By Taylor Byas
Content Warning: Mentions of Eating Disorders and Abusive Relationships
While scrolling through Instagram, I come across a picture of a woman’s stomach, glitter painted over her stretchmarks in different colors. The caption reads, Love yourself. At first glance, it looks like colorful trees sprouting from the elastic band of her leggings. Inspired, I put down my phone to pull my bin of painting supplies from underneath my bed. Once I find my glow-in-the-dark paint and a few thin paintbrushes, I lock myself in the bathroom.
I spend 30 minutes meticulously painting the purplish stretchmarks on my hips and lower back. When I finish, I fan the paint with my hands to speed up the drying process. Then I turn off the lights. In the darkness, my hips light up in neon green and orange. Tiny lightning bolts float like ghosts as I twist and turn in the mirror. I track faded fingerprints glowing on my upper chest and on my jaw where I touched myself with paint without realizing. When I turn the lights back on, the stretchmarks are still there, but the contrast of their color seems less harsh against my skin than they did before.
When I go back to my bedroom and put my painting supplies away for the night, I get into bed without washing away the paint so I can glow well into the night. I pick my phone back up and look at the woman’s glittered stripes. I double-tap the image to like it.
As a young black girl, my early standards of beauty were curated from my favorite tv shows and magazines. My 9-year-old obsession with America’s Next Top Model and Martin positioned Tyra Banks and Tisha Campbell-Martin as the pinnacles of sex appeal in my mind. To watch them was to know that beauty was attainable, that it was something I already possessed in the color of my skin.
When America’s Next Top Model came on, I scrambled to my white bedroom dresser, its paint chipping to reveal the dark wood underneath. I practiced “smizing” in the mirror with Tyra’s instructions in the background. Fierce, I parroted to my reflection while narrowing my eyes as Tyra did, pushing the hair away from my face to emphasize my forehead. And then I practiced the classic model poses. Arched my back to thin the torso, put hands on the hips for an extra pop. At night, my mother sat up and watched two back-to-back episodes of Martin with me from 10:35 to 11:35 PM. We did this so often that we memorized the words to multiple rerun episodes, echoed them back to the screen. Tisha Campbell-Martin’s on-screen character, Gina, was always donned in skintight evening gowns and pencil skirts that highlighted her curves. She had big thighs and hips like my mother and my aunts, like I would have in the coming years. One night, after my mother turned the tv off and went to bed, some commercial’s afterimage was still fading to black on the screen. I practiced walking like Gina in the pitch-black of my bedroom while whispering swish into the dark with each step, a stand-in for the sound of fabric moving over my hips.
Of course I’d seen the glossy covers of magazines in their black racks in the checkout aisles at grocery stores. A young, blonde Scarlett Johansson with her lips barely parted on the cover of Elle, and right next to her face, It’s Good to Be Scarlett Johansson in yellow and white. Next to it, a white couple embracing on the cover of TIME Magazine’s Special Issue in January of 2004 with How Your Love Life Keeps You Healthy in large text. But these weren’t the magazines I cherished.
I flipped through the crumpled editions stacked high on tables and floors in hair salon and braiding-shop waiting areas. I came to love Essence, the neon pink Black Hair and Hype Hair covers with afros, braids, weaves. Even more, I was captivated by the spreads on the insides featuring makeup that popped against the skin, bright reds and oranges, emeralds and golds packed onto eyelids and lips. My mother always waited with me until I was called to my salon chair, and in those waiting areas we ooohed and aaaahhed over hairstyles as ornate and high as multi-tiered wedding cakes, braids that snaked down past the model’s feet. These black women were goddesses, their hair made into fashion, accessories. Every shade of brown skin glistened like a trophy.
I often think back to those moments now, when all I wanted was enough curve, enough butt to stop a man in his tracks, to make him say Daaamnn the way Martin does to Gina in multiple episodes. How I was so excited to sit in the chair for 10 hours while an African woman braided my hair and offered me some of her catfish doused in hot sauce when we hit hour 5. How I thought wanting to be like the black women in the magazines instead of Scarlett on the cover of Elle was some sort of self-love. But I was always wanting more, more of something that I didn’t have, more of something that I might not love even if I ever got it.
