Series Fiction | ‘When You’re Far Away’ — Chapter One

Jenna Jax is the most famous woman on the planet living the life of sold-out concerts, private jets, and intense celebrity. While Jenna Jax was a persona created for her as she began her career, she began to crumble under the pressure of being something she wasn’t. The real Jenna, Jenna McKenzie, quickly became lost behind the curtain. As she realizes Jenna the person is slipping away, and becoming replaced by Jenna the brand, something happens that brings her face to face with the love she left behind, Ryan Jennings.

Ryan has spent his whole life a bit lost since the day Jenna left all those years ago. Unable to get close to anyone since, he follows Jenna’s career closely from afar, and notices changes in his first love as her star rises. A headline he hears on the radio on his way to work unexpectedly brings her back into his life. She is in free fall because she wanted to spare him all of her pain by walking away, and Ryan might be the only one who can save her.

‘When You’re Far Away’ is a serial fiction series that takes us through the kind of love that endures everything and keeps us believing. New chapters will be posted on Wednesdays.

Jenna

I suppose this story begins with me, even though I don’t feel it’s my story to tell, per se, but I guess you need to know about me, because Ryan doesn’t know anything about me, really, except that he loves me and can’t seem to shake that innate feeling we have for only one person in this world that sits in the center of our spine and motivates us in everything we do whether we realize it or not.

Ah, Ryan Jennings. Whenever I think of him, I smile and a flash of the first warm sunny days of spring after a long winter, and those first exciting and equally terrifying butterflies of your first love remind my soul that maybe the universe does have a plan for true love after all.

I met Ryan when I was nine-years-old after my family moved from Malibu to Hamptonville, a tony upperclass suburb of Minneapolis. I know…you’re thinking to yourself, “Why in the world does someone move to a practical glacier after living in Malibu, beyond obvious insanity?”

Well, obvious insanity, and trouble with the law. You see, my parents were part of that fast, 1980’s Southern California lifestyle of parties, Miami Vice inspired wardrobes, and cocaine. Tons and tons of cocaine. I don’t remember many details of this, because to their credit, they were shitty enough parents to leave me in the care of my nanny, Mathilde, most of the time. I do, however, remember waking up in the middle of the night hearing one of their knockdown, drag out fights they would often have after returning home from a party. Stimulant fueled psychosis with a little booze tossed on it as an accelerator; it was a perfect recipe and almost guarantee for a melee.

Usually, it was just shouting insults to each other until they each did another bump of coke, and the fight would then become animalistic sex. Both would dreamily wander the house the next morning, often naked, while my brother and I ate our bowls of cereal and watched cartoons while Mathilde bustled around the house trying to look busy and not like she was trapped in a house of horrors.

However, this night I woke up was very different. My parents were standing on the stairs, my mother above my father, and she had a ceramic bookend held high above her head, ready to kill my father with a single swing. I just remember shrieking at the top of the stairs and my father charging past my mother to comfort me and put me back to bed.

What’s funny is that looking back on this time, I see it as the happiest of my life. Sure my parents were strung-out maniacs most of the time, but I knew I was loved and safe where I was. That all would change the summer before I began fourth grade.

Like I said, I don’t remember much, but I do remember a dramatic need to pack up my mother’s red Chrysler LeBaron and get out of our house now. It would just be the three of us. Me, my brother Jack, and our beloved cocker spaniel, Dotty. From Malibu, we would drive cross country to my grandparent’s house outside Minneapolis and live there. My father, a well known studio musician who had a very lucrative publishing deal with a major record company, would stay behind and work. Mathilde wouldn’t be with us anymore, but that was okay because I loved my Grandma Doris and my Papa James, and they would be taking care of us while my mother worked.

It sounded fun to my brother and I, and after my father and mother shared a passionate kiss in the driveway, we were on the road to Minneapolis. My first road trip. It was so much fun! We sang Beatles songs, drove through the Rocky Mountains, and my mother taught me how to blow bubbles with my gum. In just a few days time, we arrived in Minneapolis.

