Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Redefining Ashley

I had a short story published last summer in Quality Women's Fiction Magazine. I've had a few people mention wanting to read it, so I'm going to post it in three separate parts. I hope you enjoy it (and for new people reading the blog, I don't normally post fiction, so if this is boring, hang in there!). Here's part one:
Redefining Ashley

Cliché [klee-shey] – noun
1. A trite or hackneyed plot
2. Anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse

In the dictionary, next to the definition of the word “cliché” is a picture of me, Ashley Ann Covington, and it’s not a good picture. Seriously. In this picture, I do not look my best, because, let’s face it, I rarely have the time and energy to do so. I am almost thirty years old and the mother of two young children. It takes an effort to look good these days, and apparently my husband agrees and has decided I am past my expiration date. He shared this opinion with me when I discovered him testing out a newer model. In our bed. Really.

In this photo, my long blonde hair is not sleek and stylish but rather twisted up in a hairclip with kamikaze strands shooting every which way. My non-trendy workout clothes are stained by unidentifiable substances, most likely made by small children or a large, slobbery dog, or a strangely colorful combination of both. No make up graces my face or hides my flaws, and I look like I haven’t slept in five days. Now, take this picture and superimpose it over me, right now, as I drive down Texas Highway 16 on my way to a family reunion, my life goals in pieces, shattered and scattered along the road behind me.

I’m now a cliché, the first wife traded in for a trophy wife, and all before I turned thirty. This hasn’t been a private humiliation, oh, no, not at all. My friends and family know my husband had an affair but they don’t know the rest of it, the worst of it.

That all too recently familiar jittery nervous feeling started tightening up in my chest as it always does when I think about Travis and our disaster of a marriage. My psychologist has armed me with weapons to battle this debilitating anxiety. I have deep-breathing exercises, music and medications stocked in my arsenal currently but the meds weren’t a good idea when I was on a road trip, so I switched on the car stereo and simultaneously started my slow breathing in and out. Deep breathes in through the nose and then exhaled out through the mouth. In, two, three, four…out, two, three, four. My favorite soothing CD featuring George Winston piano music began to play softly from the front speakers only.

Cody stirred briefly in his carseat, causing a trio of red hot, lime green and electric blue Hot Wheels die cast cars to clunk to the floor in quick succession in the backseat, which startled Hershey, our big, golden, one hundred and fifty pound mastiff that looks nothing like chocolate, awake, lifting her massive head, dog tags from her burnt orange collar tinkling together in response.

“It’s ok, girl,” I said softly, reaching around carefully with one hand to grab Cody’s sippy cup before it joined the toy cars on the floor, keeping my eyes on the road. Hershey seemed satisfied her little charges were still asleep and dropped her head again. Cody slept on and next to him, in an infant carrier carseat his ten month old baby brother Brady slept deeply as well, swaddled in light blue blankets. Everything would be ok for them. I was going to get my shit together and be there for them, no matter how I had to do it. I just needed to make one last decision before I could move on.

* * * *

Destination [des-tuh-ney-shuh] - noun
1. The place to which a person travels or is sent.
2. The purpose for which something is destined.

With each mile slingshotting past into the dark night behind, we grew closer and closer to our destination. I found myself fidgeting in my seat, my muscles tense, clenching my jaw and the steering wheel way too tight. My family waited for me at the end of this journey, and they would be the toughest test of all. My parents disapproved of my leaving Travis. “An affair is no reason to break up a family,” they had argued.

Am I the only one who sees the irony in that? Everyone seems to think sweet little Ashley should forgive her husband’s “little slip up” and move on. Oh, I’d moved on alright. I’d also burned bridges along the way.

Determined to block out the negative thoughts and the nonstop worries, I turned up the music, making sure it didn’t wake the kids. The clear, pure piano notes filled up the anxious, silent pressure that had built up around and inside of me, soothing my soul with comforting melody and familiarity. Each note dissipated a notch of tension along my spine. Very shortly after that I spotted my turnoff and slowed my lumbering, green, or as Travis always corrected me “British racing green”, Land Rover to make a right turn off of Highway 16 and onto the back roads that would lead me through the heart of the Texas Hill Country to El Barranco, my grandparents’ ranch.

