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The days following the news passed by in a blur. So many people talked at me, not with me – Audrey, Everett, their lawyers, Yaya, and Bosworth. I wanted a sense of control in my life, a say at the very least. Against Aud’s advice, I picked up the phone and scheduled to meet with our mom. I wanted her to explain it to me, not have it relayed through someone else who was trying to “protect me”.
I stared at my childhood home in the comfort of Audrey’s car.
“Please let me go inside with you. I don’t trust her.”
“You have Em. I’ll be fine on my own.” I remained seated, scanning the place for changes.
“Why are you doing this? She has no say in this custody arrangement. Her rights were removed years ago. She never petitioned to get them reinstated.”
“I want to stop running. I need to confront the reason I started.”
“At least give me a hug.” She extended her arms to me.
I rotated in my seat.
“If she says anything that makes you uncomfortable, walk to Everett’s parents’ house. His dad mostly works from home now. I’ll pick you up there.” She rubbed my back.
“I’ll be fine.”
“You were so young when you were taken away from her. I don’t feel like you’re remembering her properly.”
“You can’t shield my eyes from everything. I deserve to have answers from the person I came from.” I popped the door open.
“Are you mad at me?”
“No, I’m going while I still have the nerve. I love you. I love you too, Ems.”
She started crying. I cringed.
“You woke her up.” Aud slammed her hands on the steering wheel.
“Sorry.” I offered her a smile in condolence as I backed out of the car.
I heard her door open and shut. I spun around. “What are you –?”
“That is her ‘change me’ cry. We are 45 minutes away from home. I can’t make her sit in it for that long.” She reached into the backseat. She removed Emmy from her car seat. I helped her by picking up her diaper bag.
“You said you never wanted her to meet her.” We walked to the front door together.
“I am putting my pride aside to take care of her.”
“All of us.”
I took a deep breath and walked up to the front door with as much confidence as I could muster. Once on the porch, I smoothed out the wrinkles on my clothes, I combed my hair with my fingers, and checked my breath. I pressed the doorbell as nerves wreaked havoc on my insides. She answered the door herself.
She looked exactly as I remembered, only a little older. Her dark brown hair was curled and reached the top of her ribcage. Her golden brown skin had aged beautifully despite her addictions. Her eyes, which were identical to mine, examined me from head to toe. I held my head up. Instead of looking down, I meddled with my necklace to express my discomfort.
“You’re so grown up and beautiful, Bella. I mean it.” She moved closer with her arms extended.
My stomach churned. I instinctively took a step backwards and partially hid behind Audrey. She worked hard to mask her disappointment. Emilia’s wailing grew louder and she shifted her attention to her and Audrey.
“I’m happy you decided to come too, Audrey. Somebody’s upset. Come inside. It sounds like she needs something.” She held the door open for us.
“Her diaper changed. We’ll be right back.” She gestured for me to follow her.
We went into the first floor bathroom. I shut and locked the door. I set up her changing mat and supplies.
“I look just like her.” Aud rocked back and forth with Emmy in her arms.
“You’re just now realizing that?” I sat down on the toilet seat cover.
She laid Em on her back. “I guess I repressed it. She looks well. I wasn’t expecting her to be so – “
“Eager to win us over?”
“Yeah. It’s hard to sift through her past behavior and decipher what was actually her.”
“Your dad said you used to be close.”
“He’s your dad too until we have proof that says otherwise. And yes, we were. We used to bake together. I liked being in charge of the measurements. She’d braid my hair, paint my nails, and read me stories. There were times when she’d get depressed and stay in her room for days. I went in there and took care of her the way she usually took care of me.” Her voice raised an octave.
“Where was dad?”
“Work, usually, but he made a point to spend more time with me when she was like that. He thought taking me out for ice cream would make me forget that she was drinking away her pain and abusing her Xanax in their bedroom.” You could hear every ounce of disapproval.
“Don’t sound so judgmental. I did the same thing the other day.”
