I see: everything. Yefim’s fist, French fries jutting between tattooed fingers. He scans the line, yellow-green eyes sharpening, tickets under plates. One thing going onto the plate after the other. Salt flying from his thumb and forefinger, reversing its course like a flock. Same fist over mine, jutting between tattooed fingers, sweeping Ouija-like up my stomach.
Chef and a bartender in bed, and it’s cold outside. Cigarette ash and ten million chopsticks on his nightstand. I’d walked into the bar months back, day after Thanksgiving, with a poorly disguised purple eye and got the job on the spot. Moved into this second-floor studio where the train flashed by my window and made the prismatic, dizzying light of ten cop cars swerving up my wall.
Spring: we do this thing where we make Yefim’s roommate Jesus drive us to Fresh Farms random weekday mornings, restaurant-people hours. I’m rubbing Yefim’s shoulders from the backseat, hood around his cheeks, while Jesus sticks the key in.
“Where you’re from,” Jesus says, “this is a whip.”
“Here it’s a hooptie,” I say, AC on the seat next to me. Yefim tosses his phone at the dash. Says, “Radio.”
Hank III sings about a girl named Ruby as we drive past houses in the suburbs, little jail cells, faded brick. Get back to the hills with your animal skins, your messy hair and your rattlesnake friends! It’s me, I’m Ruby. My hair’s a mess. Tied to the side and knotted. I have the feeling Yefim likes it this way, or doesn’t notice. Usually that’s a bad sign, but it’s not. He doesn’t notice the razor burn between my thighs, just takes my whole leg in his arms and kisses all the way down, all the way back up.
This March the grass is dead and dry as an Arizona landscape. I’m not from Chicago, so I see it all. White void of the Midwestern sky—the lost sun’s golden fingers. Jesus pointing out the important spots on this janky-ass tour. Milwaukee is one of the only streets that doesn’t run grid-straight. Yefim saying it used to be for horses. And that Pilipino bingo hall. Inside, throngs of people just screaming. Shish Kabob stand on that corner.
“Stupid tasty street food,” Yefim says, his hand peeping through the seat for me to hold.
He points with his other and Jesus turns off Cicero onto Polaski.
“La Villa Banquet is packed as fuck,” Yefim says, and Jesus tells me girls there dress up as bunnies for Easter. This one year, girl dressed head to toe as a rabbit and her boyfriend screaming into her face.
“Skokie is an endless stream of sadness,” Jesus says. But I love Al’s diner where we’ll stop on the way back to overdose on buttered eggs, three-creamed coffee, jelly smeared on toast and Yefim’s stack of pancakes that he’ll poke at me to finish.
My ex: went Paleo and cooked thin strips of bacon and grey-brown hefts of ground beef in the frying pan—stinking up the kitchen. Crack of the oil, splattered grease congealing on the walls like teardrops of irate juice.
When he cooked he listened to sports radio with headphones, the way I listened to NPR interviews in bed. In our sphere, we were as concentrated as children above a trick puzzle. He went to the gym to lift six times a week. I sat at my desk and wrote. He wanted to lose weight and gain muscle. I wanted to tell stories about girls who learned and repeated violence. My type-type-typing. His stomach cut and lean.
I don’t think his aim was to hit me harder. He wanted me to look at him with desire, the way I first did, before I knew him.
Hands and eyes: in the parking lot at Fresh Farms, the wind blows the hair into my face. Yefim takes it through his fingers, twirls it, twists it away from my eyes. The market smells like nothing, like ice sticking to your fingers, the rows of produce bright as a carnival.
Same sharpness in Yefim’s eyes, reptile-quick. He’s scanning the veggies, the deli meat, the fish. He wraps pea shoots in plastic, tosses them in the cart. He knows what everything is, moves with the purposefulness of an on-call doctor, slips a Kinder chocolate into my palm. Whole ducks, swiveling behind glass. Oxtails, kidneys, chicken feet.
“We’re going to eat like Russian aristocrats,” Yefim says.
I point to the slick, translucent commas with the feelers on ice.
