As we sat, their focus shifted to him. As did mine. “It’s a beautiful night,” he said. As he spoke, I realized he was handsome. But there was no way he could be interested in me. Not when he had Alex or Sasha or especially Helen. Still, something about this felt right. He made us take a moment and listen to the crickets. It was soothing. He went on for a little while about appreciating nature and being in the moment and how so many people never do. Then, he started talking about the moon landing and how it was a toxic waste of money and resources when the government could have been putting it towards helping people in need. How the astronauts had a slim chance of survival, and how the whole thing was just worthless.
Barely audibly, under my breath, I said, “I think it’s amazing.”
I’d hoped he hadn’t heard me, but he did. “What was that?” He asked.
From the way they all immediately stared at me, I knew I’d made a mistake. But I knew I also had no choice but to say what I’d said. “I think it’s amazing. And I think NASA’s got a shot at pulling this off.” From the way his expression changed, I knew he was angry with me. But I didn’t know what I’d said or done wrong.
“Why do you think so, Deborah?” Was all he said. In that moment I forgot how to speak the English language. He remained fixated on me.
“Think on it,” he continued. He turned to the girls. “Stay here.” They nodded. Then, to me. “Let’s talk, the two of us.” He stood up and began to walk. I followed. He eventually led me towards his tent. I had no idea what was happening or what I’d done to inspire this. Still, I followed him inside.
There wasn’t much, mostly small boxes and scattered papers. There was a book. Meditations, Marcus Aurelius. As I sat down, I noticed an old photo of a young woman with long, wavy blonde hair and blue eyes and a face that closely resembled Jay’s. The woman held a baby in her arms. She seemed to be as young as me. Before I had the chance to look at it any further, he forcefully snatched it out of my hand and shoved it into his pocket.
“I’m sorry,” I said. He said nothing, but breathed heavily as he looked at me. “I’m sorry," I repeated. He continued to say nothing. “Who’s the woman in the picture?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Why did Alex and Sasha bring you here?” His tone was so accusatory that I felt incredibly unwelcome.
“I can leave, if you want,” I said. He immediately softened. “That’s not what I was suggesting. I hope you didn’t think that it was.”
I said nothing. He reached out his hand, and I took it. It was strong. Comforting. I felt safe. “I think they brought you here because they saw something in you. Something that we can help with.” He let his words sink in. In that moment, I wasn’t aware of anyone or anything else. It was only me and him. “Tell me what’s wrong, Deborah.”
I felt more relaxed now, just from him looking into my eyes and me looking into his. “It’s my mother.”
His eyes were on me know, listening to whatever I had to say.
“My dad and her got divorced two years ago,” I said nervously, not wanting to dwell on it, on the fights that I still remembered vividly. “He lives in Minnesota now. But I feel like my mom tries to control my life.”
“How does she try to control your life?”
“Treats me like a child,” I said. “Yet I still have to drop everything to help her.” Something about me trusted him, enough to tell him about Laurie. How I didn’t really have any friends other than her, and that how in the preceding months I’d sensed things were different but she’d still hit me with wanting to end our friendship out of nowhere. How my coworkers at Baskin Robbins were nice enough but no one really seemed to notice me. That on some days, the line would be out the door but I would somehow still feel so alone.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
I was unprepared for the compliment, and felt my entire face turn red.
He leaned in and kissed me. I’d imagined this moment a million times with Ken, and yet, here I was, kissing someone I’d met scarcely an hour ago. None of this made any sense at all. And he was a man and not a boy. I still wasn’t quite sure what to think of him, but I knew something about him was different.
It was when he tried to stick his tongue in my mouth that I felt my face clamp up and I pulled away.
“What’s wrong?” He asked.
“I’ve just never done that before with anyone.”
I expected him to judge me. I knew he probably thought that a lot of girls my age were experienced, and if I told him I was a virgin, that I’d never even held another boy’s hand, or had a boyfriend in my life, he’d probably figure that there was something wrong with me. But he didn’t. “It’s not anything to be afraid of,” he said.
I laughed nervously then. “Should we go out and see how the others are doing?”
“Deborah,” he said. “I’d like to help you, but you need to let go of your fear.”
I needed to let go of my fear. No one had ever told me that before, and he was bringing so much attention to it that it made me question the way I’d lived my life up until now. Still, I liked the feeling of being around him. Around the girls. They’d made me feel seen in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. “I don’t know how,” I said.
