By KateLin Carsrud
I am eating almonds. These days, I can’t seem to get enough of them. Something about the bland crunch of them pulls me in. Biting into an almond is like snapping a twig. It is firm until it is not anymore, solid and then suddenly broken.
My husband Liam has his head resting on my lap, near my pregnant stomach. I can’t tell if he’s napping or not. I softly scratch his hair and wait for a response.
Another almond. I place it between my back teeth and pinch it there for a second, not biting down. Then I apply pressure, more and more, until it snaps apart.
“What?” I smile to myself and wait for him to tell me to close my mouth when I bite. It’s something he would say.
“Mom wants to be there when you have the baby.”
Chewing my almond. “Of course, we’ll tell her when I go into labor.”
“She wants to be in the delivery room.”
I had placed another almond in my mouth while he was speaking, and I now let my teeth hover over it. I sit there a few seconds, paused, thinking. Finally, I close my jaws around the almond and break it.
I say, “She can’t.”
“It’s important to her.”
“She can’t. I don’t want your mom to see my stomach.”
“You’ll be in a gown,” he says it like it’s a suggestion because he knows that a hospital gown is not secure covering, especially during labor.
“You know it still might show.” My stomach. But not even really my stomach—the scars stretching their way across my skin, my stomach just being their home. My past, my secret; now Liam’s secret too.
“I know.” He says it softly.
“Tell her we want it to be an ‘us’ thing. She can be there and see us right after.”
“Yes.” It is a quiet answer, to pacify me while he tries to find a way.
I begin to feel frustrated. I want him to have no hesitation in his voice, to be quick to come to my aid.
It is quiet for a few moments. Then: “Des, what if you just told her?”
“Baby, she loves you. You are close with her. You could talk to her about it.”
I stare hard at him and only say his name. A warning.
I hate him for pushing up against the line of my comfort. He wants to help me, see me grow. He thinks this is growth; I hate him for thinking that.
“I shouldn’t have to explain this to you.”
He moves up more and sits by me. “This will hurt my mom so much.”
“I’m sorry. This isn’t her business. I don’t want her to know about my past like that.” A breath.
“She’ll have questions, of course she will, and I don’t want to give answers. It’s in the past.”
“If you say it’s in the past then it shouldn’t be a big deal. Tell her you did it when you were a kid, she’ll understand—”
“She will not understand.”
“She will! She loves you.”
“That doesn’t matter. Liam! I said no, leave it alone. Fuck.”
“Then what do I tell her.”
“Be on my side.” I bite the words out, trying to press them into his skin, hoping to make him feel the same pressure that’s assaulting me from every angle.
He doesn’t look at me. “I am on your side.”
I turn my head from him, angry that he pushed me so hard, angry that this is a fight that ever existed.
The first time we began to take our clothes off together, I felt hot panic rise in me. What do I do, how do I say this, what do I do, what do I do? —these thoughts circled my head. Which words will I choose? How will I tell this man about the thick, mountain scars stretching themselves across my stomach—or, worse, how will I look at him and say: “I did that, but—trust me—it was just a phase.” It would have been better if it had been done to me—I could have been attacked, raped. I longed for a terrible excuse—something, anything to take the weight off me. Maybe if I had an abusive father who took his anger out on me with a knife—that would be an easier story than the truth. The truth was hard to grasp because the truth put a knife in the hand of a young girl and had the girl drag the blade across her skin—and, why, would a little girl do such a thing? What happened to you, girl?
Real life came so fast, though, and my thoughts couldn’t keep up with the hands that were running fingers through my hair, that were touching my face, that were tugging at the bottom of my shirt—the bottom of my shirt, and then the top of my pants. Quickly, without thought, I grabbed his hands and moved them up. I set them on my breasts, held them there, acted like I wanted that most. I thought: please, please keep your hands there—anywhere but the lower parts of my stomach. Safe now, I kissed him without thought, let him move me back to his bed, let myself fall onto the bed.
But his hands—damn his hands—he moved them slowly down again, down to the place that I had pushed them from, down to the lower stomach that I had decided a long time ago would never be touched. Because he felt good, and because I didn’t want to say no, I played the game of how far I could go. I promised myself that I would stop his hands after they traveled two more inches. I longed for those two more inches—and I had them and felt them and loved them. As soon as they were over, and his hands didn’t stop, I pulled myself from the feeling. I told my hands to move, to grab his hands, to pull them away. So, I did, again. I hated this, though, because I knew that this action was me saying no, when all I wanted to say was yes.
