Author Katie Mettner

Chapter One ~ A Dress The Color of the Sky by Jennifer Irwin





Prologue

Dr. Sheryl O’Brien, PhD, was one of those women whose sexual orientation you couldn’t guess. No telling if she leaned bi, gay, or if she was into men. Sex consumed me—I pictured people doing it. To imagine Sheryl’s face contorting in orgasm proved impossible, and that bothered me.

No other option than to slump on the shrink sofa, wedge a throw pillow behind my back, and hunker down. The hem of my jeans hiked up. I tugged them and wished for one brand in size twenty-six, long enough for my legs while pretending too short was très chic. One more thing I was pretending.

“How are things going with Nick?” A dramatic press back in her chair. “Last time we spoke, you were considering a trial separation.”

“He moved to a swanky apartment. No idea where he’s coming up with the money.” A ringlet dangled over my eye. I studied its vibrant copper tone. “Not sure where I fall in the lineup between me and the other woman. I obsess over everything about them.” The neutral shade of my pedicure brought me momentary pleasure. I rubbed my earlobe and pondered the unfamiliar calm deep inside me since he left.

“Elaborate.”

“How she orgasms, moves, her preferred positions, the list never ends. He might be happier without me.” I yanked a tissue from the box and wound it around my fingers. “I want him back and need to get my shit together.”

“Do you think he needs to work on himself?”

“No, I deserve this.” The Kleenex hit the decorative wastebasket on the first throw. “In a strange way, he’s more communicative now.”

“Nick may appear as though he is trying to change, and he willa shade here, a shade there. The old behavior will return in times of stress. The concern is to find the source of what drives your compulsions.”

A pry into my soul like a storm about to rip through the landscape.

My shrink pulled a book from the shelf. “Read this. The similarities between a sociopath and your husband may upset you.”

“Do you think?” The eerie, hollow-eyed face on the cover creeped me out. A combination of Freddy Krueger and the Phantom of the Opera.

“He exhibits sociopathic characteristics.”

“Well, I am the one who failed at the most important commitment of my life.” The inner demon flogged. Slut. Whore. “My financial struggles and the marriage beat me down.” A plethora of self-loathing doused the velour cushions. “I don’t deserve blessings. I’m quite adept at sabotaging.”

“This goes back to your life before age eighteen.” She dropped the bomb without pause. “Consider an inpatient program.”

“The problem is, I have a son and no time or money.” The velocity of my voice increased with the level of anxiety. “Which is why I bang the architect. He pays me.” Parched, I grabbed my water and took a swig.

Quiet, easygoing Sheryl. “This will not be resolved until you face the demons, your past. It’s time to immerse yourself in recovery and stop denying these self-destructive patterns. Your current survival mechanism doesn’t serve you now.”

Most women associated intimacy with love. Why couldn’t I be like other women? Careful. Dignified. Normal.

“Talk to Nick. Something tells me he will come up with the funds.”

“Fine.”

The mere thought of that conversation scared the bejesus out of me.

Chapter One

A moment of awkward silence dangled between us. Mr. 17A and I wedged between the vanity and stainless-steel toilet. My legs knocked against the edge of the sink. All eye contact avoided. The familiar ding directed us back to our seats.

“Must be about to land.” My too-snug J Brands proved a struggle in the small space. I jabbed his ribs while inching them up. He planted an awkward peck on my cheek and took in my reflection. His dark hair matched the whiskers peeking through a morning shave.

“Beautiful.” He smiled with a downtrodden vibe. “Best if I go out first. Wait a minute before you follow.”

Am I his first mile-high experience?

He winked, pushed open the bathroom door, and left. I re-latched and cupped my hands to my face.

Obsession and Head & Shoulders. Put-together exterior, yet hiding flaws and secrets.

A lingering handwash. With damp fingers, I loosened my curls.

I counted the seats in my head. The attendant blocked me, and I squeezed through. My new friend shifted to the window.

“You’re back.” Relieved and surprised, he lifted the armrest, breaking all remaining barriers.

