Every Friday night we will feature a short story, essay, personal narrative, poem,
spoken word, or short film for your enjoyment.
Helen Presents: a short story from Kalisha Buckhanon
A high school beau walked me through the Cotillion waltzes without smolder. He stepped on my white ballet flats and branded my soon-dusty toes with “Nice try.” His grandfather shook through the prom evening he loaned us his restored 1968 Rolls Royce in honor of. But that beau had only been the neighbors’ boy, a sandbox playmate and preschool colleague. Any future we could have had always disintegrated into the snorting giggles and playful pats like ones we shared when we were both in sagging diapers. Our attempts at naughtiness were always overlain with discomfort and false starts. There was something about one’s mama and daddy having virtually raised the other, and vice versa, which made our bliss a form of disobedience to two sides. He went on to UNLV. He found a girlfriend very quickly, now a wife with twins. He stayed near Vegas in the newer part, Henderson, Nevada, to assistant manage the accounting department of one of the casinos outside the Strip. I gambled, though. To say I did not see it coming would be an insult to myself and anybody else I have lots of catching up with to do.
This only other beau fooled me with water. Sincerely and honestly. I thought Kevin was guzzling water. I actually applauded his health kick. I encouraged it: for the shift it caused, for the humorous perspective it afforded him on his dead-ended musician stardom wish. He loosened up. He laughed again. He growled less. He stopped remembering and conversing in mindless circles of the past, with the same stories over and over and over until I couldn’t hide my irritation. He shared new stories I had never heard before. Or, he just listened to mine. He focused on me, for a change. He complimented me. We talked. He read. He called up his boys again. He phoned home. We had satisfying sex. He pulled out Getz and Vaughn and the Isleys, so we could dance. He washed the dishes. He helped pull our overflowing sacks to the corner laundromat with me. He picked up Chinese food. He was quiet in the midnights when he slumped in from bartending, played his horn softly. He was helpful in the morning as I rushed out to answer phones in our campaign for the rent. He hummed and scribbled bars and notes in notebooks. He tapped his feet to commercial jingles. He asked me to go to the movies. He made me less regretful I hadn’t stayed in Las Vegas under my mother. Back home.
Where I could have bumped into men who needed women to remind them to wear the condoms so she wouldn’t get pregnant, for the “accident” leading to most marriages.
Where I could have had sex with a few mall-hopping boys frequently enough for us to be married, with no interference against that wish from his one-in-a-million dreams.
Where I could have driven a Honda or Toyota and parked it in a real driveway.
Where I could have taken ballroom dance classes at a community center and met a few girlfriends to go out for drinks, excitement and a break in routine if we needed it.
Where I could have had a view of more than trashcans and dog shit on sidewalks.
Where I could have had my uncles and cousins rush him along to the altar.
Where I could have always flown away on a weekend vacation to see a Chorus Line or go to Broadway.
Where I could have been an American Girl and not an Urban Chick.
The water was really vodka. Neat. How did I know? Out of our back bathroom window on the fifth floor, I spotted an empty liter of Grey Goose in the gangway. I was failing to keep the opaque black curtain stretched taunt against the little window, since its correct positioning made it nearly impossible for anyone to see inside. But he and I had loosened the seven-year knot. The sex became wild and frequent. We became careless. Our newfound raucousness caught me purchasing packs of Marlboro Reds for the first time since I had meant to appear both impressive and trashy in my early twenties. The day I first saw a vodka bottle, I pushed up the screen, dangled my arm outside and blew my smoke out. The gleaming liter of emptied Grey Goose rested down in middle of a few pink garbage bags I bought for their rosy smell, as well as a couple milk crates of my Honey and Dance magazine collections. The stacks and stacks of them had become less an inspiration and much more a fire hazard. His vodka bottle was right near our things.
I had no proof of anything. Just a clue and a hunch. Enough. It took that pitiful try at smoking out into the gangway of a cramped and stuffy tenement apartment—with browny drippy leaks from the roof, a startling roach infestation coming with the territory, my so-called fiancé slept away a stupor he covered with Doublemint, my leg hunched up on the toilet just inches from a scorching radiator if I wasn’t careful—for me to realize or accept or face that this man I lived with was one hell of a guzzling alcoholic. He started it just by slurping booze out of a chrome re-usable water bottle right in front of my face, passing it off as water and a health kick—no smell with vodka, barely any taste.
When we first “communicated” about it, he put a purple mound in the corner of my eye. Thankfully, before this, J-Lo made the smoky eye all the rage; stunned and shocked the one person I depended on for a family in New York would be so inconsiderate to me, I worked magic with my MAC eye palettes. I carried on as usual. The silent treatment was nearly impossible in six hundred square feet, so it didn’t last. We made up. Made love. Made promises. Made this pattern the norm.
