“Endlessly” originally appeared in the 2019 contest issue of So to Speak. Content warning: mentions of abuse.
He isn’t going to answer, but I knock and swallow the sob in my throat anyway. His apartment building, like all the others in the complex, has a staircase at the front and back of the second floor. I take the back steps one at a time, until I see the grassy wetness just past the concrete. I want to see his face.
At the back of the building, I look up to his balcony. The night air presses tight to my face. Tiny beads of sweat form on my arms. I walk to the wall, smoothing my fingers against the jagged beige. I don’t know anything about climbing a building, but I curl my fingers and lift my legs.
It was still summer when I met him my first fall semester of college. I hadn’t declared a concentration for my English degree; I’d just turned eighteen and wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. I was with friends when my brother introduced us, and I don’t remember who said hello first, me or him, but his eyes were shifty and brown and flat. He was majoring in math, he said.
Later, when everyone split, and I started to leave for my dorm, he called my name. I spun to look at him, the two of us in the hallway, and he came over to me, taking me in his arms. Oh, I thought, a shiver passing through my ribs. I’d never been held like that before. I didn’t know how it would be, feeling safe in a man’s arms.
Some astronomical theories suggest the possibility of a multiverse, rather than a single one. One attributes this to universal pockets that are, at different points in space, expanding into forever. While farfetched, some even believe the same events in this universe repeat in others.
After the semester ended, I texted him during winter break, asking if he wanted to come pick my brother and I up from our house to hang out; we had plans to meet with other friends after. I still didn’t know him all that well, but I wanted to see him.
His apartment, barely larger than an efficiency space, had papers and empty wine bags strewn across the living room. A guitar in one corner. The kitchen was covered in dishes and coffee stains. Some of the long white slats shading the balcony/patio door were torn and gray; a half-crushed Chinese paper lantern slept by the couch, one of its circular wires mangled. The lantern seemed sad, so I looked away.
Later, I sat on the edge of his bed and gently shook his shoulder; he’d taken a nap and asked me to wake him. I kept the lights off, and I looked down at his sleeping face, his tousled brown spikes. I wanted to fit myself to his side and rest my head on his shoulder. I wanted to wrap one leg around his, press my hand to the center of his chest to feel his heartbeat, as if to say there you are. I did none of those things. As soon as he woke up, my brother, who’d stepped outside to make a phone call, came back in. The outside light spread into the apartment, spilling across the floor. We looked at each other through the half-darkness, and my brother called for me, saying we had to go.
Outside, he and my brother shared a one-armed hug, and I pushed my face into his chest when he slid his arms around me. As we walked away from his apartment building, my brother warned me not to get too close. “Be careful,” he said.
I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun and died after his wax and feather wings melted away. I think of his father’s warning, and how Icarus forgot, not because he was careless, but that he was so in love with flying over the ocean he couldn’t see how close, how bright the sun was; he couldn’t feel the sting of wax melting on his arms.
Winter broke a few weeks into the spring semester, and the sun slid into every corner of campus, swelling the leaves in all the trees into emeralds. It felt like summer when I ran into him. I called his name; when he smiled, I told myself the passing shiver was from the breeze. I didn’t have a class for a few hours, and I went with him to one of the smaller libraries on campus.
Inside, we wandered through yellow-painted shelves until we sat down. He opened a book he’d found on African art, flipping to a picture of a tribal mask. I thought it was spooky-looking and told him so. He asked, “Do you think it’s ugly? I think it’s art.”
I replied, “Well, it’s not that I don’t think it’s art. Like, I can respect that someone put a lot of time into making this thing and that someone will think it’s beautiful, but I just don’t like how it looks aesthetically.” I told him my brother suspected us of having a thing, and he said, turning the page, “We don’t.” I said, “I know, but my brother is weird like that.” He said, “I’m not gay.”
I wanted to hide my face in the red and white plaid of his shirt, so I leaned my head against his shoulder, looking down at his gray sweatpants. He was so warm. Then he twisted his torso, planted his hands against my shoulders, and shoved me away.
There wasn’t anything traditional about us. He never picked me up and took me out for dinner and a movie. We texted every so often, but never lived together or had arguments the way couples do. We touched each other, but we never made love. I told myself this was enough for me.
Some weeks after he pushed me, we made plans to hang out in the art building after classes were done for the day. He’d already been drinking by the time I got there, but when he saw me, he rushed down the brick hall on steady legs, and scooped me up. Laughter spilled from me as he spun us around and around, until his pale skin bled into the soft brown, until he stumbled, and we were a pile of limbs. I don’t remember if he fell between my legs or if I landed on his chest, but he looked so handsome. He leaned in, and I could taste the wine on his lips.
Later, when campus was still blue with sunset, he ditched me to see if a nearby student event had any alcohol, the outside sky oozing to black.
Aside from our own solar system, there isn’t much proof of other life in the universe, though a few planets brim with the possibility of sustained life some light years away. Because of this, I like to think, in some pocket of the cosmos, a bud springs from dusty soil, and blooms into a flower.
Before, he visited me at work once. I walked around the counter, and there he was: He took me into his arms and kissed the hair on the side of my head, just below the edges of my work hat. I didn’t grab his hand, but I held onto hope.
