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

8. Empty Emancipation

November 1980 to Summer 1984

I SHAKE THE cramp from my hand and look at Ms. Davis over the thick affidavit on Addie’s table. “Emancipation,” I ask her and Addie, “means that I will never have to answer to Cookie again . . . right?”

Addie glances at Ms. Davis, who says, “That’s exactly what emancipation means, Regina.”

In exhaustion, I want to rest my head on this document. Completing this affidavit will change everything, but based on every event we’ve experienced in the foster system up to now, we can never predict whether the change will be better or worse.

The story of how we grew up is finally revealed to the authorities. Inside Addie’s kitchen on that Sunday in November, four days after my mother bruised me with her kicks and bloodied me with broken glass, Ms. Davis primes us to sign the affidavit by explaining that nobody can access a report where child abuse is involved, especially not the accused. She also assures us our statements will only be used to proceed with my gaining freedom from Cookie.

“And—you swear, the county is going to do everything it can to make sure Cookie can never get the kids again?” I turn to Camille, making sure Ms. Davis knows the hardness of this next statement is all for her: “Because I would suffer these black-and-blue marks all over again—I would spend the rest of my life sleeping alone behind a grocery store to hide from Cookie—if it meant I’d never have to see my little sister’s and brother’s faces in terror inside a social services car again.”

“I understand,” Ms. Davis says.

“Well then, promise: You and everyone you work with will fight for the kids’ safety from the second I put my pen to this page.”

“Regina, I promise.”

I look at Cherie and Camille. “I’m ready.”

I put the ballpoint pen to the line reading Signature and in loopy, feminine strokes, sign:

Regina M. Calcaterra

Then I flip the pen toward Camille. “You’re up.”

She gently slides it from my grip and, with the confidence of a maestro, scrawls her name beneath mine, and then Cherie follows her lead before she heads back home to her young family.

“Now that you both determined you won’t return to your mother’s care,” Ms. Davis says, looking at Camille and me, “you need to begin planning how you’ll live on your own as soon as you turn eighteen. The state only covers your foster care costs until then, unless you go to college.”

“College?” I asked.

“Granted, that comes with its own challenges—in fact, I have yet to see a foster kid go to college.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, think about it: It’s tough to hold down a job and make rent when you’re working hard to study. In any case, we’ll start teaching you how to live independently. Then, hopefully, one day you can make it on your own.” I glance at Camille, who’s giving Ms. Davis a look of daggers.

After she leaves, Addie stands aside to let Camille and me pass from the kitchen. “Will you be joining us for dinner?” she says.

“No thanks,” we call behind us. We close ourselves in Camille’s bedroom, and I stare up at her ceiling. “I don’t know how to feel,” I confess.

She collapses with her head next to mine on the pillow. “Me neither.”

Then as if on cue, we turn to each other and burst out laughing. We laugh so hard we begin to hyperventilate in tears until we roll off the bed, making two bony thuds on Addie’s floor. Eventually, I’m able to compose myself enough to mock our three full days of social workers and legal talk. “Congratulations!” I declare. “Now that you’ve just dumped your mother, you’ll be homeless again at eighteen . . . if you survive until then!”

Camille wipes her tears and folds her arms across her bust as Ms. Davis is apt to do. “Listen, girls,” she says with fake empathy, “really, you don’t stand an icicle’s chance in hell. Just try not to end up a drug addict, an alcoholic, pregnant, a prostitute, or in jail.”

“Like your mother!” I wail.

That night Camille kisses me on the cheek and smooths my hair behind my ear. “What are you thinking about?”

I sigh. “Rosie and Norm. Tomorrow after school I’m going to ask Addie if we can call them.”

“I’m worried about them, too . . . but this is your day,” Camille says. “Do you think our birthday girl is going to get her wish?”

I smile. All weekend we’d been trying to stay out of the way at our temporary foster home while also racing against Ms. Davis’s deadline to get the affidavit completed and signed on time . . . but through all the chaos, my sister remembered that today I turned fourteen. Tucking my hands behind my head, I lie back on my pillow. “I think I just did.”

MONDAY’S SCHOOL BUS ride is still buzzing from last week’s presidential election with Ronald Reagan defeating President Jimmy Carter. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Reagan famously asked Carter in their final debate, a week before the election. I’m better off than I was four days ago, I figure.

In the halls of the high school I keep my hair in my face and my head down, hoping that if I don’t meet the gaze of my peers, then they can’t see me, either. I spend my time in class doodling je t’aime and mia bambina amore on the covers of my notebooks.

I begin to eat more, and within a week at the Petermans’, my clothes start to fit differently. Because I’m a foster kid I get free lunch at school, then dinner every night with Camille, Danny, and the family. The more I eat, the more I want to eat—“Putting some meat on those bones for the winter!” Pete says—but Addie makes it clear that her home is no place for me to make up for all the meals I’ve missed in the last fourteen years. She’s constantly on a diet, so eating between meals is discouraged for all of us . . . and I catch myself craving the Ho Hos and Twinkies I’d make a meal out of when we were living on our own. Camille, too, is obviously strained by all the restrictions—suddenly our entire lives are structured around the Petermans’ meal schedule, TV-viewing schedule, homework, and curfews. At night, whispering in her bedroom, Camille begins to prepare me: Even though the Petermans have invited us both to stay permanently, she doesn’t want to live in a way that’s so restricted. She tells me she’ll stay with me through the holidays, but by spring she wants to find another situation.

“Spring,” I say. “Great. You’re going to leave me just when we’re about to go to court in April to make my emancipation official.”

“Regina, I’m seventeen,” she says. “You want to live this way forever? Speaking only when you’re spoken to and always feeling paranoid that our foster parents are talking about us when we’re not in the room—about our futures, our behavior, the way we hold our forks? Huh?”

I say nothing.

“Do you want the only love you feel to come from snuggling with your plastic Jesuses and pictures of the kids dressed in Lake Havasu T-shirts?”

Ouch. One for Camille.

“No matter where we’ve had to make a home for ourselves, we’ve always shared a lot of love.” I know she’s right—even when it was just Norm, Rosie, and me shivering inside the horse trailer, I’d learned from living for years with my sisters how to create an atmosphere of laughs, comfort, and ease. And when Cookie was around, we’d somehow establish a small space among the chaos for solace, where we could go and be together to talk and snuggle or play games. “By now I know how I want to live my life,” Camille continues, “and it’s not by learning to obey new rules in a strange house. I’ve already raised myself.”

