from Chasing Freedom
By Wendy Zuccarello
I sigh as I stare at my reflection in the mirror. I look like I went a round with Mike Tyson. My right eye is slightly swollen, the bruising a wonderful mix of purples and blues with a little black mixed in, like an angry rainbow. It is days like this that I wish I wore makeup. Being the plain, boring girl that I am, though, the only make up that I own is some powder. I dab some on, trying to cover as much of this monstrosity as I can. The bruise is the result of my inability to keep my mouth shut last night. You would think that I had learned over the years that I should do as I am told. But no matter how many hits come, no matter how many times I have had to lie about how I got my bruises, I cherish that little bit of fight that I have left in me. Because if I lose that, if I ever stop fighting, I know it will all be over.
I finish getting ready, nervous, but excited about my first day of work. I was so excited to tell Chase about my job – he is the only friend I have anymore. I know the only reason I still have him is because Jonathan does not know about him. I have kept my letters with Chase from him because I know what would happen if he found out. The thought alone is enough of a reason to keep him hidden, and to give me nightmares. I wonder what Chase thought when he read how excited I was about a job at a coffee shop, knowing that I have a college degree. We have written about everything over the years, and he knows about my dream to become a teacher. Well, that used to be my dream. The only ambition I have now is to make it through the day alive. Unfortunately, there are many times I fear I am going to lose that fight.
This is the first bit of independence that Jonathan has allowed. If I remember correctly, the wording he used was something along the lines of “your good behavior has proven to me that you are ready for this, Josephine. Do not make me regret it.” I never knew it was possible to feel both excitement and terror at the same time. Realization hit at that very moment – he will be watching me every step of the way, and if I stray from the straight and narrow path he has laid out before me, it will be the last thing I do.
I had long ago accepted the fact that my bachelor’s degree in Childhood Education would remain forever unused, collecting dust like everything else in my life that I used to cherish. There have been so many sacrifices in this relationship, all of which were mine. Friends, future, freedom – all things of the past. I spend my life walking on eggshells, afraid of what I might lose next. For the briefest second, I contemplate running – just getting on a bus and hiding somewhere. But the thought passes as quickly as it came, flittering away like dust in the wind. It always does. “I would find you, Josephine.” He would, and he would kill me for trying.
I slip on a pair of jeans and the black polo shirt with the coffee shop logo on it. Knowing that I am going to be on my feet, I opt for my comfortable sneakers. My straight brown hair is pulled into a ponytail so that it will fit into the baseball cap that I will wear to keep my hair out of the food. I hear the banging of the cabinets in the kitchen and cringe. If I wait until he leaves, I may survive the morning without any incidents. My heart pounds and I hold my breath, sending up a silent prayer that this is one of the mornings that he just leaves without saying anything to me.
“Josephine!” he shouts. I let out the breath that I was holding. I guess luck is not on my side this morning. I make my way out to the kitchen, which only takes a few seconds because of the miniscule size of our apartment. He does not want to get a bigger place until my homemaking skills improve. I try not to look at the photos on the wall. They are only proof of the lie that I live. The smiling and hand holding are all evidence that I am an empty shell. He puts them up to remind me of how I am expected to behave.
“You called,” I say, trying to keep my voice neutral, not wanting to provoke him in any way.
His eyes roam over my body and it makes me shiver in disgust. Thankfully, he appears not to notice. “I just wanted to say that you had better be here when I get home from work,” he says. Not “have a good day,” or “good luck at your new job.” No. That just would not be him.
“Of course. I am going to work and then coming straight home.”
He nods, telling me that he approves of my submission. “Good. Come here.”
I slowly walk over to him, knowing what is coming. Dreading his touch. He raises his hand, and it takes everything in me not to flinch. I learned that lesson the hard way. He lightly touches the tips of his fingers to the bruise on my eye. I close my eyes, dreading his next move.
“I wish I did not have to be so hard on you. But you know why I do this, right?” he asks, almost sounding pained, which makes me laugh on the inside. “I do this because you deserve it. One of these days you will learn your place and things will be much simpler.”
I nod. That is all I can do. Anything else would be perceived as disobedience.
