“What?” I couldn’t quite believe the words had just come from her mouth. My lip wobbled. I felt sick, like the floor had disappeared from beneath me.
“I’m just saying. I think you’re being really stupid. Your family is clearly using you, and you’re stupid enough to fall for it.” Mia smiled at me, as though she was telling me the fucking weather. I stared, struck dumb.
“Yeah. I mean, the shoes are one thing – six hundred dollars for shoes is ridiculous. Like I said, when I was a kid, I was lucky to get ten dollar shoes.” Vicky’s turn. It had been a tag team attack about my finances. “So six hundred dollar shoes is just ridiculous. Kids don’t need that much stuff. Especially when they’re so ungrateful for it and use you.” I stared at her, now.
“Right! The most I ever got was thirty-dollar sneakers, and I was really excited and grateful for those! I kept them spotless!” Mia smirked, shaking her head. “And I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for more than that, especially not if I knew my parents didn’t have six months’ emergency money saved up.” That little gleam in her eye sent me over the edge. What Vicky replied evaded me completely as I started to spiral. I wanted to curl up and die.
“But – I’m just trying to give my family the support they need! Especially after my dad’s abuse! We escaped him! I don’t want them to have to go back to him!” My voice was barely there. It shook violently.
“Yeah, and they’re using you!” Mia half-hissed. “If your mom’s struggling so much, maybe she shouldn’t spoil her daughters so badly and should have maybe not got herself into such a bad relationship! It’s her struggle!”
“But – but if she ends up on the streets – which can happen if I don’t help –“
“Not. Your. Problem. You really need to cut them off, Alice. If they end up on the streets, it’s your mom’s issue. I’m sure your brothers can handle not having the latest shoes.” Vicky looked between me and Mia like a Roman Emperor watching a bloody, gory Gladiator battle. I wanted to throw up. “It’s her fault she got herself in so deep with someone she didn’t love –“
“He – he abused her! He abused all of us!” The scars on my back itched like they did every time I thought of my father’s attacks with the belt… My throat went dry. “Mia, please –“
“I’m sure he wouldn’t have just hurt you for no reason,” Vicky said thoughtfully. Not as though she was mulling over the horrors I’d told them about, but as though she was wondering what to have for lunch. “People don’t do that. I’m sure he had a good reason if they did fight every now and again.”
“He… did…” I couldn’t breathe. A colleague spoke up.
“Sorry, ladies, but can you take that conversation elsewhere? It’s getting a little loud and I’m trying to concentrate…” I nearly fainted. I looked around, and sure enough, an entire open-plan office was watching me, eyes sympathetic. I wanted to throw up. Sympathetic looks. Pity looks. The curled lips of Mia and Vicky. I apologised to Diane for disturbing them, and then realised that the mother of all panic attacks was about to hit me. I turned back to my PC, logging back in.
A 20-minute-long attack which started with the phone in front of me. I’d taken my youngest brother’s old cellphone, since we’d renewed his cellphone contract for Christmas. We’d gotten my middle brother the six-hundred-dollar shoes (which were on offer at three hundred, since the poor guy had waited three years to get them). But the cellphone had been the catalyst… and I felt sick as I looked at it, waiting for me to set it up as mine.
Half an hour passed. I tried to take my mind off the attack I’d just had. A message popped up, distracting me.
I know you think we’re attacking you, but it’s coming from a place of concern and I hope you can understand and forgive that.
I looked at Mia. It was twelve-thirty. I stood up, locking my PC, and I left the office.
I found a small spot in the vacant park, in the icy cold of late winter. I sat among the bushes, letting the panic attack have me. How could I be a failure at twenty-five?! I’d moved states by myself, on my own dollar, with my own hands. I had a small amount of savings, sure, but not the fabled six months ‘successful’ adults need to have, apparently. I had my own place, too, which I paid for by myself. Both Mia and Vicky were dual-income. Mia’s partner was a fucking lawyer, so he got hundreds of thousands a year. Me? I made ends meet perfectly in two states with my salary. I did a hell of a lot with my salary, actually… I didn’t have an investment portfolio, like Mia. I didn’t pay into a separate work pension, like both of them did. I didn’t ‘adult’ in the same way, either… yet there I was. Surviving.
So why did any of it make me a failure?
The things I’d been through as a kid. Watching my mother get beaten to within an inch of her life because the dinner wasn’t on the table on time, or because the washing machine was too loud… watching my brothers cower as that fucking belt got snapped out of my father’s trousers… the whipcrack of it across my skin, followed by the almost instant, agonizing pain that convinced me my skin was falling off. The blood that spotted through my shirt at school… when I couldn’t carry my backpack, and ended up passing out once in the toilets from the pain… all of it, all of it survived and then some.
