words/photos

When You See The Wounds

Photo: jakub/Flickr

The message came through Instagram. I found it in the requests folder, as I didn’t follow the account.

“Hey. My name is Charlotte. When you see the wounds, I’ll be here.”

I thought about denying the request, but it did make me a little curious. I tapped on Charlotte’s profile and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Her account was public and she seemed to live a pretty standard life. She had a dog. She lived with her sister. She baked cookies. She asked for opinions on which pair of glasses she should buy. She was maybe in her late 20s or early 30s, pretty, seemingly pleasant, and otherwise unremarkable. She lived in the same state, a few towns over.

I ended up accepting Charlotte’s message, but I chose not to respond.

I had a lot of other stuff on my mind. Work was pretty busy, I had an active social life, I had plenty of hobbies, and I had just started dating someone new who I was trying to work into all of that.
His name was Jason. We’d met at a bar not far from my house where my friends and I often sang karaoke. He was a natural performer. I told him as much when I found myself next to him, waiting for the bartender to come around and take our orders. We got to talking, he asked for my number, and we hit it off right away.

You know how it is in the first month of a new relationship. It’s exciting. It’s distracting. Jason was sweet and showered me with affection, both privately and publicly. My friends all loved him and told me how lucky we were to have met. He was a sound editor, spending his days in front of a computer and his nights working on music. He’d play it for me sometimes, telling me how I’d inspired him to write this number or that one. It was a honeymoon phase, I knew that, but I hoped it would never end.

Jason was funny, too. The night that Charlotte messaged me, Jason was making fun of me for my Tuesday night pilates class.

“I’m just saying, it’s kind of silly!” he said as he helped me chop vegetables in my kitchen. “I mean, do you really need a class to do some stretches?”

“It’s not just stretches,” I argued. “You use a machine at this place. It’s called a reformer and it has all these different resistance levels. Plus, I like all the people there. I’ve made some good friends. Sometimes we go out after and it’s like a whole thing.”

“I know, but doesn’t that undo all the work you did?” Jason asked. “You work out, then you go drink a bunch of calories. Honestly, Anna, you might as well just go to the bar if that’s what you’re really in it for.”

“But it’s not,” I said. “I enjoy it. It makes me feel good.”

“Maybe you just like the attention.”

“What attention?” I asked. “It’s literally a workout class.”

“Yeah, at a studio with big windows facing the street.”

“How would you know? Do you go to pilates?”

“No, I just went by there last week,” he said. “I saw you. Tight leggings, sports bra, suggestive stretches. Just all out there for anyone who happens to walk or drive by.”

I paused. My face must have twisted into a frown because he soon broke out laughing again.

“Don’t give me that look,” he said. “I wasn’t stalking you or anything. I had to go to the pharmacy and it’s right by there. Plus, I liked what I saw. Trust me, babe, you don’t even need the pilates.”

I felt weirdly ashamed of my hobby all of a sudden.

“You get that it’s not about that, though, don’t you?” I said. “It’s something I do because I enjoy it. Is there a problem with that?”

“You don’t need to be so defensive about it,” he said. “But the fact that you are may just suggest that I’m right. I don’t know, I’m gonna take off. I’ve got some stuff I need to do at home.”

“You’re not staying for dinner?”

“Nah,” he said. “I’ve got leftovers at home.”

He set down the knife, leaving a bell pepper only half chopped, and wiped the seeds on his hands onto his jeans. He left without saying another word. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d done wrong. Should I apologize? Or did he really have stuff to do at home?

I decided to text one of my friends for insight. When I opened my phone, it was still on that message from Charlotte. Something about it unnerved me. I closed the app and decided to just finish cooking by myself instead.

The following day, things were as normal as they’d ever been. The following week, too. Jason got us tickets to got to a comedy show he was sure I’d love. I noticed that it did occur on Tuesday at 7 p.m., meaning I would be missing pilates, though one week off couldn’t hurt. And I did end up enjoying the show.

That night, I stayed at his place. Jason was already asleep when I had to use the bathroom one last time before drifting off. As I was washing my hands, I noticed something in the mirror. There was a shadow on my left cheek, the charcoal hue creeping across my zygomatic bone like a bruise. It wasn’t tender to the touch, and I couldn’t remember hitting my face on anything. I rubbed at it with my thumb, but it did not go away.

In the morning, the bruise was still there. I covered it as best I could with makeup before I went to work. If anyone noticed, no one said anything.

Two weeks or so went by and the bruise had faded away. Jason had begun to insist that Tuesday night was “our” night to go check out comedy shows. Had I even told him I liked comedy? I mean, it’s fine, but it wasn’t really a thing I did with any regularity. But Jason insisted it was a me-and-him thing and pouted when I suggested we do a different night. So, I told myself I could do most of my working out at home which would, at the very least, save money.

But one morning, as I got into my plank position, I noticed my wrist was covered in a huge bruise and it looked bent at an odd angle. It didn’t hurt, but it was jarring to see. I gave up on my workout and made an appointment with my doctor for later that afternoon. Things only got stranger from there.

“I don’t see anything wrong with your wrist,” the doctor said.

