You sat there in your car and the rain softly tinkled on the windshield as you just looked at me. There was sadness in your eyes, but not the kind that somehow holds an indirect judgment, just a sadness that expressed your understanding that this was yet another painful battle scar in my long history of war and grief. I lit a cigarette, nervous about how you’d react, wondering if I should have even told you. I exhaled and watched the smoke disperse along the contours of the windshield, giving you time. But when you spoke, your words shocked me.
“I already knew. I guessed.”
I averted my eyes from yours and took another drag so that I wouldn’t have to fill the silence. You already knew. Were the changes that obvious? Did I really physically flinch every single time someone said it in jest during a conversation? I thought that I only flinched in my head. On bad days though I know I’ve snapped out the line, “Don’t joke about that.” You already knew. I let out the breath and the smoke that I didn’t even realize I was holding before turning back to you. You slowly reached for my hand, and I passed you the cigarette, knowing that’s what you wanted, and for a brief instant our rings mirrored each other. Yours said “Dream” and mine said “Live,” and when you gave it to me as a birthday present, you specifically gave me “Live” to remind me that no matter how hard things get, you wanted me to live. We shared everything: cigarettes, rings, clothes, secrets, dreams, coffee, everything. Of course I had to share this with you. You were the only person who had any chance of understanding.
I met you our freshman year because we both hung out with the same upperclassmen, and we were their pet freshman; they nicknamed us “TwinBots.” That was back when your hair was still long and I didn’t dye mine black. Spring revealed that we had a crush on the same guy, and you started dating him. I distanced myself from you; you didn’t need me. I let a boy come between us. I watched the angry tears slide down your face as you tried to get some sort of emotion out of me, some sort of explanation as to why I felt no remorse for kissing your boyfriend. I tried my hardest to make myself a stone, not to flinch, not to care, because caring hurt, and I was hurt. You didn’t hate me for the kiss. You hated me because of what I said to you.
“I don’t care.”
My right cheek stung worse than it ever had as I staggered backward and put my hand over the red imprint of your own. I didn’t speak to you for a year. I hated you, you hated me.
But somehow, maybe seeing the worst side of a person allows you to fully accept her. I apologized, you apologized. But we thought that our trust couldn’t ever be healed to what it was before. We weren’t TwinBots anymore. We were different. You had no idea how different though.
When we started to hang out again, you knew something had changed. I was quieter, more studious, less social. Somehow you knew that the girl who you’d known as selfish and self-sufficient was no longer taking care of herself. I slept maybe three hours a night tops. I barely ate. I’d lost fifteen pounds in two months. You always knew exactly where to find me in the library, with a sandwich in one hand and a huge thermos of coffee perfect for sharing in the other. You began to take care of me while I remained closed and distant from pretty much everyone. What encouraged this behavior is still beyond me. You tried to bring me out of my awkward new shell. When I realized how much I needed you, I couldn’t bear the thought of telling you what had happened. You’d already seen me at my worst once. I didn’t want you to see me at my weakest as well. But somehow, you already knew. And now you’re beginning to understand.
I argue with myself about this every time I tell you something more. This isn’t your burden to bear, it’s mine. Should I be telling you? Why should you have to think about it everyday like I do? What is this doing to you? Everyone realizes that it’s traumatic for me, the victim, but what few people think about is how it affects you, my friend. There are others who understand what you’re going through—people like you, who have a friend like me. Even I don’t understand how all of it affects you. But as you observe me, notice how I react, learn what triggers the flashbacks, and experience the best ways to calm me afterwards, you begin to grasp what it has done to me and what it’s still doing to me. And as I realize that every day you get better at soothing me, knowing how to protect me, learning more details, I begin to see what it’s done to you too.
I think of it as a scab. It was a wound. Poisonous. But I’ve worked hard to heal it and turn it into a tough, impervious scab. I pick at it, hurting myself on my own terms. I make it bleed just a little bit, enough to deal with and bear, and then I let it scab up again. Hopefully, all the picking will create a thick layer of scar tissue. I mostly pick at it by myself, feeling safer by myself than with another person.
