Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island - Regina Calcaterra (2013)

10. Aging Out

Spring 1986 to Summer 1988

“I FAILED.”

Pinching the stem of his glasses between his thumb and forefinger, Mr. Brownstein rubs the bridge of his nose. “Regina, have a seat. You have a lot on your shoulders—”

“Mr. Brownstein, I’ll make it up!”

“Don’t worry about making it up. It’ll work out at the end.”

“At the end of the semester, you mean? Or just . . . in general?” I’d recently shared with Mr. Brownstein that I’d grown up in and out of foster care. I want to remind him things don’t just “work out” in my life; that my future depends on my grades in ways my classmates’ futures don’t.

“Regina, I’m here to help. If you’d feel better to share details about what’s happening in your family, I want you to know this is a safe place.”

I flash back: I’m thirteen again, in the car with the social workers. Rosie and Norm are in the other car, and because I’ve revealed what’s happened to us, I’ll never be able to control what happens to my siblings again.

Mr. Brownstein brings me back to earth. “I have utmost faith you’re doing your best. Just follow through on the rest of the semester. I told you”—his tone turns fatherly, reassuring—“you’ll be fine. Right now you have to take good care of yourself and your little sister.”

That night, I dial Rosie’s number back in Oakview. “Yeah?” Cookie answers. It’s the first I’ve spoken to her in months. Her voice is deeper and more hoarse than ever. That’s what decades of smoking and drinking will do to you, I want to tell her.

“I need to talk to Rosie.”

“Like hell you do.”

“Cookie, let me remind you: Everybody knows about you. I told the local authorities and Rosie’s school. Remember, one mark on her and there is no denying where it came from.”

“Oh, go ahead and ask her how bad it’s been. The kid’s had it made ever since she got back, I haven’t laid a finger on her.”

“Put. Rosie. On the phone.

I hear her inhale a cigarette, then exhale. “Hang on.”

There’s a muffled exchange between them, then the phone cord crackles to signify that Rosie is seeking a more private place to speak. When there’s quiet, I whisper: “Mia bambina amore.

“Je t’aime,” she whispers back.

Through a series of one-word answers, I’m able to discern that things are quiet—Cookie’s holding back her anger, at least for now. “In the morning I’ll call your social worker and guidance counselor, okay? I want to know that they’re keeping tabs on you. Even if they don’t believe us, at least we got them to pay attention.”

“Okay.”

AT THE END of the spring semester I take three hundred dollars out of the envelope from last summer’s gymnastics camp for a down payment on an off-campus apartment with Kim and Tami, two girls Sheryl knows from Suffolk County.

I’m living independently for the first time in my life. The older I get, the more I’m convinced: I’ve suffered for a reason. It’s a reason I don’t know yet, but for all of my twenty years it’s been circling me—a forecast of something mighty. There’s no way a person could be born into dysfunction, fighting to survive and helping her family do the same, without some purpose to give it all meaning. On the days that feel dark and endless, I make myself a simple promise: I’ll get out of bed in the morning. Then I’ll head up the hill to class. If I put one foot in front of the other, day by day, I’ll move closer to the light at the end of all this struggle.

At the start of my junior year’s fall semester, I take two jobs: one waitressing in an outdated Catskills nightclub; the other fulfilling work study in the campus science lab. On Thursday and Friday nights I share a mirror with my roommates to dress up in my cocktail uniform. Then another opportunity pulls me away from establishing a normal college social life: Before the end of the semester, I’m accepted for an internship in Albany to work for a state senator for the next semester. “She’s going to fall for some politician and we’ll never see her again!” Tami teases.

In January of my junior year, I move to Albany and attend the orientation meeting for all the interns held by radio host Alan Chartock, the sponsor of the internship. “We’ll go around the table,” he says, “and I’d like you to tell me why you’re here.”

My fellow interns cite their reasons as having relatives in law and politics, and a passion for politics or a political ideology or a commitment to advance a specific public policy. Then the circle reaches me. I think of Rosie, of the money I tuck away to send her every month, of how I’ll never give up trying to rescue her. Then I share my reason for why I’m pursuing this career. “Politics is the allocation of resources,” I tell Professor Chartock. “I want to know who allocates the resources and why some people benefit from them while others suffer.”

