To say it simply, my life is a broken mess. In the back of my mind, I often wonder if people are given a set number of obstacles they have to overcome before they die. If that were the case, then hopefully I’ve already hit my limit for this lifetime. Because no matter what I do or how I try to live my life, everything seems to come out wrong.
This catastrophe of a life was inevitable though. My parents began the cycle when they decided that getting high and not using condoms would be a stellar idea. As if that wasn’t bad enough, my mom made sure that it stayed a mess when she decided to resume her life of boozing and drugging while pregnant. Luckily, the only side effect resulting from her recklessness was that I was born with a low birth-weight. Her worst decision of all was deciding to keep me when she very well could have given me to a deserving couple, one who would have actually wanted me.
I often find myself daydreaming of what my life would be like now if she had just given me up, like her labor and delivery nurse quietly suggested. Would I live in an actual house? Would I have normal parents who go to normal nine-to-five jobs? Would I have siblings? Or my favorite one of all, would I have a real bed?
Considering the fact that my mom was such a horrifying parent a nurse actually advised her to look into adoption within the first twenty-four hours of delivery, I’m still baffled that they even let her leave with me. She loves to tell me that story too, only she revises it every once in a while by saying I was actually the horrible one, and that it was no wonder the nurse suggested it. But apparently, the enticement of a welfare check convinced my parents to keep me, regardless of the fact that neither of them cares anything about me.
When I was four, I realized that food costs money and I couldn’t wait for the day when I could leave the house and earn some of my own. From time to time I caught a glimpse of what money looked like, but it was usually in a back alley exchange or over the counter of a liquor store. When I was ten, I started mowing lawns and then at fourteen, people in our trailer park allowed me to babysit their children. I knew by then that if I earned my own money I could use it to buy food, which was few and far between at our house. I loved going to school because it was usually the only time I got a real meal.
I’ll never forget the first time I stepped into a grocery store with a pocket full of my own cash. I didn’t realize how the exchange worked, or how much food actually cost. I ended up walking out with only a bag of apples. I loved apples, and the only time I had ever had them was when they served them on occasion with lunch at school.
When the grocery checker informed me I couldn’t afford the apples and the loaf of bread, my decision was easy. I wanted the apples. I was so proud of myself for actually being able to buy food to take home to my parents. I just knew they would smile and maybe… just maybe they would finally praise me.
As I proudly walked through our old, creaky front door, my dad took one look at the bag and asked, “What the hell are those?” At that moment, I should have noticed the slurring of his words or the wobble in his walk, but I didn’t.
So I smiled and replied enthusiastically, “They’re apples. I bought them all by myself.” An intense rage shot across his face and my smile plummeted. Maybe he had misunderstood me.
“You spent money on some damn fruit? How the f**k could you be such an idiot? We don’t need any shitty fruit,” he screamed at me, while ripping the bag from my shaking hands.
Every once in awhile, I think back on that day and every time, it plays like a slow-motion horror movie in my head. I remember watching the bag come toward my face and thinking when the first apple hit that it wasn’t any worse than his fist felt. Then the force of four more apples followed behind, pounding against my flesh, and it was worse -- much, much worse. Whack, Whack, Whack. Whack.
I also remember that I didn’t scream or make a sound. I learned early on that screaming only made the punishment last longer and he was going to do this regardless. I slumped down into my protective position on the floor and tucked in my legs, while trying as best as I could to cover my face. When the fruit wasn’t doing anything besides becoming a sopping wet mess against my body, he then switched over to his fists. I recall him screaming about wasting money and a few other unpleasant terms he created for me.
I lay on the ground and waited for the punishment to end, while fist after fist and a few feet continued their assault. I knew he wouldn’t stop until he’d worn himself out. Wham… my face, Wham… broken rib, Wham… my stomach.
Mercifully, once the pain reached an all-time high, the blackness engulfed me. The blackness was safe. Sometimes I wished I could just stay there.
