Who I Am
by Cameron L. Mitchell

“I’ve got something to tell you,” she said, pausing to light a cigarette. She handed it over, then lit one for herself. After taking a long drag, she breathed the smoke out, watching it drift up into the air where it soon disappeared. “About me,” she added, grabbing the ashtray from the night table and placing it on the bed between us. She was always making declarations like that after a round of lovemaking. I didn’t say much, sensing that she preferred it that way. She delivered these long monologues before sinking back into silence, safe behind the wall that surrounded her most of the time. I wondered if her husband listened to her stories with as much interest as I did. Sometimes, I think she enjoyed that part of our affair more than anything else. The talking after sex, like something had been knocked loose inside her head that she just had to get out before it drifted away again, disappearing like the thin plumes of smoke she breathed into the air between us.

“Once the worst thing happens to you,” she said, gazing into the distance, “it’s kind of a relief.” Never meeting my eyes, she seemed aloof in a way, like she didn’t care if I was paying attention or not. Like she was talking to herself. At first I tried to play it cool, staring straight ahead, maybe at the same thing she looked at across the room. But I wasn’t cool. Eventually, I turned my face to hers, unable to look away. I watched her lips move, the way she took the cigarette between them. I waited through inordinately long pauses, searching for meaning behind the words and the way she delivered them when they arrived at last. It was a tricky task. She spoke in such a flat tone, her face a blank. “It frees you,” she continued. “Nothing will ever touch you again. You find out what sort of person you are.” I waited for her to continue, knowing there was more. She sighed. “It doesn’t go away.”

When something bad comes along, how can you know it’s the worst thing you’ll ever face? It seemed like a dangerous thing to believe. A part of me wanted to pose the question, to prick a hole in her self-assured bubble. But my words were slippery, my arguments hard to lasso into order. So I waited. This being the sixth time we’d slept together, I knew my role. Over each encounter, I learned something new about her. A minor detail here, some colorful anecdote there. A full story if I was lucky, delivered at her own pace. With each sentence carefully measured for full impact, she never said more than she needed to. She was in her late thirties at the time. I was fresh out of college but didn’t mind the difference in age. Always taking the lead, she did things in bed none of the girls I dated at the time would try. Though their breasts might have been more firm, their bodies still taught where hers had begun to show its age, they had nothing nearly as interesting to say. I’m sure they’d say the same of me. In our early twenties, what did we know about anything?

She was different. Propped up against her pillow, cigarette in hand, she offered me something different as well. It was a connection based primarily on sex, free of expectations. We took these moments for what they were, happy to have them at all. Or that’s the way I looked at it. For her, I could never be sure.

I met her in a chic, low-lit wine bar that was all the rage for young professionals trying to move on from frat parties and kegs to something more grownup. My friends had abandoned me – one had an early day, the other left with a girl he’d been putting the moves on for a while. When I walked up to the bar to order one more glass, she struck up a conversation. Before long, we were sharing a bottle of cabernet, sneaking to the rooftop for a smoke. That first night in her condo, I remember the smell of something sweet in her thick brown hair, like she had been baking some exquisite dessert before heading out. The second time we slept together, I noticed the same scent clinging to her skin. When I asked if she liked to bake, she laughed. “Sorry to disappoint you,” she said mockingly. “When I want something sweet, I go out and get it.”

Like me, she came from a small town that she would spend the rest of her life trying to escape. Regardless of the distance between that place and now, one keeps running along, knowing it’s only a matter of time before the past reaches its hand out to yank you back. Things in her past: a father so friendly with her friends it made her jealous, to the point that she stopped inviting them over at all. A father who liked to pull her up on his lap, stroking her hair as he recounted stories from his boyhood, telling her how things used to be. As a little girl, it was nothing. With breasts and periods and a new interest in boys, it became something. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but it left her feeling uneasy, so she started avoiding him and his open hands. Still, sitting across his lap with his warm breath against the back of her neck was the safest she’d ever feel. “I miss that,” she told me. “But a father shouldn’t hold his daughter like that, not after a certain point.”

Other things: a classmate in high school she still thinks about, the girl she regrets leaving behind when more popular friends came along; her horse Sandy, and the fact she never got back on after it threw her, breaking her arm; a mother who drank too much, hiding bottles of booze in her bedroom so her father wouldn’t yell. “I had a TV up on the dresser, and do you know what she did?” On this rare occasion, she looked at me with a sideward glance but didn’t wait for an answer. “She filled this tall red cup with soda and vodka and kept it in my room, behind the TV. She left it there so my father wouldn’t see, finding reasons to return to my room, again and again – ‘oh, let me put your laundry away,’ or, ‘how are things with that friend of yours, what’s her name?’ – feigning interest in what I had to say. Reaching back for that cup, taking another sip.” She paused long enough for the details to sink in. She knew exactly how long it took for a vivid image to form in my mind. “I got drunk for the first time when I was fourteen. I vomited all night. She told my father it must have been a stomach bug, but she knew better.”

Something else lurked beneath the surface, waiting for the right time to escape. There was one story – the story – that would define her. I just had to be patient. When she mentioned the relief that comes after experiencing the worst thing that will ever happen in your life, I felt sure this was it. I waited, eager but trying not to show it. I had to give her space. In bed together with the soiled sheets we shared, she felt safe to confess her sins. The dark things deep in her heart didn’t seem as frightening when spoken aloud. She needed me to serve as her silent audience, free of judgment.

