Prose by Katrina Von Salzen
Art by Karen Zhang
I want us to be friends, you and I. Because friends tell each other secrets. I have a secret- but no one to tell. Will you hold my secret? Will you keep it with you, hold it close to your heart, let it flutter inside of you like a butterfly? I don’t know if you’re a man or a woman, if you’re short or tall, if you’re handsome or ugly. I don’t care very much anyway. All I care about is that you’ll listen to my secret. You can decide after that if you’d like to keep it or not.
Now that we’re friends, I should tell you about myself because friends are supposed to know things about each other. I wish I could know things about you, too. Maybe if you concentrate really hard, you can send yourself to me through the air between us. I’ll try and listen for you, I promise.
There’s a list of facts about myself that are true.
- I’m good playing the violin
- I’m not often very kind to myself, which is also why
- #1 is a lie. I’m amazing at the violin (at least according to anyone who has ever heard me)
- I love avocado toast and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream
- I love the colour purple, but not just any purple, a certain shade of purple, dark. Soft and violent. It reminds me of the plums I used to eat during long hot days at my grandmother’s house. The sticky sweet juice would run down my chin. It tasted like summer.
- I have a best friend named River
- When I was six years old, I almost drowned in the ocean at my aunt Hope’s. I remember the darkness behind my closed eyes and I remember the silence. For a second, it was almost peaceful. For a second, I could believe that I was already a ghost, dancing below the waves
That is the list of facts about myself that are true. Or I should say that it is a list of things that used to be true. After last summer, my list needed some updating.
I’m good playing violinI haven’t even touched my violin since June I’m not often very kind to myself which is also whyI am never kind to myself #1 is a lie. I’m amazing at the violin (at least according to anyone who has ever heard me)If I picked up my violin now, I’m not even sure my fingers would remember how to play I love avocado toast and Ben and Jerrys ice creamI can’t remember the last time I ate either I love the colour purple, but not just any purple, a certain shade of purple, dark. Soft and violent. It reminds me of the plums I used to eat during long hot days at my grandmother’s house. The sticky sweet juice would run down my chin. It tasted like summer the colour purple reminds me of a couch in a dark basement. A mildew scent, cold fabric, rough on my skin. The saggy pillows, worn out from the people who shared short moments of their lives on it before standing up and continuing their days. I have a best friend named RiverI don’t anymore When I was six years old, I almost drowned in the ocean at my aunt’s. I remember the darkness behind my closed eyes and I remember the silence. For a second, it was almost peaceful. For a second, I could believe that I was already a ghost, dancing below the wavesI went swimming at that same spot. I felt the ocean’s tug on me, her waves holding me like a child in a mother’s arms. She tugged at me, whispering that I should allow myself to go with her. I almost did.
I think you must know me pretty well now, don’t you? Maybe you’re wondering about why I stopped playing violin or you’re wondering about that purple couch or about my former friend River. I want to tell you about that. I want to tell you all of it. But you have to promise me you’ll listen. I don’t just mean listen the way that you listen when your mom tells you to clean your room, or the way you do when your teacher is hushing you because you’re being disruptive. I mean really listen. Listen softly, listen kindly. Just listen.
My parents had finally had enough when I tried to cut open my stomach. They thought that I was suicidal, that I’d tried to kill myself. I tried to explain to them that that wasn’t it. I hadn’t tried to cut open my stomach to kill myself (too slow, too painful).
I’d tried to cut open my stomach because I wanted to see what was inside of me. Maybe if I opened my skin, I’d thought, I could crawl out of my human shell. It hadn’t felt like my home for awhile now anyway. I wanted to move out.
They didn’t buy that though, and as soon as I was back from the hospital, my mother informed me that I would be leaving the actual home I currently lived in.
“You’re kicking me out?” My mother likes to garden, do puzzles, and crochet. On the weekends, she volunteers at the soup kitchen. She wouldn’t have the heart to abandon me.
“Not kicking out,” my father interjected before my mother could respond, “we just think it would be good for you to spend some time with your aunt.”
“Aunt Hope? But she lives, like, in the middle of nowhere!”
My parents exchanged looks and I could tell they’d practiced this beforehand.
“You haven’t been yourself lately.”
“We’re worried about you.”
“Some time by the ocean will do you good.”
My parents spoke in short bursts, their sentences dry but factual.
