Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and mature content.
The next morning, one day before I met Her and my first morning "out of it all," I was hesitant to open my eyes. It felt like if I did, I would be pulled back into that never-ending nightmare. Still lying on that uncomfortable cot in the cramped women's shelter. The snores of unfamiliar women filling the room, and the air stagnant and musty.
I reluctantly opened my eyes, half-expecting it all to be a dream. But no, everything was as tangible and solid as ever. I thanked God for finally being useful. Just in case I was wrong and he did exist.
Before settling into bed the night prior, I made sure the CD player was on repeat and selected Pearl Jam's Ten to lull me to sleep. This ritual had been a part of my nightly routine for more than a year. I loved that the music would seamlessly work its way into my dreams.
I blinked away the remnants of sleep. The room was bathed in a soft morning glow, and it cast a warm hue upon the baby blue duvet and red peeling wallpaper. It had been weeks - months, even - since I'd woken up without a bottomless pit in my chest.
A wooden media dresser stood a few feet across from the bed, its presence subtly demanding attention. The top left and right were occupied by two open shelves. That CD player quietly played Why Go from the right shelf. On the left side sat an old DVD player. In the center of the polished wooden surface was a TV covered in dust.
Along with a few carefully chosen outfits and necessary belongings, I also packed my favorite CDs. Ten was amongst the lucky five, alongside Little Earthquakes by Tori Amos, Back to Black by Amy Winehouse, Dirt by Alice in Chains, and Souvlaki by Slowdive.
I could hear my Aunt Tracy's voice coming from downstairs, her words following a familiar cadence as she loudly chatted away on the phone. Not wanting to join her just yet, I reached under my thigh and grabbed my iPhone 4S. It was the first birthday gift I had received since turning thirteen, when I got my portable CD player.
The luminous white display highlighted the time: nine-thirty-three on the dot. Later than usual. I was usually wide awake by five-thirty, thanks to school.
My focus then diverted to the text message notifications.
My mother had sent me several lengthy paragraphs.
A small inkling of apprehension suffused me, similar to that of a first-grader riding the school bus home after their teacher had called their parents. I rolled onto my back and mentally braced myself.
I was aware of my mother's lingering resentment towards me for leaving, and how she believed I had betrayed her. Part of me didn't want to even bother opening her messages. I had barely woken up, and the last thing I wanted to read were text messages of my mother reprimanding me for being a "terrible daughter" who had "abandoned her in her time of need."
To my surprise, it wasn't as terrible as I had expected.
The first thing she did was apologize for the chaos she caused in front of everyone when I told her I was leaving and she couldn't stop me. The way she treated me that night was the most mortifying moment of my life. The things that were said almost made me feel worse than the circumstances. Even if she had gone back to Ray for two decades, I still wouldn't have been as hurt as I was when she called me an "ungrateful, conniving little bitch."
Secondly, she declared - yet again - that she was "done for good" with alcohol. I had lost count of how many times I had heard this promise, and I had seen enough episodes of Intervention to understand that she couldn't quit without seeking professional assistance. It’d be a miracle if she went back to rehab considering she couldn't even fully acknowledge that she had a problem.
In the final messages, she made sure to tell me that she "wasn't angry with me." I appreciated the gesture, but it was insincere. She was definitely mad at me, but trying to suppress it because she felt guilty for being upset with me over something that was completely justified.
I didn't tell her any of that, though. There was no point. All it would do was cause another fight.
thx mom. i forgive u and thank u for messaging me. i love u.
For my own sake, I left it that.
I always found it hilarious and slightly insulting whenever Mom tried to talk to me like I didn’t know her at all. Just like when I was in third grade, and she was deep in her alcoholism again. Every time I asked her if she’d been drinking, even though I already knew the answer, she lied and said no. I told her I believed her. I wanted to.
Why Go wrapped up its final verse, and Jeremy began to play.
Finally, I sat up and stretched my arms above my head. The only pair of pajama pants I had packed were the ones I slept in, and Aunt Tracy kindly gave me an over-sized white t-shirt that belonged to her youngest son, Jude, who had left for college ten years before and was married with a new baby. Along with a few pairs of socks and boxers, his shirt had been sitting in the dresser waiting for someone to wear it again.
The shag carpet beneath my feet was a plush, weathered brown. Sticky, dark stains from spilled juice marred a few select places on its surface, residue of long-forgotten spills that had seeped into the fibers over time. The bedside table sat next to the bed, covered in a thick layer of dust that had settled upon it like a blanket.
I put on the socks I wore the day before and sluggishly made my way down the stairs, where Aunt Tracy was finishing up her conversation with whoever was on the other line. She was still in her pink robe with a matching bonnet on her head.
She waved from the sofa when she saw me and pointed behind her, toward the kitchen table.
