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A room away from the wol.., p.2

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 2


A Room Away From the Wolves

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  At that moment, she wasn’t smiling. I couldn’t see for sure, but when she opened her eyes, I bet the mood in the room turned her irises an infected green. “The thing is, I talked to your sisters. They told me everything.”

  She’d called the girls my sisters. “Told you what?”

  “What you did to get yourself in trouble. What you did with that boy. At school, in front of everybody. It’s a wonder you didn’t get suspended before summer break. And Daniella’s boyfriend, of all people. How could you?”

  The punch to the gut was hard. I stared at her.

  The pieces weren’t there to put together. They were vague enough to cause smoke, make fumes, and my mother was breathing it all in until she couldn’t even see her own daughter. That was me. I was in the room right in front of her, and she couldn’t see me.

  “Sabina,” she said, “I’m tired. Every time there’s a problem, it’s about you. Every time we hear something terrible, you’re the center of it. And I’m not even talking about what you did to my car. How do you think this makes me look with him?”

  Her husband again. The moment had come, almost as if I were watching her draw a chalk line dividing us on the basement floor. She’d called me by my whole name, the name on my school ID and on my working papers, not Bina, which is what she tended to call me instead, not Bean, the silly name she’d tagged me with as a kid and used only in private. She’d drawn the line. She was on the other side. She was with them.

  “Think of this as a break,” she said. “Stay away from the girls for a while. Don’t go to that party tonight. Give them space. You’ll be fine at Alicia and Andrea’s. You know them—you met them at church that time you went, don’t you remember? They’re good, generous people to take you in. They’ll pick you up tomorrow morning, before your sisters even wake up. Did you hear what I said about the party?”

  The church was her husband’s thing, not hers. The people she mentioned were blank faces. She knew I wouldn’t remember. The suitcase was mine now, even though I didn’t understand why this was the last straw among all the things I may or may not have done. She wouldn’t believe me no matter what I said. It made me want to roll around in the clothes on the floor. To clear a place and feel the basement’s very bottom, the coolest spot in the house, against my bare cheek. Tile, and under it a pool of cement. Maybe I wouldn’t move for a month.

  But I had a party to crash in the woods. I had my name to clear.

  After she left the basement, the plan formed. It had twists and turns. It had legs. I pictured myself finding my step­sisters and their friends out in the trees where they always went to party, finding them . . . and then what? I imagined a rush of insults, brutal confrontations, choked-up truths. Them admitting it in front of everyone and driving through town in disgrace to go tell my mother. We are such liars. We are made of lies. We lied. I couldn’t wait for her to hear it from their mouths.

  But it wouldn’t be enough. She needed to regret what she’d done. I pictured myself going home to pack. I saw my hands, slick and careful, gathering what cash I could. The girls’ purses and underwear drawers would provide the bulk of it, but I’d also confiscate what I could from her husband’s wallet, wedged in the back pocket of his work slacks and hung on the arm of the bedroom chair. They would finance my trip, even if they didn’t know it. My mother would be stunned, and I’d be heading down the road before she had the chance to send me somewhere else. Knowing when to leave was another thing she’d taught me, since she was so lousy at it.

  My mother liked to say that your worst mistake can lead to the best thing to ever happen in your life, that sometimes you’ll look up and see you found happiness from something that almost wrecked you to pieces.

  I assumed she meant me, and the circumstances surrounding how she had me. She wouldn’t say that I came crashing through her window like a hurled brick. She wouldn’t say that she could have been someone else entirely—better, happier, and more fulfilled—had I not been born or had she left my father sooner. All I knew was that she was going to be an actress until she had me and, practically minutes after, married him. She’d hoped to become one of those dazzling faces on movie screens, the ones with the artificial glow about them, silvery and soft, with pearly white teeth.

  She moved down to the city after high school to chase that dream—to get famous, to be someone. She used to tell me how close she got, how tangled in the dream she was when she had to pull away. This was my bedtime story, the city its backdrop, and it led to the most dazzling fantasies. Part of that story, a glittering piece at its center, was the summer she left her boyfriend and moved into the boardinghouse where she was able to rent a room of her own in the city. The summer she almost made it happen, her face pressed up close to the glass, peering in. Then the news of me, and there she was, terrified and not even twenty.

