I was in the backseat of a cab, clear across the country in Huntington Beach, California, when my phone started blowing up. The vibrations against my thigh felt urgent and angry, which was pretty much how I pictured my dad at the other end of the call. I didn’t even have to check the screen to know it was him. He was the only person who had my new number, thanks to the letter I’d left in his home office. It should go without saying that I didn’t bring my regular phone, fully loaded with all the best tracking apps, along on the trip. I wouldn’t have made it ten miles if I’d taken it with me.
The nerves in my stomach intensified when the buzzing stopped and the call went to voice mail. I could clearly picture my dad pacing in his office, red-faced with rage and shouting at Liz or Isaacs or whoever had the misfortune to be nearby. He’d be staring down at the phone clenched in his hand, typing like his fingers were missiles. He wouldn’t bother to leave a voice message; it wasn’t his style and he knew I didn’t listen to them. Instead, he would fire off about a million pissed off texts.
Sure enough, my phone came alive with several quick bursts of vibrations that signified new text messages. I held my breath as I pulled my phone out to read them.
Answer your fucking phone
Leah this is not a joke. Where are you?
Call me back NOW
They went on and on, even making an obviously empty threat to get the police involved. I couldn’t put him off forever, but the cab was fast approaching my mom’s house and there was no time for the confrontation that would inevitably take place. Also, if I was being honest, I wasn’t quite ready to deal with it. To buy some time, I sent a quick reply.
I’m ok. Can’t call right now. Give me an hour and I will. Promise.
Then I shut the phone off and tried to focus on the scenery outside the window, but I was still too wired to take much of it in. We passed by a neatly lined row of tall palm trees, and clean sidewalks that were nearly empty except for the occasional jogger or stroller-pushing mom. The driver pulled into a neighborhood that was modest by Orange County standards, with cute houses nestled closely together, all in shades of beige, blue, or green. The cab slowed and came to a stop in front of a grayish blue house, and my breath caught when I spotted my mom standing there waiting by the curb. She had her hands folded together in front of her chest like an excited little kid. I climbed out and her arms were around me instantly, just as easily as if she saw me every day, though it had been almost six years. Stunned, I tried to take a breath and inhaled the scent of expensive perfume and salty ocean.
“Leah.” She said my name like it was a statement in itself, full of heavy meaning I wasn’t prepared to delve into. Slowly, I let myself relax into her embrace.
She pulled back just enough to meet my eyes, but her arms stayed locked in place around me. “Does your dad know yet?”
“Yeah. I left him a letter, and I know he’s found it because he’s been calling and texting non-stop.”
“Is he pissed?” She sounded kind of amused by this possibility.
With a nervous laugh, I said, “Let’s just say I’m glad I’m three thousand miles away from him right now.”
She chuckled, confirming her amusement of the situation, and then she brushed some hair out of my eyes. “God, it’s so good to see you. You look beautiful.”
“So do you.” It was the truth. Even with no makeup and casually messy blond hair spilling around her face, she looked amazing. She was forty-two but seemed younger. It wasn’t just the clear, flawless skin or the long, toned legs, though those things helped. My mom had always had a vulnerability about her, and this breathless sort of excitement that most people lost somewhere along the way. I couldn’t imagine her ever being old.
In contrast, I was short with olive skin and dark brown hair, all courtesy of my Italian dad. And I was wary of almost everything. I overanalyzed things and talked myself out of them before they even came into play. Ditching my bodyguard and flying to California was the only reckless thing I’d ever done, and I was still kind of amazed that I’d actually gone through with it. Mom had invited me out plenty of times, but that subject was pretty much off-limits with my dad. I hadn’t seen her since she’d come to New York when I was fifteen, after what my dad used to refer to as “the incident.” Before he’d stopped referring to it at all.
“Get your suitcase,” she said, releasing me with what felt like reluctance. “Let’s go inside.”
