I sighed as I placed my hand against the wooden beam, one of the many that bore the weight of the ceiling. If I had been younger I may well have tried to persuade Mel to come with me, perhaps using drugs or alcohol to lure her away for her own sake. I might have caused a scene and gotten hysterical just to display how seriously I took my feelings, or I might have physically dragged her away and taken her somewhere safe. But I’d seen too many troubled souls around here to know that you couldn’t save people if they didn’t want to be saved. I’d warned Mel, and that was all I could do. Ultimately, whatever she did in her life was her choice, and if she wanted to take the risk then that was hers to take. I had to respect that at least. As a child my choices had been taken away from me, and I wasn’t going to do the same to anyone else.
I was sad, and I dearly hoped that I was wrong, but Mel had made her bed and now she was going to lie in it.
I didn’t want to watch though. I’d only be tempted to get involved and then I might make things worse, or I might get into trouble myself and when it came down to it if there was a choice between my own wellbeing or Mel’s, well, there was no choice really. The only person you had to rely on in this world was yourself, and the only person you had to take care of was yourself. I never wanted to be beholden to anyone else and I didn’t want anyone to be beholden to me. That’s how I knew that I was never really cut out for a family life. I was too used to being alone and at the end of the day if I was safe then that was all that mattered. It wasn’t as though the world gave a damn about me. It didn’t give a damn about any of us.
I walked outside and closed my eyes as the fresh air cooled my face. I hesitated before my foot hit the ground, almost as though until they happened there was still a chance for me to return inside and argue with Mel again. But then it did hit the ground and there was no going back, at least not tonight anyway. I hung my head as I shuffled my feet along away from the Rainbow Bar, having had enough of company for the night. The noise of the bar faded into the distance as I walked away. In the shadows I saw a couple in a passionate embrace, their soft moans rising into the air.
Thankfully, the night was dry and I didn’t have to worry about rain. I pulled my leather jacket around me and headed south, into the suburbs, away from the city. The main road stretched out ahead of me and occasionally a car would whiz by, its headlights streaming light in front of it, the two shafts trickling across the road. Air rushed by me and tugged at my jacket and hair. I hardened my heart against what had happened, not wanting to think too much about Mel. I told myself that my instinct wasn’t infallible and that I might have been wrong, but I knew I was lying.
I just hoped that it wouldn’t be a fatal mistake.
To punish myself, I walked into the suburbs and looked around at all the picket fences and middle class paradise that I would never be a part of. I grew up in a cramped apartment in the city, there was barely any room for one person let alone three. My parents hadn’t made it a secret that I was a mistake. They were young, unsure, and stupid, and they had made a stupid mistake. They couldn’t afford to move on minimum wage salaries so they were stuck there, or I should say we were stuck there. All their money went into providing things for me and they resented me for it. I never understood when I was younger why, because I didn’t grasp the value of money. Now that I was older I knew it all too well, and how poverty always had a stranglehold over the lower classes. It was like trying to live while being held down by a boot on your chest, unable to breathe, always being reminded of how much you didn’t have, always struggling to think where the next meal was going to come from or how you were going to pay for new clothes.
Society had monetized basic rights and basic dignity. If you couldn’t afford it then tough luck, you were cast away with nobody to help you or offer you aid. Lives could be destroyed because of one mistake, and all because people couldn’t afford to meet the demands society placed upon them.
I often wondered what life would have been like for another person born in my place, one that was born a few years later after my parents had had a chance to save some money and establish themselves better in their careers. They should have waited until they were ready to have a child, because the person who suffered most was me. And now they both had their lives. I’d kept track on both of them, although I hadn’t made myself known. It was better that way, I thought. They had moved on and so had I. Families were supposed to stick together, but not ours. It was broken beyond repair, and yet I still tortured myself by going to this place, by looking at these houses and wondering what my life would have been like had I just been born into different circumstances.
As I passed the houses I peered into the windows that were illuminated with soft electric light. I saw families sitting down to dinner. I saw bedroom windows flushed with the glow of a computer screen. I saw couples snuggling into each other as they lost themselves in a movie. Life was so simple for them, and they did not have to worry about the challenges that befell people like me. They were safe and cozy in their mundane jobs, living the dream of having people around them. If I was to have a family I’d want it to be like that, but that kind of family only happened to certain people, people who weren’t broken.
