Aidan is home drunk again, and again I will have to pretend to be asleep. His keys jingle in the door, waking me. I silently curse myself for being a light sleeper and look over at the glowing red lights on the nightstand. 2:13am. I shut my eyes tight, but not too tight, slow my breathing, open my mouth ever so slightly, and let my muscles go limp. I lay there willing my body not to betray me. I hear a slight thud against the floor, just before he slides into bed behind me. I can tell from the way my nightgown lifts off my skin ever so slightly and adheres to him that every stitch of his clothing is lying in a pile next to the bed.
I keep my breath even, but I can do nothing about my racing heart. When he begins to hike up my nightgown, I garble some unintelligible sound, and roll a little closer to the edge of the bed, hoping signs of my nocturnal habits will turn him off, but he doesn’t stop. His hand slips down the back of my underwear.
“Babe?” I whisper
“Hmm.” He groans.
“What time is it?” I croak, attempting to distract him.
His only response is to slide my underwear further down my thighs.
Before I feel the soft cotton hit the back of my kneecaps, I begin to squirm.
“I’m tired.” I make every effort to keep my voice strong and assertive.
“Shhh,” he says as he clenches my shoulder to brace himself and slams into me.
“Please. No.” I beg him, my confidence shattered.
My pleas fall on deaf ears and he continues.
I lay there silent and stiff with the sheets balled up in my fists. Tears run down my cheeks, and over his fingers like mini waterfalls, as I wait for it to be over.
He gives one last low grunt, and with an over exuberant thrust of his hips, it’s done. He throws his thigh over my body and falls asleep still inside of me.
I wait until his body grows heavy and I slip off of the bed down to the floor, releasing myself. I look over my shoulder at him, sleeping like the dead, and I crawl out of our bedroom door, still ajar from when he entered. Once I’m in the hallway I stand up and slide along the wall to the bathroom.
I push the door shut trying not to make a sound, and lock the door with equal care. I wrap my arms tight around my body, and begin to sob.
Water from the shower pours down onto my bare shoulders. I sit over the drain and watch the pool forming around my toes. I tuck my chin to my chest and press my knees to the top of my head. My belly rises and my back arches and falls with each breath. The rhythm is deceiving. So calm and steady.
How did I get here? I remember the first time it happened. I remember not even realizing what had happened until it was already over. I remember the way I scooted as close to the edge of my side of the bed as I could; I curled so tightly in on myself that my joints ached. I stared at the same corner of the room for hours. I watched the way it changed as the light shifted and night begrudgingly gave way to day. I remember squeezing my eyes shut when I heard him stirring beside me. I remember the feeling of his eyes on me, as he checked to see if I was awake. I remember the way I froze when he touched me on the forehead, gently whispering, telling me I was going to be late for work. I remember being confused by him acting so normal; had I imagined the night before? I remember releasing my extremities when he left, and rolling onto my back. I stared at the stark canvas of the ceiling, and began to weave the tale that would allow me to stay. He doesn’t know what he did. He must have been really drunk. He’s never done that before. Maybe he didn’t hear me say stop. Maybe I didn’t say it loud enough. That must be it. It was just a misunderstanding. It’s not like he ra--. It’s not like he meant to hurt me. And just like that I’d convinced myself of a lie in face of stark reality.
I raise my head, close my eyes and let the water tap a beat on my lids. After a breath to steady myself, I grope the tiled walls, turn off the water and step out into a cloud of steam.
I drag my palm across the foggy mirror and stare back at my reflection. She looks like me. But is she me? As the water begins to dry, my tear stains become more pronounced. I pull the black elastic hair tie from my wrist and gather up my curls on the crown of my head. I splash my face with cool water hoping to stir some life, but I am numb. And somehow, I am here.
I look at my underwear and nightgown lying in a heap next to the toilet like they have betrayed me. I pick them up and toss them in the garbage. I open the linen closet and pull out a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt from my secret stash I started compiling when it became apparent that Aidan was going to make a habit of these late night rendezvous.
