The Long Way Home

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“Hold the door, please,” I yelled, bumbling down the hall with a white box topped with my things—eight years’ worth of pictures, notepads, pens, hard candy, a light sweater I kept on the back of my chair, a dusty pair of running shoes, pictures of Michael and Grace, loose change, two stress balls, and a few other knickknacks I kept on my desk to get me through the day. “Thank you,” I said, walking through the glass door, headed towards the front of the building. The heels of my shoes rapped against the floor, revealing my disappointment, my panicked mind. I looked up one last time at the high-ceiling decorated with lights and crystals and down at the square, ceramic tiles newly polished and on through the guarded double-doors, where a man opened the door for me, smiled and said, “Have a good evening, ma’am.” The warm evening air hit my face, mingling for a moment with the cold air from inside. I paused, readjusted my purse sliding down my shoulder, tightened my grip on the box, and then started on my usual route home—two blocks south on McHenry Blvd, turn right on Stiletto Way, a left onto Carter Way up three blocks to Kite Street, 5959 Kite Street. I imagined this time would be different, the decision I had made at 1:37pm now heavy, crushing. My legs felt wobbly, my warms weak. McHenry Blvd. appeared long, busy, condemning. I knew I was moving, that my legs were taking steps forward, but the end of the block still felt far away. A warm tear slid down my face. I wiped it with my shoulder, but another one came, and then another.

Dammit,” I said under my breath, stopping to try to compose myself, but I was unraveling, past the point of pretend. I had to face the truth head on, agree to its terms. It was my last day at Klein & Klein—a father and son law office–not by choice, a compromise I made with upper management so that I might one day be employed again in the field.

“The evidence is here,” Bob Klein Sr. said, looking down at a stack of papers. “This is your signature?” he pointed to the bottom of a contract.

“Yes.”

“And this one too?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know what else to say…you could be prosecuted for something like this,” he went on, rubbing the front of his head where only fuzz grew now. “Luckily, Bob Jr. caught this in time,” he swung his arm, waving the papers in my face. “And…I don’t think it was intentional…I just can’t have you working here after something like this,” he let out a long breath. “So what I’m willing to do…if you agree to leave today…is not put this little oversight in your file…that way should you decide to continue to your career, you’re not blacklisted.

I signed a confidentiality form and agreed to its terms, one of which was to not ever speak an ill word about Klein & Klein.

There in ink I promised.

“You can stay until the end of the day…so long as your departure is…”

“Yes, Mr. Klein, I will leave peacefully.” I wanted him out of my office. I wanted time to process what was happening, knowing there would never be enough time, that time would move on without me.

“Okay then,” he left, still shaking the stack of papers, all with my signature, documenting a grave error only people new to the business make.

I got to McHenry and Symphony and stood there at the crosswalk waiting for green. There were people in front of me, behind me, beside me. I felt closed in. The same people I stood next to everyday now felt imposing. We were not the same anymore, walking numbly from our twelfth-floor offices with our briefcases, going home for the evening where our families would get the watered-down version of us since our minds were still in the office strategizing, calculating, worrying about a caseload that never seemed to get smaller, only bigger. I turned around, squeezing through the crowd, my box my armor.

“Excuse me…excuse me,” I said until a path opened.

I walked down Monroe; it mirrored McHenry. On either side of me, people clustered, their steps in uniform. Friends and strangers moved steady, racing away from the office, homebound for a few hours of freedom before they return in herds wearing matching suits and ties, designer dresses and jewelry, hair combed and pressed flat with gel, parted, curled, edged. Poised and manicured, purposeful as the morning air tickles their faces. I felt empty as our shoulders bumped, a foreigner in this small world. I looked like them on the outside, but inside the meaning of life had morphed like an old polaroid. I swallowed building emotion, smiled at women in pencil skirts and running shoes. They smiled back in solidarity and then moved on with wide, intentional steps.

 

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My pace slowed as I walked away from the crowd. I kept walking until there were no crowds, where people walked alone, not in clusters. Until tall buildings became rows of short buildings with flat rooftops and then small houses with small yards, small driveways, small windows. Families were arriving home, pulling into their short driveways in dented minivans, kids jumping out with bright-colored backpacks. The smell of dinner cooking in the oven seeped through their doors. Other children on bicycles rode up and down the street playing made up games they stopped long enough to review the rules and then start again with, if not the same enthusiasm, more. I thought about my Grace at piano practice, the teacher whacking her knuckles when she played the wrong key, forgot a note, or otherwise seemed disinterested in the music, its beauty. “It’s good for her to learn the right way to play,” I had told myself as tears slid down her face, her knuckles red, a little swollen.

An older couple, maybe in their 80’s, sat in their front yard on a wooden swing swinging back and forth hand in hand just watching the day end, glad they still had each other. I tried to imagine Michael and I in the swing. I couldn’t. Instead I knew he’d turned his nose at the patches of crab grass. Our landscaper came once a week at Michael’s request to tame nature so that the yard always looked manicured. He didn’t want the neighbors to think we were slobs, or worse, poor. The sealed bills that arrived each month totaling amounts we might never be able to pay didn’t bother him. I tried to imagine Grace and I in that swing. “I don’t want to get dirty, mommy,” I heard her say. My sweet angel already afraid of life, living and disappointing were synonymous in her mind so she spent each day trying to avoid each, avoid us.

A man in blue overalls with wild hair and dirty hands waved from his doorway as I passed. Next door were six kids, two diapered and shirtless, both trying to get on a red tricycle; two digging holes in the yard with small shovels; and two older girls in cut-off shorts and navy-blue shirts, at least a size too small, jumping rope. Grace had never jumped rope or worn cut offs.

I kept walking until houses became small shops, small shops with their doors wide open, handwritten signs inviting passersby. My arms and fingers ached, the box slipping from my grip with each step. At the corner of 35th Street and Monroe I crossed. I put my box on the grass next to the stop sign, pushed my purse back onto my shoulder, grabbed Michael and Grace and left the rest.  I decided to go inside a small coffee shop called Freedom, its daily specials written in chalk outside the door. It reminded me of Grace, how she loved chalk, how once our driveway was lined with hearts and flowers she’d drawn that I had been too busy to see, to really see.

“Where did you get this chalk?” I had asked her. “I don’t want you playing with this and marking the driveway,” I scolded. “Daddy will get mad.” And with the hose I erased her creations.

I stood in line behind a woman wearing army boots, a pleated yellow skirt, black t-shirt, and green camo jacket. She stood with her feet crossed at the ankle, a multi-colored knitted bag on her right shoulder. Her bright red mohawk reached for the low ceiling, its spikes sharp and stiff.  I inched closer to her, inhaling Rosemary, starch, and hairspray. She ordered a chai tea and a chocolate Freedom muffin and then plopped down on the long couch. She pulled a black notebook from her bag and started writing.

“I’ll take a small coffee,” I said, my usual auto response. “No…make that a green tea, large.” I forced a smile at the barista.

“Large, green tea it is,” he said.

I took a seat in the corner at a small table so that I faced the woman on the couch. She paused from time to time waiting for the right words and then let them fall onto the page. Next to her was a man, his hair thin and white from age. He sipped his coffee and stared out the window at cars passing by, the occasional jogger. At the table next to mine was a young couple drinking mochas and sharing a lemon square. They smiled after each tart bite, let out a giddy laugh, and let their free hands travel up the other’s arm, stopping to offer a tickle, a rub, a pat. Across the room, behind the woman on the couch were two friends sipping iced coffees. They sat with their legs crossed leaning toward each other. Their conversation was cyclical–casual to endearing, serious to silly, back to casual. They erupted with laughter as if on cue, each offering her whole heart, love untethered. I thought about my friend Janice, how close we once were. But now I didn’t even know what state she lived. I had never met her children. And even if I knew her phone number, I wasn’t sure I could reach her.

“Chai tea and a Freedom muffin,” the barista said, handing a white cup and saucer to the woman on the couch. “Enjoy,” he smiled.

“Thank you,” she said, repositioning herself.

The tall barista with the short haircut sauntered over to my table with my green tea.

“Enjoy,” she said, her expression sympathetic.

