My Pretty Pink Puffed Sleeves – Lydia Spitler
** In accordance with the author’s wishes, all names have been changed.
Wake up. Roll over to make sure he’s still there. Kiss his shoulder — gently — taste his skin. Smell the musk of his unwashed body. Listen to him breathe. Triple check it’s not a dream.
Listen carefully to the lecture about husbands hitting wives, mens rea and proximate cause. Fight yourself as you begin to slip into your past. Feel the keys beneath your fingers as you type your notes. Remember today is not a dream.
Eat your tortilla soup and wait for him to text that he’s home from work. Try not to worry. Take in the pungent smell of cilantro and jalapeno. Remind yourself he will be there when you get home. Remember he is not a dream.
Stroll home from the bus stop on the corner of Raleigh and Hamilton. Smell the rain-fresh air, and feel the slight squish of puddles beneath your ballet flats. Resist the urge to hurry home to find him. Know he is still there.
Unlock the front door and tell the dog to sit. Walk to the couch to kiss him. Feel him kiss you back. Touch the soft skin on the nape of his neck. See him; smell him; feel him. He is not a dream.
I think I was 4 years old when I first became aware of my father’s anger. I remember sitting cross-legged in the corner of the living room, between the beige, crumbling couch and the dark laminate bookshelf, watching my parents argue. I remember them yelling about something—probably money. I remember dad grabbing my mom’s hair and pulling her close to his face and squeezing her cheeks between his tensed red hands and staring her down with his ice-blue eyes and furrowed brow and speaking so close she must have been able to see every pore of his yellowing teeth. I remember him letting go with force, sending her toward my corner. I remember him bending over to pick up the wooden ottoman that sat near the rocking chair on his side of the room. I remember the ottoman coming toward me, missing my mom, hitting my arm. I remember my mom picking me up and carrying me to my room and placing me on my pink bed among all my stuffed bears and telling me to sit quietly and to pray. I remember her leaving my room and closing the door on her way out. I remember her curdling screams, his booming voice. I remember crying, thinking the reflection of my ears on the ceiling light was an angel. I remember thinking the angel said it would be okay.
It was like this 25% of the time. Another 25% was made up of father-daughter bonding, family activity nights, and laughter. I have to sit down and think to recall those days. Probably 50% of the time, it was somewhere in-between: not quite throwing furniture, but definitely not joy. Usually, dad was silent. He would leave for work before I woke up and come back just before bedtime. He would spend his weekends on the computer or watching football. Silence. Only the occasional scowl or complaint of boredom to remind us he was there.
Often, the silent times were more excruciating than the mayhem. At least flying furniture and yelling were sure. Mayhem was tangible. It was manifest anger, visible anger. It had a certain predictability to it. You knew you were struggling to stay above water while walking on fractured ice.
With silence came uncertainty. You knew you were walking on ice, but there was no way of measuring its girth. It felt thick—safe, even—but you knew you couldn’t be sure. Either you would get through the silence and to those moments of joy, or the silence would break to mayhem.
During silence, you were never to tell dad something that might upset him. This meant not telling him that mom bought me a new pair of jeans because my old ones ripped. We couldn’t afford the pants. This meant not telling him when I got a A- on my spelling test. I should have gotten an A. This meant not telling him when we had already eaten dinner by the time he got home. We should have waited.
My first holiday home after leaving for college, silence quickly broke to mayhem. I don’t remember what caused it to break, but I remember dad towering over me, his face swollen and red with anger, his jaw clenched, his stumpy body pressing me up against the wall. I remember him grabbing my face with tensed hands and digging his fat fingers into my skull. I tasted the sulfuric flavor of his breath as he spat out discouragements: “Whore. Slut. Disappointment.”
That was the last time. I left. I told him he didn’t have power over me. He wasn’t my authority. I left.
You are a little girl, first grade. Your dress is pretty and pink, puffed sleeves, matching pretty pink panties. You always wear dresses. You only go to recess because the teacher says you must. The playground is a bad place. He is on the playground.
He is a little boy, fifth grade. Tattered jeans. Red T-shirt. Dirty hands. Dirty face. Dirty.
He chases you like little boys chase little girls. He catches you. He pushes you down. He gets on top of you. He says he wants you. He unbuttons his dirty jeans, lifts your pretty pink skirt. Now your pretty pink dress is dirty. Your pretty pink panties are dirty. You are dirty.
You tell the teacher. You tell her he made you dirty. She says that’s what little boys do. You tell her this was different. She says it’s normal, you’re overreacting, go play.
You go back to the playground. You sit on the soft pebbles that line the ground. You urinate, because your pretty pink dress is already dirty. Your pretty pink panties are already dirty. You are already dirty.
The teacher sees. She calls your mom. Mom picks you up, asks why you soiled yourself. You say you were already dirty. Mom doesn’t understand.
Bryan and I made love for the first time January 26, 2009—a few days before my 17th birthday. It was uncomfortable, and it was awkward. I remember The Dark Knight playing on the TV. His body was heavy on top of mine, and the second-hand mattress felt lumpy under my cold, naked body. The sheets smelled musky, like they hadn’t been washed in months. His mouth gaped open and his teeth poked out as he bobbed up and down. He never kissed me. I could barely breathe.
