TW: Childhood Sexual Assault
When I think of him, I think of his aquarium.
Refracted light shines blue-white ribbons onto the den ceiling while tropical fish circle within glass walls. The steady bubble of a water filter murmurs in the background as I watch the neon fish, taken from countries whose names have yet to sit on my lips. I press my nose against the tank, splay my fingers out, and watch them swim in infinite loops around
Never going anywhere.
When I think of him, I think of those fish, swimming the same endless stretch of salt water. Green plants wave, celebratory in their path.
Like them, I’m always swimming in circles.
I remember dying underneath the sun-white burn of hospital lighting.
At midnight, when the quiet Midwest sky has nestled into a blanket of stars and half-moon clouds, my lungs will seize up again. I bolt up, clutch my chest with eyes wide and searching. I’ll know the shades of death.
The rattlesnake corkscrewed around my wilted lungs sends out a death rattle. Stethoscopes blanket me, but I can’t feel their cold touch against my chest. I only know the blistering burn above.
My first prayers are sent here, not to heavenly creatures but to my own frail body.
In this hospital, I return to myself, flood back into my chest as the whistle slows, then fades entirely. Tonight, I’ll breathe.
Fearing death as a child feels like being afraid of monsters made in the dark that no adult can see. There are edges, wisps of shadowed creatures creeping up walls. But a flick of a light and that vision disappears.
Two years later, I encounter a monster that dwells in daylight.
Stuck between an army of brothers, I grow up with fists raised and scabs like prized stickers collaged on my knees. I vacillate between dolls and scavenging the nearby woods for anything that can be shaped into a medieval sword. In my land of make-believe, I am king. A fearless lightning strike of a girl ready to wage war, I find kinship with the neighborhood boys, who dutifully comprise my court. We ready for battle against the combine reaping crops in the fields.
In this world of play, my brothers are the only ones who treat me differently.
They remind me whenever I rise too high in our Midwest sky, luminous and golden like autumn prairie grass, that I am a girl—inferior, they mean to say—even if I can keep up with them in a race.
Someday my lungs will catch up to me and I’ll learn my place.
This, they say, is a truth I can’t outrun.
When I think of him, I can’t see his face.
His features are obscured, a dandelion fluff has bloomed there. He exists in memory, faceless and haunting. He’s older, maybe the age of my oldest brother. But like his name and appearance, his age is a water ripple. I can’t quite catch it in my hands.
My best friend, Colin, plays with us that day, in the clearing behind my house. Far enough away where we can’t see smoking chimneys. Faceless leads us there, turning around to set the rules for the game. I’m ready to play anything until my stomach growls and light leeches from the sky.
“We’re going to play house,” he says. I beam because a boy wants to play my favorite game and I don’t have to suggest it. “Colin is our son. You and I can be the mom and dad.”
Here’s where it starts.
The loop around the aquarium, the turn at the end of their world.
He is the one who outruns me.
A midnight creature in daylight.
Colin’s hair luminates like hospital lights, a plea to return to myself. His sneakers balance on a thick upper branch as he scales a tree, no longer watching as Faceless herds me into the woods, deeper until Colin’s spark disappears with everything else.
Hair as bright as those fluorescents vanishes out here.
I’m wearing cotton shorts, pink as bubblegum and the cotton candy I tasted at Wrigley Field last summer. Woodland decomposition crunches under my dirty sneakers, as Faceless points to our destination.
He says Mommies and Daddies have games just for them, and if we play house, we have to play those too. Curiosity fireworks up my neck, makes my straw-yellow hair stand on end. I don’t have words for this and my inhaler can’t make this tightness dissipate from my chest.
Then he stops to face me and tells me it’s time for—.
White noise crackles in my ears. I don’t know this word. I’m swimming faster, but his words waterlog in my skull. My ear pounds from the current sweeping me away.
Here in the woods of make-believe, Faceless says it’s time to make-real.
Dirt blots the legs of my shorts, no longer neon pink fins. It’s clear at first. The glass of his aquarium is see-through before it fogs over.
I’m swimming in this moment.
My pants are down and I’m unsure. I don’t have words for this unknown. It shadows up my petaled wallpaper. It’s growling, hungry, needy from inside the closet. My inhaler can’t save my lungs when I’m face down in a fish tank.
Then he reaches his hands out—not nervous, not shy. He knows this. Has done this.
But I haven’t.
The dandelion of his face puffs up, billows in the vision until there’s a whiteout, crinkled static all around while my thighs burn. A snowstorm pelting my memory until I loop back around to the beginning.
When I think of him, I think of the fish.
Who will free them from their tank?
Why do they keep swimming?
When will I stop?
When I think of him, I hear his final words to me.
Don’t tell anyone.
I never do.