There is a difference between breaking and brokenness, between a splinter of pain and falling to pieces. Susanna Penfield explores the nuances of hurt in her life after sexual violence, acknowledging her splinters but still resolute in her sense of self. While we can never choose whether we are hurt or even how we heal, we can choose how we think about it, and Penfield never ceases to imagine herself as whole.
Breaking; Not Yet Broken
by Susanna Penfield
Don’t think you proved something to me I didn’t already know. I know we are fragile. I started to
understand this at 15, when I finally came into my body and quickly figured out what it meant to really
kiss someone. Then it was fun, flirtatious Facebook messaging, dance floor make-outs in the high school
gym. I didn’t yet know that these things could be dangerous because within them I maintained distance;
throughout them I thought I was safe. I hadn’t yet realized I was fragile, until you forgot my fragility.
You must remember that night, caught somewhere between the relief of late May and the feverish haze of early June. Sometime after I began to chip. We had been friends, beginning when we were twelve and
met after soccer practice on the field that split the distance between our houses. We found ourselves at the same high school, spent four years sharing classes and stories and laments about what it means to be a good person. You were always the nice one. The cute friend girls wanted to confide in. Maybe this got to
you; maybe you were sick of being the nice one, or hated the fact that you always had to be relied on.
I tend to humanize you this way. I catch myself doing it. I think about everything brewing beneath the
surface because this is what I’ve been told to do, the details I’ve been conditioned to cling to. The
justification I’ve been taught to find.
Before the end, right before, the night had been perfect. A group of us returned home briefly for the start of the summer and met on the hidden porch of a friend’s cabin. We were eight, all circled in small chairs and sleeping bags, boxes of wine placed conveniently in the center. We got tipsier by the hour and louder by the minute, recalling all the nights that had come before this one and allowing ourselves the
vulnerability to admit things we never would have on those nights. We laughed and drank, and as the sun
began to rise we started to peel off. Moving inside to fall into splayed mattresses.
You and I stayed though. Sitting next to each other, each wrapped in individual blankets, we were drunk
from the wine and raw from the night’s nostalgia. I thought we would fall asleep this way. I gave in to the
pull of exhaustion and my eyes had just begun to close when I felt your hand creep over to my thigh and
felt it linger. I kept my eyes shut. I focused on the darkness of my falling lids and the pace of my slow
breaths and turned my face but your hand was still there: ascending, tightening, and before I had the
chance to open my eyes you were pulling me in. I tried to pull back but your grip was strong and your lips
were wet and it wasn’t long before I slid between them helplessly.
Maybe to you it seemed harmless. Maybe for you it was. But as soon as I slid I started to drown. Your
hands contained me, tricking me so that as I continued to wallow you kept me from understanding that
this is what it feels like to slowly lose all air. I let myself be molded, passively conforming to the whims
of your hands and your body and all I know is that somewhere between distress and confusion you
trapped me and it wasn’t until it was over that I realized this was never something I wanted.
I ran away from you that night. As soon as it was over I pulled my coat around me to protect from the
chill of breaking morning and slipped into the room where our friends slept innocently, inserting myself
between two of them to protect against you. I fell asleep, but the sleep was intoxicated, sickening. You
Later you told me that night was a huge mistake, that you had a girlfriend of several months. You said I
must have known that. You asked that I never tell anyone so I didn’t. I stayed true to my word because it
seemed to reflect more poorly on me than it did you and no one would understand that I drowned that
night. At this I felt a crack, another small fracture in my foundation because you hadn’t thought what all
this might’ve done to me, what it put on me. Your wet lips sucked me in and spit me out and sometimes if
I look hard enough I can see the water as it slowly fills my open spaces.
I know we are fragile. I have the splinters to show for it, the anxiously picked fingernails, the rushed
words written in a since-discarded journal, the guilt I know I don’t deserve but needed distance to
reconcile anyway. I held my pieces together so that when I finally spoke of you it was months later and
only then to a person who would have no idea who you were.
Don’t think you proved something to me I didn’t already know. You too are fragile, that’s why you did it.
You are malleable and unsure and if my body could hold you together for just a moment it was easy to
forget that what you saw as momentary glue was my slow hammer. If I splintered that night, my shards
pierced your skin and the pain you felt wasn’t just the threat of a relationship ending, of a girlfriend’s
disappointment. That pain was mine.
You never apologized but I never broke. We are fragile but my foundation is strong and your slow
hammer will not rupture what I’ve spent years building, the words I’m still forming to tell you that no one
intentionally decides to drown. No one asks to break. And I will not let myself be broken.
Current undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Political Science and Feminist and Gender Studies with a passion for literature and creative writing. Previously published in Z Publishing House’s Colorado’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Nonfiction (2018), America’s Emerging Literary Fiction Writers: West Region (2019) and selected for a feature in the 2018 America’s Emerging Writers series. Lover of sunny porches, fake plants, and loyal friends.