Tonight, I’ve stared at my ceiling for hours, watching the blades above me spin away the seconds while I wait for you to leave. I spend whole nights adding up the past while I brace against the warmth of you against my hip, across my back, and down my legs to my toes, which are always so damn cold.
Do you remember? It was the summer before I turned seventeen. My wavy brown hair had tints of red in the summer sun. I’d just learned the miracle of liquid eyeliner and was finally starting to like my flabby arms enough to wear tank tops without some kind of cover up. I was about to be a senior in high school, and I was convinced that it was going to be the year I quit caring about what everyone else thought of me. The one where I finally learned to love myself.
Instead, I met you.
You blossomed like a bruise overnight, a deep ache in some space inside me. I ignored you at first, tried to avoid the way you kept begging for my attention on all those long June days.
I went away to camp with friends, played chicken in the pool, stayed up late with friends eating Pop-Tarts and popcorn and Starbursts in fluorescent dorm lights. My friends and I spent the whole week laughing on long walks past temperamental geese and dancing to the Time Warp in tie-dyed shirts. At night, I tried to scrub away the feel of you, tried to enjoy this time I had without you, but you held on.
On a warm, clear day in July, I was at a festival drinking too-sweet lemonade and sucking powdered sugar from fried dough. I felt you there in the energy of the crowd. Thunder shook the air like fireworks. Shards of lightening lit up the black. The rain came so fast and so hard, the ground was drowning. I ran rain-soaked through mud and pools of water for cover. I felt you beside me as my foot hit concrete, slid, kept going. I slammed onto my hip. You offered me your hand, and I took it. This is when I first knew you wouldn’t let go.
Every step I took for months after that July day was measured or forced.
One sleepless night, my body shook and spasmed from you. I cried into my pillow, told myself this was my fault, though I didn’t know how. Your throbs consumed my body, filled every space inside my head. I stopped, curled onto my side and quit resisting. You stroked my hair back from my face, kissed the spots of me that hurt.
You followed me for months, from doctor appointment to doctor appointment while I tried to find a name for you, for us. My doctors told me you weren’t real. They called you invisible, but I knew you existed.
You had to.
It wasn’t until weeks later that my doctors finally found evidence of you in an MRI. They gave me names to call you—spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, herniated discs. They called our relationship “chronic.” In the hazy films of my spine, I saw you. It was the only proof I had that you were beside me all those nights. You still are.
Tonight, outside my window, I can hear the train blare its horn across town, hear the university students’ music sing through the woods, hear the rain drip from the gutters. Those small comforts I never noticed before. Now, they’re my familiar in this all-consuming darkness as I wait for you to kiss the back of my neck or the base of spine again. As I wait for sunrise, for anything to get me through this sleepless night.
It’s only been a year since I’ve stopped trying to recreate the person I was or the way I moved before I met you eight years ago. I used to sit in cracked, brown bus benches, legs tucked into the back of the seat in front of me on that sun-yellow school bus. At school, I’d fold myself into my desk, legs braided under me with my shoes waiting on the floor for the bell to ring. I waited for that space of time where I sat on the hard tile in the hallway against lockers with friends and talked about everything and everyone but you. I’d go to band practice and feel my back’s fluid movements and twists and turns that it could still handle while marching and spinning flags of every color on that field that felt more like a sponge than grass. Sometimes at night, I’d spread out over wet grass or dirt roads with my head put together against someone else’s, and we’d look up at the lights at night that dusted the sky like glitter and imagine the future and everything that could happen next.
I keep thinking time or therapy will get me back there, but I’m so far away from that seventeen-year-old girl.
Now, I sit rigid. I measure every step and twist and fall you cause because I’m terrified of more surgeries. I want to keep moving, to run from you, but I know that wherever I go, you’ll find me. Your visits consume me, but it’s the space of time when you’re gone that I’m more afraid of. I hate to know what it feels like without you because sometimes I feel normal, like I’m any girl at the party, but I’m not.
I can’t sit in hard chairs or on hard floors because I know you’ll appear beside me, tell me to get up and move. If I don’t, you’ll make me. I can’t stay at a party too late and crash at a friend’s house to get away from you. So I sip drinks slowly, leave at 3 a.m. to drive home, so I can crawl into my bed that cradles my body in just the right places. You wake me up in the middle of the night when you settle against my spine. My body contorts to whatever shape it needs to find relief from you.
If I turn too quickly or rotate one muscle the wrong way, you correct me. If I do the wrong thing, you hit me so hard that spasms vibrate up my spine, electricity spikes down my legs until my body is a livewire. I clench muscles, bite my lips, and count slowly waiting for the sensation of your force to retreat. Each space of time between your visits is just borrowed time before you consume me, paralyze me, kill me.
Sometimes I think I’d kill myself just to escape from you.
The truth is: I hate that I have to create stories or calculate lies before every event, just in case anything happens between us. I have to find things to blame our departure on, something other than you because I don’t want anyone to think there is something wrong. I’m scared they’ll walk away from me or talk to me about my relationship with you, which is why I avoid or implode every friendship, every relationship I’ve ever been in. Maybe it’s better if I’m alone. With only you for company. Nobody else could love somebody as broken as me; maybe that’s why I’m finding it so hard to love myself.
There is only so much I can do. If I push too hard against you, you push back. I am never free. I’ve learned to live with you. I have to.
Michelle Boring holds an MFA from Chatham University. She’s an educator in Pittsburgh and the Layout Editor for Stranded Oak Press. Her work has appeared in Crabfat Magazine, Atticus Review, and more. She’s currently working on a memoir about chronic pain and the plus-size female body.