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

4. Breaking Pact

November 1980

THE NEXT MORNING is the fifth of November, four days before my fourteenth birthday. I get the kids up and ready for school and put them on the bus. In the house I close the front door, knowing that, sooner or later, I’ll have to attempt to face myself in the full-length mirror.

Because I grew so thin over the summer, the marks from this beating have taken on dimensions I’ve never witnessed. They’re so large and discolored that they cover my entire body like a single mass of blue, black, and red. In some places the marks are so grotesque that it’s as though the barrier of my skin has collapsed and my insides are practically exposed.

I ride the late bus to Centereach High School, keeping my hair down so it covers my face. It takes all of my concentration to ignore the stares I get from the other students. A long-sleeved sweatshirt covers my arms and back. After second period, Mr. Brown, my social studies teacher, pulls me aside.

“Now, Regina,” he says, trying to hold my eyes while I stare at my shoes. “I don’t want to have to ask you about your personal life—that’s between you and your family. You flunked the last test though, and unless some miracle happens between now and the quarter-end exam, I’m going to have to fail you. So whatever’s going on, it has to stop.”

I continue staring at the floor.

He softens his voice. “If you tell me where all these marks came from, there’s a chance I can give you a passing grade.”

Mr. Brown is bigger than my mother but not at all threatening. He keeps his hand resting softly on my arm, as though he thinks I might run. But I can’t tell him. When I finally raise my head to look at him, he blinks to suppress a flinch. “I’m fine,” I mumble. “I can’t be late for my next class.” Then, I bolt.

When I arrive home from school that afternoon, there’s a car I don’t recognize in the driveway. The front door is hanging wide open. Oh no!

A social worker is rooting through the kitchen cabinets and drawers. She’s young and blond, wearing khakis and no makeup. Her face holds a flat expression: She’s definitely on a mission. When she notices me, she stops, openly looking at the bruises on my face. I can see she’s trying to control her expression when she introduces herself. “Regina,” she says. “I’m Ms. Davis.” She motions for me to let her look at my arms and gasps as she pushes up my sleeves. “Your school called my office today. I need to know what happened.”

My first thought is to give her what’s become my natural reaction when I’m confronted with how we live: I lie. I lie for us. I say, “My sisters and I were roughhousing,” or “I fell out of the tree I was climbing,” or “I fell off of my friend’s bike onto the gravel.” I know if I tell her the truth, we’ll all be separated. “I fell down the basement stairs holding an iron,” I tell her. My toes wiggle inside my shoes, embarrassed to look so awful while she looks so wholesome and pretty.

She looks at me crossly, then comes at me and lifts up my sweatshirt. I don’t flinch or fight her—it will only make the pain worse. There’s heartbreak in her face when she looks up from my ribs. “C’mon, Regina,” she says. “Make this the last time that you fell down the stairs, or into a stove, or out of a tree. I read your file, honey. You are almost fourteen! You can be in control soon—you know what that means, don’t you?”

I know. It means I could leave my mother permanently. I’ve heard this many times before from my social workers, truant officers, guidance counselors, and other street kids. When you turn fourteen, you reach the age of reason. That means you can choose whether you want to stay with your biological parents or choose to emancipate yourself and become a ward of the state. If I opted to become a ward of the state, my mother would no longer have any control over my decisions or me.

All of them—the counselors, the officers, the social workers—seemed well intentioned at first, asking if our mother hit us; if she fed us. They’d give the impression of wanting to help, but then they’d talk to Cookie, who seemed to have a sixth sense about these things and usually returned home when we were in danger of being taken away. It wasn’t hard for her to convince them that we brought the bruises on ourselves: For social services, it’s easier to keep children with their mother than deal with all the logistics, paperwork, and drama of putting kids in foster homes. And then the cycle would start all over again: Cookie would move us into a different house, using a new combination of names to delay the state in tracking us down, and things would be really bad for a while.

“Regina, she’ll kill you if you stay here. Your siblings aren’t safe, either.” She pauses, watching me, then leans over and puts her arms on the counter. “If you tell me everything, we can get you away. She will do to them what she has done to you. Do you want Rosie to look like you in a few years, to feel like you feel? You owe it to them to tell the truth. Stop lying for their sakes and tell me what has been happening here.”

“What if I did tell you? What would happen to the kids?”

“They’ll be taken away from your mother and go to a foster home, too,” she says. “I promise you they will be kept safe.”

Before I can think twice, I give in. Without Camille here to run interference, and now, faced with the idea that my silence could put my little brother and sister in danger, Ms. Davis’s invitation to finally free us from this hell is too tempting to resist any longer.

