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Mellow Out MAG
A Starbucks café mocha is made with espresso, mocha sauce, and steamed milk. On average I can fit in one game of Robot Unicorn Attack while the drink is being prepared. Clearly I'm a New Yorker if I anticipate the same quality and rapid service from Mellow Out, a coffee shop by the side of a dirt road in Marshall, Virginia. After giving my order, I managed to play seven rounds before a chipped mug was thrown in front of me. So I put away my iPhone. It seemed anachronic somehow; people were still reading the paper in this town.
Barbecue sauce clung to the table. I dragged the mug toward me. The coffee reminded me of the brown slush by the side of the streets in the city. It had once been snow. I did not pay three bucks for some high school dropout to mix lukewarm coffee with Swiss Miss. Brown lumps of feces circled the surface. I'd rather eat a napkin.
I pushed the slush away and slumped back in my folding chair. Maybe she won't show up. I felt like I'd been caught online shopping with my father's credit card – again. Nerves and guilt, discomfort and sweat. My black clothes were absorbing enough sun to drown a polar bear. Mellow Out needed to invest in some blinds, or at least a ceiling fan, because according to the weather app on my clever little cell, it was 98 degrees outside. I did not pay three hundred bucks for a plane ticket to purgatory. Neither did Tommy. I wondered if anyone would notice I'd spiked my orange juice this morning.
A red-faced man in probably a once-white tee shirt was waving at me. No, actually at a kid who just walked in. The man stood up, baring his belly, and pulled the scrawny little kid into a fatal embrace. He kissed the top of the kid's head and patted his back. They sat and laughed. The kid had a pack of Orbit gum and kept shoving pieces into his mouth until the pack was empty. Chain chewer. Just like me. I wondered how the red-faced man put up with it – the spittle that dripped down the kid's cheek as he talked and the rhythmic smacking. It put me into a trance. I'd have never dared to chew like that in front of my parents.
A rusty bell rang as the door was flung open. My eyes were fixated on the ground in anticipation. Black patent leather Christian Louboutins marched closer and closer, their deafening stomps in sync with the blood pulsing in my head. Then they stopped. Maybe she won't see me if I don't look at her. Maybe it's not even her. Her identity was unfortunately confirmed once the overwhelming stench of Coco Mademoiselle and Frederic Fekkai hair products wafted past my nostrils. I swallowed hard, but took nothing from my desiccated mouth.
“Oh don't be rude, Kiki,” she said.
You sound like someone cracked an egg on your voice box. I glanced up. Stupid. Her thin red lips were smirking down at me and those demon eyes that have been forever burned into my brain brought me back to my grade school days.
“Sorry, Mom. I guess I'm not myself today.”
She sat in the chair across from me. That flimsy table was my only protection. I didn't miss that feeling. Growing up terrified of a parent shapes you into a self-conscious adult who is equally terrified of serious romantic entanglements. I heard that on Oprah once. Or maybe I made it up.
“Well, isn't this place vile?” She crinkled her nose at the poverty-stricken rednecks surrounding us. Judgment. That's what she did best. She was cruel and harsh and her punishments were satanic. Her criticism was incessant and routine, but that didn't make it hurt any less. Being victim to her words stung like a slapped cheek, but they didn't just injure the surface; no, they sliced you deep and left you with an ugly scar to remind you of exactly how far from perfect you were.
“We aren't in Kansas anymore,” I mumbled.
“Kiki, that's a cliché. You know how much I hate clichés.”
You hate everything.
“Don't call me that. I'm not six years old anymore.”
“Clearly. And you sure do like to show it.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“Don't you think that dress is a little inappropriate for the occasion?” She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. I glanced down. I liked this dress.
“Tommy gave me this.”
I saw pain in her eyes before they returned to their playful and evil norm. “I doubt he intended for you wear it today. Whatever. How's that friend of yours? Dick, right?”
“It's Rick. We broke up.”
“Your fault, no doubt.”
“It was mutual.”
I hated her. She may have deemed herself a queen, but I hardly consider an unemployed, gold-digging virago to be imperial in the slightest. The thought of her brings back all the frustration, and the tears, and the pile of diaries under my bed that told her tyrannical tale. She had made my childhood a sob story. Sitting there in front of her, even after years of freedom, I felt no different than I had at 14. So stupid. I was so stupid to think I could finally gain the upper hand. It was the same – my palms damp, my body trembling, the dire need to smash her head in, and the disappointment in myself knowing that I never would.
“How's work been going, Kiki? Sorry. Kirsten. I don't know a thing about your life – you never bother to call. You'd never guess we live in the same city,” she said. She was twisting her wedding ring around her middle finger. She had worn it there ever since my father moved out.
I cleared my throat and grabbed a paper napkin to tear to pieces. “Work's been fine. My life's been fine. I'm fine. I quit smoking.”
“I paid for you to receive an Ivy League education, yet you're still making coffee runs. Some child of mine.”
She ignored my comment and said, “Tommy, now he didn't disappoint me. Everything I could have ever wanted from a child – that's what he was. Mind you, I wish he'd never moved out here. Oh well, he wasn't defiant, not like you were.”
“You wish it had been me, don't you?” She looked at me, confused. “You wish our lives could have been reversed – that I had died and he had lived.”
Then there was silence. I'd never heard it from her in all my life. Before, I had been deaf to every sound but her voice. Now I soaked it all in. People walking, people talking, utensils tapping plates, the radio softly playing a Keith Urban song – everything I had missed because she had stood in my way.
“If that would bring him back, then yes, I do wish it had been you,” she choked on her last words and excused herself, saying she'd see me at the church. I watched, speechless, as she straightened her black pencil skirt and left, a little more human than the way she came.
I eyed my slush, wishing it had been me too.
I didn't pay since that hovel didn't deserve my hard-earned cash. Instead, I left the slush in the middle of the table with fragments of a paper napkin encompassing the mug. There was a convenience store across the street. It reminded me of the '80s, an era I only knew through the works of John Hughes. I bought a pack of Pall Malls. The greasy haired woman at the counter IDed me and I was glad to feel young again, even if only for a moment.
I made it to the church without lighting any. Maybe hypnotherapy worked. I didn't go inside. I sat on the hood of my rented Honda and opened the Pall Malls. I took them out and grinded them against the scorching hot car, one by one. Then I let myself cook on the hood. I pretended to be a fat slab of Oscar Mayer's turkey bacon, like my mother made when I was tiny, back when I loved her.
I thought about chewing gum and bacon and the now sizzling backs of my thighs. I thought about my breakup with Rick and the lamp he took. I'd bought that lamp in Santa Fe. I thought about Tommy, and the drunk bastard who ran him over, and my newly discovered Atheism. I thought about Tommy's daughter, Clara, who'll be fatherless on her fifth birthday, and his wife, Kayla, who will never heal. My empty studio loft was looking far less lonesome. Then I thought about my mother. I wondered if she had been happy after I left home, if she did mindless activities like knitting and painting watercolors. And if she ever loved me.
When I got home I made bacon and ate it on the bathroom floor, sitting cross-legged in yoga pants and tee shirt. I counted the ducks on the shower curtain. There were 43. They were all smiling at me.
People were keeping going and the world went at its fast pace. Blogs, Twitters, and Facebook statuses were being updated. New episodes of vampire-themed TV shows were still being released. Millions were going to work, getting married, popping out suckers – all this on the day of my baby brother's funeral. I don't know. I guess I expected the world to stand still, for the snow to turn to slush, and for me to have a moment to finally exhale.
Arlington Heights, Illinois
Hackettstown, New Jersey
Hoffman Estates, Illinois
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