Prologue (1877 words)
I’m putting away the pencils that are strewn over the little table, scribble the names of the artists on their masterpieces and look around the classroom. I am almost done with my day at work. I tidy my desk, wipe down the blackboard, and put another snippet of paper that escaped the first inspection in the trash. Closing the windows, I see a silver car approach. I am not happy about it, but it is part of who I am right now. I can’t see his face, but I imagine his lips to be shut tight. He ordered me to wait for him on the curb, but I am not there. I hurry to put my bag on my shoulder and grab my coat on the way out. My breathing is heavy. Not from my quick steps as I skip stairs on my way down; no, I am tense with anticipation. Every day, he finds something new that I did wrong, and today, it must be more than not finding me where he expected me to be.
I run toward the idling car while my entire body wants to go the other way. Anywhere but with him. I grab the handle and open the door; his perfume greets me with an intoxicating cloud. My mask slips into place, and I smile to greet him. He looks grim, both hands on the steering wheel and a frown on his forehead. I want to lean in for a quick kiss, but he turns away.
“You are late. You know that I don’t wait,” he barks and pulls away from the curb. I don’t say anything, just put on the seatbelt and lower my head. There was a time when I would have tried to explain or apologize, but it doesn’t matter to him what I have to say. He looks good today, handsome. His grey suit and white shirt compliment his olive skin. The long lashes around his brown eyes make his gaze dreaming in some situations and hard in others. His nose has been broken once or twice in his youth; there is a scar that is almost invisible just across the bridge of his nose. If you don’t know that it is there, you will not see it. But I know his body by heart. I know every scar and every mole, and I know better than ever to touch his hair. His hair is always styled immaculately. My boyfriend is a handsome man. But he has an ugly character. I used to be a tall and proud woman. I used to be loud. Now I am invisible. I am not allowed to wear heels anymore or pants. He wants me to wear dresses all the time. Preferably with pantyhose, no matter the season or the weather. My hair used to be short and dyed in a different shade every other month; he asked me to grow my hair out and wear it in my natural mousy brown color. And I did. It is at shoulder length now, and when he is not around, I wear it in a bun or a ponytail. I am not allowed to wear makeup or jewelry, apart from the necklace he gave me on our first Christmas. It’s a little star with an inscription: Mike’s star. At the time, it was incredibly cute, but it feels more and more as if he was making his claim.
I run my hands up and down my thighs and notice that there is a smudge of paint on a finger. I try cleaning it without him noticing, but my fidgeting pulls his attention to the hands in my lap. He snorts and shakes his head disapprovingly. I know that he wants me to quit my job, but that is the only thing I still have for myself, and I refuse to give it up. We often fight about it, but I am standing my ground on this one. Earning my own money is important to me, even if he controls my spending habits.
It is tense between us. I know that I let him down by making him wait for me. I know that he is angry, and he will find a way to punish me. I just hope I can make it up to him over dinner.
He pulls up into the parking lot of a restaurant we frequent weekly. We park in the same spot as every week. “Brush your hair,” he commands, and I search for the brush in my bag. “You look awful today,” he adds, and it makes me feel smaller than I already am. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. But he doesn’t listen. Or he doesn’t care. I need a way to break up with him, but I don’t know how. I used to be strong and independent before I met him. He gets out of the car, and I follow him wordlessly. He grabs my hand with a tight grip. It’s almost as if he knows or feels that I don’t want to be near him anymore.