“Those are prawn,” I say, impressed with myself.
“Nah, just shrimp,” Yefim says, plastic a glove until he pulls it out from his hand.
I should know these things. I’m a chef’s daughter. I grew up in kitchens. Dirty, violent kitchens. Toothless men swarming through smoke. Plates crashing to pieces. Knives smacking through thumbs onto wooden boards. My dad, his eyes on knives, blood crusted into the lines of his dark fingers. A chef who didn’t eat. He tenderized meat by pounding the belly with his fists. He wore blood-soaked rags over his shoulder. Crunch of an eggshell by my ear. When I jumped he’d say, “Gotcha.”
First month: with Yefim, I didn’t, couldn’t eat. He took me to breakfast in the morning.
“What do you want?” Yefim saying, softly, as if he’d make me pasta from scratch, which he did. Swirling the fork, quickness from his wrist. Kneading the dough onto the butcher block with his fists covered in flour. Slivered onions giving themselves over to the fat wad of butter in his pan.
At this pie place, he watched me swirl grits. I held up my spoon, baby shrimp by my lip. I hesitated. Sucked in a pit-stomached, dizzying breath. Slumped my shoulders. He didn’t say anything, just watched. Eyes fixed open, glints of yellow like fish scales moving this way and that way then resting back on my spoon, my lips, shoulders. I didn’t eat but I did talk.
“I don’t talk much,” he said, that first time he was in my bed. I had his head, shaven bald all the way around, in my lap.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I talk out loud. I like to know things. I have questions.”
“What’s that?” I say. At Fresh Farms in the frigid aisle, he’s pulling pierogi from the freezer, the only thing he buys at Fresh Farms that isn’t fresh.
“These are good,” he says.
Me and Jesus leave him in the deli as he orders one thing after the other. I follow Jesus, his forearms leaning over the cart. I joke that I’m like his demented daughter that’ll lose her way in the next aisle. I should be fisting a teddy bear with a shot-out eye, the ear gathering corn husk and human hair as it trails behind me. It makes him laugh, Jesus always laughs. Terrible comments and giddy snickers. At Rosa’s, the jazz club we went to.
“That guy?” I said, pointing to the man at the end of the bar, hair long as a cult leader. The one nodding out into his whiskey.
“Too lazy to rape,” I said and Jesus lit up. “The name of my album!”
I wander off into the spice section. I peeped candle nuts on Yefim’s list and want to find them, slip them in his cart when he’s not looking. Hide my smile as he picks me up like I’m two pounds, his forearms under my butt. Can’t find them, so I switch course, turning the corner to the rice aisle. Only there’s a guy behind me, shadowing me. I stop dead mid-aisle, press my forehead against a box of basmati. The man just stays there like a black light, illuminating hideous chemicals in the air all around me.
“Boo,” Yefim says, into my neck where he kisses and kisses. My hands leap over my face, fresh sweat down the small of my back. He turns me to face him, pulls my hands back from my cheeks. They resist like the closing doors of an elevator. He’s done this before, in bed.
“They’re nipples,” he said, pulling my hands back wide as I thrashed my head against the pillow. “Not weird, get over it,” he said, his voice raspy with pleasure, his eyes slit from grinning. I’d never seen anyone look so happy to touch me. He made a point to run his fingers across me in the slowest way, like he had a genuine appreciation for what was underneath him.
Back by the rice, I collapse into his shoulder where he keeps me.
“Aw,” he says, same way he mimics his thirteen-year-old dog, arthritis-ridden. Sobaka’s jowly moan.
Knuckleballs: are a trick. Erratic and unpredictable. In the aisle, I am so lucky it’s him. When I started working at the bar, Ricky the Bartender called me Spacey. Then he dropped the S and I was Pacey. Walking the length of the bar then turning. Walking the length of the bar, turning. Forks, knives, rolls, tape. Menus, tickets, bells, plates. I turned and someone terrible greeted me in the frosty mirror of the bar window.
“You touch me nicely,” I said to Yefim, one of those early times in bed. It sounded exactly like a question, and it was.
