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The Instruction

The Instruction

Margaret Malone


 

Note: This story contains details of domestic violence.

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There is not much to say about the building. Two stories. Shaped like an L. Siding painted Atlantic Ocean gray and each identical apartment door painted a dour winter blue. I was eighteen. He was twenty-four. We held hands. We were in the kind of love people only are when they just don’t know any better.

The lady apartment manager walked ahead of us. Her blue bathrobe wrapped tight around her body. We walked up the uncovered outdoor stairs, slabs of concrete, metal handrails. Our feet on the steps rang loud, hollow, loud.

“Here,” the manager said, pointing at a blue door. Her dyed black hair was tossed around by the wind, gray roots. “Two seventeen.”

He grabbed my arm and slung it around his waist. He poked his fingers into my side, a wicked smile opened his face, which I knew meant he wanted the apartment no matter what it looked like because seventeen was his lucky number. We’d already planned to hold our wedding on the seventeenth day of some month between now and the end of next year. He had lined up a job delivering pizza and I was going to enroll in the community college one town over. We were going to wait to have kids until we’d done some travelling. Everything was all figured out.

The view from the second-story front door was a parking lot, a McDonald’s across the street, two gas stations, and an all-night diner. The freeway was pretty close—two streets over past the Motel 6 and the Super 8—and because it was almost always raining, after living there for a while, I’d start to confuse the sound of the cars rushing over wet asphalt with the ocean.

The manager pulled a key ring from the pocket of her bathrobe and a used tissue fell out. No one picked it up. She knocked as if there might be someone inside and then unlocked the door and walked in.

He dropped his arm from my waist and walked in ahead of me.

“We don’t pay electric,” the manager said, “but everything else is included. One-year lease. No exceptions.”

I walked through the doorway into the apartment.

A tidy beige corner kitchen opened onto a small living room with long vertical blinds in front of a sliding glass door out onto a wet wood balcony with a view of someone else’s balcony and the laundry room below.

The smell was bleach and mildew, like the place had been cleaned with a used, dirty rag.

The sliding glass door was the only source of natural light in the room. Not yet, but much later, I would imagine shoving him through those sliding doors, imagine the broken glass bursting to life in slow motion as he flew through, each shard digging into his skin and making a precise, painful tear, like claws on prey. But as I said, that was much later.

The manager walked ahead of us, turning lights on.

She said, “The bedroom’s got brand-new carpet and closet doors.”

The bedroom was a square box with room for a bed and a dresser and had a window big enough to climb out of. The brand-new carpet was not a selling point. Coffee-stain brown and probably rough on bare knees. And the new closet doors meant to me the previous tenant probably threw a fist through the old ones. The whole place reeked of violence.

He was buzzing through the apartment, feet moving fast as he opened closets and cabinets. I could almost hear his brain working, like an engine revved up high, planning every detail of our lives.

Next to the bedroom was a small bathroom. Linoleum. Fluorescent light. Low sink. I walked across the threshold and stuck my head around the rippled glass shower doors to inspect the tub. Clean. Above the bathroom sink was a medicine cabinet and I saw myself in the mirror there. I lifted my hands to part my short, dark hair precisely down the middle as I preferred it and my left hand flashed in the light—the little diamond set on a thin gold band.

Everything about the ring was still unfamiliar to me. I did not like gold or diamonds or any kind of flash. I’d never told him that. It was something I expected he’d notice on his own. But when he held open the little black velvet box and knelt in my parents’ doorway asking if I’d marry him, I knew I needed to wear the ring no matter what I liked, no matter what thoughts crashed through my mind at the sight of it, thoughts like It’s possible he doesn’t know me at all.

When I saw it flash in the bathroom mirror, I rotated the gold band around so the diamond faced the inside of my hand. The jewel embarrassed me. I hid it from sight whenever possible.

Later, much later, when I would return the ring to him and explain that I still loved him but didn’t want to be engaged anymore, he would tell me to keep the ring, assuming, I suppose, that I would change my mind back again and marry him like I said I would. The little diamond on its gold band lived on my dresser in its true home, the black velvet box, top snapped shut, until a couple months later when I finally told him that I didn’t love him anymore and I couldn’t be his girlfriend and he should take the ring back for the next girl.

His face appeared in the mirror next to mine. His body pushed against me.