“Drinks?” The impatient flight attendant clutched the airline-branded napkins. I wondered if she suspected, or if she had ever banged a guy mid-flight.

“Chardonnay.” The order couldn’t come fast enough.

“Vodka tonic.” I watched him struggle to liberate his briefcase from underneath the seat in front of him.

“My treat.” The unpleasant idea of trading intercourse for a five-dollar drink was enough motivation.

There were multiple credit cards in my wallet, but I wanted to avoid any with Nick’s name. With the other woman in his bed, he had no business knowing about me buying cocktails for two. I removed the card without disturbing the platinum band resting inside.

“Prudence,” she said. “Uncommon name.”

Approved. Phew.

A lime skewered, unscrewed bottle, wine emptied.

“Are you traveling for work?” I asked. “Perhaps you wear business casual for shits and giggles.”

An analysis of his everything.

“In sales, travel a ton. Most flights aren’t this exciting.” A dried-up citrus wedge floated on top. “Cheers.” Two strangers clinked plastic. “How about you?”

“On an extended trip.” I hoped he wouldn’t ask any more questions. The Cartier Tank adorned my wrist. It made me connect to my mother as if her energy radiated through the timepiece. Most of what she left me fell in the category of statement pieces. My taste tended toward delicate and didn’t scream, “I’m wearing jewelry!”

“So, you’re on vacation?”

“Well, no, I used to be married to an alcoholic.” A half-truth. Nick was a bad drinker, but we were still wedded. “My son is fourteen.”

Tell the mouth to stop moving.

“I’m on a much-needed holiday to engage in some soul-searching.”

Not sure what kind of soul-searching goes on in a drug treatment facility.

“I live in LA,” I blathered on. “Never been to Arizona.”

Way too much about me for the hot guy in the window seat.

“What do you do?” he asked. Green eyes glowed over the cocktail rim.

“Interior designer.” Fabric samples by the thousands, measurements, over-demanding clients, hammering nails; I feigned the assumed glamour.

“Not surprised, you come across as rather stylish.”

Stylish and sad. I downed the last drop of chardonnay. Desperate for more, I pressed the instant call button. The same annoyed woman sauntered over.

“Yes?” Her breast grazed my hair as she turned off the light.

“Two more, please.” I waited for a safe distance between us.

“These are on me.” An American Express Black Card passed my face. No luck deciphering the name.

“The way I pounded down the booze, one might consider me a drunk.”

“Not at all.” He sipped. The knob in his throat lowered. “Believe me, life can be stressful.” A bad-boy grin flashed at me. “I’d love your number so we can hang out while you’re healing.”

I was high on his attention, my drug of choice.

He placed a napkin and pen on the middle tray. “Old school,” he said. “No one writes down their digits anymore.”

Out of habit, I wrote the first three of my number and the last four of Christian’s. I’d learned the hard way to bang them and leave.

Rubber-gloved hands collected our trash, a grim reminder of my failure to insist he use a condom. “Place your seat in the upright position for landing.”

I was thankful Mr. 17A brought a carry-on so I could avoid awkward post-coital baggage claim conversation. The illuminated overhead light went black, and I undid my seatbelt. Regret hit, and the cabin temperature elevated.

My heart pounded as I walked into the airport in search of the driver or a Serenity Hills sign. The outer world disappeared. A sense of isolation and self-hatred overcame me. Naked and vulnerable, I needed protection.

Wait, this is anonymous. How will I find him?

A tall Native American man with chiseled features surveyed people in arrivals. My eyes pulled off his ponytail tie and loosened the long, dark locks.

“Ms. Aldrich?”

“Yes.”

“The name’s Jimmy, your driver. Got any luggage?”

“Yes, checked one.”

I spotted my suitcase on the carousel and breathed easier knowing I was reunited with my beloved possessions. The way he swept up my bag, one would never guess the massive number of items inside: piles of clothes, Spring-edition fashion magazines, and enough sandals to last a lifetime. Outside the exit, a wall of blazing heat and blinding sunlight slammed into me. A full sunglass scramble.