I remember my Grandparents being ecstatic to see Jack and I, because up until that night, we only saw them when my father would fly them in at Christmastime, but they had a different tone with my mother, almost somber. Nothing was ever discussed in front of Jack and me, but my mother, full of life and love in Malibu, was now somewhat sullen and withdrawn in my grandparent’s house. She moved to the basement with Jack, and I was given her bedroom upstairs. I slept in her old childhood bed, and Grandma Doris purchased a yellow eyelet sheet set with eyelet curtains, and I felt like I was living in a dollhouse. Everything in Malibu was always shiny and sleek, while everything in Minneapolis seemed so, oh I don’t know, cotton.

Life was still very copacetic and happy in Minneapolis, and I didn’t even miss my father all that much, to be honest. I loved him madly, and we were very close, but our leaving didn’t create a void where he was concerned. That would come later. My grandparents doted on us, and I began the fourth grade at a small elementary school at the end of their block. Papa James would walk Jack and I to the corner and then watched us while we crossed the street and continued on our way to school ourselves while he protectively looked on. That’s a memory that always stuck with me, because I don’t remember anyone in Malibu ever being concerned with how Jack and I got to school. We just got there somehow.

However, while Jack and I were happy in our new life, behind the scenes, my mother’s relationship with her parents crumbled. My mother all but disappeared shortly after we got there. We were told she was working all the time, but later it would be revealed that she had found a friend in the nightlife this city had to offer. We still didn’t know the secret as to the reason we were in Minneapolis in the first place, but that didn’t matter now that my mother had pretty much forgotten she had just uprooted the lives of her two children and went back to her love of men, cocaine, and the night.

Things came to a head in the early hours of a cold January morning. I woke up to yelling this time, much like the yelling I had heard the night I had walked in on my mother about to murder my father that fateful night in Malibu. Only this time, it was my grandfather yelling at my mother in the kitchen while my grandmother sat at the table looking down at her clasped hands.

“DeAnna! We have been more than patient with you, but you have two kids here your mother and I are raising. We love Jenna and Jack, but we are not their mother. They need you. We love you and we want to get you some help, but this has got to stop! It’s 3 A.M. on a Wednesday morning and here you are high as a kite and smelling like a bar room floor! This has got to stop!”

My mother, disheveled, makeup running down her face, now swollen with crying, screamed something back hysterically at my grandfather, I don’t remember what; I just remember noise. She then reached for a butcher knife from the wood block on the counter.

“Fine then! I will just kill myself!” she screamed, and before she could do anything, Papa James went into action. He was a soldier in the war, and he launched into some kind of hand to hand military combat move on my mother to get the knife away from her, and I screamed as the knife hit the floor and he pinned her wrist to the counter. My grandmother then noticed me standing in the shadows watching all of this unfold, and with tremendous speed, was out of her chair at the table and ushering me down the hall back to bed with reassuring words and again, I felt safe and secure. My grandmother gently explained to me that my mother was sad and having a bad night, and Papa Jack made sure she didn’t hurt herself. To a nine-year-old it was simple and made sense, so I had nothing to fear.

Only, I was wrong. I had everything to fear because of this incident.

The incident in the kitchen left my mother with a broken wrist, and from that moment on, my loving, albeit flighty party animal mother, was a bitter, hateful woman. By the end of the week, she had moved Jack and I into a hovel of a two bedroom apartment in the worst part of the city, and for the next couple of months we were introduced to a revolving door of men. A couple of those men had no problem being inappropriate with a little girl while her mother slept it off. Jack and I were left there alone to fend for ourselves. Our grandparents were all but cut out of our lives, and my mother’s only goal was to prove to them she could keep us alive without their help, so the bar was set pretty low.

They tried to help us, but my mother would make it nearly impossible and back in those days, kids weren’t really all that protected. Being a nine-year-old latchkey kid wasn’t really seen as a big deal, and people didn’t want to interfere in private lives.

My father’s hands were pretty tied over 2,000 miles away, but my grandparents must have said something to him, because one night, he was on the doorstep of our shoddy little apartment.

