by Nicholas Siennicki
Content Warning: Graphic Depictions of Mental Disorder
The boy tapped a forefinger against the side of an empty coffee mug, and each stroke spelled out his countenance more obviously than words ever could. She was acutely aware that they had been sitting in silence for what was now fast becoming an uncomfortably long time. Her brain tried to rifle through a rolodex of clichés and trite excuses. Something she could offer up at the conclusion of a relationship. Something, anything, to break the heavy silence.
“I hope you understand.” She said quietly, her eyes dragged down to the table by a melange of shame, anxiety and diffidence. Her messy mousy brown hair toppled from behind her ear as she waited for justified indignity to erupt from the boy sitting opposite her. When she was still capable of sitting upright, when her bravery still outpaced the crushing feeling of desperation that clawed at her every word, she saw his bewilderment turning into resentment. Not that she blamed him. She hated herself as much as he ever could. Maybe more. Definitely more.
She winced, his dry monotone punctuated by that incessant tapping. She could feel his grip tighten around the mug and the resolve to keep the repetition going strengthen. It would not be so bad if he kept a steady beat. But every so often, he would rush, or drag, or altogether miss a note. She wanted it to be steady, to be precise, and to be finished.
“Look, I—” She started, but realized that she had no concept of how to continue speaking. She just offered a half-hearted sigh as her eyes clouded over with a mist of hot regret, blurring the frayed ends of her hair, which lay defeated on the heavy slab of wood that constituted this café’s interpretation of a table. She tried to turn her mind away from the mess of thoughts that rampaged around it, away from hearing the voices that told her what she ought to be doing and how she ought to be doing it. She turned her thoughts away from that awful tapping that earnestly reminded her how badly she had handled everything. How badly she had handled everything. How badly she had handled everyth— Stop. Stop. It was okay. She shook her head slowly.
It had been snowing the first time that he noticed her. Or the first time that she had noticed him noticing her. The snowflakes were these big, bulbous things, unrealistically beautiful as they drifted wistfully from the sky. Her memory made the dull sky vibrant, the old buildings of the university yard romantic, the drifts of snow that covered the grass plump and pure white. The muddy tracks and sloshing water of the foot paths faded into obscurity. His piercing electric blue eyes radiated with a splendour beyond their usual tired pallor. The worn and cracked skin on her hands was replaced with something fitting her age. She looked around her memory, the chilly air fresh and crisp on her blushed cheeks.
Snapping sounds pulled her back to reality with a cruel harshness.
“You’re back in the room?” The boy asked, pulling his hand away from her face. His fingers went to twine back around the mug, and the girl’s heart skipped the beat his tapping could not seem to keep.
“Please don’t.” She whispered. She whispered it again, quieter, and to herself. And again. One more time, she had to be sure she got it right. Once mo— she shook her head and pushed her hair behind her ear with a shaking hand.
He looked at her with a cocked head, and for a moment, sympathy seemed to flood into his features as they softened. He extended an arm, but she shrugged away, horrified that she was horrified at his attempt to touch her. Instantly, the empathetic aura dissipated, and the boy’s shoulders settled back into a frustrated hopelessness.
“Having problems doesn’t excuse your actions.” He said, almost idly, after another long pause. She nodded quickly, and replied that she knew. Her brows furrowed as she mouthed the phrase to herself several times, distracted from the fact that the boy had stood up and put on his gloves. By the time she placated herself, he was threading himself through the busy café, towards the frosted door.
She sat there for a few more minutes, trying to will herself back into the headspace that created the serene memory. But every time she seemed to come close, some dark force pulled her back into the cheerful warmth of a group of people being happy around her. She stood, saw that the boy left the ring she had given back to him on the table, and her head bobbed as tears finally broke free and etched scars into her makeup. It had taken her so long to get ready. So, so very long. And now all her applications and reapplications and re-reapplications were running down her ugly, dirty, ruined face.
