Length: ~6,000 words
Rating: PG-13 (cursing, illegal drugs and drinking depicted, sexual relations mentioned)
Summary: A selection of snapshots revolving around the life of a sixteen year old girl with too much attitude for her much too small town.
Mixtape: Snapshots of Sixteen: The Mixtape
“Where are you going?”
The air is dropping and my skin is bumping. I should probably look for an old jacket in my mom’s ridiculously organized bins labeled by season. Time to root out the ‘ole Fall/Autumn tub, scavenge for something light.
“Home. Obviously.” My voice has a tendency of inflecting itself in the bitchiest of tones. I’m still unsure if this is something I should apologize for.
“Yeah,” he says, “Obviously.” He seems to have the same particular superpower.
It’s just after 10:00 o’clock at night and we’re standing outside of the Corporate Chain of Chicken we both “work” at. Our black uniforms are laced with undesirables, and I’m sure my hair is drenched in the smell of chicken fat, chicken grease, and yes, chicken coleslaw surprise. No matter how many times I lather, rinse, and repeat, it never seems to stray.
“What exactly do you want, John?” I’ve been defeated. My shoulders slump, my hands flay about. I know what he wants, because a part of me wants it, too.
He shrugs and answers, “I don’t know.” His brown eyes speak a different language than the one he breathes.
Exactly, I think as I let him pull me into his arms. We just don’t know.
My pickup truck continues to burn gas for another hour and a half. This is my usual Tuesday night at sixteen.
Marie has a way of making me feel reckless and safe all at once. She pushes my sheltered limits by tapping on my window at three a.m. and forcing me to drive around our sleepy town while my parents sleep in separate rooms. I never thought I’d be the sneaking out type; I never thought I’d need a reason to, either.
For some reason, Marie’s smoke-boxed car is easier to breathe in than my parent’s silent fog.
Tonight is no different. I didn’t get home until 11:30 — far past my curfew of 10:00 on work nights — and in this new normal, my father still wasn’t home either. Which I find funny in the most bitter of fashions seeing as how his Farm Store closes a half hour earlier than Buck Buck’s Palace. Has he been spending the past few hours sucking face with a boy from the next town over, too?
Ugh, don’t answer that. I really don’t want to know why my father never seems to come home anymore.
Marie drives a 1998 Dodge Neon, and like every other model in the existence of Midwest State, USA, the outside is multi-colored in eggshell and rust. The paint peels off easily over time, and even though she swears up and down to her mother that it’s just the car falling apart with each bump, I’ve seen the Drunks and Tweaks peeling pieces off in anxiety at parties. Hell, the back right bumper is almost bare due to the night I leaned against it and watched Drew flirt his way through every girl from Other Town. That was also the first night I took John up on his offer of “More Than Friends Without The Actual Labels.” Marie always says this with definition at the beginning of ever word, so As She Says, It Shall Be.
“How’s Mister ‘More Than Friends Without The Actual Label’?”
“Oh, you know,” I take a puff of my inhaler, and she winces, rolling the window down a smidge, “Still beautiful and illegal to touch. Still making me all hot and bothered. Still totally hidden from my parents.”
He voice has gotten scratchier and deeper in the past six months since she graduated high school. One time when she was drunk off of one too many Smirnoff’s, she said that it’s because the real world wasn’t made for squeaky prom queens; the wonder years have ceased and desisted.
“Huzzah!” she shouts, throwing both hands in the air seeming to forget the wheel, but not forgetting her cigarette. “That’s my girl! Breaking rules, breaking laws, and getting laid!”
I never really stop her from thinking this, but in reality John’s still sitting comfortably at second base with the Coach near third saying, “go and you are outta here, buddy.” I think it makes her feel empowered, to be corrupting such an innocent soul such as myself; I just like making her forget the worthlessness she seems to feel every other moment of the day.
I squeeze the pullover that I Indiana-Jones’d earlier this week to my chest. Even with just a few inches of window down, he heater-less car is filling up with the coming of winter air. Small Town has always experienced the changing of seasons pretty abruptly. One day it’s as hot as the pit, the next it’s Christmas Snow Falls Two Months Early. Marie notices but gives a huff of breath that screams, It’s either freeze or suffocate, bitch; make your move. I puff the inhaler again. She laughs.
When a song comes on featuring a grown man crying about his loneliness we both cry out with him.