“Get your brother and get in the car,” he said softly, but in a tone that meant business.

We walked out to a waiting cab, and my father took us downtown to a nice hotel. Jack and I didn’t pack anything, so my father took us to the mall and we went on a little shopping spree, then back to the hotel. My father then very gently asked us what had been going on since we left our grandparents house, and we told him. It just came pouring out of me. I told him everything.

By the end of the week, we were living in a huge five bedroom house in Hamptonville, and I was enrolled in the Carver Prep Academy, the school of choice for my neighborhood full of doctors and lawyers. I asked my father why we didn’t just go back to our old house in Malibu, and I can’t remember the cockamamie story he told us, but I would later learn he didn’t go back to California because he had done a stint in rehab after we left, and couldn’t be around the temptation anymore.

So off to the Carver Prep Academy Jack and I went, and my father decided to raise us on his own. My sense of safety had returned, and I looked forward to another adventure as I felt the stiff plaid of my kilt, and the crispness of the white, starched shirt with the Peter Pan collar against my skin. My father couldn’t do anything with my almost waist-length curly strawberry blonde hair, so he bought me a blue headband that matched my kilt and let me wear it down.

And there I was, a nine-year-old girl from Malibu who just went through a harrowing three months, starting life over for the second time in half a year.

Ryan

It was a cold but sunny March day when we were sitting in Mr. Goldstein’s fourth grade class during our silent reading hour. I sat in the back of the classroom by the terrarium that enclosed our class pet iguana, Mortimer. I liked sitting back there because if I got bored, I could just watch Mortimer eat crickets or drink water, or daydream out the window. I was a good student, so I seemed to have a lot of free time on my hands. Like in this particular moment, I can remember that I was completely finished with my latest library book, a Hardy Boys mystery, and I was watching Mortimer blink wondering why lizards don’t have eyelashes if they lived in sandy places.

Clear as a bell, I remember this segment of my daydream being interrupted by the creak of the classroom door and the principal, Mr. Peterson, walking in to the classroom with a girl with long, curly reddish blonde hair and giant blue eyes. She had a splash of freckles across her nose, and her teeth were very white when she shyly smiled at Mr. Goldstein.

Mr. Peterson and Mr. Goldstein conversed briefly through whispers, and Mr. Goldstein told one of his horrible silly jokes to the new girl which made her smile again and give a quiet giggle, then he turned to the class and cleared his throat as Mr. Peterson clacked the heels of his loafers on the floor while he exited the room, closing the door behind him.

“Class, we have a new student! All the way from California! This is Jenna McKenzie. Be nice to her, everyone. Being the new kid is hard,” Mr. Goldstein scanned the room for an empty desk, there were two, one by me, and one by Johnny Beltmore, the biggest jerk in the 4thgrade. Secretly, I hoped he would sit her next to Johnny, because I liked being alone with Mortimer back here in my corner.

“Hmmm, let’s see….” Mr. Goldstein thought aloud, “Jennings or Beltmore. Both a disaster.”

The class laughed. Mr. Goldstein might have been a goof, but he was a great equalizer to nine and ten-year-olds. He knew how the hierarchy of children worked, and didn’t allow it anywhere near his classroom.

“Well, Miss McKenzie, let’s put you over here by Mr. Beltmore. Maybe you can help with his caveman tendencies.”

The class laughed again, while Jenna took her seat next Johnny Beltmore who was now blushing red from his neck up with embarrassment. I made a mental note to avoid him at lunch and recess because he would be in a foul mood and looking a punching bag. My group of nerds was usually his primary target, and I might have to sacrifice my friend Robbie to the beast to save myself.

After that moment, I didn’t really think of Jenna McKenzie very much, because well, I was a nine-year-old boy, and I was really only interested in Ghostbusters and Nintendo. Jenna was adopted into the group of pretty girls who would practice their cheerleading on the blacktop during recess while Johnny Beltmore and his ilk played touch football. I do remember her catching my eye a lot though. Not because she was pretty or anything, I didn’t even notice girls were anything but gross at this particular moment in time, but because she was smart and finished her work early like I did, and our eyes would often meet scanning the room. She could raise one eyebrow, and when we would lock eyes, she would always cock that eyebrow at me and smirk, then look around the room for something better to look at.

