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? 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.”
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- “
“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.”
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.