Introduction ~ Year Without Fear
In the five or six years I lived in Los Angeles I can recall only one year without fear. My mother had moved to New York and I was left in the care of my stepfather. I was in the fifth grade and I remember that year as one of the happier ones of my childhood. I do not think it was quite a full year; it stretched from sometime during the summer of 1983 to the beginning of the summer of 1984. What made this year stand out is that it was the one time that I remember feeling safe at home. After that year I would never really feel safe as a child again. Fifth grade was also the last year I would say I was a child. When my stepfather told me I was to go to New York, I was assured it was only a visit. I was told it was just for the summer and I could come back when ever I wanted. The truth was that I was moving permanently and since the divorce, which may or may not have been final, my stepfather had no custody rights.
My mother had been a violent and a loving person in alternating moments. Life with her meant long stretches of calm followed by incredibly violent rages. The rage could come at any given moment of any given day. I never knew what would set her off, sometimes even a compliment would do it. I feared and loved her simultaneously, though I was not often the target of her rage: my stepfather was an alcoholic and a very peaceful person. There was often no warning for my mother’s transformation from a loving woman into a creature of pure, violent rage. Those nights would start with yelling and screaming over things I either didn’t understand or don’t really remember. My stepfather’s role in these fights was to remain silently seated in the living room with a pained look on his face. My mother would become angrier and angrier until finally the screaming was no longer enough. She would start breaking and throwing things. She would break anything of his that had meaning to their relationship. I watched as she tore apart a t-shirt of his, a t-shirt they got when they went to the Grand Teton national park. I even saw her spray Windex in his face. Not once did my stepfather, a black belt in Tae-kwon-do, ever block a punch or a slap. He never hit her back and he never raised his voice. To this day I respect that about him.
The night of the Windex incident was the night they split up for good, and I always felt it was my fault. Every other time they had split up I had stayed with my stepfather but this time I went with my mother. I went with her because I didn’t want her to think I didn’t love her. We spent the rest of that year and part of the next in Harbor City with friends of my mother’s. It was at their house that a nine year old boy I was at the time, called his stepfather’s parents and told them what had happened. I was scared but when my mother found out she told me that she could not get back together with my stepfather because of that call.
Sometime during the summer of 1983 I was sent to stay with my stepfather while my mother was getting settled in New York. He was living in Long Beach by then and we moved into a house across the street from the school with his new girlfriend and her son, John. In the year without fear I finally felt secure at home. It is the one time in my life that I felt like I had a home, or had any sense of what that word meant beyond what you can read in the dictionary.
My mother could be quite nice for days and even weeks at a time. Her love of travel often found me home by myself, occasionally for as long as a month at a time. The five years I spent in New York were at times a nightmare. All the anger that had fallen upon my stepfather would be draped upon my back. I often felt that I was nothing more than an object my mother used to work out her aggressions on. Now all the objects that were thrown were thrown at me. If you can imagine what an apartment would look like if you left an eleven to fifteen-year-old alone in it for a few weeks, then perhaps you can understand her anger. I never really knew when she would be arriving home. Even if I did know, I would often wait to the last minute to clean up a mess that was a week or more in the making. I remember once while playing at a friend’s house, I lost track of time so I called, leaving a message explaining why I was out so late. When I arrived home I found the apartment empty. When I checked the messages I was relieved to find she had left a message for me earlier telling me she was spending the night at her boyfriend’s.
I did learn many good things from my mother as well. She encouraged my love of art and classical music and taught me to accept people for who they are instead of what they looked like. She shaped my views on equality and it has a lot to do with why I am so passionate about protecting people’s rights today. She also encouraged, by force, my own painting and drawings. Even today I have a hard time painting on canvas without associating it with pain and fear.
But I digress from the purpose of this story. This story isn’t about what I’ve done or what has been done. This is the story of the end. It is the story of how it is I came to leave New York in 1989. This is my story of fear and pain. This is the story of the end of a five year period of my life that is defined by fear. For five years, fear was a prison. I lived in it and only visited the outside world. It was the air I breathed and it was, at one time, the only thing I knew. Pain, I learned, can make you forget what love is or what it was supposed to be.
I was lucky that I was shown what love and understanding are in the middle of this ordeal. The person who taught me this died a few weeks before this story begins. I would not go back and change anything. Too many places I’ve been, people I’ve met and things I’ve done have come from that experience for me to want to change it. I tell people that what I went through was not so bad. When I look back at everything as a whole I’m not sure I know what that means.
Perhaps my relationship with my mother can be personified by one incident when we were living in Los Angeles. I don’t remember what year it was. I think I was seven or eight years old. I tried to hang myself. My mother had previously told me a story about children who hung themselves because they were a burden to their parents. This coupled with a constant message of being unworthy of the things she and my stepfather provided had left me feeling they were better off without me. I was at a friend’s house when I wrapped the rope around my neck several times. I don’t remember feeling much about what I was doing; I’m not sure it felt real to me. My friends’ father came home early and happened to see me dangling from the rope. He raced over to grab me to unwrap the rope from around my neck. I was sent home and his father called my mother. My mother told me how embarrassed she was by that. She kept me out of school until the rope burn healed. I’m not sure why I did it. I can only guess that if you hear someone tell you they would be better off without you long enough then you will start to believe it.
I went to visit her when I turned eighteen. It was around her birthday and I thought being a legal adult would somehow change things. The trip ended with a fight. I was blamed for everything that had happened. I would always be blamed by her; I would always be responsible. I thought if I was an adult everything would be different somehow. I learned that we are never adults in the way that we think we will be when we are children. The trip ended with me crying in a bar, drinking myself into a stupor while waiting for a train back to Virginia Beach.
Part One ~ Fear
I hear the key in the lock and feel a cold chill. I run for the bathroom and lock the door. It will only delay the inevitable and I know it but rational thought was lost the moment her key touched the lock. From inside the bathroom I can hear her. She is yelling about the mess. She has been gone for over a month and I had not picked up the whole time she was in Norway. I hear her yelling in the other room and I know that soon she will be banging on the bathroom door. I know it’s my fault, I know I made this happen but I’m too afraid to do anything but hide. This is not the first time but the fear does not change. I can’t remember the words exactly, only that she is yelling about the house.