I tiptoe down the hall and peek into our bedroom. He’s got one leg dangling off the edge of my side of the bed, and he’s started to snore. I pull the door shut until it’s only open a crack.
The water pitcher is practically empty. I scowl at the empty air. I look up at the clock on the wall 4:00am, too late to go back to sleep now. So, I fill the kettle up from the tap, and take down a fresh pouch of chamomile tea from the cupboard, hoping it will do something for my nerves.
I pace back and forth in front of the stove, not wanting to be far when the whistle blows. When steam begins to rush out of the spout, I remove it from the flame before it can sound its alarm, and pour the hot water into my cup.
I curl up in my favorite chair and stare out of the window. The Hudson River is calm and serene. Lights twinkle on the Jersey shoreline as I sip my tea. When I get to the bottom of the cup, I place it on the coffee table beside me, and lean my head against the back of the chair. I close my eyes and send silent prayers to every known God and a few I have created, begging them for clarity, for hope, and for deliverance from this familiar pain. Before I have time to stop myself, I fall asleep.
“Shae? Shae baby it’s 8 o’clock. You’re gonna be late for work.”
I wake up to Aidan’s big brown eyes and pearly white teeth smiling down at me. I uncurl my legs and plant my feet on the floor. I roll my shoulders back, and stretch my arms above my head.
Aidan plants a kiss on my forehead, turns and heads for the kitchen.
“Why’d you go to sleep out here?”
“You were drunk when you came home.”
“Sorry babe, I went out with some colleagues after work and got a little carried away.”
“That’s the seventh time in the last 3 months that you’ve gotten ‘a little carried away.’”
“Aw, come on Shae, it’s not like I’m an alcoholic or something. I know you’re grumpy from sleeping out in the chair but gimme a break. Was I snorin’ or somethin’? Is that why you came out here?”
My voice drops to barely above a whisper.
“You did it again.”
“Did what again?”
I turn to look at him, but I can barely make eye contact. He hangs his head.
I turn and look back out of the window.
“I’m sorry baby, I know that must be really uncomfortable for you…”
I whip my head around.
“Uncomfortable?” I scowl at him. “Uncomfortable!”
“Take it easy.”
“Take it easy? I said no Aidan. I said no! And you didn’t stop.”
“Hold up now, what are you tryna say?”
“I’m saying you came into our bed drunk off your ass, and…”
Aidan comes around the kitchen island. He clenches his fists, and his lips turn up into a cold sneer.
“And what Shae? And what?”
He’s so close to me now I can feel the anger rolling off of him in waves.
“I can’t believe this shit.”
He backs away from me and storms down the hallway.
“Ain’t this a way to start the day.” His voice echoes off the walls.
I hear a door slam, and then the sound of breaking glass. I’m frozen in my spot for what feels like entirely too long. Then I make a run for it. I dash around the corner into my bedroom, snatch my wallet off the dresser, slip on the flip flops at the end of my bed, and make a beeline for the door. I snatch my keys from the hook and I’m gone.
Rush hour pedestrian traffic fills the streets, and I slip easily into the throng on Broadway. Despite my state of dress, no one looks at me, no one attempts to make eye contact, and I let the crowd take me. My body moves on auto-pilot and my mind goes blank. I don’t want to think. Don’t want to feel. I just want to walk until my legs give out.
The crowd starts to thin around Lincoln Center, and I reach instinctively for my pocket to look at my phone and check the time. I dig down deep into the crevices coming up with nothing more than lint balls. I frantically check my other pocket, but I already know where it is. Sitting on the nightstand, nestled in its charger. Damn!
I spot a pay phone near the subway station and deposit some change from the pouch in my wallet.
I punch in a few numbers, and wait.
“Good morning! Idlewild Talent and Literary Agency, how may I help you?” Mina’s sweet, melodic voice greets me.
“Good morning Mina.” I throw every ounce of energy I have into sounding bright and cheery.
“Oh, hi Shae! Good morning.”
