I hear the ding of the tiny bell above the café door and look up to see Kyla come through. She scans the small, dimly lit room until her eyes light on me. All of my apprehensions flare to full force when I see the guarded look on her face.
She looks older somehow, though it’s only been a few weeks since I last saw her and slapped the smile clean off of her face. She wears her tension like armor as she quickly makes her way to my table and slides into the booth on the other side.
As if we’re business partners meeting to discuss the details of a laundering scheme, she gets right down to it and asks, “What do you want?”
I exhale a bit, forcing myself not to cry or let the attic rule this encounter. Getting control of my emotions hasn’t been an easy task by any means. But the last two weeks of near constant alone time, not counting Erin and the band, and an awareness of that solitude, has taught me a thing or two about myself.
I now know that I can’t stop feeling. There’s no way to do that anymore. Nothing works like it used to. I can’t sleep. I can’t pretend. I can’t coast through it like it’s all just some elaborate ploy at being chivalrous. Part of me wishes that I could, but I can’t force it. I’m stuck with myself, in all of my hideous glory. There are only two ways out that I can see: get through it, or let it kill me.
But I’ve been avoiding picking one of those. And more importantly, I know that I shouldn’t stop myself from feeling. Now that I don’t have any tools of the denial trade and nothing distracting enough to compete with the core of me that I’ve uncovered, I’m forced to acknowledge it as it comes. And I’m finding that as I do that, in turn, my emotions are starting to flare less often. Less is still at least once a day, but as to choosing a path, well, I’m not there yet, and Kyla reminds me of why.
The last time I saw her, I hadn’t figured my options out yet. Or maybe I had and I was just forcing myself to overlook them because, in all honesty, I don’t like either of them. Death… well, I don’t think I need to explain how that’s not a great option. As to getting through it, well, it’s easier to buy a new pair of shoes than it is to scrape the shit off of the bottom of the old ones. And let’s face it, I have the means to replace my shoes as needed. I almost resent that I have money. It made building my fantasy easier.
Either way, it took me years to get into a headspace where I was even willing to accept that I have an emotional problem. Oddly enough, now that I know and allow myself to come to terms with everything, the process of cleaning house – while immensely difficult – hasn’t been all that time consuming. This is largely due to the fact that I’m not trying to clean everything up right away. I mean, what’s the point when I’m not sure what my long-term plans are? As to what little cleaning I have done while I wait for that decision to be made, well I’m just taking it a day at a time – a bite at a time, because that’s how you eat an elephant.
If I’m honest with myself, and I don’t really have a choice anymore, this is the happiest that I’ve been since that long ago conversation with a doctor that collapsed my entire world, even while I’m not actually happy at all.
“I want to apologize,” I say.
She snorts, as if I just made a joke. But then she looks at me and something softens in her eyes.
“You’re not kidding…,”
It wasn’t a question, just a realization, and I confirm it with a quick jerk of my head from side-to-side.
“No,” I say when she still doesn’t quite seem to believe it. “I’m sorry.”
She clearly doesn’t trust me if her gesture of leaning back and crossing her arms is any indication.
“Well, for hitting you, obviously, but also for leaving without a word when you were younger; and for treating you like a nuisance since you found me. I’ve been an asshole, and I’m sorry, for all of it…”
Her arms drop to the table and she seems a little stunned, but that quickly turns to anger. “You’re insufferable, you know that?”
I nod. “Yeah, I do…”
And I do know that, more than she can even comprehend.
“Damnit, Ash, I really want to be mad at you and now you’re robbing me of that.”
Part of me wants to be indignant at her words. It’s not like she made it easy to love her. She was a nuisance, meddling and intrusive, and kicking me while I was down. And every attempt at explaining to her that I needed her to stop was thwarted by her tenacity. I want to be angry and lash out at her for it, but I didn’t call her here with expectations, at least not on her part. I called her here to let her know that I see what I did and have been doing, and that I recognize that it was wrong of me. I also want to be sure that we’re on good terms before I choose my path. How many times has Shirley told me not to let the sun set on my anger?
The silence is killer and leaving me to wonder if this wasn’t a terrible idea. She’s just looking at me in wonder and… bemusement?
