Dirty Letters

Dirty Letters

Vi Keeland & Penelope Ward



Oh boy, here we go again.

I pushed my shopping cart forward rather than turning to walk down the aisle I’d originally planned. But after taking a step or two, I couldn’t help myself. I backed up enough to hide my body behind the endcap and peeked my head out to watch the action.

A woman with the frizziest, most unnatural color of red hair placed a deodorant back on the shelf and grabbed a new one. She opened the top of the stick and sniffed it, then proceeded to lift one side of her shirt and wipe the deodorant under her armpit, then moved on to the other. Replacing the cap, she examined the shelf for a moment before picking another brand. Again, she plucked the top off, sniffed, then swiped under each of her pits. I watched, fascinated by how serious she was, while she sampled six different deodorants before a store employee finally noticed what she was doing. When they both ran down the aisle yelling, I figured that was my cue to move my ass and finish up my shopping trip.

A few months back, I’d seen a man sample a dozen whole rotisserie chickens. He removed the plastic cover off each one, ripped off a leg, took a big bite, jammed the leg back inside the cavity of the chicken, and replaced the cover of each. When I’d told the manager, he’d sighed and yelled to a stock boy to go fetch Mr. Hammond. Food shopping at two in the morning in a twenty-four-hour supermarket tended to bring out a unique brand of shoppers. I fit right in.

“How are you doing today, Luca?” Doris, the cashier, asked as I loaded my groceries onto the conveyor belt. She’d been working at this supermarket since I started coming here about five years ago—really nice lady. I knew she was a grandmother of nine and number ten was on the way. She babysat a few of them during the day, which was why she worked the graveyard shift. Doris was also one of the few people who I ever told the truth about why I shopped forty miles away from my home in the middle of the night.

“I’m doing good.” She scanned a package of black licorice followed by two canisters of Pringles and two boxes of packaged brownies. Not my usual grocery items, so I explained. “I’m stocking up for a road trip, not pregnant.”

Doris’s brows rose. “A road trip? Must be something special if you’re boxing yourself into a little car for a long haul.”

“I have to clean out my dad’s apartment in Manhattan.”

“He passed away last year, right?”

I nodded. “I’ve been avoiding it. I’d rather be water-boarded than step foot onto a tiny island with a population of eight and a half million people. Not to mention hours stuck in a car with traffic jams to get there—pure torture.”

Doris frowned. “Can’t you hire someone to do it?”

I had hired someone. Then a combination of my own guilt and Dr. Maxwell, my therapist, made me decide to do it on my own. But eventually the stress of thinking about all those people in New York City gave me trouble sleeping, and I hired the company again. Then I canceled. Again. Then I’d hired a new company because I was too embarrassed to hire the same company a third time. And again I canceled. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Until I was out of time, and, well, now it’s tomorrow.

“It’s just something I need to do myself.”

Doris looked genuinely concerned. “You going to be okay? I’m a good copilot if you need a friend to tag along.”

I smiled. “Thanks, Doris. That’s really generous of you. But I have someone coming. We’re leaving tomorrow evening to avoid traffic as much as possible.”

Doris finished scanning my groceries, and I swiped my card. Before leaving, I reached into my cart and grabbed the bag containing bing cherries and a package of dark-chocolate Milano cookies. I put it at the end of her checkout counter, like always. “The cherries are for your grandkids. Hide the Milanos from the little monsters.”

She thanked me. “Have a safe trip, sweetheart. Can’t wait to hear all about it.”

Yeah, me too. This was going to be one hell of an interesting road trip.

“You could focus on relaxing more if you’d let me drive my car. Maybe listen to some of those breathing technique recordings I gave you.”

I looked over at Dr. Maxwell’s dented-up Cadillac parked in my driveway. The man shouldn’t be driving at all. In fact, he was a prime example of why people over a certain age should be retested to keep their driving privileges. Relaxing would be the last thing I would be able to do with him behind the wheel. Plus, he knew I needed to be in control as much as humanly possible.

I started the ignition, and my bow-tie-wearing copilot lifted binoculars up to his eyes, peering out his window. I needed a new therapist for thinking it was a good idea to go on this trip with my current therapist.

“You ready, Doc?”

He nodded and didn’t lower his binoculars. “Never been to the Big Apple. Can’t wait to see what birds we’ll encounter.”

I shook my head. “Pigeons, Doc. Rats with wings. That’s what we’ll encounter.”

We set off on our seven-hour trip from Vermont to Manhattan. The first few hours were uneventful until we hit a traffic jam. I started to sweat—literally—and my fingers began to tingle at the tips. Oh no. Not while I’m driving. The fear of the looming panic attack was sometimes almost as bad as the actual attack. My heart started to race and my head felt light. I sometimes vomited during a severe episode and did not want that to happen while on the highway. I made the rash decision to drive up the shoulder so I could escape the feeling of being boxed in between immovable cars. The rumble strip on the road jarred Dr. Maxwell from his nap. He woke and grabbed on to the oh shit bar above his door. “What’s happening? What’s going on?”

“Nothing. We just hit some traffic. My heart started to race, and I needed to take a detour.”

Only Doc would look relieved by what I’d just said. He released his death grip on the car and spoke in a calming voice. “Relax your grip on the wheel, Luca.”

I looked down. My knuckles were white, and the surrounding lengths of my fingers were bright red. I did as instructed, because while I might not trust the nutty doc to drive a car, he knew how to steer me away from panic attacks. Nodding, I said, “I tried a breathing technique. It obviously didn’t work.”

“Tell me what you’re doing right now.”

My eyes flashed to him and back to the road as I continued on the service road. “What I’m doing? I’m driving.”

“No. Tell me what you were just able to do when you felt the feeling of panic set in.”

“I got off at the exit?” I wasn’t sure what he was getting at.

“That’s right. You steered the car from one road to another road, which made you feel safer. You can do that. And you can also pull over at any time and get out of the car if you feel like it.”

I nodded. Of course, he was right. But he wasn’t merely stating the obvious. He was reminding me that I was in control of the situation and had exerted that control when I felt I needed to. The biggest part of my anxiety disorder was the overwhelming fear of being trapped. It was why I didn’t do crowds, traffic, public transportation, or small spaces—yet I could be okay walking outside in a busy city. Exercising control to remove myself from the situation helped alleviate the anxiety.

“Take a nice deep breath, Luca.”

I inhaled through my nose and blew out a deep breath through my mouth. A chill hit my skin, which actually comforted me. My body became clammy when it headed into a panic attack; a coating of sweat often permeated my entire face with the rise of my body temperature. A chill meant my body was cooling back off.

“Tell me about that date you had Saturday night.”

I knew he was trying to distract me, to keep my mind focused on something other than the panic attack brewing, but I was okay with that. “He brought . . . his mother.”

Doc’s brows drew together. “His mother?”

“Yup. To a picnic lunch I’d made.” Picnic lunches at the park were my go-to first date regardless of the weather. They allowed me to avoid crowded restaurants, yet keep it casual. It was that or my place, and the last guy I’d invited over to my house for dinner assumed that meant I’d invited him for first-date sex.

“Why on earth would he bring his mother?”

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