She gets a job at Wicks ’n’ Sticks, a candle shop at the Smith Haven Mall. In turn I begin making friends at the bus stop. Sheryl and Tracey make it clear they’re talking to me because they’re really interested in coaxing me out of my shell, and it doesn’t take long before I’m spending all my time outside school at their houses. They both have fathers and mothers who live together, two cars in the driveway, swimming pools in the backyard, closets stuffed with well-fitting clothes and, most important to me, refrigerators and pantries stocked with snacks and soda. I find it’s much more comfortable to play the guest outside my foster family’s home than in it.

It’s fascinating to observe how normal families interact. With a mother and father in the house, it’s as though everyone has a distinct role in the family: Dads work full-time at offices, moms work part-time or run the kids around; we kids can just hang out . . . and be kids. It’s a totally new experience for me. We spend weekday afternoons watching MTV and doing homework and weekends at the movies, the bowling alley, and playing Pac-Man and Centipede at the mall arcade. Tracey giggles at my pronunciation. “It’s Centipede, not Centerpede!” I just shrug and smile.

These families think they know me well, that I live at my aunt’s house. I never share my story; the details of how I grew up, that I have younger siblings I’m trying to save, or that I have a mentally ill, alcoholic, promiscuous mother who won’t be my mother much longer.

Camille and I are allowed a once-a-week phone call with Rosie and Norm, who cry in hushes when they tell us their new foster mom never hugs them and then disciplines them with hits and cursing. Over and over they say they’ve tried to tell their social worker, but instead of the sympathy or solutions they need, she tells them they ought to be better listeners. Camille and I tell our social worker that the kids, especially Rosie, would never lie about being hit. We beg Addie to please allow the kids to come live with us. Each time, however, she sadly tells us that she just cannot take them as well. She says she’s already stretching her energy and resources; and besides, Rosie and Norm’s social worker isn’t convinced they’re not just making up these stories because they’re homesick for us.

As Christmas approaches, a social worker named Ms. Harvey is assigned to our case now that the Petermans have invited us to stay permanently. Her lack of cooperation to help us see the kids causes Camille and me to grow even more reclusive and rebellious, staying out of the house until curfew then locking ourselves in our rooms for the night. When Addie gets our monthly welfare check, she gives us each the county designated amount of sixty-two dollars of the two four-hundred-twelve-dollar checks she receives to use as our personal allowance for clothes, toiletries, books, and school field trips.

Then in early December the social workers inform us that we’ll get to see the kids for a Christmas visit. Realizing we’ve spent all of our first check on warm coats and snow boots for ourselves, Camille takes a second job selling fragrances in the mall while I begin walking door-to-door to Addie’s neighbors, offering to clean leaves off their lawns before the first snow for ten dollars each. Addie sees how hard we’re working and recommends me to neighbors who need a babysitter who’s willing to clean house . . . and on top of that I make an extra five dollars per week dusting Addie’s furniture.

When Camille and I go Christmas shopping for Rosie and Norm, my sister follows my lead around the kids’ clothing stores at the mall. “I’m a pro around these parts,” I tell her. “They’ve got sizes that fit me, less expensive than the juniors section. Where do you think I’ve been doing all my shopping?”

“Save money shopping for kids’ clothes while you can,” Camille says, gesturing at my body. “I can already tell, you’re starting to take some shape. The same thing that happened to me is gonna happen to you: You wake up one morning and—va-va-VOOM!—you need a bra. A real bra,” she whispers. “We oughta place a bet on how much longer you’ll fit into kids’ turtlenecks.”

“Just help me,” I tell her. She pushes a cart and we load it with gloves, hats, scarves, new underwear, socks, winter boots, some jeans, and a rainbow array of cable-knit sweaters.

On Sunday, December 23, at one thirty in the afternoon, Cherie picks us up from the Petermans’ and drives us thirty minutes to the kids’ foster home. “Don’t be surprised if they’re not blown away by the gifts,” Camille says. “Cookie’s visitation was from nine to one today, and if she tried to win them over with anything, I guarantee it was toys.”

“At least her car’s not here,” I say when we pull into the driveway of a dump of a house. The social workers were wise to give us an hour gap so we wouldn’t have to cross paths with our mother.

Cherie turns off the ignition and helps us unload two stacks of presents so high we have to coach each other to navigate our eager approach to the front door, where we’re met by a woman in a velour jogging suit and giant hair who, instead of welcoming us or introducing herself, tells us Cookie hasn’t returned with the kids yet.

“Of course she hasn’t,” Cherie says. We look at each other, wondering how long it will take her to invite us in. We finally break the awkwardness and trudge back to the car. Cherie starts the car and flips on the heat full-blast. Then she walks to the corner phone booth to call her husband and tell him she’ll be home later than she planned.

We sing to the radio and take turns knocking on the front door to ask whether Cookie has called with an update. Hours pass. Cherie tells us she’s running low on gas and has to go home to feed her baby.

She drives Camille and me back to the Petermans’.

Every hour we call Rosie and Norm’s house, and the answer is always the same. Hoping she’ll respond first thing Monday morning, we leave a message for Rosie and Norm’s social worker, whose number Addie agreed to pin on the corkboard by her phone.

We stay up through the night. When Camille’s alarm clock flashes 6:00 in bright red digits, we tiptoe out to Addie’s kitchen and pick up the phone again. Their foster mother’s voice is groggy and irritated, and Rosie and Norm are still gone.

MS. HARVEY BELIEVES our conclusion that Cookie’s run with the kids. “But it’s Christmas Eve,” she says, “and there’s really not a lot we can do besides wait until the county’s back from the holiday. I wouldn’t worry, though—”

“Our mother has our eight-year-old sister and our twelve-year-old brother holed up in a car behind some grocery store, or in the house of whatever scuzzball she’s sleeping with this week. And you wouldn’t worry?” Camille yells into the phone. I fold my arms across me, sick to my stomach. When Camille gets upset, the weight of my guilt for coming forward multiplies.

“With the state watching over your mother’s shoulder, it doesn’t seem very likely she would do Norman and Roseanne any harm.”

“She just kidnapped Norm and Rosie,” Camille says. “And you don’t think we should call the police?”

“They would have to have been abducted by a stranger to warrant my calling the police.”

“Our mother is more dangerous to those kids than any stranger,” Camille says. “You’re fools if you don’t track her down.”

“Merry Christmas, Camille,” Ms. Harvey says, ending the call. “Tell Regina, too. Enjoy your time off from school. When I’m back from holiday vacation, I’ll look up your mother’s most recent address in the files. I’ll get back to you when we have something.”

It’s after New Year’s when social services finally finds Cookie living at her boyfriend’s house. “My children told me they were being beaten at their foster home. You think I was going to deliver them back to that hell on earth?” she told the workers. “I am their mother. They’re happy with me. Go piss up a tree. I’ll see you in April.”

