The last words my mom spoke to me were, “I love you, have a good day at school.”
I wish I could honestly say that I knew somewhere in the depths of my stomach that was the last time I’d see her alive. I play back the memory of my walking down the stone steps and swear, there was a twinge of finality, but I doubt its purity. The mind and emotions muddy the clarity of memories over time, and it doesn’t take much at all.
I can look back on the cloudy morning, and remember the winter chill wasn’t far from taking over entirely. My mom’s worn and freckled framed mouth twisted in a forced smile. The pain was getting the best of her; I knew that. Her eyes said it all. I heard all the adults talking even though, for some reason, they thought I couldn’t hear them. Even my kid brother knew what was happening. I wished it weren’t true. It didn’t seem right, and it certainly wasn’t fair. The truth kept finding its way in my head even though I couldn’t possibly begin to understand how much it was going to hurt.
I can still smell vanilla.
Right before going home for lunch, the office called me in, and I knew mom was gone—that, I can honestly say. The emptiness swelled in all of my new holes that were just there instantly, open and raw.
I hate cancer.
Christmas lights bathed the street in a forced cheeriness that made me want to curl into a ball after punching a lamp post. I wanted to scream. I couldn’t wrap my head around how the holidays could continue without my mom. The whole commercial twist on the holiday season uses “family time” as a vessel to sell everyone stuff. For every time, a commercial of a mom making cookies or gift shopping would air, a metaphorical knife would bore itself into my chest. I bit at my thumbnail as I crossed the street. A microscopic chip of my purple nail polish disappeared into my mouth. My eyes stayed focused on my feet as they walked over faded white lines.
I was too nervous to drive, so I walked everywhere. I did three hours of driving lessons and decided the way of the foot was for me—which for the most part fit my life fine until Glen’s new wife, Joan insisted I go to group counseling on account of all my problems. Northern New Jersey, land of the malls, had terrible public transportation. It was basically unusable—in other words—it took me three buses to get to the group which was a trek I needed to make five days a week now thanks to my being a minor and having very little control over my own well-being. By car, it takes about fifteen minutes. As a recent high school drop-out, my days were pretty empty. Glen and Joan didn’t know what to do with me, and I’m not sure they want to do anything other than getting through the next year and a half until I turned eighteen. We all know once I can be, I’m gone. At least, we can hope that will be the case.
The third and final bus dropped me in the heart of Clifton, one of Jersey’s rougher neighborhoods. North Jersey was a patchwork quilt of neighborhoods that are inside of gates that money drips off of, dirty towns that have streets lined with trash and graffiti, nothing-special collections of houses in between and the most elaborate retail assortment just all five minutes away. I felt like I was losing my mind, like I was living in a box that everyone could see but me. I had eight, long blocks to walk past pawn shops and strip clubs to a large, crumbling building that held my support group for teenagers who abuse drugs—not for ones dealing with grief. After three different therapists, my fill-in guardians decided group therapy was the best bet. This is more of an out-patient program. Having me out of the cramped house for four hours was better than one.
A woman with a black coat that hugged her slim body and nearly touched her feet tossed a paper cup into an overflowing trash can. Her eyes were on everything but the ground, her focus was on whoever she was talking into her platinum phone to. I often spend quite a deal of time thinking about how people spend their brains. As my mind flipped through her possible backstories, without decision I slid my camera out of my coat pocket, brought it to my eye. The camera turned on by my thumb during the motion of bringing the tool into position. I pull in the focus, bringing the woman closer to me. My lens is aimed at her bright red heels. I snap the picture, then zoom in on her hand that clutched her cell. I captured that, then returned my camera back to my pocket without anyone noticing. I was beginning to believe life was impossible for everyone, and I was trying to find proof of it.
The smell of the building that held group was one of the many awful things I was growing to get used to. Human beings are extremely adaptable creatures, and that will be our downfall. I stare at the people in scrubs and clean skin and play electronica music in my head hoping it makes it all less terrifying. Sometimes I worry once I’m on the wrong side of the metal detectors that the doctors will decide I can’t leave. Every day I felt less and less in control over my life. Part of me was scared by this, but another part, a part that was growing in strength, was deciding not to care—this concerned me. I wanted help, I wanted to figure out a way to not feel like climbing out of my skin, but this group wasn’t helping. Actually, I was becoming quite convinced it was causing me to get worse.