Through calm breaths I tell her that the kids cannot go back with our mother. “You need to promise me that they will be safe, no matter what.” And then, before I can stop myself, I’m talking and talking and I can’t shut up. The stress and exhaustion of the past two years of parenting the kids on my own; the cars, the shelters, and the struggle . . . they break me. It’s dusk by the time I’m finished spilling the truth. I don’t leave anything out.

The kids arrive just as Ms. Davis is getting ready to leave. Norman eyes her timidly as she places a dime in my hand so I can make a call on the pay phone. “Norm, can you hold down the fort for a minute?”

He watches Ms. Davis exit, still tentative. “Yeah.”

I walk to the corner phone booth and dial Kathy’s house. “Cookie was about to beat Rosie and I stepped in,” I tell Camille.

“Why would she lay a hand on Rosie?”

“Because she accidentally dropped a glass, right next to where Cookie was sleeping. I couldn’t hide the marks and my teacher must have called social services.”

“Social services came?”

“The social worker was standing in the kitchen when I got home!”

“You didn’t tell, did you?”

“Camille—”

“Gi, did you tell?”

“You weren’t here and I couldn’t let Cookie hurt them!”

“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

Cookie’s beating didn’t make me cry, but losing Camille’s faith in me has. On the walk back to the house, it sinks in: This did not save my family. Instead, I have violated a pact among our siblings by telling the truth. I’ve separated us again, and worse, I have exposed Norman and Rosie not only to our mother, should she succeed in getting them back from foster care, but to whomever they’ll find in the home they’re sent to.

I’m overwhelmed with guilt. When Camille shows up, we stand on the porch facing each other. Tears start flowing until I shake. Because of me, none of us are safe now. Rosie won’t survive if I’m not there to protect her; she’ll be the only “little slut” and “whore” Cookie will have left. She doesn’t stand a chance.

The thought makes me cry harder, hating myself for my selfishness that will make my baby sister completely vulnerable. Camille and I put our arms around each other, both sobbing. “Do you think there’s any way for me to take it back?”

She shakes her head. Says nothing. We both know there’s no going back. I’ve said too much.

That night I do not sleep. I go to the couch where Rosie sleeps and watch her breathing. I cuddle and kiss and pray for her all night, knowing as daylight pushes into the room that I’ve crushed any chance of her being protected.

Camille and I put the kids on the early bus in time for the school’s free breakfast. I take the late bus. Camille takes her post at home, waiting for the inevitable.

It takes every ounce of concentration for me to get through school. I don’t eat my free lunch, nor do I notice whom I’ve sat next to in the cafeteria. I pay no attention in class, especially Mr. Brown’s, where I keep my head down and pretend to write in my notebook. I wonder if he was the one who sent social services to the house, and if they told him what I said.

Three cars fill the driveway when I reach home: two gray sedans that I know belong to social services; in each, a man sits waiting behind the wheel. I hurry into the house. The third car is a familiar orange rust box.

The front door of the house is standing open, and from the upstairs I hear the creak of a closet door followed by the slam of an empty drawer.

My siblings are packing.

In the kitchen I find Ms. Davis and another woman with my mother. Cookie doesn’t even look in my direction. “Why don’t you go upstairs and pack your stuff,” she says in a sickeningly singsong voice. This is the act she always puts on in front of the social workers. I race upstairs, aware of what’s about to take place.

I find Camille in my room. When our eyes lock, I break again into angry tears. Working fast, I throw my clothes and two Jesus figurines in the green Hefty bag that I keep under my bed. Then I sit on the bed with my siblings. I embrace Rosie, who’s also sobbing. “It will be okay, baby, I promise. We’ll take care of you.” Camille consoles Norman through his heaving tears.

When the four of us come downstairs with our belongings, the social workers lead us outside. They place Norman and Rosie in one car, Camille and me in another. A social worker’s cheap guarantee was all it took to lose mia bambina—my baby. What kind of big sister gives in so easily?

As they start the cars and prepare to pull away, Cookie lumbers down the steps, pushing her hair back from her face. She’s breathless and pale, attempting to maintain her version of composure. At the bottom of the steps, she hoarsely calls after us: “Don’t worry, kids, I’ll get you back!” Other mothers whose children are being ripped from their homes might proclaim such a promise because they love their kids but I know: That’s not Cookie. “I’ll get you back!” she’s screaming through the car window, but not because she’s lost what matters most to her. It’s because she’s lost her meal ticket.

Norman and Rosie’s car pulls out first. Cookie runs toward our car and stands staring through the back door of the driver’s side where the only thing that protects Camille and me from her is a locked car door. Looking directly at me she yells: “I’ll get you back!”

“No,” I mouth to her through the glass. “No you won’t.”

And then we’re gone.