“In Absentia” by Anne Highley-Smith

Today was it. The day I had contemplated for months, turning over the corners of every possible situation until it was worn like an old photograph. Still, no one circumstance seemed any more – or any less – plausible than another, so any sense of comfort I may have found in my usual habit of attempting predictions was rather fragile in its existence.

The building smelled of old cigarettes and burnt peas, suffocating as I made my way to the top of the six-floor walk-up. With each step, the memories of that one night flooded my thoughts. While the night him and I shared had only been five months ago, I remembered it as if it was yesterday. At the time, he was only a man standing in the doorway to the neighborhood bar, looking nervous, yet there was an aura exuding from him that held my gaze. Perhaps he had sensed me admiring him from my distant seat at the bar, but moments later he was beside me, asking me what I was drinking. I told him to order a round and find out. About four drinks later, the two of us left for my place, clinging to each other as if the world’s gravity was continually adjusting and readjusting its levels of intensity, indifferent to the poor beings it affected.

Upon reaching the sixth floor, the memory retreated as I attempted to make myself presentable for him. The hall had beige and black hexagonal linoleum, encrusted with years of dirt and general city filth. The apartment doors were evenly spaced, seemingly sturdy, and painted red – probably a number of years ago, for there were cracks spanning its length – giving the illusion of complete occupant uniformity. A crumpled – and now sweaty – note, quickly written with a broken pencil, said that 6A was the final destination.

It was a strange coincidence that this apartment number was the same as mine, before my mother and I had moved that last time. I thought how I might mention that to him later, then quickly thought better of it.

I knocked.

My breath needed to be forced out of my lungs, and my mind raced through the numbers painted on the doors, over and over again, faster each time. This counting was almost soothing, and soon I found myself staring at the number again, remembering my old apartment. Behind that door, my mother would tell me, fingers tangled in my hair, disregarding the tears in my eyes, how I would grow up to be a terrible parent, that I was incapable of sacrifice and possibly even love. At the time, a part of me felt that she was really talking about herself, that maybe she’d seen a part of herself in me as well. I didn’t believe her then. I believe her now.

The sound of deadbolts unlocking broke my concentration. Each clank echoed in my ears and in my skull, sending shocks through my body. When the chain was slid from its protective stance, and the door’s old hinges screeched, my stomach contracted. Once again, I reminded myself that I was obligated to visit.

It had been a few months since I had seen him, yet he looked the same as he had that night, a little awkward, a little nervous. As he stood in the doorway, his hip was cocked to one side, and he kept his arms close to his lean frame. His mouth was open slightly, lips pursed as if the question that was forming behind them was what took me so long to arrive and rescue him from his despondency.

I greeted him immediately, relishing the way his name glided easily off my tongue: Gabriel. His skin was smooth, toned, and a shade of chestnut brown. I had lain in his arms and listened to him talk, cracking himself open and holding out his insides just for me.

This was the first time I had seen him with cold, drawn features, only an apology flickering from his eyes. The reason behind this uncharacteristic coolness wasn’t unknown, yet his distant, and almost hostile, stare hurt more than any slap to the face ever could. At that moment, I felt as tender and exposed as a freshly blooming bruise, still pink and blue from recent trauma.

For a moment, the two of us stood there in silence as his face changed, and he stepped closer to me as if the distance between us was unnatural. The smell of sweet grass combined with the slight hint of oil paint. I could feel my chest slowly collapsing in on itself.

I asked, with one eyebrow raised and a sly smile, if I was going to be allowed in at some point or if I was going to have to pitch a tent in the hall, rather forcibly testing the boundaries that he had obviously tried to set. He laughed, a sound so familiar that any earlier tension faded and fell away, leaving only the two of us just as it had been. This closeness was fleeting as he quickly moved back into the doorway, footsteps made from heels and a baby crying could then be heard clearer and louder. The last flicker of warmth was replaced with a look of despair.

The door opened wider, and there she was, breasts swollen with milk, face pale and hollowed from exhaustion. She smiled, strained, lips pressed tight against her face as she looked back and forth between him and I. When her eyes met mine, I briefly wondered what those eyes would have held behind them if she were aware of certain truths. I saw her silently question him as to why I was there, though she must have known perfectly well. Only, she was asking the wrong question. The right question was: who was I to him.

Seemingly satisfied, her gaze shifted over me once more, leaving the skin she glanced at burning, and disappeared from view. She didn’t want me here. As she walked away, the only comfort I could latch onto was the continuing apology written on his face. What this woman didn’t realize was the worse she treated me the more I wiggled closer to him. He told me once her name was Harriet. She was his wife.

He asked me to come in, though did not move, making it so I had to squeeze my shoulders together and shift sideways, all while facing him. His breath washed along the curve of my neck, and I shivered as I was almost completely immersed in his intoxicating smell. Instantly, I dug my nails into the palm of my hand.

