They say that if you can find one sincere friendship in your entire life then you are one of the lucky ones. Rare and beautiful and found in strange places. College, work, friends-of-friends, a bar bathroom, etc,. It's a therapy in-and-of-itself... having a best friend. Someone to always have your back. Someone who--when you're physically and emotionally broken--will pick you up and put the pieces back together every time. Girls go out shopping or drink wine together and binge watch romance comedies together, and men will kick back with a few beers and a fishing pole. Or maybe not. These are stereotypes after all, misrepresenting people. Just like the oversimplified idea that men and women can't be friends. Why? Apparently, it's because you fall in love with them.
Well, I know for a fact that's not always the truth.
“Listen, you don’t want to do that. I told you that. You’ll be making a huge mistake, Daniel. Don’t do it. Or you could screw both our jobs and I can’t let that happen.” I grumbled and leaned into the phone. Daniel, the marketing director of Synel—a nationwide and growing marketing company—was a stubborn one. He was brilliant and creative. But often with genius comes madness and he loved to push the envelope. I was the lead corporate lawyer for Synel and it was my ass on the line. Granted if Daniel didn’t listen it would also be his ass, and the one who would have to rescue us was our lead attorney for litigation, Randy. Daniel hated him but I could respect the old man. He’d been doing this work for over twenty years and before he held his own practice—and he acted like it. Tough, sharp and a bull dog in the court room, Randy was perfect for the role and I secretly admired the man.
I had already gotten my fill of court rooms back in Chicago, often defending either boring petty crimes or dangerous felons I had to protect. I hated the judicial system and yet I thrived in it. But I had quickly learned that I preferred to work behind closed doors—much more peace and a different kind of stress. Handling company policy and ensuring the company was following state and federal corporate law was a cake walk to me but many of my colleagues drowned in it. Then again, it was frustrating sometimes because any wrong move that I either advised or agreed with could result in stocks dropping and—once again—losing my job. Everyone knows being a lawyer isn’t easy, but no one realizes quite how quickly you can fall. “Yeah yeah yeah… Whatever. Fuck, Lucas, you’re impossible.” Although his words were pointed, I appreciated that Daniel was easily put down. He didn’t like it but he understood my role and understood the importance of it. I laughed into the phone.
“A’ta boy. Thanks, Dan.” I hung up just as quickly as I had accepted the call. Part of working in the field was you better be ready to be on-call 24/7. But I didn’t mind it because honestly it beat having to be present at home. I’d culminated this beautiful life in New York but it wasn’t always that way. I had started in Chicago for school and it was where I got my first job after graduation as a menial defense attorney. And long before that I held a simple part of a connected, intertwined small community called Bethalto in the great prairie land of Illinois. My journey was grueling and emotional, and although I thought that road was going to lead me to happiness, I found myself farther from happiness than I had ever been. And I missed my best friend.
I grabbed my brief case and walked myself down the dimmed hallway lights of our office on the 30th floor. It was far past closing time and most of the company employees were long gone. I glanced at my watch and sucked in air as I realized it was after nine and Leah would be calling me any minute to demand I come home. I leaned my head back so I could look ahead with half-closed eyes. My temples were tight and I furrowed my brows in an attempt to subdue the forming headache. When I reached my glossy charcoal sedan and slid inside I took a moment to rest my head on the steering wheel and squeeze it with both hands. My lids closed for a brief moment as I heaved slow breaths. I wasn’t ready to go home yet I wanted nothing more than to sink into some peace and quiet and sleep. I knew better than to think Leah was going to allow me to. The blonde bombshell was nothing short of a model. Her parents owned a large and profitable New York construction business and she had grown up in private schools attending fancy parties and learning to ballroom dance in middle school. She saw someone else in me and I knew that—I just had decided to ignore the foreshadowing I felt. It was like being a robot on auto-pilot, and I begged to find some normalcy but was unable to do so. I had thought about returning to my roots several times but for some reason I couldn’t find myself to do it. Guilt, sorrow, grief… maybe fear…
My phone began to buzz from the pocket of my briefcase and I hesitated before reaching for it. When I finally was able to catch the picture flashing on my phone I was not expecting to see the familiar warm face of my mother. “Hey, Ma, how’s it going?” I quickly pushed the button to start the car, pressing on the breaks as I did so. Instantly my mother’s voice rang inside the car, the Bluetooth connecting swiftly. It caught her in the middle of a sentence and it took the breath right out of my chest. “—she—she died…” She was sniffling and speaking in almost a whisper. “What? Who died?” My heart pounded in my chest and my mind raced instantly. Various faces cascaded across my mind in bursts. Who? What? "You know who I'm talking about—Celeste—Kinsley’s mom..." She didn't realize I hadn't heard her the first time but I didn't correct her. My heart was sinking too fast to respond at first so I paused.
“I’m so sorry, Mom…” I didn’t know what to say. All I could see was the familiar, gentle face of the woman who was really a second mother to me. I felt a vague stinging behind my eyes and I didn’t realize I had stopped breathing. She was my mom’s best friend. “How is Kinsley?” The question slipped out without a second-though. It was so quick—so instantaneous—it almost gave me whiplash. My heart ached. “She is… doing as good as she can… You know how she is… I think, Lucas… I think it’s time you stop running. Come home… Her service is this weekend.” “I—I’ll see what I can do…” I hadn’t even fully processed the news and I rested my head back.
“No, Lucas. You need to come.” Her words were sharp but laced with pain. I knew she was suffering, my mom, and I wanted to reach through the phone and embrace her. I also wanted to transport to Kinsley. An image of her big smile and infectious laugh; days of us singing in the car. Memories of us playing games and singing so loudly we couldn’t hear our own teenage voices. I closed my eyes and nodded knowing my mom couldn’t see it. “Yes, Mom. I will be there.” [center [pic https://images-wixmp-ed30a86b8c4ca887773594c2.wixmp.com/f/67a2b863-73e8-44d8-9d14-5277094298c2/dbif28u-596a4267-d0d4-4042-9187-257cbad53d2f.png?token=eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJzdWIiOiJ1cm46YXBwOiIsImlzcyI6InVybjphcHA6Iiwib2JqIjpbW3sicGF0aCI6IlwvZlwvNjdhMmI4NjMtNzNlOC00NGQ4LTlkMTQtNTI3NzA5NDI5OGMyXC9kYmlmMjh1LTU5NmE0MjY3LWQwZDQtNDA0Mi05MTg3LTI1N2NiYWQ1M2QyZi5wbmcifV1dLCJhdWQiOlsidXJuOnNlcnZpY2U6ZmlsZS5kb3dubG9hZCJdfQ.skSRk8mX7u8DKRdxKN0JbTPF1PzWmwHGZqKXMQpT6Ik]]
Leah wasn’t elated about my decision. In fact, she didn’t want to come at all and I wasn’t about to argue—this was the best decision. With her white-collar family she lived a far different life than I and it was obvious in are fundamental differences that became clearer each day. Her perfectly manicured nails, her weekly massages and monthly hair appointments all combined to create the best example of the stereotypical luxurious lifestyle she was born into and hated to leave. Heading to southern Illinois was not her first choice for adventure and travel, especially so close to Missouri. She preferred Italy and France. We’re practically hillbillies in comparison to the lavish New York life Leah thrived in. I loved her anyway… although there is a small difference between in-love and love. Was I in love with Leah? That was the question I had been trying to escape. I had been considering counseling as she’d been pushing for it—although it went against every fiber of my body—but even sitting on the plane I had to force my racing thoughts to stop.
