David and Eva stood before the officiate and vowed to live one life, two partners working toward the same goal.
She looked radiant in her ivory off the shoulder gown, a small hat with a demure veil, and she held a bouquet of calla lilies that sprayed its beauty.
He stood by her side nervous, but clearly in love. He looked at home in his simple slacks and an ivory shirt and light jacket. It was a big change from his regular garb of sweat pants and college t shirts.
The reception room was decorated in pink and lavender, the colors bled over anything that was standing still. After the big entrance, everyone sat down in their designated places and feasted on elaborately decorated dishes of chicken and fish.
As I waited for my mother, I would sneak sips of the guests left over drinks.
The room just started to swirl around when I saw Eva and David in a heated exchange of words in a deep corner of the room. Apparently, the photographer he hired had gotten drunk and passed out in the men’s room, it was only half way through the party. David threw up his hands and walked away from his fuming bride, but soon they were both drunk and feeling no pain.
I was watching the white table dance around the room when my mother arrived. I checked myself out and saw that my makeup had run circles around my eyes, which were red and glassy. The elegant up do had partially come down and I hurriedly tried my best to fix it. She was at the door when I returned and I caught up with her.
“Hi mom.” My mouth went dry, I hadn’t spoken to her in about three years and was foolishly hoping, wishing, praying that she would look at me with gladness. She walked right by me, it wasn’t a surprise, but it hurt just the same. Then a bolt of optimism told me that maybe she didn’t hear me. I rushed closer and touched her shoulder, she jerked away from my touch and rushed off.
I stood at the door and watched her walk out of my life again. She did it so much, that I began to wonder why I wanted to be with someone who clearly didn’t want to be around me. Grandma saw me standing at the door and came over.
“What wrong with you?”
“Mom didn’t talk to me.” I hated sounding like some mewing kitten. She shrugged in her platinum flapper style dress, which fit her well. Grandma did have a certain classic style, she didn’t dress frumpy.
“Well, what do you expect after what you did? It’s your own fault, now you deal with the consequences.”
“I didn’t do anything. Benny,” I didn’t know why I was bothering to explain.
“Yeah, I know. You don’t do anything.” she walked back to the party. My despair slumped and collapsed in me.
Anger screamed and hollered and my eyes went from softly seeing my mother as a big part of me to frowning at someone who had broken my heart into a million pieces and didn’t seem to mind kicking some out of the way. What had I done to make this happen?
You know you’re a terrible person when your own mother doesn’t want you, a mean twisted voice whispered. I didn’t ask to be born and I felt as if I were being punished for being alive.
During the next two months, I ran away four times. I intruded on my friends and their families for my own temporary relief. I endured the embarrassment and the broken friendships.
I tried to shake myself out of the gloom by drinking extra hard at the cutting parties, but I’d become so hysterical that they had to carry me home.
Home had Eva and David arguing more and dealing with the beginnings of married life.
Home had grandma and her great bible, and bible study booklets that she had picked up. She even had me reading Christian Archie comics. ( I used to borrow the regular ones from a fellow Archie fan and we would read them in secret.) I would groan when she would begin to school me on Heaven and the rocky road you had to travel. If she wasn’t doing that she was yelling and hitting me, that was my home, where I prayed to sleep forever.
That Spring, grandma had once again made another decision about my life.
She sat me down in the kitchen and stood in front of me.
“You’re going to go to a place with other kids who have your kind of problems.” She said it with a lot of finality and so I was being shuffled around again.
So, with David at the wheel and grandma by his side, myself in the back of his small Toyota with Eva, we drove four hours to a large farm house in Pennsylvania. It sat in the middle of nowhere with nothing, but two large schools and a play area. We got out of the car and I took a deep breath to clear my lungs from the nauseating back seat fumes and smelled the sweet clean air. I relaxed and strolled to see everything, the thick strong trees with roots that slithered through the grass. The luscious curves of the hills that were scored with wildflowers and the blinding blue of the sky. I started to feel the warmth of hope.
