Gone, part 2

For three days now, my phone has been ringing and I don’t answer, too ashamed and lost in myself.  I let the hours tick away without saying anything to anyone.  I look through the few pictures I’ve taken since June and don’t have any of Gil.  Messages pile up, mostly from Arlene, but a couple from LaToya to see if I’ll be back to work next week.  Every friend I thought I had, before slipping back onto this black hole, is gone.  Amazing how fast people can disappear from your life.
On Saturday I wanted to go, I did.  I should have, but when I didn’t show up, I wanted to explain why.  How could I look at him in a casket, cold and still perfect, but never to comfort or encourage me again? Would the casket even be open? Was I to act like a daughter or a lover?  What could I say to anyone there, his whole family who I’d never met.  Most of the people there simply knew me as Arlene’s adopted daughter and I couldn’t stomach having so many strange feelings while being stared at and whispered about.  I’ve been nauseous every day because of all this.  In my mind, I could see myself puking everywhere and the service coming to a stop while everyone turns to look where I’m already trying to hide, way in the back.  I’d laid out four dresses, half-did my hair, and mentally rehearsed, over and over, what I would say when I saw Arlene; all while deciding not to go.  When I finally sat down to let her know in a text message, my stockings were already on and I was ignoring the blowing horn of the taxi waiting for me downstairs.  She would never understand that some things are just not that simple for me.  I should’ve guessed it would start another war.
“I’ve been going through Gil’s papers, and Missy, we need to talk immediately.  You pick up this PHONE NOW!” 

That’s Arlene’s morning voice message to me on Sunday.  The one she’d left after the three from yesterday evening, each letting me know that I was dead to her for missing Gil’s funeral.  By four, she knows I’m not going to call her back and it’s too much to handle. Really, what could I say to that?  I am panting through jumping jacks, hoping to get my weight loss back on track, when the pounding on the door is so loud that I think it’s the police.  It’s Arlene.

“Yes?”

“Yes?  You open this door!”  I lean against the wall, my heart beat still slowing down.  I close my eyes to prepare for the worst.

“What do you what?” 

“Excuse me? how da- “she exhales, a bull ready to charge, “you open this door and see just what I want. We got lots to discuss.”  She sounds like a witch from a fairy tale, trying to lure me out, but I know I’m no innocent here.  Not this time and, in a way that I shouldn’t be proud of, I’m glad that I am not a total victim for once. 

“I’m dead to you, remember?”  we are both shocked by my flat tone, me sounding as hollow as I feel, even as I slump to sit cross legged on the floor, I have nothing inside.

“Cierra, just open the door.”

“No.”

The whole door shook in its frame as she banged it over and over.

“You open this goddamn door, you ungrateful little bitch!”  I can hear one of my elderly neighbors softly ask her what’s going on, she didn’t answer because, of course, such people are so far beneath her.

“After all I’ve ever done for you, this is how you turn out! this is how you treat me!”  she pounded some more, then her voice got close and muffled, like she was leaning against the door.

“What about Gil, huh? Did that work out ok for you?”  her laugh was sharp, “Honey, you need to let me in because I don’t think you want all these people here, who think you’re so perfect, to hear what I got to say.”

For a second, prickly icicles went through me, making me sit up straighter.  I took deep breaths to keep me in my seat.

“Please. Go away.”

“Damn it, Cierra!”  she got far and hit the door before coming close again. “You’re pathetic, you know that?  I came all the way to this shitty neighborhood to have a real conversation with you, since you can’t face a phone conversation.  Get all the way over here and you can’t even show your miserable face.  I just lost my husband, and you didn’t even think enough of me to come to his funeral, AFTER ALL HE’S DONE FOR YOU!  It’s never enough for people like you.  Someone can never do enough, you just suck people dry and go crying to the next fool willing to help.”  She laughed how people do when they are disgusted, not amused.  

“So, what’d it cost you, huh?  Think I don’t know anything, huh?  Well, I knew Gil and I know you.  So be a woman, now, honey. Tell me to my face how long it went on.”

“there’s nothing to-“

“You want to lie?” close again, “Don’t!” the word came as she hit the door again.  Tell me, I can take it. we were getting divorced anyway, but I found all the receipts, honey.  All the records. Any fool can figure it out.”

“Well, then, what do you want from me?!”

“I want you to admit it! Come on, explain it in a way that’ll make you feel like less of a tramp!”

She came close again.  “Let me tell you a little secret, honey.  Gil liked girls like you and you certainly weren’t the first.”  She whispered and laughed, “Oh no, honey, he ran around with a whole lot of confused, pathetic mixed breed whores just like you.  I just never thought my own daughter would be one of them, but I forgot you have the common sense of a rock.”

The first thing I notice is the strain of my eyes from being held open so wide.  Then the fact that I am panting, her words falling on me like a storm.  I only feel my tears after they get cold on the front of my shirt.

“Upset?  Did you think you were special?”  she let out a real laugh. “Life is cruel, isn’t it?”

she doesn’t speak for a while and I guess because her ear is now to the door.

“Honey, listen.”  Her voice was softer now, a trick I grew up with.  “I’m not even sure I’m mad about this.  Gil saw easy meat and took it.  I’m just sorry it had to be you this time.”

I surprise myself when I jump up and snatch the door open.  She would’ve fallen in if I hadn’t shoved her back out.   She looks at her shoulder where my hand had been fast as lighting.

“Was it the same with daddy?  Did you feel bad for the easy meat then?”.  Her eyes got as big as they could without falling out of her head, thin lips forming their famous frown.  “Or was it more convenient to ignore back then, while you got yourself together”?  I feel the burn in my eyes and realize that I am biting a fingernail for the first time since I graduated high school.  

“What are you talking about?”  she pushed through her teeth, shaking.

“How much did you know? My guess is everything. Every time.”

“You’re crazy.  Whatever sick things your father did to you, I- “, she put her hand over her mouth and looked away so her tears could fall. “Whatever he did. I- “

“You knew.”

“I did not!”

“You did.”  My own teeth closed around the words I’d been wanting to say to her for years, “and you know what, I knew that you knew.  Even daddy knew that you knew!  Maybe you didn’t talk about it, be he told me many times that you knew all about it and I didn’t believe him until I could see it in your eyes for myself.  It was all over you face, the whole time.  The day you left, after everything was in place for you, you didn’t care at all about what happened to me after that.  Now, who wants to stand here and lie?”

With that, she frowned again before slapping me in the face for the first time ever.  We both held our hands to our cheeks with wide mouths, staring at each other more in shock than pain.  It seems like minutes go by before she snaps her mouth back into a frown and points her manicured finger in my face.

“I knew nothing of whatever filth your talking about, you hear me? nothing.” The growl came out as a hot whisper directing in my face, her scalding eyes still on mine, wanting me to look away first.  

“You knew and nothing is going to change that.”  I push my face toward hers until we are almost nose to nose.  I know full well that she would never, in a million years, back down to anyone, least of all me.  I catch her hand as she raises it to swing again.  

“If you hit me again, I.  Will.  Break.  Your.  Arm.  I Promise.”

The first time she tries to pull away, I don’t let her go and I feel bad.  I don’t want to be like them, forcing people to do what I want and leave them to swallow the shame of it.  I don’t want to use any part of myself against anyone, because I know all too well how long that kind of pain lasts.  I just want to live in peace.  The second time, snatches her hand out of my hold and stomps away, turning back once again to point, the words that were supposed to go with that gesture coming put as an exhale.  When I hear her car speeding out the parking lot, I become aware of the surest thought I’ve had since I could remember: I need to be anywhere else, far away from here.  I don’t know how or care where I end up, but I’m leaving and I’ll do almost anything to make that happen as soon as possible.  Florida has nothing to hold me anymore. 
On Monday, I show up at school for the first time in weeks and I pull myself together enough to be friendly with the librarian and other students in the computer lab.  I have no idea how to do most things I need to do, but I’m set on figuring most of it out today.  I surprise myself, again becoming that sparkling girl who walked into Dixie’s for a job not so long ago.

“Strange question.  If someone wanted to find an apartment in another state, what would be the best way to do that?”  I ask a redheaded guy on the computer next to me, who’s happy to pull out his headphones and listen.  I don’t even feel shy when he talks to my cleavage.  I guess Gil was right when he said that what boobs are for.

“You can find everything on Craigslist.  Just type in apartments and what city.”

“Thanks.”

I spend the afternoon doing just that.  I feel stupid as I skim a few reviews for different cities and read others.  More often, I wonder if I’ve finally gone crazy, like daddy always said I would.  Most of all, I feel done with everything and everyone. I feel cooked and ready to move on.  Get out from under every shadow.   As I decide to skip California altogether, I think of Arlene.  With my whole heart, I wonder what she would think of this.  Not wanting to get sucked into the panic I was starting to feel, I google a map and literally close my eyes while pointing at the West Coast, telling myself the biggest city near to where my finger lands is where I’m headed.  I open my eyes and Portland, OR is where I’m going, a city I’d never even thought of in my whole life and that doesn’t even matter.

At work, I move faster than I ever have, wanting to make up for the days Latoya gave me off for Gil’s funeral.

“Are you ok, sugar?”  her voice is soft when I hang up my sweater, my mind a thousand miles away already. 

“I’m ok.  I’ll be ok.”

“Your mother called.  She wanted to know if you were going to be here today.”

I couldn’t move from the doorway, my heart almost stopped.

“What’d you tell her?”

“That I’d call her back after I looked at the schedule.  That was a few hours ago.”

We just look at each other, her eyes reaching into my soul the way and reading me without needing to ask, a gift I imagine all maternal women have.  My eyes are so clouded that I can only make out her blurry shape coming toward me, her soft arms and sweet perfume around me before I could resist.  I melted into her before I could stop myself.

“It’s all gonna be alright.  What’s wrong? You can talk to me.”  Her voice is like warm syrup in my ear, making me cry harder and her hug only got tighter, instead of wanting to let go. “You too sweet to always be so sad.”

“‘Toya, you wouldn’t understand.”  I am shattered and her chuckle shakes us both.

“Sure, I would.  I’ve raised five daughters.  There’s not much of nothin’ I haven’t heard once or twice.”

She doesn’t push for it after that and I can’t bring my lips to spill the same sob story that I’ve gotten sick of telling, even to myself.  I want to say I’m fine, but, more than that, I want to tell someone what’s on my mind.  I pull away so I can see her face, see if she really wants to hear.  Her open and kind eyes, urge me on.

“ I can’t take living here anymore.  I can’t… I don’t want to talk about why.  I just need to get out of here.”  I say this, half expecting her attitude to become cold, maybe even to get fired before I get a chance to walk out on the job.  Instead, LaToya just rubs my back and looks relieved that that’s all it is.

 “Well, honey, that’s easy. You know where to?”
I end my shift grateful to have told someone my plan and to have kept my main problems to myself.  On my way to the bus stop, I see Jesenia heading back into the hair salon.  We wave, but otherwise keep moving in our opposite directions.  It’s been a long time since I’ve stopped in to chat and my frizzy hair and plain nails show it.  on the way home, I catch myself starting to dwell on all the little, unimportant things I can’t afford anymore, until the apartment listings I printed earlier call me to more hopeful thoughts.  Getting out of here.  By the time, I get off my second bus and am walking toward my building, my whole sense of self is feeling a tiny bit less broken and more resolute.  