I nodded and took a gulp. It was bitter but refreshing. I took another drink, then another, and another until the glass was half full. I looked down at the light green liquid and began to laugh: a big hearty, pain-filled, uncontrollable laugh. My eyes welled, tears jumping onto my cheeks, sliding down my chin, my neck. I kept laughing. My body shook, wild convulsions I welcomed.

Conversations stopped as all eyes found their way to my table. Concerned glances and awkward smiles stopped time. One brave soul, the woman on the couch, spoke.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

I shook my head yes and smiled wide, showing my teeth like I was in a pageant.

“Are you sure?” this time her voice serious.

“Well…I got fired today,” I yelled, standing up. I walked towards her but stopped when her expression changed from concerned citizen to fearful patron. “I didn’t even like that job.” I started laughing again until laughing became crying and breath escaped. I fell to the floor, reaching for air, reaching for life.

“That sucks…but I guess it could be a good thing,” the woman’s face softened. She put her notebook down and walked to me. Her steps were hard, intentional. She put her hand on my arm and crouched next to me. “This could turn out to be a really good thing for you…now you’re free to do something else, something you like.”

Joy entered the back of my mind just out of reach, at the helm was Michael, his voice.

“You fucked up.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Remembering

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There is an enchanting melody playing in my head: a symphony of sounds dancing on my eardrums. A composition: rhythmic, melodic. Wooden sticks knocking. Soft harmony, weaving in and out, tying notes in knots. Wind instruments shouting with squeaks and honks, strangling me with their song, their defiant breaks. Diving saxophone, rich and raspy, plunging towards infinity. Flute trills: twirls of desire, fading only to return vibrant and new. The deep hum of the bass clarinet, the tender strum of guitar strings. Tuba and trombone paired in a staccato chant. This raging rhapsody:  A compilation of memory, dream, wisdom, and want. I hear my mother’s voice, dry, crackling, singing me a lullaby; an unbalanced, off-key serenade. Then the music stops, and I hear her voice climbing a ladder of octaves, louder now, rippling through my blood. And I shiver as I imagine her sitting next to me bodiless, free.

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Find Me…Please! (3)

Did I do the right thing by offering Bianca a place to stay? Yes. She needed help; she was in a bad way. I thought maybe she was involved with drugs when I met her. She wasn’t. She was a temp in the mail room at my company. Each day she arrived by foot, scattered, erratic, unstable. Her job was to deliver and collect mail throughout the building, but even this seemed complicated for her at times.

“Where’s the Research department?” she asked, holding a stack of envelopes against her chest, her other hand pushing the empty mail cart.

“Uh…it’s on the third floor,” I said. It was a question I answered at least 3 times a week.

“That’s right…” she adjusted the envelopes to prevent a few from falling to the floor.

“You got it?” I laughed, pushing the corner of one envelop back into the pile so it didn’t slip out. “Is there a reason you don’t put the mail in the cart?”

“No reason.” She said and was on her way.

At first I found myself watching her throughout the day, going up and down the floors, always overwhelmed with stacks of mail. And though her way was unconventional, we did get our mail every day. Then I found myself waiting for her to arrive. I’d find a reason to be near the south entrance around 8 am. I lit up when she came into view, at the end of the block, a scraggly figure at first, then the outline of her, tall and lanky, not particularly feminine, but still appealing. Her hair was a bit disheveled from the walk, a four mile trek each morning—she lived in Redwood Park, in a one-bedroom trailer. She wore a dark green parka; it was worn in, ripped in places. Under the parka she wore one of two outfits, faded black slacks and a dingy white button-up or a pair of wrinkled Khakis and a yellow-knit blouse. I know because Martha Jenson, Senior director of Marketing, announced her guess every morning.

“Is it a black slacks white shirt day or a Khakis and yellow knit day?” she laughed. “I’m going with the latter since she wore the black slacks yesterday…at least she alternates.” She sipped her coffee and walked away, her black leather heels hitting the floor, a demanding rhythm I listened to until it disappeared.

It was a Khaki and yellow knit day. I didn’t care about that though. I cared that she started arriving later and later. I don’t know why. I could have brushed her off as another irresponsible hire, but I didn’t. She intrigued me.

“You care too much,” Martha warned when I excused Bianca’s lateness, and then her absences. “What are you going to deliver the mail for her?”

I did. I delivered the mail on the days she was out even though I had no idea why she was not at work.

 

“Bianca…I need to know what’s going on? You’ve missed an entire week of work…”

“I know Mr. Michaels,” she sat across from me in my office, slumping in her chair. “I have a lot going on right now,” she put her hand to her mouth and looked out the window.

“Is there something I can help you with?” I asked. I wanted her to say yes.

She laughed hard. Then came tears. She stood up and walked around the room. My office was huge. It was the corner office with the big window overlooking the city. I had the furniture shipped from Italy. That office meant something to me; it signified I had achieved the kind of success I had dreamed of, my father had dreamed of.

“What is this?” Bianca asked, looking around. “It’s exotic.”

I laughed, pride welling.

“Thank you.” I stood. “The furniture is from Italy…it’s reminiscent of the 1900’s…”

“Are you Italian?”

“No…I just like the way it looks, the way it…”

I cringed as she walked around the glass conference table, gliding her finger along its edge, leaving smudges. It was for meetings, but we had never had a meeting there. I made sure Eloise, the cleaning lady, cleaned it every week. I even checked it after she left to make sure all dust and fingertips had been removed.

“This table is a long as my trailer,” she said, looking up at me. “Or what used to be my trailer.”

“Did you move?” I pried.

“Got evicted.”

I waited for her to continue. She moved to the bookcase, gliding her fingers across each book as she read its title.

“You read a lot?” she turned to look at me.

I nodded.

“No mysteries?” she laughed. I joined her.

“I’ll have to make time for a few mysteries I guess.”

“I’m late because I’ve been staying with a friend,” she started walking towards me. My body straightened.

“It’s six miles out…my place was only 4,” she explained. “It’s hard to walk 6 miles when…” she started.

Martha burst through the door. She looked at me and then at Bianca.

“Am I interrupting something?”

“Uh…” I looked at Bianca. She shrugged and plopped down on the couch behind my desk. “We were just…”

“I have those numbers you asked for,” she continued. “They look good.” She looked at Bianca who was biting her nails. “I’ll come back,” she said, heading for the door.

“Yes, we will talk a little later,” I said, my tone deep, professional.

“You know where to find me.”

I waited for her to leave and then joined Bianca on the couch, sitting at the opposite end.

“You were telling me about why you’ve been late…and absent, I’m guessing.”

“She’s interesting…I’m homeless,” she said, her tone changing from humorous to serious.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“That’s not so bad…I can sleep on couches. I’m used to that…but I’m pregnant now.” Her voice faltered.

“Pregnant?” I asked, feeling my temperature rise. “Oh, I didn’t know you were married…”

She shook her head no.

“It’s complicated,” she huffed. “Is there any way I can come in later? Say 9 or 9:30?”

“Um…that might work…it’s just that some mail needs to be delivered early.” I scratched my head. “Where are you staying?”

“For now I’m at the Red Oak Inn” she scratched her head in the same place I had scratched mine.

“With your friend?” I asked, confused.

“Yep…she lives there,” Bianca explained.

“I see,” I nodded, imagining a reality where living in an Inn was normal. “Maybe someone goes that way. I can check…”

She looked at me, disbelieving.

“I can find a way,” she said, determined.

I believed her and it made me want to help her even more. So I did.

 

I picked her up from the Red Oak Inn every morning. She chattered on and on about everything. We moved from topic to topic. By the time we arrived at work, my mind was reeling. She was a force.

“How are you doing?” I’d ask.

Her response was prefaced with a long sigh.

We are okay,” she started, patting her growing belly. “I’m puking every five minutes, I’m hungry,” she laughed, putting her seatbelt on.

“Are you seeing a doctor, yet?”

“Mr. Michaels I could eat for days, I’m telling you.”

I wanted to ask if she had food at the Inn, but I didn’t.

“So you’ve seen a doctor?” I asked again.

“Mr. Michaels, you think we can stop and get something to eat?”

“Sure,” I said, gripping the steering wheel. “There’s a McDonald’s over there…”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” she pulled a change purse from her backpack and started counting it in her hands.

“I got ya,” I said. “This one’s one me…you can get it next time.” I clarified.

