Exploited

It was enough just to hold her. The curve of her hips fit perfectly in my lap. We lay like spoons. The sun rose, filled the bedroom with bright light, and we didn’t move. It skated across the wall behind my headboard, and we barely flinched. It turned a fleshy peach and sank below the window, and we were still cocooned in the sheets, naked underneath, the heat radiating from our deep brown skin to keep us warm.

It was enough just to forage my fingers through her hair, soft like cotton balls, the tickling fur of dandelion seeds. A lock coiled around my finger, tightened, like a tiny snake suffocating its prey, and I made the mistake of wanting more. To think that we weren’t one whole, satisfied this day and forever, before I opened my mouth and spoke. To assume that asking her to do something so simple as to straighten her hair wouldn’t break her heart, wouldn’t consume her with images of my hating her, trying to scrub away her dark skin, seething at the natural bush that grew from her crown.

“I get that perms have chemicals. They can damage your hair. But a flat iron?”

“Heat damage.”

I didn’t understand what that meant. Like heat stroke? Like dehydration? “I just want to be able to run my fingers through your hair, pull it when we . . . you know.”

“That’s such a man’s answer. Exploit my body for your sexual thrills.”

“That’s not what I meant. Just forget it.”

But she couldn’t forget it. She propped herself up on her elbows, took the other half of the covers, leaving me exposed, and wrapped them around her, concealing every inch of her body from the shoulders down. It was the first time she’d been out of my arms in eighteen hours, and it felt like carving away my own skin.

“Don’t go,” I pleaded. “I’m sorry.”

“I have to feed my dog anyway.” But we both knew Atticus lived in the yard, and if he didn’t have food in his bowl, he found it in a squirrel, or a rabbit, or the neighbor’s cat.

No, she couldn’t stand to be by my side anymore, let the self-hatred seep into her pores. She wanted to share all of her, all that she was, with me, but all that was on my mind was what if she looked a little more like her, a little more like them.

I waited a few days to call her, to let her anger recede, but as the phone rang and rang with no answer, the echo of her voice overcame me. Exploit my body. Exploit my body. What if another man had? I only perpetuated the cycle.

—Nortina

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