It’s not you. Anymore. It’s somebody else. Someone different. Someone lovely and gentle and smart and absolutely fucking hysterical. Multidimensional. Fearless. With your eyes and your thumbs. Your wit and your charms. But it’s real. Everything about him is real. His gaze..his…..touch. It’s tangible and right there. Beside me. Inside. Me. Deep. He is everybody else. Everyone different. Everything lonely and garbage and I’m absolutely fucking hysterical because he isn’t…..you. I don’t know why I still bother. I was never anything or anyone to you but we had a moment. And you’ve forgotten everything that moment was for you. How our conversations changed you. Changed who you are inside. You’ve forgotten why you got on your bicycle and peddled down hill. Why you watched us. You’ve forgotten. And now you’re lonelier than ever. I can see it on your face. You feel everything and everyone around you and none of it feels good. But there you are. And here I am. And there’s nothing funny about it.
I’m not sure why I feel so compelled to explore that time of my life right now. You didn’t know me then. I didn’t entirely know myself either. It was twenty-nine years ago. A whole life time …in between. Four lives that I’ve created…in between. Let it go already. Move the fuck on woman….But I can’t. Or maybe I can…I’m just… not.
A door was left open and I don’t know how to close it without first dissecting my wounds. Bleeding out all that I left on the mountain. Forgiving myself for leaving California and patting myself on the back for saving myself. I know Hilltop was killing me. Charles Dederich sunk his teeth in so fast… I was losing The Game. Embodying a shell after just becoming a butterfly. I was healthy after Sierra Tucson! I dare say almost whole. Something I had never been being from that household. But I was on my way. And that fucking shit hole ruined it. Destroyed any growth I had earned. Raped me. Eviscerated my sense of self. And told my parents everything was going “Great!”
I became someone else entirely in that gray-green ranch sized dorm house they called Willow. A person who learned to lie because I couldn’t trust any of those fucking lunatics with my truth in a house called Sequoia. A person who whispered to a boy in Cypress. A boy I was banned from speaking to. A boy I clung tight to anyway because we didn’t want either of us to die. A person whose very own name changed 3 times while I was there. In after-care. Because he was a liar too.
You don’t know CEDU. My parents didn’t know CEDU. I have to believe my psychiatrist at STAC didn’t know CEDU. But I knew it. I knew everything about by the second sun down. The place where it all should have been up up up was designed to tear me down down down to my bone. Make me walk the grounds as a skeleton. Then berate me because I’m naked.
I went back in 2018. A few years ago now, when we could still get on a plane with only terrorists on our mind instead of the coronavirus. When my kids made fun of me for wet wiping down the airplane seats and we collectively laughed until we saw how stank the used wipes became. Sounds kinda sensible now. But there were no ghosts in Running Springs. Surprisingly. Just water skiing, jeep excursions and lots of beautiful vistas. The houses were still there, owned by families who left their bikes in the yard. There was life there which was peaceful. I liked to see it. The memories weren’t the best but there was peace in revisiting. I thought maybe the girl I once was might be lost in those trees but she wasn’t. I felt the same way about seeing Hilltop as I do about Canal Pointe. Thats where I used to live….for a little while. That’s where I became an adult. That’s where a chapter ended and a new story began to take shape. My old stomping grounds.
I’ve been writing a lot about it. In this little leather bound journal that has an owl on the cover. The journal smells weird. Funky and old. But the memories are fresh. I kinda wish someone would help me organize it all. There’s so much to tell, I’m having a hard time putting any of it in order. Anyway….time for work duty.
“Woah, what the fuck?” asked Jared as A’Tyra dripped water across the threshold.
“I need your goddamn help!” she screeched. It was a frightening sound that jolted Rebecca in to action.
“Is that blood?” she asked as she slipped in to her slides. “Is it blood on your jeans?” now Rebecca was screaming. “Jared, get the kids out of here!”
One of Rebecca’s children started crying “Mommy!”
It was pure chaos in the foyer and no one really knew why. Not yet at least. Well no one but A’Tyra who quickly started filling in the blanks as Rebecca followed her out to the driveway to her car. To the passenger side where it was clear someone was laying across the back seat. Injured or sleeping. Rebecca was afraid to find out which.