Aunt Tracy had left a warm plate of scrambled eggs and toast on the smudged glass table, knowing it was my favorite breakfast. It was endearing to me that she still remembered my childhood preferences.
After sitting down at the table, I lowered my head and closed my eyes in prayer. Just as I uttered the final "amen," I could hear Aunt Tracy taking the seat opposite me and mindfully wrapping up her conversation with a few quick sentences.
I know I said that I didn't believe in God, and I didn't. When I was twelve, I decided I wanted to "strengthen my relationship with Christ," so I started going to church and reading scriptures. It didn't go how I wanted it to. I realized I didn't agree with seventy-five percent of what was in the Bible, and concluded it was easier to avoid religion altogether.
I knew the argument with Aunt Tracy wasn't worth it, so I never told her about my decision to identify as an atheist.
"Who was that?" I asked between bites of perfectly toasted bread. "Camilla?"
"No. Lena," she replied, taking a sip of her coffee. "She's the one who runs that support group I mentioned before. She wants you to go to their meeting tomorrow."
I took a drink of orange juice. "Okay," I said nonchalantly. "What time?"
A sly smile crept onto her lips. "Eleven," she answered. "And while you're there, I'll go to the Board of Education and see what needs to be done to get you back into the school system here."
I was starting to feel slightly better about the whole school situation, particularly when it came to the loneliness factor. Even without Tori by my side, there would still be familiar faces around. Maybe it wouldn't be as awful as I thought it would. Of course, I tried my best to push away thoughts of it being my first year of high school.
"I think it should be easy to get me enrolled again. I attended school here for over seven years."
Aunt Tracy took a small nibble of her banana. "I hope you're right. I haven't done this in so long. My kids graduated over a decade ago. Now that you're in high school, they'll be all over me with their paperwork and such." She messed with the silver finger ring Camilla gifted her on Mother's Day.
"How long is that support group supposed to be?" I asked, changing the subject. "Like, how many hours?"
She paused. "Probably an hour or two. Shit, I don't know, I've never been to a support group. But I want you to stay for at least half an hour."
I wondered what the hell a support group could do with two hours of time.
"You might make some new friends there," she added. "They'll all be around your age and have similar interests. It'll be great when you start school again."
I wasn't so sure about that.
She had said the same thing when she signed Nadia and I up for Girl Scouts to get us away from my mother. We were eight and five. I was in the Juniors group, and those girls were unbearable. They all had money and perfect families. It wasn’t their fault, but I couldn’t stand it. None of them wanted anything to do with me, or talk about books or movies.
Nonetheless, I was hopeful about this support group thing. Even if they were rich, at least we still had one thing in common: unhappiness.
"That's not always true," I reminded her, pushing my eggs around on my plate.
Aunt Tracy studied me intently, tapping her left thumb on the off-white glass of her coffee mug.
"I can't keep making excuses for you, Donna," she finally huffed. "Can I be honest with you?"
I looked up at her. "I'd rather you were."
"I don't think that the issue is that you don't fit in. I think you just...," her hands gestured vaguely as she struggled to find the right words. "I think you just don't try. You're not very talkative or outgoing. That can make people uncomfortable. It's not that they don't want to be your friend, it's just that you intimidate them."
I couldn't tell if calling me intimidating was supposed to be a compliment or not, but there was nothing flattering about being intimidating at nine years old.
My fork clinked as I dropped it onto the plate. "Let's pretend I am the most extroverted person on Earth. Hypothetically. Because I used to be. Do you know the kinds of things people say to an extroverted kid with autism? Things like 'you're so obnoxious' or 'shut up, nobody wants to hear you talk' or 'can you stop smiling and talking so much, you're annoying.' I just can’t win. Ever. In anything.”
As expected, she rolled her eyes indifferently at the mention of my autism. I knew she was going to do that. I wouldn't have expected anything less from someone as conservative and, frankly, close-minded as Aunt Tracy.
"When you were with me, you got an ADHD diagnosis, and I’ve known you your whole life. That's all I know, so that's what I'm going with. Putting that aside, there are many people with ADHD who are perfectly social." She took another drink of her coffee. "I just don't think you're being reasonable about this."
My eyebrows furrowed together. "I was nine years old having people tell me to shut the eff up. When I was eleven, my teacher told Mom that she thinks I'm retarded and need an IEP. I know you remember that.” I was careful not to sound disrespectful or aggressive. "Aunt Tracy."
She finished her banana without even glancing in my direction, as if I everything I was saying wasn’t worth her attention.
I kept talking. I had too much to say, even if it didn't mean anything to her. “I don't think there's any amount of socialization that will make people less uncomfortable with me. All I've wanted since elementary school is to be liked. I've never been a mean girl, I've never been rude. Then the only girl who's ever understood me moved away. I don't think I'll ever have another friendship like that."
