Frozen yogurt falsely named after cheesecake formed a puddle for her chocolate chips. She stirred them around and pretended that she had not just seen two nineteen-year-olds get married. Four virgins and Marjorie knocked knees at their small, sticky table while they speculated on their newlywed friends’ honeymoon activities.
“I heard he didn’t wanna get condoms,” her ex-best-friend Aida said in a loud and scandalous hiss. Her fro-yo spit speckled Marjorie’s cheek, and she wiped it off, glaring at the wet drops on her fingertips and then at Aida.
“Fucking stupid,” Marjorie said to the spidery black fudge streaking across the bottom of her cup. And then she remembered that those people were too conservative to cuss. One year at a college in Boston had turned her into a wordly girl, she guessed. She sank deeper into the chair even though she knew this would only make it more painful to peel her thighs off the plastic when she finally left.
“It feels better, though,” said Roger, sniffing. He was one of those people who left ice cream on the spoon after slurping off a bite.
“Like you would know,” said Chris. Marjorie used to have a crush on him. He was studying to be a pastor now.
“Shut up,” Roger said, rolling his eyes.
Dave, the only one she had bothered to keep in touch with since high school, spoke up. “None of us would know.”
But she would know. She already did. These virgins would have to figure it out for themselves. She lost her appetite and tossed the paper fro-yo cup into the trash on her way out. In her scuffed white truck, she picked at the cracked leather on the steering wheel and watched as the South Georgia sky spat spittle on her windshield. It accumulated. She let it.
Knuckles on her window made her jump. Dave stood there as rain mingled with the oil in his blond hair and dotted his glasses, so Marjorie cranked the window down. At least she got a workout trying to operate her shitty car.
“You tryna leave without me?” His accent was as thick as syrupy sweet tea.
“Oh – sorry,” she said. “No. Get in.” In her rush to leave, she had kind of forgotten that she was his ride to the fourth of July cookout she had to go to. Her stomach twisted again at the thought of it.
The air smelled like damp and grass. A storm somewhere threatened to drown this fourth of July, and part of her hoped it would. No, not just a part of her. All of her. Condensation built on the cup and transferred to her fingers when she left her prints on the plastic. The sickly sweet odor of her own sweat drifted up to her nose, so she readjusted her arm on the scratchy fabric of the camp chair in order to air out her armpit. Maybe if her mouth was too full of baked beans and slaw no one would be able to talk to her. No one would be able to ask:
“How’s college?” Shitty.
“How are your classes?” Boring.
“Still undeclared?” Take a fucking guess.
“Meet any cute boys?” Zero zero zero.
She washed down stale hot dog bun with Diet Coke. It slicked over her teeth and burned in her throat.
She bounced herself in the rocking chair in a loose rhythm and scanned the sky for stars, but the clouds choked them out. Everyone had congregated to the front lawn with their moist camp chairs and beer koozies. A couple dads downed a few more sips of liquid courage before leaning down to light the fireworks, and a few moms tugged on toddler trousers to reel the little ones in before the show started. Some other kids ran around with sparklers sprouting from their fists. Marjorie thought of fairies and lightning bugs. She didn’t get those in the city.
“Care if I join you?” Dave asked. He had materialized beside her again.
It was too dark for him to see her shrug, but he sat down anyways.
“Smart,” he said.
“What?” she asked.
“Sitting on the porch. Drier up here.”
“Oh,” she said. “I guess.”
They rocked in silence for a bit. One of the toddlers on the lawn cried because he wasn’t allowed to have a sparkler.
“Damn it, Marj!” he said. She jumped. “When did you get so fucking quiet?”
She swallowed. “When did you get such a dirty mouth?”
“Oh you’re one to talk.”
She didn’t talk. She bit a line of loose skin on the inside of her cheek until metallic blood met her tongue.
“Tell me what’s up with you,” he said. “We used to talk all the time first semester, and then you just cut me off. What happened?”
She considered telling him, for a moment. About the panic attacks. About the alcohol and the boy-man.
But she just told him: “I dunno.” She cleared her throat. “I got busy.”
“Was it that guy?” he asked.
She stopped rocking. “What guy?”
“The one you told me about last time we talked. Started with a G – Garth?”
Garrett. Her gut flopped upside down at that name. That boy-man. Leaning close to her and asking her with beer breath to come upstairs.