  The story ends like this: She is at her window on the fourth floor of the young women’s residence where she has a room, which looks out onto the street, letting the lights of near a million windows warm her insides. Her feet ache, ball to heel, from dancing. Her hair is dyed burgundy that week. It’s loose, the elastic tie lost, the curls set free. The shooting of the indie film she starred in had ended, and this is the night of the wrap party, they were celebrating, they’d saved money in the shoestring budget for this. “Don’t go! Don’t go!” they said. “You’re still our star! Stay.” But she had to go, she said. Curfew. The line producer called her a cab. Now she’s at her window, feeling every feeling, remembering every moment, a burn through her toes.

  That’s when she hears him.

  He’s found her. He’s down in the street. He’s banging on the gate, shouting her real name, not the one soon to be in the film’s credits, but the one on her school records, in the Hudson Valley, upstate, hours and lives away. If she had stayed at the wrap party, she would have missed him. But here she is, at her window, and there he is, my father before he knew it, at the gate.

  The story broke off there. Simply hearing the sound of her real name in the darkened city street must have punctured everything and faded the picture to black. She would never tell more beyond it, as if all time stopped when she left the house to go back to him that July night almost two decades ago. The winter after, she had me.

  Now, my own story was on the edge of beginning. All I knew was that I had to leave the basement, I had to go where I wasn’t wanted, if I expected anything to change.


  The bedroom my mother shared with her second husband was on the ground floor and had a straight, unblocked view of the driveway, not even a tree in the way. And my mother had heightened hearing in the dark, like a bat. I waited until she was preoccupied streaming a movie before carefully carrying the packed suitcase up the basement steps, not letting the bad wheel bang. I turned off the motion sensor that controlled the outdoor lights and slipped out of the house through the back door, tall and made of glass, where I could see in but no one could see me in the shroud of surrounding black. The backyard faced a bank of trees, and it was through that fringe, following a worn path illuminated by a well-aimed flashlight swiped from the hall closet, that I was able to bypass the driveway and make it to the curve in the road. There, I left my suitcase, camouflaged by a bramble bush under the willow tree. I’d come for it later. My mother taught me to never run away with only the clothes on your back.

  I remembered. The first time I ran, I was nine—and she was with me.

  The two of us stood on the side of the road, my ragged, frenzied mother and me, unbathed and anxious we’d get run over. We had a sign, careful calligraphy done with a rainbow of markers on a torn flap of cardboard: Take us to the city. Good company. Cute kid. Mom can sing. This last bit was an exaggeration. We had a suitcase and a milk crate of our most beloved things—everything we’d been able to rescue from the house before the hairy sociopath would emerge from his art studio (the garage) and find us gone. Tha
t was something we called my father to avoid using his given name. Saying his name aloud gave him power, and he had no power over us anymore.

  We couldn’t salvage everything we wanted from the house, and though my mother took me digging out behind the cherry tomatoes—we had rows and rows of them in the back garden—she didn’t find what she was searching for. Time ran out. He was coming out any minute. He’d be done painting soon, and he’d know we were leaving him.

  We gathered our things and walked a long way to the two-lane road, far out of view of the driveway. We found a bend where it was safe. The willow tree there gave us refuge. I mimicked the way my mom stuck out her thumb and the compelling come-hither face she put on for drivers, pulling them toward her as if she were a magnet. I wanted to help, and she said I was a natural.

  We had a plan to head straight for the Thruway. We were aiming for the lanes going south, New York City–bound. Any moving vehicle would do, so long as it got us closer to the city, which was where our destiny foretold we should go. My mother would renew her career and go on auditions again—start small, student plays, short films, then maybe she’d get a vocal coach and try for off-off-Broadway. Her dream had been reanimated. As for me, I didn’t have a dream yet, but my plan was to find one and wear it around in front of her so she’d recognize the same fire in me.