"I think you're smart enough to know that you don't have to let your 'disorder,'" in air quotes, "or whatever the hell you would call it, control your life." She stood from her seat. "And that's all I'm going to say about it."
Fine. That's all I wanted to hear, anyway.
Feeling defeated, I propped my chin up with my hand and continued picking at my breakfast. The taste of toasted bread crumbs persisted in my mouth as Aunt Tracy casually tossed her banana peel into the trash.
"Put on your clothes from yesterday when you're done eating," she instructed me, now preparing to load the dishwasher. "We’re going to Walmart."
I watched my reflection in the side-view mirror of Aunt Tracy's red Honda Civic as I tightened the low afro puff in the back of my head. It was all I could do; I didn't have any hair products.
"Oh, look," Aunt Tracy pointed out. "They're building a new CVS."
As I glanced to my right, I noticed a massive building under construction. A group of workers were busy inside the metal framework, while others were toiling away on the pavement outside.
"I can't imagine living next to that."
The mere thought of being engulfed in a sea of construction noise made my stomach churn with unease. The constant drone and hammering would undoubtedly send my sensory issues into overdrive. Another reason why I hated living in a big city.
Aunt Tracy turned the car to the left of Walmart's entrance and parked in the lot.
"Let's hope the Walmart workers are more helpful than the CVS ones," she muttered, turning off the engine.
"What do you mean?"
She shook her head. "The one in Elizabeth is the worst. I went in there one day when they were having a sale and I needed something, and all the workers were standing around laughing and goofing off instead of doing their job.”
Imagining Aunt Tracy getting pissed off at the Walmart employees for also laughing and goofing off brought a mischievous smirk to my face.
"Well, I guess you know who not to go to."
The chilly November air bitterly nipped at my face while we walked toward the entrance.
"You didn't bring a coat," Aunt Tracy noticed.
"It's fine," I insisted, crossing my arms. "We'll be inside."
She didn't look too convinced, but didn't say anything else about it.
The two of us strolled into the store, the automatic doors sliding open.
The inside of Walmart was busy and crowded, shelves lined with endless rows of products and people rushing about with shopping carts.
Aunt Tracy weaved through the congested aisles, and I trailed after her. It had been a long time since my last visit to Walmart. The previous trip had been with Ray, and he was in a sour mood, nitpicking every little thing. It felt like tagging along with a grumpy toddler.
"Okay, so let's get you some clothes. Today, we'll just do a week's worth of sweaters and jeans. Then you need hair products and underwear, and we can get you some pads, too. You track your period?"
"No," I answered, my eyes darting back and forth between the clothing racks. "I usually get my first day around the twenty-fifth, then my last on the twenty-ninth."
"Camilla and I's used to sync up," Aunt Tracy chuckled. "We were in pain together."
"Mom's were long, but irregular," I said, scanning the racks for a sweater I liked. "And it didn't start until she was thirteen."
"That's normal," Aunt Tracy remarked. "What size is your waist? Shit, I should've measured it."
I tried not to laugh. Hearing her swear was akin to finding a saint’s prayer book filled with profanity. Just fucking ironic.
"Twenty seven inches,” I told her. “I’ve measured it.”
"Okay. I'm gonna look for jeans. Go pick out four sweaters. Any style."
She strode past me and wandered toward the pants section, leaving me alone in the middle of the sweater aisle.
This was the first time anyone had bought me new clothes in a long time. The only times I ever got new clothes was during tax return season or right before the new school year. Mom had gotten me some stuff at Goodwill for Christmas a few years ago, but nothing brand-new.
The first sweater I grabbed was a soft, knitted green pullover.It felt soft and plush under the fingers, like a newborn lamb's wool. Next, I chose a black cardigan that looked like it would be great for layering. It was made of a soft, fine knit fabric, with elegant buttons running down the front. It hung loosely on the figure and fell just above the hips.
Afterwards, I picked a cream-colored woolen number with long sleeves. The color was a soft off-white, its fabric thick and cozy with a slight sheen. It had long sleeves that reached past the wrists and was adorned with intricate carved buttons in a matching color.
My final choice was a white neutral sweater. The fabric was a blend of cotton and wool, soft to the touch and smooth against the skin. It felt lightweight and airy, yet still cozy and warm.
I walked over to join Aunt Tracy by the jeans, carrying the sweaters I had picked out. She was carefully inspecting several pairs of jeans in different styles, holding them up to the light to examine the fabric.
"What kind do you like?" She asked. "Slim? Bootcut? Stretch?"
"Any will work," I answered. "But I love bootcut jeans."
"Perfect." She placed the stack of jeans in our cart, then gestured for me to follow her.
Just as we were getting ready to leave, I caught a glimpse of someone I knew looking through the discounted items on the rack.