“No sir, Mr. Michaels. I got it.”

She ordered one sausage burrito and a complimentary cup of water. I listened as she scarfed it down and gulped the water, letting out a long belch.

“Excuse me,” she said, balling up the wrapper and stuffing it into the bag.

“You didn’t mind me eating in your car, did you?” she asked. “It’s fancy in here,” she looked around. “Mercedes.”

“It’s nothing,” I tried to be modest.

“When I was young, my mother used to put peppermint in my milk,” she smiled.

“Really? Why did she do that?”

“Just because…she wanted me to have it because she knew I liked it.” She turned to look out the window. “She’d buy peppermint for me even though she couldn’t afford it.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“She’s dead now.”

I didn’t want to give the usual response, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ I changed the topic instead.

“When will you be going to the doctor?”

“I can’t right now,” she squirmed in her seat. “I don’t have a way there.”

“I’ll take you,” I insisted. “Let me take you.”

 

Soon I was not only picking her up for work, but I was taking her to her appointments, buying her lunch, groceries. I was working her into my life every chance I got. She became a regular at my house, eating dinner on occasion, spending the night when she was between homes, or just hanging out with me talking over peppermint milk. Before I knew it, I was preparing the back room for her and her new baby. I was only trying to help, yet there was a part of me that was glad she was there.

I drove to the Inn that morning, like I had been doing for the past six months. She was standing outside, all her belongings next to her.

“Hey, what’s all this,” I asked, putting my hand on her wrist to comfort her.

“She kicked me out,” she said. “I’m homeless again…time to find another couch,” she said, intending it to be a joke. She rubbed her belly and sighed. “How did I get here, Mr. Michaels?” she stared into my eyes. “Why does life have to be so hard?”

“Let’s get you in,” I guided her to the front seat. “I’ll put your things in the trunk.”

I loaded the car with her backpack, a duffel bag, a couple blankets and a pillow, and a suitcase that rattled when I lifted it. When I got into the car, that’s when I made the offer.

“Why don’t you stay at my place for a while?” I turned up the heater to calm her shivers. “It’s no big deal…until you get on your feet.”

She didn’t respond right away. We were pulling into the parking lot at work when she finally answered.

“Okay,” she said, her eyes averted, her voice signaling defeat.

I left work later that morning to go to the store. I bought bedding, towels, a television set, and baby stuff—a crib, a stroller, a baby monitor. I got gift cards to clothing stores for her, the baby. I got bags and bags of peppermint and wrapped them in a box with a big red bow. I left the box sitting on the bed.

She loved the room.

“I want to show you something,” I said as she got out of the car.

I led her to the back bedroom. “I hope you like it.” I opened the door. She stepped in, put her hands to her mouth and cried.

“For me?”

“For you…and the baby.” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder. She hugged me tight, thanking me over and over. I didn’t pull away. I held her.

“Mr. Michaels,” she started, her face snug against my chest.

“Call me, John,” I said, rubbing her back. “We’re friends,” I laughed.

“Why do you want to be my friend?” she looked up at me.

“Are you kidding me? Who wouldn’t want to be your friend?”

“Lots of people.”

“Well, I think you are amazing.”

“Me, amazing?” She shook her head. “I’m a screw up. And now I’m having a baby and I don’t even know who the father is.”

“Look at me,” I said, cupping her chin. “We’ve all made mistakes, errors in judgment. I can give you a list of mine, if you’d like. You’ve done a lot of things right and you try every day to do the right thing.”

“What do I do right?” she asked, her voice soft, her body resting against mine.

“You work hard,” I kissed her forehead. “You care about your baby,” I kissed the bridge of her nose. “You’re strong,” I kissed her cheek. “Very strong,” I kissed the other cheek. “And…”

“What?” she looked up at me, wrapping herself around me tight.

“You’re determined, even when things aren’t easy.”

She smiled, and I, not intending to, leaned in let my lips meet hers. It wasn’t a kiss; it wasn’t supposed to be at least. I wanted to show her affection, kindness.

 

Did I do the right thing? No. I was 48. Bianca was 19. She was a kid, in a bad place, with no parents, no family. I wanted to help, but part of me wanted something in exchange: A purpose. For years I had lived alone, focusing on my career; sure I had mentored some high school kids, provided them with internships that ushered them into university, but I was content on my own. I was at peace. Bianca disturbed that peace, showed me there was more to living than solitude; there was caring, caring about someone else, their well-being, their happiness. She was an instant disruption: I saw her, I wanted her, I needed her.

 

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Find Me…Please! (2)

Olivia was born on February 12, a Saturday. I remember that day. I will always remember. It was cold and rainy. John and I were at home. I was putting the finishing touches on the nursery, double checking that the drawers were filled with clothes, diapers, stuff. I placed and replaced decorative dolls, checked that the crib was stable—it was, John had put it together. I tapped the angels hanging from the mobile. Everything was ready. Her name was on the door. These were her things in the room. Before we knew it, she’d be home. I sat in the rocking chair, half smiling, half-worried that we had missed something, that we weren’t ready, and never would be. I heard John come in from the garage, “You want food, babe?” he laughed. I put on thirty pounds while I was pregnant. “This is one hungry baby,” I joked.

I got up to go meet him when I felt a sharp pain crawl across my stomach, my sides. My muscles tightened and I let out a moan.

“John,” I called, panicked. “Contraction…”

He ran into the room and urged me to sit back down, but I refused.

“No,” I bent over, his arms catching me.

“I gotcha,” he rubbed my back. “What do you want me to do?”

I moaned some more.

“What do you want me to do?” he repeated.

“Stop talking,” I moaned.

Then it was over. I stood up, a bit exhausted, but it was over.

“You okay?” John asked, laughing away his nervous energy.

“I’m fine,” I said. “We should time them,” I looked down at his watch. “This could be the day.” We both said nothing, just looked at each other, letting the idea sink in.

Eight minutes later another contraction came. This time we were ready, or at least we expected it. John wiped my forehead with a warm towel. He did his best to do what he’d learned in Lamaze class. He told me to focus on something, to breathe.

“Should we go now?” he asked.

“We have to wait until they’re five minutes apart,” I said, my breaths hard and short.

He stayed with me, timed each contraction until they were five minutes apart.

“I’m right here,” he confirmed, over and over. I squeezed his hand, assured, counting the dusty, white tiles on the ceiling. There were 28.

As soon as we got to the hospital, St. Salvator Medical Center, my water broke. They rushed me up to the fourth floor, into a birthing room. John was right there at my side, telling me to breathe, telling me he loved me, that in no time we’d have our little girl. And we did. I wasn’t in labor for hours like some new mothers. I pushed a few times and she was out. The anticipation of a long arduous birth hung in the air though. I just stared at her at first watching her squeal, her body tense. She weighed just over 5 pounds. She was beautiful, but I didn’t hold her, not at first. John held her. He cried. I cried. She was finally here, the baby I didn’t want, but grew to love. We took her home and loved her.

Olivia was born when we still lived in the brown house on Acacia Way. It was John’s house. He had invited me to stay for a while, to get situated, and I never left. I was very lucky to have John. He was my miracle and I loved him for saving me, saving us. We had the perfect life. The house was always filled with laughter; Olivia’s giggles were loud, contagious. We had everything we wanted. Things. Time. Love. John loved us. He really did. He saved us from a life of ridicule, poverty. As irony would have it, however, we divorced 15 years later, and that broke us. It broke John. It broke Olivia. It broke me. From there our lives spiraled.  We couldn’t get our footing. We couldn’t find our way. And then our daughter went missing.

I loved her. I did. Still do. I still love her, more than myself. But she’s gone and I don’t know if I can ever recover. If I can ever truly live again. John says it’s possible. I criticize him.

“She’s not even really yours,” I said once during a heated argument.

“Not mine?” he yelled back. “Not mine?” he pronounced every letter and pointed at his chest. “You stupid bitch.” He backed up. “She is mine.” He paced. “She’s mine because I love her just as much as you do. She’s mine because I provided for her. She’s mine because I never held it against you that my blood didn’t flow through her veins. She’s mine because…” he paused, his voice growing softer. “…because she was yours, and when I married you we became a family, all of us…I didn’t care that she wasn’t mine by. I just cared that she had a father, a family, a place to call home. That’s what makes her mine.” He turned so his back was to me.

