“Spill,” Kyla demands, not even waiting for the door to shut behind us.
I roll my eyes, take a deep breath, and proceed to the couch with her right on my heels. I sit with a tired, “Oof,” and remove my shoes, trying to understand what it is exactly that she wants from me. She knows everything about my life, and I mean everything. Why is a new friend so amazing?
She’s still standing, almost towering over me. She’s really good at that despite her miniscule size.
“Kyla, what do you want to know?”
“How long have you been dating her?”
“Seriously, we just hang out. I wouldn’t even call it dating.”
“But you hold hands, kiss, and ‘hang out’ alone?”
“We’ve only kissed once, today in fact, and I’ve made out with other girls a million times. This wasn’t even close to that kind of a kiss.” I snort. “I’ve kissed you harder.”
“O-kay…, how long have you been seeing each other?”
“Jesus, Kyla, you make it sound like she’s my girlfriend.”
“Is she,” she asks, taking the seat next to me and pulling her own shoes off.
“Um, no,” I say resolutely. “We just hang out. We like each other. And we… I don’t know, connect.”
“You like each other?”
“Well, yes.” I give her a bored look. “That’s why we hang out.”
“About four months. We met up maybe three or four times before you moved out, and I haven’t even spoken to her since before I left for Europe.”
“You know, you keep saying Europe, but that’s a little weird. It was more of a world trip.”
I think about that for a minute, slightly put off by her abrupt change of subject and realize that she’s right. I started in South America, and spent time in Asia too, neither of which are part of the European package.
“Okay, my world trip,” I say, giving her an annoyed look. I mean, why does it matter?
“Much better. Now how did you meet?”
I sigh. “She works at the Troubadour and came up to me after the show to offer her services.”
She snorts out a chuckle. “I bet she did…”
I glare at her and she grins. “So she made the first move.”
“Kyla, no one made any moves. She was trying to help me with merch. I needed the help and we met up for coffee. We’ll have t-shirts, buttons, stickers… the whole shebang by next week. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. You’re our new merch girl.”
“Whatever, but you like her.”
I groan in frustration. “Yes! We’ve already established this…”
She tucks her legs up under her and turns towards me on the couch, settling in. And I can tell that she’s only just getting started.
“Do you like her, like her?”
I think about that for a moment and come up blank. “I enjoy spending time with her. She keeps me on my toes and I trust her. It’s just easy and fun.”
I shrug again, still not sure what it is she wants from me. And then I wonder…
“I’m not in love with her and I’m not looking for her to have my babies, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“Okay,” she says slowly. “And awwww!” She ruffles my hair like I’m the kid sister. “Little baby Ashleys!”
I roll my eyes. “We’re girls, Kyla. It doesn’t quite work like that…”
She stops squealing. “That’s why you have to have at least one.” That declaration hangs in the air a minute, but before I can comment, she continues. “Ash, seriously, is there potential?” I shrug again and she swats at me. “Quit doing that and answer my questions.”
“I don’t know, Kyla,” my voice rises as I get annoyed. “I’m not looking for anything, least of all that. I don’t know if I’ll ever love anyone as much as I love Spencer. I don’t really care if I do. Erin and I hang out. We have fun. She’s fun to be around and I don’t feel like I’m fucking up every five minutes with her. She accepts me and I accept her and we have a good time. That’s really all there is to it. I’m not writing our names combined and putting little tiny hearts around it in a journal.”
It’s quiet and the look on her face tells me that she’s thinking about what I’ve said really hard. I blink at her a few times, just waiting, but it seems like forever before she finally continues, and I knew that she would. She’s never mollified.
“What did you do today?”
“I took her to Temecula for a hot air balloon ride.”
Something more than what I’ve just said is received by her over-analytical mind.
“So you took her with you on one of your list items, something personal.”
“I guess, yeah.”
“Does she know about the list?”
I pinch the bridge of my nose to ward off the Kyla-sized headache that’s forming.
“I told her today.”
“How did she take it?”
I want to shrug, but I stop myself, rubbing my bruised arm in reflex.
“She took it fine. Actually, she took it better than fine. She just accepted it and let it go.”
“Hmmm,” she hums pensively.
I almost shudder to ask, “What?”
“She wasn’t upset?”
I frown. “I mean, she didn’t like it, but she didn’t cry or freak out.”
“Does she know about Spencer?”
“I let her read the list, so she knows all of the highlights.”
“Does she know that you’re still in love with Spencer?”
“And she was okay with that?”
“Yes. In fact, she’s still in love with her ex whom she can never be with either, so she completely understands.”
“Ah,” she says satisfied with something.
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll figure it out.” She pats me on the leg and stands. “I’m going to take a shower, feed Sheezus, and fall asleep watching a movie.”
“What…? Kyla, wait…”
She stoops to pick up her shoes and then gives me her attention. It’s at this point that I don’t understand why I’ve stopped her. I mean, she has to know something that I don’t from all of her questions or she wouldn’t be done with her interrogation so quickly. I should just thankful that she’s done, but I’m not. For once I want to know…
“Wh- I mean, that’s it? You’re done?”
“Yup,” she says with a smile. “I’ve got all I need. But you better tell me sooner next time.”
She starts to walk towards her room and I call to her. “Well…?”
“Well, what,” she asks over her shoulder, not stopping, so I get up to follow her.
“What just happened?”
“What do you mean? I asked, you answered, and now we’re good. Wanna watch a movie with me? I’m in the mood for a cheesy horror.”
I follow her all the way to her bathroom, and linger in silence while she strips, completely perplexed.
“Why don’t you pop some corn and pick something out? I won’t be long.”
And with that she closes the shower door and I stagger to the kitchen having no idea what it is that I’m missing, but certain that she knows more than she’s saying. And I’m also certain that no amount of asking will pry it from her until she’s ready. I also know that she expects me to figure it out on my own. And when I don’t, as will inevitably be the case, she’ll be supremely frustrated with me.
The next few weeks go by in a blur of routine as spring starts to morph into summer. I write, I play, I hang out with Erin, Kyla, and the band, and we land the slot opening for Brand New next week. Everything’s really great. I feel great, and I’m satisfied with my lot in life, especially Erin.
I’ve come to realize that what I like about her is that I can do all of the romantic things that I’ve been missing without all of the bullshit that comes with commitment. We’re both perfectly content to just hang out, or make out, or hold hands, or stay in watching Netflix. We’re not together, but we are, and it makes everything that much easier because there’s no pressure or blinding need, there’s no racing hearts or sweaty palms, and the best part is that there’s no unrealistic expectations of grandeur. It’s utterly simple and truly fantastic. I don’t know if it could be any better at this point, with my attic becoming more and more organized, and my possible lack of a future somehow becoming lost to my will to make one anyway.
There is only one dark stain in the fabric of this life that I’m weaving, and it’s decidedly Spencer-shaped. I’m not quite sure how to fill it. I’m fairly certain that it can’t be filled by anything but her. My only consolation is that it’s not like it was before.
Before, I needed her like air. Hell, I needed her like a crutch. I was crippled and leaning on her to make it through each day. Even when I was without her it was the thought of what I had with her that kept me going at all. Now, it’s as if I’ve endured a rigorous round of physical therapy and I can walk upright and completely unaided again. I’ve even made plans to enroll in college in the winter, to pursue the future that I thought I’d lost in my youth. My need for her isn’t one of survival anymore.
I just miss her.