Located between Kerrville and Bandera in central Texas, I used to spend every summer on the ranch that was several hundred acres of wildflowers, livestock, the Guadalupe River and precious childhood memories. During our summers there my grandmother Mia had always given me and my four siblings chores such as feeding the animals, gathering eggs or milking the cows. In our free time we rode the horses, went on hikes or swam in the river. We often all ended up piling in the old beige Chevy pick-up truck to go with Grandpa to the outer fields to check on cattle or mend broken fences. Eventually we all learned to drive in those back pastures in that old truck and it had the dents and bruises to prove it.

The summer I was eight years old Mia gave me the responsibility of closing up the chicken coop at night. During the day, the chickens roamed free throughout the barnyard, but at sunset, rain or shine, they never failed to automatically all file into their pen to huddle together in the darkness. So, just after sunset, every night, I mounted my shiny red ten-speed with a giant black maglite perched in its white woven basket and pedaled half a mile across the ranch by myself to close the pen and lock the chickens up. The special chicken wire that framed the chicken coop kept snakes from getting to the chickens at night. I used to be terrified I’d run into a snake but it never happened. Closing the chicken coop was my chore and I did it, even if I did pedal back as fast as those wheels could turn, my ponytail streaming behind me, certain that snakes, or the boogeyman my brother told me lived in the barn, was chasing after me.
Back then I was impressed with those chickens and how smart they were to go to safety every night, but now, having turned off the main road and pulled up to the security gates, I realized how wrong I was. Those chickens weren’t smart at all. They were stupid to file brainlessly into a cage each night, reliant on others to ensure their safety. What would they do if we forgot to shut their pen? They’d die. They had no survival skills.

“Stupid chickens,” I muttered as I rolled down my window to punch in the security code. The huge ornate iron gates slowly slid open, inviting us to rattle over the cattle guard and venture into the land beyond.
* * * *

Home [hohm] – noun
1. The dwelling place, retreat or refuge of a person or animal
- adverb
1. Deep; to the heart
2. To the mark or point aimed at