By the time I was in the 8th grade, I had been playing volleyball for 3 years. One night, as I lounged on the couch in my school’s navy gym shorts, my mother playfully pinched the side of my exposed thighs as she passed me on her way to the kitchen. I jumped out of reflex and whined her name as she laughed and escaped my swat.
“Mooooommm! That hurt,” I lied.
“I didn’t even get you all the way! And you know I’m messing. Your legs are getting muscular from all that squatting you do. Getting those Johnson legs,” she half-laughed, half-yelled from the kitchen.
“Girl, those WHAT?”
The “Johnson legs” was an endearing family nickname for big legs. Sporting my grandfather’s surname, the phrase was coined in honor of his bottom-heavy build, the thick thighs and chiseled calves on his 5’ 2” frame. My mother explained to me that I wasn’t the only one who would carry the nickname.
“I got ‘em, both my sisters have ‘em. Your dad got ‘em too, but don’t tell him I said that,” she joked. When she returned from the kitchen and sat next to me on the couch, I repositioned myself so that my head was in her lap. Out of habit her hands went to my hair, and her fingers lazed through the paths of exposed scalp between my braids. Her nightgown smelled like Ivory soap and remnants of Chinese takeout we’d eaten that night, and I closed my eyes as she started to scratch my scalp. We often passed this ritual in silence, my satisfied sighs the only thing to pulse the air. But this time, moments after her fingers paused their work, she said, “They’re beautiful, you know. Your legs. That was a compliment, what I said earlier.”
I nuzzled my face further into her lap, her own thighs soft and full against my cheek, muffling my response. “I know ma, I know.”
In high school, I started to pursue volleyball more seriously, eventually wanting to be recruited to play in college. My mother signed me up for a club team that practiced and participated in tournaments when my school season ended. This way, I was playing volleyball year-round.
The club season was more physically demanding than the school season, incorporating jump-training and weight-lifting into our weekly sessions. Jump training consisted of laps around the facility’s track at full-speed, timed wall-sits, ladders, weight balls, jump ropes, and jump boxes. Because of my position as a libero (my team’s main defensive player), I was almost always in a squatting position on the court. By the end of my sophomore year in high school, I was bottom heavy, my legs much thicker than my top half. I was leg-pressing 250 pounds, the heaviest weight anyone on my team could handle.
As a result of my legs growing so quickly, I developed light stretch marks across my upper thighs, my hips, and my butt. Every morning after my shower, I traced them in the mirror, becoming obsessed with their spread. But they were so light I had to get close to the mirror to see them, and I reasoned that there could be nothing ugly about something I could hardly see.
Then I would thank God for my thighs, for the body I’d dreamed of as a 9-year-old. For the way my legs looked in my khaki pants, for the way my butt filled out my volleyball spandex. For the way my boyfriend brought his friends to my home games after their football practice, and how they audibly praised my shape when I went back to serve the ball. For the way my best friend shook her head at my reflection in dressing room mirrors. For the way she would tell me, as I hopped and wiggled into a pair of jeans, “I would kill for a body like yours.”
It was easy to love myself in the face of constant approval, in the face of my boyfriend’s and my best friend’s compliments. It was easy to forget my creeping discomfort with the thin greyish stretchmarks that were sprouting over the middle of my body like ivy.
In high school diary entries I wrote frequently about the nicknames and jokes about my legs my volleyball teammates came up with on the bus rides to and from our games.
Someone said that I’m a brick wall, that if you run into me I won’t budge because my legs are so strong.
The team agrees that if someone needs to be kicked, I’m the one to call.
Although I did get recruited to play volleyball in college, I accepted a full academic scholarship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and decided I didn’t want to balance school and full-time athletics. It was at the beginning of my second semester of college that I met a new man named Dave. My high school boyfriend and I had split at the beginning of the fall semester, and over the winter break of 2013, Dave started messaging me on Twitter. We spent the break talking on the phone for hours and video chatting, and eventually we decided to meet on UAB’s campus when I returned for the spring semester.
In January of 2014 he strolled up to an old dorm building, hands in his pocket, sporting a thick sweater the color of fresh blood slicking out of a deep papercut. I remember that it only zipped halfway. He had black, curly hair I could run my fingers straight through and a tattoo of a lion on his right bicep. He never fully buttoned up his shirts because he liked the way his chest hair peeked out underneath. His facial hair was impeccable, lines cut so fresh that I could still see traces of talcum powder. Nothing was out of place, every part of him meticulously arranged and positioned.
