June 10th 2016
“This is whack.” Fernie states leaning back in his chair resting his palms flat on the table in front of him.
Not even the homemade cinnamon rolls and donuts I baked earlier this morning could persuade the five teenagers sitting in the room to join my cooking classes. Mainly working with younger children, I wasn’t used to working with teenagers. But dammit challenge accepted.
I wasn’t one to give up so easily when I knew what I was trying to do could help teenagers aging out of the system. A different program. Another alternative.
“Yeah, totally whack.” Melanie agrees pushing her jet black hair behind her shoulder with sass, Fernie sends her a quick wink. Blushing, she turns her head away from him.
“Isn’t there already something in place? My foster parent have been all up on my ass to do better in school, but I am not that smart to be able to go Arizona State University.” Marcos looks me dead in the eyes.
Lost in his confusion, I cleared my throat, “Yes, there is a bill.” I clear my throat again. Throat nerves were the worst, “Basically, that bill is for seniors graduating out of the system who have the grades to get into ASU. If you don’t have the grades, what are you going to do after you leave high school?”
One thing Norma reminded me of yesterday before meeting these “troubled” teenagers was to be honest with them. Don’t feed them lies. Tell them the truth and treat them like adults. I studied each of their files wanting to know their backgrounds before our official meeting. I talked with Principal Cohen and Guidance Counselor Asha Beckett beforehand as well. Both of them were a little weary of my meeting with these kids.
Slapping labels on fosters kids like “troubled” or “kids who have checked out” means they have heard they don’t have what it takes, but that also means I have to work twice as hard to prove their negative mindsets otherwise.
The room goes silent as I look around at the six students waiting for someone to answer back. Their silence is worse than a crowd at a comedy show who doesn’t find the comedians joke funny.
“Okay, I am going to ask you if anyone has started preparing you to make aftercare decisions?”
Nikka and Jamal raise their hands, but the others kept silent.
“Think of me like that person. I am your aftercare life coach,” I continue my speech, “I care what happens to you guys after you graduate. I care if you decide to age out of the system or do an out-of-home transition and stay in the system until you’re twenty-one. My program will qualify for that. My program will also help you learn self independence, help you with resources and figure out your goals.”
“And how do you plan on doing that Miss Know-it-All?” Fernie pipes up cockily sending Melanie another dominate wink before turning his attention back at me. All his winking reminded me of Landen, I fought back a smile listening to him, “You have no idea what it is like to have empty promises turn into broken dreams. I have been in the system since I was ten. That’s almost eight years of wishes and unfulfilled caviar dreams.”
All the heads in the small conference room nod. My eyes watch each and every one of the their heads show the same amount of disappointment as their faces. Fernie, the ringleader of the group acted like their spokesperson letting me in on the promises they have all faced only to face plant into an abyss.
“By being your go-to person. I know you may not believe the stranger in the room, but I care deeply. Believe it or not, there are people in this state who care enough to see you succeed and make something of yourselves. Making something of yourself doesn’t involve traditional college. There are other options like vocational or trade school, culinary school, on the job training programs so you don’t wind up homeless and on the street. Organizations like mine want foster youth to gain autonomy outside of the system with smooth transitions.” Picking up napkins and the glass tupperware container, I walk around the small table placing napkins and dolling out cinnamon cake donuts with raspberry chocolate glaze.
The more I kept moving the less likely I was to show I was nervous.
Teenagers could smell nerves and fear from a mile away. I was only inches. Not knowing what they would say or do to continuously build the nerve train, I moved to remain calm.
Rounding the table, I placed the glass Tupperware in the middle and picked up a stack of booklets. Eyeing the uneaten donuts on all the napkins as I set each booklet in front of each teenager wondering if my donuts smelled bad or they didn’t believe in accepting food from a stranger.
To them, I was stranger danger. The woman who was offering them a discounted price of caviar dreams and fulfilled wishes.
