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Impetus

By Lauren Sanders

When you were six, you wanted purple eyes.

Veronica’s were a pretty green, and Nina’s eyes were the clear color of your cousins’ above-ground pool, where you sometimes went swimming in the summer. Your own eyes were brown, and you hated them.

You were six, and you were all hands: wanting, grabbing, taking. So you dragged a kitchen chair in front of the open pantry, climbed up onto it, and strained to reach the teardrop bottle of food coloring on the cluttered top shelf.

Twisting open the cap, you squirted a heavy stream into your left eye.

And all you felt then was burning—intense, searing heat that shot into your skull and squeezed, tighter and tighter, and you screamed, clawed at your socket, scratching and tearing with such fervor that you couldn’t keep your balance on the wobbly wooden chair, so you tumbled off, hitting the right side of your body hard against the linoleum of your kitchen floor.

That’s where your mother—wrapped in a robe, wet hair hanging like brass snakes around her face—found you seconds later.

“Angela! Jesus…” you heard her voice, somewhere above you, and the scraping of the overturned chair as it was shoved across the floor. Then she was pushing your hands out of the way, peering into your tear-and-dye streaked face. “Oh Angie baby, what did you do to yourself?”

“I wanted purple eyes,” you whispered, and the words now felt stupid and awkward on your tongue.

She shook her head, handed you a cold washcloth, and told you to dab at your eye. You sat back against the wall, sniffling, pressing the wet cloth against your face.

Setting the chair upright, your mother turned to you, and you shrank harder against the plaster, lowered your eyes from her sudden, desperate glare. “What have I told you about standing on chairs?”

***

You wondered when your hands had gotten too big for your wrists. Looking down at them, the left holding your black paddle brush, the right stroking your mother’s fading bronze hair, you saw your wide, flat palms, your giant, sprawling fingers and the cuticles you’d picked bloody and raw, and they were foreign to you. Your wrist bones jutted almost through the skin, stuck out like large marbles at the base of your arms.

“Angie baby,” your mother, lying prone on the couch, groaned into the pillow as she twisted her head slightly to the right, lips dragging across the worn green fabric. In the small, dark room, with the curtains pulled haphazardly across the wide windows so that a thin stream of white-gold light still bled inside, you could only make out the shadow of her face.

Still—that name. You tightened your grip on the brush handle and pulled it harder through the thinning hair, ripping out a few strands as you did.

“Remember when I used to brush your hair? Before you cut it all off. Jesus, Angela, you lost your damn mind that day...” Her voice was muted by the pillow and all the smoke she’d dragged into her lungs since she was 15 years old and started sneaking cigarettes from her older brother.

You never brushed my hair , you wanted to spit back at her, except the fist of resentment had closed too high in your throat for you to respond. But you, you were so tired of being quiet.

***

“Angie baby,” Veronica started lazily, from where she lay sprawled on her back across her bed, flipping the pages of Seventeen. “You would look hot with highlights like this.” She pushed the magazine toward where you sat against her wall, knees to your chest, uncomfortable, pretending to read. You stood, and your fingers grazed the smooth picture. Veronica squinted up at you from underneath a line of fine, dark bangs that fell to just above her eyelashes, and grinned. “Unless you cut it all off again.” She reached up and touched the ends of your hair, which now fell in gentle waves below your shoulders. “You were such a wreck,” she reminded you.    

Being around Veronica was like being wrapped too tightly in a heavy blanket: suddenly, you couldn't move, you couldn't breathe; you were spinning and spinning and getting nowhere and your arms were pressed fiercely against your sides. Air came to your lungs in short, shallow gasps.

You looked at her pretty, smiling face, and you wanted to hit her. Your fist made solid contact with her lower jaw, and between her scream and your sudden shudder of shock and release, you thought you heard a quiet, sickening crack, but it might have been nothing. It might have been her face or your knuckles, but it might have been nothing. And then there was silence.

You wanted her to hit you back. She sat there, legs underneath her, leaning away from you, tears lining her eyes, hands cradling her face, and she looked at you and you looked at her and neither of you moved. “Please hit me,” you whispered, and you didn’t know you’d said it out loud until the tears were running down her cheeks.

“Ange,” she said, her hollow voice collapsing around the thin stream of blood that gurgled out of the corner of her mouth. “You’re fucked up.”

***


Her hair felt fragile in your hands: delicate and breakable, like old bones. You wanted to be careful and you wanted it to snap. Wanted to run and wanted to stay, and maybe the best decision would be to implode on the spot, here in this gray, dull room, where you couldn’t be and had to be. There was a quiet, numbing ache in your stomach, but it had been there for so long it was barely even a feeling anymore. 