“Beautiful day.” Sweat invaded his face as he heaved my bag into the back. A “heavy” bag tag was strapped to the handle, screaming “over packer!” A badge of honor for a clothes horse like me. The packing for rehab I’d chalked off as more than challenging.

Out of instinct, I reached for the front passenger door. Jimmy scurried around and opened the back door for me. Perhaps some addicts tried to jump him for money or grab the wheel to careen into a liquor store. Once in the car, I clasped my hands together like a good girl.

“First time visiting Arizona?” Bloodshot eyes, his life story, passed to me without words.

“Yeah.” The seat held the agonies of those who had ventured before me. “You must have some epic tales.”

“Got a few.” I caught a whiff of his musky manhood, a long, deodorant-free day.

“Ever been propositioned by one of your rides to bed down and ask for nothing in return?” My shrink advised me to hesitate before I moved my mouth and landed in hot water or a stranger’s bed. “All the built-up stress would lighten if we hooked up before you delivered me. Swing by your place?”

“Believe me, I am flattered, but I can’t. I’d lose my job.”

“Got to give a girl credit for trying.” It took me five minutes to find the hand cream in my purse.

He scanned the radio stations, fiddling, dissatisfied with the choices. “Those are saguaro.” The stagnant air filled with his voice as he pointed ahead. “A sacred plant. Kill one, you risk going to jail. The oldest ones have the most arms.”

Towering cacti dotted the parched desert. Men reached out to me, bristling with thorns. A sudden urge to examine them and touch their spines. On the radio, Marcy Playground belted out “Sex and Candy.” After one verse, he flipped the channel.

I dumped my bag on the back seat and opened my compact. A hateful woman stared back at me. After applying lipstick, I rubbed some on my cheekbones. He observed my every move. “May as well make a decent first impression.” I blended the color while we bonded through the rearview.

Clean, rocky, Zen-like landscaping flashed past. A rehabilitation experience on Mars. My palms sweated under the lotion.

“Here we are.”

He opened the back door. Frozen, immobilized, terrified, a weathered hand guided me. No chance for an embrace. My last intimate contact for five weeks. In my final moment of freedom, I dipped ahead and swayed my hips.

“Best of luck.”

My safety net vanished as I crossed through the double doors. An orderly took my everything.

“I am so pissed,” I seethed under my breath. “My cosmetic bag is on the floor at home.”

Nick’s impatience had rattled me. He ticked off the minutes until my departure. The last-ditch chance to salvage our marriage and rescue myself.

“It’s better you left the cosmetics behind.”

I bet he flung steel at the gym after work. A real meathead bodybuilder type.

The mask to hide behind. My only camouflage, powder and a half-used Chanel lipstick in Rouge Coco Legende. A poster on the wall read, “Fake it ’til you make it.”

Story of my life.

The meathead orderly rifled through my things. A procedure as personal and violating as a cavity search at the county jail.

A stern woman in white hovered over me. A full-blown Nurse Ratched.

No sightings of a medical worker in white since kindergarten. These people must see it all.

A sexy guy with sun-bleached hair walked through the door and didn’t even glance my way.

I must not be attractive enough for a thirty-something beach hottie.

“For the last hour, I’m all edgy and anxious,” he said to the nurse. “Can I be issued my next dose early? Suffering going on here.” Our arms bumped. “Are you checking in?”

“Yup.” A savant.

“The first day’s the hardest. I’m Toby.”

We touched hands, as sensuous as one could be at an addiction facility. He was a total street rat, but I still wanted him, or for him to want me.

He deciphered no extra meds would be administered. “This is fucking bullshit.” The final burst as he exited.

“There’s some paperwork for you to fill out,” the Ratched impersonator said.

The office was tiny, with a chicken wire glass cut-out. I sat in the only available chair and wondered what genius had decided on menopause mauve. A photo of a chubby baby was propped on her shelf. “Your daughter?”

“No, my two-year-old granddaughter.”

“Hard to remember my son as a baby. He’s fourteen now.”