A Christian couple, who took in eight teenagers with different emotional disturbances, gave us a tour.
The buildings in the distance were the high school and elementary. They went on talking to grandma about the routine while I looked around the homey and practical rooms. I wanted something good to come out of the misery. I wouldn’t have to deal with the looks of disappointment or the silence when it was clear that someone should be talking. This could be my new start.
“So, you just need to make the decision to live here and do well.” the woman said with a gentle smile and I thought, yes, this is someone I could tell me secrets to.
“She can’t make good decisions, that’s why were here.” grandma said with a little laugh. The couple just nodded and smiled with compassion.
I sighed quietly.
On the way home, they talked among themselves. I watched the scenery turn from simple country to dingy city and so did my hopes.
“The place is nice,” David volunteered his opinion as if anyone had asked.
“A very nice couple too.” grandma added.
“There have a lot of rules and the kids do chores. That’s good for them, you know? It builds character.”
Grandma looked back at me as if waiting for answer to a question that must have flown by me.
“I think I can handle it.” I told her, not really meeting her eye. I saw her face tighten then she turned around.
I knew then that the point wasn’t that I could handle it. The fact that I wasn’t begging all the way home not to be sent to that charming house, showed that I was unfazed by their attempt to scare me straight. Straight from what exactly, is what confused me. I was the one who was suffering and instead of taking the time, perhaps the same amount of time it took to develop this scheme, to talk and listen to me, they decide to give the job to someone else. I think the last thing on their minds was how that made me feel.
When we arrived home, grandma turned to me again.
“Well, you’ll be gone in two weeks, you should be happy about that.” she rolled her eyes and walked away.
The day that I was due to leave to Pennsylvania, started with a buzzing energy. I tried not to appear excited and even acted a little sad during the past two weeks, but it took effort. Why wouldn’t I be excited at leaving? What exactly would keep me here? The love of my family?
I made mental lists of all the things that I would do when I arrived at Pennsylvania, all the things that I would accomplish to make everyone eat their filthy words. It gave me the fuel to pack and repack several times before I was ready.
When grandma saw me ready, she became enraged. This wasn’t just her slapping me around and pulling my hair. This was a foaming kind of anger. Her tight fists pounded on my back as I curled up to protect my face, she yanked hard at my hair and used it to pull me closer to her.
Her spit shot out with every word.
“You little bitch! You think you can do what you want!?”
I was caught off guard and my confusion didn’t do a thing to keep the pain away. The bruises faded, but there was already a building of resentment that only grew.
I dug deeper into myself and became unreachable, for good and for bad. My world took on a gray tint and what’s worse is that I had become accustomed to its kind of darkness. If I were between friends, I would go to school and isolate to a corner of the room with a book.
I covered my red and heavily bagged eyes behind dark shades and would scowl my way through the halls. I wanted to be blind and deaf and only fear stopped me from doing myself in, more the fear of living through it than of dying. I was waiting for the bus with my faithful Walkman blasting in my ears and I noticed a sign in the window of a restaurant. Forgetting my bus, I walked into the restaurant to inquire.
The interview was conducted by a tall blonde named Kim. Her curly hair was thin and there was dandruff on the shoulders of her smart business jacket. She was pale skinned with clear green eyes that looked at me with sympathy when I explained how much I wanted the job.
“I understand what’s its like being your age, you want so much. This would be your first job?”
“I want to make this a positive experience for you, it’s a great step for a young woman to gain some independence. Now, you do know that since you’re not eighteen that I have to pay you off the books?”
I nodded again.
“I know and that’s fine, I could just do small things like doing dishes.”
Kim smiled at me patiently. The same smile that the pretty hostess had and I had to wonder if it was something that happened when you worked here.
“No need for that. How about coat check girl instead?”
We shook hands and I felt my first twinge of hope stir in my gut.
I took all the shifts that were available. Weekends, holidays and private parties included. My uniform was the same as the hostess and it gave grandma a reason to buy my first pair of high heels.