Still in the bedroom with him, I called my best friend immediately after to tell her what happened. I made her guess. She guessed correctly on the first try. I think I told her it was amazing, that I was so in love. That night, I posted on an online forum that “we finally did it,” that “it was wonderful,” and “my eyes ha[d] been opened.”
But I also remember thinking it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be: it wasn’t magic. I remember thinking maybe I was wrong to expect magic. I remember hoping it would fix our relationship, hoping this new activity would somehow prevent us from arguing. It would make us so connected, so in love, that we wouldn’t be able to fight.
Sex didn’t stop the fighting. We married young after a tumultuous teenage romance, and ended up with an equally tumultuous marriage.
You are a little girl, first grade. Your dress is pretty and purple, cap sleeves, pretty polka dot panties. You go to recess again because the teacher says you must. He is there again. You stay near your friends.
He is a little boy, fifth grade. Black basketball shorts. White tank. Dirty hands. Dirty face. Dirty.
He chases you again like little boys chase little girls. Your friends chase after. He grabs you. You get away. He catches up, pulls at your skirt. You trip, fall down. He pushes you onto your back, gets on top of you. Your friends watch. They don’t know what to do. He says he wants your babies. He puts his dirty hand up your pretty skirt, pulls down his dirty shorts, lifts your pretty skirt. Now your pretty purple dress is dirty. Your pretty polka dot panties are dirty. You are dirty. Again, you are dirty.
Your friends run to the teacher. The teacher says that’s what little boys do. Little boys chase little girls. They tell her this was different. She says it’s normal, they’re overreacting, go play.
My husband rolled toward me, reached down, and started rubbing my vagina. I turned away and told him no, not tonight. Bryan moved closer to me, his left hand wrapped underneath my body and grabbing my right breast, his right arm stretched down the length of my torso, his fingers pressed firmly into my clit. He pushed his mouth to my ear. I could feel the harsh thrust of his breath as he told me that he was going to take me, that he knew I wanted it.
He rolled my body toward him and pulled my panties to the side. His body was heavy on top of mine. His mouth gaped again, but he still never kissed me. I could barely breathe.
“I don’t like it when you tell me no,” he said later that night. “It makes me feel like I’m raping you.”
You are a little girl. Your dress is pretty and peach, long lace sleeves, pretty cream panties. You still go to recess because the teacher says you must. He is still there. You hide behind a tree.
He finds you. He doesn’t chase you because you don’t run. You’re too tired. He gets on top of you, unbuttons his pants, lifts your pretty peach skirt. All the kids can see. He says he knows you want it. Everyone hears him.
He makes your dress dirty, your panties dirty. He makes you dirty.
You go inside when the bell rings. You stand in line with the rest of the children, waiting to go back into the classroom. Your classmates laugh at you while you wait. They chant, “Mark humped Lydia!”—giggling the whole while. You cry. The teacher hears. She grabs you. She takes you to the principal’s office. He calls your mom and dad.
Mom comes. She’s crying. Dad comes. He’s red in the face, scowling. He looks at you and says you were raped. You don’t understand. You just know you’re dirty. Your whole body is dirty. Your dress is dirty. It’s all dirty.
My eyes drooped as I drove home from the airport after four days out of town and a cross-country flight. I had been on the other side of the country for a work conference. It was the six-year anniversary of when Bryan and I started dating, and I just wanted to get home so I could snuggle my husband and take a quick nap. We had dinner reservations at our favorite Ethiopian restaurant for later that night. We planned to go spend the next weekend at a resort.
My husband met me as I unlocked the door to our apartment. I embraced him and told him I had missed him. He said he missed me too. I looked around the entry, seeing the sparkly clean kitchen and living room. I told him thank you for cleaning. He said you’re welcome.
But something was off. He spoke in a hushed tone. His hug was light and indifferent. I asked him what was wrong. I told him whatever it was, it would be okay. We could get through anything together. He said we had to talk.
“I’m leaving you,” he said.
I looked around the room and realized part of the reason it looked so clean was because items were missing—his Buddha, rows of DVDs and video games, his Green Lantern flag.
I didn’t understand. We hadn’t been fighting more than normal. We had probably been fighting less, actually. It was our anniversary. We loved each other. I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I asked him to repeat himself. I asked him if this was a sick joke. I asked him why he was rushing into such a brash decision.
He said he had been thinking about it for a long time. I started sobbing.
He said he still loved me, but that we weren’t right. I could barely breathe.
I sat sobbing, hyperventilating in the corner of the living room, wedged between our forest green futon and our wooden rocking chair. He left. He said he was done with me. He left.
Lay down in bed. Feel Derek roll over, reach down, touch your vagina. Turn away, tell him no, not tonight, you’re too tired. Feel him move closer to you, gently grazing your stomach as he moves his hand up to your left breast. Feel him push his mouth to your ear and kiss you. Hear him ask if you can still snuggle. Nod your head. Lose yourself to sleep. Dream.
Wake up, startled by a nightmare. Listen to him snore. Close your eyes and let the sound take you back to sleep. He’s still there. It’s not a dream.