Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island - Regina Calcaterra (2013)
9. Out of Idaho
Fall 1984 to Spring 1986
I’M SEVENTEEN IN the fall of 1984, when I start my freshman year of college at Stony Brook. I quit my job selling ceiling fans and outlets at Rickel’s (where, after a year, I was promoted to a sales job with commission) to take a job selling shoes at Thom McAn in the Smith Haven Mall. Status-wise this is a step up; plus, I’ve joined the university’s gymnastics club, and early in the semester my gymnastics coach seems to detect my sense of discipline. He operates a camp every July in Southampton and asks me to come and work for him next summer. As long as I coach every day from nine in the morning to nine at night—“With breaks in between, of course,” he says—I’ll get to sleep there for free and make a respectable sum of money at the end of July to use for the next semester. Not to mention the fact that I could spend the entire month of July out in the Hamptons … and not have to pay.
The spare minutes of free time I have, I spend with Camille, who’s now twenty. She married Frank last fall after they’d been dating for a year and knew, without question, that they were born to take care of each other. While a small part of me had feared that marriage would take Camille away from me, it’s actually made our relationship even better. Camille inspires me. She doesn’t look back; she doesn’t get shaken by our past with Cookie … and her strength is what reminds me to keep looking forward, too. My sister and I are aware that we’re both laying the foundation for our next phase in life—especially Camille, who learns in the spring of 1983 that she’ll become a mother in November.
Camille has in fact found refuge from our life at home by beginning her own family. Not only is she the happiest I’ve ever seen her, but my sister—whom the social workers once documented was too affected by our upbringing to ever have a functional family of her own—is also proving wrong all the naysayers from our past who predicted so pessimistically what our futures would look like. What our social workers said was impossible was now happening for us both.
Camille gives birth to baby Frankie on November 16—exactly one week after my eighteenth birthday. I edge in next to Camille on her hospital bed, and she passes the baby into my arms. From the very first moment I hold him, I feel how determined he is and how sensitive his heart will be for others. I marvel at him: his eyelashes, his cheeks, his face. His hair is dark brown, just like mine and his parents’, and it’s an instant miracle how much joy and excitement he brings us just by breathing in his trusting, restful sleep. When I look up at Camille, we both have tears in our eyes. It’s our silent promise that no child we love will ever experience the pain that we did … and that Cookie will never come near this baby.
While Camille enjoys her new son, Cherie is forced to come back to New York to defend her right to keep hers. Once again, Rosie and Norman are left without any of their older sisters nearby to watch over them. While we work to keep our contact with them, I continue to try and create normalcy in my life by wrapping up my freshman year in college and heading out to the Hamptons to work for the summer at gymnastics camp.
This first summer away from the home of a parent figure, combined with the coaching staff’s seventy-hour workweek, makes letting loose on the weekends a wild occupational bonus. With my coworkers, I befriend the bouncer at Toby’s Tavern, who lets my fellow coaches sneak me in although I’m underage. The agreement? We entertain them with flips and back-handsprings inside the bar. Plus, I’m aware that I’m in the healthiest, fittest shape of my life. My legs, which were once scrawny and bruised are now tanned and muscular. My shoulders and torso, once sunken from malnourishment, are sturdy and strong. By the time Monday rolls around again, my colleagues poke fun at my morning chirpiness … and I have no intention of letting them know that this job is the easiest, most lucrative, most fun responsibility I’ve ever been granted. At the end of July, when Coach hands me my pay envelope, I hold the package in my hand, feeling its thickness and weight. For the first time, it occurs to me that maybe my impossible upbringing sets me apart from the rest. I’ve cultivated a strong work ethic and faith in my capacity to take care of myself.
THE WEEK OF Thanksgiving 1985 I receive a letter accepting my transfer to the State University of New York at New Paltz, majoring in education with my friend Sheryl from high school. With Frankie now a year old, such a fun and engaging baby, there couldn’t be a more conflicted time for me to consider leaving Long Island. I’ll tell Addie closer to the holidays, I tell myself. I want my own life.
In my bedroom at the Petermans’ the night before Christmas Eve 1985, I’m deciding where to pack my Baby Jesus figurines when Addie raps on my door frame. “What’s all this?”
I glance around my room, where I’ve begun piling warm clothes into black garbage bags and a shoe box of cassette tapes that I’m alphabetizing—the Cure, the Four Seasons, Genesis, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, and Van Halen. There’s no more hiding what I’ve been putting off. I tell her: “For the spring semester I’ve decided to transfer upstate to SUNY New Paltz.”
After a moment of shock, Addie tugs on her cardigan to gain control of her expression. “I didn’t know you’d applied,” she says. “When will you be leaving?”
“First week of January. What’s that, three weeks?”
“Well,” she says, “congratulations. I’m sure with Camille’s marriage and the new baby you’ve gotten the itch to experience adulthood, too. Why are you packing now?”
I shrug. “Just excited, I guess.”