The office shrunk in around me. Sweat beaded above my lip. The thought of being away from him for so long; panic over the amount of damage I had caused an innocent child. If I cried, I’d ruin the last of my makeup. Anyway, those floodgates were locked up for bigger reasons than cosmetics.

“Bring letters here, and we’ll mail them for you.”

A terrible mother.

“Can you tell me why you checked in?”

“Now?”

“Do the best you can.”

“Some kind of situation with too many guys. No official diagnosis.” The blatant fib embedded in my mind until I believed it myself.

“Any more information you would like to tell me?”

“Nope.”

“The program requires you to agree to an abstinence contract.” A stack of pages, the edges aligned, cleaned up and smoothed out. “This agreement represents your commitment to abstaining from engaging in sexual relations with men or women during your five-week stay. This includes sexual thoughts, conversations, provocative outfits, and masturbation. Violations must be reported. Any questions?”

My vagina tingled.

No sexual thoughts? Really?

“Sign at the X.”

A bank of phones mapped the hallway.

“Each of the three units contains a timer, and you are allotted ten minutes once a day. On your second week, you may make your first call. Violations will cause loss of phone privileges.”

A woman shouted in the receiver, hung up, and stormed out. Nurse Ratched determined if the behavior necessitated an intervention. Full attention once again on my admission forms with a bland, expressionless face like gloppy oatmeal. “Complete immersion achieves the best results.”

“Can I call two people a day, or only one?”

“One.” She tucked a card with my name on it into the plastic sleeve at the end of a purple lanyard. “Wear this at all times in public spaces. No one enters buildings or attends meetings without a badge.”

With a tilt of my head, she crowned me the Purple Lanyard Princess. “Here’s a notebook, writing utensil, and water bottle. More supplies can be purchased at the bookstore.”

“How do you decide who gets which color lanyard?” I asked, letting curiosity get the best of me.

“The counseling groups are broken down by color. We place patients in a group based on their addiction, as well as other factors. You have been assigned the Purple Group, which is comprised of people with similar issues and life challenges. This helps the groups stay cohesive, and the patients grow from sharing each other’s stories.”

My survival kit.

There were bundles of lanyards in crayon colors and rolls of stickers scattered inside the drawer; no laughing, no care-taking, no talking. She peeled a neon fuchsia sticker from a roll lost in the back. Females Only. “This informs the others you can only speak to women.”

Meathead dipped his upper body into the cubicle. “All clear,” he said. “I disposed of the magazines.”

Fuckable.

He transferred my clothes from the floor to my bag, one item at a time.

He must get a thrill out of handling women’s panties.

“Please place your valuables in here.” She held out a bin for me to drop my life in.

“Inside this phone,” I said, “a world of secrets.”

Need the cell to contact my men.

She wasn’t listening. I snagged my measly cosmetic bag from my purse before dropping it in.

“Around the corner is the restroom. Leave a urine sample.”

Unwrap cleansing cloth. Wipe front to back. Catch midstream. Do not fill container.

No urge, I forced out a few drops. After I made the delivery, I cursed myself for not following the wiping rules: Cover up the evidence of my tryst on the plane.

A hand reached in like Thing from The Addams Family, stealing the opportunity to toss and start over.

This kind of regimen last occurred at Edith Woodson.

Nurse Ratched escorted me to a square riser, something Santa might sit on at the mall, situated adjacent to the entry. A railing surrounded it to support the fresh-off-the-wagon drunks. Another patient moved out of the way to allow the debutante to take the stage.

The focal point of the stage was a framed poster on the wall. It read Eight Basic Emotions. Below that, eight words appeared in bold caps: ANGER, FEAR, PAIN, JOY, PASSION, LOVE, SHAME, GUILT. Next to each were three corresponding words in smaller type, like subcategories. My eyes gravitated to the last word on the chart: GUILT, followed by the words regretful, contrite, and remorseful.

