Warning: This poem contains some intense topics. Highlight to read detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. There are descriptions of PTSD, hypervigilance, intrusive ideation, social anxiety, relationship problems, sexual harassment, canon-typical violence, and other challenges. Current support is variable. Please consider your taste and headspace before reading onward.
"The Surface Tension of Injured Souls"
Daphne watches the water striders
skim over the koi pond, sees them
pounce on hapless insects knocked
onto the springy membrane.
For creatures so tiny, the water works
almost like the mattress of a waterbed,
tough and rubbery on top so that they
make dimples instead of sinking into it.
For Daphne, socializing is like walking on water:
she can see through it, but she can only skate
over the surface, never penetrate the barrier.
She has shrunk that much in her time away.
Talking with her father is all but impossible,
her mother's death hanging between them
like a waterfall, its roar drowning their words.
Her little brother Jude is worse; the six years
of her absence have turned the cute toddler
she remembers into a troubled eight-year-old
whose emotional outbursts grate on her nerves.
Daphne does not have the words to tell them
that every touch feels like a slap, every shout
like an alarm rousing her to battle -- but here
there is not supposed to be any fighting,
and people expect her to pack away
the memories like old clothes.
They cling to her, clammy and harsh
as a wet swimsuit full of sand.
Only Claudia ignores all of this,
her pointed remarks piercing through
the surface tension of injured souls
like a waterbug diving into a pool.
She keeps hanging around, always
plucking at the edges of Daphne's isolation,
trying to draw her out somehow.
The only thing that makes it bearable
is that when Claudia triggers a touchback,
she doesn't ignore it and doesn't nag Daphne
for an explanation in the middle of it.
She just sits quietly and waits for it to stop.
For that, Daphne can overlook a lot,
tolerate the odd girl that nobody really likes
who drifts around the edges of high society
just because her family's rich enough
for her to keep getting invitations.
For that, Daphne can struggle against
six years of instincts screaming at her
to leave well enough alone, stretch
emotional muscles stiffened from disuse,
wrap her rusty voice around, "How are you?"
and "I'm sorry your family life sucks" and
"Let's go to the beach tomorrow."
When that trip turns into a serious beatdown of
three drunken, sexist pigs and Claudia sees what
Jerryrigger can do with a beach towel and her keys,
the reaction is not fear or scorn but admiration.
"You must have survived a lot," Claudia says, and
for a moment Jerryrigger is drowning in memories again,
but then Claudia adds, "I'd like to join you. It might help."
So Jerryrigger gains the aid of Obsidian, a talented snoop
and hacker, and it's not perfect but they do okay.
* * *
PTSD can result from various types of trauma, and flashbacks (which Daphne calls touchbacks due to their sensory footprint) are common. Understand how to cope with PTSD or help a friend who has it.
Mental illness can produce profound barriers to socialization due to combat PTSD, social anxiety, depression, and so forth. For some people, occupational therapy can improve everyday function. There are ways to overcome social phobia or help someone conquer their anxiety.
Waterbugs are diving beetles found throughout much of California, and characteristic of the state's insect life.
Emotional work refers to actions taken to maintain relationships, such as contacting people, suggesting activities, and talking about feelings. It is generally considered women's work, and unpaid accordingly; but there are women who don't do it and men who do. The shear here comes from the fact that Daphne used to excel at this kind of social connection, but lost it during her traumatic absence.
Sometimes men pick the wrong women to molest. Bystander interruption is an important part of stopping sexual harassment.