Addie nods curtly. I hear wheels turning in her head. “Regina, I have to say this, and I’ll only say this once: If you go away, that’s it. That’s the start of life on your own.”
She’s affirming my fear; the reason I didn’t want to tell her. “What do you mean?”
“If you leave, you will be on your own for good—do you understand? Once you’re out, you’re out.”
“But—even for holidays, and intersession … and the summer?”
“Yes, Regina. Let me tell you something: This house is not a hotel. You’re constantly in and out, spending the night at Tracey’s and Camille’s and all the places I know you prefer to be. It’s clear I haven’t done a very good job establishing this, but you can’t just come and go as you please.”
“What would you prefer I do, Addie? Live as the bastard daughter with no life? No friends, and no future? Counting down the days until I get pushed out of here once the checks stop coming in? I’d rather take control now.”
She clenches her fists, fuming, and her chin begins to quiver. “Either you live here, or you don’t; and if you leave, you don’t. Is that clear? And I’d prefer if you don’t challenge me again.”
In a total of twenty seconds, Addie Peterman has just reinforced the way I’ve felt since I first set foot on her perfect carpet five years ago—or actually, since I first understood what foster care was. I’m just a Rent-a-Kid. I’m suddenly suspicious that the reason she and any foster parent has given me shelter was to keep the checks coming. Anger boils in me and my words sear my tongue as I tell her what I’ve feared since I met her. “You’ve always been in this for the money!” I yell. “It’s not for the kids, or because you’re some saint! Now that I’m going away, I will get the government’s subsidy—not you. And you can’t stand that, can you? If you were in this for me, if you were really concerned about supporting me, then you would want me back at holidays and breaks. This whole stupid act—you’re not my family! You’re just the people who get paid to act like it. And you know what? I’ve already gotten rid of one mother. Don’t you dare think I won’t do it again.”
“Regina, you’re jumping to conclusions,” she says steadily. “We could always discuss some kind of rent arrangement so that you can come back.”
In my seasoned insistence to get the last word, I scream in her face, “Don’t worry! This is the last place I’d ever come back to!”
During this last half-decade in Addie’s home, I’ve been grateful that she’s provided every necessity a young woman needs and some sense of family so I could feel like a normal kid. At moments I was even distracted from my guilt for failing Rosie and Norm. Addie and Pete have filled that emptiness by being the family who greet me when I walk in the door; for being involved in my life for more than the length of a beating or a heated phone call like the negligent fools who are my biological parents. Addie and Pete have been there so much that sometimes my teachers and my friends and their parents have asked why they never adopted me.
Deep down I’ve always been aware that I’m just like the forty thousand other foster kids in America who age out of care every year to end up homeless, incarcerated, addicted, or dead. Transferring to New Paltz is a stepping-stone toward finally creating some presence in the world, to make a living and something of my life.
Three weeks later, it’s really time. Camille and Frank host a special farewell dinner for me at their home. Camille squeezes me tight after I put on my coat to leave. “I heard that living away at college is all fun, all the time. Will you promise me something?”
I pull away to look at her. “What?” I anticipate a motherly request to be careful.
“Forget everything, and for once, just enjoy yourself,” she says into my ear. “You deserve it.” Frank hands over baby Frankie, who plants an openmouthed kiss on my cheek, and the expression on my brother-in-law’s face is enough to convince me how much they believe in me.
Sheryl, who is as eager to leave as I am, pulls into the Petermans’ driveway with her music cranked. “Road trip!” she says, and she and Pete load my two suitcases into her trunk.
Addie and I stand silently with our feet pointed toward each other. Suddenly, she tackles me in a hug. “Regina, I don’t want you to leave!” she says.
Exhausted by the emotions of the past month and my entire life, I hug back only halfheartedly. “Addie, I have to do this.”
“But I’m going to miss you.” She pulls back from the hug to look in my eyes. “Regina, there’s something I’ve never told you.”
“Addie, this is really not the time for any more shock from another parent—”
“I love you.”
My eyes and forehead soften. My gaze takes in both her eyes, looking for evidence of a bluff. As I realize she means it—that she really loves me—I wrap my arms around her and begin to cry. I take in her smell—lemon Pledge and cotton—and listen to the whimper of her cry in my ear. Pete and Sheryl give us the moment … and finally I peel away.
When Sheryl shifts her car into reverse and whirs out of the driveway, I try to identify what I’m feeling:
And then I find the word: Freedom.
Over and over, on the four-hour ride upstate, Sheryl rewinds Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”
On the door of my dorm room is a sign that reads Regina & KiKi.
“KiKi, huh?” Sheryl says. “This should be good.”
She helps me unpack my clothes then insists on taking me out. “Let’s hit Pig’s for a beer, then we’ll get a late-night knish with mustard at the bagel shop near the bars.”
“There’s a bar called Pig’s?”
“Oh, just you wait.”
