Caleb’s eyes opened slowly, his brows furrowed, intent on listening. I continued, “When I was thirteen my mother caught her boyfriend kissing me. Or rather, she caught us kissing. He was younger than her, an immigrant looking for a green card. My mom was looking for a man who couldn’t leave her.”
“His name was Paulo.”
“I never meant to cause my mother any problems. I just wanted to be like other girls, wear things they did, do things they did. But she was too strict.
I kind of…,” tears spilled from my eyes, “I kind of…liked the way he looked at me. Boys at school didn’t really look at me you know. I was always wearing these long, ugly dresses. But Paulo…he looked at me like I was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.”
Across the bed spread, Caleb’s fingers drifted slowly toward mine. Before he could pull back, I hesitantly placed my open palm, face-up on the bed. Without a word, his fingers intertwined with mine. “What happened next?” His voice was rough, edged with some emotion I couldn’t discern.
“My mother was sleeping. I was out in the living room watching television. There was this movie on Cinemax starring Shannon Tweed.” Caleb didn’t recognize the name of the most infamous soft-core skin flick actress of all time. It almost made me smile. There was something sweetly innocent about it. Something innocent beneath the façade of Caleb.
He squeezed my hand, urging me on. I felt like I had someone who was on my side and the irony of it didn’t escape me. My mother hadn’t believed me, but I knew, I knew, Caleb would. Because I said it was the truth.
“There was this…sex scene. I was alone, so I…started touching my breasts. I knew it was wrong to be watching it, but…everything I did was wrong.” I squeezed Caleb’s strong hand in my own as my anxiety grew and old shame threatened to rip what was left of me apart.
“Paulo caught me. He was wearing this bikini underwear and I could see he was really hard. I’d never seen that before. They never showed that in the movies.” More tears ran down my face, I was blind with them. My vision swimming in a water-color of memories.
“I tried to get up and go to bed but he stopped me. He was drunk. I could smell beer on his breath when he pressed me back down into the couch. He put his hand over my tank-top. I told him to stop. But…he said if I didn’t kiss him he would tell my mom what I’d been doing.” Without meaning to I sobbed.
“It’s okay Kitten, you don’t have to tell me anymore.” Caleb’s body was close to mine, his warmth pressed against my side, but he only held my hand.
“No! I just have to say what happened…why she doesn’t love me anymore.” I squeezed my eyes tight, blasting myself with both physical and emotional pain. I wanted him to know this about me. I wanted him to do what he always did after I was wrung out. I wanted him to take the pain away.
“He kissed me. It was my first kiss. He tasted like beer, but that wasn’t such a bad thing. For some reason, I’ve always liked the smell of liquor. He kissed me and my head swam. When he told me to open my mouth…I did. It was different after that. I didn’t like it anymore. His tongue was slimy and he kept moving it in my mouth like a snake, in and out. It was gross. I tried to pull away but he wouldn’t really let me.”
“My mom walked in on us. Paulo jumped up. His horrible fucking erection pressing against his ridiculous underwear. But she wasn’t mad at him. She was mad at me. She looked at the TV and back at us. I tried to explain but she just said, ‘Is this what you do when I go to bed Livvie? You put on your puta clothes and try to seduce your father?’”
“‘He’s not my dad.’ I said, but that wasn’t the point. I tried to explain how he was the one who kissed me. I didn’t ask him to. I didn’t want him to, not really. Paulo didn’t say anything. It was like he knew the entire thing was about us, about me and my mom.”
“‘Act like a whore and you’ll get treated like one Livvie.’ That’s all she had to say to me.”
I cried for a while after I repeated my mother’s words. They were the words that echoed through my head whenever I thought about rebelling against my mother in the years after that night. Caleb sat silently. His hand loosely holding mine. I wanted to look at him but I didn’t dare. I couldn’t bear the look of disgust he might be giving me. Or the look of pity.
“Paulo got deported. But my mom never forgave me. She stopped paying attention to me, focusing on my other brothers and sisters…especially my brothers. It was like I was a ghost in my mother’s house. There, but not really.”
“I tried to get back into her good graces. I was the perfect fucking child. I didn’t date, I didn’t go out. I got good grades. I wore the most unflattering clothes I could find. But…”
Caleb’s voice broke through my memories, “But she blamed you for ruining her happiness.”
I nodded. My numbness had finally returned.
I felt my arm being lifted slowly and then I felt Caleb’s soft lips pressing against the back of my hand. “For what it’s worth Livvie, I never thought of you as a whore. And you are…the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
I lifted my face to his. God he was beautiful. So beautiful because for the first time, I was seeing him and however long this moment lasted, I’d take it for what it was. He smiled gently and I knew he was disguising so many things. My face was a hideous mess and he still thought me beautiful. “Well…maybe that’s my problem then…too pretty.” His smile fell and I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. I struggled to make it right, “Hey, you know my name now.”
He smiled thinly and slowly withdrew his hand from mine. The warmth between us was quickly dissipating. Tears welled in my eyes again as he stood, “You’ll always be Kitten to me…Livvie.”