A few weeks later, we ended up inside the music annex on campus. Since it was getting later in the evening, we trekked to the third floor, not wanting to be bothered by any of the custodial staff. We went into a practice room, letting the light from the hallway filter through the window on the door. I thought he would make love to me.
I knew something wasn’t right when he tried getting me to try the wine he’d brought with him. I told him I didn’t drink; I told him about my father’s long addiction to alcohol. He told me his mother molested him as a child. I reached for him, and he slapped me. He sexually assaulted me after that. He didn’t rape me, but his hands were all over. I think I tried to push him off. I mostly remember his hot breath, crooning: “Mommy loves you, Mommy loves you, Mommy loves you.”
Be grateful, I remember telling myself. Be grateful for whatever you can get.
After, when he came to see me at work, a heaving thing rose in me: Run, sweet boy. Get away from him. I didn’t understand the impulse, because I didn’t understand the enormity of what he’d done to me, but I listened. I disappeared from the front counter, rushing past the Chick-fil-A fryers to the employee bathroom, where I couldn’t hear the sizzle of the peanut oil cauterizing the floured mounds of flesh into something consumable.
The practice room, just bigger than a bathroom stall, smelled stale. He cried when I tried to leave. I wanted to hold him. He looked so sad. He took a swallow from his Dasani bottle. “Please stay with me.” He sounded so earnest. I wanted to run screaming from him. It wasn’t until I threatened to call the police that he let me go.
Sometimes, I wish it’d been worse; if I’d been raped, maybe I wouldn’t have stayed in that room so long. Maybe I would have given up on him sooner.
When I called him out for hitting me, he said, “That’s not my fault. That’s just human collision.”1
My three most recent Google searches:
- do roses grow in the ocean
- lists of things that give people hope
- what is an abusive relationship
A few months after the new year, I started seeing an on-campus therapist. At the time, students had 8 free sessions per year, so when that ended, I saw a new therapist at a different clinic, one that saw both students and the general community. I’d blocked his number after the assault, so I didn’t hear from him at all. I told myself I was done. I told myself it was for the best.
That same summer, I got myself an apartment. I’d taken over someone’s lease in the same complex he’d lived in when I was a freshman. It’d been so long since, I figured he probably moved. A few days after we ran into each other on the bus that went by our division, I unblocked him. When I called, he gave me his building and apartment number. I knocked, and he answered, naked, eyes glazed over. He didn’t smell bad; I just couldn’t stand the stale wine on his breath. Inside, I got him to brush his teeth, though not before he tried to stick his toothbrush in his ass.
The following summer, my therapist’s practicum ended, so she transferred me to a peer of hers. A tall woman, she led me to a room with soft blue walls, and for our first session, we discussed what I’d like to work on in therapy. “I’m a sexual assault survivor. I’d like to work on that.” It wasn’t the first time I’d used survivor, but she seemed sad, so I looked away.
Months later, I told her, “I miss him.” She asked, “What is it about him that you miss?” I said, “His arms. His hands, his smile. Everything.”
In his bedroom, the lightbulb, likely burnt out, didn’t have a covering over it. Instead, the only light came from the adjoining bathroom. On his bed, soft music played from a shattered cell phone. He took my hands, and our feet swayed across the hardwood. He kissed my neck. He spun me in his arms, and when my back was to his chest, he raped me with his fingers. It wasn’t violent. I looked at the wall on the other side of the room. The light swelled into a small sun.
If this theory of the multiverse holds true, I hope there’s another version of myself somewhere. I hope whatever version of me out there was smarter. I hope that boy’s love wasn’t as abiding as mine. I hope that boy found someone else. I hope I am somewhere on another planet, holding a love that doesn’t hurt. I hope, in a different time and place, he and I find each other again.
In his bed, I fitted myself to his side, curling a leg over one of his. I lifted my head up from his shoulder. I missed the spikes he used to have.2 We didn’t make love. When I smoothed his hair back, he said, “Daniel, I’m like, thirty-percent gay.” I kissed him anyway, tasting mint and wine.
When I think of Icarus / I think of the parts left out / of the story / Icarus must’ve thought / how could I ever be without you this close / with all that orange / and yellow / shining / endlessly / he must’ve reached for that cruel / celestial body / realized too late / as he pitched through the clouds / wings ripping off / in sheets / the wind shredding his cheeks / did he fall in / legs first / or / face down / or / ribs and legs / fractured against the thirsty ocean’s mouth / what swallowed him first / the drowning / or / the cold / feeling / of not this / not this / never to be warm / again.
After I kissed him, we sat up and moved to the edge of the bed. I watched him rummage under his nightstand, until he found a glass bowl, sleeping behind some empty wine boxes. Grabbing a stray bag, he pulled the plastic nozzle. It wasn’t until he pitched the bowl to his lips that I realized it wasn’t a bowl at all—it was the glass covering for his ceiling lightbulb. He turned to me, and when I saw the red dripping from the sides of his mouth, I knew I had to leave. I told myself, Never again. I’m done.
