Mary Kate Hynek
When I was six, I watched Solomon, my stepbrother, pound a butterfly into a pulp with his meaty fist. The unsuspecting insect was perched on a vine climbing up the front-porch railing, its wings folding in and out like the covers of a book. I pointed, told him to “look at the pretty bug,” and he smashed it, laughing as he wiped its guts on my white shirt and pushed me off the step.
I cried. I pressed my face into mom’s apron and replayed the murder in my head a thousand times, leaving her apron looking as if it had just come out of the wash. She took my soft cheeks in her warm hands and let my tears slide over her thumbs. “People destroy what they don’t understand,” she said, then warned me: “Don’t let anybody destroy you.”
I hated when mom left for the morning market. Once, on one of those nervous days, my stepbrother took a rolling pin and pressed a ladybug into the kitchen counter, leaving me with nobody to cry to. On days where mom was gone, I liked to hide in the closet. But my stepfather was in there, hanging up his oily apron.
He caught me. My stepfather’s hands were not warm— they stung like wasps, again and again and again until I couldn’t feel it anymore. “Tears are for the weak,” he said, then warned me: “Don’t let anybody see you cry.”
When I was ten, my lips forgot how to stretch toward the sun. Mom made apple pie on the weekends— a tradition rooted in childhood. I loved eating fistfuls of apple pie filling, smudging my grinning face with golden ooze until my brimming stomach swelled like a balloon. Each week, mom had to adjust the straps of my suspenders to keep up with my appetite. But, as I grew older, the suspenders shrank with my frail frame. A fresh-baked pie always remained untouched on the windowsill, waiting for me to take a bite.
By the time I was twelve, I had forgotten the taste of my favorite food.
I don’t remember the exact moment I stopped feeling. My rainbow of emotions blurred into gray. I felt safe with a face made of stone. If I felt nothing, I could get through anything. Nothing could hurt me if I couldn’t feel grief. It wouldn’t hurt to let go if I held onto thin air.
Pain lingered, though— a sensation accompanied by rage, disgust, and desperation. I couldn’t feel emotions that filled my body with pleasant warmth— only the festering ones that left me stinking like rot. The only time my body wasn’t screaming was in the stage between wake and sleep. A timeless, formless, blissful void. That, and when I was with mom.
When I was sixteen, I watched as death took my mom by the wrist and yanked her away. I remembered Solomon smashing a butterfly when I was a kid. The way I felt when something so beautiful, so innocent, was destroyed for naught.
Trying not to feel was like swallowing my own vomit. Bitter going down. Bitter coming out anyway.
I curled up on the murky bed of a frozen lake where nothing could touch me. The sun’s golden fingers couldn’t pry through the thick sheets of ice no matter how hard they tried. I was completely detached from the surface. So detached, that I could annihilate clusters of butterflies and walk away with slivers of their fragile wings on my hands. And I did.
Now, I’m sitting in a rocking chair with my crying baby. His tiny feet kick against my arm as he lets out screams and squirms against my empty chest. A human in his most vulnerable stage, I think, when the horrors of the world haven’t yet touched his heart. I wonder if he is crying because he misses his mom, who’s in the kitchen with her apron covered in plush flour and sticky honey. The warm aroma of apple pie wafts into the room.
And maybe my son doesn’t miss his mom, I realize, because he snuggles his face into the midnight threads of my shirt and coos. For a moment, I feel like I should be crying. But now, when I want to feel a tightening lump in my throat and a sting behind my eyes, I feel nothing. I warn my son: “Don’t let anybody destroy you.” And then I correct myself, and I promise him: “I won’t let anyone destroy you.”
My girlfriend offers me a slice of apple pie, and I refuse because it is too heavy right now. But I make a promise to her, too, that one day I will be able to finish a whole piece. Not to choke it down, but to enjoy it.