“You will use this chart to describe how you feel during your five-week stay,” Nurse Ratched said. The Spanx hidden underneath her uniform accentuated a bulge-free body. She held a pad and blue roller ball, as if waiting to deliver a baby. “The words on this chart are comprised of every feeling you have within you, so it should be easy to acknowledge your current mood by referring to the chart. Part of the treatment program is to help you get in touch with and identify how you are feeling.” She gazed at her clipboard. “We notate your answers to monitor any extreme mood changes, for safety reasons.”

I tried to guess the correct answer. “Fear, shame, and guilt.”

A creamy brunette in civilian clothes walked over. “This is Deirdre,” Nurse Ratched said. “She is in her second week and will show you the facility.” The white suit disappeared with my phone and my life.

“Ready?”

Young, firm body. I gave her a once-over and, per the norm, pictured her naked: perky breasts, toned abs, straddling some guy, arching her back, moaning.

“This is extra awesome because we’re in therapy group together,” she said. Our purple lanyards appeared the same but for a certain colorful something. “Let’s do a run around the campus and after, I’ll take you to your room.”

She bounced. A classic mini-cheerleader jump.

The walkway hugged the building. Deirdre’s butt bobbed in front of me.

I bet boys like to tap that ass.

The Arizona oven overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t catch my breath. While I panted in the heat behind her, Deirdre stopped to open the door. I bumped into her, figuring everyone in the dining room had witnessed my lack of coordination.

A Wrangler-jeaned rancher addict sauntered out of the dining room just as I was getting myself off her heels. “Ladies.” The plaid top-stitched shirt, mother of pearl buttons, and obligatory scuffed boots complemented his country drawl.

“Bo, this is Prue.” My guide whipped around her hair.

“Hey. I’ll be around. Not going anywhere anytime soon,” he said.

Bo reminds me of that half-Hawaiian farrier I banged. What happened to him?

“Sorry,” he added, “I’m having a bad day.”

“This is where we dine,” Deirdre said. “Meals are a huge deal here. No sugar or caffeine is served, but the cookies are delicious.” I glazed over her words while she barked out meal times. “Herbal tea or lemon water available all day.”

Let me sleep until I’m cured.

“Can you repeat what you said?”

“We help each other, you don’t need to remember.” Not at all how I’d pictured a druggie.

My over-imaginative mind told a story about every passerby. We moseyed to a conference room where a woman was in the hot seat spilling her guts. I felt like a voyeur.

“This room is used for morning meetings, music therapy, movie night and AA groups.”

A scratched and scruffy black upright sat against the far wall.

“Can we use the piano?”

Mrs. Sutton would be so disappointed in me.

“As long as no one is occupying the room.” She stared, perhaps in disbelief that I played. “Alright, we’re off.”

A cactus garden graced the hillside between the upper building and swimming pool. White pebbles covered the ground between the succulents. We paused at the gate. I pulled a leaf from a branch, crushed the greenery in my hand, and inhaled lemon and ginger.

“Separate swim time slots for men and women. Ours is from one until three.”

When is men’s?

“The workout room is coed.” She stared at my neon-pink Females Only sticker.

“Awesome,” I said, a little too enthusiastically.

The place to scope out men.

“Now, I’ll take you to your room and come back for you in ten.”

My new home: three beds, desks, and wardrobes—two of everything, occupied. One person created a nook with furniture. Another sat against the window and behind a desk with privacy and a view. The empty bed sat out in the open, vulnerable.

At hotels, I tended to unpack right away.

The best option, pretend to be on an exotic vacation. The orderly messed up my bag.

I found Mom’s shawl balled up next to the stuffed pony Nick gave me on the way to the airport. I swaddled it in cashmere and placed it on my bed. A symbol showing deep down inside, he might care about me.

My fingers moved along the hangers, plotting the first impression.

Chic yet effortless, understated sexy.

A bias-cut sundress and Joie sandals. My newly acquired items in hand, Deirdre knocked to escort me to my first group meeting.