It was my turn to smile weakly. His words, as ever, could be a double entendre.
He circled the bed and made his way to my left side. He leaned toward the nightstand and opened the top drawer. “This is for the pain.” He held up a syringe and pulled the cap off.
“What is it?” I asked, dreading the needle.
“I’ve told you already.”
“What if I don’t want it?”
He looked slightly amused now. “In a little while, when the last dose fades, you’ll want it.”
“Will it make me sleep? I don’t want to sleep.”
“No.” I had the distinct impression he was lying. “It just makes the pain easier to deal with.”
“And you?” I was suddenly anxious. And shy.
“What about me?”
“Are you just going to leave me here alone?”
The long silence had me wondering how much I’d imagined the past few minutes. “If you want, I’ll stay.”
Caleb stared, but I said nothing. I couldn’t bring myself to admit how vulnerable I was feeling. My mother had let me go. I was free of her, but not free.
“Kitten?” His voice was calm, his blue eyes filled with emotion I couldn’t put into words but his gaze and tone had taken on a faraway look. He shook his head abruptly, waking from his brief daze. Where did he go?
After a moment of hesitation, I said hoarsely, “I don’t want to be alone.”
“I’ll stay,” he said softly.
My face felt like it had been hit with a bag of hammers. But he was here. Taking care of me. Because he knew I needed him to. He pulled back the sheet gently and watched me as he lifted the nightgown I wore to just above my hip. I gasped. My legs were covered in bruises, some of them in the shape of boot soles. “Eyes on me Kitten.” Our eyes met just as I felt the prick of the needle.
Moments later my lids were heavy, and I was flying, free falling then flying again. I didn’t dream, I just flew toward the horizon neither black nor white.
Caleb could and would hurt me. Not today, but maybe tomorrow or the next day. Still, for the first time I knew he could not destroy me. It would matter to him if I didn’t exist. And no matter what happened, I’d land on my feet because Caleb had shown me I had it in me. It was a strange gift, from an unexpected source.
There was a reason I didn’t want to sleep. I didn’t want to dream. I didn’t want to think about my mother, or Paulo, or my brothers and sisters. Or everything that followed between Caleb and me.
I especially didn’t want to envision Nicole, beautiful Nicole, lost and wandering around Mexico looking for me. I would never forgive myself if something happened to her. I tossed and turned as anger, sadness, and worry turned my mind inside out. The pain in my shoulder didn’t help and my tossing and turning had created a dull ache that felt like it was part of the bone.
And then there was the inevitable. The hushed voices. The memory of being held down as they pulled my clothes off. The way they ignored my screams as they sucked and pulled at me. I felt it all over again – that horrible beating.
Against the strength of the drugs I forced my eyes open and screamed. I sucked air into my burning lungs and tried to focus my eyes.
Caleb’s body jerked from the chair he’d been sitting in, and he turned on the light.
I’m safe. I’m here. Caleb’s here. He’s not going to hurt me.
I gasped. My voice was laced with unshed tears and thick with emotion. “It was so real. It was like they were….” Caleb sat next to me and I went to him, seeking comfort, solace, anything. I didn’t need to say anymore.
“It’s alright. They can’t hurt you anymore.” His words were perfect. So right and comforting. I reached around him with my right arm and pulled him closer.
For long, blissful seconds there was only the feel of his arms, the hard plane of his chest, his heartbeat pulling me away from the horror of my dream. I inhaled. “You smell like soap,” I whispered weakly into his shirt. I didn’t like the thought he had left me alone. I didn’t want to be left alone in the dark, not ever again. His fingers sifted through my sweaty hair.
“I waited until you fell asleep. It didn’t take long.” That surprised me some. I was so accustomed to Caleb’s snide comments. I had been expecting something more like, ‘My, my, Kitten, what a big nose you have.’
Were things so different now? Were we different? In some ways, I knew the answer.
“You didn’t have to sleep in the chair.”
“Really?” Caleb’s voice was slightly mocking but lacking harshness or condescension. I realized he was teasing me.
He held me a little tighter, “You always have a retort.”
It was his tone that caught me off guard. “Is that suddenly a good thing?”
“It means you’re not broken.” He laughed softly and it made me want to do the same. But I didn’t have a laugh in me just yet. So I sighed contentedly.
It had been that strange, morbid humor that could only exist between Caleb and me at that very instant in time. We both tried to hold on to it, but it faded just as quickly as it had come on. And then we were just quiet. Holding each other and knowing there were a million things that needed to be said, or asked, or explained and knowing neither of us was looking forward to it.
“We have to leave this place today.” Caleb whispered the words, as if by doing so he could lessen their impact. Sweat bloomed anew across my body, but still, I couldn’t let him go. I should really get up.
Right the fuck now.
But I didn’t want to move. Not while Caleb’s lips rested near my temple and not while the feel of his lean and muscular body wrapped around mine gave me a sense of security and belonging I’d yearned for all my life. But, in the end, it was too dangerous to stay.