Hey nineteen-year old me,
You feel like you’re drowning in secrets, huh?
I know. Every morning, life crushes your chest until you can’t breathe? Look, that might last a little while. But, and I know you won’t believe me now, it won’t be forever. It’ll feel like it, though. Every morning, you’ll lie in bed, listening for signs—clues—of what kind of mood he’s in. Will Dad be furious, agitated when you try to sneak to the kitchen for cereal? Or will he be holed up in his bedroom on the laptop that’s never off for more than an hour at a time? The one he’s on from five am till two or three in the morning. You will not even want to think about what he’s doing.
You’ll be angry. Sometimes white-hot rage.
At Dad—you’ll really hate calling him that.
At Mom—the one person who claims to be your ally. She’ll bitch about how horrible your father is and how she’ll to fix it. But she never will and when you realize that it will really hurt at first. But soon after, it’ll make you angry and you’ll stay that way for a long, long time. For now, you’ll hold hope, every day, that she’ll change. Wake up and leave him. I wish I was wrong, but it’s better you know this now: she never will. She’s been married to him since she was seventeen. He’s molded her, shaped her into the person she is. Instead of being a mother, she’ll feed you to him like fish food. And he’s a piranha.
That will kill you. Your “ally” hurt you worse than the person who you thought caused the most damage. But hurt is sometimes good—your eyes will open because of it. You will, slowly, begin to see them for who they are. It’ll be ugly, but it’s necessary. You’ll learn that the conversations with Mom where you plead with her to get out are a waste of your breath. And you’ll be safer, it’ll be easier on you to stop. In case he hears. Or she tells him.
You’ll have no idea how to handle this—the realization that you have no one. Once you’ve seen the truth—the reality. It’ll burn your entire body—like you’re holding yourself over a candle. Looking at their faces, hearing them talk will make you squirm and want to lock yourself in your room. But hang on—keep up the façade that you’re fine. That everything’s okay. That’ll be the only way to keep screaming fights to a minimum. Sooner than you think, you won’t have to hide your feelings or fake anything. It’ll be within reach.
For now, there’s nothing else you can do—it looks as though it’ll stay that way forever. And I get it. I really do. You’ll see no options. There will be two things that keep you from OD’ing on a bottle of Aleve and endless glasses of cheap, disgusting white wine from Wal-Mart. To take the easy way out. But don’t.
What you don’t know, what I wish I could tell you now, is that things are going to change and be better than you could ever imagine. You don’t have to believe me. And you probably don’t. But at least keep reading.
So, those two things you’re immersed in? Throw everything you’ve got into them.
School. That’s why you’ll have been in college since you were sixteen and will be about to graduate soon. To escape. To hide behind the books. The math you don’t understand—the hours of studying to keep him from bothering you. The American lit class you love—if you can’t have a life, at least you’ll live vicariously through the characters. Education could be the ticket out, you’ll think. In the end, it won’t be. It’ll be something better. But stay in school. It’ll get you to where you’re going.
Writing. You’ll lose yourself in the words and will have found a way to make some money by freelancing. The checks will be handed over (read: taken from you) to Dad, but hey, it keeps a short moment of peace. Very short. He’ll always be watching—making sure you’re working to earn him money. It’ll make writing hard sometimes. But you’ll keep paging through your copy of The Writer’s Market until you have a list of every place possible to submit your work. That’ll make Dad—and you—happy.
You’ll feel lost for a while, though. How could you not? You’ll see no way out. You’ll think you have no control over anything. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling that way. For thinking that because you’re an adult, you should give them the finger and walk out. The truth: you’re nineteen. You’ve moved eleven times. Your father’s had more jobs than that. You’re a product of your circumstance. It’s not easy to admit that—just know that it’s not your fault.
He’ll drive you to college. He’ll take your mother to the grocery store. The post office. Your brother will not go out. Your house will be on lockdown. The blinds will be drawn. No one will be allowed to talk to the neighbors. You’ll have been homeschooled since you were in eighth grade. You’ll recognize yourself in Cady from Mean Girls; embarrassed about all the things you don’t know and haven’t done. Go easy on yourself. You haven’t had the opportunity to have a life like others’—remember that it was never your choice.
You and your little brother will have never seen The Real World on MTV. Or music videos on VH1. The last movie you’ll have seen in theaters will be Pocahontas. There will not have been cable in your house since you were nine because Dad won’t want you getting ideas. Ideas of what normal life could be. But you’re so close to normal.
You’ll never have had a real boyfriend. You’ll never bring friends, the few you’ll have made at college, over because of what they will see: a house that looks as if you’ve just moved in. Even though you’ll have been there for a year. And that’ll be a long time for the Burkhart family.
You feel as though you’ll be moving for the rest of your life. And you will make another move. But this one, I promise, will be the one that changes everything.
Most of your stuff will be in the garage. In boxes. No photographs will make it to the walls. The sparse furniture will provide just enough space for your family to sit. Everyone will be on edge—ready to move—at a moment’s notice if Dad gives the word. No one will know where—it’s always a mystery until the U-Haul arrives.
He could choose Texas. Or Kentucky. Or Cali. But you’ll be prepared. You have to be. It’s the only life you know. Moving in the middle of the night will be nothing out of the ordinary for your family.
You think this is your life and always will be. Guess what? It won’t. And all of those secrets? They’ll come tumbling out.