After rushed and tired hands patted down my legs, and various machines beeped indicated things I didn’t know, I passed by the guards who I wished were less intimidating. They all looked at me like fresh meat, like their thoughts didn’t end in my favor. I’m not sure if their true intentions were to hurt me, or if that was just my fear.
So much scared me.
The wooden door with thick, tinted glass in the center was propped opened. White chairs. White walls. White tile floor covered in places by white area rugs.
All the white made me feel like an experiment. The smell of bleach only assisted this feeling. All the staff wore white scrubs. When the row of workers all in white sat behind a long white desk checking people in, I felt like I’d just been picked up by an alien ray into a ship that was now my new home. Every time, I walked through the doors after writing my name on a clipboard I felt like my sense of reality was stripped away from me along with my watch and shoelaces. The oldest of the women took my sealed bag of belongings that the guards had just collected and guided me to the proper door with the extension of her finger.
I stepped into the large square room with chairs and tables spread casualty throughout the immense and sterile space. Puzzles and various games were scattered across the tabletops at an attempt to invite all the misguided youth to intermingle. Wandering around the room attempting not to socialize with anyone and avoid any scenario where I had to play a board game with any of the others for one full hour before the group therapy started. I really scratched my head how any one person could think this was a good idea. There was staff around, but they were talking to each other not really paying attention to what we were saying to each other. Not one nurse knew Robbie sold drugs to more than half of the patients, or that Margo had sex with everyone in the supply closet and used this to snag high strength pills. Nope. They collected the troubled youth sprinkled all over Northern New Jersey and dropped them into one room. I thought me going was a bad idea the moment it came out of Joan’s perfectly lined lips, but I couldn’t have possibly begun to understand how much of one it really was.
The room the held group therapy which made up the last three hours was broken into three different themes with two breaks that weren’t nearly long enough shoved in there. The room, like everywhere else was, you guessed it, all white. The longer I was there, the more unstable I became. I honestly felt like this place was breaking me, chewing at my sanity. I felt like most of the people here were rooting for me to fail. I felt exposed, and I hated it. Some of the worst, more excruciating aspects of the forced day was when everyone was sitting down right before the group started, at least, it was for me. The social interactions and forced sentences continuously repeated were worse the moment before we were all expected to bare our souls to each other for some reason or another. The last digs or pleas for friendship before Sue, the group leader, came and sat in the highest chair. I didn’t see why her chair needed to be higher up than all the others. It felt like a purposeful decision, the motivations behind a decision like that are part of pieces I have that makes me think this place isn’t going to help me. Their intention is just to watch me. I found out there was a significant distinction between the two.
I never knew where to sit. It was close to impossible to figure out what was the least of the evils. But, the idea of sitting between two people and having our arms touching was always way worse sounding like sitting closest to the group leader. No one wanted to sit anywhere near Sue. She reeked of lemongrass and patchouli. She was always touching those close to her, in the way some gestured with their hands when they talked, Sue squeezed arms and shoulders. The other unfortunate side effect of sitting close to Sue was that she always spoke to the patients closest to her the most.
I guess that’s what I was, a patient.
But, even though it was all horrible and wanted to know what I could do to be done with this torture. I ended up sitting near Sue and away from all the other patients. Their energy combined overwhelmed me to a point that made being slowly asphyxiated by Sue’s smells a better choice. I didn’t want any part of their mess or drama. People scared me. Now that mom was gone, Peter was really all I had. But, I was okay with that. I didn’t need a lot. I just needed someone to understand. He understands. Pete’s been here the whole time.
I sat with back pressed firmly into the seat hoping the friction will help keep in my seat. Nerves tended to build up in the base of my feet and more rapidly than gradually would climb up my legs. This feeling of anxiety hung out inside of me pretty much the entire I was there. This wasn’t something I attempted to explain to Glen or Joan. I knew they didn’t care. I was just biding my time. I crossed my arms in hopes of shielding myself from the world that filed in after me.