“When I was sixteen I had a child,” she told me, her voice as detached as ever. She left home, staying with the boyfriend who knocked her up. They had an apartment at first, above a tire shop. Not long after the baby came, they lost the apartment, staying with different sets of friends for a while. The boyfriend soon led mother and child to the woods, setting up a tent for them to stay in, just until they got back on their feet. It was summer, plenty warm out, so she went along. It’s not like she could go back home. She’d betrayed her father, and he couldn’t even look at her. When you’re taking handouts from the government, they keep a closer eye on what’s going on. It didn’t take long for them to discover the happy family living in a tent. The baby, all of three months old, was taken away, put into foster care. She fought at first, but I’m not sure how much she tried to get the baby back. At this part of the story, she paused for a long time, smashing out her cigarette. She took mine and did the same. She lit another but didn’t offer one to me.

“I signed off,” she said. “Let it go. My naïve attempt at a family, finished like that.” She laughed a cruel laugh. “It was for the best.” She left the boyfriend, moved back home where her father could once again look her in the eye. She finished high school and went on to college, saving her life from the very rough path it had almost gone down. “Having your child taken away like that, it’s the worst thing that can happen. I remember lying in bed, surrounded by stuffed animals, posters of pop stars, notebooks with glitter on the cover. I had to get rid of it all, these artifacts of childhood.” She paused again, taking a long drag off her cigarette. “I’d wake up screaming, my mouth open wide, only to discover no sound was coming out.”

I pictured her in a long nightgown, her body bent at odd angles, thrashing across the bed like a girl possessed. Her chin jutting out, her hands gripping the sheets, her mouth a black hole. The silent screams, desperate and filled with a despair she could never vocalize.

“One morning, it dawned on me that I’d just gone through the worst thing that could ever happen. But there I was, still alive. The next day would soon come, and the one after that. It was a relief, really. Nothing could be as bad as what had just happened.”

But what if it is, I wanted to ask. Then again, she could have been right. Years later, here she was, still convinced that losing that child was the hardest thing she’d ever face.

“I’ll never have children,” she said, finishing her story. “Others, I mean. I don’t want them.” She lowered her gaze. “This is who I am.”

We slept together only once more after this. Things happen – I tried to get more serious about a girl I was seeing (to no avail), I forgot to return a phone call, work became increasingly busy. But I wonder if it was more than that. Did I judge her after all? I thought a lot about that child she gave up, wondering what kind of life it had. I don’t know if it was a boy or a girl. She never said. Let’s say it was a boy. What happened to him? Did he know he was adopted? Were his new parents good to him? Did he grow up damaged, believing that, deep down, there had to be something wrong with him for his own mother to give him up?

We’re all a little damaged. I grew up with both parents and an older sister. My father was a drunk, prone to violent outbursts. My mother did her best. They fought all the time. When things got really bad, she drove us into the night, giving him time to sleep it off. Sometimes we stayed at a cheap motel; other times, we drove around with no destination in mind, pulling into some parking lot to catch a few hours of sleep. She talked of leaving for good, maybe calling a friend or relative for help. But we always went back. If it wasn’t for the accident, I think my father might have eventually killed her. It really got that bad at times. But now, due to his condition, it’s my mother who calls the shots. He depends on her completely. If I’m being honest, they’ve never seemed happier.

As for the older woman, I hadn’t thought of her much until recently, when I happened to see her at the grocery store. There she was in the produce section, picking through a pile of apples, carefully checking each one for bruises. Despite the significant changes in her appearance, I recognized her immediately. Though the harsh fluorescent light highlighted her each and every flaw, it was more than that. The slope of her shoulders, her frizzy, unkempt hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, the frumpy way she was dressed – she looked so ordinary, if not a little sad. The vitality I remembered, totally erased. She picked up an apple, turned it around in her hand, put it back down, and then picked it up again, examining it closely before finally deciding it was good enough. She dropped it inside the flimsy plastic bag and started the process all over again. The hesitation in each move, the anxiety written across her face over such a simple task seemed so unlike the woman I remembered.

But then a remarkable thing happened. A little girl appeared at her side, handing over a box of cereal. She smiled down at the child in a way that unnerved me. Her confidence restored, her smile was open and unguarded, honest in a way I’d never seen during our short-lived affair. All due to the love for a child she once said would never exist.

Realizing I’d been standing in place for an unnaturally long time, I turned to leave. I put my basket of groceries down on the floor and fled, not wanting to take any chance she might see me.

Her tragedies hadn’t made a difference after all. She was just like everyone else. I felt disappointed that she had given in to a life so ordinary. I imagined her days filled with babies and strollers, PTA meetings and soccer games, carpools and dance classes. It bothered me that she could have changed so much. I’ll bet she no longer believes having that first child taken away is the worst thing that could ever happen. Now she fears a whole new category of possibilities, things that fuel a parent’s worst nightmare: unusual fatigue that turns out to be cancer; a traffic accident or terrible fall on the playground; a strange man in the supermarket staring far too long.

That we can change so drastically. That we’re constantly evolving, never knowing what we might find in the mirror from one day to the next, no matter how confidently we lay out our beliefs to anyone who will listen. It bothered me, wondering how much I might change in the coming years, just when I thought I had finally settled into the stability of knowing who I am.

I thought of my mother, wondering if she really had done her best. I thought of my girlfriend and our arguments over having children – I claimed it was a cruel thing to do, bringing something so innocent into a world gone mad. I thought of how fragile we are, each and every one of us, no matter how hard we try to hide it.

I stopped at a gas station and bought a pack of cigarettes, ripping the cellophane wrapping off before I reached my car. I took the matches and lit up, thinking of too many things all at once. I coughed at first, but soon I breathed the smoke in easily, just like the old days. It was the first cigarette I’d had in years. I laughed a little, thinking back to that time I told everyone I had quit the nasty habit for good. I really believed it at the time.

Cameron L. Mitchell grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. He’s been published in various journals and magazines and now resides in New York, where he works in medical archives at Columbia University. Find him on Twitter.

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