Today, when all else failed: logic, time, plans, I realized I still had control over my goals. Today, damn it, despite all that was chaos, I could make two things happen. One involved a tredmill. Anyone who knows me is aware of my hatred of the machine, but I had to do it to execute my goal. And you know what? Done! Accomplished! So now onto something else I can control. Wild Mustard, I never thought I’d say this to you, but you saved me today.
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Instead, I was on the next flight to Costa Rica. Eight years, and I would finally bring my parents back to “our beach.”
“Got your mail,” I heard Pete shout from under my window. I looked down to see the top of his Chargers hat and a fan of mail waving in the July heat. I ran down to greet him. Pete. Pete would help me breathe. His specialty was finding the air in the room. Usually I would have hated the parade of people, but today, I needed as many distractions as I could find.
“Did I win Publisher’s this time?” I asked, kissing his bronzed nose, inhaling the scent of stain. He’d just finished a deck for a house in ritzy Rancho Santa Fe; not the kind of small job he normally took, but it paid well and future work promised. He plopped the mail on the kitchen counter.
“Now why, little lady,” he drew “little lady” out like Rhett Butler, “would you need to win Publisher’s? Money can’t buy you love, you know.” He winked and grinned, revealing his chipped-tooth smile.
And there it was, tossed, inconspicuously in the heap of grocery ads. I knew what it was the second I saw the slanted block lettering. Return address: Donna Henty, California State Correctional Facility. Aunt Karen’s hand penning the forwarding address from her Santa Barbara home. I braced myself against the counter. The cool tile pressed into my palm. My fingertips turned white where they dug into the hard slab.
But Karen had just been here. Why hadn’t she said something? Why would she send it the day—the day—before I would undertake the most difficult thing I’d ever had to do? Couldn’t she have just handed it to me when she was here? Give it to me like a normal, caring mother figure instead of sending it—without a single word—in the mail?
I plucked the envelope from the stack and spun on my heels, let out a heavy sigh. “Shit.” Outside, across Mission Bay, the sun melted butter-like on the horizon.
“What, no Publishers?” Pete joked. He’d taken off his hat and ran his fingers through his self-proclaimed receding hairline. “You know, Liv, ‘If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.’” He smirked, raised his eyebrow. “Lennon. Your favorite.”
“Donna.” I held the envelope up like a court document. “My absolute effing nightmare. The day before I leave and I get one of her fucking letters.” I crumpled onto the bar stool. “I need a beer. Or tequila. Do I have tequila?” I pointed to the cupboard to the right of Pete.
He didn’t move. “Just forget about it. Can you do that? Forget about it until you come home?”
“Forget about it? How can I forget about it when she sends this crap to me? Why can’t she just leave me alone? It’s like…it’s like as if killing my parents wasn’t enough, she has to remind me every year. Every fucking year!” I cupped my face in my hands. I felt my cheeks heat up. “Why can’t she just rot away in her jail cell?”
Pete came around the counter, rubbed circles on my back. I could feel the calluses on his hand through my tank top.
“Tequila. Do I have any?”
He pulled his hand off my back and went to the cupboard, reluctantly poured me a glass, no ice. I think he was afraid of what I’d do if he didn’t. Sat it on the countertop in front of me. I avoided his eyes as I picked it up, threw it back. The gold liquid bit my tongue, burned my throat.
In the middle of the night, after four hours of tangle-in-the-sheets restless sleep, I tiptoed downstairs, my bare feet shuffling across the hardwood. The microwave read 3:15 a.m. I pinched the letter from the stack of junk mail, which I had planned on tossing in the morning, and sequestered myself in the bathroom.
I sat on the cold toilet, tied and retied my yellow bathrobe. Placed the letter in my lap. The envelope was crisp and white and sterile. Began tearing it in half. Stopped myself. Unwound the entire roll of toilet paper one square at a time, the white sheets ribboning at my feet. Slid my index finger in the open pocket where the envelope wasn’t sealed. Pulled out an ear of the letter. Threw a wad of TP at the back of the closed bathroom door. It hit noiselessly and floated to the floor. The light above me hummed and a siren wailed blocks away. I tapped my finger against the corner of the letter folded neatly inside. I think I half expected to prick my finger, in some demented blood sister kind of way, and be forever linked with that woman sitting in a jail cell. As if I wasn’t already. As if my parents’ blood wasn’t enough.
And then, before I could think twice about it, I pulled the white paper from its home, unfolded it, scanned the letter, balled it up, chucked it into the sink. What was I thinking? Read her letter? Stupid, stupid. I rubbed my eyes; realized I’d forgotten to wash off my mascara. And my long red hair was still braided. Had I gotten ready for bed at all? My cheekbones and butterfly wings of freckles burned with the thought of what I had wanted to—had been about to do—read the letter. Ha! Read her letter. Why did she bother still writing them, anyway? She was just as dead as my parents.