“It’s…pretty obviously bruised and it looks weird,” I replied.

“I’m sorry, I don’t see anything at all,” he said. “It is a faint bruise?”

My wrist was mottled in dark grays and purples.

“You really don’t see anything?” I asked.

“I’m afraid not. Does it hurt? And can you move it?”

“No. I mean, no, it doesn’t hurt. And yes, I can move it.”

“Then I think it’ll probably be just fine,” he said.

He wasn’t wrong. Two days later, the bruises were gone.

The following week, Jason was weird again. This time, it was because he had attended a small work function with me. The marketing team was celebrating the launch of a new ad campaign that I had worked on, and the night seemed to go just fine. Jason got along with my co-workers really well and I was having fun. But all of a sudden, Jason got quiet and pulled me aside, telling me he was tired and wanted to leave.

When we got back to my place, he told me it was obvious that my male co-workers were all attracted to me and maybe I should stop dressing so revealingly at work. I looked down at my slacks and button-up blouse.

“What? This? You’re kidding,” I said.

He took a slow step forward and gripped my shirt by the lapels. He contemplated me for a moment, then fastened the top-most button. The shirt now closed at my throat.

“There. Now when you have another success at work, you can be sure it’s because you’re talented,” he said.
He smiled and patted my shoulder before turning and walking into the bedroom.

I suppose the way I’m telling you this story, it’s hard for you to realize that Jason was rarely like this. Most of the time he was funny, thoughtful, and easy-going. He was usually very complimentary and had never once expressed a negative opinion of my work clothes.

Another surprise came in the morning. I had a black eye, as though someone had elbowed me right in the face. My eye was swollen nearly shut and what I could see indicated I’d burst a blood vessel in my eye. I also saw what appeared to be bruising around my throat, patterned as though someone had wrapped a hand around my neck and squeezed it tight. Just like before, neither hurt, so I decided to try an experiment.

I got ready for work, but I didn’t apply any extra makeup to cover the bruises this time. I also wore my hair in a bun so that my throat was clearly visible. As I both expected and feared, not a single coworker seemed to notice, not even my closest colleagues, those who would have surely asked if I was okay.

It was very clear that whatever was happening to me was something only I could see.

Months went by and the phantom injuries continued. One day I woke up with a deep incision in my upper lip and a missing tooth. It whistled when I spoke and it was difficult to eat. The gum where the tooth used to be felt oddly numb and smooth, like the tooth had never been there at all. But, again, no one noticed and within a few days, the tooth was back.

Some days I would wake up missing a clump of hair. Other times I found burn marks, like I’d been hit with a frying pan wrenched off a hot stove.

On one occasion, I found little shallow incisions in my stomach. You know how when you bake a tray of muffins, you stick a fork in to see if it’ll come out clean and batter-free? The cuts were like that. Just little flaps, 27 of them in total. Another morning, I found my shoulder dislocated. It didn’t hurt, even when, thanks to a YouTube tutorial, I snapped it back in place.

I began to think maybe I was having some sort of mental breakdown, but I seemed to be able to carry out my tasks just fine so long as I worked around the injury. I was tired and a little anxious and my world felt dull, but no one seemed to notice anything was amiss.

In many ways, life was actually easier because my world had grown smaller. Jason had abandoned our Tuesday comedy tradition, but I was too exhausted to resume pilates. In fact, I rarely worked out at all anymore. I had stopped hanging out with my co-workers for fear that the men would think I was leading them on by going out for drinks with them. I mostly just went to work and came straight home where, typically, Jason would be waiting with a beer in hand, watching my TV or playing his guitar. I spent my free time sitting in the same room, listening to him play, worrying at my newest not-injuries with my fingers.

For how closely he seemed to watch me sometimes, Jason never noticed the marks either. I concluded they must not exist. And since they didn’t really bother me that much, I decided to keep them to myself.

One day after work, I stopped at a restaurant to see Angela, a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I sat down across from her and she said nothing about ligature marks around my neck or the hole in my palm that looked exactly like someone had stabbed a butcher knife straight through it. I smiled as I picked up my wine glass with my other hand.

“We’ve all really missed you coming to book club, Anna,” she said. “Any time you work calms down, feel free to come by. I mean, you really don’t even need to read the book, you know.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s just been so busy.”

I took a careful sip of my wine, holding the corner of my mouth that had been sliced open closed to prevent any Chardonnay from dribbling onto the table. Angela didn’t notice.

When I got home, Jason was upset.

“Where’ve you been?”

“I met up with Angela. From book club.”

“You don’t even go to your book club anymore,” he said. “I thought you said they were all stupid and chose boring books.”

“Actually, I think you said that,” I said, though I couldn’t quite remember.

“Why would I say that? I’ve never even been to it.”

I tried to remember which books we’d even read, but all my books had been boxed up so that Jason had more space for his things on the built-in shelving. Maybe they were in my closet.

“I just don’t remember thinking that about them,” I said. “I think I’d like to go back to book club when work isn’t so busy.”