On the way there, we stop by the student union where there’s already mail waiting for me in the form of a course schedule. It’s packed with classes I’ll take for the education major I’ve declared, plus a course in international politics to fulfill a history requirement. “Brownstein’s the professor,” I say to Sheryl. “What do you know about him?”
“Mr. Brownstein at eight in the morning? Ouch,” she says. “Whatever you do, don’t sleep through tomorrow.”
Back in the dorm, I meet KiKi’s bare torso before I know what her face looks like. A blur of a guy grabs a shirt off my desk chair and races out of the room. “Your boyfriend, I take it?”
KiKi pulls a T-shirt over her black, shiny hair and punches her arms through the sleeves. “He’s one of them.”
Suddenly, I realize an eight o’clock class might not be my worst nightmare, but my greatest salvation.
Mr. Brownstein is a kindly looking man in his early forties with nondescript glasses, thick, dark hair and a beard to match. “For the past decade I’ve been studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he says. “I taught at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and have taken multiple research trips to Israel and the territories.” He might as well be speaking whatever they speak in Israel, because none of his words make any sense to me. “I don’t do roll call,” he announces. “Instead, I’ll go around the room, and I want each of you to introduce yourself. Then,” he continues, “you’ll tell us whether you’re registered to vote. If you are not registered to vote, you will explain why this is so. And those of you for whom this is the case will read and debate President Reagan’s sixth State of the Union address. Which means, of course, that you’ll need to watch the State of the Union when it’s delivered on February fourth—andread about it the next morning in the New York Times.”
I look around sheepishly, then raise my hand. “Mr. Brownstein … where do we get the New York Times?”
“Young lady, are you asking because you’re not registered to vote?”
I tap my pen on my desk and look around as though I didn’t hear him.
“The school library puts the New York Times out every morning at seven o’clock.” The class moans. I’m in over my head with the rest of them.
As the semester picks up pace, I find I have to study as much for Mr. Brownstein’s class as I do for all my other classes combined, and I’m still pulling Cs and Ds on his assignments … but I keep showing up for class. It’s not just to escape KiKi and her revolving door of visitors; it’s also that I’m beginning to make a connection between every current event I read about in the Times and the topics we talk about in Mr. Brownstein’s class.
Mr. Brownstein gives us assignments to report on the genocide in some parts of Africa, where men are being killed and their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters are raped. I’d seen commercials of the starving kids on TV, but I never really knew why they were suffering, or how deeply. For the first time, I’m able to look differently at my childhood; at some parts, even gratefully.
But the doors that his class is opening in my mind don’t offer escape from my past. The week before midterms, Cherie calls my dorm’s pay phone every night with updates about Rosie that are so dark, at moments I have to tune her out. I hear phrases—
“—Cookie blames her—”
“—pills went missing—”
Mr. Brownstein’s not surprised when I pop in during his office hours. “More discussion about our laws and republic?” he says with a smile.
“No. Not really. Mr. Brownstein, I have some things happening in my family.” I feel that he’s the only professor I can trust to share my background with.
He removes his glasses and gestures toward the open chair across from him. “Regina, please. Sit.”
“Look,” I tell him. “I prefer not to share all of this with my professors. I’m here to learn, not for sympathy.”
“I don’t know if you know why your class matters so much to me, but learning the ins and outs of policy is … well, it’s how I’ve been able to survive.”
“In your life?” he says.
“Yes.” Nervously, I fold my hands. There’s no turning back, as hard as I’ve tried to paint an impression for Mr. Brownstein, the professor I admire most, that my life is neatly tied up in a bow. “Things in my family have always been difficult, and now my little sister is having a really bad time. My mother is … well, she’s a difficult woman, to put it mildly, and I really don’t know what’s going to happen next. And there’s the midterm next week, and I’m studying really hard—”
“I know you are, Regina.”
“But if I don’t end up with a good grade on it, I don’t want you to think this class isn’t a priority to me.”
“When I teach history and politics,” he says, “I don’t teach it for you only to memorize answers to a test that will be forgotten days later. I teach this class so you can learn who you are as an individual—to appreciate what those more learned than you have long valued. I see how hard you’re working, Regina, and I see a lot of potential in you. I told the class at the start of the semester that if it’s not clear to me that a student has an appreciation for our government and how our nation fits into the world, I’ll fail them. But we’re not even halfway through the term, and I have a good feeling you’ll pass this class.”
I leave his office, too exhausted to meet Sheryl and our friends from home for dinner in the cafeteria. When I go to plop my head on my pillow, I discover that KiKi’s written a message on ripped-off notebook paper: Call Camille.
Rosie’s situation was rough enough when Cherie was there and now it’s gotten worse. Cherie had told me a few months back that she pulled up to the house for a visit only to find Rosie in the field, collapsed in tears next to a cow. “What’s wrong, Roseanne?” Cherie asked her, brushing dirt and hay off her clothes. “Did this cow hurt you?”