I know she will get the door open soon and even though I‘m bigger than her at age fifteen, I still feel small. I will always feel small in the wake of her anger. In the bathroom I don’t know what to do; I’m trapped on the sixth floor. I think of the window, but there is no where to go but down. Frozen in terror I stand and wait for her to get the door open. The tears stream down my face, tears of fear and shame. I hear her working on the lock with a coat hanger. The door flies open and my hair is in her hand as she grabs, pulling me off balance. I fall towards the metal clothes hamper mounted to the wall. Still gripping my hair, she bangs my face into the slightly rounded surface of the hamper repeatedly. She lets go and I scramble for the door as she kicks me. I hit the ground and cover up the best I can. She picks up the first thing she sees and starts hitting me on the back and shoulders as I cover my face with my knees. I don’t know what I’m being hit with but she is hitting me with all her strength. I soon realize I am feeling the bristles of a hairbrush. I recognize the feeling now. I’ve felt it before.
She kicks me again and I quickly start cleaning up the mess in the living room. I pick up the dishes that had been left and the empty cereal boxes. I work as quickly as I can, crying the whole time. I try not to look at her as she is still angry and could resume hitting me at any moment. I know this from experience, just as I know to protect my face and crotch the best I can when she gets like this. I clean the house with only a few things being thrown at me. I wish I could leave, I wish I could just be dead. When she was in the room I tried to be as far from her as possible. I kept my head down and kept working as quickly as I could. Finally I’m done and am preparing dinner. I make chicken and rice with broccoli. As we eat she seems different. She doesn’t seem angry anymore but I don’t trust it, I can’t trust it. I can still hear the sound of the fork on the plate. She compliments my cooking as I clear the table and clean off the plates.
I am alone in the kitchen as I do the dishes. When I finish the dishes she comes in to check them. I’m cornered now; I have no place to go. My room is at the end of the kitchen and was once part of it. The small room has only a flimsy sliding door that will provide no real protection if she is unsatisfied. I sense her new anger before she starts to yell. She throws the dishes she claims are still dirty and they land on and at my feet. I wash the dishes again and again as they continue to fail her inspection. Even today, I hate doing dishes but still often volunteer to do them when visiting others even though they tend to pile up at my own house. In this way I find myself trying to please others the way I never could please her.
After the second failed attempt at doing the dishes she breaks a wooden spoon on my back and switches to her shoe, now yelling about the spoon I broke. The next six times doing the dishes I don’t even use soap or hot water, I just get them wet and put them in the strainer and as always whenever she is done with the game she asks “Why couldn’t you have just done this right the first time? Why do you have to make it so hard? You never do anything right,” she tells me. “I wish you’d never been born, I should have had an abortion! YOU RUINED MY LIFE! I sacrificed everything for you, I hate you! I even missed my prom because of you! You worthless piece of shit you’ll never amount to anything! You’ll always be a loser! Do you know how much better my life would be without you? Why are you crying? What are you, a little girl! Should I have named you Kristina?” She starts to cry while I try in vain not to. “If I’m hit by a cab you’ll know it wasn’t an accident, you’ll know I jumped in front of it to get away from you. If I get pushed in front of a subway train you’ll know I really jumped to get away from you.” I don’t know how to react or respond so I just cry. She shows me a bottle of pills and tells me she is going to take them all and that she is going to kill herself because of me. She goes to her room and shuts the door.
I am too scared to move right away. When I think she isn’t coming back I climb up onto the counter and take a drink from the vodka bottle. It warms my stomach and numbs the pain, physical and emotional. I take a few more drinks and refill it with water. I have only been sneaking vodka for two years now and have not built much of a tolerance. It helps me escape from my life and lets me sleep. It does not take away all the pain or dry my eyes but it is my only ally in the apartment. If I had not of had that I’m not sure if it would have been better or worse.
The vodka does not stop the words echoing through my mind and maybe it even helped me believe them. My mind echo’s my mothers words “I’m worthless.” I tell myself quietly out loud “I’ll never be anything to anyone” Tears flow down my face as I ask again and again “Why can’t anyone love me?”
I have friends but I can’t tell them anything because I don’t want them to see me as weak. I have teachers but when I did tell them they didn’t believe me. When I ran away, the police brought me back and told her I needed “a foot up his ass.” There is no way to escape and I know I have to accept this.
She says people I am close to, who are like family to me, have told her I need to be kicked more often. This has made me feel that I deserve everything that has happened. Her assertion is that everyone we know, that anyone I may want to reach out to for help is not only on her side but feels she is not tough enough on me. I wanted to die, and part of me thought the vodka would kill me slowly, like I deserved, if only I could drink enough.
My cat has come out of hiding and I lie in my loft bed and feel like I’m floating while Mr. Kitty makes himself comfortable on my chest. I am embarrassed because I am too old to cry. I know as I lie there that I am unlovable. I know that she is right that I should never have been born. I cry and curse myself, full of fear and loathing. I pet the cat and fall asleep before I run out of tears.
In the morning she is cheerful, as if last night never happened. She is making breakfast for us: scrambled eggs, bacon and toast. “I thought it would be nice if we went to the MET and had lunch in the park.” She talks all through breakfast. At first I don’t talk much but I don’t want to set her off again. I don’t know if I should talk more or keep my answers short. I take a chance and engage in the conversation. Eventually I relax and start to forget the night before. She wants us to spend the day together, just the two of us because she has been away so long.
Part Two ~ Life
My mother is often mistaken for my sister. She looks younger than she is and we have the same chestnut brown hair and same shape and color eyes. We take the subway into Manhattan and walk through Central Park. It is Saturday and she won’t have to go back to work until Monday.
“I missed you,” she tells me.
“I missed you too,” I tell her. It isn’t a lie exactly.
“Maybe you can do one of your pastel drawings for me later.” She smiles at me as she says this. I know she likes them but the idea fills me with fear. I don’t always feel like drawing but it has become an obligation. I don’t even think what I draw and paint is really that good. She has said that people like the way I arrange colors in my art. I hope she forgets about it. For lunch we eat hot dogs from a street vendor on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As always, the first place we go is to the Egyptian temple in the room to the right of the main entrance. I have always loved the Egyptian carvings. They remind me of my stepfather, who used to carve hieroglyphs as a hobby. This is probably my favorite place in the city. I can enjoy myself and let my guard down here. I know she will never do anything in public. We linger at the Van Gogh paintings because they are my favorite. I’ve always had an affinity for his brush strokes and his tragic story. I have always enjoyed looking at his work close up and then from a distance. There is something about the way he attacked the canvas and the simple subjects he painted that draws me to his work. I always spend a lot of time in the impressionists’ portion of the museum. They paint without regard to exactness and it makes me feel better about my own imperfection. They paint what they feel instead of what they see. From Egypt to the Victorian era house to the impressionists’ paintings we explore the things we have seen again and again. I am never bored even when we are looking at the medieval paintings and suits of armor. I walk through history and culture.