My mom and brothers and I had got out. Mom found a small rented place, and left. My dad was beside himself at first, calling all of us, calling family, trying to get to us… but we disappeared. My mom knew about my scars, but she couldn’t have stopped them. Not when she was lying unconscious on the fucking floor of the living room… no. We were a unit, unified against him… I thought that was enough to make us success stories. We’d gotten out. We’d escaped.
I curled up in that bush, and words from conversations past circled hauntingly around my head.
“Woah, why the fuck would you give up bread?! What the fuck is wrong with you?! Just eat the fucking bread!” hissed Mia, when I explained my new high-protein low-carb diet that made me feel on top of the world.
“Brown rice is a better carb source for me,” I replied smally. “I always feel gross when I eat bread.”
“Yeah, well, you’re not eating the right type. I know bread, I’ll bring you the good stuff.” And she did. And I still felt gross after it. Go figure.
I closed my eyes.
“Why are you eating so many eggs?! Do you know how dangerous that is?!” Vicky’s turn now. “You shouldn’t eat so much protein. It’s really bad for you.”
I held myself tighter.
“If you don’t come to whatever we invite you to, and you start flaking off, then I just won’t invite you anymore. You get one chance with me, so don’t waste it.” Mia’s response to me explaining my social anxiety.
“But I’m getting sick… I’d really rather stay home to rest up, I’ve a half-marathon in a couple of weeks and I don’t want to –“
“If you don’t come, you’re not getting an invite to other things. Simple.”
I went to the party. I fell asleep because I was so sick with the flu. I then got asked why I’d come at all, if I was so sick? So sympathetic when the world was watching…
“Because you told me I wouldn’t get invited to other stuff if I didn’t come.”
“Yeah, but you’re sick!”
“I told you I was sick… you repeated yourself…”
“No, I didn’t.”
The same shit my dad used to do to us. Tell us shit, then gaslight us.
Round and around my head, the conversations I’d once thought were healthy. Every single sentence from Vicky started with ‘No, because…’ and then she’d tell me why I was wrong. It didn’t matter that she’d grown up in Montana in the 80s, while I’d grown up in Michigan in the early 00s. Her way was the only way. Mia was the same. Nothing I did or said or had was good enough. None of it. Even when I wanted to learn how to host, or hold a party… it just never was enough. Never enough…
You’re never enough…
If I was never enough, how am I here?! How am I still here?! I looked at my hands, which shook. Hands which had defended two young boys from the hands of their alcoholic father. Hands which, despite the violence they’d known, still touched others with love and care. Hands which bore scars of my own creation…
What’s my definition of success? Creating something no-one else is. Standing up for what I believe in when everyone else runs away scared. Grinding when everyone else told me to quit. Not being afraid to dream big, giving more when I had nothing left. It’s when someone can see the bright side through the dark times when it doesn’t look like there is one.
It’s taking life’s failures and turning them into motivation. It’s hope. Hope for the better tomorrow… hope that it won’t always be this way… hope that one day, I’ll be where I need to be.
I realised… no matter how hard it got… I always had hope. Strength. Determination. To do what others would have died from. And it saved me. It saved four of us.
I stood up and made my way back to the office, feeling that same kind of determination I’d had when I’d got up and left for a better life, a better job… the ability to keep two doors open with one salary, when the Mias and Vickys can barely keep their own bougie, over-the-top saving-plan lifestyles afloat without partner’s money.
I went to the kitchen for some water. My sweet friend Alina was there, her face lit up when she saw me. “Hey! Where did you go?! Are you okay?”
“Sure. What happened?”
“Well, I asked Vicky where you were. She said there’d been a little drama.”
“Ha. Little. If you call a 20 minute attack in an open plan office where they defended my father’s abuse a ‘little drama’, then sure.” I downed some water, took my lunch from the fridge, and started to eat. I knew what I needed to do, now more than ever. Alina fell quiet when Mia walked in. My face was blotchy and red from crying, eyes puffy.
“I find a cold compress works if you have a headache.” Mia wet a paper towel and handed it to me, smiling sympathetically. As though she hadn’t just… no.
“Oh yeah?” I slammed my fork down and put the lid on my chicken and broccoli. “What about for open wounds on the back, hmm? What helps for that?” Mia was confused. “What about for a dislocated shoulder? Hmm? Does a cold compress help with that, too? What about a panic attack? What helps with that?” She didn’t know what to say.
“I was just –“
“Because for someone who knows fucking everything, Mia, you know so, so little. Little about what fucking matters.” I'm a prime example of what happens when you choose to not accept defeat and face your demons. It took me thirty years to realize that if you want to get that opportunity to be the greatest version of yourself, sometimes you’ve got to be someone you're not to hear the voice of reason. “You made the biggest mistake of your life, today. And I swear, one day soon, you’ll back on it and wish you’d never opened your fucking mouth.” My voice was quiet but unwavering. I held her gaze. She lifted her chin, confused. She genuinely didn’t understand what had happened… For a know-it-all, she really was dumb as a plank of wood.