She just lied. “Oh he was nobody.”
He cleared his throat. “Do you not remember?”
“Remember what?” The soda bubbled in her stomach.
“You don’t remember drunk-calling me?”
Fuck. She shook her head. “No.” Between the boy-man’s bed and hers she had blacked out.
“Oh,” he said. “Well you did. At 3AM. I forget when it was. March or something. And you were crying and going on and on about him but you wouldn’t tell me what happened.”
“What did I say about him?” she asked, eyes widening and taking in more dark.
He took a deep breath and sighed. “You said – you said you kind of hated him and yourself but at least he had a big dick and he would actually fuck you. Unlike other people, I guess.”
She swallowed. “I don’t remember saying that. I’m sorry I said that.”
“I couldn’t tell if you meant it, that’s the thing. And we never talked again, so I thought you remembered.”
“I don’t,” she said. “I really don’t. I’m really sorry.”
“Why was it so fucking important to you?”
“I – it wasn’t. I mean, it was. But I didn’t – I didn’t want – he –” He got me so drunk I couldn’t speak or feel until it was over and he was gone. “I have to go,” she said. Something squeezed her throat. Maybe the damp air, or the cookout carbs.
“Marjorie, I’m sorry. We don’t have to talk about it. I never should have brought it up. Just stay!”
He leaned forward and grabbed her arm as she moved past him. She shook him off.
“Don’t touch me.”
She hopped off the porch into a mulch bed and headed for the carport where her truck was.
Driving through the country dark only made her thoughts louder, so she turned up the heavy atmospheric music. They formed a rhythm for the steady replay in her mind. The reruns of the night when the boy-man’s sweaty body had pressed her into a twin XL mattress. Invading her holy places and ripping them open until she had nothing sacred left. Sometimes she imagined she could still feel bruises on her inner thighs from the thrusts of his hip bones, and she still felt inside out.
The stoplight at the intersection blinked red, green while above her, firework sparks sputtered out. Rain droplets snaked down her window and turned far-away streetlights and restaurant signs into blurry orbs. Green means go. She went. In the rainy dark, she bumped down the familiar roads to a stop sign at the end of one. She lingered at the T intersection waiting for the coast to be clear.
A turtle-slow truck came from the left and winked at her as it turned right onto her road. The rain mashing down slicked up the asphalt beneath her tires as they spun to take the turn left onto the top of the T. Absorbed with the truck’s turning, she barely registered the headlights of another car wrapping around it with groping fingers. The eyes, then the face, of the car appeared in slow motion as it barreled straight for her. She was going, she tried to go faster, she yelled. A wild smash, a hot jolt.
When she opened her eyes, she dropped her arm. Bits of glass and metal covered her lap, and her heart pounded, and her hands shook. A cloak of humidity had choked out the frigid air conditioning. A pop singer yielded a few more misplaced bars before succumbing to the song of rain on pavement. A chemical smell made her gag, so she groped the door next to her and thought she should maybe climb out, in case it exploded or something. Wrecked cars did that.
The door handle fell out in her hand, the car’s entire frame knocked out of joint. With shaking arms, she hoisted herself up and over the console and the passenger seat and opened the door. It swung open like a loose limb, and she crumbled to the pavement when her hips quaked under her body weight. She remembered gym class, basketball. Someone had thrown it too high, and when she had shielded her face, she had jammed her finger against the ball’s skin. It was like she had jammed her hips or her legs or her muscles. Maybe she had finally broken a bone.
“Ma’am? You okay?” The thin beam of a cell-phone flashlight fell on her. Rain drops danced and glittered in the light.
“Yeah,” she said. Her voice trembled. “I need – can you find my phone?”
“I have 911 on the phone right now,” he said as he approached her.
“No, I need to call my parents,” she said.
“Okay. Just stay still, okay sweetie?” Then he twisted over his shoulder and said, “Hey, can you come over here?”
A figure emerged from the dark, an older man, and rushed over.
“Can you get her phone so she can call her parents?”
The older man nodded and leaned into the sagging truck, rooting around until he reemerged with her phone. He handed it to her. Marjorie thanked him quietly, and the other man instructed the older one to hold her neck still. Marjorie held her breath as gentle hands encircled her neck. She hated being touched. She focused on calling her parents. Her fingers tremored violently, but she managed to call her dad.
