Short Story, 3400 words
“Show me you love me.”
I swear that I do.
He says that’s not enough. He says, “Prove it.”
The full moon tints the asphalt blue. I look at him sitting in the driver’s seat of this beat-up baby-blue pick-up truck, still wearing the black pants and red polo and nametag he uses for his job at the movie theater. The air is a musty mix of buttery popcorn that always smells a lot better than it tastes, and warm tobacco.
He stares straight ahead out the windshield, at the trees that line the perimeter of this empty parking lot. He dangles the arm holding his cigarette out the window. He clears his throat. He clenches his jaw.
The green lights on the silent radio gleam in the dark: 11:52.
“You know that I love you,” I softly insist.
“Why do I know that?” he demands, turning to face me. “Because you say so? How am I supposed to trust anything you say, anymore? You fucking lied to me, Rachel. Who knows if you’re lying about this, too?”
I want to tell him that I didn’t lie, but I don’t because insisting the same thing fifteen minutes earlier is why my lip is bleeding now. I want to touch it; to dab it; to nurse it. But I know the blood is there because I can taste it. I know it’ll be gone in about a week, because last time it was.
“Tell me his last name,” Jason insists.
“I really don’t know his last name. He was just some guy…he was just some guy at some stupid coffee shop…”
His name is Taylor Johansson and he works at the Beanery off Griffith Street. He’s a rising senior at the university a few minutes down the road from mine. He has dark hair and brown eyes and loves James Patterson and cinnamon rolls. He doesn’t like coffee even though he can get as much as he wants for free. He usually offers me his free cup.
I never intended to get involved; I’m not involved. My friend gave him my number and I didn’t even know it until the first time he texted me a week ago. He said he wants to keep in touch over the summer and I told him that that could be nice. We message back and forth sometimes, but not a lot. Not obsessively. We’re friends and that’s really all it is, but Jason doesn’t care. All Jason understands is that he went through my phone and saw messages from another guy. Even though they’re all innocent, all “What’d you think about that History Channel documentary?” and “Are you watching the Orioles game?” Jason doesn’t care. Jason says that doesn’t mean anything. He says I’m just smart enough to delete the sketchy ones.
“You gave a guy your number and you don’t even know his last name?”
“I told you, Jason. I didn’t give it to him. He got it.”
Jason shakes his head. He declares that Taylor No-Last-Name is a fucking psycho, then takes a drag from his cig. I know I should have known better. I know Jason has been insecure about me going away to school ever since it happened last fall. He wanted me to stay and go to community college with him so badly; he tried to talk me into it every day. But when I told him this was what I wanted—when he saw how serious I was being—he let me go. He let me go and told me it wouldn’t matter because he trusts me. He’d miss me all the time, but he trusts me. And I should’ve known better than to do anything that may put that trust in jeopardy.
“I’m stupid for even responding to a single message,” I tell him. “I’m sorry. I love you so much.”
“No,” he barks. “Shut up. No you don’t.”
“I do,” and my voice catches. My eyes tear up even though I didn’t think I had any more tears left to cry over this situation. I’ve been crying for days over this situation. When he told me to meet him after work tonight, I was certain that I had no tears left in me. I do, I guess.
“Prove it,” he says.
“How?” I whisper.
He thinks about it. His eyes narrow as he looks out the windshield and I swallow hard, anxious to do what he asks of me. I hate that he doubts me. I hate that he doesn’t understand how in love I am. That I know he isn’t perfect and that I don’t care; that I’m not perfect either, and that he can do so much better than me. That he could get some skinny bombshell and not have to be seen with someone short and pudgy and awkward like me. That I love him so much for loving me back, and that I understand that he has a short temper. But inside he’s a beautiful person. Inside and out, he’s gorgeous.
He says, “I need to know that no matter what, you’re not gonna leave me. I used to believe that. But with this whole Taylor No-Name thing…I need to be reassured. I need to know you’re in this for real, Rachel. I need to know that no one and nothing can fuck this up.”
“What do you need me to do?”
He tells me to take off my shirt. I do, but hesitate. Only because I feel fatter when I’m not wearing clothes. I feel disgusting when I’m not wearing clothes. But I know that Jason loves my body. He says he’s never seen a sexier naked body.
I hold my shirt in my lap and I look at him. I wipe a tear before it has the chance to fall, and ask what he wants me to do next.
“If you love me,” he says, staring out the windshield. His jaw is churning; his eyes gleam. “If nothing can ever change us,” he brings his arm into the car and takes another drag. “Let me put out this cigarette. Let me do it on your back.”
As I study him, he becomes a watery blur. I try to blink the tears away, but they drip onto my lap. “What?” I whisper.
He glares at me and says, “If you love me, what is there to think about?”
He has me turn around. I’m facing my window, and in the dark I can see my own distorted reflection. My lip is starting to swell, as I knew that it would, but at least the blood is starting to clot. My face looks chubbier with a fat lip, and I hang my head because I don’t want to look at myself anymore. I just want to get this over with; to prove how dedicated I am to our relationship. I want him to see it and then tell me he loves me and make me feel perfect in the way that only he can. I want that and I need that and I’m hoping that will make this burn not hurt so badly.
