Today is just an ordinary day. Actually, my whole life has been pretty ordinary. I work as an English teacher from seven to four, come home, feed my cat, make my dinner, watch television, and go to bed. Nothing special happens to me -- until tonight.
I get home from work and start searching for my mailbox key. Damn. I tripped over that rock again. I seriously have to think about removing it before anyone gets seriously hurt. I retrieve my mail, walk in the house, get some chocolate milk, and light a cigarette. I decide to look through the mail before dinner, which is not my usual routine. As I flip through the bills and junk mail, I see an interesting envelope with no address or stamp on it. Yet, it had found its way to my mailbox all the same. My name is on the front of the envelope. I look at it for a minute, trying to surmise its contents. Finally, I decide to put myself out of my agony and open it. At first glance, it appears to be a standard form letter. Looking through it more carefully, I see no signature nor a return address. I look at the envelope and realize that my name is the only writing that appears on it. How could I have not seen that before?
The phone rings. Sue wants to know if she could borrow my sweater for a date that she has this weekend. I tell her that I would look for my sweater and to just come over. She’d be here in a few minutes. I met Sue when I moved in three years ago. We have been inseparable ever since. I tell her everything.
I check my messages. I have 5. Another window company trying desperately to sell me overpriced but cheaply made windows and the Union leaving an automated message that they are again going to Trenton, NJ for yet another rally. Then, three hang ups. Unknown number. I’ve been getting these for a while. I have no idea who it could be. I erase all of the messages.
I toy with the idea of reading the letter while waiting for her, but notice the time. I decide to locate the sweater in the closet and start dinner. Nothing looks good to me in the freezer, so I opt to make a big salad. It’s time to start watching my weight anyway. I find lettuce, mushrooms, and carrots, but I had forgotten to buy radishes. Hoping she has not already left, I call Sue. She picks up on the second ring. I could always rely on Sue to be late. She makes up some story that her phone wouldn’t stop ringing and that was the reason for her delay, but more than likely, she had become engrossed in an episode of Jerry Springer. She says that she has radishes and would bring them with her.
Sue walks into my house ten minutes later with the radishes and a synopsis of that day’s Jerry Springer.
“I also need a Band-Aid. I tripped on that boulder again that you call a pebble and scraped my knee. I do know I’m a lawyer, don’t you? I could sue you for all you’re worth.”
“Here’s something to patch up that boo-boo Camille. Take the sweater as a down payment for the lawsuit.”
I have the sweater folded on the couch waiting for her. She flops down on the couch and proceeds to tell me about her day. She’s a law clerk in a small-time law firm. She has been attending law school for the past year part time in hopes of working on Wall Street. Every so often, her boss let her go to court to sit in on a case. She had just gotten back from court and was dressed in a three-piece suit. This particular case involved a woman who sued a car dealership because her seat belt didn’t expand as much as she did. As a result, she got into a fender bender and escaped with minor injuries, but she won the suit and was awarded a half million dollar judgment for “emotional duress”. No one in the law firm believed that she was awarded so much money.
Sue secures her place at my dinner table for the evening. This is nearly a daily occurrence. I made extra salad and she cooks the steak that was in the freezer. Over dinner, we gloss over the day’s events, concentrating on her career path and discuss her date with Derek. Basically, we solved the most important problems of the world -- again.
Sue had taken the Barr Exam twice and failed twice. As she says, three times a charm. In order to study for the third time, she decided to work in a law firm, which is what I had told her to do two tests ago. She had been at the firm long enough and learned a great deal, so she might even have a change this time; not to mention a job if she ever passes the Barr. She was set to take the Barr in the next three months.
Derek is the most promising date Sue had had for over six months. 6’2”, blue eyes, brown hair, and “a body that just won’t quit” to quote Sue. They met in the grocery store while she was reaching for the frozen peas. They saw each other again because he had a lawsuit against his neighbor. Apparently, the neighbor borrowed his $2000 lawn mower over a year ago and refused to return it. I warn Sue that sounds a bit fanatical, but she assures me that there was more to it than we knew. I want to find out more, but she had to go home to wait for his phone call. I had begged her for years to get a cell phone and become part of America, but she didn’t trust them. For all of the wonderful qualities she had, Sue does have one major flaw: She loses herself in every relationship. Derek will be living with her by month’s end.
“Believe me. Derek is kind and warm. I am so happy that he walked into my life.”
“Not to be a downer, but your dad didn’t set the bar too high for relationships. I hope Derek is good enough for you. And I will be the judge of that.”
“Oh, trust me. If I ever had any question in my mind of male role models, I can just talk to my mother. In fact, she just called yesterday.”
“I knew something was off with you today, Sue. What did she have to say?”
“With my birthday coming up, she always gets a bit, shall we say…nostalgic? That can’t be the perfect word. I think of nostalgia as something positive.
Anyway, she reminded me, as if I needed any reminding, of my father’s personality, for lack of a better word. I just wish she would go to therapy for once. This birthday ‘present’ isn’t anything I need or want every year.”
I know what is coming. We have this discussion every year. As much as Sue’s mom needs to talk about this, Sue needs it more. And, she needs someone to listen to her. So, I do.