Ms. Harvey said that, from everything Norm and Rosie’s social worker reported, the kids were living in a nice house in the same school district and seemed content living as a family with Cookie’s new boyfriend and his teenage daughter. “They’ve decided to let the situation be for now,” Ms. Harvey explained. “But as long as the judge grants Regina’s emancipation at the April hearing, then it’s almost guaranteed the court will determine that Cookie is an unfit caretaker and most likely will remove your brother and sister from her care.”

Camille’s skeptical. “And why would that be?”

“Your case hasn’t gone to court, so your mother gets the benefit of the doubt. But once the judge reads your statement, he’d be crazy to let her keep Norman and Roseanne.”

“Sure, go ahead and wait,” Camille says. “But Cookie knows what’s coming. By April, you watch. She’ll be long gone.”

WITH COOKIE’S ABDUCTION of the kids looming over us, even our February vacation to Disney World in the Petermans’ RV is hard to enjoy. Our teachers sent a list of reading and homework for us to do on the three-day trip down the East Coast, but instead we play Scrabble and the license plate game . . . and even then, my mind drifts to thinking about what Rosie and Norm must be going through. Every time Pete stops at a gas station, I eye the phone booth. I’ve got change to make a long-distance call and Ms. Harvey’s number memorized . . . but considering the results of all the calls up to now, I figure the money will be better spent on Mickey souvenirs for whenever I do see the kids.

In March, Cherie shows up at the Petermans’ house in a tizzy. “Cookie was arrested for stealing from her boyfriend’s house,” she says. “She called me to bail her out.”

“Did you do it?” Camille and I ask in unison.

“Yes, I did it. I couldn’t think of what else to do, I was so worried about what would happen to Rosie and Norman with no one there to protect them if the cops showed up. I can’t ask my mother-in-law to have them stay here. So I said to Cookie, ‘If you want me to get your ass out of jail, you better tell me: Where are the kids?’

“ ‘The kids,’ she tells me, ‘are in a hotel that I went to after Jeff kicked us out.’

“And I go, ‘Oh, Jeff?’ ” Cherie says. “And I’m just supposed to know who Jeff is? So she gets all snotty: ‘Who the fuck do you think he is, Cherie? He’s the guy I’ve been living with the past couple months.’ I thought I would throw the phone at the wall. ‘Norm is there, watching Rosie,’ Cookie says. ‘He’s twelve—practically a young man now!’ ”

“Oh crap,” I say. “Did they see her get arrested?”

“That’s what I asked her,” Cherie says. “Cookie tells me, ‘Nope,’ all dismissive. ‘They busted me in the pub parking lot. See, I went to meet Jeff so we could talk it out, but he set me up. Next thing I know, I’m in cuffs.’ ” Cherie explains that the cops had social services track down the kids, who were staying in a motel.

I march to Addie’s kitchen phone. “I’m calling Ms. Harvey.”

When she answers, she explains: “The cops decided Norman is old enough to watch Roseanne while Cookie is incarcerated for assault and battery.”

“Wait, Ms. Harvey, let me get this straight: Cookie is arrested for trying to beat up her boyfriend—in jail for the weekend—and our little brother is watching Rosie by himself?”

“Regina, I’m just telling you what the police told me.”

“Who’s paying for the room? What if they get kicked out? Then what?”

“Well, in that case they would be homeless and we would place them in another home. But until then, the authorities have decided that they’re both safe and secure. Besides, now that your mother’s bailed out, she’ll probably be back with them in a few hours.”

Camille and I have devised a plan: The only way we can watch out for Rosie and Norm is to convince Cookie that all’s forgiven and we still want her in our lives.

“She’s a lunatic,” Cherie says. “You sure you want to go through with this cockamamy plan?”

With Daisy Duck and Goofy ball caps in a bag as souvenirs, we wait at the motel room’s outside entrance until Cookie answers with a cigarette between her fingers like some Hollywood vixen. “Well well well,” she says, holding the door as though she has to consider letting us in. “Just like always, you two come crawling back.”

Camille occupies Rosie and Norm while I sit down on the bed, across from where Cookie’s seated at the motel room’s desk. Without looking at me, she says, “I see you’re starting to come into your own. Shocker with those little tits, nobody’s knocked you up yet.”

“I didn’t come here to be the butt of any insults,” I answer. “I really want to work this out.”

“Well, don’t try to buy me with any sweet talk. You ratted me out to every official in Suffolk County when all I’ve ever done was work hard to give you kids a good life.”

“Ratted you out?”

In the background Camille turns on the TV for Rosie and Norm.

“You are required by law to attend the emancipation hearing of Regina M. Calcaterra,” she recites. “What are you, fucking Queen Elizabeth? I got friends, you know. I know what emancipation means.”

Camille slides to sit on the bed next to me. Cookie lights another cigarette. “There’s been a lot of confusion,” my sister says. “But Regina and I are always talking about how we miss being a family.”

“What the fuck do you two want?”

“We want to see you. And Norman and Rosie.”

I pipe in. “And you know, it won’t be long before I’m eighteen.” I remember how Ms. Harvey suggested I try to maintain contact with Cookie in the event I need a place to go when I age out of foster care. I tell Cookie: “I’ll have the choice of who I want to live with. Who knows, maybe we’ll want to be a family again. Maybe things could be normal.”

“Regina, you’ve been running away from me since the day you sprouted legs,” she says. “If you think for half a second that I’ll support you when you’re an adult, then you better quit whatever it is you’re smokin’ now.”

“We just want you in our life . . . Mom.” The word tastes like vinegar in my mouth.

“Well, you little assholes should have thought of that before the county asked me to RSVP to the Regina Calcaterra Independence Day Parade.” She takes a drag off her cigarette. “Is Cherie waiting for you in the car? Get the fuck out of here.”

Camille and I exchange a glance, rise, and approach the kids to hug them good-bye. When Camille takes off outside, I follow, slamming the door to Cookie’s motel room so hard the windows shake.

IN APRIL, CAMILLE is watching me closely. I’m not eating again, thanks to the nerves the emancipation hearing is kicking up in my stomach. “You don’t even have to go,” Camille says. “Ms. Harvey is your court-appointed guardian, she’ll be doing all the talking.”

With how poorly she’s protected the kids these last few months, unfortunately that information is zero comfort.

The afternoon of the hearing, when Camille and I arrive home from school, Addie’s in the kitchen tapping her finger on a cup of coffee. “What?” I ask her. “The news isn’t good?”

“It’s good for you,” Addie says. “You won by default.”

“Default?”