It’s strange because I know, somehow, within myself, that if I never see her again, I’ll be just fine. I’ll live and I’ll be happy and that’s the end of it. But I want her in my life. My life will be better with her in it. The problem is that my need before made such a spectacular mess of our relationship that I don’t want to push her into anything. It’s not about being stubborn, but I feel like it’s on her to make that first step, to get ahold of me and make it clear that she wants me in her life as well. She’s the one who walked away this time.
And I get it. I don’t hold anything against her for that. She did what she had to do for her own happiness. She couldn’t support me, not the way that I was. I guess I just don’t want to intrude on her life. I already know that we can’t be more than friends, but what if she can’t be just friends? She has every right to decide that for herself. All I can do is be here if and when she actually wants to try. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Every attempt at friendship was thwarted by my need for her. How can she possibly know that now it might actually work, especially when I’m not so sure myself?
Sure, I know how I feel now, but what if I see her and it’s too soon and it all comes rushing back like it always does and I’m throwing myself at her feet? She’s made it clear that it can’t be that way. Am I really ready to test all of this perceived progress?
I can’t know for certain until I try it, but a failure at this point might destroy what little is left of our relationship. I don’t want to rush it or take chances. I don’t need her to declare her love for me and pretend like everything’s okay. I just need to ask her how her day was. I need to be frustrated by her sarcasm and wit. I need to have her punch me in the arm and call me on my bullshit. I need to know that she’s happy and healthy. Even a phone call once a month would do the trick.
I truly believe that we can both move on now, loving each other in a healthy way – a platonic way. There’s just no certainty in testing it out. It’s a risk. And in order for the test to have any chance of success, she’s going to have to make it clear that this effort is not only welcome, but reciprocated.
So, you can guess my surprise when I’m home alone one night, watching a horror movie and eating far too much popcorn, and something happens that sort of throws her back into my world. There’s a snuffling, scratching, growling noise at my door. I’ll be honest, The Evil Dead always freaks me out, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. I figure that my mind is playing tricks on me because of the movie, and I try to ignore it, but it keeps happening. So I pause the movie, and ever-so-carefully make my way towards the sound.
This is a huge no-no as far as horror is concerned. You never investigate. You just high-tail it out of there. Yet, I find myself exhibiting behavior of the individual in any horror movie that is most likely to die first.
“Sheezus,” I say under my breath. “If that’s you, I’m feeding you to the neighbor’s cat…”
It gets louder as I say this and my heart starts to race.
“H-hello…,” I call to the door. “Is someone there?”
At this point I’m really showing my true colors in a crisis, and the scratching becomes frantic. But despite my in-depth knowledge of what I should do, with a shaky hand I flip on the porch light and peer out through the long window at the side of the door. The glass is frosted, so all I can make out is a huge, dark mass writhing and banging against the frame. It sounds like a beast is trying to claw the door down.
My mind feels paralyzed and though I know what I’m supposed to do, I can’t find that knowledge anywhere in the mush between my ears. I’m home alone. I’m freaked out. And nothing normal comes to mind to explain what I’m seeing through the window. And then, abruptly, the beast stops. There’s this moment of silence and stillness, and the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. This is so not good, and I know it somewhere in my guts, but here I am, being spectacularly stupid.
The mass appears to back away and I believe that maybe I’ve just lost my mind and none of what I heard has actually happened. But then it lunges at the window, banging against the glass and startling me so fiercely that I jump back, fall, and land hard on my ass. It starts to whine and moan at the window, snuffling and leaving hot breath trails on the glass before going back to attack the door.
My heart is in my throat at this point but the embarrassment of what’s happening turns my fear into anger. I get to my feet, power-stride into my home studio, and come back brandishing my home-defense weapon of choice: a baseball bat.
I unlock the bolt, put my hand on the knob, and once I’ve gathered my courage, I jolt the door open and prepare to swing. Instantly, the beast tackles me to the floor, knocking the wind out of me and the bat away from my hands as it begins to furiously lick my face.
I scream like a little bitch, but as the attack gets more and more friendly, I open my eyes to see an extremely happy Jetsam. I fight him off of me long enough to sit up, and once I realize that it’s really him, joy shoots through me. I’ve missed this dog. I find myself crying and hugging his neck while he continues to lick my face. His tail is wagging so hard that it makes him vibrate, but he stays relatively still while I hold onto him.
“What are you doing here,” I finally ask.
Of course, he has nothing to say, but his intelligent eyes convey that he’s missed me too.
“Does Spencer know you’re here?”
I look at the open door, wondering if she’ll appear there, but there’s nothing and no one, just my front porch and a quiet, well-manicured lawn. I get to my feet and shut and lock the door, debating within myself what to do. Obviously, I’m supposed to call Spencer, but honestly, I don’t want to. It’s not so much because I’m nervous to talk to her, but because she’ll come get him and I don’t want him to leave again, at least not yet.
But then I consider that if he’s out and she doesn’t know where he is, she’s probably in a motherly panic. I know I would be. I was devastated when he was taken away first time. So, with a sigh, I pick up my cell, scroll to her name, and press the call button. It takes a few rings, but she finally answers.
“Hello,” she says in a groggy voice.
“Um, hey, Spence. I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”
“Yeah, hi,” she says quietly, clearing her throat. “I was asleep but that’s okay. H-how are you?”
“I’m good,” I say. “Really good, actually. How have you been?”
There’s a long moment of silence that seems to stretch out forever. When I go to break it, she does too, and we both wind up laughing. It’s here that I decide to just talk to her. This person is Spencer, the love of my life, my first love. But right now, all she has to be is the best friend that I’ve ever had.
“So,” I say, dragging the word into three syllables. “I had a tall, dark visitor show up at my door tonight. Wanna guess who he is?”
“What,” she asks nonplussed, her brain clearly still fuzzy with sleep.
“Okay, I’ll give you a hint: he has four legs, pointy ears, brown eyes, and says hello by sniffing in places that aren’t suitable in polite circles.”
“Oh my God,” she breathes out. “You have Jetsam?”
“Mm-hmm,” I say. “He just broke into my house uninvited and assaulted me. I’m thinking of pressing charges.”
“Oh, thank God! I’ve been looking everywhere for him! He must have jumped the fence the other day and I haven’t been able to find him for almost a week now…”
I can hear that she’s crying and I know now that I did the right thing in calling her.
“Hey,” I try to soothe. “He’s fine. He needs a bath, but he’s safe.”
“Thank you,” she says with relief. “Give me about thirty minutes and I’ll come get him.”
I look down at my phone and see that it’s after midnight, on a weekday.
“Well, hey, it’s late and you were sleeping. Why don’t you let me keep him for the night and you can text me tomorrow to arrange a pickup?”
“Oh, well, yeah. Thank you. I mean, if you want to. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“It’s no problem. I love Jetsam. It’ll be fun.”
“Well, thank you. I have to be at work at seven am.”
“It’s cool. Just text me tomorrow when you’re ready. I can meet you whenever.”
Again there’s awkward silence.
“I’m glad you called. Even if you hadn’t found my unruly heathen of a dog, well, I’ve been thinking about you a lot. It’s good to hear your voice.”
This brings a smile to my face. So she has missed me. “It’s good to talk to you too, Spence. Now go back to sleep.”
“Yeah, I think I will. Tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow. Night, Spence.”
And with that, I disconnect the call, excitement bursting from my every pore. Jetsam looks up at me with those big puppy eyes.
“You did real good, Jets.”
His tail wags.
The tail wags harder and his jaw falls open, a tongue lolling out in what I can only assume is an emphatic, ‘Yes.’