I paid the driver in cash, then followed my mom up the cement path that led to her front porch. I took in little details of her house along the way: retro yellow metal chairs on the porch, lush green plants overflowing from orange ceramic pots, two beer bottles on a tiny white table next to the door. The red front door was at the center of it all, carelessly left open so the screen door was the only thing that offered the house any protection. Then Mom pulled that door open, too, holding it so I could pull my suitcase through, and my inspection expanded to the interior of the house. It was small but had a wide open layout, with high vaulted ceilings and sun pouring in through the windows, everything bright and inviting. The front room had been decorated with plush white furniture and smooth mahogany accent tables, and I recognized some of Mom’s art on the walls. The kitchen was located beyond the front room but had no walls or borders to section it off, just a small breakfast bar where a shirtless guy was spooning cereal from a bowl. I couldn’t help but do a double take when I saw him sitting there, with rays of the morning sun coming in so strongly through the back windows that they almost washed him out. Almost.
“Oh, that’s just Copper,” Mom said. “Copper, look. It’s my baby girl, Leah.”
Copper looked up without much interest. His tousled brown hair looked like it had been slept on recently, and his smooth face had the baby beginnings of a beard. With his refined features and bored, apathetic expression, he looked like nearly every guy I’d gone to prep school with. And he didn’t look much older than they were, either. He was mid to late twenties, at most. Not that I cared who my mom dated or the age of her boyfriends, but there was something about this guy that immediately put me off.
Then his eyes swept over my body, and he said, “Doesn’t look like a baby to me.” Yeah. There it was.
“Copper, stop. You’re not funny.” She glanced back at me. “Just ignore him. Come upstairs, we’ll get you all set up in the guest room.”
After some initial weirdness, being with my mom felt easy and natural, like we were together all the time. She showed me to the guest room so I could drop off my suitcase, then led me across the hall into her room, which was much larger and had a small balcony in back. As she was telling me the story of how she’d had the balcony installed a couple of years ago, I stepped outside and placed my hands on the rail, looking over the fenceless back yard below. Mom came out behind me, still talking.
“It’s come in handy a couple of times, too. When you have a psychotic ex downstairs waving a gun around and trashing the place, those columns have a surprising amount of traction to get you down. I broke a nail and got a few splinters, but it was worth it.”
“What?” I veered my head toward her, surprised by what she’d just said and the casual way she’d delivered it, like it was something that happened to her every day.
“Oh, it’s fine,” she said, waving a hand. “He calmed down and eventually got over it. He’s actually married to my friend Amanda now. Well, I should say former friend, but that didn’t have anything to do with him. God, no. I would never fight over a man. I was happy to have him off my hands. But she was this klepto and pathological liar, and I can’t have people like that around. My house is always open to my friends, so I have to be able to trust them, you know? I don’t have room for that kind of drama.”
I nodded, kind of unsure how to respond to that. Luckily, I didn’t have to say anything, because she quickly moved on.
“God, I’m sorry.” She said this with a light, breathless laugh that would have looked like nervousness on anyone else. “I know I’m talking your ear off, but I’m just excited. I can’t believe you’re really here. Go get your swim suit on and we’ll go to the beach. I know you were wanting to do that.”
A smile hit my face in full force. “Okay. And, yeah. I know what you mean. It still seems kind of unreal that I’m even here.” But it was real, and I was starting to feel lighter as this finally set in. The layer of apprehension I’d been carrying was starting to fall away, swept off into the corner like dust, making things clean and shiny and new again. This was something I remembered about my mom, something I hadn’t even realized I missed. She made everything feel like it was going to be okay.
Then my phone started buzzing again. Exhaling in a short puff of air, I fished my phone out and said, “I need to take this. It’s my dad.”
Her whole body reared back in response. “Oh. Okay. Come find me downstairs when you’re done.” With that, she made a quick escape, and my thumb hovered over the screen. I couldn’t put it off forever, though, so I quickly swiped to answer and brought the phone to my ear.
“What the fuck, Leah?” The words were fast-paced and furious, and I couldn’t help but flinch. “Where the hell are you?”
As calmly as I could, I said, “In California.” Sometimes I tried to respond to my father’s temper with a calm, even voice, as if it would help to offset his anger. It never really worked, though. Usually it just ended with both of us yelling. “I explained everything in the letter.”
