“Safe Haven” — Isabella Cavagna ’19

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She had been having a bad day until she met Eddy at a bar. He was tall and charming, and the indent on his left ring finger only meant one thing: he was exactly what she was looking for, married and unattainable. Her mom had given her yet another lecture about finding a job, or finishing college, or interning at the family business. Her mom had said, “You need some purpose in your life , Jennifer. You can’t keep floating about, wasting away your youth.” Her mom would be in town the next day and ordered Jenna to meet for lunch. She suspected her mom had a new boyfriend to introduce. Eddy had been a nice distraction from the sour mood her mom had put her in. He talked about himself a lot, his achievements and successes, his two beautiful children. “Separated,” he had said, “but not divorced…yet.” He added the “yet” in a way that Jenna just knew he was lying. She played the part of a pair of listening ears and was secretly thankful the conversation never ventured close to her personal life.

She got up, feeling her body buzzing, restless. As she walked back upstairs she looked at the family portraits in the hallway. She smiled slightly, as she looked at the family of four standing outside the beautiful family house. Two young girls stood in front of two smiling parents outside a gorgeous white home. Jenna could feel the sticky summer heat and hear Nancy giggle as their dad swung her around his shoulders. She could smell the fresh fruit her mom had cut up and placed into a bowl. She could taste the sweetness of the lemonade with too much sugar that Nancy had, without a doubt, poured in when no one was looking. Jenna shook her head suddenly, remembering where she was. Sometimes when she was least expecting it, memories like this would completely engulf her and make her long for better times. She continued upstairs, but still felt unready to go back to sleep. When she walked back into the bedroom she made a detour and stopped outside a tall brown door. Jenna pushed the door open slowly and immediately felt the plush carpet underneath her feet. The closet was perfectly organized from top to bottom—not a single thing was out of place. Organized closets always made Jenna feel satisfied.

Jenna could remember when she was younger her mom would sit her down on the vanity in her closet. She was always so busy, working long hours and flying away on business trips for months at a time, that Jenna would jump at a chance to spend time with her. She’d watch her mom try on different outfits and then stare in the mirror. Her mom would sometimes push the skin on her face upward in the giant floor length mirror, temporarily erasing the barely visible wrinkle lines on her face. Up to five outfits were put in the “no” pile, which was usually a clump on the floor that the nanny would wash and hang later. Once Nancy, Jenna’s younger sister, turned three, she too would come and watch the show. Both Nancy and Jenna would stare at their mom in awe as she got ready for the day. After Nancy died, the ritual soon ended. The business trips got longer and more frequent and the door to the closet would be locked in the morning. From the rows of various white shirts, to the vibrant rainbow of colors found in the scarves hanging on hooks, Jenna could still remember every detail about her mom’s closet.

This closet was organized so perfectly that Jenna couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. She sat on the floor and thought about what she would wear to meet her mom later that day. If she was too casual she’d never hear the end of how much of a “slob” she looked like, but if she dressed to try and impress her mom she’d get endless remarks of how inappropriate the outfit was and how dressing right is the key to making first impressions. She wanted to irk her mother as well as please her…an almost impossible task, but Jenna had many years of trial and error. She grabbed an expensive-looking white sweater that still had the tag on. She ripped it off and slipped the sweater on. She then rifled through a dresser drawer and pulled out a couple pairs of jeans. She tried each one on until she found a pair that looked well-worn. She slipped them on and felt satisfied as they fit perfectly. She carefully took the clothes off, folded them neatly, and placed them on a small chair. She walked back to the bed and pulled the covers back over her. She set her alarm for a few more hours.

Jenna woke up a second time, to the soft buzzing of her phone under her arm. She turned off the alarm and glanced over at Eddy, who was fast asleep. She sighed happily. There was no guilt this time. She had to get her day started though, so she got up, oriented herself with the room, and then found her way to the bathroom. She showered then brushed her teeth and hair. She rifled around through some drawers until she pulled out an excessive amount of make-up and began putting it on. Once she was finished she tucked it away neatly back into its original spot. She then headed for that closet, her safe-haven.

The familiar soft rug under her feet made her scrunch her toes in happiness and hug her towel closer to herself. She flicked on the lights and looked at the miniature room. She made her way over to the chair and slipped on the clothes she had set out earlier. It was almost as if they fit even better this time, hugging her body in all the right places. The outfit was perfect, casual but expensive. Her mom couldn’t say anything but she still wouldn’t like it.

Ever since that dull, humid day, that made her black dress stick to her skin, Jenna was perfectly aware of her clothing. She sat next to her mom, waiting as their distant relatives and friends stood up and, one-by-one, walked over to the casket in the ground and dropped some wildflowers inside. Nancy always loved wildflowers, picking them from the yard and street corners and making little bouquets for her friends. Jenna hadn’t noticed that she had begun crying until she felt the cool tears slide down her cheeks. They almost blessed her with a temporary relief from the humidity. Finally, it was their turn to pay their respects. As Jenna and her mother stood and walked through the aisle of strangers, Jenna glanced down at her father’s empty seat. She had understood, even then at 15, that her father’s chair would never be filled again. In five short months he had moved on with his life, maybe, eventually, starting a new family to replace this broken one. Jenna clutched her own handful of flowers and walked up to the enormous hole in the ground. She slowly dropped the flowers inside and turned away quickly as the tears began to rush down her face. She looked up toward her mom for comfort. Her mother was calm. Distant. She examined Jenna’s tear smudged face and sweaty appearance without sympathy. “Wipe your face now darling. Your makeup is running.” Jenna quickly wiped her tears away. “Also, next time please wear something better looking. I buy you all these nice things and you choose to wear this ratty dress you’ve had for three years. People will think I can’t dress my one remaining daughter.” Her mom held her head high and walked back to her seat. Jenna couldn’t hold it back anymore. She sobbed loudly and rushed away from the crowd and her mother, leaving her to sit between two empty seats.

Jenna walked downstairs and entered the kitchen. As she passed through the hallway she looked at the family photos again. This time she only felt sadness. This was just a reminder of a time that was. As she placed her purse over her shoulder and walked out of the house, she could hear Eddy stumbling around in his room, calling out her name. She quickly walked down the front walkway and over to her car. As she pulled out of the long driveway that led to Eddy’s house, she began to wonder what had happened to tear that family apart. Eddy’s daughters were so young, his wife was so beautiful, and Eddy was so happy in the portrait. She began driving away from another, but different broken home, but as she did so she saw a white convertible roll by on the opposite side in the road. Inside were the two girls from the photo, and the same woman, almost unrecognizable with the defeated expression on her face. In the back was a pile of suitcases, each looking filled to the last inch. Jenna slowed down as they passed each other. The two women made eye contact, as if looking into each other’s eyes was all it took to understand each other. Jenna could see her reflection in this woman, with her pain etched onto her face. Jenna nodded slightly and sped up, leaving that house forever. She promised herself that if she did ever have her own family, she would do everything in her power to keep them together, safe and happy.