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The Elephants

Safe

Jen Cross

It ends here, she told him.

She stood at the doorway with a suitcase at her ankles and a hastily-stuffed duffel bag slung over her shoulder. She stood next to the bed with a kitchen knife in her hand, the raw silk robe he'd bought her for Christmas that year falling open, untied. She grasped the phone receiver in two hands, trying to keep the room from spinning and listened to him breathe into the silence that clipped back in and rode hard as soon as she closed her mouth.

The day before she'd overheard him on his office phone telling someone else a story he'd told her once, about a third wife in an ancient Chinese court who was expected to service her new husband's least savory appetites. He smiled at her during dinner, their plates smeared with her crockpot chicken cacciatore and wilted iceberg lettuce drowned in ranch dressing, his eyes waiting until her mother had glanced back down to her meal before flashing feral; let's you and me go for a ride after dinner, he said. He left a message on her dorm room answering machine, demanding she call him back: Quit slutting around and call me, the tape played back for her. I've got your sister here.

The week before that she secretly looked up the price of plane tickets to Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Madawaska, places where the rent was cheap and the winters long and cold enough to freeze the place in her that had called what she felt for him love, the place in her that had believed herself mother. Then she cleared the browser's cache, and did not buy a ticket anywhere. The week before she wrote in her journal: I hate him. I'm not kidding. I don't even care if he reads this. Fuck you, if you're reading this. I hope one of your patients has a break down and kills you. Then she tore out the page and burned it in the upstairs bathroom, over the toilet bowl, and flushed the ashes that looked like terraced storm clouds down the drain. A week before, she snuck out of her dorm room—even though he was 1,967 miles away and couldn't see her, she still crept around like an escaping prisoner, a kept thing—wearing short shorts over bright flower-print tights, black Doc Martin boots and a denim shirt cut off at the sleeves, the ends tied up at her waist like Daisy Duke used to wear it. She ignored the ringing phone (the phone was always ringing), and once the building's security doors slammed hard behind her, she ran ran ran to frat row, where the loud and drunk and grind could be found.

At the beginning of that season, she'd watched him strike her daughter across the face and swallowed the scream the rage that burst into her throat like an opened vein, she swallowed the screams the way he'd taught her and her body turned inward around her abdication, erupted, and turned her to ash. At the beginning of that season, she signed up for every club and after-school group that would have her, so that she wouldn't have to go home – he was always there after school now, his eyes always undressing her even when she was already naked; then he seemed to be looking beneath even her skin. She signed up for German and yearbook and little magazine and choir and math club and even chess – surely he wouldn't complain about chess – but he made her go back the next day and tell all the teachers who were faculty sponsors for the clubs that she couldn't join, she'd changed her mind; the teachers believed her when she said she had too much work to do at home. None of her teachers asked what the work was. At the beginning of that season, she'd fallen in love with a girl in her Asian Art History survey course – he wanted to know why she sounded so strange on the phone the next weekend and she told him. She told him. He told her mother to hang up and he said, We're not paying the tuition for that place just for you to go lez out. Do that on your own time. You check in with me every day from now on, do you hear me. You know you're susceptible to shit like this—don't let some bulldagger turn you away from dick.

The year before he turned his rage on her like a loosed firehose when she tried to comfort the daughter who was crying after he'd put his arm around the girl's throat and squeezed—he screamed, What is the matter with you? Don't get hooked by her manipulations, for fuck's sake. She just wants you to get all mothery, come to her rescue, do her work for her. She's responsible for the consequences of her rebellion. The year before her sister left for college 1,967 miles away and then there was no one who would stand between her body and his. The year before she was a freshman at a prestigious East Coast college whose prestigious East Coast roommate didn't understand why she sat in the bathroom and cried for an hour after she got off the phone with her mom and dad.

Five years earlier, she came home, exhausted after work but grateful to find her new husband cuddling her two daughters on the couch in front of the television; he had moved them out of her tiny post-divorce apartment and into his big house. He told her he wanted to take care of her, them, make something easier for her, who'd worked so hard since the girls' father had left. Five years earlier he came into her new bedroom, the one with the bare wood floors and a secret closet behind french doors (where she'd put the two sparkly pink t-shirts and a Crayola art kit he'd brought her); he sat on the edge of her twin bed, next to her sleepy body, he ran his hands under the covers, over her nightshirt, then under the nightshirt, he was quiet a minute and then he said, Do you like the things I got you? Five years ago he cried into her mother's arms, I just love you all so much, he said, I don't know why she's so hostile, so resistant. Her mother stroked his back, gave her a weary look over his wide, shuddering shoulder. The look said, We need this.Shape up.

Two years before that, he'd knocked at the front door of their brick duplex apartment in the cheapest part of the best school district in midown, and their mother had come to the front room, her short hair curled back from her face, all dressed up in her favorite white silk shirt tucked into wide-leg jeans and the tan boots with platform soles. Before she opened the door, she turned to her girls and gave them a look that was smile at the bottom and worry at the top. He's here, she said, the man I want you to meet. Be nice, ok, be polite. I think he's going to be spending a lot more time with us, the therapist friend I told you about, remember? She didn't wait for a response. She opened the hollow wood door and pushed out the rusting screen, and the girls stood by their mother's second-hand couch, not touching, not moving, and looked up at what their mother had brought them.

Jen Cross is a writer and workshop facilitator based in the SF Bay area. She's the author of the forthcoming Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma (Mango Media, Summer 2017), and co-editor of the award-winning Sex Still Spoken Here (CSC Press, 2014); her writing appears in more than 50 anthologies and periodicals, including Nobody Passes, The Healing Art of Writing 2010, make/shift, Visible: A Femmethology (Vol. 1), and Best Sex Writing 2008. She's currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. www.writingourselveswhole.org.