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UNBROKEN



 

 


 


Raised as an only child in the desert heat of Arizona, Abigail was a bookworm who spent the scorching summer months of her childhood in the perfectly air-conditioned library. Her favorite days were few and far between in the dustbowl she called home. Those were the days it rained. She would sit in the far corner, by the old and overlooked history books, on one of the beanbag chairs and listen to the drops pound on the tin roof as she melted into a classic story. This was her happy place. No, it was her home; a place where she belonged.


Nonfiction, Fantasy, Shakespeare, there wasn’t a section of the Tempe library that didn’t call her name. She devoured one category after another and dismissed the taunts of “Nerd!” and “Dork!” as she walked through the schoolyard with a book in hand and tripped dramatically over her own shadow. Coordination was not the first word a person would pick when describing young Abigail.


Eventually, after years of teasing and learning more about the world than her peers and being a flower girl at the librarian’s wedding, Abigail got herself into an excellent college in California. Fuck off, she told the classroom bullies, grinning and clutching her acceptance letter. Of course, she only said that in her head.


Move-in day was an overwhelming spectacle of parents and boxes and cries and goodbyes. She watched her parents fumble with both the bedding and the emotions. She glanced up at the empty top bunk bed. She’d been so consumed with worrying about what this degree meant to her, that she hadn’t even given her anxiety the space to concern itself with a roommate. Shit, she thought, I’m about to live - like full-on eat and sleep and like, exist - with a total stranger. She knew she should have been worrying about more leading up to this day. But she didn’t have a ton of time to fixate on this emotional oversight. Because that’s when Sawyer Bartlett strutted through the heavy dorm door with matching luggage and oversized sunglasses.


A vision of self-assuredness and what Abigail would soon learn as ‘California Cool,’ this roommate made no bones about the fact that she intended to be running this school, or at least its social scene, before Halloween. She was direct, not unkind, even if Abigail was still learning to tell the difference between the two deliveries. This girl looked like she was born wearing lipgloss and a cropped top, showing every muscle in her stomach. Her large duffle bag gave away her place as a serious gymnast.


“I have nosebleeds,” she announced to Abigail who didn’t see any blood but instinctively reached for the tissue she always kept in her pocket.


“Have you tried a Neti Pot?” It was the first thought that popped into Abigail’s head. She didn’t recall giving her mouth permission to say the words out loud. Oh god. There they were, spoken, just hanging in the air. They may as well have been a smiling newsboy in a pageboy cap from the 20s waving a paper and yelling NERD at the top of his lungs. Her stomach lurched. She was going to be the dork on the playground all over again.


Or maybe… not?

“Oh yeah!” Sawyer exclaimed with a smile that could only exist in a state with that much annual sunshine, “I love Neti Pots! I brought two! I just mean, I need to sleep on the bottom bunk.”


Abigail blinked. Super Strong Stomach Girl was nicer than Albus Dumbledore. And all she wanted was to sleep close to the ground?


“Oh my god, of course,” Abigail immediately pulled her new gingham comforter off the mattress and got to work rearranging her pillows. As anyone who has ever tried to make a bed on a top bunk knows, it's not the most graceful activity in the books.


She looked her way-too-cool roommate up and down and had a hard time believing that this girl was her age. She seemed so much older. She had a leather jacket, black shiny fingernails, and a nose piercing but also hair that looked like she’d cut it straight out of a magazine.


“I - I like your scarf,” Abigail stuttered, looking for an opening.


“Oh my god, it would look SO good on you. HERE.” The super-cool, super-strong, super-friendly brunette thrust the accessory into Abigail’s unsuspecting arms. And that’s how she got a new best friend. And, over the next few years, a ton of clothes.


As the semester rolled forward at the speed of a Fast and Furious car, Abigail watched Sawyer. She had never seen a woman so athletic, so confident, so sure of her own body. Sawyer would lie on the floor with her yoga mat and stretch her legs when they’d put The Gilmore Girls on one of their laptops. Abigail would watch her out of the corner of her eye, mesmerized by her roommate’s control over her limbs and body fat percentage.


And Abigail would look at her soft, curvy self, and wonder if she did spend too much time with her books, and should have been joining beach volleyball, which, before she moved to this specific state, didn’t know was considered a serious sport. This college world offered so many options, maybe she should branch out a little. Look at you, she told herself, who thought you’d ever sleep on a top bunk?


The sleeping arrangement was just one of so many new experiences, Abigail sort of put them all in the same boat. Parties and beer and professors who spoke to her like she was an intelligent adult with something to say? It was like being at an endless Las Vegas brunch buffet when she’d only ever read about food. She vowed to say yes to every new opportunity that came along.