“What are you doing on Saturday?” he asks. I’m taking order after order for the buffet, and here he is sliding on up like there isn’t a line of overweight trailer-sitters grabbing their hands at me for styrofoam passes to their near deaths. Sometimes his confidence astounds me; mostly, though, I’m wanting to shut him up with my mouth. But seeing as how we’re in a Professional Work Setting, I’m going to have to go with astounded.
“Hello to you, too, John. Fancy seeing you out of the frying caves.” I turn to the gentleman featuring a shirt with not one, not two, but three wolves howling at the moon. Now that’s a religious lifestyle right there. “Welcome to Pecker’s Phatty Prison, how many mutilated pieces of poultry can I get you today?”
Three Wolves answers me in growls and grunts. “Two buffets it is!” I look to his lil’ lady who is donning the Patriotic Symbol Turned Bandana Top which features a set of extremely lopsided melons and a sagging leather basket over white washed hight-tops. “Can I get you two some drinks, as well?” She raises a penciled-in eyebrow. “Fantastic! Two buffets and two drinks for the most beautiful couple I’ve yet to see! Seriously, the old folks at the end of The Notebook have nothing on you two.” More grunts, more eyebrow raising. “Great!”
Minutes later after multiple reincarnations of Mr. And Mrs. Gruntsmore, I find John still standing beside me. His hair is starting to grow back out again; tight ringlets that are a naturally highlighted collection of copper pennies and chocolate kisses are beginning to spring out from under his hat. He says he got the one thing most mixed kids want: the soft hair. Seeing as how I’ve never really spent much time with anyone who gets darker than a golden tan in July and speaks fluent redneck, I’m not quite sure that statement is legitimate, but I take his word for it, anyway.
“What was the question again?”
He rolls his eyes up to ceiling as if asking the Colonel God, why? After working together for about five months now, and spending four of them hanging out, three of them flirting, and two of them fooling around, I have picked up on a few pet peeves he’s discovered with me. One of the biggest includes ignoring him or not hearing him. He hates having to repeat anything that comes out of his mouth, unless it’s the action of lips-on-lips. Riling him up has become my biggest form of flattery.
“I asked, Woman, what you were doing this Saturday,” he leans in closer, and thankfully there are no more customers in line because this close of contact would easily send a Republican to pull out their shotgun and shoot us both. “A bunch of my friends are getting together, being home from college for Thanksgiving and all, and I don’t know. It could be fun.”
Even though We’re Not Labeling It and I’m Just Having Fun, a small burst of warmth spreads below my still barely-there breasts. This feels a lot like the showing-off-of-a-girlfriend situation; like he’s proud of me. I think of Drew — the last boy, the only other boy — and am reminded of the closets and secrets. It feels good to be seen as something to show off. A situation like this makes all of those years of fighting for feminist rights seem incomparable to being a trophy gal. It almost makes me puke.
I give him a small smile, the one I save for our more intimate moments, and say, “That could be arranged.”
His grin follows me throughout the rest of the night.
Tonight is the first night in over three months that I’ve come home to see my father sitting in his chair. I don’t know if it’s because I came home directly after work to study for a history exam in lieu of a heavy petting session, or if it’s because he’s stopped whatever it is that usually has him out all night instead of home to fill in his husband/father role.
Scratch that; I really don’t want to imagine whatever it is my father’s been doing. My imagination is too wild, and it’s gotten me into plenty of trouble so far in life.
It’s just that…seeing him here, at home, with a can of Natty Light at his feet and the TV set to Spike, it’s almost like the past three months have never happened. I can almost forget about the nights I’ve heard him stumble in, or the mornings I’ve spent collecting empty beer cans from every room in the house. The used blankets on the couch are from a visitor. Everything is fine.
But then I see the note.
On the island in the kitchen, there’s a piece of college ruled notebook paper scrawled to death in my mother’s handwriting. I scan through it a couple of times, and with every passing they found a tumor, Your father and I are putting aside our differences, I’m so sorry to have to put you through this my heart sinks lower and lower until it’s bottoming out at my grease covered feet. The manly sounds of a Star Wars marathon fade out, and static breaks in, until my eardrums feel like they’re bleeding from the pressure. My fingers begin to shake causing the words to blur, but that could also be due to the salt water that has begun to fall from my eyes without my permission.
