100 Bucks and a Tank Full of Gas

I wanted independence from my Mom’s controlling, manipulative, abusive ways, but I did not want to be alone.

Hello again. Welcome to the continuation of my story about escaping an abusive home.  

I sat surrounded by my sparse belongings on the floor of my temporary bedroom, across the hall from Jamie’s, my best friend. Her older sister Rachel would return from studying abroad in a few days, so she would take back her room soon.

Rachel’s bedroom was large with an attached bathroom and a small deck, accessible through sliding glass doors. I could not take my eyes off those dark doors.

Related: A Community of Writers Helped Me Change My Life (part 1)

Earlier in the night, I ran away from a filth-filled hoarder home and my mother. I did not run far, just across town to stay with my best friend’s family. Mom did not take it well. I was full of irrational fears that she would show up, face pressed against the sliding glass doors, threatening me.

I ended up sleeping in the second twin bed in Jamie’s room that night. I wanted independence from my Mom’s controlling, manipulative, abusive ways, but I did not want to be alone.

I attended school with Jamie every day that week and was bussed to the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), my writing school, in the afternoons. I began an unfamiliar routine of sitting down to do homework after school and evenings. My grades improved immediately.

I was living the upper-middle-class Jewish life my grandparents had intended for their children to provide for their grandchildren.

I will call Jamie’s family the Epsteins, not because it was their name but because it was the name of my grandfather’s favorite Jewish deli in Hartsdale, New York. The Epstein family included Jamie, her older sister, Rachel, who was usually away at school, her father Cedar and her mother, Betsy.

I did not cut off all communication with my family, but there was a lot of resentment about my leaving. My sister, Danielle was saddled with the care of our mother, which meant frequent visits and head-to-wall confrontations.

I tried to explain how abusive and sick Mom was to her mother, my grandmother, Rita, whom we called Ri, but she did not hear what she did not want to. Ri expressed disappointment but never asked me to go home to Mom.

The Epsteins lived in a large, contemporary house with an in-ground pool and trampoline. They employed a housekeeper, Celeste, who kept the house speckless and the laundry clean and put away. The girl in me, who could not walk on her floor at home, was ecstatic to slide my socked feet across the hardwood, and the black and white check tiled floor of the foyer.

Related: I Donated Blood the Day I Ran Away From Home (Part 2)

Jamie’s family was easy going, but as Cedar, her dad would say, “If you screw up, your ass is grass.” He said this to me at dinner on my second night living with them. They sat down to dinner as a family every weeknight around a stark white breakfast bar and discussed their days.

I wanted to be more like the Epsteins. Betsy coached me. At first, I was defensive every time she pointed out a dysfunctional behavior. I suggested we come up with a hand signal to describe what she called wedging. I used to listen to Jamie bitch, in a teenager way, about her mother and then repeated what she said to Betsy. This drama-instigating back and forth was ingrained from childhood. Mom constantly pitted my sister, Danielle and me against each other, taking one into confidence only to betray us to the other. I will never see a wedge-shaped peace sign the same way again.

The town’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) stepped into my life within a couple of days of my leaving home. Cedar, a local lawyer, contacted them to make sure there would be a support system in place for all of us.

Tina was my unsupportive social worker. I was told that before the small town office opened four years prior, cases of abuse in the town of Woodbridge, Connecticut, went mostly unsubstantiated by the overloaded DCFS central office (fifteen minutes away) in downtown New Haven.

Every year, over Christmas and New Years, Cedar, Betsy, Rachel, and Jamie went on vacation. Cedar and Betsy contacted Tina to see if there was somewhere I could stay while they were away.

We met with an architect and his wife who inhabited a house worthy of “Dwell” magazine. I worried my presence made the house dirty with its clean lines, curves, white and the distinct lack of clutter or dust. The couple were kind and said they would enjoy providing a respite home for me for the week; I wished I related to them enough to take them up on their generous offer, but it was my choice, and I did not want to stain their home.

Sue and Cedar gave me $100, use of their extra car, a turquoise station wagon, which Jamie and I named Chester. If you hit the dashboard in the right spot, to the slight right of the radio, the windshield wipers swiped twice. The primary rule, in their absence, was not to have company. That seemed easy to me; I was not expecting a full dance card.

A day or so before they left for vacation, Rachel arrived home from studying abroad in Europe. I was warned by each member of the family that Rachel was tough, ambitious, and a bit of a bitch. They meant bitch in the nicest sense, as in future CEO. They were a very loving and affectionate family, so there was never a fear that any insults were more than jest. It was very different from my family whose jests carried a biting edge of truth with every jab.

When Rachel got home, she filled her room back up as if she had never left. She straightened her dark hair and confidently wore the pudge of an ivy league scholar, who worked and played hard. She spoke knowledgeably about current affairs around the world and other issues I’d never had time to worry about.

It was hard to imagine having a life where you were able to focus on learning and awareness rather than emotional survival. Rachel was a junior at UPenn and everyone knew she would eventually go to Harvard Business School, and she did. I wanted to be her.

I was not exactly alone in the house after the family left. I had Murphy, the family’s meaty and loving Bichon Frise and Celeste the live-in housekeeper. They had the housekeeper live-in because they could not leave Jamie home alone. Her intractable epilepsy and occasional psychosis-producing meds made leaving her alone risky. Celeste did not speak much English, and she hated me.

I prided myself on being agreeable and easy-going. Sure I smoked a cigarette or even a clove or two, but on a whole, I was a tame teen. I did not even consider the possibility that I would do anything to get myself in trouble.

