The week after Liz and her family bury Ma, Liz stops sleeping. She has horrible nightmares. Furthermore, Carlos has begun calling other women on the phone within earshot of Liz, which makes Liz jealous and uncomfortable.
Although Liz has become increasingly skeptical of Carlos, she’s still living with him. Carlos seems to be growing bolder with his deceptions, almost as if he’s trying to see how much he can get away with.
Liz, Carlos, and Sam celebrate New Year’s Eve together. The next day—the first day of 1997—Carlos disappears. Afraid that they’ll be kicked out, Sam and Liz pack their belongings and leave. Liz goes to stay with her friend Jamie, and that afternoon, Carlos shows up. He looks tired and unshaven, but he claims that he’s found a new room where Liz can stay.
Carlos’s behavior becomes more erratic, perhaps suggesting that he’s doing more cocaine, or simply that he’s becoming less interested in taking care of Sam and Liz.
Carlos and Liz drive to their new home, a “crash place” motel. Liz suggests that they pick up Sam, but Carlos, who appears to be high on cocaine, claims that he’ll get Sam later. The motel is located off the highway, far from the rest of the city, meaning that Liz doesn’t have any easy way of leaving the motel without Carlos’s car. A few days after moving to the motel, however, Liz learns that a woman has been stabbed outside. Liz realizes, “people could just vanish.” She wonders if something similar could happen to her. She even wonders if Carlos could be capable of hurting her.
In this important section, Liz finally accepts that Carlos can’t be trusted. He’s getting high constantly, abandons Liz and Sam for days at a time without warning, and experiences sudden mood swings. Liz wonders if, one day, Carlos could become so erratic that he’d try to hurt her. Rather than stick around to find out, she decides to leave Carlos for good on the same day she finds out about the stabbing. It’s important to remember that Liz has witnessed first-hand the way that drugs can turn people into monsters: she has no intention of making the same mistake twice.
Disturbed by the news of the stabbing, Liz walks out of Carlos’s motel room and finds a payphone. She calls her friend Jamie and asks if she can stay with her again. She spends the next few days staying with Jamie. During this time, she learns that Sam has been staying at a “group home” in the Bronx. Liz next goes to stay with Bobby, and spends the next few days bouncing between various friends’ houses. At Bobby’s house, she enjoys spending time with her old friend, as well as the good food. She can’t help but notice the contrast between Bobby’s healthy, happy face and her own gaunt, despairing face.
Liz has decided that she can’t live with Carlos any longer (in fact, this is the last time she mentions Carlos’s name). After moving out of Carlos’s motel room, Liz sees more clearly how harmful her time with Carlos had become. She’s experienced a lot of pain lately, both from her family and from Carlos, but she seems unwilling to give up. She’s also willing to accept help from her friends in order to stay away from toxic environments. The contrast in Liz and Bobby’s appearance shows another tragic side effect of a life of poverty—malnourishment, health problems, and depression.
In the coming weeks, Liz survives by staying with friends and eating their food. She’ll sometimes “panhandle” in Greenwich Village to make her own money. Because she’s been taking care of herself for so long, Liz never feels overwhelmed: instead, she’s smart and confident. However, she hates being homeless because it proves “how needy I was.” She hates being a burden on her friends and their parents, and she also wonders when she’ll wear out her welcome for good.
Notice, first, that Liz never gives up, even though she’s in the particularly unpleasant situation of having to beg for food (after months of eating whatever she liked). Second, Liz doesn’t feel comfortable relying on other people—indeed, that’s partly the reason why she abandoned Carlos in the first place. She accepts charity because she believes she has no choice, but she wants to achieve financial independence for herself.
Liz crashes with a friend-of-a-friend named Paige. Paige asks Liz about her plans for the future, and suggests that Liz get her GED (the equivalent of a high school diploma). She also mentions an alternative high school that she attended—“a place like a private school, but for anyone who is really motivated to go, even if they don’t have the money.”
Liz’s ambition is plain: she wants to achieve a high school degree so that she can live a more successful life. She’s finally breaking free of dependence on others and toxic environments, and wants to keep building her independence.
Liz can see the financial advantage of having a high school diploma. On the other hand, she’s seventeen years old and doesn’t want to be in school for years. Yet the last time Liz attended school seriously, she scored an 81 percent on a history exam without any kind of studying, and the teacher told Liz that she was a smart girl and could be successful in life. Liz’s teachers have often given her this kind of encouragement, but she’s never wanted to do the work.
Liz weighs her options and decides that, as onerous as it would be to still be in high school at the age of 21, her best option is to achieve a high school diploma. She also recognizes that, even if she hasn’t done well in school, she’s smart, suggesting that she’s possessed of a practical kind of self-confidence.
With Paige’s help, Liz calls the number for Paige’s school and says that she’d like to come in for an interview. It takes a lot of courage even to do this: Liz has spent her entire life thinking of herself and her friends and family as “different” from rich, smart people. She can’t even understand how some people have a savings account, a stable job, or a college degree.
Attending high school feels strange to Liz, and not just because she’s always skipped school. Liz senses that she’s going to be living in a different kind of world, in which many of her classmates won’t have dealt with the problems Liz has experienced, such as poverty, homelessness, and abuse.