“She was so fucking drunk. You know how drunk she was when we left…I just…We went to her house and I was afraid to leave her alone. Everyone was sleep when we got there. So I just like set Amy up on the couch and I got her a bucket. And Randy came downstairs. He was mad. And I was trying to calm him down…
“Is she ok? Is Amy ok?” Rebecca peeked through the window again.
“She’s not ok.” The pain in A’Tyra’s eyes was real “Randy and I were talking at first. Just talking and then I don’t know why….” A’Tyra was wailing “But we just…we started kissing and then something happened…and then….and then….Amy woke up….he was balls deep… and she just stood there.” A’Tyra started to choke on her tears “Randy started flipping the fuck out cuz he was caught. Then she started flipping the fuck out because she thought we were over. Everyone was just yelling and….it just spiraled ….from the jump. He hit her and she just…she slipped….and I didn’t know what to do…I carried her to my car…I dragged….her….body….to my car. I didn’t want him to hit her anymore and he wouldn’t stop. He wouldn’t stop hitting her ! ….and I was going to the hospital…I swear I was going to but Becc…”
“Fucking call 911…that’s what you do….you call 911….” Rebecca peeked in the backseat of her best friend’s car again and it finally registered that another best friend was laying there lifeless. Lifeless in the back of her friend’s car. In her driveway. With her kids a few feet away.
“She’s not alive….she’s not alive !” A’Tyra was panicking.
“You still call 911! Call 911 !” She fished in her bathrobe for her cellphone. It wasn’t there but she frantically searched anyway.
“Becc – they’re going to think I did it. Oh my god, she’s dead!”
Jared had been watching this all transpire from a window at the front of the house. He was completely unaware that there was a body in his driveway but he was painfully aware that there’s a living room full of hungover women inside his house and some shit going down outside of it.
“I don’t know what to do!”
“I think you call 911. You tell them what you told me and you call 911.”
“Well, then, I will.”
“You can’t !”
“What did you think I was going to do for you? Going to help you hide Amy’s body?! Oh my god, Amy!”
“You’re not going to do anything…you’re not calling anyone. I’m …this….didn’t happen. It’s not happening.” A’Tyra crossed over the front of her car and got back in the driver’s seat with Rebecca quickly trailing behind.
“You can’t be serious!” she shouted.
A’Tyra whipped her car in to reverse, narrowly hitting Rebecca and floored it up the driveway and out of view. Rebecca collapsed to the ground and sobbed. None of this seemed real.
“It’ll be cute ! Naww…Yes!! Everyone pile on the couch !! … We’re taking pics for the gram!” It was a jovial moment. “Get in closer!” Everyone was loud and laughing, finding their spot on the long end of a beige L shape, tilting their head to the side, puffing up their lips, straightening hair. Side by side, legs crossed over each other. Fuzzy socks or fleece lined slippers. Buffalo check. Cute.
“Aw, look at everyone in their pjs! Well, not everyone, I see you A’Tyra in that loungewear…that’s not what the invite….said!” Rebecca teased.
A’Tyra responded with a laugh “Ya’ll lucky I even had this…it’s my man’s tshirt and panties most night at my house…panties optional though….if you know what I’m sayin'” the women roared with laughter and their iPhones recorded every moment.
” No kids !!!” one of the ladies cheered as Rebecca uploaded a picture of 7 deliciously happy women all in their mid-thirties toasting to one another to her Instagram. Mothers of toddlers, wives of successful men, rich…enjoying their women-only slumber party.
The party’s host, Rebecca, had shooed her husband and kids out of the house hours ago with a promise that they wouldn’t return until at least 8am the next morning. She then spent the day fixing charcuterie boards, cleaning the bathrooms and chilling wine from COSTCO. The ladies were going to have a night of freedom, one that bonded their friendships even deeper than ever could be on the sidelines at Jake’s soccer or Chloe’s ballet.
Girls night in. No kids. No husbands. No socials media (or at least less mindless scrolling than most nights). Just a much deserved breather from their lives as stay-at-home moms.
“We’re gonna take a couple more pictures then phones away!” this was met with a groan. “I still have a house phone and every one of you has a husband with that number! No phones! You promised!” Rebecca wagged her finger at everyone “You promised!” she whined.