I rented movies on VHS and enjoyed the junk food that Cedar stashed in the bar for poker nights. With my mother’s Benson and Hedges Deluxe Ultra Lights washed from my porous, curly hair, I was clean and beginning to feel at home.

At ECA, my social status was elevated when I ran away. Since next to most of the students I was comparatively un-bohemian, being a runaway finally made me interesting. One of the girls from my class, Karen called me to hang out at the mall.

I never hung out at the mall. What did one do at the mall? I decided to go ahead with this typical teen right of passage. We ended up getting Orange Julius’ and shopping at Hot Topic. Karen found a studded black leather belt. I invested in a velvety black and purple wallet.

Later that evening Karen invited me in when I dropped her off. “Sure,” I said. “Why not.”

Karen’s sister, Leslie was close to us in age. We joined her and two guys our age, who I did not know. It took me a few minutes to see the bottle of vodka they were all passing. Karen offered it to me as it came around.

“No thanks, still have to drive home.”

They all talked about things going on at Wilbur Cross, their high school, of which I knew nothing. I was close to making an excuse to leave when their bottle ran dry. They were all moving and speaking a notch slower than seemed normal. I only saw one guy drunk before, but I was pretty sure that was what I was seeing.

The taller of the two guys said, “Let’s go over to Steve’s house, his parents are away.” He stood producing keys from a jean pocket.

Everyone got up. I did too. “Um guys, do you think driving is a good idea?”

They gawked at me like I was stupid, as if a couple of months ago, I didn’t sit through an assembly where a classmate cried as she related her father’s death by a drunk driver the year prior.

“Maybe we could just stay here.” Karen seemed to note my discomfort. She sat back down.

“Nah man, it’s early.” The shorter fatter guy started up the stairs.

I knew it was a mistake as the words left my mouth, “Well I can drive, we can go back to where I’m staying.” I could not call it my home yet.

“Is there booze?” Tall guy’s mouth was open; his head tipped to the side.

“Yes,” I answered, even though Rachel warned me that most of the booze was watered down from parties she got away with in high school.

Once we got back to the Epsteins’ house, I corralled everyone in the pink and purple playroom above the garage and fetched a giant bottle of watered down absolute from the bar. We played truth or dare, and I looked on as they all got drunker on alcohol tinged water.

Once they drank their fill, corralling them failed. The Tall guy was blond and kind of cute in a dumb sort of way. Though I was sober, I ended up making out with the tall guy, while the other three explored the house, falling down stairs, crashing into walls, and changing the thermostat in the master bedroom. The crash abruptly ended my make-out session.

I was surprised I did not see Celeste; I hoped she was staying at a friend’s as she sometimes did. I came out of Jamie’s room with the tall guy and herded everyone back up to the play room. They all crashed and burned for the night aside from the occasional vomiting on the carpet.

The day after the Epsteins returned, Jamie and I headed out to sample Burger King’s new french fries. We even went inside and ate there, a rare event. She caught me up on the vacation shenanigans; apparently there was dancing on a table at a beachside bar. Sounded like they had a way better party than mine.

Jamie’s phone rang; She wrestled the bulky, flip phone from her pink, stuffed pig-shaped purse. Betsy wanted us to meet her and Cedar at the Woodbridge DCFS office. We obliged, in just a few short weeks I grew used to frequent visits to the office.

When we got there, they made Jamie wait outside the meeting room. Betsy, Cedar, Rachel, and Tina, the social worker, sat around the table. I sat next to Betsy and waited. No one was smiling.

“You have done a very serious thing…” Robin began

Cedar impatient to get to the point,  interrupted, ”You had a party when we were away. We trusted you.”

“It wasn’t a party. I didn’t mean to.” My tongue flailed for excuses. I do not remember much of the meeting just the vibration of my rapid heartbeat. The meeting careened from the your caught moment to the now you will go live in a shelter, conclusion. I said nothing.

I was shuffled into cedars car with a suitcase they had packed for me. I would get the rest later; they were not cutting me out of their lives, but they could not trust me. Cedar, Betsy, and Jamie headed home.

Rachel chauffeured me to a youth center in New Haven, to an unfamiliar part of the city. I rode in the backseat in silence. As Rachel pulled up in front of a youth center, where a new social worker was to meet me, she said, “They won’t stay mad long, they never do.”

I stood in the entry of the silent, half-lit youth center with my suitcase and waited for a sign of life. Worried there was no one there and I had nowhere to go, I turned back and Rachel was gone.

_____________

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I Donated Blood the Day I Ran Away from Home

It had been just a few weeks since my art school, ECA, counselor, released me from my emotional umbilical cord. “Your mother is not your responsibility.” I could not stop hearing her voice on repeat.

Read the first part of this story

I finished finalizing the draft of the monologue I was submitting for a workshop the next day. It was just after midnight. I snuck off to bed and was just drifting when Mom cut my slumber short.

She shouted to me from the kitchen.

I obliged, expertly navigating the half-filled trash bags in the hallway. I waited to hear what she wanted, standing in the kitchen doorway, balancing one foot on a gallon-size glass cider jug, the other on a mound of damp trash. I wore sneakers over my skating tights and dress, which I had fallen asleep wearing. It was not a barefoot household. There were no slippers lined up in the entryway to slip into after leaving our dirty shoes on a mat. Besides, I got in trouble if I hurt my feet; it meant I could not figure skate, and this was Mom’s top priority. I rarely went without socks, never mind bare feet.

