Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island - Regina Calcaterra (2013)
3. And Then There Were Three
Summer to Fall, 1980
I WAS ELEVEN the first time Camille left and I had to care for the kids by myself. I’m not unfamiliar with the feeling of isolation that comes with this unwilling brand of single motherhood, but every time she leaves, the worst part of loneliness returns: No matter how many times I experience it, it never gets easier.
Gently, throughout my upbringing, Camille coached me for this role. It requires a subtle balance between safeguarding the kids while always giving people around us the impression that it’s actually our mother who’s caring for us. “Never act hungry, never look dirty,” she says, because if the kids are fed, clean, neat, and well behaved, we generally can slide under the radar. The goal is always to stay together and out of foster care.
We admit nothing, and Rosie and Norman know what’s at stake. We have to keep quiet and not bring attention to ourselves, no matter how bad it gets. It’s our code of silence, and there’s a powerful trust among us never to violate it. The system seems content to be complicit in our charade because the social workers of Suffolk County are too busy to keep track of kids in our type of situation. This area that until recently was rural and blue-collar is rapidly increasing in population. People from the city are moving out here, turning Fire Island and the local beaches along the Atlantic Ocean into suburbanized bedroom communities of Manhattan and a playground for the rich and famous. Meanwhile, we’ve overheard our social workers murmur that almost five thousand kids are monitored by protective services in our county alone. Some of these kids end up in the children’s shelter, where we’ve learned that beatings and rapes are rampant. The stories spread so far and wide that even the people in the city read about it—in fact, I heard about an article in one of the city papers where the reporter referred to the shelter as “the children’s jail.” So we know to stick to our story. If someone asks us where our mother is during the afternoons, we say she’s waitressing. At nighttime she’s working as a barmaid. If any authority figure says he didn’t see her car in the early morning hours, then it’s because she works for a bakery and has to deliver fresh bread to restaurants beginning at three thirty in the morning. Sometimes when we’re asked “Well then, where is she during the late morning hours?” we say she works at a deli peeling potatoes for potato salad. Our mother “works” a lot, you see—we have every hour covered.
As long as we keep each other in the loop on the latest story, we can remain in sync and untouchable. And since, at one time or another, Cookie did work these jobs and took us along with her to help, we know enough about them to talk intelligently about the details of her work to deter any suspicion.
There have been times, few and far between, when Cookie actually did try to get herself on the right track with a job. She’d fumble around getting herself ready and she’d announce, “I’m going to work,” as though it were a normal, everyday outing. We knew not to get excited. Her periods of employment were always short-lived, and often I accompanied her to help. I’ve spent entire days peeling potatoes behind a deli counter, shredding cabbage for cole slaw, and chopping carrots and radishes for salads. For my work and Cookie’s, the deli owner would pay us each fifteen dollars. But instead of giving me an allowance or buying us groceries or new shoes, Cookie would use the money to take Cherie, Camille, and Norman to Adventureland or the movies. “You can thank your father that you’re stuck at home watching Rosie,” she’d say. I’d stare at the door as it closed behind her. I didn’t know what she meant because I never knew my father.
I’ve always preferred accompanying her when she works at a bar, where at least there’s usually music, and peanuts to snack on. When Cookie worked as a barmaid, it was her job to clean up after a long night, and I learned fast that weekends were the hardest! I’d be able to pay our rent if only I had a dollar for every Sunday morning I spent mopping a sticky floor and wiping down tables while the radio system played Elton John’s “Levon” and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” At seven, I had no idea what it meant to make love to a tonic and gin, but I sure understood the song’s carnival of lonely souls. My salary for those gigs was as many Maraschino cherries and Shirley Temples as my belly could take. It sure beat the starchy smell of potatoes on my hands.
Once, I asked Camille and Cherie why Cookie turned out so mean, and just as Camille started saying “See, her parents—” Cherie clapped her hand over Camille’s mouth. Immediately it was clear there was something they were trying to protect me from. “Trust me,” Cherie said. “You don’t want to know.”
So, as Cookie’s primary aim is to put in as little effort as possible to get what she can from whom she can, including the system, my primary aim is to keep Rosie, Norm, and me out of the system entirely. But without Camille to guide me through the summer, to help me think through the day-to-day problems and to keep food on the table, that job is about to get a lot more difficult.
AS NORM AND Rosie get acquainted with their room, I take a quiet stroll through the house. Even though we have no idea how long we’ll be here, there’s a lot to do to organize the place. The day’s events, the move, my mother leaving, our food-shopping trip, and then Camille’s departure have worn me out. I step onto the front porch to look at the stars. That’s when I realize how my body aches for a bed, and my mind aches for peace, too. I want one night of the kind of sleep you can’t get while you’re sleeping in trunks, backseats, and, for the short-straw drawer, the back floor of the car, over the hump. Rosie used to fit into the floorwell fine when she was three or four . . . but now she’s seven and tall for her age. Her lanky legs and torso don’t fold up the way they used to.
I rest my forehead in my hands a few seconds and take a minute on the porch to daydream . . . not about a boy or even a home for good. I daydream about a pillow. They take up too much room in the trunk for us to travel with, so Cookie doesn’t let us keep them. I rise reluctantly to head inside. It’s time to make my own pillow.