“Well, let’s find you a treat in the fridge and get you cleaned up.”
The following morning finds me sharing my bed with a dog, and I have to say that it’s delightful. Before, I thought the idea was pretty gross, but now… there’s something comforting about his warm body and earthy smell, which is slightly offset by the cranberry shampoo that I used on him last night. He gets me up early, clearly ready to use the lawn facilities, and I let him out into the large, fenced backyard. I don’t take an eye off of him though. If I lose him, Spencer will kill me.
He’s quick, only taking about five minutes to sniff out all of the new smells that have attached themselves to the grass since his last stint here. He happily follows me into the kitchen and I pull out some eggs to scramble them. It’s a breakfast we can share and we do. From there, after a quick shower, I find myself loading him into the Hummer and taking him to Petsmart for some treats, actual dog food, and toys, including a self-operated, battery optional fetch machine that’s pretty ingenious. I get him a new leash as well, and once he’s perfectly happy with his selections, we make our way to the Art’s District dog park. I can enjoy the murals and pluck at Mona, and there are plenty of grassy areas and hind-quarters for him to sniff.
We both settle in and start to enjoy the morning. It’s only been about an hour, and I’m completely stuck on the bridge of a new song that I’m working on, when I hear a very familiar voice, two of them actually, one male and one female. The female is definitely Kyla, but the male, while familiar, I can’t seem to place. I put Mona in her case, glance over at Jet to see him drop the tennis ball into the machine and start hopping with excitement as he waits for the ball to snap out into the air. He’s clearly not going anywhere, so I go looking for the voices.
The area that I’m in is pretty close to one of the sides of the park by the fence, and as I walk towards the voices, I can hear that they’re on the sidewalk and moving towards me. I’m not really sure why, but I hide myself against the corner of a concrete wall mural so that she won’t see me, and wait. When she does come into view, she’s cuddled up next to the male, strolling slowly, and casually smiling and talking with him.
They’re clearly a couple, and in shock, I stare at them. I’m unable to see his face because he has his head bent down towards her, but his voice is extremely familiar. So is his build. He’s tall and muscular, and dark hair is peeking out from under the rim of his beanie. Something niggles in the back of my mind but I can’t place it, at least not until he finally leans his head back to laugh at something Kyla’s just said and I catch a glimpse of his still boyish, but older face.
It’s Aiden, Aiden Dennison, one of my best friends in high school. This is the same boy that loaned me his car so that I could get Spencer away from her bigoted mother. He’s the same boy that scared Patrick away when Spencer needed help the most. This is the same boy that would give you the shirt off of his back if and when you needed it. This is the same boy that I loved like a brother but didn’t say a word to when I left and never looked back.
And he’s apparently dating my sister.
As he leans down and they kiss almost sweetly, I realize that this has been going on for a while and she hasn’t said a word to me, though she’s demanded that I tell her everything in my life as it happens. I get a little angry, and I want to burst out from behind the wall and say something, but then I can’t because I’ll have to face him and apologize and then try to kill him. I mean, he went for my kid sister. I don’t know how I feel about that.
So, I let them pass, none-the-wiser of my existence, and without thinking about it, I follow them. Well, skulk or stalk is more like it. Sparing another glance at Jet to be sure he’s still mindlessly fetching his new ball, I find that some of the other dogs have been enjoying his fetch machine too, and I move along the fence behind the oblivious couple. Maybe I follow because I still don’t believe my eyes, or maybe I just want to look at him because I didn’t realize how much I missed him until I saw him. Either way, I’m a peeping Tom.
This dog park is surrounded by the city, and I watch as they go up a set of stairs into a small apartment building across the street, the same blue truck that Spencer used to move out parked on the curb, my borrowed Porsche right behind it. And it hits me that this is where Spencer’s been staying, and this is also where Kyla has been staying. They’ve been with Aiden this whole time, and they didn’t even tell me that they were in contact with him.
I’m stunned and I just stand here, trying to absorb this information, and at a loss for how to feel about any of it. Surely he knows that I live in L.A., since two of my favorite people have been staying with him, two people whom I’ve hurt over and over again.
Did I hurt him too?
I want to cry or run or do something, but I don’t know what the right thing to do is. I only know that I shouldn’t do anything until I’m certain of how I feel. So I pack up Mona and Jetsam in the Hummer, and take off to the only place I know to go to find help.
Shirley and Sam are hard at work when I arrive at the non-profit LGBT shelter that they run. I spent a lot of time here while surviving for no other reason than Shirley wanted me to. Walking into this place now, I feel an odd sort of satisfaction seeing it as someone who’s overcome so many of the problems that these kids currently face. My situation didn’t really revolve around my sexuality, but I know what it is to come from truly terrible stock and not have a home. The place is crowded and mildly rowdy, but the atmosphere is one of safety and that reflects through the teens currently taking shelter here.
Despite the noise and bustling around me, I spot Shirley and Sam immediately. Sam can be seen through the large window of the office. From the look on her face and the way she’s talking, she must be handing out a pretty heated lesson to the girl in the chair across from her. It can’t be good for the girl. She has her head down in contrition and she only moves to bob it yes in random intervals that seem to coincide with Sam’s annoyed hand gestures.
I smile to myself, having received many such lectures. That’s what I always appreciated about Sam and Shirley. They were firm and no-nonsense, but they were kind and loving. Sam smiles brightly when she notices me and waves briefly before giving me a single finger to tell me that she’ll be done soon. And then she goes right back to her task, the girl not moving an inch.
Shirley is at the back of the big common room beyond the office, unsuccessfully fidgeting with the wires of an extremely old and tiny television with no luck. The screen is still just a snowy mess and I consider just how old this CRT television is. In fact, a look around the place shows that it’s falling into serious disrepair. It’s clean, and I can see where they’ve really tried to keep it up, but some things require money, and this place just doesn’t have much. It never has.
I walk up to Shirley just in time to hear her curse softly and watch as she chucks the wires she’s holding down in frustration.
“Sorry, guys,” she bellows to the kids that are starting to hone in on Jetsam. “This thing is toast!”
I let go of Jetsam’s leash to let him greet the teens and turn back in time to see Shirley smiling at me.
“Ashley,” she beams out in surprise, coming out from behind the electronic atrocity that she just pronounced dead. She gives me a huge hug, and I return it, unable to stop the smile that painfully stretches my face.
She holds me at arm’s length. “Kid, you look fantastic!” She hugs me again. “It’s been too long. You need to visit more,” she chastises as she releases me.
The shelter kids are now enthralled with Jetsam, the attention whore, and this gives Shirley a much needed break. She pulls me toward the office to find Sam. The girl is no longer in here and I accept the hugs, kisses, and compliments from her too before having a seat.
“Is that dog okay out there without you,” Shirley asks as she shuts the door.
“Yeah,” I say. “He looks ferocious but he’s a teddy bear. He’s Spencer’s.”
They both look at each other when I say this and I roll my eyes.
“No, we’re not together…”
“Still have a couple of months,” Shirley says.
“Six,” Sam corrects.
“We’ll just see,” Shirley counters and they smile lovingly at each other.
“Anyway,” I say slightly annoyed but not really. “Spencer says that he doesn’t like people, but I’m pretty sure that he just didn’t like Carmen.”
I peer out the window to see that he’s on his back, getting all kinds of belly love, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. And normally I’d laugh at the fact that he didn’t like Carmen, but I don’t really care about that anymore. In fact, when I dig a little deeper, I feel like my hatred of her to the point of calling her names in my mind was really very childish.
