When Safety is on the Line

I back out of my driveway when I first see him. The stranger is meandering down the street strangely close to my property. He’s tall, white, and dressed mostly in black. In my rear-view mirror, I watch him get closer and closer to my house. It isn’t even lunch time.

My antique-white colonial sits on two acres of rolling Virginia hills in a small subdivision filled with dense, mature trees and a small creek that weaves in and out of the yards like a thread. We are several miles from the busy part of town, and I know most of my neighbors by face.

My van is halfway down the block when he glances in my direction. His face is unfamiliar. He dips into the woods, just over my property line, causing my heart to skip a beat, then quicken.

What do I do?

I’ve always been the kind of girl who chooses flight over fight. In gym class, I remember ducking every time that red ball came my way, and wincing at the sting on my skin as it bounced off my body.

I also remember getting in trouble during my years as a paralegal. I’d hide under my desk biting my nails, waiting for the lawyer’s backlash to ensue after transposing address numbers or misspelling names like Shwartzman and Agostinelli on important contracts.

In my rearview I see my toddler’s tiny hands swaying back and forth to the beat of “Let it Go,” as Elsa belts it out from her DVD player. This house is where my girls will grow to women.

Flight isn’t an option.

I stop contemplating it, and attempt a U-turn, but my palms are so clammy they can’t grip the steering wheel. I rub my hands across the tops of my thighs hoping the friction helps, and it does. Slowly, I press on the gas and my van turns, then lurches forward down the street.

In front of my property, I watch the stranger walk back and forth through our brush, just beyond the tree line. He keeps getting farther and farther from the street, and closer to my house. I almost can’t see him anymore. I can feel my stomach tighten.

I need a Tums. 

“Hey!” I shout. “Do you know you’re on private property?”

He pivots to look at me. His hood is tightly drawn, so I can’t see the color of his hair, but I know I won’t forget his face. He has a smattering of pink acne scars on his cheeks, and his light eyes are darting back and forth erratically.

He starts walking towards me.

Oh shit. Now what?

As the distance between us closes, I can see the muscles in his forehead twitching nervously, too.

He looks guilty!

I glance at his hands and check for any kind of movement that would indicate he might be reaching for a weapon. I’m suddenly quite fearless in my Grand Caravan.

“I’m looking for my phone,” the kid says. He appears to be in his late teens or early twenties. “My girlfriend tossed it in your woods last night. I was just trying to find it.” He puts his hands up defensively.

“Do you live in the neighborhood?” I scrutinize him. I keep my car in drive and my foot on the brake, ready to run him over.

“Yeah, I live over there,” he says, waving a hand in the direction behind me. There are only two streets in my neighborhood, a dead end cul-de-sac and a horseshoe shaped street that intersects the dead end in two places. He didn’t mention either street by name.

I don’t believe you.

“I’m calling the cops,” I say.

“I’ll leave,” he says. “It’s no big deal.”

It’s a very big deal, asshole. You’re trespassing!

I watch him hustle past my van before I roll down the window to take a picture of him on the sly. He turns left into the horseshoe and disappears. Once air returns to my lungs, I call the cops. Minutes drag before the sheriff finally arrives in his cruiser.

“Without a getaway car, a break-in is unlikely,” says the cop. “But you can’t rule it out. I’ll see if I can find him in the neighborhood for a talk right now. And we’ll start patrolling here more frequently.”

What if you don’t see him? What if he comes back?

I taste my morning coffee mixed with bile at the back of my throat.

That little shit.

My home is more than simple brick and mortar. It’s memories of my children racing down the stairs on Christmas morning. It’s sleepovers with friends and moms’ nights in. It’s kitchen dance parties and summer barbecues on the back porch, catching fireflies in a mason jar at dusk. It’s the place I walk barefoot and bra-less with yesterday’s eyeliner staining the skin beneath my eyes, and everyone accepts me just the same.

And some little jerk in a black hoodie is going encroach on that?

I don’t think so, buddy.

Maybe I’m a ‘fight’ kind of girl, after all…

 

 

Photo courtesy of Jordan Whitt/Unsplash

Adulting in the Digital Age

I have no clue what I’m doing.

Not with parenting. Not with cooking and cleaning. Not with social media. Not with putting on my own damn lipstick. No effing clue.

I mean, I’m sure if you looked at my Pinterest page, you would think that I’m this insanely organized person with perfectly planned kid parties, amazing eye makeup, color-coded closets, and healthy home-cooked meals seven days a week. If you looked at my Facebook and Instagram pages, you would find my kids’ happy faces on vacations, playing family games, and going out to eat wearing clean, matching clothes. I look like I know what I’m doing.