I enter my mother’s room with its full-size mattress and box spring. The box spring is ripped on one side and also at the foot of the bed, like someone took a razor blade along the fabric to continue ripping it. I make a mental note to check inside it later for loose change or other surprises. Camille put away all of our mother’s clothes before she left, so nothing of Cookie’s is left out to rummage through or to smell up the place with stale cigarette smoke.
I walk to the closet to see if there are any old sheets or towels on the floor. A large linen of some kind would be perfect for a pillowcase. Nothing’s inside except a few of Cookie’s shirts on bent hangers. I crouch down and peak under the bed and dresser for anything I can use. Instead I find ant-, roach-, and mousetraps, and dust-ball tumbleweeds. At least there are traps set, I decide, but they look really old!
I peek in Cookie’s dresser to see what I can find in there. The small top drawer contains her huge bras with stretched elastic and broken eye hooks. Her underwear is large enough to serve as a lampshade, if the house had come with any lamps! Although her “privates,” as she refers to her undergarments, could definitely serve as the stuffing I was looking for, I cringe at the thought of sleeping with them so close to my face. I continue riffling through the drawer for socks . . . then I happen across something plastic. I pull out two bags: one with “yellow jackets”—uppers that Cookie takes when she’s feeling especially low—and the other with two food stamps. I’m shocked that she left home without these, and it quickly occurs to me that she may be home to retrieve them very soon. I put them back for now, exactly as I found them, but I might be back for one or both if I really get desperate for food. Cookie usually keeps an entire traveling pharmacy, including Percocet, tranquilizers, uppers, and downers. Her underwear drawer is a dream come true for any melodramatic, extreme-mood-swinging woman. She must have forgotten about these few.
I close that drawer and open the one below it, where I discover an old worn and grayed Hanes T-shirt. I pull it out, and, with some hesitation, I bring it up to my nose. It doesn’t smell of smoke, so it’s probably not even hers . . . but just in case it is, I estimate I could put a few long stitches in the band of the neck and arms that won’t be detected if I have to remove the thread later. The bottom is wide, so I’ll have to tie it closed, but it should stay throughout the night. One pillowcase resolved—two to go. I rummage a bit more and, not finding adequate stuffing, I close the drawers, change course, and head out of Cookie’s bedroom to the second floor.
First I go to my room, having seen an old, torn towel thrown in the corner. As I go to pick it up, though, I notice the window, which I opened earlier for fresh air. Now, in the evening light, I see it’s well positioned for a break-in. Being responsible for two little kids makes you see everything differently—especially windows and doors. It’s right on top of a pitched roof that hangs over the back door and the broken concrete patio. From my earlier time in the kitchen, I remember there is enough discarded equipment right near the roof—a rusty dryer, some beat-up-looking motor thing—to act as a lift for anyone who might want to climb on the roof and slither his way into the house by way of that window.
As a reflex, I close the window, then realize there’s no lock on it. This is very, very bad. I feel my heart pick up its pace: This house is so old that maybe none of the windows have locks. I go to the kids’ room and see a window with no locks, and then to Camille’s room—same thing. I run into the hallway and see that this window doesn’t have a lock, either. I race downstairs, where I find more lockless windows.
I have to switch priorities before I go to bed.
I head outside to collect thick branches that are strewn on the grassless backyard. The pile of junk back there is full of treasure, including discarded broomsticks and a broken rake handle, which I grab. As I shift the pile around, I also spot an old rusty saw. I return inside through the back kitchen door, which—of course—has a push-button lock that even Rosie could pick. I place my makeshift locking devices on the floor and go from drawer to drawer in the pantry in search of an old hammer or anything that resembles one. Finally, I dig out a few old tacks and a screwdriver. Then I race around the house, inspecting the walls for any nails or old tacks I can pull out.
As I walk to the basement door that leads downstairs, I’m still short a hammer and nails. The door sits in a vestibule between the kitchen and the bathroom, where there’s a full-length mirror. As I spot my reflection, I lose my concentration. There before me stands a stranger. She’s pretty, but so skinny she startles me. I have to try to eat more.
I stop and examine my features: my skin that’s tanned dark brown from watching Rosie and Norm outside in the sun; my hair, wavy and somewhat wild, lightened from black to auburn by the sun. My eyes are a bold shade that’s more black than brown . . . darker than the translucent brown eyes all my siblings and my mother have. I cringe at the space between my two front teeth and the length of my nose, which is too big for my face.
I open the basement door and ever so carefully take the first three steps down. Fortunately, there’s a string attached to an upside-down lightbulb that serves as a light, but when I pull on the string, the bulb is burned out. I take a few more slow steps and notice that a window leading into the basement is broken. That means I’ll have to figure out how to secure the inside basement door that leads back into the kitchen. There’s no water heater in sight; the basement is dank and empty, except for an old washing machine with its plumbing yanked out in the back and a few boxes containing nothing but old, smelly mildewed clothes and a lampshade. At least, I figure, the clothes can serve as curtains or pillow stuffing. Then I spot gray metal shelves and feel around for nails . . . yes! My fingers locate about eight screws and nails to add to my collection. As I put my hardware inside the box of clothes and make my way back toward the stairs, I spot a filthy old iron and I grab that, too.