When I reached the sprawling old hacienda, lights welcomed us from every window and family spilled out the door to greet us. It looked like almost my entire family had already arrived.
Although I’d been prepared for stern looks and judging eyes, instead I received warm hugs and much appreciated help unloading the car, carrying in sleepy boys and getting Hershey settled in their room after a quick romp in the bushes. I found myself tearing up more than once, and by the time my head hit the pillow, I felt enveloped in love and accepted home.
The next morning Cody and Brady woke up in a new place and Cody was thrilled to find all his cousins around. I barely saw him the rest of the morning as he took off exploring, guided by the older ones. I was the youngest of five in my family and the last to get married and have children. With each sister and brother having two or three kids, I think the official grandkid count was up to eleven now, although that number would soon be growing at the rate of strong fertility in my family. I was growing proof of that, although I wasn’t showing yet, and I hadn’t told a soul.
The only family member who was later than I was turned out to be one of my brothers, Jay. My husband Travis and Jay had been good friends in college and were still close. I was nervous about seeing him more than anyone, because he might know the details. It was a good thing I arrived before he had, because I needed to be first to break the news. He was due any time now so that little tick-tock in my consciousness began counting down the minutes I had left to make my decision. I couldn’t be honest with my family until I was honest with myself. I’d thought I needed more time to make up my mind, but I found that once I was here, I knew what I needed to do, what was right. No matter how scared I was, I needed to face up to my responsibility, even if all I had was a flashlight and a ten speed.
Mia, my mother and my two sisters, Laura and Melissa, were all in the kitchen cooking away and gabbing like a room full of chickens. They all turned to me once I entered the kitchen, and I knew my time in the hot seat was about to begin.
“You know those boys need their father, Ashley, and you can’t support yourself,” Laura, my bossy sister, offered her advice immediately in a matter of fact voice.
“Travis and I are getting a divorce, but the boys will still get to see him” I replied, trying not to get too annoyed.
“Do you think maybe talking to someone could help you two come together again?” my mother asked softly.
“Mother, we tried that, but Travis and I have grown apart, too far apart.”
“Do you think once he grows tired of Cindy or Sissy or whatever her name is, he might come crawling back to you?” asked Laura.
“Her name is CeeCee and no, I don’t think he will.” I took a deep breath as we neared the heart of the matter.
“You seem so sure,” Laura looked at me intently. My shyer sister, Melissa, had stopped counting out silverware and was staring at me also. Mia was silently knitting and watching while my mother seemed to be the only one without a clue.
Melissa was the one who finally took the plunge. “Ashley, what did you do?”
There was no easy way to say this. “After I found him in our bed with his girlfriend, I was furious, hurt, betrayed and just totally devastated. I wanted to hurt him back and so I did the one thing I figured would hurt him back.”
Melissa closed her eyes while Laura’s mouth was dropped open.
“I slept with Jack.”
The statement hung in the room like a physical weight. No one needed any explanations about who Jack was. He was Travis’s best friend, the best man at our wedding, and practically a member of my own family, being as close as brothers with my own brother Jay.
My mother put down the mixing bowl and left the room without a word.
“How did you get Jack to do that?” Laura asked wide-eyed, probably not realizing how insulting her question was.
“We’ve always been attracted to each other, but it never even occurred to us to act on it.” I explained awkwardly, feeling my cheeks heat up. The words began to flow out quickly, rushing and tumbling over themselves to get out. “I was upset and he was trying to support me and understand what had happened between me and Travis. I just took advantage of him. It was my fault, all my fault and I made it worse by telling Travis all about it afterwards.”
“Ashley, it couldn’t be your entire fault,” Melissa said softly. I wanted to hug her for her kind words, an easy way out, but I had to face my chickens.
“No, it is. I ruined their friendship, which really wasn’t fair to Jack. I used him and I ran away from it all. I fucked up my marriage, their friendship and now you know.”
“Ashley, I can’t believe you!” my mother’s voice came from the entryway. I guess she hadn’t gone far.
I turned to my grandmother Mia, who was still silent in the corner, knitting away. She gave me a small smile and dropped her eyes pointedly to stare at my hands. I realized that I had been holding my hands against my belly in the protective, distinctive manner that any woman who has had children recognizes immediately.
“Oh, my God” my mother exhaled and sank into the nearest chair.
I heard more voices coming down the hall, including my brother Jay’s, and I realized I needed to get to the point.
“Are you pregnant again?” Laura asked, making it sound like a communicable disease.
“Travis will take you back!” my mother cried, jumping to her feet.
She had missed the point completely. “Mother, I won’t take him back, but, yes, I’m pregnant.”
Once again, my statement hung in the silence, and I realized more people had entered the kitchen behind me. I knew Jay was one of them, and I hated to say this in front of him, because I knew he was going to think the worst of me after this, but I had to get it out now, before I lost my courage.
“Ashley,” Melissa began, her eyes widening as she stared at the group behind me.
I cut her off. “I’m pregnant and it’s not Travis’s baby, it’s Jack’s.”
With this dramatic information finally released, I turned around to face Jay’s reaction but found myself staring instead into the eyes of the man standing next to him, the man of the hour, Jack.

* * * *

Courage [kur-ij] – noun
1. The quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain,
2. Obsolete. The heart as the source of emotion.
- Idiom
1. Have the courage of one's convictions, to act in accordance with one's beliefs, esp. in spite of criticism.

