Brace Yourself

         “Is there anything specific you want to be named?” I ask.

         “I love the name Eleanor.  I just named my new car Eleanor,” one of the women answers.

         “Hmm. Not Charlotte,” the other says. “Maybe Sophie. Wait.” She wraps her right hand around the wrist of her left arm. “What are the names of the two women who drive off the cliff?”

         “Thelma and Louise!” Eleanor says.  Her voice sounds rougher when she is excited.

         “Make us Thelma and Louise,” says Sophie.

*        *        *

         Eleanor approaches the red door to the restaurant and places her hand on the knob, turning to Sophie. “Shall we?” A stream of air sneaks through the door as it closes behind us. We descend into the basement and sigh a little. The dim lighting and cool air are welcome. We haven’t yet adapted to the strong sun and heavy warmth of spring.  After glancing around, Eleanor chooses a small rectangular table set away from the main seating area. The remnants of a tape-delayed football game flicker across my peripheral vision.

         At first, our conversation is hesitant. The songs in the background fade from one to the next, creating a quilt of music that spans decades and genres. Eleanor tells me she’s from New Hampshire. Sophie is from Vermont. They both moved around, but eventually found their way back to towns along the Connecticut River. A waiter ventures over to our secluded table, asking if we’d like anything. A water each for Eleanor and me, a Diet Coke for Sophie.

         “Well, I guess I’ll start at the beginning,” Eleanor says. When she was only twelve, she came home from camp and her family had sold their things. They were moving to Florida. That day. “It was just me, my mom, my dad.” Her father had grown depressed by the darkness of New Hampshire winters and had found a job delivering Suburban Propane in the sunshine state. That’s where Eleanor went to high school.

After she graduated, she waitressed at a country club for a year. She went back to school, but dropped out when she got pregnant. Her parents moved to South Carolina, but Eleanor stayed in Florida for three more years. “Things were good,” she says, condensing that time into small words.

         “Then one day, my father shows up and says, ‘Pack your shit. You’re coming.’ Again. You’d think it wouldn’t have been such a shock.” Eleanor pauses, looking at me for a moment as she takes a red plastic cup from the waiter. Then she returns her eyes to a patch of wall above Sophie’s head. “You eventually think about where you started making the wrong choices in life. I started dating dumb-ass men. People that wanted to be controlling. And then, eventually, abusive.”

         After a few years in South Carolina, Eleanor returned to college. A year-and-a-half later, she met the man who would become the father of her second daughter. Her older daughter, Anna, was five.  “I was 27,” she says. “At this time, I never smoked a cigarette. I didn’t really drink. I didn’t do drugs. I didn’t realize he was hooked on Oxycontin. I just couldn’t figure out why he was so mean. He broke my foot. And broke my daughter’s arm. My six-month-old daughter’s arm. I took her to the emergency room and that night, social services took both my kids.”

         Sophie looks at Eleanor. “I just can’t imagine being so angry at a six-month-old,” Sophie says.

         The movement of Eleanor’s ponytail is the only indication of her nod. “He’s just an idiot. He’s dead now.”

         “Oh, that’s right, he’s that one,” Sophie says, leaning back against the wall.

         Eleanor and Sophie could almost be related. Their hair is dirty blonde with a hint of red; the only difference is that Sophie’s falls in a long, intricate braid down her shoulder. They both carry some extra weight. But more than anything else, something in their faces and gestures creates an uncannily accurate mirror.

         Eleanor glances back to me. “I spent a year and thousands and thousands of dollars trying to get my kids back and all that time I was advised to stay with this idiot.  So I worked two jobs, or three, and paid off all my bills. And when I got my kids back I left that motherfucker.”

         Eleanor brushes a loose hair back from her forehead, exposing a thin silver chain that wraps around the wrist of her arm. “Let’s see, what happens after that. Oh, a couple more jerk boyfriends and then I met the one. Who I thought was the one. I found out he smoked crack and did my first crack hit with him when I was 31. And that just sent me into a downward spiral.”