I lock the back door and lean a chair under the handle so if someone tries to come in, the chair’s fall will warn us loudly. Then I move into the vestibule that leads to the basement, where I use the scissors to cut the cord off the iron. Using the iron as my hammer, I bang a nail into the door frame and wrap the snipped cord between the doorknob and the nail, creating a tight figure eight that would slow down an intruder trying to come into the first level of the house through the basement door.
I place all the broom and rake handles and tree limbs on the kitchen table, using the saw to cut them so they’ll fit diagonally in the windows and serve as window jambs. After securing all the downstairs windows plus the one in my bedroom, I rummage through the box of clothes I found in the basement. From window to window on the first floor, I pound nails on both sides of the windowpanes. I drape button-down shirts, sweatshirts, and T-shirts across each window for curtains. Closing the windows will cut off any air circulation through the house . . . but it’s better to be sweaty than sorry. During this process I realize we’ll be sleeping downstairs every night because it’s cooler than upstairs, and because we could run out either the front or back door if someone were to break in. With the two living room couches and Cookie’s bed, we’ll each have our own place to sleep. Whew: good work!
Now the pillow dilemma. I stuff the gray Hanes T-shirt and another shirt with the stuffing and close the openings in the shirts. The kids will have pillows for tonight. Mine will wait until tomorrow.
The kids agree to move downstairs. When I check on Rosie in Cookie’s room and hear Norm’s steady breathing on the sofa, I take the empty couch across from him. The kids sleep long and quietly—they look comfortable for the first time in weeks.
I wait until the sun comes up before I feel safe enough to fall asleep.
In the morning, Rosie wakes Norm and me by turning on the TV. “Can we have some cereal?” she asks me.
“Of course,” I tell her, just grateful we made it through our first night alone. “It’s in the kitchen.”
She hesitates a moment, then twirls her hair around her finger. “Gi, will you get it for us? Cereal always tastes the best when you make it.”
I smile, and ruffle her hair as I head into the kitchen. After they eat, the three of us sit down to play our favorite card game to pass the time: five hundred rummy.
I pretend to be engaged as the kids laugh and tease each other. There’s dust floating around us in the sunlight, collecting everywhere—on the wood floor; in the corners of the cabinets and shelves. Rosie and Norm look at me with lost eyes when I jump up from the game and yank a towel from inside one of the pillows. I open the front door to let air in and sigh. “I’m tired of being surrounded by filth.”
Cookie always wants the place to be clean when she comes home, and chronic tidying up has become a means of keeping peace. Fortunately, I only have the downstairs to clean, because that’s the only part of the house Cookie will ever bother to see.
My eyes are on the sink when I march into the kitchen. Dishes are perennially piled up and I hate doing them. My habit of putting this chore off until last is one of the causes of our cockroach problem, but I know that after they’ve been sitting for a while in the summer heat, this has to be a priority. I grab my bottle of Heinz white vinegar from under the sink. We always have it to clean with, but because it’s too bulky and heavy to steal, we have to spend food stamps on it. I splash some vinegar over the dishes, hoping a thorough washing will deflect the army of cockroaches.
Upstairs, I gather our dirty clothes from the floors in our rooms, run them downstairs to the bathroom, and run the tub full of cold water. I hold a half-bar of Ivory soap underneath the faucet to create bubbles, then scrub the clothes with the soap and rinse them until they feel clean. Normally, I wash only a shirt or two at a time, but Cookie or the landlord could show up any minute, and if we have to take off, it could be weeks before we see another bathtub. After every piece I scrub, I stretch to relieve the strain in my back that comes from leaning over the tub. I’ll wash everything except the clothes we have on.
After wringing them out, I carry the damp bunch and hang them everywhere in the house: on doorknobs, hooks, and the backs of the couches and chairs. Then I open the back door and un-jam all the windows to let the air circulate.
EACH DAY FOR the next two weeks, the kids and I walk with a packed lunch to the park or the Middle Country Public Library. The kids moan about the sweltering forty-minute trek and are relieved when we’re finally situated at the library, which mercifully blasts with air-conditioning. They don’t know that I spent the two-mile trek watching for Doug’s brown Chevrolet or any possible hint that Camille’s about to return.
At a library table we play Mad Libs and muse through the Highlights magazines together. When the kids are quietly wrapped in their storybooks, I find myself living with my favorite characters in the worlds of Judy Blume novels. I don’t care that I’ve already read Deenie, Forever, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Camille frowned upon me reading Forever—“It’s not for kids your age,” she said—but then, Camille’s not here . . . and I’m not a kid my age. Anyway, as I’ve told Camille, I’m not concerned with the sex. I love the story because of the romance.
I also go through every biography they have on Amelia Earhart, my heroine.
Amelia was brave and courageous. She didn’t let others limit her dreams and she never took no for an answer. Amelia Earhart made her own rules.
And unlike Cookie, she wasn’t interested in being dependent on a man. In fact, after Amelia broke off her first engagement, she waited until she was thirty-three to marry George Putnam, who actually had to propose to her six times before she finally agreed. Her husband was jokingly referred to as “Mr. Earhart,” and on the morning of their wedding, Amelia had a friend deliver him a note that read:
I want you to understand that I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.
How thrilling! So fearless! When I’m searching for a solution or scared at night, I’ve begun to ask myself: What would Amelia do? The answer always makes me feel braver.
