Repression is a defense mechanism. Is a coping strategy. Is forgetting in order to protect yourself from hurting. Isn’t that an awfully kind thing to do for yourself? The caveat is that, like most matters concerning the human body, it doesn’t work all of the time. Sometimes you feel the hurt but you don’t remember why—nothing more than phantom pains. Other times the memory slips out inexplicably. You remember, but you don’t want to remember, and your knuckles turn white from clutching the bed sheets too tight.
There must be a logic to this remembrance, a formal rationale, something that more or less makes sense. Maybe. But right now I can’t seem to pull it out from the dregs of my mind.
When I was three years old I opened the door to my mother’s moving car and fell out.
It didn’t hurt. It was just our car on the road. We were going 15 miles per hour. My knees were scratched up from the concrete, elbows a little bruised from the landing.
The neighbors called the police because they thought the accident was intentional. When they arrived, they questioned my mother briefly before turning their attention to me. I told them I was okay! With a little flourish, fingers wriggling. See! I’m okay! And they left soon after, probably wondering what compels a three-year-old girl to pull the asphalt toward her tiny body.
I wonder too, some eighteen years later. The memory usually lies dormant, tucked away somewhere in the clutter of my mind, but on rare occasions it glides out from beneath itself, tasting like that hot summer day, doused in tar and warm lemonade. It comes in a flood. Dislodged by what? I wonder about that too. Sometimes by nothing in particular. Sometimes a bike helmet, a tap on the shoulder, the shudder of a furnace. I called my mother the other day to ask her. I never thought to do it before.
She said it was the 4th of July and my father had the day off from work. They were painting the porch and I tried to help but I kept losing my brush in the bucket. I was a nuisance. She put me in the backseat, didn’t think to fasten my seatbelt. My grandmother’s house was just a couple blocks away. I’d spend the day there, eat all the candy I want. Then before she knew it I was reaching and pulling and barreling. Thank god you weren’t hurt, she said. Thank god. I asked her why? And she said why? Well, because you were curious. That’s all? I ask her.
Her name was Celina. You called her your girlfriend. It was a borrowed title. You couldn’t pick apart love from infatuation, but she could. She was neither in love nor infatuated with you. Your mouth still hurts from not being able to kiss her.
Most people get depressed in the desolate winter, when the landscape is barren and even the trees seem frail, but it was just the opposite for me. In the heat of June, I moved out of my room upstairs and slithered into the basement, sleeping on the spare mattress until it became my dwelling.
The misconception is that depression is an unbearable sadness, a melancholy rooted deep in the bones. It was much less than that actually. In fact, it seemed like nothing at all.
I would sleep for more than eighteen hours a day, waking only to exchange sparse sentences with my worried family. I’d languish in bed until my bladder hurt, until I had to push myself up using my elbows and crawl to the bathroom just to piss. My mother called me to eat but I said I wasn’t hungry and watched the food pile up in the pantry. I lost ten pounds that summer. Sometimes, but not often, if I was feeling particularly well, I would sit at the living room window and watch cars pass by for hours. I thought about dying too, and upon remembering how much effort it would take to plan my suicide, would go back to sleep.
Anger is a monster. Anger in men is worse. What does a woman do when she is angry? Bite down on her tongue. Dig her fingertips into the flesh of her palm. Close her eyes. She turns her back. She sends the child to bed. Irate men stomp, yell, bicker, slap, rage. There are holes in the wall. There are broken glasses on the floor. Whiskey is a monster too. The woman stands in the kitchen and sobs and the man tries to shout over the noise. She is as red as a cherry, as a tomato. The man leaves. The man returns. The child is sleeping. The woman is silent. A quiet rage tiptoes through the house. He apologizes. She forgives him.
Why don’t you just leave him?
— It’s not as simple as that.
Yes, it is. He hurt you, so you leave him.
— It’s not as simple as that.
How is it not?
— It just isn’t.
He hit you. He beat you.
— I know. But he was drunk.