In the yards there were bicycles and swings, things that I had never been given when I was younger. Dogs barked and cats scurried about, domestic pets. I had had to make do with an imaginary friend for company. I looked up at bedroom windows that had their curtains drawn and I wondered if there were little girls lying there tucked under warm blankets sleeping soundly. I always had to scrunch up my face and pull the blanket over my head to try and dull the sound of my parents arguing. There weren’t any secrets within the thin walls of our apartment, and I heard every word. I used to think that every set of parents were like that until I realized otherwise, and then I realized that there was something rotten at the core of my family.
I’ve come to learn that some people just aren’t meant to be together for any real period of time. Whether it’s a lack of judgment or a mistake made from a spike of hormones, some people should only enjoy a fling, and yet these people often find themselves bonded together by other matters, like an unexpected child. I think both my parents would have been happier had they
parted ways as soon as they found out I was born, but I suppose they thought they should tough it out and try to make it work the sake of their child; me. The irony was that in doing so they damaged me beyond repair. I didn’t really want to see them again, but part of me had always wondered if they would have done things differently if they could go back now. Would I have been better off if Mom had chosen to raise me by herself? Would I have had a better relationship with Dad if I hadn’t witnessed him yelling and berating Mom? In life there are always questions that will never be answered. Usually they’re big things, things that most people wonder about at one time or another, things like ‘what is the meaning of life?’ ‘why am I here?’ ‘what are the 11 herbs and spices used in the colonel’s secret recipe?’, but other times they’re smaller, more personal things, things that only matter to a single life. Often times these are the most difficult mysteries to deal with because there’s nobody else who can help answer them other than the people who caused you the pain in the first place, and I certainly wasn’t going to ask my parents for guidance.
My parents, who were now no more than strangers.
I stopped at one innocuous looking house, a house that at a glance didn’t seem any different from the others surrounding it. There was a truck parked in the driveway, two bicycles standing next to it. There was a dog flap in the front door and a newspaper shoved into the mailbox. I walked up to the window, my feet silent, the shadows of the night cloaking me in a mysterious veil. This house meant no more than any other house, other than to myself and those who lived in it. My chest tightened and my breath caught in my throat as I gazed through the window to see the family at the dining table. The man was handsome, sitting at the head of the table, and he was flanked by his children. They were both young. The boy had his back to me but I could see the girl clearly and it was like looking at a reflection of my younger self, although she had fuller cheeks and a brighter smile. She held her fork and stabbed at the food on her plate, eager to fill her belly. My own stomach grumbled. Then their mother walked by. She planted a kiss on her husband’s cheek and then ruffled the little girl’s hair. She took her seat and smiled at her family, her second family.
Pain flared inside me and a tear trickled down my cheek. I tasted the bitterness as it passed over my lips. Every time I came to this house I told myself I wouldn’t cry, and every time I failed. I saw them laughing although I couldn’t hear the joke. The little girl would grow up to become someone important, and one day she would have a family of her own, just like this. I didn’t envy her though I just…I felt as though I was a ghost, looking upon a life that I couldn’t have, that perhaps I should have had.
The little girl looked just like I did at that age, just like our mother. I turned my gaze to the woman who had given birth to me. I wondered if she ever thought about me, if she had even ever told her husband about me. I could have burst through the door and turned their world upside down. I could have demanded money or a place to stay or even just a meal. I could have ruined their idyllic homespun paradise with a brief interlude that would have caused shockwaves through the rest of their lives. The husband would never be able to trust his wife again. The children would always wonder if they were destined to turn out like the wild woman who had invaded their home.
But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. And it wasn’t out of respect for my mother or fear of the ramifications because I had neither of those. No, it was out of love for that little girl that I didn’t know, and the little girl I used to be. In her I saw the life I could have had and I wanted her to have all the opportunities and successes that I missed out on. Maybe Mom would get it right the second time and this girl could grow up to be someone important, unlike me. I pressed my hand to the window and at that moment the little girl looked up and caught my eye. She smiled and waved, dropping her fork in the process. She must have thought that I was waving that her. I smiled too, and then I ran, blending into the shadows as her older brother turned to look into the darkness to see what his sister was waving at. He’d probably tease her for seeing imaginary things, just like brothers always did.
