Stripped, p.4
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       Stripped, p.4

         Part #1 of Stripped series by Jasinda Wilder
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And…he does. He drives away, leaving me on the side of a highway, miles from anywhere. In that moment, I hate him. I didn’t think he’d just leave me here even if I did get out of the car. Another sob slips from me, and then another, and then I’m bawling again. Miles pass under my feet slowly, so slowly. Eventually I call Devin, my closest friend, and she comes to pick me up.

  She’s my closest friend, other than Mom.

  Who’s dead. It hits me all over again.

  I slip into Devin’s car and slump forward against the dashboard. “She-she-she’s gone, Devin. She died. Mama died. ”

  “I’m so sorry, honey. I’m so sorry, Grey. ” She leaves the radio off and pulls away off the shoulder, back onto the highway heading away from the Medical Center of Central Georgia and out to where we live.

  Devin lets me cry for a long time before she speaks. “Why were you walkin’ on the side of the highway?” Devin has the perfect southern belle accent down pat. She cultivates it, I think. I’m always trying to sound less like a mid-Georgia hick, but the accent creeps in sometimes.

  “I got in a fight with Daddy. He…he always has to be in charge. You know? Everything, all the time. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t. Everything has to be his way. Even when we were fighting, he had to control what I did and what I said and what I felt. ” I sniffled. “I…I think I hate him, Dev. I do. I know he’s my Daddy and I should love him, but he’s just…he’s a jerk. ”

  “I don’t know what to tell you, Grey. From everything you’ve told me, he is kind of a jerk. ” She glances over her shoulder as she changes lanes, and shoots me a sympathetic smile. “You want to stay with me for a while? Momma and Daddy won’t mind. ”

  “Could I?”

  “Let’s grab your stuff,” Devin says, trying to be cheerful.

  Daddy is in his study with the door closed. That tells me a lot; Daddy never, ever closes the door to his study unless he’s really upset or “deep in prayer. ”

  I pack a bunch of clothes and my toiletries in a bag, grab my duffle bag of dance gear, my stash of allowance cash from the drawer of my desk. I look around my room, and it feels like it’s for the last time. On impulse, I snatch my iPod and charger off the desk along with the charger for my phone. I go back to my closet and shove all my clothes into the suitcase, bras, panties, dresses, skirts, blouses, heels, sandals, all of it shoved into the Samsonite case until it’s overflowing and I have to sit on it to get it closed. I had planned to pack more thoroughly but for some reason I just know. This is it. The end.

  I take in the posters of various dancers on my walls, the Broadway playbills from the trip to New York Mom and I went on for my sweet sixteen…it all seems juvenile. The room of a child. A little girl. There’s even a shelf in one corner full of American Girl dolls from my childhood, all dressed neatly and sitting in a row.

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  One last glance. My framed photo of Mom and me in Times Square goes in my purse. She looked so happy there, and so did I. That trip is what inspired my love of dance.

  My dance bag is slung over my shoulder as I pull the suitcase down the stairs. The wheels thump from step to step until I’m on the landing. The front door is before me and the closed French doors of Daddy’s study to my left. One of them swings open and Daddy fills the space, eyes red-rimmed, face haggard.

  “Where are you going, Grey?” His voice is hoarse.

  “Devin’s. ” I hold up the acceptance letter for USC, the envelope with my room assignment, my new roommate’s information, check-in instructions. “And then L. A. I’m leaving for college next week. ”

  “No, you’re not. We’re a family. We need to stick together during this trying time. ” He tries to step closer to me, and I back away. “Your mother just died, Grey. You can’t leave now. ”

  I huff a disbelieving laugh. “I know she died. I was there! I watched—I watched her die. I have to go—I have to get out of here. I can’t stay here. I don’t belong here. ”

  “Grey, come on. You’re my daughter. I love you. Please…don’t go. ” His eyes are wet. Watching him cry hurts but doesn’t change the fact that I hate him.

  “If you loved me so much, why’d you leave me on the side of the highway?” I know it’s not fair, but I just don’t care.

  “You refused to get in the car! What was I supposed to do? You punched me!” He slumps to the side against the closed door, resting his head on the wood. A tear slides down his cheek. “She was my wife, Grey. I’ve been with her since I was seventeen. I lost my wife. ”

  I tip my head back, trying not to cry again. “I know, Daddy. I know. ”

  “So stay. Please stay. ”

  “No. I…can’t. I just can’t. ” I hold the strap of my purple-patterned Vera Bradley purse in my hands and twist.