He pulled his lips away from mine, looked at me. “Sorry, I’ll stop.”
Immediately, anger filled me—anger at myself, for keeping us from the intimacy that we both wanted. I regretted it, the cutting, the nights alone that I imagined were secret and romantic, somehow—now, they felt like nothing. I was left, underneath this man, feeling like a stupid, inept girl. I was so tired of hiding, so tired of being afraid. The fear and embarrassment that sat on me was heavy—I wanted to throw it off.
I made a decision. “Give me your hand.”
“It’s okay, we don’t have to.”
“No, give me your hand.”
I grabbed his hand in mine and moved it to the place it wasn’t supposed to go. I placed his fingertips on the mountain scars. My heart was beating, fast and strong, and I was afraid. But, I pressed on. I moved his hands over the tops of the scars, to be sure that he had felt them.
“Do you feel that?”
Slight confusion spread across his face because this was not what he expected. “Yes.”
“Those are scars.” A breath. “Don’t ask me about them.”
I left his hand there, on the mountain scars, and I went back to his lips, to kiss him, to tell him to keep going. With each kiss my power grew—acknowledging what was there but refusing to talk about it. We were good now.
The next morning, I woke up on my stomach and buried in a blanket. I felt the heat of Liam’s presence, but I couldn’t see him. My thoughts were jumping up and down, wild. I could barely grab hold of them, barely settle them down. I was not in the present; instead, I was thrown back to my childhood, back to the girl who first decided to cut herself. I hated her, because of the difficulty that she was causing me now. I hated her, because she had left me a long time ago—her crazy, comforting thoughts didn’t feel as good as they used to, and I was left the consequences of her actions. I was left with scars that I could hardly justify or explain. I thought back to my childhood, to the night that I permanently changed myself.
I had been trying to catch sleep for a few hours, but there was something inside me that ran at a quicker pace than I did; it left me bored, the walls of my mind reverberating with the silence in my room. It was so quiet that it was loud, a startling loudness, one that made me think that the clothes in my closet were speaking to me. They whispered to me that I should come to the closet. They changed their minds and whispered that I shouldn’t, that it was bad. They hummed words that I couldn’t understand—something, something, something. They said that I should turn the lights on in my room. It’s too dark in here, they said. If I turned the lights on then it would be easier to breathe.
I had a feeling lingering in my stomach—it had been residing in me for a while now. That feeling, mixing around with the silence coating my bedroom walls and carpet, left my mind anxious. It wanted to experience something explosive, just so that the silence wouldn’t be quite so loud. The feeling made me reckless.
This was the first time that I crept barefoot across the wooden floor outside my room. My head was hot with excited anxiousness. Sweat grew on my forehead, the sweat that comes with fever. As I continued forward, the sweat followed me, creeping down my body. It moved down my hair and wrapped itself around my neck, slipped between the front of my breasts, attached itself between my shoulder blades. It nestled in my lower back and somehow moved down to my feet—they stuck to the hardwood, making little clicking sounds as I walked. It was louder than the silence, and I thought that maybe my parents would hear it through the ceiling and stomp downstairs to question why I was out of bed. My mouth was dry from trying not to breathe. Everything felt loud. The sound of my feet, the sound of my in-breath, out-breath, eyes blinking. Every movement reminded me of a noise. This was the first time that I decided to do the thing that had been rolling around in my brain, settling down and taking root in my mind. I was afraid of my parents catching me. I didn’t want them to be involved in something so forbidden. They would label this evil, wrong. They would label me: sad, confused girl who had lost her mind.
Where had my mind gone, though? I didn’t lose it—I never stopped owning it. I had just decided to act on the thoughts that had always been crawling around my head. But, if I had lost my mind, if that were the case, then I decided that I wanted to keep on losing it. This losing of my mind wasn’t bad to me, or dangerous; rather, it was a good-bad and a dangerous-good. This was the real me, the one who was made to push herself to unknown depths and experience secret adventures.
I reached the bathroom. Grabbing the cheap, pink razor that my mother had recently given me to shave the thin girl hair on my legs, I prepared myself.
“Okay, okay, okay,” I whispered quickly.