Everyone smiled big in the next series of photos then silenced their phone before handing it over to the pj party host Rebecca for safe storage like the obedient children they had left behind for the night
“Not to be seen again….for at least 12 hours….!” Rebecca joked. She shuffled out of the den in to the kitchen where she deposited each of the phones in a bowl and stuffed the bowl high up on a shelf in a cabinet by the fridge. She was so happy in this moment, delighted that her little get together had actually come together so nicely. It was hard to get everyone to commit to lunch let alone a whole night in, so it was a true testament to how bad they all needed the night together that most of their group had made it tonight for this much needed chance to feel like a real human being again instead of an extension of their toddlers’ hands.
They played a few rounds of Cards against Humanity while feasting on the spread Rebecca laid out in the dinning room. Watched a horror movie uninterrupted and they were just settling back in to their spots in front of the fire place and around the den after a midnight dip in the hot tub when one of the girls started a game of never have I ever which led to a game of truth or dare until one by one the women faded away either due to the late hour or the amount of alcohol consumed.
When Rebecca’s husband snuck in through the garage around 7:45am, Rebecca was already up making coffee but the rest of the ladies were still curled up on blow up mattresses and corners of the sectional sleeping off what will probably turn in to wicked hangovers one snore at a time.
“This is….well….something” Jared said as he looked around the room. “You look exhausted!” he teased.
“Hungover. Is more accurate.” someone from the living room floor mumbled.
“Any boys crash your sleep over?” he teased again.
Little by little all the women started to wake up and make their way in to the kitchen, their nose leading them towards the fresh coffee. The party had been a true success. With only one of them ending up with their head in the toilet.
“Just a rough head count, but it looks like you lost one or two?”
“Ha yeah – Bridget couldn’t hang. A’Tyra took her home a few hours ago. You know what though…I don’t think she …did she come back?” Rebecca asked the room as she made her way towards A’Tyra’s empty blow up mattress. “Her stuff is still here but …”
Just then the front door opened up. And A’Tyra stood in the doorway. Soaking wet. Shivering. “I need your help.” she said. “I need….help!”
No one ever talks about the rain in the fall. How the reds and the yellows sag under the weight of it all. It’s all at the same time beautiful and messy. The streets are slick. The air soggy. It’s not my favorite, but then again, is anything really all that terrible in New York City? Even the rain? It was with that mindset I was avoiding puddles and cabs that mercilessly splash the sidewalks as they pass. It was just me out there. The sun had hidden itself from sight hours before. The twinkling reflections were some comfort. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I needed to get there fast or I’d be cold before long. The kind of cold that’s hard to shake.
She was crying, or I wouldn’t have noticed her at all. New Yorkers have a habit of ignoring one another even when in obvious distress, but something about her was familiar. Her hair was covered but her nose…
“Are you ok?” I asked.
She didn’t look up.
“I have a tissue….?” I offered. I was entering uncharted territory, but I couldn’t very well ignore her. Baby faced. Way too skinny. I know her. I know that face.
“I’m fine.” she whispered “Thank you.”
And she walked on without looking back. Regal walk. With authority. But that baby face … it betrayed her straight away.
It’s a certain time of day that triggers it. When the sun has dipped and the sky is pink and purple. Hair still wet from swimming. Prune-y fingers. Towel wrapped around your shoulders because you’re almost cold. Skin stinging a little from sunburn. It’s a whole vibe. Summer. On the bay. In between childhood and everything that comes after. Jimmy. And his vw rabbit. Cologne and a wrinkle-free t-shirt. I felt so grown sitting beside him. Drinking from a plastic cup. Talking his ear off. I didn’t know if I’d see him again. But I did. And I wore the sun on my face and lip gloss. We went to the beach. My knees were shaking.
“Are you cold?”
“No.” I said and I looked down at my legs, willing them to stop. I know he could feel me shaking.
“Are you nervous?”
“Yes….but in a good way.”
He put his jacket on my shoulders and he smiled before he kissed me. I didn’t know what that smile meant. But I’ve never forgotten how it looked on his face. Jimmy.