Today is the type of day that makes me think she still might love me. We walk through the park in the late afternoon and I wish the day would last longer. We take the subway back to Rego Park and stop at The Dumpling House on Queens Boulevard for dinner. I love the variety of dumplings they serve here and the way the people who wait on us always make us feel important to them. The day would seem like an apology if my mother had anything to apologize for. This is the same place she took me to eat after she accidentally broke the nail off my big toe when she was throwing dishes at my feet. After a full day at the Met and my favorite restaurant, I sleep well without any vodka.
In the morning I make scrambled eggs with ham and cheese mixed in.
“I like the way you make scrambled eggs. I like them a little runny,” she says. “I always make them too tight.”
I lie to her “I like the way you make them better.”
“What are you doing today?”
“I was going to go to the flower shop and hang out with Zuly.”
After I do the dishes I get ready for work. I walk the two blocks up to 63rd and head into Blooming Flowers. I’ve worked here since I was eleven. When I started I got $3 per delivery and have since gotten a twenty five cent raise. Between this and handing out fliers for the dive shop on Queens Boulevard, I make enough to make sure I have food in the house when my mother is out.
“Good morning.” I say. Frank, one of the owners, greets me and says he is putting together an order now.
“It’s in the city, so I’ll give you a couple of dollars for the subway,” he says. I take the arrangement and save the dollar by jumping the turnstile in the subway. I take the G to the Forest Hills stop and then the E train into the city. I’ve always liked having time alone and the ride into the city affords me time to think and imagine. I like to look out the window and make up scenes from comic books. I usually think of stories with Spiderman, since he has always been my favorite hero. He always has to out-think his opponents and if he relies on just his strength he gets into trouble. On this ride I imagine Spiderman patrolling the subway trying to catch up to the Lizard. The trip never lasts as long as my imagination.
The delivery is to one of the World Trade towers and I go to the wrong one first. Security lets me up and I am disappointed the delivery is on the second floor. I had never been there and would have liked to have gone to the top. I think about going up after the delivery but I decide I can go another day when I have more money. I take my time and walk down to Battery Park and grab a slice of pizza. I eat and watch the ferry boats go by. I wish I could sail away someplace. I wish I could be out on the water forever. I wish I were free. I hop the subway again and head back to Queens and manage another delivery to a nearby apartment.
When I go back to the flower shop things have slowed down so I head over to the Sea Horse Diving shop and see if they have anything for me to do. I get another $5 handing out fliers at the Forest Hills train stop and then head over to my friend Zuly’s house to see if he wants to play baseball or chess. We end up going to the community center to play ping pong. On the way we talk about the things that are important.
“The Mets have the better pitching,” he says
“No way,” I tell him, “The Dodgers beat them last year because we had better pitching. You can’t tell me you think Gooden is better than Hershiser!”
Zuly is much better at ping pong than I am. I still enjoy playing even though I rarely win. Most of the kids at the community center are better than us. The center is really just a gymnasium basketball court with a whole lot of ping pong tables set up. Zuly has been in some of the tournaments they have here and he is also entering chess tournaments. I lose myself in the sounds echoing off the walls. For the next few hours I can focus on the game while the world dissolves away. When I play sports, especially baseball, I am at peace.
On the way back to his house he talks about chess. “I learned a new gambit, do you want to come over and play?” he asks.
“Maybe some other time, besides nobody wins anymore, we always draw now.” I taught him to play but he started reading books and has gotten much better as my game stagnated. If I had kept playing with him I would have kept progressing, but I knew I would never beat him again.
I walk through the courtyards behind the apartment buildings. I wander the side streets lost in thought. I end up walking down the Amtrak train tracks. I step on the wooden planks between the rails. I come to a spot that is no longer in use with a tunnel with a bit of wild looking green. It seems hidden away and the plants that are overgrown here make me forget I’m in the city. It is an oasis in the city and it is mine. Here I can be alone and relax. It is quiet most of the time and almost always deserted. If I sit in the right spot I can no longer see the buildings and only hear a little bit of traffic. It is my connection to the natural world. This is a place I rarely share with anyone. This is where I read and think.
As it starts to get dark I have to head back to the apartment. I’m a little nervous and I don’t know what to expect. She is home but is busy reading so I might be OK. I go to the refrigerator and start getting dinner ready. I make apricot chicken with rice and green beans. I feed Mr. Kitty just before dinner is ready then busy myself setting the table and pouring drinks. Dinner is quiet. “So what did you do all day?” she asks. “Nothing,” I reply. “I was just hanging out with Zuly.” She seems to be in a pleasant mood. She says she was reading about a child who was abused in the city.
“His mother made him wear a sign that said he was a pig.” She recounts the story of the horrible things that were done to this child. The story makes me feel lucky that I don’t have it so bad. She has never broken my bones or burned me with boiling water so I know I have never been abused.
After doing the dishes I spend the rest of the night in my room reading Jacques Cousteau’s “The Ocean World.” I wanted to be a marine biologist but my mom said I didn’t get into the specialized high school for oceanography. Most of the high schools in the city are specialized. The school in Far Rockaway has a telescope for the astronomy program and a boat for the oceanography program. I’ve heard they do whale watching trips on the boat every year. I was supposed to go to a summer orientation but she said I didn’t deserve to go. She told me I was going to the Forest Hills high school instead of Beach Channel High. “I’m not smart enough to go to that school,” I think to myself. Somehow her words have become mine. My thoughts have been bent into her image of me. Some days I’m told I can be anything and others I am stupid. I read the book knowing it will be the closest I will ever come to my dreams.
