The field adjoining our road began to look like an intricate ant farm lay on its side. Dug into the earth was a complicated maze of tunnels for the houses that would be built upon them. I began spending my days walking the paths, hidden in the earth with only the sun overhead. There were so many changes from when we first moved in and I was not happy with any of them.
I climbed up on the side, my feet dangling down and stared at the red Sold on the realtor sign in our front yard. It was leaning to the side from the one afternoon I walked up to it and kicked it over. Fearing my mother’s wrath, I then picked it up and tried to right it. The sign was a mocking reminder that some things cannot be undone. Selling our house and moving back to Kentucky was one of them.
In the evenings, I would sit in the spare bedroom with my sister playing Barbies and looking longingly at the disassembled cardboard castle now perched against the wall. Of all the rooms packed and ready for the move, our playroom was the saddest. We no longer had cardboard walls to hide us from the real world as my sister and I pretended we belonged to a royal family. She was so young, I think she was anxiously awaiting the day they would arrive to take us to our real home.
She was too young to understand we were leaving to never return. Instead, she treated our move as if it was another road trip with diner scrambled eggs and dirty gas station bathrooms. I envied her ability to laugh and be happy despite the inevitable. Even then, I knew in my gut, instead of life improving, it would become harder.
The weeks leading to our move, my mother was angrier than ever before. This was something my father could not fix, and I think she hated him for it. He had a family to support and he felt he could do better in Kentucky. I would also like to think her volatility came into play. Although she viewed Arizona as her new home, she had never assimilated and was anything but happy. Maybe he thought moving back to her family would fix her. To this day, we have never discussed what happened in Arizona to her.
The morning we moved, the truck came and burly men packed our whole life into it. I clung to my basketball, hoping for a last minute reprieve, but when my mother pried it from my hands and threw it in with our furniture, it was over. I would no longer wander through the mountains near our home or slide down a hill of volcanic rocks. I would never again taste the sweet nectar of the Indian paintbrush flower or listen to the coyotes howl at night. I was saying goodbye to the fragrant alfalfa fields and a night sky full of diamonds. There were bad things to remember, but there were also a lifetime of moments that would change the adult I might have been.
I walked to Daniel’s house. We stood on his porch, our hands in our jean pockets and said our goodbyes. His mother wiped tears from her eyes and gave me a hug that hurt my heart. I promised to write Daniel and send postcards, but I never did. Instead, I walked away from him, pausing only long enough to look back and give him a little wave. My last memory of him is his dark eyes looking into mine as he raised his hand to return my wave. Then he turned to go back inside.
My friends in the neighborhood told me awkward goodbyes. I took one more peek at my babysitter’s room of Playgirl penises and Robbie gave me his favorite GI Joe to remember him by. I lied and told him we would be back in a year. This is just temporary, I reassured him. A sweet lie, I thought. I knew I would never see any of them again. I never did find the GI Joe in any of the boxes. I am certain it was thrown out at some point.
We flew back to Kentucky. I swallowed the painful lump in my throat as the plane skimmed over a sea of white clouds. There were hours of sitting in my seat, resisting the urge to scream and pretending to be excited to arrive in Kentucky. Instead of being happy as I was swept into the arms of my aunts and uncles who cried happy tears we were home, I was lost and would remain lost for a long time. For months, I carried a baggie of black rocks we had chiseled out of a mountainside when we first arrived. They were that touchstone to what I left behind.
We moved in with my grandparents where we stayed for months until we rented a small house. We would move several times, one house after another, never a home. This nomadic wanderlust carried over to my adult life. I have moved more times than I would like to count and never felt I belonged anywhere. I had left my home. It was not just a place; it was a state of mind.
My sister and I as adults talk about Arizona as if it were a shared dreamed. She remembers less, but likes to hear the stories of our adventures there. We prefer to file away the painful moments, the reality of what our family really went through. We sit together and look through the pictures, capturing only a fraction of the moments etched on our brains.