This is an interesting development…
“So, what brings you to us,” Sam asks, breaking me from my thoughts.
“I missed you guys,” I say, which isn’t dishonest, though not the entire truth.
The look that they each give me makes it clear that they know there’s more and I sigh.
“Fine, I wanted to talk to you guys, but I really was missing you too.”
Shirley situates herself on the edge of the desk by Sam and they patiently wait for me to spill it out.
“A lot has changed in the last few months…”
“I’ll say,” Shirley chimes in. “You look like a whole new person.”
“Indeed,” Sam agrees.
I feel a little self-conscious at this, especially when they smile at me, but I can’t help but smile back.
“I feel like a whole new person.”
“All of these changes are for the better,” Sam asks.
I nod. “Very much so.”
“But there’s a problem,” Shirley interjects.
I nod again.
“Spencer,” Sam asks.
I shake my head. “No, not this time.”
“Spill,” Shirley demands, and I do, explaining what’s happened in the last few months, including the trip, Erin, Spencer, and how Kyla reacted. I also add in some old history with Aiden, so that they will understand when I get to what I saw at the dog park.
“So you feel a little betrayed,” Sam observes after the pensive silence that follows.
I feel a frown form as I think about that.
“I guess,” I say. “It just seems really unfair. I mean, he was one of my best friends, and not only does she hide the fact that she’s friendly with him, she hides that he’s here and that she and Spencer have been staying with him, all the while berating me for not telling her about Erin, which isn’t nearly as serious by the looks of it.”
“We all hide things, Ashley. Sometimes it’s for a good reason, and sometimes it’s not. And then sometimes, it’s a little of both, like the way you hid from all of them when you became ill.”
“Sam, what good reason could she have to hide this? It’s not like it would have upset me that she was hanging out with Aiden. It was different for me. I only hid to spare people the pain of my death…”
“Well, you’re upset by this, Ashley,” Shirley replies. “Focus on why the truth bothers you, and that’s usually directly tied to the reason that it was kept from you.”
“Or,” Sam interjects. “You could, you know, just talk to Kyla instead of speculating.”
“I will talk to Kyla, but this just feels different, worse…”
Sam leans forward over her desk. “She’s hiding him from you like you hid Erin from her?”
“But I didn’t hide Erin. There just wasn’t anything big to talk about and we weren’t even speaking when I started seeing Erin.”
“Maybe that’s how she feels with Aiden.”
I shake my head. “No, she knows our history, and again, they look more serious than me and Erin.”
“Regardless of how you see it, that may not be how she sees it,” Shirley says. “My guess is that she’s worried about your reaction, the same one you’re having now, and that’s why she hasn’t said anything. But again, you won’t know for sure until you talk to her.”
“Ashley,” Sam says. “If you talk to Kyla and find out why she hid it, will that help?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so…”
“Okay, all you can do is tell her that she hurt you and let it go, just like she did with Erin.”
It’s quiet while I think about that.
“Can you let it go,” Shirley asks.
“Yeah, I guess…”
“So what’s the problem,” Sam asks.
“I don’t know,” I say in frustration. “That’s why I came here.”
“Okay, so knowing the why doesn’t help,” Shirley interjects. “And talking to Kyla and letting it go won’t help either. So what will help?”
“I will talk to her,” I say. “And I will let it go. But still, I don’t understand why they kept him, specifically, from me. I don’t think she would have if it were any other guy, and that’s what hurts.”
“Ah,” Sam says. “You miss him. They kept him from you, and that’s what hurts.”
“Have you tried to contact Aiden since you left without a word,” Shirley asks.
“Well,” Sam says gently. “Why should he want to let you into his life now, Ashley? You left and you haven’t said a word to him. Maybe he’s the one that doesn’t want you to know about him given your history.”
That hits hard. “So he’s… getting back at me… all of them are?”
Sam relaxes in her chair and shrugs. “It’s possible. That would be a bad reason, though somewhat justified in this case.”
“Okay, I get it. I suck.”
Shirley sticks a foot out and nudges my calf with it. “C’mon, kid. It’s okay. None of this is beyond repair.”
Sam sighs. “You don’t suck. You’re learning and growing and you’re making amends. That’s all you can do. Your behavior has sucked. Just stop acting that way and do the best you can with the fallout. But you can’t really get mad at people who treat you the way you’ve treated them, can you?”
Can’t they see that, “I’m trying…”
“Listen,” Shirley says. “You’ve made mistakes and you’re going to pay for them.”
“I’m trying,” I say again, a little louder.
“I know you are,” Sam says. “I really do.”
“Ashley,” Shirley says gently. “Talk to Kyla. That’s the only way to know the what’s and the why’s. Just forgive her before she even asks, even if she doesn’t ask. If you don’t like her response, then you can decide what that means for your relationship with her and do what works for you; just don’t do it out of anger or spite. And hopefully, her response will be a good one and you won’t feel upset by it anymore.”
“Right,” Sam agrees. “And if you feel bad about what happened with Aiden, reach out to him. Apologize. You can’t control anyone else, but you can control you, and if someone from your past can’t see what you’ve been through and that you’re trying, then that’s on them. It has nothing to do with you at that point.”
“That’s the crux of everything, kid. Take things as they come, be open and honest, and you’ll see it’s a lot better than hiding and running. It’s definitely a lot happier of an existence,” Shirley finishes.
“What if he doesn’t accept my apology.”
“And that’s what’s really bothering you,” Sam says.
Shirley crouches down in front of me and puts her hands on my knees. “Kid, if he can’t show you some compassion for what you’ve been through and the fact that you’ve apologized, then he’s a dolt. It will still hurt, sure, but you can only do what you can do. And you can’t make him see what’s right in front of him.”
I start to cry and Shirley gives me some tissues while rubbing soothing circles on my back.
“God,” Sam says once I’ve cried it out. “You’re like a wounded puppy.”
“Thanks,” I say dryly.
“No,” Shirley explains. “It’s just, normally you get angry at this kind of stuff or make excuses, but now, you’re just… well, it seems like you’re actually coping.”
Sam smiles. “You’re definitely different.”
“Oh yeah,” Shirley agrees. “I guess we’ll see if you actually take our advice this time instead of making a bigger mess of the situation.”
“Am I really that bad?”
“Of course not,” Sam says. “This is what I’m talking about. You’re just learning as you go. You’re twenty-three and you’ve been through more than most people even have nightmares about. Cut yourself some slack.”
“Just don’t expect everyone else to,” Shirley adds. “If they do, then they’re doing it right too. And if they can’t, then the problem is with them, not you.”
“We, though,” Sam adds. “Are always on your side, ready to cut slack at a moment’s notice.”
“Yup,” Shirley again agrees.
“Okay,” I say. “This shit is hard…”
They laugh. “Life is not for the faint of heart.”
“Thanks, you guys.”
“Anytime. We love you, Ashley.”
“I know you do. And I love you. You know that, right?”
They look at each other, only this time they don’t say anything. They just get up and make me the middle of a bruising hug sandwich.
“That’s the first time you’ve told us that,” Sam says tearfully.
“I’m sorry it took so long.”
I groan at my mushiness as I pull myself from the hug.
Normally at this point, I’d play it off or tell them not to get used to it, but I don’t want to downplay it this time. They’ve essentially been my parents, Christine not with-standing. And maybe a little gratitude wouldn’t kill me.
It’s quiet and I feel all cried out, but I’m a little uncomfortable with the way they’re looking at me, so I decide to change the subject, giving voice to my earlier thoughts.
