2023 Porch Prize Winner in Nonfiction
We were standing in the checkout line because the condom ripped. The drug store was located in the University Village shopping mall, just northeast of Seattle. She had her arms crossed, and wore large designer sunglasses, so large they covered her eyebrows and part of her cheeks. I skimmed the large selection of candy behind us.
“You want a snack?” I asked.
She kept her arms crossed. Her head barely moved. “No,” it said.
As we waited in line, I kept looking out the front sliding door of the drug store. I patted my pockets, found my wallet, and took out my debit to hurry the process along. After a while, she picked up a magazine and angrily thumbed through the pages. I thought we may have to buy it if she ripped it. That’s what you do when you break things – you have to buy them. Even if they’re broke, you own them. They’re yours.
As our turn in line came, we put our items on the scanner, and the clerk looked at us both. She was wearing a summer dress, the color of sail and yellow flowers, that fell gently on her dark skin. She continued to turn the pages of the magazine so quickly I was sure she wasn’t looking at the pages. As the clerk looked at me, I continued to look out the glass doors. I still had my debit card in my hand.
He rang up the first item – a home pregnancy test. He looked at her again, then me. I continued to look out the door while she continued slamming pages into one another. Then he rang up the second item, a sleeping mask. As he finished scanning the mask, he looked up and chuckled slightly.
“Is the mask for looking at the results?”
This guy. He thinks it’s a joke. Do you not see her? Do you not see me? Read the room man.
I looked at him squarely in the eyes. Really dude? He put his head down and continued to push buttons on the register. After we paid, I grabbed the bag off the counter, and followed her outside. As we walked back to her house, we talked contingencies.
K was 34. I was 28.
Her skin was the color of wet sand during a sunset. She was part black, part Italian, part Portuguese, part fire, part forest – more than will fit on this page. Her hair flaunted her blackness, moving as it pleased, curling on its own, so long it nearly touched her lower back; an anchor to keep herself in sync with the earth, allowing her to be more grounded to nature than I was. I needed eight or nine hands to grab it all. Where she was solid, firmly planted, I felt like a vagabond, unable to attach to people because I always had my bags packed for the next base.
My mental equal, we parried and dodged – she laid traps and licked her lips as I stumbled into them, I’d wink as I caught her in logical inconsistencies. An only child, she had been adopted, and it clung to her the way my childhood shadowed me – she still had her demons in
her contact list. Nearly as tall as me, with sensual hips and large, powerful legs, she walked calmly yet confidently, aware of the power that connected her to the ground beneath her.
When we slept together it was like putting a mongoose and a rattlesnake in a burlap sack, shaking it up, and throwing it on a bed. Only a few months into our relationship, I bought a new set of sheets – we’d torn a hole in the middle of my old ones.
Our fights looked a lot like our sex – windows had to be shut before either. There was laughing and screaming, silent sensual stares followed by demonic possessions. Nocturnal exorcisms followed by mid-morning resurrections. Canines and claws. Marks that only became visible when sunlight tiptoed back over the window seals. Joy. Love. Reckoning. Revelling. There was weeping, yelling, and much gnashing of teeth.
K made me feel strong. Confident. She encouraged me to sing more and show her more writing. When I’d sing along with Thom Yorke in the car, falsetto matching falsetto, she’d ask me not to turn the song off until it was done.
“Keep going,” she’d say. “Sing to me baby.”
She said I was always guarded when we’d first meet for a date. Every time. I wouldn’t make eye contact while we met in public. Instead, I’d look around, vigilant of our surroundings, watching for possible threats, some vestigial piece of growing up military. It wasn’t until we were alone at her place or mine that I’d start to take my Kevlar off.
“There he is,” she’d say after kissing me.
I’d look away while rolling my eyes. I’d smile.
“Hey big guy.”
Once, while we were having sex, tears started to form in her eyes. I was on top of her, and she placed her hands gently on the sides of my face.
“When we have sex, I think things but don’t say them. Things I want to say to you,” she said.
“You look at me when we’re having sex.” We kept moving. Her eyebrows became soft and curled over her eyes. Soft tears began to fall from the corners of her eyes.
“You look at me,” she said. “Jesus Christ, Jonathan. Once the armor comes off, you look at me.”
We were at a bookstore, sitting and talking at the café, drinking hot tea, which we sipped slowly.
“So what did you learn on all these meditation retreats?” I asked. “If there was one thing?”