  “Why not?”

  I shake my head. “I just can’t. You don’t understand me. You don’t know anything about me. I know she was your wife, and I know you’re hurting just as much as me. But…without her, I don’t know what to do. She made this family work. Without her…we’re just two people who don’t understand each other. ”

  He seems so confused. “But…Grey…you’re my daughter. Of course I understand you. ”

  “Then why do I like to dance?”

  He seems puzzled by the question. “Because you’re a girl. Girls like to dance. It’s just a phase. ”

  I have to laugh out loud. “God, Daddy. You’re such an idiot. Because I’m a girl? Really?” I groan in disgust and hike my dance bag back on my shoulder. “That’s exactly what I mean. You don’t understand the first thing about me. I’m just like Mama used to be before she married you. You know that. And that’s what bothers you about me. She was this free and wild dancer, and she married you and she changed for you. I won’t do that. That was her choice, and that’s fine. For her. But it’s not my choice. I don’t want to be a pastor’s wife, Daddy. I don’t want to go to prayer meeting every Wednesday, two services on Sunday mornings and small groups on Mondays and women’s Bible study on Thursdays. That’s not my life. I don’t even like church. I never have. ” I let that sink in, and then I drop the real bomb: “I don’t believe in God. ”

  Daddy’s lip curls in horror. “Grey, you don’t know what you’re saying. You’re upset. It’s understandable, but you can’t say these things. ”

  I want to scream in frustration. “Daddy, yes, I’m upset, but I know exactly what I’m saying. This is stuff I’ve wanted to say for years. I just haven’t because I didn’t want to upset Mom. I didn’t want to fight. I’m basically an adult, and I…I don’t have anything else to lose. ”

  “Grey, you’re eighteen. You think you’re an adult, but you’re not. You’ve never worked a day in your life. Your clothes, your manicures, your dance classes, everything, it’s all paid for by the generosity of the congregation…the church that I built on my own. I started with six people in the back of a restaurant in 1975. You wouldn’t last a day on your own. ”

  Wrong thing to say. “Watch me. ” I pick up my suitcase and extend the handle, tip it onto its wheels, grunting as the weight nearly topples me over.

  Daddy moves in front of the door. “You’re not leaving, Grey. ”

  “Get out of the way, Daddy. ”

  “No. ” He crosses his arms over his chest.

  I set the suitcase upright and rub my forehead with the back of my wrist. “Just let me go. ”

  “No. ” He seems to swell, to take strength from defying me. “You’re not going to that Babylon. Los Angeles is the home of…of…prostitutes and homosexuals. You’re not going there. You’re not leaving. ”

  “Daddy, be reasonable. ” I try the cajoling method. “Please. You’ve known this is what I’ve wanted since before Mama got sick. ”

  “You’re not leaving. That’s final. ”

  I do scream then, an enraged howl. “God, you’re so motherfucking stubborn!” I want to shock him with my vulg
arity; I don’t like swearing, but I want to make him angry. “Just move out of the way!”

  I shove at him, and he moves. I’m a tall girl, strong from dance. He stumbles to the side and I throw open the door so hard it smashes into the wall, cracking the plaster and knocking off-true a framed picture of Mama and Daddy when they were young, before me.

  He grabs the frame of the open front door, sagging against it. “Grey…please. Don’t leave me. ”

  I want to love him. I want him to be the daddy I need, the kind that hugs me and holds me close. The kind that comforts me. My mother, his wife, is dead. We’ve both lost her. But instead of bringing us together, it’s fracturing us.

  Devin stands there horrified, just outside the door. She grabs my suitcase and hurries to the car, pops the trunk, and heaves in the heavy black case. I follow after her, stopping as I stand in the open door of the car, about to duck in. I stare back at my father over the blue fabric of the ragtop convertible roof. He stands in the doorway, looking lost. I almost go back. Almost.

  “Goodbye, Daddy. ” It’s the last attempt.

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  He rallies, takes a step toward me, resolve hardening in his eyes. “Grey, please. Don’t break us apart like this. Don’t do this to us. ”

  “How can you turn this back on me? I’m not going away forever. I’m just going to college, Daddy. I…I’m just doing what’s right for me. Please try to understand. ”

  “If you leave this house, you’ve made your choice. If you leave, you’ll be willfully choosing sin. ”

  “It’s not sin! It’s my life. Why can’t you be reasonable?”

