After the Wreckage, the bathroom I share with my younger sister Maya is no longer a warzone. Between unpainted toenails I can make out the ghosts of bloodstains on the caulking, stuck between the pale tile. Run my hands over the windowsill where I tried cutting the wood instead of my skin and took off paint with desperate hands needing to release emotion and emotion and emotion. I don’t look through the drawers because Maya has reclaimed them since I left for college, but now, our bathroom looks like two young women share it: shedded hair, toothbrushes, lotions, facewashes, makeup. Don’t look too hard and you’d never guess the ghosts that used to walk here.
In the Hurricane when I was a tattered girl gluing pieces of herself back together:
Lock myself in the bathroom, head against the cool tile, as I slice my skin in hopes of finding some sunshine buried under the surface. Perching in my chest, a bird sing-sing-singing me bitter songs, hiding razorblades in hair cream in unused drawers in tampon boxes in wherever I am the only hands who will find them except
about three days after Mom finds out about The Cutting and The Scratching but she still refuses to call it what it is a sickness mom an illness I am Not Fucking Well she tells me with angry tears in her eyes that Maya found a razorblade while washing the clothes she and I pile up together in the corner of our bathroom my battle zone.
“You’re not the only one who gets hurt by this, you know,” she says, hoping it’ll bite me more than razors do and trust me I know everyone else is caught in the crosshairs of Her Oldest Daughter’s Self-Destructive Manic Depressive Episode she doesn’t need to tell me that.
“Okay,” I say, robotic, pre-programed cold hardware, and I know she doesn’t think even that comment will send me into a spiral but it’s two hours till Maya gets home from school she’s a fifth grader now does she even know what a razorblade is? I’m usually more cautious than that
and before I really make a choice or make a decision the bird inside me is already scraping open my skin with its talons except it’s me it’s my shaky hands it’s my fourth razorblade hidden in this bathroom there’s ten I guess nine now but they’re easy to find just break open safety blades it’s easy if you’re determined and I sure am
cut cut cut cut cut and it’s five horizontal lines left arm just left of the vein I’m not in the business of dying today today I am in the business of living in the business of feeling in the business of not being swept up in the tidal wave of my emotions.
Lay in bed with my eyes open. One leg under the covers. One leg over. My new cuts ache. The old ones itch. The older ones still are scabbed over. I live in sweatshirts. No one wants to see the war zone I am. I don’t let them. Could listen to music. Why bother. Nothing sounds good anymore. Nothing tastes good anymore. Nothing is good anymore.
Back when I was a Real Girl Maya and I would listen to “S.O.S” by the Jonas Brothers and we’d dance in the living room. I’d take her hands and move her around in circles and she’d laugh and laugh and laugh. She used to look up at me like I could build the sky for her, hold it up over her head like a dream I wouldn’t want to wake her up from. Sometimes she still does. And then, oh, and then, I am afraid.
The garage door scrapes and squeals open. I hear Maya, voice eager and bright, and Mom, quieter, above my head. Something deep inside me says I should go talk to her and be that big sister she needs she wants she deserves and every part of me wants to except
that damn bird. I’m stuck in bed. I hear Maya’s quick footsteps sticking to the linoleum outside of our basement room, opening the door like an announcement.
“Hi Rachael,” she says, still pronouncing her rs as ws, a small impediment that our stepfather makes a big deal out of.
“Hey little sister, how was school?” I ask.
“It was okay. We talked about England in history,” she says, unpacking her backpack, spilling its contents on the carpet.
“Dad’ll be thrilled. He loves British history,” I tell her, still not able to look her in the eye. You’re not the only one who gets hurt by this, you know.
Shut up, bird. I know. You think I don’t see that deep sadness in her eyes when she looks at me? My bricks and mortar are taking care of her. Maybe if I take that Deep Sleep she’ll be less hurt by me: one big pain then no more. I want to take her in my arms I want to brush back her hair like I did when I was a Real Girl I am fifteen and she is ten we should be painting nails and spilling polish on the carpet together. Mom doesn’t even let me babysit anymore. She makes it very clear that I am an undetonated bomb and she will not be caught in the shrapnel when something hits the trigger.
Maya picks out a schoolbook and walks upstairs to watch TV. When I was a Real Girl, the four of us, Mom, Jamie, Maya, and I, would sit on our old couch watching Disney Channel together on our nearly-broken TV. Before Stepfather, when Mom was still my guardian angel. When I got my first C (of many) in math class and Mom took me alone to her room and asked how she could help, how we could build.
These days I have a C in English and history and those are my best grades. No one’s asking how to heal me now. It’s all simple: go for the knees, she’ll break quicker.
I try to tire myself out so much that I start falling asleep while puzzling through Algebra II homework and don’t have to do battle with the bird, but well-meaning Mom sends me to bed when she sees my eyelids drooping trying to read the World History textbook.
“Homework can wait. Bed. Now. You’re exhausted,” she says while cleaning the kitchen, 11:30 at night.
Maya is already asleep, our sweet Katie-cat snuggled up next to her. Maya and Katie are an inseparable pair, bonded their whole lives. I try to sneak in without waking either of them, but Katie always hears the door open and meows, dropping to the floor to follow me, rubbing the side of her furry face against my leg. She follows me into the bathroom and leaps up onto the counter as I brush my hair and wash my face, meowing until I scratch her ears. I kiss her nose as I pick her up and place her on my bed before going back into the bathroom to cut myself before bed, an addiction I have to indulge at least once every three hours or I start to itch for it.
I sit on the floor, back against the tub, bite my lip until the blood starts to stain whatever sweatshirt I’m sleeping in. Let the pain rush in like the drugs I take in lovers’ basements, lean my head back and embrace the bite and sting, the only time the bird and I are at peace. I hear its song and sing back with my own, smoothing ruffled feathers. Nothing matters nothing matters nothing matters nothing matters.
The bird doesn’t let me sleep much but at least it makes me comfortable with exhaustion. I’m always awake with it can’t sleep when it’s singing in my ear when its talons are walking along my skin when its feathers shake me awake. It makes me restless, awake at 3am with an alarm for 6am, awake and wandering. I tell myself I’ll just walk around the house to shake off some of the anxiety let the bird stretch its wings a little but before I know it I’m three miles out in pajamas and Nikes I realize this is just a few inches away from what a psychiatrist would call a Psychotic Break and what I’d call a Complete Fucking Meltdown.
I am drawn to water. To the small creek behind Maya’s elementary school. The woods behind my brother Jamie’s middle school. The marsh and pond behind our house. Quiet but rhythmic; music in its simplicity. Maybe the bird drives me here; isn’t this what a bird wants most, freedom? Leaping on dinosaur feet from branch to branch, fluttering feathers and leaves? Spreading song to the world, maybe something brighter, not just the quiet, solemn song it sings to me?
The bird chirps to the beat of my heart, yes yes yes. The bird’s wings against my ribcage, against my lungs, my heart. It’s what we both want: freedom.
Rachael is a DC-based writer. She writes poetry and nonfiction, usually focusing on topics of sexuality, femininity, family and sisterhood, and mental illness. She likes kneading bread, early 2000s pop music, and gold eyeliner.