Onwards. Upwards. He should know to never do that shit to me again…
There was only so much Nas, Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, Jamiroquai and D’Angelo either of us could stand before one or the other turned it off to talk. We never had any knockdown, drag-out fights to warrant a call to 911, a scene from NYPD Blue or Law & Order. We never hurled vocal fireballs or sent knifepoints rapping at the walls, to alarm caught-off-guard natives next door. He didn’t whip me like I was Connie in The Godfather or Prince’s mama in the Purple Rain basement. I had trained resistance-style with other dancers. I knew how to use another person to keep my own balance. A few times he shoved me, what he would have thought was lightly, I could tell from the drop under his eyes he was shocked to feel I could root down stronger than he thought I could.
There was never blood, though. Maybe because we were educated, refined, the pride of our people, the crème de la crème, the Talented Tenth. Neither of us reached our full potentials. We knew that. But in the backs of our minds we knew we were better than walking on eggshells around another smart person, dreading the smallest offense, tense and deranged even when we looked calm and turned on. We knew. And the fact we continued may have had to do with all that having been heaped upon us to begin with: the expectations of achievement smashed into our mouths with the first neat spoonfuls of baby food our mothers gave us, unto the foreign foods forced upon us in private college dining halls. The totals of us and all we wanted to be had been smashed into tight jars of good behavior, with mind to keep us from death by bullet or crushing by stereotype or a false arrest or a dream deferred. And soon, together, for the years, we finally cracked.
“Oh, we’re doing fine. Really fine,” I told old girlfriends and family back home. Then I stopped talking to them altogether. First I was sort of jolted and thrown off. Next, mentally kidnapped and frozen. Finally, broke. Damn. Why didn’t this happen to me back in Nevada, or Philly, or Atlanta—where I could get a decent apartment for around $600? How did I go to school just to be a woman who let a man hit me for half the rent?
I stopped dancing, and taking long baths, and dreaming and believing, and saying “I wish” or “Wow.” I didn’t have the energy; most of my chi was cast off to manage hostility in my home. What it took for me to just put myself back together again in the mornings, after he and I spent evenings playing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or asking “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” cost me so much imagination I had little to none left to put into my dreams. But by the time this transformation hit, our co-dependency was cemented. Everyone in my lives—past and present—knew I had not been invited to join any chorus lines, or to choreograph the Oscars. The least I could do to compensate for the failure was to stay in the Big Apple. All remained impressed with me for doing so. And fortunately I remained in New York, to look so much cooler for playing house than I’d look elsewhere. There, nobody ever asks “Is he gonna marry you?” or “What’s the plan?” That’s its own annoyance.
It wasn’t even the tussles that threw me off. They were rare. Light. It was the psychological twists and scolds: if I found something funny, he had to point out all the reasons not to laugh; if I was somber after I balanced the checkbook or slugged home from Fairway, he had to proclaim me as “negative” and not just human; if I stumbled upon a movie from my childhood the more and more I home-bounded my social life, he had to point out the great movie from his childhood which was better (but not currently on television). He was a toxic jerk and a grouch. I never imagined myself to be anybody’s fool or whipping post. The force of those two identities crowded out all my others, until they had center stage. And, when we did go out or show up or take a rare trip back home, people always said we were so “cute” together. We were bonded. I smoked. He drank.
When I left after our last row, my self-esteem splattered on the floor right next to a broken half-gallon of Stoli’s I smashed down to the parquet floors we paid $300 extra a month for, I had not smiled at myself inside of myself for a couple years. I was basically an enemy to myself. I had no laugh lines, yet. Only crow’s feet, from worry maybe. In the livery cab (with three carry-ons of clothes and shoes, a duffel bag of jewelry and mementos, my purse, a briefcase with my birth certificate and passport and a final expense burial policy a neighbor sold me, $480 cash in my coat pocket), I tried to explain myself as well as some destination to the Kenyan cabbie who spoke a thick, doughy English I wound up showing impoliteness to. I guess abuse will do that to you.
“Is this first time?” the cabbie asked. “Ma’am?”
I didn’t know I was telling him the story too.
“Huh?” I say. “The first time?”
“Yes, miss. The first time?”
“My first time?”
“The first time he hit you?”
The cabbie continues.
“The men, they do that. I don’t. But. Well, sometimes, the men…they think it control the woman and she will do what they say and it’s no more other choice if they hit her. You know? But, well, if it’s the first time then maybe he not so bad. Maybe he won’t do it again. Maybe he just have a bad day.”
“I don’t remember the first time he hit me,” I tell the cabbie, a stranger, a prelude to the police. “I can’t. I always remember the first time we…well, well. You know.”
