Los Angeles is in the clammy vice grip of another sweltering heatwave, and our air conditioner is out. California weather isn't humid like Tennessee, and the summer air is so dry and stifling, you could spark a wildfire simply by changing your mind, and going in a different direction.
My dad brought me home, and I'm pretty sure he was out cold before his head hit the pillow. We're both worn down and worried. The heat is draining and doesn't help our frayed nerves. The hospital isn't far and he has driven back and forth over the last two weeks to take showers and change clothes, pick up things we need.
Becca stayed with my mom. She has a hotel room nearby for when it's our turn to stay up through the night. I hadn't wanted to leave, but they made me go to get some rest. I've barely slept in days, and they were concerned at how disoriented, sluggish, and incoherent I'm increasingly becoming.
I was so tired when we walked in the front door, I could barely see straight as I undressed and stumbled into bed. I thought I would sink instantly under, but for the last hour, have restlessly tossed and turned, unable to get comfortable and relax. My thoughts feel jumbled, hectic, and delirious from stress and exhaustion, and I can't shut them off.
I keep seeing my mom in her hospital bed, blankets seeming to swallow her, too still, too small, too unconscious and pale, hooked up to oxygen, tubes everywhere. The grisly images play over and over in my mind, a stuck movie reel, rewinding, replaying, clicking, and flashing behind my lids, jerking me awake, making sleep impossible.
I had been thrown into chaos and then shoved forward, expected to keep up with the circumstances and situation before my mind even had a chance to understand and accept them, and I was just expected to cope. And before I could catch my breath, more waves of tragedy kept surging at me, leaving me choking and flailing, struggling to keep my head above water.
Everything happened so fast. My dad's panicked phone call, the frantic flight out here, the terrible waiting and wondering and worrying of the last two weeks. I'm afraid to stand still too long or close my eyes. Every time I do, the nightmares pounce on me, and I wake up gasping, shaking, and sweating when I think of how close we had come to losing her.
I've gotten so used to the constant noise of the machines whooshing and beeping, the drip of the IV, the revolving schedule of nurses and doctors coming in and out, hushed, urgent conversations, the unbearable limbo of the touch and go. It feels surreal to be outside of those white, sanitized walls. I wonder if I'll ever get the antiseptic smell out of my skin, my fingernails, the strands of my hair. Strange what becomes familiar even when it shouldn't.
I haven't been home in over a month. I'm alone, and it's hot and late and dark, and I hear every sound as if it's magnified and much too sharp. Our grandfather clock ticking and chiming in the hour, the neighbor's dog barking, a garage door opening as Mr. Murphy gets home from his night shift at the restaurant. The distant roar of traffic from the freeway. The sprinklers spouting on and coming to life on our front lawn. Everything is the same here as if nothing has happened. As if my mom hadn't overdosed, and our world as we've known it, hasn't collapsed.
I wonder how things will change now that my mom is going to get sober. There is so much we don't know yet. I still can't imagine our lives without the addiction stalking and derailing our every move. It's known us better than we have. Will we be happy? Sane? Will she be able to stop? I don't even know what a normal family looks or feels like.
I'm ashamed to admit I don't believe her yet. I've been on the wild, speeding roller coaster ride for far too long; a sweaty, white-knuckled grip on the cold, rickety metal bar, holding on for dear life, blowing through red lights, as she took us up high, too high, dangerously high, frantically, manically, unreachably high.
And then the crash came, and she sunk lower and lower, further and further down, too far down, underneath the ground down, still unreachable, into the dark, drunken blackouts. I could never get to her either way.
I keep hearing everyone say she's finally out of the woods, but I don't know what that means, or if it will last. Are we ever really safe? She will be transferred to the rehabilitation facility in the next few days and start the long road to getting clean. What if she won't go? What if she refuses at the last minute? I don't think I will stop holding my breath until she's actually inside the doors and they close and lock behind her.
Doctors, sponsors, and therapists will monitor, guide, and help navigate the process, carry some of our burdens. Help us figure out how to accept things we cannot change, the courage to change things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Every day of our lives will now be determined by the twelve steps and mantras of sobriety.
It's a relief to have the control out of our hands, and the bottle finally out of hers. I wonder if she will be able to never pick it up again, if she will somehow have the restraint and willpower to refuse. I want to trust her, but I've been disappointed and let down too many times. What if she tries to get clean and then decides being drunk was easier? Will she really want to change and get better this time? Can she? The idea seems unreal, like a dream or a miracle, some far-off fairytale I've desperately wished would come true.
