Chapter 53: Innocence - Uh Huh Her
“I told Biff that you attend a performing arts boarding school. You should tell him about it.” Juno tried to spark a conversation. The three of us plus Pop Pop were seated at the dining room table, waiting for Nana to serve brunch.
“I doubt he is truly interested. He would have asked me himself. But if he does want to know and he’s using you as a messenger, I purposely wouldn’t tell him because that’s an icky dynamic.”
“Thank you for watching your mouth.” Pop Pop turned the page of his newspaper, never removing his eyes from the page.
Juno narrowed her eyes at me. “Talk to her.” She nudged her boyfriend.
He visually struggled trying to find something to say to me. I grew amused by his discomfort, kicking back in my chair and crossing my arms as I watched him more intensely.
“You and June are very different people.” Was his awkward conversational pitch.
She pleaded with her eyes for me to behave myself. I relaxed my posture in compliance.
“She is more like our grandparents. I am more like our parents.”
“They have fascinating jobs.”
“They certainly do.”
“Brunch is hot and ready!” Nana carried in two large plates and sat them down on the table.
June was talking into Biff’s ear as Nana went back into the kitchen for more mountains of food. I did not pay much attention to the main spread.
“Thank you.” I thanked her the moment she lowered my vegan plate in front of me.
“You are very welcome, Millie.” She rubbed my shoulder. “I am willing to do whatever it takes to make you feel better about what that dreadful beautician did to your hair.”
I ground my teeth at the nickname and backstory regarding my hair that Nana and Juno forced upon me for Biff’s benefit.
“Question: are you in a cult like Juno, Biff?” I posed my question the moment everyone started eating.
“June. And you know it is called a sorority.” Juno growled.
“You’ve paid a fee to follow a perceived higher power’s philosophy alongside other brainwashed individuals. It’s a synonym for cult.”
“Greek life is a quintessential part of the college experience. In our houses, we have networking bases that can get us anywhere, leadership opportunities readily available, and we partake in plenty of community outreach.” Biff defended.
“Thank you for answering.” I cracked a smile.
“Why would she –“ He turned to Juno for an explanation of my behavior.
“Mill likes to test people’s resolves. She learns about them through their passions.” She rubbed his arm, glaring at me.
“Very clever. I sensed that about you.” He smiled with approval and returned to his meal.
My grandmother changed the subject when she noticed I was opening my mouth, armed with a retort. I was strategically kept out of the conversation. I ate most of my meal in welcomed seclusion.
“You used subversion to see the root of my passion, Millie. I will ask you the traditional way. What are your interests?” Biff felt comfortable talking to me after all the excuses that were given.
“Who is he--?”
“It is my name. Sam works too. Hell, you can even call me Samillia, but I am not Millie or Mill and it never will be my name. My hair color is intentional. I dye it often. Music is my life. I genuinely do hate fraternities and sororities and all of the things Nana and JUNO –“ I reminded my sister of her name. She rolled her eyes. “Have convinced you I am joking about disliking.“
“Both of your parents are very eccentric too, but there is so much beneath the surface with both of them. When they came to Harvard in November to lecture –“
“What?” I interrupted harsher than intended.
“Uh—“ He glanced between my sister and me. “They talked about their most recent work and travels. The anthropology department requested their presence –“
I threw back my chair and stormed off without an explanation. I grabbed my coat off the rack and satchel off of the living chair and hurried out the front door.
It was frigid and raining. I powered through and hopped off the porch in pursuit of my bike the moment I had my coat on my body.
“Sami!” Juno ran out onto the porch, her heels grating its wooden planks.
“Leave me alone!” I shouted to be heard over the rain as I turned the key of my bike lock.
“Where are you!?”
I pushed my bike to the front lawn and climbed aboard.
“Get inside! It is cold.” She stamped her foot. Her arms were already crossed to combat the chilliness, but I knew she would’ve crossed them a second time if she could have.
I pedaled off instead of listening to her. I biked across town to Pam’s house, the coffee shop owner I worked for, and keyed inside. She left me in charge of tending to her cat, plants, and fish while she was out of town for the holidays. She was aware of my home difficulties and graciously gave me a place to flee.
I peeled off my wet clothes and put them into the dryer before climbing to a piping hot shower to warm myself.
I sobbed long and hard as I thought of my parents’ betrayal – I was a few cities away and they didn’t bother visiting; they did not even call to say they were nearby. I always defended them -- made excuses for their absences, but they couldn’t spare a second to confirm that my dedication was worth it.