He eyes me, then announces, “I want to be clear about an inevitability of this program: You ladies will be hit on by members of the Assembly and Senate. If I hear any of my interns are involved in affairs with legislators, you will be removed from the program and will lose the fifteen credits you’re on track to earn during this experience.”

After the meeting, our cohorts mingle and laugh. Joanne, my new roommate for the semester, is in the program, too. We approach a boy with reddish hair and an unassuming expression. “You didn’t take the Senate internship, right?”

“Right. I’m interning as a journalist for the Legislative Gazette instead. I’m Ed.” He shakes our hands firmly and we’re delighted we’ve just added a new companion to our circle of nerds.

I intern for the state Senate from nine every morning until five in the evening and then waitress four nights a week on Lark Street. Wednesday nights and all day Saturday I coach USGF gymnastics at an Albany gymnastics school. Saturday nights, Joanne, Ed, and I usually meet up for a beer, and Ed pokes fun at how I react when a stranger tries to talk to me. “You’re way too intense,” he says, laughing. “Lighten up.”

I take a sip of my beer. “I didn’t come here to mess this up. I’m focused on learning how this all works—and I need strong references for a job after I graduate.” They both roll their eyes at me and order a round of shots. I allow a small grin before I take mine.

As the internship progresses I observe that the process to alter public policy is like watching a chess game: Sheer strategy and full emotional investment are needed for the most convincing players to win. Recognizing my intensity, State Senator Jack Perry keeps me on past May into July until the legislative session ends to continue on as an aide, and his invitation is further promise that the universe will always find ways to take care of me as long as I’m doing my part: In July I go back to living rent-free in Southampton and coaching gymnastics again.

Heading into the fall of my senior year at New Paltz, I’ve done my best to plan for the day in November when I turn twenty-one, for the day when I’ll no longer be a ward of the state or a foster child and for the day when the Medicaid card that’s covered my health care for the last seven years will be void, and the four hundred twenty dollars I receive for rent and expenses each month will just stop showing up in my mailbox.

There’s only one choice: to keep working. For the fall semester I move into an off-campus apartment with my high school friend Jeanine, who transferred to New Paltz last year. “Yeesh!” she says. “Waitressing, the science lab, studying . . . do I have to get you a job with me at the Wallkill farm stand in order to actually see you on weekends?”

“I’ve worked a cash register before,” I jibe back. “Get me an application.”

Soon we’ve begun our autumn Saturday routine, peddling warm apple cider and mums then hitting the town hangouts where Jeanine’s charm scores us free beers. She introduces me as her geeky sidekick, referring to me as “Miss Constitution” because I can proudly recite all seven articles and twenty-seven amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Before Thanksgiving break, the debate team coach approaches me as I’m studying in the lounge next to the political science department. “I’d like to speak with you about joining my team of students for the Harvard Model United Nations,” he says. “We’re one of a handful of schools competing that’s not Ivy League, and I need a tough debater on my team.”

“Uh . . . sir?” I look around. “Are you sure you’re talking to the right person?”

“Regina Calcaterra? Sure I am. I need someone with a strong backbone, somebody bright and assertive. Professor Brownstein recommended you.”

Bright and assertive.

I choose global warfare as my debate topic. My peers and I take the train to the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan when our debate coach sends us to meet with the actual Zimbabwean delegates. We spend winter break preparing for the final debate forum in Boston. We don’t place in the rankings, but our whole team cheers when I’m nominated for an award alongside students from Columbia and Harvard.

“Don’t lose any sleep over the fact we didn’t win,” our debate coach tells me on the bus ride home. “I was in the elevator with coaches from the Ivies who were talking about the tough girl from New Paltz. We may not have won, but you helped us make an impact.”

In May I receive my BA in Political Science in front of hundreds of my classmates’ families. Addie, Pete, and their daughters come for the ceremony, and Pete takes a photo of Addie and me. “Hold up your diploma!” she says. “You’ve earned this.”

Later that week I pack my car and head back to Long Island after Addie extends an offer for me to live rent-free in her basement for two months while I search for a job. Immediately I take her up on it, intending only to buy a little time to make a transition on my own. Unsure of where I’ll go after the summer, again I reach out to the only other family connection I have besides my siblings: Cookie’s parents, Mike and Rose. “If you ever need a place to stay or just want to spend time with us,” Grandma Rose says, “your grandfather and I want you to know that you always have a home here.”