         Eleanor lost her kids again. And ended up in jail. A few times. Addicted. “I don’t know. I lost everything. I was homeless at one point – living in the back of a U-Haul attached to a car with no brakes.” Then she moved into Willow Grove, a halfway house for women. She stayed there for six months. She was doing well.

         One night, her roommate brought crack home. The next day, the roommate told the workers that Eleanor had gotten high. She was forced to move out. She stayed clean for a while. She worked cleaning houses. She didn’t make enough to live so she sold drugs. It was still barely enough.  Her roommate from Willow Grove called, hoping that Eleanor would sell to her.  And she did. The woman’s husband was wearing a wire. “They set me up and I went back to jail,” she says.

         Our waiter returns to check on us, but Sophie sends him away with a smile and a wave. She lives with the man who runs this restaurant. Eleanor gives Sophie a look that contains a conversation. “I tried rehabs,” she continues. “This is the problem I found – I left many rehabs and halfway houses because when you get there, the people there have never been where you’ve been. They’ve never done drugs. So how are you going to talk to me and tell me that it’s going to get better? It isn’t. You don’t know that. Your kids aren’t living with somebody else because of the choices you made because some idiot said ‘Just try this.’ And it was the best frickin’ high I’d ever had in my life. It ticked me off for the longest time because I didn’t do anything until I was 31. Why did I start then?”

         We fall silent. “Oh,” Eleanor says. She pauses. “I forgot something.” She laughs, but there’s no force behind it. She looks at the table. “I’m not laughing because it’s funny. I still don’t feel comfortable talking about it.” She tells me about being raped by a friend when she was sixteen, while his friend held her down. She kept silent, didn’t tell her parents, or anyone, for a long time. About a year later, when she had her first boyfriend, she told him. And then he killed her rapist. “That’s small town Florida for you,” she says.

         “There were so many headlines from that horrible ordeal and I recently, finally, threw away all the newspaper articles.  I held on to them for twenty years. Why?” She pauses briefly. “I don’t know. Maybe to remind me of where I came from.” Eleanor returns her eyes to me briefly, before settling her gaze on Sophie’s elbow.

         We are quiet for a minute.  Eleanor sips her drink, Sophie watches her.  Then Sophie speaks. “She’s doing well now.” 

         Eleanor smiles. “I got my kids back. Have the respect of most of my family and friends. Have my own business” – she cleans houses – “and I’m in my third year of college. I don’t sell, I don’t do.” She laughs. And looks at me. Smiling.  “And I just bought a brand new car.  Finally.”  Her deep blue Toyota Venza replaced an overly worn red Jeep that was her father’s. Eleanor points toward Sophie. “Now, when we show up in this town, we feel like we belong.” She continues smiling even as she presses her hands together and takes a deep breath. “But I still live with my mother. My father died a year and a half ago, so we kind of keep each other up.”

         “But we hang out – do girl stuff,” Sophie interjects.

         “That’s true.  Do you know what I’m craving?”  Eleanor answers her own question in a raspy whisper. “A strawberry margarita.” Her voice returns to normal volume and her mouth turns up slightly. “I’m so tired though, if I had a drink right now, I’d probably just go to sleep.”

         “It has already been a long week,” I say.

         “I know!  It’s only Tuesday!”

         “At least it’s not Monday,” Sophie adds.

         We sit and sip our drinks in silence. “It’s still not easy,” Eleanor says.

*        *        *

         “I guess it’s my turn, now,” Sophie says. She looks at me less than Eleanor does. “My parents split up when I was 13 and I moved around. A lot. I couldn’t get into school because I didn’t live with either of them at that point.” Her words rush out attached to one another. “My mother’s boyfriend was molesting me so I couldn’t live with her and my dad had met somebody and moved away. So I was living with family but nobody had guardianship of me, so I couldn’t go to high school for a while.  And then, in a period of two, no, three years, I was raped three times.”

         Sophie is silent for a moment.  Her chest moves slightly as she takes a slow breath. “So, that’s probably what leads me to self-medicate,” she continues.  “And definitely I do. Did. Not so much now. I don’t want to go back to jail.”