“I love you, sweetheart. See you tonight,” he says, turning and making his way to the front door. I watch as he grabs his keys and briefcase. I hold my breath, hoping against everything that he does not decide to come back over here before he leaves.
I finally let out my breath when the door closes. The lone tear that runs down my face drips onto the floor, falling as if it has no care in the world. I sometimes imagine that each tear that I shed over him is another little piece of myself that I am losing, that I am giving up. Because of that, I try my hardest not to let him see me cry. I claim these little victories in honor of the life that I could have if I were ever free from this self-inflicted prison.
I count my lucky stars that he had to be in work early today, or he would have been walking me to work as he promised. Just another small grasp at independence, and I know that I intend to absorb every bit of it while it lasts.
I walk into Carl’s Coffee House and look around. There are a few customers milling about, drinking coffee, and typing away on their laptops. The whole place is decorated in soft, neutral tones making the space seem warm and inviting. One of the things that drew me to this place specifically is that it is kid friendly. They offer quite a few things on their menu that cater to children, something that not many coffee shops do. I try to take everything in, absorbing the feeling of achievement, breathing it in like it will give me life. I spot Tammy behind the counter. She hired me a few days ago when I came in to drop off my application.
She motions for me to follow her. “Girl! You are just in time. We have a little bit of time to get you set up before the morning rush.” She drags me behind the counter and hands me an apron and hat. I slide both on quickly, ready to get started. When Tammy turns around to look at me, she spots my black eye.
“What happened, honey? You definitely did not have that shiner when you came in for your interview.”
“Oh, this is nothing,” I say, unconsciously placing my fingers delicately over the bruise. “I hit my face on the kitchen cabinet. Forgot I left it open when I stood up yesterday,” I say. It makes me sad how quickly I can lie.
“Well, it looks downright awful. You sure you are up for this today? We can push back your start date if you need to.”
“No! I want to do this, I am ready.”
My training is quick and efficient. I pick everything up swiftly, excited for this small taste of freedom that I have been granted. It may seem silly, but just being here is a huge step for me. I am finally getting to do something on my own, and at twenty-eight, it makes me feel like an adult.
Tammy talks all through my training, telling me all about working here, her family, her husband. She tells me how excited she is because her cousin, who she has not seen since her wedding is coming into town to visit. She asks me questions about myself which I expertly avoid answering. The less she knows about me, the better. We work well together, and she seems thrilled that I am a quick study. The morning flies by and it is almost time for me to leave. I am only part time right now. I will work a few mornings a week for just five hours. But at this point, I will take anything that I can get. Having spent the last few years shut tight in our apartment, these few hours of freedom make me feel like a bird taking its first flight. I fight the smile all morning, not wanting to look crazy because I am grinning like a lunatic.
I am in the kitchen when I hear Tammy squeal excitedly. I am assuming that means her cousin just arrived. She wastes no time in calling me out to the front. I put the rag I am using back in the sink and make my way through the swinging door. She is wrapped around a tall man and I giggle at the size difference. Tammy is my height, about five foot six, and this man must be at least a half foot taller, towering over her. He is wrapped around her just as tightly and it melts my heart a bit, wishing I had that kind of relationship with anyone.
When they break apart, I get my first real look at her cousin. He has kind eyes, a bright brown like a mahogany wood. His hair is short on the sides, but longer on top, and is styled nicely, showing off its darkness. He is broad and strong, looking like he is no stranger to hard work, the jeans and hoodie that he is wearing make him appear very laid back and easy going.
“Joey, come here and meet my cousin,” Tammy says, holding her hand out to me. I make my way over. Her cousin is staring at me with what I would call almost recognition in his eyes. It gives me butterflies.
“Joey, this is my cousin, Chase. Chase, this is Joey.”
I hold my hand out to him which he eagerly takes. “It is so nice to finally meet you, Joey,” he says, confusing me.
“Finally?” I ask.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?”
I look at him, willing myself to make whatever connection that should be there when suddenly, it hits me. “Chase? Like, my Chase?” He looks so different from his last picture – his boyish features replaced by those of a solid man.
He smiles wide, looking like he is going to split his face his grin is so big. “The one and only.” I launch myself at him, still having a hard time believe that I am finally meeting the man that I have been writing to since we were ten. He scoops me into his arms and twirls me around.