“Your mother didn’t show up to the hearing. The judge made a default judgment against her.”

“Regina!” Camille says. “You did it!”

“Wait,” I ask Addie, pulling back from Camille’s hug. “Rosie and Norm: They’re free from her, too?”

“Regina, that’s the bittersweet part,” Addie says. “You don’t have any control over what happens to your brother and sister. For now, the court decided to leave them with your mother.”

I stare at her, indignant. I don’t have any control? I look at Camille, whose eyes are welling with tears. We can’t be happy for my freedom while there’s any ounce of possibility that our younger siblings will be forced to suffer with Cookie. I flee from the kitchen and slam my bedroom door. I grab everything I can get my hands on and throw it: the only outlet I’ve ever found effective when I’m in a blind rage.

ONE MORNING IN May, Addie and Camille exchange a knowing glance when I come out to the kitchen with stomach pains so bad I think I might throw up. “Maybe you should stay home from school,” Addie says.

Camille knocks on the bathroom door just as I’m discovering a spot of blood on my leg. “Honey,” she calls, “why don’t you let me help?” She inconspicuously edges inside the bathroom and shows me how to adhere a maxi pad. “And here’s where Addie keeps our stashes. Always make sure you have extras in your bag . . . especially if you visit Cookie.”

“Why?”

“Because she doesn’t buy these. She’d rather spend the food stamps on beer and cigarettes. Remember the bloody washcloths she used to leave around the house?”

I grimace. “Oh, Camille!”

“Yeah. I know. It was gross.”

In the kitchen, Addie’s looking through the phone book. “I’m going to make you an appointment at the doctor,” she says.

“The doctor? I’m not sick, I just got my period.”

“Well, there are precautions certain young women should take when their bodies grow capable of bearing children.” Oh, that’s what this is about: Addie’s afraid she’ll be raising a foster grandchild if she doesn’t get me on the pill. “Birth control helps regulate a woman’s cycle,” she says.

I want to tell her to cut the crap. I could teach sex education at my school better than any teacher who actually studied it. At the age of eight, I learned how one gives a blow job thanks to Cookie’s demonstration on one of her boyfriends when she thought we were all asleep. At twelve, I walked into my mother’s bedroom to find a huge pink dildo and a magazine called High Society laying open to a letter from a man detailing his one-night stand with a female gymnast so skilled that when she swung from the chandelier, she landed in a split, directly on his erect penis. Thanks to my mother’s graphic language and her casual displays around the house (like how she would grab Karl between his legs in front of us), when you grow up witness to such sexual behavior, nothing about it is very fascinating. In fact, it shuts out any desire whatsoever.

Still, with Addie’s incessant urging, I make a trip to the gynecologist. The county bus system is so infrequent and confusing that I arrive late, alone, and even more stressed out than I’d prepared myself for. When the nurse calls me into the sterile gray room, I follow her instruction to lie on the table. “Slide your feet into the stirrups, please,” she says, and I feel the blood rush from my face when the doctor walks in the door. After barely an introduction I feel the heat of his examining light between my legs, and my body clenches with the touch of his medical instruments. Suddenly I’m back in that foster home seven years ago, on the winter night when my sisters were locked out in the cold and Norm was banging on the door. “Let my sister go!” he’d screamed. This doesn’t feel much different. I feel violated, isolated, and quite certain that this makes it official: I never want to allow a boy to touch me again.

It seems like no one besides Camille will give me a straight talk about womanhood, although some adults do seem to care enough to fumble through a few tidbits. On the last day of freshman year, I go home with my friend Sheryl, whose mom takes us to the park at the Wood Road School. I catch her eyeing my orange tank top before she says, “Girls, this is probably a good time to bring this up, and I’m only going to say it once: Never sit on the same swing with a boy.”

Sheryl and I look at each other bewildered. “Mom, why?” she asks.

“Because there are two swings: one for each of you. So you can swing, and he can swing, and you can even swing at the same time . . . but separately, you see. Never together.”

We break into a fit of laughter. “Mom,” Sheryl says. “What about the teeter-totter?”

“Girls, I’m serious: There will be no bumping on the swings.”

“Thank you very much for that informative birds and bees talk, Mrs. Z,” I say, and Sheryl and I run for the swings, wrapping our arms around our shoulders with our imaginary swing-bumping boyfriends.

That summer, Cherie is tied up with the baby. Camille’s still at the Petermans’ but often working twelve hours a day. I spend my days babysitting the kids on Addie’s street or with Sheryl and Tracey, taking the nine A.M. bus to Smith Point Beach and hopping the five P.M. bus home. We buzz about the thought of entering tenth grade and trying out for gymnastics. Secretly, I’m also excited because it’s the first time I’ll start the school year with a close-knit group of friends and a wardrobe I’m actually not embarrassed to wear.

The first week of school I’m dumbstruck when the gymnastics coach reads my name off the list of girls who made the cut. “Coach,” I say, while the other girls are busy in huddled squeals. “I couldn’t even take a stab at the bars.”

“Your upper body needs some strengthening, but your legs are cut and you’re strong on the beam. I’m going to start you with the junior varsity team.”

Instantly, I begin to structure my days around a full day of school followed by gymnastics practice until six thirty, then babysitting and housecleaning jobs. In study hall, while the other kids sketch the logos of Van Halen and AC/DC on their notebooks, I doodle Rosie and Norman in hearts and bubbles with mia bambina amore and je t’aime scribbed around them. Any homework I don’t get done at school is a good excuse for me to maintain my privacy when I get home in the evenings.

One night in early October, Addie knocks on my bedroom door. “You have a visitor,” she says. Cherie appears behind her in the doorway, and Camille pops her head out of her bedroom.

“What are you doing here?” Camille says. “You never stop over without calling first.”

Cherie looks at the ceiling as if she’s praying to save her last nerve. “Cookie was driving drunk and she got into an accident,” she says. “She left the scene, and the police were looking for her . . . and . . . she skipped town with the kids.”

Camille asks, “Wait, I didn’t hear this part. What do you mean ‘skipped town’?”

Cherie says, “I got a call from Cookie’s friend Jackie Sones. You remember her? She lived near us in Saint James.”

“Jackie Sones—the one who moved to Idaho?”

“Yeah,” Cherie says, clearly dreading what she has to reveal next. “She told me Cookie is heading out there so she can live in Jackie’s trailer and work with animals on a farm. So, with the kids, off she drove.”

We walk out to the kitchen, where Addie gives us permission to call Ms. Harvey at home. “Girls, there’s nothing anybody here can do if your mother left the state.”

“Oh, big shock,” I say, “considering how much you did to protect them while they were here.”