The first few weeks of dating were a rush of excitement. We bowled, skated, fell out in the indoor trampoline parks. He pronounced the number seven like “seh-uhm” and wasn’t afraid to dance and sing in traffic with the windows down. He was mature enough to pay all of his bills days ahead yet child-like enough to stay up with me until 1 AM, cursing as we played Call of Duty on the PlayStation. After those first few weeks, I decided to tell my mother about him. I sent her one of my favorite pictures of him. She replied with a phone call within seconds.
“Does he have a brother?” she squealed into the phone.
“Yeah he does, but ion think you want him girl,” I laughed. Now when me and my mother talked, we sounded like two old friends over margaritas (only because wine would be too light for the conversations we had). So on the phone I told her everything about Dave.
“He’s 22. He has his Bachelor’s degree already. He works for a car part manufacturing company and travels a lot,” I blabbered, trying to expel every detail I had collected.
“So he’s older? That’s nice. It will be good to have some stability while you’re going through school.”
“And girl, he fine.”
“I saw that! Look at the arms on that man,” my mother cosigned. The shuffling I heard on the phone confirmed my suspicion that she was searching for the picture I’d sent minutes earlier.
“He’s so sweet, mom. We do something every weekend. He spoils me.”
“He better. That’s what you deserve. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy baby.” And that was true. My mother and I had a special, spiritual connection. Even though there were almost 600 miles between Birmingham and Chicago, she could always sense when I wasn’t doing well. My mother’s mother also had dreams about me that always came true; the women in my family had always been supernaturally connected. But what mattered was that my mother had given Dave her stamp of approval, and because my mother approved, my father had no choice but to go along with her assessment. I hung up the phone with my parent’s blessing.
A week after we met, I started writing about him in my diary. In the first entry that features his name, the helpless romantic inside of me showing herself.
I can see myself falling in love with him already. I know no one is perfect, but he seems to come pretty close.
After my first year of college, I gained weight. Because I was no longer working out every week in volleyball practices or trainings, my metabolism slowed. My dorm’s closeness to the 24-hour diner on campus didn’t really help my case either. By the beginning of my sophomore year in undergrad, I had put on 10 pounds, settling around 140. While there was no significant change in my figure, I started to develop stretchmarks that were different from the ones I knew and had grown used to. The new stretchmarks were thick, raised, and multiple shades darker than my skin tone. They looked like permanent scabs marring my hips. These, I couldn’t stare at in the mirror every morning, and avoided looking at as much as possible.
On a humid night in July of 2014, Dave and I lazed around in his old bedroom at his mother’s house. I drove the hour to Anniston, AL every weekend to visit her and to go to church with Dave on Sundays. His mother was consistently undergoing multiple eye surgeries against her doctor’s wishes as she struggled to accept that she was losing her eyesight. As a result, she spent weeks on end in surgical recovery, laying in bed face-down to speed up her eyes’ healing. Because her sight was poor she hardly cleaned the house. Large roaches and overfed centipedes lived comfortably beneath the faux wooden tiles she’d had glued to the floor years ago. The corners of the tiles were now peeling up and at night, the bugs came out to explore. His mother also lived in an enduring film of grease. Even the silk sheets on Dave’s bed left patches of sheen on us when we left.
We were watching old reruns of America’s Got Talent, spooned together in the room’s heat. I was in an oversized UAB t-shirt and old volleyball spandex when Dave started to massage the dark purple stretchmarks vining up my hips. I swatted his hand away.
“Don’t touch those,” I said, hiking my spandex up to cover them. Dave pried my hands away and stared at them, one eyebrow raised.
“What’s wrong with ‘em?” he asked. He went back to massaging the skin, ignoring my original protest. I moved his hands again.
“I don’t like them.”
“Why not? They’re normal. You got ‘em because you’re built like a Coke bottle. Nothing wrong with that.”
“But they’re ugly. Looks like I have lightning bolts tattooed all around my waist. I wish they weren’t so dark.”
“I like ‘em. They’re a part of you.” Again, he went back to massaging them. This time I didn’t stop him.
