Dark Colours of Nature by Miriam Vaswani
My boyfriend broke my jaw because he found corn silk in the butter. So I left him, six years later. I took the cat to a shelter half a day’s drive away because of what he’d do to her if I wasn’t around. I hate it when people hurt animals.
She was my ninth cat. He locked the first one in the freezer for nearly half an hour because I spoke to a man the wrong way in the grocery store. So I took her to a shelter in another town and pretended she was lost. I did the same with the next cat as soon as I got a chance, but every time he’d come home with a new cat so that I couldn’t leave.
Once he brought a dog home, but the dog bit my boyfriend when he hit my head against the bedroom wall. I convinced my brother’s friend to take the dog before my boyfriend could hurt him, and I still wonder if that dog
thinks I rejected him for defending me.
After I left my ninth and final cat at the shelter, I called my mother from a pay phone. While I spoke to her, I twisted the thin, silver-coloured bracelet she’d given me for my thirteenth birthday. It was joined in the centre by a cutout metal heart. She’d bought it with her overtime wages and when I opened the box she said ‘now you’re a young lady.’
She told me my boyfriend had gone to her house to ask where I was and wept at her front door because all he wanted was one more chance. She said he had been too distraught to drink the coffee she made for him. ‘I know he did wrong but he’s repentant. You can give him a second chance at least.’ I told my mother I’d call her again when I settled. I named a town in the west, sold my car, then caught a ride north with a woman and her teenage daughter who were staying in the motel room next to mine. I had enough money to put at least three days of distance between me and the life I was beginning to think of as old. The mother and daughter and I sang along with the radio and told ghost stories while we drove through the woods. Every few minutes I’d look for my boyfriend’s pale blue car in the rear-view mirror.
The mother and daughter helped me to dye my hair in a truck stop bathroom. The next morning, we parted ways in a harbour town; small, but not too small. Its houses were painted red and white where they faced the North Atlantic, and the downtown streets were crossed with power lines. I went to a café for breakfast and found an ad for a cheap room on the noticeboard. I could just cover one month’s rent if I ate almost nothing and could make a bar of soap and tube of toothpaste last. The landlady looked me in the eye and took my deposit, then showed me how to deal with the leaky cold tap in the sink. She loaned me a stack of blankets. On my first night I washed my clothes in that sink and slept strangely, waking every time a boat shone its lights through the fog.
The next day I walked into a seafood restaurant and asked if they needed a waitress. They pointed me to the dry cleaner across the road. The dry cleaner had just hired someone but said the bar two streets toward the harbour had lost their bartender. The bar owner said I could have the weekend shifts, and the permanent job if I did well. I estimated that I could pay my rent and have enough for food and a few other things if I could get at least six shifts per week, depending on tips.
While I waited for the bar owner to come back with paperwork and a branded T-shirt, I listened to two men talking at the next table. One said his sister was studying biochemistry and had just broken up with her girlfriend, so he was going to visit her for a week to cheer her up. I thought of his sister, with a broken heart, at a lamplit desk with chemistry books and old coffee cups. I wondered if she knew the way her brother said the word sister, like a scarf wound around a throat on a cold autumn day.
I poured drinks well that weekend, then worked six days a week in the bar, more if someone was sick. I cut a thick fringe into my darkened hair in front of the mirror above the broken tap. Gradually, I replaced my clothes until I had two pairs of plain jeans and four tops in the dark colours of nature; pine and berry to replace the pale patterns that I once thought of as mine. New muscles emerged in my arms and back from balancing trays and moving beer barrels.
On my days off, I walked to the harbour and stood facing east, braced against the cold Atlantic wind for as long as I could. The air tasted like the icebergs that sometimes groaned near the shore. Then I walked to the café where I had breakfast on the day I arrived. Their coffee came in a large grey mug, and they had a bench beside the window where I could watch people walk past, while caffeine lit my veins and my fingers and face thawed. I began to know people in the café by nods, but it wasn’t a place for talking or asking questions.
I never got sick, except for one week in my second month. I lay in bed for three days. Everything hurt; the light above the curtain rod, the weight of my borrowed blankets. I pretended that I was someone’s sister. I invented a brother in another town, saying ‘my sister has the flu, I’m going to visit her.’ When I went back to work, a woman who was in town with a film crew asked how I was feeling. I said I was fine, and my brother had come to look after me for a few days.
I began to drop my imaginary brother into conversation. I gave him a name and a profession. I remembered the colour of his eyes and hair — conveniently, the same as my bottle dye — and his height. We had history; a bike accident when we were children, a ritual of moving food from one of our plates to another when our parents weren’t looking. It was nice to see the warmth reflected in people’s faces when I spoke about my brother.
One day I phoned my real brother. He told me that he’d been for a drink with my boyfriend. He named the town in the west where I’d told my mother I was going, and said I was a liar. I asked why he was drinking beer with a man who broke his sister’s jaw, and he told me to stop acting like a child. ‘You think you’re so perfect?’, he said. There was TV noise in the background.
I hung up and remembered a time when I was about ten years old, when I noticed that my brother had stopped saying my name. I was her; one hard, reusable syllable. ‘It’s not mine,’ he’d say, ‘it’s hers. Is she ready for school? I’m not waiting’. If he spoke to me directly I was you. Then everyone stopped saying my name. Every room in our house had a door, and they began to shut doors behind me if the rest of the family were in one room. When I asked my mother about it, she told me not to be dramatic.
If you want to disappear, I recommend small adjustments. Wear an unflattering bra. Cut your hair short. Wear flat shoes instead of high heels. Practise a neutral way of standing and arranging your face; men especially will forget you if you seem unimpressed by them, but don’t overdo it or they’ll hurt you. If you’re from the south, find a town in the north and get a low-paying job. Tell the people in that town that you’re from the east and tell the people you left in the south that you’re in the west. You won’t be loved, but you’ll have fewer broken bones.