“Okay,” I offered. “I’m sorry.”

He didn’t say anything. I heard him sobbing. His shoulders shuddered a bit. He touched his hands to his face. I wanted to walk over and touch him, soothe him, love him again. I wanted to. Instead I walked out the front door, got into my car, and drove away.

 

“What do you think will help you get to a place where you can live again?” my therapist once asked me. I didn’t have an answer then, not one I could articulate.

The answer was honesty. I had to be honest about my life, about the life I had given my daughter. I had to be honest about who I was, who I had become. I had to accept responsibility for her leaving. She was running away from me.

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Find Me…Please! (1)

There was Jersey, Cincinnati, Denver, Seattle, Miami, California, and me, Dakota. We were being tied up in the back of the van, chained really. It was procedure. Every night on our way to meet with clients we were chained so we didn’t escape. We obliged, since complaining and resisting only brought trouble. Accepting our fate made it easier: in less than an hour we’d stand along a wall waiting as rich, old men made their selections. “I’ll try this one on,” a silver-haired regular would say, his veiny hands grabbing Miami, the girl he selected. A creepy grin would then spread across his face; Miami’s eyes averted. “I like Florida,” he’d laugh, leading her to his room.

“Get in,” Jersey, Cincinnati, Denver, and Seattle, settled into the back row. “I don’t want you to miss your opportunity for love,” Sasha said, her voice cruel with humor. She laughed as she restrained us, her eyes darting up at ours, daring us to try something, anything. I sat on the middle seat, closest to the door. I had to wait while Sasha secured Miami and California. Sasha then motioned for me to hop in and bent to chain my leg to California’s. It was procedure. I can still replay it in my mind, the movements, all very measured, exact. And the sounds. Thick chains clanking on the van floor, the scuffle of our feet shoved in shiny heels, and the soft click as we were locked in place, secured to the van, to each other. This time I waited, sitting with my shoulder gracing California’s. There was no click. The chain only appeared to lock. Sasha hadn’t accounted for the last click. This was her job: Make sure we were transported safely to the clients; make sure we didn’t escape, or even consider trying to escape; make sure we returned when the clients were finished with us, their desires met, our bodies raw, dirty, shamed. There was no click. My mind shouted. I was not restrained. I could escape, but I’d have to jump out of a van that in moments would be traveling upwards of fifty miles an hour. I looked over at California; she knew. Her face screamed with approval.

“Do it,” I imagined her saying. “Do it, now. Don’t think about it. Thinking will only get you in trouble.”

Sasha hopped into the front seat and started the van and crept forward, merging onto the dark back road she always took, the nameless one with an electric gate at the end. On either side of the road were thick and dark woods. They felt monstrous.  While the creaky gate inched open, Sasha instructed us to put on our blindfolds.  She looked at us through the rear-view mirror making sure we obeyed. I thought her eyes detected something was amiss, but I dismissed this thought and put on my blindfold. The van moved forward, our bodies jerking left as Sasha turned onto a two-lane road. I can remember hearing a passing car on several occasions. We were not alone. There were people out there, but we didn’t know how to reach them. Darkness beat against the blindfold. I listened as the van’s engine got louder, its transmission pushing through each gear. I knew it would slow down again, and I knew that when it did I’d have to act fast or there may not be another opportunity to escape. But where will I go? I thought. How will I get home? Where is home? Is anyone still looking for me? What will happen to the other girls if I leave? Will they be beaten, tortured?

“You can take your blindfolds off for now,” Sasha yelled, after swerving onto a highway. She figured the numbers on the road signs meant nothing to us anymore. But now they did. I remembered the numbers. They meant freedom. I looked again at California, her eyes still pleading. My mind filled with questions. In the end the risk of death seemed more promising than staying. I leaned forward to see how fast Sasha was going—35mph, 36 mph, 37mph, the engine climbed the short hill.

“What are you doing, Dakota?” Sasha snapped.

I slipped my feet out of the stiff heels. My face crumpled as I said goodbye to the girls. I reached for the door handle and swung it open, air entering the van in a big wave. What if I don’t make it? I hoisted myself out the door doing my best to curl my body in a ball. I hit the ground hard. It felt like every bone in my body had shattered. I rolled, or bounced rather, down the woodsy terrain, scraping the skin off my arms, marring the big red fluffy dress: beauty exploding, freedom beckoning. I don’t know how long it took for my body to slow. I heard the van’s screeching brakes, but I couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from. I knew I had to get up, run, keep running. But where? I sat up, my body stiff, enflamed. Pain vibrated through my body. Something was broken, or maybe I was bleeding internally. I looked around for the van. It’s brake lights were racing towards me. Sasha was driving backwards along the edge of the road. I stood up, it took a few attempts, my legs shaking with shock. Everything felt out of place; bones and organs shifted in the fall struggling now to get back in place, find where they belonged. This is where details get fuzzy. I don’t remember how I ran through the pain; my guess is fear was my fuel. I ran and ran some more, parts of the terrain hilly, thorny, other parts lush with short shrubs, a maze of vines I navigated. My bare feet were cushions to all things sharp. What if she catches me? I ran. They will kill me? I eyed a small gas station on the other side of the highway. I had to get there. I had to get to the guard rail, make my away across the lanes. I had to get to the gas station. They’d help me.

Sasha was close now, the van parked in sight. She was on foot looking for me. A light broke the darkness with dart-like flashes. At first I was still. The cold air blew against my skin like small razors.

“Dakota,” Sasha sang. She was close. Did she see me?

I was still. I concentrated on taming my breath, calming myself, buying time and energy to make it across the highway. It wasn’t a busy night, but there were cars, fast cars.

“Dakota,” she yelled. “Or should I say, Olivia Michaels.” She was pointing her flashlight towards me. That name, my name, sounded foreign. I cringed. Olivia Michaels was missing. “Come on out and I won’t tell Charlie and Joe…I’ll tell them the client beat you,” she laughed, but her flashlight was steady. “You’ll have to pay for the dress…not sure how you’re going to do that though,” she teased.

My body started to shake at the thought of Charlie and Joe finding me like this, bruised and battered. There’d be more bruises; they’d break me. I might not survive. I had to get to the other side. I had to escape. I stood up and started walking towards Sasha. She shined the light on me, mocking my limp with the light. Up, down, up, down, up, down. The girls leaned forward in their seats watching me trudge along. Their faces were lined with fear, their shoulders slumped with disappointment. I had disappointed them. I was about five feet from Sasha when they all started screaming.

“Run…run…run.”

Sasha looked back at the van and I did what they told me to do. I ran across the highway. I didn’t look to see if it was clear; I just ran.

“I have to make it,” I cried. “Please…” I pushed myself as hard as I could. My feet stomped into the ground, my thighs like machines pumping and pumping. I heard Sasha yelling, then the van’s engine starting, its tires peeling away.

I had to make it across four lanes, to the divider, and across another four lanes. My stomach jostled, threatening to relieve itself of the crackers I’d had an hour earlier—the only food we were allowed before meeting clients. Headlights shone. Horns blared. Drivers veered left, veered right, or stopped inches from my kneecaps. “I want to go home,” I cried, something I hadn’t allowed myself to say for the last three years. Home was far away, a place I might no longer be able to go back to. Could I return to my bedroom? The one decorated sweetly with innocence—poster-size pictures of boy bands, stuffed animals along the bay window, a white canopy bed with soft pink sheets, a karaoke machine filled with pop songs about love and heartache, a neon pink jacket with the word “Princess” stitched on the back. Would I be able to sleep in that room when my body had lost its innocence and my mind did not keep sweet thoughts anymore?

I made it to the divider. There were still four more lanes to cross. The van was gone. I guessed Sasha had sped off to the next exit and was making her way around, travelling south, prepared to renege on her promise to not tell Charlie and Joe. I kept running, the sound of my own breathing a soundtrack replaying. More headlights. More burning rubber. A semi jack-knifed skidding towards the divider. I made it. I nestled my way into the sea of shrubs, slowing my pace a bit. I had to get to that gas station, that small four-pump shack just off the next exit. Sasha would be around soon. I listened for her, anticipated the van’s roar.

