Soft – A Short Story About the Ugliness of Domestic Violence
He never imagined that bare knuckles could do so much damage. Peter had watched plenty of TV shows and actions movies, but he had only a faint idea of what a strong punch could do – while channel surfing he once ran into a mixed martial arts match and saw the shut left eye of a man with a name he couldn’t pronounce. What he was looking at now, however, was something else entirely. It was Karen who had been hit. It was he who hit her. He wasn’t looking at a two dimensional moving picture and there was no suited announcer to separate him from the blood and violence that he found himself in the middle of.
He looked down at Karen as she lay on the floor, remorseful and crying, and he could see the skin on her cheek was torn by the friction of his fist. She swelled right before his eyes. With each second her jaw filled with fluids that caused a sad and ugly looking asymmetry in the face of the girl he said he loved. She whimpered, “I’m sorry” over and over again as tears fell down her face and mucus from her nose ran into her mouth.
It was more reflex than anything that caused him to hit her.
They were in Peter’s bed. With his parents out of town for the weekend they indulged in awkward teenage sex. After a few quiet moments their breathing normalized and Peter asked, “You still have your socks on?” They both laughed.
“It was a little cold in here.”
“You want me to put the thermostat higher babe?”
Karen looked him in the eyes and said, “Nah. I’m warm now.” He kissed her forehead and went back to staring at the ceiling as she reached over to take off the socks. She threw them across the bed where they landed on his pants, which before the sex, landed on his chair.
Lying down again she stared at the loose fitting blue jeans has they hung carelessly over the back of the chair. They annoyingly grabbed her attention and distracted from the feelings of belonging and stability that she always found herself searching for in her non-naked life because they were so rare there. Now that she had those feelings she tried her best to hold on to them and moved her hand up and down Peter’s flat stomach. Eventually though, she said, “Peter, some of your clothes are just so sloppy. You know, you don’t always have to buy them two sizes bigger.”
He chuckled, “That’s just what I’m comfortable wearing. I like my skin to breath.”
“Well at least your pants don’t hang off your ass. I would’ve never talked to you.”
“If that’s what you say. But I remember you looking all in my face at that party.”
She lifted her head off his chest to look at him with a slight smile and wide open eyes. “Oh really? That’s what you think?”
Peter remained smiling and relaxed, “Uh huh.”
“I was looking at you. But I was thinking to myself ‘why does this guy’s t-shirt sleeve go past his elbow. That’s a little too big.’”
“Aww.” She kissed him on the cheek as his smile disappeared. “You know you’re sexy. Just… Let’s go shopping together next week or something.”
“That’s the second time I’ve heard you say that. Babe, I like to wear what I like to wear. It’s my style, and I don’t want you trying to change me.”
“I’m not trying to change you. I love you. But how you present yourself sometimes is a little…” She searched for the right word. She said, “Rough?” not sure if she found what she was looking for.
Karen hopped out of bed and walked around the foot of it to the closet that was on Peter’s side. She opened the door and said, “Your parents own three stores. You don’t gotta look like you’re living in a rap video.”
Peter’s calm, brought on by his orgasm, was being replaced by an uncomfortable tenseness. He looked at Karen as she looked in his closet with disappointment on her face – the corner of her mouth were tight and stretched sideways.
“There was no plastic screen or suited announcer to separate him from the blood and violence.”
“Like this shirt. It’s straight out of a BET video.”
“Now you sound stupid. You ain’t black?”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I have to wear what the TV says black people wear.” She slipped on his shirt. Its neckline reached the shoulders of her slight frame and hung off her body like she was a hanger. Her breasts created small curves in the otherwise straight drop that the fabric made to her knees.
“I feel like I’m wearing a tent.”
“Take my shirt off Karen.”
“I will. Just trying to show you how silly this stuff can look. Unless you’re trying to be like some kinda street thug.”
Peter slowly got off of the bed. He looked Karen in the eyes and said, “Cut it out. Take it off.”
She turned to her left and looked at the mirror that hung from inside the closet door. Hunching her shoulders slightly Karen made a scowl and said to herself, “Yo yo son! I’m K-dawg. I’ll fuck that ass up if you try to pull that bullshit on me. I ain’t the one. I ain’t a punk.”
Peter’s face lost all expression. Karen couldn’t see his thoughts, but if she could, she would see memories of teenage scuffles, stolen jackets, and classroom ridicule. Times when Peter cried about bruises and his inability to fight back against things that seemed so much stronger than him.
Still talking to the mirror Karen said, “I ain’t soft.” Again, in a move that was more reflex than anything else, Peter quickly pulled his arm back, made as hard a fist as he ever had, and landed it on the right side of Karen’s face.
She was lifted off the ground, hit a wall a few feet away, and collapsed on the floor. Not quite unconscious, she put her hand on her face and began to cry. In a slow, hushed voice she said, “I was just joking. I’m sorry. I was just joking. I’m sorry Peter…” She repeated the words over and over again as Peter looked down at her. He was in shock and felt instant shame over what had just happened, but his face was still void of emotion, and his fists were still balled up tight.
Peter would apologize for hitting Karen. She would accept it. She would lie to people about what happened to her face. He would tell her that he loved her. She would need to believe it. She would believe it.
He would hit her again.
*Image Courtesy Den Quinsay