She also managed to tame the savage beast that was Johnny Beltmore. Something about her made him respect her, probably because she was smart and single handedly prevented him from repeating the fourth grade again, but whenever he would get that look in his eye and come over to my band of misfit friends with his gang of over grown goons with early developing secondary sex characteristics, Jenna would always yell, “Knock it off, Johnny!” and like a labrador hearing a dog whistle, he would turn around and find something different to do.

Jenna McKenzie was just another girl in Mr. Goldstein’s class until a Mother’s Day project changed everything. I was the only left handed kid in the class, so when the basket of scissors was brought out, the ones with the green handles were mine.

“Don’t forget to give Jennings his nerd scissors!” Beltmore would shout to a huge amount of giggles from our peers and a stern glare from Mr. Goldstein.

This would cause me to dread any art projects and especially anything that required the use of scissors. I cringed when I saw Mr. Goldstein open the arts and crafts cabinet and reach for the basket of scissors. Before Beltmore could say anything, I saw Jenna’s hand shoot up like a rocket.

“Yes, Jenna?” Mr. Goldstein asked.

“Mr. Goldstein, do you have a pair of left handed scissors? I can cut right handed, but it always comes out jagged.”

“We have one pair of lefties. You can go sit next to Jennings and share with him for this project.”

I didn’t know it then, but now I know that is the moment I fell in love with Jenna McKenzie.

Since that moment in the fourth grade, Jenna and I would spend the next ten years attached at the hip. We were buddies first, mostly because we didn’t even know what love was yet.

There was a toughness about her that was well beyond her years. She seemed weary of the world before her tenth birthday, and not much surprised her. People would believe it was a snobby or standoffish quality she possessed, but I knew it was a very, “been there, done that, saw it all,” acceptance that she had lived more and seen more than many of us ever would. I suppose many would be angry, bitter, or even melancholy, but Jenna possessed none of that.

She was, however, fiercely protective of me and her little brother, Jack. Jack was two years younger than us, and much like me, a geek of epic proportions. Even though we went to a posh prep school, we all lived in a neighborhood only a few blocks away and walked to and from school in a pack. It included Johnny Beltmore, his little brother Danny, Jack, Jenna, me, and three other neighborhood kids.

Jack and I were nerds, but the difference between us was the fact I was quiet and Jack looked for trouble. The kid couldn’t keep his mouth shut if he tried. He was one mouthy little pipsqueak who wouldn’t learn no matter how much he got pummeled on a daily basis.

Our walks to and from school were peaceful for the most part. It was mostly small talk about what the Vikings or Twins were doing, what everyone was doing after school, and arguing who was better, Vanilla Ice or M.C. Hammer. Jenna was the only girl in the neighborhood, and had no problem holding her own with the boys.

There was one walk home from school that stands out in particular, and I think it was the first time I felt the pangs of a crush on Jenna. It was toward the end of 5thgrade and the weather was getting warm enough for the crabapple trees to bloom. We had our jackets off, tied around our waists, giving us a bit of a drunken feeling as the first warm rays of spring sunshine hit our arms after a long Minnesota winter of being bundled up in endless layers. We were chattering and happy as we ambled down the side streets of our neighborhood when Jack and Danny Beltmore got into a scrum behind us.

I don’t know what happened specifically, but I’m sure it was the usual cringe inducing statement from Jack followed by some kind of physical aggression from Danny, since… well… his last name was Beltmore… that eventually dissolved into Danny pelting Jack with the soggy, rotten crabapples dropped from the trees the previous fall. The berries leaving pink splotches on the back of Jack’s white oxford shirt. Jack began whimpering as the barrage of crabapple bullets hit him now as Danny was joined by the other boys.