“Kyla, please don’t laugh. Do anything – throw a drink in my face, get up and walk out, hate me, but don’t laugh at me right now. Please…”
What does she do? She laughs and I can feel tears welling in my eyes as I choke on my anger.
“This was a stupid idea,” I say as I stand to leave, but she puts a hand on my arm and stops me.
“Ash, I’m sorry, I can’t help it!”
“Because that’s how I handle tension, I guess…,” she exclaims in frustration. “When I feel awkward or uncomfortable, I giggle. I can’t help it.”
I think about that for a minute, and realize that it’s true. Even as a child she’d laugh at inappropriate things. There was this one time when mom and Kyle – her boyfriend of the moment – were throwing things at each other and freaking out about something that had happened out back in the meth shed. He hit mom hard, knocking her to the floor, and Kyla tried to get between them to protect the woman for some unknown reason. Call it instinct or sheer stupidity, but she was only four, and after all the woman had put her through… Well, I guess what they say is true: mom is God in the eyes of a child.
Anyway, Kyle kicked Kyla out of the way, hard, hard enough for her head to make a dent in the thin trailer wall where she landed. She was dazed for a minute, a bruise immediately blushing to life on her too large, child forehead, and he laughed. No, he guffawed, hearty and genuine. That snapped Kyla back into reality. She got up to charge him but I caught her and yanked her back. He laughed even harder, and so she thrashed harder, and when she realized that I wasn’t going to let her go, she started to use her words instead. She called him a plethora of slurs that no one her age should know, but oddly enough, it was the, ‘You kick like a girl,’ that had struck a chord in the washed-out junky.
He enraged and I barely managed to drag her out of there before he reached us, hauling her into the woods to hide. I knew the woods like the back of my hand and he didn’t follow if the sounds of his abuse to our mother were any indication. Once we were deep enough not to hear her screams and his shouts, I started to check Kyla’s injuries. She was shaking, but most of her anger had dissipated. I thought that she was going to cry. Hell, I was, but she didn’t. Instead, she started to laugh, even though her little lip was bloodied and a goose egg was growing at the edge of her hairline.
I remember thinking at the time that her ability to find humor when there was nothing to be happy about made me love her all the more, even while it made me hate her a little bit. Her childish laugh was strange and infectious, and I couldn’t help but laugh with her, even though I resented her innate ability to retain some of her innocence with natural born coping skills. Either way, if it hadn’t been for her ability to do that, I don’t think I’d have ever laughed before the age of eleven. There was just nothing to laugh about.
That’s how she got her name, Kyla. It was the female version of his name, Kyle, and he was the first person in this world that she had stood up to. It taught us both a valuable lesson: we could fight back. We could stand up and stop taking the abuse, at least to some extent, and it didn’t matter if our lips were bloodied in the process.
It was empowering.
Mom took a beating for Kyla’s insolence, and I took a beating from mom in turn, but that last physical encounter with my mother is actually one of the best moments in my young life. It was in the middle of this altercation that I stood up and struck back, and I was never touched by mommy dearest again. For the two of us, using Kyla’s name was a reminder that even when we were helpless, we could take a stand. For mom, the name only made her hate Kyla more, but we were okay with that. We hated her just as much.
I smile to myself at the memory and Kyla points at me accusingly.
“So you can smile at inappropriate moments, but I can’t?”
I look up at her. “No, I was just remembering the day that we named you Kyla.”
She sighs wistfully. “Yeah, I was a pretty badass kid.”
“Yeah,” I agree. “You really were.”
There’s a moment of silence, but it’s not uncomfortable. At least, not until she starts talking again.
“So, you were apologizing…”
“I laid everything out to you, and trusted you, and you laughed,” I say.
“I know, and I’m sorry,” she says. “I only laughed because it was a good thing, and I couldn’t believe it! You finally said something real, and to me. I was shocked.”
“And happy,” I repeat her words from that day.
“Hell yes,” she says. “You let me in and it was a huge step in the right direction, and I’d been pushing you in that direction for a long time.”
“It hurt me.”
“I know, and I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too.”