“What were you doing?” She bellowed over George Bailey’s out-of-tune wooing. It was her annual viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” She was fumbling through her bulging canvas pill pouch.

“Going to bed.”

“Who said?” Smirking, she raised her eyes to mine. “Ah ha.” She found what she sought in her pouch and swallowed the pills with a gulp from the accordion bendy-straw protruding from her giant, filthy, teal insulated travel mug.

“I have school,” slipped weakly from my mouth, I knew it would not matter to her.

“I want this kitchen cleaned tonight, or you’re not going back to school.” She unzipped her glucometer case to take her blood sugar so that she could estimate how much insulin she would need to take to make up for the angel food cake she was about to devour.

She was eerily calm as if she had just said, “Good night honey, you need your sleep for school tomorrow.”

My report card from my afternoon art school was coming out soon, and I knew the grades would be straight A’s for the first time in my life. The grades from my regular high school, which I still attended mornings, were not so great – C’s, D’s, maybe a stray B or A, in gym class. I prioritized writing for the short periods in the evenings, after figure skating and before Mom decided it was time for me to “clean.” I was ill with an encroaching sense of the house opening its detachable jaws to consume me.

My fellow writers and the staff at the art school were helping me find my voice, and it was stronger than I ever imagined that it could be. My goal of going to college, to escape my home, to be a writer, seemed attainable.

Now, Mom was threatening the mere possibility of my escape. Many of her threats were bluffs, but I could not always tell one from the other. What I knew all too well were her tone and her thick, moist, scowling lips that repelled me. She feared being trapped there in her squalor, alone at the start of her descent into nearly every complication of type 2 diabetes.

I looked around the kitchen. The sink was barely visible beneath the greasy, filth and mold-caked, pots, pans, and dishes, which sprawled out from the sink, covering the adjacent flat surfaces, stove and all. Flies hummed around the foul sink, their specks covering the overhead light, the blinds, and any place light enough to show them. The floor was thickly matted with trash, except for the tiny spot under her chair, where it thinned from her nightly occupancy and the shuffling of her feet.

I watched Mom lancet her finger and milk a drop of blood onto a test strip. I looked at the smoke film coating our white walls. In places, the coating pissed drips down the wall. I was ill with an encroaching sense of the house opening its detachable jaws to consume me.

I was about to talk back to her in unleashed, fury. I was cut off by the glucometer smashing apart against the pantry door inches from my face. I looked her in the eye for a moment, and she saw something that scared her. It took effort for her to break my stare.

“That better still work. You find every piece, you ungrateful bitch. I need it.”

On my knees in the trash, dampness soaking through the layers of tights I still wore beneath my skating dress. Hateful words labored beneath my thin, tight lips. I vibrated with their effort. I wondered, as I often did, at peoples’ unconditional love for their mothers, which others seemed to experience. Mom told me, many times, that from less than three-months-old, I refused her breast and preferred not to be held by her.

I dug all the pieces of the glucometer from the discernible trash on the floor where it fell.

Mom went to bed around two a.m. after a dose of insulin and the angel food cake were gone.

I filled garbage bags with heaps of trash using a dust pan as a shovel. Once I could hear her red wood-sawing snoring near four a.m., I went to my room and packed. My room was not full of trash. It was full of my things; there were clothes, books, and CDs, thickly carpeting the floor.

I packed a milk crate full of journals and a couple of suitcases with clothes, Floppy, my stuffed bunny, and the studded leather treasure chest, jewelry box that was my grandfather’s and still held a one inch square youthful black and white of my grandmother, Rita. I tried to push aside the idea of a conversation with my still fire-haired, steel-willed, Riri. How would I explain my desertion of her daughter? I zipped my bags and stashed them, and the crate of writing, beneath the mess.

The next morning, I woke hours before my mother and left for school. I was not going to let her manipulate me into staying home. I had a plan. I had spoken to my best friend, Jamie’s parents a few nights previous about what the staff at the art school said – “Your mother is not your responsibility.” I could tell Jamie’s mom doubted the severity of what I described to her, but Jamie loved me like a sister. Jamie had suffered from intractable epilepsy since we were in 6th grade together. They would do anything to make her happy, including taking in strays, whom Jamie easily befriended. I was their last stray.

I got to my high school, Amity, in time for homeroom, a tiny miracle in itself. I nervously sat through English and History. When my free period came, I headed straight for my guidance counselor, a trusted ally.

Ms. W. was young and down to earth with the type of the last name that butts a whole bunch of consonants together without the roll of vowels between them. She reminded me of the older girls from the skating rink who had been surrogate sisters to me when I was very young. Ms. W was fit and fair-skinned and haired with eyes the blue of a late afternoon sky. The glasses framing them served to make her more relatable to me.

Girls scared the hell out of me – hell, they still do – their kindness at times a veil for closed-door cruelty, their judgment a keen-edged scythe.

I was not wary of Ms. W. she was easy to talk to and relate with. She did not mock my goals even though she paid close attention to my grades and absenteeism. She was also the one, who was so excited to tell me when the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) accepted me to their writing program the previous spring.

Ms. W saw me outside her office door. She was wrapping up with another student. When she saw my face, she ushered her student out the door and, stepping aside, invited me in. Usually, I slouched into a padded chair next to her desk, swinging my over-laden backpack down under my chair. On that day, I couldn’t sit. I had kept myself pegged down all morning.