“I was hoping that was some sick joke. I couldn’t believe you would actually do something this stupid. Listen, you need to get back to the airport and on a plane right this minute or there are going to be serious consequences.”
Tightening my resolve, I shook my head. Obviously, he couldn’t see me, but it seemed to help my voice stay firm. “I’m not coming home, Dad. Not yet. I’m sorry, but I’ve made up my mind about this.”
An angry burst of cursing erupted then, and I pulled the phone back to protect my eardrum while he got it all out. I knew this had to be killing him. More than anything else, my dad hated being in situations he couldn’t meticulously control, and that was amplified by about a thousand when it involved me. Cautiously putting the phone back to my ear, I heard him saying, “I’m so pissed off at you I can hardly think. You’re still under my roof, and you can’t just do whatever the hell you want.”
“Dad, first of all, I’m twenty-one years old. I have one year of school left and then I’ll be out in the world, working and living life all on my own. What are you going to do then? You can’t keep treating me like a child.”
“Oh, don’t give me that crap. You are a child. You don’t know anything about the world and what kind of people are out there. You may be a legal adult but that means shit while you’re under my roof and my bank account.”
“I don’t know anything about the world because you never let me experience it.” I could feel myself getting emotional and knew he could hear it in my voice, and I hated it because he would use that to discount what I was saying. But I couldn’t keep it in check. “I’m not allowed off campus without a guard, and even there you have campus security watch me. I can’t so much as get a paper cut without it getting back to you. I need space, and privacy, but you never listen to me, you never let up with it…”
He cut me off, his voice firm and unwavering. “I’m not going to apologize for keeping you safe. I do the same for Eleanor and she never complains. You know, if you wanted space, there are dozens of less drastic ways you could have achieved it than running off, by yourself, to that woman’s house in fucking Los Angeles.”
“She’s not that woman,” I hissed, darting my eyes toward the door in some paranoid fear that she would overhear the conversation. “She’s my mom, and I’ve asked you multiple times if I could visit her. I would have taken Isaacs, I would have done everything your way, but you said no. Every single time. It isn’t right. She’s my mother and I have a right to see her. You can’t keep me from her forever.”
“Jesus Christ,” he said, and his tone dipped into something I was entirely unfamiliar with. Something almost like defeat. “I really wish you wouldn’t have done this, Leah.”
Some of my anger started to deflate, just like that. “Look, I’ll be okay. I promise. If you’ll just look at this rationally you’ll see it’s not that bad. I just want to spend a little time with my mom. I’m with her at her house. I’ll be safe.”
He gave a short laugh that sounded dry and bitter in my ear. “You’re not safe there. You don’t even know what that means. No. I’m not letting this happen.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. And then I said, “You don’t have a choice. I’m not coming home.”
Slowly, he repeated, “I don’t have a choice?” His voice sharpened with this, and I knew then that he wasn’t anywhere close to defeated. “You want to take a gamble on that? Let me spell this out for you, Leah. If you’re not back home by tomorrow, I will pull your ass out of school. You think I’m joking? Try me. I won’t pay your tuition. I won’t pay your room and board. I won’t pay for anything.”
I scoffed, even as I felt dread start to pinch my stomach in. “You won’t do that.”
“Oh, I will do that. I know you don’t see it now, but this is for your own good. I’m trying to protect you. Come home and we can talk about finding safe new ways to explore the freedom that comes with adulthood. But you have to show me you’re an adult first. I don’t give a flying fuck about the law. Until you’re paying your own way in this world, you’re a kid, and you answer to me.”
I shook my head, trying to control the temper that had been directly inherited from him. “This is bullshit, Dad. This is why I ran away. This is your fault. I can’t live like this anymore, and I won’t. So go ahead and cut me off if that’s what you think you need to do. I don’t want anything from you if you feel like it means you own me. I don’t answer to you, and I’m done talking about it. I’m going to go spend time with my mother now. Goodbye.”