We let both omissions hover in the air for a little bit, and, of course, she starts to giggle. Only this time, I giggle with her and before either of us knows it, we’re laughing so hard that we’re clutching at our stomachs and the rest of the café is giving us strange looks.
When we both calm down, she says, “So, now that that’s out of the way, I’m moving back in.” I roll my eyes at her, but inside, my heart’s singing just a little. “Oh, c’mon,” she says through a playful smile. “You know you’ve missed me.”
I grunt and take a sip of my now tepid coffee to hide my own smirk, but I know it’s not working.
“You mi-ssed me,” she sing-songs. “You l-ove me.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” I say.
“So…,” she smoothly changes the subject. “What’s new with you? The trip to Europe is coming up.”
I frown. “I don’t know if I’m going.”
“What,” she nearly shouts. “You have to…”
“No I don’t…”
“Ash, it’s part of your list, and it’s not like you don’t have the money, and it’s Europe…”
She leans back as if the last of her points is reason enough. “Seriously, Ash, Europe…”
“I know, I just, I’m not sure it’ll be all that fun now.”
“Ugh, you make me crazy,” she huffs out.
I glance up at her in confusion. Everything I do is the wrong thing with her.
“Why does it matter to you so much? I can go anytime. I just don’t feel like it right now.”
“Because now is the time, Ash. You’re healthy, you’ve moved past some of your bullshit, and maybe seeing how big the world is will give you some perspective.”
“Jesus, Kyla, give you an inch…”
“And I’ll take the whole rope and hang you with it,” she finishes for me sarcastically.
“Pretty much,” I lament.
“Ash, you’ve made progress. Don’t stop the momentum now or you’ll get stuck in another rut.”
I know she’s right about that, because I know where this newfound ability to let the emotions have me has come from. And where it’s come from is dark, so dark that it inspires hope of a completely different nature.
“I don’t want to go alone,” I say, but what I’m really thinking is if I’m alone, I might not come back.
She leans back and seems to chew on that for a minute before getting frustrated again. So I mirror her posture and wait for her to tell me how I’ve said something else wrong. It doesn’t take long.
“Ash, believe me when I say that telling you this kills me…”
I scowl. “Okay…”
“I’ve never been anywhere but Ohio and here. And LA is great and everything, but I would kill to travel the world. I could easily just say that I’ll go with you, but I’m not going to, and honestly, it’s your fault. I’m missing out on something I’ve always wanted to do because I love you.”
“What are you talking about? If you want to go-”
“Did you ever think that maybe you should do this alone?”
“Oh yeah, that sounds like a blast. I’ll go to strange places where no one speaks English alone,” I reply sarcastically.
It’s a weak argument, but there’s no way I can voice my real thoughts.
“Hell yes,” she says. “You’ll go and see other people, rely on yourself, maybe even find yourself, and you’ll do it alone.”
“Kyla, alone is empty. Trust…”
“Well, until you figure out how to live happily alone, you’ll be alone even when you’re surrounded by people.”
I can’t really argue with that. Even when I had her and she-who-will-not-be-named living with me, I holed myself up in my room and complained about it.
All I can retort with is, “Get that off of a high school counselor’s wall, did you?”
“No,” she replies smoothly. “But I’ll embroider it on a throw pillow for you if you want.”
I can’t fucking win with her. So maybe I should stop trying? Kyla knows that I’m chewing on her words and reaches a hand across the table to take mine.
“Ash, think about it. What’s the worst that could happen? If you get there, stay a few days and hate it, then you can just come home. But you might really help yourself if you do it. It can’t hurt to try it.”
The meddling and pushing isn’t going to stop, not with Kyla. I realize now that she loves me too much to ever stop trying to help me, even when that help is painful and irritating and unwanted and poorly executed. But it is still help. It’s still love, and whether I agree with it or like it, I’m not going to continue to push it away. This whole time I’ve been fighting her and it’s done nothing but make things harder. Maybe I should just listen to her. Like she said, what’s the worst that could happen?
“Ever seen Taken,” I ask.
She gives me a cock-eyed look. “The movie?”
“Jesus, Ash, there’s something seriously wrong with you.”