“You touch me nicely?” His eyes darted into mine.
“Why don’t you just punch me already?” I hissed, drunk on his mattress.
Two a.m., deaf from the bar’s incessant thud like fists against the smoke-black walls. We’d been having after-shift drinks, our cheeks touching the bar as we whispered. Smiley as dope-heads as we huddled above our array of bent straws and the napkin he spat a mountain of sunflower seeds onto.
My ex and I had sat on the same stools as regulars, inevitable fight blooming between us. The rage we built disguised itself as glee, gaining energy. Revealing itself incrementally like cards flipped back and forth.
Back on Yefim’s bed, his wrist in my fist, opposite way as before. Now I was trying to make his fist fly toward my cheek. He let me, because I was doing it slowly, like practice. Making him watch, suffer.
“Like this,” I said, his knuckles grazing my cheek, but he was shaking his head. He looked genuinely sad as he pulled to the edge of the bed, said, “You’re not going to get that here.”
“Why?” I said, but it came out like a yelp. “I want you to. I want you to.” It was a chant that made the half-smile on me explode like a pen, dirty ink covering my teeth.
I urgently missed it like a tic. Getting hit, blow by blow in bright arcs that succeeded. Motions that completed their course. Knocked on the floor, my ex’s anger came to me like an insatiable whistle, a knuckleball soaring back towards my cheek. Something I craved completely.
Work: my need to overachieve and succeed supplied me with endless energy for the cyclical nature of domestic violence. At violence, we were overachievers. We made things as bad as possible, sunk to the bottom, made sweat and blood and wreckage, then rocketed ourselves through to repair. On the other side of pain was forgiveness, clarity, real happiness. It was an effort, true work, every time, one that made despair feel valuable, necessary. On the mornings after horrific violence, my ex would take me to breakfast. We would have to work things out, which felt productive over bacon and eggs and screwdrivers, with the waitress coming back to refill empty glasses. In the daylight, my ex could see the bruises on my neck or cheek or eye, and I relied on their bright palpability to carry the work of talking. He proved his points, and I proved mine. Our back and forth drama felt like exercise or like writing, or the fight from the night before, we were both engaged and alive in it.
Like fiction. Like writing fiction. The satisfactory feeling of making truth from a set of lies. A steering, not quite solving, but making.
After breakfast, he would take me anywhere I wanted. I wanted to go to Free People or the Levi’s store to buy clothes I could never afford myself. He’d tell me I could have anything I wanted. I couldn’t wait to try things on, the feeling of being in something new, and got high on the smell of retail stores. One day he spent over seven hundred dollars on a fur-lined jean jacket, sixty tiny little earrings in a pack, and overpriced t-shirts. Upon exit, it felt like we were the bubbles in a glass of champagne, rushing to the top and fizzing. We were making things better. We were better when we were making things.
Hunger: splits your stomach like a knife wound. It opens, hollows, closes in on itself. Yefim slipped me bites at the bell by my hip. I’d come in, a little unsteady on my clogs. I waited for my plates, his secret pinch on my waist as the kitchen lit up with the line cook’s pan of fire.
“K’mere,” he said, commotion all behind him, then raised a chicken wing to my mouth. Teeny bite, the slow pull of chicken string. Yefim watching, waiting. The moan that rose through the bottom of my pelvis stretched up towards my throat, same path he traced with his fingers, dirt under his nails.
Yefim: with the straight-up look of a Ukrainian bank robber. Intimidating shuffle in his stride. Chef’s belly, bald head, squinting with his cigarette. The bags under his eyes nicotine-yellowed.
If you held up five fingers you could name off his friends: Jesus, Gonzo, Dawson, Caesar, Nigel. We drove with Dawson in the rickety seats of his fly-swat van to catch fish in Illinois. Fish Yefim pulls hooks from with his teeth. Fish we could eat. Under badly wrinkled t-shirts, a knife clipped to his waist. But photos of his twin nieces, their cheeks pressed together, can be found inside his wallet and taped to his dresser. The only music he listens to is soul and the blues. No one has ever held me in such a tight but delicate embrace. I love the way Yefim looks because he looks exactly like the guy I love.
