Relief washes over me as I turn the key in the lock, finally standing in front of a door that I’m actually eager to walk through after the day I’ve had.

A hyper, endearingly-obnoxious cat greets me as soon as I push it open, purring at my feet.

“Hey, sweetheart,” I murmur, stroking his shiny, pitch-black coat when he paws at my leg repeatedly.

I step inside my apartment, closing the door behind us. The lights are on. Michaela, my roommate, cousin, and mother of the feline adamantly demanding my attention must have forgotten to switch them off before she left for work. She’ll probably be out all night, as usual.

I shuffle ahead, spent, but with far too much still on my mind. For the millionth time, I ponder what I’m going to do after graduation, and I both hate and can’t believe that I still don’t know when it’s only a few months away.

My parents want me to go back to Kansas but, as far as I’m concerned, hell will freeze over first.

At the same time, I’m not a hundred percent sure I can see myself building a life in California.

I don’t know.

Being here has been a conflicting experience, to say the least.

At first, I was absolutely elated with everything Oakland had to offer, including the generally progressive mindset of the West coast compared to the Midwest. But, more than anything, I was just happy to be away from my parents and finally enjoy the freedom that came with that. I might have been just as excited to relocate to Alaska if it meant not being subjected to their “protection” anymore.

But, like anything else, the novelty of new beginnings in a new environment started to wear off. Eventually, I began to see that the city—much like most of The Golden State—isn’t all glitter and gold. Matter of fact, it can be a pretty shit place for a lot of people. Michaela would know.

Our fathers share not only biology, but fundamental, core mindsets; born and bred in the same small, closed-off, narrow-minded slice of Kansas. They’re practically the same person.

Michaela and I, however, couldn’t be more different.

She had far less tolerance for our family dynamic, upbringing, and way of life in Salina than I did. So much so that, at the burgeoning age of fifteen, she ran away from home. I have no idea where she got the money or how she was able to leave Kansas and be on her own as a minor, but she did. I envy her courage to this day, knowing that I could never have done what she managed to, even though I hated my life in Salina every bit as much as she did hers. Probably more.

She’s only a year older than me but a world away in maturity, street smarts, and life experience despite what others say about her.

She’s definitely one of the most misunderstood people I know. She’s also one of the most resilient.

She moved up here soon after she left home and never looked back, doing whatever she felt she had to to survive. Including taking her clothes off in front of strangers.

It’s easy for a lot of folks—including my parents…no, especially my parents—who don’t really know Michaela or what she’s been through to judge. To haughtily point their fingers and throw insults.

And being one of the top dancers at the most popular strip club in the city doesn’t help.

Unfortunately, stuff like that always comes with a stigma, even with non-religious types.

I’m not sure exactly when or how he found out, but her father promptly disowned her without so much as a second thought the moment he did. They’ve been totally estranged ever since, not having seen or even spoken with each other in almost a decade.

“The life of a stripper,” she loves to joke.

For most of mine, my dad claimed she was a bad influence, utterly lost and in need of saving. He has absolutely no idea we’re in touch, let alone living together. Sure, Michaela hasn’t always made the best decisions, even by her own admission. And, yes, she does have a habit of partying excessively by pretty much anyone’s standards and seems to be with a different man each week.

         

But he’s dead wrong about the type of person she is. If there’s one word to ultimately describe Michaela, it’s honest. Doesn’t get more Christian than that, if you ask me.

Sure, she dances naked for a living, but she doesn’t make any excuses for her lifestyle, circumstance or choices. Never once has. She doesn’t get uncomfortable or embarrassed at being called a ‘stripper’ like a lot of girls in her position are. She doesn’t play around with semantics, mince her words or offer vague answers whenever people ask about her profession. The girl is simply unapologetic for who she is; the one quality I truly, wholeheartedly love about her and wish I had.

Plus, hell, I certainly can’t complain. Her job is the only reason I can even afford to stay in a comfortable two-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city. There’s no way I could pay for it with the pittance I make as a part-time waitress.

So, in spite of our parents’ self-righteous damnations, I know just how lucky I am to have her.

I snail my way into my bedroom, shrugging off my blazer and dress pants in exchange for Adventure Time pajamas. Gathering my hair into a messy bun, I realize we still haven’t talked about our living situation after I graduate. I have nothing but my own uncertainty and indecisiveness to thank for that.

I sigh, truly tired of thinking about the future for one day. All I want to do now is drink something comforting and read a book. So I do.

I prepare a mug of piping hot, ginger-lime tea—and a

bowl of milk for Nyxon, our “presidential-residential” black cat—before grabbing my e-reader; one of the few things I splurged on as soon as I was able to save up. I grew up reading physical books—mainly the Bible and other Christian literature that got my parents’ rare and limited seal of approval—but I don’t own a single one any more…well, save for the dictionary I plan on recycling soon. I’ve organized and participated in enough anti-deforestation rallies to know cutting down trees for paper isn’t sustainable or smart. It’s certainly not necessary. Electronics definitely have their own problems with radiation and battery waste, but, for now, it’s the lesser of the two evils. At least, for an insatiable reading habit. Like mine.

I snuggle under my covers and swipe at the screen, happily escaping into another reality so that I no longer have to think about mine.

***

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