Written by Eric C., MA., PhD Candidate “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” ~Anonymous I wish the above quote was true. Unless we are machine or lack human emotions, words and actions have a profound effect on the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us. In our […]
Being a millennial New Yorker and actor, I’d like to think I’ve got pretty thick skin. Getting rejected is par for the course in the entertainment industry. The city doesn’t do you any favors — just try battling the check out lines at Whole Foods at 3pm on a Sunday. Heck, even the squirrels seems […]
I clinch my jaw involuntarily as I listen to the call go to voicemail…again. Julie Shane was a case that Phoenix House had been building up to for close to a year, and my lawyer was running late…again. The only difference is this time it’s by normal standards rather than my own borderline obsessive compulsive tendencies. The muscles in my jaw twitch as I hear the now irritating sound of his courteous voicemail message telling me to leave a brief message after the beep.
“Avery, court starts in five minutes! We haven’t discussed any of the last minute details, and I’m wearing a twinset! Where the hell are you?!” I hissed in a hushed tone before looking back at the pale and shaking woman standing up against a wall.
Her fear fuels the fire in my belly, the kind that constantly spurs me on. So that maybe one day I can walk into a courthouse, and not remember what lead me here in the first place.
I had landed myself on my grand-parent’s doorstep when I was pregnant. I was sixteen and scared to death, but I knew I had no place else to go. My step-father decided that he didn’t want another mouth to feed so he threw me out, when he found there would have been two pregnant women in the house, not one.
I shook that off pretty quickly though. Like most teenagers, I thought the people I called friends were the ones that cared about me. I thought they were the ones that would stand by me forever. Then I went and got myself knocked up, and everything changed. I looked all around me, and began to wonder if I had been high during my entire friendship with half of these people. It didn’t take me long to answer my own question, yes I had been high, drunk, or a combination of the two.
My first night, I slept on Tarrant Vick’s couch. The place reeked of a heinous blend of weed and the smell of his four unwashed dogs (no offense to the dogs). The residue from the cocaine binge, he and some of his friends had been on the night before I showed up hadn’t been washed away. Then again, it didn’t look like much of the place had been cleaned up in, forever anyways. Otherwise, Tarrant was a sweet guy; he was also twenty-two.
I stayed at a few more places before I finally decided that the guys I had been partying with had no business looking at a sixteen-year-old girl. The alcohol and drugs had no place near my kid. I couldn’t help but ask myself if I was really going to sit back and affirm that the behavior my mother allowed me to be exposed to was acceptable? Over. My. Dead. Body.
Abortion or adoption was out, I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life wandering about where my baby was or what might have been Just when I was at the end of my rope I remembered something my mother had told me, long before my real father died and she had fallen apart. She told me about my grand-parents, namely my grandmother. Mom came from a wealthy family, and when they didn’t except my lowly Gunnery Sergeant and more importantly Albanian and not Greek father the two ran away together and had me.
They lived the American dream at Fort Bragg, until a car bomb took my father from her outside a small Afghan village. The woman who I had once known as my mother died that day, her body still roamed this Earth but she was gone. After moving us back to Virginia, she found a job bartending at a sleazy strip club in Caroline County to support us. Shortly after, she started trying to fill the void my father had left behind. Her method of choice came in the form of working through a briar patch of alpha losers until she met and married Mitch. Bastard. Not only did he drink, he knocked my mother around, and on occasion me. My mom loved me, and maybe it was fear, a need for self-preservation, or the fact that she couldn’t deal with a reminder of my father that she didn’t protect me.
It wasn’t long until I started looking for a way to fill the void too, and it wasn’t long until I found it. The Junkyard Bar was run by Louis Warren, one of the toughest Sons of Bitches I had ever met. He was a big gruff man that drank Jack Daniels straight out of the bottle and always kept a mason-jar of moonshine behind the bar. So long as you had cash, he didn’t care if you had ID. He was also Vin Warren’s father.
Big and broad, like his father, and just as tough. Vin was also funny, handsome, and the grand daddy of all flirts. He also ran a very successful and less than legitimate business (that Louis tried to pretend he didn’t know about). That was a side to him everyone else saw, he saved the best of him for me. He was the first man I trusted with all my heart, when he said “I love you” for the very first time I believed him. I fell in love with Vincent Warren, with everything I had.
He was my first love and my first lover. He was my world until the night he walked away, it was over and he made sure I knew it. He didn’t even let me past the threshold. Vin had been so angry, like a rabid dog when he screamed that I was a needy little girl, a toy he liked to play with. I was to leave and never look back, it was the same night I was going to tell him I was pregnant.
Two weeks later Mitch tossed me out on my ass and I left with a few pictures, my father’s dog tags, twenty dollars, and the clothes on my back. My last words to my mother were “What would Dad think if he were here to see this?” It was my last middle finger to her, she had chosen Mitch over me. Looking back, I think she and I both knew my father would have been disgusted.
Not long after, I started my own journey. I borrowed two hundred dollars from Donovan Cade and bought a bus ticket to Philadelphia. It was the biggest risk I had ever taken in my life. I put myself up in a cheap motel and took the bus to the address on one of my father’s old letters. My hands shook as I knocked on the door, and for the first time since I found out I was pregnant I was terrified.
I had taken beatings, I had slept with a knife so some drunken old man wouldn’t sneak into my room, and I’d sat outside a door and listened to my mother scream. Yet, facing Ambrose and Toula Eliasco terrified me. However, nothing prepared me for what would happen next as the older woman with a salt and pepper bob and a severe purple linen dress answered the door of the mammoth house and looked down at me. After a minute or two she did the one thing I hadn’t been expecting, with eyes full of tears, she hugged me.
