It happened one time while I was back home visiting that I ran into an old friend from school. After some awkwardly warm exchange of greetings- warm but hesitant on her end, and on mine just plain hesitant and reserved after living so long outside Louisiana in a place where a smile passing somebody on the street can get you the stinkeye in return- we decided to continue on to a nearby park to talk since we both had time to spare.
"So...how ya been?" I started as we walked, not really knowing the best place to begin. She reached up and plucked some soft pre-bloom pods from a crepe myrtle we were passing, and began busying herself with squeezing the bottoms. Each pod popped in an explosion of fuchsia frills and folds, then squeezed out more and more and more like toothpaste from a tube as Kayla's fingers pinched harder and harder and harder against the bottom of it, until it could be pushed no more. When it got to that point it tended to lose the more brilliant aspects of its beauty and just look like a squished paper flower after the party has all finished up and everybody has gone home already, save for the decorations left overnight for somebody else to clean up, because really, that's not my job.
".....not good." Kayla said quietly.
I frowned and looked over in concern. "..Why? What's up?"
Kayla shrugged her shoulders and made a "it don't matter" face. We sat down on a rough cement bench near an ancient blooming dogwood tree, and Kayla preoccupied herself with popping more of her crepe myrtle pods.
"'s just...." The words seemed to stick in her throat. She shook her head, trying to clear them away. "I dunno, I'm just...just tired, is all. I'm so tired."
Kayla shrugged and sighed, throwing aside the spent flowers she had just forced into prematurely blooming. "Life. Love. Men. E'rything. I'm tired'f relationships. Tired'f the cum an go'f men always hopin' fer more than they evah seem able t'give...tired'f...I dunno, jus' tired'f men always sayin' th' same thing, always wantin' th' same thing, an' never givin' back nearly wut it costs a woman t'give wut they ask fuh.."
I gave a small, snorting laugh, smiling a little at the familiarity of her story. "You sound like you jes' got outta a relationship."
To my surprise Kayla just shook her head. "Naw, not really. I've only really been havin' one night stands. 'N those'r useless. All you get from 'em is more lonely an' a case'f crabs."
She noticed my shock and laughed. "Well, 's true!"
I looked away from her. "Yeah, well, kinda sounds like that may be yer problem right there."
"Naw, that ain't it." She followed where I was looking and was quiet for a while. She was quiet so long that at first I thought she must have gotten lost in her thoughts or at the sight of the squirrels a ways away battling over a garbage can find, but then she added, "Naw, that ain't it at all. It's been goin' on a wile- a reel long wile." She shook her head then looked down at the oily asphalt walkway a pace in front of us, kicking her feet out towards it. "Since high school- mebbe before. Men always comin' after me, always followin' me around with 'aww, baby, yew so purrrty' an always after th' same thing. It's always th' same thing. Sex. They ne'er want nuthin' else, not e'en yer heart or yer warmth or yer care or concern or yer love or anythin' else'f value tha' you cud offer'em. They say 'aww babee, yew so purrrty' jus' fera chance to get in yer pants an' then leave off wit' sumbuddy else."
I bit my lip. This was the most honest she had ever been with me, even including our days as close friends back in high school. I was touched, but something about what she was saying seemed a little off. It didn't seem to describe any of the men I was close to, or most of the men I had known. "But Kayla-" a shock of intense closeness at using her first name shot through me and for a moment magnetized my soul to hers- "you are pretty. Yer very pretty. Maybe tha's just th' reason..."
"Pretty! Pretty?" Bitterness exploded from deep within Kayla. "Ifi could take pretty an' cut it all offa mah face, peel an' scar it all away so people could see what really is layin' underneath an' never say again 'awww, baby, yew so puuurrty' I would!" She spat out the words as if they had been stuck in her throat for ages, rotting and clogging up all attempts at communication from the inside. "D'yew know wut pretty has dun fer me? Huh?? Wut's pretty dun fer me atall bu' gimme oggle-eyed uncles, lickin'-lips boys flirtin' wit de possibility'f wearing pretty on dey dicks fer an hour or two an den leavin' in th' mornin' wit a smile an' a thank you an' a 'i'll call yew later' witout a backward glance? Wut did pretty e'er gimme but a father rubbin hands over thighs an' kissing neck an' tellin' me 'baby, yew so purrty, i love yew so much, yer mah lil honey' wile my stepmom jes' looks me straight inna eye an' then turns her head t'th' side? Wut did pretty ever do fer me but rot me from th' inside by all th' men tryin' to flaunt me, all th' people tryin' ta fuck me, an' all th' women spittin' at me, huh? Take yer goddamn pretty! I don' want it nomore! I ain' never wanted it!! Not fer wut it gave me!"
I didn't know what to say. I couldn't say anything; there was too much to and not enough words for anyone to ever say it in. So I stayed where I was, hand paused quarter-way between resting isolated on my lap and reaching out to comfort her, frozen by a fear of how much I could see of everything in her and the world now, and afraid and ashamed at how utterly incapable I was of changing any of it. And so Kayla sat there sobbing to the ongoing world, pink rimming her eyes and tears unashamedly exposing themselves to anybody that might walk by at that moment. She clutched at her own arms, nails digging in tight through her shirt as if she was trying to claw her soft flesh away, nostrils flaring wide caverns in her face and teeth gritting so hard the tendons in her neck stood out in relief like razor cliff-edges. "Take....take...take yer goddamn pretty..."
I wish I could say that I did something. I think maybe I hugged her. And we parted shortly after, with me distantly but earnestly imploring her to keep in touch and her mumbling off-handedly that yes, yes of course she would, we should see each other again before I left.
But she never did, and I never made any effort. I couldn't say why- I just pushed her out of my head.
Years later in a rush of inspiration I looked her up on Facebook. Sure enough, there she was with pictures of her holding a child and what I assumed was either her husband or her boo. Weight had been added along with years to her face, and deep dark circles cut into flabby pale cheeks beneath big green eyes that carried a look to them like they had had enough. She looked like a woman who had passed through the eye of death again and again, only to find nothing on the other side but more of the same. Even her smile never reached more than her lips now. Everything about her husband screamed redneck cracker to me, and he stood in that characteristic Louisiana stance of ownership I'd seen so many times before, identifying the person he was standing next to as his woman. And standing next to Kayla in his white cut-off t-shirt with a print of a giant marijuana leaf, a multicolored hunting cap covering a too-big head on a too-thin neck with close-cropped straw-colored hair and homemade tattoos spiderwebbing over arms and neck, I wondered if she was truly happy with him. Was he just like all the others she seemed to have gotten trapped with?
Her eyes said differently peering out from photographs of the two of them wearing matching baggy sweatshirts and hunting caps standing together in the dense autumn Louisiana underbrush, Kayla holding their pale, blondehaired baby close as her own mousey curls blew in the breeze. They said it didn't matter now. Nothing really mattered now.
I'm just....just tired. I'm so tired. Her eyes repeated this refrain, but also added that a point had been reached where it didn't matter what kind of person she was with- for better or for worse, all she could do was keep existing. Love, support, care, relationships, none of these had anything to do with it. Why she even continued to survive I could never say. Looking at those eyes I doubted that even genuine love and care could reach through past everything that had been done to her and everything that she still lived with the memories of on constant repeat. Did each night, each instance of sex, merely re-affirm what experience had already taught her of her worth? Is closeness even possible for somebody who has gone through all of that? Is it even possible for her to find happiness with any man after all of that?
I tried contacting her, sending her a friend request and a small message, but I never heard back. I had lost her number years ago, and by now it was far too late to ever go back.