I think I must have run out of words at that point from the mere shock of finding Jack in Mia’s kitchen. I felt like I surely had the scarlet A branded on my forehead for all to see with Jay and Jack frozen in front of me and my family all around, everyone witness to the grand final humiliation of Ashley.
Jack gazed into my eyes intently and spoke up immediately. “We need to talk.” His intimate stare made me feel like no one else was in the room, that we were alone. “I asked Jay to bring me out here so I could see you again. You left, and I…we…let’s talk. Alone.
I glanced over at my brother, and by the confused look on his face, I could tell Jack hadn’t filled him in on our affair.
“Are you really pregnant? I’m the father?” Jack asked softly, moving closer to me.
I nodded and said, “Yes, Travis and I stopped…this baby is definitely yours.”
He just stared at me, a cocky smile appearing on his face. Oh, brother.
My whole family burst into conversation at that moment to cover the awkward silence. It really couldn’t get any worse than this.
I spoke too soon.
“Did Ashley just say she’s pregnant with Jack’s baby?” came a familiar voice from the hallway, and my husband walked into the kitchen.
I shut my eyes in disbelief, sure that when I opened them again this would all be a dream. Nope, didn’t work. I silently began the new breathing exercises to work through my instinctive panic. I fought the urge to just run, to leave everyone here and just get away from it all. But, I’d already done that and it hadn’t done any good. I couldn’t really leave, but maybe I could lock myself in a room upstairs for a while…and my brain recalled the memory of those damn chickens in the chicken coop, waiting for someone to come take care of them. I didn’t want to be like that.
“Everyone out,” I managed to croak out. My mother looked outraged and my sisters surprised.
“I need everyone out” I repeated in a firmer voice, slowing gaining volume. “I need to talk to Travis and Jack. Alone.”
“Ashley, honey, we don’t need to talk. I just came by to give Cody his tiger, because I know how he likes to sleep with it every night and he left it in my car. I’m done here” said Travis in a quiet voice that meant he was pretty angry. “I just need to do this.” He turned and before anyone could stop him, swung a right hook at Jack’s face. In slow motion, I watched my husband hit his best friend, sending Jack crashing to the floor with the force of it. Travis then dropped the soft stuffed animal tiger he was carrying onto the kitchen table before leaving the room.
I felt like the eye of the storm as I stood still while everyone else rushed into motion, running to help Jack up or out of the room to see if Travis left. Jay and my sisters led Jack out of the room to get him to go lie down on a couch, and I was eventually left alone in the kitchen with my grandmother Mia.
“Mia,” I said, going to sit down next to her, dropping my head into my hands. “My life is such a mess now.”
Mia’s rough hands stroked my head gently. “What are you going to do, Ashley?”
“The entire drive here, I thought about what options I have, which don’t feel like many. But, I’m going to keep this baby. Travis and I are done, and I can accept my part in that, but I can’t go back,” I explained. “I think I need to spend some time finding myself, maybe going back to school and just focusing on myself and the kids for a while.”
I looked up into her non judgmental gaze and felt the tears welling up in my eyes. “You and Grandpa need help here still, right?”
Mia nodded smiling.
My mom came back in the kitchen. “Ashley, how can you think to have another man’s baby? You need to go after your husband.”
“No, Mother, I don’t need to go after Travis. This baby deserves a chance at life, and I’ll have to talk to Jack about his part in it. We…he means a lot to me. But, I’ve got to make this decision on my own two feet, because otherwise I’ll be stuck in a chicken coop waiting for others to keep me safe.”
I stood up and gave Mia a quick hug before facing my mother. “I’ve decided to stay here and raise the boys. It was a good place for me to grow up, and I learned a lot here, more than I realized.”
My head held high, I left the kitchen to go find my children. I wanted to show them the chicken coop, the ranch and the world.


Josephine Damian said...

Be careful about any copyright violation when posting stuff already published, JMO.

Rhea said...

After this story published last year, the copy rights reverted back to me, as I understood it, so there shouldn't be a problem. Thanks for the head's up though!

Valarie Lea said...

Ok lets try this again, blogger just threw my first comment out. This story is really good, you did a great job. :)

Rhea said...

Thanks, Valarie!!

Jeff B said...

I love the details. Feels like I'm there at the ranch watching you drive in.

Looking forward to the next installment.

Paula Lynn Johnson said...

This is off to a great start. You kept me wanting to read more!

Rhea said...

Jeff - Thanks! I went ahead and posted the rest of the story in this post. I'm having trouble with blogger's formatting though..it doesn't want to cooperate and is mushing it all together.

The Mom Bomb - If I left you wanting more, than I did it right! yay! lol Thanks!

Chatterness said...

Wow!! What an honor to have been published. Your "voice" takes the reader right there!! Great job, girl!

Rhea said...

Chatti Patti - Thanks! I was so happy to get a story published...now if I could just get another one...