  She said I’d go to school with the city kids. I’d have to force myself to not be so shy. Maybe she’d enroll me in tae kwon do or kung fu, so I could defend myself, because urban streets were different from the walking trails I knew in the woods, and a bear whistle wouldn’t be enough down there. We’d find a place to stay.

  What about the house you used to live in? I’d asked. Why not there? I knew the house was on the island of Manhattan. In her stories, the house grew tall into the night, taller than trees. It was red-bricked and eyed with many windows, gated and safe from fathers and ogres and other intruders, unless you opened the gate to let them in, and I would not open the gate, I would not be fooled. Any girl who needed a place to run to was welcome there—this she told me. This place was called Catherine House, which felt right to me, a whole house named after one girl. I imagined it nestled deep on the island somewhere, waiting for us with a light on and a cracked-open door.

  But no, she said. No. We could not go there. Not today. And certainly not together. That house was not the place for her anymore, and it was not the place for me.

  She wouldn’t give it another word.

  Instead we’d couch-surf, she told me, we’d camp out on floors if we had to, she had some friends from the old days, she had some numbers she could try. Never again would I have to call the neighbors from the speed dial she kept programmed for me when he was raging, like the time he got ahold of the fireplace poker and threatened to destroy his own art in the garage, then her, then me, all things he owned in order of importance. My mother and I were done with him. We lifted our thumbs high.

  The car that stopped changed everything, but not in the way I wanted. It was a minivan with a silver fish on the bumper, and that was the first sign. My mother had warned me about these fish. She said they meant the people may not like us or trust us—they were Jesus people—but if they asked if we were Jewish we should not be afraid and hide what we were. We should look them in the eye and say yes. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know when the high holidays came on the calendar and we mixed all our plates and bowls and spoons. We were Jewish enough to most people, even when we weren’t Jewish enough for some other Jews.

  I didn’t see the driver. I saw the two girls’ faces first, smashed up against the back window, suction-lipped, bug-eyed. These were the sisters: Charlotte (older, meaner); Daniella (younger, same age as me, the smaller clone). It would turn true that they didn’t like me, though it had nothing to do with religion. Their father told my mother he couldn’t head out to the Thruway right then because he had a sack full of groceries and his precious girls were peckish for supper, but if we wanted a place to stay the night, well, they lived just around the bend, on Blue Mountain Road, and had a serviceable pullout couch. Somehow or another, he worked in that his wife was dead.

  Within twenty-four hours, my mother had moved from the pullout couch to his bed. Within a week, the sleeping arrangements were permanent and I was taking the bus to school with the sisters. At dinnertime they said a thing called grace before we were even allowed to start eating, and my mother made eyes at me until I closed mine and took their squirmy hands. By December, my mother was saying we weren’t going to be Jews at Christmas anymore, so we could help decorate the gaudy fiberglass tree. My father hadn’t been Jewish, either, but even he didn’t ask us to do this. We all wore white to the wedding at their church, all four girls, and my mother didn’t know that underneath my scratchy white dress the sisters had written all over my stomach with my own markers that I had nasty hair and was dirty and homeless and smelled like poop.

  She didn’t know a lot of things, as the years went by. She didn’t know that when I peered ahead at my future, I didn’t see anything sparkling, the way she used to when she was my age. I saw a dark tunnel, and at the end more darkness. My mother didn’t know that when the orange bottle full of pills popped open in my hands and spilled into my palms (the label said hydrocodone, three years expired, from when she broke her ankle on the driveway ice) I was only looking at them, seeing how they were shaped, how big they were, how many. I was thinking of what it would be like to disappear, that was all.

  Most of all, she didn’t know that I’d never given up on our plan to move to the city. I’d held it close while I slept, I kept it fed, over all these years. I remembered the name of the house where she said she lived and the street it was on. It was a place where a girl could go when she was in trouble. I remembered she said the whole room she rented there was as small as her walk-in closet now, but it was hers. There was only one window in the room, but it was her window. Late at night, she would sit out on the fire escape and dangle her legs into the dusky air and watch the lights of the city do their dancing. She’d think how, from far away, if anyone were gazing in her direction at the patch of city she was in, she’d be a part of the dancing lights for someone else.