There was too much time to think on this trip. I knew that was going to happen but it still left me shaken. After a four hour drive south in a rental car I entered the outskirts of the city. The rusted, crumbling water tower loomed above the city. It was late and the last rays of sunlight cascade a heavenly glow to the dilapidated near-the-bible-belt town I came from. It had been three years since I had been there yet my hands drove mindlessly to my old home. After lots of hugs and tears my mother finally allowed us a quick cup of coffee before I found my way to the spare bedroom. I stared at myself in the mirror, grinding my teeth and glowering at my own reflection. I stood out like a sore-thumb on the outside, but on the inside I breathed a sigh of relief. It was good to be home. [center [pic https://images-wixmp-ed30a86b8c4ca887773594c2.wixmp.com/f/67a2b863-73e8-44d8-9d14-5277094298c2/dbif28u-596a4267-d0d4-4042-9187-257cbad53d2f.png?token=eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJzdWIiOiJ1cm46YXBwOiIsImlzcyI6InVybjphcHA6Iiwib2JqIjpbW3sicGF0aCI6IlwvZlwvNjdhMmI4NjMtNzNlOC00NGQ4LTlkMTQtNTI3NzA5NDI5OGMyXC9kYmlmMjh1LTU5NmE0MjY3LWQwZDQtNDA0Mi05MTg3LTI1N2NiYWQ1M2QyZi5wbmcifV1dLCJhdWQiOlsidXJuOnNlcnZpY2U6ZmlsZS5kb3dubG9hZCJdfQ.skSRk8mX7u8DKRdxKN0JbTPF1PzWmwHGZqKXMQpT6Ik]] I arrived at the service in a crisp, three-part black suit and tie. I nervously slid my hand over the tie which was clipped into place by a silver tie bar. My other arm cupped a bouquet of flowers but I hadn’t yet figured out how I was going to approach Kinsley. My mother walked with me, looped loosely around my left arm. I reached up to caress my newly trimmed beard and tried to hide the deep discomfort I felt. Will she even recognize me? Will I even be a comfort? I had toggled with whether to come or not, but my mother appeared to find it the most important that I accompany her. I hoped that her advice was right—she tended to be. All I wanted to do was find her and hug her—to make sure she was alright. But then again, I wanted to run. I even thought about it, until a few familiar faces recognized me. Eyes bounced from my mother to me with half opened lips. “Lucas Rowe! Or should I say Mr. Rowe?” Margie—the local gossiper—smacked her lips together and batted her eyes up at me like she wanted me to eat her for breakfast and it was a bit disturbing. I cleared my throat before nodding slowly.
“Hello, yes, you can call me Lucas.” I reached out to take her hand and she looked like she was going to faint. I briefly smiled after dropping her hand and skirted around her; my mother was close in tow. She leaned towards my shoulder and up onto her toes to hiss in my ear about her vague distaste for the woman. I tried to listen and chuckle in response but I was tense. I felt like a teenage boy and I had to shake away the feeling. [i You’re a grown ass man, Lucas. You’re a lawyer. You don’t need to be scared. Grow up. You’re both adults. You are twenty-eight years old. Act like it. ] I gave a self-assured nod to myself. I was Lucas mother-fucking Rowe. I owned court rooms when I walked into them. Women fell over themselves when I walked by. I got out of this fucking dump. I succeeded! Finally, I started to walk a bit straighter—chin up and shoulders back—until I heard the familiar voice that made my heart flop into my stomach. Fuck.
“Kinsley?” I turned my attention from the spot on the wall, now empty and bare where one of my favorite pictures of my mother once remained. We needed a copy for the funeral program. There were other pictures missing too, gaps along the table. My mother loved pictures. My first recollection of such was the Summer I flew in. I was escorted off the plane by an officer and remembered the blinding light of a flash going off before I felt warm hands gripping my arms, drawing me in close. I was startled and dazed, the sounds of the airport much too loud and once my vision returned, I was overwhelmed by the many people passing us by. The only thing that had grounded me at the moment was the feeling of my mother’s hands along my cheeks, cradling them to meet my eyes which I had always been told were similar to hers: dark pools of chocolate brown. Unfortunately, let anyone else tell it, in all other aspects I resembled my father a great deal more. I can still remember the way she smiled at me, her eyes shiny and glassy with tears. “Welcome home baby girl.”
That felt like an eternity ago and that first year was hard for me to understand, but soon I became comfortable with the sound of the wind chimes that would dance in the window, or how the fifth stair leading to the second floor creaked. There was not one inch of the house that didn’t stir a memory. This was my home and had been for years, but now it felt much more emptier than I would have liked. “I’m sorry,” I said, chuckling a little. I directed my attention to Mrs. Riley. She was sent over by the funeral home to help with any final touches for the ceremony. We’d spent all morning going over everything I had finished in a span of two days. That wouldn’t have been made possible without my mother’s best friend Lesa. She knew just as much about the woman if not more than I did: her favorite flowers, the lavender colored dress she would want to be buried in, etc. I wondered if I made it too simple; I kept the invite list small for a more intimate setting, despite the fact my mother was quite well known and well liked in Bethalto. That wasn’t particularly surprising for such a small town. That didn’t mean it didn’t have its share of bad or annoyances. I had every bit of mind to believe Margie would still show her face and under the requirements of being respectful to ones elders, I was to take her actions as kind and her emotions genuine and accept her presence even if I knew my mother would cluck her tongue in disappointment if she could. “Everything looks great. I think we’ve all about set everything up.” Mrs. Riley gave me a small smile, reaching over to pat my hand gently. I could only smile back, everyone had been so nice and I feared this would’ve been much tougher if everyone wasn’t trying to lend a hand.
“Perfect. Well then I will make sure to get this over to the printer.” The wooden chair scratched the floors; what would’ve been a jarring sound dulled by the crazy printed rug beneath their feet. A secondhand find; we use to go shopping for cheap and odd home décor. That was when she was in good health, when she had just enough energy to laugh at a corny joke or hum along to a song in the car. “If you want, I can send Edna’s son to drive you to the home.” I had been pretty calm for the most part and I think a lot of people were worried that I wasn’t [I really] taking my mother’s passing well. Though, some part of me knew why: my father. Often people wondered if there was a switch in me ready to be flicked at any moment, unleashing that unbalanced and unhinged part of me that lied within my father. We were walking through the archway of the dining room, her black kitten heels clicking against dark stained hardwood floors as we made our way to the front door. “That’s not necessary. Truly, you’ve already been such a big help.” I leaned against the open door now, the sun warm on my skin, but there was still a subtle chill that caused for me to wrap my arms around myself, my hands disappearing in the sleeves of the red knitted cardigan I wore. “With us having the repass here, I figured I would clean up a little more before I left.” Honestly I just wanted to enjoy the drive alone. I’d even gone as far as to deny a ride from Lesa and her husband. I know this was just as hard for her as it was for me. Wrinkled hands. Reached out to pat against my shoulder. “Alright dear, but if you change your mind you know who to call.” “Definitely. Take care!” I called as she slowly made her way down the three steps, pass my mother’s roses that bordered the walkway until the gate closed behind her and she was getting into the tan Chevrolet Impala. It wasn’t until the car disappeared I finally sighed out in relief.
[center [size20 [b •─────☾ ☽─────•]]]
[I “C’mon Kinsley be still.” I squirmed in between my mother’s legs, trying to focus on the cartoons playing instead of the tugging my mother was doing to the winded black locks. When I was younger the curls had been much harder to tame, but my mother loved them and refused to straighten my hair. She had a skill my father lacked, as a Black woman, there were no locks she couldn’t tame. Though, I seemed to have been her biggest threat. My father didn’t bother combing them, and so I was used to my curls locking up at times. Ma was not having this though and took bride in parting my hair, running her fingers slathered in sweet coconut smelling cream until the curls were defined and soft, manageable. ]
I thought about that as I straightened my hair. Normally I would let them roam free, but figured I would go for something more polished. After finishing the last strand, I worked carefully brushing the smooth tresses into a low bun, two small strands out in the front, slightly curled, to frame my face. I didn’t look terrible, but maybe that was because I had already used as much concealer to hide my darkened eyes. I reached for the necklace my mother gave me, a gold cross. Hers sat now in a black box in the closet safe with other valuables. I thought about burying her in it, but some part of me thought about why we wore them in. the first place: to match. Someday I would have a daughter or granddaughter to pass mine on to, taking on my mother’s as my own then.
I nibbled on my bottom lip, focusing on the tiny latch between long manicured nails before sighing in relief when I got it opened. After a little fiddling it finally rested around my neck. I came to a stand and finished getting dressed. [I Heels], I rolled my eyes as I stared at them in my closet I hadn’t had a chance to wear them in a long time, then again it had been ages since my last date. Still, after slipping into the black mid dress, I sat on the edge of my bed and strapped the heels on, my hands brushing against my ankles as though comforting them for a tortuous day. I stared at myself in the full length mirror, adjusting the sleeves of the off the shoulder dress until I felt they sat perfectly. The last few years I had put on a few extra pounds, but fortunately in the right places thanks to genetics. That said, seeing myself in anything other than scrubs or some jeans and a loose shirt felt different. I could hear my phone going off , muffled in my bag where I had tossed it in an effort not to be distracted by any more messages. After a spritz of lilac scented perfume, I grabbed the black leather bag and was soon making my way out of the house.