At the edge of the brush there was a dirt mound and tall weeds I hid behind. The gas station was lit, surprisingly busy, but it was a Friday night; people were gassing up, going out. I had too been going out, preparing to be someone’s fun, someone’s excitement, a story he’d carry back to his friends. I waited, lurked. My heart beat loud, deep in my ears, my throat. I needed to cross the street and walk another half block in the wide open. Where was Sasha? The longer I waited, the closer she was. My body started to shake again. This time I knew I didn’t have much left to give, but I ran, hobbled really. I crossed the street and I followed the narrow, blacktopped road. I shuffled along the edge, through the parking lot, and finally through the double doors that sang “ding, dong” when I walked through. A man examining packages of corn nuts paused to look at me. He stared briefly and then went back to his corn nuts. I walked to the register. The smell of cinnamon rolls wafted my way. It had been so long since I had had a cinnamon roll. I stood in front of the counter, my words far away. I looked towards the door, fidgeting with the end of my dress, the straps that wouldn’t stay up.

“Can I help you?” the attendant smacked her gum.

I looked around the store, outside towards the blacktop road.

“Can I help you, Miss?” the attendant repeated, her round face now scrunched as she eyed me up and down. I was dirty, disheveled. I looked like I had been in a fight, like I hadn’t exactly lost, but like I certainly hadn’t won. She will find me, I thought. She’s out there and she will find me.

“Help me…please. I looked around the store again, out the long windows at the headlights leaving and entering the parking lot. “She’ll find me here…please.” I moved back from the counter. My feet and my arms were bleeding, patches of scraped skin stung; pain filled me. There was a trail of blood all the way from the sidewalk.

“Are you okay?”

“Please help me…” I stared at her then back at the window, more headlights, more people coming in. A new set of headlights, a van, Sasha. She had parked on the side; she, after all, had a van filled with abducted girls and didn’t want to draw attention to herself. But it was all too noticeable.

“That’s her,” I screamed. The corn nuts guy moved towards the door. “She’s coming for me…please help me. Hide me.”

“Uh…” the attendant stammered.

“Call the police,” the corn nuts guy said, his voice deep, demanding.

I watched as Sasha’s big body flopped, propelling her across the lot.

“Yes, this is Amanda Greenly at the Stop & Gas on Hammer Lane off Highway 11. I got a girl here who says she’s being chased and…”

There was no time. Sasha was maneuvering her way through the line of cars. The bathroom key hung on a small nail just over the counter. I leapt towards it, scaring the woman. She let out a strained, throaty moan. I ran out with the key, past the corn nuts guy, around to the back of the building, Sasha was hurrying towards me. I calmed myself enough to wriggle the key into the hole and step inside the dark and smelly room. Just in time. Darkness.

“Open up Dakota,” she yelled through clinched teeth. “Don’t make me call Charlie and Joe.” She beat on the door.

I knew by then she had already called them. They were on their way. I was not safe. But there was no turning back. It was freedom or death. Or perhaps both.

“Open the damn door,” she tried the door, jiggling the knob.

I moved away from the door. The floor was wet. My feet slushed through the pooled liquid. I felt for the wall, and leaned against it, sliding down into a squat. The toilet roared with rushing water.

“You will regret this,” she said. “Life will not be easy for you.”

“Excuse me,” another voice joined. “I don’t know what’s going on here…and I’m not one to get in other people’s business…but the girl don’t want to be bothered so I suggest you leave.”

It was the corn nuts guy.

“The police are on their way…how do you know that girl?”

“She’s my daughter,” Sasha lied.

“Well, she’s pretty beat up. How you gon’ explain that to the police?”

“Dakota, I’m giving you one more chance to come out…” Sasha yelled.

Then she was gone.

“I’m gon’ stay right here til the police come,” the corn nuts guy offered.

I put my hand to my mouth to muffle my cries. Freedom was scary, hairy and imposing, but here was kindness, raw, unveiled, just as scary. I didn’t know where to place my trust. I imagined Sasha driving back to the compound where we were kept, Charlie and Joe driving to the Stop & Gas to find me. I imagined they’d beat me for running away, for messing up my body. “No one is going to pay for a scarred up piece of trash,” they’d say as they pounded their firsts into my face, my sides, my chest. I’d gasp for air, inhaling blood like before. I’d almost die again when they threw me in the dungeon—a dark room designed for surprise tortures. My cries, my pleading echoing throughout the compound, a reminder to everyone else that disobedience was punishable, death always a possibility.

In three years, I’d seen five girls brought out in body bags or wrapped tight in sheets. We were told to look away, pretend we didn’t see what was happening and pray it didn’t happen to us. So we did. I did. In this life good was bad and bad was good. That’s all I had to remember to get from one day to the next. At night, deep in the night, when all was still, California would reach for my hand, caressing it, a reminder that there was still such a thing as love. This was the only time we had to remember that. In those long, still hours we clung to love, the hope of it soothed us to sleep where our dreams, if just for an hour or so, were vibrant and joyous, a replay of a past that, had we known then that we’d end up in a place like this, we would have cherished more. I would have hugged my mother more, resisted less when she tried to love me, sat with her while she talked to me, warned me about life’s dangers.

I let my hand crawl along the wall in search of a light switch. The switch was stiff, the bulb dim. My eyes strained as I looked around. The toilet was overfilling with water, a clump of toilet paper stuck at the bottom. Graffiti marked the walls, vulgar remarks that surprised me, the kind clients had sometimes made—all part of the fantasy that made conquering us tempting. The mirror, broken around the edges, was dingy, revealing a rather cloudy image of my face. I pulled the straps of my dress back on to my shoulders, dusted the front, trying to remove dirt stains. Bruises covered my arms, a few open wounds still leaked blood. I ripped the last paper towel from the dispenser, wet its tip, and dabbed my wounds.

“How are you doing in there?” Corn nuts guy asked.

I stayed quiet. I didn’t know how to answer that question. My body did look like I had been beaten. And I had, for three years. I had been beaten, violated, locked away. How was I doing? It was too soon to tell. I didn’t know yet which direction life was taking me, if I’d survive.

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Blogger Recognition Award!

I want to thank ReDiscover 40 for nominating my blog for the Blogger Recognition Award! I’ve been blogging for just under a year now and in this time I’ve found some great blogs and shared comments and feedback with some really amazing bloggers, ReDiscover 40 being one of them. I’m sincerely grateful to be recognized in this way!

 

 The rules for accepting this award:

  1. Link back to the blog of the person who nominated you
  2. Tell how your blog got started
  3. Give advice to new bloggers
  4. Nominate 15 bloggers and their blogs for the award

 

  1. You can find ReDiscover 40 by clicking on the name.
  2. I started this blog because I wanted to create a space to share and work on my writing and do so more consistently. I’m still working on the last part. J
  3. My advice to new bloggers is to set reasonable goals, those that challenge you a bit but that are realistic for you.
  4. The bloggers I’d like to nominate are listed below:

My Precious Little Thoughts

Random and Written

A Journey with You

Thoughts, Musings, and Storytelling

That Scribbler

Midnight Blogger

Azhar’s Reflections

Showcasing She

Afthead

Kay Morris Writes

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Homestead (Between Breath & Suffocation Sec. 21)

Meridian sped down route 19. I looked out at the dying vegetation: sparse trees with their dry, grey branches; pale brown plants soft and mushy, sinking in surrounding soil; miles and miles of death covering wide open land with its foggy shadows.

“You probably won’t recognize much,” Meridian said, her voice loud, matter of fact. “Lots has changed.”

“I was here…” I started. “My mother died.”

“I know, my pa was upset by that. He stayed gone for ‘bout three weeks.”

“What do you mean he stayed gone?” I asked. I thought about Mother, how she stayed gone, how we searched for her, waited, worried, and finally accepted that she had to go.

“Just wait,” Meridian turned onto Highway 1.

The dashboard rattled: Meridian hummed. I clutched my bag to my chest, eyeing the cars Meridian swerved around.

I realized we were going to Prosper Road when she took the Briar Street exit.

“What are you doing?” I gripped the door handle.

“You’ll see. I gotta make a stop…something I wanna show you.”

 

The houses looked the same. The road empty, brush lining its edge.  Meridian slowed so we felt each bump, every dip.

“This is where you used to live with your mama and sister,” Meridian said.