Like a blonde flash, Jenna dropped her book bag and ran to the back of the group where the little brothers were and pushed Danny to the ground with both hands. She stood over her him, fists clenched, staring him down with a ferocity you wouldn’t expect from a ten year old girl.

“Stop picking on Jack!” she yelled down to the clearly stunned Danny Beltmore who tried to explain himself, but Jenna wasn’t having it. Leaving Danny on the ground as all of us looked on speechless and frozen, Jenna spun on her heels, grabbed Jack by the arm, told him to shut up. She then marched past us picking up her book bag; continuing home with Jack’s arm still in her grip, not looking back at any of us.

“Holy shit,” Johnny whistled under his breath echoing most of our sentiments. The rest of us continued home in silence to our houses. I don’t think any of us had seen a girl act like that before. Jack McKenzie was a little jerk, but Jenna wasn’t about to let Danny Beltmore humiliate him.

After that moment, Jenna McKenzie became my Joan of Arc of sorts. My feelings went from, “oh she’s a cool girl and not gross,” to full fledged first crush territory. She was my goddess, my patron saint of the nerd battle. She single handedly saved us poindexters from Beltmore torture. Here I was walking home in peace for a solid year since she had moved to Hamptonville! I hadn’t had my underwear pulled over my head nor was I dunked into a toilet bowl since her arrival.

I summoned all of my courage that evening and wrote her a note with a plan to leave it in her desk after lunch the next day.

Dear Jenna,

I like you. You are smart and brave.

Ryan Jennings

There you have it. A ten year old boy’s declaration of love and it took me nearly five hours to write that. I had never been so terrified of doing anything in my life until the moment after lunch when everyone was filing back into our classroom, and I deftly tossed the note, folded like a triangle, into her desk. I sat three seats behind her, and watched her reach into her desk and pull out the note as she got out her Language Arts textbook. Our 5thgrade teacher, Mrs. Schrelli was the super villain to end all super villains, so Jenna smartly put the note in her pencil case to read later. I silently thanked her for that, as I don’t think I would have survived the humiliation of an entire class hearing the two sentences I wrote.

We walked home from school that afternoon as we always did, nothing seeming different between any of us, so I wasn’t sure Jenna had even read my note yet. But I would get my answer later that day. I was down in the rec-room playing video games when I heard our doorbell and my mother announcing Jenna.

“Ryan! Jenna is here!”

Immediately my stomach dropped to my knees and my heart began to race, but you know, you gotta play it cool when you’re ten and stuff, so I took my time making my way up the stairs to the front door where Jenna was standing, still in her school uniform. Her big blue eyes were serious which only worsened my condition.

“Hey,” she said softly.

“Hey,” I said praying now wouldn’t be the time my voice would break, “You wanna play Zelda?”

“Sure,” she shrugged and followed me down the stairs.

“I’ll bring you guys a snack in a little while,” my mother said heading into the kitchen. Again, like any other afternoon. I was having an existential life moment, but to the outside world, it was just Jenna McKenzie coming over to play Legend of Zelda and drink chocolate milk until the street lights came on and she had to go home.

We sat on the couch and started playing the game. We didn’t say much to each other, but then again we never really said much to each other. Since that day in Mr. Goldstein’s class, we always had an unspoken understanding. She came over to my house to play, I went over to her house to play. We played with the other kids in the neighborhood. We walked to and from school together. The deepest thing I knew about Jenna was that her mother didn’t live with her and my parents whispered about it a lot.

“I got your note today,” she suddenly said without taking her eyes off the television.

Immediately my palms got sweaty and my heart started to race. I didn’t say anything.

“You like me?” she asked still not looking at me.

“Yes,” I managed to choke out.

“Okay,” she shrugged, “Thank you.”

We kept playing the game for a few more minutes, which to me felt like years.

“I like you too, Ryan,” she finally said quietly.

That’s when we took our eyes off the video game and looked at one another. She still had that serious look in her eyes, but she smiled, and turned her head to the sound of my mother’s footsteps coming down the stairs with our snack.