Next spring, you’ll turn twenty. You’ll have stopped freelancing and have written a novel. You’ll get an agent. You’ll make a four-book deal. It will sound glamorous to everyone who doesn’t live in your house. Anyone who doesn’t know the paychecks aren’t yours. They’ll support your able-bodied father who won’t work and the mother who allows it to happen and refuses to work. She repeats the sentence that’s burned into your brain. “When I married your father, working wasn’t what I signed up for.”
You’ll want to scream this: Guess what, Mom? Supporting my family wasn’t a pressure I signed up for, either. But you won’t. And it’s the right choice. Keep quiet, just a little while longer.
There will be public interest in you because of your book deal. But your secrets will never come up in interviews with the newspaper. You’re told all of your answers better be candy-coated bubble-gum fluff. And they always are.
But something will happen soon. Something better than the book deal. You’ll meet someone who will become more than your best friend. Your secrets will no longer smother you. You’ll spill them all to her.
You’ll admit what you’ve never told anyone: you’re living in an emotionally abusive, controlling home. Any money you make goes to support your family because your father won’t “let” your mother work. She doesn’t protest and you resent her for it.
And, the secret you’ve never told a soul—you’ve moved so many times because your father is a con man. His “jobs” are spending hours on the computer finding ways to take money from people and sink them into get-rich-quick schemes that always fail. To take their money and disappear. That’s why he’s always on the move. A man will come to your door with a gun. Meant for Dad.
You’ll make all of these phone calls from your closet or outside, in the corner of your backyard. Your voice will rarely go above a whisper. Your best friend will talk to you—and keep talking. She’ll build up your confidence that hovers at zero. She’ll convince you that you need to get out. And she’ll help you. You won’t believe her sometimes. You won’t believe that you can get out. But she’ll keep telling you it’s possible.
Listen to her.
An opportunity will present itself and it’ll be now or never. You’ll fly to Missouri to meet her where you’ll both speak at a writer’s conference. Your father will let you go alone for once. He’ll only concede after endless screaming fights and your threats of not going, so be prepared for the fight of your life. Be careful not to get hit—but push it as far as you can. Use his weakness against him. Play him the way you’ve always been too scared to before. He’ll be blinded by dollar signs—use that. When you do, he’ll let you go.
The weeks leading up to the conference will be agony, filled with fear, sadness of leaving your brother, and an occasional spurt of hope. Almost every night will be a sleepless one. Know that Tylenol PM and alcohol won’t help you sleep. Every secret phone call will send you into an instant panic attack and, at the same time, her voice will be the only thing that’ll calm you down. Your pink Motorola cell will never leave your side—you live for a text, e-mail or call from her. Keep the phone by your side—she’ll be your greatest distraction and source of comfort. You’ll never have needed anyone more.
Be diligent. Pretend you’re the obedient doormat they want you to be just a little while longer. It’ll nearly kill you, I won’t lie. But if you can get through this—you’ll have made it, literally, out the door.
You’ll be terrified of getting caught until you reach the airport. And that’s valid. You’ll even be scared until the plane takes off. Even then, there will be strings like always. If you don’t answer your phone every time he calls—and he’ll call almost every couple of hours—he’ll call the hotel or hop on the next flight.
But there’s one person you’ll want to see more than anyone. And she’s keeping you alive. Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? But it’s true.
Remember that every hour in the air puts your farther away from them and closer to her.
Your parents will expect to see you again in three days. They won’t know that your best friend’s booked you a New York City bound ticket. Even when you land at the Missouri airport, you’ll be sure he’ll somehow be there. That it’ll be over. But it won’t. He won’t be there. Your anxiety will still be at a ten. But it’s going to lessen. Trust me.
When you find her at the conference and her arms are around you, you’ll know you’ve made the right decision. Doubts will flee from your head. You’ll make it through your presentations—turning on professional author Jessica Burkhart, then you’ll head back to the Missouri airport.
At the airport, you’ll do two of the most important things you’ll have ever done in your entire life: e-mail your parents and tell them you’re never coming back and why. Then, smash your phone into a million pieces.
Seconds before you pull out the SIM card, removing any remaining source of contact to them, your text alert will go off. And it’ll be a message you’ll carry with you always. Good shit. Your little brother approves. Almost as if he knew when you hugged him so hard the night before you left that it’d likely be the last time you ever saw him again.
You’ll arrive in New York and, just like the heartbeat of the city, things will happen fast.
You’ll learn the subway. Find an apartment. Keep writing your books. Change your e-mail address. Make zero contact with anyone in your family. Get a prescription for anti-anxiety meds. Smoke a cigarette. Become more comfortable around men. Cut and dye your hair. Stay out ‘till six bar hopping. Learn what love is. Learn that family doesn’t have to be blood. For a while, you’ll still be afraid that you’ll see him on every street corner. But wait it out. It’ll never happen.
You’ll have the date your life started, 040509, tattooed on your wrist. You’ll also leave the last part of Jessica Burkhart behind. You’ll take your best friend’s middle name as your last name. Jessica Burkhart will become your pen name and Jessica Ashley will be your name.
You’ll no longer cower in anyone else’s existence. You’ll become a normal twenty-something who experiments with everything your new life has to offer. Some choices will be right. Others will be wrong. But at least you’ll be making them. You’ll no longer be kept by anyone.
Twenty-four year old Jessica Burkhart (aka Jess Ashley) is the author of the 20-book Canterwood Crest series from Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin MIX. She co-owns Violet & Ruby, a two-person packager and style blog, with her best friend and editor Kate Angelella. Jess’ YA verse novel, KEPT, is based on the above essay and has a proposal ready for submission. Visit her online at www.jessicaburkhart.com. Check out Violet & Ruby at http://violetandruby.blogspot.com.