“We can be here for you,” he said. “If you’re open to us. To the truth. But that means leaving your life here behind.”
I couldn’t just leave. Or could I?
“You don’t have to be treated the way your mother treats you,” he continued. “You’re better than that.” Then, he touched my shoulder. “And if you’re not ready, we can wait.” It took me a moment to realize he was talking about sex. In my naïveté I hadn’t realized that had been his intention in taking me inside here. Still, I gave a vague nod and said nothing. The girls were at the fire still, talking amongst themselves. We sat down again and they all smiled at me. I kept looking at him, wondering if I’d made a mistake by allowing my nerves get the best of me in the tent. That maybe I did want to have sex with him.
“Our way of life,” Jay said. “It’s not something many people understand.” He then proceeded to talk about how there was a big beautiful world outside of what most people ever knew. I realized it applied to a lot of people I knew. My classmates, my coworkers, and Mother. That all they ever talked about where they’d go out on weekend nights or what jobs they were going to get or how they were going to marry their boyfriends after high school. That I always thought to myself that there had to be more to life than this. That being with Jay, being with the girls, was a validation of everything I’d been thinking and feeling the past few years. That I wasn’t the only one that felt this way.
As we talked into the night, I could see myself with them. On the road. They asked me again if this was what I wanted. I told them I had to go home and gather a few of my belongings.
Helen offered to drive me back to Baskin Robbins so I could get my bike, and Alex offered to come along. As we talked, I realized that the and I, despite them being older and more mature, had a lot in common. They were like the older sisters I never had. “I was nothing when I met Jay,” Helen told me. “It’s the best decision I ever made.”
“He’s the most wonderful person you could ever meet,” Alex added. “We hope you come with us. We’ve been all over the country.”
“I will,” I said.
Once we got to the Baskin Robbins, they told me that they’d wait for me there. I hoped Mother would be asleep but something told me that she wouldn’t be.
Sure enough, once I got home, Mother was sitting on the sofa, waiting for me.
“You have no idea how much trouble you’re in, young lady,” she said.
“I don’t care,” I said, starting towards my room. It was funny. A day ago nothing terrified me more than making her angry. Now I was apathetic. It was like in the Charlie Brown cartoons how none of the adults ever had any intelligible dialogue.
She stood up and blocked my path. “You weren’t at Laurie’s.”
“So you figured that out,” I said nonchalantly.
“Deborah Gail Stone,” Mother exclaimed. “I’m not sure where you learned this attitude but you need to cut it right now.”
She wasn’t going to miss me when I was gone. That was for sure. In fact, I was certain she’d be happier. “I’m leaving,” I said.
“No you’re not,” she said.
“Yes, I am,” I told her. “I’m tired of you controlling my life and treating me like a child.”
“Where this coming from?” She asked. There was a hint of sadness in her voice, but I pushed it away.
“I met people that actually care about me,” I said. “They like me. I won’t be a bother to them like I am to you.”
Her face fell, but I was too in my own head. “Debbie,” she said, in the voice she used to use when I was younger. “You’re not a bother.”
“There’s nothing you can do to stop me."
She was silent for a long time. “Okay,” she said. “You’ve always got a home here if you want it.” To this day, I'm surprised that she let me go so easily. But maybe she figured that I was having a tantrum and I would be back in a few days. “Good luck, Debbie.” After another long pause, she added, “I love you.” Before I could respond, she went into her room and shut the door.
I froze for a moment, realizing it had been a long time since she told me she loved me. Still, I edged towards my room, finally taking off my uniform. I changed into my green sleeveless dress and clipped my hair back into a low ponytail and began filling a bag with a few clothes. I took the stuffed bear Father got me in Paris. I took one last look at all, but didn’t allow myself to get wrapped up in it, as I knew Helen and Alex were waiting for me. I doubted that I would ever be back, but who knew.
I left my house and got back on my bike, convinced I was making the right decision. But all I could think about was my mom and how she seemed not angry but sad. How she told me she loved me. Still, I was excited about seeing Helen and Alex again. And Jay. I knew what they were going to say. That my mother’s sadness was her way of drawing me in, of keeping me trapped in a vicious cycle.
Once I arrived at Baskin Robbins, I saw them still waiting. They smiled, almost as if they didn’t expect me to actually come back.
“You look beautiful,” Alex said as I got in the car.
For the first time in my life, I felt it too.