“I’m leaving. I’m doing it today.” I hadn’t even taken my bag off my back. It kept sliding down my grandfather’s plush, aubergine, Lacoste shirt I had been wearing since I started attending ECA.

Ms. W. had a loose understanding of my life, knew I was forced to skate, knew my sister left because of Mom. She met her at meetings about my truancy and poor performance. She had seen us interact and heard Mom’s slow, depressed diatribes on the many ways I was ruining her life and my own.

I confessed some darker truths. I could tell she wished I had been honest sooner. I explained my plan to leave without my mother finding out. Ms. W. wanted to make sure I had a place to go, that I would be safe until she saw me the next day. I think she even contacted Jamie’s parents, I can’t remember. What I do remember is without her consistent support I might not have completed high school, and I definitely would not have gotten into all seven colleges to which I applied.

I had another class period before I could get into my car and get my plan under way. I left the office and saw a crowd headed for the gym following Red Cross signs. That is when I remembered that I signed up for the blood drive.

The blood drive was popular for those of us old enough to donate. It was a reason to miss class, get free snacks and drinks, and proudly wear a sticker for the rest of the day to highlight our superior status. My long sleeves were tight to roll up, but I bled my pint in 8 minutes.

A couple of years later, when I worked in a Boston hospital blood bank, I learned that separating pints of blood into components to make viable platelets, the pint must be collected in under ten minutes. I like to remember that on the day of my greatest struggle for survival, I donated blood, which may have helped three other people survive as well.

I felt a bit weak even after I ate a pack of Lorna Doones and some orange juice, but at least, it was time to leave. I had to get back to the house before Mom returned from her doctor appointment. I had to get into the house and get my bags. Not only did I not want to run into Mom, but I wanted to get to ECA down in New Haven on time as well. I packed the back of my boxy SUV and left as quickly as I had come. I felt heady but was unsure if the culprit was the missing pint of blood or the reality of what I was doing.

I wish I could recall more than just arriving at and leaving ECA that day. Most of my memories that afternoon surround colors; my purple shirt, my dark red blood draining into a bag below me, and later that night, the lights on the police cruiser illuminating my house and Mom’s face.

School finally ended at four p.m., and I was expected at the skating rink by five p.m. Instead of hopping on I-95 around the corner from ECA, I headed back through downtown traffic and crawled back up the hill, to Woodbridge, with the rest of the commuters. I got to Jamie’s house, unloaded my car, and waited for the rest of the plan to play out.

It did not take long for my mother to begin to worry, find out where I was and what I planned. She reported my car, which she owned, stolen, as well as the gas card, credit card, and the brick-sized cell phone she made me carry for safety.

I curled in a fetal position clutching my floppy bunny on the grass green family room carpet. Jamie’s father, Cedar, argued with my mom over the phone. He told me that my mother reported me to the police as a thief since she could not report an 18-year-old as a runaway.

He said that instead of waiting until the next day to return everything as I had planned, we had to go right then. The police would meet us there for my protection, as Cedar had insisted. “Wow, she’s nuts, kid. I don’t know how you have your head screwed on straight.”

The lights of the cruiser throbbed through my neighborhood in the flats of Woodbridge. I drove my first car for the last time and parked it in the driveway. Cedar followed in his car, parking in the street behind me.

The officer was familiar from around town. He faced me, his thick mustache hiding his expression as he listened to my mother on the stoop. She had just started using a cane, for neuropathy pain, or obesity, or whatever. She was making a show of it, trying to see if, due to her health, the officer would make me stay.

I walked up the steps listening to my dog barking inside the house and swallowed hard. I did not raise my eyes to Mom until she was directly in front of me. The officer watched.

“Get in the house.” I could hear the faintest restraint in her flat tone.

I put the pile of contraband in her hand. “No.” My voice matched my will. “I’m 18. I don’t have to listen to you. Not anymore.” I turned and started back down the steps, avoiding the urge to push past her and get my dalmatian as well.

“Is there anything we can work out here, ladies?” The officer’s attempt was feeble but well-intentioned.

I spoke as I continued leaving. “Her house is full of trash, Officer. That’s why she’s not letting you in. She also said I couldn’t go to school anymore, so I’m leaving.”

“You don’t seriously think I meant that?” Her voice was the sweet of rotting meat.

“I’m not waiting to find out.” I hopped into the passenger seat of Cedar’s car.

She was waving her cane in the air, forgetting to look more disabled than she was at that point. “The house is her mess, not mine. She makes me live like this. It’s all her….”

I slammed the car door. Mom had no one to blame anymore.

_________

I continue to be grateful for the encouragement and readership of this growing community of readers and writers. I plan on adding some other types of writing to this site, eventually. I also hope to start posting more as my surgery recovery progresses, and it is progressing, slowly and painfully.

It is beginning to feel like this blog could become the bones of a full-length memoir. I keep seeing new places to take it. I am reading and working with Natalie Goldberg’s “Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.” I wouldn’t be surprised to get many posts out of the exercises in this book. I highly recommend it, if you are at all considering writing a memoir.

***Less than 10% of the eligible population donates blood. As a result, there are always nationwide blood shortages. Please donate. Contact your local hospital donor room or find your nearest Red Cross drive.

This writing is a memoir and by nature is based on fallible memories. The reader should not consider this writing to represent anything but the memories of the author.

A Community of Writers Helped Me Change My Life

I have been asked what I am planning to do with this blog.

I am getting warmed up, for now, working on my voice, working at the practice of writing. I have always kicked around the idea of writing a memoir, but I struggle with discipline, structure, and framing. I am hoping to gain clarity and direction as I write and share. The response from friends, family, and the public is fueling my momentum. I am grateful to be welcomed into a community of writers and readers.