I’d pushed the table father back for when the food arrived and adjusted the couch in the living room to aid in more space to walk around. My hands itched to move them back, but it did open the home up a bit more. To some it could come off a little cluttered in the beginning, pictures everywhere, little knickknacks spread throughout and of course the cuckoo clock that hung on the wall – a gift from my father that my mother still kept around. I made sure to open the windows, ivory curtains pulled aside to let In as much light the day would allow. Satisfied after my once over, I finally walked out.
I slid into the front seat of the black BMW, an older model but I kept it in good condition and I had to admit, it was rare you saw one driving around. Honestly, it had been a gift to myself in college and at that time, I felt like [I that] girl, especially considering how much I worked just to purchase it. after fiddling with my phone, I found a station I liked and pulled away.
I wasn’t surprised to find that many had already shown up, some lingering outside to get in that last smoke before the service started and as I made my rounds through the crowd into the funeral home, I was greeted by familiar faces. There was still some time before the service, though soon I noticed people starting to take their seats. I made sure of curse to have Lesa and her husband sitting next to me in the front row. I searched for her face in the crowd. “Lesa,” I said as I noticed her, unsure of who the gentleman beside her was until he turned to face me. My heart stopped for a second, the heels of my shoes catching a snag on the rug, though by the [I grace of God], I didn’t lose my footing. It had been some years, but there was no way I could forget a face like that, even if the facial hair was a new edition.
“Oh dear, you look so beautiful,” Lesa said, embracing me then. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him, though realized how strange it was to stare and opted to close my eyes for a second and hug Lesa back. Could she feel how fast my heart was beating? “And of course you know who this is,” she said as she gently patted Lucas’ arm. I looked up at him, walking a little closer, a sheepish smile on my face. “Of course.” My voice was soft and for the first time that day I felt it crack. I cleared my throat a little, giving him a one armed hug from the side. It was quick, too quick and that brief moment made me want to lean into him. I hadn’t thought to invite him. That didn’t mean he didn’t cross my mind on occasion, just this seemed a little out of the ways for such a successful person like himself. I always got tidbits of information when I could, but I tried to brush them away. I didn’t need them crowding my mind like boxes in an attic; old, dusty, and yet precious and priceless. “It’s really nice to see you.” I tucked the strand of hair behind my ear then, a friendly pat on my shoulder by the minister distracting me as the service was starting.
I breathed in relief, satisfied for an escape from any further awkward conversation. Though my eyes bounced to him just one final time before we headed to our seats. I knew wit wouldn’t be long before I started to cry, my hands gripping the handkerchief in my lap tightly as the tears streamed down my face. It made it hard to get through my speech. I bounced from strong too weak as I made eye contact with friends, though each time my eyes found his and it would get me started all over again. Come the end of the service, I eagerly took the hand offered by Lesa as a means of stability as we made our way to the plot.
It seemed strange, watching as they lowered the casket into the ground and knowing that would be the last time I saw my mother. As everyone made their way to the cars, I stuck close to the Rowe family. Lesa was going on about how it had been a lovely service. It had been and despite the surprise appearance, it had gone as smooth as I expected. I tried to focus on successfully walking across the grass in heels, like a magnet closer to Lucas who I hadn’t said a word to since before the funeral. “I really want to thank you for coming. I – I admit I was a bit surprised.” An out of place chuckle fell from my lips. I knew Lesa wouldn’t let him get out of coming to the repass, to be surrounded by everyone for a nice meal in honor of my mother. That said, I couldn’t not talk to him. That was scary thought and already I could feel the tingle of anxiety as I thought about all that could be said, and what had yet to be said between the two of us.
I was awkwardly cradling the bouquet of flowers; hopefully she’d noticed the arrangement of the family’s favorites when I placed it with Celeste if I could. Her and I may have not spoken much the past few years or so, but I still remembered the most bizarre things. I looked away nervously when Mom and Kinsley embraced—clearly they had been in constant contact—but I couldn’t be surprised, in fact I knew how involved my mother was in helping Celeste and Kinsley as much as possible. It was the only reason I was able to stay in the loop, too, though Kinsley may not have known. My mom would call and update me in New York pretty frequently, especially when Celeste took a turn. I had wanted to send money but Celeste had been pretty adamant not to take it and the reminder left me standing in the middle of the gathering hall outside the chapel feeling desolate and guilty. I should have done more—I should have been here—[i damn it.] My heart lurched when my mother tried to jokingly introduce us and my lips broke into a genuine smile. I reached my free hand around her shoulders and felt her warmth against me for that fleeting moment. In some ways, I could feel the awkward tension, but in other ways there still seemed to be a comfort that came from years of friendship. I had to admit that Mom was right, Kinsley looked [i gorgeous.] She had filled out nicely and I liked how sleek her hair looked; she was really elegant today and I had to avert my gaze to the brazen emerald carpet that blanketed most of the funeral home in their small town.
“It’s good to see you, too.”
Kinsley was preoccupied and rightfully so, and it left me to lose myself in thought. We slowly peeled into the chapel and found our seats. My eyes peered at the framed photo of Celeste toward the front of the room nearest the casket, something I had avoided. I didn’t want to see her like that; in my memories, the vivacious woman was still the one beaming in the photograph and as Kinsley bumbled through her eulogy and I felt my eyes blurring and becoming heavy. Suddenly I felt the splat of the tear falling onto my cheek and I caught me off guard. I didn’t even brush it away, though, because I was caught in Kinsley’s stare. This was much heavier than I thought it would be. I sat beside my dad who sat beside my mother. I could see in my peripheral vision my father holding tightly to her hand, and I knew my mother well enough to know the sounds she made when holding in her sobbing. I could still hear her sniffling and saw her dab her face a couple of times. Even my dad had a shadowed, sullen look to him; they were a crew, the three of them. I always thought maybe Celeste would feel like a third-wheel but she never did; or at least she never said anything that I remembered.
As the service came to an end, I heaved a sigh and could hear quiet shuffling as people rose to a stand and followed Kinsley and my mother out toward the cemetery. My father and I lagged behind them and the other attendees walked behind us. I couldn’t take my eyes off the back of her head and even at the service I observed her closely. She had really grown—matured—but I could still see the bones of the girl I had been madly in love with for almost a decade of my life but timing was never on our side and I didn’t think she was ever really interested. How different my life could have been…
I stood as everyone lined to walk beside the casket to give their own blessing before it lowered. My mother kissed her palm and placed it on the casket, and as I walked by I placed the bouquet on top and briefly rested my hand on the smooth surface, pausing in remembrance before walking ahead. They slowly lowered the casket into the ground and I could still see tears falling from my mother’s eyes and my chest felt tight. Even at 28-years-old, seeing my mother like that still broke my heart, as well as seeing Kinsley and the realization that I’d never get to joke with Celeste again. She had a sense of humor that was unmatched and I stared at the ground as everyone began to break formation and head towards their cars. Kinsley somehow fell into step with me and I peered over at her. I instinctively wanted to reach an arm around her but she seemed to be trying to keep it together and I decided to respect that.
“You’re welcome,” I said and gave her a couple of side glances with a smile. I looked back ahead and somewhat toward the grassy loam in avoidance. “I, uh, know it’s been a while but your mom was there for me a lot, too, and I’m really going to miss her. I’m sorry for your loss, Kins,” I reached my hands into my pockets and clenched my fists. I suddenly pulled them out and clasped them together, “I guess it’s time for some lunch, huh?” My attempt to change the subject was probably transparent but what else could I do, I wasn’t very comfortable with… uh, all of this emotion stuff. “I hear we’re heading back to your place, meet you there?” I asked rhetorically and sped up to a jog toward my Sedan. I watched her head toward her BMW and gave her my silent respect—damn, she’d done something with her life even if she never could leave this shithole.
My mom and dad hopped into his 2013 Black Chevrolet and we all peeled out first. Honestly part of the rush was to avoid the traffic—it’s not like there was a ton of space to park at Kinsley’s and I knew the roads would fill up fast.
The drive was short, the town was small, nearly half of them were at the funeral I felt like. I parked swiftly on the curb in front of the house as the first to arrive. I hopped out and awaited the others, clasping my hands together and pulling out my phone to peruse it quickly and ensure there wasn’t any work crises. They agreed for me to be gone a week but I had told them I’d be on-call for any major disasters or questions if they needed it. The bulldog, Randy, was pretty knowledgeable so I trusted him to cover for me though Daniel wasn’t happy about it. Normally he was in contact with me more than Randy but with Randy covering for me it meant Daniel had to put up with Randy and his old-school, traditional, no-shit-taking attitude. I chuckled at the thought before hiding my phone back into my pocket.