And then one thing, one sound, breaks through the barrier: the tell-tale creak of my father’s rocking chair as he stands.
And everything else snaps into place.
I ball the letter up in my hands and march the few feet forward into the sitting room. Dad’s eyes are rimmed red and lazy, and his arms open like they always have when I’ve been crying. It’s a slow portrayal of The Christ and The Cross and, before, it was always the one place I could seek redemption; now it’s just a drunk man’s lazy attempt at comfort. I throw the wad of crumbled paper at his open arms and whisper viciously so as not to wake Mom behind the door a few feet over, “This is your fucking fault.”
The arms stutter, his lips tremble; but in moments, he’s swallowed them down and puts his Daddy shoes back on. “Excuse me? You watch your mouth, little girl.” His whispers border into shouts. “I am your father and—”
“And what? You’ll ground me? Have you noticed that doesn’t really seem to do much anymore?” His arms finally drop back to his sides. “A tumor, Dad? Really? How long have you two fucking known. Were you only going to tell me when she wound up in a coffin down the street?” This time his lips tremble with weight, and he falls back into his chair, the creaks settling around him like a blanket of comfort. The span of three ragged breaths later and he’s sobbing.
I reach a hand to my cheeks and find them drying.
I don’t go back home for two days.
“We’re going to make you so hot he loses his mind and his friends won’t even care about the bro code.” It’s The Saturday Morning, and after spending the majority of the week at Marie’s, I’m back in her graces as she tries to make me over. Last night was my first night back home, and I entered it into the arms of my pale mother and skittish-eyed father. We talked about the surgery she would be having on Tuesday, and they both danced around the past few months like they had never happened. Later on, as I went to bed, I noticed that the blankets had been packed away, leaving the couch open for guests only.
And for the first time in years, Dad went to bed at the same time as Mom.
“Are we sure that’s what we want?” I ask Marie as she continues to throw dress after dress at me through the beaded curtain that separates her closet from her room. With every item thrown the strings dance along one another sounding like the rainmaker Marie’s mom likes to play with on long days of the summer. “I mean, it’s going to be pretty casual. Just, like, ten people or so hanging out at this one dude’s house. I’m pretty sure we’re just drinking and chilling.”
She pulls her head through the curtain and gives me a look that screams and I wonder how stupid you can be; amazing.
“Or, you know, my hotness could turn this event into an orgy.”
“Huzzah!” she shouts, back to hiding behind the curtain and flinging more delicates my way.
As I allow myself to become a human-shaped-mountain of clothes, my phone starts blaring out lyrics to a terrible faux rock song which causes the entire room to stand still. I catch my breath, Marie stops moving, and the beaded curtain seems to pick up the atmosphere because for once it’s not making a sound. Even static can be silenced by Nickelback.
In the instant Marie’s eyes lock with mine, the entire room seems to un-pause and she dives headfirst for where my duck-taped Nokia sits.
“Marie, stop!” I beg. “Come on, don’t be like that.”
Her face says it all, but she voices her opinion anyway in true Marie fashion. “Don’t be like that? This is Drew’s ringtone, and you expect me to not be like that?” Her eyes shine with disbelief, and for a quick moment I’m reminded of her years of life on me. Sometimes I forget that she and John are both 18 and I’m stuck at sixteen in a high school without them. She always seems to know what’s best for me, but in this moment my petulant feelings are betraying me.
“Give it to me.”
She steps back.
“It’s probably nothing, Marie, god,” I’m desperate now, reaching for the phone in her grasp which has now gone silent, until a single ring pronounces the existence of a voicemail. We both know it’s not nothing. Drew and I haven’t spoken in months; not since the party at the beginning of the school year when I let him in fully and he walked away with more of me than he deserved.
She looks between me and the phone before asking, “Nothing? Then why do you want it so bad?” It’s hypothetical; she knows the answer to that question, too. Afterall, she’s the one that taught me that some people are worse than heroin; the kind that take you really high, but let you crash too hard and alone. They’re addictive, and like any addiction, it’s best to leave them behind. You’d think this thought would stop me, but it’s like I’m being offered a hit for the first time after going cold turkey: resistance feels futile. We’re stuck at a stalemate — her staring at me, me staring at the phone in her hands. But then it happens; her voice breaks and shakes and a huge concave in my chest begins its existence. “You are worth so much more than this. Think about John, about tonight.”
