Chapter Nine: Phil
After excusing himself to take a call, Phil returned to the table, promising to give me his full attention. I gathered he was a workaholic. I tried to be patient as he told me his story.
Kay, (or as he called her, Anna), and Phil had dated as freshmen in high school. As Phil put it, she was the love of his life. But then she got pregnant at sixteen, and she couldn’t face going to school anymore, so she dropped out.
Phil’s parents already did not approve of Kay, and once they found out that she was pregnant, they forbade Phil from seeing her. Phil never had the chance to explain himself to Kay because he was never able to see her again.
Thinking Phil had disappeared on her, Kay couldn’t stay in South Carolina anymore, so her parents shipped her off—to where, Phil was never sure—to stay with family friends until after the baby was born. Phil never left South Carolina, hoping and expecting that Kay would come back to him with his child. But Kay never came back or contacted him again, at least not really. He said she sent an occasional picture of me to him, so he was always aware of my existence. I could tell by the way he spoke about Kay that he was still desperately in love with her.
Phil never really knew why she didn’t come back, until the final letter that had arrived before her death, offering him her forgiveness. All this time, Phil had been looking for her, instead of forgetting her as she’d thought, and she would never know the truth. She had died before he could respond to letter.
Phil shook his head sadly. “I’ll never forgive myself for not fighting for her. I was just a stupid kid…” Suddenly his face brightened. “But when she told me her plan, I was so excited to finally be able to meet you and be a part of your life. Still, to get you I had to lose her, and I don’t know why she did this to me, but I guess I should be grateful for even getting that, right?”
I felt angry at Kay—for her inability to explain this all to me before she died—and at Phil—for letting his imaginary obstacles stop him from trying to be my dad. I told him so.
He sighed. “I’ve been angry for the last eighteen years, trust me honey, it’s not worth it.”
I tried not to groan as he checked his phone again. “This is so fucked up, Phil.”
“I know it seems that way, but, we’re here now aren’t we?”
I nodded. “I guess so.”
“Look. I want to invite you and your friend…boyfriend over to my place. I have room. You can stay there for as long as you want. Please, stay for awhile. There’s more we need to discuss.”
I nodded. “Okay. Thanks Phil. Just let me go find Dane. Can we meet you there?”
He gave me his address and told me he’d meet me there after swinging by the office first. We awkwardly hugged goodbye, and I went in search of Dane.
I spotted Dane from a distance, pacing back and forth along the beach, near the edge of the water. I could’ve gone over to him right away and told him it would be okay, but instead I leaned against a tree and watched, grinning at the way he moved his arms around, like he was arguing with an imaginary person.
Eventually, I snuck up behind him. He started and looked around him before his eyes settled on me. “Where’s Phil?” he asked, suspiciously.
I kissed him as close to his nose as I could get on my tippy toes. “Dane, baby, everything is okay. Now let’s go.” I started walking away and he pulled me back by my hand.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Isabelly. Where are we going?”
I frowned at the nickname he had used once before and I had forced him to never say again under threat of death. He was obviously rattled if he was trying it out again. “Phil wants us to stay with him at his place, so we’re going there now. He has more to talk to us about. And I’ll explain the rest in the car.” Phil’s black sedan sat waiting for us at the top of the sand.
“You’re going to the house of that asshat? Are you serious?”
I groaned. “Ugh, Dane, come on. Yeah, he’s not what I was expecting either, but he’ll explain everything, just come with me!” He protested the entire way back to the car, but I managed to drag him with me.
Dane was silent after I finished filling him in on Phil’s story, as we pulled up in front of Phil’s house. I poked his cheek until he looked at me.
“Dane, what is it? Aren’t you happy for me? I found my fucking dad for Christ’s sake!”
He shrugged. “Yes, of course. That guy just kind of weirds me out, is all. I don’t trust him. He’s not good enough to be your dad.”
I sighed. “Just give him a chance, okay? If I am then so can you.” I kissed him roughly, until he had to push me away so we could go inside without looking like we’d just come from an orgy. The car windows were slightly steamy.
I knocked on the door of Phil’s beautiful Victorian house, slightly perturbed that he had found a way to be relatively successful in his life despite me. In all fairness, it probably wouldn’t have happened with me and Kay in it. He was only sixteen, the same age as me, and I could never imagine having to deal with myself at that age.