After I take out the garbage, I wait until I think she is sleeping and sneak down the ladder of my loft bed. I pause at any creak or sound I make. I climb up onto the counter to get the bottle of vodka. When I first started drinking I could get to sleep on one shot but since it has been watered down it takes five or six good swigs to make my head swim. Before the bottle I had to swipe beer from stores but I don’t like doing that anymore. I don’t know if she even remembers the bottle is here. I embrace the warmth in my stomach and put a little more water in, just in case she has been checking it and put the bottle back. I climb back up into bed and feel like I’m floating.
I awake after being hit by a flying shoe. “Hey, I’m leaving for work soon, do you want to come to the office with me?” she asks. I am groggy and have a little headache. I lie. “I promised Zuly we would play stick ball today.” Once she leaves I go back to sleep for a few hours. When I wake up I have some pop tarts and get ready for work.
That day I have three deliveries in the neighborhood and hand out fliers during rush hour. When I get home the answering machine has a message from my mother letting me know she will be spending the night at her boyfriend Mark’s apartment so I go back out to get some ice cream and pizza. When I get home again I play my music loud and have some of the vodka from a long forgotten party. I sing along and pretend I’m playing guitar until I fall asleep on the living room floor.
I wake up after noon and make myself an omelet and leave the frying pan on the stove and the plate on the coffee table. Today I walk down to Forest Hills to pick up the new Spiderman comic and then to my sanctuary by the Amtrak railroad tracks to read in peace. I feel hidden away in this place and I can just be. I sit by the old train tunnel as I read. Afterward I go home and hide the comic book. It was a few months ago that my mother threw away my whole comic book collection. She threw them all down the incinerator shaft because she said it was a waste of my money. She even threw a dime at me to represent how much they could increase in value. She hit me with a belt that night.
I head out to the flower shop and spend the day on one delivery to a high rise for a party. The trip only takes about twenty minutes to walk but they have ordered a lot of balloons, some center pieces and two large potted plants, so I make fifteen trips. The ladies in the apartment give me a $20 tip and Frank pays me $50 despite the objections of his partner, who thinks the tip was enough.
I buy some groceries because we are out of eggs and milk. After I drop off the groceries I go to a Japanese restaurant and order a medium boat of sushi that I’m barely able to finish. I still have $30 left so I decide to go into the city tomorrow. I head back to the apartment to do laundry. She left me quarters for the laundry so today is like a jackpot. I double up the loads in the washer so I can pocket the extra change and I use the special dryer. I figured out if you put the dollar in the dryer really fast on one of the machines, that it would read the money without taking it. Whenever I do laundry I get enough for two ice cream cones. I say vanilla is my favorite but I always get Rocky Road.
The next day I go into the city to play Nintendo at FAO Schwarz. My mom would never waste money on video games so I come here every couple weeks to play. I get lunch from a hot dog vendor and walk through Central Park until I get to the Met. After a few hours of wandering around the museum I make my way down to the basement. They have videos about different artists, architects, and art history. I watch a video about Gauguin and another about a Japanese garden exhibit. On the way home I stop for a slice of pizza and buy a few candy bars that I eat when I get home. The wrappers end up on the floor as I watch “A Hard Day’s Night” and have a little vodka.
I spend most of the next day at the flower shop but they have no deliveries so the only money I make is from handing out fliers for the dive shop. I’m low on money so I have a few chocolate bars for lunch and make a TV dinner at home, leaving the TV diner tray on the coffee table and the box on the kitchen counter. I fall asleep on the couch listening to music. I know I should clean up but I tell myself I’ll do it later.
After breakfast I head out to the flower shop in the hopes they have a few deliveries for me. I get four deliveries early and all are fairly quick. I spend the rest of the day hanging out with Zuly and Robert over by Shea Stadium and the old World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park where we play handball and talk about school.
“You know when school starts I won’t be able to hang out with you guys as much,” Robert says. Zuly and I already know this but we haven’t voiced it. We know his parents barely let him out now to hang out with us but with the science high school he is going to we know they will have him studying all the time. Zuly tries to reassure him “We will have the weekends, and at least our schools are in the same area.”
“Not Kristian’s. His is out in Far Rockaway,” Robert corrects. I say nothing. They don’t know I can’t go. Zuly and Robert will go to schools specialized in math and science but I will just go to Forest Hills high school. Eventually they will find out but I will do everything I can to keep that from happening. I don’t want them to know I’m dumb.
I spend the rest of the evening in solitude. I don’t like to be alone but I am often alone even when my friends are around me. I go to the roof and look out over the neighborhood. I look out in the distance. I have run away a few times. More often though she will throw me out and call the police and tell them I ran away. I lasted a week once. I slept on the roof of a friends building and took fruit from the stands outside the bodegas. The problem is I never go far enough away. I always try to stay close to a friend’s house. “I will get away someday,” I say to myself. I start to cry. I go back downstairs and into the apartment. I go to the bottle in the cabinet. It smells like rubbing alcohol and even though it is watered down it does what I want it to. I fall asleep on the couch watching an old movie. I sleep until I hear the key in the lock.
Part 3 ~ Lost
I bolt upright at the sound of the door unlocking and I’m running to the bathroom as the door opens. She is soon pounding on the door screaming and when she gets the door open I cover myself on the floor with my arms and tuck my head down by my knees. I feel her fists and feet as she yells at me. I don’t really hear the words just her voice. She grabs my hair and pulls me up. I scramble out and start getting dishes to the sink. On my way to the kitchen I see her boyfriend standing near the door. My mother is screaming at me still “You animal!” she yells. She hits the back of my head as I do the dishes but then stops and yells “Get out!” I look towards the door and see I would have to get by her to get to it. “GET OUT! GET OUT!” she yells again. I take my key and hand it to her boyfriend, cowering as I go by her and then I’m out in the hallway running for the stairs. I run down the six flights of stairs. I run out the front of the building because our apartment faces the back courtyard. I run up Saunders Street and quickly turn on the next corner. I keep running as fast as I can for as long as I can. I change streets in case she is after me. I pause only for a few moments trying to catch my breath through the tears and then run again until I get to my oasis by the train tracks.
I catch my breath and try to stop crying. The last few times she has thrown me out she called the police and told them I ran away. I heard the police tell her I need to be hit more so I know they can’t help me. I start walking through the neighborhood on the other side of the Amtrak tracks. I’ve only been through that area a few times and am not very familiar with it. I think it’s good that I don’t know this neighborhood. I think I need to stay someplace far away from anywhere they may look for me. I have to get out of the state. I can decide what to do after that but I have to get away. I have to get as far away as I can.