Her eyes focused and she looked around the café, at people, out the window, down at the table, as if she were examining the earth’s core. She cupped her tea in both hands, and blew on it before taking a sip.
“I think the biggest thing that stuck with me was about my demons – being adopted, fear of being abandoned. But those demons, those fears, they’re also angels. The only difference is me, and what name I call them by. And sometimes,” she took another sip of tea, “I have to
remind myself to have compassion for those parts of myself. Those darker parts, ya know? I have to remember to make my demons some tea too.”
Maybe it was a little too comfortable. Maybe, if we had met at different times in our lives, things would have turned out differently. But we fought. She believed in a God I no longer could. She could become distant so quickly, especially when threatened – just like I did every time we moved to a new army base. She said things that cut, that hurt, that could have been prevented with only a few moments of thinking – I did the same. In the beginning I was overwhelmed with the euphoria of meeting someone new, and the emotions that come from recognizing pieces of yourself in another person. Finding a tribe, returning home. But by the end, in less than a year, it had changed. I recognized too much.
Because my father was Army, we moved every few years. I left every friend I had, or they left me. I was too good at goodbyes, and learned to cut people off to protect myself – before they could finish the sentence to tell me they were moving, I could wrap Kevlar around my heart in order to brace for the blow. Dad also went to multiple wars, during which I went to bed every night wondering if he’d be killed while I slept and every day at school wondering if he’d die before I got home.
Shared vulnerability brought us together – kindred insecurities broke us apart. Sometimes, it felt as if fear of abandonment was the thing keeping us together. Our silences, which at first had been filled with potential profundity, were now just silence – darkening the space between us. What was once fertile had become barren.
Though we never compared belt notches, I knew she had slept with more people than I had. This intimidated me. I was afraid I wasn’t good enough in bed, that I wasn’t man enough for all the woman.
She was insecure about her weight, and often made comments about how much she was going to lose weight, cut out carbs, no more desserts. Sometimes she’d talk about a baby, and how it would find warmth in her extra weight.
“Isn’t that what a baby would want?” she’d ask.
I didn’t respond. Instead, I nodded silently while avoiding eye contact, and stayed behind my skin. Commitment scared me because it meant attachment. All the moving, the wars, it added up to a feeling that attachment was dangerous. To be avoided. And babies meant commitment. They meant attaching. And that meant the pain of being left.
She wanted kids. I didn’t. At least, when the thought of kids with her came into my mind, it didn’t feel right. All the fury and fire started to burn us. The velocity that had quickly propelled us into love wasn’t enough. We didn’t have enough momentum to clear the atmosphere, and so, after a while, we fell back to earth, flames wrapped around us both. The songs were wrong. Love wasn’t enough.
Having a child was flagged on our dating profiles as incompatible, but we both overlooked it, our initial pull had been too strong. We thought we could swing the other to our way of seeing things, her explaining how I could still chase all my dreams and be a father, me trying to explain how no one I knew chased dreams while being a parent – they put their dreams into their children, and hoped their kids would ascend the mountains they were too tired to climb. For months we continued to look past the thought of a child. It was just another theoretical debate we’d have to figure out eventually, and so we ignored it. Until we couldn’t.
When we entered her apartment, she didn’t waste time.
“It shouldn’t take long,” she said. K took the bag from my hands and took out the pregnancy test, and headed into the bathroom.
“Do you want me to come in?” I asked.
“No,” she said quickly.
I think we hugged before she went in, but I don’t remember us kissing.
She went in and closed the door behind her. I went into her room, sat at the foot of the bed, and waited. We had talked about it. Would we get married? Raise the child? Just be apart? What if we each met someone else? What if we didn’t work out? Would we just be parents to our child, and not partners?
Because she had been adopted, one of the things she wanted most in the world was to have a child. Not someone else’s. She wanted to give life. She wanted to be a part of the earth’s cycle. She wanted to be home for a young soul.
The lock on the bathroom door snapped, and I rose slowly off the bed. She came out looking at the ground, holding her arms low across the top of her stomach.
“I’m not pregnant.”
She leaned against the doorframe of the bathroom and began to cry. As I moved close to hug her, she put both of her hands up and made fists, tight to her chest. I waited there with my arms open. And when she was ready, after many deep breaths and tears at arm’s length, she opened her fists, put them on my chest, and allowed me into her space.
We held each other and wept – for things as they were, things that would not be, and the distance that would always exist between the two.
