Kate and I had been secretly sleeping together for almost a month when I noticed a bruise on her upper thigh. “What’s that?” As the question left my mouth I feared I wouldn’t want to hear the answer.
“Oh. Blake,” she said. “He does that when I’m on top of him.”
Kate was a “best-looking” senior-superlatived, field-hockey-captained, Camel Light–smoking, Dead-bootleg-listening straight woman. She was also my freshman-year college roommate. Blake was a golden-dreadlocked, sharp-nosed surfer. He was a townie, and older than both of us. Kate had been sleeping with him for two weeks. I pretended not to mind.
In the light of day, she and I had never spoken about our nights. The closest we came to talking about it was the morning after the first time we hooked up. We’d gone out for her birthday the night before, to the bar where I worked. She wore a Billabong hoodie that hugged her torso. Over drinks I’d given her a present: David Gray’s White Ladder. After opening her gift, she leaned across the table and kissed me on the cheek. I could smell Blue Moon on her breath. We ordered stuffed oysters, a questionable choice at a college dive. A pre-set eighties mix blared through the speakers; we got up to dance when “Take On Me” came on, moving our bodies closer and shimmying our way to the floor, then grabbing on to each other to pull ourselves back up. I could feel people watching, and I liked it. Once home we put on the CD—it was whiny, brooding, melodramatic—and we lay side by side to listen. Nothing out of the ordinary until she began caressing my face; tracing my eyebrows, my nose, my lips. Then she kissed me. Nervous, I stopped her. “I don’t want to ruin our friendship,” I said. It was a line from movies, what the girl always said when a guy friend made a move.
Kate tilted her head back a little too far and laughed. “Don’t worry. We’re just, you know, ‘experimenting.’”
So I didn’t worry. Besides, I wasn’t attracted to Kate, so maybe it was safe to let her “experiment” with me. But when I woke up the next morning and glanced at her beside me, still asleep, the danger was apparent. She looked different than she had the day before. How had I never noticed her long brown lashes? Her strict, elegant nose? Her pink pastel lips? I slid out of bed and tiptoed to my side of the room. I had no desire to leave her, but was afraid that waking up beside each other would be too jarring.
It was the first day of spring break. We were spending the week road-tripping along the Florida coast with her friends. It was a thirteen-hour drive south to Fort Lauderdale, our first stop. After about thirty minutes I heard Kate shifting in her bed. “What time is it?” she called out from under the covers, her voice muffled by the comforter.
“Still early,” I said. After that we said nothing to each other as we packed on opposite sides of the room. I filled the silence with paranoid speculation. Was she ashamed by what we’d done? Had it been awful for her? Or had she been too drunk to remember? For a moment I worried that I had somehow taken advantage of her, or worse, imagined it. But, no, she had made the first move. And it had happened. I could still smell her on my pajamas.
In the car on the way to pick up her friends we slowed to a stop at a traffic light. “So,” she said, “does this mean we can’t join the military?”
Over the next week, we made out in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Miami, Key West. She’d drop a quick kiss on my cheek when no one was looking, touch my thigh under tables, climb into my sleeping bag after everyone else had passed out. We returned home and continued, finally having sex.
Three weeks after Florida I watched her leave the bar with Blake in the middle of my set. I’d never seen him before, and I asked the bartender who he was. Apparently he was a local craftsman. He’d been in Costa Rica for the past few months on an extended surfing trip. He had honey-colored dreadlocks and a deep tan. I kept eyeing him, watching him order a succession of Red Stripes and greet the numerous women who came up to hug him. He seemed equally excited to talk to each of them, and I imagined that every last one of them walked away feeling wanted. I noticed him noticing Kate, which triggered deep panic. I kept looking over as he subtly inched his way closer to where she was sitting. I wanted to cry when I saw him tap her on the shoulder, then offer a little wave when she turned around to see who it was. A good move, I thought to myself. I overheard him ordering another beer, and asking if she wanted one as well, which she did. “Hey!” the chef called out to me. “Order up. Orders, in fact.” I looked to the kitchen window and saw several steaming plates waiting to be carried out. I had no choice but to turn away from the horrific scene of Kate and Blake, just as they were laughing about something. Before heading to the kitchen I reached over the bar and poured myself a shot of Jägermeister, then another.
The place was packed, and I could only catch snippets of them talking. Why did they keep laughing? What was so funny? I thought I might die when she tapped his stomach, the lines of his six-pack visible through his shirt. But no, that came later, as I watched him drop a twenty on the bar, take her hand, and lead her out the front door.
After they left I drank three Rail Royales, the house specialty consisting of a shot of every liquor in the rail and a splash of Sprite. I clocked out, got in my car, and backed into a dumpster.
I’m not sure how long I’d been sitting there when a cop appeared and tapped on the plastic driver’s-side window. Instead of unzipping it, I opened the door and spilled out of the car. “She’s sleeping with someone else,” I cried as I stumbled into the policeman. “And I’m falling in love with her.” He collected me in his arms as I thrashed against his chest, tipsy passersby stopping to view the spectacle. I imagined that in fear, if not compassion, he dropped the charge from a DUI to underage possession. He called a cab and sent me home.
I didn’t see Kate until the following night. I took the campus bus back to the dorms after my shift, and as it approached my stop I was dreading the sight of her, knowing she’d spent the entire night having sex with someone else, while also desperately hoping that she’d be home. When I got to our room she was sitting on the couch, eating a bowl of Easy Mac. “Hey,” she said. “Where’ve you been?”
I told her about what happened after she left the bar. “I still have to pay a fine,” I said. “For the dumpster.”