I keep moving avoiding authorities who would only send me back. I eventually find myself in Forest Hills and make my way to the subway. I decide to head deeper into Queens, into areas I don’t know well. I’m hungry and have no money on me. My eyes keep finding the news stand on the subway platform. I used to steal candy when I was younger and running with a bad crowd. When the train arrives I wait until the last moment and grab a handful of chocolate bars and dart onto the train as the doors close. Taking them did not feel thrilling as it had a few years earlier and I decide I can’t keep doing that. Besides it will only draw unwanted attention to me.
I can’t go to friend’s houses because I have done that before and I always get caught and sent home. I can’t go anyplace I know because eventually I would get taken back. I get off the train at an unfamiliar stop and walk. I spend the rest of the day walking and picking up cans for the five cent refund. I collect enough for a few dollars and buy some more chocolate bars since they are cheap. I soon realize I can’t survive on candy but decide to figure out what to do tomorrow. I find my way into an apartment complex and take the stairs to the roof. The roof access is locked and I can’t get on the roof without setting off an alarm so I sleep by the door to the roof on the floor of the stairwell. If anyone finds me I can still get onto the roof and down the fire escape.
In the morning I go out and collect more cans still walking in a direction I think is away from home and away from her. I do my best to stay out of sight and I talk to no one. By late afternoon I have collected enough cans to get something to eat. I look for something cheap that won’t make me sick like the candy bars would. I buy a large container of yogurt and in my haste and longing for food I don’t realize it is plain yogurt until I’ve eaten half of it. I’m surprised at how good it is, I am surprised that I’m eating a flavor I never liked and it tastes better than anything I’ve ever had. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I’ve devoured the carton. It makes my stomach feel better right away. I walk more and sleep on the roof of another building.
The days bleed together and I have no idea anymore how long it has been now. My thoughts are focused on escape and staying out of sight as much as possible. I eat yogurt every day and collect cans people have left on the road or have thrown in public trash cans. Every day is the same and every night is spent sleeping in apartment buildings, construction sites, or abandoned buildings. I am always hungry but I am glad to be out. I am always tired but I’m happy to be away from that place. I no longer know where I am or how far I’ve gone. I think it has been more than a week. My cloths are dirty but I keep my self as clean as I can, washing up in public restrooms.
My diet of yogurt is broken up when I find $20 while picking up cans. It is the first hot meal I’ve had since I got away, since she threw me out. I eat at a deli that afternoon and in the evening I have pizza. I actually stretch it into three hot meals with a ham egg and cheese on a roll in the morning at another deli. I always order it with Muenster cheese that melts clear on the sandwich. The streets are still unfamiliar but I don’t dare talk to anyone. I’m not satisfied by the yogurt anymore and I start thinking of what I can do to make more money.
After a few more days or what could be a few more days I find a church and talk to a priest and tell him I need food and a job. “I’m sorry. We don’t have meals here, and we don’t have any way to help you find a job.” I’m disappointed but I move on quickly. It’s been weeks, I don’t know how many but I’m getting desperate and need to figure out where I’m going to go. I think of my father. I met him once when I was thirteen but I’m not sure how I would find him. I know he owns video stores in Virginia Beach but I don’t know how I would get there.
I have no other ideas so I turn my walking to what I think is south. I don’t even know what he would do if I showed up. I know little about him beyond the stories my mother has told. The summer I spent with him doesn’t match her picture of him as a violent and angry person who doesn’t care enough about me to send child support. She says she had to go back to court to get him to pay anything at all, and even then it was sporadic. I do remember his mother being really nice and besides, I think, it can’t be worse than going back to my mother. The plan, despite its ill-conceived nature, renews my strength a little.
Eventually I get to one of the rivers but I don’t know if it is the Hudson or the East River. A bridge in the distance looks like it might go to New Jersey so I head towards it. When I get there it’s getting dark and I don’t like the narrow walkway. I try to gather the courage to cross but I eventually decide I would get picked up by the police if I tried it. I go down to the base of the bridge and look to see if there is another way I could get across without being seen but I can’t think of any way to do it.
The neighborhood I’m in looks wealthy with large houses and no apartments. Looking out on the river I see some sailboats anchored behind some of the houses. I take off my shoes and start to wade out to them. The ground under my feet feels slimy and occasionally sharp. I don’t want to be in this water but I am determined to get to these boats that somehow represent freedom to me. I don’t really have a plan, just a vague idea that I could sail to Virginia if I stayed close to the coast. When I get to the boats the water is up to my chest and I climb into the nearest one. I know nothing about sailing but I try to figure out how to get the small boat moving.
After what seemed like hours I give up and wade back to shore and put my shoes back on. The summer night feels much colder in my now soaking wet clothes. I walk around trying to find any kind of shelter and warmth. There are no abandoned buildings or apartment buildings so I go back to the bridge and I try to sleep under the base of the bridge. Here the wind off the river chills me and I lie on the cement incline shivering and wet. Unable to sleep I start walking around some more trying in vain to find a way to get dry or at least find some shelter. Exhausted I huddle on the sidewalk with my back resting on a small chain link fence in front of one of the houses.
As the sun rises I try to will its heat into me. The family in the house starts to stir and I slowly get up to drag myself someplace out of sight. A woman comes out and calls to me. I’m not sure what she said but it didn’t sound angry. The voice had concern on it so I turn to look. She waves me over and invites me in. I feel like I’m in a dream. “Why are you so wet?” she asked in a soothing voice drenched in a Greek accent. “I was sleeping by the bridge and fell in the river.” I lie. I am too tired to be afraid.
“Why were you sleeping out there?” she asked
“I couldn’t find a better place to sleep.” I tell her. She calls to her husband and he asked the same questions and asks about my parents. I tell them my parents are dead and that I’m trying to get to an uncle in Virginia. I use my middle name when they ask for my name. They give me some clothes and let me shower. The warmth of the running water brings tears to my eyes. I wash the river and the cold out of me. I get dressed in and timidly walk out to face my hostess. She has a plastic bag full of clothes she thinks will fit me.
“Are you hungry? You must eat come, eat.” I’m lead to the kitchen and she sets a place for me. Two other children are already eating breakfast. She fixes me a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and pancakes. She gives me a glass of orange juice and refills it before I can finish it. I devour the breakfast quickly and she again fills my plate. The more I eat the hungrier I feel until I am full. I am questioned about my situation and I keep the lies simple and as close to the truth as I can. I tell them I am David Gore and I have an uncle named Art in Virginia Beach. I am afraid they may call the police, and I am sure if I told the truth I would be taken straight home.