When you don’t have any roots holding you down, it’s scary and liberating all in one.  Everyone wants to have a place they can call home.  The feelings of danger and uncertainty that come from not having any safe corner to lay your head and be accepted are never-ending.   On the other hand, the world is an open place for people like me.  The universe, even.  Really, I could move to Mars and not a soul on earth would care or try to bring me back.  

Not long ago, that fact would crush me.  Now, I sit up straight with a cup of coffee while circling anyplace that sounds affordable.  I don’t even flinch when it becomes clear that a room is all I’ll be able to afford on the slim savings I’ve managed to hold on to, and that’s only if I find a job immediately.  Otherwise, I’ll soon be finding out what the Portland homeless shelters are like- either way, I’m still going.  LaToya promised to always give me a good job reference and I take her advice on applying to jobs before I get there and letting that be my safety net, something I hadn’t thought of.  “Don’t go there totally blind.” she’d said and I loved her for that.  After putting in a dozen applications, I pick up my phone with shaky hands to make calls to the other side of the country.  My voice is calm as I talk to several people looking for a roommate and as I leave messages for a few more before heading back to work at twelve.

I happily train the new girl in Ana’s spot.  Between showing her how to tag and where to put things, I catch myself smiling, a glimpse of real joy from nowhere.  When I’m alone again, I wonder if it’s real.  I search my heart for the ache that’s always there and I have to dig to find it. 

When I get home, not even the eviction notice taped to my door upsets me.  It’s November fifth and I have no plans to pay my rent here.  In fact, counting my upcoming check, I’d only be leaving here with twenty-five hundred dollars, and a good part of that had been given to me by Gil.  I’d be a real fool to be straight with the landlord now.  I just rip it down on my way in and start thinking of what I will take with me.  I delete three more messages from Arlene without even listening to them first.  I just don’t care anymore. 

I’m sweating and throwing up my life on a Friday when one of the room renters calls me back.  I’m off from work, which I hate and I pull my face away from the toilet to run to the phone.  Her name is Nadine and I like her as soon as she adds a few laughs into her description of the apartment and lets me know upfront that they need a third roommate as soon as possible.  With my stomach still heaving, we talk for nearly an hour, long enough for her to know that I’m coming from Florida with the simple hopes of getting a fresh start and nothing more.  For a moment, I wish I had started my search after getting there, maybe it would’ve made more sense.  All the same, I’m willing to say anything to get a yes and a move in date.  After another thirty minutes, we agree that I will move in on the twentieth of November.  When I hang up with her, I immediately call Latoya and let her know I will be leaving much sooner than expected.

“Honey, that’s not two weeks’ notice.  Hell, on the bus, it’s gonna take at least three days to even get there!”

I roll my eyes and close them, not knowing what to say to that.  I don’t want to say that I don’t care about anyone else’s plan right now, but it’s exactly how I feel.

“I’m sorry, LaToya.”

“Well, don’t be sorry.”  She softens, “You gotta do what you gotta do.  Are you sure you want to leave that soon?”

I think about the calls I’ve been ignoring from the landlord, my school and everyone else except her, and that was mostly because I worked in her shop.  I think about the scene with Arlene, her denials and my own faults wanting to cave in on me.

“Yes.  I have to.”

****

I take three buses and walk a mile in the early morning sun just to finally lay flowers on Gil’s tombstone. It’s big and showy, something I wonder if he’d picked out for himself for whenever he’d need it.  I put down the yellow tulips and trace my fingers along the letters of his name.  Gil Jamison Hasting.  Born November 12, 1977.  Forty years ago, today.  I sit down in the neat grass and lean against the cool granite for a picture, the last one I’ll take in Florida and the only one I’ll have of any connection between us until sometime next year.  There are others, from a summertime barbeque shortly after I got here and Arlene insisted we smile and bunch in close, but I don’t plan on ever seeing that photo again.  I went back to the school library one last time, after my clinic appointment yesterday, just to print his portrait off his company’s website and thanking God they hadn’t taken it down yet.  I’ll keep it forever, I’m sure, along with the photo albums from Maryland I almost wanted to leave behind in Gather Bends.  I write down everything on the headstone, hoping I’ll have the nerve to tell it to our child someday.  I’m only seven weeks along and I know I’ll protect this child with my life.  Already, I want to give it everything I have missed out on forever.  I shed a few tears, still not sure how I really feel about what happened between us, but wishing with my whole heart that Gil was still alive.

Three hours later, I’m standing in line for the bus headed out west.  It’s three and a half days’ trip and I made sure to pack enough snacks and blank paper, hoping to sort several things out along the way.  Looking at the people around me, I wonder how many others are running away to a mystery, held down by nothing but bad memories.  I’ve talked to Nadine every day and call her now to gush about how excited I am to finally be on my way.  Really, I just want to hear that she is still looking forward to it, too.  Makes neither of us any difference right now, it seems- a stranger is stranger, until you know them.  

I pull my three suitcases behind me and show my ticket before heading to the loading dock, grinning and tearing up again behind my sunglasses.  My heart is light after having decided that I won’t ever again talk with the cloud of my past looming over every word.  I’ll never again let anybody do what they want to me and hope they won’t make it hurt.  I won’t just lay down for abuse.  I feel that could be who I’ve always been, but it won’t be who I always am.  Twice I’ve pulled out my phone, wanting to text a thoughtful goodbye to Arlene, or even call her to let her know that I’m gone, but twice I put the phone away without bothering.  Maybe someday, maybe not.  I call LaToya and almost cry when she sends nothing but goodwill, telling me again, to call her if I ever run into deep trouble, anywhere.  As I settled into the farthest seat in the back, I exhale and it seems like the weight of another old disaster rolls off me and out the window, crumbling the further it gets away from me.  The bus jerks away from the dock, causing two tears to roll down my face, and here I go again, hoping to get something right this time.

End

Advertisements

Gone

It’s a weekend again, seems like it always is.  I sit looking though old pictures, trying to find a clue that I already know isn’t there.  When didn’t I feel like I do now?  when wasn’t I a lost cause?  In dozens of pictures from school, birthday parties, my failed piano classes, family portraits- you name it- I see the same blue look on my face, year after year.  
I look at myself in the mirror for as long as I can stand and I only see a girl who will fall for anything with eyes wide open.  Walk right into the fire, convinced that it won’t be hot.  When the fire is thrown on me, I just crouch down in it, thinking it will be kind to me.  I stare into my own eyes until I see the fool that everyone else must see.  I look until I feel it’s best to just cover it until someone different can look back at me.  

Gil comes and goes whenever after he surprised me by letting himself in with a key he had made.  I don’t know what to think, only that my stomach twists each time I hear the locks turning for someone I didn’t buzz in.  Even when he gets out of my bed at odd hours, I still don’t know what to think.  I just watch him go and try to tune into the mixed feelings that run through me long after he’s gone.  It took just twelve days for this to become a regular thing.  I don’t need to name it for anyone to understand what it is, not even to myself do I call it in truth.  Each time I want to cry, let out the ball of anger inside, but end up calling him just to say “hey”, instead.  

Most of those twelve days I went to school, but I don’t need a memo telling me that it’s not going well.  I see the professors faces when they hand me back graded assignments that I’ve spent no time on, so wrapped up in nothing.  I don’t blame them for 60’s and 70’s, just tuck them in my bag and move on.  

Michelle asked me what’s wrong, and I started to tell her until I heard myself sounding bad, too.  

“So, you sleeping with him? For money.” Her lips made a maroon frown, the best shade on her new Fall palette.  she didn’t give me the sad eyes one gives to an abused child, something I expect.  The disgust in her voice rang clear as a bell.

“I don’t think it’s that simple.” I couldn’t even look at her, but when I did, I caught her looking at me like I was the devil and she didn’t try to hide it.

“But it is. You ain’t a kid no more.  Can’t nobody make you do it.  At least, not the way you’re telling it.  What you sayin’ just sounds like an affair.”  We just stared at each other after this logic busted through my bull crap.  I felt the distance growing between us right then and I wasn’t even surprised when my next few calls to her went unanswered.  When she gave me only a short smile from her new seat in class, however, I felt more burned than usual.  That same day, I went to the advisement office and dropped that class from my schedule. 

At work, I asked Latoya for more time, not caring what the hours were.

“You quitin’ school already?”  she eyed me suspiciously through her new, honey blond bob, her hands not missing a step in tagging the new sweaters.

“No. I… I just need to work more.” I sounded as stupid as I probably looked and if Ana hadn’t just put in her notice, I’m sure I would’ve been told no.  Instead, though, on the ninth day of this thing with Gil, I started working from twelve to seven, five days a week. 

 Today, I go in with a blank mind and nothing to show that I’m breaking my future apart.  I don’t think I care to think past tomorrow anymore.  It never works out.

When Gil doesn’t contact me all day, I figure he’s still mad at me about the school thing.  I text him before I sleep just to apologize again, for the fiftieth time today.  The no reply I get feels like a kick in my pathetic ribs.

Monday.  All day at work, my mind comes to the rejection.  I greet customers thinking of the reasons he should be mad.  Anyone would be.  I delete two missed calls from Arlene and I spend my break pledging to pay him back the tuition in text messages.  When Arlene’s number buzzes my phone again while I am out on the floor, I go numb, feeling like a spotlight has been placed on me.  I go home early because I’m unable to keep my hands from shaking with the thought of what she could possibly want to say after a month of us not speaking.  No Gil is waiting for me and I catch the bus with a new set of what-ifs to cry about.

I fall asleep on the couch and dream of poison dripping though the ceiling and me jumping around to avoid it.  The ringing of the phone snatches me upward in the sunset living room.

“I’m glad you’ve finally decided it was important enough for you to pick up.  I’ve been calling you all day.” the venom in Arlene’s voice almost made her unrecognizable, I could see her, in my mind, fuming though clenched teeth.  

Had I not been willing to talk to anyone at that point, I don’t know if I would’ve answered at all, and that wasn’t entirely her fault anymore.

“Well, What’s wrong?”  my heart starts racing as she cries into the phone.

“Don’t you sound innocent.” She hissed.

 “Mama?” that familiar fear winds up from my toes to my chest by the time she pulls herself together enough to let it out.  I steady myself for a knock down.

“Gil was…  In a car accident, this morning.”  She whispered, both of us clouding over as I strained to hear her now small voice, “he’s…he’s dead.”

 Her screaming didn’t even hurt my ears as I sat too frozen to move or think.  The urge to also scream rose in me and died just as fast.  Arlene cried long and hard and, still, I could only feel bad for myself.  My body was just a shell, full of the dirty and broken glass leftover from a spirit that never wins.

Lower

My phone rings, the number of that Jeremy guy that I never call lights up the screen.  My eyes pop open in the dark, counting the wood beams above me, hooks for hanging stuff if I ever find any personal style.  I look over at the closet jammed with bags and boxes I haven’t had the time or nerve to unpack yet.  The small windows let in the sun as soon as it comes up in the sky.  I roll the other way carefully on the small bed, to look at the dark side where the plaid couch, new to me, is facing nothing because I didn’t have the money for it and a TV.  I’m not sure I want one, anyway, it’ll just remind me of the years I want to forget.  I look at the stack of textbooks on the tiny table I’ll use for food and study.  I didn’t get to keep the treadmill that was a gift to me or anything else from that bedroom, matter of fact.  And, I purposely left all the clothes she’d bought me right there, folded neatly on the bed, so she couldn’t miss the fact that I don’t need them.  I don’t need her.  We don’t need each other. These thoughts mix with the joy and fear I have as I look around at every bit of this place.  My new place, the one I technically can’t afford. 