It’s close to Halloween when Jackie Sones calls Cherie to tell her Cookie and the kids have arrived.

“They stayed with Jackie a few weeks until Cookie found a bowlegged old man named Clyde who lives on a farm in some town called Oakview,” Camille tells me.

“Let me guess, so she used her ways to convince him that he would be better off if her brood moves in.”

We learn that, to maintain her part of the bargain, Cookie volunteered the kids to work as farmhands. They rise every morning to milk the cows, shovel horse manure, bale hay, and tend the crops. “I know how this works,” I tell Camille. “If they don’t step up, they’ll get beaten.”

“Yeah,” she sighs. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“Well, at least they’re in a small town. When we figure out how to fix this, hopefully it will be easy to find them.”

She gives me Clyde’s phone number, which Jackie shared with her. I pop more quarters in the pay phone. A gruff, bothered male voice answers. “Yeah?”

“Is this Clyde?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m Regina, Cookie’s daughter, calling from New York. Can you please put Rosie on the phone?”

After some murmurs and the croak of Cookie’s voice objecting in the background, I finally hear Rosie’s tender voice: “Gi?”

Tears gush out of my eyes. “Bambina?” I ask her. “Are you and Norman okay?”

She stays quiet.

“Is Mom standing right there?”

I hear her debating over how to respond. “Yeah.”

“Okay. I’m going to speak quietly, but here’s what we’ll do. I’m going to ask you some questions. If the answer is yes, you’ll pretend to answer me about life on the farm. Like, ‘Yes, there are lots of animals here.’ And if the answer if no, you’ll do the same thing—‘No, it hasn’t snowed here yet. Silly Regina, it’s only October.’ You ready?”

“Yes, there are lots of animals here.”

I giggle. “Good, you get it!” Through a conversation carried in this kind of code, Rosie makes it clear that she and Norm are attending school regularly, but also that Cookie and Clyde are abusing her. That night I call Ms. Harvey, who says the usual: “There’s really nothing we can do.”

Over the next week, I continue making these coded calls to Rosie and Norman, and they reveal as much as they can through the feigned conversations. Then I call information and ask for the number to the elementary school in Oakview, Idaho. “May I speak with the guidance counselor please?” I ask.

When he’s patched through I tell him about Cookie’s history and what’s been happening to Rosie. Then Cookie calls me at Addie’s to tell me the guidance counselor brought her in for a meeting to check out my story. “And when I asked the kids what the hell was going on, they told me the whole thing,” Cookie says. “You three have a code when you call here. You give them the third degree, then you think you have us all figured out. Well guess what,” she says with a low growl. “I told the guidance counselor the truth: that you’re a juvenile delinquent and alcoholic liar who was committed to a foster home to keep your ass out of jail. And do you think I was proud to tell him that Rosie is a promiscuous nine-year-old who made advances toward Clyde? Then when he rejected her, she started making up stories! That’s how it went, Regina. It was humiliating to talk about what derelicts my children have turned out to be. Although, knowing the kind of man your father is, I don’t know why I’m surprised. And for the record, the marks on her body? Those are from the farmwork. You don’t get to live and eat for free, in Idaho or Long Island or anywhere else.”

Sobbing, I call Ms. Harvey and beg her to speak to Rosie and Norm’s guidance counselor in Idaho and tell him that she outright lied to him about the kids and me. “Please, to hear this woman, she’s totally insane!”

Ms. Harvey refuses. “Your siblings are in the hands of another state now, Regina. For the last time, I’ll tell you: There is nothing we can do.”

“Ms. Harvey, you promised me you all would protect my brother and sister if I signed that report telling everything my mother has done.” I slam down the phone so hard, I see Pete rise from his recliner as I run down the hall to my room. In trying to help the kids, I’ve made it worse for them. Without me there to take Cookie’s abuse, Rosie bears the brunt of my attempts to save them. I’ve failed to protect her the way Cherie and Camille protected me. I want to tell Rosie that the brutality she’s enduring is torturing me, too.

IT’S THE FALL of tenth grade when the new county phone book arrives at Addie’s. I quickly rip it open and thumb my way to A:

Accerbi, Paul & Joan

I sigh with relief: My father’s still close; and if the phone book’s factual, so are all his relatives. I haven’t worked up the courage to contact him, but for now it’s enough to know that I could. On November 9, 1981—my fifteenth birthday—I begin a countdown for the thirty-six months I have to reach out to him before I might actually need to ask him for some help.

I hope he’ll be proud. I’m getting solid grades in all my classes, but history and English are where I’m earning easy A’s. I make sure I tell Mr. Kelly and Mr. Maguire how hard I’m studying, and they both begin to discuss college with me. “I know you’re a foster kid,” Mr. Kelly says after class one day, “but don’t believe what anyone else tells you. There is a way out of your situation: It’s through continuing your education past high school.” Then they both co-opt my guidance counselor to get in on the cause.

I feel torn for Camille’s sake. She also wants to go to college, but her senior class guidance counselor told her at the beginning of the year not to bother trying to get into the Fashion Institute of Technology, her dream school. “Concentrate on getting married and having babies,” her counselor told her. Unfortunately, that advice only further confused Camille because Ms. Harvey had recently told her that she was so detrimentally affected by how we grew up that she probably would never have a functional family of her own. Through all of my sophomore year, I watch Camille quietly prepare to move out of the Petermans’. The summer before my junior year, she moves out and lives with friends. She’s begun dating a handsome, gentle-spirited, blue-eyed boy named Frank, whom she met while out dancing, and she tells me that he’s starting to talk about marriage. See? I want to tell the social workers and counselors. All of you were wrong; Camille’s going to be fine. I block out everyone’s input except my teachers’, knowing my only hopes of ever rescuing Rosie lay in my understanding of how the system works and getting respect from the people who work in it. A thousand times a day I repeat this to myself: College degree.

BY THE TIME I turn sixteen during junior year, I’ve gotten a job at Rickel Home Center a few miles away from Addie and Pete’s. Until Sheryl takes a job at the register next to mine, the work is so boring that to make the time pass I talk to the customers in a British accent. Sometimes I walk all the way there, and other times I catch the bus that takes me a third of the way, then I walk the rest. Sometimes when they can, Addie or Pete will drop me off or my friends Erin and Tracey will give me a lift, now that they both have their permits.