My closet was small, but the wafting mixture from the kitchen and the colognes and sweet perfumes made it feel like a garden at night. I smiled and chatted my way to bigger tips. I became more comfortable and helpful and the customers were easy to be around.
My time working at Harrison’s Bar and restaurant was where I found a peace and control that fortified my weakened soul.
It also proved that everyone else, grandma, David, Eva and my mother were wrong about me.
I sought out and got a job without their help, just the thought of not having to thank them gave me more joy than they would ever imagine.
I sat in homeroom the next morning, still thinking about my small growing hope when a girl sat next to me. She had thick hair that spilled over her shoulders in waves and ivory skin that was in the middle of an angry breakout. She had an upturned nose and thin lips, so her smile was toothy.
She wore acid washed jeans and jacket, over an oversized sweatshirt that seemed to add to her heaviness. I could almost taste the tinge of nicotine that emitted from her.
“Hi, I’m Christina Papagapitos.”
My eyes widened a bit at her last name.
“That’s a big name.” I said smirking. She gave me a natural smile that made her eyes twinkle.
“I’m Greek. It’s a pain most of the time, you wouldn’t believe the way people try to spell it, much less say it.” She told me with a little laugh. I relaxed and stuck out my hand.
That was the start of our friendship and we became inseparable, much to the dismay of Christina’s best friend, Donna. Donna was a heavy dark haired girl that Christina had known since second grade. When Christina met me, they saw each other less and less. So, she did what any good friend would do, I suppose. She confronted me in the hall before a class.
“I want you to stay away from my friend. I don’t like you, I think you’re weird and I don’t want Christina hurt.”
“Do you always tell your friends who they can be friends with?”
She put her hands on her hips and leaned toward me.
“I can make the exception.”
I acted unconcerned, but my heart was racing and I could feel the hot licks of my rage beginning to blur my reason. Violence wrapped around me like a venomous serpent, hissing a warning and I reined myself in. I looked at her through my scowl.
“Talk to her about it, I don’t have the time.” and walked on. I didn’t mention it to Christina because I didn’t care about it. If she chose to end our friendship, then that would be up to her. It wouldn’t be the first time I lost a friend, so I didn’t invest myself in them. I learned to enjoy the time while I had it. I liked hanging out with her in her lemon yellow room and listening to our favorite albums. She was fun to be around, full of energy and an innocence that made me feel maternal and protective.
Our second home was the Kings Plaza mall. Hours were spent window shopping, chewing on enormous pretzels from the kiosks and dreaming about the future. The stores were like presents that we couldn’t open until we were old enough, it heightened our desire to grab those goodies and change our lives.
Our lives were similar in some ways. Christina’s parents, Sandra and Milo Papagapitos went through a messy divorce a few years earlier and made no attempt to cover their mutual animosity.
Christina and her older brother, Jared lived with Sandra and they rarely saw their father.
Perhaps that was why Jared, who worked part time as security guard, would lie around in his underwear waiting for his sister to bring her unsuspecting friends home or why he would claim to have Tourette’s Syndrome and have cursing fits just to shock others and make them uncomfortable. His relationship with Christina was no better and I sensed an abusive strain somewhere in it.
Sandra and Christina argued constantly.
“She still thinks I’m a little girl.” Christina moaned to me once. It didn’t make it any better that Sandra thought I was some sinister pied piper out to lure her innocent daughter into a world of sex, drugs and Rock and Roll.
During my breaks, I would call Christina and we would talk about the coming holidays.
“I’m almost done with the fucking house and tree, but this morning she tells me she wants the white lights instead of the colored. Now, I have to back out tonight and change the fucking lights.” I complained, the stress was making my skin itch.
“I don’t know how you put up with it, Susanna. Sandra wouldn’t dare try that shit with me, she knows that I’m not into that.”
I chuckled. Christina had often made that point whenever she argued with her mother.
I could picture Sandra with her thin arms crossed over her small chest, her dark hair was short and permed. Her white eyes were a muddy brown and they sat close on her oval face. She had a long nose and thin lips that were lined from years of smoking.