We piled into the house and I grabbed a glass of lemonade to sip on unsure of what to do or how to help. It wasn’t long before others joined us in the home. My mom was running around arranging things, tweaking placements, and putting out the food. I think they catered some sandwiches or maybe got them from Coscto but I wasn’t sure, maybe they made them? Either way, they were delicious crescents with turkey and cheese and I tried to avoid socializing as much as possible although the small town had an insatiable curiosity for life in New York. I stood by the large front windows, setting down my drink and holding the sandwich I had picked up at the table covered in platters of sandwiches and desserts as well as homemade pies from the local middle-aged women with their homely attempts of support. Finally I had a moment to eat without interruptions and I took a bite.
Margie approached me then and I looked erratically for Kinsley’s familiar face with wide eyes in distress—I hoped she’d read my signal like she used to because my mouth was full and I did not want to deal with this woman. [i Help!]
[I “I, uh, know it’s been a while but your mom was there for me a lot, too, and I’m really going to miss her. I’m sorry for your loss, Kins.”] I had to admit that hearing Lucas refer to me by my nickname was a bit distracting. It took me back to times that I had really tried not to think about the last few years. The way I loved Lucas had always been confusing, more than our inability to both be ready when the other was when it came to matters of being in a relationship. while hearing his words and seeing him did bring me comfort, it always had started to peel away at my frustrations for him leaving, like cheap wallpaper; what lied beneath? If we talked any further I feared years’ worth of frustrations would come spitting out and today wasn’t the day to get into all that. Though, I wondered how long he had planned to stay. Last I heard he had a girlfriend. Where was she?
“Meet you there,” is aid softly, watching as he made his quick escape toward the car. I hated myself for pausing to watch him briefly. He definitely had grown up, but watching him sometimes made me feel like that giddy young girl. We weren’t those people anymore though. Were we?
I made my way toward Gretchen’s place, she was a fellow nurse who also did a little catering on the side. We’d been friends since highschool, but had really close in college considering we both were interested in nursing; both finding some way to get [I trapped] into staying. I was taking care of my mother and she had started dating Ethan Fox, a well-respected officer for the local police department. Despite me telling Gretchen I could always just order from the Costco outside of town, she fervently declined against it. She’d left a little earlier from the service just to grab everything. In the back of my car sat the sandwiches, some clear pitchers that would be filled later, and other items to be snacked on: my favorite were the meatballs which had a smell that normally would kick me out of any depression. While the passing of my mother was reason enough for my not so pleasant attitude, the brunette beside me could pick up on something else.
“He looked good didn’t he?” When Gretchen learned of my mother’s passing, it was the only interaction to which I allowed myself to breakdown and actually cry. Maybe didn’t immediately try to blanket me with, ‘it was just her time’ or ‘at least she went peacefully in her sleep’. Not to mention when I told Lesa and she started breaking down, all I wanted to do was comfort her. Gretchen was the only person to allow me to be angry, knowing I would have rather my mother not die at all.
She had lost her father years ago and I was there for her and I just remembered her telling me how she just wanted to be treated normal. That’s all I wanted right now a shred of normalcy to combat with this terrible twang of sorrow.
I cracked my first genuine smile in a week as I looked toward her. My silence was just what she needed to start get her on a roll. I parked in the driveway, pulling up closer to the back as I knew we would need as much space as possible for the guests. “Come on, don’t think you’re holding out on me.” Gretchen said as we got out of the car and started to gather the items to bring inside. I immediately started on the drinks. “That hair, those eyes and [I oh] those arms! Isn’t that what you used to say?” Gretchen said into my ear, pulling a more wistful tone. I rolled my eyes, though found my head ducking in embarrassment.
“Gretchen –” I said as I playfully threw an oven mitt at her. She was getting the hot food into the oven to keep warm until the guests arrived. “I don’t sound like that,” I said. Taking a sip of the lemonade to make sure it was just right before closing the pitcher. “He looks good okay? There I said it.” Satisfied, Gretchen continued back to getting things ready. While I busied myself making sure everything was perfect, she tended to guests who had arrived. By the time I was being shooed out of the kitchen by Lesa, I felt like I was at a town meeting, with how full the place was. I managed to hug as many people that my arms could handle, trying hard not to break down. This was supposed to be something of a homegoing for my mother, a chance for us not to linger in grief, but accept she had made her mark on earth and to cherish the time we did have with her.
I was getting a bit exhausted though and Gretchen sensed it, handing over a plate she had made for me. I hadn’t anything to eat that morning nor any dinner the previous night. I was much too tired to cook, but I could already see the many frozen dinners Lesa was planning to fill my freezer with. I had just finished my second helping of meatballs when I could see Margie beelining for Lucas. Some part of me wanted to sit back and watch the hilariously awkward scene unfold and yet, I thought about my little back and forth with Gretchen earlier. I had missed Lucas and here he was right here in my living room. I was scared to catch up with him. I could’ve easily got his number from Lesa, or shot him a text just to check in, but I didn’t. Well, here was my chance.
I’d seen that look before, a desperate plea and a sign for help.
[center [size22 [b •─────☾ ☽─────•]]]
[I “Go on Kinsley, don’t be shy.”]
[I At thirteen, those weren’t really the words you thought to say to a teenager. This was a time when kids were much bolder, becoming invested in different shows and boy bands. You had to come to a decision at that point if you were going to be shy forever or jump into a whole new personality that would determine who you were for the rest of your academic career. Yet, I had no other choice. I’d only been in town for a little over three weeks and this was the first actual outing I had endured. School was different, I could get by being to myself no problem. But here at the community picnic, I stood out like a sore thumb, clinging to my mother.
She was pushing me to hang out with Lucas and his friends. “He doesn’t bite,” Mrs. Rowe said with a wink. I had spent time with Lucas and his mother plenty, as Mrs. Rowe was constantly coming over. We even had family dinners, sometimes at her place with her husband or they would come over to our house. Everyone was welcoming and nice, but I was still trying to shake the uncomforted of being somewhere I hadn’t before and understanding why I couldn’t go back. I was happy to be with my mother, but I desperately missed my father.
I tugged on a loose fray from the ends of my shorts, looking up to meet both women’s eyes. I looked over my shoulder, seeing Lucas and the other kids I had known him to be around. “Alright,” I sighed out before getting up off the blanket. I felt my mother’s hand pat gently on my bottom as in urging me to move forward. They were standing by the one of the game stands where you used a pellet gun to shoot at targets on ducks. The closer I walked, the more nervous I became. I shoved my hands into the backs of my jean shorts, already feeling them tingle and began to grow a bit sweaty from nervousness. I was taller than most girls my age, which kept me from actively trying to hang out, afraid of the teasing.
I could feel loose curls brushing against my face from the small passing wind. I wanted to turn back, but instead I gave a small wave. “Hey, mind if I join?” I looked to Lucas. We hardly said much to each other and at school it was more of a passing glance ad a smile. As close as their mothers were to one another, they were just as much as strangers . . . acquaintances if that. My eyes were pleading then though, a sign for help, hoping he would be friendly and introduce me.
It was one of the frequent community picnics we had in Bethalto that we were going to which always turned out to be fun. A bit of a potluck really, with specifically placed decades-old picnic tables and half the town, many on blankets and quilts, too. I was always excited for them because I usually got to run off with my friends and my parents were usually too preoccupied to watch us intently, not that I was much of a trouble-maker myself. I was brimming with excitement and my mother was, too. I didn’t fully understand why the brunette was so enthusiastic about today’s picnic but she did mention it having to do with her best friend and her daughter, Kinsley. I had overhead them talking on the phone a few days ago and apparently, they were going to be there this afternoon. She’d been over a few times for dinner since she’d moved into town where we were constantly reminded we had ‘played together a lot when we were kids’, but I didn’t much remember anything from that time and I was too caught up in my own friendships and school that I hadn’t really reached out to her much. She was, however, the talk of the 8th grade class—a transfer student—and my classmates were particularly interested in her. Apparently, she had been abducted by her dad or something weird and some of the kids were saying some harsh stuff. I didn’t really want to get into it, so I mostly went about my days but did feel a little guilty. “Lucas, please be nice to Kinsley when we get there,” my mother looked back at me with a pleading look, “her mom’s told me she’s maybe having a hard time. Could you try to talk to her or let her hang out with you and your friends?” I groaned but nodded from the backseat of the van.
