It must have been the all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ. That had to be it. Or possibly the ice cream afterwards. Or the few extra beers that I thought I could handle. Well, whatever it was, I remember distinctly that the jeans weren’t too difficult to put on. Sure, they were tight and I had to do a little dance to force them on, but I managed somehow. However, now I was feeling faint. My waist was being constricted tighter by the minute as each of my breaths became more labored and pronounced.
It was moments like these that I would hear my mother’s voice as if she was whispering into my ear.
“Shelley, honey, I know it hurts, but you’ll get used to it soon. No one said it was going to be easy. It’s a burden you’ll have to learn to deal with as a young woman. Beauty is pain after all.”
She had told me those words for the first time after my first day wearing a bra. I came to her in tears. The straps on my shoulders had left dark red lashes on my fair skin and there were chafe marks bisecting my back.
She smiled when she saw me coming, unperturbed by my pain or my tears. Her voice had a motherly warmth but also the firmness that came with the declaration of something that was unchanging--inevitable.
I must not have learned my lesson because throughout my life, I’d hear those words many more times during other key moments of my life.
When I got braces.
When I wore heels for the first time.
When I got my ears pierced.
She’d always speak to me in that same tone, telling me it’ll be fine. It’ll be worth it in the end.
Will it though, Mom?
Of course, I’m partially to blame for this situation. I’m the one who chose these jeans in the first place. They were too cute to pass up and when I saw them on display through the window I knew I had to have them.
Unfortunately, the last one they had left was a few sizes too small, but I ended up buying it anyway. It would give me something to work towards, you know? And after cutting out my favorite latte, among other foods, and hitting the gym, one day I was finally able to slip into them, albeit barely.
It only sucks that now I couldn’t get them off, especially when he was waiting for me outside the door.
With a groan, I stood up to a chorus of creaking bones and the sound of fabric screaming for release, and made my way over to the bathroom door. I cracked it open so that only a sliver of light could come through.
Across the room, a man was sitting on the bed, lounging backwards using his arms as support. His white shirt was unbuttoned all the way down to reveal his bare chest, which my eyes lingered on for an extra few moments. Though it was hard to make out from this distance, the man was tapping his foot and frowning.
I picked up my phone and the screen told me it was 9:34 PM. I had been in the bathroom for almost twenty minutes now, and it was safe to assume that the mood was adequately killed at this point. Hopefully, once I get these pants off I could make it up to him and save the night.
Derek had finally asked me out last week, ending the year-long war all the girls at the office were participating in to see who could swoon him first. That day we were having a meeting with all the bosses to discuss sales numbers and projections for the year, so I decided to pull out all the stops. I’m talking full make-up, complete with fresh new lashes, red lipstick, black dress, leather heels, and I was even lucky enough to find the time in my busy schedule to get my hair done and eyebrows threaded. It was difficult, but when I walked into the boardroom, I knew it was worth it.
I couldn’t help but feel superiority coursing through my veins like blood when it was my turn to present and all eyes were glued to me. The other girls were giving me death glares, while the men were paying more attention to me than the slides I was presenting. However, nothing made me happier than to see Derek out of the corner of my eye sneaking glances in my direction, while he thought I wasn’t looking.
Maybe my mother had actually been right about something?
There was no debate that Mom was gorgeous. A former beauty pageant queen, she had even been a contestant in the Miss Universe competition one year where she was one of the finalists. And even though she didn’t win, she was able to attract the man she wanted. Or at least the kind she thought she wanted at the time.
But it was in the many interviews she did over the years that she would explain that her beauty didn’t come easy. She had to work towards it every day and that any of the young girls watching could be as pretty as her as long as they did the same. I’m sure it was during these times that she was speaking directly to me.
Suddenly, from outside the door, Derek’s deep voice interrupted my thoughts.
“Hey, Shelley, you alright in there?” Derek asked, sounding more agitated than worried.
“Yeah, sorry! I’m touching up my make-up. I’ll be right out.”
An exasperated sigh could be heard from outside the bathroom, while a set of footsteps trailed off then returned. There was a faint pop then the sizzling of carbonated liquid.