Stepping further inside, I found that it was a one bedroom with low ceilings that made me feel as though I had to hunch my shoulders and tilt my head, so I didn’t scrape my scalp. The walls were off-white, paint chipping from its molding, and the faint tang breast milk hung in the air. From the doorway, most of the rooms were visible, except the bedroom, whose door was closed. For a moment, my brain was overwhelmed by the image of Gabriel and I behind that door, perspiring under the sheets, as we had that one night.

The small home seemed almost ordinary, until the wall of artwork caught my eye; it was as though parts of his soul were hanging by nails on display. He told me how his daughter loved to stare at them, and now I could see why; they were visceral. As I admired his work, I could feel him behind me. I chuckled noiselessly as I sat down on the grey couch positioned in the middle of the living room, which faced a large cabinet housing an old television, trinkets, and picture frames. He followed me to the couch and sat on the opposite end, staring at me intently all the while. I wondered silently where his wife and child were for he seemed rather indifferent on the matter. Obviously stricken with memory loss, hushed and under his breath, Gabriel asked me why I was there. Chiding his forgetfulness, I reminded him of five months ago, that night, and my promise to visit him and his little one. His mouth opened, and eyes flared with an intensity I had only seen from my mother before she struck me. Though familiar with this particular expression, I knew I must have been mistaken, for there was no way Gabriel would ever harm me.

Suddenly, my ears were assaulted by a high-pitched wailing that was remarkably reminiscent of the sound a dog makes when it’s left out in the cold for too long, unloved, its paws frozen to the concrete. I watched Gabriel’s eyes dart towards his bedroom. My eyes followed the trails his had made until they were fixed upon his wife holding a squirming creature in a blanket. Before I had a chance to look back, he was already standing, his face twisted with a look of concern, making his way towards the crying infant. He almost forcibly took his daughter from Harriet’s arms, and began to hum an out of tune lullaby, gazing into the baby’s face, rocking her back and forth.

I took a glance at his wife. Her brow was furrowed, lips pressed into an even, thin line so almost no pink could be seen. My eyes met hers, and for a moment, a silent indignation and bitterness blazed. Whether this inexplicable rage was directed at Gabriel or me was of little consequence, but she must have felt the connection that we shared and despised me for it.

Incapable of holding my attention for long, my gaze was drawn to back to Gabriel and the bundle he was holding close to his body. As he stared at his daughter, his face seemed to glow. It was unclear whether or not this light was from his passion for his child or from the baby itself. I found myself unable to look away, and only when he started to walk towards the couch did I realize that time was still relevant and moving around me.

He must have asked me if I wanted to hold her, for he had come close to me then, motioning as if he was about to hand me his child. While a part of me couldn’t believe he would allow me near, let alone touch or hold his daughter. Another part felt drawn to this bubbling creature. Immediately, I looked at up him, hoping to find a sense of reassurance, but all I found was a look of apprehension. With wide eyes and numb fingers, my mind raced though horrific possibilities while I took the infant from Gabriel. The handoff was surprisingly easy, for she merely slid into my arms as if they had been fashioned just for this use. At once, I felt at ease and allowed myself to be soothed by her pleasant warmth and smile. For a second, I wondered if my mother smiled like this when she was a baby. I then wondered if my mother had ever smiled.

I cradled the soft baby in my arms, staring into her dark eyes that stood out against her pink skin. She had her father’s eyes, not only in shape and color, but also in what was behind them. There was a certain purity of intention, which I treasured in Gabriel that had obviously manifested itself in his daughter. This expression of good intent was there in his eyes when I thread my fingers through his and asked if I could come and see his daughter. I knew that she was beautiful. After a couple of minutes, I took his silence as an agreement. There was no way he’d deny my request to see his flesh and blood. It was decided, five months from then, I would visit him and his baby. After he had fallen asleep, I found his address on his driver’s license and copied it onto a scrap of paper. Disappointing Gabriel was something my heart would not allow me to do. Secretly, I had considered what it would be like to hold a newborn.

His daughter had been his first love, he told me. Never had he felt such an all-consuming adoration for any human being before that moment he saw her. She was his Grace.

It was then I felt her tiny fingers wrap around one of my own, and in that moment, she was beautiful, she was mine. I found myself getting lost in her, just as her father must have. As she giggled, I felt my heart fold around her and try to immerse her in my instantaneous devotion. My heart also seemed to know, maybe even better than I that my mother had never felt this way towards me. If she had, her hand would have found mine, instead of the bottle. Her arms would have been wrapped around me, instead of her latest abusive interest. She would have protected me, instead of projected onto me. Yet, she did none of these things. Perhaps, I could do better for this innocent child.