It’s Saturday and that’s good because I’m so behind on my school work with all this going on in the past week. After breakfast- two packs of powdered donuts and the last of the orange soda I bought with me when I moved in- Now I sit to look at my books and feeling like I’ve forgotten almost everything.  I call Michelle just to catch somebody up on the new hell I’m in.  She listens for an hour and she’s not all sorry for me when I tell her how Arlene kicked me out.  It feels nice to tell somebody something and not have them act like your whole life is over from it.  I’ve been fighting that feeling enough lately and don’t need anyone rubbing it in.  When I get off the phone with her, though, I fall right back into myself.

 Alone I remember more of where I came from.  Before her and daddy.  I had a family in which I was always alone.  Pain and alone is pretty much what always comes back first, then the beautiful brown face of that woman that I know is my mother.  I remember her even when I try not to. My memories of walking behind her on sunny days that weren’t happy days, then one day she was gone and to this day I don’t know where to or what happened to her.  The memory of my two sisters, kids themselves, trying to care for me and soak up our freedom at the same time.  That didn’t go well.  The day it ended with a street fight and me looking up at a police officer, spilling the first words I’d said to anyone in a long time.  The second time I’d told an adult that we had no one at home.  My sister’s eyes as we watched each other, her in an ambulance and me getting further away by the second in the back of a police car.  I never saw her again and never knew where she ended up.  State agencies don’t really see it as important to keep a child in contact with the only family they’ve held onto.  Three months of foster homes before I ended up with the Harrisons, Marshal and Arlene, who adopted me as soon as they could.  I was ten and, for them, said I remembered nothing of my past.  If I breathe quite enough, I can still hear them asking me to forget it all so my life could be good.  It wasn’t a lie in every way, but a lie just the same. 

A strange power is coming over me, but its beginning is a savage emptiness, a feeling I’ve run from for as long as I could remember.  As I walk around this tiny space in Garther Bends, I can’t help but think of Arlene.  It’s an apartment complex for single mothers and other people who just can’t do better,  or at least that’s how she described it as she yelled out her front door at me, Gil putting my bags in his trunk, looking just as calm as always behind his sunglasses.  He knew the owner of the complex and paid everything to me to get in right away.  He said don’t worry, but now, the thought of what it will cost me is haunting.  It won’t just be money, I know, but what can I do about it.

I look at my books again around noon and end up staring at the page, all the word nothing more than black lines on white paper.  For a small moment, I think of how easy it would be to buy a bottle of sleeping pills at the Walgreens on the corner, nobody would know about it until it was far too late. Really, who would care, anyway.  One less problem for the people who say they care. It could be the last thing I ever have to deal with, ever have to decide- how many will it take?  I think to invite that guy Jeremy over just to passed the time.  Until what, I don’t know, but it’s like the storm clouds have rolled back in and now, I can’t see myself in the future anymore.  

I sit on the couch, looking at nothing until the sunlight begins to turn orange on the walls.  When night comes, my new neighbors come alive.  Spanish music comes out of every window and laughter walks in the street.  I get curious enough to look out at them and get stuck watching.  Life seems so easy for other people.  A small crowd of people is partying in the parking lot in the middle of the complex, music is pouring out of a car that two women are sitting on.  Around them, others are talking, drinking, dancing, laughing.  A good time, I suppose, despite whatever problems any of them may have.  Still, they can laugh and not be eaten alive by misery.  I lay back on the couch and fall asleep to the sounds of their fun.

On Monday, I get ready to rush the school.  Now that I was almost an hour away, I’d been late to class every day for a week.  I want to be on time today, try to pull myself up again.  My professors hadn’t said anything about it, but the difference it makes in my spirit gets heavier each day.  I pull up my jeans, ignoring how tight they feel, thanks to my reunion with donuts and ice cream.  Gil’s calling again, wanting to give me a ride.  I said no last week, not ready to have to keep smiling because he’s doing me so many favors. Today, though, it’s already 9:08am when I get to the bus stop just in time to see my bus going by without me on it.  The next isn’t until ten.  I grit my teeth, not wanting to cry, and call him back, all the while wanting to be in a place where I don’t have to owe anyone anything.

“That offer for a job still stands.  I think you’re gonna need it”.  He looks different during the day, buttoned up and more serious.  His dark hair all in place.  I glance at him as he drives, trying to see what Arlene sees in him, what he sees in her.  I can’t find a thing they have in common except a love of money.

“Gil, how old are you?”

He whistled long, before shooting that look at me, the one where he’s looking for trouble.

“I’ll be forty, November eighth.”  The red light made a chance for him to keep his emerald gaze on me, a grin like the cat in Alice in Wonderland “Should I expect a gift?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Arlene told me he was in his fifties, like her.  I didn’t want to bring her up, anyway.

“Yeah.”  I looked at the highway whipping by, wishing I had the guts to jump out and die. “I’ll get you something.”

I have no idea what I’d be able to afford, but it gave me a reason to keep on for another six weeks. Maybe.  Silence came again for too long.  

“Gil?”

“Yes, darlin’?”

“Why do you do all this stuff for me?”

Another red light came and we stared at each other without the hint of a joke between us.  He drove on until the next red light, where he stared right into my emptiness as he spoke softly.

“I’d like to think I’m helping you.” his hand combing through my loose hair. “It’s a big, bad world out there and you need help.”

“I do.”  I felt the tears burning my eyes before I could look away, feeling stupid for not taking my chances on the bus.  Really, I could’ve just missed my first class.  Now, Gil’s lips were on mine and the hand I’d put up to stop him wasn’t pushing him away.  Instead my fingers slid lightly down the buttons of his silk shirt until the car behind us beeped and Gil retuned his focus to the road.  I’m glad we had nothing else to say the whole rest of the ride because I couldn’t hear anything except the pounding of my heart.  I couldn’t look at him again until he pulled into one of the school’s parking lots.

“I’ll take you grocery shopping after work.  Call me if you get out early.”  We again stare at each other, I wonder if I’m making any kind of sweetheart look back at him.  Maybe so, because he smirks and rubs my hand.  I want to refuse, tell him no thank you, then starve until payday next week.  I spent the money I had on a junk food binge that was over now, leaving my cabinets empty except tea bags, peanut butter and disgusting sesame crackers.  Just the thought of not having anything was overwhelming enough. 

“Ok.  I get off at seven.”

“I’ll see you then.”  He rubbed my hand again, my cue to stop stalling and get out the car.  I walk to class feeling more confused than I have in a long time. 

 I sit in the library until it’s time to go to work, telling myself that was better than class.  At least I could catch up on my reading.  At three, I get on the bus heading to Dixie’s, not having read a single thing.  Again, that feeling of wanting to just be gone with everything washed over me.  It was barely October and I was already becoming a loser again.  

My whole shift was unexciting, with Latoya telling me about the new deck on her house and Ana telling me about her new boyfriend, just two more simple things that I don’t have.  I just listen and nod, not giving away anything from the mess inside myself.  I don’t even perk up when I tag the new shipment of dark blue jeans, which only remind me to get on the scale to see the damage when I get home.  If I’ve even remembered to take the scale out of the marble bathroom at the castle.  I stop cold in the middle of opening a new box when I hear my own thoughts of maybe Gil can get me a new one tonight. 

Outside, Gil is waiting in front of Kroger for me, still dressed in his work clothes.  He looks more relaxed than earlier and I feel like throwing up the happiness that comes as soon as I lay eyes on him.  Inside we go up and down the aisles slowly as I tell him about my day, surprised that he seems to be taking me seriously.  I get all the health food I’ve been craving and a new scale.  

After he helps me lug the bags into my apartment, we sit on that lonely couch and talk until he cups my face in his warm hands and tells me I look tired.  

“I’d better get on back, now.  If you get up late tomorrow, call me.”  he put a kiss on my forehead before leaving.  Again, I stare at him and he smirks at the look I can’t hide even if I wanted to.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted anymore.  He kneels in front of me to rub his thumb across my full lips and look through to my soul again.  I could have anything in the world at that moment, it would be the ability to read those beautiful eyes of his.

 “I’d better go.” He stood again and looked back at me twice before going out the door.  At his car, he must have felt my eyes on him from the window, causing him to look up and wave.  I cried harder than I had in a long time, watching him drive away without me.

Talk About Me

“I took it upon my own kind heart to help you look.  Now, here you go,”
 Arlene is in my doorway again, now throwing a thick pack of papers at me.  They scatter as soon as they are in the air, falling like huge snowflakes everywhere in the space between us.  I don’t know what to say, but I stop the treadmill to stare at her.  

“Well?” with her hands on her hips, she stamps her high heeled foot, wanting me to pick up the mess she just made.  I think we are both surprised. “You’re so grown, right? Here is every apartment in the area that I could find.  For you.  Good luck affording any of them and don’t even think for a second that anyone at this address is gonna help you pay.”  Her heels pound the floor when marches away, talking to herself loud enough so I could hear “You’ve leeched enough around here”.

I get off the treadmill, my heartbeat faster than I think I can handle.  So, this is how it was going to be.  I sit down, my eyes burning, but no tears coming.  I’m not sure if I can cry over this anymore. 

After my shift, I hang around the plaza as always.  I’m not in the mood for socializing, something I’ve been doing a lot more of since going out with Jessenia last Friday.  I know she’s not working to day and I’m glad because I don’t want her to get sick of seeing me just yet.   I sit at the grocery store deli trying to figure out so many things I don’t understand at all.  When I finish my salad, I look over some of my psychology notes from earlier.  When I can’t keep my mind on that, I take out some of the papers Arlene threw at me.  I’m hoping that a couple of them will be in my price range, whatever that is.  I don’t even know what I can afford, if anything, but a box in the junkyard might be more peaceful than living in the Queen’s castle on Peach Lane.  

One bedroom, 1200.  One bedroom 1,150, no pets.  Studio, 900.  My eyes burned again and I felt the tears coming this time. How stupid could I be, for getting myself in this mess in the first place.  All I had to do was listen to her, let her rant about whatever I did wrong, but I had to say something back.  Now look at me not knowing which way is up.  Before I can make a scene and a bigger fool of myself, I do the only smart, maybe dumb, thing I can think of, feeling low the whole time I’m dialing.  I call Gil.

“Darlin’ you callin’ to take me up on that offer?”  I can see his grin in my mind, his beautiful eyes looking for trouble by another name.  He was talking about his idea for me to intern at his development company, the one he had to rub my shoulders and take me to dinner to tell me all about.  I wasn’t so stupid as to think my duties would be limited to business, but a part of me didn’t want to think of Gil like that.  

“I don’t know yet, Gil.  I called about something else.  Can you help me with something?”

“I can help you with anything, you just name it.”

“It’s serious and you can’t tell mama I asked you.”

“Oh boy,” he giggles in a way that makes me hope he isn’t drunk. I picture him playing computer games instead of working, lonely in his office at home.  Arlene is probably still at her spinning class, the kids in the daycare there so GiI can concentrate.  I pause, knowing what bridge I’m about to burn when I don’t mean to “Well, you gone spit it out?”

“I need to find an apartment that I can afford.”

“That’s easy.  What can you afford?”