Inside the packets laid out all informational essentials — about the program, funding, raising more funding. I also included the weekly lessons for six months, three times a week for ninety minutes. After six months if they decided to stay on they would each take an excelled second course.
“I don’t want to fail you guys.” I say handing out the last booklets. “If you take my course and fail or it doesn’t keep you off the streets, then I fail. All of my hard work and planning goes down the drain. I spent months worrying about letters for funding and months watching an amazing friend trick out his kitchen just to have space for you all to join me on this adventure. Adventures are the foundation to being scared or nervous. Adventures are also the core of life, growth and positive change. When I look around the room at all of you, I know you’ve had unexpected and life changing obstacles, but those aren’t adventures. You all deserve an adventure.” I let out a heavy earthy breath. “Look over the booklet. Take some time to think about my program. And if you want to join, drop off the signed contract at the address located at the bottom or turn it into Mr. Cohen. My phone number and email are also on the bottom in case you have any questions.”
I didn’t want to pressure them. The more information I offered them, the more they probably thought I was begging them to join my program.
I was totally begging and sucking at it.
Not only did I pick the worst high school to ask for this meeting at, but I was moderately begging without the whining.
A toss up of convincing and begging.
Man, I was at a new time low.
Turning around to gather my belonging, I look at the full container of cinnamon rolls considering leaving them behind except for one.
I was saving that one for me. A mini emotional eat session in my car sounded like a good idea once this was all over.
“Ms. Bishop?” The voice to my left was barely a whisper over ruffling papers and chairs clanking against the conference room table.
Spinning around, I recognize the teenage girl from her files picture, Lisa Abbott.
Well, almost like her picture. The one in her file wasn’t recent. Lisa looked strung out. Her light blue eyes had a transfixed catatonic state to them and red rimmed circles around the sockets. Her hollow cheekbones sunk in from being malnourished, and her skin almost had a grayish coloration like she was the undead.
Stings of greasy blonde hair fell past her shoulders and her shirt and jeans had various holes in different places.
Observing her, my heart ached. The simple things most people took for granted like a shower and clothes and food meant sometimes we didn’t think about those who didn’t have those luxuries until they were right in front of our face.
Lisa wasn’t here for my speech. She must have walked in when some of the other students walked out.
“Yes, and you must be Lisa.” I say with a smile holding out my hand.
Adjusting the folder she was hugging to her chest, she extends her hand to meet mine. Fragile and bony fingers wrap around mine. They are cold as ice even though it’s a hundred degrees outside.
“Sorry, I wasn’t here for the meeting. I had to catch the public bus to school. Do you have a moment to sit down and explain this to me?” She drops her hand from mine with a sense of embarrassment that doesn’t go unnoticed.
Waiting for the last few remaining stragglers to exit the conference room, “I do. Please sit down.” I motion to one of the chairs as I walk to close the door for privacy.
“My program is an independent living program. I aim to teach you how to budget, cook and function outside of the foster care system.” I begin my speech reaching across the table grabbing her a packet and a donut.
Her eyes skim over the front page, not looking up at me she says, “I am not really good at reading.”
She sets the packet back on the table and wraps the donut in the napkin gently placing it in the small pocket of her backpack on her lap.
“I can help with that.” I say in a cracked voice.
When I went into my field, I didn’t have tough skin. Norma slowly layer one on me as best she could. Her advice was not to only lead with my heart for the greater good, but lead with an iron heart or I would be destroyed by the end of my first year.
Having a layer of tough skin was like having a bad callus that got sunburned. Eventually, the layers would peel back to the freshest layer of skin, exposing a new layer for strength and flexibility. Or raw vulnerability.
I still had a lot of raw vulnerability.
By the end of the packet, she reaches in her bag saying, “I have nothing to lose. I am already living on the streets. My foster dad kicked me out and there has to be something better out there.” Locating a pen, she signs her name and places the pen back into her bag.
