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Authors: Meredith Russo

If I Was Your Girl

BOOK: If I Was Your Girl
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Copyright Page


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For Vivian and Darwin, for giving me the honor of being a mother.

For Juniper, who inspired so much of this book with her stories and who pushed me when I thought I couldn't keep going.

For my parents, for not flipping out when I majored in writing (with a minor in women's studies to boot).

For all my foremothers and forefathers and those in between, for rioting and fighting and surviving plagues and mourning friends, for coming through pain I can't even imagine to give me the opportunities and freedoms I have now.

For my brothers and sisters and those in between, for surviving out there every day and being beautiful inside and out in a world that's still so far from safe.

For the boys and girls and those in between who feel alone and afraid, who feel like there's no way out, who feel like things can never be better than they are now.

For all those who didn't make it, who now rest in power and whose names we will never forget.

This book is for all of you.



The bus smelled of mildew, machine oil, and sweat. As the suburban Atlanta sprawl disappeared behind us, I tapped my foot on the floor and chewed a lock of my newly long hair. A nagging voice reminded me that I was only a half hour from home, that if I got off at the next stop and walked back to Smyrna, by sunset I could be in the comfort of my own bedroom, the familiar smell of Mom's starchy cooking in the air. She would hug me and we would sit down and watch awful reality TV shows together and she would fall asleep halfway through, and then nothing would change.

But something had to change. Because I had changed.

As I stared out at the swiftly moving trees, my mind was in a mall bathroom back in the city, the images shifting and jumbling like a kaleidoscope: A girl from my school, her scream as she recognized me. Her father rushing in, his rough, swift hands on my neck and shoulders. My body hitting the ground.

“You okay?” a voice practically screamed in my ear. I looked up to see a guy wearing earbuds, his chin resting on the back of the seat in front of me. He gave me a lopsided smile as he pulled out the headphones. “Sorry.”

“It's fine,” I said. He stared at me, drumming his fingers on the headrest. I felt like I should say something, but I didn't trust my voice not to give me away.

“Where you headed?” He draped himself across the back of his seat like a cat, his arms nearly grazing my shins. I wished I could roll up into a tiny, armored ball and hide in my luggage.

“Lambertville,” I said quietly. “Up in Hecate County.”

“I'm going to Knoxville,” he said, before going on to talk about his band, Gnosis Crank. I realized he'd only asked about me as a formality so he could talk about himself, but I didn't mind; it meant I didn't have to say that much. He told me about playing their first paying gig at a bar in Five Points.

“Cool,” I said.

“Most of our songs are online if you wanna check them out.”

“I will.”

“How'd you get that black eye, by the way?”


“Was it your boyfriend?” he asked.

My cheeks burned. He scratched his chin. He assumed I had a boyfriend. He assumed I was a girl. Under different circumstances, that would have thrilled me.

“I fell down,” I said.

His smile turned sad.

“That's what my mom used to tell the neighbors,” he said. “She deserved better, and so do you.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding. Maybe he was right, but what I deserved and what I could expect from life were two different things. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” he said as he put his headphones back in. He smiled and added, “Nice meeting you,” way too loudly before returning to his seat.

As we headed north on I-75 I texted Mom, letting her know I was okay and halfway there. She wrote back that she loved me, though I could feel her worry through the phone. I imagined her in our house all alone, Carrie Underwood playing on loop while the ceiling fans whispered overhead. Her hands covered in flour folded on the table in front of her, too many biscuits in the oven because she was used to cooking for two. If I'd had the strength to be normal, I thought, or at least the strength to die, then everyone would have been happy.

“Next stop Lambertville,” the bus driver called over the harsh, tinny intercom. Outside the windows, none of the scenery had changed. The mountains looked the same. The trees looked the same. We could have been anywhere in the South, which is to say, nowhere. It seemed like the sort of place where Dad would live.

My hands shook as the bus lurched to a stop. I was the only passenger who stood up. The musician looked up from his magazine and nodded while I gathered my things. An older man with leathery skin and a sweat-stained work shirt scanned me from my feet to my neck without making eye contact. I stared straight ahead and pretended not to notice.

The door rattled open and the bus let out a hiss. I closed my eyes, whispered a short prayer to a god I wasn't sure really listened anymore, and stepped down. The sickly humid afternoon heat hit me like a solid wall.