Of course, friends with cars present the opportunity for more interaction with boys, because now we’re able to go places unsupervised. Addie reminds me to focus on my studies, and I tell her there’s no need to be concerned. I’ve started dating a boy named Eddie . . . but despite the appearances I create for his sake, I have no real interest in bonding with him. First, while he’s worried about soccer practice and trying to get me alone to make a move, I’m more concerned about my studies and plotting out my next conversation with Cookie to see how Rosie’s really doing. Plus, I know what troubles boys can bring—the same troubles Cookie’s always getting herself into. So with Eddie, I let on like I’m invested, while also doing my best to control my tendency to cut and run when he gets too close. There’s a much more important man tugging at my heart: Paul Accerbi, who, as of this autumn, no longer appears in the Suffolk County phone book.

For months after I notice his listing missing, I contemplate what to do. Finally, I rip out the page where his name used to be and study it on the annual February Disney World quest. While hidden away in the top bunk of the mobile home, I stare obsessively at the place where his name used to be . . . then something new jumps out at me: There’s an Accerbi in Lindenhurst, whose names sound familiar: Frank and Julia. How is this just now coming to me?I recall Cherie and Camille talking about an aunt Julie and an uncle Frank and the willow tree we would sit under with them. But with no phone on the camper, I can’t call my sisters to verify the memory.

Cherie and Camille used to tell me stories about different places we lived when I was little, and the names they’d given them all. There was the Bubble House and the Happy House and the Glue Factory and the Brady Bunch House. I learned the Bubble House was our first foster home, where we all slept in the same room and our foster parents and their daughter, Susan, would lull us to sleep by turning on a globelike machine that would spin around and show bubbles on the blue walls of our room. The Glue Factory was where we lived the longest as a family in Saint James. But I couldn’t remember living in the Happy House, a place were Cherie and Camille seem to remember that we three girls were loved, cared for, and fed beyond anything else we’ve ever experienced. As we moved from place to place, they would reminisce about the Happy House and the Bubble House—“At the Happy House, the curtains were always open to let the light in,” Cherie would say, or “When I hear this song on the radio, I always turn it up because it reminds me of the Bubble House.” Since we never could figure out where the Happy House was, we all finally agreed that it must have been born from our own folklore. We settled on the fact that we learned how to keep a home at the Bubble House.

But we’d also agreed that, at one point, there’d been an aunt Julie and an uncle Frank in our lives. There was something that made us believe they weren’t our true aunt and uncle, but people we’d met along the way.

As soon as Pete pulls the motor home back into our driveway in Centereach, I run out of the camper to the yellow kitchen phone and call Camille.

“Julia and Frank Accerbi—could they be the same people we called aunt and uncle?”

“Regina, maybe . . . maybe these people are related to Paul. But I don’t know how we would have known them, and I wouldn’t believe whatever crazy story Cookie would come up with if we asked her. It doesn’t quite fit together.”

But she didn’t rule it out . . . and I so badly needed to know if Paul had moved away or, God forbid, died, so I convince myself that they would know. For weeks, I rehearse draft after draft of what to write. On Easter, I select a note at random from a stack of the very best I’ve written. I address it to Julia and Frank Accerbi and include only my name and house number on the return address line—not the Petermans’ names, or their phone number. I don’t want any of the Accerbis letting the Petermans know that I’ve reached out to the man I believe is my biological father.

April 3, 1983

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Accerbi,

My name is Regina Marie Calcaterra. I am 16 years old and believe that Paul Accerbi is my father. I also believe that there is a possibility that you are related to him. If you are, please pass this letter on to him.

Dear Paul,

My name is Regina Marie Calcaterra. I am 16 years old and was born in November of 1966. I believe that you may be my father. I am now living in a foster home because my mother, Camille Calcaterra, was a bad mother, not because I was a bad kid. I divorced her several years ago so I can work toward taking care of myself. I have a B average in school, am on the gymnastic team, and work at Rickel Home Center at nights and on the weekends. I plan on going to community college when I graduate high school.

My mother told me that you were my father many times during my upbringing and she never strayed from her belief. Unfortunately my mother is an alcoholic and drug addict, which caused her to be incapable of caring for my siblings and me, so we spent most of our youth raising ourselves. When I turned fourteen, I asked the court to emancipate me from her so I could make my own decisions about where I should live and what school I should go to. I have been in this foster home for 2½ years beginning from when I was in the 9th grade. I am now in the 11th grade.

I have limited contact with my mother, so I am hoping that I can meet you to see if you could possibly be my father, as my mother is convinced you are. Please write me back at the address below.

Sincerely,

Regina Marie Calcaterra

For weeks I try to get the mail before my foster parents do to see whether there’s a letter from any of the Accerbis. On a Sunday night in early May, after I return around ten o’clock from working at Rickel’s, I’m preparing for school the next day. Addie knocks on my door. “Come in!”

She has a disturbed look on her face. “Regina, Pete got a weird call tonight around seven o’clock. It was very peculiar—there was this man who called, and when Pete answered the phone, he asked if you were home. When Pete said no, he asked where you were, so Pete said you were at work. When Pete asked him to identify himself he refused, but he asked Pete if he was your foster father.”

“Really?” I say innocently. “That’s odd.” Meanwhile my heart is pounding.

Addie’s face grows more puzzled and her words come out slower as she continues. “When Pete said yes, this person wanted to know when you would be home again. So Pete asked him again who he was, but he still refused, and Pete told him that you won’t be home until late, so if he wants to speak to you he should call back tomorrow after you’re back from school. Do you know who that could have been, and why they’re calling here?”

“I think it’s my real father, Paul Accerbi.”

I wish I could rewind my words . . . but already Addie’s taken them in, trying to calculate the facts. “Well then, how did he get our number, or know Pete’s name?”

“I don’t know,” I lie. “Well, actually . . . I may know how.” I tell Addie about the letter, how I’d been watching my father’s name in the phone book for years, praying that he’ll be there for me when I turn eighteen.

But Addie’s already lost in tears. “Why did you contact him?” she says. “Aren’t you happy here with us? Don’t we do enough for you? Do you want to leave us?”

I stand motionless, watching her pour out emotions that I’ve never seen before—toward me or anyone she knows. “You mean you want me to stay here?” I ask her. And suddenly it’s all too much to bear. I begin shaking. “I didn’t know that I could hurt you,” I tell Addie. “But I need to know who my real father is. I have been curious for years, since I was eleven and he walked into the back of the deli I was working in. He examined me so closely, Addie, and now he actually took the time to find out my phone number and Pete’s name. I know it’s him calling. I just wanted to let him know that I’m okay. That I’m a good kid.”

The next day I struggle to concentrate in school and skip my last two classes to come home early so I can sit by the phone and wait. But every time the phone rings, it’s never Paul, and I rush the person off the other end to keep the line open.

