There’s a man who shows up in all my quiet moments. While I drive to school, he sits in the back seat. He ducks down when cars pass, when I stop at traffic lights, when I enter or exit the car, when I look in the rearview, but I know he’s there; I can hear him breathing, heavily. Sometimes I catch the balding top of his head, that dull, soft patch of skin, out of the corner of my eye, or just before he ducks entirely out of view.
At home, when I’m watching T.V. or having dinner with my fiancé—fish and vegetables, because I’m trying to shed some of the fat I’ve accreted over the years—the man squeezes himself between us on the couch. His leg touches mine, hip to calf. I can smell him, a damp earthy mushroom smell that puts me back inside his bedroom when I was a child. The man doesn’t say anything, and my fiancé doesn’t mention the man, but I can tell his presence is wearing thin.
I talk to my mother on the phone, but the man shouts in the background.
“You are worthless,” he yells. “Nothing you do matters.” He’s so loud, I have to ask my mother to repeat herself.
“You seem distracted,” she says.
“It’s the bald man,” I say. “Don’t you hear him?”
“I hear nothing,” she says, but he shouts even louder, his spit hitting my cheek.
“Really,” I say, “this is too much. You don’t hear that?” He wrestles me for the phone.
“I don’t hear anything,” she says. “And neither do you.”
Late at night the man feeds me—bacon cheeseburgers, a case of beer, a baker’s dozen of Krispy Kremes, gummy bears, Oreos, pints of ice cream, potato chips, spilling bowls of popcorn, chocolate cake—shoves the food in then cups a hand over my mouth and nose until it’s either swallow or suffocate. “That’s right,” he says. “That’s a good girl.”
I try to sleep, and he stands at the foot of my bed, whispering, “You are worthless, you are nothing,” until my face is wet and hot.
The man wakes my fiancé, who tells the man, “Shut up. Don’t make me come over there.”
The man shuts up for a while. My fiancé holds me, and finally I sleep. But in the morning, the man is still there, breathing, watching me undress. He undresses too, a ritual he started when I was a child, but I keep an eye on him. I pull on gym clothes, tennis shoes, and the man throws himself down, naked, flabby, and holds onto my ankles.
“You can’t have this,” he says. “None of it. You deserve none of it.”
And he’s right. I’m planning a wedding I can’t afford, studying for a bachelor’s degree I’ll never get. I’m marrying into a family of Ph.Ds. My maid-of-honor is away, studying for her Ph.D. She’s also getting married, a month before me. I am not her maid-of-honor. And it’s my fault, I know. Because of the company that keeps me, I’m guarded and weird: I don’t tell her about myself, I don’t tell anyone anything, I worry she’ll find out about the man who’s been following me since I was a child, that somehow, he’ll infect her with some of the same sickness, that fear that worms inside me until it grows hard and dark as a tree-knot, I don’t want him to knot her up, because then what if he follows her around too, saying, “I still own you”?
Jeni McFarland holds an M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Houston, where she served as a fiction editor for Gulf Coast magazine. She is a 2016 and 2017 Kimbilio Fellow, with work appearing in Crack the Spine and Spry, which nominated her for the storySouth Million Writers Award. Her latest essay, “Hair Like Ariel’s” will be available this summer in The Beiging of America, published by 2Leaf Press. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and many cats, and is forever working on a novel. Follow her on Twitter @jeni_mcfarland
Jeni asks that you consider donating to or sharing the information of RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. More information can be found at rainn.org. Donations can be made by calling 202-587-5355. If you or someone you know is in need of help, call 1-800-656-HOPE.