And then there’s you;
you need a father.
Sober or drunk. What’s the difference?
This was your wedding night, for God’s sake.
I wasn’t even conceived yet.
— I know, but I still love him.
You wouldn’t understand.
You’re right. I don’t understand.
— I hope you never do.
It happened at a four way intersection. No stop lights, just red signs jutting from the ground. There was a blind spot, a crash, a collision. No casualties, but the other driver was so afraid she had wet her pants, standing on the corner of the street half-weeping. I tried to call my father but the phone rang and rang and rang.
You keep fireflies in a jar because you think they’re beautiful. You do not realize until you are much older that they were dying. You steal your mother’s diamond rings when she’s not home and slip them on your fingers even when you know they won’t fit now or ever. You write poems and hide them underneath your pillow. You slather your face with lotions and creams and sprays because you hope it just might change something. You fold your arms across your chest because nipples are blossoming against your shirt and your cheeks are hot with shame. You panic when you swallow a wad of bubblegum. You wonder if it’ll still be there in seven years’ time. You bury dead frogs in the backyard because you think they deserve a proper burial too. You press your ears against your parents’ bedroom door. You had a bad dream but you are afraid of intruding. You call her at night and speak in a low whisper. You tell her you love her. You wait for her to say it back. You keep waiting. You hang up the phone.
I cope the only way I know how: drinking until it hurts, or until whatever anguish I felt prior stops hurting, until I am on my knees, head bent over the rim of a toilet. Last time it was less a fight and more of a grievance, misplaced words that left welts on my ego after he said them. I drank until I couldn’t see, until I couldn’t remember the turn of his mouth. The bile burned at the lining of my stomach and threatened to rise in my throat. On the verge of a spill, I felt a sudden terror and stumbled to the bedroom like an infant to wake him. I wanted him to hold my hand, my hair, my hips—some essence of my body, in fear that I would lose bits of myself once I vomited, but when I pleaded with him he handed me a pillow and told me he had work in the morning. I fell asleep on the bathroom floor and woke, aching all over, to the sound of his alarm. I tip-toed toward the stranger in my bed and watched him wake with foggy eyes. I suppose I understood my mother’s words in that moment, my forehead pressed against the chipped paint of the doorway; I may be my father’s daughter, but I always had her luck.
Self-destructive behavior may be born of impulse or intent. It becomes habit. Habits become addiction. When I was a girl, I told my mother I hated her and left the room because I couldn’t stand her sobbing. When it is quiet, and my husband seems too at peace, I grab his wrists and dig my nails into the flesh of his arms. I am cruel. We all are. Sometimes it is deliberate. Mostly, it seems, it is impulse. Self-destructive, self-deprecating, self-sabotaging. Fatal, at times. Cupio dissolvi, as they say. In high school they taught me Freud’s theories about little boys wanting to screw their mommies but they never taught me how he ended his own life with three injections of morphine. Chronic smoking, half a jaw, aching lungs. It hurt too much, so end it. He did, after all. Twenty cigarettes a day, until the cancer wouldn’t stop spreading. Cupio: I wish, I want. Dissolvi: to be dissolved, to be destroyed. We bite the hand that feeds, so to say. We open the car door to rolling asphalt, so to say. Children are dangerous. Too curious for their own good. Some things are better left forgotten. Some things are better remembered—as reminders, as warnings. But what good does a warning do if we’ll make the same mistakes again and again? What lesson is learned? Is there one? He hurts you and you stay with him anyway. I love him, you say. He’ll be better, you say. People change. For better or for worse. You wouldn’t understand. Till death do us part. Memories and ash.
I wish… I wish…
That it was better?
That it was different.
About the Author
Nyna Dies is wonderfully fond of the profound and the profane. An Iowa native, she has since graduated summa cum laude from Hawai’i Pacific University with an English degree. Her poetry has been featured in publications such as University of Chicago’s Euphony Journal and Virginia Commonwealth University’s plain china.