To be honest she quickly became an afterthought as I clutched the basketball in my lap and eagerly hopped out of the van after my dad had finally parked on the road closest to the park. Several families had already arrived and I could smell the charcoal starting to burn from the park grills. My stomach grumbled in anticipation of the freshly grilled burgers and hotdogs I knew would soon be readily available. My mom and dad popped the trunk and were in the middle of unloading but I took off, seeing Sam off in the distance. I could catch his bright blonde locks anywhere and as I got closer, Jake and Matt came into view, as well. They were already kicking around a soccer ball as Sam was gunning for Junior Varsity next year for soccer and I was for basketball. They stopped and turned towards me, beaming at my arrival, and we smacked hands together in our usual greetings. “Yo, what’s up?” I asked, more of a greeting than anything else. Jake responded by kicking the soccer ball in my direction. I threw my basketball to the side and we started to kick the ball around for a bit until I stopped to wipe the sweat from my forehead. The sun was hitting it’s peak in the sky and it was beating down pretty intensely, too. It caught my eye and I had to shield it with my hand. “Come on, man!” Matt called to me and I dropped the ball I had tucked under my one arm to kick it again when I turned to see the familiar new girl approaching me and I stopped. I heard the three boys quip about something but I couldn’t hear them and instead turned to face her. I placed my foot on the ball and rolled it under my shoe while I awaited her to get closer.
“Sure, I don’t mind,” I shrugged in response to her question. Truly I didn’t care, I really had no reason to. I turned to the boys who were jogging in closer to hear what was going on. “Kinsley want’s to join—I told her it’s fine.” Jake stopped in his tracks and his eyes were shifty as he looked to Matt. Matt softly shook his head and looked back to me. “Uhm, I don’t know man, heard she’s kind of a freak.” Jake mustered up the courage to chide in and I whipped my head back to glare at him. I really didn’t think it was a problem—then again other than the gossip I had heart, I had mostly turned a blind eye to Kinsley’s bullying and here I was in the middle of it. I wanted no part of it, though, so I kicked the ball toward him more aggressively then necessary and shook my head dramatically. “Looks pretty normal to me,” I responded coldly. I was pretty close to Jake and I was honestly a little disappointed but not surprised. What came next from Matt is what nearly made me punch him. “Doubtful—heard her dad’s a [i raghead.”] My heart dropped into my stomach. No one really talked about it around me much, even though I’d heard gossip here and there, but to here that come out of Matt’s mouth made my blood boil. Sam looked genuinely disturbed, too, but didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to know Kinsley that well to know that what Matt said would undoubtedly hurt her, and I loved Celeste—her mom—so I was overcome by some strange protectiveness and defensively stood in front of Kinsley. “Fuck you, man!” I spat and I spun around, “I’m so sorry, they’re being douche bags. Food, maybe?”
To say I felt uncomfortable was an understatement. I don’t know why my mother thought sending me to play with a group of boys was any better, but maybe she thought knowing Lucas would help. Besides, around this age my mother quipped that it wasn’t unusual for guys to eventually draw toward girls or vice versa. They called it teasing and it was a sign of girls and boys growing up to understand the differences in emotions when it came to who you considered a friend and [I more than a friend]. I considered it annoying and if my mother knew more than what I told her about what the kids called me at school, she wouldn’t find their [I teasing] all too amusing.
I didn’t know what to do, standing there was awkward and I could already hear the soft giggles and not so subtle points in my direction from Amy, Becca, and Tyler. Standing there felt more terrible the longer the time went by and I found myself, without being asked, trudging after Lucas slowly. I didn’t want to come off like a lonely puppy, but it seemed I didn’t really have any control over that perception.
For the most part, I had kept my mouth shut when it came to insults. Honestly, I was still grasping speaking both English and Arabic. I was taught both and had been with my mother long enough to learn the basics, but my father and his family pushed me to speak as much Arabic as possible. My first couple of months Palestine were a bit tough. Those kids were much nicer though and maybe it was because I looked like them. Though, even there no one was really fond of my father for marrying my mother who was a Black woman. It seemed I didn’t win anywhere I went.
I could feel my fingers digging into my palm, knowing out of nervousness the pressure would only increase until I felt like I was going to break skin; crescent markings imprinted on smooth skin. I tried not to let it get to me, but this was a bit more humiliating, even with Lucas attempting to stick up for me. Though his attempt was better than the silence from those he considered his friends. Life for Muslims had been tough since the attack. The things I heard and saw not only just on tv but in real life was triggering. I used to wake up screaming the first week I was here. So much so my mother still slept on my bed on occasion, something I would never admit.
My eyes watched as the boys shared words, the ball slowly falling toward my feet. “You’re right, shouldn’t have said anything. We don’t want her blowing us up,” Matt further incited, playfully patting Jake’s chest. “[font times [I Kol khara]].” [sub Eat shit]. I said, instantly clamping my lips tight. If my father heard that he wouldn’t have found it quite funny. “Don’t call me that!” I was by no means a top star athlete, but I was no stranger to a ball. While it was frowned upon for me to play with the boys in the streets, on occasion Amar, my cousin, would play with me. I lifted my foot then, the ball connecting with the front of my sandal, which I knew would be painful, but didn’t care. I had every intention of kicking that ball straight into Mike’s face.
I was surprised when Matt continued and I whipped around about to jump on him when Kinsley shocked me. I didn’t know what she said, but I admired that she was standing up for herself. I still felt this insatiable need to do it myself, but I appreciated that she could handle her own. To top it off, when she kicked that soccer ball like a professional, it whammed into Matt’s chest. I watched him wince, his hands instinctively curling inward to catch the white ball but he was too slow. He stumbled backwards from the hit and then subsequently fell back onto his ass. He was cussing, too, as he struggled to get up. Jake jogged up to him to help him but he looked too irritated to accept the help. Clearly, she had been aiming and I chuckled. Sam jogged up to Matt, then, as he was standing up with Jake, and grabbed the soccer ball. “Uh, yeah, that wasn’t cool. I’m out,” he jogged backwards for a moment to give them a taunting peace sign and then turned to catch up to us. His ball was tucked under his arm and he had a grin plastered on his face. “Nice kick, maybe you should be playin’ soccer,” he jokingly tried to sell her on it. I stepped around Sam to glare towards Jake and Matt. Jake still looked like he was on the fence, but Matt was boiling over. “Ever heard of bros before hoes, huh?” He asked, throwing his arms up exaggeratingly. I shrugged at him instead, finding it hard to believe I was suddenly in this position. Well this was going to ruin my picnics. “Yeah but you’re kind of a bully, so,” I tossed over my shoulder and turned back to Sam and Kinsley. My mom and Celeste were walking up to us then, my father close in tow. They had obviously heard the skirmish and I sighed in preparation. It was bad enough getting a lecture from my mom, but getting one from the both of them really sucked.
“You’re actually kind of lucky you’ve been able to skip out on the double lectures,” I jested and nudged Kinsley, trying to make light of her situation. I honestly didn’t know all the details, but due to our mom’s relationship, I definitely knew more than the douche bags we went to school with. I [i commonly] got lectures from the both of them; sometimes it felt like my mom couldn’t even have a serious conversation without Celeste present. She was like a second mom to me but I could do without these. “What’s going on?” My mom questioned and I could see Celeste nodding dramatically. My father caught up to them but lingered to the side, his arms over his chest staring towards Matt and Jake. I wasn’t sure why but I felt like they already maybe knew what happened. “Nothing, Matt was just being a racist,” I calmly explained. It was probably odd coming out of a 14-year-old boy, but through many of our [i enlightening] conversations, Celeste and my mom had taught me a lot of life lessons, ones I got years before most kids did, and I learned to appreciate that years later. Sam stood nearby, too, and I silently apologized to him. [i Sorry man, you’re in it now.]
“Oh, I see... I’m sorry, Kinsley,” my mother patted Kinsley’s head, “well, remember: people, usually kids, project whatever they hear at home, okay? A lot of times they don’t even know what they are saying,” my mom explained to us. Celeste just seemed to let her take the reins and stood beside, nodding. I saw my father nodding, too. Mom was a therapist, and super compassionate. She made sure to always explain everything to me about everyone in great detail—sometimes it was interesting and sometimes it was so fricken’ boring. “Put yourself in their shoes,” she explained, “if that is all you hear at home, you start to believe it, too.” I nodded and turned to Kinsley, and then looked over my shoulder at Jake and Matt who were grumbling and looked very fidgety and uncomfortable under my dad’s stare. He started to walk towards them and I feared what that conversation was going to be. My dad was a gym teacher and he was pretty fit for most of the men around here. [i Sorry guys, have fun with that.]
