Liz arrives at Brick’s apartment, where Ma embraces her. The truancy officers tell Liz that she’s been sent to live with Ma as a test—Liz needs to go to school from now on, or she’ll have to go back to Saint Anne’s. Liz is scheduled to start the eighth grade soon.
Liz has a new, negative incentive to attend school: she needs to show up so that she doesn’t get sent back to a cruel place like Saint Anne’s.
Liz’s new school is divided into different “segments,” based on academic ability. Ma has instructed the counselors to place Liz in the most advanced classes, but the counselors instead place Liz in a class that she describes as “solid.” Afterwards, Liz and Ma walk through the park near school. Liz offers Ma a dandelion and tells her to make a wish. Ma laughs and does so. Secretly, Liz wishes for Ma to get well again—she never learns what Ma wished for.
Liz isn’t placed in the most advanced class: even though she’s smart, her counselors think that she’d be better off in an easier class (and they might be right, given that Liz has missed a lot of school). The passage also emphasizes the emotional gap between Liz and her mother: Liz clearly cares about Ma, but Ma’s own thoughts and feelings remain somewhat mysterious to Liz.
Liz’s new middle school class is made up of many students who’ve been together since the sixth grade. Liz is an outsider. However, a Latina girl named Samantha and her friend, Bobby, are nice to her. Over the next few weeks, Samantha, or Sam, shows Liz around the school. Liz admires Sam for her adventurousness and her confidence. She also notices that lots of boys flirt with Sam. For the first time in her life, Liz begins to look forward to going to school.
Liz’s earliest experiences in middle school emphasize how her life is changing. She’s making new friends and, for the first time in her life, pushing herself to go to school. She’s also becoming more aware of other students’ sexuality and attractiveness—and, presumably, of her own.
Back at home, Brick goes to work every day while Ma spends much of her time drinking at a local bar. Lisa becomes increasingly irritable around Liz. Liz notices that her sister spends a lot of time trying to look pretty, putting on makeup and trying on various outfits.
Liz continues to feel alienated from the other members of her family: she’s uncomfortable opening up to them or being vulnerable in any way.
Sam introduces Liz to MTV: they watch footage of Kurt Cobain, and Liz gradually becomes more comfortable saying things like, “I would so do him.” The two friends spend almost every day together, and promise to remain friends until they’re both old ladies. They plan elaborate road trips for after they graduate high school, and talk about becoming Hollywood screenwriters. Liz notices that Sam, while adventurous and wild, can also be sweet and gentle. During sleepovers, Liz sometimes hears Sam quietly crying.
Sam, Liz’s best friend, is an important influence on Liz in many ways. Here, Sam helps Liz become more comfortable talking and thinking about sexual matters. (Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of the ‘90s grunge band Nirvana, and a major sex symbol at the time.) Sam is confident but also curiously vulnerable, and Liz seems to appreciate this about Sam, perhaps because she, Liz, is similar.
One day, Brick and Ma get in a fight because all the forks are dirty. Brick becomes so furious that he hits Ma in the face with a roll of paper towels. Then, Brick pushes Liz out of the room and slams the door on her foot. Liz begins to see the truth: Brick is almost as crazy as Grandma. He becomes furious over minuscule things like dirty forks.
Liz finds it impossible to get along with Brick—the man who, for all intents and purposes, has become her father. He’s violent and uncontrollable, and quite understandably, she doesn’t feel safe around him.
Ma gets sicker every day, and grows weak and quiet. Sometimes, she bursts into tears for no apparent reason. Liz finds it hard to know how to deal with her mother in these situations: she has no idea what to say. Instead, she spends more time away from home, with Sam and Bobby. She also stops going to school, but manages to erase any voicemails from the truancy officer, so that neither Brick nor Ma know that she’s been cutting class.
While Liz is becoming more mature and confident, Ma grows increasingly weak and unstable as a result of the onset of AIDS. However, Liz also seems to “regress” here too—in order to spend more time with her new friends, she cuts class again, even though she’s risking being sent back to Saint Anne’s.
Liz learns that Daddy is going to lose his apartment. Liz and Sam go to the apartment, looking to retrieve some of Liz’s old things. Liz is ashamed to show Sam her apartment, since it’s so filthy, but Sam tells her, “You know I love your white ass, don’t even sweat it.”
Liz and Sam have an important bonding moment: Sam shows that she’ll never judge Liz for her impoverished family. One of the memoir’s recurring themes is Liz’s desire to be treated as her own person, so it makes sense that Liz would be grateful to Sam for loving her no matter what.
Liz and Sam arrive at the apartment, only to find that it’s been boarded up. She wonders where Daddy has gone, or if he’s even alive—she’s visited only once since being moved to live with Brick and Ma. Later on, Liz learns that Daddy had fallen behind on rent and gone to live in a homeless shelter. All of Liz’s stuff was thrown into a dumpster.
Liz has grown so disconnected from her father that she doesn’t even know where he’s living or what’s become of their old possessions.
In the spring, Liz graduates from junior high, having gone to school just enough to pass her classes. Ma attends Liz’s graduation, and—much to Liz’s surprise—she seems genuinely happy and proud of her daughter.
Liz continues to scrape by in school, proving that she’s a bright kid, even if she rarely attends. Ma seems to making more of an effort to involve herself in Liz’s life, perhaps because she senses that she won’t be around much longer.
Liz starts high school and Ma’s health deteriorates ever further, to the point where she vomits many times a day. One day, Liz visits Daddy at his homeless shelter. He seems pretty cheerful, explaining that he gets three meals a day. He also brags about watching Jeopardy! and knowing all the answers. Liz doesn’t give Daddy much information about her life: at this point, she doesn’t feel comfortable opening up to him.
Liz takes the first steps toward having a relationship with her father. She’s not close with Daddy, but she’s making an effort to spend some time with him. The passage also reiterates that Daddy, for all his faults, is an exceptionally smart man, and might have had a successful career had he not become an addict.
Liz continues skipping school. She intends to go to high school for the first two weeks, but quickly gives in and starts cutting class every day. She breaks Brick’s answering machine to ensure that the truancy officer never gets in touch with him. On her own time, however, Liz learns a lot about the world. She makes new friends, including a girl named Jamie, at whose house she sometimes crashes. She, Bobby, and Sam perform a strange “experiment”—they microwave a light bulb, and learn that this results in an explosion of bright neon lights.
Although Liz doesn’t go to school, she never stops learning. Every day she spends with Bobby and Sam is full of new “lessons”—even if these lessons are usually pretty unconventional. More importantly, Liz learns the social skills that she later uses to survive: in particular, she makes friends, and later relies on them for housing.
Liz spends her days exploring New York and having fun with her friends. But sooner or later, Ma’s illness pulls her back to earth.
Liz explores New York in part because she loves her friends but in part because she’s trying to forget about her mother’s illness.