Chapter 1: “The hardest button to button.”
It was 10:30 a.m. in Tucson, Arizona. Already it was over 100º outside, even in the shade. There was a breeze, but it only exacerbated the heat, making it feel as though a giant monster were breathing heavily, in and out, throughout the entire town.
“It should be illegal to be this hot so early in the day...or ever,” Liz said out loud to herself as she made her way through the parking lot of her local community college. She was on her way to see her student advisor, Mrs. Cooper, to discuss how close she was to getting her Associate’s Degree. She was hoping to transfer to the University of Arizona in the fall.
As she walked, she passed people she had known since elementary school. They were too busy talking on their cell phones and smoking cigarettes to notice her. She entered the advisor building and was all too excited to be enveloped in the welcoming coolness of the indoor air conditioning.
Liz knocked on the open door of Mrs. Cooper’s office. She was seated behind her desk looking over some papers. She looked up and nodded for Liz to come in. Mrs. Cooper was around fifty years old. Her graying mousey brown hair was tied back into a tight bun and she wore thin gold wire-framed glasses. Liz suddenly remembered having met with her briefly the first semester she enrolled in classes. She probably should have seen Mrs. Cooper more often to make sure she was on the right track, but the days had slipped by too fast and now here they were.
“Well, Miss Okata,” Mrs. Cooper said after Liz had taken the empty seat across from her desk. “It seems you have done more than your fair share of electives, but it doesn’t look as though you have followed through on many of your science and math courses.”
Liz nodded and cleared her throat. “Yes, I’ve never had much luck with those,” she said. “I was hoping to get them all done at once.”
Liz looked down at her hands. She had attended the college for three years and chose classes based on her interests rather than what was actually required. She was starting to realize this was not the smartest plan of attack.
“Well, I see that and you will indeed have to take care of them all at once,” said Mrs. Cooper.
“So...then how much longer do I have on my degree?”
Mrs. Cooper took a sip from a ceramic coffee mug on her desk. She looked at Liz devoid of any humour. “Miss Okata, if you start taking the required courses you should have your Associate’s Degree in...four semesters.”
Four? thought Liz. FOUR?!
“But that’s another two years,” she said, more to herself than to Mrs. Cooper.
“So, you can do some math, I see.” Mrs. Cooper then smiled for the first time since Liz entered her office, pleased with the joke she made at Liz’s expense. “I suggest you not wait until the fall. They are registering summer classes in admissions right now. You can go to the registration office and get signed up right away.”
“Thank you,” Liz said quietly as she gathered up her messenger bag and headed back out into the blistering desert sun.
Heat waves were rising up off of the black asphalt as Liz made her way back to her white 1997 Buick Regal. She couldn’t imagine having to walk across that same asphalt for the next two years. It was hard enough doing it for the last three. She stopped at her car and stuck in the key. Without thinking, she grabbed the door handle and quickly had to pull her hand away as the hot metal scorched her skin.
“Shit!” she exclaimed with sweat beads across her forehead.
She was miserable.
She had lived in the desert for all twenty-eight years of her life and could never get acclimated to the heat. It was like this seven months out of the year and it was unbearable. She often felt as though the sun were resting right upon her forehead, forcing her to constantly look down. Liz took the bottom of her tank top and used it to protect her fingers as she attempted to open the door again. She threw in her bag and got into the driver’s seat.
Liz still lived at home with her parents and older sister. That night, Liz sat with them at the dinner table while the evening news was on. The top story was a local kidnapping and everyone was intrigued except for Liz. She didn’t like hearing about horrible things happening in the world, but she was thankful for the distraction. As long as her mother and father were watching the news they weren’t asking how her day was or what she planned to do with her life besides live at their house, work at a used bookstore, and go to a community college.
“Liz, did you see your advisor today?” asked her father, Sherman, as a commercial for a furniture warehouse came on.
Damn it, thought Liz.
She nodded and replied, “I did.”
“Oh, good,” chimed in her mother, Minnie, suddenly interested in the dinner conversation. “And what did she say about your degree, honey?”
“Well...” she started to answer, pushing some rice around on her plate. Sherman, a rather proud and serious Japanese man, swallowed hard and sat back against his chair. “She said it’s going to be another two years before I have my Associate’s.”
“What?” Minnie asked with utter disbelief. “But you’ve been there for three years. That can’t be right.”
