a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
[Content warning: themes of abuse]
I used to have trouble understanding what secrets were. What the term meant. Why people felt the need to keep things locked away from one another. What was the purpose of hushed voices, or solemn head shakes from my mother, signifying that this was not the place to discuss things like that? It seemed that there were many things that I didn’t understand.
It was June of ’87. I was twelve. The stifling heat of summer had successfully infiltrated our Arizona home, meaning the small popsicles we kept in the freezer had to be replenished at least weekly and Bon Jovi played continually on 97.5, his voice filling every nook of the house. I had happily replaced my plaid skirts and heavy, collared shirts with cargo shorts and brightly colored tank tops. I remember feeling euphoric. Each day was open, summer seeming to stretch to infinity. The sunshine seeped into our pores and wove itself into our souls. When the moving van parked at the house across the street, I was singing ‘Living on a Prayer’ with my blue-stained tongue. The kitchen table was dusted with crumbs. I absently brushed them onto the floor, silently hoping our dog would come along and lick them away before my mother noticed their sudden appearance on the tile.
I watched as a couple stepped out of the house to meet the van driver. There was something strangely robotic about the way they intertwined their hands and strode, pressed shoulder to shoulder. They looked to be in their early twenties, noticeably young to own a two-story home in the Tucson suburbs.
The woman was small and dainty, dressed inexplicably in a red turtleneck despite the dry heat. Her dark jeans fell at her hips, showing off an hourglass figure. She was all curves and gentleness. Even at that unaware age, I was conscious of the fact that she was beautiful. Her dainty fingers raked absentmindedly through her long, dark hair, rings of both silver and gold glinting on her fingers and knuckles. The man was her opposite, all edges and roughness. He had stubble dotting his chin and neck, with a mustache protruding above his big lips. That’s it - he projected largeness. Commanding fingers, a beer belly, and wide shoulders. As often as I recollect this specific moment, I still can’t explain what drew me to the two figures on the opposite side of the street. There was something strangely untouchable about them, and it pulled me in.
I left the kitchen, grabbing my hot pink volleyball from the garage and stepping onto the pavement of our driveway. In my rush to get closer I had forgotten shoes, and the cement burned the bottom of my feet. I did a little dance, trying to find cooler ground to no avail. The sunshine was momentarily blocked from my eyes by a shadow. I looked up to find the woman standing over me, holding out a pair of black socks, bunched into a ball. “Here, sister.” She said, a southern accent peaking through the folds of her words. “Where are your shoes?”
I smiled, accepting the socks, “I forgot to wear any.”
She matched my smile, slanted her eyes, nodded knowingly and walked away. Such was my first interaction with Isabelle Dean.
I learned in the following months that she liked being called ‘Belle.’ “Like the princess,” She’d say. She was from Georgia. Grew up riding horses, despised Arizona, and didn’t believe in God. She considered herself a woman of science. She liked it when her husband, Jeremy (whom she called ‘J’) was out of the house. Oranges were her favorite fruit.
The afternoons I spent in her home while Jeremy was out were my favorite ones. I’d wake up in the morning praying the doorbell would ring. When it did, I’d rush downstairs and jump into her tiny arms, laughing at the way she squealed and stumbled back, pretending I was about to knock her over.
But as I said, though I considered myself a wise preteen on the cusp of adulthood, there were many things that I didn’t understand. We heard clamor from their house only twice. “Couples fight.” Mom always said. I nodded. I nodded as though I got it, when I didn’t get it. Both mornings after the loudness of the previous night, Belle would show up at the front door, eyes red-rimmed and wracked with sleep deprivation. She would give me a sterile hug, and my mom would sweep her into the kitchen, out of sight. I perched myself on a stool outside the room, hearing only the sound of their murmured voices without making out any words. After those days, normality resumed. Belle’s inner sunshine returned, reappearing in her blue irises. But, there was always a flicker of sadness that I found difficult to ignore. Many evenings, when we had finished a movie or a glass of cold Coke, I felt questions on my tongue threatening to exit my mouth. “Are you okay?” and “Where does all that noise come from?” And, “Why are you sad?” I couldn’t ever bring myself to voice them, though. It seemed that if I ever learned about a different version of Belle than the one I experienced, everything would shatter. The infrastructure we’d constructed out of sun, Elvis’ songs, and lemonade would crack and collapse, leaving us with only fragments of everything. And even then I knew how difficult it would be to replace the shards.
As July bled into August, and breeze finally began to whisper to the trees again, Belle became progressively more reclusive. She didn’t come over nearly as much, and when she did, everything about her felt more restrained. Her laughs, her hugs, and her words. Like there was an invisible string tied to every sign of happiness she showed, threatening to whisk it away. Reminding her that it could.
And it wasn’t until I truly met that invisible string, that I saw why.