Whenever I’ve told people, the first reaction to cross their faces is horror, then the sympathetic look, and the hug. They think it helps. But in all honesty, I hate that look more than anything else. It makes me feel weak, like they think I’m a victim, someone fragile and delicate, about to break at any moment. I’m done being weak. I’m done being sad and hurt and broken. I am angry. And I want them to be angry too, but they don’t know that. They just look at me like I’m suddenly a different person, and they think that a hug will help. I can’t blame them, because they don’t understand. They’ll never really understand either, because I don’t tell them all the details. I can’t tell the details, can’t give them all the information they want. It hurts too much. I can’t relive in words what I have to relive everyday in my head. I don’t want them to see me pick at it. But sometimes I do it around you.
The first time was when I actually had to tell you, sit in your car as the light rain fell, and wait for your reaction. But you already knew, somehow. I should have known. You’re my best friend, you know me better than any other person. Of course you already knew. But you were only aware of the occurrence. You still had no idea of the effect.
I’m not quite the same person anymore, and things that never used to bother me do now. I don’t usually volunteer details very often, but I know that I have to explain my behavior to you sometimes. Like when you were tickling me and I couldn’t breathe and begged you to stop and then started crying when you didn’t. I couldn’t breathe and you kept laughing and tickling. We were stoned out of our minds and pretending that we were little girls at a slumber party complete with movies, pillow fights, and tickling. But you didn’t stop and something in my head clicked on and suddenly the panic was keeping me from breathing instead of the laughter. I think I pushed you. I don’t remember. I just remember curling in on myself and crying, and then looking up at you. Your eyes looked as if I’d slapped you—hurt because you knew that somehow you’d unintentionally hurt me. I explained a little more, picked at my scab just enough for you to see the poison lurking beneath the surface. “But I’m your best friend. You know I’d never hurt you. Doesn’t that matter?”
I felt so guilty for making you feel like I didn’t trust you. But the truth is that it doesn’t matter. After panic sets in, rational thought completely disappears. You’re no longer my best friend tickling me in good nature; you’re a person that didn’t stop when I told you to. I’d told you bits and pieces before, making very small picks around the edges, but this was the first time you’d seen blood. That’s because it wasn’t just me telling you, you’d seen it too. You’d seen the tears and how I immediately curled into the tightest ball possible, trying to close in on myself and disappear. I deal with it slowly, in tiny pieces, releasing the poison little by little until one day, it will hopefully leave my system forever and I’ll have a clean, fresh, pink scar instead of this crusted, infected scab. But when other people pick at it, they don’t gently chip away at the edges like I do. They usually rip away a sizable chunk. And that’s when I completely lose it.
We went to our usual Friday night party together, but this night was different because every single person there was completely out of weed. Except for me. Taking advantage of the monopoly that I was suddenly in control of, I made it into a game. If people wanted to smoke my weed, they had to flirt with me. I got the best compliments and kisses, dances and lame pick-up lines. I was in heaven. I sat down in my designated green chair to pack yet another bowl to keep my confidence flying high, when he sauntered up to me and sat on my lap. I remember feeling uncomfortable for the first time that evening.
“Hey baby, you know I’m gonna get the green hit off that bowl, right?” He was far too close to me. “Cause you know, all these other fools ain’t got nothin’ on me. I’ll give you the best time you ever had.” He leaned in closer.
He was just joking with me, of course; that’s how it usually happens. Comedy turns into tragedy. He didn’t know the memories that he was digging up by trapping my body under his, leaning very close to me, trying to intimidate me. I’d known him and partied with him every Friday night for the past two semesters; I knew he would never hurt me, but that didn’t stop my fear from starting. He was only rising to the challenge, completely unaware of my rising level of panic. I tried to laugh it off, because if I didn’t think about it, didn’t make the connection, maybe I could fight it off. I was so much stronger than I used to be, I had healed so much. I was stronger than this. I looked at you and saw you watching me very carefully as well, measuring my reactions to determine my mental state. I told him that he’d proven his point and to please get the fuck off me. But the joke wasn’t over yet, he still felt he had something to prove, and he leaned in to brush his lips against my ear while cupping the back of my neck with his hand, stopping any chance I had of dodging him.
My heart instantly tried to hammer its way out of my chest to punch him off me as a flood of memories broke free of their carefully constructed confinements, drowning my reason and rationality. I was trapped. I couldn’t move. He was too close. I still tried to fight it, tried to lock the memories back where they belonged, tried to block the panic, but I wasn’t strong enough. Never strong enough. The poison won, and then he was shoving my face into a pillow to muffle my sobs, whispering things like, “Yeah baby, moan for me.” His hand was rough against the back of my neck, scruffing me like an animal, forcing me to stay still, convincing himself that my constant crying meant that I liked it. My struggling made him think that I wanted to play rough, so he gave it to me rough. He scratched all down my back, dragging his dirty fingernails over my flesh while constantly babbling, “Yeah, you like that.” I had given up. I didn’t fight. I had said no. Multiple times. It hadn’t mattered. So I gave up, sobbing and wishing that it would be over soon.