I can close my eyes and see the tall sunflowers that grew beside our trailer. I can put out my hand and feel myself petting my beloved dog Peppy who had come home to say goodbye. He is still there, buried in the earth, beneath the sun he loved to lay in. I can stand outside and inhale and it’s there. That indefinable scent of the mountains, of the fresh water streams and of the heat in the soil. I can throw my head back and taste the snowflakes on my tongue or the taste of freshwater from the springs we would swim in. I can hear the wind blowing through the pine trees. I am forever grateful even at a young age, I understood enough to take it all in, to hold it close because I would need it again.
There is no happy ending. My mother did not move back to Kentucky and become happier. My parents remained married, they weathered the storms of her depressions, and resigned themselves to the life they have chosen. Just recently, she is once again a victim of her own life. I watch my father, my heart breaking, sad that moving back did not fix all that was wrong with her.
As soon as I was old enough, I moved out on my own. I worked hard and then I moved away. I took my daughter on my journey just as my parents had taken me on theirs. We lived in New York and she saw her first Broadway play. We lived in Pennsylvania and went white water rafting and rock climbing. We lived in Massachusetts and every weekend ventured out to the historic sites and the aquarium. We lived in Rhode Island and she splashed in the cold water of the ocean and made a sand castle. I’ve made sure her life, if not secured by belonging somewhere, was filled with memories to sustain the life she would want to build for herself.
Like my parents, I have returned to Kentucky, except this time I did not feel I was leaving anything of me behind. I am still on that journey to find that home again. I wish I could say it is wherever my daughter is, that would be the beautiful prosaic thing to claim. My daughter is my life, but something else is a home for me.
I know I will find it again. It is not out of reach. I was offered an opportunity to move out West for work sometime in the future. I felt a surge of something I wish I could describe. One day I will stop moving around. One day I will stop yearning. One day, I will stand beneath that big sky and smile and be thankful for the journey that brought me there. I know one day I am going to end up exactly where I am supposed to be.
This time, I will bring my daughter along and we will talk about the places we have lived and the life we have led. Then one day, she will leave on her own journey. There is something I‘ll make sure of, something I never had. She may wander to find herself, but she will know I will have a home waiting for her. Always waiting for her to find her way back.
I remember words and phrases that sounded like “surgery,” “infection,” and “rectal exam.” I was bent over and violated by a sympathetic doctor who then told my mother my appendix had burst and I was to be admitted. I stood in line at admitting. The pain was throbbing in my right side and I did not fully grasp what was to occur. My mother was crying and all I could care about was the pain ending.
At one point the pain was so severe, I just remember blacking out and waking up in a gown and having an IV inserted into my hand. The nurse looked at my mother who was crying hysterically at my side and rolled her eyes. I smiled at her and she smiled back. I’ll never forget that kind face and the pat she gave me on my head. “You’re going to be just fine.” She said, and I believed her.
Coincidentally, or maybe not if you believe in destiny, the surgeon who would be removing what was left of my appendix was from my hometown. This dried my mother’s tears. I thought they had flown someone in especially from Kentucky to cut me open. For a brief shining moment I felt special. This was quickly dashed when they gave me a shot of medicine that set my veins on fire and I found myself drifting to peaceful sleep.
My eyes opened to a nurse calling my name and gently shaking me. My throat hurt and I could taste rubbing alcohol. I could feel a throb in my side and asked if I had stitches. I was disappointed they had glued the incision shut instead of cool black sutures I could show off. She promised there would be a scar, so it wasn’t a total loss.
I was in the hospital for a week due to the infection. What transpired was an endless string of meals consisting of jello and broth. To this day, I still cannot stand jello. The food was just this side of bearable compared to my mother’s dinners, so I didn’t complain. There were visitors to entertain and gifts to accept. My sister was not allowed to visit in the hospital, so she was taken to the movies by my father. I still bring this up as practically child neglect. How dare he choose to take her to the movies while my life was hanging on by a thread.