What followed for me was months of work. I started using my teleworking privileges to work elsewhere, and took holidays when I needed to focus. I disappeared off social media for months, avoided them in the office when I did work there, and made sure that if I was going to see them, I was in the baggiest, most unflattering clothing I could be in. But behind the scenes, I was working. I was grafting, grinding, hustling. I was moving. I was running, I took up boxing, I hit the gym. I ate clean – super clean. I went back to see my family. I went into therapy, too. A double-edged sword of improvement. Some might say having a mental breakdown is a negative thing, and usually, I’d agree. But I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t had that mental breakdown. I wouldn’t have put the work in, healed, grown… I’d be stuck under their boots while they laughed and told me to get up. I’d be stagnant. Stale.
I did what made my soul and my skin glow. I worked hard at my job, too. Mia put in a secret little proposal for a pay-rise in exchange for work I’d been planning to do without the pay-rise, so I championed myself and put my own proposal forward before her meeting could take place. I got to work on it, did it better than she could, and then ended up getting the pay-rise for generally being amazing anyway. She got nothing. She did nothing. She blamed the company. I grafted hard, felt good, felt strong. Kept my mouth shut. I worked and worked. I took up writing and started making deals with producers and directors to get stuff made. I learned to fight, too. Started kickboxing, and landed my first professional fight.
Twelve months. Twelve months from ground zero, pushed there by ‘friends’, to the top where I am now. Every last inch of the work was mine.
Twelve months later. A general team meeting was called. I hadn’t been seen physically for about a month at this point, using unpaid holidays and teleworking to stay away. It was finally here… The time to shine. To show the work I’d done. To reveal Project Alice to the world… and to show what real success fucking looked like.
I stepped into the team meeting last. My hair, glossy and thick from a protein and vegetable-rich diet, hung down my back in dark chocolate curls, all natural. Hair Mia had snapped at me to do something with. Hair Vicky had told me wasn’t as thick or problematic as hers was. Hair Charlotte had told me to ‘just brush’ to remove the frizz, only to make it more frizzy right before an important meeting with board members…
My t-shirt clung to clearly-defined muscles, hewn from boxing, from punching, from lifting and throwing and catching. Rock-solid biceps and triceps, a perfect curve of a trap to a delt… rolling as I moved.
My jeans encased thick, rock-hard quads and hamstrings, revealing a tiny waist with clear ab muscles. Black shit-kicker boots completed the look.
My face, though… that was the best part. Cheekbones I’d never seen before now sloped down. A beautiful bruise bloomed over my left eyebrow from a lucky right hook from my opponent the day before. A cut on my lip from a lucky jab. A bruise on my jaw from a stupidly not-blocked uppercut… I stepped into that room absolutely glowing.
Jaws dropped. Mia and Vicky hadn’t been the only ones to not see me the entire time. The rest of my team hadn’t, either. I took a seat, smiling at everyone. Not fully – I didn’t need to. I couldn’t, anyway; my lip would split open if I did… I sat back in my chair, relaxed.
“Alice,” my boss smiled. “How did the fight go, in the end?”
“She didn’t wake up to see me take the win,” I said, chuckling. “Two punches, and she was out. I let her get a couple in, though. People did pay to be there, after all.”
“You fight?” Vicky was stunned.
“Yeah. Kickboxing. Won my first pro this weekend.” I winked at her.
“That’s not your only news, Alice. Want to start with that, now?” my boss gave me another smile.
“Sure. I’m leaving.” Gasps all around.
“What for?” asked a colleague.
“Oh. Nothing, really. I wrote a movie last year and a producer picked it up. They want me to go do some rewrites, and then I have to sort paperwork for the second and third I sold.” I gave a shrug.
“Movies?!” Mia choked. Writing isn’t something special, you know. Millions of people do that without success. “What – which ones?”
“Yeah.” I scratched my head. “Can’t say, actually. NDAs, but you and Vicky probably know all about those, don’t you?” I smiled sweetly, my lip splitting. I didn’t register it. “You know, because you know everything else?” Nervous coughs. I grinned. “Lighten up! You look like Phoebe, my opponent, when she learned the little newbie had knocked her out in two!” I laughed. Mia was pasty. Vicky was green. “Anyway. You can catch my stuff in the cinema in about a year.”
“My god… well, congratulations, Alice!” my boss grinned. Other people followed suit. Mia and Vicky didn’t.
I don’t know where they are now. I don’t care, either. I just know both of them feel sick every time they see me. Because in comparison to me? Neither of them ever stood a god-damned chance.