“Listen, this place is going to hell…”
“Don’t I know it,” Shirley grumbles. “Donations are hard to secure for a shelter when it’s only LGBT youth. We just don’t get the exposure that other places do because a lot of donors aren’t LGBT friendly. And the state doesn’t help at all. We’re too small.”
I smile at them, grateful to be able to make them this offer. “Well, let’s do something about that.”
They look at each other yet again, shock evident on their faces. “Well, w- um, what did you have in mind?”
“Who owns this building?”
“We do,” Shirley says. “Well, the organization. It’s paid for, so we don’t have rent or a mortgage anymore, but it’s only been about a year since we paid it off, the property taxes are killer, and we have more kids now than we did back then.”
“It’s hard to turn someone away from a meal so you can fix a wall,” Sam agrees. “The money goes to them.” We all look out the window to see the kids playing with Jetsam. “We’ve done what we can for the place out of our own pockets, but it’s just not enough.”
“Is this place worth a remodel? Or would it be cheaper to start over?”
“No way,” Shirley says. “This place is sturdy and you can’t beat the location. We don’t have mold or rodents, and the foundation is solid. A remodel would be much cheaper than starting from scratch. It’s just too small.”
“Okay, how much do you think you need to make this place what you need it to be?”
“Ashley,” Sam takes my hand. “That’s a lot of money. I know you have a lot, but this place would quickly soak it all up. Don’t be hasty here…”
My eyes bulge a little. “This place needs thirty point eight million…?”
Her eyes bulge in response. “Well, no… I thought you had twelve point five, and you’d spent quite a bit of it on your home, cars, two recording studios, trips, and the like…”
“Well, yeah. Back then I had twelve and a half. But I also had Shirley’s help. We put half of that in savings, which accrues about two million a year, and about four million was invested by one of the top firms in the country, leaving me with plenty of spending money. He was Shirley’s contact. They make me about three million a year after their fee. I could give you half of that a year and still come out with a huge profit.”
Sam slumps back against her desk and sits with an awed look on her face and I again look to Shirley.
“I thought you knew. I mean, he was your friend…”
“No,” she says breathless. “I had no idea. Bob’s just a friend who helps out once in a while with a donation. I didn’t know either of you were that successful.”
“Well, you helped me a lot, Shirley. Let me help you now. How much do you need to remodel?”
“I’m not sure, but I can get a friend of mine out here to run an estim-“ I start to laugh and she stops talking. “What?”
“You and your friends,” I say. “You know someone who does everything.” I start to mock her voice. “Need someone who will pay millions of dollars for a program; here’s a card! Need someone to invest that money wisely; here’s a card! Need someone to remodel your building; here’s a card!”
“Well,” she says defensively. “The only way to get donations is to ask the right people! So I hit up the successful gays in the gay yellow pages. I get around…”
For the first time in my life, I’ve flustered the woman and for the right reasons. It actually feels really good. A quick check through the window shows that Jetsam won’t want to leave anytime soon, so I settle back in the chair.
“Call your guy, Shirley. I have all day.”
She doesn’t hesitate to bruise me in a hug and kiss me hard on the forehead before jumping on the phone, and Sam and I start to talk about what they’d like to do. I can tell right away that she’s put years of thought into this, just never had the capital, and I start to feel some of her excitement. The three of us spend the next couple of hours talking about it, dealing with the kids, and I order take-out for everyone, kids included.
The contractor shows up and I let Shirley handle him, playing some music on the rundown keyboard in the corner of the great room and getting everyone dancing and just generally having fun. Some of these kids are quiet and shy, while others are almost terrifying in their need for attention. Some have never even had take-out, and the veritable Chinese buffet I ordered sends them into overload. But all in all, the atmosphere is decidedly happier, even for those who stick to the corners and don’t say a word.
It’s been almost three hours before my phone rings and distracts me from this impromptu party. My heart does a double tap when I see Spencer’s name, but it doesn’t fall into my toes or make my palms sweat. It actually just makes me feel happy. So I’m decidedly chipper when I abandon the keyboard and answer.
Another kid jumps right onto the noise machine behind me and I have to cover one ear to hear.
“Well… hi,” she says a little taken aback. “Are you at a party?”
I chuckle and head out the door to find some quiet. “Well, I guess you could kind of say that. I’m actually at the LGBT shelter.”
“Oh… okay. Sounds like fun…”
I laugh again. “Yeah, it’s alright.”
“Where’s my rebellious hell hound?”
“Oh, he’s here. The kids here are having a ball with him.”
“Really? He hates other people…”
I chuckle at my private joke.
“What,” she asks.
“Nothing,” I say. “So how was your day?”
“Exhausting, but uneventful.”
“What are you doing now?”
“Grunt work. It doesn’t pay much because it’s an indie company, mainly documentaries and the sort, but I actually enjoy the work and I have more time to play with my own projects.”
“Still shooting everything you see?”
“You know it.”
It’s quiet for a moment before another idea comes to me. “Hey, are you busy right now?”
“No,” she says slowly. “I was just going to come get Jet, go home, and tinker with some recent footage. Why?”
“Why don’t you come down here and bring your camera?”
“Ash, I’m not sure it’s a good idea yet…”
Well, that was abrupt if not honest.
“Yeah, I was wondering if we could manage it too, but then I realized that we won’t know if we never try.”
I can tell she’s thinking about it and I can even picture the cute little look of concentration on her face.
“Listen, Spence, get your camera and come down here. If you don’t have fun or things get heavy or weird, you can take Jets and run.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” I think I hear, but her voice was so low that I can’t be certain and I don’t see any relevance to those words either way.
“Sorry, I was just thinking out loud. I guess we can give it a try.”
My cheeks hurt I smile so big. “Excellent. Come to this address…”
I give her the address and we say goodbye, and I grab Mona and head inside. The kid on the piano is terrible, but I figure I might be able to teach him a thing a two while I wait.
It truly is horrible, the music we’re all making together, if you can even call it that. It’s disorganized, off key, loud, and bracing. But somehow, we’re still having fun. Even some of the loners have come out of the rooms and off the walls to just sit and watch. It’s not long before I spot another Doberman jumping into the fray to sniff out his missing brother. This sends the kids into an absolute frenzy. They now have two dogs to torment. I look around and see Spencer, camera in hand, videotaping the happenings around us.
Her camera isn’t pointed on me so I sneak around and come up beside her.
“When did you get here,” I ask loudly.
She jumps and gives me scathing look that quickly turns into a smile.
“A little while ago,” she shouts. “You jerk.”
I laugh and she asks, “Is this normal?”
“I doubt it,” I say, lowering my guitar and turning to the other make-shift musicians. “Let’s take a break, guys.”
There are few groans but they quickly entertain themselves with the dogs and each other.
“It just sort of happened,” I turn back to Spencer. “I’m trying to keep all the kids engaged so that Shirley and Sam can handle some business.”
I tilt my head towards Shirley, Sam, and a man named Chris sitting in the office and talking.
“He’s an architect and he’s going to help remodel this place.”
“That’s awesome,” Spencer says, panning her camera to the kids chasing Jetsam, who’s clearly no longer enthused.
I chuckle. “I think they wore him out but he can’t get away from them to rest.”
“Good,” she says. “Little asshole needs a lesson.”
“He really put you through the ringer, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” she says. “I don’t understand it. He’s never done anything like that before, but ever since we left your place, he hasn’t been happy. Since then, he’s tried to escape twice.”
She doesn’t say this in a harsh way, or even a pointed way, but I still feel terrible at her words.
