The Music

Light shines into my charred room and illuminates one tiny patch of unblemished floor. songSomewhere, in the background, a piano plays Rachminoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” – both melancholy and sanguine. All those enchanting chords bounce off the barren four-walled space and remind me something is waiting for me outside. Hope. I touch the light. I feel it’s warmth on my hand. I let a smile spread across my face.

Someone, somewhere, believes in me. I need to believe in me too.

A cloud covers the light, and I’m plunged back into darkness. Stepping into the corner, I touch the walls. Fire has scorched the room. My fire. Anger over my inadequacy will never diminish. I’m in a prison of my own making. The music swells but is swallowed by blackened wood. Faint traces of “Stairway to Heaven” reach my ears and fade.

I will never amount to anything.

I crouch into the corner and tremble. When will this end? I think of all the times I have tried to escape my fate. I am reminded of all the times I failed in some way. I have spent the better part of my adult life being told “You’re so smart. You’ll go places.”, but that hasn’t happened yet. Am I meant to be a permanent reminder to all? You can work hard and do everything in your power to get ahead in life but “in the end, it is about who you know and not what you know.” I have had opportunities to achieve my dreams, and every time I have lost. I’m a failure. Maybe it’s time to give up on moving up?

The clouds fade away, and the light returns. It shines into the other three edges of my self-made cell and touches my toes, my fingers. The tempo changes. It’s a full orchestra – it’s a choir – it’s Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor”.

“You got the job!” I hear over the throng.

Success. I have finally reached the success I’ve craved.

The warmth tries to envelope me, but I inch further into the adjoining walls. I stand rigid as the light creeps closer. It tries to cover me whole, but I won’t let it, shrinking further into that dark recess. Why is my fear and anger of inadequacy still here? Why does it dominate so? I want to be happy.

I want to be happy.

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I Am…

I’m out at sea. Waves crash into my sail pulling me closer to the edge and filling my boat until it’s ankle deep. I hold on, life jacket securely around me, and shovel the water out. I can do this. I can weather this storm. I have been here before, and I know exactly how to see it out.The sun shines through ahead, and I focus on that. I just have a little bit further to go. Keep the sail from touching the water. Keep the water inside my boat low. Don’t think.

What if this is the best I deserve?

I catch a glimpse of where I have been. Those dark clouds, the rolling waves, my past. I have made it this far. 

I don’t see it coming, though. I am not prepared for it. A giant wave sweeps over my boat, and it capsizes. I rush to grab a rope, the sail, anything to support me, but everything is within grasp and nothing at the same time.

The boat disappears, and I am all alone. I swallow water, and I realize I can’t swim. I don’t know what to do. 

I never finished college. They would have taught me this in college, right? 

My arms and legs jerk in competing directions to get be back to the surface. The rough waters send me out further to sea or maybe closer to land. I cannot tell which. I only know one thing.

This is the best I can hope for.

Water fills my lungs, and my mind goes blank. All at once, my arms and legs stop moving, and with the help of my life jacket, I float back to the surface.

I am in the deep end of a pool.

The lanes are not roped off, and I am still so far from the edge. It’s only a pool. A lifeguard is here. The instructor is here. I have so much support around me. Yet I am empty and frightened and sad all at the same time.

I cough and splutter. My arms and legs have no muscle memory of how to survive here. I sink; the water washes away the tears but never the fear. 

No matter how hard I try, I will be stuck doing the same thing for the rest of my life.

The end is within reach but so is the deep. I touch the ceramic surface at the bottom.

My writing is going nowhere. Will I ever get published? What am I missing that others have?

My feet touch the bottom.

Am I ever going to get to see my family again? I am homesick for them. Will I ever be able to afford to go back to college? What if I put on the weight again after working so hard to take it off? What if my heart gives out like my dad? What if my PCOS develops into cancer? What if -?

I barely notice my arm being pulled. The instructor, the lifeguard, the other people in the pool are all helping to take me out of the pool.