“That’s the problem.  I don’t know.  Can you please help me figure that out and don’t tell mama I asked any of this?  Gil, I need to move out as soon as possible.”. I caught myself whispering and looking around to see who was listening.  It sounds crazy to do, but Arlene knows everybody and people love to tell her what I’m up to.

Now he was silent for so long that I wondered if I offended him in some way.

“Gil, are you there?  it’s not your fault if that’s what you’re thinking,”

“Why would I be thinking that?”  he laughed “honey, you talkin’ about last week?  I’m just bein’ a man and I apologize that you don’t like it sometimes.” I could hear the smile in his voice.  I smile too, not for the same reason, I’m sure.  

“You know, your innocence is just so sweet,” he laughed more like I was the best joke he’s heard all week.  “It’s precious, it really is!” I hold the phone away until he gets himself together, hot tears starting down my face.  “I’ll tell you what.  Slide your pay information under my office door when you get in, that’ll at least tell us where you should be lookin’.  You got any savings?”

“no” my voice is still low, but he hears me anyway and laughs some more, taking phone away from himself this time so he can get it all out.  I look down at the puddle forming on the table under my chin.

“Girl, where you goin’ with no money?  Tell you what, don’t worry about that part for now.  But, from now on, you need to start puttin’ somethin’ aside.   Come by my work office on Thursday.  We’ll get this all figured out.”  he was serious again.

“Do you think it’s stupid?”

“You wanting to move out? Hell no. But with no money, well, you know the answer already.”

I cry harder than I want to, hoping he would just hang up. He didn’t.  “We’ll get it all straightened out.  No need to get all ugly about it.  Thursday, whenever you get outta school, swing by and we’ll talk.”
As usual I get home as late as possible, half expecting the locks to be changed and glad when they aren’t.  I gather all my old paystubs, just three so far, and creep upstairs in the dark to put them under Gil’s office door.  Wouldn’t the hall light clicked on just as I bent down to shove them under?

“What are you doing?”  Arlene’s arms are folded as she looks down at me, the blue mask on her face highlighting her frown, but keeping her thin eyebrows from showing her anger.  

“I just got in. I’m not- “

“What the hell was that?” she pushes through clenched teeth ready to chew my head off, pointing to the spot where the papers had been, know I was going to ask what was what.  “what did you put in there?”

“it’s nothing impor-“, I stand up as she steps closer, until the inches between us get warm with body heat.

“Get out of my house,” face to face, I am at least four inches taller than her, but she is a bull when I only ever feel like a stuff toy.  Ice ran through me, making me shaky and unsure of what I just heard.  Her eyes left nothing to be misunderstood.  Again, we both look shocked. Suddenly, Gil came up the stairs behind me, whistling.  I hadn’t thought that he wasn’t home but here he was, just getting in from a good time somewhere else. 

“What’s goin on here?”  there was always amusement in his voice.  Seeing them together, I see how much younger than Arlene he looks, thought she had always made a point of telling me that they’re the same age.  I never, ever asked.

He looked from her, looking at him, to me, looking at her.  For forever we just stand there, looking, everything hanging on whatever she said next. 

“Well?”  he opened his arms impatiently.

Arlene tossed up her hands and storms back into her room.  When she slams the door, Gil turns to me and we stare at each other plainly, nothing to be said.  When something falls to the floor in their bedroom, he nods at me and heads in there. 

For a long time, I stand there trying to force down what was said to me.  I stare at their door, afraid to move just in case I’ll break into pieces when I least expect it.  I listen to them arguing and don’t care if I’m caught. What more could be taken from me at this point. 

Arlene hesitates before telling him what happen and, true to Gil, he doesn’t spill the reason for me being outside his office or upstairs at all.  Even when she keeps asking, he says he doesn’t know and that it’s probably no big deal.

“Maybe it’s somethin’ from the school. The bill’s in my name, remember?” his voice is so smooth, I forget that he’s telling a bold-faced lie, a skill I’m finding can be useful sometimes.  I decide right there to forget about some of his weird manners with me.  I will trust him anyway and hope it doesn’t lead me back into the dark.  I can almost see her face, eyes and mouth wide, hands on her cheeks.  The oops face.  Followed by the I don’t care, I’m never wrong face.  She goes on about how she told me to get out, adding stuff I didn’t say. 

“You said what?  How could you- “

“I was mad, Gil. She is not going to do whatever she wants around here and get sassy with me when I ask her about it!  Besides she grown, like you always say.  And she has plenty of friends now.  She can go and mooch off them.”

Silence.  I sit on the floor, unable to hold myself up anymore.  

“But she’s your daughter, Arlene. You brought that girl all the way down here just to- “

My hand over my own mouth isn’t strong enough to stop the sobs from coming through.

“Biologically, she is not.”  Her voice is low and hard. Bitter. “I don’t know who she is anymore.  or who she’s turned out like.  Maybe my part is done.”

The Freedom to Begin Again

“By Friday, come in read up to chapter 4 and ready to tell me all about the parts of a neuron.”
I stood up to go, floating out of my very first college class.  Basic Psychology was something most of the other students were already complaining about on the way out.  How hard and pointless the whole class would be.  Outside, I sat on the bench outside of Mesner Hall, looking at the pages of my textbook again.  The glossy colors of the picture sectioning the brain, nerves and all the parts in between.  Stuff I wanted to know even if I didn’t need to.  I still had no clue what I wanted to major in, but it was day one, the beginning of something huge, and I was finally here.  The hot sun on my back makes me smile, its energy feeding something in me that was still dying a week ago.  The feeling of my life becoming useful and more real with each passing second.  My next class isn’t until twelve so I head to the café to get tea and look smart, like the kids I passed in there earlier.  I was one of them now.  I find an empty corner and make good notes all the way up to 11:50.

At work, I move faster than normal.  Even Ana couldn’t help but ask what was new and I couldn’t help but tell her.  Her unimpressed face didn’t even matter.  I just move on, helping customers piece together outfits, the whole while I’m wearing a real smile and a light for my own self is burning inside.  During down time, I hang clothes with my mind on the two chapters I needed to read for my English class and the list of personal goals I needed to have on Monday for College Success Skills, a class that every undecided major had to take.  As dumb as all my classmates thought the material was, I could tell was just the kind of information I would need.  There, I met Michelle and Sharla. 

 When it was closing time, I straightened up with the basic math I’d see tomorrow on my mind.  Every now and then the sound of Ana’s voice would get into my head, her trying to pull conversation out of me now that Keisha was gone back to some college in Georgia and I took over her evening shift.  Now, we would be working together all the time.  I didn’t want to talk though and I didn’t need her to notice me like before.  After Dixie’s closed, I did some grocery shopping and wandered into the dollar store, waiting for the second to last bus.  Anything to get me home as late as possible.  I thought about that list of goals all the way home, scared to start writing anything just yet.

Inside I wasn’t late enough, Arlene shot me a look I couldn’t read as soon as I stepped in the door.  She had stopped using her office, instead taking over the dining room which forced Gil to use his own office upstairs.  She barely spoke to me most days, now, especially since I didn’t bother to beg her to tell me about their trip when they got back.

“Hi mama” I say, trying to sound more tired that I am, not wanting to talk or fight.

“Hi” she pulled off her glasses and looked me over, I read her mind about my 30 lbs. gone, nothing bad to throw out about it.  “So, how’d it go?”

“Good” really good. I keep moving to my room, glad I thought to get a sub at the store and eat it in the deli section there.  I fell into bed with my mind still on that list and not knowing what all I wanted.

I got up at six, in time to hear Arlene and Gil arguing again, the boys crying.  I set the treadmill on low so they wouldn’t know I was even up yet.  More and more, I find myself wanting to hide from them all in their own house.  I was sweating on a hard 3.5 when Arlene bust into my room.

“You get up early now, too?”  it wasn’t really a question so I just smile at her, not sure what to say.  That was enough for her to slam the door closed.  Gil sped off first, then I hear her and the boys in the driveway, her yelling at them to get in the car faster.  I speed up the machine until I’m almost running when anxiety starts creeping into my chest.

By noon, I sat at a table in the library trying not to panic.   Looking at my math assignment, it wasn’t hard- I just couldn’t remember how to do it.  I stare at the page with my hands getting tighter on my scalp, the curls I worked hard to tease becoming a mess.  What it I cant?  What if this is a stupid waste of time? is it all wrong?  the thoughts were hiccups from that lost girl I was trying hard to shake loose.  

“Hi! Cierra, right?” I look up to see Michelle taking a seat at the desk next to me. A savior.

“Hey, how are you?”  

“Ok, so far. Day two.”  Her smile was as insecure as mine. “ How long have you been going here?”

“First semester.”

“Same.”

In two hours, I had told her more about my life than I had told anyone in years.  Maybe, in forever.  We started on all the feelings of being new to school and over lunch talked about our families.  Like me, she was heading into her late twenties and losing weight.  Like me, she was moving forward from stuff she didn’t like to talk about much.  Outside at the bus stop we got to talking about our jobs.  When our buses came, we exchanged numbers and went our separate ways, taking each other’s life stories into the day.  By the time I started my three o’clock shift, I was over the drama of math and planned to just go to the tutoring center before my next class.  I don’t need anything to be a new problem.

When I got out at nine, Gil was standing next to his convertible, waiting for me.  I didn’t want to think anything wild, but my heart almost stopped looking at him smile.

“Want a ride?” he opened the passenger door for me without waiting for the “no, thanks” I was working up.  I got in and took a deep breath as he pulled out of the plaza.  

I fell inside myself, feeling his eyes on the side of me as he drove in silence.  I want to say so many things, but each time the words don’t sound right in my head. I have questions, but the further he drives, the deeper the fall in.  that icy, nervous feeling covers my whole body by the time he says the strangest thing.

“I wanna know who you look like.”  At a red light, he pulls one of my curls straight and chuckles when it springs back into shape. He turned my face toward his and stared into my eyes until I looked away.

“Look at those eyes. Beautiful.  Really, I can’t stand it sometimes.”

*****
Its Friday, a day when most people are happy about the end of the week.  Not me, not this week.  I get off work at 7pm and here it is almost eight and I’m waiting for Jessenia to straighten my hair.   I know I’ll only sweat it out by Sunday, but still, here I sit, willing to wait all night.  In fact, if I could just stay anywhere, that would be best for me.

“Alright girlie, let get started,” she waves me over, her smile as nice as always.  I wonder if she would want to be real friends with me.  “So how you liking school so far?” 

As soon as I’m in the chair and I talk more than I want to about my classes and how happy I am to be doing something.  I go on about having all my assignments and reading done for the week.  I even mention the dark wash jeans I put aside at work, to be bought with next week’s paycheck.  I don’t share my excitement for finally having a friend in Michelle, and I don’t even hint at the mess with Gil or how I can’t look Arlene in the face now.  I just can’t deal with all his twisted “celebration” ideas right now.  I ball up those thoughts and throw them to the side, knowing they’ll be thrown back my way soon enough, with or without me falling apart over it. 

I stay and talk to Jessenia until the salon closes and we are both at the bus stop together, though she is waiting for her boyfriend to pick her up.  I want to cry we she suggests we take each other’s phone numbers.  She sees the stupid tears as I type in her name wrong and in a rush, so her boyfriend doesn’t blow the horn again.

“Oh my goodness, girl” she hugged me again “you always seem so sad” her lips pouted out for me, but her eyes stayed the same kind brown. “Call me” she let me go and ran to the car, running back after a minute or so inside.  “Wanna go out tonight?” 

