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

1. Bitten Bones

Suffolk County, Long Island, New York

Summer 1980

THE AREA WHERE we live sits between the shadows of the cocaine-fueled, glitzy Hamptons estates and New York City’s gritty, disco party culture. Songs like Devo’s “Whip It” and Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” blast through the car courtesy of WABC Musicradio 77, AM. Gas is leaded and the air is filthy.

Long Island lacks a decent public transportation system—to get anywhere, you need either a car or a good pair of shoes. Our shoes aren’t the best.

Our car is worse.

My mother’s thick arm rests on the driver’s-side window ledge of her rusty, gas-guzzling Impala—the kind you buy for seventy-five dollars out of a junkyard. Her wild hair blows around the car as she flicks her cigarette into the sticky July morning. The ashes boomerang back in through my window, threatening to fly into my eyes and mouth in frantic gusts. Squinting tightly and pursing my lips hard, I know better than to mention it.

My seven-year-old baby sister, Rosie; our brother, Norman, who’s twelve but still passes for an eight-year-old when we sneak into movie theaters; and me—Regina Marie Calcaterra, age thirteen (personal facts I’m well accustomed to giving strangers, like social workers and the police)—are smooshed into the backseat. Like most of our rides, the car suffers from bald tires, broken mirrors, and oil dripping from the motor. If I lift up the mats, I can see the broken pavement move beneath us through the holes in the rear floor.

We rarely travel the main roads like the Southern State, Sunrise Highway, or the Long Island Expressway. For Cookie—that’s what we call my mom—the scenic route is the safest because she’s always avoiding the cops. Cookie has more warrants out on her than she has kids. And there are five of us.

Her offenses? Where to start? She’s wanted for drunk driving; driving with a suspended license and an unregistered vehicle; stolen license plates; bounced checks to the landlord, utility company, and liquor store totaling hundreds of dollars; stealing from her bosses (on the rare occasion she gets work as a barmaid); and for our truancy. And if there were such a thing as a warrant for sending her kids to school with their heads full of lice, we could add that to the list, too!

In the car, we don’t speak. It’s not by choice—it’s actually impossible to hear one another above the loud grunting of the Impala and its broken muffler. Embarrassed by the car’s belches, I slump down in my seat. In the front seat next to Cookie, my older sister Camille’s doing pretty much the same thing . . . but if our mother detects our attitude, we’ll find ourselves suffering nasty bruises. The only comfort is the physical space we now have to actually fit in the car without piling on top of one another as we had to for years. That’s thanks to the fact that, at age seventeen, our oldest sister, Cherie, has finagled an escape by moving in with her new husband and his parents, since she’s expecting a baby soon.

In the backseat, Rosie, Norman, and I stay occupied, scratching our bony, bug-bitten legs and comparing who has the most bites and biggest scabs. We take turns pointing to them as Rosie uses her fingers as scorecards to rate them on a scale of one to ten. There’s never really a winner . . . we’re all pretty itchy.

None of us bothers hollering to ask where we’re going. With all our belongings packed in garbage bags in the trunk, we know we’re headed to a new home. Our short-term future could take many forms—a trailer, a homeless shelter, the back parking lot of a supermarket, in the car for a few weeks, in Cookie’s next boyfriend’s basement or attic, or dare we dream: an apartment or house. We know better than to expect much—to us, running water and a few old mattresses is good living. We’ve managed with a lot less.

Most girls my age idolize their sixteen-year-old sisters, but Camille is my cocaptain in our family’s survival. She’s the only person in my life who’s totally transparent, and we need each other too much for any sisterly mystique to exist. For years, the two of us have worked to set up each new place so that it feels at least something like a home, even though we never know how long we might stay there. We just rest easier knowing, at nightfall, that the younger ones have a safe spot to rest their heads. Together. Without Cookie.  If we can control that.

Cookie puts the brakes on our wordless games when she pulls into a semicircular driveway, gravel crunching under the tires. We’re met by the image of a gray, severely neglected two-story shingled house surrounded by dirt, dust, and weeds. There are no bushes, no flowers, no greenery at all; but the lack of landscaping draws a squeal from me. “No grass!”