“No, Cherie,” Rosie said. “I hurt her. Mom beat me and I was so angry that I came out here and beat up this cow.” Cherie talked about how she sobbed in remorse, and I imagined the vulnerable cow’s pain and confusion. She cried for her and Rosie, for all they had in common—both innocent and unprotected against totally undeserved, uncontrollable madness.
“God, Camille,” I say into the pay phone. “Why does it have to be this week that I’m trying to memorize the names of the leaders of every country in Africa?” There’s a silent despair that rests between us on the line as we realize how immersed we’ve become in our new existences, no longer free to drop everything and travel three thousand miles to check on our baby sister.
I call my social worker, begging her to contact social services in Idaho to help protect Rosie. “We have to get her away from Cookie once and for all,” I plead.
“Regina, your sister is a resident in another state. There is nothing we can do here.”
“The only thing I might be able to suggest would be for social services in Idaho to call me here and verify everything you’ve just told me.”
I contact the phone company in Idaho and locate the number of the child welfare agency that would be responsible for the town of Oakview. When a patient-sounding male social worker picks up the phone, I share the graphic details of what Rosie is being subjected to. “You can verify Cookie’s record if you contact Suffolk County social services,” I tell him.
“I’ll take up the issue directly,” he assures me.
That night he calls me at my dorm and tells me he located my mother. I purse my lips in hope he’ll deliver the details of Rosie’s intake by the foster system there. “Rosie was present when I informed your mother about your call,” he says.
“You did what?”
“I spoke to Cookie first, then waited for Rosie to return from school. I questioned her in front of Cookie.”
“Did you just finish Social Work 101? Of course Rosie’s only response was to deny it! Do you know what Cookie would do if Rosie told you the truth and you didn’t act fast to take her in?”
Later that week he calls my dorm again. “I’m calling to inform you that I’m closing the case, Ms. Calcaterra.”
“Closing the case? Explain why!”
“Because Rosie denied the abuse, and your mother explained … well, I understand you have some emotional issues that might cause you to embellish certain accounts.”
“Your alcoholism,” he says. “And your … ability to tell outrageous tales that harm others. Ms. Calcaterra, you should know I’ve informed the local police, the school district, and the child welfare agency that any complaints we receive from New York are coming from an alcoholic, drug-addicted juvenile delinquent. Your mother told me you were permanently removed from your siblings because of your violent outbursts and promiscuous conduct.”
Is this really happening? “I’m not any of those things!” I respond. It’s obvious that Cookie manipulated this social worker. Any further attempts I could make for Rosie will be hopeless.
I hang up on him and run back to my room, digging into my dwindling laundry coin stash to call Cherie. I fill her in on what just happened with the social worker in Oakview. “You have to go back out there!”
“Hang on!” she says. “Let me think a minute. Just make sure I can get through if I call you tonight.”
I prop open my dorm room door and face my desk chair at the hallway, listening for the pay phone to ring. I calculate how effectively I’ll be able to keep others on my floor off the phone—it’s the middle of March, so most are using their free time having long conversations with girlfriends or boyfriends from home who they have not seen in months. “Didn’t you hear about the pending drug search?” I tell one unsuspecting neighbor as she approaches the pay phone, taking a quarter from her pocket. “I heard the R.A.’s going to pull the fire alarm and the police are coming into our rooms to search.” She stares at the phone in confusion, then slinks away.
Around midnight, when KiKi brings a group of friends into our room, I slam our door shut behind me and take a spot on the hard couch in the common area near the pay phone. First I lie seething, then tears streak down my temples and into my hair. I think about Mr. Brownstein’s lectures on the role of government in our lives, how it needs to be there as a safety net … right now I’m the only one who’s been saved by any net, while my baby sister navigates a high-wire act with no protection whatsoever; no sisters or social workers there to defend her. Exhausted by my tears, I drift to sleep.
I’m awakened by the sound of the phone.
It’s rung four times when I’m finally within arm’s reach.
Then, it stops.
I slam my fist against the painted cinder-block wall and press my forehead against the phone. “Dammit!”
Then it rings again.
“Cherie is flying out to Idaho tomorrow,” Camille says.
“She’s getting Rosie!”
“We’ve got this whole plan. She’s flying into Boise and will rent a car, then she’ll stake out at Rosie’s bus stop. She’ll have to talk fast to convince her to get inside, but when she does, she has a hiding spot where they’ll put on wigs and change clothes.”
“Isn’t that a little extreme?”
“It’s a small town, Regina. If anybody sees Rosie in a car with Cherie, they’ll call Cookie, then Cookie will call the cops, then Cherie will get arrested. Cherie has to play it safe. Then the two of them will rush to the airport in Boise and fly back to New York.”
“You feel like this plan is foolproof?”
“As foolproof as it ever will be.”
“Okay. I have a test to take tomorrow, then I’ll hop on a bus to Manhattan and catch the train out to you and Frank so we can wait together.”
“No, Regina—you have school. You can’t screw it up.”