“It’s not your fault. Flotsam has always been the needier of the two, at least where I’m concerned. Jetsam took to you immediately though, in a way he just never did with me.” She glances over at me. “You’re his person, Ash.”
Why does that make me unusually happy when it’s clearly so sad for Spencer?
“I didn’t mean to steal your dog, Spence.”
“It’s really not your fault. They connect with a person and it doesn’t make any sense. You can’t force it or change it. I just don’t know how I’m supposed to live without him. They’re both my babies.”
“Well,” I say a little confused. “You don’t have to. You’re taking him home…”
“I want to,” she says, lowering her camera. “But I’m worried he’ll run away again. And if he does, he might not make it to your place this time.”
“Don’t you have them chipped?”
“No,” she says shocked. “Have you seen those needles? They’re as big as a harpoon. I couldn’t do it…”
“Shut up,” she says.
“You know, Spence, I’d be happy to make it so that he can’t get out of your yard. It’s not that expensive.”
She shakes her head. “No, I don’t have a yard for him right now and I won’t for a while. I think that’s part of the problem. He’s cooped up in an apartment all day while I’m at work. He jumped the fence at the dog park across the street while I was reading and I just didn’t notice. By the time I did, I couldn’t find him anywhere. I was beginning to think someone might have taken him.”
“He is a beautiful dog.”
“They both are.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t want to rehome him, but I don’t see another way.”
“Spence, you can’t do that,” I say shocked. “I’ll take him before you do that.”
“Well, that’s sort of what I had in mind.”
“Spence, I can’t take him from you…”
“Ash, you love him and he loves you.”
And she’s right. “But I know how much you love him.”
She nods. “Yes, I do, but I’d rather you had him and him be happy and healthy, than find him dead in the street one day. Besides, at least if he’s with you, I could come see him and I wouldn’t have to fully split him up from Flotsam. Flotsam won’t leave me, but he’s been really sad without Jet.”
“Why don’t you just let me keep him until you have a yard that you can secure?”
“I don’t want to do that to you, Ash. You love him as much as I do.”
And she’s right again.
“Well, let him stay with me for the time being, okay? We’ll work the rest out as the time comes.”
She looks at me a little nonplussed. “Okay…”
And it’s at this moment that she gives me the once over. Of all of the scrutiny that I’ve received in the last few weeks, this time makes me the most uncomfortable.
“What,” I ask self-consciously.
“It’s just, you seem different,” she says.
“Well, a lot has changed since you left, Spence.”
“You want to tell me about it,” she asks as if she’s joking.
I shrug. “Sure, if you’ve got the time. It’s a lot, and you might not like some of it.”
“But you’re willing to tell me…?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I don’t have anything to hide anymore.”
“Like, everything, everything, no matter what it is?”
“Seriously, if I ask you extremely personal questions, you’ll answer them honestly?”
“Okay, let’s talk,” she says nonchalantly.
“Right now,” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says in a manner that tells me she thinks that I’m just setting her up. “You say you’re willing, so let’s do it.”
“Um…,” I say, concerned that something really terrible is happening right here. “Are you sure, Spence? You’re being strange…”
She deflates a little. “Ash, just please don’t offer things you’re not prepared to follow through on.”
I shake my head and look around me. It’s loud, the kids are all wired for sound and it’s pretty much my fault, but Sam and Shirley are standing in the office shaking hands with Chris, and it looks like they might be drawing their meeting to a close.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll tell Sam and Shirley that we’re leaving.”
“Wait,” she says grabbing my arm. “You’re not joking?”
“I mean, I didn’t envision us having a huge, in-depth talk our first time trying to actually be friends, but if you want to delve, I’m willing to let you…”
“O-kay…,” she says, her eyes huge. “Are you sure?”
“Spencer, if you want to talk, we can, now or later. It’s up to you. I won’t change my mind.”
“Then yeah, I’d like to know what’s going on with you because you’re actually starting to freak me out a little.”
Without another word, I walk to the office, feeling Spencer’s eyes on me the whole time and doing my best to ignore it. I poke my head inside. “Sorry to interrupt, but Spencer and I were going to take off. Everything good here?”
“It’s amazing,” Shirley smiles at me. “We just finished up here.”
“Yes,” Chris says. “I should have the plans drawn up and an estimate ready for you by this time next week. I’ll be in touch.”
Shirley shakes his hand, her happiness over-exaggerating the maneuver to the point that I’m a little worried that she’s going to shake his arm right off.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Ashley,” he says, shaking my hand this time and then excusing himself. “And thank you for the wonderful meal.”
“No problem,” I say.
Shirley and Sam both hug me again and I swear I feel a few bones snap.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Sam chants.
“It’s fine, you guys. Just let me know what he needs and I’ll have my bank write a cashier’s check.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” they chant together this time.
“Okay,” I chuckle. “We’re going to leave now but I’ll be back.”
“Come by soon, really soon,” Sam says. “I think you’ve got some fans here now.”
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s amazing what Chinese food and a dog can do.”
“It was more than that,” Shirley says. “You really lifted the spirits here, Ash. You need to hang out more.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“You do that,” Sam says, kissing me on the cheek and returning to her desk.
Shirley throws an arm over my shoulders and escorts me through the door before leaning in close to my ear and saying, “Try to seal the deal in two months, would you? It’d really help me out with the missus.”
Before I can say anything, she slaps me hard on the back and whistles a tune as she walks away. I see her wink at Spencer before clapping her hands and bringing order back to the teens.
Spencer has put her camera away and wrangled up the dogs, so she’s ready to go. “What was that about?”
“Shirley being Shirley,” I say, choosing to ignore the request.
I’m not pinning any hopes on Spencer because to do so is unfair to both of us. I choose instead to just go with the flow, wherever that may lead. And right now, that leads me to…
“Where do you want to go so we can talk?”
She thinks about that for a second. “I guess, let’s go to your place.” I’m a little surprised by this, and she can tell. “Is that okay with you?”
“Well, yeah… of course.”
“If you’re going to answer questions openly, I want quiet and no interruptions,” she explains. “I’m taking you for all your worth.”
Normally I’d gulp, but the truth is, I’m not nervous about this at all. In fact, I kind of look forward to it.
“You lead the way,” I say, opening the door and letting her pass through first.
When we get to the house, we unleash the dogs into the backyard and let them run free together. Jetsam doesn’t have much steam, but after a gallon of gulped water, both seem content to nap in the shade. It’s pretty late in the day and getting warmer, but there’s a nice breeze, so we decide to grab a couple bottles of Fiji and sit out back with the snoozing canines.
After a few quiet moments of easy atmosphere, Spencer speaks. “So…”
With nothing else forthcoming, I repeat her. “So…”
She still doesn’t speak and it makes me laugh.
“Well, you were in such a hurry to get all of these answers and now that we’re here, you’re mute.”
“Yeah, I guess I’m just… confused.”
She sets her bottle down and starts to count on her fingers. “You love a dog. You’re not just willing to take Jetsam, but I can tell that you want to, when you’re a notorious hater of animals.” She lifts a second finger. “You didn’t need for us to decide anything about him right away, when normally you’ll take the most immediate option, even if it’s not a preferred one.” She lifts another finger. “You’re practically glowing, physically anyway. I mean, I’ve seriously never seen you look so healthy.” She lifts a fourth finger. “You aren’t being all weird and touchy about everything I say.” She lifts yet another finger. “When asked if you want to talk about the stuff that’s been going on with you, not only did you not change the subject and crack jokes, you didn’t hide but readily agreed.”