I was always ready to gasp whenever I heard Christina call her mother by her first name. I couldn’t imagine a mother being okay with that, especially MY mother. I knew that even with how I felt about her, I probably would never call her Lorna. To her face. I had to switch the subject.
“You got plans for the holidays?”
She sighed into the phone.
“Hopefully, spend it with someone I met not too long ago.” She said quietly, like a secret. I followed suit.
“Really? Don’t tell me, a guy on the JV team.”
She giggled. ” No, he’s twenty five.”
I was surprised by the number, but was glad that she found a boyfriend and that she sounded thrilled.
“He’s the love of my life, Susanna. I knew it from the moment I saw him.”
I was skeptical about love, it was just so damn temporary that it was cruel. For something that was meant to do so much good, I couldn’t understand why it hurt so badly. I was relieved that the break was over and I went back to work in my closet.
When the end of the shift came, I was still wired from the night and waited until they locked the doors to call for my cab.
I started doing this a couple of nights a week and would endure the hits grandma would give me because it was worth wringing out every minute around strangers.
I prepared myself, but was caught off balance by David coming out of the shadows.
“Where were you? When are you going to stop this bullshit? Look at the time!”
“I waited until closing.” I was shaking in seeing him angry, I never had before.
Grandma was behind him. “You’re such a liar.” she told me.
“No, I’m not.” I said before I caught the words. David slapped me hard across the face. I gasped my surprise as he screamed in my face.
“Don’t talk to her like that! All you have to do is just come home when you’re suppose to, why can’t you just do that? I’m tired of your shit and the hard time you’re giving my mother. Cut your fucking shit!”
He stormed off and grandma followed. I waited until I heard their doors close before moving through the dark house.
I walked up the stairs to my room with my face stinging and my eyes dry. I wondered why no one had bothered to ask why I stayed out late and thought, no, it’s easier to think I’m a troublemaker. Meanwhile, adults did worse things and nothing happened to them. Suddenly, a quiet desperation infiltrated me and I felt every blow of the assault. The thought of leaving for good entered my mind like a slammed door, forcing me to look at it and take it in. I decided to save my money and take a bus to anywhere. I wasn’t worried about what would happen when I got to my destination, I was more worried about what would happen if I stayed. After all, if a specialist thought that I could make my own way, then I was sure as going to give it a try.
The more certain I became about leaving, the easier it was to deal with grandma. I was looking forward to being on my own. I knew I wasn’t going to end up a drug addict or a prostitute, anything else I felt I could handle. I made New Year’s Eve my deadline.
The next night, Christina and I were in her room and she had just laid out her new albums when she started to tell me about the infamous Joey.
“Well, okay, he’s married. He didn’t want to be though, she practically forced him into it.”
I nodded while shifting through the albums.
“Her name is Gabriella. She’s Brazilian and not all that pretty. Anyway, she goes and gets pregnant and you know, he has to stay. He’s just trying to be a good father.” she explained.
“Well, at least he’s trying.” I encouraged. She brightened and smiled at me.
“I know, right?”
I chose Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl and rocked with the quick beat.
She put her hand on mine and widened her grin.
“Let me tell you how I met him. So one day, I went over to Maggie’s house.” she started. Maggie Kwan was one of the popular girls in our home room who was also an aspiring model and never let anyone forget it.
“I was feeling so bad about myself, my mom, not finding a job, stupid Jared and plus, I felt like a freaking whale. So, while I’m there, the doorbell rings and I open it and there he was. He had on a black vest, blue jeans, no shirt and a bordello hat. I swear, Susanna, I couldn’t breathe. I fell in love with him right there.”
While she lit a cigarette, the song changed tempo to a dreamy melody. She held the cigarette between her overstuffed fingers, her nails were long and a painted bubble gum pink. She exhaled quickly to continue.
“We started talking, then we started hanging out and after a while, we were making out. I wanted to, you know, have sex, but at first, he said he felt funny about my age. Then when we started having sex, we did everywhere. Here, Maggie’s house, wherever.”
Her face darkened a bit.