He said, “I can picture having a beer here.” He stuck his hand between my legs and smiled. “You like it?”

I hated the place, shitty neighborhood, no real light, that fucking carpet, but I loved him and I was young and understood that meant giving him everything he wanted.

We moved in the next day.

 
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In town, we bought an ugly, worn-at-the-armrests green couch at the thrift store for twenty-five dollars and set it up next to the sliding glass doors in the living room across from my stereo. At night, we’d pull the vertical blinds closed, each vinyl panel swinging and clacking against the others until they’d settled. We smoked pot and drank malt liquor from green-glass, forty-ounce bottles and played Neil Young’s Harvest Moon over and over. We knew in our hearts Neil was singing for us.

After class most days I would visit him at the pizzeria. I loved to stand near the warm pizza oven, the smell of dough and warm tomato sauce, flour all over the Formica floor. Sometimes I’d ride shotgun on his deliveries. We slept on two twin mattresses pushed together to make one big bed. On rainy mornings, we’d crack the bedroom window despite the cold and listen to the sound of rain against the glass, the sound of rain on the roof.

We’d lie together, naked bodies under the covers. I remember feeling like an adult.

 
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Winter came along and the apartment was always dark, even in the middle of the day. This is when I told him I didn’t want to be engaged anymore. The ring was too heavy. Couldn’t he just be my boyfriend. Wasn’t that enough.

I said I still loved him. I tried to explain. I told him the gold band’s setting had tiny sharp feet that kept the small diamond in place and the little feet kept digging into my soft palm. The little feet kept snagging on my sweaters.

He didn’t understand.

I noticed things. Our twin mattresses on the floor were damp from the cracked window, and sex on them was awkward because of the hard seam where the two of them met. We always had to pick, my side or his side. I stopped drinking malt liquor because I realized I’d never liked drinking malt liquor. I liked gin. I liked vodka. Neil Young’s record went back in its sleeve.

It was almost spring, six months left on the lease, when I told him I didn’t think I should be his girlfriend anymore either. This felt better than the hard snap of breakup. He wasn’t upset.

He said he knew in his heart we’d get back together.

He knew, he said, I’d come around.

 
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For a week, right after I’d subtracted the word girlfriend from us, he made dinner each night after work, brought home toilet paper and six packs. He even filled the truck with gas. At the end of each day during this week, we would lay on our separate twin mattresses.

He would say, “Do you think maybe now? I don’t want to rush you.”

“No,” I’d say. “Not yet.” Afraid to tell him the truth of my certainty.

Then we’d have sex. He still couldn’t make me come.

Afterward, when he thought I was asleep, I’d feel his eyes on me. His stare had teeth.

It’s true he had reason to be upset. I hadn’t told him everything. There was a boy in my statistics class that I liked, and I had imagined what it would be like to have sex with him. And one time when we cut class and went instead to his car to get high, the boy told me without needing to say it that he’d thought about sex with me too.

 
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It was morning. I had class at eight o’clock and I was in the bathroom finishing a banana and combing my wet hair. The bathroom mirror was still foggy from my shower. I could barely see myself. He stood in the hall on the other side of the threshold. Watching me.

He asked if there was someone else. His stare was the point of a knife.

I wanted to answer honestly. I said, “Not really.”

He ripped the comb from my hand, a few strands of hair along with it. He said, “Stop fucking brushing your hair.”

A gulp of air stuck in my throat. His anger was cold. It dropped through the center of my body like ice, all the way down to my toes.

He wielded my comb like a blade. “You tease,” he said.

I had to swallow the stuck air before I could speak. I tried to think of things to say to calm a person down. I couldn’t think of anything.

Cool and even, I said, “I have class in fifteen minutes.”

We faced each other, inches apart, him in the hall, me in the bathroom. I could not move. A current ran in the space between us.

I said, “I have class in fifteen minutes.”

He dropped the comb and grabbed a fistful of my wet hair and pulled hard.

He said, “I have class in fifteen minutes."

My neck twisted at an awkward angle.

A man hadn’t touched me like that in a long time. It made me very calm. I understood instinctively not to touch him or look him in the eye, same as I would a wild animal.

He used the handful of hair to steer my head, bring me close to him. He said, “I won’t hurt you.” His voice a warm smile.

He held me a moment longer.

His hand released its grip on my hair and smoothed the spot with fingers, his palm on my head.