BY THE END of July, we’ve settled into a routine I’m confident with, but my worries about getting food never end. With only me present to search for food, my resolution to eat more isn’t so successful. Since we don’t have enough food to go around, I often skip meals. When I start to feel weak and jittery, I take a swig of vinegar. When I hold it to my face, the smell reminds me of pickle juice, with that salty flavor, I love to drink straight from the jar. Thinking about pickles makes the vinegar more bearable, and for some reason, the vinegar always curbs my appetite. When that doesn’t work and I’m still feeling worn down, I know I have backup to keep my energy going: the yellow jackets.
I do my best to ignore the signs of my malnourishment: the bruises that appear in dull purple on my limbs from simple chores around the house, the shallowness of my skin, and the emptiness in my eyes. There’s constant pain in my gums, and I can’t drink cold water because of the tingling ache in my teeth.
Finally, late one afternoon, Camille comes home for a visit, wearing a huge smile when she steps out of Kathy’s mother’s car. Through the rolled-down window, Kathy waves as she pulls away.
In my bare feet I step onto the porch and fold my arms, smiling. “Why you looking so smug?”
“Here’s why.” Camille opens a plastic grocery bag to reveal a whole roasted chicken.
“Where’d you get that?!”
“Today I made ten dollars washing cars with Kathy’s brother,” she says. “I was worried about you guys.”
“No way!” I hug her—quickly, because my mouth is watering with the intensity of a fountain. “What else is in here?” When I take the chicken out of the bag, I find a jar of mustard and a loaf of Italian bread. Yum! “Norman! Rosie!” I yell. “Come and eat!”
“Now?” Norm yells from upstairs.
“It’s a surprise.”
The four of us sit on the floor with the plastic tray of chicken between us. “You’re eating so fast!” Camille says, giggling, and poking me in the ribs. “Slow down or you might choke.”
We put mustard on our plates and dip the chicken in it. When the bones are nearly stripped clean, Camille sets it aside and we pass around more mustard and dip our bread in it. Rosie and Norm sit back to let their food settle, then run outside to play. Camille smiles at me, seeing how happy they are. I tuck my hands behind my head and smile back in agreement.
With our bellies stuffed, she and I stretch out on the living room couches. I tell her how we’ve been spending our days and how I lock the house up at night. “Are you going to come back and live with us again?”
“How are the kids doing?”
I understand this is her answer.
Norman and Rosie have always been “the kids,” because they’re “the kids” to our mother. She’ll say, “Who’s taking care of the kids?” and I know she means Norman and Rosie. I have never been a kid.
Norman acts like a child, even though we’re less than two years apart. He’s our mother’s little prince, and he loves that we girls take care of him. I tell Camille that, lately, I can see him growing more loyal to me and more willing to help out. “Norm and I are actually close now,” I tell her.
“That’s good,” she says. “We need one another too much to fight like other brothers and sisters.”
Rosie, of course, is my solace. She’s what keeps me moving ahead when I get exhausted from the library walks, our scant food supply, and living in perpetual, utter fear of Cookie and the cops. Sometimes I grow suddenly overwhelmed to consider what her life would be like without me. What if I were to just walk out, leaving Norman in charge? Books are the only escape I have from our struggles. I know one day Rosie will need that escape, too, so I always sign out library books to read to her. My favorites to share are from the Landmark Books series, about our country’s founders. Before bed, Rosie snuggles in as I read to her about Betsy Ross, Dolley Madison, and Pocahontas.
I rise to turn on the TV. Camille says the car wash exhausted her, so she’s going to sleep on the couch. This gives me an opportunity to run something by her. “Hey, Camille,” I say, “I need new pants for school. Will you and Doug be my getaway car at Billy Blake’s tomorrow?”
She sighs with inconvenienced hesitation.
“Please? You’ve left me here alone all summer. I haven’t had the chance to get what I need for school.”
She concedes. “Sure,” she says. “I’ll call Doug in the morning.”
Normally I’d walk, but it’s been so hot and I’ve been feeling so weak that even just thinking about making the trip by foot makes me tired. I’d already been there twice in July. It’s a long walk, several towns away, down Middle Country Road, which is part of Route 25 and always full of traffic, past used-car lots and gas stations and the dramatic complex that’s Smith Haven Mall, past furniture shops and carpet stores and Carvel ice cream—miles and miles of exhaust fumes, honking horns, and things I daydream about possibly owning one day.
Later, after I’ve locked up for the night, even with a house with four bedrooms and lots of beds, Camille and I fall asleep on one of the couches together while the kids sleep opposite us on the other couch.
We spend the next morning watching reruns of Land of the Lost, The Monkees, and The Price Is Right, laughing and guessing the prices of the detergent and furniture that Bob Barker’s assistants showcase. In the afternoon, Camille and I teach Norm and Rosie how to play Mother May I (three words we don’t often use). Then we feed them chicken salad, using the meat we had pulled off the bones, before Doug pulls up in his father’s tan Chevy sedan. After some discussion, Doug and Camille decide to see The Amityville Horror, a movie about a haunted house that happens to be a few towns over. As they debate about whether the story is true, I ponder what brand of designer jeans I’m going to choose.