“Grandma . . . thanks.”

“You’re the first family member ever to graduate from college,” she continues. “Would you like to join Grampa Mike and me for dinner to celebrate?”

“Of course,” I say. “Just tell me when.”

The following night, in her kitchen, Grandma Rose takes a break from tending to an oven of pasta and baked clams to open the collar of her quilted pink robe and expose the bruises on her chest. “The cancer in my lungs is getting worse, the doctors say. Between this and my multiple sclerosis, I don’t know how much longer I can go on.” At dinner, I’m glancing at the bruises that appear on her neckline and Grandma puts down her fork. “Regina,” she says, fighting back tears, “our door has always been open to you. We could never understand how your mother turned out the way she did, or why you kids suffered so much with her.”

This is my one chance to try and understand. I lean across the table toward my grandmother. “What happened to her when she was young that’s made her so angry?”

Grandma Rose shakes her head. She and my grandfather go back to eating.

Weeks later, in early July, Grandma Rose passes away. I tend to Grampa Mike with hot dogs and steaks from the butcher and two jugs of Ernest & Julio Gallo wine, his favorite. Cookie shows up with Norman for the funeral, announcing that the two of them will be staying at Grampa Mike’s house to take care of him. Norman carries their bags behind Cookie. “You must be numb with grief,” she insists to my grandfather, pushing her way through the door and pouring herself a glass of wine. “Don’t mind if I make myself at home.” Looking up from lighting a cigarette, she acknowledges me, as though she hadn’t seen me sitting there since she walked through the door. “Well, congratulations for graduating,” she grunts. “You see, I didn’t do such a bad job after all with you kids.” I stare at her, dumbfounded.

I try to hold myself back from letting loose on her the way I did on her brother in his driveway the morning we took Rosie to the airport. “Cookie,” I tell her—my composure astounds me even though I am burning inside. “You did not raise us. You left us to raise ourselves—do you understand that? We are responsible for the women we have become. Not you. You gave birth to us: that was your single wretched contribution to what we are now. We did the rest, and any help we got along the way was from strangers—some who were paid to take care of us. Not you.”

I anticipate what’s coming next: She’ll slap my face, or take me by the hair and slam me to the ground. Instead, she approaches me slowly. Her eyes soften and so does her voice. “Regina,” she says, “the only reason I hurt you is because your father hurt me. The other kids’ dads didn’t hurt me like yours did . . . he was the worst to me. You see?”

Face-to-face like this, I can smell the alcohol that’s seeping from her pores; the tobacco smoke in the fabric of her clothes. She steps back—she’s contemplating whether I will accept her explanation. But I know it will never be possible for her to acknowledge what she did, the same as it will never be possible for me to fully forget it: the years of shielding our bodies from her blows, hiding our bruises, scavengering for food, and convincing teachers and authorities that if they gave us a chance, my siblings and I could be successful.

In a stunned, calm disgust I glare at her . . . and suddenly I’m recollecting my conversation five years ago with Paul Accerbi. I didn’t believe it was a one-night stand. I was the first to call Cookie out on her life of lies, but the one thing she never waivered from insisting was that she and Paul had a relationship. “How did he hurt you?”

She looks at me as if she is trying to determine if I’m asking this in the spirit of empathy or a demand.

“What did he do to you that caused you so much anger that you’d take it out on a defenseless child? Huh? Did he beat you like you beat me? Did he use your head to bust holes in walls or doors? Did he, Cookie? Did he tie you up in closets or to radiators or beds? Did he strip you naked in front of others, and beat you with a belt that caused welts around every section of your body? Did he humiliate you or scare you into submission? Did he rape you? What did he do to you that would justify what you did to me, or let others do?”

She’s smiling, satisfied with my anger. “Oh no,” she says. “None of that, Regina. He was a lover—a very kind lover. I was in love with him, and I thought he was in love with me. I thought he’d be with me after he found out about you . . . but instead, he left.” She pauses a moment, then lights up another cigarette. “And I got stuck with you.”