Kate didn’t respond. “Did you hear me?” I asked.
She stood up and threw the bowl at my head, something I’d only seen my mother do. Was I now my passive-aggressive father? It shattered against the wall as I dodged out of the way; orange elbow noodles splattered across the wall. “You think it’s my fault!” she yelled. “Don’t you? You think it’s my fault this happened to you?”
At that moment I knew: her guilt, encouraged by my immediate surrender and lack of resistance, would eventually destroy us. At the same time, it would be my only weapon against her.
I apologized and assured her that of course it wasn’t her fault that I’d crashed into that dumpster, it was mine. I cleaned up the mess and brought her a new bowl of pasta. I made sure to get a little smudge of orange sauce on my T-shirt, so she wouldn’t forget what she’d done. We watched a movie and I held her while she dropped little kisses on my cheeks and said it made her sad to imagine me hurting. “I hate when we fight like that,” she told me.
I pulled her closer and ran my fingers through her hair. “Let’s never again.”
When she smashed another dish the following year I slit my wrist with a piece of it. Blood dripped all over the linoleum. She took me to get stitches and didn’t leave my side for a week.
Of course we both stayed in town for the summer, neither of us went anywhere. Kate was taking extra classes so she could double major, and because she’d failed astronomy that spring and needed three science credits to graduate. Blake was in San Sebastián until the fall, surfing. He had ended things with Kate before leaving, not wanting to be tied down and preferring to “preserve the time they’d spent together before it soured.” She came home crying after he told her this, and I tried hard not to show how relieved I was.
I had spent most of the money I’d made in the spring on repairs to both my car and the dumpster, meaning I needed to keep my DJ gig and cast aside my tentative Summer at Sea plans. Instead, the only places I traveled existed along the length of Kate, beneath her clothes, inside her mouth, all on her white-sheeted bed that felt like a frothy ocean. An art and fashion major, she painted, drew, collaged, and dressed me. She drank and tasted me. She did everything but feed me, though not for lack of trying. I had lost control over my own volition, or maybe I’d chosen to wrap it up in her.
Once, as I sat naked in her bed, we both glanced at my reflection in the window and noticed the vertebrae of my spine through my skin. “You’re getting really thin,” she said. “I’m scared I might shatter you.”
At work one evening I overheard my boss say to the bartender, “That girl who comes in here, the blonde?” he nodded in Kate’s direction as she hovered over the pool table about to sink the eight ball. “I want to fuck her until her back shatters.”
I fantasized about impaling him with the cue stick. But I said and did nothing. I was terrified that if I did, he’d know. And if anyone knew, if even Kate acknowledged our relationship, it might end. The less visible I was to her, the thinner I got and the less space I took up in her life, the more likely things were to continue.
I remember how we slept. I’d lie flat on my back and Kate would unzip my hoodie halfway down my chest, slide her hand onto my breast, and place her head on my clavicle. I’d burrow my nose into her hair. When she wanted sex she would gently caress my nipple; it would harden and she’d run her pierced tongue down my stomach, arriving underneath a pair of tattered boxers that I wore as pajamas. I’d pull her on top of me, aligning our bodies so that we practically snapped into place. I always came with such force that my back would shoot upward, propelling me forward and crashing into her.
“I want to marry you,” she said one night as we lay wrapped in a sheet on the floor, having slid like salamanders off the bed.
I winced with fear and a fleeting disgust. A relationship with a woman meant failure: I had failed to get a man, failed to find something normal, failed to not be pathetic. “This is why you don’t have a boyfriend!” my mother yelled each time I did anything she deemed wrong, even if it had no relation whatsoever to what I’d done or why I didn’t have a boyfriend, even when I did have one. I’d spill juice on the kitchen floor and that was why no man would ever love me. I’d forget to get a pedicure on the first day of spring and it was the reason I would never get married.
“Marry me, then,” I said to Kate.
“I love the scars on your feet,” she said. She kissed the top of my foot—I had kissed the bottom of hers a number of times. “I love these scars.” She placed her lips beneath my hip bone, tracing a thin scar that my mother had laid with a high heel’s spike. “I want to protect you forever.”
“Okay.” I nodded. “I want you to.”
Two years into our relationship, when I sensed that Kate was beginning to drift, I stopped eating. I’d try to initiate sex and she would swiftly turn it into a cuddling session. She’d come home later and later without explanation. If I asked, she’d say she was at her studio on campus. But what fashion student needed to pull all-nighters? The more she pulled away, the less food I consumed. Maybe starving myself was an act of passive resistance, a way of regaining the control I had surrendered to her and refused to take back, which would’ve been the healthier option. Instead, I chose to leverage her guilt.
Our relationship began its full descent over a winter break spent in the South of France. We had dinner at a seafood place in Antibes one evening. When my fish arrived, the garçon unveiled it, and Kate practically clapped with excitement. “Look!” she said. “It’s so nutritious! Citrus fruits and julienned vegetables. And it’s all grilled! Isn’t that good? Something you can finally eat!”
I smiled as my eyes filled with tears. One escaped onto my tilapia. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”
“Please don’t cry.” Her voice turned bitter as she shook her head. “Please don’t fucking cry. Please stop fucking crying!” She slammed her palm on the table, wine leaped from her glass.
I sniffled and snorted and tried to suck back snot and tears, which only made me cry harder. I’m aware I can be exhausting—“you exist too much,” my mother often told me.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Kate, “I’ll stop, I’m stopping.” Deep breath, throat clear. Wobbling smile. “Okay. I’m better.”
Copyright © 2020 by Zaina Arafat, from You Exist Too Much. Excerpted with permission of Catapult.