Betrayal

It’s the summer after seventh grade, and my best friend is Haley, a tall blonde full of moles. There are ten of them shaped like a soda bottle on her back. I wish my freckles could be as cool.

“Don’t be jealous,” she says. “You have so many. I bet we could find something there if we tried.”

Haley lives at the end of my street in a yellow Tudor. It’s massive compared to my parents’ bungalow. I walk to her house every day, and she teaches me to fit in.

“These jeans don’t fit me anymore. Want them?” She tosses a pair of Levis on the bed.

“Wow. Thanks!” I have never in my life owned a pair of brand name jeans.

We swim in her pool during the day and play Ouija board in her parents’ pop-up camper at night. Some nights, we summon so many spirits I make my step-dad pick me up in the rusted minivan instead of walking home. The single-wide trailer park on my street gives me the heebie-jeebies at night. Half the trailers have boarded-up windows, but others have foldable lawn chairs and little pots of annuals out front. It’s a strange addition to our otherwise bland street.

One day while waiting for Haley to get home from her boyfriend’s house, I meet a new girl in the neighborhood. She stops her bike in front of my house, anchors it between her legs and says, “Hey.”

I stop the porch swing. “Hey.”

“Wanna be my friend?” she asks, chucking a pop-it onto the ground. She tosses another, and it snaps as it connects with the pavement.

“Sure. Can I have a pop-it?” I hop off the swing and jog down my steps to her.

“Sure.” She hikes her leg over her bike and parks it on the sidewalk. Then in one graceful swoop, she flips her crimped blonde hair over her shoulder and dumps sawdust and pop-its into my hand. “I’m Kristin.” She flashes a big smile.

“I’m Danielle.” I smile back.

“Cool.”

“You just move here?” I ask, throwing another onto the sidewalk. It doesn’t pop, so I stomp on it.

“My dad did. He lives in a trailer down there.” Kristin nods sideways toward the trailers. “I’m here for the summer.”

“Are those dangerous?”

“The pop-its or the trailers?” She jokes.

I laugh. “The trailers.”

“Nah.” She shrugs. “Mostly old folks.”

“Cool. Where you from?”

“Florida. With my mom.”

“I’ve never been there,” I say in awe. Kristin has a special magic, a glue that draws me toward her.

I find out she’s the same age as me, we both like to ride bikes, and we’re both poor. Or at least her dad is.

When Haley gets home, I invite her to come with us on our bike ride to the park.

“It’s too hot,” she says. “Go play with your new friend. We’ll catch up later.”

Haley invites us to come swimming that afternoon, and Kristin won’t go.

“I only swim in the ocean,” she says.

I have just a month with my new friend, so I don’t go either. I figure Haley has her boyfriend, and now I have Kristin. It’s even.

Two weeks fly while I spend every waking minute with Kristin. I don’t see Haley at all, and I miss her.

So, when she calls and says, “I need to talk to you … Alone,” I go.

My fingers graze the diamonds of the chain-link fence along the front of the last trailer in the trailer park making a soft clinking sound. I’m thinking about how my skin will smell dirty and metallic when Haley startles me by screaming “You’re a terrible friend!” She’s suddenly in front of me and so close to my face. I’m worried she may punch me for no reason.

“What?” I ask, freaked by the level of her voice. “What did I do?” I don’t know. I really don’t.

Her face is flushed and eyes are wet. She’s been crying. I wonder why she’s so sad. Haley pulls photos of us from her pocket and rips them.

“You picked that girl over me,” she says. She turns and stomps away, leaving me with shreds of our friendship at my feet. “One day you’ll get it.”

At the end of the summer, when Kristin goes home, I do.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay on Pexels

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My Brown Barbie

I stood in the Barbie aisle beside my mother in Kmart with a crumpled green ten-dollar bill secured in my grasp. Choosing a doll from the hundred pieces of plastic perfection posed between cellophane and cardboard with my own hard-earned money at ten wasn’t easy. I imagined buying all of them and how I’d play with each. There was blonde Peaches and Cream Barbie – a doll with a cream-colored gown who smelled like dessert, an Island Fun Ken doll with a Hawaiian swimsuit and a pink and orange lay, and Rollerblade Kira. She had long, dark hair like mine and yellow roller blades that sparked when they moved across the ground. I had seen commercials for each.

“Which one do you want?” Mom asked.

