Silent Assumptions

I am lying on the floor of my basement in the winter of 1989. It is dark but for the remains of a smoldering log in the fireplace. Cool air seeps through the foundation and between the spaces of the delicate afghan that covers me. My parents aren’t home. It’s only me and Tom, sleeping the unique sleep that comes from cramming for a college final––the kind that hovers when it really wants to sink.

Tom is my best friend, the one I call at 2:00 a.m. from my pink princess phone and heave strings of vowels toward when my boyfriend cheats with a blond dancer, who defends himself by declaring “she’s not better than you, she’s just… different.”

Tom is the one who, when I tell him I feel ugly inside and out, says that if he could give me anything it would be the ability to see myself through his eyes.

Tom is the one who searches for four leaf clovers with a flashlight as I stare at the moon and mourn the death of the boyfriend who cheated.

Sleep has never come easy for me. My body accepts it with reluctance at best and rebellion at worst. On this particular night I am somewhere in between the two when a sense of unease sidles me. I feel the space around my body tighten and an awareness of a slight pressure between my legs. I blink. What is happening?

When I realize that Tom is touching me, that he has moved from the couch where he was when we gave up on rote memorization, the safety of the quiet darkness becomes loud with question marks. What do I do? How can I make him stop without hurting his feelings or angering him? I had already lost my boyfriend. The thought of losing the only other person who thinks I am beautiful and funny and smart and talented would be a death sentence for me.

I roll over on my side, away from him, shrinking into a fetal shadow of myself and pretend to be asleep.

A few seconds pass. I listen for movement, breathing, anything. All sound is suspended, like the moment just after a song ends and the applause begins.

My sleep-lie doesn’t work. He persists, perhaps believing if I wake up I’ll feel his attempt at pleasure and go from “actually, you’re more like a brother to me” to all the lyrics of every Barry White song ever written.

Instead, this mixed meter dance goes on for several more verses before Tom rolls over, with a sigh. Oh, thank God. He drops quickly into sleep, his breathing measured and deep, while I lie there staring at the embers seething at the bottom of the fireplace.

***

I clung to my friendship with Tom for years, allowing him to float in and out of my life on a cloud of hope and shared history. As I flip back through memories like a spinning Rolodex, I find myself lingering on the moments he felt I was most likely to give in.

In 1996, he was Man of Honor at my wedding. After the bachelorette party, after we both had drunk beer through a margarita straw, after he held my hair back as I vomited into the bushes of my future mother-in-law’s yard, he offered me “one last chance” to experience his “stamina and generosity.” I hid my exasperation behind a flurry of nervous laughter, shaking my head and holding my stomach like I was too sick to consider it.

After my divorce in 1999, he rode two buses and a train to my apartment in Brooklyn, leaving his baby daughter and wife at home, bringing with him two brown paper bags. One with my favorite cookies, Mint Milanos. And the other with one of those vibrators that looks like a rabbit. That night, after several drinks and tissues full of tears, he woke me up and tried to convince me to try it while he watched. Once again, I let his offer hang in the darkness as I thought about the consequences of what it might be like to scream, “NO! I DO NOT WANT YOU TOUCHING ME. NOT WITH THAT, NOT WITH ANYTHING. EVER.” Instead I whispered, “no thanks” and shrank into the tiniest version of myself, as my resentment double knotted.

In 2006, Tom stopped calling, stopped emailing, stopped trying to arrange “playdates” with me––his word, not mine. This silent treatment came with no explanation. There was no precipitating event, no falling out to reflect on, and I never asked. The space in my life I always needed him to fill now houses relationships that are more meaningful, more real.

Still, when I drive by his neighborhood five or six times each year on the way to visit my parents, I want to cue up Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” rip out the headphones, stomp into his happy life and shake him until all the shards of my dignity, my power, my ability to see myself as anything but an object comes falling out as I watch him wear regret like a goddamn uniform.

I want him to know that his silent treatment is like the feeling of petting my dogs ear, while wearing a warm sweater, and listening to jazz, because in it, inside this immutable distance, I finally feel safe.

 


This piece was written for round one of Yeah Write’s super challenge. I am moving on to round two (of three), which requires that I write a persuasive essay this weekend on a prompt I’ll get Friday. Here’s the feedback from this round:

What the judges really liked about Silent Assumptions:
  • You mastered a complex structure, telling a coherent story that spans decades in less than a 1000 words
  • Good jump ahead in time.
Where the judges found room for improvement:
  • The essay, particularly in the opening paragraph, would benefit from fewer adjectives, which lend a cliched feel that doesn’t fit with the rest of the writing.
  • There are some unnecessary details that could work better if shown and not told.

Image credit: Uptown Magazine

5 thoughts on “Silent Assumptions

  1. Round 2–whoop whoop! But holy holy, what a powerfully told piece of your “past”. I am familiar with that tinier version of myself and the nervous laughter that goes along with it. You are a beast of a survivor. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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