Previous – Chapter 16 – Chloe’s First ‘Family Meeting’
If you would like a soundtrack to go along with this, check out my playlist on Spotify or YouTube. This chapter’s songs: “Angry Too,” “Feel Nothing,” “Resentment,” “Cry,” and “The Calm Before Reform.”
As Gabe and I walked out of the office, I saw a familiar figure leaning against the wall, gazing in our direction. “The fuck’s he doin’ here?” I growled, stopping and folding my arms.
“Cool it,” my boss warned. He took a step closer to me, face serious. “Molly needs a break from babysitting you, so you’ll stay with Toby this weekend.”
My eyes narrowed. “I don’t need a fuckin’ babysitter…”
I was rudely cut off by Gabe grabbing my ear and dragging me forward. “And I don’t need your fucking attitude, young lady.”
As I caught someone noticing what he had done, my cheeks flushed. “Oh my god, really?? In public?”
“You’re lucky I don’t blister your ass right out here in front of everyone. Are you ready to behave and stop with the defiance?”
Unsure if more eyes were watching, and knowing Gabe and Toby could easily gang up against me, the embarrassment was strong enough to prompt compliance… for now. “Fine.” He yanked on my ear, causing a yelp, and then I blubbered, “Yes sir!”
Gabe’s hand dropped, and I rubbed my earlobe as he pushed me to walk faster towards my friend. An unfamiliar heavy lump sat in my gut, wanting to avoid Toby. No matter how mean Gabe treated me, our interactions had an underlying humor; we’re just part of a big game. Toby, on the other hand, was the implied winner and didn’t allow my arguments, staying serious. He was so much smarter than me. I could never win.
Almost arriving at Toby, I stopped again. “Bro… Don’t make me go with him… I can behave on my own…”
Gabe raised his eyebrows and shoved me forward. “Nobody asked your opinion. You’re going, end of story.”
I tried not to rage too much as Toby awkwardly watched me pack a backpack of clothes for the next two nights. “This is so fucking stupid. I’m not a child, I can stay by myself,” I grumbled now that Gabe wasn’t around.
Toby stared at me, waiting patiently for my tantrum to subside. His scrutinizing stare observing my every little move made me feel more vulnerable than last night when I was naked in front of them all.
“It’s not like I don’t have shit to keep me occupied. I don’t need a fucking babysitter.” I sniffled, stuck in a battle between mixed emotions: angry my friends didn’t trust me to be alone… confident that I wouldn’t do anything stupid since I’d be with Toby… terrified of how the next few hours would go… But anger was the only thing I could show. “Treatin’ me like a criminal or psych patient. This is some bullshit.”
I threw a Buddha figurine of Vic’s and it bounced against the wall, then flew towards the dresser and knocked over a framed picture of our family. Oops. My eyes rolled, and I was about to keep packing when fingers clasped around my upper arm.
“Bro! You scared the shit outta me. You move like a ninja, what the fuck, yo.”
Toby jerked me to him, still a serious face, not playing with me. His gaze so intense I cowered, sensing that I was about to be put in my place. “You are both a criminal and a psych patient: you’ve broken several laws and you are an addict. Instead of giving your commentary and throwing shit around, be grateful that you have friends who care enough to get you out of the fucktopia you created for yourself. After the way you’ve treated us all lately, you don’t deserve an ounce of the attention we’re giving. Be thankful we’re better friends to you than you’ve been to us.”
My stomach clenched, and I hung my head, anger dissolved and now just feeling like a shitty person. Which I deserved, but ugh, one of the worst feelings ever.
Toby lives on the second floor of a house that had been converted to a multi-family home. As we climbed the stairs in the narrow hallway, our history came to mind. Too many thoughts at once. How awful I treated him. Drunken nights that I passed out in his room. He always took care of me. I wore him out. I tried to repay him for it all, but I was just too much. Like everyone else, he stepped back. He didn’t have the time, couldn’t give me the attention.
Why had he agreed to be my ‘babysitter’ anyway? I’m not worth it.
My eyes stung, pestering me to let the tears fall, but I’d resist for now.
“Where’s Tristen?” I asked as we passed her room, remembering his emo kid little sister, two years older than me but much more delicate and innocent.