Doug leaves his car at the far end of the parking lot so he and Camille can search for a newspaper that lists the theater show times. I wander into Billy Blake’s and head straight back to the juniors’ department, where I examine a rack of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. I find a bright orange pair that I love, imagining how the kids at school will admire my designer duds. I slip them under a larger pair and clip them both to the hanger. On the way to the fitting room I pick up a few shirts; and when the attendant checks the quantity of items I carried in, she hands me a plastic card with the number 4. I smile and close the fitting-room stall door. I take off my pants, step into the Gloria Vanderbilts, and pull my pants back over them. My oversize T-shirt falls past my waist, successfully hiding the double waistband. I pause to make sure the orange hem isn’t visible above my shoes. Then I wait a little longer to make it seem as though I’m deliberating, deciding what to buy of all the clothes I’d carried in. When I exit the room, I hand an armful of clothes and my plastic number 4 to the attendant. “Bummer,” I say, shrugging at her. “Nothing fit.”
It’s actually no lie: The jeans are too big on me, but that doesn’t matter . . . nor does the fact that they’re the same color as a construction cone. I saunter my way toward the exit but inside I’m dying to break into a run. My very own Gloria Vanderbilt jeans! Just as I walk out the door, however, a voice bellows in my direction. I sprint out to the parking lot and, hearing the security guard behind me, do the only thing I can think of: duck behind a car. (I made it!)
As I try to catch my breath in silence, I feel a growing confidence that I’ve lost him in the darkness. Just then I spot the glow of a flashlight and hear his hard-soled shoes clicking up and down the rows of cars. I slither underneath the belly of the car I ducked behind, praying the driver doesn’t show up. From several rows away, I watch the feet of the man from Billy Blake’s walk farther across the parking lot. After I’m sure he’s gone back inside the store, I crawl out and, crouching low, quickly make my way to Doug’s car across the lot. After I’m safely lying down in the backseat, I swear to myself that I’ll never set foot in Billy Blake’s department store again.
BY MID-AUGUST, IT’S been six weeks since we’ve seen Cookie, and one afternoon Rosie and Norm are playing down the road when the landlord comes knocking. What would Amelia do?
What would Camille do?
Instantly I hide in the kitchen, ready to run out the back if he comes through the front. He knocks loudly once, twice, then three times. I hold my breath in anticipation of the sound of the doorknob turning. When all I hear is the buzz of the refrigerator, I peer around the corner to see if he’s still standing there. He’s not, but his truck is still perched in the driveway. Unfortunately, I straighten just in time to see him walk past the kitchen window, catching his eye as he catches mine. Shoot! I freeze.
His face is creased and round, and what’s left of his white hair looks iridescent in the afternoon sun. I steady myself against the wall, bracing for an angry expression, but instead, concern has taken over his face. He motions for me to open the door. I debate it for a second. Then, having no choice, I turn the knob.
“Your mother here?” he asks.
“No,” I tell him. “She’s working.”
“Oh, I see. She must work a lot.”
“Pretty much all the time.”
He frowns. “The rent is two weeks late,” he continues, as though I’d be shocked. “I’ve stopped by here a few times and haven’t seen anybody at home.” Now he’s studying me, but he makes no move to come inside. I’m blocking the door with my hip, leaving it only slightly ajar. I feel half naked in my striped tube top and cutoff jean shorts. Aware that he appears in no hurry to leave, I cross my arms over my chest to make it clear I don’t welcome any physical contact.
“Everything in the house work okay?” he asks, peering behind me.
“Yeah.” I peek over my shoulder and nod at him. “No sweat.” Something tells me this man won’t be easy to fool. Great. I’ll have to be on the lookout for social services from now on.
“Okay then,” he says, starting down the back steps. “Good. Well, tell your mother I stopped by.”
I don’t say anything, so he turns and walks toward the side of the house. Just before he’s out of sight, I call after him. “She works late.”
He turns to face me again. “I noticed the oil tank is empty. Anybody been around lately to fill it?”
“I’m not sure, but we don’t need it. It’s summer. It’s not a big deal.” After he rounds the corner, I close the door. Then I sit down with my back against it, sighing in relief as his truck pulls away.
The next afternoon, when we return from the library, Norman heads out with his new neighborhood friends to play with someone’s skateboard. “Hey, Gi?” he yells. “There’s something on the back porch.”
“What is it?” I holler, but I know he’s already running down the street. I step out on the porch to find a large, brown paper bag. It’s filled with carrots with the roots still attached, a pile of potatoes, some tomatoes, and at the very bottom, a huge watermelon. Like the carrots’ roots, the tomatoes still have vines attached as if they were just pulled from someone’s garden.
This kind of anonymous charity is unusual. What’s more, I don’t know a single person who keeps a garden: Cherie doesn’t, and anyway, she wouldn’t drop off something like this without sticking around for a few minutes to see us. None of our friends from school could have done this, I think. They don’t even know where we’re staying. Could it be from a neighbor? I crack open the watermelon with my trusty iron—it’s become my favorite multipurpose tool—and scoop out some of the center, letting the juice drip down my arms as I inhale the sweet flesh. The sugar gives a wild rush to my empty stomach, and, in moments, I’m so full I could be sick. I load the uneaten part into the refrigerator and turn on the faucet to rinse off my hands and arms. I lift the handle all the way to the left out of habit, hoping it will grow warm enough to melt my stickiness away. Instead the water is instantly scalding hot.