When his butt hits my skin, it’s right beneath the shoulder blade. I hear a practically inaudible sizzle as I feel my skin start to melt away. I imagine it looks like ice cream being shoved into an oven. It feels like that point on my body is turning to liquid.
He holds it there for three seconds. I squeeze my eyes shut and count them out in my head. By the third second the spot is numb. As soon as he removes the cig, it turns to fire. I want to cry. I want to climb out of this truck and fall to my knees and cry forever. Not because of the pain; it hurts but it isn’t completely unbearable. I want to cry forever because I hate this moment. I hate everything about this moment, and that it’s come to this. That he loves me so much and that I’ve been so dishonest, that it had to come to this.
I feel Jason’s arms hug me just below my bra, fitting in between the crease that my saggy breasts and flabby stomach naturally create. He holds me there and kisses the spot where he burned and tells me he believes me now. He says he’s sorry, but he just can’t imagine ever losing me. He says I’m everything to him. He says I’m the girl of his dreams.
“You’re beautiful, Rachel. You’re perfect.”
I pull my shirt back over my head and he holds onto my hand as he turns the key in the ignition. He starts to drive back to the movie theater where he works, where my car is parked. To have this conversation, we’d driven about three miles up the street to the Auto Shop. We knew we’d be able to be alone there; the shop closes at eight and the lot around back is always empty, with the exception of the occasional car waiting to be serviced in the morning. Jason almost always insists we go there when we need to have a talk; people get real nosy about couples sitting in a car for too long sometimes.
While we drive he talks about the future. He wants two boys and a Great Dane one day. He wants to get out of Potomac and go somewhere where people aren’t such prissy assholes. He thinks small-town Virginia could be nice, and knows we’d be able to be on our own. He’s positive my family’s pride would keep them from visiting a tiny town too often if at all, and he thinks that’s probably best for me. He’s been thinking that would probably be best since high school; since he watched me fast for a week in tenth grade after the size 16 jeans my mother bought me didn’t fit.
He pulls up next to my silver Acura. He leans across the brake and strokes my cheek with his thumb and his eyes dart about my face. His fingers find the place on my lip where he’d accidentally elbowed me; I’d been trying to hug him and he didn’t want to be touched.
He tells me he’s sorry and begs me to forgive him. He says he didn’t mean to push me away that hard. He loves me, he says.
“You know that, don’t you?”
“I know that.”
He looks relieved to hear it. He kisses my mouth, then my cheek, then my forehead. He wants me to drive safely. He wants me to call him when I get home. He wants to make sure that I understand what happened tonight. He wants to be positive that I realize how much Taylor’s messages hurt him.
“I know they did. I just want to forget about it. I just want you to believe it won’t happen again and forget about it.”
“I’m ready to forget about this, too.”
I get out of the truck and grab my purse off the floor and take my keys out of its side pocket. I watch Jason’s tail lights pull out of the parking lot and drive into the night, as I find the button to unlock my doors. Then I get in my car and start the engine and sigh and lean back in my seat. But I immediately spring forward and cringe. I can’t have any pressure on my back right now.
I drive home, leaning forward on my wheel, and my position makes it impossible to not notice the sky. I’m hunched over, under the visor, and the stars are everywhere. It’s a gorgeously clear night; there isn’t a cloud in the sky. And as I drive, it feels like I’m alone with this experience. On the dark, winding road that will eventually lead to my house, it feels like I’m the only one in the world. There’re no cars I’m following or cars following me; no streetlights to draw my attention to the scenery; no houses for at least another mile. It hits me, then, that maybe I am alone. And as dazzling as the sky is—as badly as I’d like to watch the twinkling stars for hours—the thought of being by myself scares the hell out of me. I press the accelerator and can’t breathe comfortably again until I see the first porch light shining off in the distance.
I pass the rolling hills and the homes that sit on top of them. I follow the twisting road, then signal when I get to our mailbox and pull up our curving driveway to the circle in front of the giant brick house. I park my car behind my mother’s Mercedes and check the rear view mirror to see what my mouth looks like. I have make-up in my bag that can cover the clotty blood, but that won’t make it look any less swollen. I’ll just have to tell a story.
I walked into a door.
I cross the stone patio and climb our cement steps to the front door. I stick my key into the doorknob and turn. As soon as I’m inside I know that my mother isn’t asleep. She isn’t even close to being asleep. I can tell because every downstairs light is on, as is the chandelier and the plasma TV.
My mother walks down the stairs in her pink silk pajamas. It’s after midnight and she’s dressed for bed but is still wearing her face for the day. Her hair is still styled for the day. She looks like a modern day Sleeping Beauty. She always looks like a princess. She’ll be fifty in July and she looks better than me. I’ll be nineteen in October.
“Oh, good, you’re home,” she says gratefully. “I was nervous you’d make me sleep in this big old house all by myself tonight.”