“There’s something seriously wrong with human trafficking.”
“It’s a movie, Ash. Not real life.”
“It’s a movie based off of real-life events,” I counter.
“Well, if someone was stupid enough to kidnap you and try to sell you, with your attitude, they’d return you to where they got you within 24 hours.”
“Thanks,” I say wryly.
“Just be safe, Ash. Don’t talk to strange guys. That should be easy given that you’re Kinsey 6 gay…”
She has a point there.
“I’m the valedictorian here,” I say to her. “I’m supposed to be the smart one, or some shit. You barely passed with Cs.”
She snorts. “You were never the smart one.”
“Well, then… I was always the prettier one.”
She glares at me and I can’t help but grin. I didn’t win this fight, even though I am way prettier. She’s right. I wrote a multi-million dollar program before I even graduated high school, and yet, she’s smarter about the things that really matter. I can’t deny it. This is why I can’t talk to her about why I really don’t want to go alone, what I’m really thinking. And like a circle, that’s the only thing that will make her back off and quit pushing me. So, I can’t put it off any longer. She won’t let me, and I’m not going to tell her why she should let me.
“Well, I guess I’m going backpacking alone,” I say.
She beams. “Damn right you are!”
It’s quiet for a bit, but I don’t like where it allows my thoughts to meander, so I break it as awkwardly as possible.
“So what’s new with you,” I ask. “Where have you been?”
“Oh, you know, around.”
“Around…,” I repeat stupidly.
“Is it a state secret or something?”
“No, not state. It’s local.”
“Okay… so where have you been? What have you been doing?”
“I’ve been somewhere doing something. That’s all there is to it.”
“Kyla, I spilled the most private details of my life, apologized, and let you talk me into a hazardous spree of international travel. Give me something here…”
She looks at her watch and stands up.
“Where are you going,” I ask.
“Don’t worry. I’m just going to get my stuff, so I’ll see you at home later.”
“Well, you don’t have to go now…”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Because… it’s… getting late.”
“Late?” I look at my phone to see that it’s only four o’clock. “It’s not late…”
“It is for me.”
“Kyla, what’s going on?”
“Nothing, I just have to go. I’ll see you at home later.”
“And then you’ll tell me where you’ve been?”
I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Kyla…”
“Look, I just don’t want to talk about myself right now, Ash. Not for a while.”
I can’t help but snort. “Since when?”
“Since now,” she says with a level glare. “Look, I’ll get my stuff and see you in a few hours.”
I stand up to come with her. “I’ll help you move your stuff.”
“No,” she says a little too loudly.
“Kyla, what’s going on?”
“Nothing, I just don’t need your help.”
She gentles a little. “Look, I just, I can take care of it.”
“Kyla, why are you leaving right now? Did I do something wrong?”
“No, I just… I really have something I need to do.”
“At the late hour of four o’clock?”
“On a Thursday?”
“And you can’t talk about it because it’s just moving your stuff?”
“That makes zero sense.”
She seems to think about something and then crosses her arms again in an ‘I mean it’ stance.
“Ash, this is all you’re getting.”
“Where I’m going you can’t follow. That’s all you get to know.”
“Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Why can’t I see where you’ve been? Is it that bad?”
The thought that she might have been in a really terrible situation because of me makes my heart race a little.
“No, it’s not bad at all. I was very well treated.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Yes, I do!”
“Fine!” She throws her arms up in frustration and then lets a smirk settle on her face. “You can’t know because where I’m going, Spencer is.”
That hits like a brick to the face. “What…?”
I slump into the booth as if my bones have been replaced with Jello. She puts a hand on my shoulder and pats me in a condescending gesture before lowering her voice and leaning in.
“And you are so not prettier than me.”
And with that she struts off, leaving me with all of my questions about where she-who-will-not-be-named is and how she is and what she looks like and just… everything that I’ve missed, like a recovering addict dreaming of just one more fix.
“Huh uh,” she says over her shoulder. “I’m not going to talk about it or her, so don’t ask.”
And with that she’s gone and I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that no amount of badgering her on the subject will do me any good. That doesn’t mean I won’t bang my head against a wall trying.