I left after we started trading blows. I had to leave because I’d started hitting her back. One of us would have ended up dead and I was afraid it would be her, that I would become a murderer, that she would have made me a murderer. We exchanged blows, one for one, always. I was always the one who stopped, who grabbed my keys, backed my sixty-dollar 66 Mustang out of the driveway. I was the one who never wanted to come back.
I admitted these things, later, but not then. It was my fault, surely, because she said it was.
We were almost always in the kitchen where the cabinet doors were painted orange
framed with yellow trim, her favorite color. The floor was press-on tile orange, a different shade from the cabinet doors. Between the counters and cabinets was the brown-cork backsplash Dad had installed after she saw it in a ladies’ magazine. The prism from the cut-glass dining room door fractured the light. It was never in one place. There were unexpected shadows on the refrigerator, the walls, the side of a face.
I’ve told people I hit her. After it was much too late for it to matter, after I tried to kill myself one and a half times, after years of therapy, after cutting myself rather than let myself off the hook. Finally, I told people she hit me. She always hit me first, but it took longer for me to say that. She was beautiful and loved in the community. At the time, I don’t think anyone would have believed me.
There’s no way to explain what it feels like to hit someone you love, someone you love despite yourself, someone you hate, how that hating makes you hate yourself most, and I’ve never been able to break it down to one single thing that was said or done that started it, although I feel like I should be able to remember one instance, one inciting event for something so big to start happening, so big that I left in the middle of the night to go to a teen shelter because I was afraid I would kill her or she would kill me. I was almost certain, even then, that I would kill myself. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t afraid to be hit. Besides, she’d mocked my fears—of the dark, of death—and I was strong and used to being hit by both my parents, both my brothers. To this day, I’m game. Hit me.
All the women in town, and all the daughters, she did their weekly shampoo and sets, ringlets for their proms. They all loved her. One gave her a mink hat for Christmas. They took her for expensive meals. And the women loved me. I was polite and helpful, obedient. I don’t know if the daughters felt the same way, but since their mothers loved me, I must have been lovable.
Was it hormones? Of course we synced up as women do. Was it the color of the kitchen, the angry orange? I was smart, my mouth was smart. She played dumb. She told me once, “Just play dumb; it always works.”
My body was always numb, but my brain was on a hair-trigger. I could have blocked any blow. I was young and fast, on all the teams. She said the girls on the teams were lesbians. That didn’t bother me, but it could have been what drew her hand up, first. She always went first. I wouldn’t dream of hitting her first, but after she hit me, every time, I hit back.
I remember the cigarette odor on her hands, how red her palms always were, how I worried that was a sign of some illness. Both of us had broad hands, hands that were used for something. Not lady fingers. She had some kind of cyst on one wrist, something she was always going to get checked but never did, but that wasn’t her slapping arm, which was embedded with tiny hairs of all colors from all the haircuts six days a week. I learned to be ambidexterous, to counter when I had an opening.
People should never stand so close to each other that one can strike the other, unless they’re going to embrace. That is what I learned. Otherwise, I have shame. There was always more shame than pain, for which I had a high tolerance, and surprise. I never stopped being surprised by either one of us.
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