Then I was expelled from the hospital in a wheelchair and told I would be out of school for a couple more weeks. I didn’t like school anyway, so this was just the news I was waiting for. I was tucked in a bed with magazines and a radio and told to take it easy. If I had more organs to donate, I would have surely volunteered them. Even my mother seemed to have softened due to the guilt of almost sending her oldest child to school to die from sepsis. I would take away from this experience a hard lesson. The special treatment didn’t last long. Queen for the day was a fleeting crown.
Within a week my mother was crawling out of her skin having to tend to her sick child and my little sister who did not understand I needed to rest. Instead, she wanted to hear stories and touch my scar and share popsicles with me. I think this was an important time for our bonding. We became close and I feared she would inherit my incredible bursting appendix. I became a little mother to her, and she was happy to have me around. My mother, on the other hand, was ready to have her life back that included watching the Price is Right in peace.
I was ready to run and play myself. I missed my friends and was anxious to be out of the house and in the fresh air. I’m sure this extended period of togetherness forever altered my relationship with my mother. She was already on the edge and to have a child have emergency surgery then be underfoot for almost a month must have been a lot to take. I think maybe she resented me for the imposition on her already tenuous hold on her sanity. It didn’t get any better after that.
So, I could overcome the heat, dust storms and fatality around every corner because I was in love with two boys at the tender age of eight. They were like photograph negatives of each other. Dylan all blonde and light skinned, Daniel with his dark hair and dark eyes. They also had very different opinions of me. Dylan completely ignored my every word and attempt to make eye contact and Daniel would steal his mother’s jewelry and hand it to me at the bus stop in the morning. When I received my first new bike with the purple seat and tassels hanging from the handlebars, it was Daniel who taught me to ride it and would cruise along side of me in case I fell. When I inevitably fell, it was Daniel who picked me up.
By a mere stroke of chance, we had moved to a trailer not far from where Daniel lived in his. When I say a trailer, I mean barely a two-room vacation pop up. My parent’s bedroom was at one end, living room and kitchen at the other, and my sister and I slept on bunk beds in what was a hallway. The entire trailer was about the size of a hotel room. Not exactly the paradise we had planned, but there was good news. We were having a house built in a new subdivision. This would only be temporary.
What was not temporary was my mother’s new found excitement for Arizona living. She began taking tennis lessons while we were at school, and started cooking again. Well, she would make what was supposed to be food. I don’t remember many dinners, I do believe I have repressed those memories. There were sly attempts at sneaking us liver disguised as steak. Thank goodness I had round cheeks I could stuff like a hamster with bites of liver and Brussels sprouts to spit out later when I went out to feed the dog. She would rail against us wasting food, but her logic about kids in Africa did not hold water with me. I was sure they were eating better than we were.
So, I went to school during the day, staring forlornly at Dylan and during the afternoon, I would ride my bike with Daniel and accept whatever piece of jewelry he had managed to filch from his mother. Of course, my mom always made me give them back, but it was the thought that counts. He adored me, and I in turn adored his adoration. Really the perfect relationship.
During this time, my parents pretty much ignored me. At night, I would sit with my sister watching a crummy television and thinking of stories to tell. There was nothing better to me than making my baby sister laugh. I would climb up on my top bunk, listening to the coyotes outside howling their goodnights and I did feel happy. I was glad we had moved across the world.
All was well until my curiosity got the better of me. Daniel was in our backyard and like any boy out in the woods, when he had to go, he just went. He simply unzipped his pants and let loose in a small ditch. Now, I was young and curious. So instead of looking away, I stepped beside him and examined the goods, as any inquisitive young girl would. I knew boys had different equipment. I had seen my male cousins when they were babies.
To my mother who was washing dishes and watching from the window, this was apparently a huge deal. To describe her as a screaming banshee is an understatement. She snatched me up and drug me by the arm back into the hovel we called home. There was a belt spanking and I was told what I had done was very nasty. As I sat carefully on the edge of the bed, there were no tears. So, I had seen a boy’s penis. Big deal. It wasn’t that impressive.