The last time I was part of a writing community I was attending a magnet high school for the arts. The writers and staff helped me find my voice during the most pivotal year of my life.

I spent somewhere around 70 days truant in my sophomore year of high school. I filled those days handwriting page after college-ruled page of garbage writing.

The story was a fantasy in which a character, much like myself, ran away to L.A. She worked as a checkout girl in a crunchy health food store. A lucky day arrived when she met, Michelle Pfeiffer, at the checkout counter. The 90’s icon took on a motherly, nurturing role, guiding the young woman to happiness and success. So embarrassing, but it kept me going through the darkest depression I knew at the time.

My mother was a stark contrast to the nurturing one I sought in my fantasies. She lost her battle to both untreated mental illness and poorly controlled, type two diabetes, at 58-years-old.

My parents divorced when I was 3-years-old, and my other’s steep decline began. She was a single mother whose life was funded by my grandparents. She suffered long depressions and energetic, creative periods marked by unfinished craft projects meant to make money. She went on spending sprees purchasing 400 dollars of junk from Sam’s Club per weekly trip. She also taught me to love classic movies, Broadway musicals, fishing, and crafts. She even sewed, beaded, and accessorized, nearly every figure skating costume that my sister and I wore.

She also, at times, tossed refrigerator drawers full of putrid, liquefied veggies at my sister, Danielle, and I, drawer and all. Sometimes she chose to pay for our ice-time and figure skating lessons instead of the electric shut-off notice or a tank full of heating oil.

Every choice was about instant gratification. Everything wrong with her life was her childrens’ fault. Mom’s anger had bull horns. We learned to be rodeo clowns, to be quicker and lighter on our feet lest we be gored.

Danielle left home when she was 18, and I could not blame her. She had skipped school and gotten caught. Unwilling to face one more rage, she did not come home. I was 12-years-old and petrified; Danielle had often physically intervened for me, taking the brunt of Mom’s wrath.

It was around that time I began the ritual of wishing for my escape on the first star I spotted each night. The wish was always a variation on “one day, I want a happy average life.” I thought I was more likely to earn my wish if I had realistic expectations.

I spent somewhere near 70 days truant in my sophomore year of high school.

I wanted to be an excellent student, not the weirdo who barely showed up. I figured I had to go to college if I wanted out. College was expected in my community. My poor attendance meant I missed entire units of the curriculum. I rarely completed assignments, and when I did, they were the work of a chronic underachiever.

My teachers were surprised when I applied to a magnet school for the arts in, New Haven; I was not known to participate in extracurriculars. I had to stand before the board of education and convince them that I ought to be allowed to attend a specialized magnet school. I submitted a writing sample, sat through an interview, and was accepted into the advanced writing class. I spent the summer promising myself that, junior year, I would turn everything around.

*     *     *

On the first day of Junior year, I began the routine of leaving my high school, Amity, at lunch and driving down to New Haven. I white-knuckled the wheel through the unfamiliar city traffic.

The writers’ room of the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) in New Haven was small, filled with tattered couches and a couple of overstuffed recliners. There was just room enough to get around the coffee table to the furthest seat. I felt so lame that first day, particularly because of being in the advanced class. Many of the students were well indoctrinated into the requisite bohemian dress and lifestyle.

They smoked clove cigarettes and returned from our fifteen-minute mid-school breaks, sucking down black coffee, lips puckering with each slurp. One of my classmates, a tall, lithe boy, wore a floor length silver skirt. His top was silver, and his skin was equally reflective with silver body paint. Then someone called his name. I realized the silver boy, and I had been on a date to a movie, chauffeured by our mothers, when we were counselors in training at a Schooner camp a couple of years prior, weird small world.

On the first night of that school year, my mother bellowed from her chair in the kitchen. “Brooke, hrrum.” She grunted then began a mucus-filled cough.

Several minutes later she yelled again. “Come here and refill my drink.”

I was at the other end of the house studying on my absurd full-wave water bed. My books were covered with brown shopping bags. The corresponding notebooks were labeled and organized, scattered about the bed.

I was nearly done outlining the first chapter in my American history textbook.

“Let me finish this chapter,” I yelled back.

I heard the rustling and crunching as she came down the trash-matted hallway. For a sick woman, she could be fast when enraged. She grabbed the open text and binder with force. My whole body bobbed up and down on the liquid mattress as the books impacted the “Dangerous Minds” movie poster on my far wall. The top right corner tore and sagged. Michelle Pfeiffer looked pissed off.

My best writing typically came from in-class writing exercises. The first piece I wrote that felt like quality writing was an essay about the loss of my grandfather. My teacher thought I was mature and above all, willing to learn and relentlessly edit.

I was not, “murdering my darlings,” I was molding them. I was a writer. I lived it, exercises, workshops, readings for the student body, readings by visiting poets. I loved it.

Parents of dancers and photographers came up to me after my first all-school reading to say how cathartic my essay had been, how they had cried. What a feeling for a girl who could not cry at all from ages fifteen to twenty-one. I touched something true in other humans. They felt as I did. Writing became like crying for me; I began to feel safe sharing pieces of myself.

Mom’s anger had bull horns. We learned to be rodeo clowns, to be quicker and lighter on our feet, lest we be gored.

In early December of 1997 our humor, monologue, and essay teacher, Madeline, was surprised when she returned from our afternoon break. “What’s going on, you guys?”