Rosie and Norman smile and nod in agreement, understanding this means we won’t be taking shifts to accomplish Cookie’s definition of “mowing the lawn”—using an old pair of hedge clippers to cut the grass on our hands and knees. Camille and I usually cut the bulk of the lawn to protect the little ones from the blisters and achy wrists.

Cookie turns off the ignition and coughs her dry, scratchy smoker’s cough. “This is it,” she announces. “Sluts and whores unpack the car.” Then she emits a loud, sputtering, hillbilly roar that never fails to remind me of a malfunctioning machine gun. As usual, she’s the only one who finds any humor in the degrading nicknames she’s pinned on her daughters.

I gaze calmly at the facade before me. It’s a house . . . our house. Even if it ends up being only for a few days, I’m relieved that my siblings and I won’t be separated.

Since the interior car-door handle is missing, exiting the car is always an occasion for embarrassment. I take my cue as Cookie reaches out her window, pulling up the steel tab that opens her door with her right hand while she pushes with her left shoulder from the inside. It’s my job to step out and pull the exterior driver’s-side door handle for her, especially when she’s too drunk to get the door open on her own. This normally results in me falling on my bony bottom as the heavy steel door comes barreling out toward me from my mother’s force. I quickly jump straight up like Nadia Comaneci at the Montreal Olympics—landing with locked legs and arms extended skyward—and look back at the three little judges in the car to rate my performance. As always, this leads to giggles from Rosie and Norman and an I feel your pain wince from Camille, whose behind is just as scrawny as mine.

Since my dismount lacks originality, my score is always the same. Rosie is the most generous, flashing ten stretched-out fingers. Norman offers an underwhelmed five; Camille gives me two thumbs-up, which from her is equal to a ten.

Cookie usually just snorts in my direction, but not this time.

Today she’s in a hurry. She lurches out of the driver’s seat while the car lets up beneath her weight. We all watch her hulking five-foot-two, size-18 figure stagger around the front of the car and toward the gray house with a six-pack of Schlitz beer stuffed under her arm. I rest my hands on my hips and look around, relieved there are no neighbors outside.

The dampness of Cookie’s white Hanes T-shirt exposes her quadruple-D over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders and, for God’s sake, too much of the boulders—they’re struggling to stay in the cups. Her appearance gives me a sudden urge to cover the little ones’ eyes, but by now, for them, the sight of our mother’s unmentionables holds no shock . . . instead Norman and Rosie are shaking in silent giggles. An old pair of cutoff jean shorts that should be six inches longer and wider in the thighs completes her look. She peers inside the house’s window from the front stoop then pushes open the door, which obviously bears no lock. Hastily she turns and waves—“Come on, kids!”—signaling urgency for us to unpack the car.

While our younger siblings remain in the backseat, Camille leans over from the front passenger side of the car, reaches down toward the steering wheel, and fingers the keys Cookie left in the ignition. She looks back at me, and we understand the significance of the keys’ position. As usual, Cookie doesn’t plan to stick around our new home long.

We spring into action. The faster we unpack the car, kids and all, the quicker our mother will head out on another long binge. We have to move with speed, convincing Cookie our motive is all about setting up our new home. She’d beat us senseless if she ever found out how eager we are to get rid of her.

Through the backseat window I peek at Norman, who’s used to my Moving Day choreography. “Take her inside with you,” I tell him. He helps Rosie climb out from the middle; his brown, bowl-cut hair uncombed, his face calm. Camille and I work hard to raise him like one would raise any curious, carefree, twelve-year-old boy. His sweet, slanted brown eyes are barely visible below his uneven haircut, and I pledge him a silent promise: I’ll find new scissors for next time. Sometimes I reason that if I’ve gotta raise a kid who’s only a year and a half younger than I am, then surely I have the right to experiment my self-taught salon techniques on him . . . but that Dorothy Hamill look on a preteen boy is just plain cruel.