“I’m so tired,” your mother whispered.

For some reason you couldn’t explain, the dense sphere of guilt dropped like a ball in your chest.

“I’m sorry,” you answered, and wished you knew why.

***

The ground was wet. Sticky—the mud felt sticky against the back of your bare arms, all along your neck and in your hair. A small rock lodged itself under your right shoulder. You were lying down, face up, between a rundown tool shed and a line of fencing banked from behind by blue Pine trees that stretched their eager branches across into the yard. It smelled like heavy damp dirt and Christmas. 

Kyle Gallen knelt in front of you, his pants pulled down to his knees.

You didn’t even know what sex was, not really, until three days ago, when Veronica folded her legs under the lunch table next to you, demanded your attention and that of Nina and the other three girls sitting with you, and explained, detail by detail, everything her older sister Jessie had explained to her the night before.

“I think it sounds great,” she said when she’d finished, with a 30-year-old shrug of her 12-year-old shoulders. You looked at her, your face and neck hot with shame (desire, confusion, maybe a mix of all three), and you thought maybe you’d like to have sex, too.

Turning away, you noticed thin, bleary-eyed Kyle watching your table from across the room.

“I got it from my brother,” Kyle was saying, still kneeling in front of you, holding a small plastic package. He ripped it open and pulled out the condom. It was blue and wet and rubbery, and when you looked at it, you thought you wanted to cry.

He had a small patch of acne just under the left side of his chin that you hadn’t seen before, and his eyes didn’t ever completely focus: not on you, not on anything.

He looked not-quite into your eyes and asked if maybe you could help. You could only stare at him. Three days ago, you’d never heard the word condom.

Do it! you wanted to scream, as he shrugged, bent his head, and went back to work. Just...please, do it already. The sun was blazing high above you, but it didn’t reach through the branches of the blue pines, or temper the chill of the wind. You were cold.

In your right hand, you clutched the green underwear you’d put on that morning—they had a small purple cow in the top left corner and you remembered you’d bought them on the same day you bought your first bra.

“Are, uh...are you ready?” You heard his hesitant voice from somewhere beyond you, and a small, manic part of you wanted to laugh. Instead, you nodded.

Then an overwhelming pressure started between your legs and tore up through your stomach, your back, your chest, and it was wet and hard and it felt like blood: stale, sharp, and frightening.

Seconds or hours later, it was over. His body, slender and wiry, nearly collapsed on top of yours, and he looked not-quite at you through sated, dim eyes.

You felt dirty.

Mud was everywhere—streaking the backs of your arms and legs, covering your white tank top—but, most of all, it was caked in your hair and you wanted it gone.

You rolled away and stood up, left him there, breathing heavily into the ground. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you thought you heard him call your name. But, still clenching your green underwear in your right hand, you left the backyard and walked the six or seven blocks home without seeing any of them.

Letting yourself into the dark, empty house, you picked up the pair of orange scissors lying on the counter and went straight into the bathroom.

Each strand twisted in a grotesque, painful dance to the floor as you cut, thick dirt and pale blonde falling together on the tiny square tiles. For the first time you could remember, you felt air on your neck and you cut and cut until the mud was gone.

It was longer on the left side than on the right, and looking at your sweat- and earth-stained face, you wanted to drag the scissors across your freckled cheeks as well.

Instead, you dropped them in the sink and avoided meeting your own eyes in the mirror.

“Oh, Angie baby,” Veronica said the next day in the crowded hallway before homeroom, reaching up your neck to run her small, dark hand through the remnants of your mangled hair. “What happened to you?”

You happened and he happened and it happened and I happened to me, you thought. She’d never touched you like that before. Her eyes were clear; right then, you loved her and you wanted to hate her.

***

The black brush was starting to fill with hair, but you kept up your steady rhythm anyway. The single sliver of white-gold light had shifted and dulled, until the room was just a box full of heavy and dark. You thought maybe you’d been sitting in it for years. Your mother moaned—a quiet, innocent sound, and your own name might or might not have been pressed out into the pillow.    

“I’m here,” was all you could manage.

 

Lauren Sanders is a Sophomore English major at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She has had work in the school's literary magazine, and published a piece of creative nonfiction, Ninety-Sixth, in VerbSap.

Photo "Eye 2" (cropped) courtesy of Heather Foley, U.S.

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