Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Twenty

VICTORIA


People get asked all the time what they want to be when they grow up. Astronauts, doctors, firefighters, baseball players. Young children with big dreams. You have so much hope when you're young, so much promise. A whole life waiting ahead.

But, all I ever wanted, was to figure out a way not to be me.

I find it ironic that my mama named me after Victoria Woodhull, who was the first woman to run for President of the United States back in 1872. She didn't win the election, but went on to do great and astounding things, and was a force to be reckoned with back in her day.

"Sometimes people aren't ready for things to change," Mama had told me, "but that just means you have to find a different door."

She had such big plans for me. I still don't know what she saw in me. She thought I was going to be someone who was going to make an impact, start a movement, stop a war. Be a revolutionary. She believed I was someone who knew how. She was convinced there was something good in me, something more, better. Worthy. That I was a person who knew how to fight and win and survive. She made it sound as if I had a purpose and a future. Or maybe she wanted me to become everything she didn't have the courage to be.

If she could only see me now.

I had my first drink at twelve. I'd found daddy's bottle of Wild Turkey hidden behind sacks of grain in the storehouse on the ranch. He had bottles of it stashed everywhere. Under the saddle blankets in the stable, behind the couch, on the shelf in the hall closet. I guess he wanted to make sure he never ran out.

I drank until I couldn't see or feel anymore, drank until the world spun, drank until I threw it all up. I didn't want to stop. I couldn't. I had a taste for it even then. The burn of it going through my system felt as if it was scorching all the bad out of me.

Becca found me in the pastures behind the house, delirious, shaking and green, crying and curled into a ball. Daddy was off on one of his drinking binges, and had been gone for two days doing God only knows what. Becca carried me back inside, climbed into the shower with me and cleaned me up, put me to bed, stayed up all night with me while I writhed and mumbled incoherently. Mama knew I was drunk but was so worried at how sick I was she never yelled at me for it.

I recovered and vowed never to drink again. And, for years, I didn't. But, I never forgot how every swallow made my pain disappear and turned me into someone strong and brave and invincible and somehow beautiful.

I never wanted to be like him, had left home to make sure I wouldn't end up the same way he did. But, some things can't be outrun or prevented. The prophecy had already been declared and decided years and years before. I wonder if it was already in my blood and nature to become an alcoholic, to end up a failure exactly like him. You can't reverse genetics and biology. It was a dark passenger I could never lose or throw off my trail. I'd dreamt of being someone else, something else, anyone else. I had wanted to be a singer since before I had ever spoken my first word.

But, I never stood a chance to be anything other than a drunk. I could never escape the curse of being my father's daughter.

I knew I had to get out. I'd die if I didn't. I managed to stash up exactly $1842 from odd jobs helping out Callie Simmons, who was a widow that lived on the next farm over. I worked on her land, watered and fed her horses, went into town for her groceries and to pick up supplies. She was one of the few who was kind to me, and every afternoon after school, she'd feed me sugar cookies and sweet tea before I'd go out to the barn.

I had spent the last few years secretly stashing items from our home I figured I'd need on the road and stuffed them into a faded blue duffel bag I hid under the floorboards of our bedroom closet. Old socks, a few pairs of underwear, bandaids, tampons, toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, a few shirts I barely wore so mama wouldn't notice they were missing from the wash. Becca knew and would keep watch while I tucked a few more dollars under the floor.

On the day of my eighteenth birthday, I was ready to run. I think daddy knew it and spent the morning swearing and slapping and shoving me into walls. As if to remind me he could still do whatever he wanted, no matter how old I was. He didn't care. I took it because it never did any good to fight back. I would just get hit more. But, this time was different because, in a matter of hours, I'd be gone, and he could never, ever touch me again.

Once he finally passed out, snoring loudly and drooling like a fat, old slobbering dog into the cushions on the couch, I gathered up the duffel bag and my grandmother Rose's guitar. I wrapped some biscuits and sausage mama made for my special breakfast that morning into a napkin, tucked them in with my other belongings.

My lip was swollen and my nose was bleeding and the pain and rage made me more determined to leave. Becca clung to me and we both sobbed, but we knew if I stayed, I may not make it to my next birthday. I swore I'd write her as soon as I could to let her know I made it safely to California. I left a note for mama while she was out in the stables and asked Becca to give it to her. I couldn't bear to say goodbye. I left the ranch, vowing I would die before I ever returned.

