I Like You Like This, page 1
Copyright © 2017 by Heather Cumiskey
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, digital scanning, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, please address She Writes Press.
Printed in the United States of America
Print ISBN: 978-1-63152-292-5
Library of Congress Control Number: 2017943953
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She Writes Press
1563 Solano Ave #546
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Cover design © Julie Metz, Ltd./metzdesign.com
Book design by Stacey Aaronson
She Writes Press is a division of SparkPoint Studio, LLC.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For misfits everywhere.
IF HER FATHER CAUGHT HER WITHOUT HER CONCEALER, THE berating would begin.
“Just look at your face! Dammit, Hannah, it’s disgusting, come on now,” he’d scold in his harshest voice, the one that had caused her to jump ever since she could remember.
Hannah applied the stick concealer to her face like an addict, attacking each puss-filled eruption over and over with quick half-moon dabs and dots, smearing and scrutinizing her work. Apply, blend, apply, blend. Cut or rip the edges of the dried-out scab if needed. Add moisturizer. Rub in. For raised, uneven spots use a Q-tip. Repeat with stick.
She worked fast, keeping an eye on the time, worried she’d miss the bus. Her fingertip—the same one that had caused the damage to begin with—helped cloak her shame, filling her nail with a ghoulish mixture of cover-up, skin, and blood that she expertly flicked away. Hannah finished the charade with one last look into her old Princess Barbie hand mirror as the first cracks of sunlight poked through her bedroom window. What a mess, she thought. If only she hadn’t picked last night, and then again this morning, making this daily magic act even harder.
Hannah gave up. She knew she wasn’t fooling anyone. Especially him.
She yanked off her old pom-pom hat, the one she used to tame her uncontrollable hair. It gave her a headache. Big hair was in, but hers carried it to the point of being comical. Hannah took a step back. Yep, it still looked frizzy and cone-shaped, and like nothing her mother would ever want to see. “If only you’d just take care of it right,” she could hear her saying.
Hannah was a human pincushion for her parents’ constant criticism, and there was always ample room for just one more jab. The pain of their words had settled somewhere in her body over time, gnawing on her insides. If only she could please them. But striving to resemble the shiny-haired, Noxzema-skinned daughters in her snobby town only drove her to pick at her face more, and not even Clearasil and Tame Crème Rinse could save her. And uncontrollable acne and wild, “afro-looking” hair (as her family so affectionately described it) were clearly signs of poor parenting. To her parents, a proper appearance always trumped sensitive feelings.
Hannah shook her head, sizing up her outfit in her bedroom mirror—the one with the hot overhead lights, like a movie star would have in his or her dressing room. She pulled and tugged and sucked it all in, holding her breath, and letting her pride swell for just a moment at the sight of her well-shaped, sixteen-year-old butt. But the good feeling didn’t last. Soon the shame returned, crawling up the back of her neck and into her scalp underneath her dark auburn hair, flushing her pale Irish skin crimson.
“Harlot,” the voice in the mirror pulsed back at her. “Dirty harlot.”
She tried to shut it out, but the voice only got louder. How could he call me that? Hannah’s anxiety made its usual descent down her arms and into her hands, causing her thumbs to ache. The awful memory from last winter suddenly consumed her: the day she wore the wrong skirt to church.
Hannah had bought the outfit with her babysitting money—a denim skirt that fell a few inches above her knee, paired with flats and a pink golf shirt worn with the collar up. The look was very trendy around school, but just to be sure, Hannah ran the outfit by her mother, who barely looked up from her Sunday paper before nodding her approval. Every week they went through the same drill. Hannah had to dress up for church, usually in a skirt or dress. Jeans were never allowed. It was like church was a fashion show where the parents in her town paraded their kids down the aisle for all to envy. God doesn’t really care what you wear, Hannah thought, does He?
Her mother, for some reason, had stopped coming to church, preferring to stay home in her bathrobe while Kerry, her six-year-old sister, entertained herself. Hannah was never allowed to miss mass.
She hurried out to her father, who was already in the car. She never knew what kind of mood he’d be in, and lately she didn’t seem to do anything right. The path to the driveway lay covered in a sheet of ice; Hannah carefully navigated her way across it and around the car to the passenger door, grabbing its handle as she pulled herself in before losing her footing and falling into the seat.
She quickly closed the door with a sidelong glance, hoping he hadn’t noticed her clumsiness. They rode in silence, which was pretty normal for them these days, until they were about a mile from their house.
“What are you wearing?”
His tone made Hannah jump. “W-What?” She clenched her hands underneath her thighs.
“You heard me,” he replied coolly, tightening his grip on the steering wheel.
“It’s new . . .”
But it was too late. Her father turned to look at her. His narrowing eyes began running up and down her legs, cheapening her. “Goddammit, what the hell do you think you’re wearing!”
Hannah could see his bottom teeth cutting into his upper lip, holding back a string of things he clearly wanted to say. Instead, he slammed his hand on the steering wheel, and then, without warning, he swerved to the side of the street. “Get out.”
