Sit up straight. Chew carefully. Today is the day you’re meeting them—the family who read about you on a bulletin board and offered to help. They have a long low house designed by an architect (him). Angular windows and muted colors. She, the mother, has styled gray hair and namelessly expensive clothes.
You are eating a salad sandwich, full of crunchy things and juices that gather in the corners of your mouth. Don’t worry, they say. The mayo is homemade.
Today you’re meeting two of them—the mother, Laura, and the youngest daughter, Fi (pronounced fee, short for Aoife, which they pronounce ay-oh-fee). Fi is 14, a year younger than you. You sit in the open-plan promontory of their dining room, which is just off the kitchen, which looks out to the block of nearly-rural land that they live on. Low white-tape fences line the driveway. On the way in your social worker explained that these were electrified, to keep the horses out.
Horses. This close to the suburbs.
They ask you about nothing much. School (you’re good at it). Where you’re living right now (a group home). You swallow hard and dab your mouth and chew the best you can. They are kind. Their house is beautiful, the light clean in a way you’ve never lived before. Laura works at a school and Fi’s three older siblings all have, or are working towards, college degrees. Fi is funny and friendly and has a quick compact smile.
You’re excited by them—by the prospect of them. Life there feels peaceful and settled and smart. No more wrong-brand-name T-shirts or sweaters. In the car afterwards the social worker asks you how it went and you say it was good (you don’t know yet that you’re supposed to say it went well).
At night in your bunk bed you imagine yourself living a shiny life with this new family, the Gardners.
Your new room is at the back of their house. It has tall windows and a built-in desk and closet. The room used to belong to the eldest, who is now studying to be a social worker. Across the hall is Joan’s room. She is a nurse. A little further down is Fi’s room—she has a high loft for sleeping but prefers her single bed below. Next to that is Jack’s room. He’s at college and from the general tone of voice is not the steadiest. Down this corridor the kids have their own bathroom, including a large shower which has small sea-blue tiles and a strange faucet. Fi has to show you how it works (you pull it out and around, it pre-mixes the hot and cold water). It’s quiet in the hall and there are bird sounds outside. Also outside for several days is your own bed, delivered from your mother’s house. The mattress smells heavily of cigarettes. The white-and-brass bedhead shines in the fall sun and you try not to look. Laura says the bed just needs some airing and you agree and you can also hear those words she’s swallowing. Disgustinghopelesspoor.
It’s 1991 and you are a sophomore. Your school reports are glowing and you really are an exemplary student—although it’s not a very good school and you realize that part of exemplary is in spite of. Nobody says this to you directly. Which is okay. Maybe.
You study the Gardners. You chew through their whole grain low-salt food and copy their vowel sounds. Watch while the father teaches Fi to reverse the car out of the driveway and think one day. For Christmas that year they buy you a Country Road long-sleeved shirt and a large-faced leather-banded watch and you have a new haircut and you are very happy. On Christmas Day of course you also go home to see your family and it is complicated, your mom and your stepdad and brothers in a small new apartment with their old large furniture. You feel this hot something from your mom because when things went to shit a door opened and you took the exit and that makes her sad. She loves you so you almost can’t breathe and she hates your expensive watch and T-shirt and hair so much her words come out in small spits. It’s difficult to taste any of the food she has so carefully cooked.
That morning the Gardners also gave you a book, a collection of short teen romances, inscribed To dear Fi with much love, Christmas 1990. You read all the stories and tell no one about the mistake.
That summer you and Fi get a job cleaning Mr. Gardner’s office on the weekends. Thanks to this, you can afford to join Fi at church youth camp. You sleep in a dorm in the woods and you sing and swim and laugh and feel close to everyone. You’ve just turned sixteen and you’re happy and think you might believe in God. You love the scratch of the dining hall seats on the back of your bare thighs and even the big ants with their pincer mouths don’t bother you. Many years later you will still remember the songs you sang.
Fi has a boyfriend at camp and after you get home she calls him often. You and she are close by then, reading each other’s diaries, and she tells you about what fun she and her boyfriend have together and you’re pleased. When she calls her boyfriend three states over you are also on the phone because he has a friend you like to think you could flirt with. You think—new life, new me, leave it all behind.
It’s mid-1992 and you are due to start 11th grade. You’ve been a Ward of the State for around eight months. You visit your mother sometimes but you’re afraid of your stepfather who your mother says is doing his best and you believe this, but always just beneath the memory surface is his rage-twisted face and your frozen thoughts, this can’t be happening. You don’t like to talk about it because those words, capital-letters Domestic Violence, they seem like a bumper sticker one minute and an assault the next. In any case you’ll be tainted by them, maybe you already are, and it’s all kind of gross, like your mattress.
Some brilliant things: running to the neighbor’s property and jumping on their inground mesh trampoline, splashing up the water that’s gathered underneath.
Teaching Fi the joys of super salty two-minute noodles.
Finding the hidden antenna cable in the hall closet and watching 21 Jump Street on TV.
Re-hiding the antenna cable while Laura pulls into the driveway.
The feeling that you matter.
One Wednesday your social worker pulls up in her white car and asks to talk to you in your room. The Gardners can’t take care of you. They are sorry—perhaps they say that, you won’t recall—but things have changed and this arrangement isn’t working. There appears to be no explanation, at least not one you can understand: Mrs. Gardner needs to take care of herself, the worker says, and you are meant to take from this that everything is fine, it is a disappointment, but it’s nothing personal and you will be okay. The light in your room has shifted and the worker says she just needs to pop out and talk with Mrs. Gardner. After a few minutes you follow. The corridor with its pre-mix shower (the optimal heat setting is three clicks into the red) and natural-fiber carpet hums with a distress you can’t quite feel and you approach the kitchen thinking surely, maybe, this can’t actually be—and you hear Laura and your social worker talking and then laughing, which makes it real, which makes it awful, which makes it your fault.
You back away. You cannot afford for them to see you. It will not occur to you that perhaps theirs is nervous laughter; that Laura’s decision, the next morning, to send her student-social-worker daughter in to “chat with you” is a genuine attempt to help, as in a desperate attempt, because you assume—or you hope—they feel awful.
All you will feel is stupid, is tainted, is wrong.
And deeper, much deeper: rage.
You have two days to pack up your things. You move back to the group home which is, in fact, an okay place to be. You share a room with different kids and sleep in bunk beds but the woman in charge is warm and strong and she cares. She will help you find somewhere else to live, and this may or may not work out well. You stay in contact with the Gardners, so you can maintain your friendship with Fi. They ask that you help pay the phone bill from when you called the boys. You’ll never learn what happened, why you had to leave. Perhaps someone was invisibly ill. Or marriage trouble. Life crisis. Your government file will be silent, as in redacted, on the matter.
You keep the watch, the shirt, the book.
For a time.
One day, many years later, you’ll realize you can’t remember throwing them out.
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