I was in a ratty burgundy recliner that day, a coveted spot. I had fallen asleep as had several others. They were on couches leaning against one another. Many of them went to the same New Haven high school. They went around the room, all complaining of late nights spent studying for their semester finals, some up until two in the morning.

My school was on a different exam schedule. As everyone chimed in, I knew my silence would be noted. I planned on claiming I was sleeping because of exams as well. None of them would have known. But I did not want to lie about my home, my childhood, Mom—not one more time.

“Brooke?” Madeline and the class set their eyes on me.

I sighed. “I was up until four last night.” I stopped. Maybe that was honest enough.

“Exams?” Madeline asked less formally, leaning forward in her chair.

“No. My mom kept me up until four-ish” I thought of the growl in my mother’s voice as she threatened to make me quit ECA. To her, it was another lever to bend me to her will.

“Cleaning.” I used the word as a full sentence.

Madeline’s eyes, surrounded by her wild frizzy curls, grew heavy, she was older for a moment with every muscle of her face furrowing. “Let’s speak after class.” It was a demand. “If you have time.” It was still a demand.

After class, I explained a smidgeon of my life to Madeline. She asked me to meet with her and the school guidance counselor before class the following day.

The guidance counselor, Helen, wore her silver hair at shoulder length. Her glasses hung from a turquoise beaded chain over her maternal breasts.  I was cognizant of the glances Madeline and Helen exchanged as I began.

“My mom isn’t well.” My left knee jack-hammered up and down. “We live in a house with floors and counters covered in garbage.” There was no word I knew for how we lived. It was difficult to imagine anyone else living as we did. “I want to go to college; I want to do well in school.”

“Brooke, does your mother hurt you?” The women wore matching frowns.

“She does, sometimes. That’s not really the problem.”

The two women flinched, simultaneously.

“She keeps me up to all hours cleaning. She threw my books across my room on the first day of school. That’s how she feels about school and me. She’s scared I’m gonna leave her. She would rather I have no opportunities, so that way I never leave.”

“What do you mean cleaning?” Madeline’s hands were clasped together over her knees.

I had to think about how to describe it as it was nothing I dared commit words to. “I mean that in some parts of the house the trash is two feet deep. I mean every take-out wrapper, every newspaper, every cigarette carton, unopened bills, it all ends up on the ground, rotting.”

I saw it in my head after one of the many full clean-outs our grandparents paid for. It was like a living thing in my house, climbing from the un-emptied kitchen garbage, piles of mail falling from the table. It all met and took over.

“I’m not innocent; I’ve given up putting my rarely washed clothes away. I choose what I wear from my floor. I don’t even take the trash to the dump when I say I will.” I felt ashamed admitting the lie. I lied all of the time to my mother. Danielle and I had to. We treated our mother with reverence and perfect manners, but lying about anything that might trigger her anger, was survival. I was lost for a minute in my shame, my face aflame, eyes on the teal office carpet.

“Why don’t you leave?” Helen said it so plainly, so matter of fact.

“I can’t,” came out quickly; I did not hear myself say it.

“Why not?” Again as if it was an obvious choice. She leaned back in her chair,  playing with the chain on her glasses and waited for me to think.

I thought of the look on my Grandmother’s face as she told me not to disappoint my mother, that I was all she had left.

“I’m all that’s left. She is my responsibility, my grandmother told me she needs someone to look after her.” This was one of my grandmother’s rare allusions to our Mom’s untreated mental health issues, which I parroted.

Helen leaned towards me and spoke clearly. “Brooke, I want you to understand me.” She waited for one beat for me to meet her eyes. “Your mother is not your responsibility.” She let that hang a few minutes.

I did not take my eyes from her.

“You have been your mother’s responsibility, and she has failed you.”

“Your mother is not your responsibility,” looped round and round my head. I arrived home after babysitting that night and met my mother’s glazed eyes through her large frame, bifocals and wondered if I would ever be strong enough to leave.

To be continued…

This writing is a memoir and by nature is based on fallible memories. The reader should not consider this writing to represent anything but the memories of the author.

This Is Not The Post I Meant To Be Posting

This is not the post I meant to be posting. This is not where I saw myself just a few months ago when I conceived of returning to writing via a blog. However, this is where I am, fighting back the writer’s block that I have allowed to curse me for over a decade. Newly single and recovering from surgery, I have no clue anymore where my life is heading. All I know is I would rather live it writing…

The day I found out that I needed a two level spinal fusion is the same day my marriage ended.

I felt the pop in my lower back the day my career as an Emergency Medical Technician ended, a scant 15 or so months after it began. After the pop, my next thought was for my marriage; I wondered if it would be intact by the time I healed. This was not my first back injury, and we had not done well during the last one; though it was minor and short-lived in comparison.The entirely new injury occurred in early October while I was lifting a patient. I went through all the prescribed rigmarole, trying to heal. I walked unevenly into physical therapy twice a week; my back hooked sharply left some days, right the others, never straight up and down.

My days at home were lonely. My wife, our two dogs and I, moved to our new city just a few months before I was injured. It was not enough time to make new friends to combat my isolation. I spent a handful of weeks satisfied with binge-watching TV between physical therapy appointments.

I began to suspect that non-aggressive therapies were not going to work on my back as it worsened and sharp pains radiated down my leg more viciously by the week. As winter began to bury my city under 9 feet of snow and block my view of the neighborhood, I finished the final season of yet another HBO show. I began to feel lost and not in the surreal way one feels when they turn the last page of a great novel.