I set the razor down, briefly, to pull my big pajama t-shirt over my head. Grabbing the razor again, my eyes found the flesh of my stomach. Except for the scattering of soft baby hairs, it was unmarred. I hated the cleanness of it. Quickly, before my fear could pull me back, I pushed the sharp silver onto my skin, until my skin wouldn’t bend inward anymore and the metal broke through me. Holding my breath, I pulled, and then I pulled faster—still pushing downward, trying to hold onto courage. It hurt, it hurt—a sharp, uncomfortable pain that made me breathe out hard. I let up on the pressure, but I still kept dragging. This splitting of skin was one of the most beautiful pictures. It was soothing, addicting. I saw it slowly in my mind. First, my hand moving, slipping over an empty canvas, coloring it; then, a canyon—a ridge of skin on one side, and then a ridge of skin on the other. Only for a moment, the canyon sat empty, but then it filled, flooding through and over with a dark red river. I watched it run over me. I loved it.
I am sitting in the bathroom, waiting for early morning nausea to pass so that I can begin my day. As I wait, I am distracted by the big belly resting in front of me. I am distracted by the life inside, a new life, an entire story to unfold; mostly, though, I am distracted by the skin that covers the growing life. It’s stretched taut, like a balloon about to pop, and the shiny smooth sections of skin look fresh and new—but rare. My stomach is covered with the scars that I have carried for most of my life. But now they are different. They have grown, they are worse—an even bigger reminder of what had once possessed me. With the stretching skin of my stomach also came the stretching of the mountain scars. Two times, three times the size they once were—pink, purple, red, mixing around with the stretch marks that appeared. It’s ugly.
Noise. I look up from my belly to see Liam in the doorway. Standing slowly, laboriously, I walk up to him and give him a hug.
“Morning, baby,” I say.
“Morning.” He gives me a small peck on the lips, then moves his eyes down to my stomach, to our child. Love for what we made flashes there, and he leans in to kiss me again. Then his hands softly caress the skin on my belly, moving around as if to feel the unborn child; but always, as if from long practice, he maneuvers his fingers so that they dance around the ridges of my skin, intricately weaving around the parts of me that he doesn’t want to touch.
Maybe he thinks I don’t notice.
While his hands play hide and seek with the pure skin on my stomach, I turn my face to look at his. I wonder when he began to be afraid of me.
“I don’t care if you touch my scars.” I don’t mean to say this so suddenly, but my chest is swelling with fear, a worry that he has become embarrassed of me. There was never a moment since we met that I felt insecure around him; but suddenly, I do.
“I don’t want to,” he says.
I feel the redness that begins to creep from my chest to my face. I try to push it down, to seem indifferent, but it won’t move. “Why not?” I ask him. My voice is softer now because I am trying not to break down.
This is what I feel: You love me. You said you love me more than anything. Why won’t you look at me—all of me. Why won’t you touch me? When did I become too much for you; when did my big stomach go from being what we conceived to a constant reminder of your least favorite part of me? When did you begin to see me as a weak woman who you can’t understand?
Liam sighs, like this conversation is too much for him. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
Panic. “We have to talk about this. I’m carrying your baby, Liam. Why don’t you want to touch me? Do you think I look gross?”
“Not gross.” His words firm and certain. “Something else. I don’t know. Your stomach looks like it could rip open. I never thought they would look this bad. I worry.”
My voice becomes shrill, frantically grasping for his understanding. “I was confused, we’ve already talked about this. I was just sad, just alone.” I look into his eyes, not wanting pity, but needing it.
Shaking his head, he lifts his hands. He says this slowly: “Little girls don’t get confused like that. Sad girls talk to their parents. Lonely girls make friends—lonely girls don’t do that.” He waves his talking hands at my stomach, the scars on my stomach, as if to push them away or to make them disappear.
“I’m sorry they look so much worse,”I say. “But you signed up for this.”
He sighs. The air he blows out is covered in sadness, resentment, and love. He says, “I know.”
I can’t pull any words out from inside of my head, but they are swimming, rising, drowning me. It is quiet between us now. Neither of Liam’s hands are resting on my belly anymore, nothing holding me there, and all I feel is eagerness to escape this bathroom—to be away from Liam and the new insecurity that I feel while in his presence. But, before I can move, Liam quietly turns and walks out.
Alone, I lean against the wall and slide down inch by inch to the floor.
Pathetic sobs begin to fall from my lips, with each breath worsening, escalating with my panic. I gasp for big gulps of air in between my tears. Hysterical thoughts trample my brain; I think: When. When did this happen? When did he stop loving me—he must not love me anymore. If he loved me, he wouldn’t act afraid of me. He must not even like me anymore. He won’t even touch me anymore. But I’ve changed, I’m not that way anymore, why did he give up?