The wine looked far too much like blood.3
I wasn’t done. I went back after the rape, night after night, pounding on his door, hoping he’d answer. I wanted to go back to his arms, strong and spinning, before his legs collapsed. I did this for weeks.
“But what is it about his hands, or his smile?” The therapist asked. “Other people smile or have hands. What is it about him specifically?” The hurt must’ve shone on my face, because she said, softer, “It’s important to remember that sometimes we should just call things what they are. I think with the magnitude to which you use language, it can be a prison in itself.”
For months, it will feel like I am wrong for missing him. The prison, of course, was this: I didn’t know what I would do without him, and I didn’t want to start over. I looked away.
Sometimes, I wake up and imagine he is under the sheets with me, and sometimes I imagine ripping off his hands and carving my name into his back so he remembers everything he did to me. Even if he begged me to stay with him, even if he promised to change, to stop drinking, I don’t think I could forget his vampire mouth, the red falling off at the corners.
If anything, life after an abusive relationship, however one-sided, is a slow and sad meander towards something different: it’s small steps after the fall, when your legs are still shaky, and you don’t know who you are without them, and tearful phone calls to the domestic violence hotline when the grief is too much to bear alone. It’s long walks during summer, emergency appointments with good therapists that want to see you get better, and dinner with even better friends. It’s sunrises and sex without flashbacks. Roses blooming in winter. Memories of hands that do not have power over you anymore.
It doesn’t get better. Until it gets better.
In another universe, he answers the door. There you are, he says. Mornings, he stands behind me, his hands warm on my waist. He leans down to the crook of my shoulder for a moment, then lifts his head. His eyes are sleep-soft when he tells me I am beautiful, and I believe him. A shiver passes through me. Toothbrush between my teeth, I grin at him in the mirror, my mouth dripping in minty foam. There you are, I say, and he knows I love him.
When he comes home for the day, he leaves his shoes by the door, and I take his hands. He’s no good at it, but he knows I love to dance. It is still summer. We spin for a lifetime. Sunset passes through the window, and the room is lit with blue and yellow and orange and pink and flourish and tomorrow and yesterday’s sheets. Each day, he continues to choose me. He kisses my hair, still. The edge of his balcony is so close.
I sob when the wall in front of my eyes turns to gray. My arms start to burn. In another universe, there is another him, there is another me, and we grow old together.
In this universe, I let go.
I always let go.
verb: to psychologically manipulate and confuse another person into questioning the perception of their own reality.
2In BoJack Horseman, Wanda Pierce asks, “What happened [to us], Bojack?” He says, “Same thing that always happens: You didn’t know me. Then you fell in love with me. And now you know me.” And she says, “You know, it’s funny: When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.”
3To swallow the thorns.
A few years ago, I sat, in the final minutes of 2017, and wrote an early version of the ending for “Endlessly,” which seemed perfectly reasonable to me at the time; I tend to write or know my endings before I know where a piece even begins. In those moments before the new year, I caught on pretty quickly that I had to begin with the letting go, and only then, in starting at the end, could I steer myself, steer the essay, towards the shore of it. I’m hugely thankful to So to Speak for giving this little piece of my heart a place to live. I’m also incredibly honored and starstruck to say that “Endlessly” appears as a Notable Essay in the 2020 edition of The Best American Essays.
When I sent “Endlessly” to the 2019 nonfiction contest, the submission form asked the question, “How does your piece fit our [feminist] mission statement?” Looking back on it now, what I love about my response is its truthfulness and timelessness in the same moment; how even now, after all this time, my answer is still the same: as a feminist, I believe that one of the most powerful things we can do is to tell our own stories; I simply wanted to write something honest, something where he could not interrupt me, so that my words could be taken at face value.
Know this: anyone who brings you to believe that love comes with a hand across the face is a liar. Anyone who makes a mangled mockery of your most basic, essential right—the right to consent, your right to choose—knows nothing of safety and tenderness and respect. Know this: you deserve a love that doesn’t hurt.
I cannot put into words the devastation of each night where I hoped he would be the hero I dreamed him to be and steal me away from my loneliness. I won’t lie and say I no longer feel such grief, but I’ll say this: the ache has softened. It has grown less sharp with time, with therapy, with distance. Some days the wound is still wild and steeped in yearning, and others it is still, quiet, barely noticeable. I believed once, with all my heart, that I could not go on without him. And every day I am alive is a day I prove that belief wrong. I survived: that hero is me. I can let go.
Because isn’t a love that doesn’t hurt what we all deserve?
Daniel Garcia’s essays appear or are forthcoming in SLICE, Denver Quarterly, The Offing, Ninth Letter, Guernica and elsewhere. Poems appear or are forthcoming in The Freshwater Review and The Puritan. Daniel has been a semifinalist and finalist for The Southampton Review Nonfiction Prize, a Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominee, a recipient of the Myong Cha Son Haiku Award, a winner of the Bat City Review Short Prose Prize and has received awards and scholarships from Tin House and the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. A former intern of GASHER Journal, Daniel serves as a reader for Frontier Poetry and is a reader and editorial assistant for Split Lip Magazine. Daniel’s essays also appear as Notables in The Best American Essays.