“Really?” the air left my body with a mix of excitement and fear.  Her little tan hands already pulling me toward the car and I was already going with her before I made up my mind.

I never been in a bar before and it felt strange.  I wanted to feel loose like everyone else seemed to but I didn’t want to drink.  Jessenia handed me what I thought was just Pepsi and I ignore the burning taste as it goes down.   I don’t even ask about it as we talk and play darts, her sending a cute guy my way when I look too lonely.  I talk more than I need to and agree to dance when the miserable voices tell me I should be ashamed.  Of what?  I mouth to myself while hanging onto the guy and trying to enjoy the music, his cologne the nicest thing I’ve smelled all week.   I take his number and repeat his name, Jeremy, hoping it would drive daddy from my head.  After the place closed, Jessenia and her boyfriend took me home, the three of us joking the whole way like best friends.

On Saturday, my hair is curling up again by eleven as I stay on the treadmill for almost an hour trying to figure out what to do after I get off.  I have stuff to do, just how to do it in the least noticeable way is the issue.  I get in the shower and wash out the rest of the sixty-five-dollar straightness, trying to force my worries down the drain with it.  I get out when I feel stable and, of course, Arlene is sitting on my bed with her arms crossed.  I could kick myself for not locking my door last night.  Neither of us say anything as I sit across from her on a chair covered with shopping bags.

“Getting quite fancy, huh?”  she’s talking about all the new clothes I was sitting on, I think.

“Just new stuff I can fit.”

“I see. So how is everything? We haven’t had a chance to really talk, with us being both being so busy now.  It seems like we need to, though.”  We hadn’t, but it had nothing to do with being busy.  She snubbed me almost every day, but I didn’t feel like calling her on it.  She went on making small talk when I really wanted to rip open the conversation we should be having.  

“So, do you think you can just come here at any time you want?” she re-crossed her arms, ready to get down to the real reason she was speaking to me today- A lecture, as always.  She went on with everything she had planned to say, but I couldn’t hear her over my own thoughts.

“I’m…gonna…” the main thing I’d planned to keep to myself for a while started pushing out. 

She screwed up her face, waiting for me to be bold and totally piss her off.

“I, I need to move. Out. Soon.”

Forward 

“Honey, please make sure all the shirts are hung up straight.”
Latoya says walking passed me again, patting my arm and making sure I’m not still crying.  It’s my second week on the job and already, the girls know me as the too sensitive one.  The crybaby. They say they like me to my face, but I hear the giggles when my back is to them, me trying to do everything right at a snail’s pace, or when I must ask again how to do something.  Again.  The lead sales girl, Ana, won’t even help me anymore without huffing about it first.  Even I’m sick of her rolling eyes and I avoid asking her anything.  Somehow, they know all about who my mother is, or who they think she is.  Like they had an orientation on me and now have to treat me like some rich pest.  

 “We were expecting you to be retarded or something.” Another girl, Keisha, told me in the break room on my third day, a conclusion they made based on how Latoya had described me.  “You ain’t that bad, you just work slow.”  She laughed before heading back out to work the cash register, leaving me to cry alone into my Lean Cuisine.  That was the last day I stayed in the shop on my break.

For two weeks, this has gone on and every day I care a little less, do a little more just how Latoya expects.  Before, I would’ve allowed this to fold me up, make me go home with my head down, but right now I need this job more than anybody knows.  Every day, I feel something like a plan coming to me.  A way forward and alone. 

Today, the trouble is simple and not so simple, a collection of little things that make up something I won’t be able to ignore forever.  It started with Arlene hearing Gil say he would pay for me to go to school.  When I put in the application for Jessup County Community College the next day, I hadn’t expected to get accepted so quick. 

“Hell, they accept everybody.”  Gil laughed at my tears, my thinking that acceptance somehow wouldn’t come to me.  The week after, with the financial figuring done, he wrote a check for the first semester- 2,835 right in front of Arlene and put in in my hand.   I still feel her grip on my wrist as she tried to take it from me.  She smiled the whole time like she was joking, using her cooing voice like I would hand it over if she sounded nice, but her eyes told another story.  One Gil didn’t know and couldn’t see.  Or maybe he just didn’t care.  I find myself trying that attitude on, more and more- already it was easier than trying to carry enough guilt and worry for everyone, even for people who couldn’t care less about me.  I was due to start class on the 27th of August and I have six whole days to pull myself up off the floor enough to believe I can do it.  I can do it, I can. 

I get off work at two and take the bus home, the hour-long trip giving me a slice of piece as I head form one danger zone to another.  I think about how I’m not going to let the girls at work get to me and I pray that Latoya doesn’t fire me.  I think of how I want to be come next week, when I’m on a college campus for the first time.  I fantasize how it would be to do what millions of girls- better yet women- my age do every single day.  Drive a car to work and school, go home to my own place.  Small, but I’m the boss there.  Maybe even have a lover/friend/ boyfriend/husband/ kitten/ something/anything waiting for me.  This can be good. I feel myself smiling as I look out the window, the beautiful sunshine on my face.  I imagine that I look pretty and smile even more at all that could be.  Life can be good.  I can do this. 

 As soon as I walk in the front door, a new small thing starts.  I see it brewing across her face as soon as we lay eyes on each other.

“Cierra. You’re home early.”

“This is the time I’ve been getting here all week.” I walk close to the couch she’s sitting on, looking like a guest.  She makes a face like she doesn’t believe me.  What’s not to believe?

“Honey, we need to talk.”

I agree and sit down across from her, waiting for her to stop staring me and begin.  That’s part of her deal, that stare until you wish you could disappear.  When I was a kid, I avoided her disappointment just in case I would vanish under the deep gaze of those eyes.  Now, I just feel tired and too old for it.  Spending my days eavesdropping on the interesting lives of my coworkers, I sit before her feeling every bit of the twenty-six years that I am.  Very soon to be twenty-seven with even less time to waste living like this.  Like somebody’s problem to be solved.  Only after listening to them talk, did I realize that Gil had whistled at my age not because he found it funny, but because he felt sorry for me.  I leave the big-girl-land that is Dixie’s and feel like I should put up pony posters on my bedroom walls here.  I’m so sick of all of it, whatever this is supposed to be.  With all my soul, I want to get out of this house and just be, for once.  I don’t know what I expected when I came here in the first place.  Arlene opens her mouth and gives me another hurt to add to the pile.

“We’re gonna go to Disney World this weekend.  Me, Gil and the boys.”

We sit in silence until it seems my lack of comment makes her even more upset.  

“Well?” she is loud and leans closer.  I won’t give it to her and she wants it.  The devastation, the sad puppy look- I just won’t.  I feel it on the edges of myself, like a ghost trying to come back inside me.  I shrug my shoulders, light and like it’s the easiest thing in the world to do right now.  I feel like I want to be sad, but my mind just jumps to the thought of what my first class will be like and if the campus had a gym.  I think of how nice I thought my butt looked in my new jeans this morning, a reward to myself for losing twenty-four pounds so far- picked out by me and bought with money I earned.  A few guys I passed while walking across the plaza thought it looked nice, too.  I squeeze my heart for the drops of misery she wants and I get nothing.  I don’t care if they go.

“Well, I think that’s really nice.  When are y’all going?”

In the long pause before she answers, my mind goes back to thinking of an outfit I’d put on one of the mannequins, just before my shift ended.  The necklace and earrings had lemon colored rhinestones making petals around deep blue stones, silver chain.  I paired it with a lacey, yellow blouse and dark denim shorts. The whole thing was my choice and the girls had snickered while I put it together, until Latoya gave me a high five for the good color combination.  “Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!  See you in the mornin’, sweetie.” I had thought that outfit was best for some other girl.  Some other woman.  Now, the first thing I’ll do at work tomorrow is ring it up for myself.  

“On Saturday.”  She stared some more, still waiting for the impact to bleed through.  “I just figured you’d have to work or do something to get ready for school,” the chuckle and air quotes around the word school.

 “Is it not a real school? What is all this?”  the words came out of me before I could catch them, a dog snapping at its master.  My fingers mock the air quotes, giving her a chance to notice my long and pink nails, done yesterday when I’d spent my break chatting with Jessenia at Marcela’s Hair and Nails.  With that, the damage is done.

“How dare you mock me?” Arlene got up from the couch and I realize that she is the one home early.  Home just to corner me, make sure I’m still grateful. 

“After all I’ve done for you, you have the nerve to come into my home and try to make a fool of me?”  

“I haven’t done an-“

“You will regret this.”  Her finger was up, but not in my face like before.  When she slams the front door on her way back to work, I go to my room and jump on the treadmill, that running feeling strongest when I have nowhere to go.  I hadn’t wanted to work out at all, after walking and standing all day at Dixie’s.  Soon, I’m jogging on 4.5 and crying, this time for all the things I’ll lose soon enough.

Running

“Gil thinks he scared you,”
 Arlene’s unmade pale face looms close to mine in the early light, snatching me out of my sleep before she even got ready for work.  That’s another one of the biggest differences being here, everybody gets up and out early.  Must be nice to have somewhere to be, people waiting for and depending on you.  For the first time in a long time, I want that for myself.  Hard to think about with my mother staring at me for a response.

“I‘m alright.” My chest seems to cave in when I say it, I don’t believe myself.  A memory of how often I used to say that when she’d ask about things better left unsaid, us both hoping they could stay unsaid.

“Are you sure, Cierra? I know he was drunk.  What did his say?”  

She was whispering, something she saved for these times only.  Again, the memories.  How could I say it wasn’t his words?  How could I say it wasn’t him at all?  And, above all, how could I say it so she wouldn’t be mad?  Even I know I can’t go around holding every man responsible for the things we don’t talk about.  Things I always wonder just how much she knew about.  I can’t say that.  I want to let it go.  I swallow it.

“I’m fine, mama.”  I feel my mouth smiling, though I want to cry.  No, I want to jump up and run.  The quiet is too heavy in here and I want to get away from her face pitying me, begging me to forget whatever she thinks happened and pardon whatever she thinks I hold against her.

“Alright then” she sits back and nods her head, the “good girl” stamp of approval, and for the first time in a month I regret moving down here.  Even after she leaves my room and I hear her leave the house, I want to run away.  So, I do.  I put out of my mind the thought of how many skinny blonde girls I’ll pass, how many shirtless and sweaty guys with perfect abs will huff by not even seeing me right in front of them.  I’m so full of a feeling that I can’t name because I’ve been stuffing it down so long.  Fast, I put on the black leggings and big tee shirt, brand new black and pink sneakers, all gifts from Arlene when I told her I’d lost twelve pounds since I started using the treadmill, and start down the long driveway in the morning heat. 

With the sun on my neck, I get a look at my whole shadow for the first time since leaving Maryland.  I’m big still, but smaller, tighter than I was.  I like that.  I look at the black impression of my curls bouncing in the ponytail on top of my head, the wideness of my hips.  I watch myself until the sound of ponding feet makes me look up.