I didn’t look back as I walked away. I wished at that moment that it was raining so I could hide my tears in the rain. Instead, I walked along the sidewalk choking my sobs back, wishing that I wasn’t still so damned angry for all that had happened to me so long ago. I was an adult now and I should have been able to leave my life behind, but were any of us capable of that? Sometimes I thought adulthood was just the consequence of childhood, and we were all formed by the mistakes that had been made in our youth.
I returned to my home, a house on a hill that was used by people in my circumstance. I had a small room to myself. The rest of the house was populated by people who didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was one of the residents who had stayed here the longest, and I didn’t see myself leaving any time soon. Others came and went, some even came back when the opportunities they’d taken didn’t work out. Mel was one of these people. She often latched onto a man who she was sure would finally leave their wives or make her the centre of his world, but she didn’t understand that no man would ever see the likes of us that way. We just a bit on the side, a thrill, a brief fling where they could indulge their curiosity and their temptation to walk on the wild side without having to commit anything serious to a life with us.
I’d realized that a long time ago and had come to terms with it, but Mel was still living in denial. I made a cursory check for her when I came back, but she wasn’t anywhere to be seen and I imagined that she had made progress with the three brothers, and once again I hoped that nothing serious was going to happen.
In the distance I heard the sound of wolves howling and dogs barking. I heard the hoot of owls and the wail of a boat that was leaving the harbor. The city could be a lonely place at times, no more so than night when you could hear the sounds of other people and you had to face the fact that you were alone, and would be alone forever. Often I grew depressed when I looked at my surroundings, resolved to the fact that I would be staying here forever. There was a time when I thought that I could escape, but that time was a long time ago. I was locked in this life and there was no way out for me, no way except death. I had contemplated suicide a few times before but it had never really appealed to me. I suppose that I wouldn’t have minded dying, I just didn’t want to do it myself.
There was a new girl that was sitting in the lounge, hunched over, staring at the TV screen. Once upon a time I would have gone over to her and spoken to her. I would have listened to her story, but all our stories are the same. She wouldn’t be able to tell me anything new, and it wouldn’t do me any good to get attached as she would be gone one way or another before too long. She didn’t have the look of someone who could spend a lot of time in this place. Like I said, I have good instincts about people.
“Millie, where the hell is Mel? She told me that she’d definitely be back tonight,” Harper said. He was a burly man who was in charge of this house. His family had died and he had inherited a lot of money so he’d opened this house to wastrels and people who needed a place to sleep, all you had to do was prove that you weren’t mindless and weren’t a threat to other people and he’d take care of all your needs, as long as you pitched in now and then with some chores. He was a good guy, but I thought he was a fool for letting so many people take advantage of him, although I wasn’t sorry enough for that to stop being one of those people. I guessed he just wanted to be around people and feel like he had a family again. It was a tragedy what happened to his family, and I guess it goes to show that some people will do anything to have that feeling again. I suppose it was noble of him to try and help those in need. I wish I was more like Harper.
I shrugged in response. “I don’t know. You know what Mel’s like, you can’t ever hold her to her word. She met some guys at the bar. I assume she’s stayed with them.”
Harper shook his head in disappointment, and his cheeks flushed. Ever since M
el had come into this place Harper had fallen head over heels for her, so he gave her more chances to come back than anyone else had ever had. It was such a shame that Mel was so blind, because Harper would have been good for her. But then, people like me and Mel never did realize what was good for us before it was too late. Harper still loved her even when he knew the kind of men she went out with, even when she bemoaned her latest heartbreak to him. A love like that was either very stupid or very noble. Perhaps it was both. I wondered if anyone would ever love me so unconditionally, or if anyone already had and I was just unaware of it.
“Well, I hope it’s not three brothers,” he said grimly, and then muttered, “although knowing her it’s another married man. Why can’t she ever just want a man for herself instead of taking another woman’s?”