I began to lose track of the days of the week as PT became pointless and my back and leg grew weak and more painful.

I told myself, most people never get an opportunity for such solitude. Most people never get paid to be idle in their homes, “healing.” I knew I should have been writing. I had no excuse not to. It felt sinful to waste the time, the opportunity.

Writing was integral to my young and early adult life. I had the ability to walk in the shoes of others. I could not imagine what writer’s block could feel like back then. I tried to imagine sitting with a felt tip pen in front of a blank journal and not being able to touch the pen to the page. It felt the way a nightmare muffles the dreamers screams. I was the student whose academic essays waxed creative and went on for pages beyond the minimum word count, relevant and appreciated by my professors. I was a cocky, contest winning, wordsmith, sure of my future as both a writer and a doctor.

I am not a doctor, nor have I written more than a tidbit in 15 or so years.

I do not know what day the urge struck me, but I crookedly attempted to find a journal and an appealing pen. I shuffled papers on my overladen desk. Turned in a circle in the spare bedroom, still stacked with unpacked boxes. A cream tote with pale pinky orange handles poked from an open box. It had in it, a few sets of knitting needles, a few balls of yarn, one finished — white and brown mottled fingerless glove, and one partly done. I began the partly done one, nearly over five years ago. I had yet to make a pair of fingerless gloves for my wife to wear and it seemed I would never hear the end of it.

I was astonished that injured and confined in the dim light of New England winter, I was keeping my emotional head above water.

Thus, the warped knitting needles stifled my urge to write; more months passed spent teaching myself to knit increasingly difficult patterns. I do not believe I put pen to paper once in those months though several loved ones received well-knitted hats throughout winter. The hats varied, some simple and some complex enough that I labored over them for days.

Our little family made the best of fall and early winter. We sat by our fireplace listening to NPR’s “Serial” and spoke of such things like planning to start a family in the spring. My wife finally received her matching pair of fingerless gloves in a soft yellow wool, a hat, and a pair of too loose purple leg warmers.

I was astonished that injured and confined in the dim light of New England winter; I was keeping my emotional head above water. I have battled depression since my teens, yet still felt fueled by the happiness and energy of the previous year. I loved being an EMT; I worked ungodly long hours with a ton of overtime at paid and volunteer companies. So many hours away from home forced my wife and me to plan our time together, which suited us well.

Our marriage felt stronger than it had in years. After our big move, the feeling persisted for some time, but winter slogged on, and I felt the happy fuel running out. I could glimpse, in the lengthening days, spring coming and began to feel as if I would miss another season. My left leg was dominated by nerve pain and creeping weakness, my back still crooked. I had to walk with a cane for a semblance of balance and the snow, and ice outside became my wardens. As I became more reliant on my wife for help and a link to the outside world, she withdrew. For a time, I failed to notice.

I began a new project, digitizing all of my family photos and piecing together my family genealogy. I read histories of the Jewish people. I even took to old world Jewish cooking, beginning with schmaltz. I sat on a stool in my kitchen simmering chicken skin in a large cast iron pan. I added sautéed onions and garlic as the chicken skin began to brown.  Gallons of rich chicken soup and matzoh balls made with golden schmaltz scented our home at the cusp of spring. Kasha varnishkes became my goyim wife’s favorite new pasta dish despite her doubts.

One night in March, I dreamt of a pre-WWI, Jewish shtetl life. My senses were alight with the scent of cabbage cooking and chicken simmering. I fought the impending daylight, willing myself to stay asleep to see how it ended. I awoke with a cast of characters in my head vying for my attention. I reached for my iPad and did not allow myself to stop typing until every detail was recorded. Finally, I had organically found my way back; I was writing again.

On April 1, 2015, I finally had surgery to remove the loose chunks of the discs, which were pressing on my nerves. I was in and out in the same day. I felt tall, standing straight for the first time in five months. Walking was the only exercise I was allowed. The weather was fickle as if trying to decide what season to stage next. I basked in the sunlight, my skin winter white, warming as I walked around my neighborhood. I had to remind myself that I was still fragile.

Two weeks post-operative, I was finally allowed to be out in the world. I figured that meant more time out in the world with my wife, and sometimes it did, but something had shifted. A night or two a week spent drinking with the girls had become three or four nights per week. Even on weekends, it seemed my wife could only put aside an hour or two at a time to spend with me.

The nerve pain was creeping back down my left leg. I iced, I rested. Just three weeks post op, I re-herniated both discs while stepping out of the shower. The pain was much worse than before surgery. I had seen a light the end of my injury and it felt as if the way forward had been filled with cement. I was left with thrumming and throbbing and an array of strange sensations working down my leg, into my ankle and foot. It became more difficult to walk as my back fell into its shifted old ways and the affected muscles weakened daily.

I decided I ought to begin a blog to create an accountable commitment to writing and to put myself out there. It was obvious I would not be going back to work soon and maybe never in the same way. A blog seemed like the best way to put my writing in motion while I had the time. I chose a name in honor of the Jewish immersion I recently enacted. The name, Schmaltzy Balz, did not encompass anything about me or what I wanted to do. It was merely clever. That brand of clever is too easy. I wrote draft after draft of what I thought would be my first post. I still do not know why, but I could not a accomplish a draft that I was willing to share.

I was angry at my debilitation, but it did not entirely explain the niggling feeling I had that everything in my life was shifting out of my control. I began to suspect my wife of emotional infidelity. My long, painful hours made turning my suspicions around on me relatively easy. I was probably just being paranoid. My mind was eased as we moved forward with our plans to have a baby even while awaiting a new plan from my surgeon.