“For the first twelve years of my life, I watched as my father cheated on my mother with numerous women, got drunk, and verbally abused her. He would constantly tell her she was a ‘piece of garbage’ and ‘so hideous looking that he couldn’t stand to touch her’. If she had gained weight at all, he would call her ‘a fat cow’ until she lost five pounds more than she had gained. By the end of the marriage, she had become anorexic.
“My father wasn’t much nicer to me. He couldn’t walk past me in the house without calling me ‘a mistake’ and he never complimented me once in my life. He never said he loved me or was proud of me. He never passed up the chance to tell me that I was a disappointment to him and he was glad they never had any other ‘leeches’ to pay for. In fact, my mother had gotten pregnant when I was two and my father made her have an abortion, telling my mother that he wasn’t going to pay for anything else that ever came out of her.
“Mom was not the strongest woman I had ever known, to put it mildly. She had taken all the abuse and infidelity claiming that ‘at least, he never hit us’. Then it happened. A day before my twelfth birthday, my father came home from work, or more likely the bar, drunk and angry. I made the mistake of walking in the kitchen at the same time and ‘made’ him bump into me. He hauled off and slapped me in the face while muttering incoherently. My mother was in the living room, knowing not to walk in his path when he arrived home, but heard the slap. She rushed to the kitchen and scurried me upstairs to my bedroom. For the first time, she and I had a long and honest talk about my father. I said it all; phrases like: ‘You can do it’ and ‘You’re stronger than you think’. My mother had also finally told me everything my father had done to her. It was horrifying, but needed. She needed to say it and I needed to hear it. She ended by telling me how proud she was of me and how much she loved me.
“That was the last time I ever saw my father. The next day, my mother took the day off from work and filed for divorce. She changed the locks in the house. My father had put the house in her name thinking that he wasn’t going to pay for the mortgage and if they lost the house, he wouldn’t be responsible. He didn’t know that my mother had always paid for the house. She was making a good living. He never knew that, either. She worked in the courthouse as a stenographer and since my twelfth birthday, she and I never wanted for anything, especially love. My mom was the best mom in the world. It’s a shame it took twelve years to figure that out. But she still carries the guilt of my childhood with her every day. Neither of us ever knew where my father ended up, nor did we care. We were finally a happy family. We were able to keep our dysfunction, though. What’s life without dysfunction?”
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am that you went through that, but as your best friend, I feel the need to point out that you’re still going through it. You say that you wish your mom was in therapy, but I think you could benefit even more from therapy. I know someone in school who is a tremendous therapist. You may not want to use her, and I would understand. However, she has strong contacts with other therapists who could help. Stop worrying about your mom getting better. I worry about you healing.”
“I know I go through this story with you every year and I apologize, but that’s why I probably brought it up this time. I am ready to put the past behind me with the guilt and the shame and regret. I have always felt like I could have made my mother understand years before she did if I had only talked to her sooner. She wasted twelve years of her life because of me. I have to forgive myself and I am finally ready to do so.”
“Sue, the first thing a therapist will tell you is that it wasn’t your place to help your mom through your childhood. YOU were the child and SHE was the parent. I’m not blaming your mom, but I guarantee she’s not blaming you, either. She is blaming herself, which is why she needs therapy to forgive herself for putting her child through such a miserable childhood. Maybe, if you get the help you need, she will, too. I will get you a few phone numbers tomorrow. This is the last year that you will feel this guilty. I promise. And with you going to therapy and showing your mom how much it helps, you will now be helping her.”
“Mel, did you get another hang up today? I notice you erased all your messages. You only do that when you get hang ups. I remember that you had an old message from me asking you to buy milk on there for a month.”
“Yea, three this time.”
“Like I’ve said before, I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s probably just some drunk guy thinking you are his ‘bud’. He just hangs up too late, so his hang up in caught on your machine.”
Sue and I hug and she leaves. We are both drained. She has a lot to think about. She knows I’m only a phone call away, but she needs time on her own. Thankfully, she remembers to take the sweater.
I clean up my dishes and make my lunch for the next day. After straightening out my kitchen, I sit on the couch and turn on the television. Law and Order was on. Of course, it was a repeat. I run back to the kitchen to get myself a diet soda and resume my place in front of the television. I light a cigarette and start unwinding by listing the day’s actions. I remember the letter and reach for it on the coffee table.
I put on my glasses and proceed to read the letter in its entirety. It is typewritten. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I read the letter several times. It makes no sense. Apparently, I had won the lottery. I don’t understand because I never played it. I always thought about it when I passed a newsstand or 7-11, but I had decided that all it would accomplish would be to cheat me out of a dollar. Maybe my mother had played it for me? I began to reach for the phone to ask her, but something stops my hand in mid-stream. The letter goes on to say that if I tell anyone about this, the prize would go to someone else. It also states that I would hear about my prize at a later date.
It is quite late by the time I finish the letter, so I decide to go to bed. I lay in bed for a while, thinking about the letter. When I finally drift off to sleep, my last thought is that I, Melissa Keats, was about to become a millionaire.
---END OF CHAPTER ONE---
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