I land on the ground and vomit the water onto the soft earth. I breath and push myself up overcoming the weakness in my arms and legs.

I am in a crowded field.

All around me, I can see people. I can see their lives before me. The woman who gets hit every night. The man who has been overshadowed by his father his whole life. The girls who can’t get into the college they wanted to. Every one of them has a right to be unhappy. They deserve to be lost and scared. 

I don’t. I’m a fraud. I shouldn’t be here. I have no right to be in this place.

I push through them all. Their lives touch me, become a part of me. I want to save them all, but how can I when I can’t even save myself?

I see a man standing above an entire peoples. He is driving hate and oppression. I watch their faces go darker. The shadow covers them all, and I see it cover me too.

How did I get to this place again? 

How do I get out?

I drop to my knees and sob. I can’t stop the tears. I want to. I want this to end. This too shall pass, but how? Someone please tell me how!

I lift up my head.

I am in a square room with no windows and no doors.

I accept it. Despite all the support I have around me, I know this is where I am meant to be. In solitude. Not bringing anyone else down with me. 

“You are so useless!” a voice hisses in my mind.

“You will never amount to anything.”

“You’re a gold digger. You don’t really love him.”

“You don’t care about anything but yourself.”

I lie down on the stone floor and let the chill of it sweep over me. I know it’s not true. I know it. The people who said it are no longer welcome in my life. So why are the words still there in the back of my mind holding me down? 

I pull my legs close to me and fill the cramped room with water.

I am drowning in a pool – no, I am out at sea. Everything and nothing is wrong all at the same time, and all I see ahead of me are gray skies, rough waters, and a minute trace of light.
 
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The Principal’s Office

I clutched the note in my hand and walked through the halls of the school with a 10lb backpack swung across my right shoulder. My eyes were focused on the toes of my shoes, each step harder than the previous. My knees seemed to buckle under the pressure of the words stamped across the top of the note: “From the Principal’s Office.”

The weight of the letters was heavier than the six textbooks I carried. What could the principal want from me?

I was a band and choir geek. In that small Texas town, sports were more important than the arts, so it couldn’t be about that. I wasn’t the smartest kid in school, so I wouldn’t be winning some award. I wasn’t naughty. I don’t think I was, at least.

I approached the office desk. The long countertop stretched out across my full field of vision. The dark hallways gave way to a light-filled administrative space speckled with desks three times longer than any students are allowed. Of the staff of six, none bothered to even look up at me.

I rubbed the note between my fingers until the edge was rolled into a mini scroll. I shifted my weight and swallowed to spite the dryness in my throat.

One of the staff coughed uncomfortably without even looking up from her desk, and finally a clerk shot up and walked to stand in front of me on the other side of the counter.

“Yes?”

My mouth opened, and a tiny squeal escaped. I handed her the note, and heat swelled my cheeks.

“Oh. Yes. This way,” she said.

She pointed towards a door around the corner, and I followed her direction.

The principal was waiting for me behind a large oak desk. His pensive look, complete with pen in mouth, stared back at me from within.

I stepped forward and heard the door close behind me before he spoke, “Please take a seat, Melony.”

I nodded and sat down in the first of two cushioned chairs.

“One of your peers,” he said before a slight cough. His eyes fell to his desk before looking at me again. “One of your peers has lodged a concern with my office today.”

My eyes narrowed. What did I do? I don’t remember. 

“They saw something yesterday. At your home,” he continued.

My head lifted a tad and eyes grew. A girl was riding on my street yesterday. I remembered her pedaling past when Daddy…

“Oh that was nothing,” I blurted out.

The image of the moment was burned into my mind. Daddy was drunk. He was angry. I don’t even remember why. The why was never important.

“This is a very serious accusation,” the principal said, swallowing air loudly. “She says he was hitting you.”

