“Meet us for dinner.”
“Who is us?”
“The family. We just want to talk. Try to help.”
“Sure. Where and when?”
The details were given, and Shayla agreed to be there at the appointed time. A rock sat in the pit of her stomach as she considered what the topics would be, and how her family could “help”. Her hand shook as she lit a cigarette, staring off into the distance, her mind racing. After a couple of calming drags, she ground the cigarette out under her worn boot heel, got in her car, and headed towards the house she was staying for the night.
It wasn’t an easy life she lived. Couch-surfing between three different homes every week took its toll on her. Living out of her trunk, carrying her life with her, was the best and worst thing about being homeless.
Homeless. That word struck a wrong chord, sending brutal shocks down her body, making her shiver in frustration and determination. Homeless. To be without a permanent place to live. It was a hard life, but at least the car was paid for. Money came when it was most needed. She had three very good friends who willingly allowed her to sleep, shower, eat, and do her laundry, on rotating days of the week. They understood, if not completely, why she was living the way she was.
It could have been worse, Shayla reflected. She could be in jail, or prison. Having already done a five-year stint, she knew there were worse things than being homeless, but not by much. She had too much drive to lay down and quit. She would survive, and be a success, regardless of how much or how little help she had.
Which made this “family dinner” troublesome.
Taking a deep breath, she parked the car and went inside. Luckily, her friend wasn’t home, and she had a key. She appreciated the trust Greg gave her, and knew it was from an underlying infatuation with her. She tried her hardest to not exploit that, but she also knew she would be completely screwed if not for him. Showering quickly, she changed into her most comfortable clothes.
Staring in the mirror, she analyzed herself, before her family had a chance. Mentally shoring up her armor. Locking down emotion and defensiveness, creating a calmness she didn’t really feel, but could portray. She also acknowledged to herself that there were certain things they could point out that would trigger her meltdown. A meltdown she had worked so hard at keeping at bay through sheer grit and determination.
Forgoing makeup, dressed casually, she quickly headed to dinner. She hoped she would get there before anyone else so she could choose her battleground. She failed. She recognized three of the vehicles in the parking lot, and her heart sank. When her brother had said “the family,” she hadn’t really believed it would be the WHOLE family, or at least everyone who lived in the immediate vicinity.
Getting out of the car, she closed the door and leaned against it once more. She lit a cigarette, taking her sweet time about smoking it, talking herself into renewed calm. They didn’t know what it was like to live her life. They didn’t know how hard it was to overcome certain obstacles. They didn’t know her like they thought they did. They couldn’t.
Squaring her shoulders, she crushed out the cigarette and went inside. The family was easy to find, taking up an entire section of the separated dining area. Adults, kids, servers, all milling around: the noise made Shayla’s head hurt. She was used to solitude. Minimized social interactions. This was chaos, and not in a good way.
Her bothers and cousins greeted her warmly, offering hugs, which she took. She hadn’t realized just how much she had isolated herself in the last year, or how good it felt to be around the craziness that was her family. She bestowed kisses on the tops of the children’s heads. She took a seat directly across the table from her oldest brother, right next to her youngest one. The kids were interspersed between the adults, which meant she had a three-year-old on her left and an eight-year-old on her right.
It was a buffet, and the parents were trying to get plates for all the children, so they could be focused on eating instead of what the adults would be talking about. Once everyone finally settled down, her oldest brother, Stan, started.
“So, Sis, how are you?”
“Good,” Shayla mumbled past a mouthful of roll.
“Really,” her youngest brother said snidely.
Stan shot Mark a dirty look and refocused on their sister.
“Where are you staying?” Stan continued, glaring at Mark to prevent him from piping up.
Shayla looked between her brothers, the shrugged. “With friends,” she answered nonchalantly, shoveling up a mound of mashed potatoes. “You doing okay?” she asked, turning the questioning away from herself.
“It’s been hard,” Stan admitted. “Mom is gone, and Dad is having a hard time readjusting, but…”
“It’s been hard on all of us,” Shayla agreed.
“Some more than others,” Mark muttered.
“And what is that supposed to mean?” Shayla demanded, her defensiveness creeping into her voice. She really didn’t want to do this.
“Only that we all are moving on with our lives, and you are just… not,” Mark pointed out.
“Really,” Shayla echoed.
“What are you doing for work?” Stan asked calmly, trying to keep the peace.