“Camille, I screwed up the thing that’s most important to me in the world the day I signed that affidavit when I was fourteen! Rosie’s life has never been the same, and nothing matters more to me than this.” Two of my neighbors groggily stick their necks out of their rooms. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I whisper into the receiver. “I’ll call you when the train drops me at the Ronkonkoma station.”
I ARRIVE AT four thirty and spot Camille’s car with the headlights on. I knock on her car trunk. “Hey, open up!”
She climbs out of the car and pops the trunk with her key.
“Why did you haul a garbage bag of clothes? You need to do laundry this weekend?”
“No. I want to be ready if this takes awhile.”
“Regina, what about school?”
“Camille,” I tell her. “Please.”
Frank’s warming himself on the front porch when we arrive at their house. “Cherie just called,” he says. “She got Rosie to the airport, piece of cake.”
“So we still have hours before Cookie even notices Rosie’s gone!” I’ve calculated the logistics of the escape, considering every possible glitch. This is the best-case scenario; exactly what we prayed for. There’s a feeling of relief beginning to rise in me … but this is no time to get comfortable.
“They’re probably boarding right this second,” Frank says. “Cherie said they’re scheduled to land at JFK just after nine o’clock. You two have time to eat. Come in and let me make you a sandwich—”
“No,” I tell him. He and Camille look at me, alarmed. “I want to go to the airport now. If that plane touches down early, I want to be there the second our bambina walks off of it.”
Frank looks at Camille. “Let me clear out the car so there’s room for the four of you. Hey,” he says, “why don’t you let me drive you?”
“No, sweetie,” Camille tells him. “Stay home with Frankie and close to the phone. Cookie could call—she doesn’t know you. You’re the only one she won’t dare to grill.”
When Camille and I arrive at the airport at seven thirty, we establish our post at the arrivals area. Camille looks around to make sure we’re not being watched or targeted, while I check and recheck the television monitor to make sure their flight is on time.
When they finally deplane, Cherie’s carrying only her purse. Both she and Rosie—now with a modest feminine shape and taller than any of us—have their wigs tugged down tight on their heads. Rosie’s wig is thick and dramatic, a cartoonish contrast to the tired, blank stare on her face. It’s impossible for me to tell if she’s numb from the unexpected plane ride or the trauma of what she’s been living through with Cookie and Clyde.
The four of us walk fast to short-term parking, finally huddling in the car to embrace Rosie the second we’re all inside Camille’s backseat. “My bambina,” I whisper in her ear. The car fires up with the turn of Camille’s ignition, and Cherie and I stay hugging Rosie. I imagine the tighter we hold her, the faster she’ll heal; but in response, Rosie does nothing. She utters no sound; she makes no expression. “Are you in shock?” I ask her.
She shakes her head. No.
“What is it then? You’re afraid Cookie’s going to come after you?” She sits silently, then nods slowly. Yes.
“No,” Cherie says. “We’re going to do everything we possibly can to keep you here. You’ll live with me while Regina’s at school, then in the summer she’ll come and live with us. We’ll have a home together—Regina, Camille, you remember how good it was? Like in the Happy House, and the Bubble House, and the Glue Factory.”
“And the Brady Bunch House,” Rosie says.
“Yes! You remember the Brady Bunch House! All we need is us,” Cherie says. “We’ve done it before, when we were all much younger. We can do it so much better now.”
Camille’s house is filled with the aroma of pasta and meatballs. “Grab a plate, ladies,” Frank says as we pile into the kitchen. “I’m just about to pull the baked ziti out of the oven.” When baby Frankie starts crying from his nursery, Frank whispers in Camille’s ear, braces his hand on her shoulder, and smiles. Then he walks quietly down the hall.
When I finally break from staring after him, I notice Rosie’s doing the same. “Where’s he going?” Rosie asks. Never before have we seen a man so caring and capable.
“He’s going to take care of Frankie so we can stay up together.”
We lounge on the living room couch and love seat, gently taking note as Rosie begins to drop hints of a smile as I rest with my arm around her and play with her hair. The name Cookie never comes up. The word abuse is never spoken. The four of us sleep head-to-toe in the living room; and in the morning, Camille starts the coffeepot and sets out a box of gooey glazed donuts while Frank dresses Frankie and steps out to warm up the car. “Rosie, how about we head out to the mall and get you some warm, new clothes?” Camille says.
Rosie’s eyes light up. She looks out the window at the car and then back to me. “Can I sit on your lap?”
“Sure, lovebug,” I tell her, securing a lock of loose hair the color of sand behind her ear. “You remember the Smith Haven Mall, where we used to hang out when we were working on the farm?”
She smiles. “Yes.”
Cherie wiggles in next to Frankie’s car seat, and I close my eyes with my cheek against Rosie’s back the entire way to the mall.
While Rosie and Cherie browse through the racks, Frank, Camille, and I powwow in the car. “I think we need to wait a few weeks to register her for high school here. We don’t want to make it easy for anyone from Idaho to track her down with the help of the school system,” Camille says.
