Survival Guide

A cluster of barrel cacti dominated by their spiky spines. The image is split with a black V shape and the center of the V is in full color with the sides remaining in black and white.

Apply primer. 

When the bruise is at its darkest—any shade between red and violet—apply green concealer first, then regular concealer, one shade lighter than your foundation. Once it begins to yellow, substitute lavender concealer for the green. Then foundation, repeat; cover in powder, setting spray. Make every effort to ensure your makeup can outlast tears, sweat, the various liquors and juices that form a thin, sticky film on your skin that remains after you return home from your closing shift. Check every angle of your face—first in the bathroom mirror, then in your phone camera when you get behind the bar to test the lighting. Remember which angle makes the bruise the least visible when you’re talking to her.

She wants to help you. She’s a good friend, and you hate her for it. She’s a lawyer, and she acts like one, studying you with pleading eyes from behind her beer when she sits at one of the iron stools surrounding the horseshoe-shaped bar. Avoid being alone with her, getting cornered. You know you will cry. You always do. 

The truth comes out when she asks you to share a Pall Mall just outside the warm, cheerful brewery on a cold night in early February. She starts crying, and your own eyes begin to sting. But you quickly fight the tears down, walk back in like nothing happened and pour yourself, and any of the regulars who desire one, another drink. 

You move into the spare bedroom of her house by the end of the month. She keeps it too cold. You wear wool socks to bed, hug your knees to your chest under layers of quilts and it’s still not enough. You think about the first night you met him, how out of nowhere he appeared as you searched your backpack for a lighter. The way the flame, and the sudden glow of his smile appeared in the dark. You don’t sleep. You toss and turn in a bed that is not yours, in a house you’ll never be able to afford. You remember the night you both searched his apartment at three in the morning for his birth certificate, motivated by copious amounts of cocaine and a desire to find out his birthtime. Defeated, he sat on the worn futon, and you on the concrete floor, your head collapsed onto his bony knee, his fingernails tracing mandalas on the back of your neck.

You don’t want to be here. You don’t want to be anyone’s charity case. You’ve always done exactly what you’ve wanted. Each time you’d go to him, you couldn’t wait to leave your life behind: your boyfriend of two years, the home you were building with each other. Your hair would stand up on your neck when he opened the door, your flesh crawling with the illicitness of it all. Eventually, you confessed the affair to your boyfriend, and now you live in your friend’s spare bedroom, making promises of never seeing him again. You lie, more than ever. Only this time you’re doing it while you’re eating her food, drinking her expensive coffee, living in her house. She gives you clothes that no longer fit her: well-worn T-shirts advertising restaurants you’ve never been to, cities you’ve never even passed by. You wear them, like you wear the guise of a girl that is changing, but inside everything pulls you back to him.

The first time you sneak back to his place while she is at work, he takes your phone from your hands. When you go to reach for it, he slaps you with the back of his hand across your face. His ring collides with your cheekbone and leaves a mark. She asks you about it. You lie, smudged makeup. She looks at you defiantly: “Gal, that’s a bruise.” 

Be careful of what you say over text messages.

Ever since that first morning you woke up in his apartment, you feel the space between your legs swell when you see his name on your phone. You texted through the days that followed: talking dirty, typing fantasies of bondage and submission. He’s more methodical than you think, or at the least, opportunistic. Now, he throws it back in your face: If you ever tell anybody, he will show them that he was only giving you what you wanted. 

Trust your gut. 

Only your gut builds cobblestoned paths straight to your demise, illuminates your endangerment in a soft pink light. Your gut placed you behind steering wheels when you were too drunk to walk, before you were even old enough to get your license. Your gut asked your friend for drugs when you were both in the back of a paddy wagon (on camera) on the way to the city jail. Your gut shared a home with a man who loved you, and kept leading you to the apartment of this one instead, for sex, attention, drama and other reasons you can’t name. Your gut would gleefully skip barefoot across a path of hot coals to pick up a one-dollar scratch off ticket on the other side. You know love is not this. You’ve had love better than this; you could count it on both of your hands. Your gut chose this instead. 

Come up with a safety plan. 

It’s not like it is in the movies. If you leave, he won’t stop you. He will never pursue you after you are gone. He will have someone else in his bed before you can sign the paperwork for your new apartment. You have nothing stopping you from never answering him again. You choose to stay, again and again and again. You once heard in a court-mandated AA meeting that some people are addicted to being sick. Sickness is a part of them as inseparable as flesh. Love isn’t strong enough for you unless it has you in a chokehold.