Over the next eight months, Dave’s comfort with my body increased my own. I didn’t search for new marks in the shower, and I no longer hid the ones I had. I wore more crop tops and showed off my stomach. Dave bought a professional camera and took photos of me often. When I scrolled through the photos, I was always happy, relaxed. I posed like the models Tyra Banks mentored. “Fierce,” I said in my head before I heard the familiar shutter of his lens, before he gave me a thumbs up and I changed positions.
In March of 2015, Dave and I had been together for over a year. We decided to move in together when he got a job offer at the AT&T Call Center in Birmingham. When I called my mother to tell her about the decision, caution overshadowed her excitement.
“That’s a big step. You sure?” she breathed into the phone. I imagined my father being near and looking up at my mother, brow furrowed, silently demanding further explanation.
“I’m sure, ma.”
“You’re just so young.” She paused, trying to reel in an oncoming lecture. “But as long you’re happy I’m happy.”
“I’m happy,” I smiled.
“What about birth control?” my mother queried right above a whisper. I dissolved into a full-throated laugh, imagining the look on my father’s face if he’d heard that one.
Over the next few weeks I researched the different types of birth control. Reviews of the Depo-Provero shot told horror stories of weight gain, and having to get the injection every three months made it a less desirable option. I read the insertion process of an IUD and closed the tab as quickly as I opened it. The pill had so many options, and I calculated that I would probably have to try two of three different types before I found one that wouldn’t make me sick. Finally, I discovered the Nexplanon implant. My arm would be numbed during the insertion, and I could forget it was there for the next three years. And so the decision was made.
The insertion was a relatively painless affair that left an indigo bruise the size of a half dollar. The nurse practitioner informed me that I would probably stop having periods completely for two of the three years. I relished in that news. She warned me about potential weight gain, but my preliminary research revealed that weight gain was less common with this form of birth control than others, so I wasn’t too worried. I left the office with a tan surgical bandage around my left bicep and an awkward warning from the doctor, “Make sure you wait seven days before any…activity.”
Dave and I apartment hunted for weeks. He came to each apartment with only one requirement; a large closet for his ever-growing collection of clothes and shoes. I came to each apartment with a folder of sleek brochures and a notepad I’d filled with t-charts for comparison. I was on a mission to find the perfect balance between a kitchen I could move around in and a large master bedroom. I ended up having to compromise on the kitchen, but we finally moved into a one-bedroom apartment we both loved. I made paintings to put on the walls. His acoustic guitar and my electric violin sat against the wall in the living room, often serving more as decorations that instruments. We settled on bright red, suede couches that turned to a shade of wine or cherry red depending on which direction you rubbed it. The living room tables and bedroom furniture were black. Dave gave me free reign to pick out accent pieces.
“You’re the more creative one,” he said. “As long as it doesn’t have glitter, I can handle it.” I picked out cream and gold accent pillows, bought black sheets with a grey and red plaid comforter set for the queen bed. I made it a home.
Before we moved in together, Dave had been living in Anniston with his mother. Our visits had been limited to weekends and to the few weeknights when one of us was up to make the drive well after 5 in the evening. As a result, I had no real idea of how much time Dave spent working out. When we were unpacking in the new apartment, I watched Dave’s muscled arms in his tank top as he cut open an unmarked box and filled a corner in our bedroom with workout equipment. Dumbbells, kettlebells, neon exercise bands and thin black jump ropes littered the space. My mouth popped open when I saw the mess.
“You use all of this?” I challenged. It wasn’t really a question. I put my hands on my hips and rolled my neck a little for extra effect.
“It’s not all for me. I bought some of that for you,” he replied.
“But I didn’t ask for any of this.”
“It’s so we can work out together. I’ll use the weights, you can use the bands and the jump ropes,” he suggested. I looked down at my flat stomach.
“I mean, it’s not like I’m struggling over here.” My weight had been pretty steady after my freshman year gains. I now hovered between 140 and 142 pounds regularly. “You didn’t have to buy all of this.” I eyed the workout bands and rope, waiting for him to agree and to offer to return the equipment to the store.
“You can never be too in shape. It’ll be fun, you’ll see.” He kissed my cheek so hard that I almost lost my balance. He quickly jogged to the living room, and as I listened to him cut through packing tape with his keys, I crossed my arms and gave one of the jump ropes a half-hearted kick.
