When the boy she was dating hit my sister, it made a sharp cracking sound, just like it does in the movies.
Angela Strassheim, Untitled (Breaking Up), 2006, archival pigment print. © Angela Strassheim.
A boy my sister dated in high school slapped her across the face during an argument. They were sitting in the front seat of his car, parked by the basketball court behind our house, and she made a sarcastic reply to something he had said, and before she knew what was happening, he’d raised his hand and swung it, open-palmed, against her cheek.
She didn’t tell me about this until years later after we had both left home. When she told me, I felt at once angry and strangely guilty because the boy in question was extraordinarily good-looking and I remembered having been impressed in a shallow way that I never spoke about that my sister was dating someone so handsome. I was jealous of a lot of things about my sister in those days: her beauty and her ease with people, how spontaneously funny she could be, how well she was liked. She fit in at our school and in our town, in her own body, in a way that I could not seem to manage, quiet and bookish and peculiar as I was then and remain. Still, there was never a time when I didn’t love her very much and when I wouldn’t have done whatever I could to support and defend her.
Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I asked, when she finally told me.
When the boy she was dating hit my sister, it made a sharp cracking sound, just like it does in the movies. She raised her hand and touched the side of her own face. The expanse of skin where he’d struck her buzzed and tingled, felt weirdly alive. It didn’t hurt and even the actual slap itself hadn’t really hurt. Instead, she was shocked, surprised because she had not expected this, and then confused about what she should do next.
In his eyes was an expression of shock and remorse much more intense than anything she herself seemed to be feeling.
She looked over at the boy she was dating, who had just hit her. He was leaning way back away from her against the car door as if he was afraid, either of her or of what he had just done. In his eyes was an expression of shock and remorse much more intense than anything she herself seemed to be feeling. He too had been surprised, and he looked like he might be about to cry. At that moment it came into her mind that maybe, in punishment for what he had done, the gods had magically frozen him in his current physical position: curled up like a frightened fetus with his eyes bugged out and his mouth hanging slightly open. Perhaps he would be stuck like that forever. In her mind she envisioned having to explain to the boy’s mother how her son came to be paralyzed in this posture: He hit me, she would say, and then, well, now he doesn’t seem able to move or speak. I’m sorry. She thought of him in various scenes over the course of his life to come—in school, at home, in church—still fixed in that attitude, and the absurdity of these images together with the amazement she still felt at what had just occurred made her suddenly snort with laughter.
Her laughter seemed to free the boy from his paralysis.
“Oh, god,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t mean…” He reached out toward her as though he wanted to take back what he’d done, but then he withdrew his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said again. He hung his head.
“I guess you should take me home,” my sister said. Suddenly she felt like crying. He nodded and started the car. When they pulled up in front of my parents’ house, he turned off the engine. He looked over at her mournfully. She suddenly thought he was making a huge, self-centered melodrama out of something that wasn’t really so important. He wanted to be a terrible, unforgivable villain. She did not want to give him that satisfaction.
“Look,” she said. “I’m okay. It doesn’t hurt. I’m not, like, scarred for life or anything.”
“Really?” he asked.
“Really,” she said. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. He clasped her hands gratefully. They smiled at each other because that was what they were used to doing. When they smiled, it felt as if a moment before they had been drowning in some cold, unpleasant sea, but now they were back on solid ground, back in the world they knew. A wave of relief swept over them.
“You were being kind of a bitch,” he said.
“I was,” she conceded. “And you were being a class-one a-hole.” She opened the door and got out.
“Can I call you tomorrow?” he called after her.
“Yes,” she said and went inside. She could hardly even feel where he had hit her at all anymore.
If she said anything to our mother, she thought, Mom would only overreact.
Because they had made up and because she wasn’t hurt, she didn’t feel like she needed to mention to anyone what had happened. If she said anything to our mother, she thought, Mom would only overreact. She would call the school, maybe the boy’s parents. She would say things about violence against women and the patriarchy, the kind of embarrassing things that my sister had to do her best to ignore so that she would not be a total outcast in the conservative suburb where we lived. If she told our mother and she started making a fuss, it would definitely mean that she and the boy would break up and stop dating. They were both part of a big group of friends, and she didn’t want to cause problems in that group over something that was really, truly no big deal but that might become a big deal if the parents were involved. It wasn’t like she was some battered and abused woman, like you saw on television talk shows or heard about on local news. Probably, in a few months, she wouldn’t even remember that it had happened.
So she said nothing and the boy never did it again and after a while they broke up for unrelated reasons and started dating other people without much drama or distress to either of them. They finished high school, went on to different colleges. They didn’t keep in touch.
But during that time, unlike what she had expected, the memory of being hit by the boy didn’t just fade away and vanish. It wasn’t that she thought about it all the time or it ruined her life or she could never trust a man again or anything like that. From time to time it would come into her mind, that day, the moment of surprised confusion afterward. And she came to feel, especially as she got a little older, that she had let herself down by the way she had reacted. This was the feeling that grew incrementally inside her. She should not have tried to make him feel better by telling him it was no big deal. She should not have kept it from their friends just so they could all continue to get along. From the beginning she had failed to stand up for herself, and now she knew, or felt like she knew, about herself that she would let someone do that to her and do nothing about it. She would be obliging. She would comply.
This guilt about how she hadn’t stood up for herself was like a small stone that she had to carry around. That was how she pictured it. Small and round, but heavy. And she came to believe—she said, when she finally told me about it all those years later—that maybe if she told people about it, as she was doing now, it would get lighter; that sharing would diminish it, make it smaller, maybe even make it vanish.
And I thought, but did not say: maybe, or maybe it will make it multiply.
Emily Mitchell is the author of a novel, The Last Summer of the World. Her first story collection, Viral, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton in June 2015. Her short fiction has appeared in Harper’s, New England Review, Ploughshares and previously in Guernica. She teaches writing at the University of Maryland.