I have two memories about my first boyfriend that I keep. Two pearls, bright and unsullied, tucked away where they cannot be darkened by poison.
It’s prom night. I’m wearing a bright pink gown that my friend M let me borrow, something much girlier than I would normally wear. M and L are juniors, and I’m ecstatic to have been invited as a sophomore, and I’m even dizzier because L is with me. I’ve known him for almost a year, and never have my eyes lingered on his face like this, never before have my hands trembled just because he looked at me. We dance and I can feel his heartbeat beneath my cheek; it’s a wonder that I’m still able to stand. Post prom is afterwards, and L and I continue to orbit each other, concentric circles becoming smaller and smaller. We decide to leave the others behind, two comets ready to collide, and go to his mom’s van to wait.
I don’t recall how my head ended up on his lap or his hand in my hair, but I never wanted to move again. We spoke in whispers as if the air was fragile glass, and inside the car seemed a separate world, empty but for our matching breaths and our fingers slipping together.
“Can I kiss you?” He asks. His voice is shaking but his hand is steady in mine.
I whisper yes, and it’s my first kiss, and it’s everything I ever wanted.
It’s summer and it’s raining. It’s been months since our first kiss, and I have memorized how the nape of his neck smells, how his mouth always presses kisses into my temple. Our bodies are learning the same language, and I’m beginning to translate what’s beneath his skin. Dark words spit like poison from his tongue. The charred curl of self-deprecating laughter. His far-away stare into an abyss I cannot see. I do not know the word for this yet, but I try to be even more generous with words and hands.
It’s raining and L is angry at his parents, at his sister, at me. It hurts to hear him screaming, and it’s torture when he whispers.
“I hate myself.” His shirt is soaked wet. “Everything hurts all the time and all I want to do is run away and there’s only one way how.”
L looks at me and this is dying must feel like, your guts scoured out and ribs scraped clean.
“Look.” He tears off his t-shirt and exposes the canvas of his back. “This is what I do.”
There are countless scars across his shoulders, curving down his back where his hands must have stretched to reach and circling beneath his ribs. Some are old and almost too pale to see; others are bright white and awful.
“You’re the only thing,” he confesses. It’s a prayer if I’ve ever heard one. “You are bright and good and you keep me going. You keep me from making that choice.”
I reach out with rain-slick fingers and trace constellations across his shoulder blades, pressing a kiss against the curve of his spine, a benediction.
“You’re beautiful,” I tell him. He cries and I hope he believes me.
Two memories, hidden away in a small, warm space deep inside the hollows of me. I keep them because they remind me of why I fell in love with L, why I stayed in love with L despite everything that happened next. I keep them because I need to remember that I loved him before he ripped me apart and tore me to shreds and told me I was selfish for asking him to stop. I keep them because they’re beautiful, and there was little in those two years that could be named so, because abuse isn’t beautiful, coercion isn’t beautiful, manipulation isn’t beautiful (if you love me you’ll let me). I keep them to remind me how far I’ve come and how much I survived.
I have scar tissue too deep beneath my skin for kisses to reach, but I have no need for baptism. It’s not my burden to absolve your sins.
Despite all your best efforts to kill me, I am alive.
I am a woman with a million scars and two pearls and I am the most beautiful thing you will never see again.