I’m the first kid home for summer vacation, and my father is out of town on business. He’s usually out of town on business. He wins the bacon and my mother keeps house. Keeps the house stocked with Venetian blinds and crystal vases and marble tabletops.
I set my purse by the door and lock the door behind me.
She continues, “Did you have fun at the movies?”
I want to avoid eye contact, but I know that I have little choice. She’s standing on the first step, holding the banister, blocking the only path to my safe haven. All I want is to be in my bedroom. All my mother wants to do is talk.
I look at her, and she takes a sharp breath and squeezes the banister tighter and says, “Oh, Rachel.”
“I…ran into a door. It’s not so bad.”
She comes to me and takes my hands and looks at my swollen mouth. Her concerned eyes search my face for a cause. Was it her parenting? My upbringing? Her lax house rules? She wraps her arms around my neck and hugs me close. She squeezes and says it again:
I tell her once more that I ran into a door. She doesn’t ask questions because she knows by now that I’m not going to change my story for all the reasoning in the world. He isn’t going to stop, she’s said before. It can only get worse, she’s said before. A man who hits you can’t love you, she’s said before. Either way, it’s always the same thing.
I fell. I tripped. I’m clumsy.
She takes me to our olive green couch and has me sit among the array of embroidered pillows. Above it hang our graduation pictures. Michael is going to be a senior at the University of Virginia in the fall and plays lacrosse on a full scholarship. He’s a business major and has already completed three internships with major corporations. He opens doors for girls and shoots hoops with the guys and has been dating the potential valedictorian of their graduating class for the past two years. She looks like a Barbie; she speaks like a Princeton graduate.
Melissa goes to Columbia in New York City. She’s two years away from being able to graduate summa cum laude without breaking a sweat. She studied abroad in France; she’s conversational in three languages. She was a cheerleader all four years of high school. She’s 5’7. She can’t weigh more than 115 pounds.
My picture is last, furthest to the right. I smile weird on cue, so my eyes are squinted in my picture. My face looks bigger than my brother’s and sister’s, because it is. I’m the youngest, but my face is the biggest. Melissa always assures me that my picture is cute. When Mom doesn’t think I’m listening, I hear her tell Melissa that hers is beautiful.
My mother rests her thin hand on my knee. She wants me to know I can tell her anything. She wants me to know that Jason can’t treat me this way. She wants me to leave him.
“Leave him,” she tells me.
“Because I’m stupid enough to walk into a door?”
Her mouth forms a straight line and her eyes are turning the same soft pink as her pajamas. She says, “You know that isn’t why.”
“Mom…stop. Please. You have to stop worrying; you have to trust me. I don’t want to do this right now. I just want to be home for the summer and relax…can we just relax? I’m exhausted, Mom. I’m too tired to do this right now.”
My mother runs her elegant fingers through my hair. She wants to say so much, but I’m hoping she won’t. She’s shaking her head and she’s petting my hair and because I don’t want to cry, I look away. She leans forward and takes the remote off the table and changes the channel from some infomercial to a late night show. She sits there for a second and tries to watch it. I try to watch it, too. But it’s hard when I hear her sniffing next to me. It’s hard trying to disregard her tears.
When she can’t ignore it any longer, she pulls me close and hugs me tight and cries into my hair. One of her fingers is pressing my burn exactly, and it’s absolute hell. I can’t say anything, though. She’d have an emotional breakdown if she ever had to see the burn.
“I really, honestly believe, Rachel, that you need the self-confidence to leave a man like Jason. And I think that if you just tried…if you just tried to lose a little bit of weight, you’d realize how beautiful you are. And you’d decide that you deserve better.”
I take a deep breath and swallow back the stinging tears. And I close my eyes and try to separate myself from this moment. From my mother’s home-gym-toned arms; from Melissa’s gorgeous picture hanging over my head; from Michael’s million dollar future; from this imported couch with its thousand dollar pillows. I separate myself from this house and its flawlessness; I separate myself from Mom’s same old reasoning: That I’m settling for Jason because I’m insecure with myself. That I’d be happier thinner, that I deserve to have a healthy body, that my clothes would fit so much nicer and my face would look so much brighter if I just got rid of about fifteen pounds. That I can do it; that just because I’ve tried to lose the weight before and wasn’t very successful doesn’t mean that I’ll never be successful. Don’t I know I come from a line of successful people? Don’t I know success runs in my blood? Don’t I see that? Can’t I get that?
She wants me to believe I’m worth it; that my lack of self-worth is reflected through my outer appearance. That guys like Jason see that; they get that. They see my type all the time. They prey on my type. And I have to prove to myself that I’m better than him before I’ll believe that I deserve better. That’s what she believes. That’s what she always says. And that’s what I need to separate myself from; that’s what I’m separating myself from at this very moment.
She sees Jason’s flaws. I see a person who accepts my flaws. I see a person who doesn’t compare me to anyone else. I hear that person; I hear his words. I think about his words now, so I don’t have to listen to hers.