When I was eighteen years old, I made a decision. I was not going to live the same life that my sister was living, or that my mother had been living, or even my Gran. So, after one semester of community college, I decided that Omaha just wasn't going to cut it for me. I packed my clothes, took the remaining money I had from graduation, got into my shitty red Volkswagen and left Nebraska for good. The seed had been planted in my mind when my Acting I professor told me that he thought I had great potential. Of course, being an eighteen year old girl, I didn't realize at the time that he probably said that to everyone and took it as a sign that I should be a professional actress. I had spent the following two weeks Googling acting agents and jobs in California. An old cheerleading friend of mine, Katie, who had graduated the year before me, offered to let me stay with her until I found my own apartment.
To say that my parents were supportive of my decision would be completely false. My mother, who should have never reproduced to begin with, told me that she didn't understand what I thought I was going to accomplish by moving to L.A. and being another starving actor. My mother had always had the uncanny ability to make me feel inferior without so much as the blink of an eye. It seemed like she was always praising the people around me, but to give her own child a compliment was difficult for her. Yet, when I did achieve something, such as making Assistant Cheer Captain senior year, she took complete credit for my success. She even made me a "celebration pie" when it was rumored that I was going to be head cheerleader. It was in those rare moments that she would show that maternal side of her when I would allow myself to hope for more out of our weak relationship. When my coach had made skanky Valerie Mossbacher Captain, Mom had simply sighed, and shrugged her shoulders.
"Well, that was a waste of a perfectly good pie." Those were her only words of "comfort."
Dad didn't really say anything. We had drifted apart since my unwelcome venture into puberty. But I love my father, I really do. He's a good man, a hard worker and he's full of love. He deserves a much better life than he has, which was another deciding factor in my deciding to become rich and famous. Maybe I couldn't fix my parents' shitty marriage or the years of tension, but I could at least help to ease it. My parents had met at my aunt's wedding. Dad had been a groomsman and Mom was a bridesmaid. My older sister was the result of that night. Six months later, they had gotten married and moved into the house I grew up in.
When Darcy was born, she was Dad's princess. He spoiled her and catered to her, while Mom tried to pretend she was interested in being a wife and raising children even though she made no secret that she would rather be out with her friends and "living her youth."
Two years after Darcy came Tim. Tim was also spoiled, not only by Dad, but also by Mom this time. For some reason, she attended to his every whim and doted on him as if he were the freaking second coming. If he ever became irritated or cranky, my mother's favorite expression was, "Just give it to him." A quiet house was a happy house in her opinion. Especially when she was nursing a hangover from going to the bar with her bowling friends the night before.
By the time I was born, five years following Tim, my sister was a perpetual whiner and tattle-tell and my brother was a monster of my mother's creating. So, when they found out that (Oops!) Mom was pregnant again, Dad decided that he would finally get the son that he'd been denied by my mother's babying of Tim. Imagine his disappointment when his new Slugger was a girl. Another blonde girl, only bigger and louder than his precious Darcy. So, I was named Penelope and Dad decided that he would mold me into the perfect little tomboy. We spent our days outdoors with him teaching me how to fix tractor engines, plow fields and play catch. I loved it.
Most of my time was spent with my Gran while Mom was at her desk job in town during the day. Gran was the only constant thing in my life. Mom just wasn't interested in dealing with toddlers anymore, so Gran took me on when Dad was busy.
It's funny, but when a kid realizes that her mother isn't into her, she craves the mother's approval even more. So I made it my mission to make Mom notice me. I sang loudly. I put on shows with my Barbies. (Hand-me-downs from Darcy.) I stole Mom's clothes and wore them around. I cried in my bed at night if I had a bad dream until one of my parents finally heard me and came to check. If there was a thunderstorm, I made damn sure I was the first one to their room so I could sleep between them (even though they never really frightened me). Dad was always my ally with Mom, and with Tim, but I could not deny the jealousy I felt at the inexplicable bond that he and Darcy shared. Tim was always in trouble and Mom was always making excuses for him while I tried to understand why she didn't love me as much. My Gran told me that Mom loved us all equally but in different ways to which I replied, "Then why does the way she loves Tim and Darcy seem like more?"
Gran was a strong woman, who had lived a hard life. She'd lived during the Great Depression and had married her high school boyfriend. Gramps passed away when I was still a baby. She taught me early on that love is not a game. You do not play with a person's feelings. You do not say you love somebody unless you mean it. She also told me that I only get to live once, and that I'd better be the one to follow my dreams and get out of Omaha since she'd never gotten the chance. Darcy was becoming increasingly spoiled and irresponsible by this point at fifteen years old, while Tim was showing early signs of being a slight sociopath. All in all, it was not looking great for the family.