“I guess after a while, I started to get jealous. We could spend the whole day together and it wasn’t enough. He would have to go home to her and that drove me crazy. Just knowing that he’s sleeping in the same bed with that bitch, I mean, he said they just share the bed, that they don’t have sex, but it still bothered me. Anyway, he kept telling me to be patient, to wait and he will work everything out, but I couldn’t wait. So I started putting love notes in his pockets and when she found one, all hell broke loose. They broke up that night and Joey was so furious with me, he came here and scared the shit out of Sandra. She was going to call the cops until I convinced her not to, that I’d fix it. Joey was so mad that he yelled at me and you know me, I started crying. He felt bad, I guess and hugged me, but I know I did the right thing. He didn’t belong with her, I could make him happier than she ever could.”
I was silent and shocked. I never would’ve thought that Christina would do something like that, it seemed out of character for her. At the same time, the manipulative act showed her to be cunning and unrepentant for ruining a marriage. She got Joey and got rid of both mother and child in one swoop. Even though she felt regret for hurting him, I could tell that if she had to do it again, she would.
“So what happened?”
She shrugged. ” She took their son, Moses to Brazil with her to live with her mother, I think. I don’t know and I don’t care.” She snuffed out her cigarette hard in the ashtray.
“I should tell you, though. He steals for a living.” she said. I was distracted with finding an album to play.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he goes into department stores and takes stuff to sell to some people he knows in the Bronx.”
I stared at her amazed.
“Wow.” I told her for lack of finding a word.
“Yeah. I went with him a couple of times, but the thing is that he sometimes gets caught and has to spend time away.” She pouted for a moment then her face lit up and she smiled. “Soon, you’ll meet Joey and we’ll hang out. God, we’ll have so much fun!” she giggled. I smiled and watched her almost twitch with joy.
Grandma’s gritty call from the landing woke me at six thirty Monday morning. I staggered downstairs and sat near the steaming radiator to burn off the December chill.
Grandma turned to me as she put on her coat.
“Don’t forget to get to the basement and change the newspaper. I put it on the list, anyway.” I stifled a yawn.
I locked the door behind her and went about my usual morning chores before school.
I battled the cold and the stinging wind as I walked toward the school. I started to feel a dread come from deep within and I knew that I wouldn’t go in. I sat on a bench across the street and stared at the building. I thought of my failing grades and my failed friendships, both required work that was beyond my reach. I comforted myself with the feeling that they couldn’t teach me anything that I couldn’t learn on my own without the peer pressure and getting caught in the tangle of gossip. Without the wishing to be someone else because I felt I wasn’t interesting enough, fun enough or pretty enough. It had seemed so much of a waste of time and if I wanted to be honest about, I felt beat by it. The teachers, the false friends and the achievements that would never materialize because I couldn’t put in what I needed to. It was smarter to walk away from it, but I was pretty sure that grandma wasn’t going to be happy about it. The choice made, I picked up my backpack and went to the park to kill some hours until I saw Christina. When grandma found out about me leaving school, she was surprisingly calm.
“Well, then, you’ll get your GED. They have classes on TV, I’ll get you the books.” she told me in a tired voice. And that was that.
I actually felt kind of guilty for being a problem, I didn’t want to be someone she had to deal with. I wanted to be someone she loved.
The pressure was off now that I could work full time. Christmas was great now that my time wasn’t just spent at home; Harrison’s was the only place I knew I had succeeded in proving myself.
At home, I did the usual decorating, dealing with the yelling and the hitting with a few peaceful pauses in between. It felt better to think that I was only bidding my time instead of knowing I was stuck there until who knows when or whenever they decided to shove me off on someone else.
The days and nights passed and my silence grew longer. She became more irritable, nothing was good enough. The day before New Year’s Eve, it all came to a head. I don’t remember what I had done, but I know I was planted in the kitchen chair, listening to her scream her poisonous words at me.
