Gag Orders

By Kalie Johnson

I am afraid of the gag orders from my family. “Why can’t you write about something else?” My grandma asks me to write something more, a sequel, because of my father’s progress. I laugh; my father has not yet gone to jail for touching a little girl. His progress is limited, a soft ache toward reconciliation. My grandma is disappointed by how I paint her as passive. I am disappointed she thinks this is about her.

I am angry. The rage is stuck beneath my fingernails that I never stop shredding, too close to the calcium moons holding me back from the seconds of intimacy before I am kissed goodbye in the driveway of my new home. He will not text me back. Today, I thought I did everything right.

I tell myself most people are not capable of loving me. Something’s made me different. But I am not the only one with trauma; I am not the only one who is alone. I cry at the kitchen sink, wiping tears into the seams of the mug with Grandma’s too dirty sponge. For Christmas, I bought her twenty sponges. She still doesn’t use them. I laugh at her sink, vision blurred through thick tears. I go home to feel needed now. 

Everything falls apart except you. 

You’ll always have yourself. 

You are okay with being alone.

I never dated in high school, never kissed anyone until I’d turned eighteen. My first kiss was shy and too warm. I left thinking I was bad at kissing but that I couldn’t wait to practice more with this boy. We never did. 

The first person to show me what love looked like, my grandma told me he was nothing. From my grandfather’s chair, late at night, she begged me to tell her what I saw in him. The room was dark; the butterflies stopped dancing in my stomach from our dizzy goodbye in the driveway. “He’s going nowhere; he is no good for you.” I inhaled in shakes. I did not know how to defend what I did not understand. 

There is heroin in my baby brother’s system when he gives me love advice. It is dark, November cold, so windy that the car drifts towards the moving yellow line. 

“He makes me feel happy,” I say. 

My brother tells me I am wrong. “Your happiness cannot exist in other people.” 

That stupid boy was right, on a dim Ohio highway.

I could not protect the first boy I loved from what reality looked like with me. When he broke up with me, he told me it was all too much. When he left, I rolled into my comforter, greeted not by ice cream, but by my baby brother’s suicide attempts. I got up.

Some things will always be more important than your pain.

There is thick brown blood covering the page in his notebook. It is not your fault, he writes to me. I read it again. He is the only man in my life who knows I feel guilt first. I hold the letter in my hand two years later and shake. I exhale; I think of myself today. Romance seemed less necessary when I was fighting to keep my family alive. I am a fault of parents I could not depend upon. They think their sins are lighter. I am sinking in my own waters. 

What does it mean to fall in love, I write in my grandfather’s Bible.

My fingers break the water’s surface now, churn up choppy waves of dissent. I am learning to say you hurt me. I walk the long hallways of my childhood home, hands combing through the bones to find anything salvageable. My mother is not here; she never has been. But my grandmother fills the home with what it means to be a mother. 

I remember the front porch door shattering. I came upstairs one day to find the table flipped on its side. I slept through something again, inched through the house. It was empty. My brother was in the hospital again. We’ll be home soon, they texted. I swept up the glass, righted the house, and waited for them to come home, pacing in front of the windows. The table is back on its legs now. 

How long have you been cleaning up your family’s sins?

My grandmother used to smell my hair when I came home late at night. I was barely an adult, testing what independence meant. Her intimacy threatened me. 

“Come and hug me,” she said from the dark at 2 a.m. I smelled like someone else’s skin. I smelled like I’d been hiding again. I hesitated, afraid she’d smell his lips on my skin like I could. My movements were stiff as I folded into the crevice of her arms. I felt her ribs expand around my fingers. I was silent in the doorway before leaving. Disappointment folded beneath my waist, a tight fog hiccupped down. “Good night,” I whispered before closing the basement door behind me. The TV turned back on and I went to bed. I felt warmth radiate across my chest and curled into my sheets in the same clothes that my grandmother smelled me in. 

I stared at the blood between my legs in the mirror. I remember the electric red blood. My body mourned, celebrated. I laid in my bed dizzy, remembering his soft, warm hands searching my body. 

What are you searching for? 

Acceptance is not love though and intimacy does not tend to these wounds so easily. My second attempt at love shrunk against the skin of his absent father. We were both too foolish to understand how to help the other heal. 

“You cannot hurt me like my father did,” he begged of me. 

“I promise to never hurt you like that,” I said back. 

We both lied, our hands holding each other to impossibilities. Each of us leaves, too forged in fire to cool now. I scream into my fists when I hurt him, fingers clenching because I am running again. When I leave, I tell him that love isn’t always enough. I wonder if I truly believe that. No one has proven me wrong yet. 

"You are definitely my child,” my mother says to me when I visit her. I am twenty-three now. I want to ask her if I was still her child when she left me. Was I yours then? Did you bubble with pride when you abandoned me? I am jealous of girls my age. They do not have to ask their mothers if they remember the unanswered letters I sent to her. They sit in a box. “Those are sad,” she says, “don’t read them.” I hold my letters now, afraid to read them again and answer the questions I asked of the moon. You had me. I was honest; it was too much for you to even reply.

I am awake at 3 a.m., staring out the Christmas light lined window and watching a couple take a late walk, their fingers linked to ward off the night. I wash my roommate’s dishes under too-hot water and watch them talk. When do you tell someone your family is trying to kill itself? I thought falling in love was about honesty. “It is all too much,” he said when he left. I fear being too much now.

I tricked myself into thinking I was ready for romance before I grew up. I could only be committed to a family that did not change. I remember a poetry reading years ago and the poet’s story. Her abusive daddy shoved a cat piss covered sponge in her momma’s mouth. I remember thinking she couldn’t write. I thought her tragedy gave her talent. I sit on this, harbor it, reflect on myself. Am I surviving on everything I have ever known? 

Who are you writing for? 

Why can’t you write a sequel? 

Do you have talent outside of tragedy?

I have not trusted my skin next to anyone’s for a while now. But I try. I hold tight to my religion teacher telling me love has to be the meaning of life. I think there is not much else that makes sense, but that. I curl into someone new, excited by the first nervous butterflies that lace my stomach lining. He feels right, but I expect too much. 

I think of someone familiar telling me I deserve someone good. “You are someone good,” I whisper. He holds me in the dark, traces his fingers across my back, and lulls me into comfort with kisses I have never shared. It feels deserving; it feels right. It’s what I need. 

What I want, however, does not meet me halfway. I am stubbornly kicking the front entrance. After all, we all act selfishly. I think of myself too much, I question. I itch that I am at fault. Some things are wrong and it’s okay. It is wrong to question if you should have been less. So you don’t. 

I am outside now, like my grandmother, ripping into the weeds in my backyard. I do not rush today. The world is lonely. You meet someone new; it is too much to trust. You meet someone right; it is too much to fear. You meet someone wrong; it is too much to bear. You meet someone you’ll love; it changes you each time. 

I believe that love is the meaning of life. It has to be. I spin in my front yard and think of the boys who kissed me goodbye. They have moved on, given intimacy enough to saturate their needs. My needs are wildfires. I am thankful to inch back into trust. 

Things decide to change. I do not talk to my family much these days. It is easier to handle Amazons than deserts. My family is drying beneath the sun, crisping into concrete shapes that look like all my fears. 

I hope I dry differently. I hope I love differently.

About the author

Kalie Johnson is a 23-year-old living in Cleveland, Ohio. She's a first-generation graduate from Baldwin Wallace University in English Literature and Public Relations. She's published in BW's The Mill and California State's Watershed Review, one of the oldest literary magazines in the country. When she’s not writing, she enjoys film theory, literary horror, roller skating, and traveling.

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