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 try 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. You’ll want 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.
You’ll turn twenty. You’ll 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.
Eventually 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.
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.
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