Liz goes to the school for an interview, sensing that she’s going to “the other side of wall,” where a totally different group of people lives. Her interview is short and uncomfortable, and the interviewer curtly tells her, “Our spots are limited, thank you for applying.”
Even for Liz to attend an interview for this private high school is a courageous act: she’s uncomfortable being around wealthy, privileged people who are utterly unlike her, but she knows that doing so is her best chance at getting a degree.
Immediately after her interview, Liz weighs her options. She decides to visit another school, the Humanities Preparatory Academy, for another interview. Even though she’s tired and just wants to go back to the Bronx, she decides to try another interview.
Liz pushes herself to succeed, attending another high school interview in spite of the fact that she’s so tired. (As we’ll see, this split-second decision changes the course of Liz’s life, emphasizing the importance of personal motivation.)
At the time, the Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities is overcrowded, and the teachers have extremely low morale. However, an English teacher named Perry Weiner is working with other teachers and union organizers to build a smaller school within the school. This school, the Humanities Preparatory Academy (HPA), is designed for troubled students who seem to be on the verge of dropping out. The courses are rigorous, featuring works by famous authors such as Dante and Kafka, and they reflect Weiner’s love for teaching and his belief that all students benefit from a great education.
Liz is late for her interview at HPA. She sees that all interviewees have been asked to write an essay on one of three words: diversity, community, or leadership. Liz quickly writes a long essay on the theme of diversity, discussing the way people have assumed things about her because of her appearance and her whiteness.
Liz gets through the HPA interview in typical “Liz” fashion: she doesn’t attend the entire interview, but because of her innate intelligence and motivation, she does well enough on the section she does show up for.
After completing her essay, Liz notices a jovial middle-aged man, who turns out to be Perry Weiner himself. Liz explains to Weiner that she was late to her interview, and apologizes. At first Weiner tells her that she’ll need to reschedule, since she missed the essay component of the interview process. But Liz shows Weiner her completed essay. Impressed, Weiner invites Liz to speak to him for ten minutes before he begins teaching.
Perry Weiner is a kind, understanding man, who genuinely believes in the importance of giving anyone a chance. Where Liz’s previous interviewer of the day was curt, cold, and inflexible, Perry is compassionate and willing to bend some rules in order to give Liz a good education. At the same time, this scene shows the importance of luck and other people’s help in Liz’s journey to success—if Perry had rejected Liz for her lateness (a totally understandable reaction for an interviewer), all her hard work would have been for naught.
In Liz’s “interview” with Perry Weiner, Weiner barely speaks. For one of the few times in her life, Liz gets a chance to talk without being interrupted or silenced. She becomes emotional and energetic, and Weiner listens closely, asking good questions. At the end of their time, Weiner tells Liz that she should be aware of the realities of HPA: it’ll take her years to graduate, and she might not want to be in high school at the age of twenty-one. To her own surprise, Liz tells Perry, “I want to graduate high school. It’s just something I have to do.” Perry pauses and then says, “Can you get here on time?” Liz smiles and begins to cry. “Absolutely,” she says.
Liz is very grateful to Perry Weiner: even though he could have dismissed Liz for being late to the interview, he gives her a chance to express herself. Liz has always been adept at concealing her feelings—it’s a skillset that’s sometimes served her well and sometimes gotten her in trouble. But here, seemingly for the first time in years, Liz gets an opportunity to express her thoughts and feelings, culminating in a simple but moving statement.
Liz brings Daddy to register her for classes at HPA. She hasn’t seen her father since Ma’s funeral. To hide the fact that she’s homeless, Liz decides to concoct a story about how her father is a truck driver who’s often away from home, and plans to use a friend’s address as her own. Daddy agrees to go along with this story, and he signs all the proper documents at HPA. Liz notices that his hands are shaky. He also forgets his “address,” and Liz has to remind him.
It’s interesting that Liz still has to rely on her father for certain things: because she’s still a minor, she’s not entirely independent of him yet. The passage also suggests that Daddy is now using drugs near-constantly, as evidenced by his shaking hands (often a symptom of people who use a lot of heroin or cocaine, and then stop abruptly).
After Daddy comes in to HPA, he and Liz catch up. He tells Liz that he’s been living in a shelter for a while, and that he gets plenty of food. However, he also asks Liz for some money. She gives him money that she’s borrowed from Bobby.
Liz continues taking care of her parents, just as she’s done since she was a child.
In the coming months, Liz tries to prepare for her high school education by getting her official transcript from her old high school. Seeing her old transcript makes her realize that her new transcript, from HPA, is blank. She has a chance to start over again. She remembers waiting in line outside the welfare office with Ma and Lisa. Ma had to prepare the perfect set of documents in order to qualify for welfare; otherwise, she’d be sent home with nothing. Now, Liz sees that she’s not so different: all she has to do is get a high school transcript with the right grades. For the first time in her life, she aims to go to school on time, every day.
In this passage, Liz describes the mindset that will get her through the next two years. Although she’s faced with an enormous challenge, she summons the concentration and sheer willpower necessary to achieve her goal. It’s also interesting that she summons this willpower by putting herself in her mother’s position. For all Liz’s frustration with her mother, Ma is one of the most important inspirations in her life (something apparent even in the Prologue).