When I was eight years old, Darcy had come home from school sobbing and I had watched from the shadows of our dingy old hallway as she had blurted a tearful confession to my father. She was pregnant. Dad had bowed his head and ran his hands fretfully through his hair, while Darcy continued to sob. Mom just kept shaking her head and smoking cigarettes one after the other.
"Wyatt, this is your fault," Mom said unkindly, "You've done nothing but spoil her. She appreciates nothing. Take her to the doctor and take care of it." My eyes had widened at this. I had no idea what she meant at the time, but my father had become so angry that he'd jumped out of his chair and glared at Mom while Darcy had watched in the same hushed horror as I did.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you Roberta? You'd just love the fact that your daughter will never have to live the same life you did. You've made no secret that you were stuck with me." He thundered at her. "You've always hated it out here."
"I'm not getting an abortion!" Darcy interjected, tearfully.
"Oh, don't play the martyr, Wyatt!" Mom retaliated, ignoring Darcy. "You expected me to change who I was! You've always made me feel like I'm not good enough for you."
"I've never thought that!" Dad countered, horrified. "I only wanted you to grow up! You weren't ready to give up the partying, the drinking. I know you smoked pot when you were pregnant with Penny, Roberta! You hardly gave up drinking!"
"Penny's fine, Wyatt!" Mom argued, while I sank to sit on the floor, hugging my scrawny, bruised knees to my chest and crying silent frightened tears while I wished I was sitting on Gran's old worn couch while she brushed my hair. Though I had two siblings, I had never felt close with them. I felt completely isolated and alone. I felt unwanted. I wondered if other kids felt this way.
Life went on. It always did. My nephew Brian was born when Darcy turned sixteen. She and her boyfriend Joey got married and moved into a trailer on my parents' property. Even though Dad adored Brian, I noticed that his relationship with Darcy would forever be strained after that. Dad seemed to focus more attention on me, though it was not in the way I had hoped. If anything, he tried harder to make me into the son he'd never had in Tim. It was as if he were terrified that I was a girl and would end up disappointing him the way that Darcy had. He decided that I should join the Nebraska Junior Rodeo and began training me. I was ten when I won my first competition. (Another achievement Mom took credit for by saying, "That's my daughter." As if she'd personally given me my strength and hog-tying ability.)
The two years following were the best of my childhood. Dad and I spent every day together. He took me hunting, I played for the local little league baseball team and I continued to tear up the rodeo circuit. I even got to travel to a National Championship in Texas when I was eleven and was in the Houston newspaper when I came in third. Gran kept that news clipping, and it stayed on her fridge for as long as I could remember.
"You're famous, Penny Blossom." Gran had told me. I rolled my eyes, but smiled anyway.
"It's not even front page, Gran." I’d pointed out, grabbing a cinnamon roll off of the counter. Gran frowned and squinted down at the front page.
"Some silly story about a sixteen year old doctor," She scoffed, "What sixteen year old needs to be a doctor when my granddaughter is in the top three of the National Junior Rodeo Competition?" I had laughed at this and watched her cut out the article before putting it on the fridge. "Someday," She told me, standing back to look at her work, "This paper is going to be worth money."
It was precisely six months after this that I made an awful discovery. Boobs. Not only did I have them, but it hurt when they were growing! It seemed to happen overnight. I came home sick from school one day with horrible pains on my chest. I had lain in my bed, writhing in agony until Dad had decided to take me to my pediatrician just to be safe. When the doctor had assured him that I had simply begun developing "breast buds," Dad had stared at him as if he'd just told him I was going to sprout an extra head.
After that day, Dad stopped calling me 'Slugger,' and simply referred to me as 'Penny' or 'Penelope.' And, although I’d continued with the Junior Rodeo, though my interest sort of fizzled by the time I had entered high school. I decided to try out for the cheerleading team instead and had somehow made the Varsity team my Freshman year. The summer before high school, I went to Cheer Camp instead of taking a camping trip with Dad. I got my hair highlighted and used magazines to figure out how to do makeup. I was asked to Homecoming by a Junior, which is when I realized that guys found me attractive. From that point on, I’d had a boyfriend constantly.
