With a shriek of tires, the car swerved around me, jolting me back to the world.
“You gotta fucking death wish, lady?” the driver shouted through his open window as he sped away.
I stumbled backward onto the sidewalk, mouth agape, hands quivering. That voice. I craned my neck to try to see the car, but it was now too far down the street.
It wasn’t a sky blue Mustang, that much I knew for sure. It wasn’t him. It was just my distracted mind playing tricks on me.
I blew out a long breath, looked both ways this time, and then rushed across the road. Contrary to that guy’s snarky comment, I did not have a death wish.
Not anymore, anyway.
Is it possible to mourn someone who’s still alive? I still mourned the death of my father, still missed him like crazy, but this wasn’t like that. It was like nothing I’d ever felt before, this abject hollowness. This grief. No longer fresh, hot, wet grief, but months-old, dry, deep, ache. The kind of grief you’re able to hide from others. The kind that slowly eats you away inside.
I didn’t know how to define it, so I couldn’t identify it. Not until later, when it was pointed out to me by my therapist. I just knew that, like a persistent yet apathetic vampire, it was slowly sucking the life out of me.
Speaking of my therapist, it had been several months since my last appointment so I felt a bit nervous walking into her office on a cold, wet, early November afternoon. As I sat down across from her, the first thing she said to me was not what I’d expected.
“Hello Amelia. You’ve changed your hair.” Debbie Westwood smiled warmly at me and I felt myself relax a little.
A few weeks ago, I’d cut my hair short. My whole life it had been long and brushed straight, but now it sat just above my shoulders and I let it do its own thing, which tended to be wavy. I’d also, for the first time ever, dyed my natural auburn shade a rich brown. My mother hated my new look, but that was no surprise.
“I did,” I replied without elaborating. My hair wasn’t all I’d changed. I now wore my glasses almost every day, my contacts case gathering dust in the apartment in Richmond I shared with my friend Dee. Glasses were easy to remove during teary moments. Thankfully, I didn’t have as many of those as I used to, but they still hit me sometimes. I’d quit wearing makeup for the same reason.
“It suits you,” she said and I was surprised to realize she meant it.
Debbie moved on. “So, how’re you doing these days?”
There it was. The question I’d been waiting for, the one I always got. How was I doing? It seemed everyone asked it: my friends, my mother, even my ex-husband the rare times we were in contact. Truthfully, I didn’t know how to answer. Sometimes I was okay, managing to get through the day like a fairly normal person; sometimes I was only hanging on by the thinnest of threads. But I couldn’t very well say that to people who cared about me, could I? They would only worry, and I didn’t want them to worry. I knew they were just asking to be polite.
So I lied. I told them I was fine, and, with the occasional exception of Dee, who knew me far too well, they believed me. It was what they wanted to hear, after all, and gave them permission to move on to the next subject. And that was always my goal. To move on.
I didn’t lie about my wellbeing as much as I used to, not all the time to everyone now, but I still did. The most recent lie I told Dee just this morning: “I hardly think of him anymore.” I wished it were true, wanted it to be true more than anything, but it wasn’t. I still thought of him every day. Not every waking moment of each day—there was at least that much improvement—but every day. I knew it was pointless and needed to stop, but I couldn’t seem to help it.
Debbie Westwood, however, was not a loved one. She was my therapist. I was paying her to listen, so I decided to edge a little closer to the truth.
“Oh, you know. Good days and bad days. To be expected, really.” I shrugged to emphasize how normal I assumed I was.
She nodded, jotting something on her notepad. “Are you working?”
I frowned. This was the second most common question I got, although it was often phrased as: ‘are you looking for work?’ or ‘how’s the job hunt going?’ I hated having to answer this, too. Because the truth was that I wasn’t, at least not in the way people seemed to expect I should be.
“Yes. Sort of. I mean, I’m taking on some accounting work, and doing the books for my roommate’s business. But that’s more in exchange for my share of living costs. If you mean ‘am I earning a steady income?’ then no. Not really. But I still have my dad’s inheritance, so I’m getting by okay for now.”
She made another note.
“Tax season’s coming up in a few months, so I’ll have a lot more work soon,” I added. I’m not sure why I needed to justify my lack of consistent employment, but as I’d done my whole life, I felt obligated to prove myself worthy.