“I think we should help him get to his uncle.” She says.
“No, he can work in my warehouse, he can earn his way, like when I was young.” He says. I jump at the opportunity to get a job and quickly agree to work for him. He has some sort of fur coat business and he says I can work my way up like he did. He tells me where to go and that I can start tomorrow. He gives me some money and I leave their house filled with a hope I had not felt in a long time. I figure I can make enough money to move on and get out of the state if I work for a few weeks.
I now have a large plastic bag of clothes to carry with me so I try to find some sort of shelter to rest and hide the clothes in. I notice my new pants fit better than the ones I had been wearing. I don’t know how long I’ve been on the street but I have gone from a size 32 waist to a size 28. This bothers me and because of this I will never see food the same way again. I will never, not feel hungry no matter how much I eat. I know this but I don’t know how or why I know this. It is a thought someplace in the back of my mind.
As I wander through the neighborhood it starts to rain. I find a place that looks like a construction site. I have slept in a few construction sites in the past few weeks so I think I might be able to get some rest and get out of the rain. I can’t find a way in so I try to break a window to get in but the noise draws too much attention. I hear people talking from my hiding place behind some ply wood. I can’t make out what they are saying but it isn’t long before I hear what sounds like voices over a radio. “Come out with your hands up.” I hear someone say. I chill runs through me and I freeze. I can’t go back but I’m cornered and have no way to run. He repeats the command and finally I slowly move out from my hiding place. I am scared and I answer no questions as he hand cuffs me and puts me in the police car. It turns out that the house was being remodeled and when I broke the window the owners called the police. When I get to the police station two officers try to question me thinking I was trying to rob the house. All I give them is the name David and my birthday. They remark that I will be sixteen in a few weeks. “Damn we could have put him in the regular lock up if you had just waited a few weeks.” remarks one of the officers. To them I’m just a punk kid, another problem child who needs more discipline. I can’t tell them anything they will just send me back.
After a while they give up and they send in a police woman. She is kind so I answer her questions and give her my fathers’ name again saying he is my uncle and that my parents are dead. I don’t tell her how long I’ve been on the street because I don’t know and if I did I wouldn’t want them to match it to whenever my mother called the police. I give her the name of the video stores he owns and she brings me a coke. After a while she comes back into the room and sits down. She seems kind and understanding but I can see in her face that she knows something about me. She knows more than I wanted her to know.
“I talked to Mr. Gore.” She said. Her tone had changed and she seemed a little annoyed with me. “He says he doesn’t have a nephew named David in New York. He says the only person he knows with your birthday is his son Kristian who is living with his mother. You’ve run away before haven’t you?” Before she can finish I’m crying and hiding my face. I don’t want to cry in front of a pretty girl but I can’t help it. I cry uncontrollably “Please don’t make me go back!” I repeat over and over “I can’t go back there!” Her demeanor changed and she tried to comfort me. I told her everything. The words spilled from my lips in between sobs. She held my hands and told me “It’s OK; we don’t have to make you go back. Just let me figure out what’s going on OK?” After I calmed down a bit she left again and I hid my face in shame.
After a while she came back in. “We didn’t find a missing persons report so your mother didn’t call us to report that you ran away. We sent someone to your apartment and they found this.” She showed me an envelope with my name on it. “The note inside says your mother is with someone named Mark and will be away for a few weeks. It says she’s sorry she threw you out. She also left you $5 and two subway tokens.” She told me. “I forgot about that.” I told her. “She is in Canada with her boyfriend.” She told me they would find me a place to stay and that they would tell my father what was going on. I hugged her and cried on her shoulder “Thank you,” I said over and over. For the first time in five years I felt like the nightmare might be over. I wasn’t afraid in that moment. In that one moment I felt safer than in any other moment in my life.
Part Four ~ The End
It is late when I leave the police station and I am given a green army bag to keep my clothes in when I get to the intake facility. The intake process is humiliating as they check for sexual abuse with out any sense of feeling or compassion. After the exam and endless questions that flow through me without registering, I am left in some sort of small waiting room. Two young children, a girl and a boy, sit on the floor watching the Flintstones on a TV set mounted on the white wall. They watch the show as if it is an intense drama and the half dozen adults laugh at the jokes the children are too young to understand. I don’t know what is going to happen.
After eleven at night I am taken to a place in the Bronx. It isn’t a house but it doesn’t seem like an apartment either. The place is like a house inside with a living room and large dinning room but from the outside looks like it has several floors. It may be a duplex but I can’t be sure. A woman makes up a cot in the dining room for me. I lie awake on the green cot afraid of what comes next but relieved that I’m not home. I’m not alone in the dining room as three other teens are sleeping on cots as well. I know with the other kids I will have to be careful and act tough to keep from being picked on.
In the morning I keep to myself and stay out of conversation. It has been a day since I had breakfast at that family’s house and since I have been given mostly snacks by the police and had arrived here too late to actually eat diner. I eat my oatmeal and toast like I haven’t eaten in days, the whole time very aware of everyone around the table. The table is a large light brown wood dining room table that seats ten easily and today it is overcrowded. I don’t trust anyone so I stay out of the conversations and in fact I’m completely oblivious to anything being said. I’m too busy soaking in this new place and trying to assess the threat each of the dozen or so other kids might be to me. I try to explore the neighborhood but I don’t get very far. It is foreign and dirty so after a few blocks I go back in and watch TV with the other kids. They are watching a movie called “Disorderlies” with the Fat Boys and it is the movie we end up watching most of the next few days. The whole time I’m there I keep quiet and to myself trying not to be noticed or engage anyone. I am invisible.
I sleep on the cot for nearly a week before I am moved to a house on Staten Island. It is a large house in another poor area and again I keep to myself and try to stay unnoticed. This time I have my own bed in a room I share with another kid who argues with himself and sometimes hits himself. When I fall asleep I wake up abruptly and eventually realize that the kid is punching me in the head whenever I fall asleep. I start staying awake and make sure he falls asleep first but this doesn’t always work. My days are spent in the background watching videos on MTV and I am never alone but always lonely. I don’t want to be here and I don’t want to be any place else.
