’t feel like you win, but you do. I promise you do.”

“What are we supposed to do, then?” I said, sitting down and facing her fully. “Wake up every day, just hoping that we won’t get treated the way we did tonight? Am I supposed to live in fear, and hold this anger inside forever?”

“No,” Sara said, surprising me. I turned to her. “You wake up every day, and you hope. You hope that things will get better because if we just cling to the anger, we’ll waste away. If we let the hatred win, we’ll lose sight of who we are. It would be their ultimate victory.”

I nodded slowly, allowing their words to play on a loop in my mind, trying to memorize them, trying to believe them. I didn’t answer, but they knew I’d understood, that I’d heard them. I got out of the car, and we walked back into my apartment. We went to my room and laid down. Sara fell asleep quickly, but I couldn’t sleep anymore. I stayed up until the sun began rising, and it brought me hope. I found myself hoping today would be better, because maybe they were right.

If we didn’t have hope, what would we live for?

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