He started to say something, but I ended the call before I could hear what it was. Almost immediately, the phone started ringing again, so I swiped to reject and powered the phone off. And then I stood in the still aftermath, the impact of my final words ringing through my ears. What had I just done? I felt stunned and exhausted and maybe a little proud of myself, even with suspicion dawning underneath it all that I’d just made things so much worse.
After getting changed for the beach, I found my mom on the back patio with Copper and an unfamiliar girl who looked about my age. They were seated around the patio table, talking quietly while the new girl took lazy drags off a cigarette. She had her dark blond hair twisted into long dreads and wore black liner heavy around her eyes. Her body was so languid it barely looked like she was awake.
“Hey, baby,” Mom said as I slid the door shut behind me. “How’d it go?”
I shrugged, somewhat self-conscious about discussing it in front of people I didn’t know. “He was pissed. He said he was going to cut me off if I don’t come home.”
Mom rolled her eyes and waved her hand in that way she had of brushing things off as unimportant. “He’ll get over it. I mean, he’ll probably be super mad about it for awhile, but he’d die before he let you go.”
I didn’t know whether to feel comforted or alarmed by that, because it was probably true. And, yeah, I knew there was next to no chance he’d actually cut me off, but that didn’t mean the consequences of this wouldn’t be catastrophic.
“Anyway, just forget about it for now. Let him cool off. Come meet Merc.” She gestured to the new girl, who coolly looked over at me, squinting a bit against the sun.
“Hey,” she said.
“Merc’s a roadie for West Asylum. They’re getting ready to go on tour and I’m going to miss her like crazy.”
“Only for a month.” Merc’s voice softened as she addressed my mom. “We’ll be back before you get a chance to miss me. That reminds me, though. Do you mind if I crash here tonight? Kev is having that girl Julie over, and he basically kicked me and Rob out for the night.”
“You know you don’t have to ask. Leah’s staying in the guest room, though, so all I can offer you is the couch.”
Merc shrugged, unbothered. “It’s cool. Probably would have ended up passing out there after the thing tonight, anyway.”
I had taken the remaining seat during this exchange, and I looked over to my mom. “What thing tonight?”
“Oh, I thought I told you. I’m having a few people over tonight. I wanted everyone to meet you.”
Merc didn’t look at me at all during this exchange, just peered at the cigarette she was lifting to her lips, as if smoking took every bit of her concentration. Copper, on the other hand, watched me in a quiet, fixed way that made me profoundly uncomfortable. Would all my mom’s friends be like these two? “No, you didn’t tell me.”
“Oh. Sorry. Are you okay with it?”
Obviously, I couldn’t say no. I wasn’t even a hundred percent sure I wanted to. This was the sort of thing I wanted to be doing this summer, after all. A party would be my chance to meet people and start crossing experiences off my list. And, more importantly, it would help to take my mind off the conversation I’d just had with my dad. “Yeah,” I said, trying to muster up some enthusiasm. “Absolutely.”
“I want to show you a good time while you’re here,” she said with a quick, crooked smile. She seemed more relaxed now, like she’d finally started to run out of steam. Then I saw her trying to hide a deep yawn behind the back of her hand, and I realized that maybe she was just tired. “Do you mind if we do the beach tomorrow? I didn’t notice how late it’s getting, and I want to sneak in a quick nap before getting ready for tonight.”
I tried to keep the surprise and disappointment off my face. It was barely past noon. And honestly, if we were talking about good times, a party seriously paled in comparison to the thought of hanging out at the beach. “Sure.”
“I would sell my soul for a nap right now,” Merc said, bringing her boot up so she could ground her cigarette out on the sole. “I didn’t get any sleep last night. I’m gonna lay on the couch for a minute and see what happens.”
I stared mutely at their backs as they went inside, Merc talking the whole time about some guy named Kev and what a dick he was. The back door slid shut behind them, cutting off their voices and leaving me alone…with Copper. Who was still staring at me from across the patio table like a fucking creep. Yeah, no way. I was not staying here with this guy while my mom napped upstairs. Not caring how rude I was being, because he’d been nothing but rude to me, I wordlessly got up and went inside to grab my tote bag from where I’d left it on the kitchen table. With or without my mom, I was going to the beach.