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Heather Heckman-McKenna


My Face by Balzhan Aidash

I left him weeks ago. I try to forget. I avoid thinking about him as intently as I avoid getting burnt on a hot stove. I ignore the slight shaking of my hands whenever his name pops up in my email or on my phone. Like when I go by places we commonly went. Or when I walk by the avocados in the grocery store and remember his laughing derision when I didn’t know how to choose ripe ones. Or when shivers shoot down my spine when I pick up a pizza and place it in the back seat, reliving his ire when I’d bring one home with the cheese and toppings shifted more to one side than the other because driving home required more right turns than left. I ignore my staccato pulse a thousand more times over the weeks. I try to relearn. I try to live. I retrain myself to go to the pharmacy without telling him first. To the grocery. To work. I remember I have every right to walk outside in the falling sun, to sit in the grass and the crisp leaves, and I can even lie back if I want to, breathe in brisk air and watch Canada Geese overhead flying so many hundreds of miles south for their warmth and sustenance. I remember that I can buy grapefruit if I wish, that I can make grilled cheese with butter instead of mayonnaise on the pan-side bread slices. I remember things again. I remember things I used to do.

I wonder what else I can do, now that I’ve left him. What else I can do that I haven’t even thought to do. I can even make plans with friends if I’d like. Perhaps that mini-golfing date with Jess. We’ve been talking about it at work for months, but we haven’t managed to make it happen. Not that I want to, to be honest. I find I want quiet more than anything these days. I’ve realized that I don’t know the line between what to say and what not to say anymore, and I don’t have the energy to listen to others’ stories and problems. This is weird, since it’s been my role since forever in all my relationships, but there you have it. Some days it’s all I can do to rise from the bed and walk across the house to the bathroom. Others I’m manic, planning my day in ten-minute increments, ensuring I lose no opportunity for all the things I want to do that I haven’t this past year: write a letter to Uncle Norm; tell my mother I love her; make breakfast, oatmeal and an orange; go to the grocery store and buy healthy foods and those tasty little granola and candy Kudos bars; call Chey; write at least a two-page journal entry; crutch around the mall with my backpack and peruse Eastern Mountain Sports, then plan my next big hike up in the north country for when I’m off crutches again. The lists go on. It all circulates avoidance. I’m not unaware of this. I just don’t have the energy these days for anything terribly direct.

For today, I decide to pop over to Target. There’s no particular plan for this excursion, nothing I really need. Sometimes I just like doing things now, because I can. I like to pretend that I have my own little space, though I’m back full time with my parents, and I enjoy looking at all the things I’d put in my imaginary home: fancy duvets, simple drapey curtains, a six-piece set of steel pots, that cute wooden futon that’s comfortable neither as a bed nor a couch, but I can imagine it in my studio apartment nonetheless.

I crutch from the home goods sections to office supplies and scrapbooking (I laugh. I just threw several away. As if I need help remembering the past fourteen months), and then work my way over to the pharmacy and cleaning supplies. I imagine filling my cupboards with Clorox and mops and a cute little feather duster, and how nice I’d be able to keep it. I’d vacuum every other day, but I’d sweep the floors daily – cat fur wreaks havoc on hardwoods, and certainly I’ll have a cat – and I’ll probably clean the sinks and toilets daily too. I’d have people over from time to time, and I’d never have to worry about tidying up before they arrive. They’d be on their own navigating the stacks of books.

I walk over to Target’s personal care section, and imagine buying pink and blue bubble bath for the time I’d spend in my tub, perhaps with some Paul Simon playing quietly in the background. Maybe even a glass of wine, despite, even now, my infrequent consumption. I pick up a couple of different bubble bath brands, imagining which I’d choose if I had my own bathtub. It’s narrowed down to Mr. Bubbles and Dr. Teal (the former for reasons of nostalgia, the latter because it smells of eucalyptus and honey) before I put both back on the shelves and continue strolling. I don’t have to decide now.