One June day, he confesses he’s sleeping with someone else. You had been too, but as always, you feign innocence. You slap him; he chokes you until you lose consciousness. You wake on your bed, with him, then run down the stairs from your attic apartment. He chases you, falls on his knees in the backyard and begs you to stay. That night, you take a pregnancy test. You don’t remember your last period, don’t remember much of anything. The months stretch behind you like a blank white hallway. It hurts when you swallow from where his fingers gripped your throat. You read recently that people who have been strangled by their partners are over 700% more likely to be murdered by them the next year; that seven seconds of occlusion of blood is when permanent brain damage starts to occur. As the second blue line begins to appear on the drugstore test, you are too stunned to pick up your phone. You don’t know who to call. 

Be prepared for bold people to ask you: “Why did you keep the baby?”

Not so bold people will wonder the same. You don’t owe them an answer, but what you can say is: “No matter what, I was ready to be a mother.” 

You don’t tell them about the first one. You were 18 years old; you scraped together the money your Irish Catholic father gave you for books that semester and the money you saved working Sundays serving pancakes to churchgoers at a Cracker Barrel. The procedure took 15 minutes, but you sat in the waiting room filled with downcast eyes and a heavy silence for most of the day. The ultrasound tech sounded like she had once sat where you sat when she said: “I legally have to show you the heartbeat, but you don’t have to look at the screen.” You looked at the screen, the creature swimming like a jellyfish. You never once regretted it, but you promised yourself you’d never do that again. 

Promises were made to be broken. You make an appointment for a date the week before it would be too late, just in case. You drive to the clinic in Denver still undecided. It’s a regular doctor’s office, in a regular building, without a protester to be found. Here you are, ten years later, feeling more lost than you were back then. You sit in your car for 20 minutes, staring at the black windows against the beige building, knowing for less than a thousand dollars, you could walk into those doors and walk out the same, a woman who only had to care for herself. A decade ago, you knew exactly what you wanted. Now, you are ambivalent, passive. You’d hoped the doctor wouldn’t find a heartbeat when you attended your prenatal appointments. You’d hoped to wake up in the morning and see blood. You’d hoped that something would happen that was out of your control, that would allow you a second chance to have your first child in the kind of healthy home you grew up in, a chance to get this part right. You, like always, longed to slip quietly out of this situation, blameless and innocent. 

You choose to be a mother.

Now, when his hands lunge for you, you must protect your stomach instead of your face.

You try to make the best of it. You act meeker than ever, pick his clothes up off the carpet and fold them after he throws them to the ground in a rage. You twist yourself endlessly to fit into what you think he wants. You watch the animated version of The Addams Family on repeat, sinking deeper into the well your body has created on the king-sized mattress on his bedroom floor. He rubs your feet. Starts to smoke his cigarettes outside. Makes you bubble baths with off-brand dish soap, applies clay face masks, massages shoulders, cleans your skin when you don’t have the strength. He grabs your face, goes to smack it, his hand remains in the air; he throws a pot instead. He’s changing. He promises you he has changed. As your stomach grows, the walls close in. You stray further and further from the woman a younger you wanted to become.

You leave his apartment for what you promised yourself would be the last time. 

You’d made a plan. You go to your 20-week anatomy scan. The ultrasound tech shakes your stomach to try and get the baby to move. She asks if you ate breakfast, says the baby must be in a food coma. You hope that’s all it is, the first of many worries you will have for the life growing inside you. She has you walk around, change positions, go pee. Then she checks your baby’s every body part, wordlessly typing notes that make no sense to you. It’s a boy, what his father has always wanted. He’s healthy, a relief to you. You watch your son kick on the screen and feel his tiny feet against the wall of your uterus. You’d been feeling that flutter for weeks, but chalked it up to your anxiety. 

The day after your appointment, you drive east. You have a financed car, $2,000 in your bank account, clothes, and six black and white sonogram pictures of your child’s body parts: his long limbs, his feet, his testicles labeled “IT’S A BOY!!!!” You are afraid to face your family. You are ashamed: first in a long history of devout Catholics to be pregnant outside of wedlock, by a man they’ve never even heard of. You drive to Kansas City, pay for two nights at the cheapest hotel you can find. It is luxury to you, stretching into crisp white sheets, stretching into silence. You watch reality TV for two straight days with the lights off and the blackout curtains drawn, order sushi and BBQ and have them leave it outside the door. 