“Because of –“
“It was me, Aud. I’m the one that did it. I make mistakes. You don’t need to keep acting like they’re figments of my imagination. You always give me the opportunity to explain myself. I’m doing the same for her. Leave if you’re going to make her feel bad about herself.” I passionately vented in a hushed tone.
Neither of us talked for what felt like forever. The only sounds that could be heard where the ones made by her changing Em’s diaper.
“Why are you so quick to forgive her? Think about what she’s done to us.” She piped up softly.
“I always wanted an answer for her behavior. I have it. I’m not going to forget the past, but I need to move on. I can’t do that if I keep running from the truth. I know you’re tired too. We’ll never have to wonder after this.”
“Look at you taking care of me.” She smiled through her tears.
“This sister thing is a two way street.”
I held Em as Aud washed her hands and cleared her face of tear remnants. “If I knew we were coming inside, I would have dressed both of us in something nicer.”
“You look cute.”
“I’m in a sweatshirt and mom jeans; she’s in overalls; and you’re wearing a skirt.”
“With a t-shirt and sneakers. I’m only wearing the skirt because it has elephants on it.”
“Still. You put in some effort.”
“You just had a baby – a baby, as in a person that shot out of you. You are dressed for comfort. I’d think it was weird if you weren’t wearing that. Emmy met Ev’s parents naked. I think the overalls are an upgrade. Not to mention the fact that they are adorable with their navy stripes and little pink whale on the front pocket.”
“You look very cute, Honey.” I kissed Emmy’s cheek.
“I should at least style her hair. God, it’s just like Ev’s.” She moistened her fingers. She ran them through Emmy’s hair in hopes of taming her unruly wisps.
“She has slobber on her shirt. I hope I have another one for her to wear. I want her to look nice. She has to look nice.” She rifled through her diaper bag frantically.
“You’re panicking. You need to calm down. I’m not letting you touch her until you do. She’s sensitive. You’re going to scare her.” I held Em to my chest.
She took a deep breath and shook out her hands as she walked the length of the room.
“Do you need me to call Ev?”
“No, he’s recording studio editions in New York all week. It’d throw him off.”
“He’d want to know.”
“He’ll be upset that I’m here. He hates her as much as I do – did. I don’t know how I feel now. He was uneasy about you coming here. I know he’d be upset if he knew Emmy was around her.”
“The way she treated you. It was intentionally cruel. You weren’t anyone’s trouble, but she treated you like the scum of the earth until you believed it. Why do you think it was your instinct to move away from her? You did it all the time as a child.”
“Why don’t I remember that?” I admitted.
“You were young and it was traumatic. We both did what we needed to survive.” She collected herself after a few moments. “Can I have my daughter back?”
“Are you going to try to change everything about her?”
“No. You’re right. She’s fine. I’m nervous and having her close to me is comforting.”
Emilia squirmed in my arms, anxious to get back to Aud when she realized she was near.
I reunited her with her mommy.
“If you need to leave, I won’t think less of you.” I watched her hug Emmy close.
“I need closure. Let’s get it.” She juggled Emmy and her diaper bag. I took care of her carrier.
Our mom was still by the door, as if she was unsure of where to go. She stood up straight we she noticed we were back. Despite her enthusiasm, I proceeded with caution, examining the entrance from all angles.
“Can I get you something to eat or drink?”
“Like what?” Audrey hiked Em further up on her hip.
“Water, tea, coffee, juice.”
“What will you be drinking?” I asked what Audrey was really getting at.
“Tea. I just removed the kettle from the stove.”
“I’ll have that then.”
“May I have water?” Audrey requested.
“Sure. Make yourselves comfortable in the living room. I’ll go get the drinks.”
Aud immediately turned to go where directed.
“I can help.” I followed my mom to the kitchen.
It had been remodeled. I wouldn’t have recognized it if it was taken out of the context of the home. She was telling the truth about the kettle, it was seated on a potholder on the counter.
“Were you concerned about me burning myself or replacing honey with tequila in my tea?” She removed mugs from an overhead cabinet with her back to me.