  It was a few days after we moved in with the man who picked us up on the side of the road that I got my mother alone to ask her. I was confused over why we weren’t already on our way to New York City, which she called “the” city, to show the only one that mattered. This conversation took place in the master bedroom. Her favorite lotion was on the dresser. Her big yin-yang earrings were on the nightstand. She’d taken as many pairs of shoes as we could fit in the milk crate and the suitcase, and there was a small spill of them by the front door out in the foyer, but she had her special favorites stowed here in a jumble beside the dresser. Her lace-up boots. Her boots with the buckles. Her chunky heels worn only for significant occasions, peep-toe and purple. All her most personal things were already stored in the way back of the topmost dresser drawer.

  I tried not to trip over the boots and climbed up to cuddle the pillows with her. I asked questions like: Why were we still here? When would we go? Could we go tomorrow? Could we go the day after that? Could we be down in the city surfing on couches by the weekend?

  This was what she said to me:

  “Soon. But, Bean, don’t you remember? Weren’t we so hungry?”

  She patted my stomach, reminding me how empty it was because he’d stopped letting us have extra money for the grocery store. Here on Blue Mountain Road, there was always a full fridge.

  “And weren’t we scared?”

  She squeezed my hand, to remind me how I’d flattened myself to hide under furniture when I heard him yelling. The new guy never yelled.

  “Sometimes you do desperate things,” she explained. “Like leave with barely anything. Like how we had to go without the car because he threw the battery in the pond, remember?”

  I nodded. We did have to d
o that. I’d abandoned almost every toy I had and most of my book collection, because we didn’t have the car to carry it all in. She even left her most precious piece of jewelry, as she’d taken the opal off her finger for the last time. (She would wear it on her hand only behind closed doors; she once let me slip it on, but the band spun a loose orbit, even around my thumb.) That ring was what we’d buried behind the cherry tomatoes—so he wouldn’t sell it, she said. But when we went to retrieve it, we couldn’t find it, even with all the holes we made.

  There were so many other things we’d left on the walls, in cupboards and in cabinets, on shelves, under beds, and it would take years to catalogue all we lost, because we could never go there and ask him for any of it. Even after he abandoned the house in the Hudson Valley and moved down to the city to be an artist, he must have burned our stuff in a fire pit, or dropped it at the dump, because when we drove by to see what remained, we found a whole other family living there. When we snuck onto the property, we discovered a brick patio in the spot where the garden had been. Paved over, sealed shut to our search. The plants must have been ripped out by the root. We’d left by choice, but it felt like a sinkhole had swallowed everything we had.

  My mother continued. “And sometimes you have to do something you don’t want, so you can have a roof over your head.”

  I nodded again.

  “Not everyone in the world gets their dreams to come true,” she said, quietly while holding my hand. “Now how would that be fair? Understand?”

  I did understand.

  Time passed, years lost living in that house.

  When we did make it to the city when I was thirteen, it was only for a visit, and one ruined by the fact that we weren’t allowed to go alone. Her husband and the girls tagged along. They overtook our itinerary with the most obvious places, like Times Square and Macy’s and the Empire State Building. They didn’t even want to see the Village. They bought matching i ❤ ny T-shirts and fdny hats—they didn’t care about trying to find the block my mother said contained store after store only for shoes. They didn’t want to get lunch at a cozy French bistro, or have falafel or Indian curry or dumplings in Chinatown. They insisted on eating Italian food at the Olive Garden. My mother and I got away once, saying we were meeting an old friend, and on the way downtown my mother told me all the things we would have done, if only it had been us two: Make friends with an alley cat. Get ourselves lost in the maze of the West Village. Read our fortunes in happenstance splashes of street graffiti. See a movie while the rumble of the subway traveled under our seats. For a meal, we’d buy knishes from a street cart to munch on, deep-fried pockets full of spiced potatoes, which were only a dollar when she lived there so she practically survived on them all summer. Next time, she promised. She pinky-swore. Next time.

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