I had only spoken to Jeremy once. It was when he and Belle brought over some muffins to introduce themselves officially to our family. He wore salmon colored shirt. As an only child, I was allowed to sit at the table with the grownups as they discussed things like the President and economy and weather (which was a surprisingly vibrant topic in Arizona). The second time I spoke to him was when he came over for dinner. He was dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a salmon button down again. His wedding band glinted on his otherwise bare fingers, juxtaposing Belle’s jeweled ones. The two possessed the same robotic quality that I’d noticed the first time I saw them together. Every motion felt eerily calculated. I wondered what they spoke about. Whether they laughed together.
He entered our home, casually swinging his large arms by his sides, taking up space. His voice was loud and boisterous as he shook my father’s hand. It was clear he was comfortable in the lead, maneuvering his way through the house and picking up glasses to pour iced tea for both himself and Belle. They were a package deal, and operated as such, constantly linked in some way. At the hip, fingers threaded together, his hand on her lower back.
The conversation never veered from topics that Jeremy found interesting, and he never let a silence continue for too long. It was like I was watching a dance. A push and pull. He spoke, then listened, then laughed, then asked a question, then shared. A cycle he effortless cultivated. The whole thing was as polished and well-manicured as his coiffed, dark hair.
Belle looked at him with big eyes, seeming to take in the dance like I was. A couple of times she winked at me, almost to say look at him. Isn’t he great? And I thought that he must be great. Because if he was always touching Belle, and keeping the conversation going, and laughing loudly, then he was all the things that a person was supposed to be.
But then I thought that maybe those winks were a desperate reassurance, because my twelve going-on-thirteen eyes witnessed some other things, too: Jeremy’s fingers digging into Belle’s right thigh underneath the table. His condensing smile that looked more like a grimace. The way Belle’s eyes flashed to his face after every word, trying to gauge his reaction. At one point, she reached across the table for some salt, extending her arm. I watched in horror as her sleeve slipped up slightly, revealing a purple bruise near her wrist. It’s vibrancy and color practically jumping off of her naturally vampiric skin. In that instant, my mother shot me the aforementioned not here look. I had to force my mouth closed, a gasp caught uncomfortably in my throat.
And now I knew. I understood. For the first time.
School began, and I begrudgingly attended. The few times I snuck away and spent the day in the park, my mom somehow found out and began walking with me to ensure I wasn’t plotting any other escapes.
The two of us never discussed what I saw at the table, though the image was burned into my head. It was the only thing I could really think of. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw her thin wrist. I saw him grabbing it forcefully. I saw her crying out in pain. And I couldn’t stop seeing it.
Eventually, fall break rolled around. The brightness of summer had dulled and died, and the streets smelled like dampness. What few trees with flourishing leaves Arizona possessed lost their color.
Then the knock on the door came. As before, I rushed downstairs and flew into her arms. She quickly set me down without her familiar chuckle. I saw that her eyes were red and her light smile had been wiped away, replaced by a stony grimace. I looked her up and down, taking in the yellow long-sleeve, ponytail, and jeans she was sporting. She looked the same. Everything was the same. Except it wasn’t, because her eyes weren’t sparkling. My mother had followed down the stairs behind me, and I saw a look of knowingness pass between them. This time, when I quietly followed them into the kitchen, my mother didn’t say anything.
“We’re moving.” Were Belle’s words.
Mother sighed, “Where?”
A single nod. So few words transpired between them, but the air hung heavily. When Belle closed the door behind her, I saw a single tear slip from my mother’s eye and travel slowly down her cheek like a lonely raindrop.
“Why?” I asked when the silence grew too oppressive. Mother shook her head and left me alone in the room.
To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven her for that. I can’t. I see myself, so young, falling onto my knees and sobbing. Not able to reconcile why an injustice so massive, can burden someone so beautiful. I knew she was leaving because of him. Were people getting too close? Was she seeking help? The now familiar feeling of burning questions lodged in my throat encompassed me. I couldn’t do anything. So I cried. My mother never reentered. And I knew it was because she was crying too.
I’m not twelve anymore. But it felt like I was when slants of sunshine planted themselves against the wall of my apartment, too reminiscent of those 1987 June and July mornings. I’m desperate to know what happened to her. I never saw her again. Never saw him, either, thank God. I don’t know what I would have done. I’m scared that I would have done nothing. That I would stand there, looking at him, telling myself that this isn’t the place to talk about that. I look down at the rings. Rings of silver and gold splaying across my knuckles and fingers. I pick up my glass of lemonade, taking a long, satisfactory sip, and allow my tears to fall for her.
Taylor Jones is an eighteen year old high school senior from Tucson, Arizona. She is an aspiring author and has been writing since she could formulate words. She's been published in multiple magazines and literary journals. She loves to teach dance, read, and watch movies but call them ‘films’ to seem smarter.
* = Editors' Choice work
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