That look would be the look that would both give me life and kill me over the next ten years. It was the look she gave me before our first kiss behind the skating rink when we were twelve. It was the look she gave me our Freshman year in high school when she broke up with me on my birthday to date some football lunkhead. It was the look she gave me when that guy broke her heart and I took her out for an ice cream cone. It was the look she gave me when we got back together. When we both got our acceptance letters from the University of Minnesota and opened them together, I got that look. When I slipped a promise ring on her finger after we graduated high school, she gave me the same serious gaze with a smile.

As I stood there in the airport terminal begging her not to get on the plane to Los Angeles a week before we were supposed to leave for college, it was the look she gave me before she turned around and walked onto the jetway.

“Jenna!” I called out after her as she walked away. She turned and looked at me one last time, smiled, mouthed “thank you” and got on her plane leaving me behind.

Jenna

I got on the plane to spare him.

I got on the plane to save him from me.

Ryan Jennings loved me in a pure and simple way and my life was complicated. I lived in a world where everything was pretty on the outside and falling apart on the inside. We lived in the rich neighborhood. Everyone thought it was really cool that rock stars would be at my house every now and then meeting with my dad. But no one knew what was going on behind closed doors.

Actually, no…I take that back. I do think some of the mothers knew things weren’t always okay for me at home because mothers know these things. Ryan’s mother kept an especially watchful eye on me. She knew about the weeks on end my father would disappear for during a relapse. Suddenly I would be taking care of Jack and myself, Dad leaving an envelope of cash on the table to pay bills and buy groceries with, and I wouldn’t see him for an entire season sometimes. Or the times my mother would just appear in our driveway completely wasted and screaming for us only to pass out on the lawn and leave in the morning. We were a spectacle, and the embarrassment of my parents and situation weighed on me tremendously and caused me to overcompensate by being perfect and the best at everything.

We found out I could sing when I was eleven. My dad was goofing on the piano and I just started singing along. He stopped and looked at me. I thought I had done something wrong, but then he started playing all of these different songs and having me sing, and it went on for hours until I was almost hoarse.

Obviously since it was in my genes, music and signing became a refuge for me, and it also gave me a way to sort of manage my father. If I were performing in a school production, I could at least count on him to come home from whatever mess he was finding himself in at the time.

My relationship with my mother never recovered from the initial exodus from California. She sank deeper and deeper into addiction and chaos, and it wound up decimating my grandparents. Both would die before I was a teenager, from a broken heart, as my father put it. I think my father’s heart was also broken because while he tried so hard to be a good parent to us and stay sober, he simply couldn’t let my mother go and heal.

Everything and everyone in Hamptonville was so perfect, the simple mortification of anyone knowing what my life was really like was all the motivation I needed to make it look like everything was as beautiful as everyone else’s life. I mean, look at Ryan’s family. His dad was the sweetest man in the world, a pediatrician, and his mother adored him. They were at every school function, game, and Ryan never had to go to sleep wondering where they were or what would happen to him if something terrible happened to them. He didn’t have nightmares from the memories of traumatic experiences.

So by high school I became an overachieving workaholic to distract from the reality that was my dysfunctional life. I desperately wanted to be my idea of normal like the Jennings family. I was a cheerleader, sang in school musicals and the choir, got straight A’s and decided I was going to the University of Minnesota with Ryan to major in education and become a teacher. I didn’t have a passion for any of it, actually. I really did love being on stage performing, but I wanted quiet and normal more than I wanted what I loved. Stability was worth the sacrifice.

They say in a relationship, there’s one who loves the other more. I think because I was so guarded and aloof people thought Ryan loved me more than I loved him, but that couldn’t be further than the truth. I probably existed for Ryan. He was my rock, my constant, my stability. I loved Ryan so much it terrified me. Usually I could push through the fear and know it was right, until a week before we were supposed to go off to school together.

The phone rang at 3:30am on a Sunday morning.

The phone kept ringing until I got up and answered it. My father had been on the right track for the last couple of months and was home, but he wasn’t answering.

I picked up the handset on my nightstand, “Hello?” I answered groggily.