Josh who starts fires and sells drugs occasionally. Mark who screams at everyone who looks at him. Robbie and Margo came in plotting something. With every person came more tension building in my stomach. Voices clamored in the background. I reached into my pocket for my book, then remembered it was in the bag of stuff that couldn’t come through the group’s doors. I was a prisoner here, four hours a day.
It made me angry. My life was fine, good even. My mom and I had a good thing. I for one loved having a young mom. She was my best friend as well my mother. The older I got, the closer those sixteen years seemed to get. I wasn’t supposed to a troubled kid. That wasn’t our plan. I wish someone could help me get out of my way. Glen seemed to think I didn’t care or think I was a mess. But, I could, I just didn’t how to fix myself. I wasn’t sure I could.
Sue came in soaking the entire room in a thick patchouli fog. She sent my gummy smile as we walked toward me. My lung and sinuses filled with scent. I sneezed. I viewed everyone behind blurred eyes for a moment before I whipped them with the back of my sleeve. Sue sat down, folded her hands in her lap and closed her eyes.
She did this at the beginning of every group. It wasn’t praying, at least, I don’t think it was. It leaned more to the side of attempting to bring peace in the room by bowing her head and folding her hands. I guess that’s kind of what praying is. I’m not sure the effect it had on the others in the group because I didn’t speak to them but it made me want to scream in frustration. I felt insulted. Perhaps that was irrational. I’m not going to deny that.
After a few awkward moments of silence and Sue’s gray hair head bent in relation over her hands. Her pale blue eyes settled right on me like a tiger on a calf. “Elliot, why don’t you start today. We are gonna start with introductions, as usual, then please go into how you are working on you this past week.” Sue dance her hands around as words climbed into my throat and made nervous. I hated talking, especially about me and especially here.
“No, thanks,” my voice cracked. Two or three chuckles from others bounced around the circle of chairs and eyes.
“Talking is a part of the healing process. Acceptance in yourself starts here.” Sue’s voice sung at me in an annoying chipper. Words she said meant nothing to me, their eight didn’t hold up.
I pulled on the jagged edges of my newly turquoise colored hair. The tips felt dry against my fingertips.
“Start with an introduction please,” Sue said, her voice strayed slightly away from the warmth she was just projecting, as a tighter note pressed through her lips alongside the words.
“Everyone here today was here yesterday,” I mumbled as I tightened my arms around myself.
“We are expecting someone new today. They just aren’t here yet. Honestly, Elliot part of the reason we have you introduce yourself and your issues daily is to help you realize and overcome them,” Sue voices attempted to lull me into comfort, but it was anything but the case. My spine was tighter than a pirate’s rope.
“I’m not standing up,” I whispered, feeling pathetic.
“That’s fine,” Sue’s voice warned, her tone dipping down to make sure that I knew she’d like it if I did.
My hands trembled in the space between my sides and arms. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to walk out of the room. I wanted my mom. I was scared.
“Please, go on.”
“I’m Elliot Granger, and I’m a pot head.” I cleared my throat instead of being to cry. I hated being on the spot. I didn’t belong here.
“I’d prefer you say. ‘addicted to marijuana.’”
“I started smoking it when my mom was going through chemo for the first time. I’ve decided to continue to incorporate it into my daily routine. My guardians would prefer I don’t.” My cheeks felt as though they were on fire.
“A good beginning Elliot,” Sue’s voice nudged me on, “Why don’t you tell the group how smoking pot led you to drop out of high school.”
My heart smacked wild against my rib cage. I went from wanting to cry to wanting to yell. I was tired of people telling me what was wrong with me. They didn’t know. I know I didn’t, but neither did they. “No,” my voice cracked, “That’s not why. My mom died, my attendance fell behind, and I didn’t want to repeat the grade.”
Sue nodded, then quickly asked, “How have managed this problem this past week?”
“I bought an ounce of pot and rolled the entire thing into joints.” I bit my lip at the remark, then instantly worry about if any negative repercussions of that joke. “It’s a joke,” I add, although it wasn’t. I did that. Pete helped me. We listened to Taking Back Tuesday and ate three bags of chips.
“I don’t think recovery is a joking matter,” Sue warned. Her lips pursed so tightly it looked like someone shoved a bag of lemons in her mouth.
“What steps are you really taking?” Sue reached out and gave my forearm a gentle squeeze. My stomach twisted, and I decided I might take up running.