Holy fucking shit.
It was Michael Kennedy. Tori's father.
I couldn't contain my eagerness as I called out, "Mike?!"
Mike, donning a heavy, brown wool coat and worn out jeans, shifted his gaze towards us.
Aunt Tracy gave me a gentle prod, reminding me to address him as Mr. Kennedy. I ignored her. He told me multiple times as a kid to call him Mike.
"It's Donna!" I called out. "Tori's best friend!"
"Donna Haley?” He began walking to us, pushing a small cart. "And Tracy? God, it's been so long."
Aunt Tracy greeted him with a polite, slightly forced smile. "It's been a while, Mr. Kennedy," she said cordially.
"How's Tori?!" I asked, practically jumping up and down. "Is she doing well?"
"Great." He adjusted the baseball cap on his caramel-toned, bald head. "She's back with me, now, actually."
My eyes widened. Did that mean she was in Elizabeth?
"Really?! How is she? Why is she back? Is she going to Union County High?!"
Aunt Tracy rested a hand on my back and said in a low voice, "One at a time, Donna."
Mike cleared his throat. "Yeah, she's… she’s at Uni on County.” The poor man spoke like he was in a tired fog. “She's really thriving there. She was terrified of starting high school, but she's loving it so far. And, we're doing much better."
The sense of relief that washed over me was indescribable. Any hesitation I had about leaving my mother behind vanished in an instant.
"I'm sure she'll be happy to hear you're back," he added. "I'm glad you're staying with Tracy."
I responded with a closed smile. "Me, too."
"Are you coming back to the county, or are you gonna stay in the city? I saw your mother making all those posts on Facebook."
Of course he had. My mother posted every single inconvenience on Facebook for the entire world to see.
Aunt Tracy answered before I could even open my mouth. "She's staying with me. It'll be nice to have her around."
He nodded. "I’m sure Tori will be happy to see you, Donna."
"We should arrange a day for the girls to hang out." Her tone was slightly impatient. "Maybe for Thanksgiving break. They're both in high school now, after all."
Mike nodded again, shifting his weight slightly. "Right. Well, I better get back to it. Nice seeing you both."
"Yeah, you too," Aunt Tracy responded. "Take care of yourself, Mike."
"It was nice to see you, too," I said softly.
He gave us one final wave before gripping onto the handlebar of his overflowing shopping cart and continuing to trudge through the crowded aisles.
"God, that's Mike?" Aunt Tracy bemoaned as we went about our way, walking towards the bra and underwear section. "He looks terrible."
I watched Mike maneuver his cart to the aisle next to ours and frowned for him.
"He's probably just going through a lot."
She scoffed dismissively. "Yeah, we all 'go through a lot,' you're not supposed to let it show once you hit a certain age. Especially not when you have kids. I hope Tori isn't watching him mope around like a sad puppy dog all day. She'll end up like him."
We paused at the section with the teen underwear. I walked a few steps ahead of the shopping cart to browse the selection.
Then, I crouched down in front of the display of Fruit of the Loom products and wondered aloud, "Maybe he doesn't know how to talk about what he's going through."
Aunt Tracy leaned against the cart and crossed her arms. The disapproval was beyond evident on her face.
"Not an excuse," she said sternly. "You know how many times I had to suck it up for my kids' sake? He needs to do the same. I know how it feels to have a parent that's constantly depressed. I mean, Jesus, get a therapist. Their job is to listen. I get depression and stuff, but at a certain point, you have to do something about it."
The more she talked, the more uncomfortable I felt.
"Yeah, I know."
"I can't tell you how many times I had to pretend like everything was fine. Camilla had a lot of friends that would invite her places and tell me all about it, while I just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. I sucked it up because I never wanted her to feel like she had to keep things from me because I was 'too depressed,' or whatever."
I was only partially paying attention to her. Trying to reason with Aunt Tracy's ignorance was meaningless. Once she made up her mind about something, there was no changing it.
"I can't tell you how many times I would come home from work, take off my shoes, and cry myself to sleep because of how much stress I was under," she went on. "Sometimes, Camilla would come and ask if I was okay. I couldn't even tell her what was wrong."
I rose to my feet and grabbed two packs of neutral colored underwear, dropping them into the shopping cart in one swift motion.
"So, yes, Mike needs to do the same." Aunt Tracy shifted the cart to make room for another customer who was walking towards the aisle. "No matter how bad things are."
"Yeah," I responded noncommittally. "I get that."
Obviously, I didn't get it at all. Nothing she was saying made any sense. But maybe that was because I was just a "sensitive little girl" who "didn't know anything about life." That's what Ray always said. Sometimes I wondered if it was true.
Adults know exactly how hard life can get, I remember thinking, yet still have no idea at all.