Each time I think about the subtly spiked looks that spit between us now, or the blunt words that gently bruise my shaken shoulders, my mind spirals back to the dipping of the mattress when your knees joined me on the bed, the faint creak when you leaned across the curl of my body and carefully covered me with the blanket you gave me the night the scars came back.
My head fizzed with the leftovers from my first drink. A newbie, unnecessarily tipsy. My fresh bones ached; my sharp and shiny monsters crept closer, warded off only by the felted warmth of your gift. I remember your hand on my back as I tried to sleep, its careful kindness a soft stone on my skin, and the quiet voice that questioned the sniffs I tried to bury.
There had been a night where it was I stroking your red curls in my lap while your drunken eyes refused to close, two of us on the strange couch, several dark weekends ago. In my bed you watched over me, as I had with you. My pathetic child’s voice crept past my hands. Your softened response: “I’m not angry.”
Your hands on my back sketching love on my shoulders, fingers longer than mine that held a story, that caught my hands, my hair, my hurt, fingers that the night before handed me the glass while wide eyes watched and waited with me when the buzz entered my body for the first time. Arms that curled around me when we sat in the park admiring the midnight haze and rare summer chill.
I remember what it feels like to be safe.
Leaning on you felt like leaning on a tree—broad shoulders like supple branches carrying the weight of life, your spine a sturdy trunk wrapped in the rings of your years and sheltered by experience. You were sturdy and firm. I relaxed into your soft bark, the jacket I’d lent you in the darkened chill. A shoulder to tuck my head into, kinky red hair rustling against my face. A mouth that sighed, happy.
Your legs lead me through the night when my restless yammering took us around campus. My nonstop chitchat fueled by the fizz and my hyper limbs calmed by long fingers sketching love on my shoulders.
And when I remember your calm smile, your wide eyes searching for mine, your tentative laugh at my tipsy giggle, the tree of your body planted near me, I ache harder for the strength of your branches and the calm of your voice. My stomach ticks when I think of you and heaves when I see you. I know the bright green eyes don’t search for me, long fingers don’t reach for me.
Before I can look into your face again I have to hear your voice—quiet, patient, steady. A calm wind where there had been storm. I have to taste the sadness trickling in the darkness, a sorry sap I know I have to tap.
The distance placed by months of crackled words and severed glances slips behind us when you join me on the step. Bitter concrete sends chills seeping up our skins. The inches between us may be miles or years or forests.
But my arms yawn and my spine shakes when my soggy voice creeps out from the crevice of bent shoulders.
You ask before I let your fingers gently draw across my back. A note of kindness left behind. There was a time we could have shared a note of sorry, of love. I missed you.
I need to feel you again. My demons snicker that you aren’t here; your sturdy trunk has fallen to the storm, your branches cracked and splintered in the grass.
I hug you again. I feel your bones again, I feel the fabric of your shirt, the soft and sticky of your skin, the knots of your hair, the firmness of your arms. Your fingers swirling slowly on my back.
I’m sorry. I missed you. Thank you for coming back.
It’s a different kind of touch; beneath your bark are things I can’t see. It’s a familiar sketch, but sullied and softened. I’ll never be a solitary name carved in your trunk. I’ll never hold the secret part of you I’d tried to see.
But this I can hold—this solid body, this sturdy tree. These gentle branches. The lively heart.
I feel you hold me again and remember what it feels like to be safe.
Sometimes it’s the safest places that become the most toxic. The tree that withers and decays will still give shade until its putrid remains rain down, smothering those who claimed its haven.
There are different methods of coping with the pain. I don’t think anyone hurt me like you.
Worse than the scores by my own hand on this body that is mine. Worse than the sizzle of the two times you hit me when you were drunk.
Jagged phrases, blunt glares and deep silences.
The eyes that searched me for safety now stared at my arm as if shreds of my flesh were falling off like pieces of a smacked puzzle.
The fingers that sketched my canvass with love have by now counted the slices on my skin months after my shaking hands put them there.
The lips that met my cheek after one too many, pressed against my hands one damp midnight after work, now curled with words invented to smart.
Subtle promises and loaded gifts, snapping back with tart glowers if I took my reaction “too far.” Branches that guided and protected now lashing as at intruders in a bitter storm. Your trunk once planted near me now settled firmly opposite on the plastic benches slicked with October mist.
I snapped that night, the night you sat with me for hours in the dark chill jabbing words at me that cut deeper than my lithe blades, leaving marks more sour than the ones already splattered into my skin.
My core shook. No arms but my own shielded me from the midnight weighted down by autumn. Fingers longer than mine extended, curled and waiting, joined by the familiar murmur of my name. I pulled back, refusing the jaded caress and ignoring the cloying softness.
You can’t hold the blade unless I let you, and I was ready to snatch it back.
Our gazes clashed and for once it was you who couldn’t stare back.
My child’s voice broken by months of maybes and sobs you didn’t deserve now lashed out with stinging truths and long-awaited questions that stumped your ready mouth.
The tree never recognizes the wood of the axe that slices at its trunk.
You’d failed to see I had roots of my own. You never noticed the rings of life curling through my trunk.
Our branches had been tangled for too long. I was done waiting for the wind to set me free.
And when you saw how firmly I was planted it was you who took the fall.
The scars will no longer be for you. The pain has changed and so has the cure. I am alone but I am free.
No one’s branches protect me but my own. I’ve learned what it feels like to be safe.