“Yeah…I know that.”

“And your Nana till she died.”

At the end where our house once stood was nothing but land, long, rototilled rows of lumpy brown dirt. My throat tightened. Memory boiled in my gut. There was no trace of us, just an emptiness that settled like dust on my skin.

“Wow…” I whispered.

“Lots changed, huh?” Meridian perked.

“Why are we here?”

“I wanted to see what it looked like from this side.”

“What what looked like?”

“The woods…” Meridian got out of the car, still barefooted. She slammed her door and headed for the property. “You coming?” she shouted back at me.

I jumped out, each step towards the property slow, careful. The upturned soil seemed to come alive, cries and laughter rising.

“Come on.” Meridian walked faster towards the woods. A barbwire fence lined the perimeter now.

“It’s closed off,” I yelled.

“Scaredy Cat,” Meridian teased.

“Scared? Sage and I used to run through these woods all the time.” I mumbled to myself.

“Come on…I want to show you something.” Meridian turned to look back at me and then ran towards the fence.

I followed her like I had followed Sage, eager and uncertain; afraid to deny her requests. I wondered how she knew where we lived, what she knew about us. I wondered what was in these woods we had ventured into so many times, chasing Mother until she disappeared.

 

Meridian’s pace was quick. We squeezed through a thin break in the wire fence, its sharp links scratching at our clothing.  She led us through the woods and onto a winding path cluttered with tree debris. It was a flat terrain dense with trees. We stepped over dead branches and ducked under low hanging ones.

“Watch out for that rock…don’t step on that mound…stay close; there are coyote,” Meridian guided.  “Hurry…we losin’ light.”

“Where are we going?” I lingered.

“You can’t see in the dark, can ya?”

“No…”

“Then come on,” Meridian snapped. “This should bring back memories…these woods…running…with your sister…” She sped up, her hair winding in the breeze.

“What do you mean?” I chased.

“I used to run through these woods…I seen you…and your sister.”

“Wait,” my voice was layered with fright.

“Come on…” she yelled back, the distance between us growing.

“When did you see us?” I ran after her, my feet stomping the lush ground. “When did you see us? …Why were you there?” I shouted into the air.

I kept running, hard, with urgency. Leafy vines slashed my face. The air felt thick, stuffed with layers of earthy smells. Decay hung over our heads, a warning I didn’t know how to interpret. Birds squawked, rustling through the trees. I imagined the coyote still wild but cautious as we trampled through their home.  Led equally by fear and curiosity, I followed, moving my body as fast as I could.  It felt like an endless race. The harder I ran the closer my mind moved towards delirium. Memories of myself running merged with the present. I reached. Yearned. Sage held my hand tight, Mother in the distance wild and tireless.

“Wait for me…” I screamed, my breath labored. “Sage…come back…” She ran faster. The ends of her dress flaring, her bare feet landing hard against the ground.

Meridian was only about thirty feet away, but panic set in. My muscles ached; they felt like rubber bands, stretching and loosening, ready to give way at any moment. Fire burned in my chest, its heat seeping through my pores, warming sweat beads as they slid off my skin and fell to the ground heavy like pebbles marking our path.

“Wait…” I screamed again, sound trapped in my throat. “Wait…” I tried again. The same raspy call escaped. Meridian was now out of sight.

The path under my feet had disappeared. I imagined we were somewhere in the middle of the woods. And now my only guide was the dimming sky. I stared up, the tips of Juniper jagged, reaching for heaven. A cool, moist breeze crawled through my hair tickling my scalp. I stopped running and stood exhausted with my hands against my knees.

“Meridian,” I screamed, this time a little louder. “Where are you?” I heard branches cracking in the distance so I ran towards the sound.

“Sage,” I cried out, catching a glimpse of the end of her dress as she slipped through the trees. “Don’t leave me…”I chased.

I ran harder, my heart floating in my chest. I felt small, flashes of faded memories flooding from the back of my mind to the front.

“Sage,” I whispered, a question I posed to the air.

I ran as fast as my legs could go which didn’t feel all that fast. I raced towards Meridian, Sage. She beckoned me, “Come on slow poke.”

I reached my hands out. Memory slipped through my fingers, soft and hazy. My body weakened. I told my right leg to rise and then the left, letting gravity pull them back down against the now soft ground.

“Sage,” I cried, this time my vocal chords straining, exploding with pain as my right foot met with a hard, rock-like protrusion. I fell face first into the mossy forest floor. My chin bounced up and then back down, blood rushing through my teeth, warm and salty. I rested there for a minute and then looked in the direction Meridian had run, the place where Sage had called for me, where memory and reality collided.

“Come on slow poke,” Sage called.

I got up and followed the sound. I ran. I ran. I ran. I ran, only I wasn’t certain if I was actually running or if it was happening just in my mind. I closed my eyes tight and let darkness cover fear now building like a volcano under my skin. When I opened my eyes I was seven years old, running through a field of knee-high wildflowers. The sun beat down on my head. Sweat slipped from my pores and stained the sides of my face, the front of my dress.

“Come on slow poke…”

I reached.

“…Catch me if you can.”

I ran. I ran. I ran. I ran until running turned to longing. It pulled me inside its cage and locked me there, binding my wrists and ankles, pinning me against is sharp, wiry walls.

The sun retreated. I lay flat on the ground, blood dribbling from the corners of my mouth.

“Life is slippery,” Sage said, her voice faint, trailing off. “There’s not much we can do about that,” I perked as her voice returned, but then it was gone. All that was left was meaning.

Life was slippery. I had always teetered, but Sage was there to keep me from falling. To keep me from surrendering to fragility.

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Patterson County: Meridian (Between Breath & Suffocation Sec. 20)

I sat inside the bus terminal waiting. There were only a few of us sprinkled along the rows. Dim lights hung from the ceiling, sound far away waiting for the sun to rise. Cold slipped through our clothes into our bones; rigid and expecting we waited for the bus, for its headlights to drench us in its rays. I wondered what I’d find in Patterson. M had been so brief over the phone, but she had said that Sebastian Margolis, her father, wanted to see me. I imagined him, bearded, soft spoken, saddened by mother’s death, sitting across the table from me telling one story after another about her. Thoughts of him being just like my mother—chaotic, haunted, lost–I pushed away.
When the bus arrived we scuttled out the door back into the darkness where one by one we climbed the steps and took our seats. The bus roared, tugging us down the highway. I sat in my seat watching city turn to town as morning crept in, its orange sun beautifully painted at the bottom of the sky. People stirred, their voices slowly rising over the engine. Conversations, jovial, serious, and silly, mingled like grains of sand. For two and a half days we floated in and out of motion and stillness; the bus rumbled along flat and uneven pavement, stopping at convenience stores just long enough for us to get food and freshen up in cold, dirty bathrooms.
Hours blurred, marring light until darkness returned. Each time my view of wide open fields was replaced with my own reflection: a stranger, long faced, deflated, eyes held captive by longing. Wrapped in time, its magical hands, I slipped in an out of awareness, otherness taking over, an all-consuming violation, wanting at its peak. I closed my eyes and Sage was there to greet me in my dreams.
“Life is slippery,” she said. We sat arm in arm on the old porch, looking out at the long dusty street, waiting, not expecting, just waiting.

“Welcome to Patterson,” a splintered sign read. The driver maneuvered along a narrow, two lane road. Patterson Bus Depot was a few miles into town, but that didn’t stop us from stuffing our belongings back inside bags. Zippers zipped. Chip bags crumpled as they were folded. Excitement filled us as the bus stopped and the driver opened the door. Fresh air hit our faces; our bones creaked. I stood outside watching passengers find their rides. I pulled M’s address from my pocket and decided to walk the five miles rather than spend the little money I had on a cab.
“Hey…”a voice called.
I looked out across the parking lot. A wild-haired girl sat in the driver’s seat of a blue and white pick-up.
“You,” she said. “Come here.”
“Are you M?” I asked, my steps cautious.
“Yeah…who else would I be?” she laughed. “Come on…get in.”
I opened the passenger-side door. The seat was filled with holes; tools collected on the floor.
“Don’t mind that stuff. Just push it out the way.”
I got in and set my bag between us.
“Where are we going?” I asked, anxiety swimming in my gut.
“Why?” M reached down to scrape tiny rocks out of the creases of her right foot. “What’s it to you?”
“I was just wondering…”
“Well…sometimes wondering is dangerous.” She scraped the other foot. “You find out things you didn’t need to know.”
“Where’s Sebastian Margolis?”
“First things first…” she sped off.
I leaned into the door, thinking I could open it and jump out if I had to.
“You ain’t gon’ jump out are ya?”
I looked at her, my body shaking from the cold air pouring through the broken back window.
“Don’t be ‘fraid,” she laughed. “By the way…M is short for Meridian.”
And though I still didn’t know where we were going, I felt relieved. M was short for Meridian. This somehow made her real, relatable.