“Hey?” A voice smashed the plated glass that caged the girl inside her pity-party. She looked towards her friend, who seemed to all the world like a winter breeze, from her pale skin to her expertly dyed grey hair, to her welcoming smile that reminded the girl of late boozy nights and early Christmas mornings. Her friend hovered a patient hand close to the girl’s face, waiting for permission. A tense nod allowed soft fingers to brush away little drops of self-aggrandizing misery. Look at me, they seemed to say, evidence that a princess who has everything is sad over the size of her diamonds. It was true, she thought to herself. She had everything she wanted, and she would actively ruin it, piece by piece.
And when all the pieces were all gone, she cried for herself, cried at the cruelty of the world and said she hated herself. Cried because she squeezed the life out of another good thing. Cried herself into a stupor of self-pity, sublimating the motivation to change into an inept longing for better times.
She felt herself being guided through the small building towards the outside. Part of her wanted to pull away, to run to the bathroom, to say anything, but the gentleness of her pretty friend’s actions swayed her to compliance. Each step crunched the snow under her boots and made it easier and easier for her to retreat into that melodic memory, a lullaby that carried away earthly worried, if only for a few seconds at a time.
He had come up to her, hustling to catch her after class. In reality, she had wanted to run to the bathroom to wash her the filth from her hands, but reality was irrelevant. He seemed to have this respectful understanding about him, as though her secrets were plain as day to him. It was terrifying, then, to feel so emotionally undressed, but now, now that seemed the exact thing she wanted. The only thing she wanted. But it was gone, battered by one too many hazy mistakes and betrayals. She shut her eyes for a second, counting herself away from the insidious bleakness of what happened and back into the cozy imagination of what could have. He had come up to her and talked, as though she were an old friend. Their story had not begun that day, but simply picked up from a commercial break. Unknown facts were mentioned like old anecdotes, and the time they spent together felt instantly refreshing to her. Interesting words gave way to adventurous actions, which slipped seamlessly to intimacies that seemed so different from the norm, so clean and safe and happy. Never had a person felt so natural to her.
By the time her mind found a way to corrupt her escape, they were sitting on a couch, and she was wrapped up in blankets and listening to her friend strum along on the guitar. She stifled a sigh as she wormed around inside the fluffy fabric to find her hands. A graze across the back of her palm told her clearly that she needed to excuse herself.
“I’m going to go to the bathroom.” She said softly, making to remove herself from the blanket burrito. Her friend looked up from the strings and stopped playing abruptly, eyes fierce in their conviction as she told the girl she was going to stay put. The girl grimaced, restating that she really needed to go.
“Stay for one song?” Her friend asked, obviously trying to inflect bounce and lyricism into her voice. But this strained optimism felt more pessimistic than outright cynicism. The girl’s half moon smile suggested all the surrender her friend needed. A few plucked strings led the grey-haired girl into a verse.
“So pick up your brush
And pull off your shame
Of another lost innocence
And a life in decay.
So promise me my dear
That it’s not what it seems
On the branches of the apple tree
You’ll find yourself set free.”
“Why do you like that song?” The girl asked, after it had run its course.
“Do you not?” Her friend set the guitar down and shuffled close. Somewhere along the way, two very fruity and very alcoholic beverages materialized in each of the two girls’ hands.
“It’s… not a very happy song. About suicide, and…”
“You think it’s about suicide?”
“Like, shame and hanging from a tree?”
“I don’t see it that way.” The slender-faced friend looked up at the stuccoed ceiling while taking a long drink. She seemed to have something else, entirely, on her mind. The girl probably knew what it was, but focused on steadying her breath and quietening the screaming pressure in the back of her head. The friend smiled, and continued, “Do you think it a shame that Adam and Eve ate the apple?”
“Innocence lost is knowledge gained.” Her friend said, harping up the cryptic factor with a few silly eyebrow raises.
