Cigarettes & Bruises

the beginning and the end

I don’t quite know how I got here.

I used to be a good girl. Good grades, good morals. There were no holes in my jeans or runs in my panty hose. I still had my natural hair color. My nails were sturdy and strong, long enough for manicures. My shoes were modest, sneakers or low heels. I didn’t wear make-up and I hid behind shy smiles and downcast eyes. Used to be, I carried a purse full of gum, floss, and always spare cash in case I found myself in a money jam. Now I carry a purse full of change, cigarettes, and lighters. My eyes are always rimmed with black. It’s usually smudged but I mean for it to be that way. Red lipstick is the only smack of color on my pale face. I smell of smoke and stale alcohol, courtesy of a boyfriend who leaves bruises that I have to conceal each day. My body is frail, bony, the body of someone who is anorexic. It’s a wonder I haven’t broken in half yet.

The ground around me is littered with cigarette butts, stained red from my ruby lips. It’s been thirty minutes but already I’ve wasted half a pack. Nat’ll kill me. Maybe he’ll be so drunk he’ll miss my face. Facial bruises are the hardest to cover. I should stop, should stop smoking my money away like I have any to waste. But I pull out another one, stick it between my lips, and light up. I cross my legs and lean back against the bench. The sign at the park said no smoking but it’s dark and there’s no one here to catch me. No cop’s gonna waste his time trying to find out who left a day’s worth of cigarettes on the ground. Not when I know for sure they’ll have their hands full with a robbery at the gas station. A robbery that will probably result in a dead body. If I’m lucky, maybe it’ll be Nat’s. But I’m never lucky.

I don’t know how I got here.

A few years ago, I was still that good kid. I was good ol’ Fiona, high school valedictorian. I was going places. I got into NYU. I was going to be an actress or a singer. I was going to be big. Sometimes I still closed my eyes and pictured that future I wanted so badly. I could picture my name, Fiona Stolarz: A Bright New Star! It’d be in lights, smiling down at Times Square. People everywhere would know my name. But that was before I met Nat. He claimed to be a struggling art student. Wanted to be a filmmaker, he said. Needed someone to star in his film. Said I was perfect for the job, being beautiful and talented. Stupid, naïve Fi. I believed that son of a bitch and look at where it got me. Broke. No college. Abusive boyfriend. No future. I live in a shithole apartment above some Chinese restaurant. It always smelled like cabbage and soy sauce. For a while, I worked as a dancer at the club Nat bartends at. But the bruises got bad and the job required skimpy outfits so I quit. Now I work at Skippy’s Diner. I have to wear stupid little outfits. A plaid dress and an apron with my hair in braids. I look like a fucking pioneer.

I have one friend. Nat doesn’t know about him. If he did, I’d probably be wearing a cast. His name is Cal. Cal’s a nice guy. I met him at NYU, before Nat made me drop out. Unlike Nat, who was just pretending to be a filmmaker, Cal really is. He’s studying to be a director. He wants to make a documentary on me. Or, I guess, people like me. You know, those girls who give up everything for their boyfriends who beat them? Cal doesn’t understand that we don’t like to talk about it. It’s not like we like staying with people like Nat. But we don’t have a choice. It’s either that or be homeless. That or be dead. We don’t have a choice in the matter. Some girls go to groups and talk about their feelings. Some girls take up a hobby. They all lie to themselves. Oh, he’ll get better. Oh, he really loves me. Oh, he really means it when he says he’s sorry.

Those girls are cunts. I don’t delude myself into thinking that life is going to get any better. Nat’s a dick and he always will be. A cheetah can’t change their spots. Nat’s always gonna hit me and I’m always gonna take it. Maybe in his sick, twisted way, he loves me. But I won’t ever believe him. His apologies, his I love yous, they’re all empty. You can see it in his eyes. I’ve stopped caring. Instead, I smoke. I’ll smoke until I die. Each cigarette is minutes off my life. Maybe someday I’ll smoke myself dead.

“The sign said ‘no smokin’.” His voice leaves a lot to be desired. It’s part Brooklyn rasp and part Southern drawl. Nat sits down beside me. Normally he reeks of beer but tonight I can barely smell it. I don’t let myself feel hopeful.