When we were young and new, he didn’t act this way.
A few weeks after we’d been together, even though I told him not to ask, he did. I didn’t want him to ask; but, at the same time, I was grateful that he did. It was a weight lifted off my shoulders, a relief. I needed him to care. We were eating popcorn. I had made it myself, the way my dad taught me when I was young. I put a bit of vegetable oil in the bottom of the big pot, let it heat up, and then poured in a fourth of a cup of kernels. They hit the bottom of the pot, loudly. Putting the lid on, I held both handles on the sides and shook it around so the kernels wouldn’t burn. My arms were tired by the time that the kernels had all popped.
Liam was sitting down, watching me, but mostly watching the TV. I threw a piece of the popped corn at him to get his attention.
“Hey,” I said, “popcorn is done. Get some and I’ll set up a movie.”
I put a movie on, and we sat side by side on the couch, hips touching. The bowl of popcorn that we shared was nestled evenly over us—half on his leg and half on mine. After a bit, I slouched down on the couch so that I could tip my head over and lean it on Liam’s shoulder. He turned and put his chin on my head.
Reaching up, he grabbed the remote and paused the movie. “Hey,” he said.
It was the tone of his voice, serious.
“I want to talk about something, but you told me not to ask.”
“Yeah,” I agreed softly, remembering, knowing exactly what he was talking about.
But I knew that he would ask eventually. I thought he might ask me what it was from—who did that to you? I was ready for that question. I thought he was going to ask if someone had hurt me; that seemed reasonable—how did you get those scars?
Instead: “I won’t ask. But, Des?”
As he spoke, his chin dug into my head. I could feel his jaw tense, wanting to say more.
“Please, don’t do it ever again.” His voice was pleading, quiet and worried.
I assured him. “No, I don’t do it anymore. Not for a while.”
I was surprised that his first assumption was this—that I did it to myself—but I was glad that I didn’t have to explain it to him. I didn’t want to have to say the words: my hands did that.
Pressing his chin harder into my head. “Never do it again.”
“I won’t,” I said with more force, needing him to trust me.
I untucked my head from under his chin and turned to look at him. “I promise. The last time I did it was years ago. I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m done with it.”
He nodded “yes” to me, agreeing but not fully believing—that’s what I understood that to mean. He closed his eyes, sealed his lips, breathed in and out loudly, heavily. He exhaled and held it out for a bit, thinking, eyes still closed.
Then: “Will you take off your pants?”
By this time, I was used to undressing for Liam. Every time we had sex, I focused myself on him and the love and this was the way that I put the scars out of my mind, forgetting they were there. As long as I was taking my pants off for sex, then my scars remained in the background. That was safe. But, this was different. Liam was asking me to put the scars out in the open with no desire humming between us. This was real.
He tipped his head, and a slight smile grew on the left side of his lips, finding humor in the moment, somehow. “You can’t?”
“I don’t want to.”
“But will you?”
I stood in front of Liam and forced down my fear of exposure. I wanted strength, to be strong and fearless—and, well, if I was brave enough to cut the stripes of the scars into my body, then I should be brave enough to show them off; or, at least, I should be brave enough to not shy away from their existence. Quickly, before I could let myself think and run away from the moment, I put my hands at my hips and I pushed down on the elastic of my sweatpants. I stood in front of Liam with my pants around my ankles, and I stood.
Reaching out, he lightly grabbed the sides of my underwear and pulled. He pulled until the terrain of mountain scars smoothed themselves out into valleys, and then he stopped. My sweats at my ankles and my underwear stuck around my thighs, Liam placed his fingertips on one thick scar, and he traced it until it ended. When he reached the stopping point of that scar, the tips of his fingers lifted and then rested on the beginning of another. He traced. It ended. Another. He stopped. His eyes transfixed on the extended pink flesh crisscrossed around my lower stomach.
“God. This is bad. How old were you?”
“Twelve, thirteen—around there. I don’t know.” I turned my head to the left, stared at the wall.
He didn’t say anything then. It was quiet between us, and the only movement was his hand on me. His fingertips traced more, over the scars that he had already felt. He traced them, pressed on them, testing them and feeling them. Intently, he looked at the scars as he touched them, as if the skin was a mystery and he had to figure it out. When he touched my scars, it was different than him touching my regular skin. The scar tissue was thick, and the nerves not as strong. I could feel his fingers, but lightly. They were whispers on me, trying to know me.