Having caught my breath, I gave the button another attempt. Using all the strength I could muster, I pushed until the small piece of metal was cutting into my flesh like a dull knife, and I held it. It was like a battle of wills. An immovable object vs an unstoppable force. Once I felt the button start to give, it redoubled its efforts and pressed me back. When I finally released, a trickle of blood was running down my red, pulsating thumb. It was no use. I had to find another way.
I flung open the mirror cabinet and shuffled through the drawers on the sink looking for any sort of tool I could use to pry these jeans off of me. But my efforts were fruitless. Unlike my bathroom that had hair products, scissors, make-up, and anything else a girl could need, Derek’s bathroom was barren, housing only the necessities--a toothbrush, a comb, and a disposable razor. The state of his bathroom surprised me, because as I found out tonight, Derek enjoyed his things.
When the date had first started he was nothing but respectful, much like how he was at work, but as the night wore on and the drinks piled up, I began to see a different side of him. One that I didn’t like.
Light, flirty touches eventually digressed into abrupt tugs and aggressive grabbing. Things I was unable to do anything about even if I wanted to.
Mom used to tell me that as a woman, I had to be cordial, submissive, and non-combative as well as beautiful, especially when it came to the opposite sex.
“They like that better, your father sure did.”
Men had their physical strength and assertiveness to get them what they wanted, while we, as Mom used to believe wholeheartedly, had our beauty. To a woman, beauty was power, and as long as she had it, she could bend people to her will.
When the two forces inevitably met, it was like a fine dance.
Heavy, arrhythmic footsteps approached the door followed by a series of jarring, frantic banging. It shook violently, threatening to come off its frail hinges.
Moments later, Derek’s voice came from right outside the door, as if he was speaking directly into it. His words were beginning to slur, melting into one long utterance.
“Hey, you’ve been in there too long. Get out here now.” He continued his pounding in order to emphasize his words.
Reflexively, my hand went to my chest and I took a step back from the door.
“I know. I know. I’m so sorry! Just wait one extra minute. I want everything to be perfect.” My calm, sickeningly pleasant tone was only betrayed by my rapidly beating heart that was now much louder than the pounding. As blood was being pumped throughout my body, it noticeably stalled when it attempted to move into my lower section, like it was stuck in a traffic jam. There was a fuzzy numbness in my legs now, and the tips of my toes were turning a shade blue.
“At this point, I don’t care. Come out now. Or else I’m coming in there.”
I hesitated. Light-headedness and fear were now interfering with my thought process. Derek was a large man and it was this size that defended the validity of his previous statement. If he wanted to, he’d be able to come through that door without much of a problem. The small door lock was next to useless.
I had to try and calm him down. De-escalate the situation. And in order to do that, I needed to meet him head-on and give him a little of what he wanted.
I reached for the doorknob tenderly and gave it a turn. The door swung open without much effort to reveal Derek’s massive frame, his raised fist inches away from where the door had just previously been. He was subtly swaying on his feet as he looked at me with glazed eyes. After the initial second it took him to recognize me, he grinned and reached out to grab me. I conceded.
“There she is. There’s my girl,” he said, eyeing me up and down. “You kept me waiting.”
“I’m sorry again. I’ll make it up to you.” I traced the contours of his chest with my finger.
“And how are you going to do that?”
“I guess you’ll have to see for yourself.”
I broke his grip and slowly made my way over to the bed, my movements constricted by my second layer of denim skin. I glanced across the room to the door of his apartment where my blacks heels were resting on the floor, as well as my jacket, and purse.
Despite the bed being only a few steps away, I was tired and out of breath by the time I reached it and I took a seat before my dizziness could bring me down. My thoughts were jumbled, but I tried to think of something to say to get me out of this situation. An excuse. I wasn’t feeling the mood anymore. I was afraid. He’d been drinking all night, and I was feeling nauseous and faint, barely able to move. I just wanted to find a nice way to excuse myself so I could go home and find a way to remove these damn jeans that were literally sucking the life out of me.
But Derek didn’t give me that chance.
He jumped on the bed and grabbed my wrists tightly, the weight of his body holding me in place.