But let’s be honest, Pinterest is a place where dreams of healthy, easy recipes, DIY refinished cabinets, labeled spice racks in alphabetical order, and picture frames hung with precision on a pristine gallery wall are born, then immediately murdered. We’ve all “pinned now, to read later”. Right? Only for me, most laters never come to fruition. They just hang out on my cyber pin board collecting digital dust.

Here are some fun facts: I usually have a full-blown anxiety attack that lasts for weeks every time one of my children has a birthday coming up. It ends only when the party is winding down and people are filing out of my house. Pinterest has amplified that anxiety. Fun fact two: my closets are a disaster, with boots piled in one corner, and clothes that have been pushed and smushed in the other. I have so many of those gross metal hangers from the dry cleaner, but I never remember to take them back so they hang there, taunting me with their rigid ugliness. Three: I try to cook. Sometimes it’s edible, and sometimes we end up ordering Chinese. Four: I don’t have time to paint my 1990s oak cabinets, so I am secretly praying for them to eventually be vintage and cool. Five: most of my photos are floating in cyberspace, or getting dusty in a box, instead of being displayed.

And those moments of perfection posted on Facebook and Instagram? Fake!

When my children are in that moment right before chaos, where they both appear to be civilized, I document it. I #hashtag it. I share it. When we make a dinner that actually looks delectable, I post it for all of Instagram to see. But why? Do I want to make someone jealous of my moment? Have I been programmed by social media to broadcast my life across the web, sharing only the moments that make me look like I actually have my shit together? I don’t know, maybe it’s a little of both.

What if I shared the real life things my family does instead. Like when my kids hit each other or pull on each other’s hair: #sisterlylove. Or when my oldest refuses to eat and my youngest chucks her chicken across the room: #dinnerfun. Or maybe when we barely make it to the bus for the hundredth time #mamaislosinghershitagain.

Being so involved on social media makes my brain hurt. The real honest to God’s truth is that most people don’t care what my kids did today. Most people don’t care what ideas I have saved on Pinterest. And most don’t care what I’m eating for dinner.

It’s okay. I understand. The feeling is pretty mutual. So why, then, do I put it all out there? Why do I pretend like I live in a dollhouse where everything is made of cupcakes and my hair doesn’t move, whenever I go online?

Being a mess is okay!

My kids don’t care that I have three unorganized junk drawers and a constant stream of clothes folded in baskets we have to dig through. And they would rather have their parties at Chuckie Cheese instead of at home under duress. And they definitely prefer to eat pasta every single night of the week, than some homemade Paleo/21 Day Fix friendly meal I pinned for my own waistline.

They want me to close my phone and open my eyes, to make mistakes and problem-solve without parenting ques from Facebook. They want me to be real and present. They want my mess.

So maybe it’s time share and pin less. Maybe it’s time to unplug a little more, and stop worrying about the Joneses, the Facebookers, and the Pinners, so I can connect with the people in my small corner of this big world.

Once I have that down, then maybe I can figure out lipstick.

Photo courtesy of Pinterest.

Penny for Your Thoughts

A dirty mattress with rusted coils poking through sits propped up like a couch in one corner of the small shack, and a stack of old paperbacks sits in the other. A candle and some matches from a local bar are on top. There is no door, only a blue tarp to block out the wind. And some of the wooden planks of the walls are loose, letting in light between the cracks.

Patty used to squat here, but last week they found her behind Walmart with a needle sticking straight outta her arm. Dead so long she had rigamortis. I’m sorry she’s gone. Patty was a good person with a shit habit. Me too, I guess.

It has been a long road, but now I get methadone at the clinic once a day. I stand in line and get a dose just big enough to keep me from getting sick.

Today I was at my regular spot, asking for change, and each car that drove by just looked right through me. It was like I didn’t exist. I get it, though. We’ve all been approached by someone asking for change. People become numb. I used to be numb, too.

But people out here do exist. We have flesh and blood and souls. Some of us have just run out of luck, and some, like me, have made a couple mistakes along the way.

I sigh and watch a cloud of crystals form in front of my eyes. The chill in my chest is hard to erase in the winter, but I’ll get through.

Other than the mattress and my books, there isn’t room for much else, but at least I’ve got a roof during the colder months this year.

I hear a rustle at my tarp just as the sun begins to dip.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s Jan. Mind if I come in?”

“Not much room, but come in,” I say. “I can share the mattress, but leave your drugs outside.” It doesn’t pay to be stingy on the streets. Or anywhere, I guess.

Jan pulls back the tarp, letting in a breeze that bites. The extra weight on her bones makes it hard for her to breathe, and every time she exhales I get a whiff of cigarette smoke and teeth that need a good brushing.

“I found this book on the street today,” she says, tossing a tattered paperback into my lap. “You read, don’t cha?”

“I do. Thank you, Jan,” I say, carefully moving the candle and matches. I add it to the stack with my others, then light the candle for extra light.