“Wow,” I say. “You got all of that from maybe an hour together?”
“Yes, and if you actually follow through on this talk, I might kill over in shock.”
“Please don’t do that, Spence. Blood is really difficult to get out.”
She lifts her hands in frustration. “And see, right there, you’re still you… somehow.”
“Yeah, I’m still me, Spence.”
“What’s going on, Ash?”
I take in a deep breath and start at the beginning.
“You left,” I say. “And things got pretty bad, because right after you left, Kyla and I got in a fight, and she left too.”
She nods. But of course she knows, Kyla was staying with her… and Aiden.
“I slapped her.”
This seems to surprise her, so at least Kyla didn’t give all the details.
“Yes. I was hurting and she laughed and I hauled off and slapped her.”
“Why did she laugh?”
“She says she can’t help it when she’s nervous or anxious.”
She thinks about that for a second and nods. “I guess I can see that. Kyla’s not one for tact.”
“No,” I agree.
“Okay, so when you say things got bad, what does that mean?”
“Well, after she left, I kept going, as far as getting up and doing stuff, but I was sort of going off the deep end. I even got arrested.”
“What,” she nearly shrieks. “For what?”
“I was speeding; a cop pulled me over and planted pot in my car because he didn’t like my belligerence.”
“He planted pot in your hummer?”
“No, the Porsche.”
She frowns. “When was this?”
“A couple weeks after you left. Why?”
“Well, that might have been Kyla’s…”
“Kyla is smoking pot?”
She nods. “You know she’s been staying with me, right?”
“Yes, and Aiden.”
This seems to surprise her.
“You know about Aiden?”
“Did Kyla tell you?”
“Nope. I found out this morning when I took Jetsam to the Art’s District dog park. I saw them walking and kissing before going into an apartment building. And then I saw the blue truck you used to move, the Porsche behind it, and put it all together.”
“Wow,” she says. “I’m sorry, Ash. I wanted to tell you, but Aiden didn’t want to. It’s his place, and I didn’t want to break his confidence.”
That actually makes me a feel a little better, but then… “Does he hate me?”
She frowns. “No, I don’t think he does. But he is pretty pissed. A lot happened in his life after you left, and he had no one. I went to college, you were gone, and his application to UCLA was rejected. And his family life got worse… much, much worse. A little pot here and there isn’t so bad considering what he’s been through.”
It really hurts to know that this person who was always there for me was abandoned when he needed someone most. I was just too wrapped up in my own drama to help him, and it would appear that Spencer was too.
“So that’s where she got the habit?”
She nods. “I’m pretty sure.”
“Wonderful,” I say.
“Have you even told Kyla that you know yet?”
“No, and I want to be sure that I’m not mad at her before I do, but this little tid-bit is going to make that even more difficult.”
“Yeah,” I say slowly. “It’s one thing to casually get high. It’s another to take up a drug habit because your boyfriend has one.”
“No, I mean you’re going to wait and cool off before talking to her?”
“Yeah… I don’t want to blow up at her.”
“Wow, okay, that’s… very mature of you.”
I frown, and then shrug.
She clears her throat. “So what happened after you got arrested.”
“I called my lawyer and the whole thing was settled.”
“Just like that?”
I nod. “Just like that.”
“Money really does help with the law then.”
I shrug. “It was a first offense, it was only a single joint, my urine test came back negative, and the cop had belittled and manhandled us as evidenced by his dash cam. My attorney threatened to sue and bring in the media, and when the best defense attorney in the state threatens, you listen. At that point, they were just as agreeable to forgetting the whole thing as I was.”
“Wow, okay, so you said ‘us.’ Who was with you, Kyla?”
“No. I was alone when I got pulled over by the Troubadour, but Erin, the merch girl there who’s also a really good friend of mine now, involved herself when she saw what was happening. He arrested her too.”
“Erin…,” she says pensively. “Oh, is she the one with the dark hair that walks around trying to sell buttons and stickers and stuff?”
“That would be the one. She’s actually setting the band up with a whole line of merch. We’ll have t-shirts, buttons, stickers, bumper stickers, you name it, next week.”
“Wow, that’s great!”
I nod. “It is.”
“So what happened next?”
“Well,” I say, this next part making me apprehensive. “Erin and I sort of hit it off that night.”
She’s quiet but calm when she asks. “So you’re dating?”
I sigh. “I’m not sure I’d call it that. We have fun together, no strings or expectations.”
I can tell she wants to ask more so I open the door for her. That was the whole point of this conversation.
“You can ask anything you want, Spencer.”
She shakes her head. “That’s not fair to you. Your romantic life is your own.”
“Well, the offer still stands. Ask and I’ll answer.”
“Do you love her?”
I smile at her. “As a person, yes. But I’m not in love with her. It’s only been a few months.”
“That’s all I want to know… about that, anyway.”
“Okay, what else do you want to know about?”
“What happened after the arrest that went nowhere?”
“I was alone, a lot, and very depressed, so for the most part, I avoided Erin. Kate took care of me, making sure I ate and showered, and all of the things that I just didn’t seem to care about at that point. I was a mess. I hated everything and everyone, most of all myself. I don’t know how else to say it other than I hit rock bottom.
“Why were things so bad when you were alone?”
“Because I hated myself, a lot. I hated everything about me. I felt worthless, not just to me but to everyone else. And I think what made it worse is that I made it impossible for others to love me, but I blamed them for leaving me even when I knew that they just didn’t want to put up with the abuse. I just didn’t know how to stop pushing people away. And when you hate yourself that much, Spence, being alone with this person you hate feels like torture.”
Spencer’s eyes are glassy. “Do you still feel that way?”
“No. I mean, I’m not fully out of it, and to be honest, I’m not sure that I’ll ever really love myself like a healthy person might. But at least now I’m aware of it, or maybe I’m just willing to be aware of it. And I can mitigate those feelings better because of it. I can catch myself thinking something really terrible, and force myself to tell it to shut up. And then go do something with someone to prove myself wrong. I think that’s what I like most about Erin, she helps to facilitate that.”
“Ash, this may sound petty, but why Erin? Why couldn’t it have been me…?”
Her voice breaks on the last word and I feel my own eyes glassing over.
“Oh, Spence, I wish it could have been you. You’re still my best friend and the only person I’ve ever really loved. I just… I think it had to be someone separate from all the hurt and pain I caused. Erin wasn’t hurt by what I did. There wasn’t any baggage hanging over our heads. And I think it also had to be someone who didn’t love me, at least not so deeply. She doesn’t expect anything from me anymore than I expect anything from her. If I hurt her, which hasn’t happened yet – even though I didn’t even talk to her for three months – it doesn’t hurt as deeply, if that makes any sense…”
“Yeah, I think it does. But I still don’t understand why you hated yourself so much… I just don’t get it.”
I sigh. “Well, I think part of it was physical. I hated my body because of what it had done to my mind and to those around me. I mean, I physically blamed myself for all of the damage that had been caused emotionally. And over time, that hatred just sort of takes over in everything. Then Kyla shows up, telling me how much I hurt everyone, and that only made it worse, because not only did I already hate myself, but now I realized that I’d hated myself for no fucking good reason. Nothing was better because of it. So, then that hate starts to share space with this… bitterness, so, so bitter that I can’t even describe it. You guys kept trying to pull me out of it, but you couldn’t because I couldn’t let you. It was just this overwhelming weight crushing everything and making it impossible to even want to try. It felt like there was no point. It was all ruined anyway, for nothing. I think I reached out to Kyla in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. So I arranged to meet her and apologized. She moved back in and convinced me to go on my backpacking trip alone, and that’s when everything started to shift.”