“I’m having a bit of a family emergency and I’m not going to be able to come in today.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“Hold on, a sec.”
“Lily’s stepped away from her desk for a second, so let me bring up your schedule.”
“Alright. Looks like you’ve got a staff meeting, and a couple of phone conferences… of course I can have Lily reschedule those, but, nothing too serious. So, I’ll have Lily postpone those meetings, and you should be all set.”
“Sounds good. I’ll see you tomorrow Mina.”
“See you tomorrow Shae!”
I hang up the phone and my hand lingers on the receiver. My hand tightens around it, and I hang my head. You will not call him Shae. Back away from the phone. I turn on my heel, and let my feet do the thinking.
Central Park in the summer time. The grass is green, the trees have fully blossomed, and the air smells almost fresh. If you go deep enough into its winding paths, you could almost forget you’re in the city. Almost. Rest assured a crazy taxi driver looking for a short cut to midtown will race by when you least expect it, taking years off of your life, just to remind you of where you are. Until then, feel free to get lost in the magic of it all.
I sit in the shade of an unclaimed tree and roll my sweatpants up to my knees. I tilt my head back and watch as the birds flutter back and forth between the branches. I let myself live in this moment just for a second, because I know the questions are coming. I briefly indulge fantasies of an urban Swiss Family Robinson, nestled in the heart of the city.
A brown mare trots along a path in the distance. I can just make out the couple in the carriage it pulls. Their faces are close together but they aren’t kissing. They look so… intimate. Their moment interrupts mine, and I feel my body closing in on itself. It starts in my chest, and rises up to my throat, until it stunts my breath. I feel dizzy. What am I going to do?
My palms grow clammy, and I feel sweat beads accumulating at my temples. The more my breath quickens, the more anxious I become, but the more anxious I am the more difficult it is to slow my breathing. It’s a vicious cycle. My nostrils feel constricted, no matter how much air I try to bring in it’s still not enough. I look around me. Is anyone seeing this? Can anyone feel my panic? Am I causing a scene? If I pass out right now will anyone even notice? I concentrate on each person that passes me from the path that crosses my tree. I stare at them, hoping they will feel my eyes and acknowledge that I am here.
An older gentleman glances in my direction. It worked! The sides of his lips curl up into a smile, his eyes warm, and he inclines his head in a silent gesture of greeting. I return his smile with what probably comes off as more of an awkward grimace. He returns to his own thoughts, and continues down the path.
He couldn’t tell! The concentration it took to make him look and my successful deception seem to quiet my pulse, but the aftershocks ripple through my body. My heart beat still bounces off the walls inside my head, and I can feel a headache creeping up behind my eyes.
I inch closer to the tree, and lean my head back until it kisses the bark. I cross my legs and place my hands, palm side down, on my knees. The proud city girl inside of me shakes her head at me in indignation, but I shut her out and close my eyes. I bring two fingers to my wrist to remind myself that my heart is not beating nearly as fast as I think it is, and then focus on my breath.
I first started having anxiety attacks when I was a child. The first one was just after my first choir solo in middle school. I’d sung in front of my church before, but this felt different. I got up in front of my whole school, closed my eyes, waited for the piano cue, opened my mouth and sang. I didn’t open my eyes again until I’d let the last note go. I listened to the piano trail off and close the ballad, and then there was silence.
Maybe it was the boy in the seventh row back, first seat on the right that I had a crush on, watching me intently. Maybe it was Sherri Johnson sitting front and center who loved telling me, “You think you’re better than somebody cuz you’re light skinned and got good hair, well you ain’t.” Or maybe it was my mama with her jaw set, passing judgment on every note that stepped a toe off-key, ‘cause she wasn’t gonna have me up there embarrassin’ her. Whatever it was, the quiet went on a moment too long for me, and I ran off the stage.