“Please, Daddy . . . Mom already . . .” She could feel her throat tightening as she dug her fingernails into her palms. Make this stop; just make this stop, she prayed.
“I said, get out!”
“P-please listen . . .” Think, think, the voice inside her yelled. She pulled on the ends of her hair as if they were reins, but the tears still came, betraying her. “B-but Mmmom approved this outfit for church!” she pleaded, her voice catching.
Her father popped the automatic door locks, the sound startling her like a gunshot. “Now,” he said without looking at her.
Hannah did what he said like an obedient dog. She watched the paneled station wagon pull away, getting smaller and smaller. He’s going to turn around, she told herself. He’s going to turn around.
She turned back toward home, gauging the long walk ahead. She didn’t have a coat and felt like a fool standing there dressed in a short-sleeve shirt and miniskirt on one of the coldest mornings of the year. She prayed that the neighbors weren’t gawking from their warm living rooms. Why the hell hadn’t she chosen dress pants and a sweater instead of being so stupidly excited to wear her new outfit? It’s February, for god’s sake, not May. Geez. She pulled her arms tight around her body, looking back for his car, feeling more naked and exposed with every slick step she took. Chills crawled up her bare white legs as she tugged on the ends of her skirt
They’re watching me; I know they’re watching me. Hannah glared into the windows of the 1950s ranchers and Cape Cods that lined the blocks leading back to her neighborhood. “Slut,” they’re saying. She hid her face in her collar, her cheeks swollen and raw and streaked with black bars from her makeup. God, get me home.
She’d give it to herself good for this one, alone in her bedroom. Hannah was an expert at self-punishment: she’d beat herself up to the point of torture, until she grew numb and could rejoice in the pain that tranquilized every cell in her body. She couldn’t wait to get started. Somehow, she knew she deserved this. It was her fault he was gone—the father who had once taught her how to play cards and climb the tallest tree in their backyard, the same man who used to light up when she’d come bouncing into a room. Now she couldn’t do anything right, from her exploding skin to her embarrassing hair. He stormed around the house with heavy, righteous feet and intermittent outbursts over leaky faucets and broken stove handles, setting those in his wake on edge. Hannah steered clear of him as much as possible; their relationship was now non-existent.
He was headed to church. Surely he’d realize his cruelty and show some remorse for how he’d treated her. After all, sixty minutes of standing, sitting, and amening about love and forgiveness has got to soften somebody, even him, she reasoned.
“M-mom?” Hannah called when she walked into the house, relieved to finally be inside.
“Why are you back?”
The edge in her mother’s voice did little to thaw her. She found her still seated at the kitchen table, her palms pressing against it. Hannah’s kid sister, Kerry, sat perched beside her, slurping her Frosted Flakes and clearly enjoying the scene.
“D-dad kicked me out of the car,” Hannah choked. Please hold me.
“What did you do?”
“N-nothing . . . I swear . . . he didn’t like my skirt.” Hannah began to blubber like she was five again. She wasn’t allowed to swear, let alone miss church. But above all, she wasn’t allowed to cry in front of her parents.
“I don’t want to hear it. Go to your room!” Her mother commanded with a stern look before scowling back into her newspaper.
All that had felt good and promising that morning had suddenly unraveled. Her new, pretty clothes shook in a tight ball on her closet floor. Sixteen years old and she was still hiding from them.
“I need help! God, where are you?” Hannah whispered into the darkness from the floor of her closet. She heard her mom’s footsteps overhead and quickly changed. She then buried the denim “devil” behind her hanging clothes, hoping her father would leave her alone the rest of the day.
The front door slammed an hour later, followed by her father’s pounding on her bedroom door.
“Hannah!” he yelled.
Her hand shook knowing she didn’t have a choice but to open the door. She swung it open reluctantly to see her father’s red face awaiting her on the other side.
“Hannah, if you ever . . .”
“What, what did I do?”
“You look like you want it,” he spat.
“What? Wanted what, Dad? I don’t—”
“Harlot. You look like a harlot! A dirty harlot!”
“W-what, Dad? What do you mean?” Incredulous that this wasn’t over yet, Hannah did her damndest to stop her tears.
He shook his index finger in her face, looking like Moses himself. “If you ever wear that skirt again, you’re out of this house . . . for good!”
Hannah ran past him and out to her mother for help.
“Please, M-mom, you know what happened. You told me the outfit was okay . . .” Please hold me, Mommy, she pleaded silently.
“Don’t get me involved,” her mother said, turning her back to Hannah. She then waved her away like a gnat.
Hannah flew back into her room, feeling like her head was about to explode. She shut the door, sank to the floor, and grabbed her diary from underneath her mattress. Chest heaving, she wrote her screams on paper:
I NEED HELP!!! My father just called me a dirty harlot. I hate all of you! There is no one I can turn to. You treat me like shit! I hate you, almost as much as I hate myself. I’ll never forgive you Dad for calling me dirt, Mom for turning your back on me, always. I have no friends because you don’t even make me feel worth it. I hate. That’s all I feel. How many times do I have to be unloved, rejected, and shitted on? I’m a person too. God, where are you? I just want to die. Please help me.
