Step One

By Cheri Boudreau

                This is her third time here. She listens as the big bald man with glasses argues with the guy in the worn out jersey who wears a beanie hat in August. They argue every day, usually because he’s always trying to miss class. The big bald man warns him if he misses one more time he goes to jail.

                She’s bored, delicately balancing her Newport in her hand, studying her chipped blue- silver nail polish. Her foot bounces a baby blue flip flop impatiently. She can’t believe she has to go through this again. None of it ever changes. It’s always the same, writing a written history, watching the story of Bill W, the videos of a priest writing on a chalkboard. No matter where they send her it’s always the same.

                She flicks her cigarette and with her other hand pulls at her stick straight blonde hair. This time it is really not her fault. He did this, lying to the cops, telling them she was drinking and drugging again. Why is it that she’s always being punished for his crimes? He spent the last of their money on the eight balls and that is why their phones got shut off. She confronted him. He was supposed to quit with her. But he never kept his promises.

                The cops showed up when the neighbors got tired of the screaming. It’s true, she did hit him, but not until he called her names- horrible names like her daughter’s father used to- and told her she was worthless and dumb and would never get custody because of her past.

                They took her to jail and she sat there for two days sobbing. He was right. He would get the kids. And she was dumb. Dumb for loving him. Dumb for loving her ex-husband. Dumb for thinking these men would take care of her and her kids.

                But maybe they could work it out?Is he really that bad?He doesn’t hit her like her ex did. And he loves their son. He works really hard at the garage and is it a really big deal if he wants to smoke up? Sure, he talks shit, but only when she doesn’t stay out of his way. And he’s good to Mackayla. Most of the time.

                It was so much worse with her ex. He never let her go anywhere without him. Not even out to the mailbox. He even made her keep the door open when she used the bathroom. She could never do anything alone.

                When the cops came her ex convinced her to take the fall. They would go easy on her because she was pregnant. And what would she do if he was in prison? She’d have no money, no job, and no place to take care of the baby.

                She ended up doing two years. She missed the whole first year and a half of Mackayla’s life. Her ex even denied Mackayla was his, dumping the baby at her grandma’s, and never seeing his child again. Before she got out he was sentenced to eight years down state.

                Finally, she thought she was free. She got a job cleaning at a motel and raised Mackayla with her grandma. Things were good. She was happy.

                Then she met Joey. It was fun in the beginning. She had always been controlled, by her ex or in prison, and being with him she got a taste of the wild side. He took her to places where they drank and partied all night.

                She looked past the cheating and drugs because other than that he was a good guy. And all that other stuff was normal, right? Right? Everyone she knew had a guy who liked to dabble and sometimes cheated. Her father did it, her cousins did it, everyone did it. Besides, deep down inside she knew they really loved each other.

                But why couldn’t love make them happy? That’s the way it was supposed to work, right? You fight for love and you become happy?

                She had been fighting for love for so long she realizes she forgot what it feels like to actually be in love. They are always fighting, screaming, shouting. There is no love. There hasn’t been for a long, long time. Maybe, the truth is, there never really was.

                She slouches down in her chair and exhales hard. She’s tired. Tears form in her eyes and she silently scolds herself. She closes her eyes tight and thinks about doing one little toot, just to get her through this, or lighting up a joint, inhaling the thick, almost suffocating smoke, and then exhaling, the relief pouring out of her mouth in sweet smelling white streams.

                Instead she takes a hard pull on the menthol cigarette. She almost chokes. She realizes she hates herself. She hates herself because there is nothing good about her. She hates herself more than her boyfriend, her ex-husband, and her mother all hate her.

                She remembers something a counselor said to her once. It takes a lot of energy to hate. It’s true, it does, and it’s why she’s so tired.

                “Nicole,”the big bald headed counselor has turned his attention to her. “You don’t look to good over there. Is there something you want to say?”

                She sits up in her seat and wipes at the corner of her eyes, smudging her mascara, and smashes out her cigarette.

                “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t or I’m going to die. Because right now I want to die.”

                The counselor nods thoughtfully. “Why do you want to die?”

                “Because I’m worthless and I hate myself, so so much.” She buries her head in her hands and starts to sob.

                A long time goes by before anyone says anything. Nicole takes in a deep breath. She looks up at the counselor. She notices his eyes behind the wire rimmed glasses. He doesn’t look intimidating. He’s watching her carefully, patiently.

                “I’m tired of hating,” she says. “I’m tired of all of it.” She can feel the air grow lighter around her shoulders. Her neck loses the tension she wasn’t even aware she was holding in it. “I want love in my life. I want to love myself.”

                She can’t believe she said the words aloud. She sounds desperate, and she is, but she is being honest. For the first time in her life she’s being honest.

                The big bald counselor smiles. Inside his head he’s cheering loudly. She finally gets it. This time, he believes, she’s going to make it.