May 5, 2011
I SHOVE MY DAUGHTER, Amy, and an overnight bag into my brother's arms.
Amy’s frightened blue eyes pierce my heart. At five-years-old, I realize this sudden sleepover with her uncle scares her. So, I brush her hair away from her eyes, smooth a thumb along her cheek, and plant a kiss on her forehead while my brother scoops her into his arms.
"I need a break, I'm too mad at you for you to stay here."
"It's my house," Brandon says. "Why don't you go somewhere else for a few nights?"
Amy has confusion written all over her little face. It tugs my heartstrings in a way no mother should experience.
I feel like dirt.
But… If I keep acting this way, could it hurt her more in the future?
That's why I'm doing this. I can't act so erratic and take care of my baby girl at the same time. Brandon will understand. Or, he should. Single Moms deserve breaks.
I'm not being selfish.
That's what I keep telling myself, anyway.
"I'm so far beyond stressed out right now, I don't know what to tell you. I need a few nights to myself. You know I don't have the money to get a hotel."
"You have friends," Brandon says, rolling his eyes. "Go stay with Kathleen or even Elise—"
My blood pressure is so high, it pounds in my head. A sure sign a headache is about to start. A hammering head is the absolute last thing I need right now. Brandon stares at me. He knows better than to make me angrier. I haven't been this upset since I found out I got pregnant with Amy.
Our mother had voiced her disapproval of Jay, and my decision to drop out of college at the age of nineteen. I'd never ended a conversation with my mother with a screaming match, but it happened that day. Things still feel tense with Mom, even though she loves my little girl to pieces.
"Do you really not know, Brandon? Are you that thick headed?"
Brandon stares at me, clearly baffled. Amy whines and Brandon bounces her to adjust his grip. His baffled stare just pisses me off more.
"You're a damn fool!"
Raising my voice startles my daughter. She clutches onto Brandon, her eyes widening at me.
Is it possible to feel lower than dirt?
I take in a deep breath to calm down. It's not good for anyone if I start yelling at my brother. I'd love nothing more than to scream at him, but I've got to think of the little girl in his arms. My jaw is clenched so I don’t haul off and start shouting at him, and my heart beats so fast, I feel the blood whooshing around the base of my skull. My hands are also shaking—this is the one time I wish I was selfish enough to be a smoker.
"It's because she's so upset with you. She's talking about moving somewhere else. Up and leaving," I snap my fingers, "just like she did when she married that asshole, Dickie. She was serious, Brandon. I'm begging you to fix this." I grab his hand. "My relationship with Jay was a terrible one… I admit it. I can admit it now. Elise is a good woman. You'll never find another one like her. I'm not just saying this because she's one of my friends now. You love her. Don't toss that away because you're a chicken shit."
I pull my hand away from my brother. He must think I'm acting all kinds of crazy right now. Maybe I am. No normal sister freaks out on her brother like this in front of her daughter.
"Mommy?" Amy asks. "What's wrong?"
She has turned around, and wiggles so her uncle lets her down. She takes my hand and pats it.
"Nothing, baby girl."
I sniff and kneel next to my daughter.
I smooth back her black hair.
Wipe some chocolate from her cheek that I missed earlier.
Check to make sure her shoelaces are tied right.
"I promise, baby. Nothing is wrong."
"You promise, Mommy? Really, really promise? 'Cause, you can't lie. Lying is baaaad."
This little girl tugs at my heart in so many ways, I don't think I'll ever be able to find the words for how much I love her.
"I promise, baby. Why don't you go get into Uncle Brandon's car and wait for him? We need to talk."
Amy glanced up to her uncle. "Should I?"
My baby has such an amazing vocabulary for a five-year-old. I promised myself when I had her that I wouldn't ever let her struggle with school. I might have dropped out of college, but she will have everything she wants.
If she wants to be a writer, she will be. If she wants to go into a specialized trade, she will. If she wants to take a gap year, well, I'll have to be okay with that, won't I? She'll have her gap year. Hell, I'll bust my ass to make sure she can travel all over the world if that's what she wants. I'll go back to school and get a better job than my brother's assistant at his auto shop. I'll become a goddamn marine biologist if that will give my daughter what she needs to succeed in life.
"Want to go see Uncle Neal? I know we drove him crazy last night, but he'll love seeing you again," he asks my daughter.
"Yes!" She squeals happily and rushes for the front door without protest, chanting, "hero hair, hero hair, hero hair!"
An odd smile tugs at my lips. Neal absolutely hates it when Brandon tells him he has hero hair. Brandon does it, anyway, since Neal loves his hair gel. I tease him that he'll be someone's McDreamy one day.
I mean, it's only natural because my youngest brother wants to be a surgeon.
And, come on, Grey's Anatomy is an awesome show.
I can't help but make comparisons.
"I'm not leaving her for long," Brandon says. "Make this fast. Why the hell are you kicking me out of my own house? What me and Elise have going on isn't any of your business."
"Well, fine," I say. "Then it's not my business. Be a damn fool. Ruin one of the best things you could ever have. I meant it when I said it—I need some space; to be by myself. I'm sick and tired of seeing you and Elise break each other's hearts. Either leave each other the hell alone or fuck already. For all I care, elope then keep having your stupid fight! I just need to be alone tonight."
"You two need to grow up."
It's easier for me to fixate on my brother and his failed relationship with his former best friend. His ex-lover. The girl he's pined for ever since they met, but never did anything about because he is a chicken shit. He knows I think he’s a chicken shit. I don't care if I'm repeating myself. He's a big, fat, cowardly chicken shit.
Brandon sighs. Gives me a hug. He must know what I'm thinking. Either that or I'm totally off the ball. I get the sense that maybe he does think I'm crazy, but he's being polite about it. Well, that's what he gets for always pulling me into his drama with his romantic life.
"You don't have to make excuses. It's okay. I get it."
"Good, then you'll leave me alone?"
"Just promise you'll stay off the phone with Jay? I'll leave then. You won't have to explain yourself… and take it easy on the Sailor Jerry's."
My eyes darted away from his face, and I step back, uncomfortable.
Good Lord. Brandon doesn't even know. He doesn't realize Jay isn't the only major stress in my life right now.
"Okay!" I cross my heart. "I will! Don't worry! I'll be fine. I'll ignore his stupid ass. He ain't got any reason to contact me, anyway."
Brandon sighs. From relief or exasperation, I'm not sure.
I point my finger at the bottle that already sits on the coffee table. "But the rum? No can do. I'm getting my ass drunk. Then, I'm finding as many reruns as I can of The O.C. and binging.
"Ain't no changing my mind, so don't waste your breath, Brandon."
He turns, frustrated. He knows I can't be reasoned with. I'm beyond reason. At least I'm not going to act crazy and go to a bar or anything.
"Fine, just don't break anything."
I roll my eyes.
"Of course, I won't break anything."
He sighs. "Fine…" Then, he adds one last thing. "And Gwen?"
"What?" I snap. "I promise I won't puke on the couch, either."
He seems like he wants to say something about that, but instead, he says, "Sophie is really just a friend. Elise sent me into another panic…"
He shields his face from my onslaught of nails. I shriek in frustration. Shriek at him that what happens between him and Elise wasn't any of my business. Brandon knows better.
"You're a big, dumb man!"
"Go on, get out! Take care of my daughter, and if I hear another word about that blonde bitch, I may just bust my own ear drums!"
I heave when I slam the door shut.
It isn't that I have anything against Sophie Riddle.
She's kind of cool.
But she is a thing—a person—that is coming between my brother and his happiness.
And the thing that sends me into a spiral of crazy over how much men suck.
TAKE A CHILL PILL.
The lid from my bottle of Sailor Jerry's lands on the coffee table next to the small baggies of Valium and Percocet.
I might as well not lie to myself. It's oxycodone. I straight-up purchased oxy. Or PP, that's what the creepy dude who sold it to me called it. The baggies sing to me like sirens, daring me to break the staple holding them together. To pop one of the pills.
I stare, blinking, unable to think. Brandon would kick my ass if he knew what I spent my money on.
Shaking my head, I decide to block out that I did something very illegal in favor of pouring myself three shots into my brother's novelty Star Wars shot glasses.
Brandon has no idea how much those pills would help me.
He would flip his shit. I mean, I don't know if there would be literal shit-flipping, because gross. But there would be yelling. Asking me why. Reminding me about my daughter. Trying to reason with me.
Neal would immediately throw my ass in rehab, no questions asked, after Brandon finished his shit-flipping.
Mom would cry.
Mae would laugh, invite me to her Dad's for better liquor, all to get me away from my self-inflicted solitude. The drinks would be free. She'll tell my brothers to "calm their tits" then flush the pills down the toilet.
No big deal, she would say, before handing me a giant margarita.
She did it for me six weeks ago. She'd do it for me again if I asked; my unofficial sponsor when my life spirals out of control.
Elise would stare at me in shock and ask why.
I'm not too sure what Kat would do. She might steal my spiced rum. That wouldn't be too smart on her part. I'm sure the bitch wouldn't want to get hit upside the head with a beer bottle again. I wonder if my Sailor Jerry's bottle would shatter easier than a Guinness one.
I knock back the first shot.
At least I stopped crying. It seems like all I do anymore is cry when I have time to myself, and crying so much gets exhausting fast. The Valium will calm me down, and the PP will stop my pain; old battle wounds from giving birth to a big baby who spent months pressing against my sciatic nerve. I used to take Valium daily while I went to college in New York. I'd depended on those tiny pills once, and it would be so easy to fall into the addiction again.
I'm going to hell.
No, not hell.
I am not going back down this path.
What I want to do is relax. Enjoy my time alone in the house. Privacy isn't something I get to enjoy since I moved in with my brother and daughter. Wait—who am I kidding? I'm a mommy. I never have any privacy.
Baby, I'm coming home.
I grab my phone. Like hell that's happening.
No, ur not, Jay, I immediately texted back.
Don't u love me?
That's the million-dollar question, isn't it?
I lock my phone, staring at it. Jay Hively has some real nerve contacting me. The bastard took off in the middle of the night and didn't tell me where he was going. He left me with bills I couldn't pay and a daughter who kept asking me, "Where did Daddy go?" With a shriek, I toss my phone to the floor. I'll be damned if I'm not through listening to his excuses.
Nag, lie, make apologies—that's all that man ever does, and I'm beyond nauseous.
I won't keep torturing myself with the same heartache anymore.
I sure as hell refuse to put Amy through it.
My daughter is the main reason I haven't touched the baggies.
She doesn't need a drugged-up Mommy.
No matter what I do, I can't get Jay to understand why I finally ended our relationship. It wasn't only that he abandoned us. I have so many reasons why Jay and I are no longer good for each other that it makes me sick to my stomach.
Jay needs to know the truth. I'm not sure how to tell him without his anger getting out of control. He can't come back to Kentucky. It's like I can finally live again since he left. I have my freedom back. Amy is happier.
If Jay knew the truth about my daughter's birth certificate, maybe he would move on.
Release me from the emotional baggage he has used to drag me down to his level for so many years.
That's if he doesn't turn into a raging, jealous, bipolar, asshole.
Sadly, I expect nothing less from him.
My second drink misses my mouth completely and splashes to the floor when the loud, frantic knocking starts.
I jump up, wiping the rum from my lap with a blanket.
The knocking continues. I don't want to answer the door. Everyone knows not to bother me. Neal respects my wishes. Brandon tried calling only once, but I shot a text to him, telling him to piss off because I can't handle his drama with Elise anymore. That's why I kicked him out of his own house and told him to take care of my daughter. At least our younger brother has the decency to know I need an adult time-out; one that includes a lot of soap opera binging and drinking.
No one knows about the pills.
Am I even more guilty if I need to keep reminding myself that?
I throw my journal over them.
"Who is it? I ask.
The tone of my voice is bitchy.
Good; maybe whoever it is will get the hint and leave me alone.
Shit, shit, shit.
Charlie can't be here. I told him he can't keep doing this. It's not healthy.
Grabbing the baggies, I shove them into my bra. Charlie might come inside and I can't risk him nosing around in the house. He's another one who will flip his shit if he sees the pills. He'll help Neal drag my ass into rehab. Grabbing the rum, I take a deep, long pull. The sting against the back of my throat is welcome. Weirdly pleasant. If I'm going to deal with Charlie's ass, I need to be well and good on my way to inebriation. I set the bottle down, tucking and pulling on my left boob to get the Valium and PP to sit right.
Why the hell is he here? About a month ago I told him to leave me alone or shove a wrench up his ass, and we haven't talked since. He no longer spared me a second glance when we worked together at Brandon's shop, only barking orders when he needed something. I hid my disdain for him the past month by flipping him off when he wasn't looking. Brandon noticed once, and told me to act more professional, but Charlie did not deserve to see my mature side since I hated his guts. My brother could go moon over his long-lost love. If I want to be a bitch, I will be an immature bitch.
"What?" I yank the door open. "If you need me to order another batch of tires, that can wait until the weekend is over."
"Jesus. You smell like a brewery," Charlie says.
So, I might have stolen three of Brandon's beers from the fridge before I pulled out the spiced rum.
I try to slam the door in his face. His long, thick fingers dart between the frame and the door, stopping me an inch before I can lock it with the deadbolt. Bastard is not ruining my private party.
I open it a bit further.
"Be reasonable here, Gwen."
His steel-toed boot intercepts the door before I really smash his fingers. "Stop. Christ. Brandon wasn't kidding when he said you're in a bad mood."
Oh, hell no.
I swing the door open.
"And your pointing this out to me right now is a good reason why…?"
"We need to talk."
I shut the door against his foot again. I don't want to look at him. I can't. I think about things that make my head go crazy and fuzzy. He has always done this to me and I can't handle it right now. He respects my space. Doesn't try to get inside. Let's me rest the door against his foot.
"My offer about shoving that wrench up your ass is still good."
We glare at each other through the crack. I don't intimidate Charlie one bit, and we both know it.
His skin hasn't aged a day in the past six years. The line of his jaw seems more defined, somehow. Maybe it's our age now, and because we're standing so close to each other, it's something that can't go unnoticed. If anything, being out of the army softened Charlie up. His muscles are still well-defined. I guess that kind of thing is hard to let go when you work on cars for a living. I would bet my next check that he kept the six-pack too. He wore his hat from the military quite often. He has it on now. I've stolen it from him a few times. Those boys don't know how to clean up after themselves in the shop, so I enjoy retaliation by hiding Charlie's hat. My favorite place was underneath the filing cabinet in the office. I wish he would go back to buzz cutting his hair. It might make him less fucking attractive. He stands like a solid six-foot wall compared to my tiny five-foot-four.
Charlie takes off his hat and pulls his boot from the door so he can shuffle his feet. I keep it cracked open, watching him. I can't remember a time when this man was ever nervous. He'd been in the Iraq war. Nothing shakes him.
I take that back. He is jumpy about fireworks. I wasn't there for him when he got back from the war. It's not like I can pinpoint if being skittish around a couple of fire crackers could really be considered PTSD. I know it happens. I can't even let Amy send off those little paper poppers kids go crazy over when Charlie is around.
His hair touches the middle of his ears, gel-free. Sometimes, I tease him and Nealson about their hair care products. Those boys know way more about it than I do.
Still, it's hard not to wonder what Charlie would do if I ran my hand through his hair. Is it as soft as it looks?
"Why are you still here?"
"I want to talk."
"I've lived back in Kentucky way longer than you have. Why do—"
"You threaten me with bodily harm every time I try to talk to you!"
"You're a big military man." I flashed my eyebrows at him suggestively, just to be a bitch. "You can deal."
"Well, we've needed to talk."
"I find that hard to believe. When you need to talk to me lately, it's usually about ordering a part for a car."
"I-I know that."
I've never seen this man stumble over his words the entire time I've known him.
His frustration humbles me and I drop my shoulders, leaning my head against the door for a minute. He waits, patiently. I no longer wish I could crush his foot. Listening to him won't be that awful, will it?
I open the door all the way. He sighs, shifts his feet.
"What's up, Charlie?"
"Gwen, I'm in love with you."
I slam the door in his face.
Not today, Satan.
Charlie's undying profession of love is the last thing I need to hear when I'm on my way to black-out land. Or, thinking about taking the pills stuffed into my bra. Or ever, really, because why do I need to put myself through anything when it comes to this man?
I try to think about what I can say to him. I'm worried that I'll have to hurt him to make him go away. I've done it before, and I'm not unwilling to hurt him again if it means he will knock this nonsense off. Why? Why is he telling me this now? Especially, after I spent an entire month making it clear that I can't stand the sight of him?
I think my mistake was not smashing his fingers.
Make an ex go away 101: Threaten Bodily Harm with Cast Iron Skillets or Finger Smashing.
Okay. Not really. But it's the thought that counts, right?
I take a deep breath. I know I'm acting ridiculous. If I was any kind of mature adult, I'd listen to what he had to say…
But I just can't.
Charlie starts banging on the door again. I close my eyes and lock the deadbolt. I'm not startled this time. I won't get spooked by anything. He doesn't get to scare me.
I told myself a long time ago that I wouldn't let someone do that to me ever again.
"Go away, Charlie!"
"Are you serious? I thought that's why you were so pissed!" More door banging. "Gwen, fuck. Why?"
"Our ship sailed a long time ago! It's not worth it! Do you want me to keep breaking your heart? I will, Charlie! Haven't you figured out I'm bad for you by now?"
"Gwen, baby, I don't care about any of that!"
His voice sounds low—broken, after he yells. He quickly resorts to pleading with me to open the door. I can't do it. I just can't. Opening this door means I'll get into a world of trouble and I'd rather let him scream himself hoarse. It's not like we have many neighbors around that will want to call the police for a noise disturbance. I squeeze my eyes together. I should have expected this. It shouldn't surprise me as much as it does.
Fuck. Double fuck. Of all the fucking things in the world, he needs to go ahead and make this life-changing declaration six years too late.
I can't keep stalling this.
This is so hard to say to him.
"Well, I do! It's too late! Respect me when I tell you that!" I pause. Steel myself. I'm an iron-jawed bitch, as Elise likes to call herself when she's in the middle of a fight with my brother. "You can love me all you want! I don't love you back!"
"Okay…" he says. A different kind of knock against the door this time; like he's resting his head against the door. What the hell? I thought that would make him finally go away. This man is about as thick as a dung beetle. “You might not want to listen to me, but I'll talk through the door anyway."
My phone starts ringing. It's Jay's ringtone, a bitter love-song that I hate every time I hear it. It's my way of stopping myself from answering the phone.
All I want to do tonight is relax.
Guess that's too much to ask for.