“Oh crap!” I yell. “Ouchouchouch!” I slam off the faucet and shake the sting from my fingers, staring at my hot-pink hands . . . then, it all comes together: the landlord! He must have filled the oil tank while we were gone. What kind of landlord helps people who don’t pay their rent? It doesn’t make any sense. And he has to have been the one who left the vegetables, too. Damn him, I think, skeptical about his motives. He needs to mind his own business. Why didn’t he just call social services and get it over with? Why’s he trying to keep us here and buy us food and oil? What does he want? When you’re a kid with no one to protect you, everything comes with a price.
On the other hand, it takes no time to grow accustomed to having a hot shower every day. The best part about having hot water is staying in there long enough to really take in the warmth and rinse the day’s dirt off. One afternoon in late August, I step out of the shower and quickly slip on my bottoms and tube top. As I scoot out of the bathroom, holding up my underwear by their unraveling elastic, I steal a glance in the full-length mirror. What I see looking back at me makes me stop and gasp.
I stand there. I try to register what or who it is I’m looking at. I’m shrinking away. The combination of the yellow jackets and the vinegar has taken its toll. Standing completely still, I examine the concave curve of my stomach and the bones sticking out against the skin of my hips. My legs are straight lines interrupted by the bump of my knees; nothing about them is shapely. I’m totally flat-chested, and my rib cage is clearly outlined underneath the blue stripes of my tube top. I have to look harder to see what I’ve always seen—I can no longer find the pretty girl that used to greet me as I walked by. In fact, there are shocks of gray in my hair in front and in back, and when I reach up and touch the spot where my skull meets the nape of my neck, I find the raw, soft patches of baldness that I’ve been hiding with what’s left of my hair. I stare at myself and, as usual, keep my mouth closed so the huge gap in my front teeth isn’t visible in the reflection.
I don’t even recognize this girl! She is not me. I’ll have to start ninth grade like this . . . high school. Even if I could go back to Billy Blake’s, there aren’t enough designer clothes in their entire girls’ department to make me fit in. For the first time, I’m seeing what Cookie says she sees when she looks at me: a rag doll.
Cookie returns before Labor Day weekend. Norman, Rosie, and I are sitting in the living room watching television when she walks through the front door as if she’s only been gone an hour. She’s carrying a box of Cap’n Crunch, powdered milk, and a six-pack of beer. She’s still wearing the pair of jeans she walked out in and her hair is still in a ponytail, with half of it red and the newer parts dyed black. Before, Norman would have run to her, given her hugs, and shouted “Mom! Mom!” but today he glances at me with raised eyebrows and then turns his attention back to The Electric Company. Silently, I chalk up a point in my favor: These last two months have put him officially on my side. Norman’s trust in me is the best thing about my relationship with him . . . and the worst thing for my relationship with Cookie.
“Here’s your dinner,” she says. Even with such nonchalance, her presence alters the feeling in the room, establishing a weight I can feel in my chest. She waltzes past the stairwell and into the kitchen, where I hear her set the cereal and beer down, rip a can from its plastic ring, and pop it open. “You look like shit,” she calls from the kitchen. Then she goes into her room and shuts the door. I’m in awe that, just seconds ago, this house felt clean and safe. Her presence has released a pollution that I can feel settling like grit on my skin.
“COME ON KIDS, let’s go!”
The next morning we wake to the sound of Cookie hollering. I hurry Rosie and Norman to dress and shoo them both to the car as Cookie stands with her hands on her hips. “What time of year is it?” she says. “You know the drill.” We realize we’re on our way to get registered for school.
I have no problem finding clothes big enough to camouflage how skinny I am from the administrators—by now, all my clothes are baggy. I pull my hair back into a ponytail that gathers at the bald spot, tucking the gray pieces under the black hair to hide them from the school attendants’ view. Cookie starts the car and sets off toward the back roads.
It only takes five minutes to register me for my first year of high school in Centereach. After the secretary informs us that we arrived late to register and they’ve already given physicals, they tell me to report to the nurse’s office on the first day of school. This I make note to “forget,” or I’ll be faced with questions about my bag-of-bones build. When Cookie and I walk back outside, I put my head down to avoid being seen with her and her car, even though there are no schoolmates around. I have yet to say a word to her since she’s returned to us.
While Cookie walks Norman next door to register him at the middle school, Rosie and I sit in the car. “We won’t be on the same bus anymore, will we?” she says.
“No, but you’re going to love third grade. You’ll learn multiplication and division and how to write Rosie in pretty script letters. Isn’t it exciting?” When her separation anxiety is still visible, I promise her I’ll help her with all of her science projects. “Maybe we’ll even build a volcano out of mud!” I tell her.
“Yeah . . .” she muses, then stops and looks up at me. “You don’t have to pay for mud, do you?”
“No, sweetie. You don’t.” She nods and stares out the window watching for Cookie and Norman. My eyes well with tears. At seven years old, Rosie has come to understand that we’re poor.
We head home and wait a few hours before going school clothes shopping. Once dusk falls, Cookie flags us back into the car and we head out in search of Salvation Army bins. We know it will take a few dives in these Dumpsters to find enough clothes for all three of us, and we’re familiar with Cookie’s shopping spree strategy: First she pulls the passenger side of the car next to the Dumpster opening. Then, with the window open, I climb on the seat and stick my head through the hole to look down into the Dumpster. Once my eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, if I see more clothes than garbage and useless debris, I step on the window ledge and squeeze myself through the sloped metal opening in the bin to get inside. I begin throwing clothes out through the hole and into the car.