Finally after more than a week of this uneasy existence in Staten Island, I take the ferry to Manhattan and call a friend I have not seen much this summer. I’m not sure how much freedom I have to move around the city but I have seen other kids come and go. Svet-Lana agrees to meet me in the city near the Met in central park. I long to see someone familiar and she is the person I have wanted to see most since I left home. I long to be seen by someone, I need to feel a little less invisible for a few hours. She is another of the smart friends I have found myself surrounded by since I got out of the special education classes. We were in the same advanced social studies class together and we always walk to school together. I wish I could tell her everything but I am too embarrassed and I want her to still like me. I go to Central Park and wait for her to show up.
As soon as I see her I go to her and we hug for a long time. We walk through the park holding hands and for a while I feel normal. I brush questions about what has happened away with general statements that withhold details. “So what happens now?” she asks.
“I don’t know.” I say, “I guess I have to wait and see.”
“Is the place you’re at now ok? What’s it like?”
“It’s ok, just a place really. How was your summer?” I change the subject and we continue talking about everything and nothing. I’m just happy to be with her and I wish it didn’t have to end, but after a while she has to go home. We share another long hug before we part ways and I head back to the group home. I don’t want to go back but I’m not sure what else to do. On the short ferry ride I lose myself in imagination and stories of exploring the ocean are played out over the water. Old wooden ships from history do battle that doesn’t have time to play out on the ride back to Staten Island.
Back at the group home MTV is still on. I don’t think the channel ever changes. During a countdown show I’m drawn into an argument about the talent level of Milli Vanilli that really does not get resolved. In the end the people who don’t like them are just as unmoved as those who think they are great. I find myself in the minority of kids who don’t like them more because I’m sick of hearing the song as often as MTV plays it. I often find myself on the less popular side of things, but I have always seemed to go that way. I’ve never taken a side because it was easier or more popular and I don’t start here. I don’t always know it is less popular when I pick a side but I am more likely to reexamine my position if I find myself on the popular side of an argument.
The adults here are not like parents but I can’t be sure I know what parents are supposed to be. It feels like they are employees who have to take care of us and I often hear them talk about us like we aren’t there. I see them as homeroom teachers; they just want quiet and no trouble. They think my roommate is acting crazy but I don’t really see the benefit to doing that. They say he keeps passing the psych evals but he still gets into arguments and fist fights with himself. I wish they would get rid of him or maybe get rid of me. He is still punching me in the head and running back to his bed as if I don’t know he is doing it. I always try to stand my ground but he sees me as just a weak white kid and is unfazed.
On my sixteenth birthday I leave the house early and walk around the island. The roommate tried to follow me and intimidate me but I was sick of it and started to come at him. He said ”I have a knife, I’ll cut you up!” but I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t care if he killed me and I didn’t care if I hurt him. I was angry and tears fell burning from my cheeks and I chased him several blocks until he screamed ”Leave me alone! Don’t hurt me!” He is sitting on the sidewalk scared and crying and I hated him but I hated myself more. I spent the rest of the day walking around and looking at the other houses. After a few blocks the neighborhood looked cleaner and the houses were bigger, fancier and came with big iron gates. Every house is its own story in my mind. They tell stories of mobsters and business men and sometimes both. They tell tales of greed and hunger for power. I spend the whole day alone with my depression and imagination.
When I return after dark the adults are worried and have to call the police who have been looking for me everywhere. They thought I ran away because I have been gone more than twelve hours and I tell them “I was just out walking.” They have a hard time understanding that I just wanted to be alone and they don’t understand that nothing is wrong. They don’t see I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to talk to any of them. I just want people to leave me alone. If I’m alone nothing can hurt me and I don’t have to be anything to anyone. Why can’t they see I want to be alone? Why can’t they see I don’t need them, that I don’t need anyone? No one has noticed it’s my birthday and I’m fine with that.
Over the next week I isolate myself more and more and talk to the others less and less. My roommate avoids me as much as possible now and has stopped punching me in my sleep. The only fear I have left is starting school. I don’t want to go back to school, and for the next week I live in dread of the start of the school year. I hate that I can’t go to Beach Channel and I don’t want people to see how dumb I am. I don’t want people to see me. I’m told by one of the men who works at the group home that my father is coming to get me and I don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t know him really and I don’t really want to leave New York even though I spent the last five years wishing I was back in Los Angeles. The only friends I have are here in New York and now that I know I won’t have to go home I don’t want to lose them. My father sends a video showing me the house his family lives in and the new stepbrother, stepsister and half sister I am going to have. The others are jealous of what I don’t even know if I want.
The day school starts I don’t go and lock myself in my room. The adults panic and are trying to get in and trying to get me to talk to them through the door. The social worker bangs on the door “Open the door now! You know you’re not allowed to lock these doors!” I barricade the door and by the time they get in it’s too late to go to school. They think I don’t want to go because my father is coming to get me, they think I’m afraid that I will have to stay if I start school. I don’t correct them and in fact I stay silent. They say I will have to register at Beach Channel tomorrow because it’s too late to go now.
“What?” I ask
“You have to register at Beach Channel.” They told me.
“But I was supposed to go to Forest Hills High School.”
“I don’t know about that, it says here you go to Beach Channel High School.”
I’m stunned. I don’t understand it but I say nothing more. She lied to me. I go to my room and try to understand how I got in, how I got accepted after I was told I couldn’t have been. I am angry at my mother.
I never have the chance to go to Beach Channel High School. The next day my father is in New York and I am soon heading to Virginia Beach. I am brought to a big house and I’m enrolled in Floyd E. Kellam High School. I don’t try to fit in and find it easier to fade into the background. The classes are easy because they are the same classes I took at Russell Sage Junior High School. The school is smaller than my Junior High School and the culture is far less diverse. In New York my friend Zuly was born in Madagascar and his parents are from India and are Muslim. My friend Robert was born in New York but his parents are both from Greece and Svet-Lana’s family is Jewish. In New York none of these things really mattered and there was no minority but here in Virginia every difference stands out instead of being the norm. It is a culture shock.
I don’t really work hard in school and I’m not certain why. Part of it has to do with the fact that I don’t feel there is anything to learn here. I start thinking of school as slow and boring and it’s a lot like being back in special education classes. I don’t feel challenged and I am too busy trying to be perceived as a tough kid from New York to bother with schoolwork I’ve already done before.