“Doing cold calls, building my marketing business,” Shayla answered quickly. She felt her adrenaline start to pump. She enjoyed starting her business, and it was a thrill to her to talk about it, to work on it. It was hard work, a lot harder than any of her family realized, but it was rewarding.
“You need a real job,” Mark interjected. “And your own place to stay.”
“You think I don’t know this?” Shayla answered, her voice starting to rise. This is exactly what she didn’t want.
“Have you looked for work?” her cousin Bea asked. Shayla shot her a nasty look.
“Of course, I have. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to get a “real” job? Between background checks, and the gap in my work history? Do you know what I have gone through? Do you realize that starting my own business was the only way I could get money coming in at all?” Shayla’s voice became more shrill with every question.
“No one is faulting you for your efforts,” Stan attempted to placate his sister.
“Really,” Shayla said flatly.
“We are just worried about you,” he continued. He looked around the table, and the adults nodded. The children were finishing their first plates, and the parents stood up to get refills, putting the conversation on hold.
Shayla leaned forward. “Is this really necessary?” she asked Stan quietly.
“Just listen, okay?” Stan replied just as quietly.
Shayla nodded and smiled at everyone as they sat back down.
“What, exactly, are you worried about?” Shayla asked pleasantly.
“Your ‘extracurricular’ activities,” Mark interjected with a hiss.
“My… what?” Shayla asked incredulously.
“You know what I mean,” Mark said bitterly.
“I have my life under control, thank you very much,” Shayla barked back. “What is this really about?”
“We are worried about you,” Bea answered, lowering her voice. “You don’t have a place to live, you don’t have a real job. Where are you going with your life?”
Shayla spluttered a moment. How dare they? They didn’t know what she was going through. They didn’t know how hard it was for her. They didn’t know she was actually doing the best she could, given her circumstances.
“You know what? I’m done,” Shayla said, standing up.
“Sis, wait,” Stan pleaded.
Shaking her head, Shayla stormed out of the restaurant. As soon as she left the door, she lit up, her hand shaking so hard she almost couldn’t get the flame to the end of the cigarette. After a deep inhale of smoke, she exhaled hard, trying to push out all her frustration and anger. This was exactly what she had dreaded, but, unfortunately, it was having the intended effect. It was making her think.
She was glad Stan or Mark hadn’t followed her out. She didn’t think she would be able to talk civilly yet. And she was very glad Bea hadn’t tried to add any more of her two sense. She had three kids to worry about, and her husband, Kent. They had their hands full and then some. And, they both had full time jobs as well as additional income coming in from the military. They lacked for nothing.
A little calmer, Shayla debated the merits of going back inside against leaving. She knew they loved her, and that was why they had brought her here. They were family, after all. If she left, she would get phone calls, and she wasn’t sure if that would be worse.
Putting her cigarette out, she squared her shoulders and went back in. The kids were on desert, and the adults were talking animatedly. The table became exponentially quieter when she sat back down.
“Glad you came back in, Sis,” Stan said.
Shayla nodded, then looked at each of them pointedly.
“Do not sit there and judge me,” she started. She held up a hand to forestall the inevitable objections. “Let me say my piece.”
“Go on, then, defend yourself,” Mark said with fake magnanimity.
Shayla shot him a glare. “That’s just it. I don’t have to defend myself. You sit there and look down on how I am living my life. You don’t have the obstacles I have. You, Mark, are in the Marines. You have a guaranteed paycheck. Stan, you work on base, and therefore have a pretty much guaranteed paycheck. Bea and Kent? You both have jobs and are getting a monthly stipend from the military. Me? I don’t have any of that security.
“Getting a job would be awesome, but with my criminal history, it is almost impossible. The same goes for getting my own place to live. I would actually have to still live like this for the next six months just to have enough money to get into a place. And to do that, I would have to have one of the best jobs. Those are not options for me.
“I am getting my business off the ground. No business worth its salt hits amazing numbers in the first three years. It is a struggle, but I know it is worth it.”
Nobody said a word for several minutes. Nothing like throwing their lives back in their faces. Shayla looked hard at each of them, then nodded.
“If we are done? I love you guys. I do. But, unless you are living my life, don’t try to tell me how to survive.”
Shayla left them speechless, kissed each of the children on the head again, and walked away from her family, knowing it would probably be the last time she saw them for a long time.