When reading diary entries from this time in my life, I realize that this moment was the beginning of a definite shift in our relationship. In the entry from this day, I rambled on for a few pages about the beauty of the apartment before stumbling into the feelings crouching behind my excitement, before the entry bottomed out to panic and frantic questions.
But what the hell was up with all of that equipment? When I told him I didn’t need it, he didn’t listen to me. It bothers me that be just…bought it for me. He’s never suggested that I need to work out before. Does he think I need it? Does he think I’m gaining more weight? Is it because of my stretchmarks? Do I need to work out???
The entry for the next day gaslights the version of myself from the day before.
I was overreacting. He was just being thoughtful. I should be grateful that he thinks of me.
We started working out together in the apartment. Three nights a week Dave would do 150 pushups with ease while I rasped through 3 minutes of jumping rope. I would always step on the rope and the black plastic would welt up my thighs and arms. Because I would often pause my self-directed workouts to watch him as he worked out shirtless, Dave eventually started to give me circuit exercises. When he wasn’t looking I would skip a set or shave off reps and tell him I’d finished early. Three nights a week turned into four. Four eventually became five.
A little over a year later, in July of 2016, Dave bought a scale for the bathroom, an electric one that flashed the numbers even after you stepped off it. He wanted me to keep track of my weight and to even log the numbers in a notebook. I never logged them, but weigh-ins did become a part of my everyday routine. I started weighing myself because even though I was working out, I had started to consistently gain weight. I kept these changes in weight a secret, worried that Dave would increase the intensity and length of my workouts if I told him. Since we’d started working out almost a year ago, I’d slowly put on 15 pounds. I’d gone up a bra and jean size under the radar so far. But I knew Dave would notice eventually.
He noticed, and without ever saying a word he made it very clear that he had. When he made dinner runs, he ignored my food requests and brought me salads instead. He switched out all my favorite drinks for zero-calorie flavor packets that were to be emptied into water bottles. He stopped working out while I did and instead became a watch guard. He continued to count my sets for me, timed my jump rope stints with the stopwatch on his phone. He didn’t start his own pushups until I was spent on the carpet, breathless and sore. I can remember the outline of his shadow on the carpet as he stood over me while I did pushups. I lost my privilege to count my own sets, so he barked the numbers out like a drill sergeant. Yet I continued to gain weight.
By January of 2017, I’d put on a total of 40 pounds.
By January of 2017, Dave didn’t touch my stretchmarks.
By January of 2017, he started to spend his entire weekends drinking with his friends well past 2 am. He would fall into bed fully clothed, sometimes with his keys still in his pocket. He got away with not touching me for days this way.
Frustrated with my persistent weight gain, I gave up working out and eating healthy. I would sneak and eat fast food during the day while Dave was at work, hiding the bags under a blanket I kept in the backseat of my car. The times when Dave would make the short trip to Atlanta with his friends on the weekends, I would have already laid out which unhealthy foods I would devour while he was gone. I had a list of workouts I could send to him when he asked me what exercise I’d done for the day, even though I knew I wouldn’t sweat a drop. I became an expert at hiding my shame.
In a diary entry written in February of 2017, I wrote:
It’s like I’m trying to eat all of the things he won’t let me eat out of spite. But it feels good, and it’s something to look forward to. Is it odd that I consider my food keeping me company, that it gets rid of the loneliness?
And in the next paragraph:
How pathetic am I?
It would be at least another year before I finally put a name to the monster that had started to take hold of me in that earlier entry. In March of 2018 I brought my diary to the dinner table with a new pack of gel pens, still unopened. I selected the bright pink because I wanted the day’s entry to stand out from the black ink I usually wrote in. Then, hunched over the page, I copied the definition straight from the National Eating Disorder Association website. I wrote it in the cursive I reserved only for important documents:
Binge eating disorder (BED) is a severe, life-threatening, and treatable eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort);
The faint hum of the air conditioning kicked on to drown out the sound of the pen gliding over the paper.
a feeling of a loss of control during the binge; experiencing shame, distress or guilt afterwards; and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (e.g., purging) to counter the binge eating.
I paused to shake out the cramp in my hand, as I hadn’t written in cursive in months.
It is the most common eating disorder in the United States.