Her recovery is a slow, tedious, minute to minute, process. We've barely started. But I'm grateful she's alive, and things have calmed down enough for us to begin sorting through the aftermath the alcohol left behind.
My dad and I will start cleaning up the house over the next few weeks after my mom goes into treatment. Find all the vodka bottles and pills where she's stored and stashed them in her odd and obvious places. We will scour every corner, look under every board, behind boxes, toss over every cushion until we find the very last one. Drain and throw them all out. Detox every room, and our lives. My dad offered to take care of it himself, but I don't want him to have to deal with it alone. He's being sweetly protective and I let him because we both need it. I know her hiding places better than anyone. It's a sick, deranged way to finally have family time. The thought makes me feel a bit hysterical, and I swallow the urge to laugh, even though there is nothing funny about any of this.
I'm dreading going into her bedroom. The place where she hid out, drank, lost her mind, and tried to take her life. My dad had cleaned up the worst of it. I think he didn't want me seeing it. We will open the windows. Let the light finally shine through. Air the room out. Vacuum and dust, wipe away all the stains and past and pain and evidence. Remove all temptation from her reach. As if the addiction and overdose didn't exist, and there was a way to start over, move forward, and figure out how to live with each other again.
I wonder if this really will be the last time we have to clean up after her destruction. I desperately want to think we are not lying to ourselves. A relapse could easily steal our hope, and her, away from us. Everything still feels very breakable and fragile and uncertain.
It's too much to deal with and think about. The panic is crushing and intense, and I can't breathe, as if a slab of concrete is pushing down on my chest. I press my hand against my heart, feeling the fast, anxious beating through my skin, the cotton fabric of my tank top, into the heat of my palm.
Desperately needing a distraction, I let my mind wander, drifting to an easier time, to long summer days and sun-drenched pastures and a color of green I've only seen in Tennessee, and then finally, to Nick.
He's been a quiet, soft hum in the back of my mind, like my favorite song. He's always there, right underneath my skin, just on the edge of my vision, around every corner, love notes tucked into the hollow of a tree. I've thought about our kiss away from prying eyes, behind their backs, when the coast is clear, in the quiet when I'm alone with my mom late at night as she sleeps. I take him everywhere with me.
I wonder if he's thought of me, misses me, worries about me. I haven't heard from him. I keep looking back and forth between the alarm clock and my cell phone on the nightstand, willing it to ring, a text, something, anything. But there's nothing.
For two long weeks, only silence and distance and white noise. I know he has my number. When I had first arrived in Tennessee, Becca made sure we all could get a hold of each other. It was a rule and necessity on the ranch to stay in communication, especially when we were spread out over the five hundred acres. An injury could easily happen. I had gotten used to being able to get to him whenever I needed to, even if it was just a short text to him asking if he could bring over supplies from the storehouse. It's been awful to be so far from him and not having the reassurance of him nearby. I liked him being just one message away.
I doubt he'll call me. I don't think he would let himself even if he has thought about it. I wish he would, that just once he'd give in, and come find me.
I miss him; his low, lazy drawl when he'd tell me stories about the ranch, how gentle he was with the horses, how intensely he would stare at me as if he had to figure out everything I was thinking. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. All the space and time between us has only made my feelings for him burn stronger.
I don't know the moment I had fallen for him. I didn't realize how important he was until I had to walk away from him, and the aching took over my entire body. I like having him to think about in the middle of so much being out of control. It's reassuring to know where he is, that he hasn't gone anywhere. That everything on the land stays the same, and continues steadily on, even when nothing else in my life has.
I remember the way he'd held me while I had cried, how tender and protective he had been as I fell apart. I couldn't see past him, through him, beyond him. I wish I was still in his arms, wrapped up close, helping me escape, healing me. Kissing me. My eyes drift dreamily shut as I remember that warm, sweet, slow fall into him.
I can still feel the heat beating down on us, sweaty, sticky, damp, his breath hot and shuddering into me as he staggered, and I caught him, held us both up, his hands frantic, grabbing at my waist, his lips wet, searching, stubbled skin scraping, taking me over, away, under, erasing my every thought. I had never been kissed like that before as if I was the only one who could save him from drowning.
I had completely melted into him, handing over all my fear and shame and grief, blindly believing he would know exactly how to take care of me inside of them. And for one single, beautiful, feverish moment he had.