Phil wasn’t married nor did he have any other kids, but he did have a long-term girlfriend. I wondered if she knew that Phil had been waiting for Kay to come back since the day she left.
A woman with blonde hair in a tight bun and a business-type suit opened the door, smiling tightly. I thought maybe she was a lawyer, in case we needed to sign some sort of agreement, but she introduced herself as Valerie, Phil’s girlfriend. She brought us into an immaculately clean and tastefully decorated living room, not a strand of fabric out of place. She seemed nice enough, offering water at the exact appropriate time, but was otherwise non-descriptive. She looked like every other attractive business women. Not someone I would have pictured for my dad, the man who claimed to have loved Kay, a woman so unorganized and classless that she would walk into an office building and immediately be escorted off the premises.
We made small talk while waiting for Phil to arrive and I tried not to notice how visibly uncomfortable Dane was beside me. After some time, Phil finally arrived, rushing over to us, spewing apologies. He sat down, out of breath. He immediately got around to what he said we needed to discuss, going into another room to get something while Veronica or Valerie or whatever her forgettable name was shifted uncomfortably in her seat and mentioned the weather. I realized now why Phil never got over Kay. She was the only small fire in his otherwise damp and dreary life.
I asked Valerie if she smoked weed and she choked on her water. Phil entered the room behind her and stopped, trying to hold in a laugh. Valerie excused herself and left the room. Phil pretended to be serious for her and smiled when she left.
“You have a joint on you?” he asked. “Valerie never lets me smoke.”
I checked my pocket and nodded. Elaine’s little baggie still had a few left. I looked at Dane and we both smiled, remembering the little green house.
We followed Phil as he escorted us onto the deck at the back of the house. He had a package in his hand that I was curious about, but he waited until we had lit up and passed it between the three of us a few times before mentioning it. He handed it to me. “This is also from Anna.”
I handed Dane the joint and took the package from Phil, ripping it open. Inside was a handful of those purple flowers she liked, dried and pressed, a letter, and another smaller, thick package. I held the flowers, and stroked their dried petals, tucking one behind my ear. I opened the letter:
So, you met your father. I know it’s not the most ideal way, but I wanted to make sure you had someone else in your life you could trust. I’m sorry I never introduced you before. I had my reasons, reasons that you will probably never understand. But trust me.
He’s a good man. At least, I hope he still is. I mean, he gave you this, right? He could easily not have.
So, to make up for my transgressions/lies, I have left you with a means to live your life the way I always wanted you to: better than I did. You’re going to do great things, my little Cookie, I know it. Make your life something special. Don’t fuck it up. I love you.
My hands trembled nervously as I opened the smaller package. It was two giant stacks of neatly banded bills. I stared at the money, so confused, so stunned, and so sorry for everything Kay must have gone through to make this happen. The amount of times she had had to prepare me for eviction, just in case. That wouldn’t have even been necessary if she had just kept this money and told me about Phil in a normal, non-dramatic way. She was ridiculous. Amazing, but ridiculous.
We talked about the gift for awhile, and paid homage to Kay by eating the stale pot cookies we had brought from the house no longer marked #19. We all agreed that our lives were less now that she was gone, but that we would never forget her and her crazy antics.
Phil asked how we had ended up getting to South Carolina, and I told him the whole story—including the train hopping—to which he responded by looking at Dane suspiciously, if not mildly impressed. I tried to ignore the heated looks they exchanged between themselves.
Eventually, I changed the subject, trying to lighten the mood. I asked Phil the question that was burning a hole in my brain since we walked into his perfectly decorated house.
“So, Phil, what’s up with Valerie? She doesn’t really seem like…your type. Not that I know what your type is but…”
He chuckled and passed Dane the joint. They both had slowly relaxed. Phil hadn’t even checked his phone in a few minutes. “You don’t really know me well enough to ask that, do you Isabelle?” he quoted me from earlier at the restaurant. My face burned with embarrassment and I was about to apologize when he cracked up. “I’m kidding!” He coughed himself into another fit of laughter. I laughed nervously.