“Sure, but is knowledge necessary?” The girl asked, shedding her outer skin and pulling her hair back into a pony. She leaned foreword as the conversation erupted, philosophical and intellectual queries firing back and forth in increasingly pretentious ways. Her friend would launch into a needlessly verbose diatribe about the true nature of freedom and how it influenced her point. So in retaliation, the girl manned the fourth-wall break guns, drew attention to how their dialogue was becoming so terribly oblique. Laughs were embraced as the bottoms of bottles reached for the sky. Blurry vision and fuzzy faces slowed down the dialogue, turned up the volume, and maintained the ferocity of opinion. The rest of the world disappeared, in a sort of way that would feel all too familiar, if she were to stop and think about it. But she did not stop. She did not think. She threw herself into the revelry of the evening as much as she was being pulled.
It was black around her by the time she stood up, and yet still the black seemed to wobble and spin. She staggered, but thought better of it and let herself fall backwards onto the couch. The spaces in conversation seemed to have dragged out longer and longer, not for lack of words, but for lack of energy to actuate them. She brought her hands up to her face, feeling the grime and muck clinging to her digits and digging into her flesh. She was only vaguely aware of how badly she needed the bathroom and the sink, but a vague awareness was enough to compel her to try and stand again.
Suddenly— to her, at least—something grabbed her waist and pulled her back down. She squirmed in the embrace as she felt grey hair dance across her oily forehead. She was getting her friend dirty.
“Hey you, hey.” The voice was making its best attempt at being reassuring, but even it seemed to know how very drunk it was.
“Let me go I’ve… I have to…” The girl made flailing attempts to untangle herself from a mess of body parts, but succeeded only in toppling from the couch, still wrapped around her friend. If either girl, grey draped over brown, felt any discomfort, neither of them cared to notice it. Soft features seemed to sparkle in the night as one face looked at the other.
“It’s going to be okay, you know.”
“How?” The girl asked. A hand that ought to have been clumsy, but felt so graceful, rose to cup her cheek. She rolled her face into it, and felt tingles spread down her back as a thumb grazed her skin, making it soft, making it gentle, making it clean, even if just for a second. She was aware now, how ethereal those big hazel eyes staring down at her were, and how her breath tasted like hazelnuts. She was aware now, how closely pressed together they were, how the hairs on the back of her neck were raised, and how her skin crawled. She was aware now, of the temptations, the passions, the desires. She was aware now, of how forgotten the obsessions, the compulsions, and the sickening pressures felt.
She was aware now, of everything, as she pulled her friend towards her, and kissed her.
* * *
The girl splashed water over the tap and tried, with every fibre of her being, to simply turn it. To simply shut it off. To just reach out, with a hand, and turn the stupid infernal contraption off, and be done. Please be done. Please, please be done. She just wanted to be done. She could manage, she told herself, whispering under her breath. She could manage. She could manage. She could mana—stop. Oh, God. Oh, no. Her hand froze on its way to the tap, and she wanted to scream as tears pounded down her face. She wanted to stop, she did, she promised, she promised she did. She promised. But do you? A little voice in her head whispered back. You seem to me a liar.
“No, no, please, I’ll be good, just let it stop. I don’t want this; I know I don’t want this.” She muttered out loud, feeling her hand being dragged to the soap again, that slippery slimy sudsy spawn of Satan. I think you do, the voice coaxed, and the pressure in the back of her head reincorporated the fact that she did. She wanted to do this. There was no other way. There was no other reality.
Her chest hurt with the heaving sobs she took as she pushed the soap around in her hands, following the pattern. It had to be done right. It had to be done precisely, exactly right. She knew the routine; she knew that— oh. Oh. She had made a mistake. No, no, no. She had made a mistake. You know you have to do it again, the voice whispered, until you get it right.
Her legs trembled. Her breath felt ragged and her head heavy. But the voice knew, it was right. It was right, she had to get it perfect. She had to do it perfectly, and do it until she did it perfectly. No matter how long it took.
Red ribbons mixed in with the freezing torrent of water by the time a knock on the door came. But the girl could not answer. No, she had not gotten it quite right yet. Not yet. Once more, and she would. Just once more. The knocking was getting frenetic, and the screams on the other side of the door knew that she was crying. The door was latched shut tight. They would have to break the hinge to get in.
They broke the hinge.