When you arrive back in Kentucky, the state you’d left five years before with no intention of returning, you sleep on an air mattress in your little sister’s spare bedroom. You deliver food from Applebee’s and Chick-fil-A in red insulated bags over and over again for laughable wages until you’re welcomed back to the same restaurant where you worked during college. You work doubles; you work seventeen days straight. Your feet swell. You buy new shoes. Now you can afford an apartment. Your mother and your two sisters take you to Target and they split the cost three ways. You leave with a metal trash can, plastic plates, and a vacuum. In front of the cashier, you shuffle back and forth in your oversized Sketchers and sheepishly dribble out I-can’t-thank-you-enoughs. You’ve become their charity case.

February comes around. Your wrists and fingers swell so much you can’t grasp a pencil. You wear a carpal tunnel brace to bed. Your belly can no longer be mistaken for extra weight. People you know and those you don’t congratulate you constantly. At home, you cry; you feel like you made a mistake. You swallow pregnancy-safe over-the-counter sleep aids. You long for dreams better than your reality. You long for a time machine. You long for stronger drugs. But, you already live for the boy growing inside you, now taking up enough space you can sometimes see his hands or feet from the other side of your translucent winter skin when you lay in bed at night. You work. You save. You make coffee at home. You only buy meat on sale. You are becoming disciplined. Still, lonely, you call your baby’s father. He’s always drunk and often with someone else. You fill your new apartment with the same old thundering screams from both ends of the phone, insults thrown from both sides like tiny darts in a dimly lit bar. You cry. You long to be seen. You should not be carrying this alone. But, you left. You knew this is what would happen.

Whether you’re ready or not, the baby will come. 

He’s born on his due date. His birth, like his conception, you cannot remember. He arrives violently, with an infection that ate your epidural in the middle of a C-section after two days of failed labor. You’re knocked unconscious with ketamine. You hallucinate through the delivery, sherbet colors, people you’ve hurt saying they forgive you. You wake up an hour and a half after he’s born, alone in a room with an oxygen mask over your face, shaking as you detox from the drugs. When it comes time to meet him, you tell your nurse you aren’t ready. You don’t realize she wasn’t giving you the choice. 

You video chat his dad from the hospital, he says that baby ain’t fucking his. When he is six weeks old, his dad tells you he’s found someone who will be a better mother than you are, and you scream and punch a wall with your son in a baby carrier, sleeping against your chest. He doesn’t wake up. He feels so safe with you, it’s your job to keep it that way. You promise this is the last time.

Six months later, his father comes to meet him for the first time. When he’s in your apartment, the shrinking begins again. Every move is scrutinized. You count down the days until he leaves. One night, while you’re sleeping, holding your son in your arms, he snatches him from you. He drags you with one hand to the kitchen outside your bedroom door, holding your cellphone in the other hand, upset about unanswered Facebook messages from your neighbor. He pins you to the linoleum floor. You hear your son start to cry from your bed. You know to shrink is to survive. Your eyes closed, you apologize and repeat, calmly, again and again: “Please, go get the baby.” The minutes feel like hours. You promise this is the last time. It is. 

Even if you don’t feel happy, you can find serenity in being alone. 

Your mom kindly suggests that maybe you could meet a nice single father to date; you know she worries you will never find a proper father figure for your son. Friends tell you to get the baby out of your bed so you can find your sexual self again. But you have everything you want. You find comfort in the rhythm of your days, lulled by the routine. You find peace in the sound of the dishwasher running at night. You are calm; you do not surf someone else’s mood swings like waves.

When your son’s laughter fills your apartment, you actually feel joy. Him in his highchair, you on a step stool in front of him, juggling clementines. He does not see any of your imperfections; he does not know any of your mistakes. You are the only thing he knows, and you are ridding yourself of toxic behaviors, wringing them from you like dirty water from a sponge, so that one day you may feel you deserve that kind of love. On weekends, you sip hot coffee and watch your son play. You make him scrambled eggs with sprouted wheat toast for breakfast. Most days, you don’t apply makeup. There have been weeks you’ve forgotten to look in the mirror at all. You keep your eyes on the next step and keep faith that he will grow up feeling secure and loved. That he will feel like each choice you made was the right one.

Lucy Jayes

Lucy Jayes has fostered a love of writing since she was old enough to hold a pen. Her work has been published in Cardinal Sins, Deep Overstock, and the Big Windows Review. She is a second-year MFA student at the University of Kentucky.

Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson

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