I left the table and slammed the door. But to be honest with you, I wasn’t really upset. It was just what I knew I was supposed to do then. What any teenager would have done then. But I didn’t really care. Whether I was laying in bed in my purple bedroom with a view of the road or laying in bed at aunt Hope’s house with a view of the ocean, it didn’t really make a difference. I just didn’t care.
Are you still listening friend? Did I scare you away when I talked about cutting open my stomach? Maybe you’re afraid of blood. Maybe you’re the type of person who faints when they see it. Don’t worry, I’m done talking about the blood now. I promise.
My aunt lived in a tiny town called Beavertown. I’m not even joking right now, that is its actual name. I had to take two flights and a bus to even get close but the nearest I could get was still about an hour away from my aunt’s house.
Aunt Hope picked me up in a grey Volvo. It was dented at the side and a long scratch ran along the driver’s door. The inside smelled like dead fish, or maybe old seaweed.
“You didn’t bring your violin?” was the first thing aunt Hope asked me once I’d managed to pry open the door of the car. Aunt Hope teaches piano. She always loved that I played violin. She called it my “musical gift”. Like it was something that had been given to me rather than something I’d earned.
“No” I said simply, too tired to explain that I didn’t play anymore. I’d twisted the pegs until the strings snapped off. If I told aunt Hope that, though, I’m pretty sure she’d cry as if someone had cut open her stomach too.
“Hmm well that’s okay. Maybe Fredrick can lend you one.”
Beavertown is so small that everyone knows everyone. I didn’t even bother to ask who Fredrick was. Probably one of my Aunt’s crazy friends who makes his own clothing and doesn’t believe in cellphones. That whole town is basically stuck in the past.
Aunt Hope tried to talk to me the entire drive. She told me about the tomatoes she was growing in her backyard, her border collie’s obsession with swimming, her piano students. I only half listened. I was thinking about my own misery and about how unfair it all was. I was thinking about how I should have pressed the knife in deeper.
Okay sorry, you’re right, I said no more blood. I don’t want to talk about that much anymore anyway. It was kind of gross and kind of sad and the more I think about it now the more ashamed of myself I get.
How about I tell you about Aunt Hope’s house instead? It’s right by the ocean. If you walk five minutes out the back door, your toes are already being kissed by the salty water. The first few weeks I was there, aunt Hope constantly tried to get me to go outside with her. She loved swimming and swam almost every morning.
“It’s a beautiful day today!” she would say, ripping open the curtains, allowing the sunlight to hit my closed eyes. “Are you coming for our swim?”
Every morning, I didn’t respond. Every morning, she would come in and try again.
She would try all day to find ways to get me out of bed. I probably should have been grateful that someone cared that much about me but I wasn’t. I wanted her to leave me alone so that I could bury my face into my pillow and let the stupid stupid world go on without me in it.
Sometimes she would play the piano downstairs. She tried everything, from jazz to ragtime to modern pop. “Come on!” she’d shout from downstairs, “I’m missing a singer!”
One day I tiptoed down the stairs and touched a key with my pointer finger. It felt cold and smooth to my touch. I held it down until the sound faded into the still summer night. For a brief second it made me miss the strings of my violin. When I turned around, Aunt Hope was standing behind me. She looked so proud that I felt that shame rise in me again and I quickly hurried up the stairs, away from her loving eyes.
Do you understand me, friend? Have you ever felt like that? I can’t even think of a way to say it poetically. I felt awful. I felt like I’d lost who I was and that I could never get her back. I felt like I was trapped in my body, in my life. Too tired to move, too broken-hearted to sleep. Every night, I wandered the halls of my elementary school in my dreams. He was always there. Always a few steps behind me or beside me. Always, he told me everything he hadn’t in our waking hours together. He told me he was sorry. He told me loved me. I awoke from these dreams yearning for a past that didn’t exist. Like the ocean’s tides, it always escaped back. I couldn’t catch it. I couldn’t catch him.
Aunt Hope drove me into town one day. “We have a market on Saturdays” she told me. “It’ll be fun. I’ll buy you ice cream.”
She parked the car in a dusty gravel parking lot. As we were walking away, she stopped abruptly “Oh, I think I forgot the bags. Could you be a dear and go grab them for me?”
“No,” I said. It was a whisper at first. I cleared my throat. “No I can’t go get your stupid bags.”
My aunt blinked at me in surprise. She didn’t say anything. I looked past her shoulder, at a squirrel in a tree. I didn’t want to see her.