After I copied the definition, I switched back to my regular black pen. Underneath the definition, a line down and in print, I wrote;
I still binge-eat to this day. How do I make it all go away?
By March of 2017 my weight had leveled out. I stayed between 170 and 175 pounds no matter what I ate or how much I exercised. Confused by this sudden change, I typed phrase after phrase into Google’s search bar:
- Unexplained weight gain
- Gain weight then stop suddenly
- Weight gain and birth control implant
After a while, I concluded that my birth control implant was most likely the source of the weight gain. And while that did give me some relief, I was still stuck with 40 extra pounds. None of my jeans fit anymore, and I was too embarrassed to shop for new ones, especially since I no longer knew my size. My wardrobe now consisted of mainly leggings and loose fitting t-shirts, oversized flannels and sweatshirts. I was too self-conscious to wear anything else.
My mother was tapped into my emotional duress. She checked on me often, hoping that I would give something away even though she could easily guess what was wrong if she wanted. She’d noticed my change in weight too, which was even more dramatic as my mother’s body remained fit. She could still fit into a size 4 jean, and by now I no longer knew my size. But she sensed that my weight was a sensitive topic and avoided it. My dad, on the other hand, was eager to point out the changes in my body whenever I flew home to visit, even though his own stomach bulged over the top of his pants and his own face grew rounder with my visits.
“You need to watch your weight. You’re not eating too much red meat are you?” he would ask. I would smile, let him pull me in for a one arm hug and a kiss to my temple.
“No papa bear, I’m not eating too much,” I’d say.
By now me and Dave’s relationship was extremely strained. He continued to bring fast food home and encouraged me to eat better while scarfing down cheeseburgers in front of me. There was no intimacy when we had sex; I was a doll staring at the ceiling while he satisfied himself. I stopped complaining about him spending so much time away on the weekends, as his absence was now a welcome relief from his suffocation. When he left, I ate and read and enjoyed the silence. When he stayed home on the weekends, he invited his friends over and they smoked marijuana in the kitchen. The smell stuck to my hair and to the furniture.
On March 18th, Dave went out with his friends and came home a little after 3:30 AM. I undressed him, tucked him in, and set a glass of water and two Advil on his nightstand for when he woke up in case I was already gone to work. At 4 AM, he rushed to the bathroom, vomiting the Cantina nachos he’d eaten from a local food truck, completely missing the toilet. I led him back to bed and armed myself with cleaning supplies, paper towels, and a bandana doused with perfume to tie over my nose. Just as I finished cleaning the mess he’d made in the bathroom, I heard him shoot out of bed and fumble with the front door lock. By the time I made it out of the bathroom and into the front hall, he was outside of the apartment in his underwear, throwing up on the pavement in front of our door. Vomit had made it onto the light switch in our front hall and had dribbled down into his red Vans on the floor underneath. It was the first time he’d ever gotten that drunk.
After putting him to bed for the third and final time, and finally cleaning up the multiple messes he left in his wake, I took his phone and stole away into the living room. I didn’t bother being quiet, knowing he was out cold and wouldn’t wake up if I shook him. With him spending so much time away from home, I wondered if he always told the truth about his nighttime adventures. I knew that by searching his phone I was setting myself up to find something, and I knew I had to deal with whatever I found. I searched his text messages, the direct messages on his social media apps. They were both full of conversations with different women, flirting, making plans to meet, some discussing the execution of those plans. I broke into a cold sweat but powered through, collecting all the evidence I could. When I finished scouring his messages, something pushed me to go through his pictures.
The diary entry I wrote after this discovery was all fragments, my clean and loopy script reduced to messy scrawl. Although I know what it says (because I will always remember this night), I still hold the notebook up to my face and squint to decipher the exact words.
Pictures. 20, 30. Pictures of other women. Pictures of him with other women. Naked. In beds. Naked in our bed. And they look like me. Their bodies. Their bodies look like mine. Their complexions. They look like me. But they don’t have stretchmarks. That’s the only difference. They look like me, but they aren’t me. Their hips are clear. No stretchmarks.
After seeing the pictures, I quietly returned his phone to his nightstand, plugged it up to the charger. I dragged the extra blanket out to the couch and passed the night by watching the light from an outside lamp post spill through our blinds and onto my legs. The pill-bottle orange eventually faded to a light blue. In the morning, he emerged from our bedroom, holding his hands over his temples. When he saw me, he sighed with relief.