It had been six years since I had seen my father. I had rehearsed this moment over and over in my head. I would run up and hug him, and he would kiss the top of my head, and for the first time in a long time, I would feel safe.

“That you?” Dad asked, his voice muffled by the bass rumble of the bus engine. I squinted against the harsh light. He wore a pair of wire-rim sunglasses, and his hair was at least half silver now. Deep lines had formed around his mouth. Mom called these “laugh lines,” so I wasn't sure how he had gotten them. Only his mouth was as I remembered it: the same thin, horizontal slash.

“Hi, Dad,” I said. The sunglasses made it easier to look him in the face. We both stood rooted in place.

“Hi,” he said after a while. “Put your things in the back.” He opened the wagon's hatch and got in the car. I deposited my luggage and joined him. I remembered this car; it was at least ten years old, but Dad was good with machines. “You must be hungry.”

“Not really,” I said. I hadn't been hungry in a while. I hadn't cried in a while. Mostly I just felt numb.

“You should eat.” He glanced at me as he pulled out of the parking lot. His lenses had become transparent, and behind them, his eyes were a flat, almost grayish brown. “There's a diner close to the apartment. If we get there now we'll have the place to ourselves.”

“That's nice.” Dad had never been social, but a little voice in my head said he didn't want to be seen with me. I took a deep breath. “Your glasses are cool.”

“Oh?” He shrugged. “Astigmatism got worse. These help.”

“It's good that you got it treated,” I said, my words as staggered and awkward as I felt. I looked down at my lap.

“You've got my eyes, you know. You should take care of yourself.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We'll take you to the optometrist soon. Need to get your eye looked at after that shiner anyway.”

“Yes, sir.” A billboard rose from the trees to the left, depicting a cartoon soldier firing red, white, and blue sparks from a bazooka.
. We turned into the sun so his eyes were hidden again, his jaw set in a way I didn't know how to read. “What did Mom tell you?”

“She was worried about you,” he said. “She said you weren't safe where you were living.”

“Did she tell you about what happened sophomore year? When I … was in the hospital?”

His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. He stared ahead silently as we passed an old brick building with a tarnished steeple. The sign read
. A Walmart loomed behind it.

“We can talk about that later.” He adjusted his glasses and sighed. The lines in his skin seemed to deepen. I wondered how he had aged so much in six years, but then I remembered how much I had changed too.

“Sorry,” I said. “I shouldn't have brought it up.” I watched the patchwork tobacco farms roll by. “It's just, you never called or wrote.”

“Wasn't sure what I could say,” he said. “It's been hard coming to terms with … everything.”

“Have you come to terms now that you've seen me?”

“Give me time, kiddo.” His lips puckered as they formed the last word, so unusually informal for him. “I guess I'm just old-fashioned.”

The turn signal clicked in time with my heart as the car slowed. We pulled up in front of the Sartoris Dinner Car, an actual converted railroad car on a cinder-block foundation.

“I understand,” I said. I imagined how I must look to him, and my mind leaped to fill in all the worst things I had ever felt about myself. “My name is Amanda now though, in case you forgot.”

“Okay,” he said. He killed the engine, opened the door, and hesitated. “Okay, Amanda. I can do that.” He walked to the front door in that clockwork way of his, hands in his pockets and elbows pointed at symmetrical angles. I couldn't help seeing my reflection in the window: a gangly teenage girl with long, brown hair in a cotton shirt and shorts rumpled from travel.

A bell jingled as we entered the empty diner. A sleepy-eyed waitress looked up and smiled. “Hi, Mr. Hardy!”

“Afternoon, Mary Anne,” he said, grinning broadly and waving as he took a seat at the counter. That smile gave me a feeling of vertigo. He had smiled when I was seven and I told him I wanted to try out for Little League. He had smiled when I was nine and I agreed to go hunting with him. I couldn't remember any other times. “Heard your granny had a stroke. How y'all holding up?”

“She says heaven don't want her and hell's afraid she'd take over,” the girl said, pulling a notebook and pen from her apron and walking over. “The physical therapy's been a bear, though.”

“She can do it if anybody can,” Dad said. He slid his menu to her without looking at it. “Sweet tea and a Caesar salad with chicken, please.”

BOOK: If I Was Your Girl
7.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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