This story is by G. Sanders and won an Honorable Mention in our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Gabrielle Sanders first began writing as a tool to help heal past trauma and cope with chronic illness. She found a love for storytelling and continues to express herself through written word. You can find more of her work on her website.
I’m back again.
In that stupid plastic chair. Under those heinous fluorescent lights. Drinking copper-flavored fountain water. Eating a doughnut ten other people touched. Listening to those ten other people drone on about their lives. Watching them blow snot into their tissues and then use that same tissue to dry their eyes.
When I first started coming to these meetings, I liked to think I was so much better than all of them, the sniveling messes. They were pathetic.
But that voice on my shoulder whispered the truth behind my dry eyes. I was a monster wearing the skin of an objectively attractive twenty-four-year-old. I was pathetic.
The first week my armor was so thick I couldn’t see through it. It was so heavy I couldn’t move. And it was so complete and objectively perfect, no one could tell I was wearing it. The first week was the worst. I had no right to be at that meeting. I hated everyone there because they saw me and they thought they knew. They thought they were wise enough, empathetic enough, to see through my armor. They had no idea what they were looking at.
Pam cried over her husband of sixty years.
Juan cried over his five-year-old daughter. His wife never came to meetings.
Jack came a few times, but didn’t talk much. Then one day he opened up about his dog. I think there were other things going on, but he never came back.
Emma cried over her mother who had been fighting breast cancer for ten years.
All of them, even Jack, had a right to be there. They had real connections. They had love. They had loss. I didn’t have a right to be there. So I didn’t talk.
After the first month, I thought about talking. It felt like, maybe, it was time. But when I opened my mouth my heart lurched up into my throat and cut my tongue out before I had the chance to make a sound.
Nobody was disappointed. Nobody was there to hear my story. They were there to talk about themselves. And they had every right to. Their grief was real; it was valid. I was just stupid, a monster of a person.
Was I even a person anymore? Or just a husk. A wall of armor that contained a demon soul not worth mourning. I was gone. Whatever parts of me that had been good or worthwhile had fled.
So I didn’t speak. But I kept going to the meetings. Not every week, just the weeks that really cut me open. Because I am stupid, I didn’t keep my armor on at all times. It was heavy and it kept me from doing things like going to work and visiting my family. When I wore my armor, everything hurt, but that was better than the pain that cut at my heart . . . Constantly cutting my heart. Constantly slicing the most tender part of me.
But the fluorescent light above me flickered. That was usually enough to help aid in the self-hypnosis. “They have every right to cry. You are just stupid,” I repeated to myself with every flick of the light.
After a year my little brother made a comment. “You don’t look so good.” I can always trust him to tell it to me like it is.
Maybe I should have seen a doctor. Gotten some meds. But I didn’t deserve relief. I deserved every cut, every weight, every dark haunting thought that kept me up at night.
A year passed. Pam died.
I didn’t cry.
Juan stopped coming.
A new guy named Mike started showing up, dead wife.
Henry, who had been coming for a few weeks, finally opened up about the loss of his father.
Marabel knew Pam.
After the third week of the second year, a lady showed up with her daughter. The moment they walked in, I knew. The light above my seat stopped flickering. The doughnuts were fresh that day. The water fountain had been replaced with one of those new fancy ones that can fill up water bottles and it didn’t taste like copper.
The pair were gorgeous, first of all. They were that kind of beautiful that touches your soul and you know it’s more than skin deep. They were shining. I was so glad they did not sit next to me because next to them I am a Gollum. No, they sat directly across from me.
I know they saw me, but they didn’t single me out or anything. The mother spoke without much prompting. From that alone, I knew that she was there for more than herself. She held her daughter’s hand the entire time, and when she cried, Mama dried her tears with her sleeve.
“Hi, I’m Neema.”
“This is my daughter, Teshi.”
The young girl snuck out a trembling hand to wave, then tucked it back under her mother’s.
“My daughter and I have been struggling for some time now. We lost her father, my husband, a little over a year ago in a car accident.”
There were nods around the circle and murmurs of condolence.
“I loved that man.” Her lip trembled. “He was a good father. An amazing husband, and an even better lover.” She chuckled a bit.
Teshi hugged her mom for comfort and it became clear that she was there to support her mother just as much as her mother was there for her.
There were a few other chuckles around the circle.
“That’s really all I had planned to say. Never been to one of these things before.” Neema sniffled and nodded her head to end her sentence.
“Thank you for sharing,” Mike was the first to say.
I instantly hated Mike, feeling some odd protectiveness over the mother and daughter. Mike went on to talk about his dead wife, rambling about how his mom thinks he should start dating again, but he’s “not ready.”
I was on my way out when Neema stopped me. She stood in front of me with all of her gorgeousness and grace. She looked into my eyes, took a slow breath in, and said, “I have been looking for you.”
I was frozen. Suddenly naked in front of this ethereal being of light. My armor vanished. The monster underneath writhing in pain openly before her. I had no right. No right to pretend I was anything more than the demon that had haunted her for so long. I deserved to be cut open by the flaming sword she wielded.
“We wanted you to know . . .”
I didn’t brace myself. I just stared up at her like some dumb salamander.
“We forgive you.”
Can a flaming sword wash over a soul like water? Crystal clear, life-giving water. I didn’t believe the words I had just heard, so I looked to the daughter to confirm.
On my knees, the tears came rushing out then with imminent need. “I am so sorry! I am so sorry!” I sobbed. “I knew it was wrong! I knew he was married! I know I’m a bitch. I’m a monster! I’m worse . . .”
“But you fell in love with him.” Neema knelt beside me and stroked my boney back.
“Yes!” I could hardly breathe but the word came out in a scream.
The rest of the grief sharing group gathered around us. They watched in awe as I completely unraveled in this woman’s arms. I blubbered the story out between coughing fits and hyperventilating. Too many drinks, I wanted to drive his fancy car, I’m not sure all the details that came out in that moment.
But Neema shook her head. “You are a child. You made a mistake. He should have known better. Hush now, you don’t have to punish yourself anymore.”
Air came into my lungs. I breathed in and my chest rose for the first time in so long. That first day felt so good. I was alive again.
It took less than a week for me to doubt her words. I remembered how terrible I was, but after a week she called and asked if I would go to the meeting with her and Teshi. She held my hand the same way she held her daughter’s, the whole time.
I didn’t miss a meeting for a whole month. Neema said I was allowed to share how it felt to hold my grief for so long, and when I spoke it was like every word that came from my mouth was a piece of that heavy armor. It came off all over again, piece by piece. I found myself.
After a year, my brother commented, “You look better.”
But the best feeling came when Teshi looked up at me one day. I was driving her to some concert with her friends. She said, “You’re so beautiful, Maria. How do you glow like that?”