“You’re so annoying all the time. Can you just leave me alone?” the words came out from somewhere deep inside of me. A space I have no control over. It was me and it wasn’t.
“I hate you,” I seethed at her. Like a child who’s been denied a toy. “I hate you,” I said again. I was almost screaming at this point. My aunt still didn’t react, just kept staring at me with her deep brown eyes.
I’m only telling you this because we’re friends. And friends can show each other the worst parts of themselves. I hope that’s okay with you. I want to tell you that I liked it. I liked how it felt to yell at her. I liked how it felt when I knew I was hurting her. I wanted her to hurt, wanted her to feel the sting of my words. Maybe there was a certain power in it, in making her feel the same hurt I had been feeling all these weeks. Maybe I just didn’t want to be the only one suffering.
I finally stopped yelling at her when she grabbed my fist. I suddenly realized I’d been punching her chest. Lightly, but enough that it hurt.
“Stop,” she said softly.
“No” Tears slid down my cheeks. I felt angry. I felt pathetic. But mostly, I just felt empty.
“Stop,” she said again, stronger this time. I did.
That night, I joined her on the beach. She did that sometimes, sat on the back porch and watched the waves until late into the night, a candle her only light.
I sat beside her, wrapped in the purple blanket she had bought for me. Neither of us said anything and I was reminded of what a coward I was. I’d yelled at my aunt and now, when I wanted to apologize, I couldn’t even find the words. She spoke first.
“You must be very angry.”
“No,” I told her, “I don’t feel much of anything.”
The waves washed up onto the shore and the summer breeze blew through my hair, caressing me like my mother used to when I was very young. I imagined walking into the ocean and disappearing into bubbles on the surface.
“Why did you stop playing violin?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.” We were silent again. “It didn’t feel right anymore. Making something beautiful”.
“Why?” she asked simply.
You’ve probably been waiting for me to tell you my secret. I’ve probably kept you at the edge of your seat, waiting for something to happen. Instead all you’ve gotten is a story about a pathetic girl who was once talented and kind and funny.
My aunt told me that we need stories to heal. That, like music, we need to create something from all the nothingness that is inside of us.
River was my best friend. Sometimes, my only friend. When he raped me in his basement on that ugly purple couch with the saggy pillows, I thought my life would stop. I thought there couldn’t be a tomorrow anymore, only a yesterday in which he loved me and I trusted him. But when tomorrow came,I was reminded of his rough hands on my fragile skin, I felt cheated. My life was supposed to end. That night. But instead it had to go on, dragging me with it. I looked at myself naked in the mirror. I ran my hands up and down the skin of my stomach, the skin of my thighs. I felt the softness of what had once been my home and realized that I was a stranger in it now. I was no longer welcome. That was what he had done to me, he had forced me out of my own skin. But I couldn’t hate him. I could never hate River. I could only love him more in his absence and hate myself because of it.
That’s my big and terrible secret. Are you disappointed? Did you hope I was a spy or a secret millionaire? I’m sorry that I’m not.
I didn’t feel immediately better after I told my aunt. It wasn’t an instant fix, as much as I wanted it to be. But, the next morning I went outside with her for our swim. I didn’t swim, but I watched her. My aunt says that’s enough for now.
Aunt Hope started to teach me how to play piano. I’d loved the violin all my life, had never understood the value of any other instrument. But my aunt showed me how the piano could be soft and angry and sad and happy all in the same song. “You’ll feel all of that again too,” she told me. I wasn’t sure if I should believe her. I’d felt nothing for so long, I wasn’t sure I was ready to allow any emotion, even happiness, back into my body. But I nodded, because I loved my aunt and because there was always a chance that she was right. For the first time since that night on the purple couch, I wanted to take that chance.
I should let you get on with your day now, my friend. You probably have dishes to wash or a dog to walk or homework to do. That’s okay. You were here and you listened. That’s all I can ask of anyone.
I’m writing this on my last night at aunt Hope’s place. I’m not sure my story has a happy ending. I think I’m still right in the middle of it. Maybe one day, many years from now, we’ll talk again. I will tell you how I’ve missed you and you will say the same. We’ll trade our stories. Maybe I’ll be able to tell you how wonderful my life has become since that summer in Beavertown. Maybe you’ll tell me you knew I’d be okay all along. We’ll hug like old friends do. I’ll buy you a coffee.
Do you take cream or sugar?