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

2. Building Sand Castles

Summer 1980

THE KNOT IN my stomach untwists as Cookie’s car grinds out of the driveway and heads toward busy Middle Country Road. As Rosie and Norman settle back in to their game, Camille turns to me with a sly smile.

“How long do you think she’ll be gone this time?” I whisper.

“Depends on how much money she has,” she says, starting inside. “And who she’s shacking up with.”

In a traditional home, the children depend on the parent for the means to live. In Cookie’s world, she depends on us. Her roster of kids means she can breeze into the Suffolk County welfare office and get money for housing, electricity, and food. My angst rises again as my usual question surfaces: How can they give her this endless stream of cash without ever checking up on where she spends it?

Camille and I figure Cookie must have used the welfare housing voucher to pay the landlord the first month’s rent and the security deposit to get us into the house. But she probably took the heating and electric allowance with her. I’d flicked a switch to discover the electricity was already on when we moved in, so the landlord never had it turned off after the other tenant left. Cookie must have investigated that when she looked at the house. And since we wouldn’t need heat in the middle of the summer, she decided we could get by with whatever oil is left in the tank if we took quick showers. Cookie actually believes she deserves the heating and electric money for booze. In her mind, she’s got us set up pretty good.

The screen door slams hard behind me as I follow Camille inside. “Rosie, honey, let’s get you dressed.” Rosie rises and lets me shepherd her upstairs.

“I’ll scrounge for money,” Camille calls from below us.

I stop on the stairs. “Norm, help Camille.” He hops off the couch and stacks the cushions to search scrupulously for lost gold that previous tenants may have left behind.

I show Rosie her room upstairs at the end of the hall. I pull the mattress off the box spring to make two separate beds. “You’ll sleep on this, okay? Norman will get the box spring. I’ll get you each a blanket.”

“A towel is enough,” she assures me. I wish I could debate with her, but the fact is a towel’s probably the best we’ve got.

We’ve been trying to get her to sleep on her own, rather than with Camille or me, so enticing her with the mattress as opposed to a less comfortable box spring should help our efforts. I reach into her garbage bag and pull out a polyester romper that I used to wear when I was about the same age. It has blue shorts with a cuff and a light blue sleeveless button-down top that’s attached to the shorts. Rosie steps in through the unbuttoned neck opening as I hold it up. We button it up together, taking turns. Then I pull her hair back to help cool her face, fastening it with a rubber band I’d had on my wrist. I kiss her forehead and pat her tummy. “Go help Camille and Norm find money. I’ll be down in a minute.”

Rosie’s long ponytail sways back and forth with her skip. The dirt that’s collected in the folds behind her knees and her black-bottomed feet make me cringe as I try to recall the last time any of us bathed in a real bathtub. (Gas station sinks don’t count.) Rosie disappears around the corner and descends the stairs to join the hunt for our dinner fare. I fold her pajamas, put them on her bed for later, then move from room to room, opening up the windows in an attempt to cool off the floor. Somehow, I resolve, we’ll get to eat and sleep tonight.

At a skinny five-foot-two, Camille and I are the same size. Her thick brown hair curls from the summer heat, framing her round face and almond eyes. “Look what I found stuffed into one of Cookie’s bras,” Camille says, unwrinkling a five-dollar food stamp.

I squish my nose. Her bra? “It’s a wonder it survived. Have you checked the basement?”

Camille reasons that five dollars will be enough to get us through the grocery store without creating any suspicion. We know that kids as disheveled as we are will be pegged as shoplifters; but also, if we don’t act correctly they’ll suspect worse: that we’re unsupervised. Then the store manager will call in the police, then the police will bring in child welfare agents, and the agents will instantly see through our lies and realize that we are on our own. We’ll lose any control that we have over our lives . . . and worse, we’ll lose Rosie and Norm. No matter what horrible circumstances Cookie dumps us into, it will always be better than being separated and put into foster care. Over the years, Camille and I have perfected our food-shopping routine because we understand the consequences of any possible misstep.

By now it’s three in the afternoon, and all the children’s shows are for kids younger than Rosie. I turned the TV knob to our favorite soap opera, General Hospital. Camille changes from her jeans into her parachute shorts with lots of pockets, and a long top. I pull on a baggy T-shirt whose bottom falls in line with the hem of my gym shorts.

We kiss the kids. “Stay put,” Camille tells them. “We’re going to find dinner.”

For two teenage girls who don’t yet drive, Camille and I have developed a strong sense of direction. No matter where we are, either of us can access any main road on Long Island. Remembering the Pathmark grocery store we spotted on the drive out here, we hike down Washington Avenue and make a left on Middle Country Road. These outings to rummage for food are when I feel most connected to Camille—not just because we’re literally partners in crime but also because it’s during these moments away, just the two of us, that we can just be sisters.