“Well, um,” he continued, “she’s not what she seems. She is actually a very warm, fun person. You just have to get to know her. Honestly though…” He paused, distracted by a small rabbit hopping across the back yard. “Honestly…I needed a break from your mother, and always trying to find women like her to replace her. Too much pain and uncertainty. I’m not a young man anymore, I need someone who I can predict, someone who has a plan in life.”
I thought I knew what he meant. Kay was erratic and definitely unpredictable, and she never made a plan for anything, until now. She was a low-level drug dealer, surrounded by broken people and raising me, at such a young age. She didn’t exactly live a normal life.
“Are you happy with her, though?” I had never given much thought to my father before, but now it was crucially important that my one remaining parent was not a lost cause.
He smiled. “Of course, in our own way, we are happy.” That was good enough for me. He seemed to suddenly remember something and excused himself. “Probably should go check on her, though. She might not be taking this all that well.”
I smiled and watched him hustle back into the house. Dane took my hand and I looked at him. He had a dopey weed-induced smile on his face. “I guess he’s not so bad,” he huffed.
I shrugged happily. Phil re-emerged from the house with Valerie in tow. She had removed her suit jacket and had taken her hair out of its bun. Her loose locks made her seem marginally less frozen.
She sat in the chair where Phil had been sitting, smiling stiffly at myself and Dane. I offered her the joint and she refused. She gave Phil a look and he agreed with a nod, refusing as well.
We chatted for awhile, filling each other in on our lives. I gave them the highlights about my life in Detroit, keeping my stories innocent and based around Kay, saying nothing about the Flower Garden. They didn’t need to know about those kinds of things.
Dane talked about me, mostly, and Kay. Things that were relevant to all of us. No mention of being a killer or anything else incriminating. Although he did mention that he had worked as a construction worker, back in Detroit, which I didn’t know. I guess I never really considered that adults had jobs—real jobs—unlike Kay.
Phil was the CFO of some giant corporation and Valerie was also something corporate, no surprise. They had met by chance at a conference years back, and I don’t know, I guess it was kismet because they were immediately smitten.
Once Valerie loosened up a bit, and started talking, especially about Phil, I could see that deep, deep, deep down there may be more to her than I thought, although I couldn’t figure out if it was charm or malice.
Eventually, we retired for the night, and as I told Dane before falling asleep, everything was going to work out for us. It was finally going to be alright. This could be where we belonged.
I should’ve known that nothing in my life thus far was a product of my own intentions. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was unwanted in that perfectly symmetrically styled home. Maybe Phil wanted me there in theory, because he loved coming home from the end of a day’s work and asking how his daughter was, but he was also mostly absent, just as he had been my entire life.
Phil worked a lot. So much so, that I barely spent any time with him, and our conversations were limited to passing pleasantries. That first night should have been a warning, but I had been given a false sense of comfort and inclusion where I shouldn’t have been. I liked the freedom to spend my days with Dane, as I pleased, but it felt more like staying in a cold and impersonal hotel than staying with my father. I was desperate for parental affection, but Phil just didn’t have the time to give it to me. I tried working around his schedule, making lunch plans during the day, but each and every time, he would cancel, his secretary sending me the same impersonal email signed with “kind regards”.
I wondered if the reason Phil worked so hard was because he didn’t want to spend time with his awful girlfriend. Valerie’s personality matched the house to a tee. Whenever we crossed paths, she was nothing short of cold and hostile, especially when Phil wasn’t around. When he was there, she was mildly pleasant, but it was painful to watch her put on the act. She also worked long hours, but I seemed to always be home when she was.
“Hi, Val,” I said cheerfully as our paths crossed in the hallway one afternoon. We had been staying with her and Phil just over a week and I was trying to right whatever wrong Valerie thought I had caused her.
She stopped abruptly and turned her steely blue eyes on me. “Isabelle. I’d prefer if you didn’t address me as that—only Phil calls me Val.” She smiled tensely and tried to walk past me but I blocked her path.
“Okay, Valerie, can you hold on a sec?”
She gave me an exasperated look but had no where to go. “What is it?” She put her hands on her hips.
I swallowed, suddenly nervous to be talking to her one on one. “Uh, look. Can’t we start over? I mean, Phil’s my dad and all so we should probably try to get along.”
