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My clothes hung from the tree on 73rd Street like dead fish. I’m not sure why I thought to walk down the street in the first place. It had been six months since we broke up and I dimly assumed myself ready for such voyeuristic indulgences.
It was late summer, my skin slicked in a layer of sweat, the streets half-empty from the exodus of residents from the piping hot city. What was the worst that could happen? I thought. I knew you were one of the individuals to retreat in August, so I considered myself protected from the possibility of running into you. I just wanted to have a look, a quick glance through the window to see if the apartment had changed at all since I left.
It looked as though the street had hardly changed. The black car with the man who lived inside it was still parked in its usual place at the end of the road. The windshield of the car was wrapped in tin foil to refract the sun’s punishing haze. I looked inside the car for the man, the top of his head just scarcely visible. He reclined back in his chair where he took an afternoon nap.
I looked up at the little-leaf lindens and Callery pear trees that lined the street. They were adorned in chlorophyll-saturated leaves. They stood tall, swept in partial shade, and somehow indifferent to the city conditions. As I neared the apartment, I studied the cracks in the sidewalk, counting each slab of concrete. I stopped when I noticed a cigarette glowing amidst the soil at the base of the tree outside of your building. I knew it was your abandoned cigarette by the half-burned eagle motif affixed on its side. One of the bird’s wings still survived.
Everything seemed pretty much the same about the four-story walk-up. The front door was held ajar by a brown shipping box. Two children with gauze in their mouths and their mother with her cell phone pressed into her ear walked out from the dentist’s office that occupied the ground floor of the building.
I walked to the other side of the street so I could get a better look at the second-floor apartment. The tree’s leaves and branches made dappled light on the prewar facade. I looked up into what was our first shared space together. I remembered how the realtor told us that the two looming windows were like gold dust in Manhattan. The air conditioning unit hung in the second-floor window and when I listened close enough, I could still make out its low murmur. I could still recall the way the rain at night splattered against it. The harsh pitter patters had bothered us over our first few rainy autumnal nights there until they eventually relaxed us and drew us into a most peaceful sleep.
I couldn’t see into the apartment because there were shades hanging which hadn’t been there before. I imagined you standing atop the chaise longue we picked up from someone else’s trash to fasten the shades to the windowpanes. We had once spoken about getting shades, but we decided against it when we realised how much we savoured the few daily moments of sunlight in the apartment. Each day we sat around waiting for the moment at half past five when the parquet floors of the south-facing studio would be washed in stripes of white light. Even the film of dust that the sun exposed didn’t seem to bother me in those moments.
I remembered how, in the spring, the tree bloomed clusters of minuscule white flowers; when the petals dropped, the branches were sprinkled in a layer resembling fallen snow. When we laid in bed on a Sunday morning, torn between a hangover and horniness for each other’s bodies, we watched the birds in the tree eating the tiny fruits. They would scatter seeds in their droppings elsewhere.
I yanked myself out of nostalgia. There was a breeze in the air and one of the tree’s branches tapped lightly against the window. I followed the branch’s sway with my eyes until I noticed a garment hanging there, billowing lightly in the wind. I thought I recognised it as a shirt you used to wear. My first instinct was to worry about the shirt, you, and how you must have got it there. Once, when you were drunk, you had climbed the tree, your bare feet digging into the trunk for dear life.
Then, as the branch swayed into a patch of light, I recognised the shirt as my own, a deep blue turtleneck with a slightly sparkled patina. As I looked further up the tree, following its branches up and up with my eyes like I sometimes followed the varicose veins in your arms, I noticed several of my garments hanging like ornaments, the tree itself like some kind of effigy. There was a T-shirt I wore to bed, a leather skirt I stole from my sister, and an unidentified blouse.
My blood pressure dropped like it did when you embarrassed me on a night out or spoke offensively out of turn. I felt exposed and ashamed, my clothes hung out to weather the elements on 73rd Street in a public spectacle. I imagined you throwing the clothes from the apartment in a drunken fury. I felt red-faced and abashed for walking away from our risky, youthful, and intoxicated first love.
There had been a moment a year or so before we broke up when we went to the Christmas party of your best friend. I had wanted to stay back, because I had the gut-wrenching feeling in my stomach like something was going to go wrong, like someone I hadn’t wanted to see was going to show up.
“Victoria, I promise you that guy will not go anywhere near the house,” you said, wrapping your strong hands around my torso and squeezing me tight in a way that reassured me I was, indeed, safe.
So we went to the party that night. Several cups of tequila with lime later, your friend, the host of the party, came up behind me and whispered I’m sorry, you may want to go out the back door into my ear. I quickly found you elsewhere in the room, an American Spirit tucked behind your ear and your lips carved in deep lines of red wine. I asked for help and gesticulated my eyes at you. You slurred something back at me. Before that point, your drunkenness to me was exciting and enticing, a risk that I was curious to take. Then, as I begged for you to process what I was trying to say, your drunkenness became a threat.
Over the clamour of the room and the drawl of the speakers, I heard the heavy lacquered front door to the house open. I looked up, suddenly sober. He whom I had never wanted to see again loomed in the doorway, his figure reemerging from what I wished were a nightmare. He was the boy at university who had, in one grey and fragmented night, taken advantage of me.
Before I got in a word with you, you walked up to him. Your body was loose and aggressive, your mouth was wide open, the word rapist hissing from your tongue. The others at the party stood around in silent passivity, while I let myself out the back door of the house.
There’s no proof, I heard someone say before the door shut behind me. I was somehow very warm in the frigid winter air. The words followed me home, the three-syllable sentence syncing with my breath.
In my mind, the two moments are inextricably linked. As I looked at the tree, in awe of its formidable power over the city, I felt sorry for it to be littered by my things. You loved that tree, in fact you had a great affinity with trees in general. It was one of the many fascinations of yours that I adopted because I wanted to be consumed by everything that consumed you. I thought of the poor birds, who seek refuge in the tree for food, protection, and oxygen.
The way I felt about my clothes hanging there, where they had likely been tormented by wind and rain, was no different from the way I felt when I slipped out the back door of the party that evening. Exposed and ashamed.
After I recounted the story of the party to friends, they gasped in awe, like you had acted a hero in an otherwise withdrawn room. It was true, you were the only person to defend me. I did admire you. Was I supposed to feel grateful? Shouldn’t that have been expected of my best friend and lover? The attention in that room was not on me nor my suffering but on your dramatic performance, which may have sprung from the right intentions but initiated a tableau of self-indulgent fists thrown.
When I later recounted the story of my clothes hanging from the tree like scarlet letters, they laughed at the melodramatics of the act and rolled their eyes at its novel-worthy volatility.
Why do survivors of destructive relationships feel shame? Why does shame spur from trauma?
My clothes, like relics of our lost relationship, hung there, some of them only held up by a single brittle branch. My instinct was to climb up the tree, to follow the same path I had watched you take to get to the top, and to take my things down. I decided, however, that the clothes were no longer mine, and certainly not mine to do away with from the tree. Part of me even felt optimistic that you would retrieve the clothes yourself.
Until that moment, I considered walking away from pain an act of denial. I wanted to stay to confront, change, erase, and fix things. Suddenly I realised that by walking away from your airing dirty laundry, I displayed a new form of kindness towards myself. Self-compassion – and in this case walking away – is, after all, the most powerful antidote to shame and heartbreak.
Victoria is an Italian American writer based in London, UK. She has written for a range of luxury brands and is in the process of completing her first novel. She takes inspiration from strong female characters and visual art.