Authors: Heather Smith Meloche
“You're like a super-heroine,” Willow says, fascinated.
“Thank you, Willow,” my grandmother says. “That's a fine compliment.”
“So then,” Juliette says, pressing her back hard into her chair, “you became a success even though you didn't go to U of M.” The remark is for me, I know.
“Yes. I did succeed,” Grandma Leighton says in measured tones. “But the odds were against me. A mediocre education or, worse yet, no education after high school generally equates to no money. And no money, of course, means one must rely on others for support for, sayÂ .Â .Â . housing.”
My mother sucks in a loud breath, and I bristle. My stepdad's gaze drops to his hand clenched around his beer.
Grandma Leighton ignores my parents, keeping her focus on Juliette and me and even Willow and Serena, who are paying close attention to her. “You girls should learn how to take care of yourselves. Many of the women I grew up with wanted to find a man and get their MRS degree, as it's said. My father expected it of me, and I did what he wanted and quickly divorced.”
She shakes her head in resentment, then raises an elegant finger at me. “But, Tessa Leighton”âshe stresses my last name, legally different from my parents', from Willow'sâ“I want you, dear, to be self-reliant. It's fine to have a boyfriend to go out and have fun with, especially one as handsome as your current one. But don't ever expect him to take care of you. If you get the right education and play things correctly, you shouldn't have to
“Well,” Mom says. “You've sure been very successful with your business, Spencer.” My stepdad's nostrils flare with Mom's kiss-ass comment.
“I have,” Grandma Leighton says. “And now I want to ensure that Tessa, as the next girl in line, gets her education from the University of Michigan and takes over Leighton Custom Homes when I retire. With women buying more homes, continuing to have a female CEO will make LCH more appealing.”
My grandmother gives a well-bred smile and raises her glass of lemonade in my direction. I bite the inside of my lip, try to breathe despite the tension and the fear that I can't live up to everything she wants me to be.
“What if Tessa doesn't want to take over Leighton Custom Homes?” Juliette asks point-blank.
My grandmother pins her with a stare. “This is an opportunity very few people in this world get, and though it might be difficult for Tessa sometimes, we all make sacrifices. To have a comfortable life.” Her gaze shifts, past my parents, to land on me. “To make those around us comfortable. The benefits outweigh the burdens. And I believe in you, darling.”
Behind her massive eyeglasses, her small eyes are framed in a thousand wrinkles, and something in me melts. Because beneath it all, she is my grandmother. Her affection might be gilded, marble-cold, and layered with cash. But her hands, holding her precious family business, are thrust toward me. I just don't care about it the way she wants me to.
“I'm sure it will all work out,” Juliette says. She forces her own smile. “I mean, everyone finds their path eventually, right?”
Grandma Leighton gives a small scoffing laugh. “I disagree,
darling. Some of us are eternally wandering off the path.” She glares at my stepdad while he swigs long and hard from the open mouth of his beer bottle.
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It's been seven hours since lunch, and my stepdad's been yelling since my grandmother left.
“Let's just get the fuck out of this house and rent an apartment,” he says to Mom.
From my bedroom, I listen to him stalk around the living room. Realize I've grabbed my camera, my fingers curving around its body in a comforting, soothing way. I haven't taken photos lately, haven't had the chance. But it's times like this when I want to pull myself from the moment, crawl right into my pictures and paintings and lose myself there. When I see a shot that's perfectâthe lighting, the mood, the angleâand I snap it into existence, it's like my own personal scream:
See what's happening? Notice! Notice!
And I wish I could go right now and capture the snarl on his face, his tight fists, the dark circles under Mom's eyes as she tries to calm him down. I want him to stop and look so he can see what I see and understand what it does to us all.
“The girls are better off here,” Mom says. “And an apartment is more expensive than what we pay Spencer each month.”
“Goddamn it.” Something slams against the living room wall. Tremors fill my gut.
“We need to ride this out,” Mom says, sounding drained. “Spencer's willing to give Tessa an education we could never pay for.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” he growls.