Daddy’s tirade had started and ended in the carport. He held in his hands a splintered wooden rake. It may have been the source of the anger, but I couldn’t even remember the next day. He swung it into the post sending showers of wood into the three of us. We crouched to avoid chunks landing on our face or eyes. The onslaught continued until the rake was in two.

I shook my head, “He wasn’t. I promise. Daddy has never hit us.”

I blinked sending tiny drops down my cheeks, and I sniffed the moisture away.

The principal crossed the room and sat beside me. “If you ever need someone to talk to, my office is always open.”

I acknowledged him with a nod, but all I kept thinking was don’t send us away. Please don’t take me from my family. Please don’t take me from my daddy.

“If anything ever happens, you’ll be the first to know,” I said. I stared straight into his eyes and drove the lie home.

He patted my shoulder, smiled, and sent me on my way.

I walked out of the office burdened by the weight of my books and the certainty that life was about to get a whole lot more complicated. He would have to report this to Child Protective Services. He had a duty of care to his students. There would be an investigation, and just like last time, I would be ripped from my parents’ arms.

But there was no investigation. His duty of care must not extend to students who don’t want out of their abusive homes. There were no calls made to my parents. My worst fears were not realized. 

I kept the exchange to myself, life moved on, and I continued to travel along it on a roller coaster with a drunk conductor.

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Uncomfortable

I’m looking forward to having some game time today with my best friend.

I straighten up the living room, check batteries in the controllers, grab the Code Red Mountain Dew from the fridge and the Doritos out of the pantry. Three games sit on the floor in front of the TV ready to be chosen.

A knock sends me flying to the door to answer it. I feel like a six-year old all over again, but I’m really in my early twenties and far too old to act like this. It’s just… I don’t have enough friends that I can feel as comfortable as I do with him.

I open the door, and he’s standing there with a bag hanging over his shoulder, and just past it, I can see his wife waving excitedly at me from their car . I wave with both arms high in the air, “Hi, Rho-rho!”

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally feel fine spending time with him. I have rules. His wife must know we’re hanging out. She’s my friend too. We’re all buddies.

Rhokesia never has any reason to distrust me. She and I talk all the time about the perfect guy. She knows my type: cool geeks. Antoine is neither of these things.

So we play the games. I drink over half the bottle of Code Red, as he drinks wine. I keep kicking his butt and punching him when he beats me. It’s all good fun.

“You’re just so cool,” he tells me. “You’re just like a guy!”

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That’s what every girl wants to hear…  I’ve been stuck in friendzone with so many of my guy friends. But I don’t mind him saying it, though, since it’s him.

His hand lands on my knee, “I wish I’d met you before I married.”

I push him away, mouth agape. You’ve just ruined it!

“You and I have so much in common. I have nothing in common with Rhokesia,” he continued.

“No,” I say standing up. Asshole! Nothing can ever be the same again.

“But I thought-”

I am not attracted to you! “No!”  Come on, Mel. Say something real!

This complete disconnect from mind and mouth infuriates me. My face goes red, but I suck in a breath before finally speaking, “Antoine, you have to go.”

“But-”

“No. That’s it. It’s over. You’re married!”

He nods his head, resigned, and I walk him to the door. “I can’t believe you would think-. You were my friend,” I say, preventing him from saying anything else.

As he crosses passes the front door, I see him turn to say something, but I slam the door in his face.

I cry for a moment in anger and frustration. How could he? I never did anything. I was just being me. Oh my god. I’m despicable. I did this. Somehow I caused this. 

My hands shake as I lift my phone to get her number.

She has to know. 

I stare at her name in my list and pause.

What if she blames me? I blame me. 

I scrunch my eyes and take two deep breaths before closing my phone.

You just can’t see him outside of work anymore. It’s better this way.

I step away from the door and collapse on the couch. I guess single girls aren’t meant to be friends with married men.