“You can still read?” I take a drag off my cigarette but Nat snatches it from my lips. I shoot him a glare but dig another cigarette out.

Nat hits the cigarette, effectively killing it off. Just like me, he drops it to the ground and grabs the pack from my hand. “Jesus, woman,” he says. “Rough day or somethin’?” Nat’s alright when he’s sober. Too bad he’s almost never sober. But when he is, those rare days, it reminds me of why we ever got together. And that’s dangerous. Feelings are dangerous. It’s easier to deal with Nat when he’s being an asshole.

“Or something,” I reply. I light my cigarette and then his and we sit, draining our lives away one puff at a time. The park is eerie at night. The toys look forlorn and abandoned. There’s just something not right about a park with no kids. It’s like walking through a hospital on the floor where they put all the people who are dying. Or being at a funeral. We’re sitting under a street lamp so it’s not dark. I can see all of Nat. I can see his tall body folded carefully onto the bench, one leg outstretched, the other bent. That one bobs up and down restlessly. So many years of living carelessly, too many years of partying, have left Nat jittery. He can’t ever sit still, not even when he sleeps. There have been too many nights that I have to crawl out of bed at two in the morning and sleep on the couch. The mornings always bring new bruises since Nat’s always so drunk, he can’t remember me being there when he passes out. He yells at me, says I’ve been sleeping around and that I was out all night. He makes up all kinds of excuses to hit me.

“How long you been out here?” He finishes his cigarette faster than I ever could. He’s the only one I know who can out-smoke me. It makes sense. He’s the one who got me into this shit. I’ll have him to thank when I get lung cancer, if he doesn’t die from it first.

I shrug. “Long enough,” I tell him.

Nat looks at the ground. “I can see that,” he says. He flicks the butt onto the ground. I wait for him to grab another but he doesn’t. He puts the pack into his pocket. No more for me either, then. I look over at him. From the angle of the street light, Nat’s hair looks lit up and golden. Hell, if I was being honest, I’d say he looked like an angel. But I know Nat and he’s no angel. It isn’t fair that evil people get to be beautiful. Looks trick people. Looks trick good people. And we always get hurt.

“Do you wanna see my blood?” I look over at Nat and see that there’s bandages wrapped around his wrists. I wonder if he used a razor or knife this time. I wish he would just die already.

“No,” I say. “It’s probably the same as mine.” My eyes glance down quickly at my wrists. They’re covered by my jacket but Nat grabs my arm and yanks up my sleeve. Across the street, not down the road. The delicate white lines make a ladder down my forearm. It matches Nat’s. He unwinds the bandage revealing his newer cuts. The blood has dried and crusted over into an ugly scab. I didn’t want to start doing this horrible thing but Nat made me.

One night, when Nat was high, he came home rambling on about how we needed to be properly bonded. For a heart stopping moment, I thought he meant we needed to get married. I was all ready to tell him that I wasn’t going to marry anyone when he drug a razor across his wrist. The blood that bubbled out nearly made me sick. This was back in the beginning, before I smoked, before I gave up hope. I tried to get away but even bleeding profusely Nat was still stronger, faster, than me. He sliced through my arm before I could register what was happening. Nat pressed our wrists together.

“We’re really together now, Fi,” he’d whispered into my ear. After that, I went to the nearest Planned Parenthood I could find and got tested. Luckily, Nat was clean. I don’t know what would have happened if he wasn’t. It was my one stroke of luck. And I used it all up.

I finish off my cigarette and toss it among the rest. I’m glad that the smoke has masked the smell of cologne that doesn’t belong to Nat.

After work tonight, just like every other night, Cal came by to walk me home. Only I didn’t want to go home. I was tired of being Nat’s punching bag so Cal suggested I stay at his house for the night. And maybe while I’m there, I’ll give him some footage for his documentary. Watching the footage afterwards, I realize how awful I look. Too skinny to be healthy with fried hair with the roots growing out. Ghostly pale skin. Large eyes that give the impression of permanent surprise. I used to be beautiful. But that was before, too.

Cal put me in front of his camera and asked me questions.

“How’d you meet Nat?”