Norm shuffles into the house with Rosie, still wearing her pink pajamas, close behind. I pause from unloading the car to take in her presence; a little flash of life scampering barefoot across this gray scene. Her innocence pierces my heart.

After they’re inside, Camille scurries around with the keys and opens the trunk, then passes them off to me so I can insert them back in the ignition. We’re careful to conduct the move-in with no detail that could keep our mother here longer than absolutely necessary. She’s probably inside having a drink right now, which could be enough to disorient her from recalling where she put her keys.

The trunk of the car is stuffed with green garbage bags that Camille, the kids, and I packed: There’s a bag filled with each of our clothes, a near-empty bag with our collective toiletries (half a bar of soap; an old toothbrush we share; a bottle of peroxide; and a dull, rusty razor), a bag stuffed with old towels, and a bag packed with all the groceries we cleaned out of our last place. We have a prevailing unpacking rule: You unpack the bag you pick. This way we can’t fight about who unpacks Cookie’s clothes. I can tell that I’m carrying our nonperishables, which I always make sure travel with us: vinegar, mustard and ketchup, and other essentials like coffee, flour, sugar, and powdered milk. From the other side of the trunk, I can smell Camille’s cargo—it reeks of stale cigarettes. She cringes despairingly. “Finders keepers,” I tell her. “I have kitchen duty, you’re on Cookie duty. Just be glad she likes you better.”

It’s always been clear that Cookie prefers my older sisters to me. Because we all have different fathers, our last names are as varied as our first names. Cherie is the luckiest. She was named after the Four Seasons’ song “Sherry” that hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1962, the year she was born. (However, Cookie found the French spelling, Cherie, to be much more sophisticated.) My mother named her second daughter after herself—Camille. Her famous line is that she named me Regina because it means royalty. “I was right,” she always says, “because you turned out to be a royal pain in my ass.” Norman was named after his father, and Roseanne was named after my great-grandmother, Rosalia KunaGunda Maskewiez, whom none of us has ever met.

Camille and I shuffle the bags inside. “Whoa,” Camille says. “This place actually has furniture.”

Rosie’s climbed onto a sofa in front of the bay window, and is stretched across it with her feet as far as they can go, mimicking Cookie’s position on the couch across the room. “There’s even a TV!” she exclaims, pointing to the large unit in the corner.

“Wow,” I tell her, crouching down and twisting her pigtail around my finger. “Did you try it out?”

“Yeah, it works!”

I smile and steal a glance at Cookie. She looks pleased with herself, smoking a cigarette with her right arm wrapped across her waist. Mother of the freakin’ year.

“My room is next to the kitchen,” she says to no one in particular, then waves her cigarette to a staircase behind her. “You kids can fight it out upstairs.”

I find three rooms on the top floor. The room to my left is filled with a cot and an old wooden desk. All the desk drawers are missing handles; a broomstick holds up the desk where a leg once stood. The room straight ahead has two windows overlooking the side yard and part of the extension that houses the room Cookie claimed. It has a mattress and a box spring, but no frame. This will work, I calculate, because Norman and Rosie can sleep here. One can have the mattress and the other can have the box spring—kind of like two separate beds.

Although there are no pillows or blankets in sight, this arrangement is an improvement over sleeping three in the backseat or in an open car trunk, which we’ve done before. I peer around into the narrow, one-windowed room to the right, which features a mattress and box spring atop a real metal bed frame. Viewing farther inside I find a shelf for clothes. This will be Camille’s room. She’s the oldest one here and deserves a real bed.

I take the room with the cot, resting my garbage bag on the floor and digging out my plastic Jesus figurines. This will signal to my siblings that this room is mine.

When I turn back toward the door, Norman brakes from running down the hall to stop in Camille’s room and looks out over the gray, gravel front yard.

“You like the new place?” I ask him.

“Like it? I love it! Think I can have this room?”

“Nope, it’s Camille’s. You and Rosie get to share the room at the end of the hall.”