“Of course it’s right,” Sherman said, trying not to sound angry, but failing. “That’s what happens when you only take Creative Writing and Theatre classes. What did you honestly expect to get with those, Liz?”
Liz looked to her sister Rachel, who in return, looked at her as if she had no way of saving her from this inquisition. Rachel was practically in the same boat.
“I don’t know,” Liz replied.
“What do you mean you don’t know? What do you want to do with your life?” asked Sherman.
“I don’t know, Dad. I’m sorry.”
“You always say that. You don’t know...Well, you’d better start knowing.”
Sherman took another angry bite of chicken and looked back at the television. Liz prayed for God not to make her cry in front of them at the dinner table. She had done it so many times before and didn’t want them to know how ashamed and foolish she felt for being nearly thirty years old, still living at home, and not knowing what she was going to do.
The news came back on with a throw to the weatherman, Donny Daniels, and everyone’s attention shifted off of her. He was a young-looking mature gentleman with startlingly white teeth. He forecasted the next five days in the Old Pueblo were going to be, “Hot.”
Well, I could have told us that, thought Liz. Maybe I should be a weather girl.
After dinner, Liz locked herself up in her room. It was the bedroom she grew up in. She had an antique wooden dresser with a large mirror that was mostly covered with stickers she had collected since she was a little girl. Along the walls were pictures and magazine clippings of movies she liked, bands she loved, and poems she had written herself. On her stereo a folk singer named Ani DiFranco was singing about love and loss.
Liz sat at her small desk with her laptop in front of her. She was typing feverishly. This was her way of escaping. She had loved writing and making up stories for as long as she could remember. If things couldn’t turn out the way she hoped in reality, at least she could write that it had. She felt powerful when she was truly inspired.
She had just started a story about a princess in medieval times that fell in love with a pauper. Liz had finally gotten them to meet and she knew how she wanted the tale to end. The hard part was all that stuff in between, the actual path of how they would get there and how to make it believable. She heard a knock on the door. Liz lifted the remote for her stereo to quiet Ani’s angst-ridden wailing and got up to open the door.
“Hey, you okay?” Rachel asked after stepping into the room and shutting the door behind her.
Liz shook her head. “Not really,” she said. “Why do they have to be like that?” Rachel shrugged because she didn’t know the answer. “It’s just that sometimes they make me feel so stupid, like I don’t already feel bad enough about myself.”
“Yeah,” said Rachel. “I can relate. I’ve been getting that from them for four years longer than you.”
“I’m sorry...for both of us, well, for all of us, really. They are great parents. They give us everything we could ever want and they work so hard---.”
“But they don’t know us, do they?” Rachel interrupted.
“No...they don’t.” Rachel took a seat in the middle of the bedroom floor and Liz joined her. “I don’t know what to do,” said Liz. “I can’t go to that awful college for another two years. I just can’t. The teachers there are at the end of their careers and they couldn’t care less about helping us learn. I can’t even imagine staying here in Tucson for another two years. I feel like there is so much I can do, but I have no idea where to start.”
Rachel nodded. “Maybe we just have to start,” she suggested simply.
“What do you mean?”
Rachel shrugged and continued, “You know, take the first step, no matter how big or small.” Liz nodded, trying to wrap her head around this concept. “You used to talk about Los Angeles.”
“So...why don’t you move?”
Liz burst out laughing and replied, “Yeah! Right!”
“I’m serious, Lizzy,” insisted Rachel. “You should go.”
“And do what?”
“I don’t know. Write...act...not be in Tucson? All the stuff you always talk about doing?”
Despite Liz’s obvious sadness, Rachel was smiling at her. She really believed in Liz, which was something Liz hadn’t been feeling much from their parents lately. Rachel leaned forward and gave her a hug.
“Thanks for talking to me, sis,” Liz said softly.
Rachel got up and started to leave the room. Just before reaching the door she turned back and said, “They might not know us, but that’s their problem, Lizzy. So, fuck them. Let’s do what we want.”
This last statement was classic Rachel and it put a smile on Liz’s face. As soon as Liz was left alone in her room she was surprised to see she was actually considering what Rachel had suggested. She had always dreamed of moving to Los Angeles and trying to make a name for herself in Hollywood.
Could I really do it? she asked herself. No way. You’ve never been there, you don’t know anyone who lives there. The idea is absolutely ridiculous.
But even so, the more she thought about it, the more excited she got, and the more it started to sound like the only decision she could make that she would be able to live with.