He spoke again. “When was the last time?”
I rotated my head from the left side to up. I looked at the ceiling and then I closed my eyes, then opened them, remembering. But I couldn’t really remember. “Years ago.” I said that with certainty.
He nods his head up and down, saying that he wants to believe me, but he doesn’t say any words. Instead, he grabs my hips and pulls me to him, his forehead pressing tightly into my stomach, and his arms wrapped around my waist.
It’s only a few minutes. That’s how long I sit there in the bathroom crying. It feels like hours because my mind travels back in time and reminds me of the days that were full of forgiveness and free of judgment and fear.
Only minutes, though. Liam must have walked out of the bathroom and then across the house, only to turn and come back. Now, he shuffles in and sits down on the floor, at my feet.
He says, “I don’t know why, but I’m really struggling.”
I sit quiet, not knowing what to say, deciding to let him do the talking.
Gently, he brings his arms up and wraps them around my calves. He hugs himself to me and puts his forehead on my kneecap.
“What if it comes back?”
I sigh, and it tumbles out of my mouth, laced with defeat.
“I worry that after you have the baby you might fall back into it. Sometimes women do, you know?” He asks the question softly, trying to make sure that his voice doesn’t crack around the edges.
“I know.” Whisper. Clear my throat. Sniff. “I just know that I won’t.”
He moves his head from its resting place on my knee, looks at me. “I love you. I’m just worried. Maybe afraid. How can you know? The scars on your stomach are proof that you aren’t always in control.”
I want to argue with him, say that the scars are proof that I was always in control. I had all the control. That’s why I put the sharp metal on my skin and pulled. But, I know that those thoughts came from a part of my head that Liam would never understand. If anything, saying that would prove his point, reinforce his belief that I have the potential to fall apart.
All I can say: “It was such a long time ago. I barely remember it anymore.”
What I mean: I remember it like it was yesterday. I can’t think about those days and not feel a cloud of nostalgia unfurl and bloom inside of me; yet, I don’t want them anymore. I did change, and I’m different and the scars on my belly are the scars of the little girl who made them but not the scars of Liam’s wife, the mother of his child. I miss that girl sometimes, but I don’t want her.
“Yeah. That’s what you always say. It’s just so hard for me to believe you when I see the scars. They are so bad. Worse now than they’ve ever been.”
I feel the love between us; it’s years worth of love. It mixes with the oxygen in the room, and it makes the air thick and heavy, happy and sad and a little bit hard to breathe in. Anxiety builds in me, and I sense my husband is choking on the trouble that I have gotten us into. My past is too much for him. He might never trust me, no matter which words I use to tell him that I’ve changed. I wish that I had magic to make him believe me. I wish that I had magic to push the scars off my skin and my instability out of the room.
But there is no magic. There is just truth and words. Liam says these words, and he means them. I want to flinch when he says them. He says: “Sometimes I just wish I didn’t know this about you. I don’t ever want our child to see those scars, to know this about you.”
His words hurt me, tear me apart, butI only say what I know. “I want to always be happy. I want a happy family with you.”
“I want that too.”
“And our baby might see them.” I inhale deeply and speak with courage. “And I won’t hide myself from her. I’m her mama.” With one hand I gently caress my stomach. I’m talking to my husband as well as my child.
He unwinds his arms from around my legs and reaches both of his hands up to my stomach, and he sets them there, one hand covering mine, holding me—holding all of me. His hands feel light on the scars, as they always have, whenever he touches them. He talks to our child too, quietly, caresses my stomach as he speaks. He says: “Your mama will protect you, baby girl. My baby girl.”
“Do you remember,” I say, “when we decided to create her? It was after we went to that movie. We got home and you said you wanted a family.”
“I said I wanted a girl that would be as pretty as her mother.”
“And that we would name her Florence.” Liam looks at me and we both smile. “She’s moving,” I say. “Feel.”
Liam spreads out his fingers, makes his hands as big as they can be, and he covers my stomach with them, holds as much of my swollen belly as he can. I arch my back a little and press myself into his hands. I love the feel of them.
“You’re my girl,” Liam says, and he moves one of his hands up to touch my face. “It’s me and you.”
KateLin Carsrud is a graduate student in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her work has appeared in Baltimore-based literary magazine JMMW, The Closed Eye Open, Throats to the Sky, and EQUINOX, where she was awarded the 2019 David Jauss Prize for Fiction.