Mom found an exceptionally nice friend at the Kingdom Hall. Fran babysat my low-functioning autistic sister and me for almost nothing a week so that my single mother could try to wean our family off of welfare by training to be a medical assistant at one of those colleges advertised on TV. Fran continued watching us after Mom graduated and got a job as a medical-records clerk when she couldn't get hired as a medical assistant.
Fran not only opened her home to us, she made us feel like family. Her nine-year-old daughter, Michelle, was a year older than I was, and Tony, her son, was about 15. Tony was the textbook definition of geek. He was technologically savvy, socially awkward, well-read, and an "A" student. I thought he knew everything. He genuinely listened to me and made us laugh with his silly voices. I dearly wished I could trade siblings with Michelle.
Michelle and I learned cooking, table manners, gardening and dishwashing from Fran, made mud pies and built "amusement parks" with hay bales and lumber scraps out in the big back yard full of play houses and fruit trees. Fran's house was like Eden.
But every Eden has a snake, and this one's snake was Fran's husband, Gus.
Gus would sit me on his lap while the family watched TV after dinner, and since he was like a surrogate father, I thought nothing of it. His hands would casually roam all over my rib cage when the room would happen to be empty, but I was too young to understand the significance. He used to ask me to help him make coffee in the kitchen and hug and kiss me as it brewed, sometimes with his tongue. I just assumed that this was the different way this family did kisses. He used to kiss me out by the fruit trees, back in the garage, wherever he found me alone. It's only in hindsight that I realize we were always alone when these things happened.
But when he tried to unzip my pants, I knew that was wrong. I told my mom, and she told Fran.
Fran's eyes widened as though she had sat on a tack. She leapt up and confronted Gus immediately out on their screened-in back porch with my mother and myself in tow. He denied it, and they believed him. They all then scolded me for lying about such an upstanding member of the congregation. He was a high-ranking Elder after all.
My grades plummeted, and it didn't help that my teacher was male. If it hadn't been for good standardized test scores, I would have had to repeat fifth grade. That year was marked by an isolated and idiopathic asthma attack, mysterious aches and pains, shoplifting, encopresis, and a bout of pyromania that landed me on probation at the ripe old age of 10.
Fran finally couldn't tolerate my destructive behaviors, so we got a new babysitter.
We changed babysitters a lot over the next few years, and I was pretty much a total asshole to each and every one of them. Sometimes I cringe when I remember how mean I was to this one very nice kid's hamster, giving it a bath in water after the boy had explained that hamsters must bathe in sawdust because, if they get wet, they will catch pneumonia and die. We changed babysitters before I learned the hamster's fate.
Mom finally gave up when I was in middle school and I became a latchkey kid. I started hanging out with our neighbors, who honestly felt more like a family to me than those in my own home ever had. Seventeen-year-old Jeanette brushed and styled my hair like a sister would, she got me a weekends-only job as a busgirl at the restaurant where she worked, taught me to apply makeup (Mom said I looked like a "damn Mexican"), to inhale when smoking (the first hit of Marlboro Red I actually inhaled gave one great buzz), and how to "play it off" when drunk or high. Her brother, Juan, made me feel safe. Maria, their mother, tried to help me see my mother's side and encouraged me to "meet her halfway." The concept was foreign.
Although I feigned illness as often as I could, I still had to go with Mom to her meetings at least three times a week. Throughout each of the two-hour meetings preached by unpaid Brothers (most of ours were auto mechanics by day), I continually pestered my long-suffering mother for paper, a pencil, her watch, her necklace, a mint, permission to get a drink, permission to go to the bathroom, aspirin, nail clippers, a Band-aid. Sometimes, I amused myself by using a shiny surface to angle light into the speaker's eyes.
From birth, Witness children are expected to remain quiet and attentive at their parents' sides; toys or crayons are denounced from the stage. To be properly trained, children of all ages must pay attention for the full two hours. After I turned 10, as Mom was getting dressed for meetings, I would occasionally down a full tumbler from the gallon jug of Gallo she always kept on the floor under the kitchen window, and that really helped me appear to be quiet and attentive. The filthy looks decreased. Or maybe I just stopped noticing.