“Mornin’” one of those shirtless, sweaty guys ran passed me on the small sidewalk.  He was grinning, too.  Normally, I would have not looked up, much less spoke back.  Today, I did both and smiled at the sight of his back muscles moving away from me, wanting him to turn around again. Pathetic whore, stop staring.  Daddy’s voice jumped into my head and just as quickly my smile was gone.  I can feel my lips threatening a frown and I speed up, hoping to outwalk the memory of what came after those words.  With each step, I remember and my stomach begins to squeeze until I want to curl up on the sidewalk.  The stinging of my face and between my legs.  His smell on my skin and in my hair.  I walk on, not returning any of the other friendly hellos that come my way.  I speed up again until I am almost jogging and have to choose between breathing and thinking.  

When I get tired, I walk panting and soaked in sweat.  I might look crazy or I might look like everybody else- for once I don’t care.  I speed up again every time I notice I’m clenching my fists so tight that my nails might go through my palms like they used to before.  Every week until I was seventeen, daddy would clip them so low that they looked bitten, all so I wouldn’t hurt myself or him.  Arlene would buy me nail polish so they would look more like a choice.  

There’s nothing but big houses here, no place to stop and feed the feelings that were always trying to eat me alive and I’m forced to let them for the first time in years.  Like it happened yesterday, I see him in front of me naked and grinning or just pants unzipped.  Sneaking up behind me, always in the dark.  If the light was on, he’d turn it off.  If it was daytime, the basement was our destination, windows covered thick with newspaper.  The blood and excuses at school, no gym class for an entire week one time.  Never swim, too much exposure.  I couldn’t always hide the horizontal slashes on my arms, the ones made when I didn’t know I was cutting the wrong way.  The soft spot on my head from when he first noticed the red lines that are almost completely faded now.  Never a trip to the hospital- it was never bad enough and even if it was, we didn’t go anyway.  The hours spent in his room with Arlene always gone for just long enough for him to get done and me to stop moping about it.  Fast food rewards from either, and sometimes, both of them and the pain of trying to refuse.  The Feeling of his eyes on me from every doorway since the day I sprouted boobs .  Her hand to my lips when my sentences got too long and complicated and she didn’t want to know more.  Never a slap, just a “shush, I’m tired” motion at any time of the day.  I close my eyes and see the look she always had when she came to me already knowing what she didn’t want to know.  The same one from this morning.  Inconvenient.  If I could just say that I was alright or ok, it would erase whatever had made her ask in the first place.  This kind of questioning, always hushed and hidden, started when I was not even a full year into being their daughter.  So many years she came to me with concern that barely reached her eyes.  By the time I was seventeen and she wanted to leave, she didn’t bother to ask anymore.  Just made her plan and went like it never happened.  Daddy cried on my breasts when the divorce papers came in the mail, and made me lay next to him until his heart was too weak for him to physically force me.  Every time she called, she was sure to tell me that nothing ever happened and she wasn’t running from anything.  She knew exactly why I never wanted to get on the phone with her too often or for too long.  

Tears mix with the sweat on my face as I start to jog again and by the time I get back to the house, it’s two hours later.  As soon as I walk into my room, I see the small box on the bed, inside a gold and diamond heart necklace with a note that says “stop punishing me, love mom”.  I’m too empty to cry about it.

We are happy mother and daughter again on Saturday when I am invited to help with the grocery shopping.  This is the most time I’ve spent around Kyle and Kevin, the busiest toddlers in the world.  Every day they have somewhere to be, just their parents.  I sit in the passenger seat listening about new houses, low carb butter salad dressing options and the new fall shades of Revlon nail polish.  The boys did their own thing and only addressed their mother as if she was the only other person in the car.  Whichever one is behind me kicks my seat every few minutes.  I just look out the window and agree with whatever being said, jealous of the world whipping past me all the time.

“I want you to get whatever you want.”  She smiled like a movie star, directing me to get my own cart as she put both boys in one for her to push.  I took it and we went two different ways.  My steps were fast, moving toward all the cakes and cookies I had been dreaming about but was too embarrassed to add to the weekly grocery list.  Something told me that Gil would have a field day, seeing zebra cakes and frozen pizza penciled in small and way at the bottom.  I had been eating the salads and fish, dry pastas they talked over with glasses of wine.  Once I’d finished that whole box of pancake mix that was here when I first arrived, I had noticed that it wasn’t replaced.  I ate oatmeal and eggs and devoured any hidden chocolate I had found until it stopped being where it had been.  Now, my eyes big on the fun looking boxes of my old friends, I want them all, if only just to have them.  I put two boxes each of powdered doughnuts and shortcake rolls and I open one, popping the white powdered treat into my mouth as a welcome back.  I almost gag at the sweetness, but eat another one just in case the first was bad.  I don’t even grab my favorite soda when I head to another aisle looking for some of the stuff I was getting used to.   

I found Arlene and the boys at the seafood counter and it was her smirk and giggle that made me head outside.  She didn’t look at me first, just the cart, then at me with a funny face.

 I rolled my eyes, forgetting she was still looking and unlike ever before, she let it go.

“I need some air.  You mind if I check out?”

“We have to check out together.”  I roll my eyes again she isn’t so forgiving this time.

“What’s wrong now?” she makes that sound people make when they just can’t believe what they are being told.  It’s so familiar that I look at the floor without planning to.  “Look honey, everything is not going to be your way all the time”.  The fused eyebrows, frown. 

“Forget it.  I’ll be outside.”  

At the register, I broke the one-hundred-dollar bill Benjamin sent me a couple days ago, along with a note- not a letter- telling me that’s all he’ll be able to send me from my father’s estate.  I know it’s crap, but what can I do.  I force a smile at the old cashier, wanting to connect with new strangers.  I take my two bags and stand at the edge of the parking lot, half wanting to take a taxi to anywhere and never come back, but I don’t have enough money to get away from here if I wanted to.  So many people coming and going, every store in the plaza buzzed with energy I was locked out of feeling.  I try not to look around like a lost puppy as I slowly walk down one side of the plaza, try to smile at more people if they look at me.  Like the suggested answer to a prayer I didn’t know I wanted answered, I see a help wanted sign.  In the window, there are nice outfits for girls with somewhere to be.  The cant’s and don’ts bubble in my stomach as my feet carry me inside to apply before I can protest.  Every bit of me must be sick of me sometimes.

“So, you don’t have any work experience, anywhere?” the manager, Latoya, looked me over with soft, heavily made-up eyes.  Her outfit, all its greens and blues put together just right and complete with matching jewelry- something out of a catalog all older women with some money seemed to shop out of.  Right away, the roundness of her eyes and her nutmeg colored skin reminded me of women I used to know.  I felt warm about her as soon as she came out to see who was applying for the job now.  By the way those eyes bounced up and down me, I could tell the feeling wasn’t so warm on her end.  She was what Arlene called “genteel”, like Gil when he was in the mood and what she tried to be.  My shorts were ok looking, but maybe not my tank top, now showing too much of the flesh I tried to hide most of the time.  I work hard to keep these insecurities from showing on my face.

“I don’t, but I’m willing to learn anything.  After a couple days, I won’t be any trouble to you at all.” Look at me.  It’s amazing how dazzling even the plainest person can become when they feel like their very existence is on the line.  As comfortable as life on Oak Lane was, every day I felt more and more like an intruder, a conversation piece.  I wanted my head above water for once, kept afloat by my own effort.  

“Uh huh.  Well, fill this out dear and if I still have time when you’re done, we’ll chat a bit.  I need girls in here.  Bad.  Ones who gonna stay.  It’s almost August and most of my girls will be headed back to school.  You in school?”

“No, ma’am.”  I hesitate, then push out what I really want to say, “Not yet. When I go, it will be around here, though.”

“Ah, magic words.” She taps a long red fingernail on the paper in front of me, “this won’t take you too long.” 

She smiles and walks off to help a customer just walking in.  I’m so excited to be even talking to someone about something real, I want to laugh and hug her just for taking me seriously.  Having no experience or education outside of high school, it took me just five minutes to fill out.  Most girls my age need to fill this thing out front and back, have references, all that.  I focus on the pretty dresses behind the counter in front of me just to tune out the inner voice reminding me of what a loser I really am. Officially and right here on paper.  Another customer comes in and right away, I know it’s Arlene.

“It’s about time I came in here to see you! How have you been?!” 

Oh, no.  I don’t want to believe they know each other, but then, I’m not surprised.  I listen to them go on and on like good friends, before Latoya tells her she has someone waiting on her.  Me.  Arlene sees me and follows Latoya my way.  

“Oh my God, that’s my daughter! Are you interviewing her?”

“Oh, this is the one you was telling me about last time? yes I am gonna interview her right now.”

Arlene patted my arm with a huge smile as Latoya led me to the back for a three-question interview that was all about how I was liking Florida and living with my mother again so far.  When I was done, Arlene was in the racks picking out new clothes for me.

“All done?”  her eyes landed on me first before looking passed me to Latoya.

“All done!”

“Whatcha think?” she smiled big and bright. One of the things I love about her.  Arlene is, hands down, one of the most cheerful people anyone could meet.  At first I hated that she came in the store, but now, I could see that if I get this job it will be because of her.  I care and don’t care all in the same breath.  “Don’t worry, she won’t look like this at work.  I’m gonna fix that right now.”  

They laugh at me and now I care.  Kyle and Kevin run around a few racks not too far from her.  I again try to keep my face together as we check out, and they continue to talk like I wasn’t there.

A half hour later, we walk to the other side of the plaza together, all the while she lectures me on the importance of appearance.  We step inside of a hair salon, the business of another woman she knows personally.  After they catch up, she leaves one instruction concerning me to the stylist before leaving with the boys.

“Fix her up.”

The stylist got right to work, doing what she thought would look good on me since I only said, “I don’t know” to every question she asked.  For two hours, she straightened and curled, filling me in on the details of the latest fight with her boyfriend and how I should’ve come in earlier because there was a big argument between two clients.  I listen without judgment, absorbing the normal life of a woman my age.  With my own money, this would be something I’d want to do often.  I add it to the list I’ve been making in my head lately- things that I like and want to get into when I’m on my own whenever that will be.  When she turns me to the mirror, I see my hair flat ironed and curled at the ends, laying around my shoulder blades.  I look so beautiful that I touch my face to make sure it’s really me.  As a gift, she does my eyebrow though I can’t afford it along with the hair.

“Total package” her own black ringlets are piled high, her smile genuine and pretty even with a broken tooth.  I ask her name, afraid she would look at me like I was weird.  Jessenia, with another smile and playful pat on my shoulder like she could see right through to my fears.

By the time I got back to the house, it was almost eight and I had go inside for cab fare.  Arlene was in her office, having dinner alone with the door closed.  She didn’t even open it when I told her it was me or what I wanted.

“Please, go ask Gil.” in her normal tone it would have been harsh, but it came out soft, like she was planning to sleep in there.  I knew better than to think she’d forgotten her concerns from a few days ago.  I walk to his unofficial office, the dining room, thinking of all the “go ask daddy’s” I’d lived through has her way of keeping up all together, grudge-free.  I don’t care anymore.  I don’t care anymore, I don’t care. 

Gil looked up from his laptop like he’s been expecting me.  the cab outside beeped.  The money was already on the table and he lazily pointed at it.

“Gotcha hair done, huh?”  he gushed, green eyes on me over the rim of his glass, when I turned to go out. 

“Gil!” Arlene yelled from right behind her closed office door and he frowns before looking back at his lap top.

When I come back in, I make a sandwich as quietly as possible, wondering what I walked into.  Wondering if I came back sooner than expected.  I flick my unusually long hair and hear a whistle behind me.