The only new class and text book I have now is biology and this is the class I make my first friends in. I become friends with Windy almost instantly and today she is so much like family that I refer to her as my sister. Bobbi is the girl sitting next to her and I have an instant crush on her. Because of them I quickly find myself feeling at least somewhat accepted even if I don’t open up to them.
Windy becomes my friend because she is just willing to be nice to the new kid. She quickly becomes my best friend and in the future I will confide in her like no one else. Windy always seems positive and I never feel like she judges me and I guess this is why she is so much like a sister to me. Bobbi is just as nice but I find myself intimidated by her beauty. It makes me want to become someone she could like in a more romantic way and it never occurs to me to be myself. In fact it will be many years before I am comfortable being myself around anyone except Windy.
At my new home I fight to be by myself because that is all I want. My stepmother always seems to be around and I am uncomfortable with people cooking for me or doing my laundry. I do try to be a big brother to my stepbrother and half sister. I try to play sports with my six year old stepbrother Willy or even tag but I’m too big for that. I make an attempt to read Alice in Wonderland to my four year old half sister Kelly and even point to each word as I read it. I never feel like I belong and soon give up on trying to.
I find it easier to get alcohol here and I find myself sneaking alcohol from a much more varied liquor cabinet. I don’t know if I was ever really wanted here but I do know I found myself not ever wanting to rely on anyone else. In my life I feel that adults will only let you down and I waited for the beating that wouldn’t come. I resented not ever being alone in the house and often argued with my thirteen year old stepsister Melanie. I knew I was going to be out of that house soon. I knew it because I knew I had to make it on my own. I knew it was best never to really trust anyone.
In November I go back to New York to testify against my mother in court. I have feared this day for some time and don’t know how I will react to it. I don’t want to be here and I don’t want to see her. In the hallway of the courtroom she tries to talk to me. Her voice is pleasant and she is saying something about having some of my stuff. She is trying to make me feel better about her but all I feel is fear. Seeing her makes the words I’ve lived with ring out in my head. It reminds me that I’m stupid and worthless. Seeing her reminds me that no one will really love me. We are thankfully led away from where she is and I am eventually brought into the court room alone.
The courtroom is as small as I feel. My head is down as I am led to the witness stand. Time becomes meaningless and I am asked questions that may as well have been asked in Latin. Somehow I manage to answer in the shortest ways possible. Unable to stop the tears they fall silently in my lap as I focus on anything, terrified to see her and terrified to speak. The words still come but they are short words, maybe, yes or no answers. I don’t hear my voice over my fear. I can only think about getting away from there. I have to get away, I feel trapped. I am caged in the witness box and I can’t see her but I know she is there.
I soon find myself out in the halls of the courthouse. I don’t know what I said or what I answered but the court has decided that she can’t get me back. I am free from her now. I am free from her physical presence but it will take much longer to get her words out of my head. It will take a very long time to see myself without her distorted image of me. It will be a long time before I see myself as good enough for me and to realize I would never be good enough for her no matter what I did. It will be a long time before I realize I don’t have to prove her right and even today it is sometimes difficult to see through the lies she has fed me.
For years after that day I struggled to value myself and have found myself trying too hard to please everyone who comes into my life. I struggled with drinking to excess to drown out her voice. When I quit drinking in October of 1995 it took six months to understand why I drank the way I did. I drank to drown out the questions that I will never have answers to. Why? What did I do to make her hate me so much? Why didn’t she love me? I drank to get rid of questions that I have answers to today. Did I deserve what she did? Can anyone love me? Do I even deserve to be loved? I sometimes still struggle with these things but being aware of them has helped me deal with them. I can believe that I have value today but I have not always been able to say that.
Epilog ~ Final Thoughts
That is the story of how I left New York. It wasn’t really a happy story but it is a true story. I can’t be certain of what days things happened in and the physical abuse documented is representative of a typical beating that would occur from the time I was eleven to the time she threw me out when I was a month away from my sixteenth birthday. The dialogue is more representative of the conversations I had with friends and with my mother. The deliveries I made for Blooming Flowers are real but I can’t be certain that the ones I used in the story happened in the time frame I’ve put them in.
During the course of this four week short story I have been asked one question more than any other. “What was wrong with your mother?” The answer is I don’t know and I won’t speculate beyond saying that she had told me stories about her own childhood and being abused by her mother. I don’t offer this as an excuse and given things I have learned since then I don’t even know if it’s true. One of her favorite things to tell me was that I ruined her senior prom because she was pregnant with me. As a rational human being I see the ridiculousness of this claim and yet it still made me feel better to hear my Aunt Bonnie tell me that the claim made even less sense because she dropped out of school at age sixteen to marry my father. She was pregnant when she was seventeen but that wasn’t the reason she didn’t go to prom. I suppose it’s crazy that information like this would somehow make me feel better, but it did.
I still have trouble accepting compliments from people. They tend to embarrass me and my first instinct is to not feel worthy of them. As hard as this was to write I do think it has helped me to recognize things about my past. I feel as if I have walked through a very difficult time in my past and being an adult this time has helped me see things I didn’t know or understand before. It has helped me see things as wrong that I didn’t see before and making this a public exercise insured that I would force myself to keep going. Now that it is finished all I can say is to never let anyone make you feel like you have no value. Always remember that people do love you and no matter how alone you feel you have people who will always be a part of your life if you let them. Most importantly remember that you deserve your own love and no one can take that from you.
A Public Letter to My Mother:
It has been a long time since we last spoke and I do not intend this as a way to reopen dialog. If you read this I hope you read the accompanying story that goes with it. Maybe you feel you did nothing wrong and maybe you do. I don’t know if you feel bad about anything that happened during the nearly sixteen years you were in my life. I don’t know if you feel that you have anything to apologize for or not and it really doesn’t matter. I’m writing this letter to let you know some things about me.
First I would like to let you know that I am good enough. Maybe not for you, but I am ok with that. I don’t have to be perfect I just have to be myself. It doesn’t matter what standards you would hold me to and no matter how well I did it was never enough for you. I see this now and I refuse to hold myself to that standard. So I am good enough for me and my best is all I will need to give.
Secondly I would like to let you know that I am loved. I have people in my life who care about me and love me. I don’t have to prove anything in exchange for this. I have love in