“And when we do register her, we don’t tell the school that she’s a transfer from Idaho. As far as they’re concerned, she’s just moved to a new part of Long Island.”
“I know. We’ll work with her on dropping the twang.”
“She’ll catch on fast,” Frank says. “She still talks like a Long Islander. ‘My teacha,’ she said—did you hear that? She’s still got Long Island in her.”
The three of us laugh as Frankie coos and clenches his fists from his car seat—he, too, is in on our important scheme. When Rosie and Cherie are back with their bags a half-hour later, the mood goes quiet again. “What’d you get, cutie?” I ask Rosie.
“Some jeans, a coat and sweater …” Her voice trails off. Frank calmly pulls out of the parking lot, onto the highway.
At no point during the weekend do we ask Rosie what she experienced. There’s just no reason to make her relive it, and her silence has told us enough already.
On the third day, Rosie and I move into Cherie’s studio apartment in Bayshore, but just as Rosie begins to feel comfortable with her new home, Camille calls us: She’s begun getting calls from Cookie’s brother, Nick.
“Shit,” Cherie says. “What’d he say?” Rosie and I crowd close to her. She tilts the receiver so we can hear Camille speak.
“Well, the first time, he called and informed me that Rosie was missing and the Idaho authorities think Regina is hiding out with her somewhere in Idaho.” Just like always, Cookie’s blame points straight to me. “I told him it was impossible since you’re at school and in fact you’d been in all your classes taking tests this past week.”
“But whatever you three do, it’s not a good idea to come by my house. Nick’s watching, and he’s looking to bite. Regina, you should head back to school.”
“I will go back when the time is right.”
“The time is right now.” Her firmness stuns me. “If Nick or the cops find out that no one’s seen you at class or in your dorm, he’ll figure out where you are and then we’re all done.”
“Then who’s going to stay with Rosie while Cherie’s working at the deli?” I demand. “This child has been through enough, Camille. I am not leaving her alone and unguarded without one of us here.”
“So it’s going to be the three of you smooshed together in Cherie’s tiny studio apartment?”
“We’ve lived through way worse … or have you finally forgotten?”
“Are you doing this for Rosie, or for yourself?” she says. “Fine, Regina, stay there. Just be safe. Nick will come pounding on Cherie’s door, and I’m afraid it won’t be pretty.”
It’s the silent treatment between us for two days until she calls again. “Nick’s showing up at my house now, demanding to know where Cherie lives.”
I wring my fingers.
“Frank’s been answering the door. He keeps telling Nick to leave, that Cherie and I had a fight and aren’t talking. ‘The last Camille heard, Cherie was still living out of state,’ he tells Nick. But I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to hold him off.”
We now know it’s only a matter of seconds before Cherie’s ex-in-laws hand her number over to Nick. Every time the phone rings, Rosie and I jump up from wherever we are and huddle on Cherie’s bed, as though holding each other will protect us all from the assault of Nick’s voice on the answering machine.
First, it’s Cherie, this is your uncle Nick. Call me.
Then Cherie, this is your uncle Nick. We think Regina took Rosie. Call me back as soon as possible.
Then the third message: Cherie, this is your uncle Nick, I’m coming over and will force my way in to talk to you. Pick up the damn phone right now.
Rosie and I hide our belongings, throw on our coats and shoes, and I grab my denim satchel. We bolt out of Cherie’s place and take off down a back alley.
“Where are we going?”
“To a mall,” I tell her. “We need somewhere with a crowd.”
From a pay phone I leave a message on Camille’s answering machine. “Camille, where are you? Listen, I’m taking Rosie to the movies at Sunrise Mall. Nick called Cherie’s three times today. We’ll be out—don’t panic if you can’t get ahold of us. Cherie’s at work, her boss wouldn’t let her talk.”
The man at the cinema ticket counter has fat fingers and a slow pace. My eyes dart around the theater’s lobby as he paws our change out of his register. “Mister, can you hurry it up a little?” I tell him.
He stares at me.
“We’re going to be late for the show.”
Finally, we sail past the popcorn concession and straight into the theater, in the far left corner. We sit through two viewings of Pretty in Pink, and I’m ready to sit through a third when Rosie stands.
“Sit down!” I hiss. “What are you doing?”
“Let’s get out of here.”
“We can’t— Why?”
“Let’s at least see another movie or something.”
I glance around. “Well, hurry, so we can walk out with everybody else. Put up your hood and put down your head.” We link arms to hustle through the theater’s lobby, but the instant we turn the corner into the mall corridor, I see the worst possible thing: Nick comes running at us, accompanied by two mall security guards. As I yank Rosie into a semicircle spin, I spot Cherie a few steps behind them.
Rosie and I race back into the cinema, down the aisle of an empty theater, and out the emergency exit. I push Rosie to scramble under a big metal garbage bin and then shimmy under next to her. “They’ll think we’re hiding behind something—not under something,” I whisper.
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve done this before!”