There was no bathtub in his Harlem old place, only a curtained standup shower with a faucet head battered to crimson. The tile cracked in an odd array of scratches. Could have easily come from a psyche patient’s desperate fingers as from time. But these were clean men living here. This calmed me. To buy time, I peeked into the thin medicine cabinet. Mitchum deodorant, calamine lotion, Cornhuskers lotion, vials of oil fragrances, a dented tube of Preparation-H, extra strength Tylenol, rosewater, Vaseline, Vick’s, a few bottles of pills I was too respecting to glimpse the labels of. Atop the pedestal sink, an unfiltered razor, shaving cream, an evergreen scented soap, generic toothpaste and several toothbrushes angled in a stout glass. Two neat and moist washcloths hung over the ledge. The amount of toilet paper rolls I should have kept, but didn’t, comprised the rest of the bathroom’s contents—along with a few cans of Raid and a bottle of Lysol resting behind the toilet next to a nice tin garbage can, in a mauve color a woman most likely selected.
The taller mirror made my face and waist appear much thinner than they actually were. The snowdrops had smudged my mascara. Kevin’s eagerness had scattered my lipstick. A trail of hickies marked down to my cleavage starting at the opening of my collar, deliberately left open for the purpose. I had only a few seconds before I burst. I quietly tore off a few sheets of toilet paper and doused them with Lysol before I sat down, to wipe the seat. A familiar and musky sweat, normally generated by myself alone, met me when I pulled down my leggings to sat down. The full and warm spring of my urine was the only sound around me now. Kevin was quiet as a church mouse.
I let my thin light pink panties sit around my ankles while I lingered on the toilet seat, encapsulated in a girlhood on its last legs and taking its last breaths, my womanhood only a pause away, my inclination to weep subdued like a baby shaken quiet on a plane, my bra removed by a ghost’s fingers, my sight out of focus like a picture not meant to be taken, my mind made up but not… I walked into the single room with only the cherry of Kevin’s cigarette to guide me to his lips. He will be the only one, for the next ten years.
That funny, brilliant, talented, disappointing, beautiful man attached to my penis is knocked out cold drunk and it is a terribly cold night in January almost ten years after I lost my virginity to him and I can hibernate on my mother’s couch until this sore heart passes and spring is the perfect time to sprout new leaves, right? My academic glorified secretary job will just hire a more recent, unsuspecting, probably Asian or white alum to pass my defeated elitist torch to. And the cabbie will understand why he should help me fit all my bags into one of the last NYC yellow cab trunks I will ever run after. Huh. And he will have compassion to pretend he comprehends all I have to tell him, including direction. He will let me smoke the Marlboros I found in peace, with no admonishments.
I hesitate to call it “domestic violence.” Sounds so severe. The Midtown South police precinct is in walking distance to a Penn Station entrance, but with my bags and life I carry, I need a cab to get there. I have people in Phoenix, my mother’s brother and his daughter and sons, and I had enough on the debit card for that ticket. They respect me for two visits I’ve made, in 2003 and 2006. Then, I had enough energy and motivation to coordinate my plane tickets just so, to squeeze them in for nights of fast food and channel-surfing and bad weed, founded upon tastes we harbored lifetimes ago, when we had no idea how we would turn out. What is family for if you can’t withhold your face forever, but you still can walk through open doors to seek a favor on a moment’s notice?
“Where does this person live, or do you live with this person?”
“Do you have someone you can call?”
“Where’s your family?”
“Will you need an emergency shelter tonight?”
“Do you plan to communicate with him in the near future?”
“So, you’re saying he’s not really like that and this the first time something like this has happened?”
“Where’s your family?”
“Ma’am, you want him arrested and charged with battery?”
“Do you have health insurance?”
“I can understand how this is very difficult for you, but you need to go ahead and let us know now, because…well, we have many other people and matters to attend to. ”
“Where’s your family?”
“We can escort you to the emergency room.”
“We need a yes or no.”
The female police officer from the desk, constricted in her blue pants and patient in her gray eyes and friendly in the way she flipped her ponytail, told me: “You can do what you want and have no comment, but we’re still gonna investigate the matter. You look pretty disheveled. Your photos and statement are plenty for us to get started.”
A side-burned veteran continued: “And, should you get where you need to go and want to contribute from there, you can always call us or visit to add to our efforts.”
I agree I will and I take my paperwork and their direct precinct lines.
I have taste for Au Bon Pain but decide I won’t afford it. Just one glimpse of my furry brows and unbrushed hair in its window scares me. A cross-country train tour of America, New York state to Arizona, 65 hours including three transfers, has never been on my bucket list. It is all I can afford. Saving was never my strong suit. With Kevin insisting upon reserving his energies for pipe dreams, rehearsals, the occasional part-time job and vodka, my little $30,000 a year never went too far. As I go, it is all coming back.