I did not leave the shower until my skin was raw and red. I wrapped myself in a towel. I dried my hair and rubbed on deodorant, which I kept in my bag. I went to the kitchen to make myself tea as I waited for my clothes to dry. I fed the animals and watered the plants as I waited for the water to boil. I ignored my phone each time that it rang. I eventually texted, “I’m at a friend’s house.” To keep them from calling the police and reporting me missing. I fetched my tea from the kitchen and enjoyed it slowly as I watched television. I called Watson once I was able to put my clothes back on, craving contact with a person that accepted me as I am.
“Hello?” His groggy voice told me he was still asleep.
“I’m sorry to wake you.” My voice was gruffer than I realized.
“What is wrong with your voice?”
I started biting my nails. “I’m fine.”
“You’ve been crying.”
“No.” I began to do it again as silently as I could.
“Where are they?”
“Somewhere. H-h-arvard in November.”
A sob escaped my chest.
”Webchat me from your phone.” His request verged on a demand.
I panicked. He had never seen me cry before. He just knew they were the only ones that could make me do it.
“I will hack it. It is worthy of a punch to the face.”
“Finn.” My lip trembled.
“Sams.” He was socially conscious enough to know to soften the harshness of his voice because I was scared.
I acknowledged his improvement by ending the call and changed the format.
I was drying my eyes when he appeared on the small screen in my hand.
“You are not weak.”
I nodded, hiccupping.
“It is okay to want your parents.”
“Y-you don’t want yours.” I dried my eyes with the help of my sleeve, still unable to look at him. I was on the verge of hyperventilating.
“You know me better than that.”
I kneaded my bottom lip with my teeth. “You would do anything for Angie because -- because she fights all battles except her own”
“And I would be lost without her. My mom plays a critical role in my life. It takes plenty of dedication on her part. She has to wring information about my life from Nicky and piece it together, hoping that it makes sense.”
Distance from my immediate problem did not keep me distracted for long. I was crying shortly after I finished lining up all of the information.
“I-It -It’s m-my fault.” It was difficult to construct words through congestion.
I nodded. “I-I push them away when they are here and plead for them when they are gone. I just --” I covered my face with my hand.
“I hate seeing you like this.”
I open my eyes and looked at him. “THEN GO!” I heaved.
“That is not what I meant. “ He sighed and shook his head. “I hate watching you blame yourself for the way they behave. They know better. Stop giving them the benefit of the doubt.”
I shook my head, tears running down my cheeks.
“And your grandparents and Juno, I hate how they chip away at you until you forget how powerful you are.” He powered through with his argument.
“You are Sami motherf#cking Elkins; you are a fiery force of nature. You are brilliant and beautiful, not something that needs to be tamed. F#ck them for trying.” He delivered with forceful finality.
I cracked a smile, drying my face with my free hand.
“It is much harder to censor when I am upset. I know you can relate.”
“Well, yeah. I’m worse than you.” I cleared my throat.
“What have they been doing to you?” He studied my face.
“I don’t think you can handle it right now. You’re on fire.” I was able to make better eye contact with him, less ashamed.
“So, my name’s Millie now –“
“No.” His face fell in disgust.
“I shit you not. Rare instance where I prefer my real name. –“
I told him about all the garbage I had been submitted to over break; most of which, especially how I felt about it, I had been keeping to myself. I missed him and our home.
I biked home when the rained stopped, which was shortly after 7pm. I walked into the house as though I had left on ordinary circumstances. The inhabitants of the house were behaving as though that was the case. I was simply asked if I was hungry. When I stated that I wasn’t, I was free to go upstairs without further questioning.
There was a letter on my bed addressed to me from my parents. I held it in my hands, tracing over the letters my mother had written. I went into the bathroom with it. I stood on top of the toilet and unscrewed the smoke detector to disable the batteries. Once I was done, I hopped down and rolled up my sleeves. I fished a lighter out of my purse and held up the letter. I held the flame up to one of the corners and the paper ignited. I kept the envelope pinched between my fingers until the flame was on the brink of touching my fingertips. I dropped it into the sink and turned on the faucet to extinguish the burning embers.
I did not feel remorse as I washed the ashes down the drain. I knew exactly what their letter said; they wrote a variation of the same one each time I was expecting them to come home and they had other plans.
I aired out the room and fixed the smoke detector.