“I thought you’d left for work already,” he said. “Why didn’t you sleep in the bed?”
I was too tired to think. When I replied, my voice came out flatter than I intended, more robotic than I knew I was capable of sounding. “Just fell asleep after cleaning. I didn’t want to wake you. How do you feel?”
For months, I planned my escape in silence. I started to pack my clothes, using the excuse of wanting to put things in storage to keep him from getting suspicious. As I watched boxes pile up in the corner of our bedroom, I felt like I was moving backwards in time, a reversal of Dave cutting boxes open on our first night in the new place. I looked for apartments while he was at work, making sure to delete my searches before he returned. At the beginning of August, I went home to Chicago for two weeks, and while I was home, I signed the lease for a new apartment. Upon my return to Birmingham, I picked up the keys to my new place, and returned to our apartment to tell Dave I was moving out. He stood in the kitchen as I sat stone-faced on the couch, waiting for him to react.
“Are you sure?” he asked. His hands were spread out on the kitchen counter in front of him, his head down as he refused to look at me. The necklace I bought him in the first year of our relationship, his half of our matching Mizpah coins, dangled in front of his face.
“I already have a place. I signed the lease so I couldn’t go back on my decision. I knew I would be tempted.” My new keys jingled in my hand as I sat back on the couch and crossed my legs.
“So this is it?” he asked, looking me in the face for confirmation. I broke eye contact and looked around and all of the paintings of mine on the walls, focusing on the cartoon portrait of him I made for his last birthday. Somehow, he no longer looked anything like the portrait.
“Can you help me put my boxes in my car?”
The first thing I bought for my new apartment was a full-body mirror to go on my bedroom door. As I spent my first night alone in my new place, I undressed in front of the mirror and looked at my stretchmarks. I ran my hands over them, felt their ridges for the first time in a long time. In the shower, I spent extra time lathering soap over that area. That night, when I went to bed, I cried onto new sheets as I let myself feel the ridges of my stretchmarks against my palms. I realized it had been over a year since I purposely touched them. I couldn’t sleep in the middle of the bed, my body still used to being on one side. So I slept facing the empty space on the other side, as if I was looking a ghost in the eyes. Every day afterwards, I tried my best to feel my stretchmarks every night, to remember that they were there, that they were a part of me. Some nights, I fell asleep with my fingers tracing their outlines.
A few months ago I went home to Chicago for a weekend to visit my high school best friend, JeTaun, and her 4-year-old daughter Aliya, who sees me as her second mother. As I sat on the floor and let Aliya climb up my back, my shirt rode up, exposing the tops of the stretchmarks on my hips. Aliya caught sight of them and pulled my shirt up even more out of curiosity. “What are those?” Out of instinct I snatched my shirt back down, my eyes wide with embarrassment. But when I saw her face, and saw that there was no disgust but only a childlike curiosity, I thought back to my younger self in front of the tv, flipping through magazines, all of the different forms of beauty that I saw. And then I think about the types of beauty that I didn’t see, and how my life might have been different if I had seen it.
So I pull my shirt back up and I show her. “They’re stretchmarks,” I tell her. “A lot of women have them.”
“Can I touch it?” she asks.
“Go ahead.” She runs her little finger over one, then two. Then she laughs. “It feels funny.” Her giggle dissolves into a full laugh and I laugh with her.
“It does feel funny,” I tell her. “But they don’t hurt. They look like scars but I don’t even feel them.” And then she surprises me.
“I think they’re pretty,” she says, touching them again. “They’re like tiger stripes!”
I tickle her sides and she falls into my lap. I gather her up in my arms and hold her like she’s a newborn again. “Like tiger stripes, huh? I like that. Tiger stripes.”
Taylor Byas is a Black poet and essayist from Chicago. She currently lives in Cincinnati, where she is a second year PhD student and Albert C. Yates Scholar at the University of Cincinnati. She is also a reader for both The Rumpus and The Cincinnati Review, and the Poetry Editor for Flypaper Lit. Her work appears or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Hobart, Pidgeonholes, The Rumpus, SWWIM, Jellyfish Review, Empty Mirror, and others.