So when Sawyer suggested that they go to a Halloween party dressed as two of the Spice Girls, Abigail was down.


That night she wore the coolest platform boots that she found at a local vintage shop, drank three spiked seltzers, and almost kissed a sophomore in a gorilla suit. Ok, to be totally transparent, she did kiss him but she wasn’t sure it was technically a kiss since it happened on the outside of his gorilla head. She made a note to ask Sawyer how the technicalities worked in a situation like this. Anyway, she was grinning from ear to ear on her way home. She wasn’t drunk or spinning or sick, she felt bubbly and happy and relaxed - almost, shall we use the word, exuberant. She climbed into bed without taking off her glitter eyeshadow. This was not an issue. The issue was having to pee in the middle of the night.


Okay, having to pee was not exactly the issue. Waking up in the pitch black was. Okay, that wasn’t it, either. The issue was, well, miscalculating her distance from the floor. That’s right, Abigail either forgot that she was on the top bunk or misjudged the length of her mattress or - who knows what, but, she fell. Hard. She thinks she screamed. Sawyer told her that she didn’t. But Sawyer had, like, nine of those seltzers.


The bottom-bunked roommate immediately called an ambulance (it turns out that Sawyer as a competitive gymnast was just excellent under pressure) and Abigail only vaguely remembers the trip to the hospital. She hazily recalls the EMTs looking at the angles of her limbs and injecting her with something that made her feel like she’d had eight seltzers. Then she fell asleep. When she woke up, she looked like a cartoon mummy. Really. That five-foot fall onto the university-standard linoleum caused our poor heroine to fracture both, yes, both of her legs and her left arm. A nurse hovered over her.


“Your parents will be here by dinner. What can we get for you?”


Abigail looked at her body and had a brief comedic thought of how she was 24 hours late for dressing like a mummy for Halloween. She wondered if the gorilla would have kissed her like this. She wanted to laugh but her body wasn’t having it. Then the pain set in. And following the weeks of pain was the slow - so very slow- recovery. The weeks of casts, dressing changes, and physical therapy dragged on like a Tolstoy winter.


An agonizing eight weeks later, the minute Abigail was released from the plaster, she vowed to turn her body into a machine. Sawyer was no longer going to be just her roommate, she was now Abigail’s inspiration. She forced herself up (now, on the bottom bunk, Sawyer’s nosebleeds suddenly, well, fine) with the sun, hobbling on her one crutch to the school’s gym with the student body’s most devout meat heads.


She watched video tutorials on how to build strength and read books written by her university’s top doctors about healing and recovery. Abigail signed up for boxing classes, yoga, and swimming. It was a lot. A kind of obsessive big-life change that only a person in this stage of life can commit to without hesitation. She stopped taking the bus (the back had been one of her favorite reading spots getting from place to place) and now walked.


She graduated in a much stronger body than she had enrolled with. She lived with an unsettling irony. Since her accident, she’d known exactly where she was going (to the gym) and what she wanted (to be like Sawyer,) but now she felt utterly lost.


Abigail had thought that graduating from a prestigious university and in the best physical shape of her life would have been her best years. But they weren’t. The early-morning sessions at the gym weren’t fun. They were punishment. This realization took too long. But, so it goes.


Abigail tossed and turned in her new studio apartment, unable to sleep. It was one of those nights where no matter how you position your body, you can’t get comfortable. One of those nights that makes you genuinely contemplate where you should put your arms. She doesn’t remember exactly why, but she turned on the light, so quickly her eyes screamed at the adjustment. She pulled out her laptop and went on her university’s job listing website. And Abigail, out of somewhere deep in her brain - or maybe in her hear - typed “literary” into the search bar. She applied for an assistant position at a small publishing house. Then she passed out. Her body was exhausted. And not in a good way.


The following Monday, she had honestly forgotten about the application and was shocked when she got a call asking her to come in for an interview.


A part of her - the get-in-your-reps head, the outcome-obsessed person who had taken up residence in her brain thought this was a dumb idea. She wouldn’t make much money. It would be long hours, a time-consuming position, and she would open herself up to creative criticism. Who needed any of that?


But then Abigail’s mind wandered to a fictitious office where the walls were made up of nothing but bookshelves and she could practically smell the ink on the paper. Her whole body would relax. Why had she replaced her one, true love with this exercise obsession? She’d wanted to be ‘cool.’ And now she didn’t feel cool. She felt lonely. She loved Sawyer. She’d sort of wanted to be her. But now, outside of the university world, her eyes looked deeper into the future. And her heart wanted to make plans.


The interview went well. Maybe too well? It went so smoothly and comfortably that Abigail convinced herself that she had done a horrible job. Thank the literary gods, she was wrong.