When Addie arrives home, she says she spoke to social services. “They said that you’re not allowed to meet him alone, and you may not even speak to him on the phone if Pete or I, or Ms. Harvey, are not around. This is a strange man—it’s possible he isn’t your father at all, it could be someone who likes seeing you at Rickel’s or who remembers you from having dated your mother. So they want to avoid you putting yourself in a bad situation with this person without us here to protect you.” As she finishes expressing her concern for me, the ring of the phone busts through the tension. She looks at me. “Regina, let me answer that.”

The exchange is curt. “Yes, I am Addie Peterman, the foster mother of Regina Marie. And you are . . . ? And you are . . . ? Mr. Accerbi—”

My heart leaps.

“—although you refuse to identify yourself, we know who you are. I’ll have you know: Regina told us that she reached out to you.” Then she shoos me toward the phone in her bedroom so she can listen in on our conversation from the kitchen phone. “Yes, Mr. Accerbi. I’ll get her on the phone now.”

I rub my sweaty hands on my Jordaches before I answer the phone. “This is Regina.” My heart pounds. My voice wants to shriek in delight.

“Young lady,” he says. “You should know what a disruption you have created in my life.”

“Pardon me?”

“My wife is sick and has been crying on the couch for days over this. I don’t have a strong heart, and your behavior could very well result in a second heart attack. I don’t know who you are or why you believe what you believe, or even why you wrote such a letter to my family members. You have created an embarrassing situation for all of us and I am sure that you have also upset your foster parents as well.”

Now this is personal—he will not get away with trying to manipulate me this way. “Hey Paul,” I dare ask him, “how did you get our phone number or figure out my foster parents’ names?”

“It is no concern to you how I found it out,” he says. “I just did.”

I know I’ve cornered him. This verbal volleyball is like fighting with Cookie. “Who was here? Was it you?”

He falls silent.

“So I’ll assume that you drove by the return address that I left you in the letter, saw the Petermans’ names on the mailbox, and looked up their number.” I whisper: “Didn’t you?” It’s in that breath I realize without a doubt that he has to be my father—why else would he be calling me, going to these lengths to find out the names of my foster parents, and our phone number?

He ignores my question and says he wants to meet me.

“Good, I want to meet you, too . . . but there are rules. Either my foster parents or my social worker have to be present.”

“I’m not meeting you with others around.”

“Look, I don’t have a choice. I’m a sixteen-year-old girl living under the roof of foster parents, and I have to obey or else I could end up back on the street. Those are the terms. That’s the only way.”

“I’ll think about it,” he says. “And I’ll call you tomorrow.”

The next day Addie speaks to the social worker who says Paul can meet me at the house in a room separate from the supervision. “Or if he wants to meet outside the home, Pete or I have to be there but we can make it inconspicuous,” Addie says.

I skip school as Addie and I plan how we can set up the meeting . . . and record it. If they weren’t going to be in the room then they needed to somehow bear witness to the conversation so that if Paul Accerbi changed his story later, it would be my word against his. “Ooh, I’ve got it!” Addie says. “He can come to the house, in the living room, and we’ll put your boom box with a blank cassette tape behind the chair he’ll sit in. Then, when he’s walking up to the front stoop, we press Record!” Addie’s relishing our sleuthing strategy.

“Pete and I will busy ourselves in the garage or outside in the garden! This way, we won’t impose, see . . . that will allow you and Paul to speak freely.”

Our plan is in place . . . but he never calls the next night.

Or the night after that.

Then, on Thursday night the phone rings. This time, Pete answers and hands the phone to me.

In my ear, Paul reiterates what an “uproar” I’ve created in his home and how disrespectful it was for me to have done such a thing. Then, after his lecture, he calms down and says, “I’ve decided I’d like to meet you.” When I remind him of the conditions, he raises his voice in anger. “Regina, what I wanted to tell you is that you are probably not my daughter. Your mother was promiscuous; she slept around a lot and was sleeping with many men all the time. She had quite a reputation for being—you know—you know what I mean. You’re old enough to understand what I’m saying, right?”

“What, that my mother was a slut?” I ask him. “Yes, Paul. I am well aware of my mother’s behavior and so are all my siblings. But when it came to who our fathers are, we were able to tell when she lied and when she told the truth. But when she would say the same story over and over again—the way she did about you, whether she was straight or sober—we knew that to be the truth. When her stories would change, that was the lie. She never changed her story about you, Paul. And she still hasn’t.”

“Your mother and I had a one-night stand and that was it,” Paul said. I note an emphasis in order to satisfy what seems like an audience on his side of the phone.

“A one-night stand. You are saying that you were a one-night stand of my mother, and that based on that, she thinks you’re my father. Really, Paul? Well, if you were a one-night stand, then how come she told me that you were in the Korean War, wanted to be a paratrooper, own a fence company, grew up in Lindenhurst, have an ex-wife named Carol and a daughter named Barbara? Frankly, Paul, you’re full of shit. If you were just a one-night stand, then you certainly talked a lot for one night!”

The call goes dead.

I slam the yellow phone back on Addie’s wall. “That man is my father!” I yell at Pete, who’s curiously watching me pull out my boom box from its hiding place. “I won’t be needing this back here since there will be no Paul Accerbi meeting to record.”

He never calls back, and I don’t care. He’s no better than my mother—I should have figured that out a long time ago. She picked some winners, and he was just like all the rest.

By the summer I’ve closed off the whole experience; compartmentalized it and detached from it, the way I’ve learned to do with all the craziness in my life, which always stems back to Cookie. I busy myself working at Rickel’s to save money for college . . . then there’s finally something to celebrate when Addie and Pete come through with a car for me. “You can buy our Pinto for two hundred seventy-five dollars,” Addie says, “if you’re willing to put down a seventy-five-dollar deposit.” There’s more good news when I come to them with the seventy-five bucks: They’ve decided to waive the two hundred and let me keep the car as an early graduation present.

The fall of my senior year, I’m named cocaptain of the gymnastics team. Under the guidance of Mr. Kelly and Mr. Maguire, I take my college exams and list my two schools of choice. They’re convinced that I’ll get accepted to the university, insisting that if I do, I have to go. “A bachelor’s degree from Stony Brook would serve you better than an associate’s from the community college,” Mr. Maguire says. It makes sense, but I’m afraid to get my hopes up. Preoccupied with whether I’ll have a home during or even after college, I look up a number in the phone book for the only possible family who might be able to help me:

Calcaterra, Michael and Rose

Grandma Rose warms up on the other end of the phone when I tell her I haven’t had a relationship with my mother for the last three years. I hear tears overcome her voice when she tells me, “We always wanted to know you kids. Will you let me take you shopping before you graduate? We’re so proud of you.” Before Easter, she and my grandfather—Grampa Mike—accompany me to JCPenney, where they let me pick out a prom dress and put it on their charge card. As Grandma Rose and the cashier exchange niceties at the cash register, I wonder: Why did you punish me when I was little by cutting me off? How was it acceptable for my siblings and me to bear the burden of Cookie alone? As she hands me the hanging plastic bag with my dress inside, Grandma Rose looks in my eyes . . . and suddenly I understand that this purchase is her amends to me. I realize that in this moment—as I’m about to leave high school and enter the world as an adult—I have a choice: I can distance myself and remain cynical toward her, or I can forgive her in the interest of developing a relationship with someone who’s actually my family.