“Find a program, yet?”  he was looking at me, but somehow this time, I didn’t have those creepy feelings.  I fought the urge to flick my hair again to see if those green eyes change their tune.  Stop, you slut. Stop.

“I didn’t know if you were serious.”  He stares like I must be stupid and he should help me through it.  Act like I thought you to act. Sometimes I feel like daddy is haunting  my mind, his words burning trough me as often as my own. “and I didn’t want to be a bother.”

“A bother.”  He laughed into his glass.  I relax a little and I say what I been thinking since we first had this conversation.  When I thought about all the things out there to be done, but couldn’t see myself doing any of it.  

“What if I can’t think of anything to study?”  he lets out a woot and slow, boyish grin taking over. 

“Start anyway.  Pick a program later.  But start. This Fall.  Anyway. What the hell else ya doin’, huh?”  he chuckled, flicking my hair as he passed me on the way to the wine bottle on the counter behind me.  I watch him and when he’s done taking a long drink, he watches me. “Well?”

“Well,” the ice of nervousness was working its way up my legs into my gut.  I hated asking for anything, but again, when you feel like your survival is on the line… “Will you still pay for it?”

“What?” Arlene shouted behind me coming into the kitchen.  Her eyes red and her face miserable, nothing like the movie star perfection from just this afternoon.  “What’s going on here? What are you asking him?” 

This look I’d never seen before, her mouth twisted into a snarl and I almost expect her to spit on me at any second.  I don’t know what I’d even do if she did.  The ice had reached my throat and couldn’t speak, so she looked to Gil.

“What’s going on here?”  

“Cierra is goin’ to school.” He was matter of fact as always, his gaze steady on her, a message in the look that I didn’t understand.

“And you’re offering to pay for it?”

“Yes, I intend to. Fully” he sipped his drink, eyes on her without breaking.

“Gil. You don’t have to do that.”  she steps closer and the hush tone is back.  “Cierra is looking for a job now, and she gets money from her father dying. Honey-” she moved closer to him as he hooted again. 

 I stood behind her stunned, having cried to her the same day I got the hundred dollars and the note saying not to expect more.  she had shaken her head in disbelief along with me, saying it would be alright. Everything would work itself out.  Now, I stand here silent with prickly skin, listening to her talk about me like I planned to steal from them.  They go back and forth for a while, but all I can hear clearly is him calling her ridiculous.  Her voice is too low for me to make out everything as she stood in front of him, keeping her back to me until he looks around her at me with exaggeration to end it. 

“Darlin’ like I said.  Gone and apply.  For this Fall”, he looked back at Arlene, “I’m a man of my word, I’ll pay.” Back to me as he walked passed to answer the ringing phone “Let nothin’ stop you.”  

I stare at the bottom the doorway, half turned around, listening to him answer the phone just to avoid looking back at Arlene.  It wasn’t until he came back into the kitchen and handed me the cordless that I see the knives of her eyes stabbing me all over. I almost lose my breath again.

“Hello?”  we stare at each other, I can see the scared rabbit I’ve always been reflected in her eyes.  The one she’d ordered to move here and be her pet.  

“Hi, Cierra. This is Latoya,”

“Oh hi!”  my excitement cut open and deflated by the stare down.  Gil refilled his glass behind her.

“Hi, sweetie.  Well, the job is yours!”

“Really?”  the burn of tears and cheeks too high.  Arlene kept her cutting into me as she slowly walked out the kitchen, slamming her office door.  “When do I start?”  Gil gave me a thumbs up, and with three drinks in his system, that sugary, oily look again.  I look away like I don’t notice.  

“Be here on Monday at nine.  We open at ten and you gonna be my newest sales girl.  And remember to look cute!”

I hang up happy and too afraid to show it. 

Awakening 

“There she is!”
Even through a crowd of people, I could pick Arlene out, louder than everybody.  Sweaty and tired, I push my way thorough family hugging and lovers kissing hello, some part of me or the two suitcases I was pulling rubbed against everybody I pass. That must be normal in these kinds of places because nobody said anything or I just moved fast enough not to hear.  My eyes don’t go above anyone’s neck, I didn’t need the sneers today.  It felt good not to apologize every other second.  I made my way toward Arlene’s voice, wishing I could read their minds. 

“Baby!”  she was almost unrecognizable with her short auburn haircut and skin almost browner than mine.  Her outfit was like what tennis player would wear, white and sporty.  When she put her arms around me.  I remind myself to hug back, hoping the past will stay where it’s at.  I held her extra tight until she tensed up, wanting to pull away.  I focus on her face talking close to mine about the great life we’re going to have not that we’re finally back together.  With each word from her mouth, I feel that old sickness rising.  Still, I nod and smile wanting to belief it will all be ok now.  

Gil stood back, his mouth a straight line that only curls up for a second or two every time I glance his way.  I’m sure he’s just as glad as I am that his sunglasses are dark enough to hide his true feelings.  At both his sides were boys, brunette with wide green eyes.  The miracle twins.  Before them, Arlene had gone forty-five years without ever being pregnant until she met and married the fabulous Gil Hasting.  It took three cycles of IVF to get this two for one deal.  Now, at almost three, they looked like tiny clones of their father.  Here in Florida, Arlene had found the solution to everything wrong with herself, as she so often put it.  Far deep inside, I knew I came in the hope of doing the same.

The ride to their house is quiet for my part.  For a half hour, Arlene and Gil discuss their upcoming schedules, work and social, and plans for the weekend that I’m not sure include me.  I sit between Kyle and Kevin, who stare at me every few minutes.  Until this moment, I thought palm trees couldn’t possibly look as cool as they do on TV.  Nowhere do people really where bikinis and short shorts everywhere.  But it was true from what I could see so far.  I saw more live human flesh in those thirty minutes than I have in my whole life.  By the time we pull into their huge driveway, I feel like waiting until nightfall just to get out the back seat unseen.

As soon as all of my luggage is in the house, Gil leaves with the boys, a planned exit.  I don’t blame him, and as Arlene gives me a tour of the house, I kinda wish I could do the same.  Every room is huge, with clean cream colored furniture and fancy decorations.

“when you sell houses for a living, you develop certain standards” she joked looking back at me for the first time since we got inside.  My smile didn’t come fast enough and she stops walking.  

“What’s wrong?” she demanded, her manicured hands on her hips, bracelets jingling.

“Nothing, mama.  I’m just listening.”  Her brows came together, red lips twitched to keep from turning into a full-on frown.  I had forgotten how cold those blue eyes can get.

“Why are you upset?” she squinted, knowing full well there was the flood held up solely by avoiding those kinds of questions.

I could never, ever, say what I feel about being toured around my own mother’s home like a stranger or a new maid.  How I feel about every little piece of the story that made me a stranger here.  I try to fix my face and stop wondering how it could have been if she had just taken me with her in the first place.  

“I’m just tired, is all.”

My answer is good enough for the tour to start again.  We walk around the pool and the steel and stone kitchen that I was welcome to eat or cook anything I wanted in.  A quick check of one of the cabinets turned up kale chips and organic peanut butter.   Finally, after I got a good look of the fancy life I had been left out of, she left me in my new room so she can return a phone call.  I hear her talking but don’t try to make out her words.  I imagine it’s Gil on the other end or one of her highbrow friends I haven’t even met yet, if she has any.  I imagine them talking about me already not fitting into the perfection around here.  I wait until I can’t hear her anymore to fall on the bed and cry into one of the six pillows.  

Morning.  I sit up, feeling like a queen and an imposter as I look out at wideness of the bed around me.  It must be king sized and the paisley beige pattern makes it seem even more royal.  Its early, I can tell from the light coming into the glass deck doors.  Everything is quiet outside my door.  I don’t think I could stand people-watching here, I feel bad enough already.  Besides, the house is set so far back from the street that I wouldn’t be able to see much anyway.  I cross the room, loving the feel of the soft carpet on my bare feet.  In the bathroom, my own bathroom, the shower is huge and the water is perfect.  It’s stocked the fancy body washes Arlene likes for me to have.  For some reason, that small thing starts me to crying.  For a second I want to let go of every hurt I’ve held onto for so long, and in that same second I don’t know how.  It’s like phlegm that you thought was going to come up, only to go back in place as soon as you inhale. 

 In the living room, I find everyone gone, even the boys.  Seriously, who was I kidding, thinking they would need me for anything.  I pick up the phone to call Arlene, wanting to ask what I should do.  I hang up as soon as her work phone starts to ring, not wanting to start right off being a pest. That empty feeling, worse than sadness, covers me like a blanket.

In the kitchen, I was looking for cereal when I stumbled upon pancake mix.  In the fridge, eggs and bacon call to me even if there are the “healthy” kinds.  Instead of sitting in front of the 80in TV on the fluffy white sofa- they probably didn’t ever eat in the living room- I eat my food by the pool, starting to feel something like happy and wishing I had a friend to call.

Around noon the doorbell rang and a furniture delivery guy stood in front of me with a clipboard for me to sign.  My hands trembled stupidly, and I almost holler with joy when Arlene’s little red car pulled in next to their truck.

“Present time!”  

her grin seemed even bigger under sunglasses, her lavender suit wrinkle free as she walked up on her high heels and took the clipboard.  In the empty corner of my bedroom, the guy set it all up and tried it out in twenty minutes.  I don’t know whether to be pleased or offended, looking at the grey and black design of my new treadmill.  He set a much smaller box on the floor next to it, and asked if I wanted him to open that up, too.  I don’t, and he left. 

“It’s just dumbbells.”  Arlene rubbed my arm, patting the cool fat before looking at her watch.  “Time’s up!  I gotta get to my next appointment. Have fun and call me around five if you need me.”  She made a wide gesture on her way to the bedroom door, “Now you can work on getting some of that off!” she giggled at me and was gone.  I sit on a chair next to the bed, looking at my gift.  I open the small, heavy box and line up six purple dumbbells on the floor, two of each 3, 5 and 10 pounds.  From the chair, I want to feel mad and dumped on.  I want that gut twisty feeling I always had in Maryland to come back and haunt me, but I could see how a person would find it hard to hang onto misery here.  I sit waiting for it to come, even when I just want to use the stuff and be happy with that.  

When I’m sick of myself, I force my fingers to dial Arlene’s number even though it’s nowhere near five.  I had wanted a treadmill since I was fifteen and too shy to keep participating in gym class.  Daddy refused to buy it, but even after she moved, Arlene had always said she would when she could.  As mad as I wanted to stay, I was looking at the promise I thought she thrown out along with wanting to be my mother.  I left a stuttery message before putting on my old sneakers and turning the machine to face the TV on my wall.  I dared myself to stay on for at least a half an hour.  

***

After a week of being alone most days, I was getting used to the quiet and calm.  When Thursday night rolled around again, it’s Gil who makes it clear that neither of them plan on holding my hand like daddy did.  An hour before, Arlene had taken the boys to a birthday party and didn’t even ask if I had wanted to tag along.  Right away I was sorry that my need for conversation made me slump into a dining chair next to him and complain about it.

“You’re, what, twenty-three now?”  he put his wine glass down to have the first real conversation we had.  His voice was thickly southern and had the smoothness of any good businessman’s.  He ran a hand through his dark hair, making sure each strand was still in place, I guess.  

“Twenty-six.”  It hurt us both to hear it said aloud.  He made a long whistling sound and rocked back in his chair.

“Twenty damn six years old.  You’re twenty-six.” he grabbed another wine glass and filled it half way before setting it in front of me.  I never drank before so I just look at it.

