Between Us

By Alaysha Harden

“Tell me a secret,” I told him as I laid in his bed. It was September and the guy sitting at the desk in front of me- CJ- would not become my boyfriend until February. Until then, I was adamant in seducing him. He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t have any secrets. You do, though. Tell me about your hoes,” he said with a hint of jealousy in his voice. At this time, CJ was my best friend. I spent every day since the first day of college with him after meeting him through the freshman group chat. Therefore, he knew about the guys I messed with, the ones that blew up my phone, the ones from Tinder, and the ones from back home. I was not ashamed though; I was simply healing.

    “Ohhhh. CJ, you’re calling me a hoe?”

    “No, I would never call you a hoe.”

    “Everyone else does, even my mom, why don’t you join them?” I teased, sliding to the edge of the bed and putting my foot into his face. He dodged my foot laughing, as he grabbed it to tickle me. I squirmed trying to get out of his hold.

“I’m not like everyone else,” he said softly, standing up and pulling me by my foot closer to him. I stared down at him challenging him to make a move. He backed down dropping my foot. We knew we liked one another, but there was no pressure. We were always on different paths at different times, yet we were always together with the exception of the hours we slept and showered. Our connection was strong, but in the beginning, I wouldn’t tell him anything. Eventually, I had to.

A few weeks later, I was walking from the dining area with CJ and a few other friends. I had decided that Commons’ dinner was not a move and that I would settle for whatever meal I could scrap together in the Munchie mart outside of the dining hall area. I walked around the counter looking down at my phone oblivious to the people around me as usual. When I got to the back wall, I stared at the row of drinks while simultaneously telling myself that I did not need one. I walked over to the chips again and peeked at the macaroni before quickly turning back around, bumping, and stumbling into someone who was far too close to me. I felt two hands on each of my arms steading me. I looked up from the black shoes, black pants, black hoodie, and up to his face.

“How are you?” he smiled.

I did not respond. I did not move. My mind went blank and I could not feel my body. I was staring at the face that possesses the one and only name on every block list. A name that rests on drafts of restraining orders that never reached a judge because of its ‘lack of proof’. The face that followed me home for months and it was passed off as “just a boy that likes you”. He wasn’t. That face that would appear randomly where ever I was in Chattanooga, but no one believed I was being followed. Did I see him last week? The face that would be at my door when I came back from a walk in middle of January 2016- the day school was cancelled because of snow. How the snow captivated me so much that my phone laid on my bed and all I took with me were my keys. Stupid.  How my 95 pound body was easy to restrain and how I knew fighting only made my body weaker. Stop thinking! How that face hurtled me out of REM sleep and would keep me up for the rest of the night. How those hands that touched me were touching me in the middle of Munchie mart. Clean your arms! I snatched my arms from his grasp with the strength I hadn’t possessed two years ago and I didn’t look for CJ or the rest of my friends. Room.

I was numb, but I knew I was moving. I broke through the doors of Commons, the cool air brought all my senses back. Room. Go to your room. I picked up my pace, but by the time I got to the brick wall outside Commons, I could not breathe. My backpack felt 100 pounds heavier and my skin was burning or itching or suddenly covered in dirt. I couldn’t tell; I just wanted to be out of it. I needed to fill a tub with water too hot for my skin and sink my body into it like I used to. But community showers denied that access and all I could do was think: How did he find me?

I heard the rhythm of footsteps behind me moving faster than the pace of my hyperventilation before I could see who it was. CJ had been texting me wondering where I went, so the quick shuffle of feet had to be him. But if it isn’t, I have no more energy to run…

“Don’t touch me,” I managed to utter between my gasps and snot filled sniffles. I could hear his hands drop as he cleared his throat. “Why are you crying, Alaysha?” It’s CJ.  I couldn’t answer him. I was hundreds of miles from my hometown and this person had traveled those miles to stalk me out again. My mind was racing and I could see the flashbacks from the living room of my home in Chattanooga in front of me. I turned to CJ asking him to carry my backpack to my room for me. He said he’d carry my backpack if I went to his room so I wouldn’t be alone. In his room, CJ helped me climb up on his overrated lofted bed without falling and he waited for me to talk. I didn’t. All I did was pull baby wipes out my bag, scrub my arms until I couldn’t feel his hands touching me, and I rolled over to sleep.

When I woke up hours later, CJ was lying next to me. He seemed to be waiting for me to wake up. He didn’t speak; he just stared down at me. I could feel the heat rising to my face and my mind began to worry about how much of a mess I was. I pulled my face back under the covers to hide myself. He resisted this by slowly pulling the covers back down, saying “I know you said not to touch you, but I also know you as a person and I’m here for you. Let me be here for you.” Despite the burning sensation all over my skin, I crawled into his arms and melted into him. I was reluctant to tell CJ at first. Every guy before him changed the way they treated me when I told them. They either treated me like a helpless child or a hoe, as if they were afraid to touch me or as if my body was now an “all welcome” sign. That one guy, he said, “You were able to take it rough then, can’t you take it rough now?” I didn’t know how to explain to CJ the way boys found it entertaining that restraining my arms could trigger me and how picking me up, tossing me in the air was no longer fun for me. Why they found it humorous to test my triggers to see if it will actually trigger?  I decided that I could not say it aloud. Instead, I handed CJ my phone and let him read through the text messages between my sister and I where I explained to her what had just happened. She would handle the situation swiftly for me and I would lay in CJ’s arms for the night, feeling more support than I ever have from anyone in my life. But I was waiting for him to change like the rest.

He didn’t. All he did was love me unconditionally. Without ever asking or looking for     anything in return, he was there. The moments I cried on bathroom floors, snatched away to dart out of doors, cursed my therapist for declaring me untreatable, CJ was there. The times I refused to speak, get out of bed, or simply be nice, he sat next to me accepting my silence. I didn’t want to project my trauma and all the shit built up in me onto him. It was not his responsibility. Yet he watched me, studied me like a book. He learned my body language: the way I freeze up before a panic attack, the way my eyes dart back and forth when I’m nervous, the excuses I make up to escape crowded rooms. At times he knew before I did and he could divert conversations before something could be said to hurt me.

He learned my anger and he extinguished my flames when he could. I traveled through life having to defend myself and watch out for my own back. I was always “on go”, yet he could catch me by my waist before I could get in someone’s face. He could calm me before I was left with nothing else to break. At times, he was caught off guard or surprised at a sudden change in character when anger engulfed me. But even then, he offered himself as a barrier, an instructor of balance, and a carrier for all the things that weighed me down.

There are no exact words to describe the things we just know to be true. It’s that look, that feeling, that certain kind of smile that's indistinguishable to outsiders looking in, yet to me, can mean so many different things. Regardless of my desire to capture this into words, it will remain as only those things that make up what we have, a presence known only to me and him.