Smoking was my biggest vice the day I stepped foot on campus. I wasn’t in to heroin. Had said no to cocaine. All the alcohol I had ever had was stolen from my parent’s liquor cabinet and they were never big drinkers. But I sure did love tobacco. The Shell gas station a few miles from my house still had a vending machine that sold cigarettes. One of those jammies that had the pulls and a pack would drop down. Looked like something from the fifties but it was steady churning ’em out for all the local kids in the 1990s. I stole so many quarters from my Dad and deposited them in that vending machine. Marlboro Lights would cost ya 5 quarters – a smooth dollar twenty five. Early on I had no idea about menthol, non-menthol. I just liked the packaging. Eventually I developed a preference and it was pretty much for anything that wasn’t a Newport. There was something about those cigarettes that was gross as fuck. Kind of like smoking after brushing your teeth. Fuck they were nasty!
So of course, when I got to STAC, I found myself without quarters and without that Shell gas station vending machine in one of the most high- pressure intense situations imaginable. It didn’t occur to me I should have brought enough smokes to last me 60 days, but it didn’t. And my Mom wasn’t exactly going to set me up – even though she had let me smoke in the house during my intake phone call. Anything she could do to make me comply with getting on the next airplane, she did. But once I was exactly where she wanted me to be, it was fuck me all over again. I wasn’t too sure how compliant I’d be if I had to quit smoking without my consent. Everything was going to devolve quickly if I didn’t have my nicotine here in Arizona – not because I’m brat – but precisely because that’s the only self-soothing I knew how to do up until that point.
When I got to STAC, we were allowed to smoke at designated intervals. It was in complete contrast with the health nut/spiritual/one with nature/go ahead and kiss a cactus vibe they had there but I guess they understood that we were taking baby steps and our 3 or 4 cigarette breaks a day were low on their list of things to tackle. The Arizona heat did enough to deter too many out doors breaks as it was. But for me, those smoke breaks were therapeutic. Probably because it was something I still had some control over, but more likely it was because of the rest of those smokers and what they had to say as we all filled our lungs with sweet tar.
Just like everything else we did – we had a chaperone, or a monitor, or in some cases a mentor that would hang out with us, shoot the shit and get under our skin while we did whatever it was we did when we weren’t in the actual therapy. Looking back – those men (they were all men in my case but they didn’t have to be) – were probably the ones who helped me heal the most. Which may or may not have been part of the plan. But I’ll never forget this one big ole burly dude – straight out of a biker gang – who I had nicknamed Hollywood but I think his real name was Butch- he told us about his days on different locations and what he learned living out there in the real world. He had been in a bunch of movies we all recognized at the time though I couldn’t name a single one today. It legitimized him and what he shared immediately. I stood up a little straighter when he led us outside. I can’t act for shit but in those days I wanted to be behind the camera bad. Hollywood has a long list of credits – one of those actors whose face you see in a lot of scenes but he’s never saying much. One or two lines at most. He was the one that took us outside for our smoke breaks late afternoon/early evening. Told us he volunteered at the adolescent center because he believed in us. Maybe it was community service – maybe it was service of his heart. I dunno. I do think he was with us so he wasn’ t out with other people doing fucked up things tho. He had a history – and he shared an awful lot of it with me. He was the one who was begging me to live. To find my place in the world and move away from who was hurting me. He had a great handshake and a leather vest. And a way of talking that made this fucked up teenager listen. I don’t know whatever happened to him – I probably never said goodbye. But one day as I still was brand freaking new and getting to know the ropes, he acknowledged I was down to my last cigarette. No more cigarettes meant no more “therapy” with Hollywood. Even though I had no idea why – the idea had truly frightened me. I was lamenting it to him – probably hoping he’d smuggle some in. My Mom told me “hell no” when I asked her to send me some. My best friend was like “uhhhh sure” but I knew she’d never put anything in the mail for me. But Hollywood told me to lean on my family “here” instead of the people back home. I was panicking, because I was a stupid teenager and because no cigs meant no more Hollywood, and to show me that there were other people out there I could rely on, he casually mentioned it to a kid who was being discharged that day, a kid who had clearly been helped by Hollywood and was on a path to somewhere better and the kid immediately understood why it would be tragic if I was to smoke my last cig my first week at STAC. “She can have mine” he said “I can buy more on the outside” and the next time I went up to the nurse’s station to get a cigarette, there was a whole entire carton of Newports waiting for me. It’s ridiculously symbolic and stupid and significant at the same time. You see, no one ever truly saw my needs and responded so kind. Im laughing as I type this because I’m seriously talking about cigarettes as this life lesson – but it meant the world to me in so many ways. So many. Too many, really.