“Both, honestly, but I thought wine was more your deal.” I sat down at the kitchen island.
“No, it was Stewart’s. I’m sure he still hoards it. He’s always been into that – collecting valuables, polishing them to perfection, and retiring them to a shelf, too scared they’d get damaged or lose value if he doesn’t. I only drank it to get under his skin.” She placed bags of black tea into the mugs.
“I’d say that means he cares about it.”
“It never felt that way when he did it to me. I’m sure the infant he’s currently married to is performing like an acrobat in hopes of being seen as more than a trophy. Everything and everyone in his life is a commodity. I showed him he can’t keep them all forever.” She poured hot water over the bags of tea.
“He said he loves you.”
She scoffed. “You can’t love what you don’t understand. Remember that.” She placed a lemon and cutting board on the island I was seated at.
“How do you think he felt about you when you were together?”
“He was fascinated. Still is. That’s the only reason he calls to check on me now.” She poured Audrey a glass of cold water.
“He calls you himself?”
“Everyday, but it’s not flattering. Don’t ask that question like it is. He makes me feel crazy and I hate it – him.” She directed her fury to the lemon she was chopping for our drinks.
“You always were an inquisitive little thing. I’m glad someone’s giving him hell. Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat? You are much smaller than I recall Audrey being at your age.” Her fearless approach to difficult questions was oddly comforting.
“She got your boobs and hips. I didn’t.”
“Developing an eating disorder at the beginning of puberty could’ve interfered. Do you still like grilled cheese sandwiches?”
“That was Audrey.”
“Right. What do you like?” Her expression returned to angelic.
It was difficult to keep up with her ricocheting emotions. One second she was raving mad and the next she was attempting to take care of me with a pleasant smile. I imagined the latter was the real her. It was who I always wanted her to be.
“Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with extra jelly.”
“I thought you were allergic to peanuts.”
“Huh. I could’ve sworn it was you. Is their daughter allergic too?”
“They don’t know yet. She’s strictly on breast milk.”
“Then I guess it won’t hurt to make you a sandwich.” She got to work, collecting all the items she needed.
“I heard you drank while you were pregnant with me.”
“I was in denial about it. When I was pregnant with Audrey, I knew exactly what was going on – who her father was and when she was conceived. I was even happy about it. I didn’t know where to start with you. I thought if I went about my life as usual, the problem would go away. I’m sure that’s not what you want to hear.” She slathered peanut butter onto one of the slices of bread.
“I ask questions because I want to know what is going on. I’m not hoping to find out I got the whole story wrong.”
“Expensive bracelet. I see Stu’s already bribing you to forget the hairy details.”
My opposite hand immediately reached out for it. “No. My boyfriend got this for me.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize you had one of those. Stewart painted you to be a socially inept loner.”
Her bluntness started to hurt. I could tell it was unintentional, but the sting remained.
I looked down.
“What’s his name?” She attempted to keep the conversation going.
“Where did you meet him?”
“How long have you been together?”
“Almost six months.”
“I can tell you’re mad at me. I don’t have much of a sensitivity filter. It’s not required with the people I’m usually with. I just want to hear about your life. I am the only one that knows nothing.”
“What do you want to know?” I returned my eyes to her.
“Mother things. What is he like?” She sliced my sandwich into four segments.
I smiled as I thought of the best way to describe him. “He’s from Listonenia, so he has trouble assimilating to American culture sometimes. It is fun to watch his reaction as he is introduced to something new. He’s clumsy, but in a very endearing way. He’s got a great sense of humor. People perceive him as cooler than he is because of his exoticism, but he’s as much of a dork as I am. I love him for all of it and more.”
“Does he treat you well?”
“We argue at times, but we quickly make up. He’s a sweetheart in both the conventional and non-conventional sense.”
“Did you lose your virginity to him?”
“No. That happened before I met him.” I nibbled on my bottom lip.
“How old were you?”
“Barely sixteen. It was the weekend of my birthday, actually. Aud and B were the only people that remembered.” I cleared my throat.
She handed me my mug of tea after inserting a lemon.
“A friend of sorts. I wanted to be wanted. He noticed me, even said happy birthday.” I took a sip.
“I understand. I’ve certainly been there.” She smiled at me. “Were you at least careful?”
“Yeah. I thought I would feel more in control after that, it being my call and all, but I never felt more alone. There’s this idea that you’re supposed to have this deep emotional tie to the person you share your first time with, but I felt nothing, not even when he told me he loved me. “
“I’ve DEFINITELY been there.”
“Did you love my dad?” I looked up.
“I do not know. The closest thing I’ve ever felt to love was with Stewart and that would be best described as an obsession. I have never been in a healthy relationship, let alone genuinely in love. Everything is too black and white with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I love or hate. There is no in between. That quickly becomes too much.”
“Do you know who he is, my dad?”
“No, Mi Hija. The time frame surrounding your conception is a blur. I’d wake up with no recollection of who was in bed beside me.”
“Did it bother you?”
“No, genetics don’t matter in your case. Your last name is a golden ticket.”
“I’ve never felt welcome in his family. It matters. It’s always mattered.” I tightened my grip on the handle of my mug.
“What do you want me to say? I’m sorry I didn’t abort you? I was raised Catholic. My mother would never allow me to do that, even to an accident. You could use his neglect to your advantage.”
“I don’t care to. Audrey’s adopting me.”
“Don’t let her do that. You’ll be her child forever.”
“What do you suggest I do?”
“Get emancipated. I’ll pay for what you need and you won’t have to answer to anyone.” She brought her mug to her lips.
“I’ve been too impulsive in the past. No judge would ever grant that to me.”
“Be sure to emphasize how close you are with your sister, state that you will be living with her, and they’ll feel more comfortable knowing you will not be alone.”
“You’ve really thought about this.” I picked up one of the slices of the sandwich she made for me.
“I was upset when I found out about you. I was told you’d be safer without me, but you almost died in his care. You were mine and he knew that. I went to a lawyer, trying to get you back. They won’t put you back in my custody, but they can grant you the freedom to go where you please.”
“How do I know you’re not just going to turn on me one day and leave me out to dry?”
“I started tucking money away when I was still married. I planned to run, but he did it first. I forgot about it for years. The lawyer noticed it when he examined my assets. I switched the account to your name. I’ve been adding to it for the past couple of months.”
“When were you going to tell me?”
“Your birthday. I was going to mail you a card. I have it here. Give me a second.”She went to the desk built into the cabinetry. She rummaged through the top drawer.
“Happy early birthday, Bella.” She offered a spring green envelope to me.
“Izzie.” I corrected gently as I accepted it.
“Oh. Well, it’s wrong in the letter, but I mean everything else. It’s sort of – I rather not be around when you read it, if that’s okay.” Her eyes became glassy.
I got up from my seat and hugged her. “Thank you, Mom.”
“I want you to have a life, one I can’t mess up. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for everything.” She held me tight.
“You’re trying. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
She kissed the side of my face before releasing me. I returned to my seat. Her arms were hidden beneath the sleeves of her dress. She didn’t even slide them up as she cooked, like anyone else would have. I thought about what Audrey’s dad said she had done to herself.
“Is there a reason you are staring at my arms? They aren’t exactly my best feature.” She used one of her hands to prop herself up as she leaned on the counter.
I shook myself out of my thoughts. “N-no, sorry.” I stuttered.
“My scars then. It is okay to ask.” She replied as if we were discussing the weather.
“You were covering them. I know you must be conscious of them. I don’t -“
“It was for your benefit. I was trying to keep this light, not make you painfully aware of what I’ve done to myself. It is not something you should be concerned with.”
“Can I see it? If that is horrible to ask, please say no. I don’t want to ruin-“
“Has anyone ever told you that you talk a lot?” She sat down on the empty barstool beside me.
“Only when I am nervous.”
“It is fine. Kind of cute, actually.” She pulled up her sleeves.
I was silently curious as to why she felt the need to reveal both of her arms. I looked down and discovered why instantly. The scar on her left forearm had long healed, the light brown line barely visible. The rows of cuts on her wrists were much darker.
I reached out to touch them without thinking. I gently glided my fingertips over the slits. “I thought you said you were better.” Tears formed in my eyes.
“I stopped drinking and taking recreational drugs, but it will always be hard for me to keep it together. I found out about you. I wanted to be with my baby. No one would let me see you, saying you wouldn’t want me. All decisions were made behind my back, like my opinions didn’t matter. I didn’t want attention, regardless of what Stewart and mi madre told you. I tried to be they wanted me to be — out of your life and Audrena’s forever.”
“What did you do?”
“The cuts were superficial. I did them at first. Then I got the brilliant idea to take all of my antidepressants at once.”
“Who found you?”
“My boyfriend at the time. He had a key and I forgot I invited him over.”
“I tried to push everyone away at that time, even Aud. They found out my secret. The whole world did.”
“I wanted you. You’re mine. My beautiful little girl.” She fixed my hair in a maternal fashion.
“Is everything going okay in here?” Audrey walked in with Emilia on her hip.
“We’re fine.” She dried her eyes with her hands. “I poured your water. Does Emilia need anything?”
“You know her name?”
“She’s my first grandchild. She looks just like both of you.” She eyed her with a soft smile.
“Would you like to hold her?”Aud asked, a bit apprehensive.
“If you’re not ready, I understand. I was warned it would take a while for you to warm up to me. I’m just happy you’re letting me see her in person.”
“How have you been?” She continued to hold Emmy.
“Good. I haven’t had a drink in six months and gotten high in almost a year. Progress. I’ve been keeping busy with meetings and things. A job would still be too much, so I’m trying to find a sense of purpose in other places.”
“Are you dating?”
“No. It is best that I stay like this.”
“What have you been doing with your free time?”
“Baking. It’s going straight to my thighs, but it’s something to do.” She pulled her sleeves back down subtly.
“Do you mind holding her while I return a phone call? It was work. She wasn’t willing to cooperate with me in the living room.” She pried Em away from her body and offered her to our mom.
“Sure.” She smiled. She held Emilia, looking at her as if she was the most magnificent thing she had ever seen.
“Come get me if she needs anything.” Aud briefly rested her hand on my shoulder on her way out the door.
“You hid them from her.”
“She wouldn’t understand.”
“You knew I would?”
“She’s always had a plan, known exactly what she was going to do next. It’s not hard to spot a fellow wanderer. I am sure you have your fair share of scars too.”
“I have a lot of stretch marks from gaining a significant amount of weight in a short span of time. And these -” I showed her the cuts on my leg.
“I didn’t know you did this. I meant – why? Why did you do that?”
“I wanted to feel something. They were superficial, I swear.”
“I don’t want to think about you doing that. It hurts me to know that was the only way you were able to feel alive.”
“I’m sorry.” I felt the same amount of shame I did when Audrey found out.
“It is okay. They are long healed. Do you have anymore?”
“No, I promise.”
She smiled. “Good. What’s Everett like now?”
“The same, but all grown up; just like Aud.” I returned to my sandwich.
“Nah, I’ve still got plenty more to do. I still act first and think wayyy later.”
“You certainly got that from me. Are you a runner too?”
“Just to know we’re on the same page, what is your definition of that word?”
“You run after the people who are worst for you and keep the best ones at a distance, perpetually alone as a result.”
“I used to be. I used to think love and hate were one in the same. They both hurt and ended in abandonment, but I’m working through that. ”
“And your boyfriend, he understands?” She allowed Em to hold on to her index finger.
I smiled. “He tries really hard. That’s all I can ask for.”
“You light right up when you talk about him.”
My cheeks warmed. “I think he might be mad at me. He texted me the other day, but I still haven’t replied.”
“He asked me how I feel, but I don’t know. It is not that simple.”
“Then say what you do know.” She situated Em in a way that allowed her to see her better.
I removed my phone from my pocket. I scrolled through my messages. I pressed the reply button on the screen.
I love you.
“Is dancing still one of your modes of transportation?” She asked as I put my phone away.
“I do it, but it’s never how I’ve gotten around.”
“That’s what you think. When you were no more than three, you put your arms out and spun to get everywhere. You somehow got it into your head that you’d fly if you did it hard and fast enough.”
“I’m sure that annoyed you.”
“It did at the time, but now I’m thankful to have memories like that. It lets me imagine I know at least part of you, the little girl that loved to dance.”
“That’s not too far off from who I am now, actually.”
“Don’t let me off the hook that easily.”
“What do you want to know?” I smiled to myself.
“Everything, all that I’ve missed.”
“That’s going to take a while.”
“I have nothing but time.”
“Where do I start?”
“What are your best friends’ names?”
“Elle, Morgan, Sami, Milo, Ryan, Finn, and Nick.”
“Milo shouldn’t count.”
“He does. We’re friends first. That’s how we act around each other.”
“I will let you have that one then. Do they go to your school?”
“Yes. They are in New York right now, actually. We won a trip here for spring break.”
We spent the entire day at her house, acknowledging the past and using what we learned as faith for the future. Audrey and I finally knew without a doubt in our minds that neither of us was at fault and we did nothing to deserve our prior treatment.
All of my wounds were not healed by the end of the afternoon, but it was as though the salt shaker that followed me around was finally turned right side up. My past experiences still stung, but I wasn’t afraid of the pain required to move past it and grow up.
“You don’t need to adopt me.” I told Aud on our ride home.
“I’m not leaving you in his legal custody. I’m just not.”
“You don’t have to. Mom said something about getting emancipated. I’ll still stay with you and everything, but you won’t be responsible for parenting me anymore.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”
I nodded. “It feels right. If you’re really looking to adopt, you should go for Soph.”
“You’re one thing at seventeen, but she’s four. I can’t handle another child right now.”
“We can see if her grandparents will take her. Grandma Maggie adores her and you. We’d still be able to see her. I have to fight for her.”
“I know you do. We both will.” She reassured, sparing a glance in my direction.
I isolated myself in my room prior to opening my gift from my mom. I settled into bed and took a deep breath. I sat the bank card and statement aside and focused on the letter first.
I know you hate me. I hate myself too, and not for my usual reasons of feeling too stupid, crazy, or lonely to do anything with my life. I let two little girls grow up without a mom. Audrey had me for a little longer than you did. She was old enough to establish happy memories before I flushed them away. You only got the bad. You served as the butt of the joke, recipient of wrath, and an innocent pawn within a civil war. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for not knowing who your father is off the top of my head and being too scared to learn I never will. I’m sorry I never held you as you cried or taught you the ways of the world. I’m sorry you had to figure it all out on your own, the good and the bad, without the person designed to love you no matter what. I wish I was more, I wish I could take it all back and start over, but that’s not fair to ask of you. Your success and survival are accomplishments solely credited to you and ones I never wish to take away. I’m proud of you for completing rehab. I know from experience that it’s not easy. It’s even more of a struggle to keep it up after you go home. I’m in awe of you for staying on the right track your first time around. That’s not something I was able to do. I know you’re scared you’re going to grow up to be just like me, but you need not worry. You won’t. There’s an undeniable spark in you, one none of us have ever been able to take away. It makes you kind and passionate and brave. I know because of everything I’ve heard from my parents about you over the years. Keep dancing into the eye of the storm. You’ll get to the other side. You have many times before. I owe you a lot more than this, but here is a foundation to further build your new life. Whether or not you should include me is optional, but I want you to know that you are loved, you are thought of, and you are greatly missed.
I reread it until I could no longer see through my tears. I used my sweatshirt to dry my eyes. I put the letter and the rest of the envelope’s contents on my nightstand. Unclouded by monetary value, I went to bed knowing she was thinking of me fondly as I did the same.
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