We stared at each other for a long moment. He didn’t respond right away. He didn’t pull me further, either. When he spoke, his smile was finally gone. It was replaced by a deep frown. Something in his head clicked, I think. “Faust, how would you get home, then?”
His grip on my wrist tightened, not enough to bruise, but enough to remind me where my place was. There was a reason I left him in the end. The reason still ached, still throbbed. After every argument we had mounted into pain, into the bruise that settled deep into my psyche, I left. After every time he told me I was a liar even if I was baring my heart open I should have known he’d never believe me, but I hoped. I brought my other hand to my face and rubbed my eye.
“You weren’t planning on coming home, were you?”
He was wrong. I had been planning on it, but something kept pulling at me, holding me here, even if I hated every second of it. Even if I didn’t want to be around my sister while she meddled in my life. When I stayed here, I dreamed of being somewhere else, someplace I could call my own. Someplace where I belonged. But there was nowhere, not even at his place.
And I was supposed to belong to him.
“I was, I swear,” I insisted. “I could have found a cheaper way, it’s f–”
“Fine? It’s fine? It isn’t fine, Faust. I’ve been worried about you,” he said. “You left without saying anything, wouldn’t speak to me. You said you’d come home, then you didn’t. How do you think that makes me feel?”
He shifted in place, toyed with the hem of his suit jacket. Then he sighed. “Faust. Tell me the truth. Were you going to come back? Or were you just going to steal my money and run away?”
“I was just… I wanted some more time… That’s all,” I said.
I wanted to smoke. I wanted to step out onto the porch and light a cigarette and sit in one of the old, shitty chairs and sink into nothingness. Wanted to stop thinking for a moment and let the fumes fill my lungs until I relaxed, but his eyes bore into me. His judgment held me in place. He kept saying he missed me, so why did I hesitate so much? I wish he’d say he loved me again.
“You hate it here,” he said instead. “You’ve always told me you didn’t like living here. What more time would you need? Faust, I don’t like it when you lie.” He brushed my hair from my forehead, his hand slid down my cheek, thumbed over the bruise around my eye. It felt like it would never heal. “I said I hate it when you lie.”
“I’m not lying,” I insisted, taking a step back. He followed me, crossing his arms. It almost looked like he was smiling, like the edges of his lips were going to turn up in a sneer.
“I know you bought something. I can see when you do. You know that. I don’t want to argue, I really don’t. What did you buy?”
“I just wanted more time. It was just… A snack. I just wanted something,” I lied, because I couldn’t manage to muster up the courage to disappoint him.
“What did I just say?”
I swallowed. Brilliant green eyes narrowed at me. “Cigarettes.”
His jaw clenched. His fingers dug into his arm, knuckles slowly turning white.
“What have I told you?”
“And what have you done about it?”
“Exactly! And then you lie to me about it. Come on, Faust. I do so much for you, and you’ve never once repaid me. And now you’re acting like this… You don’t even care about yourself. I’m the only one who seems to care about you. Why are you like this? Why don’t you listen?”
“I’m sorry, I’m just–” I shut up when he gripped my jaw, stroking his finger across my cheek. His eyes snapped up when the floor creaked. He let go. I rubbed my face, then looked at who interrupted. Beck. She didn’t look any better, but she’d smoothed down her hair slightly. She must have heard us, or at least part of what was happening.
“Let’s go, Faust,” he repeated. “I’ll get you fixed up.”
“You don’t have to go,” Beck started, but my husband glared her down. She glared back.
“No. You’ve done enough. This is our business.”
I fidgeted in my place. The walls suddenly felt closer, the ceiling lower. This wasn’t going how I thought it would. How I hoped it would. I’d almost wanted to go home with him when he kissed me. It was like when we first got together, the gentle caresses, the sweet words. But now they were laced with something different, volatile, dangerous. I was reminded of all our fights we’d already had, how every single one ended this way, no matter how good I was.
The love I imagined was just a dream and I wanted to keep dreaming. If I told him I loved him and I’d do anything for him, would I wake up? Or would I keep slumbering, his arms wrapped around me? I wanted to tell him what he wanted to hear, but something held the words back. They were stuck on the tip of my tongue.
If I went home with him, I doubt he’d let me return. And I wanted to come back. I wanted to stay with Mark and Zeke. I’d be happy with my husband, I think, maybe. Someday. But I’d be alone. I’d never catch up with my friends again. We wouldn’t go down to the pond. I’d never sit on the edge of the dock with my feet in the water. I’d never hear them laugh with me or tell me stories. I didn’t realize how much I wanted those things.
