9.6 / June 2014

The Sharp Point in the Middle

I am familiar with the geography of a bruise. The borders shift. The color stains bright, then fades. Fingerprints like points on a map.

A bruise stretched across the The Corner Store cashier’s cheek and jaw. It was nearly black in the middle, blossoming into a velvety purple near the cheekbone and lips. A fairly recent bruise. Any older, and yellow would have circled it like the glow of a solar system. This must have been a two-punch bruise—probably on the bottom of the chin—particularly painful—teeth crashing together, rattling upwards. I stood in line at The Corner Store gripping a six-pack of beer, trying not to stare.

Meanwhile, the woman in front of me plopped a can of mandarin oranges on the counter and asked for a pack of Pall Malls. She wore a loose purple tank top, long black cotton skirt, and house slippers. Her greasy black hair was slicked into a ponytail at the nape of her neck, the edges choppy and misshapen. The woman in line stared at the cashier as though it was a challenge. “What happened to your face?” she asked, arms folded. The cashier stared back, jaw clenched. Her hand rose to her face, and she moved her jaw back and forth—click, click. She moved the jaw again. Click. Click. My heart rate accelerated. The mutual stare lingered a little too long. The cashier slowly spit out the words, “A horse.”


When I was a sweet-toothed eight-year-old, I went to The Corner Store to buy candy. It was the only residential building amongst rows of ranch houses, located just at the end of my street. My hometown, Salmon—a tourist and agricultural town in the Idaho mountains—was too small and too poor to have “neighborhoods.” My family’s house, a clean split-level ranch with a tidy yard, was flanked by a faded white house with a falling down porch and a cage where three snarling dogs lunged at chain-link, and a blue cottage on the other side of a creek that was owned by an outfitter. Tanned river guides set up tents and hammocks in the yard, smoking joints while playing the guitar and laughing long into the starry, Idaho nights. With wide, tan forearms and muscular backs, they were all so very handsome.

I headed past them to the Corner Store, a happy girl with braids and a sweaty dime gripped in her palm. I could only buy nine Sour Patch Kids because the tax cost a penny, and the cashier never budged an inch on that extra penny. Her greasy boss watched over her, a rotund, chain-smoking man who wore beach shorts and sandals. He sat to the side of the register smoking and playing cards, a box fan whirring behind him.

That greasy man was in prison for a while. The Feds busted him for operating a counterfeit money ring. This was before I fell in love with his nephew in the ninth grade. The nephew was a long-haired, pensive-looking boy who never spoke to me, but sometimes gave me rides on his four-wheeler. He drove fast and hit jumps, and I gripped his waist, my entire body pressed along the outline of his back as we hung suspended in air. That boy never knew I was in love with him because I didn’t speak to him either. Instead, I laid alone on the floor in front of my stereo listening to “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS on repeat. With my back pressed to the floor and my knees raised, I traced the outline of his back in the air, making a map of the memory. Two worlds collided.

When I turned 12, I was already pushing a C cup. At my church confirmation and first communion, I wore a beautiful white dress with a deep, scalloped V in the front. My mom pinned the neckline together so I wouldn’t have cleavage, but after drinking the bitter wine and eating the dry, tasteless wafer, a fellow churchgoer told me how “beautiful” I looked. A “real woman,” he said, his eyes directed at my chest. I knew what he saw. He didn’t see the girl inside of the woman’s body, already mourning that her body was no longer her own.

By age 14, I was a D cup, but I only ever wore giant tee shirts. I didn’t want to give the boys any reasons to look down my shirt, and the tees offered ventilation while my friend Pete, a skinny, blonde with a loud laugh, and I played pool at the sticky Corner Store, trying to escape the summer heat. The pool table stood in the middle of the video section, and we saw what people rented—how some of the men would come in and act like they were going to check out Young Guns 2 before putting the box back on the shelf quickly when they thought no one was looking and asking the cashier for one of the “behind the counter” movies instead while Pete and I snickered.

Pete was already having sex, but I was not, and he liked to remind me of that. Pete had been raised by his divorced mother, and his sex education came from Masters and Johnson. He was the person who instructed me on where the hymen was located. Up to that point, I had been under the impression that it was right at the front of the vagina. I had never personally tried to find it. I didn’t believe him until he pulled out his giant book and showed me a map of the female reproductive system. I couldn’t argue then with the evidence drawn in a pink diagram before me.

Pete spent the summers living in our town with his dad, an attorney, and he had smuggled the book from his mother’s house. This was before the convenience of the internet, and we sure as hell weren’t going to check out Masters and Johnson from our small-town library. I had already been banned from checking out “dirty” books at the library. I had recently graduated from Jackie Collins to Brett Easton Ellis, but my mom read the first chapter of The Rules of Attraction, then marched down to the library, and forbade them from checking out any more pornographic novels to me. When I protested, she told me they would give me “unrealistic expectations about love.” They did. I still have an attraction to chaos—to drama—to intense expressions of feeling.