I watched quite proudly as the ball hit Matt in the chest. I would’ve rather it be his face, but I would take what I could. I knew had I done such a thing on campus though it was very likely he would’ve retaliated against me, that scared me and so when I saw Lucas heading in my direction, I tried to stick close to his and Sam’s side. It wasn’t long before my mother came over, Lucas going on about the situation. By now the confidence was seemingly gone. I was more so deflated at the idea that this wasn’t the first time and it would not be the last that my racial background would be used as an insult and a way to hurt and tear me down.
“Thanks, I played a lot back . . . with my father.” It felt weird saying back home. This was my home now wasn’t it? While Lucas did his best to cheer me up, the look my mother gave me made it hard to smile in pride at his comment. In fact, it was a bittersweet feeling. While I didn’t want to be lectured by my mother and father, both of which would be two different styles of parenting, it did remind me of the fact that my father wasn’t with me. In fact, he wasn’t allowed anywhere near me, something he was fighting against in the courts nearly every month. My mother often tried to shield me from the knowledge, but I had grown to understand why she took off Tuesday and Thursday of every month. The first being to visit my father and the latter being a court day he always asked for. No matter how strenuous it was, she still continued to show up.
“What did I tell you about words?” I rolled my eyes at my mother, not wanting to have to repeat the little rhyme as old as time. “[I Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.]” She sighed out, giving me a small smile. As a Black woman, she was no stranger to her own looks of disgust or words muttered under ones breath. It didn’t help when she married my father, even from her own family.
“I understand Lesa,” I said, smiling a bit more when I felt her soft pat atop my head. She had never talked to me like I was a child and I noticed that about Lucas as well. “Why dent we worry about eating and finishing up the day hm?” My mother inquired her and Celeste were making their way over to get us some plates of food. I overheard Lesa make some playful remark about stopping her husband from forcing the kids into doing pushups until their little arms broke off. I took a seat where we had been stationed for some time. My eyes looked up to Lucas then. Honestly, I had usually paid him little mind, but the fact he and Sam to some degree had stood up for me had changed my mind of him.
“I didn’t mean to get in the way of you and your friends.” I told him. I hadn’t met Sam before. I knew of him only because he would hang around Lucas and if I wasn’t mistaken at one point had been dating Tyler. I would think that was the reason the trip were glaring in my direction, but Amy, who I knew personally had a crush on Lucas as I sat behind her in English, was the real reason why they were staring. It was no secret that Lucas’ mother and mine were best friends. I had no intentions of stepping on her toes.
Soon enough our parents returned. Pork had never been in my diet before moving to live with my mother. Now I drooled over the hot dog, topped with all my favorites: spicy mustard, finely chopped white onions, and relish. “Kinsley,” my mother said, as I was not shy about taking such a big bite. She handed over a napkin, my cheeks burning as I looked in the boys’ direction before wiping it off. “You know with the weather has been so nice, we should think about going to Crater Lake. I was thinking it would be the perfect place for Kinsley’s party.” I sighed out. My birthday was the last thing I wanted to think about. It wasn’t a party without friends. I looked toward Lucas though, seemed like I actually did have a friend in the making.
I was focusing on him at that point, so much so I had zeroed in on the lady bug crawling on his shoulder. “Don’t move,” I announced suddenly. I leaned in close, my finger extended to allow the small creature to make its way along mine. I smiled at Lucas.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css2?family=Homemade+Apple&display=swa ] [center [size30 [Homemade+apple 14 years earlier ]]] Kinsley and I followed our mother’s back to the picnic tables. I could see underneath a nearby tree was our family’s uniquely quilted blanket, with some bags of random gym equipment my dad had dragged along, and some extra bags of chips and food. My mother would rather have too much than too little, at least that’s what she always said which tended to leave us with a weeks’ worth of leftovers I hated but apparently Dad loved. There were other blankets too, strewn around the grass encircling the group of picnic tables, but the majority were empty. They tended to be useless as people used this time to mingle and gather around the dull tables. I slid into the table beside Kinsley, and Sam sat across from us. I could see his mom eyeing him, likely also worrying about him eating lunch. I didn’t know if Sam noticed her, and was about to jab him to alert him of his mother’s stare when Kinsley spoke. I felt a bit awkward and let out a slow chuckle, fidgeting in my seat before turning to look at her. “Don’t worry about it,” was all the reassurance I could manage. I felt bad for the situation she was in, I knew far too much for my age from my mom’s gabby mouth, but Sam had no clue and he shrugged anyway. I could see him nodding when I spoke, and I genuinely smiled towards him. Sam was a good kid and I respected him, too; it made me happier than I’d like to admit that Sam had followed. Gave me hope in humanity yet.
When my mom placed the food down in front of me I thanked her and immediately lifted the hot dog to take a big bite of. My mom coughed under her breath, and I tried to close my mouth around the bite as I chewed, noting I’d have to take smaller bites or I’d hear it from my mom or Celeste. She was already chastising the girl beside me, and I tried not to laugh but I couldn’t help it and a few chunks of food flew down onto the plate. Sam busted out laughing and I joined it but felt a bit embarrassed with Kinsley beside me. My mom was within earshot at this point and I caught her displeased sidelong glance. I picked up a napkin Celeste and brought for the table—especially for Kinsley, apparently—and wiped my mouth. I licked my lips then and decided to dig into the chips nestled into the paper plate. My mom and Celeste sat across from us now, and Sam’s mom had brought him his place, too. He was digging in as we all were, but his mother hovered back to chat with someone although I didn’t care enough to catch who it was. “Crater Lake? Heck yeah!” I nodded vigorously, dropping the food onto my plate and aggressively grabbing the coke my mom had given me. I popped it open and took a big gulp, an exasperated breath following, before I licked my lips and began again. “Your birthday’s coming up, huh? You ever been there before?”
“Of course, she has, don’t you remember? Well,” she peeked bashfully at Celeste and they both smiled, “you two were a little young, maybe you don’t remember.” My brows furrowed together but I rolled my eyes and picked up my half-eaten hotdog again, finishing it quickly. A pattern was beginning to emerge of the two of them constantly reminded Kinsley and I that we had ‘so many shared memories. I glanced over to Kinsley with an amused but annoyed look on my face, almost hoping she could read the look I made. I was about to lean in and say something, to ensure she caught my nonverbal communication, when she leaned in close to my face and I instantly froze. I felt more still than I’d ever been, tense and unsure. She was leaning in but her eyes were down and without realizing it my quizzical look quickly transformed to that of wonder. My head slowly cocked the closer she got, and I couldn’t help but to analyze the features of her face and her warm eyes. They were intent on something, and when she pulled back with a ladybug crawling on her finger, my heart rate thudded in my chest. I pivoted in my seat and reached for the Coke, secretly trying to catch my breath. Kinsley… was really cute… [google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css2?family=Homemade+Apple&display=swa ] [center [size30 [Homemade+apple Present Day ]]] I had a mouth full of food when Margie stepped into my view. I almost groaned out loud if not for the food in my mouth. I had been sending panic looks towards Kinsley but I wasn’t sure if she had caught them or if she was just avoiding me. Either way, I’d have to think quick. I looked around frantically and put up a finger because my mouth was full; something Celeste used to knock me silly for. [I Some things never change.] I finally swallowed the bite, chasing it with the lemonade sitting on the table, before I took a deep breath, set down the cup, and turned back to the agitating woman. Her lips were pulled up into a smile that perturbed me and I skirted around her. She had me cornered and that alone left me feeling cramped and disturbed by her predator behavior. “Lucas!” She shrieked and placed an uninvited hand on my forearm. When I tried to skirt around her, a normal human would move to allow more space but instead I could have sworn she leaned in. I squeezed past her and straightened out my suit, the half-eaten sandwich still waiting for me in my hand. “Margie, hello there,” I greeted her through nearly clenched teeth. My stomach growled and I really wanted to finish my damn sandwich. “How are you getting on in New York? You must miss Bethalto so much, hm? But I assume you are living the lavish life in New York, yeah? My friend’s nephew is living there and I heart it can be [i pretty] wild, are you staying out of trouble? His name is Adam Smith, maybe you’ve met him?” She didn’t allow me the ability to even answer, she just rolled into the next question. I finally cut her off, shaking my head as I did.