My legs were shaky underneath me. I kept my head down, stared at the comb on the bathroom floor. My scalp was hot where the pulled hair rooted. All of me throbbed with a pulse.

 
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The ghost of his hands on me stayed all day, the heatprint of his touch turned to prickles of sharp ache. Even so, after my last class, I went back to the apartment. It made sense to me that the longer I stayed away the worse my punishment would be. He was angry and I wanted to have sex with someone else: I deserved to feel a little pain.

He came home around seven that night. I heard his truck in the alley below. His door slammed shut. I was doing homework at the coffee table. My legs folded underneath me. My heart and breath worked fast in my body and my brain worked hard to hide it. I heard the loud hollow of his feet on the outside stairs.

Metal of key in the lock. He walked through the front door, wiped his feet on the mat, then straight into the bedroom. He did not look at me.

Usually, he took a shower right after work to clean off the tiny flour particulates on his hair and skin and hands. Tonight, he changed into sweatpants and sat next to me on the couch, the humid smell of dough and sweat and sauce coming off him. He grabbed the remote from the coffee table and changed the channel.

I scratched my pen back and forth on my notebook, like I was busy doing homework. We skipped dinner. We didn’t talk.

His eyes never looked toward me.

 
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In bed, on our separate mattresses. The lights were off. I was trying to sleep or acting like I was, but I could feel him awake. Orange light from the parking alley below made the dark room bright enough through the window. It was the kind of deafening quiet that only comes when two people are faced away from each other, silent awake in bed.

He sat up on his side and leaned against the wall. Even though my body was facing away from him and my eyes were shut tight, I could picture him exactly. His strong compact body, aging smudge of tattoo on his bicep, coarse dark hair on his chest. I remember wishing it would rain just to have the sound of something else.

His voice started low and kept coming.

He said, “You’re not trying to sleep, are you?”

He said, “I’d hate to keep you up.”

His voice like a train getting closer.

He said, “You’re a fucking whore.”

He said, “You cunt whore.”

He said, “I know you can hear me.”

My eyes shut as tight as I could clamp them. My whole face gathered into the smallest possible space.

His breath close now, warm against the back of my neck. He laughed. He said, “Can’t you sleep?” The heat from inside him like standing too close to a fire.

He said, “You lying slut.”

His voice closer to crying now.

He said, “You deserve whatever I do to you.”

I understood he was right. I did deserve anything. I had told him I would marry him, and then I changed my mind, and then I wanted to have sex with someone else.

I could not hear the rain or the ocean of rushing cars. His breath the only sound in the room.

He pounded his fist against the wall over my head. Every muscle in my body went taut. I didn’t move except to breathe.

He said, “You’re not trying to sleep, are you?”

I pretended to sleep.

His fist against the wall.

He said, “You’re not trying to sleep, are you?”

His fist against the wall. His fist against the wall. His fist against the wall.

Then he went quiet. Quiet for a long time. So long that my body started to relax and I felt my own exhaustion and finally I started to fall asleep. Just as I sank, his fist slammed into the wall right above my head.

He said, “You’re not trying to sleep, are you?”

His voice not his voice anymore. Some other thing.

I stayed awake.

The next night, same thing. And the next. And the next. I didn’t know how not to go back.

I chose to obey his anger. Home right after school, no study groups, no drinking in bars with boys I might want to like me. I did whatever I could to calm the wrath I likely deserved. I began to fuck him again. Let him grab me however he wanted. Yes, I said. Yes.

There were lots of ways to leave him but I got out the only way I knew how: I took the black velvet box out of my dresser, and the gold ring out of the box, and slipped the ring back on my finger. Those tiny feet that could claw skin. Addition easier than subtraction. But like I said, that was later. Much later.

For now, it is the beginning, everything still possible. It is just an apartment with a winter-blue door. The manager holding keys, waiting for our answer. We are about to tell her yes, we’ll take it. We are about to believe that with this yes, everything, our whole lives, will change.


 

Margaret Malone is the author of the story collection PEOPLE LIKE YOU, finalist for the 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award and Winner of the Balcones Fiction Prize. A co-host of the artist and literary gathering SHARE, Margaret lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, filmmaker Brian Padian, and their two children.  

Illustration by Greta Kotz

This story can also be found in Paper Darts Volume Seven.

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