I rode the Greyhound as far as I could afford to, rationing the corn nuts, granola bars, and beef jerky I'd gotten from vending machines and gas stations. I hitched rides the rest of the way. I slept in bathroom stalls, rest stops, and bus terminals along the interstate. I didn't care where I was as long as I was gone. I'd wanted to get as far from Tennessee as I could, and moving clear across the United States seemed like enough space to put in between me and my past.

I had seen pictures and postcards of Los Angeles with its palm trees, Hollywood sign, and glamorous movie stars. It seemed like a completely different world than the flat, dusty pastures of the ranch. I counted every marker of all the miles we passed, feeling relief that the farther I got, the harder it would be for him to find me. I made it to California four days later. When I finally crossed the state line is the first and only time I ever felt something I'm guessing is safety. I've never really known how it feels. I've never been safe in my life.

I planned on auditioning for anything I could find as soon as I got settled. I had thousands of songs I had written that I knew would be hits if I could just get the right person to listen. I was going to bang on as many doors as I could. But, first, I needed a job and a place to live.

Searching through the classifieds, I found work as a waitress at a hamburger joint in West Hollywood. I was still young enough, pretty enough, and southern enough to charm the owner, and he hired me that very day. It didn't pay much, but the tips helped me rent a small studio above the liquor store across the street. Rats and roaches crawled along the floors, and the heat and plumbing never worked right, but I would have been willing to live in a cardboard box to avoid going back home.

The diner is where I met Richard. My first thought when I met him was there would be a day when he wished he'd never met me. He was twenty and was going to law school. He was smart and serious and quiet, and much too good for me. He reminded me of the movie stars on the billboards on the strip with his clear blue eyes and dark wavy hair. His smile was brilliant and breathtaking. He always sat in my station. And he paid attention to me which was an addiction in itself for me.

He'd come in every afternoon to study for the bar exam and stayed until the place emptied and we'd talk while I cleaned tables, refilled the napkin holders and ketchup bottles, counted out my tips. I let him hear a few of my songs, and he was fascinated by my voice and told me I was the best singer he'd ever heard. I greedily ate up every compliment like it was candy, and was always starved for more.

I didn't tell him much else about me. I couldn't. I didn't want to ruin who he thought I was. When he would ask, I lied, setting in motion years of secrets. I told him both my parents were dead and my sister and I didn't speak anymore. My family was too far away to prove me wrong. And the lies I started telling became a new way of hiding.

I still don't know how or why, but he ended up falling in love with me. I wanted to warn him he shouldn't, that he should run as far as he could from me. But, I already couldn't live without him. I had never been in love before, and the feeling was an intoxicating drug I couldn't get enough of. I fell hard and fast and breathlessly raced into the new life he promised me. We were inseparable, a feverish, obsessive fix for each other. It all happened so quickly, a whirlwind romance that was intense and euphoric and the kind of rush I had only known at twelve when I found the Wild Turkey. I had been chasing that same kind of delirious high ever since. And, Richard gave it to me. He made me feel alive and different and wanted, and I never wanted to go back.

He passed the bar and proposed to me and we were married by a Justice of the Peace at City Hall. We had Lexy a few years later. Richard got a job at a local law firm and we moved into the suburbs, complete with a 30-year mortgage and a minivan in the drive. Our lives seemed to be on track.

I can't say what the trigger was. Maybe there wasn't one and that was the problem. Maybe the normalcy of my life made me start to unravel. I couldn't handle how ordinary it was. I wasn't used to it. I had grown up hiding under porches and running for my life. Anything other than violence and chaos felt abnormal and somehow wrong. It was the only thing I knew. I wasn't bored; I was terrified.

No one knew who I was or where I came from. They couldn't hear me screaming inside. I had completely reinvented myself. I was president of the PTA, put on luncheons for Richard's clients, volunteered in the community. I perfected the performance as the ultimate southern belle with the pretty smile that covered up all my damage. I desperately wanted to be good, just like mama believed I was. I had the life I had always wanted but never could escape the dark, clammy panic of having everything taken away from me. I didn't deserve to be loved and knew it was a matter of time before everyone figured it out.

And then, Becca's first letter arrived in the mail. The rope I had been clinging to frayed and shredded even more, until I was holding onto nothing but a thin thread that spun me in circles and threatened to snap at any moment. I still don't know how she found me. I tried to completely disappear and erase myself off the map. I cut off all contact years before. I thought we were too far apart for her to reach me.

But, the letters kept coming, each one reminding me over and over that the past would never die. It hunted me, crouching around every corner, waiting to grab me and drag me back to where I escaped from. I felt as if it laughed at me for even thinking I would be able to outrun it.