“Hi,” a man’s voice answered, “This is Officer Johansson from the Minnesota State Police. I am looking for Michael McKenzie.”

“Hang on,” I said setting the phone on the table and getting out of bed to go down the hall to my father’s room. I knocked on the door.

“Daddy, there’s someone from the police on the phone,” I said through the door after I knocked. I opened the door to see my dad stirring and reaching over to his nightstand to turn on the light.

“It’s 3 in the morning? Is Jack home?” he asked rubbing his eyes.

“Yeah, he got in at midnight,” I said standing in the doorway.

My dad leaned over and grabbed the cordless phone on the nightstand next to the clock, “Hello, this is Mike McKenzie.”

I knew it was bad news because my father went from being annoyed to sitting upright in bed running his hands through his hair, “Oh, no. Oh Deanna, no. What am I going to tell the kids?” he wondered aloud, his eyes welling up with tears.

My guts churned and I felt the room start to spin. Middle of the night phone calls mentioning my mother and my father holding back tears only meant one thing. Something horrible had happened. My knees gave way, and I felt myself slide down the doorway of my father’s bedroom onto the floor.

I heard my father call out for me, the phone being set down on the table, and came to with him on the floor with me crying.

“She’s gone, Jenna. Oh Deanna, why?!” he cried. I don’t know how long we were huddled on the floor; him crying and me in shock.

My mother was dead. They had found her in a hotel room in a seedy part of Minneapolis overdosed on heroin.

I didn’t say anything to Ryan. Jack took it especially hard. My father, Jack, and I made arrangements very quietly. There would be no service. She was an only child and with her parents gone, we didn’t even know who to call for a service. We had a private viewing at the funeral home, just the three of us, and then she was buried next to my grandparents.

Something shattered in me when I looked at my mother laying in the casket. The love, abandonment, anger, trauma, and truth of my life washed over me. I looked at the woman who was the most beautiful I had ever seen when I was a little girl; tall, tanned, dark hair, dark eyes people always confused her for Cher when we lived in California. And here she was laying there in a casket, thin, hair dull and graying… the grief I felt in that moment took my breath away. I knew I could never go through this again. I could never lose someone I loved like this. I immediately thought of Ryan. If something ever happened to Ryan I would never recover. If I ever had to look at someone I loved in a casket again, I would never recover.

After my mother’s burial, I walked into my Dad’s music room. He was sitting in a chair staring out the window. I could feel a bender coming on. He had never stopped loving her or let her go. I could at least try to save one parent.

“Daddy, I don’t want to go to college,” I said.

“What?” he swiveled around in his chair to look at me, “Since when? I thought you and Ryan were all about being Golden Gophers and living that all American dream.”

“I want to sing,” I said, “I want to go to L.A. instead. Can you help me with that?”

His eyes lit up as if I had just given him a new reason to live, “Yes! Ok, are you sure? You can always go back to school, but yes! Yes! You are so talented. Ok, let me call Tom over at Sony and see what we can line up for you.”

He jumped out of the chair and ran over to hug me, “Oh my sweet girl. It’s going to be okay. Ryan is a good kid, but he’s not rock n roll enough for you, ya know? You’re destined for so much more than a bachelor’s degree and a nine to five. You’re my girl.”

It didn’t feel right. It felt worse than wrong. I knew I was making the absolute worst decision, but I was operating on a fear of loss so debilitating I would throw Ryan away before he could be lost, and try to save my father. It was the only thing I knew how to do at eighteen years old.

So when Ryan looked at me at the gate to my flight out to Los Angeles and begged me to stay, I looked into his dark, almost black eyes, and spared both of us. He deserved a happy life with a co-ed from a good family who would teach third grade. Not the daughter of two junkies about to lose her own footing. I loved him more than that. I loved him more than myself.

I wanted him to know it was okay. This was for the best. When he called out to me one last time as I walked down the jetway to the plane, I turned around, saw those eyes that always made me feel so safe, smiled, and got on the plane.

I got on the plane.