I stand up and stretch, hoping to relieve some of the tension that has collected in my back. A popping sound seems to reverberate up my spine and it feels amazing.
“Ow!” Penny cries in empathy. “Are you okay?”
I smile at my sister as I reach my arms up over my head.
“Yep,” I tell her, “I’m good.”
She rolls her eyes and keeps ripping open boxes.
“More books,” she says. “Bedroom or living room?”
“Depends. What kind of books?”
She peers into the box and pulls out one of my dictionaries, holding it up for me to see.
“Living room, please.”
“This would be a lot easier if you’d labeled the boxes, you know.”
“I hadn’t really planned it out that much, Penny,” I say with a shrug.
She nods and shoves the box of books aside to start on another. Penny is good about not asking questions she knows she won’t like the answer to. She’s also good about listening even when she doesn’t like what she’s hearing. It’s good to have a sister like her in times like this one.
“Hmm?” She looks up from the next box, which I know is full of linens.
“Michael wasn’t a good guy,” I tell her simply.
“I mean, he was pretty awful toward the end…”
“I know he was, Tally. You don’t have to-”
“Yeah, I do.”
Penny sits back on her heels on the floor of my new apartment’s hallway. She clicks the blade back into the box cutter and waits for me to continue.
Penny has always been good about handling these sort of things.
“He was abusive, and ignored it because I loved him.”
I hadn’t intended for it to come out quite like that, but it’s too late now. The words formed themselves the way they were meant to, I suppose.
“I should have guessed he’d be a good manipulator. That should have been clear a long time ago, but it never occurred to me that he could be that way with someone he said he loved. I guess that was pretty stupid of me to think.”
“No, it’s not,” Penny tells me, her compassion practically bursting through her eyes. “It’s not stupid to think that someone you love loves you back enough not to trick you like that.”
I turn her words over in my head for a moment before I respond.
“I couldn’t tell I was being tricked for over a year, and when I did…”
I pause because I don’t quite know what to say next. The words come anyway.
“When I did, we were so entrenched in each other’s lives. He knew everything about me. All my friends, how to scare me, everything. Staying felt so much safer than leaving.”
Penny stares at me and heaves a heavy breath before sliding over to sit beside me on my new floor.
“I want to remove his testicles.”
It’s such an unexpected thing for her to say that I can’t help but laugh.
“I mean it,” she says through a smile. “He was awful and should not be allowed to procreate.”
I look at my knees, deciding not to tell her about the pregnancy scare a few years ago that Michael found a way to make my fault despite his consistent disinterest in condoms.
“Tally, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but… how bad did it get?”
“You want to know if he hit me?”
I stare at the wall for a moment too long because Penny scoots closer to me and grasps my hand in both of hers.
“Not at first,” I tell her. “That wasn’t his way until I started sticking up for myself. Then he hit.”
“May I kill him?”
“You’re asking for permission?”
“Not really,” she admits. “Just declaring my intentions.”
I smile a little at that.
“So… that’s why the police were there yesterday?”
When Penny helped me collect my things from the old place, a squad car was in the driveway to greet her. Penny, always good about not asking questions she won’t like the answer to, said nothing at the time.
“I got a restraining order. Officer Willis was there to make sure Mike didn’t come home early.”
“You packed fast.”
“To tell you the truth, Pen,” I say with a sigh. “I’d been packing for a while.”
“I thought you said leaving wasn’t planned.”
“It wasn’t. I didn’t wake up last week and decide I’d leave yesterday. But I’d been… ready for it, I guess.”
Penny squeezes my hand and leans her head on my shoulder. I’m really glad I have a sister.
“Now you have something that’s all yours.”
“I suppose I do.”
Later that night, I’m propped up in a bed we picked up from a nice college guy who’d posted it on craigslist. The mattress is a little creaky, but it will do fine.
My laptop rests on my thighs and I dutifully delete every photo I can find of Mike. On my hard drive, on Instagram. Everything.
Just as I am going through the ones of us on Facebook, a messenger notification pops up.
John: Hey you.
It’s John from college. I haven’t talked to John in months, and I know I’m grinning.
Tally: Hey yourself.
John: I know this is kind of last minute and please don’t feel like you have to, but I’m actually in your neck of the woods. Want to grab a bite?
I freeze for a moment and read the words on the screen a few more times before my fingers return to the keys.
Tally: WHAT ARE YOU DOING ON THE WEST COAST?