“I’m sorry, Margie, there’s—y’know—a billion people living in New York and it’s nearly the size of France so; oh and you know Smith is, like, the most common last name in the country so...” I peel away from her. I can see her lips opening but she doesn’t get a word out before I’ve disappeared behind the crowd. I search the familiar faces to find Kinsley’s, but when I don’t, I shuffle into the study that’s closed. I sit down on the leather armchair and cross my legs, heaving a sigh and pulling out my phone to check my emails and finish my goddamn sandwich. If one more person interrupts me I think I might ruin this memorial and Celeste would never forgive me in Heaven. I look up at the ceiling, and mouth [i ‘I’m sorry I thought about that’.] Seems pretty comical but, Celeste has a way of getting you when you’re down. Wouldn’t surprise me if the day I die she’s at the pearly gates giving me a mouthful with contradicting hugs. [i God, I do miss her…]
[I Don’t be a brat Kinsley]. I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. She knew that it would be wrong of me to hold a grudge, but she wasn’t the one who had lost a best friend . . someone I cared about deeply. Until her death, my mother saw nothing but good in Lucas. She loved him truly. That thought was too much to handle and I found myself turning sharply on my heel to leave. I knew the bathroom downstairs would be used frequently, and I didn’t know how long it would take for this breakdown to cease. I wanted the privacy of being able to cry and come out without someone questioning my puffy red eyes only to corner me into talking about [I this]. Not today at least.
So, I slipped into the study. It had been at one point in time a room my mother worked in. She was always good with numbers and spent most of her time working on helping people with their accounts or filing their taxes. It was work that made good money, but allowed her the freedom to spend as much time with me as she wanted when I wasn’t hanging at school or with Lucas.
Out of all the rooms, this one had to be the most mild in taste; less distractive and cluttering pieces. There were still pictures here and there, especially on my mother’s desk next to a very old computer that she had refused to give up. Though as her health declined, she stopped working as much and eventually it didn’t matter. I didn’t spend as much time in here as she required most of my undivided attention and it was easier to just stay upstairs or bring her into the living room to watch tv, rather than running back and forth.
I loved it best though for its private bathroom. When I sued to want to have a little chat with a boyfriend after hours or in worse cases, when I was grounded, I would make my way through the double doors and across the floor into the bathroom, giggling and chatting without my mother knowing. Today though, as I closed the door behind me, I made my way toward the closed bathroom and decided to treat the space as a safe place to finally just cry.
It had been a long and exhausting day and with Lucas showing up, it didn’t make things easier. Knowing I couldn’t hide out there any longer, I washed my face and patted it dry. My hands smoothed against the wrinkled fabric of my dress and I ran my hand through my hair a few times before I felt I looked presentable enough.
I reached for the handle, cursing as I realized it was stuck. It had been doing that as of late considering how little time I had spent in here. “Oh for fuck –” I paused and took a breath, closing my eyes then. [I Sorry mom], I mumbled as I looked up to the ceiling. I took one deep beath and with a yank managed to get it open. [I Now I think you’re just having your own kind of fun]. I thought as my eyes locked in on Lucas, sitting in red wine leather chair, still in good condition.
“And what exactly are you doing in here?’ I asked with a raised brow. “I bet Margie is searching desperately for you.” It felt good to tease, though I knew I was only making light of the situation to distract Lucas from the state I was in. I paused then, swallowing thickly. I hope he hadn’t heard me crying. I nibbled on my lip then, walking closer to the desk in a slow saunter. He looked good sitting there, professional and dare I say sexy dressed in his suit. While I was still trying to process him being here, I hoped that he wouldn’t leave soon. It was nice, being with him right now, despite what happened between us.
I had only managed to finish a few more bites of my sandwich when I heard a strange sound. My eyes darted around the room to find the source and finally rested on the jiggling nob that left me shaking in my leather shoes. [i I apologized, Celeste, geez!] My eyes were agape when finally I heard a familiar muffled voice through the crack in the door before my best friend—or ex-best friend?—came stumbling out with the door slamming open. I nearly stood to help her catch her footing but she regained her composure quickly. She probably could see my pupils as wide as the moon. Her words were speculative but there was humor laced behind them; she was teasing—and testing—as we’d done thousands of times before. I raised my brows and leaned my head back with a smug look on my face. My brows raised as if to taunt her further but she didn’t continue so I let out a breathy laugh and I leaned forward in the chair to sit up with more equanimity. “I could say the same for you,” I quipped, waving my hand at the mention of Margie. "She'll stalk me and find me again, I'm sure." I try to be casual, but my eyes couldn’t help but to examine the features of her face; although beautiful and glowing, they were turgescent. A redness dissipating with each passing moment but I’d been around Kinsley through enough heartache in the past to know what that signified. I looked toward a photo on the desk of Kinsley and I at our highschool graduation. Elated to start a new chapter oblivious to the trials and tribulations that adulthood would bring. What I’d do to go back now. I ponder whether to question her; do I stand and hug her? Do I pat her on the arm? Do I stay a far distance to avoid any burst of spontaneous pent up aggression? Years of schooling taught me the law and how to prosecute swiftly; to win not only the judge but also the jury. What I didn’t learn was how to comfort an old best-friend who’d lost her mother with years of unsaid sentiments. I heave a sigh and look down to the mahogany floors before finding her face again, “You, uh, don’t have to pretend here, Kins,” I glance down at the floor to avoid the potential irritated look on her face. I may be speaking out of place here—hell, very far out—but ten years ago my feeble attempts at comfort were welcomed. Despite it all, maybe now it still would. “Your mom always made sure this was a safe zone,” I cough, not because my throat is itchy but because my nerves are unsettled, and my eyes peer ahead again to eye the wall I’d stared at a million times.
This was a safe place—for the both of us. As children, it was a place for Celeste to douse the fire of one of our many small spats. But in times of need as we grew older, even I had found myself here—alone—seeking advice from the wise woman. She’d helped me on more than one occasion, some occasions even Kinsley didn’t know about. I’m suddenly not interested in the last part of my food and I stand to find the garbage I know is hiding beside the desk. My eyes peel up to her after I’ve tossed the remnants of the croissant into the trash, “Anyway, I hope things have been going well for you; being a nurse suits you. Where are you, uh, working now? What’s—uh—new?” The words are awkward as they hesitate before stuttering out. It seems like such a useless question—obviously things could be better for her—but I’m trying here, and that’s just going to have to do…
“That woman has a strange obsession with you. though, can’t say that’s ever changed since I’ve known you,” I said to him. I interlocked my fingers then, my eyes instinctively drawing toward Lucas’ as though to see a marriage band. That’s where his life was heading wasn’t it? A fancy job as a big time lawyer in the city with a beautiful wife and maybe a kid or two living in a big house. He never stayed single for long, though I was surprised to find that finger missing its ring. It didn’t give me any hope, my mind was too clouded with thoughts of my mother right now and yet I was curious about what had changed since the last time I saw Lucas. I had tried plenty of times to not replay that night in my mind after obsessing over it for weeks. It had taken Gretchen to even get me out of the house and while I did date, I still hadn’t found anyone worth being serious with. Though, Antonio was close. I wasn’t surprised to not find him at the funeral. I had ghosted him and he hadn’t even ever met my mother, despite how much I talked about her on our dates. It was a force a habit, she consumed a lot of my time and it was difficult for me to not be around her. I had always feared that one day would be the day she would have passed and I wouldn’t be there. That had always bothered me. After a while he stopped texting and calling and I soon realized that the FedEx delivery driver had changed soon after at the hospital I worked at a few hours of the week. While my mother was getting disability, it certainly wasn’t enough and especially since I had decided to do in home care. The only expense that was easily wrote off was having me, her daughter, as a nurse.
I didn’t realized I was gripping my hands too tightly until I broke skin, wincing some as I stared down at the slight peeling of skin on the back of my hand. It wasn’t bleeding fortunately, but I knew if I started to pick at it, it would only make it worse. While I didn’t want to train my eyes on Lucas, it was the distraction I needed. Though his words didn’t make things easier. “Don’t,” I said finally. We were both unsure of what to say or do and yet hated this uncomfortable distance and silence that settled between us. I know Lucas was trying though and that meant something. Hell it meant a lot. “I mean – I’m okay. I’ll get through this you know.” I said, partially lying. While we had been best friends, I felt that sense of comfort had weathered away some and I was in no mood to break down crying in front of Lucas while he tried to figure out what was the best thing to do: hold me, pat me on the back, or just stand there looking as awkward as he currently was. I reached up to brush my hand against my neck, gently massaging it in hopes it would ease the tension. Slowly my fingers trailed down to play with the cross, twisting it in between my thumb and index finger.