The mention of John pours ice into my veins and it’s a feeling that has always dragged me in worse than the heat of pure anger; I was always meant to be an ice queen, not a maiden of hell. “Mister ‘Let’s Not Label This’? Yeah, real deserving.”
I stomp forward over the discarded carcasses of fashion’s finest, grab my cell phone, and leave.
Operator: Welcome to Voicemail. You have one new message. Message one:
Male Voice: Hey… It’s me. Uh, Drew. Hah. Yeah, you know, in case you’ve forgotten the sound of my voice. Which you easily could have because it’s been… It’s been awhile. It’s just… I need to hear your voice. I miss… I miss my best friend, you know? And I know there’s school, but it’s like you’re not really there anymore, and… Fuck. Yeah, okay. I’m drunk on a Saturday before noon. <chuckles>. Sue me. Call me. Both. I don’t care, I just… Damnit, I need to talk to you.
End call. Dial the same set of digits you’ve had memorized for two years. Ring. Ring. Ring.
Drew: It’s my girl!
You: Drew, hey.
Drew: You called! I can’t believe you called! I didn’t think you would… I even told Brad. <shouts> Brad, didn’t I tell you?! </shouts> But you called… You called.
You: I called.
Drew: I need you to come over. I need to see you face, smell your hair, touch your — <shouts> Shut the fuck up, Brad! You don’t know my fucking life! </shouts> <chuckles>
You: Drew, I…
Drew: No, listen… Listen… I just… <whispers> Please come? Please? I’ll do… I’ll do anything. We need to talk. </whispers>
You: You’re drunk. How much talking can we do?
Drew: You know how much talking we can do when I’m drunk. Come.
It takes twenty minutes to get from Marie’s to Drew’s in my pickup since it can’t go higher than 45 miles per hour. Those twenty minutes are spent calling John and explaining that I won’t be able to make it to the gathering tonight due to family problems. It’s my first slanted lie in our Unlabeled Thing; usually I just leave the information out or tell the full truth when the case presents itself.
But something clawed out of me when I thought about telling him about Drew, and I decided to fib a bit. John knows of Drew, and I’m sure Drew knows about John now. Afterall, why would he be calling all of a sudden? Drew wants what’s his and he doesn’t like sharing. The worst part of the matter is that he’s never really had to worry about that until now.
Does now even count, though?
I pull into the driveway and park behind his truck. A few other vehicles line the drive, but I don’t recognize most of them so I shake it off as company for other members of the household. Drew moved in with his best guy friend, Bradley, in the past year and there were always girls coming and going from Other Place Districts. With Bradley’s dad always gone, it wasn’t hard to believe and Bradley’s house was known as party central. In fact, about two months ago I sat against Marie’s bumper, in this very same parking spot, peeling paint and wondering what was so worthless about me that I could be thrown away like trash.
Now I’m wondering what’s so great that I’m worthy enough to be picked back up.
The house is quiet save for a film being played in the living room to the left; Drew’s room is to the right. I knock, then peer in. He’s lying on his sheet-less bed with an arm thrown over his eyes and a bottle of Jack in the other hand leaning against his sharp hipbones. He’s always been so tall, so long, so thin; even when we were kids, I used to count the freckles on his bony shoulders. He was so angular. It’s only now that he’s starting to put some muscle into his frame, toning up his arms and torso into that of a man’s instead of a boy’s. The site easily takes my breath away.
The sound of my gasp brings his arm up and I’m hit with the full force of his gaze. One of the first things I really noticed about Drew was the intense green color of his eyes, the exact shade of moss that covers rocks in the springs down south that I used to swim in; even now when they’re hazed over from booze and a lack of sleep they’re my favorite things to look at. He doesn’t open his mouth, doesn’t make any sort of sound. He just takes the bottle of whiskey, sets it on the floor, and I know before I even make it to the bed that I’m making a mistake; the same mistake I made two months prior, in this same bed, with this same boy.
But in the end, his sharp arms feel like home; cutting my soft edges until the pain makes way for the desired numb effect.
