footsteps & wheels & stairwells

*discusses assault*

When I was young, I was nearly run over by a bicycle from behind. Asphalt-burnt knees and heavy breathing, the softest gust of air before it happened, the wind knocked out of me. How he kept on going, the retreating wheels in the distance. How my mother cursed him, the dogs shied away, could not find the air to bark.

How I look behind me now at the sound of wheels.

My senior year in Minnesota, I walked to the dorm in the ice and cold, slipping in slush. Suddenly, running footsteps behind me, too close. Balance lost, the scream, the fall.

Oh, I just forgot my gloves, I was in a hurry, I’m so sorry.

How I look behind me now at the sound of footsteps.

My freshman year in college, fleeing from a party and a grasping stoner I would later spend an intolerable spring trying to please and learning to hate his love of jazz. But then his hand on my shoulder was enough to make me retch. I should have listened to my gut.

Two steps at a time up the back stairwell at two in the morning, trying to find a friend so I could gasp ohmygawdcanyoubelievewhatcreepsthereareincollegeahhhhhhhhh and laugh it off.

But of course, two o’clock in the god damn morning and sane people are asleep.

Of course, it was only after that someone told me nothing good happens after two.

The one I find, the one I didn’t intend, is in my major, my classes, my dorm. He is kind and quiet. We spoke once for a long time, not too close, never spoke again after.

I sober stumble over every detail, it doesn’t matter who listens, as long as I get to gasp it out and get the memory of his hands off of me. I start to wish I drank so I could forget.

He listens. And then he tells me he loves me. We have spoken maybe twice.

The slow silent moment when I realized this was insanity. I did not quite remember his name. He is too close now.

How bizarrely I leaned in to kiss him because I thought it would make him go away.

I am confused and I am young and I am exhausted and I do not know what I am doing. And I do not understand what is happening.

He kisses me and does not let go, as grasping as the one I fled.

I forget how to leave even though I want to, even though I had less than an hour ago.

The insistent press, the bizarre inability to push anything away.

When will this end.

I try to edge up the stairwell, away from his room, and foolishly deeper into where no one can see. But people still pass and ask no questions.

There was no beginning and no end to the desperate, deer in the headlights.

Some things it is better not to remember. I don’t remember how I broke away.

I don’t know what just happened and I don’t know why.

How my roommate asked, so, do you like him?

Sometimes, still, so long, all I can feel is the empty of that stairwell.

How afterwards, I had to sing in every stairwell to fill the silence.

How I later had to tell him it’s not you, it’s me, how he almost cried, how the boys that were my friends told me that I broke his heart.

How the people at the campus sexual assault hotline said there was nothing they could do because it wasn’t rape, was it?

Beige walls tainted, charcoal smudges and polluted air adhering.

At every landing, turn to check who follows.

For the three and a half years I study there, he insists on smiling at me, how are you, it’s good to see you. I turn abruptly, hide in doorways, look away, do not eat when he is near, leave rooms he walks into, draw blood from chewed fingernails, roiled gut and tight chest, cough from holding a breath too long. The shame of being reminded at every passing turn.

Once, when I was old enough to ride the bus alone but not the subway, two men followed me for whole blocks from the stop. I walked faster and did not turn. They muttered in my ear what they wanted to do to me and my schoolgirl skirt. I did not tell anyone.

What shame to be singled out. I was no slut, didn’t dare to blame someone else for my transgression of growing. Keep quiet and stay small, stay gold, the hardest hue to hold.

I ride the bus without shame. Since that time, hockey practice late at night, speak softly and carry a big stick, the cat yowling in her bag to the veterinarian, stepping over banks of slush, pull the cord to claim where the journey ends for me. The crowded comfort of the crosstown, the last high seat in the back, in the corner, lemon-poppy seed muffin crumbs in my lap and the steam on the windows in the rain. How none of it is tainted.

I cannot ride a bicycle.

I do not like to run.

I climb the stairs without thought.

I stay away from stairwells.

I ride the bus.

Where I take my classes now, there are long windowless hallways and florescent lights that illuminate beige and blood-red stairwells, ladders, fire extinguishers, doors that lead to boiler rooms and the bowels of the building. How I doubled over in painful joy when I realized that I walk quietly through them with no fear.

There is enough to remind me that what happened need not happen again.

I do not need to sing.

There is no empty here.

© 2017 Anna-Christina Betekhtin, All Rights Reserved.

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