When I finally came to, Mrs. Thomas, the next-door neighbor, was hovering over me, trying to get the swelling down by placing bags of frozen vegetables across various parts of my body. I didn’t even want to know the extent of my injuries. The bruises took months to heal. I wasn’t allowed outside of the trailer and my mom disenrolled me from school, informing them that I would be home-schooled. Yeah right. Unless watching her down an entire forty constituted homeschooling, I wasn’t learning much.
Mrs. Thomas helped me heal everyday, but she didn’t want the authorities coming around any more than my parents did. So she never called for help. She had her own secrets to hide, only one of them being her drug-abusing husband. By the time the next school year commenced, I had to repeat the sixth grade. I also never ate an apple again.
Shortly after my seventeenth birthday, I was hired to work in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant on the nicer side of town. For me, working in a restaurant was a dream. The hours were long and required me to stay late into the night. Perfect. The less time I had to spend at home, the better. Another bonus was that Chef Moretti, or Nico as he let me call him, favored me among the other employees. I think it’s probably because I worked the hardest, never wanting to go home.
Some nights when the restaurant was slow, he taught me how to cook a few of the dishes we served. I was constantly fantasizing about one day living on my own and being able to prepare authentic meals for myself at home. Food from plastic bags or cardboard boxes wouldn’t be allowed. I was excited at the idea of being able to bring home fresh fruits and vegetables. Except apples, never apples.
Nico doesn’t know how abusive my parents actually are, but I think he understands to an extent why I have to hide from them. When I started working there, I asked him if it would be possible to keep half of my earnings saved on the side. My reason being that my dad requires I bring home a paystub so he always knows how much I make, and how much he can take from me. I’m allowed to buy groceries and a bus pass, but any remaining balance goes directly into his hands.
Thankfully, one look into my pleading eyes and Nico agreed. I don’t know much about the tax system, but enough to know that what he’s doing could possibly get him into trouble. I’ve lost track of how much Nico has put away for me, but I know my balance is slowly building. One day, it’ll help me escape this town.
One Friday after cashing my paycheck, I head to the grocery store and buy all of the items my dad has pre-approved. My list mostly consists of ramen, peanut butter, and spaghetti. I also purchase the one item that will hopefully keep my dad’s hands off of me--a bottle of whiskey. While sometimes this backfires, typically it keeps him in a better mood. It’s a risky line I walk every day.
I recently made friends with a grocery checker named Oliver, who sells me the alcohol even though I’m underage by a few years. His smile creeps me out a little bit, but if a smile is all that he’s offering, I can return that. I always ask for paper instead of plastic. It’s harder to swing a paper bag around as a weapon, like you can with a plastic bag. I’m a fast learner.
After making my purchases, I walk down the sidewalk toward the bus stop, gazing inside the shop windows as I go by. I love admiring all of the items I can never afford to have, like books, new clothes, or even jewelry. Just as I pass by my favorite bookstore, a large figure carrying a giant box steps out of the door and slams right into me before I can get out of the way. I watch in horror as my bag of groceries crashes to the ground. My stomach plummets when I hear the worst sound of all…the whiskey bottle shattering inside the bag.
I suck in an enormous lungful of air and fall to my knees. “No, no, no…” I whisper through a sob. Tears well up in my eyes at the idea of going home empty-handed.
“Shit, I’m so sorry!” I hear the stranger say, as he sits his box on the ground and kneels down in front of me. “Let me help you clean this up.”
“No, no, no…” I repeat, lost in the idea of how my father will react to this. I’m still not looking up at whoever just signed my death warrant, but I watch his strong hands as he scoops the shattered glass and the soaking wet boxes back into the torn paper bag. The spilt milk mixed with the smell of whiskey is nauseating.
“Damn, I think all of this is ruined. I’m really sorry,” he continues, with a hopeless apology that won’t keep the bruises at bay.
