But before my new life ever even had a chance, my old one closed in on us. My father had to be hospitalized, and suddenly, my mother and I had to sell off all of our possessions. In two weeks’ time, all we had were two couch cushions and a TV on the floor that gave me electric shocks when I went near it. After we were kicked out of our home, my mother and I spent two months at Thessaly’s house and half a year in a transitional shelter for families where we had our own little apartment. Our case manager was a woman with oily eyes, who enthusiastically helped my mother find a job as the secretary in a medium-size law firm out in Long Island. She referred my mother to an organization that helped low-income women pay for their abortions. She found us an affordable apartment not too far from my mother’s work and even gave us some of her old furniture for free. “I want this stuff out of my basement, stat,” she said. When it was all over, neither of us remembered to thank her, and a year later, we found out from the local newspaper that she had taken her own life by jumping off her 10th-story office building.
My mother went into her bedroom and retrieved the thank-you letter we’d written a few months earlier and had meant to send to her—but somehow we had never gotten around to it.
“What kind of people are we?” she said, waving the letter around in the air. “All of this misery,” she said. “All this misery and nothing else but that.” I put my arm around my mother to try and comfort her, but inside, I burned with shame, knowing I had already moved on from grieving and was now wondering how long it would be before a boy loved me so much that he would be willing to jump out of a 10th-story window if he couldn’t have me.
“All this misery,” my mother said.
“It’s OK, mom. She was loved by so many people.”
“Did we love her? Did we thank her? Did we ever let her know she was in our hearts?”
I shook my head no and tightened my grip around her shoulders, all the while, burning.
Not too long after I finally got my period the summer after ninth grade, my mother started worrying that I wouldn’t ever have a healthy relationship with boys because of what happened with my father. I told her if that was true, then I was one angry gal, and she asked me, “Why so angry, gal?” And I said, “I’m angry because I didn’t choose to have an unhealthy dad, and now because of him, I might have no choice but to have unhealthy relationships with boys.”
“I know, babylove. But think of it this way: you didn’t choose to be born. I didn’t choose to be born. There’s a lot that we don’t choose about our existence, but it happens, and the only thing we can do is live our lives as well as we can live it.”
“But not Dad,” I said. “Because it’s too hard for him.”
“Not Dad,” she said.
“But us?” I said.
“But us,” she said.
One day, I will tell my mother about what happened with Mr. Myrtle, my 11th grade English teacher, and then I will ask her if she thinks what happened was fucked up, and I’ll also tell her about the man I met online when I was 15, who drove a hundred miles to meet me, and when I got in his car, I asked him if he wanted to go for a drive, and he said, “Sure,” and we ended up, of all places, in front of my old elementary school, and I wanted to tell this man about what kind of person I was when I used to go there, but instead I let him guide my hand to his belt buckle, and I wanted to explain why I flinched when I touched his belt, that it wasn’t because I was scared or because I didn’t want to touch his penis. I wasn’t scared at all despite having never touched one before. I went down on him and then fell asleep in his lap and woke up to him running his fingers through my hair and telling me that I was his beautiful girl and he was going to take me home now.
Across the street from where we had parked was the same spot where I saw my father, two years earlier, not long after we moved into the shelter. I saw him stumbling on the street across from my old school with dried blood on his lips and hands. I remember that his appearance disgusted me. His hands looked as if they had grown to twice their original size but somehow the outer layer of his skin had remained the same, making his fingers seem like sausages about to burst from their casings. I remember my father’s swollen hands and his bloodied lip, and his eyes and the way he looked at me as if he had seen me before somewhere, instead of looking at me like I was his daughter, and being all of 13 years old, what else was I supposed to do but pick up rocks from the ground and hurl them at my father, who spun around and screamed at a tree and then spun again and screamed at a passing car that had slowed down to see what exactly was happening. Why was this 13-year-old throwing rocks at a homeless man?
I will tell my mother about how I started to post pictures of myself on the Internet wearing nothing but underwear I had stolen from a shop in Woodhaven that sold “hooker clothes” according to Thessaly, who in 10th grade was still wearing Fruit of the Loom underwear and white cotton bras from the girls’ section of the department store, the kind that had tiny pink bows set right where your cleavage was supposed to happen one day. She and I were drifting apart. Ever since my mother and I moved out to Long Island, I had to take a 50-minute bus and then a 30-minute subway ride just to see her. And it seemed like she was never willing to do the same for me.