“I don’t want to pry, but does your foster care worker know you are living on the streets?”
She shakes her head no. “So many times I thought about telling him, but my foster dad said if I did he would beat me. I have been down that road too many times. Too many times I watch have my bruises form into deep dark splatters of skin paint only for them to change colors eventually.”
“Lisa-“ I start before she raises her hand standing from her chair.
“We all don’t get to choose our lives until we are aged out. We don’t get to pick who helps us or harms us when we are in a corrupt system. I have a year left and don’t have the energy to get to know a new family or a new home only to know the sentence will be short lived. The streets aren’t that bad.” She finishes her last sentence like it’s a consolation prize.
“By law, you know I have to report this.” Her foster dad is illegibly getting paid for a child he kicked out. Defrauding the state, system, and her livelihood.
“I know.” She shrugs slinging her backpack over her shoulder and turns to walk out.
Ripping the consent form from the back of the packet, “Here take this.” Handing over the rest of the packet. “My number and the place where I work are on there. If you ever need anything please don’t hesitate to come by or call.”
She takes the packet folding it down the middle. “I have been in the system since I was four. Within five minutes of talking to someone, I know if they care or not. You care, Ms. Bishop. That is rare. But it’s also a dangerous quality to carry in your line of work.”
Leaving she closes the door behind her as I slink back down in my chair.
I definitely have raw skin of vulnerability.
“She is right, I care too much.”
“That isn’t a bad thing.” Ronnie offers me a genuine smile.
“I agree. It only becomes unhealthy when there aren’t any boundaries or you take someone’s self respect and independence away from them.” My mom adds cutting into a carrot. “That is why your father and I tried to let you be who you were once I stopped trying to get you to make friends.” She pauses cutting to look up at me.
Lulling my eyes up innocently, a grin seeps across my lips.
“As worried as I was, I knew you had to have your own way with independence. That is why I never took it away from you. But you can’t cut into someone’s boundaries. And you have to remember you can’t save everyone.”
“I can try.” I defend.
“And I don’t doubt that you won’t try. Along this new journey you’ll fail in some areas and succeed in others until you find a balance, but you still have to remember that you’re like a start up. You have little capital and a lot of heart and drive. Some people will invest in what you believe in and others will wait out the beginning of the storm until there is a clear view along the horizon.” My mom finishes cutting back into another carrot.
Of course she was right.
“And you’re doing it all by yourself. Or most of it. I know everyone has pitched in to get you this far. Now you’re a recruiter trying to convince foster kids that you can help them succeed. That’s a big job.” Ronnie addresses.
“I am hoping to be able to hire someone to help out once this jumps into full swing. Norma said it wouldn’t be for a while.”
“I will volunteer to help you. Besides my roses and book club or bitching at your father about grass, I don’t have much else to do.” My mom offers.
“I can pitch in a few days a week.” Ronnie offers. “When is Lit finally opening this kitchen?” She asks her eyes scattering around the barely used appliances.
“Help sounds wonderful.” It really did. Alyssa kind of disappeared on me when she said she was going to help. Not holding her to it because of work and all the wedding mishaps, I took on the grunt of it myself.
We really hadn’t spoken this past week. I called her only to get a full voicemail. Texts weren’t responded to and with the wedding one day away, I thought I would hear from her. She even canceled her bachelorette party – or lack thereof. It was more like our own little party. The news came through the Dirk grapevine.
Containing my frown, “In a month. I have been testing recipes with Landen and Dirk all week. I am cooking infusion type of bar food. Something I think customers will love.”
“I can’t wait for the grand opening, I will come with a bib on.” She laughs, easing me into a smile,” You and Landen have been seeing a lot of each other lately.” Ronnie lightly bumps her elbow on my arm changing the subject quickly.
“We have, but only as friends.” I glance up to see my mother studying me mid pause on her carrot cutting.