She scoffed. “I don’t see the point, Isabelle.”
I frowned. “And why’s that?”
She sighed, trying to step past me again, but I stopped her. “Listen, child! If Phil doesn’t even make time for me, you think he will for you?!” She froze, her eyes wide as if she’d said something she shouldn’t have, and pushed me again. This time I let her go, her heels clacking furiously on the linoleum as she walked away.
Her torment only seemed to get worse after that. One day she put hot sauce in my coffee and I couldn’t feel my tongue for the entire next day. Another time I found a small thumbtack under my pillow, which I was certain she had left there. I had dreams where her perfectly manicured hands were scratching at my face, or she was sitting motionless at the foot of my bed, staring at me as I slept, saying nothing. Dane thought it was nothing more than symptoms of an “adjustment period”.
“Dane, come on!” I moaned as we lay in bed one morning. I stared at the thumb tack where it sat on the beside table. “She’s out to get me!”
He chuckled. “Why would she do that, Isa?”
I recounted for him once again the conversation I’d had with her in the hallway. “She totally thinks I’m trying to steal Phil from her or something.”
He smiled and shook his head, not willing to believe I was right.
I tried hard to understand her aversion to me, but my only conclusion was that something was seriously off with her. Until one day, when I found something while snooping through the bathroom in her and Phil’s bedroom. She was gone for the day and I had to get to the bottom of it, find some proof.
The medicine cabinet seemed pretty ordinary: harmless prescriptions and toiletries. I looked under the sink and gasped in surprise. Boxes and boxes of pregnancy tests lined the cabinet. I checked the trash and sure enough there sat multiple used tests, all clearly negative.
And then it made sense—Valerie was baby crazy. Did Phil not want anymore kids, now that he had me? Could he have rejected Valerie’s desire to have a baby because he thought he wouldn’t need another one once I was here? Were they having baby-making problems? Or was he never around enough to “get busy” with her in the first place? Was that why she was such a cruel and hateful ice queen to me? I resented that she was taking it out on me, instead of Phil, the one who was actually involved.
I decided to confront her, against Dane’s advice. He didn’t want to ruffle feathers, I understood that, but I was sure that if Valerie’s behavior continued it would end with my death— or at least the death of my relationship with Phil. I went to the kitchen later that night, where Valerie was making dinner and cornered her against the stove. She easily side stepped me and put on a fake and icy smile.
She took control of the conversation before I could say anything. “Isabelle, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.” She motioned for me to sit on one of the bar stools. I was caught off guard. but begrudgingly sat. Did she know I’d been snooping?
“It’s time for you to move on. We think it’s for the best. Phil and I can no longer support you here.” She busied herself with chopping onions while delivering her news, not once looking me in the eyes.
I sat there, stunned, watching her slice and dice expertly. “Is this because of the pregnancy tests? ’Cause it doesn’t seem fair that you’re taking your issues out on me.”
Surprise fluttered across her face but she quickly regained her composure. “Phil will agree with my decision, he always does. I know he’s your father, but he never wanted you in his life, let’s face it, Isabelle.”
My throat grew tight with anger. “Are you serious? What the fuck is your problem?!” I jumped up and tried to get her attention but she still refused to look at me. “I’m going to call Phil, this is bullshit.”
“You can try, but I guarantee you’ll never get a hold of him. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure he knows that you decided you didn’t need him anymore. No need for this to be more dramatic then it has to be.” She gave me a cruel smile and turned to the stove, her back to me, and I took that to mean that I’d been dismissed.
“He’s never going to have a baby with you!” I spat, and took off running towards the stairs. Something whizzed by my head and splattered on the wall beside me. I stared at the onion as it slipped down the wall.
“You’re a crazy bitch!” I screamed, and ran up the stairs to find Dane. He was reading on the bed and looked at me with confusion when I burst into the room.
“Dane! We have to go. Valerie’s crazy. Seriously. We need to go, I don’t wanna be here anymore.”
He laughed. “Isabelle, you’re being ridiculous. Those other things were an innocent mistake. We talked about this.”
“She threw an onion at my head, Dane! And she basically told us to leave. So, we have to go. Now. Please.” I motioned towards the door.