“You’re grown, girl. Twenty damn six.  What the hell are you gone do with your life?” 

“I don’t really know”

“You don’t know?  It’s high time you figure it out.  time’s a wastin’, sweetheart.”  He emptied his glass and filled it again.  I was getting my first taste of the brutality of drunken honesty.  When he had gotten his new glassful to the halfway point, he darted his green eyes back to me, softer this time.  In a way that made me wish Arlene would hurry up home.  “You wanna go to school?” his tone was low, like the question itself was a secret.

“I don’t know, I guess I do.”

“Of course, you do!” he slammed his hand on the table, and laughed like a kid when I jumped. “I’ll pay. You pick what you want to do and it’s yours.” He pointed at me and snapped his long fingers.

“Really?”

“Hell yes.” Gil sounded tired before pouring the rest of the red liquid into his mouth.  If this was going to be the result, I had no intention of touching my glass, and didn’t protest when he slid it to his side of the table.

“You would really pay for it if I went?” Even my words were walking on eggshells, not wanting him to make any more sudden moves.  He got up slowly and stood right next to me, stopping my breath.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could his crisp white shirt tucked into black pants, his belt buckle a polished silver.  I distract myself with the thought of how trim his waist is and maybe the treadmill was really his idea. 

“Darlin’, you’re my new daughter. Of course, I would.”  He picked up one of my long curly braids, new my workout hairdo, and dropped it back on my shoulder.  I kept my eyes on the table. “I would pay for anything that would keep your ass off my couch.” The blood rushing through my head was as loud as everything else.

“You think about it.  Seriously.  And let me know.” Suddenly, he was at the doorway leaning in.  His face was boyish again, my glass in his hand.  He took two steps before turning back “Tell your mama, too.  I guess she should know.”  He mumbled. “Good night.”

“Goodnight.”  I whispered more to myself than to him.  Listening to him whistle up the stairs, I had to convince myself to breathe normal again.  No one’s going to hurt me, no one’s going to hurt me, no one’s going to hurt me…. 

Memories

I’m in that room again.  The light is blown, but it’s daytime anyway.  I feel the breeze through the open window, nobody on the street below cares what’s happening here with me.  with us.  I’m always in the same corner, by the same pile of dirty clothes and closet door.  I always here the same voices on the other side of the wall. Music that I can’t name.  People come in and out of the room and nobody says anything to me.  They all look my way and keep going.  One is the brown, heart shaped face of a woman I used to see often before crying.  I always wake up refusing to remember her name.  
I have had this dream since I was ten years old and, still, I wake up in a cold sweat every time.  I get up, change my nightgown and head to the kitchen to get the last of that pizza before daddy does.  I’m almost too late to see my morning people and I’m not surprised to hear my name being called as soon as I try to tip-toe passed daddy’s closed door.  I wish I had put on my robe before I step in his room, but the shade of his face took my focus.  Grey.  He waved for me to come closer and lean in to hear his tired voice.  I know better than to sit on his bed, even if it was hard for him to speak up.

“I want you to know that I’m sorry for a lot of things done to you.”  His words hit me like bullets made of ice, the first time I ever heard him halfway admit to doing anything wrong, especially anything that nobody other than the two of us saw.  His shaky hand hovered above mine, afraid to touch, for a few seconds before resting back on the bed.  I slide mine away before even thinking about it, so it wouldn’t happen again.  “You don’t have to worry no more.  It’s almost over, sugar.” He smiled with chapped lips.  

Those were his second to last words to me.  When I came back into the room with that time-honored remedy, ginger ale, his closed eyes opened again and lit up watching me put the glass on nightstand.  

“Girl, you just too damn big.”  His voice was close to normal again and on my back as I went out the door again, trying to ignore him laughing until it sounded like he was choking on his own joke. I’m not sure what I felt right then that let me to get dressed and go on the porch, forgetting about the leftovers I got up for.

I surprised myself by putting on my old, beat up sneakers with the idea that I would walk fast again like a few days ago.  Where to, I don’t know.  I sat on the front porch, shoes on, waiting for the mood to place me on my feet and stomp away the thought of how stupid I was gonna look walking around the neighborhood all of a sudden.  Two of the morning joggers strut by and I wonder what it would be like to just jump into their lives, their bodies.  Be someone else for forever or for even just a day.  I watch them until they turn the corner, wanting to get outside myself and join in, carefree.  When they are gone, I watch a guy in tight shorts jogging the other way up our street, a new neighbor my age taking her little kids for a morning stroll in their wagon.  Dogs running up to fences to bark at squires, then go back out of view calm again.  Bees go from flower to flower, and on about their day having got what they wanted.  I watch until I’m sick of looking at anybody doing anything and after an hour, I ignore myself and finally step off the porch already tired just from thinking.  I walk slow at first, if only just to prove to myself that I’m not as lazy or as stuck as I think.  I could get away if I want to. 

I took the long way back from the Hagans, the grocery bag not too heavy as I walked up and down three streets where nobody knew me, or wouldn’t call out to me even if they did.  I counted the lines in the sidewalk, wanting all the blue-black feelings sloshing around inside of me to spill out and leave a trail.  the sweat that begin to curl the little hairs around my forehead didn’t embarrass me like they would have if I hadn’t sped up my pace a while ago.  I was too out of breath to keep caring about what a mess I looked like.  Amazing how quick that kind of thinking gets cut out when you have to choose between being scared or keep moving forward.  Maybe everyone who saw me was talking about me. Random big, fat, sweaty girl going by, looking lost.  Whatever.  I just keep counting lines and liking the color of the pavement.  

When I step back into the kitchen, my new ice cream is a white pool in the bottom of my bag and I feel the hot red circles inside my thighs.  Chub rub is what they called it back when I was brave enough to show up for swim class in 10th grade. Still, my legs feel better than yesterday.  I head for the bathroom with a clean house dress and the peppermint body wash Arlene sent for my birthday last year, but I hadn’t deserved to use.  Sometimes, I can’t believe that I really think stupid stuff like that.  I feel good for right now though, so today it is.  I look in on daddy before I go and drop everything in his doorway.  His usual nut-brown face is still and as ashen as the cement I was liking moments ago.  I don’t have to go in to know that he’s dead.

“Daddy?” I whisper and he does nothing.  I don’t even know what I feel, only that I don’t feel what I should.  The normal hollering and shock never comes to me, only a half-smile that keeps trying to breakout on my face.  Minutes pass with me trying to remember the last time I smiled about anything. Can’t even recall.  I don’t have a clue what to do for someone who’s already dead, so I call Arlene’s number and say a silent prayer when she picks up.  Instead of movie quality crying with each word I say to her, I sound so flat that she doesn’t believe what I’m saying at first.  I answer her questions not taking my eyes off him, just in case I’m terribly wrong.  As I keep staring at what used to be the monster in my closet, the weight of a million black butterflies is fluttering away from my soul, finally making a spot where the sun can get through.

***
For a whole week after the funeral, daddy’s old friends and their wives came by to sit with me and drop off food.  The sitting part didn’t last more than ten minutes with each of them, we didn’t have much to talk about and mostly I wanted to be alone with the many desserts lining the kitchen counter.  So many cakes, pies and cookies.  I ate coconut layer cake, decked out with pineapple and cherries, until I puked.  I froze a plate of apple scones that I knew I wasn’t going to get to anytime soon.  At night, I tipped to the fridge to keep my mind off daddy’s dark and empty room.  I hadn’t gone in there since the EMTs took him out and I’d pulled the door closed behind them, planning to never go in again.  Arlene said she’d fly up here to be with me, called back twice to delay and a third time to cancel the day of the service.  

Laying on my bed, I’m staring at the SVU detectives do their job in the most fashionable way possible.  I hate to admit it, but as soon as the medics and nosy neighbors cleared out of here satisfied that I was ok, I had the guy from next door help me move the living room TV into my bedroom before he went home.  I take in a forkful of German chocolate cake, wondering how much cops make in a year and how long they have to go to school when the cordless starts ringing next to me. Arlene.

“Hi baby, are you doing ok still?” her voice was syrup and I was baby again.  I wanted to hang up.

“Yeah, I’m ok.”  Silence for too long. “How are you?”

“Oh, I’m good.  Glad you’re ok.  Tryin’ to sell this new house on my list.  Big, dusty place, but worth a for-“I exhaled louder than I meant, too.  Stabler’s handsome face came back on the screen.  I loved these older episodes.  “fortune.”  I could see her in my mind looking at the phone, brows together, thin painted lips poked out with upset. 

“Mama?”

“Yes, I’m still here.  You listening’?” my finger rubbed the end call button.

“Yes.”  More silence. The bad guy ran on a rooftop.  My cake suddenly tasted like putty.

“I’ve been thinkin’ on something, Cierra.  You wanna hear it?”  if I rubbed slow enough, I could feel the slightly raised, bold print letters E N D.

“Of course, I want to hear.” I sound like that choked-up eyed teenager she waved bye to in the airport nine years ago.  My tears didn’t break her smile and my begging her not to go only got “it’ll be alright.”  Not once “come with me” or, even better, “you’re coming too, silly, now wave bye to…”

“I want you to come here. To Florida.” It seemed like a minute ticked by. “I want you to live with me.”

“Really?” Why now? is what I meant.  I still sounded like that girl and my heart fell when I didn’t get a response, not realizing that nerves made me accidently hang up.  She called back and had command over the whole conversation, letting me know finally that my flight was at eight am on Thursday.  It was 9pm on Monday.  I ignored the assumption that I had nothing to do.  I didn’t, but told her I’d have to think about it anyway.

Watching the show with a fresh piece of cake, I was vaguely aware of my goal to eat as many of the sweets as possible before Thursday.  Surely, those scones could go with me?   Did I want to go?  I fell asleep making a mental list of why and why not.  

“You might get something, but that’s after whatever debt he has is settled.  Honestly, Cierra, it might not be more than a few hundred dollars after everybody he owes snatches what they can.  Marshall gambled somethin’ terrible and wasn’t any good at it, you know that.”  Daddy’s older brother, Benjamin, showed up on his lunch break claiming to be executor.  He sat on the couch across from me on Tuesday afternoon in his fancy black suit, neatly putting a pin in any idea I had of calling my home “home” for much longer.  He was gentle about saying it and letting me know that he only came by to get into daddy’s room and look through his papers.

“And do you really want to stay here, anyway?  I mean, why not take this money and really make yourself with it?”, referring to the envelope containing exactly two hundred dollars that he slid to me like he didn’t want to, but promising to send me more when “everything was settled”.  The contempt in his eyes told the real story, so even I wasn’t stupid enough to count on that day coming soon or at all.  

“Never mind the money.  Why not take the opportunity? don’t waste your whole life on food and infomercials.” That being the fourth time I’d ever seen him in my life, I had no idea he’d know anything about me, let alone repeat what daddy told him.  His speech was something like what Arlene used to say to herself aloud for years leading up to taking her own “opportunity”.  She wasn’t surprised or excited when I called to take her up on her offer. 

On Thursday morning, I handed Benjamin the house keys and he eagerly loaded my eight suitcases into a cab.  I took my stuff, plus everything I even thought I wanted from the house that could fit in a bag, knowing I’d probably never see any of it again if I’d left it.  On the plane, I kept my eyes open the whole six hours, feeling empty and ready to see anything new.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