“Paula, you can’t just take the girls away on fantasy vacations whenever you feel like it. Do you understand? They have to go to school and live a normal life. This is your reality. You are their mother not their god damned travel agent!”
My father’s voice drifted effortlessly above the clamor of my Nickelodeon lineup. My parents were fighting again. It seemed that they were always yelling about something now. I propped myself up on my elbows and turned my head towards their argument. Now that my sisters and I had been mentioned, it became much more interesting than the latest episode of CatDog. Hadley and June weren’t home tonight. I was alone, free to eavesdrop without either of my sisters ushering me into my bedroom to keep me from hearing.
“They need to go on adventures, David. They have the rest of their lives to go to school,” she responded.
“No, Paula, they don’t. Their childhood will be over before you know it and what are you doing? Risking their lives for an adventure to the fucking beach?”
“The beach is not a hazard for children their age, David. Don’t be so dramatic,” my mother answered, her voice surprisingly calm. I pulled myself into a sitting position and crossed my arms over the back of the couch. At the top of the stairs, light from their bedroom door spilled into the hallway.
“No, it’s not. You’re absolutely right… but swerving into oncoming traffic on an interstate that is nearly two hours away is most definitely a hazard, Paula. Hadley called me from a stranger’s cell phone on the side of the road, crying to me that you were – and let me quote her – ‘freaking out!’”
My mind flashed back to the afternoon before. My mother had pulled us out of school, promising us a trip to the beach. She’d taken us on adventures before and they’d always been exciting in the past. Train rides to the city and day trips to the circus, an amusement park, a movie theater. My sisters seemed a bit skeptical this time – they were older now – but I’d rather be anywhere else than at school. It had started out as the best day ever and had ended as the worst.
We didn’t make it to the beach. Instead we ended up on the side of an unfamiliar road with a flat fire and whiplash. I could clearly remember the moment that I thought my life was about to end, too. My mother was crying hysterically behind her hands and the car was veering towards oncoming traffic. We didn’t know why she’d started crying or what had caused the sudden onslaught of emotion but we knew that it was bad. Hadley had grabbed the wheel and turned us into a ditch on the side of the road. Someone stopped and let us use their cell phone because my mother had locked us out of the car. Our father picked us up two hours later and a word hadn’t been said about the incident until now.
“This is reckless behavior, Paula, and it has to stop. I feel like I’ve been having this argument with you for three years. Why does this keep happening?”
“This house is so small and it’s suffocating them! Don’t you see that?” she cried, her voice finally breaking. There was a pause in their conversation. I strained to hear my father’s response. She didn’t make any sense. We had a big, spacious, wonderful house. It was perfect.
“What I see… is that I’m the only one here who’s asphyxiating, Paula.”
* * *
I pulled myself back to the present and glanced up at the waitress who was standing nearby with eyebrows raised and a pot of coffee hovering over my empty cup. I smiled gently and nodded.
“Yeah, sorry. Please,” I nodded and she smiled tersely before pouring me a fresh cup of coffee.
“Anything else I can get for you?” she asked. “Dessert menu?”
“Oh… no, thank you,” I said, glancing at my plate of French fries and a half eaten club sandwich. I thought of Charlie, waiting for me back in my hotel room across the street, and then dog food that I’d forgotten at my apartment. I smiled at the waitress. “Can I get a box, please? And the check. Thank you.”
“Sure.” She nodded and hurried away from my table and I sipped gingerly at the lukewarm coffee.
This was the third stop I’d made since leaving San Francisco. I hadn’t intended to stop but I didn’t have a choice. My focus on the road was continuously compromised by memories I couldn’t seem to control. They were coming often to me now and it was hard not to drift back into the years that led up to my family’s personal doomsday. The closer that I got to the place of impact, the less control I had of remaining in present consciousness. My driving had become reckless and Charlie was constantly on edge, restless and whimpering in the backseat. When your dog starts worrying about your driving abilities, that’s when you know it’s time to turn in for the night.
The motel that I’d checked into reminded me of Psycho, a fitting choice given my family history. I half expected Norman Bates to be waiting at the counter when I stepped into the lobby but it was only a pimply, greasy haired teenager with braces and a Coheed and Cambria t-shirt. There was a bar next door and as soon as I dropped off my cold dinner for the dog and took him on a walk, I acquainted myself with a bar stool and opened a tab.
Halfway through my third Jack and Coke, my cell phone vibrated from the pocket of my jeans. I was drunk enough not to look first at who was calling and I immediately regretted that decision as soon as Caleb’s voice assaulted me.
“Cia, have you lost your mind?” he shouted.
“It seems so,” I said, taking another drink.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“In a bar,” I said, finishing the drink. I pushed the empty glass across the counter and signaled to the bartender for another. He didn’t judge me, just did his job and refilled.
“Where? Are you drunk?”
“Somewhere near the Oregon border and yes, I think I am.” I smiled as he set the drink in front of me. “Thank you, kind sir.” The bartender winked.
“Baby… are you going to come home? This is ridiculous, whatever you’re doing.”
Cue dramatic sigh and exaggerated eye rolling now.
“I’m not and it isn’t,” I said and I pulled my phone away from my ear and snapped it shut. I stared at it in hesitance and a small part of me wanted to call him back, to apologize, to beg him to meet me at this shitty bar and take me home. I’d never treated him this way before. We were good, even at our worst, and I loved him. I’d been with Caleb for almost six years and he’d been my savior so many times, I couldn’t event count. He was safe. He was a desirable future. But the bigger part of me realized that this wasn’t something I wanted saving from. I’d been running from my past for eight years. My sister and my aunt had been pulling me away from my mother since I was fifteen. I needed to face it head on if I ever hoped to understand it. I had to go back to the past and find closure if I ever wanted my future to mean anything to me at all.
I knew what I needed to do. I finished my last drink quickly, paid the bartender with a generous tip, and stumbled out of the bar. Fortunately, my motel room was close because it took me three tries to straighten myself completely and walk across the parking lot without falling over. Charlie danced at my feet when I pushed through the door and I struggled to push him away. There was only one person who never drew the veil over my eyes when it came to my mother’s sickness. My sister June was the only person I knew who would truly understand why I had to go back and I needed her to come home with me.
I sat down on the bed and tried to collect myself. This was going to be a call that required composure. Then again June might actually find something that she liked within my drunken slurs. It might hit her close enough to home to make her sympathize with me.
I found her phone number and poised my finger over the send button. Charlie looked up at me and barked.
“Shh, Charlie!” I hissed at him. “This is really… a really important phone call and you hafta be silent. Abso…lutely… silent.” I pressed my finger to my lips and looked at him with wide eyes. He cocked his head to the side as if to question me.
“SILENT!” I mouthed at him as I pushed send and brought the phone to my ear. He let out a dramatic dog sigh and laid down at my feet, his brown Beagle eyes looking up at me with a sort of painful impatience.
“We’re sorry. You have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please check the number and try your call again.”
“God damn it, June! Again?” I growled and hung up, tossing my phone onto the floor.
Sometimes I wished I’d never been born into this family.