He got up and I led him down the hall, pointing to the wall near the stairs where the onion lay splattered on the floor. “Holy shit,” he whispered.
“Now do you believe me?”
He pulled out his phone and dialed. “We’ll talk to Phil.” But there was no answer, and it just kept ringing and ringing. He hung up. “Fuck.”
“We’ll try him again later, but we should go now. I seriously am so sick of this shit. She’s fucking crazy! Let’s go.”
Dane told me to wait, and he went downstairs to “talk some sense into her”. I started throwing our things into bags, including a few of the tacky decorations made to make the guestroom seem welcoming, but not welcoming enough to encourage long stays. A few of the picture frames looked like they’d make us a few bucks.
Dane came back into the room looking like he’d been slapped, which he may literally have been. He sighed and rubbed his face like he did when he was overwhelmed. “I guess it’s time we leave, then.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Where were we supposed to go, in a city we’ve never been to, surrounded by people we didn’t know? Dane didn’t give me time to consider the lack of possibilities and instructed me to grab the bags and follow him down the stairs and out the door. Valerie waited by the door, a falsely pleasant smile on her face. She opened the door and stood still, waiting for us to leave.
I was so angry I couldn’t speak or move. Dane gently pushed me out the door and I jumped when Valerie slammed it behind us.
“What a bitch,” I said, gritting my teeth.
We threw our bags over our shoulders and walked until we saw water. We sat on the sandy beach and watched the waves as the sun set. I tried calling Phil again. No answer. I sighed and threw my phone into the sand, accepting that we were completely on our own now.
Dane tried to comfort me with a kiss. “Yenno, life is like the ocean and you are the boat. You can’t control the waves but you can always try to row.”
I sighed, too distracted to absorb his meaning. He gave up when he noticed I wasn’t paying attention.
We sat in silence as it slowly grew darker. “What the fuck do we do now?” I whispered finally.
I used some of Kay’s gift money to rent a little one room house for us on the beach. It was comically small, but I assumed we wouldn’t be staying long. Dane seemed to think otherwise, claiming he had no plans to leave. The beach suited him, and his naturally tanned face fit in well among the locals. I agreed to stay, for now, but now that my relationship with my bio-daddy had fallen through, I assumed there was nothing keeping us in South Carolina.
Over the next few weeks, Dane spent his time frolicking through the waves and getting hit on by bimbo beach babes while I daydreamed of being back in the dirty, grey and broken Detroit, back to my urban jungle paradise. I realized I missed it, and the heartbreak it caused, feeling somehow out of place on the sandy beaches of South Carolina. These deferring desires were the source of many arguments between me and Dane. I would see him lying on the beach, confidently deflecting the advances of bikini girls, feeling content, and I would try to mimic his ease, but felt like I was missing some key element.
I was terrified that if our lives became too easy, too relaxed, that I would no longer hold an allure for him and he would grow bored with me. I felt that everything that had happened would catch up to us sooner or later, and I felt the urge to run, before disaster struck once again. There I was in paradise with the man I’d always loved, but I couldn’t feel the happiness.
One night, we were smoking some pot that Dane had scored from one of his new friends on the front steps of our small house. We were getting along and slipping back into our usual banter when I felt the urge to cause trouble. “Remember that leather jacket you used to wear in Detroit?” I asked pointedly. “I miss it.”
“Isabelle…I don’t want to talk about Detroit anymore, okay? That’s in the past. We’re here now, so let’s forget about it.”
I bit my lip to keep the frustration tears from falling. “I don’t want to forget about it, Dane. That’s our home! When are you going to forget about this beachy bullshit?”
He sighed in exasperation and slammed his fists down on the stairs. “I don’t want to argue about this anymore.” And with that he jumped up and went into the house, slamming the door behind him.
I put my face in my hands and groaned loudly. Why had I done that? Was I going crazy? I needed someone to confirm or deny my suspicions. I pulled out my phone and stared at the screen, wondering if I should dial that number that I hadn’t dialed in so long, if that bridge was still standing or burnt to a crisp.
I put the phone to my ear and listened to it ring, somewhat hoping she wouldn’t answer, but also needing to hear the voice that had been such a staple in my life, not so long ago.