About a week later, we broke up, and I did most of the breaking. The pregnancy frightened me – it brought us too close, too fast. I was afraid that if I didn’t push her away, our lives could become so inextricably braided, I’d be unable to keep my distance from her.
We were sitting in my car outside of her apartment. She talked about being abandoned, and wondered if someone would eventually want her.
“…and then maybe, one day I’ll find someone who wants me…” she trailed off.
“…of course you will…”
“Then why don’t YOU want me, Jonathan?”
I’M AFRAID. What if all that distance dad brought back from the wars, what if I give it to my kids?
“You want kids, I don’t,” I said.
What if the moves and the wars have made it so I’ll never be vulnerable with anyone?
While she yelled and cried from the passenger seat, I kept looking around us – unable to voice the things I was really thinking. I watched a cat cleaning itself in a window. I watched the trees sway in the wind. She kept looking at me, her eyes vulnerable and seeking, mine distant and cold. I knew my Kevlar would melt if I looked her in the eye.
What if I’m not a good dad? What if I’m too distant? What if I can’t attach to my own kids?
I stayed silent through the “but baby’s” and “what if’s” and the “maybe-we-could’s” and the “wasn’t any of it reals.” Her eyes were pain and joy and sorrow and tenderness and fury and wrath and solace and love and war and crying and laughter and home. Eventually, she waved a white flag, and met my armor with her own. Her voice became cold, distant.
“Did you love me or not, Jonathan?” she asked flatly.
Of course, I do baby. I just…
I took a deep breath and prepared to make eye contact. I feared that speaking and involving my diaphragm and lungs and throat and mouth and lips, the words and emotions would become too real, and they might follow the trail back to my heart, and start a chain reaction I’d be unable to control. I turned in my seat and finally looked at her, but couldn’t speak.
“I do love you,” my silent eyes responded.
“Then what are you so afraid of? We have a baby? We start a life together? We’re gonna fuck up, it’s okay, that’s what parents do, but I at least want to try.”
I turned away and looked out the driver’s side window without saying anything.
“Why won’t you look at me?” She repeated it. “Say something!”
If I look at you…I’m so sorry K. I’m so sorry. I don’t wanna leave you. But I don’t know how to be vulnerable. I don’t know how to attach.
She started to cry.
Don’t cry baby. Don’t cry.
The sound of her crying caused my lips to shiver, but I did my best to push back my own tears. I put one of my hands on her shoulder and bit the inside of my cheek. After a while, with her arms crossed, she looked out the passenger side window and spoke quietly, almost as if she were alone in the car.
“I know you love me, you’re just fucking scared. That stuff from your childhood is killing you. You have to get over the shit with your dad and the wars. You have to stop running or you’re gonna be alone forever. Is that what you want? Armored and alone, scared to love? Deal with your fucking past Jonathan. Get over your shit before you break someone else’s heart. You shouldn’t be with anyone in the state you’re in.”
When it was over, we hugged in the front seat of the car.
“I’ll always love you,” I said my voice nearly cracking. “One day you’ll find a guy who will want to have kids.”
Cut her off.
“Yep, if someone wants me.”
“No, you will, someone will want you so much.” I put my hand on her leg, trying to reassure her. “You’re so awesome and beautiful and smart, you’d be a great wife. A great mother.”
Cut her off now.
She looked at me, as if to ask, then why?
I shook my head and looked away.
Leave her now.
“Stay in touch, then,” she said.
No, you won’t.
As she walked to her apartment, she held her arms wrapped around her stomach. When she got to the door, she waved. I waved back. She turned and went into her house.
Start the car.
I started the car.
I drove two blocks to be sure she wouldn’t see me, pulled against the curb, and turned off the car. As the engine gave way to silence, I found myself alone, godless, and surrounded – I quit believing in God during college, but I still believe in demons. I could feel them coming up both sides of the street, skulking under fences, coming up through street drains.
We’re at minimum safe distance to cry.
The smell of abandonment, depression, suicide, war and death filled the car like smoke, causing me to take shallow and rapid breaths.
She can’t hurt us now. We’re okay.
Memories of war and friends left behind ripped the air from my lungs.
We left her before she could leave us.
“I’m so sorry Kim…”
The tears I’d been holding back for hours finally came.
“I’m so sorry,” I mumbled as I began to sob.
I leaned forward and bit down on the steering wheel until the veins in my neck bulged. With my jaws clenched, I took the deepest breath I could and screamed until the ringing in my ears became louder than the voices in the car.