“I can’t believe you are here,” I say, finding myself grinning just as widely as him.
“Wait! What is going on here? You two know each other?” Tammy asks.
Ignoring her, Chase puts me down and pulls back just slightly to look at me. His smile vanishes quickly when he notices my black eye. He raises his hand, his intent to touch it is clear. Instinctively, I move back, but quickly recover and allow the contact. “What happened?” he asks.
Embarrassed, I shake him off. “Oh, nothing really. I bumped it on the door.”
“The door? I thought you said you hit it on the kitchen cabinet,” Tammy says.
I pause for a second, realizing my mistake and scramble to correct myself. “Well… yeah. I meant cabinet. Sorry, I am just so shocked to see you! What are you doing here?” I ask, hoping the subject change will distract them from my inadvertent mistake.
Tammy and Chase exchange glances, letting me know that I need be more careful in the future. They are obviously doubting me now. Chase recovers first and smiles, pulling me back against him.
“I came to town on business and could not skip out on the opportunity to visit with my favorite cousin,” he says, smiling at Tammy.
“Are you two going to fill me in on what is going on?” Tammy asks, crossing her arms over her chest, scowling at the two of us.
I smile and look up at Chase, still not believing that he is here. “Sorry, Tammy. Chase and I have been pen-pals since we were ten. Our teachers set us up back in fourth grade and we have been writing to each other since. This is the first time that we have met in person, though.” She seems shocked at my admission and immediately pulls us into a group hug.
“I knew you were special, girl! You are practically family,” she says, smiling widely. “Why don’t I head to the back and let you two get caught up. Joey, you can clock out now and visit with Chase. I’ll see you tomorrow.” After planning to meet up with Chase later for dinner, Tammy leaves us.
I look at Chase to find him staring at my black eye with a frown on his face. I turn quickly so that he is not able to see it. “Let me just go clock out and grab my things. Then we can sit for a bit and talk.” He nods, turning to go grab us a table in the corner. I head to the back and grab my things, checking my watch to see how much time I have before I must head home. I need to make sure I get there with plenty of time to cook dinner. If I am late, or if his dinner is late, I can kiss this job, and any chance of freedom, goodbye.
When I head back out to the front, I see Chase looking at something on his phone. I take a minute to really look at him. We have exchanged a few pictures over the years, but nothing recently. If I remember right, the last one he sent me was from his high school graduation, ten years ago. He has changed so much since that picture. He has filled out and become a man. He is no longer the gangly kid of his youth. It is almost comical seeing his gigantic frame squeezed into the little chair. These tables were not built with a man his size in mind.
I never thought we would get the chance to meet in person. I just wish I were the person that has been writing to him. I have had to hide a lot from him, obviously. I cannot even imagine the embarrassment that I would feel if he were to find out what my life is really like, what I have allowed myself to become.
He looks up and finds me immediately. The smile that crosses his face is priceless, like a man coming home from war and seeing his love for the first time in years. It makes me feel alive, better than I have felt in longer than I can remember. I make my way over to him, not wanting to waste a second of what little time we might have.
“Hey,” I say shyly, taking off my apron and hat as I sit down across from him. I put my shaking hands in front of me, playing with a napkin that was left on the table from the last patron. For some reason I am nervous, like I should be doing anything but sitting here with him. The sudden guilt that I feel is immense. I feel him put his hands over mine to calm me.
“Joey, look at me,” he says, and I do. The familiarity that I feel is soothing. Even though this is the first time we are meeting in person, I know this man, better than I know any other person on the planet. We have shared so much through our letters, our hopes, and dreams. Too bad that is all they were.
“What are you thinking?” he asks.
I chuckle. “That’s a hard question to answer. If I had to explain it, it would be that I am just so shocked that you are here. I have imagined meeting you so many times. I knew exactly what I would do, what I would say. But now that you are here, I am lost. To be completely honest, you make me nervous.”
His eyes widen for a second, but he quickly hides it. “Joey, I am the same person you have been writing to for eighteen years. The only difference is now we can talk to each other. There is absolutely no reason to be nervous.”