“He told me about the deal you two made. I don’t know why you both are torturing yourself. Or more like you torturing him by not being with him already.” Ronnie adds.
“What deal?” My mom voice tinged with hurt and curiosity.
I was prepping wedding food with the two biggest gossips. I didn’t understand how Why Ronnie didn’t tell my mom sooner. They had been friends since the day the Davies moved in next door and did almost everything together. No gossip was left out. Broaching the subject with my mom made me uneasy. Landen has a better relationship with his mother than I had with mine. He told her anything and everything like a tabloid reporting the news.
“The deal where Cassie has ten dates or two years and if she doesn’t find someone she gives Landen a chance.” Ronnie horizontally cuts into a piece of celery like what she told my mother is old gossip.
Locking eyes with my mother, she read my look of “I’m sorry I didn’t say anything”.
Whereas I read the squint in her gaze as you should have told me. The furrow in her brow as are you sure this is a good idea. The tight quietness of her lips as you don’t want your heartbroken. You’ve been there, done that.
All of those things were the reason why I didn’t want to tell her.
The motherly lecture.
Our relationship wasn’t rocky, I knew I could turn to her for anything. My problem was, I didn’t. I blame it on the independence part of my core personality.
“Mom,” I started, but she did the tried and true wave off.
“It’s your life, Cassie. I worry either your heartbreak will come from Landen again or your heartbreak will come from someone else.” Her gaze doesn’t sway from cutting.
Ronnie nodded in agreement.
Me, I was surprised Ronnie agreed to Landen breaking my heart.
“What?” I ask Ronnie, “You agree that Landen will break my heart?”
“No. You guys could possibly break each other’s hearts.” Ronnie doesn’t look up from cutting the celery. “It has happened once. I saw how hurt you were when he returned from Europe married. I knew how hurt Landen was when you left our house the night he came back from Europe. I had late night talks with him about his feelings for you. I kept him updated on you when he was in prison. Landen might have went off at eighteen and married the wrong girl, but his love for you has never ebbed. I helped it grow stronger. But I also know you both could break each other’s hearts if you find someone else. And I am worrying just like Patty, but I hide it better.” Biting her lip, she fights a bout of laughter.
A carrot stick flies the short distance across the table smacking Ronnie on the forehead. She picks it up taking a loud crunchy bite out of it.
I laugh as all the worry drained from my body. Ronnie and my mom both opened their mouths to say more, only to close them back up. They share another eye look of understanding as we finish meal prep for the wedding.
Ronnie’s comment kept playing in my head.
Love isn’t a game. It isn’t a competition.
Love is simply the most beautiful emotion humans have ever felt. Wrapping a tight layer of affection that pumps rhythmic determination through the four chambered walls of our heart securing attachment to the one who captured it.
I felt that nestling once.
The long awaited emotional snuggle branding his name inside me, only for my heart to be broken. Landen destroyed my profound emotional connection and proved hearts can love, but also can be broken.
Expendable. Nonessential. Indispensable.
Disrupting the sequence of my cardiac cycle, the ebb and flow of blood pumping through my body was fractured. I was young, crazy in love and understood heartbreak is the root of detachment. Detachment from love is the worst type of feeling to endure, taking away the most beautiful emotion I have ever encountered.
Which is why I was on the search for love. Wanting to right love and it’s wrong doings from years ago.
Voices coming through the backdoor knock me off out of my emotional thoughts on love.
Landen, Alyssa, and Zeke line through the threshold.
“Speak of the devil.” Ronnie greets Landen pecking a small kiss on his cheek.
“Speaking about me again mom?”
“Always.” She replies.
Alyssa grabs a fork from under the steel table dipping it into the finished rainbow slaw.
“Hmm.” She says between chews. “Is this grandma Mabel’s slaw?”
“Its an alteration of it.” I reply stirring the slaw and dishing her out a monkey dish before placing it in the walk in to chill.