New-age music issued from a speaker in room 103. Inside, there were eight chairs arranged in a semicircle. Deirdre snagged one of the two that were unoccupied. She closed her eyes and placed her hands on her lap, palms up. Before I could calculate the male-to-female ratio and assess whether any of the guys were hot, the man seated next to the desk swiveled around. His hair was clipped in a three-two, longer on top and shorter on the sides. He had a boxer’s face that looked out of place with his soft hazel eyes—in a fight for his life, a tangled brawl in a dark, seedy bar. The rugged features contrasted his sterile, Friday-casual trousers and striped oxford. His bicep twitched as he motioned for me to sit.

I felt attracted to him and feared the truths he might find within me. On the way to my chair, I cursed myself for dressing like a goddamned runway model. A nervous laugh wanted to spill out. My mind jumped from thought to thought, a virtual taillight blinker until the music stopped.

“Welcome, I’m Mike, sober five years. We’ll start with introductions from the end.”

“The name is Owen, alkie-hol-ic, druggie, suicide survivor, and codependent.” Owen’s lanky frame stretched out in the chair. He carried a boyish charm, with wiry features and brown, soulful eyes that matched the color of his mocha skin. A sharpened number nine fiddled between my thumb and index finger. It plunged eraser first and bounced to the middle of the room. I hustled over to pick it up.

“Please go back to your room and change,” Mike said.

Frozen, with no place to hide. All eyes on me.

“As you bent over, you revealed your breasts,” he said.

Silence caved in around me. The running started when the door clicked behind me.

My legs moved at a breakneck pace while I tried to remember the location of my room, my mind already strategizing a clothing overhaul. Sweat dripped down my back and into my butt crack.

No point in worrying about the past.

I tugged a high-necked, navy blue J Crew tee over my head and covered it in deodorant on both sides. The bathroom light flickered. I adjusted the backs on my diamond-stud earrings and worked at not berating myself.

When I got back to the mind-shrinking room, a curvy, jet-black-haired girl was sitting cross-legged on the floor with a long document of some kind.

“Let me interrupt Gloria for an introduction,” Mike said. He gripped the carpet with his soft-soled, cap toe lace ups and rolled his chair a bit closer to me. I was astounded by how easily he commanded the group with his mere presence. Like balls of putty in his hand. I knew I wouldn’t be as malleable as the rest. He tipped his head in my direction while the others waited for me to spew my horrors.

“I’m Prue.” The words reverberated in my head. I looked yearningly at the girl on the floor. My eyes begged her to start talking and get me out of the hot seat.

Gloria started back up where she left off. “My boyfriend, Tom, has a wife. So, I guess that makes me an adulteress or something. There’s a lot of love between us. That’s all I can tell you.”

This stinks as bad as day-old fish, and I pity her.

“He lies to me, makes promises, and breaks them,” she said.

Like my father.

“Take a moment,” Mike said. “This is a safe place to discuss these things.”

Dodged a bullet.

“At fifteen, I left home, and other than a stint waitressing, I’ve worked as a stripper ever since. My obsession with bad boys started the day I lost my virginity from a guy, not my dad. I don’t count that.” She carried the world between her shoulders, and hidden under all her black eyeliner resided a remarkable softness. “Abusive, hot-tempered men are my thing.” She had youthful skin, more sorority girl than pole dancer. “I gave him everything and can’t live without him. My heart believes he will keep his promise and leave his wife.”

Sitting through the personal disclosures of my group felt like forcing down a garlic milkshake while swimming in everyone’s filth.

“Love addiction will be a topic of discussion later this week,” Mike said. He conducted with the jerky movements required to maintain our attention. “Tell us why you’re here, Prue.”

My past held me captive. It began when we left my father.


Copyright Jennifer Irwin

About The Author

A native New Yorker and captivating storyteller with a flair for embellishment,
Jennifer Irwin currently resides in Los Angeles with two cats, a dog, and her boyfriend. After earning her BA in Cinema from Denison University, she worked in advertising and marketing, raised three boys, and ultimately became a certified Pilates instructor. While she has written screenplays and short stories since her college days, A Dress the Color of the Sky is her first novel.

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