“I'm not knocking you. We work hard. We do the best we can.” Mom lays a loud kiss on my stepdad's cheek. “I'm going to bed.
Please lay off Tessa tonight. You've had a lot to drink, and she doesn't need any more negativity.”
He may have nodded, agreed to play nice. But he lied.
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An hour later, when I come out for a glass of water, he starts firing on all cylinders. Apparently, I'm stupid, irresponsible,
a bitch. His eyes are watery pools of inebriation, but still his words cut like a butcher's knife, precise and clean to the bone.
“If you just got into that goddamn school,” my stepdad spits, “that woman might be a little more civil. You just need to give it some fucking effort, Tessa, but your problem is you don't give aâ”
The chime of my phone stops him short.
“Who is it?” He asks me like I'm telepathic. Like my cell isn't halfway across the room.
“I'm stupid, remember?” I say. “I don't know.”
“Shut up.” He stalks into the bathroom.
When I answer the phone, the voice is familiar. “Tessa?”
“Hey.” It's this guy from Coffee Haven in Hallend. I met him last month.
“Can I see you?” he asks.
My stepdad curses from the bathroom. I can still smell my grandmother's expensive perfume everywhere. My insides are twisted, everything tight and painful, and I imagine warm hands in my hair, a finger tickling down my bare thigh, hungry eyes on me. Wanting. Accepting. I open my mouth to say yes.
“I wouldn't be great company tonight,” I tell him. “No one would want to be with me.”
“I want to be with you.” He says each syllable like a soothing dose of painkiller. I close my eyes, listen to him breathing on the other end of the line. Think about the other words he might say that I groove on. The
God, you're beautiful
or the super-rare and loose
I love you
. No matter how half sincere. I can coast on those comments for days, lick at the residue like it's chocolate batter in a cake bowl. It may not be cooked or whole or done, but it's still delicious.
And tonight, my boyfriend is busy, probably somewhere with Simone. I'm weak. And stupid. Irresponsible.
So I write down his address. Grab my car keys. And head out for the brief moment of comfort.
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I choose my locations carefully. Can't meet guys too close to my hometown. Can't meet them anywhere where Pineville High students frequent. Rumors whip fast through school, and I don't want any talk about who I'm with or why. So I choose guys outside the city limits.
I pass the “Thank You for Visiting Pineville” sign. Pineville burns bright as a sparkler in my rearview mirror, but everything around me is black stretches of fields and woods and low, dark hills. Before I make it to Hallend, a flare spikes ahead, like an orange rip in the darkness. A shadow flits around a stalled vehicle.
When I get closer, I see the fuchsia wool hat that could only be Emma Hadley's, a handwoven elfish beanie she wears every day to school. It sags down her back, a wool ball dangling at the end. Her car slumps like a drugged elephant next to her. Emma's a nice girl, in two of my classes this year, and in school with me for eight years total. We went to the mall together once at the start of
seventh grade. Giggled like crazy when we passed cute boys. Then she got involved with jazz band and I got involved with covertly sleeping with guys, and we both had no time for anything else.
Now Emma turns to face my car as it speeds toward her, waves her hands high in front of her, wanting me to stop.
Panic shoots through me, coasting on a riptide of guilt. I want to help her. I mean, I'm screwed up, but I wouldn't usually ignore someone in need. In some ways, I'm the decent human I want to be. But if I stop, what if Emma asks me where I'm going and why? And shouldn't she have a cell phone anyway? I mean, shouldn't she be more careful than to flag down cars on a dark road at night?
Hallend is so close now, and there, a guy waits for me in his soft, warm room. My head wars with my heart that fights with my foot, pressing harder on the gas pedal. I turn my face away as I pass her, hoping with wicked fierceness that she won't recognize my car, won't realize it's me leaving her stranded, all because my secrets are too ugly and fragile to give her a hand.
I think of Edvard Munch's painting
as Emma disappears in my rearview mirror. Think of her hands falling to the sides of her face, her mouth open in a distorted black O. Her horror at my blowing by her. The guilt cuts into me. I should turn around, call Coffee Haven Guy, tell him I can't come. Go back. Rescue Emma.