At the age of 13, I flat-out refused to attend another meeting. The Elders, my mother informed me, announced from the stage that I was a "bad association," which, in Jehovah's Witness speak, pretty much meant excommunication. I celebrated.
One Friday not long after that, I got home from school to find my mother on the phone. It was Linda from County Services. She wanted to talk to me. She said that Mom and I needed a three-day "time-out," so she had arranged for me to stay at the Children's Shelter. She made it sound like summer camp, and hey, a Monday off school. So I packed clothes, makeup, cigarettes, a stuffed animal, and my yellow AM/FM headphones. Eddie Money's "Give Me Some Water" was playing loudly in my ears as Mom signed papers with a uniformed officer at the intake cubicle. He seemed appalled at the way I talked to my mother. I had no idea what he found so offensive.
They put my personal belongings in a storage box, issued me a new set of clothes, and showed me to the Senior Girls unit, a big white dorm with 25 or so army-style bunk beds. The girls asked how long I was there for.
"Three days," I replied.
One of the twins there laughed. "That's what they tell everybody. We've been here six months." But I knew Mom was coming back for me Monday evening.
After a few weeks, Jeanette came to visit me at the shelter. Over pizza from our favorite little hole-in-the-wall place near home, she mentioned that she had paid Juan to slash Mom's tires. I was all, "Orale! She had it coming." No one had ever gotten revenge for me before; I didn't know what else to say.
By day, I was so overjoyed to be free that I habitually skipped through the unit, propelling myself up and forward by grabbing the foot rails of the top bunks. I silently cried myself to sleep at night.
My mother never came back to the shelter, and she moved to an undisclosed location, telling the social workers that under no circumstances was I to have her contact information.
After three months, I got placement in a group home instead of a foster home at my own request. Babysitters had taught me that I didn't want to compete with someone's own kids for resources, affection and attention. In a group home, everyone at least starts out on equal footing.
My new home was on the other side of the county, which made calling me a toll call for Jeanette. This, combined with my lack of money for the payphone, made communicating inconvenient, so that wonderful, liberating, empowering friendship just kind of died. The foster care system purposely places troubled teens well outside of their home neighborhoods specifically to separate them from their thug "homies." It worked; Jeanette didn't contact me when they moved.
I attended continuation school with all of the other group-home girls. It was full of stoners and head-bangers and had a smoking area large enough for the entire student body. Thankfully, the home provided each resident two packs of cigarettes per week, and our weekly allowance covered four more packs, so we weren't excluded from that important social opportunity. Grading emphasized "time on task" over performance, so long as you showed up and seemed to be at least trying to complete the assignment, you were golden. But I recognized that my teachers truly cared, and so I flourished. My classmates hated me for being a teacher's pet, but the faculty's esteem sustained me.
As my grades improved over the course of five years, so did my mother's opinion of me. She was also swayed by the fact that Gus had molested another little girl.
During the first year or two of my placement, Mom called occasionally and begged me to take back what I'd said about Gus. She tried to convince me that I must not have understood, that he was merely trying to fix my zipper because it looked broken... or it was my fault for sitting on his lap... or I was a good girl and would never have allowed him to kiss me like that. This time, she called expressly to inform me that she believed me now that he had done it again.
To finally be believed was exhilarating, for an instant. But it was a half-assed victory; it didn't actually change anything. Nothing happened to Gus. I was still "in placement." I still had to befriend one counselor or another hoping she'd invite me to stay overnight at her home when the facility closed down at major holidays while the other girls went home to their families. That someone else had had to suffer before Mom would believe me confirmed that my own mother has never, ever had my back; that to her, everything the Brothers did was good; everything they said was the truth, and if anything contradicted them, that thing was evil. Because they said so.
I was still volcanically angry, but she was extending an olive branch. Damaged and misguided as she was, in her heart she honestly was trying to be as good a mother as she knew how without breaking her religion. We'd had a few good memories after all, and who doesn't want her mother's approval? I guardedly accepted her guarded acceptance of me. When I was 17, she began occasionally inviting me to her new apartment.
It was right around the corner from her old one.