After I graduate in June 1984, Addie knocks on my bedroom door. “Your mother’s on the phone,” she says.

My face twists in confusion. “Cookie? Called here?”

Addie’s expression tells me she’s confused, too. “Yes.”

I pick up the phone in her bedroom. “Hello?” I hear Addie gently hang up her end of the phone in the kitchen.

“I called to wish you a happy graduation.” Cookie’s voice is gruff and strained. “I’ve got something for you.”

I hesitate for the punch line. “What?”

“A boot up your ass!”

I chuckle along, slightly stunned that she’s contacted me.

“Actually, I have something in mind,” I tell her. “I’ve saved money to take a plane to Idaho for a visit. Would you be willing to have me?” My tone is sweet. If I disarm her, she may let me come out to see the kids. I still think about Rosie constantly, even though it’s been four years since we’ve seen each other in person. I try to convince myself that she knows I did everything I could to save her.

“I guess that’d be okay,” Cookie says. “If you agree to leave your attitude in New York.”

When I tell Camille I’m going, she’s concerned how I’ll do when I have to face Cookie. “You haven’t seen her since that day in the motel room,” Camille says. “Are you nervous?”

“Nah. She knows she has to pick me up from the airport, and I’ll make it clear right up front that I’m the boss of that relationship now.”

Cookie and Norman stand by as I lift my suitcase into the car. “Get a load of you,” Cookie says, looking me over. In the last three years, my hair’s grown back thick, and I set it with rollers so it’s shiny and full. The bare limbs stemming from my tropical pink shorts and T-shirt are fit and trim, and I wear gold jewelry around my tanned neck and wrists. I’ve grown into a young woman with features that Addie says intimidate the boys, and right before graduation I found out I was accepted to the local community college. Feeling certain about my future, I stand before Cookie with satisfaction of who I’ve become. Already it’s clear nothing about her has changed.

Rosie, who’s obviously afraid to speak in front of Cookie, is blossoming, too. Just a few months shy of twelve years old, my baby sister is almost unrecognizable from the little peanut I knew four years ago. She’s peaked much sooner than the rest of us did, already a head taller than fifteen-year-old Norm. Her father, Vito, was a tall, broad man and Rosie’s frame is taking after his. As a result, although she’s still a preteen, she could easily pass for a sixteen-year-old. Her body is muscular from working on the farm and her face has filled out with sharp cheekbones. Her hair has turned from blond to a shiny, sandy brown. No question, no paternity test needed: Rosie is Vito’s daughter.

Rosie and I spend most of the time alone near the water, tubing or lying on the rocks near the river. We talk and talk, and she drops hints that she’s embarrassed for me to see the way they live. It’s clear she trusts me as her sole confidante when she informs me about the tensions in the house. She joined cheerleading and often sleeps at a friend’s house or at the home of one of her teachers to avoid the chaos at Cookie and Clyde’s. Thinking of her as a cheerleader makes me sad . . . she’s the one who needs cheering on. I keep those thoughts to myself, familiar with the security that comes with having an organized schedule and stable places to go. Cookie’s house is cluttered with junk, and the barn cats act like they own the house—it’s obvious just from the smells.

At one point, when I want to make a call home, Cookie demands that I leave her twenty bucks to pay for the call. We end up in a yelling match in which she threatens to beat the shit out of me. “Let me set you straight like old times!” she says.

I start laughing. “You can’t touch me, remember? I’m not your daughter anymore, you can’t push me around.” But as the words come out, they sting me because I know who the recipient of her anger is now that I’m no longer there . . . and suddenly I’m overcome with guilt.

I don’t make it through a single day during that weeklong visit without hearing Cookie threaten to take me back to the airport. By the end of my stay, I’m counting down the hours until I head back home. When the moment arrives at last, I take my bambina in my arms. “No matter what she says, you remember our codes, and always keep my phone number hidden away,” I whisper.

“I know it by heart,” she says.

I kiss her cheeks and tell her to make sure she checks the mail at her friend’s and her teacher’s houses, because I’ll be sending her money so she can mail me letters, call me, and buy whatever she needs for school.

IN LATE AUGUST 1984, a few weeks before I’m to start classes at the community college, I receive an unexpected phone call from Stony Brook University Admissions informing me that I’ve been accepted off their wait list. “If you wish to accept our offer,” the admissions worker says, “you’ll need to attend orientation later this week.”

When I hang up the phone, I call Ms. Harvey right away. “She’s out,” the secretary says.

“Then get me her supervisor, please! Tell him it’s Regina Calcaterra.”

He picks up. “This is Mr. McManus.”

“Mr. McManus, I got into Stony Brook!” I tell him. “Admissions needs a letter to prove I’m a ward of the state so I can apply for a school loan and the Pell grant.”

There’s silence on the other end of the phone.

“Mr. McManus?”

“Regina,” he says, “can’t you hear me smiling?”

I laugh. “Really?”

“You did it, Regina!” he exclaimed. “We are all so proud of you. I’ll get the letter done so you can pick it up today and bring it to the university before five o’clock. Sound okay?”

“That’s perfect,” I tell him. “Mr. McManus, can I tell you something?”

“You can tell me anything, Regina.”

“Thanks. This is the biggest day of my life.”

“So far,” he says.

“So far.”

But while my work and academics are falling into place, I’m far from living worry-free. Later that summer, just weeks after I’ve seen her, Rosie’s challenges at home seem to escalate, and her communications with me begin to increase. I send letters to her, addressed to her friends’ houses or teachers’ addresses, that include money for her to use to go out with her friends or buy anything she can get away with that won’t raise Cookie’s suspicion.

Just when it grows too much for me to manage, Cherie calls to tell me she’s thinking of moving out to Idaho to help Rosie. Cherie and her husband, who have been separated for a while, are now divorcing, and his parents had a judge give them custody of her son. “I didn’t want to tell you any of this, Gi, because you have enough to worry about. But they took my son from me and I can’t fight them anymore,” she says. “This is my chance to try and help Rosie.”

And not much later, she is gone.