He navigates the small restaurant as if he owns the place, greeting people with handshakes and being his charismatic self. Once, he smiled at me too. Not anymore. He is a gentleman, though, and pulls out a chair for me; I thank him politely. A waiter approaches us and takes our orders for drinks. He orders a bottle of red wine and water. The water is for me. I am not allowed to drink alcohol when I am with him. I want to shake my head at myself. This is not me. How did I get here? When did I turn into a submissive and quiet woman? I used to be a fighter. The waiter brings our drinks, along with two menus. I open the card, fully aware that I don’t have a say in what I will have for dinner. He will order for me. He always does. It was charming at first, but it is not anymore. We fought about it before, and he assured me that he wants the best for me. He only wants to take care of me. It’s the reason why he is controlling every aspect of my life. As expected, he orders for me. A vegetarian dish. I am not opposed to vegetarian food, but the main ingredient of this one is eggplants, and they make me gag. He knows it and looks at me challenging while ordering. I stay silent. Like the good little girlfriend I am.
He downs his first glass of wine in two gulps. I still can’t get over how handsome he is. He is talking about his day at work and moves his slender hands animatedly while describing this and that. I don’t know much about his job; he says that I am too stupid to understand anyway and that it suffices to know that it pays the bills and he gets to be in touch with the rich and the famous. He often tells me that I am not intelligent, and maybe he is right. I don’t know. I forgot who I was before I was with him. He drinks more wine, and his speech becomes slightly slurred. He likes to drink alcohol, but he can’t stomach it very well. All the while, he is still talking about himself and his life. He repeats stories from his past and talks about his ex-girlfriend. She was more beautiful than I am, more intelligent, more of everything. He loved her differently than he loves me. As he says the words, I wish they wouldn’t hurt, but they do. Everything I ever did in our relationship was to please him, and it is never enough. Our food arrives, and I push it from one side of the plate to the other. I am not hungry. Not anymore. The two forkfuls I taste are like ash in my mouth, and I feel sick. He doesn’t notice and finishes his bottle of wine. He laughs loudly while he keeps talking about himself. He moves topics and is talking about his hair and his clothes. I know his closet and how many suits he owns. Nevertheless, he counts all of his clothes and tells me which look best on him. I agree; nodding when he praises his good looks and how the suit he is wearing makes him feel powerful. He exudes that power with his deep booming voice and his straight shoulders. His teeth are perfect, and the nails of his fingers and neatly manicured.
The waiter cleans our table, looking at me with something like pity in his eyes. Is the sympathy meant for him or for me? I just shrug and remember not to smile. I don’t want him to think that I am flirting. He always thinks that I am flirting as soon as I am speaking with other men. Of course, I never am.
The mood shifts. Whereas he was easy-going a moment ago, he is back to being stoic. Something happened, and I have no clue what it is. He orders the check and pays with his credit card.
“We’re going,” he announces and gets up, swaying slightly.
“Let me drive; you look tired,” he is drunk and shouldn’t drive.
“Nonsense” he shakes his head as if I insulted him. He puts his hand on the small of my back and pushes me out of the restaurant, saying his usual goodbyes and remembering everyone that we will be back next week. I nod and say nothing. I don’t want to get in the car with him. Not when he is driving.
“You’re drunk; let me drive,” I try to reason again. But he isn’t having any of it. Instead, he pushes me against his car and tries to kiss me. He tastes sour, like wine. His hand runs up my thigh, but I dance away from him. I don’t want this. But it makes him angry.
“Come here. You’re mine, and I want you now,” he growls. I refuse, pushing him away again. It is my luck that he is not forcing himself on me. I would not stand a chance. “Get in the car,” he orders. I know that is a bad idea and try to convince him that it is safer for me to drive. He turns the key in the ignition and gives me a warning glare. I am afraid that he will abandon me in the parking lot and get in against better judgment. To my surprise, he drives carefully and not all that bad. I relax a little and even allow him to put his hand on my thigh. Maybe he is not as drunk as I thought he was. He laces his fingers with mine and pulls my hand to his lips. He smiles. I smile. I see bright lights and hear a loud crash. Shards of glass everywhere. His hand does not let go of mine as the car is pushed across the asphalt. My head knocks against the window. I don’t know if I am screaming or not. I just know that I am still holding his hand. Or he is holding mine. There is a bright light. And then there is black.