I just wouldn’t be perfect enough for him. That’s why I ran away. The realization sat heavy on my shoulders. I’d miss him, but…
“I love you,” I blurted out. “But I want… I want to stay with my friends for a while.” His knuckles whitened as he clenched his fist again. I knew when we left this room he’d hit me, could feel it in my blood, like the bruise was already starting to form. “They hadn’t seen me in so long so I wanted–”
“I don’t care what you wanted! If you wanted a little visit, you should have said so instead of trying to fight me and run away. You never just ask for things. You always make everything so difficult. You like being difficult, don’t you? And yet you act surprised when I get frustrated with your bitchy attitude.”
“I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t talk to him that way–” Beck started, but couldn’t finish.
He grabbed me by the collar, tugged me out of the room, and shoved me out the front door before Beck could even manage to blink. I stumbled once on the front steps, but caught myself before I could land in the dirt.
“Get in the car. Now.”
“No,” I coughed as I rubbed my neck. “I want to see my friends–”
“They don’t care about you. They haven’t seen you in years. They just pity you. I’m the one who's been taking care of you. You think they give a shit about you? Not the way I do.”
“You hurt me,” I whispered.
“Because you keep arguing with me. You brought it upon yourself.”
Our argument was about nothing and everything. It was always that way. I was walking on glass around him and it was cutting me deeper with every step. We’d fought about something so small before I came here. A frog. Just a tiny little frog. A speck in our relationship.
I picked up a frog on the road in the rain. Helped it to the other side of the road so it wouldn’t get run over and turned into mush, so it could go off and find a new pond to live in. Then I went home, let my husband in because he’d locked himself out. He held my hand and kissed me up against the wall, toyed with my hair. Asked me to cut it so I wouldn’t look so much like a girl. I told him about the frog. He asked if I washed my hands.
I didn’t, because I hadn’t gotten to the kitchen yet. I’d rubbed froggy slime all over him, and maybe he was worried he’d get sick and die. Maybe he worried I was trying to kill him. It’s hard to admit, but I thought about it sometimes, when he got really angry with me, but people would care if he was gone, and I’d be lonely in jail.
He was right, though. I did bring it on myself. But I thought that maybe I could bring this on myself, too. Change. Seeing my friends. I liked hanging out with them. Even the cold dirt felt better with them beside me. I thought I wouldn’t think of them again when I left. And I hadn’t, for so many years, but now I thought about the pond, the tiny fish I’d catch and hold in my hands, staring into their emotionless eyes before I threw them back into the murk. Mark once kissed one because he thought it was funny. I wished I was that fish for a moment, held and released, never trapped flopping around in someone else’s hand. Free in the end.
He was at my throat again, his face up in mine. His breath was hot as he spat his words in my face. “Get in the car.”
“No,” I whispered. I almost couldn’t hear it over the beat of my heart.
I could hear the slap of his hand against my cheek, though, and the sound of the door crashing open and slamming against the house’s siding. Could feel the sting under my skin, in my blood, where it would burst from its vessel and spread out under my skin.
I remembered why I left. The sting on my face spread to my neck, where he grabbed me as he screamed about a stupid little frog. The sting spread to my eye, where it joined the remnants of the aching injury he left for me.
I remembered I wanted him to stop, but he wouldn’t listen anymore.
I remembered how much I begged, pleaded, cried.
I could hear him yelling at me. I could see him towering over me as I stood frozen. I don’t know what he was saying. I don’t know. All I could think about was how I struggled beneath him before I ran away.
“Get off my fucking property!” Beck screeched, pulling me back to reality. I stumbled back, stared up at my husband who’d turned to face her. If I looked at her I knew I’d see fire burning in his eyes. She stormed up, phone in hand, camera facing him, and tried to shove him back. “Leave Faust alone!”
He didn’t budge and clicked his tongue. “This is all your fault, Faust. Get in the car.”
“No,” I said.
Beck shoved him back again, this time tripping him up. “I’ll call the police. I got it on film. I’m going to ruin your fucking life!”
Anyone who saw my husband at that moment would believe ghosts were real and that he was one. The blood drained from every crevice of his body, leaving him a sheet of white, nearly translucent. He spun on his heel and clambered into his car, rolled the window down, and said one last thing, “We’re going to talk about this! You’re coming back with me! I’m giving you a week, Faust.” Dust blew up around the tires as he tore away.