She screamed as strong hands dragged her away from the sink. She felt her body struggle to get back, to finish, to complete the task, and her brain was ticking as her hands fell into the pattern.
“Stop, stop. Please.”
Someone grabbed her wrists, the same someone that dragged her away from the sink and lay her down on the couch. The same someone with a soft lyrical voice and beautiful grey hair.
“I can’t.” The girl responded, trying to pull her arms together.
“Hey, breathe. Breathe.”
The girl tried to draw a couple ragged inhales in, tried to focus on the other’s reassuring eyes. She tried, really, she tried. Her grey-haired girlfriend was asking her questions now, trying to figure out what happened. The sound of rushing water in the background answered them all for her. “Please turn… can you? Please?” The girl stuttered, and a momentarily raised eyebrow lead to a quick drop of her wrists. The girl rubbed her hands together, and they felt like bloodied crags. She prayed that the voices would stop when the water did. They did not.
“How long have you…?” The words came with a hot towel and a warm hug. The girl shrugged and shook her head, which prompted a calming hand on the cheek and a reassuring kiss. The girl wanted to offer up a smile, a thank you, but her eyes dropped to her hands, where her girlfriend was doing her best to rub the pain and the mistakes away. “Did you go to class?” A shaken head, another question, “How long after I left?” The girl dropped her head down again, hoping that her girlfriend would not see the streaks of half-applied make up. A finger guided her head up, and she could tell the face opposite her stifled a sigh.
“Four hours.” The girl said, pulling her hands from their healing station and pulling her hair into a rough braid.
“It’s okay, hey, it’s going to be okay.” The other girl stood, and padded out the pleats of her dress. She held out two hands and offered a big smile, “Let’s go enjoy the spring air, let’s go for a run.”
There was a strained, but honest optimism in the grey girl’s voice. Like she would not give up until she made it better. Like minor setbacks did not represent future realities. Ruined and jagged nails met with elegantly manicured ones as one girl helped the other out, holding her close and whispering that it would all be okay, and that they would fix it.
* * *
The autumn breeze floated leaves down from trees as two girls, holding hands, entered a classroom. One blushed and pulled the sleeves of her sweater down to hide thin red lines weaving across her skin. The other smiled big and launched them both into conversation with the nearby students. One pulled out notebooks and batted a witticism across to some jock complimenting her new hairstyle, the other’s long grey pony-tail swooped around like a metronome when she talked. As the professor hushed all the rest of the students and began to introduce the first lecture of the term, the door opened and a boy slid in, grabbing a seat next to the girl. She knew him. She knew him well.
“Hey, how have you been?” He said in a hush, “I’m sorry about how things ended.”
“I’m sorry too,” The girl responded, “I’ve been really good.”
The boy offered up a thumbs up ad a big, hearty, all-encompassing grin, “I’m happy for you, for you both.”
And he really meant it.
* * *
Those great big snowflakes that once haunted her memories drifted down from cloudy skies with a sort of feigned lethargy. They looked picturesque through the frosted and foggy glass of the café’s bay windows.
“I just can’t anymore.” The girl said, hiding her hands under the table as she picked away at dry skin. The grey-haired girl simply shook her head and let the moment be filled by the sound of several tears falling from her eyes, and the girl across the table whispering her words over and again to herself.
The other looked blankly foreword. The dark creases under her eyes and her tangled hair had been commonplace for long enough that memories of their first night started losing their tears, their fears, and their scares, replaced by pretty little lies that made the parting all the more bitter. But it would serve well to get her through the night.
The grey-haired girl reached a hand across the table, and the other flinched away at the concept of the touch. Reaching towards her were hands, normal hands, a girl’s hands. There was nothing wrong with them. Nothing at all. They were clean, pretty, delicate hands. Or they had been, once. Now they were corrupted, filthy, grimy things. She was scared to let them touch her. She was scared what those voices would pressure her to do if she did.
She looked down, coalescing her shame, anxiety, and diffidence. She had been here before, “I hope you understand.”
Banner illustration courtesy of Thor