As a boy, my father raised rabbits. “Raised” is a euphemism. The rabbits were meat. When customers wanted stew or fricassee, he slaughtered the rabbits with a hammer to the back of the head so they wouldn’t get scared and taint the succulent flesh with their screams. He did this after months of giving them food, water, a place to sleep, and the occasional pet when his fingers yearned for softness in his life—but no name, never a name. “Livestock aren’t meant to be friends,” he told me. “They exist to be used.”
Once he’d slit their throats and held them upside down over a bucket to drain, my father laid the dead rabbits on newspapers he spread across the picnic table in his backyard. Otherwise, his mother yelled about the mess. Then he peeled them, paring fur from meat, like the rabbits were no different from the crabapples his mother turned into jelly every summer.
“He’s skinned me alive.” This is my first coherent thought in the hospital the day after my ex-boyfriend Sebastian threw sulfuric acid on me. I’m coming down from a hefty dose of opioids. My back, shoulder, the side of my face, and the hole that had been my right ear, buzz with the echoes of raining fire. (I heard the news about the missing ear from nurses talking on my good side.) No mirror, and turning my head is difficult, but I can see a carpet of bandages edging my nose and flowing down my shoulder.
Sebastian came at me head-on nine days after I broke up with him. I was on the steps talking to my neighbor Vivien on my way out of my apartment building. He walked toward me carrying a cooler. Vivien said good-bye and headed for the mailboxes by the front door. I went down the last few steps and waited, gave a little wave. I wanted to be kind.
The day of our breakup, he’d left bruises when he grabbed my arm across the table at the coffee house where I asked him to meet. “You can’t leave me, babe. Who for? Who is it? You don’t get to leave me,” he said. So I knew he was angry, but I thought maybe he had calmed down some, seeing that I didn’t cheat, that I wanted him to find a woman who could make him happy.
Sebastian stopped a few feet in front of me on the sidewalk. He smiled his satisfied “You’re good with your mouth” smile. He set the cooler on the ground, flipping the handle down and the lid up. “I have something for you, babe,” he said.
“How nice of you. Have you been doing okay, Sebastian?” I couldn’t think of anything else to say, but that made me nervous. Sebastian thought his presents bought him property rights, allowing him to read my texts, to kiss me with tongue in front of my boss, to come over ready for dinner and sex without asking if I was busy. For the first five days after the breakup, he left me 2 a.m. voicemails calling me a slut and a gold digger. On day six, I mailed him everything he ever gave me. I didn’t ask for the presents I gave him. He was hurt—I understood.
Sebastian didn’t answer me. He kept smiling, even winked, as he grabbed the cooler on the sides and heaved it toward me. I saw a glistening wave and turned enough so my back and shoulder took the brunt. The doctors say that if more of my face had been compromised and my burns weren’t irrigated so quickly, I’d have had to wear a bandage-beige compression mask for the rest of my life to hold in the open wounds, doomed to wander the earth looking like a second-string lucha libre wrestler. They know this worst-case scenario because I’ve been hijacked into a growing global club that no one joins by choice. I hate feeling lucky that I’m not one of the women whose whole face melted off. I hate feeling lucky that I can still recognize a part of myself.
The wave crashed; rivulets spattered and eddied across my flesh. There were one, two, three heartbeats when it could have been a stranger spilling a drink on me who would follow up with concerned social niceties: “I’m sorry, oh God. How could I be that clumsy?”
Then the pain hit, leaving no room for tears or words. I screamed.
He screamed louder: “Bitch! That’s right, bitch!”
Vivien called the police and emptied a six-pack of bottled water on me from her grocery bags while I lay on the concrete, curled in on myself and moaning to the backbeat of a pacing man yelling “bitch, bitch, bitch.”
He was my boyfriend for eight months. He never knew my name.
Caralyn Davis lives in Asheville, N.C., with her cat Henry, writes short fiction and creative nonfiction, and works as a freelance writer for healthcare and technology transfer trade publications. Her work appears, or is slated for publication, in Fiction International, The Bitter Southerner, Molotov Cocktail, Eclectica, Monkeybicycle, Flash Fiction Magazine, Superstition Review, BULL, Writers Resist, and other journals. Find her on Twitter @CaralynDavis.
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