But just then, he texts me.
Almost here, beautiful?
And that wordâ
âhooks deep and secure into me, and keeps me going.
When I turn into Coffee Haven Guy's apartment lot, my heart jerks hard. This place is unsafe. I've been here before. With a friend who has cousins living in Building 203. If I'm seen, that's a problem. I pick up my cell, call.
“Let's go somewhere else,” I tell him. “I'm outside right now.”
He appears from the building door, glides through the night and into my passenger seat. “Hey.” He looks clean-shaven, smells like a mix of cigarettes and fresh moss. “Where should we go?”
“Just somewhere else.” My voice is urgent. I sound on edge. Try to slow my heart and forget I'm doing something I shouldn't be.
I reach over, turn my cell phone off in case my boyfriend calls.
He points to the main road, says, “Take a left. We'll go to Coffee Haven.”
I hesitate. That's not safe either.
He smiles, knows we're undercover. “We'll go in the back way. I have a key. We'll bolt to the basement storeroom and no one will see us.”
He lays his hot palm against my thigh.
No one will see us.
So I put the car into drive and ease through the darkness.
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His keys jingle way too loudly outside the back door of the coffee shop. His hands are shaky. He fumbles for the right key on a key chain of twenty or more.
“Maybe this isn't a good idea,” I say, watching a car with the stereo blaring Led Zeppelin weave through the back lot before easing toward the front. I pull my hoodie over my head to hide my face.
“Got it,” he says as something clicks. He glides the door open. Light spills onto the concrete in front of me. Inside, a girl giggles. A coffee grinder drowns her out.
I follow him in, past shelves of Styrofoam cups, plastic lids, and piles of fake sugar packets. The smell of coffee makes my nostrils flare. My eyes dart sideways. My heart beats fast. It always does beforehand. I follow him down a flight of stairs, leave the giggling girl and the steamy gurgling of coffee behind.
His fingers twist with mine. His skin is so warm. And the need deep inside me rises. Clawing. Gnawing. I grip his hand harder as he pulls me down, down, to the basement, where there's no trace of light, and I realize there's a moment, every time, when I reach a point of no return, when I've gone far enoughâaway from the alcohol and insults, from the unbearable pressure to be more, from the voice inside me always saying I'm not worth anyone's time, money, or attentionâthat it doesn't seem to matter anymore what I do afterward. I've come here. Into the darkness. A soothing, intoxicating place. I've already crossed the line. And I'm not leaving now.
Blind, we bump against boxes like pinballs. His fingers scrape a wall, finding a trail to someplace. I wonder where he's going, and then his lips are on mine, his tongue skimming against my own for a long minute. His breath beats warm and fast against my face before he slides away from me.
I'm left flailing. Wish my eyes could adjust, but there's not a shred of light to help me. It's a weird feeling when your eyes are wide open but everything is still black.
My hand reaches out for him. His fingers find me first, curl around my thighs as my hands fall against his head now hovering near my stomach. He is seated in front of me. With a groan, he pulls me onto his lap. My knees dig into firm cardboard as I straddle him. He lies back, yanks me to him, and my mouth finds his smiling.
“Told you no one would see.” His voice is husky.
“Yeah, I can't see a thing,” I say.
He laughs. “Just feel, then.”
So I feel my jeans slide off, feel he's got decent biceps for being on the thinner side, feel his tongue trace a warm line behind my ear, feel a twinge of guilt before my body stops feeling and I let
myself float above it all, craft a portrait of perfection, a vision of a girl so desirable that this lucky boy will remember her for eternity. Every time the scent of coffee beans hits him, the taste of her will follow.
In the middle of it all, a toilet flushes. A door swings open. Light sprawls across boxes of coffee stirrers, bags of sugar, my bare legs and back.
Coffee Haven Guy peers around my torso as I turn to see Ty Blevensâbasketball player at my high school, the guy who sits behind me in social science. His half-wet hands clutch a brown paper towel. He'd gone into the bathroom before we came down. Now his eyes widen as he realizes what he's seeingâmy naked skin, this guy beneath me.