I stood up and ran the hot water. I wanted it scalding hot. I turned the bar of soap over in my hands once, twice, seven, thirteen times and lowered my sudsy palms under the boiling water. “Ah! Shit!” They were bright red, flushed with what they’d done, what they’d tried to do. That would teach them.
Pete rapped on the door. “Liv?”
“Yeah?” I slouched back down on the toilet seat, my bathrobe bunching under my butt.
He cracked open the door, leaned his large frame into the slant of light.
“Yeah?” I said again, defeated, holding my tomato red hands in each other.
He moved into the doorway, rested against it, arms the color of cinnamon folded across his chest like human origami. His almond eyes, soft, and one eyebrow arched. His crooked, chipped tooth smile quickly faded when he saw the white envelope on the floor. “Oh, you didn’t?” He stepped toward me, put his hand on my cheek. Warm. Like Dad. “Want me to read it to you? Or toss it? I’ve got matches in the truck and we could start a bonfire.”
“I almost read it. The last time I read one—I was fifteen. The first one she sent. I couldn’t get out of bed for two days.” I brought his hand from my face, held it in my lap, examining the callouses, the hangnails, the cuticles that covered the moon of his nails. Those hands. Varnish or stain along the U of his nail bed. I curled his fingers up like a sushi roll, unfurled them one by one. The bathroom light was too bright for this time of night, morning, really, for this kind of emotional upheaval. I wanted black. Catacomb black. Night-mask black. Moonless black. A lack of light to hide my fear, my uncertainty, my unexplainable desire to read what this woman had to say.
“I hate myself for wanting to read it. I don’t care what she has to say. So why do I want to read it?” I uncurled the last of Pete’s fingers, his pinky, and looked into his hazel eyes. I loved how everything about the man in front of me was a riff on the color brown.
“You want Confucius, John Lennon, Jodi Riggins or Pete Curtis?” He had an uncanny ability to channel eastern philosophers, seventies singers and best friends on demand.
“Pete Curtis?” It turned out as a question, I guess, because his usually pensive and thoughtful responses flooded rooms with truth. With bite. Honest bite. The kind you know only a best friend would utter, the kind you dare not even utter to yourself for fear that the truth, out loud, would catalyze it into reality, though it already was. In the beginning of our relationship, before asking his honest opinion, we’d assume our roles of Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson: You want the truth? Yes I want the truth. You can’t handle the truth. I’d beg for his candor and Pete would curl around me till the sting of what he’d said wore off, until I was ready to figure out a way to tackle the wolf outside my door.
“She’s one of the last connections to your parents. Besides the ashes, and all. Once those are gone…” The only time Pete ever sounded unsure about anything was when he discussed my parents. What does a boyfriend, who saw his parents whenever he wanted, say to a girl whose parents were murdered when she was fifteen? What does anyone ever say that’s right? That brings back charred memories? That washes away pangs of guilt? Were there such things as “comforting words,” or did some schmuck make that up to sell books?
I never held it against him though. He always tried. Offered comfort in his arms and in the gaze of his eyes, just like my father. I’d never told Pete about my family’s winking words, but sometimes, Pete glanced over at me and closed his eye ever so slightly, the kind of soft lid close Dad used to mean You might not be able to see me, but I’ll be here. It gave me the chills when Pete did it, and I never had the guts to ask if he really ways winking or if he had a wood chip in his eye. I could ask him about his words though, and he could flood me with those, even if they stung. Besides, words were just words, right? Isn’t that what Mom had always said, that “the reader, not the writer, bequeathed the power of the word”?
He shifted his weight from one leg to the other from his squatting position in front of the toilet. “And you can’t drink her away.”
I averted his eyes. The bathroom light needed a dimmer. It was too effing bright in here.
“Liv, did you hear me? Drinking her out of your mind does not mean she goes away.” He cupped my chin with his fingertips. “I know it hurts like a bitch, but you cannot spend your whole life running away from her.”
And there it was. The Truth. I couldn’t look at him. And I couldn’t breathe.
“Read it then,” I whispered. The familiar colony of bees awakened in the pit of my stomach, started their buzzing.
“No, that’s not what I meant. You don’t have to do this now, you just can’t—”
“No, let’s see what bullshit I’ve been missing all these years. Let’s see exactly what I’ve been running away from, Pete.” The last bit came out hard, mocking. “Read it.” I locked eyes with him. I would not cry. I would not freaking cry. Wild buzzing in my stomach.
Pete took the letter from the sink, unballed it, smoothed out the lined page.
“Olivia,” he read. Looked into my green eyes. “You sure about this? You leave tomorrow.”