My mother’s surgery goes a little something like this:
After an hour long drive into The Nearest City With An Actual Hospital That Does Real Medicinal Things, my dad and I are forced to spend three hours sitting in the stiffest chairs ever invented and watch Dr. Phil reruns with about thirty other people waiting for their loved ones to undergo some sort of knife-and-life dance with fate. When the third episode touched on the topic “Is My Teenage Daughter Spinning Out of Control?” I promptly put my headphones on and blasted the mixtape that Marie had made me for this specific occasion. We haven’t really talked since I stormed out on Saturday, but when I went to grab my sunglasses from the pickup this morning, I found this tape and a note that read “We’re not okay, but I hope your mom is. I love you even though you’re a stupid bitch.” It doesn’t get much better than that when it comes to friends.
After the first three hours, an elderly man comes out in a dashing white coat offering us anything we need, which I instantly take as a bad sign.
“What we need is to know how my mom is doing,” I pester him after shooing away his free cafeteria meal card.
“Oh yes, yes,” he squandered out. His voice reminded me of a squirrel if a squirrel could talk and was a creepy old man in a white coat. Maybe I should have accepted that meal card; I could use the energy to create more brain cells. “You mother is quite fine; there were, however, some delays and complications.”
“What the hell does that even mean?” my father interjects before I can.
“Well, you see…” He continues to ramble about how some special liquid that they use for the surgery wasn’t draining properly, so they were going to have to keep her overnight to monitor this particular situation.
Dad and I drove the hour back home for the night and I spent it locked in my room with my headphones blasting the emotions of other people’s problems into my brain-waves instead of worrying about my own.
The second day of what I will now refer to as Mom’s Stint At The Hospital, is even worse, because the liquid that wasn’t draining? Had somehow paralyzed Mom and she was finding it impossible to walk. She was flushed and pale, but kept smiling at me like out roles were reversed.
“It’s not that big of a deal, baby,” she says to me, using the same fake voice she uses when talking to the other mothers at parent-teacher days, “these things happen. The doctors know what they’re doing, we just have to trust them.” All I can focus on is how much she doesn’t even look like herself anymore; her usually crazy-curly hair is flattened out, her eyelids are drooping into her sunken cheeks, and a thought hits me so hard I have to excuse myself to the restroom where I puke up the water and crackers I’ve been force-feeding myself over the past few days: she already looked dead.
I pull out my phone and think about calling the only three people I have in my life outside my parents. But which one? Marie and I still weren’t really talking, even though I stayed up until four this morning waiting to see the tell-tale flashing of headlights. There was only darkness. Before The Party, I could have easily called Drew and he would have raced to the hospital to be with my family; but after this past Saturday, he never called, never texted. I figured we were back into the Not Talking Phase of whatever the hell we had become. And John? Well, John and I will have to end; he spent the past two days texting me to make sure I was okay, and actually caring about what was going on in my life outside him. It felt way too much like a boyfriend concern, so I ignored every single one of them. He made it very clear early on what this was between us, and after the Drew incident, I can’t find myself willing to blur the lines any more than I already have. This leaves me with a silent phone, an aching heart, and a toilet bowl.
The day passes in a haze of bad television, curling up next to my unmovable mother who was actually constantly being moved from the bed for test, and eating shitty cafeteria food with my father whom I’ve barely said more than five words to. Overall, a successful experience. When it’s time for visitors to leave, my mom lets the facade break for a moment when she tears up and says, “This is the first holiday I’ve spent away from you.”
I had completely forgotten; tomorrow is Thanksgiving.
Before I can let Niagara Falls conquer my own face, I pull the Fake Mom Routine and say, “Don’t be ridiculous. Daddy and I will just have to bring the turkey and dressing to you.” It was worth the smile that it put on her face.
At four-oh-five on Thanksgiving morning of my sixteenth year on this planet, a shitty rusted Neon flashes its lights three times outside my bedroom window. I pull on an old pair of sweats I had stolen from my dad and one of my mom’s old hoodies that I was already cuddling. When I’m put in emotional states, I seek comfort in the clothes of those that protect me: usually these sweats, and sometimes an old volleyball t-shirt that I borrowed from Marie ages ago, which was hidden beneath mom’s hoodie at this very moment.
We don’t even look at each other when I crawl into the front seat, and it isn’t until we hit Highway Pots-R-Us — an old dirt highway that was filled with huge potholes and a local place for Potheads to sit and bake it out — that either of us say anything. As always it’s Marie who decides to fill the silence.