I look back up at him and smile. He is right. He is the same person. I guess the problem is that I am not the same at all. He knows me as strong, independent Joey, not the broken and timid Joey that I have become recently. My letters have hidden a lot. He started asking me what was wrong a few months ago. Things were getting worse at that point, but I never let on to him just how bad it was becoming.
“Talk to me,” he says, almost pleading with me.
I pull my hands out from his and put them in my lap. He sighs but pulls his hands back to his side of the table. “I am so glad that you are here, Chase. I have no words. You have no idea what your letters have meant to me. You have gotten me through some tough times. You really are my best friend, as cliché as that is,” I say, almost laughing at myself for being so enamored by him. It seems almost surreal that he is sitting here in front of me. I know that he is the one that has been writing to me, but it is extremely different to see him in person.
He gets up from his chair and comes over to my side of the table, taking the seat right next to me. He wraps his arm around me and pulls me close. “You are mine, too, Joey. I would not be who I am today without you. My only regret is that our letters seem to have become few and far between anymore. We have both led busy lives that we have let get in the way of our friendship.” He is right. We both went to college, studied hard to get our degrees. Mine in education, him, pre-law and then law school. But that is where the similarities stop. He went and made something of himself, becoming a successful lawyer, becoming junior partner at his firm within a few years of graduating. Me, though. I moved in with my college boyfriend after graduation and lost myself. I was so worried about making him happy, that I was oblivious to how much I was sacrificing until it was too late. I put off my career, my friends. Anything that got in the way of my time with him.
I lean into Chase, wrapping my arms around his waist, holding him close. I never want to forget this feeling of utter content. Chase has been the one constant in my life. No matter where life took me, I always had Chase and his letters. I had to constantly sneak out to get his letters from my secret mailbox. There is no way I would be able to receive his letters at the apartment. I do not even want to think about the repercussions that would be involved. If Jonathan thought for one minute that I was cheating on him, my life would be over. It sends a shiver down my spine, just thinking about it.
The bell on the door jingles indicating that someone has entered. As if my thoughts had conjured him, I look up to see Jonathan glaring right at me, and my arms around Chase. He is holding a dozen roses, an apology in physical form. The black aura that surrounds him makes me push away from Chase and jump up, like I was doing something wrong.
“Who is that?” Chase asks. There is concern in his voice, as if he can feel the tension rolling off me. Like a deer caught in headlights, I cannot tear my eyes away from Jonathan and the anger pulsing around him. The air thickens, making it hard for me to breathe. Time stands still as I imagine the horror awaiting me when we get home. I wrap my arms around my middle protectively, which seems to fuel the fire that is burning in Jonathan’s eyes. He glances down at Chase with a look of pure hatred. Chase, being the good friend that he is, takes it upon himself to stand up and walk over towards Jonathan. I make a grab for his hand to try and stop him, but he manages to slip by.
Holding his hand out, he introduces himself. “Hi. My name is Chase Phillips. And you are?” I am hit with immediate guilt. I have not only omitted the volatile nature of our relationship but also the existence of Jonathan himself. I never discussed him as I was afraid of what Chase might think of me.
Jonathan looks down at his hand with disgust and slaps it away viciously as he strides past him. “Time to go, Josephine. Leave your hat and apron, you will not be coming back here again,” he says with so much venom that I contemplate running. He grabs my arm and drags me away from Chase and out the door. I chance a look back over my shoulder and the last thing I see of Chase is the look of pure hatred on his face. I shake my head at him, pleading silently for him to let it go. This is going to be bad enough without him getting involved.
Our apartment is only a block away from the coffee shop, so we make it back in record time with Jonathan dragging me like a rag doll. He gets the door opened after struggling with the key for a moment, it would be funny if not for the situation that we are in. The grip that he has on my arm is so tight I can feel tingling around his grip and I just know that there will be a handprint there once he lets go. When the door is open, he throws me inside with such force, I bounce off the wall and slam into the floor, banging my head in the process. He slams the door and stands there seething with fury. His breath is coming in pants. He closes his eyes for a brief second before his laser focus is back on me. There is a heaviness in the air and the power coming from him is almost palpable.
“Who. The fuck. Was that?” he asks with a calm intensity. I have a feeling that things are about to get much worse.