“Rad. I wanna go on vacay.” When he didn’t respond, I kept rambling. “Looks like she and her girlfriend are getting close, right? Are they gonna move in together?”
He nodded, cold and detached, leading me to his large bedroom. Like Molly’s, Toby’s room had been a common area in its former life. It’s an L-shape, so he has it divided nicely: couch and tv on one side, his bed, desk, and dresser on the other. Two large bookcases along the walls were stuffed with old-looking science and psychology textbooks, all of his lighter softcover books about meditation and spirituality strewn neatly about.
I was only forced to endure a few minutes of excruciating silence as Toby changed out of his work clothes. His earlier scolding had subdued me a lot, so I sat on the couch fiddling with his Rubik’s cube. My heart thumped, and I chewed on my lower lip, busying myself with trying to solve this puzzle, much easier challenge than figuring out what to do with my life.
Totally absorbed, I didn’t notice when Toby came back dressed comfortably in black shorts and a tight gray t-shirt until he cleared his throat. I glanced up.
“We need to talk.”
“Famous last words,” I muttered.
He sat down on the coffee table in front of me. “Gabe has given you consequences the last few days, but this weekend it’s my turn.”
I stopped twisting the Rubik’s cube and looked up at him, stunned. “But you could’ve Monday and said no. That’s not fair. You can’t do it now!” Fury stirred inside my chest, so I refocused on the device in my hands, not really trying to solve it anymore, just needing to move.
“Behavior modification doesn’t happen overnight. There are several steps to complete… Violeta, please stop with that, it’s distracting.”
I rolled my eyes and tossed it aside, folding my arms with a huff.
He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, eyes locked with mine. We held the gaze for a minute. “What’s going on?”
A sigh and eye roll escaped without my permission. “Is this therapy?”
“I need you to put the brattiness away and speak like an adult. I’m not Molly, I don’t deal with pre-teens.”
My cheeks flushed. “I don’t know what’s going on. What you want me to say?”
“I want you to tell me what triggered your spiral, why you didn’t call me, and help me figure out what we can do to make sure it won’t happen again.”
“Fine, if we’re gonna do this, I need to get comfy. Get your notepad or crossword puzzle or whatever.” I caught a glimpse of his almost-smile as I stretched out on his couch, staring up at the ceiling. “Doesn’t it always go back to our mothers? Should I start there? I don’t think I’ll tell you anything you don’t already know. My mom is a bitch. We hated each other from the beginning cuz we have the same temper. Vic was always the one to comfort me after I was yelled at. Typical absent father…” I swallowed a lump in my throat, remembering my dad, bottling those feelings back up. “The rest of my family is so far away that…”
“Wait, something happened when you were talking about your father.”
I turned my head to glare, but his empathy and curiosity urged me not to snap at him. “I was thinking how I never got to know him. This shouldn’t be a surprise, though. Hashtag daddy issues. Don’t all spankos have them?”
“What did you miss out on knowing about him?”
“Everything. Ugh, I don’t wanna talk about this…” I swallowed another lump in my throat and looked back up at the ceiling, inspecting the squiggly lines in the paint.
Toby didn’t speak for a moment and my mind wandered to images of childhood, the few times I hung out with my dad. Most of our bonding was centered on music or sports, two things I’d avoided lately, and we were rarely alone. I never resented him for that… until they left. And as I’d expected, we never made up for lost time.
“We’re going to talk about this, little girl. You’ve held the emotions in long enough. Time to let them out.”
“It hurts too much,” I whispered.
“I’m sure you can handle it,” he said with a hand on my shoulder that made me flinch in surprise. “And I’m here with you if it starts feeling like you can’t.”
I focused my attention on his fingertips pressed into my tensed muscle. As much as I didn’t want to confront my feelings, I knew Toby was right. I’d tried running away for long enough. “He died,” I said aloud for the first time ever. “I know Molly told you, even though I told her not to. It’s whatever.”
“Why didn’t you want me to know?”
“Nothin’ personal. Just avoidance. Molly and Vic on my case about talking was enough. I didn’t wanna think about it. That’s when I started drinking more and fighting more.”
“Who did you fight with?”
“Everyone. Jason, work people, other friends, anyone who did anything that flipped my anger switch.”
“Who are you actually angry with?”