Landen and Zeke both grab forks quickly getting a bite in before I close the lid on the container.
“Soo good,” Zeke comments between an healthy adventurous sized chew. “Can I get more?” He asks using his free hand to open the container.
“Why does she get more than we do?” Zeke clowns in a whiney voice, “We are growing boys Cassie, feed us.”
Playfully smacking his hand away, lifting the container I move to the walk in.
Landen lets out a good sized laugh, “Don’t worry man when she’s not looking we will sneak in and get some.”
Exiting the walk in, “Your plates warming in the oven.” I say securing the door closed.
Both the men practically run to the oven fighting over who gets to open the door first. Zeke beats Landen, the oven door heavily bounces on its imaginary hinges.
“Are you sure you are okay with having a potluck style wedding?” My mom asks bringing my attention back on Alyssa.
My mom suggested it after Alyssa and I told her how much the caterer wanted to jack up the prices of plates after they initial contract was signed. Using the words “hip” “inexpensive” and “still a buffet like you wanted” perked Alyssa right up. Making the final decision she asked, “It isn’t tacky?” and my mom said, “Its only tacky if you ask your guests to contribute, which your not. Your family is contributing.”
My mom, Ronnie, and I all agreed to cater her wedding with elegance. A few of the members in my mom’s book club loaned out their buffet heaters.
“Actually, I love the idea. All the different types of food will give everyone a chance to either try everything or what they like. Way better than chicken or fish or over cooked steak.”
Zeke and I would smoke and grill the meat tomorrow and most of the sides were already prepped and assembled to pop in the oven or cook.
“I finished your cake this morning and sent it over to Ellie to be frosted.” The design Alyssa picked was more than I could handle. I didn’t work with fondant. There were some people who could bake and frost cakes, and then there were people who could work fondant like no one’s business. Ellie used fondant like no one’s business.
Meeting her on a local bloggers website, we connected. I commented on her videos saying things like “Your hands are sculpting magic.” and she would tell me, “How do you torture yourself like that? Not eating chocolate cake! There is no way we can be friends.” We totally became friends.
“I can’t wait to see the end result.” Alyssa squeaked, her face lighting upin pure excitement.
Something about her was different. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I reminded myself to corner her later at dinner to figure out what was going on. If I pushed her too soon, she would recoil. I had to wait for the right moment, when she was incapacitated with a belly full of good food.
“The cupcakes are finished and in the walk in if you want to see them.”
“I need a sugar pick me up.”
“Just don’t tell Landen and Zeke, they would probably turn into little sugar monsters and eat the lot.”
“Hey, I heard that!” Landen says between a mouthful of food.
“That’s a warning,” Ronnie tells him laughing. “You really didn’t hear anything.”
He grumbles shoveling a fork full of pasta into his mouth.
Walking past him leaning against the oven, my eye flutters a flirty wink at him.
“My signature wink looks good on you.” He winks back.
“I know it does. I am borrowing it.” Just for fun I send him another one.
“For how long?”
“Until… you learn to take it back.” I whisper comfortably flirting and liking the shell I am coming out of.
Maybe Ronnie was wrong. Love is a game. It’s a game to capture the heart of your love interest. Isn’t that what the hunt is all about? A dominate and a submissive. Cat and Mouse. Building a partnership between two people both winning each other.
We think of games as someone has to win and someone has to lose. Although that concept can happen between Landen and I, there is the other possibility that we could both win, with or without each other. Or at least that is how I need to see it. To come out the other side of this deal intact and unaffected.
Landen follows me into the room closing the door behind him. Carefully setting his plate on the table, he comes after me with hungry eyes and a domineering swagger in his step. Entrapping me into the edge of the table, I suck in an earthy breath as lifts me onto the table. Positioning my legs open, he plants himself between them. I wrap my legs behind his ass dragging in closer to me, lazily my arms on his shoulders.