Using the car’s dome light to see, the kids and Cookie root through the clothes to pick out the ones we could possibly use. I locate a pair of jeans and a plaid skirt for Rosie.
“Gi!” she cries. “Look, this pink shirt still has the tags on it!”
“It’s brand-new for you to wear on the first day!”
For Norman, I fold a nice pair of corduroys and a couple turtlenecks into a pile, and for myself I dig out a pair of khaki pants that I can make a size smaller by taking them in with a few stitches. Then, once our options are exhausted, I pile all the excess clothes on the floor and climb out, giving myself a leg up as I shimmy out of the bin, back into Cookie’s car.
Throughout the weekend, Cookie shares the details of the life she created at her new boyfriend’s place as though she’s telling us a great fairy tale of which we have no part. “Oh, the meals I cook,” she says. “And you oughtta see how well-behaved his daughter is—you three could take a lesson. She’s only thirteen, lost her mother to cancer last year . . . treats me like I walk on water. Talk about appreciation. Instead, what do I get from you? I get bullshit.” Although I wish someone was taking care of us the way her boyfriend’s thirteen-year-old daughter is being mothered now, I can tell Cookie’s happy because she’s been sober for the entire day. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I’m actually not afraid of her.
After the weekend together, she announces that she’s going back to her boyfriend’s house. In peace, I begin to rifle through our new wardrobe, sorting the colors to wash in the tub before we start school on Wednesday. As I start my hems and alterations, I flip on the TV, where Ronald Reagan is giving a speech in New Jersey as part of his campaign for the U.S. Presidency:
And most of us have begun to realize that, so long as Carter policies are in effect, the next four years will be as dark as the last four . . . I pledge to you I’ll bring a new message of hope to all of America.
A new message of hope to all of America. That includes my family. It includes me! I need a new message of hope as much as I need a new wardrobe to start the ninth grade. If my next four years are as dark as my last four years, I’ll never make it to seventeen. I hope Reagan, or Carter, or someone, could get me out of this, but I’m not holding my breath.
On the first day of school, it’s clear I’ve made a horrible mistake with my outfit choice. As I walk down the halls, calls from the other students are all that drown out the sound of my baggy denim seams rubbing together: “It’s the Orange Ethiopian!” they yell. I know I have more meat on me than the skeletal starving Ethiopians I see on TV, but did I have to go and highlight myself with a pair of fluorescent orange pants? Nothing like blending in at my new school.
Aside from the orange-denim disaster, the first day in this new school is the same as everywhere I’ve ever been. I don’t really mind walking from classroom to classroom by myself—in a way, it’s a relief not to have any friends because there’s no one who I have to tell about my family. There are assignments to keep me busy and teachers to listen to. I don’t say much in class because I don’t want any attention directed at me, but I make sure to follow the huddles of students in front of me to each classroom so that I arrive right on time and act alert when class starts. I’ve learned to give straight answers when the teachers call on me, but that doesn’t typically start to happen until the third week of school when the social breakdown between the kids is clear: Teachers take one look at me and go gentle. Leaving the classroom is always the giveaway: If the teacher stands by the door as the class files into the hallway, my trademark is a modest, closed-mouth smile—a well-adjusted, friendly kid.
It’s the free times during the day that make my status as the new girl painfully obvious: lunch and recess, and also gym class, where I use Cherie and Camille’s fake cramps trick, even though I have yet to get my period.
Most kids might complain about their teachers, but mine give me a sense of assurance—wrapping myself in my work and obeying their instructions is the easiest, best way to stay safe. School has always been my escape and solace, a place where an independent kid like me finds stability. Because I keep a low profile, my teachers never really know about my life at home. I’m sure some have detected that things aren’t exactly as they should be, but most of them have used any vulnerabilities they sensed as a reason to encourage me.
ON SEPTEMBER 17, 1980, just a week after school starts, Cherie gives birth to her first child: a baby boy. I’m down the street, greeting Norman and Rosie from the bus, when I hear Cookie’s tires screeching into the driveway and her hoarse voice blaring down the block. “Regina!” she yells. “Your sister had a baby—I’m a grandma!” My first nephew.
“Can I come, Mom? I want to see the baby!” Rosie says. I lace my arm through hers and pull her onto my lap on the porch step.
“I’m not coming back here after,” Cookie says. “You can meet him after Cherie takes the baby home to her in-laws’.”
Cookie stumbles through the front door one afternoon in early November, holding a box of macaroni and cheese and a half-gallon of milk. “What’s going on?” I ask her, meaning, What are you doing here?
“Well, by the looks of it, I’d say I’m a single woman again,” she slurs. “You could thank me for bringing home dinner. I’m in a shitty mood. Stay away from me.” Lacking the care and the energy to carry the food to the kitchen, she plops down on the couch and promptly passes out—her new pair of clogs falling to the floor with a crack. Rosie and Norm burst into giggles as Cookie’s snoring rattles the room. I hush them, stifling my own laughter, and watch her. I thought men liked women who are sweet and attractive, but Cookie’s just swollen and angry.
We eat the macaroni and cheese in the living room while Cookie’s splayed unconscious on the couch. Together we stand to carry our dirty dishes to the kitchen, careful to be quiet. Rosie rises last, balancing her empty glass on her plate, trailing behind Norm and me. I’ve just stepped into the kitchen when Rosie’s glass falls and shatters on the living room floor, inches from Cookie’s ear.