There was a pit of dread in my stomach. I wanted to scream, lash out, and force him off of me, but Mom’s voice told me not to. It wouldn’t be very ladylike. Push through the pain and endure it.
Mom had always blamed herself for Dad leaving. That much I knew for sure.
Every so often, I used to hear crying coming from her room, mostly around significant dates, like their would-be anniversary and my birthday. Through the sobs, Mom would speak to someone who wasn’t there, or maybe it was to herself?
“I should have tried harder. It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.” She would repeat to herself like a mantra, cradling her knees to her chest as she sat on the floor.
After I was born, Mom eased up on her routines and schedules that kept her in tip-top shape. At this point, she wasn’t competing anymore, having been given everything she needed and wanted, and so much more. Some would call this “letting herself go,” but Mom saw more importance and value in taking care of me.
Dad didn’t see it that way.
Their marriage became progressively more rocky. Arguments, fights, and long stretches where they only spoke to each other through me, until finally he got up and left. Dad had met another pageant queen. Younger. Her body “unravaged by the effects of childbirth,” as he would say.
Needless to say, Mom was emotionally devastated. She believed she’d lost him because she had relinquished the power she had as a woman and when she no longer had that, Dad didn’t want her anymore. The notion was fundamentally flawed, but that was the only way she could see it.
The jeans were already making it hard for me to breathe and the added weight from Derek’s body only made it worse.
“Ouch, Derek. You’re hurting me.”
His rough hands squeezed my wrists tighter. “Is that better?”
He must have seen the pain and desperation in my eyes because at that he loosened his grip on my wrists and his fingers walked down to the button on my jeans.
“How about we get these off?” His breath reeked of alcohol.
Not even waiting for my answer, he started to fiddle with the button and after a moment he frowned. He looked into my eyes, annoyed, then back down to try again. The fabric in his sleeves tightened around his biceps as his muscles flexed.
Miraculously, there was an exhale of air from him and myself. The tension in his arms released and the pressure around my waist let up enough for me to take a full breath. He’d got it open.
However, there wasn’t even a minute to enjoy this small victory before he violently tried to jerk the pants off, dragging me over the bed with it. I slid across the bed like a snake and after all his effort the high-waisted jeans only moved less than a centimeter.
He cursed, storming over to his open beer can on the nightstand and downing whatever was left in it.
“This is your fault,” he spat.
“Possibly.” I chuckled, the irony of the situation not completely lost on me.
“You think this is funny? I knew you were just a tease. A pretty face. Nothing more.”
Now he was getting out of line. I used the extra blood flow provided to me from the opening of the button to hold myself back from completely telling him off. He didn’t deserve it, but I still had my manners. “Excuse me? Please don’t talk to me that way.”
Now it was his turn to laugh. “I’ll talk to you however I want to.”
I looked to the entrance of the apartment door and made a movement towards it, but Derek intercepted my path. He was pretty agile for a drunk person.
“You’re not going anywhere. You said you’d spend the night.”
I gagged from the smell of his breath. “Well, sorry, I changed my mind. I’d like to leave now.”
His hand went to grab my wrist, but I saw it coming this time and I dodged and stepped back. He smiled. It was just another game for him.
Derek continued his advance and I did my best to avoid him, deftly darting around the bed and the kitchen table. With the jeans, there was no way I’d be able to outmaneuver him for long.
Across the small apartment, the glint of metal caught my eye. Upon the counter was a full set of stainless steel cutting knives.
I strategically placed myself in a way that I’d be able to make a break for it if the opportunity presented itself.
“Derek, please. Stop this.”
He inched closer to me, stooping down, looking as if he could pounce at any moment.
“We’re having so much fun though.”
All of a sudden, he lunged toward me. Even though I was expecting it, I only barely just managed to dodge, his finger nails scratching my skin and leaving two long, red gashes.
I ran over to the set of knives and grabbed the largest handle, the butcher knife. Derek immediately stopped in his tracks. The only thing standing between him and me was the long strip of stainless steel in my hands that narrowed down to a sharp point.
I couldn’t hold the blade steady. Adrenaline was making my hands shake as I backed myself to the front door, not taking my eyes off of him for a second.
