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TOXIC
By Nya Jackson

 

 

 

 

Zainab finds courage with her fingers crammed down her boyfriend’s throat. She finds the courage she was certain she never had in the writhes and lurches of his body as Jay sputters up valium coated vomit. In the confined space of their bathroom, the white walls brightening under the intensity of the fluorescents, she finds desperation with valor and shame at the realization that it had come too late. The arm that’s wrapped tight around the front of his waist feels strong and the adrenaline rushing throughout her makes his fingers digging into her skin seem like a barely noticeable drop of rain. His body jerks hard against her in the most violent of ways as he lurches forward and continues to empty the poisonous contents of whatever he forced himself to take in.

It was the cold that warned her. She had been rudely awakened by the intense presence of it lurking in between her sheets. It sent her to search until she found her boyfriend falling asleep on the bone-chilling tiles of the bathroom floor. It was the orange pill bottle lying next to him that made her pull him up as well as she could manage, bend him over the toilet, and stick a finger down his throat. It was him reacting, his body shaking and quaking with every gag, that kicked her actions into overdrive and forced her fingers down deeper until she felt his sick dribble down her arm. It was knowing that, if not for the cold, he would have been gone and overdosed by the time she found him. Zainab, with her fingers stuffed down her boyfriend's throat, with his body jerking violently against her, with the stench of his vomit assaulting her senses, found the guilt she had been trying to ignore.

He gags and sags against her, body melting along with his sense of self-worth. The toilet left half full and her hand saturated, the sick dribbling all the way down to her elbow, she sinks to the floor. The cold, once again, shocks her and shoves her into reality, forces her to feel everything. The freezing tiles burn the edges of her memory, turn her numbness into ashes. Across from her, leaning against the bathtub, Jay sobs. The ropes he’d been using to hold himself together for the past few weeks snap in the middle and break him further, drop him hard enough to leave permanent damage.

Zainab watches him with a thick throat before forcing herself to look down at her hands. The mess clinging to her fingers feels less like vomit and more like blood. It’s that thought that propels her to move forward, quickly washing her hands in the sink before wetting a towel.

It’s when she’s wiping Jay’s face, cleaning his lips and the corner of his mouth, patting over the tear stained tracks on his cheeks that he cries harder. “I’m sorry” are the first words out of his mouth and Zainab can’t help but feel like they don’t belong there. Like they’re the words of a long dead language. The confusion startle the words from coming out of her mouth, the shock of the apology that was unwarranted.

Merely two weeks earlier was when everything had changed, when Jay had been robbed of a once safe and familiar world, tossed into his own Persephone’s dungeon. Like death and like loss, it happened when they least expected it. When they were trading moments of sobriety in for a night of jubilant tabula rasa. They were becoming backdrop paintings in the contrived spectacle of the house party. They being the would-bes and should-have-been humanizations of failure and defeat, personifications of disappointed and unaccepting parents. They being a generation of untapped, unwavering, uninspired potential befallen from an unachieved grace. Blending into the array of young bodies, falling in and out of disillusionment to the beat of some old rock song from the 80s, Zainab and Jay had been infinite. Infinity running on, inspirations running low, passions running high. The party was in full swing and people were running on lilac vapors, tasting rainbows with the help of THC and hard lemonade. In a haze and trodden beneath the daze, the two of them sat under the string of neon lights haphazardly hung up under the staircase. Zainab was humming along to the song, occasionally mumbling the lyrics she didn’t know and Jay was stroking her hair and finding too much solace in the bottom of his third plastic red cup. Near the crescendo of the tune, Jay asked her if she even knew who sang the song. She said no and stopped singing altogether.

“You ready to leave?” Zainab asked at the same time that she tried to count all of the voices carrying throughout the house.

Jay shook his head. “I’m not drunk enough to go back home yet.”

Zainab laughed and agreed quietly. There was enough stress between the two of them to create an emotional storm cloud had that been a possibility. In the movies and in the biographical books, graduating college is the stepping stone to greatness. The rom-com heroine graduates from her Ivy League university, falls into a job that’s too good for reality, and into the arms of a handsome CEO, making her successful and rich for the rest of her life. Zainab had always been told graduating college was it. After that, there was no more fucking up, no more excuses for not having your shit figured out yet. Having been out of college for three years was making her the dartboard for her family’s incessant questions, for pressure to be great and to be the best even in a world that’s full to the brim of greats and bests.

‘Oh, Zainab, have you gotten a job yet?’ met with ‘I already have a job’ countered with ‘I mean a real one, dear.’

Neither of them enjoyed parties that much, the hustle of it all too much and too stifling. People yelling, people drinking, people stinking of cigarettes and laughing through hiccups -- it was too much. On any normal night, they would be inside leaning against each other eating pineapple pizza and making fun of arthouse cinema. But, after the immense stress of the last two weeks, what they needed more than anything else was too much of everything, volumes loud and alcohol stench thick.

“If we go home now, you’d be just sober enough to play a drinking game.” “There’s nothing good on TV.”

“We can find an old State of the Union Address,” Zainab leaned deeper into him when he laughed heartily. “Take a shot every time someone says ‘economy’.”

It’s that last laugh, that final smile before he agreed and excused himself to the bathroom, having to “sober up” before they headed home, that now haunts Zainab the most. She hasn’t seen Jay smile like that since, it was his last moment of carefree elation, nothing about him was bubble wrapped and marked ‘FRAGILE’ in glaring red letters. He was Jay. His Jay. Her Jay. The Jay everyone knew and flocked to.