We lie there. It will be a miracle if the pounding of my heart doesn’t lead Nick right to us.
Rosie rests her cheek on the cold pavement. “We have no control, Gi,” she says.
Her return to using my nickname strikes me; softens me. “That’s why we have to get control, sweetie. We can’t let you go back with her. You’ll be fourteen in October, that’s only seven months from now. We have to get you emancipated, too.”
“Where will I hide?”
“With me up in New Paltz. I can rent a room in an apartment and we can live off campus.”
Suddenly Cherie’s voice rings from the darkness. “Regina! Rosie!”
“Close your eyes,” I whisper, near silence. “She’s with Nick.” It’s just like when I was four years old living in the Glue Factory apartment. I ran away, and Susan called out for me. “Regina! Regina!” I rose from my hiding place and ran into her arms, then she carried me out of the woods and toward the street, right back to Cookie.
We ignore Cherie’s calls. We stay silent and still. Minutes pass. Cars pass. Rosie passes her hand to me, and I lace my fingers through hers.
After quiet falls around us, we shimmy out into the night. We walk through unlit parking lots on Sunrise Highway until I find a phone booth on a dark corner. Camille picks up on the first ring.
“Regina.” She’s crying. “Where are you two?”
“We’re fine. I’d rather not say where we are right now. But we’re fine.”
“It’s too late, Gi. He said that if we don’t turn Rosie over to him, he’ll call the police and we’ll all be arrested for kidnapping. He said he’ll use that to have the courts take away Cherie’s visitation with her son and she’ll never see him again, and the courts will take Frankie away from me, too. Frank and I are just sick, we don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll call my social worker tomorrow. Maybe she can help us.”
“Regina, he wants Rosie at his house tonight, or else he is calling the cops on all of us.”
“Jesus Christ, he’s sick!” I wring my forehead, trying to work out a solution. “Let me talk to Rosie. I’ll call you back.”
I gently place the phone back in its silver cradle. I can’t quite bring myself to look at Rosie. It’s 1986, five and a half years after we were separated for the last time and placed into different foster homes. Today she’s the same age I was when I made the decision that ruined her life with my unfounded faith in my social worker and the system. If I tell our story, I thought back then, no one in their right mind would ever return any of us to Cookie. As good as the government has been to me, it let Rosie down. Even worse, I let Rosie down. How could I promise her that the same county system that deserted her five years ago would suddenly decide to help her? We’re poor. We have no connections and even fewer resources, and we’ve learned not to trust anyone who says You can trust me. We’ve had to put our faith in the people who treat us coldly, who attempt to prey on our vulnerabilities and take advantage of us; but in the end, no one can really save us from our own hard reality. Every single one of us has had to climb out of our childhood and help ourselves. It was true for Cherie and Camille; it’s true for me; and now it’s true for Rosie.
“There’s nothing else I can do,” I tell her. Hot tears spring to my eyes.
She glares at me in a way that’s both hopeless and accusing. “Call Camille,” she says. “Let’s get it all over with.”
There’s a throbbing silence between us as we wait, and wait, for Camille’s car to pull up. “I’m freezing,” I say. “Are you cold?”
Rosie says nothing. I clamp my arms around her in an effort to stay warm, until I realize it’s me who’s shivering.
After a lifetime of waiting, Camille’s headlights finally cut through the night. Rosie takes a step toward the car. “Wait,” I tell her. “Let me see who’s with her.” I walk out in the open concrete lot, peering into Camille’s window.
“Get in,” Cherie sighs. “We’ll stay at Camille’s tonight.”
I flag Rosie toward the car, waiting for Cherie and Camille to rip into me. But the only sounds are the hum of the motor; the click-click-clicking of Camille’s turn signal in the night. I lean up toward the front seat. “Can somebody turn on the radio?”
Neither Cherie nor Camille budges.
In the morning, Camille finds me dialing the kitchen phone. “Who you calling?”
I hesitate. “The social worker.”
She comes to me and braces my shoulders. Looking in my eyes, Camille says, “Gi, honey: We’ve done all we can. She has to go back to Idaho.”
There’s a ringtone in my ear.
“Ms. Harvey, it’s me. Regina.”
Camille sighs, rubs her temples, and goes to the cupboard to pull out a can of coffee. I tell Ms. Harvey everything—how we tried to rescue Rosie after social services in Idaho triggered Cookie to lash out; how Nick was chasing after us and we need to keep Rosie with us. “Ms. Harvey, can you call the police in Idaho and tell them how social services put Rosie in danger?”
“Regina, you kidnapped a minor across state lines. That’s against the law, and because Rosie’s guardian lives in Idaho, no. There’s nothing I can do from here.”
I shoot a glance to Camille and react the only way I can think: I slam the phone back on the wall and storm outside in my bare feet for air.
The storm door claps shut behind Camille. “None of us likes this, but sweetie, we all have so much at risk—especially Rosie. We have to take her to Nick’s.”
“The hell we do.”