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Truth, Lies, and Everything Else (Between Breath & Suffocation Sec. 19)

With midterms looming, I immersed myself in study groups, went to every office hour, and spent long nights in front of my computer writing drafts I obsessed over until they were perfect. Frankie and I quizzed each other; terms, theorists, and disorders covered flashcards, a pile we got right, an even bigger pile we got wrong.
“I’m never going to remember these,” Frankie said, throwing the pile of cards up in the air.
“Yes, you will.” I encouraged.
“Let’s go get something to eat, give our minds a break.”

The student union was packed so we ventured off campus to a small restaurant called GiGi’s Soup & Salad. We got the all-you-can-eat salad and clam chowder.
“What are positive psychotic symptoms?” Frankie quizzed.
“Delusions…hallucinations…disorganized speech and behavior.”
“Well, look who’s ready for the exam?” Frankie sassed.
“Not even close,” I blushed. “How’s your paper coming along?”
“What paper?” Frankie smirked. “I haven’t even started yet.” She slurped her soup. “Have you started?”
“Kind of. I was going to do my mother, but there are too many unanswered questions.”
“M never called you back, huh?” Frankie laughed.
“No,” I cringed.
It had been several weeks and still nothing. Two days after I had spoken with M, the phone number was disconnected. I wondered if I had made the whole thing up. I replayed the conversation in my head, concentrated on the small details—the cadence of her speech, the uneven tone of her voice. I kept telling myself that it had happened. M was real.
“So when are you done with midterms?” Frankie asked. “I have midterms all next week. I’m not done until Thursday.”
“Wednesday evening,” I said between bites.
“Lucky.” Frankie chewed. “We should plan something, get out for the weekend.”
“Sounds good.”

That night, after working my way through the flashcards again, I pulled out Mother’s notebook. I flipped through the pages, Gargoyles peering back. These protective creatures guarded me, little one, but from what? What had been so threatening? I got on the computer and searched everything I could on Patterson—history, population, motto, elevation, places of interest. Then I searched “Patterson’s Juniper Forest.” Pictures of Juniper filled the screen. Their twisted trunks, needle-sharp leaves, and sprawling branches matched my memory. I scrolled through each picture and skimmed a few articles: Growing Juniper Forest Threatens Habitat. City Warns Against Hiking Through Juniper Forest. I scrolled down more. Wounded Boy Left in Forest to Die. Dismembered Body Found in Forest Identified. Underground Cellar Found In Juniper Forest, Human Remains Stored Inside.
“Don’t go out into that forest anymore,” Grandma Betty warned.
“Why not?”
“Just listen to me, you hear?” Grandma Betty scolded.
Sage picked the peas out of her carrots, avoiding my stare.
We never went back into that forest, but Mother did.
I thought about all the organs she kept in the basement, the times she came home bloodied and bruised. All the times she ran into that forest and disappeared.
“What did you do, Mother?” I said under my breath, clicking on each story.
Boy 10-12 yrs found in forest, his face burned, teeth extracted.
My heart felt heavy, like it was enlarging somehow in my chest.
Authorities found 3 hearts, 5 livers, a spleen, and a set of lungs, all human remains.
Sweat slid down my spine, my breaths labored.
Underground shelter occupied by local woman; police investigate possible connection to earlier murders.
“Mother…”
A painful tingling crawled through my body. I closed my eyes and tried to calm my breathing.
“It’s not true…it’s not true.” I repeated. “She didn’t do anything…she didn’t do it,” the room started to spin.
I moved into the kitchen and turned on the faucet, splashing water on my face. It was cold and sticky. I grabbed a towel, but the more I wiped the more water still stuck to my face. I turned the water back on, splashed, wiped, splashed, wiped, splashed, and wiped again. Water still stuck to my face, only this time I thought it must be acid. Somehow acid had gotten in my water. I looked under the sink, in the bathroom. I went outside and checked.
“Anyone know why there’s acid water coming out of the sink?” I asked a few passing students.
“What?” they backed up as I moved closer.
“Never mind,” I turned and went back to my apartment.
I turned the water back on, watching it hit the side of the sink. I filled three glasses and watched the water settle. I smelled the acid. I watched it spin around in the glasses.
“Acid…acid…acid.”
I called Rachel to let her know what was happening.
“You won’t believe this…” I said when she answered. “There’s acid in the water here.”
“What?”
“Yeah, I’m collecting sample now.”
“Are you sure it’s acid, Jun?”
“Mom! It’s acid okay.” She was silent. “Oh, and I found some information about the Juniper forest.”
“Jun, slow down.”
“It’s about murders. Real murders…”
“What does this have to do with acid in the water?”
“It’s about my mother.”
“Acid water?”
“No, murder. They found organs.”
I don’t remember hanging up the phone. I had lined up six glasses, four bowls, two big pots on the counter, and was eyeing the vases in the living room when someone knocked on the door.
“Maintenance…” the voice called.
“Just a second,” I grabbed the two vases and filled them with water.
I looked through the peep-hole. It was Maggie.
“Hey Maggie,” I opened the door.
“What’s going on tonight?”
“I think there’s acid in the water.”
“Can I check?”
“Sure,” I let her in.
She looked at the counter.
“What makes you think there’s acid in the water?”
“The water keeps sticking to my face.”
“Is it sticking to your face now?”
“Yes.”

I’m not sure how I got to the emergency room. I lay on a bed, bright lights burning down on me. Two doctors standing just outside the half-drawn curtain were talking.
“Did the bloodwork come back? I may want to send her up to psych.”
I waited for them to leave before getting up. I ripped the IV out of my arm, slipped my shoes on, and walked out, careful not to draw too much attention to myself. My stride was fluid, intentional, not at all reflective of the storm inside. My body felt heavy, on the verge of shattering. At first I didn’t think about where I was going. I just walked, kept walking. Somehow I found my way back to my apartment. Still on the counter were the cups, bowls, and pots of water. I looked at them. There was no acid. I turned on the faucet and watched the water trickle out. No acid there either. There were three messages, but I turned off the light and went to bed instead of listening to them. A few hours later I awoke from a nightmare: Mother stood over my bed shouting, “I killed you. I killed you. I already killed you.” I got up and cleared the counter. Then I checked my messages.
“Juniper, please call me and your mother,” John said, his voice stern.
“Jun, where are you? Please call us. We want to know what’s going on. If you don’t call us soon, we’re going to head on out there.”
“Hello…hello?” it was a voice I didn’t recognize right away. “Uh…I’m looking for J-u-n-i-p-e-r…she called a while back looking for Daddy.” She cleared her throat. “He wants to talk to her…but he ain’t here right now, but he’ll be back…so if J-u-n-i-p-e-r could call back…I could uh…uh…uh…” she coughed. “uh…if J-u-n-i-p-e-r could call back…uh…that will be fine…this is M.”
I listened to the last message about six times before I called back.
“Hello?” I heard someone on the other end. “Anyone there?”
“I’m here,” she said.
“This is Juniper. Is this M?”
“Yeah, this M.”
“Hi M. I’m returning your call.
“I know.”
“Is your dad home?”
“No.”
“Do you know when he’ll be home?” I asked, disappointment setting in again.
“He wants to talk to you, but he don’t want to talk on the phone.”
“He doesn’t want to talk on the phone?”
“Nope.”
“Okay then…do you know what he wants to tell me?”
“You gon’ come or not? He’s been waitin’ for an answer.”
“I’ll come…give me a few days,” I pulled my emergency credit card from my wallet. “What’s the address?”

