“The Danger of Pedestals” by Laurel Byrd

“The Danger of Pedestals” by Laurel Byrd

 

It started as a faint, high-pitched hum. Her heart was beating so hard that the pressure in her head made her feel nearly deaf, so she assumed her ears were ringing from the adrenaline until the noise became less like a subtle whir and more like a screech. She blinked and came back into the moment.

There he was, standing in front of her, the same stupid face he’d always had. How had she held it in her hands all those years ago and kissed it with such affection? All of that had turned to utter disgust as he stood there waiting for her response, his lips separated just slightly and showing strips of sticky spit that were stretched from his top to bottom lips. He still had his sparse blond beard, the hairs long enough that they were starting to curl. A close shave would have made it invisible, so he grew it out into this patchy, curly thing. He must have thought it looked good, since he was still wearing it this way, over 10 years later.

Over his shoulder, she saw a neighbor walking down the street with her dog, staring at the encounter and into Becky’s house. Shit. The kettle.

“Uh, just — wait here. I’ll be right back,” she told him as she hastily narrowed the opening of the front door and dashed back into the house. It would have been rude to flat-out close it, but she didn’t feel comfortable enough to invite him in. His current position on the top step of her front porch was already feeling like an invasion.

As she got to the stove to move the kettle and turned the burner off, she thought, What the fuck is he doing here? Her face felt hot. She knew there were red blotches on her chest, and she was embarrassed that he would see how his presence affected her. She thought about throwing on a cardigan to hide it. It was a chilly summer afternoon with the breeze from a summer storm that was rolling in, so it wouldn’t have seemed odd to grab an extra layer, but she decided against it. Her body could do what it wanted, but she wasn’t going to let him affect her.

She rushed back to the front door, cutting through the dining room so he wouldn’t see her coming down the main hallway. Why was she rushing? Was she already quelling parts of herself to appease him again? Old habits must die hard. Or was she in a rush to get whatever this was over with? She told herself it was the latter.

The last time they had spoken, she had told him his behavior was “shitty,” and it felt like a mic drop at the time. It felt like a bomb exploding. It felt powerful.

She had broken a major rule of his, and in doing so, had finally cut the constraints that he had stealthily bound her by for nearly a decade. Over the months leading up to their final conversation, she had been loosening his grip, but he had come back into her life and started to chip away at the boundaries she had set. He was making his way back in, like a little weasel digging its way into a space that looks impossible for it to fit into, but then making it a nice, comfy home for itself. This is what he had always done, but this time, she had finally gotten the time and space to trust herself enough to see what he was doing.

There was a weight to the words she wasn’t allowed to say. Some of them were OK to use rarely, like “damn” and “hell.” Some of them were never words, like “fuck.” And the ones in the middle were just strong enough to convey real passion, like “shit.”

And he was being shitty because he was trying to find a way to visit her parents, whom he never spent time with when they were together. Becky called his bluff when she texted him her dad’s number. He wasn’t trying to see her parents, he was trying to get her parents to see him — with her. He was trying to dig his way in.

“I’m sorry, girl,” he said, talking to her like he always did, like she was an old docile mare that he had broken years ago. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

His apologies only ever came when she was at the end of her rope, and they always came coupled with promises and a feigned enlightenment. “I didn’t realize,” “I’ll be better,” “From now on,” he’d start. He’d put her on a pedestal at this point, telling her she deserved someone great and begging her not to settle for just anyone.

The first time this happened, she was 14. He told her not to kiss anyone else, even if they were broken up (which they often were), because “your kisses are special.” At the time, she thought it was romantic, until she told her two best friends about it and they bent over laughing. “Your kisses are special!” they squealed at each other in their best attempt at a baritone.

She believed then that they just didn’t understand him, didn’t understand their relationship. They were too mature for their friends, and that’s why they worked so well together, he’d tell her. Other boys her age wouldn’t get her. She was smarter than the other kids they went to school with, he’d tell her. It was understood that she wasn’t as smart as him, a straight-A student who would go on to get a perfect score on the ACT and become a National Merit Scholar.

These intelligence rankings meant that he knew so much, he even knew what was best for her. So she let him make all of her decisions for seven years, until she found herself friendless, isolated from her family, and living alone as a 20-year-old college student who was just waiting for him to give her an engagement ring so she’d have somewhere to live, and someone to finally have sex with, after college.

She had broken up with him for the last time just weeks before graduation, and shortly thereafter, he was trying to claw his way back into her life, telling her he loved “this Becky,” the Becky who followed her own interests and was no longer an outline of a person waiting to be colored in by some weird, patchy-beard-ass nerd who’d tape bible verses on his shower wall to keep himself from masturbating.