Continuing to gaze at the infant, there was not only a purity exuding from her, but an absolute trust. With this revelation, the earlier calm shattered. I was undeserving of reliance from such a lovely and delicate creature. This babe knew nothing of the pestilent world that she had been born into, knew nothing of pain, of sickness, of death, dying, nothing. She simply knew nothing. It seemed that naivety would only be a negative way to describe innocence of mind and soul. Only Grace was not naive; she was pure. I wanted to shake this into her, and I could feel my fingers tightening around her sensitive skin. It came to me then just how fragile she truly was, how easily she could be broken. A wave of nausea overtook me for I knew I was unfit to care for something so entirely helpless. It took every ounce of control to not allow my shoulders to slump and my head to drop, as a long, drawn out breath left my lungs and body.

A small cough broke the silence. His wife asked to speak to Gabriel alone, her tired eyes motioning towards the bedroom door, closed and cold. When he hesitated, I watched as her eyes flashed to me and back to him again. Without waiting for a response, she walked and entered the bedroom, closing the door behind her. He threw me one last apologetic look, as I watched him open, and walk through the door. A twinge of guilt plagued my insides for he had told me how he wasn’t happy with her and didn’t think he ever had been. At the time, this had not struck me as unusual, but just then it felt as though this seemingly trivial bit of information had actually cuffed me like a brick in the face.

I heard them yelling at each other. A smile made my lips twitch and quiver, but soon, I began to breathe heavily and shake. Screams of anger could be heard louder and clearer from behind the closed door, as it loomed larger in my vision. Transfixed, I stared at the bedroom door, hoping the cries would die down, but they didn’t. In a shrilly voice, she asked him what I was doing here. When he replied that he didn’t know, that I had just shown up, I knew that he was only trying to protect me from her.

I felt small, weak and insignificant, just as I had when I was a child, listening to my mother’s tortured screeches, hiding so I could avoid the next bout of her latest boyfriend’s anger. Grey particles swam before my eyes, making it hard to see. My chest heaved, struggling to take in the air it so desperately needed. Wanting to cover my ears with my hands, I sat there and saw flashes of my mother, eyes purple and lips bloody, and I was weighted to that couch as though my bones were lead.

Paralyzed and sunken into the couch, a sinister memory made its way from the blackest corners of my mind, slithering, aching, viciously attempting to break from its cage.

It was dark when I awoke to him standing over me, breathing heavily. I was young. He was not. He and my mother had been dating for a few weeks and we had moved into his place – a mansion with a pool and even a live-in housekeeper. I thought he smelled strange, almost the way my mother did, but not quite. Whenever I brought this up, my mother would hit me and tell me to shut my mouth, that he was rich, that he was my only ticket to becoming anything worth even setting eyes upon. That night he smelled even more strongly of that unpleasant odor. I heard him muttering to himself, and I tried to lie still in my bed, hoping that he would only go away. He didn’t. Instead, I felt his hot breath stinging my nose and suffocating me. His big, clammy hands fumbled with my nightgown, and he muttered and cursed louder. I sat up then, pleading with him to stop. He didn’t. When I tried to get up, he held me to the bed with his elbow across my chest. When I tried to scream, he covered my mouth with one meaty palm. He called me nasty things and told me that I was getting in the way. Over and over again, he told me I was worthless and a waste. A sneer appeared when he told me that my mother never loved me, that she, like he, thought it’d be better if I just disappeared. Silenced and partially immobilized, I looked up at him, eyes wide, sputtering, mouth and nose sucking in air against the palm of his hand, unable to get enough. I began flailing, my arms extending wildly, thrashing against the tight grip he had upon me. His face did not express the energy his body was exerting. I watched his muscles flex while I kicked out, and as I tore my fingernails into his skin, disregarding his pain. Finally, one of my blows connected, and he was knocked off balance, falling to the floor with a loud thud. Leaping from the bed, I stumbled out of the room, and ran down the hall, knocking my shoulders and stubbing my toes all the way. Without direction, letting my fear carry me, I ran, almost blind, in any direction that seemed to lead away from this crazed man. I could hear him behind me, thundering through the unlit house, clamoring towards me. As I ran, my mind raced, wondering where my mother was, if she could hear the commotion, only to decide, the beating I would receive from waking her wasn’t worth the trouble. My lungs ached, and my eyes burned from the combination of sweat and tears. I turned a corner, and saw lights. Keeping up my speed, I ran toward them, praying, hoping against all that I knew that this light would be my salvation. Closer, this luminescence loomed, until I was almost upon it. My eyes, adjusting from the darkness, saw only too late the glass door that led outside a moment before I crashed through it. Shards of glass sliced through my skin and through my nightgown, leaving me burning wherever they had touched me. The momentum carried me forward, crushing the tiniest pieces of glass underneath my weight, the blood sliding underfoot, propelling me further. I could not stop no matter how furiously I waved my arms to slow myself. At first, all I felt was the smack of a concrete-like pressure against my body, but then I could feel myself getting sucked into the water. A paralyzing horror overtook me as I remembered I had never been taught how to swim. Many times, I had been fearful, but this terror was different. It carried a weight of certainty and consequence. This fear knew the very corners in which to stretch out its grey tendrils and nest, wrap, and squeeze. My eyes flashed open, and there she was, my mother, illuminated by the lights surrounding the pool’s edge. My arms reached upward, toward the heavens, praying for her to only bend down and take my hand, just this once. My mouth opened, screaming out, without sound, a plea so desperate Poseidon himself would have lowered his trident just for me. Water forced its way into my mouth, nose and lungs, drowning me out. Trapped in this state, I watched her stand contemplatively for a moment, staring at the pool, lower her head, and walk out of sight. Blackness consumed my vision then, and my thoughts turned black as well. I awoke in a hospital bed three days later. The maid had heard the furor and pulled me from the treacherous waters. A week later, I was released without having received one visitor. I haven’t seen my mother since that night.