“Running,” I lied.
“Great!” Sue clapped her hands together in delight, mostly self-delight. Somehow, me saying that I have been running instead of blitzing my mind with green stuff that burns gave her something to celebrate. She’s is doing, Sue is helping troubled kids, and she can feel good about it.
God, I’m a mess.
“Anything else?” Her eyes twinkled with a hunger for more feathers to stick in her government cap.
My mind flashed to the memory stick full of pictures, every one of them a stranger. “Photography,” I added.
“Taking up a hobby like that is wonderful Elliot. I’m very impressed. I’ll have to note down this growth.”
Bells and chimes rang off in my head. It hadn’t occurred to me to play the game to get out of this mess until right at that moment.
“What is something that happened this week that made you want to digress?” I couldn’t answer this easily. I haven’t been doing anything to better myself, and now it was getting difficult to pretend like I was. This got complicated quickly.
The door to the hallway swung open. A girl around my age with fire engine red hair in a stubby ponytail stepped into our white room of panic. Her eyes wild. “I said, I could take myself,” she yelled as she swooped her arm up over her head. Her attention was focused on Frank, one of the more lechy guards. A silver ring looped through her nose, and the black eyeliner around her green eyes was thick and dark.
Everyone’s eyes were on her, including mine. Sue’s whole body tensed up in reaction to the interruption. I was delighted not to have to talk.
“And, you are?” Sue’s voice was strained. Her opinion of the patients that come in here are made in less than a second, I’ve seen it a dozen times.
“Molly,” Her voice came out short and frustrated. After glaring at Frank one more time, she stomped through the circle and plopped down right next to me.
She smelled of alcohol and strawberries which was powerful but much better than Sue’s aroma.
Molly looked at with wide green eyes for a quick second, which made me completely uneasy, then crossed her legs and arms in a sloppy huff.
“Well, Molly before you start your introduction, you should apologize to Elliot here. She was in the middle of sharing.” Sue’s eyes were drawn in a disapproving scowl.
My cheeks flamed up, and my stomach scurried into my intestines. “No, I was done,” I mumbled into my sleeve.
“We’re cool?” Molly asked me.
She turned back to Sue, “I’m not sharing. I was told I needed to be here, didn’t hear a thing about talking to you.”
“Talking is part of the healing process.”
“I don’t need healing. I’m waiting to get into art school. My monster of a mother has put me here in the meantime.”
Molly’s confidence bounced off her. Maybe, it wasn’t confidence exactly, but it was something, something I didn’t have. This little speech clearly and Sue flustered. She turned her attention toward Robbie, who was whispering something through a smirk into Margo’s ear. “Robbie, why don’t you share?”
The time during group theory, all three themes, moved slower than anything. Seconds take hours, and by the end of it, I was always completely fried. Sometimes I got to walk off my anxious to and from buses, but others Glen picked me up. Trying my best to remember which night this was as I stood in front of the main entrance to the decaying building that was now a huge part of my life. An elbow jabbed me in the back.
Molly from group was ravenously looking through her large canvas purse. “Sorry,” She said into her bag. “Those assholes stole my smokes,” Molly continued in the same tone and as over things are in her giant bag.
“I’ve heard they do that,” I mumbled back as my fingers pulled the sleeves of my sweater out of my coat.
“Do you have a smoke?” She was looking at me then, still clutching her bag. Her lips spread out in a knowing grin, “You don’t smoke, do you?”
I shake me head.
“Are you like painfully shy, or something?” Molly asked with curiosity in her tone, but nothing else.
Molly pulled a pair of brass keys from the brown bag. “Need a ride?”
“I’m expecting one,” I mumble, “but, thanks.”
“Sure thing.” Molly hitched her bag back onto her shoulder. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” She said walking toward the sparse parking lot.
Part of me wanted to shout that I’d change my mind, and run up her. But, I didn’t. I stood there watching. She climbed into a shiny, new SUV—the kind of car that looked like money—and slammed the heavy door behind her. As she disappeared in the opposite direction, I glanced around realizing I was the only one from the group still there. Everyone else was gone, off to their lives. I couldn’t for the life of me remember if Glen was picking me up or not. My mind forced itself back to this morning. Glen was drinking coffee, and saying something but I don’t know what. Brian sticking rice cereal up his nose was a better thing to spend my focus at the time. I pulled my phone from my pocket and clicked it on. It was already five past four, and I quickly made the decision that Glen had five more minutes before I started walking.
