Pushing the Limits

By: Brooke Cumberland

“How pissed will she be if you don’t go?” Zoe asks.

“Probably pissed enough to never talk to me again, which just might be enough of a reason to not go in the first place.” I smirk, knowing they’ll understand what I mean. My parents and I never really mended our relationship after Ari’s death. It was just kind of there…not moving or evolving. Once I graduated high school, I couldn’t wait to move away.

“You know they have coffee here,” Zoe says, eyeing my Starbucks cup and changing the subject. She knows I hate talking about my family.

“Gah! What is it with you two? I do know.” I grab it and pull the straw into my mouth before setting it back down. “But they don’t have it the way I like it.”

“Filled with caramel and sugar?” Kendall laughs.

“I live on four hours or less of sleep every night. Caramel and sugar are the only things that keep my eyes open.”

Kendall lets out an audible sigh. “I’d feel sorry for you, but the fact that you have more strange men doing the walk of shame every weekend than I have pairs of shoes, I don’t feel sorry at all.”

“Stop exaggerating,” I retort as Zoe begins to laugh. “It’s not every weekend. And sometimes they only get to third base, thank you very much.”

“What’s your definition of third base?” Zoe asks, narrowing her eyes at me.

“No penetration,” I answer matter-of-factly.

Zoe snorts.

We continue talking and eating. If it weren’t for these two, I’d feel really lost—more than I already feel. They’re the closest thing I have to any kind of healthy relationship, even though they don’t really know all of me. They know what I show and tell them, but most of the time, they see what I want them to see. Not the inside that’s burning with unbearable pain and guilt. But they get more than I give anyone else, and sometimes I even find myself thinking of them like sisters—that is until the guilt eats at me.


I never expected to be back in California after the way I left five years ago. I hadn’t even come back to visit my parents, and thinking back on it makes me feel like absolute shit. However, six months ago, I said goodbye to Ohio and moved back to my home state.

Not by choice.

Fortunately, I found a house to rent close to the California School of Liberal Arts where I was able to get a teaching job. I had to leave Ohio without much notice, so once I arrived back home and secured a job, I had four months left until I started at CSLA. Between unpacking and prepping my semester syllabuses, those four months flew by. I did everything I could to ignore the ache in my chest at being back in the same town as her—Jennifer—one of the reasons I left in the first place. Everything to ignore the pain and focus on something else—anything else.

Natalia is the other reason those months flew by. She’s my high demanding and sarcastic eleven-year-old niece who’s complained about my cooking every night since she moved in with me.

She’s also taught me a lot in the time she’s lived with me.

Eleven-year-old girls do not like when you walk them into the school building. They also don’t like when you kneel down to tie their shoe. They also may possibly scream when you walk into the bathroom—forgetting you, in fact, do not live alone anymore—and they are only in a towel.

Oh, the things I’ve had to quickly learn to accommodate Natalia.

But I love her. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.

And we’re trying to figure it out—even though we’re both grieving.

My heart aches at the memory of getting the call six months ago. My mother was so hysterical that I could barely understand anything she was saying. Once they translated into actual words, the walls began to close in on me. I was in shock. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe.

Six months later, and I still feel that way, except now I’ve learned to ignore it. The pain stings to the point of bitterness. Bitter that it happened. Bitter that I had to come back. Bitter that I have no idea how to raise a child.

Painting is my solace or was at least. I haven’t been able to paint a damn thing since then, which is really fucking ironic since I’m an art professor. But what choice do I have? I need a job and it’s the only thing I know. But if there’s one thing I know about the power of painting is when you need it most, it’ll eventually pull you out of whatever shit you’re dealing with—or so that’s what I’m hoping for anyway.

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