         Sophie got married as soon as she graduated from high school. She was married nine years and had a son. “My husband was an alcoholic,” she says, “and he became very abusive.” She presses her hands together tightly and her fingertips turn red. “So we finally split up and I did the single mother thing working 80 hours a week.” Then Sophie met someone else. Someone she thought was different. “I ended up having a daughter with him that I don’t have. Her father took me to court because I worked too much and she was in day care too much. I was just trying to do it by myself but they took her away from me.”

         Sophie hasn’t seen her daughter since her fourth birthday – that was three years ago – but she is in contact with her son. “He’s 13 now,” she says, smiling wide enough to show her top teeth. “I see him a lot.” She pauses for a moment and looks at Eleanor. I can see Eleanor’s chin dip as she makes a small nod. “When I got divorced,” Sophie continues, “I kind of started partying a little bit.  I’d never really done that as a teenager ’cause I hooked up and got married right off. I ended up dating some drug dealers and got hooked on pills.”

         She looks back at me.  Quickly. Then at the table. “I had always been on pain meds. I’ve had a whole bunch of surgeries so I knew I liked them. But when you do them every day. All day. You get hooked really fast.” She moved on to stronger things. “I ended up with a possession charge,” Sophie says.  “For heroin. I was sent to Sullivan County and Eleanor was my roommate.”

         Sophie’s sister died from cancer ten days after she went to jail. “She was my best friend,” she says. “My entire life.” Sophie wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral, but some friends went in her place. “That was the hardest day of my life,” she tells me.  “But this one” – she points at Eleanor – “listened to me staying up all night.  We took care of each other.”

         There’s a long pause as Eleanor and Sophie each wait for the other to speak. It’s Eleanor who breaks the silence. “Jail is a strange place. You’re very angry. And you do nothing all day.” She looks at Sophie, who is nodding. “When you come out – if you were an addict when you went in, you’re definitely an addict when you come out.”

         “It’s a long time to be away from the world,” Sophie says.  “And you have nothing to come out to. You’re coming out to nothing.”

         They tell me they were lucky.  “Most jails don’t have programs, or anything, to help you,” Eleanor tells me.

         “But we had this work release program,” Sophie continues.

         “You had to be really super good,” Eleanor says.  “And then you could go work for certain amounts of time.  We took as many hours as they would give us because we didn’t want to be there. We’d rather be at work.”

         “But then we got wrapped up in bullshit,” Sophie says. “And we got sent down to the other jail. We supposedly threatened some girl in the bathroom. That never happened.”

         Sophie tells me she works in town now.  “At the café over there,” she says, gesturing towards the southeast corner of the restaurant.  “Someone finally gave me a chance.”

*        *        *

         “I need a cigarette,” Eleanor says, looking at me.  “Is that okay?”

         We leave our things at the table and are walking out of the restaurant, when Sophie’s boyfriend intercepts us.  “Headed out?” he asks with a smile.  We’ve already been here for over and hour.

         “Nah,” Eleanor says.  She holds up a pack of cigarettes in explanation.  “And I’m taking a non-smoker!” Her voice is high and raspy.  She is delighted with her small non-rebellion.

         “Well, don’t pollute her,” Sophie’s boyfriend says through a laugh.  He opens the door for us.  At the top of the stairs, we emerge blinking into the sunlight.  The world is shades of white, and we can’t look for too long.  Eleanor leads us under the awning of an adjacent building.  She and Sophie are careful to position themselves downwind.  We speak more causally out here.

         “Did you know Sophie is a baker?” Eleanor asks. “She’s good. Like really good.”  She turns to Sophie. “Do you have any of that apple thingy left?”

         “Yeah, it’s upstairs.”

         “Well, she has to have some,” Eleanor says, gesturing toward me with her cigarette.  She looks back to me.  “It’s incredible.”  She stresses each syllable of the word, savoring them.

       Their cigarettes fade to ashes and we return inside, but part ways at the staircase. Eleanor and I head back to the table, and Sophie goes upstairs to get the cake. While we wait, Eleanor arranges things in her small purse. She finds a few loose bills and replaces them in her wallet.  She laughs, then looks at me.  “You know, going to the grocery store, I get out my calculator. Thank God there’s no tax here because I wouldn’t be able to figure that out!”

         Sophie comes back to the table, carrying a professional-looking cake.  It’s covered in smooth white frosting and a caramel spider web stretches across the top.

         “Wow,” Eleanor says.  “What’s in it again?”

         “It’s apple cinnamon with cream cheese frosting.”  Sophie smiles and speaks faster.  “And the batter.  I put more apples and cider in than flour.”

         “You have to try it,” Eleanor says to me.  “It’s unreal.”

         “That’s what I’ve been told,” Sophie says.  She never tries her creations

         After a pause Eleanor says, “I have to write a midterm tonight.”  She extends the sound of “mid” so it becomes a groan.  “I need some fried pickles.” She’s working toward a masters in psychology. She just found out she has three more years of school to become a certified counselor.

         Sophie waves over our waiter and Eleanor and I each cut a piece of cake.

          “I went back to school too,” Sophie says. “I just have no idea what I’m doing yet.”

         “That’s okay,” Eleanor says. “I didn’t either. I just took some classes and some intrigued me and then I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

         “I want to do something with my art,” Sophie continues.  She creates art in all mediums, but food is her favorite. “Someday I’m going to be a baker,” she says. “That’s what I really want to do – open up my own bakery.”  She takes a slow breath and shifts her attention to Eleanor’s collar.  “Baking is one of those things I can do without much effort.  Most people – they can’t get the dough to rise when their making bread or whatever.  They just don’t get it.  And I can do it without effort.”

         Sophie’s boyfriend walks by the table and leaves her with a smile and the plate of fried pickles. “You live together,” Eleanor says.  Her voice grows raspy and her syllables extend. “Can you spend five minutes without staring into each other’s eyes?”

         “Oh, yeah,” Sophie says. “Like that ever happens. Not so much.” Sophie and Eleanor share their laughter.

         “I’m never going to get married because that’s always going to happen,” Eleanor says. She pauses then adopts a lower tone and grumbles, “Oh, here he comes.”

         “Exactly what was I thinking,” Sophie says.

         Eleanor is serious for a moment. “I hope one day that doesn’t happen.” Then she raises her pitch and speaks like a storybook grandmother. “I’ll just go, ‘Oh, we’ve been together twenty years.’”

         Sophie lifts her eyebrows and joins her voice with Eleanor’s. “Yes, and he makes your heart go pitter patter still. That would be lovely.”

         “It would be,” Eleanor says.  Her voice has returned to its normal timbre.

         “Doesn’t work for me,” Sophie responds.

*        *        *

         Almost a full hour has passed since we came back inside. The plates are empty and we are quiet. It’s time to go. We stand, and Eleanor immediately hugs me. “Thank you,” I say.  I see Sophie flatten a few bills on the table, clearly covering more than the cost of the food.  She scribbles on a napkin and pins the whole pile under an empty glass. As Eleanor steps back, Sophie takes her turn to wrap her arms around me.

         We weave through the restaurant back to the double doors that lead to the staircase. As I watch Eleanor and Sophie climb ahead of me, an almost forgotten memory finds its way to the front of my mind. I can picture a man. About the same age as these two women. Gray is starting to show at his temples, but his only wrinkles are from the sun. He found out his wife was smoking crack, that she was sleeping with her dealer to finance the addiction. The man made a trip to the dealer’s house to scare him off. But he brought a gun and ended up killing the dealer. During his sentence at San Quentin, he would sit outside and looked west toward Mt. Tamalpais. At 2,571 feet, the peak stands taller than anything else in the surrounding counties. Eventually, he was released.  The following day, he looked east toward San Quentin from the top of Mt. Tam. I can picture the way his eyebrows knit together as he told this story to a room of high school seniors.

         I almost run into Sophie who has stopped behind Eleanor.  We’re at the top of the stairs.  Eleanor looks back to Sophie.  “Brace yourself.”

         The red door swings open, and we rejoin the world.