  He clenches his fists, straightens his back. “I am being reasonable. Come back in and we’ll discuss your options. ”

  “I have to go, Daddy. I have to. ” I go back, stand in front of him. “I love you. I know…I know we’ve had our differences, but…I love you. ”

  “Are you staying, then?” He takes my hand, the iron in his gaze softening every so slightly.

  I pull my hand away. “No. I have to go. ”

  “Then you’ve made your choice. “Goodbye, Grey. ” He turns away from me and closes the door without a backward glance.

  And just like that, I’m alone in the world.

  Chapter 4

  I go to the funeral. Of course I do. Devin takes me. She holds my hand, wraps her tiny arm around my waist, and holds me up when they lower the coffin into the ground. During the viewing I sit with Devin, far away from my father. He doesn’t look at me. Not once. He acted so strong during the viewing and the service, like he was a pillar of Godly faith and perfection. I hate him.

  I cry again. I thought I’d shed all my tears, but more slip free. I pull my Flip from my purse and film the first shovelful of dirt hitting the oak-wood top of Mama’s coffin. People gasp at my temerity, my sheer gall. I don’t care. It’s the last scene of her film, the final recording of Leanne Beth Amundsen’s life.

  When it’s all over, I cling to Devin’s arm and try to breathe as we pick our way carefully through the grass and between the headstones. My heels stick in the ground, wet from a recent rain.

  “Grey, wait!” I hear my father’s voice.

  I stop and turn. I nod at Dev so she continues to her car. I wait for Daddy to run up to me. He’s fighting tears as he puffs to a stop in front of me.

  He wipes his face with his palm. “I hate the way things are. You’re all I have left. ”

  His parents both died when I was nine, and Mama’s parents died before I was born. He’s all I have, too. “I hate the way things are, too, Daddy. ”

  “Then you’ll stay?” He sounds so hopeful.

  I laugh/sob. “No, I’m not staying. I could stay if you could accept me for who I am. Support my decisions, even if you don’t agree with them. ”

  “You’re really going to move to Los Angeles, whether I want you to or not?”

  “Yes, Daddy. I’m going to L. A. , no matter what. You’re my father, and I want to love you. I want to have a relationship with you. But if you can’t understand that I’m going to live my life my way, why bother trying? You’ve never understood me and never wanted to try. You’ve never approved of anything I do, anything I like. You don’t understand why I dance. You don’t understand why I want to make movies. And the worst thing is, you’re not even going to try to understand. ” I shift my purse higher on my shoulder and meet his eyes, pleading with him one last time.

  He just stares at me. “Grey, can’t we compromise a little?”

  “Compromise how? You mean I give up film school to make you happy?”

  He rolls his shoulders in a half-shrug. “Well…not give up what you want, just meet me in the middle. ”

  “There is no middle in this, Daddy. I’m going, one way or another. Whether or not we have a relationship when I leave is up to you. Our relationship is on you. ”

  His eyes harden, and he stuffs his hands in his pocket. “Fine, then. Be a prodigal. ”

  I laugh. “God, you’re so dramatic. I’m not a prodigal, I’m doing what’s right for me. You just can’t accept that. ” I straighten my back and harden my heart. “Goodbye, Daddy. ”

  “’Bye, Grey. ”

  Neither of us says “I love you. ” There are no hugs. I wait for him to change his mind. He doesn’t. I turn away then, walk over to Devin’s car and slide into the passenger seat.

  Devin asks, “Are you—”

  “I’m fine. ” I clench my jaw to keep from crying again.

  “Well, that’s some bullshit, but whatever helps you through it. ” Devin glances at me, eyes concerned.

  “He doesn’t…he just won’t let it go. He doesn’t have any give to him. ” I rub my eyes with the heels of my palms, trying to push away the burning. “He won’t accept what I want to do, and I ain’t—I’m not gonna let him run my life anymore. ”

  The tears come then. I can’t help it. Just a few trickling down, and I don’t bother wiping them away. I don’t care if my makeup is running.

  “So now what?” Devin asks.

  I shrug. “Now? I move to L. A. ”

  “Alone?”

  I nod. “I guess so. ”

  The rest of the drive to Devin’s house is quiet. She doesn’t know what to say, and neither do I.

  * * *

  Devin walks me to the security gate at the airport. Everything I own fits in a suitcase and a duffel bag, which have been checked in. I’ve only flown once before, two years ago for my sweet sixteen New York trip with Mama. She had helped me through the process. I hug Devin, tell her goodbye. I’m alone now.