At least I had enough in the place and bank to avoid a voyage through the bowels of America on ten Greyhounds across a hundred hours. In reality, I did not have to be so abrupt and brisk and frantic. I could have planned this moment. But I had told myself many, many times before that I would plan this moment—and I didn’t. I put it off. I relied on my other personality—the one who shortened her pedigree and confused an artistic passion with shouting matches—to waddle off to my old campus where I remained as a worker, to concoct competitions between meals in hopes of finding one he wouldn’t scoff at, to bury deeper and deeper inside with each intimate moment broken by a sudden criticism or insult. So this night, finally, I was hit with whatever possession arrived. The good witch turned me away from the Jenny Convertibles queen size sofa bed we’d shared forever to the armoire I bought us to compensate for no closet space. She propelled me to shake myself around my place with insistence on filling as many bags as I could muster. She broke me down into a disgusting and pitiful wail that consumed my chest and surely startled anyone walking past my door. When I imagined his stinking self coming in from the sorry corner bar with no evident name but plenty of sleazy customers, I did not question the witch for doing whatever it took to push me to where I stand now.
Underneath the city and through the wriggly tubes of Penn Station, I scavenge a luggage cart with complaining wheels. I wait to check in for a train. The ticket pick-up line is nothing like I had thought it would be. Not too many people fleeing New York City in the night on hump day. God only knows how many random weirdos are in my near future and how much I must hold my stomach to avoid public pooping. I resolve to at least try to enjoy the view of America’s plains and mountains I am about to receive in a tour that will take all the willpower of a performance. I wish I had had the money to fly. If I had stayed overnight in a motel and booked the next flight out tomorrow, then by tomorrow night I could have been in the unicorned and teddy-beared pink and white bedroom where my father once caught me under the covers talking to my friends. I must make the best of this, I guess. Kevin and I were supposed to drive out to my people and pass the Grand Canyon along the way, for my birthday a few years back and… Wait.
Within a half hour I have received my golden ticket. I am officially five twenties rich until I arrive in Phoenix at the weekend, to a waiting aunt. Over the magazines and hardback books with news journalists or celebrities grinning back at me with right angles for teeth, I select victuals to carry me through to the continental breakfasts I am promised the cafe will provide within budget. I plan to stretch out the fistful of beef jerkies, Sprites, Fiji water, unorganic apples and cheese sticks, a fortunate spotting of celery and carrots packed in such perfect slices I had to wonder how real the vegetables could be. By some God-given flirtation with unreality, I estrange from the moment. I do not sentimentalize it. It is not romantic or worth journaling about. There is nothing to note down as my “Aha Moment,” no dialogue to plan out to record for a viral video where I explain how I overcame a sociopath, little thought to what I could title a snazzy blog directed at abuse survivors. There is just me in low-rise Gap jeans, Uggs and a piling of mismatched sweaters chosen in nostalgic order of just how much snot I had wiped on their sleeves.
It must be the latent discipline of a dancer, honed first in my baby ballerina tap classes and later in my awarded public high school arts program, but crumbled apart when New York’s seductive vortex proved insatiable, keeping me cool. I make sure going up and down the pedways in a rather uncrowded stroll, only since it is night, is just that: walking around the pedways. It is not laughing in corners with lost girlfriends and forgotten associations I had when I came to New York City, or finding the secret entrances to the Kmart stock-room (where one of those acquaintances worked and figured out how to supply all our toiletries from it), or sharing hot dogs with Kevin when we had no money. No. It is nothing. It is only walking with a few bags of a few things I owned, planning to fly back with the more embarrassing family to pack and send off the rest, checking in bags of the most important and waiting for 11:04 p.m., when I can board my Eastern Continental train for a first transfer in Washington, D.C. before a few more, including Chicago. Which I’ve never seen. Should be nice. And the mountains and angels in the sky await. I’m all good. I’m going on, and going home now.
I cannot correct the past. I can remember it differently. Or, I can say he grew me up. I can write off and re-invent our decade together as my version (failed) of Hippiedom, Bohemianism, Beatnikism, Neo-Soulism, Hip-Hop Heydayism, working in the entertainment industryism, etc…I can casually but methodically bump into the casino workers and retail managers I went to high school with in Vegas, brawny boys with honest shoulders and harnessed visions. We are grown now, expanded, seasoned, filled out, officially adults. I have no reasons to lie. There’s still time. There is. I’ve a lot of catching up with myself to do.
Kalisha Buckhanon received her M.F.A at The New School and majored in English at University of Chicago, where she received her B.A. and M.A in the field. Her award-winning novels are Conception and Upstate. Her stories, essays and articles have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, London Independent on Sunday, Hermeneutic Chaos, Mosaic Literary Magazine, xoJane, Clutch, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Intellectual Refuge and more. She was born in Illinois. Her website is www.Kalisha.com.