Relief washes over me as I turn the key in the lock, finally standing in front 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, picking him up when he paws at my leg repeatedly.

 

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

 

I walk in, tired with far too much on my mind. I think about what I’m going to do after graduation for the millionth time, 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 super long-term. Being here has been a conflicting experience, to say the least.

 

At first, I was absolutely elated with everything the city of 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 to finally have the freedom that came with that. I might have been just as excited to relocate to Alaska if it meant I didn’t have to suffocate under their “protection” any more.

 

However, of course, the novelty of new beginnings in a new environment started to wear off, like it does with pretty much everything else. Eventually, I began to see that it—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 are brothers, born and bred in the same small, closed-off, narrow-minded slice of Kansas. They’re practically the same person, but Michaela and I couldn’t be more different. She had far less tolerance for our family dynamic, upbringing and way of life in Salina than I did, and so 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’s 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 as soon as she turned fifteen 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, accuse and call her all sorts of names.

 

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

 

Unfortunately, stuff like that always comes with a stigma, and much more so with religious types.

 

I have no idea exactly how he did, but her father promptly disowned her without so much as a second thought the moment he found out and they’ve been totally estranged ever since, not having spoken or seen each other in almost a decade.

 

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

 

Before I left for college, my dad always said she was a bad influence, utterly lost and in need of saving. He has no idea we’re even in touch, let alone that we live 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.

         

Despite all that, he’s definitely wrong about the type of person she is deep down. 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 embarrassed or uncomfortable at being called a ‘stripper’ like a lot of girls in her position do. She doesn’t play around with semantics, mince her words or give vague answers whenever people ask her what she does. The girl is simply unapologetic for who she is; the one quality I truly, wholeheartedly love about Michaela 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 my parents’ judgments, I know just how lucky I am that she’s here and was more than willing to let me live with her.

 

I walk into my room and put my bag away, shrugging off my blazer and dress pants in exchange for Adventure Time pajamas. As I pull 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 still don’t know what my next step is.

 

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

 

I prepare a mug of piping hot, ginger-lime tea—and a bowl of milk for Nixon, the cat—before grabbing my e-reader; one of the few things I splurged on the second I was able to save up enough money. I grew up reading physical books—mainly the Bible and other Christian literature that got my parents’ 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 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 and the like but, at least for me, it’s the lesser of the two evils. Especially 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 don’t have to think about mine.

 

***

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THIS CHAPTER MAKES ME FEEL...
  • Fascinated
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Bored
  • Afraid

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