When we weren’t playing pool at The Corner Store, we hung out in Pete’s dad’s basement—a wood-paneled room with a velour sectional couch, a pool table, a fridge, and shelves upon shelves of archived Playboy magazines in mint condition that dated back to the fifties. We spent a lot of time flipping through them, but I’m not sure why.

Once, we checked out the movie KIDS from The Corner Store because it was rated NC-17, and we thought we were being edgy. At the end of the movie, a boy raped a girl who was passed out on a couch. I squirmed, stomach turning, looking down at my lap. I was sitting on the ground, back to the couch, and Pete was sitting above me, legs crossed. We had never been attracted to each other. That was the basis of our friendship. Still, we were pretty normal adolescents. I moved my shoulder from where it had been touching his legs, skin crawling. Pete spoke up first. “This is making me horny,” he said. “How about you?”

“No,” I said, looking back at him with disgust. I scooted farther away.

Pete briefly dated my best friend Megan, but she broke up with him before they ever kissed. The night that they were supposed to have their first kiss, he leaned over and asked “May I kiss you?”

She said no.

She later told me that it was a turn-off that he had asked. We were still very young. We wanted men to be assertive.

I teased Pete about that for years. “Who asks permission for a kiss?” I said.


At school, we were using metal compasses. I loved to press the sharp tip into the white paper, then draw a perfect circle around it in thick gray lead. I drew my own Venn diagrams. This was my life. This was Pete’s. This was Megan’s. This was yours. This was everything else. I drew my own romance. I saw myself as the sharp point in the middle. The line circled around me, the center of that universe, the beauty of it all contained in the white space.


Around the time that we started high school, a boy named Brit began to silently stalk me. Brit was a pyromaniac, and he was also probably a bit slow, but no one really knew for sure. He built explosives as a hobby. One day, I made the mistake of smiling at him while I was playing pool at The Corner Store. After that, he popped up every time we played. Creeping behind me, he would poke his head over my shoulder. If I jumped, which I always did, he smiled a bit, but he never laughed. He wasn’t a laugher.

After scaring me, he went to the arcade portion of the store and played Duck Hunt, looking at me intently over the barrel of the plastic gun in between shots.

Target. Sight. Shoot.

Soon, he started talking to me—voice low and urgent. I didn’t understand much of what he said. A lot of it had to do with video games, or explosives, but he talked to me as though we were twin souls. I nodded and smiled the way my mother had taught me to. I was a polite girl. I’ve never been good at saying no, but I’ve always known how to smile.

Once, while I was playing pool with Megan, Brit burst in, as animated as I had ever seen him. He came to me, hand hidden behind his back, then quickly waved it in my face. I recoiled. His hand, pink and smooth, had tips that were gray rotten holes with a circle of skin encasing them. They looked like miniature gravel quarries, getting grayer and deeper with each layer. Brit was proud. He had burned them off with explosives while making fireworks. He smiled as he held the charred fingers out to me. “I won’t have fingerprints anymore,” he said. “I can do anything I want, and they can’t catch me. See? See?”

The minute we finished our game, Megan and I left. We ran the entire way to her house, our laughter so loud that we were almost shrieking. When we got to her house, we collapsed into a heap on top of each other in the yard. “What a weirdo,” Megan said.

“A total weirdo,” I agreed. We laughed again.

“I think I just peed a little,” Megan said.

We laughed some more, but then I worried that he had heard us. I worried that I had hurt his feelings.

Twenty years later, my husband was fingerprinted after his arrest, the ink creating a stained map for future police identification. I loved his fingers—long, slender gentle fingers that could play the guitar and caress my hair. His fingers also curled into a fist, and maybe I loved that too.

When I tried to fight back, he held me down and spit in my face. Then, he spit in my face again. And then, one more time. It was as though all of those men—that first man who had stared at my body like he owned it, and then the next, and then the next, and finally, the man I married—they were all spitting in my face.

I have this memory. I was standing in the doorway crying. He was lying in the bed. Why was I standing in the doorway? Why was he in the bed? His eyes were like tunnels, and I was running, running, running through them.

He stared at me, then spoke. “Everything bad that you think about yourself. It’s all true.”

My tears turned into sobs.

“Stop crying,” he screamed. “You’re acting like a child.”

It was a relief when he hit me. When the blows started, the words stopped, and I was grateful for that end.

He told me that I was ugly. I wanted to be pretty.

Q: How do you love someone who hates you?
A: By hating yourself more.

When we were dating, my husband cheated on me with a friend of his from high school, but I didn’t find out until after we married. She was one of many, but she was the one who rattled me. “Why,” I asked him. “Why did you do it?” It was an empty question. There was no answer that would have satisfied me.

He was tired of the question, tired of my feelings. He blew up. “I did it because she treated me like shit in high school,” he said. “And I wanted to fuck her.”