I received mostly decent grades in school, even though I barely passed math and science. I just would never understand how geometry would be used in real life or why I would need to know how to dissect a shark. (Ew.) Sophomore year, I was introduced to sex. In the back of my current boyfriend Ryan's pickup on a dirty blanket. I was not impressed. It hurt, it was messy and it was quick. (At least with Ryan it was.) The second time was better, but still underwhelming. I decided to wait a while before I had it again and dumped Ryan before moving on to Darren.
The summer between Junior and Senior year, my entire world was shattered. I was out, working on the old John Deere when I heard my sister's voice. She was running toward me from the house. My heart sank. Had Tim gotten arrested again for making Meth? Were Mom and Dad finally going to get a divorce?
"Penny! It's Gran!" Her voice was clipped, choked. I dropped my wrench and stepped down to stare at her, praying it wasn't what I thought.
"What?" I asked, swallowing hard.
"Gran's dead, Pen!" Darcy sobbed, rushing forward and pulling me into her arms. Stunned, I didn't hug her back, I simply stared into space, broken. "They said she just went to sleep and never woke up!"
"She's only seventy-two." I murmured, keeping my arms at my sides. Gone. My grandmother was gone. I was alone again.
That was when I decided to rediscover sex. I went on a spree of partying, reckless driving and smoking that would probably rival Lindsay Lohan. I stopped caring. I got kicked off of the cheerleading team mid-year when my grades dropped. My life was going nowhere fast and if I didn't do something soon, I was going to die here miserable and unpleasant like my mother.
So I left. I fled to California, where it was warm and sunny and perfect. I strove to be an actress and found an agent, who immediately informed me that I should probably lose about ten pounds and get a tan. Also, some better highlights. It was at an audition for one of those crappy teen prime-time dramas that I met Kurt. Six feet, four inches of pure sex. He was everything I'd never had in Nebraska. Dangerous, muscled, tanned, a great lover. We were both immature, we fought constantly. He was particularly mean sometimes, telling me when he noticed a zit or any signs of cellulite. And yet, I couldn't deny the pride I felt when girls looked at me with envy when they found out that we were together. Call me superficial…call me stupid.
Looking back at the four years that I stayed with Kurt, I can't believe how big of an idiot I was. I brushed off his snide remarks, his hurtful teasing, his bullying of those weaker than him. I pretended he was deeper, that he was a good person inside. But I knew he wasn't. And I also think I knew that someone like Kurt would never be enough for me.
Love is not a game, Penny Blossom. You do not play games with a person's feelings. You do not say you love someone unless you mean it.
I truly did think I loved Kurt. I'd given him four years of my life. My entire adult life so far, as a matter of fact. What would seem like the worst day of my life turned out to be the best thing that had ever happened to me. I got off of my night shift at the Cheesecake Factory an hour early and decided to stop and get Kurt's favorite pizza from our favorite place for dinner as a surprise to him. Like a horrible cliché out of some Lifetime movie, I walked in on him mid-fuck with my friend Maria, another actress wannabe. It was like I finally saw Kurt for what he really was, which was a big, enormous douche.
I was too stunned to do anything but gather my stuff, ignoring his apologies, his pleas for me to stay. It's funny how, when apologies aren't enough, some people turn to anger, because that's when he decided it was my fault.
"You drove me away. We haven't had sex in a week, Penny. I have needs!" I didn't respond. "Damn it, Penny! You're a slob, you're always crabby when you get home from work and you never wear makeup anymore!"
I’d spent that first night in my car, sleeping in the back seat under the blanket that I had taken from Gran's house. How I wished I could call her. She would have had some sort of advice…a word of encouragement. Four years I had been in California. How many acting jobs had I gotten? Oh, that's right! None. And, how many auditions had I been to? At least two hundred. I was twenty-two years old. I was a waitress working for minimum wage and crappy tips.
When I woke up with a sore neck and legs, I decided living in my car was not an option. I bought a newspaper and started circling options for myself with the red Sharpy on my key ring.
2311 Los Robles
One bedroom, one bath, refrigerator included, free water. Please call if interested.
I capped my Sharpy and I dialed the number as fast as my fingers would let me. I moved in the next day after Katie and I got the rest of my stuff out of the old apartment. Kurt wouldn't let me have the T.V. You know, the one I had just paid off with my money. Asshole.
Katie left just before lunch for her shift at the Cheesecake Factory, and leaving me alone with my cardboard boxes. I stared at the small apartment with the turquoise couch we'd found this morning at a thrift store, and the few tables I'd brought from my old place. I had no idea what I was doing. Thank goodness Dad had wired me the money for the deposit. He'd been so glad I'd dumped Kurt, I think he would have put a down payment on a house for me. Tomorrow, I'd have a brand new entertainment center from IKEA. (With no T.V. to put in it.)