When I think back to that day, I remember thinking “Holy shit. Ok, Alayla, back away slowly”. She told me she knew who I was, and she took me inside. As we sat on her terrace, drank coffee, and ate omelets (the first real food I’d had in days), she told me to call her Yia Yia not Mrs. Eliasco. My grandfather, Ambrose, had died several years prior, but Toula (my Yia Yia) was still kicking.
She explained that my mother had been pregnant when she ran off with my father, and she didn’t realize until she was gone that family was more important than the opinion of polite society. If she could have done it all over, she would have accepted him. My father was a good man, strong and kind. However, she made social status more important than her only daughter and it cost her dearly. Apparently, I was the spitting image of her. When she asked me about my life, I told her about what had become of my mother. Yia Yia didn’t show it, but I could tell it broke her heart. Her eyes closed, her jaw clenched, and she murmured (what I would later find out meant “Oh, my baby”) in Greek.
Then the hard part came, I told her about me and my partying. I told her about the baby, and about Vin. I knew this was the part where she was going to kick me out of the house, but before I could pick up my scuffed up backpack she stopped me.
“You don’t truly intend to leave now do you?” she asked me gently with an almost incredulous undertone. I didn’t want to be rude, so I settled for freezing with my butt half way out of the chair like an idiot. I blinked a few times before she continued. “Perhaps it is time we made up for lost time, Alayla. You, me, and the baby I think we both could use a fresh start.”
All I could do at that moment was sit and nod my head. It was insane, how did this happen? I’d never had a reason to be a big fan of God, but I looked up at the sky and silently thanked him for this miracle. It was the first time I considered the possibility that perhaps some things happen for a reason. I felt like someone was looking out for me at that moment.
Yia Yia and I lived happily after that, just her and I. She told me how much I reminded her of my mother, and she was delighted by the pictures I showed her. She taught me to cook, and I used the skills some of the guys I used to hang out with taught me. I changed her oil in record time until she caught me squatted under the hood coated in grease), and yelled at me in abject mortification as only a sixty-five year old Greek woman could pull off. Yes, life was going quite well. We were healthy, safe, and happy but not a day went by that I didn’t think about Vin.
I spoke to Donovan a few times after I settled in, but he made a point of never bringing up Cash, and I never asked. I moved on, and I let the childish dream of Vin Warren go. My baby boy was born healthy, and much to mine and my doctor’s surprise, his twin sister followed him. I named them Dritan Ambrose Lamaj, for the man who gave me life, and Toula Eve Lamaj for the woman saved it. A changed woman, I studied hard for my GED, and even learned Greek. I left my past behind me, but like cancer the past has a way of crawling back.
People often talk about that one moment, that one memory that will stay with you forever. You could be on your deathbed and still be able to describe what the room smelled like. For me, it was a rainy April day…
My grandmother and I had been discussing nursery plans, when the sound of her entirely too long doorbell rang throughout the house. We knew that it was a stranger because everyone else that knew us knocked. She used to joke that she would have changed the thing years ago, but she had neither the time nor inclination to do so. As I got up to answer it, I felt a contraction hit me. I’d been having a few false alarms over the last few weeks, but I was due any day now. As I opened the door, I was greeted by two police officers. Both of them looked somewhere between stern and grim and it made my feet begin to tingle as the old instinct to run like hell hit me, but I hadn’t done anything (that the statute of limitations hadn’t passed on anyways).
“Are you Alayla Lamaj?” The older of the two asked as he looked at my stomach. “Shit.” I couldn’t help but think, but my worries were soon dashed as I felt Dritan move within me.
“Yes, I’m Alayla.” I responded as I fought back “who wants to know?”
“May we come in?” The younger of the two added, looking quite uncomfortable as he removed his hat with the older man following suit.
“Yea, uh, sure” I muttered with a shrug as I stepped out of the way “right this way”. If they were going to arrest me, they would have been reading me my rights by now.
I could tell Yia Yia was thinking the same thing I was as she gave me a questioning look. My only answer came in the form of an “it wasn’t me” look as I threw my hands up before turning my attention to the two police officers.
“Uh, Officers” I began awkwardly “This is my Yi-Grandmother, Toula Eliasco”
“Gentlemen, please sit down” Yia-yia murmured softly as she gestured toward two overstuffed armchairs as she switched into hostess mode as only my Yia Yia could “May I offer you something to drink?”
“No ma’am, Mrs. Eliasco.” The younger of the two answered as he took his seat, shifting awkwardly as we followed suit sitting across from both men.
“Mrs. Eliasco, Miss Lamaj, we’re here in reference to Mila Lamaj-Morand” The older and more uncomfortable of the two stated gently as he tapped his index and forefinger on the brim of the wide-brimmed he was holding.
My mother, fuck, it didn’t take me long to realize what they were about to tell me. I’d seen it before. Another contraction hit me “Oh God, Dritan, give Mama just a little bit more time!” I thought as I waited for the inevitable.
“It pains me to tell you this,” The older man murmured, but I didn’t hear much else.
It was then that a strange sense of numb came over me. It was as if I had been snatched out of my own body, and forced to watch the two policemen tell Yia Yia and I what I already knew. My mother finally got some sense and ran with my baby brother in tow. She had managed to keep them safe for a while, but Mitch wasn’t as much of a dumbass as I thought he was. No, he was just crazy. He shot my mother, smothered my brother, and finally turned the gun on himself. My baby brother was just a few months older than my son. The same son who brought me back to reality as another, much sharper contraction ripped through me causing me to cry out. Oh God, this was NOT in the books!