  I turn and wave one last time to Devin, and then focus on the security checkpoint. An older man with thick glasses sits at a desk, his uniform shirt bright blue. In my hand I have the boarding pass Devin’s dad printed out for me.

  “Driver’s license?” he says without looking at me.

  I dig through my purse, find my license, and show it to him. He glances at me, at the ID, scribbles something onto my boarding pass, and then waves me through. Around me, people seem to know what they’re doing. I don’t. I watch the woman ahead of me step out of her heels, pull a thick black laptop from her carry-on bag and place that in a white container. In a separate one goes her purse, license, boarding pass, and shoes. I follow her lead, stepping out of my dance flats and putting them in a container with my other belongings. I wait my turn to step into a thing that looks like something from Star Trek, a spinning wall in a circular glass enclosure. I’m told to lift my arms over my head, and the machine spins around me.

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  What if they want to search me? I don’t have anything to hide, but I’m anxious anyway. They pass me through without a second glance, and I retrieve my things. The whole process seems…embarrassing, strangely intimate. Businessmen in suits traipsing around in dress socks, women in bare feet, juggling their belongings and tryi
ng to keep out each other’s way, and all the while the blue-shirted TSA men and women watch apathetically, shouting instructions and looking stern.

  I find my gate after passing bookstores, duty-free shops, restaurants, and groups of travelers with backpacks and headphones, rolling carry-on bags with extended handles. Everyone is with someone else. I see one other solo traveler at my gate, a man in his thirties with a carefully trimmed goatee and an expensive-looking briefcase. He has three cellphones on his belt and a suit coat draped over his arm, and is reading a precisely folded New York Times. He glances at me, looks me over, and dismisses me. No one else even seems to see me.

  I’ve never in my whole life felt so alone. I have my iPod and a paperback copy of Breath, Eyes, Memory that Devin gave me. I’m not sure why she thought I needed this book, but it’s something to pass the time. For the hour that I wait, I set aside my own life and lose myself in the struggles of other people.

  The flight is long and boring. I finish the book halfway through and then I’m stuck with nothing to do but listen to my iPod on “repeat. ” I leaf through a Skymall catalogue. The landing is rough and jouncing, and the airport in L. A. huge and confusing. It still feels like this could be a dream, like I can wake up in my bed at home, and Mama will be there, alive, and she’ll make me lunch. Eventually, I find the luggage claim and wait for my bags. There’s a new rip in the side of my duffel bag.

  I follow the signs to the exit, and when the glass doors slide open, I’m assaulted by a wave of dry heat. Suddenly, it all seems more real. I have four hundred dollars in my purse; half of that is mine, saved from my allowance. The rest is a gift from Devin’s parents. It’s all I have. Four hundred dollars. A cab ride from LAX to USC costs $40, and I’m left with $360 dollars to my name. I haven’t eaten since I left Devin’s house, so my stomach rumbles. I’m too nervous and scared to eat. The cab driver is a huge, burly, silent black man with thin dreadlocks hanging to his shoulders. He doesn’t say a word. When we arrive at USC, he simply points at the fare meter and waits expectantly. I pay, parting with the money reluctantly.

  USC is huge. I follow other young-looking people around my age, some equally as scared. Most of them have their moms or dads with them, some both. No one notices me. I follow the crowd to an office swarming with people. There’s an orientation, a tour of the campus. Maps are handed out along with cheap day-planners. My dorm room is a box with bunk beds on one side; a thin, shallow closet; and a tiny computer desk, which I assume belongs to my roommate. It’s off-white, and there’s a thin window in one corner with dirty white blinds tilted to one side, letting in a dull glow from outside.

  My roommate is already there, sitting on the bottom bed, flipping through an issue of Vanity Fair. She’s a few inches shorter than me, several sizes smaller, and model-gorgeous. Her makeup is perfect. Her platinum blonde hair is sleek and polished and perfectly coiffed in a French twist. Her clothes are expensive, and perfect. Her nails are French manicured, and a Dooney & Burke purse sits on the bed near her, an iPhone peeking out of the top. She smiles at me, takes in my outfit, off-brand but not cheap clothes—a knee-length skirt, a fitted but modest V-neck T-shirt, much-worn dance flats—and her smile dims a bit. She’s clearly unimpressed.

 
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