Derek’s hands were raised in surrender almost comically. “All right, all right. You got me. You can leave. Just put the knife down. I'm sorry.”
I slowly continued my retreat facing him until my foot bumped into something on the floor. I looked down to see that they were my black leather heels.
In that brief moment, Derek dashed forward pushing the knife to the side, and grabbing a fistful of my hair.
Struggling against his brutal strength, I thrashed my arms and kicked my feet, but he brushed off my blows. Derek was dragging me back to the bed.
Warm tears were running down my face and stinging my eyes. Unable to see anything but blurry images, I reached for whatever fleshy and soft part I could feel of his and bit down.
Derek roared, but he didn’t release me. My scalp was on fire now. Desperately, knife still in hand, I grabbed my own hair and savagely sawed through the area he was holding enough that a jerk of my head tore the last few strands, freeing me.
I stumbled into the bathroom and slammed the door, locking it even if it would be useless. As long as it would give me a few extra seconds, it would be more than worth it.
Using my shirt, I rubbed away the tears in my eyes and looked up.
I couldn’t recognize the person staring back at me. Mascara was flowing down my face like runny, black watercolor and red lipstick was smeared over my lips and chin. A huge tuft of hair was missing from the back of my head. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Outside, Derek was now using his body like a battering ram to slam into the door. The wood was starting to give, splintering at the hinges.
I looked down at my jeans. If I wanted to make it out of here, I needed to be faster than him.
I raised the knife and got to work cutting through the thick, dark-blue fabric. Strips and threading were coming undone as more of my fleshy legs were being exposed.
Right as the sound of ripping fabric and splintering wood were drowning out every other thought, I couldn’t help but notice that I couldn’t hear Mom’s voice anymore. A new voice was speaking to me. It was different, smaller and sadder, and I recognized it as my own.
I didn’t see anything like my life flashing before my eyes, but I didn’t know whether or not I would make it out of here alive. In that moment, the voice only brought up one regret.
I should have tried harder to convince Mom it wasn’t her fault that Dad left.
How pretty or how ladylike she was had little to do with his motivations. He left of his own accord, and I shouldn’t have let it affect her the way that it did.
It was just easier for me to agree with her because that is what she believed, and it would have given her the comfort of knowing that fate was in her hands, that she did have power, and there was something she could have done, when there really wasn’t.
Throughout their whole marriage, Dad always had a wandering eye. I remember the way he spoke to other women, when Mom wasn’t around. That was on him, not Mom. And I wasn’t going to let this belief that it was my fault, or Mom’s fault whenever a situation like this happened continue. Not anymore.
The door finally busted inwards when I got the last piece of the jeans off my legs. Sweat was pouring off Derek’s face as his angry eyes scanned the room for me. They found my face first, but they didn’t stay there long. Methodically, they zigzagged downwards to my black lace panties, and my bare, exposed legs.
His eyes finally stopped at the steel tip that was pointed directly at his chest.
My hands were steady now as I forced him back and circled around him.
“This again? We saw what happened last time. Maybe we really should just talk this one out before someone gets seriously hurt.” He was massaging his forearm where the red impressions of a bite mark were still clearly visible. “Just put the knife down and si--”
“No, shut up!” I made a jabbing motion towards Derek that caused him to jump back a couple of feet. “You don’t get to talk anymore. I told you I’m leaving. So get out of my way. Now.”
Derek stood in place. He didn’t move from the corner of his room as I hopped towards the door, my legs unencumbered.
Seeing my black heels that I tripped on before, I kicked them across the room where they landed next to the small pile of my black hair. It was liberating. I never liked heels anyway.
Now that Derek was an adequate distance away and I was sure he wouldn’t be following me, I slipped the knife into my purse, unlocked the door, and exited his apartment.
As I ran through the hallway carried by my legs and a light draft, I felt freedom at last. I ignored the stares from the other residents and burst out the entry door to the apartment complex. They must have thought I’d lost my mind.
The night air was cold on my naked legs and face, but I didn’t mind it all too much. I wanted to enjoy this feeling that I hadn’t felt in a very long time.