My nose tingled as more tears crept up on me, spilling out of my closed eyes. “Myself.” It was almost a whisper, another thought I never admitted out loud. A weakness that can be used against me.
“Why do you think that is?”
I wiped my eyes with the back of my arm, nudging Toby’s hand away as I considered his painful question. “All those years he wasn’t there… they just abandoned me and Vic… I was so mad at them for leaving us in such a shitty situation… I never went to visit… It was revenge… I’d make them as miserable as they’d made me.” I covered my eyes because I was tired of Toby watching me cry and even more tears were about to come out. “But now I’m the one who never got to know my dad, and I can’t go back…”
Sobbing, I rolled onto my side, trying to hide my face, and Toby scooted to the couch, helping me up so he could wrap his arms around me in a tight hug. My instinct was to push him away, but after all the beatings (literal and figurative) I’d received over the last few days, I let myself lean into him, enjoying the comfort of his embrace. We must have stayed like that for an hour, me telling him stories about childhood, talking shit about myself, sobbing, then repeating until I was cried out and fell asleep. I hadn’t rested so soundly in months.
The weekend with Toby was like a fucking mental health retreat. He made me go to his stupid running group (which was at least exciting because of Izaak’s sexy, sweaty muscular body), meditate a few times, eat healthy, watch educational videos, and talk about my feelings all the time.
By Saturday evening, my raw emotions had been exposed and analyzed, leaving me exhausted. Still vulnerable. So many tears — more than I’d cried in the last few years. I was weaker, submissive. That’s when Toby could take advantage. He’d broken me down enough.
“You seem much better tonight than I’ve seen you in a while.”
“Yeah… I feel almost… happy. Whatever that means.” I was squirmy as I sat on the sofa, calm considering how much I wouldn’t like the ‘talk’ we were about to have.
“You know what comes next.”
Biting my lower lip, I maintained eye contact as I nodded, ignoring the flashback of the awful punishments I’d received from Toby in the past. “Time to clean the slate,” I mumbled.
“The implements are inside the ottoman.”
That was my cue to choose his weapon. The ‘illusion of control’ as he called it. Whatever I picked I’d have to justify, so I either had to read his mind of what he was expecting or turn up my bullshit-o-meter full blast. And if I made an okay implement choice, he would remind me I didn’t have any control past that. Not even a safe word (but it’s not like I’d use one anyway).
I pushed myself up and opened the ottoman, digging through the implements. Even though Gabe had punished me plenty the last few days, this was different. It was like going to confession. I’d repent and be forgiven. Afterward my aura would be cleansed, and I’d commit to working towards my goals, no transgressions or guilt holding me back. The punishment had to be powerful. The climax of everything I’d experienced over the week.
My gaze gravitated to a bamboo paddle, the implement of Toby’s I hated most. It doesn’t appear brutal, but the stingy-thuddy mixture makes for super unpleasant spankings.
I picked it up and took it back to my friend, keeping my hair in front of my face so I didn’t have to look at him. But because I was so in tune with my emotions, I could sense his surprise and… hmm… was he proud of me? It’s an unfamiliar feeling since I’m a fuckup, but still recognizable.
“On the bed, diaper position.”
His penetrating glare made me shiver. Worst position ever. And the instructions were vague enough to keep me guessing and nervous about screwing up, so I fully undressed. As I discarded my underwear, goosebumps covered my body, silently hoping the punishment focused more on physical pain than verbal.
Without waiting for more direction, I crept towards his made-up bed. A deep breath steadied my trembling frame as I sat, looking up at him. My tough exterior had been chiseled at throughout the week, and Toby had hammered the rest of it away. All that was left was vulnerable little me.
My hesitation prompted a slight crease in his forehead, so I scooted back and lifted my feet into the air, wrapping my arms around my legs. I stared up at the ceiling, getting very familiar with all the intricate details on the white surface to distract me from the embarrassment and discomfort.
But then Toby came into my line of vision. “First, summarize the important points from today.” He placed one hand on my heels, resting the paddle on my bottom. Same flat expression that he always wore.
“Do I have to?” I whined, turning my head to the side.
“Look at me, little girl,” he scolded, swatting me and getting obedience right away. His peeved face was much more gentle than I deserved, but his tone was strict. “This is your life, Violeta. It’s not a game.”
