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“Your skirt’s too short, and your expectations are too high little girl! Do you want to know what I know is certain in this life? The world will never be kind! Especially to those with loose ideas running around in their heads! You want to go out there and be seen? Be away from the only family you know? Fine, but you better believe you’re going to learn the hard way, Shane! Now I don’t care what you do, just don’t do it here!” were the last words I heard from my aunt as she dropped me off at the bus station. Good old, weathered face, blistered lipped, aunt Carmen; Standing all of five feet four inches, a solid one hundred and eighty pounds, sporting her raggedy, two-inch, beauty supply ponytail (that was trying desperately to blow in the wind), staring me down in the parking lot. Living in her world was such a downer; this woman was a spinning wheel of emotion that never stopped! And if you didn’t hop on the wheel with her, she despised you. Her constant self-gratifying speeches (knowing she never practiced what she preached), discouragement of my talents (because they didn’t match up with her version of success), and just overall lack of personal hygiene, made my adolescent years something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. It’s a wonder I stayed as long as I did, or that I was even left in this woman’s care. It has been twenty years since I have seen her gap-toothed smile or stepped foot in her God-forsaken home. Yet and still, once a month, I have this same dream, “nightmare” if you will, of that exact moment. Nothing changes, it’s the same speech, same emotion, same interaction. Some nights I wake up in tears, other nights I pop an Ambien and let God handle it. Tonight, I am sitting at the foot of my bed, cell phone in hand, rummaging through an old shoe box trying to find her number. I keep asking myself “why, why, why Shane, why now? What are you hoping to gain from this? There’s absolutely nothing you need from her! You’re successful! You made it out! Don’t do this to yourself! The saying curiosity killed the cat exists for a reason!” blah, blah, blah. Even with my mind plagued by all of these incessant voices, I still can’t bring myself to put the phone down or to stop looking in this ****** shoe box. I shouldn’t call it ******, the value it holds is priceless in my world; Its contents are the only ties I have to my youth, to my beginnings. Aunt Carmen wasn’t one to share stories or talk about my father (her older brother), or anyone at all from that side of the family. Every year during the holiday season, she would hop on that emotional wheel of hers and drink until she couldn’t see straight. It was only then, I would hear bits and pieces about her and my father’s childhood. She would be triggered by a holiday song or an old movie on TV and would go off on a drunken, incoherent rant about all the trouble my dad would get them into. From what I gathered, he and I were very similar. Aunt Carmen usually ended up passed out in the kitchen or next to the TV, giving me enough time to sneak away to her room and look for pictures of him or the family. I never found much over the years besides a baby picture of his, and a high school graduation photo, both pretty worn out, even more so now. I did end up finding a letter he wrote to my grandparents right before I moved out. He was living in Italy doing missionary work, begging my grandma to send him a box of her homemade sweet potato biscuits and a case of whatever fruit she was preserving at the time. “Mama, they just don’t know what a good biscuit will do for the soul!” he wrote in capital letters. I still laugh to this day when I read that line. Carmen never spoke about what killed him, why my mom wasn’t in the picture, or why she decided to “raise” me. Her response to my presence was always “these are the cards I’ve been dealt”, followed by a puff of a black and mild. I would stare at her in disbelief sometimes, wondering how this woman thought it was okay to be the way she was, to care for a child the way she was. She lived in an old 3 bedroom, 1 bath, apartment (that was saturated with the smell of smoke and rancid meat) on the fifth floor of a building that always looked like it wouldn’t survive to see another day. The neighborhood itself was quite old, and so were its inhabitants; the community was made up of truck drivers, small shop owners, and elderly war veterans who spent their days in front of the building either telling stories or playing dominos. The environment was far from safe, causing me to use an assortment of makeshift weapons daily. On my 15th birthday, instead of asking for a gift, I asked Carmen if we could move into another apartment. She looked me up and down and told me that God didn’t want us to leave our apartment, that all of her friends would miss her, and that they would never forgive her if she did something crazy like that. Carmen had no friends. The only people she ever referred to as friends were Johnnie Walker and Jim Beam, and even they hid from her a time or two! Though she denied my birthday request, she still made sure I “enjoyed” my day in her own special, illegal way； Limitless beer, a meal that was too black to detect what it might have been or was supposed to be, an after-hours “private” zoo tour, and a freshly rolled cigarette to share between us. I specifically remember that birthday because it was the first and only time Carmen acknowledged she did not have herself together and that she had no intention of ever getting herself together. I remember taking my last two puffs of the cigarette, passing it to her, and her dry spotted hand pushing it away. I tossed the cigarette on the ground and stood up to stomp it out, but Carmen grabbed my leg and whispered: “don’t, just let it burn”. She removed her hand from my leg and stared at me for what seemed like an eternity. I continued standing, hands in my pockets, shuffling about, hoping that awkward moment would swiftly pass and we could begin our way home. “Help me up” she coughed. I rolled my eyes, turned towards her, and stuck out my arm for her to grab a hold of. She struggled to pull herself up and was making me lose my balance in the process. “**** IT SHANE, I SAID HELP ME!” “I’m trying!” I yelled. She threw the rest of her beer in my face and fell back to the ground. I stood there, beer dripping from my eyelashes down to my fingertips. I could feel my eyes starting to well up, so I closed them and tried to breathe deeply, thinking of something happy to ease my storm. I was close to finding peace when I was interrupted by Carmen’s rough coughing and laughter. “You think I don’t know what you see when you look at me? Hm? Do you think I can’t hear the disappointment in your voice when you speak to me? Still sprawled out on the ground, she picked up the cigarette I tossed and began trying to light it. “You probably think there’s someone else out there, trying to find you, ready to give you a “normal” life, ready to make it all better. Trust me, it’s stupid to think that, I was waiting for that same ******* myself! She took two long pulls of the cigarette and flicked it at my feet. “Look at me. Look at me! Child, you think I just picked up a bottle one day and decided to drink until the good Lord returns?! Hm?! Jesus bypassed helping me long ago! I decide to wake up every day and be here for you! Did you forget I’m your only family?! If drinking allows me to make it through all this mess so that you have someone, how do you fix your face to look at me as if I am nothing but the scum of the earth! You think I don’t care about you?! It’s 1 am and we’re in a zoo, Shane! A ******* zoo! Why? Because it’s your birthday! But you need more right?! A roof over your head and a bed to sleep in aren’t enough these days! You kids want guidance, quality time, ice cream, rainbows, someone to listen to your hopes and dreams! **** your dreams!” She began throwing up and drowning herself in even more beer. Her long-winded speech had become severely incoherent and lacked the sting it started with. Aunt Carmen was hurt, by what or who I never knew. I only knew it was something so deep and dark, blame was her only light. Whether that blame is placed on me, someone with no knowledge of her past, or Jesus, the one who knew all and “chose” not to be there for her, it didn’t matter. In her eyes, she was not at fault. I watched her, disgusted and saddened by the sight. We were two completely different people, yet the same blood and misfortune flowed through our veins; We were both without direction, love, family, friends, ultimately help. Yet there I was, standing above her, the mess that had fallen. I always wondered if that moment was possibly her lowest; throwing up in a zoo she broke into, for the sake of making sure her niece had a “great” birthday. Now I’m at the edge of my bed, in the middle of the night, wanting to hear this woman’s voice. As if I need confirmation that I did the right thing by hopping on that bus all those years ago. She might not even be alive. Should I even formulate the belief she was able to put herself back together once I left? Does it matter? Especially now that I am in a position to help her? I guess I’ll find out, seems the number has finally revealed itself among my past treasures, specifically underneath the childhood photograph of her and my dad. I carefully dragged my thumb across the phone screen, and in the darkness, my face lights up. I smooth out the wrinkled number in my left hand, open the keypad, and begin to input the ten digits with my right, being careful not to press any wrong numbers or symbols. Call. *Ring* *Ring* Deep breath. *Ring* *Ring* Exhale. *Ring* *Ring* Hang up Shane, just hang up. *Ring* *Ri-* “Hello?”.
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