“Well, Kyla wanted to go, and was actually pissed at me for making it so she couldn’t.”
“I don’t get it,” she says.
“I don’t either,” I agree. “She said that I needed to do it alone, which was part of the reason I was so messed up at that point to begin with, so it made no sense to me. But I was grasping, literally, at any reason to do anything at that point, so I tried it.”
“I’m sorry you were so depressed. I felt awful when I left…”
I shrug. “I made it through and I’m okay now. None of it was your fault, Spence.”
“So you really went alone?”
I can tell that what I’m saying is truly affecting her, so I try to make it sound encouraging.
“I did, alone, and it was the best thing that I could have done. I spent about two months travelling around. I went to Argentina, Nepal, Russia, Rome, Japan, Australia, and several little stops in between.”
She smiles playfully at me. “That must have been difficult with all of your luggage.”
I smile back at her. “Actually, I dumped my room and luggage on a homeless woman in Australia, bought a backpack, and lived by the ocean as often as one was available. I also spent time in hostels or random little inns.”
She leans back and her mouth opens. “You’re kidding…”
“Nope. I even gave her my plane tickets and opted to use trains and boats when possible. A lot of the time I just walked and stayed in small places along the way. It was a true backpacking trip.”
“Ash, that’s really incredible. And it explains your new look.”
I shrug. “I guess. I hadn’t even realized that I looked different until Kyla didn’t recognize me at the door.”
“So what changed on the trip. You don’t look depressed anymore. And the way you’re talking about it is so… calm…”
I think about how I could possibly explain everything that was going through my head at that time and all the emotional changes that were taking place, and I don’t know how to really put it into words. It was like a progression, a small chain of different happenstances that I tried to just go with, and once I did, they completely altered my state of mind. But somehow, I don’t think telling Spencer that it just happened will help her to understand.
“Spence, I don’t know how to explain it to you. It was a lot of things and most of them were small. I went over there thinking that I would find something worth living for or I would just end it, and somehow, along the way, I began to connect with the world around me in a way that I just couldn’t seem to do here. I think maybe it’s because, like Erin, I was so far removed from the past that I could actually see the future. I’m not really sure, but for whatever reason, it worked. And that connection helped me heal a lot. I think the solitude did too. I was forced to live with myself and either stop hating my only companion or…”
“You were going to kill yourself…”
“Uh, yeah,” I say, kicking myself. “I mean, I wasn’t sure, but I was in a really dark place and I wasn’t going to continue that way. I made a decision to end it, one way or another. If I couldn’t learn to live with myself, then I wasn’t going to anymore.”
It’s quiet, this moment of absorption quickly turning to pain for Spencer and regret for me.
“I’m sorry, Spence, I didn’t mean to just say it like that… I didn’t mean to say it at all. It just came out…”
“No,” she says tearfully. “No, I’m glad you did. I just hate that you felt that way.”
My inability to explain is making this worse and I can’t do anything as she cries. I can’t hold her. I can’t even apologize because she asked to know. So I decide to go get her a tissue but can’t find any in the living room. I know I have some by my bed because I cry often these days, so I go to get those and see the journal laying there on the end table. On impulse, I grab it and bring both back out onto the patio. She seems better now and offers a small, “Thanks,” as I hand over the box.
I sit down on the end of the lawn chair beside her and hold the journal out to her.
“I wrote quite a bit while I was traveling, and I think it would explain things better. There’s more of a story to it as opposed as me just dumping the dark and twisted parts at your feet.”
“You want me to read your journal?”
I shrug. “Why not?”
“Well, isn’t it private?”
I think about that for a moment, and yes, she’s right. There are things in here that I wouldn’t want just anyone to know, but Spencer isn’t just anyone, so I say as much.
“I don’t have anything to hide from you, Spence. If there’s anyone I trust, it’s you. I don’t know why I couldn’t see that before, and I’m sorry for that, but I do now. I know you won’t judge me or hate me or bring it up to throw it in my face. This is really the only way I know how to explain to you what happened to me. If you don’t want to read it, that’s okay. But if you do, it’s yours.”
“Ash, I- I’m sorry, but I think I need to go…”
She gets to her feet, and I can tell that she’s fighting some sort of desperation of her own.
I’m not sure what to say or do. It seems like if I withhold she leaves, and if I give her what she wants, she leaves anyway. I can’t stop her from leaving, any more than she could ever stop me. All I can do is let her go with as much grace as I have.
“Look, Spence, I’m sorry that I upset you. If it’s any consolation, I don’t want to die anymore.”
“It’s not that. I just- I guess maybe I just wasn’t ready for this yet. I didn’t think you’d actually share all of this with me, and now that you have, I don’t know how to reconcile it. I feel like I’ve messed up, like I pushed you too hard.”
I stand up and touch her arm. “Hey, no, none of this is your fault. You did what you had to do, and you shouldn’t feel bad about that.”
“If you’d have killed yourself, Ashley… I can’t even think about it…”
“Spence, look, just…” I pick up the journal and put it in her hands. “Just read it, okay? It’s not your fault, and maybe you can understand me a little better after you do.”
She holds the journal, the tears full force again, and she leans in and hugs me. I feel a little stiff at first because I’m so surprised, but then I hold her and breathe in the comforting smell of her, and for a moment all of it wants to come rushing back. I want to hold onto her and never let her go, to cleave to her like a parched man in the desert, but I can’t do that. I won’t do that, not this time. This time, I have to do the right thing, and the right thing is leave the wounds alone until they’ve healed.
“I want you in my life, Spence.”
“I want you in my life too.”
“Do you think we can have that?”
She leans back and swipes at her tears with her tissue. “I’m so sorry that I’m such a mess. I’m not mad at you, Ash. Please believe that.”
“I’m more worried that you’re blaming yourself.”
“Well…,” she shakes her head. “I can’t help but feel some responsibility.”
“But you know that you’re not? I need for you to believe that,” I say, mirroring her words.
She smiles a little. “So you’ll believe that I’m not mad at you if I believe that it’s not my fault that you wanted to kill yourself?”
“Yes,” I say. “We have a deal?”
“I’ll try, I guess.”
I smile at her. “That’s all we can do.”
Her eyes are watery and deep and they rip at my guts, but not because I want to cling to her. I hurt because she’s hurting, pure and simple.
“Are you sure you have to go?”
“Yeah, I need to clear my head. It’s a lot, but thank you for talking to me.”
“Anytime,” I say. “Really, call me, text me, any time.”
She reaches a hand up and strokes my cheek tenderly. And I feel that pull, but it’s different this time. I’m not being sucked in, Spencer is, and this is when it finally dawns on me that she’s not leaving because she can’t handle what I’m telling her, she’s leaving because if she doesn’t distance herself from me, she’s the one who’s going to drown. Everything she’s ever wanted from me, I’ve just given her. And now she doesn’t know what to do with it.
I pull away from her gently, trying to let her know that I’m not afraid, but consciously choosing to take the hard road. And she smiles at me, that sad smile that I hate and love in equal measure.
“Can you keep Flotsam tonight, too? I don’t want to separate them again so soon.”
“Thank you,” she says, unsure of what to do, but turning to leave all the same.
I let her go; and while it hurts somewhere deep and fathomless, I’m not incapacitated. I’m okay. I just hope beyond all hope that she is as well.