“That’s good. You haven’t been searching for employment at another company then?”
I shook my head. After how things at the last place had gone, I wasn’t eager to jump back into the office environment. Too many stressors still. My current goal was to have my own accounting business someday, so that’s what I was working toward.
“And how are you feeling about your separation? It’s been a few months now. Are things still civil?”
I bit my lip. “Yes. But we rarely communicate now.” I sighed. And then the truth I’d been holding so closely, not just from my therapist, but from nearly everyone in my life, slipped out. “I…uh….I cheated on him.”
Debbie looked up at me impassively. Why didn’t she seem more shocked? Even I was shocked to hear those words come from my mouth. She tilted her head to one side and gave me a compassionate smile. “Is that why you ended your marriage?”
“Yes. And no. I…we, uh, we weren’t together anymore by the time I left Scott. And I know I should’ve told him months before that—I really meant to—but I could never bring myself to actually do it. And after my…after my affair ended—God I hate that word, it sounds so ugly—I finally made myself tell Scott we were over. And then I moved out.”
She wrote something else down. “Why do you think it sounds ugly?”
I flushed. How could I possibly explain in any way that would do our relationship justice? But I had to try. “What we had wasn’t ugly. Not to me. Not to either of us. But I know everyone else would think it was. I cheated and lied to my husband. That was completely unforgivable. But I don’t regret being with…him.”
“You loved this man?”
I hesitated for a moment. Then I nodded. “Yes. And he loved me. His part in it wasn’t as deceitful as mine. He was separated from his wife when we were together. But then she came back, and she got pregnant, and…and…I mean, it’s not like I ever expected him to put me before his kid—kids, although the baby isn’t born yet—but…”
“But he chose to stay with his family?”
She looked at me with such sympathy that I was a bit taken aback. I didn’t expect anyone to feel anything but scorn for me after hearing what I’d done. I deserved scorn far more than sympathy. “That must have been devastating.”
A lump had risen in my throat. “It was,” I nodded.
Glancing up at the clock, her brows drew together. “Unfortunately, our time is nearly up. However, I think it’s important that we continue with this particular topic. Are you able to book an hour with me next week?”
Since I didn’t have health benefits, I could no longer afford one hour appointments. Once a month for a half hour was all I could manage, and even that was pushing it. “I can’t. I don’t have coverage anymore. I wish I could.”
Debbie picked up her desk phone and dialed out to her receptionist. “Clara, please book Ms. York for an hour next week. Schedule it into my pro bono slot.”
“Really?” I asked once she’d replaced the receiver. “You’d do that for me?”
“In this situation, yes. I strongly feel we should continue this conversation as soon as possible. I know it’s difficult for you to talk about, and I must say I’m quite proud of you for finally telling me the truth today about what happened. I think getting all this out into the open may be healing for you.”
Swiping away the moisture pooling in the corner of my eye, I nodded.
“Do you have anyone else you can talk to? Your roommate, perhaps?”
I nodded. “Yeah. She’s awesome.”
“Good.” Debbie got to her feet and escorted me to the door. “I’ll see you next week, Amelia.”
Thanking her, I went out to speak with her receptionist to pay for this week and schedule my next appointment.
When I walked out into the parking lot, I was glad to see the rain had stopped. The droplets on my old blue Honda glimmered like crystals in the brisk autumn sunshine. I didn’t need to head back to Richmond yet, and since she lived nearby, I decided to go see my mother.
The house I grew up in was on a tree-lined street in an older part of Swann’s Landing. Though my father had passed away from a massive coronary a little over a year ago, my mom still lived there. It was too big for one person, but so far she’d shown no sign of wanting to move somewhere smaller.
My heart clenched as I walked up the steps to the front porch, like it did every time I came home now. A part of me would always be expecting my dad to fling the door wide and greet me with his usual smile. I didn’t think I’d ever get used to him being gone.
Knocking first to give her warning, I used my key to let myself in. Mom was coming down the stairs carrying a half-filled laundry basket. From my angle, it looked nearly as big as she was. “Oh, Amelia! You didn’t say you were coming by.”
I shrugged. “I had some free time after an appointment.” Dropping my bag on the bench, I took the basket from her. “How about I throw these in for you while you put on some coffee?”