“I don’t care about He Who Must Not Be Named and what you did with him, but I do care about your mom. I care about the fact that you’re totally bullshitting your way through all of this, and I care that you probably spent last night listening to Rise Against on repeat waiting for me.” At this moment she looks at me, and for the first time in a long time I can actually see the tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry I didn’t show. A part of me wanted you to suffer a bit, see what it was like without me there. It was selfish, bitchy. And I’m sorry.”
The road continues on, and the constant bump of the holes rhythms my body into peace. Dad used to tell me that the only way he could get me to sleep was to bring me out on this road in our old Ford Bronco; I wonder if I brought him out here now if it would help lull him to sleep. I could hear his sobs through the paper thin walls the past few nights.
“It’s okay,” I put in a tape labeled I Hope For Better In November and wait for the opening lines of one of my favorite songs by my favorite band. “This is a new tape. What all’s on it?”
Noticing that our moment seemed to be over, she starts fidgeting with her cigarettes and lighter. “Well, November’s actually been kind of rough for you so far, so I thought I would make you a tape to remind you of all of the things you used to like about the month. It’s got Jimmy, obviously, but also all of the different tunes we’ve jammed out during the fall over the years. I even have a song from Bring It On from the year we went to state championships for cheerleading on there.”
I snort. “You mean the year we worked our asses off and then your stupid belly button ring lost us the championship?”
She rolls her eyes and says, “Yeah, yeah… Like it wasn’t Hoebag’s fault for totally weighing a thousand pounds that day and getting zip air on the basket toss.”
“Word,” I nod.
“Word,” she nods back.
My mom might not have been serenaded with the kind of turkey she was used to enjoying on Thanksgiving this year, but she sure seemed to enjoy the deli sandwich we picked up for her.
“Jesus Christ, that is good,” she said, eyes closed in ecstasy, “the food here is gelatin, all of it. You’d think they’d have actual turkey today, but since I’m not technically a ‘serious case’ I’m not at the top of the list for the good shit.”
“Not being able to walk isn’t a serious case?” Dad asked.
“Of course not, Dad,” I countered, “the good shit goes to people who aren’t even able to actually taste the turkey. It’s only fair that way.”
He scoffed at the powers that be, and when he put his arm around my shoulders I didn’t shrug it off. As sad as it seemed, this alcohol-scented freezing joint known as a hospital was repairing my family as it tried to repair my mom’s body. The really selfish part of me prayed it could repair everything.
“We need to talk.”
It’s been two weeks since Thanksgiving. Within days my mother’s body started rejecting the liquid that was leaving her immovable, and she had been home for over a week now slowly moving around the house with the help of a cane. The doctors triple-checked after my temper tantrums and assured me all three times: the tumor was completely gone. All she needed to do was strengthen her body back up and she’d be back to normal in no time.
This is my first day back at work.
Of course John would be here.
“What can I do for you, John?”
He looks worse than I do; his hair is covering his ears now, and his eyes are bloodshot from what I’m guessing is a lack of sleep. I had gotten multiple texts and voicemails at crazy times during the night in the past few weeks, so I have a feeling this was the suspect. A strong part of me wants to run my fingers through his curls and breathe in his spicy scent; to act like my silence never happened.
“You slept with Drew.”
But the silence did happen. And Drew happened. There was no turning back.
“Where did you hear that?”
“Does it matter?” he sighs.
“I guess it doesn’t.”
He shakes his head in disbelief; I wonder if it’s because of the conversation or the fact that we’re having it standing near a pile of chicken livers. “This is why I didn’t want to label anything with you; because I knew you’d go back to him in a heartbeat, no questions asked.”
The laugh that comes out of my mouth tastes bitter, “If that’s how you feel, then why did you even want to start this?”
The annoyance in his big brown eyes is replaced by a sadness, a tint of pity. “Because I wanted to prove to you that you were worthy — that you would never be a fluke in my book.” He swallows, as if trying to fight off his next words but he can’t digest them, “years of being somebody’s backup doesn’t mean anything just because you title it best friend. He knows what he’s doing. I was hoping that by being with me you’d realize it, too.”