On his forearm: a dinner fork. Up further: Dali’s naked ladies luxuriating, their bare asses, but only when you look twice. A skull’s teeth, the heels of their feet, then skull’s teeth. Right side of his neck: a butcher knife. Left side of his neck: anatomy of a pig. Both kneecaps, Russian thieves’ stars. His throat: lucky number 13. Both his parents died when he was a teenager.
My ex was pretty in the way that women sometimes like. I once called him my Indian Elvis, he had the kind of hips that looked like they might lock you in a salsa dance at any moment. He looked clean and trustworthy, with his fresh fade and his J Crew ties and his Crest Whitestrip smile. Countless times, people told us how good we looked together. A handful of times, that our babies would be blended and beautiful. I hung onto that idea for too long, that together we could make something beautiful.
“What’s this one?” I said to Yefim, fingering his tattoos, steam from empanadas searing our foreheads, which were pressed together, balancing each other up.
“A potato,” he said, and it felt good to laugh.
Surgery: was coming. Yefim went with me to every appointment at UIC, his palm on my knee as the Uber careened through Humboldt Park. Nausea bobbing in my throat as we stopped short every minute or two from early morning honking.
“Tilt your head up,” the surgeon said, lighting up my nostril. “You see,” he said, to the two medical students with clipboards, his Russian accent exaggerating the exam. “The septum is badly deviated. She’s a prime candidate for rhinoplasty.”
Waiting an hour for the photographer to come in and take my picture against a light blue sheet. Left side, right side, head-on. Yefim must have been smoking his full pack of Camel Wide’s outside, waiting for me to reappear through the automatic doors.
“Sorry it’s taking so long,” I texted him. I could not sit still in the room. I paced the length of the crinkled sheet. Recited a Sharon Olds poem in my head. Last page and lines from Stag’s Leap, every poem before it: guttural deceit and bitter divorce. But those last lines shocked.
“We perfected what lay between us / I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me, / I did not leave him, he did not leave me, / I freed him. He freed me.”
“Its allright,” Yefim wrote back. “It’s a docter’s apt. Knew what I was getting into.”
Yefim, ESL and dyslexic with these short, direct sentences that answer unraised questions. He moves like that too. Making purpose and order of the world around him with his hands. Taking his finger to swirl the block of ice in my glass of whiskey. Rolling a pool stick over pasta dough when he can’t find the machine, hanging the twirled pasta over the edge of the stick. Clicking a lighter in the dark of his room to inspect my broken choker. Taking the clasp in his teeth to tighten the metal of the clamp.
The very first night I went back to his place, we kissed in his bathroom after his roommate’s overexcited Pitbull leapt up and took a tooth to the back of my ear. Next thing Yefim was swiping the backside of my neck with a cotton swab soaked in alcohol, taking my hair to the side to clean my neck.
My bloody hair: the night I called my ex’s sister. Screaming and crying fused.
I was at home, he was in jail.
“I have nothing to do with him,” she said. She meant to reassure me, but what I needed was for her to love him so I wouldn’t have to anymore. She’d started making me take pictures. Later, because sometimes I missed it and needed a hit, I looked at them. I wasn’t surprised to see the blood dried straight down my hair like orange highlights from a spray can. My broken nose like clay someone smooshed to the left. Bright, whiskered gashes around my mouth, an undomesticated cat. Faded ones from the month before aging me like smoker’s wrinkles. My eyes surprised me. They were looking directly at themselves. Catching all the piss-yellow kitchen light. They didn’t read as lost or horror-filled or ashamed. They were hungry.
Animal: here is the part where I make my ex ultra-human because he was. He called me anything/everything. He called me Rao’s, this expensive pasta sauce we bought for over five years. Iterations of this were: Baby Ray, Rao’s Baby, Ray-Ray. He also called me Prima or Elizabeth when I was acting bratty which was often. He called me Alicia, Leash. He called me Wiser, a combination of my last name and grad-school interface, and names from commercials like Trivago, millions more.
