I always avoided venturing too far into the main floor of the house if I could help it, especially in the mornings. My musty basement bedroom, although not traditionally inviting, was the only place cigarette smoke couldn’t touch me. If I timed everything just right, I could get out the door without the stench on my clothes. That day though, I would be forced to make my way up.
I hadn’t had lunch at school for the last couple days, and I was tired of asking for people’s leftovers. Pay day was 11 days ago, and the last few days of the two-week pay period were always the hardest.
I wish I could tell people that these were just hard times; my parents would bounce back. Everyone went through them, but for us, it seemed as though someone was rewinding and playing them over and over. It’s not as though my parents had made poor investments in the stock market, or even anything remotely respectable. No, they were just people with problems who thought that the drinking and drugs would solve them.
As I reluctantly climbed the steep, creaking steps I told myself that today would be different. I would go up, ask politely, and be on my way. I opened the door, and the smell soaked into my clothes immediately. So much for that. The odor of stale cigarette smoke lingered in the kitchen, and last night’s beer cans lined the counter.
The light was off in the living room, which meant my mom was still asleep on the couch. The flickering light from the television told me she never made it to bed. Or maybe she was passed out. It didn’t really matter either way. I hurried into the tiny bathroom, which always had the door shut, to try and save what was left of the clean smell. After I finished getting ready, I looked at my watch, knew I was cutting it as close as possible, and emerged to make my way to the bedroom door.
I could see the crack of light under the door and hear CNN muffled through the walls. I knocked lightly and heard the faint creak of the worn out bed springs. As the door opened, I was met with a familiar disheartening face. My stepdad could have been a good man. I honestly believe that. He may have had the best intentions starting out in life, but something took a turn. I can’t say for sure where, but I know that this was not the person he was meant to be. At 6’4”, he towered over me by more than a foot. Unlike the stepdads in other stories similar to mine, he never hurt me and was never cruel. There was just something about him that made me ache to my core. You could feel his unhappiness pouring off him in waves. He had been working at the same company for over 20 years, but it hadn’t gotten him very far. We were still living below the poverty line. My mom was either his second or third wife, I wasn’t sure, and I knew he had two sons that didn’t want much to do with him. They had been married almost ten years and I had never met my stepbrothers.
I dreaded asking, being turned down, and acting like everything was fine. At some point, everything wasn’t fine. A few times a week I had to ask for lunch money—once already this week—because my parents weren’t the type to put a lump sum into my student account at the beginning of the year, like some of my other friends. I got it when we had it, and figured something else out when we didn’t. I tracked the days in my school planner, and tried to plan ahead, but it seemed as though we either ate like princes or paupers. Unfortunately for me, last week I felt like royalty—my favorite Oreo cookies, cases of name-brand pop, and fresh-sliced deli meat. Today, the empty Oreo bag sat at the bottom of my garbage, crushed pop cans spilled over the blue recycling bin, and the remaining shreds of ham and turkey were beginning to turn. My mother was never good at budgeting. She saw the money, spent it, then wondered why we never made it through the end of the month. Moderation was not in her vocabulary.
I put on a fake smile, threw my shoulders back, and prepared myself for disappointment. “I don’t mean to bother you, but do you maybe have three dollars for lunch?” My voice sounded stronger than I felt.
His sigh was audible. “I just don’t have it, Jazz. I’m sorry,” he said as his head sunk lower and his shoulders curled under.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s fine. I-I think I might have enough in my account today. Maybe tomorrow,” I replied, rushing for my backpack and out the door. I knew if I swiped my student ID at the checkout, there would be nothing there.
I ran down the sidewalk and sat on the curb in front of my house, welcoming the fresh air into my polluted lungs. “Damnit,” I thought. I had forgotten to grab something, even a handful of stale, dry cereal, for breakfast.
As I sat and waited patiently for my ride—thank God I had friends willing to pick me up—I thought about what I would say to my mom later. I was going to tell her how she couldn’t keep doing this to me. I didn’t deserve it. I deserved more, more than she wanted to give me. I deserved it more than she deserved whatever she had coursing through her system at any given moment. I should mean more than that bottle of pills or case of beer. I should come before whatever drugs she has hidden in the tin under the couch.
Of course, when later came, I wouldn’t say any of those things. I would avoid the subject all together. Maybe I wouldn’t come home that night. I could probably stay with a friend. They probably wouldn’t even notice—wouldn’t even call around looking for me.
I finally heard the faint sound of my ride pulling up the hill and sighed with relief. My respite had always been school, or sports, or whatever other after-school activity I was involved in at the time. At school, I could be someone else, for the most part. People knew we didn’t have a lot, but I always made sure I was the one to joke about it first. I couldn’t let it get to me there. This was the one place I felt free of all that. Except the smell. I could never escape the smell. Cigarette smoke was something that became permanently embedded into you after 17 years. It followed me even after I had left its hazy cloud. No matter what I did to try and rise above the choices of my parents, the smoke was something I could not control. I knew people could smell it, even if they didn’t say anything. Their faces said it all.
That morning had been mostly unremarkable, but I had started to feel the effects of my hasty escape from home. I watched the second hand tick by on the stark black and white clock above the classroom door during Spanish class. 3…2…1…
Lunch was always a huge part of high school. It was time to refuel, recharge, and catch up on everything that had happened that morning. Before the final echoes of the bell could even be heard in the hallways, people were sprinting toward the cafeteria. I, however, took my time. I felt the rush of everyone race by me like they were a pack of herding buffalo.
I sat with the same group of people all year, and I had my routine down for days like this: grab our table, then hopefully find some of them in line. I had gotten over the embarrassment of it all a few years ago. By now, I just did what I had to do. I found a couple of my friends and asked what they were used to hearing by now, “Hey, can you grab me anything extra?” They always did, and I couldn’t have been more grateful. It was never a full meal, but it got me through the day.
I hung around after school for as long as I could; after theater, waiting for my friends to be done with basketball. By the time I finally arrived home, it was well past dark. My parents were never concerned, never even phased by where I was or when I walked in the door. The smoke was twice as thick as it had been this morning, and I almost choked when I walked through the threshold. My mother was on the same spot on the couch in the living room, except this time she was awake, with the TV blaring, and with a fresh drink in front of her.
I made my way into the kitchen to see what I could find. There wasn’t much in the cabinets, just as I had expected. A few random cans and boxes were left over from last week’s trip to the food pantry and grocery store--canned beets, generic stuffing, and dry pasta. If we were lucky, my parents got there in time to get the good stuff. But for now, our pantry had whatever anyone else was wanting to get rid of before the expiration date.
Opening up the refrigerator, I didn’t expect to have better luck. To my surprise, however, in the middle of the top shelf, sat a freshly opened case of beer. My heart sank into the pit of my stomach, a stomach that was beginning to moan with hunger. Then, the subtle hiss of a can’s release caught my attention.
At that moment, I knew where I stood, once and for all.
He was asleep. Arms resting at his sides, legs stretched toward the slats at the end of the crib. Blades of light cut through the blinds reddening tufts of blond as they danced over his head like twinkling embers. His wispy baby hair had grown into a miniature mullet, the ends swooping upward as if styled with a curling iron, the hair at his temples dampened by exhaustion.
There was a Riley shaped patch of sweat on the white sheet below him. As mothers do, I had watched him sleep more times than I could count. Only he wasn’t actually asleep. My eyes stayed fixed on his hair because it was the only part of his body that let me believe he was sleeping...