The Empty Chair

 

I sit rigid on the edge of a floral-patterned couch dizzied by the movement all around me. I know this house; I have been here every weekend for the better part of my life. But it’s foreign to me now. The living room fireplace with its brick base and empty hearth makes the hallway door in front of it seem unreachable from here. This couch, on the opposite wall to the fireplace, has lost all its cushioning. On the coffee table in front of me a glass of Dr Pepper sits untouched. Grandpa’s chair lies vacant in a room filled with people. Mom sits in Grandma’s chair between stints of chatter and hugs, while Dad paces around the room, eyes dim and unfocused.

My eyes burn. No amount of blinking settles the sting. I can hear whispers all around me and sideways glances at my person. I look at the hallway door and start to push off from this temporary prison, but I hear my name again and turn towards the dining room.

Containers of food cover the tables and countertops across the dining room and kitchen.

Who can think of food at a time like this?

My heart is in my stomach, creating a knot that any sailor would be proud to call their own. So many eyes settle on me, and I taste bile in my throat as I try to push the tears away again.

Can’t I go to bed? I just want to be left alone.

The doorbell rings in response. With the speed of a deer, Grandma races over to me, grabs my hand, and forces me up.

She drags me to the door, hand tight around my own. I hardly resist, but I imagine how liberating it could be at a time like this.

As the door opens, she puts her arm around me and holds me tight. An elderly couple greet us, hands entwined together. A plate of food covered in plastic wrap is in the woman’s arm, and the old man held a handkerchief in his free hand. I wonder if they know how rude it is to act like a couple at a time like this.

“We just heard,” the woman says. “We came as soon as we could.”

“Thank you,” Grandma sighs, before pushing out her chest. “And would you believe it? It’s her birthday!”

She releases me and pushes me at these two strangers. I prepare for the inevitable. This is not the first time today that this has happened.

“Oh! You poor dear!” The elderly woman hands the plate to her husband and comes into me with the veracity of a child reunited with their mother. Her cold hands and cheeks make me feel every bit of this cold January morning. I stand rigid with my arms straight at my side. Grandma’s arms wrap around me as well, and the tightness in my throat overwhelms my chest and arms.

“Thank you,” I mumble.

When will this nightmare be over?

When the woman and Grandma are done hugging me, I go back to sit down at the couch and wait for the continued humiliation.

 

How did this day get to be so awful? I remember waking up excited. Fourteen. It’s an extra awesome day because today we are moving into our new house. It’s not much bigger than the one we live in, but there’s a shower and that’s just awesome!

Earlier today, Daddy gave me my birthday present. My own phone number! A day just filled with promise.

Half an hour later, the phone rings, and moments later, Daddy rushes to get us in the van. Before we leave, he yells out to our neighbor, “My father just died.”

 

I sit straight and look at that empty rocking chair recliner. I think back at the times I sat on his lap there. About how his hands were always so gentle and soft. How his hair was cut in the same style for all the fourteen years I’d known him. I remember his smile and his happy eyes. The plaid shirt and plain pants he always wore. The watch around his wrist. The ring he never took off.

I push the tears away and stare into that chair cushion.

“Melony,” I hear. Grandma is standing in front of me. “He wanted you to have this.”

“Thank you,” I say slowly to avoid breaking my voice.

The small box has a tiny card. “With love, from Grandpaw & Grandmaw.”

I blink furiously and swallow.

The ring inside, a large garnet on a gold band and two little diamonds on either side slides onto my finger and dangles.

Grandma weeps, “It doesn’t fit.”

I stand up and cry for a moment with her. We embrace. “It’s okay,” I whisper. “We can get it resized. I can wear it around my neck until then.”

She holds the hug longer than I expect.

“I’m sorry,” she says on repeat.

I hold her tighter. What do I say back? Grandpa was my favorite person in the world… I’m no good at this.  

“It’s okay,” I say back.

We stay here for a what seems an eternity until I realize the truth. She made today all about me. I thought she was doing it to make me feel better, but maybe it was to help her cope. Today is really all about her.

It still doesn’t stop me from selfishly thinking. Why me? Why did it have to be on my birthday?

 

 

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