I was glad when he changed the subject honestly. Though the conversation was just as awkward, I eagerly accepted it. I moved over toward the desk, my hands reaching out for the picture he had been looking at earlier. I barely met his shoulders in heels, and couldn’t remember how eager I was to get them off. There was a graduation party that night too, one that I had begged Lucas to go to with me, not wanting to miss out and also so I had reinforcements when I spotted my ex Kurtis. We had dated off and on since Sophomore year before finally calling it quits. By Senior year my heart wasn’t in it, when I thought about that night, sometimes I wondered if it ever was. I quickly put the picture back in its space exactly, thoughts of how that night with Lucas went.
“I’m working at Anderson Hospital, right on McArthur Drive. The hours are a bit crazy, but it works for me Gretchen works there too so that makes it a little more bearable. Guess I’ll be able to start working more hours like they’ve been begging me to.” I gave a pained smile. Admitting that my mother’s passing allowed me more free time didn’t feel right as it came out. “I’ve been good though. Just getting by, taking life easy. Same ol’ same ol’. How about you? is the city what you dreamed of?”
I stood awkwardly near the trash and skirted to lean onto the desk casually. My hand rested on the mahogany desk, unusually clear of clutter, and my thumb slowly caressed it thinking about the tenacious woman. Kins assured me she would be alright but there was a crack in her voice. I’d known her far too long to miss her tells; however I also knew that she wouldn’t want me to press. My words of comfort were vague and brief—Kinsley would divulge if she wanted to and if not, she’d come to me in a couple of weeks. At least, that’s how it used to be. But now, standing here six feet away from her and she still felt miles away. It was like riding a bike—falling into old habits of speaking—but the feelings inside swirling around my chest and stomach were not adjacent to the casualness of our old friendship. It’s like I wanted desperately for it to still be there; she wasn’t a strange, yet she had become one. I didn’t know as much about her life as I would have liked, but how we left things the last time we saw each other there was little room or way for me to weasel back in with an apology. I hoped she knew that—I didn’t want to have to go there.
I nodded and looked up at her a few times while she spoke periodically. “I’m really happy for you, Kinsley, I really am,” I wanted to say so much more. I wanted to tell her that Celeste was proud of her but of course she was, she was there when Kinsley graduated with her BSN. I wasn’t there—I couldn’t make it. I regretted that choice now; so many mistake I’d made—priorities I had backwards. The past year had me thinking about it all, too—far more than I’d like to really admit. Even Leah noticed I had began to distance; like turning twenty-eight had brought with it a whole lot of revelations and things I wasn’t quite ready to confront. Most of them included Kinsley. I had wronged her many times—although she had me on occasion as well. Espeically when it came to relationships—I wondered if she’d ever truly forgiven me for some of my unfortunate high school Lucas’ misgivings.
“Gretchen? I haven’t heard that name in a while,” I let out a breathy chuckle and stared down at my hands where I was used to my ring sitting. I had taken it off on arrival; I didn’t want to deal with the questions and I was still struggling to grapple my own thoughts on the relationship. I had hopes that coming here would clear my head so I could go back and be the man that Leah desperately wanted me to be. But the question had become—could I be that man? “Well, I’m happy you get to work with your best friend,” it was awkward rolling off my tongue. I used to be her best friend but I knew I couldn’t pretend like I was now. It would only make things tenser, surely, yet it still felt bizarre to admit and say out loud to the woman who was once my shoulder to cry on—although it was typically the other way around. I felt a spontaneous crack in my chest but ignored it. “Same ol’ same ol’, huh?” I tried to smile playfully with my jest and looked up to her, “I’m, uh, alright… It’s big, that’s for sure, compared to this place,” I forced myself to laugh. “It’s not Illinois, that’s for sure… It’s also much louder and you can’t really see the stars at night. I think that was the strangest part for me when I first went to Chicago. That was just as bad really, but New York is much much worse,” I admitted to her. “But the job is going well, I like that. I have to work hard to keep up Leah’s lifestyle,” I raised my brows high and shook my head slowly, but realized that maybe that was too soon and too much information for the old best-friend. “She’s much less crazy than Rachel was, though,” I laugh at the thought of Kinsley’s birthday party—we’d only been friend’s a year or so and it was the beginning of our tumultuous dating history. “We both knew how to pick ‘em didn’t we?”
I wanted his words to annoy me, to make me roll my eyes and yet all they did was make my heart swell with joy. I could tell that Lucas was proud of me and had this been any other time, I would’ve hugged him tight. It would’ve meant more, now though it just made me confused. My hands wrapped around my stomach then, my fingers digging into my sides, just enough to ground me in the moment.
“Yeah, well she hears about you all the time.” I bit on my lip then, hoping my little Freudian slip would go unnoticed. “You know your mother, she brags about you to anyone who will listen.” I was glad that I was able to quickly save that conversation. I had tried not to talk about Lucas as best as possible. Bringing his name up always felt good one moment and terrible the next. I would find myself caught in this loop of what ifs and should’ves, but the moments between us had passed and what was done was done. I couldn’t take back what I had said and neither could he; but the words left unsaid haunted me. I wondered often; was I the reason things fell apart between the both of us?
“Well you know as [I boring] as this place can be, there’s no way you can get a view of the stars like this anywhere else,” I told him with a small smile. How many times had we laid on our backs in the old baseball field, staring up at the sky, laughing with one another and talking about our futures? I had known Lucas wanted to become a lawyer, but his decision to leave to Chicago had shocked me. Maybe because some part of me had felt he wouldn’t just leave me – not without . . . [I Stop it Kins]. It wasn’t really hard for me to do so though considering that Lucas had a little slip of his own. I was stupid to think that he hadn’t already found somebody by now. I often teased him that it was impossible for him not to be single longer than a year. Some part of me was reflecting on the fact that he never seemed to be single long enough for me to confess my feelings for him. Though after a while I began to wonder if I even needed to. Didn’t he know how much I loved him?
My fingers dug deeper. “Leah hm?” His mother hadn’t mentioned her which led me to believe this was actually something serious and Lucas was waiting for the best time, or that Lesa didn’t care for the girl. If she liked her at all, I imagined she would’ve already brought her up plenty of times. I shifted my weight as I leaned against the table then, looking down at my feet as I rolled the pointy heel against the carpet. A chuckle slipped through, one that I couldn’t stop as I thought back on the memory. “Yeah, I doubt anyone is as crazy as Rachel.”
[center [b [size22 ________]]]
It was a year after the incident at the community picnic. From that point on I wouldn’t say that Lucas and I instantly became best friends, he had Sam after all, but we did become much closer. I stopped hiding in my room when he and his mother would stop by. We would go out back and kick the ball around sometimes run around the backyard, turning over rocks and picking at bugs or letting our imaginations do the talking. I had to admit, I was a bit of a tomboy thanks to him. But I had yet to find any reason to change myself into what was considered a [I girly girl]. That was until Rachel came into the picture.
It was no mystery that the girl hated me and while she wasn’t outwardly a bully, she was just as nasty considering the snide comments she would make, masked under a compliment that would easily go unnoticed by our teachers and other adults. Lucas didn’t see that side of her though. We were entering the ninth grade and your social status was of great importance. Who was dating who being at the top of the list. Lucas was popular, at least in my eyes. I still kind of kept to myself and considered him my only true friend. Though, I had actually started talking to others and getting to know people. While the rumors of my childhood were still whispered about, a lot of that didn’t matter much anymore. I was able to narrate my own story from this point as the times had changed and I was no longer the [I freak]. Though in a small town, there were a lot of familiar faces I passed in the halls and saw in my classes.
Rachel had her eyes set on him though and he seemed to be smitten with her as well. So much so that he thought it was brilliant to invite her to my fourteenth birthday party, despite the fact I had made it clear she was not invited. My mother had patted my shoulder affectionately as I complained about it to her while she did my hair.
“Rachel is nice. I thought you guys got along. What’s the big deal hm?” I had let my eyes fall to my lap, where my hands fiddled with the skirt I wore. I usually stayed in jeans or overalls, baggy sweaters and old band tees from the thrift store. This was the first time I was showing my legs. The first time I had asked my mother to style my hair and I had even bothered with a little lip gloss. It had shocked my mom, but she didn’t mind finally being able to play dress up.
I found it hard to answer her, my cheeks growing red. The problem was I had grown the biggest crush on Lucas and Rachel had already began working on sinking her teeth in him.