“Anna, you were always talking shit about your friends,” he said. “You don’t like them. And they wouldn’t like you either if they heard the kind of stuff you said about them. Maybe I should tell them. Help you make a clean break and move on.”

“What did I say, though?” I asked, genuinely confused.

Jason stood from the couch and that’s when I noticed something strange. His hands were bruised. All around the knuckles.

“What’d you do to your hands?”

He held them up.

“What?”

“All the bruises. Did you hurt yourself?”

“Anna, there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re not bruised.”

He held them in front of my face. I could see the bruising, plain as day, dark shadows fading to sickly yellows. Oh, no, I thought. It’s happening to him, too. Why couldn’t anyone else see them? And that thought reminded me of something.

That night, after Jason fell asleep, I took my phone into the bathroom and locked the door.

I messaged Charlotte: “Are you talking about the wounds that don’t hurt?”

She replied: “Yes. Where’s a safe place you can meet me?”

I used my lunch break to meet Charlotte, figuring that would be my best bet as I’d still be home when Jason expected. I found her sitting at a table outside a cafe, sipping an iced coffee.

“Want anything?” she asked.

“Um, I’m okay,” I said as I sat down.

“I didn’t mean to be so cryptic when I messaged you,” she said. “It’s just that you really do need to see them for yourself.”

“Can you see them?” I asked.

I held my hands out so she could see that I was missing three nails. She shook her head.

“No, I’m afraid not,” she said. “I could only see mine when I had them. And his. Jason’s.”

“Jason… my Jason?” I asked.

She nodded. She took my outstretched hand in both of hers.

“Jason and I dated for two years,” she told me. “At first, it was really great. He told me how special I was and my friends and family loved him. I think my sister had a bit of a crush on him, actually. But slowly, over time, I began to notice things. I would wake up looking like someone had beaten me, but it never hurt and no one else could see it. I went to a therapist and she didn’t help me with the wounds, but she did help me realize something. Jason is abusive, Anna.”

“Abusive? But he never—.”

“He never hits you,” Charlotte said, letting go of my hands and leaning back in her chair. “Yeah, I know. He never hit me either. But he hated it when I spent time doing anything that wasn’t catering to him. He drove a wedge between me and all my friends. Even my family. He’d refuse to go see them for the holidays but insisted I stay home with him. He was jealous of seemingly everyone in my life. He tried to use the fact that I saw a therapist to tell everyone, including me, that I was crazy. He even wanted me to get rid of my cat. My cat ran away. I’m pretty sure Jason opened the door and chased him off.”

She reached into her purse and pulled out her phone. She tapped the screen a few times and handed it over.

“Here’s a picture of us together, just in case you need proof that I know him.”

There they were. Jason had his arm around her and a big grin. She looked a little nervous, a smile creeping across her face as if it wasn’t sure it was allowed to be there.

“I believe you,” I said. How else could she have known about the wounds, after all?

“And that’s why I needed to message you, so you would have someone who believed you, too,” Charlotte said. “If Jason had just hit me or shoved me or anything like that, I would have left, you know? Or at least, I think I would have. If I had told my sister that he punched me, she’d have encouraged it. But when I told her he was jealous of how much my cat cuddled with me, she thought it was cute. It’s not like someone can get arrested for draining your happiness and belittling you into quitting your dodgeball team.”

“For me it was pilates,” I said.

“I think these wounds are our bodies’ way of letting us know,” Charlotte said. “It took me two years to see it, so I just figured I’d keep an eye on him and be there for the next woman. It’s easy to do with social media. Eventually, someone will tag him in something.”

“You’ve done this before?”

“Just once,” Charlotte said. “It didn’t go well at first. She figured out I was Jason’s ex, and he told her I was crazy. But about a year later, she messaged me. That’s why I figured I just have to let people see it themselves first.”

“Thank you,” I said. “How did you leave, exactly?”

“I changed my locks and told him to get out,” Charlotte said. “Oh, he’ll cry and beg. Try to play you that song he wrote for you. He didn’t write it for you, by the way. The one about the daises in the spring?”

I blinked. He did tell me he wrote that for me.

“He’ll call and text and email,” she said. “But after a while, he’ll move on. He’ll find someone else and I’ll message her, too. I use Instagram because he checks your texts, but doesn’t have Instagram. Anyhow, your best bet is to invite a friend over around the same time you’re gonna do it so he’ll leave faster and not try to pull any gaslighting. That’s a phrase my therapist taught me.”

Yeah, I’d heard the term before. I thought about how Jason tried to tell me I called my own friends stupid.

I left Jason, as I’m sure you likely deduced. He behaved in all the ways Charlotte had predicted, but stopped crying and just stormed off when Angela from book club showed up.

The wounds have gone away. Charlotte and I are still friends and yes, I’m back at all my regularly scheduled social events. All my friends tell me I seem so much happier, though they don’t seem to know why.

The other day, Charlotte sent me a picture. It was a Facebook post of yet another woman, smiling brightly a week into her new relationship with Jason.

“You can send the message if you want,” Charlotte wrote.

So I did.

“Hi. My name is Anna. When you see the wounds, we’ll be here.”

Photo: jakub/Flickr