“After we feed the kids, I want to find a pay phone to call Doug. I haven’t seen him in a few days,” she says.

“Why? You’re staying with us tonight, right?”

“Hey, look,” Camille says. “We’re almost to Pathmark.”

We wander into the store and immediately assume our roles. I head straight back toward the stockroom, where I locate a teenage stock boy and tell him the usual story: We’re moving, and my father sent me in to get boxes with lids on them. Do you have any extras laying around? By now Camille will be wandering the food aisles to see what she can slip down her shorts and into her pockets.

Since the boxes need to appear empty as I wander through the store, I only slide light things into them: a loaf of bread, a carton of eggs, a few boxes of macaroni and cheese mix, a box of puffed rice cereal, and a package of toilet paper—which is impossible to steal without a box. Even one roll is too bulky to slip down our shirts. Our toilet paper and egg carton–lifting technique requires us to place the items between two stacked, empty cardboard boxes. Casually but carefully, I buzz straight out of the store as though I’m minding my own business with my armful of moving boxes. In the giant parking lot I meet up with Camille, who used the five-dollar food stamp to score peanut butter, jelly, and a half-gallon of milk. We have a strict system of purchasing anything we need that won’t fit in our clothes. Camille slides Kraft cheese slices out of her shorts and takes a thin box of Jiffy muffin mix from her pocket, while I shake two little boxes of Jell-O and pudding mix out of my underwear. “We can stretch this for at least two weeks,” she says. She places her treasures and grocery bag in one of the boxes, and we take off toward our new home, balancing the weight of our load between us.

As we turn onto Washington Avenue and edge closer to home, I notice our new neighborhood lacks actual neighbors. This time of year, residents are either at the local beach or inside where it’s cooler, keeping to themselves. There are no kids playing ball in the street or riding bikes up and down the lane. The air is quiet and empty with no friendly conversation or laughter. The few homes we do pass sit with bare lawns and neglected landscaping in a way that suggests passers-by should simply look away and mind their own business. This we appreciate. We aren’t comfortable with eyes on us either.

Isolation isn’t foreign to us. A few years earlier, we lived together in the town center of Saint James, about eight miles from here. Our apartment then, in a building at 621 Lake Avenue, was on the second floor, above a glue factory. Across the street was the Saint James Fire Department—a giant white building that looked out at us as if it were watching our every move. We lived above the intersection of three major roads, not among the storied homes in the wealthy neighborhoods that overlooked the Long Island Sound with views of Connecticut. Living separate from our better-heeled neighbors ensured that we could stay “under the radar” in Saint James. I would walk through the kitchen door out to the black tar roof of the glue factory, which served as our patio. There I’d observe the townspeople as they hurried along the quaint and preserved main street to the local butcher or Spage’s Pharmacy. No matter how long or hard I stared, just daring for someone to catch my eye, no one ever noticed me.

That was actually the home where we lived together the longest as a family.

At that time, Cherie was still with us. She, Camille, and I would stroll up the street to the King Kullen supermarket to collect our groceries, but there was another spot we preferred to gather our meals.

A long walk led us to Cordwood Beach. To us, Cordwood Beach was an amusement park—it had a floating dock anchored offshore, and we’d swim out and jump off of it over and over again. To the left of the dock stood the curved brick wall of a hollowed-out old house that delighted us as a glorified jungle gym and play castle. But the best part was, at Cordwood Beach we got dinner for free! We’d walk home with our shirts hammocking a heavy load of clams, mussels, and onion grass, which Cherie and Camille would steam for dinner. It was a simple way to live, but we were together. That’s what was important to us.

“HEY!” I HOLLER. “We’re back!” Rosie and Norman are stretched out on opposite couches, watching the news. Rosie looks up, waves to us, and turns back to the TV. Norm meets us with a grin and his arms held wide to help when he sees we’re toting food. I take out the dishes I’d found earlier in the afternoon—a few pots, mismatched plastic plates, a few forks, and a spoon—and rinse them in the sink as Camille searches for matches to light the pilot on the gas stove to boil macaroni and cheese.

“How long you think this hot water’s going to last?” I ask her.

“Gi, I need to have a serious talk with you,” she says. I still myself and look at her, but she’s avoiding my eyes by busying herself with drying the dishes. Her voice is low: always a sure sign or trouble.

“What is it?”

“I want to stay at Kathy’s for the summer.”

“For the summer?”

“Yes. I think Doug’s parents will let me stay on their couch for a night or two until Kathy convinces her mom to let me stay at their house.”

My heart sinks into my flip-flops.

“It’s not forever—”

“I thought you would be here more!” I tell her. “Camille, you can’t leave me alone with the kids again—you lived at Kathy’s the whole last year!”