“I’ve actually stopped drinking coffee. It’s bad for my blood pressure.”
I raised an eyebrow. Brenda York was always worried about her health, and it wasn’t unusual for her to quit eating or drinking or doing something after reading an article saying it was bad for you. She inevitably resumed said activity before long though, so I tended to brush off such announcements.
“How about tea?”
“Tea is fine.” She went into the kitchen, and I headed down to the basement to start the wash.
When I returned, she set my old Virginia is For Lovers mug in front of me, the teabag still submerged in the steaming water. That mug had been a gag birthday gift from Scott not long after we’d started dating back in high school. I looked at it with a frown, wondering if Mom remembered how we got it. Knowing her, she probably did.
“So how’s the job search going?” she asked before I could take a sip.
“Nothing to report.” Did I sound defensive? Maybe a little.
Her mouth fell open to chide me about not having full-time work yet, but before she could launch into her usual lecture, I held up a hand. “Let’s not get into this again. I know you’re worried about me, but I’m fine. I’m trying to build up my accounting business. The minute I accept a job offer somewhere, I’ll call you. I promise.”
She exhaled a small huff and took a swallow of tea. “It’s been months already. Don’t wait too long, or you’ll end up—”
“Mom. Seriously. I can manage my own career.”
Holding my gaze, she folded her hands on the table. “I ran into Scott and Liv at the grocery store the other day.”
Oh, here we go, I thought. Pasting on a smile, I replied, “Oh yeah? How’re they doing?”
Liv Webb was the other of my two best friends. At least she used to be. I wasn’t sure where we stood these days. We hadn’t really spoken since I’d left Scott. They were seeing each other now Dee had told me, which hadn’t been any huge surprise. It also explained why she’d been keeping her distance.
“They seem happy. Apparently she’s moved in.”
I nearly spit out my tea. “What?”
“I take it they haven’t told you?” Mom arched a brow.
I shook my head.
“It’s still your house, too. Is Scott planning to pay you out for your half of it?”
Still in shock, I muttered, “I have no idea.”
“Well, you’d better talk to him then. You two should really put it up for sale and split the proceeds. I’m sure you could use the money right now.”
I sighed and put down the mug Scott had given me so many years ago. Initiating that conversation with my ex was not something I wanted to do. But if he and Liv were cohabitating now I was going to have to suck it up and call him.
To my mom, I just said, “I’m glad they’re happy. And yes, I’ll talk to him about the house.” Both of those were true. No matter how awkward things were these days, I still loved them and wished them only the best.
I didn’t stay much longer. Mom didn’t like to talk about my dad unless she had to, and I was no longer in the mood to socialize. I spent the majority of my time alone these days, and I’d come to relish it. Prefer it, even. Alone meant I didn’t have to pretend. After thanking her for the tea, I got on the road and headed back to Dee’s.
Weirdly, though I’d been living there for almost five months, I still didn’t think of Dee’s as home. And I no longer considered the house I’d lived in for the previous six years with Scott home. Nor the house I’d grown up in. The truth was, I didn’t really feel like I had a home anymore. Mostly, I just felt like I was adrift. And I didn’t even know what I was searching for.
In the thirty years I’d been alive, the past one had been the roughest, bar none. But I’d survived. I wasn’t the same Amelia I used to be, but I was still kicking. I’d lost my dad, my job, my marriage (all right, those last two I walked away from, but that’s just semantics) and, most devastating of all, my…God, I didn’t even know what to call him.
To someone on the outside looking in, I supposed my life looked nearly perfect: successful career, nice house, flashy car, hot wife, adorable daughter, and a new baby girl on the way in a couple of months. Yeah, I had it pretty damn good.
Or so it seemed.
I was a salesman, and a damned good one, so I was adept at controlling my outward reactions. But ever since one particularly massive ball of shit hit the fan this past spring, I’d had to work extra hard at faking happiness. Truthfully, it wasn’t that difficult. Most people failed to see the ugly, jagged bits hiding beneath the shiny surface. They tended not to look too hard in case they didn’t like what they found. And I got that.