It all felt wrong. Irrational. But that didn’t stop me from getting on my computer and purchasing a bus ticket to Patterson. It didn’t stop me from packing an overnight bag and walking to the bus station before the sun had even risen. I felt myself fading, an alternate version emerging, her sense of reality loose, overlapping with some other world. I tried to resist, turn around and go back.
With each step my head and heart battled, the weakest winning because it screamed the loudest, its ache the strongest.

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“People Call Me M.” (Between Breath & Suffocation Sec. 18)

I was second in line to speak with my English professor. I waited outside his half-closed door, his voice pouring out into the hall.
“You had one week to complete this assignment. Why should I give you another chance?” Professor George asked.
“I had car trouble…”
“So why is this the first time I’m hearing about your car troubles?”
“I couldn’t…”
“If you notice in the syllabus,” Professor George flipped through some papers. “On the second page I say that I will excuse late work only if students contact me when something comes up,” Professor George interrupted. He waited a second and then dismissed the student.
She left clutching her textbook, loose papers, wrinkled and disorganized, stretching the binding. Tears collected in her eyes, composure far away as she stormed down the hall.
“Next?” Professor George called.
“Morning Professor,” I said, inching inside.
“Juniper, it’s good to see you.” He smiled and leaned forward in his chair. “How are you?”
“I’m okay.”
“Well, I’m glad,” he rubbed his hands together. “I’m very sorry for your loss.
“Thank you.” I didn’t dare explain that losing my mother was not exactly what he imagined. “I have my paper.”
“Very good,” he took my paper and put it in a brown accordion file. “How are you coming along with Edgar Allan Poe?”
“I didn’t know he had foster parents.”
“Yep, both of his parents died…” Professor George looked down at his feet and then back at my face. “We’ll be studying his poems mostly though.”
“I understand,” I said getting up to leave. “I just wanted to drop my paper off and thank you for giving me some extra time.”
“You’re very welcome.” He stood up. “I look forward to seeing you in class this week…we’ve missed your insight.”
I smiled and left, my next stop the Chemistry building where I spent an hour answering questions about molecular collisions and chemical reactions. Frankie met me at the student union for a quick lunch before our Abnormal Psychology class.
“Hey you,” Frankie greeted me in line.
“Hey girl,” I gave her a sideways hug, our backpacks colliding.
“What’s new?” she asked.
“That was the longest week of my life.”
“How are you holding up?”
“I’m good…the doctor gave me a phone number to a man my mother might have known.”
“Wow, did you call?”
“Not yet.”
“Are you going to?”
I shrugged and ordered a chicken sandwich, fries, and a coke. Frankie ordered the same with a root beer.
“Guess what I got on the chem exam?” she asked as we sat at a table for two.
“Hmmm, an A?” I laughed.
“Yep.”
“You’re good at chem. I probably got a B…hopefully.”

In Abnormal Psych our new unit was on Schizophrenia. We sat in the front row, taking pages of notes we’d compare later. Hallucinations. Delusions. Distorted thinking. Isolation. Each concept fit my mother, brought her back to life. It was if she were sitting next to me, squirming and whispering, “they’re coming for me…they’re coming for me, little one.” This time I was sympathetic, not dismissive, because I understood that she had suffered from a mental disorder, and that it could be explained by environment, development in utero, or genetics. This information confirmed that I could close this chapter of my life, but burning in the back of my mind were questions about my own risk: What would a psychiatrist say about my mental state? What would the diagnosis be?
Our next assignment was to create a psychological profile of someone.
“You may select someone famous; this includes serial killers and others made famous by their life of crime…” Professor Delaney explained. “If you select someone whom you know personally or know through someone, say a family member, you’ll need to meet with me first before you begin your project…”
“You should do your mother,” Frankie whispered. She was joking, but I was intrigued by the idea. The more I thought about Mother as my subject, the bigger the holes in my understanding of her grew. I had her notebook, Dr. Davenport, and a phone number of someone she may or may not have known.
“I don’t know…” I said, but in some way I hoped that it would work.

By the time I had gotten to my apartment, my mind was reeling. I wondered about the memories I couldn’t access, the ones I could, how slippery they were now as truth became slanted with an aging lens. I flopped on the couch and called home. Rachel picked up, the sound of water running in the background.
“Hey, Jun” she said, half surprised. “What’s going on? How are classes?”
“Everything’s good…I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Sure,” she turned off the water. “What’s going on?”
“What was I like when I first came to live with you and dad?”
“What do you mean?”
“What was I like? Did I say anything about my mother?”
“No, you didn’t say much. I do remember you had nightmares for quite some time…you used to run out the house in the middle of the night until we put a lock up top so you couldn’t reach.”
“Did I say anything?”
“No, you just took off running. Dad went after you.”
“Sage and I used to run after Mother… I don’t remember running after Prosper Road.”
“Of course not, sweetie. You were delirious. “I hung up disappointed, resolved to call Sebastian Margolis the next morning to see if he had anything to add.
As soon as my head hit the pillow sleep pulled me into its tornado. I floated in darkness, far from peace. Sage appeared grabbing my hand as we ran through the Juniper trees. My cheeks ached with cold. We ran and ran, our breaths loud in my ear. I didn’t know what we were running towards. We just ran. Fast. Hard. In the dream I looked behind us, Sage urging me to keep running. In the distance a figure gaining on us, his words jumbled, his face blank—a sheath of skin stretched with rage.
I awoke drenched that night and the nights that followed. Every morning I called the number Dr. Davenport had given me, but no one answered. So I started calling in the evening, still no answer.
“Everything okay?” Frankie asked when I missed Psych class.
“Yeah. I’m good. I wasn’t feeling well…I’ll call you,”
Soon I was home all day calling the number every few minutes.
“Pick up…pick up…”
No other calls came through and I didn’t call any other numbers. I sat next to the phone, blinds closed, lights off. My diet was sunflower seeds, canned peaches, and graham crackers. I was consumed with the idea of reaching Sebastian Margolis, convinced that he had information that would unravel the past. It wasn’t until Frankie stopped by and knocked on the door that I snapped out of it.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me, Frankie.”
I answered, planning to make up an excuse to send her on her way, but she had a different plan. She squeezed by me and demanded I tell her what was going on. I wanted to lie, make up a story about my absence, one she’d believe and take with her back to campus.
“I’m trying to reach Sebastian Margolis…”
“That’s why you haven’t been to class all week?”
“I have to talk to him.”
“No, you need to get ahold of yourself,” she put her hands on her hips and shook her head in disbelief. “You don’t know if your mother even knew this man.”
“I have to find out.”
“I don’t think you should…you’re not…stable.”
“My life’s a mystery…”
“No, it’s not. Your life is here. You have parents that love you, who are paying for you to go to school,” Frankie reasoned. “Do they know what you’re doing?”
I looked at the phone; my fingers danced along the buttons. Still no answer. Frankie knocked the phone out of my hands, sending it sliding across the floor.
“Let’s go for a walk,” She urged, grabbing my jacket and then pushing me out the door.

The fresh air and sunlight brought me back to reality. I remembered the mounting assignments and exams to prepare for.
“You’re feeling better aren’t you?”
“Much better.”
Frankie left only after I told her I would call her in the morning, after I agreed to put the phone number away and get back to my studies. She watched me tuck the sheet of paper in a dresser drawer. I opened my literature book and read a few Edgar Allen Poe poems. But the third poem, The Valley of Unrest, made my skin prickle. I stood up and walked over to the phone. I picked it up and my fingers tapped the nine-digit number. I expected it would ring, anticipated to be soothed by its rhythm. Then a voice filled the line, soft but firm.
“Hello?”
“Hello…hi…uh, this is Juniper Price. I’m trying to reach a Sebastian Margolis. Is he in?”
“He ain’t here.”
“Do you know when he will be home?” My knees struggled to support my weight.
“No.”
“Um…can I leave a message for him?”
“I guess.”
“Whom am I speaking with?”
“People call me M.”
“M?”
“That’s right.”
“Well, M can I leave a message with you?”
“What do you want me to tell him?”
“Can you tell him that I, Juniper Price, wanted to talk with him about a woman named Marcy Hensley…he might have known her.”
“I’ll tell him.”
And that was it. The line went dead, and now I’d have to wait to see if Sebastian Margolis would return my call. I decided there in silence that I’d keep this conversation to myself.

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