Julianne picked up on the fifth or sixth ring, sounding half asleep. “Julianne?” I whispered.
She squealed and a male voice in the background muttered sleepily. “Oh my fucking god, Isa! What the fuck! Just give me a second.” There was a shuffling and her voice came louder at me through the phone. “Isa, holy shit, where are you?”
I sighed. “I’m uh, in South Carolina. Long story. Sorry to wake you up Julianne, I just…needed someone to talk to.” A rush of calm flooded my body at the sound of her voice.
“Girl, what? Of course, you can talk to me! What the hell, why? What’s going on with you?”
“It’s not important, really. I freaked out after Kay, as you know, and I took off…I’m with Dane, actually.”
She screamed into the phone. I had to hold it away from my ear. “No way! You are? That’s so great! I totally understand why you left my loser brother now. Dane is your dream guy, right?”
“Right…uh, how is Sam? And how are you?”
“Well, where do I start? Uh, Sam is kind of…with Missy now. Again. I know, she’s a skank, but you totally broke him when you left Isa, sorry.”
I put my hand over my eyes and told myself I didn’t have the right to feel jealous. But I was fucking jealous. And I hated Missy.
She continued. “And I am…well…I’m having a baby, actually. With Ty. I’m due in a few months.”
I couldn’t speak. Everything was different now. “Fuck,” I whispered.
“I know, it’s pretty crazy, right? Things changed once you left, Isa. We really miss you though. When are you coming home?”
I sighed. “I don’t know. I want to but…I think Dane wants to stay here. Oh, and I met my dad. Isn’t that crazy? Things are just…fucked up. I…”
“Wow. Are you okay, Isa?”
I bit my lip. “I guess.”
“Girl, talk to me. It’s me.”
I started out slowly and nervously, but eventually it all just came spilling out. I told her everything. I told her the whole truth, completely unhinged. It was terrifying, and I wasn’t even sure if I could trust Julianne in the same way anymore, but I couldn’t help myself. She felt like home.
Eventually, I had nothing left to say. She was silent. I waited, but she said nothing.
She sighed. “I’m here. Jesus, Isa. I don’t know what to say.”
“Just tell me what to do ’cause I have no fucking idea. I think I have to leave again…I’m scared something is going to happen and…I fucked it up with Dane.”
“Girl, I have no idea what you should do either. But if running is what you think will help, well…nothing’s holding you back. And if Dane loves you like it sounds he does, he’ll do anything for you. Maybe you can come home and see your little God Baby? Oh, I want you to be the God Mother. Wait do you have to believe in God to have God Parents?”
She was rambling, uncomfortable. I smiled, grateful that the people I loved were generally easy to read. “Of course, I’ll be the God Mother! Or maybe just call me the Auntie? Pretty sure God has forgotten about us.”
She laughed and the conversation moved to simpler things, my troubles temporarily forgotten. When the lulls began to seem more like Julianne falling asleep, I said my goodbyes and promised to call again soon.
The door to the house creaked open and Dane stepped out. I got up and looked at him, waiting. He hugged me tightly and breathed on my hair. “Are…all those things true?”
My face reddened in embarrassment and I buried it in his chest. Of course, he had been listening, it was the tiniest fucking house on the planet. And then I felt dirty. I stepped away from him.
“Fuck…I’m sorry you heard all that.” We went inside and lay on the bed, lying face to face, our noses touching.
“Were you really going to leave me in the middle of the night?” he whispered.
I sighed. “Dane…I’m sorry. I just don’t know how to do this.”
“Do what? Why do you have to leave at all? So, we fight. All couples fight.” His voice grew louder.
I sat up and looked away. “Dane, it’s not that. I just feel like bad things follow me, and…I don’t want you to get caught in the middle, like you already have. I have this feeling, like something is going to happen—.”
“I mean, I can’t explain it—.”
“Isabelle!” I stopped and looked at Dane, now sitting in front of me and trying to get my attention. “What are you trying to say?”
I took his hands in my own, not meeting his eyes. “Dane, you know I love you—so, so fucking much—but things feel weird for me right now. I haven’t had a minute to breathe since Kay, and—.” A tear slid down my face and splashed on the back of his hand.
He lifted my chin with a finger. “And what, Isabelle?”
I sniffled. “And…I need time, I guess? To figure my shit out. Find some of my family, maybe? And I don’t want to drag you through it. Not again.”
He nodded slowly. “Is this because you want to go back to Detroit?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
His lips trembled. “Will you ever come back to me?”
“Yes,” I said, completely sure. “One day, I will.”
I woke up early and packed as many things as I could fit into a bag and kissed Dane goodbye. I knew I would see him again one day, and he would greet me with that same smile that put the whole world at ease. But for now, I needed to be the one protecting him. He tucked my hair behind my ear and told me to be safe and to make good choices. I smoothed the wrinkles in his forehead with my fingers and told him not to worry, and that I’d see him again soon. We never said the word “goodbye”.
I left him some of my money and took a taxi to the airport, not willing to draw it out any longer. I had Kay’s gift and her cookie jar, and that seemed sufficient enough to me.
I thought about the call I had made to Kay’s sister, Alice, the night before, after I had convinced Dane that I was really leaving. I had woken her from what sounded like a deep slumber. After explaining several times who I was she squealed in excitement and begged me to visit her before I could ask. She was the closest thing I had to Kay, and I thought it would be a good place to start.
“Of course, you may stay here, my dear Isabelle. You are welcome any time.” Her voice sounded perky and oddly formal, nothing like Kay.
As I arrived at the airport I hoped I wouldn’t regret it. Just as I was entering the terminal to search for my gate, my phone rang. Part of me hoped it was Dane, begging me not to leave. But it was Phil. I answered, wondering if his timing was naturally coincidental or if he was the master of dramatic entrances into my life.
“Phil?” I snarled.
“Isabelle! Thank god! Where are you? I’ve been looking for you.” He sounded distracted, as he always was.
I rolled my eyes. “Are you serious? I’ve been gone for weeks. Ask your psycho girlfriend.”
“Isabelle…I’m sorry, I heard that you two had a bit of a spat?”
I clenched my fists and took a deep breath. “Look, Phil. I appreciate you inviting me out here and pretending to give a shit and all, but it’s obvious that you don’t actually give a shit about me so I’m leaving. Like, I’m literally at the airport right now. So, it was nice to meet you, but not really.”
“What?” I wasn’t sure if he had even been listening. “Where are you going? I know I’ve been working a lot but come on, give me a chance, Isy.”
I cringed at the forced nickname. That was it. “Ugh, just leave me the fuck alone Phil! I gave you multiple chances and you fucked them all up, so don’t act like the victim here. I’m glad we never met before because at least I couldn’t be disappointed by someone who didn’t exist! And your girlfriend is a cunt! Goodbye!” I hung up, turning off the phone and throwing it in the bottom of my bag.
I was going to Albuquerque, New Mexico. I had never met Alice, and Kay had only mentioned her once, one night when she was baked out of her mind. I had almost forgotten that she existed. It struck me that Kay had been almost too independent for her own good. Anyone who didn’t fit exactly into her life was immediately out-casted. That left me inherently family-less.
But I was determined to find my family again. So, I hoped on the plane to Albuquerque, my hopes higher than they had long since been, optimistically expecting to find the family I’d never had.
As the plane landed and was taxiing towards the Albuquerque airport, I called her again at the number I had found after googling and social media searching every possible version of her name, to be certain this was for real.
She gave me her address, asking that I meet her there, as soon as I could. I jumped in a cab and prepared myself to meet the aunt I never knew, watching the city scape fly by out the window.
I arrived at her home, only forty minutes later. She was waiting in her driveway, clutching a bright pink purse in front of her and standing properly at attention. I wondered how long she had been standing there like that. As I walked towards her, her red lipstick smile took over her entire face, and I could see immediately why Kay never spoke of her. Already I could see the differences. Alice was perfectly manicured and primped while Kay could go weeks without washing her clothes. Alice was polite and politically correct, while Kay was sassy and said whatever foul thing came to her mind. They must have constantly been at war with each other.
“Darling!” she sing-songed, taking my hand and skip stepping with me into her house. It was small and charming, and she off-handedly apologized for the mess, although it was spotless. “Excuse me for the décor, Isabelle. It’s only a Demi Demarko design, nothing special.”
I shook my head, not knowing what she meant but knowing it was probably the opposite of what she said. The way she dismissed her possessions, it seemed like she was striving for something more, something that looked like she could afford the makeup on her face and the knock off bag in her hand. I imagined that she heavily resented whoever was keeping her from her dream.
She gave me a quick tour of her home, speaking in a sing song voice that I may have found charming if it hadn’t sounded so unnatural. It seemed like she had to remind herself to change the pitch of her voice every few words. When we finally ended up in the kitchen, she offered me a drink, to which I declined and she ignored, sitting a giant glass of iced tea on the table in front of me. She directed me to sit. Her fake peppiness made me feel strange.
She sat with me and asked a flurry of questions, about boys and school and home life, oozing enthusiasm and incredibly eager to understand who I was, as a person. I chose to tell the stories and details that seemed to peek her interest the most, such as meeting Phil, and having boyfriends. I smiled when she squealed, like a pig with lipstick on. I decided it would be best for our young and fragile relationship if I spared her details about most of my life.
We talked about Kay and the funeral, which I had missed. Alice had found out from other family who had found out from who knows who that Kay had passed. I hadn’t considered attending a funeral after Kay had gone. I knew she hated those kinds of things, and it would be full of people who never knew her or family who had forgotten her, looking to make amends after she had already gone. I knew Kay wouldn’t want me there, or for there to be a funeral in the first place. But I didn’t have a say in that, and I left before anyone could try to make me. Alice pretended to understand that, for argument’s sake.
I asked her about her life, careful to not break the prim illusion that she had so carefully constructed. She was divorced, her husband had run away with his secretary like clichéd men with psychotic wives tend to do. She also had a son, a year older than me, just recently graduated high school. I lied and said that I had been taking school at a distance, to avoid being lectured or possibly disowned.
Just then, the son walked into the kitchen, in only his underwear, yelling that he was hungry. He stopped in his tracks when he saw me, looking between me and his mother for some sort of answer to his unspoken question. He was gorgeous, and held himself in a way that showed he knew it.
Alice introduced me as Auntie Kay’s daughter, Isabelle, and him as her son, Ryan. He shook my hand, a sly smile spreading across his face. “I’m adopted, by the way.”
Alice scolded him and I frowned at my hand, which he was no longer shaking but holding longer than was necessary. Alice told him to go put some clothes on and that she would be making dinner soon. Typical mother-child banter that I had never really had with Kay. He winked at me and ran up the stairs.
We sat down for dinner later that night, Alice whistling in her little pink apron and oven mitts, the epitome of the house wife she was unable to be, without a husband to support her. It was sad, but I tried not to dwell on it. I wasn’t able to, anyways, because I found it hard to focus on anything other than Ryan’s leg pressed against mine. He wasn’t flinching at my glares, but seemed to take it as more of a challenge. I pulled away and he responded by putting his hand on my thigh.
A sharp sound caught my attention and Ryan and I both froze, mid-struggle, laser focusing on Alice, who was banging a spoon against her wine glass. She didn’t seem to be the wiser, wanting only to make a speech. She stood up, glancing between Ryan and me before closing her eyes and disappearing further into her prim and proper persona. I moved my chair farther away from Ryan and he smirked.
“Darling Isabelle,” she started, opening her eyes and pouting her bright red lipstick lips.
I gawked at her. “Yes?”
“Isabelle, we want to welcome you into our small little family, and invite you to stay for as long as you need to. How long will—? Actually, never mind, that’s not important now. We welcome you with open arms. And we are so sorry about my…lovely sister Anna-Kay. Aren’t we, Ryan?”
Ryan was focused on trying to make “sexy” faces at me and didn’t hear her. Alice cleared her throat. His head snapped towards her.
“Aren’t we, Ryan?” She gritted her teeth.
Ryan looked at her in confusion. “Uh…yes?”
“And we will treat our guest nicely and respectfully?”
Ryan smiled devilishly. “Yes, Ma.”
Alice smiled and puffed out her chest, raising her glass. “Cheers.”
We clinked our glasses and finished the rest of the lavish three course dinner with mild chatter. Ryan was forced to remain outside of arms reach of me for the remainder of the evening.