how we talk when we talk like ladies
By Laura Winnick
Miss is surprised to see me. It’s Thursday, after all. It’s been six months of me not showing. She walks out from behind the peeling-paint hallway, and I’m slumped down on the seat on the left side of the waiting room, playing with my phone even though I don’t have Wi-Fi or any minutes left. I move the screens back and forth. I don’t look up as I hear her footsteps get closer to me.
I feel bad in a desperate kind of way.
“Kayla,” Miss says softly.
I don’t look up.
I’m wearing this old beanie of Briana’s, and I pull it down by my ears. The bottoms of my hair are hot pink these days, and I can see where the color’s drained a little, and where black is growing back in, and where I could have combed some pieces more.
“Kayla,” Miss says again, this time with an edge. It’s Thursday. She’s standing in front of me, expecting something, maybe an apology or a lie. I can see her heeled boots, her matching skirt and jacket, can sense her concern.
“Right,” she says, and shifts her weight from one leg to the other. I finally look up, slide my head back on the wall so I can take her in. Miss looks at me, arms folded, just this person in front of me, and I wonder how much wrong I’ve done. How much wrong a girl can do?
Her face is a little twisted, and she’s still a little shocked because I’m sitting in front of her. And it’s Thursday. She bends down, so our eyes are on the same level.
I can’t meet them. I hear Benny saying, “K, you gotta look me in the eyes. You won’t get anywhere in life if you can’t look people in the eyes.”
But I can’t do it.
Instead, I blurt out: “Girls’ group starts at three, right?” The phone in my sweaty palm lights up as I press it: 2:58. No one’s ever on time in this place anyway.
We both look at the screen as it clicks into 2:59, and I wish we could stay in this minute forever, infinitely on the verge of afternoon, just the two of us before the day sweeps in on us.
Miss opens her mouth to speak, but words don’t come out.
“What’s hurt?” Miss asks the group. She’s sitting with a folder of papers on her lap, legs crossed, in the same way, in her same navy days skirt-suit. “All blue all over,” I once called that outfit, and she just opened her lipstick lips and laughed.
The sun is coming through the windows, and the aluminum of the folding chair expands below the skin of my legs. I hadn’t remembered the light of this place, how it diagonals itself through the small square windows, so sharply. Six months later, the room is still the stone-cold same; sagged-in couch in the corner, broken-ass coffee machine next to the sink, pile of folding chairs we pull up and out and into a circle to make like home.
The girls are different, besides Briana. She keeps staring at me, mouth open, her eyes moving up and down me like a thermometer, trying to gauge me. I don’t know how much to tell her, or what she can read from me. I’m hoping she sees the beanie as a sign of surrender.
“We’re going to talk about hurt today and the many forms it takes,” Miss continues, her voice soothing but dismayed. I hear in her the hundreds of voicemails I listened to but never returned: “Kayla please call me back, please call me back any time, we just need to know where you are right now, we just need to know…” Those first couple of weeks running I played them over and over before falling asleep.
“Physical abuse is different from verbal abuse which is different from emotional abuse. Has anyone heard of those terms before?” Miss asks.
No one responds.
“So what is hurt?” Miss asks. “What are the forms it takes?”
No one responds. I shift in my seat.
“Hurt is a baby who stops growing in your stomach,” I say finally.
These new girls look at me like who is this, answering her questions right away and I know they think I’m all played out but I’m not interested in that psychotherapy bullshit, I want girls’ group as it used to be. This broken-down room used to fill up with us. And now it feels empty; it feels like it’s been emptying itself out for the past six months that I’ve been gone.
Briana looks straight at me. “Hurt is leaving when you promised you’d stay.”
Miss, always waiting for a trigger, obediently records our responses.
“Hurt is abandoning,” I say.
“Hurt is home without hominess,” Briana says.
“Love without love,” I add.
“What issss this,” one of the new ones interrupts us: “po-e-try?” and she slinks the word into three different distinct syllables.
“No,” I spit back at her. I want to return to word-echoing with Briana, for Miss to praise us, for us all to enter back into six months when I did as I said I’d do.
“What’s love without love?” asks one of the smaller girls, quietly.
Briana still holding my gaze. “It’s like, a person can say they love you but won’t show love for you.”
“It’s like, you can live in a home that gives you shelter, but it doesn’t give you the other things you need, you know?” I add.
There is quiet in the room.
Then the one who interrupted before goes: “You two lesbians or something?”
“Carole,” Miss replies sharply, “that’s not how we talk as ladies.”
Then Miss drops her gaze and stares at her hands. The sun spreads its fingertips across the room.
Miss says quietly, barely audible, “Hurt is someone leaving you all blue all over, again and again and again.”
I look up and finally see Miss. I see her. Alone in her apartment, night after night, reaching for a cell phone to call me, checking Facebook messages and email, calling Benny every Sunday, expecting: “Have you heard anything?” I see her reading the newspaper and watching movies and going on runs and cooking dinner for one, all the while, the ghost of me, the one she thought she’d reached, trespassing into her space.
And the seeing of her makes my body twist towards the exit.
Laura Winnick is a high school English teacher, zine editor, and writer. She spends most of her time outside of school playing Bananagrams and basketball (not at the same time). You can find her tweeting about the smart and silly things her students say @lalawinn.
Art by C. O’Connor.