A dirty harlot. She didn’t know what the word meant, so she looked it up in her dictionary, the one she used for school:
A woman who engages in sexual intercourse for money. A prostitute.
Hannah gasped. She’d never even kissed a boy. She reread the ugly words over and over to maximize the pain and make herself go numb. He thinks this of me, my own father? Then I must be one. Why else would he call me that? Hannah dug her nails into her face. Her fingers traveled upward to pull her hair from her scalp, but the pain wouldn’t subside. I must be, he told me so . . .
Her head throbbed from crying so hard; her limbs were weak and lifeless. If only I was lifeless, she thought darkly. She reached for her only ally in the house—a cheap, oversized stuffed hippo. She rocked it back and forth, pretending it was her mother—but a different mother, one that held her and made everything better. She hugged the hippo until she collapsed into some sort of sleep. No one came to check on her.
Her father had ignored her existence for the rest of the week. And Hannah had done little to garner his attention, only coming out of her room to eat and use the bathroom. She’d gotten herself up for school and disappeared back inside her four walls as soon as she came home, until, one day, her mother had enough and told her, “Quit your carrying on, for Christ’s sake.”
Hannah simply nodded and swallowed it back down.
HARLOT, THE WORD ASSAULTED HER BRAIN AGAIN.
“Not now!” Hannah cursed under her breath, pushing down the painful memory before storming out of her bedroom and into the cool hallway. She glanced down at the wall-to-wall blue-green carpeting with the dust stripe along the edges where the floor met the wall. Some weeks the dirt trail was worse than others. This was one of those weeks.
“I’m going to school!” she called to her mom, but only the burnt orange starburst wall clock in the kitchen ticked back. The house was eerily quiet. Damn it. She could die and no one would care.
Hannah hated her family’s dark ’70s ranch house and the prison it represented, starting with the kitchen’s gold-speckled Formica countertops, its table that held down the peeling linoleum floor, and the harvest-gold appliances festering in grease and food droppings. She hated, too, the brown laminate cabinets that held their hoarders’ secrets, along with overdue bill statements, yellowing nail polishes, and half-empty pill bottles stuffed in drawers and away from prying eyes.
Hannah double-timed it to the bus stop; her girlfriends would be waiting for her. Well, not really. She’d meet them at the corner. Maybe they’d look up from their conversation and say hi. Usually they didn’t. But that didn’t stop her. You’re trying too hard, she told herself as she came closer to the corner where the three girls held court. Other bus kids, the peripherals, circled around them, each pretending to focus on something else as they tried to eavesdrop on the trio’s conversation. Hannah obsessed over them too. She always psyched herself up on the walk there with a silent pep talk: they like you, you’re one of them, this is your group. She wanted it so badly. Always had.
Hannah never kept friends for long. She was the kid with “cooties” on the elementary school playground. It’s just a game; they aren’t being mean, she’d tell herself, but it was hard to convince herself that it was true as they sought “cootie shots” whenever she came around. Back then, her teachers would watch, clustered together on the black top, pursing their lips and shaking their heads at the pitiful kid
Hannah’s classmates also teased her about whether she was a boy or a girl, yanking her short pixie haircut—one of the many battles she had fought with her mother over the years. “You can have longer hair when you can take care of it,” her mother would say.
Hannah had always tried her best to hold it together. Tears only made it worse. Eventually she’d gotten used to the tormenting and pretended to be in on the joke. The faster they ran from her, the faster she chased them. Please like me, will you like me today? she’d pray. They never did—but they eventually lost interest in the weird girl who dressed and looked like a boy, and for the most part left her alone.
She’d told herself that high school would be different. She could afford to wear what she wanted now, for one; she’d made sure of that with all of her babysitting jobs. And she knew how the popular girls dressed, how they wore their hair. She could be just like them. But somehow, it hadn’t worked out that way.
Don’t ignore me, she thought as she approached the three girls at the bus stop, her heart pounding. Not today. In a moment of inspiration, she breathlessly blurted out, “Hey, do you guys know where I can buy some . . . good stuff, you know . . . at school?”
That got them. The trio of well-dressed girls, with the pretty shiny hair and clear skin, stopped and swirled around in unison like a Breck Shampoo commercial, even spiky, redheaded Gillian with her half-smile/half-smirk and cold, blue-gray eyes.
Is she laughing at me? Hannah wondered.
But it was the blonde, Leeza, who spoke first. “Oh, you need to talk to Deacon, that cute guy who hangs out near the girls’ locker room right before homeroom and after school sometimes. You can’t miss him,” she said, spouting her know-it-all wisdom of all things high school. Sparkly-eyed Leeza, with her ice-pink lips and frosted tresses, co-captained the high school debate team and was the founder of the school’s Spirit Club—a group of wannabe cheerleaders and desperate-to-be-popular girls looking for ways to amp up their status.