But then he'd pulled away, so quickly, so abruptly, the memory makes me flinch. My eyes fly open and, suddenly cold, I roll over, curling onto my side. I had been shocked at how quickly he'd shut down. I hadn't been prepared for it. One minute he was holding me as if I was everything he'd been waiting for, and then the next I was being blamed for making him believe he could need me. I can't figure out what happened, and I don't know how to get him to tell me. I understand his guilt over Megan, that he feels as if he's betraying her. I just wish he would talk to me about it, about anything.
I can't break through to him. He won't let me and has left me stranded here alone. I'm worried he thinks kissing me was a mistake, that he regrets it, that it wasn't as important to him as it was to me. Am I wrong in believing there is something between us? I couldn't have only imagined that split second when he'd almost kissed me again, the hunger in his eyes just before he'd backed up, and let me go.
I feel as if I'm constantly banging my head against a wall, calling uselessly out into the dark with no answer. It's enough to drive me insane. I wonder if he deliberately chooses to stay lost, if a part of him likes the idea of being cursed and elusive, off on his own, shut off from the world.
The confusion is making my head hurt. Letting out a shaky breath, I push myself up. Feeling much too alone and vulnerable, I draw my knees to my chest, wrap my arms around them, and look around the darkened room. The loneliness seems to throb off the walls. It's such a long time until morning and he's so far away. It's a quarter after one in Tennessee, but I know he'll still be awake. I wish I was with him. I wish I was anywhere but here. I don't want to think about what is waiting for me when the sun comes up.
I reach over and pick up my phone, checking for the millionth time if I have any missed calls, notifications, even though I know I don't. Radio silence. Trying to distract myself, I mindlessly scroll through Instagram and Facebook, but can't handle everyone pretending to have perfect lives, and, feeling overwhelmed, quickly close them.
I desperately want to call him, even if he doesn't say much. I just want to hear his voice, his breath, the night around him, only for a second. I can smell the soil, the honeysuckle, the old wood that always felt sad and nostalgic as if it were still waiting too for how things used to be.
My heart pounds faster, harder, as I find his name, and my thumb hesitates, hovers over it, but right before I press it, I chicken out and change my mind. I can't do it. Not after how we'd left things. What if he hung up on me? I couldn't stand to be rejected by him again. My worst fear is that I've completely misread him, and he doesn't care about me at all. I wouldn't be able to handle it. Not now, not when I'm so mentally and emotionally worn out and have no defenses left.
Shakily letting out my breath, I deliberately set my cell back on the nightstand. I'm about to get out of bed and go get some water when my phone rings. Worried it's Becca telling me something happened to my mom, I pick it up and then freeze, my breath catching, as I stare in disbelief at Nick's name lighting up the screen.
I'm in so much shock it takes me four rings to actually answer. "Hello?" I can hear how breathless my voice sounds, how needy, and try to calm down. I don't want him to know I've been waiting for him.
He's quiet on the other end and I wonder if he's already regretting calling. "Lexy? It's Nick. Were you asleep?"
"No, I'm still up," I finally manage. His voice sounds exactly the way I remember it, exactly the way I need it to. Like it did when he was holding me, rumbling low in his throat, vibrating through me, falling over my hair and skin like warm rain. I would know him anywhere. "I can't sleep." I hold the phone closer to my ear, starving for the connection to him. He has thought about me, I realize, my heart melting.
I hear him let out his breath and clear his throat. Is he nervous? I wonder if he will say anything about the kiss, if he's as aware of it being between us as I am. I feel as if he is trying to figure out how to talk around it. "Yeah..uh...Ben said you were having a rough time out there. Just wanted to see how you were doing."
For the last few weeks, I've had to hold it together and be strong, for my parents, for Becca. I haven't wanted to let myself fall apart. There hasn't been time, even though it feels there's been nothing but, as the hours stretch out in front of me. I finally let myself give in to the fear and exhaustion. "It's been really hard," I answer, wearily. "It's just all a lot to deal with."
"How's your mom?"
I prop up the pillows behind me, snuggle back against them. There is nothing else but him in this moment, and I desperately need it to be that way. I feel safe for the first time in weeks.
"She's alive, thank God. She's survived the overdose and detox. It's been horrible to watch her go through that." I wince as I remember the sweating and writhing, muscle spasms, and dry heaves my mom had wrestled against as the withdrawals violently wracked her body. "Ironically though, that was the easy part. The hardest thing for her now is going to be figuring out how to live without drinking. But, at least she finally agreed to go into treatment."
"Yeah, it is," I answer, sighing, and shift to get more comfortable. I absently pull at the tattered hem of my pajama shorts I like to sleep in. They are my favorite; soft and grey and worn. I lost the string that ties the waistband years ago. I need comforting things on me, around me. For some reason, it helps. "I wasn't sure if she would. They are talking about transferring her next week."