And that’s how our very fit, very tired heroine found herself employed at the small publishing house. Her office was in a converted Victorian home in an “up and coming” downtown neighborhood. Her desk was in what had once been a dining room and she got to read all day. It should have been perfect. But that’s now how Abigail’s boss would have described her work.

Because Abigail’s desk was next to another desk. And that desk belonged to a man named Charles. And looking at Charles made her heart beat like she’d done twenty burpees. It was distracting.


So Abigail would take her manuscripts home and devour them in the comfort of her bed in her newly-purchased Target sheets. And then she would show up at work and impress her boss with her notes. And then she would get nothing done for the eight hours she spent at the office staring at Charles. And he noticed.


“The work you bring back from home is really good. But you don’t do shit while you’re here. Why is that?”


Damn, he was direct. And handsome. Did we mention handsome? He was sooooo handsome.


“Do you have a secret editor roommate who does all the rewrites for you?”


He was teasing. Abigail decided at that moment that she loved being teased.


Their first date was to the garden house and then for dim sum. Abigail was nervous. She spent an hour raking through her small closet, throwing everything she owned onto the bed then onto the floor then into the garbage, and then back into her closet after she cried and ate a Snickers bar and then got her emotions back under control. So many of the clothes were Sawyer’s. They were crop tops and studded jeans and skirts that no human could sit in comfortably. When had she allowed this to become her identity?


In an almost cinematic moment, Abigail pulled out the chunky heels from her Spice Girl costume. The last time she’d worn them was the night of her accident. She pulled them on. The added height felt powerful. She pulled out some flared jeans that were just a size too large meaning that they were very, very comfortable. And an Ani DiFranco shirt that she usually only wore to bed. She let her hair go naturally curly. She used her good perfume. And who knows what ingredient in this night made Charles fall for her?


But it was one of those epic dates. One of those talk-for-five-hours and it feels like fifteen minutes kind of nights. They shared dumplings and noodles and stories about their pasts. It was as romantic as a city night in your early 20s could be.


“I don’t do this a lot,” Abigail ventured over their ninth course of food.


“How is that possible?” Charles made a funny face. “Look at you. You’re brilliant and fun and probably the most athletic-looking woman I’ve ever known.” Abigail snorted. In the small, dimly lit restaurant, in clothes that felt so her, talking to the cutest and sweetest guy about books, she felt like, well, herself. And that’s when Abigail realized that she hadn’t felt like Abigail in a long, long time.


“No,” she protested. “I’m clumsy. I’m uncoordinated. I’m the biggest klutz you’ve ever met.”


Charles pressed his lips together and shook his head,


“I’m not buying it. I’m clearly the nerd here and you’re just saying that. You are the furthest thing from un-athletic.”


Abigail looked straight into Charles's eyes. Here was the first person in a very long time who was getting to know the real her. She didn’t want him to see the Sawyer-ified version of Abigail, she needed him to see the library-obsessed version. She even had a surprising urge to tell him about spending her childhood living vicariously through books about other people instead of becoming her actual self. She wanted to tell him that this body that she now inhabited wasn’t even really, well, hers. But it was a first date. That conversation wouldn’t come for many months.


“I promise you, I am.”


Charles took her hands and smiled.


“I just don’t believe you. I have these,” he gestured to his eyes.


Abigail laughed despite herself. “Charles, seriously. I am the least graceful person you will ever meet.”


Charles let his eyes twinkle for an extra moment, or at least that’s what it looked like to Abigail.


“You aren’t.”


“I am.”


“Whatever you’ve done, I can top it.” Charles seemed very sure of himself on this topic.


“Ok,” Abigail relented, “Go.”


“You want to hear the craziest, clumsiest story ever?”


She nodded at his kind face, ate another dumpling, and waited for him to tell whatever story was on his mind so she could one-up him in a way that he could never have seen coming. She smiled to herself. This was going to be good.


Charles took a sip of his beer, clearly excited to spin whatever tale this was.


“My big brother has been an EMT here for a decade. And, a few years ago, he got a call to go to the university because a girl - get this- fell out of her bed and broke both of her legs and her arm.”


Abigail felt all the air momentarily disappear from the room.


“Like broken. Apparently, one leg was bent like this.” He made a very painful-looking angle with his hands.

“From literally falling out of her bed. So, you never have to feel bad about your coordination.”


Abigail and Charles dated for almost a year. Then Abigail got promoted. Then she landed a job at a bigger agency. And now she runs her own literary business and is thriving. She chilled at the gym, although she still enjoys jogging around the park most mornings. She lost touch with Sawyer except for social media. And she remembers her top bunk fail pretty regularly. Because both her legs and her left arm always know when it’s going to rain. And then she finds a good book and a bean bag chair. Because, Abigail is Abigail.


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