I smoked every one of those fucked up toothpaste tasting shit sticks in that kid’s honor and just so I could hear Hollywood tell me I’d be ok. It’s so stupid when I think about it. We were kids healing from rape, abuse, grief, post traumatic stress, behavior issues, and so much pain. And the thing that held us together many many days was those cigarette breaks with Hollywood. Not talk therapy with a woman who made $504 an hour. It was the free therapy with the biker guy who hooked a minor up with smokes.
My mom found my panties, ripped up and hidden under the sink in the upstairs bathroom and she didn’t ask me about it for 34 years.
They were smart to send my brother P. There’s no way I’d give him any shit. He’s the one who was always loyal – took many hits for me. I’d go wherever he led me. The convertible was a nice touch too. I mean my parents were total pussies for it, but P was brave. He didn’t really know how I’d react. Or maybe he did. Maybe he volunteered. Maybe he said “If you’re going to do that to her, I’m leaving school right now and flying across the damn country, renting a convertible and taking her there myself.” He probably didn’t want me to go alone. He probably knew I’d listen to him and that in his P way he’d make it better for me. He was right. There was no shit. And there’s no one else who could tell me “you’re not actually going home, you’re going to California instead” without me flipping the fuck out.
We drove to the Grand Canyon. Took pictures. I wore the shorts set Aunt Eileen mailed me. A mallrat from Jersey repping Florida right smack in the middle of Arizona. I looked pretty for once. All that granola and kiwi from Sierra Tucson was working for me. Drove over the Hoover Dam. Took pictures. Stayed somewhere along the route. I think it had a pool. Climbed a windy road up higher and higher. Took no more pictures. Arrived at the rim of the world and while my knees shook P told me I’d be ok. Just listen to what the people tell me to do and remember everything is temporary. I think he gave me ten dollars too. I tucked it in the band of my underwear because my shorts had no pockets. I was glad that I had been living in Arizona for so long. I was tan. I washed my hair at the motel and what wasn’t shaved was curly from the wind. He didn’t stay long. I stood in the center of that driveway watching him back out. The top was up on the convertible so he waved out the window. I never asked him what happened next. Where did he go? What did he see? How was the flight home? It’s been too long now, I’m not sure he’d even remember. No, that’s not P. I bet he remembers every detail. I know I sure do.
We didn’t really talk about it. We just sort of did it. He mentioned it in passing. Saying he needed to get out of there. I needed out too but I never said it out loud. I just stuffed what I could in to my suitcase and set it out by the side of the house where I knew I could grab it later when it was time for us to go. I was nervous most of the day, but I passed the time smoking cigarettes and ignoring Phil during rap. By the middle of the day I caved, told Michelle we’d be leaving that night. And she must have told someone else what he was planning because they put one of those club locks on the steering wheel of his 4-runner. I thought that was funny and to be honest I was kind of relieved. Trust was a big deal there and I think I trusted her to save me. I knew Hilltop was making me sick again, but I wasn’t sure going back to New Jersey was the answer to my problems.
Two or three days later, when they stopped breathing down Phil’s neck every five minutes, he borrowed a hack saw from a neighbor and he cut clean through his own steering wheel to slip the club lock off.
Phil tapped on my window the night we left and I thought about pretending I didn’t hear him. But the wheels were in motion and I was no punk. So I crawled out in to the darkness, through the window right beside my bed. He caught me and our bodies were closer than they had ever been – it was awkward. But I followed him where he led me down the hill away from the ranch and away from Running Springs. He already grabbed my suitcase at some point, I saw it on the back seat when I climbed in the 4-Runner. We sat in the silence for a few minutes both us surprised we pulled it off. The plan without a plan. I wrapped my blanket around me tighter – the one with the turkeys that I dragged off my bed as I climbed through the window – and looked over at Phil. He looked like a stranger and he still had the hacksaw. I was afraid and he was a thief. I lit a cigarette to calm my nerves. What the fuck was I doing? He pulled away from the culdesac and my knees began to shake. Willow looked so dark up on the hill. I had no idea I’d never see any of those people ever again. No idea why Phil’s blue eyes looked black. I knew we were headed east, but I really didn’t know why.