For five, ten minutes--an hour, maybe even two--I sat there, legs spread wide like a pair of tongs in a kitchen drawer. I was merely a tool, an appliance coated with layers of grime from the hands of a "chef" who used his fingers to pull me apart.

    Because I was beautiful, he said. I needed him. I should be grateful.

    I deserved it.

    "Memories flood my mind when I least expect it," I whisper, with my head hung low as I sway back and forth slightly, the rusted metal chains of the swing squealing in protest. It had been weeks, maybe months, since I’d reunited with anyone, even my best friend, who now sat a few feet away from me in the playground of our local park. The silence was far from suffocating, but it still was tangible, hanging between us as he waited, patiently, for all the answers I had locked away for so long.

    In the calm, my mind faltered, inhibited by flashbacks I yearned to avoid.

    I faintly remember the party that summer, where I had spun across the dance floor without a care in the world. Whenever a drink ended up in my sweaty palms, I would take a swig before setting it down, never to touch it again.

    "It's too much of a risk. You never know what someone could have slipped in," all of the lucky ones would warn me, sipping from warm beers that had lingered on the counter for hours, safe.

    "I was careful," I insist, nodding my head to support what I wish I had proven when I was on the stand. They asked me about the length of my skirt and how many drinks I had downed, and if I said no but never ever if I said yes, or if he had even asked in the first place.

    My companion falls silent as he moves closer to me, pushing right to move left. He shoves the strand of hair in front of my eyes behind my ear.

    I flinch as he pulls away, digging his callused and cut-up foot from years of "boys just being boys" into the sand.

    "You look tired," he muses, ignorant to rejection. He knows me best, and is objective when I most need him to be.

    "Sleeping isn't so fun anymore," I mumble. This calls for his infamous side-eye, so I blunder on before he can peel apart his tightened lips and throw daggers at my life, like a dartboard. "But it's cool to wake up, you know, because it's not so dark and there are birds and I can walk around to the park and stuff like that."

    For the first time, he stops in thought as he wraps his mind around how all of the protections he once thought were concrete are not concrete at all. Security is a right, but it is at times a privilege: neither given out at birth nor inherent in nature, and most definitely not unaffected by race or gender or whatever else.

    I guess since meeting me he has realized that the world is not so black and white after all, that many people wake up each morning burdened by inferiority. They suffocate under the heavy hand of oppression, with acid searing their skin and tasers shocking every nerve, laughing at jokes that seem harmless, but they dig deeper than any intentional insult ever could. Malice comes in countless forms, and life really does suck for millions of people who don't think they can make it through the day. And they are often right. The world is rash and raw; it's not black or white or grey. It is deep red, seething and slithering. It is like blood splattered all over the kitchen tiles, an accelerating heartbeat and veins bursting, like lipstick and high heels and the scars that lie beneath.

    Life is cruel to many, with no end and no hope of protection or comfort or safety. But that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.

I don’t want to leave him disheartened, so this time I lift up my own toes and let them dangle in the air, our legs bashing together. The soft tears of his worn jeans tickle against my unshaven, chapped, and bruised skin. He does not falter at my presence, but I know I hold his attention, and I hope that he is able to hear me over the thoughts that are surely overwhelming him, all at once.

    "But it gets better at the weirdest times. Like I'd be chopping vegetables in the kitchen or washing my hair in the shower. I'd be doing some mundane task and suddenly, in the moment, I realize that he doesn't control me anymore. It’s my body and my mind and he can't do anything about that. So if I want to cry myself to sleep at night because it's too dark and I still get scared, it's because I want to accept the fear and not let it take over me. I can still get up in the morning and look myself in the mirror and smile at strangers on the street, even if it's not easy. Because he didn't take that away from me. I didn't let him. So it does get better. And even when it sucks, it doesn't suck all that much, because I don't let him keep hurting me. It gets better."

    There is a pause, before he raises his head to meet my eyes, and finally he smiles, all teeth from cheek to cheek.

    "Even the devil can't take away an angel's wings, huh?"


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