Things feel fine until they don’t. It’s always the same. This time the telltale tightening in my chest resulting from the sharp smell of the aisle’s Dial soap bars mixing with a fruity and floral shampoo. The smell that had come to dominate our bathroom, absent now for weeks. Memory punching holes in the empty cavity where my control lies. Hurting knees as I kneel on the shiny tile floor, face shoved hard against the cold ceramic bathtub. Thirty-second neck massage while I brush my hair. Ringing ears after his screams echo off tile walls. Unyielding pressure on the back of my head as I fight to keep my face out of the cold water streaming from the faucet. Blood that feels like egg yolk sticky in my hair as he suddenly releases and I smash the back of my head against the pewter faucet. Muffled I-love-yous as we brush our teeth together at the sink. Red-lined, squinty eyes before the inevitable following punch to the stomach. Rarely the face. He’s usually smarter than visibly marking where clothes don’t cover.

I fight back against him differently now. I fight smarter. I don’t fight as I used to. I don’t gasp and struggle against him. I don’t kick out at a leg he intends to pin me under. I don’t punch at him as his 210 pounds lunges at my torso. I don’t. Not anymore. Instead, I destroy everything around us. For every punch to my stomach, I drop glass soap dishes on tile. I lash out at the spider plant standing witness, tearing at it and throwing pieces around us. I fastball tubes of deodorant and bottles of aftershave against the wall. I squeeze every last ounce from shampoo and conditioner bottles. He is not careful. He’s never had to be, with me a foot shorter and quite literally half his weight. It was never a fight I could win. He is not careful. He will slip in the mess. He will fall on glass and aftershave. He will cut himself on shattered soap dishes. I will shut him inside. I will listen to his cries for help. I will not open the door. Not until the room is silent and blood pools outside the closed door.

“Miss.” A man in a red shirt stands before me, mouth agape.

I drop the bottle of shampoo I’m holding.

“Miss, we’re going to have to ask you to leave.” His voice is clear and firm, but his hunched posture belies something else.


“I’m afraid you have to go now, please.”

“I don’t…”

“Please don’t make me call security,” he interrupts, voice rising.

“I really don’t know what…”

“Now. I’m afraid I must insist.”

I violently shake. The Target employee in front of me, probably only a year or two older than I. He seems to shake a little too. I don’t understand what I see. Pools of shampoo bloom on the floor in a circle around me. Different colors of the thick substance merge, blues and purples and beiges and even a strange off-white pink creating what look like muddy patches in the midst of all the rest.

“I don’t know how to leave through this,” I say to the man in the red shirt.

“Just crutch over it. But don’t slip. Christ, don’t slip.”

“I’m not gonna sue you.”

“Go. Now.” He is almost shouting. He looks close to hysterics himself.

“I didn’t mean to,” I say as I navigate through the slippery pool I’ve created.

“I can’t fucking believe…” I hear him say behind my back. I want to explain that I don’t think I did it. But evidence is all over my hands and clothes.

I turn around and say, “This isn’t…” but I stop. I never speak the word “possible.” He stands over my mess. He looks furious and sad. I turn around and keep walking. There’s nothing I can do anyway. There’s nothing I can say to explain.

In the Target parking lot, my clothes glitter with shampoo in sunlight. Several people stop walking and stare. I glare back at them. No one speaks to me. I don’t speak to them. I open the car door, roll down the two front windows, and recline my seat as far back as it goes.

I fall asleep, soundly and immediately. I don’t wake until hours later when I start to shiver in the autumn evening air. Chemical fumes from all the product sticky on my clothes sting my eyes and my head feels funny, so I keep the windows open and turn the heat on high as I drive myself home. I only hope I can sneak in without mom or dad seeing me.


About the writer:
Heather Heckman-McKenna is a Ph.D. Student, Research Assistant, and Graduate Instructor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, focusing on creative nonfiction and scholarship on women writers of the 18th- and 19th-centuries. Heather has previously been published in Newfound, Bacopa Literary Review, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and others. One of her essays, “Drive,” earned Memoir Magazine’s Notable Essay designation, and another essay, “Tilt,” won second prize in the Creative Writing Program Prize in Creative Nonfiction in 2018, Judged by Jericho Parms.

Image: My Face by Balzhan Aidash (contemporary). Digital image. 1334×750 pixels (digital file), 11.29×6.35 cm (print). 2018. By permission.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation
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