Arching his eyebrow in surprise, “Well, someone is feeling a little frisky today. Was it being around all those younger teenage boys? Were their pheromones rubbing off on you too much?”
“Yeah, that was kind of wrong. I can’t imagine you turning into a Mrs. Robinson. Not that you’re old enough to be her.”
“Can you stop please.” I cover my ears trying to block out his complete ramblings of topics that aren’t geared towards me.
“I can’t, I like seeing to squirm. How did this morning go?”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
Surprising him, my lips lands on his partially open mouth. The timing was off, our teeth smack together sending a minimal amount of pain to my upper teeth and a sour expression transfixes on Landen’s face.
“Warn a guy next time.”
“I’ll remember that.” I say rubbing my tongue along my teeth.
“We have to work on your smooth operator skills.”
“You want to try that again?”
“No, I’m good.”
“Ouch, Cas.” One of his hands balls into a fist touching his heart in a wounded action.
I laugh, my eyes fleeting his mouth.
“Oh, you think that’s funny?” He wraps his hands under my ass bringing me to the edge of the table.
More like the edge of insanity.
Our positioning is spot on. He’s close, smelling like he’s been outside all day bathing in a manly musk pool. Little streaks of reddish orange coloring laid under his eyes and high on his cheek bones, soon to be a gorgeous sun kissed tan.
“I find it hilarious.” I fake a laugh waiting for the perfect moment.
Barely inching his lips open, I make my move. Again.
Delicate yet firm, I brush my lips against his mouth, only to have him brush back. Cool and soft lips met my own. Parting our mouths in unison, his response is immediate and tender. My hands find their way under the loose collar of his shirt wanting to feel his skin on my palms.
Kissing Landen let go of my inhibitions.
Goodbye past. Goodbye being scared. Goodbye old feelings of hurt and anger. I didn’t need them anymore. I never did. I used them as a shield for protection, and right now the only shield was our clothes.
Desperately clinging to his lips, a light hesitation clung between us. In some ways he kissed like the old Landen, soft and gentle. In other ways he kissed with intense fatal eagerness like he was going to lose me.
Each breath, I silently let go. Unwinding my mind from thinking too much further. A heavy cloud in the room grew hotter as his calloused hands massaged upwards at the hem of my shirt.
Trying to remember to lead and breathe, I suffocated against his mouth when his hands worked up my stomach stopping short of my bra. He held back from too much skin to skin contact.
Peaking my eyes open, I found his looking back at me like we needed to see each other’s response to continue. My eyes fed him a desired look and his spoke in a hungry, possessive hushed tone as they sweetly fluttered back to a close.
Loose tingles spread deep in my belly down to my very core causing me to close my eyes tighter craving his body to crush mine completely. He grinded against me, the friction necessary and wonderful encountered a new slew of tingles to branch out, my nerve ending stood at attention.
“Are we interrupting?” My mom calls out from behind us.
My eyes popped open like firecrackers. Untangling ourselves in a rush, my hands from his shirt, his friend under mine, we right ourselves.
There’s a first time for everything. Mine is being caught by my mother in my mid twenties.
“I don’t think we are, Patty.” Ronnie answers as we protect each other from turning around.
“I didn’t think we were either, I thought I’d ask just to make sure.” My mom chuckles.
Landen and I contained our laughter from their interrupting banter. “Anyways, we are done and leaving to get ready for tonight. Let’s keep it PG tonight you two.”
Not having the guts to turn around, Landen uses my thumb lifting it into the air for a thumbs up.
“Aw look Patty, they’re speechless.” Ronnie and her laugh it up closing the door behind them.
Finally able to breathe through the embarrassment, my head fell on Landen’s shoulder kissing the soft curve on his neck.
“Is it just me or do people love interrupting us?”
“It’s just you,” I pause kissing his neck again letting my feet hit the floor, “See you tonight, Landen.” Walking away, I know he’s behind me with blue balls and denim adjustment problems.