I force my thoughts to fade until the details of her face blur. I need to push them away if I am ever to get some sleep. I need sleep; it will be only a few more hours before I'm outside on the street again, with nowhere to go.
I raised my arms into the air, and gave a singsong, 'Al-l-l do-ne."
Taken off guard, Ma paused, leaned in and asked disbelievingly, "What did you say, pumpkin?”
“A-l-l-l done," I repeated, delighted at Ma's sudden interest.
She yelled for Daddy. "Peter, she knows! Look at her, she understands!"
Lisa and I dined on Happy Meals in front of the black-and-white TV, to the sound of spoons clanking on the nearby table, chairs being pulled in—and those elongated moments of silence when we knew what they were concentrating on. Daddy had to do it for Ma because with her bad eyesight she could never find a vein.
When she returned home half an hour later with a nickel bag, I was furious with her. I demanded that she give me my money, and I shouted mean words at her that are hard for me to think about now. Ma said nothing back. She snatched up her works—syringe and cocaine—from the kitchen table and stormed to the bathroom. I trailed behind her, shouting harsh things. I assumed that she was running away from me to get high in privacy, but I was wrong. Instead, from the bathroom doorway, I saw Ma throw something into the toilet. Then I realized she was crying, and what she had flushed down the toilet was her coke.
She'd thrown away the entire hit—despite her desperation.
She looked at me with tears in her eyes, "I'm not a monster, Lizzy," she said. "I can't stop. Forgive me, pumpkin!”
The fun part of the night would always come when Ma's past occurred to her as a positive thing, a sort of adventure. But I knew this was temporary, a side effect of her anticipation of shooting up. Later—on the other side of her high, when she was coming down and the drug had begun to lose its effect—the very same thoughts would depress her. I'd be there for the letdown, too. If I didn't listen when she needed to confide in someone, then who would?
I told Ma all but one detail—the fact that I knew it was wrong. I knew that all I had to do to end it was to call out for her. But I didn't, because Ron made things better for Ma, for Lisa and me. I didn't want to ruin that, so I failed to call out.
I don't recall Daddy ever talking about Meredith at home or in front of Ma. She never came to visit. Sometimes it felt as though I made up the memory of her, but I knew I hadn't. And every now and then Lisa and I would talk about how we wanted to meet Meredith again, and get to know our big sister. But no one talked about Daddy's other life before us, or our other sister.
When Ma was plastered to the couch, flies buzzing over her head, cigarette butts floating in her nearby bottle of beer, it just didn't seem right to tell her that I’d spent my day at a picnic or at the pool, playing in the sun, eating home-cooked meals with Rick and Danny's family. The same went for Daddy and Lisa. Any joy I managed outside of our home felt, to me, like a form of betrayal.
Though he wasn't my friend, I admired how Kevin had found a way to do things on his own, how he looked at not having money—a situation that most people would see as fixed—as something he could overcome. What else wasn't set in stone? I wondered what other opportunities were out there for me.
There were countless times I still gave Ma my tips from packing bags or the dollars taped inside my birthday cards sent from Long Island. It hit me then, like a hammer to my chest, that maybe I'd driven her crazy and paid for the needle that infected her with AIDS, too.
"Idiot," I said out loud. "Moron."
I hurled a pillow across the room, smashing the pieces of my diorama. The Popsicle stick fence, still glued together, clacked onto the floor, snapping in half.
I stared at Meredith's face as a baby and compared it to Daddy's. Taking in her complete vulnerability as an infant, I wondered where she was now, and how Daddy could have left her behind, and why we never talked about her. It filled me with a deeply unsettling feeling to wonder what else he was capable of doing.
At night, under my bed, sometimes I could hear her crying softly. But whenever I asked her what was wrong, she'd brush it off, say it was just her allergies or that I was hearing things. But I knew better. Sometimes, when she snored in her sleep—a cute little whistle—I'd reach down and touch a piece of her hair, run it through my fingers, stare at how, in the darkness of our room, the moonlight turned it glossy as polished onyx. I will keep her safe, I told myself.
"Liz, shut up," she answered. "You know I love your white ass, don't even sweat it."
If he was tap-dancing his end of the conversation, so would I. Why tell him I was absent all the time from school? Why confront him? If he couldn't do anything about our problems, then what would be the point in venting at Daddy? It would only stress him more, and I didn't want to do that to him. It felt mean. So I decided to censor my life from my father, and to have him think everything was just great.
"Okay, just one more thing," I told her. "Hold on." I slid a chair over to reach the top shelf of my closet, where I'd hidden Ma's NA coin and that one photo of her, the black-and-white one from when she was a teenager, living on the streets. Opening my journal, I slipped the picture carefully inside and snapped the book shut.
"Now I can go," I said. "Let's just go."
"Who was that?" I'd do my best not to sound accusing. Always it was a cousin, a neighbor, or a friend's girlfriend.
"My friend's girl, ain't she a sweetheart," he'd explain. "I might check them for dinner, she just gave me the address." And always, the explanation was a concrete wall that I could not penetrate. The more I persisted, the more I might draw attention to myself. Better to let it slide; he cared about me, I was certain.
There was no pain involved, only the weight of his heavy body, the strong smell of latex and of his hot breath. To my surprise, my first thought was that being with him was emptier that I'd expected, more function than joy.
In the center of the foil, ever so faint and small, I found tiny specks of white powder.
"Don't flush. Be quiet and look at this. . . . He's on coke."
Turns out people could just vanish. I couldn't help but sit there and think about the woman who'd been murdered a few feet from my room. How had she gotten there, in a seedy motel room with a violent man who claimed he loved her? And was I really any different?
For Perry, Prep was a labor of love; he was dedicated to seeing his second- chance students win. His belief was that if the mainstream school system had failed, then it would require something different for these students to succeed. Prep would be that difference. In this way, the students were not looked at as dysfunctional; the system was dysfunctional. The concept of "failure" incorporated within the system's very design was not in any stage of the planning of Humanities Prep. By design, Prep was made to facilitate for its students what was possible.
Covertly, I zipped open my book bag—full of dingy clothes and the wad of rubber-banded hundred-dollar bills I'd saved up over the summer—and I began stuffing muffins, bagels, bananas, and oranges into my bag. I threw in a whole loaf of bread, too. Why not? These things would be mine to keep.
Figuring out high school while homeless meant handling details that never would have occurred to me until I was actually living in the situation. For one, who knew schoolbooks were so heavy? By itself, that's already something. But when I carried the heavy things around while also navigating several different living situations with no predictability whatsoever of where I could stay on a given night, while also trying to follow an assignment schedule that dictated exactly which books I would need and when, I kept slipping up.
So I let go of my hurt. I let go years of frustration between us. Most of all, I let go of any desire to change my father and I accepted him for who he was. I took all of my anguish and released it like a fistful of helium balloons to the sky, and I chose to forgive him.
However things unfolded from here on, whatever the next chapter was, my life could never be the sum of one circumstance. It would be determined, as it had always been, by my willingness to put one foot in front of the other, moving forward, come what may.