Throughout his speech, I remember all of the moments where his “refusing to label this” made me feel less than, like a fluke, not much better than how Drew’s been making me feel for months, for years. It doesn’t matter that John made me laugh and could spread a warmth throughout my cold body; his sincerity doesn’t change the fact that he started this between us with the words, “let’s not label this anything” before he kissed me and made me feel everything. His sincerity doesn’t change the fact that he refused to call me his girlfriend, refused to treat our companionship like an actual relationship, and never once came to me asking, “please don’t go back to Drew, he’s toxic to you and I just want to make you happy.” This speech is too little too late and his attempt to guilt me further through it will not rest on my shoulders, too.
The slap radiates through the restaurant as if all of the fryers, rednecks, and country music had silenced into nothing.
Needless to say, I quit.
I was never a big fan of chicken, anyways.
He’s shirtless when I reach the house. It shouldn’t be so surprising. For once, the only vehicle in the driveway is his; I take it as a sign for something I don’t quite understand just yet.
After the showdown at Chicken of the Kentucky Fried Lot, I should have driven straight here to hash it out with Drew. John’s words struck something deep inside of me that I had been shoveling doubt on since I was 12 and Drew got his first girlfriend: why not me? Why was I a fluke, a mistake, the one time he gave me all? But halfway there, I decided to go home and shower; a part of me wanted to look good for him, like his first girlfriend and every other one he’s had since then. I scrubbed my body raw, blew dry my hair, and applied lip plumper. For once I feel like a Marilyn instead of a Jackie; when it comes to Drew, this is a good thing, I suppose. Afterall, I’m going to need all of the confidence I can get for what I’m about to do.
I saunter into his bedroom this time instead of sneaking, but he isn’t the one who gasped at the sight this time like I had hoped. Like always, it was still me, his shirtless body lounging and watching a movie, but still taking my stupid breath away.
“Oh, hey,” he says, when he finally notices me. “You look nice. What’s the occasion?”
It takes everything I have not to slump in defeat.
“How come you never called?”
He pauses the movie. I keep on speaking, my hip cocking to the side and my rage boils inside.
“After that night, you never called. It’s been almost three weeks, and I haven’t heard a single thing from you.” He opens his mouth. “Do you know what I’ve been dealing with? My mom was in the hospital, Drew. They thought she had cancer. She stopped walking. We had turkey sandwiches on Thanksgiving.” His eyes grow wider. “And you never called. You never texted.” I start moving towards the bed. “You never call or text anymore. It’s been years since you’ve taken an actual interest in my life outside how it pleases you. And that back to school party? I gave you everything, Drew. Not just my stupid virginity, but my heart. My whole fucking heart, after years of being your best friend, and what did you do?” He swallows. “You called the experience that felt like a dream come true for me a fluke. An accident. A mistake. It didn’t mean anything to you. I didn’t mean anything to you.” By now I was hovering over him, both hands had made their way onto my hips like a soldier preparing for war. And this is my war, my insecurities and insufficiencies. It hit me all at once, staring at this boy I thought I loved. I let my hands fall, my shoulders slump, and I sigh.
“I don’t mean anything to you.”
He reaches forward, probably preparing to call me “babe” or something equally demeaning in relation to this moment. When we were kids he called me Dani. My parents call me Nelli. Marie calls me Dee. And while it lasted, those few short months of actually mattering to another person, John said my name with a fierce protectiveness.
“No,” my head snaps up, “I am not your ‘babe.’ My name is Danielle, and ten years ago I was the little girl that held your hand when you were too scared to climb the jungle gym on your own. That day you called me your best friend to anyone who would listen. And I have held your hand every day since then when you needed it, but not once have you held mine back. I don’t know why it took me this long to realize that I deserve more than that, but it’s true. I do.”
I turn for the door that I had come in and halfway to my truck I hear the screen door slam open behind me.
“Babe, come back! I love you, damnit, let’s talk about this, come on!”
I sigh, open the door, then shout back, “What part of ‘Call me Danielle’ do you not understand, jackass?”
Heading for Highway Pots-R-Us, I call Marie.
“Speak,” she answers.
So I do; without nicknames, sarcasm, or deflection, I tell my very real best friend everything I’ve kept from her. The truth flows from my lips, and with every breath my chest feels lighter. When I’ve finished she asks, “Well, Dee, where are you going now?”
“Home,” I say with a small smile, thinking of my father’s sober smile asking for forgiveness through home cooked meals and waiting hand and foot on my mom while she stubbornly tries to do everything on her own. “Obviously.”
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