John: Last minute project! We’re filming in Santa Cruz tomorrow. We just landed and everybody’s exhausted but me. Go figure.
I laugh a bit at that. John and I were both always nocturnal.
Tally: Where can I meet you?
John: Could you pick me up?
He sends me an address and I know immediately that this will be good for me. I’m afraid that Michael will get the bulk of “our” friends in the split. I know he’ll twist it to make himself the victim, although I don’t like that word associated with me either. “Our” friends were always really his anyway. John, though, is gloriously untainted by Michael. John from college and the coffee shop and the movie theater. John, I can trust implicitly.
John, who never scared me, not even a little.
I quickly map the address on my phone and wrack my brain for where I left my shoes.
Tally: I’ll be there in ten. 🙂
I pull around the corner and see John’s lean figure beside a streetlamp. I flash my lights and he looks up, smiling.
“Hey, stranger!” I call out the window. He hops into the passenger’s seat and grins right at me.
“Hey, yourself. Where’s my hug?”
“You’ll get one when we stop, not to worry.”
We catch up, falling into the easy, teasing conversational rhythm we found freshman year, which feels about a million years ago now. John has been working with an independent film company, which I knew. What I didn’t know was that they were picking up a documentary project about an environmentalist group based out of Santa Cruz. He confesses that the idea of a documentary did not excite the rest of the team as it did him, but he managed to convince them anyway.
I tell him about what’s new with the job I’ve had for the last two years. Copywriting might not be the most glamorous thing, but it pays the bills and I make my own schedule. I tell him that I’m starting to get back into painting again. That gets a curious look out of John, who was unaware I’d ever stopped, but he says nothing.
When we find my favorite burger place, I park and hop out. John, on the other side, waiting for me, opens his arms and I practically leap into them, so happy to seem him again. His long, wiry arms wrap all the way around me and I can’t help it. I hide my face in my shoulder.
“Hey,” he says softly. “You okay, Tal?”
“Sure,” I lie.
“You’re bad at that, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. Get a burger in me and I’ll be better.”
“You got it.”
An hour later, I’ve effectively poured my heart out and John is fully up to date on all things Tally, including but not limited to the many sordid details of Tally’s unfortunate romantic circumstances. And there are very many.
“Please don’t tell me that I’m better than that,” I plead. “Please don’t tell me that I should have left sooner. I promise you I know that better than you. I’ve been tough for my parents, I’ve been tough for my sister. I haven’t even cried over it. I’m just exhausted. Please do me the favor of not telling me what I already know.”
John looks at me sadly, but it’s not pity or disappointment. At least, if it is, it doesn’t seem to be directed at me.
“Tal. I was going to say I’m proud of you.”
Okay, that catches me off guard a little.
“Tally, my father was an abusive alcoholic. You think I don’t understand how hard it is to get out of that kind of situation? I know exactly how brave you had to be. I’m proud of you. You’re a lot tougher than you’re giving yourself credit for.”
And there, suddenly, are the tears. Thank God for John.
“On top of which, I can’t imagine your family holding anything like that against you. Were they-?”
“No, no. They’ve been really great about it, especially Penny. I just…”
“You were looking for someone to judge you. And when they didn’t, you decided to do it yourself.”
John stares at me for a moment, not really expecting a response.
“You’re too sharp for your own good,” I accuse through a watery smile.
I slide closer to him in the booth and collapse against his side. He wraps an arm around my shoulders and rests the side of his head on top of mine.
“I’m sure plenty of others have offered, but do I have ass kicking to do?”
I chuckle. “No. I really don’t think he was dangerous to anyone but me.”
“Hence the restraining order.”
“Hence,” I agree. “But thank you.”
John and I sit in companionable silence, easily polishing off our remaining french fries. I giggle every time he swallows and I can feel it against the side of my face.
The next morning, John texts me to say he’ll be in Santa Cruz for ten days, and can we please get together before he heads back home. I readily agree.
As I unpack my coffee machine, load it up, and make myself comfortable perched on top of the kitchen counter by the window, I can’t help but think about Michael.
This morning, he is probably wondering what happened to his kitchen and how he will make coffee now. He is possibly concerned about the sudden barrenness of the cupboards that once housed my waffle maker and my mixing bowls and my teacups.
He is probably noticing something different about the walls in the hallway, but it will take him a few guesses to realize that I took my photo frames. He is maybe even collecting a little list of all the things I took with me.
What I hope he will ultimately realize is, despite their residence in his home for a short while, everything I took was never his or even ours. All of it was always mine.