Beck pulled me into a hug. I watched him go. She combed her fingers through my hair and rested my head against her shoulder so I wouldn’t have to look anymore. I think she wanted to say something, but she didn’t. We stood there in silence until the sun slipped a little bit higher.
I broke away first. “Sorry. I’m sorry,” I started. “I’m going to go stay with my friends. I want to… I want to see them more.”
I didn’t want to admit that my husband was right, and that I didn’t want to see her. That it was so hard. Her comfort always felt like she wanted something out of it, like I was supposed to magically be better, live properly according to her rules. And I was never good at being proper.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come down earlier. You said you wanted to speak to him alone… I shouldn’t have trusted him,” she grumbled, then hesitated. “I worry about you, Faust. Promise me you’ll take care of yourself and not get into–”
“Get into what? Why don’t you ever trust me?” I snapped, annoyed. I was hoping she’d at least try to understand, to not bug me anymore. Maybe she’d get why I wanted to leave, then. “I’m gonna be down the street, so if you really miss me or worry or whatever, you can just come visit.”
“Faust… It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just… I mean, recently, you’ve been a bit..”
“A bit what?” I asked.
Beck looked at me with pity. “Unstable.”
“Just let me get out of your hair.”
“I don’t want you to leave, I just want you to be safe. Have a steady routine, learn responsibility…”
“Yeah, and I can do that somewhere else,” I said.
She sighed and shook her head, but didn’t say anything else. I could feel her disappointment, but I didn’t want her breathing down my neck. I didn’t want her pity, either. Before she could really get at me, I left and went to get my stuff.
I didn’t arrive with anything, so it didn’t take me long to pack. I took some old clothes, then ones I’d been using since I arrived. My husband would take his money back. I knew he would. That was OK. I got what I wanted. I had a week to figure my shit out. Had a week to think about how my life ended up so fucked.
Harper woke up by the time I was heading out the door. I don’t know how she slept through everything, but I guess we only made a ruckus outside.
“Faust!” she exclaimed when she caught up to me. “You’re leaving? You’re going back to him for real?” She gave me a wary look, then continued. “You think you can sneak out without saying bye?”
“Not going back to him, no. Gonna stay with my friends,” I said, rubbing the spot on my cheek. “I’ll be down the street, so sneak out and see me?”
“Pretty sure mom and dad will just let me see you. This is why mom thinks you’re a bad influence.”
“Oh, does she now?”
“Just a bit!” Harp huffed, then threw her arms around me. “I’m gonna visit the shit outta you.”
I cracked a smile. “Cool. I’ll show you the pond.”
“Sweet! I’m gonna push you in!”
“You better not! I’m not waterproof. A fish will eat me or something.”
She rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Just don’t vanish off the face of the planet, or I’ll kick you right in the–”
“Alright, let’s not go that far. I’ll be around. Literally down the road. Like, I’m walking over distance.”
She gave me one last squeeze. “OK. I’m gonna check on you to make sure you don’t disappear. I’ve got eyes on you.”
“Mhm. That’s good.”
I hugged her back, waved, and left because I didn't want to be there any longer than I had to be.
I walked to Mark and Zeke’s place. They weren’t home, so I had to text them. Since they wouldn’t be back for a while, I sat on their porch and smoked. I got through too many cigarettes, but at least no one would scold me. There was a pile of butts I kicked off the porch, into the short grass, hoping they wouldn’t notice. I shoved the pack away, trying not to kill myself any further, then flopped onto my back. I knew I’d get a splinter, but that didn’t stop me. It just felt right, like I deserved this. Made me feel real, like I was still living, breathing, feeling.
I wish it made me feel like I was dreaming. Like my husband hadn’t slapped me across the face. Like we’d never had a fight. Like maybe I’d wake up and life would’ve been a dream and I was just married again, moving the clothes off my back into our apartment, and everything that was his was mine. Like I was waiting for a gentle breeze to lull me to sleep without a care in the world.
I fell asleep on the porch. I didn’t dream of anything.
Mark and Zeke had to nudge me awake when they got home. Their eyes were soft, their hands careful as they helped me up. They didn’t ask any questions. Zeke ruffled my hair and told me he was happy to see me.
I was happy to see them, too.