“Gi, we’re out of options.”
Rosie steps onto the front porch and folds her arms tight across her chest. Cherie steps out behind her.
“We’ll tell him that you’ll only stay there as long as Cherie and I stay, too,” I tell Rosie.
“Then Regina and I will drive you to the airport,” Cherie says.
Nick’s Dobermans charge the door when we ring the bell, and I steady Rosie in her terrified reaction. Cherie and I grab Rosie’s hands and walk into Nick’s home, taking in the stained walls and carpet, the smell of mildew combined with wet dog and urine. With his hands that are perpetually filthy from his job in printing, Nick wrangles his dogs from pummeling us, while his docile wife attempts to coax them from his grip. Then he turns his lips down and points his finger in my face. “You,” he says. “This is all because of you. You have always thought that you were better than us, you think you’re so high and mighty. If I could, I would beat that smugness right off your face, Regina. You need to be brought down a few notches, you snotty bitch, and I could still do that to you.”
I glare at Nick and his wife, who’s hovering behind him like a wilting weed. “Thank God you weren’t able to have any kids—now we know for sure how you would have raised them!” I pause, for effect. Then I say, “Nick.”
“I am your uncle, goddammit!” he howls. “Uncle Nick! You should respect your elders!” His cragged forehead’s broken out in sweat.
“Nick,” I tell him calmly, “you have to earn respect. It’s not just given to you. You never did a thing to help us. You only made it worse by siding with Cookie. You, like her, do not deserve my respect.”
“Get the fuck out of my house, you lying whore.”
“Nope,” I tell him. “If Rosie’s here, then I’m here.”
Nick stares at me. Then he stares at Cherie. Cherie stares down at the floor, reminding us all she has a custody fight for her child to worry about. “You’re staying here tonight,” he says. “And tomorrow, the kid goes with me to the airport.”
“So do we,” I tell him.
Nick wraps his hand into a fist so hard the knuckles crack. “Jennifer, take these sluts to the back room,” he says. With her eyes, his wife begs us to save her. She points us down the hall, into the room next to theirs.
“It smells like slime in here,” I tell my sisters. Rosie’s gaze is fixed in worry on the bed, where scattered about are pictures of hairy, naked women. “I’m not sleeping on that thing.”
“You think the floor is much better?” Cherie says.
“Cherie, help me put the sheets on the floor. We’ll sleep on top of them with Rosie in the middle. We can cover up with our coats.” The next morning, after we leave the sheets in a heap on the floor, we walk out to the driveway where Nick’s leaning against his rusted Camaro. “What the fuck took so long to get ready? You three dyking it out in there?”
We march past him, toward Cherie’s car.
“What the hell—you two don’t actually expect me to believe you’re going to drive this kid to the airport.”
Cherie opens her car door. “Rosie’s riding with us, Nick. If you want to be there to see it, you’ll have to follow.”
I swing around. “Shut the fuck up, Nick, you fucking ignorant, stupid prick!” I walk up to him and get in his face. “She’s riding with us, you got it? You Calcaterras are nothing but a bunch of lowlife scumbags!”
“And you’re one of us,” he says.
I wrap my arms around Rosie’s shoulders. “In name only.” I use my body to nudge Rosie inside the car, resisting my instinct to tackle Nick and beat him senseless. In the backseat I keep Rosie cloaked, as though trying to protect her now could still do some good.
Even deeper inside the airport with the March chill left outside, I feel Rosie shivering. We escort her all the way to security, where she glances back at Nick and takes off her coat. Her action strikes me as symbolic: In the end, the only thing we were able to do was keep her warm with that coat, and now she’s giving it back, knowing what was meant to protect her here will bring her harm when she gets where she’s going. The only prayer she has to survive Cookie’s reaction will be to pretend this trip to New York never happened.
Cherie and I both reach out and take the coat, which seems to weigh four hundred pounds. This was supposed to be Rosie’s forever rescue, and I’ve failed her yet again.
The crowd of travelers at the gate fills in around us. In response, Cherie’s actions seem to pick up with a pace of urgency, but for Rosie I’m calm and gentle as ever. As she hugs Cherie, her limbs move as though they’re weighed down with lead, as if any part of her that’s lively or able to feel love is dead. I take her cheeks in my hands, staring into her sculpted face, her eyes that show she’s seen too much. Everything about her seems older than it is. “Mia bambina amore,” I whisper.
Suddenly, she throws her arms around me and buries her face in my hair. For a moment, I can feel her resisting sobs; and then she whispers: “Je t’aime.”
The other travelers seem somehow empowered by the luggage they’re carrying onto the plane, but Rosie approaches the ticket counter with nothing … because she came with nothing. Cherie and I grip her coat between us. A loose, sandy curl flips over her shoulder when she looks back and forces a smile.
“I love you, Rosie!” I yell through my tears so loudly that the crowd turns.
Rosie hands her ticket to the agent, who points her to the Jetway.
And then, she’s gone.