"Lessons Learned," by Kathleen Buckley

Kathleen Buckley

Kathleen Buckley

Kathleen Buckley is a writer and designer living outside Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus and Paper Darts and her stories have been selected for inclusion in the Chicago Listen to Your Mother and Expressing Motherhood Shows. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Roosevelt University and is working on a collection of essays about (dis)belief, motherhood, and the troublesome intersection of the two.

Lessons Learned

This other time is when the man from next door stares up at you as you yell at him to get his dog out of your yard. The big black lab is squatting less than six feet from your back door. The man stands silent, one hand in his jacket pocket, the other holding a cigarette down at his side, while his dog shits on your lawn. When you yell, the man looks up, curious you think, or surprised, but he sees you and looks like hate. I will kill you. He is big, his head even bigger, with eyes that squint and roll up all at the same time like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. His mouth is closed, corners down, but with lips pursed like they want to spit. The man stares at you without saying a word until the dog stands and looks up too. They are pissed off. At you, an interruption. You look down at him, your head stuck halfway out the upstairs window. You think you have power, superior in your place so high up. You are right. He is wrong. But his physical strength adulterates your righteousness. You are elevated, but he is large, imposing. So, he imposes and stares some more. Your spine tingles and your gut locks. You think he can reach all the way up to the bedroom window and twist your head right off your neck with one enormous hand. He knows he can. His lips rise slightly in the middle allowing a sound to escape his throat. Then air through his nose. The dog huffs. Both are satisfied. The dog walks back into their yard. The man turns his body to follow the dog, but his head remains cocked towards you. You break first and watch only his feet, large and heavy in work boots under dusty, cuffed jeans. He follows the dog, but still, he watches you. He never stops looking. The dog disappears around the corner of the house. In two slow strides the man is off your lawn and onto his own, then two more and he too disappears around the house. But always, his power remains.  

The last time is when Jim’s body is pulsing, shaking from a boiling inside but you are more afraid of his silence than anything else. The furnace clatters and the hot water tank drips out a torture. When he finally speaks, Jim calls you by your full name. He’s never done that before. He sounds calm in the verbalization of his anger and your middle name, but you see his hands curling and uncurling, forming fists, maybe to use on you. He tightens his jaw too, and his chest goes up and down. His breath moves in and out through his nose. When he opens his mouth to speak again, the anger comes out full so you run upstairs and hide in the closet with a pair of scissors, thin sharp sheers for cutting hair that you grab from the bathroom as you pass. You think about the time you cut his hair with them. You hope you won’t have to stab him with them, mostly because you don’t know if you could. You picture yourself closing your eyes and stabbing blindly at the place where he'll stand and you know you’ll only end up slicing his hands as he reaches to take the scissors away from you or to strangle you or to stab you back with the butcher knife he brings up from the kitchen. You wish you’d thought to grab a knife as you scrambled up the basement stairs and ran through the kitchen. You realize too late that you should have run out the front door. Your brain hadn’t yet registered the true terror of this unknown, of the awful not knowing of where he is in the house. You feel his anger and hear his basement breath so you lock yourself in the closet, certain he is waiting at the bottom of the stairs with a knife or a rope or his raging hands. You call your friend and make her stay on the phone with you. She offers to come get you but you say no, you don’t want to be a bother. You secretly hope she’ll drive over anyway, then you think you hear him outside the door, but she has to get back to work so you hang up. You wait and you listen. And you wait. The quiet nearly kills you before he does. 

The worst time is in the bathroom of a club in Cortona, Italy but you tell your sculpture professor that you don’t want to talk to the police and you still don’t want to talk about it now. 

The very first time you are lying on your bed when your father gets home. You hear him walk up the stairs and into your brother’s room. You lie still, pillow soaked with tears, hoping he won’t be too angry, hoping he won’t come in your room, but if he does, hoping he will think you are asleep. You lie there knowing he is going to be very, very angry. You lie there knowing it was not your fault but then he is in your room standing beside your bed and you can hear your heart pulsing in your chest so loudly that it hurts your ears but you don’t dare put your hands up to cover them. You don’t dare move. You wait. You feel the anger of his words before he even opens his mouth. You wait for him to say something and when he does he orders you to sit up. You do and then you are looking down at him from above. You are floating. Your head brushes against the ceiling and you hang there, above you bed, with your toes not touching the quilt. You look down into his face. His eyes are shiny and black. His lower lip is pushing up and out to cover the top one. You wonder how you got up there because you don’t remember the rising and then you feel his hands around your neck and you know. He yells. He yells and swears and shakes you for what seems like hours and you will never forget the sound, although you’ve forgotten most of the words. And he is yelling louder and your body is flopping back and forth so you become a doll. You are not real. You are just a doll, so your doll hands claw at his because you can’t breathe and he is cursing you some more, screaming about your ugliness, and you are afraid so you become a doll again and start thinking about how much better everything looks from up here, so close to the ceiling with your bare feet dangling below. Everything—your bed, your room, your house, your brother playing baseball in the backyard who you can see so clearly through the pink sheer curtains covering the window—everything looks so much better from here, high up next to the ceiling, so you decide to stay suspended for now, and maybe, you think, for always.