I swirled the whiskey around in my Loony Tunes glass and thought about it. “First day of college,” I said. “Nat had a video camera. Piece of shit one, too, but it worked. I guess he liked that I was pretty and new. A small town girl from Colorado had no business being in New York City. Didn’t know how anything worked around here. But Nat did. He filmed me, told me I was pretty, said he’d like to show me around. One thing led to another. And here I am.”

Cal wasted no time. He was always so serious, that Cal. Always got right down to business. “When was the first time he hit you?” I didn’t reply right away, just stared at my drink. Cal looked over the camera. “Fi? You okay?”

“Yes, yes,” I told him. “I’m fine.” I downed my glass and put it on his coffee table. “I guess it wasn’t too long after we started dating. It was before I dropped out of college. We’d been dating for maybe a month or two. He took me to a party and got drunk out of his mind. I wasn’t into that sort of thing then so I stayed sober. I got in the cab and told him that maybe he should slow down next time. He slapped me and said that I better not tell him what to fucking do ever again or else he’d do me worse. The cabbie didn’t even notice. Or care.”

Cal’s house was messy and neat at the same time. The floors were clean but the counters, every table top, it was full of papers or camera equipment. There was a special area for his computer with so many wires. I didn’t know how they weren’t tangled into an unidentifiable mess. “Why did you drop out of college?”

“Nat didn’t want me spending all my time there,” I said. “He thought that I might find another guy or tell someone. And he said that he could make me famous with his filmmaking. I was still too stupid then. I thought that when he left every day, he was videotaping. I didn’t realize that I never saw any footage.” I shook my head. “I was a stupid girl.”

“Why don’t you leave?” Cal wasn’t behind the camera anymore. He wasn’t in front of it either but it wasn’t between us anymore. We were fully looking at each other.

“You don’t get it, Cal,” I told him. “I tell you this and you still don’t get it.” I uncrossed my legs and picked at the holes in my jeans. My uniform was shoved carelessly into my purse. Part of the plaid skirt was showing, flashing the world with its hideousness. “You can’t just leave. Where would I go? I have nowhere to go. He’s the closest thing I have to home in this godforsaken city. He’d kill me if I left. It’s stay or die, Cal. There’s not a choice.” I looked away from the camera. “There’s never a choice.”

Cal came over to me and kissed me. He tasted like mint. I tasted like cigarettes and whiskey. I wasn’t used to the fresh taste since Nat tasted worse than I did. But I let Cal kiss me and when he took me to bed, I let him do that, too. Cal whispered to me promises of a better time. He told me he’d take care of me. He told me he wouldn’t let Nat hurt me. Cal loved me like Nat never did. And when he fell asleep, my name on his lips, I kissed his forehead and left. I went to the park and smoked away my sorrows, hoping to die like never before. Because girls like me? We don’t deserve guys like Cal and they deserve better. Nat and I, we were perfect matches. Two screw-ups with death wishes but neither of them brave enough to really do it.

“I want to die, Nat,” I say now.

“Join the club, baby,” Nat says back. He stands up and stretches, showing off a body that should be ruined but still remains strong and youthful. He reaches for my hand and helps me to my feet. I look at my mess on the ground. I look at the mess of my life.

“Can we go to the bridge?” I ask.

Nat eyes me like he knows what’s going through my head. “Fi,” he says, “it’s late. We needa get home.” I nod and allow him to take me home. I don’t need a bridge.

When Nat is fast asleep, snoring like a freight train in our bedroom, I go silently into the living room. The walls are paper thin but Nat sleeps like the dead. In the moonlight, my body resembles a skeleton. Nat sleeps naked and he insists that I do, too. I can see all my ribs. I used to have nice curves. But now my hips are bony and my boobs are gone. Models would be envious of my body but all I can think of is how much I don’t look like myself anymore. I crawl out onto the fire escape. It’s only three floors down and I hope that’s enough.

It’s cold outside and my skin turns to goose flesh, prickling in a last ditch, animalistic way to keep warm. I grip the cold metal and pull myself up so I’m standing on the railing. The ground looks hard and uninviting. I close my eyes and imagine that future I never had.

“Introducing the beautiful, the talented, the lovely Fiona Stolarz!”
♠ ♠ ♠
this is just kind of all of my feelings thrown into one thing.