Ten minutes passed before I gave up and decided it was the plan for me to walk both ways after all. It was the walks back after group when the loneliness began to creep into my stomach. When you are used to telling one person everything, you feel like the lack of their presence every time anything happens. The night was almost in complete control. Deep blues and purples glided into one another masking the ever present clouds with an otherworldly mystique. I tucked my hands into my arms as I walked toward the bus stop, back past the bars and clubs not fit for anyone with promise. The sky seemed to be getting darker, the deeper into town I got. The harsh cold nipped at my face which only added to my suddenly overwhelming need to unravel. I tossed the idea of how I should have taken Molly up on the ride around in my head through the first bus, into the second. The need to do anything built in my chest like a troubling cough.
I bit my nails even though they were painted. The bus smelled like stale beer and vomit. Paranoia sucked. I didn’t always used to feel so nervous, so much like prey. I keep going back to the night I lost everything, but I don’t want to. I couldn’t seem to put my head together. My stomach grumbled with a reminder the dinner time was near. My feet padded noiselessly down the steps. I had this habit I was trying not to give into, but it was hard, and in moments where I felt completely lost and hopeless, I gave in. My eyes closed with relief. “Mom,” I said in my head. “Today sucked.”
I pulled in a deep breath, allowing myself to see her face as if she was there in order to feel the warmth and love in her eyes. I imaged her smooth tone, she was always so confident sounding, saying. “I’m sorry hon. Pizza and a movie?”
I laughed to myself. My mom was so cool.
The holes in chest began to swell as the bus squealed to a harsh, jerking stop. My appetite didn’t stand a chance.
Bus 716 was taking off as my feet hit the cement. I ran, yelling steadily even though I knew there was no possible way the driver would be able to hear me. Suddenly feeling like I rang the dinner bell. I clasped my arms around myself hustled through stop, deciding to walk the rest of the way home.–not my home, but a home. The place I had to put my head for now. The stop fell blocks behind me quickly. I have this theory that getting lost in thought is time travel.
I kept my eyes glued to my blue canvas slip-ons. I constantly asked myself, “Why?” I had applied that simple question to every complex thing that had happened in my life recently and found no answers, only more questions and the occasional lie. I made my way through a condensed town, one of many. Tight gridlocks of houses that are all built in such a similar syle they are nearly identical and a collection of stores down the center of it. Occasionally one of these town centers were used by multiple neighborhoods as well as the high schools. Everything was cramped and over lapping. The best place to eat in Glenwood was a Chinese, Mexican place. I personally loved getting fried rice and two tacos at the same time while my clothes did their thing in the laundromat.
I was getting used to living with Glen and his new wife, my half brother and our step sister. I couldn’t wrap my head around how messy it all has began. I can’t really blame mom for wanting to settle down.
A brown and white dog with floppy ears and a shaggy tail sat, tied to a street sign. “Hey puppy,” I said rubbing her head. There was no owner in sight. It was close to freezing outside and only going to get worse. I knelt down and rubbed her head. She looked at me with wide brown eyes. She was very kind. I pulled a granola bar out of my pocket, broke off a piece and give it to her.
She gobbled it up and sat. I told her she was good and continued to walk. My stomach clenched. My mom’s voice was encouraging the act, but I hesitated for a moment. Molly climbing into her fancy car pulled at my memory instantly filling me with regret. The sense of a missed moment tasted bitter on my tongue.
A small freckle of happiness fell into my brain.
Without much thought, which happened occasionally. My mind would turn fuzzy, then I would act. I turned back toward the dog, untied her nylon rope, and brought her with me. “Come on, Honey, you’re with me.” I scratched her head, “That’s your name now, Honey.”
Honey looked at me. Kindness flowed around her slight body. “No, it’s Matilda.” She wagged her tail. I started walking again, this time with Matilda close to my left side. I’d have to figure out how to handle this with Glen and his wife monster. I wasn’t sure, but I had to do something. I was meant to miss the bus.
Tune into next Friday for Chapter Two!