I had already known that was the answer that was coming. I had been that woman too.

When my husband and I first married, we visited my parents in the summer, and we walked to The Corner Store to get out of the house in the evenings. We strolled down the street, hands entwined, lilac bushes blooming around us. Laundry hung on the line of the river company house next door, tents and kayaks scattered around the yard, river guides lounging in their hammocks. Children rode bikes in the middle of the quiet street. The sun remained high long into evening, before dipping behind the crisp blue and white peaks of the Beaverhead Mountains. We never needed anything at the store. We just wanted to enjoy the sun, the walk, the smell of the Idaho air. My home became his home. No one had ever understood me like him.

When things got bad, I stopped going home in the summer for a while. I didn’t want anyone to know me. I had put on weight. The weight didn’t accumulate slowly. It was quick. My body was angry—so angry—and it consumed, consumed, consumed. It was as though each cell contained an imprint of his fist, like DNA markers.

The fat didn’t protect me. It didn’t make it hurt any less.

I thought that, if the people in my hometown saw me, they would see my brokenness. I was no longer the girl who fell in love with boys she never spoke to, who laughed in the yard with her best friend, who trusted a boy so implicitly that she flipped through Playboys with him and didn’t think he had an agenda, who didn’t realize that the boy with the burned off fingertips was probably, truly dangerous.

They wouldn’t like who I had become.

My experience of being banned from checking out dirty books at the library had taught me that libraries were not anonymous, so I started buying self-help books on my e-reader. Books I would have scoffed at earlier. Books with names like Narcisstic Lovers. Betrayal Bonds. And later, The Domestic Violence Recovery Workbook. I was desperate for answers.

I learned that I was a codependent. I learned that the term codependent was meaningless. I learned that chaos was unusually normal for me. I learned that the stimulation became like an addiction for survivors. I learned that I was addicted to those who were not good for me. I learned that I should have seen the signs. I learned that there were no signs. I learned that it was his fault. I learned that it was my fault. I learned that it was my mother’s fault. I learned that it was his mother’s fault. I learned that it was society’s fault. I learned that I was fine just exactly as I was.

I did not learn how to save my marriage or my husband. The lessons were all pointless.

I was no longer that sharp point in the middle of the compass. Instead, I was the line circling—round and round—and the sharp point was everything that had happened to me. I rotated helplessly. This is my life. This is yours. This is yours. This is yours. This is yours. This is yours.


The cashier slapped the pack of Pall Malls on the counter. She typed the numbers into the register. “Where’s the horse?” asked the woman in line.

The cashier looked surprised. “What?”

“The horse. Where’s the horse that did that to you?”

It was obviously a challenge. The line grew longer behind me. Everyone but me looked away. No one believed a horse had done that to her. The woman in front of me waited for an answer. “In the pasture,” said the cashier. “Are you going to pay or not?”

The woman in line turned to her teenage son. “Give me the card,” she said. He handed her a credit card but told her it didn’t have any money available on it. She handed it to the cashier anyway. The woman’s card was declined. “Run it again,” she said.

I stared at the bruise on the cashier’s face, unable to look away. My heart sped up, head light. Megan, now a counselor, is still my best friend. “When this happens,” she says, “You need to take a deep breath. You need to tell yourself that you are safe. You are not there anymore.”

I took a deep breath, trying to conceal that I was on the verge of hyperventilation. I didn’t want my beer anymore. I wanted to put it back, but that would seem rude. I am safe, I told myself. I am safe.

My heart slowed. I believed it.

I was safe.

She might not have been, but I was.

The cashier looked back at the woman in line, then slid the card across the counter. “Nope,” she said. The woman in line stood there.

“Ma’am,” I said. “I can pay for it.” Both of the women looked at me, surprised. “Really, I don’t mind at all.”

I put my beer on the counter and took out some cash. I handed the woman in line the cigarettes and oranges. She shrugged her shoulders. “Alright,” she said. She turned and left. I turned back to the cashier to pay.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she said. “She pulls that shit all the time.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’ve been there.” I caught myself staring at the bruise again. She saw me, her hand rising back to her face, her expression softening.

“Well, that was real nice of you anyway,” she said.

The night before, I had seen Pete for the first time in years. I hugged him so hard. He had married a woman with wide-eyes and a kind face. His wife and I both had red hair, the same graduate degree, and we happened to be wearing the same earrings. “I like you,” I said. We all laughed. Pete and I told stories, still easy with each other after so many years. He teased me because I hadn’t known where the hymen was. I teased him about asking Megan for permission to kiss him.

“I think that’s sweet,” his wife said. “That he asked for permission.”

I thought about what she said. It had been sweet, I realized. How wrong it was of me to ever think that asking for permission was anything less.

Kelly Sundberg's nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Mid-American Review, The Los Angeles Review, Slice Magazine, Quarterly West, and others. She has had an essay listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2013 and is a PhD Candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University.
9.6 / June 2014