Cherie and Camille have known Kathy since Cherie was in second grade and Camille was in first. Since my sisters are so close in age, they shared everything, including friends. One afternoon during recess at Saint James Elementary School, Cherie got hit in the head with a baseball. Kathy scooped her up, carried her off the field, and stayed with her until the school nurse came. From that moment, Cherie and Kathy—and Camille—became inseparable. Kathy had a big family and a mother who worked a lot, so Cherie and Camille would just hang out at her house for days, or sometimes weeks. It was during this time that I became the little mom to Rosie and Norman. I kept hoping Cherie and Camille would walk through the door together, but when Camille finally came back, she was alone. Cherie got married and moved into her in-laws’ basement in Brentwood.

Kathy and Camille stayed close friends, and Camille lived almost all of last year with Kathy’s family after we were kicked out of our last apartment. There was nowhere for the rest of us to go, so we lived out of Cookie’s car in a supermarket parking lot on Hawkins Avenue in Ronkonkoma. When I’d see Kathy’s younger siblings at school, I’d avoid them. They already had tons of siblings, so why did they get to have mine, too? I pictured Kathy’s whole giant family gathered around the table for dinner, my sisters clearing the dishes and helping with homework, when they should have been at home helping me!

“How do you expect me to do this on my own?” By now I’m sobbing muffled words into Camille’s embrace. “Huh?”

“Shhh,” she says, hugging me again.

“Does Cherie know?”

“Gi,” she says, “I need you to understand. I can get a job while I’m living with Kathy and give you money to buy food.”

I pull away from her and shove her across the kitchen. I watch her face turn from soft patience to red anger. “You can work here, too, you know! There are stores all over Middle Country Road. You can work at Shoes ’N Things, or the muffler place, or get a job at the supermarket. We just walked by a hundred places, why can’t you stay here?”

She wraps her arms around me again, trying to steady me as much as console me. “Because I don’t want to,” she speaks softly into my hair. “I don’t want to be a mom anymore. I raised you. It’s your turn now.”

“But I’ve been doing this already.” I peel my hair from my face, damp with sweat and tears, in a plea of desperation for her to listen. I think of the possibilities—intruders, landlords, police, social workers, having to manage any of them all by myself. “I need help, Camille. Don’t go. Please don’t leave me alone again, you don’t know what it’s like when you’re not here, I need you, I need help—”

“Gi,” she says, trying to calm me down. “I promise I’ll be back to check in on you. I’ll bring you food. You won’t be out stealing by yourself. You’ll know where I am and I’ll get you dimes to call me.”

“I need to call my friends, too, I need something more than this.” I gesture into the air to refer to the desolation we’re held up in. If I can’t negotiate for her to stay, then I have to negotiate for her money.

“I’ll bring money every week, I promise,” she says, wrapping me again in her arms.

We stand there awhile, just hugging, and I hope that any second she’ll whisper, Hey. Do you want to come with me? But her silence cements it: Kathy can’t take all of us. When we finally pull away, I look around at the kitchen that’s now all mine to manage.

Finally I pull away from her and stand over the stove, trying to concentrate on the macaroni and cheese, blending the powdered cheese with a little milk and coating each of the noodles in the mix. Camille helps me spoon dinner onto three plates—she has plans to eat with Doug, so there will be more for leftovers tomorrow. She pours two glasses of milk and carries them into the living room, while I cover the leftovers and hurry to place the bowl in the refrigerator.

The kids sit up when they see us carrying food, and I notice how loud they have the TV cranked up. It’s clear they heard us yelling in the kitchen and turned up the volume to tune us out.

Camille heads upstairs, where I know she will gather her things. My appetite is gone, but if the landlord or police were to discover three children staying here alone tonight, who knows when my next meal could be? I’ll eat now. On the bright side, at least we’ll have one more bed to sleep in tonight. Camille’s room was the nicest, and I’ll be able to sleep knowing that the kids are right next to my room.

Norm and Rosie pile their dishes in the sink after dinner, and I wash them right away. Camille chases them upstairs to brush their teeth with the bottle of peroxide Cookie uses to dye her hair. Since we steal food to survive, toothpaste never makes our list. The peroxide is fizzy in my mouth and makes me gag if I swallow even a little. It dries out the corners of my mouth, making my lips crack and scab up in the corners. “But it sure does make your breath smell fresh!” Camille loves to tease me.

Back in the kitchen, Camille rests the bag of her belongings on the floor and gently kisses the side of my head. “I’m going to the corner to call Doug. You gonna be okay?”

I nod in her general direction. “Just go.”

“Love you, Gi.”

At this, I turn and watch her make her way to the front door of the house that, just hours ago, I’d been so thrilled for us to share as a family. “Love you, too,” I say, trying to force the words through the swelling cry in my throat.

Then she’s gone, too.