She told him then that “this Becky” was only possible because he wasn’t in her life. The message seemed to stick for a while, and he kept his distance for several months. Becky was surprised with how quickly her real self came back to her, the same person she was when she was 14 but who she had been trying to pray away all that time. She realized she didn’t actually believe in God and she didn’t feel bad about it. She expected to feel guilt and shame for this realization, but it turns out that if you don’t believe what the church has been telling you, you don’t feel the way the church tells you to either. She also realized that it was really fun to say the word “fuck,” but admittedly, it took her a long time to feel confident using the word.

Life became fun without him around. It became so much easier to talk to people, to learn, and to make decisions when she realized there wasn’t a wrong way to think anymore. She had sex. She got her nose pierced. She drank beer. She lived, worked, and traveled in Europe by herself and made her own friends. She finally got to vote for Obama.

She didn’t miss him for a second, but she thought about him often. She thought about how much she hated him. She thought about how much he took from her. She thought about who she might have become if he hadn’t completely controlled her throughout her teenage years and into her 20s.

For years, she was undoing his work, and she had finally gotten to a place where she knew he could never force her into a cycle where he’d break her down and put her on a pedestal again. He couldn’t touch her.

And yet, he was here. He could reach out and touch her.

“OK,” she sighed. “Why are you here again?” she asked with a mixture of sarcasm, confusion, and impatience.

“Jeez!” (This was Christian for when you want to say “Jesus” without taking the Lord’s name in vain.) “Well, ol’ girl, I thought I’d get a better welcome than that,” he chuckled and shook his head. He widened his eyes and made his chin quiver slightly, a series of facial movements Becky remembered well. It used to work to get her to let her guard down, but now it just pissed her off. “I was in town and I knew you lived here, so I thought I’d pop by to say ‘hi.’”

Becky stood in silence, not in the least bit surprised that he knew her exact address, but definitely shocked that he was using the information. Caleb saw the concern on her face and made an effort to take control of the situation. He put his left foot up on the porch and his right hand on the inside of the doorway, wrapping himself around the bubble Becky was trying to keep intact around her and forcing her to take a step back to keep from falling. He took another step into her closed-in porch and quickly shut the door behind him.

“I don’t think you realize how much you hurt me and my family when you disappeared.” His face was inches from hers now, and the puppy-dog expression was gone. He was seething. “Renee cried for weeks.”

He started calling his mom by her first name when he was 12, like a total fucking psychopath.

“You didn’t let me make it right, and I can’t get right with God because of you,” he said through clenched teeth, spittle flying from his mouth. “We were supposed to get married and be an example in the church!”

Oh, my god, he actually is a psychopath, Becky thought. She held eye contact with him for what felt like an eternity, incredulous and terrified.

“Gosh dang it!” he shouted, taking a step back from her and shaking his head. “I didn’t want this to go like this.”

Becky thought about the recurring nightmare she had, in which he would come back into her life like this and they’d somehow get married. She’d suddenly come to the realization in the middle of the dream that she didn’t love him and want to be married to him — she hated him and never wanted to see him again, so how did she get here, and how was she going to get out?

She didn’t know how he had envisioned this going, but it had already gone far enough for her. She had already given him more of her than he ever deserved. She took a step toward him and then reached behind him for the doorknob. It was a risky move, she knew, but he shifted out of the way and let her open it.

“I don’t know what you were hoping to get out of coming here,” she said, holding the handle and taking a step back to open the door all the way, “but I want you to leave.”

She gestured toward the sidewalk, but he didn’t budge. She tried to read his expression, but letting him look into her eyes felt like an invasion. She broke her gaze away and looked outside. It was raining now, and she caught a flash of lightning in her periphery. The crack of thunder came within a few seconds, and the sound sent a shiver up her spine.

Caleb pulled up his hood and started to step out of the porch. He took three steps down before quickly turning and saying, “Sorry, ol’ girl. You know we all love you.”

Before she could react, Caleb disappeared behind an intense, bright ball of light. She turned her head away and closed her eyes as the air around them popped and fizzed with static, and when she turned back to look at what had happened, Caleb’s body was coming to a rest at the base of her front steps, smoke rising from his skin.

A man who had just parked his car on the street a few yards up from Becky’s house was already running over. “Oh, my god!” he yelled as he knelt down to put his hands on Caleb’s chest. “Oh, my god! Call an ambulance!” At this point, Becky realized he was directing her to call the ambulance, but she couldn’t move. She felt frozen, heavy. That was the last thing she remembered.

She wasn’t expecting to ever need an excuse for not attending his funeral, but when your ex-boyfriend dies on your steps and his whole family knows about it, people have certain expectations. But one thing Becky has learned in her years away from him is that other people’s expectations of her aren’t her responsibility.

She made a donation of $50 in his name to Planned Parenthood and sent her condolences to his family, Renee included.

 

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