“Is something burning?” Nana yelled from the first floor.
“A candle!” I walked to my room and lit one.
I sat down at my desk and opened my laptop. I accepted Morgan’s request for a web chat a few minutes before 9PM. Our set time was 12AM EST. SMA was our home base, our official marker of time spent.
The gang was all there -- Ryan, Nick, Elle, Izzie, Morgan, Finn, Adam, and Milo. It felt great to see all of them at once.
“5-4-3-2-1. Happy New Year!” We all chanted.
Music was played, confetti was thrown, and noise makers were blown.
“We future inhabitants have spent 14 hours in the new year. I can speak for all of us when I say it’s pretty spiffy thus far. You fine people are still in our lives.” Iz was the first person to speak once our virtual party calmed down.
“You are such a dork.” Ryan chuckled and shook his head.
“But a sweet one.” Milo sent a smirk in her direction. She nudged him, holding Dante in her arms. Adam was seated on the other side of Milo. But for whatever reason, they were using two laptops. Iz had her own window. Milo’s arm could partially be seen in it, but he was mostly in the one with Adam.
“Are they making you feel like a third wheel, Adam?” Morgan asked, genuinely concerned.
“Oh, no --” He glanced in their direction, his pleasant expressional default in place. “I think I was invited over so that Milo would stop feeling like he was intruding on whatever Elle, Dante, and Izzie have been doing all day.”
“Yes.” Milo agreed with this theory. “What have you been doing?” He asked Elle.
“She is helping me pack for Sundance. I really shouldn’t have to explain why your dog is involved.” She displayed two dresses.
Izzie held up one finger in response. She draped the dress in her right hand on her suitcase and the one in her left went back into her closet.
“Morgan has important news.” I announced. I knew she would not brag about her major accomplishment unless put on the spot.
“Oh? What’s going down, Mom?” Finn lean further back in his chair.
She blushed and looked down. “My parents are letting me interview for an art school in Japan. They said they’ll let me go if I get in.” She returned her eyes to the camera sheepishly.
We cheered her on to the point of embarrassment. She was beet red and laughing by the time we were done.
“Way to go.” Nick smiled at her.
“I still can’t believe it, you know? I sorta thought that it was a moot point, but I seriously think they are realizing that I’m growing up. I don’t know -- ” She raised and lowered one of her shoulders. “That feels like a big deal.”
“It is and we’re really happy for you.” Adam encouraged.
Her cheeks somehow managed to flush a deeper shade of red. She must have realized it because she covered them with her hands. “Can we stop focusing on me now? Elle’s the one that got into Yale AND is in the final round of auditions for a lead role in a tv show.”
“It is bad luck to talk about it too much. It has been mentioned, nothing more. Shh.“She held her index finger to her lips.
“I am thinking about switching my nickname to Millie.” I tried my best to keep a straight-face and succeeded for the most part.
“I -- what?” Nick was flabbergasted. “Are you sure? I mean -- it’s your choice, but -- wow.”
Ryan started laughing his lungs out. “Oh, I will not be able to say that with a straight-face. I can tell you that right now.”
“I am all for reinventing yourself. If it is what you feel is right in your heart. It’ll be a transition, but Millie is cute...” Izzie tried to be supportive, but her face showed her apprehension.
“Yeah, for you.” Elle shut her down. “Sweetie, no. You are Sami. A short statured boss whose name instills fear. I’m not letting you throw that away. Sorry, not sorry.” She was fearlessly honest with me.
Finn subtly shaking his head made me crack. “Yeah, no, I’m totally joking. That’s what my nana and sister have been calling me for the past week to make me more appealing to my sister’s WASP boyfriend. It was an epic failure, but pretty funny.”
“Oh, thank goodness.” Morgan released a breath I didn’t know she was holding with her hand on her chest. “I was worried. I thought you were actually considering listening to their misguidance. You’re you and we love that.”
Finn’s expression said ′I told you so’.
I visually retorted with ’Duh. Why do you think I go to you?′
‘You tell me, Sams.’ He challenged me with a smirk and a subtle raise of the eyebrow.
‘I hate you.’ I narrowed my eyes.
‘Pretty sure it is the opposite of that.’ He taunted with a smug tilt of the head.
‘You are awful enough to trust.’
‘Hm. Mostly true.’
‘We both are.’
‘Very true. Good to have you back, Sams.’ He grinned.
We had a silent conversation surrounded by our family. I needed it more than anything. I finally felt like myself.