"How long is her program?"
"Thirty days, but she can stay longer if she needs to. She'll live at the facility. It's by the beach. The brochure makes it look like a spa."
"Those places always do."
I'm not sure why but it makes me laugh a little, and the pressure eases, just for an instant. Everything about him feels good. "I've noticed that too. I guess it's supposed to be soothing and relaxing."
"Probably, considering what they're dealing with."
"Yeah." I sigh, my laughter fading into the dark as the heaviness of the situation returns. "It's hard work getting clean. But, she will have a sponsor that monitors her even after she's done. And she will go to AA meetings."
"You must be happy she's finally getting help."
I'm scared to death, but don't know how to explain it, and am not sure I have the strength to try, so I give him an answer that is easier for both of us. "I am. We all are. It's strange to think about her being sober. I realized today I've never known her like that. She's been drunk almost my whole life."
I can feel him listening to me, focusing on my words, leaning in close. I can picture how dark his eyes are, the flecks of gold when the light hits just right in them. I wish I could push through all the distance to touch him. I think of the late nights talking on the porch, in the stable, after everyone else had gone to sleep, and fiercely yearn to go back.
"How's it being back home?" he asks after a few moments.
"Honestly, it's doesn't feel like I thought it would." I glance around at my bedroom shadowed by the hazy golden glow from the streetlights from outside. These pale blue walls were the only place I'd had growing up where I could come and hide from the chaos and dysfunction. But nothing about them had ever been safe. They are a time capsule that holds our fear frozen in time. "I was actually just thinking that it seems like someone else's house which doesn't make any sense because I grew up here."
"You haven't been there in a while."
"Yeah, I guess," I murmur, but I'm thinking of the old farmhouse, the horses grazing under the afternoon sun, the peaceful stillness and quiet. "Everything was so much easier out there." I am painfully homesick in a way I don't understand yet and feel too guilty to dare say out loud. I even miss the dusty, sweltering heat. I hear the sound of a train going by and smile. "Where are you right now?"
"Out on the porch at my place. Why?"
"I just want to picture it." I hear a creaking and picture him sitting down on the cottage steps. "I really miss it." I miss you, I think, and the words wait, perched and ready, on the tip of my tongue. I press my lips together to hold them in. I wonder what he would do if I told him. Does he miss me? I'm too afraid to ask. I glance at the window that faces the quiet street and think of the window seat in my room on the ranch, how it looked out over the thick, old oak trees standing guard over the lane that led to the tall arch of my great, great grandfather Beau's gate. Even though I'm back home in California, I've never felt more out of place or so far from where I'm supposed to be. "How's Ben?"
"He's fine. We've been busy with the new horses that came in last week. He went to bed about an hour ago."
I don't ask why he's still up. I already know. It's the same reason I am. Neither of us wants to have bad dreams. I listen to him breathing on the other end and think of how he'd held me up when I couldn't stand on my own. I can still smell the spring scent of the detergent on his shirt, the soap on his skin as if he's in front of me.
He's so quiet. I try to think of something else to say. I don't want him to change his mind, and hang up. "How's Glory?" I ask, offering him something he'll know how to talk about.
"She's good," he answers, and I think I hear relief in his voice. "Getting better every day. I'm hoping to try riding her soon. See how she does. Just waiting for her to get a little stronger first."
"I wish I could be there to see it," I say wistfully. "I really miss her. Maybe I'll get to ride her when we come back after my mom is done with rehab."
"You're coming back?" he suddenly asks, his voice harsh, and a bit panicked.
I flinch as his question shoots out quick like a bullet, and hits me dead center in my heart. The soft, silky feeling instantly vanishes. I don't understand his reaction. My skin is clammy and cold. "Yeah," I say carefully. I don't feel as safe anymore. “It’s going to be part of her twelve step program. It will hopefully help her face what happened to her out there and get some closure. Why?"
There is nothing but silence on his end for almost a full minute. I bite my lip, holding my breath as I wonder what he's thinking. "I just didn't think you were going to," he answers after a long time, too long, too late. I'm already hurting, starting to shut down.
Does he wish I wasn't? "Oh," is all manage to say. Disappointment makes my body heavy and weak. My heart seems to fold in on itself, as my hope deflates. Why can't I ever find solid ground with him? I start to think I have, and then he backs up and takes it away. My courage falters and I give up. He doesn't want to let me in. I'm not Megan. He's not going to allow himself to care about me. The kiss meant nothing to him, changed nothing for him. I mean nothing. How had he broken me so quickly? I'm grateful he can't see my face to know how I'm really feeling.
