I slammed the door and headed down the hall to the elevator. My heart was beating so loudly between my ears, it drowned out any sounds coming from the apartment doors behind me. I hadn’t had time to think, let alone pack, as Monica’s pointing fingers and booming voice forced me out. I stuffed my arms into the hoodie I grabbed on my way out the door. The sleeves got stuck halfway up my arm as I tugged them roughly. Pissed, I aimed my foot and swung it at the baseboard. In my haste I had grabbed Monica’s black sweatshirt by mistake.
I’m shrimpy enough, but she’s like a dryer shrunk version of me. I stretched the hoodie around my frame, but my shirt bunched and wrinkled underneath. The wind was beating the windows of the apartment building like a rug on the line, with sheets of cold droplets releasing in unpredictable intervals. Even after midnight, it probably wasn’t much worse than 50 degrees, but this time of year the damp was like a nagging ghost.
My feet made the worn floor creak beneath me as I continued down the hall. The beating in my head slowed enough for me to worry what someone would say if they came out and saw me right now. I imagined our building manager Ms. Helen interrupting me. “Baby, what are you doing up and out of the house at this hour?” But then again, she had to be 75 I doubted she would stir for anything at this hour. More likely I would come across one of the newer neighbors I didn’t know- one of the coiffed white men, their just shaved faces still showing the dark flecks of beard beneath their skin. They were an army of plaid shirted drones glued to their blue-screened devices even in the elevator and hallways, whose eyes always averted contact. None of them would even register my presence.
By the time I reached the elevator, I wondered if she realized I was gone, really gone. Sure she kicked me out, but Monica wasn’t known for being careful with her words.
After Dad, Monica had to raise us on her own. I never stopped feeling the weight of that unexpected burden on her, and lately it seemed like more than she could take. I know enough to know it’s not my fault, but sometimes I don’t think she does. I’ve been on bad terms with Monica just by virtue of being alive, and I’ve certainly been up to much more than just breathing and pumping blood. It’s not that I can’t keep a secret, but it turns out some are too big to be kept.
I descended in the elevator, my mind whirring as I halted in the lobby. I walked through the rich red-carpeted lobby for what I hoped would be the last time, and pushed past the heavy wooden door into the night.
“Wow, it’s so, grey.” I said as our car cleared the mountain pass and landed us in western Washington, just miles outside of Seattle.
“Duh, what did you expect,” my sister Dottie said from the back seat.
“Oh, so you can hear with those headphones on,” Mom said from the driver’s seat. Dottie had sat in the backseat ignoring us for almost the whole long drive from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Over three days, leaving the sandy open earth and vast blue sky for a low hanging ceiling, and thick, watery air. It gave me a closed in feeling. I could feel Dottie’s disdain building as we became enveloped in fog. She was the only one against the move, and I had to admit, I was feeling a little less sure myself. I watched the tall dark evergreens pass on either side of the car, the only color in an otherwise slate scene. I pictured the highway, the sky, and the far off overpasses like patches in a massive and carefully constructed quilt, imagined wrapping myself inside it. The vision comforted me and I let out a deep a sigh, fogging the passenger side window.
This was my chance, I reminded myself. Everything that had happened before was in the past, and the past couldn’t move. I could, and I had. We had fit most of what my mom and sister had wanted to bring along in the van thanks to my lack of packing. In my commitment to a new start, I had rid myself of anything and everything I could. For the cross-country move I whittled it down to only one suitcase. Really, I had cut down to just a backpack, but my mom vetoed it. I had been required to rescue a few more clothing items from the donation pile to satisfy her. I figured, anything I needed for my new life should come from where I was going, not where I was trying to leave behind. Besides, it all happened so fast there wasn’t a lot of time or space for nostalgia.
A few sets of clothing, my favorite pairs of shoes, and books and magazines. Only brand new books and magazines, nothing I had ever read before. Only things that would help me shape my new fabulous life. I was flipping through the new fashion magazine I got for the drive, the girl on the cover had yellow lipstick popping and neon words lured me to turn to page 74 to find out an unbelievable beauty secret. I had also pulled out a Riot Grrl history, and a guidebook about Seattle my dad gave me as an early Christmas present. The joke being on him of course, Dad didn’t know we wouldn’t be tourists here.
“I can’t wait to see Gram,” I said, pushing the guidebook deep into my backpack.
“Yeah, she’s waiting for us. We’re only about half an hour away now,” Mom said. I had been thrilled the entire car ride, unlike my sister, who had scowled for hundreds of miles without stopping. Now that our destination was near, I felt a nervous twinge rush through my body. Up until now Seattle had been a fantasy, a mix of distant memory from visiting Gram Helen years ago, a smattering of factoids I had gathered from pop culture and Washington visitor’s websites, and the alchemy that my imagination performed on the combination to develop a perfect oasis.
The precious stone I had created in my mind was about to come face to face with reality, and I had no idea how the two would compare. Already it felt different than I thought it would. I knew there would be tall trees and murky grey skies, but it still hadn’t prepared me for the feel of it. 300 days of sunshine a year and thin dry pine air in Santa Fe made for an extreme climate that I had always thought was normal. I wondered if we should have taken Dottie’s pleading more seriously. At least I could have blamed her for it if we had stayed in Santa Fe and been miserable. The only one I would have to blame now was myself.
“Mom, what are we going to do for Christmas?” I suddenly had some questions I hadn’t thought to ask.
“Well, we’ll get to have it with Gram Helen. I’m sure we’ll eat turkey and play board games. Did you have something else in mind?” She finished sharply.
“Does she live on our floor?” Dottie piped up.
“Nope she’s two floors up from us. Since she manages the apartments, she’s got one of the nicest units, and she’s been there a long time.”
“Can we get a tree?” I asked.
“I don’t know V, let’s just get there please. I need you to help me navigate now, what’s my exit?” She shoved her phone in my hand and I tried to decipher the directions quicker than her anger could boil.
There was nowhere to go. I knew the busy neighborhood front and back, but that was meaningless. After a few blocks my feet started taking me towards the lake and I didn’t protest. I started to call Sydney, and then imagined her mom picking up. Her mama was the whole reason we got into this mess, calling up Monica when she couldn’t get a hold of Syd. I hung up and began typing a text instead.
“Hey boo,” I started and then erased. I decided I should sound neutral in case Sydney had her phone taken away.
“Hey, how are you?” I finally sent. It was plain and boring, but I felt like I should be cautious. Not that there was much left to lose.
I stared at the screen waiting for a reply. It didn’t take long to come.
“Ok,” was all it said. I wanted to stay calm, but I was feeling too much to keep quiet.
“Really?” I sent, “Everything’s cool then?” I hoped my sarcasm would be lost in translation.
“Yeah I’m fine,” Sydney replied.
“Oh, well I’m not” I said.
“I don’t know about this Lu,” she wrote. I could feel anger heating my chilled body. Another text came through, “I don’t think we should talk anymore. Not right now.” It wasn’t unlike her to pull away, but I couldn’t resist fighting it.
“I can’t lose you right now,” my fingers sent on impulse. My words staring back from the screen surprised me with their gravity. I hated how desperate I felt about Sydney sometimes. I knew I should learn not to wear my heart on my sleeve, but I lost self-control when it came to her.
I decided to shut my phone off before I could say something I’d regret. I had made it through my neighborhood, and was all the way down the hill before I knew it. Despite the dark and the rain, I could see the cold rolling lake spreading in front of me. The beach was unlit but I knew it well and reached the water before long. I took off my shoes and socks and padded through the frigid grass to the water’s edge. The cold, soft feeling of earth beneath my feet calmed the spinning in my mind. I stood at the edge of the grass, where a line of cement separated me from the lake, and a spray of lapping water just reached my toes. The sky was still sprinkling droplets onto me from above. I rolled my pants up to my knees and submerged my naked feet, but instantly regretted it. I backed my frozen feet out of the blue black water and looked up at the fuzzy yellow orb lighting the lake. The low moon’s face was shadowed with blemishes.
How did it come to this? Sydney’s lips on mine, and the door blowing wide open replayed in my mind over and over. I tried and failed to push it out of the way. I realized I would have to find a way back into Monica’s apartment, at least once more. I would have to get what I needed to live away from the apartment, but now, I just needed to breathe. I filled my lungs with the cool moist air and released the hot stagnant leftovers from deep inside my lungs, exhaling until there was nothing left to expel. I wanted to leave all of the sick feelings behind. Anger covered me. I let it out through my breath, over and over, pulling in new deep breaths to refresh my worn out body. As I breathed deeply into the moonlight, tears spilled out hotly.
It was close to dawn, but I felt wired awake. Rather than try to find a place to sleep, I decided to walk into the new day. I brushed the wet bits of grass from my toes and pulled my stained white socks back on, steadying my feet back into pink and black sneakers. I followed the curve of the shore north, hugging the coastline until the sky turned murky and peach colored, and the sun slowly filled the sky with muted blue and pink patches. I reached a popular beach, empty this time of day, this season. The small sanded area and familiar trees reminded me of summer days long ago, when my worries maxed out at whether or not the crows tore off with your picnic, or the clouds cancelled your swim. I climbed up into the high lifeguard seat for the view, and was surprised by the weight of my eyelids. Wedged into the wide plastic chair, I quickly fell asleep.
“Finally,” Mom said, in front of an old brick building. She looked weary and I began to anticipate a change in her temper.
“Where’s the driveway?” Dottie said. The street was narrow and lined with cars.
“There’s not many driveways in the city D.” Mom struggled to park our minivan in a spot up the block from the building. I fixed my eyes on a crack in the sidewalk outside my window, avoiding eye contact with any onlookers who might be observing my small town mom attempt parallel parking.
“Whew!” Mom said, “That should do it!” Her face was red with effort. I stepped out of the car onto the street. The van was parked over two feet away from the curb.
Even though it was late December, there was green grass, bright evergreens, and ferns growing in front of buildings and covering medians. A few trees brandished a yellow or red leaf that had not yet lost its hold. The amazing life still blossoming in winter shocked me. Winter in Seattle looked greener than any season in Santa Fe, and the leaves were nine times bigger than normal. The street was lined with grey, blue, and green-sided buildings, grand looking housings that could either be apartments, or mansions, and new looking towers with advertisements anchored up high. They flashed lists of building amenities, and fancy titles. Who ever heard of naming an apartment building? I thought. I wondered who lived in them, and who would be drawn to “Maya” over “The Element” or the other way around. Looking behind me at the aging brick building that was supposedly my new home, I realized it had a name too. A small wood piece was hung over the entryway that read “Dorothea.”
“Let’s go girls.” Mom had evaluated her parking job and somehow decided it was acceptable. Dottie was sitting in the backseat in her headphones still. I opened the back door and lured her out.
“Look D, the building’s got your name. It’s a sign.” Dottie craned her neck out far enough to see the sign and smirked.
“Whatever,” she said and slid out onto the sidewalk.
I started unpacking the car, trying to anticipate Mom’s next set of orders. I really wanted our first day to go well. A moment later a shadow appeared in the window of the red front door and stepped onto the top step.
“Gram Helen!” I bounded up the stairway lugging an over packed duffel bag to meet the slight, grey, curly haired woman beaming down at us. Gram pushed a pair of blue square frames as big as her face up into her hair, and greeted me with open arms. She tried to wrap me and the duffle bag in her arms, forming an odd sandwich that made me giggle.
“Come in, come in!” Gram Helen called to us. “I’m so happy to see you all! Thank goodness you made it in one piece.” I let her go, and watched Gram pull mom in for a hug and hold on for several extra seconds. When they let go Mom’s face was wet and she turned it toward the car.
“This way,” Gram Helen caught my attention and ushered us into the lobby.
I had never lived in an apartment before. The entryway had an antique side table against one wall with a blue vase of dried flowers on it, and a gilded looking mirror hanging above it. A deep green armchair sat in the opposite corner. I thought it was strange to see furniture out here where no one lived.
“Do people hang out in here Gram?” I asked.
“Oh, not really,” Gram said, “It’s more for decoration. Let’s go downstairs now! Don’t you want to see your new place?” Dottie was already beating the elevator call button, anxious to find her next hiding hole.
Inside, the elevator buttons went up to number 3. Gram Helen pressed her finger against a button below number 1, marked “B.” The basement? My heart sank and I was sure it was written on my face. This wasn’t what I had pictured, at all. Gram Helen led us down the hall, talking the whole time. She showed us the laundry room and bike storage and explained some other things about the building I hoped someone else was absorbing. Finally, Gram Helen stopped in front of an apartment door, marked 024. Apparently we lived on less than the 1st floor. The key stuck in the door for a minute, and gave after a few jiggles.
The air was colder inside the apartment and it smelled like a musty closet. I stepped through onto what looked like tiled floor, but was missing the depth of surfaces tile and grout should have. The entryway led to a wood floored living room, the size of my last bedroom. It was dim, and the light came through a thin rectangular window across the top of the wall. I could see the ground level above, not far from the bottom of the window. Our window barely peeked above the patch of landscaping outside.
Dottie and Mom were in the kitchen cooing about something, as I stood in the hallway counting the bedrooms. It sounded like Dottie had changed her tune. The hallway had 2 doors coming off of it besides the bathroom, all with narrow rectangular windows like the living room. I counted the bedrooms again. One, two...
“Mom!” I commanded, stomping to the kitchen where I could hear cupboards opening and shutting. I forgot about keeping the peace. “Where is the third bedroom?”
“What!” Dottie chimed in, slamming a cupboard closed, “I am not sharing a room.”
“Girls,” Mom said briskly. Her mouth hardened into a small pinched expression and her dark eyes beamed sharply at me. I shuffled my feet and pinched my lips shut. Dottie narrowed her eyes at me behind mom’s back. This argument would have to wait.
“Well I’ll let you get settled in,” Gram Helen excused herself. “I’ll leave the keys with you. Come up for dinner when you’re ready.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Mom squeezed Gram’s hand. “Thanks for everything.” She shut the door and turned down the hall. Her nice Gram Helen voice vanished, “Ok girls, let’s unpack.” I shuffled toward the boxes barring the kitchen.
At least we got the bigger bedroom.