The next day she forbid me to see Daniel. I told her I wouldn’t, but would just hop on my purple bike and hide it behind his shed while we sat in his room and listened to music on his tape player. His mother adored me, she would make me homemade tortillas, and fruit punch. She would occasionally trim the hair my mother butchered so it would grow back normally. I use to pray she would want a daughter so much she would insist I come stay with her.
I felt sure I could still harbor dual crushes on Dylan and Daniel. Dylan barely knew I existed anyway. Well, that is not exactly true. He did know I existed. I had become the object of his teasing after I spilled an entire container of black paint on our teacher. The room was divided. Half thought I did it on purpose and admired me, and the other half just thought it was hilarious. Dylan was one of the latter and would laugh every time there was a painting project. My teacher did not. I was not allowed to handle paint after that day.
Humiliation burned my cheeks with embarrassment. Nothing worse than having the object of your affection think you’re a joke. However, I learned to play along with it and in turn realized I could not at any point take myself too seriously. In the whole scheme of things, spilling paint was such a small thing and it was actually very funny. The look of horror on my teacher’s face as black paint splashed her white pants and white shirt was humorous. Because I did not become upset with his teasing, Dylan actually began paying attention to me. I was like a boy, he said, I didn’t freak out or cry. So there it was. The reason why over the years I would have more male friends than female. Why I always seemed to have a boyfriend. I was one of their tribe and they accepted me.
I was thrilled, elated and would sit at recess with Dylan every day listening to his stories of his older brother. When he told me about “rubbers,” I pretended to know what he was talking about. The image I had in my mind was not very accurate. But I didn’t want to show my ignorance. I also knew enough I could not ask my mother or father.
Everything would have been perfect, except one morning I woke up sicker than I had ever been. I had eaten my mother’s dinner the night before, and surely that was the culprit. My mom had a full day of tennis and whatever else she occupied her time with and insisted I had to go to school. I couldn’t even get off the bathroom floor, let alone walk. Begrudgingly, she called the nurse who suggested hot tea. That was an even worse idea and there was suddenly pain. I remember lying on the cold tile floor of the bathroom and staring at the ceiling light. If I died, would Dylan always remember me as his first love? Would Daniel?
There was also the thought of if I died; I hope my mother would be racked with guilt the rest of her life for yelling at me I was going to school. When my mother returned to the bathroom, she looked worried and not for herself. Surely, I could get some mileage out of this.
After moving out west, my mother had two moods, depressed and angry. It must have been difficult for her I concede. She was young and thousands of miles from home and living with two small children in a confined space. My father worked all night and slept all day. Living in a new area with all its dangers could not have been easy on her.
When we first moved to Arizona, my father worked at the Arizona State Prison. I knew he was a guard and the position stressed him. I overheard him discussing with my uncle one night the tour of the gas chamber the new guards had been on. I pictured those old movies with prisoners escaping with bed sheets and nail files and could not sleep at night until I heard my father return from the late shift. I would wait for him under the table and watch as he ate the dinner my mother saved for him on a plate in the oven.
We all breathed a sigh of relief when a job came open at the sawmill just outside of town. It was steady pay and steady work and it meant my father did not have to deal with murderers and rapists on a daily basis. At least not convicted ones. It also meant he worked outdoors in the heat during the heat and could be at home with us at night.
Due to my injury, I was forced to stay indoors with my mother and my sister while dad went off to cut down trees. Trust me, I did not like this any more than they did. I would hobble around with my bandaged foot and spend my day coloring and writing. It was during this time I wrote my first book about a witch who lived in a trailer vaguely based on my mother.
Then one day dad was home in a cast. A tree had fallen on his foot, we were both hobbling around the trailer, and mom was losing her mind. I remember spilling a bowl of Fruity Pebbles on the kitchen table and she would not speak to me for two days. My father finally read her the riot act and all was forgotten, for a moment. She was homesick. She missed her parents. There was no pleasing her.