It took him too long to come back, that was the first warning. Everything Jay did, with the exception of his long, passionate political rants, was short. He was a city boy who only knew how to move fast, never floating, always frantic like the rush hour was never-ending. When he did come back, he was different. Recognizably so. After he’d told her what happened to him, about how he was intercepted on his way to the bathroom, how a guy he didn’t know struck up a conversation with him, about how he could barely put up a fight, bones too sated and cognition merely a thing to be desired, she knew that the Jay who walked into the bathroom was never going to come back out.
When he did finally return, he was quiet. He hissed when they walked home together, he limped, and told her he’d accidentally slammed his ankle in the bathroom door. He leaned away from every touch, jumped when Zainab tried to hold his hand, and stayed up most of the night holing up in the bathroom instead of sleeping. The distance grew between them, growing thick with everything he couldn’t say and everything she didn’t want to ask. Her answer came with her agitation, when she fell out and boldly asked him what the silence was about, telling him to go ahead and break up with her if that’s what he wanted to do. And then he explained, through sentences that were more fragmented than incongruent puzzle pieces, that breaking up wasn’t on his mind.

That “I think...someone did something to me”.

“This kind of thing,” he started, his words clipped and his voice sounding identical to broken glass shattering on concrete. “It doesn’t happen to boys. That’s what everyone tells me.” Jay looks small sitting up in the hospital bed, the gown sagging against him like dead weight. His skin is gray, his existence blending into the dull wallpaper. Under the fluorescents, he looks nothing like himself, almost looks translucent beneath the glaring lights. As if his existence is being held on by weak threads. Zainab sits a fair distance away in the chair for visitors, closer to the IV machine than to him. The distance between them is intentional. The beep of the EKG, the hum of the humidifier serve as white noises that comfort, displacing awkward silences. After she cleaned him up, neither one of them mentioning the forgotten orange pill bottle lying against the bathroom floor, she called an ambulance.

When he was getting his stomach pumped officially, his toes curled and he balled his hands into fists, choking on the tube and trying not to put up a fight, Zainab cried harder than she had in the weeks before.

After many attempts at self-exoneration, Zainab eventually woke from her stupor, from her dazed kaleidoscope that only repeated images of herself, and asked the important questions. She knew what he meant and she knew he was right. It took a lot of pleading and bargaining, long tear filled nights that stretched out like deserts, for her to convince him to file a report. It was after many drawn out attempts at clarification, several of instances of “you mean him?” and “he’sthe one that was sexually assaulted?” accented with disbelieving, poorly hidden grins that they knew it was a lost cause.

“I never wanted to say anything,” Jay resumes. “It wasn’t for anyone else to know.” “Was that your plan? Face it alone, hope all goes well?”

“It would have been better than now,” a sharp inhale makes Zainab look up, curl her fingers and dig her nails into her palm. It’s only after she looks up, when she sees the tears that have started to stream down Jay’s cheeks that she feels how wet hers have become.

It, the revelation, the written confession, started as a zephyr and became a tumultuous whirlwind that defecated the last shreds of tranquility they were clinging to. First, it was quiet. Then the media caught on, then someone released Jay’s name to the public, then there were joke tweets and memes because “this kind of thing doesn’t happen to boys”. Half the world, it seemed, was fighting with them. There were trending hashtags defending Jay, there were long articles penned by well known celebrities, there were think pieces and debates on talk shows. Jay’s name, once his own, once something Zainab would shamelessly use as a curse in the throes of both ecstasy and enragement, became a synonym for “victim” and for “toxic masculinity” and so many other things neither of them anticipated.

“But I feel like, maybe, all of this wouldn’t matter...it almost wouldn’t matter if you hadn’t started looking at me like that?”

Zainab doesn’t ask him to clarify this time. She only watches him closely, watches him watch her, and tries to send out the myriad of apologies she can’t seem to voice. He toys with the IV tube digging into him, twists the tube without really twisting it, quietly weighing the pros against the cons of yanking it out.

“You used to look at me like I was strong, you know? Like there wasn’t a thing I couldn’t do. A real life superhero. But now...everything you do, everything you say, every fucking look is one of pity. You feel sorry for me.”

“...you were hurt. If I was hurt, you’d be looking at me the same way.” “It’s different and you know it.”

This doesn’t happen to boys.

“Everyone,” he continues. “Everyone I know thinks I’m lying. The world thinks I’m lying. You see the things they say on the articles, right? All those comments, the whole fucking world gets to see me and they get to judge. No one was supposed to know, I didn’t want anyone to know…” Through his tears, his face growing red, his dry heaving and hiccups, his voice gets lost in the race for something akin to levity. His words cut off when Zainab rose to her feet and sat on the edge of the hospital bed, taking his hand into hers. She reaches over and pushes his hair from his forehead, uses her calloused thumbs to wipe the tear trails on his cheeks.

“You know the truth. That’s what matters...you can keep fighting.”

Zainab wants to say more. She tries to dig in the confines of her mind for an excerpt out of some inspirational passage but nothing comes up. The search stills when Jay speaks, his own voice anything but defiant, merely a weak exhale. “I’m tired.”

 

 

 

 

 

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About the Author
 
           Nya Jackson is a college student studying for a degree in directing & screenwriting. She enjoys writing short stories as well as poetry in her free time. She also spends a great deal of time imagining scenarios that will never happen, doodling, and delivering famous cinematic monologues to anyone who will listen. This is her first publication.

 

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