I bought my first bottle of vodka on a Thursday morning after I dropped Lexy off at school. I had to stop at the grocery store for a few things, and as I walked past the liquor aisle, I just picked it up. Milk, eggs, laundry detergent. Vodka. It was a surprisingly easy decision as if I had been searching for an answer and it just opened right up to me. Like when you get lost, and suddenly turn down the very street you were looking for, and feel that flood of relief that you finally found your way. It made sense in a way nothing else did.

To calm the crippling anxiety, I secretly drank while Richard was at work and Lexy was at school. Not a lot at first, just enough to smooth out the edges and keep the fear from completely overtaking me. Daddy had taught me early how to hide and cover, and I tucked the bottle behind the storage boxes in the garage.

The nightmares were back, and they were disturbing and intense, and violent. I could no longer shut out the flashbacks. I would wake up screaming, convinced daddy was right outside the door coming to get me. Richard was terrified for me, but I was too ashamed to tell him what happened. I tried sleeping pills, but they didn't protect me or stop my bad dreams. The post-traumatic stress was like a landmine I had to sidestep and tiptoe around or I'd explode. Drinking was the only way to numb myself and keep me sane. The vodka created a glossy, hazy bubble around me where the fear couldn't break through.

I never realized it would also not let me get out.

For a while, the drinking seemed to work. I thought I was functioning well, and my life was back in control. I didn't even notice the cracks and gaps starting to slip through. I'd oversleep, became distracted and forgetful. I'd miss appointments, not go to the store, the house stopped getting cleaned. I blanked out on dinner meetings. When Lexy was seven, the principal called to ask why she was waiting alone on the curb when school had been out for hours. It was the first time I ever drove her home drunk.

I started losing track of time. The days blurred one into the next. All I thought about was my next drink. I was detached, disorganized, disoriented. I stopped looking over my shoulder. And I forgot to check the mail.

The day Richard brought Becca's letter to me, I completely shattered. I ended up sobbing hysterically and telling him everything about my childhood, the abuse, and the drinking. He cried with me, was enraged and devastated for me, and begged me to get help, to talk to my sister. I vehemently refused and said I wasn't ready. I made him swear not to tell Lexy and promised I would explain everything to her when she was older. I didn't want her to know monsters were real. I didn't realize then I was the one she should have feared. He felt so sorry for me, that he didn't push, and let me keep my secrets. I think he hoped him finding out the truth would make me stop drinking. But, in my mind, it just gave me permission and an excuse to do it more.

I'd thought Lexy was young enough that she wouldn't notice, but she started asking questions, ones I dreaded, ones I couldn't answer without opening up a past I had vowed never to speak of again. She would ask about our family, where we came from, why no one ever came to visit. I tried putting her off, changing the subject, but as she got older, her curiosity became harder to avoid. She was far more perceptive and sensitive than I realized. She began to figure things out and the questions became more probing, intrusive, painful. What had happened to her grandparents, why didn't I speak to my sister, why didn't I want to ever go back to Tennessee? Why did I lock myself in my room all the time? Why was I always so sick? Why didn't I sing anymore?

I couldn't handle it and drank more and more as the years went by until I was doing it all the time, no longer having the restraint or control to hide it. I didn't want to be saved. I needed the vodka more than air, more than my own life, more than my family. I spent every moment of every day trying to get to the next drink. The craving was unbearable. I knew I'd sold my soul to have it but, I didn't care anymore. It was too necessary. I didn't want it taken from me. No one understood what would happen if I didn't have the bottle to hold onto. I was too wasted to notice that the more I chased oblivion, the more exposed I became.

As my drinking grew worse, Richard retreated further into his work. I would fall apart when he tried to convince me to get help, and our fights would cause me to have hysterical, furious meltdowns. I pushed him away and shut him out and every day, I lived in the fear that what I dreaded most was happening. And I had no idea how to change it. I was already too far gone to stop. Maybe I always had been. So, I let the rope snap and break, and my world fell to pieces around me. Ironically, the breakdown felt like the most natural thing in the world.

And now my daughter is gone. Richard broke his promise and had given her the letters. I would have eventually told her, but how do you explain to your own child that her grandfather beat and kicked her mother until she was bruised and bled? There was never a right time or the right words or a right way to talk about something that was so horribly wrong.

She's run to the very place I tried to keep her from, that I swore I'd never go back to, and have spent years trying to forget. My sister is there, and by now has told my young, innocent daughter of the hell that happened to us. It should have all come from me, but I was never strong enough to do it. I wonder if Lexy will ever want to speak to me again. I haven't heard from her, and she won't respond to my texts or calls, which only confirms my fear that she has shut me out for good.