A prime example of the less than pleasant things I had to deal with: my dad—my real dad, not my adoptive one—had an incurable brain tumor. Groundbreaking new treatments had slowed its growth and extended his life, but a ticking time-bomb still lurked inside his head. It hadn’t been that long ago that James had come into my family’s life, but in the fifteen months I’d known him, I’d grown to love him like he’d always been here. So had my daughter, Alexis. We would be devastated if—when—he passed away. So, although we were enjoying the time we had with him, knowing an end-date was coming sooner rather than later pretty much sucked.
And I’d also only recently reconciled with my wife after a shitty period that had cumulated in us taking a timeout from our marriage for several months earlier this year. We were trying to be a happy family again, but it wasn’t easy. Things between us were still a bit off, still kind of tense sometimes. It was more me than Laura, but I had more things to work through than she did. Complicated things. Mind-fucking things. Although I tried my damnedest to push them deep down inside and move past them, they often refused to stay buried. I’d promised both my wife and myself that I’d be there for my family though, and I did the best I could. I had a temper, and she knew just how to push my buttons, so I won’t try to pretend I didn’t fail sometimes.
Laura co-anchored the Swann’s Landing News at Six, so as per usual, I left work to pick up Alexis from the babysitter’s. Mrs. Haverford had looked after her since she was small, and now that she’d started kindergarten still watched her for a couple of hours after school. School had been a major adjustment for Lex. She was very clingy when either of us dropped her off in the mornings, and so far that showed no sign of improving. Some of it was probably due to her mother leaving us for three months this past spring for a work assignment in New York. I couldn’t help worrying that Lex was developing abandonment fears like the ones I’d harbored since my own mother passed away when I was seven.
As I came down Fort Avenue in Lynchburg, some dickwad decided today was a good day to cut me off. He was wrong. I drove a sweet Mustang Boss convertible. Though a few years old now, she was still as mint as the day she rolled off the lot. And this asshole nearly took off her left front fender.
Rage erupted within me. Though I’d gotten better at controlling it, it was never very far from the surface these days. This time I didn’t tamper it down. I slammed on the gas pedal and caught up to the offending vehicle at the next set of lights. Throwing my car into Park, I reached for the door handle. I had no clue what I was going to say or do, but I had a nearly insatiable urge to confront him.
Luckily, common sense won me over at the last second as an image of Alexis waiting for me to pick her up popped into my head. With a sigh, I settled back into my seat and flicked the indicator to signal my turn instead of following that prick. My hands were a bit shaky on the wheel, but I pulled myself together, as I had so many times over the past few months.
I couldn’t afford to lose my cool. Not now, not at work, and definitely not at home. Losing my cool in the wrong situation could mean losing my daughter—sorry, my children, plural—and that was not an option.
When I pulled into the babysitter’s driveway, the door flew open and Alexis rushed out all smiles, her brunette curls bouncing off her shoulders as she ran to my car. Before she reached it, I threw open the door and scooped her into my arms.
“How was school?”
“S’okay.” She kissed my cheek. “Ow! You’re all scratchy, Daddy!”
“Did my stubble scrape you? Sorry, sweetie. Maybe my beard grew extra fast today.”
She giggled, and I opened the back door for her to climb inside, buckling her safely into her booster seat. The drive to our house at the other end of the street was a short one, but as always, she insisted I turn on the radio.
I used to be a big music fan. Any time I was alone in my car Radiohead, or Pearl Jam, or the Chili Peppers, or some other great band would be blasting. Now I listened mostly to talk radio or left the stereo off completely. However, I made an exception when Alexis rode with me.
When I hit the button on my dash, the sweet, yet mournful notes of Jim Coltrane singing “Ain’t No Place Like Home (In Your Arms)” filled the car, burrowing straight down to the part of me where I’d buried that box of memories. The one that refused to stay sealed.
My eyes squeezed shut, a useless barrier against the rush of emotions that flooded me. I swatted blindly at the controls, switching the music off only by sheer luck. I could handle a lot of stuff, force myself to stay cool through nearly anything, but not Coltrane. Not anymore.
“Why’d you turn it off?” Alexis asked with a slight whine.
I sighed, waiting a beat to make sure I could reply in a steady voice. “We’ll be home in a sec,” I told her.
My heart was pounding, and once again my fingers trembled against the leather steering wheel.