He bought me an excess of medicine when I was sick, made task lists every weekend and at least part of it was comprised of ways to help me with one thing or another: “Get Katie insurance,” “Fix Katie’s Desk.”
His mom was a bad alcoholic and he told me stories about her snoring on the kitchen floor after school and his friends having to step over the lump of her body. How she was too drunk to sign her name on his Sallie Mae forms. Also he paid her phone bills every month. Also he bailed her out of jail. Also I bailed him out of jail and he cried in my arms. He cried like an animal in my arms.
What I didn’t know: surgery would come with complications. The surgeon another man who had broken my face then casually walked into the room to tell me to relax. That I was fine. But I wasn’t.
He stuck my face in the mirror as he slid the packing out with tweezers. See? He said. Beautiful. He put one foot in front of the other, meaning, move on, walk it off. I promptly had a seizure. Blood like a spigot gone loose. Then an infection. Allergies that compounded the pain that according to my surgeon, was non-existent. My nose was recovering normally, he told me. Now it was my head that needed to be fixed. When I brought him a CAT scan from the ER, he didn’t look at it. Instead he pinched my chin and nodded my head for me as words fell apart in my throat.
My words were this: Violence! Violence! But even the sound, violence, tears your tongue in two. Sounds like silence.
When the nose breaks: the nerves die. The non-feeling would last for a year, the feeling of a dead bird beneath my eyes. I’d go broke paying for Ubers to UIC, miss work, a scholarship to a writing conference where I was to introduce my hero at her reading. I graduated grad school, walked across the stage bleeding from my face. The thought crossed my mind, to smack the camera out of the photographer’s hand at the end of the stage. Strangers walked too close on the sidewalk. If I smiled my face shattered like a plate.
In the mirror, my nose was gnarled and hard as knuckles.
My nose was delicate as a bubble, its widening glint.
My nose was attacking me from the inside out.
I pictured flies buzzing around my head, my cheeks soft and swollen as a plum on the rot.
The nerves dead and numb. It was frozen. I was frozen.
What I didn’t know: I thought my ex was like another person when he beat me so nonstop as if his purpose in life was to destroy any evidence of me. With his hands, he broke things: my nose, the pages of my favorite books, the handles to my bags, the necklace he yanked from my throat. And I was another person, frozen solid as his violence tried to speak to me like a language. His hand across my throat a word, and the jerk and the tightening and my loss of breath a full sentence. Maybe he could only articulate his pain clearly if it was on me, my neck of fingerprint bruises. Who wants pain with no shape, no point? I still don’t know what he was trying to say to me. Were the words in his throat the same as mine? Violence! Violence!
I thought when I left him I’d be free from his inarticulate hands. Why was I more trapped in his violence than ever?
My nose: it’s numb. Rock-like. Gaining feeling. Electrical sparks when I breathe. It’s Monday night. I bartend. Yefim cooks. Off the menu, he makes dinner for staff. Fish he caught earlier in the day. Rice, stew, fresh pizza cut into squares. Monday’s are dead and it’s just us in this dim empty sports bar. He slices tomatoes, stacks up my sandwich. He slides his hand across my waist, crowds the bar with plates before we open. I scrape up the last grains of rice with my fork.
We are: our love. What we eat. What we make (with our hands.)
There’s a girl: eight years old, in her father’s kitchen. She keeps her back against the wall, watching her father’s eyes sear through smoke. He stirs and tastes a gumbo that’s taken him three days to build. Knives smack through meat onto wooden boards, the cranking exact as a sprinkler. Sous chefs orbit her father, crashing into his chest with plates. But he doesn’t take his eyes off the pot, off the orange flame so hot it turns invisible and blue. Closer, the gashes on his knuckles are splitting into bright crusts of blood. The story I write is always this:
I make that hungry girl walk through the kitchen. Blurry with heat and men, knives and fire. One word going down onto the page after the other. It’s always me who is behind her, watching her, rewriting her. On the page, she moves away from me, unprotected. I make her cross through violence to get what she needs.
© Kate Wisel
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas]