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Kaitlyn Martin

Real Paige Turner


    I know that when the cashier rings me up they’re gonna give me a funny look, most likely wondering ‘what the hell is wrong with this one?’ I look into the shopping cart I’m pushing and compare its contents to the list in my hand. I got the milk, flour, butter, eggs, and chocolate chips. Okay, almost everything. My phone buzzes, still on silent from my last exam at Mountain Valley Community College from earlier that day, and then in the fall I’ll be at Emory. I check my phone and see that it’s a text from Logan. 
   Hey Paige. So good to hear from you. And I’m SO happy to hear you say that. I’ve been thinking a lot
about you. We miss you, all of us. Especially me and Monica. We’re actually having a party at Kellan’s house tonight if you wanna come.
   My first instinct is to immediately type out Go to hell, you piece of dogshit. I daydream about stabbing you all in the fa
   But obviously I can’t send that. Backspace, backspace, backspace.
   That sounds like so much fun! I remember how to get there. I can bring something if you want. Is the only allergy between the four of you still just peanuts for Monica?
   I’d shove a whole jar of peanuts down Monica’s throat if I was crazy enough. And these days I’m really starting to think I am. But for now–
   Yeah, that’s it. But you don’t have to bring anything if you don’t want to. Just bring your bathing suit.
   Kellan’s dad has a big ass pool and hot tub in his backyard. I remember. Good times…
   I type back, Looking forward to it. Would you mind not telling the others that I’m coming? I want it to be a surprise.
   Don’t be suspicious, please don’t be suspicious, don’t be suspic–
   Sure thing. You can just hang out with me and Monica all night if you want.
   He really did actually like me. He told me he did and I didn’t believe him, with very good reason. This may be dirty, but then again so is what he did, so I decided to milk it.
   Thanks Logan. I always could count on you. 
   I put the phone back in my pocket and as I walk down a new aisle I try to decide if this rat poison looks like something I might need in the near future…

    Hey Logan. Happy last day of exams! Listen…I wanna bury the hatchet, with you and everyone. Life’s too short. Can I meet up with you guys?
   That was the text I sent Logan as I sat in my car in the MVC campus parking lot after exams were over. I remember when I was done, what I felt wasn’t pride or relief. I was just tired. That’s when I had what I decided was an epiphany. And that epiphany was that in a couple of months, I was gonna move across the country and my life was gonna start. How could I do that when I had so much unfinished business to take care of here? The answer was simple: there was no freaking way. So I did what I’ve always done, what I do best, I made a list. A to-do list. Logan’s name is on that list and so is Monica’s. So are a couple other peoples’, and they’re all gonna learn exactly what happens when I’m pushed to my limit and beyond. And honestly, so would I. 

    The first step of my master plan was to make muffins. That’s what I did the minute I got home. I tried to time it so that they would be nice and cool before my mother got home from work at four-o-clock, the time of her last appointment. Well, as I put these muffins on the counter to cool, you’re probably wondering about this aforementioned hatchet that Logan, his friends and I supposedly need to bury. Well–
   “Paige, is that you?”
   Shit, she’s home early. For the record, that’s not just in your head, the temperature really did just drop in here. Things have been a little tense in the house lately. It all started when I–
   “Yeah mom. I’m home.”
   “What’s that smell?”
   “Oh, I baked muffins, don’t eat them, they’re for friends.”
   I can’t stress enough how much she shouldn’t eat those muffins. No one should eat them. No one but the people they’re intended for. Plus, she didn’t eat carbs anyway, so–
   “What friends?”
   Here we go. 
   “Oh Clancy and Eva. Just the three of us. I’m meeting them in about an hour.”
   “Oh, well I thought that we could all go out together to celebrate you being done with finals. But…I guess if you’d rather be with other people tonight…how did your exams go?”
   “Great. Really great. I think I got all A’s.”
   “Are you sure? Because you know Stanford will be looking carefully at your grades when they make their final decision.”
   Mom went to Stanford for a year, met a guy with a motorcycle, got knocked up, dropped out and then I was born. I try not to take it too personally when she (not at all passive aggressively) talks about how she would have been “such a rising star at business school had [she] gone” as a throwaway or how she “gave up such a promising career to take care of her family” whenever we have a disagreement or I mess up. So now she’s determined that I go, too. I applied, but got waitlisted. The second she got the news, she started calling some old friends and insisted that she’d “take care of it” and waved me off when I kept telling her not to bother herself with it. If I told her that I wasn’t going to Stanford, she probably wouldn’t even hear it, so I’m just gonna wait until the day I leave for Emory to tell her. It’s a solid plan. It is. Shut up, it is.
   “I just got home,” she called out. “Can I have a hug?”
   Do not roll your eyes, do not roll your eyes. Is that what you wore out of the house today?
   “Did you wear that today?” she asked, looking me up and down when I stood in front of her.
   Jean shorts and a dark grey t-shirt with a Togepi on it and the words After God made me he said ‘Ta-Da’ above it, in case you were wondering. It wasn’t that long ago that I wouldn’t go out dressed like this. Hell, I wouldn’t have walked around the house dressed like this. My wardrobe used to consist of things like long skirts that went all the way to my ankles,  sweater vests, blouses and loafers–basically anything that wasn’t too revealing or casual. 
   “Yeah, so?” I asked as sweetly as I could manage. Mom was not charmed.
   “You know when you go out into the world, the way you present yourself matters. How you dress says a lot about what you want people to think about you.”
   “Oh, well I would very much like for people to see me as a gift from God.” I ran my finger under the words on my shirt to emphasize my point. 
   She shook her head disapprovingly at me and said, “I don’t know what has gotten into you. I thought once you got those bad influences out of your life then things would start to go back to normal, but now, with your hair and your wardrobe, I don’t even recognize you.”
   Mom and I look a lot alike. In fact if you look at an old photo of her when she was my age, minus the baby on her arm, she looks like I do now: full lips, oval face, straight nose, blue eyes, thin, five feet tall, making us look even younger than we are. The only thing to really differentiate us was the length of our black hair. For a long time, mine was long like her’s is now, but very recently I decided that it was time for a change and got it cut just above the shoulders without asking for her feedback or permission, which she wasn’t too happy about. Now she couldn’t come up behind me in the bathroom and just start brushing my hair and put it up in whatever style she thought looked “so adorable” that day. She hated being powerless and out of control, especially when it came to me. So instead, she would just watch me put my hair up in a short ponytail or doing whatever else with it and say things like–
   Hmm, can’t do much with hair that short, can you? Then again, I suppose I could have told you that, but you are a grown woman who knows best after all…
   So that’s what it’s been like between us lately. And I just know for a fact that if I tell her about Emory, not only that I didn’t tell her that I was applying, but that I did it at all, a knife wouldn’t be strong enough to cut the tension in this room.
    “I’m gonna go check on the muffins,” I dismiss myself and leave the room as fast as I can.    
   “You know I just want what’s best for you,” she called after me, trying to keep the conversation going. Trying to win. Trying to assert her position. “You know, your father and I work so hard to give you a good life. If you don’t dress like someone who has a good life, if you let your clothes get all wrinkled and messy, then suddenly it looks like we don’t take care of ourselves–”
   Somehow our conversations about me always become a conversation about the family as a whole, or “we”. Everything I do apparently either negatively or positively affects everyone else, it’s never just about me, no matter what it is. Oh, and buckle up, she’s gearing up to play her next favorite: guess how much this costs.
   “I mean,” she continues as I place the now cooled muffins in a wide plastic container that I also bought earlier today, just for tonight. “He and I work very hard. We’re successful, we make good money, we pay for nice clothes, but of course they’re not stylish enough for you. You’d rather present yourself as someone who’s too cool to care what they put on their body–”
   She’s got this pathological fear that someone’s gonna see us as something other than this sweet, hardworking family and think less of us–and her, somehow. She needs people to see her as this flawless ideal so that she doesn’t think about the fact that she had to drop out of college, that she secretly hates planning weddings in spite of being very good at it, and that she got talked out of an abortion by someone at some point and now doesn’t have any of the stuff that she wanted in life. That’s why she’s tried for the past twenty years to set me on the path she wanted to be on. Just three more months, three more months…
   “Alright mom, I’m gonna head out,” I call out as I put a lid on the container. 
   I feel my pocket and my phone and car keys are still in there. Good. Carrying the container, I go past her without another glance or word, slip on a pair of flip flops(also something she didn’t approve of because she felt wearing flip flops anywhere other than the beach or pool made ‘us’ look like homeless beach people) and head out the door. 
   I live in a pretty boring, suburban neighborhood. I can’t believe that I’ve lived here my whole life, even after the divorce when it was clear that we couldn’t survive on just mom’s paycheck alone. But she had refused to give up “the home [she] put so much blood, sweat, time, and money into because he decided to give up on his family”. She said all this in front of me when I was ten years old, by the way. 
   The light blue volkswagen beetle that Judd got for me when I started MVC(on the condition that I pay for the gas and insurance) is in the driveway. Oh you’ll meet Judd soon, don’t worry. I get inside, place the muffins in the passenger seat and head to Kellan’s house. I remember the first time that Monica brought me to his house for one of his parties, it was such a culture shock. The last party I got invited to was one of those grade school birthday parties where everyone got an invite or you were a huge asshole. She looped her arm through mine as we walked through the door together. Picture this, a party with a bunch of people making out and hooking up, smoking joints and from pipes and playing drinking games, shooting back one after the other, and then there’s me, wearing a pink ruffle hem dress and my long hair up in a half bun. I thought that was how you dressed for parties, you try to look nice. But I was in a sea of belly shirts and short shorts, like what Monica was wearing when she came to pick me up. 
   Monica and I met after getting paired up on an assignment for Art History, a class we took together earlier this semester and I was convinced that I was gonna get stuck doing all the work. Then she opened her mouth and was not only totally accommodating to my schedule but was one of the nicest people that I’d ever met and had a ton of great ideas, which for some reason surprised me, like we weren’t listening to the exact same lectures.
   It was at this party that she introduced me to her friends: Logan, the amiable guy who had a sort of grunge indie style, Lana, someone who dressed almost exactly like Monica but unlike her, seemed to have a permanent scowl on her face, and then there’s Kellan, who took one look at me and said with an unfriendly smirk–
   “Look who’s here.”
   He said the exact same thing now as I walked through the door all alone holding a container of the muffins. 
   Looking me up and down he said, “And you’re not dressed up this time. I hope you remembered your swimsuit. If not, skinny dipping is encouraged.” 
    Then he leaned in closer and whispered in my ear, trying to be seductive, “So, you missed us, huh? Missed me? Have you lightened up since I last saw you?”
   Keep smiling. Tell him what he wants to hear. Let him think he’s clever. Let him think you’re falling for his “charm”. A second time.
   Logan comes into the room and gives me a little hug. Monica follows him in and does the same. I keep smiling. I keep letting them think that I’m okay with them. It’s only when I look at Lana and I just keep thinking about what she said to me all those months ago–So how far did you let them go, anyway? Kellan told us all the details, but Logan’s been more tight-lipped–that I worry that she can see through all this. She’s always hated me the most out of all of them. In her defense, before I humbled myself and learned not to judge a book by its cover, I had looked her up and down with a bit of a critical eye before I could stop myself when we were introduced. Then she opened her mouth and I suddenly didn’t feel like I had misjudged her. Now–
   “Cute shirt,” she said snarkily.
   Of course. She, like all these other assholes in my life have always taken one look at me and thought they knew what I was made of and what I would take. None of them would see this coming. And as they ate the muffins in the kitchen, even Lana when Monica nudged her as a way to make her, I didn’t have to fake a smile. I also managed to avoid suspicion when Monica asked if I was gonna have one by saying that I was gonna wait because I wanted to go swimming. They didn’t bat an eye at this because they still thought I was some mommy’s girl who thought you had to wait thirty minutes after eating. None of them had this problem apparently, because at my suggestion they stripped down to their swimsuits and headed outside. I told them that I would meet them in a sec, I just had to go to the bathroom real quick. 
   I don’t have to go to the bathroom. When I’m sure that there’s no chance of any of them seeing me, I grab the muffin container and throw them in the trash, quickly go outside to my car parked on the street along with several others that belonged to those attending this party and get the water meter key and hammer out of my trunk. I go to the water valve on the street in front of the house, take the cover off, and, using the horseshoe slotted end of the key, I turn the slot until these two metal holes line up with each other. Thank you Youtube and all the plumbers out there with channels. The finishing touch is me using the hammer to bend the slot holes so much that they couldn’t be easily moved back by a plumber the family would inevitably call. I don’t really feel bad for screwing over the whole house in this way since it was their shitty parenting that made Kellan in the first place. This is cosmic justice for everyone involved. I put the lid back on, race back to my car, put the stuff back in my trunk, close it, get in and drive the hell away. 
   I don’t worry about getting in trouble, I know they won’t tell anyone. They’ll take it to their graves. It’s either that or tell everyone what happened at that party and believe me–oh, they’re alive, come on, what did you think? But God, I bought so many things of laxatives at the store, and that cashier just looked at my tiny body with such fear in her eyes. She was probably trying to figure out how much shit a person of my stature could really produce with that many laxatives in their system. What health problems could I possibly have that would warrant that amount? Why break the water valve too, you might be asking? Oh, I want to make sure they can’t easily wash the stink out after the massive shit storm that’s about to break out any minute. I only left because my stomach is not that strong. Otherwise I’d have taken pictures of the occasion. 
   So what brought this on? Well, as I stop and enjoy a nice convenience store plastic wrapped muffin, you remember Clancy and Eva? Those are real people. Clancy has been my best friend since my first semester at MVC when we took an Anthropology class together and he’s also my co-worker at the campus coffee shop. He met Eva a year later and they fell in love and are going to UC Berkeley together in the fall, much to my delight. Theirs is a real kind of love where they always had to be holding hands and knew the other’s dinner order instead of just always making out and never keeping their hands off each other. Clancy, in spite of his name and the fact that he, like me, was a straight A student that didn’t drink, do drugs or get into any shit, was actually very cute and a genuine pleasure to be around. It was no surprise to me or anyone that he found someone as wonderful as Eva, someone cool and confident and ambitious. I don’t think Eva trusted me very much in the beginning, probably because she kept waiting for me and Clancy to tell her that we were in love and had been all along. My mother absolutely adored him and wanted Clancy and I to get married–secure, she called it. But no dice all around. Once she realized we really were just friends and were gonna stay that way, Eva warmed up to me pretty quickly.
   In the spirit of that, she overheard the group talking in the cafeteria and this was the gist: Monica said that she needed a break from a clingy girl who probably didn’t have any other friends, Lana responding that the girl was a stuck up bitch who needed to be knocked down a peg, Kellan saying that all she needed was to be screwed properly, and Logan talking about how much he would like to do just that. Then Kellan and Logan mocked each other, arguing which one of them could screw her first and ultimately deciding to put some money on it. The two girls agreed not to say anything. Lana just laughed in that evil bitchy way that she usually did, but the cherry on top was Monica, my new best friend saying:
   “It might do her some good, actually catching a dick. It might help her loosen up.”
   Eva had her suspicions but wasn’t entirely sure who they were talking about. And then Clancy told her about how I was getting a lot of flirty attention from Logan and Kellan, and the latter was actually being pretty kind and decent, for him anyway, by sneaking in overt comments about how he was genuinely surprised that I didn’t have just a line of guys asking me out, and I loved it. You have to understand that I was never very popular with the opposite sex. I was never asked out. No one ever flirted with me. Oh, I knew I was pretty, I wasn’t that modest, but apparently never pretty enough to get the kind of attention I was getting now, and from a guy who always had a girl on his arm who suddenly showed no interest in anyone but me, nonetheless. It was an ego thing, not a crush, I see that now. 
   That’s it, you know. That’s why we fall for the bad boy. He gives us permission to be wild and sensual and whatever the hell else we wanna be but feel we’re not allowed to for whatever reason. All the while, we hold onto the repulsively basic notion that we’re still as innocent and good as ever because we’re keeping him grounded and he’s different with me–that one’s my favorite. That’s why we love the mysterious newcomer we know nothing about but give our bodies to them anyway. Why we fantasize about them even when they’re shitty to us and make us feel awful. It’s not about them, they’re not beautiful or lovely, we just don’t know when we’re ever gonna be made to feel like we’re lovely or beautiful again. So we eat that shit up and we swallow it. Then we’re surprised, somehow, when our stomachs wind up turning afterwards. Well, mystery solved, I guess.
   So, Eva told Clancy, Clancy told me, I confronted them and Logan and Monica, apparently feeling guilty after they were caught, fessed up. Logan insisted that he really did like me, Monica told me that it was just a stupid thing they did sometimes–just a joke, Lana said that really shitty thing, and Kellan said that I should take it as a compliment, after all, when was I ever gonna have one guy, let alone two trying to get in my pants. Clancy said that there are times when he wishes he never told me. Says he feels like all it did was hurt me when in a couple of months I never would have seen these people ever again and it’s not like I would have actually slept with one of them. I told him I was glad he did. That I was hurt, but ultimately I thanked him because he and Eva were straight shooters when everyone around me just let me believe that I had something I didn’t. That I was changing, rebelling, growing into a real woman who made her own decisions and dressed herself in a way that made her desirable for the first time in her life.
   And now you know. What can I say, shit happens. 
   And if they ever track me down to confront me on what I did, you know what I’ll say? It was just a joke.
   The next morning, I heard a knock on my bedroom door. I knew it wasn’t mom, she never knocks. She doesn’t think she has to since “it’s [her] house, [she] pays the bills around here”. Never mind that it’s supposed to be my private space.
   “Paige, it’s me.”
   I roll my eyes and smile. I tell Judd, always the early riser even on his days off, to come in as I sit up in my bed. He opens the door just a crack and I see just his upper body and his face. He was a good decade and a half older than my mom, his already graying hair sitting messily atop his head, which matched the shade of the thick beard that seemed to perfectly compliment the small smile he was giving me. It was one of the things that actually made me open up to him when I first met him. His smile was so simple and not over the top. Just a good old fashioned I’m happy to see you smile.
   “Did you just get up?” he asked.
   “Yup,” I say simply. 
   “Well, as long as we’re both awake, do you wanna go get some breakfast? Your mom is sleeping in, it would just be us. Maybe give us a chance to catch up. I feel like we haven’t talked in forever–”
   I’m already out of bed and go across the room to pick out some clothes to wear. He had me at mom not being there.

    Fried eggs, slightly undercooked toast, bacon fried so crispy there was no fat, milk, and a fruit bowl. We had our breakfast order down to a science. Judd and I have been coming here to this little breakfast place for years, it was our place. Mom wasn’t really much of a breakfast person, and before I met Judd, I wasn’t either. Though, that might have simply just been me following her lead because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
   “So,” he says. “Have you told your mom about Emory yet?”
   “Nope,” I say simply. 
   “You know, you’re gonna have to tell her at some point, right?”
   “I’m aware. I’ll tell her soon. I promise.”
   He doesn’t seem convinced, but seems to decide that he doesn’t need to press the issue, at least not right now, and moves on. 
   “So your exams went well?”
   “Yeah. I wasn’t sure about one, but I think it’ll be alright.”
   “And how did it go last night? With…Clancy and Eva? Or whoever?”
   Son of a bitch, how does he know that was bullshit?
   “You weren’t gone long,” he continued, trying not to press. “Did something happen?”
   “I did everything I needed to do. I…returned a favor.”
   “Ah, so you went to go see them? What happened? I thought you weren’t friends with them anymore?”
   “Believe me, I’m not. It was just something I had to get done before I moved away and my whole life started.”
   “You know, Paige, you keep saying that. But you’ve been living your life all along, you’re just starting a new chapter. You’re still gonna be you.”
   “God, I hope not.”
   “Don’t say that.”
   “I’m serious. Because if I go off to college exactly as I am now, then I am screwed.”
   “What? Ambitious? Clever? Hard working?”
   “Gullible. Inexperienced. A pushover. All this with those guys, the fact that I actually fell for all of it–I mean, I knew the kind of guy that Kellan was, but it was like any sort of affection he would give just made me fall to my knees in gratitude. I don’t mean–”
   “I know what you meant.”
   “And I just let them lead me around and get me to do things that I wouldn’t normally do and sometimes didn’t even want to do. I drank, smoked a joint, skipped class and all for a group of people who weren’t worth my time and just laughed at me behind my back thinking I was so pathetic. Constantly trying to please people no matter what. I’m just glad I wasn’t stupid enough to actually do anything with either of those guys or get a tattoo or piercing or something.”
   “Yeah. It’s your body and everything, but…that would not have been a good look for you.”
   “What do I do? I mean I can’t go back to just following mom’s plan for my life, I’ve done, seen, and learned way too much, and a lot of that’s just about myself.”
   “And what have you learned?”
   “That I don’t know what I want. I don’t know who I am. But I know that I don’t wanna be this. Somebody’s doormat. I mean, I know you love her, but let’s be honest, if something’s not done her way, then you may as well be committing a crime. But how do I…how do I go to a whole other state where I don’t know anybody, where there’s no one to tell me what to do? Up until now I thought that was a pro, but now…I mean how do I make friends, and after this? How do I trust anybody? Myself? My judgement? What lesson do I learn here? What do I do?”
   “Okay, stop that. Alright?” Judd paused for a moment, forcing me to realize that I was rambling in a panicked voice. “Do you have any idea how many bitches I’ve dated in my life?”
   He had a roster of bitches to his name and my mother was a step up? Then again, he’s a provider with a good job, not her snot nosed, disobedient, ungrateful daughter that she constantly needed to fix. The trick is to just look at it from her perspective. 
   “Do you? Have I ever told you about all the awful women I’ve dated? Have I told you about all the terrible friends that I left behind? How many bad friends and girlfriends I took back because I was naive and stupid–and, to be frank, circle of trust here, horny? How much torture and abuse I sufferred just because I was afraid of change after having invested so much time into this one relationship even if the person bugged the shit out of me? Young lady, shitty people, annoying people, selfish, arrogant, egotistical people who are users and aren’t in a state of mind to be much good to anyone are all a part of life. They are as much a part of life as eating and working for a living. And part of contending with the people in this life who act that way is to be able to spot them, to sniff the air and know when they’re gaining on you. But if you’re already ensnared, you look for the warning signs when it’s time to cut the cord. Now, I don’t know all the details, and how much I know is entirely up to you, but I’d say you learned quite a few hard lessons this past year. I’d rather you didn’t have to learn these things, but alas, you do. And all the words of wisdom I can offer to you is don’t stop going out into the world and don’t stop giving others your heart. But be sure to only give them little pieces at a time, never all at once, you understand?”
   I did understand, but I couldn’t tell him. In fact, I had to look away from him because I thought if I made eye contact then I was gonna start crying. Stupid Judd. He always said the exact thing that I need to hear no matter the situation, like when I’m sitting right in front of him feeling stupid for letting myself be had by a group of drugged out losers, doubting myself and considering not even going to college because of it. Now I felt like a weight had been taken off my chest. 
   I’m still scared shitless, don’t get me wrong, but I feel a lot better. 
   But there’s still some things I have to do before I go.
   I look up at him and say, “Thanks Judd. Hey, I have to ask you something–and this has to just be between you and me, please don’t tell mom. I think it might really help me.”
   “What is it?”
   I might be a masochist, or maybe I’m just on a roll and wanna keep it going. Either way, this needs to happen. It’s had to happen for a while, I was just too scared. Too scared of what might be said. But this time it’s different. This time I’m not standing alone.

    He said that he’s gonna show up, but to be honest, I really don’t know what he’s gonna do. He’s never been very predictable or reliable, I don’t know why he’d change now. 
   I feel stupid for coming here, to the mall where we would come during one of those stupid ‘better periods’ of his. I would get pretzel bites and a side of mustard and he would get a churro, which I bought for him and was now sitting on a napkin in front of the empty chair in front of me in the middle of the food court. I mindlessly take another pretzel, dip it in the mustard and pop it in my mouth. They’re still warm at least.
   It’s been a week since I asked Judd to find him and for him to get in contact with us. Judd had offered to come with me, but I told him that I preferred to do this on my own. He gave me a hug before I drove off and came here, mentally going over the list I made last night of all the things that I’ve always wanted to say to him and trying to rehearse the conversation as best I could.
   “Hi Paigey,” said a voice from above me.
   I had gotten so caught up in my thoughts that I didn’t even see him come towards me. John Turner had been a handsome man when he wasn’t drinking. Clean shaven, dark brown hair always cut nice and neat. He apparently put in some effort for this meeting as he was wearing a black t-shirt tucked into blue jeans. I had almost been tempted to dress up for this, too, but then I thought, why the hell should I?
    What’s worse was that he was also holding…oh God, is that a bouquet of carnations? My birth flower. I have a hard time reconciling this man who I saw so much more rarely than the thick bearded, unwashed junkie who was always coming in at all hours of the night picking fights with my mother over, well, anything really. Maybe they were happy at some point in their marriage, but I have little to no recollection of that. And the worst part, he looks hopeful right now.
   “Hi,” is all I can say.
   I use my foot to push out a chair for him while I keep my arms crossed over my chest. He seemed to take the hint that we weren’t gonna hug and I wasn’t going to take the flowers, tried to hide his disappointment with a quick smile, sat in the chair and scooted forwards. He noticed the churro and his smile got a little wider.
   “You remembered our mall snacks,” he beamed a little. I didn’t reciprocate.
    “I thought it might, I don’t know, be a good ice breaker,” I said with a shrug.
   “Well, I was surprised when you said you wanted to meet me.”
   “Yeah,” I responded in a dead voice. “You look like you’ve been doing a lot better.”
   “I am,” he said, looking very proud. God, this was so sad. The part of my mother that lives within me wonders if anyone who sees us knows how sad this is. Can feel how awkward we are around each other. “Did you get the flowers I sent you for graduation?”
   “Mom tried to throw them away, but Judd stopped her. He thought I had the right to know that you sent something. In fact, you owe him a thanks for a lot of things, one of them being if it weren’t for him, she definitely would have thrown away everything you’ve sent.”
   He nodded and forced a smile, but I could tell that at the mention of Judd’s name his stomach twisted in knots of jealousy. At least, I assumed it was jealousy and to a certain degree, kind of hoped. 
   “So your mom and her new husband, they’re still…going strong, huh?”
   “Yup. He makes her happy. I’m pretty sure he’s the only one who can do that.”
   “Yeah, she uh, that’s great. So, are you gonna transfer somewhere in the fall or…?”
    “I got into Emory. Got all the scholarships, the grants and loans that I need to make it happen.”
   “Oh. Wow, that’s…that’s an impressive school. Then again, you always were a focused little thing, weren’t you? That mom of yours always did the hard work of keeping you on track. But I always thought that you were dead set on going to her alma mater.”
   “It can’t really be her alma mater seeing as how she didn’t graduate,” I reminded him. I thought, not for the first time, that if she had graduated from college, I probably wouldn’t even exist. Those two definitely would never have gotten married and who knows? Maybe mom might have actually been happy. I can’t really imagine where he would have ended up. Probably right here with a completely different girl that he abandoned for drugs and alcohol.
   “I guess not,” he ceded. “So, what are you thinking about studying?”
   “John,” I say with a groan. Time to rip the bandaid off. “Look, what mom did, or tried to do–”
    “I never wanted to leave you–” he tried to insist, but I’m not in the mood.
   “Well you did. Very easily, from what I remember. You couldn’t get out of there fast enough. She was wrong about trying to lie to me about you not wanting to see me, that wasn’t her call, but you were the one who left, that says everything. And you did it for…for a handful of happiness, that’s what you used to call it, right? Happiness in a bottle? Yeah…every time I was out of step or did something she didn’t like it was always ‘that’s your father talking, Paige.’ Yeah, I used to sit on that couch with you and listen to you bitch and moan about what a ball buster she was, well let me tell you something, I took your place on the whipping post after you left. And she was relentless. She was so scared I’d become a mini-you that I could never make a mistake. I had to be perfect all the time, which left me no room to feel bad about the fact that my father…
    “Look, it’s nice that you tried to talk to me, nice that you tried to stay in touch in your own way, but my address didn’t change all the years you were away. You just handed over full custody, she didn’t even need to look up a lawyer. Do you know how shitty that made me feel? Look, I’m gonna move in a few months and I just…I need you to know that it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair what she did and it definitely wasn’t fair what you did. It wasn’t fair that I had to grow up the minute you checked out. You took a lot of time, chances and experiences away from me by doing that. So…this is goodbye. Who knows, maybe you’ll get your shit together, maybe I’ll be less pissed about this when I’m older and I’ve gotten a decade and a half worth of therapy under my belt. Maybe I'll feel differently, but for now, I don’t want you in my life. And I don’t wanna think about you. And I don’t want you or your shitty decisions hanging over my head anymore.”
   This surprises him. He thought that I wanted to have fun daddy daughter time. But the truth is that I didn’t come here to reminisce, to bond, to hear him out, to learn how many chips he does or doesn’t have now, to forgive him, I came here to get rid of him once and for all. For a clean slate.
   “Paige,” he says softly, trying not to look as torn up about this as I can tell he is. “Why did you ask me to meet you here? In person?”
    “Because I needed to say it out loud to your face and not to an empty chair.”
   We sit there in silence for a little while and there’s something heavy in the air which makes me feel like I’m burning a bridge that I shouldn’t. But then I look at him and remember that this person is a stranger to me, isn’t good for me, and thinking about what might have been, trying to recreate it, trying to hold it all together will most likely hold me back. This is the right thing to do. I only wish I felt a lot more triumphant about it now.
    “Thanks for meeting me,” I say honestly. “And I’m glad you look like you’re doing good. Please stay good for as long as you can. Or don’t. That's entirely up to you now. Goodbye John.”
    And before I get any second thoughts, I stand up and walk away. It’s only after I get a few steps away from him that it occurs to me I left behind my pretzel bites. I’m tempted to turn around and go back for them, not wanting to waste any food. That’s what I regret leaving behind, the food and not my father. Well, if there was any doubt in my mind that I did the right thing…

    Somehow I only start crying in the driveway when I get home. Despite everything, I did love my dad, but he was a chore. I didn’t know much, but I know that love, real love isn’t constant misery and pain and waiting for the good moments to eventually come if you work hard enough and constantly accommodate the other person’s needs. I’d come to learn that the people in your life who love you, who really love you, who are there for you and will look after you with no ulterior motive or intentions to manipulate you, it’s still work, and they’ll still disappoint you and won’t always make you happy, but the misery is rare and it’s minimal. There are bumps in the road that are a blip in your overall story. Everything else, every other day with them is worth it. That was the question I needed to ask myself when I started my new life, I realized, is it worth it? And if my immediate answer wasn’t hell yes, then that said everything.    
   And as I walked into my house, I saw Clancy and Eva sitting at the kitchen table with Judd. He told them what I was doing today. Told them that I would probably need moral support. God, I would not cry. There’s no way I would cry.
   They all got up to envelop me in their arms, allowing me to keep my face hidden from all of them and only then do I cry. 
   Worth it. 

    My mom eventually found out about Emory–obviously. She heard it through the grapevine and was not happy. She was so unhappy that she did this thing where she didn't speak to me. In the past, before my big epiphany, I would beg her to talk to me again, bend to her will, insult myself–anything, really. Well, not this time. I’d come too far. I am gonna talk to her, I don’t really care if she responds.
   “Hey mom,” I say as she sits on the couch in the family room reading a book. She might not actually be reading it, she just wants to make a point of ignoring me. Who knows. Who cares? “Look, I’m gonna be leaving any day now, for Emory. I am actually sorry that I lied to you, or rather I’m sorry that I had to, because let’s be honest, you wouldn’t have taken it well. You're not taking it well. You never do whenever I force you to see just how different we are. Or maybe it's how similar I am to dad–when he was sober, anyway. We never talk about what he was like when he was sober. It’s always nothing or just a brusque description of all the bad, stupid shit he put us through. He did love us, you know. It was a shitty, selfish, only when it was super convenient for him and no one else kind of love, but it was love, and believe it or not, I do take some comfort in that. You had no right to let me think that he wanted nothing to do with me. That hurt me. That feeling of abandonment and unworthiness did something to me that I’m gonna have to work really hard to correct, starting now, and I really hate you for that. I hate you for a lot of things, but that especially stings. 
    “I know why you did it. He stole time and money and energy from you and you wanted me to hate him as much as you did and didn’t want to risk me thinking of him as ‘the nice guy’ while you had to dole out discipline. But I would have figured it out. I already have figured it out. I also know that you did the exact same thing with me and Judd. Whenever he tried to stand up to you or defend me or side with me, or tell you not to talk over me you would just say ‘oh yes, I’m always the bad guy, I always have to be the bad guy, but you always have to be the nice guy. You think I like having to be the bad guy?’ But you know, I’ve discovered, through you, that while some people do actually get forced to be ‘the bad guy’ and it’s not fair, some people, like you, do all this complaining about how everyone else gets to be the nice guy, then you get your chance to be nice and kind and turns out, you’re not as well equipped to be ‘the good guy’ as you like to think. You are not nice, mom. You’re not nice to me. You have sacrificed a lot, you have lost a lot, and I’m sorry, that was really unfair, and I don’t know a lot of your story still, but I know that I did not kill your dreams and it’s not my job to make them come true for you now.
   “I have never met anyone in my life who sees themself as both a complete victim and yet worthy of on-your-knees praise and gratitude. I would like an apology, but I recognize that you’re neither mature nor compassionate enough to give me one. You think that you have no flaws and everyone else needs to change, but that’s not true. You need to change. You need to do better. I’m gonna go out there and I’m gonna figure out who I am. You might not like it, I know you don’t like me now, and that sucks, but that’s your loss. And you’re gonna miss out on something spectacular, and that spectacular thing is me. I am spectacular now, half formed, having barely lived, and I am still spectacular. I feel so sorry for anyone who can’t see that. My real friends see that. Judd sees that. And others are gonna see it, too. I’m gonna live. I’m going to embrace and enjoy every chance, every mistake, burn through some bad guys and shitty friends, but I’m gonna do it all my way. I’m gonna do it all. And when you’re ready, if you’re ever ready to rebuild this, whatever it is, in a way that works for us both, I’ll be ready to take your call. I won’t be waiting by the phone, but I’ll be ready. Thanks for all you’ve done mom. I love you.”
   I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, walked out of the room, went back up the stairs and started to pack for college. I don’t know if she’ll ever call, I don’t even know if my little speech moved her or will inspire her to change, probably not, but like I said, it’s her loss. Plus, it doesn’t really matter, it’s not like I’m alone.

    On the day we all left for college, Judd took me, Clancy and Eva out for milkshakes and steak fries. Mom had to work and was gonna miss seeing me off. She said it couldn’t be helped, but I’m not sure and frankly, I’m not gonna waste a whole lot of energy overthinking it. Everyone who mattered to me and truly loved me was right here to wish me luck and for me to wish them luck. To be honest, throughout all of this, one thing that really disappointed me was that I never really found out who the real Paige Turner was underneath it all. I saw her as this chained up thing that was just waiting to be released the second I gave her permission to come out, but I feel, not the same, but not all together different. 
   But, maybe that’s okay. Because there’s a lot that I do know for certain now that I didn’t before. I know that I am worthy of love. Real, honest, monogamous, dedicated, emotionally vulnerable, but ultimately at the end of the day, safe love. Paige Turner–and yes, that is my real legal name for those of you who spent this whole time wondering–is someone who is funny, beautiful, tough, intelligent, kind, independent, compassionate, a good daughter and a good friend to have in your corner. She’s thoughtful, she’s fun, she will have a line of guys ready to fall at her feet, even if it’s not all at once, and they are all gonna wanna get in my pants, which, apparently is actually very important to me. And I’m gonna be okay, I really am.
   But the most important thing that you need to know about me is that I am utterly, totally, deeply and truly loved. And the people who love me, utterly, totally, deeply and truly, they fuckin’ rock. 


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