It all returned to me in less than half of one of my frantic heartbeats and I looked at you immediately. That moment is like a picture burned into my memory. When I looked at you, the present came back immediately, emphasizing the fact that the past few seconds of my life had not been at the party. You were standing there in your blue dress with the black belt buckled fashionably around your waist. People were moving and dancing in the background, but you were absolutely still, watching me, and I saw myself and my panic reflected in your eyes, mirrored like the matching rings on our left hands.
I have no idea what you saw in my eyes when you looked back at me. Pain? Terror? My silent scream for you to save me? Doesn’t matter what you saw there because you already knew. And with more force than I knew you had, more speed than I thought you were capable of, you freed me, pulled him off of me, allowed me to escape and break down where not so many eyes could find me.
I fled from the living room, up the stairs, and into the first doorway I encountered. You found me in the upstairs bathroom with the noise of the party below and only my panicked breathing echoing in the pitch black bathroom as I pressed myself as close to the cold tiled wall to the immediate right of the door as I could, only vaguely aware that the sharp object digging into my back was the light switch. You came in just as the sobs started and I slowly slipped down the tile and pooled onto the floor. You didn’t say anything. You didn’t touch me. You just let me cry it out until my senses returned and locked the memories back in their cage where they belonged. And then you were ready for me as I flung myself into your arms, needing the hug that you’d desperately wanted to give me this entire time, crying and apologizing for my flashback. You wiped my tears away, fixed my make-up, and gave me an alibi. Few people had even noticed my rapid escape, so none of it really mattered anyway.
But it did matter to me. You couldn’t save, weren’t there to save, me from him. But you could and did, frequently, save me from myself.
I guess it must be hard for you to be my friend now. Being my friend used to mean that we shared cigarettes, rings, clothes, secrets, dreams, coffee, everything. Unfortunately for you, I guess that being my best friend now means we really do share everything. Being my friend now means you’ve witnessed a flashback, watched the panic seize and take hold of my brain, locking out all logical thought and reason, ripping me from the present, forcing the past on me again and again. Being my friend now means knowing what to do for me when I can’t do anything for myself, knowing that you must watch in silence, knowing you can’t touch me because you already know how that only makes the panic worse, knowing that you can’t do anything but wait it out until it runs its course so that you can be there as soon as I regain control of my own thoughts and actions.
We used to be so similar that people called us TwinBots. But we fell apart and were somehow strong enough to patch ourselves together again. My ring reminds me every day to live. You have helped me do that day by day. Your ring reminds you to dream. Because you have to do that for both of us now. When we sit in your room and smoke while doing homework, my eye is always drawn to the James Dean poster. “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” So I live, and you dream, and we both smoke. I often wonder how our freshman selves would react if they could see us now, slowly killing ourselves while still trying to make each day count. Being my friend then was about grand adventures and our shared belief that life was just beginning with so much to look forward to. Being my friend now means that you‘ve had to experience my second-hand trauma. They say that second-hand smoke can kill.
You’ve told me before that you think about what you’d do to him if you ever got the chance. You’ve smoked cigarettes on your roof, imagined sitting on him and putting out each smoldering stick of cancer on his chest until a large R burned angry and red in his flesh. I have to live with it every single day. I remember it every single day. I bear the scab as proof and someday I’ll bear the scar. Just another scar next to several others. All lined up nice and neat and dealt with for one hour every week. I bear the badge of the victim whether I want to or not. You want to brand his crime into his chest to remind him of it every single day of his life, so that he can never forget the violence he inflicted upon another human being. A human being he had been friends with since second grade, had dated in middle school.
Sometimes I smoked those angry cigarettes with you, enjoying the feel of the smoke burn through my lungs, so close to my heart, and I was happy that someone else understood. That someone else felt angry with me instead of feeling sorry for me. That someone else understood why I didn’t report it for the past’s sake, but realized my burning desire for closure, for pain, for revenge. So even though I still don’t know if it’s right to let you help me carry this burden, I chain-smoke those angry cigarettes with you and let my anger loose. But I still worry about you.
Second-hand smoke can kill.
What does second-hand rape do to you?