The two policemen rose to their feet to help me, but Yia-Yia and I knew it was time. We looked into each others eyes, and knew that we would have to save our grief for another time. We received a police escort to Lakenau Medical Center, and as the storm that had been hanging in the air all day broke Dritan Lamaj entered the world at 7:00 pm.
As the sun rose, I nursed my baby boy and looked out the window. I thought of my mother and wondered what it would have been like if she were here, not the woman I left behind, but the woman my father married. I thought of my six month-old half-brother, and wondered what it would have been like to watch them grow together. It sounded cold and callous, but up until this point I never considered him. I always felt like if my mother had chosen to stay than the dumb bitch deserved what she got.
I was so angry with her for choosing Mitch over me, but as I looked down at my son and than over at my sleeping Yia-Yia I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe she was looking for a second chance too. Perhaps in those last moments she was the woman my father fell in love with again, my mom. I found the pain that I had been reeling in for the last ten hours settle in, but for some reason the thought of a fresh start stayed with me even as I grieved for my mother and brother. I couldn’t bring my mother back, but I could make it possible for someone else to have a second chance. Maybe then losing them wouldn’t be in vain…
The sound of my phone pulled me out of my reverie, Avery! Thank God!
“Avery, you better be bleeding! Court starts in five minutes!” I Ground out harshly as I watched people begin to file in.
“First off,” My old friend began before clearing his throat “Lose the attitude, If you would have checked your inbox you would know that Ava went into labor last night and I called in a colleague of mine for help.”
Oh. My. God. If it were physically possible, I would kick my own ass. Avery’s wife Ava was having twins and had been having a difficult pregnancy. In fact, we had all been on pins and needles waiting for the big day.
“Oh no, Avery-” I stammered, but Avery beat me to it.
“Save it, ok? This is a big one, and this job means a lot to me too. The guy I called has been working along side me during this entire case, and frankly, the man’s a beast. He takes these cases seriously, vicious to the core.” Avery said with an air of reverence in his voice that filled me with hope.
Avery Duncan was feared among lawyers, like a skinny white Johnny Cochran. However, this mystery colleague wasn’t any use to me if he wasn’t here. Although I wasn’t going to tell Avery that on the basis that I could tell I knew I was already trying his patience. His father was a multi-millionaire with a taste for tequila and a bad temper. Needless to say, he was as passionate about what we did as I was. I knew better than to not trust his judgment.
“Ok, Avery…” I breathed out as I turned around to see a large man in a grey suit. Talking to Julie I couldn’t see his face, but he was tall and broad. I began to walk over to them, but I quickly caught Julie’s eye and she nodded letting me know it was ok before turning my attention back to Avery.
“He called me twenty minutes ago, Al, he’s there. He’s a big guy; he knows what Julie looks like. I gave her the heads up, and again check your inbox.”
“Yea, I think I see him” I trailed off, tucking a stray lock of hair behind my ear as I watched the large man escort Julie inside the courtroom. I let out a deep breath, realizing that Avery had indeed covered his all of his bases, and I had a bit of a caper on my hands. I already had a pint-sized prime suspect.
“Good, he won’t let you down Alayla.” Avery stated with confidence.
“I believe you, Avery. Now go to your wife!” I ordered playfully before we said our good-byes. For once, Avery had absolutely perfect timing.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I entered the court room and looked over to my left while I took my seat behind where Julie and “Mr. Vicious to the Core” sat. Her soon-to-be ex-husband sat comfortably next to his legal team each man wearing a suit that had couldn’t have cost even a penny less than four grand.
When the average person thinks of a wife-beater, the image that typically comes to mind is some trailer park hick with a whopping total of six teeth, and intellectual signs that he was clearly the product of incest. No one wants to believe that someone like the man Julie married would really beat his wife within an inch of her life, even if they had to have known deep down it was happening. Well, not until said wife ends up dead. Greg Shane was a golden boy in his community: philanthropist, businessman, and a major league prick. However, before I could continue my mental slap fest the bailiff called the court to order.
Watching his lawyers work filled me with anticipation praying that this guy was as good as Avery claimed he was. If anything came close to the joy I felt watching the women I worked with get a fresh start, it was watching these fuckers go down. It was all about power to guys like Greg, he got off on it. He tried to look somber and reserved, but I didn’t need to see his face to know that glint in his eyes was there. On the inside he’s grinning because he thinks he’s won before the hearing even starts.
Greg’s legal team’s defense was predictable, disgustingly so. He played to the dutiful and disgruntled husband, while he told the court about his wife’s fragile psyche. She suffered severe anxiety and depression coupled with an alcohol and drug dependency. The bruises on her body that triggered the initial complaint she filed against him were the result of Greg trying to restrain his wife when he found her stash of drugs.
With each word, I became angrier and more filled with anticipation as I turned my attention to Julie. He didn’t know we’d had her pissing in a cup since one of my contacts at Pennsylvania Hospital offered to get her out after the last time he beat her. I was no lawyer, but even I could smell the blood in the water. This was going to be good, but I knew Julie didn’t feel as confident as I did.
Greg Shane beat the kind of fear into her that kills all hope, and even now Julie still felt it. I was painful to watch her stare down at her laced fingers as she sat beside “Mr. Vicious, Esq”. She was visibly shaking, and it only fueled my rage. My first instinct was to comfort her, but I knew it wasn’t the time or the place. To show emotional weakness would only prove Greg’s point. Then again, if I had lived in fear of my ribs being broken because I didn’t cook a steak long enough I’d be depressed too. However, before my fingers could begin to twitch Mr. Vicious, esq. wrapped his large hand around Julie’s smaller ones as his head slid slightly closer to hers. After a moment I watched as Julie’s lips turned up slightly, and she allowed herself the smallest of nods before Mr. Vicious rose from his seat holding a thick black file folder. In Greg’s case that was a weapon more dangerous than even the hardest kick to the junk I could have doled out.