“You’re welcome, dear,” she coughs, and nearly brings up a lung. “Thanks for lettin’ me sit with ya” she says. “Most folks don’t want me ‘round cause ‘a my size and all.”

“It’s no trouble at all,” I say, giving her room on the mattress.

“A kind lady bought me a sandwich today,” she holds up the sub wrapped in white paper with green and yellow letters. “Care to share? For your troubles.”

I feel my stomach grumble painfully in response to the mention of food.

“That would be nice,” I say, taking half her sandwich.

Photo courtesy of Gratisography

In the Woods

Your distinguished oak trees shelter me from raging storms, still

the darkness between I fear.

 

Photo courtesy of Artur Rukowski/Unsplash

Bad Apple

Amanda traded her pencil skirts and Manolo Blahniks for jeans and faded leather boots, and her high-paying career as an attorney in New York, for solitude on the farm.

Walking away from her New York life was easier than expected, but then again…

***

She stared at the sun setting behind the rows of apple trees. Most apples were likely to never get harvested. Instead, they would rot and fall to the ground or be ravaged by beetles. She vowed to breathe life back into daddy’s orchard, no matter the cost.

The last happy memory she had of that place was picking apples with him. She longed to hear his voice again, reminding her the proper way to choose fruit for harvesting, to watch him smile as she tried to grab the branches just out of her reach.

But her daddy never was the same after her mama died. It was so sudden. Suicide, they said. After her death, he let everything go, no longer paying the employees, or caring for the trees.

Her fingers touched the chipped paint on the porch railing. A bit of white peeled off and fell to the ground, starkly standing out against the green grass.

The glimmer from her wedding band caught her eye and Amanda hastily pulled it off, ripping the skin on her knuckle. She swallowed the bile rising from her belly, and walked down the splintered stairs, stopping just before the trees. With a look of disgust, she tossed the two-and-a-half carat ring into the hole. It bounced off the gun, making a tink sound.

Using her daddy’s favorite shovel, rusted from years on the field, she filled the hollowed ground with soil. One pile at a time was scooped and dropped until she finished burying her secrets beneath the pale moonlight.

Amanda wiped the sweat from her brow and tossed the shovel aside.

***

…She preferred boots, anyway.

Photo courtesy of Rico Bico/Unsplash

Ski Lesson

“First toe, then heel.”

The neon green rental skis lay before me, perpendicular to the mountain. Snow had started to fall, and perfect white flakes were landing on them, illuminating each scratch and dent from inexperienced skiers who wore them before me. 

I looked up to my instructor, a tall, slender man named Gunther with reflective sunglasses on. In them I could see myself bent into awkward right angles. I straightened my shoulders, and looked back to the skis. They looked more like big green boats, and I hate the ocean.

It was barely 20 degrees outside, but underneath my brand new ski coat, North Face fleece, and base layer, sweat was gathering at the small of my back. I pulled my goggles over my eyes with mitten-covered hands. My peripheral vision was limited because of the gigantic piece of plastic and foam on my face, and my range of motion was restricted because of all the layers. I pulled down the fleece neck warmer for a dose of oxygen, inhaled the icy air, and returned it to its position over my mouth. After that, I focused on the skis or, more specifically, the scratches on the skis. 

Why did I let my husband talk me into this?

“Toe then heel,” Gunther repeated. “Downhill ski first.” His German accent was thick, reminding me of my mother-in-law. 

Kids less than half my size zoomed around me, first to my front, then to my back. They traversed the mountain easily, back and forth, keeping their skis in a wedge shape. Each of them safely stopped at the bottom, not far from me and Gunther.

Toe. Then heel.

Balancing on my left foot, I picked up my right foot like I was told. The boot weighed at least five pounds. It took some navigating, but after several tries I got the toe of my boot lined up with the binding. I stepped down hard, and heard a click.

“Das ist gut!” he said. “Now your left foot. Dig the edge of your right ski in. Balance. Use your poles for support, right? Toe, then heel.”

I tightened my grip on the ski poles and tried to dig them into the snow. One pole slipped on a patch of ice, and I lost my footing. I fell forward, but my ski instructor caught me by the arm.

“Again,” he said, righting my shoulders. “Das ist easy. Don’t think too much. Just do.”

“Okay,” I said, “just do.” I found my center on my right ski and dug the edge against the mountain. I pressed my left boot in and it clicked. “Yay!” I squealed.

“Cool, right?” Gunther asked. The wrinkles on his face became more pronounced as his mouth stretched into a wide grin. He appeared to be having fun with my lack of experience.

“Yes,” I said. “Very cool.”

“Now, we ski.”

Crap.

* * * * *

I fell eleven times on the bunny slope during that lesson, crossing my tips, turning too fast, or catching the edge of my green boats on ice. Each time, Gunther pulled by the arm to a standing position and told me to try again. 

