Excerpt from For the Love of Mercy
The room spins as I lie on my back staring at the stark white ceiling. Numb. My thoughts are cold and empty even as Ginger's warm, soft skin stirs beneath my arms. Her fire-red hair glides across my biceps as I wiggle her away. Hot breath escaping from her parted lips tickles my armpits. She's gorgeous, my platonic friend. I could have her anytime and anywhere if I wanted. That's the beauty and the curse of our relationship.
Moaning, she slips a hand across my bare chest, simultaneously wrapping her mile-long legs around mine beneath the sheets. She's a bodybuilder and dance instructor. She'd be great for somebody, just not me. She likes to snuggle, so I let her. She thinks it will someday make me change my mind about us.
Ginger is my one and only confidante. She helps keep me in check. When our "arrangement"—in her eyes we are boyfriend and girlfriend in all aspects, minus any sex or physical affection—just surpassed a three-year milestone, our celebration included her prancing around her apartment in nothing but my dark red hoodie and silk panties the color of her hair. After I smiled and handed her a robe to cover herself, she nestled into my arm and whispered those three little words I've answered time and again during the course of whatever this is we're doing: "Why can't we?"
"You know why," is always my response. I kissed her on the forehead—per usual when she tiptoes into this territory—and waited for her to fall asleep.
As she lies sleeping I stare into oblivion, contemplating the reasons why I'm so fucked up. Psychologists have labeled me as RAD, short for Reactive Attachment Disorder. The label given to me when I was very young helped explain to my parents why a child welcomed into their home, loved and nurtured unconditionally, could be so void of emotion and unable to display a deep and lasting connection.
Somehow they've managed to never give up on me. Lately, they've been hounding me to commit to something. Anything. Like decide on a college major. And even more pressing, which to attend, of the top three that have offered admission: Brown, Harvard or Stanford. The trouble with having everything is that you never know what you want. Most guys my age would kill to be in my position. I'd kill to get out of it.
The one thing I do know is that I don't want a committed relationship. How could I? I'm barely committed to myself. I can admit to finding some comfort in knowing that she's here when I need her. Like last night when I arrived on her doorstep after my life and existence as Tyson "Jax" Ridgeton came to a screeching halt.
My world first tilted on its axis when I texted my mom.
"Whrz that box w/ my birth cert stuff?"
"On the top shelf in my walk-in. There's a storage box marked with your name on it. It should be right on top. Use that expensive education we pay for when communicating, please."
My mother is always a stickler for proper grammar. She's an English professor with a PhD.
"k, thx." I texted back, being improper just to goad her.
My birth certificate was right on top. Every time I look at it, I wonder what the original was like. What my parents' names were. Where they lived. Do I resemble them? Do I have their eyes? Nose? Body-type? This certificate is the one issued after I was adopted. My birthparents' names replaced with the names of Anne and Dirk Ridgeton, my parents in every sense of the word.
Crouched beneath the hanging garments in my mother's spacious closet, I shuffled through the papers. My high school diploma, term papers I aced with flying colors, honor roll and society certificates, all stacked neatly inside. Junk I've been awarded through the years.
From the view from the floor, my mother's closet was neat and tidy. Everything in its place. Shoes lined up neatly in cubbyholes. Color-coded clothing. Jewelry straight and organized. A beat up shoebox was tucked in the far corner, concealed behind a row of dresses brushing against the carpet. It would have gone unnoticed had I not kicked my foot from beneath me.
My mother doesn't keep anything old or cluttered. She's notorious for tossing shit or donating things in like-new condition. It was out of place, so I had to look.
Upon removing the lid a warmth spread over me like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. A welcome feeling, as most of my days are cloudy now. My matted and much loved stuffed toy lizard peered up at me with his beady black eyes. I called him Hissy. His limp red tongue hung from the side of his mouth. When I was younger, he was as valuable to me as Woody and Buzz were to Andy in the Toy Story films.
As I continued searching the contents, I found a small t-shirt, toddler size 4T. It had a large faded purple dinosaur screen printed on the front. I certainly don't remember anything about that, thank God! I folded it, placing it back inside the box.
I located a white envelope. Inside were photos of my mom and dad holding me wearing the same girly purple t-shirt. Flipping through, I found pictures of scenery I've never before seen. Not the Chicago skyline I'm accustomed to, but rustic, rolling hills and green pastures. There's one where my mom was wearing a cowboy hat. Who are these people? My mother wouldn't be caught dead wearing something like that these days. Cowboy hats and shiny pearls don't mix.
A chokehold formed around my neck. For a moment I forgot how to breathe as I read my mother's handwriting on the back of a photo. "The day we brought them home." Them? Assuming the note refers to me and the stuffed lizard, I forced air into my chest and flipped over the picture. I wasn't some kid adopted as a baby straight from the hospital. I've always known that I was a preschooler when I was removed from my birthparents' home and placed into the system.
I recognized myself, sitting on what looked like a concrete step, holding Hissy the lizard and wearing that same t-shirt with Barney pasted on the front. That's right, that singing purple dinosaur. My arm was wrapped around a girl, older than me, but with similar facial features. Only she had lots of freckles. More dots than skin. We had matching dark hair and button noses. She was smiling and holding a fiddle in her hands. I was clutching the lizard.
I never really understood what seeing stars meant until I experienced it. I felt light-headed, kind of like when I get buzzed off a shot of vodka. One word cycled through my brain like a broken record. "Them."
Instead of texting, my fingers managed to dial my mom's cell number. Knowing that texting is always my preference, she answered right away. I tried to play it cool, but I knew somehow that the years of asking about how I came to be a Ridgeton—always met with concerned expressions exchanged between my folks—were somehow linked to this photo. Anger and resentment fueled my questions fired at my mother with the force of a machine gun. I used words I never thought possible.
My sweet mother was suddenly my enemy. The keeper of a secret. She had to be. Why else would these things be hidden in a dark corner of her closet? I continued, rapid fire, as the old me bubbled to the surface. The person I fought so hard to keep locked away so my parents would keep me, suddenly back and comfortable in my own skin.
Demanding to know who the girl in the photo was, I threatened to leave and never look back. I assured her I'd be gone before she could make it home through rush hour traffic.
She expertly sidestepped answering the question directly, revealing that the photo was taken in Kentucky. My parents lived there before my father was relocated to sweet home Chicago for his company. Why am I just now finding this out? They lived in some small town called Brush... something or other, my ability to pay close attention clouded by confusion and rage.
Growing outraged as she stumbled for her words, I screamed into the phone, "Answer my fucking question, Mom!"
Her voice tight through the cellular connection, she muttered an audible sigh, muffled with the sound of a throat filled with fluid. "Your sister. Her name is Emma."
That's all I heard before my world broke from its fragile axis, proceeding to spin uncontrollably. I held the power button, ending the call and severing Mom's method of communicating with me.