He runs there, pokes his head inside, smiles back at me, and takes off downstairs.

“I’ll set your room up when Cookie leaves,” I yell after him. “Dig out Trouble so you and Rosie can play while we clean.”

I find Camille at the car, unloading Norman and Rosie’s stuff. “Cookie’s in her bedroom,” I mutter.

“She better not pass out.”

“I made sure she won’t. Norman’s setting up Trouble outside her bedroom door.”

“Genius!” The popping bubble in the middle of the board game, combined with the kids’ chatter, will be enough to drive her out.

While getting to work downstairs, it occurs to me that it’s too late in the day for Rosie to stay in her pajamas. While she’s playing Trouble with Norman on the living room floor, I sneak over, kneel down, and smooth the wisps of her sandy colored hair away from her moist face.

“Mia bambina amore,” I whisper. My baby love. “We’ll get you dressed after she leaves.” She pushes her head back against my hand to acknowledge my affection. Throughout the years, we’ve sharpened our nonverbal communications in this way, exchanging affection and understanding with the same evolved understanding as some of the wild lion cubs we watch on Wild Kingdom. The less we speak, the less likely it is that we’ll throw our mother into a rage without knowing why.

Camille and I set out to scrub the first floor of the house, where we’ll be spending most of our time . . . but more important, it’s where our mother’s resting now. The sooner we get cleaning around her the sooner she’s sure to leave. I attack the kitchen around the corner from Cookie’s bedroom while Camille begins in the living room.

“Psssst,” my sister hisses from the other side of the house. I stretch my neck out of the kitchen to meet her gaze. “You’ll help me with her room?”

I nod and mouth to her: After she leaves.

A white Formica table sits between three cabineted walls and a block of windows that overlooks the dusty backyard enclosed by a chain-linked fence. When I move the scummy dishes, bowls, and pots that the previous tenant left in the sink, I’m met by rivals to our survival.

“WHAT’S WRONG?” CAMILLE yells when the dishes clatter. Rosie’s head turns toward the kitchen.

“Nothing. Camille, can you come help me load the fridge?” Camille will understand this code for the cockroach solution we learned long ago: If there’s a working fridge with a door that shuts, every bit of our food goes inside it, whether or not it needs refrigeration.

I’m used to ants, mice, and maggots, who, as creepy as they are, will scatter in fear when they sense my presence. But cockroaches! It’s not even their spiny legs and long antennae that gross me out; it’s the way they work in packs and maneuver in the dark, attacking our food like looters.

I join the others in the living room just as Cookie’s emerging from her bedroom, wearing a pair of Jordache jeans, Dr. Scholl’s sandals, and a man’s Hanes tank top.

Rather than bathing, Cookie tries to mask her cigarette and alcohol stink with a cheap, toxic mixture of Jontue and Jean Naté. As her figure casts a shadow over the room, I quickly work out the cost implications of her ensemble: One pair of Jordache jeans equals one week of oil for hot water; Dr. Scholl’s equals eight loaves of bread, four boxes of spaghetti, three bags of wheat puffs, and two weeks’ worth of powdered milk. Jontue perfume and Jean Naté almost equal bail after a night in jail, since Cookie had Camille and me steal them from the five-and-dime.

Cookie fluffs her hair and rubs her lips together, reminding us how grateful we should be for having a mother who can score such a nice home. “I’m going to find the hair of the dog that bit me. Feed the kids.”

“We always do,” Camille mumbles.

“What?”

Camille looks up. “We will.”

“Norman, you’re the man of the house.”

In response to Cookie’s attention, Norman scrambles to his feet and follows her outside. Rosie, Camille, and I step out to join him on the stoop just in time to observe the car sinking beneath Cookie’s weight. “When will she be back?” Norman asks.

Rosie takes his arm. “Not before we finish our game!”

The screen door claps shut as they dash inside. Camille and I turn to watch the cloud of dust disappear as the thunder of Cookie’s car motor grows distant.

And just like that, she’s gone.