When a teacher found me a few hours later, I was huddled in the third floor bathroom stall, the front of my white blouse transparent from being drenched in sweat, and my black pants stuck to me like they were lined with adhesive. I had one hand on my head and the other gripping my chest as I looked up into her eyes and said, “I’m having a heart attack.” She scooped me up in her arms, and rushed me down the hall to the school nurse.
Nurse Liles was a pretty woman. She was a beautiful deep brown color and wore her hair in a short pixie cut. Her breasts were small but perky, and her hips, backside and thighs seemed to explode out from her itty-bitty waist. Boys 6th grade through 8th and even some teachers feigned illness just to spend a few quiet moments alone with her, but she paid them no mind at all.
As I lay there on the table looking up at her I swore she radiated sunshine. She was my angel, come to save me. My eyes fixed on her full pouty lips doused in red lipstick as she spoke to me. Even her breath was sweet.
“Shae. I’m Nurse Liles.”
I smiled shyly like I didn’t know who she was.
“How are you feelin’ sweetie?”
“My heart is beating too fast, and I feel kinda dizzy.”
She placed a stethoscope on my chest and listened. Then she took it out of her ears, and wrapped it around her neck. She held one end of it in each of her hands.
“I hear you had a big solo in the school concert today.”
“I hear you were amazing, the audience was clappin’ and cheerin’.”
“No they weren’t. You’re just trying to make me feel better.”
“No ma’am. I’m telling the truth. You were a hit!”
I drop my eyes away from hers.
“I guess I didn’t stay long enough to see that.”
“Yeah, I heard about that too. What happened?”
“I don’t really know. I just looked out into the crowd and all these faces were staring back at me, and I just couldn’t be there anymore.”
While I’m talking Nurse Liles has taken one of my hands in hers and has two fingers pressed against my pulse.
“How you feeling now, Shae?”
I stop and assess the situation. The sweat on my body has gone cold.
“I’m still a little dizzy, but I think my heart has gone back to normal. How’d you do that?”
“Have you ever felt like this before?”
“No, nothing like this has ever happened to me before. Was it a heart attack?”
Nurse Liles chuckled.
“Shae, what you just experienced is called an anxiety attack.”
“Sometimes under extremely stressful situations, people’s nervous systems go into overdrive. The result can lead to chest palpitations, hot and cold flashes and disorientation. I’m guessing seeing all of those people staring at you sent your body into a panic.”
I sat up on the Nurse’s table.
“How do I keep it from happening again?”
“You can do your best to stay calm, and take slow, deep breaths if you find yourself feeling anxious.”
“If you start having frequent anxiety attacks you could meet with a therapist to discuss other options, but that’s something you’d have to discuss with your parents.”
Horrifying visions of telling my mother I need to see a therapist flashed through my mind. I saw her standing there, one hand on her hip, eyes narrowed, “Therapy? What do you need therapy for? You can’t be goin’ out into the street tellin’ all this family’s business.” I shook my head. “Stay calm. Slow deep breaths. Got it.”
I slid my legs around until they were dangling over the side of the table.
“You sure you’re ready to go back to class.”
Nurse Liles bit the corner of her bottom lip and looked at me hard. “Promise me you’ll come back and see me if this happens again.”
“Sure.” I said a little too quickly and hopped off the table.
“I mean it Shae.”
I turned and looked Nurse Liles in the eye. “I promise I’ll come back if this happens again.”
And with that I made my way to 5th Period English.
The ground beneath my butt suddenly feels a lot harder than when I first sat down. I open my eyes and shift from one cheek to the other. The attack has passed, but I can tell it’s been there from the dull ache in my muscles. I stretch my arms up over my head, and press my shoulder blades together until I hear a small crack. My eyes take a moment to adjust to the bright mid-morning sun.
No one new crosses my path and I decide it’s time to move on. The blood rushes to my head as I jump up to standing. I steady myself with a hand on the tree. When I look down the path in either direction, neither looks particularly promising. I check to make sure no one is looking and indulge myself in a good old fashioned game of eeny-meeny-miney-mo, a tried and true means of decision making going back no doubt to the dawn of time. Right it is.