“That one,” I said, deciding. I pointed to Kira. “She’s pretty.” I liked her turquoise top and biker shorts, and her neon yellow knee pads. Her skin resembled Mom’s in the summer after she tanned, golden-brown. When I grabbed her from the shelf, the plastic crinkled beneath my pale fingers. I imagined what it would be like to push her along on the kitchen floor and watch her roller blades ignite.

“That’s a great choice.” She smiled. I interlocked my fingers with hers, and we walked to the cashier with the doll pinned between my side and my arm. She was my new favorite, different from any doll I had at home. Special.

In line, an elderly white lady smirked at me from behind her bifocals. I could smell the mothballs on her stuffy pink polyester pants. “Hmf,” she said as she curled the left side of her lip and crossed her arms over her flowered smock.

I clung to Mom’s legs and hid behind them. I didn’t like strangers, especially smelly old ladies with nasty looks on their faces.

Mom tightened her grip on my hand and encouraged me to ignore her. When it was our turn, I placed my doll in the middle of the conveyor belt with my wad of money on top and looked away from the lady behind us.

“Shouldn’t she buy a white doll?” the lady demanded.

“That’s a silly question, isn’t it?” Mom said, her voice sweet like syrup. She batted her eyelashes and gave the old lady a phony smile with too many teeth showing.

The lady huffed and rolled her eyes.

The cashier handed me my new doll in a grocery bag and put the change in my palm.

Mom nudged me towards the exit. Outside she said, “Remember –  don’t let people like that influence you, Danielle. Be smarter.”

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Sunshine – for all the mommas out there

I couldn’t tell you my age but I know I was young: a toddler in Mom’s arms. She sat with me in our shared bedroom at my grandmother’s house and rocked me in the old wooden chair while singing nearly in a whisper.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …”

It was probably after she left my father. She packed a few of our things in a suitcase and we returned to my grandparents. She tried so hard to shield me from feeling broke and broken.

It must’ve been cloudy outside, because of the soft dewy light that hung in the air like mist before a rainstorm. I now know that there is an empty field outside of that window where neighbors parked their cars, a place where I searched for lucky four-leaf clovers as a six-year-old. But on this particular day my world was so small and focused. I only saw Mom surrounded by the light reflecting from dark clouds.

“You make me happy when skies are grey …”

Her voice was like a blanket warmed on the line. There were tears in her eyes over having to be both mother and father. Maybe she didn’t want to move back home with my grandpa and grandma. Maybe she didn’t want to give up on her marriage or admit to being wrong about the man she loved. She had to do what was best for us.

“You’ll never know dear, how much I love you …”

Mom had the softest touch. She tucked loose hairs behind my ears as she sang the words. Just the first verse, because it was her favorite part. Or maybe that was all she knew by heart. I can’t remember anymore.

There are other memories from Grandmother’s house: the claw-foot tub, the hutch with all the Avon bottles, Grandma cooking stuffed cabbage in the kitchen and the smell of onions and ground beef sifting through the house. None are like the memory of Mom rocking me. The biggest lessons come in the smallest moments.

My life is quite different from Mom’s. Justin, my husband, and I are best friends. And we don’t have financial problems like Mom did. But that isn’t to say we don’t ever deal with stressful situations. Right now we are in a transition stage: house is for sale, and another is under contract. We aren’t sure exactly what the future holds, but I know staying strong for my daughters is most important.

“Please don’t take my sunshines away.”

Living in Bushwick

I loved New York. The screeching subways, the sidewalk Mariachi band members wearing shoes made of real alligators, the shopping in SOHO, the twenty dollar drinks at the hole-in-the-wall pubs, and the high-paying jobs by Midwest standards, the good, the great, and the crazy: I loved it all, at least for the moment.

Our first place in New York was a railroad style apartment, which means one room follows the next in a very open style, long and narrow. The apartment had end-to-end original pine floors, exposed brick, twenty-foot ceilings, and it sat on a slant. Like such a bad slant that round things often rolled from one end of the kitchen to the other. The tile in the bathroom had little pink roses on it and was probably the worst feature of our apartment at first glance, other than the four kitchen cabinets we had to cram our things into.

Bushwick, where we lived, was predominantly a Hispanic area renamed East Williamsburg to gentrify it and attract more young, white people. I liked Bushwick better. East Williamsburg mocked the hipster-friendly Williamsburg, where posh restaurants shared walls with dive bars and boutique clothing stores, nestled under the famous blue Williamsburg Bridge. My neighborhood wasn’t anything like Williamsburg.