Me, on the other hand, ran outdoors as soon as the bandage was off my foot and did not look back. Summer was almost over; there were too many dangerous things to try before school began. I was a constant fixture in the fields with my uncles who were barely older than I was. My grandfather had remarried and had a son three years older than me and the youngest one month after I was born. They and a group of rough and tumble boys were my only friends and I aspired to keep up with them.
This meant catching lizards with my bare hands, walking the plank over a pit of broken glass and nail riddled boards and jumping off a shed over a barbed wire fence. I was, to say the least, fearless in my attempts to show I could do everything they could do and better. What is a miracle is I did not see the inside of the hospital more than I did. Some of that could be attributed to my mother, who believed in unless you were punctured enough to gush blood, you could walk any injury off.
I did not want to be a boy, I simply wanted to best them. It was during this summer my hair was long and bleached out and a chore to wash and comb out every night. My mother was not sympathetic of a tender scalp and would hit you with the brush if you dared to complain. One night, I begged her to cut off my hair and she was happy to oblige.
I had in mind a cute pixie cut easy enough to wash and let air dry, but would still indicate I was a girl. So much for daydreams. Instead, she butchered off inches and inches of my flaxen locks until I was left with a Buster Brown cut that did nothing for my girlishness. I cried nonstop until she made me an appointment at the Aloha Beauty Salon the next day.
Two things happened at the beauty salon. The owner/hairdresser chastised my mom for doing such a bad job and I was secretly thrilled someone could tell my mother she did something wrong and she had to take it. Second, I met Daniel.
His mother was white, but his father was Hawaiian, and he was a beautiful dark haired boy, on the heavy side with a smile that dried my tears. He told me he liked me in short hair, and I was officially in eight-year-old love. My uncles told me I looked like a boy, but I did not care. Daniel had said I looked good and that was all that mattered.
Less than a week later, my mother pushed me out the door one morning when it was barely light out and told me I had to walk down the half-mile dirt road to
the bus stop. School had started suddenly and I was not at all prepared. I walked the entire way down the road, saw two kids at the bus stop and walked back up to where my mother informed me I had no choice. There were probably threats of bodily injury if I missed that bus.
Terrified beyond all belief, I trudged back down that road in tears and climbed on that bus, praying it was going to the right school. Instead of brick buildings usually associated with school, we were led to a series of trailers. I would be taking class in one of them. Still disoriented, with my hair too short to hide behind and my hands trembling, I met my teacher and my classmates. I was an interloper and a specimen to be dissected. “Tell us how you came to Arizona,” my teacher insisted.
So, instead of tales of beds in the back of a station wagon and a detour in Texas due to a horrific accident, I regaled them with a plane that crashed over water and my father who had to save us all. At the end of my story, the teacher nodded, obviously not as impressed as my classmates were. She said, “Quite an imagination you have there.” I merely shrugged. She had not been specific she wanted the truth.
As I sat in a desk at the back of the room, someone tapped on my shoulder. I turned to look into the pale blue eyes of a boy with hair as white blonde as mine was. His skin was golden brown from the sun and when he smiled, there was a gap between his teeth. Just like mine. I remember staring into his eyes as he asked me, “Is there an ocean between Kentucky and Arizona?”
I swooned. My first of many stupid boys who would blind me with their good looks. I shrugged and learned his name was Dylan. Now, I no longer wanted to best the boys. I wanted to sit quietly beside them, giggle at their every juvenile joke, and bat my eyelashes like they did in the movies. I was going to settle in Arizona just fine. Being in love, even meant mom’s mood swings could be tolerated. If I had only known what was in store.
Breeze lifting the curtain
Hot smell of grass
Eager to step outside
To lift your face to the sun
To smile at the cloudless sky
The chugging sound of sprinklers
Splash of a wave
Itchy feel of sand
Of the hours that fade away to dusk
More, but never enough
Fireflies dancing in the yard
Watching the moon