By the end of my lesson, the weight of the thick fabric against my skin felt like I had dumbbells hanging from my shoulders. Air was getting stuck somewhere in the top half of my lungs, never giving me a full breath. Sweat had pooled inside my mittens. And the muscles in the back of my legs were quivering, but I listened to him. I got back up and kept trying.

This is my fifth year on skis. I don’t use rentals anymore. Instead, I have my own. They are purple and black with silver sparkles. When I strap them on, they are an extension of me. I know exactly how well my edge will catch against the ice, and how quickly I can turn. After lessons with two other instructors and hundreds of runs down the slope, Gunther’s words are the only ones that echo in my head, guiding me down the mountain, and picking me back up when I fall.

Photo courtesy of  Unsplash.

Shayla’s Choice

“I’ll drop you here,” Chris says, parking his blue pick-up next to a meter, three buildings down from the clinic. Downtown has few skyscrapers. Instead, most streets look like this one, with rows of older two-story brick buildings, iron fire escapes hitched sideways against the windows. As a child, Shayla imagined running down them as they lowered to the ground.

“Okay,” she whispers, “but I’m scared.”

He has cheated on her more than once, but she chose to stay. She tries to find something resembling love in his eyes, but he remains focused on the crumbled road. Crews had yet to patch the streets after the harshness of the winter, leaving it broken, like their relationship.

“Go. And call when you’re done,” he says. Shayla brushes a tear from her eye and climbs out of his truck, shutting the door behind her. Chris drives off without a second glance, and the rush of June air his truck leaves behind smells of river water and exhaust fumes. A wave of nausea sweeps over her body.

She grips her stomach and turns in the direction of the old warehouse. A dozen angry protesters separate her from her future. With no one at her side, she swallows hard, never feeling more alone. Her heart begins to palpitate.

“Why didn’t I tell my mom?” Shayla asks herself. She exhales and steadies herself before walking towards the door. Her pale fingers clutch her purse close like a shield against the name calling.

Baby murderer! Killer!

Somehow, she pushes past the protesters, and pulls the door open. Its heaviness reminds her of the consequences she would face for this mistake.

After checking in with reception, a small boxy room with messy stacks of paper piled up in every corner, the clerk points her towards the waiting area. Pine floors stretch the length of the old warehouse, and vintage flower-patterned couches and Venetian rugs placed at odd angles attempt to create definition. She finds a spot on an over-sized beige couch full of soft lines and maroon flowers, and settles deep into its broken cushion. There, she finds a familiar comfort of home.

“Shayla Hutchins?”

Shayla looks up, adjusts her cross-body bag nervously, and smiles at the girl standing in front of her. She glances at the nametag – volunteer. She stands and follows the girl back to a small room with nothing but an exam table and a strange looking machine.

“Change into this. The doctor and I will be back shortly,” the volunteer hands her a hospital gown.

After she closes the door, Shayla changes, and watches the clock.

Knock, knock.

“Come in,” Shayla says, startled.

The doctor and the volunteer file in quietly, and shut the door. The doctor explains the procedure, but Shayla can’t seem to comprehend what she is saying. Everything sounds muffled the way it does after a snowstorm, distant.

“Would you like me to stay and hold your hand?” the volunteer asks. Shayla looks down at her hand, outstretched; her caramel-colored skin looks soft and inviting.

She slowly nods yes, and the volunteer smiles warmly.

“I’ll be right here with you the whole time.”

“Thank you,” Shayla manages to say.

“You’re welcome. And you’re going to be okay,” she says. Her eyes are hot chocolate with a sprinkle of cinnamon, bringing warmth to Shayla’s numbness.

The doctor turns on the contraption and a loud hum fills the room. Shayla closes her eyes, grips the volunteer’s hand, and stifles a scream through gritted teeth.

***

The volunteer rubs Shayla’s shoulder like an old friend and ushers her back to the couch.

“Remember, you are worthy of more,” she says, catching Shayla by surprise. Her cheeks flush.

Shayla sits and dials Chris. He answers right after one ring.

“Meet me at The Twisted Hanger,” he tells her.

“Three blocks away?” Shayla hisses.

“I’m grabbing a beer. Meet me out front in ten.”

“You are unbelievable.” Shayla hangs up.

***

No longer afraid of their words, Shayla easily walks past the protesters. What’s done is done. Rays from the June sun warm her shoulders, and the words from the volunteer replay in her head. Worthy of more.

One foot goes in front of the other until she reaches the blue pick-up. But instead of stopping, she keeps walking, fishing around in her bag until her fingers find her phone.

Shayla dials and listens to the rings.

“Hello?”

“Mom? I really need you. Can you come get me?”

 

Photo courtesy of Stocksnap.io/Ashton Bingham