“You’re selfish and a liar. That’s all that comes out of your filthy mouth, who knows if you’re telling the truth or not. You even liked playing the other woman with Benny, right? Just so you could have your way. You wanted everybody to feel sorry for you, but you probably liked what your father did to you. You’re disgusting!” she told me angrily, the last word came out in a hysterical shrill. I winced from the words and the noise. At that moment, I no longer believed that I was cared for. People who love you, even if they’re angry don’t say things like that. No one loved me here, so I would leave it behind. For good. I sat there for a moment, sad that my life had to take this turn. When she left the room, I left the house.
I could hear her calling after me, but I walked on and tried not to cry. I mourned for the grandmother who showed me so much when I was child. Why did I have to be alone? Maybe it was better to be that way than be a burden that made people hate me. I didn’t want to believe that I was a toxic person, but here was the proof, wasn’t it? Abandoned, abused, and kicked around from relative to relative. The fact planted itself in me deep and now I just had to survive, just on the chance that something good might come.
On my break, I called Christina and told her what happened. I almost broke down when she started to soothe me.
“It’s okay. So you stay at my house until you figure things out.” she told me.
“Oh my God, you’re mom will have an attack.” I said sadly.
“Don’t worry about, Sandra. I know how to handle her. Don’t worry about nothing tonight, I’m bringing Joey to pick you up.” she said excitedly. I smiled on the other line. I was looking forward to meeting this man who made my friend’s heart pitter patter. After I hung up, me smile faded and I wished I could forget what grandma had said, but it stuck like gum to a polished pump.
As the day wore on, I managed to smack as smile on my face, despite my profound pain. I couldn’t believe what I had done, I left the comfort of my home for the unpredictable streets. Part of me bellowed how nuts it was, just another example of how off center I had become. It was hard to walk with the big weight on me, but I got better at faking my discomfort.
When the night was coming and the bus boys were collecting the nightly debris, I found a moment to rest at the bar. I flipped off my shoes and began counting my tips, trying to add to my measly savings when the bartender, Carrie strolled over. She was supermodel beautiful, in her early twenties, tall with straight black hair that was cut blunt at her dimpled chin. Her Asian American heritage was only in her ebony eyes that were rimmed with navy. She was down to earth with a slight edge, some kind of danger factor that I couldn’t figure out, (I didn’t like to dwell on women because it made me more aware how flawed I was. God, I couldn’t even manage to be straight, I could hear grandma screaming it in my ear.), but she always had a kind word for me.
“Hey, there pretty. How was your night as the Bringer of Booze?” she asked playfully.
I smiled a little and gave her my patent answer,
“Fine.” I got lost in figuring out what my next step was, how much money I needed and how far I was going to make it, Carrie nudged me.
“I think you got visitors.” she told me and motioned toward the door. I sighed slipped on my heels and tucked my tips in my bra, like abuela did. I turned to see Christina clinging to a man who looked uncomfortable in a gray plaid suit. He looked like he was going to a job interview, but most likely it was what he got arrested in.
His dark hair was combed back in soft waves, stopping at the neck. His cappuccino complexion was smooth and his thin goatee was neat. His stocky build was proof of his time inside.
He looked at me and I knew I was being LOOKED at. Christina bubbled next to him, in sheer delight of the long awaited meeting. I put out my hand and introduced myself and he took my hand and smiled. He had a mouthful of white healthy teeth despite he was a pack a day.
“Hello, I’m Joey. I’ve heard a lot about you.” he told me. I looked at Christina’s smiling face and shining eyes.
“I’m not that bad.” I told him. He nodded and continued to smile.
“Let’s go to my house to change.” she said. I retrieved my coat and we walked out in the biting cold to Joey’s car.
It was a dirty gray Nova, he looked embarrassed when he put his key in the lock. I didn’t care, this was my last night before I started my new life and I was going to have as much fun as possible.
When midnight hit ushering us unto 1989, we were driving over the Brooklyn Bridge. A new year and I did nothing more, but hope for the best. Anything else would’ve scared the shit out of me. I was running on auto pilot and blind faith in something I could not explain, but knew it existed and I was compelled to follow.
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