We bought our vegetables and fruits from cash-only stands on the side of the street. We walked our dog through Maria Hernandez Park where guys played handball and girls watched from outside the court, laughing and chatting. Hands slapped balls, sending them thumping into the cement wall. Back and forth, they played all day long. Sneakers squeaked. Dogs barked. Upbeat Hispanic music blared from boom boxes. 

A thin, elderly man with leathery brown skin who often perched himself on the stoop next to ours became my first New York friend. He always smelled like tequila and cigarettes. Originally from Puerto Rico, he vowed to teach me Spanish. 

“Say hola.”

“Oh-la?”

“Spanish for hello.” He nodded and pulled a Marlboro Red from his linen shirt pocket.

“Hola!”

He struck a match against the brick building and lit his cigarette, taking a long, slow drag. “Muy bien,” he said through a cloud of smoke. He reminded me of a gangster from an old movie: so cool without trying.

More often than not, he told me stories about Bushwick.

“They used to call this street Vietnam,” he said. “Garbage cans with fires in the middle of the street. Drugs. Killings. Muy mal.” 

“Moo-ey mal?” 

“Very bad.”

“I see.” I tried to imagine the streets of my new neighborhood on fire, but I couldn’t. Instead, I saw a stream of people walking by. Some on their way to work, others out shopping or on their way to the bodega: hard-working, middle-class folks trying to make it in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Dreams can come true in New York if your skin is thick enough.“Why’d you stay?” I asked. 

He shrugged and squinted his eyes toward the park. “It’s mi casa.”

Photo courtesy of Niv Rosenberg on Unsplash

Sticky Notes

I bought some sticky notes today, a lesson I learned from Mom.

***

When I was in my early twenties, she worked ten-hour shifts as a hospice nurse. Before that, she worked in the Transitional Care Unit as the Activities Director playing balloon volleyball and chair yoga with sick folks. And before that, she folded and stocked women’s clothes at a discount clothing store. Even earlier, she was the night manager at Video Connection where she got to bring home life-size cutouts of Dick Tracey and Roger Rabbit. Mom worked hard.

She also attended every home varsity basketball game so she could watch me dance, and every football game to see my sister twirl her flag. For dance competitions she made matching bows for all my teammates.

Our tiny house would have been in shambles had Mom not managed it with the precision of a surgeon. She swept the floors twice daily, folded my stepdad’s shit-stained underwear into perfect squares, hand-washed the dishes to a pristine shine, and often she yelled.

Her temper short-circuited daily. She ripped the phone cord from the wall after I dragged it into the bathroom to talk friends one too many times. She threw bills into the air, chain-smoked her menthol light one hundreds, and cried.

She cried too much, but I didn’t know how to stop it.

My mother’s mother and father had both died, so she put everything she had into us, her job, and the house on Custer Drive to keep herself busy. But she wasn’t great at delegating chores, or maybe we just refused to listen to her. I would rummage through the pantry for pretzels and Pop-Tarts, forgetting to close the cabinet and leaving a trail of crumbs that led to the couch. Jim would leave his dirty dishes on the living room end table and used undershirts balled up in the corner of the bathroom floor next to his wet towels. My sister never filled the toilet paper when she emptied it. Instead, she ’d rest the new roll on top of the old. Just writing all this stuff makes me cringe.

This lack of respect and help went on for as long as I can remember, until one otherwise normal day when I walked in from the bus stop two long blocks away, seventeen and too lazy to get my license. I tossed my backpack in the middle of the living room floor next to one of our three miniature Lhasa Apsos, and bent to rub her belly. That’s when the first note stuck to a case on top of the DVD player came into the corner of my vision. Put away after watching. “Huh?”

I stood and walked into the kitchen, at the time decorated with flying geese, Mom’s latest kitchen craze. In the midst of all the geese, yellow notes with permanent marker scribbled on them clung to everything. Throw me away after you drink me on the milk inside the fridge. Don’t leave me open on the pantry cupboard door, and don’t leave your junk here on the counter, cluttered with unpaid bills.

In the bathroom, replace me when empty above the wooden toilet paper holder and flush me on the toilet with the cracked seat.

Take things up with you on the steps, next to my pile of clean clothes. 