I have no clue anymore where my life is heading. All I know is I would rather live it writing…

The day I found out that I needed a two level spinal fusion is the same day my marriage ended. I was feeling confident that day. My wife took time off to shuttle me to the surgeon’s appointment. The weather was spring perfect, and we got along as if we did not have ugly fights nearly every day. Maybe I was wrong, either way, I needed to know. I demanded the truth from her that evening.

By the time I went in for my second surgery in June, it had sunk in, my wife was no longer mine. My sister, Danielle, who had practically raised me, came to my aid. My father came up with her, and I was grateful to have them both on the day of the surgery. I remember thrashing in pain upon waking from anesthesia. I grappled with the button that was supposed to deliver pain medication. It was far too stingy.

My family saw me to my room that night and left for home, a state away. Already under a doctor’s care, I had to stay in my marital home until I was well enough to travel. I was achingly eager to get home to my family and friends. Alone in my hospital room on that first night, I expected to get out in a day or so. Without my one-eyed,  35 lb., brown Boston terrier, Barnaby Jones, snoring and sharing his warmth with me, I felt utterly alone. I began to wonder why I could not feel my left lower leg or move it at all below the knee. I pressed the painkiller button and waited until I could press it again.

My incision was producing copious drainage, requiring several bandage changes a day. I was kept in the hospital and tilted so that my body was at a head down, 45-degree angle. This was a precaution in case it was spinal fluid flooding out of my wound. Moving, at all, elicited involuntary groans, grunts and sometimes screams. My doctor explained that my vertebrae were too small for the hardware intended. He had to improvise. However, he could not yet account for the damage to my left leg, the outsized pain, or the drainage.

My failed marriage was almost a welcome distraction from the ceaseless pain. I reviewed our seven years together in my head: our beginning, my spontaneous proposal a week after we began dating, our raucous summer camp wedding two years later, holiday parties hosted, holidays spent with our families, all the dreams we had together, and also the things we could not unsay or undo. All of these things were easier to process outside of the home we shared. I journaled most days and buried my sadness and fear for my future in binge-watching the small town, quick-witted banter of the “Gilmore Girls.” The shows antics and ivy league location shots of my small home city were as close as I could get to home.

Five days into my hospital stay, the source of the profuse drainage was discovered. A piece of the hardware slipped. When it did, it tore loose another piece of a disc and smashed it against the nerve root responsible for the paralysis in my lower left leg.

There was no delay; I was brought into my third surgery on the weekend. My doctor borrowed OR nurses from a nearby hospital. The two women, “best friends” they said, bore religious sounding names that reeked of a paperback romance. Surgery number three was a success, we thought. Though there was post-operative pain, it was nothing like what I had been enduring all week. I even got back the ability to extend my left toes just slightly.

It was not until I tried to walk with a walker for the first time that I realized how debilitated I had become. I was still crooked due to muscle spasms and nerve damage. Worse yet, my left foot dragged as my weak leg attempted to lift high enough to clear my limp foot above the ground. It became clear that I had a long recovery ahead.

My sister, Danielle, and her children came to pick me up from the hospital and stayed with me in my home. My wife stayed elsewhere. My sister spent hours getting my belongings packed and ready to move home.

My body felt battered. I struggled with even the smallest movements. Not to mention, trying to heal surrounded by reminders of my marriage was impossible. Just a few weeks to wait, but it might as well have been months. I trudged from bed to couch, couch to porch and back again, taking tiny, careful, shuffling steps. The redeeming part of being home, aside from not being awakened for vital signs in the night, was the snortling sounds and the solid warmth of my dog.

 I had been the one passionate about moving north and now I was the one retreating south to home base.

My niece and nephew provided a constant circus of sibling rivalry while their mother toiled in my home. By the time of my follow-up appointment, my belongings were packed and organized. I had even finished drafting a separation agreement. We could not hit the road soon enough. I had been the one passionate about moving north, and now I was the one retreating south to home my base.

Danielle created room for me in her home where there was none. I write this at the end of July, while practicing sitting tall and straight, from my bedroom area in the corner of the kids’ playroom. Barnaby Jones and I have been here a month now. The pain of my separation and impending divorce is present but dulling with time. I am still using a walker. My leg has not recovered any more feeling or use then the day of my third surgery. I am less stiff and at times, less crooked. I have high hopes for the physical therapy, which I have just begun, and I am still limited by my mobility and pain but beginning to drive again is freeing.

The life before me bears little resemblance to the one I had planned. I was busy planning a baby nursery while my wife planned her escape. Now I plan only for Barnaby Jones and me. I will not work as an EMT again or in health care in any physical capacity for that matter. I have been willing and working my way back towards a career in healthcare for years, yet knowing it is simply not possible, is much easier to deal with than just never having accomplished it. My conscience is clear on one count.

Writer’s block is not the silent scream of a nightmare; it is the noise of life clogging the mind. It is not that I spent the past decade unable to freely move my pen on the page, it is just that nothing I was writing was coming from me; I was writing as the cocky, college wordsmith who had never known love or heartbreak or struggling to pay the rent. That college kid felt so old and mature because her childhood was difficult. She knew nothing of me, a twice married, twice divorced, 36-year-old woman who has finally stopped wallowing in unfulfilled goals.

Writer’s block is not the silent scream of a nightmare; it is the noise of life clogging the mind.