Tears fill my eyes as I stare at the four walls that are still marred by her addictions, smothering, isolating, and much too sad. I really am on my own. "I guess I should let you go," I murmur, feeling defeated and rejected. I'm suddenly so tired. Tired of trying, of fighting, of believing. What was the use? I just keep losing and never can hold on to what he gives me. "I know you've got to get up early."
"Wait. Don't go yet."
Why did he even call me? I wonder, staring hopelessly up at the ceiling fan still spinning and spinning and spinning in circles. Just like me. My emotions are stretched and shredded thin. Maybe it's fear, maybe it's my own madness of the last few weeks or the years and years of not having a say in anything. I'm suddenly sick of having to stay quiet as everyone else decides my life, telling me where to go, what to do, how to feel, and how not to. I don't want to have to ask permission to be me anymore.
I think of the moment he looked at me as if he wanted to kiss me again before I left. I need to know if I imagined it. I just want him to once tell me the truth. That look has haunted my every step.
"Are you sorry you kissed me?" I'm too tired to stay strong, and my voice cracks, as more tears fall, but I can't hold myself together anymore. I'm not sure if I actually said it, and for a blurred, whirring second, wonder if I only thought it. But he's too quiet, stunned quiet, and I realize with a rushing thud that the damage is already here.
I know what I've done, that I've backed him into a corner that is off-limits and restricted. I've bumped up against the forbidden memory of her. It's the scarlet letter sin where he's concerned. I can feel him freeze, his quick gasp as his breath catches. I don't think he thought I'd ask either.
I hear him softly swear, and I sink further away, cringing into the embarrassment of not knowing what to do, futilely wishing I hadn't said anything. "Lexy, I..." he stammers. "I um...I don't ...I can't um..." he trails off into a silence that is much too loud and painful between us.
"Never mind," I say dully, still crying, sniffling, on the edge of a total breakdown. All I want to do is hide underneath the covers, close my eyes and disappear, and forget I'd ever met him. It's the first time since I got home that I've been glad to be back in California. But, I'm not far away enough. The pain is still able to reach me. "I get it. I shouldn't have asked. You don't have to tell me. I'll let you go."
"I'm not sorry," he blurts it out, the words fast and urgent, surprising both of us. He sounds panicked, desperate. "I'd kiss you now if I could."
I'd been ready to hang up and almost drop the phone as his words register. "What?" I'm so shocked I can only whisper the question, and instantly sit up in bed. Did I hear him right? "You would?"
I wait, counting eight heartbeats, as I feel him weighing the risk and loss and choice. Megan is between us, a misty reminder, always watching and waiting and wherever he is. I wonder if this is how it all ends with us, if it's over before it even started, and I'm the one who ruined it, but then he softly says, "Yeah." I hear him blow out his breath as if he's been climbing or running a long, hard distance. Maybe he has. His voice sounds shaky and unsteady. "It's not the same here with you gone."
Tears still on my cheeks, I smile into the dark, my heart full and light. The tension in the air eases, distance disappearing as the fear evaporates between us. Life is instantly beautiful again. He's finally letting me in. "I'm not sorry either." I want to stay in this moment and never leave. I softly trace my fingertips over my mouth, remembering him there. "I wish you were kissing me right now."
"Me too," he drawls, his voice deep and low, as if he knows how much I like it, and my breath shivers out, my skin flushing much too hot, remembering the taste of him, his tongue mixing with mine, the insatiable craving, need, rays of sunlight, desperately clinging and grabbing onto warm denim and cotton, pushing closer, trying to find relief and release for an ache only he understood. "Don't hang up yet, okay?"
"I won't," I promise. He doesn't want to go back to the loneliness either, I suddenly realize, my heart opening even more. Neither one of us do. "Can you do something for me?" I don't wait for him to answer. I already know he needs me as much as I need him. The trust feels different, new, tender, intimate as if he's next to me. "Please tell me something that has absolutely nothing to do with where I am right now." He must hear my desperation and loneliness, he must understand it, because he does exactly what I ask him to, and tells me about a typical day on a ranch in Tennessee.
Tomorrow no longer feels as threatening. There's only the two of us, tied together over the distance. I wrap myself in the sound of him, imagining I'm back on the land, surrounded by nothing but wide open space and acres of green and muggy southern nights. We stay up the rest of the night talking. I finally drift off around sunrise with his voice still in my ear.