“My mom has lost it,” I whispered. But before finding her, I reconsidered my decision to drop my crap in the living room, jogged back to grab it, then scooped up a pile of clothes on my way upstairs and placed them on my unmade bed.

“Mom?” I hollered.

“In here,” she called from her bedroom, the room next to mine.

I found her clipping hot rollers into her hair in the master bath, a cloud of smoke surrounding her and a cigarette burning in the filled ashtray on the back of the toilet.

“Where are you going?”

“Out for dinner with Dad,” she said, smearing burgundy lipstick across her lips.”

“On a date?” They never went out. Especially on school nights.

“Yes. A date.” She added mascara to her eyes, applied some rouge to her cheeks. “You’ll watch your sister. We won’t be long. I need some…time.”

“You okay?”

“Yep. Just great. Why?” Mom sprayed a bit of perfume.

“Oh, you know…the yellow notes. They’re everywhere.”

“Those? Oh, nope. Just tired of yelling.”

Photo by G. Crescoli on Unsplash

Mom’s Pet Cemetery

Seven pets, at least, are buried where my sister and I played, digging and swinging without fearing the future.

The sandbox, swings, and siblings left, tears fell, weeds overgrew. But five dogs, a bunny, and a bird named Lucky remind us of life’s fragility, even after so many years.

Photo by Brandon Couch on Unsplash

Leaving Detroit

“See you soon.” Kiss your husband goodbye in Detroit. He’s going to New York to begin his career, and you’re staying to pack. He’ll come back to get you in one month so you can begin the next chapter of your lives together.

It’s okay to be scared.

Fold your clothes and place them into cardboard boxes. Long sleeves first, because it’s almost summer. If it’s on a hanger, you pack it that way. It will make unpacking in your new apartment easier. Leave out the sweatshirt with the Old English D, because you might need it at night when the cool breeze blows off the Detroit River.

Wrap the kitchen glasses in grocery bags because you can’t afford bubble wrap or newspaper. You don’t have many pots or pans, just hand-me-downs from your mom. You think of keeping one out in case you cook but decide to live on sandwiches, salads, and cereal. It’s only a month, after all. You pack them away and tape the box shut.

Leave the things you won’t have room for in your new life next to the trash chute. Old artwork and chairs from Ikea that won’t fit in the truck, the ripped Nelly Furtado hoodie that carries memories of late nights and laughter in its pocket, and the s-shaped shelf that used to hold photos of friends: someone will take it. Someone will love it or maybe throw it away.

Each day after work, walk the dog around Comerica Park. Try to remember the way the home runs echoed off your favorite players’ bats. Remember the chants for Magglio, Verlander’s no-hitter, and Zumia’s wicked fastball. You wonder if watching the Yankees will give you the same joy. Will you forget how much you loved nestling into the crowd for a Saturday night game?

Remember the taste of the Hebrew National with just mustard, and the way the August sun would drop behind the top of the stadium as you took that first bite. Will New York have Hebrew Nationals or Ball Park Franks? Will the sunsets look different in Brooklyn? Will the sky change from blue to pink and crimson before settling in below the trees? Will the buildings be too tall to see the beauty? Will your neighborhood even have trees to look at, to smell in autumn, to catch snow in winter, and to bloom in the spring?

Before the big move, have your friends over one last time. Dance with them. Sing with them. Reminisce about the late night parties in your apartment. Tell them no one could ever replace them because they are so special. Look them in the eyes and promise you will never let go, even with hundreds of miles stretching between your palms and theirs.

They will promise the same.

But you know you’ve never been very good at keeping in touch from long distances.

When your husband comes home thirty days later, kiss him. Hug him. Tell him how much you’ve missed him. Smell his cologne. It’s the one scent that goes with you from the place you thought you’d live forever.

Remember why you’re going: his career, your future together. Detroit is crumbling, the auto industry has collapsed. If you stay, your s-shaped shelf and the happy faces in those photos may fall to dust with the city. Better to leave now and salvage what’s left.

Watch all your things get carried out: boxes, blue leather couch, old dresser, your favorite vintage lamp. One by one they leave your home and get loaded into the big, yellow truck. The things that can’t fit are the things you have to leave behind.

Say goodbye to the empty space, the parquet wood floors, the echo off your avocado-green wall, the memories of home.

It’s okay to cry.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash