This place is cold.
I wish that I could say that it’s the wintry mix still coating the streets or the murky sky with its pasty gray tones that seems to eat up all of the color in the world, but those aren’t it. It’s cold because this building is monstrous and looming, its edges sharp and withered, its fences lined with razors, and everything about it makes me feel like there’s no cheer left in the world. It’s like at any moment the shadows will start to writhe and hell itself will come pouring forth.
Somewhere inside of there are murderers and thieves, pedophiles and rapists.
Somewhere in there are drug dealers.
Somewhere inside of there is a woman that I never wanted to see again, a woman who in one way or another belongs with those kinds of people, those kinds of demons, because that’s who she is on a fundamental level.
Somewhere inside of there is the woman who unfortunately gave birth to me.
I pull into one of the empty spaces and put the car in park, the windshield wipers squeaking against the glass in quick succession. I could have turned them off over a mile ago when the sleet stopped, but something about the repetition is almost soothing, almost as if I keep hoping that each pass over the surface will clear away some of the frigid tendrils curling up my spine in anticipation.
But they are powerless against the truth.
And the truth is that this place, this situation, isn’t supposed to be hopeful. This place and this situation aren’t supposed to be vibrant and inviting. No one is supposed to want to come here or deal with this. And I sure as fuck don’t.
I glance down at the stick shift and know that I could easily slide it into drive and just pull away. But I also know that if I do that, this year will mean nothing. I chose to face her first because I want it over with. I want to be done with her once and for all. And I keep trying to convince myself that I don’t need to do this. That she’s been up in that attic for years, forgotten and untouched, but I know the truth.
I know because I can’t lie to myself.
This woman is where it all started. This woman who brought me into the world still holds power over my future, because she may yet take me out of it. The truth is that she is the crux of everything that I’ve ever hated about my life.
She taught me to hate life.
She taught me to hate myself.
She taught me to steal.
She taught me to run away.
And mostly, she taught me what it’s like to fear death.
She taught me all of these things before I was ten years old, and all because they are all that she knew.
To ignore her is impossible while I draw breath. And to face her is to confront some demons that will never really be banished. Her mark on my life is deep, the wound festering, and if I don’t go through this, if I don’t cut it open and clean the infection out, I will lose any reason to live if such a thing is even an option for me.
I pull the crumpled list from my inside jacket pocket and look at the weary scrawl on its crinkled surface. A year of tick marks is what my future has been reduced to. What I hope to achieve or find at the end of this journey, I’m not even sure. I guess, I’m just desperate to hope at all.
And this is what my eighteen-year-old mind called burying the hatchet. I just hadn’t realized that I would be burying it in my own heart.
It’s going to hurt.
And I don’t want to hurt.
But then what I want doesn’t matter. I hurt anyway. I always do. I always have. I guess it’s more poignant to say that I don’t want others to see that hurt. I want to keep it hidden. My pain is for my eyes only. But I don’t have a choice but to do this in a public place.
Can I hold it together long enough to get it over with and get out of there?
I don’t know.
I turn the engine off and glance at the empty seat next to me and wish that Spencer were sitting there. Both she and Kyla had offered to be here with me, to help me take this first step – this most important step.
But I had said that I wanted to do this alone, that I had to face this myself. And they bought that pretty, prepackaged lie easily. Why wouldn’t they? How could they have known that I just didn’t want them to see me crumble, to be here when I fell apart and lost it?
And I knew that I was going to lose it. I’m not even inside of the building yet and something beneath my skin is already crawling as if it’s trying to get out. I know that I’m going to go in there, and I’m going to lay it all at her feet, and when I walk away, if I’m not alone, the minute that I look into a pair of sympathetic eyes, I’ll break down. And I don’t want to break down. I sure as fuck don’t want pity.
What I want is to go to my hotel room and inhale that bottle of patron that I bought earlier until I’m so sloppy that I don’t remember the entire evening.
It’ll be over.
I just want it to be over.
And now, the more that I think about these things, the angrier that I become.
It shouldn’t be this way…
Is it weak or selfish to think why me?
Maybe, but that’s how I feel. I don’t understand what I did to deserve this in my life. I don’t understand why I have to go through any of this.
It’s not fucking fair…
And that does it; now I feel like an idiot because I’m slamming my fists against a steering wheel that can’t feel any of these things. It’s just there, and I need something to hurt the way that I do.
I don’t want to hurt anymore…
I pull my keys from the ignition and crumple the list, chucking it into the depths of the rental as I nearly hurl myself through the door and slam it shut. I feel like there’s fire under the soles of my feet and they eat up the ground quickly with my short stride. I’m so over this shit, and if I can hold on to this anger, I know that I can do this.
It’s almost like a safety net.
And before I know it, I’m at the reception area and I’m scribbling my name on the sign-in sheet. The African American woman behind the counter is wholly unaffected by my mood. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that she’s bored.
“Sit and wait. We’ll call you in a while,” she says in a monosyllabic tone, and I find a good corner to seethe in as I take in my surroundings.
The nondescript, muted interior is little better than the outside. It reminds me of an early 80s train station bathroom with its rubber coated floors and the hard, plastic yellow chairs that line the walls. Everything is stained with age and the smell is revolting. I know it well. It smells like a hospital – a pungent tincture of urine mixed with Lysol.
Some of the other waiters are obviously tweaked out. I can tell by the way that they claw at themselves, how they’re frighteningly thin, their skin wrinkled and scarred, and how they sniffle and swipe at their noses. Some are just obviously unwashed and emotionally vacant as they stare placidly at the floor, and some appear to be appalled to be here. They must be newcomers like me. Either way, there is a mix of every ethnicity.
A woman is sitting in the corner holding three young children as she clutches at her pregnant stomach, and I wonder why she’d spend her Saturday crying in a cold foyer for someone who obviously didn’t care about her enough to just make better choices.
Why does she choose to forgive, to be here for some lout?
Is it strange of me to say that I almost envy her? I mean, her situation is obviously pretty terrible, but somehow, she’s retained her compassion.
I watch as she stands and wipes at her eyes, and her kids seem to perk up as well, as if they’ve done this enough times to know the drill. The oldest girl, maybe eight, looks me in the eyes and I see so much of myself in her. There’s this imperceptible moment of understanding that passes between us. This thing that dwells behind her brown orbs is easy to recognize when you’ve lived it, even as it’s impossible to give a name to.
She’s shut in, the eldest, the one helping her mother raise a family that she has absolutely no control over or say in. She has that look of knowing too much and being destroyed by that very knowledge. She tends to her siblings, and as a dysfunctional family, they all shuffle to the guard at the now open door next to the receptionist.
She’s a severe looking woman with a thick waist and arms. Her hair looks odd with its curls pulled into a feminine coif against her hardened face, and the starched lines of her masculine uniform bend oddly around her curves.
“Single file,” she booms out as the anticipatory queue forms in front of her.
And I have to fight to hold onto my anger because something else is flushing my system as I realize that it’s time. It’s confusing me, and I grasp at my ire, trying desperately to hold onto it because without it, I won’t be able to do this.
I glance over at the door that leads away from this place and I really want to run. In fact, I need to.
I just, I can’t do this…
I shouldn’t have to do this.
I make my way back to the door and grip the handle but something inside of me stops me. I feel like I’m pushing on the door but it’s unresponsive. My own limbs are unresponsive. I can feel my lungs struggle to keep up with my ever growing need for air. I feel like I might suffocate and I’m helpless as I stand here paralyzed. And then it’s back, that anger that I so desperately need, because I’m so tired of feeling so helpless, so hopeless.
I glance back at the guard and she looks to me with what must be a patently bored expression for all who work in this place of despair.
“Are you comin’ or not,” she asks.
There’s a moment where my tongue joins the rest of my body in its inability to function. And it’s long enough that she shrugs and moves to shut the door. But I find myself squeezing inside at the last minute, looking down the white tunnel beyond where bars mark the next gate and having what I can only describe as a panic attack.
I’m really doing this.
The door clangs shut behind me and, with a jump, I realize that there’s no turning back now.
The thick waist guard moves past her new charges and unlocks the bars at the other end, sliding them back with a shriek of metal on metal that makes my very bones rattle. Each step I determine to take feels like I’m stepping in super glue. Each one is a struggle and my heart races, this undefinable feeling mixing with that desperate anger and leaving me with sheer confusion. But I’m moving, forward, deeper into the bowels of hell to face it, to face her – the keeper of my destruction.
The room beyond is just as cold, that sickly sweet smell even more intense, and the charged quiet filling every corner with dread. The room is split down its length with a long sheet of plexi-glass segmented into bays where what appear to be payphones hang on the walls. People in orange jumpsuits are filed in on the other side through another set of bars, their hands cuffed at their waists and their ankles chained together causing them to waddle. The clatter of their chains resonates inside of me, strangling at the freedom that I’ve never really had, even as I can’t actually hear it through the glass.
And then, there, I see her, ushered up to a bay and gazing back at me with those eyes that I startlingly realize look so much like my own. And this wouldn’t be such a bad thing if not for the fact that they’re so emotionless. I would say that she looks the same as I remember her, but that would be a lie as much as it’s the very truth. The woman that I remember was hard, wrinkled from drugs and alcohol but still attractive in a skanky sort of way.
Now, somehow, she looks so much worse. She’s in her forties but she looks as though she’s in her eighties. Her hair is clean, which is the only improvement, but it’s no longer the blonde with dark roots that I remember. The natural color matches my own, but it’s nearly lost to the gray that’s overtaken her head and washed out her nearly translucent skin.
She sits at the booth and rolls her eyes before picking up the phone and waving it at me, and I feel like my heart is about to leap through my breast as I nearly slump into the plastic seat on this side of the glass.
I’m on the right side of the glass, right?
I glance back at the barred door that I came through and feel trapped. She taps on the window with the receiver and puts it to her face, again prompting me to follow. And as if by rote, I do.
“Did Keith send you,” she asks.
I swallow and feel my brows touch.
“Keith,” she repeats in this way that indicates that she believes that I’m just slow.
“Um, I don’t know a Keith.”
“Oh,” she says and then slumps back in her chair. “Then who are you and what do you want?”
I feel my stomach fall into my toes as the realization that she doesn’t even know who I am hits me. I suppose that it makes sense. She didn’t notice me when she had me and I haven’t seen her for more than a decade.
Why would she notice me now?
“Hello,” she asks, clearly annoyed.
“Uh, um-,” I strangle the metal phone wire with my other hand.
“My name is Ashley.”
She cocks her head and stares at me long and hard, and for a moment I believe that she’s puzzled it out.
“Do I know you?”
I feel like I’m about to hurl on the window in front of me as I consider her question, but then, the answer is there quickly.
“No, you don’t know me.”
Again, she’s very annoyed.
“Then why are you here?”
“I wanted to meet you,” I say, trying to remember why, hoping that what I just said isn’t a lie.
But then, I’m not sure.
Why am I here?
Why does this woman matter at all?
She’s so thin that she’s little more than a skeleton, and she looks frail, like her muscle is made of wet tissue. And for a moment I have to consider how she has so much power over me. How is it that this wholly powerless person has the power to ruin my life?
But then, maybe that’s why I’m here. I want the answers. I want to know why… in so, so, so many ways.
“You seriously don’t know who I am?”
“Honey, I don’t know you from a hole in the wall.”
I can’t help the derisive laugh that escapes me as my anger starts to win the battle with the confusion in my bloodstream.
“Well, let me tell you a little bit about me then. I was born to a crack whore who didn’t give a shit about me. I had to raise myself and my little sister because my mom was too busy getting drunk and high and fucked by random assholes to do anything but tell me how worthless I was…”
And at this point, I’m nearly shouting at her into the receiver.
“She was too busy telling me how she wished that she could have aborted me! Well, mom, you may win yet, because you might get your wish! I’m dying because of you!”
I stand up so forcefully that the plastic chair topples and I stare down on her, hating myself for letting her make me feel this way.
I hate myself for feeling anything at all.
And for once, it’s not because there are people staring at me, it’s because I’m the one who has to feel, who has to deal, and she gets to walk away scot free. For all that I feel, she feels equal amounts of nothing.
This was a waste of time. This will fix nothing. What was I looking for here?
My anger simmers and I’m able to lower my voice.
“What you did was inexcusable. You’re a piece of shit, and I hope you rot in this place a good long time before you die here – alone, unloved, and worthless.”
I look into her dull eyes, my eyes, and I know that she doesn’t care. She never cared. Nothing I say means anything to her because I don’t mean anything to her.
Maybe some things are best left in the attic. Maybe none of my plans for this year will mean anything at all because in the end I can’t win. Even if she does rot and die in here, she still wins because she’ll take me with her.
The lady guard grips my arm to escort me away and I pull myself from her roughly.
“I’m leaving,” I seethe at her before dropping the phone receiver and turning away.
Her hand is on my arm again as she escorts me out and as soon as the cold air fills my lungs, my legs start pressing me towards my car as fast as possible.
It’s coming – fast and heavy and hard and immense, and I’m going to break.
But then, there, leaning on the driver’s side door is Spencer, those kind eyes telling me that they know all. And I choke as I swallow a sob because there’s just no way for me to hold it together. Something’s going to give, and I just don’t want to.
Not now; not with her here.
I want to beg and plead with her to stop looking at me that way. I want to shout at her to leave, that she shouldn’t have come, that she wasn’t supposed to be here for this very reason.
And for a moment I can’t remember why, but then she takes me in her arms – those strong, warm, caring arms – and I remember all too well. She’s not supposed to be here because I can’t need her. She’s not supposed to see this because it’s not her problem. But my walls are crumbling so fast and so violently that I just can’t swallow it anymore. And I refuse; I just refuse to let it come, not with her. Not with anyone. So, I push her away and fall to my knees to dry heave onto the asphalt.
“Ash,” she says and it’s the worst sound in the world.
I don’t want to hear my name. I hate my name. I hate what it means and I hate that bitch who gave it to me. I hate that Spencer’s mouth made the word and that her mind was tainted with the knowledge of its existence. And most of all, I hate that she’s here and she gets to see even this much. She wasn’t supposed to see any of this.
“Ash, it’s okay…”
I’d laugh at that if I could, but my stomach is tensing, pushing it all out even as there’s nothing in me anymore. I feel the warmth coming off of her body as she crouches next to me and runs a soothing hand over my back, but the trail that it leaves just burns me.
She wasn’t supposed to be here.
No one was.
Something inside of me snaps and shuts down and I’m so thankful for it because I can finally relax for even just a moment, finally get to my feet, finally put some distance between me and her, me and this situation.
She hands me a tissue and I wipe at my mouth even though nothing came out.
“Spence, what are you doing here,” I ask, trying with great difficulty to keep the accusation out of my voice.
I don’t want to hurt her. I know that she’s just trying to be here for me. And I love her for it even as much as I hate her for it because I’m not supposed to love her anymore.
Why does she have to make it so hard?
And I hurt her with my words, just like I always do. I can see it in her tearful eyes. It’s so prevalent that I can’t even look at them.
I need to get out of here.
I need to be alone…
“I-I’m sorry,” she says, and then I feel even worse because she should never feel sorry for having a heart.
“No, Spence, I’m sorry,” I say. “I just-I’m not good company right now.”
Her brows furrow.
“You don’t have to be…”
“No, I didn’t mean it like that. I just mean-“
“I know what you meant,” she cuts me off and steps ever closer and I find myself stepping away. And again, the look on her face tells me that I’ve hurt her even more.
But then she takes yet another step and I have to wonder why she keeps trying. Doesn’t she see that it’s a lost cause?
“It’s okay to need someone, Ash.”
I can feel myself start to shake because my moment of reprieve is coming to an end, and I need to get the fuck away from this place. I need to get the fuck away from kind eyes. I need to drown it all out, and I need to do that alone.
I shake my head, and keep my eyes on the pavement in front of me.
“I think I just need to be alone, Spencer.”
And then she sighs and lowers her head and I exhale because she’s finally released me from that connection to her that I’m not supposed to feel.
“You’ve been alone too long,” she murmurs.
“I think it’s just better that way.”
She looks up and I’m not quick enough in turning away. And I find myself meeting her gaze, trapped in it. And she’s forcing me to look, to see, to confront. Yes, there’s a possibility that she’s giving me an opportunity to let it happen, to let it out, but I know that if I do, there’s no coming back from that.
Once she takes that last step, once she’s let in, I won’t have the heart to let her leave.
“For everyone,” I reply.
“For no one, least of all you.”
The conviction in her voice is nearly my undoing and I have to turn my back and scrub at my face, hoping against hope that I can buy myself a little more time to get away from her.
“Ash, if you can’t let me be there for you, then at least let someone.”
“Spence, I just need to go, okay?”
“Okay,” she says before she snatches the keys from my jacket pocket and unlocks the rental. “Let’s go.”
I turn and stare at her for moment, getting more and more agitated.
“Spencer, that’s not what I meant and you know it.”
She nods. “Yep, I know exactly what you meant, but it’s not going to happen. I’m with you, whether you want me or not.”
If she only knew…
“Spencer, please just cut me a break here.”
She seems to think about my request before staunchly denying it.
And thankfully, that anger is back.
“Give me my keys.”
I step closer and hold out my hand. “Please,” I force out.
“Spencer, I’m serious.”
“So am I.”
“Give me my keys,” I demand.
“No,” she replies flippantly.
“Now,” I say seriously.
“No,” she says just as seriously.
I stare at her for a moment, and I want to hate her, really I do, but I can’t. It’s like this fundamental flaw in me. She’s a fundamental flaw in me. We stare at each other for a long moment and I move to grab the keys but she was ready for it, turning and ducking away. I move to try again but she’s put them behind her back. I tussle with her trying to get to them but she’s bigger than me and she’s positioned her back against the car.
I can’t help but groan in my frustration and I’m worried that I might actually say something hateful to her if she doesn’t stop. I don’t want to play right now. I really need to get out of here and I really need to just be the fuck alone.
Can’t she understand that?
One more fumbling attempt and I nearly get the keys from her hand but then she goes and does something that makes everything, even breathing, impossible: she hugs me again. This hug is full bodied, where every inch of her is leaning into me. This is the hug that I thought I’d never get again. She lays her head in the crook of my shoulder and just holds on and I feel my knees start to buckle because it’s coming and I can’t escape her.
“Please,” I croak.
“No,” she breathes against my neck.
If I don’t get out of this soon, I’m not going to make it and if I don’t make it, the results will be catastrophic. My muddled brain searches frantically, grasping for an out that won’t hurt her and it comes up with only one thing.
I return the embrace, letting my hands slowly map the dip of her tapered waist and find open purchase on her lower back.
“Spence, if you don’t let me go…” I lower my voice and turn into her ear, brushing my lips gently against the crest of a delicate lobe and making my intentions very clear.
“I might do something that you’ll regret.”
I turn my face slowly, breathing against that wondrously soft skin just beneath her ear and marking a path to the juncture of her throat. And I have no doubt that she understands me because she releases me.
Or at least she tries to.
But she’s only able to lean back enough to look at me because I’m keeping her close. Her eyes are questioning, laced with regret and compassion, the vibrant color darker like a stormy, fall ocean that threatens to swallow the very shore completely.
And again, it’s just too much. She’s bigger, she’s stronger – both inside and out – but I’m more desperate in this game that we’re playing because I’m the one that stands to lose if I don’t fight dirty.
But if I’m honest with myself, I’ve lost either way, and her eyes only remind me of this.
The distraction works and I’m able to take the keys from her hand easily before letting her go. My emotions have ebbed and I know that I have her to thank for it. But while I may not combust just now, I still need to be away from her. I’m finding that those angry, hurt, and confused emotions may be better than the intense feeling of loss and melancholy that being around her in my vulnerable state inspires.
“I’ll talk to you later,” I say, opening the driver’s door and getting in.
The engine is turned over immediately, but I wasn’t fast enough because she’s now sitting in the passenger’s seat.
And I lose it, slamming my fists into the wheel again and shouting, “FUCK!”
That’s it. I’ve had enough. I get out of the car and start walking, calculating that if I move quickly, I’ll be tongue deep in that bottle of patron in about two hours.
“Ashley,” Spencer calls out but I just keep walking.
“ASHLEY,” she tries again, and I know that I have to stop because I owe her no less.
I owe her so much more, but I just have nothing left to give right now.
So I stop and I turn, and I meet her eyes as my vision swims with things that won’t be contained any longer, and I give her the very most that I have left.
“You have to let me go, Spencer.”
And while the words themselves don’t sound like much, and they wouldn’t even look like much on paper, it’s the desperate, pleading way that they’re said; it’s all of the hidden meanings that exist in the ether between those emotions that relay the real message to her.
And that message is that she needs to move on with her life and stop worrying about me. She needs to set boundaries because once she crosses into this territory, it’s her who stands to get irrevocably hurt. She needs to go home to Carmen and let me hurt without her because she can’t fix me. She needs to focus on her future because I’m not part of it.
And even as I know that she understands, that she hears what’s not spoken in those words, she’s not ready to do that. She may never be ready to do that.
But today is a day where things are happening that there is no real preparation for. No one gets a choice today, not even her, not even when she deserves it.
She gives me one last painful expression before I turn and start to walk again. And just as the tears start to fall over my lashes, just as my ribs constrict and grind against my bursting heart, just as I’m out of earshot and away from those kind eyes, that’s when she relents and has no choice but to just stand there as I disappear into this city.