All I can do is stare at my shaking hands. Maybe I can go ask Nico for money from my side account to buy more groceries. Surely he can help me. But then I remember he left this afternoon to go up north for a visit with his mother, who has fallen ill. I don’t have a phone number to reach him, and I’m sure he won’t be able to help from long-distance anyway. This is it then. I have to face the music and go home empty-handed. I’ll survive. I always survive. I only have one more year until I can get out of this town.
A warm hand reaches out and forces my chin up. “Look at me,” a stern voice commands gently.
His glacial blue eyes dominate all other thoughts at the moment. The way he looks at me, I realize he must have been trying to grab my attention for a while. I slowly come back down from my panic.
“There you are…” he says softly, sounding a bit relieved. With one hand still holding my chin up, he wipes the tears out of my eyes with his other hand. I clear my throat, but I’m still unable to speak to this stunningly attractive person. Now that my vision isn’t clouded, I can fully take him in. His entire demeanor commands his complete attention. I don’t know why, but I suddenly crave the idea of allowing someone to have that control over me, to actually trust another person. I’ve never fully trusted anyone. I’ve never been given the opportunity to fully trust anyone.
Even though he’s crouching down in front of me, I can tell this guy has long, muscular legs. I’m five foot ten, so it’s hard to come across people who are much taller than I am. I like the idea of being able to look up into his eyes. He’s also fit. If the polo shirt he’s wearing with the logo of the local hotshot football team didn’t give it away, his large shoulders and wide chest would have.
Looking beyond his intense blue eyes, I notice the warm, dark brown color of his hair, and I’m surprised to see sporadic natural highlights spread throughout. With his free hand, he reaches up and threads his fingers through the strands and lets them fall haphazardly back down. The way the pieces fall perfectly in place makes it seem as if even his hair knows how to submit to his strong will. I begin to wonder how my body would feel under those fingers. Would it submit as easily as his hair?
He clears his throat, which pulls my attention back from the unexpectedly sensual thoughts I’m having. “You realize these are just groceries, right?” He slyly grins at me in question. I nod my head, but still can’t reply. “I’ll replace them for you. It’s the least I can do for knocking you over.”
As he helps me up to a standing position, I think about rejecting his offer. It’s not like he knew I was going to be walking in front of the door at that exact moment. Just because a measly bag of groceries brings me to my knees in a pathetic crying pile, that doesn’t mean he should have to buy anything for me. On the other hand, I’m not in any position to decline help. It’s either I save my pride and deal with my dad’s wrath or let this stranger, whom I’ll never see again, assist me. I choose the stranger.
“Thank you.” I meekly smile, while wiping the last of the moisture from my eyes.
When we finally extend to our full heights, I am excited to see that he’s at least a good four or five inches taller than me. Seeing the full package standing in front of me doesn’t hurt either… he’s gorgeous. I watch as he reaches down to grab the box he almost mauled me with and sets it into the back of a giant, four-door, black pickup truck. I don’t know much about cars since I ride the bus, but this truck has to be expensive. There aren’t any scratches on the paint and not a speck of rust on the rims.
Unlike me, he actually belongs on this side of town. I just work here. Our city is divided into two vastly different economic statuses, and I’ve never understood why they never just separated into two different cities. This side of town has the golden-child high school that receives all the funding for their state championship-winning football team and award-winning academic decathlon team. I think my school had ten girls get pregnant last year instead of twelve, which was the running total from the previous year. I call that progress.
The beautiful stranger comes over and scoops up my pitiful, ruined bag of groceries and begins to rifle through it before tossing it into a nearby trashcan.
“My brother is actually at the store right now, picking up groceries for my mom. Mind if I just text him a list of everything you had? That way you don’t have to go shopping again, and we can just go grab some coffee instead.” He nods his head toward the chic little café across the street.
“Uh… sure. I can tell you what I needed,” I reply.