I meant what I'd told her the morning she'd left. I was trying to protect her. I didn't want that place destroying her that way it did to me. I didn't want her to have to know the abuse I experienced, or realize fear like that existed. I couldn't face it for myself enough to even talk to her about it. It was too terrible and traumatic. She said she had to go so she could find out the truth. But, I know she left to get free of me. Because all this time, I'm the one who is the real monster. I've turned into the very thing I've spent my whole life trying to avoid becoming.

That land also belongs to Lexy, every God-forsaken acre of it. I wonder if she'll want to be a part of it if she'll want to carry on the legacy her great, great grandparents left for all of us. If she'll find a home there. She doesn't have one here. I've taken that from her. I've ruined everything I've ever touched. Maybe Lexy leaving will somehow save her. Maybe being away from me is the best thing for her.

I know Richard is going to make me go into rehab. Ever since Lexy left, I have felt the pressure closing in, inching and backing me into a corner. Through the barrier of my wooden door, I've heard him quietly on the phone, making decisions, plans, arrangements. For me. Because of me. Without me and despite me. He's going to force me to go, to give it all up. To get sober. Clean. Little does he know the real ugliness that's underneath. Rage fills me that he would dare take the thing I need most away from me. As if I could actually be rehabilitated. Doesn't he realize I'm beyond saving? It makes me laugh and laugh and laugh, delirious and insane, a crazed woman unhinged.

I'd left Tennessee more than twenty years ago, hoping for a new start, new beginning, new life. But, my past has followed me here, and I haven't ever been able to tear free from it, not for one single second. It feels like all the abuse just happened, as if my father is still standing over me, with his fist raised, sweating and sneering and swearing in my face. No matter how far I try to run, I will always be that scared little girl cowering under the porch with my sister. Daddy will never let me go.

Mama had been wrong about me. I have nothing good in me, and I will never change the world. I've never known how to fight. He will always win. Nothing is going to be different and nothing will get better.

I found the other door mama told me to look for. I already know what I am going to do. What I have to do. Maybe I've always known, and my life has been leading up to this very moment since the day I was born.

I don't say goodbye, don't write a note, don't leave behind any last words.

No one will miss someone who is already no one.

Huddled in my bed, I hold on tight to the bottle of Xanax as if it's my salvation. I'm still feeling too much, the anxiety is ripping up my insides, and the panic, that horrible, vicious panic, won't ever die. The pressure in my chest is so tight I feel like my heart is going to burst through my skin.

I look absently at the alarm clock on the nightstand.

2:18.

I think it must be night. It's dark outside. Morning will be here soon, and I'll have to try and drag myself through another excruciating day. Even one minute seems too long to try and stay alive. I can't do it anymore.

My hands are trembling and sweaty as I open the lid and pour the blue pills into my palm. I stare down at them thinking how dangerous and powerful something so small could be. They seem to make the decision for me as if they are doing me a favor.

I don't want to feel. I just want the fear to end. I thought I could get away from him. I thought I could find a way to reverse time. But, I realize now I can't. My life is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like father, like daughter, I think bitterly, and I swear I hear him laughing, mocking, daring me to try and get away from him. I feel a resentful sense of defiance as I shove the handful of pills into my mouth and bring the bottle of vodka to my lips. I quickly swallow them down before I change my mind, and wait for them to swallow me.

I keep drinking until the room tilts and sways, until I feel my heart rate slow, until my body goes limp and slumps over. The empty bottle slips from my fingers, rolls away from me and falls onto the laminate hardwood floor with a loud clanking thud. It's the first time I've let go of it in years.

I stare dully at the clock, which is inches from where my head has landed, the large red numbers glowing and blurring as the toxic combination seeps through me and poisons my blood.

3:00.

It only takes forty-two minutes to wait to die. That's not very long at all.

Freedom is so close, it's right there. I can taste it. I don't even fight. I'm weightless, nothing, and somehow powerful. I'm the one in control now. Not him. I'm now the one laughing. He can't find me when I've vanished into thin air. It's the perfect escape. I feel as if I'm about to be born again even though I'm trying to end my life.

There's no more sound or thought. Blissful stillness. My mind shuts down and my father's voice is finally silenced. There's no memories, no past, no him, no me. No more nightmares. And no more pain. It's almost over and it was so easy.

I'm already passed out and don't realize my system is rejecting the toxic combination of pills and vodka. I'm not aware that I'm convulsing and throwing up and lying in my own vomit. I don't know I've urinated myself. I don't hear my moans as my body fights against what I most want. And I don't hear the pounding on the bedroom door as I drift away into a mindless sleep.
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