The asphalt was hot as hell that day. The smell of it wafted up into air that was already dry and stale, like tasting the saltines that had been in Mama’s cupboard for a few too many months. The heat that carried the oily stench felt like a car’s air conditioning before the cool part kicks in, that blast of air that momentarily suffocates. The road turned Tabitha’s thick bare soles black and nasty and sore as she trudged along Hill Pl, another sect of the suburban nothingness that sprawled out in the form of sweetly named streets. At least, that’s what it felt like back then — an oblivion.
When Tabitha found herself hiding in a squat in the front garden of her own house, she knew she’d met a new low. Her breath was shallow and light as she tried to pull herself to a level head. She started with her senses. There was a hint of earthy sweetness, the smell of roses, the thorned things that pawed at Tabitha’s pale skin. She shifted her weight. Her old Levis tugged at her ass and knees. A car’s tires crunching along the street. Tabitha slunk further down. Her gaze was focused on a particular window, the perfect frame to the conversation at hand.
Shadows flitted behind light pink fabric curtains. There were two obvious figures talking: the cigarette-saturated voice of Mimi and Jules’s lofty tones that no one could take too seriously. Tabitha had made sure that the window was cracked just perfect for this, so she could make out Mimi’s hoarse yaps — “I don’t know what else to tell you! She’s a compulsive addict. I don’t know what else to say.”
Gravel nipped at Tabitha’s numb toes as she curled them inward. Chewing on the flesh of her bottom lip, she let out a harsh breath and relieved her throbbing knees from the squat, but kept low. She crept past the wide rain-spotted windows of the front room, fingering the flaking arsenic-green stucco. Once on the back steps, Tabitha peeled off one dirty sock then the next, shoving them both in her back pocket and opening the screen door with a soft creak. Sticky, unclean feet met the cool hardwood floor of the house. Tabitha pulled her bag further up her shoulder and slunk inside.
Memories from the past year assaulted her in the hallway. The woman who served as the resident advisor to the group home had framed pictures of the girls that lived in the house up on the walls as some reminder that they were supposedly friends. Tabitha stared at the photographs, meeting her own eyes with the same smirk in each picture that was blemished by her messy orange hair.
“Hey love!” Mimi appeared out of the front room, her dirty blonde hair hanging limp down to her elbows, casting a greasy sheen beneath the overhead lights. Her hoops swung in motion with her bobbing head as she approached Tabitha with outstretched arms. The only makeup spotted on her yellow-tinted face was blue glitter splashed at the corner of each eyelid. It sparkled annoyingly well beside those eyes. Little blue pools — and just as shallow.
Tabitha remembered the first time she fell for Mimi’s nymph-like womanhood. They were curled up under a sun that beat down on them in heavy bursts. Tabitha felt her skin melting off of her bones but couldn’t move from the sweet pinky hold that Mimi had on her. They lay on itchy woven blankets that our grandparents brought back from Tijuana, spread out on the grassy knob of a hill, on the top of the world. Those same hills that Tabitha pointed out as a child, that small tick tugging at the back of her mind — who all has walked here? Tabitha told her so many stories. I remembered the way she used to recreate old times, when her eyes would light up with fervor retelling all the shit that went down back in the freshman year university glory days. All that built up high school angst, her yearning for something that wouldn’t let itself conclude just quite yet.
Mimi squeezed Tabitha’s arms so tight that little marks from her nails were left on pink, squishy skin. “You okay?” she asked. Tabitha rolled her eyes, shoving past her.
Once in her own room, Tabitha curled up on her comforter, resting her dirty feet on the end of her daybed frame. Her tangled orange hair splayed out from her little freckled face, eyelids shut and soft. The world was permeated by pregnant quietude — deep-throated caws from crows outside her window, giggles from the room next door, the whirs and whooshes of the old white standing fan next to her bed. Books and notebooks were piled up on Tabitha’s bed side table, dresser, on the shaggy gray carpet. I imagine that her old journal was in one of those piles, the diary that described her life from every one of the 21 guys she had already fucked that year to thoughts produced from mulling over the world in a hot shower. I was disgusted when I found myself somewhat agreeing with Mimi when I read that last journal entry, recounting her last known day. A compulsive addict.
There was a soft knock at the door. “Tabby?”
The door creaked open and Jules’s face popped into view, bouncy lavender curls and all. Her pimpled brown skin was all scrunched up, between her eyebrows and at the bridge of her nose. Like she had smelled something rotten. Tabitha automatically glanced around to make sure that wasn’t the case. “Hey. You okay?”
Tabitha stayed in her fetal position, her muscles feeling like rubber. “No — definitely not okay. Messed everything up again.”
But, somehow, the resonant images of last night still bounced around in the back of her mind. Bare legs, soft kisses, and the smell of Old Spice. The thought of his touch shot shivers along her bones. She couldn’t tell if that was a good thing.
Shimmying under the covers that she needed to wash anyway, Tabitha turned towards Jules. “I feel dead. I thought I could I fuck the pain away.”
“Didn’t work, huh?”
“At least you got me, love.” Jules took Tabitha’s clammy hands into her cool palm and held them tight. “I’m always here for you.” With one last smile, she got up and disappeared.
Tabitha was sent to a psychiatric ward when she was seventeen. She had been holding my hand tight in that final review after her 72 hour hold. “They told me that I’m addicted to sex,” she whispered, her voice cracking. Mama was on my other side, talking to the social worker across the white plastic table. My right knee was shaking vigorously. I remember that edge of laughter on her voice. “Isn’t that hilarious?”
After Jules was gone, Tabitha was left to discuss life inside her own head. It was kind of nice, talking to herself — almost better than sex. She giggled. There were so many things that people coined as “better than sex.” Working out, riding a motorcycle — there was even “better than sex cake.” Anything to get the endorphins alive and kicking. Tabitha mulled over this, hiding under her sheets, stroking her white forearm. It looked like chicken skin and felt just as sweaty. Her exhales built up a heavy heat under those thin covers, compressing each sequential breath. The suffocation felt natural, like that choking feeling when she would wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for air, not being able to fall back asleep for hours. Right when she felt a hyperventilation setting in, short shallow breaths desperate for air, she lifted back the sheets enough for a small draft of cool air to float through. She sipped it lovingly, her body shivering in ecstasy alongside her relieved lungs. Like tying floss around the forefinger until it turned into a ripe blue, euphoria hit her on the edge.
When the adrenaline decayed and she was left with only her natural flow coursing through tired veins, Tabitha began to write. She was always writing — everything from analytical essays to haiku on the back of restaurant napkins. My lips stretched into a sad smile, remembering her excitement of being accepted into the English program at UCI.
The first time I read that last entry, I felt myself falling back into my old rhythms of enabling her. I laughed along to the ridiculous parts — “If you know you shouldn’t be reading this, then fuck off” — and let myself make sense of those muddled words, like — “numb as fingers on a steering wheel when the air is set too cold” — and forgave her for everything. It was just Tabitha, the girl who never followed the norm.
After what seemed like hours of laying there writing, maybe just minutes on that sultry day, she got up and decided to leave one last time, leaving us with her diary opened up on that last written page set perfectly on her mascara-stained pillow. She finally made her escape. Holy hell, that girl. Tabitha, I love you.