“Hey,” he said.
Marjorie choked out her words. “Dad, I got in a car accident.”
First response personnel arrived, then police, then firefighters, then EMT’s. A parade of uniforms asked her questions until her memories became a plastic story. She started to mix up the details, but she knew that it was her fault. She should not have rushed; she should have just turned her brain down for two seconds. She should not have been that drunk that night, should’ve worn something less slutty, stayed in and studied, held her virginity sacred like they had told her –
If she only she had done those things.
Inside the ambulance, a plastic brace had replaced the hands around her neck while she lay strapped to a stretcher. The EMT’s had poked her gut and pulled her bones. Nothing seemed broken, but Marjorie felt broken. She did not even register when they pricked her arm and applauded her for being brave and not flinching.
At the hospital, she could only stare at ceiling tiles until they ensured she had no concussion and removed her neck brace. A nurse wheeled Marjorie to a room for routine x-rays focused on her hips. She was convinced she’d broken something in some way. When she returned to the room, her parents stood there. Mr. Miller gripped his wife’s shoulder while she held a crumpled tissue in a fist over her mouth.
When Marjorie reentered, her mom frowned and moaned. “Oh!” she said, rushing to Marjorie’s side. “Oh, Marjie,” she said, shaking her head.
“I’m sorry,” Marjorie said.
“Sorry?” her mom repeated, frown morphing into a confused squint. She looked her daughter up and down.
“Yeah,” Marjorie said. The thickest knot had clogged her throat. If she talked more, her voice would quake, but she spoke anyways. “I wasn’t – I wasn’t looking – I should’ve looked and I was zoned out – I’m sorry, I know you guys got that car new –”
Her mom shook her head. “No. No, Marjie, you’re a good driver. It was an accident.” She squeezed her daughter’s hand.
“We’re just glad you’re okay,” her dad added.
Marjorie nodded, blinking back tears.
Nothing was broken. The doctor hypothesized her muscles had seized up in the car accident. Since her left side had taken the impact, the sprain-like injury caused the pain and weakness she felt. The doctor recommended ibuprofen, hot and cold presses, and a visit to a specialist if she did not see improvement.
At home, her dad had to carry her to her room where she struggled to sleep comfortably. She forced herself to limp around the house to keep her muscles warmed up because the idler she was, the worse it hurt, even though everything hurt all the time.
Her mom spent nearly every day on the phone, answering the insurance companies and checking in with the police station on the status of the report. She was convinced of Marjorie’s innocence, but Marjorie knew better. Deep in her gut, she knew she had not been paying attention. She knew she had even wanted to be in a car accident on some level. She knew that she had caused it, intentionally or not.
A week later, she hobbled into the orthopedist’s office where a short balding man watched her walk. He prescribed several pages of stretches for her muscle trauma, and when she went home, she collapsed onto the khaki carpet in her room and went to work. She did her best to follow the pictures on the pages.
Her mom knocked on her door just as Marjorie pulled her left knee to her chest and winced at the stretch in her buttock and thigh.
“Hi,” her mom said, opening the door. “I got the police report.”
Marjorie put her leg down and pushed herself up slowly. “What’s it say?”
“The other driver was drunk,” her mom said. “He didn’t see you. He was in a rush and thought it was okay to go around the truck that was turning.”
“Oh,” Marjorie said. “Oh but I thought –”
Her mom shook her head. “It was definitely the other driver’s fault. You had the right of way. Your judgment was intact – his was not. The insurance companies will work out the car and medical expenses, okay?”
Marjorie nodded numbly. Her mom patted her shin. “It’s not your fault,” she said firmly. Marjorie nodded again. Her mom left, and Marjorie fell back on her carpet.
It’s not your fault enveloped her and filled her and echoed between her ears like a song. When a tear slipped down her temple and into her hair, she wept harder than she had in a long time. After several minutes, her breathing returned to normal, and she hauled herself up and limped to the bathroom to blow her nose. She confronted her splotchy red face in the mirror. Her face was puffy and her nose bright red, but her eyes stood out sharp and strong. She took in a slow, deep breath. She straightened her shoulders, and she exhaled. It was not her fault.
Composed for an introduction to art class at Northeastern University taught by artist Jamal Thorne, Unholy Places is a short story exploring how trauma invades one's sacred places and how one triumphs over that to find healing.