“Mr. Shane, your wife filed her complaint citing domestic abuse against you in October before filing for divorce in December correct?” Vicious asked coolly as he stood in front of Greg.
“Yes,” Greg answered with a solemn nod as he looked up at Vicious.
“I bet that was quite a Christmas present wasn’t it, Mr. Shane?” Vicious asked in a biting tone I would have recognized even if I was comatose. However, just as realization began setting in denial hit me even harder. It was laughable, but before I could unleash so much as a chuckle the judge turned to tide.
“Mr. Warren, I’ll remind you to remain professional. Present your case, ask your questions, and be on with it.” The judge ordered sternly. Coincidence, it has to be!
“My apologies, Your Honor, however I did want to confirm my times. You see, Mr. Shane claims that the initial conflict came about after Mr. Shane allegedly found Mrs. Shane’s pills and tried to wrestle them away from her which caused the wounds that resulted from Mr. Shane trying to restrain her. That is what happened, Mr. Shane, correct?” Mr. Vicious, esq. answered as he turned around to face the rest of the courtroom.
It was then that my jaw went slack and my mouth went dry. Standing in front of the witness stand stood Vin Warren in a three-piece suit and perfectly cropped hair. He looked older and larger, but his eyes were just as sapphire blue as they were eight years ago. They were the same eyes I looked into every night as I tucked my kids into bed.
All thoughts of Julie and Greg flew from my head as the air left my lungs. I flew up from my seat, remembering myself long enough to make sure my heels didn’t tap too loudly as I made my way out of the courtroom. As soon as the thick mahogany doors shut behind me I escaped to the ladies’ room and hid in the nearest stall, and throwing myself on top of the toilet. I had to keep breathing, it had always worked before. I fingered the hem of my tweed pencil skirt and stared at my burgundy pumps, trying to process the nuclear bomb that life had just dropped on me.
For what felt like hours, I sat in that sterile black stall. In the span of only a few heartbeats I was back in Caroline County sitting on a rickety dock eating greasy tacos and drinking cheap beer, I was laying on a patchwork quilt in the bed of his pick-up truck listening to Vin’s heartbeat in sync with mine, and I was shaking on his front porch when he told me it had all been a lie.
I had to get a hold of myself and I had to prioritize; I promised Julie almost a year ago that I would be there for her, the same promise I made Dritan. My word was one of the few things I was born owning outright, and I intended to keep it, and after a few more deep breaths I stood up, adjusted my now loose French twist, straightened my burgundy twinset and walked back to the doors of the courtroom. Vin was still speaking.
“Along with the monthly drug tests that Mrs. Shane has voluntarily submitted to through a court approved laboratory, I would like to submit a psychological evaluation from a court-approved Psychologist. You’ll notice the test results state that aside from the symptoms of abuse, Mrs. Shane is psychologically sound. Her drug tests are clean, and there are no signs of clinical anxiety, depression, or other mental illness.” Cash stated as the judge looked at the documents in the file folder.
I stood in the back of the room, and did my best to focus on Greg and his legal team in order to keep my focus. They didn’t look so confident now; we had the element of surprise on our side. Greg had been outsmarted and he didn’t like it. He was expecting Julie to still be as weak and alone as she had been when she was under his thumb, but she wasn’t. Normally his poorly maintained poker face and shaking fists would fill me with smug satisfaction, but I was too busy trying to keep my focus off of Vin. I was doing a bang-up job of it until the judge’s words broke through my focus.
“In light of this new evidence, I have no choice but to rule in favor of Mrs. Shane. I award her all requested assets.” The judge stated with finality.
I didn’t bother to stick around for the post-court festivities, promise kept, I could go (or in this case run like hell.) Technically, I made it until the end of the trial which meant that technically I wasn’t a coward. I had crossed through the threshold of the courthouse and let out a deep sigh. For all intents and purposes, I was home free. Julie won her case, and I could go home to a cool bottle of Pinot Grigio and forget the last two hours ever happened. Just as I was fishing my keys out of my purse and contemplating picking up a movie for the kids to go with Friday Night Pizza, I felt a shadow settle over me. Before I could turn and apologize, I was met by a pair of sapphire blue eyes.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Cash trailed off, swallowing hard as his lips turned up into a grin that I still dreamed about “Hello, Gorgeous, I thought that was you.”
“What do I have to be afraid of? What did I have to lose? Everything.”
Journal Entry: September 23, 2016
For the record this blows, but Dr. Grey thinks writing this stuff out will help. What does getting it out do? What does crying or screaming do? I’ll tell you what it does, nothing. It does jack squat. I don’t want to get it out; I want to get out! So, I guess if that means that I have to suck it up and write to get away then I will. I’m just making sure that whoever reads this knows I hated doing it. I hate going over it. I hate this stupid journal as much as I hate needles, even as much as I hate the dark. That’s saying something because darkness is what I hate the most. Darkness is what I remember the best.
She was out of money again, her and Georgie, that pot-bellied loser. So, of course, I had to foot the bill. Again. Her dealer, Davey, was over at the house with another guy I hadn’t seen before. I remember her not being so willing to hand me over this time when Davey started to put the needle in my neck. My guess is that she was dumb enough to think she could get his top shelf Skag by charging for the other guy too instead of the Tar he threw her way when she couldn’t pay up. She started to yell at him about it, this “wasn’t fair”, I shouldn’t be getting better stuff than her. Idiot. Then he started to yell back, I can’t remember what he said but she tried to rush him. It was the one solid she’d ever done me in my entire life. That was when I ran for it. It didn’t hurt but I could feel blood from where the needle had been yanked out, the Skag was starting to make me feel hazy and I was so sleepy. I couldn’t make it to the door, but I could get to the closet.
My closet was normally supposed to be my punishment, but it looked like Heaven right then. I could see the glow of Georgie’s phone sliding my way. The struggle just seemed to get louder and uglier the more I tried to crawl for my closet. I might have been floating, but I had enough of myself left to know as I felt the closet slam shut behind me that this was going to end badly, but I had at least gotten the phone. Maybe it was the drugs, but for the first time I did what I wasn’t supposed to do, I snitched. I called 911.The last thing I remember is telling the guy on the other end to help me. That was when I blacked out, balled up in the closet, the darkness came.
They say you see a bright white light when you die, it’s true I did. I also saw some blue flashing ones too. No, I didn’t see the face of God, but he did get an honorable mention. In fact, it was the last thing I heard before I blacked out again.
“Oh my God…”
Anywho, when I woke up the nurse said I had an overdose and they kept me out to let me detox, she was nice, I liked her. The next day Veronica came with Ms. Sandy and Dr. Grey, they broke the news that she was dead. Her and Georgie both, Davey knocked them off right before the cops put him down. What should I feel, because right now I’ve got nothing? I feel like she got what was coming to her, all three of them did. Is that bad?
All of the kids in my group have some nice fuzzy moment with their mom or dad; they had something that gave them hope. I didn’t have that with her, the truth is that she had no love for me and I didn’t have any for her. Hell, I still don’t. She never hid what she thought of me, the worst choice she’d ever made. One time she even said she should have thrown me in the dumpster when she had the chance. If there was some problem in her life she always found a way to blame me. Did the electricity get cut off because she spent the money on booze or Skag? My fault, kids are just so damn expensive. My father was her favorite subject when it came to things that I did wrong. Somehow when she had a bad ride or things were rough he came up. He was gone because of me. She loved him and he left so I owed her, and I paid. I paid and paid.
The next week, they shipped me off to Saint Monica’s; it’s not a bad place. It’s weird to be in a place where everyone is nice, but the truth is I’d rather be left alone. I’m not a fan of people, but some of the kids in my group are cool. I guess I was getting used to it here until Sandy paid me a visit yesterday during group; it was a nice treat to get away. We normally didn’t get a visit from her unless it was something major though so part of me was freaked out, and sure enough she dropped the bomb.
“Moxley, honey, we’ve found your father. He’ll be coming in about a week or so, you’ll be going home to live with him.”
It wasn’t just a bomb it was a super atomic nuclear warhead of doom, my father? This had to be some really messed up joke, no way, but she showed me the papers. This was real and he was coming. Sandy went into this big speech about it “being scary” and “big changes”, but I don’t think she realized that I had nothing to be afraid of. It’s hard to be afraid when I have nothing to lose
Well, that was what I was thinking last week. I wasn’t sitting here staring at an old picture of him and waiting for him to show up, if he even shows up. What do I have to be afraid of? What did I have to lose? Everything.
“I found out that for once Misty had been telling the truth. I had a daughter.”
I sat in the parking lot of Saint Monica’s Safe Haven for Children, it looked just like the pictures I had seen online. A big brick main building with a cobblestone walkway and perfectly trimmed bushes with matching red brick and iron fences surrounding the place, a lot of land, it was a good place for kids. I was glad she could come here instead of going straight into the system. I still couldn’t believe I was sitting here staring at it, or even the reason I was here. It seemed like days instead of weeks ago that I had been in San Juan celebrating my latest win in the cage. It was one more step towards the highest achievement a guy in the biggest company in my line of work could attain. It was the brass ring we all chased. I was sitting in the hotel room waiting for my girlfriend, Camden, to finish getting ready to go out when I actually hauled off and checked my now full Voicemail inbox. It would be a choice that shifted the course of my entire night.
“Mr. Clay, this is Veronica Howard with Pennsylvania Social Services. If you could please return this call at your earliest convenience, my number is 215-852-5719. Thank you.”
Yea, Pennsylvania fucking Social Services, I could only imagine what Veronica Howard had to tell me. Little did I know, no form of preparation could possibly get me ready for what I found out? It all started eight years ago with Misty Michaels, she was one in a long line of crazy exes. Turns out, after we split she got a little surprise in the form of a baby girl and my name just happened to end up on the birth certificate. She wasn’t even woman enough to come tell me she was knocked up. When Veronica first told me, my reaction was to laugh. Like hell this kid was mine! In fact, I was so sure; the state even obliged me with a paternity test.
After my mouth had been swabbed with plenty of files and pictures thrown my way, I found out that for once Misty had been telling the truth. I had a daughter; I could try to ignore the fact that the little girl in the pictures was my spitting image with bright blue eyes and thick sandy hair. In fact, there was a voice in the back of my head that still wanted to deny it, saying these things meant nothing. I couldn’t ignore that test though, it was right there in black and white. This little girl, Moxley Grace, was my own flesh and blood.
That was when Social Services gave me my options: I could sign away my parental rights, making her a ward of the state and head home kid free or I could take custody of her. It was how I ended up in a concrete colored office with a foam cup of stale coffee and two file folders in front of me. Each one held an option, the paperwork that would make each choice official. Veronica and an advocate named Sandra Morgan from the center that had temporary custody of Moxley sat across from me. I took a sip of the crappy coffee, trying to ignore the awkwardness as I stared at each file. However, Sandra wasn’t having it and slid me a third folder.
“Mr. Clay, this is Moxley’s file.” Sandra explained with a soft smile
I was beginning to tense up in frustration, I’d seen so many files over the last few days, I was sick of it! I’d already seen her picture; I know she’s mine, moving on!
“She truly is an astounding little girl,” She continued pushing the file closer to me “While speech is a constant struggle, non-verbal tests show that she is in the top ninety-seventh percentile for children her age. She shows a mental age of eleven with reading and math scores that are off the charts. Moxley is by definition gifted, possibly beyond.”
“Gifted,” I answered with a snort “You sure she’s my kid?”
This got me an irritated noise from Sandra.
“Mr. Clay,” She said in a tone that seemed like it was holding a forced calm “In twenty-three years, I have seen many different forms of abuse. However, what this little girl has suffered is on a level of brutality that I can’t even begin to put into words. This is not a time to joke.”
“Abuse?” I choked the word out as best I could, unable to look at the two women. No one said a damn thing about abuse!
“Sandra, please.” Veronica interjected “This is already a lot for him to take in already.”
Sandra, once again, wasn’t having it.
“Yes, Saint Monica’s is a shelter and rehabilitation center for children who suffered domestic and sexual abuse. That file contains everything that has lead Moxley there, what we know about her, and how she is being treated for what she has suffered.” Sandra clarified with knitted brows “were you made aware of anything about her, anything at all?”
“No,” I answered, pinching the bridge of my nose. I could feel my heart pounding in my ears, it was like one of those movie scenes where time slows and everything moves to the sound of a heartbeat.
“Mr. Clay, I’m about to say what we are not supposed to say,” Sandra hissed placing her palms flat on the table and narrowing her eyes at me “I’ve seen so many cases like this one come through our center, through this system. Fathers and relatives like you that walk into this office knowing absolutely nothing about who the child or children in question are or what they have been through and stare at this paperwork as if it means something. I suggest you read that file, and while you are at it think like a parent. You need to be a parent to her even if it is just this once because as much as this may inconvenience your life; her life is depending on you.”
I knew grown men that didn’t have the balls to talk to me like that, Mama Bear had guts. I had to respect it.
“Drita…” I trailed off, opening the file “My name is Dritan…”
The file started with the basics:
Moxley Grace Michaels, Age: 7, Date of Birth: July 29, 2009
It started with a lot of test scores, most of which I couldn’t understand. From what it said though, Sandra was right she was pretty amazing. She looked a little healthier in the picture attached to the folder than the other ones I had seen, her lips were turned up in a small smile. I ran my thumb over the little wallet sized photo, she had my dimples. She showed solitary behavior and seemed to prefer outdoor activities and animals. I was the same way, maybe I could teach her to fish. She ate books up and loved crafts; she was a good student too. My guts clenched when I saw that she didn’t speak, “undetermined if related to trauma or social anxiety”. She was in group counseling for Post Traumatic Stress, but “practices a variety of non-verbal cues in order to actively participate in group discussion”.
The file went further into detail about her life with Misty, it was information gathered over time. She had been picked up for prostitution a couple of times, and was supposedly shacked up with her boyfriend, still turning tricks and chasing the dragon with Moxley in the house. I squeezed my eyes shut, rubbing my eyes as I read on. Every word was like history repeating itself until I saw what came next.
If I thought that reading what had become of Trina had been bad, the next part of the file should have come with a damn warning label. It was what they found when they brought her in, I’m a grown man and I nearly puked right there in the office. Every word popping off the page at me was turning my insides into pulp as my eyes moved down the page.
“Patient treated for Heroin overdose upon admission…”
“Dark upraised scars along veins located on arms and neck, as well as fresh upraised points in various stages of healing…”
“Scar tissue due to severe vaginal and rectal tearing…”
I could only make it through a few more lines before I nearly lost my shit. I must have scared both the women when my palm hit the table, slamming the file shut because both of them were staring at me with wide eyes. Call it paternal instinct or whatever you will, but without thinking I slid the file holding the unsigned parental rights papers to Veronica and placed the second file on top of what I had just read. Swallowing hard I fought for the words.
“So where do we go from here?” I rasped thickly.
“Well Dritan, we’ll walk you through the steps.” Sandra said with a reverent nod.
In that moment, I had no idea how, but I was going to do right by her. The question was, how in the hell was I going to pull it off?
It was the same question I was asking myself as I walked up the cobblestone sidewalk. I was silently thanking whatever deity that would still listen to my prayers for Camden and my best friend Joe, those two had been with me through the phone calls, paperwork, and constant arrangements with tutors and counselors. They offered to come with me, but this was something I had to do on my own. Joe even gave me the new dad crash course before I left; it was how I ended up bringing her a stuffed rabbit. I adjusted the pink ribbon one more time before I entered the main office. I hoped Joe’s firm belief that deep down all little girls loved stuffed animals was true and she wouldn’t think I was lame right off the bat. Not long after I made it to the reception desk I was met by Veronica, Sandra, and a small older woman who was introduced as Dr. Grey. We had spoken a lot over the phone for the last few weeks; she had referred me to a counselor with a group session and helped me enroll Moxley into a gifted kid’s homeschooling program. I figured we could enroll her in school soon, but home might be better for now. Dr. Grey said so long as we can keep structure on the road, she could even travel with me.
I tried to keep Camden and Joe’s words of support in my head as I moved through the brightly colored halls. While Dr. Grey and I went over Moxley’s treatment and schedules one last time. I tried to keep focused on how Dr. Grey had complimented what I had done instead of my nerves, but Sandra pulled me out of it quick, fast, and in a hurry.
“Are you ready, Jon?” Sandra asked gently as we stood in front of a large window that looked in on what looked like an art covered play area.
“As I’ll ever be,” I croaked drumming my fingers up against the belly of her rabbit and shifting my weight back and forth on my boots.
With a small nod of understanding and a small smile Sandra and Veronica entered the room. I looked in and it didn’t take me long to spot her she was the little girl in the corner, flipping through a book with a pair of ancient looking headphones placed firmly over her ears. She had a ponytail at the nape of her neck, and in a moment I knew I was right. Her head popped up slowly when she felt the vibration of Sandra tapping the table she was sitting at. With a short nod she pulled off her headphones, picked up a beyond banged up looking backpack, and stood. She looked so small in a charcoal colored sweatshirt that swallowed her up and a baggy pair of jeans that looked like they had fit her at one point or another; she looked like her shoes had seen better days too. I felt my heart drop from my throat to my stomach as the two older women lead her outside and guided her in front of me.
“Moxley, honey, there is someone I’d like you to meet” Sandra began as she moved to stand beside her “This is the man I told you about, this is Dritan, your father.”
That was when she looked up at me; her bright blue eyes were blank. They weren’t cold, but guarded. Her little hands were fisted and her jaw clenched, like she was ready to run at any given moment. I knew that was my cue to at least try, so I got down on her level like Dr. Grey instructed me to. “Its okay, Squirt. I’m scared too, scared shitless.”
“Uh, hey Moxley, it’s nice to meet you,” I greeted with a deep breathe.
She lifted her chin, lightly pursed her lips, and gave me a firm nod. She had the most expressive little face; it was like I could see the little thought bubble above her head saying “Likewise,”
I swallowed hard and extended the rabbit to her “I ,uh, I got this for you. I wasn’t sure if you liked rabbits or not, but I hope you like it.” I’m so lame…
I tried to ignore the background noise coming from the women and caught myself holding my breath when she took the rabbit with shaking hands. Finally, I deflated when she held the rabbit to her chest and gave me a small smile, showing me her dimples. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear Joe saying “I told you so”. The first round was on me when I got home, I could feel it. Like an ass, I was so wrapped up in the fact that I scored points with a stuffed animal that I forgot what Dr. Grey had told me. Moxley wasn’t a fan of touching, but extended my fist to her anyways. Her brows began to knit together as she stared at it for second and locked eyes with me once again. I could see her little thought bubble coming back to say “Are you serious?” She surprised me though when she took a deep breath, covered her fist with her sweatshirt, and touched her knuckles to mine. With a deep exhale, she gave me a firm nod and looked back at Sandra with eyebrows raised expectantly.
“I’ll take it you’re ready then, Moxley?” Sandra asked with a soft smile to which Moxley answered with a thumb up and a couple of soft nods “Well then, I think it’s time we got you on your way…”
Leaving Saint Monica’s consisted of about fifteen minutes of good-byes and discharge paperwork. Considering the last few weeks it was almost a relief to know that her birth certificate now read Moxley Grace Good. There was no more bureaucracy or social workers, but more importantly there was nothing tying her to them anymore. We were both free.
Finally, we were sitting in the Jeep. Her backpack was sitting in the passenger seat next to the slim accordion file folder holding the paperwork that marked a fresh start. I looked over at Moxley sitting shotgun, it wasn’t nearly as awkward as I thought it would be but I could tell she was nervous again. She was looking straight ahead, her rabbit was clenched in her little fists, and sitting ramrod straight. This didn’t surprise me, Dr. Grey had already warned me. It was just her and me now; I tapped the wheel with my thumb and forefinger and took a deep breath. What the hell do I do now?
“Hey, Moxley” I began shifting my weight to face her, after a moment she followed suit “So, I was thinking we could grab some food.”
She looked cautious; I couldn’t say I blamed her. She pulled her rabbit close, staring at me with her wide guarded eyes. I’d been fighting long enough to pick up that she had shifted herself in a way that would allow her to start kicking me in the face if I tried something. I felt pride mix with my rage, in spite of it all she was a scrapper. Even what I had seen in those files hadn’t killed the fight inside of her, her spirit. This little spark helped guide me, Dr. Grey said to give choices and options, okay.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m starved.” I said lamely trying again, keeping my hands on the wheel. “Are you hungry too? We could get a sandwhich or pizza.”
If she was anything like me, this would be a no-brainer. She held her rabbit a little tighter and pursed her lips before giving me a few small but firm nods.
“Does a cheeseburger sound good?” I asked giving her a small smile; this earned me a smile in return and a few more confident nods.
“Good, I know a little place in the city. You’re in for a big treat.” I chuckled as I hit the ignition. We were finally on our way, because nothing broke the ice better than bonding over food. Progress right?
“I have no right to feel sorry for myself”
I have no right to feel sorry for myself that is the short and simple reality of the situation. It is the logical part of my brain that has a moment to voice it’s opinion before my demons come back to haunt me. They burn deep inside my gut as look out at the skyline and remember her, I remember my sweet Esme.
Esme Warren wasn’t like the other girls, I knew that the first time I saw her. On a muggy summer day, she answered her cousin Nikko’s door in a flower covered sundress and a lace covered apron. Her chestnut hair shown in the sunlight and bright blue eyes sparkled like diamonds, and she smiled at me. She didn’t smile at me with ambition or intentions, just warmth and sweetness that was uniquely hers. It wasn’t her ass or her tits that did it for me, it was those diamond eyes and sweet voice that welcomed me inside and got me a glass of lemonade, she was different…and I was to stupid to understand just how different.
The look on her face when I fed her that first sleazy line was something so cringeworthy I still get nauseated thinking about it, her diamonds turned to storm clouds as she ever so politely excused herself. She never looked at me again, never smiled, and when I walked into a room she left. For the first time since puberty looked at me in disgust, and even worse a little fear. I never forgot that look she gave me and it drove me insane, there was no getting her out of my head. No matter how drunk and high I got or curvy brunettes I plowed through the mattress, there was no killing that ache to make things right
I knew that before that summer was over I had to make Esme smile at me again, with that same warmth and open heart that she did when I saw her that first time, I was bound and determined. Unfortunately, I was also half a bottle deep in a fifth of Jim Beam. For the life of me, I can’t recall exactly how I ended up there, but I woke up the next morning freshly showered on soft sheets that smelled of Lilacs and Nectarine to that sweet voice that haunted me.
“Don’t move too much, you took a nasty fall”
I grumbled my compliance and laid my pounding head back down.
“You’re lucky Nikko wasn’t here, or there would have been some real trouble for making me take care of you.” She said in mild annoyance, placing a bottle of water to my lips.
I got to really look at her then as I let the cool water run down my throat, she was sitting on the edge of the mattress. Her hair was mussed from sleep and she was wrapped in a soft white bathrobe, I was kicking myself for being jealous of a bathrobe.Those diamond eyes were still storm clouds even though her dark brows were knitted in concern. I had hope.
“I guess you don’t hate me as much as thought, huh, darlin’?” I rasped, giving her a small half smile.
Then, just like that, the same old disgust returned.
“Are you always this unbelievably arrogant? I don’t know what you see yourself as, Archer, but not every girl is some bimbo just waiting for your attention. If you must know, I’m a nurse…at least that’s what I’m studying to be and it would have been unethical for me to let you lay passed out on my front porch wreaking of sex and whiskey in a puddle of your own fecal matter to choke on your own puke.” She said softly, her voice remaining even despite the fire burning underneath of it. If I hadn’t just been ripped a new one in the most graceful, classy way possible…I would have been seriously turned on.
I reacted the only way I knew how to react to a beautiful woman
“What do you see me as, Sweet Thing?” I asked as I picked myself up, enjoying the way her hackles were rising at the pet name she hated.
“Me? Archer, I see you as a pervert and a drunk with no goals and crappy priorities. You have no respect for anything or anyone including yourself. You’re selfish and you pass yourself around like, like, like, it’s nothing. You’re a jerk, Archer Cade, and never in a million years would I want someone as cruel or irreverent as you!” She finished with deep heavy breathes before she stormed out of the room and never looked back.
I had badgered Nikko about her enough to know that she didn’t have a cruel word to say about anyone, nope, my girl never lost her temper. Yet, she had just destroyed me. It was something that I couldn’t quite put into words, I didn’t know this girl, what did I care what she thought? I was Archer Fucking Cade, I could have any number of girls at this house and in this bed with a single text message.
None of those girls had eyes that sparkled like diamonds or a smile full of enough love for ten people. It made me ache as her words echoed in the back of my head, I really didn’t care. In fact, I lived by the words “I don’t give a damn” like it was something to be proud of. Only, with Isa, I did give a damn. She was right though, I wasn’t good enough for her…but I knew I could be.
I didn’t get to tell her that, when I finally left her bed, she was gone. I wanted to say it before I went to the recruiting office, I wanted say it before I left for Parris Island. Basic training didn’t leave me much time to do much, but I wrote her every chance I got. Each letter told her everything and nothing, but I never told her writing to her was the one thing I looked forward to at the end of the day. She was the only person I had to write to, in spite of the fact that I had tons of people that I partied with I never had a real friend. I had people that would have let me lay in my own shit and choke on puke while they took pictures and laughed. No, Isa was the one trace of light in that whole situation. I didn’t have a picture of her, but I had that first time I saw her imprinted in the back of my mind. I imagined holding her when I graduated, I knew I wasn’t good enough, but I was getting better everyday. It was what motivated me and when that picture started to fade, I got a letter, the one I’m staring at now.
Or should I say Private Cade…is that what the Marines call it? How are you? I hope you are well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written and re-written this one letter. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m painfully shy (assuming there isn’t a hangover involved, haha). Thank you for all of your lovely letters, I thought after how ugly I was to you the last time I saw you, I would be the absolute last person you wouldn’t want to write to. Then again you always seem to be so full of surprises. I’m so sorry for the horrible names I called you, I was frightened. You always knew how to make an entrance and that night was no exception, I was scared of you choking, I stayed up the whole night worrying…
Archer, please don’t think you aren’t special, you are! I’m so, so very proud of you. Although it’s so quiet without you here, too quiet. We miss you, Archer, I even miss you. I don’t know when or if you’ll get this, but just know you’re always in my thoughts and prayers.
I have no right to feel sorry for myself, it’s not like this is some Dear John letter, but the last thing I want Esme to be is my friend, I want her to be my girl…hell..she IS my girl, even if she doesn’t know it yet. I won’t make the same mistake, I’m going to do this the right way…the painfully right way. If that means I have to put what would feel good aside in favor of what she needs, so be it.
I’m not good enough for you now, Esme…but soon Sweet Thing, real, real soon.
Blogger Quinn reflects on a past encounter with a stranger in Vienna, Austria.