My instinct moves me to her as Cookie jolts from the couch.
This will not be pleasant.
“You stupid little whore!” Cookie shouts, grabbing Rosie’s hair in her fist.
Rosie staggers and drops the plate, which falls and cracks in half. Before I can stop her, Cookie slams Rosie’s body to the floor, inches from the shards of glass. Instantly Rosie wails—first out of total shock at being pummeled, then as the pain shudders through her body.
Instinctively I jump on Cookie’s back, clawing her skin with my fingernails. “You’re not her mother anymore,” I scream in her ear. “Let go of her! LET GO!” My blind rage has filled the room, the entire floor of the house. It’s so fiery and fierce I’m sure the entire street can feel its quake. I fight hard to bring her to the ground—if I can just get her down, Rosie can climb away. Instead, she lies stunned and crying on the floor beneath us. Norm sprints over and pulls Rosie toward the bottom of the stairs away from Cookie. There they both stand, screaming at me. “Stop, Gi, stop!” But my mother will not hurt my baby, who’s finally thriving under my care. And she isn’t going to beat me into submission either, the lunatic! I hardly flinch when Cookie flips me over her back onto the floor, on top of the broken shards of glass.
“You stupid little bitch,” she grunts through her teeth, landing her first kick. “You should’ve never been born, slut! You were my biggest mistake, you stupid little motherfucker.”
She’s barefoot, but all the weight of her body lands in the small of my back, then on my ribs and pelvis and elbows. I roll on my side, trying to get out from under her. Instead she brings her heel down into the side of my waist, then grabs me by my hair and slams my face into the floor. Blood flows out of my nose, and I can feel it seeping from my back from the broken glass. I roll over on my side into a ball—it’s a short opportunity to catch my breath before I use what little energy I have left to stand up and face her one more time. As I turn to rise, her foot slams me full-force in the stomach and sends me flying to the floor again. “You little fucking slut!” she screams, puffing hard and finding another burst of energy to kick me again. I stagger to stand up, about to run at her, when she grips me around the neck and shoves me backward. First I feel my head meet the floor, then my back—my legs and arms had no chance to stretch out and break the fall. I feel the sting of the glass sticking in my head and the blood trickling out of my scalp. But I fight to scramble up fast, knowing that if I stay down, her feet will start kicking blows to my head and ribs.
My will is stronger than hers, but she’s drunk and more than twice my body weight. The force of her arms sends me into the railing, where the kids are standing on the other side. I slide to the floor, stunned. When her leg comes in again, I swing at it to trip her, surprised she stumbled. Then I scramble to my feet and dart past her, out the front door.
She turns around just as I make it to the porch, her voice thundering after me. “Get your ass back in here now! I’m not finished with you yet!”
Somehow I’ve made it across the yard. She can still see me, but so can the neighbors if they choose to open their blinds to the commotion. I slip into the darkness and press myself against the chain-link fence. I hear her voice echo in the cold air. “You get back in here so I can finish what you started. You’re gonna get what you deserve, you little bastard!”
Four months earlier, I would have obeyed her and gone back inside to take the rest of my beating, especially knowing that if she hadn’t exhausted her anger yet, she may take it out on Rosie. But something keeps me from listening this time. She continues to loom a few yards from me. My hair and face are caked with blood, my back stinging from the cuts and aching from the pounding. The only thing keeping me from collapsing is my will not to submit to her again. She yells one more time.
“Get back in this goddamn house!”
I shake my head, pounding from the beating, and whisper:
Then I turn from her voice and walk as fast as I can toward Middle Country Road.
The cold concrete wall outside Shoes ’N Things feels soothing against my back. Out of the reach of the streetlight, I pull my legs into my chest and rest my head on my knees. I catch my breath from the tears and dig into one of the green garbage bins for a few boxes. I pull them open and line them up between the Dumpster and the building’s back wall to create a bed.
It’s probably been an hour when I open my eyes at the sound of her jalopy rolling down the street. I peek out around the corner and see the car turning in the direction of the bars.
I wish these feelings were new to me—the hurt, anger, rejection from the emotional abuse, and the searing physical pain—but for all of the near-fourteen years of my life, this is the only consistent, predictable part of my relationship with Cookie. To me, feeling secure means the opposite of what it means to most kids. Children are supposed to find their greatest safety and comfort in the arms of their mothers. Instead, Cookie’s homecoming is our darkest danger, like the worst storm anyone can imagine. I brace myself and lock down my wits as she enters with a stir. We have no control over what comes next as the tension builds, then it’s as though the skies open up when she comes down on me in a rage. When she’s finished, she goes suddenly . . . leaving the devastation in her wake as the only evidence she’s ever been here at all. We’re always comforted to know she’ll be gone for a while—safe and content, as though it’s safe to step out into the sun after a torrid rain. And we recover fast, using our wits and will to stay together and rebuild our home.
I walk into a quiet house. One of the kids has cleaned up the glass, and they’re both sleeping toe-to-toe on the couch. My heart swells as I kiss their cheeks good night, and whisper in Norman’s ear: “You’re a good big brother.” I rise and stand there watching them . . . then the tears stream down my face. Not for myself but for how powerless we are over what will happen next. After a minute I secure the front and back doors then head to the bathroom to try and soak away my pain.