I resisted an eye roll, focusing on the memories that popped up in my mind from our earlier discussions. “I should meditate all the time, even if it’s fucking boring.”
He didn’t humor me with a verbal response, thwacking the paddle down again to make me squeal, then stared at me hard.
So I continued, doing my best not to cower from his intense eye contact. “Anger and jealousy trigger urges to do self-defeating behaviors…”
“… And to prevent relapse, I should find shit to do on the weekends. Yo, we should def plan a vacation. I heard Gabe has a sweet crib on Long Island… The whole group could…”
Toby popped me again. “Focus.”
“Sorry.” Submissiveness. What an odd emotion. “Ummm… what else. If I’m triggered, I should hang out with a good influence friend, and I should stay away from Dominic’s… Ay!” I shrieked with the next paddle swat. “Damn so many fuckin’ rules.” I closed my watery eyes, allowing gravity to let the tears slip down my cheeks. When I finally opened them again, Toby’s face looked a little softer, more kind. But still an intense gaze.
“Tell me the goals you’re working towards.”
“Pay off all my debts.” I allowed my heavy body to sink into the comforter as I thought about having to make amends with all the people I’d stolen from.
Now he popped the paddle down a few times in quick succession so that I started kicking a little with my cries.
Then he stopped, allowing me to speak again. I panted, straightening my position for him. “And I’ll go back to therapy and work on coping skills or whatever, so I don’t get raging bitch or fuckin’ crazy every time I’m triggered.”
Cue the next flurry of hard paddle swats.
“And figure out what to do with… my life.” With the following round of smacks, I let out the rest of my emotions. They came to the surface too easily since I’d been crying most of the last 24 hours. There was no use in trying to bottle them up anymore.
Toby stopped for a moment, hazel eyes boring into mine. He rested the paddle on my bottom, ready to strike again. But then his words surprised me: “Two weeks moving towards your goals without drugs or reckless spending, and I’ll agree to a weekend at Gabe’s bougey beach house.”
My mouth dropped to ask if he was serious, but then the hardest flurry of swats came down. The loud pops echoed through his large bedroom and I tried my best to hold position, squeezing my hands together so I wouldn’t get my fingers hit.
“After this punishment,” he began, swatting every so often for emphasis, “you will release the guilt you’ve been holding onto. Guilt for using again and being aggressive, but also the shame about not going to see your father. Look at me,” he demanded when I shut my eyes, stopping the spanking for a moment. “You were a child when they were taken away. It’s natural you were angry… that was the only way you knew how to deal with it. And now you’re an adult. Now you’ll let that anger go. Got it?”
I nodded. “I’m sorry for being a shitty friend and breaking my promises to you,” I bawled.
He landed a final hard swat and said, “You’re forgiven, Violeta.” The paddle fell to the bed and Toby gave me permission to drop my legs, then helped me to sit up, allowing me to fall into a side hug. He squished me into his body as I cried out the rest of the tears inside me. All the rage that had been present now washed away, leaving me with only hurt and disappointment.
Once my cries subsided a bit, I took a deep breath and Toby spoke again.
“It’s imperative that you don’t forget your goals, so along with earning a clean slate, we’re going to make sure you move forward.”
I groaned but let him lead me to his desk, instructing me to sit. Then he flopped a spiral notebook in front of me. “Fuuuuuck. Can’t believe you still have this.” Thumbing through the pages I half-read the repetitive rows of positive behaviors that Toby had tried to instill in me throughout our friendship: arriving on time to work, completing homework assignments, getting a full eight hours of sleep. Ha. Some things never change. Nostalgia swept over me with an aura of gratitude to have his support all these years.
“Today’s lines will be your goals. One page for each goal so you don’t forget.”
“And we’ll go on vacation in a couple of weeks?” I asked with still-teary eyes.
He cracked a slight smile. “As long as you do what you’re supposed to. We can discuss details at the next meeting.”
“I think you just wanna make the moves on Clo,” I teased with a sniffle, flipping to an empty paper in the notebook. In my most beautiful penmanship, I wrote: I will pay off all of my debts. Then the next page: I will return to therapy to work on coping skills. And finally, the last: I will figure out my career.
There they were. All set and ready to execute. With a yawn, I noticed a positive emotion: determination.
I will reach these goals and show all those motherfuckers that nothing will stop me.