I was scared shitless.
Rifling through my books, I searched for the newspaper clipping that I'd also stolen from Gran's house, needing something to make it feel like home. I could hear voices in the stairwell, along with footsteps. I hadn't met any of my neighbors so far, so this would be my first.
"New neighbor?" A male voice. Probably around my age, I'd guess.
I kept my head down, pretending to continue what I was doing even though I'd already forgotten.
"Evidently." Another guy. Same age range.
"Significant improvement over the old neighbor." The first voice said. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling.
"Two hundred pound transvestite with a skin condition?" The response came, the words falling from his lips like rapid fire. "Yes she is." I looked over at them, knowing I was either going to burst into tears or laughter. Two guys in their twenties stared back at me as if they'd never seen a girl before. All bug eyed and slack jawed. It kind of made me feel the slightest bit better about myself. My self-esteem was virtually in the gutter after the four year travesty that had been my relationship with Kurt. The taller one in the bizarre plaid pants looked down, uncomfortably, but the shorter boy with the glasses looked like he might drop on the spot.
"Oh, hi!" I said, trying to sound friendly. My voice sounded extremely high pitched in my own head. Did I always sound like that? I hoped not.
"Hi." The short guy said.
"Hi." Plaid pants said.
"Hi." The short guy repeated to which his friend repeated like a parrot on crack, "Hi." I swallowed.
"Hi?" I said cautiously, not wanting to scare them off. They reminded me of when Dad and I used to hunt deer. If you startle them, they bolt. These boys were like deer, especially the tall man-child with the lost expression. I had no idea how to approach them.
"We don't mean to interrupt." The smaller of the two finally said, coming forward nervously, followed by his buddy. "We live across the hall." Suddenly, it made sense. This was California after all. Two guys shacking up together…together,
"Oh…that's nice." I said with a smile, wondering briefly if they were the type I could take shopping. Then again, the one guy was wearing the most heinous pair of plaid pants I had ever laid eyes on. Where do you even buy pants like that? Short guy seemed to catch on.
"Oh, uh n—uh, we don't live together. I mean—" He gestured wildly with his hand while his boyfriend stared at him in completely confusion. "We live together, but in separate – heterosexual – bedrooms." The other guy nodded, though he still looked unsure as to what he was agreeing to.
"Oh!" I laughed breathily. "Okay well, I guess I'm your new neighbor!" I moved toward them. "Penny."
"Oh!" The boy with the glasses said. "Leonard." He indicated himself and then pointed at Man-Child. "Sheldon." Sheldon? What the hell kind of name was that? But, I smiled at them and there was suddenly another round of rapid fire "Hi's." A moment of slightly awkward silence before, "Uh…well," Leonard seemed to search for something to say. "Welcome to the building!"
"Aw, thank you!" I replied in that obnoxious squeaky voice I didn't recognize. I had slept in my car the night before after all. "Maybe we can have coffee sometime."
"Oh, great!" Leonard replied.
"Great!" I agreed.
"Great!" Sheldon the Plaid Panted Wonder chimed in.
"Great!" Leonard said again. He was sweet in a lost puppy kind of way, making me want to hug him. The other one still looked like a deer in the headlights. And then there was another lovely round of similar "Byes," and they were gone. For about two seconds, that is before there was another knock at my door. I grinned to myself, opening the door.
"Hi." Leonard said weakly. "Again…"
"Hi!" I said cheerfully. More of the same. I suppressed the urged to rub my temples. This was going to be a long day.
"Anyway," Leonard went on, "We brought home Indian food—" He held up a paper bag, "—And um, I know that moving can be stressful…and I find that when I'm undergoing stress, that good food and company can have a comforting effect!" He was trying so hard it was adorable. Then, he started going on about curry being a laxative and pooping and clean colons.
"Leonard, I'm no expert here, but I believe in the context of a luncheon invitation, you might wanna skip the reference to bowel movements." The same rapid flow of words tumbled from the taller guy's mouth. So he was smarter than he looked. I held back a smirk, taking pity on the poor bastards.
"Oh, you're inviting me over to eat?" I asked, hoping to steer this conversation toward a more appropriate ending.
"Uh, yes." Leonard said, trying to sound sure of himself.
"Aw, that's so nice!" I exclaimed, smiling at him. "I'd love to!"
And…the rest is history. Sort of.