Lifting my head, I found that each of the pictures were watching me through glazed over, yet incriminating eyes. I asked them to stop staring, that it was impolite, but they only continued. Their faces accused me of atrocities they knew nothing of. Their eyes pierced me and left me with the same intense burning sensation I had felt earlier. I needed to leave, to somehow escape their unblinking and persecuting stares, to somehow escape the screams that threatened to crush me from the inside, out.

Yet, I couldn’t leave this infant under these conditions. In no way was this atmosphere suitable for something so breathtakingly innocent. Her shallow breaths were like wisps in my ears, spiraling slowing in and layering along my brain. With each sigh, a weight added to my shoulders until I was almost crumpled and blind. Needing to bask in her radiating light, I looked down at the bundle clasped so tightly in my arms, but there was no luminosity there to greet me. Instead of the chaste babe I had once been holding, a hideous creature had replaced it. In my arms was a being whose glow and vivacity had been stolen, taken from her by the unjust cruelties that she had involuntarily been born into.

I had to clean her. She reeked of lies and deceit. The soft luminescence of her skin had become tarnished with sins. These sins were like bugs crawling, oozing their black juices over her cheeks, and lips, leaving trails down to her chest, fingertips and toes.

I had to clean her.

As I carried her to the sink, she cooed and gurgled, blackness spewing from her mouth. I tried to wipe away the ooze that had begun to crust, but only more would flow over her. The sins were overtaking her, and I had to save her. Soon she would be nothing more than a black mass, squirming and wallowing in impurity. No longer would she be that ball of light in this dank house.

I had to clean her.

Running the tap, I continually tested the water and waited for the baby tub – already placed in the sink from a previous, though ineffective bath – to fill. The water shone clear, only reflecting Grace and I as I held her close. Her chest rose and fell in time with mine and for the first time, I saw the syrupy blackness seeping from my fingers onto her. My sins were engulfing her, plaguing her, ravaging her every orifice like an infection.

I had to clean her.

As I unraveled Grace from her blanket and underpinnings, screams could still be heard from the bedroom, almost drowning out the sounds of the tap. This time, however, I did not allow them to consume my being. To me, the sounds were only dogs barking behind a fence, loud yet contained. Slowly, I lowered her body into the tub, watching as the blackness attempted to cling to her.

She did not struggle. She did not fight. She did not make a sound, as I held her head under, watching the blackness flow from her body and from mine.

Bubbles silently rose to the surface of the light blue baby tub, and the ripples slowly became less frequent. Time became irrelevant as I stared into her face; eyes and mouth open, not in surprise, but in a serenity that only an innocent could possess.

Through the ripples I saw the baby’s face change, morph even. Her features twisted until I was again taken aback by what had manifested itself before me. This time, instead of a blackened creature, the being that stared back at me was hallowed and empty, except for a tortured anguish. Looking into the tub, I glimpsed what my mother must have seen in me those many years ago, helplessness tangled in neglect.

My mother abandoned me that night. Her sins are what ravaged me from the inside out. With each strike, with each act of disregard, the blackness within would grow, dribbling out through every pore. When she left, the blackness broke the dam, allowing the sins to swallow me whole, and envelop my very soul. I would not do the same to this child. I would not be my mother. I would save her in the way my mother did not.

Lifting her small body from the tub was excruciating; the sins weighed her down, seeking to drag her back into the treacherous water. Once out of the water, the blackness seeped into her skin, retreating.

I dried her gently, and wrapped her in a soft pink cloth, making sure only her face could be seen and none of her delicate skin was exposed.

She lay in my arms, quiet and still as though asleep. I held her close as to keep her body warm. For minutes, for hours, for days, years, we sat like this. Back and forth, I rocked, rhythmically, just for her.

Profile: Anne Highley-Smith

*This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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